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The Velveteen Spider

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Fury brought her in to the fold before he had permission to do so. The WSC had taken issue with her recruitment and had not given SHIELD their blessing before Natasha was posing for an ID photograph and filling out direct deposit forms for HR. So while she was sitting with the debriefing agents answering questions as a condition of her employment, so was Fury. Except he was in a teleconference room backed by Alexander Pierce, fighting to keep his job by pointing out that his autonomy didn't extend only to the things they wanted to blame him for going wrong.

She was a Black Widow, the Black Widow, and there was no way to give her the title of Probationary Agent without it being an insult. So she was told that she was on probation and that instead of a Supervising Officer, she would have a partner.

"We won the battle, Romanov," Fury told her when she protested that she didn't need a babysitter. "Don't forget that we still have to fight the rest of the war. Besides, I think you'll find Barton has plenty to teach you."

Clint Barton, laid back to the point of somnolence, didn't seem like the kind of man or agent she had much to learn from. But at least he seemed like the kind of man who'd keep out from underfoot and that would probably be bearable for the duration. He was competent at what he did, didn't believe in small talk or stupid questions, and had no disgusting personal habits. All he asked of her was that she not be directly responsible for his death, which was not something she could promise beyond having no intention of killing him herself.

She was the Black Widow, pride of the Red Room, and did not need a partner any more than she needed an SO, so she tried to assert control of the relationship. Barton liked women; she'd seen his eyes travel over her body when they'd first met. He was too well-trained to fall for a honey pot, but more subtler measures would work. Except they didn't.

"Sweetheart, what are you doing?" Barton sighed with disappointment two weeks into her campaign. "You want something from me, you ask me. With words, not with..." he trailed off, making a hand gesture that vaguely indicated her body. "If you don't know how to ask, we'll figure something else out."

Chastened and disappointed and maybe a little humiliated, she withdrew instead and they finished their mission in silence. She was sulking, she knew she was, but it galled her. To have failed, yes; she'd been trained to seduce anyone and she knew Barton found her attractive. But to have been dismissed like that, by someone like Barton, whose espionage training was a six-month course to undo everything he'd learned in the army... He was not in her league and he had no right to treat her like a child.

It took her the better part of the long (silent) flight home from Djibouti before she realized that Barton wasn't treating her like a child, but instead like a feral cat who needed to be coaxed into accepting kindness. And that was no comfort. That was even worse.

"I want a new partner," she told Fury the next time she saw him, which was the day after she'd handed in her paperwork for the mission. (Barton made her do all of the mission-related paperwork by a combination of pulling rank and winning an accuracy contest at the range before she'd known he was a sniper.) "I can't work with Barton."

Fury laughed at her. "You can't control Barton," he corrected with a smug smile. "You need a partner, not a denshchik. You'll stay with him until I say otherwise."

The idea was untenable, to have to look her shame in the face every day, have her failure thrown back at her with no malice, just pity. She considered leaving SHIELD, going freelance, but she knew it was no better an idea than when she'd first considered it. She needed to be here, both for her own protection as well as for her peace of mind. She considered a convenient accident to rid her of Barton; nothing fatal, just... lasting. And serious enough to warn off her next partner to be more mindful of the tiger they were grasping by the tail.

It might have shown on her face because Fury stilled.

"Anything happens to him, there will be repercussions," he told her and he was not smiling now. "Do you understand me?"

"Or what?" she asked with false lightness. "You'll kill me?"

She respected Fury as a warrior, but she knew he'd paid a tremendous price for her, a price so steep he couldn't afford to throw her away so easily.

"No," he replied and the look of the wolf, the reason she'd listened to him in the first place back in Trieste when he'd talked to her of a better world, appeared again. "I trade you back to Department X. You cannot imagine what they're offering me. I may hobble Barton on my own just to give myself the excuse."

She found Barton where she knew he'd be between appointments, down on the range shooting arrows. She didn't understand the archery business, why he carried the bow and arrows and why Fury let him carry them. They'd been on three missions and he hadn't fired a single one, using his rifle and pistol and even leaving the quiver behind at their safehouse once. But he was good at it, as must be expected, and there was a kind of powerful grace in his motions that was hypnotic in its own way.

"Anyone else, I'd take 'em out for a beer or three and we'd hash out our problems over suds," he said once he'd emptied his quiver. His back was to her and had been throughout, but she'd assumed he'd seen her. "But I don't think there's enough vodka in the world to get your issues into a barrel where we can pick 'em off one by one."

There was nobody else at this end of the range, so he waved his arm at the RSO in the booth before he hopped over the barrier and walked down to the butts to pull his arrows free.

She was gone before he was back behind the barrier.

It took time before she came to recognize Barton was showing her patience, not pity. That he was assessing her and not passing judgment. That he did, in fact, have plenty to teach her even though she was in no frame of mind to learn. That he knew that and didn't push. It came to her in glimpses and glances, in silences that grew more companionable, in moments when he placed his life in her hands and when he showed mercy even to their enemies and when he made her pause and not just look, but see.

She also got to see the arrows in action and yeah, she could appreciate their utility as a complement to a bullet, but not as a replacement. Barton, however, openly pined for when he could leave his sidearm behind.

They worked well together, they had from the beginning, but as the rest started to come along, Fury stopped being her -- their -- handler and gave them over to the care of Coulson, who was a sharp dichotomy between micromanaging bureaucrat and hands-off supporter. It made Natasha's head spin, but Barton rolled with it easily, as he did everything else. Natasha understood that this meant that she was off probation, but she did not request a severing of her partnership with Barton. They worked well together, true enough, but maybe, just maybe, Fury had been right and maybe, just maybe, she was ready to learn what Barton had to teach her.

"Cookie?" he offered, holding out a paper plate with what looked to be oatmeal raisin cookies on them. They were being locked in a room to do the paperwork Coulson had told them they could not leave the Helicarrier without completing. There were pens and pencils and stacks of actual paper, not even a tablet, with color-coded paperclips holding sheets together because Coulson liked to break Probationary Agents on report by forcing them to file. Barton's pile, she was happy to note, was taller than hers and had three more paper clips to its rainbow. "Aw, man. I filled out the pension beneficiary thing already."

Being around Barton had long ago stopped being hard, but it was now finally starting to be easy. His stillness of mind was a balm now that she had stopped reading damnation into his silences. Being around him, being near his peace, she'd started to be able to hear herself over the din of her memories and her guilt. She still didn't have the words to ask him for what she needed, but he'd gotten better at figuring it out on his own and, somewhere along the line, that had stopped terrifying her.

At least until she realized how much she'd come to rely on his presence in her life as an anchor.

The first mission she completed for SHIELD without Barton was an infiltration and interrogation job that was architecturally identical to what she'd once done for the Russians, but the devil remained in the details. SVR policy was to eliminate all potential witnesses to a clandestine action, but SHIELD expected her to do her job without leaving a trail of bodies behind her. Which was easier said than done. Her egress was a mess, making a mockery of a deep black op by acquiring a three-car police tail and leaving a pair of multi-car pileups from where she sped through intersections against the light. She had to bypass her first retrieval point and ditch her tail before making it on foot to the second and Coulson hadn't even waited for the plane to take off before he was shouting in her ear over the sat phone for fucking things up so badly.

After she landed, she half expected Coulson to be waiting at the end of the plane's ramp to continue the chewing-out, but instead it was only Barton, standing in boots and jeans and a Dog Cops t-shirt and sunglasses, and she couldn't hide her relief. She didn't want to pick over her failure; she'd had the entire flight home to do that and it had left her feeling fragile. Her identity, her self-worth, was wrapped up in her competence and she had been so grossly incompetent. If she was not the Black Widow, and she had not been on that mission, not by a long shot, who was she?

"Let's go get drunk," Barton said, knocking his shoulder into hers. He rarely touched her unless he had to or by accident; she wasn't used to social physical contact and she didn't like it much. She could shake hands, kiss cheeks, ride a crowded subway, have sex, but it was something she had to think about, every moment of it deliberate and deliberated, and too much of it was exhausting, like she'd been sparring. Sparring was easier.

He took her to a dive bar in Long Island City, the 7 train squealing through a turn over their heads, and asked for a pitcher of Yuengling and two burgers, medium, with the works before finding them a booth in the rear where they could sit in semi-darkness with their backs to the wall. They got through the burgers -- shockingly good -- and the pitcher and then half of the next before he started telling her a story of his army days, fresh out of Ranger School. It was a kind of nonsensical story, completely true she knew because those sorts of details just couldn't be imagined, and it ended with him having to literally kiss the boots of the men who'd had to clean up after him.

"You're an idiot, Barton," she said when he'd finished. "An amazing idiot."

Barton made a dismissive noise as he shifted over to get up, presumably to go to the restroom. "Is that anything to say to your best friend?"

She looked up at him, shocked at the words. "Who says that you are my best friend?"

"You got any others?" he asked with a shrug. "Therefore, I am the best one."

"That means you are also the worst one," she called after him as he headed off, but she was just drunk enough for the words to float around in her mind like mosquitoes.

She remembered the conversation the next morning, when she dragged her hungover but far more sturdy self to SHIELD's New York headquarters off Times Square to go get yelled at by Coulson in person. She could say that Barton was presumptuous for considering himself her friend, but it would probably be more truthful to say that he'd simply recognized it sooner.

That's when she started calling him Clint, first in her head and then out loud. The first time, it slipped out and it startled her. Startled Clint, too, but he recovered and beamed at her and then continued driving like a maniac because it was the only way they were going to get out of Hungary alive unless they wanted to swim the Danube from Budapest to Vienna.

Clint was her best friend (and her worst friend and, depending on how pissed off Fury was, her only friend), but she didn't know if that was a reciprocal arrangement. Or whether it mattered. He considered her a friend, a good one, but she also knew that there were parts of his life that he kept from her. He didn't hang around New York when they weren't on call and it wasn't because he wasn't a city boy. Sometimes he told her where he'd gone, sometimes where he'd gone was nowhere even vaguely interesting (camping, for instance), and sometimes he just turned up looking better for the time away and just grinned.

She'd assumed that there were women involved in some of these disappearances, but it was only when Clint let her see him -- and hear him -- make his phone calls that she realized that there weren't women, there was a woman. Every mission they'd ever gone on together, he'd disappeared shortly before launch, only for a minute or two. She'd just figured it for a last-minute bathroom trip or some private ritual to ensure a safe return and had sometimes teased him about a small bladder or a good luck charm. But it was, in fact, a phone call, brief and sometimes to an answering machine, and the final words were always the same: "I love you," simple and heartfelt and true.

She knew that most of SHIELD had thought her a plant when she'd come in, that she was there to be a double-agent and destroy SHIELD from within. That Clint would have kept anything she could use from her would have been expected. But here, letting her see that he wasn't off taking a leak or praying or fixing up some voodoo altar, this was him showing her his soft underbelly because someone of her skill could easily get from those phone calls to wherever his love waited.

"I'd been wondering why you were the only one who could get oatmeal raisin cookies out of the commissary," was all she'd said the first time she'd acknowledged his demonstration of faith.

She didn't ask for a name or a location or even whether she was a girlfriend or something more. Clint would tell her in his time, she was coming to understand. He'd had to trust her with his life from the beginning, but to trust her with the lives of the people he loved, that was a far greater gift and one she could not demand, it had to be freely given. And so she waited, more than content with what she already had. She'd never had this before, someone trusting her with something precious because they wanted to and not because they had to, because they wanted her to be a fuller part of their life. Trusting her with a part of themselves that had nothing to do with the job.

She wished she had something to offer in return, but she didn't.

They worked three rough missions in a row, hard on body and soul. Clint fractured an ankle in Honduras and then had to run five klicks on it; Natasha got stabbed the back (thankfully, it hit a rib) in Laos, and they both got a little blown up in Serbia and, after they showed up in his office still smelling of char, Coulson had had enough.

"Come back in tomorrow," he told them. "Today, go buy sunscreen."

They were on a flight to Miami the next afternoon. Natasha had a second set of tickets for Saint Lucia, complete with hotel reservations with a spa treatment booked. Clint's final destination was not spoken out loud, at least not aboard the Helicarrier, but he seemed a little excited at the confirmation that what he'd asked for, he'd gotten.

"Why did you get to ask for something?" Natasha asked as they settled in to their seats. "Maybe I didn't want to go to a tropical island and get a Swedish massage."

Clint looked up from his book. "Do you not want to go to a tropical island and get a Swedish massage? Because I distinctly remember you demanding just that while we were running for our lives in Juticalpa."

She had, along with pink drinks with paper umbrellas, but it had been semi-serious, mostly to get Clint's mind off of his ankle, which she'd wrapped with her scarf because they'd been playing tourist when they'd gotten found out. She'd also demanded a detailed explanation of the purpose of American football, which had been a better distraction for Clint than her griping, but she was touched that he remembered that, too.

"I don't know what I would have picked," she admitted, since 'thank you' was still hard for her to say when it came to acknowledging acts of kindness. "I've never been on a vacation before."

She'd been to vacation spots, but only for work. Going skiing in Saint Moritz so she could assassinate a gas magnate who'd become a problem to Moscow was not the same thing as what she was doing now. She wasn't sure she even knew how to go on vacation, but the brochure she'd been given assured her that there were lots of activities to sign up for in case she felt at loose ends.

"They're good to remind you how to be a person, not a weapon," Clint said with a shrug. "To remember that we're capable of doing more -- wanting more -- than what we have to do."

Natasha didn't need a reminder; she needed a lesson.

"You have to start somewhere," Clint told her, smiling gently. "You can lie there getting your massage or next to the pool with your foo-foo drink and think up all of the things you want to do. Things you want to see. Foods you want to try. Whatever you want. And then next vacation, you pick something off that list to cross off."

The flight attendant came by with drinks, so Natasha didn't get to ask what Clint was crossing off his list.

Whatever it was, however, it started with the hunt for a black Honda CRV in the long-term parking lot at Miami Airport. Clint had the keys and the title, but he promised to drop Natasha off at her hotel -- her flight didn't leave until the following morning -- if she helped him find the vehicle itself. They did, then completed a surveillance sweep before getting in.

"You up for a quick detour?" Clint asked as they pulled away from the airport.

