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Even In This Lifetime

Chapter Text

There was something hauntingly beautiful about the New York skyline. The setting sun painted the sky in an array of colors, casting shadows down below on the bustling city that never really seemed to sleep. It represented the American dream well, the dream Natasha Romanoff had been brainwashed out of as a child in the Red Room. America was a place for new beginnings and New York was a place for the dreamers, the hustlers. Despite the setting sun, traffic was still crowding the streets, restaurants were full and filled with loud conversation, and people walked through the streets with sour grimaces or bright smiles. There was really no in-between, just like there was no in-between New York and Natasha's homeland: Moscow, Russia.

America and Russia differed significantly, but there were things she liked in both places. She liked the beauty of Russia, the snowy mountain peaks and vast tundras. She liked the food (and alcohol) that she had grown up on, the taste she'd come to savor. However, she liked the people in the United States. She liked how unnervingly trusting they were, how easygoing Americans could be. She liked people-watching in New York City, observing some of the most eccentric characters she had ever seen. She liked how easily she could blend in, that no one questioned the slight accent in her voice she just couldn't seem to get rid of no matter how hard she tried. It was a fault, a tick that made her less valuable to her handlers in the Red Room because she wasn't sleek perfection like marble. However, it was one of the only faults she had, making her one of the best assets and the perfect assassin to operate in America.

It was a simple mission on paper, an undercover operation to terminate the so-called 'Avengers' and more importantly, Captain America. America's golden boy. The leader of the Avengers that threatened the very existence of the Red Room... the existence of Natasha herself. The Red Room had directed her to get to know the vile man and milk all the secrets from his fangs before killing him in her usual style. He was someone who was supposed to represent all the good in the world, but he was quite frankly a fraud. He had just as much goodness in her as she did, a cold-blooded assassin with blood-stained hands. It was going to be an easy mission to put a bullet between his eyes and disband the Avengers team. She had done plenty of missions like this in the past, and this one was no different. In no time, she would be flying back to Moscow with a suitcase of money she planned to steal from Tony Stark and maybe Captain America's shield just for the kick of it.

The Red Room had already handled the difficult part, and it would be smooth sailing from there. Natasha had a new identity as a dance teacher living in a rundown apartment in Manhattan only a few blocks away from the Avengers Tower. It would be easy for her to plant the seed for her 'relationship' with Steve Rogers, watch it blossom in the palm of her hand, and then rip it out from the roots with her signature, sinister smirk before she went in for the kill.

She would certainly relish in bringing down the man who had made her life a living hell these past few years. He was the reason for her failures, her punishments after multiple Hydra bases were brought down by the Avengers. Captain-fucking-America was the reason for another scar on her body, another reminder of her downfall. It wasn't even her fault that the Avengers were able to demolish another Hydra site. It's not like she was given specific directions to take on the Avengers - which she could do effortlessly, mind you - nor was she even directed to protect the bases. However, the KGB had to blame their own failures on someone else, and punishment usually fell upon Red Room agents. It was too bad the Red Room's brainwashing hadn't worked that well when their goal was to make Natasha hate Steve Rogers more than she already did. She hated the man the moment she learned about him because of who he was, how he pretended to be a good, righteous man when he was the complete opposite.

Everyone had a dark side.

Steve Rogers being the reason why she was punished by the Red Room only fueled her hate for him...

It was a perfect, deadly inferno that lit the spark under Natasha to complete her mission. She was determined to hurt - to punish - Steve Rogers just like he had hurt her.

What better way to do that than to be a curvy, red-headed woman?


Steve Rogers had it coming.

Natasha was thinking about all the ways she could kill him after he fell hopelessly in love with her.

She longed to start her mission the moment she landed in America, to find Steve Rogers and bump into him one way or another, to introduce herself and get on his radar. She had been reading his file on the jet and noted that he saw right through the seductive act. He liked a bold, powerful woman who knew her place was above any man. A woman who wouldn't back down from a challenge but didn't just fuck anything with a dick.

Natasha didn't know who she really was... only who she was supposed to be but frankly, it sounded easier than seducing a man, less disgusting. Believe it or not, Red Room brainwashing could only go so far. Natasha didn't know who she was because she had no place in the world other than to serve, but she knew that she definitely didn't like serving sleazy men in bed. It's not like she had any choice in the matter, however. Sex was sex and when she fucked Steve Rogers, it was just a means for an end, a weapon of sorts. She couldn't wait to use it against him, to have him wrapped around her finger and in the palm of her hand just so she could kill him for once and for all.

Before she did any of that, however, she had to find her apartment to even start the mission.

She was starting to get annoyed with the never-ending city, the hundreds of buildings that looked the same and the confusing street signs. She had never been to New York, and there was certainly nothing like it. Her taxi had dropped her off on the corner block, and she pretended like she wasn't miserably lost until she finally set aside her pride to ask an elderly woman where she would find her apartment building. With a kind smile and only somewhat confusing directions, the woman sent her on her way and ten minutes later. Natasha finally found the rundown apartment building. She wasn't expecting luxury. She had been living on the streets after her parents disappeared until she was taken in by the Red Room (she tried not to think too hard about that timing). A roof over her head and a hot shower was more than enough.

Fumbling with the key to the building in her suitcase, she hitched her other bag higher up over her shoulder as it began to slide. It was to no avail, however, as her bag slid off her shoulder and right into a mud puddle on the sidewalk.

Her shitty luck.

It was already a great start to a mission.

"К черту это." [Fuck this.] Natasha muttered in Russian under her breath.

Just as she bent down to grab her bag, someone did it for her. She straightened to look at the man who held out the bag to her, ready to snatch it away from him, utter a sharp thank you, and ignore any conversation he tried to make with her. She was tired, hungry, and probably just a bit hangry. The last thing she wanted to do was make mindless conversation with someone who didn't mean a damn. However, when she looked up and saw who it was, she quickly realized that he meant everything.

Steve Rogers... Captain America... the last person she had been expecting.

A dumb-ass.

A vile man.

A fraud.

Someone whose photos frankly didn't do him justice...

Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes met his that were as blue as the ocean. He was downright criminally handsome with tousled, blonde hair and vast muscles resembling that of a mountain range. She had seen plenty of handsome men in her life - fucked some of them even - but she had never seen one as beautiful as him. It took her by surprise. Maybe even stole the breath from her lungs. However, she swiftly wiped the shock off her face and mustered a fake smile. She had been biting at the bit to start the mission, after all, and Steve Rogers had walked willingly into her web of lies. She took the bag from him and carefully held it away from her because the last thing she really needed was to get mud on her clothes. She had already started the mission by making a fool of herself, and she didn't need to make it worse.

"May I help you, ma'am?" He asked, a boyish smile tugging on the corner of his lips as he gestured to her luggage. "I'm assuming you're just moving in."

She returned his smile, despite her wanting to reach for the knife in her boot to slit his throat. As much as she longed to tell him to go fuck himself, she had to start somewhere. This was a start, the start to an easy kill; another notch on her belt. "I would appreciate that." She said, watching his interest peak when he perceived her slight accent, a natural rasp to her voice. "I'm Natasha, but I can guess you are... Steve." She teased, falling into character effortlessly.

"It's good to meet you, Natasha." He laughed. He took her luggage in one arm and opened the door for her with the other. She resisted the urge to stomp on his toes as she thanked him and led him to her apartment on the first floor. "Where are you from?" He asked, making cordial conversation.

Natasha was good at small talk, reciting lies and reusing phrases. "I'm originally from Russia, but I've been on tour in California." She said as she unlocked the door. "I'm a dancer."

The easiest lies to tell were based on the truth.

"Oh, that's ne-..." He started, but their conversation swiftly ceased.

A small, black kitten bounded into the foyer where they stood, meowing desperately as the kitten began rubbing up on their legs. Natasha frowned, kneeling down to scratch the kitten who was entirely skin and bones. She was an assassin with a natural dislike for people but that didn't mean she disliked animals. The Red Room didn't allow them to have pets, and she would've remembered if her handler mentioned a kitten that was left in the apartment. "The kitten is not mine." She told Steve because she'd never leave an animal like this. She stood to her feet, but the kitten began to try and climb up her leg. She groaned under her breath as the cat's claws sunk through her leggings, and she swiftly bent down to pick the kitten up who started to purr immediately.

"I think the cat disagrees. I'm pretty sure you've been chosen." He replied, setting down her luggage by the door. He hovered in the doorway, evidently not wanting to impose upon her space.

She didn't mind. She had no desire to invite him in. He was easy to read and with the way he was looking at her, she had definitely gotten on his radar. She didn't want to look at his stupid, handsome face any longer without inflicting some sort of pain. "We'll see about that. She probably belongs to someone in the building." She replied as if she knew whether the kitten was in fact a she. She set the kitten down, who began to meow insistently, while Natasha dug around in her purse for a fake business card. The cards promoted her new dance studio in Manhattan that the Red Room had bought and renovated for the perfect lie. "Show me around New York sometime." She smiled at Steve as she handed him the card.

"I would be honored. I'll make sure I won't take you to the typical tourist spots." He grinned, a soft flush coloring his cheeks. "If you need help, let me know. It was great meeting you, Natasha."

She was surprised to see him blush. She hadn't even been trying to get a reaction out of him. Surely Captain America had countless women on his arm, but maybe he was still just the shy boy from Brooklyn who didn't know a damn thing about women. If he was, it was only going to make her job easier. "If you need a kitten, let me know." She mumbled to herself as she shut the door behind him and stared down at the kitten at her feet, looking up at her with wide eyes. She told herself that she'd unpack, go to the store to buy cat food, and then ask around the building to see if anyone had lost a cat. There was no way she'd keep the cat, no matter how cute and pathetic the little critter was.

There wasn't much to unpack with the apartment already furnished, and it didn't take long for her to set up her things while trying to avoid stepping on the kitten seemingly always under her feet. Natasha soon found herself at the store shopping for everything she needed and everything she didn't, including cat food and a few toys for the kitten.

Later that evening, after both she and the cat had eaten, she sat on the couch with the kitten curled in her lap purring contently after playing with her new toys. "I'm not keeping you, you' know," Natasha muttered, the room bathed by the soft glow of the television and city lights. The cat merely yawned in response as if she knew that Natasha had told many lies, and this was definitely one of them. They both knew the kitten would be paying rent with soft purrs and sweet eyes, but she really didn't mind.

The Red Room didn't need to know about their little secret.

As the television played and the kitten slept, Natasha paid no mind to either as she pulled out the phone given to her by the Red Room and typed a message to her handler, Madame B.. She was the woman who had made her into the assassin she was, the woman she owed everything to and played her like a puppet on strings. She wasn't blind to it, but it wasn't like she could escape from the unyielding hold the Red Room had on her. She had to do her job, the job she was designed for because it was the only way she would survive.

✉️ NR: Марк помолвлен. Будем продолжать следить за ситуацией и искать дополнительные контакты. [Mark engaged. Will continue to monitor situation and seek additonal contact.]

✉️ MB: Хорошо. Я буду гордиться тобой. [Good. You will do me proud.]

It was a threat, Natasha knew.

It was her life or his.

It wasn't going to be her.

Chapter Text

Music played softly from the speakers in the dance studio, the sweet melody wafting through the room. The wooden, polished floors shone in the light, and Natasha's reflection danced in the surrounding mirrors. She was alone, finally, after teaching class all day. She had portrayed herself to be many things, but a dance teacher was a first. Children had never really been her forte but to her surprise, teaching had gone well and she had managed to enjoy it. Although, she would never say that out loud. There was something beautiful about seeing innocent children smile, children never to know pain and fear; torture and rape. There was something beautiful about seeing children who weren't being prepared as the next generation of Black Widows; something beautiful about seeing children who would never turn out like her.

The sun was already setting over the city but before she locked up for the night, every teacher needed to practice what they taught. Her ballet moves were effortless and well-practiced, engraved in her brain with hours upon hours of practice. It was the perfect coverup for the Red Room because who would expect a ballerina to even know how to shoot a gun?

She leaped and spun, balanced and poised with pointed toes. Her shoes were worn like her heart - as if she had one - but for one precious second, she felt free. She didn't have Madame B. critiquing her every move with future Black Widow's watching and learning. She didn't have the lingering thought of death in her mind, the lingering smell of blood in the air that never really seemed to leave the Red Room. It was just her and the music leading her through a routine she came up with as she danced. When the song faded and silence fell upon the studio, Natasha exhaled the breath she didn't realize she had been holding as she danced her final move. The numbness returned to her chest as she slipped off her shoes and brushed strands of her red hair from her face. It was little moments like that keeping Natasha afloat, that kept her from drowning in the onslaught of waves that the demons in her mind tried to drown her in. It was little moments of enjoyment and peace that colored her world in white instead of red, that kept her from putting a gun to her head just to end it all.

Only now, she had a reason not to.

The kitten.

Well, Liho to be exact.

The damned kitten who ran around the apartment at three AM and begged for food at ungodly hours of the day. However, as much as the cat got on her nerves, Natasha had swiftly come to love her company, and she didn't have the heart to re-home her.

Liho was her reason, no matter how insignificant to others it may be.

Turning off the stereo and lights, she locked the dance studio and made her way back to her apartment down the street. Her attention was swiftly cast down on her phone when she noticed a text she had been waiting for.

✉️ SR: Hey it's steve. I was wondering if you'd want to get coffee or something. It's totally okay if not but you've been on my mind since I met you yesterday

Good. That was the plan.

She couldn't help but smirk to herself. He was going to be easy... too easy. She could see right through the white lies America painted Captain America to be. He was really just a lost man out of time, looking for something - someone - to hold onto.

She would be just that.

The beginning to his end.

✉️ NR: I'd love that. Let me know when and where. I'll be there ;)

She could just picture him blushing as he read her text.

His reply was quick and they made plans to meet tomorrow afternoon at a coffee shop in the heart of Manhattan. She wasn't looking forward to it, but she was looking forward to putting a bullet between his eyes as he lay between her legs. Only then would people realize how better off they were with their Captain dead and the Avengers disbanded. Only then would Natasha be able to sleep peacefully at night without flashbacks of the punishments that Steve Rogers had caused. In her nightmares, her mind conjured Steve twisting his hand in her hair and punching her ribcage, brutally bringing down the spiked whip on her back as he laughed sinisterly.

Revenge was sweet... just as his death would be.

Her apartment complex was quiet as she made her way up the staircase and unlocked her door, lost in her own thoughts. However, she was swiftly drawn out of them.

Something was off.

Liho was always there to greet her at the door but this time, the kitten was nowhere to be found.

She felt it in her bones, the shift in the air, and the unnerving pinch in her gut that told her she wasn't alone. Silently putting down her bag by the door, she unsheathed the knife in her boot that she always had with her. The hair at the back of her neck stood on end as she slunk down the hallway, her emerald eyes wide with adrenaline. For a moment, she conjectured if Steve Rogers had unearthed who she really was. She wondered if he had come to try and kill her before she could kill him, however, deep down she knew how unlikely that was. According to the United States government, the Red Room and KGB had been destroyed long ago.

Before she turned the corner to the kitchen, she paused with her back against the wall. She heard the shuffle of shoes on the floor, the soft exhale of someone that wasn't her. Every muscle in her body tensed and then she leaped out from the hall, her fist colliding with the back of someone's head as her knife narrowly missed their arm. Her heart pounded as there was a flash of blonde hair and a dull ache in her knee as the intruder kicked her hard. Pushing the pain to the back of her mind, she leaped forward and hitched her leg over their shoulder, dragging them to the ground and slamming her knee down onto their chest as she held the knife to their throat.

"You bitch!" The stranger - who really wasn’t a stranger - shouted.

Natasha’s eyes focused in the low lighting, glaring down at her younger sister, of all people, who lay below her on her back.

Yelena Belova.

They weren't blood sisters, Black Widows apart of the same program but with diverging missions. She had a hundred questions about why her sister was even in her apartment because Natasha hadn't seen her in nearly three months after she was assigned to a mark in Japan.

However, Yelena took advantage of her shock, twisting out from underneath her and snatching the knife from her hand.

It was game on.

They were sisters, after all.

They fought like it too.

Natasha aimed a kick to her side but Yelena retaliated, rolling forward and swiping at her leg with the knife. She jumped back just as the blade nicked her leggings, but they both froze as a loud screech pierced the air and Liho bolted down the hall after Natasha scrambled to get off her tail. "Look what you made me do!" Natasha hissed, anger twisting down her spine. "Seriously, fuck you, Yelena. Why are you here?"

Yelena huffed in vexation, standing to her feet and setting the knife down on the counter. She didn't answer Natasha as Liho crept back into the kitchen, her ears quirked back and her eyes narrowed at her owner in betrayal. "Why do you have a cat? Can I have her?" Yelena cooed as she leaned down, picking Liho up and cradling her to her chest as she scratched her ear. The cat purred contently, glaring at Natasha as she basked in the attention Yelena gave her.

Natasha rolled her eyes at both the cat and her sister. "What the hell is wrong with you?" She sighed, walking past her to grab a water bottle out of the fridge. She narrowed her eyes when she noticed the bottle of Vodka she'd bought yesterday was nearly empty. "Why are you here?" She asked again. Madame B. hadn't informed her that Yelena had been assigned to her mission and although, they had occasionally visited one another on unsubstantial missions, this was different. Yelena knew how much she needed to kill Steve Rogers, and she would never jeopardize the integrity of the mission unless it was something important.

"My mark in Japan was an interesting character, you' know. He had a lot to say about the Red Room when he found out who I was." Yelena said. She didn't look at Natasha, her eyes on the kitten in her lap.

"People always have a lot to say about us," Natasha said slowly, leaning against the counter. She was unsettled by the look in her sister's eyes. Something had happened, something heavy that Yelena bore upon her shoulders. They may have been brainwashed, but their bond as sisters had never faltered. They had always been one another's light in the darkest of days. "Tell me what's wrong. I'm starting to worry." She laughed, trying to lighten her sister's mood as her silence stretched on. Her heart twisted painfully when Yelena didn't even smile.

"He said something about us just before I killed him. He mentioned how the Red Room kills Black Widows when we aren't of use to them... how we can't do this forever." She said.

"We are useful to them, Yelena. They aren't going to try and kill us. It's not like they could anyway." Natasha shrugged, not understanding what she was implying. It was a known fact that the Red Room poisoned agents who had been compromised, injured, or had simply failed.

"I don't want to do this forever, Nat. I'm just... so fucking tired." Yelena sighed, closing her eyes and tilting her head forward, her long, blonde hair falling in front of her face.

There it was.

A crack in Yelena's resolve. A weakness. Natasha knew it was going to get her killed if she wasn't careful, if she let the Red Room see through her cracked armor. "You - we - don't have to do this forever. It's always been family first and I promise that one day, we will break free from the hold they have on us." She told her sister imploringly, desperate for her to see the truth. She needed her to keep holding on just a bit longer. "That's why we fight because one day, we will be free."

"We are only fighting to survive, Natasha. We aren't living." She said, tears reflecting in her eyes as she looked down at the cat, avoiding her sister's gaze.

Neither of them had ever been good with their emotions, but Yelena had always picked Natasha up when she couldn't stand on her own; when she had her own thoughts of ending it all. Now, it was Natasha's turn to pull Yelena to her feet, to show her the way when all around her was red with the blood of those she had killed. The Red Room could never know how weak they were, how flawed they were as sisters, but they wouldn't know because Natasha wouldn't let them. She would protect her sister just as she had protected her all these years. "Just stay here with me for a few days. The apartment is obviously not bugged, so no one will know." She told Yelena, walking over to her sister and brushing her blonde hair over her shoulders. Past the numbness in her chest, her heart thrummed as Yelena looked up at her, blinking the tears from her eyes. "I need to cut your hair anyway."

Yelena laughed, shaking her head to herself. "You should bring Steve Rogers by so I can meet this piece of shit." She said.

"No..." Natasha whined. "He's mine to kill." Many of the Black Widows had been envious that she was given the mission to terminate Captain America. He had unknowingly made enemies across the globe.

"Who said I'll kill him? I'll just fuck him and cut off his dick. That's not killing him!" She laughed, and Natasha couldn't help but laugh along with her.

She wasn't wrong.

When Steve Rogers read Natasha's text with a winky face, of all things, he had to bite back a smile as he sat at dinner with his friends. He knew that he was completely and utterly screwed because she already had him hook, line, and sinker. He couldn't seem to get her off his mind, and it was the first time in one, long year he hadn't been plagued with thoughts of his past before he had been frozen in ice like a Cap-cicle.

It had been a little over a year since he had awoken in the twenty-first century and to say he was adjusting well was an overstatement. How could someone adjust well to a whole new world full of weird, eccentric people (like Tony Stark) and technology the old world had merely dreamed of? So he worked and he fought. He was a soldier, a scientific anomaly designed to fight wars and that's what he did. He became a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent simply because Peggy Carter - oh, how he missed her - was one of the founders, and he managed to find Bucky using S.H.I.E.L.D.'s handy technology. After getting his ass kicked a few times, he helped his friend recover from the brainwashing, and then Steve became an Avenger because he realized how vulnerable the world really was.

His days all blended together until he saw red.

Red hair and green eyes that'd stolen the breath from his lungs. An accent he couldn't quite put his finger on and a voice as sweet as the pie his momma' used to make.

"What are you daydreaming about this time, Stevie?" Bucky asked him from across the table where they ate dinner with their friends.

"I actually met a girl." Steve shrugged, knowing his friends would lose their minds because they'd been pushing him to find a girlfriend or 'fuck-buddy' as Tony had said vulgarly.

"How'd you meet her?" Sam asked excitedly as Tony, Clint, and Bucky cheered obnoxiously.

Steve suddenly regretted saying anything. Some things were better off left unsaid, especially when his friends acted like a bumbling band of baboons. "She's a dance teacher. I helped her move into her apartment." He said flatly.

