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although it's so romantic on the borderline tonight.

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But then; if you’re so smart, tell me: why are you still so afraid?
– Billy Joel

 

The SHIELD gym is crowded with agents, but they clear out quickly enough when Natasha walks in, barefoot and silent.

She’s sore, sore and bruised and stitched and aching, but she’s been worse, much worse. As aftermaths go, this one tastes less bitter than a lot of them.

Well. She’ll keep telling herself that, anyway, as Clint spends hours a day putting his memories back in order, scared of cracks in his mind, scared he’s not alone anymore. And she isn’t talking about Phil. She isn’t.

(They buried an empty casket – SHIELD protocol, what’s left of your body stays in a cold storage drawer – and Stark is promising new hospitals and statues and all kinds of things opened up in Coulson’s name. Natasha isn’t hopeful, but she’s a little sceptical. She knows how Fury’s mind works, after all, and there’s no such thing as a line he won’t cross.

In many ways he’s a lot worse than the people Natasha’s supposedly running from. That’s okay, though; Natasha’s a lot worse too.)

But, well, the world’s still in one piece, and those weeks she spent undercover with Stark turned out to be worth something after all, and she’s been spared the worst of the ugly questions. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for.

Natasha cracks her knuckles against the punching bag hard enough to feel the shock all the way up her arm. Sometimes it’s not.

.

The question, now, is whether things are supposed to change or not. Natasha works alone. That’s her rule, one that can only be bent with specific circumstances – she owes Clint a lot of things and he’s become an extension of her, a book she can always read with words she often likes better than her own – but not broken.

Her own file says that she doesn’t play well with others, but she does do what she’s told. Most of the time. SHIELD hopes.

She won’t be the poster child for anybody’s ideals, particularly not anything Nick Fury is running. He’s sharp, sharper than she really wants to think about, and anyway no one wants to slap the hero label on her. No one’s rushing out to get her uniform tattooed on their arm, no one’s spray-painting her name onto buildings, no one’s proclaiming their love for her across their t-shirt. It’s okay. Natasha knows who she is and, more importantly, what she is, and she isn’t anyone to pin your hopes to.

“It wasn’t the worst beta test of a team,” Clint suggests.

“You got your brain hacked into and I had to talk to Stark in a variety of enclosed spaces,” Natasha replies.

Clint shrugs, bare fingers twitching. A nervous tick he never used to have, but apparently the shrinks say it’ll stop, and it hasn’t affected his aim any.

“They won’t ask next time,” he points out. “You might wanna start adding a ‘pros’ column to your Avengers Initiative feelings.”

He’s right, of course. SHIELD stopped requesting things of them a long time ago.

.

People have asked how she sleeps at night. Not a lot of people, of course, and most of them lost teeth for even asking, but it’s a question Natasha gets tossed at her too often for comfort.

The truth is that Natasha sleeps the way she does everything else in her life: it’s necessary, so she gets on with it.

Not every night is that easy, it doesn’t work all the time, and the subconscious is a cruel thing that can’t always be cowed into submission, but neither does she lie awake crying into a pillow for the things that she’s seen and done and narrowly avoided. Regret is a luxury and a weakness and ultimately pointless, and Natasha is nothing if not impatient with indulgences.

Yoga, though, is a good way of keeping her mind quiet and everything where it should be.

Natasha is upside-down when Bruce appears in the gym doorway; she doesn’t jump or shake and stays exactly where she is.

“Hey,” Bruce says, and: “I never managed the headstand.”

She holds it for a few more seconds and then brings her legs down to fold into the dolphin pose.

“Should you be here?” she asks. “Enclosed space underground and everything.”

Bruce smiles; a little crumpled, a little self-deprecating, still looking lost in his shirt like he buys everything a size too big without even thinking about it.

“No one’s over the moon about it, but Tony told them I have better control now, so they gave me a security pass.”

Natasha ducks her head, hair falling into her eyes, and tells herself it’s just the yoga, she’s not avoiding his gaze, she doesn’t avoid people’s gazes.