"Sure," she agreed, figuring that it would be some restaurant or food truck or something local and weird he'd read about on the internet. Instead, he drove past Little Havana and on to Miami Beach and pulled over near a playground next to the beach. She thought they were going out toward the water, but he went straight for one of the picnic benches, where a woman wearing Mickey Mouse ears was sitting with a toddler wearing the same.

"Daddy!" the toddler crowed and Natasha froze. Purely on automatic function, like a camera, she watched Clint jog over and pick up the toddler and swing him over his head in one motion, the woman standing up to join them.

"He just had his snack, so I'd maybe reconsider the 'holding him upside down over my head' decision," she said and Clint moved the toddler so that he was eye level.

"Were you planning to puke on Daddy?" he asked and the toddler -- a boy -- started to giggle.

It took two tries for Natasha to move, to take one step in front of the other so that she could be formally introduced to Laura and Cooper Barton. Laura was gracious, especially with Natasha frozen and barely able to speak. She'd known of Laura's existence, at least in a vague way that 'Clint is in love with someone and that someone is a woman' covered adequately enough. But a child. A son. That he clearly adored and Natasha felt sick, felt dizzy, because of all of the things she knew Clint had been protecting from the world, from her, a child had not been on that list.

"He's not letting go of you any time soon," Laura said, taking off her Mickey Mouse ears and putting them on Clint's head. "I'm going to get my feet wet without a toddler in tow."

And with a wave of he hand, she started off toward the water.

Clint sat down on the bench, Cooper clinging tightly on his lap, and gestured with his free hand for Natasha to join him.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Of course!" she insisted, sounding weird to her own ears. How could she say otherwise? How could she be otherwise? And yet she was and she couldn't explain why.

"When I moved over to SHIELD from the Army, Nick left Laura off the grid," Clint said, absently smoothing his son's head. "As far as HR knows, I am single and my permanent address is a PO Box in Fayetteville, North Carolina, my last duty station with Big Green. Nick knew this was going to be a dangerous life in a way that the Army hadn't been, that the jihadi nuts who want to kill the soldiers who killed their people can only go so far, but the kind of assholes who take care of payback in this life... they have more resources and no boundaries. The only people who know are Nick, Phil, and now you."

She should have felt honored, felt accomplished about being rewarded with this special trust. But she wasn't. She felt irritated and upset and annoyed that she hadn't been asked if she wanted to carry this burden, this key to Clint's heart. It made no sense, none of her reactions made sense, but she was uncomfortable in her skin, unhappy in her mind, and it took everything she had not to lash out at Clint in inchoate anger for the crime of believing in her.

"This doesn't change anything, you know," Clint went on when she said nothing. "You and me."

In theory, it didn't. It wasn't like she was in competition with Clint's family for his love; his affection for her had never been anything but platonic and she'd been grateful for that -- once upon a time, she'd tried to seduce him, but she'd never wanted his romantic love. It would have been problematic and likely would have gotten one of them killed. In practice, it changed everything and it frustrated her that she couldn't explain why, not even to herself.

"I know," she said.

Clint gave her one of those looks he had for when he knew she was fronting and wasn't prepared to call her on it. Instead, he turned his attention to his son, who was sufficiently sure that his father wasn't disappearing right away that he started to pay attention to Natasha, watching her with smaller versions of Clint's blue eyes.

"That's Natasha," Clint told him. "She's my friend. If you're a good boy, maybe she'll be your friend, too."

Cooper looked like he doubted the prospect and she couldn't blame him, but she smiled at him anyway and he smiled back and turned his face into his father's chest.

Laura returned after a few more minutes, approaching watchfully; she'd left them to talk and wanted to know if they had. Natasha saw Clint's tiny nod and shrug and agreed; she didn't know, either.

The Bartons were going up to Orlando to Disney World; Clint asked Natasha's indulgence to get Laura and Cooper's things from their hotel before driving her back to her own. She rode in the back with Cooper in his carseat and he watched her, curious and cautious but seemingly good-willed.

"I think he likes your hair," Laura said from the front passenger seat. "We've been going through our Disney stuff the last couple of weeks so he'd recognize the characters when he saw them. There might have been a viewing or two of The Little Mermaid."

"Ariel!" Cooper crowed, then pointedly looked down at Natasha's feet.

"Natasha's not nearly as good a swimmer, but she's probably about as mute," Clint said and Laura shot him a look.

He double-parked when they got to the hotel and followed her in despite her intentionally walking too fast for him to keep up without jogging.

"Nat, wait," he said as he reached for her arm and she thought about jerking it free, but didn't. Instead, she turned around and faced him. "I'm sorry if this was the bad kind of surprise instead of the good one. I meant it to be the good one. I don't want this to ruin your vacation and I don't want this to make things weird between us. Once you know what you want to say, I'll listen. Okay?"

And this was how Clint had gotten past all of her defenses, never allowing her to hide but never pushing her to advance before she was ready. He didn't offer to talk if she wanted to because he knew she'd never want to. He didn't ask her for what was bothering her because he knew she didn't know. But he made it clear that he thought she should consider the matter and he knew she respected him too much to ignore the suggestion.

She nodded and he surprised the hell out of her by giving her a quick hug before heading back to the car.

Saint Lucia was weird and lovely and claustrophobic and the idleness unsettled her deeply. It took her three days to actually relax enough to enjoy anything, to sit poolside and just close her eyes and not feel like someone was targeting her or that she should be targeting someone else, to eat in the restaurant instead of in her room, to treat any of the organized activities like a recreation instead of like a Red Room training drill for which she would be graded and judged. She went to a cooking class, a basket-weaving class, snorkeling and scuba-diving, and rented a moped to tour the island. She got three massages: one deep-tissue, one Swedish, and one with hot rocks placed along her spine. She tried a dozen different fruity drinks with paper umbrellas and a half-dozen different fish she'd never heard of. She told people she was a modern dance teacher who'd been stood up at the altar and this was supposed to have been her honeymoon; it gave her a plausible excuse for her physique and her detached air and reluctance to carry on small talk.

It took five days before she could admit to herself that she was jealous of Cooper Barton for bumping her down a space in Clint's affection, which made no sense -- Clint's heart and mind didn't work like that and, besides, Cooper had existed for Clint even when Natasha hadn't known of his existence. But there it was and she had to deal with it, one way or another. She didn't want to have to tell Clint, who maybe understood anyway. He wouldn't press; he'd leave her be if she looked like she was handling it. And she thought she could. She could deal it on her own, an enemy identified was an enemy she could destroy. She would be fine. She and Clint would be fine. Everything would be fine.

On the last day, she bought souvenirs. She got something for Laura and Cooper in addition to Coulson's paperweight and the ceremonial arrow she'd found for Clint. When she gave them to Clint in Miami, he laughed and handed her a stuffed crab toy, which apparently Cooper had picked out for her. "You'll have to watch the movie to get the explanation," Clint told her.

Two weeks later, she was driving a Trabant over dirt roads in South Sudan, dodging checkpoints and AK fire, as Clint tried to get their radio to work. "I read the story on wikipedia," she said as she swerved around a pothole. "The Little Mermaid. There's no crab."

It had been a depressing story, hardly what she'd think normal parents exposed their young children to, although she admittedly had no frame of reference. Nonetheless, considering the arc of her life so far and what had happened between her and Clint in Miami, the story had struck oddly close to the bone.

Clint cackled next to her, a surprised whoop of laughter. "You read the summary of the fable," he told her, pausing to curse because he'd dropped the pocketknife he was using to fiddle with the radio and had to reach down and feel for it in the foot well. "That's all Christian imagery and the usual fairy-tale fucked-up-ness. Disney makes everything happy and nobody good dies and there's a singing crab."

Clint got the radio to work, Natasha got them out of trouble without incident, and they got back to the Helicarrier with the pictures of the illegal arms someone had been shipping in bulk. The crates had "HYDRA" stenciled on the side, but since neither the containers nor the contents dated back to WWII and neither buyer nor seller were exactly candidates for a Nazi unit, the assumption was that someone was borrowing the name to sound tough.

"It might've been fun if they were using it legitimately," Coulson said as they wrapped up the mission-related meeting. "It would be much easier to get these missions approved than to have to push through a weapons interdiction mission when every other agency in the world does those. Also, I'm a fan of irony."

Natasha finally saw the Disney movie after Clint gave her a copy. The crab in the movie's name was Sebastian. The crab still stuffed into her 'civilian' suitcase because she hadn't wanted to look at it remained nameless for a few more months, after which she took him out of the luggage and put him on the shelf because she was ready to face what he represented. She never told Clint any of this, but a week later, Clint asked her if she wanted to see the pictures from Disney World. He hadn't mentioned Laura or Cooper at all since their return, even when they were alone, hadn't spoken a word more about his life -- she didn't even know how long he'd been married.

She said yes.

Whether she wanted it or not, Laura and Cooper Barton were going to be a part of her life for as long as Clint was a part of her life, personally or professionally. Clint was wrong about his family not changing anything between them and, if she'd pointed that out, he'd probably have agreed. She hadn't been cavalier with his life before, far from it, but she hadn't ever considered the effects of his dying in action beyond the loss of a friend and a good partner. Now she would and it would change how she operated, how they operated together, and he might not want that, but he did not, as the saying went, get a vote.

Practically, however, it did not really change much. The way they worked together had always put her in more immediate danger -- she was the close-combat specialist, he was the long-distance marksman -- and Clint's strong sense of chivalry did not extend to sacrificing battlefield efficiency. They worked together as beautifully as they ever had.

What did change was how they interacted away from the job, or at least away from the tactical moments of the job. With his secret finally revealed, Clint seemed a much lighter person, a much freer one for being able to share his world with someone else and she flattered herself to think that that someone being her mattered a little. The 'new' Clint was essentially like the old one, charming and folksy and patient and kind and in possession of a terrible sense of humor and absolutely no taste in music worth listening to. But there was more context for him now, for his moods, for his fears, and Natasha found herself intrigued by that because it was novel. She wasn't used to working with people with developed personal lives and while she'd always known Clint had had one, it had been abstract to her before and now it wasn't.

It made her want her own, at least until it came time to acting on those desires. The Red Room had effectively and efficiently stripped away her personality; they had given her the ability to charm, to seduce, to buddy-up, to be angry, but these were costumes, moods to try on and then discard when no longer necessary. Nothing she'd done for Russia -- or for SHIELD -- had ever needed more than that. She'd developed preferences, of course -- she liked Mozart and the Rolling Stones, she liked pepperoni, she found dark-haired men more attractive than blonds -- but she lacked something essential to turn any of that into a social activity. She was still learning how to like people, to see them as friends and allies and not as collections of weaknesses to be exploited. She could belly up to a bar and be a part of the gang within two drinks, but she had to do it as a role, she couldn't do it as Natasha. She wasn't sure she'd ever be able to do it as Natasha. And that bothered her a lot more now than it used to.

Six months after Miami, Clint asked her if she'd like to go home with him. "I don't even know where you live," she replied, which was not an answer. Her instinct was to say no, to be a 'friend' to Laura and Cooper by protecting their father, not by hanging out. Her instincts about how to deal with people outside of work were terrible, true, but she was scared. Of how she might feel, about how Laura might be, of having to be Natasha for a sustained time around other people who mattered. Laura's opinion of her mattered, whether she wanted it to or not.

"I live on a farm," Clint replied. "In Iowa."

Natasha could only stare. "A farm."

He grinned. "Corn as far as you can see, some chickens, and a cow named Maude who likes the Beatles."

She shook her head, not even able to conceive of such a place, of Clint living in such a place. "You leave your wife to run a farm without you?"

Clint made a dismissive noise. "Please, she grew up on a place twice that size. And there's help for the harvest and stuff. Come on, it'll be fun. You've probably never even seen corn still on the stalk."

She cocked an eyebrow because while that was true, it was also not a lacuna she felt acutely.

"I don't want to take you away from your family time," she said instead. It would amount to a long weekend, four days away before they both had to be back to start prepping for separate missions. They still worked together often, but they'd started to work apart from each other more frequently over the last few months. She hoped it wasn't because of how she'd reacted to the revelations in Miami, but hadn't had the courage to ask. Coulson was the one who tasked them and he knew what had gone on, if not how she'd reacted. Maybe he knew that, too, but not from anything she'd told him.

"Natasha," Clint sighed and she knew, she knew he knew what she was doing. "My family time will not be diminished one moment for you being there. It'll be even more -- my work-wife and my wife-wife and my son. It'll be like Big Love."

"Work-wife?" she repeated.

Clint shrugged. "It's what Laura calls you. Well, she uses your name, but she says calling you my partner's kind of underselling it."

Natasha didn't know what to say to that. She thought it was supposed to be a kind of compliment, but what kind, that she wasn't sure about.

"Think about it," Clint told her, since they both had places to be at the top of the hour. "I'll check in with you on Thursday."

Thursday became a moot point because neither of them were going anywhere near Iowa for the weekend. Tony Stark, in Afghanistan for a weapons demo, had gone missing when his convoy had come under attack.

"The usual agencies are looking for Stark," Nick told them as they sat in his office. "My guess is we either get a ransom note or a videotape of his beheading by the end of play tomorrow. But what we are interested in is the reason Stark was in Afghanistan in the first place: the Jericho missile."

At the cue, the analyst popped up and started talking about the missile, which was smart, multiphase, and incredibly well-designed, the way all Stark weapons were. And at least one of them was missing.

Clint, who had far more experience in the Middle East than she did, was heading straight to Afghanistan. Natasha was tasked with using her connections to see who might be positioning themselves to buy the missile if and when it came to market. Which meant a trip to London, never a hardship. On the way back downstairs, Clint groused that he was going to be worrying about sand fleas while she was swilling martinis in Mayfair. But they both knew he preferred the chance to hang out with his old Army buddies to dressing up and trying to pry details out of the underworld's slimiest.

It didn't take long to figure out that the Ten Rings had either the missile or Stark or both; it would take much longer to convince the Pentagon and CIA who it was, but that was above her pay grade. Clint was staying both in-country and on the mission, but she was getting shifted over to her next gig, which was getting a nuclear engineer out of Lashkar Abad without VAJA realizing it.

