A month after Loki is taken back to Asgard in chains, Natasha has her quarterly meeting with Agent Hill.
She's right on time, so she doesn't knock on the door, just walks into Hill's office. Hill's already ready and waiting for her, file open in front of her and two cups of coffee on her desk. They've done this dance many times before. Natasha quite likes her quarterly reviews, as it happens. It's a way of keeping track, and balancing her ledger. Hill gets it, and they work well together. They're both economical with their words and their affections, and have similarly little tolerance for the divas and dramatics of superheroes and their super egos.
(Natasha knows she's warming up to Stark, and she suspects Hill is too, because he's the kind of charming asshole who can be genuinely charming from time to time, but that doesn't mean he isn't still annoying as all hell on his worst days.)
Hill smiles at Natasha as she walks in, and pushes a mug of coffee across the desk.
"Well, this shouldn't take too long," Hill says. "I've certainly not got any complaints from our end. Your mission success is as high as it's ever been, the intelligence you've been gathering has allowed us to neutralise three major global threats in as many months, your work with Stark was textbook, and I think it's fair to say that without you the Avenger Initiative would never even have got off the ground."
Natasha smiles over her mug. She's not one to crave praise, but she enjoys being appreciated by someone who genuinely understands what it is that she does. "I'm glad to know you're happy with my work," she says.
"More than happy, grateful," Hill says. "I know I'm not the only one who's relieved not to be walking around as one of Loki's brainwiped slaves right now. That's thanks to you."
"Oh, I had a little help."
Hill nods. "Yeah, you made a pretty good team out there. And that's the thing. Director Fury and I would like to know whether you want your role with us to take a change in direction. Likelihood is we could use the Avengers again, maybe sooner rather than later."
"It's just me and Barton left onsite, though," Natasha points out.
Hill nods. "That's true, but Stark and Banner haven't exactly flown far from the nest, and word is Captain Rogers is interested in making himself useful. Thor - well. Who knows whether our favourite alien god will want to come and play or not. This can run alongside your usual work if you like - we've always wanted you to have your choice of assignments."
Natasha nods. She thinks about everything that's happened, and she knows her answer. "Sure, I'm in. Sign me up to be a superhero."
Hill laughs. "I will do that. You want some spandex of your very own?"
Natasha wrinkles her nose. "Think I'll pass on that one."
They start expanding the team after that. Lt. Col. Rhodes puts in a transfer request from the Air Force that Fury approves faster than you can say 'fucking finally'. Coulson, still newly out of his sick bed, goes out to New Mexico to bring in Jane Foster, a move that's quickly followed by Hill finding a CV on her desk from someone styling herself as 'Darcy Lewis, assistant of awesome'. The move's ballsy enough to get her an interview, and the interview's good enough that Hill gets her a job.
Natasha finds 'SHIELD liaison to Stark Industries' officially added to her and Colonel Rhodes' job descriptions, with Rhodey managing the Iron Man and other weapons tech while Natasha seems to mostly end up going through Tony's inventions to see just how poorly he's disguised the highly classified information he's using.
She spends a lot of time in meetings with Pepper. Pepper is efficient and unflappable and extraordinarily well organised, and Natasha finds those qualities restful in a person. Plus, Pepper always has fantastic brownies laid out for when they have meetings scheduled.
The new additions bring a stabilising influence to the team. If it were up to Natasha she'd probably station Rhodey to be Tony's wingman 24/7, though admittedly that's hardly fair on Rhodey, who's a good guy. Watching him and Pepper tag-team Tony is always a pleasure, especially now they've got a new recruit in the shape of Bruce.
"The key to Stark-wrangling," Rhodey tells Bruce, "is to humour him up to a certain point, and then kick his ass when he's got it coming. Verbally if you want to, but by all means suit up and actually kick his ass if he really needs it."
Natasha nods her agreement. "Though give us a heads-up if you're planning on Hulking out, okay? But I will gladly transport the two of you to an empty field to duke it out if you like."
