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Even In This Lifetime

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The Avengers Compound was ever so daunting, just as the Avengers themselves were. When Natasha Romanoff saw the towering building as Fury guided the helicopter to the rooftop, it had reminded her of the Red Room. There was something about the massive training facility in the middle of the woods that was unnerving. A fast-approaching storm made it look even more imposing as lightning flashed across the dark sky. There was something about the sleekness of the brick, the sterile appearance that made her stomach twist with apprehension as she took in the facility. The aircraft landed upon the roof with a jolt, but she wasn't quick to take off her headset. This wasn't the plan anyway. She and Nick Fury were supposed to meet Wanda Maximoff in the city for their next mission, not at the compound. However, the storm diverged their flight path... 

She had always hated storms. 

Fury perceived her hesitation as he glanced back at her after landing the aircraft. He always seemed to know everything, and he gestured to Wanda as she opened the rooftop door, awaiting their arrival. 

"Meet back here in ten minutes." Fury told her as she slowly took off her headset. She would rather wait in the helicopter than go into the compound, but she would rather not be out in the storm. She bit the inside of her cheek as thunder resounded across the sky, and her decision was made rather quickly. With a heavy sigh, she opened the door to the chopper and met Wanda atop the roof, following her into the building. They embraced briefly, even though it was only a few weeks since they last saw one another. Over the past year, Natasha had been working closely with Clint and Wanda. She was ever so grateful for their steady presence and unyielding support, helping her navigate her new life in America after saying goodbye to Steve and her family. Natasha had spent more than one night crying in Wanda's arms, and there were long, joyous days spent at Clint's farm with his family. She may not have gotten through the year if she didn't have them in her life, and they still laughed about the fact Wanda and Clint had tried to bring her down so long ago. 

"You live in a prison," Natasha told Wanda with a teasing smile, slinging her arm around her friend's shoulder as they descended the staircase to the roof. Natasha should very well be incarcerated, never to see the light of day again, but S.H.I.E.L.D. - well, technically Fury - had deemed her useful in webbing lies and spying on those who the Red Room would've told her to assassinate. Working for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s agenda wasn't something she particularly enjoyed, but many people she cared for worked endlessly to get her a second chance she didn't deserve. No matter her belief, however, she wasn't going to let them down. She was going to try her hardest to wipe the red from her ledger. She may never admit it aloud, but she was trying to be someone who wouldn't taint Steve Roger's with the blood on her hands because in her heart, she knew everything she was doing was for him. Even if they couldn't be together in this lifetime, she hoped one day, he would be proud of the good she had done. 

"Let me show you around. It's not that bad." Wanda grinned wickedly, leading her through the compound. 

The stark, white walls were a sharp contrast to the Red Room's that had once bled blood. An array of plants and photographs lined the hallways, and the view from the broad expanse of the windows was breathtakingly beautiful. The labs and offices bustled with life as they passed by them, but Natasha didn't let her gaze linger on anyone. The presence of a Black Widow who killed dozens of their people hadn't been taken lightly amongst S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. She was relieved when they took the elevator to another floor on the far side of the building. Wanda swiped her fingers across the screen on the wall when the A.I. system requested identification, and the doors opened to a modern, communal living room and kitchen. 

"We all have our own suites, but the team spends most of their time watching movies and drinking together." Wanda smiled, leading Natasha through the colossal room to her suite down the hall.

"I retract my earlier statement. It's very nice here." She smiled warmly at Wanda. Her suite was bigger than she ever envisioned and very much Wanda Maximoff's style with an unmade bed, dozens of books atop her dresser, and houseplants lining one of the immense windowsills. Wanda merely laughed in response, quickly packing her bag for their mission. 

S.H.I.E.L.D. paid Natasha a generous salary, and she leased a nice apartment in D.C., but it wasn't home. It wasn't somewhere she wanted to be. It was simply a place to come back to when she had nowhere else to go. She truly wanted to be in a small apartment above a dance studio with her cat and Steve Rogers because even if it wasn't as extravagant as this, it was home. 

