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After Me Comes the Flood

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“Interpol approached me for a job.”

Steve looks up from his milanesa tacos and nods, slowly but encouragingly. As if he could just picture Natalia Alianovna Romanova in a windowless office in Lyon, surrounded by ulcer-ridden crime fighters turned bureaucrats.

The stone bench underneath them is warmed by sunshine, and in general it’s a beautiful day out here underneath the flagpole by the Memorial. Natasha tells him, “They want to me to assassinate one of their General Assembly Members.”

A beat. His lips curl into a smile. “Nat. I’ve looked up Interpol.”

“Right, my bad. It was the U.N.”

::

So Natasha’s search for a new employer isn’t going too well. There is the Avengers Initiative, of course, but that is hardly a regular paycheck, and some of its members are…unavailable these days.

It’s true that she doesn’t have to bother with sending in her resume. If any competition for a position came up, she’d send them running for the Hill with just a smile. And she wasn’t kidding Steve: She has been approached by various entities from around the world, governmental and…less so. Some of these offers came from respectable nations, some came with pension funds and stock options. Some were decidedly suspect, some were little more than a chance to kill either a sizable number of people or herself. Items in Column A? Freely interchangeable with items in Column B. Natasha has lately pondered a world where that isn’t necessarily the case.

Rogers is rubbing off on her.

In order to find something else, Natasha first has to find herself. Since she could walk and since she could talk she has been part of a much larger collective. Natasha has always thought it at once odd and perfect at once that her birth year coincides with the title of Orwell’s most famous novel. She's unimpressed with a good percentage of Western literary canon, so full of malcontent men. And yet -- taking a leaf out of her chosen nation’s book -- a log cabin near a forest may not be the worst idea. Could be she’s ready for a bit of the old self-reliance.

Her phone pings, gently: PRIVATE MISSION DELAYED URGENT MATTERS REQUIRE YOUR HELP - STEVE

Or not.

Someone -- Darcy Lewis, probably -- needs to teach Steve the finer points of text messages. Natasha is not a stickler for punctuation. But she likes not wondering whether her very specific skillset is needed, or whether Steve needs her.

Which in and by itself is food for thought.

::

“Sam,” she says into her microphone. He doesn’t respond. Natasha can forgive him, seeing as his alter ego is flying zig-zag just outside the entrance to the complex to dodge bullets. His wings flash, the late evening sun reflecting off the polished metal erratically— or so Natasha thinks at first. When one of the black-clad goons with AK-45s in the doorway blinks twice and Sam shoots him with great precision, she reconsiders.

She takes aim, and care of two others. Freed, Sam flies upward and swoops down at an impossible angle. It’s his boots that fell the last lookout.

Falcon, indeed. She leaves cover behind her Corvette and sprints across the street. No gunfire, no grenades. Good.

Sam straightens and stands, wings folding almost silently. Stark has outdone himself, but then again, as he told them, around here we call that Wednesday. Sam’s eyes are as keen as his namesake’s, and Natasha finds it unlikely she’ll ever tire of his smile. “Hey. You late to the party.”

“People keep using that word with me,” Natasha says, ”but I don’t think they know what it means.” She jerks her head at the building. “I take it Steve’s already inside?”

“What do you think?” Sam sounds long-suffering, which is…about right. Every day with Rogers counts as ten normal ones. “Couldn’t wait to take out half of this mob crew.”

Of course Steve couldn’t. Give the man an organized crime syndicate raiding an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D pharmaceutical lab three-thirds on its way to a cure for Alzheimer’s. And with Stark and Banner tied up, Thor gone, and Clint running interference for Fury one whole ocean and half a landmass away, it would end up -- well, exactly where Natasha and Sam are now. God bless Pepper for her generosity regarding gear.

“Ready to give him a hand, or four?”

“Hell, yeah.”

The first corner is no problem; the second one ends up in a skirmish. Sam is good on the ground — not as good as he is in the air, but his reflexes are fast for a normal human. Deeper down in the building, gunshots sound. And then, there’s the metallic clang of metal hitting metal. No ordinary metal either. Out of the corner of her eye Natasha sees Sam’s head jerk, nod at her. She nods back, and they both turn toward the source and start racing down corridors. The linoleum is slick under her boots, and the dark holes of the air vents she passes blur into one long line. Natasha tries to not think about airborne chemicals. She doesn’t fear many natural germs, not any more, but man-made substances…

When she sees the red pinpoint of fire in the darkness of the main lab, she dives, and the bullet whirrs past her. Sam, slightly behind and to her right, curses, his shadow disappearing from her peripheral vision. But he himself doesn’t, not quite. “Natasha,” he says, mellow voice less so through the static of her earpiece, “seen from the entryway to the lab, there’s one guy at three o’clock, and another one at eleven.”

“Roger,” she says, and no, it’s not lost on her. “Cover me?”

“You’ve got it.” And she has. They both have, in fact. Within sixty-seven seconds Sam and Natasha have cleared the room. No one is left standing but themselves. No one.

Steve is lying still and face-up on the far side of the room next to a rotary index table. His eyes are closed, and there is blood all over his forehead, matting his hair.

Natasha’s body does what she tells it to do, with great precision. But here and now, her rib-cage feels too tight. It’s too soon after watching Nick be declared dead in a D.C. emergency room; too soon after seeing Captain America unconscious in that hospital bed after they found him on the banks of the Potomac.

“Steve.” Her knees hit the ground, her fingers already on the side of his neck. Under her fingers, his pulse is slow but strong, and the grey edges of her vision recede. “Sam, he’s alive.” Frankly, she’s getting a little tired of men in her life lying on or near medical equipment.

Entering her line vision, Sam’s jaw unclenches, and he too sits down just a little too hard next to Steve. “Jesus. If this is what you folks do every day, I gotta ask for the weekends off. And did I mention holidays?” Deftly, he slides his fingers down Rogers’ chest, his abdomen. There is no visible blood, but Wilson’s a Pararescue who would know better than to be deceived by outside appearances. Sam leans in, “You’re right. He should be okay. Looks like a killer headache for Captain America, though.”

