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Maid of Honor

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The wedding processional begins to play, and the crowd stands up. A short line of bridesmaids and groomsmen walks down the aisle, with Natasha at the rear of it, her faced schooled into an expression half way between a smile and a total blank. She's a spy, she reminds herself. She can do this. She's survived the Russian Red Room and the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. She'd seduced countless men and women, pulled complicated heists her victims are still struggling to figure out. She's slipped into dozens of different roles completely and undectably.

She can pretend to be happy at her best friends' wedding. She turns as she reaches her appointed place and sees Stephanie, beautiful and shining in her white gown, as she is escorted by Sgt. Barnes, her arm linked with James' metal one.

"Dearly beloved," the minister begins, "we are gathered here today before God and in the presence of these witnesses to join Stephanie Rogers and Philip Coulson in holy. . . ."

It's Stark, of all people, who manages to find her during the reception.

"It's the closest stairwell to the open bar," Stark points out. "Best place to get drunk alone."

"And yet here you are," she points out.

"Look, Natasha," he says seriously, and it occurs to her that it's the first time he's called her by her first name since she stopped being Natalie Rushman. "We both know that if you really didn't want me to be able to find you, I wouldn't have.

"I get it," Stark says. "Your old partner turned out to be Hydra and you had to put a bullet in his head, which sucks, sure," and Natasha has to turn away to avoid flinching in front of Stark, the not-so-oblique reference to Clint pouring salt anew on the disturbingly still-too-fresh wound. "And now your new partner and your handler are getting married, and you're feeling alone."

She doesn't say anything, because Stark's words are disturbingly close to the truth, and the last thing she wants to do is give him some indication of just how much.

"Just because Steph and Phil are getting married," Stark says, "doesn't mean they don't love you, too."

"Love is for children," she retorts, the phrase slipping easily, perhaps too easily, from her lips.

"No, love is a battlefield," Stark corrects without missing a beat. "Hell is for children." He pauses, then recites more slowly, meeting her gaze without blinking: "Love and pain become one and the same in the eyes of a wounded child."

And damn if he doesn't understand, and she hates that he does, because it gives him power over her, and she hates that more than anything. She's worked so hard, so long to become the mistress of her own soul, and the fact that these people, these Avengers, can leave her so raw and vulnerable, can get so deeply under her skin--well, she's not sure what to do about that, short of taking out the entire wedding party with extreme prejudice. And while she's pretty sure she can take on Stark or Barnes if it really came to that, she knows equally well that she's not capable of killing Stephanie--and that the reasons why have little if anything to do with Project Rebirth.

"Look," Stark says. "Steph's about to throw her bouquet or whatever it is brides do at weddings, and somebody's gonna notice if the Maid of Honor is missing. So buck up, Agent Romanov, and go out there and look pretty."

"I'm not an agent anymore," she answers. "Without S.H.I.E.L.D., there's nothing left to be an agent of." But she knows it's a weak response, and from the look on his face, so does Stark.

He reaches out and takes the vodka glass out her hand. "You might not be an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore," Stark allows, unsympathetically, "but you're still an Avenger. And more to the point tonight, a maid of honor." He glances down at the glass. "Here's a deal: you go back in there, watch Steph throw the banquet, dance a few dances, and then we'll both come back here and get the drunkest we've ever gotten in our lives--which I'm guessing is saying almost as much for you as it is for me."

Natasha looks back at him for a moment, then nods and stands up. "You've got yourself a deal, Stark."

She begins to take a few steps back towards the banquet hall. "Oh, and Agent Romanov?" Stark says. "I'm loving that dress."

She turns back to give Stark the finger, but this time even all of her spy control can't surpress the smile on her face.

It's Dr. Foster who catches the bouquet. Barnes catches the garter, although with his robotic arm which arguably ought to count as cheating. Still Natasha watches with a willed detachment as Foster and Barnes make their way across the dance floor.

Then the next dance Stephanie dances with Barnes, and a minute in Coulson appears at Natasha's table. "May I have the honor?" he asks, and Natasha's not enough of a dick to refuse him on his wedding day.

It's not the first dance they've shared, of course, and she follows his lead as gracefully here on the dance floor as she does in the field, their bodies each familiar, known quantities to each other. In the past, of course, a night like this would as likely as not end in sex, but now Coulson is a married man and the bed he will be going to is Stephanie's.

She refuses to feel sorry for herself. The married life which Stephanie and Coulson have just chosen for themselves isn't one for which she is suited. She knows that very well; after all, there is a reason why they call her the Widow. She consciously eschewed the possibility of romance in her life; it's silly to bemoan the consequences of a decision she made with her eyes wide open, and with whose logic she still fully agrees.

And yet, she can't wait to get back to that stairwell to take Stark up on his offer.

The song ends and a new one begins, but Coulson doesn't let go of her, simply continues to whirl Natasha across the dance floor until she sees Stephanie walking across towards them, presumably to reclaim her husband. "May I cut in?" Stephanie asks, and a minute later it's Stephanie and Natasha who are making their way across the dance floor, and Natasha can't even say which of the two of them is leading.

Eventually Stephanie releases her, and Natasha makes her way back to her seat, her stomach grinding with agitation and confusion. "I believe you and I have a date with this," Stark says, holding up a very expensive bottle of vodka, and right then, she could kiss the man.

Predictably, she wakes up the next morning with one killer hangover. It's a testament to how much, amazingly, she seems to actually trust Tony Stark that she allowed her faculties to be compromised to the degree they were the past night, and still are this morning. She makes sure to drink plenty of water, though, and by late afternoon she more or less feels like her normal self.

Then her cell phone goes off.

To her surprise, when she checks it, it reads "Stella Richardson"--which is the name that Stephanie's number is stored in her phone under. "Stephanie?" she asks uncertainly as she accepts the call.

"Hey, Tasha," Stephanie says, sounding a little out of breath. "Phil and I may have gotten into a little bit of a situation here."

"You're supposed to be on your honeymoon," Natasha points out, more than a little accusingly.

"Apparently," Stephanie answers, "someone forgot to send HYRDA that memo. We could really use your help."

"Whenever you need me, I'm there," Natasha answers immediately. "You know that."

"Yeah, that's why I called you," Stephanie says. There's the sound of gunshots in the background. "But, well, we could really use your help right now."

"Can you hold out until the Quinjet can get us there?"

"Sure," says Stephanie. "Just you know, hurry up about it?"

"We're on our way," Natasha promises, then disconnects the call. "JARVIS?"

"Yes, Agent Romanov?" the computerized British voice responds immmediately. "How may I be of service?"

"Contact the other Avengers," she tells the A.I. Luckily, they're already all right there in Stark Tower due to the wedding, and not spread across the globe--possibly across the galaxy, in Thor's case--as they likely would be otherwise. "Tell them it's time to assemble."