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breathing through a mirror

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“Sometimes life has a cruel sense of humour, giving you the thing you always wanted at the worst time possible.”

   ~ Lisa Kleypas       


In order to understand this story a little better, I'll explain a few things.

Most of the events that we have seen in the MCU have happened - I say some because I will change a few things that we haven't seen onscreen. For example, the missions that Natasha had run before the Battle of New York (which can be found in the MCU Wiki) may happen later than mentioned in canon. The major events starting from Iron Man to The Winter Soldier are the same, except that here, Steve will die. 

This is where things get a teeny bit complicated. The story is Romanogers.

But instead of this guy:

We get this guy:

So, technically, the ship is NomadWidow (;

My twisted logic is the following: in every universe, Steve & Natasha end up together. So, if something were to happen in one of the universes (let's say, something like Steve dying) the universe (aka me) would be kind enough to find a way for them to be together. Since the universe (me) killed Steve from Earth-1, the universe has decided to bring aboard Steve from Earth-7 (and to not confuse us, we will call him Nomad) so that Romanogers can still happen.

Long story short, we will still get Steve and Natasha, Steve just happens to have a beard. He also has a life a little different than MCU!Steve. Nomad is taken out of the ice much earlier than Steve.

Anyway, if anyone is still confused, let me know and I'll try to explain things without spoiling much!

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I'll give my usual disclaimers: smut (trust me, a bearded Steve inspires a LOT of smut lmao), angst, and a happy ending!

***This story was inspired by events in the show Altered Carbon (which is SUCH a good show! I love it!)***

Ships: NomadWidow, Pepperony, WinterWitch, SamHill

 


 

Special thanks to Idalia, Lene & Shani for constantly dealing with my weird ideas and guiding me away from craziness, into something that makes a little more sense. Without them, I wouldn't be able to execute this idea and honestly, they're just amazing. This story is theirs as much as it is mine. ily, guys!

Hope y'all enjoy my first ever attempt at an MCU-based fic.

 xo

 

Chapter Text

The Winter Soldier had been aiming at her.

She remembers the way he turned his rifle in her direction, the way he tightened his grip on the magazine and lifted the gun to take her out. She remembers how cold the door of the car she leaned against was against her back and how hard her heart was beating in her chest.

His eyes were dark over the mask, dark and devoid of any emotion that she could try to manipulate. She remembers the cold shiver that rushed down her spine when she realised that this time, he wouldn’t just shoot a warning shot, he wouldn’t miss – and when his eyes met hers, she readied herself for the final shot.

Three seconds went by before she heard the ear-piercing sound of his metal arm connecting with Steve’s shield. It was mesmerising and it shouldn’t have been. The way Steve’s agility and strength were finally matched by someone that was his complete opposite, someone that was obviously created to counter everything that Steve stood for.

She remembers the taste of gunpowder, bitter and slightly salty, she remembers the way her arm stung, the way she held it and gulped as she tried to stand.

She remembers watching Steve’s crestfallen face when his mask fell, the way he muttered his friend’s name and the expression on the Winter Soldier’s face. She remembers the way she reached for the grenade launcher and how late she had been.

The sound of the Winter Soldier’s gun firing off would haunt her for the rest of her life.

One.

Two.

Three.

All three shots went straight to their target.

Steve fell to his knees, dropping the shield beside him as he looked at the red blotch on his chest and then at the Winter Soldier.

“STEVE!”

Her voice was muffled to her own ears, muted by the ringing in them. She was moving on autopilot then, rushing to his side and digging her fingers into his shoulders as she tried to lift him.

Tears blurred her eyes and yet, she managed to have his bloodied face etched onto her memory perfectly. His cheeks were bruised and scratched, quickly healing but not quickly enough that she missed it.

His pulse was rapid, and his lips were trembling. “N-Nat.” His voice was weak, he was drowning in his own blood and there was nothing she could do – just watch helplessly as he struggled to waste his final breaths on her.

She could feel him, feel his grip on her hands and how desperately she wanted to silence him. She pressed her finger to his mouth and whispered some empty promises, because she had to give him some semblance of hope, to give herself hope. This was Captain America; he didn’t just die.

Not by stupid gunshots and definitely not in her arms.

His eyes were wide and bright, confusion and fear clear in them. She had never seen him afraid and she wasn’t sure why he was afraid, but it would stick with her forever.

Slowly the light in his eyes dimmed. His pulse weakened and his grip on her hand loosened. Blood sputtered out of his mouth, against her cheek and he heaved a final, heavy breath.

Natasha!”

Sam grabbed her, his fingers digging into her shoulders painfully as he dragged her away. She struggled at first because she couldn’t leave Steve alone, she couldn’t let him down again. She had made him a promise and she couldn’t even keep it. She couldn’t just…she couldn’t leave him.

Not like that. Not bloodied on the floor with his eyes opened and afraid – alone.

“We have to go, come on!”

She remembers the way Sam shielded her from the STRIKE team amongst the civilians. She remembers hearing The Winter Soldier confirm Steve’s death, remembers the red that she saw when Rumlow grabbed the shield and snickered down at Steve.

She remembers how she was seconds from rushing back and killing them all. Sam tightened his hold on her waist, pinning her against the brick wall and in a rushed whisper tried to explain why he was holding her back.

Subconsciously she understood what he said and why it made sense – it would be easier to take down HYDRA if they didn’t know she was alive – but the last thing she wanted to do was plan accordingly.

Rumlow asked about them, asked if the Black Widow was still alive, but the Winter Soldier confirmed his mission. At that moment, she didn’t understand why he lied, why he covered for them when all she wanted to do was rip him apart, to cause him so much pain he’d beg her to use her Widow Bites.

She paid no mind to how dizzy she felt or how quickly she was losing blood. Her eyes just stayed concentrated on Steve’s face and on the million things she could’ve done to save him.

The events that led to her next vivid memory were a little fuzzy. She knew Sam was holding her and that someone was driving them somewhere, but all she could hear was a chiming sound in her ears, lulling her into madness.

Fury was alive.

He didn’t trust her.

Maria was there, she knew that Fury was alive.

He gave her his condolences, or at least what sounded like he felt sorry that Steve was dead. He also tried giving her a mediocre excuse for his death – a death that she cried and mourned, and as he muttered his reasoning, she realised that he just didn’t trust her.

She didn’t know what hurt more. Knowing that Fury didn’t trust her or knowing that Steve had died trusting her.

After they explained what Project Insight was and discussed the possibility of a counterstrike against SHIELD-turned-HYDRA, Maria left to run an errand. Sam leaned against the wall, staring at her quietly while the doctor cleaned her gunshot wound.

It was eerily quiet, she remembers that, remembers the humming of the machine the doctor used, and the damp smell of the cold bunker. She remembers the side glances Fury gave her, muttering into his comms every now and then and the way Sam kept opening his mouth as if he wanted to say something.

Maria returned sometime after. Sam was helping her push the cart into the room and Fury leaned against the wall tiredly.

And, then there was silence.

“Stark managed to disable the helicarriers with Rhodey,” Maria spoke first. “HYDRA still doesn’t know it was him and I doubt he left them any clues.”

Fury nodded and no one spoke.

Natasha just looked at the black bag on the cart Maria brought in. She knew what it was – who it was, but if she didn’t…if she didn’t acknowledge it, then maybe it wouldn’t be real.

And yet, without even meaning to, she was in front of the bag, unzipping it cautiously, with the same gentleness she used with fragile glass.

“He’s still…” Maria gulped and paused, then she whispered, “they didn’t clean him yet.”

Had it not been for the emotionless glaze over his eyes, she wouldn’t have known he was dead.

They didn’t even close his eyes.

There was still a bit of heat left in his skin, his cheeks were still a little reddened with the grime and sweat from his last fight. His blond hair was sticking to his forehead, just a few strands right above his brows and Natasha couldn’t help but brush it back.

He always did that when he was nervous – brush the few strands back, and she always thought it was charming, funny but charming. Even with all the built muscle and added height, he sometimes felt like the little Brooklyn guy. He told her just as much whenever she commented at his chivalry and goodness.

See, the serum was part of what made Captain America, well Captain America, but the little runt from Brooklyn was still charming, sometimes a sassy asshole, but still charming – and some people forgot that. That even though he looked different, he didn’t act differently. That-

She was going on a tangent. She knew it. If she just kept thinking, then she wouldn’t actually have to face the truth.

“Did they get any DNA?”

“No, they were too busy dealing with the helicarriers to…”

His lip was split, it was probably healed by then – the serum did that, but there was still a bit of dried blood around the corner of his mouth.

And his hair, his hair was so soft. Her fingers just glided through it. Maybe it was the fluorescent lights overhead or maybe it just was the colour of his hair, but it looked golden, like a halo.

A tear rolled down her cheek and unto his, wetting the spot right where his eyelashes brushed against his cheek. She brushed her thumb over it, gently caressing his skin before wiping away the tears that were rolling down her cheeks. She didn’t even realise that she was crying.

“Will he have a funeral?” Her voice sounded strange even to her own ears. It wasn’t like the voices she donned while playing a character for a mission, it sounded like the air had been sucked out of her lungs and left a hollow shell behind.

She could feel their stares boring a hole unto the side of her face, but she couldn’t bring herself to look away from Steve. It should’ve been her. He didn’t deserve this.

“What?”

“Will he have a funeral?” She repeated. She sniffled and turned, the mask of façade falling perfectly over her face – or so she thought, at least. She was trying to stay composed; she didn’t care if it didn’t work.

“Well,” Maria hesitated.

“He deserves one.”

Sam flinched at the iciness in her tone.

“Nat,” she began softly, cautiously, “I took his body from HYDRA so they wouldn’t experiment on him. I don’t think-”

She looked back down at Steve, at how angelic he seemed even in death and she remembers thinking that maybe she should have given him that bloody date. Maybe she should’ve given him a definite answer when he asked, told him that she’d never been on a proper date, that it could be something new they could do together.

That she was afraid of the feelings he stirred in her. That she knew she didn’t love him, at least not yet, but she knew that she eventually would – and that’s what terrified her. She knew that she kept pushing him, wanting him to date someone else so she wouldn’t have to face the fact that she, well, that she had a freaking schoolgirl crush on Captain America.

Or maybe she should’ve given him a definite no, told him to stay away from her because she had men like him for breakfast.

She should’ve–

“We can burn him.” Her voice sounded so far now like she was having an out of body experience. “That way they won’t be able to do anything to him.”

Even after he died, HYDRA wouldn’t stop until they had the damn serum and even if it was the last thing she did, she would make sure that they would never be close enough to taking something else from him.

“Okay,” Fury spoke up, “we’ll honour him after we take down these sons of bitches.”

Her hand laid gently on his cheek, her thumb brushed his cheek and she leaned forward to kiss his forehead. A soft sob trembled past her lips and she shut her eyes, pressing her forehead to his and tried her best to not fall apart.

He wouldn’t want her to, that’s what she told herself. He’d want her to find every last HYDRA undercover operative and bring them to justice – she wasn’t sure he’d approve of her methods, but there was just so much you could take from someone before they completely snapped.

Natasha didn’t let anyone clean his corpse. She wiped away all the grime and blood, cleaned under his nails and dressed him in his uniform. No one questioned her, no one opposed her, and she was thankful that no one made any comments about the sobs they surely heard when they all dispersed through the bunker.

Hours later, SHIELD released the files on “Captain America going rogue” to the world. They “revealed” his true nature and stripped him bare of his goodness. They pinned deaths of beloved innocents on him, used him as the poster boy for all the terrible things HYDRA had actually done.

And all Natasha could do was sit and cry in front of the TV because saving her had been up to him and he had trusted her. Steve had been the only man to trust her fully, to have her back – because yes, Clint did too, but it was different.

Clint had offered her a better life, he knew what it was like – he knew how rough the world treated people like them, the outcasts. But Steve was the paragon of goodness, had been someone that even she looked up to – and now he was gone.

Gone because she couldn’t take the Winter Soldier down.

Gone because he had wanted to protect her from a shot that would clearly take her down.

Gone because she couldn’t keep her promise.

Gone because he had trusted her.

The following days after Steve’s death, Natasha can’t really remember. It was strange to her – she could remember the cold water she used to wash away Steve’s blood from her hands, the musky scent of the soap and the pity-filled looks from Sam – but she can’t remember specific details about the days following.

She was numb through it all, just going through the motions that were hardwired into her brain from her training in the Red Room. Even that had been cracked after Steve died. She tried her hardest to compose herself, to hide her emotions and keep the façade in place, but when she heard the things news outlets said about Steve, she just snapped. She felt like a rubber band that was being pulled apart to its limit before it snapped in half.


 Sam remembers that day a little different. The events were all the same, but he remembers different things.

He remembers the taste of his orange juice in the morning, the hard knock on his door and asking himself – who the hell – was knocking on his door that early in the morning. He remembers the look on their faces and how his stomach flipped when he realised that Captain America was standing in front of his freaking door asking for help.

He remembers feeling nervous about a pair of superheroes being in his room and the idea that Natasha Romanoff was judging his outdated lamps crossed his mind.

It was stupid, she was on the run from the government and he thought she was worried about his shitty lights. Hell, he even wondered if people like them ate breakfast, but then he watched them interact, even if it was just for a few short moments, he saw how they spoke and carried themselves and realised that they were just…they were people with incredibly hard responsibilities. Maybe responsibilities that they hadn’t chosen but were bestowed upon.

In the few moments he spent with them in his apartment, he didn’t see Captain America and Black Widow, he saw Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff – although, seeing Natasha as simply Natasha was a little harder, with her being a little more closed off than Steve was.

He remembers the awkward way he felt when he walked in on them – they weren’t doing anything inappropriate but the way they looked at each other…it spoke volumes. Steve couldn’t exactly keep his feelings off his face, not like Natasha could and Sam wasn’t blind, he knew something had changed between them and he hadn’t walked in on the most opportune time.

The way Steve looked at her was…the man was whipped. He obviously respected her a lot, but the way his eyes sort of twinkled when he looked at her was kind of hilarious, considering that Natasha seemed to not pay him as much mind. She seemed interested, but it wasn’t like Steve; her feelings weren’t all over her face for him to judge.

Later though, he knew that she cared for him more than work partners did. He could tell the moment Steve fell to his knees after being shot. The façade of the Black Widow shattered, and she didn’t exactly hide her feelings then.

Sam didn’t know her, but he knew that out of the two, she was the one more comfortable with doing what others would consider incongruous. The way Steve glanced at her after he mentioned his wings was proof enough – yet, Captain America trusted her, which meant that no matter what persona Natasha tried to play off, she was someone trustworthy.

Then he saw it first-hand, when she protected him from getting shot in the highway or when she screamed at the civilians nearby to get out of the way when the masked man – which he learned, later on, was called the Winter Soldier – was shooting at her.

Sam remembers the exact pitch her scream was when she called out Steve’s name. It was raw and pained, full of terror and disbelief at watching the supersoldier fall. He remembers having to pull her back and how hard her nails dug into his forearm when he tried to carry her from the scene. He remembers how she trembled and breathed heavily like she was seconds from hyperventilating.

He remembers when the black SUV pulled up beside them and the black-haired agent – Maria Hill – ushered them in. He remembers holding his hand to Natasha’s gunshot wound and how glazed her eyes were when they drove to a bunker.

He was surprised that Maria knew his name and who he was, but then again, he shouldn’t have been, he was dealing with something way above his paygrade.

He remembers the feel of Natasha’s warm tears against his collarbone, how she rested her cheek against his chest weakly and cried silently, still in shock. He remembers wishing that he hadn’t ignored Valentin’s e-vite to the cookout – maybe he would’ve avoided all of this.

The thought crossed his mind and immediately disappeared. Natasha had explained what they were up against, what they were fighting for and that was all he ever wanted to do – fight for the good guys. He just didn’t expect them to suffer such a great loss.

When Nick Fury appeared, Natasha’s Black Widow mask cracked again. Sam didn’t know who he was or why he was important, but the look in Natasha’s face spoke volumes. She was hurt by whatever he had done and while they spoke in hushed voices, Sam turned away to give them privacy.

Once he was gone, he tried to approach her.

“Natasha,” he cleared his throat, trying to get her to stop looking at the cold floor, “I’m-”

“Don’t,” she replied, the tone of her voice monotone, “it’s not your fault.”

He grimaced and tried again. “I know, but-”

“Every battle has its losses.” It sounded robotically like she had the phrase ingrained in her mind and was trying to reassure herself more than him. She paused, then gulped as her fingers gently brushed Steve’s nose. “This loss just can’t be in vain.”

“Look,” he tried again, this time he didn’t stop, he didn’t let her interrupt because he had seen what she felt before, he had felt what she felt before, “I just…I want you to know that it will get better. Not now, fuck, not now and it’ll feel like it never will. But, as cliché as it sounds, time helps.”

She stared at him with red-rimmed eyes, a twinge of pink on the point of her nose. “Sounds like you’re speaking from experience.”

He shrugged his arms in response, not meeting her eyes. “My best friend. He was shot out of the sky during a mission. ‘was supposed to be easy, strike and get out, something we had done over a million times, this time though…” he trailed off and sighed, “I blamed myself for the longest time. Still, do, sometimes. Maybe I should’ve gotten to him a little faster, maybe I should’ve-”

He stopped and cleared his throat, straightened his back. He was trying to help her feel better, not make himself feel worse. “You get my point. I tortured myself every night until I realised that it wasn’t my fault. Don’t blame yourself for Steve’s death. He wouldn’t want you to.”

Her voice was a little clearer, less teary but bitter. “Spoken like a true VA counsellor.”

Sam shot her a weak smile. “Old habits.” She nodded and turned to look back at Steve.

He should’ve left her then, should’ve let her mourn in peace and get her shit however she thought was best, but he couldn’t. He just – he had gone through what she was going, he knew first-hand how much it hurt, how quickly your mind spiralled into what-ifs and when he went through it, he wished someone had been there for him.

“Come here.”

Natasha raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Come here,” he repeated, opening his eyes, gesturing her to come forward for a hug.

“I don’t want a hug.”

“Maybe I do.”

“Sam.”

“Natasha.”

She exhaled loudly and stared at him for a second. Calculating and questioning.

For a moment he wondered if she was going to dislocate his arm, she looked like she was thinking about the quickest way to do it, but then, then she was in front of him and he was hugging her. She was rigid and tense, almost awkward but he wasn’t going to give up.

He recognised the look in her eyes, the one that some vets had when they weren’t used to some affection from strangers and he wasn’t about to let her fall apart over that. He would blame it on his traits of wanting to help others and even on the fact that she was Captain America’s friend – plus, she had saved him – whatever the reason was, Sam was going to make sure she knew he was available.

“I have to clean him.” She dropped her hands from his back, letting them fall to her side and he watched as her mask fell back into place.

He nodded and stepped back to give her space. He watched her for a few minutes, just leaned against the cold, concrete wall and watched as she used a wet towel to wipe Steve’s forehead. Then Maria walked in and asked him some questions, she pulled him to another room and had him fill out some paperwork.

On his fifth page, Tony Stark sauntered in. He plopped on the seat next to him and following him was his friend, James Rhodes. Sam can’t really remember the questions Tony asked him, he just remembered that he was just like he seemed on TV. Maybe a little bit taller up close.

“Man,” Tony muttered and shook his head, “you take a weekend off and freaking Nazis attack.” He slid his hand down his face tiredly, breathing loudly. “Can’t believe he’s dead. I just…I messaged him yesterday, sent him a picture of a…” he stopped himself when his voice cracked, “fuck....”

Rhodey squeezed his shoulder, trying to console him, but didn’t say anything.

Maria walked in and sat next to them, shoulders hunched and defeated. Fury was next, said some words and shared a file with Tony, asked him questions about his mission taking the helicarriers down and discussed all the logistics involved.

“They think Romanoff is dead.” He revealed after a short pause. “Jarvis hacked into their servers and left spies behind. They’re pissed that the helicarriers malfunctioned, so they haven’t noticed that Hill took Cap’s body.”

“That’s good,” Fury commented, “makes things easier.”

“Can’t believe you faked your death and didn’t tell us.”

Fury scowled. “Not you, too.”

“What?” Tony raised an eyebrow. “Who else did you keep it from?” He looked at Maria. “You?”

She shook her head. “I knew.”

Tony grimaced. “You didn’t tell Nat? Wow, that’s just cold.”

“Tony,” Rhodey grumbled, clearly trying to diffuse the situation.

“Where is she?”

Sam finally spoke up. “She’s cleaning Steve’s body.”

He turned to look at him, curiosity flashing in his eyes and then he nodded. “What are we doing with it?”

“With what?” That was Fury.

“His body.”

“Nat said we should burn it,” Maria spoke softly, “makes sense. I saw some of the notes they were taking before I was able to sneak him out. They definitely planned to experiment on him.”

Rhodey cleared his throat. “We should have a funeral. Give him a proper burial.”

