It's another month later and there are aliens in New York.
Actually, alien, singular, when Natasha gets the call, but by the time she's on the scene there's at least six of them, and they're already multiplying at an alarming rate. She's not an alien expert - yet - but these things definitely aren't in the same league as the Chitauri; they're more like enormous, translucent slugs. People are screaming and running, though they barely seem to notice and are more interested in eating traffic cones.
But they are, officially, a threat. And, officially, the purpose of the Avengers is to respond to threats of a certain priority. And, officially, Tony, Bruce, Steve and Thor have no legal attachments or obligations to SHIELD, but that doesn't matter: if the city needs them, they'll be there. Natasha's sure of that.
What is surprising is how...natural it feels, fighting together. They've had plenty of team training days (the only condition Fury could, eventually, get all of them to agree on), but that doesn't mean anything; Natasha's trained with a lot of people, and in the field - when there's something to fight for - it's totally different.
But once they're together, all five of them, it feels...well, like a team. Steve's in full Captain mode, strategising and commanding them with an effortless authority - containing the slugs is priority, keep them away from civilians, then dispose of them however necessary. Tony actually listens to him, which is rare enough in training, but he's fast and agile in the suit, pinpointing where to strike. Thor's approach is more "whirl hammer, smack anything that moves", but there's no denying he's good at it, and between him and the Hulk - who isn't great at following orders just yet, but does at least seem to be able to distinguish teammates from enemies - it's turning into a very messy game of whack-a-slug.
Natasha's holding the fort; not too much collateral damage, a few crushed cars, a lot of slime, but no casualties yet. One of the things gets nasty when she corners it, roaring and spewing some kind of acidic substance; she shoots as she dodges, but the bullets go straight through it. Figures.
"Black Widow, do you need backup?" Steve asks over the comm.
Natasha's damned if she's going to let something that looks like what happened the time Clint's soup went wrong beat her; a couple of well-placed kicks later, there's a puddle of...something at her feet and they're done.
"No, I got it," she answers breathlessly.
When they reconvene, everyone's similarly splattered with the stuff, but there's a tangible feeling of triumph, as Thor claps them all on the back and Steve smiles, happier than she's seen him in a while.
"Great job, team," he declares, rubbing something out of his eye. "That was - we got them all?"
"All eliminated as far as I can tell," Natasha says.
"View from the top's all clear," Tony confirms.
Bruce - he'd shown up eventually, in pants that looked too big and a t-shirt clearly a size too small. Natasha isn't going to ask how or where he acquired them - glances around, taking in their slime-covered surroundings.
"I'd ask what happened here," he says, "But I'm not too sure I want to know."
"You missed a hell of a party," Tony tells him, faceplate coming down. Bruce gives him a sceptical look, and he adds, "But don't worry - the other guy had our backs. Looked like he was having fun, actually."
Bruce smiles faintly, says "I'm glad someone is," but, Natasha can't help noticing, he's looking a little pale.
"Anyway, I don't know about you guys, but all that amateur fumigation's made me hungry," Tony continues. "Anyone for shawarma?"
Natasha's too busy trying to pick an enormous glob of she-doesn't-want-to-know-what out of her hair to tell him that wasn't even cute or funny the first time, but Thor is already nodding enthusiastically.
"Of course, it is only right we should feast after our glorious victory!" he beams. "And this shawarma - it is your Midgardian tradition, is it not?"
Tony runs with it, of course, pointing at him and nodding. "Yes, Thor, yes it is. Only the really traditional way is to eat it standing on your head while whistling the national anthem."
Thor tilts his head like he's considering this, and Natasha manages not to let her lips twitch as she shoots Tony her "really, but really?" look. Steve looks like he's caught between admonishing him and trying not to laugh.
Then Bruce keels over, and before anyone can react Thor lunges to his side, hooking an arm under his and hauling him upright. Natasha automatically does the same on Bruce's other side, frowning as Thor bends to peer anxiously into his face.
"My comrade - Bruce - are you hurt?"
Bruce waves him away, and he's at least conscious, if a slightly alarming shade of grey. "No, no, it's okay. I just get a little...dizzy sometimes. Afterwards."
Tony and Steve's expressions have both turned serious, and Steve takes a decisive step forward.
"Alright, we need to get you to..."
