Natasha takes one look at Stark and assumes she’ll end up sleeping with him.
It’s a fair assumption. She’s done her research, she’s met the guy and got an initial read on him, and everything points to falling into bed with him. She sets up the groundwork, inventing excuses to flirt when she can.
As covers go, Natalie Rushman: PA Extraordinaire is one of her easier identities. When she was younger, she had her backstories poured into her until she believed nothing else. She would walk around in her new skin and think thoughts that were placed in her.
Nowadays, she is given a file and told to memorise it. No-one comes into her cell and forces her to repeat phrases in languages and accents she’s had to perfect, no-one holds her eyes open as images flash in front of her eyes until her mind accepts her new reality.
What once was forced onto her has become a habit. Natasha finds herself carving out a story for each cover she takes. As Natalie Rushman, she implements subtle seduction techniques and exudes quiet, assured confidence in most aspects of her life- so Natasha weaves a life that might have led to those traits, to transform into the kind of woman who would want to be a PA and excel at it.
Natalie Rushman is the kind of woman who would sleep with her boss. Natasha hasn’t decided on the reason, but if Natasha has to, then she’ll make one up for Natalie. Maybe she does whatever it takes to progress in her career. Maybe she’s the kind of woman who falls for men who are bad for her.
Stark would be bad. For Natalie or Natasha. She has no romantic interest in him from the start, and any physical feelings she might have had are negated by what an asshole the guy is. She’s told a few days into the mission that he’s being slowly poisoned by palladium, and after that his actions make more sense when she goes over them.
Not that she does it much. Her mission isn’t to fix Tony Stark, it’s to evaluate him.
So far, she isn’t impressed.
Most days Natasha can differentiate between who she is and the personas she pulls out when she needs to. She has different ones for missions depending on what the mission needs. She has one for SHIELD, another for talking to strangers, and another for fighting.
Sometimes Natasha will slip up and the lines will blur. She’ll find herself making a gesture she only makes when she’s comfortable, but she’ll be faking it to gain someone’s trust. She’ll spin a story and it will have colloquiums that Natasha learned as a child.
This happens most often with her SHIELD persona, especially around Nick.
When Stark turns around, gauntleted fingers heavy on his sunglasses as he examines her, Natasha allows herself a smirk Natalie Rushman would immediately try to smother with cool politeness.
“You’re… fired,” Tony mutters.
“That’s not your decision,” she replies, and comes over to sit next to Nick. There’s a needle hidden in her hand and she doubts Stark will make it hard to use it on him.
By the end of the mission, Natasha has come to a conclusion that produces a faint tinge of shock when she realizes it.
She doesn’t dislike Stark.
This had mostly happened after she’d been able to drop her Natalie persona. Before that, she was getting him coffees and bending over in a way that would give him the best vantage point to stare at her ass and finding excuses to look at him from under her eyelashes.
She figures out he’s gay about a day into the mission. He hides it well, which is the only reason it takes her a whole day. Still, she keeps up her flirtations: Natalie Rushmore isn’t as good at reading people as Natasha Romanoff.
After she’d been able to revert back to Natasha Romanoff: SHIELD agent, there had been a shift. Stark’s hurt, maybe- not because he trusted her, but Natasha figures he’s gotten tired of having people lie to him for their own gains. It must be a pain realizing that yet another person has tricked you into thinking they were someone they aren’t.
Natasha can relate, but on a more deadly level.
(Then again, she thinks as she pours over his file and comes across Obadiah Stane, deceased, AKA Iron Monger- maybe so can Stark.)
Stark sulks for a few days and Natasha watches him force a relaxed posture whenever she walks into the room. “Agent,” he’ll say.
“Stark,” she’ll reply. There’s a grudging something there. Not respect- Natasha gets the feeling that Stark doesn’t dole out respect too often, though he seems to be hiding some for Nick.
It takes months for Natasha to realize that the grudging something was understanding, though she expects neither of them knew that was what it was until later.
Before that, it takes until after the Expo- where Tony has saved his own life, stopped Rhodes’ suit from being hijacked, taken down Hammer, exploded some of New York and rescued Pepper from being part of the explosions- for Natasha to conclude that she doesn’t, in fact, dislike Tony Stark.
It doesn’t change her evaluation. Being indifferent to Stark doesn’t mean Natasha recommends him for the Avengers- she recommends Iron Man, because she’s witnessed how he shapes up when he has to.
But Tony Stark- she’s witnessed him get falling-over, piss-yourself drunk in the amour. At one point he’d let her try on the gauntlet and shoot at an ice sculpture, which had Natasha yelling at him in her head for his bad judgement while she giggled and pretended she wasn't wielding something that could kill most of the people in the room in under a minute. She’s seen him be childish and irresponsible and selfish, and his redeeming traits fall far from making up for it.
Days after the Hammer attack, Natasha runs into Stark in an elevator at SHIELD.
He barely looks up from his phone. At first Natasha assumes he’s still sulking and is on his silent-treatment stage, but then he speaks up.
“You should’ve worn that catsuit when you were pulling your PA shtick. What’s that even made out of?”
Natasha knows what it’s made out of down to the chemical compound, but she tells him she’s not at liberty to say. Then she says, “I think it would have been counterproductive to your work.”
There’s a beat where she wonders if he’ll bring up the fact that he wouldn’t be distracted in the least, since Natasha’s long since deduced that Tony is gay as the day is long.
But all Tony says is, “You have a point.” Then he turns back to tapping away on his phone.
Old habits die hard, Natasha guesses.
Tony asks, “Going to some secret spy meeting?”
“Telling you would negate the secret part, wouldn’t it?”
It shuts him up for a few seconds. Then it doesn’t. “Fury gave me your evaluation of me.”
There it is. Natasha readies herself. “And?”
Tony gives an aborted shrug. His face twitches. “It… might be a fair conclusion to get to, given what you’ve seen of me.”
Natasha schools surprise out of her expression. “A very fair conclusion,” she agrees.
He nods. It’s short and he avoids her eyes when he’s doing it, and for a second Natasha thinks that his sunglasses are more than something to shield his hangover from fluorescent lights- maybe they’re a border, something to protect himself, something glossy and reflective so people can’t meet his eyes properly-
The evaluation is over, Natasha reminds herself. Stop assessing him.
“Fury mentioned you might be on the team yourself,” Tony says as they’re nearing his floor.
“No, he didn’t.”
“No,” Tony says after a beat. Neither of them bring up Tony hacking into a secure branch of government, but they don’t have to.
Natasha waits. When Tony doesn’t continue, she says, “I’m being considered for it, yes.”
“Would you want to? If they offered a place to you?”
He displays careful, feigned disinterest that Natasha matches.
“If I’m needed.”
Tony grunts. He adjusts his sunglasses and steps forwards as the elevator dings. “Oh, and Romanova.”
“Romanoff,” she corrects, but ice creeps down her spine. How many files did Stark get into while he was hacking SHIELD? He’d have to dig pretty damn deep for that name.
“Whatever,” he says, and there’s the asshole again. He points his phone at her. “Pepper told me you two have a lunch date later this week.”
Tony falters at the lack of information she’s giving him. The elevator doors slide open in front of them.
He stares at her for a second. “Don’t… snap her neck with your legs.”
“I’ll endeavour not to.”
He eyes her some more, but leaves once the elevator doors start to close.
Natasha’s lunch dates with Pepper carry over from Natasha’s short period of being a PA. It had started out as the two of them getting together to discuss work, which had run long and turned into the two of them ordering takeout and pausing in the middle of a conversation to take phone calls.
The lunch dates had started after that, and involved a strange mix of work, personal conversations and food.
They hadn’t had anything concrete before ‘Natalie’ quit her job and Pepper went from being CEO back to PA again, so Natasha had been surprised to get a text from Pepper a week after she’s handed in her assessment of Stark. The text asks Natasha- and Pepper does say Natasha, not Natalie- if she’d be interested in checking out a sushi place this Friday.
Which is how Natasha finds herself going for lunch with her ex-coworker, who had only ever known her under an assumed identity.
“Pepper,” Natasha greets as she sits down. She can’t help but let a little bit of Natalie Rushman bleed into the way she arranges herself in her chair; in the smile she shoots at Pepper.
When Pepper smiles, it’s not entirely friendly. “Natasha,” she says. Her makeup is impeccably neat and well suited to her, as are her clothes. Natasha can remember seeing photos of her at Stark’s side in a stuffy dress suit, hair pulled back into a messy ponytail.
Natasha is still working out her angle. “How’ve you been?”
“Well, my hair is no longer falling out from stress.”
“I’m pleased to hear it,” Natasha says. She wonders if she should apologize. Pepper seems like the kind of girl who appreciates an apology, god knows she probably doesn’t get many from Stark. “Pepper, I wanted to tell you how sorry I am-”
Natasha hesitates. “Am I sorry?”
“Yes.” Pepper’s smile is, again, perfectly polite but lacking warmth. “Are you?”
Natasha goes for a half-truth. She always ends up telling a lot of them in her line of work. “I’m sorry I had to deceive you. You didn’t deserve that.”
“Mm.” Pepper glances down at her menu. “So, all of those things you told me about your life- are any of them true?”
“Most of them, no.” Where she grew up, her parents’ professions, her pets and her friends- all a lie constructed by SHIELD or made up by Natasha to flesh out her new identity. “I do have a friend called Clint who continually gets himself in trouble, but he’s not a freelance artist.”