Tony was quiet for a moment, his expression reverent and saddened. Sam could tell he was struggling with his emotions because sadness wasn’t the only thing evident in his eyes. He was pissed and maybe he was just projecting his own emotions onto him, but he could swear there was a bit of vengeance in them.

“I’ll take care of that,” Tony spoke up. “I’ll find someone. Pepper can type up a contract just in case.”

It was sad, really, seeing a room full of defeated fighters, mourning the loss of a leader, a friend, an icon. Sam didn’t know Steve well, but he didn’t need to know minuscule details to know that he was a good man, that he didn’t deserve the shitty deck of cards he had been dealt.

Fury opened his mouth to say something, but the sudden heart-wrenching sob from the other room startled him quiet. Maria flinched, lowering her eyes and Rhodey grimaced. Tony swore under his breath and Fury just…blinked stoically.

The sound had been soft, completely raw and full of emotion that carried through the hallway and by the look on their faces, they were clearly not used to that emotion coming from Natasha. The room was silent for a few more minutes as they all lost themselves in their thoughts, struggling between comforting Natasha or leaving her to grieve in peace.

“She took it really hard.”

“They were partners for two years,” Maria said, almost defensively.

Tony nodded. “Steve…he was asking me for pointers.” He let out a bittersweet chuckle, “Can you believe it? He was asking me for ideas on how to ask Red out.” He scoffed, smiling sadly to himself as he spoke to no one in particular. “The man could fight an entire army with just his shield, but he couldn’t ask the mighty Black Widow out.”

“They were a great team,” Fury grumbled, “I might even say they were better than she was with Barton.”

“They brought out each other’s best qualities,” Maria pointed out before the room went silent again.

“What are we going to do now?”

Sam remembers the fire shining in Natasha’s eyes the most then. Her eyes were still red and wet with tears, but there was a newfound hardness to her. Something that she must’ve found while she cried and fuelled her to stand in front of them with the strength that could rival Vikings and gods.

“We’re going to fight.”


 

Chapter Text

Earth-1

Three hundred seventeen steps stood between her car and Steve’s grave. She always parked in the same spot; right across the antique items store – the one Wanda said always had cute rings – on the other side of the street. She made sure that no one was following her and then she made the dreaded walk over the grass.

This gravesite was empty. It was the one that the public knew of, the one that everyone believed contained his remains, but was merely an empty desecrated spot.

She wasn’t sure why she visited it so much; she knew where his ashes really were, but for some reason, she found herself visiting his grave. She would stare down at the granite slab on the ground with his name for minutes, still trying to wrap her mind around his death and after a while, all of the emotions she tried to run from came crashing down on her.

She kept her face composed behind whatever disguise she was wearing that day and took her frustrations out on the punching bags at the gym. She knew it was dangerous, HYDRA thought she was dead and going around showing her face everywhere for the sake of nostalgia wasn’t a very Natasha-thing to do.

But she had to.

See, she found some solace, some peace just seeing his grave. There was something about it that made her feel better – which, it really shouldn’t have. Steve’s original grave was grand – it was a huge mausoleum with a commissioned statue of Captain America, front and centre for the world to see – Tony made sure of it.

It lasted two days.

Two days before the masses tore it down.

The day of his funeral hundreds of people flooded to the streets to mourn. She stayed behind, sitting in front of the TV watching as crowds filled the streets of Brooklyn and shared the pain she was feeling – or at least a fraction of it.

Then HYDRA (hiding behind their SHIELD front) released their statement to the world. They released files that sheinadvertently helped fabricate and the same people that were crowding the streets to mourn him turned on his memory.

The peaceful and saddened march lasted about an hour before protesters began to flood the streets. Flags were burned, business broken into, and riots broke out, resulting in so many injuries that the funeral came to a stop.

What was supposed to be a day commemorating Steve’s memory turned into an absolute nightmare. The streets were filled with chaos – the same chaos he had fought so valiantly to stop – and angry people taking their pain out on him. The deaths of people that the public loved had been pinned on him, they talked about him going rogue, about how they weren’t able to stop him, so they had to take him out before it was too late.

They gave a mediocre apology to the public for having to visibly take him down in downtown and for not realising the “wicked activities the Captain was partaking in.” They would also make sure to “address the pain he caused families,” and – Natasha didn’t hear the rest because she broke her screen with the remote.

She was so angry. She couldn’t stop shaking, she couldn’t stop replaying his death – she couldn’t even sleep. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became, the hungrier she got for vengeance.

They couldn’t even let people mourn his death without wanting to share their hatred for him. She shouldn’t have expected any less, it was HYDRA – but she hoped that in their miserable rotten conscience, they’d give the world some time to get over this loss.

Instead, they used him as their scapegoat and caused more damage.

The night of the march-turned-riot, his grave was destroyed. They tore the shield off, shattering it to pieces and drew obscenities on the marble walls. The entire site was demolished in the span of a few hours of it going up.

Tony tried to rebuild it, President Ellis begged the masses to respect the grave and reminded them that desecrating a grave – no matter how much they disliked a person – was illegal, and yet, that only seemed to anger people more.

#CaptainAmerica began to trend on Twitter worldwide with people expressing their opinions on both sides and it really wouldn’t have bothered her had they not began to spread more lies. People drew macabre depictions of Steve to get their points across, of how the government was corrupted and how no one could be trusted.

Not even Captain America. The very same man that flew a plane into the sea to protect them. The one that didn’t blink twice when they called him to fight in the Battle of New York

The picture that stuck with her the most was a cartoon of SHIELD decapitating him. It had to do with something about an agency finally standing up for what was right and the number of people that agreed with it – it just made her blood boil.

Ultimately, all the hate that was spread through social media resulted in the removal of Steve’s grave. They took down the mausoleum and moved his gravesite to a more private location. He should have been buried alongside the military personnel, but Tony was able to track down Sarah Rogers’ site and that’s where he currently was.

Needless to say, days after his death, the world was in turmoil. Some celebrated, some mourned, some didn’t care.

Natasha holed herself in her apartment in a little town on the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It was a safehouse that Clint and she had encountered years back, before his retirement. It was one of the few places she could hide out and think because no one knew about it – well, no one that could impose on her self-chosen isolation.

And for the first few days, no one bothered her.

She watched the news on the little shitty TV on the dresser of her room and ate takeout from the little corner store down the street. She left her apartment for food and supplies that would last her until she decided she was ready to re-enter society – or at least return to the bunker Tony had secured specifically for them.

He had turned an underground compound he had built years back into their new home – or as Sam liked to call it the “Secret Avengers Tower.” It was located right by a secluded cabin somewhere in New York, with tunnels underneath that led to the main building for easier access. Tony had thought of everything; they were lucky to have him.

Eventually, Clint found her.

He showed up one day with homemade soup that Laura had sent in a thermos and forced her out of bed. He shoved the blinds open and yanked the blankets away from her – she had hit a new level of “uncharacteristic things for Natasha.”

And, after a long moment of silence, he tried to comfort her the best way he knew – enticing her with the mention of Lila & Cooper and throwing a bit of Laura’s peanut butter pie in the equation.

For the most part she managed to stay calm or at least, she didn’t fall apart. Clint didn’t mention anything about her obvious dishevelled look, and she thanked him for it. He was probably one of the only few people that could read her like an open book – and at that moment he understood that she just wasn’t ready for the stern talk.

He helped her clean the apartment, made sure that everything went back to how it was before she arrived and then packed all of her things into his trunk.

Natasha doesn’t remember the beginning of the drive much. Clint tried to make small talk, he told her about the latest cooking recipes Laura was trying, and he vented to her about the drama within the PTO community.

She remembers laughing at that, at how Clint could handle taking down gods and assassins, but he struggled to deal with Jacob Summers and his bratty kid from baking class.

He and Cooper joined an after-school baking class because they wanted to make some cakes for Laura for Mother’s Day. It was sweet and listening to Clint’s stories about how much he disliked Jacob for always trying to one-up him made her feel better.

After a while though, the car went silent again and the previous sombre feeling that was clouding over them, returned. Natasha leaned her forehead against the window, just watching as the buildings blurred into trees and the trees blurred into shadows and Clint struggled to bring up a topic that would get her to snap out of what she was feeling.

“I kissed him.”

She blurts it out halfway into their drive and Clint’s not sure he heard her right. He glances at her through the corner of his eye but tries his best to act nonchalant.

It’s not that he wasn’t expecting emotions from her, it’s just that it was different. Over the years that they had been partners, they had watched people die – it was part of their job, but he had never seen Natasha this distraught. Not even when they lost Coulson.

So, it’s not that he was ignoring her or that he didn’t know what to do (okay, maybe that was part of it) but he was trying to get her to come to terms with her emotions. If there was something that Natasha was, it was insightful and self-aware.

He’d give her the space she needed and let her come to him.

He just didn’t expect that revelation.

“Mhm?”

“Steve,” she responds, still not looking at him, “I kissed him.”

He almost swerves unto the other lane. She notices but doesn’t say anything.

Clint clears his throat. “Oh?” His fingers grip the steering wheel nervously and he begins to tap them around, playing with the leather cover around it.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watches as she twiddles with her fingers on her lap. She plays with the ripped jeans, twirling the string of fabric tightly around her finger and snapping it off. Her eyes still don’t meet his.

“I didn’t have to.” She speaks softly, like she’s not ready to reveal this part of her life to him but does so anyway. “When we were running from HYDRA, Rumlow was heading our way on the escalator and I just…I told him to kiss me.”

She’s quiet for a few minutes, doesn’t say anything and he doesn’t want to speak and break her trance.

She scoffs to herself, smiling sadly. “He gave me the most confused look…” her voice wavers, “and I didn’t have to. Really, I didn’t. I could’ve just…” she shrugs, tears making her voice shaky with emotion, “I could’ve hugged him, could’ve done a million other things but I asked him to kiss me.”

Clint grimaces as she wipes a silent tear that was sliding down her cheek and he reaches over, squeezing her hand.

“And, this is stupid,” her voice gets louder, faster, “because I shouldn’t…I know this isn’t why Steve did it.” Her bottom lip trembles and her façade cracks under the pressure of her emotions like a dam, “But I keep thinking that if I didn’t kiss him…if I didn’t…then maybe he wouldn’t have…”

“Nat-”

“He trusted me,” she interrupts him, “he fucking trusted me, Clint and I couldn’t-” She stopped her tangent when the car came to a sudden stop.

Clint pulled the car to the side of the road – not that it mattered, since they were the only ones around for miles – and stepped out of the car. “Come on.”

She remembers frowning and staring at him strangely as she sniffled, wiping her tears away. “What?”

“Get out,” he waves, “come on.”

“Clint-”

He opens the door to the passenger’s side and unbuckles her seatbelt before unceremoniously pulling her out. Then his arms were around her and he was hugging her tightly and she was crying.

She wasn’t expecting the waterworks to hit her as hard as they did, but once she started, she didn’t think she could stop. She soaked Clint’s shirt and all he did was hold her, squeeze her a little tighter and kiss her temple gently.

After that, the drive to the farm was a little easier. When they arrived, Cooper ran out to hug her excitedly and Lila cried in her playpen until Natasha scooped her in her arms. She’d never tell them, but Lila was definitely her favourite.

For the remainder of her stay, Lila mindlessly babbled, and Cooper begged her to swing him higher on the tire swing. At night, they would roast marshmallows by the fire and build pillow forts before watching reruns of old Disney movies.

When she needed a shoulder to cry on, Laura was there, giving her moral support and warm embraces. Clint would make her laugh and kept her in shape when they sparred outside.

Natasha thanked them every day for accepting her as a part of their family, but now she also thanked them for helping her cope with losing Steve. Because of them she was able to pull herself together and get back out on the field.

She was able to do this – stand in front of Steve’s grave and not fall apart. It still took a bit of something (strength, foolishness – whatever you wanted to call it) for her to stand there – it’s how she knew there were three hundred seventeen steps between her car and his grave.

She sighs, stopping her trip down memory lane to situate herself and head back to her apartment. Her current mission was an undercover op to bring down Rocco Alfonsi, a man suspected of luring pretty girls into sex trafficking rings and using them as transportation for drugs.

She had made some progress but didn’t have enough evidence or information to strike. She was closer to getting the information she needed, though.

Every day that went by, he became a little more interested in her, asked for her at the diner and made sure to leave her what he probably thought was a generous tip.  He still hadn’t approached her, but she had a sneaking suspicion it would happen soon.

After her shift at the diner, she felt like she had to stop by the cemetery and just…recharge. There was just so much she could handle for a day. Besides, she hadn’t visited Steve in a few months; it was long overdue.

“Do you think he did it?”

Shit.

She was so focused on thinking about how crazy her life had been going that she didn’t stop to think about her surroundings. She was pretty out in the open, she shouldn’t have been so reckless.

Natasha tilts her head to the side slowly. “I’m sorry?”

It was a young boy, he seemed to be in his late teens. He had his hands shoved in his jean pockets and wore a dirty yellow cap. He jabbed his chin towards Steve’s grave. “Do you think he did it? Y’know, the things he’s accused of.”

She should’ve walked away, she should’ve known better than to be out in the open, interacting with someone that could potentially put her current mission in jeopardy. But because she was currently in the middle of a recon mission, she was also playing a character and for some reason comforting this young boy seemed something that “Daisy” would do.

That’s the lie she’d tell herself because admitting that talking about Steve, sharing a small piece of the truth with the world seemed to help her with everything she was going through.

“No.” Her voice is soft, barely audible with that twinge of the southern accent Daisy has.

Daisy who is blonde with bright blue eyes and a sweet smile. She fit the description of the girls that Rocco Alfonsi was into. The sweet, shy, vulnerable girl he could take advantage of and there was no one in the world that could play that character better than Natasha. Men just loved to underestimate her.

She cleared her throat, straightening her back a little. “I don’t think he did.”

“Me neither,” he replies and then whispers, “he saved my grandpa. He was one of the men in a Nazi camp.” He shot her a toothy, saddened smile, “And my pop loved him, looked up to him, y’know?”

Natasha looked at him quietly for a few seconds before she heard herself talking. “He saved me, too.”

“Yeah?” His smile widens. “You met him?”

She nodded, brushing back a long strand of blonde hair that kept sticking to her lips. “Yeah. At the Battle of New York. I was working a shift at the café,” she waved down to her cheesy waitress outfit – a yellow dress with a white apron and a few unbuttoned buttons that would guarantee Rocco’s attention, “and he helped us get to a safe location.”

“Oh, man,” he gushed, “that’s awesome.”

It was a lie.

Well, the part about herbeing the waitress was a lie, but she was sure that it was something Steve had done. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help herself. She had to…to do something. Say something that would remind someone that Steve wasn’t what the media was portraying.

So, if she had to twist a little white lie to make herself feel better, she would.

And it wasn’t only for her.

The way the boy smiled was definitely worth it. His eyes watered and he nodded to himself, looking down at Steve’s grave with a sort of fondness in his face. He spoke quietly but with conviction. “I know he didn’t do those things.”

She didn’t know what to say to that. So, she didn’t say anything, she just nodded her head and they stayed standing side by side for a few more minutes, in complete, comfortable silence.

Her decision to talk to this boy was probably stupid and she knew that if Steve’s death hadn’t affected her the way it had, she wouldn’t have put herself and the boy in jeopardy. She knew that she should have ignored the boy, hell, she shouldn’t have been at the grave in the first place!

But a part of her felt absolute satisfaction knowing that not everyone believed the lies they were fed – that in some way she was helping to keep the real Steve Rogers in people’s mind.

So, instead of kicking herself for breaking her own rules, she tried her best to comfort him and kept trying to feed herself the lie of “it’s what Daisy would do.”

Shortly after, the boy thanked her for sharing a bit of her life and they went their separate ways. She walked the three hundred seventeen steps back to her car and drove to her cover’s apartment. She entered as Daisy Buford and left through the backdoors as a hooded Natasha.

After making sure that no one was following her, she made her way back to the Tower. Tony had called for an “important meeting” and although she hesitated breaking character for one of his meetings – with Tony she never knew what was important and what was Tony’s-important – she broke it because she needed a break from being hit on by sleazy men at the diner.

There was just so much she could take before she broke someone’s fingers. And that’s not something Daisy would do. So, she smiled and bit back her tongue and blushed on command whenever someone “accidentally” brushed their hand up the back of her thigh.

The Red Room had trained her for missions like this and worse, and yet, after working with Steve for the past few years, she found herself trying different methods for missions. She still did whatever it took to get things done, but if there was another way, she would at least consider it.

Now that Steve was gone, she didn’t necessarily have that moral compass, but old habits die hard.

Clint was always comfortable with her using her body to finish a mission, he understood that that’s what the Black Widow did, that it’s whyshe earned her name, but Steve…Steve wasn’t necessarily uncomfortable, but he made it a point to remind her that there were other options.

He respected whatever she decided; he knew that her body was the best weapon she had. Men underestimated her, and, she could kill a person with just her pinkie – but he preferred if she could place boundaries. Instead of fully committing to any sexual advances, he’d rather she take out her targets after a kiss.

At first it bothered her – why did it matter if she slept with a target or not – but after witnessing a target that was flirting with him, she understood how weird it was. She wasn’t jealous, no matter how much she felt the red flags flaring, she refused to say she was jealous. She just – she was going to be a better partner, if sleeping with the targets made him uncomfortable then she’d try to work around it.

Being jealous had nothing to do with it.

He wasn’t there any more to remind her that there were other options, but she tried to work his little remarks into her everyday life. It was the best way she could think of to keep his memory alive.

“Good afternoon, Agent Romanoff.”

Jarvis snapped her out of her reverie the moment she entered the elevator to the Tower.

“Hi, Jarvis.”

“Mr. Stark and Doctor Banner are waiting for you in their lab.”

She lets out a sigh because she had a sneaking suspicion that it had to do with something related to what Heimdall had revealed to them. “Is Strange with them?”

“No. Doctor Strange just left.”

She inhales sharply and pushes the button to the lab floor. “Thank you.”

A few months after Steve died, Thor arrived from Asgard with a message from a friend he called Heimdall. The message was slightly vague; they would need a captain to help them with their upcoming battles.

Heimdall didn’t feel the need to share more details than needed – he just said that “without their Captain, they could lose their battles.” He didn’t say what those battles were or explain howthey could possibly “fix” not having their “Captain.”

She was too shocked to say anything, but Tony summarised her emotions perfectly with his words.

“Oh, sure, let me just whip up another supersoldier serum and give it to another Steve!”

Instead of elaborating on what was important – who the hell was their mystery enemy and what could they do to stop whatever he was planning on doing – Heimdall directed them to Dr. Stephen Strange.

While talking to him, they found out that there are other universes in the world similar to theirs – because of course there would be. What they called parallel universes, where there were other versions of themselves that could potentially help them with their cryptic enemy.

It took them a while to wrap their minds around the idea of seeing mirror images of themselves, but Natasha still couldn’t get used to the idea of just…choosing another Steve and asking him to help them fight something that they didn’t even know.

When Heimdall had mentioned it, she was sure he said that they would need “Captain” not another Steve!

That argument served of no use though. Clearly, since she was currently entering the lab where Tony and Bruce stood in front of their holographic board discussing different theories.

She would hear them out and try to not be biased. She was completely against the idea of bringing another Steve, but when Tony set his mind on something, there was no convincing him otherwise. And, quite frankly, she didn’t feel like arguing about what Heimdall said or didn’t say – they did enough of that the second Thor left back to deal with issues in Asgard.

“The great thing is, that bringing him to this universe won’t alter anything in his universe. It won’t cause any black holes or paradoxes. He will also be able to survive in this universe without any issues.”

That was Bruce talking. He was pulling apart some holographic figures surrounding them – and whatever it was, Natasha thought Egyptian hieroglyphics were easier to decipher.

“This is amazing,” Tony muttered in awe, staring at all the symbols floating around them and then his eyes fell on Natasha. He perked up, straightening his back and grinned. “Hey, Red! You’re here for the good stuff.”

She trudges down the steps, towards them. “Hi, Tony, Bruce.”

“Hi, Nat.” Bruce smiles at her shyly and pushes his glasses up the ridge of his nose.

There’s a stack of folders on the table in front of them, all labelled with different numbers and as Natasha glanced down at them, she knew what they were.

“Strange just left, but he helped us narrow down the options to a possible candidate. We were waiting on you to make a vote.”

She ran her finger down the binding of one of the folders and began to flip through it. “Is that what this is?” She glances up at him. “Candidates for a new captain?”

Tony winces at the implication behind her bitter tone of voice, but nods. He knew she was against it; that she thought replacing Steve was a mistake, but he had signed up to protect Earth and if this is what he needed to do, then so be it.

“What have you found?”

She’s tired and hungry. Her day had been long and the visit to Steve’s grave hadn’t helped as much as she thought it would. She was trying to keep her sanity intact, to keep her emotions off this and treat it like any other mission, but as she kept flipping through the pages and reading the things they found – well, it proved to be very difficult.

In this universe – the folder was labelled Earth-2 – Steve had died in his sleep. He didn’t get the serum and didn’t make it too long after the war began. He had lived a similar life to their Steve, but at least he hadn’t suffered through all the terrible things that plagued after the ice.

