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Clint Barton has pale eyes that light up with suspicion whenever they look at Natasha, or Phil Coulson.

Natasha doesn't like people, but if she did she thinks she'd like Clint Barton, because he knows to always be wary. Natasha learned that lesson very young, and can tell that he did too. 

Clint Barton sits kind of hunched over at the dinner table, and eats absolutely everything he can get his hands on. Natasha thinks it probably pains him to know enough basic social protocol to understand that he has to stay away from her and Coulson's plates. She guesses it's not just him being a typical teenage boy with a typical teenage boy's appetite (though she wouldn't really know how typical teenage boys act). She guesses he's never had enough to eat, and is taking advantage of the relative abundance of food at Coulson's place, despite the annoying rules about having to eat all together, him and Natasha and Coulson.

He also tosses and turns and sometimes grunts in his sleep. It doesn't sound like he has pleasant dreams. Natasha can hear him through the walls, but she never wakes him up. It's a courtesy. She doesn't think he's the kind of person who would like knowing that other people can hear him when he's weak. Maybe someday she will wake him up, if Coulson doesn't first, if he starts screaming or something really unpleasant like that.

Natasha used to scream in her sleep, she thinks, but she doesn't anymore, she's pretty sure, since nobody ever wakes her up. All her dreams are worthless, just nightmares drenched in blood that leave her shaking and in cold sweats when she finally, mercifully (or maybe just finally, because Natasha doesn't really believe in mercy) wakes up.

Natasha has to admit that she's curious about Barton, about his history. He's probably curious about her too though, so she never asks, because she doesn't want him asking her any questions she doesn't feel like answering. Mostly, she doesn't talk to him. She observes him. He observes her too. He has good eyes, Natasha can tell. It's like he sees everything, blurs of gray always flicking around, taking everything in. 

Barton is quiet, but he talks more than Natasha at least, and she thinks that maybe he wasn't always as quiet as he is now.

Coulson is a different story, in the way that everyone is a different story. Natasha doesn't know if she almost likes him or not. Coulson is ex-FBI or CIA or Secret Service or maybe just military, Natasha's not sure which. She knows it's something like that, though, because she's kind of dangerous and she'd bet money that Barton's kind of dangerous, too, and maybe she's giving the system too much credit, but she thinks that they wouldn't place two kids like her and Barton in the care of just anyone. Besides, there's something in the way that Coulson carries himself, in the puckered scars on his shoulder and torso that she's seen once or twice when his shirt rode up.

Natasha's smart. She's only sixteen years old, sure, but she's good at reading people, at deciphering certain details about them.

She's been Phil Coulson’s foster child (and she almost smiles to herself the first time she hears herself referred to as that, because she hasn't been a child for years and years, and is honestly not sure if she ever was) for three months now.

She just has to wait out a couple more years, and then she'll go into the CIA or something. Fight on the side of the good guys, because it's really pretty similar to being one of the bad guys. She'll just have to hold back a little.

She won’t even have to get to know Coulson or Barton. 

She doesn't trust them, anyway.

(Even though she maybe wants to.)

+

One night she runs into Barton in the kitchen, when she's going to get coffee or tea or something -- anything with caffeine, because she's had another nightmare and doesn't feel like going back to sleep. 

Coulson said they had free rein of the house, so both Natasha and Barton take advantage of that, but mostly at night. They usually don't run into each other, but it was bound to happen sometime, Natasha thinks regretfully. They've only been around each other for three months anyway. Short enough time for plenty of firsts, this much Natasha knows.

She doesn't say hello. 

Neither does Barton, who is sitting at the round kitchen table and nursing a cup of coffee, probably with the same idea that Natasha has about staying awake and thus free from nightmares. It honestly surprises Natasha for a second that they haven't run into each other in this situation before, but now that she thinks of it, most nights her nightmares don't even let her get out of bed, they just leave her curled up, frozen, breathing deeply and shaking, completely awake. Tonight is the first time she's actually gotten out of bed and gone to the kitchen, as opposed to just wandering around the house; or going to the bathroom and looking at her face in the mirror, the shadows in and under her eyes, her too-long hair.

Natasha decides on tea instead of coffee. She doesn't really like how coffee tastes, and she's awake enough. 

Barton sighs, and almost unconsciously, Natasha sighs back. 

She makes her tea, and thinks of going to a different room--maybe her own, which she doesn't think will ever be truly her own room, because she's never really, truly had her own room, not in all the houses and apartments she's lived in--but ends up sitting across the table from Barton.

They mostly avoid each other's line of sight, looking down at the liquid in their mugs, but at some point in time, when they bring their mugs (Barton's is chipped and dull eggshell white, and Natasha's is light blue that used to be darker) to their lips, their eyes meet.

Natasha doesn't know if that's what gets Barton to finally talk to her beyond basic, Coulson-prompted conversation, but he speaks, his voice hoarse and young. "Romanoff. Is that Russian?"

And Natasha could just walk away, but she hasn't had a conversation, a real one, with anyone her own age in a long time, and she does almost like Clint Barton, so she answers his question. "Yes." Her voice sounds young too. She hates that. She's sixteen years old, which might as well be an adult, so she clears her throat. "I'm from Russia."

"Yeah?" Barton snorts. "How'd you end up here?"

"It's a long, boring story." She's lying, obviously. She doesn't really think her story's all that boring. Not all that interesting, either, but not boring.

Barton knows she's lying, Natasha thinks, but he has the decency to not say anything about that. "Right. I'm from Iowa."

Natasha nods, and almost smiles. "How'd you end up here?"

Barton really does smile, even though it's small and weak. "It's a long, boring story."

Natasha knows he's lying. That kind of makes her like him.

Running into each other late at night, Natasha with her tea and Barton with his coffee, becomes a sort of habit. They talk in short sentences, and more often than not lapse into uncomfortable or comfortable silences instead of saying anything, because there's nothing to say that won't reveal secrets that they aren't going to tell somebody who isn't quite a stranger anymore, but isn't quite not.

Barton tells Natasha to call him Clint, so Natasha doesn't call him anything. She still calls him Barton in her head, because there's something about calling Barton by his first name that disturbs her. It seems like a sign of closeness, and she thinks that they're edging closer to almost becoming, well, friends. They're already basically friendly, and Natasha doesn't know how to feel about that. Maybe it's not that bad, she thinks sometimes. "Maybe we can be allies," she tells him one night, just a week before they have to start school (they'll be starting as sophomores, which Natasha isn't thrilled about, because she's smart, but what is there to do but wait these things out? Natasha's smart enough to be patient, after all).

"Yeah," Barton says, looking at her not so much suspiciously as appraisingly, which is a new look on him. "Yeah, that's probably a good idea. We'll watch each other's backs."

Natasha nods. Twists her lips upwards in her very best imitation of a smile. She really does feel like smiling, she's just not sure if she knows how to anymore.

The next day, at dinner time, Coulson says off-handedly, "It's good to see you two getting along."

Natasha and Barton freeze, before Barton smiles his languid, half-sincere smile, and says, "Yeah. It's good to finally get along with somebody."  He smiles wanly at Natasha over his forkful of food, because he still eats like he's half-starved, but not like he's actually starved anymore.

Natasha smiles back.

This time she thinks maybe she does it right.

+

Natasha hasn't been to school in a while, ever since she was eleven or twelve and the man who said he was her father pulled her out of it in favor of educating her at home. The idea of having to go to a big building with other people her age makes her feel sick, sick enough to reinvent her appearance, because that can make her feel like she's concealing her true identity better than usual.

