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From her perch on the sofa, she hears his steps, unhesitating, on the stairs. She settles in comfortably with the tea she made and waits for him to walk through the door.

The key turns in the lock, the door opens, and Matt says, utterly unsurprised, “Natasha.”

She smiles. He’ll hear it. “Matt. It’s good to see you. Do you want some tea? I made a pot.”

He laughs a little as he puts down his briefcase and hangs up his coat. “Of course you did. Milk—”

“No sugar,” Natasha finishes, mildly insulted that he thinks he has to tell her that after all this time.

He’s actually closer to where the teapots sits steaming in the kitchen, but she goes ahead and pours the tea and milk anyway, supposing it’s only fair after she showed up in his apartment unannounced and uninvited. She hands him the mug, and he says, “Thank you,” takes a sip, and then goes into the bedroom to change out of his business suit. Nothing about to revealed contains any items or areas Natasha hasn’t seen before, but she remains discreetly and politely on the couch until he returns, dressed in jeans and a hoodie. He has also removed his glasses.

Matt takes the other end of the sofa and tucks his feet up under him like a much smaller person. “So,” he says, “you’re on the run from…well, I guess it wouldn’t be S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore.”

“Probably the remnants of HYDRA, but they’re in pretty serious disarray. And maybe the CIA, although Maria thinks they have bigger things to worry about, and she’s usually right. And hello, Natasha, so good you came to visit, how have you been?”

“I think I can answer that last question for myself,” Matt says. “But I am glad you came,” he adds, “even if I wasn’t expecting a guest.”

“You knew I was here,” Natasha points out.

“Sure, when I got to the end of the block. That dye is really strong-smelling—you went blond again?”

“For now. Shorter, too.”

She leans forward to let Matt brush his fingers over the ends of the bob. “Feels pretty even,” he says. “Did you do it yourself?”

“I did. It’s not bad, for a self-inflicted haircut. And I’ve some great hipster glasses: horn rims. I look like a Jersey girl who enrolled at the New School.”

“Skinny jeans?”

“Obviously.”

+||+||+

Natasha knows from previous experience that Matt can be inveigled to cook, but there’s very little food in the refrigerator: he wasn’t expecting a guest, after all. He does have wine. They order in Tibetan food—curried chicken and potatoes, chili tofu, an order of momos—and split a bottle of pinot noir.

When they’ve finished eating and are drooping contentedly against Matt’s wooden chairs, he asks, “So what’s the plan? Hide out for a while?”

“For a while,” Natasha says. “Not necessarily here, if you don’t want me. You may get some unwanted company of whom your coop board wouldn’t approve. There are some things percolating—I won’t be underground forever. But there’s a lot of dust that needs to settle.” She gives a different sort of smile, but she knows Matt can hear it in her voice as well. “You won’t even know I’m here.”

“I will,” he says. “But I don’t mind. There are some other people, however, who might want an explanation as to why a mysterious Jersey girl is staying with me.”

“I can think of any number of reasons, most of them unsavory.”

“Exactly. And yet you can’t just be my cousin from Topeka.”

“I don’t know,” Natasha says. “Do you have cousins from Topeka?”

+||+||+

They’ve known each other too long to bother with the you-take-the-bed-oh-no-I-couldn’t-possibly dance, especially since the light from the exterior sign really does make sleep uncomfortable for Natasha: she can do it anywhere, of course, but that doesn’t mean she likes to. Matt’s bedroom, cool and dark, with soft sheets and a heavy comforter, is much preferable.

They don’t touch more than incidentally, but his presence, his warm solidity and the smell of him, are familiar and welcome. Midway through the night, Natasha wakes to find that she has shifted up against his side, and she realizes that the drowsy clumsiness of Matt’s arm settling around her was what broke her out of sleep. She drifts back off.

+||+||+

The next day, she has some phone calls to make: Clint, Steve, Maria. Little news is to be had, but it’s nice to talk to Laura and the kids (Clint is at Home Depot gathering supplies to redo the back porch, which neither Laura nor Natasha was aware needed to be redone), and Steve seems to like it when she calls, even if there’s no information to exchange. He and Sam are on the road, and Sam is harassing him about going to see the world’s largest ball of twine. Natasha didn’t know there was such a thing. She encourages Steve to find out for her.

As much as she hates being cooped up inside, she’s wary of too much public visibility—New York is Avengers ground, after all. But in New York Natasha is also one of thousands of Jersey girls with hipster glasses, and she does venture out to the grocery store to replenish Matt’s refrigerator, which is just sad even for a single workaholic who fights crime on the side.