Steve’s lips twitch at that, and a heartbeat later his long lashes flutter. He doesn’t quite manage to open his eyes at first try, though. “Didn’t your mama teach you not to say mean things about fellow soldiers, Sam?”

Natasha feels a smile of her own coming on. “Shut up, lie back, and let the professionals take care of you, Rogers.”

If he weren’t who he is, he would crack a joke at that, but since this is Steve, he just looks up at her with those eyes. Her hand is still cupping his face, and he lets his own hand come to rest on hers. “Okay, Tasha,” he says, and surely it’s the hit to his head that makes his voice so soft.

::

Steve bounces back.

Not literally, this time around. He’s sitting on a wooden bench and studying the painting on the wall across the room. It’s ten-forty on a weekday, so there are only few DuPont Circle tourists scattered around in the gallery, and none right here. The white walls are high and the wooden floorspace empty enough that even Captain America looks almost small in the middle of the room. He’s wearing a simple white t-shirt, loose enough to not showcase his muscles so much, and khakis plus a baseball hat -- the one tried and tested for anonymity. The ceiling lights are focused on the paintings, not the people. Natasha is sure Steve likes it that way.

“Should have known I’d find you in the Made In America exhibit.”

He looks up and doesn’t even seem surprised. Pleased, though, because his smile is real. “Good morning to you too, Natasha.”

She walks to stand behind him. As ever, Steve is radiating heat and smells familiar. Natasha strategically positioning a large pack of Old Spice in his bathroom cabinets almost two years ago has paid off in spades. Now she is more than happy to lean in and peer over his shoulder.

“Georgia O’Keeffe, Ranchos Church. Good choice.” It is. It is a picture of a building, but of course, Steve Rogers likes infrastructure, and no one could say he lacks perspective. “Do you like her other work?”

Steve tugs his baseball cap off and twists his neck to catch her eyes. His hair is half-flattened, half-trying to stand up. Natasha wants to run her fingers through it. “Nat, are you asking for my opinion on the œuvre of an artist that had every art student in Brooklyn struggling to get a look at paintings that influenced American modernism with its relation to vanguard developments in Europe by depicting emotions and object power through abstracting the natural world?” Spoken very mildly. “Or do you mean those interpretations of her flower paintings?”

Natasha tilts her head in acknowledgement. “Touché. I’m actually coming for you because we need to head to Capitol Hill. Robert Kelly went on a rampage this morning.”

In one fluid motion, Steve stands up to look at her. “Is everybody okay?”

“For the time being. Kelly was eventually subdued.” With the help of Natasha and ample usage of her Widow’s Bite, but that doesn’t matter right now. Neither does the little discussion she had at Longworth House when the call came. ”There’s more, though.”

Steve’s face is wary. There always is more. “You’re talking about the politician -- the one who believes women should be in the kitchen and folks like us on a list?”

She nods. “United States Senator. Another Republican putting the ‘Grand’ in ‘Grandiose'.”

When she starts moving, Steve follows, falls in step next to her. “Parts of it are on the news already. Just after the floor opened this morning, he pulled out a paralyzing weapon in the Great Rotunda and fired at will.” Natasha refrains from adding that everybody in Congress was genuinely stunned for once.

Steve frowns. “Why, and what kind of weapon?”

There is no camera in the room they’re just passing, but Natasha still grips his sleeve and goes on her tiptoes to speak into Steve’s ear without moving her lips. “A Neutralizer Ray.”

She has a perfect view of his -- perfect -- profile and the way his jaw goes tense. “But that weapon --”

“Shouldn’t be in the hands of any civilian, let alone someone like Kelly. I’ve talked to some people,” well, technically only two, but Maria counts for three or so, “and we believe we know what happened. I can brief you in the car.” They have reached the lobby, where an elderly African-American couple almost walks into them, glancing with great interest not just at great traditions of the past but also the people present: Steve and Natasha. Or, in their eyes, more like Captain America and The Black Widow.

Who have a mission and no time to be gawked at. Steve shoots a vague smile in their direction before making use of his cap again. Natasha slips her Audrey Hepburn sunglasses on, lifts her scarf to cover most of her hair, and the two of them make it out of the building with minimal further attention

::

Natasha should sleep well after a day’s work well done. Instead, she dreams.

She dreams of snow and gunfire, of rough wool under her fingers and an ache in the tips of her toes while a bell clangs impatiently. She dreams of men with neatly trimmed beards and even trimmer uniforms, blue and pea-colored but mostly, red -- a star, on the brims of hats and the lapels of vests, and the front of another uniform.

Natasha jolts awake and swallows the metallic taste in her mouth away. This is new. So it really shouldn’t feel as if it’s old. She rolls out of bed, walks through the double doors of her bedroom into the living room, empty except for the purple satin sofa just by the windows. There is no need to turn on the light for this, for running through thirty-six kata until her muscles burn but her mind is clear and feels like her own again.

Back under the covers, Natasha curls into herself. When she falls asleep this time she does sleep through until morning.

Chapter Text

The cursor blinks, slowly as only a crummy internet cafe cursor can blink.

It’s also possible Clint is just being himself when he answers. He would say he’s all about proper aim and a steady arm. Natasha, of course, would say he’s an aged-out circus boy whose reflexes aren’t what they used to be.

[21:24:14][SCHUTZMANN] not really. we smoked out the local base. you?

[21:24:20][GANZ_IN_WEISS] still working on it.

[21:24:30][SCHUTZMANN] that’s 3 for 1. are you losing your touch?

[21:24:35][GANZ_IN_WEISS] you should ask the man I took down yesterday.

[21:24:43][GANZ_IN_WEISS] you should ask him as soon as he regains consciousness, that is.

[21:24:56][SCHUTZMANN] had been wondering whether that had been you. good. still, these are skirmishes. not the main battle. I miss you in that one.

The back of Natasha’s head itches. She rubs it absently, then tugs her hoodie back to cover her face. It’s easy for Clint to say so -- out there in Düsseldorf and in Frankfurt, all about focused missions and precision strikes to help take down H.Y.D.R.A elements of the strongholds in Europe. Barton’s personal information is out there, thanks to her. But his face has not been plastered across millions of tv screens. When she is one woman in Small Committee Room number five with three male Representatives, it is not the same angle that Clint has from one of his rooftops. They’re complementary, not the same.

