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Throw Away The Oars

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Things were good.

Things were too good.

Things were ominously good.

Natasha stared down at the file before her on the table and chewed on her lip, the pen dancing as she fidgeted it in her fingers.

Her solo mission of the last two weeks was finally done, things were tied up in a neat bow, the bad dude was now in holding, and Steve was anxiously waiting to do that thing to her he’d promised upon her return.

She’d been fantasizing about his five o’clock shadow scratching her throat for days, his war-weary, calloused fingertips rough on her thighs. Even as she sat there, she imagined she could feel them, running up her skin in a measured caress, melting all the cold, hard stress of the mission down until it seeped out of her.

She just had to sign on the line to signify that she had reported her mission notes to the best of her knowledge and ability and she could be on her way, scot-free and easy down the road she goes.

She jiggled the pen again, frowning as she pretended to skim what she’d typed on her way back to base from Chechnya, huddled at the back of the Quinjet in her bucket seat, working determinedly on her Surface Pro. But she’d already read it a dozen times; knew it by heart by now.

She was pretending not to have realized that her determination was a strong and willing distraction from the fact that she desperately wanted to go home—but she abso-fucking-lutely did not want to go home. It was both the first and the very last place she wanted to be.

“Agent Romanoff?”

She jerked, looking up at Jones across from her at the table.

He frowned, confused. “Is there…something wrong with the mock up?” He gestured to the report.

She blinked, chastising herself mentally for allowing her distraction to show. “Right. Sorry, no. Just thinking…it all over. Making sure.” She winced inwardly at her overcompensation, then lowered the pen to the paper and signed her name, neatly, frowning further as her own name stared back at her.

Steve had insisted she do what she wanted in regards to her last name, but it nagged at her. Did he feel hurt that she hadn’t changed it yet? Was there a way to be privately known as Natasha Rogers but professionally as Agent Romanoff, and was she some shade of awful for even asking the question? After all, she’d tied the knot—that was an all-in kind of action. Had she not really gone all-in?

Darcy wasn’t Darcy Lewis anymore, the Intern. She was Darcy Barnes, Tony Stark’s PA. Essentially, she was exactly what Pepper used to be—everyone’s handler, balancing things like a show of spinning plates. And she was damn good at it, too, and she’d shown absolutely no trepidation as to changing her last name, had taken a beat and decided to absolutely throw it as far away from herself as she could, in fact.

At least JARVIS was happy; he knew exactly what to call her now.

Darcy would sign on the dotted line, insist she file the paperwork herself to make sure it was done properly, then go upstairs, toss down her bags and drag Bucky to the bedroom by his t-shirt, tugging him down on top of her. And she wouldn’t feel any hesitation at all.

None.

So what was wrong with her?

She slid the signed report across the table to Jones, who took it, nodded, and went through the door before her, leaving her standing in the hall in one of the lower levels.

She loved Steve.

She did. She was head-over-heels for the man.

He made her ridiculously, incandescently happy.

If Darcy could lose herself completely to a man like Bucky Barnes, why couldn’t Natasha let go enough to throw all of herself whole-heartedly into Steve?

Maybe it was too much. Maybe the problem was that she loved him too much.

The sound of laughter jerked her out of her thundering thoughts and she frowned, following the sound down the hall, to one of the many training rooms tucked into the below-ground floors.

“Dude, I dunno what you’re trying to say, but you gotta quit pulling your punches.”

Sam.

There were two strong choices for who the other agent in the room was. Since Bucky was undoubtedly upstairs with Darcy on a day like this, it could only be—

“I’m not!” Steve said, laughing. “No pulling. See?”

“Yeah, man, that doesn’t look legit, that’s all I’m saying.”

She edged to the doorway of the nearest training room and peered in at the two of them on the far mat, facing off. Sam was fixing the tape on his hands while Steve watched him, smirking, hands on hips. “You know, if Buck were here you’d have an even harder time. He refuses to pull his punches.”

“Except with Darcy,” Sam pointed out, interrupting.

“Yeah, well, I’d like to see you marry a girl and then haul off on her on purpose.”

Sam chuckled.

“I’m just saying, at least I have some—”

“No,” Sam cut him off, smiling. “Don’t go there, Rogers.”

“—concern for my fellow agents,” Steve finished anyway, a full smile stretching his mouth.

And there was five o’clock shadow—enough to call it a light beard, even, and while Natasha wouldn’t strictly call herself a fan of facial hair, it was just so sexy on Steve Rogers. And it felt so electrifying against her skin.

Sam chuckled. “Okay, so what you’re saying is I should find Buck if I want a real workout?” He made to hop off the mat. “You should’ve led with that, man. Buck’s the only one around here capable to challenging anyone. Would’ve thought that’d be you, but if you’re gonna pussy-foot around—”

No!” Steve insisted, laughing and going to block him. “I’m kidding! C’mon!”

Sam, laughing, fell back into position, fists up. “For real.”

“For real,” Steve confirmed.

Natasha stood there, smirking as she watched them fall into a casual sparring match, fists flying, foot work rapid, like a choreographed routine.

Steve was in a tank and his loose work-out joggers were low on his narrow hips.

She watched his muscles shift and squeeze, jerk and coil as he parried Sam’s blows, one after another, and attempted to catch the former airman in between. He moved like a dancer, deliberate without being dramatic, effortless without seeming arrogant about it.

Natasha was mesmerized. She’d seen the images, heard Bucky talk. She knew how bad off he’d been back in the thirties. Short, downright small, and deathly thin. He’d been a scrawny youth, and that was putting it mildly. And if anything Bucky had said was the truth—and, ironically, she’d never known him to lie—Steve had been lucky to survive up to The War at all.

But this. He was a specimen. No doubt that Apple Geek had hit it right on the money.

It was funny, really.

When she’d first clapped eyes on him on the helicarrier all those years ago, she’d assessed that he wasn’t her type. She’d thought him stiff, uptight, and a bit too on the prudish side. Of course, she knew better now and he’d loosened up.

If she was honest with herself, Bucky was more her type. Dark hair. Brooding, but with a vicious and cutting sense of humor. Captivating eyes. Cheekbones to cut glass with, a nice hard jaw, and a full, coy mouth, almost always held like he knew a secret you didn’t. That was the sort of man that had always attracted her in her KGB days and she’d be the first to admit she’d had plenty of fun with some of the other recruits back in the day.

