It’s not a lesson she has down perfectly anymore. There’s more than one person in her life losing permanently would hurt, to a point that it would leave her crying when she was alone and walking around with constant pain in her chest. But even when she's no longer even afraid of that anymore, there aren’t that many of them.
She doesn’t miss Tony, for one thing. She’s not sure she would anyway. It’s not even that she doesn’t like him; she came to, in a way, by the time he retired from the Avengers. But if they hadn’t both taken their turns for the better in life he’d be exactly the sort of man she’d be seducing, and that has always made her too aware of his flaws. Combine that with her normal detachment, and no, she can’t miss him. Even when it falls to her to call Pepper to talk with her about the funding and the technology, because they’re still involved with that, and Pepper suggests they find a time when the three of them can do a call together, Natasha assures her there’s no need to try to juggle her schedule like that. She does say if it was ever convenient she’d like it, because she would, but she just doesn’t feel any need to hear Tony’s voice again.
She didn’t miss Fury, and she doesn’t miss him when he goes and disappears again either. She did grieve when she thought he was dead, but that’s not quite the same thing. There’s even a little relief, since he’s the one man in the world Natasha’s not sure she could get the better of if she was really determined to do it. Even if she had no interest in getting the better of anyone at the moment, knowing she could is still an instinctive comfort she can’t teach herself to not feel.
She doesn’t miss Thor. She regrets that, because she really does like him, but she still doesn’t.
The real shock to her is that she doesn’t miss Bruce. Within weeks of his departure days are going by where she doesn’t think of him once. It makes her wonder if she ever felt about him the way she thought she did, or if she had convinced herself she felt that way because she’d wanted to. When he still doesn’t make any attempt to contact anyone she does feel a little anxious, because in that situation no one wouldn’t, but she doesn’t feel any hurt to herself over it. With each day, she feels less regret that it didn’t happen. She knew all along she wasn’t meant for that kind of two-person love, and never will be.
Sometimes she thinks that if she was left alone in the world, the way she was for so much of her life before Clint brought her in from the cold, she would miss them all. But she isn’t.
Sometimes she also thinks she’d miss Steve, if they lost him. There were even a couple of times, in the months after S.H.I.E.L.D. fell and there were long stretches of time where the only person she stayed in contact with was Clint, that she did think she was missing Steve. Or maybe it was just Captain America she missed, that noble, righteous man whom she could trust to always know the right thing, to never give her orders she would be truly reluctant to follow, maybe just to be everything she wasn’t. It might well be Steve still being at the head of the group that’s kept her in it.
And with Clint no longer in that picture, and even Bruce not in it either, she and Steve become a lot closer. He does miss people, and not just the ones he’s lost recently either. They develop a habit of sitting down for coffee at the end of uneventful days, officially to discuss and share opinions on how the new team is shaping up, but they stay there much longer than it ought to take to discuss that. He starts telling her about Bucky Barnes, going into details she doesn’t think he’s shared with anyone before, and she sees him get more anxious with each passing month they can’t find a trace of him. He tells her what Wanda made him see, and how painful his own emotional reaction to it was to him. He tells her a lot of things.
Occasionally, when he’s doing so, he’ll pause, and it becomes obvious he’s giving her a chance to confide. She never does, though, and he doesn’t push it.
She can’t; she knows that now. She tried with Bruce, and instead told him the least of the reasons of her grief in life, the thing that happened to her when she had long been shaped into a monster already. She wonders why the sterilization was what Wanda focused on when she attacked her. Maybe the other woman couldn’t bear to have anything to do with the far darker corners of her past. She doesn’t ask her; they don’t have the kind of relationship where she can, and even if they did, Natasha’s not sure she’d trust her enough to be sure she was telling the truth.
She’s still learning to trust these new Avengers, even Sam and Rhodey. With some of them it’s easier than others. Sam she’s already known, and she knows him even better than he thinks; in his way, he’s even more predictable than Steve. She likes it when he smiles, and he’s got the ability to lighten the mood of the entire headquarters when he talks enough. Occasionally he’ll even join them at their coffee, sitting next to Steve and wisecracking whenever one of them says something especially morbid. She knows Steve is grateful for that, and it makes her grateful for it too. Even if she herself didn’t miss him if he ever went away, she’d be heartbroken for how much Steve would.