That's why she cuts her hair off with some scissors that she finds in Coulson's study. Her hair ends halfway down her neck now. She's pleased with the results. It’s maybe a little jagged, but she doesn't mind much.

She wanders into the kitchen later than usual.

"I thought you weren't coming--" Clint starts, but stops cold once he sees her. "You look different."

"No kidding," she says, getting the ingredients to make herself some tea. Maybe she'll add some honey. She touches the jagged edges of her hair, and is hit by a wave of something like nausea, a feeling that she doesn't understand. She looks down at the countertop. "Do you like it?"

"Yeah. Yeah, you look good, but you...you could've done it neater."

"Well, too bad. This was the best I could do."

"Not the best I could do," Clint says proudly. "Sit down."

"Once I finish making my tea."

"Whatever." He disappears from the kitchen. Natasha makes her tea. She gets the feeling that she's not going to sleep tonight, but she's fine with that. She doesn't really need much sleep.

Just as she sits down at the kitchen table with her mug of tea, Clint comes back, wielding scissors. 

"Here, I learned how to cut hair in--" He cuts himself off. Natasha wonders, again, where Clint Barton is really from, but it's a fleeting thought. She'll figure it out.

He does end up cutting her hair rather well. Neatly, evenly. It almost looks professional. 

"Who taught you?" Natasha murmurs.

"No one," Clint answers with a shrug.

Natasha lets her lips curl upwards a bit. "Right. I was taught many things by no one, too."

"Ha ha." Clint pauses. "It's almost morning. Are you nervous?"

She can tell that he is, a little. Clint is practiced at not showing his emotions, but he's not as good as Natasha, and besides, Natasha is very good at reading emotions. There's a certain glint in his eyes, a certain quake in his hands, that she sees clearly. He's almost frightened. "You don't have to be," she almost wants to say. "I'll protect you." 

But she doesn't say those things, because Natasha Romanoff is many things, but a silly, sentimental girl who feels anything but nothing for a boy she's only known a few months is not one of them, ally or not. Instead, she says, "No."

+

When Coulson wanders into the kitchen to get breakfast, the first thing he notices is the change in Natasha, she can tell, because he looks at her for just a few seconds longer than he normally does. At least he doesn't say anything stupid like, "What happened to your hair?"

It's because he knows perfectly well what happened to her hair. She cut it. End of story.

The question to ask, really, would be "Why did you cut your hair?"

Coulson doesn't ask that question either, because he'd never get a straight answer.

Instead, he doesn't say anything about Natasha's impromptu haircut, which is something that Natasha is not grateful for, but ambivalent about.

Clint has another cup of coffee. He's on his third one since Natasha came into the kitchen very early in the morning. She estimates from this number that he's really on his fifth cup. She has had two. The caffeine wakes her up pretty well, not that she'd been sleepy to begin with. Natasha doesn't get sleepy. 

Coulson doesn't say anything except, "Do you have everything you need to start off the day?"

Natasha nods, once, a firm jerk forward and back of her neck. 

Clint just shrugs, which isn't an answer at all. It means yes, though.

"I'm going to drive you to school," Coulson says. 

Natasha doesn't know how to feel about that. She's pretty sure she's not supposed to feel anything at all, so she doesn't. She's good at that.

+

The school is a large but ultimately unimposing building made out of stone and red brick. Natasha is neither impressed nor intimidated. She climbs out of the car, and doesn't say thank you to Coulson, because he was just doing his job.

Clint is mostly tough about school too, even though he was definitely scared last night. He raises an eyebrow at Natasha and smirks, and she smirks back. She's not sure what they're smirking about, and it seems too much like a smile for her tastes, but it's nice to be in sync with somebody else.

She walks inside the school. They're late, she notes, but she doesn't mind. She and Clint have to head to the office first anyway. They have schedules that they printed off the computer (they have all the same classes, to the surprise of nobody), but there must be some other reason that they have to stop in the office first. Probably to be welcomed, or something stupid like that. All Natasha wants to do is get through high school with as few incidents as possible.

When she and Clint arrive at the office, a young woman smiles at them. "Names, please?"

She's very straightforward. Natasha is glad. "Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton. We're new."

"Oh, right. Well, you're starting on the third day of classes, not anywhere near the middle of the semester, so it's really no big deal. Somebody's been asked to show you two around, I think you'll get along great. If I can find him." The receptionist peers into a room with a glass window that's been covered up by paper, but has the door open. "Thor, you in there?"

Just as Clint is mouthing the name 'Thor' with a confused look on his face, the guy steps out of the room.

Natasha actually raises an eyebrow, because the name kind of fits. He has blond hair that's long for a guy, blue eyes, lightly tanned skin, and a huge smile. "Hello!" he says happily, sticking out a hand.

Clint doesn't take it, eyeing it like it's covered in some sort of virus, so she does instead. Thor has a strong grip. A very strong grip, actually, to the point that it's crushing. He's probably some kind of athlete, she decides. She doesn't wince at the pain, just tries to grip his hand as firmly as possible, and she pumps it down once, twice, three times, before Thor pulls away. "I am very pleased to meet you," he says enthusiastically. He has a mild British accent, but Natasha thinks there’s something else there. "Your names?"

"Natasha Romanoff," she starts. "And that's--"

"Clint Barton," Clint finishes for her.

Thor grins again. "Excellent. Let’s go!" he says loudly. It's a voice that's appropriate for indoors, but just barely.

Clint smiles back warily. Natasha doesn't smile at all, even though she kind of feels like it. It took her weeks to smile even slightly at Clint, no way this oaf is going to make her do that after just a few minutes.

"Where are you from?" Thor asks when they're out in the hall.

"Iowa," Clint says vaguely, and then nothing.

"Russia," she says, clipped.

Thor, to his credit, doesn't push, simply looks at them, and says, in his oddly stilted way, "Fascinating. I also hail from outside the country, Natasha, though my family moved here four years ago."

"Oh. I thought there must be some explanation for the way you talk."

Clint winces a little, as if that was insulting, while Thor just smiles a bit. "Admittedly, I do speak a little oddly. I was homeschooled for years in Norway, which was where I learned English, much of it from classical literature.”

"You don't have an accent at all."

"Neither do you."

Natasha can feel her face soften. She likes this guy, even though she knows she shouldn't, for whatever reason. There are a lot, she's sure.

Clint clears his throat. "Anyway. So. Classes."

"Yes, I hear that you also are old for sophomores."

"You too?" Clint asks unhappily.

"Yes. I was held back my first year, due to... circumstances that kept me from doing as well as I should have. I know some other people, too, who are in the same situation. We have a group. We will be meeting for lunch, if you wish to join us."

Natasha's about to decline the offer when Clint, who seems to be interested in making friends, unlike her, says, "Yeah, sure."

Natasha could kill him. She shoves Clint's shoulder instead, as Thor is leading them to their first class, and then gives him an angry, wide-eyed look behind Thor's back.

Clint just grins. "Another ally," he mouths, and she doesn't have much to say to that.

+

Classes are boring, as Natasha expected them to be. She's usually right about these things, which is why she knows that making friends will only cause her heartbreak.

They're just allies, she tells herself. That's all they have to be. The world is dangerous, it's better if you have somebody by your side, to protect you.

But that's not always true, is it?

