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Awake

Chapter Text

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.

"Oh."

"Of course it goes without saying," Gaby adds casually.

"There is no hole too deep?" Natasha finishes.

"Exactly."

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.

Natasha blinks.

"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.

Chapter Text

They begin to meet every Sunday. Sometimes they eat, sometimes they take walks. Sometimes Clara is with them, and sometimes she is babysat by a man named Napoleon Solo. From Gaby's stories, Natasha has some serious reservations about Napoleon babysitting. She would not trust him to babysit a cat, let alone a human baby.

But Natasha keeps her opinions to herself.

Gaby asks her questions about her work. Natasha started out by answering, "Fine, the mission went perfectly." Later, she opens up. She asks Gaby about interactions with her co-workers, why the words she said were taken the wrong way, and what a water cooler is. (She is, apparently, allowed to drink water from the water cooler).

Gaby is never judgmental, and she never finds it strange to walk Natasha through the finer points of interacting with other human beings.

Three months in the strange friendship, Natasha gets a text.

Natasha swings herself onto the high bar, and wraps her legs around it so her hands are free. She slips her phone out of its pouch and hangs upside while she reads it.

I'd like to come over this weekend and help you fix the shower, Gaby says. 

Natasha tried to take a shower in the apartment one afternoon, when her knee was too sore to make it to the SHIELD showers. (There was a baseball bat involved, and Clint got another concussion, and it was overall a very unpleasant experience.) 

Natasha turned on the faucet in the cracked bathtub. It made a noise like a cannonball through the side of a building, and no water came out.

Natasha jumped five feet in the air, fractured her ankle again and had to sit in the closet for two hours to regain her equilibrium.

After her embarrassment about the incident fades, she tells Gaby, who smiles good-naturedly and offers to fix her shower for her.

You are allowed to say yes or no, Gaby adds.

This is the other thing that Natasha likes about having Gaby as a friend. Gaby is very clear on what is required and what is not; what is a joke, and what is serious, what is suggestion and what is demand— Natasha never has to second guess on Gaby's intentions or meaning, because she is so straight-forward.

Yes , Natasha texts back, and then remembers her manners. 

Yes, I'd like that.

--

Gaby comes over on Saturday, knocking at the door. Natasha undoes all four deadbolts and lets her in.

Natasha would have cleaned, but there's nothing in the apartment to clean— there's a blanket on the floor and a water bottle in another corner. 

Otherwise, it's a typical New York apartment. The paint is peeling away from the walls, and the wood floor has seen much better days. The exposed brick on the far side is nice, but it has windows, and Natasha hates windows, so she hates the brick as well, just on principle.

Gaby comes in and shucks her purse to the floor.

Gaby is wearing paint splattered overalls, rolled up to the knee, with sturdy boots and an old t-shirt. Her hair is covered with a handkerchief. She has a huge metal toolbox that she holds with both hands.

She's evaluating the empty apartment with that look on her face, the one that Natasha equates as the Determined-Gaby-Face.

"Well, let's take a look at the shower," Gaby says, and lugs her tool box into the cramped bathroom.

Gaby tells Natasha to sit down on the floor across from the toilet, and Natasha does so, because apparently Gaby has Plans. Natasha knows this because the bathroom camera can't catch Natasha's face expression from this angle, which is what Natasha would do if she didn't want to be overheard.

Gaby turns on the water and the pipes groan and creak, but no water comes out. Gaby opens up her tool box and gets out a wrench, which she applies to the shower head. After a considerable amount of swearing and generous application of a greasing agent, the shower head falls off into the tub.

Out roars brown, rust-stained water. It's so loud that the camera can't pick up their voices.

Gaby sits on the toilet. "Repeat after me," she instructs. 

Natasha nods. 

Gaby always trades help for assignments, which makes Natasha feel less like her ledger's leaking and more like she's a part of a mutually beneficial relationship.

"Human beings deserve furniture," Gaby says.

"Human beings deserve furniture," Natasha repeats.

"I am a human being."

It takes Natasha forty-five minutes to utter this single sentence. The words choke in her throat, clog her lungs. By the time the words scrape out of her throat, she's shaking and has sweated through her thin t-shirt. The water is finally running clean through the pipes.

"I am a human being."

"Very good," Gaby tell her, and the praise feels like warm rain on flowers.

"I deserve furniture."

"I deserve furniture," Natasha mutters into her knees.

Gaby gets up and begins a deep cleaning of the bathroom. She scrubs everything down, and then shows Natasha how to caulk the grout lines in the bathroom. Once Natasha can stand without a telltale tremble, they fix the sink drain and oil the water taps so they don't squeak when turned. 

Gaby shows Natasha how to mop and sets Natasha to moping the floors, while she fixes the stove and the radiators.

When they finish, they are covered in dirt, rust and dust.

“Go take a shower,” Gaby orders. “And casual clothes— think Bed-Stuy.”

That’s the other thing Natasha likes about Gaby— she teaches Natasha how to dress like a person based on neighborhoods, so Natasha has to go to a different neighborhood in New York and analyze their fashion choices. Natasha knows how to dress like a femme fatale, a sex kitten and an agent, but she doesn’t know how to dress like a person.

Gaby teaches her how.

Natasha cleans up and puts on a pair of cut-off jeans and a worn soft t-shirt, with a pair of Converses. Gaby introduced Natasha to Converses by dumping them into Natasha’s arms one Sunday afternoon. Natasha has been in love ever since.  

She ties her red hair up into what Gaby calls ‘a messy bun’.

“Come on,” Gaby says. “We’re going to a bodega.”

As it turns out, a bodega is a convenience store.

They walk in. 

It's nothing like the grocery stores that Natasha's tried to go into five times already. There are no bright lights, no clerks greeting you— no wide aisles with no discernible routes of egress. No one selling cream cheese, no loud shoppers and screaming children, no screeching carts.

It's dim, dusty and cramped.

It's how a store is supposed to be, Natasha thinks. 

Her breath eases in her chest.

Gaby grabs a basket and takes Natasha through the store. She puts bread, milk and shredded cheese in the basket, along with paper plates and something called 'canola oil spray'. When they get to the eggs, Gaby shows her what to look for— no cracks in the eggs, and a long expiration date. Natasha pays for them, and they take the food back to the apartment.

Gaby cleans off a frying pan and spatula she brought with her, and puts it on the stove.

"Lesson one," Gaby instructs, "Scrambled eggs."

Natasha watches attentively.

"Crack the eggs on the side of the pan. Try not get the eggshell in there— it won't hurt you, but it won't taste that good."

Natasha nods.

"Put in a little milk. Wait til they start to get white and dark yellow, move them around."

Natasha looks on in unconcealed fascination as the soupy egg mix turns into fluffy scrambled eggs. Gaby tops it off with some cheese and plates the eggs.

They eat with their fingers, laughing, because Gaby forgot the plastic forks.

"Your mission for this week is to cook scrambled eggs until you can get it right," Gaby tells her with a smile. "Then send me the picture proof, and I'll send you the next recipe to master." 

"Alright," Natasha agrees despite herself, and sees Gaby out the door.

Natasha's never cooked food before— it's always been either provided or scrounged out of a dumpster. 

Doing this for herself is a little terrifying.

She pretends that this is just another skill she's learning, to make herself a better agent.

But she knows, deep down, the humans feed themselves, because they  deserve  to be fed. 

And maybe that makes her a human, too.

Chapter Text

Natasha learns how to make omelettes, birdy-in-the-hole, french toast and egg sandwiches. She looks up recipes to all-American food, and cooks that first. (Though the pot roast was an utter mess and tasted awful). Emboldened, she attempts Russian foods she vaguely remembers from her very brief childhood, and then moves onto other ethnic foods.

Which is why Natasha is in a SHIELD kitchen at 3am, because she’s tired of airing the smell of burnt dough out of her apartment, and she is determined to impress Gaby with dim sum.

The fry pan is starting to smell suspiciously burnt, even though Natasha added pork stock and covered the pan with a lid. She makes a face at it, wondering if she should try to eat them or just throw them away.

“You cooked them too long,” a voice says.

Natasha has a butcher knife to the throat of the person behind her, her default reaction when startled.

The woman has an agent’s uniform on, and her hands raised in a placating manner.

She is a tall Asian woman, with the hardened look of a field agent.

“Here,” she says, and Natasha slowly backs out of the way, still gripping onto the knife.

She washes her hands in the sink, and then picks up tongs and the glass lid. She pulls the dim sum out of the fry pan, and cuts them open, transferring the insides into new dough sheets. She drains the stock from the pan, seals up the new dim sum and puts it back in the pan.

Natasha slowly loosens her grip on the knife, and puts it on the counter, where it’s still within reach.

Natasha watches as the woman turns the heat on high, browns the bottoms of the dim sum, and then quickly pours in oil instead of broth. The dim sum turns the crispy, golden color that had eluded Natasha for so long.

“Melinda May,” the woman says.

It takes a second for Natasha to realize that’s a name.

“Natasha Romanova,” she answers.

Agent May blinks, the only sign of recognition.

“You the one who shot the trainee in the foot?”

Natasha winces. She had hoped by now people had forgotten that story.

“Good,” Agent May says, and she pats a surprised Natasha on the back. “He needed to learn to stop ogling female agents.”

Agent May dishes out the dim sum, taking several for herself.

“See you around, Romanova,”  Agent May quips, and takes off with her plate.

It’s now 4am in a SHIELD kitchen, and Natasha swears to Lenin she somehow has another friend.

Natasha eats the dim sum with her fingers and tries not to smile.

--

In late September, Gaby sends her another text.

Operation Furniture

The following is required for an apartment:

A Fridge

A Mattress

A Table

Two Chairs

Sheet set for mattress

Blankets

A pillow

A couch

A washing machine

 

Research furniture styles and pick one you like.

Personal style was brainwashed out of me, Natasha types back.

Pick one a persona would like then, Gaby instructs.

Natasha decides to do this during her therapy session. She’s currently on her fifth therapist. This one isn’t as crazy as number three, but Natasha’s not quite convinced she hasn’t coffee-d her brain cells away.

Therapist #5 spends her time trying to hypnotize Natasha’s trauma away.

As long as Natasha has a glazed look and mumbles everyone once in awhile, she is pretty much fooled.

Natasha has a photographic memory, so she churns through all of the research she memorized.

She sinks into her mind palace, and subsumes herself into the persona of Natalie Rushman. Natalie has a degree in law, specializing in corporate law. Most of Natalie’s tastes have been lifted straight from Sex in the City , with some of Gaby’s tastes thrown in for good measure.

Styles:

  • Shabby Chic

Barf. Natalie is a New York woman, not a country girl.

  • Glam

Natasha feels like this is what Natalie should like, but too many mirrors and shiny surfaces make Natasha hallucinate scalpels and knives, so that’s taken off the list.

  • Eclectic

 Too much stuff, might be hazardous. Also something about the vague ethnic vibe feels racist. Natalie cares about things like racism.

  • Traditional

Natasha would pick traditional, but she knows Gaby would give her that “I’m Disappointed In You” look, the same she gives her three-year-old, so traditional is a pass as well.

  • Industrial

Natasha likes the clean lines, and the slightly old-world feel. Good sightlines, minimalistic. A woman as stylish as Natalie would never pick an industrial look, though. She’d think it to be too harsh, too cold. Maybe.

Natasha likes the wrought, exposed metal. It reminds her of trips to the train yards.

Sometimes, if she was really good, Yakov would take her to the rail yards, and tell her all about the trains passing through.

It was one of the few untarnished memories she had— not syrupy pleasant, or drunkly sedate.

Just content.

Peaceful.

Useless information that had nothing to do with killing and couldn’t be turned against her.

 

“That’s all for today’s session!” Therapist #5 tells her brightly. “You’re doing great.”

Natasha blinks slowly and slides off the therapy couch, which has the misfortune of smelling like off-brand Kleenex and gym sweat.

Natasha does her best fake smile. “Thanks for all of your help,” she said with vicious sincerity.

--

Saturday comes quicker than Natasha likes.

Gaby knocks on her door and Natasha begrudgingly lets her in, still in her pajamas.

"Oh, don't look so grim," Gaby teases. "This'll be fun."

Natasha tromps downstairs, dressed in clothes from her laundry basket, a few steps behind Gaby.

Outside is a woman Natasha doesn't know, and a truck.

The woman has dark brown hair drawn up in a severe knot behind her head.

She's wearing a plaid shirt and and worn jeans tucked into combat boots.

Behind her is a dirty red truck, with rust around the wheel wells and a muffler that makes a sound like a cornered mutt when it idles.

"Hill, Maria," the woman introduces. "I'm in the Field Logistics Division. Gabs said you needed a truck?"

Natasha looks at Gaby. Do they honestly need a truck? At this point, Natasha thinks Gaby would say they need cinnamon praline ice-cream to be a human being, and somehow Natasha would find herself eating it.

"Thanks, Maria," Gaby says for Natasha, because Natasha is not going to pretend to be acceptably socialized this early in the morning.

They pile into the truck, and Gaby thoughtfully takes the middle seat so Natasha can have the window seat. Maria drives. It involves more swearing than Natasha thought strictly necessary— though she was going to write down "eat my tires, you cock-sucking son of a Prius!" because apparently a Prius was car that Maria did not find worthy enough to share the road with. Gaby stops Maria from driving the Prius off the road, and they eventually get to where they were supposed to be going.

Which turns out to be a department store.

Natasha tries to turn tail and run, because Trotsky almighty, there's bright lights everywhere and way too many shiny appliances.

Gaby takes her by the hoodie and drags her over to the washing machine aisle.

Eventually they make it out, after spending way too much money and buying a washing machine, a mattress, and a fridge.

As a reward, Gaby takes them to a Crate and Barrel, which still has too much white paint-- but at least there's pillows.

Natasha discovers that she likes pillows. And blankets. And down-filled duvet covers.

After Natasha has collected a pillow army (Some of them even have pockets-- for knives! Though the checkout lady gives her a weird look when she expresses this happily. Maybe one was not supposed to appear so enthusiastic about finding places to hide weapons in the furnishings one bought? Gaby was trying really hard not to laugh and wasn't being any help.)

They make their way back, truck bed full of various appliances and furnishings, when Natasha sees it.

The COUCH.

The Couch to End All Other Couches is sitting in the mouth of a dingy alleyway. It has beautiful scrollwork down its arching spine, its wood the color of dried blood on leather. The upholstery was a stained cream, a delicate silk utterly tarnished by time and mistreatment. One of its feet sits broken, discarded a few feet away.

Natasha must have this couch.

She opens the door of the truck while it's in motion, and smoothly steps out, ignoring Gaby and Maria's squawks of alarm and surprise.

Upon closer inspection, it is mostly certainly the Couch of All Couches.

"I want this one," Natasha says, when Gaby and Maria have turned back around and parked the truck.

"Oh god, it might have fleas," Gaby says.

Natasha pouts. Gaby is hurting the couch's feelings. And besides, it's more likely to have mice than fleas.

Maria disagrees. "I know a guy who does a good job on upholstery," she remarks. "It's got good bones there, under the muck."

Gaby sighs. "Very well," she says, "But how are we going to get it into the truck?"

They try several different angles and positions. The heaviness of the couch isn't the issue-- all three women are combat-trained and can lift a great deal, and what they can't lift, Natasha can.

The problem is, it's unwieldy for just three people. They need at least another person, if not two, to help maneuver it.

Luckily, Maria saves the day.

"Hey, doesn't Barton live around her?" she asks.

"Next block," says Natasha, who definitely does not stalk Clint and Coulson in her free time.

Maria grins evilly. "Let's go rouse him from his beauty sleep, shall we?"

Maria and Natasha take turns throwing stones at Barton's fourth floor window until Natasha remembers about his hearing aids. Maria ducktapes a broom and a broken hockey stick together, and then has Natasha climb onto her shoulders. Natasha hits the window with the broom.

BANG BANG, the window rattles.

Clint appears, shirtless, shoving his hearing aid in with one hand and wrenching the window open with the other.

"Jesus Christ on a bicycle," he yells out the window, "What do you want?!"

"Can you help us get my couch into the truck?" Natasha asks.

Clint stares at the three women.

"I didn't know you had friends," Clint accuses Natasha.

“Couch, Barton,” Natasha says impatiently. “Focus.”

A female voice drifts from inside Clint's room.

"Who is it?"

Clint turns to talk to her. "My damn co-workers, go back to sleep."

He glares at Natasha, Maria and Gaby. "Don't you all realize it's Saturday? Saturdays are made for sleeping, and this is the first Saturday I've had off in months—"

Natasha just hits him with a piercing stare.

He throws up his hands. "Okay, okay, fine," he says. "Just let me put some pants on."

When he finally comes down, a blonde haired girl is trailing him. She has on hipster glasses, with tights under her shorts and a cute sweater on.

She sticks out her hand to Natasha.

"Hi, I'm Laura Smith," she introduces herself cheekily. "Art History major and one night stand."

Gaby snorts and Natasha finds herself shaking a random stranger's hand.

"Alright," Clint says. "Where's this couch?"

They lead him to the couch, and the five of them at last maneuver it into the truck's flatbed.

"Hop in," Maria says to Laura and Clint. "We've got to unload it on the other end too."

"I didn't get any breakfast," Clint complains.

"Oh, you'll be fine," Laura says in mock sympathy. "It's a couch adventure, cheer up."

Maria still drives, with Gaby and Natasha upfront. Clint and Laura squeeze into the back between pillows and home goods.

They continue to drive on, and Natasha stares out the window while the others talk their way through the morning traffic.

"Stop," Natasha says suddenly, having learned her lesson from the first time she waltzed out of the truck unannounced.

Maria slams her foot on the brake. The truck screeches like a cat thrown out of a fourth floor window in the middle of winter.

Natasha steps out.

On the corner of the street is some young punk kid, smoking weed with his pants hanging almost to his knees. He spots Natasha coming towards him, drops the weed, and scrambles to run away, one hand holding up his pants. Natasha grabs and drags him around the corner by his ear. His Polish cursing echoes around the street.

Ten minutes later, Natasha comes back, sans delinquent teenager, with a box in her arms. She climbs back into the truck and hands the box back to Clint.

"Oh my god, these are Kowalski's famous paczkis," Clint breathes in awe as he opens the box. "He only gives these out to family! They aren't for sale!"

"Family, and Natasha," Gaby gives a dry response.

Clint scarfs down two paczkis, and when Maria clears her throat, he passes some to Laura as well.

The process of getting the couch into Natasha's apartment is much more difficult than procuring breakfast, however.

Natasha and Clint stand guard while Gaby picks the lock on the service elevator. They manhandle the couch into the elevator and somehow, with a great deal of swearing, get the couch into Natasha's apartment.

Then the table and the chairs go into the apartment.

Laura comes in too, carrying in pillows and throw blankets.

She looks in surprise at the barren walls of Natasha's apartment.

"You don't have any pictures, or anything," she hesitantly points out. "Do you— I mean, I could draw something for you, until you find something nicer?"

Natasha fishes out a hundred dollars in fives from her wallet and passes the money to Laura.

"Knock yourself out," she says, "Draw it on the wall, I don't like frames."

Laura nearly drops all of the bills in surprise.

"I mean, I'm not that good—"

But Natasha ducks out to grab another armful of pots and pans, leaving Laura's protests to sputter out into thin air.

She sighs, and digs out the art supplies she always stashes in her purse.

"What does Natasha like?" Laura asks Clint and Gaby, who are arguing over the right way to store pans.

"Knives," Clint says, right as Gaby says, "Ballerinas."

They glare at each, a silent argument.