She thinks she’d trust Rhodey more if he trusted her more. But the truth is they’ve both got their prejudices. She doesn’t think she would’ve gotten along so well with Steve if he’d remained in the U.S. military after coming back. In the Red Room there were horror stories about American soldiers, often told by the other girls after lights out rather than the staff, though they certainly were happy to let them be told. Even when she knows most of them weren’t true, there were one or two that were, and that’s something she can’t forget no matter how hard she tries. There’s a chance Rhodey might retire out, Steve says; apparently the decision as to whether or not he’ll ever be a general has become political. But until he does, that stays as a barrier between the two of them. If nothing else, it means he’s only with them so long as his superiors like it; they could at any time order him to go somewhere else, and no one likes that fact.
And of course, Rhodey’s wary of her too. She supposes that’s understandable. He’s even hinted he once dealt with the results of her work during his earliest days, though he refuses to give her details. He wants her to remember which incident it was on her own, she thinks. She hates herself for being unable to.
Nobody trusts Vision entirely. They’re starting to, and they all want to, but when one’s first encounter with artificial intelligent life is Ultron, it’s not easy. He tells them he understands, and Natasha tries to believe him.
And then there’s Wanda. Steve comments to Natasha early on about how much the two of them have in common. “Her history is like a lesser version of yours,” he says. “Obviously she was much luckier than you, but that’s still there.” Hearing that makes Natasha envy Wanda. She doesn’t even begrudge her that she didn’t go through half of what Natasha did, though from what she has heard about what Hydra did, she still went through a lot. But when Natasha thinks about what it might have been like, at that time of her life, to have had a brother, someone like Clint, maybe, whom she knew would never betray her and would be there, his primary loyalty to her and hers to him, until one of them fell, she really does feel desperately lonely, even though that time’s long over anyway.
Even though she should know better, seeing where that got Wanda when she lost that brother. It’s been long enough that Sam and Rhodey and even Steve have started pushing Wanda to recover, to move on, to not be devastated anymore. Natasha wonders if she’s the only one who realizes that will never happen; Wanda won’t ever recover fully. She might patch her heart up best she can, and find other ways or even other people to make her life full and relatively happy, but it won’t ever be the same.
She’s not even trying right now anyway. She dedicates herself to their training with her eyes grim and her arms always tense; Natasha has never seen her fully relaxed. When she sees her in the morning, she’s started automatically checking her eyes, how many rings are around them, and whether there’s any indication she’s been crying recently. There is far too often.
She’s broached to Steve more than once her concerns that Wanda’s going to run off one of these days, and where that might lead them. “She’s not really loyal to us,” she’s said.
“I know,” was Steve’s response to those words. “And we can’t force her to stay here either. I suppose there’s a risk she could go and join forces with someone we don’t want having her help, but if that’s her choice…and as long as she wants to stay here, and do good, and save people like we saved her countrymen, she has a place with the Avengers.” It didn’t take to long for it to become clear to Natasha that this was one subject on which he wouldn’t budge.
She and Wanda aren’t friends, not even in the limited way she’s friends with Rhodey and Vision. They’re civil to each other, and Wanda treats Natasha with the kind of respect one would expect a new recruit to treat a superior with. But they never really talk about anything besides business-to ask her the question about the visions really is beyond impossible. Instead, she keeps an eye on her as best she can from a distance. As well as checking her state in the morning, she quietly listens to the remarks of the others about what she might have said or done, and notes also when Wanda is the first to leave a meeting, or when her response to something Steve or someone else says gets too emotional. She stops short of outright sneaking around and spying on her, but only because she’s sure that Steve would somehow find out, sooner or later, and that would truly make him angry, and it’s just not worth it.
The person she misses, of course, is Clint. Even though things really aren’t that much different than they’ve been. In recent years, since Steve became an active member of S.H.I.E.L.D. and even after the organization fell, they’ve been working apart more than together, keeping in touch via the phone. And now, in fact, Clint is actually emailing her more than he’s had, because there are baby pictures and videos to send. He also is asking for updates more. She gets the feeling that even if he doesn’t actually regret his decision to retire, because it really was the right thing for him to do, he’s still sorry he can’t be part of this next phase of the Avengers, can’t help guide the newcomers, even though Natasha thinks he’d be good at that, can’t face down whatever foe comes next.
