Natasha felt her lower lip split open against her teeth even as her head snapped back, rolling with the blow. A miscalculation: her opponent was faster than she'd anticipated. She responded with a series of lightning-quick punches, compensating for her adversary's enhanced speed; her foe staggered back, hard-pressed to fend off the barrage of strikes. Natasha followed up the attack with a sweep meant to take her opponent's legs out from under her, but the other woman had retreated out of range. No, not retreated – disengaged.
Pepper stared at Natasha, both hands covering her mouth. "Oh my God, you're bleeding! I'm so sorry!"
She stifled her frustration, smoothing her features into a reassuring expression. "It's nothing. I told you, if I needed to stop, I'd tap the mat twice or give you a verbal cue to stand down."
It was clear that Pepper wasn't entirely reassured; her body language broadcast worry and discomfort. "Its just that I didn't expect to actually hurt you. I mean, I still barely know what I'm doing."
Natasha's mouth gave a wry twist, which tugged uncomfortably at her split lip. "That's actually when you're the most dangerous – before you've learned enough that I can predict your moves, and before you know how to calibrate the force of your strikes."
"Maybe this isn't such a good idea, then." Standing on the practice mat barefoot in yoga pants and a sports bra, Pepper looked a far cry from the collected and competent business professional that Natasha had first met in the CEO's office of the Stark Industries building in California.
"I'm not letting you use this as an excuse to stop training. Remember the reasons you wanted this in the first place." Natasha had never been forced to stand on the sidelines as someone she cared about faced danger alone, but she well knew the toll it had taken on her friend every time Tony had flown off to confront another madman. The augmentations she had received from her encounter with Extremis had changed everything for her: she no longer had to stand back and watch; she could join the fight and protect those she loved. But not without the knowledge and skill needed to use her power effectively.
Pepper sighed; her posture communicated unease, but she didn't break eye contact – her years of staring down business executives had trained her never to show weakness that way. "I'm just not used to the violence of it all. It's not something I ever saw myself doing."
Natasha understood: someone who'd had a normal childhood, like Pepper, would have been taught from an early age that it was wrong to hit people, and breaking that training was hard. But the only way to do it was with practice. "Then you're going to have to learn to see yourself in a different way. We all are; our world has changed."
"It's difficult," Pepper offered after a moment, "trying to become something so far removed from everything you've ever known."
"Yeah." Natasha's voice was quiet. Though her friendship with Pepper had grown since those first weeks in LA when she wore the identity of Natalie Rushman, there were some things she'd never spoken of with the other woman – things she'd never said to anyone but Clint, because he would understand. Now, though, maybe Pepper would understand too. "I felt something like that, when I first joined SHIELD. For a long time, I thought that hurting people was all there was to me; it was all I'd been trained for, all I'd ever been allowed to know. Discovering that I was capable of more than that – that I could help people... it was a while before I could really believe it. I'm still working on that, I think, after New York."
Rather than responding right away, Pepper folded her legs under herself, sitting down on the practice mat. Natasha joined her in a single smooth motion, seating herself slightly to one side of a face-to-face position. "Aldrich Killian wasn't the first man I killed," Pepper said suddenly. "I don't know if you read the reports on the incident with Obadiah Stane. He was chasing us down when Tony got there, and they started fighting. I didn't leave, even after the fight moved away and I could've gotten out. At the end, Tony told me to overload the reactor..." She paused. "It was his idea, but I did it. I pushed the button that killed Stane. And the only reason I hesitated was because I wasn't sure if Tony was clear." Her gaze had drifted during the story, but now she raised her eyes to meet Natasha's fully. "For four years, I've known I was capable of killing a man. I've spent most of that time trying to pretend that part of me wasn't there. I don't know what to do with it."
Natasha took a moment to formulate her reply. She knew what she needed to say, but she wasn't sure how comforting Pepper would find it. Then again, maybe comfort wasn't what Pepper needed most right now. "That kind of violence exists in everyone. It's just that society does its best to stifle that violence in most people. Soldiers aren't taught to kill; they're taught to overcome their conditioning not to. Now that you've discovered your violence, you have a choice: you can try to hide it, deny it, and be ashamed of it, or you can learn to bring it under your conscious control and hone it as a tool to protect what you care about."
For a moment, Pepper just studied her, considering her words. Then she nodded and climbed to her feet. "I guess we should get back to it, then."
Natasha rose as well, giving her friend an approving nod as she resumed her position across the mat from Pepper. "You concentrate on learning what your body can do and how to control it, and let me worry about keeping myself out of the way." At Pepper's nod of agreement, she settled into a ready stance. "Begin."