Do you have better control now?” she asks.

Bruce laughs, a little sheepish, and says: “well, I guess we’ll find out.”

“That’s reassuring,” Natasha replies, but keeps her voice soft as she stretches out, flickering a smile for him.

Bruce clears his throat, still awkward at the edges. “Anyway,” he says, “I just wanted to say hi.”

Natasha slides into the splits, something that always makes Clint flinch, and nods. “Well, hi. Welcome back.”

A moment later, and Bruce is gone.

.

Things were a lot simpler when Natasha was younger and people divided into simple categories like alive and dead, or ally and enemy. When who she killed wasn’t important. Perhaps she isn’t supposed to think of those days with something akin to nostalgia gritting her teeth, but aliens and gods and actual fucking superheroes weren’t a problem back then. Weren’t even a consideration.

Now, her world seems more like cheap fiction than any sort of reality, and Natasha isn’t even working with a full deck of psychological cards to make sense of all of it.

(She used to worry about being a sleeper agent; waiting for a trigger set somewhere deep in her psyche that would turn her back again, a puppet on bloody strings.

Clint wears that expression these days. It’s subtle, but he doesn’t hide it quite as well as she did.)

“I don’t need any leave,” she tells Fury, fingers knotted behind her back, subservient and defiant to the last. “I’m fine. And what am I supposed to do with leave?”

He doesn’t blink. “Borrow Stark’s beach lovenest. Take Steve Rogers to the planetarium. Read The Hunger Games and take notes.”

Natasha doesn’t ever play this game.

“Sir,” she says, simple.

Maybe something cracked a little over those days of lost control and ripped-open secrets.

Fury leans back in his chair, sighing. “I’m bored of whatever this is,” he says. “Go. Come back when you’re no longer a liability.”

That stings, though it shouldn’t.

“Sir,” she says again. There are some battles it’s easier to walk away from.

.

Against her better judgement, Natasha ends up at the new tower Stark’s building for reasons he’s claiming are secret and that she can see straight through. She plays dumb, though, because she can’t answer the inevitable questions.

Stark is approaching the possibility of the Avengers becoming permanent with the same level of casual enthusiasm and piercing interest that he takes to everything, from finding out every last one of SHIELD’s brittle secrets to dying from his disintegrating arc reactor.

You have to hand it to him, really, for making being a genius megalomaniacal basketcase with daddy issues and a list of complexes a mile long into such an artform. Natasha often enjoys watching the show until she recalls what’s actually fuelling it.

“Do you want the PA job again?” Stark asks, face smudged with a smirk and some kind of fuel. “I can’t seem to keep them, for some reason.”

Bruce is considerably tidier, keeping to a corner of Stark’s lab that he’s trying to carve out as his own. “You were Tony’s PA?”

“Undercover,” Natasha explains. “And it was only for a few weeks.”

Bruce smiles, amusement lighting his features. “How did you manage not to strangle him?”

“I ask myself that every day,” Natasha replies, and Bruce laughs.

“You like me really,” Stark tells her.

She doesn’t mention that most of the SHIELD training dummies have been unofficially named Tony Stark by, well, everyone, but only because she assumes he already knows and it’s yet another badge of pride.

.

Bruce finds her flipping between channels on the television; the hype is dying down, especially now the worst of the damage to New York has been patched up, but there are still enough local interest stories of murals, tattoos, Captain America products almost breaking ebay, and so on. Natasha isn’t sure why she watches these pieces, but she always does.

“Apparently Steve’s got an action figure appointment,” Bruce remarks, sitting down in a chair next to her sofa; friendly, but with significant space. He’s still mindful of distances, still aware of the fragility of motion.

Natasha cracks a smile. “What’s an action figure appointment?”

Bruce shrugs; he’s got a mug of tea and biro smudged on his fingers. “I don’t even want to think about it.” He gestures at the screen. “You don’t want your own merchandise?”

“I’ve seen enough of Tony’s to last a lifetime,” she replies. “What about you?”