And day to day, she doesn’t feel his absence that much. It’s when the days accumulate, and she knows he’s not going to walk in, or jump down from the roof, or just pop up in the middle of nowhere with that friendly smirk on his face, and she can’t hear his voice in person(over the phone just isn’t the same), or he’s never there training alongside her, or when they plan for missions she knows there’s no chance of him being on them anymore, that the itch starts to form under her skin. When she looks at Wanda, a woman who has lost the other half of her life and really has nothing of him anymore, she sometimes thinks she’s the one of the two of them suffering a lesser version of the same thing.
Eventually, it gets to be too much to bear. That’s when she asks for leave, and heads off to the farm.
The Bartons always welcome her, even more so than they did once upon a time. With three children in the house, an extra adult to help take care of them is always good to have around. And Natasha remains as devoted to Clint’s children as their parents are.
Even if Cooper doesn’t seem to like her as much as he used to. He denies it when Laura asks, but he’s always finding excuses nowadays if she wants to do anything with him, even suddenly developing an interest in his studies, which he never had before. She wonders if he’s read anything about her that makes him scared, though he denies that, too, when Clint asks the question. It’s a hard thing to deal with, something that makes Natasha aware, for the first time in her life, that she can miss someone even when she’s in the same room as them.
Lila scolds her brother for his behavior, and ultimately responds by smothering Natasha with affection. She joins her for her morning run, brings her lunch if she waits too long to get it herself, draws her picture after picture until Natasha has to tell her she’s not sure she’ll have room on the walls of her sleeping quarters for all of them. Lila then threatens to force Natasha to sit for a “detailed” drawing of her, one that will make her sit still for hours. “The ultimate painting of you,” she says.
Natasha doesn’t know how to tell her that the “ultimate painting,” as far as she’s concerned, is the much simpler one Lila drew of all five of them at the farm. The one she did after she asked Natasha about her family, and learned she didn’t have one. Natasha has even gone to pains to keep her hands on that one, even giving the U.S. government hell over it once, so she can wake up under it whenever she’s in her normal quarters. Although the girl does say she’ll draw another one when Nathan’s a little older, so it can include him.
As for the baby himself, that dirty traitor, he gets better as he gets older. Natasha doesn’t think she’ll ever be entirely comfortable around newborns, and she doesn’t want to think of how she’d react to his occasional screaming if his parents were anyone other than Clint and Laura. But he’s theirs, which means she’ll help feed him, and she’ll take her turn with diaper changes, and sometimes she’ll sing to him in Russian, the songs she’d learned as an adult because no one had ever sung them to her as a child. Sometimes at night she’ll dream his first word will be her name, even though now that he didn’t even get it, there’s no reason whatsoever it should be.
It’s strange that the most peaceful place she knows is one with three children, but it is. She especially feels it in the evening, after dinner, when usually Laura reads aloud to her two older children while Clint is washing the dishes. Mostly the books she grew up reading, edited to remove elements since deemed to be racially offensive(it’s kind of shocking how many there are; America is a land of fast-changing mores), though she intends to read them the entire Harry Potter series once she deems them old enough to handle some of the elements in the later books. Lila has taken to sharing a seat with Natasha, because of course she has, and Natasha sits there with the girl leaning against her and sometimes half falling asleep, and Laura’s voice combining with the crickets in the background makes her feel all is right with the world.
When at last the children are put to bed, and the three of them have talked until all their words are spent, one of them always asked Natasha, “Do you want to stay with us tonight?”
Sometimes Natasha says no, because she’s tired, or feels a night coming on where she’d be terrible company, or feels that night that she just can’t take such an offer from them. They say okay, and she goes to sleep in the guest room. But more often, she says yes, and they take her to their bed together.
Laura is fascinated with Natasha. It’s the exact sort of feeling that could only come from someone who lives her life close to superheros and hears continually about where they’ve been and what they’ve done, without having any real idea, at the end of the day, of what it truly entails to be one. It’s an innocence that moves Natasha, and when she once thought innocence never could. She’s also grateful for it. Not always; there are times when Laura’s questions and cossetting gets to be too much. Clint tells her he minds it less, since she does it with him even more, but she’s sure it might irritate even him once in a while. But when it’s late in the day, and Natasha is beset with a general tiredness of life that plagues her more than she likes to admit, and Laura sees and is there to hug her and tell her she’s an amazing person and how much she admires her, it’s a much-needed balm to Natasha’s soul.
