Steve has reasons for not understanding Natasha Romanov.
He respects her – a lot, and in a weird way he kinda likes her. But he doesn’t understand her. She keeps too much of herself hidden from view, and the shifting surfaces she lets him see are always and forever only what she wants other people to know. He’s heard one S.H.I.E.L.D. agent compare her to a Russian doll, one of those ones that slot inside each other, but he knows that this is wrong. You can always find your way to the inside of a matryoshka doll. And… they’re too common. Natasha is all glimmering allure and heart stopping grace. No, a Fabergé egg is the only comparison, intricate gleaming colour, with the most precious parts hidden away and protected.
For one, he’s never been able to get a handle on her taste in books. Some days, it’s Dostoyevsky, or Harry Potter, or something in Chinese. (Or maybe Japanese. Or Korean. He knows he does not know the Asian languages well enough to tell.) Some days, it’s a fat historical romance that his mother might have liked. He does not know where she gets her books from, nor where she keeps them.
For another, she doesn’t like it when he sings. She doesn’t seem to mind the tuneless crooning that Barton will keep up for hours when they’re on a stakeout, nor Tony Stark’s drunken caterwauling. She definitely doesn’t mind Banner’s surprisingly mellow baritone. But when he starts humming to himself, there’s never any fuss or bother, but as soon as no one’s looking at her, she disappears.
For thirdly, when they spar together, it’s always personal the way it never is with his other team members. Or her team members? He… doesn’t like to hit women, a notion he was firmly disabused of the first time they trained together, and every week thereafter. He has learned that any time he thinks he’s winning, it’s time to watch out.
He doesn’t get her, because when she works, she is always and forever putting herself in a position where people beat her until they feel comfortable telling her things. He can’t imagine how anyone could hate themselves that much. But this one time, he wakes in the middle of the night, and remembers that he, too, does his job by intentionally putting himself in harm’s way. It takes him many hours to get back to sleep.
Because… she and Coulson and Barton have got a Thing, composed of quirked eyebrows, jerks of the head and elliptical city references, that turns into a freaky hive mind whenever it really matters, and the three of them just move; and it’s always the right thing to do when the team have finally got time to break down the sequence of events later. Actually, he does kind of get that, but the last time he trusted someone that much was seventy years and change ago. He doesn’t know what he’ll need to do to get that back with anyone. If he ever will.
Because, the one time he tried out the bit of Russian he’d picked up from the storekeeper on 3rd and Main, she blacks his eye and doesn’t speak to him for three days.
She lives on the base, just like he does. He tries not to get in her way.
This one time, he goes to visit her in quarters, and finds that her room is as bare and spit-and-polish as his. He ducks under the lintel before he cracks his head, and looks around. The only thing there not regulation is a glowing saint’s icon on the wall. He stares at the naked man surrounded by a halo of gold for a moment before he speaks:
“I got you some daisies. For your room.” His mother had liked daisies. There was nowhere here to put them. Idiot.
She puts her book down, Bede in the original Latin (he’s not surprised), and looks at him like he’s crazy.
He waves the daisies around, awkwardly, then lies them out flat on her desk and grabs the one chair in the room. “Mind if I sit?”
She watches him from her bed. “Would it matter if I did?”
“Of course it would. Look, Specialist Romanov, this is a bit of an awkward conversation to have… Are we good?”
Another look, the Why are you in my personal space? one.
“The relationship between us - working relationship I mean.” Stupid. “Sometimes I get the feeling there’s a, a coolness between us. And I just want you to know that I respect you, and your work, and if there’s something I can do to fix things, to let me know.”
And she says it’s fine, and he makes a hasty retreat, but he still feels that he’s dropped a catch somewhere.
The thing he doesn’t get about Natasha is that some days the work they do for the Avengers, and S.H.I.E.L.D., is horrific and it never fazes her. And only sometimes are they fighting alien intelligences, or madmen, or monsters. The rest of the time, it’s people doing awful things to each other, and sometimes it’s for passion, but sometimes it’s for greed. And on the days when he thinks he will never be able to scrub himself clean, he turns to her, and the look in her eyes is: Well, naïf? Do you really think you’ve seen the worst of it yet?
If Banner and Stark hadn’t been on the other side of the world, he would have made them take him out to a bar. He wouldn’t have been able to get drunk, but between Tony’s hyperactivity and Bruce’s congeniality, he could have pretended.
As it is, he’s standing in a dark room with bare feet, swallowing beer he can barely taste, and watching random advertisements flash up on a television screen. There’s a woman on the couch in front of him who wants to be alone, but he can’t quite face the empty spaces of his room yet. Then the television changes to some show about children, and he hears a muffled intake of breath, barely even a gasp.
He doesn’t even think. He’s on the couch and wrapping his arms around her before he remembers that they’re only this close when they’re trying to hit each other. But all she says is: “They were little girls…” and he buries his face in her hair, and smells vodka, and spices, and skin, and says “Shh.”
There is one thing that he does get about Natasha. Just occasionally, when it matters, it turns out she needs a hug just as much as he does.