Natasha’s no master chef, but she can make a few things: Laura taught her banana bread and macaroni and cheese, Steve tutored her in his mother’s soup (which isn’t a recipe so much as a concept, because consistent ingredients were neither affordable nor accessible to them), Clint showed her how to steam vegetables and grill steak, and she even possesses, in an undisclosed location, the recipe for Nick’s grandmother’s red beans and rice. Natasha wishes she had that now: it’s savory, filling, and less complicated than you might think. But the recipe is in a safe-deposit box on another continent, so she opts for Sarah Rogers’s soup with bread that she buys at a bakery.

There was a time in her life when Natasha prided herself on her lack of domestic skills, but now she finds something satisfying in being able to provide sustenance for herself and anyone else she might choose, even if her repertoire is limited. But it’s growing, if slowly. Next time she’s in Iowa, Natasha thinks as she chops carrots that are, delightfully, purple, she’s going to ask Laura to show her how to make regular bread, the kind with yeast. That seems like it would be a useful skill.

When Matt comes home, he looks legitimately surprised, even though he had to have smelled the stock, vegetables, and meat long before he walked in. “I thought maybe I had developed olfactory hallucinations,” he says.

Natasha is a little offended. “I can cook.”

“This from the woman who nearly burned down International House?”

“That was one time.”

“One time seven hundred people had to evacuate into subzero weather, it’s true.”

“Shut up or you don’t get any.”

Matt smiles at her. “I did pick up some wine, just in case I wasn’t hallucinating.”

“It better be decent,” Natasha says grumpily, but she stands close while he ladles out their soup.

+||+||+

The next day she goes to the library. She thinks about going early, right as it opens, when it will be emptiest, but then rethinks: she’ll be more memorable as the first person there. She will not, however, be memorable when she shows up during preschool story hour and stays inconspicuous as one of the few patrons not throwing a tantrum or collapsing in paroxysms of ecstasy over the storyteller’s princess costume. She checks out four books, not a number that will stand out, and goes back to Matt’s, where she sits in the sun on the fire escape and reads while she eats jam and toast made from yesterday’s bread.

+||+||+

Some hours later, Natasha’s phone buzzes. It pulls her out of Jane Eyre—one of the first books Natasha read in English, which she was still learning it, and now one of her favorites. There was a part of her, Natasha later came to realize, that envied Jane’s fit of righteous anger early in the novel, and admired her ability and willingness to remove herself, even at great personal cost, from situations she found unacceptable.

Natasha’s pretty sure that’s not the message her handlers expected she would receive.

The text is from Matt. Have a job this evening.

Natasha replies, Does that mean I’m cooking for one?

Matt’s response: It means suit up if you want.

Honestly, it’s like he doesn’t know her sometimes.

Matt meets her at the apartment, where she’s putting on the last of the equipment she brought with her. It’s not full tactical gear, but it will do for most things short of a large-scale alien invasion.

“I don’t do guns,” Matt says as she buckles her thigh holsters.

“I don’t do dying,” Natasha says as she adjusts them into place.

He opens his mouth, no doubt to forbid her from coming, and she forestalls him with, “Do you really think I can’t just follow you?”

He grumbles and puts on his ridiculous body armor.

+||+||+

It’s a fight in the great tradition of them, as Natasha and Matt slam their way through a warehouse and into the basement, where the type of militia that usually restricts itself to Michigan and Texas has amassed an armory that could take out most of Manhattan, at least above 42nd Street. The thugs don’t like the idea of exposure or of losing their investments, and it’s a hard brawl, ferocious and dirty and exhilarating. Natasha and Matt get out just as the police are getting in, and the run through alleys and over rooftops back to Matt’s apartment is breathless and unrelenting.

They’re inside, Matt slams the door, and he pushes her against it at the same time Natasha pulls his mouth down to hers.

It’s fierce, rough, like the fight and the run they’ve just had. Natasha unbuckles the belt of Matt’s suit enough to find an opening and put her hand on him, and he pushes his gauntlets off so that he can sink his fingers inside her. They don’t even bother with the stupid helmet. She unstraps the holsters and kicks off her pants so that she can wrap her legs around his thighs when he lifts her. His cock inside her is delicious, thick and hot, and it doesn’t take either of them long to come: Natasha with her head thrown back and her nails scrabbling against the surface of the suit, and Matt with one hand buried in her hair and the other grasping her ass hard enough to bruise.