“He’s an… agent,” Pepper guesses, and presses her fingers briefly to the bridge of her nose. “Natasha, what do you- what do you actually do? Tony told me you’re a spy.”
“That’s more or less accurate,” Natasha allows. “My job at SHIELD entails a wide range of tasks.”
“Which involves spying.”
“Spying is a part of it, if it becomes necessary to do so,” Natasha agrees. She pauses to thank her waiter when he comes over with a jug of water and some glasses, which he leaves on the table.
Pepper is staring at her. Natasha can’t quite get a read on her expression.
“Okay,” Pepper says. “Tell me something about you that’s true.”
Natasha pours herself a glass of water. As she puts the jug down, she says, “I grew up in Russia.”
“Oh? Your accent is very good.”
“Thank you.” Natasha smiles. Obviously Tony hasn’t told her about her past with the KGB. They had drilled so many languages into her and forced her to perfect her accent for each one. She can pass for a local in many countries.
Pepper waits and Natasha tries to find something else. There’s a lot about her that is classified to agents, let alone a civilian. How long has it been since a civilian knew who she was and still wanted to be her friend? Natasha has pretended to be friends with many people, but only under a false identity.
This- she doesn’t know what to do with this. She doesn’t know if she was pretending to be friends with Pepper back when she was Natalie, or if she wants to be Pepper’s friend now. Because it’s obviously what Pepper wants: at first Natasha had considered that this would be Pepper being bitter towards her, but instead she’s trying to get them back onto safe ground.
“Why did you move,” Pepper asks.
Even with Clint, Natasha tries to be as vague as she can about her life. No one will ever know her full story, and Natasha accepted that truth long ago.
“It was a choice that was made for me,” Natasha replies. “Did Tony mention anything else when he told you I was a spy?”
Pepper blinks rapidly. “He… said you were good at it.”
Natasha doubts he used those exact words. “I’m very well trained.”
“Did SHIELD train you?”
Natasha watches Pepper’s face as she realizes it might not be a good question to ask.
“Um,” Pepper starts, reaching for the water jug.
“No,” Natasha says in answer to the last question. She reaches for her menu. “Shall we order?”
Pepper looks at her and Natasha wants to tell her she knows what it’s like: seeing someone who you thought was a friend, someone you knew, but they’re an entirely different person now. The friend had been a smokescreen.
Natasha is used to being a smokescreen. She slips personas on and takes them off whenever is necessary. It’s what she was made to do, and she’s very good at it.
Still- she decided long ago she needed something stable. She couldn’t live shifting from identity to identity with nothing to keep for herself.
As the lunch progresses, Natasha tries to give Pepper a glimpse of who she is as Natasha instead of the persona she had put on to be Stark’s PA. Gone is the helpful, innocent attitude and the voice she used to answer phones and tell Pepper about clients. In its place is Natasha, or as much as she’ll allow to show in a public place with someone she doesn’t fully trust. Natasha is mostly sure that Pepper means her no harm, but she needs more than that to be truly comfortable with someone.
The lunch runs late, and Natasha finds herself giving a quiet, genuine laugh at one of the jokes Pepper makes. It’s quiet, which is why Natasha notes how Pepper pauses in raising her glass to her mouth.
“What,” Natasha asks.
Pepper shakes her head and takes a sip of water. When she places the glass down, she says “You reminded me of- no, nevermind.”
“What,” Natasha repeats.
Pepper squints at her. “You reminded me of Tony for a second.”
What, Natasha repeats a third time, but keeps it to herself. “How so?”
“Just-” Pepper gestures towards her face, titling her own face inquisitively. “It reminded me of how Tony laughs when it’s just me or Rhodey, compared with how he laughs when he’s in public.”
Stark has a public persona. Of course he does, it’s something Natasha noted right away, it’d be impossible to live in the limelight so often without one. What Natasha hadn’t considered is how much his public persona differed to his private one.
It strikes Natasha that she hasn’t heard Tony laugh like she just had. And why would he have? She had been a PA trying to sleep with him, and then she had been a double agent.
Natasha wonders if Tony’s told her about her recommendations- Iron Man, yes. Tony Stark, not recommended.
She stands by it. Still, a flicker of something runs through her at Pepper’s words. Curiosity, maybe.
“How is he,” Natasha asks.
Pepper sighs. “He’s not dying anymore, which is great. God. I can’t believe you knew before I did.”
“I’m a very good spy. Don’t feel bad about it.”
Pepper picks at their sushi. They’re nearing the last few pieces, and Pepper has given her all the ginger. She hates it, Natasha loves it. It works out.
“He’s good,” Pepper says. “He’s- he mentioned something about a team? A superhero team that might be happening?”
“I’ve heard about that,” Natasha says.
The Avengers come together in a less peaceful way than Natasha had hoped. Less peaceful, less planned, less disastrous-
It works, is the important thing. They come together and they argue and splinter, but when it comes down to it they achieve wonders. They save the world, and Natasha spends the next few days with a quiet, proud glow that starts up whenever her mind gets too quiet.
She helped save the world. There were still casualties, and she could’ve done more, and they should’ve saved more people, but the world is still here and they’re rebuilding and Natasha was in the epicentre of that. She stood on the top of Stark Tower and closed the portal that would’ve ended it all.
She keeps an eye on Stark, after. He had gone into that wormhole thinking it was going to be the last thing he would ever do. It’s a sacrifice that Natasha is surprised by, and that surprise continues as she notices that Tony doesn’t think it was a big deal.
He bitches about it, sure. But Natasha watches his expressions, his posture, his words, and realizes he’d do it again in a heartbeat.
For the first time, she thinks back to her evaluation and wonders if she was wrong.
She still hasn’t decided on an answer when she gets a call from Fury telling her that Stark is herding them all into his Tower, which has gone from Stark Tower to Avengers Tower. Apparently he’s serious about this.
Tony even turns up to show her to her floor when she arrives a day later. Natasha looks around and hides how impressed she is- he designed all of it; he’s poured all his resources and his effort into this and by the looks of it he personalized each floor.
“Clint’s one floor up if you get lonely, I heard you two are spy buddies,” Tony throws out as he walks her around.
Natasha supresses a smile. That means Clint’s on the highest floor- had Tony noticed Clint’s liking of heights and made a note of it so Clint would feel more comfortable?
A year ago, she would’ve thought it was a coincidence. Now she’s not so sure.
He pauses, turns around. His eyebrows shoot upwards when she approaches him and lays a hand on his arm.
“Thank you for this. I like my floor. It means a lot that you put the effort in,” Natasha says, putting enough sincerity in it to sound genuine but not enough that he’ll see Feelings on the horizon and run.
Even so, Tony still pockets his hands and tries even harder to look casual despite how he’s practically been bouncing off the walls since Natasha walked onto her floor. “It’s no problem. I didn’t actually do much, I just threw money at people.”
Then he flashes her a smile that Natasha interprets as ‘look how easygoing I am, really, look at my face, ignore how incredibly uncomfortable I am right now underneath it.’
She squeezes his arm and drops her hand. “Whatever you did, I appreciate it. I… think this team could work out.”
“Me, too,” Tony says after a second. Then he clears his throat. “It’d be awkward if I didn’t, given that the ‘Avengers’ is already out on the front of the building.”
And you said you weren’t a team player. Natasha doesn’t say it. She’s starting to think that the reason Tony’s perceived as one is because he never got the chance to join anything team-ish.
Once everyone has moved in, they do a good job of ignoring each other for close to a week.
Natasha thinks it could have gone on indefinitely until they get called out to stop a mutant in Manhattan from turning everyone into sludge. After they’ve apprehended the guy and turned him in to SHIELD, they’re running on adrenaline. They cajole each other the whole way back to the Tower and when Bruce suggests they get something to eat, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
Tony immediately gets out his phone and announces they’re getting pizza. “Okay, I’m on the Dominos website, who wants what? We’re definitely getting pepperoni, but what else?”
“I’d like something vegetarian,” Bruce offers.
Tony clicks his fingers at him. “Veggie pizza, got it. Anyone?”
“What options are there,” Steve asks. “Wait, don’t tell me, I’ll pull it up-”
He gets out his phone, but Tony is already reeling out a list of options. “-prawn and hollandaise, chicken carbonara, peri-peri chicken, bacon and feta, apricot chicken, tuna, lamb tzatziki-”
Steve stares at Tony, then down at his phone. Natasha glances across at the screen- he’s scrolling through ‘pizza types’ on Wikipedia and looking bewildered.
“What site are you on,” Steve asks. “I’m- do they not have normal pizza?”
Tony grins at him. He has a cut over one eyebrow and he keeps having to wipe blood away from trickling into his eye. “Meatlovers, bacon and mushroom- what do you want on your pizza, Cap?”
Steve sighs. “Cheese and meat. Anything other than that, I’ll trust your judgement. Pepperoni sounded fine.”
“Oooh, Cap trusts my pizza judgement,” Tony mutters. His fingers fly over the keypad. “Opinions, anyone? Otherwise I’m just ordering a few pepperonis and one veggie for Bruce. Wait, you want more than one pizza? You must burn a lot of calories when you Hulk out-”
“One is fine, Tony.”
“Right, right right right,” Tony says. “I’m also getting a side of everything, I trust it’ll all be gone in an hour with Thor and Cap on our side.”
Natasha tries to remember what they have for sides at Dominos. There are definitely a lot; that she remembers. When she looks over at Clint, he seems to be wondering the same thing and shrugs when she gives him a questioning look.
