Fury was the only one who actually asked her what she wanted. Not that she would ever hold it against the others. Tony had his own issues — namely, Pepper — to worry about. Clint knew her well enough to know if she didn’t want this, she would have said so. And Steve had been her partner in one way or another for the past three years. Her not standing by his side in this was probably not ever something that crossed his mind.
“You sure this is what you want?”
They had just finished their first practice as a team. Avengers 2.0, Sam had called them. It hadn’t gone exactly horribly, but it definitely hadn’t gone what she would call well. Wanda was young, inexperienced and not in control of her powers. She’d knocked Sam and Rhodey out of the air a few times when she was supposed to be fighting Steve.
Sam was too cautious, not wanting to do something not fully above board. Rhodey thought he was better than he was. Vision wasn’t quite aware yet of how powerful he was and where to draw the line on how much force was actually okay to use.
And she and Steve were used to their former teammates, to their original team, were used to someone always having their back, knowing how they worked.
Everything now was new and awkward and full of more mistakes and bumps and bruises than successes. But it was to be expected.
Fury was eyeing her though as she tugged her widow’s bites off her arms.
“Why?” she asked. “You have a better offer?”
“I do, in fact,” he said. “Work for me.”
She raised a brow. “Work for you? As a dead former SHIELD director?”
“The world will always need a good spy. You could be on your own. No team to worry about.” He eyed her carefully, his face unreadable.
“You want me to run missions for you?”
“I’m giving you an option. The Agent Romanoff I once knew had no desire to be part of a team. She wanted to do things her own way.”
She considered. “I can still do things my own way,” she said. “With them.”
“If you’re sure.”
She wasn’t sure. Not completely. But enough. The Avengers had given her something she’d never had before. She belonged with them.
She nodded at Fury. “I’m sure.”
“Good,” he said. “Because this unruly bunch could use someone like you.”
She laughed. “We have a little work to do.”
“I would say so.”
They got better. Slowly. The trust, though, that was the hard part.
“I don’t trust her not to blast me,” Rhodey said warily after a rough sparring session.
“And I don’t trust you to trust me to do what I’m supposed to do,” Wanda shot back.
“I’ve been doing for this for years, little girl.”
“I could take you down …”
“Hey!” Natasha stepped between them, voice calm, expression blank, eyes hard. “This is not the way,” she said. “We have enough enemies out there. We don’t need to be each other’s in here. Do it again. And again. Until you get it right.”
She walked away. Steve eyed her as she headed toward him. Probably thinking how that wasn’t the way he would have handled it.
“Don’t say anything,” she warned.
“Wasn’t planning to.”
Clint was the first of their former teammates to show up.
“I wanted to see how they’re all doing,” he said.
“Don’t you have kids to be playing with?” Sam asked.
“Laura said I could have an afternoon off.”
“Are you ruining too much of the house with your grand construction plans?” Natasha said.
He mock glared. “I’m never letting her call you again.”
“I’d like to see you try to stop her,” she said. “Suit up, Barton. Let’s see how rusty you’ve gotten.”
“Not so rusty that I can’t take you down.”
“You could never take me down.”
“You always remember things so much differently than me.”
“I remember the truth.”
He snorted. “Funny, Nat.”
Tony came next.
“I’ve brought new tech,” he said, walking into the lounge later that night, frowning when he saw Barton. “I didn’t know this was an old-timers reunion.”
“Neither did we,” Steve muttered. Natasha jabbed him in the side.
Tony was already walking over to a corner of the lounge, a device of some sort in his hand. As they all watched, he began to fiddle with it. A virtual control panel suddenly appeared against the wall, a canvas full of graphs and matrices and charts. He began to tinker with that too, adjusting numbers, moving lines, muttering things under his voice probably only Steve could hear.
“What is happening?” Sam whispered to Steve.
“The magic of Tony,” Rhodey answered. He leaned back against the couch he was sitting on, watching Tony as if he were putting on a show in front of them.
Steve frowned as Tony’s hands sped up. Sam seemed confused, Wanda and Vision curious, Clint amused. Natasha watched the others more than she watched Tony until, from the corner of her eye, she saw him take a step back.
The virtual control panel changed then, growing smaller as a phantom 3D city suddenly appeared, hovering in the corner of the lounge. Modern buildings, tree-lined streets. Natasha could even see tiny figures in the windows.
