It's a little insulting, when Steve finally realizes why every time anyone tries to set him up on a date, it's at least on some levels a disaster. Not plane into the Arctic or aliens through enormous portals disaster, but socially, not great. It's not just Natasha that tries, although her efforts are less ridiculous than some; it's everyone he knows by name—Jennie Takahara from the armory sets him up with her cousin's best friend, and Wade Sterling, the SysOp for the comm connections, arranges a date for him with his college roommate's sister. And Maria Hill, that one's just embarrassing, because she sets him up with her sister, which hadn't seemed like it was likely to be awful, but which turns out to be one of those cases where siblings have the exact opposite set of traits; Estella Hill is like her sister only in her dark hair and intelligence.
Every last person he knows is sure he needs dates, and sure he can't find them himself (okay, that's probably a legitimate suspicion, but it's hardly a new problem), and every one of them keeps picking girls who are... all right, let's go with 'really girly.'
Not that there's anything wrong with that; there's plenty to be said for red lips and long hair cascading in curls down soft skin, for a skirt that gently follows the line of the hip and thigh, for knees that don't have scars and bumps from schoolyard roughhousing or in-line skating or anything in between. Steve likes all those things, aesthetically; he does. He likes drawing them, and honestly he likes touching them, too. He sometimes see these women three or four times, and it's been made clear to him that the third date is an appropriate time for touching, so he's done some fairly extended touching (at their prompting and urging), but outside of that, these dates have never led to any kind of spark and have generally been pretty damned unsatisfying, and he'd like to just leave it at that. He's sure they're all very nice girls.
But the assumption underlying the fact that every single woman he takes to dinner on the urging of a friend is this soft, gentle, sweet-smelling creature that demurs left and right and expresses only the most general of opinions? That assumption is based in the notion that he is (was) a man of the nineteen-forties, and as such he clearly must expect a woman to cater to him, to defer and coddle and beautifully flutter her lashes.
He wonders if any of them have paid any attention at all to who he actually is.
See, here's the thing. Steve has loved two women in his life. His ma, who had no time for red lips and whose skin was hard and rough from hot water and scrubbing, and who spent a lot of years getting up in the night to boil more steam for him, was of course his first female role model. And, not that his ma was exactly the prototype he thinks about as far as what's sexy to him (psychology and marrying a stand-in for one's own opposite-sexed parent aside), that means he has no expectation of softness or fluttering. And then, in what actually is the prototype, there was Peggy. Well. Peggy did have the red lips, and okay, on reflection he's comfortable with how he feels about that, but for God's sake, she tested the shield by shooting at him, and while he did hear her cry as the plane went down, it was certainly not her general approach. Peggy was tough as nails, and he suspects if, on his next visit, he were to push away the blanket and get a look at her knees (which he won't because that would be profoundly inappropriate, obviously; she's in her nineties and multiple kinds of frail), he'd find scars all down her shins. Hell, if she were a young woman now, she'd probably be involved with that roller-derby thing Kadijah at the deli blames for the crutches while she waits for the pins in her ankle to heal up.
Now, it's not a huge... there's a term Stark uses for data. It's not a huge sample size, that's it, but Steve also woke up, fought not very long at all later in a battle with a woman who directed him to chuck her into the air (which he did; it wasn't that gallant but when someone asked him about it later, he realized he'd assumed if she thought she could hold her own, then she could), and then with little pause for much of anything else, jumped right into place in the modern twenty-first-century military structure.
Okay, not military; SHIELD is a little separate from that, but his point is, he serves with women he knows can keep up. With him. And he likes them exactly the way they are, with zero wishes that he were instead surrounded by women wearing gauzy things and worrying about the surface texture of their skin. So even if men of the forties were by and large what everyone thinks (not so much, but it's not a case he wants to argue as it would involve post-mortem discussion of the sex lives of people he knew and that's messed up), he's just not that guy. And Estella and Rachael and Jaycee and Caroline and Maighyn all seemed to want him to be, so that's what they're all trying to set him up for.
