It was a testament to Clint’s stealth that she didn’t wake until he was almost out of the bed. In the faint moonlight coming through the gap in the hotel room’s curtains, Clint was just a silhouette, creeping on nearly silent feet to the bathroom. She watched him go, her breathing as steady and slow as if she were still asleep. In his hand, she saw the outline of a small black square—his cell phone. He stayed in the bathroom for a few minutes, door shut and the lights off. When he came out, he said quietly, “Didn’t mean to wake you, Tasha.”
“Did you think you couldn’t? You walk so loud I expected to get noise complaints from the room below.” she said gently, teasingly, sleepily.
Clint’s eyes glinted in the moonlight as he slid back into bed next to her, his head on the pillow an inch from hers, his hand resting on the dip of her waist. His skin was still warm from sleep. “We can’t all be superspies,” he said. “We mere mortals have to settle for crashing around.”
“Who was it?” she asked. “Fury?”
“A very professional and polite woman with the unfortunate name of Pepper Potts. She wanted to know where we were staying.”
“Pepper called at midnight for that?”
“Texted. Said she wasn’t sure if we were aware that anytime the Avengers save the world, they are more than welcome to sleep in a nicer bed than the one at the Holiday Inn.”
Natasha squirmed into the bed with a catlike smile. “I don’t know. It seems like a nice bed to me.”
He kissed her nose. She scrunched it under his lips. They didn’t sleep together all the time, not even often, but they’d spent the last week fighting off a terrorist cell with plans to release strains of anthrax, Ebola, and SARS in five major world cities. When the lives you saved that week measured in the millions, didn’t you deserve some small reward? They traded lazy kisses for a few moments, barely moving anything besides their lips. They were the kind of kisses you could fall asleep to and Natasha had almost done just that when Clint’s gentle murmur brought her back. “Still,” he said as he pressed his forehead against hers, “doesn’t seem right, does it?”
She made a sleepy, questioning noise in the back of her throat.
“Us being such big, fine heroes, I mean,” Clint said, “and having to pay for our own rooms.”
“Fury paid for my room,” Natasha whispered, so sleepy that talking at a normal volume seemed an unbearable effort.
“That’s because he doesn’t know that he did.”
She stretched and burrowed her way deeper into the pillow. “You wanna stay at the Tower, then?”
“I’m not saying that,” Clint said. She raised one eyebrow without opening her eyes. “Fine, I am saying that. What do you say?”
Natasha didn’t bond well. People disagreed with her. She disagreed with people. She’d accepted a long time ago that she was better suited to a solitary life where the only visitors to her world were people offering her jobs and people like Clint who came and left as she pleased. So she knew that any fondness she felt for her team—for the people she had recently worked with, she meant—was misplaced sentimentality, the dangerous side effect of post-victory euphoria. Everyone was best friends after you had saved the world together. It was important not to overemphasize these feelings or do anything to improperly encourage them, not when impartiality was so important to her safety. Natasha knew that perfectly well.
So she blamed her answer on her sleepiness. “Sure,” she said.
Clint stiffened a little. “Really?” he asked, and he sounded so incredulous that she was a little offended.
“Why not?” She cracked open one eye and fixed him with it. “I mean, if you’re gonna be such a girl about it.”
Clint laughed and wrapped his arms around her. “You’re going to regret that in the morning.”
“I regret this already,” she said.
He pressed his lips to her forehead. “Liar,” was the last thing she heard before she fell back into the deep cool black of well-earned sleep.
It wasn’t the boom of thunder that woke her. It had been the flash of light a second before. By the time the thunder crashed, Natasha had her hand wrapped around the gun underneath her pillow, ready to shoot. She hated that moment between waking and knowing why she had woke. Her mind, wretched out of nightmares, spun out one worst case scenario after another until her logic took over her instincts, and she realized that pointing a gun at her door was a useless solution to a thunderstorm.
She fell back in bed, put the safety back on, and tossed the gun on the pillow beside her. She rubbed the heels of her hands into her eyes and breathed and breathed and breathed. There was nothing to be afraid of, she told her traitorous heart as it beat itself raw against her chest.
Boom, the sky said as way of response.
Natasha didn’t usually mind thunder. It wasn’t the sound, after all, that you had to worry about, and Natasha wouldn’t be much of a spy if natural phenomena made her jump. But tonight, she was jumpy. It had been a long day. It had been a very long day. Loki had escaped his prison in Asgard and made his way back to Earth to—
Lightning cracked across the sky as if to confirm Natasha’s realization. Rain hit her window like it was throwing itself against the glass. She couldn’t gauge the wind right now, but if she had to guess, it was probably howling.
