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Tony Stark, former enfant terrible of the ballet world, is back.

This has come as a surprise to many. Stark’s injury, at the tender age of 21, robbed the ballet world of one of its fastest-rising stars; he had already put in three seasons with the NYCB, including brief stints at the Bolshoi and the Royal Ballet, by the time his leg went out under him in spectacular fashion at the end of Swan Lake. Rumors at the time assigned blame both to Stark, known for his wild life off-stage, and to his ballet master, Obadiah Stane, accused of pushing the young man too hard and too far. (Stane moved on—and up—despite Stark’s loss, and is currently in line to be the next artistic director of the NYBT.)

Most ballet enthusiasts can still remember the tragedy of the press conference in which Stark announced that he would never dance again. It echoed the loss of his mother, a famed dancer in her own right, who died when he was little more than a child and whose legacy he worked to live up to. So what is he doing, back in the spotlight?

Maybe he was always destined to follow in one parent’s footsteps or the other. After his career-ending injury, he retreated to his first love: technology. The younger Stark’s gift for engineering turned out to surpass even that of his father, legendary scientist Howard Stark. In the decades since his fall, Tony Stark has created an empire out of his father’s already-vast business. No one who watches him on television can doubt the sincerity of his love for what he does.

But ballet, it seems, has always remained on his mind. Now that he’s independently wealthy and secure enough in his position to take a step back from his iron control of his corporate interests, he appears to be doing something about it.

Rumors that Stark would launch a ballet school started swirling nearly a year ago. Sought-after students were contacted on the down-low, asked to keep it hush-hush, but of course people will talk, and the news leaked.

This summer will mark the beginning, not only of his brand-new school’s first year, but also the first year of an even more ambitious project: the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company. What dancers Stark has recruited for the project remains largely unknown. The most persistent rumors are some of the hardest to credit: Natasha Romanoff, a well-known ballerina who, at 30, is starting to run out of time, has a thriving career elsewhere. It would be difficult to imagine what Stark could offer her to induce her to join a fledgling company that could easily fail. Even more astonishing, James Buchanan Barnes is rumored to be returning. If the name sounds familiar, it should: Barnes was a principal dancer at the Bolshoi with Romanoff, before her emigration to the United States, and before he suffered a tragic accident just two years ago that left him with only a stump remaining of his left arm. How will an amputee survive in the harsh, athletic world of ballet?

What is certain is that, whatever Stark does, it will be worth watching. He has always had a flare for the dramatic and an eye for talent (witness his engineering corporation’s successful, controversial personnel acquisitions). If his company can survive the corps-eat-corps world of ballet for more than a season, it may do the ballet world a world of good.

 

“It’s turning into news.” Natasha had the phone cradled on her shoulder, kneading her left foot with both hands.

“We knew it would.” Tony sounded nonchalant, which he most certainly was not. “Is it bothering you?”

“Not particularly.”

“Good. I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again: I couldn’t do it without you.”

She laughed a little. “I think you could, but I look forward to the paycheck.”

“Seriously. Bucky wouldn’t even think of doing this with anyone else. I need him, I need you, this is going to be amazing, and I feel like a fucking genius for thinking of it, but without you it all falls apart like a house of cards.”

“Tony. You don’t need to keep wooing me. I signed the contract.”

“So you did! Are you going to come see how the school’s going?”

“Soon. I’m taking a few days to just rest.” She hit a nasty spot in her plantar fascia and held in the sigh as she worked it out.

“Nat. My Titian-haired beauty. You have to come by, the kids will freak to see you. You’re, like, their personal saint for half of them.”

She laughed, low and rolling. “Only half?”

“Well, you know, not a lot of Russians in this crop.”

“What!”

“There will be, I’m sure! They’re just more risk-averse than some of the other groups.”

“True enough.”

“How are you?” His voice softened. “Taking care of those ankles?”

“Of course. I’m fine.”

“You should see the physiotherapist, make sure you’re in good condition for the fall opener.”

“I will.”

“I mean, I’m paying him to be full-time, you should take advantage of that. So far it’s just bumps and bruises from the school.”

“Not too many, I hope.”

“I don’t think so. The teachers are pretty good with them.”

She sighed, switching to her right foot. “I hope so.”

“Flashbacks to your stern former dance mistresses? I assume there were regular beatings, probably with icicles or straps made from wolf-hide leather.”

“Close enough.”

“Jesus. Glad I just fucked around a little in Russia.”

“Is tough everywhere, you know that.” She poked gingerly at a toenail that was coming a little loose.

“Yeah, but there’s a difference between tough and cruel. I hope we’re on the right side of it.”

“We will be,” she said firmly.

 

James was making a face at his breakfast when she turned around.

“What, you don’t like it?” she said.

“I got used to junk food. Now it’s all spinach and granola again. Don’t blame me.”

She shrugged, carrying her glass of water back to his table. “I don’t. I had French toast last week for the first time in ages. Loved it.”

“Without me?”

She rolled her eyes at him, and he cracked a little smile. James had been so serious ever since this whole thing started. His late-night, quiet phone call to her. The strange proposal that she’d started turning over in her mind, the question getting bigger every night, until finally, she’d called him back and said Da.

James propped his chin on his hand, turning to look out the window—not much of a view, just the brick of the building next door. The summer was layering a thick, honeyed light over everything.

“I’ve been training so hard,” he said softly. “What if it’s not enough?”

“Yasha.” She reached out and put a hand on his good arm; he glanced back at her. “If it weren’t, would I have come?”

He cracked a real laugh at that. “No.”

“There it is, then.”

He glanced down at his sautéed spinach and egg white omelet. “You were never too sentimental, Natalia. I always appreciated that.”

“Don’t talk about us like we’re already dead.” She patted him briskly on his bad shoulder. “This is going to be an interesting year.”

“It has to be.” He shoved a forkful of omelet into his mouth. Kisa leapt up into his lap, purring, butting her head against his free hand. He ran his metal fingers behind her ears, scratching gently, and she closed her eyes in ecstasy.

When they’d danced together, they’d been so young. Just children, really. And of course, like all children, they thought they were gods.

At seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, they’d been on a meteoric rise, always together. Russia was willing to embrace James despite his un-Russian roots. He certainly looked and acted Russian enough. And in his costumes, glittering in the stage lights, it was easy to understand why strangers were in love with him, why women he’d never met would try to sneak into his dressing room, bribing the guards.

So Natasha, who was so often on his arm on the stage, was on his arm off-stage, too. The things they knew about each other but never said made a soft cushion between them.

(There were words; the words were cruel, so they never used them.)

The year James fell in love, a new, handsome dancer joined the company. James followed him everywhere with his eyes—oh, that had been a bad year, a very bad year. She and James danced Swan Lake together and taped their feet together. After the performances they’d go back to James’ little shared apartment and rest their foreheads together, and James would cry if he needed to. Falling in love had been a terrible idea. He never said out loud to her that he’d done it, but she had eyes, and she knew James. They both knew better than to do it on company time. Not that knowing better had ever done them much good.

When she told James she was leaving Russia for the United States, he stared at her in something that wasn’t really surprise. He wished her well.

He’d died some, she supposed, left there on his own, alone.

When the other principal—a man, who would sometimes take James’ parts, and sometimes James would take his—crashed their car, drunk out of his mind, James was bored to distraction even after he left the hospital. She called James and they had meandering conversations in the twilight hours when their schedules overlapped. She hadn’t asked James why he’d let the other man drive.

That dancer, too, had been very pretty.

“Tony’s talking about doing a piece by Peck,” she said, pushing her own omelet around the plate. “Have you seen his new stuff?”

James nodded. “The music for the ones with Sufjan sounds like that—you know that composer. Koyaanisqatsi.”

“Philip Glass?”

He snapped his fingers. “Yes. That one.”

“They do, don’t they? Repetitive. Tranquilizing.”

“Which one does Tony want to do?”

New Blood.”

“That’s not so bad, then.”

“No, I think it will be good.”

 

Stark’s main studio space was nice.

It wasn’t strange, given how rich he was. But it was still pleasurable to walk into the studio and feel the perfect give of the floor, to see the tall windows lining one wall and the mirrors lining the other. She dropped her bag and crossed to the spot she was already picking out as hers at the barre.

The late-August sunlight was spilling in, a long wedge of it across the floor. She put on a pair of practice shoes and started to work through the positions. No one else would be coming; it was just her time to get used to the room.

Her shoes squeaked on the floor. Her breathing dropped into rhythm. It was like going into a trance, going through the warm-up routine. Always starting small, just those few first steps every budding ballerina learned, first position, second, into fifth.

She started in on a few familiar sequences from Nutcracker. (Of course they’d be doing it at Christmas. No ballet company escaped it.) She was into a series of chaîné turns when the door opened.

She wasn’t going to look—she needed to focus—

She glanced at the intruder, and for the first time since she was a child, she lost her place and stumbled out of the turns.

“Oh!” The woman lifted both hands to her face in surprise and distress. Her hair was strawberry blonde, pulled back from her face into a high ponytail except for a fringe of bangs. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t think anyone else would be here—Tony told me it would be empty—”

“What a coincidence,” said Natasha dryly, pulling herself up to her full height (still shorter than this woman) and drawing her shoulders back, a little out of breath. “He said the same thing to me.”

“I’m—Virginia? But I go by Pepper? Potts.” The woman stepped forward, putting out her hand. She looked painfully earnest. Her skin was pale, even by Russian standards, like ivory. It was like meeting the ballerina from the music box. “I’m going to be dancing with you this year?”

“Ah, of course.” Natasha shook the offered hand quickly. It was small, palm dry and soft. Pepper would be the other principal female dancer, the one Tony hadn’t been able to shut up about, such a great dancer, I think you’ll really like working with her, plus she’s just a sweetheart, not a pushover though, you know what I mean. “I’m Natasha Romanoff. No nickname.”

“Of course you are.” Pepper’s eyes crinkled at the corners as she smiled. “I mean, everyone knows who Natasha Romanoff is.”

Natasha laughed. “That’s very flattering. Thank you.”

“Are you—getting settled?” Pepper nodded at the studio.

“Just getting used to the space.”

“Already thinking about the Nutcracker?” Pepper grinned a little when Natasha quirked one corner of her mouth in a wry smile. Pepper mimed the part of the dancing doll briefly, and Natasha laughed.

“I hear we’re doing Twyla Tharp first, though,” added Pepper.

Natasha nodded. “Waiting at the Station.”

“Tony’s not worried about looking derivative?”

“When does he ever?”

“Point.” Pepper laughed. “He always thinks, well, he’s Tony Stark, he can do whatever it is bigger and better, even if he didn’t do it first.”

“Did you know him before this?”

“Some. He was a big donor for my old company, he’d come to performances. Box seats. The works.”

“Your old company must be annoyed.”

Pepper’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I haven’t asked.”

“Why did he go after you?” It wasn’t, strictly speaking, a polite question. It was worth asking to see what kind of answer she would get.

Pepper shrugged, still smiling. Stage smile. “He has his reasons, I’m sure, but when I saw the contract—it’s more than I was making and it’s a fun opportunity, isn’t it? What about you?”

“You’ll find out soon enough.”

Pepper’s eyes glittered. “That’s very mysterious.”

“I like mystery.”

“Would it be all right if I—if I joined you for a bit?” Pepper tipped her head at the empty floor. “I’d like to get an idea of the floor.”

“Of course.” Natasha stepped back, waving out at the empty room. “Anywhere you like.”

Pepper flashed her a quick smile and took up a spot near, but not too near. The two of them settled into the rhythm of warm-ups, and Natasha even made it back into her chaîné turns. Uninterrupted this time.  

Pepper’s movements were highly precise. Natasha could see why she’d been made principal. That precision, coupled with any degree of athletic power, would make Pepper a joy to watch. She didn’t quite have Natasha’s expressivity, but few did.

Even more than before, watching Pepper’s legs flex in a battement tendu jeté, Natasha found herself thinking of the little blonde ballerina doll, rotating on a platform in a music box. Beautiful. Mechanical.

 

“Tell me about her.” James slid her latte across the table to her.

The coffee shop was alive with tinkling glassware, murmuring conversations. There was a couple near the door—Natasha thought the man might be thinking of proposing, from how nervous and shocky his face was whenever his date wasn’t looking, and how his hand kept straying to touch a lump in his pocket. Too small for a gun.

She took a long sip of her latte to buy time. Organize her impressions. “She’s quite technical. Very good.”

“But?” James prompted with gentle skepticism.

“But she lacks… feeling. There isn’t enough emotion.”

James nodded. “I’d heard as much.”

“From where?”

“Her old company. I know one of the corps.”

“But she was a principal there, too? This isn’t a promotion for her?”

“It’s not, no. But I heard that there might be reasons she might want to leave.” At her raised eyebrow, he glanced to the side, lifting one shoulder in a bare shrug. “Just gossip.”

“Tell me.”

“There was a rumor that she was sleeping with the ballet master.”

Natasha paused with her cup halfway to her lips. “Really? She didn’t strike me that way.”

“She wasn’t the first he went after. I didn’t get the feeling from my—my friend that the ballet master cared much whether the girls liked the attention.”

“No wonder she was ready to leave. Prove herself at a new company.” Natasha smiled faintly. “Can you imagine Rhodes putting the moves on a dancer?”

“No. Tony, maybe.”

“No, not Tony, either. He’s too invested in this. He wants us to succeed. I don’t think you could talk him into screwing it up with sex.”

James grinned at her. Sometimes, he looked just like he had when they were sixteen, seventeen, and they hadn’t yet fully realized how difficult and painful things were going to be.

She rolled her eyes. “And neither could I. I’m not disparaging your skills and your considerable attractions.”

“Speaking of that.” A cloud passed over his face. “Tony will want us to do publicity.”

“Together?” Of course it would make him uncomfortable; he was over thirty now, he’d had—probably—relationships. She just lifted one corner of her mouth at him in a predatory, unfriendly smile. He’d know it wasn’t for him. “We’ve done that before, darling. It will be fine.”

He leaned back in his chair, sighing. “I know, I know. I just wish…”

“That things were different?” She took another sip of her coffee. “Don’t we all. Mir tésen.” A crowded world. A small world, in ballet, where everything you did echoed endlessly, like listening to the ocean in a shell.

 

Tony took her out for shawarma. “You’re going to ruin my figure,” she said dryly. “Or yours.”

“Hey, hey!” Tony held up a hand. “You are an elite athlete, and I have a very expensive personal trainer. I think we can have some meat if we’re feeling it. Sure, the fluorescent lights aren’t exactly flattering, but if we ignore the ambiance, which I am perfectly capable of doing, what we’re left with is some really spectacularly good food. Focus on the highlights.”

She snorted, finishing chewing and swallowing a bite. “Indulgence is your business.” (It lost a little of its authority, coming out half-garbled.)

“I mean, no, not really, my business is mostly metal things that go beep? But anyway, look, this isn’t strictly speaking a social occasion. I wanted to check in with you about something that’s been on my mind. Worrying me a little.”

“And that is?” She took another bite.

“You know—” He hesitated; she raised an eyebrow at him. “You know I don’t have a great relationship with Obi, these days. Obadiah Stane.”

“I think anyone with a passing familiarity with ballet knows that, Tony.”

“Yeah, well, he’s not—I’ve heard he’s not thrilled I’m starting this company. Or the school.”

“I’m not surprised.”

Tony rested his head against the wall behind him. “He’s afraid I’m going to drain off high-quality students. I mean, all the local feeder schools can do pretty generous scholarships, there are a shit ton of rich people who love The Arts in New York, but I’m doing better than most of them. I’ve budgeted kind of a lot of money for this, to make up for the uncertainty about whether the students will have to find somewhere else to take them next year.”

“So he fears you poaching?”

“Among other things. I mean, let’s be real, a lot of people are pretty sure we’re not going to make it through the whole season, let alone come back next year, but I think if Obi could figure out a way to make sure we failed, he would.”

Natasha raised both eyebrows, slowly. “What exactly is it you think he might do?”

“Well, if I were him, I’d probably try to recruit talent. The higher the better. I won’t be shocked if he tries to approach dancers, especially principals, with better contracts.”

“I will tell him where he can shove contract.

“Nat, my shining beacon of artistry, I love you. But if he tries, will you give me a heads-up? I know he can offer some very nice terms.”

“He cannot offer me enough to overlook his obvious failings.”

“Uh, okay. What?” Tony blinked at her.

Natasha gestured at him. “We danced, in Moscow. I know your style. Very smooth, elegant, flowing. Like how you talk.”

“Why, Miss Romanoff, I do declare!” He fanned himself vigorously with a napkin and fluttered his eyelashes at her outrageously.

“Shut up. You had many strengths. Not power. Too short, built too fine. You never had the jumps like James.”

“You build me up just to break me down? How could you!”

“Shut up. If I see this, Stane sees this. What does he do? Pressure you to do dangerous jumps? Could not have picked more likely activity to injure you if he had tried. So. I do not trust Stane. He does not know how to manage dancers, and in ballet master? That is unacceptable.”

Tony leaned back, his mouth twitching downward at the corners. “So—you think it’s Obi’s fault I fell?”

“Yes.” She went back to her food. “Not think. Know.”

“You get very primal when you’re hungry.”

She hummed back wordlessly around a mouthful of meat.

“But you’ll tell me? If he reaches out to you? I’ve talked to some of the other dancers, asked them to let me know, but I don’t want to spread it around too much in case it gives anyone ideas.” He laughed ruefully, passing a hand over his forehead. “I like to think we don’t have anybody who’d jump ship, but there’s a lot of people involved in making a company work and maybe he has something better to offer at least some of them, you know?”

“Better watch out. If I were him, I’d pay just for information.”

“Yeah, because you’re Russian, good God, you really are stuck in the détente mindset, aren’t you? I’m not worried about spies.

She shrugged. “Your funeral.”

 

She woke up before her alarm clock, her eyes opening as she soundlessly came completely awake.

The ceiling above her was white. Ceiling fan, also painted white, brighter. Her studio apartment had the advantage of two large windows, even if the view was of the narrow alley, the back of a Chinese restaurant. There were shafts of sunlight penetrating between the two buildings.

She sat up, swinging her legs out of bed, and started the day’s routine.

By the time she made it to the ballet studio, leaving enough time for warm-ups before class, she was clutching a grande green tea. The room had just a couple of people in it—a few girls she didn’t know, a man who looked familiar, a man who didn’t. A pianist, settled comfortably on the bench, running his fingers over the keys and occasionally playing a few notes. James wasn’t there yet.

She dropped her bag next to the barre just as Pepper walked in. Their eyes met, and Pepper smiled, brightening, obviously genuinely glad to see a familiar face. Natasha smiled back and waved her over; Pepper took up a spot next to her.

“How was your weekend?” asked Pepper.

“Fine. Tried to relax before this.” Natasha nodded at the rapidly filling room. “You?”

“Oh, it was nice. I went to a play! It was wonderful. And yesterday I went out for brunch. Do you like brunch?”

“I do.” Natasha felt somehow unwilling to reveal even that much, and dismissed the impulse at once as illogical. “You should join me and James sometime.”

“That would be fantastic!” Pepper’s eyes lit up, transparently. Natasha turned to look anywhere—at the door—hurriedly.

Luckily, on cue, James blew in. He was always a hurricane, dropping all his things and dragging Natasha into a hug, squeezing her hard.

“New season,” he said to her. He’d left his metal arm bare. He wasn’t bothering with the flesh-toned sleeve Tony had made for him, that he’d wear for rehearsals and performances. He’d told her he didn’t mind dancing with it, exactly, but he wanted everyone used to the metal arm. Used not only to the sight but to the chill of it and the weight of it, before they needed to perform with him on stage.

She smiled at him. “James, this is Pepper. Pepper, this is James, one of our male principals.”

“Oh, of course!” Pepper shook James’ hand enthusiastically. (Natasha guessed, from the disconcerted look on James’ face, that he’d meant to kiss her hand, but she’d deprived him of the chance.) “It’s such an honor!”

“We’ll see what you think after you have to put up with me for a while.” James cracked a crooked smile at her. She blushed prettily.

“Don’t let his head get fat,” Natasha murmured to her. “The legend is much inflated. Unlike mine.” Gratifyingly, Pepper had to visibly stifle a chuckle.

“Have you met T’Challa?” James stepped back, motioning to a man who’d looked familiar—tall, black, stunningly handsome even by dance standards. He took Natasha’s hand with a coolly professional smile. Of course; he was a king’s son, wasn’t he? He would be used to diplomacy. Meeting new people who believed themselves important.

“I haven’t had the pleasure,” said Natasha.

“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you.” T’Challa’s voice was authoritative without being cold. He watched her levelly as she gave him a bright smile and introduced Pepper.

Glancing around the room again, she spotted more black dancers than she would have expected. T’Challa as principal was noteworthy. The presence of Sam Wilson—she recognized him from a performance she’d seen the year before—standing next to Gabe Jones and Jim Morita, both a little older than Wilson but solid soloists, strongly suggested that Tony had recruited with that in mind.

A moment later one of the other girls said, with a distinct lack of the timidity Natasha was both used to and tired of, “Excuse me, I just wanted to say hi. I’m Sharon Carter, with the corps.”

“It’s so nice to meet you.” Natasha shook her hand. Sharon was tall, with long golden hair spilling over her shoulders, and a firm set to her mouth. Not someone Natasha could immediately place from prior performances or company gossip, although something about her face seemed familiar. She’d have to watch Sharon dance. See if she had potential.

The ballet master, James Rhodes, showed up. He glanced around the room, stoic.

“All right, everybody.” His voice was gravelly and booming. It called the nervous young things to order. “Let’s get started.”

 

The class was intensive, but good. Rhodes took their measure right away. He talked to them with a gruffness that seemed to inadequately conceal his genuine good nature and vaguely paternal concern, warmth creeping into his lopsided smile and the way he rolled his eyes. Tony had recruited wisely. They were a small company, but they were all professionals with good performance experience, every one of them capable of the kind of work they would need to do. No bench-warmers here.

Tony showed up near the end. Rhodes glanced up and caught his eye. Rhodes jerked his chin at the room in an obvious question, and Tony nodded minutely.

“We’ve got a message from our sponsor,” said Rhodes. “Give him your attention. Undivided.”

The dancers settled, drifting to lean against the barre more casually, some still doing stretches or small movements.

“Hi.” Tony shoved his hands into his pockets. “You all know me, obviously, because I hunted you all down—okay, that came out a little creepy, I’m not saying you’re prey, obviously—but I picked you out to recruit because you’re all top talent. And most of you were being underutilized at your previous companies. Here, there’s no room for that. There’s no room for slack. We’re brand-new, we’re going to have to impress everyone right out of the gate, and I picked you because I knew you could do it. We’re going to tackle ambitious productions and we’re going to nail them. One of the things I’m really pleased to announce is that we’ve got an in-house choreographer for our first year; Steve Rogers will be drafting pieces for us. Our principal Natasha Romanoff—don’t even pretend you don’t know who she is—will be collaborating with him. We’re going to do interesting new things, and we’re going to do the classics, and we are going to nail all of them. Every step. Every night. All right?”

There was a faint murmur. Tony cupped one hand behind his ear and raised his eyebrows. “Yes, Tony,” echoed out a little more clearly. Natasha noticed that Pepper’s voice was clear and loud in the general hubbub. Pepper was smiling a little Mona Lisa smile at Tony. She looked proud.

“We’re casting for the fall season starting this afternoon, so take a look at the schedule. All right,” said Tony. “Another thing. We come back for a second year, every person here gets a ten percent raise.”

There was general cheering and whooping at that. He was smirking out at them, an artificial smile to cover up what Natasha was fairly sure was real emotion, touched by the appreciation.

“Give it everything you’ve got. I’m out, get back to your thing.” He gestured at them and ducked out of the room.

Pepper caught Natasha’s eye as they turned back toward Rhodes for a few more moments of class. Pepper raised one eyebrow—barely—at Natasha, and Natasha found herself smiling back.

It would be hard not to like Tony. He was a little fragile, a little manic, and he had the knack for making other people believe that he could bring his grandiose dreams to life.

A second season: what a nice idea. But dreams were for children. They had work to do.

Natasha sank into the position Rhodes was demonstrating, knees protesting.

 

“Nat.” Tony’s voice was tinny over the phone. “Light of my life.”

“What do you need this time, Tony?” Natasha turned over avocados with her free hand, squeezing the more promising ones.

“It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, I promise. Think of it as an opportunity, a challenge, something else you can excel at like the terrifying Soviet femme fatale that you are.”

“Spit it out.” She adjusted the wire handle of the grocery basket at her elbow.

“I’ve been working with Rhodey on some strategies to drum up interest. You know, enter a few people in competitions, exhibitions, that kind of thing.”

“So what do you need me for?”

“Picture this: Valentine’s Day. You know a lot of companies run something short, romantic, nothing too crazy, but something people can take their significant others to. Or would-be significant others.”

“You want a program for Valentine’s Day?”

“Specifically, I want you to choreograph a piece for it. Something short, don’t worry, but we’ll market this as your solo debut.”

“Ahead of the debut for my piece with Steve?”

“Yes. It’s going to be a teaser, kind of a taste ahead of time of what audiences can expect from the two of you working together. And it will prove that you can stand on your own.”

She set down the avocado she’d been holding sightlessly for too long. “So, what, you want me to just—choreograph something that stands on its own, on a ludicrous timeline?”

“Nat. My love. If I didn’t know you could do it, I wouldn’t even ask. I have absolute faith in you. Valentine’s Day is a big financial thing. Brooklyn hipsters, looking for a date idea that shows they’re cultured but not stuffy—a short ballet evening is perfect. We can partner with restaurants in the area to do a special deal so they can have a tasting menu inspired by the performance. We’ve already got a couple of takers for that.”

“That’s insane. Although—” She stopped abruptly.

“What is it? Nat, my matryoshka doll of hidden talents, do you have something in mind, something percolating that I can get you to bust out for this? Do you?” He was blatantly wheedling.

“Well.” She sighed. “I suppose—”

 

Tony, because he was Tony Stark first and foremost and Tony had never met an event that didn’t call for alcohol, threw a party for the dancers and the crew to “get to know each other.”

James spent most of the party successfully hiding, for whatever reasons of his own. She got stuck talking to the orchestra’s conductor, a stuffy, balding man in an ill-fitting suit. He seemed to be under the impression that Natasha would be interested in his wine collection and his name-dropping of obscure European performers, many of whom she personally knew and disliked.

“That’s fascinating.” She smiled at him. There were too many teeth in it, but he wasn’t noticing.

“Coulson? Why don’t you introduce me?” Oh, great, another one—a red-haired man with a sycophantic smile, in a white suit with a repulsive bow-tie.

Coulson smiled tightly. Good, he wasn’t any more enthused about this intrusion than she was. Perhaps they would get to fighting with each other and she could make good on a relatively painless escape.

“This is Edward Acra, our chief clarinetist.” Coulson gestured between them. “Edward, I imagine I don’t have to tell you who Natasha is.”

She extended a hand, smiling sickly-sweet at him. He seized her hand and kissed it, leaving a print of wet lips she fought the urge to wipe off on her dress.

“Of course not. I’m quite the aficionado, you know. Of ballet. I’ve followed your career with interest.”

She faked a polite, interested smile. “I’m so flattered!”

Edward’s chest puffed out as he absorbed this. He inched closer to her. “After all, with the—”

“Edward, weren’t you going to talk to Royal?” said Coulson.

“I—I was, yes, but that isn’t pressing.”

“Are you sure? I can see her talking to that other fellow who wanted to buy her clarinet.”

Edward twisted around, staring off in the direction Coulson had pointed. “Oh, damn.” He turned back to Natasha and reached for her hand again. After a moment’s internal debate she let him take it and bow over it. “Another time, milady.”

“Another time!” she said with forced cheer. After he left, she turned back to Coulson, who looked satisfied with himself. Well. He was hardly the worst company present, at any rate. Sweat was beading up on his forehead. She hoped he’d resist the urge to kiss her hand just because Edward had done it.

“Sorry about Edward,” said Coulson ruefully. “He used to be with NYBT, and ABT before that, and I’m afraid it went to his head. He’s not a bad clarinet, but he’s hardly our top talent.”

Natasha smirked. “I get the feeling he can blow a horn.”

And then Pepper wandered up, joining them, a glass of white wine in one hand and her clutch purse in the other. “Phil!”

“Pep,” he said, visibly relaxing, which startled Natasha. “How’s things?”

“Good! I see you’re meeting Natasha?”

“Yes, we were just talking about—”

“You mean you were talking!” Pepper laughed musically. “Don’t worry,” she said to Natasha, “he’s always stiff like that with new people, he isn’t trying to be a snob.”

“I see.” Natasha hid her confusion by taking a quick sip of her wine.

“I’m not a snob!”

“Phil. Did you talk about your wines?”

“It’s only appropriate! We’re both having—”

Phil,” said Pepper, pulling him in for a one-armed hug. “We’ve talked about this. Not everyone loves wine like you do, just because they’re drinking it!”

“Well, what do you want to talk about?” he asked her, crossly but with a little too much softness in it to be real annoyance.

“How about your new people? How are they? Tony told me you put together a good crew.” She turned back to Natasha and added, “Phil was the conductor for the ballet where I first started out. We stayed in touch, thank goodness for Facebook!”

“Facebook!” Coulson rolled his eyes. “Right. Because I’m all about the young, hip future. Social media!”

Natasha watched them. It was becoming clear, Coulson the awkward, crusty conductor who would have rather died than admit he was wrong-footed in social interactions; Pepper, who had probably been a charming and frightened young thing, who’d undoubtedly looked up at him—men loved to be looked up at, for some reason, even by tall young women—with wide eyes and made him feel important. And that had brought out the best in him: this version of himself, smiling at Pepper’s enthusiasm, starting to talk about which violin he’d stolen from which other production, how two of the cellos had been married once and he had to make sure they were separated but without making either of them feel like they were lesser. “I’ve had to tell them both a dozen times that I did not seat them by skill!”

Pepper patted his arm. “You know the egos in music, Phil, they’re almost as bad as dancers!”

He burst out laughing. “It’s kind of you to put it like that, but you know musicians at the worst of all!”

Natasha would have felt entirely extraneous if it weren’t for the way Pepper kept including her. Turning to her, touching her wrist lightly with those long fingers, flashing bright smiles her way.

“Did you ever play an instrument?” Natasha asked her during one lull, for lack of anything better to say.

“Oh, yes! Piano, for years. Mother insisted, even though I wasn’t any good at it. I never practiced, put all of my time into ballet instead. She let me quit when I was… I think twelve?”

“And that’s why Pepper has such a strong grasp of musical dynamics,” Phil—Coulson—said, firmly, as though he were granting her a benediction. “It was always a pleasure to work with her.”

Pepper rolled her eyes, waving her hand a little while smiling, dismissing the compliment. It wasn’t, after all, such a bad night. More of it than Natasha realized passed while she stood with Pepper and Coulson. Finally Coulson regretfully mentioned his bunions, and said his goodbyes. He got another brief hug from Pepper on his way out.

“He’s nice,” said Pepper to Natasha after he’d stumped off. “Kind of old-fashioned, but conductors are like that, you know?”

“I do,” Natasha said dryly.

“Anyway, I think he’ll be a good choice. He’s better at keeping the orchestra in line than a lot of them, and he has good relationships with most of the winds.”

“I didn’t realize you knew so much about our musicians.”

“Well, I was just around them a lot back in the day. And a lot of the people we have now were at other orchestras I knew—it’s so incestuous, really, isn’t it? Just the same handful of people going all over the country, playing somewhere until they get tired of it or the money runs out, and then moving on.”

“Yes, how lucky it’s nothing like our own work.”