Finally, he stops letting himself be set up. Too busy, he says, or too shy, or too overwhelmed with the new world he lives in—which he says depends on the audience, and if he's using his status as poor lost lamb in a scary big city, well, that's his call, right? He tries organizing his own dates, but women who approach him expect... he's not sure what. Or they're Kadijah's roommate/teammate Miranda, who propositions him over beer because what she wants out of a relationship is uncomplicated sex, but a fairly brief experiment says that's not actually what he wants, so they stick to beer after that, and Steve figures he needs to understand what he's looking for before he tries again.
And then Fury dies and Arnim Zola shows up inside a computer that's older in waking years than Steve, and oh yeah, Bucky reappears with an arm straight out of some kind of steampunk science fiction nightmare, and dating is, for the foreseeable future, not on Steve's mind at all.
It's a while before things settle down.
All right, so Fury isn't dead, turns out, but that's only barely any consolation; Steve hadn't really realized until after SHIELD fell how much he had latched on to having something that 1. stemmed from the efforts of his own pre-icebath friends and 2. was supposed to be really fighting the good fight on a global scale, and too, having Bucky turn up, alive and insane, well, there's no way he can talk about what the feels like, but when Fury heads off to Europe, Steve is, not to put too fine a point upon anything, a mess.
At least he has Sam. He and Sam get in a car whose provenance Steve doesn't know (and doesn't care. He assumes probably because Sam is who he is, it's legal transport. Ish. They have keys, anyway), make a stop by Stark's repaired monument to himself in New York for cash, tech, and ID (Stark, for the first and Steve is assuming only time, gives them what they need, no strings, no lip; probably this is because he's still getting used to life without a reactor embedded in his sternum), and then start chasing down sightings that might be Buck. He's not sure what he'll do with him when he finds him, but he can't just not find him, and Sam, he wasn't kidding when he said he'd follow wherever Steve wanted to go, which is touching, and also pretty great..
Probably Erskine never meant for Steve to use his new body to chase down his dead boyhood friend, to charm people into letting him in places he isn't supposed to go and break locks on places he can't use charm, but then, with the wisdom of hindsight Steve knows that while Erskine was a kind, smart, visionary man, he also didn't know everything.
They're a month and a half into Roadtrip U.S.A. when one night they stop outside of Chicago and Steve lets them into a place that was once some kind of factory, at which the police scanner had indicated some kind of disturbance two nights prior. It's not that he expects Bucky to still be there, but something about the way the scene was described in the officer's report made him think he needed to come have a look.
It's clear in ten minutes that they're alone, but it takes Steve another fifteen to find the nest—cleared out, but definitely a sniper's post, definitely for several days, and definitely (crucially) Bucky's; the finger-shaped dents in the window frame can't have been anything but that arm.
Steve finishes looking around the place while Sam sets up dinner in what was once an employee break room, but as the sky darkens after they eat he goes back, runs his fingers over the grooves and considers where they should go from here. After they sleep, of course; Steve himself can go a pretty long time if he needs to, but Sam isn't a super soldier, and one of the things keeping him grounded on this mission is the need to see to Sam's well-being. As he thinks about the path they've taken, he spots a movement outside, then another, and for a brief, strange moment, he thinks Bucky's slipping (he's not sure whether to find the concept worrying or hopeful), but then he sees the flash of red, and raises his eyebrows. It's Natasha.
“Hey,” she says when he comes down to the door. Sam's already arranged himself a space in the foreman's office, and usually he's ready to be asleep two minutes after he gets horizontal,so Steve steps outside to speak to her and closes the door behind him. It's not until he's a couple feet from her that he realizes she's as disheveled as he'd ever seen her. Not messy, so much (they were messy in the bunker, and on the way to Sam's, and for that matter while they were busy dismantling SHIELD). No, it's that under the light of the dim yellow security lamp, she looks damaged. Undone. Something.
“Hey,” he says back. He licks his lips, unaccustomedly uncertain about what to say. Or rather, he's accustomed to the feeling, but in general hasn't experienced it with her before, because she's team, and he's team leader. That alone means he's always had a framework, and this, whatever is going on with her, it falls outside that. Finally, he says, “You know I won't make you say, but what's wrong?”