They turn on the TV during the wait, which according to Tony will be incredibly short as Tony tips like only an eccentric billionaire can. They come across a program that’s showing reruns of M.A.S.H., which everyone is familiar with except for the resident alien and guy from the 40s. Natasha only knows about it because Clint made her watch it with him while they were waiting to see if his infected leg wound was going to kill him before SHIELD got to them.
Natasha sneaks looks over at Steve as they watch. It’s a comedy, but it’s still a show about a war and Natasha isn’t sure how much PTSD Steve is harbouring. She wonders if he’s read the information SHIELD gave him about it and makes a note to bring it up later.
Ten minutes into the M.A.S.H. episode, JARVIS speaks up.
“The delivery man is at the front door, Sir.”
“Bring him up,” Tony says, not taking his eyes off the TV screen.
Less than a minute later, a teenager is stepping out of the elevator looking vaguely scared at having been guided up into Avengers Tower by a disembodied voice. He’s also dwarfed by the amount of food he’s carrying in several bags.
“Hi,” the teenager squeaks, rushing to unload the bags when as Tony waves him over.
Natasha scoots to the edge of the couch as the food is unloaded onto the coffee table. Jesus, there are a lot of sides- chocolate mousse, wedges, something that looks like chicken nuggets. Natasha moves for the chocolate mousse only for Clint to grab it at the last second.
“Too slow,” he tells her, and then starts eating it with his fingers because he can’t find a spoon.
“You’re an animal,” she tells him, and takes a slice of pizza instead, passing the vegetarian pizza over to Bruce when she opens that first.
The teenage delivery boy squeaks again and Natasha looks over. He’s holding a wad of cash and stammering as Tony talks quietly to him.
Natasha eyes the cash. She’s sure their order wouldn’t cost that much. Tony must be one of those rich people who actually tip well.
“It was an honour to sell you the food,” the teenager blurts before he gets back in the elevator. He swallows when all their gazes turn to him. “And- thanks for saving Manhattan today.”
“Part of the job,” Tony tells him. He’s leaning back into the couch with a slice of pizza and a wedge of indeterminate origin.
Natasha watches him suck cheese off his fingers before looking over and realizing Steve is doing the same thing. He notices her gaze is on him a second too late, and his face goes carefully blank before he returns to eating his pizza, eyes trained on the TV screen.
Huh, Natasha thinks. She remembers the files SHIELD gave him and thinks of the one lone page containing LGBT history of the last 70 years.
Natasha walks into the kitchen to find Tony chopping mushrooms.
“Hey,” he says when he notices her. He’s in sweatpants and a raggedy t-shirt emblazoned with a band that broke up the year Natasha was born. As Natasha surveys him, she realizes they’re actually around the same height when Tony isn’t in lifts.
“Good morning,” she replies, heading over to the shelves of tea. She turns the kettle on to boil and watches Tony out of the corner of her eye. Tony gathers the diced mushrooms in his hands and heads over to the stove, where something is sizzling in a pan.
Natasha watches in dimmed fascination as Tony loads the mushroom onto one half of the omelette and then folds the clear half on top of it. Then he slides a spatula under the whole thing and flips it over. It’s golden-brown and Natasha can spot shards of red capsicum and cheese in the omelette.
Natasha’s stomach growls loud enough that Tony looks over at her and raises his eyebrows at her stomach.
“I haven’t had breakfast yet,” Natasha explains over the boiling kettle.
Tony pushes the omelette gently around the pan. “I could make you one of these,” he offers.
Natasha considers. Something feels off, but she can’t place what it is. “I’m sure you have things to do.”
Tony’s face closes off. It’s small but it’s there, and Natasha realizes that she’s made a mistake. Damn. She suddenly remembers Tony offering Steve a blueberry, that first day.
“Fine,” Tony says, turning back to the pan.
Natasha goes on damage control. She leaves her tea to steep and comes over to stand next to Tony, close enough to watch but not enough to crowd. “I didn’t know you could cook.”
“Yeah. Ja- uh, someone taught me when I was a kid.”
He keeps his gaze on the pan. Natasha wonders who the person was that Tony doesn’t want to name.
“You’re good,” she says.
Tony snorts. “It’s an omelette. Any idiot can make an omelette.”
Tony does a double-take in her direction. “What? You can kill me with how many things in this room and you can’t make an omelette?”
She shrugs. “I’ve never tried. I don’t cook, as a rule.”
He’s looking at her like she just admitted she owns a set of tentacles and has been hiding them since they met. “You’re saying you can’t cook.”
“I’m not saying I can’t-”
“What happens when you try?”
She purses her lips against a smile. “Your omelette’s burning.”
Tony curses and turns the stove off. He slides the omelette from the pan onto a plate sitting on the bench, then puts the pan onto a cold element.
When he glances over at her, she relents. “My attempts at cooking have never… turned out how I expected.”
Tony’s mouth twitches. “So you can’t cook.”
“I…” she pauses. Looks behind him to where the omelette is sitting nicely on the plate. Her stomach rumbles, and Tony still isn’t entirely comfortable, and Natasha doesn’t blame him.
“You could teach me,” she says. “I’d like to think I can’t manage to mess up an omelette.”
Tony startles, but he recovers quickly. “Uh. Sure,” he says, and with some of his usual bravado, continues, “Not with me to save it.”
She rolls her eyes, but keeps her smile. It has the intended effect, and soon they’re trading well-meant barbs as Tony eats his omelette and tells her what to get from the fridge.
It’s more than Natasha expected- milk, two eggs, a red pepper, mushrooms, cheese, onions. On Tony’s request, she also gets salt and paprika out of the cupboard.
Tony finishes off his omelette and places the plate in the sink. “You can pretty much shove in whatever you want,” he tells Natasha as she lines up the ingredients on the counter. “Okay, so I’m ninety percent sure you won’t mess this part up: crack the eggs into a bowl.”
Natasha does. Then she picks out the tiny pieces of eggshell that follow the eggs into the bowl. After pouring in some milk, chopping the vegetables and giving the whole thing a quick whisk, Tony examines the contents.
“Looks good,” Tony says. He heads to the stove, turns the element back on and puts the pan onto it. “Bring the bowl over.”
Tony asks, “You sure you want to do the mushroom-flippy thing I did? Making a plain omelette is a lot easier.”
“I’m sure I can handle it.”
“If you say so,” Tony says mildly, and steps back. “Okay, so this part can be a bit of a bitch because that element tilts a little. Grab the spatula, then pour the egg stuff near one of the sides and stop it from getting into an awkward shape with the spatula.”
“A shape that’d be hard to flip into half,” Tony says after struggling for an explanation. “It doesn’t matter too much, I’m just very particular about my omelettes. It doesn’t matter, go for it.”
Natasha feels inexplicably nervous about the omelette shape, but she pours the mixture into the pan and watches the mixture spool out over the pan. There are some trails that she puts a stop to, pushing them back until the mixture has solidified a little and stops trickling all over the pan.
“How’s that,” she asks.
Tony leans over to examine it before leaning back. “Looks good. Okay, grab the mushrooms.”
Natasha goes over to the chopping board and returns with a pile of chopped mushrooms in her cupped hands.
“Doing good. Great job carrying the mushrooms over, see, cooking isn’t too hard.” Tony flashes a grin at her when she gives him narrowed eyes. “Okay, put the mushrooms onto one side.”
She does. The omelette is firming up a lot faster than she expected.
“Get the spatula and slide it under the part of the omelette that isn’t mushroomed.”
She does. It tears a little on one side. She eyes it, but Tony waves a hand.
“It’s fine, you’re good. Fold it on top of the mushrooms.”
She does, but it sits unevenly so she uses her fingers to gently tug it, but it tears some more.
“Good enough,” Tony says. “Okay, flip the whole thing over.”
She does. Mushrooms spill out the sides. She supresses a frown and watches Tony as he picks a mushroom out of the pan and pops it into his mouth.
“Good for a first try,” he says. “Stop pouting, it was fine. You must really not be used to being bad at things.”
She looks down at the omelette. It looks a little pathetic. She’s only slightly hamming up the discontent she feels in order to coax a reaction from Tony- she’s terrifyingly efficient at most things, surely an omelette should’ve been easy. She eyes the ripped edges of the omelette.
“It’ll taste the same no matter how bad you fold it,” Tony says and Natasha realizes he’s actually trying to comfort her.
She turns to him with a smile. It’s an odd situation they’ve caught themselves in, but Natasha is using it to her advantage. “Thanks for this, Tony.”
“Don’t thank me until it’s on a plate,” Tony tells her. “Flip it again.”
She does, nudging the mushrooms back into the omelette when more spill out. When the omelette is more or less golden brown, Tony gets a plate from the cupboard and holds it out for Natasha to put the omelette onto. She can’t slide it straight from the pan to the plate and it threatens to rip more when she tries, and when she picks it up with the spatula, even more mushrooms spill out. By the time it’s plated, most of the mushrooms are sitting next to the omelette where Natasha has scraped them from the pan.
Tony leans on the counter as Natasha cuts a piece off and takes a bite. “It’s nice,” she says. Much nicer than anything she’s tried to cook before this. “You’re a good teacher.”
Tony shrugs the compliment off. Natasha’s starting to notice a trend where Tony gets oddly uncomfortable at the first hint of sincerity, especially when it comes to compliments.
