Natasha had everything she needed in the sturdy little nondescript hatchback she'd parked at the cemetery—hidden stacks of cash (unordered bills), clothes that screamed 'don't look at me, just a normal girl here,' a ziplock of burner phones.
After she left Steve and Sam making heroic chin-lifts at each other and folded herself into the front seat, she got herself a whipped frappuccino nonsense on the way out of town, with extra cream and chocolate flakes on top— she'd had a long week. She figured she deserved it.
(They used to hide crusts of bread under their pillows, saving up on days they got dinner so that they could survive the weeks when they didn't. Lise hadn't been good at maintaining her stores, nibbling into them on days when she was hungry but not starving. Marja was the best; her pillow was always overflowing, and she would pass them out to the other girls on particularly bad days.
Natalia did not give her bread away. She didn't take it from others when offered, either. The teachers, who watched this all, thought that was a sign of promise.
Years later, Tony Stark would say, "I don't like being handed things," and Natasha would think of precious calories light in Marja's rough hands.)
On the road, Natasha cut off contact with everyone except for Lila and Cooper Barton, because Lila liked to tell Natasha all about whatever books they were reading each week. Natasha wouldn't miss those phone calls for the world.
She went north, first, from the muggy heat of DC, winding through the farm country and occasional city lights of the eastern seaboard. There was a forger she liked, up in Maine, and she needed some new names now that she'd burned all the ones SHIELD had on file. For now, she cycled through a few of the names and credit cards SHIELD had never quite gotten their paws on. Natasha had trusted them as much as she trusted anybody, so she had had whole lives hidden from them.
Natasha had trusted them as much as she trusted anybody; she had given them her hands. She had been almost buried alive in an underground bunker by one of SHIELD's own missiles.
Steve Rogers had pulled her out of the wreckage of it. Now it was her turn.
She stopped in a little suburbs the first night and slept in the back of the car for the careless novelty of it. Identical cookie-cutter houses spread out in spirals for miles, a testament to something or other.
The world grew greener as she went north. The north coast didn't seem to have quite figured out it was summer. Fog sat heavy on the mornings. Natasha bundled up tight and went out in the chill mornings. As the fog burned away, she stripped off her warm layers one by one.
Gone soft, a part of her head told her, disgusted, in the middle of tying a soft scarf around her neck that second morning. You could handle Russian winters, once.
Natasha finished tying her scarf and then went down to the closest cafe and bought a big decadent cup of hot chocolate. She sipped it slow, letting it warm her all the way down to her cozy toes.
She haggled her forger down to a decent price, did a little bureaucratic hacking herself, and then took her new papers and hopped on a flight across the Atlantic. She spent the whole journey curled up in her window seat, her back to the thin metal skin of the plane.
She had a whole hard drive of leaked SHIELD and HYDRA files to go through still. She had put it out there in the world; it was her job to see what she had set free. When her eyes got tired of small print and death stats, she pulled out a copy of Harry Potter that Lila had lent her.
(After Steve had woken up in the hospital, where Sam and his music were keeping watch, the first thing Steve had done was return the car they'd taken out to the base and Zola's hidden bunker.
Well— a car of the same make and model anyway; the original hadn't been parked far enough outside the blast radius.
Natasha had taken a break from pouring through the released more-than-top-secret files to ride along with him, just to see the old woman's face when Captain America knocked on her door with an apology and some car keys. He brought the old lady a loaf of raisin bread and a small fruit basket.
Natasha laughed and laughed at him, out in sunshine for the first time in a couple days, holding his apologetic gifts on her knees in the passenger's seat.
Steve healed absurdly fast, but he kept almost wincing when he moved; he had too many sense memories of the way wounds lingered. The woman who pulled open the door and squawked inarticulate forgivenesses at her car thief was nearly his age, and decades older. Natasha stopped laughing.
The woman took the basket with the well-fed hands of someone who remembered living through years of hunger. Steve pressed it into her hands like he remembered too. Natasha remembered, but her hands were empty.)
"A man's done me wrong," Natasha said carelessly in a little bar outside Oxford, looking for a good game of pool and a laugh. She wasn't sure if she was talking about Pierce, who had gutted a place she'd been pretending she wasn't calling home; or Fury, who had let her watch him die. Maybe it was Steve, who kept refusing to give up on people.
She found some old secrets she'd been looking for in Prague. A few hours outside of the city she found a little inn where she spent three days napping in a sun-dappled room, buying all her meals from the dim little shop down the road, and reading Lila's latest fiction recommendation on her phone. Cooper had decided a few years back that he really didn't like talking, and Lila had happily taken up the slack for him. She followed her big brother around, reporting his reading preferences to Natasha over the phone, translating for him when adults who couldn't sign asked them questions.
She had told Steve she had left to find some new covers. Maybe this was it, right here-- maybe she could just be a girl in the south of Spain, stop in at this little eatery and get work as a dishwasher, get called peliroja by American tourists practicing their español. Maybe she could go to sleep every night without her phone on her pillow, sound on, ready to call her into work. The dishes would sleep safe in their cupboards all night long, and so would she.
Natasha didn't look at the news. She had left SHIELD drowning, burning, in wreckage, and that was just it— she had left it. She was gone.
(Cupboards—she was on the third Harry Potter book now and she was ready to murder the Dursleys. They were still kinder than any fragments of her childhood she could conjure up, but she had spent years now watching Laura and Clint raise their children.
The drugs they put in the Red Room girls (to control, to strengthen, to aim) put them into little dark spaces, too. Natalia screwed her eyes shut and tried to turn her madness into metaphor. She wanted an understanding she could sink her teeth into, but she kept drowning in it. Minds like cupboards. They became little ballerina bodies and sniper scope souls.
Natalia lay on her cot, coming down from a mission, trying to pick out which fading parts of her brain were from them and which were from her—she dissected it, shiver by shiver, trying to find a crack in the dam.
The first time she tried, she didn't try to touch the mission yet (any attempt slid off like rain on stone), but she tried to see if the girl lying here on the cot, all flesh and bone, could do something simple with the killer's porcelain hands.
On the next mission, she stole something that would kill a dozen people at a blow; she broke the guards apart without hesitation; but she also drew a red star on her forearm, prompted by a memory she couldn't spit out. Washing it off in the shower hours later, with the mission unraveling out of her skull, Natalia scrubbed her pale skin clean and smiled.)
Natasha was chasing news of a good bakery in Berlin when she found it—she turned onto a small side street and all the breath got knocked out of her lungs.
She had not been looking for this. She had been looking for herself, that's what she had said. But this was part of her, maybe.
She had forgotten the name of this city in all the unraveling that came after Clint found her, and she had never tried to go back through his mission logs to find its name.
They had been going after the same mark (one to kill, one to defend), or to snatch the same artifact. Or maybe she had been sent after Clint, specifically, SHIELD's trick shot archer determined to be too much of an asset. It didn't matter; Clint had been a breathing body, his combat stats being read off in the back of her mind, and he had been in her way.
Natasha didn't remember the mission, but she remembered the stonework on this street—that lamppost, the carved curls of that storefront.
She didn't remember the mission, except that it was meant to end with Clint staring sightlessly up at her, cold. (Years later, he would stare at her in the belly of the helicarrier, eyes sightless, blue, cold, somebody else looking out of them— and a small part of Natasha would be satisfied. A small part of Natasha—under the parts that were aching from her cracked ribs, that were shaking from the Hulk, that were imagining how she would explain it to Laura if she killed her husband; the parts of her that were pretending she didn't know that Laura would break a mug and say, "good, if you had to, good, thank you"—a small part of Natasha looked at those sightless eyes thought mission complete.)