“You couldn't make me say,” she replies matter-of-factly. “I learned how not to talk from the very best and very worst—same people, not nice—in the world. But I want to tell you, only I'm not sure if you can hear it.”
“Buck?” His voice is a little dull and shaky at that, because when if she found him first and stopping him meant—no, she'd find another way, wouldn't she?
“No,” she confirms. She grimaces. “Yasha—James—is hiding very, very competently. I don't know any more than you do. No, this is more personal to me, but perhaps not so different in the details.”
She looks past him. “Sam is still with you?”
“Yeah, probably already conked out. He's a big fan of sleeping when the opportunity arises.”
“Stark's got an upgrade ready for him, did you know?”
“I haven't checked in with Stark in a couple of weeks. Why?”
“Just curious. Maybe a few days off the road would lend fresh perspective, and give you and him a chance to see what the rest of us have been up to. But that can wait.” She starts to say something else, then stops, opens her mouth and closes it again, and finally purses her lips. “I want to tell you my news, but I...” She offers him a shrug. “You know I could tell you this and make you believe it as a means of infiltration, but that's not what I'm doing. I feel too exposed to say.”
Steve backs toward the door and holds out a hand. “If you're planning infiltration, I expect there's a good chance Hawkeye is somewhere out of sight and I'm already screwed, so I don't see how worrying about that plays in for me. Come on, we'll find you a spot that feels safe.”
She flinches a little when he says Hawkeye, which feels strange to him; they haven’t worked a great deal since New York, but it has always seemed to him that the two of them are family. He really hopes Clint is all right, though it doesn’t seem like that kind of flinch somehow. And it doesn't feel manufactured; he's seen her perform the kind of manipulation she just referred to and he thinks he'd at least know it if he was looking. Then she shakes it off, blinks at him for a moment, and brushes past him to go inside.
He spends another several seconds looking around (and, all right, wondering if in fact Hawkeye is somewhere out there), then follows her in. “Find a place yet?”
Her answer comes from somewhere to his left, and when he rounds the corner, she's wedged in between a couple of big canisters. “I could have told you outside,” she says, “but Coulson always wanted me to work on self-care, you know?”
“That sounds like a psych word.”
“It is. When I came in to SHIELD, I was the Black Widow, you know. My self, that wasn't a discrete concept I was particularly clear on. But Coulson always told me there would be times I needed to rely on the kind of ruthlessness and failure to consider my own needs that they trained into me. The nonphysical needs. Focusing on the physical needs was practical.”
“Course.” Steve nods and sits across from her, back to the wall, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle. He chuckles briefly. “When I was a young man—before the serum, you know what I mean—I was mostly terrible at focusing on my physical needs. Buck always did that for me, because I hated, so much how extensive those needs were. It's part of why I gotta find him. But yeah, I see your point. So Coulson wanted you to focus on your nonphysical needs?”
“When it was tenable to do so. He would say that what they wanted to train out of me was my humanity—you've seen how that looks now?”
Steve shudders and nods.
“I wasn't quite as screwed up as what I saw in DC, but he had a point. What I needed if I was going to be successful at living without being controlled was to notice and respond to my own selfish needs sometimes. I'm not very good at it.”
“Me either. Is this the story you came here to tell me?”
“You're hard to distract.”
“Single-minded. Sometimes known as stubborn.”
“No, really? No, it's not the story I came here to tell. I've been stalling.”
“And Coulson's alive. He died, but Fury had… He’s not dead now.”
Steve doesn't know Coulson, except from stories. But those stories, they're primarily Natasha's and occasionally Clint's, and they're stories of their family. His breath catches. He doesn't actually care, specifically, about Phil Coulson. He cares in the abstract, in the way he also cares that hundreds of people of which some might not have been assholes, were on the three carriers, and in the way he cares that a lot of people in New York were maimed by flying debris and aliens. But if Bucky didn't die and Fury didn't die and now... He pulls his knees up tight and wraps his forearms around them, mirroring Natasha's pose. After a minute he says, “I'm glad you waited until I was sitting down. Just out of curiosity, is dying still actually a thing in the twenty-first century?”
