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“You can have a home, you know that right, Nat?” says Clint, voice too soft, too gentle. 

 

Natasha keeps her head bowed, tries to smile. Tries not to let the bitterness collecting in the back of her throat colour her tone. “I’m not falling for that twice, Clint.” 

 

She knows just where to hit, what to pinch at, how to strike. She tries not to regret her ability to always land a killing blow.

 

His breathing is too steady, too even, to be anything other than carefully measured. It’s as loud and as pointed as taking the pained gasp would have been. He’s so easy to read.

 

He’s so.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says, looking up to catch his eyes, “I didn’t mean it like that, you know I didn’t–”

 

“I know,” he says, and he sounds like he might actually believe it. 

 

They sit in silence for a few minutes, curled close enough to feel each other’s body heat.

 

“It’s a cute cat,” says Clint. 

 

--

 

It’s been maybe two months since SHIELD fell, and the lawsuits ended. Natasha’s not bored, exactly. She’s been keeping busy: freelancing, hunting down remaining Hydra cadres, and, of course, the search for Bucky Barnes. Still. 

 

Maria tried to hire her almost immediately, which is a testament to exactly how and why Natasha respects Maria, but things are strained between them now, and she’s not sure that she can bear to have Stark signing her paychecks when she isn’t undercover. Besides, she’s spent years avoiding the private sector. Not that the public sector was working out much better for her.

 

She’s probably best off freelancing. 

 

And avenging, if it ever gets back to that. 

 

She hasn’t really seen the Avengers, other than Steve, for nearly half a year now. She still gets semi-regular text updates from Clint, most of the time. Alternatively, she gets extremely regular updates on Clint from Kate Bishop, pretty much weekly. Whenever she manages to make it to book club, she sits by Bruce, and they almost always go for a hot drink afterwards, but Natasha’s never really been very good at the commitment of a regular anything, and it’s been a really busy month. Couple of months. Whatever. She doesn’t really talk to Thor all that often, but she follows him on Twitter and Instagram, which seems like more than enough. And Tony’s, well, Tony. If she wants to keep tabs, she can just read the tabloids. Or ask Pepper.

 

It’s funny, really. She’d die for any of them in a heartbeat, but she barely even speaks to most of them outside of a battlefield. They all have their own stuff to do, they all have stuff they need to do alone, she really does get that. It just doesn’t seem all that fair. Thor has Jane, and Steve has Sam and maybe one day Bucky, and Bruce has Tony who has Pepper and Rhodey, and Clint has Kate and a pet dog. And she’s. She’s. 

 

She has Isaiah, her lawyer, which counts for something, but would count for more if she wasn’t paying him. And Clint will always be Clint. And no doubt Steve and Sam would be insulted that she doesn’t really think she has them, but that’s at least partially because they’re both ridiculous. She’s not very good at having friends, or at least at keeping them. Never has been, as far as she can remember.

 

But it’s been maybe two months since SHIELD fell, and the world discovered who she really is, and maybe it would be nice if someone had actually bothered to call and check if she was okay. She doesn’t need other people, but she’s beginning to think she might want them. 

 

She buries herself in her work instead.

 

---

 

“Agent Romanoff, are you sure you can do this?” asks Coulson, and it shouldn’t sting as much as it does. 

 

“Am I sure I can pull off a honeypot?” she asks in return, voice as sharp as her blades.

 

Clint’s wince is actually audible, even through the static of the comms. 

 

“Answering a question with a question isn’t actually an answer,” says Coulson. 

 

The temptation to mutter about fortune cookies and utter bullshit in Russian is very strong, but with the year she’s had it would no doubt turn out that Agent Coulson speaks fluent Russian. Still, her lips are tight and bloodless, and she can’t be bothered with this level of babysitting.

 

“It’s your first mission, Nat, you know he has to ask,” Clint says frustratingly placating and practical. Honest to the bone though, in a way that she has never experienced before. A voice constantly laced with earnestness. (He doesn’t like to lie, to scam, there was too much of that growing up. But she won’t find this out for years yet. For now she’ll just remain bemused and faintly, quietly, awed.) 

 

“It’s my first mission for SHIELD,” points out Natasha. 

 

“That’s kind of exactly my point,” says Coulson, and his voice is enviably dry. They’ll get along, Natasha thinks, once he stops treating her like a rookie. 

 

“Yes,” she sighs heavily, “Yes, I’m sure I can run a honeypot. Are we sure Clint can successfully hit the target in these conditions?”

 

“Well…” deliberates Coulson, just as Clint says “Duh.”

 

“Hey!!” squawks Clint, “This is barely even a tropical storm!”

 

“Target is in sight, I’m going in,” interrupts Natasha.

 

“Good luck, Agent Romanoff.”

 

---

 

Natasha is in a helicopter over the Central African Republic when she gets the SOS text from Sam Wilson. It’s 3.45AM, and the air is heavy with bullets and the iron scent of blood. It’s been an impressively shitty week, and she’s already going to have to tell Isaiah to write off the payment from this job as travel expenses. 

 

Still, it’s an emergency text from Sam. 

 

Unlike Clint, who misuses the emergency text on hands down the most trivial things (SOS AM TTLY OUT OF COFFEE or SOS DOMINOS WONT DELIVER or SOS IN TURF WAR W/ RUS MOB), or Kate, who misuses the the emergency text on dumb shit Clint’s done (SOS CLINT ADOPTED A DOG or SOS CLINT IN HOSPITAL FOR 5 BROKEN LIMBS or SOS CLINT STARTED TURF WAR WITH RUSSIAN MOB), Sam actually understands the concept of an emergency text. If Sam wants to tell her dumb things, it’ll be more along the lines of hey fun fact: that bar by Steve’s has a cocktail night. If it’s slightly more important, it’ll be things you should know: harlem def holding a grudge against the hulk. Sam will only use SOS if it’s an actual emergency. And that is Sam’s text tone, and the irritating buzzing of her SOS preset. 

 

She wraps up the fight pretty quickly; there’s no point going easy on them if she’s going to have to commandeer the helicopter anyway. Two minutes and the faint screams of those still falling to the ground later, she straps in to the pilot’s seat and checks her phone.

 

SOS WINTER SOLDIER IS SITTING IN MY KITCHEN. CAP DOESN’T KNOW. WWBWD????

 

Ah, fuck. This is going to be awful.

 

On my way :) 

 

----

 

“Do you know it feels like to be unmade?” asks Clint, unthinking. 

 

“You know I do,” she replies, and tries not to think. 

 

She wishes she could forget, the way he has.

 

----

 

“Natasha!” exclaims Sam, a mixture of supremely relieved and genuinely pleased to see her on his doorstep. He swoops in for a one armed hug, pulling her inside as he goes. 

 

“Hey there, Wilson,” she smiles, and the smile comes so goddamn easy. It’s so different, being around these genuinely good people. She should hang out in New York more often, probably. “You’ve moved,” she says.

 

“Yeah,” grins Sam, “Thrilled as I am that you’re here so quick, I don’t think I actually told you my new address at any point.”

 

“Is that right?” she smirks, and Sam rolls his eyes a little. 

 

“He’s in the kitchen,” he says, then hunches his shoulders with a secretive glance around and follows it up in an undertone, “He’s being very civil, really, but he point-blank refuses to let me call Steve, and, well.”

 

Natasha nods, because she gets it. Who wants to piss off a supersoldier assassin? Who want to piss off their supersoldier best friend? Literally who wants to be put in the middle of this situation?? She’d be annoyed at Sam if he’d asked her to intervene, but he had just asked for advice, and her advice would definitely have been to get someone else to deal with it. She’s definitely more qualified for it than even Sam knows. Still, if it comes to a physical fight, she’ll probably cut and run. 

 

She goes into the kitchen, unable to resist commenting on the flashy new appliances. The aqua splashback in particular is both very fetching and very Sam Wilson. Sam laughs it off, but it doesn’t really reach his eyes. He can’t help focussing on the elephant in the room, body unconsciously angled to keep his back to the wall at all times, shoulders rigid. James Buchanan Barnes sits at the shiny new breakfast bar, his back to them. He didn’t turn when they entered, although he stiffened up. It’s all very pointed. He’s wearing relatively normal clothes; a long sleeved henley and woollen black gloves cover both arms completely. His hair has been washed since the last she saw him, and is tied up into a loose bun at the moment. 

 

He looks vulnerable. She isn’t buying it.

 

“Good morning,” she says, and he turns. 

 

“You must be Natasha,” he says. 

 

He hasn’t aged a day since the Red Room, since the day he shot her, since the fight on the bridge. He still doesn’t know her. 

 

She hesitates. She doesn’t normally hesitate. 

 

“Yes,” she says. 

 

----

 

The mark is sitting in the Imperial Box, and there’s really nothing like the Bolshoi Theatre for proper ballet. It’s all so sumptuous, the red and gold of the galleries still gleaming in the dimmed lights. The orchestra starts, and the violins send chills up her spine. It’s hauntingly beautiful. 

 

She has been a SHIELD agent for over five years now, and is one of the most competent hires they ever made. Clint likes to joke that the best contribution he ever made to SHIELD was Natasha. Coulson likes to agree with him, completely serious. 

 

The gold and red and gold and red and gold and red. It’s incredible, how powerfully luxurious they are; even in the darkness, they lend a certain discernible opulence to the room. It’s a feat of architecture really, of design. Emblematic of a bygone Russia, an Imperial decadence which has long since crumbled away.

 

She hasn’t had an extraction plan for two years. She doesn’t get given comms anymore, not unless it’s a group mission, and she rarely does group missions. It’s just her, standing in the shadows of the Bolshoi Theatre, gun on her leg and blades on her arms. They gave her a taser for her handbag, despite the fact they all know she won’t be using it. 

 

Her dress is red too, close to the deep deep red of the velvet curtains. It doesn’t fall as nicely as they do, doesn’t frame her in the way the stage is framed. It’s the spotlights, she thinks faintly, they highlight the stage. Make it impossible to look away. She isn’t made for spotlights, she belongs in the dark, in the shadows. It’s stunning, though. This stage. This shrine to Mother Russia.

 

Her mark is a terrible man, his whole life stained with the blood of innocents. His suit is made well, and his haircut is expensive. How many must have paid for him to dress so nicely? He runs people into the ground, tears up families for fun, destroys villages on a whim. He has more power than any one man should, and he enjoys abusing it. Just yesterday, as she did reconnaissance, he had a girl taken from her parents, only fourteen, and dragged up to his private quarters. He is awful. He is contemptible. He enjoys the Bolshoi Ballet. 

 

Their limbs move in synchronisation across the stage, white on black on white on black on white on black. red and gold and red and gold and red and gold and red and gold. 

 

She’s hesitating, why is she hesitating? She doesn’t normally hesitate.

 

The ballerinas turn, turn, turn. 

 

Why is she?

 

Was she a ballerina? They turn, turn, turn, turn, turn. And she. She danced, didn’t she? Her muscles ache to turn with them, but she’s standing in the shadows of the Bolshoi Theatre and she has a job to do. 

 

Control. It’s all about control. Assassination, espionage, ballet. It’s all control.

 

Did she dance?

 

Natasha.

 

Natalia. 

 

The ballerinas keep turning.

 

She leans against the outside of the Bolshoi, breath caught thick in her throat, unshed tears blurring her vision. 

 

----

 

“What would you like to be called?” she asks, because no one ever asked her. 

 

“James,” he says, “or wait, no. Bucky? James, definitely James.”

 

“Okay, James,” she says, voice unnaturally steady, “Nice to meet you.”

 

He grimaces slightly, like her sense of humour is a shade too dark. It is, but that wasn’t a joke. It’s not that she’s floundering, exactly, but this is supremely not her area of expertise. It’s Sam’s, quite frankly. She looks to him, trying not to be too obviously expectant. She can stand guard, if she has to. She can start or stop a fight, supersoldier or not. But if she can not do the whole touchy-feely emotional confrontation with a war vet, that would be great. With the Winter Soldier. With James. She wishes he had stuck with Bucky.

 

“Yeah okay,” says Sam, “I’ll take over for a bit. Thanks, Nat.”

 

She claps him on the shoulder, and thinks about how dangerous it is to actually give a damn about people.

 

“I’m calling Steve,” she says, and leaves for the living room as James Buchanan Barnes cries out, “Wait, what, no.”

 

----

 

Working undercover for Tony Stark was, despite his protestations otherwise, not the highlight of her espionage career. Unlike Coulson, she didn’t have too much of an issue with Tony’s showboating, or his tendency to throw money at problems until they went away. The issue was more Ms Potts. Perhaps she had overdone the artfully tight-fitting office outfits for Tony’s sake, but Pepper Potts was frosty towards her, and, as everyone at Stark Industries knew, you did not want to anger Pepper Potts. 

 

Once she’d blown her cover, however, it was a different story.

 

(“Appeals to his ego as his biggest security flaw? Oh Natasha, this is glorious!” laughed Pepper, as they waited for the police to arrive.)

 

Not two months after her stint at Stark Industries had fallen through, and Natasha had a weekly cocktail night with Pepper. As soon as Pepper’s security clearance had been upgraded, Maria was invited as well. (“It’s barely an abuse of power,” justified Maria, as Natasha smiled at her knowingly, “And it has absolutely nothing to do with those cinnamon martinis you mentioned, okay?” “Sure.”)

 

Maria’s just been in the Arctic Circle, and Pepper volunteers to grab drinks so that they can get the classified talk out of the way.

 

“I’m telling you it was unreal,” says Maria, leaning in and voice hushed, like anyone in this sleek Malibu bar is going to know enough about them to eavesdrop. Natasha approves.

 

“How unreal?” she teases, “On a scale of science experiment goes wrong and becomes the Hulk to God is real and his name is Thor?” 

 

Maria chuckles and leans back. “Okay, that’s just not fair. This job, goddamn.

 

“It was surreal though. Captain America. Captain America. All golden cheeked and blonde haired and. Just surreal. He looked younger than me!”

 

“Well,” smirks Natasha, because really who can resist an opening like that, “I keep telling you to detox.”

 

Maria feigns outrage and leans across the table to poke at her.

 

“Ladies, ladies! Keep it civil,” says Pepper, laughingly. “One Tequila Mockingbird for Nat, one Cinnamon Martini for Maria, and I went for a G&T,” she says, plonking them onto the table. 

 

“A G&T?” queries Natasha, sarcastically.

 

“Really?” continues Maria, “You went for a Gin and Tonic? That’s so… surprising.”

 

“Shocking, even,” grins Natasha.

 

“Scandalous, you could say,” teases Maria.

 

“Oh, shut up,” says Pepper, “Like you can talk, Ms Cinnamon Martini.”

 

It would be inaccurate to say that the night devolves from there, because it’s a great night. Maybe they all drink enough that they’ll regret it at least a little tomorrow, but it’s been a long week. It’s always been a long week. 

 

Sitting here, with these women, Natasha feels as close to settled as she has in a long while. They understand the world in a way that most people don’t, can’t. They don’t underestimate her, won’t fall prey to the assumptions that trip up so many. It’s fun, hanging out with them, it’s a sort of casual she wasn’t sure she’d ever find. She’s still faking it, at least a little, but who isn’t?

 

Her phone buzzes with a snapchat from Clint, which leads to a round of most-useless-superspy-ever anecdotes, where Maria and Natasha try to one up each other, and whoever gets Pepper to laugh the most wins. It’s the one in Northern Ireland, with the brewery and the photoshoot gone wrong, which reduces her to breathless giggles, so, as always, Natasha is victorious. 

 

“It’s the way he always manages to pull it off,” says Pepper, between gasps. 

 

“Yeah,” says Natasha affectionately.

 

“Of course all of this was way above your clearance level, so if you tell anyone…” threatens Maria light-heartedly. 

 

“Yeah, yeah. You’d have to kill me. Never heard that one before,” Pepper dismisses with a waved hand.

 

“No, I’d have to get Nat to do it,” corrects Maria, smiling. 

 

Never heard that one before, indeed.

 

----

 

you may want to sit down

 

 

 

okay sitting??

 

 

 

so at Sam’s, Barnes is here, don’t freak :)

 

 

Natasha’s phone rings almost instantly, and the kitchen goes conspicuously silent as Star Spangled Man plays. There’s an odd choking sound that must be Barnes, which resolves into cracked laughter.

 

“C’mon, Nat, you can do better,” admonishes Sam from kitchen. 

 

“Shut up,” she call back cheerfully, and picks up the phone.

 

“Natasha?” says Steve in her ear, voice tinny and sort of frantic, “Natasha are you serious, did you mean it, are you–”

 

“Yes, Cap, I’m serious,” she says, cutting him off, “You know Sam’s new place, yeah?”

 

“In Harlem, right?” he confirms, and that is definitely the sound of a motorbike engine starting.

 

“Do you wanna wait a bit?” she says, probably futilely, leaning her head against the bare patch of wall near the door to the kitchen.

 

“Wait?” The sound of the motorbike gutters, stops. “Why? Is he, oh lord, is he okay? He’s alive, isn’t he? He’s okay? He’s okay. He has to… Natasha?”

 

“He’s not physically harmed,” she concedes, voice soft, “But I don’t think he’s okay. And I don’t think he’s Bucky, not really, not how you remember. He didn’t want either of us to contact you.”

 

There’s a heavy pause. Steve sighs heavily, and she can so clearly picture it: straddling his bike, so close to leaving, stopped still with one hand holding the phone, other hand at his pinched brows. She waits. He regains composure.

 

“That’s why he didn’t just come straight to me, right?”

 

“Right,” she agrees. She lets it sink in, moves around the room a little. Pokes through Sam’s bookshelves. There’s a lot of Romantic poetry, mostly French. Gautier, de Lamartine, de Musset, Sand. He has good taste. There’s Heart of Darkness next to An Image of Africa

 

Steve takes a breath. Hesitates. 

 

“Yes?” she prompts.

 

“Should I come at all?” he asks, and she can hear exactly what a toll it took to ask that. It hadn’t taken very long at all to work out that Steve Rogers would do anything to protect Barnes. Apparently this included not seeing him, if that’s what Barnes wanted. Natasha would be impressed, from anyone else. From Steve, it’s the sort of thing she’s come to expect.

 

“He came to Sam’s,” she says, choosing her words carefully, as always, “Because he knows you’re close to Sam. Because he knows Sam is helping you look for him, and he knows that Sam couldn’t keep this from you, not for long.”

 

Steve deliberates. “So,” he says, “So.”

 

“So, yes, you should come. Just, come slowly, calmly. Bring lattes, not blazing guns and fanfares,” she says, because Steve is her friend, and James doesn’t remember her, and just because she’s rarely kind doesn’t mean she’s forgotten how to be.

 

“Fanfares. I do know what my ringtone is, you know,” says Steve wryly.

 

“Yeah, whatever,” she says and hangs up. She picks up a  collection of de Nerval, and resolves to borrow it off Sam. She returns to the kitchen.

 

----

 

“Yes, okay,” says Clint, slightly breathlessly, “But if I’m dealing with this Thor dude, and you’re with Iron Man, who’s going to sort out the Hulk mess?”

 

They’re on a secure line, of course, they both have endless numbers of burner phones and a tendency to call each other at inconvenient times.

 

“Me, apparently,” says Natasha, who got the orders less than ten minutes after Hammer had been taken into custody.

 

“What?” says Clint, and then “Aw shit, he took out another guy. Can I call you back?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I think I get a night here anyway before my flight.”

 

“I’ll be quick,” says Clint, and hangs up before she can make an innuendo. 

 

She heads back inside, from the “smoke break” she had claimed, to continue the debrief. (“You smoke too?!” Tony had exclaimed, “Natalie never smoked. This is one betrayal after another!”) It’s mere posturing anyway: Stark wants mild adulation, Potts wants a clear explanation, and Fury wants her on the next flight to Willowdale, Virginia. 

 

She swans back into the room, and point blank refuses to acknowledge any of Stark’s attempts at heckling. Sitwell’s running point, now that Coulson’s in New Mexico, and really SHIELD’s already aware of everything that’s occurred. This is simply showing off a bit, and pretending to be a far more organised agency than Natasha’s prepared to admit they are. 

 

Sitwell’s halfway through an exposition on the imminent freeze on Hammer’s assets, and is pointedly using as many codewords and phrases as possible, to try to stall Stark’s questions no doubt, when Clint calls back.

 

“Excuse me,” she interrupts smoothly, “I’ve got a 591, I’ll be right back.” A 591, a rogue assassin. Sitwell smiles slightly.

 

“Is that code for a smoke break, Ms Rushman?” calls Tony, and Natasha is pleased to see the direct hit which Pepper Potts’ elbow makes to his solar plexus. 

 

She wanders back out to the entrance, scowls at a security guard who’s a little too close, picks up the phone.

 

“Barton, you there?”

 

“Right, yeah, where were we? If I got Thor and you got Stark, how come you get Banner too? So unfair.” She may not be able to see it, but he’s a hundred percent pouting right now, probably throwing her puppy dog eyes for extra effect. She can’t help smiling.

 

“What happened with Thor? Neutralised?” 

 

“What? Oh, uh, no. No, not exactly,” hums Clint, obviously avoiding. 

 

“Barton,” she snaps, and he responds instantly, because she’s trained him to always respond to that snap. 

 

“Neutralised like six or seven agents and got away. Dammit, Nat, don’t use your emergency voice, that’s cheating.” Definitely pouting.

 

“He got away? Hm, yeah, I wonder why I get all the cool gigs,” she teases, and he groans at her.

 

“Okay, that’s a low blow, ‘Tasha. Besides, I was kind of routing for him by the end, didn’t really want to neutralise the guy, you know?”

 

Her heart aches a little, because Clint Barton is many, many things, but he’s primarily a good person. Definitely a good judge of character. Or definitely sometimes, anyway.

 

“That’s a dangerous habit to get into, Clint,” she warns, voice soft and warm with things unsaid between them. 

 

“Don’t I know it,” he mutters back.

 

----

 

Steve shows up not even twenty minutes after she called him, four different Starbucks takeaways in a tray.

 

Steve is a living punchline. This is not unusual.

 

“I’m restraining myself,” Natasha informs him, as she relieves him of the only plain black coffee, “From making a reference which you wouldn’t get.”

 

“Ah,” says Steve, smiling at her good naturedly, “What admirable restraint, I’m impressed, Agent Romanoff.”

 

“Natasha,” she corrects quietly, “You of all people know I’m hardly an agent these days.”