So that helped her feel a little less guilty with what she was considering.

Natasha closed the folder and grabbed another one. Tony watched her expression quietly as Bruce typed away at the computer.

Steve was alive in Earth-3. His life was similar to their Steve too. He got the serum and had crashed the Valkyrie into the ice. When he woke up, he joined the Avengers and after the death of Nick Fury, he became the standing director for SHIELD. He was dating the Natasha in his universe and they seemed happy.

There was no way she was messing with that.

She swallowed as she grabbed another folder.

Steve was dating the Natasha in his universe. That was…surprising.

In Earth-4 they were married, and she had a kid – a boy who inherited their serum in his veins. That scared the hell out of her, and she decided that they’d definitely stay away from that Earth. She wouldn’t take another Steve’s happiness.

In Earth-5, Steve didn’t have the serum, but he was married and had kids. James and Sarah Rogers. He was also a soldier, but no one in his universe seemed to have any powers or aliens invading their cities.

The pictures of him smiling with his picturesque family stirred emotions in her that she didn’t even know she had. She cleared her throat and continued flipping through the folders. The more she read, the less she paid attention to the details.

It seemed that in the majority of the universes, he was married with kids or living a life so great that Natasha refused to even mention anything to them. She had already ruined their Steve’s life by not protecting him, how could she also do that to another Steve?!

“It’s crazy,” Tony joked, trying to lighten the mood and spoke to no one in particular, “it seems that Red and Cap are soulmates or something.”

“Tony,” Bruce winces and shakes his head, not wanting to hurt Natasha with anything that they found. Tony was right, though. In every universe, their lives seemed to entwine one way or another. If Natasha was dead, Steve eventually died too or vice versa.

“Seriously!” Tony ignores his warning looks, “In every universe we’ve seen, they’re together. It’s like something out of a cheesy, romantic-”

A strange noise coming from Natasha startled him quiet. It was a mixture of a sob and a growl.

She was reading Earth-9 and Tony wanted to kick himself. He thought he had hidden the folder or thrown it out. The pile that Natasha was sorting through seemed to be mixed with the files that he didn’t need.

In Earth-9, Steve had died similarly to their Steve – protecting Natasha during a mission gone wrong. Unlike their universe, though, Natasha also died.

“Tony-”

“Nat-”

“-what are we doing?”

Her voice is soft, barely above a whisper when she speaks.

“Nat-” He tries again because he recognises the look in her eyes. It’s something that she doesn’t show often, and it frightens him. She’s on the verge of spiralling again, of descending into the pain and self-blame that she had gone through the weeks after Steve’s death.

“We can’t do this.” She shakes her head and her eyes glimmer with tears.

Tony walks around the table and takes the folder from her hands. Bruce stopped typing and is glancing at them over the rim of his glasses. “Nat,” he wraps her into a warm embrace, “it’s okay. We-”

“We can’t do this,” she repeats and her voice cracks slightly. “We can’t hurt another Steve.”

“We’re not-”

Her chest feels like it’s squeezing, like it’ll collapse into her any moment. “Promise me.” Tony winces under her intense gaze. “Promise me we won’t…we won’t go through with it. We can find another way!”

“Nat,” he sighs, looking over at Bruce for help, but he looks away. Damn him, they were supposed to have a united front. “Heimdall said-”

“-that we needed captain, not that we needed to go to another fucking universe and ruin another man’s life!” She inhaled sharply and ran her fingers through her hair, pushing the red locks behind her ears.

After a beat, he responds.

“Okay.”

Bruce frowns, his lips parting as he stares at him in confusion. Natasha’s back was facing him, otherwise she would have asked him to explain his look of bewilderment.

Tony shakes his head at him, silently telling him to ignore what they had already done.

See, Tony had a suspicion that Natasha would fight them on this plan. She already had made it clear that she thought it was wrong and just because they found a Steve that fit their criteria, didn’t mean that he would answer or even agree to what they wanted.

So, there was no point in telling her and upsetting her over something that might not even happen.

Right?


 

Earth-7

Strange things were always happening to Steve.

What with barely surviving his childhood, to getting a serum that turned him into a supersoldier, crashing a plane into ice, being lost for years and surviving, to being tortured by the idealistic organisation that found him – you name it, he’s gone through it.

So, yes, he’s pretty used to strange – but this? This was an entirely different category of strange.

Esmeralda was in his room when it happened. She was bringing him dinner, something Doña Luz had sent as a thanks for running into town to get her some medicine.

Sometimes he felt like getting the serum was a curse, but then he was able to run while there was a storm happening to save a woman’s life and it made him feel like it was a little less of a curse and more of a – whatever was between blessing and curse.

She was talking about his painting of the waterfall down the road when he noticed that something was amiss. At first, he wasn’t sure what it was and for a short moment he thought he was just being a little paranoid, but then he realised that the little silver apparatus was something he’d never seen before.

Are you okay?”

Steve nodded, but his eyes kept falling back on his bureau. “Yeah, I’m fine.

Esmeralda smiles, choosing not to mention how he’s obviously not fine and keeps telling her about her day. For the past few months that he’s been residing in their little town, she quickly became enamoured and she tried her hardest to send him hints, but it seemed that he was oblivious to all of her attempts.

That or she was a terrible flirt.

She would bring him homemade meals, offer to clean his room and even wash his laundry to just spend time with him, but he always seemed…distant. He was nice and attentive when needed, but he wasn’t paying her the attention she wanted.

No matter how much she batted her pretty green eyes or flipped her long black hair over her shoulder, Steve just didn’t…budge.

She knew there was something different about him. He wasn’t just another white man looking for himself or for redemption. He was genuinely trying to help without expecting anything in return. That’s why almost everyone in the village absolutely loved him.

Esmeralda?” Steve interrupted her rambling softly. His blue eyes sparkled with cautious curiosity at something behind her and she sagged her shoulders.

She should just give up on her dreams of him ever taking notice of her.

Yeah?”

Do you mind if-”

She nodded right away and tried her hardest to hide her blush behind her hair. “Yeah, sure! Sorry, I was probably annoying you.

Steve frowned at that and she almost melted at how soft his gaze was. “You’re not annoying me. I just remembered something and I-

She held her hand up, flashing him a sweet lopsided smile and shook her head. “It’s okay. You don’t need to explain yourself to me.” She walked over to him and placed her hand on his broad shoulder. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed the side of his cheek gently. “I’ll see you later.”

Bye.” He waited until she was walking down the hall to close the door and try to figure out what the silver apparatus was.

It wasn’t in his room this morning and he doesn’t remember ever seeing it in the village, so he doubted that it was something one of the little kids brought in. Part of him felt alarmed that someone had placed something so high-tech in his room without him noticing, but the other part felt his stomach churning with exhilaration.

The moment he picked it up, a blue light lit up the centre. It was a circular little thing; half the size of his palm and it was cold. The blue button in the middle-kept flashing until he pressed it and a hologram flashed to life.

The man introduced himself as Tony Stark, a member of a group of superheroes named the Avengers. He recounted a story of aliens and gods and went on a tangent about parallel universes and the possibility of him helping them with problems they were having in their universe.

“Well,” he cleared his throat, “if you’re interested, just…press the button again and we’ll drop by.”

The look of bewilderment on Steve’s face was priceless.

He wasn’t sure if he was being pranked or if what the man had said was true, but he wasn’t really eager to find out. He had enough problems as it was in his own life, adding the mere idea of parallel universes in existence just…it gave him a headache – he wasn’t even sure he could get headaches.

It didn’t help that he couldn’t stop thinking about it. For the next few days, he just played with the silver disk, contemplating and staying up all night.

It was driving him crazy.

Until he went to visit Doña Luz and made a comment about it. He didn’t tell her all the details, just asked what she’d do if given the opportunity to travel somewhere she’d never been.

He tried his best to not get attached to people, with the life he led and all, but when he met people like Doña Luz it was a little hard not to. She was the sweet grandmother of the village, the oldest one and the wisest.

What’s stopping you?”

He frowned, looking down at his hands and then at her. He had given up the shield a long time ago, had given up on the Captain America persona, but he still tried his hardest to help people the best way he could.

That’s how he wound up in their town. If what the hologram said was true, he couldn’t just leave his universe vulnerable to imminent threats.

She smiled, all-knowing and wise, and patted his hand. Then she breathed in deeply and closed her eyes, enjoying the sound of the song playing in her little radio. He got it for her when he went into town, the music was supposed to help entertain her when she was too tired to be outside.

The song ended and she stopped humming along to the beat.

“In other news, Captain America was seen helping first responders after the massive 7.1 earthquake that hit Mexico City last night. Mr. Wilson was one of the first ones to touch ground after the seismic shocks…”

The answer was simple.

Nothing.”

Chapter Text

When Natasha was younger, she was forced to watch American movies to perfect her accent. At first, it was Disney movies with princesses and fairies. Then the themes changed into something more mature so that they could copy the mannerisms across cultures, and instead of princesses and fairies, they watched maids and housewives.

Sometimes, she wished to have that life. It’s how she managed to get through some of the nights of her training, while her hand was cuffed to the headrest, she imagined she was falling in love with a rich man that could solve her problems with a snap of his fingers.

The dream faded over years, as she grew and became more acquainted with the hardness of the world, but as she would sit in front of the vanity mirror, adding red gloss to her lips and hiding behind coloured contacts and wigs, she would think about those dreams.

How she wanted a different life, something mundane with a regular 9-5 job because it seemed easier than seducing men and killing them.

Now, as she stood in front of the kitchen sink, furiously rubbing the coffee stain off her apron, she realised how stupid she was for wanting the “normal life.”

It’s not something that she should be proud of, but she was good at what she did. Seducing and killing men; it’s how she earned her codename. And, while her skills were perfected through terrible methods, now she used those skills to help the world be a better place.

So, maybe she should be proud of what she was capable of doing or at least, being capable of doing terrible things and choosing not to do them.

See, through the past few months that she lived as Daisy, she began to understand why so many people were unhappy with their regular lives. They would work a 9-5 shift and sleep for a few hours to do it all over again. At least, that’s what she did.

Normally she wouldn’t need the regular number of hours of sleep to function, but lately, she had been feeling a little off her game. Granted, she wasn’t used to dealing with infuriating people all the time.

At least as the Black Widow, she was able to release some of her pent-up tension on the targets that were a little more unnerving than usual. As Daisy Buford, she had to smile and apologise to the people that made her life impossible.

“I specifically said I didn’t want cheese on my cheeseburger.”

She would apologise, take the cheeseburger away and bring them back what they insisted wasn’t a hamburger.

“How much for a kiss from a pretty little thing like you?”

She would force a laugh and take a slight step away from the wandering hand that would slide up the back of her thigh before making a light-hearted joke about it being off the menu.

Or, her favourite one today.

“Can I get another strawberry milkshake? This one tastes too much like strawberry.”

She could shoot moving targets with ease, jump off buildings without fear and fight an alien army, but if she worked at this diner a month longer, she may end up dumping the steaming hot coffee pot on the next person that gets on her nerves.

It was funny to think about it sometimes. How she had desperately wanted a “normal” life but now that she was having a real taste of it, she didn’t think she could do it again. She also wondered why all the villains she encountered were mad scientists when there was such a thing as customer service.

That seemed like a much more plausible story.

“Daisy?”

That was Molly, the sweet college student that busted her ass working three jobs to barely afford a semester of medical school. During her breaks, she was always sticking her nose in a book and taking notes on napkins when she ran out of paper.

When Natasha finished this mission, she’d make sure to pay off her tuition for the next year. The world desperately needed more people like her.

“Yeah?”

She leaned against the wall, grinning at her as she popped her head around the corner. “Can you please tell Ashley that peanut butter and pickles is a disgusting mix?”

“Don’t listen to her, Daisy-doll,” Ashley shouted from the stock room, “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Natasha lets out a laugh, shaking her head as she threw out the napkins, she was using to dry her apron. She hadn’t noticed that the coffee pot was near the edge of the counter and when Lisa slammed the door shut on her way to the bank, it fell and splashed all over her uniform.

Now she smelled like coffee with old dried oil, and quite frankly, she was ready to finish her day and take a hot, long shower.

“Sorry, Ashley,” she responds, “I’m gonna have to agree with Molly on this one.”

Ashley was the bold one of the diner. She and Natasha were hired around the same time, but Molly quickly warmed up to them and taught them all her tricks. Ashley had an adorable four-year-old named Max that loved to show Natasha his aeroplane drawings while she restocked the napkins.

She always tried not to get attached to the people that she met through a mission, but she found that it was nearly impossible with Ashley and Molly. They were just so genuinely sweet – and if she was being honest with herself, she liked having them as a distraction.

Ashley snorts out a laugh, hugging the pack of flour to her chest. She puffs out a black curl that was hanging in front of her and huffs, “I thought you southerners were supposed to have good taste!”

“We do!” She helps her stock the flour cabinet while continuing their banter. “Which is why I can say that pickles and peanut butter is gross.”

Molly squealed, sliding her arm around Natasha’s waist and squeezed her. “This is why you’re my favourite.”

Natasha smiled, patting her forearm and then wriggled out of the tight embrace. “Are you sure it’s not because I let you wait my side when that cute guy comes in? What was his name?”

“Derek,” Ashley chimes in, in a sing-song voice.

Molly blushes, turning about as red as her hair and begins rolling back and forth on the balls of her feet. Before she can respond, though, Kenny walks in, huffing under his breath about an annoying customer.

Kenny was their boss, an older pudgy man that used cologne a little more than what was needed. He was nice, a little grumpy at times, but at least he would stand up for them when customers were rude.

“Daisy,” he wiped his handkerchief against his sweaty brow and used the wall to support himself as he wobbled by them. He reminded her of a bald, but hairy, little penguin. “Rocco wants you.”

Ashley made a suggestive sound, wriggling her eyebrows and Molly grimaced. Molly wasn’t fond of Rocco – she was smart. Ashley…well, she was easily persuaded by a pretty face and a charming personality.

Since they started working around the same time, she didn’t know about the girls that had disappeared. Molly had her suspicions, but she wasn’t entirely sure.

She never warned Natasha with explicit details. She did mention her suspicions in passing but waved them away because the girls that had disappeared overnight were the types to “pack their things and go without notice.”

The bastard seemed to pick easy targets and had it not been for the disturbing pictures she had found in the dark web, he would’ve never been caught.

“Me?” She frowns, feigning confusion.

Rocco had always stopped her when she was in between tables, and he always came in during daylight. The diner had about an hour before they closed it down for the night and while she wasn’t necessarily worried, she was curious to see what sparked his boldness.

“Yep,” he wheezed, “said your name n’all.”

“Okay.” She waited until Kenny walked back to his office and then smiled at the girls. “I’ll be back?”

“Go get him!” Ashley swiped her ass with a towel, giggling like a schoolgirl.

Natasha rolled her eyes but gave her a thumbs up.

“Be careful?” Molly chewed her bottom lip.

“Oh, please,” Ashley muttered under her breath, “she’ll be fine. Rocco’s a gentleman.”

Molly opened her mouth to respond, but Ashley waved her unspoken comment away and told her to help her clean the fryer. That’s a task Natasha absolutely hated; she wouldn’t miss it when she was through with this.

The dinner was unusually quiet that night. A few college students were studying in the booths, but she was used to the drunk group that would order a bunch of food and then never finish it.

Rocco Alfonsi was sitting by a window, tapping his fingers on the table as he listened to whatever the man sitting across from him said. He glanced down at his silver watch and then up at her.

Natasha understood why so many girls fell for his ruse. He was a very attractive man. His hair was slightly peppered, and his eyes were a striking green that simply transfixed you. He was tall with broad shoulders and carried himself with confident strides that seemed to demand attention.

“Hi,” She smiled at him shyly and pulled her notepad out, “what can I get for you guys tonight?”

He waved his hand in the air. “None of that. Come,” he turned his body to face hers and moved further into the booth, “have a seat.”

She hesitated, biting her bottom lip to add to her demure allure. “I-”

His eyes crinkled at the sides when he smiled, sweetly but with a hint of a warning that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. “I promise I won’t bite.”

She laughed and nodded, shoving her notepad into her pocket and sat down next to him.

“How are you?” He slid his hand on the back of the booth, around her shoulders. “It’s Daisy, right?”

“Yeah,” she tucks her hair back, “and, I’m good. Ready for this shift to be over. What about you?”

“I’m doing great now that you came out.”

She giggled and began to roll the edges of her apron between her fingers.

The trick was to appear as shy as possible. Men like him completely salivated over body language, they loved the shy smiles, the avoidance of eye-contact, and the nervous twiddle of fingers. It lacked confidence and while he may brag about wanting a strong woman, what he really wanted was someone to control and take advantage of.

Daisy Buford was his perfect prey.

“Tell me something, Daisy,” he clears his throat and begins playing with her collar, “what do you desire?”

She held the urge to laugh at his question and shrugged. “What do you mean?”

“There has to be something you want in life, your biggest dream. I wanna know what it is.”

“Well,” she gnawed on her bottom lip, “I’ve always wanted to be a movie star. Like Marilyn Monroe or Lauren Bacall.”

He turned to the man across from them and exclaimed his surprise loudly. “A movie star! That’s amazing! You definitely have the looks. Doesn’t she have the looks, Freddie?”

“She definitely has the looks,” Freddie nodded, a dark glint flashing in his eyes as he smiled at her. His eyes were glued to her cleavage and she pretended not to notice how he practically slavered at the subtle display of skin.

She blushed and softened her voice. “Thank you.”

“Well,” Rocco reached over again and ran his hand down the length of her ponytail, twirling the ends around his fingers slowly, “what would you do if I told you I could make that happen?”

Natasha whipped her head away to face him with wide eyes and a slacked jaw. “Really? What? How?!”

“I know a lot of people that can make that happen. I just have to give them a call.” His hand slid down the nape of her neck, “I like making pretty girls like you happy. You shouldn’t be working in a dingy diner the rest of your life. Is that what you want?”

She shook her head. “No, but-”

“Ah!” He held his hand up, silencing her, “No buts! If you really want to be a movie star, I can help you.” He inched forward. “Do you?”

She pauses for dramatic effect and gnaws on her bottom lip as she thinks about his offer. “I would, but…what would I have to do?”

“Nothing hard…or inappropriate,” he adds and lays his hand on her knee like it was supposed to alleviate all her fears. What kind of idiot assured “appropriateness” while simultaneously touching her?!

“All you have to do is show up at a few of my parties and talk to my friends. Keep them entertained, if you will.” She nodded and he continued, “I wouldn’t let anyone touch you, of course. You’d be a guest. You just have to show your face. Think of it like an unofficial audition.”

Natasha forces a blush and keeps listening to him make promises about the ideal life he could give her if she just let him. All she had to do was “work a few jobs” for him and any other girl might’ve believed his fancy lie of just “dressing up and partying” a few weekends, but she understood the meaning hidden behind his extravagant words.

She’d give him that.

He could paint his offer with beautiful words; words that easily trapped all the girls he had hurt before her and made it seem like he would actually deliver his empty promises.

His fingers were rough, calloused and warm against her knee. Friendly with underlying promises of what he was capable of. His grip was firm, and he never moved his hand further up, which she frankly, appreciated.

She kept her smile composed, nodded when she had to and listened to the information, he gave her, storing it in her mind for later.

“Everything you want,” he leaned even closer, inhaling deeply, “would be yours. All you have to do is say yes.”

“You really could do that?” Her voice was soft, almost breathy and it seemed to strike something in him. He liked that. She had him completely wrapped in the illusion that he was in control. “And, all I have to do is show up at your parties?”

“Yes.”

She smiled. “Okay.”

Rocco beamed and pressed a hard kiss to her cheek. “I’m gonna make you so famous, darlin’. You’ll be on every billboard of Times Square and within a year you’ll be on the big screen.”

Natasha threw her arms around him, pushing her body against his to get his hand away from her knee and he laughed. “Thank you so much, Mr. Alfonsi! I can’t wait!”

“Rocco, please.” He returned her hug, snaking his arms around her waist and held her tightly, “Mister makes me sound old.”

“Rocco.” she grinned. “Well, I don’t mean to be rude, but I do have to finish closing the diner.”

“Yeah, that’s fine.” He stood up, buttoning his suit jacket and flashed her a debonair smile. “Freddy will drop off your invitation and it’ll have my number and all the information you’ll need.”

“Thank you,” she sounded sincere and excited, “it means the world to me.”

He kissed her hand. “You won’t regret it.”

She smiled and waited for them to walk out. Rocco returned her smile and muttered something to Freddie. To the untrained ear, it would sound like soft murmurs.

Natasha was anything but untrained.

Stupid little girl.”

The corner of her lip turned up in a smirk, the mask of the Black Widow filtering through for a short second before Daisy Buford returned and finished her shift.

“What did he want?” Ashley gushes while she helps her wipe down tables.

Natasha shrugs, spraying cleaning-solution on the booths. “He offered to help me fulfil my dream.”

“Which is?”