She snorts indelicately. “I don’t see how you’d think it was, really. Yes, it generally is still a thing. Except, apparently, for people intimately connected to me and you.”
“Not really. I’m better, and worse, than Clint.”
“Why? If you want to tell me, I mean.”
“He and Coulson are close, and he has abandonment issues like you can’t believe. He’s a train wreck.”
Now Steve flinches, but that’s mostly because trains, in the context of family drama, are not his favorite thing. He imagines he’ll get over it eventually.
“But so do you,” he says.
“So do I?”
“Have abandonment issues. Me, too. Stark too, for that matter. One of the reasons we’re all good at who we are is that we’re also all pretty fabulously broken in critical ways.”
Natasha considers that. “I mostly just… I hadn’t realized how much stock I had put in relying on so many things about SHIELD. I knew when I dumped the data… I knew I was disassembling huge parts of the apparatus, and I thought I was okay with it.”
“And then you noticed that even though you were a cynic with the skills of an assassin, you cared a lot about the truths you were fighting for.”
She arches a brow. “Something like that.”
“Takes one to know one,” he says, pointing at himself.”
She examines his face like she isn’t sure why he’s lying to her, but he’s not lying, so he just waits until she’s satisfied, then relaxes his hold on his knees and lets his feet move a few inches apart. “You’re more than you seem,” she says at last.
“Not like that. I knew you were, but even after I met Steve the Sarcastic, I didn’t give you enough credit.”
“Me, sarcastic?” He winks, and she chuckles.
“Can I ask you a question?”
He points at her. “Now who’s sarcastic? Question is, why does everyone expect me to be some kind of comic book greatest-generation dominant boy scout? People who know me, I mean.”
“Everyone. Started with Phillips a million years ago, but more recently Takahara, Sitwell—although I guess that kind of worked to my advantage—“
“But for a year, people kept making these assumptions. Fury, not reading me in on the mission where you got him the data. Hill, setting me up with her sister—“
“Estella? Wait, you went out with Estella?”
“You know her?”
“Just through Maria, of course.”
“Of course. Impression?”
“A date with me?”
She squints. “I guess I can see it? How’d it go?”
“Wait, was that the kissing? That you did before the escalator.”
Steve sighs. “Maybe. I don’t actually want to comment on the kissing skills of Maria Hill’s sister. Oh hey. Did Hill tell you how to find me? She’s working for Stark, although he didn’t say he was tracking anything he gave me.”
“As if he would. No, I used my spy skills, the old-fashioned way.”
“I dunno if I think anything about you is old-fashioned.” Steve gestures toward her canisters. “So, you needed to sit in a corner to tell me?”
“I just feel kind of raw about it. I didn’t know, obviously, and it was in the files I dumped but it took a while before I had a reason to find it. Plus, first I had to go haul Clint’s ass out of a bolthole in Rio, and then while we were trying to find someplace to go to ground we realized Bobbi was in trouble… do you know her?”
“Don’t think so? Should I?”
“Codename Mockingbird? She and Clint have history. Anyway, went to pull her out of a mess in Tripoli and then finally holed up in a little place outside of Lyon. She needed details on an op last fall in South America, and once we found the files… yeah.”
“So you left Clint with her?”
“No, once we got a list of who was still out in the cold, she went to see what if anything she could work out with Blake, and then there was Coulson. I took Clint to him myself. But I couldn’t really stand to go in when I got there--Phil came out, I saw him with my own eyes, but I couldn't go in--and he needed to stay, he needed to finish unfinished business he never thought he would have another crack at, so I came here.” She shrugs, a languid move of one shoulder. “I need to go back eventually, but they need time and it made the most sense to me, when I tried to assess my own needs.”
“I’m glad you’re here.” Steve pauses and adds, “For your needs, but also for mine. I don’t know how well I’d have taken this news without someone else who knew him, you know?”