Things are changing. She's changing. She's not sure she likes it. No matter what happens, she'll keep these people, these so-called allies, at an arm's length. She's not going to let herself be hurt, not for a stupid reason like loneliness.

But maybe this is what the new Natasha does.

She shakes the thoughts out of her mind, because they're silly. She always pushes people away, she won't even have to try. Natasha repels, she doesn't attract.

At lunch, she goes to sit with Clint, and observes the group of people that Thor mentioned earlier.

There's Steve, who's pretty big and on the football team, like Thor. He has blond hair and blue eyes, but not in Thor's Nordic way. In his own all-American way.

There's Tony, who Natasha doesn't think she'll have any problem not liking, because he stares at her chest and introduces himself with a flourish as the Tony Stark, even though the name doesn't ring a bell. (He's a billionaire's son, apparently. She's not impressed. Clint acts like he isn’t either, even though he is, a tiny little bit, just because she bets he's never been in any sort of proximity with somebody with that much money in his whole life. Neither has she, but, well. She's not nearly as easily impressed as Clint is.)

There's Bruce, who's wearing long sleeves even though it's hot out and seems outwardly calm, with a soft smile and softer words, but he vibrates so much tension that it makes Natasha nervous. She thinks maybe he's dangerous. She also thinks that maybe they could get along.

"How's your first day?" Steve asks, emanating more earnestness than Natasha's ever seen before.

She shrugs.

Clint's more honest about it. "Kinda boring."

The classes after lunch are just as dull as the ones before, except now Natasha notices who she shares classes with. Bruce Banner is in her Physical Science class, but is clearly bored out of his mind, doodling equations beyond her knowledge into the pages of her notebook. After class, she notices the teacher call him to her desk. "Maybe you should just try private classes with Dr. Fury," Natasha hears before she walks out of the classroom.

Thor is in her Physical Education class. She's not that impressed by his rippling muscles, even though she can tell lots of girls are. She's always had a low sex drive. She hopes it doesn't get stronger.

+

When Coulson picks them up, he immediately asks how school went. Predictable. Natasha shrugs.

Clint says, "Good. I think we might've made some new friends."

"It was one day," Natasha reminds him. "It takes a long time to do that."

Coulson ignores what she said. "Seriously?"

"What?" Clint says defensively. "It's not really that hard to believe."

"No, I guess not. I hope they're good influences."

"Stop playing dad," Natasha snaps before she can stop herself.

She can feel Clint's eyes on her. Coulson's are on the road, but she thinks she might have hurt his feelings.

Good. At least he's not going to get under her skin, no matter what. She’s realized that she’s not even close to almost liking him. She hates him.

She doesn't trust him, and she never will. He's an adult, after all. Natasha's never had much faith in adults, except for her mother and father, and she doesn't think about them. It hurts when she does, like rubbing salt into a wound.

+

Natasha wakes up from a bad dream halfway through the night, bits and pieces of a poem stuck in her head. She's been dreaming of a strange, abstract creature lately, a tall, skeletal woman, still somehow breathtakingly beautiful, with bright red hair kind of like hers. The dreams are always incredibly violent, and she hates to think that they come from her mind. She likes to think that she isn't violent, but her mind tells her a different story. She's been desensitized to violence for years, acclimated to living in a world where blood and gore are nothing remarkable, but she prefers not to think about why.

She remembers the story of the red angel. Her father used to tell it, used to make up all sorts of rhymes about the brutal undead assassin, but she just brews herself some tea and pushes the poems into the back of her head. They weren’t even very good. She barely remembers her parents, anyway.

She prefers not to think about the past, because she's a creature of the present. She remembers it all, but she compartmentalizes beautifully, keeps then and now in different parts of her mind and only accesses the parts that she needs.

She lies to herself a lot, and if that's what it takes to keep herself functioning, that's what she'll do.

She lies to others a lot too. Same reason.

Clint isn't in the kitchen tonight. He must be sleeping. She passes by his room briefly, peers inside, not because she cares, just because she's curious and wonders if he still sleeps badly.

He does. He's crying in his sleep, his mouth is moving, trying to say something, but no words come out, just grunting and high, tortured sounds.

Natasha feels her mouth twist bitterly, and she closes the door louder than she should, in the hopes that it'll wake him. It doesn't.

+

The second day of school, which turns out to be Friday, something Clint grins at because it's apparently the best thing ever to have a two day school week, is a bit more exciting than the first. It's mostly because Natasha starts to observe the other members of the group she's apparently going to be running around with now, mostly because that seems to be what Clint wants to do and Clint is her ally and besides, the world is boring without other people in it.

She knows that from her old life, which was pretty isolated except for the man who called himself her father and a rotating band of his mistresses and cooks. He spent a lot of time training her, and sometimes took her on jobs. She liked going on jobs, because that's when she got to interact with other people. It's not that she actually likes other people all that much--she's a loner, really. But they're okay sometimes. She's been so alone her whole life, and so bored for most of it, she thinks that she should maybe do as much as possible now, in this new life, to be entertained. And it turns out that observing and even interacting with other people is entertaining.

And sometimes just irritating, like all her interactions with Tony Stark. At lunch, he actually tries to ask her out.

She doesn't listen to him, instead just answering him with a no. "Go be attention-starved with some other girl, I'm not interested in a relationship with anybody. You're probably not interested in a relationship with me anyway, and I really don't want to fuck you."

Steve chokes on his sandwich at that point, and Clint guffaws. Tony looks stricken for about five seconds before grinning. "I think I like you. We're all hanging out at my place tomorrow, want to come? You can bring your tagalong too."

Natasha glares at Tony briefly, seeing that Clint's doing the same thing. To be honest, she's the tagalong, not Clint, considering her reaction to Thor's offer of lunch.

But even if Tony bothers her, she's okay with Steve and Thor, and Clint seems to actually want to make friends. Besides, she's never seen a real mansion before, and she's curious. "Fine," she shrugs.

Tony smiles what appears to be a genuine smile, though he might just be really good at faking it. Natasha's good at telling what's fake and what's not, even if she's not sure yet why Tony's developed such an excellent mask.

+

On Saturday, Tony's chauffeur (because of course he has a chauffeur) comes by to pick Natasha and Clint up in a large, fancy car. Clint is delighted. Natasha is unimpressed, though she does like the real leather seats.

She is begrudgingly impressed by Tony's huge mansion. Of course, it's not really Tony's. It's Howard Stark's. The only reason she knows that is because yesterday Clint took it upon himself to look up what was so great about the Stark family, and found out that there was really very little great about them, except Howard Stark is a weapons manufacturer and philanthropist (because that makes sense), and the Starks make great tabloid fodder. Also, apparently when Tony says he's a genius, he's not lying.

(The thing Natasha found the most interesting is that apparently a few years ago, Howard Stark's best friend and business partner Obadiah Stane started selling weapons on the black market, a whole huge deal that ended up with Tony getting kidnapped. There's not much information beyond that, and the fact that Tony went through his own traumas as a child doesn't make Natasha like him more, but she does understand him a little better. If there's one thing Natasha understands, it's trauma.)

The mansion is apparently equipped with the latest technology, and it's sleek and truly the biggest home that Natasha has ever seen.

Tony welcomes them in with a flourish, and sends them downstairs to the rec room. "We'll just watch some movies or something today. The party's tomorrow."

"What party?" Natasha almost asks, but she has a feeling that she's supposed to, so she doesn't.

She and Clint walk down to the rec room, where everybody else is already splayed out on various sofas and large, overstuffed chairs. There's a giant television, almost movie theater sized, not to mention an unnecessary amount of movies and video games.