"She'll teach you more than how to dance." Tony winked at him, and he rolled his eyes. They had significantly diverging views on women, and he had always wondered how Tony landed a woman as amazing as Pepper. Nowadays, it was more acceptable to sleep around, but a part of Steve had been waiting for the perfect dame to come along. He had always thought that Peggy would have been his first and his last, but fate had different plans.

He was probably the world's oldest virgin by now.

"As long as she isn't a Russian spy, I approve." Clint grinned, tipping his beer bottle at him. "We caught wind about some Red Room agents in the US. Thought' the organization had fallen a long time ago but apparently some rats didn't go down with the ship." His friend said.

Steve couldn't help but laugh. The last thing he could envision was Natasha being a Russian spy. "I don't think a ballerina would even know how to shoot a gun." He mused, shaking his head to himself.

"Probably not, but I bet she knows how to do the splits." Sam quipped.

Steve merely rolled his eyes while his friends laughed.

Chapter Text

Natasha Romanova never expected that she would come to like New York.

Well, she liked New York mornings, to be more specific.

She liked running through Central Park before the smell of pollution and the sounds of traffic filled the air. Her favorite spot to run was along the lake, to watch the sun glimmer on the water as it rose through the towering buildings to the city. The waters in New York were blue and if she looked close enough, she could see fish swimming by the shoreline. She liked the trees and the vivid colors of flowers she'd never seen before, the landscaping that contrasted significantly to Russia's grey, concrete gardens. She liked the soft breeze that blew across her face as she ran, the quietness of the park, and the wildlife that bustled about at dawn. It amazed her at how bold the squirrels and birds were, how she could jog right past them and they would hardly bat an eye at her. It amazed her at how trusting they were despite how terrible people could be...

How she could never be so trusting.

People were terrible and that was a fact.

The most terrible person of them all was Captain America, and she was supposed to be going on a 'date' with him that afternoon; that is if she didn't just throw her mission out the window and kill him as soon as she saw his stupid, handsome face. His face would look even better with his throat slit but that was for a later time. She would be lying if she said she didn't want to fuck him first. After all, didn't every girl want a taste of Steve Rogers? To see if his cock was a big as it was rumored to be?

Surely that super-serum left nothing untouched.

Even thinking of the vile man had her blood pumping, adrenaline coursing through her veins, and she glanced down at her watch as the seconds ticked by. If she kept up her pace, she would set a new personal best for her seven-mile. She forced herself faster, sweat dripping between the valley of her breasts and down her back, her legs aching and her stomach cramping. She thrived off the pain, the torment and the ache. She envisioned Madame B. in her head, screaming at her that it wasn't enough, that she would never be good enough if she was this slow, if she was this weak.

But she could be better, faster, and stronger.

She could be better for Madame B., for her handlers. For the Red Room. If she just pushed herself a little harder, she would be enough.

She wouldn't break.

However, she suddenly began to hope that she wouldn't break her face as the sidewalk began to come closer and closer. For a brief moment, she wondered what the hell she had tripped on, and then her hands scraped the sidewalk, rocks ground against her elbows, and she cussed as pain shot down her knees.

"What the hell is wrong with you man?" She heard a man shout, and then there were hands on her upper arms, and she bit her tongue to avoid punching whoever grabbed her. She quickly realized someone had tripped her and that someone was trying to help her up. She didn't need help, but she sure as hell needed to pick the gravel out of her knees.

"Are you okay? I'm so sorry!"

Oh, God.

She would recognize that nail-biting voice anywhere.

Mustering the fakest smile she could, she looked up at Steve Rogers and resisted the urge to shove his hands off her arms. "You better not say some cheesy pickup line about me falling for you." She said through her rapid breathing, mentally fantasizing about all the ways she could torture him after he'd tripped her. He would sure as hell be paying for her nose job if her face was fucked up and surely, her luck was entirely fucked if she had the displeasure of running into her assignment on her previously nice, morning run.

Flush rose into his cheeks, and he seemed to realize he was still holding onto her as he swiftly let her go. "I...I wasn't going to say that." He stumbled out. He kept his eyes studiously on hers, never once straying to check her out despite the fact that she was in a mere sports bra, spandex, and dripping wet with sweat. She wished that he would because she would feel less guilty about checking him out. She may be assigned to assassinate him, but she was a woman with hormones and could appreciate a scientific specimen. He had evidently been on his morning run as well, wearing a tee-shirt far too tight that hugged his vast muscles and grey joggers that should really be outlawed.

He was handsome - beautiful even - and there was no denying that.

"What the hell is wrong with you, Rogers? Did you just trip this gorgeous girl?" A man came over to them, and she pursed her lips as his dark eyes boldly swept up and down her body.

Steve suddenly found his feet to be entirely fascinating as he shuffled them shyly. As if he didn't have bad enough luck crashing an aircraft into the ocean and being frozen for seventy years, he managed to trip the girl he was trying to court. "Sam, this is Natasha." He said, trying not to gaze at her for too long. It was hard not to when she was so stunning and so out of his league. There was something even better about seeing her without makeup, hair thrown up in a ponytail, and a healthy flush to her cheeks that had his heart thrumming.

"This is the Natasha? Damn." Sam grinned, playfully scoffing Steve's shoulder. "Sam Wilson. His right-hand man on the Avengers team." He said, holding his hand out to her.

"I thought I was the one going out on a date with him," Natasha smirked wickedly, eyeing the hand Sam held out to her. Instead of taking it, she picked the rock out of her elbow and whistled lowly.

"Oh my God." Steve laughed, running his hand down his face as his cheeks warmed. As if he couldn't find her anymore attractive, she had entirely roasted Sam better than Tony Stark ever had within thirty seconds of meeting him. He hoped he could impress her enough that she would stick around and put Iron Man in his place.

Sam laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm just gonna'... walk away and leave you two alone. It was great meeting you, Natasha. I'm sure I'll see you soon." He said, heading back towards the bench to finish stretching.

"It was good meeting you too." She called, turning to Steve with a smile playing upon her lips. She had read more about Sam Wilson than she had on most of the other Avengers, and she knew he was going to be one of the key components to bringing Steve Rogers down in all his glory. "I don't mean to interrupt your workout, but do you want to get out of here?" She asked him, hoping he would want to come back to her apartment with her. It was forward, bold even, but the sooner she had him wrapped around her finger, the sooner she could unthaw his heart and chip away at his darkest defenses. The sooner she could kill him.

"Yes, I would love to!" He said, sounding far too enthusiastic.

She smirked to herself, knowing that he was going to be far too easy to manipulate. "Let's go then." She smiled at him, leading him back to her apartment that was fortunately only a few blocks away. "So is that really The Falcon?" She asked, feigning innocence as if she didn't know where he had lived as a child, how he had met Captain America, and everything in between.

"Yeah, it is. How is your kitten?" He asked teasingly, changing the subject, as they walked down the street together.

She didn't mind the change in conversation. She knew everything about Sam that she needed to know, and she'd rather hear about Steve, hoping she'd slowly see the vile man through the cracks in his heart. "She's not mine, first of all. Second of all, I don't like cats because I just spent a hundred dollars on a damn vet appointment for her." She muttered, rolling her eyes at herself. She hated cats, but she hated people even more. She didn't understand how someone could be so heartless to leave the kitten behind, however, in a way, she knew how the cat felt. So she wasn't going to re-home her as planned but instead, feed her expensive, stinky cat food, buy her adorable collars, and spoil her with all the toys she wanted because Natasha hoped the cat would never feel abandoned again. In Liho's eyes, she saw the unwavering trust the kitten had, and she never wanted to see that light go out.

"Are you a dog person?" He asked, laughing softly.

She nodded because who wasn't?

"Yeah, me too." He smiled.

She was surprised that conversation between them came easy. She thought that Steve would be shy, but he was quite the opposite. However, she perceived how he never really talked about himself, how he wanted to know more about her and her story rather than tell his. She gave him the rundown, a semblance of the truth that she was adopted from Russia, a ballerina, and traveled for shows. She didn't ask for his story, not yet at least. He needed to trust her, to fall desperately in love with her before she took all she wanted from him. Only then would she put him out of his misery. Only then would she and the world be safe from his wrongdoing.

"My younger sister is visiting, just so you know." She feigned a smile at him because Yelena still hadn't left, not that she really minded. She unlocked the door to her building and led him inside with her trailing behind him. Goosebumps ghosted across her skin as the air conditioning enveloped them, and a chill went down her spine as she felt Steve's eyes on her. She didn't like the way he looked at her; how he regarded her so openly and trustingly. People always wanted something from her, for her to be someone, but he looked at her like she was human. He wasn't trying to figure out who she was but had rather accepted her without knowing a damn thing about her. It was dangerous and only going to get him killed in the end, but something stirred in her chest because she saw trust in his eyes, rather than lust like she had seen in all her other marks.

It was entirely unsettling.

"Hey, your sink is making a weird noise," Yelena called from her place on the couch as Natasha and Steve walked through the front door.

She huffed and rolled her eyes, very aware of the noise her sink was making. "Do you have pants on? We have company." She called, smiling down at Liho as the kitten bounded to the door, meowing loudly. "Be careful. She climbs le-..." She began but started to laugh as Liho clawed her way up Steve's legs, pleading for attention as if she didn't keep Natasha up at night by pawing at her hand.

"Should've gotten a dog." Yelena teased as she came into the foyer, very much wearing pants and a wide smirk when she noticed Steve standing beside Natasha. She quirked her blonde eyebrows at her sister, and their eyes said everything that they didn't. Yelena took Liho off his leg and scratched her ear as Steve smiled.

Natasha saw the way her sister shifted closer to him, the way her eyes narrowed, and the conversation she sparked with him. It was how they looked at a mark, the glint they got in their eyes before a kill. However as much as Yelena wanted to murder Steve, Natasha knew that she wouldn't. It was her that needed to slit his throat after all the years of torment he had caused her. It was a look that Natasha admired nonetheless, that had her smirking and heading towards her bedroom. "Let me shower real quick." She said lowly, reaching up and untying her hair. It tumbled down her shoulders in blood, red waves, and she watched as Steve's gaze darkened, his ocean, blue eyes sweeping down her body. That was the reaction she wanted. She winked at him, a chaste and bold move that made him flush as he suddenly found his shoes to be entirely interesting. He was going to be far too easy to manipulate if he was already making heart eyes at her like a young schoolboy. "I'll be right back." She practically purred.

She left Yelena and Steve alone in the living room together, stripping down and showering in warm water to ease the ache in her muscles. As she closed her eyes and tilted her head back, her mind flashed with images of Steve touching her, his lips kissing down her body, his hands caressing her curves. It made her gasp softly, her thighs quivering as heat pooled into her core. She had never been particularly ardent about having sex with a mark. Sex was sex. A weapon to be used against men who only thought with their cock. It was never about her pleasure. She'd never felt the tightening in her core when fucking, much less simply fantasizing about a man. It was delicious, and she trailed her fingertips down her inner thigh, her teeth sinking into her bottom lip. She had touched herself countless times, despite it being against the Red Room's rules because heaven knows it was never about their pleasure, and their handlers controlled them in every way possible. However, as she trailed her hand between her legs and her thumb brushed over her clit, she found herself wanting Steve to touch her. She wondered how good he could make her feel and how it would feel to look up at him as she sucked his cock deep into her throat.

Фу. Я просто убью его после того, как пройдусь на его члене. [Ugh. I'll just kill him after riding his dick.] She mumbled to herself, yanking her hand out from between her legs and turning off the water. She'd never had a mark as attractive as Steve, and there was really no other explanation for her lust that ran as red as his blood that would be on her hands. After drying herself off and dressing in a sundress that the sweet ballerina Natasha would wear, she returned to the living room to find Steve and Yelena still playing with Liho.

She walked around the side of the couch, brushing her fingertips across Steve's broad shoulder. She smirked to herself as goosebumps ghosted across his skin, and he turned to her with a shy smile.

"You look beautiful, Natasha." He said.

She could tell that he wanted to reach out to her, to touch her, but despite being recklessly bold on the battlefield, he played his cards close to his chest when it came to women. "Thanks, Steve. Want to get out of here?" She asked as she bent down to pet Liho at her feet before she stood along with Steve and Yelena.

"Do you mind if I freshen up real quick?" He asked, and she pointed him down the hall to the bathroom before she turned to look at her sister. She was going to make a snide comment about how easy Steve would be to seduce, but she found herself at a loss of words as Yelena discreetly pressed a sharp blade into Natasha's hand.

"Мы можем получить от него некоторую информацию, и тогда вы сможете это сделать." [We can get some information out of him and then you can do it.] Yelena said, her eyes gleaming with something akin to hatred as she thought about killing Steve. "Он ужасный человек. Он заслуживает того, что его ждет." [He is a terrible man. He deserves what is coming for him.]

Natasha agreed wholeheartedly, but the mission had just begun. She didn't have any intel the Red Room had assigned her to obtain, and she'd hardly gotten to know the man behind the shield. Apart of her knew it was too early to kill him... she knew. However, she knew there were other ways to secure the information she needed and revenge was sweet. He deserved to be tortured just as she had been. He deserved to see her face in red after all the abuse she endured because of him.

He deserved it all.

So what was holding her back?

Why hadn't she curled her hand around the handle of the blade and positioned herself in the perfect spot to slit his throat when he came from the bathroom?

Was it because she had waited years for the chance to kill him, and she wanted to take her time? To savor every moment? Was it because she feared the Red Room and if she didn't complete the entire mission, she would be killed as well? Was it the trust she saw in his eyes? The look that held some sort of resemblance to Liho's? Was it because he never saw it coming? That he didn't even know who she was and the affliction his actions had caused her?

It didn't matter what was holding her back because she had to make a decision now. She could hear his footsteps on the wooden floors coming closer and closer. Her heart was racing, her palms sweaty and stomach-churning. It felt like her first kill all over again. She tucked the blade behind her back and smiled at him. His eyes were shining with excitement just like Yelena's were for two entirely different reasons. She grabbed her bag as if she was going to walk to the door with him and as he stepped in front of her, she thought she knew what she had to do. Reaching up on her toes, she held the knife up to the back of his neck, her hand shaking and her head spinning. She had to. She had waited years to finally get her revenge.

But it felt wrong.

When he turned to face her, she abruptly hid the knife behind her back, smiling at him as if nothing was amiss.

"I know the perfect place to eat if you're up for it." He said.

"Let's go." She said, sounding far too cheerful. She cleared her throat and felt Yelena take the knife from her hand.

"У нас не должно быть сердца." [We're not supposed to have a heart.] Yelena whispered in her ear. She didn't sound surprised that Natasha hadn't killed Steve.

A chill went up Natasha's spine, but she ignored her sister and inhaled deeply.

She didn't have a heart. She had a mission, and she was going to do it right.

Chapter Text

Natasha Romanoff was annoyed.

Downright annoyed.

She didn't understand how a man could be so god-damn infuriating. Men were stupid and vexing, but this one topped them all. Steve Rogers should be called Captain Oblivious, rather than Captain America. He was a man, a man with a penis who should be entirely turned on by the sexy photo she sent him of her breasts that was short of exposing her nipples.

✉️ NR: Looking forward to this afternoon. Picked out this dress just for you ;)

She had texted him along with a selfie of her in a blue dress that resembled the color of his shield. It was a blue darker than his eyes, a deep v-line that embellished her breasts and her long legs. She knew she had a pretty face and a curvy body. She wouldn't have graduated from the Red Room if she didn't. Her looks and skills may be all she had, but at least she wasn't utterly and entirely oblivious, that she could take a hint, unlike Steve. His response had her gagging, longing to strangle him through the phone. She should've just killed him when Yelena gave her the chance.

✉️ SR: You look absolutely beautiful Natasha. Can't wait for later.

What kind of response was that?

She had expected a flirty text alluding to sex. She even thought that she'd get a photo of his dick in return. Maybe she'd even get to see his size because she and Yelena had a running bet that she was determined to win. She had her suspicions that the super-serum 'enhanced' his size while her sister argued that it only affected his muscle mass and cellular functions. Natasha argued that a penis was a muscle but that was beside the point.

"Is that all he said? Seriously? Send him a boob pic' and get a dick pic' in return." Yelena said from beside her on the couch, stuffing another handful of chips into her mouth as she stroked Liho.

She was flying back to Russia later that evening and enjoying the few, precious hours of being away from the Red Room. Natasha would miss her more than she would ever admit aloud. They had always been close, through thick and through thin, but it was getting harder and harder to see one another amongst the deep-cover missions and callous wars. They never knew if it would be the last time they would see one another, and she wouldn't be able to live with herself if she got hurt. She knew that she should've fought harder to keep them from taking her sister. She should've fired that gun at that Cuban airport and ran far away with Yelena. They should've run away when they reunited on a mission to shut down a lab as new graduates years later, but Natasha hadn't been quick enough - brave enough. Even after Yelena had been exposed to the antidote that dissipated the oppression Dreykov had on her mind, they knew it wasn't the time to deflect when their handlers had yet to realize what happened.

Only the timing was never right.

She should've gotten them a better life no matter the timing, a life where they didn't question if it was worth living.

"He's a prude. Maybe he's gay or something." Natasha huffed, throwing down her phone. How was she supposed to seduce him if he couldn't take a hint? Surely, her mission just got significantly harder, and her life was on the line more than it had ever been before. It was the first time the Red Room had targeted an Avenger, one of America's biggest assets. If she failed, not only would she be killed, but her failure would result in a world war that her sister would have to fight in, a war they may not win.

"He's not gay. Bi? Maybe. But he was definitely making heart eyes at you the other day." Yelena shook her head. "Go on your sweet, little date, kiss his cheek, and leave it at that. Don't scare him away."

She frowned because Yelena had been the one who'd given her the chance to kill him. Apart of Natasha wished that she would've taken it instead of hesitating over something she didn't even understand. "Where is this 'taking things slow' coming from?" She asked.

"Maybe Rogers is your way out of the Red Room." Her sister said quietly.

Natasha's heart was in her throat, and her stomach churned. It was the last thing she expected her sister to say yet something she had expected all at the same time. They wanted out... they all did, but it wasn't possible. "Yelena... there isn't a way out of this life. Even if there is, Steve isn't it." She said, her heart shattering as a tear slid down Yelena's cheek. She turned to face her on the couch, reaching up to wipe it away. It was unfair that Yelena had to return to the Red Room only to be recycled through on another mission like trash. Dreykov always said that he had saved them, that they had once belonged to the streets and he'd given them a purpose - a life. It wasn't a life they wanted, a senseless purpose of blood and seduction, but it was the life they had because they didn't have the choice. It was a life they would live until the day they died because even if they managed to escape from the Red Room, they would always be on the run.

"I know, Natasha. I'm just... it's wishful thinking." She sighed.

"It's not going to get easier, but we fight together because we are family. I promise I will never leave you again and if somehow - someway - Steve is our way out, I won't leave without you." She said imploringly. She had to give her sister a reason to fight, to charge into the fray day after day even when it was too dark to see the light at the end of the tunnel because there was a light, even if they couldn't see it.

"Don't say that because you never left me. We don't have choices. We don't even get to choose the clothes we wear." Yelena shook her head, leaning her head against Natasha's shoulder and closing her eyes.

Natasha blinked the tears out of her eyes, wishing she had been strong enough to give her sister a better life. "Maybe one day we will." She said quietly, envisioning a time where every goodbye might not be their last.

It doesn't always take a gun to kill.

Sometimes, it was a beautiful red-head in a blue sundress.

Steve Rogers swore that when he saw Natasha Romanoff, his heart stopped beating. His mouth went dry, his palms started to sweat and when she smiled at him, he had to lock his knees so he wouldn't swoon. She was beautiful - stunning. It was a shame he couldn't tell her without sounding like a fool, and he had to pinch himself because he felt like the luckiest man in the world taking her out on their second date. She looked even better than her photos although, the text she sent him earlier had forced him to take a cold shower. As she walked towards him on the sidewalk, the sunlight reflecting in her emerald eyes, he studiously kept his gaze above her chest. His mamma' had taught him well, and Natasha deserved the utmost respect. He wished that she would've let him pick her up, but he had to settle for meeting her at the restaurant where he made reservations, promising himself that he would take care of her as a gentleman should. Like she deserved.

"Yelena sends her well wishes. She's going back on tour this evening." Natasha said as she came to stand in front of him, sliding her hand into his as if it was something as easy as breathing.

Steve found himself scrambling for words when all he could do was focus on the feeling of Natasha's hand in his. He knew he was acting like a teenager who'd never been on a date before, but she already had him hook, line, and sinker. Her hand fit in his perfectly, her thin fingers between his as his thumb rubbed mindless circles on the back of her hand. "Hopefully she'll visit again soon. She was intimating at first but very nice." He mused. He tried not to marvel at the warmth of her palm pressing against his, and he trailed his thumb down hers, feeling a rough, jagged scar across her soft skin. He frowned to himself, but he didn't ask her about it, even when he glanced down and noticed that it went around her entire wrist.

"She likes to play the big sister part, even though that's my job." Natasha smiled before she thanked him as he opened the door to the restaurant for her.

She let his hand go as the hostess led them to the table he had reserved. As much as he longed to reach for Natasha, he pulled out her chair and sat down across from her, keeping his hands to himself.

Little did he know, it would only get harder and harder to keep his hands off her. He had to bite his tongue when she tangled her legs with his under the table. He had to pinch himself when she playfully stole a fry from his plate and her hand brushed against his. Most of all, he about fell to his knees and begged for mercy as she ate the dessert they shared, her lips wrapping around the spoon as she held his gaze.

No, it didn't always take a gun to kill a man.

