Natasha is very quiet after they rescue her. Natasha isn't known for being particularly talkative, but all the same her silence resounds. She gives clipped answers at the debriefing that create more questions than answers.
They all know something happened, something bad, but there's no way to ask.
In the end, it's Steve who sets her off. They're sparring in the gym, something that's not uncommon, when Clint catches her off guard and knocks her off balance.
Steve, being the gentleman he is, catches her before she falls, his large hands circling her waist. She shrieks like he's burned her and shoves him away. Surprised, he drops her and she crumples to the ground.
The room freezes.
Are you okay? Steve asks softly, hesitantly.
Breathing heavy, she pulls herself back to her feet, doing her best to ignore five inquiring pairs of eyes.
I'm fine, she says, her voice too controlled. I'm just not feeling well.
The tension in the room doesn't dissipate when she turns and leaves.
They have press conferences and parties that Fury forces them to attend occasionally. Tony handles them best, being that he's been in the public eye since the moment he was born. Ordinarily, Natasha pulls smoothly into second, charming her way through on a razor thin edge of alluring and deadly, but now she hides in shadows and unflattering clothing.
The paparazzi ask for a photo and Clint throws an arm around her the way he has a thousand times before. He feels her tense next to him, even though she's smiling her beautiful smile.
The picture appears in a magazine and, when he sees it, Clint notices the dead look in her eyes and frowns.
The Avengers work like a machine. Cogs turn cogs and they push and pull each other to be the best they can be. But one cog doesn't turn as smoothly as it used to and the whole mechanism is suffering. They all feel its effect, but no one says a word.
That is, until Clint enters the kitchen with a split lip and a blackening eye.
There's something wrong with Natasha, he says.
Yes, they all agree. But uncomfortable glances around the room make it clear they don't have a clue what to do.
She's gaining weight, Tony says, weeks later.
You're an asshole, Clint says.
But Tony's right. She's not as trim as she used to be, even if only slightly. She doesn't stand as straight as she used to and she's stopped drinking coffee. All signs point to one thing, but they don't want to say it, don't want to think about what it means.
One morning, Bruce is making eggs and bacon as the rest of the men sit sleepily around the table. From the other room, they hear the muffled sound of retching.
I think, Thor says sadly, our fair Natasha is with child.
For several moments, the world stands still.
Tony breaks the silence with That fucker.
The group exhales. Their eggs are a little burnt, but they can't really taste anything anyway.
Clint's face is a pretty good indicator of how much she wants to talk about it, but they try to be helpful in small ways. Tony redesigns her suit under the pretense of it being outdated and subtly pads in all the right places. Steve stocks the fridge with extra pickles and ice cream, claiming he likes them, but he seems rather unbothered when they disappear suddenly. Bruce designs a better vitamin, says it's for the team, but the men take placebos. Clint stays closer to her than he probably should during battles, even when she snaps at him. And if guards in prison find her kidnapper mysteriously covered in nasty bruises the morning after Thor is away visiting Asgard, no one says a word.
Natasha still doesn't talk much and she's picked up the habit of chewing the corner of her lip. But sometimes she'll give them the smallest, tiniest nod and their stomachs turn a little less. But only a little.
Despite their best efforts, their line of work is dangerous and Natasha determinedly ignores their faint suggestions that they could handle it without her.
It's a nightmare realized when they defeat the Villain of the Week, only to find her huddled in a corner in a pool of her own blood, eyes and fists clenched tight. Tony immediately grabs her and flies her to a hospital.
The men wait in the waiting room anxiously, still in uniform, ignoring awed stares from their neighbors.
After far too long, a sad looking doctor seeks them out.
I'm sorry for your loss, he says to no one in particular. Their hearts stop. But Natasha is okay. She's going to be fine.
There's a moment of silence where the information sinks in.
Thank you, Steve says softly. Can we see her?
Natasha is drugged within an inch of her life. She gives them a vague sort of wobbly smile when they enter.
Hey, they say.
I'm fine, she answers.