Pepper burst into laughter. “Oh, there’s Tony! I needed to talk to him, he promised he’d go with me to my cousin’s wedding, he better not ditch me—” and with a little wave of her fingers she was gone.

It was Natasha’s bad luck. Near the end of the party, as she was starting to say goodbyes, Edward found her again.

“I was wondering—” he started, after a few minutes of interminable chit-chat.

Have you seen James?” she broke in. She craned her neck, ostentatiously looking around. “I can’t imagine where he’s gotten to, but he was going to find me for the ride home.”

Which was meant to call James to Edward’s mind. There was such a thing as honor among sexists, at times, and some men would back off at the reminder that she presumably belonged to a different one of them.

It was sadly unsuccessful in this case. “No idea. I was wondering,” he persevered with more tenacity than intelligence, “whether you might care to dine with me. I have reservations this Friday at Nobu.”

“Oh, you know, it’s such a shame, I have plans with James! But maybe another time.” She gave him a dazzling smile.

“Then—” he started.

“I think that’s him now! So lovely to meet you, do have a nice night, goodbye!” She patted his shoulder lightly as she ducked around him. She would rather have broken his neck.

 

Natasha made a point of telling Pepper she was looking forward to working with her on New Blood.

Pepper grinned. “Me, too. Did you see that Ororo’s on that?”

“Of course she is. Sam and Jim, too.”

“I just think it’s great. Ororo deserves more coverage. She’d have been a soloist at her old company by now if she weren’t black.” Pepper didn’t seem to think she’d said anything extraordinary, but Natasha stared at her blankly for a moment.

“You think that was it?” she finally said.

“What else do you think it would be?” Pepper shrugged. “You watch her?”

And Natasha had; she’d come to the same conclusion as Pepper—Ororo was at least soloist material, and would be principal material soon, if she wasn’t already—but no one ever just said that it was about race. Even when it was very obviously about race.

“Yes,” said Natasha slowly. “She’s very good.”

“And you heard Tony. Underutilized. What do you think that means?” Pepper’s laugh was hard. “For her, at least, and Sam. I know they were stuck in corps. And I don’t think it’s because they weren’t good enough.”

“You’re probably right.” It felt like pulling off a scab.

That night, James came up to her on her way out of rehearsal. “Dinner?”

She looked up at him, smiling. “Sure.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Pepper watching them.

She pretended she hadn’t. She laced her arm through James’, and the two of them walked out, heads close together, murmuring to each other.

They just went back to James’ apartment for dinner. Now that the season was on, they would need to watch calories like a hawk, make sure they were getting their nutrients. James had bottles of supplements lined up on his spice rack, as if they were seasonings rather than glucosamine, fish oil, vitamin E—of course, the turmeric was a seasoning, strictly speaking, but the capsules of it he took were supposed to be anti-inflammatory.

He knocked around the kitchen, making the same small reassuring noises she remembered from Russia, humming snatches of melodies to himself badly. Kisa had curled up on top of the refrigerator and peered down at them.

“So have you met the other choreographer yet?” James cranked on the gas; it ticked alarmingly for a few beats before catching in a jet of blue flame, arcing up from under the burner.

“Steven? Yes, once.” She sipped her cup of chamomile tea. (No caffeine after a long day—she had to go home and go to bed after this.) “He’s a nice young man.”

“Nice? What a rave review.”

“Well, we only met for a few minutes. Tony was introducing us while I was touring the building. He has an office down in the basement. It’s like a cave.”

“At least he has an office.” James sprinkled salt into the pot.

“You’re right, he should be grateful. Actually, he probably is.”

“Will you work with him down there?”

She wrinkled her nose, taking another sip. James was stirring the pot vigorously, his hair pulled back, a look of intent concentration on his face. “Most likely.”

“Nervous?” He glanced up at her sidelong, grinning.

She made a gesture as if to brush something off her shoulder. “Never, darling.”

“I should know better than to ask. Did you get the email today? First joint interview is scheduled.”

“Of course.” She felt a little chill, like a drop of ice water running down her spine, but shrugged it off. “I have a solo interview with Vogue that’s coming out soon, but they’ll want to see us together. Who’s the lucky recipient?”

“Peter Parker, the Gazette. Tightens up the timeline, they print faster than Vogue.”

“Oh, good. He seems nice enough.”

“Nice, yes. And very limber.” James laughed at the expression on her face. “Not your type, I know.”

It was funny. For all the years they’d known about each other, they’d rarely even come close to saying it out loud.

“Maybe you can convince him to write something nice about us,” she grumbled as he strained out the pot and started dumping noodles onto plates.

He sat across from her, handing over the plum sauce he knew she liked to dump on the noodles until they were almost sickly-sweet. Not approved at all by connoisseurs, but a taste she’d picked up years ago and never been able to shake.

“I think our natural charm will do the work for us.” He cracked another grin, chewing open-mouthed just to make her swat him on the arm in playful disgust.

“If we’re relying on your charm we’re fucked.”

He stuck out his tongue. She recoiled theatrically.

On her way home, she leaned back in the subway seat. She’d had more seasons than most dancers ever got, and a new season was always a little like a new school year, with the tingling anticipation. You didn’t know (unless it was a very familiar company that hadn’t made many changes) who would make friends, who would fight, who would date.

Sharon would find a boyfriend in the company, she was fairly sure. Maybe Sam, who’d cast a glance or two her way. Maria seemed too self-contained, a bit chilly. That might be a front that would dissolve over time, but who knew?

Pepper—well. Pepper was very beautiful, but if she was smart, she would avoid entanglements. The rumors that followed her could only be shaken off if she showed impeccable purity and virtue in her new setting. Whether she was guilty or not, whether the ballet master had seduced her or not, hardly mattered to the gossip mill.

Natasha closed her eyes, just for a moment, and blinked them open again as the train slid to a stop.

 

A Portrait of Poise: Natasha Romanoff and the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company

By Plum Sykes for Vogue

“What’s a ballerina like you doing in a company like this?” As soon as the words leave my mouth, I hear how they sound and flinch. Luckily for me, Natasha Alianovna Romanoff, one of the greatest living dancers, is unruffled. She’s wearing a camel-hair trench-coat, an oxblood-colored Coach scarf that sets off her remarkable eyes and calls out the glints in her lustrous hair, and a pair of dangling chandelier earrings with crystals that sparkle in the light. She is the picture of grace that one might expect from an off-duty ballerina.

“Well,” she says, stirring her chai with one elegant hand, “Tony Stark made me a very compelling offer.”

“It would have to be.”

“I’ve always been interested in choreography. At my other companies, there was never really an opportunity to explore that. And in my thirties, naturally, my career options narrow. Tony was kind enough to offer me the chance to try my hand at choreography with the support of an excellent choreographer.”

She’s talking, of course, about Steve Rogers, who is almost her own age but has a much longer history as a choreographer. Rogers, as an openly bisexual man, notoriously faced an uphill battle to be taken seriously by the ballet establishment—no less so because he began working on choreography while a member of the corps, with little chance of advancing, given his less than ideal physique. He tops out at 5’6”, short for a male dancer, but it was an injury to his Achilles tendon that finally took him out of performances.

“What do you think of his work?”

She takes a slow sip of her drink before answering. “I would hate to label his work with any of those words critics over-use. You know what I mean—iconoclastic, inspiring, haunting! But I have to say, I think it’s very exciting. He focuses on forcing us to expand our conception of what ballet can be. I love to watch his pieces, and I love to dance them, which I think can be very apparent to the audience—what brings the dancers genuine joy.”

“You’ve danced his pieces before?”

“Yes, I’ve done some of his shorts in exhibitions.”

I know I have to broach what might be a personal topic. “And I understand you’ll be dancing opposite James Barnes?”

She laughs brightly, a noise like tinkling silver bells. “Yes! My darling Yasha. It’s been much too long.”

“If you’ll pardon my curiosity, I think a lot of people were concerned that his injury would end his career.”

“It might have, if he hadn’t met Tony.” She winks at me; her eyeliner is perfectly, if subtly, winged. “You’ll have to wait until the performances begin to see what I mean, though. We must keep some of the mystery.”

“You’re making it very appealing to see the debut performance.”

“I hope you will!” She laughs again, musically. “We’ll be performing three pieces—Waiting at the Station—”

“Twyla Tharp, what a classic,” I break in rudely.

She forgives me with a smile and continues. “New Blood, by Peck, and The River.”

“One of Ailey’s more obscure pieces, isn’t it?”

“I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at our interpretation of it.”

“Tell me,” I say, acutely aware of time as she glances subtly down at a rose-gold watch that highlights the bird-like bones of her wrist, “is there any truth to the rumors that you left Russia because of heartbreak?” I want to ask about her relationship with James Barnes, of course, but I can’t. He was the heart-throb of the ballet world for years, and when Natasha left Russia—and by extension, James—behind, speculation ran wild about a possible fight between the two.

“My past is my own, you understand.” I’m not at all sure that I do. She smiles, a professional mask, and just like that, the interview is over: “I’m afraid I have run out of time. I must be getting back to the studio.”

It may not answer all my questions about her, but this little chat has certainly left me with the desire to watch the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company’s first season very carefully indeed.

“God, she’s insufferable,” said Natasha, flinging the magazine down.

James was shaking with silent laughter across the table from her, not even trying to hold it in. “Be careful,” he got out. “Don’t injure your bird-like bones in your elegant, graceful wrists.”

“I will murder you. Heart-throb.

Pepper couldn’t quite keep her smile to herself; it was breaking through despite her best attempts. “Surely not murder.”

“Justifiable homicide.” Natasha glowered at James.

Chtho?” James raised his eyebrows in insultingly poorly-faked innocence.

“Oh, go to hell.” She waved one hand at him dismissively. “At least there are Bellinis.”

Pepper looked enviously at her champagne flute. In a moment of goodwill, not least because Pepper had managed to refrain from any of James’ mockery, Natasha held the glass out to her. “Would like to try?”

“Oh, you know what, I will.” Pepper’s cheeks pinked appealingly. She took the flute from Natasha; their fingers brushed, and Pepper took a long sip. It was the seasonal Bellini, with house-made pomegranate syrup instead of the usual peach. If one had to watch one’s calories, better to make those calories matter.

Pepper handed it back, sighing happily. “That’s delicious! I’ll have to get it next time I’m here.”

Just then their server returned, bustling with white ceramic dishes—for James, a tofu-based Eggs Benedict; for Natasha, twice-baked wood-fired eggs with a harissa confit; and for Pepper, an arugula salad covered with toasted hazelnuts and slivers of pancetta. Natasha laid her napkin in her lap like a lady and then attacked her eggs like a starving wolf.

By the time they surfaced, their plates were wiped almost clean. James leaned over. “Spot on your lip,” he said, “let me get it.”

Natasha rolled her eyes but let him thumb away the sauce. She happened to meet Pepper’s stare as he swiped at it. The moment before he leaned back, satisfied at a job well done, she saw Pepper’s eyes widen fractionally.

Pepper dropped her head back to her plate, pushing a fork to capture the last few stray bits of hazelnut.

“I cannot wait for your turn,” Natasha said to James. “You won’t be so cheerful then.”

He pulled a long face. “The first one, we do together.”

“After that you’re on your own.”

He shook his head ruefully. “Tony wants me to start working with you and Steve on the choreography for the spring piece as soon as we get through the fall.”

“It won’t be much work for you, at the beginning.” Natasha raised her eyebrows at him meaningfully. “You will just need to come tell us what makes us insane, instead of creative.”

He burst into laughter. “What makes you insane? Your mind! The whole thing!”

Pepper was grinning at them. She had very straight, white teeth, and pink lips, still shining like gloss despite eating.

“Pepper,” Natasha said to her. “Please tell this Philistine that Steve and I will make him look better than he could ever achieve without us.”

James laughed. “Nyet!

“Shut it.” Natasha stuck her tongue out at him.

White crow,” he said to her fondly, odd one.

“I think you’ll be pleased by whatever Natasha and Steve come up with.” Pepper looked a little lost, but hopeful.

“We’ll see.” James leaned back in his chair so that the front feet came up. Natasha smacked his arm again.

“Don’t go injuring yourself, I won’t learn this all with a new partner!”

He let the chair drop, jarringly, and the server frowned in their direction. Natasha gestured at her. “See! Even the staff object to your manners.”

“Please.” He finished off the last of his black coffee in one drink. “They’re just distressed by how handsome I am.”

Pepper’s laugh was a soft peal. When Natasha stole a glance at her, she was looking at James something like the way Natasha looked at him—fond, but not hungry.

Well, that was something, at least.

 

At practice the next day, James leaned in close to her while they were working on a pass, and murmured, “We have a very pretty fellow principal, don’t we?”

Fill your mouth with water,” she hissed at him in Russian.

He mimed zipping his lips and tossed the imaginary key away, smirking at her.

“All right.” Rhodes circled them, frowning at their stances. “James, I’m going to need you to work on doing that more smoothly. I’m getting the lift I need, but you’re traveling. I know you can do it. Come on.” He clapped briskly. “Again.”

James rolled his eyes at her, but with no real heat. He liked Rhodes, she could tell. Worlds better than their master at the Bolshoi—Vanko had been a real prick. He was probably pickling his liver somewhere in obscurity now.

On that run-through, James let his fingers uncurl toward her. It was his prosthetic arm, but the movement was so James that she found her breath catching despite herself, despite how many years they’d danced together. He was still spellbinding, after all this time.

That evening, Natasha leaned against the wall in the dressing room to roll out her shoulders, a long luxurious stretch for her rotator cuff. Pepper sat down on a bench near Natasha to take off her shoes, and leaned forward after a minute to stow her things away.

“Do you and James get much time together?” asked Pepper, face still in her locker.

Natasha, rotating slowly to stretch her arm in the other direction, stared at the back of Pepper’s head blankly. “I suppose?”

“I know it’s, it’s none of my business.” Pepper’s words were starting to trip over each other, and she hadn’t turned around, as if she were talking to her shoes. “I just wondered—if it’s hard to make it work, if being in the same company is why you both came here.”

“We don’t—” Natasha paused. She’d been about to say have anything to make work, been about to tell the truth to this girl, for no good reason. “You need to understand. I’m my own woman, first, last, and always. We both had our reasons to say yes to Tony. James came because no one else would have made him the prosthetic and let him dance, and I came because no one else would have let me play at being a choreographer.”

“Right.” Pepper nodded sharply at her locker before turning back around, still having trouble meeting Natasha’s eyes. “I just—I wondered, because, you know, it’s not—people don’t always understand how much time we spend here.”

“Of course. Company is family.”

Pepper’s cheeks flamed up. Natasha was at a loss to explain why. “Tony’s more than most,” said Pepper, almost defiantly.

Natasha brought both her arms in front of her again, pulling one arm into a stretch at the elbow. “He’s a better man than most.”

The color died back out of Pepper’s cheeks, slowly, in blotches. “Yes,” she said, quieter. “He is a good man. He—you know, he worries about us. He takes care of us.”

“Yes.” Natasha’s clockwork brain, ticking, had returned to Pepper’s rumored problems with her former ballet master. No wonder Pepper was shy of the idea that company was family. No wonder she felt grateful, loyal, to a kind and handsome man.

“Good night.” Pepper slung her bag up on her shoulder. “See you tomorrow.”

Da,” Natasha replied, watching Pepper leave.

 

The interview with Maria Hill came out the next week. Whatever you could say about Tony Stark, he had a nose for publicity.

 

The Art That Doesn’t Love the Love That Dare Not Speak its Name: Maria Hill’s Journey to Soloist

For OUT Magazine

Maria Hill has been a ballet dancer since she was five years old.

“It was all I ever wanted to do,” she says, leaning back in the chair. Her body language is frank: confident, open. “I couldn’t imagine being anything else. You have to want it to succeed in dance. There are always people who are good and work hard. You have to be better and work harder.”

Ballet, despite its reputation, has a serious sexual diversity problem—in a field where men routinely make much more than women for the same work-weeks, because they are fewer in number and therefore in greater demand, heterosexuality can feel compulsory. There are dancers who come out publicly (PNB’s Lucien Postlewaite and Whim W’Him’s Olivier Wevers are a high-profile example, having met and fallen in love while dancing at PNB), but the vast majority of female professional dancers are either straight, or keeping their sexual orientation under wraps.

“Anyone who wasn’t heterosexual would be made very aware that they weren’t welcome.” Hill’s mouth sets in a narrow line as she stares into the distance. “Cracks about not wanting lesbians in the dressing room. I knew it was going to be a problem early on, but I kept hoping I’d change. I hoped I would fit in better.”

And did she? She grins, humorlessly. “Let me put it this way. I wasn’t the only woman there who liked women, but nobody else was out, either. And for good reason. The companies would not have been supportive. So I’ve stayed in the closet, for the most part, for my entire professional life. I was getting tired of it. When Tony Stark offered me a spot in his new company, he told me it was inclusive and welcoming. He said, and this is a direct quote, ‘You can do an interview in OUT about being a lesbian, if you want.’ I said, ‘You know what? I do want.’ So here I am.”

There are dance companies, even ballet companies, that are specifically for LGBTQ+ dancers, but none of them are at the professional level where they can pay dancers even the meager salaries that corps members draw, much less the salary Maria will make as a soloist.

“It was a big promotion for me,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to suggest that my sexual orientation was part of why I hadn’t been promoted at my old companies, but I can’t pretend the thought never crossed my mind. Tony Stark has a lot of faith in his dancers, and after watching them in rehearsals, I think it’s justified. You should see our principals—actually, you really should! You should buy tickets!” She laughs out loud at her own joke, visibly happier talking about her new colleagues than discussing her past in the industry.

The Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company is a new model of an old tradition; here at OUT, we’re definitely rooting for its success. Get yourself some tickets now and enjoy the season to come. No matter who you like, there’s always eye candy available.

Natasha stared at the article for a long time. Steve was scribbling something on his tablet across the desk.

“So?” he asked, without looking up. She could see the tension in the line of his neck. “What do you think?”

Natasha set the magazine down, very slowly. She didn’t recognize the man on the cover. He was very handsome, very white, with Hollywood teeth.

“I think she is a very brave young woman,” she finally said. “I am glad she has found a place here.”

She could see some of the tension bleed out of Steve’s shoulders.

“Do you think Anderson Cooper would interview her?” Natasha asked suddenly as the thought occurred to her. “That would be good publicity! Everyone loves Anderson Cooper.”

Steve laughed out loud, looking up to meet her eyes. His were sparkling, a bright, electric blue. “Yeah, I think everybody does.”

She shifted in her seat. “So what are you thinking for the transition here?” She tapped his tablet, and the screen jumped.

“Not like that!” He grabbed at it.

“Sorry.”

“It’s fine.” He made a small exasperated noise, getting the tablet back to the screen it had been on, where blurred figures were caught in mid-movement.

He didn’t bring up Maria Hill’s interview with her again, which she was grateful for. She didn’t quite know what to say.

In the dressing room after the evening’s practice, there was a brief moment of stillness when Maria walked in. Sharon broke it by saying loudly, “Hey, Maria, do you have a hair tie?”

Maria gave her a crooked smile. “Sure do.”

As she turned to root in her locker, the normal flow of things resumed, a busy chatter erupting that had nothing to do with Maria.

That night James met her to walk with her to the subway. “So,” he said, in his low, rough voice. “What do you think?”

A perfect echo of Steve. She echoed back, “I think she’s a brave girl. It is all just information, easy to control. So, it is an interesting choice.”

James wasn’t looking at her; he was staring ahead of them, at the street still lit with a golden sideways sunshine. Autumn hadn’t really gotten a toehold in the weather yet.

“I wonder,” he began, but didn’t finish the thought.

She shook her head minutely. “Not for me.”

He nodded.

Something compelled her to add, “Not yet.” He darted a sharp sidelong glance at her for that, and then looked ahead again.

She and James were sitting in the hall later in the week, James digging his thumbs into her plantar fascia as she let her head rest back against the wall. James was telling her about something he’d seen on the subway, a little dog in a purse that he’d found particularly charming.

“Nat?”

She opened her eyes. Steven was standing a few feet from them, clutching his tablet. “Yes?”

“I wanted to see if you had time to go over a couple of preliminary costume sketches.” But his eyes were riveted on James, on James’ hands.

She couldn’t blame him. James had very beautiful hands, both the real and the metal. The metal had warmed to skin-temperature as he stretched her foot ruthlessly.

“Of course.” She pulled her feet back and got up, groaning—she had a toenail that was threatening to fall off, and it somehow ached and stung at the same time. “Rhodes keeps us hopping, doesn’t he?”

“That’s what he’s supposed to do.” Steven held out the tablet at arm’s length, gesturing with the stylus. “This is what we’ve got so far.”

She bent close to look at the screen.

“Oh, Steven. They’re lovely.” The English word ethereal had been overused in ballet for decades—no, centuries—with connotations of irritatingly bland pastels, but these costumes had something of that to them: wispy, insubstantial lines that would make the movements of the dancers critical; the fabric settling after turns would let the lines of their motions linger in the air, make any mistakes glaringly visible. She loved them.

He grinned at her, relaxing visibly. “I’m glad you don’t hate them.”

“Hate them? No!”

“After the way you reacted to the third act—”

“Well, that was different. You’re a talented man, you have no excuse for creating something bland.” She turned back to James. “It was as if he were trying to make a dance… beige.

“Ouch!” Steve laughed. “You hit where it hurts, don’t you?”

“Why would I hit anywhere else?”

James smiled at them both, a shuttered little smile.

“Are we still on for tomorrow morning?” Steve asked her.

“Yes, of course. Do you want to meet at your office or at coffee?”

“God, let’s get coffee. That place with the stuffed bear?”

“Where else? They have the best cappuccino.”

Steve gave her a little wave as he walked away, with a brief glance back at James, extending the smile to him.

James was watching after him as he left.

“We have a very handsome choreographer, don’t we?” she said to him, under her breath.

He closed his eyes, tipping his head back against the wall. “Fill your mouth with water.”

“Every day, darling.” She stroked a lock of hair back out of his eyes.

They both knew—if one of them did it, the other would have to, also. There was no getting around it. They’d been each other’s complementary puzzle pieces for far too long for the media to miss the implications.

 

Star-Crossed Dancers: The Bolshoi’s Greatest, Reunited After Years Apart

For the Gazette, by Peter Parker

[two-page spread of Natasha and James stretching on the floor of a photography studio in warm-up clothes, legs tangled between them, reaching out so their hands are loosely linked]

Say what you will about ballet, it fields a lot of interesting, attractive people with complicated backstories. Take Natasha Alianovna Romanoff and James Buchanan Barnes, for instance. She was born in a rural Russian town; he was born right here in New York, in Brooklyn. They both found their way to the Bolshoi in their teens as some of the most talented dancers modern ballet has ever seen.

They were the subject of ever-changing gossip, but they never seemed to waver in their devotion to each other—until Natasha was offered a place in the United States and took it, leaving James behind in Russia. It would be years before the two saw each other again, and in that time Natasha would rise to prominence in several American dance companies, while James’ legendary career was cut short by a car accident that took most of his left arm.

Now they’re dancing together again. It’s a fairytale ending, but how did it happen?

When I ask them, they trade a weighty look before Natasha breaks out in a laugh. “I think many people underestimated James’ desire to dance.”

“Natalia!” He looks scandalized.

“It’s true. There was the assumption that he could never dance again, but Tony Stark knows something about how that feels, and he thought he could perhaps offer an alternative.”

“Really?” I’m curious about this. I’m looking right at James, and I couldn’t tell you which arm he was supposed to be missing if I hadn’t read up on him ahead of time. Neither seems stiff—well, at least no more stiff than you might expect from a man who’s been notoriously tight-lipped about anything even remotely personal.

James shrugs. Natasha says, “The limits of technology are not what they were when Tony was injured. He’s pushed the boundaries.”

“It’s enough to know that I have another opportunity to dance.” James leans forward, with an intense stare. “I do not intend to waste it.” If you didn’t know he was from Brooklyn, it would be easy to mistake him for a native Russian—he reminds me of, well, any mid-80s portrayal of a Soviet strongman, minus the blond hair. Have I mentioned that he’s built like a tank?

Natasha looks straight at him with a fond expression on her face that I haven’t seen her direct at anything else, up to and including puppies and babies.

“You won’t, Yasha.” She takes a sip of her tea. “Neither of us will.”

 

“I didn’t know Barnes was from Brooklyn,” Steven said the next time they were hunkered over mugs of rapidly cooling coffee, laboriously plotting out a sequence of steps. Natasha had been grateful more than once that Tony had brought her on board with someone with more experience. She’d had training, but it had been years ago, and the technical aspect of the craft was more challenging than she had remembered.

“Didn’t you?” She shifted her mug from one hand to the other to point at the tablet. “I think we should try to sync that to that first downbeat.”

“You’re so right—no, I didn’t, somehow I missed it.”

“I’m surprised. You’re a very thorough man.”

Steven shrugged without looking up from the tablet. “So when did you two meet?”

“He moved to Saint Petersburg when he was, oh, I think, nine or ten? Old enough that he can still sound American. He started dancing when he was seven, so we saw each other once we both made it to the feeder schools.”

“Yeah?” He tried to sound nonchalant, but she could tell he was listening closely. He’d frozen, barely breathing, when she’d said nine or ten.

“Yes, is much like American Ballet School and NYCB, where you must go to right school to get into Bolshoi.”

“Was he so—” Steven made a face.

“The brooding, quiet type?”

“Yeah.”

“Not always. Sometimes. He was always a very private person, hated to feel exposed.” She shook her head briefly. “That has not changed. But he was very gangly teenager, very awkward, all knees! You should have seen him.”

Steven drummed his fingers on the table. “Okay, bear with me for a second, what if we—” and he got up and did a few steps across the room, rising up before sinking down to his knees. He was short, it was true, and thin. Still, even in his street clothes, he had the grace that had won him a position in the corps of an elite company.

“I like it.” Natasha cupped one hand over her mouth, thinking.

 

Opening night, their very first show as a company, was a beautiful mess.

Backstage, people were running back and forth, near-collisions threatening the show. Natasha was in her own bubble. No one was getting in her way. No one would have dared. Beyond the curtains, Tony’s outrageously gorgeous theater was ultra-modern, full of slick glass surfaces and glamorous people in velvet and silk, diamonds twinkling like miniscule stars. Somewhere in the audience were the critics. The possible donors. Hearts and minds to win.

She focused on her breaths. In and out, one, two, three, four.

One last adjustment to the costume. The familiar feeling of rosin beneath her feet as she ground her shoe into the box of it.

Then: time. Curtain rising. Her feet carried her out onto the stage, hitting the marley with light, springing bounds. She was a flame no one could catch, a bird, an impatient woman waiting for a lover who wouldn’t arrive.

James was there. T’Challa, hands outstretched. Pepper. They all moved around each other like it was effortless.

After Waiting at the Station, there was a moment after the curtain dropped where Natasha couldn’t remember how to think. Then there was a crashing noise, a huge thundering applause.

James grinned at her. “Think they liked us?”

“Can’t be sure,” she murmured back.

New Blood was a nice piece, brief and clean. Peck’s work was usually clean—rough edges sanded down. The part that wasn’t, that didn’t fit, was a segment where they mimed CPR.

Natasha would never have admitted it out loud, but that was her favorite part. The moment where everyone just dropped the pretense of grace and the movements were jagged, exaggerated, ugly. They’d gone with much less dramatic makeup and costuming than the original staging. It made the pantomime stark, without the unintentionally comedic edge of the original.

New Blood was unusual, too, because it had dancers of the same sex pairing each other as well as dancers of the opposite sex, in a sequence like an unbroken chain. So for a moment her hands were in Pepper’s. They locked eyes, briefly; then on to the next move.

And for the third act, a piece by Alvin Ailey—hardly an accident, using a black man’s work, for a company with more black men between the principals and soloists than many companies had altogether.

When they finally finished the performance, James seized her right hand in his left and brought it to his mouth, kissing her knuckles. The curtain rose as he did it, and there was a brief, blinding explosion of flash photography.

 

Flash in the Pan: Fool’s Gold in the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company

By Ulrich Tronsson

When boy wonder, the former prodigy Tony Stark, announced that he was putting together a ballet company, many wondered if this apparent vanity project might bear fruit. He has waged a publicity campaign on its behalf with interviews with several of the more interesting dancers, including the notorious pair of Natasha Romanoff and James Barnes, who danced together for the Bolshoi over a decade ago, and Maria Hill, now the first lesbian soloist to be interviewed about her sexual orientation in a national magazine.

Unfortunately, the first performance reveals that this hastily-assembled roster of B-list dancers has fallen short of Mr. Stark’s grand intentions. Ms. Romanoff’s age is starting to show, as her leaps are less athletic than even just last year. Mr. Barnes’ performance is remarkable only in that he can do it at all—his prosthetic arm is very convincing. If only the same could be said of his attempts at demonstrating emotion with his stony face.

In short, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend tickets to this show to serious lovers of the art. For ballet-goers who want novelty, this might be an entertaining experience, but the level of the craft here is something of an embarrassment to New York, which generally has such good reason to pride itself on its accomplishments.

 

A Supernatural Experience: Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company Triumphs in Premiere

By Peter Parker for the Gazette

Can an international playboy, engineering genius, and CEO put together a ballet company capable of amazing even a jaded and cynical audience? Yes.

The principal dancers—Romanoff, Barnes, T’Challa, and Potts—lead the rest of the company with unparalleled skill. Romanoff shows all of her experience and none of her old injuries; Barnes is as light on his feet as he was at the peak of his time at the Bolshoi. The fact that T’Challa wasn’t a principal at his former companies can only be chalked up to someone’s stupidity. Potts, who made what could be regarded as a lateral move, is shockingly fresh after years of being a dependable but not inspired dancer.

What Tony Stark has done, quite simply, is to create a company with no weak links. Each soloist could easily be a principal at another company. Every member of the corps hits every mark. Every dancer is so on beat, so synchronized, that the company appears to move as a whole rather than as individual dancers. Their performance in Waiting at the Station was a revelation, but the way they worked together in New Blood cemented their status as instant new icons in an art that’s gotten stagnant over time.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime performance. I hate to say “can’t miss,” but that’s exactly what this is. Get your tickets early, and prepare to be astonished.

 

“Tronsson is a piece of shit,” said Steven, wadding up the paper.

Natasha shrugged. “He’s been a prick for years. What did you expect?”

“I don’t know. At least Parker got it right.”

“For someone who wasn’t in the performance, you certainly have strong opinions.”

“Hey!” He pointed a finger at her. “I watched. I know what I’m talking about.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“Your mockery gets old, Romanoff.”

“As does your first act, Rogers.”

He clutched at his chest. “I’m wounded!”

“Wounded enough to rethink this brisé volé?”

“It adds tension!”

“It’s deadly dull.” She stood and did the segment, a straight line across the room. “Look at how predictable it is, in this context.” For all its fluttering technicality, it was still like watching a sitcom—the end was obvious from the moment she took the first steps.

He sank back down into a slouch, watching her. “God, you’re right.”

“Of course I am.”

Steven shook his head, a bright, hoarse laugh escaping him. “Of course you are. Why would I doubt you? One of the finest living ballerinas—”

“You’re not even getting that asinine quote correct.”

“Look, all I’m saying is that you’re turning out to be a pretty damn fine choreographer, too.”

She was silent for a moment. “Don’t get sentimental on me.”

“I would never!” He theatrically crossed his heart. “I swear. Now come on, if you don’t like that sequence, what do you want to do?”

“Get a drink. It’s nearly eight thirty.” And they had the next day off—it was her one real free day that week.

“Oh.” He frowned, glancing back down at his tablet. “I guess it is. Sorry, I didn’t mean to keep you late.”