Thor and Steve are next to Bruce, who seems upset.

"What happened to you?" Natasha asks bluntly.

Bruce smiles weakly, clenching his fists. "I ran into a door."

Steve glares at him. "Yeah, as usual."

"I'm very clumsy," Bruce lies weakly. He's got a pretty impressive black eye which he must have gotten just last night because he didn't have it at lunch yesterday.

Thor looks anxious. "Bruce, if somebody--"

Something in Bruce's expression goes dark. "Spare me the pity, Thor," he hisses. "I'm not your little brother, so back off."

His words must have hit a sore spot, because Thor looks stricken and Steve winces.

Bruce pushes himself up from the couch and walks into the bathroom, slamming the door.

 Steve smiles sheepishly. "Hi, you guys. Sorry about that."

Thor smiles shakily. "Hello!" he says as cheerfully as possible, but it sounds forced. "It is excellent that you are joining us."

"Thanks for having us," Clint says carefully. "What's with him?"

"You must excuse Bruce, he has many problems and at times is too proud to accept help for them."

Natasha nods. "I understand." She wants to ask, Who's beating up on him? but feels like the question wouldn't be well-received. She'll figure it out eventually.

Tony comes down the stairs finally, ending the awkward moment. "Hey!" he says happily. "So, what do you think we should watch?" He pauses. "Where's Bruce?"

"Here," Bruce says reluctantly, coming out of the bathroom.

Tony must have seen his eye before, because he doesn't give the bruise a second look. "There you are!"

Bruce sits next to Thor. "I'm really sorry," he says carefully. "I shouldn't have brought your brother into it. I know you were just trying to help, but it's really nothing to worry about."

Thor smiles. "All is forgiven."

"Great!" Tony says. "Now that that's over, I say we watch a comedy."

+

Ferris Bueller's Day Off is hands down the stupidest thing Natasha's ever seen. There may be stupider things out there, considering the fact that she can count all the movies she's seen on two hands, but it’s the worst one yet.

"So, next time we'll watch something good, right?" she asks Tony, as she and Clint are leaving. It's really a demand, but she already knows that there’s probably no point to demanding with somebody like Tony.

"Yeah, yeah," Tony scoffs. "I can't believe you didn't see it for the classic it is."

"Right, classic. Bye." Natasha’s not one for formalities, and Tony raises an eyebrow at her abrupt goodbye, but goes along with it.

"Bye, see you next time."

Natasha gets into the chauffeured car, and can't quite believe that there's going to be a next time.

There is.

+

They meet like that several times, and it's...fun. Even so, Natasha can't help but feel out of her depth. She knows that there are important things that these boys know about each other and she doesn't, and she won't understand them until she's privy to that information.

She takes her time finding things out, and relishes the feeling of having friends, even though she still holds them at arm's length, and calls them allies in her head.

One night, talking to Clint about Tony and how annoying he can be (he doesn't flirt with Natasha anymore, thank goodness, having taken to mooning over a pretty girl called Pepper Potts again, according to a sighing Bruce), and how attention-starved he must be, it hits Natasha. Her new... allies probably wonder about her, and about Clint, as much as she wonders about them.

It strikes her as odd. Natasha has always been invisible, a product of being trained as an impartial observer with too many personalities to really keep track of. Nobody would ever even think of wondering about her, because nobody knew her.

She doesn't remember what she felt about that. Probably nothing.

Natasha's good at feeling nothing, at distancing herself from others.

She hasn't changed that much.

Even so, she asks the most unnecessary question she has in years. "Would you care if I died?"

Clint doesn't even blink at the question. "Yeah."

"Why?"

"You're my friend."

Natasha pauses, not sure how to respond to any of this. There's somebody who cares about her now, because she's his friend. He cares if she lives or dies.

Not because she's an asset. Because she's his friend.

She wonders if he's lying, but she wonders that about everyone. She knows well enough that Clint is an honest person.

"Would you?"

"What?"

"Would you care if I died?"

The real question is are you really my friend? and Natasha knows it.

She considers the question solemnly for a while, even though she's pretty sure she knows the answer. She's become fond of Clint without her consent. "Yes."

"Cool."

"Cool," she echoes, and she finds herself smiling faintly.

+

Out of all the boys, Natasha is least comfortable about Bruce. There's something about him that's off, and it's not just that he has a bad home life, something that Tony explains flippantly, even though the look on his face is a little strained.

Natasha thinks that Bruce is angry, and anything can set him off. Usually, his anger is quiet, simmering, but Natasha's always certain that it's going to eventually boil over.

And she's right.

It happens because of something fairly innocent. Bruce is occasionally harassed by jerks that hang around after school and at lunch just to try and make him angry. They seem to know something that Natasha doesn't. They call Bruce insane.

And then they call him a monster, which turns out to be a terrible idea.

Something in Bruce's eyes goes dark, and he snarls, animalistic and terrifying, even to Natasha, who has seen a great deal of terrifying things in her life.

"What?" the bully says, all false bravado. "Can't really deny it, can you? They should fucking lock you--"

Bruce finally lashes out, and it takes just seconds for the guy to be pinned up against the wall, Bruce's hands pressing too hard against his shoulders.

Bruce's brown eyes look almost green in this light, and he says in a truly threatening voice, "I'll fucking kill you if you call me that again, I swear, I'll rip you apart--"

Natasha should stop him, has to stop him, but he's reminding her of somebody and she can't move, she can only stare uselessly.

Steve rushes in, though. "Bruce!" he cries out, strained and clearly frightened. "Get away from the guy, you'll get in trouble!" He manages to grab Bruce and bodily lift him from the floor, which mostly serves to make him angrier as he thrashes and fights against Steve's hold.

The bully says, "Jesus Christ, he's fucking crazy," and Natasha's about done with that bullshit, so she narrows her eyes at the guy, trying her best to be threatening (and succeeding, to judge by the look on his face).

"Back off," she says quietly, poison dripping from every word.

The guy does, and Natasha is glad that she was able to threaten him. It makes her feel so good that she almost wishes that he had made some kind of move to hurt her, so that she could hurt him back.

But she snaps out of that after a while. It's just her training kicking in, all of her deadly skills and nowhere to use them.

Late at night, though, she doesn't think of her urges to hurt other people. She thinks about how Bruce exploded earlier today. She thinks of what Steve, in that laughably old-fashioned way of his, calls Bruce's "episodes".

She’s scared of him.

Bruce could hurt her.

All of her supposed friends could hurt her, of course, but she thinks that Bruce is the only one who is really dangerous. Who could hurt her not emotionally, but physically, even though he's slight and small and she's stronger than him, and most likely better-trained.

It's just that Bruce could hurt her without even wanting to, with the horrible strength that he gains from the episodes that leave him exhausted and feeling guilty (that's only one kind of episode, of course. He has panic attacks, too, or so Natasha has heard).

She doesn't like that idea at all. She doesn't like the idea of being powerless, even though she thinks that she could probably subdue Bruce in a fight.

He's unpredictable. That's the worst part. Bruce can be triggered by so many things, and she doesn't understand what's going on in his head at any given moment.

She hates that.

Natasha has been conditioned to be wary of everybody, to consider every person she comes across a threat. She finds that lately she’s been lenient about that.

Even so, she classifies Bruce as having a high threat level.

A few weeks after she becomes more than just wary of Bruce, he takes her aside. It’s the first time they’ve really talked, one to the other.