Should she do something?
No. It wasn’t her place.
He was very upset.
She wouldn’t make things better.
Sometimes all you needed is someone to listen.
Thor didn’t even like her.
Thor loved everyone he fights with.
She didn’t want to do it.
Well, that was a terrible reason.
She sighed. Somehow she was more annoyed at Thor right now than she was at Loki. Loki was a snake. Treachery, deceit, violence, wickedness—that was his nature. There was no sense getting mad at a snake for being a snake. You simply redirected that anger towards killing it. Thor, on the other hand, she expected better from. How stupid it was, she thought, to waste so much love on something so unworthy. Best not to love at all, if you were strong enough to manage it.
She should go talk to him.
She stayed in bed. The storm raged on. Then she heard the gentle padding of large, quiet feet going down the hallway. Steve walked passed her room and down the corridor and up the stairs to the rooftop. After a few minutes, the rain quieted down. The skies stilled. A few more minutes and two pairs of feet came walking back accompanied by voices, murmuring so low that Natasha couldn’t make out the words, just the tone—quiet, mutual sadness. Quiet mutual comfort.
Then they were gone, they in their rooms and she in hers. The sky was quiet. The room was dark. The bed was indeed quite nice. But sleep, somehow, took longer to come than it should. She sat in the dark, hugging her knees, while something she didn’t like gnawed in her stomach—sentiment.
It took her some time to fall back asleep. When she woke, she found she didn’t feel rested at all.
She was out of bed and crouched by the door before she was even fully awake. Why? she thought for a second before she remembered. An explosion. Dim and muffled, but in her near vicinity. She cracked the door open and peered down the dark hallway. Empty. Still. The floor seemed so peaceful that she was tempted for a moment to write it off as a flashback, a memory, a bad dream. But she had not stayed alive this long by ignoring her gut. The unmistakable tremor of an explosion had woken her, and she could not go back to sleep until she had found and eliminated the source.
“Well, this is awkward,” Tony said a minute later as she whirled around the corner and took aim. His face was blacked except for the area around his eyes, kept safe, no doubt, by the goggles hung round his neck. His undershirt was stained black with grease so thick that the faint blue glow of the arc reactor was almost completely hidden. He also appeared to be covered in the contents of a fire extinguisher.
He gestured at the charred crater of his work bench. “The new energy shields I promised Fury need a bit more work. Do you mind not pointing the gun at me? I don’t like when people point things at me, and I’m not that fond of guns, and I think that you’re willing to shoot me, so all in all, this is an uncomfortable situation.”
Natasha went to holster her gun before she realized that she was in her pajamas. She tucked it into the band of her pajama pants instead, where it no doubt looked odd contrasted against the pattern of baby ducks. Natasha was very fond of baby ducks. “What the hell happened, Stark?”
“First off,” he said in a way that suggested that he was not planning to answer her question anytime soon, “how the hell did you even know anything happened? You live, like, five stories up.”
“And the explosion was completely contained.”
“Half the room is charred black.”
“The room is soundproofed.”
“We hear you singing to your robots all the time.”
“Yes,” he said and pointed a wrench at her in triumph, “but that’s only because the world deserves to hear my voice.”
Natasha rolled her eyes. (She didn’t, however, deny it. Tony’s rendition of “Close to You” last Wednesday had proved to be strangely affecting considering that he was singing it to his Iron Man helmet.) “Are you going to tell me what happened or not, Tony?”
“Depends, are you planning on laughing at me?”
“If you were acting stupid.”
“Then. No.” He shrugged, soot wafting up from him when he moved. “But I assure you, Agent Romanov, the problem has been taken care of.”
“I—Hmm.” Natasha shook her head. “Whatever it was, don’t do again.”
Tony grimaced at the mess. “I don’t plan to. Not without Bruce anyway.”
She turned and walked back to the door. She was almost out when she looked over her shoulder and asked, “Stark?”
“Yeah?” he said, goggles back on, blowtorch in hand.
“You’re…okay? You’re not injured?”
He grinned at her, his teeth shockingly white surrounded by all that black. “Only my pride, Miss Romanov, and what’s one more blow to that?” It was hard to tell through the goggles, but she could have sworn he winked.