She shrugged it off. “You would not be able to if I didn’t let you.”

“So, go on, get out of here.” He gestured toward the door. “Shoo! Have a life. Go get drinks with James.”

She smiled faintly. “Perhaps you should join us.”

It would be dangerous, of course, but perhaps no worse than inviting Pepper along to brunch, which James had taken great joy in doing right in front of her more than once, now. She was starting to get used to Pepper’s voice accompanying James’ deep, rumbling commentary among the tinkling noise of glassware, the thick smells from different kitchens.

Steven’s face went through several emotions very quickly, and she had to fight not to let her amusement show. “Are you sure about that? The two of you don’t seem like you get a lot of time off. Together.”

She shrugged. “You’re good company.”

Which was how Steven ended up sitting with them in the crowded bar just a few steps down from James’ apartment. Natasha and James were crushed together on one side of the too-small booth. Steven sat across from them, nursing his beer.

“Too many calories.” James nodded down at the drink.

“At least it’ll last me a while.” Steven shot him a sharp grin. “You’ll be done with that vodka in two minutes.”

“Fair,” James conceded.

As they chatted about the company, about the new choreography project, Natasha leaned her head on James’ shoulder. It was the kind of simple gesture that observers found artless, that charmed them and made them believe. They’d played these roles a thousand times: she would lean on him, he would glance down at her, smile, drop a light kiss on her forehead or cheek.

For the first time in nearly twenty years, she felt James stiffen under her.

She slowly drew back, sitting upright. James wasn’t looking at her; he was looking at Steven. If Steven had noticed anything strange, he had the grace to keep his curiosity to himself.

“So, you’re from Brooklyn originally?” Steven’s voice had an odd note to it. Testing, somehow.

James nodded. “Born and raised.”

“Where?”

“Just over in Red Hook.”

“Not the nicest area.”

“We weren’t the nicest people.” James gave him a chilly grin.

“I grew up around Vinegar Hill.”

“So you weren’t the nicest, either?”

“Yeah, not hardly.” Steven laughed. He was twisting his beer bottle around and around in his hands. “I started dancing when I was—I don’t know, five? I think? Little place down in the Heights called L’Ecole de Ballet—”

“—Russe.” James was staring at Steven openly, looking at once startled, and as though something abruptly made sense. “My aunt paid for my lessons there. She was from Russia, it’s how I ended up there.”

“It was you.” Steven had dropped all pretense that this was casual, eyes focused on James like lasers.

“It was.” James shook his head slowly. “You were that skinny little—”

“And you went by Bucky then—”

“I still do, sometimes, haven’t you heard Tony call me that—”

“No, when would I? I thought I was going crazy until—”

“You looked—I think I must have known it was you—” James’ face was transfigured, eyes blazing. He was smiling, but it was half-terror. It was like she was not there, like she was a ghost. There was a chill running down her spine. A chill penetrating the layers of clothing on her left side, where James was leaning forward instead of into her.

Steve laughed explosively, nervous energy bleeding off him. “I can’t believe it! Bucky from ballet. In my company.”

“Well.” James grinned. She knew that wolfish look. “It is Brooklyn. How was I gonna say no?”

She watched as the two of them started trading stories about the Brooklyn they remembered, the ballet lessons from their childhood.

“It was always so cold.” Steve shuddered. “Would it have killed them to turn it up a little?”

“They were cheap bastards!” Even James’ voice was changing, talking to Steve. He sounded less Russian, voice going flatter, twanging on the gs he dropped and the profanity he snapped out like chewing gum, stretching words.

She chimed in occasionally—dispelled the awkwardness that would have risen up if she’d been silent—but found an excuse to leave earlier than she’d meant to. Watching them, she knew it wouldn’t have mattered what she said. Headache, call to make, need to wash her hair. They only had eyes for each other.

Well. Good for James. He could use another friend.

The next day, she didn’t hear from either of them. It had gotten to be a habit, James calling her on their free days, off-handed questions about recipes, trivial chit-chat about the production, other dancers.

She wandered down to a movie theater and watched a new blockbuster by herself. When she came home, she sat down and made herself a cup of tea, and then she put her feet up and read for a while—a trashy true-crime book in Russian.

Sometimes being in America got on her nerves.

 

In the morning, she was halfway through stretching out with her Thera-Band when Pepper came in to the dressing room.

“Hi.” Pepper gave her a tentative smile. Natasha wondered what her face looked like, to get that reaction. “How was your day off?”

“Good. Saw a movie. You?”

Pepper shrugged, grabbing a foam roller from the rack of tools Tony had installed all along one wall. “Pretty quiet. I had coffee with a friend from my old company.”

“I assume they’re regretting their loss.”

Pepper’s laugh was small, but bright. “Right, sure.”

“I’m serious.” Natasha changed her grip on the Thera-Band, switching to the outside of her leg. “You’re an excellent performer. They should have worked harder to keep you.”

A flush spread over Pepper’s face; she started to roll out her IT band, holding herself up as she glided back and forth, hip to knee and back again. “I don’t think it was going to work out, long term.”

“All the better for us.”

“Anyway, no, we just talked about nothing. A lot of nothing.”

“I know that conversation. ‘How is So-and-so?’ ‘Oh, they’re fine. How is So-and-so?’ ‘Did you hear they’re getting married?’”

“And it’s so bad!” Pepper made a face, trading sides. “I mean, I love her to death, but—I don’t know that I really notice when she’s gone, you know?”

“I do know.” Natasha pulled hard on the band against her feet, groaning softly. “Some people are irreplaceable, and then there is everyone else.”

“Yeah.” Pepper’s voice was soft. She switched to rolling out her back and hips, the foam roller under her as she stared up at the ceiling. It made her look somehow almost obscene, despite the matter-of-fact way she did it. Her small, high breasts pointed at the ceiling as she moved. Her leotard outlined every muscle, every rib and vertebrae.

Natasha hastily looked away, yanking at the Thera-Band until her foot was shrieking in pain. She had a stuck ankle, at any rate, that she had been working on with their physiotherapist, Bruce. A pleasant but quiet man with broad shoulders, coffee-brown eyes and curling hair—not bad, if you liked the type. That ankle needed attention.

She knew she was off in rehearsal. Not quite catching the right beat, rhythm wrong, James frowning at her in concern as she reached for his grip a fraction of a second too fast or too slow. She shook him off, ignoring the question in his eyes.

Rhodes was exasperated, but he kept his comments to the purely technical aspects. “Show me what legs you’re using, Romanoff. No, not like—you need to go softer, here, see?”

She was grateful.

By the time the night’s performance began, she had managed to shake off the feeling. There was nothing to worry about. She was a professional. She would be professional. She cut the rest of it (it, a wad of dangerous, unfortunate, upsetting feelings, tangling her friendships with other, less benevolent things) out of her mind with surgical precision.

It wasn’t, perhaps, the most magical performance she’d ever danced, but it was very solid.

Afterwards, Ororo was sitting in the dressing room. On impulse Natasha invited her to grab a bite to eat. Ororo glanced up at her, surprised, even suspicious, before her face smoothed out a little into a smile.

“I’d love to.” Ororo had a lovely voice, low and pleasant. It suited her.

Once they’d decided where to go, a café down the street that was still open, they settled into conversation. They compared preferred treatments for sore calves and blisters, favorite television shows to watch while settling in to sleep in the evening. Natasha was proud of herself for managing this, a small gesture toward a new, less consuming friendship.

Ororo, it turned out, had run into many of the same challenges Natasha had on moving to the United States—cultural gaps that had left her confused and irritated. She’d clearly polished some of the more classic examples, turned them into small stories that could be told for a laugh. Natasha recognized the effort, having made it herself more than once. As they ate, the stories got less neutral.

Leaning one elbow on the table, pushing her hair back out of her face, Ororo said, “—and that’s how I asked a man trained by Balanchine whether he understood how badly the ideal body image of a dancer had been reshaped by one influential man’s kink.”

Natasha had to pause to wipe a tear of laughter out of her eye. “You are a hero to dancers everywhere.”

“I know.” Ororo settled back in her chair, smiling grimly. “I receive their letters.”

“It’s unusual, isn’t it.” Natasha raised her eyebrows. “A dancer like you.”

Ororo snorted. “Foreign? Hardly. I assume you mean dark-skinned?”

“Yes.” No point in denying it.

“Of course.” Ororo shrugged. “This is a beautiful art, created by racists.”

Natasha nodded; Ororo was watching her carefully. After a moment’s silence, Ororo went on.

“They love themselves for promoting Misty Copeland—for doing it at a time when eyes were on them, for doing it when she’d already arrived, beautiful and talented, and light-skinned, a black woman they could cheer themselves for choosing. As if she wouldn’t have been promoted long before if she’d been white.” Ororo tapped her nails against the side of her cup. “I was pleasantly surprised to get a contract at all.”

“And then Tony,” said Natasha quietly.

“Yes. He’s—I can’t say he isn’t dedicated to his vision.”

“It’s an expansive vision.”

Ororo sipped her tea. “I hope, for his sake, and for my contract, that it turns out that what he thinks the world needs is also what it wants.

“Hear, hear.” Natasha held up her cup, and they let their mugs lightly chime against each other.

“So what are you?”

“What?”

“How do you fit into Tony’s vision? Are you the normal one, to prove that this company isn’t just a home for strays?”

Natasha started laughing. She couldn’t help it. “Oh, no,” she said finally, wiping away a few tears. “I don’t think normal was what he got with me.”

Even if he hadn’t known—even if no one knew—that didn’t change her, did it.

Ororo, tactfully, let it drop.

 

Swan Lake came next.

“I know, I know.” Rhodes leaned casually against the barre, the lines of his face traced by the pitiless studio lights. “It’s a lot of Tchaikovsky, back to back with Nutcracker, but it’s a classic, and we need to prove that we can do classic. We don’t want to get pigeon-holed as a modern dance company in disguise. So show me what you got.”

Natasha and Pepper had already been reasonably certain of being first and second cast, respectively, which took some of the tension out of the process.

“Remember,” Natasha murmured to Pepper at the barre, “don’t go Black Swan on me.”

Pepper laughed under her breath; it sounded a little flat. “I promise, no drugs in your drink.”

“And if there’s cake, you have to share.”

At that, Pepper was quiet, and when Natasha stole a glance at her, she was staring out at Rhodes, where he was guiding Sharon’s arm into a higher arc.

“No jokes about cake?” Natasha said, keeping her voice low.

Pepper shook her head tightly. “Not a fan.”

“Of cake? Or jokes?”

“That scene. It was just… it was hard for me.”

That left Natasha chewing the words over, thinking about them.

Tony had scheduled them to go visit with the students at the school. Nominally it was a class, where they were going to work with the students on timing. In reality, Natasha expected to show up and be gawked at by confused preteens.

Pepper said, “Want to walk over together?” The school campus was just a couple of blocks away. Another chunk of Stark real estate, put to use.

“Sure.” Natasha grabbed her purse, and they headed out the door.

The air was feeling particularly autumnal—crisp and a little bit cidery. Natasha took a deep breath in as they started down the block.

“I apologize if I was insensitive earlier. Did not mean to offend.”

“No, no, it’s fine.” Pepper waved hurriedly. “I just—you know how it is with eating and dancers, right? And my old company, they were—they were very strict.”

“Ah. I see.”

“I can’t think about somebody having to eat, like that, without feeling a little sick.”

“I am sorry,” Natasha said, slowly. There were a few moments of silence, neither comfortable nor particularly uncomfortable.

“So, is it true that Swan Lake is a big deal in Russia?” asked Pepper.

Natasha wheezed on a startled laugh. “Oh, my God! You have no idea. It’s—there’s the whole history of it, you know, they put it on during—the Soviets, I mean. They put it on the television every time somebody died, in power, so no one would know what was going on, we wouldn’t see the news, so by the time I started dancing it—well, we were all used to thinking about it like, I don’t know. Big sign saying ‘technical difficulties’ on American television, I suppose.” She framed a square with her hands to illustrate.

“Did you and James dance it?”

So many times.” Natasha rolled her eyes. “I think we could do it in our sleep by now. I probably will. I’ll dream it.”

“I’ve danced—well, I’ve danced it a couple of times, but I wasn’t one of the lead principals, so I’ve only ever been second cast.”

“Nothing to be ashamed of. Still the headliner!”

Pepper smiled faintly. “Anyway, I won’t, uh, go Black Swan on you.”

And with a shock, Natasha abruptly remembered the scene with Natalie Portman—what had her character’s name been? She couldn’t even remember. But when Mila Kunis had been there in the dream sequence—

“Just as long as there’s no stabbing,” she said.

“No stabbing.” Pepper’s smile wasn’t its usual strength.

“I’m sorry—I didn’t mean…” Natasha trailed off, for once at a loss for what to say.

“No, it’s all right!” Pepper shook her head briskly, hair glinting in the sun. “I know. It’s, uh, it was just a joke.”

“You deserved to be a lead principal,” said Natasha suddenly. It was true; at any company other than hers, Pepper should be, which left open the question of why she hadn’t been. The ballet master with the wandering eyes and groping hands, perhaps, had not taken kindly to something Pepper had said or done.

Pepper grimaced, half-smiling. “Thank you.”

“It’s true.”

“I’m no you.”

“No one is but me.” Natasha shrugged. “And no one is you but you.”

That made Pepper compress her lips, a little, rolling her eyes even as she smiled. “Very deep.”

“I’m full of hidden depths.”

“Don’t surprise me too much, I don’t know if my heart can take it.”

When they got to the school, they found the class—the youngest kids, six and seven years old—waiting patiently, doing their stretches at the barre. Predictably, they lit up with enthusiasm, and Natasha was surprised and pleased by their studious focus as she and Pepper taught. At other American schools, she’d gotten used to a certain—was insolence the right word? Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But here the children all shared an intensity that lacked the faintly sociopathic edge she’d become accustomed to.

James was set to do a class with the boys the next day. Natasha sent him a picture of the class of girls: bright stars, she said.

I expect nothing less, he replied.

 

When they finished that run, it was time to start the Nutcracker. The one rep a year that could reasonably be expected to turn a meaningful profit, the run that had to cram as many shows as possible into the short window before Christmas, the show that meant tradition and family to the people who came to it. It was a show they’d have to be careful about pricing and thorough about marketing, if they wanted to get any business away from the other companies in the city.

Through the groans, there was also the comfort of familiarity. They’d all been doing this once a year since they were children, rotating through roles, listening to those familiar beautiful lilting notes. Children from the school, up through those teenagers from the Professional Division who actually got paid for their performances with the company, would join them to give both the requisite number of bodies and the cute factor. Besides, it guaranteed that their parents were roped into coming. A full theater always looked better.

Natasha was the first-cast Sugarplum Fairy, and Pepper took it very well. Dancing in the same company as Natasha meant a couple of things—first, that the legendary, world-famous prima ballerina would probably be first cast for everything she reasonably could, and second, that if Pepper could wait a few years and the company survived, Natasha would almost certainly injure herself beyond competition, and younger, fitter Pepper would be positioned to take over.

The outfit was very sparkly. Natasha smiled fondly when it was time to start the costume fittings.

Pepper walked in as the seamstress was adjusting the tutu. “Suck it in, dear.” The seamstress, a wizened little old woman, crouched behind her, tugging on the vibrant clouds of tulle, scattered with sequins. “I have to get this one just right.”

“I know you do,” Natasha said to her. She looked up to find Pepper staring at her. “What? Does it bag?” Her hands went to the waist, searching for any stray extra fabric.

“No, no.” Pepper’s eyes went back to her face. “It looks great. It’s fine.”

“Fine, she says,” grumbled the seamstress around a mouthful of pins. “As if I don’t spend my life slaving away on these, and you don’t try to ruin them immediately.”

“No, it’s beautiful! It’s gorgeous.” Pepper sounded a little desperate, through her sorority smile, pink glossy lips curved with no matching smile in her eyes.  

“You’re next, aren’t you?” Natasha asked.

“I am.” Pepper turned her smile to Natasha, looking pinched, distressed. “It looks like you need a couple more minutes, though.”

“Yes,” muttered the seamstress. She was doing something brisk, hands flying along Natasha’s lower back. “Come back in five.”

“All right, thanks! See you in a few!” Pepper retreated like someone escaping a war zone. Natasha was left staring after her.

 

Natasha, sitting in the empty studio with Steve, at an outrageous hour, showed him her final draft of her piece for the Valentine’s Day special. “Rehearsals will start in January. Costumes are… in progress. We’re going to rent some from another company that were made for an exhibition piece.”

Steve looked back up at her from the video, clearly surprised, clearly impressed. She was used to being impressive. This meant more.

“This feels a lot more personal than I would have expected from you.” He stood, stretching, and went through one of the sequences. He’d barely glanced at it, and he could do it immediately from memory. Steve would have been one of the greats, if he’d been luckier.

He came to a stop, landing heavily, and then fixed a penetrating stare on her.

“Tell me,” he said, “does it hurt? To feel this way?”

She wasn’t a coward; she met his eyes. “Very badly.”

“I thought it must.” He went into the next sequence. It was the kind of dance that told the audience, up front, that this was about barely-controlled fear, propelling the dancer from one crazed leap to the next, feet beating across the stage again and again, circling around that fear, drawing in ever-tighter circles towards the source of it. It laid very oddly against the brilliant, pure, classical music. It was meant to.

He finished and stopped, hands on his hips. He whistled softly between his teeth. “You’re going to do a long segment en pointe for the partner?”

She nodded. “With bourrées, and fouettés. Not Swan Lake, obviously, though it’s a callback, but they’re the centerpiece.”

“Do you think our dancers have the stamina?”

“Yes. Enough of them.”

“Then I think you’re going to have a damn good show on your hands.” He smiled at her, a smile too full of sympathy. She ignored it, and called his attention back to a piece of Desperation that needed some more attention. As a much longer and larger piece, it was taking both of them to build it, step by step, from the ground up.

 

James had started to call her again after that first day of silence, as if nothing had happened. Natasha hadn’t asked. James hadn’t spoken of it.

They were deep into the rehearsals, just a few days before the show, before James cracked. It was just the two of them in James’ apartment. Kisa had curled into an almost perfect ball in his lap while purring deeply, and they had a bottle of vodka to split between them. It would have been a very good night—the warmth of the apartment against the freezing night outside, the serene certainty that Natasha would fall asleep in James’ bed, tucked up against his side until she fell asleep and started to windmill and he pushed her away. Except that there was something on James’ mind that had him staring moodily out the window, fidgeting with his shot glass, missing half the things Natasha said.

“Did you ever—” he started abruptly, and then stopped, looking alarmed at the words coming out of his mouth.

She just watched him, giving him a moment to decide whether to say it. Of course he would, but he couldn’t be sure of that yet, not like she was.

“Ever sleep with someone,” he finished, mouth clamping into a tight line.

“Hmm.” She leaned back against the couch, considering the question. “I suppose it depends on how you define it.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Did you?” she asked, with no sharpness.

He nodded jerkily. “Not—many. Just. A few. Enough.”

“And was it what you’d hoped it would be?”

He shrugged. “I suppose it depends.

“Thinking about trying again?” She raised her eyebrows. “Someone with the company, perhaps?”

He set down his glass and ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. “You don’t understand, Natalia.”

“What is it?”

“He knows,” James hissed. “He was—he was the first one I ever kissed.”

“What? At nine years old?”

Yes.” He said it like he was suffering. “Before we left. I told him—I said I’d come back. I said, I said, ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’ I said I’d take care of him.”

“Oh, Yasha,” she murmured. She could have said Chalk it up to childhood, but Steve had a bright, wicked intelligence in his eyes; he would never buy it.

“It’s—I don’t know what to do. Tell me, Natalia, what should I do?” He looked up her, desperate, with red-rimmed eyes, his prosthetic arm glimmering with reflections from the tea-candles he’d lit.

At first, she didn’t have an answer. She found herself responding. “Wait and see.”

“Wait for what?” He gestured at himself, movements tight, agonized. “For another injury? For my career to really, truly end this time? To get old?”

“To see how this season goes.” She pinned him with her stare, easy as a needle through a butterfly. He twitched resentfully, subsided. “To see whether we will need new positions with a different company next year.”

“No one else would hire me.”

“You can’t know that yet.”

“You’re willing to keep living like this?” He threw out an arm, waving at his small, tidy apartment. “Alone, day after day?”

“Don’t tell Kisa that,” she said lightly.

“Don’t make a joke of it!” He drew in a ragged breath, pinched the bridge of his nose. “Maybe it doesn’t bother you, but I hate it. I hate it so much.”

“It was fine for years.” She didn’t mean to make it a question, but something of that bled into it. He dropped his hand and looked at her sharply.

“It was never fine. It was—something we had to do. But Tony, he wouldn’t care. He wouldn’t mind.”

“Of course he wouldn’t!” It burst out of her. “He’ll just put us in another magazine, another two-page spread, this time about how saintly he is for keeping us on in his gallery of freaks.”

James stared at her, mouth hanging open slightly.

“If you think he isn’t vividly aware of how he can market us, our history, you’re very mistaken. He’s not doing this out of the goodness of his heart. He put this company together because he could afford the ones no one else wanted.”

“He’s paying us market rate,” James pointed out, reasonably. It infuriated her.

“And will any of us leave him? No! We’re boxed in. We all committed to this insane experiment, and I am not giving him any more rope to hang me with!”

“I don’t think it’s like that.” Kisa had lifted her head in sleepy concern. James ran his fingers through her fur, soothing her. “Do you? Really?”

“We won’t know. Certainly not until the end of the season.”

“So.” James’ mouth set grimly. “You want another year of this.”

“I don’t—what do you want from me? Do you want my blessing?” She set her glass down with a hard rattle on the coffee table. “Fine. Chase this little thing. See if he can live up to memories.”

“Do you think this is your last season? Is this why you’re like this?”

“It might be.” She twisted her face away, that incessant annoying hitch in her ankle flaring as she thought about it. She spent so much time not thinking about it. Aggressively. Deliberately. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”

“At least we have that in common.” He sighed.

She let her eyes shut, pressing herself back into the cushions.

“Is it so bad?” James asked quietly. “To have me as a friend instead of a cover?”

She stuck her tongue out at him without opening her eyes. “Idiot,” she added after a moment.

“I love you, too.”

 

Natasha sighed, hauling her bodice into place before leaning forward to fix a blush spot that had smeared, under the bank of fluorescent lights that surrounded their mirrors.

Pepper opened the door. “Hey, do you know—”

Natasha glanced up when Pepper stopped dead, meeting Pepper’s eyes in the mirror. “What is it?”

Pepper was staring at her. The conversation with James came back to her like taking a punch to the gut. Maybe it doesn’t bother you.

Because the way Pepper was looking at her felt familiar: a look she could feel like a touch, heat on the bare skin of her back, her throat. She found her breath catching. Pepper was wild-eyed, wearing the costume of one of the background guests for the party. No one had looked at Natasha like that since—it had been quite some time.

“Sorry,” said Pepper after a moment. “I wanted to ask Maria something. She must already be out there. I’ll go find her.”

And then Pepper was gone, but the moment kept replaying in Natasha’s mind.

The years of ice-water baths and other assorted cruelties had taught her to bring her mind to one single point. To keep it there, poised through the pain, through the sting of a cane coming down on her legs.

She’d never needed it as badly in her life as she did that night.

She floated through her part, light, delicate, sparkling, and at the end of the night James actually hugged her after their bow. “You’re spectacular.” He smiled deeply into her eyes—the kind of pose they’d perfected over the years, performed for hundreds, thousands, of cameras. They were just off backstage, almost private but not really, never, really. She smiled back and gave him a small peck on his cheek.

“Thank you, darling. You, too.”

“Buck?”

They both looked up at Steve’s tentative voice.

“Yeah?” James’ arms fell away from her.

“Did you still want to catch a movie Sunday night?”

“Oh, yeah!” James grinned, shedding years in an instant. “It’ll have to be that late place, you cool with that?”

“Of course.” Steve’s face lit up, too; their eyes were locked on each other.

James turned to her. “Do you want to see if Pepper wants to come?”

“Uh.” Natasha hadn’t been caught off guard in years. “I—sure. I’ll ask her.”

“Great!” James turned back to Steve, beaming. “It’ll be nice to pretend like we have lives.”

“Speak for yourself.” Steve was grinning. He didn’t look annoyed at having their evening interrupted. “I have a life. I’m just here to support you suckers.”

“I have seen no proof of this life,” Natasha contributed.

Steve squinted at her in assessment for a moment. “Do you believe I can hotwire a car?”

“Yes,” she said immediately.

“I’m almost offended. Do you figure me for a juvenile delinquent?”

“Absolutely. I’m surprised you have to ask.”

He threw back his head, laughing. She watched him, acutely aware of James doing the same.

She ran into Pepper again on her way out of the building. Pepper was bundled into her puffy coat, calves outlined in leggings and low-heeled brown leather boots. Pepper smiled, a brief, professional smile, as she held the door for Natasha. Maybe uncomfortable, thinking of how she’d looked at Natasha—how Natasha had seen Pepper looking at her. Perversely, Natasha sidled unnecessarily close to her as she stepped into the doorway.

“James and Steve are planning on catching a movie tomorrow night.” Natasha brushed against Pepper before moving past. “Would you like to join us?”

Pepper blinked a few times, rapidly. “Maybe? What are you going to see?”

“We were just going to decide when we got there.”

Pepper hesitated for a second. “Sure.”

“Great. We’ll see you then.”

She walked out into the street, turning to head for the station—Pepper wasn’t going her way.

 

No one had warned her that Pepper had done an interview, or that it would be coming out that Saturday. It was just a few lines in Teen Vogue, the kind of puff piece dancers were universally accustomed to.

She didn’t even have to pick up a copy. James, damn him, did, and sent her a picture of the page. It prominently featured Pepper’s face, big and beaming with perfectly Photoshopped makeup, with a smaller inset picture of her in the Nutcracker, utterly classic pink sparkling outfit with starched tutu standing out. Poised in an arabesque, reaching out into the air.

What does it take to be a ballet dancer? That depends on who you ask. Virginia Potts, a principal dancer with the newly-formed Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company, laughed when we asked her. “A lot of work!” she said. “Most girls don’t realize how much time you spend in practice. I don’t think I ever got to be a normal teenager—it was always either school or practice.” Virginia should know; she graduated high school as a valediction of her class, a rare achievement for anyone, but especially dancers. “If I had to give any advice,” she adds, “I’d say focus on school. It’s easy to get injured, and that way you have another path. Also, pay attention in English! It helps you interpret the dance.” But what about more concrete advice? “Practice, practice, practice. Stretch. Listen to your body when it’s telling you that you need to rest an injury. Make sure you’re getting enough protein. And fat! Dancers who avoid fat are avoiding good energy, energy they’ll need.” Her favorite snack is pistachios, and after a long day of rehearsals and performances, she says she keeps a bag of them in her locker at the studio. So, you heard it here first! Pistachios and practice: those are one dancer’s secrets.

“It’s not a secret.” Pepper rolled her eyes, blushing furiously, when Steve started teasing her about it on Sunday night, on the sidewalk in front of the theater. Clouds of steam were rising from their mouths in the chill, lit by the streetlights. Pepper was wearing an off-white trench coat that hugged her figure. Natasha kept finding her eyes tracing the tie at the waist.

“No, no, who would have guessed?” Steve was grinning like a shark. “Practice! I never knew.”

“Make him stop,” Pepper appealed to Natasha.

“How do you suggest I go about that?” Natasha surveyed Steve through narrowed eyes. “Duct tape, perhaps?”

Steve turned to James, raising his eyebrows beseechingly. James just pursed his lips in poorly-concealed amusement and shrugged.

“Come on, let’s go on in.” Natasha tilted her head toward the door, and they filed in, the boys first, Pepper behind her.

When they found seats, Steve shuffled into the aisle first, and James followed him immediately. Pepper paused, watching Natasha ease the seat down next to James, and then took the last—the seat on the center aisle. Pepper had to fold herself, those long, long limbs, to fit into the narrow space.

Once the spaceships showed up, it was comically adorable, how Steve and James were transfixed. They stared at the screen with wide eyes, parted lips. Natasha glanced over at Pepper and found that Pepper was looking back at her. She’d meant to smile, but found herself hurriedly flicking her gaze back to the big screen.

Maybe half an hour in, Natasha felt something bump her knee. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Pepper rearranging herself, crossing her legs, shifting so that her arm was on the armrest between them.

Natasha had no excuse for it. (Did she need an excuse for it?) She let her folded arms drift, just enough; just to where her arm touched Pepper’s. She could see Pepper stiffen, beside her. But Pepper didn’t move away. Instead, Pepper leaned in a handful of times through the movie, to whisper commentary through barely-moving lips that had Natasha struggling to keep her own laughter in check.

After the movie, they reassembled on the street. Steve shot James a look. “I was thinking,” he said, slowly. “It would be good if we could go over some of the sequences for the new piece.”

“In Desperation?” asked Natasha, innocently enough. They had, after all, given the piece its working name ages ago.

Steve coughed. “Yeah. That stretch where Buck’s doing all the leaps.”

“I’m sure you’re right.” Natasha smiled sweetly. Steve still looked wary, but his shoulders relaxed fractionally. Pepper kept looking between the three of them, eyes darting back and forth. She should never play poker. Anyone could annihilate her at it.

“Great.” James was pale, jaw working. Natasha couldn’t blame him. “Coffee shop? I think there’s one a couple blocks away.”

“How about your place?” Steve and James were staring intently at each other. It looked, like it always did, like they were attempting to simultaneously communicate telepathically.

There was a beat of weighted silence before James shrugged. “Sure. Come on, let’s catch the train.”

Natasha raised a hand and waved at them, waggling her fingers in her brown leather gloves. “Bye. Have a good time working on that!”

James gave her a brief, blindingly sweet smile, and then he turned and dashed after Steve, who was already moving briskly down the sidewalk, all pointed elbows and swaggering stride. When he caught up, he threw an arm around Steve’s shoulders and dragged him in for a quick one-armed hug. Steve laughed and poked him in the side.

Natasha turned back to Pepper, who was looking something like she’d been slapped. “I’m feeling the urge for an ill-advised cup of coffee. Would you like to join me?”

“Y—yes.”

“Great.” She bumped Pepper’s shoulder with hers, hands in her pockets, as she turned. “There’s a nice café this way.”

She detoured, just by a few blocks. They ended up walking through a wonderland of shop windows, all done up for the imminent holiday. Pepper kept turning to look at the displays, and a smile crept onto her face. Finally, she stopped at one, bursting out laughing. “Look at this.”

Natasha stepped next to her, and stared at the animatronic ballet dancers that were jerkily doing a brief repetition of the Waltz of the Flowers.

“My goodness,” Natasha drawled. “We’ll be out of a job soon.”

“I can’t even tell what they’re selling.” Pepper craned her neck back, looking up. “Is it—oh, it’s shoes.” Natasha followed her gaze—there were dozens of pairs of shoes suspended from the ceiling, on monofilament, sparkling with rhinestones.

Pepper turned to look at her, still chuckling, and their faces were much too close together. The smile slipped and fell off Pepper’s face, leaving just her lips, parted. Puffs of air between them turning to clouds of mist and rising.

Pepper was the first to move, turning convulsively back to the window, pasting a smile onto her face. “I haven’t worn heels that high in—I don’t even remember.” It was babble. “My feet are just too sore for them, you know? I mean, I still wear the low heels, I can get away with that, but I think some of those have to be five inches. Anyway, I was always too tall to really wear those, it made me taller than almost everyone and men would get so sensitive about that.”

“That one reminds me of you.” Natasha cut through the stream of chatter and pointed at the figure dead center.

Pepper stopped talking, mouth closing audibly.

