Natasha sighs as the summer breeze hits her as she exits the station on 50th street and dreadfully begins making her way through Hell’s Kitchen. It's a little past nine in the evening, two hours later than the time she’d promised her boyfriend she would be at his place, and mentally, she's already concocting yet another apology for her tardiness. But what else is new, she thinks as she makes a left onto the street of his apartment building and quickly steps to the side to dodge a delivery man on a bike. To be fair, this, a trip to her boyfriend’s, wasn’t always something she dreaded – far from it. Once upon a time, she had been deeply smitten with Matt Murdock and his quick as a whip wit and seemingly heightened perceptiveness. Matt is a lawyer who is charming and exudes the type of intelligence that all her past flames had sorely lacked. When they’d first met, he felt exactly like the breath of fresh air she’d needed, but truly, if she was being honest, the best part about Matt was that he wasn’t clingy or possessive and didn’t demand more of her time than she had to give. But in the past few months, she’s found that their relationship has taken a backseat to her career. And it’s not even that her hours at work have been more harrowing than usual. As the editor of the international section of Stark Daily, she’s come a long way in trusting her team enough to delegate. And while she can’t put a finger on what it is entirely, she knows something between her and Matt has shifted so much so that spending two extra hours at work has become more appealing to her than spending it with her boyfriend.
Putting aside the thoughts that have been occupying a good portion of her mental real estate for longer than she cares to admit, Natasha stops at the door of his building and opens her purse to retrieve the keys. Letting herself in, she makes her way up to his floor and as her hand reaches for the knob on his apartment door, she stops it midair when she hears music coming from inside. She listens carefully, and though she was dreading having to apologize to him for being late yet again, the corners of her mouth turn up as she recognizes the melody to the song he’d played the first time he’d invited her for dinner at his place. And for the first time in a while, she feels a wave of guilt flow over her for putting her work over their relationship. Today, she decides, she actually means her upcoming apology.
“Matt?” she calls out as she opens the door. The foyer lights are off, but she can see the illumination at the end of the hall from the kitchen lights coming from the left. Her eyebrows furrow in confusion. He’s hardly one to wait in the kitchen. “Matt, you here?” she says a little more loudly, but not over the music as she makes her way further into his apartment. “I’m really sorry,” she begins to say, but her apology quickly dies at the sight in front of her.
“Natasha!” Matt gasps in surprise, halfway through a thrust into a slender blonde bent over the kitchen island. He looks at her in horror, stepping away from the woman who also looks her way, and Natasha recognizes her as the receptionist from his practice. “God, I…”
“On second thought,” she says, raising a finger at him. “I’m not sorry after all.”
“Can’t get enough of me in the office, you have to come to my home too?” Tony asks as he opens the door to his brownstone to find Natasha at his front steps, his dark hair slightly less unkept than when he’s out in public. She rolls her eyes and pushes past him. “Are you rude to every person that employs you or is that just reserved for me?”
“You don’t employ me,” Natasha counters. “Your wife does.”
Tony shrugs as he moves to close the door behind him. “You say potato… Look, whatever.” He turns to face her and holds his hands up. “All I’m saying is if people at the Daily found out that you were here at this hour, they might get… ideas.”
Natasha scoffs at the eyebrow wiggle he sends her way. “I’d rather have someone shock the living shit out of me and then stab me to death with a butter knife than that happen, Stark.”
“You’re morbid, Red,” he says in that tone of voice Natasha has come to recognize over the years as him trying to brush her words off while still harboring some minute, albeit genuine fear that she might push through with it. He cocks his head to the side as he appraises her now icy bob. “Or former Red.”
“Are we done here?” she asks, losing her patience. “I’d really like to talk to your wife.”
“In the nursery,” he answers, pointing to the top of the staircase, but she’s already making her way up. “Love you too!”