Something shifts in Bruce’s expression. “Jury’s still out on me,” he explains. “I smash a lot of stuff; this time it was aliens, next time it could be your children’s heads. Et cetera.”

“You shouldn’t google yourself,” Natasha tells him. She’s learned this lesson; not that many people are bothering to talk about her, but the blogs that are gave her a headache while she read through the arguments that apparently make her anti-feminist, whatever that’s even supposed to mean. And those were the best websites; the Cold War will never quite die, after all.

“Well,” Bruce says on a thin, bitter grin, “now I know that, anyway.”

.

There are different methods of extraction; you pick, and you specialise, and you find a good brand of bleach for the clean-up.

Ripping out teeth or fingernails is effective maybe sixty percent of the time, but it lacks elegance, requires a certain amount of time and a certain amount of amorality, and is a bitch to get out of your clothing. Natasha has used this on occasion, but the threat of being able to use it is often more helpful, and anyway there are better ways to peel the information you need out of a person.

If you want to receive a truth, then you hand some truth over, or something that looks and sounds enough like truth that you can get away with it. The more urgently you need the information, the more truthful you become. Natasha’s got a past full of things she can bring out in desperate circumstances and a handful of real-looking lies that she can use to shield them, and she always leaves an interrogation with what she was looking for. Always.

Natasha told Loki things she’s never told anyone.

It lingers, some days.

Not the words Loki said, of course – she’s heard worse, been called worse, and if she’s got to be killed then she’d prefer to be killed by Clint – but of the things she said back. If you need something badly enough then you have to give away something important enough.

The one problem with this method is that it makes it impossible to get anything back. She doesn’t like that Loki still has those pieces of her somewhere still inside him. They’re not for him, after all.

.

“I’m not sure anyone’s ever used Stark’s kitchen for actual cookery,” Natasha remarks when she finds Bruce with his sleeves rolled up chopping vegetables while three different pans simmer on the stove. “I thought maybe it was one of those prop rooms.”

Bruce, to his credit, doesn’t jump. Possibly the fact Clint mostly gets around via ventilation shafts and therefore has a tendency to appear out of the ceiling at odd moments has lowered his capacity to alarm easily.

“Well, nothing’s exploded yet,” Bruce tells her.

He looks comfortable here; at home. Barefoot and messy-haired, lower lip caught a little between his teeth in concentration. It makes something inside Natasha twist.

“Pepper will be happy,” Natasha replies, easing herself onto one of the stools at the breakfast bar. She wishes she had somewhere better to be than Tony Stark’s casual empire of expensive buildings, but she doesn’t. She really isn’t going to take Steve to the planetarium, after all.

It’s quiet and strangely domestic, watching Bruce making what seems to be a basic curry and rice, occasionally humming to himself when he forgets that she’s still there. She wonders if he ever forgets himself; if he can ever afford to.

“Do you want some?” Bruce asks after a while. “I promise it’s edible.”

Natasha shrugs. “Sure, why not.”

She slips from the stool and goes to search through the cabinets until she finds some clean, evidently untouched plates. Bruce takes them from her with a half-smile, reaching for a serving spoon. For a moment he looks so much like an ordinary person that Natasha finds herself wondering if she should even be here; until she remembers that he is a man clinging onto ordinary with fragmented fingernails.

“I learned how to make this in India,” Bruce tells her, conversational, as he carries both plates to the breakfast bar. “Just in case you were thinking all I did was brood.”

“I’m impressed you had time for other hobbies,” she replies, just to catch the edge of his smile.

.

“Cairo,” Stark says.

“Exaggerated horror story for newbies,” Clint responds.

Steve frowns. “Anchorage.”

“Classified,” Natasha says.

“Beirut,” offers Bruce.

“Hearsay.”

“Berlin.”

“Lies.”

“Tokyo.”

“Which time?” Clint asks, and snickers into his beer when Steve’s head drops into his hands.

“Rio,” suggests Bruce.

Natasha takes a moment to reflect that apparently they’ve all been taking reading each other’s background and mission files very seriously before she says: “That one’s true.”