"Knives and ballerinas," Laura repeats. "Okay...?"

Natasha and Maria continue to bring armfuls of home goods upstairs, and when the refrigerator, mattress and laundry machine arrive, they help the delivery men bring them upstairs.

Four hours later, Gaby orders pizza and they all gather in the living room to eat it.

Instead of eating, they stop and stare at the mural Laura drew.

There are three larger-than-life ballerinas stretched across the wall in inky black strokes. The leftmost is dancing on the blade of a knife, while the rightmost is lunging in mid-air with a knife in hand at an invisible attacker. The ballerina in the center is in mid-genuflection, head bowed, while presenting a sword to the room.

"Sorry, it's kinda— Well, I got a little carried away," Laura explains sheepishly.

"That is incredible," Clint says.

"You did this in just four hours?" Gaby asks, impressed.

"Wow," Maria adds. "I think I want to commission you for a piece for my wife."

Natasha says nothing.

She digs through a black duffel bag, pulls out two thick stacks of twenties, and places them on top of Laura's purse.

Chapter Text

When Natasha has insomnia and can’t sleep, she goes and does vigilante justice on her neighborhood. For some reason, cleaning her local streets of scumbags and escorting trafficking victims to the nearest international shelter is more helpful than therapy.

Plus, she gets to punch things in her free time.

One night she’s chasing down a man named Amarillo Giles. Natasha knows that isn't his real name, but honestly the man is so disgusting he doesn't deserve the effort of tracking down his real name. Amarillo deals in kiddies to all of the pimps in the Lower East Side. There are many things Natasha can put up with, but this isn't one of them.

On her off-hours, she's been tracking Amarillo's movements, freeing his victims, and pigeonholing him into a well-laid trap. Unfortunately, someone tips him off, or perhaps he grows a few brain cells in his tiny skull, because Natasha is forced to chase him. 

Natasha gets in her exercise for the night, tries out some parkour moves that Clint's been trying to teach her, and then slams Amarillo into an alley wall.

Amarillo simpers and pleads, first in Spanish and then in English.

Natasha punches him in the nose, and then kicks him in the balls for good measure. Natasha is scraping Amarillo off of the ground when she senses someone else at the alley mouth.

Keeping a tight grip on Amarillo, she turns to the intruder.

The intruder is not what she had been expecting.

He had a red leather mask on, with horns.

His fightsuit is red and black, and he carries escrima sticks.

Natasha scraps Amarillo's face against the alleyway bricks, just to make sure he doesn't get any ideas that she's distracted.

The man steps closer.

Natasha pulls out her gun and cocks it one-handed.

The horned man drops his escrima and raises his hands up, trying to prove that he is not a threat.

"I am after that man as well," the man tells her. "I need information from him."

Natasha smiles and turns to Amarillo.

"This is your unlucky night," she informs him. 

She twists Amarillo and slams him into against the wall again, back towards her. Natasha locks him into a pin hold— knee to his back, one hand with a knife and the other with gripping his wrists.

"See that man?" Natasha tells Amarillo. "He would have treated you nicely. Roughed you up a bit, threatened you, then let you go."

Amarillo is sweating and panting, trying to break free.

But Natasha's grip is iron.

She traces her knife up and down his fingers. He tries to curl them away from her, but he has nowhere to go. 

"But me? I am absolutely willing to cut off every finger you have until I get answers."

Amarillo groans against the brick wall.

Natasha cuts off his pinky finger. 

Amarillo screams and sobs.

His pinky finger rolls on the ground.

Out of the corner of her eye, the horned man looks vaguely nauseous. 

Good

He'll know not to mess with Natasha. 

"T-the girls," Amarillo gulps, "They're in a storage container in the shipping yard owned by Don Martello."

Natasha drops him, and he huddles in a smelly bundle on the ground.

"All yours," she tells the horned man.

"Thanks, I guess?" he says.

Natasha moves on to other prey.

--

Natasha is now on her seventh therapist, a genderqueer person named Klein. The fifth therapist had pushed Natasha to share some of her memories from childhood, and had promptly burst into tears and left when Natasha gave her a piece of her mind.

This led to Natasha being assigned to Klein, who was apparently The Therapist for those who had burnt through all their other therapists.

"Are you a man or a woman?" Natasha asks, on their first session.

(Gaby later tells her this is Inappropriate and Tactless, and proceeds to educate her about LGBT people. Natasha did not know there was a name for woman who preferred to kiss woman, but now she knows.)

"Both, neither and somewhere in between," Klein answers cheerfully.

"You can't choose your gender," Natasha argues.

Klein just raises an eyebrow. "You of all people should know that everything about a person is malleable."

Well.

"Now, I'd like to start off by getting more comfortable," Klein says.

Klein has Natasha move off of the uncomfortable chair and onto the floor, where Klein joins her. Klein turns off all of the lights and turns on a star project, which gives the whole room a soft, relaxing glow.

Klein, crosslegged in front of Natasha, smiles, and hands Natasha a fuzzy Dora the Explorer blanket to wrap herself in.

Natasha decides at this moment that SHIELD will have to claw this tiny, purple-haired Klein person away from Natasha's cold, dead hands.

"Alright," Klein says. "Let's talk about your sense of self."

"I don't have a sense of self," Natasha responds automatically. "I have no personality and preferences. I am a weapon."

"That's excellent, actually," Klein says, to Natasha's surprise.

"This means that you are a blank slate. You can choose whoever you want to be," Klein explains. "You can literally construct the personality you want to be."

Natasha has never thought of her inner void as a positive thing— it just was. It helped her be a fantastic agent and made her terrible at interpersonal relationships.

"For your homework, I want you to write a list of ten things you like and ten things you hate."

That's a lot like Gaby, too. Gaby assigns Natasha homework when she doesn't know something that is essential to interacting with other human beings.

"Okay," Natasha agrees, and she walks out of Klein's office feeling a great deal more charitable towards therapy than she ever has before.

--

Natasha's list goes like this:

I Like:

  1. Ballerinas
  2. Knives

That's easy. Laura's knife-wielding ballerinas makes it easier to come to the apartment at night. Natasha likes looking at them. They are elegant and vicious, like Natasha wants to be.

  1. Russian manufactured guns and Stark guns before 1991

Also easy. Russian guns can bite their owners in the ass if not handled carefully, and Stark guns before Howard Stark died and Obadiah Stane took over have some of the best firing rates with the lowest rates of mechanical failure.

I Dislike:

  1. Anything Hammertech

This is also self-explanatory. Hammertech sucks. Any agent worth her salt knows this.

  1. Surveillance cameras

This doesn't even need an explanation, for the constant creeping up her spine and the paranoia that someone somewhere is watching, and sometimes Natasha goes and sits in the closet because that's the only place in the apartment where the electric eyes are not upon her.

  1. When a mission goes bad

No explanation needed there.

  1. When people I can tolerate get hurt

Natasha cross that out— too close. She taps her pen and thinks.

  1. When people are disingenuous for no outwardly discernible reason

Like when Mackayla from Extractions lies and says she has a meeting anytime Natasha asks to go to lunch with her, or when Richard from Accounting won't drink any coffee she brings, makes or offers, even though Natasha wouldn't actually poison her co-workers, because that would be counterproductive.

  1. When men hit on me while I'm trying to get groceries, because I'm here for bananas and not your sexual edification god dammit

Okay, so actually Natasha has a lot of opinions about that, apparently.

The "Like" column is looking pretty small, so Natasha puts down "4.  Macaroons and cake " because she likes Kowalski's macaroons and little cakes.

At the end of the week, Natasha has a list of ten things she likes and ten things she dislikes.

Klein smiles so hard that Natasha replays the smile in her head when she's in the closet and having a bad day.

Apparently, Natasha is making a great start.

--

The first time Klein mentions medication, Natasha shuts them down immediately. Anything that messes with her brain chemistry is a no.

Also, after the Red Room, Natasha's pretty sure nothing will stick— her brain will just plasticize back to its original self.

Yes, her original brain is pretty traumatized, but it's her brain, and nobody is going to mess with it now that she has a choice.

But like anything Klein suggests, her mind keeps returning to the idea. A shot, twice a year, that would relieve Natasha's anxiety. 

A medicine that would make Natasha not have to go into her closet a few times a week. Make her not wash her hands fifteen times after a mission, even though she knows logically there is no blood on her hands. Make her not over-analyze and agonize about every single conversation she has had with anyone ever. Make her able to order a meal in a restaurant without shaking. Make her able to eat food without testing it for poisons five times. Make her able to shop at a grocery store, and look at shiny things, and mirrors.

A shot that would lessen the tension in her shoulders, calm the roiling of her stomach, ease her paranoia and free her from the tight ropes anxiety laces around her chest.

"I want to take it," Natasha tells Klein, two months into their sessions. 

Klein is pleasantly surprised. "Really? Excellent. Let's discuss how you will take it, and the side-effects."

Natasha has to schedule a time to receive the shot every six months, and is allowed to refuse missions in order to make her appointment. The shot is completely paid for by SHIELD, because some form of anti-depressants are administered to about half of the agents on base. 

Klein also recommends that Natasha invites a few friends over to help her for the first week, because apparently the side effects are difficult before Natasha's brain adjusts to the medicine.

Natasha nods and does not text anyone.

She's been drugged, hand broken and sleep-deprived, and can still manage to sneak out of the Kremlin with secret files.

She doesn't need help. 

--

Two days later, Natasha realizes she was mistaken.

Very mistaken.

Natasha had slid off the couch and made a pillow fort on the floor, because she's too sleepy to get back up on the couch. She's been stroking her Dora fleece blanket for forty-five minutes when she realizes she's thirsty. Very thirsty. And a bit hungry.

Natasha slides out of the pillow fort on to the rug, and promptly forgets what she was doing to make snow angels on the rug. She rolls over to make face down snow angels, and giggles as she gets fuzzy rug yarns up her nose.

Then she sees her phone, lying abandoned on the end table.

Maybe Clint can get her a glass of water.

help the meds, Natasha texts, and then looks for a thirsty emoji. She can't find one, so she sends a smiley face.

Then she feels bad because the the other smiley faces might feel left out, so she sends the rest, too.

OMG are okay??!?!?  Clint texts back.

happy meds happy medddssss, Natasha texts back, and then adds some hearts, because maybe the hearts want to get in on the action too, and Natasha is an equal opportunity emoji user.

I'm coming over, Clint says.

plz bring camels , Natasha answers, because right now camels are very important and she needs camels otherwise her throat will be dry like a desert.  they have lots of humpppsss

Twenty minutes later, Natasha has forgotten all about Clint coming over and has retreated back into her pillow fort for another nap.

Clint knocks on the door, and rattles the door knobs. "Natasha," he calls, "You gotta open the door, I can't pick all of these locks."

"Hi Clint!" Natasha yells, and then giggles. 

That was her loud voice.

"I bought you a Star Wars blanket!" Clint yells.

Oh Lenin, how did Clint know about her Star Wars addiction? Natasha vows to hide her DVDs better... sometime. Yes.

Natasha caterpillar crawls to the door. On the way there, her blanket gets tangled up and she has to leave it behind. She slowly stretches up and does all four locks, and then sits on the hardwood floor, shivering in her underwear and bra. 

Clint has not only brought a Stars Wars blanket, but also tacos and a six pack of Gatorade. And cupcakes from Kowalski's.

He puts all of this down on the kitchen counter.

"Holy shit, Nat," he says, "Your eyes are like the size of the moon."

Natasha just smiles doppily at him, because the moon is pretty.

He picks up her Dora blanket, wraps her in it, and then breaks open the Star Wars blanket and wraps her in that, too.

"I need a camel," Natasha tells him.

"Do you mean water?" Clint asks, "Because that's kinda what I think you mean?"

"Yes," Natasha says, "A water full of camel."

Clint gets Natasha settled back on the couch, with water and tacos. 

"You got the blanket with the Walker! He's like a camel, too!" Natasha points out happily.

Natasha loves the robots in Star Wars. They don't get punished for not understanding how human interaction works.

Camels. Camels and robots. 

 

Eventually, Natasha finishes her tacos and water and falls asleep again.

When she wakes up, her apartment is filled with people, laughing and chatting and cooking. 

Clara is coloring at the kitchen table while Gaby is cooking, with the help of Melinda May. They're talking specifics about organic poisons versus artificial poisons. Laura is helping pour drinks while Clint is being a pest. Maria is doing Natasha's laundry, while Agent Hand is—

Natasha blinks. Agent Hand has put her hand down Maria's pants, and Maria is laughing at her.

Oh.

So that's who Maria is married to.

 

Natasha looks away from that mind blowing scene to Laura.

"Hey, sleepyhead," Laura teases. "You feel like a bath?"

Natasha sniffs herself— yes, definitely time for a bath. 

"Yeah, okay," Natasha agrees. "How many days has it been?"

Laura laughed as she helped Natasha limp to the bathroom. "We're on day four, now," she tells Natasha.

Natasha groans. 

Somehow Laura gets her undressed and into the tub, and helps her bathe and wash her now greasy hair. Laura doesn't comment on Natasha's various knife scars and burn marks, just scrubs with brisk efficiency. Either Clint or Gaby must have given Laura a heads up, or she's just that unflappable. When Natasha's fingers are all pruned and wrinkly, Laura helps Natasha out of the tub and into some fluffy towels that Natasha's pretty sure aren't hers.

Maria delivers some warm-from-the-dryer pajamas to put on, and then Laura helps her back to the couch.

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," Gaby calls, and passes Natasha a plate of eggs. 

Natasha smiles, which startles everyone around her.

"Oh my god, I have to record this for posterity," Clint says as he tries to grab his phone.

Laura smacks him. "You're ruining the moment!" she hisses.

Natasha digs in, ignoring everyone in favor of delicious eggs. Melinda brings out pancakes, and Clint pulls his pizzaroni mac and cheese out of the oven, which is a huge hit with Clara and pretty much everyone else in the room. 

"God, Barton, I didn't know you could cook!" Maria screeches as she shovels pizzaroni into her mouth.

"Only comfort food," he says, "I'm fix and forget kind of guy."

Agent Hand is eating a leftover Kowalski cupcake, and curled up next to Maria. Something about the most terrifying handler eating a cupcake in Natasha's apartment should freak her out, but she feels really mellow about the whole thing right now.

"We should watch Dog Cops," Natasha says, because the only thing that goes better with eggs and pizzaroni is Dog Cops.

Natasha falls asleep again, listening to Dog Cops, surrounded by her friends and pillows and blankets.

She wakes up again in the early hours of the morning. Gaby has gone home with Clara, but the rest are still here. Clint is sleeping with his head on her ass, Maria and Agent Hand are curled up on the floor. Laura is snoring lightly in the armchair next to the couch.

Bottles and plates are strewn on across every surface from the floor to the counter tops and tables. Herds of cups and plastic silverware are clustered all over the apartment.

For some reason, there is a cat sitting on her still damp hair.

The cat is purring so loud that Natasha can feel the vibrations through her skull.

 

Something feels different to Natasha.

Something deep inside of her.

 

She watches the sunrise through the windows she doesn’t quite hate anymore.

It takes her a while to recognize the feeling.

Happy.

Tiny teardrops line her eyelash. Happy tears, because she can’t remember being happy since she was six.

 

She feels happy.

Chapter Text

Natasha had forgotten about the anniversary of her joining SHIELD until Clint and Coulson show up unannounced at her apartment door one Friday evening. Coulson has a Kowalski's box in one hand, and is carrying a ladder in the other. Conversely, Clint has a blowtorch in his left hand, and is carrying a toolbox in his right hand.

"Blowtorch?" Natasha asks. 

"It's what we do to things we don't like," Clint says with a razor-sharp smile. "Like cameras and listening devices."

Natasha's eyebrows rose.

"You're allowing him to do this?" she asks Coulson.

Coulson rolled his eyes. "We have a deal— he and you are allowed to destroy one of each type, and I will file the matter under the 'Accidentally Damaged Equipment' form," he responds.

Clint pushes past Natasha into the apartment. 

"I love the 'Accidentally Damaged Equipment' form!" he crows. "I fill it out every time Tech gives me one of those shitty near-range comms instead of the normal ones."

Natasha lets Coulson in, and he puts the cake on the kitchen counter before joining Clint in the living room.

"The typical comms are expensive," Coulson chides, more out of form than a true scolding. "Not every mission needs one."

"Okay, but what if—" Clint begins.

Coulson puts his hand up. "Not now."

Coulson sets up ladder underneath one of the living room cameras, and Clint gets out his power screwdriver, and they get to work dismantling the surveillance equipment in Natasha's apartment.

Natasha watches the equipment come down and feels the shackles of anxiety around her throat and heart ease a little. 

To distract herself from feelings, Natasha opens up the cake box. 

Inside is a beautiful white cake with tiny pink and red flowers. 

In the center is a ballerina in mid-pirouette. 

Natasha snaps a picture with her phone, and then gets out a plastic knife to cut the cake with.

--

Clint got to burn two cameras and a microphone before the fire alarm went off.

Natasha opens the window to air out the smell of burnt plastic and electronics, and goes back to eating her piece of cake.

Clint throws out the charred remains of surveillance equipment from Natasha's apartment and comes back to the couch, where Coulson is enjoying his own piece of cake.

"How's the babysitting going?" Coulson wants to know.

"Ugh," Clint says. "Don't remind me."

"Who are you on protection duty for?" Natasha wants to know.

"Toni Stark," Coulson and Clint say at the same time.

"Who?" Natasha asks again.

They both stare at her. 

"Toni Stark," Clint repeats. "Genius, billionaire, playgirl, philanthropist?"

"Also a superhero— Iron Woman," Coulson adds.

"Super wealthy, super arrogant, super obnoxious, I think you mean," Clint argues.

Coulson merely raises an eyebrow. "I would think you'd be friends, considering how many traumatic life events the two of you have in common."

Clint looks down, chastised. That is all either of them say about Toni Stark.

They finish the cake and eventually drift out. Coulson has an early morning mission, and Clint has "it's not a date, we're just showing up at the same time and place" thing with Laura.

Natasha says her goodbyes.

Later, on her own, Natasha Googles "Toni Stark" on her now surveillance-free laptop. 

Gaby taught her how to use Google to find out things, and also taught her how to set up her laptop so other people don't know the things she's searching for. 

(If Natasha searches "how to be a human being" more than once, that's okay because apparently other people do it too. If she listens to the "How to Be a Human Being" album by Glass Animals, that's her own business.

Also, she's searched "sparkle cupcakes" and "rainbow poptart cat" and she'd rather the people at SHIELD not know about that.)

But Toni Stark.

Toni is classically beautiful, fierce and controversial.

She was also abused as a child, if the pictures of her grimacing every time Obadiah Stane put his arm around her are any indication. She grimaces when every man except for James Rhodes, aka "Rhodey", puts an arm around her, or stands too close, or breathes in her general direction.

Natasha was still at large, a mercenary, when Obadiah Stane died. The underground had whispered of his involvement with HYDRA, plans for the Iron Woman suit, and how black market Stark equipment was now a guaranteed target on one's back.

Natasha remembered being disappointed by this, because she had an excellent Stark D15 Buchanan Sniper Rifle snatched from an arms dealer's trade that she had to throw away in case it was tracked down.

She also remembered rumors that anyone who crossed Toni Stark ended up dead or detained by SHIELD. 

That was not something she had been willing to risk at the time.

Natasha closes out her browser.

The likes of her do not cross paths with those baptized in the waters of redemption and bathed in the light of stars and wealth— even if Stark did make some fantastic guns.