Natasha wonders if touching him would make the situation better or worse. Tony is casual with sex but Natasha has observed that he’s iffy about any other kind of physical touch. She settles for taking another bite of her omelette and bumping his shoulder gently when she passes him.
“You’ll have to teach me more about cooking sometime,” she says as she passes.
“I have to?”
She turns in the doorway. “I can teach you something in return.”
“Yeah?” He folds his arms. “Like what?”
“Still thinking about it,” she says. “I’ll get back to you.”
Natasha muses on it for a day or two before calling Tony down to the gym.
Tony eyes her warily as he walks in. He toes off his shoes as he walks. “Okay, this isn’t how I expected you to pay me back. Not that getting pushed repeatedly into a mat by a beautiful woman isn’t my idea of a good time,” he says, grinning.
Natasha gives him a look that broadcasts she knows just how much he’s bullshitting. His smile shrinks slightly.
“I’m not teaching you how to fight,” she tells him. “Well, not yet. I thought we’d test your flexibility first.”
Tony blinks. “Sure. What the hell are we doing?”
Natasha walks over to the makeshift barre. It’s actually a bar to do chin-ups on, but Natasha’s remodelled it. “I’m teaching you some basic ballet moves.”
“Ballet,” Tony repeats. “As in-”
“Yes,” she says. She smiles. “It looks graceful, but it’s very physically taxing. We won’t get into anything too intense, though- we’re just focusing on your flexibility. Come here and put your hands on the barre.”
Tony looks dubiously at it and her, but he comes over. “Fine, but we’re fighting after this, right?”
“Why?” Natasha feels herself fall into the familiar stretches. “Need to prove your masculinity?”
“Maybe,” Tony allows, copying her badly as she shows him a stretch.
“You’re holding yourself too tightly,” she tells him. “You have to let yourself loosen.”
Tony mutters something she doesn’t catch. When he copies her stretch again, it’s more accurate and she tells him so.
He doesn’t answer to the praise. Instead he says, “So. You can do ballet, but you can’t cook.”
“I contain multitudes,” she says, giving him her sweetest smile.
It doesn’t trip him up. “Where’d you even learn this? Was ballet vital to your spy training?”
She doesn’t falter, but only because she’s well-versed in hiding her feelings. It’s been years since she’s succumbed to vivid flashbacks, but for a moment she can feel marble under her bleeding feet.
I am one of 28 young ballerinas with the Bolshoi. Training is hard, but the glory of the soviet culture, and the warmth of my parents-
The life she never led, but remembered nonetheless. No-one would ever know her full story, not even Natasha.
Natasha opens her eyes. When had she closed them?
She forces her jaw to unlock. Apparently she had been clenching her teeth hard enough to ache. “No. It wasn’t vital.”
Tony is staring, but he’s still in the pose she left him in. “Okay. What else did they teach you, knitting?”
She forces a laugh. “No. I picked that up later.”
“You can knit but you can’t cook.”
She taps his shoulder. “Stop hunching. Shoulders back.”
“It’s such a basic skill! You have to eat to live!”
“Concentrate,” she tells him.
Tony sighs, but he straightens into the position she’s in, arms out and curved. “Should there be music?”
“We’re not dancing, you’re just learning the basic movements. Get into the fourth position.”
She moves one arm out and the other up. Tony copies her, eyes dropping to her feet and shuffling into the right position.
“Ow,” he says when he achieves it. “Are feet supposed to bend like this? Hey, can you stand on your toes? I hear it’s hell. Stand on your toes.”
“Go into the fifth position,” she tells him, moving into it.
Tony does. He looks out of place, but oddly graceful as he holds both his arms aloft. She steps back to consider him. He has the wrong body to do it professionally, but he doesn’t look bad.
“And relax,” she tells him. He does, dropping his arms and wincing as he gets his feet back to their usual position.
“Good work,” she tells him. Then she goes up on her toes, holding her arms up for the full effect.
Tony’s eyebrows raise. He barks out a laugh. “Holy fuck. I mean, there’s not much weight on you to lift, but-”
“You couldn’t pick me up,” she returns. “I’m pure muscle.”
“I believe it,” Tony says. His mouth is open to say something else when Steve walks in and Tony turns to see who it is. “Hey, Cap.”
“Hi,” Steve says. His hands are wrapped, so Natasha assumes he’s here for the punching bag that’s reinforced but has still had to be replaced three times in as many months. “You two are-”
“I’m teaching him basic ballet,” Natasha says, dropping back to the flats of her feet. “To help with his flexibility and thank him for teaching me how to make an omelette.”
Surprise colours Steve’s face. “Oh, that’s- nice of you both.”
“Yeah, I’m having a ball,” Tony says dryly. He rolls his shoulders. “You can cook, right?”
Steve nods. “I do alright.”
“But- Depression era cooking, yeah. Boiled chicken and… crackers and the like. Did you guys have crackers?”
Steve gives Tony a look that Natasha assumes Tony is far too used to, like he’s trying to figure out if Tony’s screwing with him or not. “Yeah, we had crackers back then. They existed. Uh, I can leave if you two need to focus-”
Natasha says, “No, it’s fine,” at the same time that Tony says, “You should join in.”
They both turn to him. Tony is starting to grin. “Natasha, you mind taking on another student? Or should he teach you how to make toast first?”
“Actually, I’m-” Steve pockets his hands. “I was looking for some time by myself. Another time, maybe.”
Natasha nods and makes a note to check up on him later. Their Captain has good days and bad days, and by the rigid line of his shoulders and him coming here to beat up a punching bag, Natasha expects that this day isn’t one of the good ones.
Steve leaves and Tony briefly watches him go before turning back to Natasha expectantly. “Just so you know, I have to head to a meeting in 40 minutes so I can’t do pirouettes for long.”
Natasha nods again. “Does Steve know you’re gay?”
Tony takes a second to catch up with the sudden change of subject. His face tightens. He doesn’t seem too surprised that she knows. “No, he doesn’t. Why?”
Natasha shrugs. “I think he’d like to know.”
“Why,” Tony repeats. “You think he’ll have a problem with it?”
“No. I think it’d be good for Steve to have someone to talk to about this.”
“About-” Tony trails off. “You think Steve is-? He had that whole thing with Peggy Carter!”
“That doesn’t make him straight.”
“I… true,” Tony allows. He runs a hand through his hair, looking dazed. “Huh. I hadn’t- huh.”
Natasha guesses he hasn’t noticed the looks Steve has occasionally been giving Tony- lingering ones, warm with something other than the new, tentative friendship they’ve kindled lately.
She decides to keep quiet on that particular subject. “Do you want to continue?”
Tony shakes his head. “Later. Thanks,” he adds. “I’ll, uh, teach you how to cook something else if you want.”
She considers. “Could we make cupcakes?”
“You got it,” Tony says, but he says it in that tone that means he’s thinking about a hundred other things at once.
Natasha has attended many parties in her life, but never for fun. Instead it’s always to infiltrate a building, to seduce a corrupt businessman, to coax information out of someone after pouring too many drinks into them.
At this gala, her mission is to improve the Avengers’ public image. It’s not an official mission, but the Avengers need to work on their image so Natasha makes it her personal mission for tonight.
It’s not hard to talk up her teammates when the people she’s talking to are the kind of people Natasha has been trained to manipulate: rich, powerful people who have secrets on top of secrets. It doesn’t hurt that they’re also apocalyptically drunk by 10pm.
Around about the time people start leaving to vomit, Natasha excuses herself for a breather. She leaves the ballroom and heads into what looks like a darkened library, and is preparing to lean against a bookshelf and close her eyes when she notices someone else is in the room.
“Who’s there,” the someone says, and Natasha relaxes.
“It’s just me.”
“Oh. Hey,” Tony says. He comes closer and Natasha can see that his tie has been loosened, his shirt undone a few buttons. “Here to peruse the legendary book collection they boast about?”
“Here for a breather, actually.” Natasha heads over to the window, since the moon is about the only source of light in here.
Tony follows. “The mighty Black Widow needs breathers? Last week I saw you take down eighteen HYDRA agents one after the other and you didn’t even stop to breathe, just kept gunning for the bomb.”
“Well, the bomb did put some urgency into the situation.”
“So if it wasn’t there you would’ve had a sit-down?”
“Oh, definitely.” She laughs and finds she even means it. It’s not that it was particularly funny- she’s just comforted by Tony’s presence, his dependable sarcasm. It’s a revelation that sends a wave of fondness through her as she examines Tony in the weak moonlight. He’s tired and showing it, which means he’s exhausted. Usually he can hide his tiredness until he should’ve gone to sleep at least a day ago.
“How are you,” she asks.
His shoulder twitches. She learned fast that people usually don’t ask Tony and care about what the answer is.
“Fine. What about you- something happen to send you to the world’s dustiest library or did you just feel like inducing a sneezing fit?”
She thinks about making a dry joke. Instead she goes with honesty. Unlike what everyone thinks, Natasha can be honest. She’s honest all the time. She just uses it when it best suits her. “I just needed a minute away from- everything out there.”
Tony makes a small noise of agreement. He will rarely offer these kind of things, Natasha has learned, so she’s taken to holding out olive branches. Most of the time, he takes them.
“It can get overwhelming,” Tony says. “Surprised it got to you.”
“It gets to everyone sometimes.”
Tony makes another noise. This one is more thoughtful. In the dim moonlight, he’s more of a thick shadow than anything substantial. “I figured they’d train it out of you.”