“All of it?” Stark looks a whole lot more interested. “It said you killed a guy with your underwear.”

“With the boning in my corset,” Natasha corrects. “Not... whatever you were thinking.”

“Well, that’s a whole lot less fun,” Stark sighs. “What about Glasgow?”

“Mostly Nat’s fault,” Clint says quickly.

“Traitor,” she murmurs, and Clint salutes her with his beer bottle, tipping his chair back on its legs.

“Helsinki?” Steve looks kind of worried now.

“You’ll need to get Clint a whole lot drunker,” Natasha replies. She doesn’t bother applying that to herself; Steve is apparently incapable of getting drunk and she still knows she could drink him under the table.

Bruce is just watching Natasha and Clint with amusement sprinkled across his face, something a little sad in his eyes. Natasha’s got ugly memories, the kind that surface in the middle of the night with suffocating cruelty, but she’s got good ones too, strange ones, breathlessly adrenalin-filled ones. She’s read the files and she’s not sure exactly what Bruce has got to remember fondly from the mess of the last few years.

“Bruges,” he says with deliberate care.

“No,” Natasha replies. “Just... no.”

She can feel Stark and Steve looking at her, but she keeps her gaze on Bruce. “Never?” he asks.

Natasha ducks her head, hearing Clint chuckle softly. “Not yet, anyway,” she replies, and reaches for another beer.

.

The Avengers Initiative has been a long time coming; it’s Fury’s baby, maybe his swansong if things continue as they have been, and Natasha’s been watching him piece together his tentative team and making her own contingency plans.

“He’s looking at Stark,” she told Clint one afternoon, the two of them lying in an air duct on the third level down. Clint was back from a classified defence mission with a dark tan and a battered face, smirk still in place.

“Of course he’s looking at Stark,” Clint replied. “He’s got Bruce Banner on file and Stark’s at least less likely to explode than that guy.”

There were still teams out looking for Captain America’s body; even if the man was dead, they needed the autopsy.

At the time, Fury was going through the records of Charles Xavier’s mutant school – Natasha still wasn’t sure if he’d been given them in good faith or stolen them, and wasn’t going to ask – to see if there was anyone approachable in there. Natasha had a horrible suspicion he was going to go for the guy with the metal skeleton, healing abilities, missing memories and a tendency towards berserker rages. SHIELD is nothing if not predictable, after all.

Mutants, supersoldiers, guys in robot suits. Fury’s Avengers had a type.

“Do you ever wonder why we’re the only normal people Fury’s thinking of recruiting?” Clint asked quietly.

Natasha kept her gaze on the metal ceiling of the duct. “Because we’re the only normal people who can do what we can do.”

Not quite true, of course, but true enough.

Clint’s laugh was soft, tinged with painkillers. “You ever think that maybe people shouldn’t be able to do what we can do?”

“No,” she told him without hesitation.

They haven’t discussed it again.

There’s no point looking back, no point regretting, no point wondering who she would’ve been. It didn’t happen, and Natasha doesn’t have time for masochistic fantasising.

.

“So you’re back at SHIELD tomorrow?” Bruce asks, putting a mug of tea on the coffee table in front of Natasha, settling himself in a separate chair. He never shares the couch with her, of course, of course.

“Yes,” she replies, hoping her relief doesn’t show too much. She’s never idled well.

Bruce quirks a half-smile. “You didn’t feel like hanging around here some more and seeing if Tony wants to make you a pet project of his too?”

Natasha raises an eyebrow. “You’ve noticed that.”

“Hey,” Bruce shrugs, “I’d rather be Tony’s pet project than, well, anyone else’s. Fewer scalpels and cages, for one thing.”

“It’s reckless,” Natasha offers, picking up her tea. It’s chai, hot and strong-smelling, and it feels good to wrap her fingers around it.

“I’m pretty sure that if the Other Guy makes an appearance then most of this place falls down on top of me or something,” Bruce shrugs, matter of fact about it. “Tony’s foolhardy but he isn’t stupid.”