That mission ended spectacularly badly, even by her own standards, which had been changed and expanded since coming to work for SHIELD. Four weeks of prep, of staring at satellite imagery and maps of Lashkar Abad and its environs, of milking every possible resource for intel on security and local conditions, of arguing whether to try for Turkey or Afghanistan for exfil, and it all went to shit almost immediately. Her target was in Arak, which she didn't find out until her last check-in before she crossed the border into Iran. The improvised new plan died before it was born and she ended up stuffing her target into the trunk of her car, driving up to Baku, switching cars and getting up into Russia and across and down to Sochi to a boat to Odessa, where they were found by an assassin who shot through her to kill her target not three hundred yards from where SHIELD agents were waiting to get them to a plane out of danger. The plane that instead flew her straight to Landstuhl for emergency surgery by Army doctors well-trained in pulling bullets out of bodies.

"You got shot by the Winter Soldier," Clint told her once she surfaced from the really good drugs they'd been feeding her. They were on a plane, a different plane, and she was still hooked up to an IV and strapped down to a gurney. It was too reminiscent of her past, of what she'd been through with the Red Room and then as an agent in the field, and she tried to break loose, break free, and Clint had to grab her hands and she might have bitten him before the drugs kicked back in.

Her first clear memory since Odessa was of waking up to chickens crowing. She was in a bed, a real bed, still with the IV, and there were blue curtains doing a poor job of holding back bright sunlight.

"Morning, sleepyhead," Clint said as he came in the door. "You're in Iowa, it's been eight days since you got shot in Odessa and three days since you bit me on the way out of Germany."

The words made sense on their own, but the collective meaning needed a minute or two to penetrate her foggy mind. "I bit you?"

Clint sat down carefully on the far side of the bed, but she could still feel the motion of the mattress in her abdomen and she hissed at the pain. "Sorry," he apologized, getting up and pulling over a chair to her side of the bed. "And yes, you bit me. I told you you got shot by the Winter Soldier and you bit me."

"Because you told me a ghost story," she told him. "I got shot for real, not by a ghost."

The Winter Soldier had been a Cold War bogeyman the West had blamed for anything they thought the Soviets had done but had no proof. He'd been a different legend in the Red Room, sometimes their greatest accomplishment, sometimes the reason the program had been created in the first place, and he'd been just as mythical because there'd been no proof that he'd ever existed.

"Well, someone shot you from seven hundred meters with a wicked crosswind and no tripod. Soviet slug with no rifling..." Clint trailed off and shrugged. "I could make that shot. I know a couple of others, none of whom would dare take a shot at you, so... yeah. Good luck telling anyone that you didn't get shot by the Winter Soldier. Phil thinks you got shot by the Winter Soldier."

"I'm not awake enough for this conversation," she muttered and he laughed. She wasn't, though. She was feeling pleasantly floaty and a little groggy and mostly like she wanted to go back to sleep. "Why am I here?"

Clint waited a beat before replying. "Because it was here or a hospital, Nat," he said. "You aren't ready to to take care of yourself yet and, since you don't have people, they were gonna keep you until you could. And I know how crazy hospitals make you -- and I have the bite marks to prove it -- so I told them that I was your people. And so you came here. And you'll stay here until you're better."

She wasn't awake enough for this conversation either; keeping her eyes open was becoming too much work. She heard Clint move around, the scrape of the chair, and then a kiss on her forehead.

"Let us be your people, Natashenka."

When next she woke up, it was dark out and everything was quiet, so she closed her eyes again. The time after that, however, it was daylight and there was hammering from somewhere and she shifted with the intention of sitting up, but the pain was tremendous and she lay back gasping.

A knock on the already-ajar door followed a minute or so later. "Where do you think you're going?" Clint asked with irritation. He was dressed in work clothes and was holding a hammer. "You are on bed rest for another week at a minimum so that you don't rip your stitches out. Don't make me resort to drastic measures."

She shot him a look. "What, you're going to tie me down?"

Clint scoffed. "Why expend the effort? I have a kid and a laptop that plays Disney movies. Cooper'll keep you pinned for weeks."

He did, however, help her sit up a little, just a little, by supporting her with one arm and propping pillows up behind her with the other. "You up for eating?" he asked when she was settled again.

She thought she might try something light and said so. But Clint wasn't the one to return.

"Hey," Laura said brightly as she entered the room with a tray. "The bad news is that you're not allowed solid foods for the first few days. The good news is that Clint's broken his jaw twice and I've gotten really good at soup."

Laura placed the tray over her lap and there was, indeed, a covered mug of soup, glasses of juice and milk, and a package of gummi bears. "They liquify," she explained. "Don't ask why I know that."

Natasha, embarrassed, thanked her. She wasn't used to accepting kindness and comfort from anyone, but she had more or less accustomed herself to Clint's care of her. Anyone else, however, let alone Laura Barton, who still disturbed her for reasons she couldn't explain, and it was almost unbearable.

"We have an extra laptop you can use for email and stuff," Laura went on, opening the window at the other side of the room. "It's got Netflix. Clint started up a queue for you, but feel free to delete all of it because he's not nearly as funny as he thinks he is. But you eat now and we'll take it from there."

Natasha could only nod.

Her first days were spent sleeping and eating (drinking) and watching the cartoons Clint had chosen for her because she lacked the strength to do much more. She didn't want to take the painkillers, but she lost the argument with Clint, who challenged her to come up with a good reason not to take them. "I can protect you," he told her and that went directly to the root of it all and she gave in.

Laura was good at soup, of which there were several varieties, and better at coming up with acceptable foods that weren't soup. She was also the one helped her tape up her wound site and step into the shower, which had been outfitted with some kind of bench meant for the outdoors so she could sit and clean herself because she stunk. Natasha would have preferred Clint do it -- he'd seen her naked at some point, she was sure, and near-enough plenty of times, but that had all been by necessity and it wasn't necessary here. Instead, it was just her building up an unwanted debt to Laura, accepting favor after favor with no option to refuse and no chance to repay.

Cooper was mostly kept away, although he visited sometimes with the arrival of the meal tray or its retrieval. He was the one to point out the baby monitor at her bedside, which explained how Clint and Laura had been able to tell when she was stirring. Cooper in his own home, his native environment, was less shy and, months older than last time at a point in his life where that mattered, was a very different boy than the one she'd met in Miami. He was chatty and friendly, more interested in a willing ear than a meaningful conversation, and desperately eager to get on the bed after being told that he was not allowed.

After the first week, Natasha was allowed to eat normally, although moving around was still too painful to endure for long. She couldn't handle the stairs without crying and Clint got truly angry with her making the attempt anyway. "We have the baby gate down there to keep Cooper from climbing up. Don't make me put one up here so you can't go down."

Laura and Clint brought her books and Clint set up a secure connection so that she could do her SHIELD reports if she was so inclined. She was restless and cranky and in pain and faked swallowing her medication because she hated the way they made her stupid and disconnected from herself. Clint found out, of course, and they had a shouting match that could probably have been heard in Nebraska, with the end result being that he stayed away for the next day rather than risk continuing it. There was a lot more hammering downstairs that day; Laura said that Clint was re-doing the porch railing so that Cooper couldn't slip through the gaps anymore.

At the end of the second week, Clint had to go back to New York to return to work. Natasha said she was coming, too. She could ride out the rest of her convalescence in her apartment; it was one floor with no stairs and plenty of takeout options.

Clint's reaction was to lean against the window frame and sigh.

"First, I don't think you really understand what a three-hour drive over country roads is going to do to your mid-section," he said. "Second, you can't even walk across a room without needing to rest, so I don't know what you think you're going to get done in New York. Third, you are safer here -- we both know there are a lot of bad people who know your address in Manhattan and have no qualms about stalking a wounded gazelle. Fourth, and this is the one that you don't want to hear, running away is not going to help what's bothering you here."

She was sitting in the chair from the desk; it hurt -- a lot -- to do so, but she wanted to prove that she was able to handle it, able to get on to the next step. Able to get away from here to be on her own, away from being catered to and cared for. She didn't care that Clint knew; she just wanted to go.

"You're not a prisoner here," he went on when she said nothing. She dared not say anything because if she opened her mouth, the first thing to come out would be a gasp of pain. "You wanna go, you go. But there is a limit to how much I am willing to aid and abet your stupidity -- don't say it's not stupid, Natasha, you're being a proud idiot and you know it. Not taking your meds, trying to do stretches when you're still held together by sutures and surgical glue, sitting in that chair when your eyes are watering with pain just to prove that you're tough enough to go it alone..."

He looked out the window for a long moment, watching the fields of green corn stalks waving in the breeze. It wasn't a bad view, she'd admit, peaceful if not exactly beautiful.

"This place is my heaven, Nat," he said. "It's everything and everyone I love most in the world all in one place, far from the shit and the blood and the evil I dive willingly into, usually headfirst. I wanted you to see it so maybe you'd get a little something out of it, too, and I'm sorry that hasn't happened.

"I can't make you believe it's okay to need help or to accept help when it's offered. I can't fix all the ways the Red Room fucked you up. All I can do is give you the time and space to heal. Let me do that. Let Laura do that -- don't think she hasn't noticed you freaking out every time she walks into the room."

She winced. "I'm sorry."

She was, and that was part of the cycle. She knew that Clint only ever wanted the best for her, that Laura wasn't doing anything only out of obligation or because Natasha was her husband's "work-wife." But she didn't have the kind of grace to accept that and if Clint would at least play along enough to show that he was blowing her off, then Laura's refusal to be sarcastic, to lash out, to demand something in return for her kindness was only making Natasha more jittery, more angry at herself for her ingratitude, and so things were spiraling down beyond control.

"I know that and so does she," Clint replied, eyes still on the corn. "But if you want to do something about it, put away the scorecard. Stop keeping a tally of every time someone does something for you so that you know how much you have to pay back. It's not something friends keep track of. And I'm your friend -- your best friend."

"And my worst," she said with what she hoped was enough jauntiness so that Clint could hear it for the apology it was. Judging by his grin, he did.

"Laura can be your friend, too, if you let her," he told her, eyebrow arched meaningfully. "She's good people, Nat. You don't have enough of those in your life."

Natasha nodded. She could promise to try, but it would come out wrong. "If I have more than one friend, you might not be the best one anymore," she said instead.

Clint grinned, brighter than the sun outside. "I'll live with the disappointment."

Natasha watched Clint's departure from the window, out of view because she knew he'd see her and she didn't want to intrude. Cooper was inconsolable, weeping in his father's arms until he was pried loose. She couldn't see what Clint and Laura were saying to each other, but she could see the tenderness of their gestures and it made her feel like a voyeur and so she went back to the bed. She'd found the optimal angle of reclining so that she could stay in one position without pain or feel like she was incapacitated.

Without Clint around to run interference or keep her in line, Natasha put in an effort to be better with Laura. She started off by apologizing and Laura did her the favor of not blowing it off.

"It's harder than it looks," Laura said after she accepted the apology. "Everyone says that learning to take a compliment is the big one, but it's not. It's learning to accept kindness when you haven't been shown much. You should've seen Clint when we first started dating."

Natasha knew that Clint's early life hadn't been easy, but he'd never really talked at length about it and, considering her own, it seemed like a good topic to mutually ignore.

A couple of days later, Laura suggested that Natasha move to the spare bedroom on the first floor. "You'll lose the en suite bathroom, but you'll be able to get around a bit more without having to deal with the stairs."

Downstairs, on the main level, was noisier -- she was closer to the chickens and the still-distant din of a working farm -- but allowed her to recline in the living room and eventually on the porch once someone had brought a lounger from out back and set it up. It put her in constant earshot, if not eyeshot, of Laura and Cooper and that took some getting used to, but it wasn't as hard as she'd thought it might be. Laura had her own life to lead, taking care of the house and the farm and Cooper, who seemed to operate at top speed and top volume until he dropped from exhaustion, only to pick up again after his nap. He was sometimes interested in Natasha and sometimes not, sometimes climbing on to whatever she was sitting on and demanding her attention and sometimes not even acknowledging that she was there.

Natasha had never spent so much time in direct contact with a child, let alone one so small and active, and she'd never realized how exhausting and frustrating and hilarious they were. Entertaining as he could be, Cooper's naptimes and bedtime were oases of calm and Laura never bothered to hide her relief, but she also clearly delighted in him when he was awake. Natasha hadn't spent much time in direct contact with a mother before, either, and she found herself watching Laura with Cooper with interest. Part of it was wondering what she'd missed out on in her own childhood, not having anyone to care for her like a precious gift instead of as a tool to be honed. Part of it was wondering what she might do with her own child; she couldn't have her own, of course, but there were other means. She'd never really thought that she wanted one, not with the life she'd led, but she wouldn't have thought that about Clint before last year, either. She still wasn't sure she wanted one -- or whether she just couldn't bear the risk of having someone so small and vulnerable rely on her when she had so many enemies -- but she could admit that something in her heart clenched with what might be longing watching Laura scoop Cooper up and give him a hug that he returned with vigor before letting him run on his way.

The first time Cooper crawled up next to her on the porch lounger and fell asleep leaning against her (undamaged) side, she nearly held her breath so as not to disturb him.

Clint called every night, sometimes during the day as well, and Natasha hadn't realized he did that, although it made sense. He used Skype when he was home so that Cooper could see him and he could see his family. He sent texts, too -- Laura kept her cell phone in her pocket for more reasons than to call the guy to fix the sprinklers. It was a constant communication, nothing at all like if they were living under the same roof but maybe more thoughtful, Natasha suspected, to have to put so much effort and consideration into making it work. But Laura wasn't unhappy, far from it, and Clint clearly felt it worthwhile.

She'd never had anyone worth putting in that kind of effort for, never had that kind of connection to anyone, romantic or otherwise. Watching the Bartons made her feel lonely, or maybe just realize her loneliness. And then she remembered that she had always run from anyone who offered a cure to that.

Clint's calls and Skypes and texts stopped suddenly and without warning.

"He's been deployed," Laura said as she made lunch. Natasha could stand better than she could sit upright and she'd taken to standing near the kitchen counter as Laura worked. Natasha couldn't cook at all, but Laura sometimes asked her if she wanted to peel carrots or wash celery or something simple enough that Cooper could do it -- and sometimes did. The motions hurt her abdomen, more as a reminder of a past injury instead of a threat of a new one, but she did it anyway because it was a sign of good faith, a way to pay back (without keeping score, which she couldn't help but do) what had been done for her, and because it felt good. There wasn't a lot about her life that was productive in a helpful way.