The word ‘rendezvous’ takes on a whole new meaning when you’re a spy. At night, while Steve slept beside her, she sometimes remembered those old days, reveling in her freedom, her dark missions, and those nights spent sneaking around behind the head’s backs. Meeting up with Dmitri or Vlad at two AM, pressing back against the low stone wall of the unit and letting them surround her, their cold fire, their aloof, icy sharpness.

Steve. Steve was the opposite of all of them, and in every single way.

He was warm. He was caring and gentle. He was comforting and supportive. He was sweet and romantic and forthcoming and…

And what the fuck was wrong with her?

There she was, standing there, salivating over her husband—husband!—but terrified he’d turn and see her.

Which he did.

Right then.

She must’ve made a noise, she suspected, without meaning to, and both he and Sam whipped around, mid-swipe, to find the door.

She ducked around the jamb, heart in her throat, cursing herself that her hands were clammy.

“Nat?” Steve called.

“Was that Natasha?” Sam asked.

“Hm. Dunno.”

A pause, while she struggled to slow her breathing.

“Aren’t you…gonna go out there and check?”

Shuffling around, the mat squelching as one of them moved.

She held her breath.

“Nah.”

What? Why not?” Sam asked, his tone incredulous.

Steve chuckled softly. “Because she’s Natasha.”

She could picture Sam blinking at Steve blankly.

“So?”

“So she needs her space.”

“But…you’re her husband.”

“Yeah. I think sometimes that means she needs more space.”

Sam snorted. “That makes no sense, dude.”

But Steve was calm. “Doesn’t have to, man. She’ll come around when she’s ready.”

Her heart squeezed in her chest at the soft confidence in his voice, his defense of her. Of course, Sam wouldn’t get it—there was nothing to get, it made no logical sense. None, at all.

Unwilling to hear any more, she rushed down the hall, side-stepping a junior agent that went wide-eyed at her rapid approach and lurched out of the way.

She hit a button blindly in the elevator and got out dozens of floors up, meeting Tony on the way into one of his workshops.

“Hey, Romanoff,” he said. “What’s up? You look a little…spooked.”

“Is Darcy around?” slipped out of her mouth before she could hog-tie it and she winced.

Tony noticed, and smiled—not unkindly. “Your anxiety is a secret that’s safe with me, Miss Rushman, no worries.” He winked. “But I gave the kid the day.”

Disappointment fluttered in her chest. “Big plans?”

He shrugged. “Don’t think so. Seemed distracted, though, edgy. And since I know Buck doesn’t have anyone on the training docket today, I told her to shove off, try and relax. They’re probably upstairs.”

She nodded, hovering awkwardly in the shop doorway. “Right.”

Was that Stark Code for ‘they’re probably going at it like a pair of rabbits’? He liked to exaggerate a little about not only Darcy and Bucky but also her and Steve, and though she knew he was just teasing, it irked her a little. Neither she nor Darcy were love-struck tweens.

Tony, again seeming to read her face, smirked. “They’re probably reading a book together on the couch.”

Annoyed, she cocked her head and looked at him.

He sat down at his computer and hit a few keys. “Sorta their thing.”

She continued to hover, unsure of herself. It was a disconcerting feeling and she still struggled with it. She’d been trained to always know what to do. She’d been trained to keep her head on straight, get the job done, no muss, no fuss, in and out before anyone even saw her shadow.

Safe to say things had changed drastically since those days.

She chewed on her lip, looking around the lab at the assorted pieces and parts lying around, bits and bobs, springs and jacks, dollies and that one drone he’d been working on seemingly since the beginning of time. She supposed programming was a fluid art, even for an engineering prodigy like Tony Stark.

“Seriously, Romanoff,” Tony broke in, making her jump. “You know how laid back those two are. I doubt they’d mind if you dropped by. I’m just doing some programming on the computer, it’s not gonna be real entertaining. I probably won’t even curse.” He gave her a lopsided grin and a wink. “What’s holding you up?”

“Did you…feel…weird? After you…married Pepper?” she finally forced out, relatively against her will.

With a raised eyebrow, paused. He gave her a long, considering look, then finally pulled off his glasses. “I’m not real versed in how these things go, Romanoff, but I’m pretty sure the Cold Feet are supposed to strike before the wedding, not a year later.”

She shrugged, that old anxiety welling up again.

“Definitely what happened to Short Stack.”

She blinked, finally moving into the room and settling into the chair behind Darcy’s desk. “Darcy got cold feet?”

Tony started typing away at the computer, smirking. “Oh, yeah.”

She cursed her tiny, uncertain voice. “Bad?”

He shrugged, then moved back to his mouse, clicking around over something she couldn’t see. “Eh. Enough that I had to talk her down.”

She cleared her throat, studying the black marble countertop of the desk, then reached out and straightened a pile of files she’s knocked slightly askew when she sat down. “Yeah?” There was a small framed photo in front of the monitor. Bucky, his back to the camera as he looked up at the front façade of the museum.

He started typing again, not looking at her. “Said she didn’t think she was the marrying type. Was worried she wouldn’t be enough.”

To her surprise, a snort escaped her throat. “For Bucky?”

Tony smiled. “That was my reaction.”

She smirked. “She does know she’s the only one he calls ‘Dollface’, right?”

“And that he looks at her with stars in his eyes?” Tony added. “Not sure. And I can’t blame her—even if you know the guy he can be a bit tricky to get a solid bead on.”

She nibbled on her lip some more. “But he’s so…so…” Not at all the man she’d come to blows with in Odessa. If the spy world she’d come from could see how sweet the Winter Soldier really was, it might flake away some of that terror surrounding his reputation.

“Careful with her?” Again, Tony filled it in, his gaze softening in that way that only someone who really knew him could spot and identify as affection.

She swallowed. “Yeah.”

Tony sighed. “You know, just ‘cause it’s Valentine’s Day doesn’t mean you need to make as big a deal out of it as, you know, the cheesy romantics out there,” he offered, finally acknowledging the elephant in the room.

She flinched, forced to stare it in the face. Dating? She was okay with that. Marriage? Turned out, she was surprisingly okay with that too. But throw Valentine’s Day in her face and she freaked the fuck out, apparently, and was suddenly terrified of a man—a man! Her! The Black Widow, afraid of an ordinary—for all intents and purposes—man.

It was vaguely infuriating.

“Yeah. I know.”