 

 

Chapter Text

Natasha is actually at a convenience store buying laundry detergent when the aliens invade Manhattan. 

She takes one look out the window— people screaming, cars on fire, aliens in the sky, and hands her purse over to the cashier. 

"Hold on this, will you?" Natasha asks as she shoves her purse into the hands of the trembling cashier. 

Natasha changes out of her day clothes into her SHIELD bodysuit right where she stands. Privacy is a luxury for those who don't kill things for a living. 

She straps in her guns and puts in her comm unit.

"Coulson? I need a debrief," Natasha says into her comm.

There's nothing but static.

Natasha feels a black hole taking up quiet residence in the pit of her stomach.

"Coulson?" she asks one more time.

Maybe he broke his comm. 

Maybe he's busy and can't respond.

But Coulson has never not answered when Natasha called.

She steels herself for the worst.

Natasha pushes open the door of the convenience store and steps out into hell.

She starts helping evacuating civilians on the ground, urging them to get out of buildings and streets and to the subway below. Natasha can dead-lift a car, so her first two hours are yelling at stupid civilians in an authoritative manner, and helping people who are trapped under debris. 

She gets to a Honda with a screaming girl in the back. In the front, the father is bleeding and woozy, trying to keep the girl calm even though his leg is crushed and pinned by a chunk of building. Her mother was lying dead out on the pavement.

Natasha wrenches the car door open. 

"Hey kiddo, I'm going to get you out," Natasha promises. "But I need you to do something for me."

"Okay," the little girl agrees through her tears. 

"I need to you close your eyes, and keep them closed, no matter what, okay?"

The little girl keeps her eyes closed tight, furiously nodding her head.

Natasha pulls out her favorite knife, the one that can cut through almost anything, and cuts the girl out of her car seat and seat belt.

She carries the girl across the street to the subway entrance, and then goes back for the girl's father. 

It takes long minutes to get the father out. 

Natasha has to cut off the rest of his leg, without anesthesia. She is no doctor, and she's not sure he will survive this.

But his daughter is waiting for him, eyes closed tight against this messed-up world.

He's only partially conscious when Natasha helps him hobble over to the subway entrance, and puts a tourniquet around his leg. 

He holds on to his daughter with all of his might, as they wait for emergency medical personnel.

Natasha moves on.

She runs to where the fighting is the thickest.

There's a man in a blue jumpsuit with a gaudy shield, fighting off hordes of aliens from the ground. He's combat-trained, old-fashioned style, and probably enhanced or meta-human.

Also, he doesn't watch his left side, as Natasha proves by shooting the alien trying to sneak up on him.

He jumps and spins around. 

"Thank you m'am, but I think you'd better clear out—" he begins to say.

Natasha grabs an alien stick from the ground, and impales another alien sneaking up on the man's left.

"Never mind," the man says, chagrined. "The name's Steve. Care to fight with me?"

He tosses her the gun strapped to his ridiculously muscled waist, and Natasha empties it into an alien trying to get back on its glider. 

Together, they make the perfect impromptu team. Steve is acrobatic and strategic, but he's also a heavy hitter. Natasha's much faster, but her guns do less damage than his fists or shield. But Steve thinks lightening fast— together they cut swaths into the ground forces, knock down low-flying gliders, and get as many civilians to safety as they can.

Further into Manhattan, Steve and Natasha are split up— Steve goes for rescuing civilians from a bank, while Natasha teaches some looters a lesson they'll not soon forget. 

Natasha goes on.

She thinks she will go on forever and ever, like that man from the north, each year leaving her colder and more hardened.

In times like this, even anti-depressants can only do so much.

Some asshole runs over her ankle with car, reversing while Natasha's trying to get a two-year free of a crater in the road.

Natasha grits her teeth, passing the sobbing two-year old to his equally sobbing mother, and goes on.

--

"Right guys," Toni Stark says, after Loki is locked up and Stark Tower is secure again. "We're celebrating with shawarma, chop chop!"

"Shouldn't we be helping with the clean up?" Steve asks hesitantly.

"Nope! Brucie here needs to be fed, I need to be fed, Birdboy needs to be fed, and you and Thor could eat a whole cow between the two of you. Therefore, shawarma." 

"Did you just call me Birdboy?" Clint asks, dazed.

"Yep!" Toni call, her voice cheery in the way only the utterly exhausted can manage. "Come on, shawarma."

They tromp through the destroyed streets, dodging rubble and blown up alien bits.

Toni leads them to a hole-in-the-wall-place, that now actually has a giant hole in its wall. An old woman is tidying up the wreckage with her tiny broom— and lights up when she spots Toni.

"Ah lovey!" Her hug squeezes the daylights out of Toni, but Toni only put up the minimal amount of protest necessary to make it look like she's not enjoying herself. "You always bring big boys to my shop, yes? Where is big military boy, he not like shawarma anymore?"

"Uh, Rhodey's on leave," Toni says, "But I'll bring him by next time?"

"Good, good," the woman clucks. "Now let's feed these other boys, they look so sad!"

Toni is released after a rough pat on the shoulder, and a breathless, "Thanks, Mrs. G."

Mrs. G washes her hands and yells at her husband in Turkish. He rolls his eyes and comes over, slicing open the pitas and giving them to his wife. Mrs. G takes the biggest meat cleaver Clint has ever seen, and shaves off huge hunks of meat from the meat-go-round into the pita.

"What'd you want on, hmm?" she asks, pointing to Clint.

"Lettuce, tomato, onion, and.. skhug, please," he says.

Mrs. G laughs. "Mouth on fire! I like this boy," she teases.

"And can I have a second one with tahini, cucumbers, amba and lettuce, please?"

"Wow, hungry much?" Toni adds.

"I just saved the world, shove off," Clint groans.

Mrs. G takes the rest of their orders— Thor orders five extra large shawarmas, and Bruce has to help Steve order, since he has no idea what shawarma is. Mrs. G won't take Toni's money, so Toni has to slip a grand into the cash register when she's not looking. 

They all sit down at the one unbroken table, and eat their shawarma.

For a handful of minutes, everything is quiet. 

No one talks, not even Toni.

Thor makes his way steadily through his shawarmas, on his third before Clint even finishes his first.

"Oh," Steve says, out of the blue. "Miss—...?"

There is a red-headed woman standing a few feet outside the restaurant. Her right ankle is broken, and her fightsuit is covered in dirt and blood. She has a cut on her eyebrow and holds her left arm over her broken ribs. 

Steve is mid-scramble to offer his seat to her, when Clint says, "How many times you gotta break that thing before they put a bionic ankle in?"

"Заткнись," she mutters.

"Come on," Clint suggests, waving the shawarma basket in the air, "You'll feel less cranky with some food."

Natasha clutches at her side and does not move.

Her eyes jump— from Steve to Toni, to Thor and Bruce, and then back to Clint.

Clint's voice turns low and soft, barely above a whisper. "Это безопасно. Ты в порядке," he promises.

"I didn't know you spoke Russian," Toni says to Clint, and Natasha jumps a little. 

Bruce reaches over to shush Toni, but Thor gets there first, putting a massive, meaty hand over Toni's mouth.

They all blink at Thor.

Quietly, he remarks, "Sometimes a warrior who has seen the dark must be re-convinced that the light is safe."

How does Thor explain so well something that Clint's been trying to explain to other people for decades?

That Clint can't play baseball because he gets sick at the sight of a bat, and he's not crazy just because he has to check the locks on the doors and the curtains twice a night?

Clint decides it doesn't matter that Thor's an alien, because Clint will sign his immigration forms with his own blood.

"I got you cucumber," Clint says.

Finally, Natasha inches over, and deposits herself into Steve's chair.

Clint hands her the other shawarma he ordered.

She pokes at it, sniffs it.

Then she devours it.

This breaks the tension.

"Introduce your friend to us," Toni prods.

"Fuck off," Clint says without heat.

"Well, I'd like to say thank you, all the same," Steve tells Natasha. "You're an incredible fighter, miss."

"Agent," Natasha corrects. "Agent Romanova."

"Well, Agent Romanova," Toni says, "How do you feel about joining the Avengers? I think we've got a bona-fide superhero team here."

Natasha gives a non-commital shrug.

"Maybe," she says.

Luckily, Toni doesn't push it. She slides her business card across the table with a wink.

"Hope to be seeing you anyway."

Chapter Text

Natasha is alone in her apartment.

Her hands are shaking, from adrenaline and lack of sleep, which makes picking glass out of her back even harder.

The last twenty-fours had been hard.

 

Coulson was on medical leave, and even if he wasn't, he had been forcibly drafted to the Avengers Initiative by Fury. Also, Toni had taken Coulson's almost-death inexplicably hard and wouldn't let "zombie Coulson" out of her sight for more than a minute or two.

This left Natasha with other handlers, handlers who were not Coulson, or Hand or Hill, and did not understand how she operated.

Handlers who screw up and let good agents die, and then told Natasha to go home.

Natasha goes home.

She goes home without going to the med bay, without dropping off her report, or turning in her equipment.

She tries to sit in her closet, but that's when her back hurts the most.

A quick inspection in the mirror reveals that the glass of an entire row of windows is stuck in Natasha's back.

Natasha sighs and resigns herself to going and seeing Clint.

--

Clint, of course, now lives in Avengers Tower, because he can get pizza delivered without running into the Russian mafia, and can have free Netflix.

(Natasha would have cleared out the Russian mafia from Bed Stuy if Clint had asked her to, and she would have bought whatever Netflix was so that Clint would stay.

Nobody asks Natasha.)

This means Natasha has to go to the Tower, where Toni nags her all the time about moving in, and Steve worries like a babushka and that talking camera thing watches her all the time and Coulson still smells like anti-septic—

Natasha does not like the Tower.

She puts an overlarge bomber jacket over her bloodstained undershirt and takes the subway. She hates the subway too— too many variables, she can feel her back muscles tightening, the glass digging in.

If she were HYDRA, she’d make a move on Black Widow in the subway.

But Natasha can’t drive— driving was for handlers, not Widows, and she still is having trouble accepting that she is allowed to drive.

Kind of like how she still can’t eat chocolate.

Gaby says that’s okay, because Gaby gets sick at the smell of lasagna because of an event she won’t talk about involving an Italian man and some pretty serious torture.

Natasha wishes she could go back in time using a time machine and kill that Italian man.

So Natasha takes the subway, and tries not to flinch every time some idiot bumps into her.

Natasha finally gets to the Tower— and then freezes just inside the lobby.

Natasha’s never been to the Tower by herself, she has no idea how to get from here to there, without causing a big fuss and everyone staring at her, and her cover is blown and Toni makes a big deal out it—

Natasha closes her eyes and forces herself to take a deep breath.

Klein tells her to use “so what” to defeat her anxious thoughts, so Natasha takes each debilitating thought and breaks it down into logical components.

Natasha has no idea how to get to the penthouse.

So what? She can ask.

She could cause a big fuss and draw everyone’s attention.

You’re the Black Widow, she reminds herself. And people don’t notice you as much as you think they do .

Toni could make a big deal out of this.

Not if you just ASK.

Taking a deep breath, Natasha walks to the front desk.

“Um, excuse me?” Natasha begins.

“Oh! Agent Romanova!” the receptionist says. “Let me get you your passcard.”

Natasha blinks. She doesn’t know whether to be more worked up about the fact that she’s recognized or that Toni created an ID card for her.

The receptionist, a cute young man a trendy haircut, passes Natasha her passcard.

It says “I’m the Black Widow, Baby~!” on it, and has a picture with Natasha with her hair blowing in the wind on it. Below that, it says:

“Access Privileges

  1. The gyms and stuff
  2. The Penthouse
  3. Training Facilities
  4. Probably the Weapons R&D and that shit?
  5. Yeah, make it so, JARVIS.”

Natasha’s going to process this later, when she has Gaby on the phone to translate Toni-nonsense into real person language. The receptionist points Natasha to an elevator at the end of the hall.

She enters the elevator, and braces herself for the omniscient voice thing.

Sure enough, a disembodied voice comes out of the ceiling. “Welcome, Agent Romanova. Are you here for the Movie Night?”

Fuck, this feels like a trick question. Natasha doesn’t know what a movie night is, and doesn’t know if that’s something she should say yes or no to.

But what if Clint is at this movie night? Then Natasha would have to say yes.

“I’m here to see Clint,” she says instead.

“He is in the common room,” the voice tells her. “Shall I inform him of your arrival?”

“Yes, please.” Natasha answers, because then maybe Clint can get his ass over to her and get this over as soon as possible.

The elevator opens onto the penthouse kitchen and living room, where all of the Avengers are gathered.

Luckily, no one notices her arrival because Tony and Bruce are play-arguing about Star Wars versus Star Trek in loud, animated voices. 

(Star Wars should win, duh, Natasha thinks.)

Natasha drifts over to Clint, who's plopped on the couch watching Looney Tunes.

"Hey," he says with a soft smile. "What brings you to this part of the woods?"

Natasha sits down on the couch with her back to Clint, and shucks off her bomber jacket.

"Holy shit, Natasha!" Clint yells.

Everyone freezes and turns to stare at them. 

Natasha leaps off the couch and struggles to put back on her jacket, but Clint won't let her.

"Sit down, goddammit! Sit down!" Clint snaps, voice shaking. "Bruce, go get the first aid kit."

Looking at Clint's murderous expression, Natasha sinks back into the couch.

The others hover nervously in the background while Bruce goes and gets his med kit.

Clint takes this opportunity to berate her.

"You can't fucking bandage cuts inches deep with butterfly band-aids, dammit!"

"They'll heal," Natasha mutters back.

"There is like two whole panes of glass—"

"More like five—"

"Shut up, that's not the point," Clint snarls, and Natasha resigns herself to Clint being mad at her.

Bruce returns with the med kit, and begins to pick the glass shards out with his physician's tweezers. Clint holds her steady, hand a vice-grip on her shoulder. It is both a warning and a comfort.

Thor continues to make Pop Tarts. Toni lingers in the background, worried but hesitant. This is better than Steve, who crowds up next to her, watching Bruce as he methodically pulls shards of glass out of her back. She can't move away because Clint holds her in place.

The elevator dings and opens. Out comes Coulson, in a rumpled suit with his arm in a sling. He squats in front of Natasha, staring at her until she relents and looks him in the eyes.

Eye contact is hard.

She feels her heart speed up, but there is no closet nearby to escape his scrutiny.

At last he says, "Are you punishing because you lived when others died?"

Natasha gives a stiff nod.

"I'm taking you off the roster," Coulson tells her.

Natasha flinches.

"Give me your phone."

"No, I'll be good, I promise," Natasha pleads. Unfortunately this plea is spoken in Russian, which does not help her case.

"It's in your contract," Coulson reminds her gently. "Maladaptive behavior requires you to be temporarily removed from the active duty roster."

Natasha knows what her contact says, because she read it and signed it.

She hands over her phone. The others are staring at her or pretending not to, and she can still feel their eyes on her and their judgments, and she knows that Toni's going to break into her SHIELD file tonight and tell everyone sordid things about her past, so much for joining the Avengers—

Coulson's on the phone with Klein.

"Yes. No. No, I don't think so... Er, yes?"

With a bewildered expression, he passes the phone back to Natasha.

"Okay, can you leave the room and find a safe space?" Klein asks.

Natasha feels her heartbeat calm, and her aches and pains subside. Klein knows how to handle this.

Natasha gets up and leaves. She takes the stairs to Thor's floor, and finds his towel closet.

She curls up in Thor's towel closet and listens to what Klein has to say.

"I know this must be quite embarrassing and frustrating for you," Klein says.

Natasha decides that covering herself with towels helps her better ignore the humiliation in her gut, the burning in her cheeks and the hurt in her limbs.

"Although, I am quite proud of you for seeking out help when you were injured and in a bad brain space."

"In a bad brain space" was what Gaby called it when Natasha had to go to the closet, and Klein liked it so much that they started using it.

"Don't like it," Natasha mutters. "Not going to make the team."

Klein pauses uncharacteristically.

"I didn't realize you wanted to join the Avengers," Klein posits with hesitation.

Natasha didn't realize it either, but she misses Clint and Coulson, and maybe she has a vested interest in sparring with Steve. The internet told her that Steve has the super serum in his blood, too, and Natasha wants to match her blood against his. Also, Natasha has heard the Hulk-person has a monster inside him, just like Natasha has a monster inside of her, and Natasha wants to introduce him to Klein because maybe he will feel better too.

Also, Thor's towels smell good.

"I think you'll find them to be a great deal more accepting of your flaws than the average person," Klein remarks. "Toni Stark, Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers have bad head space sometimes, too. And you know Clint does."

"Steve Rogers does not have 'bad head space'," Natasha refutes. "He's a supersoldier. And the others aren't—... they don't— they're not evil like me."

 

              "May 7th- Rogers exhibits extended depression symptoms. June 19th- Rogers has violent outbreak at a SHIELD facility gym. No fatalities—

               August 16th- Stark continues to sell off her possessions and act out self-destructively.

               Bruce Banner, December 10th- subject fails a psychological exam as he enters his altered-state in the middle of the exam—"

 

"I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to have access to that information," Natasha interrupts.

Klein scoffs.

"I do what's best in your self-interest," Klein says. "Right now, that's making sure the Avengers are okay for you to join."

Natasha is speechless for a moment.

Klein risked a great deal of trouble to make sure that Natasha wouldn't be hurt by the Avengers, on the off-chance that Natasha might want to join them.

Klein risked an entire career to make sure Natasha felt safe.

No one's ever done that for Natasha before.

"You have two choices— you can stay and socialize or you can leave," Klein tells her.

"Leave," Natasha mumbles.

Klein laughs. "That's kinda what I thought. Let Clint and Coulson know you're okay before you leave, alright?"

Klein hangs up.

Natasha snaps a proof-of-life selfie to Clint and Coulson, and then thinks about the best way to exit the Tower with the least amount of human interaction.

"Mr. JARVIS, are you there?" Natasha asks quietly.

"Yes, Agent Romanova?" a crisp British voice responds. "How may I assist you?"

"Are there cameras in the closet?"

"No, Agent Romanova, there are not. There are several in the hallway, and the elevator, however."

Then Natasha mumbles, "I didn't mean hurt your feelings."

JARVIS stutters. "I beg your pardon?"

"I know you think I don't like you, but I do," Natasha explains to her feet. "I just don't like cameras."

There is silence, as JARVIS thinks. "I see," he says. "I did not take it personally, as many feel uncomfortable by the thought of something transhuman in nature."

Natasha shakes her head, even though she knows he can't see her. "I like robots. They're like me on the inside, and they don't— they don't judge like humans do."

JARVIS's voice is warm, fond. "I believe I understand now. Thank you for explaining this to me. If you'd like, there is a chenille blanket on the top shelf that Thor does not use. You may take it with you, if you wish."

Natasha wears the blanket from the Tower all the way back to her apartment.

 

 

Chapter Text

Toni, of course, is crafty and conniving, and never ever lets anything go. Two weeks later, Natasha finds herself back at Avengers Tower, ostensibly to try out some weaponry Toni had designed for her. Natasha knows that this is another ploy to try and convince her to stay at the Tower, and is resolved to make the visit as short as possible.

The elevator drops her off at floor 86— Toni's personal lab.

Natasha expects state-of-the-art surfaces, clean lines, and a great deal of glass.

What the lab actually is

Natasha's ideas of who Toni was as a person are completely undone.

The lab was a safe room, like Natasha's closet.