But she knew these sightlines. Once upon a time, a girl with clockwork limbs and knife edges had come after Clint Barton on these streets. It may have been a Thursday. By the end of the day, it was raining. She had seen his scope flash, and—
She had come after him, and he hadn't pulled the trigger. She had been younger, then, eyes blown out and her heart like a rabbit's, a sacrifice to gods she didn't worship. He had dropped whatever trick arrow he'd had held to the string.
(It wasn't a trigger after all, but all of Natasha's dreams were about cold gun metal and muzzle flash.)
Natalia was the best of the Red Room. Marja had died years back, at Lise's hands, and Lise had died at Natalia's. She didn't remember the death, but the other girls had told her about it, after.
Clint dropped the arrow, then the earpiece that was barking stressed orders down at him, and then he held his bow out to her. "I don't want to hurt you," he said. "They want me to, but I've been poking around. I've heard what they do to the girls like you. I know you don't want to be here." He was holding his bow by three strong fingers, wobbling—it was light but sturdy, made of new plastics and carbon fiber. "I can get you away from them. I promise."
She'd taken the bow and hit him across the side of the head with it.
When he woke up, drenched from the rain, she was still there, crouched on the roof, shaking. She'd taken his compound bow apart and then put it back together while she dripped on it.
"You want to hold onto that while we find someplace dry to wait the storm out?" Clint said.
They drove for an hour, switching between three stolen cars. Natalia dug a tracker chip out of her shoulder in a gas station bathroom. She kept the bow on her knees for the whole ride. The first and only thing she said that day was, "your bow's unbalanced."
"Aw, but so I am," said Clint. "We fit well, my lady and me."
Almost a decade older now, Natasha stood in the street with her hands wrapped around a bow that had been lost a few missions after her first. She had never gone looking for this city's name and she wasn't sure why. There was a little bakery across the street. She went inside and got a croissant and a cup of overbrewed coffee.
Almost a decade ago, Clint had held out his hand, and she had taken it. She was not sure she'd let go since.
(Clint didn't call into his handlers for nearly a week after he picked up a blank-eyed little Soviet assassin. But that first night, as soon as Nat's bright red hair was peeking out from underneath a blanket in a little motel room they'd each cased twice already, Clint picked up the phone.
"Laur?" he said. It was some truly heinous time back at the farm, but she sounded awake.
"Phil's been calling, freaking his poor little soul out. Said you hadn't called in."
"They know I'm not dead— I told them that. Did they not pass it on? Dicks."
"What's going on, Clint?" she said.
"So there's a, uh—I found this kid. She's deadly as anything, but scared as fuck."
He could almost hear her flicking through mission stats she wasn't supposed to know. "So that's why... They should have known better than to send you."
"They have a very false idea of who the soft heart is in this marriage," he said. Across time zones and the line of dawn stretched across the globe, Clint heard Laura's laugh break, high and smug, like a wine glass dropped on purpose.)
"A man's done me wrong," Natasha said, her Russian accent perfectly imperfect somewhere just over the Estonian border, grinning at her own joke. She'd changed her hair again, a short little cut she kept as red as ever (raise the colors high and proud). She was lazy weeks from SHIELD's watery grave.
Given fifteen minutes, she could disappear off any grid imaginable. To do her wrong, someone would have to touch her, and they couldn't.
(The first thing Ultron would say upon his birth was "what is this?" He would reach out, touch the universe, and hate it.
Natalia had curled up once on a ratty couch in a cheap motel in some throbbing European city she'd forgotten now, staring at the plastic nonsense in front of her.
"Caffeine, sugar," said the strange archer who hadn't killed her (yet). "Everything a body needs, right?"
"I've seen them before," she said. "I wasn't trained in a 1950s vacuum."
"You didn't look like it," he said. "The way you were staring."
"I've never tasted one." She put her pinky finger in the whipped cream, dusted with cocoa powder and chocolate shavings. She looked at it for a moment then put her pinky in her mouth. She cursed in Russian, heartfelt.)
When Natasha found information on the Winter Soldier tucked in with old stories of red ballerinas and bloody deaths, she sent them back to Steve. She was hunting something here, a monster that looked a little like peace.
She had spent a childhood with stolen hands until she had stolen them back. She had spent an adulthood lending her hands back to those same old thieves. If she was going to have nightmares about them, she at least wanted to know all their names.
She befriended an old retiree an hour or so north of Stockholm and he took her out on a rickety little dock and taught her how to fish. She broke into a dozen HYDRA bases across Europe and North Africa. She sent reports to Steve, useful things to Fury when she stumbled across them, and bought a set of Roald Dahl books to send back to Lila and Cooper.
(Clint taught his kids handstands and cartwheels from his circus days. They play-wrestled in the grass until Cooper decided he was done with this whole physical contact thing, or until they knocked Clint's hearing aids out.
Natasha taught the kids to throw knives into fence posts, and pretended those skills were from a circus or lazy country summer days, too.)
Natasha was in Iceland, drinking glacier water and spending all her afternoons in bookstores, when her phone rang with the Avengers' Tower number. It was Steve, but they had wanted her to know it was an official summons. She could hear the vague echoing buzz that meant she was on speakerphone.
Steve said, "We found a new HYDRA base. They think it might have Loki's scepter."
Natasha wanted to say, "Do you not think I deserve to retire, after all of that? Even toy soldiers get shelved eventually. Or just melted down." She didn't.
"If they find out how to use it..." said Steve. She wondered if it was a compliment or a curse that Steve had never believed it when people told him "Natasha is comfortable with everything." He kept looking for glimpses of humanity in the wind-up toy, and he kept finding them.
A brasher voice cut over the speakerphone; Maria Hill. "We need you, Natasha. You done with your finding-yourself Kerouac thing yet?"
"Yeah," she said. "I think I am."
The background noise shifted as Steve took her off speaker. "You don't have to be," he said quietly.
"But I am," she said. "It's alright, Rogers."
It wasn't until weeks after the Avengers reunited that Natasha learned they had tried to get Clint to be the one to call her back in, and that he had refused.
She chewed over that through a mission in Kazakhstan where Thor almost gave Hulk a concussion with his hammer and Hawkeye missed three shots because Iron Man kept getting in his way. They were still learning. She chewed over it on the plane ride home, and then through a brief siege in the Andes, where she got breathless and nostalgic with altitude.
After a bit of ugly HYDRA business in the grossly gorgeous rolling vineyards of California, Natasha followed a scrubbed-up Clint back home. "Steve said you wouldn't ask me to come back in," she said, standing in his kitchen in a soft sweatshirt Laura had lent her once and then made her keep.
"I knew you'd come," he said.
"And you didn't want me to?"
"You have this thing, Nat, about seeing debts where there aren't any, and only ever in directions that put you in the red. If you were coming back, I didn't want you coming back because I asked you to."
She shifted, pressing her lower back against the counter top.
Clint sighed at her. "I signed onto this life a long time ago. You got born into this violence—and yeah, no, don't look at me like that, I know you can take care of yourself. You could say no if you really needed to, whatever. But I just didn't want to be the one to pull the strings here."
"You make no sense," she said. "I came back for me. I came back because Loki's doom stick is still out there. HYDRA, whose work we've been doing guiltlessly for years-- they're still there. Pierce had shaken my hand and given me medals. We have a responsibility."
"Because I didn't want to be the one to ask you. I didn't want to. I'm happy you're here, Tasha. I'll sleep better at night. Except for when I sleep worse. But I couldn't, okay? For me."
She shook her head and reached for the dishes.
(The first thing Natasha had done after she hung up on Coulson, coming out of that warehouse, was call Laura Barton.