Eyeing her, he pushed off his desk and rolled back so he could stand. He only paused when he was standing in the doorway, where he pointed and gave her a look. “Out.”

She blinked, staring at him, taken aback. “What?”

He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Get outta here. Go upstairs. Talk to Darce. She’s the only other person in this building capable of breaking through your spider webbing. So go upstairs, knock on their door and confide in her, Natasha.”

She stood, raising an eyebrow at him. “Oh, and you’re suddenly the boss?” she challenged.

He narrowed his eyes. “I am—unless you want to talk to Steve first?”

She huffed in a decidedly impetuous manner and met him in the doorway. “Fine. I’m going.”

His hand landed on her back, right between her shoulder blades, and he gave her a gentle push out the door and into the hall.

The whole way up in the elevator, she tapped her foot nervously, glaring at the reflective paneling on the walls and squeezing her arms across her chest. Since when did Stark know her so well? Was she that transparent to everyone now? She used to be Natalia Romanova, the Black Widow, an assassin, a vamp, and she’d worked the angle so well…sometimes, maybe she had even convinced herself.

Convinced herself she was the enemy, that she was truly who she pretended to be, that she had escaped her confines as a formidable, undefeated femme fatale who didn’t need anyone, content in her icy isolation.

Almost. She’s almost convinced herself.

Really, looking back now, it was better that she hadn’t.

Here you are, Miss Romanoff. Please have a pleasant day,” JARVIS offered.

She smirked and eyed the ceiling, but scowled again when she realized what he’d called her.

Miss RomanoffMiss. Romanoff.

She went down the hall and found their door. 88E. She took a breath and knocked, willfully ignoring the tremor in her hand.

A soft giggle.

A masculine snort.

She flinched. Oh, God, she’d interrupted some naughty time, she had been right.

The sounds of shuffling around. “Come on in!” Darcy called.

Wincing a little, she tapped the wall panel—now turned from red to green at her invitation—and the door slid open—

To reveal Darcy, sprawled on the living room floor, laughing breathlessly.

Bucky—grinning, his eyes bright—was kneeling back on his haunches and shaking his head. “How do you always manage to fall out of Downward Dog? It’s not even a balance pose.”

Yoga.

They were doing yoga.

The very opposite of naughty.

Darcy sat up on her purple yoga mat and shook her head. “If you hadn’t made me laugh, I wouldn’t have lost my balance!”

He rolled his eyes and tugged the sleeves of his black t-shirt back into alignment. “I wasn’t trying to be funny!”

Darcy snorted. “You and your deep breathing.”

Natasha stepped into the room.

“It’s yoga!” Bucky shot back, smiling. He reached out to pinch her side.

Darcy darted back out of reach, laughing, her face flushed. “No! No flirting during yoga!”

Unable to hide her grin, Natasha leaned a hip on the kitchen bar and watched them.

“Next time, we’re trying Tree Pose or something—I wanna see how you fare,” he challenged, rolling up his blue mat before moving on to hers.

Darcy snorted. “Ugh, no—I guarantee I’ll fall out of that!”

He smirked. “All the more fun for me.”

She reached over and gave him a pointless shove that did absolutely nothing. “Stop it!” Finally she looked up. “What’s up, Nat? Your face is all pinched.”

She flinched.

Bucky studied her as well. “Yeah, you’re doing that thing that you do.”

She frowned, straightening. “What thing?”

He shrugged, unfolding to standing and crossing the room to prop both mats in the corner against the wall, his bare feet making him silent on the hardwood. “I dunno. You have a certain…thing that you do when you’re agitated.”

She scowled deeper.

“Yeah, that,” Bucky pointed out, pointing to her raised eyebrow.

She huffed again, sticking out a leather-clad hip and remembering she still hadn’t changed. “Am I that transparent to everyone?”

Bucky shrugged. “Is that always a bad thing?”

She snorted. “Said the guy no one can manage to crack.”

Darcy laughed, adjusting her yoga leggings at the calf. “Oh, please. It wasn’t that hard. He’s not that mysterious. Broody doesn’t always equal mysterious.”

Bucky cut back in. “Hey, I don’t brood that much, do I?”

Now it was Darcy’s turn to snort. “Babe, you’re the king.” She gave Natasha a secretive smile. “But it’s sexy.”

He sighed, but shrugged. “Eh. What can I say?” He went around the other side of the island and opened a cabinet. “Tea, Nat?”

She scowled at him more deeply still as he waited for her answer.

But The Winter Soldier stared right back, totally unimpressed. “Chamomile? You a Lemon Zinger kinda’ girl, or what?”

With another huff, she finally said, “Earl Grey.”

He tsked. “Earl Grey. Should’a guessed.”

She moved toward the couch and flopped dejectedly down. “I hate when you guys tease.”

Darcy flopped down next to her. “Well, lucky thing we mostly tease each other then. Right, babe?”

Bucky stuck a hand in the air as he filled the kettle, his back to them. “You got it.” He shut off the water and set the kettle on the stove.

Natasha was confused to find herself irked at their comfort with each other. ‘Babe’ this and ‘babe’ that. They were so fluid and easy with each other, like a well-oiled machine.

By comparison, she often felt prickly. Prickly to Darcy, and Steve. Prickly, even, to herself, like she was so uptight she’d suddenly burst out in little needles, like a hedgehog. Ironically, that would make it easier to tuck and roll away from every difficult conversation that made her feel prickly in the first place. It had been years—literally. So why did she sometimes have such trouble opening up to the people closest to her?!

“So,” Darcy said.

Natasha looked across at her. “What?”

Darcy pulled a face. “Oh, please.”

She blinked, confused. “What?”

Another wonky expression. “Seriously. What’s up?”

That old anxiety twisting her gut, Natasha continued to stall. She was so not ready for this, she should’ve just gone back to their place and—

“Spill.”

She bit her lip. “What do you mean?”

Something’s bugging you,” Bucky finally cut in, his voice forceful and flat, like he shouldn’t have had to say it in the first place. “Jesus, Romanoff. Look, you were due back today, you’re still in your gear, so it’s pretty obvious you weren’t upstairs yet. That’s pretty telling.”

Damn Winter Soldier.

There it was again: Romanoff.

She flinched.

Darcy reached across and plucked a bright red strand of hair from Natasha’s jacket. “You gonna make us pry it outta you by the roots, or what? I’ll be gentle, but I can’t say the same for him.” She indicated her assassin husband with a head tilt. “Appropriately enough, he’s a pretty brutal psychiatrist to lie down on the couch with. Just sayin’.”