She shook her head as she walked away. “Get some sleep, Tony. Hill will eat you alive at the morning meeting.”
“Like there’s anything I can do to stop her. Sweet dreams, Agent Romanov.”
“Sweet dreams,” she said as the door slid shut.
He is going to blow himself up and die, Natasha thought. Although she kind of hoped he wouldn't.
She went back to bed.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce said. “Did I wake you?”
“I was up.” Natasha crossed her arms and leaned against the frame of the kitchen door. “I thought you could use some help.”
Bruce stared down apologetically at the smashed bowl, its shards scattered across the kitchen floor. “You don’t have to worry. I’m not going to change because I dropped a salad bowl.”
“At two in the morning.”
“Yes, at two in the morning,” he said. “Watch your feet.”
Her look was scornful as she danced her way to the fridge on the tips of her toes. “Strange time for salad.”
Bruce went back to his sweeping. “I had a craving.”
Natasha poured out two glasses of Clint’s lemonade into two novelty cups a girl at Yankee Stadium had given Captain America for saving her from the space aliens. She wondered if that girl knew how much Steve had appreciated the gesture. Bruce’s eyes were fixed on the floor so she bumped his cup against his shoulder. Confused painted itself across Bruce’s too honest face, but he took the drink. “Thanks,” he said.
“Strange time for a craving.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “If you want to ask something, Natasha, you can just ask it.”
She sipped her own drink to buy time while she looked for the right words. What she came up with was this: “So, you’re good? With everything?”
Bruce nodded at the floor with a rueful smile. “I think I can handle this. It’s not the first mess that I’ve cleaned up.”
“No.” She shifted her weight from foot to foot in a manner that, in a lesser person, would seem fidgety. “I mean with your—” The word wouldn’t come to her. “Feelings?” she said and grimaced. “You’re normally in bed by ten. This behavior is an aberration, and if it is an indication of emotional distress that might threaten your abilities as a scientist or Avenger, it is my duty to know and to take actions to rectify the problem. So.” She tapped her fingers against her glass and shifted. “I’m rectifying.”
Bruce struggled for a moment, but he didn’t laugh. She appreciated that. “I’m fine,” he said. “I just couldn’t sleep and came out here for a midnight snack. It’s nothing more sinister than run-of-the-mill insomnia.”
She nodded and finished her drink. “Fine. Then I’m going back to bed.” She started for the sink, but Bruce held his hand out. After a second, she realized what he was doing and handed him the glass. He rinsed her cup and put it back in the cabinet as Natasha leaned back against the counter, stuck between leaving and staying. She kind of wanted to do both. He picked up the broom again.
“What about you?” he asked. “Why are you up so late?”
“I wasn’t. I just lied so you wouldn’t feel bad.”
This time he did laugh and winced a little while he did so. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s fine. I don’t need a lot of sleep.”
He swept the last sharps into the dustbin and gently tapped them out into the trash. “Well, you should get some.”
“Then don’t drop anything else.”
“I’m sorry,” he said pointedly. “It slipped. It happens.”
I’m not angry, she almost said. That’s just how my voice sounds. “Fine,” was what she mumbled instead and pushed herself off the counter. “Night.”
“Night,” Bruce said as she started to walk away. “And thanks.”
She paused. “For what?”
Anytime Bruce smiled, it looked like he’d just surprised himself. He did so now and coughed and shrugged. “For rectifying, I guess. Or for coming to see if you needed to rectify anything. That’s nice. It’s a nice thought.”
She looked back at him over her shoulder. “Don’t tell Clint you drank his lemonade,” she said finally. “He’s very protective.”
And with that she left, walked out of the kitchen, down the hall, around the corner, up the stairs, and into her own bedroom where she threw herself down onto her truly superb mattress and tried to will her body, dear God, please, to just go back to sleep.
The library was dark save for the one lit reading lamp. Steve looked practically angelic as he read, his blond hair gleaming gold in the otherwise black room. It amazed her how much he looked like his own propaganda posters. She kept waiting for the façade to drop, for Steve to finally cut the crap. There was, of course, the possibility that Steve was exactly what he seemed, but Natasha dismissed that thought. No one was exactly what they seemed—Natasha had made her living off that fact.
“How long are you planning on lurking?” Steve said without looking up from his book.
Natasha took a few silent steps out of the shadows into the warm yellow glow of his light. “Good ears,” she said. “There’s not many men who can hear me coming.”