As she reaches the top of the stairs, Natasha finds the door to the nursery slightly ajar, and gently pushes it open with her index finger. Inside, she finds Pepper sitting on the lounge chair in the corner, her strawberry blonde hair tied up in a bun as she feeds her daughter, Maria, in her arms from a bottle. The slight creak from the door opening causes her friend to look up, the light from the hall making the nursery lit only by a few lamps a little brighter, and a worried expression paints her face as she takes in Natasha’s appearance. “What happened?”
While Natasha considers herself a master at hiding her feelings from just about anyone, she knows Pepper is one of the handful of people who can see right through her masks. That’s what made them great friends ever since they became roommates their freshman year of college, so instead of lying in futility, she sighs. “I just wanted to hold my goddaughter for a bit.” Pepper gives her a small smile, standing from her chair as she waves her further into the room. At that, she shrugs her purse off her shoulder, leaving it in a heap by the side of the room as Pepper hands her the baby and the bottle. “Hi, baby girl,” she coos as she puts the bottle back to Maria’s lips. Pepper motions for her to take the seat she had vacated, and she does just that, watching intently as little Maria makes short work of what’s left in her bottle. “The last time I saw her was only two weeks ago. How is she so much bigger already?”
“She outgrows a new onesie every hour,” Pepper says with a slight chuckle. “At least the ones she doesn’t spit up on, of course. I’m beginning to think she’s doing it on purpose.”
“Maybe she doesn’t like the ones she spits up on,” Natasha defends, smiling down at Maria in her arms, moving the empty bottle out of the way to position the little girl against her shoulder to burp her. “Only the best for my best girl.”
“Or maybe she’s just being obnoxiously picky like her godmother,” Pepper teases as Natasha sticks her tongue out at her.
“We’re meticulous,” Natasha declares, “there’s a difference. And that’s not a bad thing, you should know.”
“I do,” Pepper agrees. She lets Natasha have a moment with Maria, watching carefully as one of her very best friends becomes entranced by the mere presence of her daughter. She does not let the moment last very long though as her worry takes over. It’s not always that Natasha makes it to her home at this time of night. “Nat,” she begins, but Natasha doesn’t let her finish.
“I’m okay, Pep,” she assures, taking a deep breath. There’s plenty she wants to say, but she’s run out of will tonight to really say it, so she settles for, “saves me from doing something I should have done a long time ago, really.”
“But do I need to cause him unfathomable pain?” Pepper asks so seriously that Natasha would be worried if she didn’t know the woman so well. “Because I know a guy.”
Natasha rolls her eyes at her friend’s ridiculousness but is grateful that she just knows what’s wrong without having to know the full story. “Not even worth your time.” She stands to put a now sleeping Maria in her crib before looking back at Pepper with an eyebrow raised. “But do you really know a guy?”
Pepper just winks, and Natasha decides that there are some things she’s better off not knowing.
Despite the long night she had, Natasha decides to start her day early come morning. She’s in her office by seven, a double espresso from her favorite coffee shop down the block already halfway done as she powers through most of the final drafts her staff have submitted for review. By nine, and just as other people have started to fill the office, she’s approved and submitted all the final articles for print for the next issue. She’s in the middle of making quick edits on articles of her own when she hears a voice ask, “I’m not late, am I?” Natasha looks up to see two obnoxiously large flower arrangements obscuring her view of her, if tone of voice was anything to go by, obviously confused and shocked assistant, Darcy.
“No,” Natasha says amusedly. “But you could try a little harder to mask your disbelief at the fact that I’m here on time.” She sees Darcy give her a one-armed shrug as the woman turns to set the arrangements down on the coffee table she has to the right of her spacious office. Using the pen in her hand, Natasha points to the tall vases. “But also, is there a reason you decided to decorate my office with things you know I don’t like?”
Darcy shoots her a look of disbelief. “You think I don’t know that?”
“I know you know I hate flowers,” she clarifies, “which is why I’m asking why you thought to bring me the largest arrangements you could find.”
“It’s cute that you think I like you that much,” Darcy retorts in a tone that would probably offend anyone else, but she and Natasha have built a rapport over the years that her boss knows she’s just being Darcy. “And that I didn’t try to trash it the second I saw all of them at the reception.”