“Should I get decaf?” Natasha asked, turning smoothly from the window. After a beat, Pepper followed her. “I probably should.”

“There’s—still some caffeine.” Pepper sounded winded.

“But it has to be better than regular, no?”

“Yeah. You’re right.”

When they got to the café—still open at an ungodly hour, and Natasha was going to have reason to regret this in the morning—Pepper stood next to her, arms hanging awkwardly at her sides. Natasha left her hands tucked into her pockets, keenly conscious of keeping her movements light and natural. All the world’s a stage.

They found a table in the corner, bench seats at a right angle that left them close, staring out across the café in tandem. Pepper kept clenching and unclenching her hand around the handle of the ceramic mug.

“So, uh,” said Pepper. “How’s Bucky?”

“Oh, James is well. He’s been really enjoying playing the Nutcracker, which—if you’d told me that ten years ago, you could have knocked me over with a feather.” Natasha gave Pepper a dazzling smile. “But he thought he was out of it forever, so he’s been very excited about even these mundane things.”

“I see.” Pepper was staring into her mug. Decaf green tea, boring, not worth coming out for, but Pepper had followed her anyway.  

Natasha couldn’t pretend to herself (and, in general, had very little interest in pretending to herself; one can’t effectively hide something of which one is unaware) that it wasn’t appealing. To feel how off-balance Pepper was, how helplessly her eyes tracked Natasha.

Pepper took a slow sip of her tea. “I don’t—really understand your relationship.” Her voice was so soft it was difficult to hear in the hubbub of the room.

Natasha shrugged. “James and I have been friends for a very long time.”

Pepper didn’t look like that clarified much for her. That suited Natasha.

She steered the talk to less potentially challenging subjects. Desperation was, in fact, going fairly smoothly. Once she’d convinced Steve to listen to reason.

“So will you be collaborating on all the new pieces this year?”

“No, I don’t think so. Steve and I are both working on independent pieces. Mine is going to debut for a short run at Valentine’s, they’ll start rehearsals for it with the start of the new season.”

“Oh.” Pepper blinked at her solemnly. “What’s it about?”

Natasha felt her mouth seesaw dangerously. “It’s a dance. It doesn’t need to be about something.”

“I thought it might be.”

“It’s—well, I suppose it’s a bit like Swan Lake, very flashy, but a bit more—frenetic.”

“I didn’t ask what it was like,” said Pepper, softly. And this, too, was something Natasha liked about her; that she could, at will, display a certain savage tenacity.

Natasha picked up her mug and drank. When she set it back down, it chimed against the saucer in a bright and penetrating sound.

“Is about loss and love.” Her voice came out harsher than she had intended.

“I see.” Pepper was still staring down into her tea. She gave it a brief swirl, picked it up, drank again. “What’s it called?”

“Apotropaic. It means—it’s a word for a talisman, something to protect against evil.”

Pepper blinked. “That’s an interesting choice.”

“We were made to learn more Greek myth than most, I think.”

“The Bolshoi had high standards?”

“And heavy-handed tutors.”

Pepper went back to her tea. Natasha let the silence rest between them for a few moments.

“Have you started thinking about costumes for Desperation?” asked Pepper finally, with determined cheer.

“Yes, Steve has some beautiful preliminary sketches, Costuming has already started with him to make a few prototypes.”

They talked details until Pepper finished her tea and set the empty mug down. “We’d better get going. We’re not going to get enough sleep tonight.”

“Da,” sighed Natasha. “It’s been a long time since I was twenty and indestructible.”

“Were you?” asked Pepper, with a sideways glance. Natasha didn’t answer.

When they got to where they needed to split up, Pepper startled Natasha by reeling her in for a brief hug. It was the kind of hug women constantly gave each other, a short press, lean muscled arms wrapped around her shoulders. But Natasha could smell the lingering traces of Pepper’s perfume, something sugary that made her hungry, and Pepper’s body was hot against hers in the brightly-lit cold of the station.

“See you tomorrow,” said Pepper, drawing back, and she was gone.

The next morning Natasha texted James a question mark. He replied with a series of heart emoji, and a smiley face.

She texted back a thumbs-up.

There wasn’t much point in being selfish, after all, if it cost you the very thing you’d been fighting to keep.

 

Their last performance of the Nutcracker was on Christmas Day. Natasha volunteered to take that one, freeing Pepper for whatever she might prefer to be doing. Being Russian Orthodox, at least nominally, it was not that much of a holiday for her. Steven (a good Catholic boy at heart) had insisted on celebrating by spending the morning with James, and she had been invited, so she’d gone over for French toast with them. James had gotten her a beautiful necklace, a spray of diamonds like lilacs. The timid smile he’d given her, fastening it around her neck as she faced the beautiful old mirror over his fireplace in a parody of a romantic gesture from a thousand movies, had only emphasized to her that it was half from guilt.

She got a text from Pepper, which she hadn’t been expecting. They didn’t text much. Natasha had been keeping some distance—not much; not enough, certainly, but some. She glanced down at her phone in curiosity while Maria, behind her, was sewing herself into her shoes.

Thanks again for volunteering, Pepper said. I really appreciate it

No problem. I hope you have a good holiday.

I did, Pepper replied, and then texted a blurry picture of herself with what were certainly her parents: two other blond, tall people, grinning with shining white teeth into the camera.

Get a selfie stick, Natasha advised. Merry Christmas.

You, too, said Pepper. And then it was time to finish her makeup and go on.

That damn hitch in her ankle was spreading. The outside edge of her foot was starting to ache.

 

Tony sent out a mass e-mail and text, just to emphasize the point, that everyone was invited to the Stark New Year’s Party.

“I don’t know if I want to go.” Natasha adjusted her feet in James’ lap. They were sitting on his couch, Steve sitting with his back up against it, leaning his head back between James’ knees. Kisa, traitorously, had chosen Steve’s lap over Natasha’s. “You know will be crazy.”

“Da, solovushka.” James was lazily running one hand through Steve’s hair. Steve’s eyes were closed in bliss. (Kisa, purring softly, kneading Steve’s leg as he scritched behind her ears, mirrored him.) “We’re going, though. You should come.”

“You two in suits? That will be interesting. But hardly my affair.”

“We’ll miss you,” James whined unconvincingly.

“But think about this.” Steve blinked his eyes open and turned his head just he could just see Natasha. “It’s an excuse to wear a really nice dress.”

Natasha snorted. “Where am I going to get one of those?”

“It’s New York.” Steve made a derisive noise in the back of his throat. “I’m sure somewhere can live up to your expectations.”

“I can’t afford one.” She waved one hand with dismissive finality.

“Right. Hmm.” Steve pulled his phone out of his pocket.

“What are you doing?”

“Texting Tony.”

“What—no! How dare you!”

“It’s done.”

The next day, a harried-looking courier showed up at her apartment, where she had been trying to enjoy a day’s peace and quiet, with a box that turned out to contain a dress made to her specifications (undoubtedly filched from the seamstress’ notebook, filled with crabbed scribbles) from a violently beautiful, bias-cut plum silk.

She tried it on. It fit like a glove. She heaved a huge sigh and texted Tony, no shoes?

They’re on their way!

And within fifteen minutes, a second package had arrived, which contained a clutch purse and a pair of Badgley Mischka heels that must have been hundreds of dollars in and of themselves.

Car will be there for you at 8, Tony said. I know you’ll look devastating. Try not to scorch any earth between your place and here.

Thank you and go to hell, she said. Now I’m stuck socializing all evening.

You’ll be the life of the party.

She just replied to that with the tongue-out emoji and resigned herself to an evening of being terribly bored. At least at a Stark party, she could expect better than mediocre champagne.

She wore the necklace James had given her. It worked with the outfit. And, as she had predicted, the minute she stepped out of the car Tony had sent for her—something sleek and black and classic—there was a flurry of reporters. “That’s beautiful!” someone shouted.

“Thank you.” She inclined her head graciously. The dress length was perfectly gauged; she didn’t have to gather it up as she walked.

“Who’s the designer?”

“No idea.” She flashed a smile at a camera.

“Are those real?”

“The diamonds?” she asked with a pointedly raised eyebrow, to a titter of approving laughter. “Yes, they were a gift from James.”

One of the reporters whistled. She smiled graciously in that general direction. She knew she photographed well, particularly her left profile.

“If you’ll excuse me.” She walked past them into Stark Tower, perfectly balanced, perfectly poised in her dangerously high heels.

When she got inside, she spotted James immediately. It was hard to miss him—he’d worn an all-white suit, and he gleamed in the darkness like a lamp. She slipped a hand into the crook of his elbow and he looked down at her with a loose, warm smile that told her he’d already had a glass or two of champagne.

“Did he spring for the good stuff?” she asked.

James nodded, dropping a light kiss to her forehead. “Steve’s getting me another glass.”

“Steve’s back,” said Steve. He offered one of the flutes to Natasha. “Ladies first?”

“Oh, thank you.” She accepted it with a sweet smile and drank. When she lowered it, there was a print of her lipstick—a few shades too dark, too purple, for her usual look—at the rim.

Tony materialized at her elbow, in a vulgar dark blue suit, some shiny material with exaggerated lapels. “Nat!” He grinned expansively and pulled her in for air kisses. “How are you? So glad you came.”

“You knew,” she accused without heat. “You sent me a dress I’d have no choice but to wear.”

“I certainly hoped you’d rise to the challenge.” He kept grinning, unrepentant. “You know I had to convince Pep to come, too?”

“Oh, really?” Natasha took another sip of champagne.

“Yeah, she wasn’t sure she was feeling up to it. But I told her you’d be here for moral support.”

“Mm-hmm.” She wasn’t going to directly answer that.

“She’s over talking to one of our donors.” Tony gestured out with his own champagne glass. Natasha found herself turning her head to follow the movement, not quite intentionally.

Pepper looked—she was wearing a dress, too, something in a shade of red that would clash terribly with Natasha’s hair. She was wearing lipstick in an electric, blueish red that made her face look somehow completely different. Her hair, pulled up into a perfect French twist, gave the impression of a Hollywood starlet from the 40s.

“Damn,” said Steve appreciatively. James, no doubt less subtly than he imagined, swatted Steve’s arm lightly.

And then Pepper looked their way. Her eyes met Natasha’s. It was difficult to remember to breathe, how to breathe. Natasha found herself counting it out in the old familiar rhythm, from the ice-water baths, from the hours when she’d shut her eyes in the dark silence of the closet where they’d locked her for punishment: one. two. three. four.

She couldn’t think what her face was doing. She couldn’t think at all.

One. Two. Three. Four.

She found a smile. She found a breath. She smiled across the room at Pepper, and Pepper’s face finally moved; Pepper smiled back, and then turned back to the very rich man who was animatedly trying to explain something to her.

She dimly realized that James had a hand on her arm and he was squeezing, not hard enough to hurt, but to try to bring her back. She glanced up into his face, and the look in his eyes was almost enough to make her hide her own face.

Almost. Natalia Alianovna Romanova had survived much, much worse than a pretty girl.

James, in his infinite capacity for kindness, had started a friendly, boisterous argument about something totally unrelated with Tony. She could hear them talking over her head, and after a split second to reorient herself, she tossed in a mocking, sly joke. Tony gave her a brilliant grin, one of the shit-eating smiles he liked to give the paparazzi.

A minute later, he said to her, “Did you like Pepper’s dress? I helped her pick it out. It’s Zuhair Murad.”

“I should have guessed from the beadwork.” Someone had distracted James, and Steve had vanished again, probably to use his formidable charm on a potential donor. She smoothed her hands over the silk of her own dress, from her stomach to her hips. “How did you decide on purple? Most people try to put me in black or white.”

“Then they’re idiots.” He encompassed her with a wave of his hand. “You can’t just ignore your hair, or try to work around it. You have to work with it.”

“I can’t complain about the results.” She gestured down the length of the dress with her clutch purse. “And the shoes are extravagant.”

“You’re welcome.” He rocked up on his toes, shoving his free hand into his pocket. “I figured you needed something a little dramatic if I was going to go so traditional with the cut of the dress.”

The shoes, with their towering heels wrapped in rhinestone flowers, could indeed be described as dramatic, and she just shook her head at him fondly. “No complaints.”

She took advantage of the gesture, the quiet moment, to glance back out. Her eyes found Pepper immediately—in that dress like a column of flame it was impossible not to. Pepper had a smile plastered on her mouth, and even at that distance Natasha knew there would be no smile in her eyes. Pepper was courteous, pleasant, kind, when she was uncomfortable. She was many things, but she was not genuine. To someone like Natasha, not even particularly convincing.

“You’d let me know if there were.” His voice was gentle. It was intolerable. She looked back at him to find that, of course, he’d noticed where her eyes had gone.

“So.” She looked back out at the room, scanning it with a critical eye. “Who do you need me to charm?”

“Nat! Who says you’re here to charm anyone?”

“Tony, do you believe that I am not aware that I am both your friend and your investment? I know there are expectations of return.

He seemed, briefly, speechless, his mouth twisting with something complicated.

“Show me the target,” she said, more kindly.

She almost regretted the offer, later, when she was entrenched in a conversation about yachts with a rich man who was clearly hoping she’d be overcome by lust at the prospect of his massive wastes of money.

Really,” she said, in the universal tone of voice for tell me more, bitterly wishing she had listened to her better angels and refrained from coming to the party at all.

It was a victory, of course, when he drunkenly pulled out a checkbook and wrote the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company a check for enough money to cover Natasha’s salary for the year five times over. Of course it was a victory; Natasha had never accepted anything less.

She continued to talk to him long enough that he would not feel used, quickly discarded, after he wrote the check. And she kept enough distance that, even drunk as he was, he did not mistake her charm for an invitation.

Because the world wasn’t unpleasant enough, she ran into Edward the clarinet. He was clearly three sheets to the wind. He put his hand—his sweaty, meaty hand—directly between her shoulder blades, coming up behind her, and she very nearly elbowed him in the face.

“Why, hello,” he slurred at her. She smiled back tightly, twisting surreptitiously so that his hand fell off her.

“Edward. What a surprise.”

“It’s funny, don’t you think? That we never worked together? I’ve played for lots of ballets—not international, but just about everybody in America—and this is the first time I’ve worked with you!”

“Yes, what a shame.” She didn’t bother to camouflage the tone of her voice, but it went right over his head.

“I was at the NYBT before this—did you know that?” He beamed with self-satisfaction. He clearly thought this was a mark of great distinction.

“Good for you.”

“You know I’ve been thinking—”

“You must be careful about that.”

He was too drunk to parse that, and bulled on. “There are always rumors about you and Barnes, but I think you might find a night out with me more agreeable.”

“Oh, I very much doubt that.”

He proceeded to touch her again, leaning into her space, wrapping his hand around her arm, just above the elbow. “I won’t take no for an answer,” he started, and she had had enough.

She cut him off. “I’m afraid you’ll have to.”

He stared at her blankly for several seconds, obviously not having expected that. He was telegraphing every vulgar, entitled thought passing through his mind.

 His grip started to tighten on her arm. She said, very softly, in a voice like steel, “Let go of me.”

She didn’t have to threaten him. His hand slowly loosened, and she waited until it fell away from her before she turned and started walking, deliberately slow, measured. Thank God, he did not come after her.

When she returned to find Tony, she passed him the check without comment. He looked down and whistled.

“I’ve earned my keep.” She smiled humorlessly at him. “And it only took me—” She glanced at the clock. “Three and a half hours. Good God. I’ve never wanted to learn so much about yachting.”

“You know, it’s going to be midnight soon.” He raised his eyebrows, tucking the check into an inner suit pocket. “You should find someone to kiss.”

She flapped her hand dismissively. “American custom.”

“When in New York, do as the New Yorkers do, babe.” He grinned. “You want to stick with me and get your midnight kiss from the most eligible billionaire in Manhattan? I wouldn’t complain, you’re a petite goddess, not to mention obscenely talented.”

She rolled out her neck and listened to it pop. “Kiss me and die.”

“Duly noted! I’ll respect your wishes, dearest, I swear. But you know who looks like she could use some rescuing, if you’re in the mood?”

Natasha followed his pointed stare and saw Pepper listening to a man who had trust-fund sleaze written all over him, from his badly-made bespoke suit (travesty) to his capped grin and painstakingly gelled hair. It looked very much as if Pepper was gritting her teeth. Men. Christ.

Before she was fully conscious of the decision, Natasha had started moving.

She grabbed a champagne flute off a waiter’s tray as she moved through the crowd, and by the time she got to the two of them, she had become the picture of someone who’d overindulged, just enough to be charming. The drunk friend, media: flesh and silk.

“Pep!” she said, too loudly, wrapping her hand around Pepper’s forearm. Pepper jerked around to stare down into her face in blank astonishment. “Hi! Oh, hi,” she added to the man, who looked discomfited at being interrupted. “I just need to borrow Pep for a minute!”

She dragged Pepper away in a grip like a iron, and once they’d made it a safe distance she gave up the loose, stumbling slouch and straightened back up, setting her champagne flute back down on another circulating tray.

“That’s better.” Natasha let go of Pepper’s arm and dusted off her hands ostentatiously.

She didn’t dare, quite, look directly at Pepper; in the low, shifting light of the dancefloor, Pepper was staring at her with something fond and frightened, all at once. Pepper’s lips were so, so red in her face. The mirror ball dazzled a brief flock of patches of light across her skin. They were standing too close.

Pepper’s dress was cut so that it was tight across her hips and flared out into a wider skirt. Natasha found her eyes trailing down it, the places where the fabric was just a netting the color of Pepper’s skin, with red beads glittering.

“Yes, it is,” said Pepper.

There was a dull roar of noise around them. Natasha lifted her head. Ten, nine, the crowd was chanting.

Pepper locked eyes with her, and Natasha couldn’t hear the crowd around them over the rush of blood pounding in her ears.

Three, two, one, and Pepper leaned forward, closing her eyes. Natasha couldn’t; she left her eyes open as Pepper touched their lips together. Pepper was, paradoxically, more beautiful at this distance. Her flaws and faults should have been visible, should have been magnified. But all Natasha could see was the curve of Pepper’s cheek, the way her eyelashes fluttered when she pressed in, just a little closer.

They weren’t touching anywhere else. Natasha stood dumbly as Pepper pulled back.

“Happy New Year.” Pepper smiled. It didn’t reach her eyes. Her eyes were sparkling with something else altogether.

Natasha wouldn’t have said, quite, that Pepper ran away from her. Quite. No one in heels that narrow could run, at any rate.

She stood there for a few more endless seconds, until she pulled herself together. She could feel how jerky it was as she dragged herself back into character. She had to be Natasha Romanoff for—for as long as it would take to escape this party, this hell she’d somehow landed in.

She tried, without success, to find James. She needed to talk to him, she needed something. But she couldn’t find him, and when at length she did find Tony again, and asked him, trying to be casual about it, he could only shrug. “I haven’t seen him since before the ball dropped. Kind of a bummer, I was hoping to get a publicity shot of him in that suit.”

Desperate, she fished her phone out of her clutch and texted him. It took him half an hour to reply, and by then she’d managed to separate herself, disengage, and head home. She was staring out the window of the hired car, seeing nothing, when her phone vibrated.

What is it? What’s wrong?

She just shoved it back into her purse.

 

Gossip! At The Ballet

[short video clip of Natasha smirking at the photographers on the red carpet, propping one hand on her hip]

TMZ was there for Tony Stark’s big New Year’s bash, starring the hottest dancers from the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company. All the good stuff happened behind closed doors, but we did get a few shots of Natasha Romanoff wearing some ice she confirmed was a gift from her long-rumored boy-toy, Bucky Barnes. Does this bling mean they’re getting ready to make it official? We heard that the grapevine says Barnes is commitment-minded this time around, no more watching his girl leave the country without him! Keep your eyes peeled for a rock on that special finger!

 

Pepper didn’t try to contact her. She didn’t try to contact Pepper.

The Dance Magazine article came out. She read it in her sweats the next day. They were actually on the cover, in practice clothes, T’Challa shirtless, holding Pepper in a lift that looked effortless but made the chiseled definition of his muscles very apparent.

The picture on the page of their article was less formal, Pepper leaning toward him in a stretch against the barre and laughing at something that he was saying. T’Challa was posed in an impressive stretch, leg lifted nearly to his ear.

Role Models for a New Generation of Dancers

At first glance, Virginia Potts and T’Challa don’t seem to have much in common. She’s an archetype of a WASP, with a wholly traditional ballet background; he is an actual prince from a far-away land, dancing in the United States instead of his home country of Wakanda. But in ballet, the two find common ground. Our interviewer spoke with them to find out what they consider the most important functions they serve as dancers.

Dance Magazine: T’Challa, can we start with you? Why did you decide to dance in the US?

T’Challa: A variety of reasons. It is not accurate to suggest that Africa has any less rich a cultural milieu than the US or European or Russian cities, but ballet in particular has not become as established. Also, I felt it was important to demonstrate to ballet companies worldwide that black artists are being consistently overlooked.

DM: That’s an excellent point. Racial diversity has been a major sticking point in a lot of companies.

T’Challa: I would argue that it is ill-served in the majority of ballet companies around the world.

DM: What do you think about Tony Stark’s recruitment efforts, focusing on what he’s called “underutilized” performers? He’s used that word repeatedly in interviews and press releases.

T’Challa: I think it has gained him a truly excellent company with the benefit of being, on the whole, more appreciative than a typical company. The company has a very good atmosphere, good relationships throughout. Not all companies have this.

DM: Virginia, what about you? What drew you to leave your former company and join the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company?

Virginia: Well, honestly, there are a lot of factors in traditional ballet companies that can be really unhealthy for performers. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail, but I’ve been really impressed with Tony’s dedication to creating an environment where dancers can focus on dancing. That’s what brings us all here, that’s what we love, and it’s refreshing to get to explore our full potential.

DM: That’s an interesting perspective.

Virginia: I’ve known Tony for a while, and I know he has a big personality. Sometimes it can seem like everything he does is just over the top, and I know some people were quick to dismiss this project as another stunt. But Tony’s dedicated to the art of ballet, and he sees us as a group of like-minded people, people who will put ballet first and deliver with every performance.

DM: And that’s a pretty good pitch to go see a show, right?

T’Challa: No, our performances pitch themselves.

DM: Excellent point. I was lucky enough to see one of your debut performances as a company, and I have to say, I think a lot of us were surprised and very impressed with the level of talent and sophistication everyone brought to the stage.

T’Challa: It should not have been a surprise.

Virginia: I’m glad you enjoyed it.

DM: We’d like to wish you all the best as this season moves forward. I know New York is looking forward to seeing what you do next!

Virginia: We’re looking forward to it, too.

Natasha sighed, pressing a knuckle into her eye. She got up and put on a kettle for tea, and then she dug out The Idiot and settled down to try to make some progress through it.

 

Pepper gave her a smile as she took her spot at the barre for their first rehearsal back. It was all very normal, which was bizarre in its own right.

“All right, everybody.” Rhodes folded his arms. “This season is going to be more challenging than fall was, because we’re debuting the first Rogers-Romanoff collaboration ever. The other two pieces we’re pairing it with are Act Two of Ashton’s Tiresias, which you’ve never even heard of so don’t lie to me about it, and Le Spectre de la Rose, which we’re putting a modern spin on. We’ve also got the Valentine’s Day short from Romanoff to prep, you know if you’re in that. You ready for this?”

A dull noise of assent came from the room.

“I can’t hear you,” Rhodes sang out sarcastically.

A more definite roar of Yes came up from the room.

“Good. Great. So, the big things to know: we’re doing Spectre with two female leads. Romanoff and Potts, you’re it for the first cast. Munroe and Hill for second cast.”

Natasha smiled politely. She hadn’t seen Le Spectre de la Rose in over a decade, and it was something of a strange choice—never particularly popular, conservative choreography. But giving it a twist would kick up a little interest, and (like the Ashton) it gave them the advantage that no one could accuse them of rifling through the NYCB’s recent performances.

“Romanoff is our sleeping maiden, and Potts will be the rose.”

“Didn’t Nijinsky play the rose?” asked Sam.

“Yes, and if it’s good enough for Nijinsky, it’s good enough for Potts.” Rhodes gave him a toothy smile.

Sam held his hands up, grinning back. “No argument here, boss.”

Spectre just has the two leads, so partner rehearsals only for that, and Tiresias is old enough that no one will have done it before, but most of you will be frolicking villagers in the hills. The big challenge this season is going to be Desperation. Remember, our senior principal is co-choreographer, so if you hate something, don’t even breathe it where she can hear you. I hear she murdered a guy in Russia for calling her derivative.”

There was a ripple of laughter, only slightly uneasy. Natasha gave a serene smile, playing into it, and Rhodes gave her the barest of winks.

“So let’s get started.”

 

Pepper stretched after the rehearsal as Natasha started to pack. Pepper said, casually, “At first, I didn’t recognize the music for Apotropaic.

Natasha felt her shoulders tense. “It’s the same music from the Swan Lake variation from Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux.

“I figured it out eventually. The movements are very different. Are you worried about the comparisons?”

Natasha snorted. “Hardly. Balanchine had his ways, I have mine.”

Pepper lifted her head from her focus on stretching out her calves, and gave Natasha a brief, blinding smile. “Spoken like the original Natasha Romanoff.”

“Natalia Alianovna Romanova, thank you.” Natasha tossed off a quick curtsey. “Living legend.”

“You are, you know.” Pepper was still smiling at her, all soft edges, no bite to it.

Natasha shrugged. “Of course.”

She left before she could say anything foolish.

 

James was disgustingly cute in love. Natasha had never had the opportunity to see him in any stage of it other than tragic, but when he was head over heels for someone who felt the same way, apparently he turned into a complete sap.

It was just a matter of time, at this point, until it became known. James was no good at hiding it. His idea of discretion was not kissing Steve in public. Which was not a bad place to start, but the way he stared at Steve, laughed at everything Steve said, leapt up to fetch anything Steve mentioned a passing desire for—it was enough to leave Natasha pressing her lips together, trying not to laugh.

“Sorry,” said Steve, rolling his eyes and looking thoroughly amused over the remnants of their morning feast at a neighborhood pastry shop. “I didn’t mean he needed to get me another latte right now.”

“No, no, is adorable.” Natasha reached out and put her hand over Steve’s. “He is still very good to me. If we are lucky, tabloids will decide we are poly triangle.”

Steve laughed, explosively. “As if a classy dame like you—”

“Oh, don’t talk yourself down.” She smiled at him from behind her aviator sunglasses, where she and her damned hangover were hiding. “Is my job.”

“All right!” James settled back down with them, holding out the travel cup to Steve. “That good, babe?”

“Yeah, it’s good.” The look Steve gave James in return was so warm, so sweet, that it made Natasha ache a little.

 

It was hard, very hard, standing in the wings that first night of Apotropaic. The theater was packed, she didn’t know how or why. There had been a marketing campaign. She’d seen a poster for it on the subway, which had made her want to laugh. The fact that this was just a way to pick up Valentine’s Day date dollars in no way diminished the pressure she felt. She had choreographed Apotropaic like tearing pages out of her brain. Each step was a wound, arranged as a soft, decades-late fuck you to Balanchine, an apology to Tchaikovsky, something between the two for—someone who didn’t need to be thought of. Steve had been right to ask her Does it hurt? Of course it did.

James knew. She could tell he did, because he took his part—the frightened lover, circling the object of his affection—and danced it like his life depended on it. He threw himself into it utterly. T’Challa was the first male member of the company to do pointe work on stage, and when Natasha had tried to delicately sound out how he felt about it, he’d given her a patient smile. “Rigid definitions of masculinity hold very little appeal for me,” and that had been that.

Now he was en pointe, in a narrow, tight, constrained space, dancing it with skill that would have shamed female principals across the country.

Finally James and T’Challa reached the climax; they seized each other’s hands, rapidly alternated between who was en pointe and who was supporting in a dizzying spiral, and finished by collapsing into each other’s arms as the curtains fell.

There was a moment of absolute silence in the theater. She realized with irritation that she was holding her breath, and forced herself to let it out.

And just as she did, there was a crashing noise—applause—it was huge, it was vast, thundering through the theater like a storm, and it went on and on and on.

When James grabbed her hand and dragged her onto stage with T’Challa, he was grinning like a maniac. She found herself, reluctantly, smiling back. The curtains went up again, and she’d done this thousands upon thousands of times, but this time was different, this was new. Now it was hers. It was her. And they loved it, they just kept clapping and cheering and shrieking like it was a rock concert instead of a ballet.

The second performance was good, but different. Without James’ electricity, it relied on Jim to bring something—and he did, thank God, catching onto the discord between the smooth beauty of the music and the strangling emotionality. He circled Pepper as she stayed poised en pointe, kicking into fouettés, for unbelievable periods of time. She made it look as natural as breathing.

Natasha couldn’t sleep that night. She knew she was going to be shit at rehearsals the next day. She didn’t care.

 

Apotropaic: A True Charm Against Evil

By Peter Parker

To be clear, I have never seen an audience at a ballet react the way it reacted to Natasha Romanoff’s debut as a choreographer. The screaming alone tells you everything you need to know about this show’s power to move and inspire a modern audience. It felt something like being in an evangelical church with a moment of ecstatic grace, speaking in tongues.

It could easily come across as a gimmick: a limited series of performances leading up to Valentine’s Day at very affordable prices, a romantic theme, local musicians opening each night, Tchaikovsky’s music, and a rotating cast of performers such that couples break every taboo in ballet. A white male amputee dancing with a black prince? It feels like a very self-conscious fairy tale.

And yet, the energy in the room was frankly incredible. James Barnes danced, if anything, better than he ever danced with the Bolshoi, and the choice to leave his metal arm bare rather than wear its lifelike skin added a point of truly remarkable visual interest to the production. T’Challa demonstrated with ease why opponents of men dancing en pointe are going to go down in the history of the art as deluded.

No one doubted that Romanoff was one of the most talented dancers to grace the stage in generations. Now, we have no excuse for doubting that she is also one of the most talented choreographers.

This is a watershed moment in ballet. If this company survives its first season, it will be a judgment on the sometimes hide-bound traditionalists.

We can look forward to the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company’s first collaboration between Romanoff and noted choreographer Steve Rogers, Desperation, in a mere two weeks; if the passion Romanoff brings to this project meets the precision and grace Rogers has demonstrated in his past pieces, this is going to be a season to remember forever.

James read it out loud to her in the studio the next morning as soon as it came out, immediately disrupting the attempts at real practice.

“Great,” said Gabe, who was on that night. “No pressure. Nothing to live up to or anything.”

T’Challa chuckled dryly. “You’re partnering me. I believe you will survive with your dignity and reputation intact.”

“Yes, but what does Ulrich say?” Natasha asked, trying to ignore the sensation of her ears burning.

Steve was making a face at his phone—evidently he’d already skimmed it. “Travesty, blah blah, shitting on ballet’s storied traditions, blah.”

“Seriously?” James looked murderous. “Let me guess, he hates the pointe?”

“Yeah, he thinks manly men have no business en pointe, and T’Challa is much too manly for ballet anyway.”

“He can go fuck himself.” T’Challa smiled brightly. The effect was unnerving.

Gabe blew out a breath through clenched teeth. “No pressure! Right! Great! Everything is good!”

“Come on, everyone.” Natasha clapped briskly. “We’ve got the next opening in two weeks, we need to keep it together.”

“Damn right.” Steve nodded. “Back to the start.”

There was a groan throughout the studio—the opening sequences of Desperation were particularly technical, and Steve had been merciless, wandering through their ranks and correcting them with firm hands and sharp words. Rhodes let him, which was something of a surprise, but then, Rhodes seemed to have a soft spot for mouthy short men.

