Tony said it as they walked out of the debriefing for their latest mission. It was a passing mention meant to be a compliment, but the words made Natasha's heart stop in her chest.
"Oh, hey. Congrats, you're trending on Twitter."
The sort of commentary that was made about any woman working in a field considered to be "masculine" tended to lie along the lines of disparaging remarks about her body, sex life (or lack thereof), and rude suggestions about an innate lack of ability to perform specialized tasks regardless of the woman's actual skill level, and Natasha was no stranger to those sort of unwanted and highly inaccurate opinions. She didn't usually have to deal with such comments, reputation being what it was, but when she did she usually found that a well executed hit was more than enough to silence any naysayers.
(No one would call the Black Widow sensitive, and a few untruthful words would hardly send her into tears, but that didn't mean she had to put up with them.)
Since hunting down each and every person responsible for her trending would be a waste of her time, she made a beeline for Hill's office. It would have been easier to get face time with the Public Relations Department than the Deputy Director, but PR's current stance on the Avengers (any publicity is good publicity as long as it isn't demanding the Avengers be disbanded) guaranteed that they wouldn't care about her opinion.
Natasha was trending on Twitter and she wanted it stopped.
Chenda loves cheese (@chendarcheese): Okay what the heck is #girlavenger actually about and why does it sound awesome to me but no one else?
Hill was between meetings and Natasha didn't bother with pleasantries as she was shown in.
"Stark says I'm trending. I want it stopped."
Hill looked up from her desk with raised eyebrows, where she was reading a report while slurping noodles from a Styrofoam cup. She blinked at Natasha a few times before looking her over.
"Well those boots and that top look great on you, so you should probably lose them, but I'm not so sure about the pants." She shrugged. "You might want to ask Coulson. You know he's got a better grasp on that stuff than I do."
"On Twitter," Natasha clarified.
"Are you sure you want to stop that?" Hill asked, returning her attention to her noodles.
"Are you really asking me if I'm sure I want to stop the scintillating discussion about which one of my teammates I'm sleeping with and whether or not my boobs are real?"
"That's not all they're saying." Without looking up, Hill picked a folder off her desk and passed it to Natasha. "PR's already taken note of the situation. This is their report. Read it over. If you don't like what you see, I will personally kill it for you."
Natasha took the folder, flipped it open, and glanced down at the first page.
"What's the point of the hashtag-girlavenger? Making mid-battle snacks for the real Avengers?" Natasha slammed the folder shut and looked back up at Hill. "I can really see the value of having this all over the internet. Thanks for the enlightenment."
"You're welcome. Now get out, I'm trying to eat."
"Yes sir," Natasha said, tucking the folder under her arm as she stood. If anyone else had told her to read through the file, Natasha would have refused in her own way. Probably with a well placed knife. Instead, her long-standing relationship with Hill had her trusting the commander's judgement.
"And stop by medical. Tell Coulson he needs to heal faster. I can't stand another day of dealing with Tony Stark."
"Why don't I just wheel his hospital bed down to his office for you?"
Hill smiled into her noodles. "That's the sort of initiative S.H.I.E.L.D. expects from you."
The nice guy of your dreams (@dreamniceguy): what happens if the #girlavenger breaks a nail during battle?
Natasha did stop by medical, but Coulson was asleep so he wasn't much for conversation. She hadn't expected much differently. Even though S.H.I.E.L.D. doctors had been able to revive and stabilize him after his encounter with Loki, he was a long way from being fully recovered, or even being released from medical. That still didn't stop her from occupying the lone chair in his room while going through the hefty file Hill had given her.
S.H.I.E.L.D. had been transitioning back to paper records for a while now, all for the sake of keeping Tony Stark from nosing into anything he shouldn't, and the folder Hill had given her was filled with printed pages of blog posts, facebook updates, tweets, and miscellaneous social media reactions. At first, the majority of mentions about her all fell along the same line as the tweet she read in Hill's office and Natasha was reminded of the days before the Avengers Initiative when she was considered to be much more than just a "girl" in a tight bodysuit.
Dan the man (@fedoraking69): bet #girlavenger makes a mean sandwich
"Well Coulson," she said, glancing up from the papers in her lap to look at the prone man, "What was it that got me on the team? My sandwiches or my blow jobs? Surely it had nothing to do with the fact that I'm a highly-trained and multi-talented professional known for always accomplishing her mission objective."