"I don't know how Fury is going to get the chopper in the air with this weather." Natasha mused, watching Wanda rush around her room and quickly throw her things together. The rain had started to fall from the sky, pelting the windows and streaming down the glass like tears. "He's delusional if he thinks we're flying in this." She then said. They had flown in weather worse than this but never in such a small aircraft that would be jostled with every strong gust of wind. 

"Are you going to stay here then?" Wanda grinned. 

Natasha laughed. Surely, it wasn't as deplorable as she initially thought... just as long as the other Avengers weren't around. Kicking off her boots, she laid atop Wanda's bed and tucked herself under the blankets. "It's much better than the helicopter being struck by lightning." She teased. "You have fun with Fury. Call me if you crash, and I'll come to save you guys." 

"If we go down, we go down together." Wanda rolled her eyes, yanking the blankets off her. 

She groaned, but she dragged herself off the comfortable mattress and slipped on her boots as Wanda slung her bag over her shoulder. "I don't know if I agreed to such terms." She retorted, but they both knew they would risk it all to save one another. It was an unspoken agreement, one where words weren't needed. Any type of relationship was barred in the Red Room, and Wanda was one of the first friends she ever had. They were alike in more ways than one, and their friendship was something she was entirely grateful for. Playfully smiling at her and receiving one in return, they left the suite together. 

As they walked into the communal room, Natasha perceived someone in the kitchen that made her breath catch in her throat. 

Steve Rogers. 

It was only fitting that he lived there as well. 

Why hadn't she realized that? 

He was a god-damn Avenger. 

It was like she was seeing him for the very first time. She didn't hold any animosity towards him like when she met him on that New York street many months ago. She didn't have to question his intentions like when he showed up at the safe house in Budapest. He was just Steve Rogers; a man she loved no matter how audacious it was and how much time had passed. His back was to her and Wanda as he brewed his coffee, and she was relieved he hadn't noticed them. All this time, she had been longing to see him. Now, she was scared he came to his senses and hated her for all she did to him. She never deserved his love, but she was afraid to feel the heartbreak of losing him all over again, this time knowing he hated her. She began to silently curse herself for following Wanda into the compound. She wanted to run up to him and kiss him like the world was ending but at the same time, she wanted to run to the elevator and hope he wouldn't notice. Her heart was pounding and her palms were sweating... she despised herself for acting so lovestruck. 

"If you want to talk to him, you should. I'll cover for you, but all of us who live here support you guys." Wanda smiled at her encouragingly. "He still misses you."

Well, it wasn't like her to run away from her problems. 

It was all Natasha needed to step into the kitchen and unintentionally sneak up on Steve Rogers. It was all she needed to step closer to him and look into his eyes, losing herself in those baby blues she missed so much. It was all she needed to fall into his arms when he told her he loved her, and she told him that she loved him too. 

Then, she needed just about all the restraint she had to not beg Wanda for more time with him when she interrupted them. She knew it wasn't her friend's fault - no. She wouldn't have done so without reason. "Fury texted me, I'm sorry," Wanda murmured to her as they took the elevator to the upper floor. Natasha could hardly focus on what she was saying. Her mind was still reeling from Steve holding her and hearing him say that he loved her too. She couldn't seem to wipe the smile off her face yet at the same time, she wanted to cry because she didn't know when she would see him again. It wasn't fair. "He wants to meet us in one of the training rooms upstairs," Wanda said, gently nudging her in the side to get her attention. 

"Why?" She frowned. She didn't want to stay in the compound any longer than she needed to. Seeing Steve brought up feelings she had pushed down for so long. She wanted to leave, to resort to her unhealthy habit of pretending like she had the emotional complexity of Nick Fury. It was easier that way, easier to pretend Steve didn't exist when her contract with S.H.I.E.L.D. implied that. She thought about him every once in a while and cried enough about how unfair things were, but it was as far as she would revel in. She loved Steve, but compromised agents had no place in the field, and apart of her still couldn't let go of her training in the Red Room.

"No idea. We probably can't take off in the storm." Wanda shrugged. 