“All of them?” Natasha questions, standing from her seat behind the desk and coming to stand in front of her. “There’s more?”
“At least six more,” Darcy confirms, causing her boss to blanch. “The receptionists were getting testy because they were occupying their space, so I tried moving them by the trash area but then the custodians were giving me the evil eye so they’re all going to have to stay here until the end of the day.” She reaches into her bag to retrieve an envelope before handing it to Natasha. “This is the only thing that came with them. I’ll be back with the rest.”
Natasha thanks Darcy, grateful that she doesn’t pry further into who could possibly have sent them and opens the envelope as soon as the woman is out of sight. Inside, a plain white card reads:
I’m sorry, that’s not how I wanted you to find out about me and Karen.
I never meant to hurt you and I wish you’d give me a chance to explain.
Please call me back.
“Did you ask your receptionist to write that for you?” she deadpans, throwing the card and the envelope in the trash.
Once Darcy was done moving all the arrangements to her office, to say that her office looked like a goddamned greenhouse was the understatement of the year. Her assistant’s estimate of six more arrangements was ten in actuality, and the seating area she has in her office was now lost under all the blooms that now threatened to fill her once pristine and minimalistic space. While she hates flowers, at this very moment, she's perhaps more piqued by the fact that after nearly two years of dating, Matt seemed to miss that detail she’s always been very vocal about. And, despite being surrounded by all the colorful petals and vibrant leaves, she feels the anger she was waiting to rear its ugly head last night start to boil deep within her.
“So, when you gave all the guys the speech about how flowers are such a copout, was that all a lie?” Natasha’s fingers pause over her keyboard as she halts her reply to an email to see Steve Rogers, arms crossed over his chest, leaning against her office door with a smile on his face.
Steve, a talented graphic designer and an even better artist, is the layout director for the entire paper. He and Tony were childhood friends, and when Steve returned from serving two tours in the army, Tony was more than willing to provide him with work. Natasha was just starting out as a freelance writer for the paper when he was hired and they become friends almost instantly. She quickly learned that Steve was a hard worker who didn't care for the office politics that came with every corporation, even one owned by one of his good friends, and Natasha respected that deeply. As she got to know him further, she realized just how much he wore his heart of his sleeve, how candidly honest he was, and just how fundamentally good he was as a person, and she decided not only that she liked that about him, but also that she needed more of people like him in her life. Steve was also a good listener, and despite the fact that she hated talking about herself or revealing too much, Natasha was pleasantly surprised with how much she loved talking to him.
It doesn't hurt that he's not bad to look at either. In fact, in terms of how easy he is on the eyes, Natasha's sure he could probably cure blindness if that's at all possible. What, with all six-foot-whatever of him, with muscles smooth yet defined by years spent in the army that she sometimes catches herself admiring at the gym as they flex and ripple under his shirt when they do get around to sparring together for fun. As Pepper, her very proper and very married best friend phrases it, Steve’s body is the stuff female wet dreams are made of. The luscious blonde locks he always has combed neatly and his always, always well-groomed beard, and his bone structure that was surely chiseled by a sculptor are all just added bonuses, because what really get people who don’t know Steve Rogers, if she does say so herself, are his eyes. Two bright, but yet somehow still deep, orbs of blue that can melt the coldest of hearts with their kindness. Maybe she should be embarrassed by the amount of detail she has to describe Steve and his beauty, but she's pretty sure that any woman that comes within a mile of him catalogs his features the same way anyway. She may have been in a relationship for most of the time she's known him, but she's still a warm-blooded human being with eyes that could very much appreciate the vision that this man is. Just as they're doing right now, as he leans against her office door in black slacks and a crisp white button down that's rolled up past his elbows and clinging to his upper arms deliciously.
“They are,” she replies, looking at the vases that have been the cause of her ire for the past few hours. “Among all these vases, which one exudes the most ‘I’m sorry I fucked my receptionist’ to you?”