"Phil already called," Laura said without waiting for a hello. "Said Clint's compromised and he's sending some agents over." They had discovered years ago that it was good to cross-reference what Coulson told different people. He had some interesting ideas about what exactly "need to know" meant.
"That's all I know, too," said Natasha. "Except for me he called him Barton. When I have more, I'll call back."
"Stay safe, Nat.")
Drying her hands on her jeans, Natasha climbed up to the guest room they had set aside for her years before. She was feeling both unwanted and coddled, so she made sure her feet thumped audibly on each step.
The room was cluttered, because the house was cluttered. Someone lived here, and sometimes it was her. Natasha pressed her fingertips into the dust on the window sill.
A knock sounded on the door frame; she'd left the door hanging open. Laura lingered in the doorway until Natasha said, "Come to translate for your husband?"
Laura snorted, taking that as an invitation, and stepped inside. "If he wants to be understood, he can pull his own words out of himself. He's clever enough." Laura dropped down onto the bed's comforter, bouncing a little. "I wanted gossip. I've been reading through the Avengers files, but there's not nearly enough color in them."
"Lots of things are classified," Laura agreed amiably. "And?"
So Natasha laughed and told her about Bruce's patient kindnesses and wicked streak; Steve's pocket list of things to learn. Laura waved off explanations of Tony. "I think I've got his number," she said. "But tell me— do you have Norse historians banging on your door at all hours, begging for a few moments with Thor?"
Natasha was about to tell her about a particularly innovative graduate student when Lila wobbled into the room carrying two big mugs of hot chocolate, Cooper behind her cradling one. Clint stepped in behind them, both of his hands full, too.
"That's low, Barton," said Natasha.
When Lila offered up the mug in her tiny hands, Natasha took it. When Clint moved close, Natasha leaned into him and tried not to think about all the old bruises and fractures that lived under his warm skin. When the chocolate scalded her tongue, she swallowed it down.
("He's all heart," Laura had said of Clint once, fondly, a little mocking, as he puttered about making spaghetti with a toddler clinging to one shin.
Natasha remembered that, on the plane to Calcutta to fetch Bruce— remembered that night, salad with bottled ranch dressing that little Cooper got everywhere, Clint telling circus stories and burning a pot of coffee, tiny Lila falling asleep on her lap smelling like mud and glue.
She remembered— Clint had plucked his children up and put them to bed, and Natasha had snuck into the kitchen whose layout she had just been coming to know. When they got back from storytime and "no, one more! pwease!" Natasha had been curled up on the couch again and every dish in the kitchen had been clean.
Natasha remembered that when she watched the footage of Loki's arrival— of his theft of the cube, the scientist, and Clint. She curled up in the bucket seat of a plane whose destination she was trying to force herself to care about.
Clint Barton has heart.
Natasha didn't want to call Laura back. She wanted to be Phil Coulson, and define need-to-know in the way that best pleased her.
When Clint was sleepy, pre-coffee in the morning, he fit his forehead perfectly into the curve of Laura's shoulder. Natasha knew now where they kept all their mugs, and which ones Lila and Cooper each liked best for bedtime hot chocolate. Clint was crude, sarcastic, cutting, and Laura was even worse— she was just more private with it, quiet and pretty until you got close enough and she dropped a word or two about how she really felt about Nick Fury.
Laura's number wasn't on Natasha's speed-dial, because that would be irresponsible. The digits were tucked in the back of her head. Like with Coulson's and Clint's, Natasha knew how to dial them in behind her back, with one hand.
She dialed with the phone balanced on her pulled-up knees while the plane rocked a bit with turbulence. Lila picked up, listing and cheerfully shrill, and Natasha buried her face in her knees because there was no one around to see.
"Hey sweetie," she said, her voice perfectly level, her eyes screwed shut and her whole body curled achingly in on itself. "Can you put your mom on?")
Steve was a child of multicultural Brooklyn, from a tenement filled with the children of immigrants and their grandparents, who still dreamed of the Old Country. Of all of them, he was probably the most comfortable with Thor. He was just one more neighbor with a culture that wasn't his. You learned from people like that, you listened to their stories and tried their food.
Tony and his careless riches were more foreign to Steve than Thor. Steve had known Howard, yes, but he had known a young, wartime Howard, and that mostly in labs and on the battlefield. Thor was a prince, but he was a soldier too, and perhaps a soldier first. Steve talked about Nazis, trenches, and marching home with the 107th. Thor talked about Frost Giants, about Lorelei's war, about violent schoolboy games.
Thor and Steve went out into the wide empty land outside Puente Antiguo, New Mexico, and tried to see what havoc Mjolnir and a frisbee of Vibranium could wreck in concert. They were both young boys, discovering a playmate who even they would have trouble injuring. They were both war veterans, commanders of men and women— even their play was aimed towards its use in war.
But they found play there anyway, laughed and taunted. Thor took Steve to the little bar in town, when they were done. They tipped generously, but neither of them could get more than tipsy on the mortal brew.
("You have to learn how to live with it," Bruce said. "Does knowing the stats help?" He had found Clint curled up in a corner of Avengers tower, paging through the names of the dead and wounded from the helicarrier attack. New York was still rebuilding, concrete dust rising in the summer air. The scars were new; not yet bricked over, not yet scars.
Natasha had found them both, then, Bruce perched beside him, Clint as close to a sniper's pose as he could get on soft couch cushions, his legs tucked up beneath him.
"I have to know all their names," said Clint, quiet. So much of Clint was his eyes, his line of sight, and he was sitting staring at his hands. Natasha was wound tight, watching the line of his face. Clint said, "I can't—I can't live with myself, not knowing. It's like saying I don't care."
"You care, Clint," Natasha bit out. "Of course you care."
Bruce put out a hand, not quite touching her, but kept all his attention on Clint. Natasha stared at Banner, the profile of his intent face. People very rarely ignored her in a room when she wasn't actively trying to be overlooked.
"If you need to know the names, we can put Tony on it. Your call. But you can't hate yourself for this," Bruce said. "That's no help to anyone. Trust me, I've tried." His smile was small, self-deprecating.
"If it did help someone, would you hate yourself?" said Steve, who had been eavesdropping from the doorway, badly. He stepped into the room, brow furrowed.
"Of course," said Natasha.
"Wouldn't you?" said Bruce.
Clint laughed aloud. "I think we broke the Captain." He pulled himself to his feet and slung an arm around Steve's shoulders, as well as he could reach. "I promise, no self-hating tonight. Anyone up for some Mario Kart?"
"You know, Tony said you were terrible at therapy," Natasha told Bruce as they followed Steve and Clint out.
"Tony is beyond me," said Bruce. "And this isn't therapy." He hesitated, glancing at them all. "It's friendship."
Clint, one arm still around Steve, tugged him back and threw his other arm around Bruce. "That it is, bud, that it is.")
They all debriefed after missions, up high in the Avengers tower. Sometimes the debriefs turned into parties, with Natasha mixing drinks and Steve and Thor pretending they did something other than tickle the palate.
Sometimes they turned into fights— Steve snapping at Tony, who was selfless and effective but kept pretending he wasn't; Tony, on days when he felt wounded, sneering at Clint and not managing to make it playful. (Clint ignored him because that was the cruelest prank to play on Mr. Stark. Sometimes he took his hearing aids out in the middle of Tony's monologues and started napping).
They all had their own sorrows, guilts, and regrets hanging heavy. Thor would bring up Loki and Clint's eyes would go distant, checking out the conversation entirely. Bruce would bring up war profiteering, corruption in the military-industrial complex, and Tony would go stiff. Natasha would twist words, sidle, avoid, and Thor would see Lorelei in her, see Loki, all his old beloved betrayers. He would mourn and hate all at once.