* * *
By the time Pepper left to shower and change for a late-afternoon press conference, two hours had passed and Natasha was exhausted. Not physically; her own enhancements and training gave her more than enough endurance to handle lengthy workout sessions without suffering for it. Her work with Pepper had been draining in a way that had nothing to do with her muscles.
Natasha had spent little time during her career playing the role of teacher, and the task placed very different demands on her than working as a solo operative or fighting as part of a highly-trained team. In those situations, she needed only focus on her own efforts, fight as well as she could, and trust her teammates to do their jobs. Teaching demanded so much more. A teacher needed to impose control on a student who had not yet learned that control for herself – especially when the student wielded as much raw power as Extremis had granted Pepper. Stabilizing the enhancements had removed her heat powers, but the increased strength, endurance, and healing had remained, making Pepper dangerous until she learned enough about her own abilities to hold back when necessary. As her instructor, Natasha had assumed responsibility for that risk, for both of them.
Standing alone in the gymnasium, Natasha began a stretching routine, both to stave off soreness and in the hope that stretching her muscles would also release some of her mental tension. Today's exercise had run entirely counter to her usual reflexes when sparring: she instinctively sought out weak points and exploited them, and used her tactical knowledge to anticipate her opponent's moves. Pepper was still too much of a novice to make predictable tactical choices most of the time, and Natasha was supposed to be helping her correct her weak spots, not attacking them. She had spent most of the last two hours fighting her own instincts as much as she had reining in Pepper's lack of control, and those mental muscles were feeling the strain much more than her body was.
She was about to write off the rest of the evening and find herself a shower, a cup of tea, and a good book, when she heard the door behind her open. Natasha whirled, falling into a combat stance before she could remind herself that no hostiles could make it this far inside the Tower without an alarm being raised. Sure enough, it was only a rather startled Steve who stood in the doorway. "Am I... interrupting something?"
Natasha straightened, schooling her features to mask her earlier slip. "No, sorry. I'm just a little tense, that's all. What's up?"
"I just came back from a briefing with Fury. Apparently there's a group out there that's gotten hold of some AIM technology. SHIELD is still trying to track them down, but Fury wanted to keep me and Tony in the loop. Thought I'd come back here to put in some time with the heavy bag." He pointed his chin at the punching bag at the far end of the gym.
"Interested in going a couple of rounds instead?" The question was out of Natasha's mouth before she realized she wanted to ask it.
Steve looked mildly surprised, but nodded. "If you're up for it."
"Wouldn't have asked otherwise." She stepped back, making room for him on the mat.
As they squared off and began sparring, Natasha realized how little opportunity she'd had to face Steve one-on-one. She had learned something of his combat style through fighting beside him, but having those attacks directed at her was an entirely different experience. Steve had more speed than most people would expect from a man of his size, all without losing any control or economy of motion. She found herself straining her own skills to the limit to deflect or avoid his blows, and the only time he seemed to notice her own strikes was when she managed to hit a pressure point. He had been able to blend into his fighting style some of the modern combat techniques he had learned at SHIELD Tactical, but every now and then a strike or block showed through that seemed... oddly familiar to Natasha. She didn't have time to think about those little flashes of recognition, though; the intensity of the fight left little room for thought. Natasha was able to go all-out against Steve – had to, if she wanted to stay off the mat.
Even then, avoiding the mat was only sometimes an option. She flung herself out of the way of a startlingly fast right cross, rolled across the padded floor, and came up in a three-point crouch – and found herself grinning. This was what she'd needed: letting her body do what it knew best, pushing herself, not holding back or struggling to keep control. She wouldn't hurt Steve – wasn't even sure she could hurt the super-soldier unless he was distracted or debilitated in some way – and he had firm enough control over his strength that he could avoid hurting her no matter how hard she fought.
Natasha threw a spinning hook kick at his jaw, but nearly lost her balance when he caught her ankle and held it. Before she could attempt to twist out of his grip or make a controlled drop and lash out with her other foot, he wrenched her around and flung her to the mat. She hit hard, and was about to roll to the side and kip-up to her feet when she felt strong hands lock around her wrists. Kneeling over her as he was, his body prevented her from getting both legs to one side of him to throw him off. She tested his grip on her arms, but it was too strong, and with his body pressing down on hers, she had no leverage. If this were any other fight, her pulse would be pounding in her ears with rising panic at her helplessness.
But this was Steve. He was just pinning her until she tapped out. That knowledge triggered another familiar feeling in her, with its accompanying pulse somewhere else.