But his next words are drowned out as - coming seemingly out of nowhere - a crowd of paparazzi descends on them, all shouting and clicking their cameras.
"Mr. Stark! Can we just get a quote regarding..."
"Captain! Hey, Cap! Would you say that the country is currently in a state of..."
"Thor, speaking as an extradimensional being, are you able to tell us if the creatures we saw today are..."
Natasha blinks as the flashes bombard her, and although keeping Bruce upright is foremost in her mind, the thought that these people are photographing her makes her feel a little sick. Her, without the protection of any disguise or alias, and that's going to have repercussions, who knows what anyone could potentially uncover...
She has to reluctantly admit they're lucky that Tony's had a lifetime's practice at situations like this. He steps forward, so the suit effectively blocks Natasha and Bruce from view, and announces, "Folks, the Avengers are not able to comment at this time, but let me assure you, the city is safe, and so are your vegetable patches. Now, if you'd excuse us..."
He turns back to Natasha, voice low and urgent. "Get him to the Tower. Take a cab, tell them to bill me, whatever. We'll provide a distraction."
Natasha nods, and Bruce straightens up, but he's still unsteady on his feet . Tony looks at Steve.
"You want a ride?" Despite their best efforts, the crowd's still there, still flashing away, and - okay, Natasha gets it.
Steve looks more than a little doubtful, but his expression turns considering as he looks over at the crowd, then Tony, then back to the crowd and...
"Sure," he decides eventually, as though acknowledging the potential for disaster, but resigned to the fact it's their best option. "Let's do it."
Tony grins as his faceplate slides back into place, and offers an armoured hand with a flourish. Steve rolls his eyes, but grabs it and lets Tony pull him in, to the obvious interest of the crowd.
"Gotta split, folks - you may want to stand back a little," Tony informs the press. Natasha, Bruce and Thor shuffle back, as Steve places his hands uncertainly on the suit's shoulders.
"You're sure this is safe?"
The Iron Man suit doesn't allow for expression, but Natasha is positive Tony's either smirking or pulling that faux-innocent face as he replies, "Captain, I should be insulted by your lack of faith."
Any response Steve might've had is cut off by an undignified yelp, as Tony scoops him up - bridal-style - and they shoot into the sky, leaving a flurry of exclamations and frantic camera-clicking in their wake.
A surprised laugh escapes Natasha, almost involuntarily - she's got to hand it to Stark, guy knows how to make an exit - but she spots a window of opportunity, and while the press are sufficiently distracted she tugs on Bruce's arm.
"C'mon - let's go this way."
Thor follows suit, and the three of them run for it down a side street. Their respective height differences turn it into more of an awkward shuffle, still linked together, and Bruce is weakly protesting that he's not dying, he can walk, guys, until finally a cab pulls up.
They pile in, Thor's head scraping the ceiling and Bruce sagging against Natasha's side as she tells the driver "Stark Tower, please. And fast?"
"Sure thing," he says, and his eyebrows shoot up when he catches sight of them while adjusting his mirror. "Hey, aren't you folks..."
"We have no time to spare for your questions!" Thor thunders - it's the only word for it - making Bruce wince, and the driver practically jump out of his seat.
"Ahhh - yes, sorry, of course, your - uh - Lordship?" he stutters, and puts his foot on it.
They seem to get there pretty quickly after that.
"I got to admit, you have a nice place here," Steve says.
He's standing by the window, looking out on the view from Tony's penthouse, the very top of the tower. Natasha's perched on the sofa next to Thor, and Bruce, as he's prone to, had disappeared as soon as they'd arrived, mumbling something about sleeping it off. He seemed to know his way around pretty well, so she left him to it.
"Thanks," Tony's behind the bar, busy mixing drinks Natasha hadn't had the strength to decline. "Though I seem to remember you calling it ugly before - not that I hold grudges or anything..."
Steve smiles, slightly reluctantly, glancing back at them. "It's growing on me," he admits. "From the inside, anyway."
"We did have to make a couple modifications, since you were last here," Tony says, coming over to place two tumblers - he hadn't actually asked Natasha what she wanted, come to think of it - on the coffee table before handing one to Steve and taking a sip of his own. "After Lo-"
He breaks off, and everyone freezes: the proverbial elephant in the room, but up til now, they've all avoided actually saying it. Too soon, too real, too sensitive a subject for Clint, and - well, no one even knew how Thor would react, and they didn't want to take chances.