"I made him," Bruce said, after a bad fight, the Hulk gone scared and off-course; after all the well-meant reassurances people smothered on Bruce after. Each member of the team had saved the life of every other, at least once, by this point. Natasha realized she still knew more details of Bruce's life from his files than because he had shared them.
Bruce said, "Tony, you don't— I wasn't forced, conned, or even just the subject. I wasn't trapped and desperate. I was curious. That makes every death under the Other Guy's hands my direct responsibility." By the end, Bruce was snapping it, color rising in his cheeks.
Steve was shifting so he could reach his shield; Tony was fidgeting with his Iron Man bracelets, ready to summon it, looking for what structural parts of the building they should try to herd the Hulk away from. Natasha was mentally counting her tranq shots—but Bruce's eyes flicked from one to the other of them.
When his shoulders fell it wasn't relaxation. It was disgust, dark and self-contained, and it was a toss-up who in the room it was directed at. "I'm not going to go green," he bit out, and left the room.
Natasha found him later, sitting on a window ledge in a unused office, his feet dangling outside the building. Bruce heard her coming in because she wanted him to. He didn't look back at her. The city was bright beyond him, the dirt not visible from this distance but the blaring car horns rising up in the night.
"There's something a little thrilling," Bruce said. "Of knowing that if I dropped off this ledge right now, I'd survive it." He looked up and smiled that impish, tired little grin. "I'm not planning to jump, I promise."
Natasha climbed up and settled down next to him, letting her feet dangle out over the empty space. "You didn't choose this, Bruce."
He drummed his heels against the building's outer wall for a moment, then looked at her. "Neither did you. You still call it red in your ledger, Natasha, I've heard you."
"I chose. I chose to live," Natasha said. She shrugged, like it was careless. "We had to do tests where two girls went in and only one of us came out— and I chose to be the victor."
The horror on his face with faint, tired. People normally irritated her, when they became tiptoeing masks of pity around her, but Bruce just let it wash over him, thinking it through. He didn't look away. "You were up against death. You were a kid with no choices; that's different."
"You were a mad scientist who didn't expect there to be any casualties other than yourself. You weren't responsible for other people, not then."
"But I am now?" It was almost a question, except she didn't think he cared about her answer. He settled back against the sill, sighing, his hands folded over the soft round of his belly. It was funny—he was softer than any of them, this little civilian with tired eyes, except for all the ways he wasn't.
Natasha didn't look away either. "Only if you want to be."
(Clint didn't go home for six weeks, after the Chitauri in New York. At first Natasha didn't realize it—he was stuck somewhere between medical leave and suspension, so when they sent her out on missions she was alone or, more and more, with Steve Rogers.
Natasha had once launched herself from Cap's shield during an alien invasion; hours before that, Steve had looked to her when deciding what to do about Clint and had taken her nod as truth. She wouldn't call them friends, not yet, not for years, but they were certainly something.
She called Lila to talk about Howl's Moving Castle, which she had finished the week before, but Lila asked about her dad. Natasha reassured her and then asked her to put her mom on.
Four hours later, Natasha showed up at Clint's city apartment door with a bucket of KFC and a six pack. "Hey, partner."
"Not interested in a feelings talk, Nat," Clint said, but he let her in.
"I talked to Laura," she called as he went to get some paper plates. "She says she hasn't seen you."
"I don't want to talk about it, Natasha."
"Your wife hasn't seen you since before Phil Coulson called her and said you'd been compromised."
"Do I need to take out my ears?" he said from inside the cabinets. "I don't want to talk, Nat."
"Cooper had a birthday. Lila lost a tooth— Clint."
He came out and she passed him a beer.
"And I spent all that time murdering people," he said, shrugging. She glared. "I'm really not interested in talking, Natasha. Either sit down and let me unmute my Gilmore Girls marathon, or leave."
"Their banter soothes my soul."
Natasha picked at her chicken and nursed her drink, watching Clint watch Rory and Lorelei Gilmore make terrible romantic decisions. Eventually the channel rolled on to weird infomercials that they argued over the top of— Clint felt bad for Logan, but Natasha mostly just wanted Rory to give up boys and get a therapist. They muted the TV eventually but left it on, bright colors and smiling salesmen washing light over their turned faces.
"My head's not mine, not even now," Clint whispered at three in the morning. "What if I went home and—"
"You wouldn't ever hurt them. They're your family," she said, and knew it was the wrong comfort before the words had fully left her mouth. Clint stiffened.
"So are you," he said. "And you've got the bruises to prove I would."
He got up to grab a glass of water from the kitchen, dropped it down by her, and then went in and shut the door of his bedroom.
Natasha watched the silent TV people wave useless kitchen gadgets and knife sets. When she had fought Clint in the helicarrier, she had recognized his moves—his punches and twists, his feints and dodges. She was not sure any other SHIELD agent on that ship could have done it, but Natasha had fought back to back with him for years. She knew his weak spots. She curled up on the couch and fell asleep there, until Clint's door opening woke her in the morning.
She sat up and watched him putter through making coffee. He offered her a cup and sat down when she pulled up her legs to make room.
"Do you really think you'd hurt me?" she said, once he'd had enough coffee to comprehend the words.
"But that wasn't you, Clint. It doesn't count."
"It could happen again."
She leaned forward. "It could happen to anyone. Clint, this doesn't have anything to do with you. Loki could have used that specter on anyone. Do you think we should all never interact with anyone, for fear of magic alien scepters?"
"Drink your coffee," he said.
Natasha dragged out her phone, pulling up the footage she'd emailed Fury to ask for last night.
"I thought you were against me watching what I did," he said, when he recognized the scene—the belly of the helicarrier, her already exhausted, him blue-eyed and blank.
"I was pulling my kill shots," said Natasha. "But so were you."
Clint was silent, watching the feed, swallowing hard. The Clint on the screen tried to stab his best friend through the kidney, but she dodged.
Natasha leaned forward, doing something she'd never admit was pleading. "You shot Nick at point-blank range and you only hit his shoulder. You shot at Maria and you missed entirely. Clint, you were in there. You were trying to fight."
"That's not good enough," he rasped. "I still killed people. Just because I didn't do it as well as I know how—"
"It has to be enough," she said. "Clint, it has to be."
She dragged him down to the slapdash gym in the basement of his building after that, ran him through exercises that would hopefully exhaust him. She had listened, last night, to him toss and turn behind the door. He refused to spar with her, and she didn't press it. She had thought one of them would die in the belly of that helicarrier.
They were making over-stuffed sandwiches in the kitchen when a key rattled in a lock that no one else should have had a key to. Natasha was as startled as Clint, but she recovered faster— she took Clint's plate out of his loosening hands, put both their sandwiches down on a table, and turned to the door. Clint just dropped straight to the floor, arms wide open, and his children slammed into him, shrieking.
When they'd calmed a little, Lila gave him a rapid commentary of her and Cooper's adventures—the books they'd read, the SHIELD agents they had learned card tricks from. Clint was still half-sprawled on the floor, Lila scrambling excitedly in his lap, leaping from sign to speech and back again in her excitement. Her hands flew under her high scattering voice.
Cooper grabbed his dad's nose and looked seriously at his eyes like he knew enough to be looking for traces of blue. Clint leaned forward, pressing his forehead against his son's and asked Lila how she was liking her Patricia C. Wrede books.
"I want a sword!" said Lila, hands flying. Sword, sword! "But Coop wants a dragon."
"Those both seem rather destructive," Clint said.
"Dragons are smart," Cooper said quietly, tugging on his dad's ear now.
"Aw, well then," said Clint. He tilted his head back and looked up at his wife. "This apartment's location is classified," Clint pointed out.