 

“Of course,” he says contrite, but before he can apologise fully, Sam strides out of the kitchen.

 

“What’s this then?” he says with a smile, and goes to hug Steve hello.

 

“Steve showed up fifteen minutes late with Starbucks,” says Natasha in her brightest, most faux helpful voice. There’s a second as it sinks in, and then Sam snorts with laughter.

 

“What?” says Steve, “What? Is this the thing you were talking about, Natasha? What’s going on?”

 

Then he goes deathly still, so silent he doesn’t seem to breath. James Buchanan Barnes stands stock still in the doorway, staring at Steve. Neither of them move. Sam and Natasha exchange glances, and then wait a bit longer. Still no one’s moving. Surely one of them will need to breathe again at some point, supersoldier or otherwise.

 

“So,” says Natasha, taking the startled glares of two supersoldiers in her stride, as it’s essentially why she’s here anyway.

 

“Shall we move the coffee into the kitchen?” proposes Sam, and she agrees loudly, and confiscates the tray from Steve.

 

Moving over to the breakfast bar, they divvy up the drinks. Sam goes straight for the only frappuccino, loads it up with even more sugar and gets some cinnamon out of a cupboard to shake on top.

 

“Gross,” observes Natasha.

 

“Heavenly,” he disagrees. He pushes it over to her, and she makes an exaggeratedly considering face as she tries it and hands it back. It’s surprisingly nice, albeit only tangentially related to coffee.

 

Steve wordlessly pushes the hot chocolate toward Barnes. It’s probably symbolic in some way, no doubt related to the hardship they had growing up, the wartime rations on chocolate. Still, it’s kind of difficult for a Starbucks drink to be a symbol of all that much. 

 

They stay silent. Sam and Natasha make significant eye contact, and then try to neither roll their eyes nor laugh. It’s a losing battle. Sam coughs out what he attempts to pass as a choke, and Natasha can’t help rolling her eyes.

 

“Steve, this is James,” she says after a another pause, while Sam hurriedly drinks a glass of water.

 

“Right,” breathes Steve, “James. Okay.”

 

“James, Steve.”

 

“Hello Steve.”

 

The eye contact is definitely verging on awkward now. She glances at Sam. He mouths, “Oh brother.”

 

Yeah. 

 

----

 

Her first meeting with Kate Bishop was about as inauspicious as you’d expect. She’s heard a lot about this other Hawkeye already, mainly from her Hawkeye, who loved to rave about his favourite protégé in a casual tone which fooled absolutely no one. Particularly not someone trained to be the top of their field in emotional manipulation, interrogation, and other arts of espionage. 

 

She goes hunting for Kate Bishop after the first time Clint lands himself in hospital after whatever wacky hijinks, and Natasha wasn’t called in to help. She’d heard, on her web, that a rich and pretty socialite called Katherine Bishop had been helping him instead. That she was also Hawkeye. This was obviously the Kate of Clint’s most recent texts, all Nat Nat you have to meet kate shes perfect youll love her you have to ok

 

She does recon for a few days, works out which café Ms Bishop is most likely to visit before visiting hours start. She’s very careful not to let Clint work out that she’s even up to anything, though she’s pretty sure Coulson knows exactly what she’s up to. He’d given her a dossier of his own intelligence on the Bishop girl, and told her to add in whatever he was missing so far. It worries Natasha that Coulson can read her, even this much.

 

She dresses carefully, all sharp edges and quietly expensive clothes that she knows the target will recognise. All black, and deadly, and almost certainly hiding weapons. Lipstick the exact shade of fresh blood. Just because Natasha associates with Clint Barton does not mean she wants to give a similar first impression.

 

She arrives at the coffee shop a good fifteen minutes before she knows Kate is due, and gets a table in the corner, back to the walls. It’s a cliché for a very good reason. The coffee shop is small enough to be referred lovingly to as ‘cosy’. All dark wood, and old glass, and a carefully buffed penny farthing hanging on a wall. The baristas all wear flatcaps and soft shirts rolled up to the elbows, showing off their tattoo sleeves, but it doesn’t appear to be their uniform. Fantastic coffee. It says a lot about Kate Bishop, this coffee shop: well off, fussy, faintly uncomfortable in her own wealth, environmentally conscious. Cares about Clint. 

 

Kate arrives at thirteen minutes to ten, just as she has for the past four days. Natasha would warn her about the dangers of routine, but that’s going to be made pretty clear in the next few minutes regardless. Kate walks over to the counter, but before she’s even halfway across the room they’ve made her usual order: 8oz latte, one sugar. For once, it isn’t a takeaway.

 

“What? Me? Um, thank you?” says Kate initially, before the barista points her towards Natasha’s table.

 

“Oh,” she says, “Oh. Thank you, Nathaniel.”

 

She looks hesitant as she walks over, which is a pretty good sign actually.

 

“Kate Bishop,” says Natasha, voice carefully modulated to give nothing away. She’s a child, she’s so young, she’s a child. How can Clint bring this girl into their world? She’s so, achingly, young.

 

“Natasha Romanoff,” guesses Kate, smiling triumphantly at the faint nod from Natasha. She sits down, less elegantly than Natasha thinks she would probably like, and tries out an assessing look. It’s pretty impressive for one so young, but Natasha’s seen worse. (Natasha’s always seen worse.) They sit silently for a few minutes, evaluating each other.

 

“So,” says Kate, not very comfortable with the silence, it appears.

 

“So,” agrees Natasha, “Hawkeye.”

 

“Mmm. Me, or Clint?”

 

“Both, either. Do you know what you’ve gotten into?” It isn’t protectiveness, it isn’t patronisation, it’s a genuine question. So many people don’t seem to realise the extent of this world, this life, until it’s far too late.

 

Kate laughs a little. “I’m aware,” she says, assured and confident and young.

 

“Okay,” says Natasha, because she won’t underestimate, and she won’t condescend. Because Clint is a good judge of character, mostly. “The thing with Clint is,” she says, and pauses in spite of herself.

 

Kate’s eyes gleam with interest, and Natasha can see her reassessing what she knows of Natasha, of Clint, of them both. This is not the plan.

 

“The thing with Clint is,” she says again, “He’s a moron.”

 

Kate startles, laughs. “Yes, yes he is.”

 

They smile at each other across their coffees, common ground stabilising the tension that’s been permeating the meeting.

 

“He doesn’t really like to admit to being an idiot, especially to people more competent than him,” says Natasha, only half joking.

 

“So pretty much anyone, then,” teases Kate.

 

“Precisely. He doesn’t exactly take the best care of himself, either.” They both smile knowingly, sadly.

 

“Are you asking me to spy on him for you, Black Widow?” Kate asks astutely. Natasha smiles at her slow, wide, only slightly threatening.

 

“Let’s not call it spying. He’s supposed to check in on a weekly basis, but you know how he is with his phone. I’m merely proposing that, as has always been the deal, Hawkeye texts me at least once a week with an update on Clint’s latest gambit. You simply seem like a Hawkeye with a better grip on both technology, and the importance of someone keeping an eye on his wellbeing.”

 

Kate doesn’t quite blush, but it’s very close. She pauses, pretends to think it over, even though Natasha can tell that she’ll say yes. 

 

“If I were to do this,” starts Kate, “If. How does it benefit me? I’m, hypothetically, betraying a friend’s trust, sort of. There has to be some kind of payoff.”

 

Natasha’s smile is closer to threatening now that it was before, and she’s pleased to see the way Kate instinctively raises her shoulders in fear before taking a breath and smoothing them out. She might last in this world after all.

 

“You’ll have my personal number,” points out Natasha, “If you do this, then you can be sure of my help if you ever need it. Send me a text with SOS in it, and you can be sure that no matter where I am, I’ll read it almost immediately. The emergency doesn’t have to be Barton-related, it could be general Hawkeye business. It could be a Kate Bishop emergency, if you think I can help. But I’ll always respond.”

 

“Okay,” says Kate, “Okay cool. Deal.” They swap phones, and Kate insists on taking a picture of Natasha for her address book. 

 

“Thanks for the coffee,” says Kate, perkily. 

 

“Sure,” says Natasha, “Don’t even think about telling Barton.” 

 

----

 

Being deprogrammed takes time, any idiot knows. Or at least, Natasha definitely knows. It would seem that Steve does not know this. Sam might know, but he does work with former prisoners of war on a fairly regular basis.

 

“This isn’t going to work,” says Natasha, because just because she can be kind doesn’t mean she’s always going to be. 

 

Steve’s trying not to look betrayed, Barnes remains blank, Sam looks professionally interested.

 

“It’s more than normal brainwashing techniques, they literally scrubbed his memory clean. With heavy machinery. This isn’t the sort of thing which can be fixed with some group therapy and maybe a side of hypnosis.”

 

“Then what do we do?” says Steve, and he looks so determined to do whatever it takes, whatever she says. He looks so good, and golden, and pure.

 

“It won’t be easy,” she warns, looks at James directly, “And you may never remember all of it.”

 

James nods. Behind him, flanking him, are Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson. Equally determined, equally good and kind as each other, both invested in making sure no one comes out of this broken.

 

“It might not be too bad,” she says, almost distracted, “You have a support system.”

 

No one seems to notice the emphasis on You.

 

----

 

She’s had many employers, and she isn’t even eighteen. She is, however, efficient. Effective. Elusive. She’s been dubbed the Black Widow, and she isn’t sure if it’s because she hunts in the shadows, or if it’s because she killed the very first man she slept with, or if it’s both. 

 

The job is an infiltration one, some banker owes the wrong people money, all in the home country of course. She’s never left Mother Russia, can’t imagine a reason why she’d want to. 

 

She wanders up to the entrance of the bar, full of St. Petersburg bankers, lights bright and music loud, and not a care in the world for the people who will freeze in the dark tonight. She swans over to the sharply suited men puffing away at cigarettes, not even acknowledging the existence of the bouncer.

 

“<Anyone got a light?>” she asks, batting her eyes at the man standing directly next to the mark. He pulls out a lighter instantly, and she laughs prettily. Sweeping her eyes across the group as a whole, she asks “<Now, anyone got a cigarette?>” 

 

The mark falls for it immediately, determined to get her attention, to make her focus shift just a little to the left. For her to see him, as opposed to the man beside him. It’s almost too easy. 

 

People are so easy. They’re these little machines full of obvious code, and rules, and buttons, and she appears to be one of the few with the manual. It’s all so easy. The right phrase here, tilt your head just a little, clap a hand friendly on their shoulder. Whatever. They’re yours. 

 

It’s not that she loves her job, exactly, but that it barely seems like a job sometimes. It’s barely work, missions like this. Soon, he’ll suggest a dance, and she’ll demur. Maybe a drink instead, she’ll say, and glance again at the man next to him. The mark will exclaim, oh, a drink, of course! And they’ll go up to the bar together, and he’ll order some of the most expensive vodka there in an attempt to impress her. She’ll seem warmer towards him, eyes larger and voice huskier, and he’ll feel a sort of satisfaction in winning. They’ll sit there for a while and make small talk, and she’ll be appropriately impressed that he runs a chain of banks across the country, especially for one so young, she’ll say. He’ll laugh, flattered but unwilling to admit why. He’ll point out how much higher quality the vodka he has at home is, and she’ll hesitate, eyes wide and unsure. He’ll stroke her leg slightly, smile convincingly, or so he will think. She’ll pause. She’ll throw back the last of her vodka. She’ll agree. They’ll get to his, and he’ll be mouthing at her neck, and she’ll let him kiss her until the bedroom, and then she’ll undo his tie and slip his braces off his shoulders, and he’ll shiver in anticipation. The braces will be used to bind him, and the tie will go in his mouth. She’ll get his bank details however she deems necessary, and she’ll slit his throat. 

 

She’s in the private sector at the moment, just another employee, but one day she hopes to go freelance. If she does well enough, she thinks she’ll be able to get out, and set up her own business. It’d be nice, she thinks, to be entrepreneurial. It’s the way the world’s going. And besides, she’d have to make more than she does now. She barely even gets a cut in her hauls, let alone a true salary. 

 

Much as she loves Russian autumn, it is cold, and she can’t stop a shiver.

 

“<Would you like to dance?>” asks the mark.

 

----

 

Steve’s called together the Avengers, which Natasha is pretty sure is a truly terrible idea. (“Well who else do I call? It’s not like we can just go to SHIELD.” “I’d apologise, but, well.”)

 

They haven’t met up as a group since the whole Manhattan extravaganza, and she hadn’t thought they would until the next thing to avenge came along. If the rise of Hydra and the fall of SHIELD wasn’t enough to cause a meet up, she doesn’t really see how Barnes could be. It’s different for Steve, it’s just as important if not more so. For the rest of them, however?

 

It’s been nearly four months since SHIELD fell, and Clint didn’t text her for the first two months, and she hasn’t replied to any of his texts or calls since she realised that. If she had to call anyone else in to have her back, it would be Clint, she used to think. If he was to call in anyone, however, it would be Kate. It is Kate.

 

She hasn’t seen Pepper since SHIELD, since Hydra. She didn’t want to go to their weekly cocktail night, and run the risk of seeing Maria. Of seeing Pepper. Either of them. Things are off with Maria for a variety of reasons, but Pepper? If she read the dossier, has she read the dossier? Has Bruce? She can’t bear the thought of their eyes shuttering in her presence, and when did this happen? When did that become something which worried her? When did she start to care about these people so genuinely? 

 

Steve’s called in the Avengers, is the point, and Natasha’s weirdly nervous about the whole thing. Barnes is keeping himself forcibly calm, and she can see how much his head is screaming RUN! Sam, on the other hand, is buzzing. 

 

“Avengers? Like real Avengers? That’s so cool, man,” he grins, excitable and good natured as always.

 

“We’re real Avengers,” Steve can’t help pointing out, guiding James Barnes along through Stark’s lobby. 

 

“Well, yeah, but,” says Sam, “You know what I mean.”

 

“Eloquent,” says Natasha sardonically, and receives an elbow to the ribs for her trouble. 

 

They pile into the elevator, and Steve and Natasha exchange smirks when Jarvis asks for the floor.

 

“Woah!” 

 

“What the fuck!” 

 

“Yeah, that!” 

 

Steve’s explaining the concept, sounding extremely casual, almost like he hadn’t jumped about a foot the first time he meet Jarvis, and Natasha’s steeling herself. She doesn’t know if they read the dossier, if they read her files, if they watched the lawsuits, if they saw the numerous interviews. There was nothing in her file that Barton didn’t know, and nothing that Stark couldn’t have found out if he wanted to. It doesn’t make this less daunting, somehow.

 

She’s hesitating, debating to just ride the elevator back down.

 

She’s not a coward.

 

She doesn’t hesitate.

 

They arrive at the top floor, because even when the entire skyscraper is his, Tony Stark can’t resist having the penthouse suite. They’re sitting in the living room, and Tony’s mixing drinks. It can’t be eleven in the morning yet.

 

“How bad an idea is this, again?” mutters James to Natasha.

 

“Truly appalling,” she admits in an undertone.

 

----

 

She changed on the jet, but the only bag she has is her go-bag, which is conspicuously heavy duty and paramilitary. Whatever, it’ll have to do.

 

She’s running so late for book club she might as well give it up and go back to her apartment; a mission in Paris had taken a little longer than intended due to a competent security team and a patch of roadworks. Still, she hasn’t been in so long she’s essentially only a notional member, and she does kind of miss hanging out with actual adults. 

 

She races into the café, tries to look like she didn’t do the last twelve blocks at a flat out run. The far corner, where the fortnightly book club meets, is pretty much empty. Again. Shit. 

 

“Well hey there stranger,” comes from behind her, and Natasha spins, still out of breath but slipping straight into a fighting position. 

 

“What a warm welcome,” smiles Bruce, knowingly.

 

“Bruce, hey,” she says, maybe a little relieved, maybe a lot exhausted. It’s been a long couple of days. “Did I miss it?”

 

“Yeah, it started early because we all got here early,” he says, pauses ruefully, “Almost all.”

 

“I only would have caught the last ten minutes anyway,” she admits.

 

He nods at that, leads her to the window table he’s been sitting at, waiting for her, she supposes. 

 

“Did you even have time to read this one?” he asks with genuine curiosity.

 

“Yeah,” she says, rooting one handed through her go bag, and triumphantly tossing Eat, Pray, Love onto the table. “It’s utter shit.”

 

“I thought it was inspired,” disagrees Bruce, agreeably.

 

“What, liked the bit where she ‘found herself’ in India?” mocks Natasha, smiling genuinely when he flushes a little.

 

“There’s nothing wrong with a focus on mental healing,” he justifies.

 

“Not at all,” she says seriously, pauses, continues mischievously, “There is when it’s written like this, however.”

 

“I almost wish you hadn’t shown up,” lies Bruce amiably. 

 

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get drinks, it’s my turn. Green tea, or chamomile? Which is suitably calming?”

 

“Ha ha,” he responds drily. Has to restrain a smile of his own as he admits, “Decaf only, though.”

 

She laughs as she makes her way to the counter.

 

----

 

“I read the files, you know,” says Tony sharply, and Natasha very carefully does not flinch. 

 

Steve’s facing him off, and this whole thing has been going about as well as she expected. 

 

“16th December 1991. That’s the day Howard and Maria Stark died in a car crash. My parents. Except it wasn’t a car crash. That’s the day he killed them.” Tony bites out, and Steve recoils like he’s been hit. Oh.

 

Is no one going to say anything?

 

“Your friend, his friend, my dad. Murdered in cold blood.” Tony warms to his theme, getting louder and angrier.

 

“How dare you,” snaps Natasha, unaware she’s going to intervene until she does. “How dare you?” Her voice is tight, furious, cracks the room like a whip, and they all flinch now, and look to her. “It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t even his choice.” She turns to James, makes sure he understand that she means it with all her being, “It wasn’t your fault.”

 

“I ju–” starts Tony, and he knows, intellectually speaking, she knows he knows, but it’s hard to be intellectual about something so inherently emotional.

 

“You can’t understand,” says Clint, voice hard and quiet, “You can’t understand what it’s like to be controlled like that, to have your agency ripped from you. To not even remember what it is they’ve done with your body.” 

 

The room is still, and Tony looks torn between regret, and the rage that’s been building in him since the death of his parents.

 

“It’s worse when you do remember,” says  Bruce, “Or once you start to. Flashes, just these. Just these flashes of what you’ve done. And you can see your hands doing all these things, but you can’t control it. You can’t stop it. It’s too late.” He breathes out heavily. “It’s always too late.”

 

Tony takes a breath. Lets go of years of resentment. Draws himself up again. “You’re right,” he says quietly, he seems small somehow, “You’re all right. You’ll have full access to whatever medical help we can afford, Sergeant Barnes.” 

 

“Thank you,” says James, and he pauses, “I didn’t– I’m sorry.”

 

It wasn’t your fault,” says Natasha fiercely.

 

This could have gone worse, she thinks.

 

----

 

To say Clint hasn’t recovered well from his experience with Loki is an understatement. It hasn’t been a month yet, but he’s spiralling. 

 

He spends a lot of time staring at his hands, like they might do something while he’s watching. Like he’s not the one in control. He spends more and more time with his hearing aids turned off or taken out, tries to avoid conversation where possible. He hasn’t been sleeping, barely eats. He’s exhausted, pale and constantly cold, and when he looks in the mirror he keeps checking his eyes. His aim’s off. It’s serious.

 

“They’re brown, Clint,” Natasha says, the next time she catches him staring at his own reflection. He doesn’t respond. His hearing aids are in, but they must not be on. He likes to joke that even with them off, his situational awareness is good enough that no one can sneak up on him. It’s hardly the impression he’s giving right now.

 

She leans into view of the mirror, sees him catch her reflection’s eye.

 

THEY’RE BROWN, CLINT, she signs. 

 

YOU KNOW ME TOO WELL, he replies instantly, fingers quick to converse, even if he’s been avoiding speech.

 

OR I KNOW THE SITUATION TOO WELL, she points out, and he freezes a little. He turns around slowly, flicks his hearing aids on. 

 

“We can sign if you’d prefer,” she offers.

 

“Nah,” he says, voice hoarse, scruffs his hair a little. “Talking’s good.”

 

“Okay,” she says, and starts setting up the cafetière while she waits.

 

“What. What do I do, Nat?” he asks, and he sounds horrifyingly close to lost, to broken. 

 

She hands him his coffee, and he thanks her. They wander up to the roof, to one of his lookouts. Stark called it a nest in front of Barton once, only once.

 

“It’s different for everyone,” starts Natasha, pauses, “How much do you remember?” 

 

“Not all, but some.”

 

“You might remember more, you might not. Just, be aware that’s a possibility.”

 

He nods, and they look out at New York, already rebuilding.

 

“Once you’ve been. Once you’re unmade. What are you? Where do you go from there?” he falters, and she nods thoughtful, considering.

 

You break, she wants to say.

 

You lose yourself, she wants to say.

 

“You have to reforge,” she says, gestures out towards the city in front of them, littered with cranes, “You have to rebuild what was broken.”

 

He hums a little. They sit in silence a while longer, drinking their coffee, watching the buzz of Manhattan.

 

“How do you do that, ‘Tasha?” he says, and she pretends she doesn’t hear the crack. Reconsiders. Puts an arm over his shoulders, and pulls him toward her a little, smiles as he slings an arm around her waist. 

 

“That’s different for different people too,” she says, “You work out what you like, what you dislike, what you remember made you feel complete. You go to your work mandated therapy, and maybe some other, more helpful, therapists. You look after yourself, eat and sleep properly,” and here she pinches him in the side a little. Clint chuckles, and it’s been so very long since she heard genuine laughter from him. “You give yourself time to heal. You accept that you will have been changed by this, that you won’t ever be the person you were before. You’re changed by every big event, this is no different. That’s okay, Clint. You’re okay. It wasn’t your fault, so quit blaming yourself. You’ll be okay.”

 

It’s mostly silent for a very long time, and slowly his sniffles fade away.

 

“What I meant, Nat, is what do you do?” he says, looking at her for the first time. It isn’t what he meant, of course, but she can appreciate the deflection.

 

“I learn a new language.”

 

----

 

“They seem nice,” says Sam, tongue in cheek, as they admire the view from Tony’s balcony, “Very friendly, like.”

