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Salt of the Earth

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The beginning.

The road’s a little muddy on the edges where the pavement breaks up. Natasha closes the passenger door, stepping over a slab of ice trickling away into the dirt. On the other side of the vehicle, Steve is out and looking around, his breath visible from his nose in steady streams. The houses are small and close together, lined up down the street with their gardens bare. It’s quiet, save for some piano music floating out of a cracked window to the left. The hills behind are high and dark, abutting the far end of the town. The last building before the slope tops in a neat little spire.

A car rumbles up the road, much tinier than theirs and with scratches in the bumper. Natasha and Steve step off the pavement completely and wait for it to pass before crossing to the other side. There’s a woman in the front yard of one of the houses, knocking at the largest and most dangerous of the icicles with the handle of a broom. She’s young, barely an adult, and she stops and shades her eyes as Natasha approaches. Steve hangs back at the foot of her yard, and Natasha’s careful to keep her body language open.

“Good morning,” she says. “My friend and I need directions.”

The girl’s forehead furrows, just a little. “Yes, if I know what you’re looking for.”

Natasha makes a minute adjustment to her dialect. “A farm belonging to an old family. It might not belong to them anymore, but within the last hundred years.”

“You sound like you’re from this area.”

Lying is always too easy, particularly when Natasha doesn’t want to do it. But this, for once, will not be a falsehood. “I’ve visited.”

“Bykaŭ,” the girl says and Natasha blinks. “The farm. Bykaŭ is the family?”

“You know it?” The people in the last few towns have shown nothing but vague sympathy for a family farm they cannot place.

“Yes, it used to be very large. My great-grandaunt married a son of that family.”

Natasha glances back at Steve and finds him watching them both. She takes a breath, debates asking if others have been looking for the farm as well. But it’s too telling a question, and this girl doesn’t need that in her life. “Can you point my friend and me in the right direction?”

“Why do you want to know?” She only sounds curious, no caution in her tone. Natasha smiles.

“I have ancestors with the name. On my father’s side. I'd like to visit their old home. Show my…” She looks briefly back at Steve. “My family.”

The girl looks doubtful as she peers across the street at the car they rented in Homyel. “You can’t drive it, not in that. Someone here might lend you a car.”

“No, we don’t want to trouble anyone. We were planning on walking anyway.”

The girl studies her, then Steve behind her. “There’s another town. The farm is right outside it. Four days on foot.” She gestures to the climbing hills, and Natasha follows her finger. Above them in the sky, the first new flakes begin to fall.

 

1.

Steve zips out of his sleeping bag in the silver light of dawn. He dresses still lying down, arching into jeans and a shirt behind Natasha as she drowses, her knees tucked up to her stomach. By the time he's got his polar fleece on, she's awake enough to stretch her legs to the end of her mummy bag. She waits until he leaves the tent and zips up the door after himself, then crawls out of her bag and finds the ball of her clothing in the warm bottom of it. Double socks. Under-armor. Jacket.

They eat oatmeal with dried apricots for breakfast. Steve passes her a cup of coffee, black and strong. Afterward, it's his turn to dismantle the tent while she packs up the tiny propane stove and the rest of their gear.

By the time the sun peeks over the tree line, they're walking again.

 

2.

Natasha doesn't do GPS, not even Tony Stark's. At least, not on its own. The map is SHIELD-issued and she did her own background work on updating it, but some dormant part of her remembers this place, in liquid flickers like sunlight through leaves.

She stops at a fork in the trail and takes the map out of her pocket amidst the quarrels of birds above. The trees are deep and black, frosted white. She looks around, then tilts her head to the south, and Steve turns without a word, following her down a scree-laden slope toward what will soon swell from a trickle into a river.

Around noon, they stop for lunch. She and Steve pass jerky and mixed nuts back and forth. Steve's right cheek has a smudge of dirt in its hollow, making half his face look gaunt. Natasha runs fingers through her hair and snags on the tangles. It's warming up enough to make the back of her neck sweat, and she ties her hair up against her head with a bandana. When they are done eating, they sit for a while enjoying the view, and then keep heading south.

At twilight, Steve sets up the tent in a clearing bracketed by thick verge, overlooking the river's rush. Its banks are still rimed with ice, but the center churns, and a dense chill flows off the water. Natasha goes for firewood. When the fire is going at last, Steve has Cajun rice ready, and sliced tomatoes from the last village leaching juice onto their plates.

