Clint has a child's eyes: clear and honest and forgiving.
Natasha doesn't forget because it's been a long time since she's seen somebody with those eyes; specially somebody who has come to kill her. (oh, she knows, she's known for months; Clint isn't the only one, S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't the only organization who's declared her fair game, she knew her days were numbered a long time ago, she just hoped she was skilled enough to outrun her fate for a while)
At first when he doesn't kill her she feels no gratitude. She feels a confusion very much like anger. Natasha doesn't like not understanding things. She doesn't understand Clint. He should kill her. Instead: a hand offered, come with me. She could have killed him then, when he lowered his weapon. She could have.
His explanation is simple (Clint's always are, but that she can't know until much later).
`I've seen you operate. I don't think you are meant for this life.´
He leads her to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s headquarters in a state of absolute shock, like a wounded animal. When she asks why Clint says that he sees no evil in her.
She knows this: Clint sees a goodness in her that Natasha knows it's not there.
`You are a fool,´ she says, hissing.
Clint grins, `Oh, yes, that's been frequently proved.´
Later she comes to realize it was never a matter of it being her; the kind of person Clint is, he would have tried to save anyone's soul.
As it is Natasha is very glad he found her and not anyone else, that it was her soul he saved.
`Can I call you Natasha?´ he asks her, as if theirs was a social relationship, and he insists they take off her restrains when he is in the room.
She doesn't know how long they keep considering her a threat.
She knows that by the time she is free Clint has started using Tasha and Nat and every permutation in between. She doesn't remember giving him permission, though.
She is free.
But it's all so much trouble; she can't imagine why S.H.I.E.L.D. would go through so much trouble for her. She is good –she knows this– but it's not like the world has a shortage of disgruntled spies with deathly skills that might want to change side.
Natasha never said she wanted to change sides.
Her mind is full of shrapnel from other lives, not hers, never hers. She didn't have a life, only lies and recollections of lies, only mechanical moves that bring pain and death, only words in languages that are not hers, words to bring men and empires down. Memories that were tampered with that Natasha had no idea were there in the first place. And then there's her body: full of movements carved in her muscles and bones, carved by other people's hands. She can't remember what it feels like to be in control of her own body.
Here everything hurts with past injuries, because here people come to her with gentle hands; they talk her down, they try to heal her, they let her breathe. It's so new it's overwhelming. Clint stays by her side most of the time. She wonders if there will be repercussions for him, the cost of his disobedience. If there are any reproaches neither Clint nor his superiors let it show in front of her.
Detox is a rocky road; at times she thinks she might go crazy with the weight of all this new freedom and safety. In her fevered state she thinks about Clint as savior and chance. It takes her a long time to see him as a real, whole person, not the abstract, the metaphor of a hand held out to get her out of the darkness, out of the shit.
It takes them years to become actual friends.
2. Phil Coulson
He looks like he should have more sense than this.
`You can't agree with Agent Barton's call,´ she tells him when Coulson sits down not to kick her out of here or put her in jail but to talk her through her incorporation to the agency. `You seem more reasonable than the rest.´
Coulson has bought them lunch from the mess and now he places a bowl of salad in front of her. Natasha tilts her head, hesitating. This is early days and she is still sure they are going to poison her the first chance they get. She is Russian, she appreciates death by poisoning.
`No, I completely agree with Agent Barton's assessment,´ Coulson says, so casually, takes a bit of his own lunch.
Natasha crosses her arms, sitting back on her chair. Another hopeless one.
`We are the good guys, Miss Romanoff,´ he tells her. `We shouldn't have given the order to eliminate you in the first place. We cannot go killing people just because it's more convenient. Now eat your salad.´
She grumbles, like an affronted teenager, but she does as he says and she eats her lunch.
She knows that Clint's decision would have meant nothing if there wasn't someone else backing it, someone senior who agreed to keep an eye on her. Soon she gathers that person is Coulson, even though he doesn't say a word about it, he just starts ordering Natasha around as if it's the only thing he'd done in his whole life. As if receiving orders from him was the only thing Natasha had ever done in her whole life.
Natasha is used to fight and bite for every shred of safety and affection that comes into her life and now here it is, being offered almost carelessly. Not that S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't expect something in return but at least they offer their end of the bargain upfront. That is new.
Nobody would know this just by looking at him but Phil Coulson is the kind of boss who brings you a blanket and a cup of hot coffee if you get a bit shaken by your latest mission.