 

Inside, the yelling is all but gone, tension still spiking occasionally. Together they work through the details of which memory experts to call in, which secret agencies to notify. Tony is drinking, understandably, and Thor is talking to him about loss and family. Barnes has taken to telegraphing all his actions loudly, in case he moves too quickly and panics someone, triggers something. Everyone else is also telegraphing their moves in case they panic him, trigger something. The whole room is practically slow motion. Steve is looking up doctors, helped by both JARVIS and Pepper, but he keeps getting distracted by watching over Barnes. Outside seemed like the safest option. 

 

“Yeah, today was maybe not the best day for an introduction,” admits Natasha.

 

“Maybe not,” agrees Sam, but Sam is always a good judge of character, and he will let this go. 

 

“Wanna see where I destroyed an evil alien portal?” boasts Natasha, semi-joking.

 

“Why am I not even surprised by that?” laughs Sam, and he earns a bright smile.

 

The sound from inside increases for a moment, and then the glass door slides shut again. She draws a breath. She knew she wasn’t going to escape the afternoon without some iteration of this conversation, but she had hoped, albeit briefly.

 

“Hey,” says Clint. He sounds cautious, he sounds unsure. She turns. He edges up towards them, gives Sam an assessing look. Behind him, hovering far away enough to grant some privacy, stands Bruce. 

 

“Hello, Barton,” she says, and hopes it doesn’t sound as distant to him as it does to her. His eyes say that it does. 

 

“Is this a real live Avenger?” teases Sam, and she could kiss him for it.

 

“Barely,” she mocks, and Clint pouts, all faux affront.

 

“Is this the guy who helped you blow up SHIELD while I wasn’t paying attention?” jokes Clint, and if Sam knew him as well as she does, he’d realise Barton isn’t really joking.

 

“Honey,” she says sweetly, “You’re never paying attention.”

 

He laughs, but he knows her just as well, and this isn’t over, not really. The arrow gleams at her neck.

 

“Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, reporting for duty,” says Sam with a friendly smile and a quick salute.

 

“Ooh, good name. Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, at your service,” he replies, and does the sort of showy bow that he picked up in the ring.

 

Natasha tunes out their chatter and waves Bruce over instead. She hopes his hesitance was merely the societal politeness of not wanting to interrupt a private conversation, something Barton has no qualms over, as opposed to a reluctance to be near her now. She’s done a lot of terrible things, and plenty of them have been dragged through the headlines. Banner may have his own skeletons, but they weren’t cut down by his own hands, not really. He is not at fault. 

 

“Hey, Doc,” she calls across, as soon as he’s within ear distance. Get this over and done with, she thinks.

 

“Ms Romanoff, a pleasure, as always.”

 

“Is that right?” she asks, and it comes out too true, too vulnerable. She looks away quickly, back to the horizon, but the damage is done. Wilson and Barton keep talking, but it is half-hearted, for form’s sake only, both blatantly listening in. 

 

He stays silent. 

 

He stays so, so silent. She can’t bear it, and looks back to Bruce Banner. It’s what he was waiting for, it appears. He catches her eyes pointedly, and his face is gentle, his smile genuine and kind.

 

“Yes, Natasha. A pleasure.”

 

It’s a balm she wasn’t expecting. It’s so much easier to set yourself up for disappointment, she’s found. She holds herself still, recalibrates slightly. 

 

“Oh,” she says softly.

 

“Oh,” agrees Bruce.

 

“Idiot,” mutters Clint, louder than intended.

 

----

 

She’s nineteen next month, and she’s already worried about her future. It’s stupid. A premature, irrational worry, she knows this. The thing is, the thing is. The thing is that ballerinas peak young, and she will be past her prime in a scant few years. What is she without ballet? 

 

She slicks on lipstick carefully, still excited at the excuse for a party; it’s closing night, and the Bolshoi’s holding a gala of sorts. A celebration of this season’s success. She will be the belle of the ball, the heroine of the hour. She played the Swan Princess this year, all pale beauty and dark knowledge, all innocence and seduction. It opened up new depths to her, she thinks, cliché as that is. It also, more importantly, showcased her ability.

 

She is breath-taking. 

 

Ballet is all about control, and she is nothing if not a master of control. She is grace, and beauty. She is natural ability. She is ballet incarnate, and without it what will she be? She worries, perhaps prematurely, that she has no other skills. There are no old ballerinas: you are a young ballerina and you are retired. What will she do when she retires? How will she fill her days?

 

She readjusts her pearl necklace, thrown onto the stage by an ardent admirer, and fiddles with her earrings in the mirror. Her appearance is flawless, and she knows it, but she still checks. 

 

Maybe she’ll settle down, or maybe she’ll teach. Maybe she’ll travel the world; she thinks Paris sounds quite wonderful. Could anywhere be as wonderful as the Bolshoi Theatre? She’ll find out, she supposes. She wants to see more of the world than Russia.

 

Tonight is her night, tonight she will be introduced to the creme de la creme of Russian society. One final check in the mirror, and she’s ready. She sashays slowly into the bar, buzzing with people. The room sparkles with lights, with jewels, with people. The lobby aflame in red and gold, in red and gold and red and gold and red.

 

“<Natalia!>” cries her dance master, ushering her over with a sweep of her wizened hand, “<Natalia, I have someone I wish you to meet.>” Ekaterina Anatolyevna is a tiny old lady, fiercer than a dragon, vicious in her teaching. She teaches dance, she teaches control. She commands respect. 

 

“<Ekaterina Anatolyevna, I am here,>” she says, hurrying over to obey, graceful even in her speed. “<Who is it you would have me meet?>” she asks, but the answer is before her: a handsome man, eyes a sharp, bright blue, dressed in a neatly kept pilot uniform. He has a lovely smile.

 

“<Katya, there is no need,>” says the man, embarrassedly.

 

“<Natalia, this is an old friend of mine, Alexander Shostakov,>” says the ballet teacher, eyes glinting gleefully, “<Alexei, this is the ballerina you were just admiring, Natalia Romanova.>”

 

The future holds promise yet.

 

----

 

The correct medical specialists have all been contacted, the frontrunners of their field, all of them. JARVIS has set about a colour-coded timetable for when Barnes will visit each of them, and is calculating potential recovery timelines. Sam has returned to talk Barnes out of leaving, at the anxious request of Steve, who hovers nervously as though Barnes will dissipate into smoke if he looks away.

 

“Couldn’t have called in the top PTSD specialists a few months earlier, could you Stark?” asks Barton slightly petulantly.

 

“I figured SHIELD Medical would cover it. Besides, you seem fine!” exclaims Tony casually, clapping him on the shoulder, and carefully ignoring the glares being thrown his way. 

 

Pepper Potts swats Tony in the head on her way over to Natasha. Another confrontation, thinks Natasha, and doesn’t dare hope for better.

 

“Hello, Nat,” says Pepper, standing in front of her.

 

“Hello,” she replies cautiously, and is pulled into an abrupt hug.

 

“You owe me a drink or five,” mutters Pepper, and doesn’t let go.

 

----

 

It’s a not company car which she gets into at the edge of campus, but one she rented at the airport for the trip, and Natasha is thankful for it. She sits in the driver’s seat, hands not touching the wheel, eyes not seeing the road. Lets herself take a few minutes to piece herself together, to regain the control she’s perfected over the years. 

 

Her hands quake still with a faint tremor. 

 

Fear is rare, for her. What hasn’t she seen, what hasn’t she done? What hasn’t been done to her? There is no place for fear in the world of espionage, it is a dangerous variable which can alter even the most stream-lined plan. As such, Natasha tends to dismiss it in other agents, encourage it in her marks, fail to recognise it in herself, it seems. She is afraid. A deep breath. She is still afraid. 

 

Her hands curled up tight at some point, all white with pressure, forced down to rest on her thighs. The last time she lost control like this, a mark was allowed to slip away into the Moscow night. She breathes deep. Fury will want his report sooner, rather than later. 

 

She ties her hair up, lets the motion distract her a little. It is more of a Natalie Rushman gesture than a Natasha Romanoff one, but then she was Natalie for quite a while until very recently. Besides, she feels more centred now, as though being able to create a stable ponytail is proof that her hands can be trusted with more serious motor function. Like driving a car. Her flight back across the country is in a little under an hour, and she does not have time to tremble in parked cars. 

 

She starts driving. 

 

Natasha is unused to this kind of fear, irrational. Not caused by a human. There is no man holding a gun, and she is already speeding far, far from Culver University, and yet her breath is still quick. 

 

It will haunt her, she thinks, this Hulk. 

 

Dr Bruce Banner is, by all accounts, a very nice, well mannered, young man. Quiet, overly serious, kind. She’s read the accounts from his lab mates, from his grad students, from his fellow factory workers in Rio. Respectful, gentle, even environmentally conscious. He recycles. 

 

The Hulk is none of those things, she thinks. The Hulk is elemental fury and impossible strength, is the definition of mindless rage. The Hulk lacks control, is its antithesis. A roaring hurricane of impulses and reactions. Even the way it went to protect Betty Ross was off instinct, not purposeful, conscious choice. 

 

It’s a nightmare. It’s her nightmare.

 

She’ll have to find a better way to phrase this for Fury. He’s had a hell of a week, and Natasha can’t bring herself to report anything so emotive. As long as she never has to be anywhere near that thing again, she’s good. 

 

It’s the loss of control, she thinks, that would be unbearable. To lose your agency at your own hands. She shudders slightly, and turns on both the heating and the radio. 

 

Spends the car ride humming determinedly.

 

----

 

“You have something on your hands,” says Pepper, distractedly. It’s getting dark almost, and she’s been trying to persuade most everyone to stay for dinner now that she’s done with work for the day herself. Natasha has no idea when she got changed into a shirt and jeans, between helping Barnes, scolding Natasha, and running a Fortune 500 company all day. 

 

Bruce leans over from where he he had been attempting to holographically construct a map of the Nine Realms, under Thor’s careful guide. “Hmm,” he says, looking at Natasha’s obligingly outstretched palms, “Paint?”

 

She pauses. 

 

Clint and Sam, thick as thieves already, pause their own conversation to peer at Natasha’s hands. Simultaneously they look from her hands to Bruce, and back again. Heads turning in sync, they look askance at Bruce, eyes skeptical. Soldiers.

 

“What?” he says, perturbed. It’s easy to forget that Dr Bruce Banner is a civilian, even if the Other Guy isn’t. 

 

“Blood,” says Natasha subdued, “It’s blood. I’ve had a really long day.” Waits curiously to see if this blatant reminder of her extracurricular activities will affect either Pepper or Banner. 

 

“Well, you’re definitely staying for dinner then,” asserts Pepper, and it’s decided.

 

----

 

Pierce asks her if she’s ready for the world to know everything, but the fact of the matter is that that’s the wrong question. Natasha’s past is full of ghosts, is bursting with skeletons. There are innumerable regrets, and if she ever tried to list off all the irreparable deeds she has done, she would be inundated, overwhelmed. 

 

But that would be everything

 

Natasha almost laughs as she uploads the files to the internet. There are terrible deeds aplenty here, there are missions and mistakes that she will never forget. There are things which will haunt her forever which she is unleashing for the entire world to see. She is giving over control of so much, she is breaking apart so many of her covers, she is losing so, so much. 

 

But not everything.

 

She gives up everything that SHIELD knows, everything she has ever debriefed, everything she told them or did for them. When she had first come over they had interrogated her for weeks, used whatever means necessary, and put it all in a file. Later, she had told Clint more, and given him permission to debrief to Coulson. Besides that, some of the more horrifying crimes she has committed, she has committed for SHIELD. Against bad guys, they promised, but that’s not a reassurance she can trust, not any more. 

 

Still, despite that. Despite it all, she kept some things back. 

 

There are things she has done which would blacken the very air to say, it feels like. There are sorrows she has caused which haunt her very bones. There are secrets she would burn the world to keep. One of them is fighting Captain America on a crashing helicarrier. 

 

By comparison, it is so very easy to give up the secrets of SHIELD, and what it holds of her past.

 

----

 

She needs sleep, and no matter how often Stark offers, she is never going to stay in his tower. Instead, she heads back to her place, getting a cab to just a block away when she determines that she’s too tired to walk the whole way back to Little Ukraine. 

 

Ana, her downstairs neighbour, is sitting on the front steps with a cigarette. It’s not unusual. The cat is with her, and Natasha just knows that she’s going to get told off again. 

 

“She was mewling all yesterday,” says Ana pointedly, running a hand gently down the Liho’s back.

 

“She’s not mine,” protests Natasha, but it’s more rote than genuine at this point, and they can both tell. She stops by Ana, sits a step below and strokes the cat with her. Ana’s doing better. The bruises have all faded to an ugly yellow, and should be gone within the week. Natasha can’t see any other injuries, any new ones, but she knows better than to assume. 

 

“He’s being good to you, Ana?” she checks, voice low and serious.

 

“Yes, yes,” she says quietly, “He would do nothing less, now.”

 

Before she can try to thank her again, Natasha promises to advertise for a cat-sitter. She pulls herself up, exhaustion in her bones, and makes a faint ‘come on then’ gesture to Liho. 

 

“I’ll feed her when you’re out of town, if you want,” offers Ana, and Natasha knows she isn’t the only one who needs more company than she gets. She accepts easily, with the warning that she won’t always know when she’ll be called away. 

 

----

 

The mark isn’t Mikhail Drakov. It should be, but it isn’t. 

 

The mark is his eight year old daughter, Nadezhda Drakova. 

 

It will make him obey, they tell her, it will ensure co-operation. He has a son too, only six, but it shouldn’t come to that. She doesn’t even know what he isn’t co-operating with, the Red Room don’t like to give her that level of detail; the choice is not hers to make, the choice has been made already, and she is merely the instrument of their will. 

 

She’s only eight, blonde hair in two plaits. She thinks she’s so grown up, but she’s so young. Natasha does recon for two days, and little Nadya spends them both the same. She is taught maths by a tutor, practices the piano, plays with her little brother at lunch, reads in the afternoon. She reads in a window seat, perfectly positioned to be the first one to see when their father returns home each evening. She leaps to her feet, waving excitedly, and races to meet him at the door and tell him about her day.

 

It’s just a job, Natasha reminds herself, and the dire consequences of not doing it far exceed the reasons for her hesitation. It is her first child. That is all. 

 

On the third day, she infiltrates the house at lunch, makes her way to little Nadya’s reading nook. She waits. 

 

It could be a clean death, but that is not the objective. She is to make the mark die a bloody death, for maximum visual impact on Mikhail Drakov. It is quick, and as painless as she can manage, but the girl was afraid and tears had started to fall from mere shock as soon as she’d seen Natasha. It is a terrible sight.

 

There’s no point leaving a calling card, Drakov will know exactly what has happened. 

 

She is to wait, to ensure that he is the one who makes the discovery, so she returns to the roof across the road where she had done recon, and settles in for the three hours Drakov will take to return home. 

 

When he does return, he seems surprised to get in the doorway without his daughter underfoot. Natasha braces herself. “<Nadya?>” he calls, “<My little Nadyusha? Are you okay?>” 

 

When he makes it to her windowseat, the scream of anguish is audible without any of the bugs. 

 

Natasha packs up her gear, and drives away.

 

----

 

She’s meeting Isaiah for a working breakfast, as is the norm when she’s just completed a mission. The helicopter in the Central African Republic may feel like it was months ago to her, but neither her lawyer nor her client would agree. 

 

They meet in a little boulangerie, tucked away in the French District, with croissants exactingly perfect, and large bowls for the coffee. It’s Isaiah’s choice, but Natasha can always appreciate Parisian coffee and pear croissants. He is in yet another boringly neat grey suit, and looks like he’s had as little sleep as Natasha has, if not less. It’s amazing how he can look out of place in this sidewalk table in the middle of New York. No one is out of place in New York, or everyone is, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a unique skill, is her point, to blend into absolutely nowhere.

 

“What happened this time?” he asks, ready to be unimpressed.

 

“It was an emergency,” she explains, “An SOS call.” It’s both impressive and frustrating that explaining herself to Isaiah feels a little like being called up by Coulson and a little like being called into the principal’s office. 

 

“Uh huh,” says Isaiah, “That’s nice. Are they paying?” Isaiah really is, for all his virtues, a lawyer through and through. The knowing smile on his face just makes him look all the more punchable. 

 

“No,” she admits, “but it’s basically Avenger business and—”

 

“And I’ve told you time and again that you should really charge the Avengers for at least the living wage.”

 

He meets her eyes, and this is an argument they won’t stop having. It’s familiar by now, almost settling. They squabble in routine, and divide the remaining pain au chocolat. Before Isaiah can bring up any new jobs, however, he hesitantly asks about the elephant in the room.

 

“You do know someone followed you here, right?”

 

It’s a black saloon car, parked three lengths away from their little table on the sidewalk, started following her almost as soon as she got off the subway. 

 

“You insult me, Isaiah,” Natasha says mildly.

 

“So they aren’t a threat?” he checks, and she nods. Sighs.

 

FUCK OFF HAWKEYE, she signs at the car, and waits as the driver side window rolls down.

 

FUCK OFF, the hands reply fluently, and then start up more stiltedly,  HAWKEYE IS H, A, W, K, E, Y, E? 

 

Natasha rolls her eyes as she nods, because of course Clint only taught her how to swear fluently, of course he didn’t teach her the name sign he’d come up with. COME HERE she signs, and then again more abruptly at the hesitation, COME.

 

After a minute’s deliberation, Kate Bishop bounds out of the car and joins them, pulling up a chair as she comes. She’s dressed in a ridiculously Cold War outfit, all trench coat and sunglasses. Isaiah flags down a waitress to order more coffee and more croissants in textbook Parisian-accented French.

 

“Triangulated my cellphone?” asks Natasha, before she’s even sitting down.

 

“Huh? Good morning! Oh, hi, I’m Kate Bishop,” says Kate, holding out a hand for Isaiah to shake.

 

“Isaiah. Of the Bishops?” asks Isaiah interestedly, and Kate scrunches her nose a little before agreeing.

 

“Good morning,” interrupts Natasha, “Triangulated my cellphone?”

 

“Ah,” says Kate, “Yeahhh, sorry about that.”

 

“Barton?” checks Natasha, stirring the dregs of her first coffee nonchalantly. 

 

“Uh huh,” agrees Kate, “On account of how you wouldn’t recognise me or whatever. He gave me your phone number special,” and her teasing grin is relatively infectious; Natasha can feel herself smile reluctantly. 

 

“I was just supposed to check you don’t, like, leave the country without checking in, y’know? Again, I mean,” explains Kate apologetically, interrupted as the waitress brings over their coffees and pastries. “Ooh, these look lovely!”

 

“Mmmm, try the peach one, it’s the best by far,” says Isaiah, reaching for one himself.

 

“Pear,” demurs Natasha. 

 

Kate goes for chocolate.

 

“So what are you two up to even?”

 

----

 

She is very young when she becomes a widow, twenty-one is a mere week away, and Natasha thinks she may never forgive the death of her beloved Sasha, her dear Alexei.

 

When she gets the news, she breaks. Publicly, violently. The pilots’ wives have a tendency to congregate together, as no one will understand you in the same way as someone suffering through the same uncertainty as you. The fear of a loved one not returning home. The officers said they had tried the Shostakov household first, but been directed here, to the household of Vladimir Petrovich. They told her this as they arrived, but she hadn’t understood yet, had stood in the entrance with Zhenya at her side, uncomprehending still. 

 

They wear dress uniforms for this kind of news, and the buttons seem to gleam and sparkle. 

 

Natasha had been sitting with the wives, and they’d all been having tea. Someone had brought a new caravan blend, and they’d been admiring the way the steam spiralled off it, distracted themselves from the dangers of the new planes their husbands were off testing. Masha had admitted not three minutes before that she was pregnant, and it had caused a flurry of excitement. Natasha wouldn’t even have noticed the servant with an urgent message for Mrs Evgeny Petrovich, if it didn’t mean Zhenya missed her chance to hug Masha. 

 

When Zhenya had returned she had been pale, sickened, and in the face of such upcoming joy, Natasha hadn’t even noticed. 

 

“<It’s… Natasha, at the door. They have news,>” and the room had fallen silent, like they’d all known what was coming but her. 

 

She hadn’t seen this coming, not really, had half believed they were invincible. 

 

“<Natalia Shostakov? You are Mrs Natalia Shostakov?>” confirmed one of the uniformed men, and she had nodded. It had been weirdly difficult, like the air was suddenly as thick as honey, and all the colours in the room had been unusually bright, unusually vivid. 

 

“<We have some bad news about your husband, Alexander Shostakov,>” the other soldier had said, and she had felt very empty, very cold.

 

“<How is Sasha?>” she had asked, tilting her head, ignoring Zhenya’s gasp of pity.

 

“<I’m so sorry,>” said one of the soldiers, shaking his head slightly, “<But there was an accident with his plane.>”

 

This was always a chance, this was always a risk.

 

“<He went down in service of his country,>” assured the other soldier, “<His sacrifice will help secure our victory in the race against the Americans.>”

 

Like that means something, like that means anything.

 

There’s a high pitched keening noise that she knows is coming from her. She had fallen to the floor when it sunk in, and she’s just been sitting here, keening. Crying.

 

Zhenya is curled around her, crumpling her skirts to kneel beside her. The others are coming out from the living room now, to see what’s occurred.

 

“<Sasha, my darling Sasha,>” she cries, and her howl is one of outrage, of anger, of pain.

 

The anger seems like the easiest option, and she fastens her hold on it, even as tears stain her cheeks.

 

----

 

Her current job is in Tribeca, which she’d gotten Isaiah to agree to with minimum bitching (“So are you taking paid work at the moment, or are you just doing pro bono for your billionaire friends?” he’d asked, and she’d said she was grounded for a while which he’d sighed at, and Kate had fist pumped), and it’s a standard smash and grab, for her. There’s a diamond necklace that had been confiscated under dubious circumstances during the Second World War, and was now officially in ownership of some young start up millionaire under even more dubious circumstances. There’s blood throughout its history, but the original owner’s granddaughter has recently come into money through a lucky lottery ticket, and she’s determined to see the necklace returned to her grandmother before she dies. It’s right up Natasha’s alley.

 

The real question is the level of security the techie will have invested in. Is he merely a history buff with dubious morals, or is he one of the growing numbers of eccentrically evil rich young things she seems to be bumping into? From a skyscraper across the road and down a building, she has a great line of sight into his open plan loft. There are only three human guards, but she’s pretty sure those are actual drones flying lazily around his apartment. 

