Phil’s funeral was on a Thursday.
Everyone had looked at Thor when the date was announced, but he simply shrugged and said “No day is the right day for the funeral of a friend.”
He came and went from Asgard as he pleased; he was liable to pop up at any time of the day or night, but Natasha heard through Bruce that Thor had spent a long time with Bruce and Tony working out relative time differences so that he wouldn’t miss the funeral.
Natasha had expected it to be quiet, just the Avengers and Hill and Fury; Phil had never existed, not in any official way, so it was a surprise to see so many people there. She forgot, sometimes, that S.H.I.E.L.D was more than just a handful of costumed weirdoes that needed wrangling.
It was a bland service, outdoors, a flag-draped coffin. Coffins, Natasha considered, always looked too small, far too small to contain a person. Her tights itched, and she clasped her hands together to stop herself from scratching.
Clint must have noticed her discomfort but ascribed a different cause to it, because he put an arm around her. She rested against him, watching the others. Pepper was crying, her handkerchief stained with mascara, and Tony had both arms around her, whispering in her ear. Natasha wasn’t surprised; Pepper and Phil had been close friends. As close as Phil ever got to any of them. Almost as close as he’d been to Natasha.
The thing that did surprise her was Steve and Thor both openly shedding tears, Thor’s hand clasped over Steve’s shoulder, both of them standing proud in their grief. Steve was wearing a suit, but Thor had opted for some sort of magnificent battle armour that gleamed in the morning sun.
“Look at them,” said Clint. “Warriors.”
“We’re warriors,” she said.
“We’re assassins,” he said. “There’s a difference.”
She didn’t cry, not even when Steve threw a handful of trading cards onto the coffin, not even when Thor threw his hammer and announced the burial with one short, hard thunderclap. She wanted to, but couldn’t make herself cry, and part of her was waiting for Phil to pop out of the coffin and announce that he was alive, and it had all been an elaborate, dickish hoax.
She wondered academically if anyone would cry at her funeral; if her new teammates would care for her.
They went back to Tony’s tower for the wake; none of the Avengers wanted to deal with other people, not when they were all still learning each other and dealing with the comedown from the high of battle. Natasha knew she had an advantage. Poor Bruce looked lost, half the time.
Fury vanished on the way back, but Hill returned with them.
“This place is like a nerd’s wet dream,” she said, as they walked into the atrium.
“Remove the like, substitute ‘Tony Stark’ for nerd, and you’ve got it in one. Drink?” said Natasha. Hill met her eyes and grinned.
“Please,” said Hill, and they made their way to the downstairs bar. The others had scattered — Natasha thought Bruce might be living there permanently now, and Steve definitely trained there. Clint, she didn’t know about. Clint had known Phil as well as she had; Clint and Natasha counted very few people as mostly trustworthy, and Phil had been one of them.
“It’s hard to think about him being gone,” said Hill. “He was such a fixture.”
“In our business, people come back from the dead all the time,” said Natasha.
Hill made a little noise that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “If he comes back from the dead without telling us, I’m going to kill him.”
“You’ll have to get through me first,” said Natasha, raising her glass, and together they toasted to death.
She waited a month before she cornered Bruce on the sly, where no-one could hear them talk. She didn’t want Clint to know about this, or Fury, or anyone. This was between the two of them.
“You’re looking predatory today,” Bruce said, with a somewhat defensive grin. “What can I do for you?”
“I need to train against the big guy,” said Natasha.
“You have got to be kidding me,” said Bruce.
“Do I look like I am?” she asked.
He made a face that was nothing like a smile, but not really a snarl either. “This conversation is over.”
She did cry for Phil, eventually, when the year turned around to her birthday and a courier delivered a little gift basket that contained a bottle of perfume, some new throwing knives, and a card that said with much love, Phil.
Fury came and found her in the Stark Tower gym, where she was punching the hell out of one of Steve’s bags and crying to herself as she did it. He didn’t try to hug her or soothe her, just listened to her talking and got her a drink.
“I don’t know how far ahead he planned the presents,” he said. “I hope it’s only this year. I got a hell of a shock when mine turned up, let me tell you.”
“He’s not still alive, is he?” she asked. “You’re not just lying to us, the way you always do?”
“No,” said Fury. He looked tired, she thought, more tired than usual. “I’m sorry, Natasha.”
“If you were lying, that’s what you’d say,” said Natasha.
“I know,” said Fury, and he met her eyes. “And I’m sorry.”
Eventually, the Hulk came out in battle. It was inevitable, but unfortunate, because the fight was so short that he barely managed to smash anything before the cleanup team arrived, and then they had an angry Hulk pacing around in Central Park, looking for something to uproot.
“Hulk!” Natasha called.
“What are you doing?” asked Tony.