There is a great deal of concrete and clean edges, but it is all covered in comfort and kitsch. The floors are covered in a mish-mash of old, worn Persian rugs, which looked as if Toni had looted every flea market from New York to Los Angeles. There are floor-to-ceiling windows, but they are covered by heavy velvet curtains from a historic cinema center—  Tivoli Theater  could be read in peeling gold letters across the bottom of the curtain. 

Behind the lab tables is an enormous U-shaped black leather couch, with a pull-out bed that is heaped with pillows and blankets. 

Natasha approves. It isn’t as nice as her Couch, but it is still a nice couch nevertheless.

Toni is in the center of the lab, bent over something and welding it to another part. Natasha is pretty sure interrupting someone as distractable as Toni Stark while holding a welding torch is a recipe for disaster, so she sits on the couch and waits until Stark was finished.

Her wait is disturbed by something tottering over the floor with tread-wheels. It stops in front of her— a mechanical arm with tiny grabbing pincers.

It is a robot.

"Hi," Natasha says.

The robot beeps happily, and holds out his hand for Natasha to shake.

Natasha shakes the robot's hand.

The robot chirps.

Natasha thinks it's too bad that Toni would probably notice if Natasha stole her robot and took it home with her and wrapped it up her in Dora blanket.

"Ugh, sorry, that's DJ for you. We used to call him Dummy, but Clint told me that was ableist and kinda mean, so now it's DJ," Toni rambles on. "He's obnoxious about visitors, but he'll go away if you ignore him. He tends to harass Steve a lot, too. Come on, DJ, let's not bother the stabby lady—"

"No, he's fine," Natasha says softly. 

DJ picks up a sparkly ball with a bell inside of it from the floor, and puts it in Natasha's hand.

"He wants to play fetch, I think. Come on DJ, you played fetch with Clint for like, two whole hours, don't you have some fabrication to do?"

Natasha throws the ball, and DJ goes scurrying across the lab, crashing into things as he goes and finds the ball.

Natasha and Toni watch in expectation as DJ wheels out of sight. Two minutes later, he comes back, wearing a party hat and carrying a basketball.

Toni bursts out into laughter.

"No, she's not going to throw the basketball now that you've lost your sparkle ball," she mock-chides him.

The robot wilts, disappointed.

Natasha will throw that basketball, so help her Lenin—

"Why don't you ask her for her signature to put on your Wall of Fame?" Toni suggests.

DJ perks up immediately. He totters over to the printer, and snags a fistful of paper, crinkling it in his claw. He deposits the paper wad in front of Natasha, and then goes back to grab a Sharpie.

He keeps nudging Natasha's hand with Sharpie, but before she can grab it, Toni says, "How do we say 'please', DJ?"

The robot rolls back, and quirks its head in an inquisitive manner, and chirps out a sequence that Natasha is willing to bet is 'please' in binary.

Natasha takes the wad of paper and writes her very best signature, with loops and whorls.

DJ snatches it from her hand, and Toni helps him pin it on the wall behind his charging station.

DJ has Star Wars posters hanging there, as well as signatures from all the visitors to Toni's lab, and what looks like a flyer for an information panel on the Mars Rover and modern space exploration.

Natasha recognizes the flyer because she made Gaby go to that panel with her. Gaby made Natasha hold Clara and keep her distracted, but Natasha had a good time anyway.

"Anyway," Toni says, "About those Widow Bites— "

"I'll come," Natasha interrupts.

"Sorry, what?"

"I'll come live at the Tower," Natasha clarifies.

"Oh my god, really?" Toni squeals excitedly. "This is going to be so awesome, you won't regret this, I promise—"

Natasha gets to her feet. "Be back on Tuesday," she says and leaves.

Toni sputters. "Tuesday? That's like a week from now— wait, how am I supposed to get your room ready in a week?! JARVIS, pull up the thing, yeah, you know what thing I'm talking about, right?"

In the background, DJ pets his latest signature with the repetitive enthusiasm only a robot could have.



Chapter Text

"You don't get it, none of you do!" Steve shouts back at Thor. "I didn't choose to come here! I didn't want to be dropped into the future!"

Thor stretches out his hand, trying to grasp Steve by the shoulder and prevent him from storming out, but Steve knocks away his hand.

Steve slams the door on his way out.

The rest of the Avengers file in, having heard the shouting and roused out of their sleep.

Yesterday, they had fished a giant alien squid out of a nearby harbor until the early hours of the morning— and they had all resolved to sleep until noon.

Except for Steve, apparently.

"Was goin' on?" Clint mumbles, half-asleep and still trying to fit one of his hearing aids in his ear.

"I am afraid that my attempts to comfort Steven backfired most unfortunately," Thor explains.

There were Poptarts all over the floor, as evidence of Steve's outburst against Thor.

Coulson comes in next, pulling an Army sweatshirt over his rumpled dress shirt and slacks. "This is, what, the second time this week?" he asks.

"Third," Clint tells him, "if you're counting the incident in the department store."

Coulson groans.

"JARVIS, could you call Toni upstairs for me?"

Coulson starts the coffee while they wait for Toni to emerge from her engineering cave.

She arrives in a greasy tanktop and a pair of what looks like are Rhodey's boxer shorts, trailing a really large chenille blanket.

Wordlessly, Coulson hands her a mug of coffee and allows her to drink it before he starts talking.

"We need to stage an intervention," Coulson told her.

"Steve rage-quit again?" Toni asks.

"There's no need to look so smug about it, Stark," Coulson reprimands, and Toni pretends not to have I-told-you-so written all over her face.

"I think we could all use some team-building time, considering you almost side-swiped Nat in the last battle," Clint points out.

"It was an accident! I even apologized!" Toni protests.

"Speaking of Natasha, why hasn't she moved in yet?" Coulson asks.

"Fcmerphdfgaa—" Clint answers, mouth full as he tries to eat the Poptarts on the floor.

"Cameras," Toni translates. "I'm striping out all of JARVIS's wiring in her room, that's why she hasn't moved in. Also, you know, that mission in Burma and the Giant Tentacle Squid, etc, etc."

Coulson huffs— he doesn't need to be reminded what a long week this has been.

"Fine. New house rule— each one of you is responsible for a Team-Building night, starting with Stark," Coulson says.

"I will put it on the list," JARVIS remarks as Toni cheers.

"It has to cost less than a hundred dollars and be something everyone, including and especially Steve, will like," Coulson adds. "And it has to be legal and safe."

"Aww..." Toni whines, deflating. "Wait, what definition of safe are we using? Like can we do dog fighting with real planes or—"

"Pepper's definition. If she says no, you can't do it," Coulson clarifies.

Toni pouts.

Coulson grabs his phone from out of his pants pocket.

"While you're doing that, I have to make yet another call to Steve's therapist."
--

Two weeks later, all of them received a text message on the Starkphones Toni had given them.

AMNH. Friday 10pm. BE THERE OR BE SQUARE .

"What's AMNH?" Steve asks Clint, who's on the mission with him.

"American Museum of Natural History, " Natasha answers, because Clint's busy setting up his sniper gun.

"Huh, wonder who she had to blow to keep it open that late for us," Clint muses.

Natasha smacks Clint on the back of the head. "That's sexist," she informs him tartly.

"You were talking yesterday about how she blew the entire National Budget committee to protect NASA's allocations!" Clint protests. "How is what I said sexist and what you said not?"

"Because I was admiring what she had done, and you were putting her down," Natasha answers.

Both men blink at her.

"Admiring?" Steve asks.

"It takes a great deal of courage and skill to use your body as a weapon," Natasha tells them.

Both men shut up, and do not mention it again. They do give Natasha a side-eye.

 

Natasha doesn’t care. She never ascribes normality to who she is.

 

Klein says that Natasha’s brain is just wired a little differently than everyone else’s.

Violence is beauty, danger is gorgeous, and kindness is terrifying.

A little mixing of the wires, that’s all.

 

So someone who uses their body as a razor sharp weapon against the world?

 

Natasha has dreams, sometimes, of licking blood of the stupid and cruel off of gorgeous women’s bodies.


This kind of feeds into that.

--

At 10pm sharp, they are all standing in front of the museum, where Toni lets them in past the ticket gates, and then locks the doors behind them.

They gather in the Roosevelt Rotunda lobby. There is no one in the entire museum except themselves, and Toni's robots, who are holding trays full of snacks and skidding across the marble floor.

"So," Toni says, rocking back and forth on her feet in nervous excitement. "AMNH. None of us have been here, we have the place to ourselves, we have some cool exhibits here—"

"Trains," Natasha breathes, looking at the banner to her right. She ignores the sputtering of the others, and darts to the stairs just behind the rotunda. Second floor, third floor— past the reptiles.

Clint looks very impressed with Toni. "How'd you know?" he asks.

"Educated guess," Toni says with a laugh. "Okay, well, actually she had JARVIS order fifteen model train sets, but yeah."

She turns to the rest of them.

"Trains, cultural exhibits, dinosaurs... Go nuts, guys," Toni says.

She turns to Bruce and holds out her arms to escort him. "Dr. Banner, may I entice you with the Macau birds exhibit?"

Bruce smiles, and takes Toni's proffered arm. She grabs some dried blueberries from one of the bots, and they go in search of the nearest elevator.

Clint shoots off to the "Cosmic Pathway" exhibit, Thor on his heels, saying, "You like stars and shit, right? This'll be cool, come on."

Steve is left alone, with his sketchbook and an entire museum to explore.

He squares his shoulders, and takes off for the nearest exhibit.


--

Four hours later, Toni comes up to the third floor to peel Natasha off of the Union Pacific Big Boy parked in the middle of the exhibit. Together, they go down to the lower level food court and join the others.

Steve is showing his sketches to Bruce, who is complimenting them, judging by the pleased flush on Steve's face. Clint and Thor have bought all of the mud cups from food court and have lined them up across a table to see who can eat the most. Thor sucking on gummy worms is not a sight Toni will forget for a long time.

"How were the trains?" Steve asks, a small smile on his face. His spine is relaxed, his face is no longer pinched, and he doesn't hold himself like a man expecting the world to chew him up and spit him out anymore.

"Good," Natasha says. "How were the... things?"

Clint snorts in his mud cup.

Natasha glares at him. She's trying, geeze. It's not like socializing with other human beings comes naturally to her.

But Steve just grins.

"They were great, thank you."

--

That morning, Natasha lies in her new bed in Stark Tower, and texts Gaby.

what do you say to someone who did something really nice for you but pretends it’s for everyone but you know it’s for you?

Are you talking about Toni?   Gaby responds. Just say thank you.

How? Natasha texts back.

You'll know it when you see it, Gaby tells her.

Natasha rests the phone on her stomach and stares at the ceiling while the sun dawns over New York.

 

Chapter Text

Clint gets to pick the next Team-Building Night, and of course he chooses to take the guys out for a night of bar-hopping. Clint thinks he's introducing Steve to bar and nightlife culture for the first time. Steve doesn't have the heart to tell him he went out drinking with Maria Hill once, and that was more than enough, thank you.

Bruce begs off, because he and alcohol do not mix well.

This leaves Toni and Natasha at loose ends, feeling a bit like they had been kicked out of the treehouse on account of their gender.

"I would go crash their fun, but I have a 2am video-conferencing meeting with Saito Industries, which I actually have to be not hungover for, otherwise Pepper will kick my ass," Toni explains.

Natasha decides that discretion is the better part of valor, because she knows that all of Toni's alcohol has been switched with apple juice, and knows that Toni's been sober for six months.

Gaby told her that sometimes people make up excuses to make it easier for them to say no. Most of the time, it's better to not call people out on their excuses, because sometimes there is a good reason.

Natasha knows that Toni keeping herself safe is a good reason, so she says nothing.

"We could go shopping for stuff for your room here in the Tower," Toni suggests with a shrug. "There's some good thrift shops a little ways out."

"Thrift shops?" Natasha asks.

Toni immediately flushes. "Sorry, I didn't mean it in bad way, I just thought that you like older things and—"

"JARVIS, what's a thrift shop?" Natasha asks the ceiling.

"A thrift shop is a store that sells secondhand clothing and household goods," JARVIS informs her.

"So like my Couch, but a whole store full of my Couch?" Natasha questions.

This takes JARVIS a bit to process.

"Are you talking about the one Barton calls, ‘The Jesus Couch Arisen From the Dumpster’?" Toni asks.

"Yes," Natasha says.

"In that case, I believe it would be an adequate definition," JARVIS replies.

"Okay," Natasha says. "I'd like to go."

"Great," Toni says, and her whole face lights up. "I'll drive, Happy's out with Pepper at the moment."

They go down to Toni's car garage. To Natasha's surprise, Toni ignores several Maserati, Porsche and Audi cars, and grabs the keys to a tiny Honda Fit.

Toni laughs at Natasha's dumbfounded face.

"Nobody expects Toni Stark to have a Honda Fit, that's why it works so well," she tells Natasha with a grin.

Toni puts the key into the door, and then stops.

Natasha can see her spine stiffen, and her breath come out in small pants. Her arms start trembling. Toni can't turn the key.

Suddenly everything becomes explicitly clear to Natasha.

Toni. Afghanistan. Car bombing. Happy driving. PTSD. Panic attack symptoms.

Natasha leans against the side-door. "Did I ever tell you about the time that Clint got stuck in a French brothel?"

Toni lets out a strangled laugh. "When was this?"

"A couple months ago. He panicked and thought it was a good place to hide."

"It wasn't, was it?" Toni asks.

"No, it was not," Natasha answers.

As Natasha tells the story over the course of half an hour, the lines of Toni's back loosen, and her hands tremble less, until she is able to turn the key and get in the driver's seat.

Natasha climbs into the passenger seat.

Toni starts the car and drives out of the basement parking garage into the city, pretending like nothing had happened.

Natasha likes this as well. Toni doesn't like talking about emotions and feelings, and Natasha doesn't either.

Natasha thinks this might be friendship, if one can be friends by tacitly ignoring panic attacks, driving a Honda like a crazy person, and arguing with JARVIS over directions (Arguing with JARVIS over directions is stupid because JARVIS is a Robot and he knows Things.)

It is the beginning of friendship— because as it turns out, thrift shopping with Toni is so much fun .

Toni knows all of the good places to shop secondhand in the city, and is of the opinion that if Natasha doesn't see exactly what she wants, they can make it.

This is why they buy five chandeliers, so that Natasha can get the chandelier look without the shiny crystals. And they buy this great antique desk with carved lion's heads in mid-snarl, with the drawers all jammed up and half the wood smelling like someone spilled a chamberpot on it, but Toni can fix that too.

The only thing they disagree on is candles— "But they smell nice!" Toni protests.

"Fire hazard," Natasha retorts, and that's the end of Toni's "skull-head candelabra" idea.

While Toni's distracted by the antique swords, Natasha buys three whole stacks of Star Wars novels from the upstairs floor. No one bothered to tell Natasha that there are whole series of novels written about Star Wars, including robots and more Jedi and lots of weird planets. Natasha thinks that Jedi are a little too preoccupied with balance and order, but they are fun to read about. Besides, they would all fit on the solid oak bookshelves that Toni found in a dusty corner in the basement of the thrift shop.

Toni buys the antique swords (something about pirates in the Caribbean, and that they'd be functional and look cool on the mantle. Natasha's not sure what a mantle is or if Toni has one, but the swords are pretty neat.) Toni also buys a slew of junky toy robots from the 80s and 90s to take a part and put together again, which go in the back of the Honda Fit next to all of the chandeliers.

All of the furniture they bought is arranged to be delivered, and they move on to Angel Closet. Toni latches on to a pair of never-worn, limited edition Manolo Blahniks encrusted in crystals, which look completely ridiculous, and completely showboating Toni.

"Do you actually want those, or does your persona want them?" Because clearly Natasha's mouth wants to ruin this friendship before it starts.

Toni retreats into herself and gives off a fake laugh to cover her hurt feelings. "There's only one Toni Stark, babe— I should know."

Natasha wishes she could borrow a time machine from one of those paperback novels she bought, so she can punch herself in her face. She wants Gaby here, to explain what she actually means, it wasn't meant to hurt Toni, and Gaby understands that Natasha's terrible at explaining what she means— and Toni's gritting her teeth, like she's regretting the whole thing—

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a pair of faded red Converses. She snatches them up and dangles them in front Toni.

"Like these, see?" Natasha says.

"No, I don't see," Toni says flatly, and Natasha wants to cry in frustration.

"Black Widow wants the Manolo Blahniks, but Natasha Romanova wants the Converses," Natasha blurts. "But sometimes they get mixed up, and Natasha thinks she wants things because she has to, because Black Widow wants them, when she actually doesn't, and she gets confused. That, that was my question."

There wasn't even a question in there, Natasha scolds herself, and now she thinks you're a freak— well, you are a freak, but now she knows it—

Toni softens, the fight leaving her entirely. "I thought, sorry. I thought you were saying something else."

Toni exhales. "I've— I've never had someone articulate that before. People get mad at me for switching, because it's disingenuous to be a different person in public and private—"

Natasha feels a righteous anger suffuse her very bones.

"Why should they be angry? Your personality is your armor, and they don't deserve to know who you are beneath that," Natasha retorts.

Toni blinks, and then gives a soft smile. Vulnerable, hesitant, truly Toni.

Then she smirks. “You’re totally right—Toni Stark doesn’t want the Manolo Blahniks. She wants those Jimmy Choos.”

Toni snatches up an absolutely hideous pair of Jimmy Choos, which look like a tiger vomitted up on them and then had the audacity to roll in the mess.

“No, Toni,” Natasha says. “No.”

“They’re so terrible, they’re awesome!”

“They’re just plain terrible, please don’t buy them—“

Toni buys them anyway.

Natasha buys a pair of Louboutins, gold with red backs, which Natasha wants because they remind her of Toni, and armor, and the soft, gentle things beneath.

Not because they’re Iron Woman colors, or anything.

Chapter Text

Natasha strides in to the Tower kitchen, still outfitted in her combat suit and boots from last night, when SHIELD had a joint raid with the FBI. Steve and Bruce are on the couch, watching a documentary, while Toni and Clint are eating breakfast. Thor is off-world, conducting a diplomatic mission in Asgard.

"What do you know about Senator Stern?" Natasha asks Toni, who's sitting at the kitchen table reading from her tablet.

Toni breaks out into an evil smile.

"JARVIS, pull up Revenge is A Dish Best Served At Zero Degrees Kelvin," she instructs.

JARVIS displays maps, intel, photographs— information even SHIELD doesn't have on Senator Stern.

Clint leans over his bowl full of Lucky Charms to get a better look at the map hovering above his head.

"Wow, that's the inside of his house," Clint remarks. "Remind me to never get on your bad side."

Steve had been sketching while the TV was on. He puts down his sketchbook and pencil, and comes over to look at what everyone is making a fuss about.

"That's an evasion of privacy, Toni," Steve scolds.

"He's a pedophile, he deserves it," Toni snaps back, arms crossing over her chest.

Natasha sees a light at the long end of a tunnel, like a telescope trained on the trauma of Toni's life.

This.

This.

"How old were you?" Natasha asks.

"Eleven," she says. "Howard dropped me off, said 'spit, don't swallow', and that was that. You?"

"Nine," Natasha replies.

Steve takes longer to catch on. His face drains of color, and then reddens.

"Howard wouldn't do that! Stop lying!" he snaps.

Toni's face turns angry and predatory. She flicks her hand at the mess of documents, and one comes forward.

"I, Howard Stark, consent to Senator Rupert Stern, having sexual intercourse with my underage daughter—"

"You're lying! Howard would never sign something like that! He must have been tricked!" Steve shouts, and moves towards Toni, maybe to shake the nonsense out of her.

