Audrey isn't impressed by superheroes.
To her, Iron Man is the kid of the guy who showed up backstage at Radio City Music Hall in 1943 to annoy Steve, the Hulk is a quiet-spoken man who likes talking physics with her daughter, and the Falcon is just Steve's friend, Sam. (She has a secret monthly lunch date with Sam's mother, during which Mrs. Wilson reveals all the embarrassing things Sam did as a boy, and Audrey returns the favour with every awkward story about USO show girl Steve Rogers she can remember.) And Hawkeye…well, Hawkeye is just the klutzy guy who sometimes helps Bucky out with the boys in his junior class and then shows up at her house with enough pizza and beer for her, Liz and one super soldier/ballet teacher.
But then, there's Natasha.
Audrey is impressed by Natasha, but not because she's a superhero. Not because she's the Black Widow. Audrey is impressed by how completely and utterly focused Natasha is at all times. She hasn't seen focus like that since one of her students, Lily, was hired by ABT in the '80s and invited her to watch a rehearsal Baryshnikov was running. Even when that man was pretending to be "just Misha," there was no mistaking how sharp he was. He came up to her after the rehearsal and told her he was impressed with Lily, and then clearly laid out every flaw in both Lily's technique and the teaching that produced those flaws. Audrey didn't take it personally; she thanked him and used the information to improve the work she did with her students. Lily wasn't the last of her students hired by ABT, and the next time Audrey saw Baryshnikov, he gave her a wink.
Audrey wonders if it's something about being Russian, the way Natasha can appear friendly and relaxed but be hyper-aware of everyone and everything around her. It was Natasha, not Steve, who noticed when Bucky needed to take a break from the crowd at the party for his graduation recital. And it was Natasha who took over the washing dishes last Thanksgiving even before Liz's arthritic knee started causing her problems.
The last few months, though, Audrey has been less impressed by Natasha, and more worried about her. And she's not the only one. She's seen Steve's concern for his friend.
Since he stopped beating up super villains and started working at the Pride Center, Steve's taken it on himself to help his friends more than ever before. He's worked with Pepper to get Tony to lay off the booze, at least a bit. He's started doing meditation classes with Bruce, which has helped both of them. And he makes sure he looks in on Mrs. Wilson when Sam is off being Falcon. Or is he Captain America, now?
In the last two months, Steve's brought Natasha to every Sunday dinner. And while Natasha is as terrifying as she always is, Audrey has seen the cracks in her steely focus.
When Audrey hosted a barbeque two weeks ago, Natasha didn't notice Clint was favouring one elbow until Steve asked him about it. And Audrey managed to startle her into dropping a dish after last week’s Sunday dinner when she and Bucky were doing the dishes. After Bucky had swept up the pieces of broken china, they’d all laughed it off, but Audrey had never seen Natasha let anyone get that close to her without her knowing exactly where they were. Especially not an nonagenarian who walks with a cane. And she’s not the only one who noticed the lapse. Bucky gave Audrey a worried frown after Natasha turned back to the sink.
She’s not sure if Natasha needs to come home from the war like Steve did, but she needs…something.
Tonight, after dinner, she decides to try a tactic that worked with another former Russian intelligence asset.
"Don't you have an assignment to work on," Audrey asks Bucky when they're all siting in the living room, drinking coffee (Bucky, Liz and Steve) or tea (her and Natasha). Bucky's taking a choreography course, and she knows he's working on a pas de deux for the final assignment.
"It's not due for a few weeks," Bucky says, leaning comfortably into Steve's side.
"Well, I'd like to see it. Wouldn't you like to see it, Natasha?" Audrey thinks she's being pretty smooth, but Steve seems to pick up on what she's doing immediately.
"Yeah, Buck, I'd like to see it, too." Steve flashes a quick look at Natasha, then turns to Audrey with a nod.
"I'm tired," Bucky grumbles, snuggling in closer to Steve.
"C'mon, lazy bones." Steve digs a none-too-gentle elbow into his ribs. "You never dance on Sundays anymore."
"I get enough dancing during the week." Audrey doesn't know if she's ever heard Bucky whine before, but he's whining now. He sounds like one of his own students complaining that grand jetés are too hard.
"Bucky." Audrey uses her warning tone, the one that tells Bucky he's being an ass. That finally gets his attention, and he sits up properly. He frowns at Audrey, then turns to Steve. Audrey sees when he finally gets it, when he notices that Natasha is so wrapped up in whatever's stuck in her head that she's completely failed to notice the silent conversation going on all around her.
"But more dancing is always good." He practically bounds to his feet. "It'll be good for me to try the piece out in front of an audience." He reaches over and pulls Natasha to her feet. "Ready to be my audience, Nat?"
Natasha startles, as if she's just noticed Bucky.