“Hey Hulk!” Natasha faced him, getting into the danger zone. “Since you’re here, I want to train against you.”
The Hulk smiled. “Snap you like twig,” he said.
“I’m stronger than you might think,” she replied.
“Keep him occupied!” Steve called. “Just until the effect wears off, then we can all go home.”
“Thanks,” she called back, knowing that somewhere over her shoulder, Clint was glaring daggers at her. She stood, not even shifting her weight from foot to foot. Just stood, staring the Hulk right in the eyes.
“You afraid?” the Hulk asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“I don’t run from things that I’m afraid of.”
“You ran before,” he said.
“I needed to stay alive,” she replied. She’d needed to stay alive for so many reasons, but mostly to save Clint, and partly in order to make Loki eat his own teeth.
He grinned, all green skin and maw. Even his gums were slightly olive. “Not now?”
“I need this more,” she replied. “Fight me.”
“Hulk kill you,” he said.
“Then I deserve to die,” she replied, and it was on.
Later, she watched the footage that Tony had helpfully taken on his suit camera, the bruising above her ribs aching, but god it was satisfying watching the Hulk go down, even if only for a quarter of a second.
Tony eventually insisted that they move in to his overly technological tower, and even went so far as to re-name the damn thing after the Avengers. At first, Natasha didn’t want to come and live there — she’d been on Stark babysitting duty before, and her patience only ever went so far.
But given that even Thor was making the effort to stay in the Avenger Tower some nights, she thought she needed to join in. And once she was in, she was comfortable — they each had their spaces, and she didn’t have to cross paths with any of the others if she didn’t want to. After a battle there was usually an impromptu meeting in the penthouse bar, where they could sit and look out over the city and get well and truly hammered.
No pun intended, in Thor’s case.
Thor fascinated her. The guy was a god, wasn’t he? How did that even work? Why the hell did he want to hang around with them? She asked him, the next time they’d stopped his asshole brother from trying to take over the world, when Steve was in the shower and Tony and Pepper had wandered outside to look at the deepening sky, and Bruce was off…being Bruce. Clint had settled close to her. He seemed to do that more often than not, these days.
She turned to Thor. “Why do you hang around with us?” she asked.
Thor chuckled. “I may as well ask you why do you hang around with me?” She could almost hear the careful selection of slang, and it made her smile. He beamed, his grin so warm she could almost bask in it. “I fight with you because I swore to defend Midgard, and while a lone defender can be a very mighty man, he can also be…vulnerable.” He shook his head. “I know this to be a fact; the first incarnation of the Rainbow Bridge was guarded by one man and one alone. And Asgard itself has been too long relying on the protection of the All-father. I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of my past.”
“So how does it all work?” she asked.
“How does what work?” said Thor.
“This thing. This Asgard, Midgard thing.”
“I can explain it,” said Thor. “It’s not difficult; there are worlds, and we are on one called Midgard. I was born on another, and Loki…” He trailed off. “Loki was born on another. Do you have a pen? It is easier to draw it.” He got a sort of fond, faraway look. “The first time Jane and I talked about it, I drew her a picture.”
She didn’t have a pen, because Stark Tower didn’t have anything as banal and common as pens, but it did have one of Tony’s tablet computers, that — to Thor’s delight — had an astronomy app on it, so he used that instead, talking about constellations and trees. She only just followed his explanation; she felt like an eyeless sea slug from the Mariana Trench trying to understand downtown Manhattan, but Thor was patient. She’d seen him knock a bad guy with his hammer for hesitating, but with his friends, Thor was patient.
“You like the stars, don’t you?” she asked, remembering that his girlfriend was an astrophysicist.
“Everywhere has stars,” said Thor.
“There’s got to be more universal constants than that,” said Natasha, as Clint put his hand onto the small of her back.
“There are,” said Thor. “But the stars are the best place to start.”
Of course sometimes after battle, they all wound up in the medical bay instead of the penthouse bar. Natasha stripped off her battlesuit to the waist, her whole body aching.
“Nice,” said Clint, surveying the gash in her upper arm. “Want me to dress it?”
“Not until you get that concussion seen to,” she replied, even though he probably could dress it with his eyes closed and amnesia. This wasn’t Clint’s first rodeo.
“Clint, this way,” said Bruce, steering him off. “Steve, can you and Jarvis work on Natasha?”
Bruce still had his emergency shorts on, and nothing else. Tony had taken to carrying them, just in case, after one too many blurry cellphone photos of Bruce’s junk had wound up on the Internet. He patiently led Clint away, and Natasha found herself being gently manhandled by Steve to sit on one of the nice clean beds.
“Cheer up,” said Steve. “He’ll be back.”
“What?” she asked. “Oh…I…it’s not like that.”
He looked over to Tony and Pepper, who seemed to be treating minor medical care as a public form of foreplay.