Bruce grabs Steve just in time, arm wrapped over his chest. Bruce flexes muscles no one knew he had, and Steve is stopped just inches from Toni.

Toni doesn't flinch. She is small and defiant, teeth gritted and chin knocked up.

Bruce bends down to murmur in Steve' ear. "Ease up, Steve, come on. Is this really worth a fight over?"

Bruce talks Steve down, and leads him away.

Toni turns to Clint, who's looking down at the granite counter top, tapping his spoon against it.

But Clint speaks before Toni can.

"You don't need to ask me," he says, "I believe you."

Toni stares at him, surprised.

Clint gestures to the purple hearing aid in his ear. "My dad, a baseball bat," he tells her. "Social worker knew about the abuse and still didn't remove us. I ran away— but I know not everyone can."

Toni sniffs and turns away, because for some reason there's water in her eyes.

"Thanks," she whispers.

Clint, with excruciating gentleness, pats Toni on the shoulder. "We'll get Steve straightened out."

He takes off after Steve and Bruce.

This leaves Toni and Natasha.

They stare at each.

Two women, hearts like pinned butterflies.

Their wings tattered and tortured— yet in spite of this, yearning to break to free and fly once more.

"When do we start?" Toni asks.

"Yesterday," Natasha replies.

--

Toni listens in on the mission, because she can't help herself.

Luckily, Natasha not only doesn't take offense, or tell Toni that she's breaking in on a classified op— she narrates the whole thing for Toni.

"Down the hall— Toni, they can't find the door to the room," Natasha tells her.

"There's a keypad underneath the painting on the right hand. Lift it carefully," Toni instructs.

Natasha relays this to her team.

"Code?"

"3145-289," Toni spits out.

"Perfect."

A recessed door opens into a predator's dream room.

It's a perfect recreation of a girl's room, except for the chains and whips on the walls.

Her team starts whispering, unnerved.

They haven't seen anything yet.

"Boxes?"

"Open the closet doors," Toni tells her.

Natasha goes to the closet doors and yank them open.

Inside is a shrine to each girl he had defiled.

Photographs, movies, locks of their hair, their blood, a favorite doll or sexual position.

Natasha blocks out the sound of several of her team vomiting.


It is a disgusting sight.

Natasha's lip curls.


"Number?" Natasha asks.

"17," Toni answers. "I'd— I'd prefer it if—"

Toni doesn't want the SHIELD team to see pictures of her underaged, naked and abused.

Understandable.

Natasha tears everything of Toni's down and shoves it into the box with the tapes of Toni and the Senator, labelled '17'.

The team gives her confused looks.

Natasha gives them her best icy stare.

No one likes looking the Black Widow in the eyes, so they don't ask any questions.

--

Natasha takes the boxes to the Tower.

She and Toni start a fire on the balcony. They sprawl on the concrete floor and torch the photos and tapes, adding each to the flames. JARVIS has turned off the smoke detectors in the area and Toni grabs some marshmallows from the pantry and shows Natasha how to make s'mores.

Natasha decides that s'mores taste like bitter chocolate and sweet vengeance.

It's a good combination.

Steve hesitantly knocks on the glass door of the balcony, and walks out.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt—" he begins, then stops at the sight of the two of them and the fire. "Are you making a bonfire? On the balcony?"

"Go away, Steve," Toni says in her best bored-whore voice.

Steve snaps out of his scolding, and straightens. "Sorry, I just— I came to apologize," he says sheepishly. "Bruce explained things to me, and uh, Howard's not the man I once knew."

"Apology accepted," Toni says, though the acceptance was far below market value for sincerity.

Natasha has no need to behave so politely, and simply stares at Steve until he became uncomfortable.

"I guess... I'll see you both later, then," Steve squeaks out, and then makes a hasty exit.

Natasha shrugs and turns back to Toni, who's grinning like a maniac.

"Wanna another s'more?" Toni asks.

"Yes, please," Natasha says.

 

Chapter Text

Somehow, Natasha finds herself in Toni's lab again and again.

The fact that Toni bought her a pillow version of R2-D2 has nothing to do with it, nor the fact that Natasha loves to curl up on Toni's black leather couch with it.

DJ is rolling around with a baby's light-up ball that Natasha bought him at a thrift shop. It already has quite a few scratches on it, and the sound no longer works (courtesy of Toni, who apparently hates "It's a Small World"), but DJ loves it anyways.

Things are going well in the Tower. Natasha had doubts about all of them working, sleeping and living together, but it hasn't been as bad as she thought. The in-and-out nature of the Tower had at first caused her anxiety, but was now sunk into her bones as a natural routine, something as easy as the tides coming in and out. They all have friends and family and lovers, that left and rejoined as they pleased, and there was always someone doing something at any time of day or night.

JARVIS has become one of her best friends besides Gaby-- she has him in her earpiece and on her phone all the time. He doesn't pry or give her weird looks when she asks him unusual requests, and he anticipates her needs unbelievably well. Natasha has also discovered that he has a sly, deadpan sense of humor, which she finds hilarious.

Also, JARVIS translates her words into binary so she can talk with the bots. This makes him an especially good friend.

Natasha nudges the light-up ball across the floor, watching DJ tear after it.

Toni, wrench in hand, leans over the couch to watch as well.

"I want to give you something," Toni says.

"No," Natasha answers, already knowing where this is going. "You've already thanked me with a pillow, and new weapons."

"Okay, but I have to make a grand gesture, Nat. It's like an itch on the back of my leg," Toni pleads.

"A weirdly specific itch," Natasha grumbles. But she knows something about ledgers and the red dripping from them, so she gets where Toni's grand gesture is coming from. She just wishes she didn't have to be the recipient of it.

"Please?" Toni asks.

Natasha has found it harder and harder to deny Toni.

"Fine," Natasha says. "I have... a friend. Ex-KGB. He helped me get free so I could join SHIELD. He's stuck in Russia, and I want to do the same thing for him."

Toni smiles, wicked and fierce. "Consider it done."

--

It is done, in the most typical Toni fashion.

Everything is exact, no details left unplanned, no mistakes made.

SHIELD doesn't know about it, INTERPOL and HYDRA and UNCLE and all of the other alphabet soups have no idea what has happened beneath their noses.

Illya Kuryakin arrives in the U.S. for the first time in fifteen years.

Gaby and Natasha wait for him in the airport, with Clara at home with Napoleon, because Gaby is still paranoid that after all of these years, something will happen to her daughter.

Natasha has to look away while Gaby and Illya embrace and cry, because that's feelings, and Natasha doesn't do feelings very well.

When they are finished, Illya lets go of Gaby and hugs Natasha. He rests his forehead on her own, his hand on her upper arm so that she can't wriggle free.

"Thank you, katyonak," he whispers. "Thank you so much."

Natasha shakes her head, because what else is she supposed to do?

Ilya helped her break free of the Red Room programming, gave her water and held her hair back when she was going through withdrawal from the drugs they gave her. He helped her get her life back.

What else was she supposed to do, but give his back as well?

Gaby smiles, tears in her eyes. "Come on, you two. Clara is waiting."

"Who?" Illya asks, confused.

"Your daughter," Gaby whispers.

Illya looks so surprised, so delighted, that Gaby bursts into tears again.

--

A few weeks later, there is a package sitting on the kitchen table for Natasha. It's lunch time at Avengers Tower, the Fantastic Four are handling crime this week, and the Avengers are taking a well-deserved break.

They often get mail— Steve and Toni the most, but JARVIS and the mail staff do an excellent job of screening out the mail, so the only items that come upstairs are thank you letters and Amazon orders.

(Natasha did not know one could order things by pressing a button on a computer, and never even having to leave one's room. JARVIS explains this to her, because he is a good friend, and refrains from teasing her when she buys pajamas with the grey bouncing cat on them, and a bathrobe with tiny WALL-E on them.)

But Natasha almost never gets mail, so the package is a complete surprise.

"Is it safe?" Natasha asks JARVIS.

"Yes," he answers her immediately. "Although it is biological in nature, it is completely safe."

The others stare curiously at the package.

Toni tosses Natasha a pair of scissors, and she gingerly opens the box.

Inside the box is a cooler, like the kind used on picnics.

Inside the cooler are vials on ice, labeled with faded Cyrillic tags.

Черная вдова: 115A

Романова

Яйца яичника.


Black Widow: 115A

Romanova

Ovary Eggs.



There are teardrops in her eyes, tracing her cheeks. But this is impossible.

Black Widows don't cry.

Clint launches from the table and cradles Natasha's head in his chest. Natasha sobs into his shoulder, because Black Widows don't get nice things, like a second chance at motherhood, or a superhero team of her best friends, or an R2-D2 pillow.

"You're okay," Clint says gently. "Toni's going to put the eggs in her super secret safe that she thinks no one knows about, alright?"

Toni grabs the container and runs downstairs to stow it away.

"Blanket?" Clint asks their gathered audience, and Steve passes the couch blanket, which has a mermaid unicorn on it because Natasha likes the colors.

Clint takes the blanket and wraps the still crying Natasha in it.

"Come on," he says. "We can watch How's It's Made reruns."

Clint corrals her to couch, where she is bundled in more blankets and given a tissue box by Bruce.

JARVIS turns on the TV and begins to play How It's Made.

"I have taken the liberty to install a camera in the safe. You will have 24/7 access to watch the video feed anytime you wish," JARVIS informs her.

"Thanks J," Natasha croaks, trying to keep more tears from welling up.

Toni comes back with the R2-D2 pillow and DJ, who wheels over by the couch and begins patting Natasha on the head with his arm.

"Not too hard, DJ!" Toni scolds.

Toni snuggles in on the other end of the couch "to supervise DJ", but Natasha knows that this is for her.

"Today, on How It's Made..."

Natasha watches the robots on the screen build things, and thinks about a little girl with red hair and an unending smile.

 

Chapter Text

In December, the Avengers are required to go to a charity ball for the victims of what has now been called "The Manhattan Attack".

No one, courtesy of Coulson, is allowed to weasel their way out of this engagement— in the few hours before the charity ball, the entirety of the Avengers penthouse looks and smells like an overly perfumed zoo.

Maria Hill is in a tuxedo, scolding Steve, who has not only managed to tie his tie wrong, but also ripped the lining of his suit jacket trying to fix it.

Toni is arguing with JARVIS over which shoes go with her Vera Wang dress— all of them have needlepoint heels and are sleeker than blood on granite. All of them, in Natasha's opinion, do not match the dress.

Bruce is helping Thor tie his bow tie, red like the cape that he prefers to wear.

Clint is seated in front of Natasha, doing her make-up for her.

Natasha still has trouble looking at her face in the mirror, and Clint does better make-up than her even on her best day.

Her make-up is a weapon to conceal, hide, ferret-away— his is a tool used to allure, brighten, and attract.

His steady fingers do her eyeliner, making a perfect cat-eye.

"Are you going to tell me about you and Toni?" he murmurs as he touches up the cat-eye with eyeshadow.

"We just went out, that's all. Stop asking."

"Natasha, you and Toni came back at 2 in the morning, laughing your asses off, and you fell asleep on the couch next to her. You don't even fall asleep next to me," Clint hisses.

Natasha stonewalls, because this is getting dangerously close to expressing feelings that she doesn't even want anywhere near her lips.

Clint sees the determined set of her chin, and decides that this is not a battle he will win.

"Natasha, I just want you to be honest about—"

Natasha ends up not having to answer that question, because Coulson herds them out of the room, down the elevator and into a limo.

She sits next to Toni because she wants to, and because then Clint can't ask her uncomfortable questions.

Also because she can stare at the crux of Toni's neck, where beautiful, vulnerable skin makes a gorgeous line down her body.

She wants to run her finger down the expanse.

She does not understand why she feels this way— and it terrifies her.

She doesn't know why she wants to curl up next to Toni, laughing as they bring down the world around their ears.

Why she wants to press her lips—

Natasha turns and glares at the window, because it's the window's fault she feels this way.

--

The party is a disaster.

Natasha is distracted the entire time, feeling an itch in her veins that cannot be shaken.

Clint is pouting because he couldn't bring Laura, Bruce is hiding in a corner, and Thor has challenged several celebrities to duels of honor, to Coulson's frustration.

Steve accidentally insults a general's wife, and Natasha doesn't come to his rescue because she is stalking over to the other side of the room, where Toni Stark is drinking.

Drinking .

Toni's fingers tap and rove over the bar countertop, the only indication that she's terrified.

Terrified and drunk out of her mind.

There's a man leaning over her, with curly blonde hair and razor sharp teeth. His black suit is as sharp as his smile, and his hand is half way up Toni's thigh.

Natasha wrenches Toni away from the man, and does not bother with excuses or pleasantries. She takes Toni to an empty billiards room just off of the ballroom, and shuts the door behind her.

"What is your problem?" Natasha snaps. "You don't even like him—"

"What is my problem? What is your problem! You made a huge scene back there, and now everyone thinks—" Toni spits back.

"—That he's your abusive ex trying to put his hand up your—"

"Why do you even care? Not your problem, you have nothing to do with this—"

"I care because you drank yourself stupid instead of asking me for help!" Natasha shouts.

Her chest heaves in the silence.

Toni stares at her.

"Look," she says, "I took you out, like five times, and you still haven't asked me out once, so you don't have right to be jealous—"

"Asked what?" Natasha yells. "I have no idea what you want, but it's sure as hell not that piece of—"

Natasha feels a bolt of pain through her skull, and hears Toni scream.

Natasha feels her body crumble to the floor.

 

All she sees is blackness.

--

 

Natasha wakes to blood in her mouth and the sound of Toni crying a few feet away.

This is unacceptable.

Natasha staggers to her feet to a sight that near stops her heart.

Toni's ex has her pinned to the wall, both of Toni's gorgeous, callused hands in one of his own. Her dress is torn up to her underwear. Her heels are broken from scrambling across the floor, and there is blood underneath her fingernails and bruises around her neck—

"Ty, please don't, please don't—" Toni gasps.

Natasha feels fury roar in her blood, shooting like lightning into her limbs.

She draws her garrote out and chokes the man with it.

He gasps and chokes.

Natasha draws him back, freeing Toni.

Natasha wants to kill him. She has never wanted to kill anyone this badly, not since they took Yakov away and Ivan told her it was her fault.

But this is Toni, and Toni might not like her as much if she brutally murders her ex.

She releases the man, and hauls Toni to her feet so they can leave before he calls his bodyguards.

"Ankle," Toni cries out. "Nat, my ankle's twisted!"

Natasha carries Toni like a small child, her battered feet crossed against the nape of Natasha's back.

She dodges bullets and armed thugs, and takes off down the corridor.

"JARVIS?" Natasha pants.

"Please take a right. There is a locked supply closet down that hall. I have taken the liberty of overriding the card swipe panel," JARVIS informs her.

Natasha runs into that direction, finds the closet, and puts Toni inside before locking the door behind them.

"I am gathering the necessary personnel and supplies for an extraction," JARVIS tells them. "Please wait here until the extraction is confirmed."

They huddle in the supply closet, chin to knees, feet intertwined.

Natasha tries to take deep breaths like Klein taught her to, but Toni reeks of alcohol and sweat, and Natasha can smell blood clumping in her own hair, and everything is so wrong, so wrong she can't breathe.

"Sorry, sorry, I messed everything up again," Toni whimpers.

Gaby taught her about apologies— well, her three year old did.

One person says what they did wrong, and another person says what they did wrong, and then they seal the contract by shaking hands or hugging.

Natasha doesn't even know where to start with apologizing.

She's sorry about yelling at Toni, she's sorry about overreacting when Toni was in danger, she sorry she was distracted and didn't keep a closer watch on Toni—

What comes out is— "I'm sorry for licking your neck."

"Wait, what?" Toni says.

Natasha bangs her head against her knees.

Why, oh why can't she say what she's thinking like a normal person?

"JARVIS, help," she says.

JARVIS sighs.

"It astounds me how utterly incompetent the two of you are at interpersonal relationships," he laments. "Miss Natasha, Miss Stark has been attempting to date you via dragging you on preposterous capers throughout the city. Miss Stark, Miss Natasha has been experiencing romantic feelings for you and does not know how to process them."

"Define romantic feelings," Natasha demands, ignoring Toni staring at her.

"Your vitals skyrocket in the presence of Miss Stark, you crave her physical touch, and you exhibit irritability when not near Miss Stark. Your violent tendencies increase when protecting her, you have improved mood and behavior when you spend time with her, and you have been awoken at least once a week for months with erotic dreams about her," JARVIS intones.

Natasha flushes. JARVIS has to tell the truth, because he is their voice of honesty and reason, but sometimes the truth is uncomfortable.

"Oh my god, why didn't you say anything?" Toni croaks. "I've been making a fool out of myself over here for you."

"You haven't— you haven't," Natasha stutters, staring at the floor. "This is— it's been— I've never been happier in my life. I just don't know how— I'm not normal, like you."

Toni snorts. "I'm not normal either, I just pass better than you do."

Then she groans. "God, we've been making undying confessions of feelings in a closet. What kind of teen movie cliche is this?" Toni says.

"The kind that Clint watches," Natasha insists.

Toni snorts.

Natasha takes Toni by the hand, carries her in her arms.

They escape out the kitchen, into a Rolls Royce driven by Happy, into a Tower where JARVIS always watches and protects them.

It used to make her upset, all those electronic eyes on her, but now she feels enveloped every day in safety and kindness and friendship.

Steve, Clint and Coulson do clean-up duty at the event, and then drag Thor and Bruce out.

Toni locks herself in her lab so she doesn't have to answer any of Coulson's questions, and Natasha hides in the ventilation shafts, because Clint is giving her the I-know-you're-having-feelings-and-not-telling-me-about-them stink eye.

If Natasha's ventilation shaft just happens to be right above Toni's lab...

JARVIS doesn't tattle, because he is a good friend.

Natasha is lulled to sleep by sounds of ACDC and the gentle whir of Toni's machinery.

 

Chapter Text

Toni is teaching Thor how to cook Italian, one wintery January night, which of course means that everyone else in the team is learning, as well.

Toni is making 'authentic Italian', which Natasha has learned is far superior to the food found in the Fazoli's restaurant that Clint likes to go to.

Toni and Thor are making eggplant parmesan with penne noodles, in a huge baking dish. Bruce is on salad, because as the resident vegetarian among carnivores, he is the only trusted to know how to make a salad. Clint is on breadsticks, and keeps basting them with his "secret sauce" and making fake cackling noises. Darcy Lewis and Jane Foster had come to visit Thor, and got roped into making food as well; apparently Darcy knows her way around a mean lasagna, which Toni says she'll believe when she eats it.

This leaves Natasha and Steve on supervision.

This is fine with Natasha. She likes watching everyone, their happiness and laughter, which makes a bright warmth under her skin.

This also means that Natasha gets an excuse to watch Toni.

They've been dancing around each other since The Closet, and the team is starting to notice.

Natasha's never had a relationship with anyone ever, and has no idea how to even start. All the suggestions Google has don't seem to match what's going on between them.

Toni doesn't like flowers, Natasha doesn't feel comfortable eating in public places, and feels about the same about movies in public places.

Natasha knows how to kiss. She knows the mechanics of it, that one nose goes there, and the other goes there, that men like to bite, and enjoy it when you fake gasp for air..

But Natasha has no idea how to kiss a woman, let alone Toni. She doesn't know if kissing Toni is actually something she wants to do.

Toni, on the other hand, is allergic to feelings and communicating them, and has a hilariously bad track record with relationships with other people, romantic, platonic, business or otherwise.

Natasha traces the brown curls of Toni's hair with her eyes, watching each one sway with Toni's excited movements.