Eventually they crawl into the tent, undress in the dark, and fold themselves back into their mummy bags to sleep.

 

3.

Steve is a light sleeper. So is Natasha, but for whatever reason, she's slower to wake out here, less apt to leap into awareness. Maybe it's the clean air, or the steady hush of wind. Maybe it's the sensation of finally not being followed, which makes no sense; somewhere along the way, she forgot to tend to the wall she has long cultivated between herself and an indifferent world.

Maybe it's the fact that Steve is with her.

He gets up with the sun. Sometimes she sleeps through it, sometimes she listens as he pulls on clothing and laces up his boots at the tent's flap. She wonders if his shallow sleep is due to the serum, or because Tony's not beside him. It's hard to get used to someone sleeping next to you, and equally hard to adjust to their absence.

He's a quick hiker, sure about distance and direction when he navigates, but then, she expected no differently. As it is, they are taking their time, watching the scenery as much as the path underfoot. He humps the heavier equipment, strapped soundly to his backpack. They switch off with the tent. It hasn't gotten much use until now; before, it was bunk beds in hostels or cozy rooms in family-owned inns.

Steve’s hat is a woolen beanie doubled up over his forehead, covered by his hood when it snows. His gloves are thick and dark blue, skier's apparel. It's strange to see him without his shield. Intimate somehow. And less unsettling than she thought it would be.

Something most people don't know about Steve: he has a high metabolism and tends to eat plenty to cover it, but he doesn't actually need to. In survival situations, his food intake sucks down to the barest necessities and the serum takes care of the rest. Out here, he eats what Natasha eats, when Natasha eats, and doesn't suffer for the lack. His body makes shrewd use of everything it is given and wastes nothing. He truly is the perfect soldier.

On Monday morning, it’s oatmeal bubbling in the tiny pot again, dried fruit mixed in. It hits a spot that never exists when she’s in the land of plenty, and Natasha dips a finger into the corners of her cup to get at the last bit. They’re making a late start, for them, moving gradually through their preparations to leave. The snow came down thick last night and the tent is still partly buried, though the furrows are fast softening under the sun.

She gets up at last and stretches. Over at the tent, Steve is rolling up his mat and sleeping bag. Natasha waits until he grabs his toiletries, then crawls in and rolls her own mat, pressing out the air with her knees, rolling and pressing, until it’s flat.

When she comes back outside, pack over her shoulder, Steve is brushing his teeth. Natasha holds out her hand and he tosses the toothpaste into it. He’s just finishing when something buzzes, and he fishes his cell out of his pocket. He picks up with a tap of his thumb and puts the phone to his ear, looking out over the sparkling stretch of river. "Hey, good morning."

Natasha can hear a low murmur over the line. Steve's face breaks into a smile. "Still in one piece... Oh, did it? No, go ahead and open it, I know you're—" He laughs. "Sure, whatever helps you sleep at night, Tony."

He listens for a while, smile going soft and private, and Natasha likes only being able to guess at what Tony's saying. Not ever really knowing. A moment later, Steve glances at her. "Got directed through a village to the southeast. Old family farm. I think?" He raises his eyebrows at her, and she nods. "We're up in the hills for a few days to look around, then back to— Uh-huh. Yes, we are. With a tent."

Natasha leans in toward the phone. "He's not shaving," she calls. "Very mountain man right now."

Tony laughs out loud over the line and Steve grins.

"It’s not full yet. Will be by the time I get back. ...Oh, really." He pulls the phone a little bit away and rolls his eyes at Natasha. "Wants me to keep it till we're home."

"Of course he does," she offers. But the beard looks good. Takes away some of the boyishness still lingering in Steve's features and makes him more... Steve. A regular guy out in the woods. She doubts he'll keep it longer than their return, but for now, it's fitting.

“Listen—What?” Steve’s smile changes again, the one specifically for Tony. “You know I do.” He listens for a moment. “Oh. Fine, I can take a hint. Nah, she’s right here, hang on.”

He holds the phone out to Natasha with a grin. “He wants to say hi.”

“I’m sure.” She takes the phone, and as soon as she touches it, the very air changes. She brings Steve’s cell to her ear. “The hell are you doing awake?”