“Fuck,” he mutters under his breath as he moves to close the door behind him. Natasha watches as anger flashes in his eyes , followed by something a little softer she can't quite catch, and she immediately regrets her choice of words. “I’m sorry, Nat.”
Natasha just shrugs from her seat behind her desk. “Eh, what’s the saying? Let bygones be bygones or some shit like that?” She points to the large takeout bag she just now notices he’s brought with him. “You gonna share or just brag?”
“Darcy said you skipped lunch,” he explains, walking toward her desk to set the paper bag down. “I took the liberty of ordering your usual when we go to that Thai place down the block.”
“Pad thai with shrimp?” she asks hopefully, only now realizing how hungry she’s gotten.
He nods before adding, “extra lime and peanuts.” He moves to open the bag, but her hand on his wrist stops him.
“Come have a seat in my greenhouse,” she says as she points to her seating area.
They have lunch together amongst all the flowers she’s been hating on all day, and Natasha finds that this is the first time she actually does not mind them. The conversation between the two of them flows freely, starting with the reason he’d come to her office in the first place (to offer her first dibs on more space for her section after Life and Style had come up an article short) and moving, inevitably, to her and Matt. Suddenly, all the words she’d been itching to tell Pepper when she went to visit her yesterday, but refrained from doing so for some reason, just started to flow. So she talks, letting him know that out of nowhere, all the interest she had in Matt that was so abundant in the beginning was just gone, and that despite what she’d walked in on yesterday, she was, surprisingly, fine. No hate, no anger, maybe a touch of sadness at the time she’d invested in the relationship that could have been spent elsewhere, but aside from that, nothing. And Steve just listens, nodding every now and then in understanding about something she says, offering his input when asked. Their conversation was nothing but cathartic, and for the first time in a while, Natasha feels a weight she hadn’t even known she’d been carrying lift off of her.
“So what does make you happy, Natasha Romanoff?” Steve asks, his gaze fixated on the leather of his shoes, once she declares she’s done talking and beating the dead horse that was her relationship with Matt Murdock. “What do you truly live for?”
Natasha sits stunned for a second, his question catching her off guard. “Hmm,” she says as she contemplates her answer. “I don’t know,” she finally settles.
“Don’t know, or too afraid to want it?”
“You secretly a shrink, Rogers?” Natasha asks, a delicate brow raised at him.
“Hardly,” he answers. “My friend, Sam, is though. And he’s been helping me… deal.” He looks up at her from under the ridiculously long fan that is his eyelashes and sees her eyebrow raised in question again, but he waves her inquiry off. “He asked me the same question, and I’m really at a point where I don’t know.” He sits up straighter and shrugs. “For years, I thought it was serving my country, and I still love this country profoundly, but after everything?” Natasha nods in understanding at this, knowing the story all too well. “And then I thought it was Sharon, but you know how that ended.”
This time, it's Natasha’s turn to feel anger at his words at the mention of his ex and as memories of what she did to him resurfaces, but she pushes the feeling away just as he did a while ago. “I thought it was being successful,” she begins. “Making it in Manhattan as a writer, being able to return even a fraction of the favor that Nick and Melinda did for me growing up…” she pauses, swallowing a ball that’s suddenly formed at her throat at the mention of the two people who’d practically raised her. “And it wasn’t Matt, either, so I guess we’re on the same boat.”
“Well aren’t we tragic?” he asks as he places the now empty cartons of food back in the bag and looks at his watch to find they’d taken almost an hour and a half for lunch. “And on that note, I should get back to my job before the boss finds out I’ve taken an extended break.” He stands up from his seat and offers her a hand before making his way to her door.
“You mean the boss whose only objective is to raid the fridge in the common room when he does make it here every other month?”
“I meant Pepper,” he says, turning around to face her just as he’s made it to her door. “You know she runs a tight ship even on leave.” She nods in agreement, and just before he turns to leave again asks, “we still on for sparring after work tomorrow?”
“You bet,” she says, and after exchanging smiles, he leaves.