The steady beeping of medical machinery was her only answer.
"My sandwiches, of course. That is why R and D crafted those gauntlets after all. So I could toast bread and kill a man with a single move. Why didn't I realize that?"
She skimmed through a few more pages of the same inane internet drivel before a lone tweet at the bottom of its page caught her eye.
Esperanza (@notonmangost): #girlavenger? how about LADY avenger?
Lady Avenger was certainly better than Girl Avenger, but since it looked like the team was actually going to last Natasha would rather just be an Avenger, no modifier. Although she certainly wasn't the only one. Cap was being hailed as the First Avenger, and Tony had dubbed himself the Iron Avenger.
Even so, was it really so difficult to define her as anything other than The Woman of the team?
The next few items she read were much like all the others, with a few tweets from several people who had no idea what was going on and others from overly concerned parents complaining about her wardrobe choices mixed in, before she found another friendly message.
you owe me an ipod (@replacemyipod): I'm sick of all of this talk about how the "GIRL" (um excuse me she's clearly a fucking WOMAN) Avenger is a poor role model for girls.
you owe me an ipod (@replacemyipod): HELLO? She's a fucking SUPERHERO. Clearly she is the best role model.
Natasha certainly didn't think of herself as a hero, much less a super one. Stark certainly fashioned himself as one. And she supposed the four show boaters in the matching blue spandex outfits probably considered themselves superheroes, too. But she was just doing a job. Her job. And she did it well. But doing a job well didn't a superhero make, especially given what her job usually entailed.
Superhero was something she definitely wasn't.
Superheroes wore costumes. They fought villains and monsters. They had secret headquarters.
Natasha was not a superhero.
She wore a uniform. It was a highly functional battle suit. When she fought, she was more concerned with people and organizations posing threats to national security than she was with cackling masterminds with evil lairs in volcanoes. And there was nothing secret about Stark Tower. Except--
She supposed fighting aliens and gods would put a checkmark in the superhero column. And the Helicarrier was technically a secret headquarters, since its existence was highly classified.
But she was never going to refer to her suit as a costume.
Chenda loves cheese (@chendarcheese): well I think #girlavenger seems really cool.
Natasha did not set up a Google alert for #girlavenger. Stark must have hacked her phone. Or Clint did it. She had absolutely nothing to do with it.
And if she did, well that was a secret that would remain between her and Coulson's prone body, and even the harshest of interrogators would never be able to get her to admit otherwise.
Steve Rogers (@srogers1918): @replacemyipod I agree, #girlavenger is an incredibly inspiring hero
you owe me an ipod (@replacemyipod): @srogers1918 i know right? #girlavenger official fan club meeting tonight over dinner?
Hill grinned smugly when Natasha returned the folder a few hours later.
"You owe me a drink."
"I never agreed to that."
"You kind of did. It's Thursday, we always go for drinks on Thursday. And it's your turn to pay."
There was a shift and suddenly Hill was Maria, and Natasha (who was always Natasha) smiled.
"Let's go for dinner instead."
"I'm still ordering drinks, and you're still paying."
Natasha was good at evaluating when she was and wasn't going to win in a given situation. This time, she didn't mind losing so much.
"I'll pick you up at eight. Try to not get involved in any international relations incidents in the meantime. I already made reservations at Chez Peri."
"I love it when you take charge, it makes me all tingly." Maria batted her eyelashes.
"If you're late, I'll take Barton instead."
"You would never. He doesn't know how to appreciate fine dining. He'd embarrass you and you'd never be able to show your face again."
"If Barton's lack of social skills was enough to keep me from somewhere, I would have stopped going out years ago."
Maria laughed. "That is true."
Spider-Girl (@the_spider_girl): anyone know if #girlavenger's on twitter?
Natasha's phone chimed twice while she was in the shower and she checked it as she dried off. Maria--running late and would meet her at the restaurant--and a Google alert.
Thuy Vanessa (@realgeekchic): TAKE BACK #girlavenger! The hashtag's filled with assholes, let's show them what a woman can do.
She smiled as she made her way to her closet.