“I wanna be a movie star.”

Ashley gasped, probably rolling out a fantasy in her mind. “Oh, Daisy you would be the most beautiful movie star! I can already see you walking the red carpet with those fancy dresses,” she twirls, flipping her hair over her shoulder, “but don’t forget us when you’re famous!”

Her heart pangs in her chest momentarily and she tries not to focus on it too much. She never felt guilty over lying to anyone involved in her missions, but ever since she started working with Steve…

“We’ll go dress-shopping for my red-carpet debut together,” She winks and then, laughs at the comments Ashley makes about the dresses she’ll choose and which colours, and which makeup artists she’ll want.

As Ashley continued sharing her fantasy, Natasha realised why this mission affected her so much.

For the past few months, she had been focusing on building this character, on completing the mission and wiping the red off her ledger – and she blamed her complete commitment on that; wanting to chip in and make the world just a little bit better.

The truth was, though, that this mission was a distraction.

See, Daisy was too busy to think about Steve and how hurt she was by his death. Daisy only had time to think about smiling at rude customers and making sure that she caught Rocco’s attention. And now that she was nearing the end, she was finding ways to keep connections to her little fantasy world.

Feeling guilty for lying to Ashley…wanting to pay Molly’s tuition…

She didn’t have too much time to dwell in her unravelling thoughts, though, because her phone began to ring loudly as she drove home. It was an alert from Jarvis, asking her to show up to headquarters immediately.

Had the message come directly from Tony, she would’ve stopped at her apartment and changed out of her uniform, or at least switched cars, but it came from Jarvis, which meant that whatever reason she was being summoned for was serious.

And as she drove in her shitty ’95 Corolla down the backroads, she cursed herself for not switching to her Corvette. The wipers weren’t working correctly, and it was pouring enough rain to flood the streets. A little more than halfway into her drive, her right back tire flattened, and she had to pull to the side of the road to change it.

She was tired and hungry. Her body was somewhat sore – since when did she get sore?! – and a migraine was brewing right at the base of her neck. Her hair was dripping wet and the condensation from the rain kept fogging up her windows – needless to say, when she arrived, she wasn’t in the best mood.

She breathed in deeply, waiting for the elevator to stop at the lab and twirled the blonde hair around her finger, trying to dry it a little and make herself somewhat presentable.

After she dealt with whatever emergency they had to deal with, she would take a long hot shower and maybe have some chicken soup. She was in the mood for it and the weather was perfect for comfort food.

She would be able to revise the folder with evidence she was compiling against Rocco and sleep in since she was off for the day.

When the elevator doors opened, Natasha frowned. Everyone was standing in the common area with their backs to her.

James was standing in the back, leaning against the wall with a hard-set jaw and a strange emotion flickering in his eyes. Something she hadn’t seen since she almost killed him back in Regensburg.

She had been with Sam, searching for any traces of HYDRA bases and instead found the Winter Soldier accompanied by Wanda Maximoff, a Sokovian girl that had subjected herself to Wolfgang von Strucker’s experiments on Loki’s Sceptre, and in turn, became enhanced with psionics.

He didn’t fight her much, just stared at her with a pained expression as she leapt on him and pinned him to the concrete floor. She used her Widow Bites and he winced, writhing under her as she momentarily enjoyed causing him pain, which quite frankly, was a ridiculously minuscule amount compared to everything she had felt for the past few months without Steve.

When she held her gun to his face, with her finger on the trigger and an unwavering grip, he simply breathed in and stilled. Wanda tried to stop her, waving her red-glowing fingers but James held his metal hand up to stop her.

“Wanda, no.”

“James-” she pled, and he shook his head, smiling at her reassuringly.

“I deserve this.”

Those chilling words made her stop.

Not the grimace in Sam’s face or the death-accepting expression on the Winter Soldier – or James’, as he now went by, face.

She knew what it was like to be used as a weapon, to not have control over your actions and feeling the remorse over things that haunted your nights. Clint had given her a second chance, had seen the potential in her and believed in her and while every cell in her body begged her to enjoy pulling the trigger and making him pay for taking Steve’s life…she couldn’t.

Steve would’ve offered him a second chance, would’ve spent his last few breaths trying to bring his friend back from HYDRA’s clutches. The last thing Natasha wanted to do was hurt Steve even more.

So, she dropped the gun and sat in silence, trying to wrap her mind around what she was doing. She had a clear shot, an opportunity to rid the world of another threat, but she couldn’t do it.

And surprisingly, she didn’t regret her decision.

Tony and Rhodey weren’t particularly content when she returned with two ex-HYDRA weapons, but she countered their arguments with the reminder that Wanda & James hated HYDRA just as much as them, if not more, and that they would be great additions to their team.

Wanda was sitting by the stairs with her legs crisscrossed while she sipped her tea. She played with her rings nervously, gripping the cup in her hands tightly as she kept her gaze flickering between James and whatever else everyone was staring at.

Fury was standing by the table, with his fingers on his chin and a stoic expression on his face, jotting something down on his notebook. Tony and Bruce were murmuring excitedly and as she stepped closer, her presence became known.

“Red!” Tony exclaimed loudly, grinning as he waved her to the centre platform. “You’re finally here!” He frowned, taking in her appearance. “What happened to you?”

Her gaze finally landed on what had everyone gathered in the lab – or rather who.

He was tall, facing partly away from her with his fingers looped around his utility belt. Rhodey was standing next to him, a look of disbelief on his face as they spoke.

Her heart – it skips a beat; it flutters for a millisecond and then it begins to thud like a stampede of animals.

Steve?”

She doesn’t think she says it, her voice sounded too far away, distorted almost. Like it wasn’t actually coming from her.

It must’ve, though, because he turns to look at her and she feels like she’s been punched in the gut.

It’s not him.

It’s Steve, but it’s not Steve.

This…this man, he’s different.

His hair is darker, longer, reaching just below the nape of his neck and it curls a bit at the ends. He has a beard too, thick and it falls somewhere between dishevelled and sort of cleaned.

His uniform is different, too.

Similar, but different.

It’s the stealth suit, she recognises that. The star in his chest was missing, and his suit is dirty, torn and obviously has gone through hell. And he doesn’t necessarily look older, just…tired. Like he hasn’t had a good night’s rest in years.

But he’s smiling at her.

It’s small and friendly, tentative.

He nods his head once, faintly. “Ma’am.”

“Hi.” Her voice is breathless, a whisper, like someone literally knocked the wind out of her.

His voice is the same, deep and comforting. Similar. It’s…it’s him, but not.

Tony is calling her, she hears him; hears how he says her name, like he’s speaking to a wounded animal and is afraid she’ll strike. It’s muffled, though. Like the white noise, she’s so accustomed to hearing when bombs detonate near her and then she feels herself walking away.

She stalks into the elevator and Tony keeps calling her, but she’s smacking her floor button like her life depends on it. The doors close on his face and she stands unmoving, just shocked beyond comprehension.

Her hands are shaking at her sides, she’s trembling, trying to compose herself and compartmentalise.

It’s Steve.

No, it’s not Steve.

It looks like him, but it can’t be him.

Steve was dead.

She watched him die.

He-

“Nat.”

That’s Tony again.

She grits her teeth, blinking away the tears she didn’t even know had welled in her eyes and glares at him. “Tony.”

“Nat,” he tries again, holding his hands up in surrender, “let’s talk about this.”

“You promised,” she gulps, running her fingers through her wet hair – well, the wig, “you said that you would stop this stupid,” she waves her hand in the air, “mission. You told me you wouldn’t,” her voice cracks and Tony winces.

He sighs. “I didn’t think it was gonna work, Nat. I…we had sent him a message before you and I talked. So technically,” he attempted to cheer her, “I didn’t break my promise.”

She shoots him a sharp glare.

He drops his shoulders, defeated. “Nat, come on. Introduce yourself to him; Steve’s not so bad.”

“That’s not Steve.” She’s shaking again and begins pacing in the foyer of her floor. It’s the first time Tony sees her so distraught after their Steve’s death. She’s angry, he can tell that much. “I-I don’t know what the hell that is,” her bottom lip trembles, “but that’s not Steve.”

It couldn’t be. He had his eyes – the exact colour of them – and his face, but it wasn’tSteve. It couldn’t be – because she had personally scattered his ashes over the lake next to the underground tower.

So, while the man standing in the lab looked like an exact replica of Steve, she knew it wasn’t him. No matter how quickly her heart fluttered or how hopeful she had managed to be in the few seconds she saw him.

“You’re right,” Tony agrees, and his voice is soft, hesitant, “he’s not. He goes by Nomad, but he’s a Steve, and,” he sighs, almost pleading with her to accept his stupid decision, “it’s the best we’ve got.”

“The best we’ve got?!” She thunders and he widens his eyes. He’s never heard her shout like that and he’s not sure what’s more frightening. Her speaking softly or the myriad of emotions flickering through her eyes as she shouts. “Do you hear yourself?! The best we’ve got! We have a fucking psychic, a witch on our side and this is the best we’ve got?!

“Nat-”

A rancorous laugh trembles past her lips as she shakes her head. “But what else could I have expected from you? The chance to play god was just too goddamn good to pass up for the self-centred prick Tony Stark, wasn’t it?!”

He scowled, taking a step from her and his entire demeanour switched to a defensive stance. “Maybe if you weren’t too worried about what’s best for you, you’d realise that I’m doing this for us.”

“For us?!” Her voice hitches, incredulity dripping viciously from her tone of voice.

“Yes, for us!” He shoots back, “I swore that I would protect Earth and if this is what I have to do to keep that promise, then so be it!”

“We could have done that without having to take someone from their freaking universe!”

Tony rolls his eyes and holds his hand up. “Jarvis?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Play that clip that we talked about. The one where Thor tells us Heimdall’s message.”

“Yes, sir.”

Natasha grits her teeth, clenching her fists at her side and breathes in deeply.

You will need Captain Rogers,” Heimdall speaks in the background.

Her heart skips in her chest again.

You know what?” Tony laughs in the recording, sounding just as angry as she felt. “We hadn’t thought of that! We’ll just go mix up a bit of supersoldier serum with magic and bring him back!

Perhaps you misinterpreted me.” Tony gives her a pointed look. “There are other universes where other Captains preside. One of them could help you with the battles.”

Other universes?”

The clip stops playing.

“So, tell me, how else can we win this stupid battle without him!?”

“We could have figured it out!”

He scoffs. “How? By switching sides? Not all of us can pull off the double-agent crap, Romanoff.”

She flinches at his comment and her lips part slightly as she watches him stalk out of her floor. Her shoulders drop and she lets out a loud sigh. She had to apologise; she hadn’t meant to hurt him – she was just…she couldn’t fathom the idea of replacing Steve. It just…she couldn’t!

Natasha ran her fingers through the tangled tresses and pulled the wig off. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at the stranger in the reflection and for the first time since she had accepted Steve’s death, began to cry.

She took her blue contacts off, pulled the bit of prosthetics around her nose off and wiped her smeared makeup off. Her reflection was Natasha again and she breathed deeply, holding unto the edges of the sink as she tried to compose herself.

That proved to be fruitless. The moment she entered the shower, she stood under the water for what felt like hours replaying what she had seen at the lab, well who she had seen.

It was like having Steve again and having him being ripped from her grasp. Like watching him die all over again.


 

When Tony returns to the lab, everyone is sort of frozen in the same spot they had been when he went chasing after Natasha. Steve – Nomad? – he was going to have a hard time getting used to calling him that, he was watching him curiously and kept glancing behind him, probably wondering where Natasha had gone off to.

 “That,” Tony cleared his throat, forcing out a bright smile, “was our fearless leader, Natasha.”

Steve nods, clearing his throat to ease the bit of awkwardness that’s filling the room. “Is she alright?”

“Mm?” Tony sounds a bit distracted. “Oh, yes. She’s wonderful. Just went to clean up.” He waved his hand in the air as if waving away any of Steve’s worries. “She’s doing a mission.”

“Tony.” Rhodey shoots him a warning look and sighs. He turns to look at Steve and tries his hardest to hide the obvious surprise he feels every time he looks at him and realises how different he looks from the Steve he knew. “She’s…” he trails off and clears his throat, “to tell you the truth, she wasn’t very happy with the idea of bringing you on board.”

His discomfort increases.

“Oh.”

Now he understood why she had looked at him as if she had seen a ghost. Her expression had gone from surprised to something he couldn’t quite decipher, but had a strange feeling was agony.

“Yeah,” Tony winces, “she and our Steve were, uh, close.” He hesitates for a second before adding, “Best friends.”

Steve nods in response. “I understand.”

There are a few more beats of silence before he breaks it again.

“So, is this everyone on our team?”

“Ye—no.” Tony walked behind his desk and began to pull at the holograms surrounding him. “We’re also working with Maria Hill. She couldn’t come in because she’s working a mission for SHIELD.”

Steve frowns at that. “Isn’t that the organisation that killed, uh, your Steve?” That would take some getting used to.

“Yes, but she’s working undercover for them. She keeps us updated on things they’re doing and what they might do. It’s been a bit hard to contact her since they have such a tight leash on her now.”

Steve walked toward him, keeping his eyes trained on the flying pictures around them. “Can she be trusted?”

“Yes.” The man sitting by the desks finally spoke up. He had kept his eye trained on him the entire time and shook his hand firmly, tightly. “She was one of my best damn agents.”

He raises an inquisitive eyebrow. “Was?”

“Fury here used to be the standing director of SHIELD before it fell.” Tony jabbed his thumb in his direction. “He faked his death after realising something was wrong.”

The quick arch of his eyebrows speaks more than a thousand words could. He doesn’t seem that impressed and he’s not really trying to hide that. It seemed that everyone in this room had been involved with the organisation intimately.

And it’s not that he was judging.

It’s just…this was exactly why he wasn’t Captain America anymore.

People didn’t trust each other and when they stopped trusting each other, they stopped trusting those that could protect them.

Something he was still not used to was seeing Bucky – well, it wasn’t really him. He had a metal arm now and long hair. He kept brooding by the corner, not wanting to meet his gaze and he wondered if he wasn’t on speaking terms with the Steve in his universe.

He wanted to ask him about his life – the Bucky in his universe had grown old and lived a happy, long life with a beautiful family that Steve was content watching from a distance. Being Captain America wasn’t just a burden on his morality, it also cost him a sense of normalcy.

It was better this way, anyway. He didn’t want to put anyone in danger.

This Bucky went by James. He muttered something to the dark-haired girl, Wanda, he believes, and then walks out of the lab. His expression wasn’t like the one Natasha had, but Steve could tell that he wasn’t comfortable with his presence either.

He was starting to wonder if leaving his Earth had been a good idea at all.

“Alright,” Tony clasped his hands, “why don’t I show you to your room? That way you can settle in and we can discuss things later?”

Steve nodded and slung his duffel bag over his shoulder. “That’d be great. Thank you.”

As he walked by Sam, he couldn’t help but smile. At least he knew that Sam was also a hero in his world, he just went by Falcon in this universe.

“It was good to meet you, man.” He shook his hand firmly, “If you ever wanna talk, I’m on the floor below yours.”

The corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. “Thank you.”

“Sam was a former VA counsellor,” Tony began, “and he always wants to talk. He’s like a gossiping old lady.”

That made Steve smile, it reminded him of a few of his buddies from his Vietnam unit. They always wanted to talk and make sure that he was okay. He always said he was fine, even if he wasn’t because he really didn’t feel like burdening anyone with his issues.

Some of them saw through his bullshit and found subtle ways to make him feel better and for that, he’d always be grateful. He could tell Sam was just like that and he hoped they could get along for the few months he’d be there.

The room was tremendous. There was a small foyer with generic decorations and a Captain America teddy bear on the table in the hallway that Steve had a sneaking suspicion Tony added. There were no windows (what with it being underground and all) and the colours were plain whites with grey accents. It's not like he had anything to add to it. He didn't even have that much clothing and apart from the clothes in his bag, he was just carrying his sketchbook. 

“My girlfriend, Pepper, decorated it,” Tony stood by the door, “but you can change it however you want. Make it homey and all. Jarvis can make the walls look like the stars or the sun if you need it.”

He wasn't sure he'd be using the faux-weather feature any time soon, but it was nice to have it. 

“Thank you, Tony.”

He shook his hand and made a noncommittal comment. “If you have any questions just ask Jarvis.”

While they waited for Natasha to arrive, Tony and Rhodey had answered most of his questions and explained how things worked in the underground facility. He still found it a bit odd that an AI was so in charge of things – he was sure there was a movie he had seen on why that was a bad thing, but at this point, he wasn’t going to question things.

The trip over with Dr. Strange had been short, but extremely exhausting. His stomach felt like he was falling down a never-ending hole and his stomach hadn’t caught up with the rest of his body. He had felt sick at first and now he just wanted to shower and rest.

After he spent about ten minutes trying to figure out what each control meant – he really only needed hot or cold, he didn’t understand why someone would need so many settings for a shower – he walked out and sat on the edge of the bed.

He rummaged through his bag, pulling out the few articles of clothing he had brought into the drawers and then looked down at the Swiss Army knife in his hands. It was a gift from his mom, it had belonged to his dad from his time in World War I – and it was the only thing he had left from them.

His thumb brushed over the wooden finish, over the engraved Rogers and he sighed. He had been alone after he gave up his Captain America mantle, after the end of the Vietnam War, but there was something different about the type of solitude he felt then.

He wanted to blame it on the fact that he was in an entirely different universe, in a place where he didn’t really belong – but what he couldn’t stop thinking about was Natasha’s expression.

Her blue eyes had been so expressive, so pained when she had said his name. She looked so hopeful and then crushed as if his presence had reopened old wounds that hadn’t really closed – and it really shouldn’t have mattered to him, he didn’t even know her.

Yet, all night he spent it tossing in bed, thinking about it; about how hurt she sounded and how intimately he knew that pain of losing someone important, of being alone – and how badly he didn’t want her to feel that way.

Chapter Text

“I asked for an army and all I got was you. You are not enough.”

Steve flinches at the words.

He can’t see Colonel Phillips; he can’t see anything. There’s just a dark cloud that surrounds him, immobilises him.

His chest tightens and he tries to control his breathing.

He hadn’t had these nightmares in a while.

A bright light shines in his eyes and he’s blinded momentarily before a deafening explosion goes off next to him. Horrified screams follow and it takes him less than a second to recognise where his mind has taken him.

Soldiers are screaming, shouting orders while others shriek in pain. Guns are going off; grenades are being launched and he can hear the sizzling sound of tear gas like a cacophony of war.

Someone grabs him, his grip is tight and warm, sticky with blood.

“I don’t wanna die.”

Steve looks down and he can see the bright eyes of Pvt. Johnson staring back at him. He’s frantic, gripping at him with his last bits of strengths.

“I won’t let you die.” His voice sounds distant, almost mute to his ears. “Not here, not now.”

Blood sputters out of his mouth and Steve can feel some of it against his face. He holds Pvt. Johnson’s side, in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding and keeps on making promises that he can’t keep.

He’s missing a leg, but he’s too focused on the piece of wood sticking from the other side of his stomach to notice and Steve doesn’t have the heart to tell him.

He knows he’s making empty promises, but what else can he do?

They were ambushed during night-time on an op that none of these young men were prepared for and no matter how many times Steve called for backup or how many times he explained why the plan the general had laid out for them didn’t make sense, they didn’t listen to him.

It didn’t matter that he was enhanced and had survived one of the bloodiest wars in history. While some considered him a hero, others sneered in disdain for speaking out against the war.

First Colonel Phillips had said he wasn’t enough, then it was General Williams and then the Secretary of State, and then it spread through the other units of men who were blinded by patriotic fanaticism.

He was Captain America how dare he speak out against the country he was fighting for?!

And, what did he know? He had just gotten out of the ice. Had entered the war months before anyone realised it would end. Times were different now, they said, a man out of time couldn’t possibly understand.

They weren’t familiar with the terrain, not like the locals they were fighting, and their fancy new weapons meant nothing when all their men were dying from fevers.

It rained almost every day and during the night the temperatures would drop drastically; it was the perfect mixture against their already low immune systems. They barely ate and even though they wanted to sleep, they couldn’t. Every time they closed their eyes, they could see a fallen brother, could hear their shrieks, supplicating and begging for death at their hands.

When Steve looks down again, a different face is staring at him.

Private First-Class Murphy.

He’s drowning in his blood, coughing and gurgling as he smacks a picture of his wife against Steve’s chest and silently pleads to be returned.

Then it’s First Sergeant Allen and he’s using his final breaths to thank him for saving him.

Private Collins recites a passage from the bible.

“Captain Rogers.”

Staff Sergeant Simmons asks Steve to tell his fiancée that he loved her, that he never stopped thinking of her.

“Captain Rogers.”

Private Second-Class Hernandez thanked him for standing up for him while others spewed racists comments for being Hispanic.

“Captain Rogers.”

He can remember each and every man that he fought alongside, that he held as they breathed their last words, and all of their requests.

He can remember the faces of their family members and the way they sobbed in disdain as he shared their final requests.