With Steve gone, Natasha lets her eyes wander to the clock on her wall and sees that he was right when he said they’d taken nearly an hour and a half for lunch. It's past two in the afternoon, and the summer sun is shining brightly from her windows. She contemplates going back to work, but her determination to plow through all her unanswered emails is gone and so is her concentration. Keeping in mind that she’d gone in two hours early this morning, and the fact that despite what Steve said, Pepper wouldn’t really mind her taking off and in fact would praise her for doing so given the amount of over time she’d done in the past, she decides she’s had enough and reaches for her purse.
“Taking the rest of the day off, Darce,” she says as she locks up and looks at the woman with chocolate brown waves sitting in a desk just outside her office. “You should too.”
Darcy gives her a thumbs up. “Aye aye, boss!”
She doesn’t have a particular destination in mind as she trudges up Central Park West. It isn’t until she unconsciously makes a right onto sixty-sixth and finds herself surrounded by greenery does she realize she’s in the park. She stops walking when she finds an empty bench in front of the Great Lawn and decides that it’s a good a spot as any. Though it’s the middle of the day, the park is filled with the usual crowd of people. Some lie on the grass in an attempt to get a last-minute tan before fall begins. Two men kick a soccer ball back and forth. A young couple steals a few kisses from where they sit under a tree. Natasha’s thoughts are lost in the usual hustle and bustle of the park, and it isn’t until a woman pushing a crying child in a stroller sits next to her that she’s broken out of her reverie.
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” the woman says, looking a little haggard as she fumbles with the zipper of her large purse and pulls out a first aid kit. The little boy in the stroller weeps from the pain of his scraped knee. The mother quickly applies an antiseptic and a bandage to the scrape before kissing the boy’s forehead and wiping away his tears. She lifts the boy up and out of the stroller and sends him off to play with a group of kids a few feet away.
“Sorry about the wailing,” the woman says apologetically, looking at Natasha for the first time since she sat down on the same bench. She puts the kit back in her bag and drops it into the back compartment of the stroller.
“Not a problem,” Natasha replies, pointing her chin in the direction of the woman’s bag. “They could use your skills in a crisis intervention center.” The woman laughs.
“I’m a mother,” the woman states. “I am a crisis intervention center.” They share a slight chuckle before a companionable silence envelops them. They both turn in the direction of the woman’s son, his sandy blonde hair glistening in the sun as he sits on the grass playing with two other children. “You’ve got kids of your own?”
“Well, I’ll tell you as much,” the woman says, looking at her son with so much love and reverence that it makes Natasha feel as if she’s intruding on a private moment. “They’ll drive you up a wall every single day. Some days you’ll wish you stayed celibate. But when you see what caring and compassionate people they’ve become, my, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
“I’m sure,” Natasha says sincerely.
When you see what caring and compassionate people they’ve become, my, it’s the best feeling in the world. Natasha doesn’t know what to make of the words as the woman stands and leaves her to her thoughts once again, but they echo in her mind just the same. She’s never pictured herself nurturing someone, not even at the height of her relationship with Matt. As she had told Steve at lunch, for as long as she could remember, she always believed that the best thing she could ever do was make a life for herself – build a career, be able to support herself, buy a home, give back to those who’d given her so much. And so far, living by that belief has gotten her to where she is now, and it was by no means a bad place. But then, why couldn’t she answer Steve’s question? What does make her happy? Does she really not know, or is she just afraid to want it? Her sight falls unbidden back to the mother who’d sat next to her, now on the grass with her son and a few other mothers, and she finds herself just observing, watching, smiling.
No, she’s not afraid, she decides.
When she’s decided she’s had enough of the sun and the park, she goes to the one place she knows she must go first: to Pepper’s. As she exits the cab in front of her best friend’s home and rings the bell at the front door, she knows that there’s no turning back. Her heart and her mind are set. This is what she wants. The door opens, and she’s relieved that it’s Pepper carrying Maria in her arms, surprised to see her back so soon.
She lets the words leave her mouth. “I want to be a mom.”