But, as Natasha and Steve exchange wide-eyed oh shit looks, and Tony coughs and suddenly becomes very interested in the carpet, there's no visible change in his expression as he turns around to face them.
"Please," Thor says, carefully, "do not feel afraid to speak my brother's name on my account. I was here with you, I'm aware that...What he did was unforgivable. We can but only condemn it, and I do not expect any less, but I need no more to be...sheltered, from what happened, than the rest of you."
His voice is unsteady, but he smiles, and it looks out of place, almost painful. "I am simply happy, Tony, that you were able to rebuild this vessel. Truly a fine example of Midgardian architecture."
He turns away, takes a long drink, and as Natasha glances sideways at him she catches herself thinking, but lives aren't so easy to rebuild.
The thought sits uneasily, so she takes a sip of her own drink in the silence, raising her eyebrows as she recognises the sharp taste.
"Black Russian? Seriously?"
Tony smirks, evidently relieved for the change in subject. "Oh, c'mon - that was funny, right? I thought it was funny. Cause, you know, you're..."
Natasha just looks at him.
"No? Okay, fine, just...Oh, JARVIS, how is Bruce doing, by the way?"
"Dr. Banner's vitals are quite stable, sir. I estimate he should be fully refreshed within the next hour," the smooth British voice replies.
"That's great," Tony says, as Thor and Steve glance around the room in confusion, almost simultaneously. "Oh yeah, right - Cap, Thor, JARVIS. He's my AI. Artificial intelligence. A really smart computer?" he offers, presumably just in case they don't get it.
Steve nods, looking semi-impressed, and Thor looks slightly wary.
"A pleasure, Captain Rogers, Mr. Odinson. Sir talks about you often."
"Likewise, uh, sir?" Steve addresses the ceiling.
"JARVIS pretty much runs everything around here," Tony explains. "Takes care of the place, the suits...me. Sometimes."
"A full-time occupation, if I may say so, sir," JARVIS says, and Steve grins approvingly, a rare glimpse of his "the future is awesome" face. Thor nods thoughtfully, his eyes darting around for a second like there might be demons hiding in the walls, but then he seems to relax.
That's when something occurs to Natasha; something she's wondered about for a while now, but the right moment to bring it up hasn't presented itself yet.
"Wait," she says, and all eyes turn to her. "Is Bruce living here?"
Just for a second, Tony looks genuinely caught out, and something close to panic flashes across his face. Then he raises both hands in mock-surrender, irrerevent as usual.
"Fine, you got me," he says. "Maybe he's easily susceptible to sexy science. Erotic explosions, if you prefer. Or maybe we just thought he deserved to have somewhere where he wouldn't be a lab experiment, a guinea pig. Poked and prodded into one of your...monster cages."
His expression's turned accusing, as if anything Bruce has had to go through is somehow her fault, as if Natasha would have been complicit in any of that if she was in a position to be - she wouldn't, and she's certainly not about to let Tony Stark, of all people, guilt-trip her. But she doesn't like his obvious distrust, either.
Steve and Thor are quiet, looking between them like they're watching a particularly tense tennis match.
"This a problem? Are you gonna tell Principal Fury on me?"
Bruce living here explains so much, and it's convenient, and Natasha thinks that "Principal Fury" would be very interested in this news. She also thinks that, in retrospect, there's no way he would have stuck around, let alone agreed to any further involvement with the Avengers, if Tony hadn't offered. So, actually, from SHIELD's perspective, Stark's done them a favour.
But telling Tony that would be no fun, so Natasha just smiles, slowly, the way she knows freaks him out.
"I could," she says, sweetly. "But I could also - maybe - be persuaded not to."
Tony raises his eyebrows, clearly unsure whether she's serious. Natasha really does prefer it that way.
"You've been in my tower for, what - thirty minutes - and only just now you're blackmailing me? Getting sloppy, Romanoff," But there's a glint of amusement in his eyes, now, and her mouth twitches. "Name your price."
Natasha spies an opportunity.
"No more shawarma," she tells him firmly. "It tastes like ass."
"Seconded," Steve breaks in, and Natasha flashes him a conspiratorial half-smile as he joins them on the sofa. Tony grins, visibly relieved, and the tension palpably relaxes.