While his eidetic memory helped him for some things, it absolutely wrecked him for others.

The sounds, the tastes – all of it. He can recall even the most minuscule detail and that’s what made his nightmares even worse.

Then he’s looking into expressive blue eyes. They have the same emotion they did when she first saw him, crushed and bewildered, and her lips begin to move.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

He wakes up with a gasp.

“Captain Rogers!”

His heart is beating in his chest rapidly, like it’s threatening to rush out of his body, and he’s covered in sweat. He’s drenched in it, his hair is sticking to his face, his dog tags weighing against his abdomen and he feels his hands trembling at his sides.

Jarvis is calling him, and it takes him a second to situate himself. He slides his hand down his face, wiping away the beads of sweat accumulating on his skin and he breathes in deeply, raggedly.

“Are you alright, Captain Rogers?” Jarvis pauses. “Your vitals were spiking dangerously high.”

Steve waves him away and gulps loudly. He sits up, resting his elbows on his thighs and hangs his head. “S’lright.” His voice is hoarse, and he clears his throat, “the serum does that.”

Could an AI have emotions? Because Steve felt like Jarvis’ short silence had a bit of scepticism to it.

“Would you like me to let Mr. Stark know that you are awake?”

His mouth felt dry as he shook his head. He licked his bottom lip and stood up. “No, it’s okay. I’m going to wash my face and try to sleep again.”

The AI didn’t respond, and Steve silently thanked it for not digging up any further.

He hadn’t dreamt of the war in a while and this was the first time in years that his dreams had been as vivid as they were when he first returned home from the front lines. And he definitely wasn’t expecting Natasha to show up in his dreams – granted, he had fallen asleep with her reaction to him on his mind, but he didn’t think it would affect him so much.

He let out a loud yawn when he reached the bathroom and bent over the sink to splash water on his face. It was cool and it felt nice to clean away the sweat. He held onto the sides of the sink, gripping it tightly as he tried to get himself back together and after a while, walked back out to the room.

It was dark and maybe it’s because he had gotten too used to sleeping on hard cots and small places, but everything felt…out of place. He felt out of place. He was surprised he had managed to fall asleep on the mattress in the first place. Now that he wasn’t as exhausted, though, he doubted he’d be able to get much sleep.

“Perhaps a change of scenery might help…?”

As Jarvis says that, the walls around the room began to flicker from white to black. Slowly stars began to illuminate the darkness and he loses himself in the sea of twinkling lights. The scenery was so surreal that he momentarily wondered if Jarvis had opened the ceiling to show him the sky.

“It’s what the sky looks like currently.”

Steve murmurs a ‘thank you’ and crosses his arms behind his head as he keeps staring up at the faux night. His lips curl at the side, an almost amused smile appearing on his face as he hears the faint sound of crickets chirping in the background. Technology would never cease to amaze him.

It didn’t help him fall back asleep, but it did soothe him.

He watched the stars twinkle and slowly shift across the sky as the sun began to rise on the horizon. Once the hues began to switch from black to pink and blue, he decided to move from the bed and try to get familiar with the terrain around. Maybe that would help him sleep better.

After his shower, Jarvis guided him to the kitchen area and to avoid struggling with the appliances, he just grabbed a water bottle and sat on the table. He was lost in his thoughts when Sam walked into the kitchen.

He still wasn’t used to the idea of seeing another Steve. This one was a little different. Their Steve had been a bit more…approachable, or at least, his eyes didn’t look as haunted or their Steve just hid it well.

This one, “Nomad,” he looked almost defeated. His eyes were dark with emotions that he only saw in soldiers that had seen truly messed up things. Didn’t they all? This was different though. He couldn’t even begin to fathom what he was going through.

Having to carry the baggage he brought from his world and now being found in a different universe that didn’t seem to welcome him with open arms.

“You okay, man?”

Steve blinks slowly, like he just realised that someone else was with him. “Huh? Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” He shoots him a half-hearted smile, “Sorry, I spaced out.”

Sam nodded and leaned against the threshold of the kitchen. After a few moments of silence, he cleared his throat and jabbed his chin forward. “Wanna go on a run?”

“Thought we couldn’t leave the tower?” Steve raises an eyebrow, but his lips start curling at the sides in amusement. He was glad that Sam didn’t pry and just found another way to get him out of his funk.

“Eh,” he waves his hand in the air, “I go on a run every morning. Helps me clear my head.”

Steve stands up and puts the water bottle back inside the fridge. “Well, lead the way.”

“You’re gonna love this,” he grins, “the scenery is beautiful and it’s really peaceful and quiet.”

The ride on the elevator was comfortably quiet. Sam could read people well and he could tell that Steve just wasn’t ready to share what was wrong with him. Years of working with closed-off soldiers really helped him to familiarise himself with the do’s and don’ts.

At first, their run was quiet. Steve kept a slow pace, jogging next to Sam as he took in their surroundings. He wasn’t lying when he said it was beautiful.

The rays of the sun were peeking through the tall trees, illuminating the flowers around them with an almost magical dew. Everything seemed to be coming to life slowly; the flowers unfurled, and the birds began to sing their morning songs.

As they kept running through the woods, Sam began to share his story.

Steve learned that Sam was an ex pararescue airman. He met their Steve a few days before the fall of HYDRA, while they were on a run. He didn’t say much about him, just that he asked for his help when things went south at SHIELD and that he was a good man. He said he didn’t know him well; they didn’t have a lot of time to get to know each other what with hiding from the government and then being ambushed by the Winter Soldier.

He also shared a bit of information on the rest of the team. Tony, who was also Iron Man, was known as a “playboy billionaire” but he had a sneaking suspicion that it was just the persona he hid behind to avoid letting others in.

Dr. Bruce Banner was known as the Hulk. He was a nuclear physicist that had been asked to recreate the supersoldier serum and after being exposed to high levels of gamma radiation, he was turned into a huge green creature.

After the damage he caused in the Battle of New York – which apparently was a war against aliens, and quite frankly, that didn’t surprise him much; he was in another universe – he vowed to repress “the other guy” as much as he could.

He was one of the scientists that helped to bring him from his earth and other than the basics, Sam didn’t know him well.

Dr. Strange was the other doctor that brought him aboard. The only thing Sam knew about him was that he tended to be a bit self-centred and his ego clashed with Tony’s at times, but that overall, they worked well together.

Fury and Maria Hill were ex-SHIELD personnel. Maria still worked for the organisation, trying to feed them as much intel as she could, but their connections were short since they didn’t want her to be caught. Fury had faked his death when the fall of SHIELD began and other than mentioning his patched eye, Sam didn’t know anything else.

Steve thought he knew Bucky – well, he went by James – yeah, he knew that his Bucky and this Bucky would be different, but he didn’t expect their differences to be that.…different. In this universe, his best friend had been captured by HYDRA, tortured and brainwashed into doing horrible things.

He became known as the Winter Soldier – the same man that killed the Steve in this universe, and now he understood why he had given him such a haunted look when he first stepped out of the platform with Dr. Strange.

Sam only knew the little bit that had Tony shared – apparently there had been a lot of animosity when Natasha brought James and Wanda into their team – because aside from Natasha, James was the most closed off from their group. Even Wanda spoke to Sam a little more.

She was also ex-HYDRA. She and her twin brother subjected themselves to experiments with a god’s sceptre – the same one that sparked the Battle of New York – and as a result, “got superpowers.” Her twin brother, Pietro had superspeed and she could master psionics. She was still learning, but Sam swore she was one of the most powerful ones in the team.

After she found out that a group of HYDRA scientists killed Pietro, Wanda turned her back on HYDRA and helped James escape. They were on the run when Natasha found them, and they formed an alliance to take them down.

Near the end of their run, Steve began to think that Sam might have lied about his skills in the team, and that he was able to read his mind. He was thankful that Sam had shared some of the information he knew about his new teammates, but Steve was really curious about Natasha, and Sam kept her for last.

Steve wasn’t going to admit to Sam or himself that he was looking forward to knowing a little bit about her. He was curious; for some reason she had left a lasting impression on him. He thought that if he knew more about her, then he’d at least understand why she had looked at him the way she had – he knew that she and their Steve were friends, but the look in her eyes…

“She’s an ex-Russian assassin.”

That was all Sam knew – and it was eating Steve inside.

He tried his best to prod without coming off too strong, but Sam shrugged and said that Natasha just didn’t share much. She always listened to her teammates and gave them advice when needed, but she never revealed anything about her past or who she was.

Sam knew the basics; she liked to drink a cup of chamomile tea after every mission, she was ambidextrous but preferred using her left hand, and even though Wanda was one of the most powerful in their group, he thought Natasha was right up there with her.

She was a lethal fighter and could easily beat everyone in the team on hand to hand combat. Though, watching her and James spar was “boring because they didn’t tire and could hold their own.”

He was thankful to Sam, for sharing information on his new teammates, but somehow knowing what he knew now just increased his curiosity. The run around the compound helped to ease his nerves, but the new information just made him a little antsier for the answers to his questions.

When they returned to the tower, everyone seemed to still be sleeping or at least still in their rooms. Sam headed straight to the kitchen to grab something to drink and Steve followed closely behind.

Sam hands him a water bottle wordlessly and leans against the counter to rest. He lifts the bottom of his shirt to wipe his face and lets out a loud, satisfied sigh. Steve laughs at his expression quietly because he wasn’t as tired. Sam had wanted to race him on the way back, betting that he wouldn’t be far behind if he ran at full speed and when Steve warned him about what he was betting again, Sam waved him away.

Now he was trying his hardest not to show that he was exhausted.

“You should probably stretch now.” He lifts the water in his hand, as a form of toasting and Sam shoots him a mocking smile.

He mutters something under his breath, all in good fun, of course and it makes Steve’s smile widen. Sam didn’t know it, but this was exactly what he needed.

Sam starts talking, saying something about stretching properly the next time they run, but Steve loses his focus momentarily when he hears footsteps approaching. They’re light against the carpet, like a sneaking cat and had it not been for his enhanced hearing, he probably wouldn’t have heard it.

The person rushes down the hall and it’s so fast that he almost misses it. It’s like a blur of red disappearing down the hall. He swears it was a woman, but he had met everyone in the team, and no one had red hair.

Wanda’s was auburn and Pepper – in the picture Tony shared – was blonde, so was Natasha. So, unless someone had coloured their hair overnight, Steve didn’t actually meet everyone in the compound.

“Huh,” Steve frowns to himself, wiping the corner of his mouth after he took a sip of water and places it on the sink.

Sam turns to look at him with a raised brow. “What?”

“I thought I met everyone in the compound.”

“You did, ‘cept Hill.”

“Is she a redhead?”

Sam shakes his head and rips the foil off a protein bar with his teeth. He offers Steve one, but he shakes his head. “Nah, she has black hair. Why?”

“I just…” he trails off, shaking his head because maybe he’s just crazy. It could’ve been a side effect from jumping through universes or just not sleeping enough. “I thought I saw someone with red hair.”

“Probably Natasha,” Sam responds through munches. Steve frowns because he swore, she was a blonde and Sam gives a short laugh at his expression. “She was wearing a wig yesterday.”

“Oh.”

He doesn’t say anything because he’s not sure what he’s supposed to say. It’s not even interesting, he wasn’t sure why he was so curious about anything that pertained to her and before he can even say anything, Tony saunters in.

“Good morning!” He places a stack of folders in front of Steve and begins tugging at his cuffs. “Fury sends these; said you might wanna look over them.”

Steve glances down at them. “What are they?”

“Files,” Tony reaches into the cupboard for a cup and rinses it in the sink, “it has all the information on everyone in our team and all the information we have on HYDRA.”

He frowns and ignores the way his heart stammers in his chest. It had nothing to do with the anticipation of learning about Natasha. It had everything to do with finally having a mission, being part of something that he was choosing to partake in. “Everyone?”

“Yep! Bruce, Rhodes, Nat; even me.”

Steve flips through a few, leaving Natasha’s for last. “Do they know this?”

“That I’m giving you their information?” He nods in response. “Yeah! You have to get acquainted with all of us and our strengths. Fury said something about it helping you be a leader or something.”

Sam nodded, crossing his arms against his chest. “That’s a pretty good idea. You’ll get to see Nat in action this week.”

Tony grinned, excited and a bit mischievous. “Watching Red kick ass is how we all bond as a group.”

Steve shoots Sam an amused but disbelieving look and Sam nods. “Watching Nat in action is like watching a live-action movie. She’s badass!”

“We all make bets to see how long it takes for her to do that cool leg-scissor thing.” He turns to Sam. “Speaking of, you still owe me those $50 from last time.”

“Man,” Sam rolls his eyes, “for the last time! We didn’t shake on it!”

“You’re a terrible person,” Tony admonishes. “How could you not honour the gentleman rule of wagers?”

While they argue back and forth over bets, Steve keeps looking at the files in front of him. They all seemed to vary in sizes. The one labelled Tony Stark seemed to be the most embellished, Fury’s seemed to be the thinnest (it only had one page and only half of it was full of information) and the rest all shared similar lengths.

He wanted to read the information alone because as nice as it was to listen to them bicker, Steve wanted to be able to understand everything he read and make mental notes on his new teammates.

That’s why when he flipped through Natasha’s he chose to ignore that most of the information was redacted.

~*~

Two days had gone by since his arrival, and Natasha was avoiding the Underground Tower like hell. Rogers – as she called him (because she refused to call him Steve) had quickly befriended the others. Sam, especially and even Wanda, who had been quieter than a mouse when they met.

Granted, it had only been two days, but Natasha saw how excited they all were with his presence. She avoided him like the plague the only day she had been there and when she wasn’t, she tried her hardest to focus on the mission.

She needed the distraction now more than ever. Seeing Steve’s face again…so close and so alive – it just was too much for her. She wasn’t ready to hear his voice or look into his eyes again. She just didn’t know how well she could keep it together if he pushed her buttons.

Rogers didn’t know it, but he was driving her to the brink of insanity. Just the mere thought of him living under the same roof as her, had her on edge.

It’s why when Freddie, Rocco’s right-hand man cornered her after last night’s shift, she felt spooked – out of her element.

Freddie pinned her against her shitty Corolla when she was taking out the trash. He licked his chapped lips, staring down her cleavage and rubbed his hand up the side of her thigh. Any other time, Natasha would’ve broken his fingers, but with everything that was happening…she just stayed pinned against the car.

She stared up at him, her jaw set and hard, ice-cold eyes. He had leaned forward, holding a white envelope between his fingers and pushed close enough that his breath brushed against her hair. He said that Rocco had sent him with the information she needed for the party and made a comment about feeling tempted to “take a bite” out of her.

She had been seconds from dislocating his arm when Carlos, the evening cook, walked out from the shadows and asked if she was okay. He was shorter than Freddie, younger, too, but somehow, he seemed to intimidate the idiot.

Natasha was okay with that; she didn’t want to blow her cover because someone couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. It surprised her though, that Carlos seemed to know something that others didn’t.

He warned her of Rocco, told her to stay away from him because “pretty, young girls” like her were disappearing and “no one was doing a damn thing about it.”

His voice cracked when he said that, the façade of the tough, tattooed boy faltering a bit under the emotions he was holding back, and Natasha had to stop herself from telling him that someone was doing something about it.

Carlos didn’t share more information with her, though, whatever he seemed to know, he wanted to keep to himself. She surmised that someone he knew had been taken by Rocco, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He was right in saying that no one had been doing anything about it.

When she found the pictures in the dark web, some of the email addresses linked to them were of men with money, power – that’s what caught her attention the most; that no one was doing anything about this. She couldn’t be sure, but she suspected that they weren’t just trafficking women, they must’ve been trafficking children as well.

That, she didn’t have proof of, but from past experiences, she was expecting it.

Once she had the address where Rocco wanted her to meet him at, she contacted Fury and gave him all the details. It wasn’t the exact location, but it was near a dock and thanks to satellite images, they were able to pick out the three warehouses near the area.

The location was perfect for the horrendous things they were doing. Near docks for transportation and the acres were private property, swamped with “under construction” signs that could justify the traffic in and out of the property without attracting suspicion. The signs were also a good way to keep people away.

There was a bit of a bittersweet taste in her mouth at the realisation of tonight’s mission. She had been preparing for this for the past three months. She had been Daisy Buford for so long that she had gotten used to always having an excuse, a reason to not think about things.

And now…well now not only did she have the time to think about things, she also had to deal with seeing a stranger with Steve’s face.

She was waiting in her little apartment – which was now completely empty, except for a few storage boxes because Daisy Buford would move back to her small town – for Rocco to arrive. He was supposed to pick her up and drive her to the location of the “party.”

She had gotten ready at the Tower. It’s where she had most of her covert gear and she needed to hook up to the hidden cameras. Tony managed to disguise her jewellery with microphones and cameras, and she hid a blade in each of the heels of her stilettoes.

Sam would be her backup. Wanda didn’t feel like she was ready enough to go out on the field and James was worried he’d be triggered by something (although, she had a sneaking suspicion it actually had to do with not wanting to be away from Wanda.) Tony would attract too much attention, so would Rhodey, Bruce didn’t want to go out on missions (he was afraid that “the other guy” would make an appearance) and there was no way she would ask Rogers.

So, that left Sam.

She was okay with that, though. She liked having him watching her six. She knew his fighting techniques and they complemented each other nicely on the field. He would stay on the side-lines, just waiting for her to call if she needed him.

Getting ready at the Tower also gave her a bit of confidence. The team didn’t know it and there was no way in hell that she’d tell them, but she felt better knowing they had her back. Preparing herself there was like adding the cherry on top, she was surrounded by people that were close to being family.

Tony boasted about his gadgets, Bruce wished her luck, Rhodey gave her a warm hug, James whispered encouraging phrases in Russian, Wanda squeezed her and complimented her look and Fury told her to be careful – in his own brusque way, of course.

And, then there was Rogers.

The way his eyes ran over her body made her feel shivers down her spine. He wasn’t looking at her with any malice or perversion, he just stared at her and he might as well have been looking through her.

It made her squirm uncomfortably.

He shot her a friendly smile, almost hesitant, like he knew that she didn’t want him to look at her, but like he was brave enough to ignore her scowls and try to offer her his friendship.

She didn’t know what she hated more; his presence or him purposely choosing to ignore her dislike towards him. He was genuinely killing her with kindness.

“Ready to go?”

Sam nods, motioning for her to lead the way.

~*~

Rocco Alfonsi was right on time. His sleek black car pulled up beside hers in the parking lot of a Target, 20 minutes away from the location she suspected he was taking her.

Freddie got out first. He opened the door for Rocco and looked around to make sure that no one was watching them. Sam was parked on the other side of the street; his car was off, and he blended with the cars lined on that end.

Natasha was leaning against the door of her car; with her ankle crossed over her other and she’s clutching her wallet.

“You look stunning, darlin’,” he flashes her a charming smile.

She smiles shyly, tucking her hair behind her ear and murmurs her thanks. She’s wearing a knee-length black dress with silver-studded stilettos that match her purse. She didn’t want to look too flashy, but she also didn’t want to seem lacklustre.

The dress was elegant enough that she kept the allure of southern belle but daring enough that it let her target’s mind wander. The sleeves slid halfway off the shoulder and the neckline subtly dipped down the valley of her breasts. She kept her hair and makeup simple; just a few blonde curls pinned to the side and a glossy pink lip colour.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He motions for Freddie to approach her. “Make sure she’s clean.” Rocco turns to her with a half-smile on his face, like he’s genuinely sorry that Freddie has to pat her down. “Sorry, darlin’ but we have to make sure everyone that enters the mansion doesn’t have ill intentions.”

She holds her arms out and shrugs. “It’s okay. Makes me feel safer.”

Freddie does a terrible job at hiding his snort as he checks her wallet.

She ignores it and keeps a smile on her face as his hands slide up and down her legs. Under the pretence of the security check, his hands wandered to her ass and she “accidentally” dug her heel into his shoe.

Once he was done squeezing and kneading her, he turned to Rocco who smiled, satisfied that she had passed their test. The idiot had missed the two blades in her stilettos and the comms in her ear. Granted, the comms line was so small that it could hide under one the curves of the antihelix of her ear.

“Perfect! Why don’t we get going, then?” He holds the door open for her and waits for her to slide across the leather seats. Freddie closes it after Rocco slides in and rushes around the car to drive off.

She buckles her seatbelt, using that as an excuse to feel around for any weapons and then turns to him with a smile.

“Are you excited about tonight?” Rocco unbuttons his blazer and leans back, relaxing against the seat. “I invited all my best contacts to meet you.”

“I am!” She lays the naivety of Daisy Buford on heavily. “I’m a little bit nervous but very excited.”

“They’re going to love you,” he assures her, patting her knee gently. “Depending on how everything goes tonight, I can invite you to more get-togethers and you can broaden your networking skills.”

She smiles and lays her hand over his, squeezing it. “Thank you so much. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay you.”

“Your happiness will do that, darlin’.” His phone buzzes in his jacket pocket and he leans forward to check the message.

Two died; need replacement.