Natasha re-reads his last sentence.

She misses Clint too, his off-color jokes and tendency to take naps. It’s not a ying-yang situation; human beings are much more complicated than that. But this fight is harder without the Hawkeye to her Black Widow.

[21:25:40][GANZ_IN_WEISS] the battlefield looks a little different now. and you know I’m not for the front lines.

[21:25:51][SCHUTZMANN] yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve got soul but you’re not a soldier.

Natasha feels her mouth twist. She is very certain about the latter, at least.

[21:25:58][GANZ_IN_WEISS] And don’t you forget it.

Everybody else seems to.

::

“So, gone on that date with Sharon yet?”

The line of Steve’s shoulders solidifies. He sets the last dried plate down on top of the stack in the cupboard and closes its creaky wooden door. The dishtowel swung over his shoulder barely moves. Natasha has a drying rack -- in one of her hideouts, anyway -- and Sam has a dishwasher, but Steve Rogers insists on doing the full dishes, washing and drying by hand, if they’ve had one of their rare real evening meals at his place.

“No.”

He places the towel on its rack and takes both of their Starr Hill bottles, carrying them across to the living room. Natasha hops off her seat on the kitchen counter and saunters after him into the living room.

They both avoid the table in the back by the window, heaped with of papers, maps, and reports: print-outs with thick circles drawn in red questions marks after words like “sighting” or “assassination.”

Not only does Steve Rogers have actual coasters on his couch table: They’re fan memorabilia -- red-white-and-blue, Captain America’s star in the middle. Steve sets down their beers on them and makes a gallant motion at the couch before fiddling with his stereo. Natasha listens to the beats, feels her body relax almost automatically. Inner City Blues.

Oh, Steve.

She sits down on the sofa and does him the favor of not perching on the armrest (he not-so-secretly hates that). She’s not necessarily doing him any other favors, it seems. When she started working on improving Captain America’s solo existence a few short weeks ago, she expected something to stick, at some point.

Steve moves to the couch next to her and does this thing where he quirks his eyebrows and smiles and seems perfectly pleased, as long as you lack all common sense, and also basic perception skills. “You know, I don’t really need you for these particular date recommendations.”

Natasha received that memo around the time the two of them raced across the wet walkways of a mobile satellite platform disguised as a ship in order to save hostages, respectively to gather intel.

She just hasn’t really gotten around to reading it so far.

She keeps her voice light, teasing. “Seems to me you need someone, though.”

His mouth really does have the most interesting moves. “I’m not saying that’s not true.” Unusually complicated for Captain America. Natasha waits for him to continue. “Still, I was talking to Sam and realized a few things.”

Sam. Given what she’s dubbed The Bucky Situation, that would make sense. Natasha lets her mouth overtake her brain, for once. Sam likes Steve; Steve likes Sam. Houses on fire etc. pp. “Cap and The Falcon?” She hasn’t seen most of them, but she knows enough about them by cultural osmosis: “Sounds like a Disney movie.”

Steve Rogers snorts at that. At her. It’s -- actually, it makes her grin. “Nat, look. It’s not Sam, not in the way you think. We’re not seeing each other. Now, I know you’re perfectly capable of bantering the hell out of this for five more hours, adding Aamir from what used to be Operations and Tommy at the previous front desk --”

“No worries.” She sees Steve’s furrowed brow, so she doesn’t draw it out. “You are far too good for Tommy; he bites his fingernails.” She’s not even lying; it’s just mostly that when said Tommy handled her badge, she saw the faint imprint of a wedding ring on his finger, and really, Captain America deserves better than being the rebound. “Should reconsider Aamir though. He’s really fit.” And single, because she overheard him complain about the dating scene for lonely young gentlemen in D.C.

“Nat.” She has resisted torture and worse; she has turned down offers that would have had her rule as queen of admittedly small corners of the universe. But Steve Rogers’ baby blues…

“Fine.” Natasha pulls up her legs and tucks them underneath her. The couch is warm, soft. Steve’s apartment is not well-insulated, but he does have a wealth of knitted and quilted blankets lying around. “Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it.” The words have barely left her mouth when she gets a good look at his, the way Steve’s tongue darts out and the clench of his jaw turns a fraction more sardonic. “You have tried it and failed.”

“‘Fail’ is such a strong word.” Steve has clearly kept in touch with his Avengers, because that phrase would suit Tony too. “But, yeah, back in NYC I went out with Beth a few times.” Natasha runs the name through her mental database -- right, the woman from the coffee shop later interviewed on tv -- and nods at Steve. “We couldn’t really...connect. Like I said, any shared experience was missing.”

From the way he looks down, even though there is no blush on his cheeks or any fidgety movement to be seen: They did try to connect on on a physical basis. So much for Steve’s kissing skills.

Natasha softens her voice, but she doesn’t mince her words. “Welcome to romance in the twenty-first century. There are no other genetically engineered super-soldiers just shy of a hundred years joining OKCupid.” She doesn’t mention Barnes, because, well. That man won’t join an online dating service any time soon.

(If the historical content of that file was even partially correct, he won’t ever, in fact.)

“I know. I know, Natasha.” He looks at her, almost angry, and there’s that spark that’s not Captain America but pure Steve Rogers. The guy that challenged an Algerian mercenary with a body count in the hundreds to to a no-helm, no-shield duel on the slippery deck of an ocean cruiser.

“And there’s no British officer keen on me either.” He must have watched her face closely, because he laughs a little. It’s not a happy sound. “You don’t know everything. But I find it hard to believe you don’t know about Peggy and what happened to her.”

Natasha does; she did back when she asked him in the bunker too. The first time of meeting Steve on the helicarrier, she knew what’s now on display in the Smithsonian -- that, and more. She’s not sorry for lying. Intelligence is her thing. And yet. “I know you never got that dance. I’m sorry for Peggy, Steve.”

She is. She has lost people she loved, but not two of them in such a short time-frame. Natasha is used to slow bleeds and savage wounds, but she doesn’t claim she knows what it’s like to have both heart ventricles pierced within the span of a few days.

Steve is still looking at her. He’s not terrible at intelligence either. Silence is an extremely effective tool to make the other person talk, if only you can stand it. Natasha can; she plays that game to perfection.