"Done. But you're the one depriving Thor of his chance to experience our tradition, by standing on his head and..."
"I suspect you mock me," Thor interrupts, but he's grinning good-naturedly. "And I expect only the finest foods your realm has to offer as recompense."
"That you shall have," Tony promises him. "Right after Bruce is done with his power nap. And then..." He glances out of the window, then back to them, with just a hint of uncertainty. "Getting late. Uh - superhero slumber party, anyone? Could be fun - we can eat, put in a movie, talk about boys, braid Thor's hair..."
His tone's as light and casual as ever, but he's talking just a little too fast, and hasn't stopped pacing the floor the whole time - Tony's nervous, maybe even scared of rejection, inviting them like this. Natasha can't help it; she's long since been programmed to pick up on the slightest signs of weakness. And then to move in for the kill.
She doesn't have nearly as much experience with helping, but Steve gets there first.
"I'm in," he says easily, and then, when the others look at him, quickly adds, "I mean, I think it's probably better that we're all together, for now. Security, in case there's another attack tonight and we have to assemble quickly. Plus," he smiles, "I could go for some food, too."
Tony stops pacing abruptly, and he blinks at Steve incredulously like that was the last thing he was expecting.
"You - really?" Then he breaks into a smile, surprisingly warm and genuine. "I mean - yeah. Exactly what I was thinking, security. We owe it to our public, right? Or something like that."
Thor nods, satisfied, and settles back, stretching his arms out along the back of the sofa. Natasha shrugs, accepts that resistance is futile, and sips her Black Russian. It's...really good, actually. The best she's had in a long time.
"Tell Fury I'm helping out with extra training," Tony informs Natasha, as he slides into the space on the couch between her and Steve like he belongs there. "Team bonding-slash-pop cultural education kind of thing. For the benefit of the Asgardians and the old folks."
He pats Steve on the arm, and he makes a noise that's sort of half-groan, half-laugh (it's maybe an 80/20 split), but doesn't push Tony away.
"But no one shall touch my hair," Thor declares, and he's still smiling, but sounds serious enough that Natasha's pretty sure not even Tony's going to push it.
"Of course not, buddy. That's fifth-date stuff."
And that, somehow, becomes their first movie night.
The funny thing is, it doesn't actually feel like that big of a change. Sure, she spends a lot more of her time fighting aliens and egomaniacal idiots with too much time and money on their hands (and that's just her own team...That's a joke. Mostly), but, well. Natasha adapts quickly. She's always had to.
She's still with SHIELD, but missions seem fewer, and she knows that's because they're wary of her being too recognizable now. Natasha's become a risk, rather than a dependable asset, and the first time she has that thought it just freezes her. She has to stop in her tracks, grab onto the nearest available surface, and all she can feel is it's out there, you're exposed, vulnerable, someone's going to find you, you'll pay for everything... - a swirling mass of dread in her stomach, and for a second she thinks it's going to rise up and spill out of her mouth in a more physical form.
Then she lets go, swallows hard, and walks briskly back to training.
It's a useful distraction, since after that first time - technically second, but first post-New York - she can't exactly explain it, but it feels like something clicks with the team. They're improving all the time, refining their technique, learning how to play to everyone's strengths and cover for weaknesses: if the threats are out there, the Avengers are damn well prepared for them. But it's not just that they're better in combat; there's a different atmosphere, a sense that everyone actually wants this thing - this team - to work. Because the world needs them? Because they all have something to fight for, something to prove individually? Whatever it is, it's an outlet, for Natasha's energy, because what she needs is to keep moving, to stay focused. And she's...well. She doesn't know where she'd be right now without it.
They even have a - well, it couldn't be described as a routine, because no one can ever predict what, when and where the next time they're needed is going to be. And they've all got their own things going on: Natasha has missions, Pepper drags Tony metaphorically (or literally, quite possibly) kicking and screaming to business meetings, Thor disappears sporadically, either, she guesses, to stay with his girlfriend or back to Asgard, Steve and Bruce tend to have less hectic schedules, but they fill the days too. It's not like they're together 24/7.