The lights flicker.

Everyone stops what they are doing, and look up.

"JARVIS?" Toni asks.

"My apologies," he says. "It appears that the winter storm has disrupted the New York City power grid. I am turning everything over to in-house power as we speak."

Everyone relaxes, and goes back to cooking, except Toni, who washes the food off of her hands.

"Get Pep on the line, will you?" she asks. "I wanna make sure all our employees get sent home safely. And contact any nearby shelters—  we can offer some power to them, after we've switched off unnecessary functions."

"Of course, Miss Stark," JARVIS says.

They continue to make food as the storm rages around them.

They take all the food into the living room, where they watch the Lady and the Tramp, because Steve hasn't seen it yet, and Toni wants to make sure he gets his fill of Disney movies, and reminders of why living in the 21st century isn't terrible.

Lady and the Tramp isn't Natasha's favorite, because there aren't any robots in it, so she and JARVIS text while the others watch the movie.

JARVIS explains things to Natasha, whatever she wants to know, whenever she wants to know.

How pasta is made.

What Bruce means when he says he's asexual.

What a coping mechanism is, and what that has to do with Natasha's closet.

What is attraction, and how does it feel, on the skin, on the tongue, in the air.

They go through three or four movies, none having robots, until everyone has fallen asleep where they lay. Natasha gets up and covers everyone in blankets, because blankets are amazing and no one should feel cold if there are blankets nearby.

Then she snuggles into her section of the couch with her R2D2 pillow and her mermaid unicorn blanket.

"Good night, JARVIS," Natasha says.

"Good night, Miss Natasha," JARVIS says.

--

Sometime in the middle of the night, Darcy wakes up and says, "Jane, look, outside!" And because half of them have enhanced hearing, they all wake up a little.

Natasha peels an eye open to see an excited Darcy plastered against the glass window of the penthouse.

"Jane! Jane, it's snowing like crazy, you gotta see this!" Darcy hisses.

Clint throws a pillow at Jane, and then a box of pop tarts. Jane finally wakes up mid-snore.

"Darcy, it's two in morning—" Jane begins as she crawls her away out of the blankets. "Holy cow, that's a lot of snow."

Natasha decides she wants to see the snow, too.

New York winters are weak in comparison to Russia, but snow is pretty no matter which side of world you are.

Natasha puts her nose up to glass and looks down.

The entire city is snowed in— cars buried, snow drifts as tall as doors, and icicles as long as Natasha is tall.

"I want to make a snowman, no, a snow army! Like a whole squadron of snow people!" Darcy declares.

"What's a snowman?" Natasha asks.

Darcy stares at her, and then stares at her some more, like she grew two heads in the dark.

Natasha pats down her hair.

No, still one head.

Darcy turns to the cuddle pile on the floor. "Toni Stark, you get your ass up," she says.

Toni blinks her eyes open and stares sleepily at Darcy.

"Nat doesn't know what a snowman is, and you should fix this."

"Holy shit, I should fix this," Toni exclaims, and worms her way out of the blankets, until she's standing on trembling, thin legs, splotched with bruises from their last Avengers battle.

This, of course, is not what Natasha notices.

Natasha notices that Toni has Black Widow panties on, with black lace on the seams.

Natasha decides then and there that she has lived a full life, and doesn't need to continue to exist in a world where Toni wears Black Widow panties, because her brain just turns into a molten puddle.

Black Widow panties.

Lenin and Jesus.

Darcy and Toni are making plans to go outside, and are trying to wake everyone up so they can have 'an epic snowfight of the gods' or whatever that is. Natasha's brain is still rebooting its processors, so she just nods and agrees at the right intervals.

Toni puts pants on, which is so very disappointing, and then Natasha has to go raid Clint's closet for sweaters because hers aren't warm enough.

Eventually, they all get into various states of dress, even a reluctant Steve, who wants nothing to do with cold and ice.

They climb into what Toni calls the "Scooby-Doo Van" or sometimes "The FBI Van"—  a black van with two seats up front, and secret darkened windows in the back. It has enough seats to hold all of them comfortably— they usually use it for all-team ice-cream runs or driving to upstate training programs.

Jane drives, because she has no problem running roughshod over the slick New York streets, and Bruce acts as navigator, because apparently Darcy is not to be trusted giving directions.

They make it to the nearest park, and tumble out of the back of the van.

The entire world is a gorgeous winter wonderland. The tree boughs are laden with frost, and the snow lays out in a pristine expanse over everything. The streetlights make golden halos against the gently drifting snow.

"I call dibs on Thor for my team!" Darcy yells and promptly face plants into the fresh snow.

"I call Cap!" Clint says, and shoves snow down Darcy's coat before running away.

Natasha, along with Bruce, decide that flying snowballs are probably not in their best interest. Bruce begins to make a snowman, and Coulson helps him roll the snowballs.

Natasha makes snow angels— she knows how to make snow angels, because Yakov taught her, one time when they were on a mission in the Ukraine.

She lies down, and becomes one with the snow.

Back and forth her arms brush, her legs sweeping the snow like a ballerina shoes laden with chalk dust.

First position. Third.

Fourth position.

Piroutte.

Very good, Natashenka.

Natasha feels a shadow cast over her, and opens her eyes.

It's Toni.

"Are you making a snow angel, or a snow ballerina?" Toni wants to know.

Natasha thinks about this.

"I want to make a snow ballerina," she announces. She slides down the snow to try to make pointe shoes, but it messes everything up.

Toni leans down, and gently grasps each of Natasha's wrists in her own.

Natasha becomes still, watching Toni's slim, leather gloved fingers wrap around her wrists like bracelets made of butterfly kisses.

"I can show you how?" Toni asks.

Natasha nodds.

Toni moves Natasha's arms up and down, and moves Natasha's legs with her knees.

Natasha breathes, because her lungs are caught in the depths of Toni's eyes, like a thousand degree Kelvin forge aimed right at Natasha's heart.

Toni looks at her.

Natasha looks back.

Ever so slowly, slow enough that Natasha can see it and escape if she wants (but she doesn't want to, she never wants to escape the cage Toni has built around her, because it's not a cage, it's a ribcage, that keeps her heart beating and her lungs full and—)

Toni is on top of her, head hanging just above her.

Natasha wets her lips with her tongue, and surges up.

Toni meets her half-way, because she always meets Natasha at whatever lengths she wishes to go, and yields at the lengths she doesn't want to, and never expects Natasha to be whole and unbroken and something she's not—

The world does not stop.

Fireworks do not explode.

There is no extravagant symphony in the background that reaches a crescendo.

They kiss and pant.

They break apart.

And Natasha feels— she feels good.

There is a warmth burgeoning in her chest, and her lips are still sticky with Toni's chapstick.

And everything feels right.

There is no frenzy, no hurt or pain or mind games.

Just Natasha's scabby, chapped lips, and the flush on Toni's face.

They kiss, again and again and again.

Natasha sinks her fingers in Toni's gorgeous hair, and Toni peppers Natasha's jaw and throat with love bites that sting and send heat racing through her entire body.

She'd be terrified— but JARVIS explained arousal to her, so she knows its symptoms and its cures.

Natasha unzips her jacket, and Toni pulls her gloves off with her teeth—

(Natasha is certain she could make a video of Toni, teeth on leather, over and over again until Natasha came without even touching herself—)

Toni threads her fingers underneath Natasha's jacket, underneath her sweater and shirt, until they trace searing lines across Natasha's skin.

Natasha lets out a moan and arches  into Toni's body.

Toni holds her close, digs in her fingers, and Natasha gasps and trembles— until Darcy throws a snowball at Coulson and it lands just feet from them.

They spring apart, as Darcy hurries over.

"Sorry about that!" Darcy giggles, picking up the snow ball, and throwing it at Jane instead.

Darcy moves away, but the moment is broken.

Natasha and Toni shift away from each other, and neither wants to meet each other's eyes.

A long minute passes where neither of them look at each other.

Natasha's phone buzzes.

Do you want some hot chocolate with sprinkles and marshmellows? Toni texts.

Is this one of those things like "netflix and chill" when you actually mean you want to have sex, or are you just offering me a beverage? Natasha types back.

Toni laughs out loud.

Whatever you want , she texts back.

Natasha thinks about drinking hot chocolate with sprinkles and having sex with Toni, and then she can't unthink the idea—

Natasha sneaks her hand across the snow, and somehow it ends in Toni's hand.

--

The  others are drinking hot chocolate in the kitchen. Toni and Natasha's hot chocolate mugs are laying abandoned on one of the work benches in Toni's lab while they make out on Toni's couch.

Natasha has never wanted sex before— she did what she was told and ignored the pain.

But she wants Toni, now.

She wants Toni like trees want sunlight and lungs want oxygen and the way assassins want a smooth action rifle that glides the bullet out of the barrel—

Toni touches her like a car, with tenderness and precision, touches her like she's valuable and useful and gorgeous, kisses her like she's a work of art, like she's the most beautiful thing Toni's ever seen—

Natasha feels heat coil in her spine, aching and shaking with pleasure—

Her sight whites out for a few seconds.

When she comes back to herself, she is sticky and sweaty— but suffused with an immense sense of satisfaction.

So that's what an orgasm feels like , Natasha thinks.

Toni giggles and kisses her on the forehead. "You should see the look on your face, it's so great," she teases.

Natasha grimaces and tries to wipe the sweat off the back of her neck.

Then she belatedly remembers her manners— reciprocity, like she was taught by Gaby.

"Do you want one of those things too?" Natasha asks.

Fortunately, Toni is pretty fluent in Natasha-speak by now, and understands what she is trying to say.

"Tasha, darling, I've already orgasmed like twice since we got started," Toni says with a laugh.

Natasha blinks at her.

"You can have more than one?" she asks.

"Oh my god, get over here," Toni demands.

They don't talk much after that.

 

Chapter Text

Natasha's next therapy session with Klein is kind of awkward. They sit down on the floor like usually, Natasha wraps herself in her Dora blanket, and then Klein turns on the star lamp.

Natasha stares at Klein and doesn't say anything for a few minutes, even though Natasha usually likes to talk to Klein.

Klein's face quirks with amusement, not seeing Natasha so tongue-tied in therapy for quite some time, not since they had begun to meet.

"I had sex," Natasha finally says.

Klein breaks out into a smile and claps their hands.

"Congratulations! Was it good?" they ask.

Natasha is not sure how to answer that question.

Does she want to say that it feels like Toni lights a flare in her stomach with every glance and breath?

Does she want to say that she's terrible, because everything is fragile and precious and it feels like being scrubbed raw with sandpaper?

Does she want to say that she thought she was asexual until now, hated sex until this point, this point where Toni burned her inside out?

Does she want to say she's terrified, because this is so good and pure, and these kind of things don't happen to people like her?

Does she want to say that she's awake now, alive— human for the first time in her life?

Natasha says none of this.

Instead, she says, "Aren't you supposed to tell me this is a really bad idea and I shouldn't be involved with someone else?"

"To the contrary," Klein says. "This is quite good for your development. Loving someone else can help us understand that we in turn deserve love."

"But what if the other person isn't sure that they deserve love either?" Natasha asks.

Klein blinks and looks taken aback by the question.

"You slept with Toni?" Klein asks in surprise.

"...Yes," Natasha admits, "But how did you know that?"

"The process of elimination," Klein answers distractedly. They get up from the floor and tap their pen on the table. "I must say, I'm—"

"Disappointed?" Natasha fills in, feeling the sink of it herself. She didn't think that it'd matter what Klein thinks about her interpersonal relationships— but the ache of her heart tells another story.

"No," Klein says, to Natasha's relief. "I'm only surprised. Impressed, actually."

"Impressed?" Natasha repeats.

"Impressed," Klein confirms. "Dr. Stark is known for being quite particular about her love life."

Natasha rolls her eyes. Everyone thinks Toni's love life is really complicated, but it's really not.

"She sleeps with men to get things done, and sleeps with women because she wants to, that's all," Natasha replies.

"Just like you," Klein murmurs.

They look off into the distance for a bit, staring at the stars as they make patterns across the walls.

"Tell me about Toni Stark. The Toni Stark you know," Klein says.

So Natasha does.

She tells Klein about the time she and Toni strapped a pie-slinging machine onto Butterfingers so that they could get back at Clint for being an ass, but then Steve stepped in at the wrong moment and got a face full of pie.

She tells Klein about the time that Toni had nightmares for a week straight, because she was forced to go to a meeting with a four-star general who had face-fucked her until she couldn't breathe and then choked her until she passed out. Toni was too proud to tell Pepper to call off the meeting, so Natasha "accidentally" leaked some compromising photos of the general, who had been forced to resign.

She tells Klein that Toni is one person to the world and another person entirely to the people that love her. The real Toni Stark is generous to a fault, will stay out in the middle of a blizzard to help a random stranger fix his dying Saturn, and then pay for a brand new car to arrive at the mechanics for him— Toni's kind, far kinder than Natasha will ever be, even though the world has been so cruel to her.

Toni loves robots just as much as Natasha does, and she loves life, the potential and the possibilities of it, in a way that Natasha could never match but fervently admires.

And when she tell Klein all of these things, Klein just smiles their most brilliant smile.

"It seems that I do not know Toni Stark at all," Klein admits. "But I am so very glad that you've gotten to know her. I'm quite proud of you."

Natasha doesn't say anything to that, because Klein just said they were proud of Natasha and smiled, which will be the only thing that Natasha will think about this week.

Because Klein approved of Toni and her.

It takes so little to please Natasha these days, and yet every pleasure suffuses her skin and marrows into her bones, sinking into her veins.

Some times she still had to pinch herself to make sure that this is not all a dream.

--

Toni and Natasha give up being discreet in the Tower.

There's no point— once Thor had caught them kissing in the kitchen, the rest of the Avengers knew by the next morning. There were some eyebrows raised, some congratulations, and Bruce sitting Steve down and explaining what homosexuality was and how in some places they could get married.

Steve surprisingly took this well, and Toni and Natasha resolve that they'd save themselves significant embarrassment and not get caught again.

This resolution lasts the entirely of a day.

Eventually they give up.

It's hard enough sneaking around in public without having to do it private as well.

So when Rhodey comes to visit Toni on leave, he barges into Toni's bedroom with a teddy bear and some iced macchiacato— only to see the head that pops up is not Toni's.

And has a gun in one hand.

Natasha blinks sleepily at Rhodey, and decides that he's not a threat.

She puts the safety back on her SI Arachnid pistol, tucks it back under her pillow.

Then she kicks Toni's leg.

"Tonyechka, wake up," she says. "Rhodey's here."

"Not s'pose t' be here til the tenth," Toni mutters into her pillow.

"It is the tenth," Natasha tells her.

Toni shoots up, hair stuck in her mouth and mascara smeared.

"Oh my god, hi Rhodey!" Toni says in that breathless way that always means she's hiding something.

Natasha rolls her eyes and slips out of bed, ignoring Rhodey's choked gasp. She fishes her bra out from under the bed and looks for gun holster.

"Um, Rhodey, this is Natasha, my girlfriend. Natasha, this is Rhodey."

Natasha flaps her hand in Rhodey's general direction as a hello. She finds her holster hanging from a lamp, and she's definitely not going to think about why.

Natasha pulls on her jeans, straps in her holster and pairs it with another pistol Toni made her.

She steals Toni's jacket and shrugs it on.

"Are you leaving me?" Toni whines when she realizes what Natasha is doing. "Alone, with Rhodey and his pointed questions?"

Rhodey glares at Toni.

"Yup," Natasha says. She gives them both a nod, and walks out in a manner that would be considered running away in a lesser woman.

Natasha hops in the elevator and feels the doors close on her like a warm embrace.

"Shall I start the car for you?" JARVIS asks.

Toni outfitted one of her cars with a JARVIS interface— so he can drive her anywhere she'd like to go, no questions asked.

"Yes, please," Natasha whispers.

"Please don't worry, Miss Natasha. We will win over Rhodey," JARVIS says.

Natasha stares up at the ceiling, up to one of her best friends she's ever had.

"JARVIS, I'm Darth Vader," Natasha murmurs. "No one wants Darth Vader to be dating the princess."

"Obadiah Stane is a Darth Vader. Justin Hammer is a Darth Vader. You are not a Darth Vader," JARVIS replies sternly. "Did Leia give up when all hope seemed lost?"

Natasha thinks about this. "Why am I Princess Leia in this metaphor? Shouldn't I be Han Solo?"

"I'm afraid that sarcastic, sexual, ticking time bomb can only truly describe one particular individual," JARVIS quips.

Natasha snorts. JARVIS has a point.

"I see what you mean," she says.

--
Natasha goes and takes a nap at her apartment, where the ballerinas on the walls always keep her safe, no matter what dogs her footsteps.

She cleans and tidies her apartment, oils and reassembles some rifles, and then makes her way over to Gaby's apartment.

Whenever she needs reassurance, she finds herself over at Gaby's apartment. The noise of Clara running around, Illya doing dishes and Gaby chatting up a storm puts her at ease, loosening the vertebrae of her spine.

Plus, Gaby is a good role model of healthy interpersonal relationships— Natasha could write a textbook on the way she and Illya interact, so gentle and so loving, with each other.

Natasha sits on Gaby's couch and teaches Clara Russian hand clapping games while Gaby and Napoleon work on a unraveling a radio code at the table. Illya is sprawled across a chair, ostensibly reading— but he's playing with his watch, so Natasha knows that he is mulling something over.

"You seem worried about something, Natashenka," Illya murmurs over his book.

Natasha looks over at him, hands slowing.

"Do you remember when you explained the Rzhevsky joke to me?" she asks.

"Ah," Illya says, "Honesty in love will get you slapped, but at least it is an honest slap?"

Natasha nods.

"How do you know... how do you..."

Natasha can't get the words out— they are stuck like blood on grout and cigarette smoke in tar-flecked lungs.

Illya puts his book down.

"Let me ask you this— would you kill someone to save her?" Illya says.

"Of course," Natasha blurts out.

Natasha knows she would do far worse things than killing to protect Toni.

"Then fight for your love, Natashenka," Illya tells her. "If she is worth that much to you, fight to make things work."

Natasha swallows hard.

"I waited ten years to be with mine," Illya whispered. "Do not give up when your own love is right in front of you."

Tears burn in Natasha eyes, and she looks down.

Illya closes his book and comes to sit on the couch with Natasha. He picks up Clara and holds her in his arm.

With the other, he pulls Natasha's head down on his shoulder.

"Rest," he instructs her. "Don't think about it any more."

Natasha closes her eyes, and lets her mind go blissfully blank. She does not think about Rhodey, or Pepper, or paparazzi, or how much she would like to steal Toni and run away from other people's reactions and feelings.

She thinks about the smell of cinnamon cookies in the oven, and Clara snoring on Illya's lap.

 

 

Chapter Text

The talk with Rhodey is just about as bad as Toni thought it would be. Rhodey gives her the silent treatment all the way to the restaurant, a chic upscale French bistro that doesn't deserve Rhodey's bad attitude.

Toni is polishing off her macaroons when Rhodey finally gathers his words.

"Do you know— do you have any idea who it is you're sleeping with?" Rhodey spits out.

"Yup," Toni says, and continues eating macaroons.

Rhodey groans and pinches the bridge of his nose against an oncoming headache.

"The Black Widow. THE Black Widow," Rhodey repeats. "The things she's done, Toni— she has the highest kill rate of all SHIELD agents, she's a ruthless murder machine—"

"My kill count with Stark Industries weapons is millions— and that doesn't include my Iron Woman kills," Toni snaps back.

