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For Children

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They’re sitting around the huge communal table on the top floor of Stark Tower, now littered with the remains of an enormous takeout meal (Thai tonight). It’s become a weekly tradition to have a meal together ever since that first one in the aftermath of Loki’s horror, though instead of going out, they usually do it here. Sometimes one of them has to miss it, sometimes people bring guests, but if you’re in town, you walk up or take the elevator or come across town if you’re not bunking here at the moment, and you come. Swap stories and tell jokes and just... eat together.

And drink if you want: right now they’re all engaged in a rousing game involving truth, lies and copious amounts of cheap scotch -- Tony had given up using the good stuff once he saw what Thor did with it. It doesn’t affect Steve, of course, not really, but it does seem to loosen him up a little -- maybe something about the social ritual.

“Hey Natasha, think fast!” someone yells, and a wadded up napkin hits her in the head. For just a second, her instincts -- fight, flight -- kick in, and she tenses.

“No hulking out,” Bruce says quietly next to her, and she laughs, startled, with him and then everyone else.

“You’re going down, all of you,” she says, grinning, wadding up all the napkins within reach and pelting everyone with them. Eventually, as is predictable whenever Thor is there, food starts flying, but only the stuff that’s not edible, like the weird leaves they garnish things with, because Steve gets all serious if they waste actual food.

It ends like it usually does, with wrestling and a tickle fight or two.

“Come on, children,” Tony says eventually. “Rest time. Or you won’t have energy to play again tomorrow.”

Natasha frowns. Something’s there, a thought in the back of her head, something that makes her throat tight, something she can’t identify right now.

“Nat?” Clint asks, voice hushed.

“It’s okay,” she responds. “I just... Something.” She smiles at him and pats his arm. “I’m fine.”

“Yeah,” he says, eyes warm on her. “You are.”

Eventually they’re all draped on the comfy sofas that litter the space, except Clint of course, who’s perched in a corner on a huge padded stool that appeared out of nowhere one day. The glint in Tony’s eye when Clint took to it immediately had made Natasha smile. It had taken a while for her to figure it out, how and why Tony liked to get things for people.

It’s late. Really late, and eventually the laughter and jokes fade away. Someone hums a melody and someone else joins in with a sweet baritone. It makes Natasha think of tunes she heard on a record player, a lifetime ago. Turns out it’s Steve singing a song from a long-ago war. It’s filled with longing, but also warmth. A love song.

She gets it suddenly, what that niggling thought at the back of her brain was, and has to bite her lip to keep from making a sound.

She’d said once that love is for children. And she’d been right; she hasn’t changed her mind about that.

It’s just that, in these moments? These moments between, when they’re not defenders of earth or serious citizens, but just... them? They can be children, sometimes, with each other. And that feeling she gets, watching Pepper tease Tony, hearing Steve sing, watching Bruce and Thor wrestle and Clint beat Steve at hitting baskets in the trash can with parsley garnishes?

Yeah, she knows what that feeling is, as much as she doesn’t want it. Her eyes sting for a second out of nowhere and Clint’s hand comes down on her shoulder, gentle.

Steve smiles at her softly from across the room, letting her know in his own quiet way that he gets it.

Tony frowns, worried, watching out for her like he does everyone. She manages to smile at him and nod. He raises an eyebrow: okay?

She swallows, then nods -- Yeah, she’s okay -- and realizes how they’re all managed to learn each other’s silent languages of gestures and looks.

Thor and Bruce are watching her, but cover it up when she looks up at them. At some secret signal, though, they throw napkins at her that they’ve kept in reserve.

Pepper leans over and grabs the napkins, throws them back at them with one hand, grabs Natasha’s hand with the other and squeezes and it’s just...

Natasha takes a deep breath, then smiles at Pepper and squeezes her hand back. She lets herself hold on, rather than pull back like she usually would. Lets herself look around at all of them and really see.

Love is for children, she’d said to Loki, meaning it. And she’d been right, she’s still sure of that. The only thing she hadn’t quite been right about was thinking that meant she wouldn’t ever have it in her life.