Bucky turned and gave them both a teasing, wolfish grin, displaying his white teeth.

“So, c’mon,” Darcy invited. “Seriously, aren’t we your friends? If we’re not, then I dunno who we’ve been doing couple-y things with, do you?”

Bucky shook his head, playing along as he leaned on the island bar, waiting on the water.

Darcy chuckled, shaking her head. “Though it is weird to even say we have friends to be couple-y with, isn’t it? Is that just me?”

Bucky laughed.

Natasha finally threw herself, head first, off the precipice, holding her breath. “No.”

Darcy narrowed her eyes. “No?”

“No,” she repeated, folding her arms around her middle, the leather sheathing her giving a soft creak in the room.

The noise drew the attention of one other. A nose suddenly shot up past the arm of the recliner facing the window—the one where Darcy usually liked to read. It was followed by a black snout, a pair of chocolaty eyes, and two floppy brown ears.

Max stared at her, making it clear he’d been too deeply asleep to have noticed her presence until just then.

For a puppy, he was surprisingly relaxed. Usually he was lazing around or tucked into someone’s lap on the couch. Natasha had yet to really see him act like a lunatic puppy.

He pulled himself up like it was a laborious task, hopped down off the chair, gave a long, rubbery stretch, then trotted over to Bucky, his tags jangling merrily. Looking up so high at his master that he seemed to be craning his neck, he wagged his tail, once, twice, and sat expectantly.

With a smile that was so calm it belied his previous nature, Bucky leaned down and scratched him behind the ears.

Max stood and leaned against his legs for a moment, before wandering their way. He stopped in front of Natasha and looked at her for a moment, as if trying to decide if this human was of the acceptable variety. Then he hopped up between her and Darcy, laid down, and set his head on Darcy’s thigh, curling up to mirror her.

Darcy smiled and sighed, setting her arm around him and her hand to his head, where she stroked at his ears. His tail thumped against the couch.

“I hate Valentine’s Day.”

Darcy blinked at her across the couch cushion, once, twice, then drew her brows together. “That’s what this is about?”

Natasha shrugged. “I hate it. Are you guys doing anything?”

Bucky snorted. “You’re looking at it.”

The kettle started to issue a thin stream of steam, its bright yellow surface shining with heat.

“So…you’re not—”

She snorted this time. “He’s making me dinner. I’m making him a chocolate cake. He got me a rose yesterday. We did some yoga. Olympic Curling is on NBC later. We’ll probably read, then have sex, if you really want the truth. Not much different from any other day.” She shrugged. “We’re pretty much the definition of laid-back. Were you expecting to have to live up to some crazy plans or something?”

Feeling immensely foolish, Natasha shrugged, looking down at the dog for a moment before reaching down and stroking an experimental finger down his side. He was as feathery soft as he looked. She could see the white of his eye as he gave her a look over his shoulder, but he didn’t seem to mind. He huffed a sigh and went back to sleep in Darcy’s lap.

“I know what this is about,” Bucky suddenly spoke up, his voice surprisingly gentle. Natasha was continually blown away by the juxtaposition of Bucky Barnes. War Hero. Soulless Assassin. Soldier. Killer. Sharp Tactical Fighter. Gentle Lover. Battle-Hardened Ghost.

Intuitive Friend.

She found the courage to look up into his handsome face. “What?”

Very obviously giving her a reprieve from making eye contact, he turned to the stove, flipped a switch and retrieved the kettle. “We’re not that different, you and I. We share enough life experiences so that I have a window into your head.”

She narrowed her eyes at his back. “Oh, do you, Barnes?”

“You’re afraid of Stevie.”

The words fell flat between them all, filling in the crevices left by everything she hadn’t said. They seemed to ring for a moment, matching the resonance of her anxiety and making her jaw ache. It wasn’t an accusation; more a statement of truth. He didn’t speak harshly; in fact, his voice softened even further. But it was still hard to hear.

He might as well have crossed the room and punched her in the gut with his left arm for all the air it sucked out of her.

She stared at him, totally immobilized with fear at being so accurately read.

But Darcy didn’t seem fazed. She just continued to scratch Max, a soft, knowing smirk on her face. “I tried to warn you. He’s creepy intuitive. Sometimes he knows I have a headache before I do, I swear to God.”

 Natasha swallowed thickly.

“You went so long feeling invincible that you can’t stand how vulnerable Steve makes you,” he went on, his voice low, almost somber. “You can’t admit, even to yourself, how much you resist what he makes you feel.”

She flinched, actually physically snapping back from him.

But he focused on pouring water over the three mugs on the counter, the teabags sent floating as steam surrounded the assassin, making his outline a soft phantom.

“Fuck you,” she whispered, barely blinking.

But he wasn’t offended. He gave a soft laugh as he replaced the kettle on the stovetop.

Darcy was silent, but stared at her with color high in her cheeks, her eyes uncharacteristically unreadable.

Bucky smiled and came around the bar and into the living room. “That’s okay. Didn’t think it would be a popular statement.”

Darcy, smirking at him, said, “Then why did you say it?”

He set Natasha’s mug down. “Because. She knows I’m right—and unfortunately, sometimes the truth hurts.” He cut his gaze over to Darcy. “So, more often than not, we lie.” Back to Natasha. “But you don’t really want me to glaze over something to spare your feelings, now do you, Natalia?”

His gaze was all business, no-nonsense, piercing in the sharpest way, the blue of his irises unfathomably clear. There was a bit of a challenge there, and Natasha saw a bit of the Tough Love Steve had so often described of his old friend.

With another thick swallow, she finally relinquished eye contact and conceded the silent battle, her Russian taking over as a slew of curses slipped free of her mouth.

But again, Bucky just smiled, skirting around her with a hand to her shoulder as he moved to retrieve his own mug.

By the time he sat down opposite them in the other armchair, she was visibly shaking.

Darcy sighed. “Great. You broke our friend, Jamie.”

He was still watching her with those eyes of his. Natasha wasn’t sure if she was looking at Bucky Barnes now, or the Winter Soldier, and it sent a chill up her spine. He was always some sort of witch’s brew of the two and it was nearly impossible to get a bead on him—Tony was right. How on earth had Darcy unraveled the riddle of him?!