 

That’s gonna be fun. Ugh. 

 

The basic recon pack which Isaiah had given her tells her the mark’s name is Timothy Lincoln, he is twenty-three, his brainchild was a game which, as far as she can tell, is a mix of Candy Crush and 2048. He made a million in a week. He’s still making almost $60,000 per day, even now the hype is going down, and that’s just in-app purchases, never mind the amount he must be making from advertising. 

 

Why then, with all this money, and all this potential, why buy one necklace off of a Nazi sympathiser in a backroom deal? Just because it’s on the Deep Web doesn’t mean it’s truly untraceable, and the guy that Lincoln bought the necklace off is supremely dodgy. (His username was berlineaglesalutes_33 for crying out loud, it’s hardly subtle.) 

 

hey can we talk soon plz

 

It’s from Steve, which means she’s going to have to do coffee and deprogramming 101 at some point soon. She hasn’t worked out how much to tell him yet, because as much as she loves his new found faith in her, there are some things she hasn’t told anyone and there are some things which aren’t hers to tell. Will he see any of it as a betrayal of trust? Whatever, she can’t focus on this, she’s on the job.

 

soon, sure :) this afternoon okay for you? like 1?? working atm

 

She’s worked out her entry route, and is packing her gear up when she gets a reply. She hasn’t dealt with personal drones before, that’s more Stark’s dogfight, so she’s got more gear than normal. 

 

great. good luck! though i’m sure you won’t need any…

 

She can’t imagine this will be harder than liberating Sam’s wings from Fort Mead.

 

----

 

Clint is leaving in a few short hours for the Middle East, and as usual she finds him on the shooting range. He’s trying out some new arrows, or categorising old arrows, or something. 

 

“Work, work, work,” she teases as she enters his booth, and enjoys the way he flinches as he releases the arrow. It still hits the target, of course, but it skims the outskirts of the bullseye.

 

“Did no one tell you never to sneak up on master marksmen??” growls Clint, but he’s smiling as he says it.

 

“I wasn’t sneaking, I was walking,” she protests half-heartedly, taking a seat next to him, and pressing the button to recall his target. She yanks the arrow out and hands it to him, considers making a joke about his so called situational awareness.

 

“Same thing with you,” he hisses as he packs away his quiver. “Right. To the cafeteria?” 

 

“Sure,” she agrees, and they walk side by side, nodding genially to various agents. It’s a relatively calm day at the Triskelion, there are no alarms blaring or people running through the corridors: always a good sign.

 

“Oh, did you hear? Apparently Melinda May is off desk duty, and on some super secret undercover gig on the airbus,” says Clint, always a gossip.

 

“Old news, Barton,” laughs Natasha, and only smiles knowingly when he tries to work out how she always finds out the office scuttlebutt before him. (Two martinis in and Maria tells all, but he doesn’t need to know that.)

 

They reach the cafeteria and split up, Clint’s on coffee duty, and Natasha grabs them sandwiches, and a packet of crisps that are arguably Clint’s but she’ll probably pick at them. They reconvene at  the door, and head for the entrance of the building; there’s a square out front, and a couple of benches by a fountain. It’s a pretty nice place to eat lunch.

 

They sit side by side, Natasha cross-legged on the bench and Clint sprawling across the other half, leaving a gap big enough to leave the coffee and crisps. They face the fountain, and silence is enough. It’s been a month or more since they sat on the roof and talked, and he seems a lot better. She pretends not to notice as he peels the crusts of his BLT and throws them to the pigeons.

 

“So,” she starts, once she’s polished off her tuna melt, “Do you know what you’re doing in the Middle East, anyway?” 

 

He startles slightly, and at the movement two of the pigeons take flight. “Nah, it’s all need-to-know, cloak and dagger bullshit. You know.”

 

She knows. 

 

Is it okay to ask? She thinks it probably is, but she doesn’t want things to revert to the weirdly strained silence that had followed their rooftop talk. It didn’t last long, a week or so max, but that’s more than long enough.

 

“I hear you’ve got a bunch of missions with Rogers?” he queries, and she confirms. “Kristen has the biggest crush on him,” remarks Clint offhandedly, “Accounting Kristen.” He’s happy enough to give the details on a piece of gossip she’s missed, so she lets him get elaborate. A crush on Captain America, though, really? Steve Rogers is a nice enough guy, but he doesn’t really get the game that’s being played, not yet. Still, she supposes they get on well enough. 

 

“Are you okay?” she blurts, and feels weird for blurting it out like that. Maybe it wasn’t really okay to ask. He doesn’t look at her, but focusses carefully on the fountain. That doesn’t feel like a good sign.

 

“Yeah,” he says at last, “Yeah, I’m doing okay. Just needed to do some stuff on my own terms, y’know? Learn a language,” he grins, looking at her now. 

 

“A language, huh? And I just heard you got a dog,” says Natasha, trying not to laugh when his eyes flare in surprise.

 

“Wha– Yeah. Pizza Dog, he’s called,” says Clint, eyes narrowed suspiciously.

 

“Huh,” she says, makes a show of shrugging exaggeratedly, “And here I heard it was Lucky.” She can’t help laughing at his outrage, as he spins around on the bench fully to give her his best interrogatory expression.

 

“Who is it? Who is your source?? You’re going to have to tell me one day, Tasha!”

 

He questions her for a while, and she brushes it all off, laughs when he’s especially ridiculous. They open the crisps, and she asks him about his dog, about his new role as landlord, about the last season of Dog Cops. (“Spoilers, Nat, oh my god spoilers, shut up!”)

 

There isn’t that much longer left, and he should really be grabbing his go bag and heading for the quinjet. Instead, he reaches for his discarded jacket, and pulls a small black bag out of the pocket. 

 

“Don’t laugh,” he says seriously, “And don’t open it until I’ve left okay?”

 

“Okay,” she agrees, bemused, “Don’t open what, exactly?”

 

He holds out the black silk bag to her, but seems to hesitate over handing it over, coming close to pulling it back as she takes it from him. It’s about the size of her palm, and she holds it loosely, careful not to give herself any hint as to what might be inside.

 

“Clint?” she asks, and is surprised to hear herself sound almost as hesitant as he looks. 

 

“It’s. We don’t celebrate your birthday,” he starts, and they don’t, because she isn’t sure when it is, “But we do celebrate our. When we. We normally go out for drinks for Venice,” and oh. Oh.

 

“Our anniversary,” she says, voice carefully even. He hisses in a breath, inclines his head painfully noncommittally. 

 

“We normally go for drinks,” he soldiers on, “But I’ll be away still, I think. So. Anyway, you’ve been so... This year’s been really…”

 

“Yeah,” she agrees, because it may not be eloquent, but she couldn’t do much better right now. She looks at the bag again, a weirdly tight feeling in her chest. “Thank you, Clint,” she says, for want of something better, more poignant.

 

“We’ll talk when I get back?” he checks, and she nods a little jerkily. “I better run, Hill’s going to have a go at me if I miss the quinjet.”

 

“Hurry, then. Be careful, Agent Barton,” instructs Natasha.

 

“Aren’t I always, Agent Romanoff?” he smiles back.

 

“No.”

 

He claps her on the shoulder and leaves, but she can’t tear her eyes away from the bag until the last possible second. He waves just before he ducks into the revolving doors, and she raises her hand a fraction of a second after he’s turned away.

 

The silken bag in her hand seems heavy with all the things they always leave unsaid, with Venice and all that’s come since. She checks over each shoulder instinctively, but there is no one nearby. Taking a breath, she pours the contents of the bag into her hand. She nearly flinches at the cold metal, but manages not to drop it. A necklace, all silver and gleaming. An arrow. It’s small, not too distracting, not too distinguishable. She could wear it on missions, it‘s too short to provide much of a chokehold, shouldn’t reflect light too obviously from the shadows, shouldn’t be so recognisable as to compromise her undercover work. It’s really kind of perfect. It’s also really kind of unsubtle, in terms of a declaration.

 

She fastens it around her neck. Soon. The time has passed for these things to remain unsaid, they will talk soon. Once he gets back. Her hand is at her throat, resting on the arrow as she thinks. Soon.

 

Her phone buzzes, orders from Maria.

 

Collect Rogers, there’s been an incident on the Lemurian Star.

 

----

 

Breaking into Fort Mead is a cakewalk. This? This is not. Drone number seven buzzes its way around the corner, and where are these things coming from? Natasha takes it down with a high kick, but fuck, is that going to bruise. She’s got the necklace, and even left both the guards and the kid alive, but these fucking drones are ruining her entire fucking day. 

 

“Uploading footage to YouTube,” says one, and that is definitely not going to happen. She’s been online enough recently, thank you, and could really do without gracing the news channels again this month. The drone gets smashed straight through the wall and is crunched satisfyingly into little pieces by the fire extinguisher she just unhooked from the wall. She grabs the memory card from the wreckage.

 

“Yeah, no,” she tells it, and hightails it down the stairs. The ominous buzzing of drones follows her. 

 

The thing is prioritisation. She has an EMP in her toolkit, sure, and it’s not even that big, but it could affect bystanders. A car, or a motorbike. Something. The thing about atonement is that there are no acceptable losses, not any more. So yes, she is being followed by four small drones, and yes, filming her breaking the law is the most harmless they’ve been to her all day, but prioritisation. 

 

She runs through the fire door on the ground floor, and times the swing to crush at least one of them. She abhors the things, has been hit in the shoulder by a laser courtesy of one only a few minutes ago, and has been shot at repeatedly. If they’re filming, however, she can’t afford to just escape them, she has to ensure that they’re throughly destroyed, and the drives are either missing or irreparable. 

 

Her phone buzzes.

 

not to bother but it’s 2? you okay? want backup?

 

Steve. Today is not really her day. She reloads her gun and ducks back into the stairwell. Two immediately start firing, but she managed to catch one on the swing of the door, so they’re the only ones left. She hits the lens on one, but the chassis is bulletproof, and she barely ducks out of the line of fire in time. Diving back into the lobby, Natasha notices that the doorman, conveniently napping earlier, has been woken by the firefight. Police are almost certainly on their way. She digs her phone out again, texting one handed.

 

not backup but maybe a lift would be nice? i’ll meet you at franklin st in 5

 

He better be quick. She gets a taser out of her toolkit, and bursts back into the stairwell. It overloads one of the drones, which drops with a loud crack. The final drone is firing its lasers, fluctuating the pattern so she can’t predict where the beam will go next, and thus can’t avoid it. She rushes it, instead. Bodyslamming it into the wall, she is able to see exactly where the laser emerges, and thus avoid it. Sure, throwing herself at a large hunk of metal and plastic has its downsides, but she doesn’t really ever want to get hit by a laser ever again in her life, so really, what choice did she have? Using a stiletto knife normally sheathed to her upper arm, she stabs the drone, ripping its circuitry out with her blade. Quickly, she gathers the cards from the dropped drones and, stowing them in her toolkit, she goes out through the emergency fire exit. The alarms blare, but now that she’s on the street they dim in comparison to the police sirens wailing ever nearer. 

 

She runs straight across the road and around the corner to lose the doorman, who must have entered the stairwell as she left it, and then speedwalks her way to Franklin St Subway Station. One of the upsides of big cities is how fast everyone walks; blending in does not necessitate slowing down, and she’s lost many a tail because of it. 

 

Steve sits on his Harley outside the station, and she hurries up to him, mounting the bike before she so much as says hi.

 

“Drive,” she says instead, and he smiles a hello and obliges. She hides her face in his back as they pass three police cars, and can practically hear his interest peak. Grabbing her phone out of her pocket, she sends a text to Isaiah.

 

done. 

 

----

 

There are many sins she has committed, but standing here they all seem dwarfed. The remains of the hospital still smoke at her feet, charred beyond recognition. There is no movement. There are no survivors. 

 

The smoke stings her eyes, but she doesn’t let them water. It would be too close to tears.

 

----

 

“So,” says Steve, as he gets out a heavy duty first aid kit, “Busy day at the office?” 

 

They’re in his new place, a two bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, just streets away from where he grew up. It’s a damn sight nicer these days, he says, and she believes him. His apartment is definitely nicer than her own, more spacious and better lighting. (“Artist’s lighting,” he admits ruefully, “It cost more, but I couldn’t resist.”) He’s slowly filling it up with records and books, with old wood and modern art. It’s coming together nicely. Natasha sits on the counter in the chrome-plated bathroom, and admires the frosted glass shower, the automatic taps. The bathrooms don’t even compare to how they used to back then, Steve has sworn time and again, and it shows in this exemplar of luxuriance in modern plumbing.

 

“We haven’t all retired, grandpa,” she replies drily.

 

He pulls a face at her, and pokes again at the laser burn on her shoulder. 

 

“If you’re going to dress it, get on with it,” she snaps, as pain lances through her arm. 

 

“Do I get to ask what happened?” asks Steve, which is tantamount to just asking anyway, and he still hasn’t dressed the wound, so she snaps a negative. “Okay, fine, so can we talk about Bucky then?” 

 

Before she can disagree to that too, he spreads aloe vera across her shoulder, and the sudden cold soothes raging pain to a dull throb. She’s had far worse.

 

“Okay, Rogers, what exactly do you want to talk about?”

 

They move into the kitchen, and Steve goes to pour her a glass of the alcohol he keeps solely for the sake of guests. 

 

“Any preferences?” he checks, hand wavering between vodka and bourbon.

 

“I’d happily never drink vodka again,” she admits, and nods as he gestures to the bourbon.

 

“So.”

 

“So.”

 

“I didn’t want to ask Barton, because it seemed indelicate and a little cruel, but he’s the only person I know who’s undergone something similar to Bucky,” says Steve, eyes distant but voice earnest. He doesn’t seem to see her flinch. “I thought you might know something, he might have told you. I just want to know what to expect.”

 

She hesitates for a long, long time. It feels like an eternity. In the end, however, she does trust Steve. And it might help James’ recovery. Even with the decision made, her mouth feels dry, and her tongue too thick, and she has to force herself to say it out loud.

 

“Clint’s not the only person you know,” she says, and it seems to echo weirdly in the room. Steve’s head snaps up, and he makes immediate eye contact with her. He looks sad, and she can’t take his pity, so she looks away. “I. I have undergone something not unlike it,” which is still an untruth. She corrects herself. “I have been through what James is going through.” 

 

Steve reaches across the table, puts his hand next to hers, just brushing the side. Natasha slips her hand into his, and even looking at the Rothko hanging on his kitchen wall seems to come a little easier.

 

“What exactly,” she asks the painting, “Do you want to know?”

 

----

 

She goes to Venice during biennale, and her mission is to assassinate a Russian turncoat, and the two Americans he intends to meet there. She’s the Red Room’s best agent, and her name is whispered in shadows as something to fear. It’s remarkably satisfying. Biennale is a smart time to disappear, as the crowds and masks and costumes eradicate your identity for you. 

 

If Dmitry Vladimirovich had anyone else on his tail, he would slip away easily, and no one would be sure if he had truly defected until it was far too late. As it is, he has Natasha.

 

She’s in her element here, a world of masks and costumes, of intrigue and deception. This is a spy’s paradise.

 

She dresses in layers, costume under costume, and throws a black velvet cloak on top. She wears one mask, has two others on her person. She carries five different knives, two poisons, a garrotte, and a small pistol. There is no scenario which she is unprepared for.

 

She finds Professor Vladimirovich easily, despite his mask and costume. He doesn’t think to alter the way he walks, and his body language is as good as if she could see his face. She saunters casually behind him, her plague doctor’s costume indistinguishable from the numerous others. She plans to follow him to the meet, as it will be far easier to eliminate the enemy agents there. 

 

The professor takes a sharp left across a small, rarely used bridge. It’ll be conspicuous if she follows, but she’ll lose him if she doesn’t. She follows, and he catches sight of her over his shoulder. Down another side street to a crowded piazza, and she hides herself from his view immediately, ducking into an arcade. Her view is obstructed, but she can easily follow him without being seen, and as she walks Natasha unties her cloak and lets it flutter to the ground. Pulling a blank white mask out from her bag, she leaves the beaky plague doctor mask against a column. She comes out form the arcade, deep red ballgown easily differentiating her from the costume Vladimirovich had caught sight of. 

 

She catches up with him, making a point to hold herself differently now that she’s changed appearance. The crowds are getting thicker, which can excuse why it takes Natasha almost thirty seconds to realise that Vladimirovich has been flanked. Two agents, in harlequin masks and heavy capes. They don’t quite link arms with the traitor, but it’s close. She brazenly pushes ahead of one of them, apologising with a perfected Venetian accent, in order to hear what they’re saying.

 

“A doctor!” blabbers the professor, “A plague doctor was following me.”

 

The agents exchange glances, survey the crowd warily.

 

“Great,” says the female agent sharply, “That really narrows it down.”

 

Suddenly both agents flinch, the man automatically putting a hand to his ear. They must have comms of some kind. In a synchronised move, they reach out to Vladimirovich, and turn away and against the flow of the crowd. Natasha follows at a distance, but it’s risky. They will have catalogued her when she brushed pass, and she’s running low on costumes. She ought to make this quick. 

 

She follows them on the opposite side of the canal for a while, switching across to their bank nearly three bridges later. An old, shadowed doorway sits in the middle of another shadowed colonnade, and she hides in it to change again. The deep ballgown skirts fall away to reveal a black slip dress under it, the blank mask is swapped for a black half mask. She checks her weapons are still secure, and moves out.

 

The agents, with Vladimirovich sandwiched between them, disappear through a dark iron gateway at the end of a portico while Natasha watches. She swears under her breath and runs towards the gate, noticing how the crowds have all but disappeared. She gets a blade in each hand before she goes through the gate, aware she has to end this fast. It’s gone on more than long enough, and she doesn’t want this to resort to a boat chase.

 

Instead of Professor Dmitry Vladimirovich or either of his handlers, Natasha finds herself in an empty courtyard. There is an ominous clang as the gate shuts. She turns, surveying, but she can’t see anyone else. Biennale. She should have known it was too good to be true. It’s a spy’s paradise, and it’s as good as a baited trap for someone with her reputation. She shouldn’t have gotten so cocky. 

 

She settles into a fighting position, facing the gateway. She can’t guess where they’ll come from, but it’s the last entrance that was used, so she might as well prepare. Hopefully they don’t make her wait too long.

 

Suddenly, her knives fly from her hands. They clatter to the floor, struck from above. She scrambles to rearm herself. Another pair of knives go flying. There’s nowhere to shelter, in this empty stone courtyard, and this is how she’s going to die. Gunned down in a Venetian courtyard. She doesn’t know why they haven’t hit her yet, but she makes a point to look for the shooter. 

 

The silhouette on the roof looks like he’s holding a bow and arrow. She checks the floor. She’d assumed bullets, but no, those are arrows. It’s a higher skill level. She throws her last knife. His arrow knocks it off course, and she tries not to be too impressed. 

 

“You’re the Black Widow?” he calls down in English. 

 

“I am the Black Widow,” she replies, tailoring her accent to match his exactly. She’s not sure, but she thinks he smiles. She draws her gun. Empties the clip. He dodges them all. 

 

“Will you stop that?” he complains, and it throws her.

 

“Aren’t you here to kill me?”

 

“I’m thinking about making a different call, but feel free to stop trying to kill me,” he says plaintively, and it’s a ruse. Of course it’s a ruse. She can’t see the point of this particularly ploy, but there must be one, there always is.

 

“Will you take your mask off?” he asks, and she throws it off easily. He’s climbing down from the roof, but he keeps his bow trained on her at all times. Smart man. She still has the garrotte. 

 

“Who are you?” she asks, trying to lull him into thinking she is complying fully. 

 

“Jesus, you look young,” he says, and then, “Clint Barton. Who are you?”

 

She means to say the Black Widow, she really does.

 

“Natalia Alianova Romanova,” she says.

 

“Natalia Romanoff to Americans, I suppose,” she says. 

 

Now he’s no longer on the roof, he’s more substantial than a silhouette, and she can see his dirty blonde hair, his rueful smile.

 

“Any chance you won’t make me regret this?” he asks, almost rhetorically, before continuing quickly, before she can respond, “I don’t suppose you want a job?”

 

She should definitely say no, but in that moment, in that one moment she is silent. It’s the choice he’s offering, the opportunity. She thinks of Sasha, or of Vanya, or of her parents. Of the Bolshoi, of the war, of the streets of St. Petersburg. None of it’s right, or all of it is. It was all inevitable, maybe. 

 

She is being given a choice.

 

It’s weird how much that makes a difference, but choice is a valued commodity. He stands there, waiting with shoulders empty of tension. 

 

She chooses. The garrotte drops to the floor.

 

----

 

Steve takes her advice as a go ahead to attempt to trigger memories of Bucky’s life, which was not exactly what she’d meant. He’s hardly subtle about it: styling his hair with pommade just as he had when he’d just woken, wearing clothes that are distinctly old fashioned, using more 1940s slang in one week than he has in the past year combined. Natasha doesn’t understand why Pepper encouraged the “swell dame” thing, but she’s supremely not feeling it. Unlike the rest of the world, who’d seen it in one of Thor’s instagram videos, and made it the biggest meme of the month. (It’s still not at popular as his hyperlapse of the journey to Asgard through the bifrost bridge, but that had made several astrophysicists publicly weep.)

 

Initially, Natasha had decided to let it go. He’d been trying to trigger Bucky since before they’d taken down Hydra, it’s just the sort of person he is. And it may even help Barnes, because Steve can confirm which of his childhood memories are true, and which have been implanted. 

 

The thing is, it’s harder to remember the very beginning than the recent events. They should work backwards, help him remember the Winter Soldier before they help him remember Lieutenant Bucky Barnes. She should know. 

 

It’s not selfish, therefore, to try to trigger memories of that time, Natasha tells herself. It’s not just selfish, anyway. She never was very good at lying to herself on purpose. 

 

It’s a quiet afternoon at Stark Tower, and she’s not really sure when they started to gravitate here in their spare time. She’s arguably here to meet Bruce before their book club, but that’s not for two hours yet. Barnes is here both for his bi-weekly therapy session, and yet another scan of his prosthetic arm. Stark is working on a replacement that should cause less strain to his skeletal system, but working out how to disengage what’s there without severing nerves is proving arduous. Barton has shown up to hover near Natasha on the other end of the sofa, but they still haven’t talked properly, and things are strained. He sits, texting frantically, and shies from eye contact. Thor is spending the day with Jane, but JARVIS has kept a feed open on the wall of his current live-tweeting of their daytrip to Washington to check out the Smithsonian. Steve sits on the sofa, reading an article about colour theory on his tablet, and pointedly not looking over at the clock or the door. Barnes walks through, and Steve pointedly doesn’t look up at that either. 

