"You hated it when I joined S.H.I.E.L.D., didn't you?" Kate asked Natasha while Natasha was in the middle of bandaging her wounds.
It was an odd question, though not one entirely unfounded, Natasha supposed. Hate was definitely the wrong word, though. "Confused" would have worked much better.
S.H.I.E.L.D. was pretty reliable in their recruiting methods. They sought out broken individuals without families and offered them one in exchange for their servitude.
Natasha understood and respected that system. She had offered her services to others in exchange for far less.
But when Kate Bishop made her debut in the S.H.I.E.L.D. ranks, it messed with this system as Natasha understood it to work.
For one thing, Kate already had a family, and it seemed to be one that actually loved and cared about her.
"I like the shoes. No matter what Clint says, you need to be able to run in them."
"Shame I can't tell Suze that her atrocious taste in shoes is actually going to be useful."
"They'll be excellent practice."
For another, Kate had the ability to choose anything but S.H.I.E.L.D. She wasn't a reformed assassin, she wasn't a reformed thief, and she wasn't running away from the circus. She had graduated from NYU with a degree in social work and had every intention of following in her mother's footsteps instead of her father's for her occupational choices.
When Clint had come across her interrupting a gas station robbery, she could have declined their offer. She could have laughed in their faces and taken her bow to do the solo hero thing.
"Sorry, Tasha. I was pretending to be interested in 'doing something useful' with my degree during the ten millionth lecture from dear old dad."
"Were you successful in your pretense?"
"If I had been, I wouldn't have gotten the 'I told you to major in something more employable than social work' spiel and I wouldn't have been late."
Kate definitely had her scars. Natasha didn't pry, because she worked with enough other broken people that she knew better. But she could could see that Kate responded far more violently to some touches than others, and that she hated being touched from behind.
"I don't know why Coulson's so upset, Natasha. It's not like I killed the other agent. I just broke his arm."
"He's upset because you are causing him a hell of a lot more paperwork than he likes, Katie."
"She wasn't talking to you, Clint. Don't listen to him, Kate. The real reason that he is upset is because Phil worries about how your temper will translate in the field."
"In the field, if someone is stupid enough to grab me that way, I'm breaking their arm, too. Guess they better leave the undercover ops for you two."
But Kate's scars were scabbed over. Always there, certainly, but never the gaping wounds that screamed for attention the way so many of Natasha's teammates and coworkers unknowingly did.
Some days, Natasha watched Kate and Clint together, and she marveled at the differences in the way their broken pieces fit together. Kate's hands would thread through Clint's hair, and he would lean into her hand, seeking comfort for wounds caused to him before she'd even been born. It was comfort that Natasha was certain that Clint didn't return - that he couldn't return, no matter how much he would have, had those scars not been inflicted all those years ago.
"As far as people go, you're okay, Barton."
In other words, it was entirely possible that Natasha would never quite understand why exactly Kate Bishop had decided to join S.H.I.E.L.D. when there were much better and more fitting opportunities for her.
But Natasha liked the way Kate sparred, as if the fate of an innocent always depended upon it. She liked the way that Kate took joy only in beating the worst of those that they fought and viewed the remainders as the simple missions that they were.
Most of all, Natasha liked the way Kate would fall into Natasha's lap after a mission or training, with her hair loosely pulled back and limbs curling around Natasha like a particularly happy cat. Salty, lilac-scented skin and soft lips tinted with purple lipstick were welcome ways to end any mission.
"It's not like I wear the perfume on tracking missions, Natasha. Anymore than I wear the scarf into battle. I know better."
"It's good that you do. Lovely as the scent is, it's not worth allowing someone to trace you through it."
"You're worried that I won't come back? I'm not sure whether to be flattered or outraged at you underestimating my competency levels."
Tonight, Natasha ran her fingers over the bandages concealing the recent knife wounds that Kate had trailing up her arm. The one who had caused the wounds looked much worse, Natasha was happy to report.
"I didn't hate it when you joined S.H.I.E.L.D.," Natasha told her.
"You really, really did," Kate argued.
"No, I didn't. I was just confused at first."
"You're unconfused?" Kate asked, leaning her head onto Natasha's shoulder lazily.
Natasha stroked her hair and didn't tell her no.
"I only know that S.H.I.E.L.D. is better now that they have you around," she told Kate instead. "As am I."