Actions

Work Header

Best Kept Secret

Work Text:

For the longest time, the best kept secret in the Avengers was a simple one, so simple that it often seemed blatantly obvious and yet remained, for a time, almost entirely unnoticed.

‘Almost entirely’ being the operative phrase.

“Fuel,” Natasha says curtly, sliding a second mug across the conference table.

Tony snatches it halfway through its spinning trajectory across the tabletop and drains the contents, all without spilling a drop. “You’re my favourite,” he says, after swallowing.

She rolls her eyes.

Fury glares at them both, and then starts in on the day’s briefing.

“You do realise you’re not Potts’ PA anymore, right?” Clint says to her, afterward.

“Yes,” she agrees, expressionless.

Clint peers at her for a long second, and then says, “Fine, don’t tell me,” and shoves her shoulder.

She shoves back. They grin, and get on with things.

***

When the team had first moved in, after the Chitauri and after so, so much paperwork, Natasha had cornered Tony in the kitchen in the middle of the night.

“I wasn’t wrong,” she said.

Tony stared at her, looking like an electrocuted cat, hair in motor oil spikes and gaze more than halfway to manic. “Uh. About what?” he asked.

“My report on you,” she said. “The one for SHIELD.”

Tony’s face settled into his usual mask, smirk twitching at his lips. “Textbook narcissism,” he said. “Yeah, I got it.”

“No,” Natasha said. “That wasn’t true. I was right, but I didn’t write down what I was right about.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Why?” he asked, more cautious.

“You didn’t want their pity,” she said. “So I made sure you didn’t get it.”

And with that, she turned and headed back towards the living room.

“Why’d you nix me for the team, then?” Tony asked, as she reached the doorway.

She looked back at him. “You always fight for the things you’re told to give up on.”

He snorted.

She slipped out.

“You’re still terrifying,” Tony called after her.

She bowed her head, hiding her smile even though he couldn’t see her. “Thanks, Stark,” she murmured.

***

Tony buys her things sometimes, and never in any way that she can prove that it was him. Obscure blends of loose tea, packed in black and gold tins in her bookshelves, orchids on the counter in her bathroom.

She never thanks him, because it would be embarrassing for both of them.

She does small things as well, which she knows he notices. The coffee, and sometimes smoothing things over with Fury when Tony’s done something particularly heroic and unwise. Fury notices, of course, because when does he not? But he doesn’t understand why, and so he generally accepts that Natasha does things for a reason, and leaves Tony alone.

It makes working with Pepper easier, too.

“It’s rare, when people notice,” Pepper confides, at one point, over cocktails. “How much he needs looking after, and not just because he a reckless idiot of a genius.”

Natasha shrugs. “Don’t let it get around.”

Pepper doesn’t.

***

Natasha has always liked talkers. She knows she isn’t the chattiest person, doesn’t really think to add something to the conversation unless it’s either important or amusing (or both), but she doesn’t hold everyone else to the same standard, and she can appreciate people who fill up the silences that she leaves.

If she didn’t, she probably would have killed Clint years ago.

“So I’m thinking that maybe we should all go out on the town sometime, as a team,” Tony says, flopping down on the couch next to her. “It’ll be fun, it’ll be, like, a bonding thing that doesn’t revolve around things exploding and getting beat up.”

“How do you know a night out won’t end like that?” Natasha replies, blowing over the top of her mug of tea.

“Har har, we can totally set ground rules for Thor, right? He’s a prince, he knows how diplomacy works, we can just tell him how best to—“

“Bruce.”

“Bruce will have a great time!”

She gives him a look.

“Okay, maybe he won’t, but he needs to get used to crowds again, crowds who he has to actually interact with, you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do.” She takes a sip of tea, and sighs. “Invite Coulson. We need backup if things go pear-shaped.”

“I enjoy the way you just made a night out into a combat situation. Will Agent Coulson even be willing to join us?”

“Clint will provide emotional blackmail.”

“You’re actually the best.”

“Hey guys, have you seen Thor?” Steve asks, wandering in.

“Can’t say that I have,” Tony says.

Natasha shakes her head.

“Damn. He was supposed to meet me in the gym.”

“Hey Cap,” Tony says, “What’s say you and me and the rest of these freaks hit the town this weekend?”

Steve gives him a disapproving look. “Do you have to call your teammates ‘freaks’?” he asks.

“Have to? No. Enjoy it? Most definitely. Just telling it like it is, Cap. Freaks run the world, we would be one boring race without them.”

Steve sighs. “Your tact really leaves something to be desired, Stark.”

“Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Natasha observes. Tony grins at her, and then back up at Steve.

“Didn’t answer my question, by the way. We going out this weekend?”

“If you can get the others to agree, I suppose,” Steve says, but he sounds mostly like he’s resigning himself to the situation rather than agreeing with it.

“Fantastic,” Tony says. “I’ll arrange everything.”

“Oh good,” Natasha says dryly. “I’ll prepare for the worst, then.”

“You could say no,” Steve points out, looking hopeful.

Natasha shrugged. “I already agreed before you came in.”

Steve coughs, surprised, and manages a weak, “Oh.”

She smiles at him serenely.

***

The night out is a disaster.

Coulson takes care of it.

“You had fun, didn’t you?” Tony asks, half-asleep in the holding cell. His head is slowly drooping onto her shoulder.

“Yes, Tony,” she says honestly, because she knows he won’t remember it later, “I had fun.”

She doesn’t shrug him off.

***

They only get found out, this secret non-hostility between them, because—because boys are stupid.

Well, that’s how Natasha thinks about it, at least.

It’s now been two months since the Chitauri. Six weeks since most of the team trickled into the slowly-recovering ruins of the tower. Tony had protested weakly about incomplete security, but Natasha had given him a small smile and said, “The helicarrier’s no better at this point, and we can take care of ourselves.” And then she’d looked over at Clint, and added, “We needed some space anyway.”

It’s different, living in the tower, but Natasha finds herself unexpectedly amenable to it. She likes the view from her apartment, likes the decor that she knows Tony consulted Pepper on. She even likes having the others so close; she watches movies with Clint, spars with Steve, and accepts baked goods from Bruce when he decides that he needs to apply chemistry to the kitchen rather than his lab. Thor sweeps in and out without notice, sometimes with Jane and sometimes on his own, and his honest bluster is refreshing when the rest of them are so habitually guarded.

Well, Steve isn’t quite so guarded perhaps, but he’s also got a whole lot of other issues that Natasha isn’t touching with a ten foot pole. He’s kind and smart and a good leader for the team, and Natasha respects him, but she treads carefully around him, too.

Tony, on the other hand, seems intent on poking at him with an emotional cattle prod. Which is how all of this starts.

“We should get you laid. You’re strung like a piano wire, Rogers.”

Steve looks not so much flustered as just flat-out offended. He and Tony have been getting along a lot better since the helicarrier, but Natasha is pretty sure that Steve will never entirely get used to Tony’s Tony-ness. “Excuse me?” he says, and yeah, Natasha thought that her judgment face was effective. She supposes she doesn’t have that added element of righteous outrage to bring to the table.

“Look at you,” Tony says, gesturing widely. “You’re a goddamn sculpture, and I only mean that half in the good way.”

“I don’t even—,” Steve cuts himself off. “Why would you—? You can’t just make some dames appear out of thin air, Stark, besides the fact that I’m not interested.”

“You’d be surprised, and how ‘not interested’, exactly?” Tony peers at him. “Is this a saving-yourself thing, or a preference thing…?”

“Stark,” Natasha says warningly.