“She’s fine. Nothing much is capable of hurting Natalia Romanova.” His tongue wrapped gracefully around the Russian flavor of the name and she shivered again.

She tugged up on her jacket and the black neoprene top beneath, revealing the scar his bullet in Odessa had left her with, the maimed skin above her hip. “Oh, really? Even a Soviet slug, with no rifling?” She gave him a wry glare.

But he didn’t take the bait, just smirked at her, bulletproof. “I don’t claim ownership of that—though, clearly, it was a good shot.” He winked.

Natasha couldn’t help it—she snorted a laugh, then started giggling, unable to stop it as she picked up her mug. “You’re such an ass.”

He sipped from his mug and set it on the coffee table. “You’re just pissy ‘cause you know I caught you out.”

She huffed.

But Bucky returned to seriousness, his eyes falling on Darcy and softening. “You want the truth?”

Natasha nodded.

“For a while there, I was pretty sure I’d have rather been back in the trenches than give myself over to her. It was less scary in the trenches. It was utterly horrifying to feel so much after feeling nothing.”

It was quiet.

Finally, Darcy sighed. “I’m so not scary.”

A tiny, affectionate smile. “You terrified me.”

She snorted. “The Winter Soldier? You sure?”

He nodded, slowly, and squared back up with Natasha. “Stevie’s patient. He’ll wait for you to figure it out.”

Annoyed, she narrowed her eyes. “Figure what out?” she challenged.

But all she got was another smirk. “Yourself.”

With a heavy sigh, she stood, leaving her drink behind, steaming on the table. “Fine. If you guys are just gonna talk in riddles, I’ll leave you to it.”

Darcy followed her to the door. “You’re not…really angry, though. Right?”

Natasha turned and let herself be hugged by her short friend, and sighed again. “No.” She lowered her voice, though she wasn’t sure why she bothered—Bucky would hear it all clear as a bell. “Tell your husband he’s in the wrong line of business.”

Darcy snorted. “He already knows that.”

She turned back for the door and pulled it open. “Then give him a smack for me.” And she pulled it shut behind her.

She stood there, trembling in the hall for a full five minutes, trying to get her breath back to normal, her heart to slow enough for her to see to her courage.

Privacy settings must’ve been off in their apartment—or her enhanced hearing was just a little too good for it—and she could hear their conversation if she focused hard enough through their door.

“The trenches? Really?”

“Really.”

“I seem to remember you telling me you hated the trenches and that the only thing that kept you from freezing to death was a wool sweater that Sarah knitted for you before you left.” Darcy’s tone was no-nonsense.

Natasha flinched. Sarah. Steve’s mother. From what Steve had said about her, she might as well have raised them both.

“Still true,” Bucky said.

“But you’d have rather gone back there than face little old me?”

“Again. True.”

A pause. “Why?!”

Bucky sighed. “Darce. You’re forgetting something: The Winter Soldier wasn’t supposed to feel anything at all, let alone love.”

“But by the time we met, you weren’t the Winter Soldier!” Darcy argued fervently.

Wasn’t I?”

Darcy huffed. “Of course you weren’t. If you were, you would’ve tried to take my head off as soon as look at me.”

“So that was why you felt like testing fate by coming into my holding room to have a chat?”

A little, frustrated growl.

Natasha smirked.

“Well—yeah!”

Bucky chuckled. “And you had no feelings of trepidation about how…big…this thing is?”

“What thing?”

Another little laugh. “Us, babe.”

“Oh, right. Well. Sure, of course I did. It was just…”

Another small pause. “What?” God, his voice was so soft, Natasha sometimes felt she could melt into its warmth. The irony of it all was just so crystal clear.

“I guess it’s just that you had the Cold Feet at the beginning and I had ‘em where you’re supposed to have ‘em.”

He snorted. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

Max gave a little grunting bark.

Darcy laughed. “Love you,” she murmured.

“Love you.”

“Even though I can’t master Down Dog?”

He laughed again. “Eh, we’ll getcha there yet.”

Feeling foolish and exposed, Natasha stalked off, scowling at how adorable they were, and stalked herself into the elevator, through the lobby, and right out of the building, still in her gear, her red hair trailing behind her in the winter breeze like a vibrant cape.

The Winter Soldier. Super soldier. Assassin. Psychologist. Loving husband?

She snarled a bit under her breath and took off up the block toward the city center, sidestepping people on the sidewalk at a rapid clip.

She wasn’t sure where she was going, just that she was angry. Angry at the world, angry at Russia, angry at the Red Room, angry at Darcy and Bucky for being so sweet, angry at Max for being adorable, angry at Steve for being the perfect, patient, faultless husband he was.

Angry at herself.

Why couldn’t she manage to get her head screwed on straight?!

She loved Steve. She did. There was no question of that; there hadn’t been any question since that night in Abu Dhabi. Somewhere along the line—she still wasn’t sure when precisely—she’d fallen head over heels for Steve Rogers, and it had thrown her that she was capable of loving in the first place. She’d been through too much in her past, too much nastiness and it had made her a monster, an icy—no frigid—woman incapable of tenderness.

Or so she’d thought.

But Bucky—damn him—was right.

They were similar, in a way. A downright savage past, things that had made them dark and deep, light-less crevasses that the average person had no desire to dive into.

Sometimes she wondered just how dark her soul was—would a flashlight even work in there?

The both of them knew what it meant to have red in their ledgers.

And he’d read hers like a fucking book.

So he’d felt the same way about Darcy, had had a hard time putting it on the line for her. And who could blame him, really? He’d been a prisoner for so long, he’d been bound to feel boxed in.

He’d taken orders mindlessly for so long, he’d been bound to feel almost agoraphobic at having so many free choices.

He’d been someone else for so long, he’d been bound to feel at a loss as to exactly who he presented to the world—to Darcy—as Bucky Barnes.

She could see how that could create some anxiety.

Not to mention his super soldier strength. Of course he’d be terrified of hurting her, of course he’d worry that she would be too fragile.

She weaved blindly in and out of the crowds on the streets, walking mindlessly, quickly, her powerful, trained legs eating up the blocks and she ignored the inappropriately sunny sky, lighting the snow at the curbs a blinding white.

Before she knew it, she was in front of the courthouse.

Scowling at the green patina of the copper, she pushed through the doors and went in, not sure what she was doing.

There was no one in line, which wasn’t particularly surprising for mid-day on a Wednesday.