"Probably," Natasha agreed. She didn't know what Laura knew or what Laura even wanted to know. For herself, she had no idea what had been on Clint's mission schedule and whether the Stark/Ten Rings mess had rendered it all moot anyway. Stark had been found while she'd been prepping for the Iran extraction and then there'd been the self-styled Iron Man causing geopolitical chaos and those two messes turned out to be related. Nick was probably shitting housebricks, but she officially did not care because she was on convalescent leave. Unofficially, she was curious, but not curious enough to call Phil, who was no doubt in it up to his neck.

By the time it became her official business again, another month had gone by and she had, despite herself, found a home in Iowa. It had snuck up on her without her realizing it until the deed was already done. She was the Black Widow, master spy and one of the most lethal assassins on the planet, and she'd been outplayed by someone still learning how to pee standing up. (Not finding it weird to see a Cheerios box in the bathroom had probably been a warning sign, in hindsight.) Cooper didn't know about her past or care about her boundaries. He didn't trigger her hyperawareness of being touched, like he was too small to be spotted by the radar that was her messed-up mind, and she didn't have to think when he clambered into her lap or draped himself over her legs or made the sort of constant, meaningless contact that children apparently specialized in. All he was saying by it was 'you are part of my world' and it didn't require a response, let alone a strategy. He had never been around true cruelty -- not being allowed to watch an extra episode of Curious George did not count -- and he treated Natasha like every other adult in his limited life, as a benevolent tall person who was available to cater to his whims and desires. And Natasha had been utterly unable to stop an attack she had no experience defending against.

It hadn't been a one-boy army, however; Laura had backstopped him like a master strategist without ever making it seem like she was doing anything. Cooper's attempts to use Natasha as a pillow turned into Laura asking if Natasha could keep an eye on him while he napped so she could run into town to get something, which then turned into Natasha keeping an eye on Cooper while he was awake so Laura could go out to the fields or take care of a chore or simply take a shower without tiny fists banging on the bathroom door wailing for Mommy. Nothing was ever the slightest bit unreasonable, nothing was even the slightest bit onerous beyond having to keep up with a little boy with unlimited energy. And, possibly worst of all, Natasha found herself enjoying it, at least when Cooper wasn't being a pill.

Along the way, she lost her awkwardness with Laura. Part of it was needing less help because of her own returning strength and being able to contribute, to reciprocate. And part of it was how the new set of shared experiences -- everything to do with Cooper, everything she tried to help out with on the farm, even worrying about Clint from a distance -- illuminated all the other ways they weren't complete opposites after all. If Clint was her first real friend, then Laura was becoming her first female friend, which was a distinction that mattered more than she thought it would. Natasha had had comrades in the Red Room, allies she'd confused with friends because they had needed each other to survive, but having a woman in her life who was not a competitor, not a threat, was a new experience and she wasn't sure how to express that. Thankfully, Laura never asked. Laura must have been terribly curious about her life, but she kept her questions to a minimum and only when relevant to whatever was going on around them. Like Clint, she didn't push, and for the first time, Natasha wondered if Clint had learned that from her.

Clint came back three weeks after he'd left, two weeks after he'd gone silent. He seemed fine enough, worn but not heartsick in the way he was after missions gone bad or gone bloody. He marveled at Cooper's latest achievements, marveled differently at Natasha's, and picked his next home improvement project, which Natasha had come to realize was his true coping mechanism. There was nothing wrong with the laundry room and Laura seemed more resigned than eager to have to do the washing in the mud room for the next however many months until the project was complete because Clint could be and was called away in the middle of every project. He was on this one, too, but only for a few days before he returned to continue knocking out the wall.

The next one to leave was Natasha, who had recovered enough to be put back on light duties. Leaving was harder than she thought it would be back when she'd been prepared to re-open her wounds just to escape. She didn't think she was changed in any real or lasting way, didn't think that this was anything other than a dreamlike interlude in a life that was not meant for softness. But she was surprised at how much she wished it was.

And then she quashed it all down because she was the Black Widow and anything less would get her killed.

Her light duties turned out to be an insertion into Stark Industries to get an inside look at what the hell Tony Stark was up to. Stark had declared himself a kind of world policeman as Iron Man while dismantling SI's weapons production and nobody else was quite as okay with that as Stark was.

"I'm not sure which worries me more," Nick said during the briefing. "That we've got an unstable alcoholic narcissist in a super-powered armor suit or that we've got an unstable alcoholic narcissist in a super-powered armor suit who is determined to deprive the world of every means of balancing his power."

"Stark isn't the only horse in the arms race," Natasha pointed out.

"No, but he's the one we've been building around for the last seventy years," Nick shot back. "I'm sure Hammer and Lockheed and H&K and everyone else will eventually fill the void. But our entire LRRDP, our entire budget, our TTP, everything from how we train our recruits to how we deal with our enemies, all of that was designed to maximize the efficiency of what we have and what we have is Stark tech. It will take years to get through procurement and then come up with new best practices. In the meanwhile, Stark's out there playing God in his robot suit."

And thus Natalie Rushman was born. The parameters of the mission changed as her level of access changed, as she cultivated colleagues and familiarized herself with how SI functioned as a corporation and as the playground of a genius without any self-control. It wasn't hard work and allowed her still-recovering body and still-a-little-in-vacation-mode mind to get up to speed. Being Natalie was easy, maybe too easy, as she neatly tucked away everything that Natasha had been and wanted to be, so that nothing else showed, locked away so tightly that nobody could find the key. Maybe even herself.

Natalie's success was meteoric, to say the least, even before Stark plucked her out to be his PA. What followed was honestly ridiculous, to be part of Stark's inner circle and to see his world from the edge of his spotlight. She found herself getting caught up in it once in a while, forgetting that she wasn't really Natalie, that the way to power and success didn't run through Tony Stark the way it had for Pepper Potts. She caught herself, she always did, but for those moments of being blinded by the glitz and glamor... It was ridiculous. Right up until it wasn't and she could only see with deadly clarity how dangerous Stark was and how badly they were all screwed if this was the future, super-powered men without the capacity or inclination to control the collateral damage.

Once upon a time, governments had wanted super-soldiers to fight their wars, but even just two had nearly torn the world apart. Now there were wealthy men and crazy men and wealthy-and-crazy men coming up with their own modern twists of what had been best left in the past. While she'd been focused on Stark and his circle of mad genius 'futurists,' the monstrous products of different mad geniuses, the ones looking to reproduce World War II's darkest arts, had been tearing up Harlem.

And that was all before Clint told her about the aliens. Which he did over beer and fish and chips at a place in a part of the Meatpacking District the fashionable people had missed. "He's Thor, like the Norse god?" Clint shook his head in frank disbelief. "But then it got all Excalibur. And then a samurai showed up with Robin Hood and Little John and an Amazon. To fight a robot made of fire. This sounds like something my kid would make up."

There was more to the story, but it wasn't nearly as exciting and mostly involved some scientist's research that Nick was apparently very interested in, enough to send Phil in to grab it. Meanwhile, the televisions in the bar were set to the Yankees game and the news, which mostly involved the cleanup in Harlem and the questions about what the hell had happened there. The Pentagon was having quite a time trying to deny any connection to the self-styled Abomination, let alone the Hulk, but between the presence of uniformed strike teams, the sheer amount of destruction, and the fact that there were clear examples of the kind of human experimentation that had been banned since the 1950s, they weren't having any luck pushing anything under the rug. SHIELD had its fingers in all of the pies, as usual, and she didn't think Nick had left the office in a week or that she herself would be put on stand-down any time soon.

Clint's phone buzzed in his pocket and he pulled it out, fiddling with it until he saw something that made him smile. "Here," he said, holding out the phone.

The picture looked strange enough, she thought. "Is that one of the good aliens or one of the bad ones?"

Clint glared at her and pulled the phone out of her hands. "That's my daughter, you asshole," he told her, kissing the screen. "Don't you worry, sweetheart, Auntie Natasha was just being silly."

It was Natasha's turn to stare. "Really?"

She hadn't known Laura was pregnant, although she couldn't be that far along if that was what the baby looked like. Which wasn't anything like a baby.

Clint sighed. "You really have never seen a sonogram before?"

Natasha cocked an eyebrow because that was a stupid question.

Laura was four months along, apparently, which meant that Natasha had been in the house for the moment of conception. "Don't make it weird," Clint told her when she pointed it out.

He wanted to take off for a while around the birth, but with the rate of craziness increasing exponentially -- aliens, robot armor, gamma-irradiated men brawling in the streets -- made him wonder if he would be able to. "Maybe it's time I switch to doing something else," he mused. "Laura tells me I'm an idiot every time I bring it up, but... this job isn't going to get any easier and she'll be at home with two kids and the farm to run."

"So get her a babysitter for Christmas," Natasha replied, which earned her a look from Clint. Which she ignored because Clint knew better than she did that Laura could handle a dozen kids and the farm if she had to, but probably didn't want her husband underfoot and renovating constantly even as she wished he were around more. "What would you do? Play gentleman farmer? Mommy blog?"

Clint shook his head. "I don't know what a mommy blog is and I don't want to know and I don't want to know why you know, although I can probably guess how," he said. "This was not what I anticipated happening when I hoped that you and Laura would become friends."

Natasha took a long sip of her beer. "You should have thought it through more," she told him, not bothering to deny it. Two days ago, a week after she'd finally gotten a chance to reply to a weeks-old email from Laura containing a scanned picture of Cooper's, there'd been a UPS box with lemon shortbread cookies in it.

Lila Barton was born while Natasha was in Moscow sussing out just how much the Russians had figured out about what their people had found in the Arctic ice. That they'd stumbled upon Johann Schmidt's plane was obvious, but Natasha was able to report with some confidence that they hadn't picked up yet on the fact that the plane had been occupied at all. Let alone that Captain America himself had survived the crash.

That bit of news currently had a need-to-know list of about a dozen people and Fury had put the tools in place to make sure the circle didn't get any bigger, Natasha and Clint being the greatest of them. President Ellis knew, but Fury had apparently had no problems threatening him with enough scandals to bring down his administration if he so much as told his wife, let alone his cabinet, let alone tried to use the Return of Captain America for political gain. Steve Rogers was more 'not dead' than alive right now and there was no guarantee he'd ever wake up or that he'd be functional if he did, so while they waited to see if they were going to be throwing a party or planning a state funeral, Natasha was making sure that the decision remained with SHIELD and nobody could force their hand.

"Everyone knows that the Hulk and the Abomination are the spiritual descendants of Project: Rebirth," Fury had explained. "I don't want to start a panic among the public or among the security services of our allies and enemies once they realize that we have the source material for the one time it didn't go wrong -- or the first time it went very wrong. If they know we have Rogers, there is no way we will ever convince them that we don't have Schmidt as well. And with half of Hamilton Heights still being excavated and the FDA recalling anything that might have ever been anywhere near a gamma ray, the last thing we need to be doing is reminding folks that this is not a new problem."

Which was why Natasha had been sent to Moscow to spy on her old masters -- the Russians, deep in the throes of trying to recreate the facade of the Soviet empire, had been deemed the most likely to cause trouble. By the time she got back Stateside and then to Iowa, Lila had grown from the wrinkly pink raisin in the picture to an actual baby. Natasha was frankly terrified at the idea of holding her, still so small and so helpless, but Laura and Clint pointed out that if Cooper could do it, so could she.

"You are the first baby I have ever held," Natasha told Lila, who dozed through the milestone. Warm and soft and a comfortable weight in her arms once she accepted that she wasn't going to drop the baby, Natasha was surprised at the affection she felt. Yes, this was the child of her friends, but... But. Holding Lila was soothing, a more ergonomic comfort than Cooper using her as couch or jungle-gym, and it wasn't until later on, in the quiet of her own room, that she recognized the rest of what she'd felt. She'd felt normal, like any other twenty-seven-year-old woman holding a baby that could have been hers (even if it couldn't have been). She hadn't been a Red Room prodigy or a spy or an assassin or the soldier behind a name that brought only fear. She'd instead gotten a glimpse of how her life might have been if she hadn't been consecrated as a child to the gods of war. And, having recognized that emotion and gotten a glimpse of that place she could never go, that person she could never be, she found herself crying for the loss of it.

"This had better be PMS," she told herself, knowing that it wasn't. Mourning over what had been taken from her before she'd ever had a chance to use it, to even see it, was stupid and pointless. This was who she was now, these were the cards she'd been dealt, and she had to play them because there was no re-dealing and there was no second hand to play.

There was no second hand for her to play, but there might be for Steve Rogers, who not only woke up, but proved definitively that his mind was as intact as his engineered body.

"This is what happens when you put shoes on the sleeping super-soldier," Clint laughed once Phil had shown them the video of Rogers escaping custody within five minutes of opening his eyes. "Oh my god, who did that?"

Phil's delicate shade of pink told Natasha that he'd been more involved than he'd probably like to confess.

If Rogers was getting a re-deal, however, he wasn't too thrilled with the cards. His initial burst of energy had been his last. Once he'd been told where and when he was, Rogers had not taken it well. If Natasha had felt foolish mourning a life she'd never had, Rogers was probably completely justified for being deep in the throes of grief over losing everything he'd ever known.

"It's post-traumatic stress," Phil agreed after Clint said the words. "There's no D, at least not yet. There's no disorder in being depressed after what he's been though. But until he surfaces, at least a little bit, I don't know how fast the Avengers Initiative can proceed. Nick wants forward motion, but what do we have? Banner's off playing Mother Theresa, Stark's cleaning up his latest disaster while laying the ground for his next one, and the two of you have better things to do than sit around waiting for the dysfunction to die down. There's no quorum for a team here, not unless Nick can dig up someone else."

Natasha had been both unsurprised and unimpressed that Nick wanted her and Clint around as chaperones for a superhero team or that he wanted a superhero team in the first place. For Clint, it was less of a stretch, but for her, a creature of the darkness who needed the shadows to be effective, it made little sense and she'd said as much. She was a spy, not a superhero, and she could not do what she did best if she had to do it on the world stage. Nick's response was that he had other spies, not as good but good enough, but he had nobody else who could handle personnel management as well as she could. He didn't mean leadership, of course. He meant manipulation and she should have resented that, but she didn't. This was who she was, after all, and he hadn't recruited her for her sense of fair play.

