By the time Natasha gets the assignment, she's been riding a desk for more than a month. She's requested that her image be removed from the media footage of the Battle of New York, refused to take any credit or participate in any subsequent Super Family activities all in the interest of preserving her ability to do covert ops. But it hasn't worked out that way, field work drying up faster than she could imagine.
Today she's pretty certain that there's absolutely nothing the world could throw at her that would increase her irritation beyond Stark Cleanup Paperwork levels, but the minute she reads the file that's landed in her inbox, she feels the muscles in her jaw tightening even further. If cabin fever stress actually makes her teeth fall out of her head, she is going to murder every single bureaucrat responsible and some of their first-borns as well.
She skims the file most of the way through once and then again, letting her anger cool and congeal into an argument she can articulate with words rather than violence. Then she picks it up and marches straight into Maria Hill's office.
"Absolutely not," says Natasha, slapping the cool manila folder down on the edge of Hill's desk. The breeze from the movement stirs the other papers there.
Hill raises an eyebrow, unimpressed by her attempted show of intimidation. "It's not a request."
"And I'm not doing it." Natasha crosses her arms and rocks back on her heels.
"The Council feels that the Avengers are a liability," Hill answers crisply, repeating the words that are inside of the file like speaking them aloud might somehow make them less completely inane. "Especially now that Stark's got them all holed up in the Tower, and especially considering his recent run of astoundingly bad judgment. We need someone on the inside to report back. Prevent further incidents."
"Have Agent Barton do it," Natasha pronounces tartly. "He already lives there. And he is still technically on your payroll, is he not?"
"Technically he is a consultant only now," says Hill. "Which means that he lacks adequate security clearance for this assignment."
Natasha refuses to react to this news, though it's a surprise to her that Clint has left regular S.H.I.E.L.D. employment altogether in favor of the Avengers. He is a gaping hole in her life; she hasn't spoken to him in nearly a month.
"You requested more undercover work," Hill coaxes, pushing the file back toward her. "Consider this us granting your request."
Natasha grits her teeth, not quite ready to surrender yet. "This isn't what I meant and you know it."
Hill smiles pleasantly in response. "I know this isn't what you wanted. But you can either take it or another group of new recruits to train. Who knows. Maybe it'll be fun."
Natasha's first impression of the Tower is that it's loud. Very loud.
Tony Stark meets her at the door, which is more than she's expecting, honestly. She wouldn't be surprised to be greeted and shown to her new (temporary, she will not think of it as anything else) home by one of his abundant robots. He's distracted, though, clearly trying to get through any obligations which require him to act like a decent human being as quickly as possible.
"This is the main level," he says, as they come off the elevator. "Master kitchen, full service bar, and recreation rooms. Designed to be the awesomest dorm you never had in college."
"Great," Natasha answers flatly. From a work standpoint, this will be an important area to observe the team, she thinks. The thought of spending time here couldn't be any more irritating.
"You could have gotten us both killed," she hears Steve say, somewhere out of sight in one of the many rooms branching off the long carpeted hallway.
"But I didn't." Clint's voice comes from the same vicinity, but it hits Natasha like an upper cut to the jaw, makes her feel naked and vulnerable in a way that she tries to avoid at any cost. Of course he's here; it isn't like she hasn't expected it. But hearing him now after weeks of radio silence, hearing him sound perfectly fine—tone filled with the easy irreverence that first broke through her defenses—makes her want to go and find him and take him down all over again.
"It doesn't matter," says Steve, sounding vaguely irritated. "We're supposed to be a team and you made a bad call."
"But we won!" Clint insists.
Tony comes to an abrupt halt in front of another set of elevators, and Natasha catches sight of the other men suddenly in her peripheral vision. Steve and Clint are sitting on an over-stuffed sofa, videogame controllers in their hands. And that's what they're arguing over, she realizes. Not a real mission, nothing life or death. She is definitely going to kill them both personally.
"Earth to Agent Romanoff," says Tony, and he's staring at her. "You listening, Nat?"
"Don't call me that," Natasha snaps.
Tony grins. "That's how I knew you weren't listening."
Natasha has lived at the Tower for two days by the time she sees Clint again.