“It’s a ‘none of your goddamn business’ thing,” Steve grits out. He stares down at the table, and then grabs his cereal bowl as he stands. “On both counts,” he adds, almost too quietly, and then he strides away into the kitchen, shoulders tight.

And Tony looks…shellshocked.

“Serves you right,” Natasha says to him.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says blankly. “Did he just…?”

“As good as. But Tony—“

“Jesus.”

“It’s really none of your business.”

“But—“

“Stop.”

Tony looks down at his hands. “Wow,” he breathes.

“You’re terrible,” Natasha tells him.

She refrains to point out that as interrogations go, Tony’s technique truly sucks, but Steve seemed inordinately willing (or at least needing) to tell someone about his preferences. She supposes that some of SHIELD’s Welcome to the Future, Captain America! scheme has actually done some good, in that regard.

“You should probably go after him,” she suggests. “Show your support. You do support him, don’t you?”

“Well, obviously, I mean, how could I not—? Goddamnit.” Tony throws up his hands and darts away, hot on Steve’s heels.

Natasha rolls her eyes almost hard enough to pull something.

***

After that, Tony has to talk to Natasha, because he’s a tragedy and no one else will deal with him except maybe Bruce, and Bruce of all people does not know how to deal with this sort of situation.

“I need your help,” he says a week later, out of nowhere. “It has to do with feelings.”

Natasha gives him a look.

“I know, I know, just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean you’re good at feelings, stop being gender normative, blah blah, but seriously, who the hell else am I going to ask in this building?”

She stares at him for a long, and very precarious moment. “Point,” she concedes.

Tony opens his mouth to no doubt begin expounding, and then promptly appears to run out of words.

Natasha sighs. “It’s Steve, isn’t it.”

Tony slumps. “Yes.”

She resorts to prompting. “How’d the talk about the,” she makes a vague but explanatory gesture, “thing go?”

“Uh,” Tony starts, “Okay? I think.”

She gives him a skeptical look.

***

“Hey! Hey, Rogers, wait up.”

Steve stopped in the hall, but didn’t make any move to turn around. “Yes, Stark?”

“Um. So I realise that you may have been correct about it being none of my business, but considering what you said directly after that kind of, well, doesn’t exactly change that but it kind of does because now you’ve told me something about it and—“

“Tony. Breathe.”

“Right.” Tony exhaled.

“Natasha sent you out here, didn’t she?” Steve asked, finally turning around, a rueful quirk to his mouth.

“Maybe. But I didn’t need to be coerced this time?” Tony offered. “You, uh, kind of put yourself out there, Cap.”

Steve very visibly coloured. “…Yeah. Guess I did.”

“I’m honoured,” Tony blurted. “That you told me. And Natasha. But I’m not, you know, honoured on her behalf. Just for me. Uh. Yeah. I just. What I mean is that I support you and everything. No matter what. Would be kind of hypocritical if I didn’t, really.”

“Oh?” Steve raised his eyebrows.

Tony shrugged. “Flexible. Equipment is secondary to other concerns in terms of attraction for me.”

Steve nodded. “That…that’s fine. I haven’t really figured it all out yet.”

“We’ve accumulated a lot of labels in the 21st century,” Tony replied, readily enough. “Not that you have to ascribe to any, but it’s a way of getting started.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Good. Okay, well, good. Um.”

“You can go now, Tony,” Steve said dryly.

“Excellent. Workshop. Bye.”

***

“That…could have gone worse,” Natasha allows. “So what?”

“So,” Tony says, drawing the word out and gesturing frantically, “We seem to have crossed a boundary. And frankly, Nat, beyond that boundary are things that I am not equipped to deal with, not with myself, and certainly not with other people.”

“So why are we talking about this now?” she asks.

“Because,” Tony waves his arms. “This time, after you made me be all touchy-feely with him? He came to me.”

Natasha raises her eyebrows.

***

Tony was in the workshop, as per usual, and he was working mainly with the interfaces today, because there’s no point in synthesising another suit without being at least 110% certain theoretically that it’s going to hold up to the abyss of space. The whole thing’s been on the back-burner, what with rebuilding New York and generally making sure that the tower is at least somewhat safe to live in for a motley bunch of superheroes, but now he had time, so here he was.

Here he was, with a projection of the armour in several pieces to his left, a whole bunch of annotated journal articles from NASA scientists and engineers on his right, and a massive, three-dimensional reproduction of the deep field Hubble images overhead.

Because seriously, he was going to get over these fucking nightmares, so help him.

Blaring “War Pigs” over the speakers was doing wonders so far.

That is, until it was cut short.

“JARVIS, what the—oh. Rogers. Can I help you?”

“Um,” Steve said, hovering near the door. “Why do you have…?” He gestured at the stars and galaxies wheeling overhead.

Tony explained, as briefly and uninformatively as possible, and Steve still got that awful sad look on his face that Tony absolutely could not deal with.

“It’s fine,” he said hurriedly, “I’m teaching myself more astrophysics, it’s awesome, I’m going to be able to impress Jane Foster eventually, which is like, a serious accomplishment I should point out, because not only does she do excellent work, but she’s dating Thor, so you know she’s a woman with crazy standards, am I right?”

“Right,” Steve said.

Tony bit down on a smart remark, and took a breath. “Seriously, Cap, what’re you down here for?”

Steve opened his mouth, and then closed it, his jaw tight. “It’s nothing,” he said eventually.

(“Not with a ten-foot pole,” Natasha mutters.

“What?” Tony asks.

“Nothing.” She waves a hand. “Go on.”)

And okay, Tony knows lots of different definitions of ‘nothing’. He and ‘nothing’ are intimately acquainted. And it’s probably not an overture to an apology; he and Cap definitely got off on the wrong foot initially, but both of them had meant what they said, so they’re not going to apologise for that, Tony’s not apologising, even though he may have been kind of, slightly, infinitesimally wrong about Captain America’s perceived douchery and lack of specialness.

Steve, being Steve, did try to apologise, but Tony wouldn’t let him, because like he said, they had both meant it at the time, just because they were wrong doesn’t mean that they need to apologise for it.

He told this to Steve, and Steve just looked sad.

It should be noted that Steve’s sad-face is pretty much the worst thing this side of a box of kittens abandoned in a thunderstorm.

Shut up. Clint said it first.

But the point is, none of the usual definitions of ‘nothing’ seemed to be applying to Steve at the moment, but it’s definitely not the literal definition of ‘nothing’ either, like an apology or anything else. For once, however, Tony didn’t immediately give in to the impulse to call bullshit. Dating Pepper had taught him quite a lot about patience (mostly by observing Pepper being patient with him, but still).

“Tell you what,” he said, after a long and uncomfortable pause. “Why don’t you pop a squat over there,” he pointed to the cot in the corner of the room where he usually crashes out, “Entertain yourself with, I don’t know, Angry Birds or something, there’s a tablet there already, so. And uh, if you figure out what you want at some point, then you can let me know. I warn you, though,” and then he jabbed the same finger at Steve, who raised an eyebrow, “You complain about the music or its decibel level, and I’m kicking you out.”

And Steve…smiled at him. Just a little, but Christ, what an improvement over the sad face.

“Sure,” he said, and went over to the cot, picking up the tablet with an ease that Tony wasn’t impressed at, no he was not.

***

“So?” Natasha says, when Tony takes a breath.

“So,” Tony throws up his hands, “He just stayed there. And according to JARVIS, now he just spends his days either doing nothing with me, hanging out on the landing pad feeling sorry for himself, or running mini-marathons and destroying my gym equipment. I can only conclude that whatever adjustment therapy SHIELD did on Rogers was totally useless.”

