Natasha Romanov was, if she was honest with herself, a pragmatist. Natasha was usually honest with herself, because she was a pragmatist, after all, and lying to yourself never helped anyone, especially someone who lied to other people for a living. She knew she struggled with relationships, real relationships, not the ones where she was somebody else – Natasha had spent so long manipulating people, manipulating their emotions, that she did not really trust others, trust herself with others; the list of those she did trust completely was very short.
And now it was shorter, because Phil was gone.
Natasha couldn’t quite bring herself to say dead yet. Gone was safer. Less final. Natasha’s pragmatism was not entirely up to that amount of honesty, not yet.
For someone who dealt in death on a daily basis, this was one death Natasha couldn’t even begin to deal with. It didn’t help that she’d been too busy helping a bunch of overgrown children save the world from an alien invasion at the hands of a psychopath, or that she’d left Maria behind on the damaged helicarrier, or that Clint had had his mind turned inside out by a god. She had almost forgotten about Phil, because Phil was far too competent, too good at his job to do anything except get on with it. And too smart to go up against Loki alone armed with R&D’s latest disaster.
She kept expecting to hear his voice in her ear, reassuring even though Natasha never looked like she needed reassurance. She saw him in shadows, turned to doorways only to find he wasn’t there, and she didn’t quite know what to do with the empty space. For Natasha, that was unnerving.
Clint, however, fell apart. He coped just about long enough to see Loki taken back to the Asgard, just enough to climb into the car Natasha had borrowed from Stark, and then he broke. He fell in on himself, and Natasha watched as he faded, as the glint of purpose faded from his eyes. He seemed to shrink, there in the passenger seat, looking older and so very, very tired.
Natasha drove back to the hotel room she’d booked for them, under one of the false names she was certain SHIELD didn’t know about, because she had known they could not – and would not – return to SHIELD immediately. She propelled him into the hotel, and once they were in the room, she stripped him, checked his scratches and bruises and wounds, and put him into the bed. She gave him some painkillers (Doctor Banner had given them to her, and while she did not entirely trust Banner, she knew Clint had been bashed about enough to fracture a couple of ribs and leave bruises that would take weeks to fade). She put food in front of him, and she watched him eat some of it, enough to satisfy her. She turned the TV on, and they watched bad crime dramas and several re-runs of Project Runway. Or at least Natasha watched, she wasn’t sure Clint was actually seeing anything. She didn't try to talk to him, because she didn't know what to say. She settled for being there, for bossing him about, because she knew how to do that at least.
When she decided it was time they slept, she re-checked the room security – she had set a few traps and alarms when they’d first arrived – and lay down beside him, and held him.
She wasn’t sure if he slept; she knew she didn’t.
The next day, she called Maria from a cheap mobile, using her private number, and listened to the grief in Maria’s voice, the exhaustion and the sadness and the worry, and then they discussed their plans, Natasha making it clear that she was not going to let the whole possibly-renegade-from-a-secret-government-agency problem create any more issues in their relationship than it absolutely had to; they agreed that returning to either their flat, or to Phil and Clint’s, was not a good idea, at least not until Maria could work out what the outcome of Fury’s power-play with the WSC was going to be. Natasha didn’t want to put Sarah in danger – she was safe enough at SHIELD HQ, for the time being, even though Maria was talking of sending her down to her parents’ in Philadelphia as soon as the first non-essential personnel transport was approved.
“Stark offered us a place,” Natasha said. “In his tower.”
“Take it,” Maria said instantly.
“I’m not sure. It’s – I’m worried about Clint.”
“You’d have help,” Maria replied, her voice soft, echoing the worry Natasha tried to keep from her voice. “Stark might be a lunatic, but he can handle the press and the danger.”
“He’s an egomaniac.”
“You can’t hide in hotel rooms forever, Nat. You need somewhere you know won’t be compromised, and Stark won’t sell you out.”
Natasha sighed. “Ok,” she agreed. “Besides, you’ll know where to find me.”
“I love you,” Maria said. “I have to go.”
“I’ll call tomorrow,” Natasha promises, and hangs up. She opens the phone, removes the SIM; she dumps the phone in a rubbish bin, and takes a knife to the SIM, before dumping it in a bottle of coke. That she dumps in another trash can. New York is trying to pick itself up – the less damaged parts of the city already have, and life continues on as normal. That includes trash collection, and the truck is only moments behind her.
Clint hasn’t moved from the bed. He doesn’t react to Natasha’s greeting. He grunts when she tells him they’re going to Stark’s monument to his own penis, and so Natasha dresses him, and picks up the one bag they have, and steers him out.
Stark greets them cheerfully, but distantly, like he’s not quite sure why they’ve arrived and he was just on his way out, even though it’s only been two days since the invasion. He calls Natasha Natalie, and then tries to pretend he didn’t; he claps Clint on the shoulder, and is loud, and brash, and then Pepper appears, dressed in a neat navy suit, her heels clacking on the lobby floor. She takes over smoothly, instructing JARVIS to assign rooms to Specialist Barton and Specialist Romanov on the seventy-third floor (Natasha is unsurprised she uses the correct term), and explains that Doctor Banner is on the seventy-second, and JARVIS will assign them access codes. Natasha is relieved to see Pepper, because Pepper doesn’t get on her nerves the way Stark does.
Natasha nods along to Pepper, and pretends that Clint is listening (he isn’t), and she accepts Pepper’s offer to order them some more clothes; they have a single duffle bag between them, and it’s mostly full of weapons.
“I’ll have them delivered,” Pepper smiles, “There’s a gym on the third floor you’re welcome to use – and a sauna. Most of the lower floors were undamaged, but the labs and workshops are still closed while we make repairs to the system. I’ll make sure it’s private, if you don’t mind sharing with me occasionally. I don’t know if Bruce uses the gym, he hasn’t yet. He’ll have access too. JARVIS will begin outfitting the gym on the personal floors once the repairs are finished.”
Pepper chatters as she leads Natasha – who leads Clint – to the elevator. Stark has buzzed off to supervise building work, or fuck about with his suits, or annoy Bruce; Natasha doesn’t particularly care, as long as he isn’t near her. She was not used to feeling guilty over doing what was necessary, and she is not quite ready to deal with the relief she felt when Iron Man fell from the sky as the portal snapped shut, and his presence unsettled her as a result – on top of her finding Stark irritating when he dons his playboy genius public persona.
JARVIS welcomes them to the residential floors – informing them in his dry voice that he will require voice codes and thumbprints to access these floors in the future, and that StarkTech tablets will be provided, which will tell them their access codes, and enable them to set up their security profiles to their requirements.
“Although I will assume that, unless instructed otherwise, you wish for the standard top security,” JARVIS remarked, blandly. “This will provide you with secured communications and private file storage.”
“Thank you, JARVIS,” Natasha says.
“A pleasure, Specialist. I am sorry I will be unable to reinstate what access to the StarkIndustries system you had as Ms Rushton.” JARVIS’ bland English voice doesn’t seem to be having difficulties separating Natasha from her previous cover.
“That’s quite alright,” Natasha murmured, glancing at Pepper. “I am not here for SHIELD anymore.”
The rooms Pepper showed them were really large suites, with individual kitchen-diners, living rooms with the latest StarkTech gadgets, and even guest rooms; they were decorated tastefully, but impersonally, with the air of untouched hotel rooms.