“You don’t like me very much, do you?” he asks in that self-deprecating way of his.

She shrugs. She’s not afraid, she’s not afraid, she’s not afraid, even though Bruce could explode any second.

“It’s okay,” he says, even though she never asked for his forgiveness. “I’m scared of myself, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be.”

Natasha presses her lips together, not sure what to say. “I’m scared of myself, too,” she offers. It’s uncomfortably personal, but she says it anyway, because Bruce maybe is her friend.

Bruce smiles shyly. “Oh.”

Natasha just barely smiles back, a soft twitch of her lips. “It’s not that I don’t like you,” she says, but she leaves the thought unfinished, and walks away.

+

Even as Natasha classifies Bruce as a threat, Thor’s threat level goes down and down and down until it’s practically non-existent. She’s not sure why. Thor is arrogant, especially when it comes to sports (she didn’t need to know that much about American football, or how good he is at it), and too loud, too pushy, too passionate, and too open. But there’s something about him that puts her at ease. He doesn’t give her the same tight, warm, nice feeling that Clint does, but she does feel something that’s actually affection for him.

Other than Clint, he’s the only person from the group (because she belongs to a group, now) that she spends time with, just the two of them.

When the whole group is together she’s usually with Clint, whispering cutting things about the movies Tony chooses, and interacting with everybody else as a unit, but Natasha finds that outside the group, she’s comfortable with Thor.

He has his demons, just like the rest of them, but he still tries to be there for everybody, and despite his flaws, fundamentally, he’s kind. Like Steve, but Clint’s the one who grew close to Steve as she migrated towards Thor.

Thor is all good intentions, loud laughter, and surprisingly thoughtful conversation. Natasha wouldn’t call him mature or smart, not in the way Bruce or Tony are smart, but he always has interesting things to say, and their conversations never bore her.

Thor isn’t an open book, of course, but she understands him pretty well, and she likes that.

Thor’s fond of her too, probably even more than she is of him. “You remind me of my little brother,” he tells her one day while they’re at the diner they usually go to when they’re spending time together. (Thor likes the pancakes and coffee, and Natasha’s adaptable.)

Natasha raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t know you had a brother.”

Thor shrugs and smiles his easy smile. “It never came up. But he is observant and clever like you, and he spins webs with words as well.”

“That’s a nice way to put it.”

Thor’s smile fades. “He left. He ran away a year ago, and… he still has not returned. I miss him.”

Natasha understands all of the things Thor hasn’t said.

My brother is gone, and it tore my family apart.

My brother is gone, and I am lonely.

“My parents looked for him for a long time, but he was always very clever, and I am truly not surprised that they did not find him. Someday he will return, though.”

Natasha almost says, He could be dead for all you know, Thor, but she doesn’t, because she doesn’t want to watch Thor’s face crumple. She doesn’t want to take away the absolute certainty he has about how that mess will end.

She doesn’t want to be cruel.

Instead, she just nods and steers the conversation towards a different topic, and soon Thor’s laughter is filling the diner again.

She feels safe with him.

One day, he tells her, “I wish you were my sister.”

She doesn’t say anything back because his words terrify her. Family is different from friends, and she doesn’t think she’s ready for that. She just smiles a little, shrugs, and changes the subject.

She pretends not to notice Thor’s disappointment.

+

Clint is her best friend, Natasha realizes one day as the end of the school year gets nearer and nearer. The idea makes her happy in a guilty, secret way, but it makes her nauseous at the same time.

Even as Natasha becomes closer to people, she can feel herself wanting to push them away. “You’re meant to be alone,” she whispers to herself late at night when she can’t sleep, words she heard so many times.

She can’t bring herself to leave; not now that she has a best friend and really, honestly doesn’t want to leave him. She’s never felt like this about another person before. Clint makes her feel deeply, even though she shouldn’t. Natasha is all surface.

Her lessons haunt her every single day, and every single day, and now she wonders how many of them were right, though she pushes those thoughts to the back of her head.

Natasha is sleepless lately, and now that Clint’s finally gotten the hang of a regular sleep schedule, she has nobody to talk to at night.

So she wanders around the house, and she thinks, and she watches television so that she can stop thinking. She never used to watch television when she was younger. Maybe when she was a little girl, but she doesn’t remember that. She definitely didn’t when she was with Ivan, since he didn’t have a set. She would read, but she’s tired of reading, now. That’s what she used to do.

So she watches old shows in black and white, and falls asleep to them, still in her clothes.

Some nights, Coulson joins her. He seems to have trouble sleeping too. He never tries to talk to her, only smiles and sits down next to her, on the opposite end of the sofa.

She doesn’t smile back.

She doesn’t tell Coulson to go away, either.

Now that Clint has stopped waking up in the middle of the night, Natasha’s mind is filled with ghosts, and no matter how little she likes Coulson, it’s nice to have a warm, living body near her to anchor her to the world outside her mind, as the tinny TV voices fill the living room.

+

Natasha doesn’t mind Physical Education much, even though it reminds her of her training.

She’s stronger than most of the other people in her class, barring Thor, and she’s quicker than him, to compensate.

She itches for them to do some kind of self-defense class, and at the same time is glad that they don’t.

Natasha doesn’t want anybody to ask her questions.

She doesn’t like talking to people outside of her group. She’s naturally a loner, and not fond of tolerating many people at once, not like Thor, who can’t stand being alone, ever, and loves large crowds.

Clint isn’t in Natasha’s P.E. class, but one day he grabs her arm while she’s heading to lunch. She barely restrains herself from throwing him to the ground. He doesn’t like being touched either, she thinks, irritated. Why does he insist on doing it to her?

To his credit, he releases his hold on her when he realizes what he’s doing, but he’s still clearly excited. “Tasha, you have to come with me.”

“Why?” She asks, nearly rolling her eyes, but she walks along with him anyway. To be honest, she follows him anywhere he wants to go, because he does the same for her. It evens out.

“The gym teacher’s letting me practice archery!”

Natasha knows about Clint’s perfect aim, of course, and she’s heard him talk about archery before. She hasn’t heard him sound this excited in a long time, though. It makes her glad. “I didn’t know you liked it so much.”

“Are you kidding? It’s the only thing I’m good at.”

Natasha frowns. She wants to say, That’s not true, even if she isn’t sure what she’d say after that, because she doesn’t understand her feelings well enough to put them into words.

Before she can open her mouth, Clint arrives at a space behind a shed. The dirt beneath Natasha’s feet puffs up and makes her want to cough, but she resists the urge.

It’s a small space, but there’s still an expanse of dirt from where an orange traffic cone stands as a marker and, apparently, a quiver, since there are seven arrows poking up from the hole in its middle, and the target. The target is large and multi-colored, with a small, yellow circle in the center that Natasha assumes is the bull’s eye.

Clint laughs scornfully, but Natasha can still hear the edge of excitement there. “The places I used to shoot were way better than this.” He grabs what looks like an old bow, strings it, and then, in a motion so fluid Natasha’s quick eyes almost don’t capture it, takes an arrow out of the makeshift quiver, nocks it and lets fly, hitting the bull’s eye.

Natasha’s eyes widen in surprise.

In less than a minute, every single one of the arrows ends up in the bull’s eye, and Clint is smiling widely as he goes out to the range to remove the arrows from the target.

He repeats the motions over and over again, and Natasha stands and watches, even though it’s really just the same thing repeated.

