Natasha Romanoff trusted her instincts.
Those instincts had served her well for over seventy years; a hard life. Only sometimes instincts weren't enough.
After a week-long SHIELD mission in... well, it was best not to dwell on that clusterfuck of a mission, Natasha decided as she walked through Central Park on a clear March evening. Nearly a year after the Chitarui invasion and more than one natural disaster under its belt, New York was finally starting to look like her old self.
As much as New York ever looked like itself. That was what had always fascinated Natasha, how this American city could change so much and still be fundamentally the same.
And like any large city so close to sunset, the predators were already hunting.
Natasha stuck to the main pathways, wandering between joggers and early evening pedestrians. It was nearly six o'clock in New York, but Natasha had been jumping across the world for months and her internal clock hadn't caught up to the early darkness.
She could have stayed in the rebuilt Stark Tower when she'd gotten back from the mission debrief. The rest of the Avengers were there, and no doubt all of them would have been keen to keep Natasha company.
Maybe that was the problem, Natasha mused. They would be there for friendly camaraderie, up for conversation... always on hand to fix things.
And Natasha was having one of those weeks where nothing could be fixed.
(Something was wrong.)
Coulson had been dead for nearly ten months, and after the mission she'd barely survived, Natasha missed him fiercely. Coulson would have realized how dire the situation was from afar, and pulled Natasha out before her informant betrayed her to the enemy.
(Footsteps, faint and regular on the path behind her.)
A shiver ran down Natasha's spine, one that had nothing to do with the weather. She'd survived, Natasha reminded herself. She was the Black Widow. She survived where no one else would, where no one else could. She wasn't about to let memories and second-guesses consume her.
(Footsteps, growing closer without running. Boots. A man's step.)
At a split in the trail, Natasha turned left. It was darker this way, isolated, with trees close on either side of the path.
It was, perhaps ironically, the way back to Stark Tower.
(Footsteps, turning to follow. Closing in.)
Natasha slowed her steps, bending her head as she pretended to look for something in her bag. This did several things at once: it let her slip the bag strap off her shoulder so it could not be grabbed by an assailant. It also gave her the time and cover to grab the knife secured in the inseam of the bag.
Lastly, it let her turn without making it obvious so she could see who was following her.
The sun had dipped below the horizon, but in New York, even in the heart of Central Park, nothing was ever truly dark. There was enough light for Natasha to make out the man walking toward her. Tall (much taller than she), broad-shouldered (and oh, how strong he had been), dark hair brushing his shoulders (she'd loved running her hands through his hair when it was that long, grown out in his time in the field).
Natasha froze, air stolen from her lungs by the shock of this man, by all rights thirteen years dead.
He slowed as he approached her, and stopped.
And then the Winter Soldier smiled.
At his words, at his voice, oh god his voice, grief and rage crashed over Natasha. This couldn't be the Winter Soldier, because the Winter Soldier was dead and Natasha had spent years grieving him, missing him. He was dead and Natasha had killed enough people to know that the dead never came back to life, they were just gone.
The Winter Soldier was dead and someone had dressed up this impostor in his place, sent him after Natasha.
Her hand tightened on the handle of her knife.
Four feet away, just out of arm's reach, the impostor's smile started to fade. "Natalia, what's wrong?" he asked in Russian.
Hearing the dead man's voice coming out of this stranger's mouth, using the name only the Winter Soldier knew, Natasha pulled her knife free and threw her bag to the side, out of the way of the fight. "Who are you?" she demanded, in the English words the Winter Soldier had taught her so many decades before.
The Winter Soldier stared at her. "Natalia, you know me," he said.
Her name in his voice coming out of this stranger's mouth was the last straw. Something inside Natasha's chest snapped and she struck out, an offensive attack fuelled by rage and over a decade of grief.
He was moving before her knife reached its target, matching her blow by blow, deflecting her with nothing more than his body. He knew her moves before she made them, and that only made her more furious. The Winter Soldier had been her finest teacher, had shown her how to fight until the moves themselves were more natural than breathing. Matching her like this should have been impossible from a stranger.
Then the point of her knife landed a blow on his left shoulder, and the impact of metal on metal shuddered up her arm.
The stranger with the Winter Soldier's face had a metal arm.
Natasha staggered back. The man looked at her, pale in spite of the exertion of the fight. "Tell me know you know me," he said, nearly begging. He reached for her again and Natasha grabbed his arm and kicked his knee out at the same time she threw him over her shoulder to the ground.
She was on him the next moment, sharp edge of the blade flat against his throat. "I am only going to ask you this one more time," Natasha said, breathing hard. "Who are you?"
"Tell me they didn't take you away from me," the stranger said, eyes wild. "Anything but that, not now—"
Natasha shoved the point of her knife under the stranger's chin. "What is your name?" she ground out.
He tilted his head up under the force of the blade. "I don't have a name, pauk, you know that," he said at long last. "Only a designation."
Natasha had heard those same words decades before, when she was a child, on the day she had first met the Winter Soldier in the Red Room.