“You are welcome to instruct JARVIS to make whatever changes you need to the furnishings – the rooms were intended to house visiting businessmen and the occasional consulting scientist, but we haven’t had anyone stay here yet,” Pepper explains. “Tony wanted to hold off until the reactor was online. Now he’s mostly trying to get The Avengers to move in, even though he says he doesn’t want people everywhere. I have tried to remind him he lives in a penthouse on top of an R&D department. The kitchens are basic, and JARVIS will see to any groceries you want delivered – please just let him know. There will be an AI cleaning service, although you will need to tell JARVIS if you require any changes to their routine, he runs them. There’s a laundry room at the end of the main hallway if you prefer to do your own. I’ll leave you to settle in.”
“Thank you, Pepper,” Natasha said, and she is grateful, because Pepper is taking this in her stride, and managing not to look flustered or annoyed at having two potential fugitives – one who hasn’t reacted to anything she’s said, and is trailing Natasha like a shadow – on her doorstep two days after her home, and most impressive project as StarkIndustries CEO, was the center of an alien invasion that nearly killed her boyfriend. Natasha likes Pepper – and knows Pepper’s friendship will be important – so she returns her hug, and smiles, and waves Pepper into the elevator, before steering Clint into her flat (she arbitrarily decides the left-hand apartment is hers) and depositing him onto the plush black leather sofa.
Clint’s silence worries her, and she doesn’t know what to do about it. She is pretty certain she needs to make sure they have safety, shelter, and food before she can start to work out what to do. Being an assassin doesn’t really require much training in grief counselling.
Natasha sets up her security profile – and steers Clint through his, instructing him to press his fingers here, not to blink now, and to say “the shepherd is in the pasture and Barbie has a new boyfriend” on cue (her voice code is “thunderbirds are go because the candy is chewy”, and she decides Stark’s insanity has bled into his AI systems). She asks JARVIS to ensure that nobody will enter the flat without her permission, and makes a grocery list on the tablet. Her requests arrive along with Happy, who is carrying several bags filled with clothes – there are workout clothes, and nightwear, and underwear that is not a SHIELD-issue bra designed to withstand everything Natasha can do in a fight (Maria once described it as a sports bra on steroids). There are toiletries, including some that Natasha didn’t order, which Happy tells her Pepper requested, more luxurious than Natasha would have gone for, but she accepts them with a smile. Then she has an efficient shower, and calls Maria, and worries about Clint.
She is not relieved when he cries into her shoulder than night, but she sleeps wrapped around him, and kisses his forehead, and doesn’t pretend she has anything to say. She hopes it was enough.
Steve Rogers turns up a few days later – Natasha has already persuaded JARVIS to tell her of any visitors from SHIELD or the other Avengers. The video feed shows him looking rumpled and tired and a little sad, and Natasha does not go to greet him. JARVIS tells her that Pepper installs him on the same floor as Doctor Banner (who Natasha is yet to see); Stark is delighted, and picks a fight with him, before declaring they should all eat dinner together. Banner puts in an appearance, looking rather hangdog, and Clint does not react to Natasha’s attempts to bring him with her, saying he’d rather not deal with Cap. Natasha can understand that. Natasha tells the others that he is still exhausted. Steve asks her quietly if she is ok, and she smiles into his big, guileless blue eyes, and says she is not, but she will be – she finds Steve hard to lie to, and she trusts him most of all the others, even though she isn’t sure where his allegiances lie. She doesn’t know if Steve knows either.
Dinner is mostly silent, except for Stark’s unstoppable chatter, which everyone is apparently already able to tune out. Cap asks Pepper about the rebuilding plans, and Banner listens intently; the two discuss going to help with the physical efforts. Natasha watches them all and wonders what the hell she is doing with these people, what any of them are doing with each other.
Maria arrives the next afternoon, requesting a meeting, still wearing her SHIELD catsuit, accessorising with a fading bruise on her temple and a frown, and trailed by a couple of agents (one Natasha knows, vaguely, from a mission in Islamabad a few years ago, another is a face she has seen around the base in New Mexico; she does not ignore them, but she dismisses them as largely irrelevant). Natasha arrives as Pepper is shaking Maria’s hand; Stark and Cap are lurking in the background – Stark looks ready for an argument, and Cap looks like he’s really hoping for good news and no drawn weapons.
Sarah is with Maria, and Natasha finds a knot in her chest undoing, one she hadn’t really recognised, and she embraces the little girl in front of everyone, burying her face for a moment in Sarah’s curly brown hair. Sarah hugs her back, arms tight around her neck, and Natasha doesn’t want to let her go at all, ever again.
“I didn’t realise you trained agents in kindergarten, AD Hill,” Stark says, sharply, and his face is disapproving, harsh.
Sarah regards him coolly. She is dressed in dark trousers, and a baggy flight suit-style jacket, over a pink t-shirt, and shitkicker boots Fury would have been proud of; her backpack has the SHIELD logo on it, along with a large collection of keyring toys and patches. Natasha considers it, and decides while it is perfectly normal for her, and perfectly normal for Sarah, everyone outside SHIELD probably thinks it’s a bit weird. She remembers Stark has daddy issues, and decides this will not stop her punching him senseless if he criticises Maria’s parenting.
“I’m not an agent,” Sarah tells him, an eight year old going up against a billionaire. “And I’m in third grade.”
“SHIELD recognises that their agents’ unusual work sometimes needs unusual support structures,” Maria says, and she sounds tired. “There are childcare facilities on the main bases. Sarah’s father is also with SHIELD, and she was in the offices in the city at the time of the attack. My apologies for bringing her, but we cannot spare the manpower to escort her to my parents’ house, and her father is needed.”
“And I wanted to see Natasha,” Sarah adds, still indignant. Natasha winks at her.
Stark blinked, not used to being addressed by Hill at all, let alone in such a blunt voice, or by indignant eight year olds who have inherited their mother’s glare. Natasha tried not to smile.
“She’s yours?” Cap asked, confused.
Cap looked at Sarah. Sarah eyed him sceptically (she was her mother’s daughter, and her father’s too, and she had probably been sceptical from the moment she first focused her eyes).
“Sarah Sitwell-Hill, pleased to meet you, Captain,” Sarah said, holding her hand out. At least she was politely sceptical, which was more than could be said for her father. Steve shook her hand, and smiled, because he was Steve and smiled at everyone, but especially children.
“Call me Steve,” he said, friendly but uncertain.
“Can I get you anything to drink, Assistant Director?” Pepper said, stepping smoothly in front of Stark, and stepping on his foot. “JARVIS, please engage security protocols in the conference room,” Pepper gestured towards a glass-walled room off the main hallway, and Natasha took the hint, and led the way, Sarah holding her hand.
“Some coffee would be wonderful,” Maria said, and followed Pepper.
The others trooped after her, Stark gawping at Sarah. Banner had arrived silently, and looked nervous.
“Is there somewhere Sarah could do her homework while we talk?” Maria asked, gesturing for the other agents to sit.
“Uh – sure,” Pepper says, as if she has suddenly realised that Sarah is not about to sit in on the meeting.
Natasha resists the urge to roll her eyes. SHIELD does not give security clearance to eight year olds.
“May I suggest the kitchen, Ms Potts?” JARVIS’ smooth voice suggested. Sarah blinked at the ceiling.
“That’s JARVIS,” Natasha whispered to her. “He’s the computer who runs the tower.”
“Thank you, JARVIS,” Pepper recovered smoothly. “That sounds perfect.”
“I’ll show her,” Natasha volunteers, deciding she doesn’t really want to let Sarah out of her sight just yet. “Come on, Sarah.”