And then, from the silver sky above the phantom city, a spacecraft appeared. Then another. And another.
“Is that the Chitauri?” Clint asked. He stood up to get closer. Wanda and Vision followed him, staying at a safe distance behind him.
They all watched as the Chitauri spacecraft flooded the sky, then began to move, racing along the streets of the city.
The little people began to run, disappearing back behind windows and doors. One of the buildings was hit by the spacecraft and fell.
Natasha’s eyes focused on a group of little people at the end of a street, advancing not retreating. Three of them were flying.
“Is that us?” she asked, now getting up too. Sam followed her. Only Steve remained seated.
Tony hit a button and the phantom city froze. He turned around, a grin across his face. “This,” he said, “is the next great training mechanism. A simulator. It can portray whatever enemies we want, whatever scenarios we need. Chitauri, Ultron bots, Hydra. Dark Elves.”
“No,” Steve said from the couch.
“No what?” Tony said. “I haven’t gotten to the end of my speech. You’ve barely seen anything.”
“No,” Steve repeated. “We’re not using video games to train.”
Tony scowled. “It’s not a video game,” he said. “It’s a simulation.”
“It’s not real.”
“We’re not using it.”
“You haven’t even tried it.”
“We don’t need to try it.”
“Really?” Tony said. His eyes were darkening now, features hardening. “Because all those training exercises from 1940 work so well in today’s times?”
Steve didn’t take the bait. “Teamwork. Sparring. Hand to hand. That is how we train. That is what works.”
“This can help us run scenarios you can’t even dream about! When you have a mission, it can run every possibility.”
“We don’t need it,” Steve said.
“You haven’t even tried it!”
“We’ll try it,” Natasha said. Her voice cut through the two of them. There was silence for a few seconds. Then Steve’s face hardened as he stared at her. Tony looked gleeful.
“We’ll try it,” Natasha repeated. “But we don’t have to use it if we don’t like it.”
Tony looked less gleeful. Steve looked appeased.
“It’s better than battle plans on paper,” Tony muttered.
“Maybe,” Natasha said. “We’ll let you know.”
The next time Tony stopped by, he found Natasha at the conference table going over Steve’s training plans. The ones he did, like he always did, on paper.
“We have a simulator,” Tony scowled.
She glanced up. “He likes drawing.”
“You’re supposed to be using it.”
“The simulator is more advanced. Better at deciphering long-term threats.”
“We’re doing just fine, Tony.”
“Just fine?” Tony shook his head. “That’s the problem with you people. You’re always content with things being ‘just fine.’ Why not make them better? Solve the problem before it becomes a problem.”
“Or make a problem when there wasn’t a problem in the first place,” Natasha said coolly.
Tony placed a package down on the table. “If you’re going to insult me, I could go. Even if I did bring something for you.”
Natasha narrowed her eyes, taking in the package. Whatever it was, it was in a cardboard box, on the smaller side. “I didn’t ask for anything.”
“That’s why it’s a gift.”
He reached inside, pulled out two identical looking black bracelets. Just like the widow’s bites already on her arms.
“I have those,” she said,
“I upgraded them for you.”
“To make them better?” Tony stared at her like he thought she was lacking all form of common sense. “Why are you always so cynical?”
“It’s in my nature. The ones I have are fine.”
“There you go again with the fine. Just give me your arm.” He pointed at her.
She hesitated a moment, before doing as he asked. “You sure these aren’t going to backfire and kill me?”
“If I wanted to kill you, Romanoff, I would have done it years ago.”
Natasha didn’t find that comforting.
“He’s spying on us.”
Steve poured himself a bowl of cereal, carefully added a bit of milk and sat himself and his bowl down next to Natasha at the table. She was munching on toast, turning her new widow’s bites over in her hands. They did work better, shoot further and were more powerful, as Tony had promised they would be. She still wasn’t sure she really needed them, but it seemed to make Tony happy when she swapped them out for her old ones.
He promised her then that her next upgrade would be to her suit. Something about making it more fortified, to protect her better in battle.
She looked up at Steve now. “He’s not spying on us.”
“He’s been here ten times in the last three weeks.”
“Don’t pretend you’re not,” he said.