As Natasha's world opens beyond the possibility of redemption (a word she would not use in a million years) and into the practicalities of the job Coulson becomes a fixture in her life – that is something she hasn't experienced before either, having something constant, having the same faces to look at and memorize, every day. She doesn't exactly know how this works, this sense of permanence and she suspects it's a trick they are playing on her, but she finds it in him. The poised and dry voice that never sounds cold, the perfectly ironed suits, his impatience with superfluous things. Natasha would miss that, if he were to suddenly disappear.
(at this point Natasha still imagines everything, all this, Clint and Coulson and her room and the meals in the cafeteria and the orders and missions and the beginning of belonging, all that is going to disappear in front of her face like a long-drawn joke, everything is going to be snatched away and it makes no difference if she holds on tight – so she doesn't)
Coulson is the one who insists on dragging her to sickbay whenever she comes back wounded. The kind of boss who insists on stitches by the hands of the most seasoned medical professionals. It's the kind of thing Natasha's previous employers would consider ridiculous and a waste of resources.
`It's just a scratch, boss,´ she would complain but Coulson is, if anything, unrelenting.
`You are not in Moscow anymore, Agent Romanoff,´ he says, his grip tight on her arm not so much to make sure she doesn't run away as for support, the cut on her left knee dripping blood down her leg. `We'd rather not have our employees writhe in pain if we can help it. And we'd definitely rather they didn't have too many scars.´
Oh, Natasha thinks, but this one is a scar I can be proud of.
3. Director Fury
She doesn't take it personally, the slight vibe of suspicion with which Director Fury regards her, even today, after such a long time.
That's okay, Fury tends to suspect of each and every one of his subordinates on a regular basis, whether they have done anything to warrant it or not. When it's Natasha's turn at least she has an extensive record to justify it. Unlike the poor rookie agents who look like they are about to cry whenever Fury hits one of his cold moods. Natasha would feel pity if it wasn't so damn entertaining
Fury might not trust her loyalty whole-heartedly but he trusts her abilities, which as far as Natasha is concerned is all that matters.
Whenever someone doubts of her capacity to see through a particularly difficult mission (or when Clint and Coulson are being a tad over-protective, which doesn't happen often but it happens) Fury just shuts them up with a dry `She can handle it´.
And that's the end of it.
She can handle it.
Natasha appreciates that more than she can put into words. If Clint and Coulson are there to vouch for her as a human being and employee Fury is there to vouch for her as an agent. There's not only trust in her skills but also a gleam of pride in the way Fury sells her as the best option in a mission. He looks on with amusement at the people who would underestimate her.
He is the one who chooses her, personally, to keep an eye on Iron Man.
(of course few can argue that her set of skills are perfect for this mission and –Natasha doesn't fool herself about it– her looks don't hurt, in this case)
So as they sit in that empty diner and Fury puts his arm around her shoulder, showing off, and he laughs in the face of poor, gullible Tony Stark, Natasha can't help but beam because somebody is taking pride in her.
It hits her like a slap in the face, if a slap in the face could be a good thing; Director Nick Fury, a man who for all intents and purposes thinks that no other person but him is up to the task (whatever the task is) or even worthy of it, is proud of calling her his agent.
Most of his animosity towards her is a facade at this point and she knows it. Tony Stark is the most obvious person in the universe and reading him poses no challenge for an ex-spy. She won't tell him this, he'd be heartbroken. He would put his life in her hands without a second thought but that doesn't mean he is going to put on a nice face as well.
They are sitting on the couch in his house in California. There is always postcard-view sunlight coming through the windows in this room and Natasha wonders how he can stand it, it's so boring, but hey it takes all kinds – she used to love Petersburg, after all. Tony is busy cradling his injured hand. Natasha has just saved his life, yet again. She thinks that should go a long way to appease this irrational distaste he has for her from time to time. It's only fair, isn't it?
`Hold this,´ she brings him a bag with ice for his hand. `And this.´
She also hands him a glass of scotch. The dexterity with which she knows exactly where everything is in his house should put him on edge, but he is clearly not in the mood. He sits back against the cushions and closes his eyes, a groan of weariness escaping his lips.
They stand in silence for a while and since silence with Tony Stark is an entirely mythological creature Natasha does her best not to disturb it, sitting very still and watching the frown on his face relax as the ice and the alcohol start soothing the pain. He looks old in a not-entirely-bad way.