Valentine’s Day: Discount Ballet

By Ulrich Tronsson

Tony Stark’s motley crew has done it again, and by “it” I mean flashy attempts at originality that fall far short of their intended effect. Apotropaic, the debut of Natasha Romanoff as a choreographer rather than an over-the-hill dancer, derives its name from Greek, to ward off evil. Unfortunately, it seems to summon rather protect.

The most notable part of these performances is the rotating cast, with partners paired regardless of gender, race, and, regrettably, ability. Opening night saw James Barnes partner T’Challa. The extended sequence en pointe would traditionally be performed by a woman, but in this case, T’Challa assumes the position. It hardly suits him. He has a powerful, athletic build and style, and lacks the grace or intelligence that flavors the performances of better dancers.

The show suffers badly for this shock casting. T’Challa’s demeaning performance makes a mockery of the history of pointe work, which has traditionally been reserved for men only when playing comedic characters, such as Cinderella’s stepsisters, or in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an ass. An ass is the kindliest way to describe what T’Challa resembles here.

James Barnes, as always, emotes as effectively as a block of wood, and is as nimble as the same. This show is a waste of Tchaikovsky’s music, and an insult to Balanchine’s memory.

“Good.” Natasha slammed her mug of tea down on the counter with unnecessary force. “It should be insult.”

Steve, chin cupped in his hand, took a sip of his ice water. “Nat, you know he’s just an asshole, right?” He had read it earlier, and had had sufficient time to calm down already.

“Lacks grace—all this about athleticism—he means T’Challa is black. Son of a bitch.”

Steve nodded, rolling his glass forward on the counter and then back. “Fuck him.”

“Fuck him! Fuck him and his stupid fucking obsession with these traditions, as if Balanchine was God—and you know Balanchine would have hated him, would have seen him as the weak toady he is. Nureyev would have beaten him to within an inch of his life.”

Steve raised his glass. “To Nureyev, kicking his ass in the afterlife.”

She paused, glowering at him, before raising her cup and clinking it against his. “To Nureyev.”

By tacit agreement, neither Steve nor Natasha made a habit of referring to their mutual fear of the opening of Desperation.

 

The fourth night, she and Pepper performed it. They had rehearsed together. Nothing was new. And yet it was, as Natasha had suspected it might be, difficult.

Pepper did the en pointe part, as she had with Jim Morita. She was made of steel. She was a pleasure to dance with. At the end, when Natasha took her hands, she could see the sheen of sweat on Pepper’s skin, the blood heating Pepper’s face.

Afterwards, she gave Pepper a cursory smile before making a break for the dressing room. No one came in while she put her head against the cool metal of the lockers and breathed. One. Two. Three. Four.

 

She managed to invite Pepper to brunch with Ororo on Sunday, and she was proud of herself for doing it in a casual, low-key way. With Ororo there, smiling over her crepe, it was impossible to be too awkward.

“I loved performing Apotropaic,” Ororo said. She cut another bit off her crepe off with her fork. “That much time en pointe! I have not had quads like this in years.”

“My feet are still burning.” Pepper dug into her omelet. “I don’t know how we’re going to get into the swing of it for the new shows.”

Ororo hummed softly. “I am glad they at least did not insist on a historically accurate nightgown. I have seen older versions. I have no desire to wear a bonnet.”

“Agreed.”

Pepper said, “I feel like I have the most room to be frightened for how the costume comes off.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow. “Nobody made you go full Nijinsky.”

“No, I mean, and it’s not that bad, it’s just… it’s a lot. A lot of petals.”

“Oh, dear. Do you have pictures?”

Pepper pulled out her phone and found a hastily-snapped pic, and handed it across the table to Natasha.

“Oh.” Natasha blinked down at it. “That is… that certainly is many petals.”

“That’s all you’ve got to say about it?”

“All that I can think of.”

Ororo snagged the phone out of Natasha’s hand. “Good God.”

“I know, right?” Pepper laughed. “I’m worried about the reviews.”

Ororo squinted at the screen with pursed lips. “The good news is it looks—well, as good as something like that can look, on you.”

“It’s a flattering color,” Natasha offered.

“I told Tony we should do something more modern with it, but he wouldn’t stop laughing long enough to let me explain.”

“It could be much worse,” said Ororo philosophically, and surreptitiously signaled for another Pimm’s cup.

 

The premier for Desperation and the accompanying pieces came much, much too soon. It wasn’t that the company wasn’t ready; the rehearsals had been exhaustive, grueling, to the point where Pepper and Ororo were both making comments about doing sections in their dreams. (Natasha had been dreaming about it for months already.)

It was more that Natasha couldn’t imagine ever being fully prepared for other people to see their work.

Steve kept trying to seem stoic about it, but there was a tendency to wobble around the mouth when he stared off into space. Tony took to calling Natasha to ask increasingly technical questions about the production that he frankly had no need for. James started biting his nails on his good hand, a habit she hadn’t seen on him since he was thirteen. His revoltades—plural—would have been enough to worry any dancer, much less one in his first year back after injury.

And as for Natasha, she made a point of not going crazy with it.

She practiced hard, but not too hard. She wasn’t going to break herself on this. She watched her meals, made sure she was eating enough, all the right things, protein and fat and carbohydrates in a healthy balance. She tucked herself into bed at night and when she couldn’t sleep, from time to time, she got up and sat on the couch to read for a few minutes, just like the doctor had recommended.

Late one evening, she was sitting in James’ living room, watching Steve shout at the television—he had a nasty habit of watching political shows, despite the fact that they inevitably brought him to near-apoplexy with rage—when James put his cool hand on the back of her neck and said, “It’s going to be great.”

She took another handful of popcorn. “Of course it is.”

She’d developed the beginnings of a sharp pain in her right knee that she had no desire to speak to anyone about. She would go see Bruce about it soon; she would.

 

Rogers-Romanoff Collaboration Desperation Premieres in Brooklyn

By Alastair Macaulay for the New York Times

The ballet world, while rooted in the classics, has in recent years attempted to expand its reach; at times, this reach has exceeded its grasp in dramatic and unfortunate ways. For every Ratmansky, there are dozens of failed would-be creators who find that choreography is considerably more difficult than they had ever anticipated. It is a sublime art, one which requires utmost dedication.

Steven G. Rogers, over the last decade, has risen from a corps member to a choreographer, only to fall in a career-ending injury. However, his works have continued to be a strong, steady presence at festivals and exhibitions, and perhaps the best-known (The Stars and the Shield, his collaboration with Margaret Carter of the Royal Ballet during a stormy residency there) rises to the level of brilliance. What his work has most often lacked is inspiration. He creates thoughtful, appealing, but unexceptional pieces.

When Natasha Romanoff joined the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company with the expectation of an apprenticeship with Rogers, many observers expected that she would follow the path of so many before her. Hesitant initial steps, followed by a quiet retreat. Her initial offering, a piece titled “Apotropaic,” was certainly not marketed to appeal to the elite—discounted tickets, a revolving cast, men en pointe, and marketing tying the performances to Valentine’s Day all suggested that this work was less than serious.

That assessment may have been in error. Desperation, the piece she and Rogers have co-created, is something entirely unexpected from a novice creator. Where Wayne McGregor’s much-fêted pieces have vital, interesting movements but too often deviate from aesthetic pleasure and at times seem unfinished and immature, Desperation retains that sensation of deep motive power and energy, but with a polish that must be attributed to Romanoff. Rogers, on his own, is a good choreographer. Together, this team has the potential to be truly great.

Although Romanoff plays a prominent role, the unmistakable star of the piece is her long-time partner, James Buchanan Barnes. In the wake of his injury and amputation, it seemed that his career had ended. It is a gift to the audience that it has not. With a gravitas he lacked as a young man (seen in his signature role, Duke Albrecht, at the Bolshoi), he approaches this role as the opportunity to demonstrate all the expressivity he was criticized for lacking. And indeed, as an older man, he shows a depth of understanding and a fine appreciation for nuance that elevates his performance. In a piece this athletic, he could easily have focused on the technical aspects to the exclusion of the emotional core of the work and been forgiven. Instead, he is an electric presence during the entire punishing runtime.

Romanoff’s own contributions to the dance demonstrate clearly that she has lost none of the elasticity and poise that defined her as a dancer. She has always possessed that magical talent of making extremely difficult sections look effortless, which we see in the finest dancers, as with other physical endeavors. Despite the multiple injuries that she has suffered over the years, she is dancing as well as she ever has, perhaps better. We can reasonably hope for many more seasons from Romanoff. And, perhaps, many more new works that contribute greatly to the canon of performed ballet.

“I’ll be damned,” said James slowly.

Steve had his arms folded tightly across his chest. He was staring off into space, chewing on his lip.

“I’m—I knew Macaulay was going to be there.” Tony, who had burst into their afternoon practice and dragged them bodily into his office as soon as the piece dropped, looked shocky and white. “I didn’t want to tell you.”

“Probably just as well,” Natasha said. “When does Tronsson put in his ridiculous hit piece?”

“A couple more hours.” Tony shook his head a little. “And, uh, Parker’s goes in tomorrow morning.”

“I’m really—huh.” James drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “He hates new things.”

“He’s a sexist pig,” Natasha said briskly. “Who does not care to think of himself as such.”

“Yeah, didn’t he call—”

“He did.”

Unexceptional,” said Steve abruptly.

“Yes, don’t worry about it.” Natasha patted his shoulder. “Is pig, yes? I tell you, this is good, people will come because of it, but he knows jack shit.”

“You know what he called The Stars and Shield when we debuted it? ‘Schmaltzy.’ What, now he likes me? What kind of bullshit is this?”

New York Times bullshit.” Natasha stood up. “Thank you for the notification, Tony, but we have real work to do.”

“You’re not all stoked about this? Because I am pretty fucking stoked! This is a big deal!” Tony looked like he was on the verge of an aneurysm.

“Yes, yes, we are stoked. And very busy.” Natasha ungently dug her nails in to James’ shoulder, and he scrambled to his feet.

“Yeah, whatever, busy day, look, Tony, I’m pretty stoked, too, even if he is kind of a jackass.”

Steve followed them back out, still looking murderous.

“He didn’t even say anything about the other pieces,” Steve grumbled in the hall. “Those dancers deserve recognition.”

“Yes, Steve.” Natasha kept herding James back to the studio.

 

Because there was no God (Natasha had never suffered under any illusions on that front, despite the elaborate icons of saints she had been exposed to since her earliest memories), Pepper’s building’s heating broke.

“I don’t understand why is such problem.” Natasha frowned, leaning heavily on the foam roller. Bruce had suggested stretching her IT band, vigorously, as a possible solution for her new knee pain, at least before he would recommend any imaging. The pain was distracting. “Is not so cold outside.”

“Yeah, I wish cold was the problem.” Pepper sighed heavily. She had her right foot soaking in a tub of ice water. “For some reason it’s running at about ninety-five degrees. I can leave all my windows wide open and run a fan, and it just keeps cranking it out.”

“Do you have anyone to stay with?”

“Not really.” Pepper swished her foot sadly in the water. “Nobody I’m—close enough to, you know?”

Natasha could imagine. In the years without James, her dear friends had been few and far between. Sentimentality was the only possible explanation for what came out of her mouth next. “Stay at my place.”

“What? Really?” Pepper’s head came up, and she fixed Natasha with a stare.

“Yes, of course. Is just studio, but you are welcome to my couch while this lasts.”

“Oh, my God, thank you so much!” Pepper jerked as if she were thinking about standing, but the ice water sloshed around her ankle and she stilled. “That’s going to be so much better than living in the sauna!”

“I think even the Scandinavians agree sauna time should be limited.”

“Okay, uh, I haven’t been to your place before, though, have I? Can you text me your address?”

“Of course. How much longer do you need to soak for? I can take you there tonight.”

“I’ve got to go by my apartment, pick a couple of things up.”

“Oh, yes. I’ll send you the address.” Their text message history was peculiarly blank. For most of the people she considered friends enough to socialize outside the studio with, there were at least a handful of personal messages, brief petty complaints and emoji-laden exchanges. But Natasha had never trusted herself to say much to Pepper.

On her way out of the building, the cool night air still hit her as a shock, a rush, and she bent her head to the bright screen to send the text.

An hour or so later, Natasha had had time to take a brief shower and frantically stow any evidence of untidiness. A scented candle burned, giving a low, guttering light and a vague scent of comforting leather and vanilla (at least, according to the label with its pretentious black font and line-art of Brooklyn streets). The couch was a pull-out, and she’d made it up with sheets, even though it reduced the floor space available to the approximate size of a postage stamp. There was nothing to be done about the contents of the refrigerator, beyond removing anything that had gone obviously bad.

She refused to reapply her makeup.

When the buzzer sounded, she pushed the button to open the outside door and then leaned heavily against the frame. She waited a beat after Pepper’s tentative knock sounded before pulling it open, to embrace the fiction that she hadn’t been standing there.

“Hi!” Pepper was out of breath, flushed. She looked around the apartment with great interest. “I have to say, I didn’t really picture your place like this?”

“What do you mean? Is nice.”

“No, no, it’s lovely!” Pepper’s eyes widened. Natasha stepped back from the door, gesturing her in. “It’s just—I pictured you in some kind of, I don’t know, modern high-rise, not a place like this. It’s full of history.”

“In town I came from originally, apartment like this would be height of modernity.” Natasha pointed to the kitchen area. “See? Appliances, reliable electricity, and only one occupant. Relative luxury, compared to days under Communism.”

“Do you like the building?”

“Yes, very much. Like you said, it has history.” Natasha crossed the window, stepping around the unfolded couch. She pulled back the curtains. “See old balcony?”

“If you can call it that. It’s only big enough to—like, lean over while you smoke.”

“Yes, was purpose, I’m sure. But is the original wrought iron for the building.”

Pepper looked at the couch. “Is that where I’ll sleep?”

“Yes, sorry it’s so small.”

“No, it’s perfect!” Pepper set her bag down on it gingerly. “Could I—I didn’t have time to get a shower while I was home, is it okay if I use yours?”

“Of course. Warning, hot water runs out in fifteen minutes sharp.”

Pepper laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind!” She pulled a towel out of the bag, and a camisole, and a pair of pajama pants that had French bulldogs all over them. A pair of ivory satin panties, lace-edged. A bag of toiletries, airplane-sized bottles, toothbrush.

Natasha pretended she hadn’t been looking. Pepper gathered everything up and headed into the bathroom. She listened to the water running, the faint but unmistakable sound of Pepper humming to herself.

She put on the kettle for a cup of tea and started in on making dinner, realizing belatedly that she hadn’t asked if Pepper wanted any. She made enough of the sautéed mixed vegetables and tofu for them both, just in case.

(Did women normally wear underwear like that? They seemed so uncomfortable and impractical. Natasha favored utilitarian cotton bikini briefs. She had never been under the impression that anyone would see her panties. She had a few thongs for occasions that called for underwear without panty lines, of course, but the last time she had thought someone might see her naked had been years before, and she’d been too young and anxiety-ridden and dazed with lust to think about it properly. Underwear had seemed totally irrelevant. Either Magda wanted to, or—and that was where she needed to stop thinking. That was where she was going to stop thinking.)

The kettle whistled softly. She poured herself a cup, letting the tag of the chamomile teabag slip between her fingers.

(And if women didn’t normally wear underwear like that, why was Pepper wearing it, tonight? Was Pepper hoping—)

The water shut off. After a few moments of vague bustling noises, Pepper emerged, toweling her hair, wearing her pajamas. The warm, humid air that came with her smelled like an unfamiliar shampoo, floral and sweet. A pang shot straight through Natasha.

“I forgot my leave-in conditioner,” said Pepper. “Do you have any I can borrow?”

“Yes, in the medicine cabinet, left side.”

“Thanks!” Pepper vanished back into the bathroom, the door partially open. A minute later she said, “I just hate how it feels when I try to do without, you know?”

“I know. You think this hair looks this good by itself?”

Pepper laughed from the bathroom. “Something smells good.”

“I made dinner, enough to share. You want some?”

“Are you sure?” Pepper came back out, looking longingly at the pan on the stove. “You don’t mind?”

“No trouble at all.” Natasha was already pulling out two plates from the cupboard.

“Yeah, dinner sounds great. Smells great.”

Normally Natasha sat on her couch to eat, but with it pulled out, she went to sit on the edge of her bed. Pepper climbed onto the sofa-bed and sat cross-legged, starting to dig in.

“No TV?” Pepper asked, mouth half-full.

“Just my laptop. Do you want to watch something?”

“I usually do when I eat, but it’s no big deal.”

They ended up watching an old episode of Poirot. Natasha rolled her eyes when the obligatory shady Eastern European character showed up with a terrible accent. Pepper giggled. Afterwards, Pepper picked up her plate and then Natasha’s, heading to the sink.

“You don’t have to,” Natasha said, but it was half-hearted at best. Pepper shook her head and smiled.

“It’s the least I can do. You’re putting me up, making me dinner—I owe you.”

Natasha managed not to suggest any ways Pepper could make it up to her. She felt constantly light-headed, like her heart was beating too fast. She recognized it as the surge of adrenaline she would get before a particularly important performance, but there was no cure for this, no performance to complete and survive.

Pepper was washing the dishes in the sink—no dishwasher in this little apartment. Natasha rarely made enough dishes to make that kind of investment worthwhile. Over the sloshing sounds of the water, Pepper said, “So how’s Bucky?”

“He’s doing well. Better than I’ve seen him in a long time, I think.”

“That’s good. I know it’s been a long season for him. A hard season, too.”

“He has had to get himself back into the mindset of performing all the time. He got soft, those years away. Good thing he has me to whip him into shape.” Natasha grinned, and Pepper smiled, too, down at the sudsy water in the sink.

“It seems like he sees a lot of Steve these days.”

“Yes. They’re very close. I did not know, but they went to same ballet school as little boys.”

“Really!” Pepper raised her eyebrows. “That’s interesting!”

“It is. I sometimes forget James was American first.”

“Well, he sounds so Russian, sometimes.”

“Yes. It’s nice to have another one in the company. Some places are all Americans, and they forget we did not all grow up with strip malls and Nickelodeon.

Pepper burst into laughter. “No strip malls?”

“In Soviet Union? No. And not for long time after.”

“Come on, you were just a kid when the USSR broke up, weren’t you?”

Natasha stared at the side of Pepper’s face. “Yes, because childhood is not formative, and being in newly destabilized country is so great.”

“Oh, lord. Don’t pay any attention to me, I don’t know what I’m talking about.” Pepper pulled the plug, and the low gurgling of the sink draining filled the room. “I grew up with strip malls and Nickelodeon, and President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and Channel One News—it was a funny thing where public schools would have this little bit of news every day, there was actually some pretty good reporting—after I started getting really into ballet I had a harder time doing public schools, but for a while there I managed it.”

“Special news for schools? Did they make their own?”

“No, it was a national thing.”

“So… propaganda?”

“No!” Pepper paused for a moment in rinsing a plate, a thoughtful look on her face. “Maybe a little?”

“I see.”

“It’s hard to explain. Anyway, I had a very American upbringing, I never thought much about other countries until I was older.”

“That does seem very American,” Natasha said dryly.

Pepper laughed ruefully, looking to side for somewhere to set the plate. “Doesn’t it, though?”

“Do you want help with that? Here.” Natasha stood up. It wasn’t until she was standing hip to hip with Pepper in the kitchen that she realized how stupid that was, but she busied herself getting out a clean dishtowel.

They stood for a few minutes in dreamy silence, Pepper passing Natasha dishes, Natasha briskly drying them and putting them back into the cupboards.

“What were the Russian ballet schools like?” Pepper asked.

“Harsh.” Natasha shrugged. “There are lots of stereotypes of Russians, most unfair, but ballet… Depends on the school. They do hit. Mine, maybe worse than most.”

“You were beaten?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” Pepper said quietly.

Natasha looked away. She didn’t talk about this much. Ever, really. Just—jokes, scattered here and there.

“My teachers,” and Pepper’s hands had come to an almost complete stop, where she was turning a cup around and around in the sink under the stream of water, “didn’t hit, but—they were so focused on weight. So focused.”

“Of course they were. Fucking Balanchine and his fucking delicate waifs.”

Pepper turned off the water, handing the cup to Natasha, and then bracing her still-wet hands on the edge of the sink. “I don’t remember ever not worrying about it. Thinking about food. I’d see how long I could go without eating for, how little I could get away with and still be able to dance. Counted calories. I never—I didn’t get my period until I was seventeen, and then I thought I’d failed. I cried so hard.”

“I’m sorry.” The words felt inadequate.

“Did you have trouble with eating?” Pepper’s voice was soft and small.

Natasha shook her head. “Not like that. Just, you know, always knew to watch it, but—it was not what I would be hit for.”

They stood in silence for a long moment, in the pooling light of the little yellowing fluorescent fixture above their heads.

Pepper moved first, giving herself a shake. “Bad memory time over. Tony’s been so great, you know he had a nutritionist picked out before he even had most of the corps? He knew he wanted somebody on board for this.”

“He is a good man.” Natasha watched as Pepper made her way back to the sofa bed, and switched out the kitchen light behind her.

“He really is.” Pepper sighed, sinking down onto the mattress.

Natasha wanted to ask. She wanted to say, Do you care for him?

Instead, she walked into the bathroom and shut the door. Didn’t look at herself in the mirror as she washed her hands.

When she came back out, Pepper had her own laptop open and was reading something intently.

They settled in, the room too small for the first time. Their breathing sounded so loud.

Natasha listened to Pepper breathe after they’d turned the lights off. It took a long time for the breaths to even out and slow down.

Natasha was awake a long, long time after that, and when she did sleep, she kept dreaming the same thing over and over again: that she heard the creak of the sofa bed as Pepper stood up, that she could hear Pepper’s footsteps coming toward the bed, that the bed dipped with the weight of Pepper’s knee.

Every time that feeling, the bed dipping, would wake her up. Every time, she would realize that it was not real. Pepper’s breathing continued, soft snores interspersed, uninterrupted.

She woke up in the morning cranky and tired. Pepper looked frayed around the edges, at least until she did her makeup and emerged looking like a model once more. Natasha and Pepper didn’t say much to each other, and on the way in, Natasha got a very large cup of coffee.

That day in the studio was terrible. She kept missing cues. Steve kept wandering into the studio during class. James and Steve were in high form, mocking each other, leaning into each other’s space in a way that was much too obvious. Rhodes was actually short with her. At the break, he found her and said, quietly enough to keep it between them, “What the fuck, Romanoff?”

“Slept bad.” She was too tired, with too much simmering resentment, to bother with making her English pretty for him.

“You need to see somebody?”

“No. Was one night. Tomorrow, I will be fine.”

He was frowning at her. It was annoying that he appeared genuinely concerned for her, his face set and tense. “You do remember you’re a dancer. You’ve done this tired before.”

“Your point?”

“If you need to see a doctor, get something for sleep, you should do it sooner rather than later. I don’t want to watch this happen for two weeks before you decide to get help.”

“Do not need help,” she snapped. “I will be fine.

“All right. Just keep in mind, nobody around here is going to think you’re weak.”

She shut her eyes and then let the tension go. She sighed, heavily, letting out a long breath. “Yes. I know. Thank you. I’m sorry for my performance today.”

“Everybody has an off day. I’m just not used to seeing yours.”

“I really will be fine.”

“I hope so. Because if you’re not concentrating, I don’t see how you can land the jumps in afternoon rehearsal, and we really cannot afford to have you injured.”

She stretched, letting herself dangle her arms toward the floor. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”

“Good.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see his upside-down face. “Because you’re a damn fine dancer, and I’m not kidding, we don’t have backup if you go down for the count.”

“I never go down for the count.” She straightened up, feeling looser in her core. “Should do something about my ankle, though. It is still bothering me. Bruce was talking about cortisone injection, maybe. I’ll see him again.”

Rhodes nodded slowly. “Good.”

“Besides, you have Pepper and Ororo. They would be able to handle it.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You real sure about that?”

“Yes.”

“High praise.”

“Simple fact.”

He gave her a crooked grin. “We’ll see. Now give me some classic Natalia on this next round, all right?”

“All right.” She smiled faintly back at him.

She was still feeling irrationally angry, but less so.

Pepper had caught her mood, perhaps. She was more timid in rehearsals that day, which made her look more like the dancer Tony had originally recruited, less like the dancer she was blossoming into with the Company. (Somewhere, in Natasha’s mind, the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company was becoming The Company, the company she would always think of as hers, and it ached; for many years that had been the Bolshoi, even when she left Russia, but Tony and his island of misfit toys were stealing her heart from her.)

Natasha had noticed over the months that Pepper was taking up space more assertively, dancing with more force and feeling than she had at the beginning, but the change had been gradual, the contrast not so striking, until today.

It made Natasha feel worse, which made her sharper, but she focused on her breathing. She finished her now stone-cold coffee. She smiled at James, and she made herself do everything again, with twice as much care.

That night James was glowing, happy. He said, “Want to get dinner?”

She found herself saying, “Let me ask Pepper. She’s—her heating is on the fritz. She’s staying with me for a couple of days.”

His eyebrows shot up into his hairline.

“Not a word.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Oh, you would.”

“Maybe.” He shrugged. “So she’s staying at your place?”

“Just until her heating is fixed. Shouldn’t be long.”

“Maybe you should—” He made a complicated hand gesture. She stared at him.

“What on Earth was that supposed to be?”

He sighed. “Tell her?”

“No. Oh, no.”

“It wouldn’t be the end of the world.” He shot a quick glance over her shoulder, toward where Steve was standing, leaning against the wall, chatting with Rhodes. Steve didn’t even have a good excuse to be there. “It wasn’t for me.”

“It’s not a good time. We still have the rest of the season.”

“You’re—you realize that’s arbitrary, right? It’s arbitrary and it’s pointless and it’s kind of stupid.”

She shook her head vehemently. “Maybe to you.”

“To both of us. Natalia. I was so scared, you know that, you saw me.”

And she had. She’d seen the whites of his eyes, the constant fear.

He leaned in and whispered to her, “It’s—I’m not saying it’s not real. I’m not saying there won’t be problems, for both of us. But I’m telling you, it’s worth it.”

She made a face at him. “If I want a shrink, I’ll get one.” She paused for a moment before adding, “Besides, she hardly knows me.”

“And whose fault is that?” James shrugged. “She always says yes, you know. Every time you ask her to anything. She looks like it’s a gift, every time.”

“Oh, shut up.” She smacked his arm. “Let me go ask if she wants to come with us. And try not to—” Be so obvious with Steve, so affectionate, she would have said, but the words got stuck in her mouth.

“I know, I know.” He sighed. “It’ll be in public, anyway.”

“I know.”

When Natasha found Pepper in the locker room, Pepper was just stretching out her plantar fascia on a tennis ball, staring down at it with a grim concentration rendered adorable by the way she stuck her tongue in the corner of her mouth.

“Pepper?”

“Yeah?” Pepper looked up immediately, the ball drifting out from under the arch of her foot. She glanced back down, recapturing it.

“Do you want to come to dinner with James and Steve and me?”

“Isn’t—you’re sure it won’t be—intruding?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, why would they have invited us if they didn’t want us to come?” Natasha realized belatedly that it sounded too much like what it was, like Steve and James going to dinner and the girls tagging along, but it was too late to take it back.

Pepper stared at her blankly. “Sure, yeah, of course.”

Natasha reached up into her locker, pulling out her coat. “Besides, Steve knows all the best places around here.”

“Of course he does.” Pepper shook her head, rolling the ball to her other foot. “He’s like an expert on hole-in-the-wall dives.”

“They suit him, don’t you think? People underestimate him, they underestimate these little restaurants he likes. I think he’s secretly a sentimentalist.”

“You think everyone’s a sentimentalist, compared to you.”

“You’re not wrong. People let their feelings dictate far too much of their lives.” Natasha slipped on the coat. The room was a little too warm for it.

Pepper finally picked up the ball and straightened up, going to her own locker for her things. “And you don’t? Don’t let feelings dictate your life at all?”

“Not much.” Natasha shrugged. “Taking this job with Tony—that was a grand gesture, I suppose. But the money was good, and the chance to choreograph.”

“Yeah, I think even if the company folds you’ll be able to keep working on choreography. I think your next company would feel like they had to let you.”

They fell into step next to each other. Natasha texted James, ok for dinner.

“I hope so. I enjoy it, it turns out.” Natasha laughed a little. “And I’d rather be a choreographer than a teacher, once my time runs out.”

“You think you’re close to retiring?” Pepper looked genuinely surprised.

“Yes, of course. I’m in my thirties. Still getting leads, but for how much longer? I don’t know.”

“It’s just, you seem like you’re still dancing as strong as ever. Maybe better, in some ways.”

“Thank you. Is good of you to say that, but I can tell I’m getting tired more easily than I used to. Many of the girls I started dancing with have already retired.”

“Do you still keep in touch?” Pepper sounded interested, brushing her bangs out of her eyes. She needed a trim.

“Some of them.” Not Magda. Magda had moved to the United States three or four years (three years, seven months) after Natasha had. They had never talked, not since—before Natasha left Russia.

And she’d never even told James about Magda, had she? Not fully, not the truth. She’d never even told herself the truth about Magda, but sharing the room with Pepper was dragging it all back up, a strangling cloud of memories.

She hadn’t expected this. What she had expected, she couldn’t have said. Natasha only knew she was watching herself fall apart in slow motion, from the inside, like seeing pieces of a fuselage go arcing off toward earth while sitting inside the plane.

“I’m still friends on Facebook with a lot of the girls I went to school with.” Pepper looked thoughtful, almost dreamy. “It’s so funny to see them getting married and having babies, traveling, having real jobs—office jobs, you know—and buying houses… It makes me feel like this whole thing is just a fantasy. An interlude before my real life starts.”

“Don’t let yourself think like that, or it will be. And who wants a real life?” Natasha nudged Pepper’s shoulder with hers. Pepper broke out into musical laughter.

And that, of course, was when they found James and Steve, who were standing on the sidewalk in front of the studio, a perfectly normal and respectable distance apart, talking with interest and animation. James looked up at the two of them emerging from the building and gave her a hundred-watt smile.

“Darling!” He pulled her into a hug and pressed a kiss into her hair. He hadn’t been this physical in ages. What was this, an attempt to make her feel—guilty? For lying by omission? How ridiculous.

When he let her go, and she turned back toward Pepper, she saw the expression on Pepper’s face. Maybe not so ridiculous. She felt a sudden, bright, tilting sort of shame.

“Shall we?” said Steve, already starting off down the sidewalk, leading the way.

“Why not,” said Pepper. She took a few steps ahead of Natasha and James and managed to deftly link her arm in Steve’s. It was a strange gesture to see; as far as Natasha knew, Pepper was fond of Steve, but certainly had no, no interest in him. But Steve put his hand over Pepper’s where it rested on his arm. And it made a certain sense, for all that she was taller than him by several inches. They were both blond, angelic, like porcelain sculptures. Pepper said something to Steve and he dissolved into laughter.

“Not so fun,” James murmured to her. He’d linked his arm in hers as well. “Think she wants to make you jealous?”

“Shut up,” Natasha said through numb lips.

“Or trying to provoke me, do you think? You could at least tell her about me and Steve. I think she’s guessed.”

“Not yet. Not now.”

“But you will?”

“That was the deal, wasn’t it?” She sighed heavily, and found herself having to press at her eyes with her free hand. “This season? This year? And then I let you go. I let you be free and make any decisions you want to.”

“You let me go.” James sounded contemplative. It was always dangerous when he got like that. “Is that how you think it is? You have a hold on me?”

“Don’t I?” She shrugged under her jacket. “We were so close when we were younger. I think—if it weren’t for me, would you have stayed so long? Would you have stayed with the ballet?”

