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that's just how you are with love

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"What was her name again?"

"Sharon. She's nice."

-

Nice like fingernails scraping down her back and leaving marks in all the right places. Nice like sure hands and a gaze of steel and all the competence to back it up.

Lots of agents waver in the field but Agent 13 was never one of them.

With Sharon on her six, any mission, no matter how fucked from start to finish, wound up and down like clockwork, a smooth transition from A to B to C to this, to her back, pressed flush to the shower tiles, Sharon's thigh nudged between hers, the taste of copper on their lips and the shower spray beating down.

Nice like an adrenaline-fueled kiss in the SHIELD locker rooms at the end of the day, smelling like so much sweat and dirt, fingers fumbling with the complicated trappings of their uniforms, nice like how Sharon would always swear, every time, fucking SHIELD piece of shit buckles, no matter how many times they did this.

Sharon Carter was never nice, not really, but Natasha always thought -- well, maybe if she'd ever given Sharon the chance to be nice, she could have been.

-

It's late, too late, and the gun range at Langley should be empty but she already knows she'll find Sharon there. SHIELD was to Sharon like religion was to most people and the Triskelion, her church, the uniform, her rosary beads. It was the house Margaret Carter built and Sharon walked into that building every day ready to protect it, nurture it, kill for it.

Hands steady on the trigger and eyes as clear as day. No wonder they'd assigned her as Steve's detail. There's not a single person able and breathing today who could have been better suited for the job.

Natasha's not the only one who's just had her entire world go up in flames like so much ash and dust. Not the only one blaming herself for never seeing it coming, either.

The sharp staccato of gunshots is muffled through the hearing protectors Natasha's wearing, but still it comes through, a pointed, even beat originating from a stall at the end of the range. A cluster of near-perfect shots litter the target.

"Should I be alerting security," Sharon says, setting the gun down and pushing her own hearing protectors down and around her neck. "Because I'm pretty sure the Black Widow is persona non grata at just about every intelligence organization in the world right now."

"Think of it as a gift to the CIA," Natasha says, "now they know their security could use a little work. It was way too easy for me to get in here."

Natasha walks up behind Sharon, close enough until she's pulled up flush behind her and -- and they haven't been this close, not in a long time. Not since before New York, maybe, and it feels a little like taking liberties that she's not supposed to, lined up back to front, skin warm every place they're touching through thin fabric, chin tucked over Sharon's shoulder, one foot shifting ever so slightly to kick Sharon's right leg out a few inches.

"There's nothing wrong with my stance, Romanoff," Sharon says, but she rolls her shoulders back, pliant, letting Natasha shift her ever so slightly.

"Your stance is excellent, Carter," Natasha says, "but it can always be better. There. Try that."

Natasha replaces the hearing protectors over Sharon's ears, before letting her hands fall to her sides and taking a few steps back. Sharon fires again and hits the target dead on, every time.

"Not bad," Natasha says and Sharon snorts, elbowing her in the side.

"Bite me, Romanoff," Sharon says.

"Maybe later," Natasha says, absently, on reflex and they both freeze, the air thick and the moment suddenly awkward before Sharon shakes herself, crossing arms over chest and leaning back against the wall, kicking one foot up behind her.

"What happened to trying to set me up with Rogers?"

"I still am," Natasha answers swiftly, trying to save face, move on. "He call you yet?"

"Nope," Sharon says, popping the p. "And don't get me wrong, he's not exactly hard on the eyes and he's…considerate, considerate in ways that most men aren't, but what makes you so sure I'm at all what he's looking for in a partner. Or him, me."

"He said…." Natasha starts, a fond smile tugging at the edges of her lips in spite of herself, "He said it's hard for him to find someone with shared life experiences."

Sharon hums softly, tossing her hearing protectors down and moving towards putting the gun away. "I can relate. But Natasha?"

Here, Sharon stops, giving her an unreadable look, a furrow between brows that Natasha has to fight the urge to smooth away. It's a soft, intimate gesture and it would be another liberty taken and she's already taken her fair share here, tonight.

"Just because we're both looking for the same thing doesn't mean we'll find it in each other."

-

Steve's loft in Harlem is relatively small, unassuming but with high ceilings and white walls that make it look brighter, more livable than his cookie cutter Ikea-clad apartment in Dupont or the make believe Brooklyn relic that SHIELD set him up with once upon a time.

She gets the feeling that's on purpose, just like how he's decided not to return to Brooklyn. He's tired of chasing old ghosts and expecting them to look the same, feel the same, as they once were. He's got more than enough of that with Barnes living with him now, a slow-healing ghost who haunts Steve's guest room and talks only to Steve and sometimes Sam, but never, ever to her, always fixing her with a look that feels like a Soviet slug to the gut, a bullet to the shoulder.

The proximity to Sam, to the Harlem VA, probably hasn't hurt.

