She was raised in isolation, taught loyalty, obedience, and death. Natasha was broken down and remade into a dozen different identities, for a while each one as important as the other until they could decide where she was strongest. She was not the only one, and the other children all moved in intersecting, random orbits dictated by the mission and the needs of their handlers.
But they needed a bedrock of certain information about the world. A spy unfamiliar with conventional customs would stand out like a crow in a snowfield, and so below their shifting identities laid a bundle of necessary customs and required education.
It was with that, and puberty, that Natasha felt the need to draw her omega comrades to her, to show her ability to provide, protect, and defend the adornments she would give them. The drive made her more deadly. The reason for that was why their handlers never gave them money beyond what was needed, or leave to go anywhere beyond the dictates of the mission.
That didn't stop the children. It never stopped Natasha. She never had anything to call her own, none of them did, but what they couldn't buy, they could find. There was thread from fraying clothing, bits of cloth taken from inside seams, straw and dried flowers from fields where they waited at ambush points, shell casings, spent bullets, gunpowder, metal filings, staples, paper, locks of their own hair. Sergei made tiny little books with intricate covers, Ivan made etched metal earrings, Yasha made small deathless flowers from fabric, and Natasha used thread and her scarlet hair to weave thin necklaces to lie close to the omegas' skin.
None of them got to choose their partner, but for little stolen moments of time, they could try, they could pretend. They could be alphas.
She wanted him.
Natasha corrected herself every time she thought that. The entire nation would want Steve, if they knew. But the man's gender was his own business, and it had pleased America to think of him as an alpha, and that's how he had been presented for decades. Particularly in this time of social media, Steve wasn’t eager to reveal his private life. But SHIELD knew. The Avengers knew. And Natasha knew.
He was a good man, but not a perfect one. He didn't have Natasha's wealth of damage and death and cruelty in his wake, decisions made without conscience or care, but he understood them all the same. He cared, he honestly truly cared, and his naivety was more a shield against the intrusions of the world than a disbelief of it. He knew about its horrors, but he didn't let them sink their claws in deep.
She'd only been able to joke with him, threw him towards this girl or that (a silent shout, you’re desirable, you deserve someone good), laughed alongside him, when they haven't been fighting to save the world. And she would like... She could...
She was a woman grown, free of her handlers. She was free, now, to court as she chose, to discover more about him and reveal what she had learned about herself, should she be so bold. And if he would choose her in return, as he hadn’t chosen all those other alphas she’d pushed him towards…
The thought was exciting, electrifying, erotic. Natasha was no longer limited to frayed threads, bits of wire, and scraps of paper; she could chose to make a courting gift out of real materials, not found garbage, something particularly beautiful to grace Steve's neck and show that he had found her gift good enough to show the world.
Her career spent bouncing from country to country had other benefits than just the scars in her past; she knew where all the best things were, from silk threads to soft leather, fine seed beads to the perfect kind of clasp. Little packages arrived from China and Brazil and Switzerland over the next few weeks, each one putting a little lightness in her heart, a little extra warmth in her smile when she looked at Steve. She sacrificed a lock of her own hair to weave into choker, pleased enough by its color as the thought of having something of herself right in the necklace, right against his skin.
It would be beautiful, and it would look beautiful on him. Natasha worked on it a little bit every day, in between training and briefing and debriefing and saving the world from mutated cybernetic hedgehogs. (She palmed one of their quills to weave into a friendship token for Clint; he always liked a bit of danger close by.) The weaving was perhaps the one hobby she never let anyone else know about, close as it was to the bone.
Just as the first day of spring arrived, she was finally finished. Close, finger-woven tapestry in silk thread, wide enough to show its design, not so large as to be vulgarly ostentatious, subtle sparkle of beadwork amidst the blue silk thread, the center a small web of red strands, the whole of it backed by butter-soft leather and closed by a smooth, nearly seamless clasp. Natasha stroked it, a tiny flutter of nervousness in her stomach before she quelled it and rose to find Steve in the common room.
Her small smile of warmth and affection crashed and died as she entered to laughter, Steve’s awed expression a cause of the merriment as he touched the shimmering tablet Tony had gotten for him, the holographic projector therein placing Steve’s little doodles in mid-air, where he could manipulate them from any angle.
“…not even on the market yet, but I figure, hey, you’re worth it,” Tony said with a winning grin. Steve spun the design around, looking awestruck.
“It’s amazing,” he said, raising it up, smoothing down one side, and then spinning it. “Thank you…”
“I’ve rendered him speechless, I win,” Tony said, and Pepper gave him a light and playful swat.
“We all ambushed him, so give him time to catch his breath,” she admonished. Natasha moved a little further in to see a small pile of presents on the coffee table. Her heart clenched when she saw a suit of fine bronze chainmail highlighted with blue stones (from Asgard’s smithies, courtesy of Thor, no doubt), an entire set of tooled leather sketchbooks embossed with Steve’s name along with a wooden chest of immaculate art supplies (from Maria, she had a soft spot for Steve’s art), a card that held plane tickets poking out of it, along with a note from Bruce about wanting to show him the world, and a golden choker studded with golden diamonds and sapphires (from Pepper, whose taste was impeccable). The rest of the team’s alphas were gathered around, laughing as they indulged their omega, all of them smiling and confident.
The first day of spring, the traditional time for courting gifts. Natasha could feel her little woven choker in her clenched fist as she silently backed away from the gathering, feeling a surge of disappointment, jealousy, and almost overwhelming mortification. She locked down the resultant anger, but let the worst of it play through her, distilling the emotions to a few bitter tears.