They rest there for a moment, panting, and then they really do need to do things like get Matt’s suit off and Natasha’s Widow’s Bites disarmed. Matt pauses as she locates, inspects, cleans, and resheathes each of her knives. “You had more of those on you than I thought.”

“Nothing like a good knife,” Natasha says, patting her favorite, and she folds them carefully away.

They shower together, although they really do comply with their stated purpose of getting clean: they’re very sweaty and a little bloody. Matt uses the same hippie baby soap he has for years, and though Natasha shudders to think what it will do to her already damaged hair, it does the job and has a mild, nearly imperceptible scent.

In bed, they settle against each other. Matt’s hands draw gentle pathways over Natasha’s skin, learning and relearning. He knows the story of the bullet scar on her hip, but the one on her shoulder is recent, and he outlines it delicately. “DC?”

“Yeah. Guess I better throw away my tank tops.”

“They’ll look terrible for sure.”

She snorts. “You sound like Steve.”

“I can think of far worse people to sound like than Captain America.”

Now that Matt has the body armor, he accumulates far fewer scars than he used to, and Natasha is pleased to see that the ones she doesn’t recognize all seem to be remnants of relatively minor wounds. She already knows the bad ones on his chest and sides, and even though she knows he’s better protected now than he was when he got those, she still can’t resist pulling him close, tucking him against her, as though she could protect him.

Matt cards his fingers through her damp hair, carefully unknotting any snarls, and says, “I like the red better.”

It pulls Natasha out of her worry, and she yawns. “Bleach smells awful, and it’s terrible for your hair. But it couldn’t be helped.”

They kiss, long and slow, and Natasha sleeps.

+||+||+

Matt’s alarm goes off the next morning, but he hits it and doesn’t get out of bed. “Saturday,” he mumbles, which Natasha hadn’t even realized. She hasn’t really been keeping track lately. He wraps himself back around her, burying his nose in her neck the way he likes to do.

They drift for a while, neither falling completely back asleep. The morning sunlight is warm on Natasha’s skin, and Matt kisses her nape and back desultorily, without apparent design or objective. His hands wander, too, and she shifts so that he can cup her breasts and run his fingers across the undersides and around the areolae. Finally she turns to rest a hand on the side of his face and kiss him, and Matt sighs like he’s been waiting for it. Maybe he has been.

She shifts again, and he rolls to his back, welcoming her weight. Natasha kisses him again, and he lets his arms sprawl above his head, a signal she knows. She laces their fingers together and presses his hands to the mattress lightly, just enough to let him know she’s doing it, and he arches up against her with a gasp.

She lets go of his hands to move down and take one of his nipples into her mouth. They’re incredibly sensitive, always have been, and when she uses her tongue and teeth, Matt squirms and his legs part. Natasha makes herself comfortable between them, and his hand falls tentatively into her hair. She teases his other nipple with his fingers, and he breathes out her name. He’s decidedly hard now, and she pushes back against him, drawing harsh breaths from them both. She bites and sucks until he’s shaking beneath her, and Natasha intends to keep going, liking the idea of making him come just from this, but he raises her head in both his hands and says, shakily, “Stop. I want to put my mouth on you.”

Natasha hauls him up and kisses him again, and says, “Yes.”

He reaches up for a pillow, and Natasha lifts her hips to make room for it. Never say he’s not thorough. He kisses the insides of her thighs and traces his fingers around her outer lips, enough pressure not to tickle, but lightly enough that it’s still a tease. Slowly, he runs his tongue around her cunt, and when she grabs his hair and gasps, “Asshole,” she hears him laugh. He kisses the top of her vulva, and then, finally, he licks very gently at her clit.

His hands don’t stay still, wandering to her breasts, her hips, her ass, and then back around to massage her labia. He sucks her clit into his mouth, and it’s all she can do not to scream, and then he slows back down like he’s got nothing else in the world to do. Natasha has one hand in his hair and the other fisted in the sheets, and she can hear herself panting with arousal. It’s been a long time.

His fingers circle her opening, and she spreads her legs wider to let him in. His touch is careful but sure, and when he rubs inside, she does scream. She comes like that, with his mouth on her clit and his fingers in her cunt, and then collapses supine onto the mattress. Natasha doesn’t always like kissing after oral sex, but she feels Matt deserves a reward after that performance, and she draws him close to lick the taste of herself from his mouth. It’s messy but not at all bad.