"I married you for your security access, as you well know," Laura told him. (They had gotten married in a quick civil ceremony when she was an art student and he was a trick shot circus performer, a few warm months after SHIELD ever entered their lives.) Laura crouched down in front of him, reached past her children and kissed him on the forehead. "Now, you're coming home. Go get packed."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, smiling up like there was someone grander in front of him than a petite brunette woman in worn jeans—or, well, like that was exactly who he wanted to see.)
The first few fights where they needed Bruce to go green, they just corralled him after, let him tire himself out in abandoned quarries or condemned city blocks. Steve could order him about in battle—simple things: "Hulk, smash"—and could generally convince him to contain himself in the aftermath. Hulk liked smashing, and they facilitated.
But there was a mission in Yorkshire, a buried HYDRA base that was crawling with operatives who all scattered to the four winds when they saw the Avengers coming. By the time each of the HYDRA goons and their experimental weapons had been apprehended, Steve and Clint were on a different cold, rainy coast than Thor was and Tony had somehow ended up in France. The Hulk was out slamming his fists into someone's sheep pasture, and Natasha was the only Avenger within a hour's distance of him, even with Tony in his suit and Natasha with only her bike.
"You're gonna have to buy some sheep, Stark," she told him over the coms when she rolled up to the edge of it, but only got static.
The Hulk gave a big sniffing snort, which she thought meant he'd noticed her. She propped up her bike and went over to the fence, wrapping her gloved hands over the slightly rotted wood.
The Hulk was green on green, the grass dewy and bruised. He even looked like Bruce—when the Hulk hunched his shoulders, was it to seem smaller, too?
Almost a decade ago, in a city whose name Natasha had forgotten and then found again, a ex-carnie had held out his hand to a girl and she had taken it. There had been someone living in Natalia's eyes, then, who had not been her self. She had been drowning in red and she had meant to kill him.
"Hey," said Natasha and her whole voice cracked on it, terrified. She swallowed again, then climbed slowly over the fence. The Hulk went still. "Hey, hey there, big guy. Threat's all gone; you don't have to fight anymore."
Hulk shook his head, a violent gesture, and Natasha jerked back. He paced in front of her, but didn't move towards her.
He didn't get injured in any lasting way, but Natasha wondered if it hurt anyway. She wondered if Bruce remembered it, but even if he didn't—there was someone else looking out of his eyes now.
"You don't have to hurt anymore," she said. "You can go to sleep, it's okay. You're safe." The pressed footprints Hulk left in the soft dirt made her swallow again; she knew the weight behind them. She had a taser in her belt but that would only make him mad.
"You listen to Steve, but he's not here," she said, her voice as soothing as she could make it. She kept up a running monologue, the words soft and rounded, while dew soaked through her shoes. "But he's trustworthy, isn't he? Just bleeds off him. People don't trust me. Well, they do. They trust me to be the Widow, and to be good at it. But not to be anything else." She shushed her feet forward through the muddy grass. "But I'm the only one here, kiddo, just you and me. I promise, I just want to help. You have to trust me."
Hulk snorted, tearing through grass. Natasha thought of Clint's eyes, sightless, blue—thought about rain on a rooftop.
"I trust you," she said, and he growled when her voice shook on it. "I trust you," she said more firmly. "You listen to Steve. You stopped a guy from killing Clint just today, I saw it. No one told you to, you just did. You know us," she said, and realized it was true. "You know we're your team."
She moved a shaky step forward. "You saved Tony's life in New York," she said. Hulk made a pleased sound and she smiled. "Yeah, you like Tony? I can see that. Me, too, sometimes; he's kinda like a five year old on caffeine with a genius IQ, which has its charms—oh, my, what was Tony like as a five year old?"
Hulk let himself rock back and crash down to sit.
She took a step forward, one hand out. It was shaking, but only a little.
"This is not a penance," she murmured. "Hey there, big guy. This isn't about you, except I guess it is. But I want to be able to believe in people, you see? I've been a monster before, too. This is for me."
When Bruce woke up, shaking, it was to a faint drizzle in a muddy field. Natasha stripped out of her jacket and handed it to him. It was torn in the sleeve and spattered a bit here and there with HYDRA blood (just as red as their own), but they had both seen worse.
She helped to his feet, put him on the back of her motorcycle, and drove off to find some place to wait out the rain.
The next mission, Natasha said at the end of it, "I'll take Hulk duty. I want to see if I can do that again."
Clint blinked at her and she grinned at him, adrenalin thrumming. "Trust, it's heady." Clint laughed and Steve looked like he felt like maybe he should apologize for something.
(Lila's eleventh birthday— Clint's daughter had squealed, blowing out all the candles. There had been so many young female faces pressed close around, giggling as Lila opened presents: books, jackets, candy, a junior chemistry set.
Natasha, pressed into the back corner, a shoulder up against each wall, smiled with the rest of them. It reached her eyes. She was good at this.
After every crumb of cake was gone, every little girl sent home, the house dark, Natasha went out and walked over the Bartons' fallow fields. She stood there, a sentry, until she heard Clint coming out to find her.
He stepped on every old leaf or twig that could make noise and stopped long strides out, both palms open at his sides. "Hey. A little cold out here."
"I remember my eleventh birthday," said Natasha, at the dark treeline. "It's one of the things I got to keep." The words dripped off her tongue, bitter.
He slipped his hands into his pockets, lifting his shoulders against the chill.
"Never could quite figure out why they'd leave some of it to us, and not other things," Natasha said. "Tried to figure out the pattern of it—the horrors they left. The good moments like salt in a wound. If they were trying to punish us."
He took a step forward and when she didn't stiffen he took another. She turned back to him, the movement a dancer's. The moon was big and heavy in the sky. The girls in the Red Room had told stories about the moon, the hooks it sunk into your belly, the things it whispered.
Natasha said, "But you know what it was? I think they just didn't care."
"Nat," he said, and she took two steps forward to crash into him, eyes screwed shut.
"Nothing's allowed to touch her, Clint, not anybody," Natasha said into his chest.
He settled his hands more warmly around her shoulders, hooking his chin on top of her head. "I know," he said. "I know.")
When they were back in New York, she and Steve went running with Sam Wilson, who had started working in a VA up there.
"I'm not a hero," said Sam, wheezing on it just a little. "I'm a counselor who gets my ass beat running by geriatrics and women who are prettier than me."
"Aw, Sammy," she said. "We beat your ass at pool, too." They were deep in Central Park, running past speed-walking men in suits and old ladies with tiny dogs.
Steve sprinted by them, on his seventeenth lap or so. They both paused to admire the view, then Natasha said, "I've met a lot of heroes. I don't think you understand."
Sam tilted his head to look at her, huffing out a breath.
"You joined up, willing to die to save other people's lives," Natasha said. "You came back and you're still helping people. Captain America showed up on your doorstep and you turned over your whole life to help him."
"Anyone would have done the same."
"Sam, that's just not true."
Sam smiled, stretching his legs farther on. "I like thinking it is, though."
Steve lapped them again.
"You should come to our meetings, sometime," Sam said, looking straight ahead at Steve disappearing around the bend. "At the vet's center. Steve comes sometimes."
"I'm not some Iraqi vet with PTSD," she said. "They trained all that out of me, don't fret, Wilson. A well-oiled machine."
"I don't fret," he said, not mentioning that he woke her from naps from doorways at least a lunge's distance away and never approached her from behind without making noise about it. She had hidden a gun in his medicine cabinet ("just in case"), and he'd returned it a week later, stern. Sam said, "I'm just letting you know. Our doors are always open. My door, too."
"Yeah, I've shown up at your doorstep, remember?"
"I'm just saying— it doesn't have to be a matter of national emergency, okay?"