Her training, years before SHIELD, before her time as a free agent, had been thorough. She'd learned to use her body as a weapon, both on and off the battlefield. The consequence of this training had been something her handlers had encouraged, even cultivated: intimate encounters in which she was in control were "work" to her, always about manipulating or distracting a target, never about sharing an intimate connection. The people who made her ensured that she did experience sexual pleasure, because it was a useful tool to enforce conditioning, but it only happened when she had no power to control or influence her partner. She had learned to welcome the release, to accept what was given without trying to understand or affect it. Even after years of distance from those dark days and all the changes she had undergone since, her private moments in the bathtub and before bed were filled with memories of a heavy body above hers, leather straps around her wrists, and cold metal fingers closing lightly over her throat.
These days, those private moments alone were all the release she had. The control she had won over her own life was too precious to surrender it to someone she didn't trust completely, and the one person she had found in the last several years who she could trust that much – Clint – couldn't physically overwhelm her the way she needed. But now...
She trusted Steve. More than that, she understood him; he held himself back from most people, but fighting side-by-side allowed him to bond with his teammates in a way that broke down his barriers. To her continued amazement, he really was as good as the propaganda reels made him out to be – better, in some ways. He respected her, and wouldn't take any liberties she didn't willingly permit.
And of course she'd noticed the pleasant way he filled out that star-studded uniform. The plain t-shirt and sweatpants he wore for working out were plenty flattering as well, and with him stretched out full-length across her body to pin her, she didn't have to imagine what the firm lines and muscular contours of his body felt like.
Natasha could feel her body grow warm and flush as sensitivity stirred deep within her. Embarrassment rose along with it; was she a teenager now, who couldn't get through a simple sparring session without inappropriate arousal? She should just tap out, make an excuse to Steve, and hit the showers.
Instead, she struggled against the grip on her wrists – not to break free, for she had no illusions that she could overcome his superior strength with so little leverage, but to get him to hold her down more firmly. As his fingers tightened and his weight settled more heavily onto her, driving the air from her lungs, Natasha felt an enticing surge of heat running down from her navel.
"I think that's a point for me," Steve observed. Fortunately Natasha didn't have enough breath to sigh; she was thoroughly pinned, and skilled enough to recognize that she wasn't getting out, so there was no justification to continue the bout. She went limp, and Steve lifted himself off of her before offering his hand to help her up.
She accepted it and rose, stretching out her muscles as she took up her position across from him on the mat. "Let's try that again," she challenged.
This time Natasha held out longer. Steve had the greater reach, so she altered her approach, flickering in for a series of quick strikes and out again before he could manage a counteroffensive. The strategy was only somewhat successful, as his speed was nearly as good as hers, but now they were both pushing themselves.
Natasha wasn't sure whether she had been too slow or if Steve had simply timed his charge just right, but the next time she flitted out of reach again, he came with her. She felt her arm twist behind her back in a lock, and an instant later, she was smashed against the wall of the gym with Steve pressed hard against her. Her feet didn't quite touch the wooden floor, and she didn't have enough space to push off against the wall. She barely had room to squirm; she was effectively helpless.
Desire shot through her like an electric current – followed close behind by the shame of her inability to control her body's responses, and casting an unwitting teammate in a starring role in her fantasies. But instead of dousing her lust, the shame intensified it, and she writhed futilely in Steve's grasp.
"You okay?" he asked, releasing her and stepping back a pace. When she turned to face him, she could see a hint of concern in his eyes.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she assured him, rubbing her wrist where he'd caught her; his grip hadn't been hard enough to bruise, but it was still a little tender. Pleasantly so. "Let's go again."
This time, Steve didn't return to his position on the mat. "Is that a good idea?" he asked. "If this is turning into a competitive thing... I don't want there to be bad feelings between us."
For a second, Natasha simply stared at him; of all the conclusions he might have reached, she hadn't been expecting that one. "No, that's not – that's not what's going on."
"Then what is?" he insisted, his hands dropping to his sides. "Because something's not right. If I did anything–"
"You didn't." Automatically her mind worked to formulate some explanation that Steve would accept for the anomalous behavior he had observed – until she stopped herself with an effort. Steve was a friend (as hard as it was to get used to the idea of having more than one of those now) and she wasn't going to lie to him over something as trivial as personal embarrassment. There was a bench along the wall, a few feet away from where their last clinch had ended. Natasha moved to it and sat down; Steve joined her after a moment's pause. She swallowed, wishing her water bottle weren't on the other side of the room, and began. "The way I was responding when you pinned me... it wasn't because I was frustrated, or upset, or uncomfortable. It was because I liked it."