Rhodey grits his teeth. "You haven't seen the footage— she's a monster."

Toni whips off her sunglasses, and leans into Rhodey's face. There's a newly healing cut across her dark-circled face, and she knows she looks ferocious.

Toni bares her teeth at him. "So am I," she spits. "The difference between me and her is that underneath her monster is a kind, beautiful and gentle person. There is no such thing beneath mine."

Rhodey opens his mouth, then closes it.

He mulls it over.

"Convince me, Toni," he says at last. "Convince me that this isn't another Tiberious."

"I thought you'd never ask," Toni says, and pulls out her phone.

She props it up against the salt shaker and angles it towards Rhodey.

She plays the video.

It's from the body cam on Natasha's suit. Toni's outfitted them all with body cams, not just because of accountability, but because Steve uses the footage to improve their response time and their team strategy.

The camera shows the entire team in the back of the black van, winding down from a caper with Doombots. Several of them are covered in blood, Toni's suit creaks whenever they drive over a pothole, and Clint is clutching his arm to his chest. The camera turns away— Natasha is staring out the window at the pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Suddenly, she bangs on the wall on of the van.

"Stop!" she yells. "Stop the van! Clint, Banner, with me."

She launches out of the van, Clint and Bruce in tow. There's a little boy outside a laundromat, his caretaker having just gone in— the boy was standing there, with his arms crossed over his chest.

"That's— that's that kid from the news," Rhodey says in astonishment.

"The kid that was trafficked by a sex predator across three states? Yeah, it is," Toni says smugly, leaning back in her chair.

"Every SVU taskforce in the country wants her to work for them, even FBI and CIA,"  Toni explained to him. "She can ferret out child molesters and abusers just by looking at their faces."

Toni swipes to the next video.


It's DJ's face cam.

Natasha's face is very close to the camera, so close that one can see the pores of her skin and that her mascara smeared a little on her right eye.

"Hold still, baby, hold still," Natasha whispers. "Don't move."

DJ gives a mournful series of chirps, as Natasha works with a careful tenderness not often seen. DJ had run over a cashmere blanket upstairs and accidentally shredded it, causing the tiny bits of fuzz and string to get caught up in his wheels and stop his ability to move.

He had been cheeping for close to an hour when Natasha came home, immediately realized what was wrong and chewed out the others for ignoring him.

"We don't speak robot like you do!" Clint had yelled back.

Natasha threw a cereal bowl at his head, which he barely managed to dodge, and the others cleared out to avoid her wrath for a few hours.

With a pair of scissors and her deft fingers, she worked out every little piece of string.

When Toni had come back from her science conference at one in the morning, Natasha was asleep in the lab, on the hard concrete floor next to DJ,  scissors still in hand.


Toni ends the video. Rhodey slides the phone back to her, and stares at her for a few minutes. Toni isn't sure what he's looking for, but she remains still and serious. It's been a long time since Toni has wanted something this badly, for Rhodey to approve of her life choices for just this one time...

She bites her lip, and fidgets with her perfectly manicured fingers.

Rhodey finally relents.

"Pepper and I will be talking with her, do you understand?" he asks Toni.

Toni breaks out into the biggest smile. "Sure teddy bear, whatever you gotta do," she answers back.

--
Pepper and Rhodey's interrogation is supposed to be a surprise, but JARVIS thought it prudent to secretly prepare Natasha for it, as Natasha's gut reaction to being surprised was to stab something. JARVIS understood that this would put quite a damper on Pepper and Rhodey's approval of Natasha, so he decides to explain everything beforehand.

JARVIS sets forth the idea of a 'shovel talk' as if it was a mission that Natasha had to undertake, as this is the best format to ensure that Natasha understands what is going on.

He explains to her that sometimes friends of the prospective mate take the suitor out to a meal to get to know the suitor.

In Natasha's case, both Rhodey and Pepper are dangerous and fiercely loyal to Toni, so it will be likely that they might make some threats to make Natasha afraid of breaking Toni's heart.

Since Natasha would of course never do such a thing (and here JARVIS' voice took an ominous tone, implicating the consequences if Natasha ever did do such a thing), then these threats are not to met with additional threats, but reassurances that Natasha will do her best to take care of Toni.

Natasha thinks about this for a long time. How can she prove that she is a good potential mate for Toni?

She goes and asks Thor, because if there's one person in the Tower that can prove he's worthy, it's Thor.

"You wish to prove yourself worthy to court Lady Stark?" Thor asks.

Natasha nods.

They're in the gym portion of the Tower's extensive facilities, but Thor never minds being interrupted while training, and has always enjoyed sparring with Natasha. Natasha doesn't necessarily enjoy it, because he is huge and a little bit terrifying. Logically, she knows he would never hurt her, but she has trouble convincing her instincts this fact.

Thor sits down crosslegged on the mats, so that he does not tower over her, and Natasha slinks to the floor next to him.

"How did you prove yourself worthy to court Jane?" Natasha asks.

"Ah, that is where you are mistaken, Lady Natasha," Thor explains. "As I have discovered upon regaining my hammer— being worthy is not an end state. It is a choice one chooses every day."

"You choose to be worthy?" Natasha repeats, confused.

Thor nods. "Yes, of course. I choose every day to love Lady Jane with all that I have," he tells her.

He leans in until his nose is almost touching her forehead.

"Love is not about gifts or feats of bravery, although we sometimes do these for those that we love," he continued. "Love is being there for your beloved, supporting them through difficult times, and cherishing them, not about what you can and cannot give them."

"That's what makes you worthy?" Natasha asks.

"Yes," Thor says. "It indeed is."

Natasha rises and pats Thor on the shoulder.

"Thank you for the advice, Thor," she says.

"Of course, Lady Natasha. Best wishes in your endeavors of love," he tells her as she leaves.

--
Natasha and Toni are playing Mario Kart when Pepper and Rhodey show up to take Natasha out to lunch.

They've found a version of Mario Kart that they both enjoy— one where Toni drives and Natasha rains down terror on their enemies in the form of bananas and blue shells. Also sometimes Natasha gets to punch another driver off the track.

She takes visceral pleasure in the act.

"Miss Romanova? Miss Stark?" JARVIS interrupts. "Miss Potts and Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes are here to see Miss Romanova."

Toni, who has been completely unaware about the upcoming shovel talk, sputters before proceeding to chew both Pepper and Rhodey out.

Natasha rolls her eyes, and grabs her purse. She kisses Toni goodbye and joins Pepper and Rhodey in the elevator.

After a silent moment where Pepper and Rhodey exchange glances behind her, Pepper then says, "What restaurant would you like to go to?"

Natasha mulls over the tactical advantages of the nearby restaurants she's researched and peeks at Pepper and Rhodey's clothes in the mirrored ceiling. Pepper's wearing a blouse with jeans and heels, while Rhodey is wearing a polo and slacks.

A nice restaurant, Natasha concludes, but not a place fancy enough that either would be recognized.

"Do you both like Korean? There's a good Korean restaurant not too far from here," she suggests.

"That sounds fine," Pepper says at the same as Rhodey says, "Sure."

Natasha takes a deep breath and reminds herself: charming, but genuine.

Whatever genuine means.

Despite Natasha’s initial doubts, Pepper and Rhodey actually ask intelligent questions.

Of course they ask about Natasha's hobbies and career goals, but they also ask the real questions: what would Natasha do if Toni was caught in a hostage situation? If they had a fight or disagreement, how would Natasha try to solve it?

Natasha answers to the best of her ability, leaving out "stabbing things" as a hobby because Gaby said that might not give them a good impression.

Pepper then continues the interrogation. Toni lives a very public life, she says, and it's very possible that their relationship could be exposed, either by the media or Toni herself. How would Natasha handle this?

Natasha fidgets with her kimbap for a few seconds.

"I'm still working on that," she admits. "I, um, don't do well with cameras, but Klein is helping me with my reactions. I'm transitioning away from persona-required ops so that I can be an Avenger and spend more time with Toni."

"Who's Klein?" Pepper asks.

"My therapist," Natasha answers.

Gaby has told her that sometimes people had a negative reaction to frank discussion of mental health and therapists, but this was silly because these things were as necessary as doctors and medicine.

But when Pepper and Rhodey glances, they look impressed and pleased.

"I don't suppose you could convince Toni to get a therapist too?" Rhodey asks.

Natasha laughs and shakes her head. Pepper smiles.

Rhodey laughs, too. "Well, it was worth a shot," he says.

Natasha decides that she likes Pepper and Rhodey, and that they can join the Protect-Toni-Stark-Squad with her.

Natasha smiles, and eats some more kimbap.

 

 

Chapter Text

Of course, just because Toni and Natasha are deliriously happy doesn't mean the rest of the world stops trying to shit on their parade.

In July,  SHIELD becomes HYDRA.

And Natasha breaks.

Natasha was having a therapy session when the world crumbled beneath her feet.

She escorts Klein and the rest of the psychology staff out of the Triskelion. Two of them were HYDRA— but someone's already shot them dead.

Natasha ignores Klein's concerns and goes back in.

Natasha becomes less than human, undoes all the hard work of recognizing herself as a human being, just so she doesn't have to feel anything right now.

She shoots at anything that shoots back.

She frees people from rubble, from hostage situations, from their floors collapsing under them.

Steve makes a speech about truth and HYDRA and helicarriers, but Natasha doesn't care. She's walked past fifteen comrades dead that she liked, and she's killed a dozen more.

She strangles Brock Rumlow with her thighs as he tries to escape. She sees Agent Hill and Agent Carter briefly, coordinating the helicarriers with Steve.

Natasha goes further into the belly of the beast, even as the Triskelion is becoming structurally unsound.

Every time she comes out, someone hands her more scavenged weapons and ammo packs.

She hands them bodies, and some times live people.

Others, hardened agents like herself, began to assist with the rescues. It would be some time before the rescue crews would be coming, precious time that they did not have.

On her fifth or sixth trip out, one of the computer technicians she saved stops her, grabbing her by the arm.

"Let go," she orders.

"I have Miss Stark on the line— she's been trying to get a hold of you," he sputters out.

Natasha belatedly remembers that her Starkphone is still up in the psychology ward, and her comm unit had been trampled by some HYDRA thugs. She motions to the technician, who passes his phone over.

"Hi sweetheart," Toni says. "Have you bypassed numb disbelief into all-consuming rage yet?"

"No, not yet," Natasha responds.

"Well, I have, and I just blew up a whole bunch of HYDRA agents in New York," Toni tells her. "Coulson's on the Bus, they're having trouble, but Clint's on his way. We still need to clear the Fridge and the Hub, at the very least. Also, where's Steve?"

"Swimming in the Potomac," Natasha answers automatically.

"Let me guess, he did something stupidly heroic without consulting anyone else, because we wouldn't understand what he's going through, also robots are not the answer?" Toni snarks.

"Wow, it's like the two of you had countless fights over this," Natasha deadpans.

Toni gives a breathless laugh, and then there's a long pause.

Natasha holds her breath.

"Come back to me," Toni croaks. "Come back to me alive, goddamnit, because I have a ring with your name on it, and I—"

The phone line crackles with static.

"Toni?" Natasha asks. "Toni?"

There's more static, and then Toni's voice comes back. "Sorry, I'm here, the satellites are having trouble with the load—"

"Toni, I really need you right now," Natasha whispers, and tries not to cry in front of SHIELD's entire technology division.

"I know baby, I know," Toni chokes. "I—"

The line goes dead.

"Sorry, sorry!" the technician says. "All of the satellites have just gone down."

Natasha wipes the tears off her face, and goes to relay the attack plan to whatever is left of SHIELD.

--

Natasha hasn't even finished the clean-up with SHIELD when the next disaster happens.

Sokovia.

They're standing thousands of feet in the air on a floating chunk of rock that used to be a city.

They just defeated Ultron, but it's a hollow victory.

They've lost JARVIS.

They've lost the quicksilver boy.

Bruce is gone.

Steve is furious at Toni, for something that wasn't her fault.

And if Natasha ever sees the Scarlet Witch again, she's going to yank her eyeballs out of her skull and feed them to her.

Toni is sobbing into her knees, surrounded by corpses and rubble.

Natasha slowly walks over, limping. She thinks maybe this time they will have to put in a biomechanical ankle. She thinks maybe she's getting too brittle, too jaded to do this any more.

But Toni looks and feels even worse than Natasha ever could.

People forget that underneath the suit is Toni, a fragile woman who cares too much and works too hard, and blames herself for the world's problems.

Toni looks up at Natasha and wipes her eyes.

"You shouldn't've punched Steve," Toni reprimands. "We still have to work together."

"At this rate, not for very much longer," Natasha mutters.

Toni shudders and buries her head again.

"Stop it," Natasha says, as she kneels down and embraces Toni. "It's not your fault."

"We're falling apart," Toni croaks. "That is totally my fault."

"You're Toni Stark," Natasha demands. "When something breaks, you build it back stronger than it was before. Take out the shrapnel and lead— rebuild with new parts."

Toni stares up at Natasha. "You want me to do Project Legacy?" she asks.

Natasha nods.

Toni thinks about this, longer than they probably have on a floating city about to come crashing down.

She staggers up, and walks over to the remains of the church where they at last defeated Ultron.

Her foot rests on the cracked church bell.

"Fuck this," she says.

Wild-eyed, almost manic and high on life, she turns to Natasha.

"Let's have it all, our cake and our work and the world. Let's have it all," she declares. "A new Avengers team, a family and saving the world."

Toni twirls in place and laughs.

It's a little hysteric.

Toni gets to her knees. "Natasha Alianova Romanova, will you say fuck it to everything and marry me?"

Natasha rolls her eyes. "Propose to me somewhere that's not on a flying city, and I will," she says.

Toni does a dizzy fist pump. "Yes!"

"Not anywhere public!" Natasha yells as Toni takes off for the SHIELD rescue ships.

"JARVIS, can you buy a ring for me?" Natasha asks.

She's met with silence.

Tears start leaking out of her eyes, and once they start, she can't stop.

So she doesn't try.

She puts on her sunglasses and lets the tears streak down her cheeks.

--

The next few months are some of the hardest of Natasha's life, even worse than when Coulson almost died.

Steve and Toni fight with each other every other day— Clint retires from the team to marry Laura and start a family. Natasha says congratulations and sends them a bunch of nice dishes she found in a thrift store.

Inside, however, she's envious and irritated.

She and Toni want the same thing, but they can't have it because the world is going to shit and Toni feels responsible for that.

So she takes a deep breath and works harder than she ever has before.

She and FRIDAY gather intel on prospective Legacy candidates— a kid with spider powers, a girl who is a polymorph and another girl who reverse engineered an Iron Woman suit from her dorm room at MIT.

Toni was delighted by this, Natasha less so.

Natasha hates FRIDAY so much she can almost taste it, but she can't say anything because it'll hurt Toni's feelings, and Toni is already incredibly devastated.

On top of this, Toni is trying to plan a wedding (Natasha thinks they should just elope to a secret bunker and set fire to the world) and work on something she won't tell Natasha about, some accords of behavior or something.

Natasha knows that Toni will tell her when she's ready to, and not a moment before.

In the meanwhile, she continues developing Project Legacy under the nose of Steve, does work as an Avenger, pretends to have opinions on white napkins versus gold napkins, and drives herself crazy with work.

Klein and Gaby start looking concerned about Natasha, but she shrugs off their suggestions.

She can't break that much more anyway, not when she's already so broken inside.

 

Chapter Text

Eventually, they are both so overworked that Pepper has to intervene. She cancels all of their meetings for a week and flies them out to some remote cabin on the other side of the country. Natasha's not even sure which state the cabin's supposed to be in.

On the plane, Toni is sound asleep, exhausted from overwork.

Natasha hates planes, so she's awake. She's already divested Toni of all electronics so that they can have some peace and quiet.

Natasha fiddles with the ring in her pocket. She hopes Toni brought hers, because Natasha is going to chicken out unless Toni goes first.

She twirls the ring in her pocket and tries to think about what all has transpired over the last few months.

Steve has left the Avengers to Toni, and has gone AWOL. If she really wanted to, she could probably track him. SHIELD wants her track him; she's declined them several times already. Natasha is still mad at him for the events at the Triskelion. If he wants to go traipsing through HYDRA infested countries for a ghost that doesn't exist, that's his fault, not Natasha's.

In the meanwhile, Natasha has jumped ship from SHIELD to the Avengers Institute. She sometimes consults on missions for SHIELD, but for the most part, they leave her alone. She helps Toni build a new Avengers team, and trains their new recruits at the upstate New York building.

Natasha's managed to avoid testifying in front of Congress for the whole SHIELD-is-HYDRA debacle only by the grace of Toni and her team of vicious, well-paid lawyers. Toni grabbed most of what Steve leaked onto the internet, so nobody but her and Toni and SHIELD know about the things Natasha has done.

Toni had read through it, and is still willing to marry Natasha.

If that wasn't love, Natasha didn't know what love was.

She pets Toni's hair and waits for the plane to land, shoving away thoughts of HYDRA and old Soviet ghosts she knows are long dead.


--

They finally reach the cabin, and Toni drops her bags on the floor with a shriek of joy. The cabin is not a cabin it's a luxury get-away house that's paneled in wood and has million dollar views, made to resemble what a rich person thinks a cabin is supposed to be. Still, Natasha doesn't mind so much. She's roughed it enough in the ass-end of so many countries that she appreciates amenities when they are presented to her.

"I totally forgot I bought this place!" Toni exclaims. "Lemme show you the great room"

Toni goes to flick on the lights, and nothing happens.

She flicks the switch a couple more times.

Natasha goes to grab her gun, but Toni waves her away.

"I just remembered why I never use this one the wiring is all jenk," Toni says with a laugh. "The breaker must've tripped again. I bought it 'cuz I was gonna rewire the whole damn thing."

That does sound like Toni, but Natasha gives the cabin a through sweep anyway. Toni goes down to the basement to fiddle with the electronics, so Natasha carries their bags upstairs. She lays out a change of clothes on the bed, and goes in search of the bathroom.

The bathroom is disgustingly picturesque. It has huge frosted windows that let in all of the evening light and cedar paneling on all the walls. The floor is all mosaic tiles, and the bathtub.

The bathtub.

The bathtub is a huge clawfoot tub big enough even for Natasha's lanky legs.

Natasha strips, throwing her clothes on the floor, and puts a gun and the ring box within reach.

She doesn't want to let the ring out of her sight, even for a second. Knowing her and Toni's luck, it's entirely possible for something hilarious and catastrophic to happen to it before Natasha gets a chance to propose.

As for the gun?

Natasha never bathes or showers without at least one weapon within reach.

Despite the gun on the floor, or maybe because of it, Natasha sinks into the scalding out water and soaks out all of her stress and irritation with a world that just won't bend to her and Toni's wills.

She closes her eyes and lets the water wash over her.

Natasha must have fallen asleep, because when she awakes next, she hears Toni squealing, "Oh my god, is this for me?"

Natasha peels one eye open.

Toni has come in and opened the ring box.

Crap.

Natasha slaps her hand over her face and gets a mouthful of bubbles.

"Sorry, sorry! I couldn't help it!" Toni says with a laugh. "I can go back to the bedroom and pretend to be surprised?"

Natasha wipes the bubbles from her face and glares at Toni.

Toni just giggles.

She looks so delighted and so happy that it's difficult for Natasha to stay mad at her.

"No, no, put it on," Natasha demands, "And come over here so I can see if it fits."

Toni slides the ring onto her finger with the biggest smile on her face, and brings it into the light, where they can both see it.