There were beautiful gifts in that room. Thoughtful, carefully selected, and ostentatious enough to make her best efforts look like a tawdry little scrap of trash. Those were the gifts that Steve deserved. Maybe they weren’t the alphas she felt he deserved, that he needed, but if she couldn’t show it…
It was better if he never knew. There would be no pretense to be as enthusiastic about her gift, her little piece of nothing, as compared to the others. Maybe later, maybe if he hadn’t yet chosen, she could try to find something better. Anything better. Something worthy of him. He was from a simpler background, a simpler time, and maybe he might, under other circumstances, have liked her gift. But he deserved to be courted so richly after everything life had seen fit to throw at him.
There had been a message for her this morning. She was needed for a long-term mission, six months at best. There was no longer a need to put off the start date.
Natasha tossed the choker in the trash and left the building without looking back.
She was not so poor a friend or teammate to cut off contact so abruptly, but she was too good a spy to tell the truth. That the mission had come up suddenly was true, though not as abruptly as she implied. Natasha sent the others small notes during her transport to the assignment site, and felt oddly touched when she received notes back. Offers of technical badassery from Tony, quiet encouragement from Bruce, a sincerely hearty wish for success from Thor with a promise of a victory feast, a frighteningly accurate guess as to who she was going after from Clint (along with some suggestions as to where best to plant bugs in his house and/or daggers in his spleen). And from Steve, a voice message:
“Natasha, I missed you today. Come home safe.”
She listened to that message at least once a day during the entire six-month deployment when she was incommunicado. It was the only thing that made it bearable.
After once seeing Bruce almost jump out of his skin (and into the Hulk’s) when the rest of the team felt compelled to throw a welcome home party, Natasha entered the Tower the same way she left it, silently, almost invisibly, and, after bribing JARVIS with underground music files to play in his own circuits, without electronic fanfare.
The entire ruse was all for naught when she had nearly slunk her way back to her floor only to freeze in place when she saw Steve wander past on the way to the kitchen. It wasn’t the thin shirt or sweatpants he was wearing, because she had seen that, and far less, many times before.
It was her choker wrapped around his throat for everyone to see.
Training kicked in and she moved out of his line of sight before he spied her, and then all but sprinted back to her room.
Clint was there, sprawled out on her bed. Her go-bag went flying across the room and he caught it absently.
“How?” she demanded.
“Hey Nat, nice to see you, glad you’re back in one piece,” Clint commented to the ceiling before looking over at her.
She waited, and they both finally broke into chuckles.
“Oh man, almost did that with a straight face. No, you have to ice that bastard or just turn him over to someone nasty?”
“The second. And again, how?”
Clint did not bother to ask her to specify.
“I might have accidentally-on-purpose fished your gift out of the trash and labeled it and forged your signature and left it in his bag. A bit.”
She glared on general principle, but there was no heat behind it. Clint didn’t get caught up so heavily in these rituals and games that drove most of his team; as a beta, he got to be the observer, the avid audience, the facilitator, and the smoother of the way. If she didn’t like it… but she did. She would, of course, have her revenge later, when he was least expecting it.
Clint got off her bed and bumped her shoulder companionably before opening the door. He made sure that Steve, who had been hovering outside, hand up, hesitating about knocking, was shoved inside before he shut the door on them.
The choker looked just as beautiful on Steve as she’d hoped.
“I love it,” he blurted out after a moment of silence, and it took every ounce of her formidable self-control not to rush him right then, pin him to her floor and breathe in the mingled scents of Steve and the work of her hands.
“I made it for you,” she said, and her hand rose without her permission. Steve closed the gap between them, inserting his shoulder under her palm, and she moved her hand over the swell of his muscle to feel the silk and beads against the pulse of his throat.
“Peggy made things for me too. They didn’t pay her nearly what she was worth, but she wanted to show… she cared,” Steve said. His hand drifted down to her head, his fingers threading through her hair. Natasha felt no jealousy for the old woman, only admiration that she had rated in the same breath as the one woman who’d known him and stood by him before and after his transformation.
“I saw the gifts everyone else gave you,” she said, her voice flat, but her hand very soft as she stroked the skin at the border of the choker.
“They were… impressive. And flattering.” He paused to think about that before admitting, “Very flattering.”
But he wasn’t wearing Pepper’s golden choker, didn’t have one of Maria’s notebooks in his hands, wasn’t halfway around the world with Bruce, and there were no digital sculptures sitting around the common room. That made Natasha bold enough to bring her fingers through his short hair and grip it firmly. Steve pushed forward, and Natasha stopped him with a kiss she’d learned over three continents, decades of training and years of sweet freedom seemingly all for this one, single moment. His choice, and hers.
It wouldn’t be fair to say it stopped him cold. It might have been much more accurate to say after that things became very, very heated.
Clint extravagantly flopped down on the couch in the common room with a huge grin on his face.
“Maybe $6.50 worth of materials, made by an amateur. The rest of them never stood a chance.”
“Shall I log the fact that you win the communal SHIELD betting pool by a sizable margin, Agent Barton?” JARVIS inquired.
“Yes. Yes you shall,” Clint said.
“And the unofficial Tower bet that Mr. Hogun was conducting amongst Stark Industries employees?”
“And where shall I put your winnings, Agent?”
“Give ‘em to Natasha. Trust me, she earned it.”