The training center was just as exorbitant and apt for the Avengers themselves. Unlike the Red Room, the room was light and lofty, stocked with machines and weapons she didn't know anything about. One of the only things she recognized was the sparring ring in the middle of the room, but it was one of the things she was best at. "Let's go." She grinned wickedly at Wanda, striding into the empty room. She briefly conjectured where Fury was, but the thought of sparring was enough to make her forget. It had been so long since she properly spared with someone, so long since she took a hit that forced her to come back stronger. Training with mediocre S.H.I.E.L.D. agents wasn't necessarily onerous, and the Red Room had trained her to kill. 

Now, most of her training was undoing the inclination to avert her from killing important suspects they needed for questioning. 

"I don't feel like getting knocked onto my ass before a mission, Nat'." Wanda shook her head. She was one of the strongest Avengers, but Natasha fought dirty, and Wanda avoided sparring with her after the last 'incident' that put her in an ankle brace for three weeks. 

"Well, Agent Romanoff, I would love to spar with you." 

Natasha turned around as she recognized that voice. 

"Sam!" She exclaimed excitedly. He grinned at her, and they embraced briefly. She hadn't seen him since he saved her life in that S.H.I.E.L.D. helicopter so long ago, and it was nice to see a familiar, smiling face. She saw so few of those while living in America. "How have you been?" She asked as they drew back from one another. 

"Been' busy, but it's good." He smiled. "Remember Maria Hill? I finally convinced her to get a drink with me!" 

"There you go, Romeo!" Natasha laughed, playfully thumping his shoulder. She had come to know Maria Hill quite well, and she liked the woman. However, she couldn't envision her with Sam Wilson, of all people, but opposites always attracted. 

"I see you're making yourself at home." Fury said as he finally made his appearance. 

He wasn't alone. 

"What is this?" Natasha asked sharply, the smile swiftly dropping from her face as she locked eyes with Steve standing beside Fury. Steve looked just as surprised as she was. Warm surged through her, her heart pounding in her chest, even though she had only seen him a few minutes ago. 

For a moment, it felt like they were the only people in the room...

She wished they were. 

"Your assignment with Maximoff has been postponed. We're going to do some training." Fury said casually as if he hadn't just told her she would be training with the Avengers. "You see, Captain, you're a soldier. You were taught to fight like one, but you were never taught how to fight strategically as we saw from your last mission." He said to Steve before he looked at Natasha. "This is a problem, and I want you to fix this. You also have a problem killing suspects we need for questioning, and I think Cap' can very much help you with that."

Natasha's mind was reeling. Fury wanted her to spar with Steve? Surely it wasn't one of his best ideas. She wasn't sure if she could touch him without wanting to kiss him even in a room full of people. On top of it all, S.H.I.E.L.D. still had an unyielding hold on her freedom. "The contract..." She started to say, but Fury shook his head. 

"This arrangement doesn't leave this room. I can expect you two to act like mature adults, and you'll follow your contract unless training under my supervision. Anyway, we've always bent the rules for you." He replied casually. 

"I don't think this is a good idea." She sighed. Beside her, Sam chuckled, seemingly amused by the whole situation. She elbowed him in the side, rolling her eyes when he groaned dramatically. As tempting as it was just to be able to see Steve again, she didn't trust herself. She didn't know if she could keep her feelings in check, and he was unusually quiet while she and Fury argued back and forth. She wondered what happened on his last mission that prompted Fury to devise such an arrangement, but she knew she was on thin ice with S.H.I.E.L.D.. She was the best undercover agent they had, but she was seemingly incapable of bringing in a suspect alive, making her inconsequential to S.H.I.E.L.D. who could expunge her contract. 

"Steve is one of the few people who you can't - won't - kill. I care about you, but you need to work through this awful brainwashing that's affecting your work, Natasha." Fury said. 

He struck a nerve. 

She knew he had meant to. He knew the things to say to get a rise out of her but the worst part was, he was right. She could pretend the Red Room had fallen, that they didn't control her life anymore. However, they still had her brainwashed, even if she wasn't consciously aware of it. The skills she learned were drilled into her at such a young age, and her hands were soaked in blood that she needed to wipe clean. She swallowed thickly, glancing at the storm outside and silently cursing the weather. "Let's go, Steve. You're next, Wilson." She inhaled sharply. Kicking off her boots, she slid over the ropes of the ring and waited for Steve to follow her. He did ever so slowly and when he was standing in front of her, she hoped he couldn't see her resolve start to crumble. 