Natasha can think of a dozen stupid things Stark’s done, but then he thought he was dying for a handful of them. People do stupid things when they think they’re going to die. Stupid things.

“No,” she agrees, and sips her tea.

They sit in silence for a few minutes; eventually, Bruce breaks it with: “I’ve got to learn, and I’d prefer to do it somewhere I can’t actually see the bars.” When Natasha turns to look at him, he adds: “I could have killed you on the helicarrier.”

“But you didn’t,” she says, quick, because it’s one of those things she’s trying not to linger on.

“I could have,” he presses, not flinching away from it, and she admires and hates him for it. “And if Thor hadn’t come when he did I probably would have.”

Natasha has looked all kinds of monsters and murderers in the face but she looks away now. “It doesn’t matter,” she tells him.

“It’s in your eyes every time you look at me,” Bruce says. “It’s okay. I wouldn’t forget either.”

It’s not impossible to reconcile the creature that chased her through dark corridors and would have torn her to pieces with the man with the battered smile who wears self-deprecating comments like armour – God knows Natasha’s known some nasty people in her time who still gave money to charity or who sang like angels – but it’s not always easy.

When she raises her head to tell Bruce that she can get past this, and maybe to thank him for the tea, he’s already gone.

.

There isn’t a living human who Natasha couldn’t kill, which is reassuring, if nothing else.

Gods, though, they’re something else. Aliens, well, they’re going to need some new strategies and maybe some new weaponry so, hey, maybe not all of Fury’s plans were misguided. And prying guys in robot suits out of their lethal tin cans requires a set of skills she’ll need to practice to get perfect.

She was trained for something that wasn’t this; trained for something that involved people who would bleed in the right places and whose skin and bones would break when the right pressure was applied and who couldn’t survive the drop from the roof of a skyscraper.

Now, she throws knives at a target – keeping her head in the game, reminding herself that just because the game’s changed her pieces haven’t – and idly wonders if any of them could even make Loki stumble, let alone die, if it became necessary. It’s fine for Thor to want to rehabilitate his brother, of course it is, but then he can’t die either.

She steps back, pushing the switch on the wall that makes the targets move, and starts again with a fresh set of knives. Her aim is deadly, perfect, wickedly fast, and it ultimately won’t matter. Not against all these new enemies.

Later, on the firing range, she empties three clips into a target and thinks about Bruce saying that the Hulk spat out a bullet. It doesn’t matter how fast she can shoot, how quickly she can reload, how steady her hands are. She can’t stop what’s coming, and she idly wonders if this is how it feels to become superfluous.

.

Natasha still isn’t entirely sure that Phil Coulson is dead. She can’t ask Fury about it – not that she would get a reply if she did – and there are levels of security and encryption that no amount of Tony Stark’s toys could break through. Secrets that could probably tear the world apart if put into the wrong hands, which is why they are kept in places that even Natasha would have difficulty pulling out of a person.

The Avengers needed Phil to be dead, and some nights Natasha thinks that means that even if he is still alive, she’ll never see him again. That he’s been put somewhere far away, and they can live on the bitterness of his memory, bloody cards scattered across a table.

(Maria Hill is either asking Natasha to investigate or trying to win her over; either way, she’s mentioned that the Captain America cards were in Coulson’s locker when the helicarrier was attacked. Natasha’s annoyed: Phil was fucking proud of those, and dead or not, he wouldn’t want them spoiled.)

SHIELD feels different without him, Fury feels different without him, and Clint is different without him. They’ve lost people before, lost a lot of people before, but Phil Coulson was one of those constants, there with a half-smile and a fond, parental eyeroll when they staggered back in having broken half the rules but completed the mission anyway. He was immortal in one of those quiet, unflappable ways, and Natasha doesn’t know what to do with herself now.

There’s no one to talk to about him, and Natasha doesn’t discuss this kind of thing anyway, but she catches herself thinking sometimes that she’d like to.

.

“Bang,” Bruce says quietly from the doorway, and Natasha buries a knife in the door frame an inch from his left ear.

“You missed,” he remarks.