She can hear the alteration before Tony even speaks, the tension barely gripped. “Natasha—”

“Been meaning to tell you about this guy I used to work for,” she says, pleasant, smiling briefly at Steve until he turns back to his bag. “It was a few years ago. He was having a shitty night. Had me put makeup all over his face from my compact.”

She can hear Tony breathing, steadily in and out. “I’m listening.”

“There are things I promised him then. He doesn’t know it, but I did. I promised that he wouldn’t go into his world looking beaten down like that.” She lowers her voice, just a little. “That I would take care of what was important to him.”

She can practically hear his eyes sliding shut. “Natasha,” he exhales. “Did you know you promised?”

She weighs it, because he deserves that, and more. “Not then. But I’ve known for a long while now.”

He swallows audibly.

“It’ll be okay,” she murmurs. It feels oddly like a lullaby. “I swear it. On my life.”

She knows Steve can hear her. Tony knows it. But Steve lets them have it to themselves, because he’s a damn fine leader.

 

4.

Natasha's cell gets service, too; whatever satellites Stark Industries doesn't already own, Tony can reprogram in under a minute. On Thursday, she dials New York when Steve takes their canteens and the filter down to the water. It's a nice day, clear and cold. Natasha watches the fog of her breath as the line rings.

The first sound Clint makes when he picks up is a growl.

"Good morning to you," Natasha says.

"Still not speaking to you."

She sighs loudly for his benefit. "You don't even like Belarus."

Clint grumbles incoherently. It's not that early there, Natasha made sure. But she's willing to play today. The weather’s spectacular.

"You know I would have taken you," she remonstrates. "But that's not what you need right now."

Clint's murmur of assent comes in a completely different tone, and Natasha smiles. Thinks of Coulson. Wonders where Clint is right now, if Coulson is in the same room.

The last thing they needed was to be parted from each other so quickly.

"Besides," she goes on, smiling, "I wanted to show the good captain where I'm from."

"How's he doing?" Clint asks, quieter. Natasha rolls her eyes because Clint can always hear it.

"God, you and Stark. He's fine. There's this convenient thing he does, where he heals really, really—"

"Blah, blah, blah," Clint says over her, drawing each one out into an abrasive bray, and Natasha almost sputters laughter.

"Clint," she says, after a moment's silence. She can see Steve from where she stands, making his way steadily down the slope to the river's edge. "Don't worry. I'm watching out for him."

"He moving alright?"

"That I've seen." She doesn't tell him about the day before, when the scree and ice gave out under Steve's feet halfway down the hill in front of her, and her first instinct, almost before she comprehended, was to leap after him, yank him back and down, and search his body for injuries new and old. Make sure he was alright. His reflexes had, of course, righted him without pause: a swift jump to the left, out of danger. Still, for two whole seconds, her heartbeat had smothered her breath. She stares into the middle distance, mouth puckered tight, and the forest waves back at her, a lush dark roll of treetops. "I want kids, Clint."

Clint pauses interminably. "...And that is something we're discussing in great detail when you get home," he finally says, and clears his throat. "Tasha.”

"No," she cuts him off. But there’s something there, it’s… too wild a thought. She doesn’t even—never saw this coming. Never visualized the moment such a desire left her lips, but for the first time in years, she feels not allowed to indulge, but capable.

She barely recognizes herself these days.

Clint doesn’t say anything for a long while, and in the background, Natasha can make out other sounds. Traffic, maybe. Or the television. A voice, too low to determine the gender.

“So,” Clint says at last, a little too normally. “You finding what you went looking for?”

“Finding a lot of things.” Damn it, her throat has gone tight. She blinks rapidly at the sky overhead, and shakes out her free arm in a sudden unquenchable spasm. Clenches and unclenches her hand, and tries to push down the sudden, sheer need to have Clint in front of her. “Most of them not what I went looking for.”

“You say the word, I’ll steal Stark’s jet.”

She snorts. It mostly sounds deprecating enough. “If you can wrestle him out of the pilot’s seat.”

A pause. “Point. You should see him, he’s—”

“I know.” She takes a deep breath and everything tastes a little cleaner. Down the hill, Steve is starting back up, the canteens slung over his shoulder. She watches him. “I know he is.”

Clint’s quiet, and it’s comfortable, to sit with the sound of the river and the chirp of birds.

At last Natasha rouses herself. “Tell him next Wednesday. We’ll be home.”

“Will do.”

“And you.”

“Me.”

“Try to get something done while I’m gone?”