"Audience. Sure." Audrey can practically see Natasha pull herself back to her surroundings. "Let's go."
Steve and Bucky ride to the school on Steve's motorcycle. Natasha takes Audrey in her sportscar.
"I thought Corvettes were for men going through a mid-life crisis," Audrey says when Natasha turns the key and revs the engine.
"Why should the men have all the fun?" Natasha's mouth quirks at the corner and she revs the engine one more time before putting the car into gear.
"Why indeed?" Oh, Audrey does like Natasha.
They both sit in a comfortable silence until they reach the school. Natasha pulls smoothly into a parking spot just down from the school. She shifts into park and cuts the engine, but before she gets out of the car, she turns to Audrey, her expression impassive.
"Why do you want to see Bucky dance, really?" The question sounds innocent, but Audrey can see the intelligence behind Natasha's eyes, can see her mind working.
"Can't I just want to see a friend dance?" Audrey returns, a question for a question.
"Hmm," Natasha responds noncommittally. Audrey knows the jig's up, but she's going to play this out until the end.
Natasha gives Audrey her arm and helps her to the school. Natasha is small, but Audrey can feel the strength in her. A dancer's strength.
By the time they reach the door, Bucky has the school's door unlock and is busying himself turning on the lights. Steve takes Audrey's arm from Natasha and escorts her to the back studio where Bucky prefers to work. Natasha darts in and out of every corner of the school, her expression half international spy, half curious kid.
In the studio, Audrey settles into her favourite chair, the one with an extra-stuffed cushion perfect for boney old broads. Bucky disappears for a moment, then returns in the dance gear he stores at the school, tights, dance belt, and a loose t-shirt that does nothing to hide the strength of his torso. He plugs his phone into the PA system, cuing up his music before passing it to Steve. Natasha finally joins them, dropping gracefully into a corner, legs crossed, back straight, her full attention on Bucky.
Bucky takes his place in the centre of the studio, and Audrey thinks that he looks more nervous than he has since the first time she brought him to the school.
"It's not done," he starts to explain. "And I've only got the man's part choreographed so far."
"No excuses, Barnes," Natasha says. "Show us what you've got."
Bucky nods at Steve, and then the music fills the studio. Barber's Adagio for Strings is slow, melancholy, and Bucky's movements match the tone, powerful but restrained.
Normally, Audrey would watch Bucky. It's always a pleasure to see him dance, and she knows he appreciates her feedback on his technique. But that's not why she's brought them to the school on a Sunday night. Instead, after the first few movements she keeps her attention firmly on Natasha.
Natasha's wariness lasts less than a minute. Soon enough, she's drawn into the spell Bucky's casting on the dance floor. Audrey sees her eyes sharpen, sees her lean in, sees her body sway and shift in empathy with Bucky's choreography, confirming her suspicions that Bucky wasn't the only one the Russians taught to dance.
The last note of the music fades and out of the corner of her eye, Audrey sees Bucky take a bow. Steve applauds wildly, as enthusiastic an audience for Bucky as he always is, but Natasha remains silent and still.
It's a risk what she's going to do. Bucky has found joy in the skills the Russians taught him, but for Natasha it could just be a reminder of what was done to her. Still, living is a risk.
She leans forward on her cane and takes a deep breath.
"Have you worked on the woman's part yet?" she asks him, keeping her gaze on Natasha.
"A bit. Katie's been helping me after classes, but she's been busy herself."
"Why don't you get Natasha to help?"
Her words can't be a surprise to any of them, but Audrey still feels the air leave the room, as if they're all collectively holding their breath, waiting to see which way Natasha will jump.
"I don't have pointe shoes," Natasha finally says, and Audrey thinks she's made the wrong decision, that Natasha is looking for a graceful way out of the trap Audrey has set for her.
"You don't need them," Bucky responds. "There's no pointe work in the piece. But you don't-" he starts to add, giving Natasha a choice. Good boy, Audrey thinks.
"Yeah, I think I do," Natasha interrupts him. And then she moves, flowing to a standing position with effortless power. Audrey can't wait to see her dance.
She kicks off her shoes, pulls off her socks, and shrugs off the jacket she still has on, then moves to the centre of the floor. She's dressed informally—yoga pants and a t-shirt—but her presence is as commanding as any prima ballerina Audrey has ever seen.
She stretches her legs, her arms, feline movements filled with grace and control. Then she holds out her hand to Bucky.
"Okay, big boy," she says, her voice husky and teasing. "Show me what you've got."
As Natasha works with Bucky, developing the choreography and tweaking moves, Audrey can see the tension uncoiling in her body. She can see Natasha concentrating more and more on the dance and less on whatever horrors have been twisting through her mind the last few months.