“I’m comfortable with pretending that was my main reason.”
He laughs. “If it gets you through the day. Hey, come sit over here?”
“If you want, but how’s your needs assessment? Mine says I could use a friend.”
“I am your friend,” she says, but she says it as she shifts her weight forward onto her toes and rolls onto her knees, shuffling across. “But my needs assessment says—and this is new for me—that I could really use a hug.” She settles against his side and pulls his arm around her shoulders.
“Ask you another question?”
“Like you just did?”
“Why’d you try to set me up with that girl from Accounting?”
“Because I thought you might get along?”
“She’s cute. She’s smart. She wouldn’t put up with your shit. Why?”
“Just wondered. Everyone else’s attempts to set me up ended with women who were not my type at all.”
“And I just wanted to know if you had the same apparent criteria.”
“Don’t think you do. I think the main ones everyone else used were ‘does this woman seem, in appearance and attitude, like she might be a stereotypical character in a movie about 1943,’ which it turns out is not the right call.”
They sit there like that a few more minutes like that, and then Natasha looks up at him. “So, what is your type?”
“Your call wasn’t terrible. Calls, actually; I liked Sharon fine, although it seems like that ship has sailed.”
“Probably. CIA has her in the LA field office. Not that you couldn’t go park it in Stark’s Malibu place once he’s done rebuilding.”
“Eh, no. Once I’m done finding Bucky, I kind of think I want to take him home, see how he does.”
“So, is he your type?”
Steve arches a brow at her. “That hasn’t been our relationship, no. We’re more brothers. You?”
“You, and him. You clearly knew him as James, and I feel like there’s probably more to the story of that scar.”
“There is, but it’s not a story I want to tell.”
She leans in against him. “He can be fixed, though.”
“I know. Even if I didn’t, I’d try, but I’ve seen Clint get his head back together, and I know you. Well, and now I also apparently know a bunch of other guys that survived dying or accidents that were unsurvivable or murders, so I feel like his odds are pretty good.”
“There is that.” She gives him a little squeeze and then pulls away. “So, Coulson.”
“Coulson.” Steve purses his lips. “We talked about SHIELD, but not about him. Is it that he didn’t die, that he didn’t tell you, that he represents something else, or all of the above?”
“Little bit from column A, little bit from column B. I’m not sure I can explain it in words.”
“Give it a shot. I’m told, although by SHIELD psychologists so who knows for sure, that talking helps.”
“I’ve been told the same thing. All right. Clint was the guy that brought me in, right? And I lost him, but I got him back pretty fast, you know? But Coulson was the guy who let him, let him bring me in, which was a huge thing for Clint too, being trusted like that. And Coulson was the guy who never flinched. I’d never had that before, and it mattered to me. A lot. I was trained not to let things matter—things or people or places—but once their trust mattered, I found... My Russian handlers were afraid of me, you know. They controlled me and they held the reins in all the important ways, but they were afraid of what I could do. Which, in retrospect, was fair; when I left I didn’t offer them any opportunities to make up for their crimes.”
“Right, that makes sense.”
Her shoulders drop an inch in relaxation and she offers a tiny ghost of a grin. “Clint and Coulson are the only other two people I know who would say that without even a shred of a hint that they thought I should have been less ruthless, you know. More forgiving.”
“Of that? No, I don’t think so. So now you have three friends who get that about you. All of whom should be all rights be dead, but then…” Steve squints at her. “I think Zola was wrong about you.”
“Oh.” She pauses for a moment and then takes a breath. “Yes, that’s when I became self-aware in a manner that didn’t reset.”
“Reset like Buck.”
“Yes. My indoctrination and utility were not quite the same, but the principle, there was a reason he was so familiar to me.”
Steve chews on that for a minute; it's not really new information, but she's never confirmed it before. “Actual date? Not that it matters to me, except in that I don't have very many friends close to my age.”
“I can’t say. That is, I don’t know, because information about my personal self was not a high priority for my handlers to give me, but if I did know, the data would be in the area I’ve never successfully been able to reveal to anyone.”