Jubilee (@xjubilationx): inspired by #girlavenger just bought some new boots. will def be using them to kick ass and take names
Monet (@m_stcroix): @xjubilationx First good sartorial choice since I met you. Now if only you would allow me to give you a proper makeover.
Jubilee (@xjubilationx): @m_stcroix u just hate it bc u know u couldn't pull this look off
Monet (@m_stcroix): @xjubilationx Why would I want to?
Maria showed up at forty-seven minutes late, dressed in what Natasha recognized as a dress from one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s many costume closets.
"I know, I'm sorry," she said as she sat down. "Director Fury and I were going over some reports and I lost track of time."
"You didn't even bring me any flowers." Natasha frowned and picked a bread stick out of the basket in front of her. "And I went to all this trouble dressing up for you."
"They would have gone straight to the garbage and you know it."
She did. Natasha had many talents but the care and keeping of flora, cut or not, was never going to be one of them.
Halfway through dinner two phones buzzed on the table.
"Coulson's awake and apparently coherent enough to finger Jasper's phone," Maria said as she read from her screen. "He wants to know if anyone's been keeping up with his online auctions." She frowned. "I'm not sure if it's the drugs or if he's just that dedicated. Everything okay on your end? Hawkeye didn't get arrested again, did he?"
"No, he's with Stark testing out new tech."
"That doesn't mean they won't end up in jail."
"But it does mean that he wouldn't need to call me to bail him out. Don't worry, everything's fine." Natasha set her phone down, deliberately placing it within arm's reach of Maria. It's okay, the movement said, you can look if you want.
"You should tell Coulson that Fury's assigned a task force to monitor Ebay," she added.
Maria grinned. "Already told him Jasper was in charge of it."
They shared a smile as Maria set her phone down on the table just before Natasha's vibrated again. Maria picked up the other phone and glanced down.
"Google alerts," she said with a raised eyebrow. "Sitting at dinner and I think #girlavenger is at the next table. Don't know if I'm more jealous of her or her date. From srogers1918," she read.
Maria raised an eyebrow in question.
"Five o'clock," Natasha said.
"Mine or yours?"
Maria turned her head and caught sight of Steve and a familiar brunette. When they saw Natasha and Maria, Steve waved and his tablemate made a lewd gesture before giving them both a thumb's up.
"Please tell me you did not let the Avengers know we were coming here."
"Not the Avengers, just Steve. He asked what we were doing. I could hardly refuse. He is Captain America, you know."
"The Sentinel of Liberty!" Maria chimed.
They laughed, because every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent over level five had Captain America's every nickname memorized and could recite all sorts of trivia about Captain America, the Howling Commandoes, and their various exploits at the drop of a hat thanks to the fanatic education they received via Coulson’s constant gushing.
Natasha excused herself and walked over to Steve's table, where he was having dinner with Dr. Foster’s lab assistant. (Darcy, she thought. Not exactly a security threat but definitely not entirely harmless. She’d have to watch the good Miss Lewis to make sure she didn’t deflower a national icon in front of any paparazzi.)
Natasha smiled her best fangirl smile and clasped her hands in front of her. Those six weeks spent undercover as a Lila Cheney groupie were about to pay off.
"Oh my gosh, it's really you," she squealed. "Can I, like, get a picture with you, Captain America?"
Darcy snorted into her glass and Steve smiled. "Anything for a fan," he said with a mostly straight face. "I can even give you an autograph."
Whoever had started those rumors that Captain America was a straight-laced fun sucker who lacked a sense of humor had clearly never met the man.
Natasha passed her phone to Darcy before kneeling beside Steve. She leaned into him, their arms wrapped around each other. Darcy took a few shots, with both Natasha's phone and her own.
Natasha sent a picture to Coulson via Sitwell's phone with the message, "My number one fan." Hopefully he wouldn't get so worked up that the nurses would kick Sitwell out of his room.
"Thanks, Steve. See you back at the Tower. Darcy," she nodded and smiled at the younger woman before going back to Maria.
As she walked away she overheard Darcy say, "Oh my god, she is so cool."
Later, when she and Maria were leaving the restaurant her phone buzzed again. She smiled as she read the tweet.
Steve Rogers (@srogers1918): #girlavenger up in ur restaurants, stealin ur heroes pic.twitter.com/VPxbmr5FKI
Girl Avenger (@girlavenger99): @chendarcheese is now @girlavenger because my love for cheese is eclipsed only by my love for #girlavenger. she's so cool.