“We won’t be long,” Maria kisses her daughter, and smiles briefly at Natasha. To Natasha, it is like a caress; they have long spoken through glances, and this one says I missed you, I’ve been worried, I love you. She holds Maria’s gaze – I love you, I missed you, I worry about you too, thank you for bringing Sarah – and then leads Sarah out. The glass turns opaque as the door closes, so Natasha sweeps the little girl into her arms, and carries her, because she hadn’t realised just how worried she’d been about her until she’d seen her face in the lobby, and she wants to make this last.
“JARVIS, will you help Sarah if she needs me, or AD Hill?” Natasha addresses the air, knowing the AI will hear.
“Of course, Specialist. I will monitor Ms Sitwell-Hill’s presence continually. I apologise that the tower is not better prepared, but we have not had any young visitors to these levels, and we hadn’t expected any.”
“Are you really the tower?” Sarah asks, and Natasha is amazed that by her resilience, because she’s pretty certain children are not supposed to take AI butlers in their stride quite so quickly.
“I am present in all of the networked StarkIndustries systems,” JARVIS says, and his voice is a little softer than usual, and Natasha wonders if he is nervous addressing a child. “Sir – that is Mr Stark – built me to manage the systems and provide support as needed, on a personal level.”
“That’s so cool,” Sarah said. “Can I use the internet for my homework please?”
“It would be a pleasure to assist you, Ms Sitwell-Hill,” JARVIS says, and one of the tables in the kitchen produces a screen, and a holographic keyboard.
Natasha pours milk for Sarah, and fusses for a moment, until Sarah grins at her, and hugs her again.
“JARVIS will help me, Nat,” she said, oozing confidence and eight-year-old delight at a new toy. “We’ll be fine. I’ll call if I need you.”
Natasha kisses the top of her head, and momentarily vows that she is going to wreak havoc, and pain, havoc and pain, on anyone who so much as thinks about hurting a hair on Sarah’s head, then slips back to the conference room, where Stark is being an ass, Maria looks irritated, and everyone else just looks uncomfortable.
“Thank you, Specialist,” Maria says.
“You really have a kid with Sitwell,” Stark blurts out.
Natasha resists the temptation to bang her head against the table, and considers disembowelling him with the coffee spoon on the saucer Pepper has just passed her.
“Is this really necessary, Tony?” Steve says, because he is trying to be polite.
“It’s just weird. I mean – Hill, you’re a lovely person I’m sure, but you work for Fury. You’re wearing a leather catsuit and a gun.”
“People have children,” Banner says mildly. “Even secret agents.”
“Does Fury have kids?” Tony’s latched on to this now, and the idea of Fury as a father obviously tickles him.
Natasha runs fingers over the spoon. She could shoot him, but that would be noisy.
“Director Fury has adult children,” Agent Lee, the one Natasha knows from Islamabad, is acerbic and impatient. He looks like he’d much rather be elsewhere, rather than following Hill about and discussing children with Tony Stark.
“God. Imagine that kissing you goodnight. There’d be no monsters under the fucking bed with him about though.”
“Thank you, Tony,” Pepper says, and Natasha knows she’s just kicked him under the table. “What can we do for you, AD Hill?”
“Thank you, Ms Potts. I don’t have much to bring you all, I’m afraid. SHIELD is assisting the city of New York with repairs, as you know. We know we’re not in a position to ask anything of you, but if StarkIndustries, Iron Man or Captain America wanted to put in a public helping hand, we would be grateful. Doctor Banner, you are welcome to assist as well.”
“Of course,” Steve says quickly, because he would. “We’ve been looking into getting involved with the civilian repairs already.”
“That said, Captain, we’re not able to offer you any protection, or assistance with PR just yet, until our positions are clarified. We’re still in, uh, negotiations with the World Security Council.”
“Arseholes,” Stark declares.
“Are we wanted men?” Banner asks, and he is nervous, because he does not want to be a wanted man, even though he has been one for years. Natasha is not surprised that he hasn’t run, yet, but she’s not entirely sure why he’s staying either. She wonders briefly how long he will stay.
“No, Doctor Banner. And SHIELD doesn’t think you should be,” Maria looks tired, and she rubs at her forehead for a moment. “Director Fury asked me to assure you that SHIELD supports The Avengers, individually, and as a group. However, until the mess with the WSC is sorted, we can’t officially support you, as the situation is just too fragile.”
“We’re not going to be a part of SHIELD,” Stark says.
“I know, Mr Stark. We know, and we don’t want you to be. With all due respect, you’re too visible. Most of you, anyway.”
Natasha smiles briefly at that. She’s pretty certain that nobody was looking too closely at her, all in black, when there was bright blue and red and green and lots of explosions, and if anyone actually saw Clint properly, she’d be genuinely surprised. She is confident that she could disappear. Or go back to SHIELD.
“What about Natasha?” Pepper asks.
“Specialist Romanov is at liberty to continue her work with SHIELD, or with The Avengers. The same goes for Specialist Barton. We’d like them back, of course, but we understand if their preferences are different. We’d also like – and I’m sorry about this, Specialist – for them to remain in the background for the time being. Their presence is an issue. To be honest, the WSC is more tied up in their association with The Avengers than anything”
Natasha nodded. “I understand. Specialist Barton is still recuperating, so it is for the best if we remain here, quietly.”
“Thank you. Mr Stark, Ms Potts, we would like to consider StarkIndustries’ involvement with SHIELD on a separate basis – Ms Potts, as CEO, we would like to liaise with you over ongoing projects, as well as new projects.”
Pepper nodded. “We’re happy to continue our work with SHIELD; the labs here will be ready for use again at the start of next week.”
“Wonderful. We’re hoping that Jane Foster will be back from Tromsø by then.”
“Isn’t that Thor’s, um, lady friend?” Steve asks. Only he’d be embarrassed about that.
“That’s the one,” Stark said, distracted. “You’d like her, Bruce. She’s an astrophysicist – we’d offered her a job, after her work on the Einstein-Rosen bridge, but SHEILD tried to poach her. They got Selvig already.”
“Wasn’t Selvig the man Loki took to work on the tesseract?” Bruce asked. “How is he?”
“Doctor Selvig is currently back in SHIELD’s medical facility, we’re expecting him to make a full recovery,” Maria interjected.
“Once you manage to unravel whatever Loki did to him,” Stark muttered. “Poor bastard.”
Natasha was very grateful that Clint wasn’t here. She caught Maria’s eye. Don’t strangle him too much, Maria’s look said.
“We’ll make preparations for Doctor Foster to be protected,” Pepper assured Maria. “We’re happy to offer her rooms here as well, if it would help. And Thor, too.”
“We’re Hulk-proofing it, so most of it should stand up to a god,” Stark interrupted.
“Do you usually house your scientists, Ms Potts?” Maria asked.
“We did offer Doctor Foster a resettlement package, and subsidised housing, as a part of her contract. It’s pretty standard, actually. This will just mean we’re able to protect her better.”
“I’m not sure living with Tony counts as safe,” Banner observed.
“Says the guy who turns into a rage monster,” Tony sniped back.
“We would appreciate your help, Ms Potts,” Maria said, ignoring both of them, but casting a quelling glance in Agent Lee’s direction. “We’ll be in touch when Doctor Foster arrives, and if Thor does show up –“
“We’ll let you know,” Pepper said.
“So we just sit about until the WSC get their panties out their cracks?” Stark said, abandoning bickering with Banner.