She has almost certainly been neglecting her duties on this assignment, splitting her time between the gym and her own suite, avoiding communal spaces and social activities like her life depends on it. She knows she's supposed to be fitting in here, supposed to be fraternizing with the others and gaining their trust so she can write her inane reports detailing who leaves dirty socks in the gaming room (Tony) and who's the most likely to set the kitchen on fire (Clint, probably).
It ought to be simple, just another piece of another cover, like she's done countless times. But never before has she been so reluctant, felt so twisted into knots.
She's in one of the training rooms, stretching against the unfamiliar give of the mat when the door opens. Clint only takes two steps into the room before he pauses, but she recognizes the sound of his step beyond a doubt, would know it anywhere. When Natasha turns, the surprise in his face tells her that he hasn't expected this moment any more than she has. She watches as he silently considers turning around and leaving again, then decides to stay and confront her.
"Heard you moved in," says Clint, the tension around his eyes belying his attempt to sound casual. He crosses the room to stand in front of her, a few feet away, a fathomless distance that would have been comfortable, once. "Need a partner?"
He means for her workout, she knows, and maybe he's even trying to be charitable. But all she can think about is how he's thrown out the words like a blow, because he isn't her partner anymore, isn't even her colleague, technically. She doesn't respond with words, just strikes out with her left fist, finding empty air as he dodges.
He punches the way he shoots arrows, two quick jabs followed by a hook, smooth and exact, no hesitation. It's predictable, though, and Natasha blocks it easily.
"Were you planning on telling me at some point?" asks Clint, side-stepping a roundhouse kick which even she has to admit is rather sloppy. "Or were you just gonna haunt this place like a ghost?"
Natasha throws another kick, followed in rapid succession by a right elbow jab that actually makes contact with his side. Clint grunts in pain, though she's pretty sure she hasn't hit him hard enough to actually break his ribs.
"I don't know," says Natasha. "Were you planning on telling me you left S.H.I.E.L.D.?"
Clint scoffs. "Maybe if you'd answer my calls occasionally."
She backs up as far as she can, gathering momentum with a forward run before launching herself into the air and landing on his shoulders, taking him all the way to the ground faster than his noise of shock can echo off the walls. It's a particularly brutal move, one she's never used against him without warning, but in this moment it's immensely satisfying.
"I've been working," Natasha answers flatly, then turns and escapes the room before he can get back to his feet.
The laundry room at the Tower is just as ridiculous as every other part of it. Not so much the washers and dryers themselves, though they're the shiniest, most recent models, of course. The really unsettling thing is the fleet of robots designed to do every boring task from cleaning toilets to pressing suits. They're like tiny mechanized minions, and Natasha doesn't trust them for a second.
There's a soft sound from behind as she's pulling a load of clothes from one of the dryers, and she whirls around, reaching instinctively for the gun that's usually at her hip. But of course it isn't there now, because she lives in a building full of freaking superheroes and that's one argument she isn't willing to have with their incredibly paranoid leader.
She brushes off the momentary confusion of grabbing thin air and looks up to see Bruce standing in the doorway looking sheepish and incongruous with a laundry basket in his arms.
"Sorry," he says quietly. "I didn't mean to startle you."
Natasha pulls a pair of gym shorts from the dryer and folds it quickly down the middle. "Most people wouldn't be able to. Maybe you should consider a second career in covert ops."
"Right. Me undercover, in constant danger. That would go well." He runs a hand through his hair, making it stand up at odd angles like he's stuck his finger in an electric socket. "I was just going to grab my things. I'll come back later."
"Don't," says Natasha, moving over to give him space to fold.
Bruce says nothing further, just moves to stand next to her, opening the other dryer. Six months ago she would have let him leave and been glad, would have been filled with apprehension at the idea of having him stand within arm's reach of her, doing something as mundane as attempting to shake out a hopelessly wrinkled dress shirt. But it was never the speed or the strength of the Hulk that she feared, she realizes. It was the unpredictability, the erratic desperation of a mind possessed by a monster.
"I get it, you know," she offers after a moment, pairing socks.
Bruce looks up. "What?"
"Losing control. Being triggered. Hurting people who don't deserve it. Sometimes friends, even." She meets his eyes, driving in the weight of those words with the slow pressure of her gaze.
After a moment he nods once. "I guess you would."
It isn't the reaction she's expecting. This is the moment when she realizes that Stark hacked all of the hard drives on the Helicarrier months ago, which means that he knows not only all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s plans for the Tesseract, but the details of her past life as well. And yet he hasn't said anything, hasn't yet used any of her many secrets as a weapon. No one here has.