 

Maybe it is selfish, but now’s her chance. Natasha gets up off the sofa, walks quickly over to the wet bar, bringing her bag with her. 

 

“I’m making tea, do you want a cup, James?” He looks up at her, startled and eyes wide, as he falls back into an armchair. It’s the first time she’s addressed him directly since Sam’s kitchen, having been purposefully waiting until she was brought into conversations before now.

 

“Oh,” he says, hesitant. He looks to Steve for guidance, who does his best to look both encouraging, and simultaneously not too invested. “Sure.”

 

Perfect.

 

The blend is particular, a caravan tea which she had to import specifically for this. It’s little details like that which emotions hinge on: the slightly smokey flavour of tea, the way steam curls into the air, the scent of a freshly brewed pot. Scent is a powerful trigger.

 

She really hopes this works. 

 

The kettle boils. Steve is still determinedly reading his article, but Clint has given up all pretences of texting at this point, scrutinising Natasha from his sofa. JARVIS updates the feed on the wall with a heavily filtered picture of Darcy and Jane standing beside a space shuttle, a slightly bemused caption by Thor. 

 

The tea is brewing. Bruce and Stark trail into the room, presumably on a coffee break from whatever science they’ve been working on.

 

“What’s going on?” asks Tony suspiciously, eyeing the silent room. 

 

“Nat’s making James tea, and Thor doesn’t understand how our rudimentary space travel actually makes it into space,” says Clint, not looking away from Natasha.

 

“And she didn’t offer to everyone? Romanoff, I’m hurt,” drawls Stark.

 

“You want tea, you make it yourself,” she says, eyes daring him to complain again. He subsides.

 

Bruce wanders over to the wall, to catch up on Thor’s Smithsonian adventures. Tony heads for the coffee machine. The tea is ready. She pads over to Barnes, his cup cradled in both hands. 

 

“It’s a good blend,” she says, “You’ll like it. It even smells good.” She leans down slightly to pass it to him, making careful eye contact. He takes the cup warily. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see that Steve’s finally put aside his tablet, that Clint is a line of pure tension. 

 

As he brings the teacup up to smell it, he keeps his eyes on her, brow furrowing slightly. The curlicues of steam frame his face, as he breathes in the scent. He takes a sip.

 

“<Enjoy, James,>” she says in Russian, and throws him the smile she used to keep just for him.

 

The teacup crashes to the floor.

 

“Fuck,” he says, “<Fuck.>”

 

He lumbers gracelessly to his feet, and it is the least coordinated she has ever seen him. Out of the corner of her eyes, she sees Clint and Steve leap up, Tony slip out from behind the counter.

 

“<Natashen'ka, fuck, Natashen'ka,>” says James, and sweeps her up into a hug. She clutches at him, tighter than she thought she would, almost surprised by relief she feels. “<I can’t believe I forgot, oh Natasha, forgive me,>” he says, and she holds him tighter, tells him over and over that it isn’t his fault.

 

He releases her enough that they can look each other over properly, and she is caught off guard to realise she’s been crying, as he sweeps a tear off her cheek. 

 

“<I missed you,>” she admits, and she had, oh, she had. James was the one highlight of her time in the Red Room, the hours they had spent together brightening the darkness that had ruled over them both for so long. When they had wiped her from his memory, she had mourned alone, drifted back into the shadows.

 

She leans in, kisses him chastely, for the sake of all that they have lost.

 

“What exactly is going on?” says Steve, voice tight with emotion.

 

“And what exactly were you both saying?” follows up Clint, anger in his voice, but hurt in his eyes.

 

“JARVIS,” orders Tony, “Translate.”

 

They release each other, as JARVIS reels out a translation of the past few minutes. James didn’t even seem to realise that they had swapped to Russian, which isn’t the best sign, but he remembers her. It’s all she was really hoping for. 

 

“Explain,” says Steve tersely, “Now, please.”

 

She crouches and begins to collect the remains of the teacup, these conversations are always so much easier when you don’t have to make constant eye contact. 

 

“Before I worked at SHIELD, I worked in the KGB,” she starts, and smiles as James bends over and helps her to gather together the broken china. 

 

“We know,” points out Stark, “Your work history was splashed across the web a couple months ago.”

 

“Right,” she agrees, “Almost all of it.”

 

“Almost?” asks Clint, and the hurt has seeped into his voice. Fuck.

 

FORGIVE ME, she signs quickly, I’LL EXPLAIN LATER. AWAY FROM THEM.

 

He nods. He still doesn’t look happy.

 

“The place where I worked is considered a myth, a remnant of Russia’s past: the Red Room. I tried to tell SHIELD about it once, but it’s like Hydra, it shouldn’t exist any more. I think now that it was probably Hydra who kept it out of my reports, told me it was nonsense.

 

“The Red Room is where I met James, where we worked together. He wasn’t like the rest of us, would routinely disappear for missions that weren’t for Russia. Still, we worked together for maybe five years. We,” she pauses, looking back at James Barnes. Both the man who was her first love (or maybe her second), and a stranger who shares his face. Steve’s childhood friend. The Winter Soldier. So many names and faces and people. It’d be easier if she couldn’t relate. “How much do you remember?”

 

“I remember the Red Room, and the winter cold. I remember you, us. I trained you? In hand to hand combat, yes, I trained you,” he says, grinning at her outraged noise.

 

“I could fight long before you,” says Natasha, because that is her line in this half-forgotten argument.

 

“Sure,” he laughs, and continues, “I remember Russia, and Moscow in summer. I remember I loved you. And I remember I forgot you.”

 

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Nat,” interrupts Clint, “But isn’t this the guy who shot you in the Ukraine?”

 

James Barnes flinches as if hit. “Odessa? That was you?” He swears bitterly under his breath. “I thought I’d dreamt you up, Natashen'ka, when I remembered you at all.” 

 

It hurts to hear, but she understands. She hadn’t been sure if he’d been real until Odessa herself.

 

“Can we just,” starts Steve, “Can we just go somewhere and debrief properly? Like a meeting room, you must have a meeting room, right Tony?” 

 

“Uh,” says Tony, “Presumably?”

 

“Pepper included it on the tour of the house,” says Bruce with a sigh, “I’ll lead the way. JARVIS, can you let Thor know what’s going on?” 

 

“Of course, Doctor Banner.”

 

“Shall I bring booze?” asks Tony glibly, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think we could all do with drinks.”

 

----

 

The first time she goes to São Paulo is a disaster in many ways. More specifically, the body count is so high it actually affected that year’s statistical analysis of Brazilian crime, two of her own team die, and the bridges they burn come in both figurative and literal.

 

The second time she goes to São Paulo it is a disaster in wholly unique ways. The second time is five years and one defection later, as part of an elite SHIELD team. The four of them are supposed to be the best of the best at extraction, supposedly they’re in the works to be the agency’s new dream team: Clint Barton, Phil Coulson, Melinda May, and herself. 

 

It is only as they are about to airdrop in, that Natasha thinks to check that this mission’s been cleared with her history. Although not in the official debrief, she had told Clint in confidence about that mission, and a few choice others, almost a year after she had joined SHIELD, and given him her blessing to debrief the information to Coulson. 

 

“What are you saying?” yells Coulson over the roar of the jets, “Have you been to São Paulo before?”

 

Natasha spins to look at Clint, who gives her a vaguely panicked and apologetic look. He shrugs a little. 

 

“We have to drop now,” says Agent May, and proceeds to jump straight out of the quinjet. They all follow suit. What else can you do?

 

It’s a disaster from the outset, and Natasha ends up having to yell an explanation to Coulson in the middle of a firefight involving actual flamethrowers. It turns out that very few people are glad to see her return.

 

“And you didn’t think this was pertinent to mention before we got here?” yells Coulson over the sound of one of Barton’s explosive arrows going off.

 

“I thought Barton would tell you,” she yells back, snapping the neck of a local heavy with her thighs. When she lands, Coulson is giving her a faintly amused, mostly exasperated look. 

 

“I honestly can’t tell if you’re joking,” he says, and shoots someone over her shoulder.

 

“Why would I be joking?” she asks bemused, and then gets distracted by a smoke grenade thrown their way.

 

“If you’d all hurry up,” snaps May, from the pick up she’s just commandeered. They leap on, and there’s a high speed chase to their extraction point. The mission was blown almost before they started, although Natasha managed to lift the laptop bag and USB stick of the corrupt government official they had been setting up before she got recognised.

 

The car veers through the streets, narrowly missing civilians and taking heavy fire from the armed motorbike squad of local mafia. May expertly avoids crashes, driving a heat run through a city she’s never been to before. Coulson sits in the passenger seat, on the phone to HQ and organising an extraction about 42 hours earlier than planned. Clint sits in the back, shooting through blown out windows at the bikes firing at them, and Natasha joins him.

 

“So,” she says, emptying a clip into a pair who were about to attempt to board them.

 

“In my defence, no one could have seen this coming,” preempts Clint, “Like, literally.”

 

----

 

Memories of the Red Room seem to trigger most everything. Barnes remembers more and more each day. Two days after what Stark refers to as the Russian Tea Incident, Barnes stops stock still as he helps Thor peel potatoes at the table in Steve’s kitchen. (That they’ve let him handle blades, even the safety blade on the peeler, is a huge amount of progress in and of itself.) 

 

“Are you quite well, my friend?” asks Thor, furrowing his brow in concern. Not unaccustomed to either brainwashing, or the trauma suffered by soldiers, and uninhibited by memories of some of the Winter Soldier’s more famous targets, Thor is proving a good companion for James. Although their personalities are quite different, Thor’s patience and easy-going personality have begrudgingly won James over, whereas James’ caustic commentary and devil-may-care persona seem to amuse Thor endlessly. Steve, who is currently chopping carrots with Sam by the counter, tries painfully obviously to be okay with it.

 

“Steve!” calls James, starts muttering in French, “<Steve, fuck.>”

 

The knife clatters to the floor as Steve races over and helps Barnes to the living room for some semblance of privacy. They start talking in low voices, English interspersed with French. He definitely hadn’t remembered that he’d known French half an hour ago. Natasha, finished preparing the chicken, goes over to Sam and helps finish the carrots.

 

It’s not an Avengers dinner, per say, but there’s a weekly dinner, and whoever can come does. Initially it was just her, Steve, James and Sam, at Sam’s place, but once James had become close with Thor it seemed rude not to extend the invitation. They had to swap to Steve’s place, because Bruce is still unwelcome in Harlem, and it’s always a mixed bag who will show, but pretty much anyone’s invited.

 

“He’s doing way better,” says Sam casually, swapping to peeling parsnips. Today is going to be a Proper Wilson Roast Dinner, and they have all been informed that they’re going to like it, with a pretty heavily implied or else. “Less panic attacks in the middle of the night, less crippling bouts of guilt, less fugue states. I really think the new support group’s helping.” 

 

She hums encouragingly, starts on the honey glaze for the root vegetables.

 

“It really helps,” says Sam, “To talk to people about things like this.” He says it excruciatingly casually, the perfect blend of blasé and informative. Just a simple oh did you know kind of voice. 

 

“Mmm.” She is distinctively less encouraging.

 

“Even if a group session isn’t possible, just talking to one person can really make a difference,” says Sam.

 

“What exactly did Steve tell you?” she says, unable to hold it in any longer. This is her night off. She spent half the week squatting in Marrakesh and being shot at. This is her night off. Well meaning as it is, caring as Sam is, she is not up for doing this today.

 

“Is Clint coming tonight?” asks Sam, which oh.

 

“Oh,” she says. “Oh. I don’t know. Maybe.”

 

“I’ll text him,” decides Sam, and starts to chop the parsnips into strips. 

 

Thor finishes peeling the potatoes, puts water on to boil, and starts chopping them in half. For someone who grew up with all his meals prepared by a fleet of chefs, Thor is fast becoming adept at cooking, the most likely of any of them to print out a new recipe and bring it over for their weekly not-Avengers dinners. 

 

Sam and Natasha work side by side, silent in their contemplation. 

 

“Look,” says Sam, leaning in slightly, just enough to create a sense of privacy. “I don’t need Steve to tell me you’ve been through some things.” She flinches slightly, but he keeps talking, voice steady. “I’m a soldier, Nat, and I’ve lost a lot. I’ve seen some awful things. I knew the second I met you that you had too. I work with soldiers, with former prisoners of war, with PTSD sufferers on a regular basis. I know the signs, the symptoms. I’m not asking you to go to therapy, and I’m not going to bother you about it. If you can talk about it to someone, you should, but I’m not going to make you, and I’m not saying I have to be that person. I can be, if you want, but you’ve been doing pretty well yourself. 

 

“I imagine you do have someone to talk to, and that if you chose to, he’d let you tell him anything. Whether or not you want to, whether or not you do, is your choice. Will always be your choice. Just maybe bear in mind that he might need someone to talk to as well.”

 

She doesn’t say anything, isn’t sure she can in this moment.

 

“Also,” adds Sam, bumping his shoulder against hers with a friendly smile, “Text him and see if he’s coming to dinner tonight. Thor needs numbers for the potatoes.”

 

----

 

Ivan lies in the street, dying. Bleeding out. They’d been caught in the crossfire of a gang fight, scavenging rights on the war torn city streets. There are no doctors left. They might be the only ones who survived the firefight, and even then…

 

Ivan raised her, saved her as a baby and brought her up as his own for as long as he could. She’d been taken in for a while, an orphanage that felt more like a boot camp than a home.

 

Ivan had found her, had saved her again. And now he lies, bleeding out at her feet, having saved her again.

 

“<Vanya,>” she begs, “<Keep your eyes open, please, please, stay awake, stay with me.>” Her hands press to his wound, to the bullet he’d pushed her out of the way of. The blood keeps welling up around her hands, they are wet and warm and the smell of copper is so thick it chokes her. “<Please, Vanya, please.>”

 

He smiles at her, so glad to see her whole. A bubble of blood cracks open at the corner of his mouth, paints its way down his chin. Each breath he takes seems to rattle and cough, wet and desperate and doomed.

 

His hands find hers, pale as snow already, trembling and fragile in a way that they weren’t mere minutes ago. He clasps her hands, but she refuses to move them from his chest. They barely make a difference in the constant swell of blood that dribbles past, but they make some difference. They have to make some difference.

 

“<I’m so proud of you, my darling,>” he says, and she chokes on a sob because she doesn’t want goodbyes, and she doesn’t want him giving up. “<You’ll be okay on you own, you know that don’t you? You’ll be okay. You have to be okay.>” 

 

“<Shut up,>” she snaps, “<Shut up, I won’t be on my own, you aren’t going anywhere.>”

 

He laughs a little, and it is a terrible sound. It sounds like his lungs are shredding themselves. 

 

“<You can’t,>” she says, and she’s never felt more helpless, more child-like. “<Please.>”

 

“<There is a way to save him,>” says someone behind her, and when she spins, a figure detaches himself from the shadows of a destroyed grocery. He’s a native Russian, Moscow from his accent. He wears the uniform of the Soviet Intelligence, the men which she and Vanya have spent the last two years running from. “<There’s a way. A serum. It’ll heal him, help you. You’ll both live long lives, but it is rare, and there is a price to pay, Comrade.>”

 

“<Don’t,>” begs Vanya, “<Dearheart, don’t.>”

 

“<Yes,>” she says, voice determined and tears falling silently, “<I accept. Whatever the cost.>” It is barely even a choice, because she can do nothing else, but she does choose.

 

Ivan lives.

 

----

 

Dinner really should have started by now, but they’re waiting on Barton. He’d texted a confirmation, but is running late after all, something it appears not everyone expected to happen. Idiots. 

 

Instead, they pick at a large bowl of nuts, and drink their way through a bottle of wine. They’re all in the sitting room, and the atmosphere is warm and happy.

 

James remembered his time in France this afternoon, had spent a couple of hours talking through the horrors of war with Steve. It’s still mostly awful, most memories soured by the undercurrent of fear that permeated the air. He’s decided to make the most of it, it seems. It’s also the most he’s remembered of the Howling Commandoes since it was the 1940s, so now they sit on Steve’s sofas and listen to the assortment of anecdotes he can remember. 

 

They are light hearted because they choose to be so, because it’s their night off, because it’s good to focus on the good in life.

 

“I don’t remember being the punchline nearly this often,” protests Steve with a wide grin, as everyone laughs uproariously at a tale involving Steve, French slang, and a brothel. 

 

“Well clearly,” says James with a wry smile, “Your memory is going, old man.”

 

“Clearly,” agrees Steve, voice drier than the white wine they’re drinking.

 

The doorbell rings, and Sam pokes Natasha until she goes up to the door, amidst the feeble excuses of everyone else there. (“I’m a guest!” protested Sam, ignoring that Natasha is too. “I spent all day slaving over the hot oven,” said Thor with a winning smile. “I just went to get  drinks,” explained Bruce. “I would, but Sam’s got his feet in my lap, and he won’t move,” said Steve, which is weak. “I don’t want to,” said James, which is even weaker. “You’re all pathetic,” said Natasha, but she still got up.)

 

She opens the door, and Clint has the grace to look very sheepish, and barely bloodied.

 

“You’re late,” she says, moving aside to let him in.

 

“Yeah, sorry,” he agrees, “SORRY!” he yells to the other room. He carries brown paper bags under each arm, and he sort of shrugs them at her, before he heads for the kitchen counter with them. “I brought a six-pack and also Riesling in apology?”

 

“It’ll do,” she concedes, and goes to hustle the others into the living room.

 

“Nat,” says Clint, quietly. It’s enough to stop her in her tracks. She doesn’t turn back towards him, but it’s close. 

 

“I know,” she says, careful to match his register, “Soon, okay? Very soon.”

 

“Okay,” he agrees.

 

She wonders if she’s still waiting for his sake, or for hers. She wonders if it wouldn’t be smarter to never have this conversation. If it wouldn’t be smarter to have already had this conversation. 

 

“I’m sorry,” she says, and walks into the living room.

 

----

 

They make her go through basic training, when she joins SHIELD. Not the Academy, of course, but she still has to qualify as a field agent. It’s ridiculous.

 

They’re two months into basic training, and while the definite focus has been on her mental state, there’s a required minimum of 100 hours of hand-to-hand fighting before she can so much as touch a gun. Luckily, her SO can keep up with her.

 

“This is ridiculous,” she complains, jabbing down towards his side.

 

“But necessary,” counters Clint, blocking just in time, aiming a kick at the side of her knee.

 

“Is it?” 

 

Natasha’s glad to be away, has felt her head clearing of cobwebs, of half-truths and memories that ring false. She can’t help but wonder if it would clear completely if she got out of the game. Found some other job, retail maybe. Something as far removed from all this as possible. 

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asks Clint, and he seems just as casual as ever, but he hold his shoulders too tight, and the flurry of kicks and punches aimed at the rib she bruised last week speak for themselves. 

 

“I’ve been doing this forever, since I was a child,” says Natasha, adding a subdued, “Maybe.” She launches herself at his head, twisting to catch his neck with her thighs. “I don’t know what else to do with myself. I just. I wonder if this is all I get, sometimes. If I don’t get to have a life outside of the shadows.”

 

Clint goes down.

 

She’s over him, pinning him down, but he isn’t sparring anymore. He waits, catches her eyes.

 

“It’s different here, Nat,” he says hushed, almost reverent. “It isn’t mutually exclusive. You can have a life, here. You can have a home.”

 

This is the moment, she thinks, she’s been searching for. She doesn’t really know what to do with it. She bounces back to her feet, still at a loss, offers a helping hand to pull Clint back up.

 

His palm is warm.

 

“Another round?” he offers, and she nods. She’ll be qualifying for a gun in no time.

 

——

 

“You have to see her again at some point,” Pepper had said, and she’d been right, but it somehow hadn’t made this much easier. It had taken a lot to be as comfortable with Pepper and Maria as she had been, and she’d lost all of it in the breaths of Fury, his steady heartbeat (still alive, still strong), and the wall behind Maria’s eyes. She’s never been very good at keeping friends.

 

She’s standing in front of their usual bar, it’s Wednesday night, and happy hour officially started three minutes ago. Pepper and Maria have already arrived, and though she’s trying not to make this weird, Natasha still feels weird, stings almost. It’s a little like lemon juice in a cut not quite healed. It’s mostly Vanya’s voice in her head, “<trust no one but me, dearheart, they’ll only let you down,>”, and memory after memory of betraying, of being betrayed. 

 

You have two more minutes before you’re officially late.

 

Pepper has a point. She’s not a child anymore. This low anxious buzzing is ridiculous, is needless. Maria is as close to a friend as Natasha’s managed in years, and hurt feelings are moot at this point, not to mention unprofessional. She tosses her hair over her shoulder and heads in. 

 

They sit at the usual table, huddled in closer than normal, shoulders too tight. An argument, probably, about Natasha, definitely. 

 

“She doesn’t want to see me!” insists Maria, and she sounds torn between frustration and regret. It helps, somehow, to know that the ever collected Maria Hill is as close as she gets to shaken. 

 

“Oh honestly,” sighs Pepper, “You’re both as ridiculous as each other, it’s more complicated than– Nat, at last!” 

 

Smile carefully in place, Natasha collapses gracefully into the remaining chair, sighs for emphasis. “Every time I think New York rushhour can’t worse…” They both grimace in agreement, which is quite sweet really. It’s obvious to everyone that she’s lying. 

 

Maria slides a menu over to her, hesitant smile on her lips. “You’re the only one who actually needs one of these,” she admits ruefully, “I think you were in the bourbon section?” 

 

“That sounds about right,” says Natasha, making a concerted effort to catch and keep her eye for a beat. She peruses the menu briefly. “Up to Romeo & Julep, if I remember right.”

 

Pepper stands quickly, smiles not wholly unconvincingly, and promises to be right back with drinks. 

 

“Not exactly a master of subtlety, that one,” remarks Natasha, voice as dry as she can make it.

 

“To be fair, subtlety does have to go out of the window when working with Stark,” points out Maria, but she’s smirking.

 

“Oh believe me,” Natasha says, affecting a shiver of horror, “I remember. How’s that going by the way?” 

 

Maria shrugs, and the conversation dies again. 