By the time dinner ended, Steve had silently recited more bible verses than he could count. Natasha was beautiful - stunning - but she was so much more than a pretty face as he was coming to find out, and she deserved his utmost respect. She had traveled across the globe dancing on the biggest stages in the world, had a wicked sense of humor, and had him wondering where she had been all his life. He could listen to her accent for hours and never tire of her stories. She didn't treat him like a celebrity because he wasn't. She didn't get starstruck nor did she rivet her eyes on his appearance. She treated him like a human, like he was normal, despite being anything but that, and he didn't want the night with her to end. He paid for their dinner, despite her protests, and entwined his fingers with hers when she took as his hand as they left the restaurant.

"May I walk you home, Natasha?" He asked despite his breath catching in his throat because she was entirely captivating. The city lights reflected in her eyes, glistening off her red hair and blue dress that he decided was his favorite. She looked young, carefree, and happy with a smile on her bow-tie lips.

"I think I'll allow that." She teased, squeezing his hand, and together they walked down the street. "But I can't invite you in yet. It's not the third date."

He laughed, despite the fact that his cheeks flushed with color. He was a virgin, like most of the public believed, as he was waiting for the perfect partner. He'd never gotten the chance to show Peggy Carter how much she meant to him amongst the disarray of war and now, he never knew if women liked him because of who he really was or if it was simply because he was Captain America. However, despite his sexual status, knew the third date alluded to sex. "I just want to make sure my date gets home safe." He smiled at her. If Natasha was his perfect partner, he wanted to take his time. He wanted to get to know her, to worship her, because sex wouldn't just be sex with her. She deserved so much more.

"I appreciate that but don't underestimate my capabilities to kick ass and take names." She quipped.

Steve tried not to laugh. He really did. However, he couldn't envision Natasha Romanoff, a sweet ballerina, 'kicking ass.' She was toned with muscle from dancing and scars from years of drills as she had explained, but he couldn't even see her knowing how to hold a gun. Apart of him knew never to estimate a woman like her, because he had once underestimated Peggy Carter and Maria Hill, but he found himself doing just that. When he couldn't stop a soft laugh from rising in his throat, she scoffed loudly beside him.

"You're an asshole, Rogers." She rolled her eyes, playfully bumping her shoulder with his.

He smiled boyishly in response, knowing she'd get back at him for underestimating her. The walk back to her apartment building was far too short but by the time they reached the old brick building nestled between two stores, they had made plans for their third date next week. "You just need to come by the studio so I can teach you how to dance." Natasha smiled at him, turning to face him with her hand still in his.

Steve flushed softly, knowing he'd make an utter fool out of himself. He'd be too busy looking at her rather than focusing on what he was doing with his body. "I will try my absolute hardest not to step on your toes, ma'am." He said. His breath hitched in his throat as she leaned up, her chest brushing against his as she whispered in his ear.

"Oh, don't you worry about a thing, soldier." She spoke lowly, her lips brushing against the shell of his ear.

A shudder went down his spine as heart unfurled in his core, and he swore that he saw stars when she kissed his cheek before stepping away from him. Her lips were soft against his skin, and she let go of his hand to unlock the door to her apartment building. He longed to pull her close, to kiss her breathless and show her the only thing he was worried about was letting her go. However, he didn't because he knew he'd see her again, that he had all the time in the world to get to know her and treat her right. "Have a good night, Natasha. I look forward to our dance." He choked out because he had to say something before it got awkward.

"We won't be doing the lindy-hop, you' know." She teased him, glancing over her shoulder as she walked into the building, her emerald eyes sparkling with mischief.

"Damn, now I'm really worried." He replied, and he couldn't help but smile as he heard her beautiful laugh just before the door shut. He knew that he could hear that her laugh every day for the rest of his life and never tire of it, especially when he was the one making her laugh.

He walked home to his own apartment with a smile, envisioning the dances she would teach him and when he could finally kiss her. It had to be the perfect moment, the moment when the world stopped turning and it was just them. He would wait for that moment as long as he needed to, but he wasn't nearly as patient as he used to be. He soon returned home to his dark, quiet apartment just a block from the Avengers Towers, and he worked out in his private gym once more before showering. It was hours later when he finally settled down in bed and had just started to drift off before his phone rang shrilly. He fumbled in the dark, reaching for the device on his nightstand and answering the call when he squinted his eyes in the bright light and saw that it was Tony Stark.

"Someone broke into the tower," Tony said before Steve could even utter a greeting. "They stole a shit ton of information about you, Cap'."

"What the hell, Stark? How did someone even get into the tower?" Steve asked. He was wide awake now, entirely taken aback by the fact that someone managed to get past some of the best security in the world designed by Tony Stark himself. He had a dozen questions, but one eclipsed them all. Who would want sensitive intel about him?

"I'm not sure yet. All we know is that the suspect had braided red hair." Tony said.

Chapter Text

"К черту это дерьмо!" [Fuck this shit!] Natasha shouted, her blood boiling with anger as she slammed the kitchen drawer shut. Her emerald eyes were narrowed with hatred as she glared at the sink as if she could destroy the damn thing with one look. She spoke multiple languages, was one of the most elite assassins in the world, and could hack into any supercomputer. Yet she couldn't figure out how to fix the damn drain to the sink. She was surely going to add the thing to her hit-list, and it was only nine that morning. It had been hours, a long morning of screwing and unscrewing pipes that caused more harm than good. Now, pieces were scattered around the kitchen, Liho had made one of the pipes her toy, and Natasha didn't have the faintest idea on how to put the sink back together. The Red Room had rented the apartment for her, and it's not like they would call the landlord. Fixing broken sinks weren't exactly at the top of the regime's priority list.

She had one idea, however.

It was dumb. Maybe the stupidest she's had, but it was worth a try because if Captain America could save the world, surely he could fix a broken sink.

They weren't exactly dating. At least, not in her mind. He'd taken her out a few times, all surprisingly enjoyable and relaxing. He was easy to talk to, but there was something about him that she couldn't quite put her finger on, something she tried hard not to think about because it was beyond her line of work. She worked hard to gain his trust, often texting him and occasionally FaceTiming him when Captain America found time to sit down and talk on the phone. He made her job easy by always making time for her, and she hoped this morning wouldn't be an exception.

Wiping her hands on the kitchen towel, she dialed his number and leaned against the counter as the phone rang, watching Liho bat around a pipe to the sink. The kitten was growing like a weed and couldn't be happier. She was becoming beautiful with long, black hair and a white spot on her chest that reminded her of Captain America's ensemble. It made Natasha's heart thrum, and it made coming home from the dance studio much easier when she looked forward to seeing her cat at the end of the day. When her mind wandered, she found herself envisioning another life; a life as a dance teacher with a loving boyfriend, her sweet cat and eventually a dog... maybe even a kid of her own. She found that she enjoyed teaching dance to the children more and more every day. She loved her kids, their individual personalities, strengths, and weaknesses that made them who they were. She loved seeing their smiles when they caught onto a new routine and she loved supporting them when they needed a helping hand. She could spend the rest of her life teaching children how to dance and never tire of the beautiful thing that was a language in its own way.

It was dangerous, something that could easily get her killed. As Yelena had reminded her already, they weren't supposed to have hearts. She wasn't supposed to look forward to going on a date with Steve. She wasn't supposed to care for anything, much less a cat she'd run into a burning building to save. She wasn't supposed to envision another life, a life with children and relationships.

She was supposed to be made of marble.

However, even marble could crack.

Before her mind could wander too far, she was swiftly drawn from her contemplation as Steve answered the phone. "Morning, Nat." He said, sounding far too excited to be hearing from her.

He was supposed to come by the studio later that day to learn how to dance, but she was tempted to take a rain check after her already shitty morning. "Hey, soldier. What are you up to on this fine day?" She asked, biting back a smile as he laughed. It was almost contagious.

"Hearing from you just made it a fine morning." He quipped.

She couldn't help but roll her eyes because he was far too charming for his own good. "Want to help your girl out? The sink in my apartment decided to die on me, and I don't have a clue on how to fix it." She said, drumming her fingertips on the countertop and hoping he wasn't off on a mission to save the world.

"I will be right over. I'll always help my girl out." He said, and then there was scuffling on the phone as she presumed he leaped to his feet.

Something stirred in her chest at the thought of seeing him, something that had her glancing into the reflection of her phone to look at her appearance. She'd drawn her hair in a ponytail and her face was plain without makeup, and a part of her wondered if she should change out of her sports bra and the spandex she wore. Surely Steve wouldn't care, but she felt naked in a whole, new way. She bid him goodbye and hung up the phone before reaching down to pick up Liho. The kitten immediately began to purr, rubbing her head on Natasha's hand as she stroked her. "I need to get it together, don't I? He's an evil man who caused most of these scars." She mumbled to herself. She refused to even consider the fact that she was compromised, that the mission she'd been waiting so long for had gone haywire, that the man she'd been waiting so long to kill wasn't who she thought he'd be.

She was a Black Widow, and she never failed.

Deciding not to bother with her appearance, she set Liho down and watched the cat suddenly bolt down the hallway. Natasha couldn't help but laugh as she came scurrying back into the kitchen, jumping on the wall and bounding off her cat tree by the window. "Ты сумасшедший, моя дорогая." [You are crazy, my dear.] She smiled, shaking her head to herself as the cat ran 'zoomies' as Yelena had called them. She had yet to hear from her sister, but she knew that she would put them at risk if she reached out to her. It was a waiting game, a game of survival and strength they had to fight on their own. A fight against those who had raised and trained them. She hoped Yelena would find her way out, that she'd find the light at the end of the tunnel even if Natasha didn't. She would give up a thousand of her days just to give Yelena one day of freedom.

However, fate was cruel and twisted.

Life never worked that way anyway.

It was uncanny timing as Natasha's phone suddenly rang with a notification. She swiped open the screen and saw a text from Madame B..

✉️ MB: Отчет о миссии. Теперь. Я не получал от вас известий уже три недели. [Mission report. Now. I haven't heard from you in three weeks.]

Natasha couldn't help but roll her eyes to herself. Deep cover missions took time and trust, especially Steve Roger's, wasn't earned in a day. ✉️ NR: Доверие Target еще не завоевано. Однако файлы были успешно украдены из Башни Мстителей. [Target's trust not yet acquired. However, files were successfully stolen from Avengers Tower.] She responded. She had yet to read through the hundreds of documents about Captain America and the USA's government history, but it would be their downfall in the end. America had a way of twisting the knife into their own back.

Madame B. responded instantly, but Natasha didn't have the chance to read it as there was a knock on her front door. She had heard footsteps coming down her hall, and she knew it was Steve's. Like a knight in shining armor, she opened the door to him with his tool bag and a bright smile. She was finding it far too easy to soften her eyes when she looked at him, and she leaned up on her toes to kiss his cheek. "Good morning." She said, watching the way flush rose into his cheeks. His azure eyes took her in, appreciative and fond, holding none of the lust she was used to seeing.

"Liho looks like she's having the time of her life." He grinned at her as she stepped to the side to let him in, watching the cat run back into the kitchen and swipe at the pipe she found to be entirely fascinating. He playfully bumped her shoulder against hers as she put her hands on her hips and surveyed the mess she had made. "And it looks like you had a... fun morning." He quipped.

"Oh, shut up, Rogers." She scoffed, wrapping her arm around his midsection and glancing up at him, her eyebrows raised. "You' think you can fix this?" She asked.

He nodded eagerly, pressing a kiss to her forehead before he leaned down and she did the same, picking up the pipes scattered around the kitchen. This time, it was her that ducked her head and tried to think of anything else but the flush coloring her cheeks as if she was a young teenager on her first mission to seduce a target. "Of course. After my ma' died, I learned how to live by myself and be my own handyman." He said.

She was quiet for a moment because it was one of the first times he had opened up to her. "I'm sorry." She said quietly, and she really was. She knew what it was like to be alone, and it was a never-ending cycle of heartbreak. She sat down next to him as he leaned down in front of the sink, undoing the mess she had created. She smiled as Liho nudged her way into his lap, and she took the cat from him, gently moving her out of the way.

"It makes us stronger, I suppose. I just wish I had more time with her and had gotten to know my dad." He shrugged, smiling at Liho for a moment before he converged his focus on fixing the sink.

"What happened to your dad?" She asked, remembering her mission. She had one purpose in life and that was to serve the KGB. She didn't need to be connecting with him but rather uncovering his secrets to break him.

"He died. The army was testing out new warfare and it backfired." He told her. "But Stark is finally figuring out the machine. I always thought it was best to do away with the thing, but I guess it doesn't matter what I think." He said, reaching under the sink to unscrew a pipe.

Natasha's heart leaped in her throat.

That is what she needed to hear.

She needed to know more. "Yeah, I feel like that would be best as well. What is it?" She asked, trying to sound as nonchalant as she could.

"Some sort of drone that releases a chemical gas. It's not supposed to be deadly but enough to knock soldiers out." He mumbled, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip in concentration as he twisted his arm under the cabinet.

She had a thousand questions she wanted to ask him, but she knew it wasn't the right time. However before she could even find the right words to say, there was the screeching sound of metal on metal and the abrupt sound of rushing water.

She didn't know much about plumbing, but she knew that wasn't a good sound.

Steve froze, drawing his hand back just as water began to spew violently from the faucet. "Shit!" He exclaimed as Natasha gasped, leaping to her feet as water-soaked them both while Liho scattered out of the kitchen. "Natasha, baby. Hold right here." He said hurriedly, grasping her hand and guiding it under the cabinet to cover a hole in one of the pipes. She closed her eyes as water splashed her in the face and Steve leaned over her to reach in beside her. His hand brushed against hers a few times before he finally turned the water off.

She sat back on her heels, meeting his wide eyes as water dripped down their faces, soaked their hair, and drenched their clothes. It looked like they had both gone swimming. She began to laugh and tried her hardest to stifle it, but his shocked expression sent her over the edge, and she clutched her stomach, laughing hysterically. He swiftly began to laugh just as hard, a strong arm around her waist as she clutched onto him, trying not to fall over from how hard they laughed together. For one of the first times in her life, she felt free. She felt like a child, the demons in her mind fading to nothing as she laughed along with Steve. Suddenly, the mission didn't matter and she felt happy.

"You look terrible." She told him once she managed to catch her breath.

He laughed again, gently drawing her to his chest as she wrapped her arms around his neck. They'd never been so close, and she realized this may just be the perfect moment to finally kiss him, to earn his trust and his heart. His white tee-shirt stuck to his skin, brandishing his abs and muscles that rippled with every small movement he made. His strong arms held her carefully as if she was breakable, as if she was something precious to hold. It stirred something in her chest, and she leaned up on her toes, gauging his reaction. His gaze darkened, dropping to her lips and she smiled, her eyes fluttering as she closed the distance between them. He was evidently out of practice, his lips hardly brushing against hers while his hands shook on her hips ever so slightly. She needed him to relax, to let her into his heart so she could steal his soul. She nipped at his bottom lip insistently, kissing him harder as she ran her fingers through his wet hair. A groan rose in his chest, and he finally kissed her back. Her lips fit between his like a puzzle piece to her heart, and she ran her tongue along his bottom lip, relishing in the way he pulled her impossibly closer.

A breathy moan pushed past her lips, a real, genuine moan because she had never been kissed so gently. He didn't push for more. His hands didn't wander. He merely held her, and she was losing her mind because she wanted more. She wanted to know what it felt like to be wanted, to be adored rather than lusted for.

She wasn't compromised.


She was merely curious.

Just because he was out of practice didn't mean that he wouldn't catch on quick. Her hand ran up his chest but just as she ran her fingertips along his skin, there was a loud crash. They pulled back from one another, and Natasha quickly realized that the sound had been Liho jumping off her cat tree rather than the sink exploding once again. She licked her lips, savoring the taste of him as she realized just how hard her heart was pounding. She pulled back from him, although, it was evident how much he longed to pull her right back to him. "Not bad for an old man." She teased, taking a moment to appreciate just how handsome he was. It made her feel entirely powerful to affect Captain America in such a way. He was in the palm of her hand, wrapped tightly around her finger.

"You are beautiful." He smiled, leaning down to press his forehead against hers, their noses bumping.

It was something so innocent, so pure and genuine. It had her heart pounding for an entirely different reason, and she felt her breath catch in her throat. She didn't pull away from him as much as she wanted to with warning bells going off inside her head. She had to play the sweet, loving girlfriend, and she couldn't let any part of herself seep into her assignment. "I'm lucky to have you despite the fact that you broke the sink even more." She teased.

He chuckled, slowly pulling away from her to lean down in front of the cabinet and get to work. "I am going to fix it!" He said determinedly.

She sat down next to him once again, playing with Liho while she handed him the tools he asked for and held the parts he needed. They talked about nothing and everything, but he didn't say anything more about the weaponry that Stark was developing. She didn't ask, and although she would never admit it aloud, she was enjoying the intimacy of the moment.

"Did you know someone broke into the tower last week?" He asked her out of the blue after a long bout of silence filled with Liho's purring.

Her stomach twisted with nerves, even though there was no way that he knew it was her.

"The security camera didn't register anything other than the suspect having red hair." He said.

Well, maybe he did know.

However, Steve was easy to read and a terrible liar. She repeatedly reminded herself that he couldn't hide anything from her, that if he knew it was her, he would've already tried to apprehend her. "Well, I certainly wish I knew how to break into the tower. Then maybe I could see you every day and steal you away for myself." She feigned a smile, leaning into his side.

He kissed her again, a soft brush of their lips that had her wanting more. "You have me." He said earnestly.

She might've just believed him if she hadn't been assigned to kill him.

Steve had just finished his late-night workout after spending most of the day with Natasha. They hadn't gone to the dance studio but had rather spent the day relaxing, watching movies, and eating takeout after he fixed her sink. It didn't matter whether it was a night on the town or a day in. He loved every moment he spent with her and felt like the luckiest man in the world when she smiled that beautiful smile at him.

He was already falling for her.


She was everything he had ever wanted and more. He knew that there was something holding her back, that she was still trying to open up to him and give him her heart. However, he was a patient man, and they had all the time in the world.

He wasn't going anywhere.

A smile tugged at the corner of his lips when he glanced at his phone and saw that she texted him goodnight, promising that she would teach him how to dance soon. He texted her back, wishing her goodnight, even though he desperately wished that he was there to tell her in person. Instead of receiving a text from Natasha, it was his friend, Clint Barton, whose name flashed across the screen.

✉️ CB: Hey man do you have time to talk for a minute?

Steve frowned, wondering what Clint needed to talk to him about at this hour. He dialed his number, and his friend picked up on the first ring.

"How often are you seeing Natasha?" Clint asked immediately, his voice terse and short.

Steve hardly knew his friend to be vexed and angry. Raising three kids had a way of augmenting someone's patience. His stomach twisted with nerves, and he wondered what any of this had to do with Natasha. "Often enough. Why?" He asked carefully, feeling as though he was walking on eggshells. His throat was tight, and he had to inhale sharply because he couldn't envision his life without her.

"I can't find anything about her. There is nothing in our S.H.I.E.L.D. database and there is something about her accent that is... peculiar. I don't trust her, Rogers. You can hate me for saying this, but you need to be careful. We are finding more and more spies with Russian roots." Clint said.

He sounded guilty, and Steve knew that his friend genuinely cared about him, that it took a lot for him to say that he didn't trust Natasha. However, he couldn't ignore the vexation that seeped into his veins, boiling his blood. "Barton, you're a spy. A good one at that. But I can handle myself, and Natasha is far from a Russian spy." He said, focusing on keeping his voice even and calm.

It was his life - his girl. He could make his own decisions and decide who was trustworthy. He was Captain America, after all.

"Alright, man. Just be careful." Clint sighed before he ended the call.

Steve sighed as well, trying not to let his words get to him. Natasha was amazing; perfect. She had never given him a reason not to trust her, and he would surely know by now if she was a spy.

Or so he thought.

Chapter Text

It was one of those days that Natasha was quickly coming to love. It was one of those days that made her want to deflect from the Red Room and spend the rest of her life teaching dance in New York, to escape from the blood and assassinations, the spying and lying. It made her want to build her own, little life full of happiness that was children dancing and learning routines that they enjoyed, that they were never forced to do, that were never drilled into their brain until their feet were aching with bloody blisters.

It was an easy lie to tell, a flawless act that was quickly becoming dangerous because of how much she enjoyed playing a dance teacher and Steve Rogers' girlfriend.

It was a dangerous game.

One that could easily get her killed.

Steve was entirely unsuspecting as to who she really was, and they'd only gotten closer. He opened up to her more often than not, and she told a semblance of the truth that made him feel like she had done the same during quiet moments in one another's arms. She knew what needed to happen next, how she needed to entirely rip his heart out of his chest by taking him between her legs. However, she found herself hesitating. She already had her suspicions that Steve was a virgin, even if he had yet to tell her, but that wasn't the thing that was stopping her. No. It was the fact that her mission was coming to a close, that at the end of it all, she had a job to do. Never again would she feel wanted by someone with pure intentions. Never again would someone take her into their arms, kiss her forehead, and tell her that she could relax. Never again would she be able to close her eyes and feel safe. Not only would she be murdering Steve, who she wasn't even sure if he deserved to die, but she would be killing the life she'd come to love, no matter how fake it was.

She wasn't supposed to have a heart and all the training, along with abuse, she'd endured had been to prevent her from being compromised. Now, she wasn't so sure if it had ever been Steve's fault, that he hadn't been the one to scar her body when all he wanted to do was kiss them away. Everything she'd ever seen him do had been from the goodness of his heart, and he dropped everything to help someone in need. It may have been the Avengers as a whole that fucked up her life, but it wasn't Steve Rogers' who had given her a reason to smile.

Now, she couldn't seem to stop smiling as he talked to her class about his 'magical and mystical' shield. He had come into the studio to finally learn how to dance, but she had still been teaching the last class of the day and no matter what she did, she couldn't hold the children's attention with him in the room. She had stepped back and let them share their excitement over meeting the one and only Captain America while she cleaned up the studio, conversed with the parents, and prepared to lock up for the evening. It was the perfect night until her phone went off with a notification.