Her hand started to shake. "What is your designation, comrade?" she asked in a small voice.
"I am the Winter Soldier," he said, lowering his chin. She eased up slightly on the knife but kept the point pressed firmly against his skin. "You have to remember that, Natalia. Please." His last word was a whisper.
"The Winter Soldier is dead," Natasha said, regaining her grip on the knife. "He was killed thirteen years ago, I saw his body—"
The man's eyes grew wide in confusion. "Natalia, I'm not dead," he protested. "Whatever you saw, it wasn't real, it wasn't me—"
"Prove it," Natasha interrupted, increasing pressure on the blade. She pressed her knee harder into the man's solar plexus, causing him to wince.
"The Winter Soldier was a smart man, you figure it out!"
They were close enough to kiss, their bodies pressed together where Natasha held this man to the ground. The Winter Soldier would have risked a slashed face to get out of such a hold, and Natasha couldn't understand why this man hadn't tried.
Carefully, slowly, the man lifted his hand to his collar and pulled the cloth aside. In the pale light coming through the trees, Natasha could see the rough scar just above his collarbone.
An old scar.
A familiar scar.
Natasha had given the Winter Soldier that scar over sixty years before.
Her grip on the knife loosened as realization hit her. This wasn't a man dressed up to look like the Winter Soldier.
This was the Winter Soldier.
Her Winter Soldier.
She sat up, letting the knife slip to the ground. Thirteen years of loss collapsed around her and she covered her mouth with her hands, not sure if she would cry or scream or both.
The Winter Soldier righted himself underneath her, pulling Natasha onto his lap and holding her to him, burying his face in her hair. "I thought they'd taken you away from me, out of your head," he murmured against her neck, holding her painfully tight. "I thought I'd lost you."
"I did lose you," Natasha said, tugging on his hair until he pulled back enough for her to see his face. "I lost you forever."
And now she could see that it really was him. Eyes grey in the pale light, a hint of stubble on his jaw and cheeks, faint circles under his eyes, so tired and so alive and hers.
She kissed him then, her arms tight around his shoulders. His left arm, metal and hard under the black leather of his jacket, snaked around her waist while his right hand, flesh and bone, cupped the back of her head.
How many times had he held her like this? Natasha wondered as she ran her tongue over his lip, opening her mouth to his. How many times had she woken from nightmares, still feeling the ghost of his body on hers?
A snap in the distance pulled them both back to themselves. They froze, looked in the direction of the noise, then some faint hint of movement (boots, polyester rubbing against Kevlar, the silent weight of authority) made them tumble apart. Natasha retrieved her bag while the Winter Soldier went for the knife, offering it to her as they darted into the trees.
Natasha sheathed the knife as she led the Winter Soldier to the left, staying well out of the flashlight beams dancing into the trees. Another few steps, and Natasha found the rough stone wall. She tapped the Winter Soldier's shoulder, and he went up first before leaning over to offer his hand to haul over the wall, just before the police officers burst into the clearing, flashlights in hand.
The Winter Soldier moved silently through the darkness, Natasha at his heels, until they got to another break in the trees. There, he waited for Natasha to step to his side and he took her arm in his as they walked on, just a normal couple taking a stroll through Central Park after work.
The commotion lingered in the air like smoke, with the other park-goers talking excitedly among themselves. Natasha overheard fragments, about some lady being attacked in the trees, and smiled to herself as they walked away. "Must you always cause a scene?" she asked the Winter Soldier in Russian.
"You're the one who came at me with a knife," the Winter Soldier responded in kind, smiling down at her. "Everyone knows American parks are not safe. It will distract them for a few minutes."
"And where will we go in those few minutes?" Natasha asked. Now that the first flush of exhilaration had faded, she wondered why this man came to find her here, of all places. There were other ways to get her attention in a less dramatic setting.
What did he want?
"I have an idea of a place," the Winter Soldier murmured. He turned into her as a policeman on a horse galloped past, kissing her hair to hide his face. "Will you come with me, Natalia?"
"I will," Natasha said evenly. Her heart rate sped up at the possibilities that this man always brought to her – action, intrigue, a fight...
Or, her mind whispered as his hand slid down her side to rest on her hip, after so many years apart, he might want nothing more than to take her to his bed.
Natasha swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. The Winter Soldier was alive and whole, she knew well from holding his body down with hers in the park. And her body was letting her know exactly how glad it was to have this man back.
Without another word, the Winter Soldier guided Natasha to the path west out of the park, toward the subway. The sidewalks were thick with evening commuters, and Natasha had to slip out from under the Winter Soldier's arm to navigate the crush. His left hand slid around hers, metal and unforgiving beneath the glove he wore, and she held on tight.
She was not letting him go again.
Wordlessly, they made their way down to the platform, letting the flow of the people move around them. Old habits awoke in Natasha, pulling on skills she had scarcely used since the Winter Soldier's death. She scanned the platform, looking for familiar faces, while she knew the Winter Soldier was looking for physical reactions in the crowd, all without seeming to see anyone besides Natasha.