"Maybe we find Bucky Barnes next," Clint suggested brightly and Phil rolled his eyes at Natasha and sighed. If Phil had a bit of a hero complex when it came to Captain America, Clint's worship of Bucky Barnes went back just as far. Natasha hadn't known anything about the Howling Commandos until Clint, horrified, had spent all of a long flight home from the Philippines teaching her about them. She'd told him he shouldn't have picked the only one to die in combat as his hero, but she'd understood the fascination. Barnes had been a sniper, which would have been enough, but Clint had explained that Barnes was considered a particular hero among the special forces and special operations communities for what he'd been through and what he'd accomplished before his death, which in itself had been part of his legend. "'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' and all that," he'd shrugged, not bothering to make sense of it all. "Cap was the super-soldier who smiled for the newsreels, but Barnes was the regular joe doing the ugly things in the dark." And that meant something to the men who'd followed in his footsteps, including Clint.

"If you want an Alpine vacation, just say the word," Phil told him. "I'm sure I can come up with something for you to do that would require cold weather retraining at Eielson. Lots and lots of cold weather retraining. Maybe a follow-up at Bridgeport. You love the Marines."

Clint, former Army NCO, did not love the Marines. Clint made fun of the Marines at any and all opportunities; it was his favorite verbal activity after making fun of Navy football. Natasha had learned to tune it out early on. Clint also didn't like cold weather, so he took the threat for what it was and shut up.

Nick might want a superhero team to fight aliens or whatever else the future brought them, but he had to make do with the regular folks he already had to fight the foes the present had already given them and so Natasha and Clint were kept busy doing what they'd always done. They went after warlords and terrorists and the kind of slithery evil that only existed at the very wealthiest echelons, all while keeping an eye on what else came crawling out of the pandora's box of mad science that Project Rebirth had opened seventy years ago.

But, as was always ultimately the case, the most dangerous blow came from the one quadrant they thought no attack could ever come from: their own.

When it was all over and the Tesseract was sent away from Earth, Natasha could have ripped Nick a new one for his hubris, for his utter fucking presumption to think that he could control what was never meant to be controlled, what the gods themselves (as reified by Asgard) had been afraid of. She could have pointed to what he'd unleashed, what he'd cost them, who he'd cost them -- she didn't have so many friends that losing one was an option -- but she didn't. Because she had no attention to spare to rub Nick's nose in his own mess; she had no energy to aim her rage at the one person who both deserved it and was in reach. Everything she had, everything she never knew she possessed, was needed to hold Clint together because she'd grieve for Phil, but there was no way she survived losing Clint as well.

He'd been fine during the battle, but he'd been running on auto-pilot, on muscle memory acquired during two decades at war. He'd been off, absolutely, but he'd been through unimaginable hell and of course he would be off. But instead of that being the worst of it, it had only been the beginning. By the time they'd seen Thor and Loki off to Asgard, Clint had been almost vibrating out of his skin. He didn't want to go home, was viscerally terrified of going anywhere near his family because he wasn't sure whatever Loki had done to him was truly gone, and Natasha had had to physically restrain him when he'd tried to flee the very suggestion. He wouldn't talk to Laura, wouldn't Skype with the kids, wouldn't even let Natasha talk to them. She did, of course she did, because Laura needed to know, deserved to know, but she did it when Clint was asleep. Which he was a lot, sometimes from crying himself to exhaustion and sometimes because there were drugs and he was occasionally uninterested in fighting when Natasha held them out to him in her hand. He needed more than she could give him, the love of his family and a professional who could get him to understand that what he'd done under Loki's control wasn't his fault, but she would have to do for now.

"I'm sorry," he slurred one evening as she held him after he'd woken up screaming again. She wasn't sure what he was apologizing for this time, for attacking her, for indirectly enabling Phil's murder, for all of the less personal but no less horrifying damage he'd done, or for simply needing physical comfort from the person he knew dreaded to offer it.

"Shut up," she told him, since it didn't matter why. "Just shut up."

They were in a safe-house in Cranbrook, British Columbia, a cabin in the woods Natasha had rented with cash handed to her by Maria Hill without asking what it was going toward. Laura knew where they were, sent care packages of clean clothes and baked goods and talked Natasha through roasting a chicken over the phone. She also sent letters to Clint, sometimes short notes that only said "I love you" on a post-it, sometimes longer letters that were folded up and Natasha never read and didn't know if Clint did, either, although he saved them by his bed. There was art from Cooper, which Natasha put up on the fridge or the walls; it wasn't good art, obviously, but there were suns and cornfields and stick figure depictions of his family and the house and Maude the Beatles-loving cow and sometimes Natasha, too, discernible by the scribble of orange hair. They were reminders of what Clint had waiting for him when he was ready.

When Natasha suspected he was getting close, she told Laura to send the kids to her parents and come visit. She herself disappeared, returning to New York to give her oral statements and vent the anger that she'd had time to refine down to sharpened points. Fury was unrepentant until he wasn't and that's when they had the actual conversations about Clint, about the Avengers Initiative, and what things were going to look like going forward. She didn't get all the answers she wanted, but she had a sense of direction and that would have to do for now.

Rogers stopped her in a hallway to ask her about Clint, which she thought was decent of him. She hadn't had much time to form an opinion about him, or at least to change the one that had coalesced in the back of her mind as his shock over his changed circumstances evolved into a conscious choice to withdraw from the world he in which he now lived. She knew better than to call him a coward, not when Clint had called her a hypocrite for even insinuating it, but she'd certainly considered his legacy to be more hype than fact. The Battle of New York had given her new data to work with, but what she did with it -- and what he did -- was for another day.

Clint went back to Iowa, on leave with regular videoconferences with a shrink, which Clint joked about but Natasha did not. Mental health professionals freaked her out on an elemental level. The psychiatrists and psychologists in the Red Room hadn't been around to make anyone happier or better adjusted, quite the opposite. But SHIELD's were, at least in theory, and Laura was there to make sure it was on the level. Natasha checked in regularly, but she was back in the rotation, needed more than ever with the world unsettled by an alien attack. SHIELD was out of the shadows as an organization, a status recognized by the construction of the massive Triskelion in DC, but its agents continued to operate under cover of darkness. Natasha might have been an Avenger for one terrifying afternoon, but she was always the Black Widow, the woman nobody wanted to meet in the night.

At least until Nick had a new job for her.

"You want me to what?" she asked, her voice rising in disbelief. "I'm a spy, not a babysitter."

Nick sighed, the long-suffering sigh she recognized as him prepared to settle in and hold his ground because he believed in what he was doing. She hated that sigh when she was on the other side of it. "I am not asking you to babysit," he told her. "I am asking you to work alongside Captain Rogers, assess his skills and suggest areas of improvement, and take down some bad guys while you do it."

Rogers was now publicly alive again, the revelation made as a balm -- and distraction -- to soothe a public terrified by what they'd seen and what a first alien invasion portended. But all of the public appearances weren't enough for Rogers; if he was going to be Captain America again, he wanted to do it for real and that meant fighting the good fight in the trenches as well as on late night television.

"I think I liked him better when he was a monastic," Natasha replied sourly.

Rogers had been fine in the field; considering his unfamiliarity with his environment, the technology, his teammates, and his enemies, he had been more than fine, if she were honest. He was a sharp tactician and she could see how the legends had been born back in World War II. But he was a soldier, super or not, and they did not tend to make good spies or covert agents, let alone the clandestine work she specialized in. Clint was better than most, but even he had his limitations when it came to espionage. Rogers had an IMDB page, but that didn't mean he could act the part in the real world.

"He's been studying," Nick told her, making it sound like a promise and not a punchline. "I'm not looking for a chameleon. I'll settle for a hitter who can blend in."

While Natasha had been off with Clint, Rogers had been putting in a good-faith effort to join the twenty-first century, at least as far as wreaking havoc went. He'd gone down to the armory and qualified on every firearm they had, expert in most. He'd been taking krav maga lessons and was now starting muy thai. He'd gone from being able to google with the safe search on to knowing how to program the remote detonators SHIELD used. But all of it had been in the safe and pristine environment SHIELD's training facilities could provide. Nick wanted her to get Rogers dirty and see what happened then.

So she took him down to Colombia and they raided a FARC camp for shits and giggles. Or, rather, she let him raid a FARC camp while she watched from the guard tower after killing the sentries.

Rogers as a man was shy and introverted and deeply sarcastic, the complete opposite of the earnest, gregarious public face of Captain America. He was respectful of authority and of Fury, but Natasha strongly suspected that this was a tactical choice and not an actual character trait. His chivalry was perhaps more honestly come by -- and far less quaint than she'd have expected for a man who'd come of age in the 1930s. He'd quicken his step so as to be able to hold a door for her, but he hadn't pulled his punches when she'd suggested they spar and her back still had the boot-shaped bruise to prove it.

Rogers as a warrior was a joy to watch as much for what he could do as for what she could see that he would soon be able to do; he was already incorporating krav maga moves into a repertoire that seemed to have a basis in savate and street brawling. And then there was the shield. The shield was an extraordinary offensive weapon, which she'd been told about but had not really seen for herself. There was no file footage of it in action from his war and while she'd seen him use it as springboard and brake pad and defensive weapon against the Chitauri, she hadn't seen him throw it much. There was apparently training footage from SHIELD in which Rogers had spent hours regaining his feel for the weapon, but she'd never seen it. She might now because his command of the weapon was exquisite, like an extension of himself; he always knew where it was and where it would be and where he could throw it without it being intercepted or becoming stuck or not having sufficient energy to rebound usefully. That required a level of situational awareness that she could not muster for herself and didn't know anyone who could without assistance.

She'd climbed up to the guard tower so that she could not only watch him in action, but also come to his aid when he invariably got overwhelmed -- a one-on-dozens-of-automatic-rifle-bearing-soldiers attack was doomed to failure outside of the movies. Except here, where Rogers cleared the field without so much as taking a bullet in an unprotected area. He was breathing heavily over their comms and he had a cut lip, but he shouldered the shield and looked up to the tower with an expression that was part smirk and part question, a request for an assessment while also clearly communicating that he felt that the exercise had been beneath him.

"Nobody mentioned that Captain America was such a sassy little bitch," Natasha told Clint on her next visit to Iowa. "I kinda like it."

Clint was doing much better; she'd seen that within a half-hour of arriving. There was still something fragile about him, but he looked like he'd hold together. He laughed now and it sounded like him and she smiled in response.

"I don't know why you started with a melee," he said, shifting around so that he could hand Lila over to Natasha. Lila was more toddler than baby now, starting to walk and talk, but she still drank from a bottle and that's what Clint was going to take care of. "The man's first mission was a singlehanded raid on a HYDRA work camp. We've known he can brawl with the best of them since 1943."

Lila had been a little suspicious of Natasha when she'd first seen her, but now she sat happily in Natasha's arms, snuggling deep, and Natasha had to pull her attention away from her to return to Clint's words. "I threw him into a melee for the same reason you took me to Monaco for our first mission," she replied, smirking from where Clint turned around from the microwave where he was warming the milk. "You wanted to see what I would do under optimal conditions and I wanted to see what Rogers would do under the same. I'm you now, apparently."

The symmetry of it had never escaped her, that she was supposed to assess and assist Rogers the way Clint had done with her. She didn't know what Nick was thinking with the assignment; she didn't have Clint's sympathy or his kindness or his patience or his ability to relate to other human beings. Unless Nick really thought that Rogers didn't need the comfort, which was an impossible conclusion to draw, or he thought Rogers wouldn't accept it, which was something else. She might have to borrow one of Clint's books on Captain America.

"Did you get the lecture about complementary talents and dispositions or did Nick go straight to 'you will do what I tell you to do or you will go collect unemployment' and glare at you?" Clint asked cheerfully as he finished assembling the bottle and brought it to her. "Did he lay on the guilt? Because he really laid on the guilt when I told him I didn't want to babysit his pet assassin."

"There was guilt," she assured, accepting the bottle and showing it to Lila, who perked up from her semi-drowse. Lila wanted to hold the bottle, but she couldn't really sustain it usefully, so Natasha let her grip down by the nipple while she did the actual support lifting by the bottom. "Probably much more than with you because it's a lot easier to guilt someone over Captain America than the Black Widow."

Clint shrugged agreement as he sat back down. "It's easy to fall for the innocent look." As if Rogers's apple-pie smile was the reason.

Lila drank her bottle and fell asleep, which had been the plan, and Clint led Natasha to the baby's room so she could put her in her crib.

"I don't know why Nick put me with Rogers," Natasha said in a soft voice as they watched Lila sleep. "We're not complementary like you and I are, not in skill set, not in personality, not in anything. We know he can fight and that the next time there are aliens, he'll be okay to lead people into battle. But I can't help him with whatever else he needs."

Clint gestured with his head and they left Lila's room, closing the door behind them, and through the house out to the front porch. Laura had taken Cooper into town for a dentist appointment, so it was just them.

"I'm not really in a position to say what he needs," Clint began once they sat down. "But you ever think that maybe Nick's not just thinking of Rogers?"

Natasha turned to him sharply.

"You and me, we weren't a one-way thing," Clint went on. "I didn't just give and you didn't just take. It was more lopsided at the beginning, yeah, but it was never as... imbalanced as it probably looked to you at the time. As it looked to me until I realized what Nick was really doing. Which I didn't, by the way. Laura did and informed me."

She smiled, as much for the sentiment behind the words as the words themselves. "We both know that Laura's the clever one out of you two."

Clint smiled back. "That she is," he agreed, but the smile faded. "I wasn't very happy at SHIELD, although I probably didn't realize how miserable I was. I'd left the Army to go be a spy because Nick had promised me that I'd be able to make the world a better place without all of the bullshit and bureaucracy and stupidity that came with being in the service. I'd be able to be effective and efficient in a way being part of the Big Green Machine prevented anyone from being. And maybe I was, but from my perspective, all I was doing was killing on my own in the shadows instead of with my team on a battlefield, however that battlefield was defined. Instead of doing what my country needed me to do, I was killing people Nick wanted dead for reasons he didn't always feel the need to explain. And it was destroying me -- just ask Laura.