“Would you rather I hadn’t?” she asks, tucking a loose lock of hair behind her ear. “I don’t like people sneaking up on me.”

“You knew I was there.”

“You should still stop doing that.”

“I should.” Bruce smiles, rueful, rubs a hand against the back of his neck. “I guess I should be glad I can scare you,” he says. “From what I hear that isn’t an easy feat.”

Natasha fingers her next blade. “If Stark said that I’d assume he was flirting.”

“Maybe I picked up some tips while I was living with him,” Bruce tells her, but raises his hands in surrender a moment later. “It’s okay, I’ve heard the stories of what happens to people who try and flirt with you.”

Natasha spins and buries the knife in a target on the other side of the gym. “Only people I don’t want to flirt with me,” she responds.

“Now who’s in danger of sounding like they’re flirting?” Bruce asks. He’s taken off his glasses and is passing them from hand to hand, and Natasha thinks: interesting before remembering that she isn’t trying to interrogate him for anything and that this has the potential to get complicated.

She rolls her eyes, giving up on training for the moment. “Want to grab a coffee or something?”

“Ah,” Bruce says, trailing after her, “I forgot, ‘flirtatious and mysterious’ is your default setting.”

Well, it is now, and he wouldn’t like her others.

.

Fury won’t let any of them in on it, but SHIELD is still putting out the worst of Clint’s fires. Not the aliens, not even the dead bodies with arrow shafts buried in eye sockets scattered across the world, but the contacts he made, the anti-SHIELD rebellions he struck the match of. Fury usually functions by shoving their faces into their mistakes until they promise not to make them again, shamed into pushing harder than ever before, harder than they should. Now, though, he’s keeping it discreet, keeping it out of Clint’s way, and for the first time there’s something protective about him.

This is maybe the only evidence Natasha’s ever gotten that Fury doesn’t hold grudges after all; Clint did shoot him, alien influence or not.

Natasha shows that she’s protective by getting Clint drunk and then reawakening their ongoing darts competition.

“Is this a bar for murderers?” Stark asks, looking delighted and on his sixth scotch.

Steve looks less delighted, but that’s possibly because he can’t get drunk.

“We prefer assassins,” Clint replies, getting yet another bullseye.

It’s more fun when they do this in civilian bars – making bets is a great way to earn some extra money on the side, since no matter how many shots down either of them are, they never, ever miss the mark – than in a room full of rogue agents, ex-soldiers, possible SAS teams and, well, them. Still, trying to get each other so drunk that one of them will be less than perfect is a game they’ve been playing for years.

Bruce is playing pool with a handful of people; Natasha broke one of their noses last year but she thinks there probably won’t be any repercussions, and if there are, well, she’s got a handful of pointy as fuck darts. She’s had worse. He looks strangely relaxed; more relaxed than any of them, really, his easy, self-deprecating smile lilting over his mouth. Natasha is mostly keeping an eye on things in case the Other Guy appears and sticks a pool cue through someone – Stark’s suit is in a briefcase under the table, so he’s better equipped to deal with the situation than she is – and she isn’t watching his rolled-up sleeves, his messy hair, the way he sips his beer and laughs.

Clint throws another dart – the small bullseye is running out of space for all of them – and curls his hand over Natasha’s wrist.

“Wow,” he says quietly, “you really don’t learn.”

.

Natasha is saluting the sun alone in the gym when there’s a knock at the door. She returns to a sitting position, lotus-style, and says: “yes?”

Bruce steps inside: “you said to stop sneaking up on you.”

She moves her hands away from the knives always strapped to her ankles, and raises an eyebrow. “What are you doing up this early, doc?”

He smiles and holds up a paper bag. “I brought breakfast.”

For a moment, Natasha has no idea how to respond to that; it’s not something her life features frequently, if Clint isn’t tossing her an apple and a can of beer the morning after a stake-out with a bruised smile.

“I’ve been awake since four for training,” Natasha tells him.

“Who says I’ve been to bed?” Bruce responds, and for once his knowing smile slides into something a little wicked, and she wonders who he was before he was an awkward scientist trying to keep a mistake from ripping apart the world.