Natasha slips in through the front door, worn knit cap pulled down low over her bright red hair and a carton of ice cream bought from the corner shop fit snug under one arm. She's new to this, these easy routines and sharing space just for the pleasure of sharing company but even with the ghost in the corner, it's not as hard as she thinks it should be, with him.

Tonight, it's some comedy show that Sam swears by on repeat via Netflix and it must be doing something right because it even gets a huff of a laugh out of Barnes a time or two and the smile that crosses Steve's face each time it happens is enough to make her put up with it, even if she's never been one for American humor.

The carton of ice cream is set between the two of them on the sofa, absently digging in with spoons, clean bowls forgotten on the kitchen counter. She's made it her personal mission to force Steve into trying as many different flavors as possible. Mint chocolate chip, this time.

The credits roll across the screen as Natasha scrapes away at the bottom of the ice cream carton with her spoon. "You call that nurse yet?"

Steve rolls his eyes but it's mostly fond. "She's not a nurse, remember."

"But she is nice."

"If she's so nice, why don't you date her?"

Natasha swallows hard, the cool, mint ice cream taste gone dry in the back of her throat. It's probably never going to stop being annoying, how easily he manages to call her bluffs, seemingly by accident. She wonders what that must be like, to blunder through life on good intentions and strength of conviction alone but it's an ugly, untrue thought and she knows it, banishing it as quickly as it comes.

Barnes, curled up in an arm chair, chin resting on metal hand, lets out a loud snort.

"Pretty sure the history of queer Brooklyn wasn't a Red Room staple lesson, Stevie," Barnes says, a wry twist to his lips, the faint traces of a laugh, and this is the most expressive he's ever dared to be around her. Mark it down in the book labeled progress.

Natasha reaches for another spoonful of ice cream, feigning indifference. "Don't tell me I've been barking up the wrong tree this whole time, Rogers, that'd be embarrassing."

Steve shrugs, a small movement that always comes across bigger than he probably means it to, forgetting his own size. "Not the wrong tree, no. But there's a whole lotta trees in an orchard, Nat."

"Because you'd know all about orchards, seein' as how we spent so much time out in the goddamn countryside, pickin' apples," Barnes says, homegrown accent slipping in and Steve's slips right along with him with his answering, "fuck off, Buck," tossed out with the ease of someone who's said some variation of those exact words some many times over.

She looks back and forth between them, thinks maybe and then again, maybe not, remembers a bright kitchen and twin smiles and flirtations gone right over her head. She wonders how she could've missed that but then again, well -- she'd been distracted, hadn't been looking. She'll give herself the pass just this once.

"You've been dating Sam this whole time and I didn't notice?"

The tips of Steve's ears go pink but he smiles a rueful smile that means he's feeling way, way too pleased with himself. "It's okay, Nat, old age gets the best of all of us," and she's already got the pillow ready to smack him with it before he can even finish talking.

-

She's wandering the streets of Prague, trailing after some old HYDRA leads, when the comm link connecting her to Maria Hill pings sharply before letting out a loud screech and then normalizing.

"Hello, Natasha."

Natasha straightens, sharp eyes casing the perimeter and coming up with nothing. "Sharon?"

"The CIA is in the area but the man leading the team has it out for you and he's been given permission to shoot on sight if it suits his mission."

"And here I thought you were CIA now. Doesn't this count as treason? A misdemeanor at the very least, Ms. Carter. You know, I always took you for a team player."

"Let's just say I have a vested interest in keeping you safe," Sharon says, voice warm and close in her ear, for all that she could be several countries away. "And I trust my teams a little less these days. I thought you might need back up, so I've sent an old friend."

"How old of a friend are we talking here?"

"Montreal, 2011."

Natasha laughs, sharp and unexpectedly loud, at the memory the words call up. Agents Carter, Romanoff and May plus a violent separatist group and a couple of burning buildings, no casualties, but some very very ruffled feathers and hurt feelings that Fury had absolutely reamed them out for.

Her gaze lands on the familiar figure of Melinda May on the other side of Old Town Square and something in her shoulders loosens. "Copy that, I spy our old friend."

"Stay safe, Natasha," Sharon says, and then the line goes dead.

-

The HYDRA base is in the middle of evacuation when she and Melinda arrive on the scene, dropping to the floor from a ceiling vent one right after the other, only to find themselves in the midst of chaos and so many frantic scientists trying to get out as fast as they possibly can, grabbing beakers and files as they go.

"Aren't they a little late? You'd assume they would have done this months ago," Melinda says, tilting her head to one side as she surveys the scene.

"You're applying common sense to HYDRA?" Natasha says dryly and Melinda shakes her head, the ghost of a grim smile crossing her face.

"Well, c'mon then, Romanoff, let's get to work."