"I'd tell you it's not your fault," says Natasha, "but I wouldn't believe that either."
"You don't have to tell me anything," Bruce answers, but some of the tension's gone out of his posture. There's a new lightness in the way he's looking at her sideways.
She folds a final t-shirt and drops it into the top of her filled basket, kicking the dryer door shut again. "So. Is laundry therapeutic, or did you do something to piss off the robots?"
Bruce laughs. "They suck at laundry. I keep telling Tony to fix the sorting algorithm but, well." He holds up another shirt, clearly stained pink from a previous washing. "And what about you?"
Natasha smiles back at him. "I don't like to depend on anyone but myself."
"Steve talks in his sleep," says Clint, the next time he finds her in the gym.
This time Natasha's stretched out on the mat after a particularly brutal solo workout, attempting to meditate the anger that hitting empty air has stirred back into submission. It's been working pretty well, at least before he showed up and ruined the effect.
"Also, Tony never puts the toilet seat down," he continues, refusing to budge when she sits up and glares at him. "But then, none of us did until you showed up and broke through the Testosterone Barrier." \
Natasha resists the urge to get up and tackle him again or simply leave without another word. She could do it; there are men in the world who've lost fingers for less. But this is Clint, and she feels his presence like gravity drawing her inward, just as strongly as that first day when she decided to risk her life for a second chance.
"And why, exactly, should I care?"
Clint shrugs. "Just thought you might want to put it in your report."
She gives no outward sign of surprise, no indication that he's on target. He's testing her, she thinks, by making an assumption and watching her reaction. Still the thought crosses her mind that he's actually broken into her things; there is no privacy here.
"What report?" she asks, without missing a beat.
"The one you're writing," says Clint. "You know, for S.H.I.E.L.D. About all of us."
"And why would I do that?" Natasha clasps her hands behind her back, arching until she feels her spine crack, though there's no satisfaction in it this time, no release of tension.
"Because you're a spy, right?" he bites back. "Most important thing in your life. So why else would you be here, unless it was to spy on all of us?"
"Don't flatter yourself," says Natasha. "You're a superhero now, aren't you? The whole world's got their eyes on you."
"And yet here you are," says Clint. And then he becomes even more a stranger before her eyes, features hardening from bitter bemusement into something colder, more dangerous. "If you do anything to jeopardize what we've got here, I swear to god…" But he can't finish the threat, leaving a space for her to fill.
Natasha gets to her feet and assumes a familiar defensive posture, ready for a fight. "You came here for a workout, right?" She would welcome the opportunity to hit him again, to throw punches where she would have put her faith, once.
But Clint only shakes his head, looking oddly sad. "Came here looking for you. And no thanks. I only spar with people I can trust."
She finds Tony in the lab, tinkering with something that absolutely can't be another Iron Man suit, because he's sworn those off last she heard. Only it's made out of shiny metal, and the piece in his hand has bits that look suspiciously like fingers.
"That didn't last long," Natasha says, and allows herself a moment to feel smug about the way he jumps in response.
"Not what you think," says Tony, putting the thing down. He doesn't even sound like he believes himself, sighing resignedly before she has a chance to say another word. "How am I supposed to be an Avenger without the suit? I'd be a sitting duck on missions. I need a suit."
"A nuclear deterrent?" Natasha raises an eyebrow at him.
Tony has the dignity to wince at that, just a little. "Why are you here, Romanoff? I know you didn't come to chat. And if you just wanted to spy, I wouldn't have the pleasure of knowing you were here. So what's your play?"
"You stole my personnel file," says Natasha, cool and quiet like the blade of a knife.
"Hacked it, technically," he answers smoothly. "If I'd stolen it, the original wouldn't be there anymore, but it's still on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s hard drive. You can check if you want to."
"You read it," she presses, leaning toward him, which usually makes people back up a foot or two. "You showed it to people."
Tony just stares belligerently back at her. "Yep. Months ago. Wanted to know about the weapons S.H.I.E.L.D.'s developing. You're one of them, aren't you?"
"You read my file and you showed it to people," Natasha repeats, slowly. "I'm going to kill you. Very painfully."
He does the absolute last thing she expects: Tony Stark throws his head back and laughs, honest amusement, not mockery, not a show.