Steve blinks. “You have a safe in your head?”
“So to speak. It’s not dangerous. SHIELD didn't know. Except for Clint and Coulson.”
He considers that for a minute. “Based on what I saw of Bucky, I don’t know that I think you’re a totally reliable judge of that, but I am going to choose to believe you.”
She scowls at the first part, but then tilts her head. “Why?”
“I do better when I have things to believe in. Or people.” He shrugs. “Plus I don’t like what the other choice means for you.”
“I already got this one friend who is dangerous, probably to himself at least as much as to me, maybe more. I don’t doubt he coulda taken me out, and he didn’t, but I also don’t doubt he can take himself out and I don’t know that he won’t. Therefore, you can’t be that friend.”
“What friend can I be?”
Steve pulls her back in against his chest. “Doesn’t matter to me. Just not that one. So, let me sum up.”
“What, too much to explain, so you'll just sum up?”
He chuckles. “Princess Bride? I do get that reference.” She knows he will; they watched it together. He likes their shared history and... he likes the way this conversation, even though everything, everything is totally screwed up, feels the way he wanted the disaster-dates to feel. He nuzzles his chin into her hair, realizing even as he does it that if she doesn’t want him to do that, she might flee—but it feels nice, so he doesn’t back off—and continues, “So, years ago you ditched everything you were trained to be to go out on your own. Then at some point you learned how to have friends and work that mattered, and that was a little scary because relying on people was hard, but it was working. Then one of your friends was taken from you and it was terrifying, but you made it through, and you got him back. Good so far?”
“Good, no. Accurate, yes.” She shifts a little to look up at him. “Zola was wrong about me, but Erskine was right about you, you know. Most of his work was lost, but he documentation about why he chose you? He said you understand and value people for who and where they are, and that your motivation all comes from that.”
“Oh.” Steve shrugs. “I'm no saint.”
“Saints aren't motivated by people. They're motivated by service.” She shifts again, lowering her chin. “Anyway, go on.”
“So you got Clint back, but you lost Coulson, and then the agency you trusted, and the other friends you'd made, it all fell apart, and still you were hanging in there. And then a guy you cared a lot about came back, and it messed with your head. That about the size of it?”
“I'm not unstable. Just exhausted.”
“I know. Feel better?”
“I do,” she says. “It’s strange.”
“Yeah, I know.” He wets his lips with his tongue and adds, “You staying?”
“I’m comfortable, so maybe yes.” She sounds half-asleep already, like getting this far was all she had the energy to do, although Steve also doesn’t doubt she’ll find the reserves she needs if it comes to it.
He sits there a little longer, just breathing with her. She's more relaxed, resting against him, but the day—more than one, really—is catching up with him and now that they're not talking, he's tired. “All right with you if I go to bed? To sleep? You can come with.”
She lifts her cheek off his chest and narrows her eyes up at him, but he really does mean sleep—for the moment, not necessarily forever, so she stands and holds out a hand to help him up.
“I didn’t ever answer the question,” he says, starting up the metal stairs to the office cube that looks out over the factory floor. Sam’s snoring in the manager’s office but there are two more rooms, only one of which has a giant hole in the floor. “But after all that, I sort of feel like I should.”
“What question?” She glances through the window at the one that does have the rotting floor and goes on by him to the one that says Dave Kemp in long-fossilized dry-erase marker on a board at eye level, where he left his pack and bedroll earlier, half-unrolled and with his plate still sitting on the desktop.
Steve doesn’t believe for a minute she doesn’t know what question, because losing track of details is not who or how she is, but he answers her anyway. “My type.” He waits for her to turn and look at him and adds, “Independent. Competent. Maybe a little scary. Self-sufficient. Smart. Tough but willing to say what she needs. Good judge of her own capacities and strengths.” He pauses. “Doesn’t hurt if she sometimes likes a nice red lipstick and has soft hair about to here.” He reaches and tugs the end of one curl.
“Sounds like quite a girl,” she says.