“You carry on. If things change, we’ll let you know,” Maria shut her files, and passed them over to the other agent. “Agent Saunders has some information for you, concerning the clean-up. Like I said, your assistance and presence would be appreciated.”
“Thank you for coming, AD Hill,” Pepper said, standing.
“Oh, goody, files,” Stark said. “I’ve got stuff to do. Coming, Brucie?”
Saunders passed files to Steve and Banner, then he and Lee left on the heels of the rest of the Avengers, leaving Pepper, Maria, and Natasha standing awkwardly at one end of the conference table.
“Thank you for letting me in,” Maria said, and smiled at Pepper. “We’re all trying to pull things together, but we lost a lot of people.”
“I’m sorry about Phil,” Pepper said. “He was a good man. I liked him.”
Natasha noticed Maria’s eyes tighten; she resisted the urge to reach out to her.
“He will be sorely missed,” Maria said, quietly. “He was a good friend as well as a colleague.”
“Did he have family? I know he was seeing someone, a cellist.”
“They’ve been told. SHIELD doesn’t hold funerals, so much, but the family will be making their own arrangements. There will be a memorial ceremony, at some point, for those we lost. I can let you know when, if you’d like.”
“That would be kind.”
“I’ve got one more favour to ask, Ms Potts. Rather more personal, I’m afraid.”
Pepper blinked at Maria, but nodded. “What can I do?”
“Will it be ok if Sarah and I visit with Specialist Barton and Specialist Romanov for a while?”
“Natasha is more than welcome to have guests,” Pepper smiled, and addressed Natasha as well. “You and Specialist Barton are to consider this your home, for as long as you want it to be, and I – or StarkIndustries or Tony or anyone else – would like you to have guests, if you would like.”
Natasha smiled, and placed a hand, briefly, on Pepper’s sleeve. Natasha didn’t go in for hugging, much.
“You’re very kind to us, Pepper,” she said, and meant it. “More than you need to be.”
Pepper smiled, and patted her hand. “It makes Tony happy. And it is a relief to be able to do something.”
“Thank you, Ms Potts,” Maria said.
“Call me Pepper.”
“Please call me Maria.”
Pepper led the way out of the room.
“How long have you and Agent Sitwell been together?” Pepper said, curiosity behind the polite small-talk.
“We’re divorced, actually. Jasper – Agent Sitwell – is a good friend still. It’s an odd situation, but Sarah benefits.”
“JARVIS, can you go back to the last page?” Sarah’s voice floated out from the kitchen, across the living room. “I forgot how to spell Cherokee.”
“Of course, Sarah,” JARVIS replied. “Although, if you like, I can spell the word for you.”
JARVIS dutifully spelt out Cherokee.
Maria raised an eyebrow at Natasha and Pepper, who were both smiling, with near-identical indulgent expressions. What have you let her do now? The eyebrow said to Natasha.
“JARVIS has been helping me with my homework,” Sarah announced, saving Natasha from having to explain. “He knows everything.”
“Ms Sitwell-Hill is very kind. It is a pleasure to assist her,” JARVIS said. “She listens, for one thing.”
Pepper laughed at that.
“We have been researching creation stories,” JARVIS said. “Ms Sitwell-Hill informs me she has a project.”
“Uh, thank you, JARVIS,” Maria says.
“A pleasure, Assistant Director. I have kept records of our work, if you wish to review them. I have also prepared a brief resource list for Ms Sitwell-Hill, that I have attached to an email for you. Both records and resources have been copied to Specialist Romanov’s files as well.”
“Thanks, JARVIS,” Natasha smiled at Maria. I’ll make sure he keeps this away from Stark.
“I’ll leave you three – four – to it,” Pepper smiles. “I should probably check Tony hasn’t done anything stupid in the last five minutes.”
“Sir is in Doctor Banner’s laboratory, Ms Potts,” JARVIS supplied. “They are engaged in, and I quote, ‘Science!’ It appears to involve a quantity of cookie dough mix from the kitchen.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “It was good to see you, Maria. And you, Sarah.” She swept out, heels clacking a rapid path to the elevator.
“Come and see the rooms they’ve given me,” Natasha says, wrapping an arm around Maria. “Clint’s there. JARVIS, if Stark wants to know why I’m asking you to keep him away from the feeds of this afternoon, or my quarters, tell him I’ll kick him until he wishes me to stop, but I won’t stop until he is very, very sorry. And possibly dead.”
“Of course, Specialist,” JARVIS said, dryly. “Sir will respect your privacy, whether he wants to or not.”
“Handy,” Maria observed. “You’re ok with us staying tonight? We could go home. Mum and Dad won’t get here until the morning – they’re driving, they’ll stay at mine and Jasper’s.” Natasha knows that Maria’s relationship with her ex-husband is considered to be peculiar – they still live together, albeit now in flats opposite each other – but she moved in with Clint after the end of their disastrous attempt at a relationship, so she decides she isn’t one to judge.
“I want you here,” Natasha says, serious. “Both of you.” She scoops Sarah off the stool she is perched on. “The suite is empty and weird, if nicer than SHIELD barracks. I missed you. Both of you.”
“We missed you too,” Sarah announced, wrapping her arms around Natasha’s neck in a slightly-too-tight hold. Natasha doesn’t care. She wonders briefly if this qualifies as being maternal, and wishes Phil were here. Phil understood this.
Clint hasn’t moved from the sofa where Natasha had left him. He has drunk some coffee, however, and eaten the sandwich she made for him (Natasha is an appalling cook, but she can just about manage not to screw up a peanut butter and jam sandwich, after several years of Clint explaining it to her, and Coulson silently eating whatever she produced). Clint hasn’t shaved, and he looks dreadful, grey and battered about; he barely looks up when they enter, and greets them with a grunt that is neither happy nor unfriendly. Natasha kisses the top of his head, and goes to make tea for her and Clint, coffee for Maria, and hot chocolate for Sarah, leaving Maria and her daughter to explore. Sarah sprawls on the sofa beside Clint, and chatters at him; Natasha notices that he appears to be listening – he switches the TV on, and they find a cartoon channel – Sarah quickly begins to explain the premise of My Little Pony to Clint, who asks questions and exclaims “a party cannon?” in the sort of tone that usually is reserved for the junior agents’ more outlandish tales. Natasha shrugs, concluding that talking about Pinkie Pie is better than not talking at all.
Maria wraps both arms around Natasha, and kisses her neck. Maria is taller, but they fit together comfortably, this is familiar to them both, and Natasha leans into her embrace. It feels like coming home, a sensation Natasha has previously only associated with Clint, and later Phil; her relationship with Maria Hill has lasted for several years, but that line of intimacy has never been crossed before. Natasha buries her face in Maria’s shoulder, and breathes in the smell of her uniform, leather and Kevlar and lingering traces of smoke; it is familiar and comforting, and Natasha takes a moment to consider this. Maria presses kisses into her hair, and then her lips, and they kiss fiercely, reassuring each other.
Nat runs a hand over the healing cut on Maria’s face, and stands on tiptoes to kiss the single stitch up in her hairline. She hasn’t seen her lover since Loki’s attack on the helicarrier, and she resists the urge to strip her and check every inch of her for injury; Maria smiles at her, and brushes her fingers against the last traces of a graze on Natasha’s chin.
“You’re ok,” Maria whispers. “I’ve been so worried.”
“I’m always ok,” Natasha replies, kissing her palm. “I’m too hard to kill.”