✉️ MB: Отчет о состоянии дел. Теперь. [Status report. Now.]

Madame B. had texted her, and it had her stomach twisting with nerves. It was the ever so stark reminder of Natasha's purpose in life and her lack of freedom. Her ledger was too red with blood for her to deserve happiness anyway.

✉️ NR: Украденные файлы были отправлены на базу на прошлой неделе. Получение дополнительной информации о целевых членах команды. [Stolen files were sent to base last week. Finding more info about target's team members.] She typed back before shutting off her phone, not awaiting a response from her handler. She sighed and like the superhero Captain America was, he looked at her with soft, concerned eyes that made her breath catch in her throat. It was unnerving at how well he knew her. She feigned a smile, trying not to think about the fact that she hadn't sent all the files to the Red Room. She would certainly be killed if they found out. She had kept the ones pertaining to the details of Steve's life, including his close friends. She wasn't protecting him from the Red Room. No. She just didn't want another agent coming after him. If he was going to die, his blood should be on her hands.

Even if she could never tell him the truth, she owed him that honesty.

"Well guys, I think it's time for me to learn how to dance," Steve said, clasping his hands together and smiling at the kids before him, hinting that it was time for them to go.

Natasha could tell that they didn't want to leave, laughing at some of their protests as their parents ushered their children to the door. She heard Steve promise that he would come back to the studio soon. After everyone had left and it was just he and Natasha, as it was always supposed to be, he didn't hesitate to draw her into his arms.

"I missed you," Steve murmured, pressing his forehead against hers.

She couldn't help but laugh softly. "It's only been three days." She said lowly, leaning up on her toes to kiss him. She kissed him breathless, and it was like the first time all over again. She ran her fingertips across the back of his neck as he gently tugged on the end of her ponytail, his other hand boldly grasping the curve of her ass. She moaned into his mouth, losing herself in everything that was him. The lines were blurred between who she was and who she was supposed to be; nothing made sense when she was in his arms yet everything fell into place all at the same time. Her head spun as he gently rolled her bottom lip between his teeth and his tongue slid into her mouth. For a brief moment, she wondered what had happened to her shy, innocent 'boyfriend,' but she certainly wasn't complaining. It felt too good to stop, and she wanted more.

More. More. More.

It was never enough.

She never had enough time with Steve, and she never would.

"Watch me." She said, slowly pulling away from him as heat burned in her core, her thighs slick and quivering ever so slightly. She had never felt so wanted, and she'd never wanted someone like this before. She wished that he wasn't so adamant about taking things slow. His pupils were blown wide with lust as she grasped his broad shoulders and pushed him down to sit in one of the chairs on the wall. "You want to learn how to dance?" She practically purred, her hands on his shoulders as she leaned over him. There was no music playing, but she didn't need it. The mission was in the back of her mind: seduce and fuck him. However, apart of her longed to please him, to give him a show only for him.

For his eyes only.

Only for his hands to hold and his lips to kiss.

Only for him.

"Natasha... holy shit." He breathed, grasping the arms of the chair.

She smirked as she heard the wood splinter and slung her leg over him, seating herself in his lap. She swayed her hips against his, running one hand up his chest as the other braced herself on his shoulder. She could feel his heart pounding. "You have to let go, to lose yourself in it all because dance is a language." She told him, suddenly grateful for the black-out windows as she rubbed her core against his, feeling his erection that made her knees weak. She could tell how long and thick he was, just how good he would feel inside her. He reached out to touch her, to draw her close and kiss her because she could see his self-control slowly slipping away. He was flushed to his chest, his breathing heavy and his blue eyes hazy with lust... maybe something more.

She made a show of swinging her leg over him to walk around the chair behind him, running her hand over his chest as she did so. "You have to know your partner. Trust them." She whispered, coming to stand in front of him again. A groan rose in his chest as she bent down and slid her tights off slowly, a sultry sway to her hips as she was left in mere spandex where a blade was hidden in the hem. He was in the palm of her hands.

She could do it.

She could end it all right here - right now - before it went too far, and she was at risk of really being compromised.

It crossed her mind as she straddled him again, relishing in his reaction as he whispered her name. She shifted in his lap, on her toes as she hooked one leg around his shoulder and slid up his body, landing gracefully on the side of the chair. "Dancing isn't hard. You just have to want it." She told him, and she wasn't referring to dancing. She kissed his neck as she stood behind him, one hand reaching around to rest on his chest while the other fiddled with the blade in her spandex. It would be easy; the Red Room had made it so with dark windows and soundproof walls. All she had to do was kill him and run. She wouldn't make him suffer as she had planned. It would be quick, a moment of pain before the blade severed his jugular and the light faded from his beautiful, azure eyes. Maybe she'd even tell him how sorry she was.

She technically had everything she needed to complete her mission.

However, she could always use more.

More intelligence.

More information.

More of Steve, more of the life she wished she could live forever.

She moved her hand away from the blade, deciding she wouldn't kill him yet. Time was dangerous... waiting was even more so. It had been taught to her at a young age, that the quicker a mission was completed, the less risk of failure - of being compromised. However, she wouldn't fail; she would survive. She had never failed before. A few more weeks, maybe a month, wouldn't hurt. She, at least, needed to know what Captain America was like in bed.

She stood in front of him again, taking his hand and pulling him up from the chair. He moved with her without a second thought, and she wondered how far he'd follow her across the universe.

Steve knew he'd follow her to the ends of the galaxy, as far as the vast universe went. He was in deep, feeling feelings that he'd never experienced before. Not even with Peggy. There was something about Natasha that was like breathing for the first time after being deprived of oxygen, emerging from the ice and finally feeling warmth. It enveloped him entirely, and he just saw her. Everything that she was. There was apart of her that she wasn't letting him see, stories to her scars that she hadn't told him. However, he would wait. He was a patient man and eventually, he would put together the puzzle pieces of her story. "You are beautiful. I am so God-damn lucky." He breathed, his heart in his throat as she smiled that smile at him. He had never envisioned that learning to dance would involve Natasha giving him a lap dance and striptease, but he sure as hell wasn't going to say no. He, however, neither had experience with dancing nor sex, and he suddenly wished that he did because he longed to take her breath away, to make her feel beautiful. She deserved nothing less. "'Tasha... I don't know what I'm doing." He said, his mind whirling as he tried to find the words he wanted to say when all he could think about was how her hips swayed.

"I will teach you." She said, drawing her arms around his neck as he spread his hands out on the arch of her lower back, his fingertips slipping under her shirt and caressing her soft skin. He relished in her soft sigh, the way she leaned into him.

"That's... that's not what I meant." He said lowly as he flushed, embarrassment rushing through him. He wanted to give her the world, to blow her mind. He'd wanted to wait until he met the right partner who was suddenly standing in front of him, but he failed to consider his inexperience when he just wanted to pleasure her.

"I know, baby. I will teach you." She said again, kissing him softly, assuredly.

He really was the luckiest man in the world, and he was so happy that he could die.

"I'm worried about Rogers'." Clint said as he barged his way into Nick Fury's office, his eyes burning with fire and determination.

He was a spy, and he never missed a damn thing. It had been engraved in his brain to trust his instincts, to let the feeling in his gut guide him because usually, that feeling was right.

He knew he wasn't wrong this time.

"What the hell are you talking about, Barton? You better have a good reason for bursting into my office like this." Fury said, spinning around in his chair to glare at him, his eye narrowed and his arms crossed over his chest. "Aren't you supposed to be retired?" He snapped.

Clint shook his head, stepping further into the room and shutting the door behind him. He had never been one to back down. "Steve's girlfriend, Natasha Romanoff. I think she's one of the Russian spies we've been tracking." He said, figuring that there was no use in beating around the bush. He didn't trust the woman who had suddenly waltzed into his friend's life, and there was something about her that put him on edge, especially after the break-in at the Avengers Tower.

It had to be her.

Clint couldn't help but wonder how no one had realized it yet.

Steve was too blind with love, Tony had shrugged it off as a mere coincidence, and the others hadn't even bothered to watch the surveillance video. It was no coincidence that the woman in the video moved just like Natasha, little movements that Clint had noticed, seemingly obvious to him while the others were oblivious.

"You do realize if Rogers finds out that you're investigating his girlfriend, he's not going to like it." Fury said flatly as if the conversation bored him. Maybe it did. He'd never met Natasha, if that was even her real name, nor had he heard her story about being a Russian dancer, which Clint found to be frankly bullshit.

"If I end up saving his life and our national security, he may just be thanking me." He replied, a wave of relief surging through him hearing that Fury at least gave him the clearance to conduct his own undercover operation. If she was indeed a spy, he would have to be careful because not only did she have sensitive intel on Captain America, but she was deadly. He had heard stories about Russian agents from an organization called the Red Room, which he found to be the stupidest name but that was beside the point. They were brutal, ruthless, and brained washed, meaning they'd carry out their orders no matter the circumstances.

"I'm not responsible if this all goes to hell. You're on your own, Barton." Fury said, nodding at the door as if to dismiss him. "Maybe distract yourself with a golf or something that you old, retired people do."

"I did and I played... shot... 18. Just can't seem to miss." Clint said with a laugh, knowing his boss's cold demeanor was simply an act and left the office with a self conceded smile. He had a plan, albeit the ghost of one, but he'd have to get his wife to agree to it first.

His kids were going to learn how to dance.

Chapter Text

The rain poured outside, thunder rumbling loudly and lightning flashing vividly across the dark sky. Storms had always been unsettling to Natasha Romanoff, a deep-seated and unacknowledged fear that she couldn't explain; something that most likely stemmed from her training in the Red Room. The clock on her nightstand blinked some ungodly hour in the morning, but she couldn't seem to fall back asleep as she lay on her back with Liho tucked between her head and the pillow. The cat was her own slice of companionship, a beacon of light glowing in the shadows, like the white fur on her chest. She resembled all the good in the world that Natasha never got to experience, a kind of love that would never falter. She reached out and ran her fingers through Liho's soft fur, a fond smile gracing her lips as the cat purred contently and shifted closer to her.

There was another streak of lightning across the sky, and Natasha tensed as there was a loud crack that shook the apartment walls. She was envious of her cat who slept soundly through it all. She was supposed to be unbreakable. She was supposed to be unshakable. She was the best of the best, Madame B. and Dreykov's pride and joy; their most faithful weapon.

At least, that's who she was supposed to be.

She was supposed to be so brainwashed that she would do anything to fulfill her assignments, that she would serve the Red Room without question. She was supposed to be so brainwashed and detached that the brutal training she experienced in the Red Room never got the best of her, that she would forget it all ever happened and all that would be left were the lessons learned. However, no amount of brainwashing would ever erase years of torment, years of mental and physical scars, of pain that never really seemed to fade.


It was always there, and her assignment to kill Captain America had brought the wretched memories to the forefront. The long days in the training room flashed through her mind, a man wearing a mask that morphed his features to look like Steve Rogers as he shoved her to the ground, yanked her pants down, and told her exactly how to pleasure him while she tried not to cry. The sound of a whip that sounded eerily like lightning cracking on her heels when she didn't point her toes enough as she danced, cracking on her back as the man dressed like Steve told her that if she killed him, the pain would cease. She remembered the graduation ceremony, the pinch of a needle before everything went black, and she woke up with an unbearable ache between her legs. She remembered watching another Widow, Inessa, whom she had worked with many times, take a drink of her water before suddenly collapsing to the ground. Blood came from her mouth as she screamed in pain before she went still and death stole the light from her eyes. "This is what happens when you fail. This is what happens when you disobey. You can't run nor can you hide. We will find you before you even realize we were looking." Dreykov had shouted, kicking Inessa's body as he walked past her and demanding them to clean up the mess.

Oh, how she remembered it all.

Time couldn't heal all wounds, especially ones cut deep into flesh and carved into the mind.

She remembered it all, but Steve Rogers... the real one... was slowly helping her replace them with new ones. The flaw in the Red Room's method was that her Steve always made sure she was comfortable and taken care of, that she was safe and touched her gently rather than forcefully. He never shoved his hand down her pants and demanded she moan for him. He never tried to overpower her nor beat her. Steve Rogers was genuine, replacing the horrid thought of him with someone beautiful. Someone caring and kind. Someone who protected her when another guy grabbed her ass at the bar, and she stood in front of him to keep morning headlines from reading 'Captain America in jail for breaking a guy's face!'

"This is ridiculous. I can't think straight." Natasha grumbled to herself, running her hand down her face at the thought of seeing Steve. Her Steve. She longed to see him then and there, that maybe he'd protect her from the raging storm outside. As long as her affection for him didn't tamper with her ability to put a bullet in his brain, she would be fine.

She wouldn't fail.

She had cared for people before that she ended up having to kill.

This would be no different.

She reached for her phone, tapping on his name and deciding to text him because calling looked frankly quite desperate.

✉️ NR: I know you're probably asleep but I've been thinking of dance routines to teach you

She sent the text, conjecturing the lie because the last thing she needed to tell him was, 'Hey I'm kinda' sorta' scared of storms and having horrible flashbacks. I hope you're awake to make me feel better.' She didn't expect a response. She knew Steve got up early to work out but surely it was never this early. However, when her phone rang out with a notification, her pulse pricked and she swiftly swiped open the text from him.

✉️ SR: Should I be scared that you're plotting so early in the morning? Why are you awake

He had texted her, and she bit back a smile. She was always plotting something. Maybe he was coming to realize that.

✉️ NR: I could ask you the same thing Rogers

She typed back, turning the conversation around on him because she couldn't tell him the truth.

✉️ SR: I saw your name on my phone and got worried something was wrong Romanoff

He replied, and her heart twisted. When had someone ever worried about her that wasn't her family? He was supposed to be someone she hated and someone who was supposed to simply want what was between her legs. He wasn't supposed to care.

✉️ NR: I just can't sleep as usual

She responded, unable to muster a response because she was supposed to be Natasha Romanoff, a ballerina without any baggage.

✉️ SR: Want me to come over?

Well, of course, she did. However, she wasn't going to specifically tell him that.

She wasn't that desperate... she wasn't.

✉️ NR: You don't have to lol it's storming anyways

She replied, rolling over to press her face into her pillow, trying not to smile at the thought of seeing him despite the storm raging outside. She told herself that she could still kill him when needed to. She had never cared about a mark before, but she had been forced to kill other girls in the Red Room with whom she had shared bread and juice with, girls she'd grown up with.

She still could kill him.

She would when the time came.

✉️ SR: I want to see you and I'm maybe sorta worried about you. I'll be there in fifteen

✉️ NR: You don't need to worry about me

He didn't. He should be worrying about himself.

✉️ SR: I'm on my way Tash ❤️

She swiftly rolled out of bed, earning a contentious meow from Liho who moved to curl up on her pillow. She freshened up in the bathroom as if Steve would really care what she looked like. It was so early in the morning that the sun had yet to even rise, but nonetheless, she pulled her hair back in a ponytail and answered the door when she heard Steve knock a few minutes later. His sweatpants were damp from the rain and droplets dripped off his raincoat onto the floor, but she didn't care as he cupped her face and kissed her as if he hadn't seen her in years. Oh, she didn't care at all. Not when he stole the breath of her lungs and his tongue slid against hers, not when she pushed his coat off his shoulders so she could press closer to him and run her fingers through his blonde hair tousled with sleep. Not when heat deliciously diffused through her core, chasing away the chilling nightmares and flashbacks.

"I'm falling in love with you." He breathed against her lips as they parted. "I love you, actually. I've already fallen... probably the moment I met you."

His eyes were earnest and bright, brimming with trust and adoration that made Natasha's heart clench painfully as she thought about the light going out in his beautiful eyes, his eyes that looked at her with so much kindness. "Yeah, I figured that out when you ran through a storm in the middle of the night to come over." She laughed, kissing him softly before she pulled back and rested her forehead against his. "I love you too." It was easy to say. She had said it plenty of times before to marks, and this was no different.

It wasn't.

He kissed her again, desperate and raw as if he was imploring her to see the truth, imploring her to feel how much he loved her. She blocked out the warning bells in her head screaming at her that this was dangerous, that she was dangerously close to being compromised. She knew that she would never feel this way again, and she figured that she should enjoy it while it lasted. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she locked her legs around his waist as he grasped her thighs and lifted her effortlessly. His muscles were like a mountain range, strong and rippling against her soft skin as her tee-shirt rode up her abdomen. He groaned into their kiss as she rolled his bottom lip between her teeth and ran her tongue across his.

God, she wanted him.

She wanted all of him.

She wanted to take what was hers, and she wanted him to take what was his. She wanted to forget the Red Room and all they had taught her. She wanted to feel, and she wanted Steve to teach her how to do that.

"I love you. I love you." Steve said clearly, his strong arms holding her tight and carefully all at the same time.

She pulled back to look at him, cupping his face with her hands. She could see the relief in his eyes, the man out of time finally finding his footing in the twenty-first century with a woman he loved, a woman he had yet to realize would be his entire downfall. "I love you too so take me to bed." She breathed, kissing the sharp arch of his jawline as he swiftly made his way to her bedroom. She knew what was about to happen, how they wouldn't be able to turn back and her mission would be complete. How she was going to steal Steve Rogers' virginity and steal his soul. He may take apart of hers, but she'd never let him have it all. She still had a mission because it was her life or his, and it wasn't going to be hers.

Her bedroom was bathed by the soft glow of the bedside lamp, and he gently laid her down on the bed, his eyes lingering on the curves of her body. He was nervous, she could tell. She didn't remember her first time, a brutal and unforgiving flashback she had tried so hard to forget, but she wasn't going to let him feel that way. He didn't deserve that; he deserved so much more. "You can look... you can touch me, Steve." She told him assuredly, goosebumps ghosting across her skin as he leaned over her and kissed her hips where her shirt had rode up. It felt good. She liked it. She didn't feel violated nor dirty, and she ran her fingers through his soft hair, laying her head against the pillows and closing her eyes. For the very first time, she could relax and enjoy.

"I want to make you feel good." He murmured against her skin, his big hands, shaking ever so slightly, running over her thighs as he kissed her exposed collarbone. "Please tell me what to do. I want to make you cum." He sounded breathless, his thick and long erection pressing against her leg. She wondered how he would feel inside her.

His words shook her down to the core. She'd never been asked what she liked because it had never before been about her pleasure, and her eyebrows furrowed because she really didn't know. She only knew what she liked when she touched herself. If it was any other mark, she would've already taken control, sucked his dick, and rode him until he came and she could get the hell away from him.

This was different, but it had always been different with Steve.

"Okay..." She said, trying to sound more confident than she felt. She took one of his hands in hers, guiding it under the hem of her pajama shorts to touch her bare. Her breath hitched as his fingers brushed against her clit, and he swiftly got the hint. "Right there." She sighed, pleasure slowly rolling down her spine as he rubbed at her, wetness seeping between her legs. It was so much better than when she touched herself, and his eyes watched her intently, keen on pulling her apart at the seams. She closed her eyes because looking into his felt too intimate, however, they snapped open as he kneeled between her legs and began to pull down her shorts. She knew what he was planning to do. "You don't have to." She said because she had never let someone go down on her before. It was probably a trust thing - something along those lines, at least. She would never admit it aloud, but she trusted Steve, and she'd let him.

"I want to if you're okay with this. You know, I've waited seventy years for this." He smirked boyishly up at her, kissing the inside of her thigh softly. In the glow of the bedside lamp, his blue eyes were blown wide with desire and love, striking her to the core, igniting the ball of heat in her abdomen. "Read a lot about this... everyone needs practice, right?"

"Of course, I'm okay with this." She said, taking off her shirt and pushing down her shorts until he got the hint to finish pulling them down her legs. "Steve, you're ridiculo-..." She began to say, but she broke off in a gasp as he thrust his tongue inside her and his lip rubbed against her clit. He was bold, his hands reaching underneath her to cup her ass and pull her closer. Her head spun, heat diffusing through her core entirely as her toes curled. "Oh, that feels good." She gasped, partly to herself because it was such a foreign yet pleasurable feeling. She had doubts if it was really his first time but his tongue was wicked.

"Fuck, Nat. You're beautiful." He said against her, dragging his tongue through her folds before focusing on her clit.

She closed her eyes as a ripple of pleasure rolled down her spine, and she arched her hips into him, wanting more. He happily obliged, tilting his head and lapping at her clit, sucking softly and licking persistently. The tightening in her abdomen was nearly unbearable, and she combed her fingers through his hair, sinking her teeth into her bottom lip, waiting for him to tell her when she should moan as her orgasm lit inside her like an inferno. It'd never felt this good before, his hands on her ass, his tongue thrusting into her and his lips sucking at her clit.

Until she realized it.

He wasn't training her for the Red Room. He hadn't been assigned to sleep with her. He was doing this because he loved her, because he wanted to pleasure her. She could let go. She could let him hear her.

She should because he loved her.

"Steve..." She moaned quietly, and he groaned in response as if it turned him on. She couldn't seem to hold still as he drew her closer and closer to cumming, licking and sucking, caressing and thrusting. Her eyelashes fluttered, and her back arched as heat shot down her spine, between her legs and straight to her toes. Her head was spinning and her thighs trembled, her fingers gently tugging on his hair as she moaned again, more high pitched than before; a real, genuine sound.


She was right there.

Every muscle in her body tensed and then released. She was floating, her core clenching and quivering around his tongue. Her breath came in gasps, breathless moans rising in her throat as he moaned himself, tasting all that she gave him. She felt beautiful and powerful, her eyes rolling to the back of her head as she rode out her orgasm. Her hips jerked as over-sensitivity surged through her, and she tugged on his hair, a sharp cry falling from her lips as he licked her clit once more before pulling away and kissing her inner thigh. He took his time as he released her ass and sponged loving kisses up her abdomen, across her scars and her breasts until he finally kissed her lips. Only then had the feeling returned to her toes and her hands had stopped shaking as she wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him back and tasting herself on his tongue. "I love you." She breathed against his lips, and she didn't know why. Her mind was still hazy from her orgasm.