It’s been a long, long time since she’s known Clint was blushing. She takes the opportunity to laugh at his expense.

“Oh, shut up, Tasha.”

 

5.

The fire is high and warm, the darkness like a shroud around them. Across from her, Steve scrapes his spoon against the side of his cup. He looks like a Dickensian waif, bundled up, the fingertips cut off his wool gloves. If Dickensian waifs wore Gore-tex and were stronger than sin.

Natasha sets her cup of soup carefully on the ground, staring after it. Dragging every last second out. “I owe you an apology.”

All sound from his side of the fire stops. She can feel him looking at her. To his credit, he doesn’t ask her what it’s for, or tell her she has nothing to be sorry about. She’s known for a long time that he trusts her judgment, her assessment of a situation, but it can be startling to see how far that reaches outside of battle.

She takes a deep breath and lets it out, rubbing her hands once along the tops of her thighs. “I’m sorry. For not helping you immediately. For not going public for Tony.”

For Tony, but also for Steve. Because she has always backed Steve, ever since the Chitauri, always done exactly what he needed her to do to keep them all safe. She’s never questioned, and she’s never not acted immediately, until that day in the hospital.

“We had no right to ask that of you, Natasha.”

She looks up and he looks back. His nostrils flare, just a little, and he glances to the side, for an instant looking irritated.

“You were right,” he says, and the irritation fades into something sad. “Thor doesn’t understand that kind of existence. He likely never will. It’s not in his blood. He—we… had no business asking you to give up your sense of safety, or your sense of self. None of us know what it’s like, any of it. You were right to remind us, and to tell us where we could stick it.”

He meets her eyes again, and she chews at the inside of her lip. Wonders if they can conceivably stare at each other all night.

“It felt wrong.” It comes out much softer than she intended, and she doesn’t regret her actions, she did what she needed to do, but... “It felt… wrong. To not be there for you when you needed me.” It’s so shocking, how discordant it feels, how visceral her reaction to the idea still is. She became embroiled in this motley family without ever knowing it, until she was deep, deep in.

But he’s shaking his head. “No, I needed you to be you. The person I trust to have my back. To know when I’m overstepping my bounds, and to check me, without hesitation, when I inevitably do. I needed to not compromise or disrespect you by asking you to give up something so important.” He sighs, a heavy gust of air, and sets his cup down as well with an air of finality. “I owe you an apology, too. For the way I treated you. During the battle.”

His eyes are troubled, still sharply blue, and she shakes her head. “No, you considered my plan of action. You weighed its merits, and you dismissed it. Nothing to be sorry for.” Because if she has always backed him, it’s because he has always listened, without prejudice, to everything she has to offer. She trusts his ability to dissect a situation and find a way through, possibly even more than Coulson’s, and that’s a big gesture. Sometimes it still creeps up and surprises her, how big it is.

“I’m not…” His jaw works. “I’m not exactly unbiased when it comes to Tony. I try to be, I try my damnedest, but that day…” He shakes his head again and his expression shivers alarmingly. “I had to get to him. It had to be me.”

She lets the silence hang, looks into the fire and tracks a single tendril of flame as it morphs, joins with others, sways apart again.

“You know the first thing I thought?” she says at last. “That I couldn’t lose both of them. Not that Clint might be gone, or that Tony had done it. It was that I could not lose Tony, too. Something switched off in me. There wasn’t any room for emotion, just action. Just getting to him and taking him out of play before another one of ours was destroyed.”

Steve listens attentively, eyes fixed on her face. She draws another breath. “And then once— once you were gone and he was safe, I thought I would hate him. For killing Clint. I had fifteen whole minutes where I kept waiting for it to come. And then Clint walked through that door, and… You know, Clint’s my oldest friend? The others, they’re all gone.” Whatever others there might have been from that time in her life. The time of metamorphosis. “The possibility that he was dead should have made me so angry. But Coulson was still looking, and it was like I didn’t have to go there yet. One way or another… I think if Phil had given up, that would have been when it broke. For me.”

Steve’s eyes look a little far away. He wasn’t there for that. He was bleeding out in Thor’s arms, then on a gurney, while they all stared through a window and faced how helpless they really were.

“You were right, Steve.” Because she finds she’s not yet ready to voice the way it felt to see him slipping away from them with only a centimeter of glass in between. She nods when he looks her way. “The armor would have killed me. In seconds. Whatever your reasons, you were right to send me away.”