He was silent. She didn’t know if he’d ever thought about it, but she had. She had tried to imagine him, alone, in that ugly world of endless rehearsals and stinging canes coming down on one’s ankles, and she had come to the same conclusion over and over again: without her, he might have danced, but he would not have loved it. And you had to love dance to do it like this.

“It’s funny,” he said quietly. “I thought it was a little different. I thought we were putting this off because we were friends, and friends do things together.”

She blinked up at him. The twilight was fading fast around them, sky going dark, lights coming on in the buildings they walked past. “Isn’t that what I said?”

“Not quite, solovushka. Not quite.”

“Maybe it’s like this, then.” She stepped over a soggy shoe. “Maybe you are doing what I suggested because you don’t want to cause me pain, and you’re waiting for me to release you from that responsibility. For me to let you go.”

“Yes. I see. Maybe like that.”

She said, “You know I do want you to be happy.”

“Never doubted it. Do you want to be happy?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Natalia. You don’t have to lie to me. Not so much, at any rate.”

She sighed. “What I want and what I fear are always the same thing.”

They were quiet the rest of the walk. Steve and Pepper were still chattering away, voices drifting back, essentially inaudible among the traffic noises.

When they got to the restaurant, which turned out to be a Korean barbecue that seated approximately eight people in a space really meant for five, Pepper slid into the booth next to Steve. James, obligingly (too obligingly), sat across from Steve, and that left Pepper and Natasha looking at each other. Pepper smiled brightly, guilelessly. Natasha had her suspicions.

Because Pepper had lost some of that air of faint bafflement she’d had on earlier outings with them. She pulled out her compact and touched up her lipstick, and when she snapped it shut her eyes came up and caught Natasha’s, looking at her. She smiled.

Natasha looked back down hastily, picked up her pebbled plastic glass of ice water, took a sip.

Steve was leaning across the table, talking to Steve. “…so Natasha and I are looking at that new thing we’re working on, for next year. It’s designed around… you know Carbon Life?”

“Christ, who doesn’t, at this point?” James rolled his eyes. “So pretentious.”

“Yeah, that’s what we figured, too.” Steve reached out and fist-bumped Natasha. “Anyway, we liked that vibe with deconstructing pop music, but we wanted to do it a little differently.”

“Can we afford that?” Pepper leaned forward, propping her elbows on the table and her chin on her hand. “I thought that was part of why we didn’t use pop music this year.”

“Tony negotiated us the piece we wanted. It’s short, the artist isn’t well-known, so it’s working for us so far.”

Pepper glanced at Natasha. “So what is it?”

Steve grinned. “I don’t think we’re supposed to say until we get the contract finalized, but as soon as it is, we’ll show you what we’ve got.”

“Oh, will you,” said James with a smirk. Steve rolled his eyes. Their orders finally came; Natasha dug into hers and noticed, now that she’d been thinking about it, looking for it, how tentative Pepper’s approach to her plate was. That hesitancy—with food, with dance—was part of the problem, for her. A symptom, maybe.

Anyway, so that’s what we’re excited about right now.”

“Well, that and the de Mille pieces coming up after Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Natasha took another drink of water. “Although I think Fall River is going to be funny for all the wrong reasons.”

“There’s no right reasons for a ballet about murder to be funny.” Steve frowned.

“Really?” Bucky asked through a mouth full of food. Natasha made a face at him, which he blithely ignored. “Because I always thought Giselle—”

“Not about murder!”

“Kind of about murder.”

Natasha sighed, looking to Pepper. “There are so many pieces to the set, I don’t know how the carpenters are going to get them done in time.”

“Aren’t we renting most of them? They’ve been working on the rest of them for a while, haven’t they?”

“Yes, for all the good that does us.”

Steve and James were still arguing over whether which of the deaths in various classical ballets counted as murder. Pepper’s eyes were getting soft as she looked at Natasha.

They talked, on and off, for the rest of dinner. Mostly about the company. They could never really escape it.

“What’s NYBT up to these days?” James asked Steve. Natasha saw Pepper stiffen, subtle but noticeable; hm. Perhaps Tony had been right, after all. Pepper hadn’t danced with them. The only connection she could imagine was Stane.

“More Balanchine. I think they’re doing Jewels again.”

“Christ, didn’t ABT just do that?”

“And Joffrey, and every other company on the planet.”

“I think there are more costumes for Jewels than there are reps of it.”

Finally Steve leaned back. “All right, ladies, this was delightful but I have got to get home. I need to stretch, I need to ice my fucking wrists, and I need to watch the news.”

“I don’t know why you do that.” James shook his head. “You just end up shouting at it.”

“Yeah, well, some of us care about our country.”

“You say ‘our’ country like I didn’t spend the formative years of my life in a completely different country with very different problems.”

“Oh, how different, exactly?” Steve’s eyes were getting that particular murderous light that meant he’d be talking politics unless forcibly prevented. Natasha slid out of the booth and stood.

“All right, Pepper. Did you need to grab anything from your apartment tonight?”

“No, not as long as I can keep using your leave-in. My landlord says it’ll probably be fixed sometime tomorrow, but if not, definitely the day after that.”

“Good,” said Natasha, who knew the sick feeling in her stomach at the idea of Pepper leaving was mere proof that her body had no idea what was good for it.

“Leave-in what?” asked Steve, sidetracked momentarily from the building rant about conservative talk-show hosts.

“Conditioner.” James shot him a funny look. “You honestly don’t use it?”

“I don’t do a lot with my hair.” Steve shrugged. “I use, you know, product, whatever.”

“You mean gel? Honey, we know.” Natasha patted his shoulder gently as they moved en masse towards the door. “We know.”

“Is that a dig? It feels like a dig.”

“Just a little one.” She held her fingers up, close together. He rolled his eyes at her and smirked. With closer acquaintance, he’d stopped finding her particularly intimidating, which was a shame.

“All right.” James pulled Natasha into a hug and kissed her cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow, love?”

She nodded, giving him an extra squeeze before she let go. Whatever his reasons for playing the part more thoroughly tonight than he had in months, she was still grateful.

“Good.” He gave her his brilliant smile.

“Heading this way?” Steve jerked his head. James nodded. The two of them moved off in that direction, waving back at Natasha and Pepper.

The air outside had all the vivid chill one might expect from a late February night in Brooklyn, stinging cold gusts of wind brushing by them. “All right,” said Natasha briskly. “Better get home.”

“Yeah, we’d better.” Pepper followed her. She kept walking just a little too close, the soft brush of her arm against Natasha’s, over and over again. It was making Natasha’s heart race, making her feel light-headed and dizzy. She had years, decades, of experience with adrenaline. Nerves had never been her biggest problem. But now, with no invitation, they were an issue again. The last time she’d felt like this she’d

(been so young, now, looking back, even though she’d felt like an adult at the time; a dancer in her own right, already making a name for herself, on James’ arm at all times, protecting them both. And she hadn’t meant to change anything, but when she met Magda it was like a bomb going off in her brain. She’d had to fight tooth and nail to keep her composure. And she had. She’d succeeded. Until one night, after a performance, when Magda had dragged her out to a smoky bar, and sat too close to her, all flushed cheeks and wild dark hair falling into her eyes, and then taken her back to a tiny cramped apartment; her roommate was out that night, and they’d sat up on the sofa for hours, drinking vodka until Magda finally leaned forward and kissed Natasha; at least, that was how Natasha remembered it, now. But Magda had later said when you kissed me accusatorily, as if it had been Natasha’s fault all along.)

made mistakes. Nearly ruined her career over it. She couldn’t risk that, not again, not after working so very, very hard for this career that she loved, that was everything to her in every way: family, friends, livelihood, daily bread, artistic outlet, reason to get out of bed in the morning.

She’d had nothing else, once she was orphaned. Nothing. It was only because she was good that they’d kept her on and fed her and housed her.

Pepper was quiet. They got onto the subway, and she sat next to Natasha. Arms still touching, on and off, like electric sparks up Natasha’s side.

The studio apartment seemed even smaller, somehow, when they got in. Natasha’s keys clinked in the bowl she kept next to the door.

“This place looks like something off a blog,” said Pepper, stepping out of her shoes and hanging her coat on the peg. “I feel like I’m about to be photographed.”

“Can’t be. No fresh flowers.”

“I should have brought some!” Pepper’s lips quirked in a passing smile as she looked around again. It was a small space, but she seemed to enjoy surveying it. “Maybe tomorrow, if the heating isn’t fixed by then. This place is crying out for fresh flowers.”

“I suppose.” Natasha frowned. “Where would you put them?”

“The table next to the door?”

That would be fine. There was a mirror she’d snagged at a flea market hanging up over it, making the space seem a little brighter, a little bigger. And the table itself, a Craigslist find, had a marble top that always reminded her distantly of mansions and palaces.

“I keep expecting there to be—I don’t know, more personal touches.” Pepper was setting her bag down next to the sofa bed. “You keep it all very clean. Like, clean lines, very nice, but it doesn’t reveal anything about you, you know?”

“Yes.” It seemed like too much to explain that Natasha liked it that way. That this kept things contained. If you started unspooling the things in her head, who knew where it would end? This way, life was simple, easy. Bearable.

“God, I can’t believe I’m hungry again.”

“Me too. Just for a little snack. Thought I’d make grilled cheese and tomato soup.”

Pepper smiled ruefully. “That sounds amazing.”

“It should. I’m a good cook.”

That made Pepper laugh. “I believe it!”

“You have to, you’re a guest.” Natasha cracked a little smile, looking at Pepper for a second as she opened the refrigerator. “Thirsty?”

Pepper coughed. “Yeah, uh, water would be great.”

“Ice?”

“Sure.”

As Natasha got the pan for the sandwiches hot—the smell of it starting to fill the apartment—Pepper scooted back onto the sofa until she was sitting up against the back. She dropped her head back and looked up at the ceiling.

Natasha asked, “Did Stane call you?”

Pepper looked sharply back at her. Natasha set slices of bread in the pan.

“Yes,” said Pepper after a long silence, in which Natasha had put out the saucepan for the soup.

“Tony thought Stane would try to poach people. When did he come after you?”

“Oh, months ago. I told Tony right away.”

“Do you know how many of the dancers he’s talked to?”

“No, not really. I assume—I think about five people. But those are just the ones I know about.”

Natasha laid out the cheese. “What did he offer you?”

“What do you care?” It was uncharacteristically sharp for Pepper, and she immediately sighed. “Sorry. It’s just—it’s different, you know, for the rest of us.”

“The rest of you?”

“Those of us who aren’t the world’s greatest living prima.” Pepper rubbed at her eyes with both hands. She just sounded tired. “If you left Tony now, you could find a contract. The rest of us don’t have that kind of security.”

“So what did he offer? Anything Tony couldn’t match?”

Pepper shook her head. “No. Tried a ten percent raise, but I have a feeling Tony would match that if I…” She trailed off.

“If you told him?”

“Yeah.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Just that… Stane asked, made an offer. Didn’t tell him what. I didn’t want him to feel like he had to.”

“Was the raise all?” Natasha carefully pulled the sandwiches out of the pan. The soup still needed to finish heating.

Pepper was quiet for a long time. “No.”

“What else did he offer you? You’re already a principal, so it couldn’t be a promotion. What fringe benefit?”

“I don’t really know how to explain it.”

“Revenge?”

Pepper’s mouth fell open in what would have been hilarious shock if the subject hadn’t been so deadly serious. “How did you—did you know?”

“Not rocket science.” Natasha slid the second sandwich onto a plate. “Your former master has reputation, you don’t strike me as ambitious to that extent, you are uncomfortable with topic. What did he say he’d do? Get him blacklisted?”

Pepper sighed again, grinding her knuckles into her eyes. “Yeah. That was about the size of it.”

“So you would feel guilty about turning him down. Classic.” Natasha shook her head. The soup was nearly ready; she gave it another stir, pulled bowls out of the cupboard.

“Classic? What, you’ve seen this before?”

“Not so unlike. Lots of politics with Bolshoi, with Mariinsky. You know there was acid attack?”

“Lord, yes, who didn’t know?”

“Was always like that, always big personalities at war and then us, trying to survive it.”

“So you’ve… done this before?”

“More than once. Always games, and the same puffed-up men playing them. Here, have your sandwich.” Natasha carefully handed Pepper her plate.

“Oh, my God, this smells so good. What kind of cheese is this?”

“Couple of kinds.” She carried her own to the bed and perched on the edge.

Pepper took a bite and made a noise of delighted pleasure. Natasha found herself compelled to swallow, a dry click in her throat. She picked up her own sandwich.

“So, did Stane call you?” Pepper asked around a mouthful of cheese.

Natasha shook her head. “Not yet. Almost hoping he does, so I can tell him to go to Hell.”

Pepper sighed, still holding the sandwich loosely in one hand. “See, I feel like… I think he actually kind of threatened me.”

“Oh?” Natasha’s voice came out even. The thing happening in her stomach did not have a name, but she recognized it, dimly.

“He said if I didn’t take the offer… like, it would make sense to talk about how the company is doomed, right? That’s a reasonable thing to do.”

“Soft point to hit.”

“Exactly. But he made it seem more sinister than that. I’m honestly worried he’s going to try something worse. I don’t know what.” Pepper set down the sandwich. “I think you should warn Bucky and Steve.” She brought up her chin, defiantly, and met Natasha’s eyes.

Natasha sat in stillness. She knew what she resembled—a bird, startled, frozen—but couldn’t bring herself to say anything for long moments.

Finally she said, “I will.”

Pepper deflated, relaxing back against the couch.

They ate in silence for a few minutes. Pepper pursed her lips and blew on a spoonful of soup. It puffed out her bangs.

“Tony wouldn’t—mind, you know,” Pepper said into the silence. She set down her spoon in the empty bowl with a ringing clink.

“I know.”

“It wouldn’t—”

Natasha cut her off brusquely. “Is complicated.”

“I’m sure it is.” Pepper looked chastened.

“Do you want to take shower?” Natasha jerked her head at the bathroom door. “Otherwise, I will.”

“No, you go ahead, I’ll get one later.”

Natasha nodded. She put her dishes in the sink, meanly hoping Pepper would wash them, and then went into the bathroom, carrying her pajamas and bathrobe with her.

She turned the water up as hot as it would go, and viciously exfoliated with her loofah. She refused to give herself the luxury of panicking. There was a time and a place for that, and it would be after Pepper had left the apartment completely. This had been a terrible idea. When had she figured it out? What had the tip-off been? Natasha had been practically dangling it in front of her, all these double dates, of course she’d figured it out. She was not dense.

Who else knew? This was a critical question. She would not be able to ask Pepper. If Stane knew, if it filtered to the wrong papers—the tabloids would be brutal. The jokes would start up again. It would make a joke of them. Steve and James, and her, too.

She nicked herself on the kneecap with her razor and the sting of pain made her furious.

She avoided looking at herself in the mirror as she toweled off, moisturized, and put on her pajamas. (Gray modal cotton pants, for her, soft and comforting, and a plain tank top.)

Pepper was working on her laptop. She glanced up at Natasha and then immediately back down at her computer.

Natasha didn’t ask what she was up to. Didn’t offer to watch anything. In a perverse mood, she picked up The Idiot and went back to reading it, the paper rasping softly as she turned the pages. They didn’t talk.

An hour or so later Pepper got up and took her shower. Natasha listened to the water running and tried not to think about Pepper, naked, under the spray, standing in her shower. Pepper coughed and the noise carried through the thin door, the smell of her shampoo seeping out through the cracks with wisps of steam.

Natasha had given up and was on her laptop by the time Pepper came back out and crawled under the top sheet. She had the video from the new piece she and Steve were working on up, and as she ran it, muted, she took notes. 2:15, awkward. 2:23, higher lift.

It distracted her enough that when Pepper settled in to sleep, it took her a few minutes to notice. She turned the light off without asking.

She still slept fitfully, but it wasn’t as bad as the night before, as if her subconscious had paid attention to the bad shock of the evening’s conversation.

 

On the way in to class, she made a point of being normal. She chatted with Pepper on the subway about the casting for the upcoming Midsummer Night’s Dream. She mentioned the changing weather. Inquired politely about Pepper’s family. (They were fine; her parents were going to spend the next weekend at a bed and breakfast, so they were looking forward to that. Just a little getaway.)

Pepper seemed vaguely confused by this, but game for it. When they walked into the studio, Tony was hovering, talking to Rhodes off to one side in low voices, their heads close together. He broke off about a minute before class was due to start, veering by to give Natasha a one-armed hug and a secret handshake they had never, in fact, agreed on, but that Natasha found fairly simple to fake her way through. Tony grinned. “Looking good, Romanoff.”

“I wish I could say the same.”

“Cold burn! The best kind. Very Russian. Love the ice queen routine, keep it up, that brings all the critics to the yard. Got to get some original material, though, that’s about as dated as the Cold War. Speaking of, tell Red Peril I say hi when his gets his ass out of bed.”

She smiled sweetly at him and wiggled her fingers in a wave. He waved back on his way out.

Pepper was choking on a laugh. Rhodes didn’t give them any time, just launched right into class. They were working on keeping jumps clean, landing precisely. It was a good subject. Natasha did not necessarily need the practice, but she went to class every day to set an example, because the corps might take their cues from her if she seemed lax about attendance. Even with the dull ache that never left her ankle now, the transmitted pain to what was evidently the base of her fifth metatarsal (Bruce kept pressing on it to check it when she went to see him, and it was obnoxiously painful), she could land these jumps dead on the target. Every time.

She kept finding herself glancing at Pepper. She tried to keep her mind on the jumps, but between her turns, it was difficult.

Pepper’s face when she said warn Bucky and Steve. Like she was daring Natasha. Confirm or deny. Pepper—Pepper knew, obviously, something, knew Natasha wasn’t saying something. Did she know, then, what Natasha wasn’t saying?

(Magda had never confronted Natasha like that. Magda had never said anything, until the very end, always vanishing in the middle of the night, always curled up against her boyfriend whenever anyone else was around, her big block of a boyfriend who could barely even make it to fifth position to save his life, who reveled in his rugged blond stubble and in Magda’s elfin beauty, who would put his arm around her waist and haul her in as she giggled and pretended to fight—)

Natasha landed a jump directly on the mark. No wobble. Rhodes just nodded and moved on. He did not make a habit of praising her for things he knew she could do.

(Magda had high cheekbones, too prominent to be really beautiful, with her wide, dark eyes, and her wide, thin mouth; Magda had an unfortunate tendency to get shit-faced on vodka and climb into Natasha’s lap in the pitch-black dark in the middle of the night when their bodies were still aching from performance after performance, and once in the middle of, of, she’d started to inexplicably hum the music from the dramatic finale of Swan Lake directly into Natasha’s—and they’d both started laughing, frantically hushed but hysterical laughter, and Natasha could still remember the way Magda did her eyeliner for performances, broad wings making her eyes seem huge in her narrow face)

James landed his jump.

(even one night when James was asleep on the couch; Magda had been sleeping on the floor in the main room, next to the couch, but she’d crept into the room Natasha usually shared with Valentina—Valentina liked to stay at her boyfriend’s, he was rich and his family had gotten him a nice place of his own, not like their shitty old Khrushchyovka, five stories of identical prefab concrete hell—and she had grinned at Natasha in the light of the nearly-full moon pouring in the window, like daylight, gleaming off the snow, and slid her hand under the sheets—)

(How many times, total? Fifteen? Twenty? Not much to build a life on but that was what Natasha had, the memories Natasha had, from the six months before everything collapsed in a hissed, deadly fight in a parking lot)

She hadn’t realized, somehow, had shuffled the knowledge out of her head, that she was going to have to watch Pepper. This wasn’t new; they did this every day, this kind of thing. She’d survived it dozens of times, hundreds, maybe. This time was different. Pepper’s body stretched like a bow as she leapt, and she hit her mark with impressive precision. She was wearing a mauve leotard that somehow screamed mid-Nineties, and her hair was pulled back with a scrunchie, and she was still arrestingly beautiful.

Natasha had one hand on the barre, the illusion of stillness as she let her legs drift into different stretches, watching. Rhodes kept up a running commentary about technique, pointing out why some of the dancers were hitting so close to the mark and others were badly off. He had Pepper position herself for the jump again and put a hand on her waist, a hand on her hip, to show how she was balancing herself. The material stretched over Pepper’s back as she flexed and moved.

“Okay, so,” Rhodes was saying. “Give that a try, Sharon, see if you can make that tighter.”

Sharon went into the jump. Much better that time.

“See, that’s the key. You have to think about where you’re going after you land as much as the landing, without getting into it too early.”

 

Pepper found her that night. “Hey,” she said, flushed from the exercise. “My landlord called, they’ve fixed the heat. I’ll just pick up my stuff from your place tonight and head back.”

“Oh, good,” said Natasha. She ignored the faint nausea.

 

When Pepper went home with her that night, Natasha asked, “So who are the five who were approached?”

Pepper sighed, looking down at her hands in her lap. “Me, obviously. Sam, Helen, Sharon, and Jane.”

“Interesting.”

“None of them said yes.”

“I’m not surprised. If they had the sense to talk to Tony, I’m sure he made it worth their while.”

“It wasn’t—it’s not like that. We’re not staying because of the money.”

“Obviously, but it makes it easier, I imagine, if Tony can match the offer. And of course Tony can match the offer.”

“Yeah.”

“Although in your case I imagine he would not have offered what Stane did.”

“He couldn’t. He’s… he’s too good a man for that.”

I’m not, thought Natasha.

“Do you know what crew he’s talked to? Tony said it’s not just the dancers.”

Pepper shook her head. “I can’t believe he’s being like this.”

“Stane? I’m not surprised. Tony is succeeding, why wouldn’t Stane try to take away his tools?”

Pepper blinked at her in confusion, vague distaste. “Is that how you think of us? Tools?”

“Aren’t we?” Natasha shrugged. “We do what we do. We’re parts of a whole. Tony needs us to do what we do.”

“That’s… pretty cold.”

“I believe Tony sees us as his friends, too. But we are also part of a very big gamble. Moving parts. Like gears.”

“God.” Pepper propped her head on her hand, elbow on her knee. “Are you really always like this?”

“What do you mean?” This conversation was getting uncomfortable and familiar.

“Calculating.”

The word hung on the air. Natasha turned it over, considering it. “Yes,” she said. “I don’t believe in leaving my future up to chance. Of course I calculate. I need to know what to expect. Otherwise, how do I protect myself?”

Pepper sighed. Her eyes were too bright. “And Bucky? What do you figure about him?”

Natasha shrugged. “He and I have agreed on where we stand.”

“Where do you stand?”

“Don’t worry yourself about it.”

“Got it.” Pepper’s cheeks were burning as they pulled into their stop, bright red spots of color, like a painted matryoshka doll.

Natasha stood without answering, got off the train. Pepper followed her. The sound of Pepper’s shoes was a harsh clack-clack, prickling at the back of her neck.

“You know,” Pepper said in the creaking elevator, “maybe you don’t need to have your guard up all the time.” It could have been friendly, but the way she said it wasn’t.

Natasha shrugged. “Hard habit to break.”

“Yeah. Must be.” Pepper sagged back against the rail, watching the numbers.

In the apartment, Pepper was quiet as she gathered her things into her overnight bag. Natasha started working on dinner, cracking eggs into a bowl.

She could easily make enough for Pepper to join her. Invite Pepper to stay. She kept her eyes on the bowl.

“Would it be that scary?” asked Pepper. Natasha looked up; Pepper was standing by the door, bag slung over her shoulder, clearly ready to go. “To just be a person, for once, instead of trying to be an invincible robot?”

Natasha let herself smile without her eyes. “You’ve caught me. I’m an android.”

Pepper squeezed her eyes shut, then inhaled raggedly. “Okay.” She opened her eyes. “Great! Fine. Thanks for letting me crash at your place!” Her voice had gone determinedly bright, a fake cheer Natasha was meant to hear and understand.

“Any time.” Natasha would make sure it never happened again.

Pepper took a step closer to her, as if she were going to—Natasha stared at her, and then closed her eyes. She was breathing too hard. She could hear it, distantly, the breathing, echoing in her ears.

“You know,” said Pepper, very soft and quick and fierce, under her breath.

“Yes,” said Natasha on an exhale.

“You know I know. I don’t understand—why won’t you—” Pepper sounded dazed and lost.

Natasha just shook her head, feeling dizzy. “I can’t.”

“Can I just—”

Natasha couldn’t open her eyes. She felt the air shift, the floor creak; Pepper was standing too near her, right in front of her.

“Please?” said Pepper. It was the uncertainty in her voice that made Natasha finally open her eyes, to Pepper standing there, lovely and lost.

Natasha couldn’t say it out loud, but she could nod. She did nod. Pepper dropped her bag and grabbed Natasha by the shoulders and kissed her. It wasn’t like it had been at New Year’s; it wasn’t like that at all. Pepper’s mouth opened, and Natasha found her mouth opening in turn. Pepper’s fingers dug into Natasha’s arms and Natasha gasped and Pepper’s tongue touched just at the inner edge of Natasha’s upper lip, just in the center. It was insane. The heat of Pepper’s mouth, the wet-silk slide of her tongue, had Natasha’s heart beating like she’d just done a whole row of grand jetés, back to back, and then again

When Pepper finally straightened up—when she leaned back, grip slowly loosening on Natasha’s shoulders—it took a long time for Natasha to open her eyes again. She still felt light-headed, as though she might fall.

“Please,” whispered Pepper. It was a very different request, and Natasha knew it. And this time, she shook her head slowly, mechanically.

“I can’t,” she repeated.

Pepper nodded, lips tightening like she’d been hit, and let go of her. “Okay. Fine.” When she got to the door, she looked back—Natasha was staring helplessly after her.

“If you change your mind,” Pepper said very quietly.

All Natasha could do was shake her head again.

Pepper turned her head away sharply, and left.

 

Natasha made herself scrambled eggs with chives for dinner. She watched some television on her laptop. She fell asleep at a normal time.

She woke up somewhere in the middle of the night—she had learned a long time ago not to check the clock when that happened; nothing good could come of knowing how much sleep she was losing—from a dream she couldn’t quite remember. Something about sex, something that left her with a throbbing ache. She stared at the ceiling for a few minutes before sliding her hand into her pajama pants. She laid her hand across her lower stomach, let it rest there for a minute. Pressed down with the heel of her hand. The tightness added to the amorphous sense of pleasure, an anticipatory heaviness. Her fingers drifted down, and she let them trace over her slit with a feather-light pressure for a little while, before she pressed down and began to move.

The things she thought about while she did this had varied over the years. She had tried, for years, to keep her mind blank, but that had never worked. So bits and pieces of things seen or heard over the years: half a letter from an old Penthouse, before the male reader appeared on the scene; a scene from a pornographic movie at a bachelorette party; sometimes, if she could ignore all that went with it, Magda, her mouth, her breasts in the darkness, cupped in Natasha’s hands.

Her hands on Magda’s hips, the way Magda had smelled, warm and familiar—

And here, in the dark, maybe she could think about, maybe she could let herself think about, Pepper’s mouth on hers, Pepper’s hips, dance outfits left nothing to the imagination, she knew just where her hands would fit on Pepper’s hips, knew what it would be like to kneel in front of her, lean forward, put her tongue out and taste—

Her wrist was moving, jerking, more pressure, the sensation building and building in her spine. She let herself think about sinking her fingers into Pepper, the noise Pepper might make, and came, shaking and gasping for breath. Nearly-silent in the darkness, even though it had been a decade since she’d had to worry about someone else sleeping in her apartment who might hear her.

She fell back asleep, afterwards, sinking into it like sinking into a black ocean, drowning in it without a trace.

She didn’t remember any other dreams.

 

She didn’t want to tell James, but she needed to. She put a hand on his arm after class that morning. (Don’t think about how seeing Pepper had been.) “Yasha.”

He followed her downstairs to Steve’s office, looking confused. Steve wasn’t in that morning.

She shut the door behind them. “Pepper says Stane is trying to dig up dirt on company members. Blackmail, probably.”

And for all his big talk, he went white as a sheet. “Shit.”

“Yes. So. For a little while, maybe we pretend harder. And keep an eye out if you go to stay at Steve’s. Make sure no one follows.”

“I can’t believe this,” he muttered. “Watching out for spies? Really?”

“Is not craziest thing we’ve ever heard.”

He rolled his eyes at her. “We’re Russian, we’ve heard much crazier. But not since I moved back here.”

It had been a strange move for him, a difficult move—back to the US after two decades in Russia, and at first he’d had no one. And then he’d reached out to her, and he’d had Natasha again. She’d thought that they could reform their old cocoon for two. Be nineteen again.

“Natalia, Natalia,” he murmured. He’d always liked the sing-song quality of her name. “What are we going to do?”

“Like I said.”

“You don’t want to come out yet?”

And there it was, laid out starkly: the words she’d been avoiding for so long.

She shook her head. “Not yet. Do you? Do you really want to?”

He sighed, leaning back against the wall. “I don’t know. Maybe? I think I do. Steve wants to be public. And I want that, too. Just not the rest of it.”

She didn’t have to ask what the rest of it was. “I know.”

“You and Pepper—” He paused, still looking into the distance, away from her. “You didn’t—?”

“No.” She winced. “Not—really.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Did you talk?”

“A little.” Natasha sighed, too. “She thinks I’m… cold.”

James shrugged. “You try hard to be.”

“Do you think I am?”

“Sometimes, maybe. Not as much as you think you are.”

“Is that supposed to be a compliment or an insult?”

“It doesn’t have to be either. It just is what it is.”

“Ugh, I hate that saying.”

“Of course you would.” He looked back at her and smiled sweetly, a fleeting moment where he did look nineteen again. “You always had an eye on what could be.”

“Did I?”

“How else did you get so far?” He waved at the office around them. “Rising choreographer, now? Being prima wasn’t enough for you?” His voice was gentle, teasing.

She laughed. “Why should I look for enough when I can have better?”

“Now, there’s a question.” The corner of his mouth quirked in a half-smile. It took her a split second to get it, and then she threw her hands up in the air.

“I keep telling you. Soon. We’ll just… we’ll wait out this season, and then we’ll make whatever changes we need to make, once we know for sure whether we have jobs next year.”

“Natalia.” He paused. “Do you—do you like men at all?”

“I like you very much.”

“But were you ever—” He hesitated, delicately.

“In love with you?” She burst out laughing, and he gasped in mock offense, clutching his chest. “Oh, sweetheart, no, no. I love you, you’re my sunshine, but I haven’t been waiting in the wings for you all these years.”

“Good. Good. I didn’t think so, but…”

“You were hit in the head, very hard, perhaps?”

He threw his hands up in the air. “Steve asked! I said no, he asked if I was sure, I said yes, and then I started thinking.”

“You shouldn’t do that, it’s bad for your health.”

“You mean, if you have to kick my ass?”

“Yes.”

“Look, rehearsals are going to start up soon.”

“Good enough reason to get out of here. But you will be careful with Steve?”

“We will. Promise.”

“All right.”

She followed him back upstairs—there were a few curious glances, maybe that would start a rumor. She said softly into his ear, “We should have gotten a little sweaty.”

“Not even for you, dear.”

He texted her later. Talked to s. all good. Coming over later

When he walked in the door to her apartment that night, he whistled softly at the still-unmade sofa bed.

“No time to put it away yet?” he asked.

“Shut up.” She slammed the refrigerator door. “Unless you don’t want potatoes.”

“What? No! I want potatoes! What kind?”

“What do you think?” She started scrubbing them under the faucet.

He made a face, mouth twisting ruefully as he took in the cutting board and knife laid out, the frying pan beside them. “Oh, honey.”

“I can fry potatoes if I want to.”