It was really the only explanation.

"I love you too." He smiled, brushing her hair from her cheek as he kissed her back. He was still fully dressed and that just wouldn't do.

She pulled away from him to push him onto his back. He moved effortlessly, as if he couldn't snap her neck with the flick of his wrist, and watched in awe as she tugged off his shirt and moved down the bed to pull his sweatpants off. He wasn't wearing boxers and oh, that super-serum left nothing untouched. Yelena had very much lost their bet. "Do you know just how gorgeous you are?" She practically purred, her eyes taking him in. All of him. She felt like the luckiest girl in the world to have a man like him underneath her, all muscle and power. He was a piece of art, a masterpiece and utter vision that was all hers. He would only ever be hers to touch, his first and his last. The fact of the matter turned her on, and she felt searing heat in her core once again.

"N-Natasha..." He breathed, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he fisted the sheets.

His cock was rock hard and dripping pre-cum, resting on his stomach and begging for attention. Her attention. She wanted to taste him, which suddenly didn't make sense because she had never liked giving blowjobs. This was different, however. Steve was different. There was plenty of time for that though, at least that's what she told herself, and she straddled his hips, reaching between them to pump his cock. He moaned, his hands desperately grasping her hips, gently despite it all. He was big, her fingers struggling to wrap around his length and the thought of having him inside her overpowered her sense of logic as she guided him between her legs. She leaned down and kissed him as she sunk down onto his cock, the slow stretch delicious and sending shivers of pleasure up her spine. He moaned and groaned into her mouth, whispering how beautiful and perfect she was.


It was all wrong.

She was too close to being compromised, far too close to throwing her mission to the wind.

However, she couldn't find the will to care. Not with him buried so deep inside her, his hands in her hair. "I love you. God, I love you so much." He said, and she rose up on her knees to sink down on his cock.


She moaned. She couldn't hold back as he wrapped his arms around her back, kissing her as if his life depended on it.

Maybe hers did.

Steve could hardly keep his eyes open as she rode him, rolling her hips as he lost himself in the rhythm, of being so deep inside her that he couldn't even remember his own name.

"Steve." She reminded him, moaning above him as she closed her eyes.

He didn't want to take his off her, pleasure diffusing through his abdomen, twisting up his spine and down his thighs. She was worldly, a goddess who deserved everything. He would try his hardest to give her that. Suddenly, it all made sense, and his life came together. It all had been for Natasha and if he had to be frozen in ice again just to be with her, he would without a second thought. The wait was worth it, and she was his world now, the center of it all. He slid his hands down her back as she sat up and braced herself on his chest, her breasts swaying and nipples perk. He leaned up to mouth at them, knowing he wasn't going to last long at all but that he wanted her to cum again. "I want you to cum." He groaned. "Please tell me how, Tash." He gasped, his cock flexing inside her. She was so warm, so tight and wet. He wasn't afraid to ask her what she wanted. She owned his soul. He'd do anything for her.

Grasping his hand in hers, she guided his fingers to her clit. He was clumsy at first, struggling to keep the rhythm with her hips but when he finally found her clit, he couldn't help but moan as he watched her, her lips parted and back arched as he rubbed her. He could cum just by looking at her as she rode him. He was about to, his toes curling and his abs tightening. It was nearly unbearable as his heat surged through his cock. However, he waited. He waited for her to cum, her pussy quivering around him as she moaned his name breathlessly, soft cries pushing past her lips as she tried to keep riding him. It pushed him over the edge, and he closed his eyes as he came deep inside her, his cum filling her and leaking down their thighs. He cried out her name repeatedly and held her close, coming down from his high minutes later as his muscles relaxed.

Neither of them moved nor spoke as they caught their breath, Natasha's head tucked into the crook of his neck as he ran his hands down her back and across her thighs. It was perfect. He was right where he was meant to be.

It was when he kissed her forehead that she moved off him and he sat up to wrap his arms around her, kissing her nose playfully. She laughed, a beautiful sound that struck his core, and arched closer to him. "Take a bath with me." She said, and he got off the bed to lift her into his arms, making her laugh again.

He wanted to hear that sound for the rest of his life.

However, there was suddenly a shrilling sound that rang through the bedroom and the sound of claws scrambling on the hardwood floors. "Ah shit." He frowned, realizing he had accidentally stepped on Liho's tail. She had been sleeping on the floor, her usual spot on the bed otherwise occupied. He felt guilty, both his fault, but he didn't want to put Natasha down to comfort the cat.

"We'll make it up to Liho later." She told him, brushing her lips against the shell of his ear as he held her. "Right now, you're mine."

He was certainly all hers.

Chapter Text

Steve Rogers was tired.

He was so god-damn tired.

The endless missions, the goodbyes that could very well be the last... he desperately needed a break.

A vacation, really.

A vacation with Natasha certainly sounded amazing. Somewhere warm where he had her all to himself, where they could lay on the beach all day and make love all night.


He could dream.

He couldn't take a break from being Captain America. He couldn't ask the bad guys to stop trying to blow up the world for one god-damn second. He probably couldn't even beg Nick Fury to give him the day off. It was mission after mission, assignment after assignment. One, big endless cycle that was sure to break him.

"Do you have to go?" Natasha mumbled, her lips brushing against the nape of his neck as he held her close, their legs tangled under the sheets and her head tucked under his chin. Her thin fingers fisted in his tee-shirt, and he closed his hand around her own.

He'd just gotten the call from Fury that he was being assigned to a S.H.I.E.L.D. strike somewhere south of Brazil where a growing terrorist cell had been discovered. They had all the weapons they shouldn't, a looming threat to major cities around the globe. Bringing down the bad guys was something Steve used to thrive off of, something he lived for and had been made for. Now, he lived for Natasha; the woman he would marry one day. Untangling himself from her was hard on normal mornings, dragging himself out of bed to train while she taught morning dance lessons. It was even harder - nearly impossible - on days like these when he had to leave for weeks at a time, when things may go horribly wrong, and he might not return home to her. He hated leaving her, but he had to protect her because if the terrorist cell decided to attack New York and she got hurt - or worse - he wouldn't be able to live with himself knowing he could've prevented the attack. He had to protect her. "I wish I didn't have to go, but it'll go by fast." He told her, kissing her forehead and running his fingers through her red hair, watching the curls bounce back into place.

She was his everything.

He had less than two hours to be in Washington D.C., but he was right where he was meant to be with her in his arms. However, he sighed and forced himself to let her go, to drag himself out of bed despite her groan of protest. "Let me make you breakfast before you go," Natasha said, her voice still thick with sleep. It was only five that morning, and he felt bad she had been awoken by the call from Fury.

Whether she realized it or not, her sleep was always restless. There were times Steve would awaken to her shaking and clinging to him in her sleep, her hands desperate as whimpers and soft cries pushed past her lips. It only took him whispering her name and kissing away her tears to rouse her from the nightmares, to ease her grip on him and her violent shuddering. She had never entirely awoken after them, and he wondered if she even knew that she had such vivid nightmares. He had yet to muster the courage to talk to her about it because there was something about her past that she wasn't telling him, something her scars said that she didn't. He had never seen such marks like hers, deep scars across her shoulders, her back, and her ankles. Scars that looked suspiciously like bullet and knife wounds. She had told him her upbringing in Russia as an orphan was cruel, but he didn't really know her story.

He loved her, however, and he was a patient man.

He knew she would open up to him eventually.

"No, love. It's okay. Go back to sleep." He said as he packed his things, scratching Liho between her ears as the cat brushed up against his leg. It wasn't 'official,' but he moved in with Natasha nearly a week ago after they had slept together for the first time. It was his own slice of heaven, a place to call home at the end of the day. For the very first time since he had awoken from the ice, he had a place that he looked forward to returning to. The only downside was that it was even harder to leave.

Leaning over Natasha in bed, he kissed her forehead one, last time, wishing more than anything that he could bargain for more time with her. "I love you, Nat. I'll call you tonight if I can." He told her.

She stole the breath from his lungs as she turned her head and kissed him softly. "I love you too. Come back safe, okay?" She murmured.

His heart clenched painfully.

He could never make that promise.

Not only had Clint Barton managed to convince his wife, Laura, to let him sign Lila up for dance lessons with a potential Russian spy, but Wanda Maximoff had gotten dragged into the undercover operation as well.

Well, it was all Wanda's fault, really.

She had meddled in his business in her most annoying yet endearing ways and uncovered files of the Red Room that Clint had in his office. She became a family friend of the Barton's after her brother gave his life to protect Clint and a young boy. Wanda was like a second daughter to him and Laura, insisting on accompanying him to the dance studio and Lila's future lessons. Clint had grudgingly agreed because if things went south, Wanda could protect Lila with her powers better than he ever could with an arrow - as much as he had hated to admit it to himself.

Lila was beaming with excitement at the thought of learning how to dance, and Clint was trying to act just as excited when in reality, he was on edge. A spy was a spy, and the good ones knew when they were being watched. If Natasha really was an agent trained by the Red Room, she was dangerous.

Everything was at risk.

The only thing he knew was that he and Wanda could protect Lila.

If he didn't, he wouldn't have let her take lessons from Natasha. However, he didn't know if he could protect Steve. If Natasha realized that she was being watched, that someone was onto her, she could diverge missions and assassinate Steve the moment she had the chance to, no matter the cost. At least for now, he was safe as Clint convinced Fury to assign Steve to a mission in Brazil to give him the chance to tail Natasha.

The dance studio seemingly glowed in the soft morning light, snow blanketing the city of New York as winter officially began. The cold had never bothered him before, but he knew how much Wanda hated it, the girl next to him bundled tightly with thick gloves and flushed cheeks. Despite her grumbling about the snow, she was far too excited about their secret, little mission, and Clint hoped she would be able to tone it down or surely Natasha would get suspicious. "Ready?" He asked Wanda quietly as they made their way to the entrance. It was bigger than he had thought, the sign flashing 'Elegance Studios' with apartments above it. He knew Natasha and now Steve lived in the building. He was surprised at the turn of events, and it put him even more on edge because of how much Steve had come to love her. His friend would be devastated if she didn't feel the same way, if the life they had built together had been entirely fake, and her plan was just to get close enough to assassinate him.

"Let's go!" Wanda said excitedly, and he couldn't help but roll his eyes as they walked into the studio together.

Clint was immediately taken back by the number of children in the room. Either Natasha had really immersed herself in her role as a dance teacher or he had made a very big mistake. It seemed Wanda was thinking the same thing as they momentarily glanced into one another's eyes. Natasha was at the front of the room, coaching the young children through stretching. She wore leggings and a S.H.I.E.L.D. tee-shirt that was definitely Steve's, her long, red hair thrown up in a ponytail. She had tied the shirt so it didn't hang on her hourglass frame. Music played softly from the speakers, and he heard the kids laugh as Natasha said something amusing to them. However, she had noticed Clint and Wanda as soon as they stepped into the studio, and he didn't think her eyes ever left them.

She was watching them - tracking.

A chill went up his spine.

Maybe he hadn't made a mistake, after all.

"I want you kiddos to finish stretching your arms, okay? Remember to hold for fifteen seconds!" Natasha said as she began to walk towards him and Wanda.

Her smile was bright, but her eyes were unnervingly cold as she came to stand in front of them. There was something about her... something about her eyes. It was as if Clint knew her, that he'd seen her before. His stomach was churning, everything inside him saying that she was dangerous - untrusting. Warning bells went off inside his head, and it was then apart of him knew that his suspicions were correct. She was too poised, too calculated to be a mere ballerina. He forced himself to focus, however. She was innocent until proven guilty... until he had his proof.

He owed Steve that.

"What can I do for you?" She asked. Her accent was unmistakably, but she claimed to be from Russia, anyway. The easiest lies to tell were based on some semblance of the truth.

He knew that well.

"I'm Clint, a friend of Steve's. I stopped by to see if you had an opening for lessons with my daughter." He said, mustering a friendly smile. He had to play his part, the eager and supportive dad he really was.

"It's good to meet you. I'm sure we can work something out." She said flatly, walking over to the desk in the corner of the room and opening her schedule. They followed her, and she looked at Wanda expectingly.

"I'm not the daughter learning to dance. I just tagged along." Wanda laughed, swiftly realizing that Natasha thought Clint had come to sign her up for lessons. "I'm Wanda, also a friend of Steve's."

"Oh, ok. I was thinking that would be weird." Natasha laughed and shook her head, the tension between them suddenly dissipating.

Clint was taken back once again.

Had Natasha been worried about Wanda? That she was an older teenager being controlled by her father? A girl who didn't have a voice in her relationship with her dad?

Surely, Red Room agents didn't have a heart.

Surely, they had been brainwashed out of caring.

"It's his younger daughter. She's eleven and hoping to learn ballet." Wanda said, more than eager to converse with Natasha.

Clint stepped back and let her talk. The two women were similar in age, and he figured that Wanda would have more of a connection with her than he ever would. Natasha's smile reached her emerald eyes as they softened, and she thumbed through her schedule, mentioning a few dates that she had open.

Then, he saw it.

There was a long, deep scar that wrapped around the entirety of her right wrist.

It was a scar no one should have, but it was a scar he had seen before.

The Red Room.

In the files he'd read over and over again, he had seen photos of children handcuffed to bed frames. There was no mistake - no coincidence - that Natasha had a scar like this. A thousand questions whirled through his mind, and a chill slivered up his spine because she was who he'd known all along. Apart of him always hoped that he was wrong, that she was simply Steve's girlfriend because his friend deserved something good. Now, he was just lucky to be alive, that Natasha had yet to kill him. What stopped her? Did she have bigger plans? More targets? Who had been in danger all along? A Russian agent had been operating right under him and Fury's nose, and they hadn't noticed. What if there were more? Surely there had to be.

Despite all the questions, one thing was clear. Clint desperately needed to figure out how to bring her down without starting a world war.

If Wanda noticed the scar, she didn't say anything. He hadn't been paying attention to their conversation, but he registered the 'goodbyes' and 'see you laters' the women said to one another. He bid Natasha goodbye to keep up his character, trying to remain stoically calm as he and Wanda headed to the door.

"Hey, you forgot this!" Natasha suddenly called out, and they turned to see her holding out Wanda's glove that she left on the counter.

Wanda smiled brightly, meeting her across the studio and thanking her as she took the glove from her. When Natasha returned to the children and Wanda turned back to Clint, she had a look on her face that said everything she couldn't. It was a look of horror, of sadness. He knew immediately that she'd unintentionally made contact with Natasha through her powers. He could see the tears in her eyes, the way her hands shook and her bottom lip quivered. As soon as the door to the studio shut behind them, Wanda's face crumbled as a sob rose in her throat. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and guided her to the car, hoping he didn't look as panicked as he felt. "What's wrong, Wanda? What did you see?" He asked, opening the passenger door for her before getting in on the driver's side.

"Oh my, god." Wanda cried. For a minute, it was all she could do, and all Clint could do was rub her back soothingly. When she was finally able to compose herself, she looked into his eyes. It struck him to his soul. She looked haunted and entirely drained. "I t-think she loves Steve, but she... she was tortured. The training was abuse and... it's awful, Clint." She said, wiping the tears from her flushed cheeks.

"Is she going to kill Steve?" He asked. It was a straightforward question. Maybe too straightforward. However, he couldn't stop himself from asking it. Wanda had seen everything about Natasha; her childhood, her training, her fears, her everything. He had a hard time believing that she loved Steve, that she was compromised when her training as a spy had been to prevent that, but he didn't doubt what Wanda had seen.

"I think she will because if she doesn't, they'll kill her. But she loves him, Clint. I really think she does. So many of her good memories are with him." Wanda said.

A compromised spy was a story Clint had merely heard of. He had never seen it for himself. He already knew that if Natasha was actually an agent for the Red Room, she would be killed if she didn't complete her mission. That was a known fact. However, if she was in love with Steve, it complicated things entirely. Things weren't black and white anymore but if she had stayed this long, surely she was still planning to complete her mission. It was her life or Steve's. No matter how compromised she was, surviving was still engraved in her mind, a scar that ran deeper than that on her wrist.

"Does she know you got into her head?" He asked, buckling his seatbelt and driving the car from the curb towards the Avengers Tower a few blocks ahead.

"No. She doesn't." She shook her head.

They were safe.

For now.

The drive back to the tower was filled with heavy silence. Clint was overwhelmed with so many emotions he didn't know which one dominated them all. He was sad for Steve, that his friend had been taken advantage of and fallen in love with the wrong person. He was angry at Fury for not investigating Natasha in the very beginning. He was mad at himself for not speaking up sooner, and most of all, he was spiteful towards Natasha. How could someone be so cruel as to fall in love with someone - to be compromised - but still plan to assassinate them? Especially someone as genuine and good as Steve Rogers. She was entirely cruel, heartless.

When they arrived at the tower, Clint parked the car and followed Wanda inside. The heat of the building enveloped them, chasing away the chill of the wind. All was quiet, at least for now, and he lost himself in his thoughts, thinking back on the files about the Red Room he'd read over and over again.

Then, he realized something.

"I don't know how I missed it." He muttered aloud to himself, and Wanda looked at him inquisitively.

"What do you mean?" She asked.

He led her to his office on the second floor, swiftly searching through the hundreds of folders for one picture.

It was one picture that told a thousand stories, that connected the dots and told him what he should've realized the moment he looked at it. The moment he looked at her... into her eyes.

He held out the photo to Wanda, watching her face morph into disbelief. It was a photo of a young girl, not even eight years old, chained heavily to a wall with a rag stuffed into her mouth, blood staining her clothes from a wound somewhere on her abdomen. It was a blurry, black and white photograph. Old and torn.

However, the girl's green eyes were as clear as day.

Unmistakably Natasha's eyes.

On the back of the photo were two labels, and reading them sent a chill down his spine once again.

Graduated Black Widow.

Natalia Alianovna Romanova.

Chapter Text

Nick Fury had wanted "proof."

Clint Barton, well... he thought the S.H.I.E.L.D. director was quite frankly ridiculous.

How much more proof did he need to see that Natasha Romanoff was an agent working for the Red Room?

Fury had argued that they couldn't arrest her on international charges - that could very well start a war if the KGB were to seek retaliation on bringing down one of their best assassins - if there wasn't physical proof that couldn't be brushed off as mere coincidences. It was obvious to him and Wanda who had seen everything, but apart of him - way deep down - knew Fury was right. They needed solid evidence. They didn't need it for themselves because Clint knew Fury believed him, but they needed it for the case in court.

As vexatious as it was, Clint never backed down from a mission.

He had started this, and he would end it.

It was how he was raised by his parents, how he was trained as a spy.

It was a quiet, Sunday afternoon that he, Wanda, and Lila walked into Elegance Studios two days after their initial meeting with Natasha. The city was blanked in fresh snow, a stillness to the world that seemed so peaceful in contrast to the disarray of emotions whirling inside him. Lila was beaming with excitement and eagerness for her first dance lesson, and it was almost... almost contagious. He was her father, and he loved to see her smile. He would do anything to make her happy. However, there was a certain devastation to his personal mission in bringing down Natasha: the heartbreak Steve would experience finding out the woman he loved was actually assigned to kill him. He could hardly fathom what his friend was about to go through. Hundreds of miles away in Brazil, unknowing the truth he'd return home to, the life he'd built with Natasha entirely uprooted and burned. No, this was personal to Clint because he'd watched Steve struggle in adjusting to the new century, in losing everyone he'd ever known. His friend didn't deserve this heartbreak that was going to shatter him, another devastation upon devastation of tragically bad luck.

It didn't matter if Natasha loved Steve or not.

At least, that's what Clint told himself.

Wanda was sure that she did, and Clint believed her. If Natasha didn't, she wouldn't have stuck around for months on end. If she didn't, she wouldn't have stolen sensitive intel on Steve, just to hide it from the Red Room, as Wanda had seen when she made contact with Natasha. The agent may very well be compromised but that only made her more dangerous - her actions unpredictable. They could theoretically use her love for Steve against her and apart of Clint - a small part of him - wondered if they could strike a deal with her.

If she really and truly loved Steve, would she be willing to cooperate with them? To work with them if Steve was involved in the investigation?

It was a thought that had crossed Clint's mind, but it was ever so brief. Just because she was compromised didn't mean she wouldn't complete her mission. He had to assume she would.

As the three of them walked into the studio together, Clint tried to ignore the way his hair stood on end as Natasha noticed them from where she sat at her desk. She scrutinized them just as he did to her. He perceived just how tired she looked, as if she hadn't been sleeping well, and how her polite smile didn't quite reach her eyes as she stood to greet them. She was wearing leggings and one of Steve's shirts again, a Dodgers sweatshirt Clint had seen him wear so many times before. Apart of him despised her at that moment because she didn't deserve Steve's love, that if she truly loved him she would've never put him through this. However, he plastered a mighty fake smile on his face as Lila practically bounced up to her and introduced herself, bold and never shy. A girl Clint was proud to have raised.

Natasha's attention was swiftly cast onto Lila, a bright, genuine smile tugging on the corner of her lips as she leaned down to Lila's level. She began asking her questions that Clint didn't bother listening to as he sat down with Wanda in the chairs along the wall to watch the lesson.

"She really likes kids," Wanda said to him quietly, watching Natasha and Lila closely. They had moved to the center of the room as Natasha began showing Lila how to stretch. Lila laughed as Natasha said something to her in Russian, and then explained to Lila how to say hello in her mother tongue. It was an innocent conversation but Clint bristled nonetheless. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. "You need to relax. I think there's more to her than you see." Wanda told him.

"Please tell me you aren't coming to care for her. She's a murderer, Wanda." Clint sighed. Wanda wasn't a spy. She wasn't an undercover agent. She was a young woman with a big heart. A damn true one at that. Nonetheless, her feelings were misplaced. Natasha had made her choices. She had chosen to become the person she was today. She had chosen to stay and fulfill her mission to assassinate Steve.