Tony nods. He pries sometimes, but usually not when he has the sense to shut up. Which is… sometimes.
Natasha says, “Some things can’t be trained out of a person. Not entirely.”
Tony doesn’t reply. Then he’s straightening, throwing his shoulders back in the way he does when he’s trying to seem more assured than he is. “Should we get back out there?”
“Mm.” Natasha brushes her hair back into place. “Time to go be Tony Stark.”
Tony groans quietly, making a face. “Yeah.”
Natasha feels a muted pleasure at Tony trusting her enough by allowing her to see that admission, that small hint towards the idea that Tony doesn’t always like being Tony Stark™ every minute of every day.
She links her arm around his. “We’ll be able to leave soon. I don’t think Cap can take any more of this, either. And Bruce is already waiting for us in the limo.”
“We could always say we have urgent Avengers business to deal with.”
“Good idea,” Natasha says. “We’ll fall back on that if we’re still here in half an hour.”
On the car ride back to the Tower, Natasha thinks back to Tony trusting her in that dim library and makes a decision.
When she lies her head on Tony’s shoulder, she feels him tense. She waits, and soon Tony is relaxing as Natasha leans into his side, her face tilted into his shoulder.
He gives her a questioning look as they pile out of the car. She moves to make way for Clint to get out after her and tells Tony, “Thanks for the shoulder pillow. You’re comfy.”
It’s… not her best line. Clint’s told her she can be a dork when she gets around to actually trusting people.
Still, it seems to work on Tony. His lips hitch in a smile, albeit a confused one. “Thanks?”
Natasha gives his shoulder a pat and heads into the Tower.
Natasha starts spending more time with Steve as the months pass. He’s adapting well to the future, despite the wreck he’d been when he first moved into the Tower. He had kept it under wraps and insisted he was fine, but Natasha has been trained to read people since she was old enough to wield a knife.
Nowadays, Natasha thinks Steve is balancing on ‘not okay, but I can definitely see a place where I will be okay.’ It’s not ideal for their team leader, but Natasha expects nothing else from a man who’s been through what he’s been through. All things considered, Steve is doing remarkably well.
His bad days have gone from being close to unbearable to being just something else he has to slog through. Natasha has learned to read the signs and has done trial runs on how she should act for the best results when it happens. So far, the most difficult thing is figuring out if she should press Steve on it when he says he doesn’t want to talk. There are times when it works out in everyone’s favour, and then there are times when Steve truly does need to hole himself up in his room or his art studio or the gym for a few hours and will snap at anyone who tries to get him to do otherwise.
Natasha watches him pour his cereal and decides that today is a Talking day. She comes up behind him, making sure to keep her footsteps audible. Steve would hear them anyway, but sometimes he gets so lost in his own head that his superhearing is put in the backburner.
“We’re going to watch that new Harry Potter movie later,” Natasha tells him. “The one that isn’t actually a Harry Potter movie. You up for it, Steve?”
She uses his name. She always uses his name now, apart from when they’re in the field, because she knows how many people see him as Captain America and don’t bother looking past the surface.
Steve turns around, holding his cereal close. “That’d be good,” he says. “When’s this happening?”
Steve nods. He takes a bite of cereal. “I’ll make sure to be there. Hey, uh.”
“Yes,” she prompts when he doesn’t continue.
Steve clears his throat. He’s holding himself like he’s still that skinny kid from Brooklyn. “You and Tony are… close.”
Her first thought is that Steve wants to know if they’re dating. Her second is that she’s certain Tony told Steve he was gay four- five? Five- months ago. Her third thought-
“We’re close,” Natasha agrees. She keeps her tone as light as possible. Open, but casual. “It was a surprise to the both of us, trust me.”
He laughs. It’s so forced Natasha wants to school him on how to fake a laugh properly. “Right,” he says, and then seems to have trouble making anything else come out of his mouth.
You should’ve asked me to spar first, she thinks. You’d find it easier if your blood was up-
“Has he-” Steve’s fingers tighten and loosen around the bowl. “I mean, does-”
Natasha assumes he’s trying to find a way to say it without saying like a high schooler.
“You read people,” Steve tries. “And I was wondering- when you see us- uh, me and Tony-”
In retrospect, Natasha thinks she should be less surprised that a team of superheroes tend to have the emotional capacities of teenagers. As Clint says, they’re ‘good at kicking ass and terrible at feelings.’
Natasha cuts him off before he can stammer himself into silence. “Tony seems very fond of you, Steve.”
Steve smiles. Despite their rocky beginning, Steve and Tony have gotten along like a house on fire except when they’re screaming at each other. “Yeah. I was more wondering- what kind of fondness he has for me. In your professional opinion.”
“In my professional opinion,” Natasha repeats, concealing a smile. She thinks Steve would feel mocked if she started snickering right now. “I think this is something you should discuss with Tony.”
Steve sighs. “That’s fair enough. That- yeah, I know I should. That’d be the sensible thing to… do.”
The prospect of it has him looking into the distance like he knows he has to face a sea monster, alone and unarmed, in the near future.
“Tony’s not that scary,” Natasha tries. “Remember when you cut him off after he had too many coffees and held the jug over his head and he tried to jump for it? Hard to find that guy any kind of scary.”
This time Steve’s laugh is genuine. Then his smile fades. “I’m just not sure it’d be a good idea.”
“What, telling him?”
Steve nods. His fingers keep flexing around the bowl of cereal. “I don’t know which outcome I’m more afraid of,” he confesses before locking his jaw.
Natasha watches the muscles in his face twitch and thinks of the silent journey she’s watched him go through. She’s only caught glimpses and she suspects it’s been much less quiet for Steve, who has been in the 21st century for less than a year. Developing feelings to a close friend while orientating himself in a completely new environment can’t have been fun, not to mention Steve had come into the present in love with a woman who had aged 70 years since they last saw each other.
“One is definitely preferable,” she says, coaxing another jolt of laughter from him.
“Yeah,” he says, eyes on his cereal.
Natasha wonders just how many relationships Steve has had. From what she’s gleamed from him, she gets the feeling that Peggy would’ve been his first relationship if they had managed to get together. Possibly his first for a few other things as well, which Natasha has no doubt will freak Tony out to no end.
Natasha touches Steve’s arm. It gets him looking down at her. “I’m here to talk if you make a decision,” she says. “Or even if you don’t.”
He nods. Then he takes a deep, short breath and squares his shoulders and suddenly he’s Cap again, pulling on a smile he brings out when he wants to convince people he’s fully functional and there’s absolutely nothing wrong in his head.
Natasha has intimate personal experience with that smile. Natasha once lived as the personification of that smile, but things are more stable now. This is something she wants to tell Steve, but she doesn’t know if he’ll take it well.
She settles for touching his arm again, squeezing briefly before letting go.
“Ow. Ow. Ow.”
Natasha slows and stops as she passes the bathroom. Inside it, Tony swears quietly.
Natasha knocks. The swearing stops. “Occupied?”
“Are you decent,” Natasha asks.
“I’m fully clothed, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I’m coming in,” Natasha says. She pushes the door open to find Tony standing in front of the sink, leaning towards the mirror. In the sink is a massive bag of makeup that looks like it’s been used maybe once in the last decade.
Sitting open on the sink is a small bottle of liquid concealer. Some of said concealer is sitting baldly on Tony’s cheek, covering half of the greenish bruise he received days ago after being slammed into a wall by their latest villain of the week.
“I’m going out with Rhodey later,” Tony explains.
Natasha leans against the doorframe. “And you wanted to gussy up for him?”
Tony grins. “You know I have to look good for my Rhodeybear.”
Natasha smiles back as she steps closer. She holds out her hand for the concealer sponge. Tony hesitates, but hands it to her.
Wordlessly, Natasha reaches up to Tony’s face and tilts his chin sideways so she has better access and the light falls properly on the bruise. She smooths the concealer gently onto the bruise until it’s covered entirely, then blends it in.
Tony keeps quiet as Natasha rummages through the makeup bag for foundation. As Natasha nears his cheek with the makeup sponge again, she pauses. “Do you want me to do your whole face, or just the cheek?”
“Might look strange if my cheek was a slightly different colour than the rest of my face,” Tony says. “That was kind of what I was going for when I went for the makeup.”
Natasha nods and proceeds to brush a thin layer of foundation over Tony’s face. As she’s finishing up, she asks Tony if she has anything to help keep the makeup in place.
“Powder,” Tony answers. He closes his eyes when Natasha comes at him with the powder, and only opens them once she’s zipping things back into the makeup bag.
Tony turns to examine himself in the mirror. He tilts his face at several angles. “This is another one of those things you’re freakishly good at, huh?”
“It was a necessary skill to learn,” Natasha answers as she hands him the makeup bag. As he’s about to take it from her hands, she pauses. “Do you know how to apply eyeliner?”
Tony blinks. “Nat, I haven’t worn eyeliner since I made some very bad fashion decisions in the 80s.”
“It’s for me.”
“Oh,” Tony says, cottoning on. “You want me to-?”
She nods. “I have yoga with Pepper later. She’s bringing Darcy and Jane along, and I figure I could show off my own winged eyeliner for once. If you’re up for it.”
Tony pauses, but he unzips the makeup bag. “Uh. Okay. What tools do I need for this?”
Tony nods, fingers digging through the bag. “Might have that in here. I just got a makeup artist to shove a bit of everything in here in case I need it.”