Clint moves to take her hand and she laces her fingers through his. Thor brushes a hair off of her clammy face.
I'm fine, she repeats.
They nod, but Steve has to leave because he doesn't want to cry in front of her.
They let them take her home the next day. Natasha, pride still intact, refuses a wheelchair. When they insist, she gives them a look that could actually kill and they relent.
The media swarms outside, cameras flashing and people yelling. They form a circle around her, Thor in front making a path by shoving the crowd out of their way. They get her in the car first before piling in themselves. Tony, ever the gentleman, flips them off before Happy speeds them away from the madness.
She doesn't seem to know what to do when they get back to the tower. She looks around absently, as though their home was a place she knew long ago.
You want something to eat? Clint asks. I can make you-
No, she answers, her hand absently drifting to her stomach.
It's for the best, Clint says gently.
I know. But she doesn't sound like she believes it. He goes to touch the small of the back, but she shies away. I think I'm just going to go to bed.
Clint stares at her bedroom door sadly until Bruce gently takes his elbow and steers him away.
He winds up making crepes and the men gather around the television to watch something no one pays attention to, turning the volume loud enough to drown out the sound of sniffles.
She doesn't emerge for three days. Clint goes in periodically to bring her food and to make sure she hasn’t done anything rash with the vast amounts of weaponry in her bedroom. They look expectantly at him when he exits, but he just shakes his head sadly.
They finally fill Fury in on what’s been going on and he’s, well, furious he hadn’t been informed previously. All the same, the X-Men are mysteriously called to a spontaneous month long conference in New York, so they’re given some time off. There are conversations about going on vacation, about beaches and alcohol and freedom, but they never really amount to anything.
It’s similar to having a ghost in the house, living with Natasha. Her presence is felt, but there’s no way to communicate. She drifts between the companies of the others, spending little time alone. She never speaks. They don’t say anything about it, but they make small adjustments. Tony swaps the hard rock he blares in his lab with classical music. Bruce talks to himself just loud enough about the projects he’s working on. Thor sings Asgardian ballads of epic wars as he does his laundry. Clint buys Russian literature and hides it among his collection of books. Steve makes sure to have extra charcoal and paper with him when he sits down to sketch.
Once, she abruptly gets up and leaves and Steve gets the opportunity to look at what she’d been drawing. It’s dark: a faceless girl in an alley with a dark shadow one step behind, pulling without touching. The others look at each other helplessly when he shows them.
They want to, but they don’t understand. They can’t understand.
But slowly, so very slowly Natasha begins to let them in.
Tony’s working on a sleeker design for his suit as Natasha sits a ways away, watching absently and twirling a screwdriver around her fingers, when Tony decides it’s time. He’s had this story in the back of his mind since the incident, but never really found a good moment to bring it up. He may be an asshole, but he’s not socially inept; she’s not doing great and if Tony understands anything, it’s that.
When I was in college, he tells her, not looking up from his work. I slept with this girl. Her name was… Marie, I think.
He waits for a snarky comment and tries not to be too disappointed when it doesn’t come.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was her first time. She said she was on the pill and I wasn’t going to complain, because condoms are the fucking worst. They’re tight and you can’t-- that’s not the point. The point is she probably lied about it, because she got knocked up. I didn’t know until, like, a year later when her friend slapped me across the face at a party and screamed at me that Marie had never been the same since the abortion, which made it get really awkward really fast. I mean, she was pretty drunk and really cute and if I remember correctly I totally got with her-- Fuck. I’m rambling. Look, I have never wanted to be a dad, but I always felt like it was kind of fucked up that that happened without my even knowing. Like, it was mine, but then it was gone before I even knew it. You know?
It’s a rhetorical question really, but Yeah, I do is the soft answer he gets, so quiet he thinks he might of imagined it. Then he begins to squirm, because Tony sucks at emotional stuff and this getting way too deep for him to be able to handle.
Wanna blow stuff up? he blurts out and he’s willing to bet his entire fortune that her lips formed the ghost of a smile.