Maria grins at that, and pulls her into another kiss, murmuring “Thank god for that,” into Natasha’s lips.
“Sarah’s ok? Sitwell?” Natasha askes, leaning back against the kitchen counter, hands resting on Maria’s hips. “Fury?”
“Sarah was worried, all the kids were, but the therapist has already spoken to her. She’s a bit shook up, she’s had nightmares, but she’ll be ok. I don’t want to let her out of my sight, not really, not yet. We’re going to have to work at it. Jasper might ask to be reassigned to the ground permanently. I don’t think he likes the idea of both of us being on the carrier. Fury’s Fury. He punched a few walls at the repair costs for the city. He’s plotting something.”
“He’s always plotting.”
“True. He’s just holding his cards close to his chest even more than usual.”
“I’m surprised he let you come down here.”
“I told him he needed a familiar face to talk to Stark. It was me or Jasper, really, none of the others know The Avengers Initiative well enough – and they don’t know Jasper at all. I’m catching a transport back up tomorrow, with another repair crew. We’ve not got the space for all of them on board, so I’ve got to brief Masters about it.”
“You’re exhausted,” Natasha murmured.
“I’ve not slept much,” Maria admitted.
“And you need something from me.”
Maria sighed. “How do you do that?”
“I’m good at reading people. Understanding, not so much. You wiggle your toes when you’re holding something back.”
Maria snorted, and Natasha kissed her, because Maria’s frown of annoyance was adorable to her.
“Fury wants you to dig some dirt up on the WSC members.”
“The secret members of the secret committee?”
“You sound like Clint. And yes. I’ve got some files on a data stick, names, mostly. Anything you can find, anything to destabilise them, any dirt, anything at all. You didn’t hear anything from us though. If it all goes to shit, Fury’ll blame it on the Avengers.”
“Of course he will. I’ll see what I can do. I don’t like this limbo.”
“Me neither. If we can find something, if we can take out just one of them … Well, it’ll help. Adjust the balance a little,” Maria pressed a kiss against Natasha’s forehead. “I don’t trust the WSC.”
“I don’t trust anyone who’ll decide nuking Manhattan is an acceptable approach,” Natasha agreed. Natasha has opinions about nuclear weapons. “And Stark and Rogers don’t either. And Banner will go with Stark.”
“And Clint?” Maria murmured.
“Right now? I don’t know. He’s not dealing with Phil…”
“None of us are,” there was so much grief in Maria’s voice, and Natasha wrapped her arms around her. “Fury won’t mention him, Jasper is all over the place, I don’t think Fitz has slept at all, and Novak keeps looking over his shoulder.”
“Clint is … I don’t know what to do, Maria”
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do, love. I think we just have to wait.”
Natasha ordered takeaway Chinese food for dinner – Maria declared herself uninterested in cooking, and Natasha wasn’t sure Clint could tell a carrot from a cucumber at that moment – and they watched more TV, with Sarah utterly delighted by JARVIS’ ability to find just about anything she wanted to watch (and charge it to StarkIndustries). Clint sunk back into silence, and Maria hustled her daughter into the oversized guest bathroom, while Natasha lounged on the sofa, using Clint’s lap as a pillow.
“Maria has given me some information on the council,” Natasha said carefully, turning to look up at Clint’s unshaven face. “I’m going to see what I can add to it.”
“The council?” There was a brief flicker of something in his eyes – she wasn’t sure what, anger or interest or surprise.
“I don’t trust them.”
“You don’t trust anybody.”
“I trust you,” Natasha ghosted her fingers across his jaw.
Clint grunted, and Natasha took it for assent.
“I don’t want to go on the run. Again.”
“No,” Clint murmured. Natasha remembered the times before SHIELD, when she tried to kill him and he was one of the many who tried to kill her, and decided that running without him would not be an option any more.
“This will give us something, if nothing else. If we do have to run. It might help SHIELD, give us leverage later.”
“Fury ask you?”
“Yes,” Natasha rarely lied to Clint. “I don’t think we should cut all ties just yet.”
Clint nodded, once, and Natasha was silent. His fingers brushed her hair, gently.
Maria tucked Sarah into bed (Natasha had hugged her goodnight, but she hung back – she never stayed with Maria overnight when she was looking after Sarah, and the routine of bedtime was wholly alien to her), and declared that the enormous bathroom attached to Natasha’s bedroom was just begging to be used.
“Sybarite,” Natasha said, amused. Maria gravitated towards baths like Natasha gravitated towards sharp objects and good vodka, particularly in times of stress. Natasha didn’t blame her, knowing that the showers on the helicarrier would not be putting the fun into functional any time soon.
“If I’m not out in three hours, tell Fury I’ve turned into a fish,” Maria replied, dropping a kiss onto Clint’s head, and then onto Natasha’s.
Natasha gave her a while, telling Clint about the earlier meeting, and raising a small snort at her impression of Stark (which was viciously accurate) and Cap (which was not), and then, after asking Clint if he’d be ok for a little while, she slipped into the bathroom. Maria didn’t open her eyes, but waggled a toe in greeting; she was lying in the bath, her eyes closed, and bubbles threatened to spill over the lip of the bath. The mirrors were steamed over, and the room smelled of lavender and bergamot.
“Either get in, or tell me you’ve got wine,” Maria murmured.
“No wine,” Natasha stripped, and padded over to the bath, silently. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Call yourself a super spy,” Maria flicked bubbles at her, and moved her legs.
Natasha grinned, and slid into the bath, the almost-too-hot water stinging her pale skin; her cheeks flushed, and she felt sweat beading her hairline.
“Is it really necessary to treat yourself like a lobster?” Natasha smiled, settling, enjoying the rub of her legs against Maria’s.
“Hush. This is heaven. I’m not leaving.”
“You’ll go all wrinkly,” Natasha ran her feet across Maria’s stomach. She loved the softness of Maria’s curves, the barely-there pouch of her belly, the weight of her hips; she was muscular, after fourteen years of SHIELD training, but where Natasha was lean, whiplike, Maria was almost rounded, her strength disguised as softness.
“That’s the point,” Maria huffed, rolling her eyes and leaning into Natasha’s caresses. Their fingertips brush, tenderly, and Maria smiles, leaning back against the edge of the bath.
Natasha laughs, low and soft, and relaxes into the water; Maria delights in baths, particularly shared ones, and while Natasha doesn’t really see the point of the exercise (although the bubbles are definitely interesting), she enjoys her lover’s delight, and they share baths regularly – but it is pleasant to be able to stretch out a little, rather than wedging themselves into Natasha’s tub, where they are all knees and toes. Natasha rather regrets not stealing some of Stark’s wine. Instead, she picks up one of Maria’s legs, and begins to wash her toes.
Maria giggles, and flicks bubbles at the redhead, then uses her legs to pull Natasha closer, kissing her seriously, flicking her tongue between Natasha’s lips. Natasha twists in the water – sending a fair amount slapping onto the tiles beneath the tub, and pulls herself into Maria’s arms, nipping at her lower lip and running long fingers over the curve of her breasts. Natasha is a little single-minded when it comes to sex, and previous lovers have commented that she fucks like she fights, using her whole body with deadly efficiency (Clint once remarked that, at the high point of their relationship, he couldn’t tell where the fighting became fucking, and he was starting to worry that she would actually kill him afterwards), but Maria has taken the time to learn how to divert that focus, how to tame it, but every time they come together, there is a momentary battle of wills.
Maria pushes Natasha away, just enough to speak, and runs her hands over her waist, over her hipbones, and smiles, and Natasha waits.
