Buffy looks up from her menu at the slight sighing exhale of the seat cushion across from her, a smile already forming on her face. She never hears or sees Natasha before she sits down at these once-monthly ladies' lunches; that should be impossible given her Slayer senses, but Buffy has long since given up trying to anticipate the other woman. Natasha's very, very good at choosing her moments, and hiding her telltales in the environmental noise around them.
She's also always exactly on time. Just as the third member of their group is always early-- except, apparently, today. "Hey, Natasha," Buffy says, glancing at her watch. "Do you know where Pepper is? I was starting to wonder if I should worry."
Natasha's mouth curves in reply, a slight secretive smile that means she probably should-- but not for the reasons she'd been expecting. "She's fine. I asked Happy to take the scenic route today so we could talk," she replies.
The bottom of Buffy's stomach abruptly drops at that, her threat-assessing instincts suddenly sitting up and taking notice. "Uh... okay? What about?" she asks, mentally scrolling back through the events of the past several days. She hadn't thought she'd done anything Natasha might take offense to....
...Unless she considers Buffy's recent, ah, patrolling habits objectionable? Which, given how long the two SHEILD agents have been partners? Bucketfuls of duh.
Natasha lifts an eyebrow, just a millimeter or so, at Buffy's twitch of recognition. "Shovels," she replies smoothly.
Buffy blinks, momentarily thrown; what are the odds that a Russian assassin would come up with the same type of 'hurt my friend and suffer' shorthand as a bunch of teenagers from California? But then she makes the obvious connection, and drops her forehead to the table with a groan. "Xander already talked to Clint, didn't he?" she laments. "Kill me now."
"That would be counterproductive," Natasha says, voice warming ever so slightly with amusement.
"No, seriously, get it over with," Buffy replies, sitting back up and giving her friend her best harmless, I'm the victim here, look. "You think I'm worried about Clint's reaction? If Xander cornered him in the Tower, JARVIS heard the whole thing, and Tony's going to make my life even more miserable than usual. It would be mercy!"
Natasha ignores the appeal, though her mouth twitches, just a little. "I don't think your friend quite realized just how many ways there are to use a shovel against another human being."
Buffy's wielded enough blunt edges in her day to have a fairly good idea, and what she hasn't personally seen? She's pretty sure she doesn't want to know. Poor Xander. "Stabbity, choppity, thwappity, crunchity?" she heads the explanation off, wincing. "If you're going to return the favor, could you at least be more creative? Like, 'why a spoon, cousin' territory, or 'to the pain' maybe? Bet you could do a really spectacular 'to the pain'."
Natasha's mouth twitches again, though there are darker shadows behind it now; and yeah, Buffy really, really doesn't want to know. Poor choice of wording. "Love him as I loved him, and I won't have to," the assassin replies, half quote and 100% meaning.
Buffy has wondered about that. But the connection between Natasha and Clint has always vibed to her more like the way she feels about Xander than exes or besties with benefits; it's not that he's like a brother, or even that they've shared so many of each other's most terrible and vulnerable moments since young adulthood that there's no romantic mystery left, it's that their bond has always been at its tightest when sex is nowhere in the equation, and she values that support too much to risk.
"I thought love was for children," she replies. She means to be flip about it, but the words come out soft and questioning around the inexplicable lump in her throat.
These people. Back in the day when Buffy had repeatedly claimed she wanted to be normal, what she'd really wanted was not to feel so alone and set apart. And that's what she's found here, among several other spectacularly broken people who make it their business to save the world whether it likes it or not: even when she's acting in her role as The Slayer, she has equals to lean on now. It makes it so much easier to balance her various friendships, work, and slayage when she doesn't have to always be The Boss of Us, or, worse, Ms. Moral Authority.
Natasha tilts her head a little, studying her, then relents with a smirk. "I'm not sure Clint ever really grew up," she muses. "And considering some of your methods of dealing with Tony, I sometimes wonder about you, too. Do you ever worry that lowering yourself to his level will damage your authority with him?"
Buffy accepts the change of topic with a snort. "You've met Willow, right? I know a lot of crazy smart people with no attention span, too much knowledge for their own good, and overachieving puppy dog eyes. Authority alone is useless; it can't stop them from doing whatever they want, so you have to make it worth their while to want to do what you want them to do. But you already know that, don't you?"
"I do know that," Natasha agrees, smile fading into speculation. "I wonder what you would have made of Loki. And what he would have made of you."
"After the last small-g type I went up against?" Buffy shakes her head to nip that line of thought in the bud. She's heard the 'bag of cats' description, and after Glory, she's filled her quota of that for a lifetime. "Thanks, but no thanks. I'm fresh out of Troll god hammers."
The bell over the door rings, and the click of heels intrudes into the background noise of the café; they both look up, but it isn't Pepper. Not yet. Their window of privacy is closing, though.
"You'll have to tell me the rest of that story sometime," Natasha suggests.
If anyone could truly understand what happened that year-- especially the part where the childhood she remembers turned out to be a lie cooked up by a bunch of self-righteous old men, and the choices she'd made to deal with the fallout of that-- the Black Widow would. "Maybe I will," she decides. "When you tell me how you knew what a Hellmouth was?"
Natasha narrows her eyes at her, then nods, too. "Maybe I will."
"So... are we good, then?" Buffy asks, after a moment. "Any more warnings you want to deliver?"
"If I'm doing my job right," Natasha smirks, showing just a hint of teeth, "do you really expect a warning?"
Buffy smirks back, then pulls out her StarkPhone. She may not have Natasha's training, but she was a prom queen before she was the Slayer, and the counselor gig had been a good refresher course. She knows how to do the oblique acknowledgement dance without losing face-- and if Natasha had really wanted to dissuade her, they wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place. "I'm going to text Xander that I told Clint that he called you Ninja Barbie #3," she says.
Natasha's smile tells her that's she's taking the right course. "A woman after my own heart."
"No, Clint's," Buffy can't resist retorting, "though I can see how you might get confused."
The bell rings again while they're still chuckling. "You would not believe the traffic," Pepper breezes in, clicking her way across the café. "What have I missed? Tell me something fun; I've had a very Tony morning."
Her hugs are like concentrated sunlight; they bask for a moment, then sit down again and open their menus with a smile.