“Uh-huh,” he said, wiping over the gash with an alcohol wipe. “This is clean. We can glue it. JARVIS?”
“Right here,” said JARVIS, offering a tray with one nimble robotic arm. “Do be thorough.”
“I’m thorough,” said Steve, and Natasha remembered that it wasn’t his first rodeo, either. “Although I’ll give you a dollar if you go and goose Stark.”
“I do not need a dollar,” said JARVIS, but it seemed that the temptation was too great, because there was a squawk from the direction of Tony and Pepper, and then a rude gesture in Steve and Natasha’s direction.
Tony and Pepper were easy. Well, not easy, not in the sense of marrying your high school sweetheart and having two-point-four kids and a dog and a nice house in the suburbs, but easy because they fitted together like the pieces of a jigsaw. Hard in its own way, she guessed, because once you lose a jigsaw piece, then the puzzle is broken for good. Clint was easy, but in a totally different way. In a way where they could fuck and fight and no-one’s heart got broken, and no-one had to call the other and say a last goodbye because they knew every goodbye was the last one.
Steve — she didn’t know about. His touch was firm and assured when he used the glue to seal the gash on her arm, and then he bandaged it expertly. He’d be a good lover, if he kept that confidence and that pressure.
“Come and have a drink with me,” said Natasha.
“Mineral water,” said Steve. “For both of us. I’m not giving you booze on top of painkillers.”
“You can drink, though,” she said.
“No point,” said Steve. “Metabolism.”
She looked in on Clint on her way out, but he was curled up in one of the beds in the isolation area, Bruce sitting quietly beside him. It looked like he’d found some more flattering pants, at least. She tapped on the window, and Bruce looked up, smiled, and waved her away.
“It’s hard watching them, isn’t it?” said Steve, cracking two bottles of some fancy mineral water that Tony had imported especially for Steve and Bruce, who also didn’t like drinking in case of Hulk showing up.
“What?” asked Natasha.
“When Tony and Pepper go into Tony and Pepper land.” He took a mouthful.
“They’re not as bad as Thor and Jane,” Natasha replied, because Thor and Jane were sickening.
“Or you and Clint,” said Steve.
“We’re not really…really,” said Natasha.
Steve laughed bitterly. “Don’t deprive yourself of something good just because you think you should be too tough to love.”
“You need to get laid,” said Natasha.
“Thank you for your diagnosis, Doctor Romanov,” said Steve, with a gentle smile. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t fill the prescription.”
“Are you a virgin?” she asked, leaning back into her chair.
“Natasha,” said Steve, turning back to his drink.
She shuffled closer to him. “You seriously telling me that you spent a year or so traveling with showgirls and you never got it on with any of them?”
Steve went pink. “There might have been some…goings on,” he said, and no matter how much she pressed him, that was all he’d say.
“What’s the difference between an assassin and a warrior?” she asked, the sheets pooled around her waist. It had been bothering her, sticking in her mind like a nail on the bottom of her shoe.
Clint ran his hand up and down her bare spine. “PR,” he said. “And fearlessness.”
“I’m fearless,” she said, resting her chin on his chest.
He bent awkwardly to kiss her. “No,” he said. “You’re not.”
Natasha went to Phil’s grave on the anniversary of the battle, that unforgettable day and night that had blurred into one long fight. The Avengers had met, and fought together, and somehow that had been the basis for them to join together permanently as a team. The rain whipped in under her umbrella, and thunder sounded somewhere nearby.
She wondered if Thor was remembering too.
She recognized Clint’s gait as he squelched across the soggy ground toward her, and she didn’t flinch when he joined her under her umbrella, putting his arms around her waist, tucking his chin over her shoulder. She didn’t know what she was mourning, really — Phil, or the way things used to be.
“Amazing that it’s only a year,” said Clint,
“I keep thinking we’ll be on a mission, and he’ll be back, and everything will change again,” said Natasha. “Is that stupid?”
“No,” said Clint, close to her ear. “But even if he is alive somewhere, I don’t think he’s going to return.”
Fury had been the one to send them downtown — apparently the X-Men were fighting Magneto again, only this time Magneto had got control of someone who could blow himself up but still survive. Wonderful. The X-Men weren’t doing so well, either — it seemed that there weren’t many mutations out there that allowed one to survive an explosion.
She’d met Charles Xavier once, and he’d caught her hand, looking at her with bright, piercing eyes. He would have been good looking when he was younger, but now he looked like her grandfather, that same, bright gaze.
“We are reflected in our enemies,” he’d said. “I fight Magneto because I fear what I could become if I lost control. He fights me because he fears what would happen if he gave in. What do you fight?”
“I don’t fight someone in particular,” she’d replied. “I fight anyone who threatens Earth.”