She went up to the counter and asked for the appropriate paperwork, still not having a clue just what the fuck she was doing. It was like she was on autopilot.

“Changing your last name, honey?” the woman behind the counter asked.

Unspeakably uncomfortable, Natasha nodded. “Um. Yeah.”

The woman shuffled a slip of paper out of her files on the counter and nodded as she stamped it. “Good for you, honey. And congratulations on the new man!”

She blinked. Was she for real? “Thanks.”

She frowned. “You don’t seem real excited. That’s sure a surprise, with that gorgeous rock on your finger.”

Natasha shrugged. What the hell. Might as well. She’d already bared her soul to numerous people, what was one more?

She swallowed. “Not so good with…relationships.”

The woman waved a hand. “Oh, that’s nothing! You find the right relationship, you don’t need to be good at it! You just need to work at it. And you look like you know how to do some work, girl!”

Despite herself, Natasha found herself smiling. “I guess you could say that.”

“He a good man? Treat you right?”

She nodded, her heart fluttering in her chest. “Yeah,” she murmured. “He’s a real prince.”

The woman leaned forward, closer to the window. “So then why’ve you got that tentative look in your eye?”

She flinched. God. She really was losing her touch. “I…my…my past, it’s not…” It was a God damn shadow looming over her shoulder. Lord knew how Bucky managed to walk around with his all day… She took a steadying breath. “The truth is…I—”

“Oh, honey.” Again, she waved a hand, her voice softening. “The truth is a matter of circumstance. It’s not all things to all people all the time.”

The world shrank down to a fine point of light, and all the sound in Natasha’s head—the demons of her past, the traffic as it jockeyed past on the street, the shuffling of the clerk in the window next door—disappeared as they looked at each other. Her chest tightened and she stared, unblinking, as her own words were brought straight home, right back to her.

That afternoon, with Steve, in that borrowed pick-up truck.

Well, then who do you want me to be? she’d asked him.

How about a friend?

With a rapid rushing in her ears, the spell broke as the woman—Roberta, said her name tag—gave a little laugh. “If it all meant that much all the time, we’d all hate each other. That’s the beauty of it, sweetie—if he’s a good man, he won’t give a damn. Now, you get outta here. Roberta wants you to take that paperwork, go fill it out, and you mail that in and meet that destiny head-on, you got me?”

God, she was stupid.

So fucking stupid.

Bucky was right. Damn it, how was Bucky always fucking right?

It all made sense now.

So she nodded, thanked Roberta—“You have a good day, now, honey!”—and left, brushing past a woman with her toddler on the way out the door.

She didn’t want to wait. She hailed a cab back to the tower and breathlessly told the driver where she was headed. He didn’t even bat an eye.

She threw some cash at him and blew out of the car, across the wide, Manhattan sidewalk, and into the building, throwing her fist into the elevator call button before she stopped to breathe.

JARVIS didn’t even bother asking her where she needed to go. He just dumped her out on their floor and she pounded down the hall to 89G.

She shouldered the door open—

And skidded to a halt as she found Steve on the couch with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone open in one hand.

She blinked. “You’re reading Harry Potter?” she asked as she shut the door blindly behind her.

He shrugged, smirking. “Darcy’s been telling me I need to for months—literally since I got here. So when Buck mentioned it, too, I figured I might as well.” He smirked, looking her up and down. “You look like the breeze blew you straight in. What’s wrong?”

She took a breath, not that it did any good. “Harry Pott—No.” She stopped herself. “No, that’s…that’s not important. Look, I just realized I’m a total idiot, okay?”

Steve blinked, the book dropping a half inch in his hand. “Oookay…?”

She pressed her hands to her face, trying to gather her thoughts. “I…I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Steve frowned. “Nothing’s wrong with you, Nat. What are you talking about?”

She huffed in frustration, lowering her hands. She’d had it all set in her head in the cab coming back from the courthouse, and now here she was, chickening out. “Look, Rogers, I’m not blind to the fact that I’m…a difficult woman to love. I’m not easy-going, like Darcy.”

He cocked his head, raising a brow at her. “Darcy’s…not as laid back as you might think. And she’s pretty much a sister to me, Tash, not—”

She waved a hand, cutting him off. “No, no, I know. That’s not what I meant. Her and Bucky were…fucking made for each other. I’m trying to say that I…I know how prickly and frustrating I can me. I’m not totally blind.”

He cocked his head the other way. “Where is this coming from?” He lowered his book to the couch and leaned over the back of it to study her.

She sighed again, trying to gather her scattered thoughts. “It’s just…it’s Valentine’s Day.”

And? I know you hate stuff like that. I wasn’t really planning anything.”

“Well, good. ‘Cause I’ve been avoiding you.”

He blinked again, so confused, the poor man. “Did I do something? I don’t think I did anything. I’m a little new to modern relationsh—”

She waved a hand again. “No, Steve. Just shut up for a second.”

With another confused look, he snapped his mouth shut.

She pulled her hand through her hair and took another deep, deep breath, thinking of Darcy and how she’d just go for it, crossing the room and laying one on Bucky and having done with it. “Listen, I…I’m not Natasha Romanoff, Steve. Okay? Natasha Romanoff doesn’t exist.”

This got him standing, and he came around the couch to lean on the back, sliding his big hands into the pockets of his jeans.

She tried to ignore the taut pull of his t-shirt over his muscled chest.

“Tasha.” He was serious now, and giving her that stern, yet soft look, the same look he’d given her that afternoon in Sam’s bathroom, when the whole world had been trying to kill them. Or, at least, it had felt like that at the time. “What are you talking about?”

She swallowed, her heart finally slowing as her thoughts came together. But she couldn’t quite manage to look him in the eyes. What was it with him and Bucky? Did having a birth date in the first two decades of the twentieth century give you an impenetrable gaze or something? It was easy to tell the two of them had been close for so long—they both had the same no-nonsense tenderness that made modern sensibilities squirm.

Darcy had mentioned it too, that she had had a hard time coming to grips with being so consistently taken care of.

“You know about my past, Steve,” she murmured. “Where I came from.”

He shook his head, his voice softening. “I don’t care about tha—”

“I know,” she cut him off. “And I…I don’t always know how to deal with it, but I know. I mean…you see all the blood on my hands, you met the woman they made me into. It’s just that…it’s occurring to me, now, that…that woman…she never existed. She was never real.”

He gave her a very concerned look, but kept him mouth shut.