"I'm right here," Tony points out.
Natasha, Bruce, Rhodey and Pepper all ignore him.
Luckily, Thor's already on Earth when the killer robots from outer space attack, because it turns out having a guy who can direct lightning on your side is always useful, but particularly in cases where you're facing a battalion of enemies that run on metal and electricity. Thor and Iron Man keep most of the robots penned into a central area while War Machine and Hawkeye pick off outliers. Bruce is back in one of the labs at Stark Tower cooking up a virus to feed back to the mothership.
Steve and Natasha stand a little way away from all the explosions, looking out for any opening where foot soldiers might be useful. Steve twitches a bit, shifting from foot to foot and spinning his shield around. He laughs when he sees her staring at him.
"It's not that I mind not being in the middle of the action for once," he says. "Just feeling like a bit of a spare part."
Natasha can't argue with that. She glances at Steve. "I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with K."
Steve laughs. "Um, killer robots from outer space?"
"You got it. Your turn."
"All right - I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with R."
Natasha's eyes widen as she looks over his shoulder. "Rogue group headed straight for us?"
Steve leaps into action, beheading the first robot with his shield while Natasha starts shooting at the weak points in their armour that Bruce has picked out for them.
"You happy now, Cap?" she calls out as she pushes an inert robot over so that it hits the ground.
"Oh yeah," he yells back, punching another robot in what passes for its face. "You?"
"Never better!" Natasha grins, because this is actually kind of enjoyable. It's not as though 'well-adjusted' ever appears in any superhero job description, after all.
"You didn't guess what I was thinking of!" Steve calls back, taking out three robots at once. "For a spy, you're pretty bad at this game."
"Shut up and pay attention, Cap, I don't want to die out here."
Once the killer robots have been defeated, they gather at Stark Tower. Tony's been gradually needling at them all to move in, but so far it's still only Bruce who's taken him up on it. Clint and Natasha both have bolt holes dotted all over New York that they usually retreat to, and Thor always goes back to Asgard eventually. Steve likes his Brooklyn apartment and the way it lets him pretend his life is occasionally normal, so long as he ignores all the stealth technology that SHIELD installed to try and give him some privacy.
Tonight, Natasha's got bruises and strains in all kinds of places and has no intention of spending a half-hour on the subway, and no one else seems keen to leave either. They're all slumped around one of Tony's many living rooms. Natasha is lying on a sofa flicking through files, her feet in Clint's lap while Clint stares into his glass and rests his hand on her ankle. Tony and Rhodey are slumped on another couch, their eyes closed while Pepper sits next to Bruce, the two of them quietly going through some paperwork. Thor is sprawled out over one armchair while Steve takes another, and none of them say much.
It's a comfortable kind of silence, interrupted only by Pepper getting up to make more coffee and soft choruses of good nights as one by one they all disappear into the depths of the building hunting for one of Tony's many guest rooms.
The next day, it's not until early afternoon that everyone's emerged, and morale is high. Fury seems moderately impressed with their handling of the killer robots from outer space situation, and with no other imminent threats, everyone settles into the welcome downtime. Coulson shows up with paperwork to a chorus of jeers before Pepper jumps up and manhandles him into a seat, setting a plate of pancakes down in front of him.
"Bribery won't work on me," Phil says around a mouthful of food that involves more maple syrup than pancake. "You're going to have to fill those in sooner or later." Pepper stands expectantly beside him. "These are delicious, though," he tells her, and she sits back down, smiling beatifically.
Clint reaches down from where he's perched on the breakfast bar and plucks up the top sheet from Phil's stack of papers, quickly folding it into a paper airplane and sending it zooming across the room.
"That the best you can do?" Bruce asks, grabbing the next sheet and sending his own plane over to land just past Clint's. Clint glares at him, and after that it's a fully-fledged competition, with Pepper alternating between moderating the proceedings and laughing at a mournful-looking Phil.