He sighed, tsk’ing under his breath and quickly responded.

Girl I have tonight isn’t ready.

She tilted her head away, as if to stare out the window and then turned back to him. He was smiling at her.

“You look beautiful, darlin’. The embodiment of a class-A Hollywood starlet.”

She blushes and murmurs her thanks.

His phone buzzes again.

They overdosed, boss. Need rep. or won’t have enough for auction.

Rocco curses under his breath. Fine.

So, he wasn’t planning on selling her that night. How kind of him.

“Is everything okay?” She didn’t want to pry and make him upset – men like him were volatile when pressed – but he was visibly upset. If she didn’t ask, she wouldn’t be acting like the naïve southern belle.

He nods quickly and locks his phone before shoving it in his pocket. “Yeah, just a few mishaps with some staff members. Nothing you need to worry about.” He reached inside the mini compartment under the seat in front of him and pulled out a drink. “Would you like something to drink?” He turns back to look inside. “I’ve got wine, whiskey and beer.”

“Wine is fine.”

He turned from her as he pours the drink and she holds back the urge to sigh. He was really trying to spike her drink. He didn’t know it wasn’t going to affect her, but it annoyed her that he was even trying.

I bet you he’s trying to spike your drink.” Tony’s voice fills her ear and she purses her lips to not smile.

He had been quiet for a record 10 minutes into this mission. Usually, he would be filling her ear with unnecessary commentary about every detail – and it drove her insane, but today he had held off as long as he could.

Once she was able to get out of the car, they would have Redwing – Sam’s new toy – to give them a view of what she couldn’t see. They were able to see everything she saw through her earrings, but having an aerial view came really handy for operations like these.

Jarvis would be able to scan materials that she couldn’t without her proper gear. All she had on her were the two blades and that was plenty.

“Thank you.” She takes the glass from his hand and takes a short sip.

“You’re welcome.” Rocco watches her carefully, as if to make sure that she’s not suspicious of what he did to her drink and that she drinks it all.

The rest of the drive there, they spoke about random things. He told her about his interest in the restaurant business and how he wanted to open a bakery after he retired from his current job – which he never specified what it was and she, quite frankly, didn’t care.

Sam kept his distance and Tony quipped comments in between Rocco’s ramblings. She could hear the rest of the team pitching in and making their bets in the background, and Rhodey trying to shush them all so that she wouldn’t be distracted.

It wouldn’t happen, but she silently thanked him for the support. She wasn’t sure she could handle another “observation” about Rocco’s bakery from Tony.

By the time they arrive at their destination, she knows she has to be showing symptoms of whatever Rocco dosed her drink with. Based on the blue hue that swirled at the bottom of her glass, she guessed it was Rohypnol – it tasted like it, too.

So, she begins to blink slowly and slurs her speech. At first, Rocco acts like he’s alarmed at her sudden change in behaviour, but as it becomes obvious that she’s incapable of defending herself, he orders Freddie to take her to a room.

The only thing she regrets about having to act like she’s not lucid is not being able to see her surroundings. She wanted to see how many people she’d have to go through and see how many pigs were involved in this.

Tony seemed to read her mind.

“There are three guards standing by the front door. Six walking the perimeter and three inside.” He pauses. “By the warehouses, there’s ten.”

There aren’t many people there,” Rhodey comments.

That’s because the bidding is done online.” That’s Fury. “They’re only sending negotiators.”

Rhodey makes a confused sound. “How do you know this?”

Jarvis hacked the mainframe.” Tony sounds proud and she can imagine the shit-eating grin on his face as if he were standing right in front of her. “We’re now buyer Steelman.”

Really?” The disappointment in Rhodey’s voice makes her want to laugh. “Steelman?”

Well, it’s not like we can be Ironman.”

Jesus, Tony.”

After Freddie lays her down, she waits until he walks away to open her eyes. She’s in a room with about ten other girls. They’re all so drugged that they can’t sit up. The room stinks of vomit and urine and she gags.

One of the girls moans softly, turning to her side and then lays unconscious. Whatever they gave them had them on the verge of death. They all seemed to have been bound and beaten; they were bruised and bloodied, covered in their own bodily fluids and it breaks her heart.

She holds her finger over her comm and whispers, “Falcon, have the police on standby. These girls need medical attention.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She didn’t think that things would be this easy, but after seeing how well they security checked her, she realised they were idiots. They had gotten too comfortable knowing that some powerful assholes were protecting them and now they were making her job much easier than usual.

You’re clear to go out,” Tony’s voice fills her ear as she’s assessing the room, “Jarvis hacked into their security system, so now we have eyes everywhere.

“Thank you.” She stands up from the couch she was on and quietly walks out. After she becomes acquainted with her surroundings, she tells Sam where the girls are so that he can check on them while she tries to see if there are any others.

The warehouse is relatively empty, except for a few metal crates scattered around. She can hear guards whistling and talking to each other. They’re making jokes about the things they wished to do to her, the “blondie passed out” in the merchandise room, and how much fun they’ll have with her once Rocco snorts enough cocaine that he won’t remember where he’s at.

Natasha walks outside the warehouse and into the next one. Instead of metal crates, this one is separated into rooms and inside each room there seems to be materials needed to carry out this operation. She goes into one of the rooms with cardboard boxes scattered around. They’re filled with drugs in every shape they could come; liquid, powder, pills, etc.

“You getting all of this, Jarvis?” She mutters softly, positioning herself so that the camera could capture everything she was finding.

“Everything is being saved, Agent Romanoff.”

A guard starts walking down the corridor and she hides behind one of the crates propped against the wall. She blends with the shadows, stealthily walking by another corridor and stays alert as she searches for more incriminating evidence.

There was a soft whimpering coming from the room she had just hidden in and as she walks further in, she finds a little girl, curled into herself. She’s rocking back and forth, eyes squeezed shut and she’s whispering to herself in Polish.

It sounds like a poem or a lullaby, Natasha can’t be sure, but her blood boils at the realisation that she was right; they were also trafficking kids. She had suspected that they were also partaking in child trafficking, but she had really hoped they wouldn’t.

The girl’s eyes snap open and she stares at Natasha with wide eyes. “You have to hide. He’s going to come back.

Natasha frowns and takes a cautious step toward her. “Who will?”

The man,” she whispers, eyeing the door like she’s expecting a monster to walk through. “You have to hide if you don’t want him to touch you.

She feels the blood rushing through her veins, adrenaline mixing with anger at the meaning behind the little girl’s words. It’s like something snaps inside of her, something she’s not sure she really wants to control.

She was planning on letting the men in charge of this operation live, she was planning on letting the law take care of them – she was trying to wipe the red off her ledger, not add more to it. But this? This had no redemption. She wasn’t going to let chance let these men off the hook.

There were limits to what she could stop herself from doing – and hurting these pigs was one of them.

Touch me?”

Yeah, you don’t want him to touch you,” she glances down, between her legs and murmurs, “it hurts.

Behind the screen, Wanda swears softly. She guessed that it’s what the little girl meant when she said they touched her. Part of her naively hoped that she meant the man hit her – because from experience she can say that it’s better to be hit than to be sexually assaulted.

Both were terrible, but they caused different types of trauma.

And by the look on Natasha’s face, she thought the same.

“What’s happening?” Rhodey frowns. “What is she saying?”

“She says men touch her.”

Tony swears under his breath and asks Jarvis to translate the rest of the conversation Natasha and the little girl are having.

Are you the only one here?”

No.

Where are the rest of you?”

The little girl stares at Natasha for a second, as if studying her, contemplating whether she should trust her or not and then holds her hand out. She lifts her finger up to her lips, quietly telling her to be silent and they walk down a dark pathway.

“This is bad,” Tony sighs, pinching the ridge of his nose with his fingers. “Those men aren’t making it out of there alive.”

Wanda frowns. “You want them to?”

Steve raises an eyebrow, keeping his gaze glued to the screen. He couldn’t really help Natasha (not that she really needed it, it seemed she had everything under control,) but he felt that if he looked away, he’d be betraying her trust somehow. “Why won’t they make it out alive?”

Tony looked at Wanda with a wary expression. “Not what I said.” He turns to Steve. “Natasha usually tries giving criminals a second chance; she leaves their fate up to the justice system. But…if they’ve hurt children…” he trails off and Steve nods his head once, understanding the underlying message behind his words.

Wanda gnaws on her bottom lip, twirling the rings around her fingers anxiously as she watches Natasha and the little girl standing in front of a thick metal crate. They were the ones used to ship cargo in ships and it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was happening.

The little girl knocks on the side of the crate and it slowly opens. Redwing follows them in, and Wanda feels James tense behind her. His fingers tighten around the back cushion of the chair and she tries to block the immense wave of anger emanating from him.

Inside the crate there were about fifteen more children. They were all dressed in white rags and they all wore the same terrified expression in their face. Natasha spoke to them softly, promising to help them.

“Falcon, how are you doing on your end?”

Sam responds a few seconds later. “Doing fine.”

“Red might need your help soon; stay alert.”

“10-4.”

Just as Tony warned him, a guard walked by the crate. In the second it took him to reach for his gun, Natasha was on him. She was fast and deadly, striking precisely and untouchably. The man tried reaching for her, but she danced out of his way before sliding the blade tucked in the heel of her shoe and stabbing him with it.

She held unto his weight, trying to push him away from the kids, so they wouldn’t see how she had rammed the blade through his ribcage and up the side, and grabbed anything he could use to alert the others. He had let out a grunt, but the kids seemed much more focused on trying to hide from him than watching him die.

Once he fell beside the crate, she crouched in front of the group of huddling children and asked them to stay inside, that she’d send someone to come take care of them until she was done. The eldest of the group, a girl about 12-14 years old seemed to hesitate, but agreed and coddled all the kids behind her.

Natasha tightened her grip on the gun she now held, and the corner of her lip upturned slightly when guards began to notice her presence.

As Steve watched, he understood why Tony said the team bonded this way. They held their breath in anticipation and the atmosphere around them was tense as they watched her move.

She was absolutely…breath-taking.

It shouldn’t have been, he should’ve cringed at the way she broke hands and twisted necks, but he couldn’t tear his gaze from the screen. She seemed to literally dance her way through them. When they reached for her, she sidestepped and returned the blow they obviously planned to strike her with, just much more deadly.

She was fast and agile, taking them all down within minutes of them standing in front of her. Her punches were precise and quick, she dodged them as fast as she threw them, but her legs were what really turned her deadly.

Once she wrapped her legs around an opponent, they were done for. Steve now understood why they bet on how often she would use that move – the “leg scissor,” as Tony had called it. It was lethal and effective.

Those that were out of her physical reach, she took down with her pistol. She walked toward them, fearless and intimidating, beautifully ethereal. He wondered if that’s what the angel of death looked like before claiming its victim.

Most of her kills were headshots; quick and painless. Beside him Fury smirked, as if he was proud of what she was doing. Rhodey grimaced, rubbing his eyes tiredly and Tony kept counting the amount of guards she took down. Wanda kept twirling her rings around her fingers and James kept a blank look as he watched the screen.

“She killed them all,” Rhodey sighs, not quite disappointed, but not really happy either. Steve understands why – it fit with what his file said; he was an officer of the United States government and he can imagine that watching someone choose to deliver punishment themselves made him uncomfortable.

“The world’s a better place for it.” That came from Fury. He pulled on his collar, almost puffing his chest out like a proud parent. That made sense too; he had taken her under his wing when she first joined SHIELD.

They all turned their attention back to the screen when Natasha walked back to the crate with the kids to check on them.

“My friend is going to come help you.” Sam had been trying to tend to the other girls and in the few minutes that it took her to clear the warehouse, he wasn’t done. “He’ll be here any second, okay?”

The older girl nodded, and Natasha began to walk away. “Jarvis, mute my line.”

“Red-” She yanked the earpiece off, and Tony sighed, shaking his head. Before he could say anything, though, Wanda, leaned forward to talk to Sam.

“Falcon,” she hesitated, “I don’t think you should approach those girls.”

“Uh…”

“Trust me,” she lowered her voice and cast her eyes down, feeling her cheeks flush a bit, “from personal experience. The last thing they wanna do is talk to a man.”

She ignored the emotion of surprise and sadness that flowed through the room and kept her eyes glued to the screen. Behind her, James clenched his jaw, tightening his metal fingers on the chair so hard that the material began to break under his grip.

Rhodey noticed and placed his hand over his, shooting him a silent, but comforting message; it was in the past and Wanda was in a much better place now.

“Noted.” Sam nodded, understanding what she was trying to say and stayed at a good distance. Close enough that he could keep an eye on them, but far enough that they wouldn’t feel threatened by his presence.

The other girls had been fine, dehydrated and in desperate need of medicine that he didn’t carry, but they didn’t have any life-threatening wounds. Slightly bruised and bloodied, but they would be okay. He would wait until Nat finally gave him the green light to call the police.

After making sure that everything on Sam’s end was okay, Tony zoomed in on Natasha’s camera angle.

She was holding Freddie at gunpoint. He tried to swipe it from her hand, but she ended up dislocating his knee with a kick. He fell, crying out in pain and Rocco struggled to scramble to his feet. He had been sitting on a chair, injecting himself with a shot of heroin when she walked in and was now trying to rush away.

She slammed his head down on the table and then stabbed her heel-blade into his hand, knifing it to the table like a dart. He shrieked, high-pitched and pathetic, and began to beg her to spare his life.

“Do you know what they do to pigs like you?” Her grip in his hair was so tight that her knuckles were turning pale. She just wanted to take him out like she had done to all his idiot guards, but she was trying to make him pay for the things he had done and giving him the easy way out was not what she wanted to do.

He’d have to settle with what the inmates would do to him. Jarvis had enough evidence to put him away for a lifetime; there was no way he was getting out of this. And all the other men that were involved would face the same consequences; she’d make sure of that.

The stench of urine began to permeate from his body, and she wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“P-please.” Saliva blubbered out of his mouth and his cheeks reddened. He looked like a real-life political cartoon of Boss Tweed. His eyes were bloodshot red, full of tears and he kept blinking rapidly. “I-I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I-I promise that-”

“Boss!” Freddie rolled to his side, trying to aim his gun at Natasha, now that he felt more in control of his pain and she kicked it away from him. Rocco whimpered, staring at the blade in his hand and Freddie cried out in pain when she dug her heel onto his hand. “You bitch!”

“Thank you,” She smiled, twisting her heel on his hand until his curses turned into pitiful cries.

When she turns from him, to talk to Rocco again, he grows bold. It’s like he wanted her to kill him. “I don’t regret it, y’know. Those little kids-” He huffed a breath, trying to sit up and reach for his gun again.

Now he was starting to really aggravate her.

“-they were worth every penny. The blonde little girls,” he licked his lips, taunting her with his beady eyes, “they were my favourite.”

Her lip curled in disgust and she grabbed her pistol and placed it in Rocco’s hand. He whimpered, muttering incomprehensible things under his breath and she lifted the gun, aiming it at him.

Freddie kept on blabbering, spewing disgusting details about what he did until Natasha couldn’t take it anymore. She pulled the trigger and he fell back with a loud thud.

She turns back to Rocco, who can’t stop crying and making empty promises to whatever god he believes in. “That would be too easy for you.” He turns the gun on her, and she rolls her eyes. “I used the last round on him.”

“You can’t do this to me!”

It was funny how men like him went from tough, controlling assholes to whimpering pathetic pieces of shit.

“I’m not doing anything you don’t deserve, Rocco; you did this all to yourself.” She steps back. “When your new roommates find out what you did in prison, you’re going to wish I had killed you.”

“P-please!” He tried tugging his hand away from the table, to pull the knife out, but he was too afraid of what could happen if he did, so he just stayed in place, crying and begging for help.

Natasha grabbed a few of the needles lying around and stabbed them into his forearm, releasing all the toxins into his system before she walked away. Depending on whatever Rocco said, the toxicology report would be her backup plan.

Part of her felt accomplished; she had finished this mission and saved innocents from being sold into the black market, but the other part…the part that had been trying to not add red to her ledger felt torn.

These men didn’t deserve that; they didn’t deserve her self-doubt. They knew what they were doing and were proud of it. If anything, she had rid the world of unnecessary evil.

When the police lights began to flash in the distance, Sam went to hide in his car and Natasha resumed her cover. None of the kids knew what she had done, they had been too afraid to look out and watch her, so when she returned, the little girl that she had first encountered ran to her and hugged her.

Daisy Buford stayed behind, giving a short statement to the police officers about how Rocco Alfonsi had gotten in a fight with Freddie when he killed all his guards and then killed him. Rocco had been so out of it with all the drugs he had injected into his system that he probably wouldn’t remember anything.

She shed a few tears, held unto the rookie cop that became flustered when she hyperventilated in his arms, and begged them to keep her name off the police report so she could forget that that horrible night ever happened.

After she made sure that each kid had gotten medical attention, she walked to Sam’s car and they drove back to the Tower in silence. It wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable. He had music playing in the background and he hummed to himself, tapping the steering wheel as he drove and eventually, Natasha fell asleep.

~*~

When they arrive back to the Tower, Natasha is absolutely exhausted. Sam heads straight to his room and she’s thankful that no one seems to be up. She really didn’t want to be questioned about the mission; about the things she had done and the things she should’ve done (or not done.)

After a mission like this, Steve would usually try to cheer her up with takeout food and silly jokes. Obviously now he couldn’t do that, so all she wanted was to be left alone.

All the anger she had held onto while posing as Daisy Buford came crashing down on her like a ton of bricks and she had taken it out on Rocco and his idiot men. Every part of her body now felt sore and in desperate need of a hot bath.

However, she shuffled straight to the kitchen – with her heels in hand – to prepare herself a cup of tea. After the day she just had, she wanted to get some sense of normalcy and there was no better way to get that, than to practise repetition. Her dress is ripped down her thigh, her wig is tucked under her arm, and her light makeup is running down her face; she looks like a mess.

When she enters the kitchen, she’s lost in thought, but not lost enough that she misses the brooding figure leaning against the counter. He’s not aware of her presence yet, he’s just staring down at his cup mindlessly and had she not been so angry that he was there, she might’ve felt sorry for him.

The man was the perfect image for signs of being royally fucked up.

Had she been in the mood to act, to be someone else, she would’ve attempted a butchered conversation. But she wasn’t in the mood and quite frankly, the more she thought about him being there, the angrier she became – and she was just so tired of feeling so many repressed emotions for one day.

So, she decides to ignore him. The only acting she’ll do is acting like he’s not there. She’s great at that.

When Steve finally realises that she’s there, she’s waiting for the water to boil and the first thing he notices is her red hair. He widens his eyes, moving away from the counter to give her the space her body language tells him she needs and sips on his now-tepid tea.

Wanda had made it for him, said it would help him sleep better and at that point, he would take whatever they’d give him. The past two nights had been hell. He wasn’t sure if it was a side-effect of the universe-travel, but it was driving him crazy.

At least Sam helped, and now Wanda. She offered to help him with a spell, but he wasn’t sure if he was ready for that just yet. He knew what it was like to have someone mess with your mind and he wasn’t keen on letting a stranger do that.

He was sure that Wanda was a nice young girl, but that was a trigger he wasn’t ready to mess with. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be ready to mess with that part of his mind.

Steve wasn’t sure why he sat in the dark kitchen for that long. The tea wasn’t that cold, but time had definitely gone by, at least it felt like. One moment he was staring into the dark liquid and the next he was reliving his nightmares from his time with HYDRA. Now he was looking at Natasha, who obviously wanted to be left alone, but he just…there were so many things he shouldn’t do, and he was notorious for doing them.

She stands on her tiptoes, reaching for the box of tea and quietly goes through the motions of preparing her drink. She can feel his eyes glued to the side of her face, but she does a superb job of ignoring his inquisitive gaze.

“You’re amazing.”

Her head snaps up to him and her gaze pierces through him.

She has green eyes and they’re absolutely captivating, almost ethereal. Her hair is red, just as Sam had said it was and the shade of red mixing with honeyed lights makes the artist in him itch to attempt a mediocre rendition of it. It reaches the top of her shoulders and it’s wet, mostly wavy but curling at the ends in messy ringlets.

There’s dried blood staining her arms and he wonders for a second if it’s hers – she doesn’t seem to be in pain, but sometimes people like them did that, ignored the pain they were in to avoid having to deal with the reality of a situation. And the patient becomes the therapist.

She had left the tower with elegance and beauty, blonde and blue-eyed with a sweet smile that had caused the downfall of Rocco Alfonsi – and now, well, she had that same elegance and beauty, but there was danger and caution flaring all around her.

He hadn’t expected to be so enrapt with her, but he was – and that’s why he blurted out what was running through his mind.

That’s why she was looking at him like he was the biggest idiot in the world.

“A-at the mission,” he stutters, feeling his face turn red in embarrassment. He scratches the back of his neck and shoots her a nervous smile, “You fight good.”

Jesus.

He tries again, licking his bottom lip before speaking. “You’re a really skilled fighter.”