“Couldn’t let that happen. And—I couldn’t let him do that to you. You know what that would have done to him.”

She nods, and he sighs. “I can’t… put words to the way I feel about him.” It almost doesn’t sound like Steve’s talking to her, but then he looks her in the eye and she nods again, acknowledging. “I didn’t just fail him out there, though, it felt like I failed you, and Clint, especially Clint. Bruce. I left Bruce up there, I just left. What if the Hulk had done something that Bruce couldn’t—”

Natasha thinks about the Hulk, bent almost double over Tony there in the street, and she herself, ages away, running as fast as she could. And then the dizziness in her head when the Hulk had turned and gone for the suit instead, bashed it to bits. She imagined she was feeling as bad as Steve for that lack of faith, even now.

“He doesn’t think you failed him,” she says, and isn’t sure if she’s talking about Bruce or Tony, but Steve straightens up, a tick of discomfort he quickly suppresses.

“No, he thinks he failed me. He still does, somewhere. And he’s trying not to, I can feel it, whenever I touch him, whenever he—” Steve’s hands clench and relax. “I didn’t even think about what it would do to him to have me in that space instead. I just. I had to get to him, Natasha. There was nothing else.”

She picks up her soup and comes around the fire, taking a seat next to him on the fallen limb he’d dragged over earlier in the evening. It’s not very long and she ends up plastered along his side, but when he moves, it’s not to give her space. It’s to fit them closer together.

“You did,” she murmurs. “You saved him. And the city.”

He coughs. “Don’t think I should get all the credit. I seem to remember someone teasing a complex explosive apart while under fire.”

And then Thor, for protecting her while she did it, by the skin of his teeth. The Hulk for flattening all the machines they left behind. Colonel Rhodes for doing what was needed instead of racing after his oldest friend, and Phil for not stopping until he found Clint, and Clint for taking on a berserker all on his own, and Tony, for trying his damnedest to kill himself and dismantle the biggest threat of all.

She winds a hand around the inside of Steve’s elbow and leans her cheek on his shoulder. They’re a team. She doesn’t need to say it.

 

6.

She's itching to do it. Her fingertips have been tingling inside her gloves since they packed up camp that morning. The snow lies in swathes everywhere, its seamless sparkle flowing along under the sunlight. Twice she has almost bent down and plunged her hands into it.

She waits until she can see the smoke rising from an uneven chimney, a cluster of houses and other icicle-laden buildings set apart from the trees. The sun is low in the sky, the temperature dropping fast, but the wind has not picked up again. Natasha sloughs her pack with a thump that turns Steve's head.

"Eagle," she says, pointing to the sky. Steve looks up, one hand shading his eyes, and Natasha bends down, lumps a quick ball of snow together, and launches it straight into the back of his head.

He whirls around, the snow cascading down the sides of his pack, and Natasha stares, face schooled, powder still sifting off her gloves. For a second, Steve looks unsure. He brushes his nape and eyes her again, and this time—

That's a startling mischief glinting there in blue eyes, reminding her violently of Tony. Steve squints. Slides his pack off his shoulders. Rushes her with no warning at all.

Natasha lunges to the side, her breath catching in surprise, but it's a ploy to get at the snow bank behind her. An instant later, Steve dumps an armful of powder across her back. She gasps, spine snapping into an arch as it works its way under her collar. She looks over her shoulder and finds not contrition but blatant challenge in Steve's face.

Oh, it is so on.

Natasha fists a snowball left-handed and slings it hard. Steve bats it out of the air instinctively and it shatters, spraying his face. His mouth falls open, curves into a grin, and he dives for the bank again. Natasha scrambles away, narrowly missing a well-aimed clump, and fires back.

By the time they make it through the door of the village inn, they're soaked, cheeks ice-stung and hair a tangled mess. They bump shoulders as they wait for rooms, clutching hats in hands and grinning wordlessly into the heady warmth of the indoors.

 

7.

After dinner, they play Egyptian War with a deck so flexible and thin that the cards feel like cloth. Every time one of them slams a hand down atop the pile, the rickety table between their beds jumps. This time it’s Steve, crowing as he smacks his palm over a pair of aces, and Natasha steadies the lamp.

“Cheating.”

Steve snorts. “How am I cheating?”

Natasha looks down her nose at him. “Serum reflexes.”

“Yeah, well, you should cut your nails.”