“No,” he’d said. “You don’t fight anyone. You fight everyone.”
And so what of that? She’d puzzled it over, chased after an answer at night until Clint — who had started sharing her bed, and she hadn’t kicked him out because…she hadn’t kicked him out — had complained about her tossing and turning.
It didn’t help when she was going up against someone who could explode at will, anyway.
“Get the fuck out of there,” said Tony. Natasha winced, her earpiece turned up miles too high. “I’ve got CCTV to the main room. He’s going to blow!”
Tony was pissed because they’d banned him from coming along. Someone had pointed out that Iron Man and Magneto were probably not the best combination, and he’d been relegated to the command center.
“No chance,” she said. “I’m at a dead end; the plans we had for the building were wrong.”
“Fuck,” said Tony. “Fuck. Turn around and fucking run.”
Yeah, she could do that, but there were mutants behind her, and Natasha was very good at picking her fights and she knew when she was outnumbered and outclassed. A crash caught her attention, and then another, and then another, and then her field of vision went green as the Hulk tackled her to the ground and covered her body with his.
The explosion followed fast on the Hulk’s heels; he held her close as the bomb went off, and sure, Natasha was tough, but the pressure wave from a bomb could still rip her apart, unlike the Hulk, who clamped his hands over her ears and sheltered her against his chest. He smelled like sweat and gunpowder, and his whole body shook when the blast hit them. She felt no shame in curling into him and hoping like hell his Hulk-ness was enough to protect them both.
It was. He rose from the rubble of the building like a green phoenix, dragging her with him. Her comm crackled.
“Natasha?” It was Clint, talking in her ear. “Natasha, please.”
“I’m all right,” she said, feeling like her throat was coated with bits of building dust. “Filthy, but all right.”
“Oh thank god,” said Clint. “I’ll run a bath.”
“Yeah,” she said, still hanging on to the Hulk. “You do that.”
The Hulk dragged them both out to the street, setting her down on an undamaged bit of road, shuddering and changing back into Bruce as Steve and Thor ran to them.
Steve bundled her into a swift, tight hug. “We were so worried,” he said, kissing her cheek. He clapped Bruce on the back. “I’m glad both of you pulled through.”
“Natasha!” said Thor, with a grin. “That was a mighty explosion; if we were in Asgard, there would be songs about it.” She was sure he was shitting them — he liked to make bizarre and, according to Jane, utterly untrue statements about Asgard when it suited his mood. He clapped Bruce on the back too. “And for my bravest friend, trousers.”
“Oh thank god,” said Bruce. “Did you two at least stop the crazed mutants?”
“Mostly,” said Steve. “The X-Men got the last bit.”
“And Magneto?” asked Natasha.
Thor shook his head. “Escaped,” he said.
“You saved me,” said Natasha, to Bruce as he dragged on the pair of ugly purple trackpants that Thor had given him.
“The Hulk saved you,” said Bruce. “But I helped.”
“Why?” she asked. “That had to hurt.”
“That’s what friends do,” said Bruce, with a smile. “We couldn’t just let you die.”
Her next birthday, she got another package from Phil.
She didn’t know if he was alive, or if he’d just set these things up forever. Or if it was Fury, sending her presents because he didn’t know when to leave well enough alone. She supposed it didn’t matter. She opened it in bed with Clint, because someone (definitely Fury) had told him when her birthday was, and he’d taken her out for a dinner that had been more of a date than a dinner.
Steve had winked at her on her way out. She’d ignored him, but grinned as soon as she’d gotten out the door. He’d been noticeably coy, lately. She needed to get to the bottom of that mystery — later.
Clint kissed her shoulder as he fastened Phil’s present around her neck — a long drop chain with a crystal pendant that sat heavy between her breasts.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked.
She smiled. “You,” she said.
“Should I be flattered, or are you planning to kill me?” he asked, and she took that as permission to roll him over and trap him between her thighs, leaning down to kiss him.
Of course, they were scrambling back into their clothes less than five minutes later, because Tony was on the video comms, ogling at them and announcing that Loki was back again and still crazy as ever, and Tony didn’t care if they were fucking, they were needed.
She zipped her suit over the crystal pendant, feeling it warm to her body heat, not quite over her heart. If she were sentimental — she wasn’t — she might have been thinking something twee, but mostly she was thinking about putting Loki away for once and for all.
She squeezed Thor’s shoulder before she sat next to him in the jet. Bruce looked twitchy; chances were they’d see the Hulk by the end of the day. Steve was up front with Tony, and Clint on her other side.
“Thank you,” said Thor, in the silence before takeoff. “I would rather fight alongside no other warriors when it comes to subduing my brother.”
“Warriors?” asked Natasha.
“Own it,” said Clint, and then the g-force threw them all back into their seats and they were off to save the world.