Steve decides to get presentation points instead, picking up some pens and turning his sheet into a tiny helicarrier, which does make Phil's pout lessen slightly, especially when Steve lets him keep it. Natasha teases him for that one, because Phil's fanboy crush on Captain America will forever remain both hilarious and adorable, especially when Steve starts letting slip some of Phil's more tongue-tied moments. She's lost count of the number of times she or Clint have said 'watched you while you were sleeping' either to each other or to Phil.
Tony wins with a impressive volley of paper planes late in the game, and everyone agrees that he's cheated somehow, but no one can figure it out until Natasha starts prowling around the room and spots a shifty-looking robot in the corner with an air jet extension.
Clint looks daggers at Tony but settles for stealing the rest of his food as revenge.
"An audacious ploy!" Thor declares. "Most devious, Man of Iron." He slaps Tony on the back so hard that he staggers forwards under the weight.
"Thanks, big guy," Tony says, wincing.
Thor laughs, loud and infectious, and then the rest of them start to go, except for Tony, who tries to look a picture of innocence and fails miserably.
Natasha lets them laugh while she quietly hacks into the robot. Once she's gained control she aims the air jet right at Tony, who knocks over half the crockery on the table as he dives for cover, yelping indignantly.
"JARVIS! JARVIS! I'm under attack!"
"I do not detect you to be in any current danger, sir," JARVIS replies.
"Traitors, all of you!" Tony yells. "I'll have you scrapped for parts! I'll turn you into toasters!"
Natasha grins wickedly and re-aims her weapon to where Tony's taken cover under the table. Absolutely no one runs to his aid as Tony continues to squawk protests, and Pepper calmly tidies up the table and goes to make a fresh pot of coffee. Thor watches the whole thing with interest, calling out occasional booming praise for Steve or advice for Tony.
Natasha shoots a meaningful glance over at Steve, and he considers his options for a moment before diving under the table and tickling Tony mercilessly.
"Oh noooo, god," Tony says between bouts of laughter, emerging from his hideout and surrendering to the double onslaught of Steve and Natasha (with helpful commentary being provided by Clint in the peanut gallery), "I thought you two were meant to be -- eehee hee hee -- the adults of the group. Bruce, feel like helping a guy out here?"
Bruce considers it. "No, not particularly. Steve, if you pin him down I'll get the Sharpie."
"Roger that," Steve says, earning him one of Tony's dirtiest looks.
Rhodey puts his feet up on the table and opens the paper, grinning at Phil, who can't help cracking a rare smile as Tony continues to shriek with a mixture of laughter and wounded pride. Natasha sets her co-opted robot to keep up the attack on Tony and goes to see Pepper in the kitchen.
"Hope you don't mind all the chaos," she says, stacking plates.
Pepper laughs. "I'm more than used to it. And when the team's around, the things that get broken tend to be a little easier to replace than when it's Tony and Bruce and Jane left to their own devices in one of the labs."
"They do all have a disturbing love of explosions," Natasha agrees.
Pepper walks back towards the main room, leaning against the doorway and watching as grown adults play around like toddlers. She smiles. "Tony and I were in our own little bubble for so long," she says, glancing over at Natasha. "It's actually really nice not to be each other's whole world any more."
Natasha looks to Clint, who's sitting backwards on a chair, flicking balls of paper at Tony's head and laughing his ass off. "Yeah, I know what you mean," she says.
"So," Hill says at Natasha's next review, flicking through her files while Natasha drinks her coffee. "How would you say the Avengers are shaping up?"
"Officially? We've still got kinks to work out - too many egos and people who aren't used to being team players. Although we may come together when it counts, we make mistakes, and we don't watch each other's backs the way we should. I'm working on it."
Hill nods, watching her for a moment. "And off the record?"
Natasha smiles, wrapping her hands around her mug. "Off the record? This is the most fun I've ever had."