The thing about Melinda May is, she's kind of like an one woman army unto herself. Never send six agents when you could just send her in their place and she'd get the job done just as well, if not better. Natasha respects that kind of single-minded, ruthlessness, the kind of determination it must have took to bring Melinda to where she is today. They're nothing alike, really, except for all of the ways in which neither one of them will ever give an inch, not if they can help it.

Back to back, well. No wonder Montreal never stood a chance.

The HYDRA agents and scientists are knocked out and tied up in record time so it figures that that's just about when the CIA team bursts in, guns up and ready.

"Goddamnit," Melinda mutters. "Run for it?"

Natasha shrugs. "Sharon says the main guy wants to shoot me. Your call, May."

"You're putting my life in your hands?"

"More like, I wouldn't blame you if you left me for dead," Natasha shoots back. Melinda rolls her eyes pointedly but throws her hands up in the air in a gesture of surrender anyways and Natasha follows suit and not a second too soon, right after she's pressed the distress signal that goes all the way back to Maria Hill.

"I fucking hate the CIA," Natasha hears her mutter as they're both put in handcuffs.

Another hour and it's pitch black in the back of the truck they're held in, on their way to the nearest conceivable military base but Natasha's not worried. With any luck, Maria will be there with all the right authorities and they'll walk away clean.

Natasha tells Melinda as much and she sighs, a heavy sound in the dark. "You think Maria will be there herself?"

"That a problem, May?"

"Not sure I'm quite in the mood to see her just now, I guess. Wouldn't be the end of the world, though."

Natasha fidgets idly with the restraints around her hands. She could get out of them if she really put her mind to it. They're not that complicated and she's always got a couple of extra pins tucked away in places no one ever thinks to check but it's not worth compromising their current state of cooperation.

"May, can I ask you a question?"

"Do I have a choice?"

Natasha shrugs even though May can't see it. "I know a guy who'd say that you always have a choice."

"Yeah but I'm not philosophizing with Captain America here, am I."

"You and Hill. Why didn't it work out between you?"

May lets out a gusty breath, swearing softly. "How is that your business?"

Natasha doesn't answer.

"You know why," Melinda says, after a few seconds.

Lots of good reasons. But mostly boiling down to this: it's just not who they are. GSR on your hands and blood streaked across your face and eyes always looking to the next mission. It's the only way they know how to live but it's not always a great way to make a relationship work.

"But you know what, Romanoff," Melinda says, something sure and telling in her voice, "I'd still have done it all over again. I don't regret trying. And that's really what you want to know, isn't it?"

Yes, Natasha doesn't say, but she thinks maybe Melinda hears it anyways.

-

Sharon's new apartment in Crystal City is bland and unassuming except for in all the ways it's not. A bottle of Margaret Carter's favorite scotch sits halfway empty on the bookshelf. There's a pile of mail on the kitchen table, including a pile of letters marked in neat print, the name Carol Danvers written out clearly. An art print, an older, lesser known Van Gogh piece, hangs on the wall, a birthday gift from Antoine Triplett several years back.

A coffee table book on the world's best burgers and where to find them lies open on the kitchen counter and when Natasha's gaze rests upon each and every nook and cranny, she thinks she can clock just about every place where Sharon would prefer to hide a weapon.

"You know, some people call ahead of time if they're going to keep breaking into places uninvited."

Sharon closes her front door behind her before leaning back against it, leveling Natasha with the sort of no-nonsense gaze that got them into this whole mess in the first place.

"I like to keep things interesting," Natasha says mildly, swinging the coffee table book shut. "How do you feel about dinner?"

Sharon rolls her eyes, face crumbling into an expression of such exasperation that she's starting to remind Natasha of Steve a little. "In general or with you? You're going to have to be a little more specific here, Natasha."

"With me. Preferably not in your CIA work clothes but I can be flexible."

Sharon arches an eyebrow. "Don't I know it." And then, "this a date, Romanoff?"

If you want it to be rises to the tip of her tongue, trademark Black Widow, always leave yourself an opening for escape, but.

She's trying a new thing, here. Honesty, for a start.

"Yes."

Sharon shrugs. "Okay. Just let me get changed. You're going to take me to that seafood restaurant that all of the senators love, we're going to sit at the best table in the house and scare the crap out of them."

"I'll take it I'm paying," Natasha says, asking when she already knows the answer.

"Of course. Didn't take you for a cheap date, Romanoff."

"Not ever."

"And maybe," Sharon says, tossing a look over her shoulder as she heads into her bedroom, unzipping her suit skirt as she goes, "if you're really nice, we won't wait until we're all the way back here to fuck."

"But only if I'm nice?" Natasha asks, crossing one leg over the other, gaze focused and intent.

"Only if you're nice," Sharon says, before swinging the door to her bedroom shut.

Well.

"I can do nice," Natasha murmurs to herself.