But this man is not her mark. He’s her friend. She lets her voice drop a register. “This isn’t about replacing the people you’ve loved and lost. No one says you have to find a lady or gent to woo and marry.”

He raises an eyebrow, Now we’re getting somewhere. “But I should find someone.”

That was the plan. Her own recent plan, not S.H.I.E.L.D.’s or Fury’s, although some of his brusque reminders that Rogers may need some pointers for his social life made her feel more justified. Natasha keeps her voice low and soft. “It’s been two years, Steve. I wouldn’t be doing this if you’d already found yourself a new barbershop quartet.”

Steve’s mouth quirks. “Dating three people at once doesn’t seem right.”

Funny, but. “Dating just one doesn’t seem so wrong.”

There’s an audible thump when Steve lets the back of his head fall against the soft headrest of the sofa and slumps against its back. He doesn’t usually let go physically; among many other things Captain America is the poster child for tight-core movement. He has her undivided attention now. “Natasha, I’ve been doing S.H.I.E.L.D rescue and recon for Fury; I worked with --” he draws in a breath, “Rumlow and others on missions from A for Amanat to Z for ZODIAC. You know because sometimes, you’ve been there for them. Now I have Sam, too. Why the push for dates now?”

“Because all of this is work-related, and we have already established you’re not really in a romantic relationship with Sam, Nick, or Brock Rumlow. Or Beth.” That one, at least, had been news to Natasha. Not a surprise, mind you.

Steve stills, and tension flows back into his body. He turns on his sofa cushions to look straight at her. “Sex to cure it all, Nat?” Clearly Captain America isn’t all that old-fashioned or squeamish any longer when it comes to talking intercourse.

Just his luck that she isn’t either. She doesn’t avert her gaze. “Cure some, at least.” Orgasms aren’t miracles, but they are the endorphin kick to end all other natural endorphin kicks. They soften and sweeten, bring sought-for sleep. And most importantly, they help connecting people. Natasha knows from experience — hers and others’. And if anyone needs an oxytocin rush, it’s this lonely yet so straight-backed rendition of Captain America.

Who can look amazingly disapproving without moving more than 10% of facial muscles. Now, the Steve Rogers she knows is no prude, and he comes from a different era: War doesn’t let people wait for marriage certificates; it fosters relationships of need and love and, yes, desire, that have little to do with biological sex.

And, he learns so fast and he learns so well. Steve wouldn’t have forgotten that humans need to bond regardless of any perceived effect on morale. Or morals.

So that leaves some other options.

“Rogers, I’ll let the dating thing go now and forever if you tell me honestly that there is no one you can imagine yourself with at this point. Just say the words.” Now she does look down. Hard to tell, even for herself, whether that’s a Black Widow or a Natasha move.

She hears him breathing out, too slow not to be a conscious effort. “I can’t do that.” When she looks up his face is still, but there’s nothing calm about him. “And you know -- or at least suspected that.” For a moment his beautiful mouth is a barely-there line, but after all he’s one of the bravest men she knows. “That I could imagine you and me.”

A hot spark travels up and down her spine, takes a detour to flicker between her legs. Natasha thinks about Steve’s hands wrapping roughly around her arms, out there on the ship. About the way his thumb and forefinger left grooves in her skin when he shoved her from a hospital corridor into a patient room. She definitely shouldn’t sit on an afterschool-special panel for kids any time soon, because these are not bad thoughts at all. “It was one possibility.”

Steve has never touched Tony when he wasn’t Iron Man in his impenetrable suit -- not even when Stark the man needed a good shakedown far more than she deserved after her little bubblegum stunt in said corridor. That one was the spy equivalent of a love-tap.

Captain America has been the Black Widow’s comrade in arms. Natasha has always felt safe with him (even when she could feel his muscles trembling in barely restrained fury). This is no exception. She could feel his flash of desire, too, when they were talking about her in a bikini, when she kissed him on the escalator. But such notions can be fleeting in ways other relationships aren’t. “You asked for a friend.”

“And I needed just that.” He doesn’t turn away. That would be easy, and as long as she’s known Steve, that’s not the path he tends to choose. Instead, he too pulls his legs up and wraps his arms around them, facing her on the couch: Natasha’s mirror image, in space if nothing else. Natasha finds herself staring, mostly because it’s another motion at odds with his frame, the kinetic energy he always carries around.

His feet are bare, and she finds herself distracted by his toes before he continues. “I needed a friend, not a handler, not a seductress, not a -- a cure.” Now it’s his turn to drop his gaze. “Guess in my private life I never much cared for the Black Widow.”

She’s faintly amused that Steve Rogers believes he has had such a thing as a private life in the first place, but she tamps down on that feeling. The rest of her emotions are far more important.

Natasha usually has better plans. Or rather, she has plans at all. Here, she is woefully under-prepared and over-heated. Bad idea though it has always been, she wants Steve.

She has for a while, and it’s not because she saw Captain America in a tank top on a bed, all soft and vulnerable -- though that really didn’t hurt. She thinks of a car ride to nowhere and the way Steve Rogers made her feel. It’s not a good idea; it never has been, or she might have volunteered (except, no; that’s not who she is). Natasha exhales. “But you care for me.”

Now, finally, Steve smiles a little. “Yeah, I really do.” He gives her that little half-tilt of his mouth again, and his eyes are warm enough to melt the ice they pulled him out of two years ago. “I like the Natasha I see these days.”

Interesting. Natasha is off her game -- hell, she’s off the grid, by being so prominently displayed on it: right there in the public eye she might as well not make any move at all. But she isn’t hating it. Far from it.

Nick has discarded everything he was and everything he had; Maria has donned business suits instead of uniforms and is playing nice with Human Resources folks in skyscrapers across the Eastern seaboard. Spies take to change like ducks take to water. And Natasha has been a spy since she could walk and quack.

“I guess that makes two of us.” Natasha lets her words hang, realizes that they are true. She wouldn’t have chosen S.H.I.E.L.D had she known. Funny that they both, Steve and Natasha, hate living a lie.

As ever, though, the devil’s in the details.