Audrey can barely contain the glee she feels. She is an absolute Goddamn genius. She should set up a clinic specializing in ballet therapy for traumatized former Russian agents. Beside her, Steve looks almost as delighted, gasping when Bucky and Natasha manage a particularly difficult lift, clapping wildly when they do a complicated series of synchronized soubresauts.
But no one is as ecstatically happy as Bucky and Natasha. By the time they do one last flawless run through the now complete pas de deux, they're both sweat-drenched and smiling. Steve gives them a standing ovation of one, and Audrey bangs her cane on the floor in approval.
"I know a few dance companies who'd be happy to have you," Audrey tells Natasha as she's retrieving her shoes and socks.
"Or you could teach here," Bucky says before popping out of the studio to change.
"Thanks." Natasha gives her a happy uncomplicated smile. "But I already have a day job."
"About that day job…" Audrey starts to say, calculating just how she can bring up the elephant in the room.
"I'm fine." Natasha finishes tying her shoes, then comes over to pat Audrey's hand. "I'm not like some people. I don't need to, what did you tell Steve? Come home from the war." She gives Steve a significant look, and he blushes.
"Would you tell us if you did?" Audrey can't help but push. She doesn't want to see Natasha get to the state Steve was in before he finally realized he needed to stop with the super heroing already.
"I would." Natasha's voice is completely steady. "I'm not an idiot. Unlike some people."
"Hey…" Steve protests.
"I really do like my day job." Natasha pushes past Steve objections. "But that doesn't mean that sometimes I don't need something else. And this was perfect." She grabs her jacket from the floor and is out the door before Audrey can say anything else. "I'll have the car out front," she calls back to them.
Steve gently helps Audrey up and then gives her a careful hug.
"Thank you," he says, his voice quiet.
"I didn't do anything," Audrey insists.
"That's a lie and you know it," Steve says just as Bucky comes back in to the studio.
"Leave Audrey alone, Steve," Bucky says, giving his boyfriend a friendly swat.
"She said she didn't do anything, Buck."
"I didn't do anything." Audrey plasters a look on her face that she hopes is all innocence.
"Well, okay, that's a complete and total lie," Bucky agrees with Steve before he turns to her. "You're kind of like an evil mastermind in reverse. You're a kind mastermind!" He looks so pleased with himself that Audrey has to laugh.
"I don't know what either of you are talking about," Audrey says. "Now, can you help me to the car, Steve? I need to get these old bones to bed."
Natasha has the Corvette pulled right in front of the school. Bucky opens the passenger door, and Steve helps Audrey ease into the passenger seat.
"You look after Audrey," Steve tells Natasha. "And are you coming to the Pride Center this week?"
"You couldn't keep me away. I'll see you Tuesday night." Natasha gives Steve a wink. "Bucky, if you need a partner to present your pas de deux, you let me know."
"Thanks, Nat." Bucky smiles, and then he throws the door closed.
They don't talk at all on the drive back to Audrey's home. Audrey can feel the unspoken words piling up between them, but she's not sure where to start. When they finally pull up in front of Audrey's house, Natasha cuts the engine and turns to face her.
"Thank you, Audrey."
"No need to thank me, Natasha."
"I do. All of you. You, and the big boy scout and his boyfriend."
"We worry about you." Audrey reaches out and rests one hand on Natasha's arm.
"I can look after myself."
"But you don't have to."
There's a long pause. Audrey sits quietly as Natasha gives her a long look, her expression carefully guarded. Audrey imagines it's the sort of expression she uses on her day job, keeping her feelings and thoughts hidden from friends and enemies alike. The fact that she's had to learn how to protect herself so completely puts a lump in Audrey's throat.
Audrey is beginning to wonder if she's the one who needs to break the silence when Natasha leans towards her and hugs her.
The hug isn't as careful as Steve's. She clutches Audrey's arm in a way that is almost desperate, almost hurts. Audrey hugs back, patting Natasha's like she used to pat her kids' backs when they were toddlers, letting them know she was there for them, that they were safe.
Eventually, it's Natasha who eases her hold, who pulls back.
"You look after yourself," Audrey tells her.
"And if that day job of your ever gets to be too much—"
"If it does, we're here for you. We're all here for you."
Natasha helps Audrey out of the car, takes her all the way up to the house where Liz is waiting for her. Natasha pulls away from the curb with a wave and drives just a little too fast down the empty street.
"Did you have a good night?" Liz asks.
"Yeah," she says.
Audrey isn't impressed by super heroes.
But she is impressed by the people those super heroes are. People who had shitty childhoods. People who've been hurt. People who are brash or shy or brave or scared or all of the above, and still keep doing what they have to do, whether that's saving the world from Goddamn Nazis or teaching ballet or saving one gay kid in Brooklyn.
"We really did."