Since Clint came home for good Laura’s even become more affectionate outside the bedroom. Even in front of the children, she’s taken to sometimes half-hugging Natasha if they’re standing or sitting somewhere close together, and if she’s certain they won’t see it she’ll even peck her on the lips sometimes. Natasha thinks it’s trying to make a statement, saying that even if Natasha is now the only member of the family not permanently part of the home, she still belongs to it.
In bed, she seems disappointed that at the moment Natasha isn’t accumulating any new scars. She lavishes attention on the old ones; she’s always had her favorites. She never loses the amazed look on her face whenever she gets an audible or visible reaction out of Natasha with her clever hands, even if it’s just a change in her breathing; she’s really good at listening.
And meanwhile, while Laura’s working on her, Clint will just hold her in his arms, kiss and caress her, and whisper to her the same thing he has ever since he came to understand her inner fears, “Always, Natasha. Always.”
>He hasn’t changed his behavior to her at all. He’s always kind, always caring, although always quietly demanding, in his way, insisting she be what she ought to. When they have a water gun fight on a hot day, it’s the rest of the family versus Team Delta, because they’ve squared off against each other twice in their life and that’s twice more than they would’ve liked as it is. They share their usual quips and their usual code words, although since Laura and the kids actually know one or two of those occasionally they fail.
Except sometimes, if Laura falls asleep before they do, which she often does, he’ll maneuver them to take her completely into his embrace, and he’ll ask her how things are really doing, about all the things they can’t tell even his family that can’t be properly conveyed over the phone, and sometimes, afterwards, his sleep will be restless. He always wears his hearing aids to bed when Natasha’s at the farm, even on nights when she doesn’t sleep with them, but it’s him who has the nightmares most often, waking both women, gasping out the names of them and of the children in terror, and it sometimes takes the combined and concerted efforts of both of them to calm him down.
The first few months, while Laura’s still breastfeeding, and Nathan’s waking them up regularly anyway, it paradoxically causes less trouble. But later, when the older two children are no longer used to sleeping through that, one night Clint’s loud enough it wakes up Cooper, and he wakes up the other two, and it’s only by some luck and some cleverness that Natasha avoids being discovered in the Bartons’ bedroom by their children that night. While Laura goes off to calm the baby down, Natasha ends up watching from the shadows as Clint recovers himself enough to tell his older two children he’s all right, daddy just had a bad dream, just like they do sometimes, but it’s okay, because daddy’s not afraid of bad dreams. Indeed, Natasha thinks, he’s not. It’s not as bad as it was after Loki, anyway.
She can’t forget the look in the children’s eyes, though. So much blind faith. She wonders how much pressure he feels to live up to what they believe of him, even now.
They’re also worried about her. Maybe about her losing Bruce, although they can’t be entirely sad she did, since had she kept him they would’ve lost this with her. She hopes they never have any idea about the whole possibility of running off that happened. Sometimes, after sex, if she’s not lying on her back, they’ll position themselves on either side of it and communicate in sign language where she can’t read their hands easily, and she’s also spotted them doing it in the corners of the house. At least once she has managed to catch Clint’s hands signing her name, and anyway, the way they always look at her when they’re doing it in bed says everything. She wonders why they even bother with the subterfuge, really.
Though Clint never really asks her how she’s doing. Even Laura gives up pretty quickly. They both know they won’t get an honest answer. It hurts them, Natasha knows. Sometimes she wants to tell them how much it means to her, that at least she can tell them more than she can tell anyone else, but when there’s still so much buried that words about will never pass her lips, she knows that won’t help much. But after their conversations, they’re always that much kinder, Laura offering to take the kids out when Natasha starts to look tired around them, or Clint offering to rub her shoulders when she looks tense, things like that.
Sometimes, for a very long time, Natasha has wondered what would’ve happened if Clint hadn’t already been married to Laura when he’d first gone after her and brought her back with him. She’s pretty sure he would’ve committed himself to her, and she doesn’t know if he would’ve thought of having anyone else, not when they would’ve been constantly together. It would’ve just been the two of them, him living without all the things he needed that Natasha couldn’t give him, up to and including his children, or being able to give all the things he needed to give someone that Natasha couldn’t take.