“You think there was any in the first place?” Natasha snorts. She sits back, settling into the couch. “There’s no precedence for how to deal with someone like Steve. Purposeful time travel? Sure. But some soldier, suddenly transplanted…SHIELD has contingency plans and protocols for almost everything, but Captain Rogers stumped them.”

“So what, after the debacle that was that 1940s hospital room, they just gave up?” Tony asks sharply.

Natasha shrugs, mouth twisting. “They gave him mostly familiar surroundings, a stack of history books. Had him see a psychologist.”

“Right, that’s something I can hack at least,” Tony mutters, pulling out his phone.

“Pretty sure that’s a massive invasion of privacy, Stark,” Natasha says.

“Oh hello, kettle, my name’s pot.”

“I’m just saying,” she rolls her eyes, “Is that really how you want to start this particular project?”

Tony narrows his eyes at her. “Maybe not,” he allows. “But what choice do I have?”

She shrugs again. “Do what you like. You’re pretty good at getting a reaction out of him either way.”

Tony clearly doesn’t know what to say to that, so he retreats.

***

Bless him, Tony really does try.

Natasha respects his ability with machines, more than he’ll ever know; she respects his mind in general, but that isn’t exactly what is called for in this particular situation.

So mostly what happens is bickering.

“I swear, Cap, you wear out that cot, you’re buying me a new one.”

“Because clearly my sitting on it is going to do more damage than you throwing yourself onto it in a drunken stupor.”

“I’m just saying—“

“Do you want me to leave?”

“…No?”

“That’s really enthusiastic, thanks.”

“Nobody warned me you’d be such a whiny bitch, Rogers, seriously.”

“Children,” Natasha says, breezing through to the kitchen. Tony pouts, as Steve makes a face and subsides.

“When come back, bring coffee!” Tony says, tipping his head back over the couch to watch her go.

“Get it your damn self,” Natasha retorts.

She brings him a mug when she comes out, though.

“Why are you encouraging him?” Steve asks plaintively.

Tony stills, watching for what she decides.

Natasha shrugs. “I’ve always liked shiny things.”

“Hey!” Tony protests, but his grin is warm. “I’m not a thing!”

“But you are very shiny,” Natasha purrs, and ruffles his hair.

Steve watches them, agape.

And that’s how Steve is the first one to find out.

***

They have to save New York a few times, first from giant isopods that had somehow become even more giant and were rather interested in using Long Island as a scavenging site, and then from a pseudo army from AIM that looked disturbingly like a troop of cybermen.

“Cybermen?” Steve asks, when Tony makes the inevitable comparison over the comms as he swoops overhead.

“So much Doctor Who to catch up on, holy balls,” Clint says, loosing a handful of arrows.

“Where should we start, New Who or classic?” Tony muses.

“On your left,” Natasha says, and he banks to the right.

“SMASH,” Hulk declares from several blocks away.

Cap is running through a pack of robots down the main street, cutting them down with his shield, when suddenly he’s launched into the air by an unlucky mechanical upper cut that he catches with his shield and the whole of his torso.

“Christ,” Clint exclaims. “Iron Man—“

“Yup,” Tony replies, and plucks Cap out of the sky.

“Thanks,” Cap wheezes.

“Tell me when you’ve got your breath back, and where you wanna be.”

“Thirty seconds. Then drop me on that cluster at two o’clock.”

Tony adjusts his grip around Steve’s middle and changes course. “Your wish is my command.”

It’s a definite improvement, Natasha thinks as she sends one robo-soldier barreling into another, over their previous dynamic.

“He talking yet?” she asks afterwards, when Tony is the last one to the tower, having stayed behind for the PR.

“Nope,” Tony replies. “Just Angry Birds. I think he’s onto the deluxe edition.”

Later that night, though, she catches them out on the landing pad.

“I never saw the city from this height,” Steve is saying, almost under his breath. “Before.”

Tony looks at him sidelong, legs kicked over the side of the pad, despite the fact that they were on the sixty-seventh floor. “Pretty sure the Empire State Building was up before your time,” he says.

“You think a scamp like me could’ve gotten in?” Steve replies, with a small smile. “Most Bucky and I could do was ride the subway on occasion. Mostly we never left Brooklyn. No chance to see the skyline, really, not from this angle.”

Tony nods, a little hesitantly. “How’s it look to you, then?”

Steve looks out over the city, expression unreadable. “Looks big. Not like seeing it from a plane. I like it.”

“We’ll find things for you to like in this century yet.”

Steve snorts. “Yeah, maybe,” he agrees quietly.

Several days later, Natasha finds Tony in the kitchen and says, “Angry Birds?”

And Tony smiles, just a little and crookedly, and says, “Sometimes. He’s started drawing my tech.”

Natasha makes an approving noise.

He looks at her. “Do you know where I can get some good willow charcoal?”

She rests her chin on his shoulder. “I’m sure JARVIS would know.”

He fixes her a Turkish coffee, and actually remembers how much sugar she likes in it.

“Good?” he asks, as she takes the first sip.

“Perfect,” she says, smiling. “Thank you, Tony.”

“Learned my lesson after the Strawberry Apocalypse of 2010,” he replies, and heads towards the elevator.

Natasha hums satisfaction over the strong aroma from her cup, but then looks up abruptly to see Bruce leaning opposite her in the other doorway, looking bemused. “So how long have you guys actually been friends?” he asks.

“Who says we’re friends?” she retorts.

“Uh huh,” Bruce says, smirking. “So is there any extra of that—“

She pulls the cup tight to her chest. “No. Mine.”

Bruce puts up his hands in surrender, still smiling.

***

“You do know that the rest of them like him too, right?” Pepper says, during one of their bi-monthly dates for drinking and bitching. She and Natasha had established it during the Tony-is-dying-and-we’re-not-talking-about-it period, and it had never really stopped even after the crisis had passed.

(Pepper had stood Natasha up once, just after her cover as Natalie had been blown. Natasha thought that that was perfectly reasonable, and set the next date as usual. Pepper had come to that one, and they’d called the whole affair a draw.)

“To varying degrees,” Natasha says, twisting her mouth.

“No, you all like him,” Pepper says decisively. “I can tell, because it’s rare. You’re all his kind of crazy, one way or another. I think it’s rather nice.”

“Nice,” Natasha echoes, with some distaste.

“Yes,” Pepper says, with a hint of challenge. “So what’s the big deal with you being in agreement with the team?”

Natasha doesn’t know how to answer that, so she doesn’t. She considers a scenario in which the rest of the team know that she may actually, slightly, enjoy Tony Stark as a person.

It doesn’t bother her as much as she’s pretty sure it should.

Pepper hums, and takes a sip of her Manhattan.

***

Incidentally, Coulson already knows, because of course he does.

“Where’s Stark?” he inquires at one point, having once again hacked into the elevator. Natasha is pretty sure Tony’s just given up and allowed him access. Either that, or after his death-that-wasn’t-actually-death Tony had decided to designate him Family just like the rest of the Avengers, which Natasha wasn’t about to argue. Coulson still looks a bit peaked, though he’d stopped using a sling several weeks ago.

She hopes someone has been feeding him. She makes a mental note to look up his cellist, or barring that, call Darcy. While hardly a motherly type, Darcy is very good at bullying people into doing what’s good for them.

“How should I know?” she retorts. “There are seventy-two floors to choose from.”

“Mm,” he agrees. “How long has he been awake?”

“Three hours.”

“And he’s feeling…?”

“Productive.”

“Workshop, then.”

“Third floor lab, actually,” Natasha says, because it’s Coulson, so there’s really no point. “He’s with Bruce.”