It's a gold band with what looks like a topaz yellow diamond in center. It's actually laser thin pieces of titanium gold alloy stacked on top of each other.

"That kid from Tennessee, do you remember him?" Natasha asks.

"Who, Harley?" Toni asks.

"Yes," Natasha says. "You gave him a basic copy of JARVIS on his computer, and it wasn't connected to the internet when Ultron happened."

Toni looks at Natasha with wide, confused eyes.

"So each layer of the gem stone is actually micro-engraved with JARVIS' code," Natasha explains. "So you can't ever lose him again."

Toni cries and hugs Natasha, even though Natasha is wet and covered in suds.

"Oh my god, this is so much better than the ring I made for you, and I packed a suit into yours!" Toni sobs.

"You did what?" Natasha chokes out. "Oh my god, Toni!"

Toni wipes her eyes and runs off to get the ring she made Natasha. She comes skidding back into the bathroom, nearly trips on puddle of water and shoves the ring box in Natasha's face.

Natasha puts the ring Toni made on her finger.

It's made of some type of alloy that looks like white gold, with sharp half-moons encircling the diamond.

Toni presses Natasha's thumb to bottom band of the ring, and it springs to life.

From the ring on her finger launches an Iron Woman style suit.

Natasha steps out of the bathtub in awe as it coats her body in plates of Toni's alloy, painted in dark grey and black, with red edging. The suit is a slimmed down version of Toni's, built for stealth and quick, brutal fighting, the style that Natasha fights best in. It's almost silent as it sheathes her in a protective coating, a little like having a JARVIS around her entire body.

Natasha flexes her fist, and the suit goes back into the ring.

"I don't know what to say," Natasha says, because she's not going to cry, because both of them crying is just way too much, even as her eyes sting.

Toni holds her, and kisses her, and then Natasha doesn't have to say anything, because she loves Toni so, so much.

And Toni loves her back just as much.

 

 

Chapter Text

Toni steps back from the Avengers, like she always meant to, and focuses on her other pet project: the Accords. She has the Accords introduced by her favorite in-pocket representatives, and the bill picks up traction faster than she could have ever hoped for. Soon, the Accords pass House and Senate, and become law— and her relationship with Steve deteriorates until they are not speaking to each other. Steve refuses to tell Toni why he doesn't want the Accords to be passed, other than "I've seen things like this before". Toni is not going to stop world-changing legislation just because one supersoldier can't get his head out of his ass and use his words.

But Toni believes in second chances— her entire life is built on second chances— which is why she's standing in a super secret Soviet bunker in the middle of Siberia, trying to reason with Steve and the man called Bucky.

And then the screen comes on.

And the video of the car crash plays.

Only it's not a car crash— it's a murder.

Toni doesn't care that her parents were killed. They had it coming for them. But Edwin Jarvis drove the car that night, and Toni has to watch as the Winter Soldier slams Jarvis' head into the side of the car, and twists his neck.

And leaves him dead on the ground like a broken toy.

Steve knew that the Winter Soldier had killed Edwin Jarvis. He knew that this killer who was masquerading as his friend had killed Jarvis.

He lied to Toni, hid the Winter Soldier from her, and all the while did his damnedest to dismantle the Accords, just so that he could resurrect a monster.

Toni lashes out.

Steve responds by breaking her arc reactor and leaving her to die in the Siberian snow drifts.

What Steve, and Bucky, and their allies don't know is that she has a wife.

And her wife is a Black Widow.

And her wife is best friends with Pepper Potts.

And Pepper is pissed because nobody hurts both Toni and Rhodey in the same week, not under her watch. Nobody dismantles the legislation she and Toni worked so hard for, and no one leaves Toni to die just because they have a hard-on for a murderer.

She grabs Natasha and brings a chopper, some Stark medics and an armada of angry lawyers.

Natasha doesn't wait for the chopper to touch down on the snow. She jumps out and runs to the bunker, ahead of the medics.

Natasha's thumbprint is what activates the manual override, allowing Toni to be released from her suit. Natasha carries a hypothermic Toni into the chopper, and helps the medics set up the IV and the special hypothermia blankets.

Toni can't talk any more, because her teeth are chattering so hard, but Natasha kisses her blue lips and Toni pretends that she can feel it.

"I'm fine, and Rhodey's fine," Natasha says, before Toni can try to ask.

Toni sinks in relief against the stretcher.

Natasha whips out her phone and shows pictures of their cabin in the woods to Toni, until the morphine's kicked in and Toni's not shuddering so much. Toni keeps muttering about re-wiring and electricity, but that's a pretty normal Toni response to trauma, so Natasha doesn't let it worry her.

But Pepper looks like she is going to beat someone within inches of their lives and drag their corpses across the steps of the capitol. Natasha is very glad that Pepper is her friend, and on their side, because otherwise she would be very afraid right now.

They take Toni back to the Tower to recuperate in a Stark med hospital bed right next to Rhodey's.

Somehow, the story of Toni fighting Captain America and being left to die in Siberia leaks out to the press, while Toni is still under.

Natasha didn't give it to them, and neither did Pepper, although she gets a thoughtful look on her face when she hears about it.

The young man who wrote it, Peter Parker, gets a Pulitzer Prize for the article. Natasha hasn't read it, but Pepper approves, so Natasha doesn't hunt Mr. Parker down. Natasha has suspicions on how Mr. Parker knew every exact detail that happened in the fight between Toni and Steve, and how he got a tape recording of the fight, but if JARVIS is pretending it wasn't him, then Natasha will too.

The article creates a huge backlash against Steve, a great deal more discussion on the Accords, which is probably what Toni was hoping for. Natasha continues to say "no comment" on every question she's asked, because it's a lot easier than explaining the flaming trashcan fire that is everyone's relationships right now.

But Toni Stark is always planning, and and she always turns her defeats into weapons against her attackers.

She courts Washington like a lover, approaches young superheros to fold them into the New Avengers, and steamrolls ahead with the Accords. All while fighting to keep Ross in line, and appeal to the American people.

On top of this, Toni designs robotic legs for Rhodey, and works with him every day to help him regain his mobility.

And Natasha waits, because she knows their time is coming soon.

Chapter Text

The morning that Toni brings down General Ross is a Saturday like any other. Natasha and Toni are curled around each other, in the Tower in New York, with a new JARVIS and a new outlook on life as a married couple. 

Toni squirms out of Natasha's grip to go to the bathroom for the third time, and Natasha does her morning email check on her Starkpad.

She's training with Kamala and Kate at 10am, has a visit to Hell's Kitchen to convince Daredevil to join the Avengers at least part time, and then has four meetings back to back about the Accords. SHIELD, prompted by Steve, has refused to adhere to the Accords, and several countries have issue with General Ross, who is a part of the Accords Committee.

Toni and Natasha needed Ross so that the rest of the American public would be on board with the Accords, but he's vastly outlived his usefulness. His hunt for Bruce is turning SHIELD even further against the Avengers, and his brash, racist and sexist bad-mouthing is casting the entire Accords in a negative light.

Toni wobbles back to bed, so Natasha gets her another cup of coffee. Toni rubs her back and curses in Russian under her breath, a bad habit she picked up from Natasha.

They kiss, and Natasha leaves to begin another long day.

Little does she know how much will change in the next twenty-four hours.

--

Toni does some inventing in the lab, eats the food Natasha made up ahead of time, and then crawls on to the black couch in the lab to take a well-deserved nap. She's rudely awaken twenty minutes later by her phone ringing.

Her phone almost never rings, because almost all the things that anyone calls her about can be taken care of by JARVIS or Pepper.

If it does ring, it means something serious, world-ending.

"J?" Toni croaks, and turns towards the obnoxious ringing of her phone.

"I suggest you pick up that call," JARVIS says. "I'm afraid it's concerns Ross and the Accords."

So Toni does.

"Hello?"

"Miss Stark, I am terribly sorry to interrupt your day."

It's T'Challa, who hates her guts because her father stole vibranium from his country, and was forced to work with her on the Accords.

Although, he actually sounds contrite for once...

"Miss Stark?"

"Sorry, I'm here," Toni answers. "Zoned out for a second.

"Miss Stark-- it's Ross. He's been arrested for treason and terrorism charges, late last evening," T'Challa explains. "Someone leaked the news an hour ago."

"I need to do a press conference to smooth things over, is that what you're saying?" Toni asks.

"Yes, Miss Stark."

Toni groans. She's exhausted, and she's been hiding from the press for a reason. She doesn't want to do this, but she can't tell T'Challa why without giving the whole thing away.

"I'll do it," Toni promises at last. "Give me a half an hour-- uh, maybe forty-five minutes. I need to contact my people and set things up."

"Thank you, Miss Stark," T'Challa says, and for once, he sounds sincere.

He hangs up, and Toni hangs her head.

"JARVIS? Get ready for an explosion," Toni says after a moment.

"Shall I alert Miss Natasha to the situation?" he asks.

"Yes, and order some cupcakes from Kowalski's, as an apology," Toni adds.

--

All of the reporters are lined up in the conference room, cameras out and recording devises ready.

Toni is in the wings of the conference room, unseen by the reporters, but not unheard.

"For god's sake," Toni snaps. "Get a chair and stop staring."

There is a flurry of stammered apologies and lowered eyes no matter what state Toni is in, she still commands utmost respect from her employees.

One of the drags out a chair into the center of the room, and another somehow finds a pillow with flowers on it to cushion the uncomfortable back of the chair.

Toni wants to laugh, but she doesn't want to be mean.

This whole thing seems pretty surreal, like some strange dream while napping.

But Toni knows that there will be nothing else but her on the news for the next month, at the very least.

Seven months pregnant, she steps out into the crowd of reporters, and takes a seat on the sole chair in the room.

All of the reporters fall silent, for once utterly dumbfounded at the sight of a heavily pregnant Toni Stark.

"So, let's start with the questions you actually came here to ask, and then address the elephant in the room. More like a whale, really," Toni starts off.

She points to someone in the front, a blonde intern with glasses, and a Catco press badge.

"Is it true that General Thaddeus Ross has been arrested, under charges of treason?" the young girl asks.

"It's true," Toni confirms.

There are gasps, and flurries of paper writing and picture flashing.

"These charges might be surprising to all of you, but for those of us who actually knew and worked with Ross, not really a surprise," Toni quips.

"Will the Accords be dissolved?" someone from the back asks.

"No," Toni answers, "But now that Ross is... indisposed, this gives us an opportunity to address the humanitarian and superhuman rights issues, that many of you have brought to our attention."

There are few more questions, which Toni does her best to answer.

Then a pause, and they all begin shouting questions about her pregnancy.

The din is terrifying, and Toni wades through it with her best shit-eating grin.

"Okay, who asked if this was unplanned?" Toni interrupts.

An older man in the back raises his hand, smile greedy for a scoop on promiscuous Miss Stark.

"No, it was not unplanned, it was probability. My wife and I flipped a coin, and I lost the coin toss," Toni retorts.

There's sputtering, and choking, several of the younger reporters panic because how are they supposed to fit this all in one article?

Toni grins like the menace she is, because she got to have Natasha for years, without anyone else to tarnish it.

"Surprise, bitches," she cackles, "You weren't invited to wedding."

She launches up and strides out like the queen she knows she is.

--

Natasha skips out on the Accords meetings she's supposed to have, because they're all irrelevant now, and the committee doesn't need any excuses to stare at her and ask rude questions about Toni's pregnancy and marital status.

Most of them know that she's close to Toni Stark, but none of them know or could possibly fathom that she's married to Toni and that they are awaiting their first child.

That's the nice thing about Natasha's lone wolf Black Widow persona— nobody expects Black Widow to have feelings.

Because Natasha does actually have feelings, she goes straight back to the Tower and puts security on high alert, no one in or out except Pepper and Rhodey.

She takes a quick shower to rinse herself of perfume and make-up and professionalism, and then curls up in their bed to wait for Toni to come back.

Forty-five minutes later, Toni comes home, strips out of her Armani maternity suit, throws her underwear on the floor, and curls up in the bed next to Natasha.

Natasha hugs her a little too tightly, to make sure she's there and no one's going to take her away from Natasha.

Toni takes stuttering breaths into Natasha's bare neck, cradling her belly with both hands.

"I think we should retire now," Toni croaks. "I don't want to deal with the media vultures anymore."

Natasha smiles into Toni's hair.

"Screw the Avengers and say fuck it to the world, that's where I'm at right now," Toni continues. "Let's just throw the whole flaming thing in his lap, how about?"

"I already sent the crib and furniture to the cabin," Natasha tells her.

"Oh my god, I knew there was a reason I love you," Toni says.

"Other than my back rubs?" Natasha quips, moves her hands towards Toni's arching back.

Whatever Toni was going to say melts into a puddle of blissful moans.

After a half hour, Toni drops off to finish her interrupted nap.

"JARVIS?" Natasha asks.

"I am initiating Project Let's Have a Family," he responds. "Locking down all sensitive information and hiding all Iron Woman suits. Creating false identities. Transferring Avengers Initiative to Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes, and assigning Ms. Williams as the new head of R&D."

"Thank you, J," Natasha says.

"Always," JARVIS invokes.

 

Chapter Text

Eight Years Later

 

The annual Avengers cookout takes place the last week of July, and Toni invites past and present Avengers to her cabin in the woods. Rhodey grills up an insane amount of hot dogs, and Toni gets to talk to those who have become her friends and family.

The Avengers Program has grown from Toni's tiny spark to a huge enterprise. There are three Avengers' Towers in America, and a handful more in countries around the world. Natasha's trained recruits in many of them, and they come every year to hug her and embarrass her with their effusive thanks.

Natasha knows that her training has saved their lives, but they don't need to say it out loud.

Clint comes with Laura and his kids, and his herd of unofficially adopted misfit teens with daddy problems. Rhodey brings his wife, Carol Danvers, and his grilling apron, and he and Toni shout about their MIT glory days.

Pepper brings Jeffrey Williams, the young kid Toni had made R&D head eight years ago. He's not so young anymore, with a nice suit and tall figure. He's grown out of his baby face since the last time Toni or Natasha saw him. He still stutters around Pepper and worships the ground she walks on, which Toni teases the hell out of Pepper for.

Bruce comes by every other year, when he can make it, and brings tofu burgers and vegetables for those who don't want to be buried under the meat onslaught. His quiet voice and calm temperament makes him a hit with the shy, young Avengers, who always sit around him and listen to his advice.

Thor doesn't usually come, but his wife Jane Foster does, and she always brings Darcy Lewis, who Toni snatched up for Stark Industries a long time ago. The fact that Darcy teases Pepper about Jeffrey makes her a hit in Toni's books.

Ilya and his family come, too, and they bring their kids, who love to play in the wooded yard around the cabin.

This year, Ilya brought a lawn frisbee kit. He has no idea what a frisbee is, but brought it any way because Napoleon told him too. As soon as he opens the package, he is swarmed by kids of all ages, who scramble to set up a frisbee tournament.

Two minutes in, Eva Stark gets hit in the teeth with a flying frisbee, because she has the self-preservation instincts of Toni at her best, and bursts into loud tears. Toni picks her up and smooths out her tutu and scolds her brother, Aleksandr, who threw the frisbee in the first place.

Nadine Stark, Eva's fraternal twin, has all of Eva's curiosity, but with Natasha's propensity to sneak off undetected. She goes to get the frisbee that flew over the property fence on the far north side. Mom told her not to get it, because it was in a camera blindspot (whatever that was), that it was too dangerous and Mom would get it.

But then Eva ruined everything, because Mom was too busy holding her, and Mama was busy talking to Uncle Ilya in Russian about things that went completely over Nadine's head.

So Nadine slips off to get it herself.

She ducks under the fence and climbs into the bush, trying to shake loose the frisbee from the top of the bush.

A large hand grabs the frisbee and offers it to her.

Nadine blinks.

There's two men behind the bushes.

The one with the frisbee has short, blonde hair and the bluest eyes Nadine has ever seen. The man behind him is wearing a black hoodie, and has his brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, and he's staring at her.

Nadine snatches back the frisbee and clutches it to her chest.

The man with the hoodie is still staring at her, so much so that the blonde man notices.

"What's wrong?" he asks the man in the hoodie.

"She's... she's..."

The man with the hoodie shakes himself and starts again.

"You look a lot like your mother when she was young," the man with the hoodie tells Nadine in Russian.

He holds out a thick white envelope.

"Would you give this to her?"

Nadine reaches out and grabs the envelope and scrambles away. She can put in the bonfire and then she won't get in trouble for talking with strangers when she knows she's not supposed to.

Nadine's watching the two men as she runs away, instead of looking ahead. She slams straight into Mama's legs.

Mama scoops her up and holds her tight to her chest.

Mama's arms are trembling, and Nadine's never seen that look on her face before. It's like Aleksandr's face when he got burned by the stove but didn't want anyone to know.

"I have no problem shooting both of you and burying your bodies in the woods," Natasha says. "Start talking."

The men exchange glances.

"Natashenka—" the man with the hoodie begins, right on top of the blonde's "We just want to talk with Toni for a second."

"Don't call me that," Natasha snaps at the man in the hoodie.

She takes a heaving breath, that Nadine can feel against her own smaller form. Then she turns to the blonde one.

"No, absolutely not," she tells him. "You are not talking to Toni, for any length of time."

The blonde begins to protest, but Natasha cuts him off.

"You had your chances, to explain, to make amends," she retorted. "And each one you spit on. I can forgive soldat, because he was brainwashed and forced— I understand that. But you, Steve, you made your choices. You chose to go against Toni, and you chose to beat her into a bloody pulp—"

Natasha feels a fine-boned but strong arm wrap around her shoulders. Natasha sinks into the arm, feeling her fear abate.

"I don't owe you anything, Steve," Toni Stark says. "Especially not forgiveness."

"Come on," the man with hoodie says. "Come on, Steve, this was a bad idea, let's go—"

"You have to fix him," Steve pleads. "Stark, please— Natasha, tell her—"

Natasha and Toni look at each other, and Toni starts laughing, which breaks up the tension.

She kisses Natasha on the side of the mouth, and then kisses the top of Nadine's head, where she's squirming in Natasha's arms.

Steve's eyes widen, as he realizes why Natasha never sided with him during the Civil War, why she refused to talk with him or help him search for Bucky after the bunker incident.

"I don't have to tell her anything," Natasha answers.

The man in the hoodie yanks the man called Steve away, and they fade away into the woods.

 

"JARVIS?" Toni asks.

"Lasers are prepared," JARVIS intones from her pocket.

Natasha rolls her eyes. "Really, Toni, lasers?"

Toni just grins her best shit-eating grin.

"Come on, baby, do you want some ice-cream?" Toni asks.

"Yay, ice-skweam!" Nadine yells, nearly smacking Natasha in the face.

She drops the white envelope and the frisbee in the yard, and shimmies out of Natasha's grasp. She runs back to the cabin, her mothers in tow.

 

The frisbee is eventually found and returned to Ilya.

 

But the envelope stays there.

 

It becomes soggy with fall rains, then buried in the snow.

 

When spring comes again, neither men nor the letter are seen ever again.

 

 

They don't live happily ever after, because happily ever after is for people who don't make explosions in the garage and have years of experience in the art of killing. For people without PTSD and nightmares and decades worth of trauma that requires therapy and heavy medication, and three kids with the intelligence of Toni and the abilities of Natasha.

But they do live happily, a life filled with sunshine and robots and occasionally skinned knees and cupcakes from New York, and even the nightmares don't stay, when there is someone to hold and kiss through the long nights.

Natasha wakes up every day, heart full of love, with a smile at the edges of her mouth.