"I don't necessarily care, but I feel bad for her. I really think you should talk to Fury about trying to make a plea deal with her. I thought that was a good idea." Wanda said.

He had told her about the thought that had crossed his mind, but it hadn't stuck with him. It wasn't an option. At least, not until he had his proof that Natasha was a Red Room agent. He had to lay the foundation to the investigation first, to unearth the truth before he decided if she was worth helping. "I'll think about it but right now, we just need to collect evidence." He told her.

They had a plan. At least, the semblance of one. Today, they would simply scope out the studio and landmarks of the building. At Lila's next dance lesson, Clint would place cameras and mics around the building and monitor them from the Avengers Tower. He had to be on top of his game because even as Natasha taught Lila, she repeatedly glanced at them in the reflection of the studio mirrors. She very well may be onto them or she was just paranoid that someone was.

He hoped it was the latter.

The lesson wasn't boring, per se. He loved watching his daughter, but dance had never really been his forte. The minutes seemed to drag on for him, but Wanda found it to be entertaining as they made mindless conversation to pass the time. It was an hour later when the lesson finally ended, and Lila took off the ballet shoes Natasha had given her, running off to the bathroom as if she hadn't wanted to go during her lesson.

Natasha laughed, turning to face Clint and Wanda to make polite conversation. However, her eyes widened as her attention converged to the entrance of the studio.

"Steve!" She exclaimed.

Clint looked at the door in bewilderment, wondering why in the hell Steve Rogers was walking into the building. He had showered and changed out of his uniform, as if he'd debriefed at S.H.I.E.L.D., and a dark bruise covered his jaw that would soon fade. Anger and confusion surged inside Clint, igniting like an inferno. Steve was supposed to be in Brazil for another week, safe and out of harm's way. Why was he back early? Who let him come back so soon?

This wasn't the plan.

Not only was his life in danger, but Clint's investigation just became a hundred times harder.

Natasha's eyes lit up for the very first time, and she practically leaped into Steve's arms, pressing her forehead against his in near desperation before pulling back to trace her fingers across his jaw, her eyes seemingly looking him over for further injury. "I missed you so much. Are you alright?" She breathed.

Clint swore he saw a stray tear arch down her cheek. It made him raise his eyebrows in question.

"I'm okay, baby. I'm just so glad to be home." Steve told her, a loving smile on his face as he held her close.

"I love you so much," Natasha said, closing her eyes for a moment before she seemingly forced herself to let him go as Lila came back into the room.

"Uncle Steve!" Lila exclaimed, running up to him and hugging him tightly. His kids hadn't seen Steve for a few months, but he visited when he found the time and had swiftly earned Uncle status.

Natasha smiled as she watched Steve with Lila, and Clint couldn't help but observe her with wide eyes.

Oh, Natasha was beyond compromised.

This wasn't acting anymore.

She was a spy and a damn good one at that.

However, she couldn't hide the love glimmering in her eyes, the desperation to be with him. She couldn't hide the way she nuzzled closer as he put his arm around her shoulder and kissed her forehead, the way her eyes closed and she smiled a very real smile.

Would she really kill Steve when she was so obviously in love with him?

Clint and Wanda's personal mission had gotten significantly harder since Steve returned home so early, but Clint had the chance to see just how much Natasha loved him. He had the chance to see the kind of leverage he had over her, just how much he could use Steve against her when it came down to arresting her. He got to see that maybe Steve wasn't in as much danger as he thought. At least, not tonight. Not when Natasha was looking at him like he hung all the stars and the moon, not when she was so glued to his side and so in love with him that the world could explode and she wouldn't even notice. Maybe Captain America had some sort of superpower to get a Russian agent to fall deeply in love with him.

A spy and a soldier were never even supposed to be allies, much less lovers.

"Let's get out of here before they jump each other's bones." Wanda nudged Clint in the side, a soft laugh pushing through her lips. The possibility of that happening was certainly increasing with Steve unable to take his eyes off Natasha.

He laughed as well, taking Lila's hand as he stood from his seat. "I'll see you soon for our next lesson!" Lila told Natasha excitedly, waving goodbye to her and Steve.

Steve had enjoyed seeing Clint, Wanda, and Lila again, but they couldn't have left soon enough. As soon as the door shut behind them, he quickly drew Natasha into his arms and kissed her just like he had been envisioning. He couldn't think straight. Not with her moaning into his mouth, his lips sliding between hers and her tongue running along his bottom lip. Not with the smell of her perfume intoxicating him like Thor's Asguardian Ale and the feeling of her toned, curvy body pressing against him. She had him: body, mind, and soul. She had every part of him. "I missed you. Fuck. I missed you so much." He breathed against her lips before he pulled back to sponge doting kisses down the arch of her neck, zeroing in on the spot below her ear that had her writhing against him. He felt like a starved, crazed man. A desperate man deprived of water finally taking that first sip. Being away from her for a week had been far too long. He couldn't be more grateful that he was given the clearance he needed to return home early.

"Are you going to show me just how much?" She moaned. He felt her hands trembling as she ran her fingers through his tousled hair. He was suddenly glad he had showered at S.H.I.E.L.D. before returning home.

"Do you have lessons soon?" He managed to ask her. His head was spinning as she ground her hips against his, heat twisting in his abdomen as his cock stiffened, his jeans suddenly too tight. He kept mouthing at her neck, trying his hardest not to leave a mark.

"Not for a few hours." She said. She pulled back from him, but she grasped onto his hand as if she didn't want to let him go as she swiftly locked the studio doors.

He took a moment to drink in the beautiful sight of her. She was stunning, cheeks flushed, eyes heady, and lips swollen. She was an utter vision, so much better than the dreams he had about her in Brazil. "You're all I think about." He told her as she stepped closer to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. It was the truth. He felt like the luckiest man in the world as she gently pressed her forehead against his and closed her eyes. He adored her love language. He ran his hands through her hair, down her back, and to her hips, his heart thrumming.

"You're all that I want." She told him, sounding more breathless than usual, more emotional.

He wondered if she had a hard time when he was away, just as he had a hard time being away. He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer to that as a tear arched down her cheek, and he brushed it away with his thumb. "Are you okay, my love?" He asked her. He remembered how upset she was when he had to leave, and he hated himself for making her feel that way.

"I'm perfect. Just as long as you're here." She said, tilting her chin up and kissing him.

It was desperate and raw, deep and passionate. It said everything their words couldn't. He hitched her thighs around his hips, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. It was hard to multitask as she kissed his jaw and sucked marks into his skin that would soon fade, but he managed to stumble to the building stairwell. He almost dropped her as he fumbled to unlock their apartment door, but he held her tight and groaned in relief as he finally got the door open and then locked behind them. Just as he pushed her up against the wall, everything a blur with only one goal in mind of getting her naked, there was a loud meow. He tried to ignore it but then there was a second one, and then a third.

Steve groaned, burying his face in Natasha's hair as he wondered how many times his plan of making love to her could be interrupted.

"Liho is angry you haven't said hello." She broke out in a fit of giggles. He couldn't help but smile when he heard her laugh despite his initial vexation. It was one of his favorite sounds in the world, something he wanted to hear for the rest of his life.

"Let me say hi to our child real quick." He teased, carefully setting Natasha on her feet to lean down beside Liho and scratch the cat's ear. "You should avert your eyes. I'm about to do some really dirty things to your mommy." He told the cat as if she understood him. Maybe it was better she didn't.

"You shouldn't talk to our baby like that. You're going to scar her for life." Natasha teased, watching him and the cat fondly as she leaned back against the wall.

He stood to his full height, his eyes narrowed because he had a mission now. "Oh, I think it's too late for that. She's already heard what it sounds like when I take you..." He murmured, cupping the back of Natasha's neck as he pressed her into the wall. Her eyes closed, her lips parting expectedly, but he didn't kiss her. No. He wanted to watch her. "When I finger you and suck your clit just like you showed me..." He said lowly, dipping his hand into the hem of her leggings and running his fingers through her folds. "You're dripping wet." He choked out, trying not to sound as breathless as he felt. He was like an asthmatic teenager all over again. Sex was still new to him, but Natasha wasn't. He knew her body, and she had shown him what she liked. Nonetheless, she had this sort of potent effect on him that would never fade, that made his head spin and his hands shake. He was confident in his ability to please her, but he wanted to blow her mind. He wanted to rock her world.

"All for you. Only you." Natasha moaned, tilting her head back as he rubbed his thumb back and forth over her clit. "That feels so g-good." She gasped. His cock throbbed in his jeans, but he couldn't find the will you care. Not when she was so wet and her thighs were quivering. Not when he was dying to taste her and bury his face between her thighs. "I love you so much. I hated when you were gone." She said as she writhed in his hand, her hips arching as he sunk two fingers into her. She moaned his name, her pussy already fluttering around his fingers as he pumped them slowly. He could hear how wet she was for him.

Only him.

"I love you too. I came back the moment I had the chance." He told her, kneeling down in front of her. She pushed her leggings down hurriedly, and he pulled them off the rest of the way, tossing them aside as he buried his face between her thighs, hitching her leg over his shoulder. "Been' dreaming of this..." He breathed, licking a long stripe through her folds, relishing in the way she gasped, the way she tasted. It went straight to his cock. He mouthed at her clit, tilting his head the way she liked and sucking softly.

"Oh god, Steve." She moaned, high-pitched and wanton.

He reached up and grasped her ass, pulling her even closer. He could die this way, and he would be the happiest man in the world. He slid his tongue inside her, closing his eyes as her pussy fluttered around him. He could taste her orgasm, how on edge she was already. His cock was impossibly hard now, aching for relief, but he wasn't done. Not yet. Dragging his tongue up through her petals, he circled her clit and followed the movement of her hips. "Fuck, baby. You are perfect." He gasped against her pussy, squeezing her ass cheeks before diving back in. Her creamy silk dripped down his chin as she arched into him, moaning and twisting in his tight hold. He could tell how close she was, and he wanted to taste her orgasm. Rubbing his tongue over her clit and then dipping down to fuck her for a few precious moments, he repeatedly did this. He lost himself in the pattern, in the way she gasped and moaned.

"Steve! Oh, oh!" He heard her, her pussy quivering and fluttering.

She was right there.

However, he suddenly pulled back.

He knew he was going to pay for it, that she would get her own revenge on him, but he wanted her to orgasm around his cock, not his tongue. It was a fault of his, a streak of possessiveness that he couldn't shake because she was his.

He heard her cry out in frustration, but it seemed that it was short-lived when she suddenly pushed him onto his back, her strength sometimes surprising him as he lay on the wood floor, his eyes wide with surprise. "Take your clothes off." She all but demanded, kneeling above him as she yanked off her - well his - sweatshirt and her then bra. He gazed at her breasts, longing to mouth at her perky nipples, but the fierce look in her eyes had him reaching down and unbuckling his jeans before yanking off his shirt. As much as he liked being in control, there was something about her overtaking him that he loved. His perfect, sweet ballerina with a lustful look in her emerald eyes that drove him crazy, that made his cock ache like never before and heat diffuse all the way down to his toes. She was an utter vision, imperfect marks covering her curvy body that made her perfect.

She was all his to love for the rest of their lives.

"Tell me, how does it feel with my mouth around your cock?" Natasha asked as she lowered herself between his legs, crowning her lips around the tip of his cock before taking him into the back of her throat.

He gasped in pleasure.

He couldn't do anything but grasp onto her shoulder, his hands shaking as potent heat spread through his abdomen. She worked his cock with her wicked tongue, tracing every thick vein and teasing the slit. She was an utter tease, but he knew he deserved it as she drew back and exhaled softly, causing his cock to twitch and him to moan. "This is so much better than my dreams." He managed to say despite the fact his head was spinning.

"Look at me." She hissed, and he forced his eyes open, watching as she took him into her mouth, her swollen lips moving down his cock as her eyelashes fluttered. She held his gaze with her own, her pupils dilated and her breathing heavy through her nose. It was a sight that would've made him weak in the knees if he wasn't lying down, an erotic sight he would envision in the most inappropriate moments. The stretch of her pink lips around his cock, her beautiful eyes holding his own, her hand working the base of his cock and his balls. He nearly came then and there, moaning as if they didn't have neighbors, his abdomen cramping and heat tightening in his core. Pleasure surged through him, but he was relieved when she pulled back because they were far from done.

She licked his pre-cum from her lips and sat up slowly, her red hair framing her face as her breasts swayed.

"Better than your dreams, huh?" She smirked that wicked little smirk that made him groan.

He needed her.

He couldn't wait any longer.

"So much better. Nothing compares to you." He told her imploringly, gently guiding her onto her back as he laid over her. He hitched her left knee over the crook of his arm, bending her leg and rubbing his cock through her wet folds, coating himself in her silk. She arched underneath him, grasping onto his shoulders as her eyes closed. He leaned down to kiss her as he slowly guided his cock into her wet pussy, relishing in the way her muscles fluttered around him, her lips parting into a silent 'oh' against his. He slowly pulled out only to thrust inside her hard, forcing the air out of her lungs. He moaned, feeling the orb of heat in his core and knowing he wasn't going to last long. He repeated the movement, slow then fast, soft than hard, her leg over his arm sending him deep inside her past her g-spot.

"You know,' I was here at home fucking myself with my fingers at the thought of you... the thought of this." Natasha gasped into his ear, her nails raking down his back as she moaned with each of his thrusts. "I fucking love when you're so deep ins-..." She broke off with a soft cry as he slammed his hips against hers, a strand of his control snapping hearing her talk so dirtily.

He wasn't going to last long.

Not when she was so wet and perfect. Not when he had been waiting for so long for this. Not when her pussy was fluttering and quivering around him, her moans going straight to his core. He fumbled between them and rubbed his palm over her clit, wanting her to orgasm with him. She tightened around his cock, her silk dripping down their thighs and the wet sounds of sex filling the room. He buried his face into the nape of her neck, pleasure curling his toes and diffusing through his stomach. "Cum for me, 'Tasha." He implored, his thrusts hard and purposeful, his fingers stimulating her clit. Every muscle in his body tensed, his abdomen cramping as his own orgasm surged through him. He could feel how close she was, how her cries became increasingly high-pitched.

"Steve!" She shouted, her back arching as she writhed against him. Her pussy clamped around him for a breathtaking moment, stealing the air from his lungs before she orgasmed and her pussy massaged his cock. "Oh, Oh!" She gasped.

Hearing her pushed him right over the edge, and he buried himself deep inside her, filling her with his cum. He held himself there until they came down from their high a minute later, and only then did he slowly pull out of her. She shuddered underneath him, a soft gasp pushing past her lips as she lay on the floor with a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. "I think you've ruined me." She giggled almost to herself, opening her eyes as he put his arms underneath her and lifted her to his chest.

He couldn't help but chuckle, sitting down on the couch with her in his lap. He kissed her forehead, his heart thrumming as she nuzzled closer to him. He covered them with the blanket folded over the couch cushions, and they were silent for a while, merely relishing in one another's company.

Natasha's world had righted itself on its axis as she lay in Steve's arms, her head on his chest as she listened to his steady heartbeat. She was right where she belonged, her mind finally quiet and her muscles relaxed. It had been a long week without him, and she had foolishly thought that she wasn't entirely compromised. She couldn't really deny it now, but she didn't want to think about that yet. Right now, she wanted to simply enjoy having Steve home. She wanted to enjoy the love she'd never experience again, the company of someone she didn't really want to live without.

The sound of her phone notification pierced the comfortable silence between them, and she groaned aloud. "Let me check that and make sure it's not my next lesson." She told Steve, kissing him softly before she slid off the couch. She made a show of slowly bending over, pulling her phone from their pile of clothing on the floor. He moaned, and she could feel his eyes on her, admiring and appreciating. She smirked to herself, but it swiftly fell from her face as she saw the encrypted message on her phone.

Her world seemingly stopped turning, her vision darkening and her heart pounding in her chest. She read the message over and over again, hoping and praying that if there was a higher being in the universe, that it wasn't true.

✉️ MB: You have one day to complete your mission or we will terminate it.

It was her life or Steve's.

As much as she loved him, it was never meant to be hers.

Chapter Text

They all knew what it meant when the Red Room terminated missions.

Failure wasn't an option.

It had never been.

Survival had been so deeply engraved into Natasha Romanoff's brain that it was the only option, no matter the cost.

The walls were closing in around her, the Red Room breathing down her neck as they whispered in her ear that her time was up. The life she had worked so hard to build with Steve, the genuine love she felt for him, had come to an end. She had to shut off her emotions and cut the ties that bound her to him. Never again would she feel loved. Never again would someone touch her so tenderly, kiss her scars, and tell her that she was beautiful. Never again would she sleep soundly in the arms of someone who loved her, who'd protect her. Never again would she wake up without fear, without questioning if her life was really worth living.

She had lived a great lie, becoming so wrapped up in everything that was Steve Rogers. He had become so wrapped up in someone he thought he knew, someone he thought he loved. She had completed her mission long ago, but she was so beyond compromised that she had also failed.

She had failed.

"Everything alright, love?"

She heard Steve ask her, his voice drawing her from her twisted thoughts.

She bent down and swiftly dressed in her clothes, blinking the tears from her eyes. How was she supposed to kill him - the man she loved? How was she supposed to carry on with her life knowing she had slaughtered one of the most beautiful souls to ever bless the universe?

Maybe she could convince him to leave her, to cut things off. After all, she'd give her life to protect him. What if she broke up with him and waited for the Red Room to come for her? "We need to talk." She choked out, masking her emotions the way she had been so expertly taught. She had to pull herself together, to pretend like she knew what she was doing and this was what she really wanted.

She heard his breath catch in his throat, the way he sat up and his eyes burned holes into the back of her head. She finally turned to face him, her heart shattering when she saw the broken expression on his face. "Natasha, love. Please tell me what's wrong." He implored - begged. She hated that she was the reason for the tears in his eyes, but she would hate it even more if she was the reason why the light had gone out in them.

"I... I just can't do this anymore. We need to break up." She murmured, forcing herself to look at him, forcing herself to mean it. She told herself that this was to save his life but that didn't make it any easier knowing that this was goodbye. She could only hold his gaze for a moment longer before she looked at the floor.

Her heart leaped into her throat when he got off the couch. He swiftly tugged on his clothes and leaned down on his knees in front of her, grasping her hands gently as if she'd break.

Maybe she would.

Maybe she'd break if he wasn't holding onto her.

"Please tell me what I can do to fix this. I'll do anything, Natasha. Is this because of the mission? I will take time off and we will work this out." He told her, his voice desperate and raw with emotion. He squeezed her hands gently, but she couldn't meet his eyes, even though she knew she was a selfish coward.

"You can't pretend that you're not Captain America." She said. "This isn't about you." She tried to think of anything to get him to understand that they couldn't fix this, even if he knew who she really was. There was no way out. One of them had to pay the price.

"Help me understand, Natasha. You are my reason for everything. I wasn't in a good place, but then you came into my life and for the very first time, I felt like I could breathe again. I will do anything to work this out, okay? I love you." He said.

It took everything inside her not to fall into his arms, to lose herself in his eyes that beheld her so carefully. "We can't work this out." She shook her head. "I love you too, but I can't do this." She said. She wanted to say more but she couldn't, her throat clogged with emotion. She wanted him to know that she loved him, that this was about protecting him, and he didn't need to bear this weight upon his shoulders, despite him always being so strong. "I want to do this - to be with you - but I can't."

"I need you to help me understand, Nat." He shook his head, getting up off his knees to gently cradle her face in his hands, his eyes meeting hers. She saw his soul, the way he bared all to her just as she had opened her legs and heart to him. She saw his confusion, the longing to fix things between them, even though there was nothing to fix, and keep her in his life. She saw the love shining in his eyes, the way he searched her own for answers she'd never be able to give him. "We love each other, right? That's all we need to make this work. I'll fight for this - us." He told her, wiping away a stray tear as it arched down her cheek.

She was so god damn tired of fighting.

She had been strong for too long, but she couldn't tell him any of that. She couldn't tell him that he wasn't really in love with her. Not the real her. She couldn't tell him that they couldn't fight the Red Room because not even Captain America could bring the heinous organization down. He wouldn't anyway, not if he knew who she really was. He'd throw her to the wolves if he knew how many people she had killed, how her ledger gushed red with blood. "I really need to go downstairs. My client will be here soon." She murmured, closing her eyes and leaning into his hands. She couldn't help it. She was drawn to him like a moth to a flame.

She still had another hour until her next student actually arrived, but she needed an out. Her plan of breaking up with him may have worked if she thought it out more, but she couldn't stand here and go back and forth with him when all she wanted to do was fall into his arms. She knew that he could read her like no other, that her years of training were a waste when she was with him. She knew he could see how much she didn't want to end things between them, that he still had a reason to fight for her.

She was weak.

She needed to draw in strength to figure out a way to save his life because even if she didn't kill him and the Red Room came for her instead, they could still very well go after Steve.

"We'll figure this out together, okay? You and I, Nat. We'll get through this." He told her, kissing her forehead gently. "How about after your lesson, we get some lunch and talk about everything?"

"Okay..." She said quietly. He stepped away from her and despite everything inside her wanting to curl back up in his arms, she mustered the strength to gather her things and head downstairs to the studio without uttering another word to him. Apart of her wanted to believe that they could figure it out, but they were talking about two entirely different things. How could she be so lucky to have the sweetest, fake boyfriend in the world yet be so unlucky that she had to kill him?