A few days later, Thor offers to spar with her and she gives a little nod. Challenges between the two are also bizarrely fascinating, because they have intensely different approaches to battle: Thor with brute strength and Natasha with precision and speed. They force each other to improve, but the process is exhausting and frustrating.
It’s a fair match, Thor is pleased to find. Despite her lack of interest in training lately, she’s keeping up with him and he’s genuinely trying. But he spends a moment too long thinking about it and suddenly she’s pinned him to the ground.
Well done, he booms, laughing at his own foolishness. She nods and rolls off of him, panting. She sits a small ways away from him and closes off, leaning her chin on her knee, a tight expression on her face as she tries to catch her breath. What troubles you? Are you displeased with your victory?
She shakes her head quickly and tucks into herself, pulling her legs in close to her body. It’s then he realizes that this had nothing to do with their match. He goes and sits next to her, silently watching her struggle not to cry.
Why do you refuse to weep, my lady? he asks, genuinely confused.
I’m not- she answers. I don’t need to-
In Asgard, tears are admired. Those who freely express emotion are the strongest of soul.
It's not like that here, she replied, brow furrowed with effort.
Asgard and Midgard hold different values, but our people are not so different.
Her lips twitch slightly and a tear escapes. She wipes it away hastily and wraps her arms around her legs, tucking into a neat little ball. Thor watches her for a moment then moves close again, placing his arm very carefully around her. Slowly, so very slowly, she leans into his touch. Her hands stay locked around her ankles, but her head presses against his shoulder.
They sit in silence for too long, but it’s okay.
She reaches out to them in little ways. She’ll pour Tony a cup of coffee or ask how Steve’s day was or turn on the Jersey Shore when Clint walks into the common area.
It’s not much, not really, but it’s something.
I was pregnant, she says and Bruce stops his notations. It’s the first time she’s ever said anything explicit about the whole thing. Nothing prompted it. They’d been sitting in silence as he completed his experiment.
Yes, he answers, turning off his Bunsen burner.
I was going to have a baby. It sounds as though she’s trying the words out on her tongue, trying to find the combination that fits correctly.
Yes, he answers after a pause.
I lost it. She’s staring at the ground with a purposefully blank expression and Bruce wishes he could fix it. He wishes he could mend her broken heart, put a cast on it and set it free again when it’s well.
Yes, he says, careful to keep his voice level.
I never wanted to be a mother. That was always for other women. But... She trails off and Bruce says nothing. I never wanted it, she says and there’s purpose and force behind her words, so I shouldn’t care that it’s gone.
It’s not that simple, he says gently.
It should be.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where everything was as it should be? he jokes, but it only makes her look more grim.
Natasha. She looks up at him and for a moment he sees how she used to be, all edges and points, but it’s gone in a flash and her eyes become blank again. It’s okay to be upset about it. It would be traumatic no matter the circumstance.
I should be relieved.
You’d be heartless if you didn’t have mixed feelings about it.
I used to be, she says, her voice tinted with something that sounds too much like nostalgia.
I don’t think that’s true.
Her expression changes in the smallest way and Bruce reads confusion in her glance. Has she believed this whole time she didn’t have a heart? Then he gets it.
She’s been silent this whole time not because she didn’t want to talk about it, but because she didn’t know how. She’s not an emotional being; she really doesn’t have girlfriends to talk feelings with. She’s been trapped within herself. Alone. Bruce can’t even begin to fathom what she’s going through but that? That he can understand.
I’m sorry, he says and there’s horror in her stare.
Don’t, she snaps, forceful and controlled. No. Don’t be.
You lost someone close to you. Literally. I can’t even imagine what that’s like, but I’m so sorry.
Natasha shakes her head in short little bursts and gets to her feet, fleeing.
But the next day she comes back and she offers to help with his work, so he figures they’re okay.
Steve discovers frozen yogurt and falls completely in love with it.
It’s like ice cream! he tells Natasha, who’s fiddling with her cup of coffee. Except better! It’s so smooth. You have to try it. You’ve probably had it. Have you had it?
You have to try it. Want to come?