"When Nick brought you in and told me you were going to be my responsibility, I thought he was just matching up a killer with a killer, a pair of assassins to do double the damage." Clint shook his head at the memory. "I didn't realize that it wasn't about killing, about death. It was about life. He wanted me to show you how to do what we do and live, not just survive. And to do that, I had to remember it for myself."

It would be easy to list all of the ways she still hadn't figured that out, how very far from living she still was and would stay. It would also be wrong. She was still a mess and Clint knew better than anyone just how much of one she would remain because the Red Room had built her this way, had constructed her from the atom up to be what she was and not a real person. It would need nothing short of a complete re-write of everything she was to achieve the desired result because she didn't need to heal and she didn't need a repair -- she wasn't broken. She was perfectly constructed; it was the blueprint that was faulty. And that she recognized that, that she tried anyway, that was Clint's success. And she thought he knew it.

But she hadn't thought of what he might've gotten out of the deal. If she'd considered it at all, she'd have said that it was a long-term investment on his part, that he was betting on getting a better partner, maybe hoping for a friend. And while he'd gotten both, she would never have pegged her contributions to their relationship as starting at the beginning.

"Nick's never not going to put the good of the many over the good of the one," Clint went on when she said nothing, at least not with words. His expression said that he'd read hers just fine. "But maybe he's looking at Rogers and seeing what he can do for you as much as what you can do for him. It won't be the same as us, we're our own thing and Nick's probably grateful that's not repeatable. But if nothing else, you and Rogers could always benefit by expanding your friend pool."

That much was undoubtedly true. Natasha's could still be counted on one hand, but Rogers... who did he have? The idea of initiating a friendship, of being the one to extend a hand instead of being the one to finally accept the proffered one that wasn't going away, was terrifying. But not in an entirely bad way.

"We do both like to hit things," she said, knowing that Clint could translate her words.

"That you do."

Deciding to try to be a friend to Rogers was easier said than done. It was harder than trying to date someone because sex couldn't be used as a connection until an emotional bond could be formed. And Natasha was still pretty bad at any kind of connection when it was her and not whoever she was playing for the purpose. And then there was the fact that Rogers was not all that interested, which bothered her more than she thought it would, although she was a little relieved, too. Being the instigator was work, having to come up with things to talk about or questions that weren't awkward -- not a simple thing with two people as messed-up as they were. She tried to think back to how Clint had been around her at the start, but she honestly didn't remember -- at least not clearly. He'd been an obstacle back then, less than an enemy but more than a competitor, and her memories were filtered through that prism even though she now knew it was wrong. She didn't think Rogers saw her as an obstacle, let alone an enemy, but she was one more person trying to get him to be someone he didn't want to be and she was mindful of that and maybe more understanding and less willing to press than Clint had been with her.

Rogers wanted to be Captain America, super-soldier, and nothing else and she got it, she really did. It was what she'd done, so she couldn't exactly throw stones, but the difference was that the Black Widow had been hiding the fact that there was no such woman as Natalia Alianovna Romanova, while Rogers... he was actively trying to forget who Steven Grant Rogers had ever been, like he'd died for real back in 1945 and the person walking around in 2012 was someone else with the same face. And this someone else, he wasn't very animated, at least away from the field. He let SHIELD set him up in an apartment that they decorated with no input from him (it was nice, at least, clean and masculine without being a frat boy bachelor pad, if a little heavy on the 1940s memorabilia that he didn't seem to appreciate), he made no efforts to socialize except when it was required (Fury had taken to telling him events were mandatory), and he graciously turned down the pick-ups both men and women offered him (he had a standing appointment with Peggy Carter every Tuesday except when he was in the field). He wasn't a shut-in; he went to museums and movies and the theater by himself, he drove his bike around Maryland and Virginia, he sat in the park and sketched with surprising skill. He was simply not interested in building a life here and now, putting down roots, like he thought that he was visiting the future, not here to stay. And this, too, Natasha understood because she'd avoided any impression of permanence until well after it was obvious she was sticking around.

But Rogers had nowhere else to go; he couldn't go back to where -- when -- he'd come from any more than she'd have been able to return to Department X. She didn't think he was suicidal -- she'd laughed when Fury actually asked her just that -- but he was very clearly making an effort not to be engaged in the world around him. She'd read the biography Clint had suggested ("It's not creepy, it's like backreading his facebook page, just written by someone else") and so she knew he'd had a surrogate family in the Barneses after his own had died, that he'd had friends in Brooklyn, that he'd been 'one of the girls' in the USO troupe, that he'd been as much a friend as an officer could be to the Commandos, who'd recalled him with nothing but the warmest fondness to the end of their days. For a guy who everyone had agreed really was an introvert, he'd found his small circles and he'd flourished in them. Here and now, however, he needed someone who could draw him out of his shell and she was not the person to do it. She made a good faith effort, but she accepted his refusals at face value and that seemed to go over better with him than her awkward attempts at being his buddy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they got on much better in a work environment. They could be sarcastic at each other in a manner that did not leave scars and Rogers really did like to hit things, in as many different styles as possible. The krav maga and muy thai had been joined by jujitsu and capoeira and now MMA, because boxing just wasn't enough. He was a bit of an adrenaline junkie, especially when it came to, as the saying went, exiting a perfectly good aircraft. (Natasha could jump HALO and HAHO if needed, but did not consider it a recreation. Clint had failed to appreciate her lack of enthusiasm, too.) Rogers also liked BASE jumping (a lot) and Natasha had never been higher in his professional regard than when she introduced him to downhill skiing. Hill had blown her top at that expense report, but why train at the local bunny hill when you could heli-ski at Courchevel? They took out some arms dealers in Marseilles on the way home, which was why Hill ultimately approved the reimbursement. One of the STRIKE team guys had shown him youtube clips of parkour and, a couple of weeks later, Fury had called both of them into his office to yell at them because Rogers had apparently been very literally climbing the walls of the Triskelion and had freaked out someone on the second floor by sticking his face in their window. Fury refused to believe Natasha hadn't put him up to it, which annoyed Rogers, and they found themselves in Guinea-Bissau three days later.

Rogers was still pretty crap at tradecraft, so she used the opportunity to teach him how to be inconspicuous, which he would readily admit had never been a job requirement for Captain America. He was so good at moving unseen in combat ops, but espionage was a different kind of battlefield.

"Why are you so bad at this when you're so good at going around in DC without anyone noticing who you are?" she asked him after they'd gone through the market square with what might as well have been American Federal Agents floating above them in neon. "It's like back in DC, you're little Steve Rogers, too small to be seen, but here you're Captain America in mufti, still larger than life."

"Little Steve Rogers didn't go walking through drug bazaars looking for trouble," he told her wryly.

Natasha snorted. "From what I read, all little Steve Rogers ever did was look for trouble."

Rogers gave her a quaint look. "You shouldn't believe everything you read," he said, then turned and started walking away.

"Hey," she called after him and he turned back. "I'm sorry. Look, I'm the last person in the world, or at least at SHIELD, who should be basing expectations on what everyone thinks they know about you. I know better."

He nodded, forgiveness granted, but continued to walk away lest she be tempted to further a conversation about the life he'd been torn from.

Rogers keeping her at arm's length made certain things easier, like not having to explain where she was when she headed off to Iowa on her stand-downs. Which she did even after Clint returned to field duty, even when she knew he wouldn't be around. He didn't mind, of course, he actively encouraged it, and Laura would always make a giant lasagna on her first night there because it was something Natasha and the kids could help her prepare together. Once it was also Clint's first night back, too, and he groused good-naturedly about why Natasha's welcome home meal trumped his. They both had the good grace to ignore her stunned reaction to the words, at least until after the kids had been put to sleep -- Lila after a group story recital and Cooper three times because he kept sneaking down to see his father and Natasha.

"You're not gonna pack up and run because I said the 'H' word, are you?" Clint asked as they sat out on the front porch.

"It took us all day to get here," she said. "I don't want to have to turn around so quickly if the world isn't ending."

Laura came out on to the porch with beers for herself and Clint and a bottle of Sioux City Sarsaparilla because Natasha turned out to have a fondness for it and it was hard to get in New York or DC.

"Hey, babe," Clint said to his wife as he accepted his beer. "The world's not gonna end because Natasha heard the 'H' word."

"They did say that we are living in a new age of miracles and wonders," Laura replied, dropping down next to Clint on the porch swing, making it sway.

"Don't make me reconsider that long drive back to the airport," Natasha groused, but she was smiling and even though it was dark, they could probably tell.

SHIELD continued its evolution in the wake of the Chitauri invasion, but if the organization was no longer an urban legend and Nick was no longer a man of the shadows, Natasha still very much was and was happy to remain. The idea to market the Avengers as a superhero team died stillborn; Thor had gone off to Asgard, Banner and Stark weren't agents and wouldn't put themselves under SHIELD control for so much as a photo op, and Natasha and Clint were still clandestine and covert agents who didn't need their pictures anywhere. And Rogers, bless him, had been the one to kill the idea once and for all by telling Nick and Hill that he'd fought with a team once upon a time and the Avengers weren't one.

Rogers was now working mostly with the STRIKE teams and it was hard to tell who was happier about the arrangement, Rogers doing the modern equivalent of what he'd done during his war or the STRIKE guys getting to cross the LD with their hero. Natasha still drew him as a partner once in a while, as did Clint, but those missions tended to be more his style than hers. Rogers was still an elephant in a tutu as far as espionage went and Natasha still did her best work wearing someone else's skin.

SHIELD was evolving in the wake of the Chitauri invasion and nowhere was that more obvious than Project Insight, which was mind-blowing in its size and scope and ambition. Nick joked about putting her out of a job by getting all of the bad guys first, but she knew that that would never happen, that what she did couldn't be done from low orbit. Rogers, maybe, would be stuck on the USO circuit again, but there wasn't the technology to take her place.

Clint wasn't too impressed by the idea of world peace imposed from above. "Didn't you see the Terminator movies? Skynet goes live, we're all fucked," he said, mostly but not entirely kidding. They'd both seen Stark's JARVIS in action. "But even before then, what happens if the bad guys get up there? It's going to be the biggest goddamned target on -- or off -- Earth. Every tech-savvy terrorist is going to try to get up there or bring it down, whichever's easier."

Nick was immune to any critique; he was confident in the security measures both electronic and with the barrel of a gun. And he was even more convinced of what Insight could do to make the world a safer place. He wanted this, Natasha knew, wanted a way to feel more in control after three years of aliens and robot armor and man-made monsters had added to a to-do list that had already included terrorists and tyrants armed with ever-more sophisticated weaponry. She didn't blame him, but she couldn't help but feel like this was just a lot of money thrown at a wish, like a coin into a fountain. And to the same effect.

Insight wouldn't launch for another year, so in the meanwhile, Natasha was spending almost all of her time tracking arms dealers and tech sector corporate spies who were selling their secrets to the highest bidders. She went to Copenhagen, Macao, Nairobi, and a memorable two weeks in Dubai, plus a much longer list of less desirable locations, sometimes changing covers so often that she had to resort to the Red Room's memory tricks to remember who she was that morning. She partnered up with Clint and Rogers to take down a weapons bazaar in Libya and it was actually pretty fun to watch the boys do their thing, her part in the proceeding being data collection and then setting the demolition charges. There'd been a drone watching them and the footage had circulated around the Triskelion enough that by the time they dragged their tired bodies in the door for a debrief, there'd been a round of applause.

Clint had to circumlocute around where he was going after the mission and why because Rogers had asked him directly and, for the first time, she could see that it bothered him. She'd seen Clint lie to hide his family dozens of times over the years and he did it easily and naturally because even before there'd been kids, he'd have done anything to keep Laura safe. But lying to Rogers, to Captain America, weighed on him and she asked him later on, when it was just the two of them, if he considered telling Rogers the truth.

"I did," Clint admitted, pulling out his keychain because it had a churchkey on it and they were drinking beer in the park in the middle of the afternoon like a couple of losers. "I mean, he's Captain America, not the guy most likely to rat me out. But... it's one more person who might ask me a bad question where someone might overhear. It's one more person who knows and could mean well and... So, no. I thought about it, but I can't. I'm not sure I can tell anyone anymore, not with the kids."

So Clint went off to Iowa, Natasha went down to Savannah to surveil a guy who might be materially supporting terrorism (he wasn't, he was just embezzling from his company), and life went on at its rapid pace. Singapore, Rio, Brisbane (oh, the jet lag), Moscow, trips to Iowa where she slept late and Cooper was in a school play and Lila put barrettes in her hair and she got an arrow necklace for her birthday.

But then it was off to California because Stark had just declared war on the Ten Rings -- Nick's rage had been both incandescent and hilarious because of all people, for him to be surprised at Stark's theatrics. She and Clint both wound up on that mission, along with a few dozen other agents because Stark was as clever as he was destructive. The resolution was not a pyrrhic victory because the consequences of failure had still far outweighed the cost of success, but it had not been an easy one or a comfortable one.

Seeing Pepper Potts, who had already paid quite the price for her place at Stark's side, still stunned by what she had done -- what had been done to her -- brought out Natasha's empathy in a way few things ever had. Pepper had been changed without consent, without regard, and without pity and Natasha ached for seeing her. Stark was more perceptive than he looked and he understood better than almost anyone else could, but she still got herself assigned to the protective detail. At least for a little while, before it was back to the grind. Gdansk, Banjul, Seoul, Moscow once more.

And then came the Lemurian Star.

The mission was a mess to start with, between having a mission commander (Rogers) who didn't have all of the relevant information and Natasha having her own priority list that she was not allowed to share with said mission commander and then everything blowing up pretty literally in her face. It was a low point that turned out to be merely a footnote in what came after.

She'd never thought Nick would die in the saddle. She knew he half-hoped he would, that it was all he wanted to do, all he knew how to do, and that he wasn't looking forward to a long retirement fishing off a boat in the Caribbean, which was how he spent his rare vacations. But to go out like that, under suspicion (and in Rogers's apartment), shot by a sniper instead of facing his killer. Even after surviving an incredibly sophisticated assassination attempt... It was not what he would have wanted and, in as much as he was her sometimes mentor and sometimes friend, it was not what she would have wanted for him. But she didn't have the time or the space or the breath to regret or mourn because Nick's death was just one more block crumbling in her world.