Her mind flashed to the gun she had hidden in the floorboard, envisioning herself putting it to the roof of her mouth and ending it all rather than ending Steve's life. She thought about how quick of a death it would be, how she wouldn't feel anything before it all went black. All the people she had killed would be cheering her on, imploring her to do it because she didn't deserve anything good in the world. No one would hear the gunshot with the silencer, but she thought about who would eventually find her body, who would have to suffer through that trauma. It had always been in the back of her mind, even before she was assigned to this mission. The Red Room gave her no choices but that was one she could make, one she could do to free herself from the pain her handlers had scarred into her, the pain she could never really forget. However, she thought about Steve. Even if she killed herself, the Red Room would still come after him. She thought about Liho, Yelena, and their parents; all the reasons to keep fighting despite the flame hardly flickering inside her.

She couldn't give up.

At least, not yet.

She still had unfinished business.

The silence of the studio was unsettling as she set down her things at her desk and collapsed in her chair, willing herself not to cry. Crying helped no one and did her no good. She had to pull herself together and figure out what to do. She owed Steve that. Even if she was the one to end his life, he wouldn't suffer in her hands and before she did it, she could finally tell him the truth.

The door to the studio opened, and she stiffened, her eyes narrowing on whoever had walked through the door. However, her glare swiftly morphed into surprise when she saw Melina and Yelena. Melina wasn't really her mother, but she was the only motherly figure in her life, and it had always felt right to call her so. She hadn't seen her in almost a year, but she was one of the few people that Natasha trusted. Melina had only stayed in the Red Room to protect "her girls," as she called Natasha and Yelena, as best as she could with Alexi working from the outside.

"Mom!" She sighed with relief, burying her face in the nape of Melina's neck as they hugged tightly. Nothing was clear to her, her thoughts in a whirl and her choices none of her own. However, one thing was clear. Melina and Yelena were on her side. She wasn't alone.

"You're in trouble, Natasha," Melina told her, kissing her forehead when she finally pulled away. Yelena and Natasha merely shared a glance, needing less affectionate ways to show their love for one another. "The Red Room sent us to assess the status of your mission thinking we know you best and that we could tell if you're compromised. They think you are." Melina told her, reaching up and tucking a strand of Natasha's hair behind her ear.

Natasha wasn't surprised.

Madame B. knew her well. She knew how quickly she could complete missions, how she had once faithfully followed commands without question. This time had been different, a change in Natasha she had failed to hide from her handler. By now, they probably knew she hadn't sent all the files about Steve. Her life was on the line, and she had to watch her back. Compromised agents had no place in the KGB.

They were always disposed of.

"I know you're in deep. You don't have to admit it." Yelena said with a shrug.

Natasha narrowed her eyes, vexation rising inside her, even if it was the truth.

"Do you love him?" Melina asked her, interrupting any sisterly squabbling about to occur.

"I... I don't know. I just know that I don't want to kill him, and I don't think he deserves to die." She said with a heavy sigh. She loved him. She really did. However, he didn't love her, and she wasn't sure what hurt more. "I want to tell him the truth."

"Natasha, I'm going to be honest with you. Your life is not worth his. My baby girl's life is not worth any man's. I don't know how to word this without sounding cruel, and I know you know this already, but he doesn't know who you really are. If he did, how much would that change things?" Melina said softly.

She knew she was right. Her mother always was. However, that didn't make it any easier to hear. "I know, ma'. I really do." She sighed, pulling her mom in for another hug because she felt like crying all over again.

"I can't imagine how hard this is for you. We already decided this is our chance to deflect from the Red Room, but we need to make sure they don't come after you before the mission is over. I'm not going to tell you what to do, and I'm going to support you no matter what, but I'm not going to let you trade in your life for Steve Rogers' because we, as your family, can't lose you." Melina told her, squeezing her reassuringly.

Natasha's heart leaped into her throat hearing that they were planning to deflect from the Red Room. Alexi was practically kicked out, his life spared, but she figured her, Melina, and Yelena would never be able to free themselves from the organization's oppressive hold. No agent had escaped successfully. They were always caught, always tortured until they begged for death, only to be brainwashed and recycled through the Red Room. "Are you guys 100% sure about deflecting? There's no going back..." Natasha said. They had always talked about getting out when they had the chance, but she never envisioned it actually happening. However, even if they didn't make it out, even if they were recaptured, it was worth taking the chance. Their freedom was worth dying for, a shot in the dark that just might reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

"We are positive, but we aren't going to leave you behind," Yelena said, taking her sister's hand with a soft smile. "We are family... Liho included."

"Give me tonight to figure out how to end my mission and then I'll be ready." Natasha smiled, taking the burner phone Yelena handed to her and tucking it into her pocket.

"Be careful, Natasha. We love you." Melina said.

Natasha reassured her that she would be fine, watching Yelena practically drag their reluctant mother out of the studio. She looked into her sister's eyes just before the door shut behind them, a look of promise, trust, and love. One look that flickered the flame of hope inside her because she wasn't alone in this fight. She had her family, and they had been through hell and back together. This may be their biggest fight yet, but they had a chance at winning together.

That chance was worth everything.

As silence fell upon the studio once again, the heavy burden of weight returned to Natasha's shoulders. She still had to finish her mission, whether that was killing Steve or simply leaving him behind in the dust. Apart of her thought about telling him the truth, warning him of the Red Room before she grabbed Liho and ran. She thought about how he would react. Would he forgive her or try to kill her? Would he send S.H.I.E.L.D. to hunt her down? Would he tell her that he still loved her, and they could figure everything out together? She knew the latter would never happen but maybe deep down in her heart, she was a hopeless romantic. With a heavy sigh, she pulled out her personal phone and canceled the rest of her lessons for the day. She had come to care for her kids, hoping she would have the chance to say goodbye before she completed her mission, but she didn't want them and their families to become collateral damage. They deserved to live long, full lives of happiness, to never know such pain and affliction.

She longingly wished them that.

A soft thud from above her shattered the silence that had enveloped her. She listened closely to the footsteps on the second floor, not recognizing them as Steve's or the elderly couple who lived in the unit beside them. Her heart leaped into her throat, a chill slivering up her spine as she grabbed a knife she had hidden in the desk drawer and slowly ascended the stairwell. Every muscle in her body tensed, clutching tightly onto the handle of her knife. She knew something was amiss, that whoever stalked above her in the hallway wasn't supposed to be there. As she reached the last step, she paused, her back pressing against the wall as she listened closely. The footsteps paced indecisively in front of the door to her and Steve's apartment. Fear surged through her as she thought about Steve inside, protectiveness driving her forward. She inhaled sharply, gritting her teeth together and leaping out from around the corner. She took the woman by surprise, grasping her neck and slamming her against the wall. "Who are you?" Natasha hissed, holding the knife to the woman's neck. However, the moment she looked into the woman's eyes glinting with determination and just a hint of fear, she knew why the woman was there. The stealth, black suit that matched her dark hair and her eyes said everything she didn't.

"I've come to finish the mission you are too weak to complete." The woman, maybe even younger than her, sneered. She kneed Natasha in the abdomen, the breath forced out of her chest as she stumbled backward. "Why are you protecting him after what he did to you?" She asked.

"Why are you fighting for the Red Room after all they've done to us?" She mocked. She didn't give the woman the chance to answer her, lunging forward with the knife aimed at her shoulder. It was like fighting a mirror, the knife plunging into the wall that Natasha yanked out with a frustrated cry. She blocked the woman's punch and kicked her in the side, hearing the sickening crack of one of her ribs. The woman cried out, seemingly fueled by anger as she leaped forward and made contact with Natasha's cheek. Tears stung her eyes as her head whipped to the side, and she swallowed the metallic taste of blood in her mouth. "I don't want to kill you." She hissed, jumping forward to lock her legs around the woman's neck, throwing herself forward to take the woman to the ground. She somersaulted to her knees, her eyes narrowed as the agent leaped to her feet.

"You are weak. You should've killed Rogers the moment you had the chance and now you won't kill me? You deserve to die just as he does." The woman snapped.

They leaped at one another, a fury of calculated punches and kicks. Natasha hardly noticed the blows to her body, hardened from years of fighting, while she tried to sink the knife into the woman's right shoulder. She was trying not to kill her, but she noticed the agent pull out a syringe full of colorless liquid amongst their fighting. She knew what it was; the poison cyanide that had killed so many agents before her. She had to protect Steve, even if it came down to killing the woman. Adrenaline surged through her, giving her the strength she desperately needed to slam the woman against the doorframe. She sunk the knife into the agent's shoulder, feeling the warmth of blood spurt from the wound. "I'm sorry." She said quietly, feeling the woman shudder and jerk against her.

"Me too." The woman gasped, raising her arm and sinking the needle into the back of Natasha's neck. "You should've just killed me. It would've been a better fate than returning to the Red Room."

Suddenly, the door they were pressed against was yanked open, and they fell to the ground.

Natasha lay on her back, gasping for her breath as she listened to the scuffling of a brief fight before silence enveloped the room. She could feel the cyanide burning through her body, the sour taste of acid and blood filling her mouth as her heart raced. It felt like her body wasn't her own, shuddering and convulsing with pain that had her biting back a scream as the room spun around her.

"Natasha, love... look at me."

She heard Steve's voice, a beacon of light amongst the darkness consuming her. She forced her eyes open, looking up at him through her blurry vision because if the last person she saw before she died was the love of her life, she could die peacefully.

Chapter Text

Natasha was fading fast, and Steve could feel her life slipping through his fingers.

His entire world - his love - was fighting for her life in his arms, but there was nothing he could do. It was like he was there just to watch. If he could give her his last breath, he would. He'd do anything to save her. Yet he was forced to watch as she choked and sputtered on the blood pooling in her mouth, the way she desperately tried to inhale as her body convulsed and shook. No matter how many times he tried to clear her mouth of blood, turning her head to the side to help clear her airway, it was to no avail. It was like the walls were collapsing around them, the glimmer of hope slowly fading as her heart rate steadily increased until all he could feel was the rapid beating of her heart under the palm of his hand. He silently prayed to his God, begging him to spare her and take him instead. He prayed, prayed, and prayed because Natasha didn't deserve any of this. He'd give up everything just to save her life, silently and desperately bargaining for a miracle as if life had ever been kind enough to grant him one.

He had a thousand questions, but he could hardly see anything through the tears in his eyes. His throat was too tight with emotion to ask them, anyway. Nothing made sense yet nothing else but Natasha mattered. He couldn't think about what the hell had just happened - what it all meant. All that mattered was his girl because he couldn't live in a world without her. It was true that the world didn't deserve her, and maybe God had even mistakenly put one of his angels on Earth, and he wanted her back.

However, Steve was selfish, and he was stubborn.

He couldn't let her go.

Not yet... not ever.

So he held her close and dared God to try to take her away from him.

His hands shook as he set down his phone after calling emergency medical services, and he shifted Natasha in his lap, his eyes never leaving her. A surge of relief went through him as he watched her breathing even out, but her skin had turned a splotchy shade of pink that certainly wasn't normal.

"S-Steve... if I make it through this, we're going to run away to a house south of Budapest where we can see the mountains on the edge of town..." She mumbled. "I love you so much." She had managed to open her eyes, gazing up at him as she gently squeezed his hand.

His eyes widened with surprise when she spoke. He wanted to tell her to save her strength, but he wanted to hear her voice, even if it was for the last time. "You're going to be okay... I love you too." He told her imploringly, glancing down at his watch. He had no idea what she was talking about, and maybe she wasn't even coherent. He hardly even registered what she was saying, but it didn't matter.

Not in that moment, at least.

It had been only a minute since he had called for an ambulance, but he could hear the sirens off in the distance. If they could just get her to the hospital in time, maybe they could save her. Maybe they could give her an antidote to counteract whatever had been injected into her. Her breathing had calmed and the convulsions had stopped. Maybe she would be okay. Maybe whatever had been injected wasn't made to kill her but rather disable her for a short period of time.

Oh, how he was horribly wrong.

Everything suddenly changed, and his whole world stopped turning.

It was as if she had been electrified, her eyes rolling to the back of her head and her body convulsing violently. He immediately recognized it as a seizure; something he had seen soldiers in the war have right before they took their last breath after enduring traumatic injuries.

"Natasha!" He cried, feeling helpless and horribly confused.

Why was she being torn away from him like this?

Of all people, why did this have to happen to her?

Pushing down the blinding panic rising inside him, he tried to remember the little medical training he had received. Turning her onto her side, he cushioned her head and didn't restrain her limbs. Keeping his two fingers on her pulse, he felt her heart rate increase dramatically. It had only been a few seconds, but it felt like hours until her body stopped convulsing and all was quiet.

Too quiet.

He frantically searched for her pulse, checking both her wrists and below her jaw for any sign of life.

He felt nothing.

He wasn't going to give up. Not on her. He'd fight with her - for her.

Trying not to scream with fear and frustration, he carefully rolled her onto her back and sat on his knees, bracing his hands on her sternum.

He knew what he had to do... he had to help her fight.

Her ribcage cracked under the palm of his hands as he pressed down, and he felt like he was going to throw up, but he knew he had to continue. "I'm sorry, love." He said, looking down at her through the tears in his eyes as he counted to thirty and tried to maintain a steady rhythm. Her lips were cold as he leaned down and watched her chest rise as he huffed air through her lungs. "Please fight just a little longer. Stay with me, Natasha." He choked out. "I can't lose you."

They were supposed to get a life together.

They had talked about getting a house on the coast because Natasha loved the warm weather. They were going to have a dog or two because she loved animals and never had pets growing up. Now, that was all being torn away from them. She didn't deserve any of this. She deserved to live her life because she was one of the few, good people left in the world.

By the time he counted to thirty twice, the paramedics had arrived and swiftly taken over. He was practically pushed out of the way, one of the medics covering her face with an oxygen mask while the other attached an AED to her bare chest. He could hardly see through the tears in his eyes, and he could feel nothing but the blinding panic of losing her rising inside him. He momentarily glanced around their apartment for the woman who had poisoned her, but she was nowhere to be found. In her place was a pool of blood and shattered glass from Steve throwing her against a shelf. He didn't think she'd survive losing that much blood... he hoped she wouldn't.

"Would you like to follow us to the hospital, sir?" One of the paramedics asked him carefully. They already had Natasha strapped onto a gurney. He nodded quickly, grabbing his car keys and making sure to lock the apartment door behind him. They tirelessly worked on Natasha down the elevator to the ambulance, and Steve waited until they loaded her in to swiftly get in his own car and peel away from the curb, trailing closely behind the ambulance. He tried to focus on driving, to breathe in through his nose and out through his mouth to keep his panic at bay because panicking would do him no good.

Natasha needed him to be strong.

As soon the ambulance pulled up to the hospital, doctors and nurses rushed Natasha inside before Steve even had the chance to see her. He knew they were going to try and save her. She was in good hands. He had to let her go, at least for now. Parking his car, he pulled out his phone. He could feel his heart shattering with every passing second.

✉️ SR: Something bad happened to Nat. We're at the hospital now

He texted his friends before he tucked his phone into his pocket and made his way into the hospital, not bothering to wipe the tears from his face because they were never-ending. As soon as he stepped into the lobby, a nurse recognized him and smiled sympathetically. He followed her to a private waiting room.

"She's strong. If anyone can get through this, it'll be her." The nurse told him. "She's Captain America's girlfriend, after all."

Steve tried to muster a smile, but he knew it probably looked more like a grimace.

He hoped the nurse was right.

Burying his face into his hands, he closed his eyes and prayed.

"What do you think happened to her?" Nick Fury asked Clint and Maria as they worked on picking the lock to Steve and Natasha's apartment.

They knew this was their only chance in investigating Natasha Romanoff. It was a cruel twist of fate, one that let them seize the opportunity to find out if Natasha really planned on killing Steve. They knew who she was, but they didn't really know her. There were still a thousand unanswered questions, but they hoped her personal belongings would give them to key to unearthing her mission.

"I don't know. The Red Room could've figured out she's compromised." Clint shrugged, finally managing to pop the door open. It was a hell of a lot more difficult than he thought it would be, and he wondered if Natasha had anything to do with that.

As soon as he stepped inside the apartment, he took note of the blood on the floor. If it was all Natasha's, there was no way she was going to survive. However, he tried not to think about that because Steve would be devastated. He knew he needed to be there for his friend, but he had to do this first. Wanda and Sam were already on their way to the hospital to support Steve anyway.

"Yeah but how compromised?" Maria mused.

Before Fury or Clint could reply, a small, black cat came scurrying out from one of the bedrooms, meowing obnoxiously as she weaved excitedly between their legs. Clint frowned, never really much of a cat person, while Maria leaned down and picked up the cat, reading the tag on the pink collar the cat wore. "Her name's Liho." She mused.

"I have recordings of the hallway and the studio," Clint said, focusing on the task at hand. He didn't know how much time they had. If a Red Room agent had been the one to hurt Natasha, they had to move quickly. They were in danger if the agent decided to return to the apartment. He swiftly collected the cameras around the building, pleased to see they hadn't been tampered with, and then returned to the bedroom where Fury and Maria had been investigating. As soon as he stepped into the room, Maria gestured him over to where she and Fury stood beside the bed. "I'd say she's pretty damn compromised," Maria said, holding out a cardboard box to Clint. "She must've been saving these to remember Steve if things went south."

Some were meaningless to him, things he didn't recognize such as movie tickets and a gum wrapper. Other things were unmistakable. There were countless photos of her and Steve, some taken by paparazzi and others taken privately. There were love notes he'd written to her, and even some of his tee-shirts folded neatly. "I still can't wrap my head around the fact that a KGB assassin fell in love with Steve." He shook his head to himself. He set down the box and removed the disk from one of the cameras he'd set up in the hallway. Inserting the converter into his phone, he swiftly scrolled through the video feed to the most recent one of a woman he didn't recognize pacing in the hallway. He pressed play, and they watched as Natasha leaped out from around the corner of the stairwell, slamming the other woman against the wall.

"Turn on the audio." Fury snapped.

" Why are you protecting him after what he did to you?" The woman sneered at Natasha.

Then they fought.

Clint wasn't sure if he ever wanted to fight Natasha. It was evident she was pulling her punches, not wanting to kill the other woman, but she wasn't going easy on her either. There was something about the way they fought that made his stomach churn. Natasha's precision and speed had him on edge seeing exactly what she was capable of, especially if this was her holding back. She could've easily killed Steve if she'd taken him by surprise.

But she hadn't.

She had protected him.

Near the end of the video, Natasha had the woman pressed against the door once again. She stabbed the agent's right shoulder, not aiming to kill her, but then the woman plunged a syringe into the back of Natasha's neck.

Clint wasn't sure which was worse.

They had been studying the Red Room for years now. He knew they often used a lethal mix of cyanide and other deadly chemicals for maximum casualties when their agents went astray. Even if the blood wasn't Natasha's, her odds of surviving the poison were slim to none.

"I say we have all the proof we need." Fury said with a heavy sigh. "Hopefully Romanoff will survive because I still have a thousand questions. Right now, we need to get to the hospital and make sure Steve is safe."

"What about the cat?" Maria asked abruptly.

Clint snorted with laughter, but Fury hardly cracked a smile.

"Let's just leave her here for now. I'll send someone to take care of her if needed. Right now, let's get maximum security in the hospital to keep an eye on Romanoff and inform Steve about everything... I think it's time he knows."

Chapter Text

Natasha was gone.

All that was left in her place was a note.

The scene was eerily calm as Steve stepped into the hospital room, his hands shaking and his heart pounding in his chest. The doctors and nurses had apologized over and over again, but it didn't matter.

It wouldn't bring her back.

His world had stopped turning, grief and sadness consuming him in its entirety. His knees threatened to crumble underneath him, and it was as if he could feel his heart physically breaking. The love of his life was gone, and he never wanted to live in a world without her. He knew he had failed her, that he never should've left her side because he could've protected her. "I just don't understand how she was taken..." He finally spoke, his throat tight with emotion.

"We don't either. After she was in stable condition, the nurse left the room for only a few minutes. We're working with security, but the cameras were tampered with." The doctor said quietly as if he didn't want to upset Steve.

It wasn't worth his time to blame the doctors or the nurses at the hospital. He had no one but himself to blame. He closed his eyes, wiping the tears from his cheeks as he inhaled deeply. He had to pull himself together and stand tall. He had to be the soldier he was destined to be and fight in the dark, even when he couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. He had to fight for Natasha, to hunt down whoever dared to take her away from him.

He knew Natasha would never give up on him, and he'd never give up on her.

Walking up to the bed, he took the note in his hand and turned it over between his fingers. In handwriting that wasn't Natasha's, his name was written in cursive on the front. It was as if they were taunting him, that whoever had taken her was imploring him to come after them like they knew he would.

Why had they even left him a note?

Surely, it wouldn't tell him where she was and reading it would just break his heart even more. It was a cruel gesture, one that he wouldn't forget nor forgive.

Just as he started to unfold it, there was a voice in the doorway that startled him.

"I think we have some answers." Fury said as he stepped into the room.

He was the last person Steve expected to see.

Dear, Steve Rogers

By now, I'm sure you've figured out who my daughter is, and I wouldn't be surprised if you wanted her dead. I wouldn't be surprised if you tried to hunt her down with the Avengers as your backup. I wouldn't blame you, Steve. After all you've been through, you didn't deserve this. You didn't deserve to be lied to. You deserved better. But what you may not understand is that Natasha didn't decide her fate. None of us did. She didn't have choices. The Red Room controls their agent like puppets, and it's our lives on the line if we don't successfully complete the missions assigned to us.

Natasha didn't have the chance to make her own choices until she met you. She chose to protect you by never sending the files she stole. She chose to protect you from the agent sent here to kill both of you. She chose to risk everything, her life included, for you. At the end of it all, she chose you, and she chose to love you. I can't promise you much, but I can promise you that wasn't a lie.

She loves you so much, and you should feel like the luckiest man in the world because my daughter is an incredible woman.

Well maybe you don't feel so lucky right now but one day, I hope you understand how hard it was for Natasha to open her heart to you. I hope you understand why she was never really able to tell you the truth about who she was.