Steve’s smile is still soft. “I don’t pretend I understand you -- you know that’s a tough call.” Oh, isn’t it ever. “But you’re not the opportunist these panels painted you as. You’re still changing. For the better.” The right side of his mouth twists. “Doesn’t have to be the best in the sense of moral high ground. That one still seems to be terribly abused out there.”

Natasha can’t help it; she laughs. Steve knows what he’s saying, and yet he totally doesn’t. At some point, he probably will, if he sticks around. She wants him to. She also wants a tape recorder, but that’s for petty, political reasons (most of the latter are).

Natasha is quick when she wants to be, but so’s Steve. When she moves across the sofa, she does end up in his lap, just as intended. There are, however, also Steve’s hands locked around her biceps, stronger than steel. Holding her in place. “Nat.”

Yeah, his stern voice is a huge deterrent. But she doesn’t pout and wiggle in his lap, and she doesn’t break his grip in earnest, either. Instead, she relaxes her muscles -- well, most of them -- and simply looks at his face. “Steve. I want this, and you do too.” She’s smart enough, through the rising heat inside her, to add, “as a human being, not an operative. No mission here.”

His grip doesn’t lessen, but his eyes drift shut for just a second. Steve has long lashes, just as she’d catalogued as a matter of fact in a previous life, when he was Captain America, doing his duty for the motherland, and she was Black Widow working for S.H.I.E.L.D.

She’d like him to fulfill some more hands-on obligations right now.

“Hey,” she murmurs, and his the pressure of his fingers eases up. It’s not hard to lean forward all of a sudden, and tilt her head just so that her lips brush his. Steve’s breath hitches, and unsurprisingly that’s music to her ears. When Natasha kisses him, his mouth opens, and the first (non-pretend) touch of his tongue to hers is electric. His hands on her start spreading, stroking her, gently running down her arms. His lips are soft, too. Her teasing in the car aside, he’s not actually a bad kisser; she had after all caught him off his guard on the elevator.

He lacks the finesse most of the guys she kisses have mastered at some point, either recreationally or as part of their job description. Steve doesn’t fall into either category but could easily be more aggressive with her. A part of her, though, likes the kind of sweetness other women will appreciate.

Breathing is still a necessity, though, and eventually they pull apart.

“Hey,” he says when they both come up for air. His eyes are wide and full of light. Natasha can’t look away. “I like this kind of practice.”

“Me too,” she murmurs, and she’s not lying at all. There is a significant part of her that wants to drag Steve Rogers to his bedroom and strip him naked and ride him for a good long time. He’d be up for that -- and how -- but she doesn’t want him to regret it in the morning. Regret her.

Natasha leans in and runs her nose along the shell of his ear, and he shivers. “Steve, tell me how fast you want to take this. You can also tell me to stop or do things differently at any point. I’m good at shifting gears.”

“Apparently.” He glances down at his lap where she is shimmying a little. “I want -- can we just keep doing this for now?”

“Yeah.” His right hand on the side of her face is gentle, and when Steve combs his fingers through her hair and along her scalp; when he pulls her body firmly against his with his left hand, it’s Natasha’s turn to close her eyes against the sensations. “Yeah we can.”

They don’t leave the couch that evening. And while their clothing stays and Natasha doesn’t, she counts it as a win.

Chapter Text

She wants to avoid loss, too.

Natasha’s not Captain America, who would be severely disappointed by some gent or dame even approaching someone else’s gent or dame. But she respects her comrades. Steve understands people, especially in war, but he’s not exactly an expert at romance.

Which is why, after a long shower and a beeline for the dead-drop at Union Station, she sneaks into one of Sam’s sessions at the VA. It is interesting to watch him, up there at the podium. He’s warmth and understanding; he has no judgment on offer but is all reminders of responsibility. When one burly veteran with a raised red scar across his shaved skull starts to cry — ugly, heaving sobs that shake his body — Sam’s one of the first in the room to reach him, checking in and making eye contact first before enveloping the guy a hug.

Natasha isn’t certain what Sam says to him, exactly, but she is certain it’s the right thing. Because everybody calms down, including the man in question, and Sam even manages to pick up the session. Two other veterans speak, two women. When a visitor in the back sneers at the former officer called Kendra talking about her difficulty to find a relationship again, Natasha makes sure that he leaves the room rather prematurely.

Afterward, Sam comes over. “Thanks for making me look awesome in front of everybody.” He smiles, but the question in his eyes is serious.

“You’re welcome. And there’s nothing to worry about.” Natasha says, and it’s enough of the truth at this point. “I just wanted to check in on you.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Sure. Let me grab my stuff, and we can go to my office.”

Water bottle and file folder in hand, Sam climbs the stairs and Natasha follows. If Natasha had to pinpoint the smell of the place, she’d call out cheap linoleum soap and frustration. Sometimes a place is its own cliché.

“I’ve been trying to wrap things up — find a replacement for me here, taking care of my group in the meantime. There’s some paperwork.”

“I have heard of paperwork.” From Russia with love. Natasha thinks of tales of stamps and documents filed, each page carefully initialed; she and her kind never encountered much red tape -- no pun intended. “Even without that, though, it’s quite the call: rearranging your life to follow Steve on his quest to find the Winter Soldier.”

Natasha remembers trying to follow that mystery assassin’s tracks after Odessa, cold fury and hot scars in her belly. She couldn’t jump from rooftop to rooftop yet, but as for conclusions -- well. To find the Winter Soldier, she went far, but not far enough. Or possibly not fast enough. She isn’t sure about their speed, but Natasha has no doubt Steve and Sam will go as far as they need to. The man is an integral part of Steve’s story, and that means Sam is making him part of his too.

He rolls his shoulders, once. “It’s the right thing to do. Bucky Barnes is the key to an international conspiracy, and he’s Steve’s friend.”

“You’re Steve’s friend too.” She keeps her voice and face neutral.

Sam slants a look at her, fiddling with his key and putting his shoulder in to push the door open. “Mmh. Come in.”

Surprise, it’s an office -- probably one that generations of counselors have used before Sam. Natasha is no Veteran’s Administration or US-American governance expert, but these folders with their yellowed papers are not from the present. They look more like what she remembers from the motherland. They, too, are full of the fallen. Specks are dancing in the beam of sunlight that comes in through the window. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, Natasha thinks. Out loud, she says, “Nice place.”