“Thank you, Agent Romanov.” He pauses on his way back into the elevator. “Someone once told me it never pays to get attached.”

Natasha would wince, if she was anyone else. “There are always exceptions in this business,” she allows.

Coulson gives her a thin smile. “Of course,” he says, and punches the button for the third floor. “And what business is that?” he asks as he steps inside. “Espionage?”

She really does wince this time, though not until after the elevator doors have closed. He might have a point.

***

Mutant cockroaches are nobody’s friend.

Natasha is especially not liking them at the moment.

“Clint!” she yells over the comm, once she manages to wipe the majority of the exploded bug-guts from her face, “That was not appreciated!”

“Aw, come on, it’s just like Johannesburg!”

“This is nothing like Johannesburg.”

“Someday,” Tony says, swooping overhead and sending a bus-sized cockroach careening into a parking garage with a sickening squelch, “I’m going to get one of you to tell me about all of your ridiculous spy stories.”

“I’ll tell about Paris,” Clint says, “But Budapest is off the table.”

“You can say that again,” Natasha mutters, and opens fire on yet another chittering monster.

“INSECT FRIENDS, I BEG OF THEE TO QUIT THIS FRUITLESS BATTLE!” Thor roars. When the cockroaches don’t respond, he clobbers one of them on the face.

Goo and shards of chitin go flying in all directions.

Natasha really wouldn’t mind being off the ground right now.

“Coming in on your six, Widow!” Tony shouts.

She braces for impact, and gets barrelled upwards in a metal embrace just in time to hear a metallic crash. She glances behind them and sees a car somersaulting away, cracked pavement spidering out right from where she’d been standing.

“Nice timing,” she says. “Now put me down.”

“Yeah, in a minute,” Iron Man says. “I’m pretty sure I saw a bug with a big-ole’ transmitter on its head, how do you feel about stopping off there?”

“Perfect, thanks.”

She disables the transmitter. The cockroaches go from rampaging to scuttling towards the nearest shadows, most of which don’t quite accommodate them.

“Right, SHEILD’s on its way with an exterminator unit,” Steve says, pulling his cowl back and running a hand through his hair. “Everyone all right?”

“They actually have an exterminator unit?” Tony asks. “That is frighteningly specific.”

“We’ve had killer isopods, killer butterflies, and now killer cockroaches,” Clint says, ticking them off on his fingers. “I think they’re just being prepared at this point.”

“Fuck my life,” Bruce says, from a massive indentation in the road. He is copiously doused in goo from the Hulk having torn several roaches limb from limb. He should probably be thankful the Other Guy didn’t try to munch on any of them.

Tony throws him a pair of pants. “Welcome back. Too bad de-Hulking doesn’t save you from roach spunk.”

“Please don’t call it that,” Natasha says.

“I second that motion,” Coulson says, traversing the rubble with minimal difficulty. “Press is on its way, look lively. Doctor Banner, nice to see you with pants on.”

“Do we all have to stay for that?” Clint whines.

Coulson raises an eyebrow at him. “You definitely do, seeing as you skip out eighty percent of the time.”

“Aw, but we still have to track down the man behind the bugs! Don’t you want me to do my job, Coulson?”

“I want you to do your job, and your job right now is to smile and not be a PR disaster, Barton.”

“Awww.”

It isn’t until after they’ve all mugged for the cameras and signed the autographs and start heading for home that Natasha notices the stiff way Steve is holding himself.

“Tony,” she mutters, as they pile into the quinjet.

Tony looks at her sidelong, hair plastered to his skull with sweat, helmet tossed to one side. She raises an eyebrow, and then jerks her head in Cap’s direction.

He follows the gesture, takes in the way Steve is sitting, and sucks in a breath through his teeth.

“When we get home,” Natasha says.

“Why is this my job?” Tony complains, but it’s halfhearted at best. He keeps throwing glances over at Cap now, eyes narrowed with worry.

“What?” Steve asks, and Tony shakes his head.

“You know why,” Natasha murmurs.

And indeed, when they get home, Steve makes a beeline for his room, but Tony intercepts him with loudness and hand gestures, and then somehow they’re in the elevator instead, heading down to the lab where Bruce keeps most of his medical equipment. Steve looks both confused and maybe a little charmed, even through the pained tightness around his eyes. Tony keeps gesturing with one hand, but the other has snaked around Steve’s wrist, keeping him in place.

Bruce raises his eyebrows as the elevator doors close. “What was that?”

“Health intervention,” Natasha says.

“We’ll turn Stark into a functional operative yet,” Clint comments.

They all think about that for a moment, and then burst out laughing.

***

What Natasha will never admit is that she actually liked Tony back when she was Natalie Rushman.

He had been terrible then, absolutely the worst, and Natasha had despised him for what he put Pepper through. But she knew damage when she saw it, and moreover, she knew ongoing damage, the kind that hacked away at your kneecaps until you were shattered and bloody and ready to do anything to live a second longer.

Tony had been awful, the worst kind of train wreck, but he’d been awfully brave, too.

Over the years, Natasha has encountered a great many men in the same state or worse, and it’s a rare thing, to find someone that brittle, who still gets up and fights in the end.

So yeah, she’d liked him.

But she’d been doubly surprised when, after the Chitauri and everything else, it appeared that he rather liked her too.

***

“What? No. No no no no no.”

Natasha raised her eyebrow at Tony, who was emerging from the kitchen. She’d only just moved into the tower, and it was still a little strange to see Tony at ease in his own space when he wasn’t dying of palladium poisoning. “What?”

“The SHIELD tech. What’re you still doing with that when you have me?”

“I have you?” she asked.

“Yes!” He moved to snatch the Widow’s Bite out of her hands; she put him in a headlock. “Ow, red light, red light!”

She considered letting go, and decided not to. “Explain, Stark.”

“I can make these, like, a billion times better. I don’t even have to look at the specs to know that. You have to wait 2.78 seconds to recharge a full set, right, I’m pretty sure that’s what JARVIS noted—“

“You have JARVIS watching me?”

“I have JARVIS watching the whole team, it shows me where things can be improved, but you’re not listening to me, I can get that recharge time down to half a second with a day’s work.”

She loosened her hold. “Really.”

“Totally! God, you’re scary.” He didn’t move from where he was, though, making Natasha’s hold into a very strange hug.

“Okay,” she said, handing over the Widow’s Bite. “Have fun, then.”

He looked surprised. “Wait, really?” She nodded. “Awesome. Hey, I wanted to ask you, actually should have asked you ages ago, are you okay with Bruce being in the next floor up from you?”

It was her turn to be surprised. She hadn’t expected him to remember that her recent interactions with Bruce and his counterpart had been less than ideal. “It’s fine. I would have said something if it wasn’t.”

“Pretty sure that’s a lie. At least, the second part, if not the first.”

She gave him a warning look, but didn’t disagree. He quirked a smile at her.

“Stark, have you—oh.” Steve stopped in the doorway, and gave them a bemused look. “Hello, Agent Romanov.”

“You can call me Natasha,” she reminded him. “I live downstairs from you.” She paused, and then unwound her arms from Tony’s neck.

“You’re gonna have to teach me how to do that,” Tony said, rubbing his neck.

“If you actually ventured out of the lab and came to the gym sometimes, I would,” she retorted. She pointed at the Widow’s Bite. “I want that back soon. And don’t cannibalise it for parts.”

He put a hand to his chest in mock outrage. “I would never.”

“Hm.” She headed towards the door, gracing Steve with a small smile. “Nice to see you, Cap.”

“You too,” he said, a little vaguely, still looking at where Tony was working a crick out of his neck, his t-shirt riding up past the cut of his hips.