Didn’t you just have some? she asks and there’s a hint of her old skepticism.
Oh. Well. Yeah. You’re right. He feels a blush creep up his neck. It was really good and he got carried away. He begins to leave the kitchen. Maybe another time.
No, she says and he stops. She stands. We can go.
You’re going to love it! he cries and her lips quirk up ever so slightly.
It’s not until they’re outside that he realizes this is probably a terrible idea. Natasha hasn’t left the tower in weeks and the media is going wild over it. Halfway there, a camera flashes and Natasha’s face, which had been more relaxed than it had been since the kidnapping, closes off.
Miss Romanoff, there are rumors about your— a young reporter starts to say, but Steve is having none of it. He’s tired of seeing her forlorn and upset, not that he blames her of course, and he refuses to let this reporter bring her back to that dark place, so he sort of impulsively decks him.
Steve feels bad about it moments later, after he’s splayed out across the pavement, holding a gushing nose. But Natasha’s laughing. Really laughing. Wide smiled, shoulders shaking laughing. He hasn’t seen her smile in months and he can’t really remember her laughing ever, but it’s such a lovely sound that he starts laughing too. The reporter clambers up and runs off, screaming that they’re psychos, but that just makes them laugh harder.
They’re still giggling when they get their frozen yogurt and Steve was right: Natasha does love it.
The next day, Steve hears her call his name from the kitchen. He leaps off the couch, nearly toppling Tony, and he finds her sitting at the table, holding a newspaper. Clint is looking between them, expression caught between suspicious and worried.
Yeah? Steve answers.
I think I’m craving frozen yogurt, she says and lays down the paper, which displays the bold headline “SUPERHEROES OR MENACES?” and a picture of them laughing with a blood splattered reporter in the background. He barks out a laugh, nearly startling Clint off of his chair, and Natasha smiles.
The group is lulled into a false sense of security. She’s started spending some time alone again and her snarky off hand comments begin to come more frequently. So they think she’s doing okay. She’s moving forward. Everything will go back to normal.
These reptile things invade New York and the Avengers are called in to deal with it. It’s more of a nuisance than anything, but, seriously, what the hell is this world coming to?
The battle is basically over, just a few stragglers trying to take down anything they can. One knocks Natasha off her feet as it throws a car at a building and a dark look unlike anything they’d ever seen before crosses her face.
See, Natasha has always been the one for neat, clean kills. She doesn’t like to get emotionally involved in taking down her targets, preferring to get the job as effectively and quickly as possible.
So when she grabs that thing with her infamous thigh hold and slams it down to the ground, they aren’t surprised. When she grabs a long, sharp knife and cuts its head off, they raise an eyebrow. When she stabs the clearly dead creature in the chest and drags the knife down, essentially gutting it, they’re a little uneasy. But when she begins to repeatedly stab the organs of the gutted, decapitated thing, they realize that they’ve made a terrible miscalculation.
Natasha, Clint says gently and she looks up, startled, as though she didn’t know where she was. She looks down and sees the mess of amphibian goop and blood and drops her knife, stumbling backwards and staring at her handiwork. Let’s go home.
The ride home is too quiet and she peels off as soon as she can, heading straight for her shower. The rest part silently, each wondering how he could have been so stupid.
Clint curls up in his bed that night and pulls the blankets around himself like a cocoon. He hates this. It’s always been him and Natasha, since the moment he saw something in her that wasn’t worth following orders. But he can’t reach her anymore. The men talk and she’s had little moments with all of them but not him. He, who was closest to her, who has always been closest to her, is now last.
He doesn’t know what to do.
He tries to keep things normal. Routine is best, especially after a tragedy. It keeps a person centered and not consumed in what happened. They train together as they used to and he makes food and she eats it and maybe he throws in a few more Russian recipes than he ordinarily would make, but why shouldn’t he? He’s trying, he’s trying so hard with no gain and he’s furious. He’s furious with that fucker who started this in the first place; he’s furious with himself for not being there to prevent this whole thing from happening; he’s furious with her even for not giving him any way in, for being unreadable, for going to the rest of the team when she should have come to him.