Steve closed his book, his index finger keeping his place. “I have my moments.” He gestured at the armchair next to his. Natasha hesitated and sat. “What are you doing up?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
He held up his book—Summerland by Michael Chabon. She hadn’t read it. She hadn’t read a lot of things. Pop culture was one of those gaps in her knowledge that she needed to get around to filing. Small talk was another. She stuck her hands between her knees and wriggled her toes into the carpet. “Is it good?” she asked.
Steve’s grins were blinding when his teeth got involved. Natasha felt like shielding her eyes. “Yeah. Kids saving the world with baseball and magic. My kind of book.”
She nodded, not knowing what else to do. “Good. I’m glad. It’s good to read.”
Yes, well done, Natasha. A brilliant addition to the conversation. Maybe she should pretend to be Natalie Rushman right now. Natalie’s much better at this.
But Steve just nodded back in eager agreement. “It’s good to have something that’s not completely changed.” He flipped through the pages. “I know how to work this on my first try.” Natasha smiled a little and Steve grinned. He did that a lot nowadays. “You didn’t answer my question.”
She looked down at her knees. “I heard you walking. Wanted to see what was going on.”
“You like knowing what’s happening.”
Steve leaned back in his chair, his book resting on his knee. “You walk a lot at night too.” Natasha cocked her head at that.How did he know?He flicked the top of his ear. “Good ears, remember?”
Natasha filed that away for future reference. “Great ones.”
“So why?” Steve asked. His face had shifted, stuck halfway between Steve Rogers and Captain America. Natasha looked away and shrugged. “Natasha,” he said with stupid, prying, honest concern.
It had been such a long time since she’d felt fully rested. That was a dangerous way to be. She was too tired to shut herself up. “There’s a lot of things that go bump in the night. I hear them and I can’t go back to sleep until I know that everything’s okay.”
“That sounds exhausting.”
“I’m used to it. And—” But she swallowed the words that came next.
“And?” he said gently.
She twisted her mouth. “I know that when I can’t sleep, I don’t want to be alone. I just thought—I don’t know what I think. I just get worried that something’s happened. That something’s happened to any of you. So I thought that I should be there for other people if they wanted me.” She huffed a small laugh and looked up at him. “Maybe I shouldn’t bother. I’m not that comforting.”
“In my experience, you don’t have to be that good. People appreciate you just being there.”
“People appreciate you being there,” she corrected. “There’s a reason that you get to be Captain America and I get called Black Widow.”
“If you’d like to be Lieutenant Russia, I think Fury would let you switch,” Steve said.
Her lips twitched. She curled her legs onto the chair and said nothing. Steve sat in silence with her. His ability to tolerate silence was a trait he shared with Clint and something that had enamored Natasha to him immediately. The world was too loud too often. “It’s strange,” she said finally. “You spend your life around extraordinary people—you are one yourself—but it never mattered.” She paused. “They never mattered,” she corrected herself. “And it’s like there’s a line. You stand on one side and the world stands on the other. And that’s…correct. That’s how it should be. Until one day, the world changed. You changed. And your side of the line seems too crowded now.
“Every day this team finds new ways to worry me sick,” she said, low and bitter. “Is Thor thinking about Loki right now, is Bruce in pain from his last transformation, is Tony going to fling himself into more needless danger, is Clint going to sleep through the night, are you—are you happy here? It’s like daggers.” She balled her fist and pressed it to her heart. “Daggers right here.” She looked at Steve, this boy younger even than she was, and had to look away again. Such honest open empathy twisted her stomach. “How do you do it?” she asked to her lap. “How do you care about other people without wanting to murder them all?”
Steve was quiet for a very long time. “Yes,” he said finally. When Natasha furrowed her brow, he gave her the smallest of smiles. “I am happy here. I didn’t think I could be, but I am. Are you?”
She folded her hands together, almost in prayer. “I think I could be. That’s new.”
“Nice though. Right?”
“Yes,” Steve drawled. “Friendship is the most dangerous part of our lives. I hope Doctor Doom never figures out the deadly powers of hugs.”
“I don’t think Captain America is supposed to be this sarcastic.”
“I’ll work on that,” he said dryly. “Are you going back to bed?”
“Do you want me to go?”
He shook his head. “Not if you don’t want to.”
She leaned back in the armchair, so soft and full that she worried she wouldn’t be able to climb out of it. “Then go back to your book. I’m just going to sit for a minute.”