“Yeah, I think so.” He unrolls his stuff the rest of the way and ditches his hoodie, then settles down and opens his arms. “Still staying?”
She curls in against his chest and mumbles, “Still maybe yes.”
“All I can ask for.” He goes silent and waits while she relaxes against him, listening to her breathe. This is hardly the date anyone expects him to want or need—there is a distinct lack of dinner or movie—but Steve has never been anywhere near as much of a traditionalist as everyone seems to think. Well, and again, half the people he knows have a pretty warped grasp of what constitutes compliance with the mores of 1940.
Despite that he does feel tired, it's a long time before he sleeps, partly because he's grown accustomed to being the primary watchkeeper—Sam doesn't have Steve's enhancements and requires more shut-eye—and partly because he's thinking, lulled by Natasha's quiet breath against his throat and Sam's entirely unquiet snores two rooms over. Finally, and guessing by the fact the moon has passed all the way through the field of the high windows at the factory's east side, he slides into sleep, sometime after two.
It's still profoundly dark when he wakes, startled into consciousness without knowing immediately why and then instantly aware that: he's not alone, he's not worried about that fact, and he's hard. No surprise; Natasha's appeal is nothing new and certainly he's thought about it before.
“Sorry,” she says, sitting up next to him.
She doesn't sound that sorry; she's rustling around and maybe she doesn't know that one of Steve's many, many unannounced enhancements is night vision.
Course, then she grins at him over her shoulder before peeling her shirt up and off, and okay, maybe she does know that.
“Not that I'm complaining nor that I think you can't avoid doing things you don't want to,” Steve begins, but she cuts him off.
“Yes, I can,” she agrees. “I assume earlier you were flirting?”
“Uh. No. I was answering the question.”
“Ah. I know how to manipulate someone into bed, but the logistics of flirting are difficult for me to parse.” She's managed to strip to the skin already without leaving the bedroll or getting tangled up in anything. It's kind of impressive.
“You didn't manipulate me.”
“Would you know if I had?”
Steve snorts and lifts halfway up to pull his own shirt off; he's not so sure he expected this, but he's really on board now that it's on offer, and he doesn't feel like she offers to people who know her real self often. So he's on board, but he also feels a little ridiculously honored. “Maybe not, but I'm choosing to believe I would. In any case, are we stripping for any particular reason?”
“Yes.” She reaches for the button on his pants.
“Hey, no fair. I didn't get to--”
“Early bird gets the worm,” she interrupts, dragging the zipper down and, because of her apparently ninja skills, rearranging them so she's straddling him. His pants are still around the tops of his thighs, and his dick is in her hand.
He gasps a little, both at the suddenness and at the sensation. “You did not just make a worm joke about my--”
“Oh, I did,” she says. It's a tone he'd call a purr except he feels like people make that comparison with her a lot, and he doesn't want to be one among many.
“Do I get to finish any more sentences? Just checking.” He puts his hands at her waist, pinky fingers on her hips as he lifts her and pulls her closer.
She lets him, and points out, “You just did.”
“I said I was just checking.” He strokes her belly with his right thumb, brushing over the scar that apparently precludes bikinis and then brushing over it again more slowly. “I see your point, by the way, about how hideous this makes you.”
“You're not most men.”
“No, I realized that some time around when I turned out to be Rip Van Winkle.” He shrugs. “But I suspect I'm right there with all the other boys as far as whether my eyes burn at the sight of your skin.” He pulls her a little further forward, settling her on top of where his dick is pressed against his own groin.
She grinds down a little and answers, “Well, you're not like the other other boys, but it's true, sometimes their eyes do burn. Bites aren't the only tools in my belt.”
He laughs and pushes up against her in response. “I know. You're multitalented. More seriously, is there any reason we can't do this?”
“Such as? I want to, and you clearly do, so I'm not sure what the impediment would be.” Her thighs flex and she wriggles, slick flesh against him that makes him twitch and squirm.