Before he could ask awkward questions, Natasha simply began explaining. Not everything – the nights in the Red Room that featured so prominently in her bedtime musings would only be misinterpreted by most people, even if she had wanted to share them. But she told him how much her professional life forced her to be in control at all times, not only of herself but of those around her. She alluded to the kinds of assignments she had been given before joining SHIELD, and how the need to maintain control precluded the possibility of pleasure. Then she described how control and release had come to exclude each other in her life, even when she wasn't working – the pressure of being "on" at all times precluding anything more than professional satisfaction at a job well-performed. "Even then, I have a hard time just handing over control. And if it's taken from me by someone I don't trust..." Her shrug implied that in such a case, things would go precisely as poorly as Steve might expect. "But when things come together just right, and someone I feel safe with overpowers me, it takes all that pressure off my shoulders and leaves room for me to feel something else."
She took a breath to give herself time to decide where to go from there, but Steve stepped in. "If what you're saying is you trust me that much, I appreciate that. And – I've never been good with this sorta thing – I don't know if this was just a passing distraction, and I don't want to push where I shouldn't, so if you'd rather I just pretend none of this ever happened, that's okay. But," Steve stared down at his hands, which hung down in front of him as he sat leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees. "But if you don't want me to pretend it didn't happen, that's okay too."
Realizing that Steve was too much of an old-fashioned gentleman to come out and just say what it sounded like he was trying to say, Natasha decided to take the initiative. She reached out and touched his arm, drawing his attention back to her. "Are you saying that you'd like to sleep with me?"
It was all Natasha could do to keep from laughing at the wide-eyed alarm in the look Steve turned to her. "I mean, I like you – we're friends, and I like spending time with you, and you're..." He started trying to gesture something with his hands, and then stopped himself. "I'm sorry. I don't know how to talk to dames. Girls. Women. I always manage to mess it up."
"Then stop talking."
Steve just looked at her for a moment; Natasha recognized the expression from watching him study tactical reports while trying to formulate battle plans. Finally, he nodded in the direction of the practice mats and rose from the bench, stepping into the center of the gym. Natasha took that as her cue to follow.
She barely had time to assume a ready stance when he was on her, more aggressively than their two previous rounds had been. Natasha found herself backpedaling as she labored to deflect his flurry of strikes and the occasional kick. She only rarely had an opportunity for a counterattack, and though most of her blows struck home, they did little to faze her opponent. After only a few moments, Natasha found herself backed against the mirrored wall, with her foe still advancing. At such close range, she didn't have much room to maneuver, and every time she tried to dart to one side, he managed to get in front of her and box her in. She threw an elbow strike, but he blocked it and used the momentum to pin her arm over her head. Her next move was a spear-hand strike aimed at his suprasternal notch; he sidestepped out of the way and again her wrist was caught in his unshakeable grip. His body was pressed close enough to hers now that she had no room for a kick, but she used his hold on her arms as leverage to bring both of her legs around his waist and squeezed. He responded by shoving harder against her, driving her legs apart. That was it; she was out of options. She didn't even have the space for an effective headbutt. He had her.
Her breath, coming in quick pants from the exertion of the fight, caught in her throat as she looked up into his face. Once he knew he had her trapped, Steve's expression softened. He bent his head down to hers, burying his face in the crook of her neck. She felt him nibble his way up to her ear, nuzzling against her cheek. His morning shave had been several hours ago, and the faintest brush of stubble grazed her cheek in a tantalizingly familiar way. The soft sounds that rose from her throat would have humiliated her at any other time, but now she barely thought about them, other than to hope that they would encourage Steve to further efforts.
She must have closed her eyes during Steve's ministrations to her throat, because when she opened them again, she was spread out on the mat beneath them, her hands bound over her head. That last confused her, and she craned her head around to see what held them; it appeared that Steve's t-shirt had been pressed into service as a set of improvised restraints. Her mouth curled into a smile as she realized what this meant, and she turned her head back toward Steve to see that, as she'd hoped, he had stripped to the waist. It was a sight she'd never seen in person before, but it did not disappoint. His broad, heavily-muscled shoulders tapered down to a narrow waist, and though his skin was fairer than the current fashion demanded, it was smooth and taut across the hard planes of his chest and abdomen.