She thinks about all of the things in this room she could use to cause him pain, but she needs to understand first. "What?"
He shakes his head. "I'm sorry. It's just—you. Do you really think you're the only one here with a Tragic Backstory? You think you're the only one who's hurt people? How is it fair that Coulson gets to give out a handy-dandy primer with news articles on my weapons design and Capsicle's second coming? Video clips of the Jolly Green Rage Monster's destruction? Pictures of Bird Brain's turn in the circus? But you_—_You think you get to stay a woman of mystery?" Tony turns serious again, a hint of actual contrition in his eyes now. "Look. I'm sorry that I broke into your file. But sharing things is what you signed up for when you joined this team."
Natasha crosses her arms. "I didn't sign up for anything."
"Um, yes you did," says Tony. "When you fought with us in Manhattan? When you kept that portal open for me? You made yourself a part of this team whether you like it or not."
Natasha takes a few carefully measured steps forward, forcing Tony to back up until his shoulderblades are pressed against a cabinet. "If you breathe a word to anyone else, I will remove your fingernails one at a time. Followed by your teeth, your eyes, and everything else that makes you human. Don't think I'm joking."
"Duly noted," says Tony, but he doesn't look particularly concerned.
Clint is crouched on the roof of the Tower, bow cradled in his hands with an arrow nocked, sighting a shiny robotic target so small Natasha almost has trouble seeing it.
He doesn't hear her coming, she can tell by the sloping tension in his shoulders, unchanged as she approaches. It's a slightly windy day, all the noises of the city drifting upward from below, but ordinarily he'd be aware anyway, would turn around to look at her, or else hurry about the shot with a flourish, putting on a little show.
Natasha clears her throat, timing it to the instant before his fingers release, and he misses the target by more than an inch. It's so unlike him she might actually be concerned, were the sense of betrayal not so hot in her gut.
"Losing your touch?" she asks spitefully. "Better be careful. What kind of superhero will you be if you spoil your one useful skill?"
"Ouch." Clint straightens but he doesn't put his bow down. "Come to throw me over the edge?"
"You left," says Natasha. Because she's tired of waiting for him to say it, because there finally seems to be nothing left between them but bitterness and ash.
He tries to brush it off. "I think of it more like a promotion."
"Right," she snaps. "Congratulations. You've moved on to bigger and better things. Nevermind the fact that you threw away everything else in the process."
Clint throws up his hands. "Did you move in here just so you could punish me? This your idea of revenge? Because when I first heard about it, I thought maybe you'd finally decided to stop pretending I'm still the enemy. Guess that was stupid of me."
"You making a stupid assumption? What a surprise."
"Last time I checked, you were the one who went all radio silence on me," he says, his tone heavy with exasperation. "I get that you're mad, but I don't know what you want!"
"I want you to be there," snaps Natasha, acutely aware that she is out of control, showing him everything she would normally keep carefully hidden beneath the surface. But she thinks that he would see anyway, or at least he would have before everything went to hell. "There is one thing that I'm good at, and that's my job. But apparently I can't do it without you, and you left. Just threw away eight years together for videogames and robots and a spot in the secret superhero clubhouse!"
"Jesus, Tasha," he explodes at last, "what the hell was I supposed to do? Steve and Tony wanted me here. S.H.I.E.L.D. wanted me out. To everyone there I'm the guy who lost his shit. The guy who could lose it again. The guy who killed their friend. I can't take any of that away but at least here I can do something." He presses his lips together into a thin white line before he speaks again. "Would've thought you of all people would get that."
He turns and leaves before she has a chance to respond, a clear sign that he's in no mood to listen anyway.
It's well after midnight when Steve finds her in the kitchen, making a mug of tea. He's dressed for bed, but he doesn't look any closer to sleep than she feels. Natasha says nothing, simply leans back against the counter and watches as he takes two slices of bread from the loaf on the counter and deposits them in the toaster. His pajama pants have smiley-faced rainclouds on them, and she narrows her eyes. He looks so unlike Captain America right now that he could just as easily be a brazen kid with a toy shield.
"Trouble sleeping?" Natasha asks finally, when the quiet is starting to get creepy.
"Already slept enough for this lifetime," he answers over his shoulder. He pulls a can of mushroom soup from a cabinet and pops the top, pouring it into a bowl before sliding it into the microwave.
"You stole my partner," says Natasha, as the toast pops up and he lays it on a plate. She keeps her tone light, mostly, but the words still feel raw.