She shook her head, and took her leave.

***

Steve takes to watching Tony, quite a bit, with varying degrees of wariness, fascination, consternation, and wonder.

It’s kind of cute.

This time, Steve is sitting, halfway to comfortably, and watching as Tony argues with Clint about arrows. Natasha estimates about 35% consternation, 50% fascination, and 15% wonder.

“But, boomerangs!” Clint exclaims.

Tony peers at him. “Why?”

“Because…boomerangs.”

“He’s going to notice at some point,” Natasha says, slinging her legs over the back of the couch.

“Gah,” Steve says, very quietly. “Um. What?”

“You,” Natasha says, and then quickly gestures two fingers at her own eyes, and then one at Tony.

It takes Steve a second to get it, and then his eyes widen and his face goes red. He hunches his shoulders. “Oh.”

“Yes, ‘oh’,” Natasha says dryly. There’s a scuffle on the other side of the room, which she and Steve both ignore.

Steve shakes his head, if anything looking even redder. “No, you don’t understand, I didn’t realise…”

She narrows her eyes, takes in the way his whole expression has shifted to about 10% consternation, 90% wonder.

Oh, indeed.

“You didn’t know,” she says.

He shakes his head, eyes still wide.

“Didn’t know what?” Tony chokes, from where Clint has him in a headlock. Tony really needs to come down to the gym and work with Natasha, his vulnerability to these things is a disgrace. Natasha makes a mental note to drag him out of the lab tomorrow.

“Nothing,” Steve says, his voice gone somewhat higher than usual. He looks at Natasha. “I’m sorry,” he says, a little helplessly. “I’m gonna…um. Clint, you should probably...”

“What? Oh,” Clint says, and Tony collapses to the floor. “Sorry, dude.”

“Never building you boomerang arrows,” Tony wheezes.

“I’m gonna go,” Steve finishes, and books it out of the room.

“O…kay,” Tony says.

Natasha judges that it would not, unlike last time, be advantageous to send Tony haring after Steve, so she slides down from her perch on the back of the couch and flops onto the cushions. “I demand action movies,” she says, “The worse the better.”

Clint grins. “Reign of Fire?” he suggests.

“I’ll call Thor,” Tony says, “I’m sure he’ll have awesome things to say about how to fail at fighting dragons.”

Natasha nods, and then lifts her head when Tony manages to lever himself onto the couch so she can lay it on his lap. Clint makes a wounded noise, and so she lifts her legs in turn so that he can slide beneath them.

“Seriously, what was that about?” Tony asks her quietly.

“You’ll figure it out, katyonak,” she says. “Now give me scruffy Christian Bale yelling about stuff.”

“My pleasure, Agent Romanov,” JARVIS demurs.

(“Did you seriously call him ‘kitten’?” Clint demands, some hours later. “I thought I was the only one who got pet names.”

“You know me,” Natasha replies, “I can’t help adopting strays.”

He leaps at her, and they end up wrestling on the floor until Natasha inadvertently breaks the coffee table and they have to hide it.

“You tell him that Steve’s falling for him like a sack of bricks?” Clint say, as they stow a stray table-leg in the ceiling. Natasha’s pretty sure JARVIS has already called for a replacement, so with any luck Tony won’t ever know the difference.

“No,” she replies. “He wouldn’t believe me.”

“We are all so crazy-pants,” Clint sighs.

“Speak for yourself,” she says.)

***

“He’s too likeable and I don’t like it,” Tony announces, some days later.

“Oh good, we’re talking about Steve again,” Natasha replies.

Tony placates her with Russian breakfast tea. Natasha is a little ashamed that it works. “You know I’m right,” he says, once she’d taken a sip.

“He’s Steve, of course he’s likeable,” she points out, pretending not to revel in the rich aroma, indicative of how he’d gotten the steep time precisely right. “You’ve just been stubborn.”

“In the spirit of self-preservation! Someone on this team has to yell at him when he’s being an idiot.”

“You can yell at him and like him at the same time.”

“I never said I liked him,” Tony says, a little sullenly.

“Are you forty or twelve?” Natasha says dryly.

“Five. I am five forever.”

She sighs. “What brought on this particular lamentation about Steve’s likeability?”

“Are you actually pissed at me? Because that was a lot less monosyllabic than usual for you.”

“Don’t push me, Stark.”

He huffs. She gives up.

“You’re already spending an inordinate amount of time with him, Tony. Why not ask him to dinner or something?”

He stares at her, eyes wide and face uncharacteristically open. “Down that road lies unintentional insults and talking about my dad,” he says gruffly. “No thanks.”

She shrugs. “Okay. Then continue as you are. But knowing you, down that road lies drunken bad decisions and awkwardness.”

“Oh good. Thanks for clearing that up for me.” Tony moves to get up, and Natasha grabs his wrist.

“Be careful,” she says. “For both your sakes.”

“I’d say I’m always careful,” Tony replies, “But you know how much I hate lying to you.” He gives her a winning smile.

She returns it, albeit more reservedly, and he makes his retreat.

***

People forget that Natasha knows how to use the repulsors.

So when the weird one-upmanship battle going on between Tony and Doctor Doom culminates in Doom breaking into Tony’s workshop to steal some shiny object or another, most of the Avengers are a bit surprised when she chooses to use all of the weapons at her disposal that happen to be lying around the workshop including—when she’s maxed out her own ammo—the discarded arm of a Mach IV armour, hooked up to a car battery.

Doom goes flying through the air only to be knocked unconscious by vibranium to the un-helmeted back of his head. And then it’s surprisingly quiet.

“Jesus, Tasha,” Clint says, after a second.

“You are my absolute favourite, but never do that again,” Tony says, climbing over a pile of rubble. “And not because I don’t like you touching my things, but because it might have shorted out and killed you.”

“Oh,” she says, after a pause, looking at the gauntlet. “Surely you build things better than that, Stark.”

He grins a little crookedly. “Well, obviously. But that thing’s hella old, at least in technological terms, and I was mostly referring to the battery, not the glove. Still, though.” He holds out his own gauntleted hand for a high-five

She slaps it, and the metal against metal makes a shrieking crash on contact. They both grin.

“You are both terrifying,” Bruce says. He rubs his arms. “Can I get a shirt, please?”

Steve gives Tony and Natasha a woeful look before handing off a tattered Armani dress shirt (unearthed from a pile of machine parts) to Bruce.

Doom makes a plaintive noise from beneath the hammer Thor had placed on his chest.

“We should probably take care of him,” Natasha says.

“Consider it done,” Coulson says, stepping into the workshop. He wrinkles his nose slightly. “Agent Romanov, is that…?”

“It is,” Tony says, and he sounds proud. Natasha rolls her eyes.

“It was expedient, sir.”

“Right,” Coulson says, in the tone that suggests he’s going to ignore the matter for the sake of his sanity. “Thor, if you could help us get Mr. Von Doom out of here?”

“You will address me by my rightful title!” Doom demands.

They ignore him.

Tony nudges Natasha in the shoulder. “So, you and the armour? Hot. I already knew that from the terrible party we don’t talk about, but—“

“Shut up before you risk castration, Tony,” she replies.

He shuts up.

Thor passes them by as he helps escort Doom out of the workshop. As he does, he gives Natasha a wink. “I am gladdened by your newfound camaraderie with Friend Tony,” he whispers, which might as well be the equivalent of a normal person with a megaphone. “Surely our ka-tet shall be ever stronger when the individual bonds between warriors are nurtured!”

Tony chokes. One of the SHIELD agents that had come in with Coulson makes a small, disbelieving noise.