After a while she stops watching the arrows drive into the bull’s eye and starts watching Clint. She watches the sweat glisten on his forehead and cheeks, watches the bright determination in his eyes, watches his strong stance, the way that the well-defined muscles in his arms move as he draws back the bow.

A warm, tight feeling is building in her abdomen, and it’s not fondness, and it’s only when she notices a wetness between her legs that Natasha figures out that the feeling is attraction, want. She knows that she should be horrified, but doesn’t remember why.

“You’re good at this,” she says, and can’t keep all of the admiration out of her voice. She’s always liked competence.

Clint continues to shoot as he beams at the praise, and then the smile becomes something marginally darker. “Well, I’m the Amazing Hawkeye.” He lets his last arrow fly. “I never miss a shot.”

Natasha doesn’t know what he means, and she doesn’t ask.

The bell rings to signal the end of lunch.

That night, Natasha falls asleep and has a vivid dream that she doesn’t remember when she wakes up. All she remembers is that it was her and Clint and—

Her underwear is soaked through, and her skin is slick with sweat, and she feels almost satisfied before she just feels frightened.

It’s not that she doesn’t understand what’s going on. It’s that she doesn’t want to.

She starts preparing plans to leave that night, just in case.

At least it wasn’t a bad dream.

Next time she goes to sleep, she isn’t so lucky.

+

She's in the small house they lived in, once, a long time ago, she and her father and mother, the only grown-ups she ever trusted, when she was too young and foolish to even understand the concept of trust, and thus did so unconditionally.

It's cold, it's snowing. She likes the way the cold bites at her. She loves Russia. She's never known anyplace else, of course, but she's sure nowhere can compare in sheer scope of beauty and solitude.

Her father is holding her. He has strong, steady arms, and smears of rusty red blood on the collar of his coat, but she doesn't mind, because she always feels safe in his arms.

Her mother speaks, and it sounds like she's everywhere, an echo, far away. She calls Natasha her red angel, because of her hair.

Her father comes up with rhymes from the nickname, dark and twisted, but she squeals in delight whenever he jumps into one of his haphazard poems.

(Red angel, red angel,
hiding under the bed,
the night terrors of all
dishonest men.
Red angel, red angel,
gonna get you,
red angel, red angel,
sun's setting on you.
Oh, when she finds you,
you ought not to pray
because no one will listen
to your empty words
and red angel will take you away.
She's not alive, she's not dead,
she's more dangerous
than the black widow
and she's gonna take your head.)


It's a pleasant day, winter sunlight shimmering through the window, when the men come. Maybe there's women too, but who cares? They're all shadows, really.

Her father drops her, releases her from his strong arms into nothingness, yells, and then just becomes a smear of red. Natasha watches her father's blood come gurgling from his mouth, watches the blood come faster from his gut, watches him try to say something, but instead he gasps like a fish. He's drowning.

Natasha just watches, sprays of red across her pretty pale yellow dress, and she doesn't understand.

Her father stops moving, and Natasha still can't comprehend the situation. There's another loud noise in the kitchen--bang, gunshot!--and she looks and sees her mother, lying on the floor, all splayed out like she's going to make a snow angel, half of her body in the kitchen and half out. She's not moving, she's not breathing.

Neither is Daddy, and now Natasha understands, understands the meaning of the warm blood, understands the meaning of her father's eyes glazed over, and she screams, a little girl's scream, and somebody's picked her up, and she's moving, she's kicking, (red angel's gonna take your head--more dangerous than the black widow--don't pray don't pray don't pray--gonna get you--she's not alive, she's not dead--she's not alive she's not dead--she'snotaliveshe'snotdead--shesnotaliveshesnotdead) she's screaming, screaming, screaming.


+

She's screaming, screaming, screaming.

("Natasha, Jesus Christ, wake up, wake up, wake up, what the fuck?")

Her voice is pitched as high as it can go, and she's in pajamas, and she's not a little girl anymore, she's not been a little girl in a very long time.

"Don't get closer, Clint, you don't know how awake she is, she could hurt you. It's better to wait these things out."

"Natasha? Tasha?"

Her voice is hoarse. Her throat hurts.

She's not alive, she's not dead.

She's not dead.

She's alive.

The screaming stops, slowly, and she looks around the room, and she swears she was in a different place just a few minutes ago. Her throat feels like it's bleeding. Her hands are clutching her hair. When she was little, she kept it in a braid.

She's cut it short. When did that happen?

She remembers now.

Her breath is coming in and out fast, too fast. She tries to breathe in slower, and it works. It's okay.

"It's okay, Nat."

"Clint," she says with her hoarse voice. "Clint." His name feels nice to say. "Clint."

"Yeah, I'm here."

"You weren't."

"Yeah, well you weren't either. You okay?"

"I'm fine." She looks at Coulson, and feels her face flush with shame at his placid, concerned expression. Her pajamas are sweat-drenched, and her hair is sticking to her face. She licks her lips and tastes salt. She brings her hand up to her cheek, touches the wet tracks her tears have left. She can't believe she's been crying. She hasn't cried in years. She sighs heavily. "I'm fine. Just...let me get cleaned up." She looks at Coulson with as much hostility as she can muster, but she must be very tired, because he doesn't even raise an eyebrow. "Go away," she tells Clint and Coulson, and they do.

Clint looks over his shoulder a couple of times, though.

She thinks that maybe next time he cries in his sleep, she'll wake him up. But she won't ask what he's dreaming about. He didn't ask her.

Maybe someday she'll tell him anyway.

+

After she has the night terror, she realizes that she can't stay.

She can't be here, safe, with Clint and with her friends, because people she loves get taken away, and she's going to get hurt.

This is going to hurt them, though, a voice in her head that has never existed before points out. Think about Clint. You like him. Think about Thor. It'll break his heart, to have another sibling run away. Would you really do that to somebody you love?

Yes, 
she answers.

This could end in so many ugly ways, and she has so many people that she...cares for, now. So many people that could betray her, die, leave. So many people that she could hurt. It's in her nature. It's best just to cut herself off from them before they really get under her skin.

Natasha's selfish, after all. She's learned that it's the best way to be.

Everything is impermanent, she reminds herself as she packs a backpack at night when Clint and Coulson are out getting food. They decided to walk, so it'll take a while for them to get back. Clint gets along better with Coulson than she ever has. They'll be fine together.

She might want to kiss Clint, but that’s not something she can afford to want.

Natasha isn't ready for a romantic relationship, no matter how much she wants one, and she doesn't. She doesn't. They're friends, best friends, and that's just as bad as lovers.

She gives herself all these flimsy excuses, but they all halt in her mind when the doorbell rings. She's on alert now.

She opens the door, and Natasha isn't shocked often, but that's the feeling she gets now, looking at Bruce Banner on the doorstep, practically falling down.

There's a long cut on his head, and his hair is matted to his forehead with the blood from it and sweat. His lip is badly split. He has a spectacular black eye, and a bruise on his chin. It's chilly outside, but he's not wearing a coat, and his shirt is short-sleeved, so she can see the mottled bruises, some of them fading, some of them recent.

That's all she sees before Bruce bends over and vomits on her shoes, rank yellow bile and whatever little he might have eaten that day splattering all over her shoes and pants.

Natasha doesn't even blink.

She drops her backpack and tries to grab Bruce, who is falling, but he ends up on his knees, heaving until he can't anymore. She has power over him right now, she realizes. The position is one of subordination. Maybe when she was younger she would've liked that, but now she just feels a little sick. She swallows the feeling, though, grabbing Bruce under the shoulders and trying to get him up. He's heavy though, and shivering. For a second, Natasha hates him for being weak, but only for a second. "Come on, Bruce. You have to get up."