How was she supposed to fight him when all she wanted to do was kiss him?

"This is going to be fun," Sam smirked. "Keep your clothes on, kids!"

"Shut up, Sam!" They said simultaneously. If all hell wasn't about to break loose, she would've laughed at the irony of it. 

Inhaling sharply, she came at him quickly. He was taken off guard, and she noted that was something they would need to work on. He didn't act defensively, rather blocking her hits to his neck, and she swiftly changed tactics when she perceived that he could defend himself well. Kicking him in the knee, he stumbled back, but she closed the space between them and kicked him in the other knee. It was dirty - cruel - but it was all she'd ever known, and she did it before she even discerned that she could've blown out both his knees. If he wasn't a super-solider, she would've done some real damage. 

"Step back, Romanoff." Fury snapped at her, but she was already stepping away from Steve and giving him space. 

Relief surged through her when she saw that he was unaffected. Their eyes locked. "Simply acting defensively isn't going to work." She said almost desperately. He needed to protect himself from her. 

"I don't want to hurt you." He sighed. It was evident he didn't want to do this, but she didn't either. 

"Steve, I don't think you can hurt me." She told him. It was a lie. He could certainly break her heart because she was head over heels for him, but she wouldn't say that aloud. "I don't think you understand that if I can't fix this, they're going to repeal my contract. I need your help." She said quietly, low enough for only him to hear. 

This time, it was Steve who came at her, and he wasn't pulling his punches. She perceived his strength, even if she was too quick for him to land a blow. For one of the first times in a long time, she felt the delicious surge of adrenaline rush through her. She wasn't strong enough to block his punches and kicks, but she was fast as hell and could land ones of her own when he left himself vulnerable. She saw dozens of flaws in his fighting and lapses in technicality Fury mentioned. However, she knew that he was going to be easy to train, and the Red Room would've killed to have someone like him in their program. Sparring with him wasn't as awful as she presumed, and he even managed to get her to take a step back. It was a handsome smirk from him that made her pulse race, and she knew it wasn't from the adrenaline. It was a momentarily lapse in focus that could've - would've - gotten her killed in the field, and he landed a blow to her shoulder, knocking the breath from her lungs. However, before he could even react, she took the pain like an antidote. She lunged at him, hooking her leg over his shoulder and taking him to the ground. As she somersaulted away from him, she quickly unsheathed her knife and dug the blade into the floor to keep herself from sliding backward as she rolled onto her right knee, her other leg balancing herself. She knew Yelena would've mocked her as a poser, and the thought made her smile briefly. 

"Enough." Fury snapped just before she came at Steve again. 

"I wasn't going to hurt him." Natasha huffed, rolling her eyes. She sheathed her knife, but Fury gestured for her to step outside the ring. 

"No weapons. I don't trust you." He said. 

She removed the array of knives and loaded guns from her waistband before returning to the ring. It was then she looked at Steve, and the corner of her lips lifted into a smirk when she saw that he was smiling at her. "What?" She asked. She was breathing harder now, her skin flushed and her stealth suit tight to her skin. She quickly tied her hair back with the band on her wrist and turned to face him.

"I can't believe I thought you were just a ballerina." He couldn't help but laugh, shaking his head to himself. He combed his fingers through his tousled, blonde hair, and she remembered how good it felt when she used to run her own fingers through his hair. 

"You really were a bit naive to all the scars." She smiled somewhat sadly. It was the first time they had a conversation about her deluding him into her lover. She would always hate herself for manipulating and taking advantage of him, but she wanted to talk about it. She longed to know his thoughts and feelings but most of all, she conjectured why he even loved her. It was wishful thinking, however, to have such a conversation with him, especially before they tried to kick one another's ass.

"Alright, lovebirds." Wanda sang from where she stretched on the mats. If it wasn't going to be Fury interrupting them, it was surely going to be their friends constantly poking fun at them. 

Natasha rolled her eyes, leaning forward and bracing one hand on her knee. "You aren't good at defending yourself when someone makes the first move." She said. It was like a widow spider waiting to fight, muscles tense and tight with diligence. It was always easier for her to attack first since she couldn't defeat her opponent with strength. She had to outsmart them, to outwit them, and the Red Room's 'rule' was that if your prey hadn't fallen within ten seconds... you had failed. 

