It doesn’t really hit her until after when it coils up from deep inside her chest and suffocates her. She had been close to the end before but that had been the end of her life and she didn’t care about that so much. That was how she had trained to be, cold and unfeeling, but this was different. This was the world and everything that she had thought made sense until Thor fell from the sky last year and changed everything. He had been the unknown enemy and now they fought side by side and trusted each other. Trust, was not something Natasha was overly familiar with. It had always been something dangerous to give and confusing to receive.
It was just like Clint had told her as he recovered from Loki’s brainwashing, she wasn’t a soldier. There was nothing remarkable about her that set her aside other than the skills she had honed. There was no armour to protect her when she was thrown back into the cars and the rubble and the mass of screaming bodies that were desperate to get out alive. The bruises they didn’t have were hidden under long sleeves for weeks on Natasha’s pale skin. Practice kept her from flinching but no amount of training could stop her from hurting.
At the time it doesn’t mean anything but now a real fear sets into her bones and she wakes up during the night short of breathe, gasping, and trying not to give in to the urge to silently make her way to Clint’s room and ask for comfort. Maybe even Tony because as much as he is an asshole, he wouldn’t tell anyone. Natasha is pretty sure that he doesn’t cope as well as he would like others to think and that he might just get it a little better than the others. Of course, she is safe now and the portal is shut, Loki safely tucked away under Thor’s watchful gaze but now that one has come, she can’t help but wonder about the others.
It is not an isolated incident either, nothing she can write off as a one off thing, but something that keeps happening. She has flashbacks of the world fading away as she was thrown back into the side of a yellow cab, arches off the sheets as if trying to escape the pain that has long since faded away. Talking to a therapist briefly flashes through her mind before she shuts it down and locks it away, because she is an Avenger now. She is special and not in the good way. Now people either condemn her or expect her to be this indestructible force that nothing can hurt or affect because she is meant to be above that. They forget that she is mortal and, as much as she doesn’t want to admit it, breakable.
Steve, of course, eventually catches on, because he is their leader and though no one ever asked him to he feels a responsibility to them all. Natasha hated it originally because it connected them and made them a team, created a bond that she didn’t know how to handle because she was so used to just following orders and being alone. Even when she went in for Bruce she faced the major threat alone. He could easily have torn her to shreds before her backup got into the house.
“You okay, Natasha? You have seemed a little, well off and you know, I know you’ve never been into a battle as such before and I...” he begins on afternoon, appearing all of a sudden in the gym as she is finishing her workout and not looking at all like he intends to use the facilities.
“I can handle it,” she states, all tight lips and creased brow because that is what she desperately wants to believe but doesn’t and she can tell right away that neither does Steve.
He smiles, all flushed cheeks and golden hair and he looks so picture perfect that a part of Natasha wants to punch him in the face so that he might look even slightly as bruised as she feels, “Yeah, yeah ok,” and then he backs off. It confuses Natasha and infuriates her at the same time because she both wants, needs and detests this. All of it.
Tony is helpful but not and Natasha comes to the conclusion that he is dealing with his progression to hero status about as well as he is. Everything Steve had said to him during the last mission has got inside his head and made him think about himself instead of everything and everyone around him for once. Before it was about him in a way to show off or recover his reputation and now it is about him, and even if she feels bad Natasha can’t help but be glad that it isn’t just her. She finds vodka and he programmes JARVIS to not tell anyone else where they are and for a night they don’t deal with it but at least they forget for a little while.
In the end, Natasha goes to Steve and feels bad doing it because Clint so obviously wants her to talk to him.
“The rules are different now. I’m not even sure that we are playing the same game,” she begins softly, appearing from nowhere in the middle of Steve’s room as he watches a programme about the Cold War and tries to understand where it all went wrong. He turns it off the minute she speaks, doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even look her way but listens.
“You had dealt with Tony before though right? You knew about Bruce,” he starts carefully, the silent ‘and me’ being left unsaid as he finally turns slightly on his bed and angles himself towards her, inviting her to join him on the bed which she does so, trying to look confident.
“Those were things that people had done. They were scary and not normal but they were still us, and I guess I thought...”
“That if we created it, we could control it, humans that is,” Steve clarifies and she nods, “I guess so.”
“I’m not a soldier, Steve. I fought because I had to, because I could and others couldn’t. I didn’t think, because I was never trained to before. I was given an order and I followed it and now I realise what that meant. I realise what we dealt with and that could come next and I don’t know how to deal with that,” Natasha rattles off quickly, rubbing at her knees before meeting Steve’s eyes.
“In a way, that is a soldier though. You get an order, and you follow it and it is not your job to question it. I went into battle in the war not knowing who or what I would be facing and nothing made sense. Hell, I didn’t make sense. I didn’t really understand what I was doing to himself until I had done it and I was living the change. I couldn’t. It is normal to feel this way,” he assures her, not reaching out because he knows she wouldn’t accept that but offering support anyway.
“Does it go away? That ....fear, in what you are doing?” Natasha asks quietly.
“I hope not,” Steve replies bluntly, shrugging at Natasha’s raised eyebrows, “If you are not afraid to die then...you won’t fight so hard to live you know? You won’t fight so hard to protect the others that are counting on you. I think you need to be a little afraid, especially when it is people like Loki that we are dealing with.”
“I was trained not to be afraid.”
“This is not a training course and you’re not some damn pet that won’t get a treat if you don’t roll over. It is ok to feel, you know?”
That is a step too far and she flees his room, not mentioning their conversation again but appreciating it all the same. Steve doesn’t need to hear her thank him to know that she is grateful and that she gets it now. She gets that things are different now and can’t be contained in a folder that she can read, understand, and then follow orders from. There is the unknown and the unprepared and training comes on the job now. No, she doesn’t have a suit of armour or a monster inside that can protect her from the shower of bullets but she has her own skills. She can avoid the blows and anticipate the movements and be in the shadows until it matters. Different as she may be and as scared as she might feel at times, for once she feels like she has a place and more importantly that within this oddball group she can fit.