These thoughts tumble around his brain and sleep begins to pull down his eyelids when the small, still conscious part of him registers the sound of his door opening and closing again.
Natasha? he calls automatically, voice thick with sleep and lacking in hope.
Yeah is the reply and he sits up so fast the room spins. And there she is. He can make out her outline from the moonlight pouring through the window, face hard, one hand still on the door.
They stare at each other for a long moment.
What’s up? he asks.
I’m sorry, she says and he knows how hard that is for her to say.
No, no. Don’t be. You have nothing to be sorry for.
No, I do, she insists but then hesitates. He places his bare feet on the ground and pushes himself up, taking a few careful steps toward, reaching one hand out to her. Slowly, she puts her hand in his and he hadn’t realized how much he missed the familiarity of her touch until this moment. I didn’t know what to say to you. I didn’t— I—
It’s not. Clint. I—I’m not doing great. I’m… I’m not okay.
There’s a long pause and he can just make out the way she sets her lips.
I should go, she says uncomfortably and turns to leave, but he moves and catches the door as it opens.
You should stay.
Together, they slowly close the door and the click of the latch seems to echo in the silence of the room. They stare at each other.
Do you remember in Budapest, he says after a long while, when the building was on fire and I’d been shot and we were surrounded?
How could I forget? It’s no more than a whisper and the smallest quirk of lips.
I tried to get you to go ahead without me, but you looked at me like I was insane and said, ‘Barton, if you think a stupid little thing like this is going to separate us, you must be doing worse than I thought.’
It’s a fond memory of Clint’s and it’s one he’s never once let slip from his mind. They’re partners through and through. They don’t let incredibly unfavorable odds or gods with daddy issues or fuckers who violate women’s bodies and cause unfathomable emotional damage get between them. And he wants her to remember that, because, quite simply, he misses her.
They meld together slowly, her head tucked into the crook of his neck, his arms wrapped around her.
She stays the night in his room and he’s surprised when she leans back into him. When necessity created tight sleeping quarters, she would normally either facing away or wrap an arm around him. He pulls her in close and she lets him and they lie there, listening to each other breathe until the sound lulls them to sleep.
In the morning, just as he’s starting to wake, still curled around her, she talks. It’s hesitant and lacking in detail, but she’s talking and that’s good. She talks about how, in a moment, she lost control of the situation, about being held and tied and how he—
She talks about how uncomfortable she was after, how she was afraid to touch and be touched; about the flashbacks she’d had when Steve grabbed her when she hadn’t expected it. She talks about the indications and taking the pregnancy test and panicking; about not knowing what to do or say; about insurmountable fear and anger and indecision. She talks about that day and the pain and the blood and the panic and the worried faces of the Avengers staring down at her in a too white room. She talks about grief she doesn’t deserve to have; about the feeling of darkness; about the constant need to scream; about the little ways she could ease the tension, with Tony’s understanding and Thor’s warmth and Bruce’s compassion and Steve’s protection. She talks about not knowing how to come to Clint; about being afraid to be weak; about hating her own weakness, but not knowing how to conquer it; about her horror in the ways she’s changed; about how it brought her back to him.
When she finishes, they lay there in silence and he pulls her a little closer, close enough that his breath tickles her shoulder. After a while, she wipes her face, gets up, and leaves. He rolls onto his back and listens to the muffled sound of a shower running in the other room.
It’s a slow process, but things return to a semblance of normality. Natasha will never be exactly the same. They know that. But her razor wit and quick thinking returns. Every so often, a dark, haunted look will come across her face. Sometimes she needs to dwell in those feelings for a bit and other times they know it’s best to draw her out of it and still other times Thor actually turns all of his clothes pink in the wash and needs her to fix it, but they do their best to help her out.
They stop treating her like she’s fragile though, because she’s not. She’s been through more than they can imagine, but she still holds her chin high and keeps moving forward. When she needs them, they’re there, but for the most part she does okay. She been broken and bruised, but she’s okay.