They had done this many times over the decades, and even though thirteen years had passed and her entire world had upended more than once, Natasha had not forgotten how this partnership worked.
The B Train arrived and they ducked onto the last car, pressing tight against each other in the packed carriage. The Winter Soldier took hold of an upper handrail and braced his legs as the train moved out of the station; Natasha told herself she had no choice but to wrap one arm around his waist and hold on tight.
There was no opportunity to talk, not with the commuters headed to Brooklyn. Natasha rested her head on the Winter Soldier's shoulder and tried to think, but the press of his body against hers was too much for her to concentrate.
He was alive, and he was whole, and when he breathed Natasha could feel the rise and fall of his chest. Memories played in her head, of the broken body she'd seen on the slab in the hospital basement in Gheorgheni. She'd always hated missions in Romania, but this one had been a disaster before it even began. She'd been separated from the Winter Soldier for a few days, and when she surfaced again, it was to the news that the Winter Soldier had been killed.
She had refused to believe it. She'd broken a direct order in going to the hospital, had opened the cabinet in the morgue and seen the body, or rather what was left of the body, and—
The Winter Soldier squeezed her shoulder, causing Natasha to look up. "Hey," was all he said, but there was a warning in his gaze.
Natasha gave a small nod, and tried to compose herself. That was the way they stayed alive, pretending to be something they were not.
The train grew increasingly crowded as they got closer to Brooklyn. At one stop, the Winter Soldier changed hands, gripping the metal bar over their heads with his left hand, a position Natasha knew he could keep up for hours. His right hand drifted down Natasha's arm, tangling their fingers together. His breath was warm against her hair. Even though she had every reason not to, she felt safe here with the Winter Soldier.
She took the opportunity to look at the Winter Soldier, just look at him. He was more than handsome; he was beautiful. She'd thought so since the first time she laid eyes on him as a child. His brown hair brushed his shoulders, framing his face. His jaw was well-defined, his chin just a shade away from being square. His eyes were wide and blue-grey in the harsh light in the subway car. Time and the weight of their work had put faint lines in his skin, but the corners of his eyes still crinkled when he smiled at her, like she was the only other person in his world.
Something in her stomach curled over when he smiled at her, and she dug her fingers into his shirt to keep upright as the train took a corner.
As the train was entering Brooklyn, Natasha's phone buzzed. She pulled it out of her pocket to see a text from Clint, u in for dnner? brce making curry; tny says its gnna blow stves mnd.
Wondering yet again what Clint had against the proper use of vowels, Natasha quickly tapped out, Something came up. I'll see you guys tomorrow.
Immediately, the response came, assemble?
No. It's personal.
After a minute, her phone buzzed again. mrow.
Die in a fire, she replied, which was their special code that things were okay, and slipped her phone back into her pocket. The Winter Soldier, who had been watching this textual exchange from above, merely raised his eyebrows at her.
She made a face, and he dropped a kiss on her nose.
He didn't ask with whom she'd been communicating.
At Atlantic Avenue, the Winter Soldier pulled Natasha off the train. They waited on the platform until another train came in, and then they drifted up the stairs with the crowd. Outside, the air was cleaner than in the city, but the traffic was louder. The Winter Soldier held Natasha's hand as they walked down the sidewalk, just like they were normal people.
After a couple of blocks, Natasha squeezed the man's hand before letting go. "Where are we going?" she asked.
"We'll be there soon," he said.
Natasha stopped dead. "No," was all she said.
"Natalia..." the Winter Soldier said, turning around.
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Thirteen years can't be so long that you'd think I'd go blindly with you without any explanation."
He let out a breath. "Can you just..." His voice trailed off before he said trust me, which was just as well. "Look, it's..." He seemed to struggle with the words, but not in an I'm trying to come up with a clever cover story way. "Do you want to eat?" he said instead, pointing at a storefront down the block.
"You don't like pizza," Natasha pointed out as she turned on her heel and headed down the street.
"I don't cook and I'm sure as hell not going to wait at some place where they've got to make the food," the Winter Soldier said, catching up with her.
"Do you have somewhere to be?" Natasha asked archly.
The Winter Soldier caught Natasha around the waist and swung her into the air. "In bed," he said, voice close to a growl. He cupped her cheek, running his thumb over her skin. "With you."
The sheer hunger in his expression stole her breath away. "Then you'd better eat up," she said, pulling away from him. "You're going to need your energy."
She sauntered away from him, putting a sway in her step.
It took him nearly a minute to catch up with her outside the pizzeria.
Three slices and half an hour later, the Winter Soldier guided Natasha up the steps of an apartment building in a quiet street in Brooklyn. Four flights up, he unlocked a non-descript door and held it for her. At the look she gave him, he went in first.
The apartment was small and barely looked lived-in. The room held a small kitchen, the table cluttered with open newspapers and some electronic parts, while a door opening off to the left showed a tiny bathroom. The entire apartment could have fit in her bedroom back at Stark Tower.
The Winter Soldier closed the door behind her and locked it, then turned around slowly. He looked at her in silence.