“Turn over,” Maria says. “Lie against me.”
Natasha obeys, settling her lithe frame against Maria, feeling her lover’s breasts press against her spine, and she relaxes into the embrace. Maria nips at her ear, and Natasha allows herself a small moan.
“Tell me if you’re uncomfortable,” Maria murmurs, because Natasha is covered in bruises, some an angry purple, others already fading, green and yellow and grey, all harsh against her pale skin, and Maria knows Natasha doesn’t bruise easily.
“Never with you,” Natasha replies, and her eyes are sliding closed, so Maria pinches a nipple, not hard, but enough to make Natasha huff with surprise, but she moans again as Maria smooths her palm over her breast, teasing and caressing, and Natasha arches into her touch, smiling.
Maria’s other hand is in her hair, pulling just hard enough, tilting Natasha’s neck across so she can run her tongue along the path of her jugular, nipping at the join with her shoulder.
“That’s nice,” Natasha murmurs, and her own fingers rub into Maria’s scalp, caressing and massaging.
Maria runs her hand down Natasha’s stomach, skating over some of the more livid bruises (and trying not to think of footage from the battle, knowing how those bruises were formed), and teases, pushing water over her thighs, not touching, but Natasha whines, and arches against her, and Maria smiles, and kisses her shoulder, and repeats the movement, stroking across Natasha’s thighs, massaging with her thumb. Natasha smiles, and moans her name, and twists her head for an impatient kiss.
“Stop teasing,” she pouts, and Maria laughs, low and throaty, and kneads at her breast, because she knows Natasha likes to be touched just short of roughly, and that’s the real trick, it’s being gentle, in refusing to fuck hard (unless it’s what is wanted, of course, in which case, she wouldn’t be teasing, she’d be yelling expletives and Natasha’s name, and gaining a few more bruises).
Eventually, however, her hand drifts between Natasha’s thighs, brushing the skin where red curls would be if Natasha didn’t prefer to wax, over softness, swirling a finger over her clit, brushing the edges of Natasha’s folds, letting the eddy of the water tease as much as her touch. Natasha shifts, flings a long leg over the edge of the bath, moaning quietly, humming as Maria presses wet kisses against her neck. She arches backwards as a slender finger slips between the lips of her cunt, and sighs as Maria pinches her clit between finger and thumb, applying just enough pressure to wrench a “fuck, Maria,” from Natasha, and a few muttered curses in Russian. Maria presses, and strokes, and Natasha shifts a little, thrusting a little, pressing her back against Maria’s breasts, and crying out softly when Maria nips at her throat, and Natasha is coming, crying her lover’s name as she feels herself clenching, pressing against the pressure of fingers on her clit, at the edge of her cunt, a faint tingle in her toes.
“Love you,” she hears Maria murmur, and Natasha smiles and relaxes.
They lounge in the bath until the water cools to the point of discomfort, and then Maria drags Natasha under the shower to rinse off (and warm up a little), and Natasha kneels and licks her way to her lover’s centre, using her fingers and tongue to coax a breathy, whispered orgasm from Maria’s lips, before they wrap themselves in warm towels and hold each other, for a little while, because they are both far too outwardly-strong for anyone to thing they may need someone to lean on, so they lean on each other. Natasha understands that Maria has worked hard to be so strong, to be so capable, but even she is occasionally surprised by the strength of her emotions, but she trusts Maria because of this, because she will let Natasha see her emotions (Natasha realises that this is not entirely logical), and because she never seems surprised when Natasha is emotional herself.
Natasha dresses herself in a pair of boxers and a new vest, out of deference to Sarah’s presence, and finds a similar outfit for Maria, raiding the bags intended for Clint to find a bigger t-shirt. Clint doesn’t seem to mind, having dressed himself in pyjamas while they were in the bathroom.
“Do you mind?” Natasha asks Maria.
“I’d have said something earlier,” Maria replies. “Besides, if I was jealous of you sharing a bed with Clint, I’d have said something years ago.”
“I love you,” Natasha says, suddenly, in a rush, as though she’s struck by it.
“I know,” Maria shrugs, and kisses her softly.
They climb into bed, Natasha in the middle, Clint on her left, Maria on her right; the bed is a California king, and Natasha has spent days in smaller rooms with more people.
“Like Singapore all over again,” Clint murmurs, and Natasha realises he is remembering the last time he shared a bed with her, and with Phil; the three of them had collapsed into the safe-house, only to discover that the roof had leaked all over the second bed, and so they had slept in a heap together, an ungainly tangle of limbs. Natasha remembers the smell of damp, of filthy clothes, of blood, and of waking with Clint snoring in her ear, her leg trapped between his, and Phil drooling on her hair and holding her hand. She starts to cry, and Clint burrows into her arms, and Maria is crying too, and they hold each other like that, whispering stories and sharing their grief.
Natasha leaves after Maria does the next day; she asks Steve (and JARVIS) to keep an eye on Clint, because she knows that Steve’s sense of honour and duty will mean he will make sure Clint eats properly, if nothing else. She doesn’t trust Steve yet, not properly, but she knows how men like him work. JARVIS she doesn’t understand, because he’s an AI, not a person, and this is a variable she hasn’t figured out yet, and she’s less even inclined to trust any creation of Stark’s than she is to trust the man himself. But she knows that JARVIS can monitor Clint continuously, that he will contact her immediately if needs be. She trusts his capabilities, even if she doesn’t trust JARVIS.
The information on the WSC that Maria has given her is scanty; she has some pictures – the woman’s picture is grainy, her features barely visible, and two of the names don’t have pictures. There are three complete addresses, and two vague ones, the vaguest being “Western Russia”. One lists a company, and she knows where the headquarters can be found. She’s given JARVIS some of the information – not all – and he has filled in a few gaps, providing a picture of one mark, and the club another visits regularly. Natasha can work with this, but she would prefer to work with more.
This she knows, this she can deal with. The Black Widow doesn’t care about Phil Coulson, or about Clint Barton; Black Widow is a shadow, a whisper, a knife, a tool.
Getting into the company files is easy enough; the Black Widow is as capable of dealing with code and server banks as she is as taking down a target, even if Natasha prefers to be more direct. She downloads a great deal of files, company as well as personal, some of which she has had time to read, others she hopes will reveal something. There is a mistress in Baltimore, money paid to a trust fund in the name of a child seemingly unrelated to her mark; nothing unexpected, but even the smallest piece might give SHIELD something. She moves on.
The woman has family, she comes from old money. There is a connection with a drug-dealer, but the Black Widow ignores it, because it’s fake. She visits her house, takes pictures of relatives, domestic staff, guests. Something will come up. She decides that if it’s not enough, she will go to England, where the woman is originally from.
The two remaining names, and the one unnamed picture (of a man with a short, neat, white beard), are outside of the US. The Widow tosses a coin to choose between Brazil and China. She goes to China, where she finds that the name is linked to a couple of forced organ donation schemes, but not well enough, so she digs until she finds a little more evidence, a few stronger links. She copies paperwork, trails her mark for three days, pays a high-class escort to talk to him in a bar, because a few pictures are all she needs when the gangster group the escort is tied to collapses, if it is needed.
The Black Widow is in Cleveland, changing planes, when the StarkTech phone Pepper pressed on her rings. She answers, because the list of people who have this number is very short, and the line is secure.
“It’s me,” Hill says, and there is fear and anger and something very like panic in her voice. “Get the jet. Get everyone – all the Avengers. Get here.”