“It’s that bad? I didn’t know it was that bad.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied, but her heart wasn’t in it. The rough skin of the potatoes under her fingers was familiar, soothing.

“You only ate them fried after Vanko called you a talentless slut.”

“I was hungry. Takes calories to keep from murdering him.”

“Of course it does.” He leaned against the other side of the pass-through from the tiny kitchen. “And…” He hesitated. “When you fought with Magda.”

She froze, knife just resting on the potato she had rinsed.

“So you knew,” she said after a moment, and resumed cutting.

“I… thought. Maybe.”

“It might be more accurate to say she fought with me.”

“However it went. You had fried potatoes and you tried to make my mother’s borscht.”

Natasha snorted. “Your mother’s borscht was appalling. I did no such thing.”

“I saw you. Nobody else does the lemon zest like that.”

“Why would they? God. You’re insufferable. Anything else, All-Knowing One?”

“No, no, just a little alarmed, concerned, about this potato situation.”

“You know my potatoes are fine.”

“I know your potatoes are fine, but are you fine?” He nodded over at the sofa bed. “Missing her already?”

“Oh, shut up. Let me make these and then we can post pictures.” She had a Twitter account—she posted about once a month—and he had an Instagram, although his pictures consisted almost exclusively of shots of the sky being pretty. It did make it easier to guarantee that he wouldn’t inadvertently post something compromising.

“Yes, dear.”

“Be useful. Get me a pan.”

They did post the picture, the two of them grinning above the plate of attractively-fried potatoes. They didn’t add captions.

He left before it was quite time to sleep. He hadn’t said anything else about the sofa bed she hadn’t put back up the night before. She knew she should do it tonight. She knelt to strip the sheets and found herself pressing her face into the pillow, instead, inhaling deeply. The smell of Pepper’s shampoo on the pillow, mixed with Natasha’s leave-in conditioner; the smell of her body in the sheets.

Natasha made herself get back up, finish stripping the sheets, pull the pillow out of the case. Everything went into the laundry hamper. She’d run it as soon as she had a full load again, that was all.

 

The next rep was a classic, easy enough for Natasha. She could have danced Titania in her sleep. And James, of course, was a delightful Oberon to work opposite.

She had always thought, on some level, that if things ever came to that, she and James might marry. If he were facing his old age alone and in poverty, after his accident, surely she would get a call. She would say yes. She would take care of him, as she had taken care of him before, and he in turn would make sure she did not age and die alone. She had named him as the beneficiary of her life insurance policy long before. Marriage, after that, seemed like something of a formality.

But watching James and Steve—watching the two of them curling into each other, exhausted after a long, hard day, on James’ couch, made her ache. For the loss of that, and for ever thinking that would be enough.

It was in that run that Pietro broke his leg.

He made a wonderful second-cast Puck. She’d been concerned about Tony and Rhodes’ choice at first. He’d done well in the corps, but he was so painfully young, what could he know about acting?

Enough, it had turned out. Enough to be a sparkling, luminous presence on the stage, bringing something very different to it than Sam did with his twinkling smile and sly humor in the first cast.

So she was watching, one afternoon during rehearsal, when he came down wrong and twisted, leg below his knee suddenly going in a direction that was plainly unnatural. He screamed. Wanda flew to him, clutching his hand with wild, tearful eyes. Bruce came bursting through the door in a matter of just a minute or two and knelt next to Pietro. Pietro’s face was gray with pain.

“He has to go to the hospital,” Bruce was saying curtly. “I called an ambulance.”

“Oh, my God,” said Carol, who’d been handling that day’s rehearsal. “Tony—”

“He’s on his way over. He’ll meet us at the hospital if he misses us here.”

There was nothing for Natasha to do. She stood, hovering in the background, until the medics came. The show that night went on. Without Pietro, they were calling up Sam for both casts, at least until Gabe could get it down. Sam was already dancing on an old shin fracture.

Rehearsals the next day were somber. There was the tension of a room where everyone was being reminded that they were heirs to the weaknesses of the flesh. Any of them could land wrong. Many of them had. Wanda was red-eyed, and her form was undeniably sloppy. She kept flinching, grimacing at herself after a bad jump.

Sam’s mouth was set in a tight line as he took it, frankly, easy on himself. Natasha saw Rhodes go to talk to him on one break, Sam nodding grimly while staring into the middle distance as Rhodes talked with quiet urgency. When the next hour resumed, Sam put more into it.

Natasha visited Pietro in his apartment. She brought him an orchid, still in its pot. She’d spoken with Wanda enough to know that he preferred living things. He grinned at her, his face still chalky from the pain. Wanda hovered in the background, a solemn red-haired pixie, making tea for them both. Sometimes Natasha got confused in the locker room, seeing Wanda’s hair flash in the mirror—a split second where she caught a glimpse of that hair and thought she was looking back in time at herself, a million years ago, before this nagging pain that dogged her constantly, before her lingering fear.

Another piece about the company came out. This one was in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which was cute, but local coverage was certainly better than no coverage.

It was just a short interview with Steve, of course. Who else would they pick?

Local Boy Makes Good in High Art

[photo: black-and-white candid of Steve, sitting on a low stone bench, laughing]

Steve Rogers didn’t set out to be a choreographer.

“I wanted to dance,” he says, running a hand through his ash-blond hair. “That was it for me, really. I started out as a kid and I never wanted to stop.”

It looked like he was on the train to success before he got derailed by an injury. That happens to more dancers than you might expect—most dancers quit some time in their thirties, or even their late twenties, as the injuries start to rack up.

“I still wanted to be part of ballet somehow. And I’d started working on choreography before that, so it was kind of natural to keep going with it. I’ve found that I have more time for it now than I did when I was still dancing, so I’m able to put my attention and time into it on a deeper level.”

Steve is, in many ways, a quintessential Brooklyn hipster: he showed up for today’s interview in scuffed sneakers, flannel open over a faded band t-shirt for someone I’ve never heard of, and a pair of jeans so tight they must take some acrobatics to get into. The edge of a tattoo peeks out from under one pants leg, where he’s not wearing socks. I can’t tell what it is from here, and when I ask, he brushes the question away. Mystery ink.

Why did a choreographer with a burgeoning international reputation (some of his finest work was done in London, with the Royal Ballet) set up shop with the newly-minted Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company?

Steve laughs. “It’s home,” he says. “How could I not?”

Does he have any new pieces coming out soon?

“The rep of our big new work just finished up, but I have a couple of short pieces that will be debuting at dance festivals this year. You should still come see the BBBC, we’ve got some great pieces lined up for the rest of the season, but if you wanted to see my work specifically, you should come to the New York Classical Dance Festival in May. Natasha Romanoff—” you may know her as the world’s greatest living ballerina, by reputation, although she’s never been caught saying that herself—“is doing me the honor of co-choreographing this piece, and one of our apprentices, Kamala Khan, will be dancing it.” They’ve been working together since the start of the season now, and word has it the collaboration is a good one for both of them.

If you’re interested in dance, you could do a lot worse than treat yourself to Steve’s next work. You heard it here first.

“Hipster?” asked Steve.

Natasha gestured at him expansively.

He looked down at himself, and sighed. “Yeah, yeah. I get your point.”

They were in his office, for once, working through a brief passage not for the festival piece (they’d finished it) but for one that would come after.

Steve set down his tablet for a minute. “Nat,” he said, voice serious.

“Yes?”

“I get the feeling the reason Bucky doesn’t want to go public yet has a lot to do with you.”

She stopped, where she’d been stepping through a sequence. “It does.”

“Is it—is there anything I can do?”

That hadn’t been the question she’d expected. How dare you, maybe. But not this simple forgiveness, this preemptive empathy. There was no anger in his face. No accusation.

“No,” she said slowly.

“Okay. Well, if you ever want to—talk, or whatever. I’m here for you. You can tell me anything you want to.” He smiled ruefully. “Even the truth.”

“The truth is a matter of circumstances. It's not all things to all people all the time. And neither am I.”

“That’s a tough way to live.”

“I’m Bolshoi. They make us tough.” She gave him a smile, brilliant, glittering, and he lowered his eyes. Polite enough not to say any of the things he certainly could have said about that, the virtues of strength without love.

Pepper, more than once (three times; exactly three times) during the run of Midsummer Night’s Dream, asked Natasha if she would like to get a) brunch, b) coffee, and c) coffee again. Natasha declined with a regretful smile and plausible deniability each time.

After the last show, Pepper waited until the dressing room had cleared out before she leaned against the lockers near where Natasha was finishing wiping off her makeup with a dull, mechanical thoroughness.

“How have you been?” Pepper asked. Her voice was so soft it nearly disappeared in the room.

Natasha shrugged, wadding up the last of the makeup wipes and tossing it into the trash. “Just feeling a little mortal these days.”

She glanced up, and in the mirror, her eyes met Pepper’s. It had been so long, months, since the first moment like this. When she’d known what Pepper was thinking. And now, again, it was still too clear in Pepper’s face; a wistful exhaustion.

She wanted to say, I know. I find myself exhausting, too.

Pepper looked tired. There were dark circles under her eyes, which were new, and her hair was limp with sweat, plastered to her skull. It made her look years older. For a split second, Natasha saw Pepper as she would be, down the road. After Natasha would leave the company, Pepper would rule the company, the new ice queen. The new iron fist in a velvet glove.

She’d learn from the best. Natasha would show her, lead by example. How to be untouched and untouchable.

“Mortal, huh?” Pepper smiled without her eyes. Her fingers tightened on the strap of her gym bag where it lay across her shoulder. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”

“You want me to change. I can’t do that.”

“Oh, Nat,” Pepper murmured, achingly sad. “Everyone changes. The question is whether it’s something you mean to do, or something that just happens to you.”

And with that, Natasha looked back at her own face—ghostly in the mirror—and saw herself, years down the line, once she’d been injured and forced into retirement, once she could no longer dance her own pieces.

How would her carefully curated apartment feel, then? Would it still be a haven, or would it be a prison cell?

Her eyes darted back up to Pepper’s, a flush of unfamiliar fear overlaid now on the fears she’d grown accustomed to.

“Good night.”

“Good night,” Natasha echoed, to Pepper’s back, and as the door closed behind Pepper she couldn’t shake the sensation of having been pushed off-balance.

 

The two-part Agnes de Mille retrospective had the indisputable advantage of forcing James to wear a cowboy hat, which amused Natasha deeply and evidently aroused Steve, if the pole-axed expression on his face the first time James came off stage from performing was any indication. Natasha laughed out loud and tipped her own hat to Steve, who blushed vividly and flipped her the bird.

Rodeo was a nice counterpoint to the self-conscious, too-serious Fall River Legend. It left people walking out of the theater with a spring in their step. It was something a little different, too, which was enjoyable in its own right.

Natasha was fully prepared to enjoy Steve’s obvious discomfiture at having his new cowboy-hat related desires exposed, right up until the minute Pepper said to Maria, “Oh, yeah, I rode horses!”

She glanced over; it was lunchtime, and a handful of the women had gone out to a nearby café for lunch. Natasha had joined them, and had managed to sit next to Ororo, as far from Pepper as possible.

Pepper was handing Maria her phone, laughing. “You wouldn’t believe how much I wanted my own! I bugged Mother about it for months, until she told me it was either horses or ballet, they couldn’t afford both.”

Whatever was in the picture must have been hilarious. Maria’s mouth started twitching uncontrollably at the corners as she stared at it. “Oh, my God.”

“I want to see!” Sharon, on Ororo’s other side, reached for the phone, cracked up, and handed it to Ororo. Natasha peered over her shoulder, trying to get a better look.

It was Pepper: no more than thirteen or fourteen, grinning toothily at the camera, holding the reins of a monstrous horse. The cause for the laughter was almost certainly the enormous pile of manure falling to the ground in a blur in the picture, but Pepper was wearing a complete cowgirl outfit, right down to the absurdly large silver and fake turquoise belt buckle. She looked like she should be modeling for a mid-range clothing company aimed at WASPs from the New England region exclusively.

Natasha looked back up at Pepper, still talking animatedly to Maria, who had a small smile on her face and her hair pulled back. She took in how close Pepper’s hand was resting to Maria’s, just a few centimeters apart on the table top—and somehow, that particular thought had never occurred to her. She had never expected to be afraid of that outcome.

It was bad luck that Pepper glanced her way just then, and clearly took in Natasha’s line of sight. She looked down at her own hand, then back up at Maria, and kept talking, but she drew her hand back slightly. And when Sharon handed the phone back to her, she tucked it into her purse, and left her hands in her lap.

Perhaps it should have been shameful to feel so relieved.

That night Pepper texted her. Come over for dinner tomorrow

Natasha was already lying in bed, a cup of tea next to her on the nightstand—with the jam in, Russian style; another comfort food she rarely turned to now. She stared at her phone for a few minutes as if it might bite. They had the next day off. She hadn’t made plans, but Pepper had no way of knowing that. She could plead out.

Pepper added, Please

Okay.

She had a hard time sleeping after that.

 

Pepper, it turned out, lived in a nice modern apartment. Not quite the high-rise she’d accused Natasha of, but a more recent building. There was a fireplace in the corner of the tiny living room. Pepper had managed to cram a loveseat against one wall and had an armchair facing it across a narrow coffee table.

Pepper took her jacket when she walked in, hanging it in the closet, very civilized. Natasha turned to look at the kitchen. There were hints of Pepper everywhere, her personality like oil paints smeared across a canvas. Photographs in frames, some artistic, probably a college class Pepper had taken in which she tried to express herself; a cluster of shells on a shelf; sea-glass greens and blues everywhere, a cozy throw blanket strewn messily over the couch.

She turned back to look at Pepper, to make some comment on it, and the words died on her lips. Pepper was just staring at her. Natasha’s heart beat crazily in her chest.

“I made a pasta salad,” Pepper said. “Heavy on the veggies. Kind of Mediterranean. I hope that sounds good.”

“Yes, of course,” Natasha answered absently.

Pepper padded back into her tiny kitchen on bare feet, to the sound of dishes rattling, and emerged a moment later with two plates. She looked like a Martha’s Vineyard dream, a white button-up shirt with rolled-up sleeves, tight-fitting jeans, a single strand of pearls around her neck. “What would you like to drink? I’ve got water, juice, white wine—”

“Wine, please.” It could hardly make the evening any more uncomfortable.

“Sure thing!” Pepper set the plates on her coffee table and came back in a moment with two wine glasses, condensation starting to mist up on the sides. “Wine just sounded nice.”

“It goes with so many things.” Natasha sat gingerly down in the armchair. She’d worn a long-sleeved jersey dress, with a narrow belt at the waist, and she foresaw that it would dig uncomfortably into her sides before the night was over, but—it was flattering on her.

“Don’t tell Phil that! He has strict lists of what you’re allowed to drink with what foods. I don’t think this would be approved.”

“Luckily, Phil isn’t with us this evening.” Natasha smirked faintly and took too large a drink. The wine wasn’t bad; it had a tartness she found refreshing. The late April light slanting through the windows caught in it.

Pepper made determined small talk over dinner, to Natasha’s increasing confusion, but Natasha participated gamely. She’d expected something more in the line of an interrogation, but instead found herself answering questions about Saint Petersburg, Russian architecture, her time in Paris. Pepper blithely mentioned her time in London—they discovered they’d both been to Westminster Abbey, and both insisted on sitting on the upper deck of buses—and all the while, they kept drinking, Pepper topping up their glasses as they ran low.

The light outside slowly dimmed, until at length they were sitting in the glow of the lamps scattered around the room. Pepper cocked her head at her laptop.

“What are you thinking?” Natasha asked.

“I was just—I could put on some music,” Pepper said, smiling ruefully. “I know, I know, we dance all the time, but.”

“Go ahead.” Natasha gestured with her glass, feeling relaxed and magnanimous. “I am curious what music you have. Boy bands? Are you secretly a punk?”

A laugh bubbled up from Pepper as she clicked to whatever she had in mind. “Sometimes? I guess? I like pretty much everything.”

It had never been Natasha’s experience that people who said that actually liked pretty much everything, but she leaned back in the armchair, and a soft, bright song filtered out from the speakers. Make a spark, break the dark, find a light with me.  

Pepper was singing along to it softly. “Who we are, chasing stars, won’t you dance with me—” Almost, but not quite, dancing in place, swaying gracefully. Nothing at all like how they danced for the company, and not how they danced on the rare occasions Natasha consented to go to a night club.

It was the wine, maybe, that made her head feel so clear, her heart warm and full. Natasha watched Pepper for a few moments before setting her glass down and standing. There was almost no room, just the narrow gap between the couch and the kitchen, but Pepper turned to her with a sweet smile and took her hands and started to move with her. Hardly dancing at all, really. Their movements were small by necessity, but not awkward.

When the song ended, another one started, with a little more of a beat to it, and they laughed at each other and bopped in place.

She lost track of time. She didn’t know how long it had been when the songs stopped, and Pepper was left staring at her in silence, flushed, still swaying—leaning toward her.

“This isn’t a good idea,” Natasha said in a rush. “I should go.”

“Wait! Don’t—” Pepper put out a hand to stop her. Natasha slipped past her, grabbing her purse, and didn’t stop until she was on the sidewalk in front of Pepper’s building. She was gasping for air, had to bend over, brace her hands on her knees. She was breathing like she’d run a sprint.

There was a moment when she thought Pepper might have come after her. But the street stayed silent.

She started back toward the subway. Her head was buzzing like a wasp’s nest. There were words for this, in Russia, words for women like her, and they were crushingly cruel. Magda had spit them at her like a curse when they were—breaking up, that was the only way to describe it, when Magda had been passed over for a part in favor of Natasha, a choice that had been patently obvious, because Magda was a good dancer but no one was Natasha. No one was like Natasha. Magda had worked hard; Natasha had worked harder. Magda had been born lucky, a good body type for ballet; Natasha had been luckier. Natasha had simply been better, and she’d been foolish enough to say it to Magda, like the fact that it was. And Magda had flown into a rage. Natasha had—really, had known it would end like that, and she’d done it anyway. She’d done it to make Magda angry, to make Magda end things. Because she couldn’t stand it. Being so close to her and those invisible lines Magda never, ever let her cross in public, the even more complex grid of acceptable behaviors for when they were alone together.

There were two women together on the train. Natasha found herself watching them through nearly-closed eyes, trying to decide whether they were together. She had just decided that they weren’t when the taller one put her chin on the other’s head and then pressed a silent kiss to her hair.

It had been unthinkable for her then. It had been unthinkable for her now, here, in a country that couldn’t make up its own mind about whether lesbians deserved talk shows or jail time.

Her foot was throbbing in time to her heartbeat, delayed by fractions of a second. The pain gave her something to pin her mind to. Like a needle through a butterfly.

 

Pepper did not call her. Did not text. Perhaps she had, at last, succeeded in hurting Pepper sufficiently to discourage further pursuit. In retrospect it was obvious that the dinner had also been a date, or an attempt at one. Had she known that, starting out? She couldn’t be sure.

But for all that Pepper was still perfectly friendly around other people, she stopped inviting Natasha out, and Natasha tried to decide whether this was something acceptable, or whether she had been badly mistaken, all along.

 

It seemed bizarre and unreal that they’d reached the first rehearsal for the final rep of the season.

“I’ve got to start thinking about who to bring on next year.” Tony waved at the computer screen, where he had seven resumés open simultaneously. “We’ve actually got people who want to join up, Nat, what the hell? What the hell?”

“Don’t jinx us. The season isn’t over yet.”

“Yeah, but—what the hell?” He tipped back in his chair. “I can’t fucking believe it. Anyway, obviously, Firebird is our last kind of fuck-you to critics, prove that we’ve still got it, anything they can do we can do better, etcetera.”

“You brought me here to tell me that?”

“No, I wanted to ask if you know any of these dancers. They’d be coming on as soloists.”

She leaned in to look at the screen. “Uh, her. She was fine. Not exceptional. Bring her in for an audition. Her, no, absolutely not. Odinson, yes, definitely, he’s big but we can work around that. I don’t know the others well enough.”

“Okay, great. I’m promoting Ororo, you know that, we talked about that, if this season went well, and it has, and she deserves it.”

“She probably deserved it for this season.”

“Yeah, but I just didn’t have the parts for her. Next year we’ll run it harder, do bigger pieces. We’ll bring on enough new people.”

“Don’t over-extend us.”

“I won’t, I won’t. I just think we can do more, even with the people we’ve already got, but we need a certain number of bodies on the stage to make that happen, you know?”

“I know.”

After that meeting, she went down to rehearsal. She was a few minutes late. Rhodes didn’t chide her, he’d known she was meeting with Tony. Pepper looked at her as she took her place at the barre. Their eyes met, and held, for a few beats.

She wasn’t holding her breath. One. Two. Three. Four.

Pepper looked away. She could breathe again. She felt bereft.

 

Firebird was—and always had been—one of Natasha’s favorite ballets, despite its frivolity. Fine; the favorite. When she’d danced it as a teenager, even before she’d been the eponymous bird of legend, she’d loved the theme of freedom from bondage. Redemption. The idea of being something untouchable, beyond fear or pain or hate. It was a silly story given weight by the solemnity of the dancers and the soaring music. A magic egg, a prince, a princess, a curse, a bird-woman (as if ballet didn’t have enough of those), a golden feather. It was short and simple. A fairy-tale, suitable for children.

She found it easy to drop back into the part. Tightening, at times, down into her body until she was just a shadow of herself, and in other sections expanding. Letting herself be bigger than her body.

She threw herself into it in rehearsals that day, the best distraction she had ever been able to find from anything else occupying her mind.

After rehearsals, she chatted with Ororo for a few minutes in the dressing room. Ororo was smiling; it was easy to ask what she was smiling about. An invitation to dinner from T’Challa, evidently. She teased Ororo about it, gently. Pepper came in as Natasha was asking whether Ororo had ever considered a future as a literal queen, and hovered in front of her locker, doing a few desultory stretches until Ororo kissed off her fingertips and left with a spring in her step.

There was an uneasy silence in the room after that, as the last of the other dancers left. Natasha finished buttoning her coat. Pepper stepped into her flats.

“I don’t—” Pepper sighed. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“You did not. I’m not—this is a time when I am very concerned about my future, and I have to make certain choices about how I present myself to the public.”

“I see.” Pepper had a grim look on her face.

“I am not someone who can live—one life, in private, and another, in public. So.” She shrugged.

“You just lead no life at all, is that it?” asked Pepper, softly, cuttingly.

“I suppose. I know what you want. Is not unreasonable.”

Pepper blinked at her, in obvious surprise.

“I don’t know if I can do it.” Natasha folded her arms tightly across her chest. “Russia is very hard, maybe not so different. You did not know me, then. Who I’ve been, what I’ve done. Even if I could forgive myself... This is what I am now. And you’ll never know who I was before.”

“I could know you now.” Pepper’s face was doing complicated things, as if she heard in this what Natasha had tried so hard to avoid saying—that this wasn’t no, had never really been no, whatever it was. “I think I do know you now. And you’re worth knowing.”

Natasha laughed, a sharp staccato. “I’m worth watching. Knowing, I’m not sure.”

“I am. I’ll be sure for both of us.” Pepper stepped closer. “Is—will you at least think about it?”

“Of course. I can’t stop thinking about it,” Natasha added in a burst of inadvisable honesty.

Pepper sighed explosively. “Would it be so bad? If people knew about you?”

“You don’t know what is like, back home, if people know. I could never—I couldn’t go back. Bolshoi would not take me back.”

“You want to go back?”

“No! But I want to think they would want me.”

“There are people here who want you,” Pepper said, intense, quiet. “For who you are. Not a fantasy of who you were.

“What would the publicity mean, if it came out? Tony’s first season, and it turns out all he has are black and queer dancers.”

Pepper’s chin came up. “You say that like we’re worth less.”

“The critics will think so. You see how many of them even mention Maria now? OUT interview made her verboten, they will not touch her. If we fold, she is screwed.”

“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t be.”

“What about you?” Natasha’s mouth tightened. She forced herself to breathe, to relax. “Would you have a place?”

“That’s up to me. Maybe I’ll do my own interview.” Pepper’s eyes flashed.

“Unwise. At least this season. Wait and see how it goes.”

“Is that what you’re doing? Waiting out the season?”

“Maybe.”

“Or waiting out the rest of your life?”

Natasha stuffed her hands into her pockets and turned to the door. “I told you. I don’t know if I can do what you want. That’s all I have for you now.”

Pepper’s hand landed on her shoulder; she spun towards it, suddenly angry, but Pepper kissed her before she could speak.

“Just. There are upsides. Think about it,” Pepper said, almost like a plea, and then pushed past her and was gone.

 

A Profile of Perseverance: James Barnes and the Role of a Lifetime

For GQ

[text overlaid on two-page spread of James, in a black leather motorcycle jacket, leaning in toward the camera with a small smile on his face; his metal hand is visible, thumb tucked behind his belt buckle]

James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes is an interesting man.

Born in Brooklyn, raised in Russia, he’s an amalgam of ideals of masculinity—and a contradiction of some: as a male ballet dancer, he’s faced his fair share of insensitive, short-sighted comments.

“Yeah, I’ve been called a lot of things.” He grins at me with just one side of his mouth. “You don’t make it very far in this business if you can’t grow a thick skin.”

He certainly felt the pressure to live up to impossible standards from a young age. “After we moved to Russia, I really got serious about dancing. Before that, it had been a hobby—fun, you know, but I didn’t see a career in it. But I started going to one of the bigger schools for it, and next thing I know I’m getting told I could do this professionally.” His style drew inevitable comparisons to Baryshnikov, with his technical prowess and liquid, graceful movements.

The car accident that derailed his career would have ended anyone else’s, absolutely. But just a couple of years later, he’s back, and this time he’s got a bionic arm that puts corny television classics to shame. He shows me: he pulls off his jacket and puts the arm through a range of movements. It looks completely natural.

“If you put a sleeve on it, it looks like skin. I use it for some of the dances. Others, we don’t bother.”

Tony Stark, the mad inventor of this amazing device, has started making it available for combat veterans. Access to it is otherwise limited. So how did Barnes end up with one?

“He was friends with Natasha, you know. From when he danced in Russia for a while. And they’d stayed in touch, a little, in the States. So he knew about me. We’d met, I guess, I just didn’t really register it at the time. He called up when I moved to the States and asked if I was interested.”

And was he? “You bet. Especially when he told me he was putting together a company of dancers. I don’t think anyone else in the world would have taken a chance on me, but he did.”

One of the shining stars of Stark’s ballet company has been Natasha Romanoff, long-known internationally, and a former partner of Barnes’ at the Bolshoi. “I called her and asked her if she’d be interested, and she had some conditions—being able to work on her choreography was a big one—but in the end, she decided to take this on, I think partly because she liked the challenge. I don’t think we could have done it without her.”

Barnes get visibly emotional talking about her. “She’s been an important part of my life since we were just children. It’s better than I can even describe to be dancing with her again. I felt like we were incomplete when we were dancing apart.”

Is that a romantic declaration? Barnes throws his head back and laughs. “She would murder me in my sleep if I talked about romance!”

…Wait, is that an anti-romantic declaration? “She is more than capable of taking me out. No comment on any rumored or reputed relationship.”

Well, inquiring minds will have to continue to inquire. In the meantime, Barnes is keeping busy, doing what he does best. Dancing.

“They’re not kidding,” Natasha said, cradling the phone under her chin. “Dancing is the only thing you’re actually good at. You’re a complete disaster otherwise.”

“Not the only thing,” came Steve’s voice, crackly from the speakerphone. There was muffled laughter and a soft thumping sound. “Ow!”

“I don’t think this sounds like you at all.”

“No, it’s pretty heavily edited. Big shock there.”

“Did you tell them I’d kill you?”

“Yeah, they got that part right.”

“You’re not wrong.”

“How have you been holding up?” His voice was too soft, too kind.

She paused for a long few minutes. “I’m fine,” she eventually said.

“That didn’t sound legit,” said Steve, tinny and distant.

“Whatever.”

“Natalia.” James sounded painfully earnest. “If you want to talk—or you don’t want to talk, you just want to drink—”

“I know where to find you.”

“You do.”

“Although I never know how I might find you.”

Steve called, “You mean in flagrante delicto?”

“If you want to be so vulgar.”

“I usually do!”

“Shut up,” said James, laughing. “I’m trying to be supportive here!”

“I’ll support your—”

“We talked about this!”

“Boys, boys. I had better let you go. Dinner is going to burn.”

 

Opening night for Firebird was magical. It always had been, always would be. The weeks of rehearsal had vanished in a haze.

Natasha was the Firebird, Pepper the first-cast Czarina. James, prosthetic arm hidden, was the prince. Tony had gone to some expense to make sure that the special effects around the scene where James smashed the egg housing the evil sorcerer Koschei’s soul would be both cutting-edge and seamless. It was a nice change from the Bolshoi’s approach.

Opening night was magical, and went well, and afterwards, Natasha went home to her empty apartment and cried her eyes out in the shower. She hadn’t cried in years. She’d thought it had been beaten out of her, along with her capacity to feel terror, but evidently she’d been wrong on both counts.

Because seeing James lift Pepper—seeing Pepper’s body arc in the filmy white dress of the pristine Czarina—was doing something impossible to her, unwinding her like a skein of yarn. And it just kept happening and happening. There wasn’t an end to the feelings, she couldn’t get to the end of the thread, it just kept piling up and making things worse. A magician’s assistant flailing under a pile of never-ending colorful silk scarves knotted end to end.

 

Ororo frowned at her as they did their makeup side by side before the third night’s performance.

“Are you all right?”

Natasha didn’t let the tip of her eyeliner bite into her skin. She didn’t. Pepper was at least ten feet down the mirror, in earshot, because everyone was always in earshot in this claustrophobic tiny fucking company. “Of course.”

“You seem tense.”

“It’s fine. How’s your prince?”

Ororo laughed, unwillingly. “Subtle.”

“But I do want to know.” She set down her eyeliner and picked up her lipstick.

“Charming.”

“Of course.”

“Of course.” Ororo was pressing her false lashes firmly into place.

“Is he taking you to all the best places?”

“Certainly. He’s a man of excellent taste.”

“That much is obvious.”

Ororo laughed, reaching for her eyeshadow. “Flattery?”

“If it works.”

“I’ll allow it.”

Her hair was pulled back so tightly it made her scalp ache. She normally would have readjusted it, but tonight it was welcome, a distraction from the incessant biting pain in her foot. Bruce had said she should get an x-ray, but when would she have time? After Firebird. After the show. She’d get it done.

Pepper finished her makeup, past Maria, and turned away from the mirror. Her skin was painted nearly marble-white. Like a ghost.

Natasha’s costume glittered. She loved it, actually, and in a long lifetime of costumes, that was no small thing. It was sewn with sequins, crusted with rhinestones, so that every time she moved the spotlights caught incandescent flashes of light. She cast galaxies of rainbows every time she moved.

During one of the times when she wasn’t on, she stood off stage, watching from the wings. Stretching; she didn’t want her muscles to get cold. Pepper and James were on, in their pas de deux, the eerily realistic trees around them rustling in a non-existent wind.

So she was watching when Pepper went down.

It was a split second of sheer visceral disbelief. She did not understand what was happening. This wasn’t even a dangerous section. Pepper knew it backward and forward. This was never a scene that someone should fall in.

And yet it was also just like watching Pietro: Pepper went down, heavily, and didn’t get back up.

Gasps began to ripple through the audience, a quick mumble of dread, and then the curtains crashed down. Natasha felt herself moving.

James was crouching with Pepper, his hand hovering uselessly above her knee, his costume glittering incongruously under the lights. “Oh, my God,” he was saying, repeatedly, softly as a chant. Natasha dropped to her knees next to Pepper. There were tears streaming down Pepper’s face, tracking through the foundation, and her teeth were bared in a grimace; she was obviously keeping herself from yelling.