When Natasha looks at him questioningly, Tony flashes her a smile. “Shockingly, I don’t always have a makeup team trailing behind me when I need it. Figured I might as well learn the basics.”
He makes a triumphant noise when he surfaces with a stick of liquid makeup. Natasha eyes it dubiously, wondering how old it is, but Tony’s already unscrewing the lid so Natasha tilts her face towards the light.
“One second,” Tony says. With his free hand, he gets his phone out and taps at it. He sets it on the sink and Natasha catches sight of a Wikihow article about winged eyeliner.
“Okay,” Tony says, leaning in. “Hold still.”
Natasha does. She closes her eyes and seconds later there’s the thin touch of the tiny brush. It’s remarkably steady, but Tony has steady hands.
Tony runs the brush carefully over the bottom of her right eyelid, then slowly flicks it in a swooping line just under where her eye ends and fills that in. After he’s done the same to her left and has used a makeup wipe to smooth away any lumpy bits, Natasha opens her eyes.
“Sorry if it’s not up to standard,” Tony says as Natasha tilts her face in the mirror. “The most I do is concealer and foundation, I don’t exactly-”
“It’s very good for your first time,” Natasha tells him. The wings are slightly uneven, but only if you peer closely. She turns to Tony. “Thank you.”
“Back at you,” Tony says. His smile is hesitant, but grateful. “Uh. It’s not really to look good for Rhodey,” he admits, gesturing at his blemish-free face. “I just, I really don’t need to give the paparazzi more fodder tonight.”
“I understand,” she tells him. And she does, in her own way. It never fails to surprise her, how much she’s come to understand Tony over the two years they’ve known each other and the eleven months they’ve been on a team together.
From the look on Tony’s face, Natasha guesses he’s just as happily surprised. He rubs at the back of his neck, an uncharacteristic display of nerves that he doesn’t pull out unless he’s around people he knows well.
“Does that need anything to keep it on?”
“It’s liquid eyeliner,” Natasha says. “Getting it off is the hard part.”
“Right,” Tony says. His hands fall to his belt, where he puts his thumbs through the belt loops. “Well, have fun at yoga.”
“Have a good time with Rhodey,” Natasha replies.
Tony nods. He gives Natasha another smile before stepping around her and taking his makeup bag out of the bathroom with him.
Natasha stays for a few seconds longer, catching her reflection in the mirror. She touches the space beside her right eye, just beside where the wings end.
Natasha wakes up gasping. It would have been a scream, but she’d been taught at a young age not to- the lounder she screamed, the worse they’d punish her for it.
Natasha sits up, pushing the sheets off. She’s dampened them with her sweat and the cool night air already has it drying on her skin. She closes her eyes and rests her forehead against her knees as she pulls them up against her chest.
Her nightmares are rarely like this anymore. She’s years past the dreams following her into waking life, and yet she’s pushing away the phantom feeling of cold, the non-existent hands at her throat and wrists. Natasha squeezes her own wrists just to make sure. She presses a hand to her throat.
They’re dead, she reminds herself. They’re years gone, you killed them all. You made sure.
Sometimes, though- sometimes she’s uncertain if her memories are her own or if they’re fabrications that have been poured into her. She can vividly remember slitting the throat of the man who ran the Widow program for twenty years, but she can also remember her early teenage years spent as a ballerina. And she’s checked- those years never happened. Instead, those years had been spent learning how to kill someone quickly, kill someone slowly and with the most amount of pain, how to manipulate, how to twist someone’s mind to get the desired outcome.
Natasha takes slow, shallow breaths until her heartbeat is back to normal. They’re dead. You killed them. You checked, she tells herself.
With that, she slides out of bed. Sleep is beyond her now, as it always is on nights like these. She leaves her mattress to soak up her sweat and makes her way to the kitchen. Bruce has long since started sharing the tea rack, which doesn’t officially belong to him and Natasha but feels like it anyway.
She’s pouring water into a mug when footsteps come into life behind her. Natasha can tell who it is just by the way they walk, the weight they put into the steps. Natasha tracks them move through the hall and then through the kitchen doorway.
“Tony,” she says.
Tony moves for the coffee machine. “Nat,” he replies. His gaze goes over her, checking how she is, and Natasha does the same as soon as his gaze returns to the coffee machine.
He’s on one of his workshop binges. There are rings of exhaustion under his eyelids, he smells like he hasn’t showered for days and his hair is sticking up from Tony repeatedly running his hands through it with engine oil on his fingers.
Also he’s drinking coffee at 3 in the morning. That’s usually a good indicator that things aren’t all bright and happy with the world.
Natasha curls her hands around her mug. The warmth seeps into her palms. “What are you working on,” she asks.
The question jolts Tony back into the kitchen. Natasha assumes he was off solving a magnificent scientific problem in his head.
“What? Oh, logistics. Trying to figure out how to get this damn energy generator to compact down to three times its usual size.”
Natasha sips her tea. She hasn’t steeped it for long enough, but the action of drinking it is a small comfort. She points at his arc reactor. “Haven’t you done it before? And more than three times its usual size?”
Tony waves an impatient hand. “Yeah, yeah, but this is a different kind of energy and its containing field is different. And a bitch. God fucking shit.”
You should sleep. Natasha doesn’t say it. Instead she says, “How about you take a break? We could watch a movie.”
Tony scrubs a hand down his face. “Or spar. Can we spar?”
Natasha doubts Tony could fight too long without the adrenaline giving over to pure exhaustion. She nods anyway, and Tony follow her to the gym after draining his coffee in several long gulps that must burn his throat.
Natasha sets her tea down a safe distance away and heads towards the mats.
It’s not the most polished fight for either of them, but Tony is tired enough that Natasha would have the advantage even if she hadn’t been training her whole life. She takes him down over and over until Tony’s arms tremble as he pushes himself up.
Natasha watches him shake. “It’s time to stop.”
Tony shakes his head. “I can go another-”
“That wasn’t a request,” she tells him. She pads barefoot to her tea. It’s not even lukewarm yet. Adrenaline continues to throb through her veins.
When she looks back at Tony, he’s sagging against the wall. Natasha comes over and stands in front of him. “Okay, come on.”
Tony gives her a dubious look, which turns into a wide-eyed one and a yelp when Natasha scoops him up and tosses him over her shoulder.
“Whaaaat the hell,” Tony says from where his head is dangling down by her ass.
“You were about to fall over,” Natasha tells him as she starts for the gym entrance.
“I can walk!”
Natasha doesn’t reply to that. Instead she carts Tony to the nearest bed- it’s a guest one that none of them have slept on before- and says, “Sleep.”
Tony makes a face. “I can’t.”
“Hey, you’re awake at ass-o-clock, too!”
Natasha pauses by the door. “I’ve slept for the past two nights. You haven’t. I can miss out on this one night.”
She looks back at him. Tony hasn’t tried to get up again, but he has pushed himself up into a sitting position. He seems to be struggling against something.
“Want to… talk about it,” Tony asks, looking like he might regret it already.
Natasha crosses her arms. She looks him up and down. “I’m not doing this so you can get to sleep.”
“I doubt whatever keeps you up at night is the ideal lullaby,” Tony says dryly.
Point, Natasha thinks. Out loud she says, “I sometimes have trouble believing people from my past are dead.”
Tony is quiet for a few seconds. Then he asks, “Is that a good or bad thing?”
Natasha smiles grimly. “Both,” she says, and turns to leave. “Goodnight, Tony.”
He doesn’t reply. When she asks JARVIS an hour later, he tells her that he’s been asleep for the last 40 minutes.
Natasha looks up from her book. She and Tony have been on the couch together for around an hour, Natasha with ‘War and Peace’ in Russian and Tony with his tablet. Their socked feet are pressing comfortably together.
“So,” Natasha prompts when Tony doesn’t continue.
Tony glances up at her, then back to his tablet. “Steve’s been… making moves on me.”
Took him a while, Natasha thinks. “How awful for you.”
“Yeah, it’s been terrible,” Tony says dryly. His finger taps rapidly on the rim of the tablet. “He’s gotten better at flirting.”
Natasha nods. “He knows you better now.”
Tony hums. “Yeah. I- yeah.”
“Is Steve flirting with you a problem?”
Tony heaves a sigh. “We’d be a bad idea.”
“Mm. Both of you seem to think that.”
Tony’s head jerks around to her, but Natasha offers nothing else. She slides her bookmark into place and closes the book.
“You’re both adults. If you want to be together, you should.”
Tony makes a noise in his throat. He’s still tapping the side of his tablet. The screen has gone black. “Neither of us have been in an actual relationship before, Nat. Tell me that won’t end in disaster. Not to mention the age difference. And we- we still fight a lot. Pile all of that in with a relationship-”
“Then don’t date him.”
Tony’s mouth clicks shut. He swallows.
Natasha’s fingers curl around the edges of her book. “Don’t initiate anything. If he tries, politely shut him down. If that’s what you want.”
“I,” Tony says. He ducks his head to look at his blank tablet. “God. I’m forty-three, I can’t believe I’m getting so tied up in knots about this.”
“What, about wanting him?”
Tony shakes his head. “About maybe being allowed to have him. It feels, uh. It feels too good to be true.”
He says it in the tone of someone automatically suspicious of a good thing. Natasha can relate.
Tony looks across at her. “Have you been in relationships?”
“Ha.” It’s not a humourful laugh. “Yes, I have. When it’s been necessary for a mission. But- only one outside of that. And I’m not sure if I can call it a relationship.”