Her green eyes – green is a mediocre colour to describe the shade they actually were (Emerald? Jade? Viridescent?) – stare at him up and down. It’s like she’s assessing his stupidity and it makes him feel strangely intrigued.

She doesn’t respond. She simply nods her head once, in acknowledgement, tearing her gaze from his to look back at her tea and after she pours it in her cup, she grabs her heels and walks away.

Steve sighs, slouching against the counter and runs his fingers through his hair.

He’s a fucking idiot.

Chapter Text

Natalia Alianova Romanova aka Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow.

Steve had been putting this off for the past few hours. He wanted to know about her, but not really through a piece of paper. It wasn’t the same, it wasn’t personal. The narrative on paper was different than what a person was in real life.

So, he held off for as long as he could.

He read everyone else’s file. Everything that Sam had shared with him matched with what they had on paper. The files were a little more technical.

He learned more about Iron Man and not Tony Stark. He learned more about Falcon vs Sam. Hulk vs Dr Banner. War Machine vs Rhodey. Scarlet Witch vs Wanda and James vs…Bucky (James didn’t want to be known as the Winter Soldier.)

The only one that was left was Natasha vs Black Widow.

See, he learned that the Iron Man suit is one of the most powerful pieces of technology in the world and that Tony was a literal genius. Under all his charisma and fake self-centricity, there was a man capable of anything – but he didn’t need to read his file to get that. He had brought him into his universe, trying to protect his – no matter the cost. Steve respected that.

The Hulk was a formidable beast – powerful in every way possible and Dr Banner, much like Tony, was a genius in his own regard. The man had seven PhDs. Everyone in the team had amazing skills apart from their hero persona.

And, truly, the only thing keeping Steve from reading Natasha’s file was all the possible questions he would think of. He was afraid that if he read her file, he’d want to know more and with the looks she kept shooting his way, he understood that it was the last thing she wanted.

“Do you any need help?”

Wanda was leaning against the threshold of the kitchen and the dining room with a cup of tea in her hands. She shoots him a small smile, curving half her lips upward in what looked to be some sort of knowing sympathy.

“I’m just trying to read over some files.” He shuts Natasha’s file again and taps his fingers against the SHIELD logo. He’s trying to distract himself and Wanda doesn’t need her psychic powers to know it.

“Do you mind if I keep you some company?” She hesitantly steps up to the table and he shakes his head, motioning for her to take a seat. “What have you found?”

Steve glances down at the files. “In these?” Wanda nods. “Nothing new, honestly. Sam was very thorough briefing me in on the team.”

That makes her smile, a full-on smile. “He has a kind soul.”

Steve nods but doesn’t say anything in response. There’s a kind of comfortable silence for a few seconds, a silent communication that he’s not aware is even happening. He’s holding his hands over Natasha’s file, as if he was trying to hide it from his mind.

If it’s not there for him to see, then he won’t have to read it.

“It’s not the same, y’know?” He blurts it out a few moments later.

It makes her frown. “What isn’t?”

“Reading about someone’s life through a file,” he holds it up, flipping through the pages. “It feels so…invasive. It’s really impersonal.” He’s rambling and Wanda knows it, but she doesn’t stop him. “Fury said I should read them to get acquainted with the team…and I just…I can’t help but feel like I’m invading their privacy.”

She nods, understanding his point. He’s right. Words on paper could be meaningless, they could be forged and written by someone else that doesn’t know the true story. Written words are easy to manipulate, to distort to write a narrative that may not be ideal.

Steve lets out a loud sigh and looks down at the pile in front of him.

He wanted this mission, he wanted to feel useful again, to feel like he was doing something that served the purpose of the serum. Dr Erskine had told him that he didn’t want Steve to be a perfect soldier, but a good man – and that’s what he was trying to do.

But maybe this mission was a mistake.

Maybe coming to this universe was a mistake.

He felt like he didn’t belong. He didn’t belong in the ’40s. Not in the ’70s and most definitely not here.

All his life he had dreamt of all the things he could accomplish if he was just normal. If he didn’t have a hundred illnesses that made it impossible to do what every other person around him did. He couldn’t even walk down the hill of Meyer Avenue with Bucky without feeling like his lungs would burst.

He spent his earlier years in and out of hospitals, scaring his Ma to death whenever he became sick – and that made it near impossible to feel like he belonged with the other kids. Bucky was the only one that looked over all his sicknesses.  

But even then, he sometimes felt like he didn’t belong.

Then came the war and the serum, and he stuck out like a sore thumb. At first, he didn’t belong because of how small he was and now he didn’t belong because of how big he was. Then he was in the ice and when he was brought out by HYDRA, they treated him like some sort of experiment.

When SHIELD found him, they immediately threw him into the Vietnam War. Surely Captain America would end that war. And he didn’t – the war ended him.

After all the terrible things he saw, after the allure of black and white in the world was stripped from his mind, he realised that he couldn’t be Captain America anymore. He wanted to be a good man, not a perfect soldier; and that’s what everyone wanted him to be.

That made him stick out too.

So, he didn’t belong in the ’40s, in the ’70s, in the 2000s, in his universe – and now, he didn’t belong here.

Every time he looked at Natasha, he was reminded of that. Sam and Wanda were trying; they were friendly and tried to make him comfortable, but one look at Natasha and the bit of assurance he had, disappeared.

He knew it wasn’t really his fault, but the idea that he was the reason she was reminded of the pain he saw in her eyes; it broke him. He could only imagine what she felt and causing that sort of emotion in someone felt so intrusive. Maybe that’s why he was so reluctant to read her file.

“You haven’t been here long enough,” Wanda speaks softly, intruding his thoughts in the gentlest way possible.

“Huh?” He frowns and he feels his cheeks slightly reddening in embarrassment. She can read minds and she must’ve obviously read his.

“I didn’t read your mind.” She twirls her rings around her fingers. It seemed to be her coping mechanism. “I do not need to be psychic to see that you are in pain.” She has a subtle accent, a reminder of her Sokovian roots. “It’s all over your face.”

Her finger slides around the rim of her cup and she looks away momentarily. “I don’t like to use my powers on my friends; not if they don’t give me consent.” She smiles at him sweetly and he returns it. “But your emotions are written all over your face; I can feel them suffocating me – and I can only imagine what they’re doing to you.”

“I-I’m sorry,” his frown deepens, concern all over his face. “I didn’t mean to.”

Wanda waves his apology away. “Don’t apologise for feeling; it’s the most human thing we all have. What seems to be our only salvation.”

He doesn’t comment on that, he doesn’t think she wants him to. It feels like she subtly revealed something she wasn’t ready to share.

She takes a sip of her tea and clears her throat. “I try to block emotions from people, but sometimes my walls have a few cracks and emotions manage to seep in. James and I are working on it, though.” The way she says James’ name makes Steve smile. It’s sweet, with a hint of something underlying it – he had a sneaking suspicion that that something was more than platonic fondness.

“I can imagine that must be painful.”

She shrugs an arm. “Sometimes. Some of us are better at hiding emotions than others, but at the end of the day, they’re something pure; humane. Those emotions help us bond with those around us. You feel like you don’t belong anywhere because you haven’t stopped to see that all of us feel that way.”

“James and I were former HYDRA weapons. We were brainwashed and used to hurt hundreds of innocent people. Yet, here we are – with the Avengers, with people that we have hurt. If that doesn’t make you feel like you don’t belong, I don’t know what will.” She reached over, closing her hand over his and squeezed it gently. “Don’t give up yet. It’s the first time I see this team with a little bit of hope.”

Steve breathed in deeply, taking everything she had said to heart. He wasn’t giving up, per se. He was just struggling with coming to terms, struggling to read these damn files. “Thank you, Wanda.”

“You’re welcome.” She straightened up, shifting on the seat to get more comfortable. “Now,” she smiled at him, “what would you like to know?”

“What do you mean?”

She nods down to the files in front of him. “You said that you didn’t like reading these because it felt like you were invading our privacy. So, what would you like to know about me?”

“What are you comfortable sharing?”

Wanda purses her lips, thinking about what to share. Then her eyes brighten, and she sits up. “Would you mind if I showed you?”

Steve frowns, but leans forward, intrigued. “Showed me?”

She waves her fingers, making red twirls appear at the tips. “I can show you; it’ll be easier. But only if you want to.”

He considered it for a few seconds and decided to go for it. She offered and had looked so excited to show him, that he didn’t have the heart to say no.

Wanda held her hand out and when he placed his in hers, her eyes glowed a soft red. She closed them and for a few seconds, nothing happened. Then he was flooded with images and sounds, memories of her life.

He saw her happy memories; of her younger self playing with her twin brother and he felt the immense love she had for him. He saw her sad memories; of her parents passing when HYDRA operatives, posing as SHIELD agents sparked a war in her home as they searched for Loki’s sceptre. He saw her angry memories; of her twin brother finding out the truth about HYDRA and how they killed him for wanting to leave.

He saw how they chained her, how they tried to break her down and beat her when she opposed them. He saw how she saved James and how they went on the run for weeks before Natasha found them.

He felt the fear and pain she felt when Natasha nearly killed James and then how relieved she was to get a second chance. She showed him how Natasha took care of her, mentored her and took care of her like an older sister. She showed him the sadness she felt when she felt Natasha’s pain at seeing him and how she wanted to desperately wipe the hurt that emanated from James and her.

She probably didn’t mean to show him what she felt for James and how much she wanted to be more than friends. She yanked her hand away from his, breaking the mental link and blushed, looking anywhere but him.

“Thank you.” He sounds sincere, his voice is raw with the overwhelming emotions that she shared with him. “Really, that…thank you. I’m sorry you went through all that, Wanda.”

“It’s okay,” she gnawed on her bottom lip and then brought the cup up to her lips, to hide her embarrassment. “Everything I went through made me who I am today. If it weren’t for all of those things, I wouldn’t be where I am today, with the people I care about.”

“Still,” he shakes his head, “you shouldn’t have gone through that. We should’ve all met under different circumstances.” His eyes glance down at Natasha’s file and Wanda relaxes, thankful that he’s not going to mention her obvious crush on James.

She’s not sure what he feels for Natasha, it’s a mixture of curiosity and awe – whatever it is, she feels relieved knowing that none of those emotions would hurt Natasha.

“I…” she trails off, not sure how to express herself. “I’m not sure I believe in fate or destiny; I haven’t decided what to believe yet. I just know that we were all placed in these paths for a reason. I think what we have control of is deciding what to do with that situation. I’m choosing to avenge Captain America’s death alongside my friends and fight for the good guys.”

Steve nods and runs his fingers through his hair. “You sure you’re 23? You’re a little too wise for that…”

She laughs and stands up from the seat. “It’s just an insight into things.”

“Thank you.” And he’s not just thanking her for sharing personal things, he’s thanking her for listening and approaching him, calming his thoughts when he was spiralling into darkness.

“It is not my place,” she begins softly, hesitant, “it’s not my story to share. But…read her file. It may not answer all your questions, but you may understand her a little more.”

Steve nods and she smiles at him before she walks away. He looks down at the file and exhales loudly.

Black Widow

Natasha was recruited to the (CLASSIFIED) Russia’s covert espionage facility...

~*~

Natasha had an incredible memory. She was able to remember small details that the average person wasn’t able to. She could remember them vividly and during missions, it was one of the things that helped her excel. During times like these, though? Where all she did was remember all of her mistakes and all of the things, she should have done to avoid feeling the pain she felt then?

Well, having a memory like hers sucked.

See, her last conversation with Steve was something she couldn’t forget and always seemed to think about. It’s truly what made her pain and self-hatred grow.

After almost being killed by HYDRA in the Lehigh Camp base, Steve took them to Sam’s house. The conversation that haunted her wasn’t the one in the car – where he asks her to be his friend, or the one in Sam’s bedroom – where he tells her he sincerely trusts her.

It wasn’t that.

It was the conversation after.

The one in Sam’s bedroom, the night before they went to break into Fort Meade for Sam’s wings.

He wasn’t sleeping and she could tell in his expression that his mind was spiralling into a dangerous place. He had just found out that his sacrifice had gone in vain. He lost the chance at a life in the 40s to save humanity, only for it to come back and try to ruin his life.

Natasha didn’t blame him for feeling angry and upset, hell she didn’t want to stop him from feeling that. She just wanted to stop him from blaming himself. He had done that for her just a few hours ago.

So, as they lay in Sam’s bed, in complete darkness, she propped herself up on her elbow and turned to look at him.

He was staring up at the ceiling, his jaw was clenched tightly, and his fingers tapped his stomach mindlessly.

“You know,” Natasha began, and he snapped his head in her direction, to look at her – his expression immediately softened, he seemed to relax, and she couldn’t believe she had that kind of power over the man, “once we finish this and take HYDRA down, and you finally go on a date with one of the girls I set you up with, I hope she doesn’t get upset over all the times we’ve shared a bed.”

Steve scoffs, rolling his eyes, but the corner of his lips turn up in a silly that he’s trying to hide. “I told you to stop setting me up.”

“No can do,” she sighs dramatically, “as your friend, it is my duty to get you to meet someone.”

“You’ve been doing terribly, then.”

She laughs. “What?! How!?”

He shrugs and he turns on his side to look at her. “You know those women aren’t my type.”

Natasha gapes, then purses her lips and shakes her head. This is the kind of Steve she liked to see; playful and relaxed. “I’m starting to think you don’t have a type! I’ve tried everything!” She holds her fingers up as she lists adjectives, “Old fashioned, modern, short, tall, pretty, beautiful, elegant – I’m about to start running out of women!”

“That’s not true.” She raises an eyebrow and he adds, “You haven’t tried everything.”

She’s quiet for a second, trying to keep her face composed and not burst into laughter. She liked seeing him happy like this, carefree. “You’re into men?”

He rolls his eyes because she totally missed the point he was trying to make. “No.” She could mention every woman in the state of New York, and he’d turn them all down.

“Then?”

Steve takes a deep breath and the smile in his face stays, but his eyes shine seriously. She suddenly understands that this conversation is taking a turn that she wasn’t entirely ready for. “What do you think is my type?”

Natasha gives a nonchalant shrug and begins playing with a loose strand off Sam’s bed comforter. She’s just twirling her finger around it, pulling it and untwirling it to start again – just to keep her eyes off his. “A ‘dame,’ someone who is soft and gentle and can cook amazing meals.”

“What?” He laughs, “Because I’m from the 40s I can only like that?”

She waves him away and cuddles closer to her pillow. “Well, then, what’s your type?”

He thinks for a moment and then his eyes meet hers. “I don’t think I have a type…I just…like who I like.”

“Then,” she says it before she thinks about the consequence of her question, “who do you like?”

He gives her a dubious look before he responds. “I think you know who I like, Natasha.”

She had a sneaking suspicion she knew the answer to that question, which is why she was kicking herself for asking it. When she was in situations like this, she resorted to a feeling that rarely failed her; obliviousness and the best way to avoid this serious conversation was by making a joke.

“Don’t tell me you like Hill. I tried setting you up but she-”

Steve cuts her rant off and she to this day she wishes he hadn’t said the words he said next. “Go on a date with me?”

A second of silence passes between them. He’s looking at her with an opened expression, his blue eyes are so expressive then – he’s opening up to her, being vulnerable and all she wants to do is beg the ground to open and swallow her whole.

“…what?”

He licks his bottom lip, slightly nervous as he tried to sound sure of what he was saying – what he was inadvertently offering. “After we take HYDRA down and things settle down again, go on a date with me.”

Her heart drops to her stomach. This is not what she wanted to do. She just wanted to ease his pain, to distract his mind from the darkness he was spiralling into! This wasn’t supposed to happen!

“Steve…”

There’s so much hesitance in her voice, but he just ignores it. He keeps his pretty eyes glued to hers, trying to search for something that told him he wasn’t just making up things in his head. She felt something for him, he wasn’t stupid – but god, getting her to admit that?

Hell, he didn’t need her to admit anything, he just wanted a chance; an opportunity to explore this feeling. This feeling that was much stronger than anything he’d ever felt before, something that scared him but also thrilled him.

And, sure, he wasn’t great with women, but he wasn’t an idiot. He saw how her gaze lingered in the locker rooms when they got back from a mission or how, even though she tried setting him up on dates, she’d scare off the SHIELD recruits.

Okay, so maybe what she felt wasn’t romantic but at least he knew she was attracted to him, and that was a start.

“I know this little shop that you’d love. They sell the best malts in town.”

But Natasha shakes her head and he sees the flicker of fear flashing in her eyes. She masks it quickly when she leans back against the pillow and sighs loudly. Her voice is soft, a gentle murmur when she speaks. “You don’t want to go on a date with me.”

That makes him a little angry. “I know I do.”

This wasn’t something she wanted to touch on. They were both emotionally vulnerable and in the wrong place to be having this conversation. Whatever she thought she felt and whatever he thought he felt for her was all a fantasy; a big mistake.

So, she tries to joke about it again, tries to avoid the real problem; she’s just not good for him.

“You told me you wanted me to be your friend!” She says that almost accusingly.

She’s referring to his comment back in the car, on their way to Lehigh. He had unknowingly friend-zoned her. She had given him the opportunity to say whatever he wanted; she had been offering what she could give; physical companionship.

The frilly romance shit? That’s not who she was.

Steve frowned at her and that’s when she realises the miscommunication. “Natasha, you’ve always been my friend.”

She thought Steve was friend-zoning her – she wasn’t even sure if he knew what that was.

“I don’t want you to be just a ‘circumstantial truth.’ I want you to be honest with me no matter what. Out of everyone in this new life, you’ve been the only one I felt like I could count on and when I found out you were lying to me because of Fury...it hurt. So, I want you to be you; not Black Widow or any other persona.”

“You want me to be honest?” He nodded at that and Natasha remembers how she just exploded – she knew that after she spoke to him honestly, he’d stop feeling whatever he thought he felt for her. “I’ve killed innocent people without batting an eye. I set fire to a house with the family still inside and I justified it through manipulation. I’ve got so much red in my ledger that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wipe it out. I’m a monster. So, tell me, do you really want to go on a date with me?”

Steve just ignored her question. “Is that what you think you are? A monster?”

That bewildered her; out of everything she had said, the only thing that stuck with him was the monster bit. “I know it’s what I am.”

“A monster is someone that keeps on doing terrible things. You? You’re far from being a monster. The things you did? You were manipulated, you were forced into doing them and you’ve spent every waking second trying to make it right. I’ve spent the past year as your partner, I think I’d know if my partner was a monster and you, Natasha Romanoff, are not a monster.”

They sat in silence for a while – Natasha didn’t know what to respond and Steve was worried that maybe he had pushed the wrong button, but he had to let her know. He had to at least try and get her to see things from his perspective.

Her past was simply that – her past. He cared about her present and future; the person she was now was different than the person the Red Room had tried to weaponize.

“Let’s just…let’s focus on this first.”

“Nat…” He reached over, hesitantly wrapping his hand over hers and brushed his thumb against hers. “You’re not a monster.”

“Let’s take HYDRA down first, we’ll save the world and after,” she shoots him a small half-lipped smirk, “you can try to convince me to go out with you.”

She expected him to make a smart-ass remark about it, but he just nodded and smiled, seemingly content with her response.

She remembers that he didn’t let go of her hand. She looked down at their fingers, how he entwined them and how uncomfortable it made her. Not because she didn’t like it, but because it stirred emotions deep in the pit of her stomach.

If he realised it, he didn’t say anything.

He just kept brushing his thumb against her hand in circles and they both fell asleep like that.

To this day, she can still feel his fingers entwined with hers.

He never had the chance to try and convince her.

A single tear slides down her cheek and she quickly wipes it away. After her mission, she couldn’t sleep. She felt restless and realising that this was the first serious mission without Steve…it hit her hard.

She was used to his routine; he’d brought her Chinese take-out and they’d sit and watch silly cartoons.

She couldn’t do that now. Not without tearing herself in half, so she did the next best thing.

She ordered take out and sat out by the lake where his ashes were spread. It was 2 am and she just sat by a tree, eating her now-cold food as she reminisced about all the times she had taken him for granted.

There were so many damn things she regretted.

“If it was the other way around, and it was down to me to save your life, now you be honest with me, would you trust me to do it?”

It had been up to her. She had been right there, but in a moment of stupidity and weakness, she couldn’t keep her promise to him. The only time someone selflessly trusted her, and she couldn’t even-

“Mind if I join you?”

In a second she pulled her switchblade out of her boot and was ready to strike. James held his hands up in surrender, showing her he meant no harm and she slid the switchblade back in its place.

“Sorry. I wasn’t expecting anyone.” She nods at the spot next to her, motioning for him to sit if he wanted to.

He shrugged an arm and shoved his hands in his pockets. “It’s late.”

“It is.” She turns back to the lake and leans back against the trunk of the tree.

There had been a time where she couldn’t be in the same room with James without having to physically stop herself from hurting him. Now they were okay. Not the best of friends or anything, but she no longer felt like shoving a Widow’s Bite down his throat.

“You okay?”