Well. She'd waited for thirteen years; she could wait another few minutes. She unzipped her jacket, then let it slide slowly down her arms to pool on the floor.
The Winter Soldier ran his tongue over his lower lip. "Natalia, I..."
All the pent-up desire from that afternoon, fuelled by years of loss and grief, drove her to the end of her patience. Closing the distance between them, she pressed their bodies together and kissed him.
He returned her kiss, his lips soft against hers, his hands steady on her body, and this was wonderful, this was perfect, but she needed more. She needed to see him whole and alive, to drive the memories of that broken body out of her head. Breaking the kiss, she slid the jacket off his shoulders, then slipped her hands under his shirt and pushed it over his head.
He was more muscular than the last time she'd seen him, bulk hard-earned on his lean frame, but hardly more than that. Her breath caught in an uncomfortable mix of desire and concern - he'd been working himself too hard and not eating enough; he barely had enough fat on him to keep warm in the summer, let alone in this chill spring.
"What?" he asked quietly, catching her chin with his fingers and bringing her head up.
"You need taking care of," she said, switching back to the Russian that was so much more natural to her. She put her hands on his stomach and kissed him again, hardly more than a gentle press of lips on his. "You're too thin."
"Thin?" he repeated, the corners of his eyes crinkling up in amusement. "This from the girl who was only bony limbs and insubordination when we first met?"
"I grew up," she reminded him, and guided his hand to her waist. "Remember?"
He dipped his fingers under her shirt, his hand warm against her stomach. "I do remember," he told her. "And you grow more beautiful every day."
With that, he pulled her shirt over her head and threw it across the room before gathering her against him. The black fabric of her bra stood out against the paleness of her skin as he cupped her breast in his palm.
"I'm an old woman now," Natasha heard herself saying. "That was all a very long time ago."
The Winter Soldier's fingers slid down her side, tracing a thin scar on her ribcage. "You were beautiful when you were a girl and you were beautiful when you were a young woman," he said, moving his hands up flick open the clasp on her bra. "You are even more beautiful to me now."
Her hands were on his shoulders, feeling him so alive under her touch. She kissed his chest as he pulled off her bra, her tongue running over his scars, and she felt him tense.
"Take me to bed," Natasha whispered, lifting her head. The Winter Soldier stopped breathing for a second. "Prove to me that you're real."
"Anything you want," he said, half smiling, but there was some deeper emotion lurking in his eyes. Natasha shivered. Something dark. Something primal.
She let him pull her over to the bed, push the sheets to the side and lower her down onto the mattress, and it was as if no time had passed at all, as if the last thirteen years of grief and loss had never been.
He touched her as he always had, all those times he came to her bed; quiet touch and strong hands and breath hot on her skin. They had been lovers for so long, for most of Natasha's life. She'd had other men and women, and she assumed he had too, but when it was the two of them, it was right.
He was hers.
With a flick of his fingers, the Winter Soldier undid the buttons on her jeans and slid them down her legs, taking her socks with them. With kisses and oh-so-gentle teeth, he worked his way down her body, her breasts, the dip in her waist, then he was moving down her legs to kiss the soft skin of her thigh. His hands pulled her underwear down her legs, off somewhere onto the floor, then he was sliding between her thighs.
Natasha's back arched as he tasted her, his tongue sliding over her clit just the way she liked it. She reached down, digging her fingers into his hair as he took her clit in his mouth and sucked, her breath catching as the sensations filled her body.
He put his arm over her hips as she bucked up under his mouth, so close, then he did something with his tongue that pushed her over and she came hard, moaning her release.
Before she could catch her breath, he was climbing up her body, kneeling beside her in the bed. He yanked off his pants and underwear in one quick motion and kicked them to the floor. Before Natasha could offer to reciprocate with her mouth, the Winter Soldier centred himself between her legs, bending down to kiss her. She tasted herself on his tongue as he pushed himself inside her.
The sensation, the stretch and the fullness and just the slightest hint of discomfort, made her cry out into his mouth. He stilled inside her. "Natalia?"
"Wait for a minute," she whispered against his lips. It had been so long since she'd had a lover, and in her haste with this man, she'd pushed herself faster than she should have. "I'm out of practice."
He lifted his head to look at her, so close. His eyes were dark with arousal, his breathing quick, and she'd known him long enough to know how much he'd been waiting for this.
"Slow," she murmured, running her hands up his back. Carefully, the Winter Soldier shifted inside her, pulling out, then pushing back in with equal care. Once, twice, three times, he shifted against her as if she would break if he moved too fast.
The slow sense of fullness as he moved inside her was delicious, but she wanted more. As he pressed against her for a fourth time, Natasha tightened her legs around his waist. "I'm ready," she whispered.
"For you to show me how much you missed me."
He hesitated for a moment, looking into her eyes for any hidden meaning, but whatever he saw in her face gave him the answer he needed, for he shifted up on the bed, took her hips in his hands and, pulling out slightly, thrust into her, then again. She matched him move for move, remembering this, remembering him.