It was a fair point. She had been counting. But then, she tracked everything that everyone did, not just Tony’s visits to see them. But she didn’t think now was the time to remind Steve of that.
“He’s just lonely,” she said instead. “He misses being part of the team.”
“He left the team,” Steve said. “Voluntarily. And he brought a flying robot with him this morning.” He stared at her like that was proof of his first accusation. “It’s been following Wanda around all morning.”
“He likes to build things. You know this.”
“A flying robot doesn’t concern you?”
“Lots of things concern me. I remember Ultron very well. But this.” She chose her words carefully. “This isn’t that.”
“How do you know?”
“I can tell,” she said simply. “He’s just … he’s trying to protect us. In his way. It’s what he does. He misses us.”
“He shouldn’t have chosen to leave us then.” A touch of bitterness lined his tone. Natasha wondered about that. She had thought he was almost grateful to not have to worry about Tony all the time. Maybe she was wrong.
“Just because you choose something doesn’t mean it’s always easy,” she pointed out to him. “We were a team a long time.”
“I thought he was supposed to be spending time with Pepper,” Steve grumbled. He picked up his spoon and began to eat, a good sign that his rage was cooling.
“All the time?”
Natasha smiled gently. “Just give him a chance,” she said. “We all make mistakes. He’s not going to make Ultron again.”
“Not all of us make world-destroying mistakes.”
“Not yet,” Natasha said. “Give the rest of us time.”
The flying robot was a little irksome. Natasha would give Steve that. Tony, of course, adored it. He was flying it everywhere around the compound, but he especially seemed amused about flying it in between and around everyone as they sparred.
Finally, after it accidentally — or maybe not, but Natasha still wasn’t ready to assume the worst about Tony — knocked Steve on the back of the head while he was sparring with Wanda, Steve had had enough.
He turned around, brow furrowed, body tense.
“Knock it off, Tony,” he practically growled.
“Oh, come on, Cap,” Tony said playfully. He sent the robot flying off over to where Sam and Rhodey were battling. “Have a little fun.”
“We don’t need to be having fun right now,” Steve said. “We’re training.”
“My robot could be a good training tool.”
“We have all the training tools we need.”
“Oh, come on,” Tony said. He walked closer to Steve. Natasha stopped sparring with Vision, raising her hand at him to signal he should stop as well. She watched the two men, body primed to intervene if she had to. “I’m just trying to help.”
“You’re just trying to get in the way.”
“In the way of you,” Tony said. “And your outdated ideas. That’s what you mean. I’m in your way. The others don’t seem to mind.”
“They all mind,” Steve said.
Tony glanced around at all of them. No one else said anything.
“Fine,” he said. He glared at Steve. “You do your thing then, Captain.” He let the words practically drip off his tongue. “I’ll be working on my simulation that could someday save your life if you could get over yourself long enough to use it.”
Tony headed toward the exit, his footsteps heavy against the tile floor. Steve waited until he had gone, the door banging loudly behind him, before letting out a frustrated sigh. He swung his shield, letting it loose to fly into a corner, trying to let off steam.
The crunch was sickening, the silver robot that had been hovering in the corner falling to the floor in a heap. Natasha looked down at it. Its once perfect surface now had a huge dent on one side.
Everyone stared at the robot, then back at Steve. He looked shocked, then horrified, then ashamed.
“Shit,” he mumbled.
Natasha waited until the punching bag had stopped swinging, until Steve seemed to have caught his breath, before approaching him from the side, handing him an unopened water bottle.
“You should apologize,” she said.
He took the bottle from her. “It was an accident.”
“Both times were an accident.”
“Tony doesn’t think so.”
“Yes, he does.”
That wasn’t exactly true. She thought Tony probably was still convinced the first one was on purpose, as some sort of payback for all the tech he kept trying to hoist on Steve and the rest of them, but he had been there for the second one, knew it was just bad timing. They had been trying to get it to fly again. Steve opened the door at the same time it was on a collision course with where his head appeared.
It was instinct, punching the robot. Same thing any one of them would have done if something had been flying toward their heads. They all knew that. Even Tony.
Steve took another sip of the water she had brought him. “I’m not trying to undermine him,” he said thoughtfully.
“I just …” Steve sighed. “I’m trying to be a leader. I just want him to respect that.”
“He does,” Natasha said.