But they still get into a thing where, more often than not, they stay at Stark Tower after a fight, and it's...fine. It helps, Natasha thinks at first, that the tower's big enough for every member of the team to have a floor to themselves. She likes that, sometimes - the surroundings aren't exactly shabby, and it's somewhere that isn't SHIELD or the drabness of her apartment - but when they're together, eating or in the penthouse or Tony's extravagant entertainment centre, the company's surprisingly acceptable, too. They stick to the weekly movie nights, sometimes Clint comes over, and the first couple of times Steve and Thor actually go along with the pretext it's somehow educational for them. Then they just bicker about the movie choices, someone starts throwing popcorn, someone falls asleep on the couch and it just feels...easy. Comfortable, for once. Maybe even something she could get used to.
It can't be like that all the time; they fight too, inevitably. Steve yells at Tony for disobeying orders or putting himself at risk. Tony yells at Steve for not trusting him to know what he's doing and to "maybe consider removing that stick up your ass". Bruce rarely gets involved, for obvious reasons, but if she's sufficiently irritated Natasha will tell them both they're being ridiculous, and then everyone yells at her to stay out of it and then Thor yells at all of them for their "petty concerns", which as far as he's concerned don't matter as long as no one was harmed.
(Since he yells loud enough to literally make the walls shake, that usually shuts everyone up.)
The worst times, though, are when something does go wrong, when someone doesn't get there in time or misfires or makes the wrong call and innocents suffer for it. Those times, they rarely try to pick it apart or debate who's responsible or say anything at all; they just leave, stony-faced and grim, to deal with it in their separate ways. No matter what she does, Natasha's left with this horrible, achingguilt - all the things she should have or could have done - and it weighs her down and doesn't even really make sense, because she's done far worse in her time and barely given it a thought.
Maybe this is what it's like to actually have a conscience.
And maybe that's what's keeping her awake now, tossing and turning in a bed that's not technically hers, but she's slept in this room for a few weeks and some of her weapons are in here, and tonight it somehow doesn't feel right. It's too...soft, the duvet too warm and heavy, it feels stifling. Natasha eventually flings it off, collapsing back onto her pillow with a frustrated sigh.
"Ms. Romanoff, may I be of assistance?"
It's JARVIS, voice low and gentle, and Natasha sighs; she's not crazy about the idea of Tony's AI watching her, so to speak, all the time, but that's how it is around here, and sometimes it has its uses. Anyway, she's not going to be reduced to arguing with a computer.
"No, I, um, can I..." Her throat is dry; it comes out croaky. She needs a drink. "Coffee?"
"The nearest machine is in the recreation room. Three floors down."
"Thanks," she mumbles, and leaves, making her way down the corridor, into the elevator, down three floors into the rec room and seizing upon the first coffee machine she comes across like it is simultaneously her fiercest opponent and one true love.
Natasha's a few blissful sips in, sinking into the sofa, when there's a sudden whirring noise - kind of like a helicopter, but it's not quite right - outside, followed by a thud.
She frowns, automatically tensing, but there's no reaction from JARVIS or security, so it's probably just Tony testing out some new tech, or something. They don't keep regular hours in this team.
A moment later, though, the elevator pings, and Natasha turns her head as she hears footsteps approaching. Through the dim light, she can make out a glint of armour, then a familiar flash of red cape.
He strides in, and it must trigger something because the lights all switch on simultaneously, and it's bright, too bright. Thor freezes like he's been caught, and Natasha blinks dazedly up at him.
"Natasha," He looks surprised, and just a little guilty. "My apologies, if I startled you. I did not expect to find anyone awake at this hour."
"You didn't. I couldn't sleep." Natasha runs a hand through her bed-tousled hair, suddenly very aware that she's barefoot and bra-less. Thor's fully armoured up like always, but despite that, he seems...smaller, somehow. His shoulders slump, his cape drags in a way that looks miserable rather than majestic, and he looks exhausted.
"Are you looking for...a bed?" she asks tentatively, wondering if she should ask, but it's pretty late and Thor's probably not in the mood for interrogation, judging by appearances. It's easy enough to get mixed up which floor's which, so he could be lost, but Thor shakes his head.
"No. I just...I need a drink."
That, Natasha understands; she raises her cup in solidarity, and he finally smiles.
"You know what they say about great minds," she offers, as he follows her on the way for a second cup.
"They think alike."
