The dust was still in the air, mercifully darkening the sun a bit, and the world outside of Stark Tower was loud. Natasha walked slowly along the sidewalk by the front entrance, alone for the moment, looking at the mess that had rained down on the world. There were police and ambulances everywhere, people talking, crying. No one looked at her. She was just another woman covered in soot and blood, one more upright person emergency personnel had to dart around to get to the wounded, and that was fine. She didn't want to be looked at, not until she'd had time to get her face on. Not until the time was right.

Just then she was far too tired to pretend to be anything other than herself, and with the weight of the world briefly off of her shoulders, she could not bear the weight of being seen for who she really was. That so rarely happened, and when it did, she found herself in situations like the one she'd just been in. She was hoping, though she dared not outright expect, that the world could only nearly end every once in awhile. She was in need of a respite.

She was a liar, a manipulator, a killer that moved in secret and silence, one not meant for warrior combat. But Loki, that God who had floated down from his place in the sky with more issues than even Natasha herself had and rained shit down upon the world, had compromised her. He had violated Clint, soiling and turning all the skills and secrets Barton held within him for his own purposes. Loki had stumbled upon her weakness in the mortal, manipulable form of Clint Barton, perhaps not her only one, but one of the few that lived outside of her body, her memories. One that could be compromised without digging into the hardened shell of her own heart, though Loki had wasted no time doing that, either. Loki had seen Natasha for who she really was through the eyes of Barton, and without the rose tint of friendly affection and excuses that she knew Clint saw her with. Loki knew. Loki had used that knowledge. And for that, she had gone to war.

Loki, outside of his God status, was not special. Not really. He was but another man just like a million others she had met in her life, one that had been broken, one that thought he was entitled to more than life had seen fit to hand him and was dangerous enough to do horrible things to see that he got it. Natasha understood his sentiment. There was a part of her that would always relate, but that part was but a voice in the back of her mind now, lost in the cacophony of voices that signified all the women she'd been in her life. The Asgardian had nearly wrecked her world and destroyed her best friend in one fell swoop, but Natasha was realistic enough to know that he would not be the last to attempt such horrors. He had not been the first, after all.


The voice was soft and masculine, directly to her right, preceding a set of quiet footsteps falling in with hers. She didn't have to turn to look at Clint to know it was him, but she did anyway. She couldn't stop herself from looking at him, from checking again just one more time that he was really himself, that he was really okay. He pretended not to notice and didn't meet her gaze in return, which she appreciated. If he looked at her too long just then, when she was not ready, not whom she had to be to survive, she might do something silly like cry or laugh or ask if she could hold him. She was dead tired. Her thighs and neck and fingers ached from strain and tension, and all she wanted to do was sleep. She felt desperately close to needing something to lean on, despite the fresh tang of supposed victory, and he was the only person she could trust with that. And still, knowing how much she trusted him was a comfort that would forever come with the bitter reminder of knowing that as long as she did, she was vulnerable.

She knew he would oblige her without question in anything she asked for, though she wasn't strong enough just then to ask for anything she really needed, and Clint, as brave and good as he always was, was probably too tired to give it. It took more effort, at least for her, to ask for something than to give it. That was the way it was between them, for both of them. Always ready and willing to give help, never ready to ask for it themselves. Who between them was the lonelier of the lone wolves? Except, as long as either of them were around, they weren't alone. Not at all.

"Hey," she said in reply, her gaze returning to the sidewalk as she kept on walking, slow but straight.

"I guess we're going for food," Clint continued, and Natasha found the urge way deep down, somewhere that wasn't tired and staggering, to smile faintly. Ah, right. Tony's request.

"Good," she said. "I'm starving." That was a lie, but she said it because Clint would want to hear it. She did not want to eat, but it would make him feel better if she did.

He sighed, the weight of it indicating pending conversation, and she came to a stop at the end of the sidewalk to listen. He stopped too, the familiarity between them hanging like a sword over her head. "Tash," he started, but she nodded her head slightly, barely noticeable, and he went quiet. He was looking at her then and, out of the same respect he'd shown her earlier, she feigned fascination with the wreckage on the street and let him look his fill without looking back, allowing the hawk to check for himself that she was really okay without outwardly acknowledging his need to do so.

"Yeah," she said, answering his unasked question out loud, because even if it was a lie, she was sure with some rest and some food she'd be alright soon enough. She always was, and Clint deserved the comfort. "You?"

"Yeah," he repeated, telling her the same thing in just as few words, and thus letting it drop. He leaned his shoulder, steady and warm, against hers. It wasn't blatant as it could be, or as comforting as it could be, as nothing between them was. But as always, it was enough to get her by, enough to give her the desire needed to take on the next task. She would always be a fighter in her own way and with her own methods, but she could go to war when there was something or someone else to protect, because it was all she could do. It was really all she had to offer. Loki had been right. Her ledger really was gushing red, and she had but one way to wipe it clean.

"Food," she said, turning back toward the tower, steadiness to her voice, the straightness of her spine. She could find her game face once more.

"Sleep," Barton said, sounding as weary as he had to be. "And maybe a shower." They were walking shoulder to shoulder, and both pretended not to notice.

"You're getting old," she said, and didn't mean it. That lie gave her the urge to turn and smile at him, faint and teasing. A slice of normalcy from one royally fucked up pie.

"Yeah, and you look like shit," he replied, plucking a piece of something or other from her hair and throwing it to the ground. He smiled back at her, though, genuine and crooked, his eyes dark and sly as a fox's, and that was what she wanted. Until the day she died, she would carry the memory of utter horror upon looking into his cloudy gaze and not seeing a sign of a man she considered a brother within. But she'd gotten him back, hadn't she? A good thing, too. Natasha endured despair, though she was not built for it.

She laughed then, more at the joy of having her best friend back than the joke itself. The noise was hoarse and unpracticed, thick from all the dust and smoke in the air, but real enough, and just for him. "Thanks," she replied, and that she did mean.

Her shoulder momentarily leaned just a bit heavier against his, unconsciously letting him take a bit of her weight with one step, taking on just a bit of his with another, their stride rocking back and forth as they made their way down the street in companionable silence. And despite all her earlier fretting, it wasn't so bad. The world didn't end because she allowed herself to lean in a moment of exhaustion, and for that she was grateful. Even the loneliest of the lone wolves couldn't do everything by herself, not all the time.

Today had been proof positive of that.