"Pretty sure that isn't how it works," says Steve, and leaves it at that.
She watches as he takes the soup out of the microwave and carefully drizzles it over the top of the toast. In this moment he looks very young, like he still has a lot to learn about living.
"Do you know how to make real food?" asks Natasha. "Things that are, you know, edible." Because she didn't once; there was a time in her life when food meant only survival.
"Sure," he answers, taking a bite. "Just seems like a waste, you know? All that effort for one person."
"But if you enjoy it, is it a waste?"
Steve regards her in silence that makes Natasha feel like he's taking her apart with his eyes. "You know, I know that you don't actually want to be here. But I hope you'll change your mind and decide to stick around for a while. There's a lot you could teach the rest of us."
Natasha snorts softly. "Captain America needs to learn how to torture and seduce? Pretty sure that would ruin your brand."
"No," says Steve. "But you're more than that. It isn't always all about guns, right?" He smiles in a way that's almost secretive. "We could use more of that kind of thinking."
The knock wakes her up less than an hour after she finally subdues her mind into sleep, and she's on her feet instantly, half expecting a legitimate emergency. When she opens the door, Clint is standing there, looking shakier than she's ever seen him.
"Please just let me talk for a minute," he says, before she can find the first word.
"Took you long enough," says Natasha, but she steps back to let him in anyway.
"I'm a disaster," says Clint, stopping so abruptly in the middle of her living room that she nearly runs into him.
"Well that was a given," she answers, but he looks so lost that it softens her tone, reminding her of his earlier admission.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. was the closest thing that I've ever had to a real home," says Clint, ploughing ahead like he doesn't dare give himself a chance to think twice. "And then I ruined it. I killed people, Tasha. Doesn't matter why. I wouldn't trust me either. But then Steve and Tony offered me an alternative. Something better, actually. I wanted to have a home here." He takes a long breath, suddenly remembering that he needs air. "But I never wanted to do it without you."
"You're supposed to be my partner. You can't have both." Now she's holding onto her anger by a fragile thread, but she'll keep at it until it snaps.
"Not at S.H.I.E.L.D., anyway. I could here."
Natasha shakes her head. "No, you couldn't. I can't—I'm not a hero."
"Yeah?" Clint smiles sadly. "You're more of a hero than I'll ever be. You saved my life, didn't you? At least a dozen times over."
She forgives him then because he actually believes what he's saying, honestly thinks that he deserves to be punished for the things that have happened to him. Natasha steps forward and carefully wraps her arms around his neck, a peace offering. Clint slumps against her, exhaling in a rush as he pulls her closer.
"God, I missed you," he says quietly.
Natasha tenses, thinks about pulling away then, thinks about calling him an idiot again and herself something worse. But he tightens his arms around her waist, a reassurance, not an intimidation.
"I thought I lost you," she accuses. "I got you back and then you walked away."
"Like that would ever happen," Clint says into her hair, then leans back a little to meet her eyes. "You know you're my best friend, right?"
It feels as though she's falling into his words, coming back to herself from very far away. And then Clint is kissing her, nakedly honest and so very different than anything she's felt before. It isn't the first time she's felt his lips on hers, but never before have the jagged pieces of her life seemed to fit with his quite so well.
"I'm sorry," she says finally, when he pulls away to breathe. "But if you ever leave me again—"
"Right," Clint interrupts. "Torture. Got it."
She kisses him again then, nipping his lip to punctuate her point.
"I don't need you to live here," says Clint. "Or be an Avenger. Or do anything else you don't want to do. I just need you."
She's about to agree, to admit it's temporary, just for the sake of an assignment. She's about to tell him that she'll be taking her things and moving the hell out of here as soon as possible. But then she thinks of Steve's blind faith in her, of Bruce's secret smile, and Tony's stubborn insistence that she is no different from anyone else here. It's the first time, she realizes, that someone besides Clint has seen her as anything more than a murderer, a monster, or a tool. It's a peculiar feeling, like someone's cast a light on all the shadowy corners of her soul, but it isn't an entirely bad one, either.
"I don't know," says Natasha, smiling at him for the first time in months. "S.H.I.E.L.D. wants a lot of intel on the Avengers. Might take me quite a while to compile my report."
Clint drops his head to her shoulder, laughing, and it feels like a resurrection.