Bruce manages to stumble to his feet, and leaning most of his weight on Natasha, staggers to the couch, curling up protectively around himself.

Natasha bets he has broken ribs, by the way he's holding himself, and at the very least a badly sprained wrist, which she can see is swollen.

She grabs her phone.

"No," Bruce says with as much conviction as he can muster through the pain. "Please, no."

"I'm calling an ambulance."

"No ambulance, please, please, please--"

He sounds so desperate, so frightened, that Natasha puts down the phone. Bruce spits blood onto his shirt.

"Are you coughing up blood?" she asks, because she knows what that could mean.

Bruce shakes his head almost imperceptibly.

Natasha believes him, but she's not going to take any sort of chance here. Bruce has to get to the hospital.

She doesn’t call an ambulance, not after his earlier reaction. She doesn't even think of it. Later, she wonders why, but never figures out the reason, why she made such an entirely illogical decision. Before Natasha can think of whether she's making the right choice or not, she's pulling Bruce up from the couch and leading him to Coulson's car as quickly as possible, grabbing the keys on her way out. Bruce stumbles and almost falls, but Natasha pushes him, and eventually she manages to get him into the car. Before she pulls out of the driveway, she draws the seatbelt over his chest. He whimpers, but somebody once told her that the highest cause of death is car accidents, and she's not going to take any chances, especially since it’s been a long time since she’s driven a car.

She's out of practice, but it's late at night and the streets are empty, and the hospital is close. She trusts herself more than an ambulance; there are too many things that could go wrong, too many suspicious people in the world. She shoots looks over to Bruce, to see if he's passed out, and wonders why she was ever afraid of this child.

She hadn't realized that Bruce had gotten under her skin just as much as the rest of them.

And that’s when she knows. She knows that she's not going to be able to run away, to abandon this almost comfortable new life she's been planning to leave behind. She's not going to be able to leave the people she's grown fond of, the first in years and years. She's weak. She's so weak.

She wants to cry, but swallows it back.

She pulls into the hospital parking lot, catches Bruce as he almost falls onto the concrete.

"Almost there," she says, whispering into his hair. "Almost."

He's practically deadweight by the time she gets him into the emergency room, but he's taken from her quickly. She almost lashes out, afraid for him, afraid of what they'll do to him, because she remembers being little in the doctor's office, after her parents were killed. They used to stick her with needles to keep her complacent. They stopped once she started to pretend she was happy to be there, once she caught on to what her father (not really, not ever) wanted from her. She decided she could live with that, she could be an assassin, she could kill for a living, thoughtlessly, she could be thoughtless, that wasn't so bad. But despite that decision, she could never quite be the mindless machine she was meant to be.

(Her not-father says, "All people deserve to die."

She frowns. "But that doesn't make sense. Why would we be alive if we all deserved to die?"

Her not-father hits her, and her mouth fills with blood. Her eyes sting, but she doesn't cry. She's twelve years old, and she doesn't do that anymore.

"Don't you dare question me, stupid child," he rages, and she watches him, and tunes out his words.


Not everybody deserves to die, she decides, even though she's not supposed to have opinions. But some people do.

Three years later her not-father's blood splatters over his pillow as she makes her first kill. "You should be proud of me," she tells his corpse fiercely as the police bring down the front door. "This is what I was born to do.")

Natasha sits in the waiting room, staring at the wall, lost in her thoughts, lost in a past she wants to forget but never will. She is a monster, she is a killer. She has only killed one man, and he deserved to die, but she's a killer all the same.

Her hair is stringy with sweat, and her hands are slippery.

A nurse asks for her contact information three times before she answers.

Eventually, Coulson and Clint hurry into the waiting room. Clint runs over to her. "What the fuck, Nat?"

Natasha shrugs. "I did what I had to do. Bruce is hurt."

"I heard," Coulson says, sighing.

Clint slumps down next to Natasha, and she leans her head on his shoulder, not even thinking about the intimacy of the gesture. "Maybe now they'll finally lock that asshole up."

Coulson says, grimly, "I'll make sure of it."

"How is he?" Natasha asks, and her voice sounds thin to her ears.

"They won't tell me much, but he's okay."

"That's good," she whispers. "That's good."

She should have run away. She should have walked right over Bruce's slumped body and started a new life for herself, instead of this one with these people she's started trusting against her own instincts, with this boy she wants to fall in love with.

She is, by nature, meant to be alone. To not form meaningful connections. That is what her not-father said, over and over again.

(Oh, Natasha, dear child, the world is cruel. Never get comfortable. Look at what happened to your mama and papa. You loved them, and you lost them. Hopefully, that will be a lesson to you to never love somebody again, yes?)

She did the right thing.

Natasha didn't think she was capable of that anymore.

She covers her face with her hands, and when she starts crying, finds she can't stop.

Clint touches her and she lets him, she lets him wrap his arm around her and lean his head against her shoulder, because she wants to be touched, and especially by him. She wants to kiss him, she wants to fall in love with him. He's her best friend but she's never had one of those before, and she's afraid. She thought she was fearless, but really, she's been terrified this whole time.

+

When Natasha and Clint and Coulson get home from the hospital, after checking up on Bruce and passing off watching him to a frantic Tony, they're all exhausted.

Natasha sees her full backpack lying on the ground where she left it, and feels sick. Ashamed, even, but just a little. Despite the things she has learned over these past few months, she's still not one for feeling emotions deeply.

She picks it up, and takes it to her room. She unpacks all the clothes she stuffed in there. That's when Clint comes in. She looks up at him, and he's angry. She knows he knows, at that moment, and she waits for whatever he's going to say with blank, empty eyes.

"Why?" he asks roughly, seething. Clint feels all of his emotions deeply. She likes that about him, no matter how stupid it is. "I thought you were...okay. Weren't you happy here, or were you just fucking waiting to leave like everyone else?"

"I was happy here. I am happy here." She thinks she is, at least.

"Then what the fuck, Natasha?"

She doesn't say a word, just stares at him because there are so many explanations, but all of them sound silly and she doesn't know which one to try first.

"When I was little, my mom and dad died, and I wasn't even sad about it," Clint blurts out. "My dad was a...a dick, he used to drink a lot and he'd hit me and my brother and my mom. My mom was like a shadow, I didn't even know her. Barney and me...we...lived in shitty group home after shitty group home, and when they decided we were difficult and wanted to split us up, Barney took me one night and we just left, and we joined...we joined the fucking circus!" Clint laughs at that, harsh and bemused. "Like a goddamn fairytale or something, only it wasn't that great. Nobody really wanted us there, but we helped to clean and stuff, so they kept us, and then they found out I was talented. You know how I am with a bow and arrow -- they called me the Amazing Hawkeye and pretended I was older than I was. It was okay, but then my brother started stealing and then he left, Natasha. He just fucking left, and I didn't know why, and I'll never know why. He might as well be dead, I don't even care. I would've cared if you'd left. I like you, Natasha, you're my best friend, and I thought you liked me too, I thought..." Clint cuts himself off. "I thought you liked all of us."

Natasha takes a sharp breath. "You're not wrong. That's why I tried to leave."