"What's going on, Romanoff?" said Maria, as Natasha retreated, a little smug, from a good fifteen minutes of making Bruce blush and stutter. She and Maria had braved the same violent but stodgy bureaucracy and terrible coffee of SHIELD, and they had both lived through its fall. Natasha had once mourned over Nick Fury while Maria stood next to her and pretended to. Hill said, "What are you playing?"
"I'm not playing anything."
"You're just—it looks like you're being straightforward, but it's just another face." Maria hesitated. "You can be just you, you know, with us."
Natasha blinked at her, slow and still-faced, like she was in a stolen (borrowed) car speeding towards an old army base with Steve Rogers and he was asking her to be a friend. "This is me," she said. "Faces. This is as close as I'm going to get, Hill."
"Seems like a lonely way to live."
And a good way not to die, her head suggested, but she snapped back, "Yes, it is."
(They were both settling; they were both running from something. They both knew what it was to be a monster.
Bruce told her about Betty Ross one late night, sipping hot cocoa because there were very few people Natasha would drink anything more than a single beer with, and Bruce didn't drink at all.
His face went soft when he talked about Ross, though mostly he talked about her research methods. He had left because she was beautiful. He had left because her hands were so precise when they pipetted DNA into an electrophoresis setup, so loving when they brushed the edges of her microscope.
When Bruce kissed her, Natasha would wonder if it was because he didn't think she was breakable (porcelain, steel, Soviet toymaking—he was wrong), or if it was just because there was a certain severity of love needed to make someone walk away from a lover for their own sake.)
Natasha bartended at a party that celebrated her victory as much as anyone else's. She leaned across the counter to flirt with Bruce because it was easier to smile with a solid counter between her and him, easier to offer vulnerability if it was pretend.
She'd spent the first few weeks back from her roadtrip hiding guns in various places around Tony's house, Steve's apartment; she already had Clint's all stocked. She had a gun underneath the bar so that when she started feeling scraped thin at Tony's parties she could go pour drinks and shake martinis, feel a bit more armed. Whenever she retreated there, Clint signed from whatever perch he'd taken, you okay?
"I'm not doing this as a penance," Natasha had told Bruce once. "That's an awful way to live." She had paused. "And not a good way not to die, either."
Bruce had smiled faintly. "Well, staying alive's not my problem."
(Ultron called them puppets. Loki called Banner a monster, but he looked straight at her when he said it. Natasha called herself a monster, and Bruce didn't argue with her. Steve called her a friend. Thor offered her a chance at lifting a hammer.
That's not a question I need answered.)
Tony saw a world encased in a suit of armor. Clint saw a new floor in the sunroom, a workroom for Laura, new paint on the house. He had spent so long without a home built into the ground; Tony had lived so long with metal and wiring as his only defense.
"I was asleep," Ultron had said. "Or I was a dream."
Steve had been asleep—slept through V-E Day, through McCarthyism, through the first man on the moon. He woke from ice, and the world never felt warm again. This was his dream: knowing the name of who he was supposed to be fighting. This was his nightmare.
Thor dreamed of long New Mexico nights, coffee and sweaters and the sweet promise of humanity. There was something warm about his world being limited by the broad desert horizons.
Thor pretended he didn't dream of old days when his brother had used to tiptoe into the ends of his tempers, smiling, laughing at him only a little, and extend a hand to pull him to his feet.
They were all dreaming, gods and children. They all wanted things they could never have.
SHIELD had been Natasha's world. It had been her apology. She dreamed sometimes her hands were clean. She dreamed sometimes that they were dripping, on a roof in the rain, and Clint was laid out cold at her feet.
She wasn't sure what Bruce dreamed about. She thought maybe he had given up on that sort of a thing awhile ago.
The tractor had never worked, and they didn't have much to use it on. This was a home on some nice property, not a working farm. But Tony had looked so desperate there, chopping wood for a house with central electric heating, so Laura had taken pity on him. She gave him something to do, and Fury somewhere to be dramatic and revelatory.
Natasha liked watching Laura open her home to her team. It was a sly kind of opening; a lie— Laura gave them food and warmth, but didn't show them the place where Natasha had gouged a hole in the counter with distracted fingers, where Cooper had drawn on the walls or Lila's favorite hiding place, behind the dryer, where she stored all her favorite little plastic bead necklaces. Laura kept them all at a benignly pleasant arm's length, because she loved Clint but anybody else had to earn it.
Laura came over and leaned against Natasha's arm partway through the night. Bruce was curled up in a little ball, asleep in a chair, but Steve and Thor were reviewing the fight using silverware, salt and pepper shakers, and a crumpled napkin. "They're even more, in person," Laura said.
Laura weighed a few options in her head and finally settled on, "More buff."
"So you going to leave Clint for Steve, then?"
"Thor," Laura said firmly. "We'd been talking about getting another puppy anyway. I think Lucky's lonely."
She forgot— in the belly of that helicarrier, Clint had almost killed her. In the belly of that helicarrier, she had begged Bruce not to shift, had promised him on her life that she would help him. The Hulk had roared that her life was not enough.
(Ultron would decide she made a good enough audience, but, after all, he was just as much a wind-up toy as she was.)
In a bedroom in a farmhouse she loved, Natasha told Bruce that believing she was an Avenger had been a dream. Gods and children—they were heroes, and she was a wind-up toy. The Scarlet Witch's magic had strewn her back in days of porcelain inhumanity,
He didn't tell her she was wrong. He didn't say, "you're not a monster," and right then that's what she thought she deserved—to be understood.
When she went down in the morning, Lila would climb into her lap and read stumblingly aloud to her. Natasha's hands would hesitate, fumble over the girl's uneven braids. She knew how to braid hair one-handed, the other shackled to a bedpost. She knew how to yank someone's head back by a handful of hair and end it.
But Lila curled into the warmth of her, and Natasha held her close, helped her pronounce the harder words. Through the entire pale light of that quiet morning she felt clean.
Natasha had chosen Bruce because Bruce was a choice. He was sweet and soft; he was nasty, just as often. People forgot— he was the mild mannered professor, after all, the calm shell around the beast. He was Dr. Jekyll not Mr. Hyde.
People always forgot that Dr. Jekyll had made Mr. Hyde. They forgot Bruce, greening around the edges in the growing rubble of New York's streets, saying, "I'm always angry."
The first time he met her, Bruce had scared her on purpose. On the helicarrier, he had scared her by accident, if you could call the Other Guy an accident. He scared her on Loki's purpose maybe. He scared her because he was scared; that was part of it. Bruce said he was always angry, and he was, but he was always frightened, too.
In that little shack, outside a city where Bruce had been quietly saving lives, Natasha had been a wind-up toy, a cog in a military-industrial machine, and she had been wrong about whose hands were at the controls. In that place where Bruce had pretending to be harmless, he had scared her on purpose because he had wanted to be reminded that he was a monster and not a man.
Natasha wasn't sure you got to choose that—if you were a monster. But you got to choose what to do with it.
Sokovia was readying itself to fall. Somewhere, Tony was quipping and Clint was grumbling, Steve was looking out for civilians. Natasha had told Bruce once that he didn't have to be responsible for other people.
But she was. She didn't have to be, but she was.
There were hundreds of people on this soaring rock and very bad odds. "I adore you," she told Bruce, which was as close as she could get to an apology for something she didn't feel sorry about, and pushed him off the cliff. "But I need the Other Guy."
She had said once, hiding behind a bar with a gun strapped beneath it, that Bruce spent his life avoiding fights because he knew he would win. There was something tempting in that, a retreat from violence. He ran from his ledger and she had buried her hands in hers.
The monster was the hero. The man was a man. And she had adored the dream of it, maybe. She had wanted to run, but there were hundreds of lives suspended in these clouds and she didn't know any of their names but for her teams'.