As intended, Sam laughs, and her mood lifts a little. He bends to lift a few files -- if Natasha looks because she is human -- and clears a wooden chair for her to sit down. “Just wait until I hang the curtains and add a row of flowerpots or two. So, what can I do for you? More crimelords trying to swoop in?”

She settles into her seat and takes a moment to appreciate a man in a flying suit who can serve a bird metaphor without blinking owlishly. “Probably. This is about Steve, though.”

“Oh?” People don’t usually manage to make her feel foolish, but here’s Sam uttering this one syllable and lifts one suggestive eyebrow.

Natasha thinks of Brazilian metropolises, of children that weren’t, and places built for healing not burning. She has said and done many things, and they usually worked well given the circumstances. But sometimes it’s better to take a different turn. Doesn’t always mean you have to burn the tracks to the ground. “I like Steve.” It’s plain; it’s true. “But he deserves someone who can --”

“Okay, let me stop you right there.” Sam manages to sound apologetic, yet not. “Doctor’s order not to correct assassins, but here’s how it is: Steve is in a dark place. He needs every bit of help he can get. From each of us.”

Natasha did not get where she is by not listening. She nods.

“Right.” Sam leans forward across his desk. He even clears a path on it so Natasha and he can see eye to eye without anybody craning their necks around paper piling on paper and yet more paper. “Way I see it, I may think he’s the best thing since sliced bread. I’m just also the guy who helps him get through shit. Cope with trauma. By being his wingman,” and he flashes a soft smile at her that’s all I know it’s cheesy, but what can I do?, “his brother and his buddy, for the time it takes him to find Bucky, at least.”

“You’re saying you’re his counselor.”

He tilts his head slowly. “Not the first option I would’ve chosen with American Hero Extraordinare.” Sam’s brown eyes remain steady and clear. “Or maybe I would’ve. All I’m saying is, I got Steve’s back. I want him to get better, and that’s all I want for now.”

Natasha thinks about want and need. Steve’s, hers. “I’m not that selfless.” She has little experience in helping anybody on a personal level. Unlike Sam, she doesn’t heal for a living. She tries not to hurt any more, any more than necessary.

Sam’s smile doesn’t slip, but it looks a little...sad, almost. “Yeah, look. I’m not giving Steve away like some father at a wedding. He’s his own man. And hey, so are you.”

He is good to her -- Sam is good period -- but at the same time telling her to woman up. Not many people do. Again, she misses Clint. “Being your own person makes it harder, not easier.”

His tongue comes out to wet his lips. “You and I come from different places.” Silky eyes, but there’s steel in Sam’s voice. “Doesn’t mean it’s not better in the end. And I think you know that already.”

Given that she had a choice, that she took it just like Fury did, Natasha doesn’t disagree. Speaking of, it’s time to bid her goodbyes to Sam. She does so with some degree of gratitude even though Sam would reject that, and rightfully so.

::

Natasha is not a traditionalist.

She has been in the Georgetown Public Library for almost twenty minutes now, and the man behind the counter has been unable to procure her pre-ordered 5th edition of Akhmatova’s Evening.

“We do have the 3rd edition here. Surely that will help you at least somewhat? It captures more of the, err, spirit of the original 1912 edition, I understand.”

From a poetic perspective, the librarian has a point (more verisimilitude in that one, not to mention a certain clarity in its formalism that Natasha thinks gets lost in translation to contemporary American English). From a practical perspective, Natasha makes him move Heaven and Earth, read: a few library stacks.

Desired book in hand, Natasha enters the bathroom. It is busy enough, full of students in jeans and sweaters with proudly-proclaiming letters on them. Who, basically, look like her...until she enters the stall on the far side. Exiting, no one would mistake her for a college student any more. She’s wearing a two-piece pant-suit -- sleek but not high fashion, hair pulled up in a bun and wire-rimmed glasses on her nose. Like this, Natasha is just another young intern on the Hill, and no one give her a second glance that isn’t non-professional.

There’s a grove in Dumbarton Oaks that has no eyes on it: no cameras within, and what’s more, no cameras without. Trees provide protection from the sun...and from other bodies in space that would otherwise record her every move.

With the proper fifth edition of Evening, it still takes Natasha almost an hour to decipher the letter she took out of the Union Station dead-drop: a typed one, not even stemming from a typewriter.

No, not a traditionalist.

She reads the letter carefully, line by line. Her chest shouldn’t feel so much lighter, but it does. Nicholas Joseph Fury is dead. He still speaks to her through the ether and through pages like these ones. Clint would add that Nick Fury is even more grave these days.

Natasha takes out the phone she purchased near the tracks and punches in a number. “Can you talk?”

A breath of silence and the faint sound of echoing footsteps for one minute, for two minutes. The Stark Industries facilities are substantial. Natalie Rushman remembers them well.

A click in the background, another soft sound of doors opening. Maria Hill’s voice resounds, low and familiar. “Now I can.”

“No eyes and ears?” Tony Stark is the poster child for high technology: Natasha has seen him and his suit on glossy prints in lockers, on teenagers’ walls. He may want to give his employees a sense of comfort, of course, especially given his background and the industry. But he would want to be able to know -- know everything.

“I do think so. Just not here.”

“Where are you?”

Maria laughs softly. “In his office.”

Natasha knows her own smile is coloring her voice. “So, about the message from our mutual friend…”

::

Tonight is not a night for her Corvette. She likes that car, likes it without sentimentality, only a deep appreciation for its functionality and looks both. But Steve asked her where she would like to be picked up at nineteen o’clock.

So here she is by the curb at the Middle Eastern Institute. Natasha didn’t expect the flutter in her stomach, but then again maybe she should have. She enjoys it all the same.

She hears the roar before she sees him: Steve on his Harley, the new model the corporation pushed at him, hard, singing the praises of a brand of rugged American strength gone urban. He didn’t resist it too much. Steve Rogers doesn’t always know to pick his battles, but he’s much better at it on the metaphorical level.