`You never apologized, by the way,´ Tony says, completely out of the blue, opening one eye to look at her.
He sits straight, this time the groan is of frustration.
`For Natalie Rushman. All this time. I've been waiting, in case. But. You never actually apologized, even though I asked.´
Natasha can't believe it. `That was ages ago, Tony. I thought you'd let it go by now.´
`No. Never letting it go. You were no help. Whatsoever.´
`It wasn't my mission to be of help.´
`But you are a human being. Kind of. Can you really switch off that easily? I was in big trouble and we were – we were going through a really messy time and you made things even worse, with... with Pepper, and the company and...´
`It wasn't my job to help you with your personal life. Or your terrible business decisions. I was there to make sure you didn't kill yourself.´
`And you almost failed with that too!´
Natasha smirks, because he is being completely honest and that is kind of touching. He is still hurt. Okay, so she feels a bit bad about the part where she actually made Pepper's life a bit more difficult, but it had all worked out in the end so she hasn't lost any sleep over that. But since there is a tiny part of her that feels guilty it's only fair she communicates the information to Stark.
`I am sorry. There. That better?´
`Not really. But it's a start. Now that we are teammates and friends we need to clear the air around here.´
Natasha takes the drink from him and gives it a sip.
`Are we? Teammates?´ she asks. Then, almost regretting it immediately: `And friends?´
The look Tony gives her is indescribably confused, like she has grown a second head.
`Of course,´ he says, truly offended. Like she is such an idiot.
She is such an idiot.
For so long Natasha has been stuck on the notion of people trusting her, of her gaining their trust, and it never really occured to her what would happen if somebody tried to gain hers. She is the one who needs to make the effort, the one trying to atone.
The reverse would simply be unnatural, wouldn't it?
She hasn't had reason to think about that before.
Now a white landscape, almost perfect in its sparseness. A good place for a murder, Natasha thinks grimly, a reflex from the bad old days. And Bruce lets himself be drawn to the middle of nowhere again so easily that Natasha suspects he knew it was her.
`Driving me to the uninhabited limits of town once more? I shouldn't fall for the same trick twice.´
That's Bruce's idea of a greeting and it's enough to make Natasha smile. Outside the cabin slow slumps of snow fall.
`I thought you'd appreciate the private joke, doc.´
`Do we do private jokes now? If I knew I'd have dressed more appropriately for the occasion.´
He looks down at his clothes; he is wearing jeans and a thick pink sweater worn at the collar, with holes, and an old leather jacket. He looks either like a bum or a beatnick. But he doesn't look miserable so Natasha guesses it's an improvement. He plays his cards very close to his chest but he does seem relatively happy to see her.
`It's good to see you, Bruce.´
`Is it? Because I'd guess seeing me is the prelude to some horrible catastrophe.´
She shrugs. That's the life, and she doesn't know any other kind.
`Still working for Fury?´ he asks.
His lips curl into a weak smile, sardonic, and a bit sad.
Perhaps they can be ironic about it, now that it's been a while.
Natasha could tell him how she still has nightmares about it, about him (not him, not really, she amends quickly, her stomach dropping a bit) and maybe she will tell him. Because Bruce can stand it. Nobody else. Not even Clint – Clint who knows all about her nightmares, old and new, but not this one.
Bruce hugs himself, like it's suddenly gone very cold. Or colder.
`I don't know. Last time we did this I almost got thrown in a high-tech glass cage,´ he says. Then softer: `And you – you almost got your neck snapped by the Other Guy.´
Something outside the window distracts her attention; it has stopped snowing.
`Hey, I'll trust you to keep your end of the bargain, if you can trust me to keep mine,´ she says, almost without thinking.
Bruce tilts his head, studying her features. It feels weird to use the word without irony, trust, not because she doesn't believe in it (Natasha believes fiercely, her whole life has become tied to and defined by that word) but because she is very careful about voicing it. She feels it's dangerous, like it could ruin everything.
This time his smile looks just a tiny bit less sad.
`It seems like you got yourself a deal, Miss Romanoff.´
Bruce offers his hand. Perhaps she sees something in him that he doesn't believe it's there.
Natasha discovers she has been too busy securing other people's trust.
When she shakes Bruce's hand she realizes it's a two-way street.
And it doesn't feel as unnatural as she thought it would.