Natasha had had better days. She'd had worse days too, but no day that included giant sized, hyper intelligent, super adaptive rats with, what Clint referred to as, "magic zap powers" could be considered good.
The rats had attacked Manhattan and the team had been horrified to discover how difficult they were to exterminate. Hit them once, and their bodies became more durable. Shoot them with one of Iron Man's repulsors, and not only did they develop an immunity to that particular kind of energy, they also gained the ability to shoot out beams of the same frequency (hence the "magic zap powers").
In the end they had managed to corral the rats and herd them onto S.H.I.E.L.D. trucks, to be transported to one of the organizations many research facilities.
All Natasha wanted now was a drink and a hot bath, but she was apparently only going to get one of those because the crazy evil rats had destroyed just enough of Stark and/or Avengers tower to make it uninhabitable.
She dragged herself to Maria's apartment after the Avengers' usual post-mission debrief-slash-bitchfest and let herself in. After a quick shower she settled in front of the tv with a drink and her tablet. She quickly wrote up her post-mission report, and then checked the state of #girlavenger.
Spider-Girl (@The_Spider_Girl): #girlavenger takes on horde of mutant rats, walks away w/o a hair out of place. I take one step outside & look awful. WHAT'S HER SECRET?
As cliche as it is the secret is confidence, she tweeted back. Act like it's purposeful and no one will doubt it even if you're covered in mutant rat guts.
Girl Avenger (@girlavenger99): did anyone see Black Widow fighting those beekeeper villains yesterday? She's so cool.
To Natasha's surprise #girlavenger wouldn't die. It trended two more times, and while there were still tweets and posts about Natasha's lack of worth as an Avenger and a human being, they were becoming few and far between.
The more supportive tweets never stopped being surprising.
Natasha's strengths were quiet and unobtrusive. She didn't have Iron Man's flair. She lacked Captain America's wholesomeness. She would never command awe or terror the way Thor and Hulk did. Even Hawkeye had a showmanship that, though she could duplicate as an act, would never come naturally to her.
Natasha was quiet and still and sure. She had always taken pride in her work. She did her job well, even if what she did wasn't what most would consider good. That didn't change as the Avengers' popularity and notoriety grew. But there was a difference between knowing she was good at what she did, and celebrating it. Becoming a superhero--and she was a superhero now as much as she hated to admit it--was always going to change that.
Lauren (@bonzaifarmer): Did anyone else see #girlavenger's flawless takedown of the bad guy of the day?
Molly (@mermaidarcher): @bonzaifarmer I wonder if Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, and Hawkeye ever get mad they're just there to look good. #girlavenger
It started with Darla Deering dying her ever-changing hair “Widow Red.” Then Natasha started being stopped in the street by people asking for her autograph. On Halloween, Black Widow costumes were sold right alongside Captain America and Iron Man costumes. Children could buy Hulk fists and Hawkeye bow and arrow sets and miniature Widow's Bites.
Clint loved it.
Though it was disconcerting to see her likeness marketed to little girls ages 3 and up (her job was definitely not child-friendly), Natasha didn’t put much thought into all of the actions figures and bed sheets. It was the fad of the moment and would pass.
That wasn’t to say that there weren’t things about her newfound fame that made her smile at all.
Actual Pony (@actualponymegan): seeing #girlavenger single-handedly shut down the death unicorns that attacked today inspired me to update my resume.
Actual Pony (@actualponymegan): unfortunately had to leave off defeating death unicorns as I have never done it myself.
It's formulaic, but Natasha had expected as much. Return from a commercial break, applause on cue, pretend you and the host get along famously, and--most importantly--act like you're thrilled to have your entire life bared open so the most trivial details can be picked at all in the name of entertainment.
"We're here with Natasha Romanoff, better known as the Avenger's very own femme fatale Black Widow."
The talk show host turned to Natasha, who was leaning back comfortably on the large couch of the show's set, and smiled. It was cloyingly sweet. I'm your friend, the smile said. You can trust me and talk to me about anything.
"Natasha, you became an internet sensation almost overnight. Were you surprised by the outpouring of support you've received from your fans?"