She sighed. “Natasha Romanoff wasn’t real. The Black Widow was a…a character that they made up to suit their needs. Like the Winter Soldier. You know the Winter Soldier wasn’t…real, right? He was a…a figment of their imagination that they foisted on your friend to make him what they wanted? Right?”

With a considering shrug, he nodded. “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”

“They didn’t really make him something he wasn’t, they…they drilled down to the bedrock of his anger and then they…they used it to overpower everything else that made him Bucky Barnes, Steve. They…put the rest of him on mute. His loyalty. His morals. His judgment, his compassion, everything that made him human was smothered by a few select emotions that they manipulated. They inserted what they wanted and used it to repress the things they didn’t. Am I making sense?”

He nodded. “But, Tash, that wasn’t what they did to—”

She shook her head. “No. No, they didn’t. What they did to me wasn’t something nearly as evil, but just as effective. They manipulated us with fear. But also comfort. All of the girls in the program, we were just street rats, Steve. Without them, no matter how awful they were, we were alone. And hungry. And cold. We needed them. Even a prison is warm. But it’s still a prison. They used that fear to manipulate us. We all wanted that comfort and approval and they knew that.”

He winced.

“So I killed for them. Over and over. But I had a choice. A choice that he didn’t have and that haunts me. But the worst part is that…the woman they made me into never existed.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “Tasha—”

“Let me finish,” she cut him off again, holding up a hand. “I figured it out. See, Bucky and I, we’re a little similar. Looking back, he’s not sure that Bucky Barnes ever existed, not the way he remembers him. And it’s occurring to me that Natasha Romanoff, she was never more than what they made her.” She looked down at her hands, where she’d started to knead them together. “She was an empty shell and they filled her up. She existed only in the context they gave her.” Finally, with a breath, she looked up at him. “Until you created Natasha Rogers.”

He narrowed his eyes, and gave her a frown of utter bewilderment. “But Tash…”

She pulled the paperwork from the back pocket of her black jeans and handed it to him. In the cab on the way home, she’d pulled a pen out of her jacket pocket and filled in the form in her neat, rushed scrawl, printing her false information on the black lines, the identity that had never really belonged to her, the identity that SHIELD had borrowed from her past and officially assigned to her when she’d become the figment of a real person.

“I’m not sure if I’m making any sense,” she murmured. “But…you love me.”

Looking up from the paperwork, he nodded, his eyes softening.

“That…validates me. That makes me real. If you love me, there must be someone to love, and while she can’t be the shadow that you met, she can be someone new. Someone only she can control. Someone whole and real and driven with a purpose, someone supportive and honest.” She looked down at her hands again, her dark fingernails. “Someone honest with herself.”

She could feel him staring at her, the paperwork limp in his hands.

“The old Natasha, she didn’t…understand what she felt because she wasn’t really real. And she didn’t know how to love and she didn’t know how to accept love, because she didn’t think she deserved it. She had trouble relating to you. Because you…you’re the realest person I’ve ever met. And I’m not Natasha Romanoff anymore, because I love you. And if I love you, then I must be real, so I can’t be Natasha Romanoff anymore. So I’ll be Natasha Rogers instead.”

He blinked at her, his face slack in surprise and awe for a long few moments, the room silent around them.

She swallowed, finally finding the courage to look up into his warm, blue eyes. “Am I making any sense?”

With a relieved smile of affection, he shook his head. “No, not at all.”

She nodded. “Okay, then.” She took the paperwork from him, folded it, went into the kitchen and pulled a drawer open. She selected an envelope, slid the paperwork inside, then peeled a stamp off of the sheet within and sealed it all up neatly, her hands shaking as she did so.

“Tasha…” he murmured, slowly crossing to her.

She flattened the envelope on the counter.

“Tash…” he whispered again, approaching her.

But he didn’t speak. He took hold of her and turned her face up to kiss her, his mouth warm and flush against hers. It was a delicate moment, devoid of any rush or need, his lips pressing sweetly to hers in a quiet vow.

Her heart fluttered like sparrow’s wings in her chest, suffusing her body with warmth, and she let escape a soft sound from her throat as his arms slid around her, his hands splaying over her back and stepping her in, close.

All her focus dissolved as she wrapped her hands around his shoulders and got up on her toes to press more tightly against him, the moment bending, and growing louder between them, gaining momentum. Neither of them had forgotten they’d been apart for an extended period.

His arms tightened further, those big hands trailing down her back and dipping into the small shape over her waist.

Her nails dug into his shoulders.

The moment snapped. He slanted his mouth across hers, deepening the kiss and sliding his tongue against her own, using one hand to palm her backside and grind her against him, turning them to press her back against the sharp edge of the kitchen island.

Another sound escaped her throat as the friction pressed her against his front, the serum making him hard against her. Her fingers wrapped around the button on his Riders and tugged, pulling it apart.

He moved off, down along her throat, and the movement of his dusky jaw against her neck had her whimpering and tugging his zipper down and reaching in to touch him.

Just like that, she was sitting on the counter and her jeans were peeled off. Steve kissed a hot, damp trail up her leg as he pulled off her boots and dumped it all to the floor, revealing her deep red pedicure. She’d discovered early on how much he liked the girly things some women found so enjoyable. Long nails, deep red toes, heels, feminine things she’d scoffed so much at before she’d married an old-fashioned guy. She had the errant thought of Darcy and distractedly tried to think of the equivalent markings on her friend before her husband moved back up her body.

She smirked as he looked at her, his cheeks a little flushed, his pupils wide and telling.

But the pause didn’t last. “God, I missed you,” he murmured.

She could only give a satisfied moan as he hitched her legs around his hips and slid up and into her, bracing himself on the counter behind her. She gave a soft cry at the tight angle, and the surge of his body against her, into her.

She let her head fall back as he kissed along her throat, murmuring to her, his arm coming around her to help her slide in tight. His left hand followed the shape of her thigh and hitched around the back of her knee, drawing her in.

Already halfway there, she dug her heels into his back and braced herself against his chest. “Steve,” she murmured, her hair tangling in the collar of her shirt as she squeezed, meeting one stroke for the next. “Steve.” Everything tightened, threatening to burst behind her eyes.

“Mm,” he sighed, jerking , hitching her deeper onto the counter, his arm behind her back the only thing keeping her from tipping backwards. His hips drove into her once, twice, even and measured.