She scoffs, an almost bitter chuckle escaping past her lips as she stabs a piece of chicken with the plastic fork in her hand. “You’re hanging with Sam a little too much; starting to sound just like him.”

James ignored her sardonic tone and sat down next to her.

There was something serene about the scenery before them. The moon was shining, reflecting off the water in the lake and it mirrored the landscape beautifully. A few crickets were chirping in the distance and the sound of the water rushing over the rocks was the perfect white noise.

Overall, everything around seemed almost…romantic – of course, if you ignored the fact that Natasha was obviously thinking about the man she refused to acknowledge she loved and that it was he who had unknowingly killed him.

Ignoring their fucked-up life, it would’ve been a perfect first date and had he still been the same Bucky from Brooklyn, the suave and charming one, he would’ve been in town asking out the prettiest girl to a picnic by the lake.

But he wasn’t.

Instead, he was a brooding HYDRA experiment that had been so fucked up mentally and physically, he didn’t think there would ever be any sort of redemption for him. Wanda said there was, but Wanda was sweet, she always tried to see the best in him; said that he could control his demons, not the other way around.

Which is why when Jarvis said that Natasha was leaving the Tower to get food, he decided to join her outside.

They had been acquainted only for a few months, but even though she tried not to be, she was a creature of habit – and for the first few weeks he was there, she just went to the lake and tortured herself for something she had no control over.

Wanda said that he controlled his demons – this, to him, was the first step. If he could just help the woman that had been by Steve’s side when no one else was, he could get the redemption he so desperately sought.

“You gotta stop blamin’ yourself.” He’s the first one that breaks the silence between them. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Natasha scoffs and he watches as her shoulders tense in a defensive posture. She rolls her eyes and waits to swallow before she speaks. “Easy for you to say.”

“It is,” he mutters, “I’m the one that pulled the trigger.”

That makes her flinch. It’s not what she meant by that. She had spent most of her time – after she forgave him – trying to convince him that he wasn’t to blame. She understood that, that he had just been under someone else’s control because she knew what that was like.

But he couldn’t just sit there and tell her that Steve dying wasn’t her fault.

He had trusted her to save his life and she couldn’t. She just stood there, watching as each bullet met their target. How he fell to his knees and how his eyes stayed glued to hers as he wasted his final breaths saying her name.

How was it not her fault?!

They had been nearly killed by a missile and Steve still protected her, saved her; she fucking owed him.

“You didn’t,” Natasha frowns, lowering the take-out container, “the Winter Soldier did.”

It’s his turn to let out a sardonic sneer. “Come on, Natasha. At the end of the day, it was me. I killed Steve; stop blaming yourself.”

“You were brainwashed.”

He turns to her with a scowl on his face. “I don’t understand how you can make that distinction but can’t forgive yourself. How can you forgive me for killing Steve, but you can’t forgive yourself for whatever it is that you keep blaming yourself for?!”

She doesn’t have a response to that.

Well, she does.

But she’s not sure she can admit that to herself, let alone anyone else.

See, part of her is sure that she can’t get over Steve’s death because–

“Did you love him?”

Her response is automatic, like it was programmed into her from the very beginning of her existence. “Love is for children,” she whispers and clenches her fists.

“That’s not what I asked you.” His voice is soft, like he’s managing dangerous territory and that makes her sigh out loud.

“I think I could have.”

There.

It was out in the open.

Steve Rogers was someone Natasha Romanoff could have loved.

In a way she did. She just…couldn’t admit it to herself.

He deserved better, he deserved someone that hadn’t done the things she had, someone that wasn’t so dark and fucked up. Someone that didn’t lie to him because it was in the interest of the agency she worked for.

James nodded and clenched his jaw as he looked out at the woods in front of them. They deserved better. From the little that he knew of her, he could tell that she was a good person; no matter how much she said otherwise. She was definitely Steve’s type too.

Sometimes he thought he knew her more than what she said, but she assured him that they hadn’t met before. Only during a mission in Odessa where he shot his target straight through her – something he only had a flash of.

His mind was still too fucked up to separate fantasy from reality – and no matter how much magic Wanda used on him, he was still not as “fixed” as he wanted to be.

He would get flashes of her or at least someone that looked a lot like her dancing ballet but…yeah, his mind? It loved playing tricks on him.

“We’re gonna catch them,” he promises, “and I’m going to personally make sure that those fuckers pay for everything they’ve done to us; even if it’s the last thing I do.”

Natasha nods. “We are.”

For a while, they sit out there in the darkness. Natasha finishes her food and James lets his thoughts wander. He thinks about how he’s going to use everything that HYDRA forced him to learn against them and how much he’s going to enjoy avenging everything they all went through.

When they’re walking back to the Tower, James turns to look at her and asks, “What do you think of the new guy?”

“Nomad?” He nods and she gives a nonchalant shrug. “I don’t talk to him.”

He swallows, making his Adam’s apple bob before he softly mutters, “Every time I look at him, I think about Steve. I think about his expression when he recognised me and…that really fucks with me. Can’t look at the guy without wanting to hurt someone.” He sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose and rubs his eyes tiredly.

“It’s like he’s another form of punishment for Steve’s death,” she whispers and James nods in agreeance.

Then the elevator doors open, and they go their separate ways. James to the movie room to keep Wanda some company and Natasha to her room to try and sleep.

~*~

The next day, things seem to go back into a routine. They have breakfast together, but in comfortable silence.

Bruce, Tony and Strange have a slight debate on mixing technology with his magic and the effects of it. Sam and Rogers discuss music from the 80s and Wanda watches the TV as she eats. James is flipping through a book, jotting down notes and circling things he wants to research later.

Natasha checked in on Maria while she drank her coffee. They used code and the conversation was relatively short. There was no news on HYDRA, they were still keeping a tight leash on her, but she was okay, and the moment she had some news, she’d send them her way.

Fury was somewhere in Europe checking in on a lead with some old contacts – ones that were trying to stay off SHIELD’s radar and were “trustworthy enough.”

After lunch, she goes down to the third floor to workout. After the way she exerted her body yesterday, she wanted to try and release some pent-up energy.

Everyone is busy when Natasha walks into the gym. Tony and Bruce are talking logistics about Rhodey’s War Machine suit. Doctor Strange is in a corner meditating – or at least that’s what she calls whatever he’s doing with his hands.

James is attempting to teach Wanda a few self-defence techniques with a switchblade – attempting because she just giggles every time he tries to show her where she should jam the blade in.

And in the boxing ring, Sam is getting his ass kicked by Rogers.

They’re wearing identical white t-shirts and dark sweatpants with the SHIELD logo embossed on them. Sam is jogging in place, trying to recover from whatever Rogers had just done to him and then they start sparring again.

Rogers seems to be taking the offensive position, Sam attacks and he ducks, but doesn’t return the punches or any of his attacks. That goes on for a few minutes before Rogers tires and tackles Sam. He lifts him and then flips him on his back before pinning his elbow to his back.

Sam groans, cursing when he loses another round and Rogers laughs as he stands. It’s not malicious or “in your face,” but Sam looks like he’s ready to start hitting him with the chair outside the ring.

Natasha watches them for a while, just studying his moves and making mental notes.

Rogers is a very focused fighter. He hits with precision and never really lands any of his surely-fatal punches, and even though she’s not fond of complimenting him, she likes that he teaches Sam why he can easily avoid his.

He pays attention to Sam’s body and how it moves and tells him how he could improve. He seems to be a natural teacher and Natasha, as much as it pains her to admit, admires that.

When Sam lands a mean punch on his jaw, he just shakes his head and congratulates him. It leaves his cheek red and it makes Natasha stifle a laugh.

It’s not like Sam didn’t know how to fight – in his own regard, Sam was a force to be reckoned with. But fighting a supersoldier was different than most of the fighters Sam had encountered. He would spar with James sometimes, but the two bickered more than anything else. So, this was definitely unchartered territory, which she was sure Sam appreciated, but he was truly getting his ass handed to him.

After Rogers pinned him to the floor for the nth time, Sam had enough.

“Alright!” He huffed, wincing as he held his side, “I get it. You can kick my ass and I need more practice.” He dropped his head on the mat and closed his eyes, breathing in deeply. “Let me just quit now while I still have a bit of pride left in me.”

Rogers laughed, shaking his head and held his hand out to help him up. “You know those weren’t my intentions, Sam. I just wanted to-”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sam waves him away, huffing out half-heartedly annoyed. “Always the humble one.” He continued muttering things under his breath – all which made Rogers chuckle even more – as he climbed out of the ring.

“Barnes,” he panted, wiping the back of his hand against his sweaty forehead, “do me a favour and kick his ass, will ya?”

James turned to look at them, raising an eyebrow and the slight smile he had on his face from something Wanda had just said, turned into a grim line. Rogers had a friendly smile on his face, holding the ropes up in an invitation, but James shook his head. “Not interested.”

“What?” Sam grumbled. “Scared he’s gonna wipe your Transformer ass?”

He rolled his eyes, raising his middle finger in the air and Sam laughs, clasping his shoulder as he walks to the lockers to grab his water.

Now, it could have been the sadness that seemed to flicker over his eyes or the way he, in a way, reminded her of her Steve and caught her in a moment of weakness, but Natasha found herself walking toward the ring.

“I’ll spar you.” That obviously surprised him, but not for the reasons she thought. “What? Can’t fight a girl?”

He quickly shook his head, holding the ropes open for her. “N-no,” he stutters quietly, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly, “that’s not it at all.” She raised an inquisitive eyebrow his way as she stretched her arms and he responds with a noncommittal shrug.

Once she felt she had warmed up enough, she stood in front of him, waiting for him to get comfortable.

For the first few minutes, no one seemed to pay them any mind. They hadn’t realised what was happening yet, since they were all so wrapped up in their own conversations, but as Natasha landed the first kick against Steve’s side, they quietly began to watch.

It was almost like a dance. At first, Rogers is smiling – he likes what’s happening, how focused and driven she seems, but then she keeps landing all of her hits and they hurt. During sparring sessions, they’re supposed to purposely avoid hitting each other, or at least lessen the force behind the hits – and Natasha is doing the complete opposite of that.

It actually felt like she was exerting extra force into her blows.

He tries to grab her, reaching out with both hands, but she dances out of his way and wraps the back of her left leg around his neck. She uses the momentum of her swing to circle her body around him and brings him to his knees, manoeuvring her hands to pin him down.

It all happens in the blink of an eye and Steve doesn’t have a chance of thinking on a counterattack before she’s turning them so that his face is against the mat and she’s pinning him down.

He lets out a staggered breath, completely surprised and she shoots him a sweet smile – almost mocking.

Okay, so she’s not just sparring him. She’s actually fighting him.

Steve tries again, this time doing the opposite move that his eyes tell her, but she seems to be three steps ahead of him. She grabs his forearm, pushing it up with surprising strength and jabs his side three times before flipping him over her shoulder.

He lands on the mat with a harsh pant and quickly bounces to his feet.

Natasha watches him with a guarded look in her eyes, circling him like a beast circling their prey and she strikes. This time he grabs her, pulling her body flush against his in an attempt to get the upper hand, but all that does is give her an easy way to manoeuvre out of his grasp.

Why is it easy?

Because she – and he can’t be sure why, but he’s sure – presses her ass against him as she slides down and the reaction that it caused was not something…professional. It was human, but it was not appropriate amongst colleagues – let alone colleagues that didn’t really like him.

So, Steve immediately lets her go. He drops his hands to his side, and she takes that chance to kick him down.

This goes on for a while. He manages to get her in a position that will bring her down and then she uses her body to…distract him. He doesn’t want to…to disrespect her, but does she really have to nudge her knee between his legs before bringing him down?!

She wraps her thighs around his face, swinging her body and had she done it with a little bit more force, she would have dislocated his neck. They land on the mat with a loud thud, tangled and way too close for her liking.

But she doesn’t stop.

She’s having too much fun bringing him down to his knees, making him grunt in pain and the look in his eyes is much more satisfactory than she’d like to admit. He’s getting aggravated that he can’t seem to catch her and bring her down like she’s doing to him.

By this time, everyone completely stops what they’re doing to watch them.

Natasha is absolutely lethal. She seems to be striking with purpose and were it not for the tiny smirk on her face every time she pinned him down, Tony would worry that she was actually trying to kill him.

Rogers’ face was red, and he was panting. Droplets of sweat were sliding down the side of his face and his white t-shirt was beginning to stick to his back with perspiration.

He wedged himself between her legs and used his enhanced strength to keep her down. Natasha wriggled under him, trying to use her legs to flip away but Rogers refuses to move. She can feel his chest pressed to hers, how hard his heart is beating in his chest and every time he inhales sharply.

For a short – a very short – moment, she feels tiny next to him. His hands are on either side of her head and his knees are next to her hips, keeping her trapped under him. He’s biting his bottom lip and a frown overtakes his features when she arches her back and tries to rub against his body in a way she knows will make him uncomfortable enough to move.

He refuses to budge.

He knows she’s fighting dirty, but she’s wiped the mat with his ass way too many times – and it’s not because he’s let her, either. She’s just that good and has no qualms with kicking him where it hurts.

It’s not like he didn’t manage to land any hits on her, but it was like she didn’t feel it – or if she felt them, she didn’t let it show.

Steve thinks he’s finally going to make her give up and then she’s biting him. Her teeth clamp down on his forearm and he yelps, yanking his hand away from her. She smiles, a conniving look crossing her features and once again, she wins.

That’s when Steve realises that he’s not sparring Natasha, he’s fighting Black Widow. Her body is literally her weapon and she seems to not care what she does or how she does it, but she’s keen on winning.

He groans, rolling on the mat before standing up and standing in front of her again. This time, she attacks him at full force. She’s a flurry of kicks and punches, blocking everything he tries to counterattack with, and he finds himself cornered between her and the ropes of the boxing ring.

There’s a fine line between respecting his opponent and being an idiot. He knows that Natasha keeps on rubbing herself against him because it makes him uncomfortable. But it doesn’t make her uncomfortable, so maybe he needs to stop being an idiot and properly fight back.

It almost happens in slow motion; she’s raising her leg to kick it across his face and then he’s grabbing it. He runs into her body, placing his hand on her hip and tackles her down. Her leg wraps around his waist as he corners her down and she lets out a pained groan.

As they’re falling, he tries to put his hand under her head, to lessen the impact of her fall, but it just makes them get tangled even more. His left knee is pinning her leg and her left leg is wrapped around his body, over his forearm and back.

Their chests are rising and falling in sync, they’re both trying to catch their breaths and the position is so intimate that if they were wearing the same clothes, no one could tell where one starts and the other ends.

“You fight dirty,” he breathes out softly.

“No,” she counters, “I fight with wit.”

That gets a husky chuckle out of him.

Natasha tilts her head back, staring up at him and then glances down at his hands. He’s not moving, still has her pinned to the mat and she really doesn’t want to be this close to him, but if he doesn’t let her go, she’ll end up hurting him.

“Sorry,” He quickly rolls off her and holds his hand out to help her up.

She stands on her own and salutes him with two fingers. “Thank you for the workout.”

He nods and drops his hand to his side as he watches her walk out of the ring. For a short second, everyone stays quiet, just watching them. Sam is amused, James turns back to Wanda who is giving him a comforting smile. Doctor Strange doesn’t seem to care. Bruce turns back to his notebook and Tony shoots him a suggestively proud smile – which he, of course, ignores.

Natasha walks away with a cool and nonchalant expression, but inside she’s fighting a battle that would make the Battle of New York look like a walk in the park. She’s not sure what the hell she was thinking when she offered to spar with him.

Clearly, she wasn’t thinking.

Because if she had been thinking, she would’ve stayed the hell away from Rogers and anything that involved being physically close to him.

It’s not that she wasn’t enjoying it – because she was. Oh, how she loved the huffed grunts and annoyed glances he threw her way because she was dancing through his fingers. She got a kick out of getting under his skin because in a way, that was the closest she could to lash out at him.

She wanted her kicks to hurt him, she wanted her punches to say what she couldn’t. She had hoped that after she had hurt him, she’d feel better, but by god, she didn’t.

She just felt like jumping off a cliff to finally calm the turmoil inside her.

Sure, she had exuded absolute confidence and like she felt absolutely nothing when his fingers gripped her arms, but that was far from the truth. Every single time he’d grab her, her heart would skip a beat in her chest, and she’d remember all the times she sparred with Steve.

It was different, but similar.

When she first sparred Steve, he had felt uncomfortable. He was afraid that he’d lose control over his strength and hurt her. Thankfully he quickly learned just how much she could hurt him. He knew she was capable, but still, Steve was a worrier like that.

And Rogers…he didn’t underestimate her.

Immediately he knew that she was completely capable of defending herself and he didn’t hold back. She liked that, that he didn’t think she was just another porcelain doll. And the admiration in his eyes when she managed to tumble away from him in the blink of an eye also felt pretty great.

It was also different in that Rogers had no issue pinning her to the ground and using his body against her. Steve had tried to keep their sparring to something modest – at first, at least. As he got comfortable with her and her fighting ways, he played dirty too.

The last time she sparred with Steve, they ended up laughing way too much to get anything done. He was tickling her, trying to get her to submit in the only way he knew he’d surely win.

For a few seconds, Natasha had forgotten that Rogers wasn’t Steve. See, when she jammed her elbow into his stomach, she half expected him to wrap his arm around her waist and pull her against him. Steve would have used that opportunity to start tickling her.

Now she was comparing the two and it was driving her insane.

She needed to take a quick moment to recalibrate, to centre herself and try not to fall apart at the seams. She grabbed her bag and gave Sam a noncommittal answer when he thanked her for kicking Rogers’ ass. Then made her way to the pool room.

When Tony told them that he had a pool room built for them, she didn’t know whether to laugh or thank him for his ingenuity. Of course, she just scoffed and rolled her eyes, but she found that it was one of the most tranquil rooms in the tower.

She could have gone to her dance room, but that was too…quiet. She didn’t want to dance; she wanted to stretch and get into some yoga poses that would help her clear her mind. Being in a room full of mirrors might push her past her breaking point. Besides, after meditating, she’d do a few laps around the pool and hopefully feel better about everything.

Yoga helped. She managed to stretch and the meditation process of it all was truly spectacular; she saw no downsides.

After she rolled out her mat, she grabbed her headphones and looked through her playlist until she found the mediation list. It was a mixture of instrumental music and white noise because the actual meditation chants simply annoyed her.

She began with simple steps. First in mountain position and then moved to warrior pose. After matching her breathing to the sound of waves slowly crashing, she moved to triangle pose and counted the seconds until she felt her body slowly relaxing.

From triangle pose, she went to tree, just standing on one leg as she held her hands above her head. Then slowly she began to reach down to settle into a downward dog position. That one was one of her favourites. She loved the feeling of tension slowly disappearing from her lower back as she descended to lay on the mat.

With each deep breath and pose, she felt herself relaxing a little. Instead of focusing on all her mistakes and regrets, she focused on her breathing and the light scent of chlorine. Tony said he used some chemicals to make the smell of chlorine a little less potent, so it wasn’t completely gone, but it wasn’t bad, either.

In fact, she kind of liked it. In a really weird way, it just helped to calm her.

She wasn’t sure how long she had spent by the furthest corner of the room, but when she finally opened her eyes, she realised that she wasn’t alone.

Rogers was inside the pool.

Natasha immediately sat up, frowning because in a way, it feels like he’s invading her personal space. It’s kind of childish, but dammit, she had been trying to clear her mind from what they had just done and seeing his face just didn’t help.

He’s a fast swimmer and his butterfly stroke is nearly perfect. She tries not to pay too much attention to the way his arms move or the way his muscles flex as he moves. She definitely ignores the fact that he’s shirtless and his body looks like it would put a Michelangelo-carved sculpture to shame.

His back faces her when he takes a short break and she tries not to notice the way his traps tighten as he holds himself up against the concrete wall. His hair is dripping and it’s sticking down the nape of his neck. He tries to flip his hair away from his face, but it ends up sticking in weird directions so he runs his fingers through it, and she can tell the moment he breathes out because his body just visibly relaxes.

Then he’s back in the water, but this time he’s perfecting his backstroke and Natasha struggles not to shove everything in her bag and run out. The last thing she needed was to ogle the man.

He reaches the end of the pool where she’s at and quickly turns to swim the way he had just come from – all without paying her any mind.

That’s when she takes notice of the scarring on his chest. Her glance had been quick, and it was possibly not enough time for her to figure out what the scar actually was, but it looked like someone had carved the skin out.

Rogers seems satisfied with his cooldown laps and climbed out of the pool just as Natasha was shoving her yoga mat under her arm.

“Oh, I was just leaving.” He holds his hands up, a silent motion of surrender and he quickly grabs the towel draped over the chair to wrap it around himself.

Natasha frowns but doesn’t tell him anything. She just watches him yank his shirt over his body and quietly walk away.

For someone that was trying not to ogle him, she realised that someone had definitely carved his skin out; and by the bit that she saw – a few straight lines – she could tell that whoever had done it, had done a meticulous and precise job.

What the hell had this man gone through to have such fucked-up scarring?!