"Why? What kind of fucked up person does something like that?" Clint is on the verge of tears, and Natasha's looking him into the eye but doesn't want to, because she doesn't want to see him cry. She doesn't say a word, and in the end they just look at each other for a while, and Clint’s eyes are glassy with unshed tears, and then he turns away. "You're just like everyone else."

When Clint has one foot out the door, Natasha finally speaks. "When I was little girl, I was stolen."

Clint freezes, and turns around to face her. "What?"

"I was a normal kid, and I loved my parents. My dad had an... illicit job, and I knew, a little, but I didn't mind. He killed people, but he was still my father. My mother was always there for me, and she loved me. They both loved me. But one day, some men came into my home, and they killed them. My father and my mother, right in front of me, and that's when I realized that nothing is permanent. Happiness does not last. One of my father's associates had killed him. Ivan. He said that he was my father now, and he called me his black widow, and he told me it was because black widows were always alone. Ruthless. He trained me, for years, to become an assassin like him, like my father. I would have been good at it, I think. I helped with some of his jobs. But he wanted me to be his puppet. He wanted me to be nobody, a vessel without opinions or thoughts of my own, but I never was. He told me over and over again that the only thing people would do was hurt me, that everybody would leave me, that it would be for the best if I never get close to people, because they could not be trusted. I couldn't be trusted either, he said. He said I'd always hurt people I loved, it was simply the way I was wired. He said I shouldn't love, because in the end it wasn't worth it."

"What happened to him?" Clint asks in a whisper.

"I killed him. To get away. Because I was never his puppet. He just thought I was."

"Good." Clint almost sounds angry again when he says the next words. "Why would you believe that? It's all bullshit."

"I know. I've always known, but I haven't always been aware of that. And he was my only contact with the outside world for so many years, so some of his words became a part of me. And with this new world, I just... decided that there must have been some wisdom in the things he said."

"But I know you never really believed that. You never would have become friends with me or anyone else if you had."

"No. But I made excuses. I'm good at that. I'm afraid, Clint. I'm afraid of being hurt, and I'm afraid of hurting people. He said I was born to do that. I really did believe him. For a long time. And I can't let go of it. Not yet."

"Everyone hurts people, but he was wrong about you. I think you're a good person, Tasha."

"Think again."

Clint shrugs. "Well, I'm not a good person either, so I guess we're even."

Natasha smiles. "I guess so." She pauses. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay. And you're allowed to be afraid, y'know, but you... I mean, I'm here. We all are."

Natasha finds that reassuring.

Clint walks over to her bed, bends down, and gives her a kiss. His lips are chapped, but so are hers. It's nice.

She'd like to do it again, but Clint walks away before she can tell him that.

+

Three months later, Natasha is in some kind of relationship with Clint. Well, maybe she is, and maybe not, but at this point it’s what everybody assumes. It’s really just the same as they’ve always been, though a little closer, and occasionally they kiss.

They talk more, about the things they’ve been through. Natasha feels liberated, almost.

Bruce’s dad is finally arrested, and Bruce goes to live with Coulson’s “old friend” Nick Fury. Bruce seems happier lately, and at least a bit calmer.

As school ends, life falls into a rhythm that Natasha thinks she wouldn’t mind becoming a familiar one.

Of course, things can never stay good for long. That’s a lesson that Natasha knows for a fact isn’t bullshit, if only because one day in the middle of the summer she gets a call from Bruce.

They’ve gotten closer over time, but Bruce still wouldn’t call her for anything less than an emergency, so Natasha is wary.

“Yes?”

“It’s Thor,” Bruce says quietly, sparing Natasha any empty pleasantries.

“What about him?” Natasha asks off-handedly, even though she already knows the answer.

“It’s his brother. They found his body in New York. Thor’s parents ID’d it yesterday, and they’re still not back.”

“What do you want me to do about it?” Natasha asks curiously. It’s blunt, but not malicious. She’s not much good at comforting, she doesn’t know how much help she’d be to somebody grieving like Thor is.

“Thor won’t answer his phone or his doorbell, and we thought we’d ask you, since you’re kind of his best friend.”

“What if he wants to be alone?”

“Thor never wants to be alone.”

“I’ll try and see if he’s okay.” The words seem silly once Natasha hangs up, because Thor’s obviously not okay. Natasha knows how much he loved his brother.

She walks to Thor’s house. It’s in a very nice neighborhood, all white houses and picket fences. It doesn’t suit Thor’s exuberance at all.

She knocks on the door of the Odinson home, which is identical to all the other homes in the neighborhood. She hates it.

Nobody answers.

She rings the doorbell.

No answer, but she didn’t expect one, so she just climbs over the fence, walks over to the back door and lets herself in. It’s laughably easy.

Her shorts are torn up and she scratched her arm climbing the fence, but she doesn’t care. That would be a stupid thing to care about in a situation like this.

Natasha walks into a hallway. “Thor?” she calls out, uncomfortable in the spotless house.

She finds Thor’s room, but he’s not in there. It isn’t the scene of organized chaos it usually is. Now it’s just chaos. He probably destroyed it when he heard the news. That seems like the kind of thing that Thor would do.

She walks down the hall, a little further. Thor’s in the bathroom. She hears him before she sees him, deep, harsh breaths.

Then she opens the door and walks inside.

Maybe the lights in the bathroom are unflattering. Maybe Thor actually looks that bad. Natasha’s money is on the second option. His skin looks washed out, there are dark circles under his eyes, and his eyes themselves are bloodshot from crying.

The part of the scene that really catches her attention is the large chunk of blond hair falling gently to the tiled floor to rest with several other pieces.

Thor’s noticed her presence—he tensed when she came in—but he’s cutting his hair anyway, in a way that’s not as frenzied as Natasha would expect from him. It’s almost calculated, almost how she was, a lifetime ago, staring into the mirror as she sawed through her long red braid with a dull pair of scissors clutched tightly in her hand.

Thor’s hands are shaking, though. Hers were steady. And he’s probably going to regret this, later.

Thor’s hair isn’t nearly as long as it used to be, but it can be salvaged, even though it’s ragged.

He’s grieving, in his own way, which seems to be mutilating the hair he’s always been so proud of.

Natasha understands. Thor’s getting ready to start a new life, a life without Loki, just as she was getting ready to start a new life at the beginning of the school year.

Natasha feels an ache in her chest, and, as Thor brings up the scissors again, says, “Stop.”

Her voice feels alien, disembodied.

Natasha thinks that another person, a person inclined towards saying empty platitudes, would say something like, “It’s okay.”

But things are so clearly not okay that such a statement would be laughable.

So Natasha says something true instead. “I’m sorry.”

She is. She never understood what it meant to hurt for somebody before meeting these people, but now she’s intimately acquainted with the feeling.

Thor turns toward her. There is misery clearly etched into his face, in the way that his eyebrows droop, in the twist of his mouth.

“I always thought he would come home someday,” Thor admits, his strange, sure voice suddenly sounding small and defeated. “I never considered that he might die.” Thor’s blue eyes are bright with tears.

Natasha isn’t sure what to say, but then she remembers Thor’s words in that diner, what seems like a long time ago, but wasn’t, not really, so she says, “You once told me that you wished I was your sister. I didn’t answer, but the truth is that I wish I was your sister too.” She pauses, and looks right into Thor’s eyes. He blinks. Two tears drip down his already tearstained cheeks. “It’ll be okay,” she says, because that might be true someday, and then she says words that feel strange, coming from her, but are so true that she says it with a conviction that she’s never truly felt before. “You don’t have to be alone.”