“Steve, if you need a handicap, you shouldn’t be afraid to say so.”

She takes a queen-ten-queen sandwich while he gapes at her, and grins.

 

8.

The farm is overgrown and unearthly. The snow stretches unblemished from the barn to the main house, all the way to the trees. Natasha and Steve walk its outskirts to the groundskeepers’ cottage at the north edge, where smoke wisps from a brick chimney. There’s an old woman there, barely five feet tall with a smile that almost swallows her eyes. She nods at Natasha’s introduction and waves them off to see the grounds, with the promise of something hot to drink when they’re done.

There’s an old wall line, jutting up in dark mounds before crumbling away into the snow banks. They follow it to the foundations of a building. Natasha steps over the border and crouches down in the middle of the structure. Two rooms, one half the size of the other, and maybe a narrow pantry, or a cold room to keep food during the summer. The stone is long cracked, dead weeds bent away from the fissures. Natasha peels off her glove, then picks up a broken chunk, a corner, and closes her fingers around it. It feels like it’s meant to rest in the palm of her hand. She tosses it, catches it. Turns around and finds Steve waiting just outside the line of stone, watching her silently. She gets to her feet and joins him, and together, they walk the disintegrating wall, all the way around the property.

They don’t say much, drifting apart and coming together as they meander. At one point, Natasha’s phone beeps, and she finds a photo of herself taken from a few yards behind, with the hills tall and black in front of her, her hair the only splash of color as she looks up and to the left after a bird’s call. She huffs, waves a dismissive hand behind her, and Steve’s laugh rings out, a fine, clear note.

But she saves the picture and sets it as her wallpaper.

When they get back to the groundskeeper’s cottage, there are mugs of tea waiting, along with bread and olives. Natasha and Steve sit across from their host, blowing to cool the surfaces of their drinks, and the old woman tells them about the original house, the way the family grew, and the construction of the bigger—and still standing—house nearby. When Natasha is done with her tea, she takes the rock out of her pocket. “May I keep this?”

The old woman nods.

It’s late afternoon when they get ready to head out. Their host has little room to spare, and Natasha is certain to make sure she knows it is not her hospitality but the long journey they have that keeps them from accepting her offer to stay. The woman follows them outside wrapped in a thick coat. Above, the first stars are twinkling in dusky purple. On the other side of the sky, the sun throws up fierce orange.

“Keep warm,” she says, and Natasha pats her pack.

“Don’t worry, babulya, we’re well-prepared. Thank you. For letting us see my family’s home.”

“Just your family?” When Natasha pauses, she continues. “He’s not your brother?”

Natasha meets Steve’s eyes where he stands a few feet away, and he raises his eyebrows in question. Instead of translating, Natasha just gives him a slow smile. “He is the brother I’ve chosen.”

The old woman studies her, then Steve. Finally, she nods, satisfied. The question she asks next is for Steve, directed his way in a challenge that even a non-speaker could not miss, and Natasha almost laughs.

“She wants to know if you’re taking care of me,” she tells him.

Steve hesitates, then looks at the old woman and says, “I hope at least half as well as she takes of me.”

At Natasha’s translation, the woman nods at Steve. The approval is warm and comfortable on her face.

“Can you take a picture of us?” Natasha asks.

The woman nods and holds out her hands. Natasha comes closer, angling the phone so they both can see. “Here, you just press—”

The woman tuts. “This part, yes. I know how to use a camera phone.” She raises a strangely familiar brow at Natasha, but there is humor playing around her mouth.

Natasha smiles widely and hands over her cell. She returns to Steve’s side and directs him as the woman waves them around until the barn is behind them and the hills wreathed in fog behind that. She takes one picture, and then another. The third, Natasha sticks out her tongue and curls it like a straw. By the time the camera clicks, she has a sneaking suspicion she’s the proud owner of a pair of bunny ears.

 

The end.

At the airport, Steve hefts his bag over one shoulder and hands Natasha hers from the trunk. The loud rush-grind of a 747 gaining altitude overhead blots out the sound of cars honking. They walk down the line of returned rentals toward the terminal. Natasha glances sidelong, then leans in, bumps, and rebounds slowly off him, shoulder to shoulder. Or shoulder to elbow, as it were.

Steve’s mouth flicks up at the corners. He reaches back before she regains her distance, and rubs a warm hand briefly over her back. They head inside through the endlessly revolving door.

~fin~