He was close, Natasha could tell by the way his hands flexed on her hips as he moved. Taking his left hand, Natasha guided it between their bodies. He took the hint and pressed his thumb against her clit. The cool shock of the metal against that already-sensitive point made Natasha arch her back with a moan.
Going up on his knees, the Winter Soldier slid his other arm around her waist and held her up while he fucked her, hard and fast and so deep, pressing circles on her clit until one final thrust pushed her over, and she came again.
With a groan, the Winter Soldier gave one last push, and Natasha felt a rush of heat deep inside her body. He held her there for a moment, then sank back on his heels, still holding Natasha around the waist.
Natasha couldn't move, couldn't think, could only breathe in the aftermath.
Slowly, the Winter Soldier pulled out of her body and helped her settle down onto the bed before curling up at her side, putting his arms around her and slipping one knee between her legs.
She stroked his hair, kissed his cheek, his lips, anything she could reach without moving. She had missed this so much.
Natasha hadn't had a lover since before she'd been assigned to Stark Industries as Natalie Rushman, years before. She'd almost forgotten this feeling, the delicious ache low in her body, the warmth of another person against her, skin on skin.
But it was more than that. She'd never thought that she would have this again, the Winter Soldier in her bed, breathing softly against her neck, his metal arm cool under her head, his flesh arm warm over her stomach.
Settling into his embrace, Natasha ran her hand over his back, over the play of muscles there, over his spine. Moving up toward his metal shoulder, her fingers encountered rough skin she hadn't expected.
The Winter Soldier went still.
"What?" Natasha whispered as he shot upright, going back on his heels. She reached for his arm. "What is it?"
The Winter Soldier looked at her, breathing fast, his eyes gone tight with memory. Natasha slid down the bed, moving slow in case he spooked. Carefully, she took his shoulders and held him close.
This had happened before; he'd trigger on something and need a few minutes to find his way back to himself. Natasha never knew if it was related to something he'd experienced himself, or something had gone wrong in the Red Room programming. It got worse around heights, not exactly a great thing in a sniper, but he could usually hold himself together.
But before today, it had never happened in bed.
Slowly, so slowly, the tension eased out of his body and he hunched over, collapsing almost bonelessly. Natasha pulled him back down to the bed and held him against her, stroking his hair with gentle fingers.
After a while, he spoke against her throat. "They put me back into stasis in ‘ninety-nine, but in a hurry after pulling me out of Romania, I remember that much. But I think they did it wrong, because I dreamed. I remember that I dreamed."
His hands splayed over her back, holding her tight.
"What happened when they revived you from stasis?" Natasha asked.
He pressed his face into the curve of her neck, breathing hard for a long moment. "They didn't."
Sitting up, he shifted around so Natasha could see his back. An angry criss-cross of scars started at his shoulder where metal met flesh, and down his side, a thin red spider web of pain.
"I woke up and something was wrong with the stasis chamber," he said, facing away from her. His back was hunched, against pain or memory, Natasha didn't know. "The power was out and oxygen in my mask was running low. I tried to get the tube open, but the latches wouldn't pop. The failsafe didn't kick in and the tube was full of water. The oxygen was running out," he repeated.
Natasha went up on her knees and went to him, resting her head on his shoulder from behind. "How did you get out?" she asked.
The Winter Soldier sighed. "I had to force my way through the glass," he said after a pause. "Took a deep breath, pulled off the air mask, put my feet against the back of the tube and pushed as hard as I could to break the glass and get out."
Natasha had once seen the stasis chamber where they'd kept the Winter Soldier on ice between missions. She had been young and it had terrified her, to see a man as alive and vital as the Winter Soldier suspended limp in the tube, air mask over his mouth the only sign that he wasn't a corpse, but still a living man.
She also knew how thick the glass was on the outside of the stasis chamber.
"It worked," she said. "Right?"
"Yeah," he muttered. "I managed to claw my way out. I thought, maybe there was a malfunction in the programming, surely someone would be coming to see, right?"
His hands were shaking. Some cowardly part of her was glad she couldn't see his face.
"But I wasn't in the compound, Natalia. Do you know where they'd put me?"
"No," Natasha admitted, pressing her cheek against his good shoulder.
"I was in a warehouse, in the middle of nowhere." He gave a shudder, and quickly slipped out of her grasp. He ended up on the edge of the bed, facing her but not seeing her at all. "No one came to see what was going on because there was no one there. The programming didn't fail, someone turned off the building's power."
He pushed his hair back from his face, looking as close to haunted as she'd ever seen him.
"They put me into storage like I was nothing," he said bitterly. "Like I was some knife, or gun, not anything. Not a person. Just a broken weapon they didn't want to deal with anymore."
Natasha didn't know what to say. After a few minutes, he turned back to her. His eyes were red, but his face was blank, the perfect mask for the perfect operative. She knew what it must have cost him – after all, she'd spent years perfecting masks of her own.
She held out her hands. "Come on," she said. "Come back to bed."
He rubbed his eyes and shifted up the bed, letting Natasha tuck them both under the covers. The lamp beside the bed, the only light in the room, cast strange shadows over the walls.