"Considering I never expected to have fans at all? Absolutely. But I am grateful for every single letter and picture and tweet that I receive. All of the Avengers are."
"Do you actually read everything your fans send you?"
"That would be impossible, simply because of the sheer volume that we receive. But we all give it our best try, with varying success of course."
"Who's the most successful?"
"It's a tie between Tony and Steve. Tony of course, has spent years in the public eye, so he's already very experienced with dealing with fans and the public in general. And Steve--Captain America--is on a one man quest to respond to everyone who reaches out to him. He's glued to his phone."
"He's also one of the biggest contributors to the #girlavenger movement."
Natasha laughed, head tilting upward. "He is."
"Is there more to it besides just camaraderie between teammates?"
"Definitely not. Steve is a wonderful guy, but we're just friends. We're both interested in different people."
"Either of those people Avengers?"
"Would you ask Iron Man that?" Natasha asked, with an edge to her voice that hadn't been there before.
The host laughed nervously before moving on.
"So I guess Captain America's familiarity with technology puts all those rumors to rest," she said, changing the subject as quickly as she could.
"You'll have to be more specific, there are a lot of rumors floating around about all of us."
"That he's the original Captain America from World War II, somehow brought back to life by the government."
"Maybe he's just highly intelligent and adapted to modern technology fairly quickly."
The host shuffled through her cards, looking for another topic. "Do you think this massive outpouring of support is because your fans like that you're different from other women?"
The smile vanished from Natasha's face and she leaned forward toward the host.
"What's wrong with other women?"
Janet van Dyne (@vandynedesigns): Want to see more pics of @Lpallidus aka #girlavenger wearing a Janet van Dyne original? Exclusive images at http://t.co/VPxbmr5FKI
"Black Widow's Secret Feminist Agenda," Tony read as he entered the kitchen. "In an interview yesterday, the Avengers' very own Natasha Romanoff went off on an angry feminist rant saying, 'I'm not so different from any of the women in your life. I wake up in the morning and eat breakfast. I put on makeup, do my hair, and go shopping. I watch tv and have hobbies. I go to work. Just because my job is a little different from what the average woman does, doesn't mean that I'm any better than anybody else. A woman isn't worth less praise just because she works in an office, or goes to school, or stays at home with her family. You do an incredible disservice to the women in your life if you think that.'"
He looked up at her. "Go girl power. Here, Dummy framed it for you."
He placed the framed news article on the breakfast bar in front of Natasha, where she was eating yogurt and playing a game on her StarkPad.
"I'll be sure to thank him the next time I'm in your lab," she said without looking up.
Tony dragged one of the bar stools toward him and sat, arms perched in front of him, and studied her as she moved her fingers over her screen.
"I can hire you a publicist, you know," he said after a while.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. has their own PR Department. I think I've got it covered."
"When I say publicist, I really mean anti-publicist. You know, someone to recreate the veil of anonymity you used to have. Burn all the pictures, convince the public Black Widow doesn't exist, or Black Widow's name is really Laura Matthers and that you're actually blonde and a ballerina in the Russian ballet or something."
"If I wanted to be anonymous, I am more than capable of doing it on my own." She closed the game app and dug her spoon into the tub of yogurt.
Tony changed tactics. “Come on, it has to bother you. Super spy assassin and your cover’s basically blown forever because you trended on twitter. That’s got to drive you crazy.”
“I knew joining the Initiative was going to change things. I didn’t realize how much--no one could. It’s taken on a life of its own. But I always knew things were going to change. Especially after New York. I knew I was never going to be able to go back to anonymity. None of us have been able to go back to the way things were.”
Natasha shrugged and twirled her spoon in her yogurt.
“I didn’t expect all of this. I never thought I'd want it. But it’s kind of…” She searched for the right word. “Nice. I never wanted it, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it now.”
Anya C. (@ihateravens): Fear of spiders is arachnophobia, fear of #girlavenger is common sense
Victor Mancha (@coolmagneto): #girlavenger knows where in the world Carmen Sandiego is
Girl Avenger (@girlavenger99): #girlavenger doesn't read books. She stares them down until she gets the information she wants.
Steve Rogers (@srogers1918): #girlavenger doesn't climb mountains. Mountains bow down in her presence.