“Sweetheart,” Natasha heard herself say, as if from a great distance. She watched her hand go out and cup Pepper’s cheek, smearing the makeup, getting it on her hand. “Darling. It’s all right, it’s all right, are you hurt?” Inanities. Her other hand on Pepper’s shoulder, thumb moving over the skin, trying to distract her from the pain.

Pepper made a noise that was more than half-sob and contained no intelligible words. There were feet thundering across the marley, Bruce, perhaps, or whatever medical crew Tony had on hand.

Natasha realized she was going to kiss Pepper as she was doing it. It wasn’t like the New Year’s kiss, or any of the others—she was just pressing her lips to Pepper’s as Pepper’s mouth trembled under hers, shaking with barely-suppressed sobs. She had her arms around Pepper, she was holding her tightly enough to crush the breath out of her.

“Miss, we need to—” The medic’s voice was wretchedly awkward. She sat back onto her heels as they started to touch Pepper’s knee, asking her brisk clinical questions, moving it carefully until she shrieked out loud. Natasha left her hands open, resting on her legs, unsure of where to put them, what to do.

“We’re going to need to go to the ED,” one of the medics said to the other, and Natasha was still kneeling when they came with the wheelchair to help Pepper up into.

“I’ll go—” Natasha put out a hand as if she were going to stop one of the medics. He shook his head at her.

“No room in the ambulance, ma’am.”

Her mind was skittering through what had happened. Something had gone terribly, desperately wrong, but what? How? She knelt on the floor again, staring at it in blank shock, and slowly it dawned on her. She reached out to touch it, and confirmed: the floor—just in one spot—was smooth as glass.

All wrong. All wrong. No one who had any experience with ballet would ever have done that to the stage.

Some instinct drove her to her feet. If someone had done this on purpose, they would do one of two things now. They would either retreat back into the shadows and consider ruining Pepper’s knee for at least the remainder of the season a job well done, or they would move to consolidate this victory while the company was still flailing in disarray. She knew exactly which she would do.

She ducked into the shadows behind the set and started hunting.

She knew the stagehands’ faces. She made a point of knowing these things. And earlier that night, combing back through her memories, she’d seen someone who didn’t fit, moving like someone who didn’t want to be seen. A familiar flash of reddish hair.

She found him, kneeling behind a prop wooden storefront, with a lighter in his hand and one of the spray-bottles of grain alcohol Wardrobe used on costumes to keep them from smelling rank.

“Edward.”

He dropped the lighter. His hand was shaking, she noticed, as he stood, whirling to face her. His face was blanched completely white in obvious terror. He still reeked of floor-polish—hell, the rag tucked through his belt was probably soaked in it.

She could feel the grin on her face, hot rage burning through her. “Hey, sailor.”

“You bitch,” he choked out.

She raised an eyebrow at him in silence, one hand on her hip. He seemed to slowly realize that she was alone. He turned to run.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said pleasantly, and with the most beautifully precise leap she’d made all season, jumped onto his back. It forced him to take not just her weight but her considerable momentum. He grunted at the impact, but she was already looping her arm around his neck, yanking, bracing her fist with her other hand, so that her forearm crushed his windpipe. The two of them crashed to the floor, him beneath her at an awkward angle with one arm trapped under his own body. Pain lanced through her arm but it was not bad; not a break. He struggled, gasping, fingers of his free hand coming up to scrabble at her choke-hold. She got a mouthful of his hair between her teeth and pulled without mercy until he subsided.

The noise, at least, attracted attention.

“What the fuck?” said Sam, with great volume and sincerity, over the sound of Edward’s soft weeping.

She spat to the side to get his hair out of her mouth. Tasted like Rogaine. “Trying to set us on fire. Get Security.”

The raw, red fury that had filled her like a tide washed away as she waited the long seconds for Security.

When they came, Tony came with them, in a welter of manic energy and with red-rimmed eyes. He reached for her and helped her to her feet. She let him.

“Hey, Nat. Babe. Thanks for—” He sighed shakily, sucking in a deep breath, and passed a trembling hand over his eyes.

“Thwarting a saboteur?”

“Yeah, that.” He dropped his hand. “You’re going to have to, uh, come to the police station, I’m so sorry, I tried to talk them out of it but apparently attempted arson is a biggie.”

She sighed. “At least let me change first.”

The rest of the night passed in a weary blur of repeating herself ad nauseam to a series of police officers, whose poker faces ranged from “absolute boredom” to “unwillingly impressed.”

“You just… jumped on him,” said one female officer.

“Yes. I’m dancer. We jump.” She shrugged. “Made more sense than trying to fight, at the time.”

“Not bad.” The officer looked at her speculatively, and she had a moment’s sensation that she was being considered on a very physical level.

“Diaz!” someone said. “Speed it up!”

The officer rolled her eyes. “Anyway, if this statement is accurate…”

Natasha made sure she read before she signed. Some lessons were never forgotten.

Tony’s driver took her home. “Thank you, Happy,” she said, as he held the door for her.

“No worries, Miss Romanoff.”

She called Tony on her way into the building. It was nearly two in the morning, but he picked up quickly enough.

“How’s Pepper?” Better to rip that band-aid off first.

“Torn ACL. The doc says she can probably dance again, but it will depend. She’ll probably want to get the reconstruction.”

“Okay. Okay.” She breathed out, hard. A torn ACL was bad, but not so bad. She’d known people who’d gone back to dancing. Pepper could still dance, if she wanted to. If—well. If Natasha hadn’t made it too hard.

“Her parents came down, they met her at the hospital. They’re staying with her for a couple of days.”

“What the fuck happened?” she asked.

“I wish I fucking knew. The cops said he waxed the floor? And you found him trying to torch us?”

“Yes. Lighter. Alcohol.”

“Jesus Christ. What do you think happened? I mean, I knew he didn’t like the contract negotiations, I went pretty hard on the orchestra, didn’t give them benefits, but I thought we’d worked out solutions that made everybody pretty happy. The money wasn’t bad!”

“He had tried to pick me up.” She made a noise of disgust. “Before.”

“You turned him down? Jesus, how hard?”

“I was polite.” She paused and thought about it. “Enough.”

“You think he was holding a grudge about that? You’ve turned a lot of guys down, they’ve never tried to turn us into a pile of cinders before.”

“Is not that, I think. Maybe that was part of it. Excuse.”

“So what do you think?”

“Stane.” She heard Tony’s brief, indrawn breath on the other end of the line, and gave him a second. “Pepper said he had been… threatening, when he tried to recruit her.”

“He what?” Tony’s voice went up greatly in volume. “That son of a bitch—what did he say? What the fuck did he say?”

“Tony. Calm down. I told police, they’re aware.”

“Well, shit. Fuck. Last thing we fucking need is some bullshit beef with him, now that we’re just getting established—you know we had a good season? We’ve out-performed my third-best set of projections, and those were some pretty fucking generous projections!”

“You know what they say about publicity.”

“Yeah, they don’t know shit! I’m trying to establish us as legitimate, as a real ballet company, and we’ve got some Nancy Drew shit going on backstage? Corporate fucking espionage? Are you fucking kidding me? I liked this so much better when I thought he was just one unhinged clarinet.”

“I could be wrong.”

“Sure. Yeah, you could be, but you aren’t, are you? You’re never fucking wrong, it’s one of the most infuriating and yet endearing things about you. You’re a rock and a hard place. I can set my watch by you.”

She sighed.

“Hey,” said Tony into the silence, “are you okay? Physically? I didn’t have anybody check you out, do I need to have a doctor check you out? Who’s dancing tomorrow?”

“Relax. I’ll dance. My leg is a little sore, but it will be fine.”

“Oh, my God, you’re admitting your leg hurts, oh fuck, fuck, fuck, we’re doomed, you have to be in shape for Firebird, we can’t do that without you—”

“Tony. I told you. Is fine. I will see Bruce tomorrow, he will tell me ice it some more, I will dance Firebird.”

“I’m feeling pretty nervous about this whole thing.”

“I know.”

“You’re sure you’re fine.” He was starting to sound like he might believe it.

“Yes.”

“Okay. Shit. Well, obviously, don’t worry about classes tomorrow, if you try to show up for them I’ll have Rhodey kick you out, I’m not even kidding.” He yawned.

“Of course.”

They hung up, and she went to take a long-overdue shower and then pull herself into bed.

 

The dressing room went abruptly silent and tense when she stepped in the next day. It was nothing more or less than she had expected; she gave a vague, directionless smile before going to her locker. Her hands didn’t shake. She had survived much worse than this. Ice water, the cane on the sole of her foot, the back of her calf, the—

“Hey,” said Maria, nudging her shoulder companionably, “sorry to hear about Pepper.”

“Yes.” Natasha blinked at her in confusion.

“Must have been hard, seeing that.”

“It was.”

“You’re going to be great tonight, though. You always are.”

After Maria drifted away, Sharon came over to give her a quick hug, and then it was Ororo, squeezing Natasha’s hand in hers briefly but tightly.

By the time they started there wasn’t a woman in the company who hadn’t said something kind to her. Natasha felt dazed, confused. Like she’d missed a step. But instead of falling down stairs, she had—this.

The night’s performance was technically adequate. She could not claim to be proud of it.

She’d been waiting the whole day—even if she would not admit it to herself—for Pepper to say something, anything. By the time she went home, she was a nervous wreck. She recognized the symptoms and detested them.

She texted Pepper, finally, to make it go away. To do something, anything.

How are you?

It took twenty minutes before Pepper finally replied. Fine

Hardly informative, and yet, it told her too much. She sat down slowly; she’d been in the kitchen, and she slid down, back against the refrigerator door.

When the buzzer went off and it was James and Steve downstairs, it was a relief.

Backstage Sabotage at the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company

AP – New York, New York

Edward Acra, 38, was charged today for attempted arson at the Stark Theater, the current home of the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company. According to eyewitnesses, he attempted to set fire to props for the ballet’s current production during last night’s performance. In a press conference today, the police commissioner described the act as “paid sabotage, apparently on behalf of a party that we will not name at this time.”

Through his attorney, Acra released a statement to the effect that his actions had been “seriously misconstrued.”

“Seriously misconstrued my ass,” said James. He waved the paper at her. “Nat, you get a load of this?”

She sighed, propping her feet up. The pain in her foot had a needle-like quality to it that sapped her attention.

“Yasha, please.” He’d texted her as soon as he’d heard about the incident—nearly instantaneously—and then again every five to ten minutes until she’d finally gotten out of the police station and responded, and then he’d hovered over her all evening whenever he had a chance. If anything, he was more demonstrative now that everyone must know the truth than he had been when they’d still had a lie to tell.

“But really, you’re okay? I heard you took him down like he was a gazelle and you were a cheetah.”

That got a laugh out of her, despite her exhaustion. “I just tackled him.”

Just tackled, she says. Well, if you ever get tired of ballet I guess you have your alternate career all set up. Natasha Romanoff, world’s greatest linebacker.”

“Must you talk?” She let her head fall back and closed her eyes. “It’s so much more restful when you don’t.”

“If my mouth ain’t flapping, how do I know I’m alive?”

“Good question,” said Steve, who had brought her a glass of ice water with a twist of lemon, and gently tucked it into her unresisting hand now. “How you feeling, sunshine?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” she said dryly.

“Good, because I heard you were a fucking badass. Do you want to start a fight club?”

She burst into laughter. “No. No, I do not.”

(Only a little. Not enough to do it. She didn’t have time, and she couldn’t afford to damage her hands.)

 

The next day she found an online flower delivery service and sent a bouquet to Pepper.

Are your parents staying with you?

Yes, tonight and tomorrow

She started to ask do you want me to visit four times. Each time she ended up deleting what she’d written.

After that night’s performance, Steve intercepted her. “My office. Come on.”

She followed him, numbly, and he went to his desk. He pulled a bottle of vodka out of a locked drawer.

“Mr. Rogers,” she said. “I’m shocked.” But her voice came out as flat as she felt.

“Drink up.” He took a swig from the bottle and passed it to her—another habit, maybe, he’d picked up from James.

She drank. She said, bitterly, handing it back to him, “Is this an intervention?”

“No.”

“James would think I need one.”

“Yeah, Buck’s not here, though.” Steve tipped his head toward the door. “He’s off doing stretches and taking his glucosamine like he’s got to go to Tai Chi at the park with the other geezers.”

“So what is it?”

Steve shrugged, leaning back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling. “I just thought you might want to get a little trashed in peace.”

“I could do that at home.”

“You wouldn’t, though, would you?” He raised his eyebrows at her. She sighed and looked away.

They sat in peaceable silence for a while, taking another drink or two each, until finally Steve rocked his chair back and said, “How’s she taking it?”

“Taking what?”

“The—come on, the highly public kiss?”

“I don’t know.” Natasha felt her eyes suddenly sting, to her shame and dismay. “She will barely answer me.”

“So you’re—you don’t want to push?”

“Push?” she said blankly.

“You know. Uh, find out your—relationship status? Like, fuck, on Facebook, or whatever.” Steve was a lightweight. She knew this about him.

“Her parents are with her.”

“What, that means you can’t call her?”

“I—yes. I think it does.”

“Well, it’s up to you. Whatever.” Steve shrugged ostentatiously.

She squinted at him in narrow suspicion. “Are you trying to convince me to talk to her?”

“Would I do that?”

“Yes.”

“I said it’s up to you. If I were you, though, I wouldn’t wait too long before I said something.” He raised his eyebrows at her again. Slowly this time. “I’m an expert in waiting too long.”

“It worked out for you.”

“Not until I—you know what, if you’d rather do this sad Russian drinking vodka in the snow all alone in front of the Kremlin routine, or whatever—”

She burst into disbelieving laughter. “What the fuck?”

“Romanoff. Come on. You know what you need to do.”

“Is it even worth it?” she asked, rubbing under one eye, where a treacherous tear had escaped. “All of it, is it, can it possibly be worth…” She trailed off.

Steve didn’t hesitate. He was a man of no small moral certitude, which usually made him infuriating, and tonight was no exception. “Yes.”

He passed over the bottle again. They drank, and eventually he walked with her to the subway.

 

The next day she texted Pepper. Can I come over tonight?

It felt like an eternity before Pepper answered. In reality, it was nearly an hour. Ok

She wanted to say something else—I could bring dinner, or do you forgive me—but instead she just said, after the performance?

Sure

Which was how she ended up in front of Pepper’s building, late at night, watching her finger press the buzzer like it belonged to someone else.

When she got upstairs, the door was cracked. Pepper was in the bedroom, door wide open, knee propped up.

“I’m starving,” said Pepper. Her voice sounded distant. “Can you figure something out for dinner?”

“Of course,” said Natasha, caught off-guard immediately.

She found herself in the kitchen, opening and closing cupboard doors aimlessly.

“We could probably order in,” called Pepper from her bedroom.

“We could. Do you want to?”

“Yeah.”

Natasha found the sheaf of take-out menus in the drawer under the coffeepot. “What do you want?”

“Udon.”

So she placed an order, sticking her head back into the bedroom. Pepper was on her laptop, glaring at the screen, obviously tired and in pain.

Once she’d hung up, she went back in. Pepper glanced up and sighed, setting her laptop on the nightstand. “Sorry. I’m not very good company.”

“No, I just,” Natasha said, sitting gingerly on the edge of the bed, trying not to disturb Pepper. “Do you—do you want me to stay?”

Pepper rubbed at her face with one hand. “Yes.”

“It seems like you’re pretty uncomfortable.”

“I tore my ACL. It stings a little.

“I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry, I’m—look, I’m not being… Would you just eat dinner with me? Watch a show or something?”

“Yes,” Natasha said almost before Pepper had finished the thought. Pepper smiled wanly.

There was the sense, of course, of the conversation they weren’t actually having. It hung heavy over the room and pervaded every interaction, no matter how small: the selection of the show, the arranging of the laptop, Natasha jumping up to get the delivery.

Finally, after dinner, when Natasha had stowed the leftovers in the refrigerator and had no excuses left, she went back and perched on the edge of the bed again.

“I would understand,” she said carefully—she’d been thinking about these words all through dinner—“if you wanted to be alone tonight.”

“And if I don’t?” Pepper’s eyes glinted dangerously, chin up in a way that suddenly reminded Natasha very much of Steven.

“Then I’m afraid I’m going to kick you in the knee in my sleep,” Natasha said, and Pepper laughed.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’ll be fine. The doctor says I just have to R.I.C.E. it, and the swelling’s already gone down so much. I—how’s Helen doing? Is she taking it all right?” (Helen, second-cast Czarina, would be doing double the performances while they scrambled to get Sharon up to speed as third-cast.)

“She’s fine. But I do toss in my sleep.”

“Really?” Pepper shifted over on the bed, more obviously making room for Natasha. “You seemed like you slept so deeply at your place.”

Natasha found her spot carefully, still trying not to jostle the bed more than necessary. “I was not asleep much.”

Pepper flashed her a tight, sweet smile. “Too busy dreaming of me?”

“Yes.” Natasha shrugged, refusing to meet her eyes.

There was a moment’s pause. “Oh,” said Pepper softly.

Natasha looked down at the blanket—a big, fluffy comforter, of course, much too much, she would drown in it overnight, overheat—and Pepper’s hand, and carefully took it again.

“I didn’t realize.” Pepper sounded a little breathless, a little confused.

“Couldn’t sleep for thinking of you,” Natasha murmured, running her thumb over the back of Pepper’s hand. “Couldn’t—I couldn’t remember how to be normal.”

“Oh, you’ve never been just normal.” Pepper was watching their joined hands, too.

Natasha laughed, raw and ugly. “You think I don’t know? You think I don’t have to hide, all the time?”

“That’s not what I—I didn’t mean it like that. You’re so much more than normal. You’re better.”

Natasha said nothing, but she kept stroking Pepper’s hand. Pepper leaned in, closer, her head against the padded headboard drifting toward Natasha’s.

When Pepper finally turned her head and kissed Natasha, Natasha let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

They kissed, for a while, instead of talking. The angle was bad—Natasha finally picked herself up and swung one leg over Pepper, one knee to either side of Pepper’s hips, trying not to let her weight down onto Pepper’s pelvis. Pepper looped her arms around Natasha’s neck and groaned into her mouth. Everywhere they were touching was electric, a heavy warmth stealing into her body. Natasha could feel herself getting wet. She couldn’t stop touching Pepper, trying to keep her hands from wandering, trying to keep them on Pepper’s waist or shoulders, but she kept finding herself pulling them back from the curve of Pepper’s breast or the inner edge of her thigh—

Pepper grabbed Natasha’s hand and put it on her breast. Natasha broke the kiss, blinking at her, and Pepper was blushing scarlet. “I could stand to be—distracted, you know,” said Pepper.

Natasha slowly cupped her breast. Pepper tilted her head back; Natasha lowered her head and started to mouth at the exposed top of her breast, where the sweatshirt neckline didn’t quite cover it. Pepper’s mouth hung open, slack with little hitching breaths. Natasha took a risk and started to push the sweatshirt up, until it was bunched around Pepper’s neck and she could take both Pepper’s breasts in her hands, starting to kiss them, rub her face against them, take the nipples in her mouth. It was like being a millionaire—an embarrassment of riches. She felt drunk. She was thoroughly wet now, hot, her pulse pounding between her thighs.

Pepper was tangling her fingers in Natasha’s hair, pinpoints lights of pain, just briefly stinging. It made her moan, made her let her teeth just touch the nipple in her mouth. Pepper pulled her forward, more of her breast in Natasha’s mouth, and Natasha rested the heel of her hand over Pepper’s pubic bone. She ignored Pepper pressing forward, straining against up Natasha’s hand; just let her thumb drift back and forth over the soft skin above the waistband, leisurely. Pepper whimpered out loud.

“Won’t you—” Pepper whispered, seeming to forget that her hand was in Natasha’s hair, reaching to cup her cheek, dragging her head to the side. “Please—”

(She had never once been with someone who wanted it with the lights on. No one had ever said please.)

Pepper writhed slowly under her.

“Like this?” Natasha asked. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth. She dragged her hand down, left her middle finger lying against Pepper’s clit, started to move it in infinitesimal circles.

“Oh! Oh—” Pepper thrashed, pushing against her. “Yes, please, yes—”

She paused, lifted her hands, slowly pulled down Pepper’s sweatpants, waiting for Pepper to freeze, waiting for her to shake her head, say that’s not what I meant but instead Pepper just said, “Yes, yes, yes,” and pushed her hips forward again.

So she lowered her mouth, carefully moving her knees back. She put her open mouth over Pepper and groaned into her, letting her tongue flicker against the warm, soft silk of her. Pepper made a keening sound and buried both her hands in Natasha’s hair again.

Natasha felt dreamy, wonderful, breathing in the smell, and she let her hand rest below her mouth, cupping Pepper gently in her hand as she moved her tongue. Tracing the alphabet in cursive, Cyrillic and Latin in turns, arcane symbols, words, I love you. Pepper rocked back and forth, increasingly breathy noises escaping her, and finally Pepper, hectic and wild-eyed, said, “Put something—put it—” and Natasha slid two fingers into her in one smooth movement and brought her tongue down in a long glide along her, and Pepper came with a high keening whine, head jerking back.

Natasha left her fingers in Pepper for a long few moments, watching her shudder, feeling her clench. Pepper’s chest was blotchy, and she was gasping, deep breaths every time she clenched again. Natasha brushed her thumb over Pepper’s clit one more time, experimentally, and Pepper jerked frantically, groaning, spasming again. “Oh, God,” Pepper managed, “it’s—that’s too—” and with regret Natasha pulled her fingers free. She licked them thoughtlessly, and heard Pepper gasp above her again.

Pepper’s hands were all over her, running over her cheeks, her hair. “Come here,” said Pepper, sounding drugged.

So Natasha eased herself up to lay beside Pepper. Who knew what to expect, but the satisfied glow she was feeling, the low continuous throb inside her, was wonderful all on its own.

Pepper had different thoughts: she put one hand down Natasha’s pants, and Natasha found herself riding Pepper’s hand, Pepper’s fingers crooked inside her stroking over her again and again, the heel of Pepper’s hand grinding into her clit with zero hesitation. It was only minutes before she was panting through her own orgasm, nearly silent.

“You’re quiet,” said Pepper softly, a few muzzy kisses later.

“Privacy. You know.”

“Never had any?”

“Not really.”

“We can work on that.” Pepper yawned hugely. “Can you get the light?”

“Yes.” By the time Natasha made it back to bed, Pepper was fast asleep. She’d hardly ever slept in a bed with someone other than James, and Pepper was an entirely different shape in the space. She fumbled with the pillows for a moment—why were there so many? But eventually she got comfortable, facing Pepper, watching as Pepper snored softly in the dull glow of the streetlights that penetrated the filmy curtains.

She fell asleep somewhere in that, watching Pepper, her own body full of an unfamiliar sensation.

 

The next morning she woke up slowly. Nothing came to her immediately. She couldn’t place where she was, but she wasn’t worried about it. There were faint rattling noises, and gradually, she recognized the sound of breakfast dishes. The night before came back to her in bits and pieces.

She dragged herself up—she had fallen asleep in her clothes. She made her way to the kitchen. Pepper was propped up on a crutch, scrambling eggs.

“Hey,” said Natasha. Pepper looked up, flushing immediately. Natasha found herself smiling without meaning to, and an answering grin spread over Pepper’s face; Pepper bit her lip. “You’re so beautiful.” Natasha leaned in and stole a kiss, which turned into something longer than she’d meant, and Pepper swayed towards her as she pulled back.

“You’re not running away?” Pepper looked back down at the eggs, giving them a last firm stir with the fork. “I thought you might.”

“Nyet.” Natasha shrugged. “Not much point now.”

“Yeah, I guess everybody knows.” Pepper tensed. She would need to get over that, telegraphing every thought with her whole body; it wouldn’t work for her in ballet, and she was going to be great, once she learned to occupy her space.

“No, I’m—over my—fear, I suppose.” Natasha pushed closer, let the whole right side of her body touch Pepper’s. “You know I was scared.”

“I knew. I thought it was—of going public.”

“No. Not entirely. Was excuse, was simpler than saying I was afraid of—everything.”

“Oh.” The pan was hissing, eggs bubbling.

“I can take over that, if you want.” Natasha nodded at the pan. “You are supposed to be easy on that knee.”

Pepper rolled her eyes, smiling faintly at the pan. “You can just say if you think you’re a better cook than me.”

“I said nothing of the kind. I have not eaten your cooking. How would I know?”

“That’s what I was wondering.”

Natasha had to kiss her again, for that, tipping her chin up and kissing her until the eggs nearly burned.

 

Tony texted Natasha as she was finally getting ready to come in. Steve tattled. Hows Pep?

Not bad

How r u?

Not bad, either

You still there?

Yes. Snoop

Hey I need to know these things for very good reasons

I doubt it

You coming in?

Of course

Thought so

 

She got one more kiss on her way out the door. Pepper said, “Have a good show tonight.”

“I will.”

And it was a good show, after all. She ached in unusual places, and her mind wasn’t all there, but one. Two. Three. Four. And she was Natasha Romanoff again, she was the Firebird, she was a creature of luminous magic, repelling evil. She was an omen of light, for once.

 

When the season finished, Pepper was a few days out from her surgery.

“Come on,” said Natasha, brushing lip stain over her mouth, checking in the mirror. “They’d love to see you.”

“I don’t think so.” Pepper looked dubious.

“You’d love to see them.”

“You think so?”

“I do. You have always had soft spot for little ones.”

Pepper rolled her eyes, laughing in embarrassment. Natasha was right, though. So Pepper did get dressed and come in with Natasha, and the little children flocked around her in their glittering tutus.

Pepper looked up at Natasha, smiling. Natasha smiled back, caught off guard—every time, still every time—by how much Pepper made her want to smile. This year’s crop of incoming students, and their younger siblings, tagging along with wide eyes, saw Pepper in a way Pepper still hadn’t learned to see herself. But Natasha knew; Natasha saw it, like watching fire. Pepper was going to be fantastic when she came back.

After they met the class, and Natasha taught for a few hours, they took a private car back to Pepper’s apartment. Tony’s generosity extended to these services. (He’d been genuinely offended when Natasha had asked whether he was sure.) As they walked in, Pepper said, conspicuously off-handedly, “You should—bring some of your things over. There’s a drawer in the bureau I don’t even use.”

It was a bold-faced lie, in an apartment that size. It made Natasha smile at her, made Natasha’s eyes sting inexplicably.

“Yes, of course,” she said. “Is only practical.”

Pepper grinned at her, brushing the bangs out of her eyes with her free hand. In the afternoon sunlight slanting through the windows, her eyes glowed like sea-glass, a brilliant light green-blue. Natasha thought for the thousandth time that James had been right, after all. Had been right all along. Not that she’d ever tell him that; he’d never let her live it down. But sometimes, the risks, the fear and the pain, were worth it, because at the end there was something like this.

 

Ballet in Recovery

[unattributed piece for New York Dance Mag; accompanying photo is of Pepper sitting at an outdoor café, laughing, hair blowing around her face in the sun]

Virginia Potts, the dancer who stunned the world in the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company’s incredible fledgling season, had the most spectacular injury of her career yet during the final repertory of the year. After surgery to repair her torn ACL, she’s getting back up on the horse. Figuratively, of course—the Brooklyn Borough Ballet Company did Rodeo last season.

When we caught up with her, she was getting lunch at a Brooklyn bistro, deciding between white and wheat bread.

How has she been? “Great, actually.” She grins. “I feel like this year has been exactly what I needed to get out of the rut I was in. I wasn’t advancing professionally, I wasn’t improving, but the chance to work with these amazing dancers this year has helped me grow.”

Reviews have widely remarked that she seems to have come out of her shell. “Oh, that’s absolutely true. I was always afraid to be myself.”

And did being herself have anything to do with her rumored new relationship with principal dancer Natasha Romanoff? She laughs. “You know, I think Bucky said it best.” (That’s James Buchanan Barnes, another principal with the company, who has also been romantically linked with Romanoff in the past.) “She’d kill me if I said anything about romance!”

Well, whatever has changed in her life, it seems like it’s been for the better. “Definitely. If I’d had an injury like this in the past, I don’t know that I would have had the strength or the motivation to come back from it. But you know, most people with ACL tears can get back to their former level of performance—a lot of people choose not to compete again, or dance again, and that’s such a personal decision I wouldn’t want to judge it. But I know my heart is with the BBBC. I’ll do whatever it takes to get back to the stage this fall.”

We believe her, and we’re looking forward to getting tickets. Virginia Potts is a dancer who is teetering on the brink of going down in history as extraordinary—she may be working with some of the greatest dancers in history, but she’s not content to let them have the spotlight alone.

James and Steve were laughing uproariously across the table. Natasha flipped a spoonful of peas at James, who stopped and stared at her, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.

“Oops,” she said, deadpan. Steve whooped so loudly that other restaurant patrons turned to stare at them.

“I just thought it seemed reasonable!” Pepper threw her arms into the air in a passable imitation of Steve. “You let Bucky get away with saying it!”

“Yes, well, Bucky and I were not looking at condos together!”

“Hey, what? What?” Steve immediately rocked forward in his chair, eyes wide. “You guys looking at sharing a place?”

“Would not make her live at mine. Too small.”

“And mine’s not her style.” Pepper smiled at Natasha fondly. “You wouldn’t admit it but you hated being there to take care of me after the surgery, didn’t you?”

Natasha twirled a fork loosely. “No, no, is fine. Minor problems, is all. Kitchen is poorly arranged, bathroom too small, for two women.”

“Like ninety percent of the bath products aren’t yours!”

“Are not! Sixty percent, at most.” Natasha paused, visualizing their bathrooms. “Seventy. Maybe.”

Pepper’s hand crept into hers under the table, as if in compensation for Pepper’s next comment: “I don’t understand how you can possibly need six different moisturizers.”

“You would if you understood skin care.”

“Hey!”

Natasha kissed her cheek. “You are exquisitely beautiful and exceptionally talented woman. And I take better care of my collagen.”

She tipped outrageously, in apology for the peas. When they left the restaurant, Steve and Bucky smiling and waving, Pepper slid her arm around Natasha’s waist and walked comfortably in step with her.

“What do you miss most tonight?” Pepper asked. She’d gotten into the habit of doing that—asking Natasha what she missed—and then listening carefully to the answer. She did not, thank God, try to offer solutions. Natasha had found herself telling Pepper any number of things she had not anticipated ever discussing again.

Natasha sighed, looking down the street, sticky and golden in the burning temperatures of late summer. “Moscow winters.”

“I guess I don’t have to ask why.” Pepper scrunched up her nose as they passed a set of Dumpsters that reeked powerfully.

“Fur coats look good on me.” Natasha grinned up at Pepper, and Pepper laughed at her, smiling indulgently.

“Everything looks good on you.”

“And off me,” Natasha added under her breath.

“You know it,” Pepper murmured, and crowded her into an empty doorway for a kiss that turned into several, and left Natasha melting in the heat.

 

Legendary Dancers Wed

[TMZ; four inset pictures of a dance floor with a view of Manhattan, Natasha and Pepper, in formal wear]

Natasha Romanoff and Virginia Potts, who have been coyly dodging rumors of their relationship in print for the better part of a year, wed tonight in a ceremony atop Tony Stark’s iconic Manhattan landmark. No cameras were permitted at the reception, but we hear the party will live in infamy in New York lore, and a few candids snapped on cellphones clearly show the brides in their respective couture dresses. Is that Tadashi Shoji? And Galia Lahav? We have our suspicions, but these brides are obviously both stylish and, given that kiss, in love.