“Okay, who let Thor read The Dark Tower series?” Clint asks.

Natasha gives Thor a smile, and as soon as his back is turned, looks at the ceiling and sighs.

“Face it, Romanov,” Tony drawls. “You’re stuck with me.”

“So much regret right now,” she says. “So much.”

Steve clears his throat. “Tony, can we be of any help with cleanup?”

At that, Tony finally looks around and seems to comprehend the full wreckage of his workshop. “Uh,” he says, a little plaintively, “Yes, please.”

Natasha pats his shoulder, because the jig is well and truly up now anyway. “You’ll build it back up better than before.”

He manages a smile at her. “Of course. I’m Tony Stark.”

Steve ducks his head.

Natasha catches him doing so, and is surprised by a vague sense of worry making itself known in her gut.

She dismisses it. Doom is out of the picture; she’s sure things are as they should be.

***

Tony ruins it, of course, by nearly dying.

He is irritatingly good at that, Natasha thinks sourly.

They’re in Wisconsin, surrounded by the corpses of aliens who took a wrong turn at the stratosphere, Tony is under fifteen feet of collapsed town hall, and it’s far too risky to let the Hulk have his way with the rubble, so they have to wait for emergency services while Tony wheezes invectives and fear and generally raises Natasha’s blood pressure in ways she prefers not to think about.

“Tony, stop talking, you’re just going to breathe in more dust,” Steve says, not for the first time, but this time he sounds sick with anxiety, his fingers pressed to his earpiece like that would somehow make him sound louder or surer.

“I stop talking, I stop thinking; I stop thinking, I stop being awake,” Tony snaps in response. “You’re about three complaints away from me losing consciousness, so let me have my motormouth, okay Cap? Because seriously, this blows, like big time blows, and I don’t think I can feel my left arm anymore, and…”

He keeps going, and Natasha keeps listening. Clint puts a hand on her shoulder.

“We’ll get him out,” he says. “He’s the stubbornest son of a bitch we know.”

“Fury?” Natasha says, smiling wanly.

“Even him,” Clint snorts. Then he turns his comm on. “You hear that, Stark? Fury’s less of a stubborn ass than you.”

“Fuck you, Barton!”

They all laugh; weakly, but still. Sirens announce the arrival of rescue services.

“Tell ‘em I’ve got a map of the weak spots and places they can clear,” Tony says over the comms, “I’ll email it to whoever’s in charge, anything to get me out of this goddamn plaster of paris coffin. Also, who decided this concrete was stable? I’m seeing stress lines all over the place, you tell the mayor of this Podunk town—”

“It’s the capital city,” Steve interrupts dryly.

“Of Wisconsin,” Tony retorts. “You tell the mayor that this building was going to come down without help from our attempted alien overlords, and that he should be damn glad he had an excuse to evacuate his people so this thing only fell on me rather than, like, two hundred civilians. The architect should be so fired.”

“We’ll keep that in mind,” Natasha says, and goes off to find the lead officer of the squad.

By the time they get Tony out though, he’s unconscious, and barely breathing. A massive doric column had come straight down over his stomach, and the armour could only take so much. Thor and Steve help with the heavy lifting alongside the paramedics, but the worst of the damage has already been done.

Anyone else would surely be dead, and in several pieces.

Medics load Tony into the ambulance to transport him to the hospital, and one of them turns to the Avengers. “I can take one person to go with,” she says. “Any takers?”

Natasha looks automatically to Cap, waiting for his handwringing to manifest in eagerness to go, and at first, it looks like it’s going to do just that. But then strangely, he looks at her, and something in his expression crumples just slightly.

“You should go,” he says to her, “You’re closest to him.”

Natasha stares at him. “I am?” She looks around at the rest of the team. They look back at her expectantly. “Bruce?” she offers.

“They won’t want another doctor backseat-driving,” Bruce says. “And we’ll be right behind you anyway.”

She looks back incredulously at Cap, and then takes a breath.

“Go,” she orders, tone brooking no argument. It’s the tone she uses with Clint when he does something stupid and life-threatening. “We’ll be there shortly.”

“But I—“

“Go, Cap,” Clint says, stepping up behind Natasha.

It’s Steve’s turn to look incredulous, but he climbs into the ambulance alongside Tony with an air of insecure anxiety, and the medics immediately take off, sirens blaring once again.

“Idiots,” she mutters under her breath. “You’re all idiots.”

“Hey, I’m not an idiot,” Clint protests. “It’s all on him.”

“I’m missing something,” Bruce says, looking between them.

“That seems to be a theme today,” Natasha replies. “Come on, we’ve got an ambulance to catch up to.”

***

Tony is pale in the hospital bed when they arrive, IV securely in place, which means he’s definitely sedated, and heavily at that. Bruce peruses the chart he’s finagled from one of the nurses, his expression closed.

“They’ve stabilised the haemorrhaging and made sure the arc reactor hasn’t done any more damage than it already has, and it looks like he’s been lucky in that regard. They’re still worried about the state of his kidneys—they took a fair bit of the impact from the way the armour crumpled—“

“The armour crumpled?” Clint asks incredulously.

“Well, dented,” Bruce corrects, smiling slightly. “It took about thirty tonnes of pressure before it did, to be fair to Tony.”

“How long are they going to keep him out?” Natasha inquires.

“At least another twelve hours, though they’ll start taking him off the sedatives much sooner, and hope that he gets some natural sleep. He’s going to need at least a couple of months to bounce back. But barring any complications, he’ll be okay.”

There’s a collective breath of relief shared between them all.

“He’s going to be climbing the walls in a week,” Clint mutters.

“We’ll keep him down,” Steve says, emerging from the room where Tony is sequestered. He looks exhausted in a way he rarely does, bruising cutting deep under his eyes, a muscle in his jaw twitching where he’s kept it clenched for too long. He cuts a glance at Natasha. “They’ll let you see him, if you like,” he says to her.

“Oh, for—,” she stops, gathers herself, and says, “I’ll wait until he’s in better shape to see all of us.” She holds a hand out to Bruce, who obediently puts Tony’s file into it. She scans for relevant information. “If we bribe the hospital with Tony’s money, one of us can stay with him overnight. SHIELD will pick us all up tomorrow to bring us back to New York, at which point Tony will probably be awake and raising hell, so someone will need to make sure he doesn’t decide to rip out his IV and make a beeline for the workshop. Cap, I nominate you for both of those tasks. In the meantime, the rest of us will get hotel rooms tonight on Tony’s dollar, because damn him for doing this to us.”

She stops again. Huffs, and then continues, “And then we will all reconvene here in the morning. Is that acceptable to everyone?”

“A most logical plan,” Thor agrees.

“Fine by me,” Bruce says.

Clint makes an assenting shrug.

Steve begins to protest, and Natasha quells him with a glare. “Are you sure?” he asks, a bit meekly.

“Yes,” Natasha says, softening involuntarily. It’s the look on Steve’s face, she knows—a goddamn box of kittens in the rain, indeed. Then she adds a little more quietly, “And I think you and I need to have a talk once we’re on our way back to New York.”

“A—all right,” he says, and to his credit, looks less terrified than most people do when Natasha requests ‘talks’ of them.

“Good,” she nods. “Then that’s settled.”

“Anyone know any swanky hotels in Madison?” Clint asks.

Bruce does Natasha’s job, and cuffs him in the back of the head.

They leave Steve there in Tony’s room, sitting by the bed, apparently using all of his willpower not to hold Tony’s hand.

Men, Natasha thinks uncharitably.

***

When they meet back at the hospital the next morning, well-rested and pampered (they’d gone to the Concourse, because Clint had a point about deserving some swank), it’s to find Tony and Steve bickering, because of course it is.

