Natasha had suggested she wanted to go out tonight—or rather, that she wanted Melinda to come along with her somewhere she'd already planned on going—but the casual clothes she'd donned didn't seem particularly Natasha going somewhere. Jeans, her favourite black leather jacket with a thick sweater under it, and low-heeled ankle boots were off-duty-at-work gear for Natasha, not going-out-after-work gear, and Melinda raised an eyebrow as she appraised her.
"Coming?" Natasha asked. Her hair was back, too, brushed out straight and pulled up into a high ponytail.
"Where are we going?" The worst part about it, maybe, was that Melinda felt overdressed. Expecting a holiday party, she'd worn a dressy blouse and tailored black pants. Heels.
She wanted jeans and flat shoes, now.
"You'll see," Natasha said, no doubt intentionally painting her voice with that mysterious tone.
Melinda's eyebrow slid higher.
"Trust me?" Natasha asked.
She let Natasha help her into her coat. "I do," she said easily. "I just feel overdressed."
Natasha looked down at herself, then looked at them both side-by-side in the hallway mirror. "You're fine."
Melinda wasn't all that convinced, but maybe it was better she be overdressed than under, given that she didn't know what Nat had planned. She followed casual Natasha down to her car.
When Natasha pulled up at Stark Tower, flashing a card outside the gate and then submitting to a retinal scan that let them into the private garage, Melinda was the slightest bit grateful Natasha hadn't let her change.
"You know," she said, keeping her tone conversational as an elevator brought the car up to a parking lot somewhere in the tower. "I think most people like to be forewarned when they're meeting their partner's friends."
"Are we dating?" Natasha asked. Melinda thought she might have stopped breathing, she became so still.
They looked at one another and, in the dimness of the car elevator, Melinda couldn't quite make out what was in Natasha's eyes. She could practically hear the wheels turning in Natasha's head, though, as she tried to figure out exactly how they had gotten here.
Melinda wondered it herself.
"You'll be fine," Natasha said. "We're late, they'll have started, and there are other people from S.H.I.E.L.D. invited. Maria will be there."
"Natasha. Are we dating?"
In front of them a door opened and Natasha changed gears, not speaking again until she'd pulled into a parking spot that had an hourglass painted, in red, in the middle of the space. Melinda didn't move when she killed the ignition. She didn't move when Natasha got out of the car and shut the door.
She didn't want to build this into a fight, but now that the words dating and partner had been aired, backing down without knowing where they stood didn't seem like it would do either of them any good.
Scaring Natasha off in the process didn't seem wise, though, either.
Natasha knocked on her window, and when Melinda turned to look, she found her standing just out of range of the door’s swing, holding out her hand.
Melinda opened the door a crack.
“I don’t know what we are,” Natasha said, with a little shift to her shoulders that looked like a helpless gesture. She leaned up against the side of the car, beside the opened passenger door. With her arms folded cross her chest, and her gaze pointed somewhere on the other side of the garage, she might’ve been waiting for someone, detached, not in the middle of a conversation that needed her care and attention.
They’d been together more than apart for the better part of the last month. Mostly working, certainly, and so much of Natasha’s time spent at Melinda’s had started off with them taking work home with them—but all the same. They’d all but been living out of one another’s pockets. If Natasha hadn’t given thought to what they were, she was willfully avoiding reflection on the topic.
Silence stretched between them. Melinda still sat in the car, but with her feet on the cement of the garage floor. Halfway out of the car, like Natasha was already halfway out of this conversation.
“There’s paperwork involved if we’re dating.”
Melinda had been about to give it up and let it drop, accompany Nat to whatever she had planned, and revisit this talk at a later date. Table it, as it were.
“I’ll get it pushed through,” she hedged. She thought they might be staring at the same point across the way: a pipe bolted to the wall that ended in a fire alarm switch.
When Melinda glanced upward, though, she found Natasha staring down at her, eyes wide.
“You really want that?” Natasha asked, her expression oh so vulnerable.
Natasha looked away as soon as Melinda’d said it, focus turning to the ceiling like she couldn’t bear to hold eye contact any longer.
“Okay,” Natasha said after a minute. And Melinda might’ve only had a good view of her chin and jawline, but she thought Nat’s expression turned contemplative.
Melinda stood up out of the car and Natasha leapt around, like a valet, and closed the door for her. She gestured for Melinda to lead the way to the elevator at the far end of the garage.
Halfway there, Natasha’s hand found hers and she entwined their fingers together. Melinda glanced over at her and smiled.
Natasha dropped her hand before the elevator doors opened to a noisy penthouse recreation area.
Melinda gave the room a quick once over, able to identify most of those present--most were Natasha's teammates, and the Avengers weren't exactly low profile personalities.
"Wait. Jarvis, pause."
The music ceased halfway through a butchered rendition of Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, without Melinda able to tell who'd been addressed or who'd turned it off.
Tony Stark crossed the room, all but stalking over to them, and pointed a finger at Natasha, stopping barely two feet from her.
One of Natasha's eyebrows slid up. "Yes?"
"YOU are late. And your plus one is already here." The accusatory finger moved from Natasha to find Barton, standing and looking unimpressed, with a microphone in his hand.
Oh. That explained the bad, unfamiliar rendition of the song. Karaoke. Christmas song karaoke.
With the Avengers.
"Barton's not my plus one." Nat sounded amused.
Stark looked stymied, and he spent a moment looking back and forth between Nat and Barton before he shrugged.
"Jarvis," he said, and again Melinda gave a quick glance around the room, looking for the addressee. "Why wasn't I informed that Agent Romanoff brought an uncleared person into the building?"
"Agent Romanoff has security permission to clear persons for the premises, Sir," said a cool voice. Melinda glanced at the ceiling.
"Done?" Natasha asked.
Stark looked, really looked, at Melinda now, and she raised an eyebrow in an imitation of Natasha.
"Melinda May," she introduced, holding out her hand.
He shook it without introducing himself, and now he was looking back and forth between her and Nat.
"J.A.R.V.I.S.," Natasha said, "You can restart the song."
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree started up again, from the beginning, and Barton's off-key singing resumed a beat later.
Natasha nodded them over to a place on one of the couches near Maria (who smiled at them) and Steve Rogers (who did lean over and properly introduce himself, though the karaoke nearly drowned him out).
"This is nice," Melinda admitted a few songs later.
Neither she nor Natasha had made motion to get up and participate, but watching the others enjoy themselves seemed to be relaxing Natasha some anyway. Her hand had found Melinda's back and she was running her fingers lightly back and forth across Melinda's blouse, just above where it met her waistband. She had her legs curled up, watching her teammates, and Melinda thought if she were more showy with her affection, she might have her head on Melinda's shoulder.
"You're up, Nat!" Barton tossed the microphone across to her.
Natasha caught it, looking sceptical. "I don't thi—“
"Don't think. Just sing." Barton wore a shit-eating grin. "I cued up a song for you." He looked at Melinda. "To do together."
All I Want for Christmas Is You started playing, the video playing on the screen, announcing that the lyrics were set up as a duet, and Natasha pursed her lips, looking like she'd eaten something sour.
Barton's grin got wider.
"Fine," Nat said, and stood up. She held out her hand to Melinda, but her gaze was locked on Barton, refusing to back down from the challenge he'd issued.
Unable to hold back her smile, Melinda allowed herself to be dragged into it.