“Where are you?” Natasha asks, already moving out of the airport.
“The helicarrier. I’m sending you the co-ordinates of our flight path. If they change, I’ll tell you. Just get here. Please.”
“Is Sarah ok?” Natasha’s heart contracts, and she can’t deal with that, not now, not that.
“She’s fine. Please, just get here. I need you.”
“I’m coming,” Natasha says, and hangs up. She dials Pepper, because Stark is lousy at picking up his phone, and Steve doesn’t know how to work his, and Clint doesn’t have a phone right now and she doesn’t know if he’d answer anyway.
“Natasha? Are you alright?” Pepper is sleepy, surprised, but alert.
“I’m fine. Where’s Stark?”
“He's right here.” There is a muffled curse in the background, and it’s definitely Stark. “It’s three in the morning, Natasha.”
“So? Get him up. I’m sending co-ordinates to JARVIS. Tell him to get everyone, get them on the QuinJet, I know Stark has been repairing it – Barton can fly it – and follow my signal. Then we’re going to SHIELD. I don’t know anything more than that. Now, Pepper. Now!” Natasha hangs up.
She spends a restless hour waiting for the jet to show up; instead of landing, Iron Man swoops down and scoops her up, and she buries her head into the glow of the arc reactor and clings to the straps of the parachute he’s wearing, and doesn’t scream, even if she wants to.
Thor is there, and she doesn’t really care when he arrived; he looks confused, and it’s only in deference to Banner that he’s stopped fidgeting with his hammer. He greets Natasha with a “well met, fair Widow!” that sets her teeth on edge, but he subsides when she looks at him, because he might be loud, and ridiculous, but he is smart enough to know when she’s cataloguing the seventeen ways she could kill him without breaking a sweat.
The co-ordinates Maria has sent show that the helicarrier is over the reaches of Alaska, and they fly in awkward silence; Clint is running on autopilot (Natasha has seen him fly a jet in his sleep, this doesn’t worry her in itself, but he looks blank, haunted, and that does worry her). Banner is dressed in sweatpants, and he looks even more rumpled and unhappy than usual. Steve looks like Steve, he’s wearing that ridiculous outfit SHIELD created for him. Stark’s suitcase-suit, as he calls it, folds away, and he sits in the co-pilot’s seat; Natasha isn’t surprised that he can fly, so she doesn’t push him aside.
The helicarrier’s reflective plating is still not working, so the quinjet’s sensors pick it up long before they see the hulking shape outlined against the clouds, and Maria’s voice comes through over the comms, guiding them in.
She’s there in the landing bay, and her face is tense and scared, and Natasha runs into her arms, ignoring Stark’s “the fuck?” and holds her too tightly for a moment.
“What’s happened? Are you ok?” Natasha scans Maria’s face, looking for injury.
The others look awkward; the SHIELD agents working in the landing bay are largely ignoring them, whatever is going on, only Assistant Director Hill knows.
“Come with me, all of you,” Maria tells them, taking Natasha’s hand, and this only serves to worry her further, because Maria rarely touches her when she’s working. “Please.”
She nearly runs through the corridors; there is fire-damage in places, signs of rebuilding and repair in others. Natasha notices that Banner is wincing, trying not to look too closely, and Clint’s face is even blanker than usual. Maria leads them towards the med bay, the part of the helicarrier that escaped the damage.
“I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know. I called you the moment I knew. I swear. Natasha, I didn’t know,” Maria is saying, and her voice is constricted, panicky, and she’s angry too, and her grip on Natasha’s hand is far too tight.
She opens a door. The room beyond is white, sterile – a med bay room. Silent, except for the buzz and beep and hum of machines.
“I didn’t know,” Maria says, and it’s a prayer, a curse.
Natasha steps into the room, careful.
Phil Coulson is alive.
He is lying in the bed, still, too still, too pale.
Phil Coulson is alive.
Tubes snake into him, some connected to the machines that beep and hum, others to unknowable destinations.
Phil Coulson is alive.
Clint is behind Natasha, and he steps past her, and he is crying. Natasha is crying too.
“Holy fuck,” Stark says, pushing in. “Holy fuck.”
“I don’t understand,” Steve says, slowly. Banner nudges past him, and peers at Coulson’s charts.
Clint stands beside the bed, and he is staring, and weeping, and he is grey and shaking. Natasha wraps her arms around him, holding him tightly, gently.
“Do you have an explanation?” Thor demands, turning on Hill.
She shakes her head. “I don’t. I’m sorry. I called Natasha when I found him. There’s nothing in the systems. Literally nothing.”
“Is he in a coma?” Stark demands. “Is he ok?”
“He’s in a medically-induced coma,” Banner says, slowly, still reading charts. “Loki’s spear – sceptre – nicked his pericardium, pierced his lung. He flat-lined three times. He lost a lot of blood. A lot.”
“He’ll live?” Steve asked. His blue eyes were concerned, his brow furrowed.
“He might,” Bruce said. “There could be brain damage. His heart stopped. This is – there’s a lot of damage here. He was dead.”
“Fuck me,” Stark swears. “Does Fury know he’s here?”
“I do,” the director’s voice rumbles behind them, and Stark whirls, swearing. “It was my decision to restrict this knowledge.”
Natasha flings herself at him.
Steve catches at her, wraps his big arms around her, and Stark grabs at her too, and he’s stronger than he looks, and Bruce backs away. Steve is strong, too strong, and he wraps his arms around her tighter still, and she is trapped against his chest, and she kicks at him, and he grunts, because even a super-soldier feels pain when the Black Widow takes a boot to his balls, and Stark grips her legs.
“Give me one good reason not to let her go,” Steve says, slowly.
“Make it a good one,” Clint says, slowly, and he points Natasha’s gun at Fury.
Maria doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t take out her gun. She folds her arms, and waits.
“He was dead. He died, and the doctors were trying to bring him back,” Fury said. “And he told me you needed something to pull you together, and I didn’t see anything better.”
Bruce Banner punched him. He didn’t turn green, he didn’t even begin to turn. He took two huge steps across the room, and punched Nicholas Fury, and Natasha heard the crunch of cartilage breaking.
She relaxed, stopped straining against Steve and Stark’s arms, and smiled.
“Fuck you,” Stark said.
“I’m sorry. I was going to tell you when the doctors knew he’d live,” Fury was holding his nose, trying to stem the blood.
Clint flicked off the safety.
And shot Fury in the foot.
Then, calmly, he put the safety back on, and laid the gun on the bed, and took Phil’s hand in both of his.
“You can let me go now, Captain,” Natasha said, quietly. “Thor, could you help Director Fury to the main med bay? I believe he may need medical attention.”
“Have you all finished?” Doctor Rotham’s voice was harsh. “Would you like me to come back when you’ve shot each other up a bit more?”
Thor gives him a disgusted look, and hauls Fury away.
“Apologies, Doctor Rotham,” Steve says, and he’s still got one hand on Natasha’s shoulder, but her feet are on the ground now. He recognises the man from when he woke up. “Are you the doctor in charge of Agent Coulson’s care?”
“Yes. What are you all doing here?”
“Visiting,” Stark says. “Although we hear Agent hasn’t been getting many visitors.”
Rotham gives him a look. “He’s in a coma.”
“Could you explain more about Agent Coulson’s condition, please?” Banner asks, and he’s nursing his hand. Maria steps forward, and examines it, then goes to one of the many cabinets, and fetches swabs and a bandage.
Doctor Rotham looked at her. “AD Hill?”