“This whole production is demeaning; I feel fine.”

“You’re doped to the gills.”

“Lies, I pinched the IV this morning.”

“You didn’t, I was watching you the whole time.”

“Oh yeah? Like what you see?”

“Not the time, Tony.”

“There’s a time?”

“Natasha,” Steve says in relief, spotting her. He nods at the rest of the team. “Everyone ready to go?”

“SHIELD’s landed their helicopter on the roof; we’re ready when you are,” Clint reports. He points an accusing finger at Tony. “You. Are an asshole.”

“Right, we didn’t get a chance to tell you that yesterday,” Bruce says.

“Aw, come on, I didn’t do it on purpose,” Tony whines.

“You waited until it was too late for Hulk to go in after you and at least shield you from most of the damage,” Steve says sternly.

“There were still life signs inside,” Tony counters.

“Yes, one stray dog just outside the foundation, blurred up by all of the layers of metal and concrete between it and you,” Natasha retorts. She strides forward, and stops in front of the gurney Tony is still strapped to so that she can glare down at him properly. “You’re more valuable than a stray dog. Stop being stupid.” She leans down and kisses his cheek, and then adds in an undertone while she’s still close, “If your head isn’t out of your ass by the time you next wake up, I will personally dismember you.”

Tony twitches, and looks at her. “Isn’t that, like, the status quo, though?” he asks, which is admirably vague for mixed company.

“It won’t be soon enough,” Natasha says. She reaches for his IV. “I’d like to state for the record that this is for your own good, because god knows I’m not going to be the one to actually convince you of these things, but I definitely know someone who will. So I’m staging an intervention.”

Tony’s eyes widened. “Don’t you dare,” he hisses.

She smiles sweetly at him, and dials up the sedation again. “Good night, Tony.”

He glares, and continues glaring up until his eyes roll back up into his head and he slumps back into sleep.

“What on earth was that for?” Steve asks.

“A quiet ride home,” Natasha answers, which she figures is close enough to the truth.

Clint snickers.

***

It is indeed a quiet ride home. Except for the fact that Natasha corrals Steve into the far end of the plane where no one usually likes to sit, because it’s too close to the engines, and anyone there can feel the vibrations from their feet to their skulls. As a result, the two of them are the only ones perched there, which is exactly what Natasha wanted anyway, so.

“You thought we should talk?” Steve prompts, because he may be a lot of things, but never a coward.

“Yes,” Natasha agrees. “I’m afraid you’re operating under a misapprehension, you see.”

He crinkles his brow at her. It’s endearing, except for how it’s been one more source of Natasha’s prime headache for the last six months. “What’s that?” he asks.

Natasha sighs. “Tony and I are friends.”

Steve stares at her. “…Yes?” he agrees, after a moment.

“We’re not in a relationship.”

“Oh.” He visibly takes a second to think about that. “Oh.”

“Yes, ‘oh’,” Natasha agrees, feeling like she’s experiencing deja vu. “Just thought I’d get that out there.”

He frowns. “But you’re so…comfortable with him. And Tony isn’t exactly—“

“Easy to find comfortable?” Natasha finishes. “You’d be surprised.”

Steve makes a face. She adds, “Or not, as the case may be.”

He flushes slightly.

She smiles at him. “Tony and I got off to a contentious start. That seems to be the norm with him—at least, that’s what Pepper tells me, and what I know of his psychology and his SHIELD dossier leads me to agree. And we’re only as close as we are now because I’ve taken to respecting his boundaries.” At Steve’s questioning look, she explains, “I don’t ever try to hand him things. I don’t go into the workshop unless there’s an emergency. I occasionally allow him to be unreasonable and demanding and only retaliate within a set level of violence, sabotage, or subterfuge.”

“That sounds…maybe ‘healthy’ isn’t precisely the right word.”

“It works for us,” she shrugs. “But it’s not the makings of a romantic relationship, and neither of us would want it to be anyway.”

“Certainly didn’t seem like that to me, I guess,” Steve says, and rubs the back of his neck.

“Thus, the reason for having this conversation,” Natasha replies.

She gives him a few minutes to think, feeling the rumble of the plane’s engines as a strange sort of comfort. She realises, after a little while, that it’s come to mean homecoming to her. It is odd in its newness.

“You’re telling me this,” Steve says abruptly, colouring, “Because I…”

“Mm,” Natasha agrees. “Don’t worry, he hasn’t noticed yet. Though I may have told him that we’d be having this talk.”

“You’re being surprisingly meddling, for a spy,” Steve observes.

Natasha shifts. “Yes, well. Enough’s enough.”

“Hm,” Steve says knowingly. After a pause, he says, “I hand him things.”

“Yes,” she nods. “You do.”

“I’m in the workshop all the time,” he says, slow and musing. “And I never let him get away with anything.”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” she replies, because Steve can be incredibly indulgent with Tony sometimes, though only sometimes.

“Have I been overstepping?” he asks, frowning again.

“Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it?” she counters, raising an eyebrow. “Have you?”

“He would have said something. Wait, no,” he stops. “He would have done something. Locked me out.”

“Correct,” Natasha says approvingly. “And he hasn’t.”

“No…” Steve looks at his hands, and says in a small voice, “He…really?”

“Hate to break it to you, Cap,” she says, as lightly as she can manage, “But you’re kind of a catch.”

He huffs a laugh, but doesn’t look up at her.

They spend the rest of the trip in silence, feeling and hearing the vibration of the engines. Twice, Natasha sees Steve’s hands clench, as if yearning to grasp something, and then still.

She tips her head back in her seat, and thinks of nothing in particular.

***

Tony is insufferable throughout the duration of his convalescence. This surprises no one.

What surprises everyone but Natasha, is that he doesn’t listen to Steve. At all.

There’s muffled yelling from down the hall before Steve emerges glowering, his hair mussed from running his hands through it.

“Shall I go and sit on his legs?” Natasha asks, looking up.

“Probably not for a few hours. I think he just realised how much damage he’s taken. He’ll cooperate for a short while at least.”

“Only took him seven ripped stitches,” Clint grumbles from his place on the floor, and makes a jab at the TV screen with the Wiimote.

“You’re just as bad, don’t even front,” Natasha says.

“Russians don’t get to say ‘front’.”

She kicks him.

Steve sits down next to her, leaning forward to rest his elbows heavily on his thighs. “He won’t let me get a word in edgewise,” he says, looking beseechingly at her.

This is why Natasha doesn’t normally like getting involved. It’s really too bad she likes both Steve and Tony as much as she does.

It’s possible she’s become invested. She should probably hate that.

“Of course not. He now knows that I’ve talked about him with you. He assumes that we have discussed terrible things about him. He doesn’t want to risk hearing about it.”

“That’s a damned stupid way of making assumptions.”

“That’s the way you make assumptions when you’ve been a dumbass in front of the tabloid press for a good twenty years of your life,” Clint corrects, and Natasha kicks him again. “Ow! Goddamnit.”

“I recommend duct tape, personally,” Natasha says. “He’s about as captive an audience as you’re going to get at this point, so you might as well go the full mile.”

“Or, you know, shut him up with something else,” Clint snickers, and manages to dodge Natasha’s foot this time.

Steve rolls his eyes, even as his ears go slightly pink. “I don’t think so, Clint,” he says dryly. “But I’ll take that under advisement.”

He gets to his feet and heads towards the kitchen. Then he stops, and his shoulders go up and then down on an exhale, and he about-faces back towards Tony’s room.

Natasha smiles privately to herself.

“You are such a yenta,” Clint comments, stabbing the Wiimote at the screen again.