The Winter Soldier traced circles on Natasha's arm in silence for some time. The sounds of the traffic outside drifted through the windows; elsewhere in the building, footsteps on the stairs, doors slamming, a television somewhere had the volume turned up.
"Why didn't you come find me?" the Winter Soldier asked after a while.
Natasha opened her eyes. The Winter Soldier lay half on top of her, his weight comfortingly solid. "I saw your body," she said. "You didn't... it didn't have a face anymore, what I saw, but it had your build and everything." She looked up at the ceiling, wishing she didn't remember it so vividly. "The body even had your metal arm, at least I assumed it was yours. If I'd known you were still alive..."
Well. The last thirteen years would have been very different for Natasha. She'd never have joined SHIELD.
She would never have seen her son again.
"That was thirteen years ago," Natasha said. "A lot's changed since then."
The Winter Soldier brushed her cheek with a feathery touch, shifting so he lay fully on top of her. "A lot has changed," he agreed, kissing her forehead. "Like now, you work for the enemy."
His tone was so mild, it took Natasha a moment to realize the full meaning of his words. "It's not like that," she told him, putting her hand on his arm.
He traced her cheekbone with his thumb, looking at her with empty eyes. His weight was on top of her, his leg between hers, his metal hand under her head, fingers tangled in her hair. She'd forgotten how physically large he was, tall and muscular and deadly.
She wasn't afraid he would harm her; if he'd intended to hurt her, or even kill her, he would have done in the park or on the subway. He would have had no need to wait until she was naked and vulnerable to cause her harm.
That was her area of expertise.
So no, she wasn't afraid of him, but he was still larger than she was, and he had her pinned, and she had no idea why.
He was staring down at her with eyes gone cold. Considering.
Easing her hands up his arms to rest on his shoulders, Natasha said, "The world's changed since you knew it. We're not fighting the same battles anymore. The stakes are bigger now, bigger than just countries, bigger than even this planet."
She reached up with her left hand, brushing his hair back behind his ear, then sliding her hand down to rest on his bicep. She could feel the coiled tension in his muscles.
"You may have convinced yourself that it's different, but you're still taking orders from an American," he said, disgust in his words.
"SHIELD isn't just American—" Natasha tried to say, but he cut her off.
"I'm not talking about SHIELD," he said, white-hot anger bleeding out into his voice. "The Avengers? Captain America? You spend your time taking orders from a man with a damned American flag painted across his chest!"
Natasha had heard enough. She tried to get out from under the Winter Soldier, but his hand clamped down on her arm, holding her in place underneath him.
"Tell me, Natalia, what exactly did Captain America do to make you whore yourself out to fight in their bloody wars?" the Winter Soldier demanded. "Did he blackmail you about your son? Did he buy you off with blood money from his war bonds?"
Natasha pushed at him, angry now. "Get off me!"
The Winter Soldier ground his hips against her as he shifted his weight, going up on his elbows. "Or maybe it's not that at all," he said with a sharp smile. "Tell me, Natalia, is his dick big enough to make you forget where you come from?"
Natasha shifted her weight as she brought her knee up to hook her foot under his hip. With all her strength, she kicked out at the same time as she punched him in the back, just above his kidneys.
He grunted at the force of the blow, flinching enough for Natasha to slither off the bed. She kept moving across the floor, giving herself space to stay out of the Winter Soldier's grasp, but he stayed on the bed. For a moment, they stared at each other.
Natasha shook her head and picked up the first piece of clothing she could lay hands on, his undershirt, and pulled it on. She felt better with the thin bit of cloth between her and this infuriating man.
"I am only going to say this once," she said, vibrating with anger. "I work for SHIELD not because they're perfect, but because they are trying to keep this world safe for everyone, not just Americans. That includes everyone who used to be on our side, do you understand?"
The Winter Soldier didn't say anything.
"And here's the other thing. I fight with Captain America, not for him, because he's a good man and a good leader."
Natasha turned around and paced over to the sink. The floor was cold under her feet, but she didn't care.
Turning back to face the Winter Soldier, she went on, "I'm not fucking Captain America. But if I was? It would be because he's my friend." She took a breath. "I haven't forgotten where I come from. Any of it. So you don't ever say such things to me again!"
Silence hung in the room between them. Slowly, the Winter Soldier got out of bed. He pulled on his trousers before he crossed the floor. When he reached her, he went down on his knees in front of her and pressed his face against her stomach, his arms going around her waist. From this angle, Natasha could see the red spider web of scars on his shoulder, sliding down his skin from the metal plating on his shoulder.
Her anger at the Winter Soldier churned with the wild elation of finding him again, and the lingering grief of the last thirteen years. Natasha closed her eyes and willed the mental agitation to go away. She had enough to worry about; she couldn't handle adding the drama on top of it.
She had forgotten how much work the man could be.
She placed her hands on his head, his hair soft under her palms. Outside, a siren screamed past on the street. After a few minutes, the Winter Soldier turned his head to look up at Natasha. She stroked the hair back from his temple, her thumb lingering on his cheek.