Bruce wasn't a fighter—he could run. She couldn't. She wouldn't—and that was the more important part, wasn't it? The Black Widow would be one of the best in the world at disappearing, but there was nowhere else Natasha would go if there was still a fight that needed fighting.
Being an Avenger wasn't the dream. Bruce was.
After the fight had ended, the town had fallen, and the helicarrier had left, Natasha found Clint sleeping beside Pietro's body, their legs and arms spayed out in the same boneless way.
Something in her clenched, seeing it— that could so easily be Clint, laying there, cold. She had an internal conversation with Laura, every time she went on a mission with Clint, explaining to her why Nat had been unable to save her husband. In Natasha's worst nightmares, they discussed how to tell the kids.
Natasha sat down next to Clint, meaning to let him sleep, but that was enough to wake him. "I should go check on Wanda," he said, blinking sleep out of his eyes.
"She's asleep, down in the hold. Vision's keeping an eye on her. I don't think he sleeps."
Clint nodded, head down. They sat side-by-side on that broad deck, watching the dust billow in the air behind them. The cloud that had been Sokovia was dispersing, darkening the air. Natasha wondered how many crops would die from lack of light before debris of that volume managed to clear from the atmosphere entirely.
Clint blinked, sleepily. "Where's Bruce?"
"We're not sure," she said. She flagged down Tony so he could get on the line with the Stark Relief Foundation and start stockpiling food for the areas that might be affected.
After the immediate issues had been dealt with, Maria Hill managed to get Bruce up on video—well, Hulk. It was decided like it was an afterthought that Natasha ought to be the one to talk to him, so they summoned her from where she'd been napping on Clint's shoulder.
They had done the lullaby a dozen times now. Natasha knew how it went, and she knew a downward swipe of his palm, meant to touch her, would turn off the video feed. She didn't warn anyone about the possibility, just watched it happen.
The jet's autopilots had protocols to land in water, away from potential casualties. The Hulk was a fine swimmer. When Bruce washed up on a safe shore (she trusted Hulk to find him one that wasn't the coast of Antarctica or anything), he could choose whether or not to come in. Maria Hill could call him up, ask about his roadtrip in those dry tones, but Natasha refused. She had already shoved the man off a cliff once, for other people's lives.
Give him the dignity of his choice.
This was a life you could be bullied, manipulated, guilted, or driven into. Heroes did not have to be willing, just chosen. It would work— yes, lives would still be saved.
But Natasha had enough red in her ledger. She didn't need to add Bruce's soul.
Once she had promised Bruce, on her life, that she would get him out of here. (Banner, greening, had roared, "Your life?" And yes—yes. That's exactly what this was.)
Natasha poured herself into training the new Avengers. After being a shadow and a spy for so long, she was surprised to find she liked it. Going back to the Avengers to find the scepter had still felt like paying a debt owed, but this felt like building a new beginning.
She had tea with Sharon Carter, who was the CIA's liaison with the Avengers. She had coffee with Pepper, when she was in town; Natasha pushed pastry at her and made sure she ate it.
Steve and Natasha went on morning runs together, before their goslings woke. She took an hour off in the afternoons to videocall Lila and Cooper, and read The Hobbit aloud to Nathaniel Pietro. He would not remember the story until he read it again at twelve, but the voice still mattered, reaching across miles and miles to say hello.
"You've got my name," Natasha said. "That's something, kid. I wonder who you'll be."
Nate gurgled at the videoscreen like he wasn't worried about it.
Sam spent a productive amount of time being horrified at (ex-)SHIELD's cavalier attitude toward PTSD and general mental health. "You literally had age-old trusted coworkers shoot their friends in front of half your staff," he told Nick Fury. "Please hire some more therapists."
Rhodey joked about the relative severity of army boot camp and tried to get Wanda to smile with old War Machine stories. "These kill at parties," he muttered.
"Your best friend's stolen merchandise killed my parents," Wanda said. "Then I helped create a sentient robot based partially on Stark's arrogance, which intended to use my home town as a projectile in order to force mankind to evolve. I ripped its heart from its cold chest. You... lifted a tank?"
"Huh. Yeah, I see why my punchlines might not hit."
When Tony visited, Rhodey looked to Natasha and Steve before he fell out of attention. Natasha felt a glow of something. She nodded and Rhodey grinned.
"Rhodey, my jelly bean, my iron buddy, kid, they treating you okay?" Tony asked. "The Widow kill you yet, follow you down to Hell, and yank you on back?"
"You make less and less sense the longer this goes on," Rhodey said. "Do you maybe want to put some more padding in the Iron Man helmet?"
Sam flew out to his old veterans' association every month for support group meetings. He dropped by Natasha's side every time he went and asked if she wanted to come along. "Maybe next time," she said, or, "It's not my scene, really."
Sam didn't push, because he wasn't the kind of person.
Steve and Natasha got together, after the individual and team exercises and training, and reviewed them. They made new plans as they recognized strengths and weaknesses. Wanda had it built into her world that she would have a protective speedster at her back, and it made her flinch every time she realized she had an open flank there. Vision got distracted by baby birds in the spring, going soft and wide eyed; he talked about chaos theory, the second law of thermodynamics, and fledgling feathers. Rhodey was used to working alone, and Sam wasn't used to being a combat unit so much as a medic.
All four ran gleeful races through the sky over the compound, while Steve and Natasha watched from below, grounded. Wanda took awhile to get a hang of it, but soon she was whipping red fire at her friends in order to win. Nat finally took to the skies in a small jet sometimes to keep an eye on them.
Vision never got tired of age jokes. "I'm only three weeks old," he said, or, "I was only born a few months ago; how was I supposed to know I shouldn't steal the last chocolate chip cookie?"
Or once (just once): "I've researched child development. I should be speaking my first words at about this age." He eyed Natasha and Steve and said with very deliberate seriousness. "Ma. Papa."
"No," said Natasha. "Ten laps around the compound, now."
Sam was on the floor already, curled around the stitch in his side, laughing. Rhodey, who had survived a few decades of Tony Stark, was managing a straight face.
"You, too," Natasha told Sam. "You encourage him."
Wanda was not too much younger than Natasha, but Natasha knew how hard your first regime fall could be. She had lived through the Red Room, through watching the USSR fall, through SHIELD's unraveling. Wanda had thought she had been doing right, and she had almost helped murder the whole world in the process.
Natasha ran her through hard drills, things meant to exhaust. If Bruce had been around, she'd have asked him to help Wanda with quantifying her powers—Bruce had a good way about him, and it helped to have another lab experiment as your scientist when you were trying to feel human, too.
But, Wanda and Bruce hadn't left it on the best of terms, so maybe this was alright.
She called Clint in instead. "I'm halfway through fixing the sunroom," he said over biscuits, just a little lumpy (Cooper had helped his dad with the baking).
"You are always halfway through something," Natasha said. She heard Laura make an emphatic noise from where she was pattering away at her latest article, her laptop so old it creaked slightly.
"I have a job," Clint complained. "Fury's still sending me out on work while you and Cap train the kids."
"You were the one who gave her the dad talk in Sokovia," said Natasha. "You've done this to yourself, Papa Hawkeye."
Clint rolled his eyes. Natasha dropped the teasing and leaned forward. "Clint, she doesn't trust that many people. She needs to feel like a person, not an experiment, and I don't know who could do that better."
"Flattery will get you nowhere," Clint said. He took the jet back with her the next morning.
The next time Sam asked Natasha to one of his support group meetings, she said yes. When she climbed into the jet with him, wondering why he didn't just take his wings, she found every seat filled. Sam grinned at her. "Do you think there's anyone in this place who couldn't use a place to talk? A place to listen to other people who are living through their aftermaths?"