“He doesn’t respect anything I do. He thinks he always has the right way and I have the wrong way.”
“You think that, too,” she pointed out logically. “Just in reverse.”
He rubbed a hand through his hair, studying her. “And what do you think?”
She thought about that before answering, trying to choose her words carefully. “I think,” she finally said, “that although you both have very different approaches, they are both valid. We need what you bring to the table. But maybe we could also use what he brings.”
“You like the simulation?” he raised a brow at her.
She smiled at that. “He let me control it,” she said, laughing a bit at Steve’s surprised face. “My city was better than his.”
“Of course it was.” Steve chuckled now too.
She stepped closer to him, laid a hand on his shoulder. “Just talk to him,” she said. “Apologize. For the team. We’re trying to get them to work together. What kind of example do we set if we can’t even get along with each other?”
He reached up with the opposite arm of the one she was touching, laced his fingers over hers before pulling her hand down, still holding on to it. “You know I was always going to apologize,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “I just thought I’d give you a push.”
She found him later that night. Steve was staring blankly across the room when she took a seat on the couch beside him, poking his leg with her foot as she did so. He startled a little before turning to look at her, a soft smile crossing his features.
“You and Tony make up?” she said.
“You know we did.” He pointed across the room. In the corner, she could see a familiar piece of metal, once again in perfect condition. There was a sign around its neck: “Avengers leave things better than they find them.”
She frowned. “You fixed it?”
Steve let out a sound, probably a laugh. “Of course not. I thought you did.”
She shook her head.
“Huh,” he said. He reached up a hand, scratched at his chin for a second, his eyes narrowed in contemplation. “Maybe it really was Rhodey, like Tony thought.” He turned to her. “You talked to him, though.” It wasn’t a question.
“Maybe,” she admitted.
“I apologized,” he told her.
She nudged him in the side. “I knew you could.”
This time he smiled. “What would I do without you, Nat?”
“Hopefully you’ll never have to find out.”
She nudged him again, this time a little harder. He got the hint. He lifted his arm, let her move closer into him, dropped his arm around her shoulders, the familiar weight reminding her why she was doing all this. Here. With the Avengers. Not out in the world on her own.
It was almost like he could read her mind.
“Are you happy, Nat?” he asked. “Here?”
She murmured an assent against him. He was warm. And safe. She contemplated closing her eyes.
“I’m being serious,” he said, and there was an edge to his tone that hadn’t been there before.
She sat up straight, turned to look at him. “Why are you asking?”
“Because I’ve never asked.” His voice still had that edge to it, like this was something he had been wanting to bring up for a while. “And it’s different now. Here. It’s not non-stop missions and interrogating suspects and undercover operations. This is training and team building and not what you-”
She cut him off. “Not who I am.”
“I was going to say not what you signed up for.”
“We wouldn’t be the team we are without you,” Steve continued. “But I just … I want you to be happy.”
“Yes. Stop asking.”
She poked him in the chest. He leaned back against the couch, so she could resume her position, tucked beneath his arm.
“I’m glad you’re happy,” he breathed a few minutes later. She barely heard him, already on the edges of sleep. “I’m happy too.”
Natasha woke abruptly, the old creaking futon straining beneath her. She’d had that dream again, the one about Steve, where he was sitting beside her, holding her, telling her he was glad she was there.
She stood up, still a little disoriented from sleep, made her way to the tiny kitchen that was barely big enough for one, rummaged through the shelves to see if there was any coffee left.
She was going to have to leave soon. She’d been there too long. They were going to find her. The U.N. Or Ross. Maybe Tony. He knew too much about all of them. She didn’t doubt he could run a simulation, figure out where she went.
Maybe she should let him find her. Maybe she should let herself get caught. Maybe then she could see the others.
Steve’s side versus Tony’s side. The divide she was supposed to prevent. The fracture she was supposed to mend.
She thought back to Fury’s offer, the last time she had seen him in person. “The world will always need a good spy. You could be on your own. No team to worry about.”
She’d wanted to worry about them. She’d wanted to not be so alone. But in the end, she hadn’t been enough. And she’d ended up worse than she’d started.
Maybe she should try to find Fury, see if that job was still available. It wasn’t what she wanted, but what she wanted was gone. For now at least. And she would have him. It would be better than being alone.