“I've been instructed several times that a discussion about safe sex is a prerequisite,” he explains. “Along with some profoundly unnecessary admonitions against making assumptions about anyone's interest level or thinking with my ...anatomy. Thor's friend Miss Lewis is very determined on the topic, and in my admittedly limited twenty-first century experience this is the point at which we go looking for a rubber, which I have to admit I do not have any of on hand in an abandoned factory outside Chicago on a mission.”
“Oh. No, there's no reason we can't.” She bends forward, weight on her knees and flexed toes, elbows and forearms on his chest, to kiss him suddenly, and for a moment he's puzzled—why it's sudden, why it feels like he surprised her. Then she pulls up a little and whispers, “Thanks.”
She shakes her head, but he gets it; she's thanking him for treating her like a person, not like Black Widow. Which, that's nothing new, and she doesn't need to thank him, but arguing about it right this minute seems like a terrible idea so he nods back and slides his thumb between them.
“Then why are we waiting?” He presses in between his dick and her body, searching for the place that will make her wiggle again. When he finds it, he circles slowly, and she groans and reaches down as well, lifting forward and away just enough to push his dick up and slide back onto it.
She's back down against him immediately, kissing away the groan he can't help and chuckling against his lips. “Shh, Sam'll be jealous.”
“I think he'll survive.” But Steve does try to keep it quiet; there's no reason to actually advertise.
Of course, then she pushes up, fingers gripping the flesh of his chest, and starts to move, and Steve isn't sure whether he's staying quiet or not. He also stops caring very quickly. “Nat,” he pants.
“Steve,” she says back. It's too dark to see her well, enhanced vision or not, but her body is so warm, her skin under his fingers going damp with sweat. He kind of wants to roll them, to drive into her and set the pace, but her knees are firm on the ground, her thighs gripping him tight, and really, he's happy right where he is.
And then she comes, her body arching and clenching hard enough he thinks he might feel bruises from her knees and thighs outside his hips. Not really—he doesn't bruise without serious force—but it seems like it, and it's amazing. He bites his lip to keep from shouting as he goes over the edge with her, then holds her close as she folds forward to lie on his chest, breathing hard.
Two minutes later she looks up at him. “Usually this is the point at which I kill my prey,” she says.
He strokes his fingers down her back. “Rather you didn't. I'd kind of like to do that again.” He nudges up and smirks when she raises her eyebrows at the fact he's still entirely ready to go. “Serum says we can...?”
She stretches and lifts off him, leaving streaks of come, his and hers, on his groin and her thighs, and flops onto her back next to him, then beckons with one finger as he kicks his pants the rest of the way off. “So, does this imply I'm your type?” she asks as he pushes back into her. Her ankles wrap around his ass and low back, and he drops to his elbows to nuzzle her nose.
“Maybe,” he says. “Probably. Worth considering. Almost certainly. Definitely.”
She nods. “Am I staying? Without killing you, I mean.”
“Hope so, but it's your call.” Steve moves, slow and steady, quiet this time, and nibbles his way along her shoulder and collarbone. “You're welcome to. Not just because we can use another set of skills. Ow!” She's pinched him for the skills comment, but she's laughing.
“I'll consider it,” she says.
“I'm glad you came.” He drops his head as he immediately hears what he just said. “Not like that. Well, no, also like that, but--”
He looks up. Natasha pulls him close for a kiss.
“I knew what you meant. I'm glad I came too. Now let's see if we can't do the other kind again a couple of times before morning. And then we can figure out where to look next.” She digs her heels into him and pushes him deeper, and he mutters his agreement and sets to work.
Sam, when he opens the door in the morning to see if Steve's died in here or something, raises his eyebrows as Steve lifts his head and looks at him over Natasha's shoulder, then breaks into a huge grin and turns to jog down the stairs. “Breakfast in ten,” he shouts over his shoulder. “I don't know why I keep making you breakfast by the way. Oh! Clothing not optional, that's unhygienic...”
Natasha opens her eyes and snickers at Steve's blush, then gets up to find her clothes.
Steve watches her dress, and feels like maybe today, they'll make some progress on finding Bucky. And if they don't, if Natasha's here, he's okay with that, too.