She cried out as his finish triggered hers, fingers tugging on his t-shirt. She loved those moments they didn’t force to last, the desperate ones where he let go utterly.

It took a moment to fade, the muffled pulse of blood in her ears accompanied by his ragged breathing in the otherwise silent apartment.

She swallowed past her dry throat as he pulled back to kiss her, and the angle was crooked with him half on top of her, but as he moved away, she whispered to him. “I missed you, too.”

 The moment finally sighed and quieted.

He gently unwound from her, tucking and zipping while she watched, her eyes softening. “You didn’t think I knew what I was doing when I asked you to marry me, Tasha?” he murmured as he buttoned up and straightened.

She shrugged. “Sometimes I wonder,” she murmured back, giving him a wry look.

He laughed.

“Were you up for a challenge, Rogers?” she asked coyly, stretching her legs. Her ankle popped.

With a challenge there in his eyes, he palmed her knees and stepped back between her legs, getting down into her face. “You’re gonna ask me that right now?” he growled playfully, his voice deep and thick.

She faced him right back, staring directly into his eyes.

He leaned down and set her straight with a bone-shaking kiss that put an exclamation point at the end of their blinding collision. It stole her breath. But before the serum could rise to the fore again, he pulled back, his expression softening in a way that put it directly at odds with the signals he was giving off.

For the first time, Natasha was a little confused by him, unable to read him, a little bit bowled over by him—and so turned on by it all she wrapped her legs around his waist again and tugged him against her.

He didn’t resist. “You think I care about your past, Tasha? Or what the hell your last name is?”

Sitting on their kitchen counter in just her top and panties, she was vulnerable, flayed before him, and—again—found herself at a disadvantage. She swallowed hard and shrugged.

“The only thing I care about is that you come home to me at the end of the day.”

Her heart skipped. “That’s enough for you?”

He pressed against her, leaning into her enough to tip her back again as he pressed his forehead against her sternum. More heat pooled in her core. “You said you love me?”

She took a shuddering breath. “I do. But Darcy and Bucky…”

He pulled back. “What about them?”

She sighed. “They’re so…tight.”

He cocked his head at her. “They’ve been through a little more than we have, Nat.” A small smile. “It’s a testament to their strength that they’re still together.”

She nodded, looking down at her hands, limp in her lap.

He snorted. “I mean…there’ve been serums, and kidnappings, and bloodletting, and…and death, Natasha. That’s a lot. Of course they’re tight. Things like that, they forge a bond so deep you can’t really see it from the outside, it’s so large.”

She took a deep breath, reaching up to smooth a crease in his shirt. “I guess it just looks like they don’t need to work at it at all. And I feel like I do.”

He leaned against her knee. “But look what they had to go through to get there, Nat. Heart-rending stuff that most people can’t comprehend. They’re connected now, more than the average couple. I think they’ve earned it, don’t you?”

She pressed her hand to his sternum. “I don’t think I’d survive having to look at you like that. Maybe that’s why it’s been bothering me so much,” she confessed.

His expression softened again. “Like what?”

She pressed her palm into that dip of bone protecting his heart, pressing and pressing and not moving him. “Hooked up to wires and tubes and oxygen on Bruce’s lab table,” she breathed, the image of the Winter Soldier in her mind’s eye like it’d been burned there, like a flash of light, tattooed on her eyelids.

She’d sat there that entire afternoon, just staring at Bucky’s unconscious form, plagued by the fear that if the Winter Soldier could be so easily brought down, what did it say about Steve? And the expression Darcy had worn when she’d found her had whittled all the way down to her core. “Darcy…”

Steve stroked a hand up her thigh, his calloused fingers rough on her skin. “What?”

“Darcy was broken. If…If I’m not the Black Widow, then I’m just Natasha. And Natasha wouldn’t survive that, Steve.”

To her surprise, he smiled. “But you’re not Natasha Romanoff anymore, remember? You’re Natasha Rogers. And she’s pretty tough. She was there for her friend when she needed someone. And she loves Captain America.”

Something in her eased, and she smiled.

He bumped her nose with his and finally stepped away with a kiss to her cheek. “There’s no timetable, babe,” he said over his shoulder as he headed for the door. “You do whatever you want to do when you want to do it, and not before.”

Warmth bloomed in her again. Babe. So unlike him. But she’d take it.

He was right. She was over-thinking it all.

That was the difference between her and Darcy.

Darcy didn’t over-think it—she just did what she wanted, loved who she loved and went about her day. And she did—she loved Bucky recklessly. With everything she had. Stars in their eyes, indeed. Natasha would have to make it a point to learn by her friend’s unintended example.

It occurred to her, then, that maybe loving like that, with all of your soul, didn’t make you reckless. It just made you human. Perhaps it had taken Darcy her own struggles to come to that conclusion. That to love that hard wasn’t to let go; it was to allow yourself to be embraced by the net when it caught you, stopping your freefall.

She loved Steve.

That was all she had to do: love Steve.

“There’s no formula. We just flounder on ahead together—that’s it. That’s the plan.” He opened the door to a delivery boy, staring around the metallic hallway of the 89th floor of Avengers Tower in awe.

How Steve had timed it, she’d never know. Then again, his hearing was better than hers. He smiled at the kid and handed him a fifty, taking the three pizzas from him before he could even speak, and not even bothering to mention the half-naked woman sitting on the counter. How the kid had gotten past Happy down in the lobby, she had a better idea of. Happy was of the rather distractible variety. So far, it hadn’t resulted in too much mess. Nine times out of ten, they were hardly recognized in civilian clothes, and this appeared to be one of those nine.

Natasha had the good grace to find a blush somewhere in her.

The kid first stared hungrily at her, then switched his gaze back to the hall as Steve thanked him. “No problem…coolest place I’ve ever been…” He was clearly in a daze.

Steve shut the door.

Natasha smirked at the whole scene. “Pizza?”

He shrugged. “I told you. Didn’t have a plan. How are Darce and Buck?” he asked wryly, giving her a knowing look.

She winced, but smiled. She had, after all, admitted to avoiding him. “Failing at yoga, having dinner and then some sex. Apparently. Maybe not in that order.”

To his ever-modernizing credit, he just chuckled. “And?”

She gave him a coy grin. “And if I help you eat those, you think our plan could be something similar?”

He set the pies down on the counter opposite her little ledge and crossed to kiss her. “Best sentence I’ve heard all day.”