“They have full clearance when it comes to this,” she tells him, calmly swiping antiseptic fluid over Banner’s knuckles. “And from now on, you are to consult with Agent Barton before taking any steps that require permission.”
Rotham looks at Phil’s file. “You’re his medical proxy?” He asks Clint, and Clint nods, still watching Phil’s sleeping face. “Very well. Agent Coulson is in a medically-induced coma, he has been for two weeks, in order to help stabilize his condition. He has a damaged pericardium, a punctured lung, and he lost enough blood to kill him on those grounds alone. He’s also got some burns from that ridiculous weapon he was holding, we had to do skin grafts on his forearms.”
Thor returned, and leant against the door. “Fury will not be disturbing us for some time,” he said, and nodded at Natasha. “Pray continue, doctor.”
Rotham grunted. “Agent Coulson lost enough blood, and his heart stopped for long enough, that we are concerned about brain damage. Scans at the moment show brain activity consistent with someone in a medically-induced coma, but we won’t know what damage has been done until he wakes up. We’re going to wake him tomorrow, all things going well. He’s been stable for several days, and he is healing. Slowly. He may not wake at all, however. We have no idea what damage Loki’s weapon did – the wound was cauterised in some places, flash-frozen in others … it was a mess, frankly.”
“Thank you, doctor,” Maria says. “Could you ensure that Agent Coulson’s files are updated, and on my desk by the end of today? I would like a full report of treatment and prognosis as well.”
“Of course, AD Hill. I would request that your – uh – guests keep any disturbance to a minimum. We have evacuated all but the most fragile of cases, and the staff are too busy to be worried by needless racket.”
“That will be all, doctor.”
They looked at each other. Natasha stepped away from Steve, and he let her, so she stepped to Maria’s side, and embraced her.
“God,” Maria muttered, her head falling onto Natasha’s shoulder. “What a fucking mess. I might just kill Fury myself. I’m so sorry, Nat.”
“Hush, my love. You told me, did you not?” Natasha kissed her hair, tucking stray strands back from her face. “And let’s leave Fury to think on this. I think we should let Phil decide his fate, don’t you?”
“I’ll shoot his other fucking kneecap out,” Clint said, and his voice was rusty and harsh. “When Phil wakes up.” His smile was tender, and he raised Phil’s fingers to his lips.
“I’ll help,” Steve says, and lays a hand on Clint’s shoulder.
“Indeed,” Thor agreed.
“You’re Agent’s medical proxy?” Stark asked, because he was an idiot.
“Warriors in Asdard are often responsible for ensuring their kith do receive healing treatment,” Thor said. “Is it not the same here?”
“Usually we leave decisions like that up to family,” Banner explained. “Parents, adult children, husbands or wives.”
“SHIELD doesn’t require a marriage certificate,” Maria said, softly. “Just paperwork.”
“Agent is … Phil is his boyfriend?”
“You’re such a child, Stark,” Natasha says, but she isn’t intending to kill him (not right this minute). She wraps an arm around Clint, keeping Maria’s hand in hers, and bends to press a kiss to Phil’s too-still forehead. “I’m glad to see you, dear one,” she tells him, and she doesn’t whisper it, because she doesn’t care. “We will be here when you wake.”
And they are there – Clint is holding his hand, and Maria and Natasha stand behind him, wrapped around each other. The others have been banished to another room – Natasha threatened them with a spoon, while eating mess hall jelly with relish (it’s raspberry, and Natasha loves the stuff, even though it’s far too sweet). Fury is with them, limping and with a livid bruise across his nose and eye, and he is keeping Steve between him and Banner, and his expression says that he’d really like to be as far away from Natasha as possible too.
Phil comes too slowly, blinking and moaning a little, and Clint grins, and says his name, and kisses his hand.
“You’re in the medical bay,” Doctor Rotham is saying. “Can you hear me?”
Phil’s voice is rusty, hoarse from disuse and the feeding tube. “Yes.”
“What’s your name?”
“Phillip James Coulson,” comes the reply. “Clint?”
“I’m here,” Clint grins more, and Phil’s eyes drink in his face. “I’m here.”
“Good. How long?”
“Two weeks,” Maria says.
“You’ve had major surgery,” Rotham tells him. “We kept you sedated.”
“Captured. Asgard have him,” Maria says. “Don’t worry. There will be time.”
“We’d like to do some tests, when you’re ready,” Rotham adds. “But you need rest.”
“Tired,” Phil murmurs, and his eyes are still on Clint’s face. “Hurts.”
“We’ll make sure you’ve got adequate painkillers,” Rotham reassures him.
“The good stuff,” Clint tells his lover. “You love being stoned.”
“Hate it,” Phil argues, rather weakly.
“Don’t care,” Clint responds, and kisses his forehead. “You need rest.”
“Always,” Clint replied. “I got you.”
Phil’s eyes flicker to Natasha’s, and he smiles, faintly. She brushes fingers across his face, and Hill leans in to squeeze his other hand.
“We’re here,” Natasha reassures him. “Rest.”
Phil sighs, and he sounds happy.
Natasha propels Rotham out, because she wants Clint to have a few minutes alone with Phil.
The other Avengers are clamouring for news when she returns; they all shout and once, and Fury is shouting too. Natasha folds her arms, and waits for them to shut up, which takes several minutes, and Maria sitting down with her boots on a worktable.
“He’s awake,” Natasha informs them. “He knows who he is, and he recognised us. He is resting.”
“Will he be ok?” Banner asks.
“Can we see him?” Stark demands, talking at the same time.
“Is he in a lot of pain?” Steve’s voice is worried, and Natasha decides he is far too sweet, and adds finding out all of his dirty secrets to the urgent section of her mental to-do list.
“Where’s Barton?” Fury is turning to Maria, trying to reclaim control.
“Barton is with him. They need some time together,” Maria replies, unruffled. “Really, sir. He’s not going anywhere.”
Natasha knows that Maria has already shared her views on the situation with Fury. She used the phrases “wanton cruelty” and “total lack of respect for Agent Coulson’s stated wishes”, followed by “how would you feel if Fiona or Clare were there?” and “I will shoot you myself, sir”. Fury had looked harassed within five minutes, ashamed within ten, and on the verge of tears in twenty.
Fury nodded, and sat down, drawing a tablet towards him.
“Can he be moved?” Stark asked. “If he’s stable?”
“Doctor?” Natasha turned to Rotham, who is loitering in the background, making notes in a file.
“In a few days, once we’ve finished some tests. He’s healing, but he’ll need to rest for several weeks, possibly months. He may never recover completely.”
“Good. I have to talk to Pepper.”
“What are you planning, Stark?” Natasha steps towards him. He takes several steps back, holding his hands up in front of him.
“I just thought – if Agent – if Phil is well enough to be moved, we could move him into Stark Tower. There’s a medical bay there. There’s a small hospital. Only the best for Agent.”
“SHIELD’s medical facilities are excellent,” Fury said stiffly.
“Yes, but they’re not run by a liar.”
“You said he was dead!” Stark shouted, getting very much in Fury’s face. “Because it suited you! Excuse me if my trust in you isn’t rock-solid right now!”
“You have no right –“
Natasha slipped between them. And waited, tapping her foot slightly.
“Thank you, Director. Mr Stark. We will put the question to Specialist Barton, perhaps. And to Agent Coulson.”
Stark grinned at her. Natasha raised an eyebrow, and was surprised to find that she wasn’t inclined to stab him at all right now.