“What do you want?” she whispers to him, reaching down to wrap her hand around his cock. She runs her thumb over the head, slick with his precome, and he bites his lip. It leaves a mark she can’t help kissing, and then she asks again, moving her hand up and down the shaft. “What do you want, Matthew? You can have anything; you just have to tell me what it is.”

He drops his forehead onto her shoulder. His hips are following her hand, pulsing back and forth as she strokes him. “I want to fuck you,” he breathes out.

Natasha smiles. “Well, that’s convenient,” she says. “Because I want you to fuck me, too.”

She slides her leg over his hip and reaches down to guide his cock into her, and he makes a delicious little whine as he pushes all the way inside. He turns them so that Natasha is on top of him again, and he returns his hands to her breasts, then to her shoulders, her arms, her sides, her hips, touching all of her that he can reach. She’s just come explosively, so she’s in no hurry as she rides him, and she watches his neck arch and his mouth fall open as they fuck. He reaches down to stroke her clit, and she bends to take one of his nipples in her mouth again.

“Natasha,” he gasps, and she kisses him as he comes in long shudders beneath her and hot pulses inside her. She comes again, too, although less urgently this time, in slow waves like the ocean on a warm day.

He gathers her up against him, and they breathe together for a moment; then he pulls away, disentangling. It’s normal for him after sex: Natasha has never asked directly, but she thinks it’s so that he can pull his senses back together. After a minute or two, though, he turns back toward her, smiles, and runs his hand down her front from her sternum to her belly button. “That was fun,” he says.

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees, and turns over to curl close to him, not quite touching, in the covers. She could do with another couple of hours of sleep and then maybe some food.

He traces the line of her spine up and down, slowly. “You’re a complete stereotype, you know.”

“Because I’m a human being who needs sleep in order to function?”

“You need way less sleep than you act like you do.”

“And you need way more.”

Natasha wins the argument, because Matt stays in bed beside her, and after a while she hears his breathing even out, shallow and steady as he rests.

+||+||+

Later, in the afternoon, Matt is working, or at least typing, and Natasha is reading Daniel Stein, Interpreter, which is one of those novels she always meant to get around to reading and finally has time to now. It’s dense, with a multifaceted epistolary structure, and certainly not a quick read, but that’s OK—for once in her life, Natasha isn’t in a hurry.

Matt is wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants, which he has, as is habitual, tucked into his socks because he is a ludicrous person. Natasha is in one of his hoodies and a pair of his boxers, and she thinks it’s somewhat tragic that he can’t see her to fully appreciate how hot she looks. She pauses in her reading, gets out her phone, and takes a selfie, which she sends to Clint and Laura, and then also to Steve and Sam.

“Did you just take a picture of yourself?” Matt says without pausing his typing.

“They’re called selfies in the twenty-first century, and yes, I did, because somebody needs to acknowledge my hotness in this outfit.”

“Aren’t you wearing a sweatshirt and boxers that you pulled out of my clean laundry?”

“Yes, and I look extremely fine in them.”

“Of that I have no doubt.”

Matt sets his laptop aside, and Natasha puts down her book, and he’s crossed the small space between his chair and the couch to slide his hands up her sides and stop them at the divide of the zipper near her sternum. “It’s true that I can’t comment on how you look in my clothes,” he says, then notches the zipper down a little. “But I like how you smell in them.” He presses his mouth between her breasts. “And how you taste in them.”

He lowers the zipper a bit more, enough to nose it aside and lick her nipple, and Natasha is about to pull him down on top of her—which is when his phone vibrates emphatically and announces, “Karen!” followed by a text message: “Nook tomorrow, eleven, Foggy brings the booze?”

“The Karen you’ve told me about?” Natasha asks.

“Yeah. She, Foggy, and I have a standing brunch date every Sunday.” He pauses. “If I don’t go and I don’t have a good excuse, they’re likely to come pound on the door until I give them one.”

“Go,” Natasha says. “I’d invite myself, because I’d love to see Foggy again, but I think it’s best that he doesn’t know that I’m here and who I really am.” She’s met Foggy several times, but as Natalie Rushman and, once, Nathaniel Richmond. Foggy has a sharp mind and a good memory, but Natasha feels confident that, had he put it together, he’d have called Matt immediately and demanded to know why Matt hadn’t told him he was friends with secret agents. Foggy is smart, and kind, and impressively unsubtle.