Thor's attention is focused on the coffee machine, and for someone who doesn't have the best track record with breaking technology, Natasha's neverseen him handle something so gently. His large hands are so careful, precise, almost tender, as though he's preserving a precious artefact rather than making coffee.
It's so different from how he normally is that Natasha feels oddly caught out, when he glances up and catches her eye. The drinks are done, and he holds one out to her.
She nods a thanks, starts to ask "Do you want to..." - but Thor's already tipping his head back, and he pretty much pours the whole mug down his throat in one.
Natasha can't help wincing, though Thor seems fine, doesn't even blink. She knew he could drink the whole team under the table any day, but that...
"...wow, okay," she finishes lamely. "Guess you had a rough trip?"
Thor puts his mug down decisively, and immediately pours himself another. He doesn't look at Natasha as he replies, "It might be described as such, yes."
He doesn't elaborate, so Natasha takes her coffee back to the sofa, figuring Thor will talk if he wants to. If not, she's been on enough bad trips to know there's no point in pushing it - though somehow, she resolves, at some point, she's going to find out what or who's happened to bring Thor - Thor -down like this...Team solidarity, threat watch, whatever, it feels important.
Sure enough, he joins her after a few moments, sighing as he sinks back into the sofa with relief or despair, Natasha can't tell. She sips her coffee in silence.
"My realm does not feel as it once did."
Natasha steals a sideways glance, and Thor's staring determinedly straight ahead, avoiding her eyes. He never tells them where he's going, they never ask, it's kind of unspoken but acknowledged that Asgard is Thor's business, no one else's. She suspects sometimes that they're still struggling with the fact that it exists; Bruce and Tony for scientific reasons, Steve because he's barely had time to get used to the future on this planet.
"Not the grand homecoming you were hoping for?" she asks tentatively.
Thor shrugs. "It brings me great pleasure, of course, to be with my friends - my people - again. I need to know that they are well and happy, which, they assure me, they are. But I feel..." He pauses, frowning. "There is unrest. Ever since..."
"Loki," Natasha says it for him, because as much as she'd rather not go there, it's unavoidably where they're going. Thor's expression hardens and his hands tighten around the coffee cup.
"Have you seen him?"
The silence is ominous, and Natasha's mind starts to race with possibilities, none of them good - please say you didn't - because how's she going to tell SHIELD about this, what if he's...
"No," Thor says solemnly. "I am assured that he is contained, of no present threat - to any realm. But I know not where he is being held, or how. Father thought it best that I should not."
Natasha lets out a breath she didn't know she was holding, and silently thanks Father. She can't claim to be familiar with the Asgardian policy on interdimensional war crimes, but she can be pretty positive it's in the best interests of everyone in every damn realm there is to keep Loki as far away from Thor as possible. But judging from his expression, Thor may not see it that way.
"But you wanted to."
It's almost a question, so Thor can deny it if he has to. Natasha's not sure what kind of answer she's expecting, but she doesn't buy the opposite for a second.
Thor doesn't deny it; he turns to look her in the eye and says, seriously, "Natasha, I know how this appears to you."
She frowns, and is about to ask how when he continues, "You naturally suspect me of being a - double agent? You think that I would return to Asgard and betray the team - perhaps conspire with Loki in some way," His voice falters just a little at the last part. "But I can only promise you that..."
"I don't," Natasha cuts him off quickly. "I don't suspect that. Never have."
Thor blinks, and - the possibility has crossed her mind, of course it has. After all, if Thor's back in Asgard, "divided loyalties" doesn't begin to cover it; Natasha would never admit it but the thought of all those decades, centuries of history she can't even begin to imagine...well, family ties are powerful. If she seriously thought there was a chance Thor could turn against them, even just be influenced -especially if Loki was involved - they'd be in trouble, and she wouldn't take it.
But confronted with it - no, she realises, she really doesn't. Natasha's trained with Thor, fought alongside him, she's sat around the dinner table and taught him the finer points of grocery shopping, and he likes it here - seemingly more than anyone. He's eager to proclaim his adoration for the humble Midgardian pizza, happy to commiserate with Steve about all the stuff they don't get (Tony calls them "team culture shock"), loyal to a fault in battle, defending his teammates with the utmost seriousness even when their enemies are projections.