When she thinks of that, she is fervently thankful he found Laura first, and that the two of them have such a happy and fulfilling marriage, one big and warm and loving enough that there’s room to shelter her in it when she needs and feels able to accept that shelter.
When she heads back to the new headquarters, Steve is always full of questions of how the Bartons are doing, and the others ask them too. But she’s not sure how much any of them besides Steve really care; none of them were ever that well-acquainted with him. And then she’s back to being without him, to a world that’s left him behind. The traces of him seem to fade more every time. The first day back after a visit to the farm is always the hardest.
There are other people she keeps in contact with. Dr. Cho writes everyone from Korea, though she keeps her distance, trying to cope with what she suffered at Ultron’s hands(Natasha gave her Clint’s contact information, and she knows they’re in touch; she hopes it helps). Maria Hill comes in regularly, probably sending reports back to Fury, and Natasha seems to be the person she ends up talking the most with, far more than even Steve. She tells Natasha so much about the general events of the world that she doesn’t here about otherwise, that she’s pretty sure Hill’s in touch with some assets somewhere known only to Fury, but she doubts she could ever get her to cough up any information on them. This is especially true after the time that instead of coming herself, she sends a stout blonde guy who identifies himself as Andrew Keonig and carries her letter of introduction. There’s something about that guy that creeps Natasha out, though she can’t put her fingers on what.
Natasha has a few acquaintances of her own she doesn’t talk about to anyone else at headquarters, some of which she doesn’t even tell Clint about. The fellow survivor of the Black Widow program who was in S.H.I.E.L.D., currently doing freelance security work and occasionally using her emails to write long spiels about what she should do with her life now. The old woman she met in Budapest who seems like she’s going to live forever, and always has an opinion about everything. The Russian orphan girls she’s been quietly supporting from even before Clint turned her away from her dark deeds, and have always given her joy with their triumphs, and even their pitfalls, since they can overcome them.
And yet, somehow, in the evenings, after she and Steve have finished their coffee and everyone has fallen to other activities, when the others all go into their common rec room to unwind and further bond, Natasha feels reluctant to join them. Sometimes she forces herself to, and they never make her feel unwelcome, and yet still she feels a gap between herself and them, to the point she often leaves feeling frustrated. More often she goes walking outside, alone. She’s even considered moving her daily run to the evening, but that would remind her too much of certain kinds of runs taken by the girls in the Red Room, and she’d rather not think of that at that time of the day.
She likes the quiet of their new headquarters’ location. Not even the silence of the soundproofed sections of the old tower, but just the gentle sounds of nature and the occasional rush of the wind and the knowledge that there’s not much around but them, and a few highways, but it’s hard to escape civilization entirely in the modern world. It’s like at the farm, but when she’s there she’s always too absorbed in her company to have these kinds of moments.
Also, like at the farm, there’s relatively little light pollution, so the stars are very visible. The Bartons go stargazing as a family sometimes, but here, she likes to stargaze alone, just her and those distant lights. They now know theirs is not the only inhabited planet in the universe, and Thor(and Dr. Foster) have talked about some of the specific alien races that live around the stars they see. Back in the Red Room, Natasha once knew a girl who’d wanted, more than anything, to meet aliens. She didn’t survive long, and the first time the Bartons went stargazing on the farm after they learned about Asgardians, she thought of her, and unexpectedly broke down. When she told Clint and Laura why, after the children were asleep that night, they were sad and sympathetic, but she was still aware of how they could only understand so much.
What would that girl have thought about the aliens that had come to Earth so far? Would she have lamented that the first public contact with them had been their invading New York? She would probably have been happy Thor existed, at least.
But as for Natasha, she knows what she thinks of aliens. It’s the same of what she thinks of most humans. The ones who try to hurt people, she stops. The ones who can fight back against those, she fights with. And if any who don’t fall into either category ever end up on Earth, then it will be her calling to protect them along with the rest of the people on the planet.
That, she thinks when she’s alone, is the real relationship she has with everyone else. All the people she was once the threat to, first knowingly, and then later perhaps unknowingly, some of whom she destroyed, but the rest she’ll make her amends to. Changes of organization and location and teammates can never change any of that.
But Natasha Romanov is glad that, at least as much as may ever be possible for her, she doesn’t have to do it alone.