Tony rearranges himself on the couch. Their feet bump; Tony’s socked toes skim her calf.
“What would you call it?”
Natasha has never been able to label her time with Bucky Barnes- her childhood punctured with his teachings, how he always looked the same despite the years passing. Natasha grew breasts and her legs lengthened and the Winter Solider stayed ever the same.
Her memories of his escape and inevitable capture are hazy. Another thing they took away from her, and undoubtedly from him. He had come barrelling into her cell and looked at her with wild eyes that seemed different than usual. He spoke in an accent that Natasha identified as something stemming from New York. She doesn’t remember what he said, apart from help.
She has intermittent memories of lying low in an abandoned loft for days. It might have been a week, but no longer. She remembers snapping an agents’ neck. She remembers making instant noodles and watching the TV and watching the Winter Solider cut his hair in the grimy bathroom mirror.
“Natalia,” he had said. “Right?”
It was when Natasha had to put effort into speaking English. “Yes. You are the Winter Soldier.”
He had flinched. “Bucky,” he said.
And then they had come for him. For them. It hadn’t been Natasha’s first taste of freedom, of having a mind completely her own- they had beat it out of her multiple times in the years before. But after that, it was years before she could shake their shackles from her head.
The next time she saw the Winter Solider- Bucky Barnes, she learned later from watching documentaries and reading articles- she was older and wiser and on the tail end of her KGB years. He had run again. She had gone with him.
Those memories are clearer. They have never been taken. She treasures them like heirlooms.
Natasha blinks her way back to the present. Tony is looking at her expectantly.
Natasha clears her throat softly. What would you call it?
“I would say we were victims of circumstance who kept finding their way back to each other.”
Tony nods. His foot is a comforting weight against her leg. “What’s his name?”
Natasha can feel herself smile. “James.”
She purposely doesn’t picture him locked in a lab somewhere, asleep and unaware, ice closing in around him. She blinks again, this time to clear her eyes from the liquid that’s gathered there.
“If circumstances allowed it, I would be with him,” she says. “Even though every part of me tells me it would end badly.”
“So you’re saying I should- be with Steve. Even though it’s almost definitely going to backfire on us both.”
“I’m saying some people would give up a lot,” Natasha says, “to have the chance you and Steve have.”
Tony goes quiet. Natasha watches his cheek indent and knows he’s biting on the soft inside of his mouth.
“And you don’t know for sure that it will end badly,” she adds.
Tony snorts. “Neither do you, with you and your James.” Then, cautiously: “Hey, whatever circumstances you two have- I could help. I have resources-”
“No.” Natasha swallows thickly and amends, “Not now. I’ve been working on it.”
Tony nods. “Okay. Well, let me know if you change your mind.”
“I will,” Natasha says, and is surprised to find that she might not be lying.
Natasha comes into the kitchen to find Darcy hunched over a mug of coffee. She’s wearing some of the biggest sunglasses Natasha has ever seen.
“You look well,” Natasha says as she makes her way to the fridge.
“Fuck you,” Darcy says into her mug. She takes a sip and grimaces. “Ugh. How are you not hungover? Is it some secret spy thing? ‘Cause Clint doesn’t seem to have it.”
Natasha makes a note to check later if Clint is spending the morning with his head in a toilet bowl. “I’m can neither confirm or deny,” Natasha says as she gathers ingredients. “Would you like a mushroom omelette?”
Darcy considers. “Would it taste as good coming up as it would going down?”
She grunts and raises her mug. “Cool. Sure.”
Natasha doubles the ingredients and starts cracking eggs as quietly as she can. “Where’s Jane?”
“Still in bed,” Darcy says. “Hey, Thor doesn’t get hangovers either. Are you secretly a demigod?”
Natasha smiles as she starts chopping vegetables into thin pieces. “Don’t tell anyone.”
“Knew it,” Darcy mumbles into her mug. She takes another long gulp and then makes a face.
Natasha separates the chopped mushrooms from the other vegetables and uses her knife to slide them into the bowl of eggs. “What’s wrong with your coffee?”
“Sugar’s up too high,” Darcy says. “I’m taking one for the team. And by ‘team’ I mean my body. And by ‘taking one’ I mean forcing caffeine into my body so I can feel less like I want to lie down in a cold bath and never move from there ever.”
Natasha turns on the stovetop. Then she goes to the cupboard and climbs on a shelf to grab the sugar.
Darcy makes a pitiful noise as she recognizes the jar Natasha places in front of her.
“Shit, thank you,” she says. She unscrews the lid and pours sugar straight into her mug, swilling it around to mix it in.
Natasha never thought she’d be spending so much time with civilians, much less becoming so fond of them. She gives Darcy a small pat on the head as she goes back to her eggs.
She’s ready to fold the omelette over onto the mushrooms when Steve and Tony come in, apparently in the middle of a highly amusing conversation.
“Something smells great,” Steve says, looking over towards Natasha. He’s still grinning from whatever Tony had been talking about as they walked in.
“’S mine,” Darcy says from the depths of her mug. “Shoo.”
“I’ll admire it from afar,” Steve assures her. He steps back to let Tony get to the cupboards.
Natasha folds the omelette over onto the mushrooms, then flips the whole thing over. It’s golden broken, unbroken, and the mushrooms stay in place as it settles back into the pan.
“Looking good, Nat.”
Natasha looks over at Tony to smile at him. He’s looking pretty smiley already, even though he has to step onto a shelf to grab the cereal.
“I could’ve gotten that,” Steve says as Tony climbs down.
“Or we could start stacking things one shelf down,” Tony says. He shakes the cereal box to check how much is left. “Wait, shit- sugar.”
“You have too much on your cereal,” Steve says. Then he picks Tony up by the waist and lifts him up to where the sugar is usually stored on the shelf.
Tony yelps and Natasha watches it turn into another burst of laughter. She also watches them continually not notice Darcy until she bangs the sugar jar on the table.
“Ahhh, fuck, loud,” she says, wincing. She holds the sugar jar up again. “It’s here, my dudes.”
“Oh,” Tony says. “Right.”
Steve lets him down and Natasha’s eyes zero in on how his hands linger at Tony’s sides; how Tony’s hands come up and grip Steve’s for a second before he’s pulling away to get the sugar jar off of Darcy.
Natasha pushes the omelette onto a plate and slides the plate in front of Darcy, who ignores the cutlery and starts eating it with her hands. Natasha gives her another half-hearted pat and goes back to the stovetop to start on her own omelette.
In the corner, Steve and Tony have gotten distracted pouring cereal. Natasha can only overhear snippets of their conversation, but they’re both grinning still. Natasha thinks their lips should start hurting soon with the strain they’re under.
As her omelette cooks, she watches Steve get a banana from the fruit bowl and start chopping it over both their bowls, watches Tony protest without meaning it, their shoulders bumping together whenever one of them shifts.
Natasha feels herself smile as she turns back to her eggs. By the time she’s sliding her breakfast onto a plate, Steve and Tony have only just managed to finish preparing their cereal and are in the midst of another argument that has them both laughing. Apparently Tony finds something horrendously wrong with Steve’s milk-to-cereal ratio.
They walk out of the kitchen with their cereal, still talking over each other. Tony catches Natasha’s eye at the last second and pauses to give her a small wave.
Natasha waves back. Not knowing what else to do, she gives him a thumbs up.
It gets another laugh out of him, but then Steve’s looking at him questioningly asking why he’s stopping and Tony says I’m not stopping and follows him out, taking a mouthful of cereal as he does.
Natasha comes to sit at the table in the new silence.
Darcy’s plate is long since clean. She’s still nursing her coffee. “They seemed cuddly.”
“Good for them,” Darcy says. “They deserve cuddles.”
Then she moves her mug out of the way and rests her forehead against the cool wood of the kitchen table.
Natasha pats her thick hair gently and uses her free hand to snap a picture of her omelette. He replies an hour later with the caption v. good 10/10.
She sends him back congrats btw.
This reply comes quicker. Thanks.
Natasha has been trained to notice things people tend not to.
It doesn’t take her long to see something out of place- there’s a kid outside the bookstore when they walk out of into the guts of the mall. He’s still wandering around in that area when they come out of a clothes store.
Natasha cuts Tony off in the middle of his usual tirade about disliking malls. “That child is lost.”
Tony stops. He looks over to where Natasha is nodding towards.
“He’s been walking around for ten minutes and no-one’s come to get him,” Natasha continues.
Tony meets her eyes. “In come the Avengers to save the day?”
The kid is busy staring into a glass display when they approach him. He doesn’t startle when Natasha says, “Hello. Do you know where your parents are?”
The kid turns. He looks around four or five and has one of his hands clutched in the font of his shirt, which has a bright print of a character from Cars.
He blinks up at them like he’s unsure if he should answer. When Natasha is bending down to ask again he mumbles “No.”
“You don’t know where they are?”
A hard shake of his head and the start of panic. Natasha feels her own panic start to build up, though she forces it down. She can handle a crying child.
“Okay. Well, how about we help you find them? I’m Natasha. This is Tony.”
Beside her, Tony waves.
“What’s your name?”
The kid eyes them both and settles on Natasha to look at. “Benny.”
“Nice to meet you, Benny.”
Benny gives a curt nod, as hard as when he shook his head. He keeps clutching the front of his shirt.
“Where did you last see your parents?”