Every agent knew what happened if they failed. 

However, it was that training she was trying so hard to let go of.  

"Don't I know it..." He huffed. 

She was going to agree with him, remembering how flustered he got when she kissed his cheek on their first, fake date, but she figured Fury would yell at them for all the talking that wasn't sparring. "When someone comes at you first, just go with them. Don't try and push back until you have your balance." She told him before she came at him again. She hooked her leg around his shoulder and to her surprise, he actually took her advice. He moved with her momentum and planted his feet firmly, throwing her off him. She lunged at him again, aiming a kick to his ribs, but he surmised her next move and caught her calf. He yanked - hard - almost sending her other leg out from underneath her before letting go. He then grasped onto her arm and spun her to him. Her back pressed against his broad chest and if it was any other person, she would've taken them down. However, it felt far too good to be held by him, to feel his vast muscles pressed against her like all those nights spent under the sheets together. Heat unfurled in her core, and she became cognizant of the fact that this was not sparring. 

"Just so you know, I trust you," Steve said softly. It was only for her to hear. 

Her breath caught in her throat. Despite all that happened, he still trusted her. 

She didn't deserve it. 

He seemingly stole the breath from her lungs, and she was speechless. She wondered how enraged Fury would be if she turned around and kissed Steve. However, she didn't want to endure the corollary of it all and elbowed him in the stomach before she did something stupid. Instinctively reaching for her knife in her waistband, he smirked at her when she remembered Fury made her disarm herself. "So am I supposed to go on missions without weapons now? What if someone starts shooting at me?" She huffed in vexation. 

"I don't think your weapons should be in such easy reach. If it takes you longer to get to them, it may give you a chance to actually think about what you're going to do. You should also fight more with your legs and that weird shoulder thing you do rather than your upper body because your strength isn't in your arms. You've just used weapons to make up for that which is understandable, but your skills surpass anyone you'll arrest in the field. You don't need to rely on your weapons because you don't need to kill anyone and to be honest, you could probably kill someone with a paperclip." Steve said.

She nodded in acknowledgment and although, she felt diffident because he already perceived her flaws, she took his advice to heart because he was right. He was Steve Rogers, the man she loved, and she would rather hear it from him than anyone else. 

She wasn't sure how long they sparred for, but all she knew was that she didn't have to hold back on him. He would come at her hard, and she could hit back even harder. She learned more from sparring with him in one session than any of the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. When Fury finally told them to stop, her legs were shaking, her muscles ached, and she was dripping sweat. If she wasn't so tired, she would've been abashed about her disheveled appearance. However, Steve looked just as drained, but he still had that stupid smile on his face as if he had enjoyed sparring with her. 

Maybe he had.

"Natasha, I don't think I want to spar with you anymore. I like the way my face looks." Sam smirked from where he sat on the mats. He looked entirely amused by the whole situation, and she was sure he found it hilarious. 

"I know. Why do you have to keep going for my face and my neck?" Steve laughed breathlessly, wiping the blood that dripped from his nose. 

She tossed him a towel from one of the racks on the side of the ring and then grabbed one of her own to wipe the sweat from her face. She was glad she hadn't put on makeup that morning and stepped from the ring to gulp down a bottle of water. "You're the one to talk constantly going for my ribs!" She huffed. She was certainly going to be sore, but in the most delicious way possible that she hadn't felt in so long. Sitting down on the mats beside Wanda, she leaned on her arms and tilted her head back, feeling her heartbeat start to slow and her breathing even out. Fury was unusually quiet, but she didn't feel like talking, so she was perfectly happy with the silence. She mustered a tired smile as Steve handed her another water bottle and sat down beside her. She wanted to lean into him, but she had to settle for the soft smile he gave her in return. 

"When are we going to do this again?" He asked. Evidently, he actually enjoyed the sparring. Although, she didn't necessarily enjoy kicking his ass, she wanted to see him again.

"You tell me. I'm the one who isn't allowed to speak to you." She teased. 

"As long as I get to see you soon." Steve smiled, and she was breathless all over again.