 

The bar seems louder than normal, the lights distractingly multicoloured. It hasn’t changed at all, she knows that, but it feels almost like it has. New owners, new lights, new decor. That at least, would provide an excuse for how this feels, how strange and unfamiliar. 

 

“You know I’m sorry, don’t you?” says Maria, looking with great interest at her glass. The air is tight.

 

“Don’t be,” says Natasha confidently, “It’s the job. I would have done the same.” 

 

Maria catches her eye at that, sadness tinging the corners of her smile, “I hear that’s pretty much the problem.” Somehow knowing Fury trusts her with this too, with Natasha’s quiet admission, hurts even more. 

 

“It’s the job,” repeats Natasha, lets her grip on the edge of the table slowly loosen. 

 

“It was.” 

 

Pepper returns with drinks. It’s enough, sort of has to be. 

 

----

 

It’s in Prague that she discovers they left traps in her head. 

 

She’s been at SHIELD for four years, and, what with May’s reassignment into office work and Coulson’s promotion, her elite taskforce is comprised of two members. Barton’s providing backup; just a bug in her ear and a glinting sight about three blocks away.

 

“Strike Team Delta is go, over,” crackles the comms.

 

“You know that’s not actually our name, right?” muses Natasha, “Just because you think it makes us sound more like spies, doesn’t mean we need a codename.”

 

“You’re literally called Black Widow,” sulks Clint, she can imagine the pout he’s giving her with ease.

 

“That’s the target,” she evades, trying not to let her smirk colour her tone, albeit not trying very hard, “I better get to work.” 

 

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever,” he dismisses.

 

(In about two minutes and three sentences of Russian, she will have forgotten this exchange, will have forgotten Barton. 

 

She will leave the country in a swathe of red, and he will clean the crime scenes and try to pick up the pieces. He’ll chase her across Europe, and find her again in Budapest. She’ll remember halfway through a fight, and they’ll stand back to back in a hail of bullets from both sides. He’ll spend the next year helping her pick up the pieces. 

 

She will learn Hungarian.)

 

----

 

She’s working a job when her phone starts vibrating, but it’s just information gathering. She excuses herself from the group, leaves the lounge for the balcony. She takes a breath to admire the city; Manhattan has rebuilt itself admirably. Puts her champagne flute down.

 

SOS leaving nyc taking the dog

 

She calls Kate immediately, hand automatically gripping the ledge tightly. You don’t run in this game unless things have gone bad. Her breath comes loud in the dead still of the balcony, cocktail party behind her muted by her spiking adrenaline. 

 

“Natasha?” asks Kate, and there is loud music quickly turned down in the background, the roar of an engine, the panting of the dog. 

 

“Kate? Are you okay? What’s happened?” her questions come rapidfire, but retain control, the voice of a commanding officer, not that of a worried friend. 

 

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” assures Kate, but her voice has that oddly refracted tone of hurt, like she’s past tears but only recently. 

 

 “What happened?” Her voice slips into soft, worry overwhelming her for a moment. Kate Bishop is confident and competent, not easily shaken. Kate Bishop is self-assured, and really very young.

 

“It’s, it’s Clint,” admits Kate brokenly, and some distant part of Natasha is glad that she put the glass down, or its stem would surely have snapped in her hands. “He’s such an unbelievable idiot,” continues Kate, and her fingers tremble with released tension. 

 

“Always has been,” agrees Natasha, but her voice seems throatier than normal, hoarse almost. “What’s changed?”

 

“He’s destroying himself. This whole time I’ve been trying to support him, and doing whatever I have to for him to regain his confidence or whatever and just. I’m, what, supposed to watch him destroy himself next? Just sit by as he punishes himself? Be okay with it?

 

“Kate…”

 

“He tried to give me his bow. His bow.”

 

“Ah. Fuck.”

 

“Yeah,” she laughs, but it sounds bitter and angry. “So I packed my bags, and I’m going to the West Coast, and I took Lucky with me. I thought you should know.”

 

“Thank you,” says Natasha at length. “Are you okay?”

 

“Of course I’m okay,” declares Kate flippantly, “I’m Hawkeye.”

 

“Fair enough,” smiles Natasha, “Call me if you need anything in Cali, Hawkeye.” 

 

“Duh.” Lucky barks in the background. “Hawkeye out.”

 

“Bye, Kate.”

 

She takes another deep breath. Admires Manhattan. Adjusts her black wig, picks up her champagne, saunters back inside. 

 

----

 

James smiles at her, and the snowflakes catch in his hair, his eyelashes. He is beautiful. 

 

“<We will go with Natalia Romanova’s plan,>” he orders, “<It minimises the chance of complications. Good work, comrade.>” He is teasing her, but only subtly. They can’t let the rest of the team know about their relationship: fraternisation is strictly forbidden. They pair off to surround the chalet, and she is to go with Yelena Belova. 

 

She adjusts her rifle, and he brushes past just close enough to squeeze her arm, to murmur in her ear. “<So is the student teaching her mentor now?>”

 

“<You were never my mentor, sir,>” she mutters back, “<Though I certainly have a lot I could teach you.>” 

 

He grins, quick and bright, and darts down through the snowfall to his partner. He is made for this, for leaps and bounds through the snow, cold lending him roses for his cheeks, frost accenting his the brightness of his eyes. His name suits him well, the Winter Soldier. He surely is a creature of winter. 

 

“<So you know the Winter Soldier well, Natalia?>” asks Yelena coyly, and though she knows she must be careful, fears this kind of sly intrusion in her life, Natasha finds it hard to suppress a smile as James kicks up a flurry from the snowbank they’ve landed on. Testing the direction of the wind. 

 

“<Not much more than you, Yelena. We’ve met once or twice. A mission in the United States of America last year.>”

 

The snow drifts in the air, gently erasing their footprints. There will be no sign that any of them were here in the two days it will take for the banker’s wife to alert authorities. 

 

The air smells clean, and fresh. The snow crisp underfoot. The light a clear, bright white. It will be spring soon. Natasha looks over at James, his arm gleaming in the reflected glare, red star vivid at his shoulder. It smells like new beginnings, like fresh starts. 

 

She shifts the rifle on her shoulder.

 

----

 

“So,” asks Natasha, “What is it that we’re buying for?” 

 

“I believe it to be pronounced ta-jeen?,” replies Thor, only slightly bemused.

 

“Yeah,” she agrees, skimming the shopping list, before she returns it to him, “That would make sense.” 

 

This morning Thor had DMed her on twitter, mentioned having a new recipe for the weekly dinner tonight, asked if she’d be free to help him shop for ingredients. It’s an unusual enough request; they haven’t really ever hung out one on one, for all that they frequently interact in group situations. She’d called Isaiah instantly, asked to move the information drop off to tomorrow instead, had answered truthfully when he’d asked why. He’d laughed until he’d realise she was serious, and then sighed heavily about her priorities and how vegetable shopping with a demigod came higher than getting paid. Although she’d extended an invite, his sister Carrie was in town, so he once again avoided the not-Avengers dinner. 

 

Now, standing at the entrance to the Farmer’s Market closest to Steve’s place, morning light drifting hazily through Brooklyn, the lightening god Thor decked out in plaid and a soft beanie next to her, she is amazed he didn’t laugh harder. 

 

“So,” she prompts, and Thor smiles easily at her, guileless. It’s not that she doesn’t trust guileless, per say, but he’s smarter than he pretends to be, and her only other experience with Asgardians isn’t exactly pleasant. Also, she doesn't really trust guileless. 

 

“To the vegetable purveyors,” he says cheerfully, and not for the first time she wonders how self-aware he is of his public perception. To what extent he is acting. It’s an unfair thought, she’s knows, and essentially hypocritical. She still wonders.

 

He offers his arm, and she takes it, reluctantly used to this old fashioned charm courtesy of Steve and James. And, frankly, Sam, but she would expect nothing less from Sam Wilson. 

 

“Tomatoes first,” she directs, and soon they are measuring out the stupendous numbers of tomatoes needed for a dinner of superheroes. They move on to onions, the wheeled granny bag borrowed from Steve already half full. They head over to dried fruits, testing and tasting the dates and apricots, debating the merits of flaked almonds over chopped with the vendor, an Asian girl who recognises Thor, not from the news but from his last visit. She asks how the jambalaya had gone down, and he gets an update on her dissertation progress.

 

“Spices and couscous next, I think,” says Natasha, consulting the list again, “Then herbs, and we’ll finish with the lamb in a separate bag.”

 

“A good plan of attack,” agrees Thor, and she’s willing to wait if he is. There is a reason for the meeting, and for all that the small talk is comfortable, there is an element of anticipation in the air. She can wait. 

 

She’s measuring out powdered cinnamon when a light breeze whisks some into her, white dress suddenly bespeckled. Thor laughs with the stall owner, snaps a photo of her on his phone.

 

“May I upload it?” he asks, and the morning light is warm, and she knows that if she asked he wouldn’t, if she asked he would delete it, let this morning fade to memory. 

 

“Sure,” she says, and tops up the cinnamon bag. Suleiman the vendor offers to measure out the turmeric, in case of another bout of wind, and her scowl feels unconvincing. Her phone blips.

 

@_actualthorodinson tagged you in: grocery shopping proves a dangerous adversary…

 

The photo is sweet, light limning her hair a bright red-gold, sunglasses on her head, cinnamon freckling her dress and arms, eyes a little wide at the weather’s betrayal.

 

It doesn’t look like her at all.

 

“Anything else?” asks Suleiman, and she turns back to the task at hand, gestures over to the ginger, nods Thor over to compare the different peppers. 

 

“I wanted to talk to you,” says Thor quietly, he isn’t looking at her, and she gets the distinct impression of projected calm. It makes her feel like an animal expected to be wild. Hardly the most flattering comparison.

 

“I figured as much,” she admits, “Hold this bag while I scoop out couscous.” He comes over obediently to help, and she realises that he’s waiting for her permission still. Respecting her boundaries is something he does automatically, without even thinking about it. It’s refreshing. “Go ahead,” she says to the bag of couscous, “What did you want to talk about?”

 

“Clint Barton, the Amazing Hawkguy,” he says seriously.

 

A few grains of couscous fall to the floor. 

 

“Hawkeye,” she corrects, “And I’m not sure I’d go so far as ‘Amazing’, frankly.”

 

They pay for the couscous and variety of spices, pretend to browse at a couple of stalls irrelevant to today’s recipe instead of heading straight for the mother-son team who sell produce from their herb garden. Coriander and parsley can wait. 

 

“What exactly about Clint?” She had been going to wait for him to start the conversation again, but she’s been worried for a while now. Kate left town two weeks ago, and Clint’s been pretending nothing’s happened, but something in the air hums with tension. Thor’s a surprise though, Natasha wasn’t aware that they were particularly close, for all that Clint respects him, possibly due to Thor’s friendship with James. Clint was there in Odessa, had to watch through his scope, unable to help, as she bled into the tarmac.

 

“He is your brother-in-arms, yes? For longer than any of the others.” Thor looks serious, brows subconsciously drawing in worry.

 

“Longer than anyone but Coulson,” she says sadly, and they share a moment of silence.

 

“I am worried about him. He is in combat still, his head has not left the battlefield. I cannot approach him myself, for fear of making it worse. It is, to some degree, my fault.”

 

“Don’t.” Natasha’s unsure when she grabbed him arm, but she squeezes until he looks at her. “Don’t blame yourself for your brother. It’s not your fault.”

 

Thor smiles at her, but it stays sad. “I cannot but wonder, when he agrees to spend time with me, if it is not to prove that he can. To show himself that he can control his fear, that he is no longer controlled by anything.”

 

Natasha almost flinches. After Culver University, she had decided that if they ever called in Dr. Bruce Banner, she would volunteer. In Mumbai, breaths coming tight, she had sighted her gun, felt the conscious toll that it took to keep her hands from trembling. Had decided to volunteer to show Banner around the helicarrier once he had been suitably persuaded. It was different now of course, but that kind of motivation, while undeniably unfair to the subject, is what she would consider the most logical course of action.

 

“Not Clint,” she says instead, “He’s not like that. He does actually like you, did before you even knew him. He’s just. He hasn’t had to rebuild in a very long time, you know? It’s not very easy, adjusting to all this. To magic and monsters.”

 

Thor hums, considering. 

 

“He’s just a human,” she adds, looking around at the market, the young families and well-meaning students and well-to-do businessmen, the array of civilians. “We’re this team of legends and heroes, powers and enhancements and more besides. He’s the best in his field, of course, but his field is still something between soldier and spy. He’s fast and sure and human. That takes an adjustment. Rebuilding.”

 

Thor nods, and together they survey where the market bleeds into the park. Frisbee game amongst a group of teenagers and their dog veers close to a baklava stall, and the owner starts cursing in Greek. 

 

“You’re only human,” says Thor quietly.

 

“Mmm,” replies Natasha. Hesitates. “But I’m always rebuilding.”

 

----

 

About six months before Bahrain, Natasha and Melinda are sparring in a courtyard of the Triskelion. It’s almost a display at this point, no hits land, no blocks halt the flow of the dance. 

 

“I’m an SO again,” says May conversationally, flipping away from a hit which would have broken her collarbone if it had landed, before going on the aggressive.

 

“Oh yeah? I thought you were done with babysitting,” teases Natasha as she drops and tries to sweep May’s legs out from under her. “Which one?” 

 

May throws a roundhouse kick her way before replying, “Blonde girl by the South Entrance. Bobbi Morse.” A flurry of jabs at Natasha’s middle. “She’s got a lot of potential, but is a bit reliant on her weapons still. First mission’s very soon: intel gathering in Dubai.”

 

Natasha dives fluidly over May’s shoulder, kicks out at the back of her knees. “Want me to have a run at her?” Melinda starts to leap back up, but Natasha aims a kick at where her head would go, and she quickly drops back and rolls away instead. 

 

“If you don’t mind,” smiles Melinda, breath coming quick. She bows shallowly, Natasha following suit. Grinning wickedly at Natasha, she raises her voice, “Morse! Here, now!”

 

Bobbi Morse races over, and Natasha has to bite back a smile at how well May has her trained. 

 

“You know Agent Natasha Romanoff?” asks May facetiously, like they don’t all know that Black Widow is a name whispered at night to give the rookies nightmares.

 

“I know of her, Agent May. It’s an honour, Agent Romanoff,” reports Morse, back ramrod straight and overwhelmingly earnest. Honestly, where does May find them?

 

“Wonderful,” says May, smirk invisible but clearly audible, “You’ll be sparring with her.”

 

“What?” squeaks Bobbi, the cool professionalism of Agent-to-be Morse cracked, “Are you serious?” she hisses at May, “I thought you liked me?”

 

May chuckles slightly, patting her on the shoulder, “Yeah, that’s the point. You’ll be fine.” Then, addressing Natasha with another quicksilver grin, “Don’t go easy on her.”

 

Bobbi has an impressive range of swear words, it has to be said.

 

Half an hour later, and Natasha’s workshopped through the basics of weaponless hand-to-hand, corrected her top guard, and internally thanked Coulson for letting her get out of SO duties about twelve times. She’s sparring with Morse, nothing too serious, Morse is supposed to try to get her on the floor, but it’s been difficult to persuade her to actually try to hurt Natasha, despite May’s heckling and the impossibility of Morse actually hurting her. 

 

“What the hell?” yells a familiar voice, and they fall apart as Clint pushes through the crowd.

 

“Oh god,” sighs Bobbi, rolling her eyes. “This was inevitable, I guess.”

 

Natasha catches Melinda’s eyes, but she shrugs, just as lost, just as intrigued.

 

“What the hell are you doing here?” snaps Clint in a low voice, clearly trying to decrease the number of eavesdroppers in the courtyard.

 

“I work here,” says Bobbi mulishly, chin jutting forward. She’s got to be at least a head taller than him, but he doesn’t look intimidated. 

 

“Hey Clint,” interrupts Natasha, defusing some of their tension, “When did you get back from Shanghai?”

 

“About three hours ago, on my way to debrief. Hi, Nat, May,” he sounds less stressed, but still hasn’t looked away from Bobbi. 

 

“Ah,” says Natasha drily, “So you haven’t slept yet, that explains a lot,” and he looks over to give her a fond scowl. “Want to explain the outburst?”

 

“I was just. Shocked,” he says stiltedly, “I know Bobbi and she’s a civilian–”

 

“Obviously not anymore,” interjects Bobbi, but he continues over her sheepishly.

 

“She’s also, uh, an ex. It was just a surprise, that’s all.” As he talks, he seems to go through a variety of shades of regret, landing on a face that’s a mix of awkwardness and the bone-deep regret of mistakes made. “I really thought I’d think of something better before I finished.”

 

“Yeah,” snarks May, “And how’d that work out for you?” He pulls a face at her, and she raises an eyebrow neatly.

 

“Ex-wife,” says Bobbi tiredly, “You always leave that bit out. Ex-wife.”

 

“Wow. Ex-wife?” says May, “Someone willingly married you, Barton?” 

 

“Shut up, May. The key bit is ‘ex’ though, isn’t it?” says Clint, but it seems like something of a rote conversation. 

 

Natasha stays still, assessing. Bobbi Morse is tall, tan, blonde. Reliant on her weapons still, but that will go in time. Determined, idealistic, wholesome. She wonders if this will affect his work, if habit will make him look out for her in the field.

 

“So,” she says, rolling the word on her tongue, “How old are you exactly, Bobbi?” Her tone is measured, conversational to anyone but Clint, who instantly recognises the teasing in her eyes.

 

“Shut up, Nat,” he says, making apologies to Bobbi for interrupting her sparring session.

 

SHE’S PRETTY, signs Natasha, BUT HOW MUCH YOUNGER THAN YOU?

 

SHUT IT, signs Clint, as he asks Bobbi when she joined SHIELD anyway. 

 

“Officially recruited about two minutes after I signed the divorce papers,” admits Bobbi, and they bicker about why she didn’t tell him.

 

SERIOUSLY WHO KNEW YOU WERE SUCH A CRADLE-ROBBER, HAWKEYE, signs Natasha, as she lists Bobbi’s problem areas in footwork for May.

 

“Seriously shut up, Tasha,” barks Clint, but he’s smiling again, and the tension of earlier is all but a memory. 

 

“I didn’t say anything,” she replies, batting her eyes obnoxiously, just to make him huff in disgusted laughter.

 

FUNNY, he signs. “Anyway, I’m going to go whine to Phil about why he didn’t tell me that he headhunted my ex-wife and didn’t tell me.”

 

“Also to debrief,” reminds Natasha, as he turns to leave.

 

“That too. Later, all!” He jogs off into the Triskelion, and Natasha wonders how long she’s going to spend analysing this afternoon in private.

 

----

 

The tagine has to go in the oven for about two and half hours, so the plan was to watch a movie. Natasha volunteered to wash up the pans used to far while they picked, and she can here the sparkles of the Disney logo trickle in from Steve’s living room.

 

She tops up her glass of pinot noir, swans in to join them.

 

It’s Snow White

 

She staggers out of the room again, feeling sick. The dialogue echoes over and over in her head. 

 

----

 

They’re in a safehouse in Kiev, following the trail of the Winter Soldier. It’s dusk, and once again the three of them have made no real headway. Although Barnes was undoubtedly in the area recently, he is always two steps ahead of them, and Steve has agreed to return stateside if they don’t find him by the end of the week. Barnes will come back as and when he is ready.

 

Currently Sam is trying to get Steve caught up on the first few seasons of Dog Cops, and Natasha thought about texting Clint, but he hasn’t made contact yet. He’s alive, he must be, he just hasn’t made contact. She shakes herself, steals Steve’s crisps while he’s not looking.

 

Her SOS preset goes off during Sergeant Whiskers’ drawing room scene, and Sam and Steve both wave her out of the room complaining. She heads to the front door, might as well get some fresh air while she works out what this is.

 

uh remember when you said you’d do kate bishop SOS things?

 

She calls Kate.

 

“What’s up, Bishop?” They’ve texted a little since SHIELD fell, but mostly just Kate sending messages along the lines of you’re really working the power suit js or wow who knew the secretary of state was such a dick or if it helps cnn is sort of on your side i think? and Natasha responding with things like stop distracting me i’m on live tv >:( or at least when supervillains monologue it’s useful i HATE lawyers!  Nothing serious, is the point. And for all that she’s more than welcome, Kate has never asked for help with a personal, non-Hawkeye emergency.

 

“Heyyy,” says Kate, and Natasha can hear in her voice how much she’d try to sidle out of this conversation if they were having it in person.

 

Bishop.”

 

“How’s your day been?” deflects Kate, and okay, fine.

 

“Well, I’m currently in an old bunker turned just barely habitable safehouse on the outskirts of Kiev, I’m covered in concrete dust because we used up all the hot water earlier, when we were washing off blood from one of the numerous yet fruitless brawls which occurred when we attempted to ask around about the location of the Winter Soldier. It’s been a month since SHIELD fell, and every new Hydra location that we find is a potential nest of old friends and allies that I’ll have to take out. I’m public enemy no. 1 still, and almost certainly ruined in espionage, at least for the time being. 

 

“Yours?”

 

Ithinki’mmaybeattractedtogirls,” blurts Kate. 

 

“What.” replies Natasha.

 

“You heard me. I’m not sure, and like, definitely not just but still I think maybe a bit?” she trails off, losing confidence as she goes.

 

“I thought you had an emergency,” Natasha complains tiredly.

 

“This is an emergency,” huffs Kate, “What am I supposed to do?”

 

The fact that she manages to keep her heavy sigh internal is a testament to the amount of time she has spent in espionage. Still, pinching the bridge of her nose would be a dead giveaway if Kate had gotten used to FaceTime yet. It’s the small mercies, truly.

 

“Why do you have to do anything? Is this a general sexuality crisis or a specific girl that you’re having trouble with?”

 

“I’m straight!” exclaims Kate dramatically, “I think.”

 

“General sexuality crisis then,” murmurs Natasha, “Okay, so, sexuality is a spectrum, and our personal understanding of it is frequently fluid. How you identify can change, and that’s okay. Okay?”

 

Kate sighs into the phone, quieter, more subdued. She’s hesitating. “I don’t know, I guess it’s just scary? I thought I knew myself, and I didn’t even notice until someone else mentioned it, and I dunno. I’ve dated before, teammates even, and it always gets kind of complicated, and I guess I don’t want to add another level on to that? I don’t want to get shit about being indecisive or, or greedy or whatever. It’s hard enough to get taken seriously as someone who dresses up in lycra and fights crime and. Ugh. I don’t even know.”