“Will you be OK by yourself?” Matt asks.

“Can you feel the air move where I’m rolling my eyes at you?” Natasha responds. “As it happens, I have some friends I’d like to see, too.”

+||+||+

She texts Pepper, who turns out to be in New York with Tony and Bruce. She offers to send a car for Natasha; Natasha declines, though, not wanting to give away her location or Matt’s. It’s about keeping Matt’s secret, yes (Natasha is sure that Nick and Maria would be extremely interested in the devil of Hell’s Kitchen and the possible uses of his talents), but it’s also about keeping something for herself: in that respect, Natasha completely understands why Clint hides his family away in the Midwest. And there’s the simple matter of Natasha’s own security: S.H.I.E.L.D. was never aware of him in her life, and so now the Internet isn’t, either. She amassed a few refuges for emergencies, and Matt is one of them.

It’s about a twenty-five-minute walk from his apartment to Stark Tower, still too much even though the furor has died down. Matt goes to brunch with Foggy and Karen, and Natasha walks a couple of blocks up Tenth and hails a cab just like any other Hell’s Kitchen gentrifier. She looks at her phone the entire ride, pays cash, and tips unremarkably.

Tony, Pepper, and Bruce turns into Tony, Pepper, Bruce, and Rhodey when War Machine lands at Stark Tower for a surprise visit. They can’t go out due to Natasha’s little blown-cover problem, but that doesn’t matter when you’re Tony Stark and you can just tell your AI to order up a catered brunch, no problem. A few bottles of Krug Clos du Mesnil lead to the revelation that Tony had a surround-sound karaoke system installed during the repairs to Stark Tower, and that, of course, leads to an epic battle of song.

Pepper, unsurprisingly, owns “Independent Woman.” Tony and Rhodey have apparently duetted “Walk This Way” more times than any of them can count. Natasha hasn’t done karaoke enough to have any kind of signature song, so she tries a few different things, including a cover of “Mysterious Ways” that she decides she quite likes. She and Pepper also pound out an epic version of “None of Your Business.” Bruce steadfastly refuses to sing, but he referees.

Natasha returns to Matt’s apartment that evening happy and still tipsy. He’s sitting at the table with his laptop and braille terminal, skimming through articles on the New York Times online, and she kisses him loudly on the cheek, then flings herself onto the couch.

“Somebody had some champagne at brunch,” Matt observes. “And dinner. And everywhere in between.”

“If you were drinking Tony Stark’s champagne, you’d overindulge too,” Natasha says, burrowing into the cushions. After a few minutes, Matt rises and gets a glass of water from the kitchen, then brings it to her and sits down on the edge of the sofa. He lays his hand on her cheek. His fingers are cool. “Are you cold?” Natasha asks.

“No, drunkie, you’re just warm.” He brushes her bangs back from her face, and Natasha snuggles up against his leg. He keeps stroking her hair; it feels nice. She closes her eyes. Her equilibrium is a little off from the alcohol, but it’s not bad.

“Don’t you have work to do or something?”

“Not right now,” Matt says, and his fingers don’t stop their gentle movement.

+||+||+

The next day, when Matt’s at work, Nick Fury calls.

+||+||+

It’s not a decision, really. Matt would let her stay—for that matter, so would Clint or Pepper. But she never intended to live her life skulking around his apartment, or anywhere else. When he gets home, she’s packed most of her things, such that they are; she has also stolen his hoodie. It’s quite comfortable.

Just as when she arrived, he doesn’t seem surprised that she’s leaving. “You have bigger things to do,” he says—a statement, unoffended.

“The team’s getting back together,” she says. “I have to be there.”

He runs his thumb down her jawline, then traces the outcropping of her chin, the divot under her lips, the bridge of her nose, the arch of her eyebrow, and the plateau of her cheekbone. Natasha remembers standing very still, one night in an alley many years ago, and letting the man in what was then a makeshift mask explore her face with his light, evaluative touch. She still can’t say for sure why she allowed him to do that, only that she has never been sorry she did.

“Go save the universe,” Matt says, and kisses her, and lets her go.

+||+||+

Hours later, invisible in the sky in the helicarrier, Natasha stands on the bridge and watches New York disappear. The geometric lines of Manhattan’s streets become less precise and then blur into an amorphous gray mass; it, too, fades into its surroundings as the ship rises. She turns away from the windows and finds an unoccupied station where she can log in. There’s work to do.