Natasha was pleased to discover that she was considered way more badass than Chuck Norris. (She of course knew that already, but she certainly had nothing against other people appreciating her skills). #girlavenger was filled with updates informing the world of exactly how badass she was.
She knew for a fact that Steve had contributed a good number of the “facts” himself ("#girlavenger will never have a heart attack. Her heart would never be stupid enough to attack her" and "#girlavenger can diffuse a bomb with a single glance" were two of her favorites). She could always tell when he was adding a new tweet to the #girlavenger tag by the fact that he would get what Clint had dubbed his “stupid twitter smile” on his face and then immediately look to her so he could watch as she checked her phone for the update.
Other than Steve though, Natasha never expected to meet one of her fans in person. She definitely didn’t expect to meet one while trying to evacuate a collapsing bridge.
Thor had been called back to Asgard to handle some sort of Asgardian political crisis (and wasn't that a funny image--Thor reigning in his usually boisterous self to actually conduct himself as something more than an overly energetic golden retriever), and Hulk was chasing after the bad guy of the day. This left Iron Man to try to hold the bridge up, while Clint called out information to Cap and Widow from the quinjet.
She was helping a family out of their minivan when the daughter shrieked.
“Oh my god, you’re Girl Avenger!”
After everyone was moved off the bridge and to safe ground, Natasha went looking for the girl.
She found her texting as her parents filled out claims forms for S.H.I.E.L.D. As soon as she saw Natasha she jumped up.
"Can I have a picture?"
Natasha smiled. "Sure."
"Mom take a picture of us!" the girl said, opening the camera on her phone.
She stood next to Natasha smiling.
"Say 'Cheese,'" her mom said.
"How about 'Avengers assemble'?" Natasha asked, putting her arm around the girl's shoulders.
"What's that mean?"
"It's a kind of rallying cry." Natasha thought 'rallying cry' sounded better than 'joke that Clint and Tony refused to drop ("We need a catchphrase!") until everyone else gave in and started using it too.'
"Do you say it before every battle?"
"Just the important ones."
The girl turned back to her mom. "Mom, are you ready?"
"I'm ready, I'm ready. Okay, on the count of three. Are you ready? One, two...three."
"Avengers assemble!" they all said at the same time.
The girl ran to retrieve her phone.
"Oh my god I'm so tweeting this. 'Just got saved by #girlavenger!'" She looked up from her phone. "My name's Chenda. I’m your number one fan. Last month in English we had to write an essay about our heroes, and I wrote about you and got the highest grade in the class!”
"She absolutely loves you," Chenda's mother confirmed. "She's been begging me to let her dye her hair red for weeks."
"Mom says it's too expensive." Chenda frowned. "All I've got is the wig I used for my Halloween costume."
Natasha smiled. "Personally, I love wigs," she said. "Much better for a quick change if you have to make a quick getaway or lose a tail."
Chenda's face lit up with newfound glee as her mother shot Natasha a grateful look. "'Lose a tail'? Is that like superhero talk for being followed by a bad guy? That's so cool!"
"There is a certain drama to it." Natasha pulled out her phone. "What's your twitter handle?"
"It's girlavenger99. I just tweeted about you saving me, you know."
"Of course I know. I just followed you." Natasha showed Chenda her phone screen as proof.
Chenda squealed with delight. "Oh my god!"
Behind her, someone cleared his throat. Natasha turned and saw Captain America.
"Sorry to interrupt, but we're heading back for debriefing."
"Sorry," Natasha said. "I have to go."
"I understand," Chenda nodded seriously. "Being a superhero is about more than just action. You've got big responsibilities to do besides just fighting monsters."
"That's right," Cap said. "But the fighting monsters does tend to be the highlight of the job."
Natasha barely hid her smile. Captain America--adrenaline junkie, and most of the world thought that all there was to him was apple pie and a spangly suit.
"I'll tweet you," she promised Chenda.
As she and Cap were walking away Chenda called out.
“Hey, Black Widow! What’s it like being the leader of the Avengers?”
Without missing a beat Cap turned and answered with a completely straight face, “I can’t speak for her, but I know that I can’t imagine anyone else I’d rather be in the field with. We couldn’t ask for a better leader.”
Natasha (@Lpallidus): @srogers1918 and I enjoyed meeting @girlavenger99 today. Stay out of trouble Chenda. I don't want the next time I see you to be another rescue.