 

It’s so easy to forget sometimes, how young Kate Bishop is. She can understand Barton’s ease at accepting her into their world, most of the time, because she’s strong and fearless and devil-may-care. But in this moment, Natasha’s achingly aware of how recently Kate’s 18th birthday was. 

 

“If it helps, personally, I’ve never gotten shit like that. Particularly not from my teammates, if that worries you.”

 

“You–“ starts Kate, clearly surprised.

 

“Yeah,” smiles Natasha, “You probably shouldn’t assume these things.”

 

“Right, fuck, sorry!”

 

“Don’t worry about it. Recent events aside, I don’t tend to broadcast my private information. It took me quite a while, but these days I identify as bisexual, and I promise you I understand where you’re coming from. It’s okay not to know, not to be sure. You don’t have to tell everyone if you work it out, you don’t have to tell anyone. If how you feel now changes, that’s okay too.”

 

Kate mulls for a moment, sounds much more centred as she says, “You’re pretty good at this. Thanks.” And Natasha feels some of the tension slip out of her own shoulders.

 

She turns and sees Sam smiling at her from the entrance, and has to forcibly stop her hackles from raising. 

 

Jesus, Wilson, practically gave me a heart attack, she mouths, gently tilting the phone slightly away from her, as Kate talks about labels and loudly tries to google a neatly defined spectrum.

 

Sorry to interrupt, mouths Sam, eyes still soft and accepting, But it’s an ad break on Dog Cops, wondering if you wanted some hot chocolate?

 

Natasha rolls her eyes at him. Always.

 

Sorry to interrupt, he mouths again, then hesitates. Points at his own chest, I’m demi, myself. He smiles at her nod, and heads back inside to the kitchen.

 

“Anyway,” Natasha cuts over Kate’s criticisms of the Kinsey Scale cheerfully, “Tell me about this girl who caught you checking her out.”

 

“How do you do that?!” squawks Kate, and she’s never sounded more like a Hawkeye.

 

----

 

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” says Steve worriedly, having officially given up on trying not to hover, “This doesn’t really feel like a good idea.”

 

“What’s the worst that could happen,” laughs Barnes, devil-may-care and looking a lot more comfortable than he had a scant month ago.

 

“That’s my line, jerk,” mutters Steve frustratedly, forcibly stopping himself from scrubbing a hand over his face. 

 

Barnes flips his hair over one shoulder, smiling a little mean. “Look, punk, I put up with enough of you scatterbrained ideas, you can handle a little sparring between friends.” 

 

“Between Soviet-trained, deadly assassin friends,” pipes up Stark, from where he sits on the sides with Thor and Clint. They actually have popcorn, the fuckers.

 

Natasha hands Barnes a spare hairband, and he throws it up into a tight ponytail.

 

“Yeah, yeah. It’s less fun on this side of a bad idea though,” sighs Steve, sitting beside Clint and snagging the popcorn bowl. 

 

“No shit, Rogers,” says Barnes, and before this posturing can go on much longer, Natasha whips his legs out from under him. The peanut gallery crows. 

 

“You offer a spar, you should at least pay attention to your combatant,” says Natasha, smile deceptively polite, “It’s bad form otherwise.”

 

“Just for that, Natashen’ka, I’m not going to go easy on you,” brags James, and in his eyes she sees a thousand nights of training together in the Red Room, the competitive fire that had bonded them. 

 

Natasha grins, slow, wide, mean. 

 

“I hope she kicks your ass, Barnes!” heckles Steve, and soon the air is thick with jeers, laughter, and fists.

 

----

 

Curled into a ball, Natasha slows her breathing. In, and out. In, out. In. Out. In.

 

Her fingers are still trembling, she makes that stop by digging them further into her knees. She thinks maybe all of her is trembling. She thinks maybe she’ll never stop. 

 

Thor distracted the Hulk, and their fight still echoes across the helicarrier. Between each thunderous crash she can hear her heartbeat, rabbit quick, all semblance of control gone.

 

In her ear, Fury barks about the attack on the deck, about damage control for the Hulk. About Barton.

 

In. Out.

 

She’s been crying, she realises. She raises her hand, slow enough to be sure it won’t shake, and wipes her face. Breathes. She needs to get it together, be better than this. For all their sakes. For both their sakes. 

 

Fury needs someone to find Barton, to stop him, any means necessary. To save him from doing anything more that he’ll regret.

 

It’s all about control, it’s always been all about control. 

 

“This is Agent Romanoff, I copy,” she says into her headpiece, springing up. Now, which way would Clint have gone?

 

----

 

“Honestly, Natasha, you like Greece,” sighs Isaiah exaggeratedly over the phone, while she strokes Liho and tries not to think about how she’s going to make rent. 

 

“I thought I said I had to stay national?” points out Natasha, exploiting the point at the base of Liho’s left ear to make her melt into a puddle.

 

“There aren’t any jobs left in the country,” says Isaiah with all the patience of someone who’s said something similar three times in the last five minutes. 

 

“Look, I’m sorry, but I got in trouble for Marrakech, and I’m really supposed to be grounded. It’s for the sake of an old friend, I know you know that.”

 

Isaiah sounds pained. “I do, and I honestly understand where you’re coming from Natasha, but please be practical. You’re broke, we’re both broke. I don’t know about you, but I’m about two weeks from reverting to my student diet of plain ramen. I honestly don’t know how both you and Liho can eat, but I’m truly envious.”

 

“Isaiah–“ she starts, but he cuts her off sharply.

 

“No, Natasha, let me do my job. Your friends are all millionaires, who can afford to go months without doing any real work. Even Clint Barton is rich enough to buy a twelve story building in Bed-Stuy, though god knows how. You’ve spent incredible amounts building your Web, but that means we’re both consistently on the verge of being in the red.”

 

“I’m tr–“ 

 

“Natasha, please. It’s not just about the money, okay. It’s about the Web. We’ve put in so much time and money and effort. It’s a brilliant idea, a wonderful tool, and it has so much potential. The key issue is that it relies on reciprocity, which isn’t really being provided when you insist on staying in North America.”

 

Liho butts her head affectionately against Natasha’s chin. She tries not to sigh too audibly. 

 

“So, Greece,” she concedes, and pretends not to hear Isaiah’s muttered, “Oh thank god.”

 

“Remind me of your opinion of cruise ships,” opens Isaiah, and they start to plan. Phone on speakerphone, she fires off a text.

 

hey soldier, ever been to greece?

 

Sam replies almost instantly.

 

not yet but I live in hope

 

right answer ;)

 

----

 

Osaka is the first mission for SHIELD where she had really truly hesitated. It hadn’t felt like she was one of the good guys, and she can see the public and private sectors blurring before her eyes.

 

The copper tang of blood won’t wash out of her hair, and she’s had two showers already.

 

Maybe there are no good guys. Maybe this is it.

 

Maybe this is all she gets.

 

----

 

Sam’s terrible hibiscus-print shirt is terrible, but he insists that it’s appropriate tourist gear.

 

(“In a cartoon, maybe,” she says exasperatedly, opting for bland colours and prints.

 

“It’s how I dress when I’m a tourist, okay?” says Sam, and this is technically him doing her a favour so she leaves it alone.)

 

They get surveillance photos aplenty with their digital camera, and even a few genuine holiday snaps, and enjoy a week of not talking about terror threats or aliens or any kind of trauma. It’s extremely refreshing.

 

“You get that this is just avoiding the problem, right?” asks Sam, eyes closed as he basks on a sunlounge. Just for that, she won’t tell him that the straw he’s chasing is for an empty daiquiri. Or get him a refill.

 

“This is literally doing my job,” she says pointedly.

 

“Would that we all got paid for this,” says Sam wistfully, and she’d roll her eyes if she could muster the energy.

 

“You are being paid for this,” replies Natasha, and ignores his vague hand gesture.

 

It’s silent for a couple minutes, and Natasha thinks maybe he’s going to let her deflect. The sun soaks into her skin, into her soul. She feels warm and golden, but she can’t turn off the part of her brain that itches in worry.

 

“Seriously, I know I haven’t known him long, but even I can tell he’s off at the moment,” says Sam eventually. “That you are, too.”

 

“He didn’t want to talk,” she says, voice rusty. “The day SHIELD fell, I. There was no way of knowing who survived, and who turned.” Her breath catches, and without opening his eyes, Sam’s hand finds hers. “Two months of being a global headline, of calls to every burner, of contacting every safehouse, and he never even texted.”

 

“And then,” asks Sam patiently, as he rubs circles into her hand with his thumb, “When he wanted to talk?” 

 

“I suppose by then I didn’t. Don’t.”

 

They lie in the Mediterranean sun, fingers gripped tightly together. The air tastes sharp with salt and the world is painted in shades of blue. 

 

“Right,” says Sam, sitting up. “I’m going for a refill, mojito again?”

 

----

 

It's raining in Vancouver, and Natasha sits by the glass wall of their penthouse apartment. The view is all greys, and the rain sluices down the glass, obscuring the buildings further, distorting the yellow pinprick lights of the city. It's probably getting late.

 

The mission was supposed to be asset recovery. The asset had been Yelena Belova.

 

Clint pads around the kitchen, and she hears the hiss of the gas hob. He makes just enough noise to be heard, to keep her vaguely aware of his location at any given moment. It is a courtesy that she doesn’t always remember herself, the habit of years of silence is hard to break, but she truly appreciates it.

 

The street below is mostly empty now, occasional impressionist figures darting from awning to awning. The water sparkles around the streetlights.

 

They don't have an extraction plan, even when things go well, even if they had, but the quinjet is supposed to meet them on the city outskirts tomorrow afternoon.

 

There's a flash of lightning, and the purple greys of the buildings are thrown into sharp, white relief. She finds herself counting in her head, holding her breath. Four, five. A roll of thunder that echoes through her chest, and the air hisses out. The next deep breath in is almost heady.

 

("I know her," says Natasha through comms frantically, "Clint, she’s not one of ours, what is this?"

 

The plan was to crash a buy, and Natasha had assumed the asset was being sold to the highest bidder, hadn't considered SHIELD’s propensity for human assets. She had planned to pose as the buyer, talk her way into whatever they needed, but the seller is the Little Spider, and that's not an option anymore.

 

"Barton, she sees me and we're blown," she snaps, hidden in the shadows by the front door.

 

"Right," he says, "Better improvise," and next thing he's swanning in through the side door, conspicuously devoid of bow or quiver.

 

"What are you doing?!" hisses Natasha, as he greets Yelena Belova, plays the role of the buyer that Natasha had prepared. Her gun won’t work from this far. "I can't get a clean shot, lean to your left," she orders, but he doesn't obey.

 

She thinks of Venice, and she can understand his hesitance, but he doesn't understand what they've walked into here. That’s not a call he can make this time.

 

She creeps forward, but it's too late. 

 

"Natalia Romanova, come out come out wherever you are," calls Yelena, smile cruel and pistol aimed at Clint's chest. "<I'll kill your friend if you don't come out of the shadows, traitor.>"

 

Natasha thinks of second chances. Natasha pulls the trigger.

 

Blood pools across the floor, tacky and dark. She walks over to Clint, and they stand over the body. A perfect hole in her head, face slackened in death, Yelena Belova looks young like this.)

 

She sits in front of the window, knees curled up to her chin, arms wrapped loosely around them. Her fingers are close enough to the glass that she can feel the shift in temperature, the cool bite of rain.

 

Clint walks over slowly, sits cross-legged next to her. "I couldn’t decide between hot chocolate and bourbon, so I went with the best of both worlds." It's not exactly silence that's being broken, not with the storm, but it seems oddly loud in the hushed thunder of the apartment.

 

She takes the eggshell blue mug he hands her, brings her legs down so that she leans at an angle, props herself against his right shoulder. He wraps his spare arm around her shoulders, but pointedly doesn't look away from the window.

 

"Bourbon hot chocolate!" He wiggles his fingers over her shoulder, but it doesn't count as jazz hands. They stare out at the city.

 

The hot chocolate is good, warming and just sweet enough to cover the rough jolt of alcohol. Down in the street below, a pair of surrealist silhouettes race towards a cab, dashing through the downpour. The traffic lights go green.

 

Clint finishes his hot chocolate, places it off to the left, and Natasha finds herself watching his reflection. He looks tired, eyes full of regret, hair mussed from running his hand through it. She catches his gaze for a split second, but he looks out at again at Vancouver. She does the same.

 

"I wasn't always deaf, you know," he says matter-of-factly, voice weighted in a tone she's never heard before. "Grew up in the circus; my parents, Barney, and me. I have a big brother called Barney, I ever tell you that?"

 

She shakes her head slightly against his shoulder, looks at the steady flow of water distorting their view. Resists the urge to look at Clint as he tells her about his life before.

 

She wants to reciprocate, tell him something of her childhood, of her life, but it all fades into each other, all these stories, and she never knows which are the untruths.

 

She’ll tell him them all one day, most likely.

 

----

 

“I want to go on record as being personally offended that you didn’t think to invite me to whatever was going on in Greece,” declares Stark over dinner, gesturing for Steve to pass the dauphinoise.

 

Bruce rolls his eyes pointedly, but opts to keep passing around the green beans instead of interfering. 

 

“What was in Greece?” asks Thor, bemused.

 

“I want to go on record as being professionally offended that you didn’t think to invite me to the Mandarin’s lair in Miami,” snarks Natasha, and Tony concedes with small smile.

 

“Who is the Mandarin? What happened in Miami?” asks Thor, using about half the pepper sauce in one go.

 

“Oh god,” mutters Bruce, “Not this again.”

 

“So,” Steve says brightly, “What exactly happened in London, Thor? I never got the full story on that.”

 

Tony seems torn between insulted and amused, but Bruce looks undeniably, albeit exaggeratedly, thankful. Natasha has to hide her smile in her glass.

 

“Ah, my friends, prepare to be regaled with a tale of great bravery and woe! I had returned to the glittering halls of Asgard with my wily brother Loki, as you’ll remember…”

 

----

 

She draws the needle through her shoulder, keeping the dental floss tight in her teeth. At the door, Clint checks the motel corridor, keeps watch.

 

“I don’t think we’ve been followed,” he reports, doing a final sweep before he joins her.

 

She’s perched on the desk, the complimentary bathroom supplies spread out in a halo around her; the issue with the kind of places that rent by the hour, that won’t care how bloodstained you are, that aren’t going to call the police, the problem with those places is that they’re devoid of first aid kits. 

 

Jesus, Tasha,” he hisses, as she tries to keep her stitches even. She’s mostly going by touch at this point, blood in her eyes and a tricky angle to deal with. “Just,” he takes the needle and floss, “Let me, okay?” 

 

She’s not sure why they don’t have an extraction plan, not sure why no one warned them that there wasn’t a car waiting after all. She’s mostly aware of the bright, hot pain, and Clint’s careful fingers piecing her shoulder back together.

 

“So what’s the plan, Hawkeye?” she asks, trying not to focus on the sharp slide of the needle through her skin.

 

“Oh, you know, the usual. Get out of here, head back to SHIELD, kill whoever cancelled our extraction without telling us oh my god,” he snaps as he ties off the stitches neatly. 

 

There are footsteps in the hall outside, no way to tell if they’re friendly, enemy, or tourist. 

 

Natasha gets to her feet, picks up her gun from the desk, cocks it at the door. “I’ve got your back,” she insists, though pain is blurring the edges of her vision.

 

“Sit down and shut up,” says Clint, not unkindly, “If you tear those stitches, I’ll kill you.”

 

“I’d like to see you try,” she smirks, but leans back into the desk, letting it take the majority of her weight. 

 

----

 

As little as she wants to live in the Avengers Tower, it is rather convenient for finding the others. Steve lives in Brooklyn, Clint lives in Bed-Stuy, Sam has a place in Harlem, and Barnes has his spare room. Thor stays with Dr. Jane Foster, currently they rent a little place in Morningside Heights, in close proximity to the Columbia physics program which she’s guest lecturing in. In fact, with Tony helping Pepper rebuild their place in Miami, the only person living there full time is Bruce. Still, they all seem to gravitate there in the odd hours, and therefore makes tracking them down relatively easy.

 

Today, Natasha is looking for Steve and Bruce, and relatively confident she’ll find them both in the Tower. She has news for Steve, a lead on a Hydra cache that she knows he’ll want to follow, and a helicopter scheduled for 11AM the next morning to bring them to the target location. As for Bruce, it’s book club night, and she’s managed to read a good 90% of this week’s choice, An Artist of the  Floating World. She’s hoping that coming this week will make up for missing about a month and a half in a row. 

 

Sure enough, Steve sits in the living room with Sam, Bruce, Pepper, and Barnes. Steve and James are heckling the screen with good-natured mockery, as Sam tries to drown out their commentary. 

 

She slips in quietly, leans on the sofa behind them to try to gauge which show has caused such an uproar.

 

“Oh come on,” laughs Steve, “Peggy’d break anyone’s nose for talking to her like that, can you even imagine?”

 

“Hell,” says James with a grin, “Dum Dum woulda broken his own nose before he dared!” Steve catches his eyes and they laugh only a little meanly. “Hey Nat,” says James, and the majority of the sofa jump as they realise she’s hovering above them, “We’re watching HBO’s Howling Commandos.”

 

Ah.

 

“You’re ruining HBO’s Howling Commandos is what you’re doing,” scowls Sam, but he’s clearly trying not to laugh.

 

“Not that much to ruin,” snarks Steve, just as the TV emits a burst of dramatic gunfire.

 

Barnes gesticulates at the screen derisively, “I mean look at that! He must’ve run out of bullets at least five minutes ago, and yet.”

 

“Shush,” says Pepper, passing a bowl of M&Ms over as a distraction, “This bit’s great.”

 

“Think we might have different definitions of ‘great’, Miss Potts,” says James dryly, but he accepts the chocolate bribe and keeps quiet.

 

“Steve,” says Natasha quietly, “Got you a present.”

 

He gets up and follows her to the counter, where she spread out the dossier on tomorrow’s target. 

 

In the background, she hears Pepper say offhandedly, “I wonder, do you think anyone’s made them watch the film yet?”

 

Sam chokes loudly on his own laughter, and James thumps him unnecessarily on the back, while complaining that the hairstyles are quite clearly from the 1920s. 

 

“I hope you mean the French one,” replies Bruce, “As opposed to, well, any of the others.”

 

“I don’t know what you mean, there was only ever the one film made,” says Pepper firmly, with a knowing smile. 

 

“The Stallone one is a masterpiece,” calls out Natasha cheerily, just to hear Sam snort with laughter.

 

Steve looks up from assessing the files, and she focusses in again. He taps at the satellite images of the bunker, looking vaguely impressed. “This is pretty thorough, Natasha, got a game plan?”

 

“We leave tomorrow morning, got a helicopter and everything, but I figured you might want to handle the details.”

 

----

 

Natasha grew up on a battlefield, child of thousands of men, passed from battalion to battalion. She was raised in a hail of bullets, and knew blood before she knew milk.

 

Natasha grew up on a farm, rose before the sun everyday and slept when the animals did. She left home when the famines hit bad, headed for a city so she could send money home to her parents.

 

Natasha grew up in a palace, swathed in silks and pearls from the moment she was born. When they set her home on fire, she barely escaped the smoke, spent years on the road with a father figure, suddenly making up in hardship for the opulence she had been born into.

 

One of these is right, probably.

 

----

 

They finish their episode, and she joins them. The key offences appear to be superficial (“Gabe Jones only ever thought he was that funny,” declares an indignant James after a dig at Bucky.), and it’s pretty enjoyable. She thinks Clint would probably like it, for all that he’s declared a hiatus on all TV that isn’t Dog Cops until he finishes last season.

 

If they don't leave soon, they’ll be late, and Natasha has spent far too long being late to book club, so she harasses Bruce to get ready.

 

He disappears off to kitchen to look for his shoes, having drafted her into searching for his tablet. Tony had insisted on gifting him with a beta-model of the newest Starkpad, including a legally dubious app which involves scanning the ISBN of a physical book, which has taken the book club by jealous storm. 

 

She finds it under one of Steve’s sketchpads, but the book open on it isn’t An Artist of the Floating World. Instead, it’s open to the author inscription of Dr. Betty Ross’ newest book, Red Gamma, Blue Gamma. She’s really quite beautiful, all long brown hair and wide eyes. It’s a book talking about the mythology and fears behind radiation, about the reality of what scientists know so far, and how it’s being applied. Most reviewers talk positively of her writing style, her wit, but the academic world has been pointedly resenting its broad appeal. 

 

Bruce wanders back in, espadrilles located, and picks his jacket up off the back of the sofa. He sees Natasha is looking at, takes a long look at Ross’ photo before he meets Natasha’s eyes.

 

“You should call her,” says Natasha quickly, before she can change her mind.

 

“How’s Clint?” asks Bruce, pulling on his jacket, “I haven’t heard from him in two weeks or so.”

 

“That’s different,” replies Natasha, but it doesn’t feel entirely like the truth. 

 

“Just don’t, okay?” asks Bruce instead, and he sounds so tired. He holds out a hand for the Starkpad, and flips away to the book for this week instead.

 

She holds out an arm, and he takes it warily. “Thoughts on Ishiguro?” His smile is barely even reluctant.

 

They head off, talking quietly about the representation of Japan within the novel, not straying into anything nearly so dangerous as feelings. 

 

The dedication of Red Gamma, Blue Gamma echoes around Natasha’s head.

 

To the only person I ever dedicate my work to. You’ve stopped hiding from the world, and I’m so glad for you. Let me know if you’re ever ready to stop hiding from me.

 

----

 

"It's a good way to not die," she says, voice steady. 

 

The sun shines brightly, and the sky is clear. It's a beautiful day, it's the end of the world as she knows it. She's not lying, she doesn't think, but it's getting hard to tell. 

 

Natasha's been in this game for so long now, and it shouldn't be an issue, except, well. Except Steve shines in the sunlight, good and clean and honest. On some level, she can't help but wonder what that would be like, whether it would feel better than this. 

 

She called the burner that Clint was supposed to be using while he's in Afghanistan after Fury died. He never picked up. Still hasn't replied. 

 

There's a yawning abyss in the bottom of her stomach, and something is very, very wrong. This whole thing has felt off, since the Lemurian Star, but she had trusted her orders over her judgement, and now Nick is dead. Now she's on the run, in a car stolen by Captain America, who looks at her like she's not tarnished and rusted with her past. 