She dives at him.

The Wiimote never recovers.

***

When Natasha slips into Tony’s room some time later, it’s to find Tony looking shellshocked in his bed, fingers fidgeting with the sheets. Natasha takes one look at him and snorts. “I take it Steve talked to you?” she asks.

“Um,” Tony says, very deliberately.

Natasha allows herself a smug swing to her hips as she comes forward and sits down on the edge of his bed. “Do tell.”

“You are not my fairy godmother, I’m not telling you shit,” Tony retorts.

She gives him a look.

He tosses his head like the diva that he is, and then says, like it’s a massive burden, “He kissed me.”

“Oh no,” Natasha says flatly. “Whatever shall you do?”

“Shut up,” Tony says, “I hate you.”

“You adore me. And why are you so surprised about this?”

“Because why the fuck would he do that?” Tony says, almost shrill. “I’m a mess!”

“You’re getting no disagreement from me on that front,” Natasha nods. But then she drapes herself over his legs so that she can feel the bones of his shins against her stomach, and turns to watch him over one shoulder. “I should however point out that you’ve become a lot less of a mess since Steve’s come into the picture.”

“Since before that,” Tony says sullenly.

“Since before that,” Natasha agrees. “Pepper was, and still is, unfeasibly good for you.”

“Yeah, and look how that turned out.”

“Pepper and Steve are very different people,” she points out.

Tony makes a noise of dissent, but doesn’t elaborate.

“What’s the problem, Tony?” she sighs. “And if you say your self-esteem, I’ll punch you.”

“Guess I’d better not say anything, then,” Tony says dryly. He swallows, looking away, and then says, “Can we just not talk about it? I need to think.”

She regards him, and then turns away so that they’re both facing the far wall where the flatscreen TV is hung.

“I want to see a helicopter get killed by a car,” she says.

“Hmph,” Tony says, with what sounds like relief. “JARVIS, you heard her. Live Free or Die Hard, on the double.”

“Indeed, sir,” JARVIS demurs, and they settle in to watch Bruce Willis be surly for the rest of the evening.

Tony falls asleep, after a little while, his breathing slightly laboured beneath all of his bandages. Natasha extricates herself without waking him.

Clint is waiting in the hall when she emerges. “You really like him, huh?” he says, falling into step with her.

Natasha knows he means, You really trust him. She bumps his shoulder with hers.

“Not as much as I like you,” she says.

He smiles at her, certain and yet still edged with appealing shyness. “Well,” he says, ducking his head. “I was counting on that.”

They reach the elevator and step inside in silence.

When they reach Natasha’s floor, Clint shuffles slightly. “Night, Tasha,” he says, after a pause.

The doors slide open. Impulsively, Natasha grabs his hand, and brings it to her lips. The kiss she presses to its back is soft but decisive.

“Goodnight, Clint,” she says quietly, and then lets go, stepping away.

She doesn’t miss Clint’s surprised huff and quiet laugh, as the elevator closes behind her.

***

Both she and Clint get called in to SHIELD for administrative work and then a short mission to Caracas, which Natasha suspects Fury concocted specifically so that the Avengers could claim collective unreadiness and ask the Fantastic Four to cover for them. A convalescing Tony is bad enough—a convalescing Tony left behind during an Avengers gig would be disastrous.

By the time the mission is finished, with the CIA yelling bloody murder but the mark well and truly neutralised, Natasha and Clint return to the tower none the worse for wear beyond the usual exhaustion. It’s dark when they arrive, and Natasha has every intention of going to her floor and not coming out until she’s slept at least for a full day.

As it happens, however, Bruce is in the elevator when it opens to them on the ground floor, and in his quiet, sneaky way, he manages to shanghai them both into the usual Thursday movie night.

The sight that greets them on the communal floor has Clint coughing and laughing, and Natasha smirking.

Bruce just smiles.

“Shut up,” Tony mumbles. “Someday you will be unwittingly adorable due to unforeseen stupid injury-induced exhaustion and I will laugh at you, and then where will you be?”

“I guess I’ll be adorable,” Clint manages, between choking laughs, “But then again, that is my natural state.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. Tony is (admittedly, rather adorably) draped over Steve’s chest on the couch, their legs tangled. Steve has his eyes only half open, and he looks more comfortable than Natasha’s ever seen him be, despite being apparently crushed under Tony’s not inconsiderable weight. “Don’t tell me he walked here from his room,” she says to Steve.

“I carried him,” Steve replies. “There were protests. They were ignored.”

“Vehement protests,” Tony slurs, waving an arm weakly in emphasis. “We’re living in a dictatorship.”

“Your life is hard,” Natasha observes dryly.

“Our comrade is healing well, but he is still in a weakened state,” Thor says expansively from the opposite couch, which he takes up entirely. “We must treat him with due delicacy.”

“Delicacy!” Tony squawks, but the effect is mostly muffled by the fact that he says it into Steve’s shoulder. “I’m not delicate!”

Steve runs a hand through Tony’s hair, and Tony subsides with a grumble.

Bruce makes a sound of amusement.

“Natasha, you’re a miracle worker,” Clint breathes. “You’ve found us a Stark-handler.”

Tony flips him the bird.

Steve flushes scarlet, and looks at Natasha. He grins a little. “I guess we probably do owe you a than—“

“You owe me eternal silence,” Natasha interrupts, jabbing a finger at him. “I did nothing for you. Therefore you owe me nothing.” And then she adds, after a pause, “Except discretion, because I don’t want to hear it, see it, or in anyway be aware of what you two are doing any more than I already am.”

“If only in front of the rest of SHIELD,” Tony adds, propping his head up at last. He gives her a wry smile. “But I think you’re gonna have to get used to the idea of us knowing you a little better than that.”

Natasha pauses, and looks around at the team—Thor reclining like a Roman god instead of a Norse one, Steve and Tony tangled to one side of him; Bruce and Clint on either side of her, both looking at her knowingly. She realises, maybe for the first time, or at least for the first clear time, that she likes them all, not just Tony.

She’s fond of them.

What was it that Coulson said about exceptions in the business? What business is that? Espionage?

Natasha is a spy. Was, is, always will be.

But, she supposes, she isn’t exactly in the business of espionage anymore.

“Right,” she says, a little briskly, and she feels the team draw away for a brief second. She finds she doesn’t like it. So she amends, “What are we watching?”

“Beowulf and Grendel,” Thor booms, “I wish to see your American adaptation of that mighty tale!”

“It’s going to be awful,” Tony says into Steve’s neck, a little gleefully. Steve rolls his eyes.

“Angelina Jolie is smokin’,” Clint says, “I’m down with that.”

Natasha smacks the back of his head, but then grabs his hand to drag him to the couches. They’re going to fall asleep a maximum of fifteen minutes in, and Clint is an excellent pillow.

…Maybe Natasha should stop deluding herself about that as well.

Maybe.

On their way past, she drops a kiss into Tony’s hair. “I like you,” she says simply.

“Like you, too,” Tony says. He looks at her, smiling. “You’re still terrifying.”

“Tony,” Steve admonishes, but stops when he sees Natasha’s face.

“Thanks, katyonak,” she says.

“Come on, Tasha.” Clint pulls on her hand. “Before I pass out where I stand.”

“You hurt?” Steve asks.

“Just tired,” Natasha assures him.

“Come, friends! I wish to see this CGI battle!” Thor says.

They all settle down on the couches, and JARVIS starts the movie.

“Tony’s right,” Clint says, listing into Natasha’s space. “This is going to be awful.”

“Yup,” she agrees, “Utterly terrible.”

She doesn’t mind.