“Just mom,” Benny says, gaze dropping to the floor. His other hand comes up to grip his shirt.
“Okay. Where did you see your mom last?”
Benny starts looking around. He cranes his head upwards. “Um. I dunno. There are lots of stores. There were dragons,” he adds.
Natasha and Tony trade a look. Dragons?
“We can take him to security,” Tony suggests.
“Sounds like our best bet,” Natasha says. She straightens up and puts on her least threatening smile. “Benny? Is it okay if we take you to security? They can find your parents there.”
Benny shifts from foot to foot. His fingers curl tightly in his shirt. “’Kay.”
“Okay,” Natasha nods. She hesitates, but holds her hand out. “Could you take my hand?”
Benny narrows his eyes at it, but takes it. His hand is impossibly small in hers. Natasha can enclose it easily with her own.
When Benny looks shyly and expectantly up at Tony, Tony stares down at him, then across at Natasha.
Natasha nods. Tony makes a face, but turns it into an uncertain smile as he reaches downwards.
Benny reaches up and takes Tony’s hand and Natasha starts them off towards security. She’d absently memorized the layout when she walked in the mall, like she does with any building, but she never thought she’d end up actually needing mall security.
As they walk, Natasha catches Tony’s eye. He looks more than a little uncomfortable and raises his eyebrows when he catches Natasha trying to get his attention. What, he mouths.
Talk to him, Natasha mouths back.
Tony makes a face, unsubtle about it this time.
He’s scared, Natasha tries.
Tony grits his teeth, but then he’s turning to Benny. “Hey, Benny.”
Tony smacks his lips. “Okay. Uh, how old are you?”
Benny announces it with pride. “I’m five in five days.”
“Five in five days,” Tony nods. “Impressive. You in school yet?”
A hard shake of his head. “Next year.”
“Cool. Cool cool cool,” Tony says, casting a look around him before settling back on Benny. “Hey Nat, how far is security?”
“Other side of the mall.”
“Good god. Hey, Benny.”
“Yeah?” Benny looks up at Tony again and narrowly avoids walking into a potplant.
Natasha and Tony somehow swerve around it without breaking their hold on Benny.
“Oof, careful,” Tony warns. He darts a glance down at him as Benny rights himself and they all keep walking. “Uh. What do you do?”
Benny stares up at him again. “I’m four.”
“I know. But you have to do things. Playdates or whatever. You watch TV? Or- play videogames? I don’t know, what do kids do now?”
Benny thinks about it. “I like Steven Universe.”
“Great,” Tony says. To Natasha, he mouths what the fuck is that.
When they get to security, Benny is loathe to let go of their hands. Natasha and Tony share a look and soon find themselves sitting in tiny plastic chairs with Benny in between them clutching at their hands like he had been clutching his shirt before.
Tony gets out his phone the second they sit down. When Natasha looks questioningly at him, Tony tilts the screen towards her.
Over Benny’s head, Natasha read a Wikihow article entitled How To Comfort A Child.
When Natasha gives Tony a Look, he shrugs helplessly. “Well, I don’t know,” he says.
Natasha supresses a sigh. “Does it say anything helpful,” she asks quietly. Benny can still hear them, but he seems unconcerned.
“Not really. Not anything we’re not already doing,” Tony says, scrolling. “It- ah.”
He’s biting back a smile, but he shakes his head when she looks at him. “It’s nothing.”
Tony tilts the screen towards her again. The last tip is: When in doubt, take examples from your own upbringing.
Natasha purses her lips against her own smile. “Ah.”
“Yeah,” Tony says. His mouth quirks again. “How’s about you get the handcuffs and I get the hard liquor?”
Natasha stifles a laugh, having enough sense to say, “It’s nothing,” when Benny looks up at them in confusion.
Minutes later, a woman who is presumably Benny’s mom barrels in, panting. “Where’s,” she starts.
Benny stands. “Mom!”
The woman’s face collapses in belief when she spots him. “Oh, thank-”
She trails off when she spots the two people framing him. Her mouth drops open.
“Hi,” Tony says. “I believe we have your son.”
“Y-yeah,” she agrees faintly. Her eyes flicker from Tony to Natasha to Benny before her son is tackling her around the middle, squeezing her as hard as his small arms will allow. She hugs back, distracted at first and then harder when she tunes in to Benny being in her arms. When she lets him go, keeping her arms on his shoulders, she’s gone from dazed to incredulous.
“Benny- do you know who these two… nice people are?”
Benny nods vigorously, pointing at them in turn. “That’s Tony and that’s Natasha. She has red hair,” he adds in a whisper.
“She does,” Benny’s mom says. She looks up at them. “Oookay. I- thank you two, so much. I know you have a lot of important things to do-”
“It wasn’t a problem,” Tony assures her. He’s got his charming-the-public smile on. “You’ve got a cool kid there.”
“Darn right,” says Benny’s mom, in a voice that implies that she would be swearing thoroughly if her child wasn’t directly below her right now.
Natasha winces as she pushes herself out of bed. Breaking ribs has never been fun, and whenever she has them she can’t help but imagine her bones grating against each other and grazing her innards.
A knock on her door makes her look up. “Come in.”
Tony emerges from the doorway holding a plate. “I come bearing cupcakes.”
Natasha breaks into a pained smile as she sees the icing. Tiny spiders decorate the tops of the cupcakes. “That’s not the batch you tried teaching me to make yesterday, right?”
“What? No, I threw those out, they were awful.” Tony grins as Natasha huffs a pained laugh. “Stop it, you’re hurting yourself. Get back in that bed. What did you get up for?”
Natasha fixes him with a look. “I need to pee.”
Tony falters. “Yeah, that one you can take care on your own.”
“I can hold it.” Natasha shuffles sideways on the bed until there’s enough space for Tony and the plate. “Come sit.”
Tony does, folding one foot under him. He sets the plate down in front of them both and picks one up.
Natasha does the same, examining the icing. Some cupcakes are better done than others. “Who iced these?”
“Me and Steve, mainly. Bruce had a go. That’s his one.” Tony points at a cupcake with lumpy, uneven icing in the shape of a star. “He told me to tell you it’s iced with love.”
“Aw.” Natasha touches the wrapper before unpeeling the one she’s holding. “Is this one yours or Steve’s?”
Tony looks over at it before biting into his own cupcake. “Steve’s. He’s the artist, remember? His ones are the neat ones.”
“They are very neat,” Natasha agrees. She takes a large bite out of hers, which isn’t hard to do. They’re all quite petite. She could finish hers in one bite, if she strained her jaw. She chews and realizes Tony is waiting for her reaction as he eats his own.
She swallows. “They’re lovely. Thank you.”
She nudges their feet together and Tony hides his smile by taking the last bite of his cupcake.
“Did Steve make them with you or did he just help ice them?”
“He helped make them,” Tony says. He starts unpeeling the wrapping from another cupcake, one of the less neatly decorated ones. “He’s not much of a baker, but he still knows more about it than you.”
“I’m learning.” Natasha bumps his foot again. “Though my teacher’s an ass.”
Natasha snorts. She reaches for another cupcake and winces when her ribs twinge at the miniscule movement. “I’m fine,” she says when Tony starts looking concerned. “Hey, how have you and Steve been? Honeymoon period over yet?”
“I think the honeymoon period was over months ago,” Tony says. “But- it’s still good. Very good. I’m suspicious of how good things are with him.”
“You two deserve good things,” Natasha says. She curls her free hand around his calf and squeezes once before letting go.
Tony grins again. He’s been better with casual touches, Natasha’s noticed. Having a team has been good for him. Good for all of them, when Natasha thinks about it.
“Feels weird, though.”
“What, having good things?”
“I know what you mean,” Natasha admits. She bites into her next cupcake. “I can’t get used to it either. I keep waiting for everything to come crumbling down on us.”
Tony ducks his head in a nod. His gaze falls on their feet resting together- Natasha in the fuzzy socks Clint insists she wears when she’s injured; Tony in black socks that are usually covered by dress shoes.
I didn’t expect you to be one of my good things, Natasha thinks as she watches him reach for another cupcake. She’s glad to have him. Three years ago, the idea that Tony Stark being one of her best friends would have been something she’d laugh at. Not even laugh- she’d have given whoever suggested it a dry look and changed the subject.
As Tony’s hand retreats with his cupcake, Natasha takes his wrist.
Tony looks over at her.
“It’s good to have you here, Tony,” Natasha says when she can’t find a better way to articulate the warm, comfortable weight in her chest.
She lets go of his wrist, but Tony’s hand hovers there between them before he’s bringing it back into him like an afterthought. He blinks, surprised, but then it’s dissolving into another grin. “I bet you say that to everyone who brings you cupcakes in bed.”
Natasha heaves an exaggerated sigh. “You’ve caught me out.”
He unwraps his cupcake and balls up the wrapping, throwing it the inch or two it takes to land on the plate. He takes a bite and the iced spider on top is cut in half by his teeth.
Natasha looks down to the plate where several used wrappers sit along with the cupcakes. Spiders, both neat and not so neat, line the top of each cupcake. Natasha touches the top of one of them and comes away with icing on her finger and a smudged spider on the cupcake.
“That one’s yours now,” Tony tells her.
Natasha picks it up and starts unwrapping it. “Once I’ve healed enough to bake, could you run me through how to make these again?”
“You got it,” Tony says.
Natasha takes a bite out of her cupcake. Next time she’ll ask him to teach her how to make pancakes.