 

She's losing the ability to believe her own lies, which is the point where you really ought to get out of the game. It might be too late for that now. Too late for all the things left unsaid. 

 

She checks her burner, but there are no messages. 

 

They drive in silence towards their only lead, towards one of Steve's few remaining memories.

 

----

 

Natasha’s spent the evening with her phone blowing up, which is pretty inconvenient during a solo stealth mission in Boston. She’d managed to pull off the item grab without serious incident, but it had been close once or twice, and none of these messages seem important enough to contact her on an evening where they know she’s working. This one from Clint, for example:

 

u seen anderson cooper 360 yet?

 

She’s already in Little Ukraine, nearly home, and scrolling through about twelve iterations of the same kind of text.

 

?? thought you weren’t watching anything that wasn’t dc atm?

 

made an exception. there’s a rerun at 11 WATCH IT

 

While Clint does normally reply to her, it’s rarely so quickly, and she finds herself vaguely worried. Liho curls around her legs as she walks in the apartment, and she pours herself a glass of red wine and settles in front of her TV. 

 

About five minutes into the Anderson Cooper 360: Black Widow; Avenger or Assassin?, she pours herself another glass, sends a text to Isaiah. Liho settles herself on her stomach, and to some degree it feels like an anchor, like a comfort. 

 

Her phone rings, and without looking away from the screen, she picks up.

 

“Hey, Nat.” Distinctly not Isaiah.

 

“Matt?” This is a surprise. After a distinctly uncomfortable break up, she hasn’t heard from Matthew Murdoch in over a year, though she has kept tabs. “Congrats on passing the bar.” 

 

“Thanks,” he says. “So I’m currently watching AC 360,” he says. 

 

“Watching?” she says dryly, because that’s how they are, and it really was a nasty break up.

 

“Haha, definitely never heard that one before. From Foggy,” he replies, and okay, point. She can do better. “You okay? That was the reason for calling.”

 

“Thanks. I’m. I’m okay. It’s nothing that hasn’t come up in the trials, quite frankly,” she says, as the screen plays out blurry footage of a fight in Cairo that someone recorded on their phone. 

 

“Still,” he says, and they sit mostly in silence, watching the show.

 

Onscreen, there’s a clip from a press release just a few months ago. They show the tail end of a question Steve is asked about the meaning of bravery. 

“Ms. Romanoff!” insists one reporter, “Obviously you have to stay in shape to keep up with all these superpowered boys, just wondering if you have any tips for staying trim? What do you eat?” 

 

There’s a pause, and Natasha knows herself well enough to recognise that her face means she’s seriously considered a least a little maiming. 

 

“Whatever Thor happens to be cooking that day,” she says dryly, in a way which is carefully not a threat but still manages to sound a little like ‘the blood of people like you’, and enthused, Thor takes over talking about the joys of Earth cuisine. 

 

In her ear, Matt Murdoch laughs until he wheezes. Natasha finds herself smiling reluctantly, despite knowing that tomorrow she’s going to have to deal with Isaiah’s inevitable heart attack about all this.

 

“So how’s saving Hell’s Kitchen going for you?” she asks politely, once his laughter has calmed down, the show now interviewing a Londoner who is loudly in favour of Black Widow.

 

“Slow business,” says Matt carefully, “But we’ve had a few clients. Got computers in our office and everything.”

 

“We can pretend that’s what I meant if you want,” says Natasha slyly, “But we’re both pretty adept at spotting lies.”

 

----

 

Nicholas Fury is alive after all. That almost feels worse than when he died. Does feel worse. SHIELD has been lying this whole time, and her sins feel heavy around her neck. Nicholas Fury is alive.

 

She can’t sleep. “I wasn’t sure who I could trust,” echoes in her head, and it shouldn’t hurt this much.

 

Was Maria crying because she also thought Nick had died? Was she crying because she saw what this was doing to Natasha? Was it just because that’s the job?

 

That is the job.

 

She can’t explain it to Steve, who has always distrusted Fury, has always been wary of SHIELD. Sam doesn’t really know the situation, and Maria’s out for obvious reasons. She’s texted Clint again, but there’s still no word. She hopes things haven’t gone south in Afghanistan. 

 

It’s Clint who made the call in Venice, and it’s Coulson who backed his play. It’s Fury, however, who had the final decision. It’s Fury who looked at her, bloody and bruised and a weapon, and still said yes. Who gave her a chance and a job. She’s never questioned his orders, never given him reason to doubt her, done her best to be worthy of her second chance.

 

She’d watched, feeling sick, as yet another man she’d trusted died. Vanya. Alexei. Phil. Nick. These are only the names she remembers, but the list yawns off into the distance. Her control had shattered in that hospital room. Not for long, but it had shattered, and she had thought Not again and Why does this keep happening and Please don’t leave me

 

Nicholas Fury is alive, and he didn’t trust that she wasn’t Hydra. Didn’t know if he could trust her, could trust anyone who wasn’t Maria.

 

It’s not that she doesn’t understand, because she does. She’s been in espionage since she was a child, maybe, and trust is hard won and easily lost. She would have done the same. Told Clint, maybe Nick, maybe Maria. (As she will tell Fury, in about half an hour, that is the problem.)

 

----

 

She’s having a working lunch with Isaiah, who has an unsurprising number of newly formed opinions in regards to Anderson Cooper, when Kate Bishop texts.

 

so i’m coming back, you talked to him yet?

 

It’s embarrassing, on some level, that Kate has gone away, gotten a job, started her own hero business and dramatic vendetta, dealt with her issues with Clint, and feels ready to come back, and Natasha still hasn’t sat down and gone through all this with him.

 

not really :/

 

One unexpected plus of the Cooper exposé is that Isaiah is now firmly in favour of her work with the Avengers in a way that a literal alien invasion didn’t manage to cement. 

 

lucky & i are both shaking our heads v disappointedly. i’ll be back tomorrow some time i think, you get to give him lucky back but you HAVE TO TALK

 

It’s embarrassing on every level, now that she thinks about it. 

 

“A minimum of pro bono Avengers work each month, maybe,” muses Isaiah as he sips his caramel macchiato, fully aware that she’s not really paying attention. “Maybe some part time secretarial stuff for Stark again.”

 

“I will fire you,” Natasha promises.

 

you’re not my real mom, bishop

 

omfg jsfjksf;s can you just meet me at that bodega near his at like 11am??

 

She’s never actually met Lucky yet. She’ll have to remember to pick up some dog treats on the way home.

 

:)

 

----

 

“Is this love, Agent Romanoff?” asks Loki, both curious and condescending. 

 

She answers as truthfully as she knows how. Looks him straight in the eye, steady, unwavering. “Love is for children. I owe him a debt.”

 

It’s many things, but it’s not a no, and she can see that Loki sees that. 

 

This has always been what she’s best at: turning her truths into weapons. The fate of her world hangs in the balance, and on many levels, she is here to bargain for one man. Avengers Initiative or otherwise, she would be in Russia still, infiltrating each gang in the area in by one, if Coulson hadn’t opened how he had. If Barton hadn’t been compromised. If she didn’t owe him a debt, her life, her happiness.

 

Loki snaps, at last, makes clear his play, but the damage is done. The phrase ‘base sentimentality’ echoes around her head, and she knows it will haunt her. Is she indeed a child at prayer? 

 

Since the phone call, Natasha has been exceedingly aware of a shivering tension in her stomach. Of the tenuousness of her normally secure control. She rattles in this space, untethered, and tries not to think too hard on what she would hold forfeit to bargain for Clint Barton. 

 

She races to the labs, sure that Loki will make a move soon.

 

She carefully ignores what will happen if they don’t win, and Clint is forced to take her out. What he’s told of her past to Loki, what regrets will lurk in his eyes when this is done with.

 

Perhaps this is neither sentimentality nor a debt. Perhaps this is what it is to be compromised.

 

----

 

Kate Bishop stands by the bodega, hair blowing dramatically in a slight breeze, ridiculous purple aviators gleaming in the sun. She’s doing a powerstance, although it’s slightly offset by her American flag hotpants. It would be overall quite heroic, if the effect wasn’t ruined by the messy dog eating cans of tuna loudly behind her, and the waft of fish.

 

“So how was California?” calls out Natasha, as she approaches. It’s a sunny day, but the air feels chilled somehow. It was weirdly hard to sleep last night, and she has a bone deep tremor she can’t shake. It’s anticipation, maybe. She can’t actually be sure.

 

“Oh, amazing! I met some really fantastic people, and I got a job, and just. Definitely going to have to visit more often,” gushes Kate, as Natasha kneels down to introduce herself to Lucky. “Also I think I have a mortal enemy now? It’s complicated.”

 

“Rule 1 of heroing: Don’t sleep with the enemy,” teases Natasha, as she feeds Lucky treats from her palm. He snuffles into her hand, and she scratches his head until she fins a patch near his right ear which makes him go dopey with pleasure. 

 

“Haha,” says Kate, “She’s hot, but evil’s so not my type.”

 

“I’m sure the owner of those shorts would be glad to hear it,” replies Natasha, glancing up in time to catch Kate’s flush. 

 

“You can futz right off,” says Kate, and then, peering over the top of her sunglasses, “Or we can talk about how you have to talk to Clint?”

 

Natasha can feel the shift in her shoulders snap from relaxed to on edge. She forces them back down, regains her control. She looks again at Lucky, at his boundless affection, and the curiosity with which he tries to scent where she’s keeping the dog treats. Takes a breath.

 

“There are very few things in my life where I’ve had the license to truly choose,” she says quietly, eyes still on Lucky. “Things with Clint are complex, have always been complex. Sometimes these things take too long, and neither of you are ever ready at the same time. Sometimes–”

 

“Hey,” says Kate, puts a gentle hand on Natasha’s shoulder. It takes concerted effort not to flinch away. “We don’t have to, y’know.”

 

Natasha squeezes the hand on her shoulder, slowly stands up.

 

“I know. I’m sorry about,” she waves a hand airily, but her words fail her and she pauses. Finishes weakly, “About all this.”

 

“Oh my god, shut up,” says Kate, bumping their shoulders together. “Let’s go get bubble tea, then you can drop off Lucky and whatever.”

 

----

 

It’s not even twelve hours since they’ve left Venice. The extraction team had been horrified to see them both still there, and she’d been held in detention in a SHIELD building in Treviso until they’d gotten Dmitry Vladimirovich safely out of the country. Instead of the interrogation she’d expected, violent or otherwise, they had left her pretty much alone. Barton got her after seven hours, and had earnestly promised her safety. 

 

They had boarded a small plane, and instead of a cell, he had led her to a room. It is night, and they won’t reach the United States for a few hours still, and there are no guards on her door. She checks every half hour, but it seems inexplicable. 

 

It’s dark out the window in her cabin, the clouds flat and far below. She feels weirdly weightless, like a helium balloon let go, like a puppet with its strings cut free. She wants to get used to this feeling, to choice.

 

She checks again, but the corridor is still free. It’s no doubt past time she goes to find Barton. She’s not so relieved to be free that she’s forgotten who to be grateful to. Besides, she’ll want an ally within SHIELD by the time she’s being debriefed. 

 

Natasha creeps down the hallway, footfalls silent on the dark metal floor, looking up directly into the hall camera and nodding. She’s not sure exactly where he is, but Barton promised her that he wouldn’t be too far away, so she reckons his will no doubt be the first bunk she reaches. Just in case, she knocks gently.

 

“It’s always open,” Barton calls from inside, and she slips in quietly. He turns, almost jumps in surprise at her presence, but quickly recovering to play it off.

 

“I meant to ask earlier,” he says, “Do you prefer Natalia or do you have a nickname? Besides Black Widow, of course.” His hair is very messy, and he’s changed into pyjamas, perhaps. An oversized dark purple t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. It makes him look younger, and far less professional. Far more approachable.

 

“Call me Natasha,” she says softly, which was not exactly part of the plan, “Call me whatever you want, I suppose.”

 

He tilts his head bemusedly, shaking it a little and turning back to repacking his go bag. “Natasha it is, then. What can I do for you, Natasha?”

 

“You’ve done more than enough already,” she says, careful to keep her tone obviously grateful. He still turns, indignantly, but she stops his response by moving in close  towards him. “Isn’t the question more of what I can do for you?”

 

She’s so close that she can feel his breath on her face, smell the mint of toothpaste. He still looks confused. This has never been hard for her before.

 

“I really don’t see–“ he starts to say, and she leans up not quite to her tiptoes and kisses him. 

 

It’s a sweet kiss, gentler than many she has had. His eyelashes sweep slightly against her cheek as his eyes shut, and his hands come up to her shoulders. Gently still, he pulls at her shoulders, and they break apart, she goes back down.

 

“I don’t understand,” she admits, and is horrified to feel afraid, to feel upset. Has she made things worse, is this not what he wants, will she still be safe from her previous employers?

 

“This isn’t why I chose not to kill you,” says Clint Barton, voice rough with what could be sadness, what could be anger. “Natasha, look at me, you’re alive because you deserve to have the chance to live. I gave you a choice, you still made the decision, it had nothing to do with wanting some, some recompense or whatever this is.”

 

It seems both obvious and impossible, put like that. 

 

“Right,” she still feels hesitant, aimless now her plan has been stopped. “I’m sorry, I should probably leave?” It really isn’t supposed to be a question. They’re still standing so close, his hands warm and heavy through her sleeves.

 

He releases abruptly, like he’s only just remembered, takes a cautious step back. “If you want to, then go ahead, but you’re more than welcome to stay. No weird insinuations you owe my anything, though.”

 

It’s obviously a joke, but she’s not really used to jokes anymore; even James, previously so light-hearted, has been sullen and withdrawn in his most recent visits. It’s almost a relief to see he had forgotten both humour and her. If he had only been wiped of her, of them, but had been as good-natured as ever it might have hurt more than she could bare. 

 

Her answering laughter is slow, is the point.

 

“A movie, maybe? I think I might have a couple on my laptop, all totally legal of course,” he says, quickly clearing unpacked clothes off the bed so there’s somewhere to sit. 

 

“Sounds good,” says Natasha and curls her legs under her as she sits next to him on the bed. “Just no spy films,” and she finds herself pleased at his laughter. It’s weird, not knowing what he wants from her, what any of SHIELD will want from her. Not knowing who to be for him, for them. Not bad, just weird.

 

----

 

Natasha ends up walking Kate back to her car, a new one she picked up in California, before she walks to Clint’s. She climbs the stairs with Lucky excitedly racing on ahead of her, nodding to various tenants who she sees on the stairs. 

 

She’s done with hesitating by the time she reaches Clint’s door, uses the spare key he’d given her when he moved in as opposed to waiting. Lucky bounds in immediately, and she hears the springs of the couch protest as they reunite. 

 

“So how was the West Coast?” calls Clint, not looking up from where he’s buried his face in Lucky’s fur.

 

“Right now? Not sure. You should ask Kate Bishop,” replies Natasha dryly, “I hear she just got back from Cali.”

 

Clint’s head whips up so fast even she feels dizzy. “Nat? Wait, does this mean Katie-Kate was your spy?!” 

 

“Good to see you too, Clint,” she drawls, as she heads over to join them on the couch. The season finale of Dog Cops is paused on the screen, about five minutes from the end. She nods to it, while absent-mindedly scratching at Lucky’s head. “We need to talk, but do you want to finish this first? I know you’ve been waiting for months.” 

 

His hand moves over hers on Lucky’s head, and he squeezes lightly until she looks to him. “I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is a conversation I’ve been waiting for longer than that.” 

 

“It’s possible,” admits Natasha quietly. 

 

The apartment is sun-warmed, but she still feels that persistent chill.  It’s cluttered, but it’s a very Clint kind of clutter, all unlabelled arrows and old coffee mugs and very old pizza boxes.

 

Even the silence feels anticipatory. 

 

“We could go for a walk?” suggests Clint, “Find some neutral location.” It’s a good idea. Some part of her is scared that they’ll leave the apartment and immediately get called in for Avengers duty. That all of Bed-Stuy will be under threat from some two-bit mad scientist. That she’ll just lose her nerve.

 

“I guess I want to start by saying thank you for the necklace,” she says, hand automatically slipping to the arrow ever present at her neck. 

 

“I’m glad you like it.” He sounds like he’s being careful, which would be appreciated if he hadn’t given her a sterling silver arrow. Which she’s worn solidly since he gave it to her.

 

“You gave me the necklace, and promised we’d talk, and left for Afghanistan, and SHIELD fell, and you never even told me if you were okay.” Lucky’s moved off the couch to nose at pizza boxes, and they sit facing each other, not quite making eye contact.

 

“I’m sorry,” says Clint sincerely, “It wasn’t easy getting out, and then by the time I had you were on national television, and your life was trending on twitter, and all I could see in every interview was that fucking necklace. And then it was kind of too late.”

 

It sounds plausible, likely even. And she doesn’t want to ask, but she has to. After everything, she has to know. She can feel it choke on her tongue, eyes already stinging with preemptive tears of frustration or relief.

 

Breathe in slowly, control it, breathe out.

 

“You didn’t– You never–“

 

Breathe in, hold, out.

 

“You never suspected I was Hydra? You never thought I couldn’t be trusted?” Her voice is high and tight, and she almost wishes she hadn’t looked up. Clint’s face just crumples.

 

Fuck, Tasha,” he says, pulling her into his arms, “No, fuck, of course not. I’ve always trusted you, I’m so sorry.”

 

She puts her arms around him, curls fully into his side. He’s murmuring and it feels weirdly soothing to let him take control. That’s not right, exactly. To let him look after her. Slowly, eventually, they lean back against the sofa together, her head resting on his shoulder.

 

“I thought my work at SHIELD was making up for all the sins and debts I owe, and then I found out I’d been serving a different master all along. SHIELD was one of the only things where I’d felt like it was a path I’d chosen for myself, and it killed to think I was just being manipulated again. That I was just working for the same people as before, merely under a different name. 

 

“Nick and Maria thought I might be Hydra, you know, after all these years and it was a whole new layer of betrayal. But I helped them, and I released all that data, and then suddenly the whole world had an opinion, from my barista to the Supreme Court. All the internet, all the world, looking and judging and seeing with such clarity the immorality of the things I’d done for SHIELD. For Hydra. Seeing the issue with all these missions I’d completed without even noticing something was amiss.

 

“I barely fit in SHIELD, I barely fit with the Avengers. I fit in Strike Team Delta, I fit with you, but mostly I just fit on my own. And that’s okay, that’s good, it’s just I want to feel like I have people. I want to have friends who would never need to question my loyalty, who just want to hang out and won’t fear the number of blades I carry, won’t have some hidden agenda. I want to have a home to come back to.

 

“I want to be the kind of person who gets to have that life.”

 

----

 

The day she gets officially recruited into SHIELD, Natasha Romanoff decides to learn ASL.

 

----

 

They do end up taking Lucky for a walk, but Natasha steers them back to Little Ukraine. It’s ridiculous that Clint’s still never been to her place, especially given the spare key she’s been carefully ignoring for months now. 

 

Clint doesn’t say, if he’s guessed where they’re headed, but as they stop in front of her building she hears him mutter, “Oh, of course.”

 

Ana sits on the steps with a cigarette, raises a hand in their direction as they walk up past her, raises both eyebrows at Natasha the second Clint looks away.

 

They get to the top floor, and she hesitates after unlocking the door. She’s so fucking sick of hesitating. Lucky barges past her legs, and she races after him, just in case he doesn’t get on with Liho. Clint follows, peering curiously, shamelessly, around the room. He drops to the floor to introduce himself to Liho, and she finds herself smiling helplessly as he vies with Lucky to shamelessly curry her favour.

 

She wanders over to the kitchen and puts the kettle on, gets ready two bags of herbal tea. When it’s done, she wanders over to the windowseat, and waits for Clint to join her. They sit in silence, drinking their tea, watching as Liho decides to curl up and take a nap on Lucky. The sunlight is warm, and so is Natasha, finally feeling more settled than she had since the Lemurian Star, since a warehouse in Russia.

 

“You can have a home, you know that right, Nat?” says Clint, voice too soft, too gentle. 

 

Natasha keeps her head bowed, tries to smile. Tries not to let the bitterness collecting in the back of her throat colour her tone. “I’m not falling for that twice, Clint.” 

 

She knows just where to hit, what to pinch at, how to strike. She tries not to regret her ability to always land a killing blow.

 

His breathing is too steady, too even, to be anything other than carefully measured. It’s as loud and as pointed as taking the pained gasp would have been. He’s so easy to read.

 

He’s so.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says, looking up to catch his eyes, “I didn’t mean it like that, you know I didn’t–”

 

“I know,” he says, and he sounds like he might actually believe it. 

 

They sit in silence for a few minutes, curled close enough to feel each other’s body heat.

 

“It’s a cute cat,” says Clint.

 

“She is, yeah,” replies Natasha, and he makes it a point to roll his eyes. 

 

It’s silent again, and she might as well ask. Might as well do all this at once. 

 

“Do you ever think how it might have been different?” she asks, and the vagueness of that makes him roll his eyes louder. It feels too quiet in the apartment to say out loud, so she signs instead, DIFFERENT IF I HADN’T COME TO YOU THAT FIRST NIGHT.

 

DIFFERENT HOW? signs Clint, eyes still arguably on their pets.

 

DO YOU THINK WE’D STILL BE FRIENDS? she asks, and he laughs out loud.

 

“Well, duh, Tasha. That was pretty inevitable.” He seems so self-assured, like no other possibility even occurred to him.

 

Well then.

 

DO YOU THINK WE’D BE TOGETHER? she signs, and feels how he doesn’t tense at all in such a way as to ensure she knows he wanted to.

 

He loops an arm around her shoulder after a minute or two, and she thinks she would like to be anchored like this more often. He is hesitating, and it’s curious. He never really hesitates.

 

“Do you ever think maybe you do have a home already, Nat?” he asks, voice careful but not gentle. He reaches out with his other arm, gently touches the arrow at her neck. His eyes catch hers, all nervousness and fear, and he must see something in her face because suddenly they are hopeful, they are happy. He offers his hand palm-up and she takes it, leans their hands on their legs and just takes a moment to enjoy the feeling of them holding hands. 

 

Her smile feels new, fresh, optimistic for the first time in a long time. 

 

“Yeah,” says Natasha, “Sometimes I think I do.”