He noticed her staring, and grinned. "Your turn." Taking her bound hands in his, he lifted her into a sitting position and peeled the tank top and sports bra she wore over her head to join the tangle of fabric around her wrists. One of his hands traced its way gently down her bare arm, almost lightly enough to tickle, until it found its way to her breast. His hands were warm and dry, with only the a slight trace of callus on his fingers as he touched her nipple. She gasped, and he took advantage of the opening of her mouth to kiss her.
If she had expected his kisses to be hesitant or inexperienced, she was pleasantly surprised. He was confident but not sloppy, and his other hand came down from her wrists to cradle the back of her head, pulling her more deeply into the kiss. Between that and the hand on her breast, she was already burning with need.
Steve pulled back suddenly, looking down at her as though searching her face for something. She knew what he was hoping to find, what he wanted to ask but couldn't, for fear of ruining the moment: he needed to know that she was alright, that this was what she wanted. Natasha turned her head, nuzzling against the arm that held her upright with its hand cupped behind her head, and nibbled at the tender skin on the inside of his forearm. The worry melted from his eyes, and he leaned down to claim her mouth again.
His hand drifted away from her nipple, and for a moment she missed its warmth – until she realized where that hand was moving. His fingers wandered down her bare stomach to stop at the waistband of her workout pants, and deftly pulled open the knot in the drawstring. Both the pants and the underwear beneath them were slid down her legs and over her bare feet; but for the garments twisted around her wrists, she was naked, spread out on the mats for Steve's enjoyment. His fingers moved back to her stomach, meandering lower as they traced idle patterns across her flesh as though they had no particular destination in mind. Natasha's hips strained upward of their own volition, desperate for his fingers to soothe the ache inside her.
She wasn't kept waiting long. He combed through the short brush of hair with his fingertips before sliding them between her labia to touch the pulsing heat that demanded his attention. At first it was almost too intense, and she writhed under his touch. He let her buck and squirm, keeping his hand still until she calmed down again, and then began a gentler exploration of her intimate places. She was already thoroughly wet, so he only needed to dart his fingers down to pull a bit of lubricant up from her entrance once. He ran his fingers along the inner edges of her labia and traced around the outside of the hood before returning to her clit; by then, the soft moans of need escaping her lips should have told him all he needed to know of her readiness. But he wasn't finished.
His thumb took over the task of drawing light, quick circles over her clit, while the two fingers of that hand reached inside her, giving her a taste of the fullness she hoped was to come. His other hand still cradled her head; he drew the fingers into a fist, pulling her hair beneath his hand tightly until she opened her eyes, which had closed again while she was lost in the sensation between her legs. When he saw her staring up at him, he smiled and pulled her into another kiss. The orgasm hit her while her mouth was locked with his, muffling her moan against his lips.
When the last trembling pulses of climax had subsided, Natasha found herself lying flat on the padded floor again. Her legs bracketed Steve's waist, but now she had no notion of trying to use them against him. His sweatpants were gone – she hadn't seen where or when, and didn't much care. She did spare a moment's thought to wondering where the condom had come from... but Steve's World War II days had probably instilled in him an appreciation for the importance of prophylactics. Then he was entering her, and there was no room for any other thoughts.
She kept her legs locked around his hips, though he hardly needed any help to support her. His hands were curled around her thighs, fingers digging into her flesh just a little. The pulsing heat of her arousal increased as he thrust into her, building until it was almost intolerable. Then one of his hands moved from its grip on her legs, and his agile fingers found her clitoris again. Her legs clamped hard around him as she came, and his own orgasm wasn't far behind hers.
A few moments later, he was lying beside her on the mat, one leg wrapped around both of hers, as he reached up to untie her hands. It took a minute or two to untangle the mess of shirts, but she was free soon enough, leaving her able to curl against Steve's chest while she recovered herself.
"So, um..." Steve began. He didn't seem able to make much progress beyond that.
By then, Natasha had reassembled her composure enough to take the lead again. She smiled down at him. "Let's not try to have the awkward relationship conversation while lying naked on the gym floor."
That gave Steve a bit of direction. "I could – we could go to dinner, somewhere. Do you like Italian?"
"Sounds great," she agreed. "Just let me go change; I think I'm a bit under-dressed."
As if for the first time, Steve seemed to realize that they were lounging naked in the middle of a communal space, and made a lunge for his boxers. Amused, Natasha slid back into her workout clothes and headed for the door. "Meet me downstairs in twenty."
A tinny jingling sound rose from the sweatpants Steve had just managed to reclaim. Frowning, he pulled the phone out of his pocket and looked at the display. "Might take a little longer than that; we just got the call to Assemble. But right after the debrief, absolutely."
She smiled. "I'll hold you to that."