"You make me crazy," Natasha said softly.
The Winter Soldier tried to smile as he got to his feet. When he put his arms around her, she didn't protest, just rested her cheek on his chest.
"I'm getting old, Natalia," he said against the top of her head. "I don't know how old I was when I went into stasis the first time, I don't remember anything before that, but to have done the things they said I did during the War... was I twenty-five? Thirty?"
"What's this about?" Natasha murmured. "You've never talked about your age before."
"I did the math," he went on. "Adding it all up, I can remember being out of stasis for ten years. How old does that make me?"
"What does it matter?" Natasha asked curiously.
He sighed. "I feel old," he confessed. "Dried-up and tired. Like I don't fit anywhere."
"Hey," Natasha said, placing her hand on his chest. "Do you remember how long ago you met me? I'm so much older than you--"
"It's not the same," he protested. "You've been in the world, you understand it. It's different being frozen in time and waking up in the future, with no way to get back."
While Natasha hadn't experienced that, she had spoken briefly with Steve over the last year about his experiences being pulled from the Arctic ice and coming to terms with the present. "You'll find your way," she said softly. "You always have."
"It seems harder this time," he muttered. He slid his hand down her side. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," she said, kissing him on the cheek. "Now. Come back to bed with me."
He let himself be led back to the bed, and sat down on the edge. Natasha settled herself on his lap, the fabric of his trousers rough against her thighs. "I missed you," she said as he pulled her in close.
"I missed you too," he admitted. He cleared his throat. "Has anything else happened to you since Romania?"
Natasha rested her head against his shoulder. Looking back, 1999 seemed like several lifetimes ago. In all that time, however, in between the missions and the bloodshed, there was one thing that stood out in her life as truly good.
"I got my son back," she murmured. "SHIELD brought John in to my interrogation when they hauled me in ten years ago."
"How did he react to seeing you alive?" the Winter Soldier asked.
Natasha smiled wryly. "Better than I did in seeing you today," she said. "More cutting words, less actual violence."
It had been over a decade since she'd first faced John Sheppard across the floor of a SHIELD interrogation room. Their relationship since then had been rocky, but it held up under pressure. He still only called her Mom on occasion, and he wasn't great about returning phone calls, but he was alive and he was healing and that was all that any mother could ask for.
"Good," the Winter Soldier said. "I know how much the boy means to you."
That boy is older now than you've ever been, Natasha thought to herself. She leaned back so she could look at the Winter Soldier, his blue-green eyes bright in his tired face. "John was the greatest gift in my life," she said truthfully.
And then she turned in the Winter Soldier's embrace, kissing him firmly. He responded instantly, guiding her down to the bed and pulling the shirt over her head in one smooth movement.
This time, they were slow with each other, and oh so gentle. The Winter Soldier caressed every inch of her skin, as if trying to commit this night to memory. She ended up on top of him, riding his body while his hands moved over her hips, her waist, her breasts. She stared down at him as she moved, this man who had been her first friend, her first lover. He'd grown older since the first time they'd been together, but then, so had she.
When she was young, the Winter Soldier had been the most feared operative ever to come out of the Red Room program. But to Natasha, he'd been her teacher as they sent her into the world to hone her skills. The Winter Soldier killed from a distance; the Black Widow up close, intimate. No one could escape them when they were together.
The Winter Soldier's hands slid up Natasha's back, pulling her down to him. "Stop thinking," he said breathlessly. "You make me afraid you have somewhere else to be."
Natasha kissed him until her head spun. "This is the only place I want to be," she whispered, catching his lip in her teeth. "Now, are you going to lie there and make me do all the work?"
With a growl, the Winter Soldier rolled them, putting Natasha underneath him. She barely had time to catch her breath before he centred himself between her thighs and pushed in deep.
The change in position was just what Natasha wanted; the pressure and friction as he moved inside her, the weight of his body on hers, the way he breathed out her name with every thrust. She dug her nails into the Winter Soldier's back, coming apart with a breathless cry.
The Winter Soldier swore as he climaxed, his left hand gripping her hip almost too tight for a moment. Then he collapsed on her, breathing fast.
Natasha closed her eyes. Her breathing was only slightly hindered by the weight of the man on top of her. Still, she didn't ask him to move. How many times in the last thirteen years had she dreamed of this? Only it had been more nightmare than dream, craving the touch of a man long dead.
But through miracle or design, he'd come back to her.
Natasha was under no illusion that she'd be able to keep this man at her side. Whatever had brought him to New York would likely separate them into opposite sides, and sooner rather than later.
She could be forgiven for wanting to live in this dream, for only a little while.
After a few minutes, the Winter Soldier shifted off Natasha. He reached to turn off the bedside lamp, then curled back up along her side, his metal arm tucked under his head. Natasha reached for the blanket as she snuggled in to the curve of his body, his natural arm settling over her waist.
"Can you stay with me tonight?" the Winter Soldier asked quietly.