Besides that, Natasha knows a few things about successful espionage, and nothing about Thor suggests a master of deception; he's extremely noticeable, rarely discreet and has absolutely no poker face. Natasha's livelihood practically depends on the strength of her carefully neutral, blank expression; Thor doesn't have one, he's never needed one, because emotion shows right through his being. It drives him.
There's no drive right now: he just looks utterly miserable. It looks wrong on him, that pensive face, the defeated posture, and maybe it's just because she's tired of being distrusted all the time herself, but Natasha wants to fix it.
She looks him in the eye, nods almost imperceptibly, and Thor - he gets it, she thinks, because he manages a small but genuine smile, and relaxes, letting his head fall back to one side.
It's quiet, and Natasha thinks Thor's asleep for a second; his head is a few inches from hers, she can feel his warmth, hear his breathing become steady. It's strangely soothing, and she contemplates doing the same, just closing her eyes for a second...
Thor murmurs, "I can't make amends for what Loki - for what happened. Would that I could, but...it casts a shadow over both our realms. In the dark, when I am alone, I cannot but be full of regret."
He says it so calmly that Natasha's not sure she's heard right; she frowns at him expectantly, but his eyes are glazed over, dreamlike. He's not asleep - maybe he wants her to think that, but he's blinking, too fast.
"Make amends?" she demands, insistent enough so he has to raise his head to look at her. "Thor, you're not the one who has to make amends. You're not responsible for New York. You saved thousands of people. You shouldn't have to..."
This conversation feels familiar, too familiar; it's the one she had night night after night, for weeks on end: Clint, it wasn't you who killed those agents. You were mind-controlled, we never could have predicted - whatever your body was doing,you would never, could never have done those things - it was all Loki, and you know that. Everyone does - I know it, Fury knows it, Phil knew it...
It took a lot and even now, she doesn't know if Clint ever totally accepted that. Thor wasn't mind-controlled, he didn't kill anyone, but he's looking at her with the same expression, that blank hopeless disbelief, and Natasha recognises her frustration, the urge to shake him until he understands. Clint - Thor -nobody should have to live with that on their conscience.
Natasha doesn't realise she's gripping Thor's arm, metal armour cold and impenetrable against her fingers, until he blinks down at it, but she continues, "Listen to me - you don't have to answer for what Loki did. Whatever the history, it doesn't make you responsible. You didn't do those things, you - we -stopped them. Remember?"
Thor remembers - he has to - and his face furrows, like he's trying to believe her, like he wants to, but the light's not there in his eyes. Natasha lets her hand slide off his arm, into the space between them as she softens her voice, but can't quell the urgency.
"You're not him, Thor."
Like she's flicked a switch, Thor stills; his expression shifts into one of quiet contemplation, and he breaks eye contact to look down at his lap.
"But he is my brother, Natasha," he replies sadly.
Natasha doesn't say it - she doesn't share Tony's penchant for horrifically inappropriate jokes - but she can hear it in her mind, clear as anything, and suddenly they're back there. All of them stood around the helicarrier, the air thick with tension and fear, distrust and uncertainty. Two worlds facing off with everything at stake.
Thor's thinking the same, she knows it, because he adds, "Not in blood, I know. But - however much we will it to be otherwise -" he blinks, hard, "we are bound."
Something in Natasha's chest - her heart, she'd say, if she thought she still had one - aches sharply.
"We've all got pasts," she says softly. "Things we regret, want to wipe out. I guess yours is just a little more...recent."
Thor sighs, nods, but he still doesn't look convinced.
"Would that I could wipe it out," he says mournfully. "To feel the hate in my heart towards him, that you all must...That he evidently does, towards me. That sentiment should not betray the path that I have chosen..."
Natasha thinks on that for a second.
"I don't think so, actually," she murmurs. "That hate helps. It's...You hate all you want, but you've gotta know how to use it, to channel it. Otherwise, it just..." - so many times, so many people - "It burns you up inside."
If Natasha let herself, she could hate Loki, more than she hates anyone. For what he did to Clint, did to Phil, did to all of them and destroyed lives and changed everything forever. But her hate is useless now, it can't change anything, and holding onto it can only be destructive.
Thor's eyes widen, and maybe he doesn't hate Loki - loves him, still, in some hopeless unconditional way that Natasha's never going to be able to comprehend, she isn't going to touch the centuries of history there. But she doesn't have to.