Driving up to her, slowing down, coming to a stop, he smiles as if he can’t stop. “Natasha.” Although his hair is yet again a mess when he takes off the helmet, Natasha doesn’t think he could look much better than he does here. He is wearing a dress shirt in a shade of blue that brings out his eyes, and a light blazer underneath his motorcycle leather jacket. “May I offer you a ride?”

There’s already a matching smile on her own face, so Natasha finds she only has to nod. “You may.” Warm fingers curl around hers for a moment, brief but firm. She remembers his large hands on the skin in the small of her back just the night before, blinks away the memory. Natasha swings her leg over the saddle to nestle in behind Steve. Her black pencil pants and mid-thigh boots don’t pose a problem. “What would you have done if I’d worn a dress?”

He looks over his shoulder and smirks like the boy he must’ve been almost a century ago. “Picked you up in that little rental by the corner.” He tilts his head and kicks off. Following the motion of his nod, Natasha sees a parked Mini, red like her hair and the lipstick she is wearing. “Nat, you’re not the only one able to do recon.”

On a whim, she rubs the bridge of her nose across the short hairs on the back of Steve’s neck and is gratified by his slight shudder. She stretches to reach his ear with her lips, gets a stronger whiff of soap and his scent. He smells good enough to eat in lieu of dinner. “Don’t worry. Since New York, I’ve known you’re no toy soldier.”

The buildings and trees of Pennsylvania Avenue race by before they make it to their destination.

“Marcel’s, Steve?”

His cheeks are flushed, but he only offers her his arm. “Yeah.“ He takes his jacket off, secures the bike, and in they saunter. She feels muscles shift underneath her hands, likes it. Steve had clearly procured the reservation required, and even if not -- restaurants are unlikely to turn away Captain America.

“Bon soir. Vous nous proposons un menu gastronomique accompagné de vos savoureuses bières aujourd’hui, non?” Steve’s French is somewhat slow, but it’s confident. Sometimes Natasha forgets that for him it has only been a good two years since walking on war-torn European soil, talking to his Howling Commandos, to French soldiers and British officers.

The maître d', a dark-haired gentleman wearing a rose-colored tie with his dark suit and a warm smile doesn’t blink. “Certainement, monsieur, et toutes les bières sont brassées localement selon une recette du chef de cuisine et donc sans additifs artificiels ou chimiques.”

Steve looks at her. “Natasha, aimes-tu cette sélection?”

“Ça marche -- ça marche bien, merci.” She does like craft beer when she does not drink vodka or wine, but mostly she likes that Steve is trying to please her while playing to his strengths. She’s been wined and dined in castles and mansions and on the rooftops of skyscrapers around the globe. She does not recall a French-Belgian restaurant with a set menu of speciality beers. Steve clearly recalls their beers together. He might not be able to get drunk any more, but that doesn’t mean he cannot enjoy their taste.

Between tablecloths, picture frames, and neat rows of cutlery, Natasha gets to just look at Steve. Maybe she finally understands this date thing people do a little better. Steve seems calm enough on the outside, but perhaps that is a little too calm given the situation. He uses the right knife for everything and wouldn’t look too concentrated if you didn’t know what to look for. She wonders who or what taught this kid from Brooklyn something he clearly doesn’t seek out on his own. He does tuck into the Belgian Mussels with Chimay Gratinée and thyme cream, though, which Natasha files away under Captain America comma enjoyment of 21st century foods. Of course, his considerable payout -- seventy years of it -- must come in handy in moments, in locations like this one.

She’s stating nothing but the truth here. “This is delicious.”

He looks around, but not for long; his eyes focus back on her, drop to her mouth. “I’m glad you like it.” His eyes are a little wide, but Natasha doubts many people would see it. Steve is not a lost boy, and privately she thinks he is not even much the man out of time the media paint him as: Steve is well-adjusted in the sense that he adjusts well.

On the outside, at least.

“I’m good. Are you?” She likes seafood and she likes rich continental flavors; both of those are sorely missed sometimes. She would be a terrible spy if she didn’t keep an eye on what everybody else likes, though.

Steve pushes his Cervena Venison and Foie Gras around on the plate. “I’m glad to be with you, here.” His smile is real, but. There’s the pause before here, and there’s also the fact that the scribbles she’d seen on the maps and file folders on his den table had been full of frustration and impatience, fruitless searches.

She puts a purposefully delicate elbow down on the table, cups one cheek, and continues looking at him.

He stares back for a heartbeat, then glances sideways, into one of the mirrors on the walls. “I just wish things were easier. That Bucky hadn’t run -- that he had left a trail, at least. One I could follow without going back all the way to the Ukraine.” He presses his lips together. “I would go there; that’s not the problem.”

Natasha feels for him. Not like he himself, but she thinks back to her own quest for -- for closure. “The problem is that you don’t know whether you can follow from there.” If all the death and destruction of Bucky in D.C. didn’t help Steve to pinpoint The Winter Soldier, it is unlikely his years-old legacy in the Black Sea city would help much. Not that Natasha recommends such a trip much at the moment.

“Yeah.” His frown shouldn’t be so compelling. “I pulled on that thread, Natasha, but all I got is a tangle.”

She doesn’t tell him anything along the lines of I Told You So; he is this country’s Golden Boy, still, and he is bright in ways many of its inhabitants never fully grasped. He could have succeeded where she didn’t.

“I’ll keep at it.” Now that sounds like Steve, alright. “S.H.I.E.L.D may be gone, but not all good people are.”

Natasha made a conscious choice when she did not offer to help: her career, her calling. Her life. James Buchanan Barnes is Steve Rogers’ ghost. He is, of course, also Sam Wilson’s ghost now.

Maybe it’s time to make a different call. There is precedent.

“If we’re talking competence, Rogers, then you’re right they’re not. I’m willing to throw my hat in the ring.” Again, she doesn’t say.

His mouth opens. He looks genuinely startled. “That’s not -- Tasha, I didn’t mean to badger you into joining me and Sam. You have your own things to worry about.”

When Steve Rogers is right, Steve Rogers is right. Natasha isn’t sure she herself isn’t wrong at this junction. But she has been following the paths of the powerful for a long time now. It may be time to change it up a little. Re-group. Literally.

