It happens fast.
There's a standoff, and a bomb, and a girl. The girl is young, maybe just out of high school, maybe younger. She is angry and lost and scared, and when she moves her finger to set off the bomb, she's dead.
Natasha's finger is quick and in the aftermath she's quick to leave. The situation was rough, and unexpected. The what-ifs and hows don't matter now. She can still see Steve's face, distressed, and his yell when the girl fell.
They aren't like her. The others are heroes, ideal, the type of people that don't kill unless it's absolutely necessary – even if it'll save them a lot of time down the road. Even Tony, asshole that he is, holds a certain idealism about always being able to save everyone.
She can request to join SHIELD again. Fury will understand what she had to do. She can hear the others' reports now.
“And you said I wasn't the team player,” Tony will say, “we had it under control and Annie Oakley here got trigger happy.”
“She was a child,” Steve will say.
“I'm sure Natasha thought she was acting in our best interests,” Bruce will say.
“We do not put children to war in Asgard,” Thor will say.
And Clint? She doesn't want to think about Clint. He was high up, opposite her. He could have made the shot, but he didn't.
She doesn't go back to the tower, but to an apartment she keeps in the city. The others took to the Avengers Tower easily, but she isn't willing to have only one base. Things change, people change, situations change, and she may be an Avenger today but tomorrow could bring a complete flip.
She packs a bag with clothes, supplies, and a fake passport. She leaves it on her bed and goes to her porch that overlooks the city.
When she hears her front door open, she knows who it is. Only one other person knows she keeps this apartment. She glances over her shoulder to see Clint flipping through the passport lying on top of her bag.
“Haven't seen this one in awhile,” he says. He tosses it back on the bag and joins her on the balcony. He leans against the railing and looks at the street below them. “You running?”
“Moving ahead of the storm,” she replies.
She should be gone. She has base instincts, telling her to abort the mission right now. She has a layer above that, telling her to resign back to SHIELD before this goes any further. Then, most dangerous, is the layer that gave Clint enough time to find her.
“Looks like a clear day to me,” he says.
She leans forward on the railing. “You didn't take the shot.”
“I would have.”
He glances at her. “You know, Stark's money and brain and suit make him pretty useful,” he says. “Thor has that big hammer of his, and he's actually pretty good at tactics. Banner knows science enough to keep Stark in line, and he has the Big Guy. Steve has a heart of gold and keeps us cynics in line. I'm pretty good with a bow, and with seeing things.”
“Is there a point to this?” she asks.
“You're our logic,” he says. “Free of any other burden. You do what has to be done, Tasha. It's not a reason to run. It's the reason you're here.”
“They won't see it that way,” she says.
“They will.” She looks at him. He shrugs. “Maybe not right this second, but they will.”
“I don't belong here,” she says.
It's too open, too public, too straight-forward. Her skills still come into use, but not in the same way. It isn't her in a hostile situation alone with only her wits anymore. It's her and five others. Five possible casualties, five ways for the situation to go horribly awry.
It started with Clint. He got her into SHIELD, and got paired with her to make sure she didn't betray them. Even in SHIELD she never worked with other agents more than a handful of times. Her work was too specific, her time too precious.
Now, through what some would call fate and what she calls chance, she's on a team full of superheroes. She isn't a superhero.
She stares at him, her eyes wide.
“You're on a team with a super soldier who has crushed no less than twelve coffee cups because he's too groggy in the morning to think about his strength, a man who once destroyed half of Harlem when he got too angry, a literal alien, and, well, Tony Stark, and you don't belong?”
“You know what I mean,” she says. Natasha turns and leans her back against the railing. Clint rests his head on his arm and keeps looking at the street.
“You've been compromised,” he says. “You chose to join this war, now you've got to deal with the consequences. You're part of a team now.”
“You already gave me this speech when I joined SHIELD,” she says. “I don't need to hear it again.”
He smirks. “You never really listened the first time. It didn't matter. You were the best of the best, and the best doesn't need to conform to anyone else. But now you're working with people that can keep up with you, and you have to trust them to let you do what you do. And you have to let them do what they do.”
“Everything isn't about trust.”
“Most things are.”
“You'd let me go,” she says. It isn't a question. He stands up.
“I wouldn't make you stay.”
She takes in a deep breath and heads for the door.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“We have a debrief to attend,” she says. “We're late.”
Tony, Steve, Bruce and Thor are sitting at the table. This is normally the time for laughing and Tony's one-liners. No one is speaking. Natasha sits down in her normal seat. Steve nods to her. There's no anger here, just regret.
“You know,” Tony says, “we need a vacation. When's the last time we went on vacation?”
“After we saved the entire planet,” Bruce says.
“The entire galaxy, at least, and that was apart,” Tony says. “Now we're a big, happy family and we should vacation together. Hawaii? I'll get everyone a floral print shirt.”
“We have work to do,” Steve says.
“I did not sign up for a nagging wife with this job,” Tony whines.
They split up after going over their next mission. Tony nags Bruce about some experiment they're working on and they go to the labs. Thor drags Clint into a movie marathon where he makes Clint explain how all the effects are done. Steve calls her name when she tries to go to her room in the tower.
She pauses. This is it.
“I'm sorry, Natasha.” It isn't what she expects. Steve rarely uses her name. It's more often Ms. Romanov or no name at all, out of some sense of chivalry that sits in his bones. He rubs the back of his neck. “I can't thank you for what happened. She was only a girl. But I'm sorry I couldn't make the call that needed to be made.” His words are heavy, and she suspects after this he'll be in the gym beating them on a dummy. He puts a hand on her shoulder. “I'm glad to have you on the team.” He pats her shoulder and walks past her, looking like he's carrying a thousand pounds with him.
She walks into the next room, and watches as Thor asks about the car exploding on the TV screen. “Your people blow up such magnificent vehicles for fun? Why do they not do this in a gaming scenario?”
“We're not really fans of blowing people up,” Clint replies.
Down the hall she hears Bruce and Tony bickering. It's almost soothing. That makes it all the more dangerous.
She takes a seat in the living room with Thor and Clint. Clint glances at her.
“You staying?” he asks.
“Yes,” Thor says, oblivious, “join us for the feast of popped corn and movie of destruction.”
“I do like movies of destruction,” she says.
Clint smiles, just a little, and nods at her. She offers a small smile back.
Tonight, she'll put the bag, fully packed, under her bed.
She'll come back and probably have a beer with Clint. They won't discuss the events of the day. They'll get interrupted by Tony, always awake and always poking around in things that aren't his business. Bruce will try to divert him, and Steve and Thor, bless them, will think they're having a group hang out.
Tomorrow, she'll go on another mission with her team.
It's a step.