Natasha made a sound of agreement in her throat. She was so warm, and sleep was already pulling at her. Playing the odds over in her head, even given the history she had with the Winter Soldier and the unknown elements in his reappearance in New York, she was probably safer in his bed than trying to catch a taxi back into the city in this neighbourhood at this time of night.
Natasha fell asleep to the soft sound of the Winter Soldier breathing. She'd missed this.
She woke twice in the night, once briefly when a police car drove by the building, siren screeching. The other time, she was pulled back to consciousness when the Winter Soldier got out of bed and headed into the bathroom. Natasha lay still, staring up at the shadows on the ceiling, until he returned. The man slid under the blankets and huddled against Natasha.
"What time is it?" Natasha asked sleepily.
"Can I stay longer?"
He held her close, breathing softly on her cheek. "Always."
When she woke the next time, it was still dark, but the sounds outside had changed, the bustle of activity signalling a return to the day in Brooklyn.
"Good morning," said the Winter Soldier. Natasha rolled over to find him lying on his side, watching her.
"What are you doing?" she asked, sleep clinging to her. It had been a long time since she had slept so deeply. Not since the last time she'd had someone she trusted in her bed to keep her safe.
"Trying to figure out a way to freeze time," he said, resting his hand on her hip.
"Good luck with that," she said.
He smiled at her tone, then sobered. "Come away with me," he said. "We'll go somewhere they'll never find us, we'll start over."
"We'll head north," he went on, almost desperately. "We can go to Montana and hop the border into Canada. We can find a city and pretend to be normal people—"
Natasha put her fingers over his lips. "Don't do this," she said, her heart breaking just a little. "Don't talk about things we can't have."
"Please." She kissed him to shut him up, because she could, and because she suspected now that this may be the last time.
When she pulled away, the Winter Soldier rolled over onto his back. "Don't you ever wonder what our lives would have been like if things were different?" he asked.
He shrugged. "If things had gone differently in Odessa, for starters."
Natasha stared at him, incredulous. "That would be the thing you'd change?" she demanded. She shook her head. "If that had gone differently, you'd likely have died in that Siberian prison camp and I'd be lying in a shallow grave in Georgia." She swung her legs over the edge of the bed. "If you start second guessing your life, you're going to spend a lot of time in regrets."
She went naked into the bathroom, leaving the Winter Soldier to contemplate the ceiling. After taking care of the usual business, she stepped into the shower for a few minutes, to wash the stickiness of the night off her skin. When she was finished, she looked at herself in the mirror as she towelled dry. She quickly twisted her hair up off her face before wiping the makeup smudges from the corners of her eyes.
Then she ran her hand carefully down her body. Bruises were darkening along her right side, on her hip and her thigh, where the Winter Soldier had gripped her skin too tight with his metal hand. The largest of the bruises was already mottling yellow around the edges; with her advance healing it would likely be gone by the next morning. She didn't even get to keep that from him.
Natasha took a deep breath. It was time to face the day, and the reality of her life.
The Winter Soldier was sitting up on the bed when she came out of the bathroom. He'd pulled on his trousers but was still shirtless. "You're not being fair," Natasha said as she retrieved her panties from the floor.
The Winter Soldier frowned slightly. "What do you mean?"
"How am I supposed to be able to think when you're sitting there like that?"
His expression cleared when he realized she was teasing him. "This coming from a woman walking around naked," he said.
Natasha went over him and nudged his knees apart with her leg. "I thought you liked me naked," she said, standing against his body. She bent down to kiss him, one hand on his shoulder, the other on the back of his neck.
What was supposed to be a goodbye kiss deepened, and Natasha had to fight herself to pull away instead of pushing the man to the bed again.
His eyes were dark as he kissed a line along her chest. He ran his lips over her breast, taking her nipple in his mouth. Natasha's breath caught in her throat at the sensation of his tongue. "I have to go," she said.
"So go," he said, moving his attention to her other breast. Involuntarily, Natasha's fingers curled in his hair, holding his head in place. She jumped as he bit down, then immediately soothed the mark with his tongue.
"Please," she said in a whisper, not sure what she wanted from him. He stilled before pulling back slowly. She dipped her head to give him one last kiss, the warmth of his mouth on hers a memory she knew she would treasure.
Reluctantly, Natasha stepped away from him. It took her a moment to find her bra, thrown across the room the previous night. Her socks and jeans were easier, lying in a heap by the side of the bed. Her phone was still in her jeans pocket.
Her shirt was a different matter. She finally spotted it on the room's small table, half-hiding the collection of metal objects and newspapers.
She had some line on the tip of her tongue to lighten the mood, something innocuous about the Winter Soldier's housekeeping skills, when she reached for her shirt and her fingers brushed something on the table, something metal, cold and burning at the same time. She knew instantly what she had touched, and she nearly gagged at the sudden churning in her stomach.
Everything in the world stopped and rewrote itself as Natasha pulled her shirt off the table and pushed the newspapers aside, to reveal a tangle of gold metal pieces and connecting cords, with a gleaming red gem in the center.
A kara kesh, John had called it. A Goa'uld hand device.
An alien weapon in New York.
In the hands of the Winter Soldier.