An hour later, Steve finished. She spent the hour with her eyes shut, listening to him turn the pages and thinking about nothing in particular. When he stood to go, he lingered over her for a few minutes, no doubt contemplating whether he should wake her and take her back to her room.
I’ll tell him not to worry in just a second. I just want to rest my eyes a few minutes more.
Six hours later she woke with a wicked crick in her neck and a knitted blanket draped over her. She stretched until her back popped back into place. Not a bad night, she thought as she settled back into the chair in a new position. After all she didn’t have to be up for another few hours at least. Not a bad night at all.
1. The Team
The couch in Tony’s spare study cost more than most families made in a year. Natasha disagreed with it strongly in principle. She may have defected from the Soviet Union back when it was the Soviet Union, but she didn’t necessarily believe their principles were wrong. Why should some have so much and others so little? What could have been done with this wealth had it not been squandered on these bourgeoisie pleasures? The capitalist compulsion to spend for the sake of spending sickened her. The couch seemed to signify everything that was wrong with the market economy.
But it was a very comfortable couch.
She was sprawled on it, thirty pages into Summerland, when she found she was having difficulty holding the book up. At first she thought there was something wrong with her arms, that she’d overworked her muscles sparring, but she knew what muscle fatigue felt like. This was something else.
Oh, she realized after a moment and felt like an idiot. She was sleepy.
Three o’clock in the afternoon was no time to be sleepy, not if a night mission didn’t demand it. But sleepy she was, in spite of her instincts, and she couldn’t bring herself to care. She put the book down on her chest. She leaned her head back onto the pillow. So slowly she almost didn’t notice, JARVIS dimmed the lights. She stared at the ceiling. She breathed. Her eyes fluttered shut.
“Where’s the thing?” Tony shouted from the kitchen.
“What thing?” Clint shouted back from the living room.
“The sparkly thing.”
“That is not a helpful description.”
“Do you mean this?” Bruce yelled down the hallway.
“What is it?” Tony asked.
“It’s the spectrometer you were using.”
“No, I need the other thing.”
“Why is everyone yelling?” Steve asked.
“We’re looking for a thing,” Clint replied. “Have you seen it?”
Natasha yanked the pillow from under her head and smushed it on top.
“It’s blue,” Tony said. “It glows and it’s blue.”
“IF YOU SEEK THE CALIBRATED ELECTROSTATIC ANALYZER, I SAW IT LAST IN LABORATORY FOUR,” Thor shouted from the roof. Natasha was almost impressed by the range he got.
“Thanks, Thor. Also, I’m making sandwiches everybody. Does anyone want a sandwich? I make a panini like you would not even believe.”
Natasha yanked the pillow away. “Shut up!” she screamed at them.
Outside the study, there was silence. Then: “What?” Tony shouted back. “I didn’t hear you. Did you want a sandwich?”
She heard Bruce say, “Guys, I think Natasha’s trying to take a nap.”
“Oh, are we being too loud?” Clint shouted. “Natasha? Natasha? Are we being too loud? Are we keeping you up? Natasha? Natasha? Are we bothering you?”
“I will murder you, Clint.”
“ARE SANDWICHES STILL ON THE TABLE? FOR I KNOW NOT WHAT A PANINI IS, BUT IT SOUNDS DELICIOUS.”
“Hell yeah, sandwiches are on the table. Seriously, Natasha, do you want one? I am a fucking sandwich artisan.”
They’re idiots, she thought to herself. They are superpowered idiots.
Still. They were her idiots. And a panini did sound delicious right now.
She tossed the pillow aside. Tossed the book aside too. She could read tonight. She could sleep then too.
“Seriously, Natasha,” Clint shouted. “Are we bugging you? We’d hate to bug you. Is this annoying? Is this annoying you? I just want to make sure you’re comfortable. Natasha? Natasha? Natasha?”
And worst case scenario, she could always murder them tomorrow.
She shook the last traces of sleepiness from her bones as she stood and stretched and padded over to the study door to join her stupid, noisy team because right now, god help her, there was nowhere else she would rather be.
A note found on Natasha’s pillow that night:
Natasha—these are earplugs. You put them in your ears. I think we’re finally in a place with tight enough security to risk them. I can’t think of a better guard dog than the Norse god of lightning except maybe a sentient beneficent AI that can control a killer robot suit. Imagine that. I guess it was a really good idea to move in here.
From one paranoid freak to another—Clint.