She tried calling Clint and texting him, but got nothing, which wasn't that surprising because he was off in the Middle East somewhere doing something. Nick had meant something to him, too, but she just wanted to hear Clint's voice, actually or just reading his words off her phone. She felt like she was free-falling and Clint would understand that, even if he couldn't catch her.

Rogers wasn't the worst port in the storm, but he'd had his own surprises and didn't really trust her a whole lot right now and had retreated into being Captain America without his uniform. Cap was a good man in a fight, especially this kind of fight, but right at that moment, she wanted a friend more. Especially because she'd just lost another and she really didn't have any spares.

But when she still hadn't heard from Clint by the time she and Rogers had run to ground at Sam Wilson's house, she knew what she had to do.

"Hey, you got a phone I can use?" she asked Wilson when Rogers was in the shower. "A burner, maybe?"

Wilson seemed on the level, but she wasn't sure how well to judge that in light of the last few days. Rogers felt he could be trusted and he did have a good sense of people, including her. And, frankly, they were running out of options.

Wilson chuckled. "I got a cell phone and a landline. I wasn't really figuring I'd be playing spy games this week else I'd have stocked up."

He gave her his cell phone and she went into the bedroom, knowing Rogers couldn't hear her over the shower.

"Hey, it's me," she told Laura when Cooper finally gave her the phone. She felt bad for being sharp with him, but his life was worth more than his good regard at the moment. "I'm calling a code black. Do you understand me?"

Clint and Laura had long had a system in place to deal with the most likely contingencies of the life he led and had thus led her into. Natasha might have been one of those contingencies once upon a time (she had been; she didn't blame him a whit), but now she was on the other side of the fence. She'd helped revise the warnings the other year, after Loki, but she'd never wanted to activate one ever again. Let alone the one that was essentially a doomsday code.

She heard Laura's quick intake of breath. "I do. Okay. What are my instructions?"

Natasha closed her eyes so she could better see the situation in her mind. "You keep the kids inside and the shotguns loaded. Anyone comes down the driveway who isn't me or Clint, you shoot them. It doesn't matter if it's the sheriffs or the meter-reader. You shoot them -- especially if it's the sheriff or a meter-reader. Anyone from SHIELD, anyone, you shoot to kill. Don't hesitate, don't ask questions, don't let them try to explain. They're not there to help you and Clint or I didn't send them. The all-clear code is Ginger Snap."

Ginger Snap was one of the chickens, an orange bird that absolutely hated Natasha.

Laura might have laughed to cover up a more complicated reaction, but she'd been a soldier's wife before she'd been a spy's secret and she knew how to roll with the program. "Wilco," she answered. "Natasha--"

"I don't know where he is," she answered, since she knew the question. "This isn't anything like last time."

It wasn't, except where it was. Killing under mind control wasn't anything Clint would have wanted to share with his hero Bucky Barnes, but the truth was stranger and more horrifying than fiction. Rogers -- Steve -- was destroyed, utterly destroyed, by the revelation and she recognized the same 'save him or die trying' attitude she'd had when it had been Clint. (Who was fine, if stunned.)

Steve had survived, in body at least, but his heart still bled like an open wound that was frankly uncomfortable to be around. The intensity of his pain, of his longing, was staggering, as if finding Barnes would somehow make everything about his life stop being so terrible. But it wasn't true and she thought he knew that, deep in his heart, but she also knew that he had to try, that this wasn't something anyone else could tell him.

Which was why, with the ashes of SHIELD still smoldering and Nick back from the dead (but not really), she burned so many favors to get Steve what she could on the Winter Soldier. Because that's what friends did for each other and if this was how Steve could accept the hand she'd offered him a few years ago, it was a start. She couldn't go with him and Wilson, not least because she was in the hilariously ironic position of being spokeswoman for the rump of SHIELD who had remained true to their oaths. But she could show him where to start and warn him that the truth might set him free, but that didn't mean it came without a cost.

Life in the spotlight was terrible and she hated the vulnerability of it, the nakedness of it. She hated the way people looked at her and judged her not only for what she'd done willingly, but also what she'd never had a chance to choose. It was especially galling coming from the suits in DC, some of whom were no doubt HYDRA and had been working with Pierce, but even worse from the ones who weren't, the hypocrites who'd given SHIELD the responsibility of doing dirty things in the dark and then claimed disgust when it all came out into the light. She defended herself, defended Steve, defended Nick and Hill and everyone else who had fought by their sides to do the right thing when it hadn't just been the hard thing, but the impossible thing. She'd fought for a lot of things over her lifetime as a warrior, some bad and some for a greater good and if she couldn't quite tell which was which right now, she could still be sure that what she fought for now was beyond reproach. And, in the end, public sympathy agreed with her and there was nothing any of those grandstanding suits could do but look elsewhere for a scapegoat.

Life in the spotlight was terrible and lonely because while the spotlight was shining on her, she couldn't go anywhere near Iowa, couldn't even risk an email or a care package or any kind of direct contact because people were watching and they weren't just the curious or the judgmental. She'd made herself a target for her enemies, for all of her allies' enemies, and anyone who wanted to prove themselves by taking down the Black Widow. HYDRA was still out there, in greater numbers than they maybe understood, and she had to cut herself off from what she loved to keep it safe.

She started her exile in Bali, a place she'd never been for work. She rented a small bungalow on Nusa Penida and spent her first week doing nothing but birdwatching and learning the names of the local eating fish. It was hard to stop her mind from racing, to focus on what was in front of her and not what she'd left behind, to quiet her thoughts so that she could do what she'd come here to do. Which, beyond catching up on sleep and fading out of the public's attention, was to figure out who the hell she was and what she wanted to be.

She'd thought that she'd reinvented herself when she'd followed Nick to SHIELD, but she had still wound up a pawn of those who thought to order the world to their liking. That she'd been an unwitting dupe instead of a girl who'd never known anything else did not make it less of a sin, less of a stain. She'd thought herself a better person for leaving Department X behind, for doing the right thing as a choice and not by coincidence, for changing and growing as a human being because she was more than someone's tool. But she hadn't been, she'd been lied to and she'd lied to herself and now, with everything gone, it was time to figure out what was true.

What was true was that she was thirty years old and had no idea what she wanted out of life. Did she want a romantic partner? Did she want children? Did she want to stay in the spy game? Did she want to leave it all behind and do something else, create instead of destroy? These were different questions now than when she'd been asked before, by the SHIELD shrink when Nick had first brought her in, by Clint and by Laura at various points, by Sam Wilson, who had been asking her in part to demonstrate to Steve that these were questions that deserved consideration if not an answer. She was thirty and the window on her options was changing, maybe closing a little.

Dumping the files onto the internet had destroyed her as a clandestine agent, so if she stayed in the game, it would have to be in another capacity, even with a lifetime supply of veils to cover her features. But someone was going to have to continue the hunt for HYDRA and if she wasn't as good at the direct action missions as Clint or Steve, she would get better. And yet while it wasn't going to be a short-term job, it also wasn't going to be something she could do forever -- either they'd run out of HYDRA or she'd simply slow down to much to be effective. What then? Did she want to be Councilwoman Hawley for real? Did she want to be Peggy Carter? Could she, or would she wind up like Maria Hill, always discounted for being less than the men who surrounded her despite all the evidence?

She might enjoy being Pepper Potts, maybe. Not dealing with Stark, but running a corporation for real. She'd had a tiny taste of it as Natalie Rushman, that kind of power without the taint of the Black Widow's world about it, and it hadn't been unpleasant. Manipulating people for coin instead of blood, it would be almost a game.

She didn't think she could be Laura, although part of her really wanted to be. A big part. To find love, to be satisfied by her life, to know who she was and be okay with it. Laura had had a life before Clint; she'd been an editor in LA, she'd lived in Buenos Aires, she'd sowed her wild oats before marrying into the Army and following Clint post to post. The farm had been her idea, to go back to where she'd come from (close enough; her family was in Nebraska) and live by the pace of the fields instead of the beat of the city. She had wanted to raise her children in the environment she had grown up happy in and Clint had agreed wholeheartedly.

Natasha didn't think she would ever find someone patient enough to put up with all of her issues, all of her damage, to have those thoughts. She went back and forth on whether she wanted to; she liked the idea of a friend, at least, someone who she could turn to and be their first concern. Of having someone who was her first concern. But the specifics of it, the logistics of it, they seemed like too much work most days.

Right now, though, it all seemed like too much work. Being free to make her own choices was hard. And maybe misleading. Most of the people she cared about were already on the hunt for HYDRA; could she really leave them to it unaided? If Nick called and needed help, could she tell him that she was retired? That he had to fight the bad guys on his own? If Steve and Wilson actually found Bucky Barnes, could she leave them to it if she knew they needed help? Clint had already offered help to both Nick and Steve; he was in Iowa now and would be for the foreseeable future, but he would come if called. Could she do anything less?

She stayed in Bali until she could sleep through the night, but during the day the itch under her skin was growing and so she decamped for Sanya because she'd gotten used to living by the beach. It was there that she returned to her house to find an envelope addressed to Natalie Rushman. Inside, the letter was from Steve, although Stark was involved beyond the callback to her old cover. Stark was suggesting turning the Avengers into a private concern, funded by him with Steve as field commander, because SHIELD was salted earth and the world was going to need a hero sooner than later. Steve's letter clearly expressed his skepticism of the project as proposed by Stark, but he agreed with the sentiment that there should be some kind of contingency plan for the next major threat because SHIELD would not be there to either handle it themselves or support those who could. "If not us, who?"

Three weeks later, she was sitting next to Clint on a couch in Stark's penthouse. "Got a few people who miss the hell outta you," he murmured. "You coming over soon to apologize for abandoning them?"

She looked over at him. "I wasn't abandoning anyone. I did it be--"

"Because you still don't get how this works," he cut her off. "There is no running away to spare anyone else. It doesn't help. You see Rogers turning cartwheels because Barnes won't stay put long enough for a conversation?"

Steve, talking to Thor by the bar, was no longer metaphorically bleeding all over the carpet, but he could not be confused with being at ease with the status quo. He looked sad, which he always had, and tired. And lonely.

"I didn't want anyone getting hurt because of me," she said. "And I needed time to think."

Clint grunted, acknowledging that she hadn't just been running away. "Next time, you find a way to stay in touch, yeah? Sometimes the people who care about you have some answers, too."

She nodded, but said nothing more because the others were joining them.

Stark gave the big spiel for the Avengers to continue on and Natasha had honestly forgotten how good he was at this, at being a salesman. It wasn't shtick -- or just shtick. It was context-specific knowledge and cleverness and anticipating the biggest objections and then the ones that weren't so big.

"Look, I'm second generation defense sector," he told them. "I know that private contractors have the reputation they do for a reason. But they're also necessary because there are things that our regular heroes can't do, either because they don't have the skill set or because the bureaucracy has gotten so thick that no common sense can penetrate it or because the job requires a nimbleness that no armed force in this world or any other can muster and so they hire out.

"But I'm not looking at this as a profit-making enterprise," he went on. "We cut into expenses with merch sales, great, but that's not why we're here. We're here because we can be the ones who go where nobody else will, up against the bad guys nobody else can face. We're half a century into non-state-actors as agents of change, a couple of generations past where a well-trained army is all you need to win a fight, and a few years into an era where aliens walk among us and sometimes want to kill us and eat us. Earth's not ready to handle this on her own without us. And I think the greatest version of us is together. As Avengers."

He didn't ask for a commitment right then and there, but the expectation was that having some time to think about it was a formality. Natasha was pretty sure everyone's answer would be yes, hers would be, but she did want some time before committing to it. To ease her own doubts, sure, but also because she didn't want to deal with a smug Tony Stark.

All of them but Thor were guests of Stark for the night -- Banner might be living there permanently, Natasha wasn't sure -- and she ended up in Clint's room going over pictures of the kids and explaining where she'd been and why.

"Am I giving up?" she asked him. "By coming back. By being the Widow again instead of trying something else?"

Clint didn't turn away from the window with the spectacular view of Manhattan on high. "You're only giving up if you stop thinking about what else you might want to try. It's not like you're being asked to choose between doing this and doing something else you want to do. Just don't use this as an excuse not to think about it -- or not to follow through if you do find something. You don't have to be the Black Widow forever, Nat."

But she maybe had to be the Black Widow for right now, at least until she could come up with something else. Bali had been needed; her batteries had been closer to drained than she'd realized. But she'd been running from herself by Sanya and she accepted that she needed more structure in her life right now than she could provide on her own. She could choose the system she worked within, however, and the Avengers (as constructed by Tony under Steve's guidance and Maria Hill's day-to-day management) seemed like an acceptable compromise between service and independence, requiring a commitment but not the kind of submission that even SHIELD had required of her.

Steve and Stark handled the press -- Stark was the showman, but they both understood that the gravitas required to pull this off came from Steve and that until the Avengers had more to their name than the Battle of New York, they would have to trade on the legacy of Captain America. Steve was very protective of that legacy, always had been, and she'd first thought it was ego before she'd realized that it was actually the opposite. Steve wasn't without an ego, far from it, but he was exquisitely aware that Captain America's place in history covered more than just Steve Rogers -- it contained the legacies of the Howling Commandos and Peggy Carter and Abraham Erskine and Howard Stark and Chester Phillips and everyone else who'd had a hand in the creation of a hero. He was almost completely unconcerned about himself, but he was very protective of the others, none of whom were in a position to defend themselves anymore. And that was before he knew that Bucky Barnes was still alive and would maybe need that legacy to wield against the horrors of the Winter Soldier.

Stark had given them all living spaces in the Tower, although none of them really lived there save for maybe Banner. For Natasha, it was a place to sleep, mostly. She couldn't be a clandestine agent anymore, but what she could be when she wasn't saving the planet, that still had to be defined and that couldn't be done from New York. She still had to maintain contacts and relationships that went back decades, which required far more finesse now. And, for lack of a better way to put it, she needed to ensure the viability of the Black Widow brand. She had a very productive, but very strange, conversation with Pepper Potts about that.