“I’ll have to finish something here in D.C.” Three things, in fact, but -- details. “After that I will help you find Barnes.”

She doesn’t recall a time in recent history, at least, that anyone looked at her the way Steve Rogers looks at her right now. Even now, he is overestimating her knowledge and reach.

If only that gave her less of a buzz.

“Thank you. I appreciate it very much.”

They manage to finish their meal, but they don’t stick around for dessert. When she suggests, sotto voce, to return to his place, Steve doesn’t hesitate and doesn’t stop except for red lights.

Barely at his apartment door, Natasha can’t hold back any longer and runs a fingernail along his arm. Steve lets out a strangled sound before pushing an arm behind her shoulders to cushion the impact of the wall when he moves in to kiss her. She knows she’s flushed by the time they let up, breathe. “Let’s go inside.”

That he manages just well. Inside, they don’t bother with drinks or couches but head straight to the bedroom.

“Tasha. Tell me this isn’t a one-off thing.”

It’s not a plea; it’s a demand. At the same time Steve isn’t fool enough to ask her to go steady to the end of times. Truth be told, right now? She’d promise him -- well, anything short of Top Secret information. “No. No one-off thing.” Her heart is beating far faster than expected. For a split second, Natasha is glad for his hands at her elbows, steading her. “But beyond that I can’t promise you much.”

Steve Rogers has soulful eyes to begin with, but it still sends a frisson of feeling through her that they turn even more so. “I know. Same here.”

The Winter Soldier; this quest with Sam Wilson. Natasha has had friends, brothers in arms and fathers of sorts. Steve’s bond with Bucky is similar yet different. Only time will tell how things shake out with Sam and with Bucky over time. There are things she does know, though.

Steve’s dress shirt is loose enough; its hems lift up when she tugs at the fabric. He snorts, but it’s a good reaction, in part because his nose crinkles in ways that make her want to kiss it, in part because he reaches down to help her lift it higher, across his shoulders, and toss it away.

She’s seen him naked, of course. Natasha has never been anything but an avid student of history. He catches her stare, and the corners of his mouth twist. “Believe me, I still wake up and look at the mirror and -- yeah.” When he licks his lips, she follows the movement of his tongue more than the echo of his words, “Turnabout is fair play, though.”

Steve doesn’t make the mistake of groping her breasts, or tickling her by ineffectually petting her. Instead he cups her jaw with both hands and kisses her again, more confidently this time. He starts unbuttoning her blouse. Natasha is grateful to whoever taught him this in the modern age (or any previous one). It gives her time to run her hands through the deliciously bristly short hair of his neck, down his sides and the muscled planes of his back.

She pulls back her shoulders and lets her arms drop when the time comes, and there’s the proverbial rustle of silk coming down. Eighty percent of the truth would be that she didn’t think of wearing a special bra for coming by Steve’s tonight. But if she goes out for anything but a mission, she’s one-hundred percent prepared to undress to impress. “You like?” Perhaps that’s straight from the script, but her husky voice is not for effect; it’s real.

Not that Steve believes so. His eyebrow lifts, just the right one. “Hel-lo.” He’s not gentleman enough to not add a little shimmy of his hips, and Natasha grins for the second time this night.

“You’re terrible. You’re perfect.” Neither of those is manipulation on her part. Steve Rogers is hard when she grinds down on him, and the flush on his cheeks is gratifying, too. “You just need to lose the damn pants.”

Steve grins, too. “Yes, ma’am.” He looks up at her from under said lashes. “Would work better if you decided to lift up a little, though.”

Why, Captain. Natasha shimmies up, spreading her legs wider, and indeed, he’s probably the fastest-ever to push those faded jeans down his legs. Underwear too -- navy boxer briefs. What the tabloids wouldn’t give for the fact that Captain America is in fact not going commando.

Natasha doesn’t care either way, especially now. Steve Rogers is beautiful, all of him. She shifts her weight, reaches down to run her hand along his pectorals, down his abdomen, up his cock. He’s already slick at the tip, and bucks into her hand. “Tasha.”

“I’ve got it.” She doesn’t tell him that if this were a seduction, she’d probably make very sure to find out everything that makes him tick. But it’s not; it is -- “Take off my bra.”

“Fresh,” he murmurs, but he obliges. It does take him a second, three-and-a-half seconds, to be precise. His brow furrows a little, but he successfully slides it down and away. He doesn’t say anything, but his pupils are a splash of black in a thin rim of blue now. Steve has good hands, anyway. His thumbs stroke a circle around, then across her nipples.

Natasha jerks forward. She’s always been appreciative of attention to her boobs, but this -- this is new. And nice. What’s also nice is Steve’s smirk. Natasha shivers, just a little. But she is nothing if not practical and gets rid of her own outer- and underwear in a few not too strained moves that keep her mostly on top of Steve.

His hands have ended up on her hips, sliding toward her belly. His fingers slow down on her left side, take a detour on her scar: soft touch on hardened tissue. He blinks up at her.

“Yeah,” she says.

Steve Rogers asks nicely, but then he slides his a finger between her legs without much preamble, and his groan when he does so isn’t nice at all. His left hand cups her right breast again. Natasha shivers in response. His fingers on her pussy her make slick sounds, and oh, it’s --

“Okay?”

“If you stop now,” Natasha tells him honestly, “I will strangle you, either now or later, in your sleep.”

“Just checking,” Steve tells her, as if he weren’t wide-eyed, with a sheen of sweat on his forehead and lips still shiny from kissing. As if his thumb wasn’t running slightly too careful circles around her clit while his middle finger was teasing, dipping in. Natasha bites her lip, and at the danger of dislodging his clever hands, slides herself along the length of his cock.

And then she slides down on it. Steve leans up to kiss her when she leans down, mouth so soft by contrast, and his fingers are knowing.

Very gently, Natasha splinters into a million pieces.

::

She still wakes up breathless in the dark, surfacing from a sea of red emblems and gigantic androids. This time around, though, there are arms to hold her: sweat and stickiness but mostly Steve, who softly says her name, her familiar name, over and over as if it were precious.

Natasha presses her head against his chest and listens to the steady sound of his heartbeat until her eyelids go heavy and she drifts off again. And this time, this time she doesn’t dream.