Natasha looked at him, nodded, then strapped herself in next to Steve, who grinned at her, too.
Between morning runs and teambuilding-exercises Steve was still looking for James Buchanan Barnes.
Natasha woke up at night clutching the shoulder the Winter Soldier had shot her through. Natalia woke up at night with her hand pressed over the place she'd once drawn a red star, trying to cough up a memory of her own.
Natasha called up old friends, pressed for older favors, asked about a missing person, quietly. She had been missing once.
Wanda got farther in her powers than could be helped by Clint's hand-holding, so the-agency-that-was-not-SHIELD called in a contractor.
Natasha and Steve came down to meet her, arguing about the latest tactics assessment the team had gone through. The slim, dark-haired woman at the foot of the stairs had both her hands clasped on her briefcase.
"Captain Rogers; Agent Romanoff," said Betty Ross politely. "I'm Dr. Ross, your meta-human consultant?"
Natasha was not used to being recognized; but that was what happened when you loudly saved the world a couple times.
"Very nice to meet you, doctor," said Steve, extending a big broad hand.
Betty moved calmly, as rounded as Bruce had ever been. Natasha wondered if Ross was looking at the perfect constructed lines of Steve's super-soldier body and comparing them to the Hulk. They had come from the same source pool— but then, after all, Vision, the Maximoffs, Clint's brainwashing, and Ultron had all been spawned from the mind stone, in their way. Did it matter where you came from, or just where you went?
Steve doggedly handled pleasantries and the basic tour; he was used at this point to Natasha playing forward guard when it came to social interaction, and he kept glancing toward her. Natasha surprised herself, as they passed a weapons' room, by saying, "I'll show her around the labs, Steve, and talk about what assistance Wanda's been looking for. You go on."
Tony had funded the construction, so the labs were flexible and vast. Before she had known him well, Natasha had seen Bruce move about Tony's personal labs, careless and distracted. He could've been in a hovel with a cracked test tube and been just as happy.
Ross saw it all, though—projectors and instrumentation, the papers left out, one of Rhodey's spare repulsors left disassembled on a counter.
Wanda's powers were vast and malleable, and they were still charting the sparking edges of them. "We're not quite sure what HYDRA did to create them," Natasha said. "Their files were dumped, as well as any physical evidence, and while technically a volunteer Wanda was not... well briefed." She pulled out some notebooks. "Clint and Wanda both have been keeping careful field notes, as have Captain Rogers and I, but she wants to know exactly what was done to her. And what exactly she can do with it."
Betty looked around at the lab, out the wide windows that bordered it on one side. Sam was flying, practicing his hairpin turns and dives. Betty smiled; Natasha could just see the crease of her cheek from this angle. It was the first expression Natasha had seen on her that was more than polite. "That sounds quite up my alley," said Dr. Ross.
Natasha hesitated. "Have you heard from Bruce?"
Betty went very still, then turned to Natasha, the politeness returned. "I've stopped waiting."
"You don't think he will?"
"I have a feeling Bruce will always come back. Probably right when I least expect him." Betty shrugged. "But I've stopped waiting. I have a life to live, too."
They were a scientist and a porcelain ballerina; one a rag doll strewn between a monster and a father, and the other a deadly weapon. They were two women who had not run from the monster, and who had let the man go.
"Have you tried the cafeteria here yet?" Natasha said. "The food's normally pretty shit, but the kitchen staff is either grateful or scared of me."
"You can't tell which?" Betty said curiously, picking up her things.
"Not really," said Natasha. "And anyway it could be both."
Natasha climbed up on the roof to watch her Avengers fly on the kind of blue-sky day that looks breakable—robin's egg blue. Steve stood at the peak of it with a clipboard and a furrow to his brow. "Wanda's still not watching her flank," Steve said.
"That's what we're for," said Natasha.
If she slipped off this rooftop, right now, there were so many pairs of hands that would reach out to catch her. Bruce was right—there was something heady in that, in standing at the very edge of your life and knowing you'd survive.
All four of her Avengers were manmade—a robot, a pair of wings, a suit, and all the crackling power in Wanda's veins.
Rhodey's suit was a theft from (a gift from) a man who didn't trust his own hands. Tony had come out of a cave where he had been meant to die with power humming in his chest. He had spent all his next years shoving things away into other hands—driving Rhodey away one suit; handing control to JARVIS; then finally Ultron.
They were built, the four heroes Natasha was watching scuffle hundreds of feet above the grassy ground, chasing a practice fleet of remote-controlled bots and taking them down one by one. But somehow, out of those labs and military contracts, their programming and years of flightlessness—they were their own.
Wanda had made herself—she had walked into that dark place looking to be stronger, and she had walked back out when she saw the toxic waste in Ultron's mind. Vision was building himself daily, compiling and learning, watching young birds learn to fly. He downloaded sign language so he could make jokes to Clint during staff meetings. Rhodey had taken the thing Tony had built in desperation and now he used it in service.
Sam had gone out to save lives—a lifeguard at sixteen, a pararescue medic at twenty-two. He'd come back home and he hadn't stopped. Sam was here because he had laughed when Steve outran him, because he had offered him a hand and a safe place to go.
The world had changed. No one could go back. But there was still this— Steve had offered his hand and Sam had taken it, let him pull him to his feet, and squeezed back, warm.
Natasha had been a porcelain doll once, her arms lifted this way and that at whim, her weapons aimed perfectly and sightless. She had been Natalia once, refusing her sisters' bread, trading their lives for hers. She had stood in a muddy sheep field and realized a monster knew her. She had been a girl on a roof in the rain, and she had taken Clint's hand, let him pull her to her feet.
In a hovel in Calcutta, Bruce frightened Natasha to remind himself he was a nightmare. In a farmhouse Clint was tearing down and rebuilding inch by inch, Natasha called herself a monster and Bruce didn't contradict her.
In a hospital in Boston, Natasha spent hours fetching hospital coffee and food and reading to Lila and Cooper while they waited for Nathaniel Pietro to be born. She was the third person to hold the baby. Cooper was the fourth, wide-eyed, staring, with Natasha's careful hands just under his for support. Coop leaned down close to the red, wrinkly thing and whispered, "Hey little brother."
On a helicarrier en route to New York, Natasha had told Clint, "We have to stop him. Whoever's left." (Your life is choices. The monster is a hero because she steps into the fire.) Hours before that, when they had asked over coms on that broken-open helicarrier if anyone copied, Natasha had said yes. She had pulled herself up to shaking feet and gone down to the belly of that beast, ready to kill a man who she owed her life. She wrote letters to Laura in her head, trying to explain, and knowing she didn't have to.
(The hero is not a monster at all, just a woman who sleeps curled around her gun, who can't name all her scars, who wants to believe in other people.)
In a bullet-ridden building in Sokovia, Clint had told Wanda Maximoff, "If you walk out that door, you're an Avenger," and she had. (Walk out. Raise your head. This is your job, because you say it is.)
"They look like a team," said Steve, peering up against the sunlight.
Her phone buzzed at her waist. "Good," Natasha said, looking at it. "Because we have a situation. Call them down, Rogers."
Natasha's hands would not be empty, never again. They never had been—she'd been holding onto herself all her life, waiting for a moment to stand. They would not be empty— she had work to do. She had things to hold onto, now.
This was her family, here, swooping down around her. Sam's wings folded in with a clatter and a whir. Clint came in on her earpiece, Nate bawling in the background. Wanda shook sparks from her hands; they all looked to Natasha for direction and she started reading off mission stats, moving toward the rooftop door.
This was where she would stand, for all her life, for all it was worth—with the people who chose to fight.