“Stark’s a bad influence,” she remarks, pushing to her feet and walking to shrug into a sweater.

“Tony’s an amateur,” Bruce says, shrugging, and she can’t bite back a shred of laughter.

“Okay,” Natasha says, “okay, Doctor Rock n’ Roll, what did you bring me for breakfast?”

Bruce extracts a cup of coffee from the bag, handing it over, and Natasha takes a cautious sip. He’s got it right, down to the optimum temperature; something only Pepper Potts and her years of taking care of Stark have perfected. Something of her surprise must show on her face, because Bruce grins, sudden and warm and momentary.

“You’re not the only one who pays attention,” he tells her.

They drink coffee and eat pastries sitting on her yoga mat; other people need the gym, but whenever they look through the doors all it takes is an arch of Natasha’s eyebrow for them to leave again.

“I’m pretty sure they’re more scared of you than they are of me,” Bruce remarks. “And I know there are three agents with tranq guns in the air ducts above us.”

“Six,” Natasha corrects him, and he laughs. She can’t help smiling back, a little more honest than she’s been in a while. “This is...”

“Lame?” Bruce guesses. “Stupid? Inadvisable? Boring? About to get me stabbed?”

“...nice,” Natasha admits.

She kind of likes that it’s the little things that startle him these days.

.

Natasha has a lifestyle that takes her all over the world, that allows her to live within a thousand different covers and disguises and possibilities, that lets her break laws that most people wouldn’t even consider bending, and yet, for all that, her own personal world is strangely small. Limited. She’s tried living without outward-imposed boundaries, without someone thinking they can contain her, and it’s never ended well.

She’s no one’s pet, no one’s toy, and she doesn’t want to be a puppet ever again, but she can’t think that she’s holding the universe in the palms of her hands because that way leads to madness and gushes of red leaking out of her ledger and all over everything in her life.

So. For now, there is SHIELD. There is Nick Fury, who trusts her less than everyone except possibly Tony Stark, but who knows her better than she wants to be known, who has peeled back her mask and appraised her and decided that he can use her after all.

“I need you in Johannesburg,” he says, standing behind his desk, face cool and sharp and unforgiving.

Natasha startles herself by not wanting to leave. By not being ready to leave. But she can’t help patch up Clint’s leftover possession fuck-ups, the Avengers aren’t needed just yet, and she’s going to go stir-crazy if she stays locked up stalking the corridors and filling in paperwork. She’s been expecting this; been waiting on it.

“How deep do you need me?” she asks.

“I’ll pull you out if we need you,” he replies, and she takes that to mean that nothing is more important than her place in the Avengers. It’s unnerving – she’s always worked alone, been sent into situations alone with anonymous back-up tagging her footsteps and rarely ever used – but, for some reason, oddly reassuring. The knowledge that she’s a piece of something bigger, something almost good, something that might wipe out a handful of names she’s still trying to redeem.

“Understood,” she says, and holds her hand out for the file.

Fury studies her for a long moment before he hands it over, and for the first time in a long time, she wonders just what he can see.

.

She carries two cups of carefully-steeped tea down to the lab where Bruce is working today. SHIELD’s pet scientists and engineers like Bruce because, for all that he might turn into a giant green monster and try to kill them, he’s also a lot less exhausting than Stark, and a lot more polite. I’m always angry stays in the back of Natasha’s thoughts whenever she’s around Bruce, and he’s got a cover as good as hers, cracks neatly filled in, because you’d never know to look at him.

Stark teases them that it’s a tradition now, something too delicate and dull for both of them, but Natasha likes the tea and the silence and the company of someone who doesn’t know her every last secret but who understands something about hiding something sharp and sickening inside yourself.

Really, Bruce is maybe a shrug and three half-smiles from breaking down completely. Some days, Natasha feels that way herself.

“Rumour is that you’re shipping out,” Bruce remarks, accepting the tea and kicking a wheeled stool in Natasha’s direction.

“In the morning,” she agrees.