"I..." He looks at her steadily, some kind of recognition dawning, maybe, Natasha thinks. "I understand."
Natasha, just for a second, lets herself remember Loki; she's pushed the memory away so many times he's like a malevolent ghost in her mind, but she remembers their one and only real encounter. How he used his words like weapons, softly spoken, dripping with malice and carefully calculated to hit where it hurt most.
She'd figured him out early on, knew just how to play it so he'd misfire. Loki thought he was unique, thought Natasha, at a glance, was weak; he'd had no idea how many times she'd seen the same. Had been the same - and that, she realises, is what makes her so positive that Thor's different.
"Good," she answers, and a ghost of a smile appears on Thor's face. "We know...the past doesn't matter now, whatever happened, whatever you feel. I -we know you're on our side. That's all that matters."
Thor uses words like he means them: usually loudly, sometimes clumsily, often ridiculously, but always with total conviction. And he follows through; if Thor says he's going to eat six boxes of Pop-Tarts, then he will eat six boxes of Pop-Tarts.
If Thor says he's got your back, then he has your back, and Natasha's never been surer of the fact than now, when he smiles properly, grateful, like she's just given him the key to life, or some really great food.
"Thank you," Thor says simply. "For believing in me."
He reaches out, puts his hand over Natasha's on the sofa between them, and squeezes it gently; it feels nice, warm and solid. Natasha's not naturally a trusting person - she's never been able to afford to be - but the feeling, devoid of suspicion...it's good, and she can't help smiling back.
"If you wanted to be in Asgard," she reasons, half to herself, "or anywhere else, with anyone else, you would be. But you're here," she waves a hand to indicate the tower, the city, the whole planet, "with me. With us."
It's not really that simple, of course: there's an intricately tangled web of history and secrets and lies and personality conflicts and trust issues, between the team and everyone Natasha has ever known. She knows that, but just for now, when the first signs of daylight are breaking through outside and Thor is, finally, starting to look like himself again, maybe it's enough.
"It is my honour, Natasha," he declares, "to have your trust. Both as a teammate and a friend."
Thor removes his hand from hers, but his eyes, Natasha swears, are sparkling,and she can't help mirroring his enormous, infectious grin. It feels like tension pouring out, feels too big for her face and okay, this is just getting ridiculous.
"Then I hope you know," she informs him, straightening her face into some semblance of composure, "that if you break it, I'll break you."
Natasha's completely serious, but somehow the threat sounds less convincing when they're sitting there and she's wearing an old oversized standard-issue SHIELD t-shirt and sweatpants and Thor's...Thor. He takes her at face value, though, nodding seriously
"I expect nothing less," he replies, and it collapses into a lion-sized yawn. Natasha understands; she feels like she could sleep for days now. "But - for now - I think I would go to my chambers."
Natasha doesn't need any persuasion, and they both get to their feet. The lights dim in their wake as they trail back towards the elevator, side by side.
"Would we meet like this again?" he asks, oddly hesitantly. Natasha allows herself a smile at his phrasing; it sounds like they're going to different worlds, not different floors. Although...
"That depends," She presses the button; Thor looks at her curiously as they wait for the elevator.
"On how long you plan on sticking around this time," she shrugs. Thor looks thoughtful just for a second, and then he smiles.
"I plan on staying in the realm where I am most needed, and the one it gives me pleasure to reside in."
It'd be a cryptic answer, in different hands, but luckily, Thor's got no poker face, and Natasha's not in any doubt of where he means. And oddly comforted by it, but she's not going to question that too much as the elevator doors slide open.
Thor gets in, but his face falls, and Natasha sticks her head in to observe the source of his dismay.
"This contraption..." he mumbles, face creasing in confusion as he regards the little lights on the side like they might bite him. He steps back, notices Natasha watching and offers her a slightly embarrassed - who knew that was in Thor's repertoire, either? - smile. "It may take some more practice."
Natasha grins wryly, and takes pity on him as she steps in to help out.
"Don't worry," she assures him, as the doors slide shut. "I got your back."
thank you for reading! for those asking, updates may be...infrequent (because RL things and writer's block sdfdgfgvbhjkl), but eventual! I WILL FINISH THIS THING. FOR ASGARD!
...as always, feedback is much loved and appreciated c: