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Sex has never been a straightforward thing for Natasha.

Yeah, yeah. Shocker.

Her S.H.I.E.L.D mandated shrink, Dr. Thomas (Hydra, as it turned out, and how fucked up is that) had analyzed this bit of insight from every conceivable angle. Natasha had been required to trot herself in to Thomas’s office every other month, standard procedure Agent Romanov; we understand the stress you are under.

Shrinks love sexual hang-ups, right? That had been Natasha’s strategy, anyway. Typical deflect-and-dodge. Distract from the shit behind the curtain.

Which of course had caused an immediate issue, an error of reasoning, of cause and effect, that’s a bit embarrassing to Natasha still.

That is: for her, the inability to disconnect the shit behind the curtain from everything else, fucking included, is pretty much the whole problem.

***

Dr. Thomas had asked her about her first sexual experience. She obviously expected something horrific.

But it had been pretty typical, or so she gathers. Basement room, sticky leather couch in summer heat, boy with too large hands and a valiant and pathetic attempt at growing facial hair. She’d been fourteen.

Thomas had proceeded without blinking to asking her about the first time she had sex under orders, as part of a mission. If she’d had any experience with therapy not connected to the questionable ethics of a shadowy government agency, she might have recognized the inappropriateness of the good doctor’s approach.

But she didn’t. She didn’t wonder, either, how Thomas had known that sex was included in her job description. Natasha made peace with the transparency of that fact a long time ago.

She would have been pretty terrible at her job, though, if she hadn’t noticed Dr. Thomas’s barely restrained fascination, the way she shifts in her chair. It just happens to work for her. Some perverted shrink that gets a kick out of hearing patients talk about how they whored for the Motherland; that’s something she can use. The upper hand taken back.

So she’s nineteen again, a penthouse hotel suite in Stockholm, early winter ice gilding the canals like the polar veins of a watery hand.

The guy was an French arms dealer, and he had paid good money for her. She was told to make sure he got satisfaction equal to the dollar value, just to be sure, and then once he was in a pleasant sex induced stupor, pump him full of a syringe of clear liquid, the contents of which would make the cause of death appear to be cardiac arrest. He was in his mid-fifties, with a genetic inheritance of heart disease and a poor diet. From one perspective, Natasha had just been hurrying fate along a bit.

He’d treated her to a nice room service dinner first. Showed her wallet sized pictures of his kids, two blond teenage girls. Told her a fondness-drenched story about his wife Julianne, who owned her own florist business, she didn’t have to work, he was more than capable of providing for their family but you see - his Julie enjoyed a project.

Then he fucked her on the gargantuan hotel bed, missionary position, damp panting in her ear. Natasha had been almost disappointed. She’d expected for the money paid, he’d want things his mon cher wouldn’t provide. She had been ready for it.

Natasha had completed the mission flawlessly. No complications to report. It was not Natasha’s first mission, or close to it.

Natasha relayed the incident with added panache to Dr. Thomas. She had to fill up an hour, so she had wanted to make the story stretch as far as she could. There had been a very modernist mirror hanging on the far wall, made up of large, jagged looking pieces of glass hewn together, so that when Natasha had looked over his shoulder the view of their grasping bodies on the bed was hopelessly distorted, fractured, a funhouse effect. A thigh sliding into view here, disappearing into a heel sliding against the mattress there.

Natasha told the shrink that, purposefully made it sound like an inadvertently revealing metaphor for her psyche, her feelings about that long-ago afternoon.

It hadn’t seemed to satisfy Thomas. She did not wear the outwardly concerned but barely hidden pleasure that Natasha had expected such an artfully created doorway into her supposed neuroses to induce. Thomas had looked like a theater audience member, too steeped in cynicism to sit back and enjoy the show, but constantly peering into the wings, looking for the maneuvering, the pulleys and wheels humming behind the curtain.

Maybe Natasha had laid it on a bit thick. That sort of neatly arranged parable might only work on someone whose career wasn’t devoted to dismantling people’s harmless fictions.

The next session Dr. Thomas asked her if she ever had in the course of her work, excuse her for quoting Natasha herself here, done something a wife would hesitate to provide.

“I never put it that way,” she had said. Dr. Thomas’s pleasant smile as she looked back through her notes had made the back of Natasha’s throat itch. Maybe she had put it that way. The way she at nineteen might have phrased the idea that were things that normal people did while fucking, and stuff she could do, for a price. Intervening experience has taught her that no such gap exists.

But she had spoken to preempt whatever Thomas is going to follow up with. “Yeah, I did all kinds of things.”

Dr. Thomas had cocked her head to the side and said, “Did you ever have to do anything you didn’t like? Anything you were uncomfortable with?”

This is the moment where Natasha realized the misstep she’d made. Talk about sex: don’t let a shrink unspool the parts of your head where the dangerous territory resides. Like: do you feel guilt, Agent Romanov? (Sometimes. Not as much as people would like to imagine I do.) Did you ever think for even a second, before you had an out, an option to defect at minimal risk to your own skin, of resisting? (No. Not at all.) Do I detect guilt at that, Agent? (No. Just a disgust that I was that weak, not that I was that selfish.)

Fucking is safe, until you get to a question like did you ever have to fuck someone in ways you were uncomfortable with and you have to answer honestly, in a cracked voice, hand clenched into a fist in your lap, “No.”

But then you couldn’t possibly explain to your company mandated therapist why. To have your boundaries breached, you have to have boundaries. Here’s what happens when you enter the business at fifteen, when they start to train you in the art of dissembling. They teach you how to have the ability to act any possible part. They teach you that the first talent of any great performer is actually a void, a lack: the hardest thing in the world is to empty your features, your body language, of all independent desire, other than those that will achieve the mission objectives. To do it you must first empty your being of them.

The key is the blankness itself, to have no unreliable variables for another personality to come up against. A blank white page, first, into which the desires and fears and longing of others can pour in. Then and only then can you begin the alchemical processes of crafting a person that you can use.

They didn’t have to use any advanced or delicate methods of mind control, the kind of which her experience as an Avenger has taught her exist and are used with distressing frequency, to create a creature purged of individuality. Their training methods were simply very good, honed over a period of decades, and they got her young. Unusually malleable, she’d once overheard one of her instructors call her.

Malleable in all things. From a sweaty neighborhood boy coming inside her in only a minute, to being told that she no longer had any desires that did not serve the state, none other than the desire to serve. To say her sexual development was warped is probably putting it lightly.

Then, after, even the limited self-exploration she had found herself capable of in her life as a S.H.I.E.L.D agent had been restricted to more practical concerns. Did she like to go to bed early or late, when she had a choice? Embarrassingly early, like a grandma. Did she like to cook? No, not at all. Did she prefer action films, rom-coms, well-crafted drama? All of those are fine, but her favorites are cult horror classics and stoner comedies.

Where to begin, telling another person that? She’d gotten up and left Dr. Thomas’s office instead. Told Fury himself that she refused to to waste her time with this shit anymore. Fury hadn’t cared. The mental health of his employees hadn’t particularly mattered to him, especially when the catch-22 of their line of work was having your head screwed on straight might actually negatively impact job performance.

Then, soon, there isn’t any S.H.I.E.L.D to tell her what to do at all.

***

After, she goes to the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian for the first time.

(She says after in her mind, and doesn’t specify, because she’s started to think of the whole mess as a sort of personal Rubicon. Red in her ledger, remember: never let it be said Natasha doesn’t own her penchant for the dramatic turn of phrase, her urge to create coherent and satisfying narrative.)

Steve doesn’t have to turn to any such cheap tricks of personal storytelling. The world has been eager to do it for him.

Natasha goes for answers that she doesn’t feel up to asking Steve for himself, for all that his thinking of her as a friend now might result in him giving her the answers. Or, she thinks secondly, purposefully, that friendship giving her the right to ask in the first place. That part might deserve more consideration from her, going forward.

So she goes and methodically takes in the neat displays, organized with care and precision by a dedicated curator. Makes sure to read every placard, tuning out the shouts of the hordes of schoolchildren in matching neon t-shirts with the ease of long practice.

She remembers the stiff line of Steve’s back as he walked away from her question back in New Jersey, and has her answer. Here in the neat world of the exhibit Peggy Carter is Captain America’s lost love, but is also given her due. War hero. Founder of S.H.I.E.L.D, wife and mother. A male interviewer, beefy cigarette-wielding hand waving in the corner of the frame, asks her in 1972 if she thinks her life’s work would have made Captain Rogers proud. She looks at him steadily and replies that Steve Rogers, in the short time she knew him, had made her prouder than she has ever been of another person. The man asks her if she’s going to answer his question, and Peggy says: oh, I just did.

When she gets to Bucky Barnes, she doesn’t have to do the expected mental recalibration, casting back and connecting the Winter Soldier to the man laughing with his best friend. There isn’t much point of comparison at all. Instead she has to divine forward, connect the laugh lines here, transmuted to the lines of pain and trauma of seventy intervening years. Then you can see similarities through the bloody haze, but she doesn’t know if it’s merely because she’s taking the care to look.

Natasha had maybe thought that Steve Rogers’ goodness was lending him naivete in thinking that there was anything left of Sgt. James Barnes to bring back. She’s still doubtful, but frozen, suddenly, while hearing the narrator’s voice drone on about sacrifice and touching childhood friendship, by a new thought. She wonders at the force of Steve’s love, to be able to see clear through to some intangible core of a person after everything but the most outward markers of humanity have been stripped away, pared to bone.

Natasha doesn’t think she’s ever loved someone that much, and trusted in them that completely, both the love and faith together, to be able to do that. She wonders if it’s just a talent unique to Steve Rogers. Then she wonders, if it was her, if there would be anything essential to hold on to at all. It’s not a question new to her. It’s just that before the answer being anything but no had never occurred to her as remotely a possibility.

***

Natasha had implied to Steve that she’d been content with the idea of being forced into a time out. She had thought so as well. For the first time in her adult life she has no higher power to answer to.

She has no fucking idea what to with herself.

Natasha doesn’t have job hunting to preoccupy her time. For all that she’s sworn that she is taking a break to think about her next step, the even more pressing fact is that after the release of all those compromising secure files into the wilds of the internet, she doubts that there is anyone willing to hire her, even with the countering strengths of her skill set. Anyone willing that she could also stomach working for, that is.

She ends up spending a lot of time in her apartment in D.C. Natasha likes her apartment, although Clint had said it looked unnervingly medical the first time he visited. But Natasha likes the openness of the huge windows and white walls and hardwood floors and spare furniture.

There isn’t anything immaculate about it this time Clint visits. It’s taken on the distinct appearance of a bachelor pad. The walls are still bare, but there’s a huge television covering most of one wall, a disaster of a desk, and takeout boxes everywhere.

“Wow, Nat,” he says with an exaggerated look of horror, “pretty sure there’s stuff that qualifies as a biological weapon growing in here.”

Natasha flops back onto her bed (which after years is still a mattress in the middle of the floor) and says, “Stones and glass houses, Barton.”

Clint throws himself back onto the bed beside her and they lay there for a while looking up at the shifting play of afternoon light on her high ceilings in comfortable silence.

She and Clint had - dated, or been an item, or whatever - once, what seems like a long time ago now. That particular way of fitting together hadn’t worked out, but the affection remained.

The problem had been that Clint had had a lot of expectations of her. Natasha doesn’t blame him for this. It’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t get caught up in living a story like that. You are sent to kill a beautiful girl on a bridge and instead you save her. That girl is an infamous killer and she could have finished you easily, but instead she put down her gun, stepped over the fallen bodies of your team members and joined you.

Clint thinks that they are very similar people. And maybe he’s right. But still she always sensed that she couldn’t tell him none of his heartfelt arguments convinced her to come with him, to turn herself over to his employers. She hadn’t even heard them. With a feeling of being outside her skin and completely inhabiting it at once, she had been perfectly and achingly aware of how very alive she was, of her breath rasping around a broken rib, the uneven and rapid contraction of her ventricles, and reading in it how much she intended to go on living.

Natasha couldn’t say, I know that moment I put down my gun was important to you, but honestly it wasn’t to me. The organization she worked for had been in it’s death throes, petty squabbles and power grabs slowing corroding it, an insidious rot at the core. She had looked at him and only thought: safer, safer, safer. She had made a strategic career move, not had a moment of revelation.

She still isn’t sure if it was Clint who had the expectations, or her. She had dearly wanted to be that person for him, a victim of circumstance, broken down and worn away by violence, inseparable from it but perhaps now given a chance to put it to good use. But she hadn’t been that person until a long time after that moment. Here is what Natasha thinks: the ability to conceive of yourself that way, either damned or saved, is a luxury. Violence and lack of choice takes it away so utterly that you have to consciously rebuild it, that knowledge of yourself as a person who can do things, make deliberate choices, that reach beyond you and affect the world in a way that builds rather than destroys.

She hadn’t been that person then. She still isn’t, most of the time. She’s trying, but she first had to accept that it wouldn’t ever come naturally, and that it wouldn’t ever be enough.

But here and now Clint is a friend, reaching over her to push her top aside and look at the scar on her shoulder. He knows where it is because she sent him a picture of her pointing to it, her face pulled into a look of resigned, cartoonish annoyance.

“Not quite as good as the last one he gave you, but it still does add a certain character.” Natasha bats his hand away. His fingers are always freezing, no matter the season.

“How’s the freelancing going?” she says. Clint had been in deep cover at the time of the whole fiasco, and had returned to New York in blissful ignorance only to find that he was jobless. But Clint knows a lot of people and is able to pick up work with various government agencies or less official channels as he pleases.

“Pretty good. What about you? Been up to anything other than building a weapon of mass destruction in here?” He pokes her in the stomach, like they’re five year olds.

“No, that’s pretty much it.” She can feel Clint’s appraisal, hot on the side of her face.

“Self-discovery not all it’s cracked up to be?”

“Yeah. Something like that.” There’s an honest bewilderment in her voice that she wouldn’t let show with many other people.

“You know - you know this time, it’s for you to decide what you want to do, not who you are. You already are. Whatever you do doesn’t have anything to do with that.” Natasha feels, horrifically enough, tears threatening to form. She’d like to believe it’s that easy. She’s always wanted to buy into that sort of faith, on the rare occasions when someone provides it.

The only thing she can do in return is pay it forward. In New York, looking into Clint’s eerily blackened eyes, she had had no bone deep recognition of the person she knew within. She had thought, it’s so easy to take everything that makes us away. Alien magic isn’t even necessary. But she knows that if it had been her, Clint would have taken the fact that there was something immutable and hers as gospel. So she did too, even if she could never quite believe it.

“Wow, Clint, that’s deep.”

“I am deep. Do you have any booze in this pigsty?"

***

Natasha runs into Sharon Carter at the shooting range they both frequent. It’s how they became friends in the first place.

S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters had possessed a shooting range, obviously, but as it turned out both she and Sharon were of the shared opinion that it was a place to be avoided if at all possible. You always ran into people you had no interest in talking to, but who seemed to have no greater desire in the world than to waste your time with small talk that even with all your training you were helpless to extricate yourself from.

The look of genuine happiness on Sharon’s face at seeing her is what makes Natasha realize that she’s been radio silent in the intervening month, although Sharon herself has called and emailed a couple of times. The etiquette of friendship, Natasha is convinced, is a mass delusion that everyone on the planet thinks they have a handle on, but really it’s all just smoke and mirrors. Still, she recognizes that it’s truly shitty of her, to have made no contact after the revelation that they had both been inadvertently working for Nazis for years.

So Natasha asks Sharon to lunch, on her, and Sharon accepts both the offer and the unspoken apology with a soft smile. God, Natasha really likes her.

They go to a diner near the shooting range, where Sharon gets a kind of gross amount of assorted breakfast food and Natasha gets a slice of pie and coffee.

“How have you been?” Natasha asks first, once they’ve place their order.

“Good. I mean, everyone I know from S.H.I.E.L.D is struggling with where the fuck to take our careers from here, and if anyone will even hire us, but I think I’m going to get that job offer from the CIA. A character reference from Captain America goes a long way.”

“Steve offered a character reference?” Natasha says, smiling.

“No.” Sharon grins back at her. “I asked.”

“I’m sure he admired the get-up-and-go attitude.”

Sharon gives an indifferent shrug of her shoulders. “I wasn’t sure he would, so I chickened out and asked him by email. I didn’t even know if he checked his email. He seemed pretty annoyed about the lying-about-just-being-your-neighbor thing.”

“Steve wouldn’t let his feelings get in the way of helping you out.”

Sharon laughs. “Are you saying he doesn’t hold grudges?”

“Oh, no. He hold grudges like few people I’ve ever met. He’s a champ. He just doesn’t let that get in the way of doing the decent thing, which is what’s so annoying about him.”

Sharon is looking at her speculatively. “You know him pretty well.” Natasha thinks about that while they pause for the waitress to set down their food.

“Maybe,” she says. “But picking up things about people is a habit I can’t break, and we’ve worked together a lot.”

“There are worse things to base a friendship on.”

How about a friend? Natasha is so used to picking people apart, to know without being known. She has analyzed Sharon, too. Ambitious, and tough and warm, giving respect to people that she feels deserve it but with a built-up resistance to hero worship, as a result of growing up in a family with a legacy of impeccable public service. Always questioning, always looking for the practical advantage to press to make things better.

Steve and Sharon are pretty much the best people she knows. She likes the impression of rightness given to a possible world in which they belong to each other.

“I told him to ask you out,” Natasha says.

“That’s why he asked me for coffee when he still thought I was just his neighbor?”

“No. I inferred he thought you were cute and I figured a little push couldn’t hurt.”

Sharon says, “He said in his reply that the only thanks he needed was to take me to coffee when he’s back in the States. ‘If you want’ being the followup line. Then ‘I’m sorry, that was unprofessional’ was the follow-up email.”

“See? Not going to let a grudge get in the way.”

They laugh, and it’s good and when Natasha gets home she texts to ask Sharon to a movie the following week, before she can let herself forget.

***

Steve comes back to D.C. He texts to asks if she wants to meet him for coffee.

Natasha chooses some horrifically trendy place, everything organic and free trade. She kind of expects Steve to grumble about it, but he ends up ordering the most complex thing on the menu with ease. The place is loud, crowded with college students and young professionals, housewives meeting up with their friends to chat. Natasha and Steve pick up their orders and walk.

Steve and Sam had combed Eastern Europe for months, traced any number of leads to dead ends, and had finally been forced to come back empty handed.

“You don’t look surprised,” Steve says. They’re sitting on a bench, in a bubble of companionable quiet amidst the people passing in either direction. Natasha can see the tightness at the corner of his mouth from her peripheral vision.

“I don’t think you’re gonna find him unless he wants to be found.”

Steve’s face is shuttered with a grief that’s hard for her to navigate. She fears the equilibrium they had gained is now lost, with an ease inverse to the difficulty with which it was won. All on her end. She remembers how he had known exactly what to say to her in Sam’s bedroom. She wonders why he called her at all, what he wants from her, what he needs that is uniquely hers to provide.

Natasha recognizes, as if from a distance, that she’s trying to plan her reactions, her words, in order to suit him. It comes as a surprise. She’s so used to doing it with most people, even outside of work, but it’s only now that she realizes she had never much bothered to do it with Steve.

His ability is not so much to see through her bullshit as mere stubborn refusal to tolerate his constant suspicion that bullshit is what she was selling him. Only a handful of people in her life had ever given her the dignity of that. So she’d chosen a different tactic, a settled and constant attitude to take in all their interactions.

Now that isn’t an option. Friendly ribbing laced occasionally with something sharper and more revealing doesn’t have a place here.

“I went to the exhibit at the Smithsonian,” she says for lack of anything better to say. That breaks Steve out of his studied concentration of his hands twining together in his lap, and brings his attention to rest fully on her.

“The one at the Air and Space Museum. About you.”

“Yeah, I guessed that.” He’s smiling now. “Why did you do that? Now, I mean.”

“I realized I didn’t actually know that much about you, Rogers.”

He gives her an arch raise of one eyebrow. Natasha has always wanted to be able to do that. “Oh yeah? Even after two years of working together?”

She just gives him a look and he laughs, holds up his hands. “Yeah, OK. But how is that fair? You don’t have a museum exhibit devoted to you. Most people you’re going to look to make friends with don’t.”

She feels an unnameable facial expression settle onto her features. “Yeah, well, a quick Google search will help them out with me, now.”

He gives another sigh. Steve Rogers is a top level sigher. He can express an entire wealth of emotion in one simple exhale. It’s super annoying.

“What, you haven’t?”

“No,” he says. “I haven’t. Anyway, I don’t think you probably learned anything important from going.”

“You’ve been?” She can’t keep the surprise out of her voice. She can’t imagine being able to stand something like that, if it was her.

“Yeah, a couple of times.”

“A couple?” Now she thinks he looks slightly embarrassed.

“Yeah,” Steve says, with that self-deprecating smile of his. “I mean, in some ways it made it less painful, seeing it all laid out like that. Objectively, you know? Given some...distance. I think it made it worse, too. But I couldn’t seem to make myself stop.”

“Well, now’s your chance to make things right.”

“Hm?”

“Correct the misconceptions of Captain America’s public image. Is there anything unwholesome it left out? Come on, you can tell me.”

Steve laughs, and it sounds genuine, and his shoulders seem suddenly lighter. “We’ll go together sometime, and I’ll set you straight, how about that?”

***

They start hanging out.

It isn’t something they had done before, and they don’t really discuss the change now, but they both are at similar loose ends. Despite her teasing Steve about his straitlaced military habits, they have spent their adult lives as soldiers, in their own ways.

Natasha had thought Steve had been joking about taking her to his exhibit, but as it turns out, he wasn’t.

First, though, they go to the National Gallery.

It’s obviously not the first time he’s been there, from the confident way they head straight for the modern wing and work their way back from there. It kind of bums her out to imagine Steve methodically taking in the museums of D.C on his own, looking innately noble and stoically sorrowful amidst the throngs of tourists. She guesses it makes sense the way he seems to study with special care the Pollock’s and Liechtenstein's, the artistic expression spun out from the years he missed.

They’re standing before Pollock’s Number 1, and she says “Alright, Mr. Art Student, tell me what’s what.”

“Anyone can appreciate art,” he says loftily. And then, with a side glance at where she’s standing at his right: “Guess you got that from the exhibit.”

“You were good. Better than this.”

Steve shrugs. “I wasn’t really much of an art student, to be honest. I only had the money for a couple of classes at the city college.”

“Makes it even more impressive, then.”

Steve starts to look a little shy at her praise, and Natasha feels like she would usually be pulling back at this point, playing it cool or making it into a joke. But, what the hell? Steve frequently looks embarrassed at people’s effusive compliments, but usually those compliments are about attributes vague and impersonal, or achievements he personally had no power over. He can stand to be embarrassed by her about an actual talent he possesses.

“Well,” he says, “you can’t really compare that stuff to Pollock.”

“Yeah, well you were doing stuff that actually meant something.” Now Natasha’s the one embarrassed, and she’s also decided in the last five seconds that she hates modern art.

“Cartoons of monkeys on unicycles qualify as meaningful for you?” Their voices have raised from reverent museum hush to normal speaking tones, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a beautiful early spring day and everyone with any sense is outside enjoying it. This room, and the majority of the rest of the building, is empty.

She rolls her eyes “No, but your portraits. Of Peggy and the Howling Commandos and Howard Stark. They really - capture something. Something essential. In a way a picture of the past can’t.”

Steve’s face is now wearing a look of one part bashfulness and two parts genuine pleasure. Her embarrassment at revealing even a degree of how strangely affected she’d been by the small collection of Steve’s art on display is completely worth that look.

But he just says, “A picture of the past? Pictures today capture a person’s essence?”

“Oh yeah, Rogers. The selfie is a window into the soul.”

***

Natasha opens her computer one day and without pausing to think about it looks up the files she released to the world, ones previously of a security level she herself had not had access to. It wouldn’t have occurred to her to look if she did. What could managerial phrases tell her about things that she had already lived?

With all her experience, she should have known better. Bureaucratic bullshit can have a way of unintentionally casting the clearest light of all.

Lines, written out in the objective language of officialdom in both English and Russian, from a decade ago or last year, about her psychological state or her physical health or her combat skills, rise up from the mire and seem to worm their way under her skin, to take up residence among her bones.

Recruit is aged fifteen, height 152.5 centimeters, weight 45 kilograms. According to our records and her own testimony her background is as follows: resided alternately in orphanages and foster care from the ages of six until the age of twelve, has since been a homeless youth living a hard life on the streets. The writer of this report considers her a promising trainee for this organization’s field espionage division, as she shows high levels of proficiency in areas of testing both physical and mental. However caution is to be exercised as the recruit has shown a penchant for untrustworthiness combined with a lack of susceptibility towards ideological molding.

Gorbunov. He had never liked her, even considering his dislike for all female recruits. Her pliability had never extended to buying into the hollow lie that the Red Room was performing acts of patriotism, an independent agency doing things outside the reach of any government or treaty, the true heir to the golden age of Soviet espionage. No one else but Gorbunov bought it either, so it had never been a problem.

Maybe that was why they had never been infiltrated by Hydra. There is a sort of terrible purity in killing solely for the highest bidder. That could be the key to her belated conscience: there are no qualms to be had when you cut out the messiness of for the greater good. It wasn’t that S.H.I.E.L.D and going straight revealed moral ambiguity, it’s that it created it. Man, Natasha is good at thinking up these faux-philosophical bon-mots. If she was only capable of buying her own bullshit, she would be able create a smug cage of self-righteousness that could protect her from doubt for the rest of her days.

The training of the recruit given the provisional codename of Black Widow is proceeding satisfactorily. Only one incident of note, a verbal altercation with an official, the punishment for which was two days of solitary confinement.

She remembers the practical aspects of her training in muscle and sense memory, a second set of instincts that have come to subsume the first. The rest of that time is recalled rarely, and always in the way one remembers events during a fever.

Natasha remembers the woman in charge of the female recruit’s dormitory, a woman known only by the ill-fitting moniker of Matron. Still a lovely woman in her forties, the rumor told to Natasha when she first arrived was that she had been a field agent, a good one, who had made a mistake, but she had been the mistress someone high up so she hadn’t been killed for her error. Instead her life, all she could hope from it for the future, was to be the nursemaid to twenty teenage girls who were having their girlhood carefully stripped from them. Matron smiled constantly because such an ingrained habit is hard to break, but every girl there had imagined a bitter twist to it, after hearing that origin story.

Matron took a different tactic with her charges than the rest of the officials did. No meetings across vast desks in chilly rooms buzzing with fluorescent light.

Matron would find recruits when they were alone in the dormitory and descend with a faint sigh of perfume to sit beside them on their bed, concerned and intimate. She would start off chatting about inconsequential things, like the content of pictures cut carefully from magazines that Natasha and the rest had carefully taped to their assigned stretch of wall. Most girls had pictures from fashion magazines, and Natasha did too, but most of hers were liberated from a box of dusty National Geographics she had found, of forbidding landscapes and the surface of distant planets.

The woman, who’s real name Natasha only learns looking at files now, was good at her job. She became every girl’s only true confidant, an object of mingled resentment and longing. Natasha gave her everything without realizing it, so Matron could pass it on to the men in those intimidating offices, so she and they knew exactly where to cut, exactly what to excise and what to cultivate. Natasha had reached this conclusion independently a long time ago, so there should be no reason for the cold yawning expanse that opens in her chest at having it confirmed.

Natalia has complicated and painful feelings about her mother, a drug addict who surrendered custody to the state and never visited the orphanage after, and died when she was ten. Has romantic notions about a father she knew only from a photograph. A desire to please male authority figures is a driving impulse.

After her first two years of training, in which she learned twelve hours a day, weapons and hand-to-hand combat and five languages, she is given provisional status and assigned a handler, a middle aged, jovial man named Davydov. He’d taken her out to dinner to celebrate. He’d adopted a conspiratorial air, an implication that they were the only two people in on the joke, with the knowledge of the absurdity of the whole violent enterprise. “But,” he had said with a wink, over the glasses of wine that made her feel unbearably grown-up, “that does not mean that we cannot have fun.”

No creed or ideology could touch her, but she would have walked across coals smiling to let Davydov know that by God, she was amused, she was not taking a goddamn thing seriously, that three years of dealing death under his watchful eye were the biggest laugh she could conceive of, just to get his benevolent confirmation that she was his very favorite.

The operative Black Widow completed the mission objectives for her assignment in Warsaw dating to 24.03.00 with due diligence.

It had been March and still bitterly cold, remnants of the last snowfall a filthy slush lodging its way between Natasha’s boot and skin with every step. She had to meet a balding, nervous man in an abandoned lot. He thought he was trading a chemical weapon for a great deal of money, not a bullet.

She doesn’t remember having a response to the sudden ruin that fell at her feet. She remembers the white roaring in her ears, the dead calm that had descended. She remembers most of all how the only thing she could think of, in that eternal moment before she pulled the trigger, was one of Matron’s favorite bits of advice, out of the roster of phrases she had drilled into her student’s minds: Men will always be surprised, because they have limited imaginations, and this you can use. Natasha remembers thinking, with a hysterical laugh, that he hadn’t looked surprised. He hadn’t worn any expression at all.

***

“I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid,” Natasha says.

They are standing in the Apollo to the Moon exhibit at the Air and Space Museum. Steve had looked like he was going to jet straight towards his exhibit, but Natasha had insisted they might as well do it properly. Apparently Steve has never bothered with the rest of the building, which cracks her up.

She can’t remember talking about this to anyone for a long time. It comes off vaguely obscene, she’s always thought, to raise the specter of her child self, small Natalia who had the lofty ambitions every kid has, to be a ballerina and a gymnast and an astronomer.

“Can’t say I ever did,” Steve deadpans. “Why?”

“Why?”

“Yeah, why did you want to be an astronaut?”

“I thought I’d be the one to reclaim the honor of the Russian space program.”

Steve looks a little blank.

“Sputnik? Yuri Gagarin? You do know about the moon landing, right?”

He laughs and says, “Yeah, that was a fun night of internet surfing,” while pulling out that little notebook of his and writing down the stuff she’s just mentioned, asking politely for elucidation on correct spelling.

“So you were just interested for reasons of national pride?”

“No,” Natasha says slowly. She hasn’t really thought about it, but now the answers rise to the surface of her mind easily, light and buoyant.

“No. I liked how little nobody really knew anything about space and it was the one thing people were okay about admitting they knew nothing. I mean, I thought wanting to be anything normal or useful, like a teacher or a doctor, was overrated. You were just doing stuff that people had already done before and copying it. I read about all those Soviet firsts and wanted to have one, too. Then I wanted to be a fighter pilot so I think I just liked the idea of beating records.”

Natasha doesn’t mention the feeling on reading for the first time the accounts made by Apollo astronauts for the first time, seeing the earth spread out in its entirety below them. The idea of that weightlessness, that escape, the tether tying you to anything at all cut completely. She’d been an orphan by then so maybe it was odd that the idea of that utter isolation should appeal so strongly. But the knowledge that from up there absolutely everyone is alone, and mortal and helpless and impossibly fragile, at the mercy of the thinnest layer of protection against icy nothingness. Everyone, not just abandoned little girls.

“So you with space is like me with baseball. Got it.”

They go to Steve’s exhibit. She’s heard people express shock at the idea that something as simple as a hat or a wig is enough to create multiple identities, but Natasha gets that human beings generally only see what they are already expecting to see. People aren’t expecting Captain America to hang out at his own museum exhibit, but more simply they probably don’t fathom Captain America as doing much of anything when he isn’t saving the world or uncovering vast government conspiracies. For the American public, he might as still be on ice, returned to photographs and decades old newsreels to wait out the intervals.

There’s a panel with simple, fun quiz-like facts, fit for kids.

Natasha lowers her voice to match the pitch of the narrator a few feet over. “Steve Rogers' favorite color: blue. Favorite school subject: art. Favorite food: apple cake. Really?”

Steve rubs the back of his neck and looks like he’s regretting this. “I have no idea where they got that.”

“Is it?”

“What?”

“Your favorite food.”

“Well, I don’t know about favorite. I’ve tried a lot of new things in the last couple of years. But yeah, you can’t go wrong with apple cake.”

She points to the closest panel on the left. “Apparently they asked some of your old neighbors in Brooklyn for their recollections of you.”

“Anything good?”

“‘I always liked Steve better than that Barnes character, not that they weren’t both fine boys,’ says Agnes Langella.”

“Well, that was true until the eighth grade. Then she liked Bucky better. Then about the time we graduated she liked me better again.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Bucky never led girls on intentionally...”

“Hey, you don’t have to make excuses to me. Teenage boys aren’t subject to the laws that govern the rest of us.” Not that Natasha’s known many teenage boys.

They move on to the part of the exhibit that deals with Steve’s service. Black-and-white newsreels showing the heroic and neat ends to the Howling Commandos raids, and interviews with the elderly participants recalling their glory days.

“Did you feel like what you were doing mattered? At the time, I mean.”

“Yeah. Although sometimes it was easier to ignore that feeling.”

She’s confused. “What do you mean?”

Steve shifts on his feet. “When we had to do - well, stuff they don’t show here. Somehow trying to hold on to the reasons why - freedom and justice or whatever - while you're - interrogating a HYDRA agent you’ve found, and he’s younger than you - it makes those words just words. It makes you feel like the meaning behind them has been lost and you aren’t ever going to get the sureness back. So I tried not to think about it too much at all. Not a nice thing to admit but…” It trails off into a shrug that starts uncomfortable and then settles into a gesture of acceptance.

Natasha loves Steve Rogers, she realizes then. A definitionless, wordless love, painless and almost unbearably tender all at once.

“Well, you should feel good now. The pointlessness of our lives has been made clear to us.” But she reaches out and bumps her hand with his, the lightest of touches. Steve rolls his eyes at her, then takes it in his own.

***

Natasha has known about Steve’s running list kept in the notebook. She admires the honesty in his comfort with his own ignorance, how he’s willing to pull it out and write something new down in front of anybody.

When Natasha had first got to the States, when after months of interrogation and psychoanalysis by S.H.I.E.L.D employees she was finally released to a degree of freedom previously unknown to her, she had been similarly adrift in the sea of American popular culture.

In her first apartment in Manhattan, paid for by S.H.I.E.L.D, one of the first things she had gotten had been a television. It had seemed a symbol of autonomy to her. She remembers the one television shared by all the recruits. It buzzed with constant static and only got two channels that never really played anything good but the fight for it’s control was the most obvious expression of the constant power struggles, the most potent symbol of who was on top.

But this set had been nice, and she had turned to the internet for help in guiding her. In her first busy weeks as an agent she had been surrounded with innuendos and references to film and television, because it turns out the people who work at ruthlessly efficient intelligence agencies are total nerds. Natasha knew the importance of speaking the language of a place, the language beyond and below any official tongue. So she got to work.

She went through greatest movie lists, carefully compiled by critics and enthusiasts alike. Natasha had not been discriminating when it came to genre, but she did deliberately focus on the areas of cinema which seemed to be of particular relevance.

James Bond, in general terms, bears little resemblance to Natasha’s own espionage work, but it does get some things right. All that time spent in hotels. Natasha has spent more of her life in hotels than human beings were made to withstand.

Natasha has always known the importance of managing the expectations of others. She comes to see this cinematic odyssey as something of a lesson in doing just that. Everyone knows the first half of her story, or thinks they do, framed as it is along specific narrative lines: a deadly assassin-for-hire who has decided to devote herself to the fight for good. Film, it turns out, gives her an excellent starting point to begin building the rest of it for them.

The men in these specific sorts of movies (and it is always men, women confronted with new found pangs of conscience merely commit one poignant act of sacrifice and then die in a picturesque way) give her some good tips on how to act in order to achieve this with minimum effort. Their typical response when asked a question on the state of their soul by some idealistic character who doesn’t know what sort of movie he’s in, is, she has found, pretty effective.

They stare silently, with manly pathos, out over some thematically evocative landscape, like open water, or the glittering lights of a metropolis viewed from a roof, or maybe the corpse of the aforementioned woman. Then they respond with something cryptic but also completely meaningless, or maybe a story about their childhood, maybe about their dog or something, people love dogs, and the dim fucker that they’re saying this too suddenly looks at the shady cop/spy/gangster/vigilante with grudging new respect.

She has less to work with, in terms of set pieces. Usually it’s while on reconnaissance someplace like in front of a highway strip joint or maybe in an office somewhere, but cryptic pronouncements given while staring into a distance of cubicle desks has the same effect. People eat that shit up.

She does this, in a bizarre inversion of the same principles of performance taught to her years ago. Give people just a bit, the bare bones of a picture they already know and they will color in the rest. It isn’t the same picture for everyone, of course. Endless shades, wildly varying degrees of animosity or generosity can exist within it.

That is the first motivation, and then there is the second that she has never been able to shake although she has long recognized the futility in it, which is the theory that if she can just act out the same the same paint-by-numbers tale she’s telling that she will start living it, and if she lives it long enough it will become true, a formula, an equation, a mathematical approach to absolution.

It never succeeds fully because it is always balanced with the knowledge of exactly what cheap illusion she’s creating. She knows this: her life is one of chaotic and meaningless violence, and any attempt to give it structure, substance, a lesson, a point, is the height of indulgent bullshit. It’s like trying to take a mess of blood and bone and brain matter and add those disparate bits of gore and try to assemble a person out of it.

That painful and childish hope, that possibility of a final and irrevocable act of transformative magic, is almost too heavy to bear. It’s easier to mock those swept up by it than admitting to yourself you wish the same would happen to you.

Steve, that day at Sam Wilson’s house, caught her in a moment where the scaffolding of everything that had allowed her to continue in that delusion had been destroyed. It was nothing that he said or she said in response that strikes her now, but the way she said it, the bafflement in her tone, the knowledge that she had no plan for what she would say next, and what she would say next after that. Steve, that simple honesty inherent in him, was the conduit that has allowed her, she thinks now, the truest moment of grace in her entire life.

It’s a terrifying thought. She avoids his calls for an entire week after that.

***

Another thread:

A S.H.I.E.L.D report on a mission she was a part of, early days, that finally broke up a long-running human trafficking ring.

They had pulled a dozen women from a newly arrived cargo container and most of them were silent and stunned, but there was one girl who would not or could not stop screaming, a piercing wail that went on and on, only occasionally catching on actual speech. Others attempted to speak to her in a variety of languages, but Natasha is the first to recognize the Albanian words, distorted as they are through terror.

Natasha spoke to her, in the the language she knew, and the girl, whose name she never learned, had stopped suddenly, a blank relief so consuming descending on her features that it seemed that the scream was the mechanism keeping her in motion and she had slumped over, head on Natasha’s shoulder.

Natasha hadn’t said anything important or comforting, nothing but nonsense, and after ten minutes she had passed the girl into the hands of people actually equipped to help her. But she remembers stopping at a convenience store on her way back to the city, and going into the bathroom and staring into the mirror, her face a similar smooth mask.

She knew that most of her work would not be so straightforward as rescuing stolen women. She hadn't been overwhelmed with a feeling of warmth, of purpose. But she had looked at that face, as always seeming like that of a distant acquaintance rather than her own and thought: alright, this is who you are going to be. For the first time, she had felt herself to be equal to the promise of that girl on the bridge, in a filthy bathroom, all alone. A covenant formed between herself and the woman in the mirror. She had felt it settle on her like the most welcome of chains.

***

One evening she goes over to Steve’s apartment with a pretty impressive collection of booze, which she shoves into his arms as soon as soon as she finds him in the kitchen.

“Here,” she pronounces. “Let’s put that super metabolism to the test and see if you can’t out drink me.”

Steve gives her a look like well that’ll be easy but he hasn’t seen her throw back yet.

Three hours and a small fortune in liquor later she’s wasted and she’s fairly certain that Steve has achieved tipsy. He was giggling earlier, but now he’s staring solemnly into his empty glass.

“Did you read those files that you gave me? About the Soldier?”

“Rogers, I warn you now I am not equipped to handle this conversation at present.”

At least that’s what Natasha intends to say. She has a feeling it comes out a bit garbled.

Then Steve looks at her and she reassess. She doesn’t think he has a buzz at all. Maybe he was just reacting to her own intoxicated state. Is sympathetic drunkenness a thing?

He smiles at her. “Noted. I was just curious.”

“Yeah,” she says. “I did take a look.”

Steve’s jaw works, and she can see that he’s struggling for words. “Do you think - I don’t know. I think sometimes I’m an idiot. To think even if I did find him, or he found me - I’ve had stop thinking about it in terms of bringing something back. That isn’t fair to anybody.”

“That sounds the opposite of idiotic to me.”

“‘Complete mental sterility.’ ‘Extensive memory alteration.’ ‘Kill order programming trials executed without complications.’ ‘Do not touch the operative in a context outside of achieving mission goals.’ I thought I was ready for whatever those files held. But you were right.” Steve twirls his cup loosely between his hands. “I wished to God I’d never opened it. I had to force myself to keep reading. I threw up once. Did you know I hadn’t puked since 1943?”

“‘The training of the recruit has been effective enough that the risk of the goals of an individual personality overriding organizational objectives is minimum.’” Natasha offers up. Before Steve can ask she says, “Something somebody wrote about me once. I’ve pulled on some threads of my own.”

Her voice is coming out hoarse and she takes another quick swallow of whatever she’s drinking, because she has the uncomfortable suspicion that this entire conversation is sobering her up quicker than she’d like.

The silence stretches between them, a taut wire across which she wishes could send some comfort, or receive it.

“Steve, I would like to say something profound about how we’re more than what they write about us but honestly most days I don’t have any idea if that’s true.”

“Not even pretending to know everything now, huh?” It’s a statement that should come out sharp or mocking or accusatory, anything other than what it actually does, as a strange blessing.

She has something flippant to say right on the tip of her tongue, something about Steve and his talent for making her forget what’s good for her, but instead: “Why did you stay on that helicarrier? Was it some death wish?”

Steve doesn’t look surprised that she’s asking. “Sam asked me that too. I didn’t really know until I started talking about it. Because the weird thing is - this entire thing was the first time I realized that I was of the world again. I had been without even realizing it. So it wasn’t that. It was just that in that moment that’s all that mattered, you know? Despite realizing that I wanted to live in the world, this one - I couldn’t give up on Bucky. I couldn’t let him fall again, not alone.”

Natasha gets now the exact shade of Steve’s grief, all that love and desire so powerful it dredged up some long-dead feeling in the Soldier dissipated in the disappointment of a trail that led nowhere. I’ve had stop thinking about it in terms of bringing something back. The knowledge that all the strength you might possess wouldn’t be enough anyway.

She gets that, the despair of a story gone of its rails, continuing after the credits have rolled and being left with something strange and uncomfortable and aching and difficult instead.

The one where you’re left with drinking a lot of alcohol to humor a person who doesn’t know how to say she just wanted to spend time with him, with no goal or reason in mind.

She’s so glad he’s not fish food at the bottom of the Potomac she could cry, but instead she just tells him she’s spending the night. He offers the guest bedroom, but she doesn’t make it off the couch. He’s nice enough to throw a blanket over her.

***

Everything settles into a relative equilibrium, slightly dull for Natasha’s standards and therefore kind of exciting in it’s own way.

Then a HYDRA cell that’s been hiding right under their noses decides to make a desperate and doomed play against - well, it isn’t really clear who. Just wreaking havoc so they can die in some imagined noble last stand, Natasha supposes. It’s like ten guys who have been stewing in a bunker for the past six months. Even with Sam out of town and no S.H.I.E.L.D for back up Natasha and Steve suit up and take them out, freeing the hostages they’d taken. Their choice of target was, inexplicably, a candy store.

When you no longer have any super secret double agents embedded in organizations of vital importance to national defense, she figures the options are kind of limited.

The only thing notable, and it’s a pretty big one, is the sight of glinting metal both Natasha and Steve catch as the sniper that just opened a grisly cavity where a hostage takers face used to be sprints away.

By unspoken agreement they go to Natasha’s apartment after a very confused debriefing by members of multiple government agencies who all thought they took precedence, because it’s a lot closer and by that time the skies have opened in an early summer thunderstorm of biblical proportions.

Steve takes in her apartment in the doorway, after she’s swatted his hand away from the light switch with a firmly spoken, “Strict no overhead lighting policy here, Cap,” and is navigating her way towards a lamp on the far side of the room.

“Why is your bed just three stacked mattresses in the middle of the floor?”

She shrugs as she turns on a maze of lamps, casting the room in a soft glow and dissipating the dim mid-afternoon twilight that had filled the room, gray and strained through the rain drilling against the windows. “I just never changed it. But don’t dismiss it. That is scientifically the most comfortable bed ever.”

“Scientifically?” Steve looks doubtful and having set down his duffle bag is scanning the room, obviously in search of a place to sit.

“That’s it. No couch.”

He looks completely scandalized. “You don’t have a couch?”

“Why would I need one? This is a king sized bed and nobody but people I actually like visit. My mattress is your mattress.”

Steve is looking like he wants to say something else but doesn’t. Instead he walks over to her perpetually unmade bed, turns around, and flops unceremoniously backwards, just like God intended. The springs don’t even offer up the smallest noise in protest. It’s an incredible bed.

Natasha stands over Steve and stares at him upside down. His arms are thrown out, the ends of the fingers of both hands nearly making a bridge from one end to the other. His eyes are closed in a sudden surrender to an exhaustion that still can’t disguise the growing frown that is creating a ridge between his eyes. Natasha pokes it. “C’mon,” she says softly, almost guilty at breaking the cocoon of silence, the comforting susurrus of the storm. “Let’s order some take out.”

***

After they’ve eaten their weight in Thai food, Steve wanders around her apartment, restless, examining the bookshelves and idly picking things up at random and setting them down again just as quickly.

“So do you want talk about it?”

Steve says nothing, thumbing through her copy of Cosmos without really seeing it.

“Your knight in shining armor.” At his hurt glare she raises her hands in apology. “Sorry. That wasn’t cool. I’m not good at this, you know that. I figured you might want to give it a try anyway.”

“Thank you. But no. Not right now.” Steve says it kindly, but Natasha still feels an absurd stab of hurt at the admission. She isn’t a person people want to talk to about serious things, and she’s encouraged that, but looking now at Steve’s clenched jaw she wishes that was different. Natasha realizes, suddenly and with no warning, the way all of her emotional discoveries happen, how important Steve’s genuine attempts to be a friend have been to her, combined with the aching realization that, months on, Steve is not really doing OK, and it’s taken all that time for her to truly notice.

She wants to be his friend, as well. She hopes she doesn’t fuck it up before she really gets the chance.

Steve turns around to face her so abruptly that she nearly takes a step back.

Then he’s kissing Natasha, and she’s so surprised she thinks she let’s out a squeak. Really she should be better than reading a room than this. She’s let down her guard with him so totally that she’s utterly failed to read him, and she doesn’t know how to ask.

But she kisses him back, because she can do this for him. When that thought registers, she almost steps back, pushes him away. In the last half-decade she has been careful to conduct all her sexual relationships in a way completely determined by spontaneous impulse. A glimpse of capable hands or the vulnerability of a bared throat leads to desire, desire leads to follow though, no plan, nothing more lasting available, exits always in sight. With only a couple exceptions, she hasn’t fucked people she has a chance of seeing a week down the line.

Natasha doesn’t like the feeling of intent, of thinking about how if she isn’t good at giving comfort in words, she is good at giving something with this. But from the way her hands have buried themselves in Steve’s hair, of from the small, involuntary sounds she’s making, she wants some comfort too. She realizes that maybe she isn’t really OK either.

Steve has gotten some practice in kissing, Natasha can tell. She decides to table that thought for later. Despite that initial brutal movement where he had stepped toward her, he’s being really gentle and polite a now, cupping the back of her skull tenderly, his thumb stroking the divot at the base. It’s throwing her for a loop, a weird case of cognitive dissonance because of the mismatch between the way their bodies are interacting right now and the way the way they’ve been relating to each other for all these months. She wants to make the two match up.

Natasha remembers the ease with which he had borne her back in the hospital, the knowledge that it was only enabled because she was cooperating, the feeling of teamwork and collusion a strange comfort even when she felt most lost. She flips him back onto the bed with one simple movement, and hears his undignified squeak, as he bites his own lip.

“Don’t be a baby,” she says and his huff of protest shifts to something else when she bites his neck.

She decides that there are benefits to having sex with people you know, occasionally. She likes knowing he likes when she pulls on his hair. She likes that she guessed right about him liking to be told what to do, because of course she’s thought about this, who wouldn’t? Natasha loves that that desire butts up against his ingrained stubbornness towards doing anything she says without a question or argument in response, so it ends up pretty much the noisiest and most talkative sex she’s ever had. She likes that when he eats her out he looks up at her constantly, that he is so obviously turned one when she shows him exactly what she wants. She likes that when he fucks her that her whispered “I won’t break, go for it,” is enough convincing for him to do just that, that her thighs twinge pleasantly and her scalp tingles and the purpling bruise on her shoulder is going to last for a week. She likes every bit of it, every bit of him.

***

Natasha can’t help herself. In her defense, she can’t imagine anybody who could.

She and Steve face each other afterwards, on their sides with no part of their bodies touching. They make pretty intense eye contact, though. It’s kind of weird. More vulnerable than cuddling or whatever the fuck ever she imagines Steve might like to do post-coital. Natasha can see a resolution forming on his face, probably to talk about this like adults or something but she’s feeling content enough right now that she decides to delay that for a later time.

“So did I just have the honor of deflowering Captain America?”

“Oh my god.”

He looks slightly pained as he says, “No. Sorry to disappoint.”

Natasha squints at him suspiciously. Steve just shrugs, a wry almost smile on his lips. “I’m always honest, remember?”

“Yeah, because you are a terrible liar, Rogers.”

Good on Sam Wilson, she thinks. He’s really taking his patriotic duty seriously, unless some kindly citizen of the former Soviet Bloc decided to help Steve out, but she doesn’t think so.

Natasha wonders if she should be worried that Steve’s apparent approach to his current mental state is fucking his way through his roster of friends, but it isn’t her business. She has to resist the urge to say who’s next, Fury? But even she’s not quite that much of an asshole.

“Okay, I believe you, but you have to admit my surprise isn’t uncalled for.”

“What, did you think I was saving myself for marriage?” Steve’s a funny guy.

“No, but I didn’t think casual sex was quite your wheelhouse.”

“Who said anything about casual?” He says it softly, and suddenly he isn’t looking at her. The light from the lamps, all situated behind him, limns the impossibly fair tips of his eyelashes gold for a moment, then gone. His eyes on hers, the blue eaten up by pupil and odd shadow.

“Are you gonna ask me to go steady?”

“Nah. There’s a lot of room in not casual.”

“I agree. You’re full of surprises, Cap.”

“It’s just - I’ve lov - cared about people before and I never - never got around to showing it - like this.” Steve doesn’t really blush as much as his head slowly catches fire from the neck on upward. Not that he blushes much. Natasha knows because she’s tried.

“I guess there’s no time like the present.”

“Yeah, coming back from the dead really throws that into perspective.”

“That’s the lesson you took away from your miraculous resurrection? To get laid while you had the chance?”

Steve sputters a bit, then he’s laughing by the time she says, “OK, I think we’ve had enough of a heart to heart. I’m going to sleep, and I expect breakfast in the morning.”

***

Steve does make her breakfast. Then he asks if he can draw her.

Instead of answering immediately Natasha rubs her thumb and forefinger together and raises her eyebrows at the sketchbook he’s holding defensively in front of him. To her surprise, he hands it over to her with willingness, even eagerness.

Seating herself at the bar in the kitchen, she starts at page one and works her way through carefully. Steve starts in on the dishes instead of staying to watch her.

The sketchbook is almost full, but it doesn’t look like it was begun that long ago. Sam Wilson is there in the very first pages and throughout, both in portraits he’d obviously sat for and others from memory. Smiling and serious, still and in motion. Here Steve had tried to capture Sam in flight, the sense of easy weightlessness, of working with currents of the air rather than against them. Here he’s running, the powerful long strides of his legs captured, with the whimsical latter addition in pen of tiny wings adorning his tennis shoes.

Midway through the book, there are pages filled with collections of sketches of an old woman, every evidence of advanced age drawn with a kind of solemn tenderness. Bits of anatomy highlighted and singled out, like the incredible thinness of the skin on her vein-webbed hands, strained through some unseen source of light.

There is is a lot of Bucky Barnes.

There is something different about the pencil marks that form Bucky’s features over and over, even more frequently than Sam’s. There is a heaviness, a focus, weighing the graphite down, occasionally nearly tearing through the paper. It has all the fury and barely restrained despair of a failed conjuring act, portrayed in every possible guise Steve has known him in, from teenager to weapon, as if Steve is attempting to will him back into being, in whatever form he might choose to take.

“None of me?”

Steve smiles, comes around to stand beside her again, hands in pockets.

“That’s why I’m asking.”

“Let’s do it. How do you want me?”

He drags over one of her kitchen chairs to a window, has her sit and then makes seemingly pointless adjustments with her in it until he’s satisfied.

After a few minutes with no sound but the striking of his pencil, the shouts of kids on bikes in the street below, Natasha says, “You should take some art classes.”

“Hold still.”

“I am holding still. I mean, I’m just saying. Have you? In the 21st century?”

Steve pauses. “No. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

Natasha waggles her eyebrows at him. “If you can handle drawing nudes from life, Rogers.”

“Well, we can practice here first. Make sure I don’t embarrass myself.”

She laughs then, and he says, “Hey now,” but there isn’t any heat behind it.

“Okay,” Steve says, after he’s erased and made some corrections and Natasha has behaved herself for a while. “I’ll take an art class if you take an astronomy class.”

Natasha can think of a thousand things to say to that. But what she does: “Alright. Deal.”

“Do you want to take a look?” Steve says after a long while, blowing the pencil shavings from the page.

“No.” Natasha smiles. “Keep working at it. Get it just right. Then you can show me.”