“Going to drag more innocent scientists out of hiding?” he asks, something rueful curling his mouth, and Natasha wants to smooth the twist out with her fingers.

“Something like that,” she says, although it isn’t.

“Spy business, huh?” Bruce’s voice is soft, careful, aware he’s talking about something he’ll never understand. Their worlds intersect, but they’ll never live in the same one, and even if she told him everything it wouldn’t change anything.

Natasha was never a child, Bruce will never be completely human again. They all carry their burdens.

“I’m not just here to shoot aliens,” she explains, trying to smooth some of the sharpness out of the moment. The silence stretches, something awkward, something unnecessary. “I’ll be back,” she adds. “Soon, if the world tries to end again.”

“I’m sure it will,” Bruce murmurs, casually pessimistic.

SHIELD makes you aware of a thousand minor disasters every day, of the thin line they all tread, and the fact they haven’t lost completely is still surprising when Natasha actually stops to think about it.

She drinks her tea and watches Bruce skimming fingertips over his screen, text scrolling in a language she’ll never speak. Geniuses, she thinks, fond and frustrated.

The comm system crackles before announcing that Natasha is expected in the labs on level six, which means they want to try and fit her with new communication devices that will probably just give her electric shocks, and she swallows down a sigh.

“Have fun,” Bruce tells her, eyes on the screen, on his shoes, on his mug. On anything that isn’t her.

“Always do,” she replies, truthful enough not to count as a lie, and hesitates for a half-second before laying a hand on his shoulder.

He doesn’t jump – Stark’s been prodding him unexpectedly on a regular basis, after all – but does swallow hard, following her fingers up to her shoulder with his eyes. Natasha gives him time to move, time to warn her that he’s about to froth green and bring the ceiling down, but does push up onto her toes, cup his face in one hand, and press their lips together.

She feels his shock. She feels him inhale, careful, cautious, because there are emotions other than anger that are uncontrollable, after all.

Natasha doesn’t know when she stopped being afraid, but the Other Guy likes Tony Stark, and she’s pretty sure that he likes her too. This might need testing, but she’s sure something catastrophic will happen soon enough to try it.

Bruce pulls back just a little; she can feel him breathing, smell tea and cologne and something bitter and low-level that she suspects is a part of him now, something he can never quite hide.

“Scared?” she asks, half-taunt, half-question.

“Unbelievably so,” he responds quietly, and kisses her back.

.

At dawn, she sits on her flight to South Africa in Audrey Hepburn sunglasses and a platinum blonde wig, wearing false nails that are already irritating her and a dress that made Clint grin at her when he dropped her off at the airport, bow in a violin case and every inch the musician boyfriend her cover supposedly has. Part of her didn’t want to leave him behind, just in case, and he’s been warned a hundred times over that she had better not get back to find him compromised again. He managed to crack a smile for her when she said that, and that, if nothing else, convinced her that she could leave him, she could go.

This is something she’s good at, this is something she knows, and it’s a relief to return to the things she knows, the scenarios she was trained for. Even when things don’t go to plan, she can at least bet that an angry alien army isn’t going to eat through the sky and bay for her blood. It’s surprising how much of a relief that is.

Now, she’s just Natasha Romanov, SHIELD agent, the Black Widow if you want to dig up old graves that were shallow at best, who can rip the truth out of you with a knife and a smile equally effectively. She knows how to do this. It’s all she’s ever really known. Phil Coulson may not be on the end of her phoneline, her handler may end up being Maria Hill if she forgets to play with internal politics, but some things don’t change.

Some things do, though, and as it turns out it’s not always the end of the world.

(“I’ll write to you,” Bruce told her in his lab, trembling fingers in her hair.

“I won’t be able to read it,” Natasha replied, stepping back, letting his touch slip away. This is something she needs to think about, recalibrate, and something he can’t rush for fear of losing what he’s already clawed back. It’s alright. This isn’t anything advisable and it’s going to take time.

Bruce smiled; crumpled and shy and real and, just for a moment, hers. “I’ll write anyway.”)

.