"It's not quite a New Coke situation," Pepper mused. "You didn't change the formula when you went public, but it was definitely something new and the natural reaction to that is to assume that the old is being phased out, either by intent or simply by consequence. If you want to reinforce that the old is still part of the equation, you'd best do it quickly and decisively or else you'll be doing it forever."

Natasha froze, wineglass halfway to her lips. It wasn't as if Pepper didn't know what Natasha really was, what her 'brand' really was.

Pepper smiled at her reaction. "It was never that I didn't understand that some evils must be met with force and ruthlessness because they understand nothing else. But the last year has reinforced that the moral high ground is no better protected than anywhere else and can easily become the refuge of cowards. I refuse to cower."

Natasha had never known how to cower, which wasn't the same thing. And so she threw herself back into the world, back into work, to see what the lay of the land looked like now that she was no longer a ghost.

It wasn't either as simple or as brutal as looking around for the first bad guy to make an example of, certainly not if she wanted to merge her new job with her old one. The Black Widow's brand included a certain amount of elegance along with the lethality, but on a team full of heavy hitters and mad scientists, her greatest value to the Avengers was intelligence acquisition, not as a stylish killer. Hill had wishlists and checklists, people and places she couldn't tell whether they were owned by HYDRA or loyal to SHIELD (or at least Not Evil), and not everything could be verified by asking JARVIS. And so Natasha proved that even a spy who'd been on the front page for weeks could still be a spy, taking what she needed, what her team needed, and making sure that the important people knew who'd come for it. It was not bloodless work, but that was effective coincidence and not goal.

The Avengers were still more a theory than a fact -- nobody was going to to much hint that it was a long time between disasters -- and so Steve insisted that they actually do some training together so that when that time came, they'd be prepared for it. Understanding that his command was more a republic than a monarchy, he'd framed it as less as an order than a request and a suggestion, citing the importance of understanding how the others worked to figure out how they could best be deployed when the need arose and there was no time to go over tactics.

Steve had been thoughtful and efficient when he planned the exercises, designating one of the Avengers as the leader of the OPFOR and letting them design their own villainy. It was a clever way for each of them to assess the others and it gave the team a surprisingly broad spectrum of threats to combat. Stark's turn had brought robot armies; Thor had made use of his allies from Asgard; Clint had somehow convinced half of the Fifth Special Forces Group to turn up dressed as HYDRA; Natasha had drafted Rhodes and Wilson and Sharon Carter and some ex-SHIELD allies; and Banner, who'd been the most reluctant of all, had quietly designed a kind of zombie apocalypse with a 'virus' transmitted by touch. But it had been Steve who had ultimately been the most ruthless and pragmatic by not telling anyone it was his turn, instead making them believe it was a chance to all work together for once, and then betraying them all in turn once they were in the field.

The after-action sessions were part of the exercises, the team sitting down as a group -- showered and changed, supplied with drinks and food -- to discuss what they'd done and why and how they thought it went. The sessions could get acrimonious because they all had bigger egos and thinner skins than they'd want to admit, but they were also useful. Not only to learn about each other, but also how to take orders from Steve, who directed these sessions. His guidance of the deconstruction of events, even as he let everyone else say anything they wanted (at least until it turned personal), turned into guidance of the team's action in the field because it became natural to turn to him. Natasha felt like she should have been surprised at the subtlety of the maneuver, but Steve, for all of his inability to master tradecraft, was canny as hell and as pure a natural leader as she'd ever seen.

Someone she was surprised by, maybe a little, was Banner. Bruce, whom she ended up spending a fair amount of time with at the Tower when she was there. She and Bruce hadn't interacted much since she'd come for him in India years ago and when they had it had always been a little... not awkward, but perhaps charged. The Hulk was most of the reason, she suspected, but who was afraid of whom -- if it was really fear at all -- was a mystery to her. She was afraid of the Hulk, but fear wasn't the only response and she thought the Hulk knew that. Which was why she seemed to get on better with him than anyone. Steve could give the Hulk orders and have a reasonable expectation that they'd be followed, but Natasha was the only one who could make a request and hope that it would be filled.

But if the Hulk saw and understood her response to him, she didn't know what Bruce knew of the situation or, if he did, how he felt about it. None of them really knew where the border between Bruce and the Hulk really lay or how permeable it actually was. Bruce usually remembered exactly what the Hulk had done and the Hulk emerged aware of the details from the briefing Bruce had sat through. Yet Bruce talked like they were two separate beings, discrete personalities with distinct priorities and desires that sometimes coincided and frequently did not. But Natasha wondered how much of that was fact and how much of it was aspirational. She saw the rage and the gentleness in both of them, but she also saw the intelligence of the Hulk and the raw hunger of Bruce. She sometimes thought that that was what made Bruce shy away from her more than any lingering memories of looming over her, poised to destroy, aboard the Helicarrier.

It wasn't something she thought about a lot, but it was there and she slowly grew accustomed to it. To the idea of being intrigued by someone, interested in them for reasons that had nothing to do with what she could get out of them or how to break them down. It made her feel good, feel real, in ways that had almost nothing to do with Bruce or his reactions to her. She knew Bruce was attracted to her and would act on it if she gave him a signal that she would be receptive, so she carefully did not. She liked being around him, enjoyed his company and liked how it made her feel, but that was enough for her right now. It was all she could comfortably handle and maybe that would change in the future, maybe not. Bruce would never press and she didn't think he was the type to resent it if this were all it ever was. Neither of them were carrying too many spare friendships these days.

The Avengers' first mission in their new incarnation was to take down a HYDRA base Steve had heard about during his search for Barnes, a fortress-like facility in Chad's desert. Cracking the place's defenses was simple enough -- at least once Stark had gotten JARVIS to bypass the force fields -- but they had not anticipated the way the local population would rally to HYDRA's defense, swarming the breach in the compound's wall and daring the Avengers to continue their attack at the risk of massive civilian casualties. They'd known that HYDRA had survived into the Twenty-First Century in part by setting themselves up inside failed states as surrogate protectors, but this was the first time they'd seen it in action. Thor wanted to scare them off with a bolt of lightning, but Steve instead asked Clint to drop some of the sonic arrows Stark had developed for non-lethal crowd control. Stark was chasing down a convoy, so Steve had Thor and the Hulk make them a few new entry points in the thick compound wall while he made himself a target and a decoy so that Natasha could sneak in and try to get some intel, either electronic or otherwise, before it got destroyed. It was messy without being chaotic and when they went over it on the flight home, they addressed what they'd gotten wrong and decided that they could live with the rest.

The second missions was better, the third better than that. The fourth went a little wonky, but they were without Thor or Clint and facing a couple of 'enhanced' additions to the usual HYDRA hordes. Nobody knew where they were coming from, but this hadn't been the first time the Avengers hadn't been the only super-anythings in the fight. The fifth happened without Steve and was, as Clint put it, a complete clusterfuck because not only were they without their field commander, they also lost their comms twenty minutes in and that was before the Hulk went off script. Thankfully, it also happened in the middle of the desert in Peru and nobody really saw it, although the Hulk's walkabout had left a trail that was visible from space and left everyone joking about new Nazca lines.

"I'm thinking of trying something with post-hypnotic suggestion," Bruce said a few days later. He and Natasha and Steve had been going over what they'd gotten out of the Peruvian base before it had self-destructed -- there'd been some files on gamma radiation, hence Bruce's particiation -- and the talk had shifted to what had happened after that. "Maybe a phrase or a codeword or something that could calm down the Other Guy."

Steve cocked an eyebrow. "You think it's going to be that easy?"

The Hulk could sometimes be reasoned with, more often cajoled, but they'd only ever tried it with directed activities as the Hulk, never to turn him back into Bruce. As far as they knew, there was no way to do that from without; it was only something Bruce could do from within.

Bruce shrugged. "It can't hurt."

"Yes it can," Steve retorted, but he was smirking as he said it. "But if you want to try it, go ahead. What do you need from us?"

Bruce considered the question for a moment before replying. "I know someone who can help with the hypnosis, but for the suggestion... You two are the ones the Hulk responds best to, so if she thinks voice and tone might matter in setting up the foundations, I guess you might need to be there."

There was nothing more about it for a few weeks, during which Natasha went out to Iowa. The kids were helping their father on his latest project, the downstairs bathroom.

"I'm pretty sure they'll flood the place by the end of the week," Laura admitted as she sat on the front porch with Natasha, both of them shelling peas. Out in the yard, Ginger Snap was staring at Natasha with hate in her beady little eyes and Natasha was tempted to bean the bird with a pea. "But the kids like helping with the laundry, so they can wash the towels and then Clint will have to redo the floor and he won't even need a Christmas present after that because my forgiveness will suffice."

The flood didn't happen until after Natasha had left, although she'd been around for a near-miss. Laura sent her photos of Clint and the kids, soaked head to toe, waving happily at the camera.

Bruce's hypnosis project didn't need anything from either her or Steve to set up, but he explained the theory and the progress to the two of them before saying that he wanted Natasha's help with the implementation trials. "I can't just spring this on you," he told her. "It's like asking you to step into the bullfighting ring in a red onesie to talk down the bull."

It was and it wasn't and while Steve was clearly reluctant because of the danger, Natasha looked past the imminent threat to the larger picture, which included Bruce asking for help with the Hulk. She'd read the file after the Harlem incident; Bruce had sought assistance before, but this wasn't for a cure and this wasn't a desperate measure -- if it didn't work, they would be able to continue on as they were. This was something else, something that was almost a favor, and he was asking her.

"I've done crazier things for smaller rewards," she said and he smiled, grateful.

There was a whole program of which this was but a small part, something Bruce had been working on as a way to better control the Hulk, all of which used the sun's passage through the sky as focusing imagery. Getting the Hulk to transform back into Bruce was the sunset, which made sense and didn't. She would have maybe thought that the monster would have been the creature of this metaphorical night and not Bruce.

Bruce laughed when she mentioned it. "If you think about it, the Hulk does more work in the daytime," he said. They were sitting on the balcony, not coincidentally watching the sun set over New Jersey. "I'm the one up until four in the morning staring at my computer screen. Or maybe I'm just really the monster."

She looked over at him. "Do you really believe that?"

One didn't have to spend very much time with Bruce to realize that the wellspring of his anger was his own self-loathing. The Hulk certainly knew it.

He shrugged. "Kinda. The Hulk's dangerous and can be cruel, but he's mostly just reacting in an unsophisticated manner to his environment and to me. If I were a better man, would he be something else? If I were a good man, would he exist at all?"

Natasha wanted to say something reassuring. But while she believed Bruce to be a generally good man, flawed as he might be, there was no getting around the fact that the Hulk had become a much more biddable and responsive persona after Bruce had taken stock of his life and found it wanting and made a commitment to change. How much she related to that wasn't something she was prepared to share with Bruce yet.

Behind them, in the Stark/Potts apartment, they could hear Steve having some kind of lighthearted argument with Pepper, the words indistinct but the laughter clear enough.

"There are a lot of words dedicated to wondering how much of Project Rebirth's success was due not to Steve's particular biology and Erskine's serum, but to Steve's mind," Bruce said. "If he'd been standing where I had been, would there even be a Hulk? If I'd been in Erskine's lab, would there have been a second Red Skull?"

They were mostly rhetorical questions, but Natasha answered anyway.

"I think you are grossly overstating Steve's nobility of character," she said with a wry tone. "We have all seen him be cranky and stubborn and selfish and cruel. I think you are also grossly understating your own good qualities. But most of all, I think we don't have to stay monsters, regardless of where we started out or why."

She had to believe that for herself most of all, but she'd like to believe it for Bruce, too. And Bucky Barnes, wherever he was, who would probably need a lot of convincing. But for herself, she had to believe it because the alternative was unbearable. She could not believe the stain of her sins were permanent, that the slate of her ledger could never be cleaned. Clint and Laura let her once-bloodstained hands hold their children; she was either not a monster or they were very poor judges of character and she chose the former.

Bruce took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It wasn't a purge of frustration or anger, a not unfamiliar routine for him. It was almost a chuckle, although a wistful one.

"If you could get the Other Guy to believe that, we might get somewhere," he said.

"I don't think he's the one who needs convincing," she replied. She stood up because she'd been sitting on her foot and it had fallen asleep. "Have a little faith, Doctor Banner. In us if not in yourself. Captain America likes you, you can't be all bad."

He laughed, but he didn't laugh it off. Steve's faith was a surprisingly comfortable blanket to wrap yourself in, Natasha knew. She hadn't particularly cared that he hadn't trusted her until he had and she'd seen what he'd been holding back. It was odd, to have someone believing in you making any kind of difference in how you viewed yourself. But it was true; it had been true when she'd finally let Clint in, when she'd stopped keeping Laura at arm's length, when she'd felt Cooper's and then Lila's unquestioning affection. She and Steve had been an entirely different thing, of course, but the strength of his personality was in the force of his beliefs and to have that turned on her, on her goodness, which seemed a ridiculous concept to even consider, it had felt like a boon. Three or more people who thought you were worthwhile as a person wasn't a conspiracy. It was a blessing. It made it that much easier to believe in yourself and for people like her, like Bruce, they sometimes needed all the help they could get.

"Captain America likes candy that tastes like violets," Bruce retorted, deflecting.

"Captain America likes Bucky Barnes, who has done more damage than the two of us combined," Natasha shot back. "We are better than our worst moments and we do more than house destruction. What else that is, that's up to us to decide. But it's a poor carpenter who blames his tools, so... "

Bruce looked at her with an expression she couldn't place. "So," he repeated softly.

The argument inside, which apparently had to do with dating websites, spilled out onto the balcony with the opening of the sliding door and Natasha being asked for her opinion on whether they were the modern equivalent of a Sears catalog or not, which she could not answer. Bruce could, however, and he took the opportunity to escape with barely disguised relief.

Later that night, she texted Clint: I just gave Barton Pep Talk #4

Her phone rang a minute later. "Does that mean I get to stop giving it to you?"

He sounded teasing and fond and proud and not as surprised as she thought he would be.

"Probably not," she admitted, because being able to say the words and know that they were true was not the same as being able to keep them in her heart at all times. "But you get to add the 'You know that, don't you?' and expect a better answer."

He laughed. "You're going to regret saying that next time you want to wallow in self-hatred."

She looked out her window, toward Brooklyn and Queens. "No, I don't think I will."