Trust me, she had wanted to. I know she would've if she had the chance. Truthfully, I don't know what she was thinking or how she planned to end things. Maybe she was wishing on a star, hoping you two could continue your life together hidden from the Red Room. Maybe she got so caught up in the life she wanted with you, she lost apart of herself as an agent.

But you see, I love my daughter more than you will ever know. She has a family, and we're not going to leave her behind. I don't know if you'll really understand when you don't know our story, but we always have one another's backs.

Whether you are pleased to hear this or not, we will take care of Natasha. She won't be recycled through the Red Room. We are finally freeing ourselves from them. If we survive, I do not know. They will come after us, as I'm sure you will too.

But know that Natasha loves you.

She was willing to give her life to save yours.

She may have lied to you about who she was but she never lied about loving you.

Sincerely, Melina

P.S. Yelena took Liho with us. Sorry about that, but no family member gets left behind.

Nothing made sense to Steve, yet the puzzle pieces to the story were all coming together at once. His entire world had suddenly crumbled at his feet finding out that his life with Natasha was built upon lies.

He had loved her.

He was going to marry her one day, and they were supposed to have forever together. However, none of that had been real to her. It was all a fairytale story she knew they'd never have, one she went along with just to get close enough to kill him. She had taken advantage of him, emotionally manipulating him until she had him wrapped around her finger. He felt stupid, bitter, and furious for ever putting his trust in her. He had been willing to give her everything. He should've questioned how she fit so perfectly into his life and how she accepted him without a second thought. She had been perfect - too perfect - and he should've seen right through her little act. Instead, he had fallen head over heels the moment he looked into her emerald eyes. He was weak... pathetic. He was entirely embarrassed because he should've known. He should've known an assassin had wormed their way into his life.

He was supposed to be better.

In hindsight, apart of him knew that she wasn't merely the innocent ballerina she had portrayed herself to be. There had always been something about her, the way she regarded people so cautiously; she never trusted anyone but him. There was something in the way she moved, how calculated she was, and how strong she could be. There was something in the way she flipped him over in bed before he even realized what had happened, how she twisted her body and locked her legs that he thought were toned with muscles from dancing.

He should've known.

How was he supposed to be Captain America when he couldn't even protect himself?

How was he supposed to protect the world after falling into a trap like this?

"I am really sorry, Steve. I wish we had known sooner." Fury said quietly. "She was very good at blending in and flying below S.H.I.E.L.D.'s radar." He sat in one of the chairs of the private hospital room with his arms crossed over his chest. It was as if he was waiting for Steve to fall apart, regarding him carefully, almost with pity and at that moment, Steve despised him.

He knew they had only been trying to protect him by sending him on a mission to Brazil so they could investigate Natasha, but he should've known.

They should've told him.

They could've apprehended her before any of this had ever happened.

"How did you even find out?" He choked out. He had a thousand unanswered questions that he knew Fury couldn't even answer. Only Natasha could answer them, but she was long gone by now.

"You should talk to Barton." Fury said and as if on cue, Clint stepped into the doorway with Wanda beside him. Fury excused himself from the room, shutting the door behind him.

Steve should've been mad at his friends. He should've. However, he couldn't muster the strength to. Not when he knew they cared about him and had only been trying to protect him.

Clint had even tried to warn him months ago, yet he had brushed him off.

"I set up cameras while you were away, and Wanda accidentally made contact with her which confirmed everything," Clint said, holding out his phone to Steve.

He pressed play to the first video of Natasha in the dance studio talking to an older woman and her sister, Yelena, whom he recognized immediately. The timestamp was right before she fought the other Red Room agent in the hallway.

He figured that it must be her mother holding her tight - desperately - and then the woman spoke, and his heart sunk deep into his stomach. "Do you love him?" The woman asked.

Steve's heart twisted painfully, and it was as if the breath had been knocked out of his lungs as he awaited Natasha's answer.

Why did it matter?

It wouldn't change anything. She was assigned to kill him, and she had still lied to him.

"I... I don't know. I just know that I don't want to kill him, and I don't think he deserves to die. I want to tell him the truth." She said.

"Natasha, I'm going to be honest with you. Your life is not worth his. My baby girl's life is not worth any man's. I don't know how to word this without sounding cruel, and I know you know this already, but he doesn't know who you really are. If he did, how much would that change things?" Melina said softly.

It would've changed everything.

Maybe he could help her. If she would've been honest with him, maybe they could've worked something out. She hadn't wanted to kill him... surely that meant something, even if she didn't necessarily love him.

"She was pretty damn compromised. We found a box with some of your shirts, photographs of you guys, and a few other things that she had set aside, but I guess they took that when they went to get the cat." Clint said softly.

It hurt.

At first, Steve had been angry.

He had been so angry that he could've killed her.

Now, he was plain and simply heartbroken because she had wanted to tell him the truth, but she hadn't trusted him. Maybe she was going to but got hurt before she had the chance. There was still the possibility that she was planning to kill him but then why hadn't she just let the agent in the hallway finish the job? There was more to Natasha than he thought, but it didn't matter now. She was gone, and he was left to mourn the life he thought he'd have with her. "Is it wrong of me to feel sorry for her?" He said quietly. The more he thought about her, the more he realized how much she let the real Natasha bleed into their life together. There were little, seemingly insignificant changes that all made sense now. Changes that showed him just how compromised she had been; that not all of it was acting and carefully calculated lies.

"No, especially not when she saved you at the end of it all. I personally still dislike her, but maybe she didn't turn out to be so bad after all she's been through. Wanda saw a lot of it when they made contact at Lila's dance lesson." Clint shrugged, tucking his phone back into his pocket after sending Steve the rest of the videos for him to watch later.

"How much brainwashing did she have?" He asked Wanda.

She sighed as if she didn't want to talk about it. Maybe she didn't. He'd heard of the Red Room before and although he didn't know much about the organization, he knew they were ruthless. "Something similar to Bucky's... it was awful. I can show you if you want." She said.

"Wait a minute. We can't go around feeling sorry for someone who was going to assassinate you, Steve. What are you even planning to do? Help her? It's just not her out there either because she has a family, and there is a manhunt right now for all of them." Clint shook his head.

"I know. I met her sister, Yelena, apparently. I just... I don't understand why Natasha changed her mind if she was so deeply brainwashed." Steve replied. He wanted answers. He needed them. What if she loved him? What if they stood a chance together against the world? Maybe it was wishful thinking, but it was evident she'd fought hard to protect him from the Red Room. Even if she didn't love him, even if he didn't really love her, he owed her. She'd saved his life, and he was in debt to her. Wasn't it his job as Captain America to help those in need, to be a voice for those who couldn't use theirs?

"She wasn't brainwashed when she went into this, other than being conditioned to hate you. At some point, she cleared her head, and I think she was just trying to survive." Wanda said.

Steve frowned. "Wait, what? Conditioned to hate me?" He asked.

"Can I just show you? I don't really want to talk about it." She sighed.

"This is such a terrible idea," Clint grumbled, sitting down in one of the chairs and crossing his arms over his chest.

Steve disregarded him, gesturing for Wanda to show him all she had seen with her powers. As soon as the visions flashed through his mind, he quickly understood why she hadn't wanted to say aloud what Natasha had endured. As he watched her life flash through his mind, bile rose into his throat, and he felt like he was going to be sick. Not only was she beaten, forced to kill the girls she'd grown up with, and used as a weapon, but she'd been raped by men wearing masks that looked like himself. They moved and talked like him, conducting heinous acts to her that made him want to kill them. It was a sickening feeling to watch someone who looked just like him torture the woman he loved. The pit in his stomach only grew as he watched their time together flash before him. He saw her eyes and her smile, the way she slowly began to trust and open her heart to him while keeping it guarded all at the same time. He saw the memories that meant the most to her, the simple ones he couldn't recall like making sure she ate before a dance lesson or carrying her to bed whenever she fell asleep on the couch. He had always thought she'd been asleep when he did that, never seeing her soft smile and never feeling the way she nuzzled closer to him.

He wished that he had.

"I think we should help her and her family." He said as a gasp pushed through his lips, the visions swiftly dissipating through his mind.

"I agree." Wanda nodded eagerly.

Steve turned to look at Clint who was unusually quiet. "Do you have a way to track them down? Or, at least, a way to contact them if they're in a jet?" He asked.

"Probably, but I didn't agree to this," Clint mumbled.

"If things go wrong, you can say I told you so." Steve quipped, making both of his friends laugh.

Clint stood to his feet, clasping a hand on Steve's shoulder. "I'm doing this for you, not her." He said.

He returned the smile, a flicker of hope igniting inside his heart.

Chapter Text

"Can you stop pacing please?"

Steve winced hearing the vexation in Clint's voice and quickly sat down on the couch overlooking the city. He knew he was driving his friend insane, but he couldn't seem to help it.

What if they couldn't find Natasha and her family? What if they had gone so far off-grid that they were untraceable to even Clint's radar? Natasha wasn't even conscious when she was taken from the hospital... what if she died because they weren't able to get her the medical treatment she desperately needed? What if the Red Room caught up to them before the Avengers could?

There were a thousand and one what-ifs.

As he sat down, he rubbed his hands through his tousled hair for the thousandth time that night and sighed. It was out of his control now. Clint was trying his hardest to reach any unknown aircraft radar and examining the source of every signal that he could find. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack while avoiding S.H.I.E.L.D.'s tracking system all at the same time. S.H.I.E.L.D. was hunting them like dogs chasing their tails, dozens of helicopters and agents patrolling New York. Steve knew they had been smart enough to not stick around and searching the city was futile. Working around the world as secret agents, like Natasha's family, allowed them to have connections everywhere. They evidently had a plan and a well-crafted one at that. To escape S.H.I.E.L.D.'s clutches without leaving a trace was a truly incredible feat. However, it made trying to help them even harder.

"Have you ever heard someone say that everything happens for a reason?" Wanda asked him quietly as she sat down beside him, laying a hand on his shoulder. They stared out the broad expanse of the glass window, watching the city bustle with life below the dark sky. Steve merely nodded his head. Of course, he had but that didn't mean he believed it. His life was full of bad luck, it seemed. He was never able to come up with a reason why half of the things in his life had happened. "Maybe this is that reason. If this didn't happen, who knows what would've. Now you know who she is, and we can help her." She said, a soft smile tugging on the corner of her lips. "I think this is Natasha's reason too. She needed help - they all did - and just think about if we're able to help them. Even if we can just give them a greater chance at escaping the Red Room, this will all be worth it. You saw what the Red Room does... Natasha would've been killed if she returned to Russia. If they hadn't tried to kill her here, you wouldn't have been there to get her to the hospital and, at least, give her a fighting chance."

Wanda was right.

Well, of course, she was.

She had always been wise beyond her years and reminded Steve time and time again why the world never really deserved her kindness. His throat was too tight with emotion to muster a proper response, so he merely hugged her and thanked her softly. He didn't know what he'd do without his friends. He certainly had bad luck, but he was lucky to call them teammates.

"Just have a little hope, okay?" Wanda told him assuredly as she pulled back and stood to her feet, returning to stand behind Clint and watching him work on his laptop. She did her best to help him, noting pinpoints that may be worth looking into while translating intercepted messages in languages that Clint didn't speak.

Steve drowned them out, knowing he'd just get in the way even if he tried to help. He watched the red and blue lights flash down below and hoped Natasha was somewhere safe. Even if he didn't love her, even if he was still mad about her assignment to kill him, he still cared about her. He had seen how much she cared about him too. He had seen the scars on her body, ones no one should have. He should've known what they were from, but it was too late now. He would be devastated if she was apprehended and tortured all over again, just to be murdered in cold blood. She didn't deserve to die. All she wanted was to live without fear.

"I think I got something," Clint said, swiftly interrupting his contemplation.

Steve leaped to his feet, coming to stand beside Wanda. His heart was pounding, his stomach twisting with apprehension. He began to pray it was them, staring at the computer screen as if he knew what he was looking at.

"It's a signal from an unregistered jet somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean that departed from New York a few hours ago," Clint explained. He began typing on the keyboard quickly before they lost the signal. "If it's those looking for safety, you are not alone in this fight. We want to help." He typed. It was an encrypted message they decided to send out when they made contact with an aircraft that seemed promising, a message of hope that it would reach the right people.

Steve held his breath when a red light flashed on the screen, meaning they had received a message back. All the other times before had been dismissive, confused responses that the aircraft they made contact with wasn't needing any kind of assistance. He hoped this time would be different, and it was as if he could hear his heart pounding in his chest as Clint opened the message.

"We need any medical equipment you can get. She is not doing well... so if my sister really trusted you, she would've told you where we were going. Don't let her down... come to help, not fight us. You wouldn't win anyway."

Steve would've been relieved... he should've.

They had finally made contact with Natasha's sister. They were trusting him, despite all those who had betrayed them before. He should've been honored yet all he could think about was she is not doing well. He knew they had to get to them before Natasha's body gave in to the effects of the cyanide poisoning. They had to help them before the Red Room got to them first. It was a cruel race against time for the man who had often run out of it.

"Do you know where she's talking about?" Wanda asked him. She sounded excited, ever so hopeful that they stood a chance despite the odds stacked against them.

"Before Natasha went unconscious, she told me she wanted to go south of Budapest where there are mountains by a town or something like that." He replied. It was an easy memory to recall, one that was meaningless then but meant the most now. He was trying hard to forget the moment when he thought he was going to lose her. Yet he could never forget the way she whispered how much she loved him, their last conversation before her heart stopped and the sounds of her ribs cracking with CPR haunted him as he tried desperately to save her.

Clint sighed, running his hand through his hair absentmindedly. "That could be anywhere in Budapest. She may not have even been lucid." He mumbled almost to himself. "At least we have a starting point." He then said as if he had a change of heart. He quickly typed a message back to them, pressing send just before the signal was lost. "We'll be on our way. Turn off all your radar when you can and try not to contact anyone else so the signal isn't intercepted. There's a massive manhunt." He warned them.

Time was everything they had yet everything they didn't.

Steve had already pulled some strings as Captain America and secured them a jet.

It was game on.

As Clint shut down the computer, Wanda and Steve quickly threw together the bags they had packed before they all headed to the roof where the jet awaited. The cold wind blew around them as they swiftly loaded onto the jet. It didn't feel real to Steve, that everything was slowly coming together, and they had a chance at finding Natasha and her family. It felt like another S.H.I.E.L.D. operation, one without a clear-cut resolution that they were heading into blind.

"Do we have a plan?" Clint shouted over the rumbling of the engine.

Steve sat down at the controls as Clint and Wanda began sorting through the supplies Tony had managed to get from S.H.I.E.L.D.. "Let's try not to run into the Red Room... that's all I got," Steve shouted back, putting the jet in the air and turning off the radar as they flew over the city. He doubted that S.H.I.E.L.D. would investigate their takeoff. They were the Avengers who assembled missions of their own, and they may very well assume that they were going after Natasha for revenge, but he didn't want to take any risk of the organization trailing them.

"Stark managed to get us a shit ton of supplies, but half of this medical equipment we won't know how to use. Do you think we should call Sam?" Wanda asked over his shoulder. She sounded far too excited for her own good, and it put Steve on edge.

"You can ask if he wants to meet us but only if he's absolutely certain. I have a feeling we could run into a fight, and I just want him to be aware of the risks." He replied, keeping his eyes ahead on the dark sky because without radar, they were flying blind. By now, Sam probably had probably heard who Natasha was, but what he didn't know was that they were going after her. It was his own mission, one Wanda and Clint had gotten roped into, and he didn't want to drag anyone else down with him if things went south.

"I'll give him a call," Wanda said, her voice fading into the background as she walked to the back of the jet.

Steve longed to try and reach Yelena through their radar, but he knew it was too risky. It was out of his hands now, and apart of him knew they could take care of themselves. The quiet hum of the engine enveloped him, and he tried not to lose himself in his own thoughts, especially when he had hundreds of questions he may never be able to answer. Within twenty-four hours, his life had taken a complete turn. He had gone from waking up with the woman of his dreams to finding out she was there to assassinate him. He was going to marry Natasha, to start a life with the woman he thought he knew - that he thought he loved. He was supposed to be Captain America... he was supposed to be better than this. However, despite all that happened, he wanted to help her. He wanted to help her family. Maybe he felt like he owed Natasha for protecting him, that had a debt to repay, but he had never really worked that way before. He'd never admit it aloud, but it was so much more than that. He cared about Natasha and maybe even Yelena. He wanted to see the Red Room burn in a fury of flames, for the heinous organization to never rise from the ashes.

It was about so much more than a debt needing to be repaid.

After a while of flying, he heard the sound of the jet doors opening with a whoosh and glanced back to see Sam and Bucky of all people entering the jet from the drop shoot. "What the hell?" He exclaimed. Not only were Clint and Wanda involved but now, both Sam and Bucky were.

"Well, Bucky got wind of what's going on and wanted to come. You're just lucky Pepper didn't let Stark join in on the fun." Sam grinned wickedly.

Bucky looked offended somehow as if flying with Sam had been abhorrent. Steve knew they had probably argued the whole way and as much as he loved both of his friends, he knew he would be listening to them bicker back and forth the entire mission. "I wish you would've told us about all this before jumping ship and going off on your own. We would've... we will help." Bucky said, sitting down beside Steve. "But I'm sorry. I wish we could've found out about her earlier."

"Yeah, I guess she's pretty damn good at her job." He said flatly, setting the jet on autopilot as they flew over the Atlantic. He turned to look at his friend, wondering what he was thinking. Did Bucky think that he was as stupid as he felt?

"She was good at protecting you all things considered." He shrugged in response. "She was also the best at her job. She wouldn't have been assigned to you if she wasn't. There was absolutely no way we would've caught her on our own if all this hadn't happened." He said.

"Do you approve of all this?" Steve asked although, he already knew the answer.

"Approve? Not necessarily, but I know about the Red Room. I know if Natasha wasn't on the brink of death, they would've had no problem going off-grid. I know that we're doing the right thing by helping them, even if it's just getting them on their feet. So don't actually fall in love with Romanoff because she's not coming back with us." Bucky laughed.

"Knowing my luck, she's going to try to kill me the moment she sees me," Steve mumbled, shaking his head to himself, even as a smile pulled at the corner of his lips.

"Well, you were never great with women." Bucky laughed.

Chapter Text

Budapest was beautiful.

It was one of the first thoughts that crossed Steve Rogers' mind as he guided the jet over the city. He had never traveled much when he was younger, his family never having the money nor did he even have the health to do so. Now, as an Avenger, the only traveling he did was to fight in wars, bouncing from place to place but never lingering for long. It was rare that he truly noticed the beauty of a city, but it was hard to ignore as he looked down upon Budapest. The artistry of the ancient buildings was astounding to Steve himself who had always taken an interest in art, and he was sure the city would tell a great amount of history just as the people would. The sun was just starting to set over the horizon of the mountains, the change in timezone throwing him off because the sun was just starting to rise in New York. He hadn't slept in far too long, but he was wide awake now at the thought of seeing Natasha and her family.

He was nervous, but there were always two types of nerves. One aided him, pushing him to do better in difficult situations. The other made his stomach churn, setting him on edge and derailing his focus. The kind of nerves he was feeling now was the latter because he didn't know how it would all go down. Surely they wouldn't trust five Avengers showing up at their doorstep, especially not with the substantial bounty America was offering for their arrest. He, however, was going to prove that they could trust the Avengers, that they were simply there to help. Nonetheless, he had an unnerving feeling that Natasha was going to be the hardest to convince. He didn't really know her, but she let so much of herself seep into who she was pretending to be that he knew some things about her. He knew she wasn't going to believe him at first, that her untrusting nature would arise, and she may very well think he had come for revenge. He was a patient man, however, and he would do whatever it took to convince her that he cared about her, Liho, and her family... that he wanted to see them get a life of freedom they very much deserved.

"I say we land at this airstrip," Clint said as he pointed at the map laid out in front of the team. It was a small piece of land amongst dense forest that would provide them enough coverage to refuel and decide what their plan is. "I think I know where they might be, but we shouldn't take the jet in case the Red Room is tracking them. When we find them, hopefully, they'll have a car or we can find one to move supplies."

"Thank you, Barton," Steve said, his voice full of sincerity. Without Clint, none of this would've been possible. They would've never been able to make contact with the family. Clint hadn't even wanted to find them in the first place, and Steve knew he owed his friend immensely. He may never even be able to repay him for the debt of risking his life to help him. After tracking the Red Room for years and even assassinating some of its' agents, Clint, of all people knew how dangerous their mission was.

"You owe me a beer when we get back." Clint teased good-heartedly. He took the pilot's seat and tilted the wings of the jet to the right, guiding the aircraft over the city and to the remote woodlands amongst the mountains.

Steve helped Sam, Bucky, and Wanda pack their essential supplies into smaller bags to hike with as Clint landed the jet. Sam knew more about medicine than their knowledge combined and swiftly went through the equipment before the jet touched down. "There should be enough here to last two weeks assuming Natasha will be in bad shape when we get there. As long as no one gets hurt, we should be fine." Sam said.

"If someone else gets hurt, we have a bigger problem on our hands," Bucky replied quietly.

The look in Sam's eye said everything he didn't as he opened his mouth to make a snarky response.

"Alright, boys. I'm not listening to you two bicker like toddlers." Wanda snapped, interrupting them before it could escalate into an argument no one wanted to listen to.

Steve was grateful, trying to focus on the mission at hand. It was uncharted, dangerous territory they were diving head-first into, and he was already on edge.

Clint landed the jet smoothly and the wheels came to a halt, the doors opening slowly. Steve inhaled deeply, disregarding the feeling in his stomach telling him that this was all wrong.

He should've listened to it.

He knew.

Yet as he began to unload their bags from the jet, Wanda right behind him, he stupidly ignored the warning bells going off inside his head that something was terribly wrong.

Suddenly, there was the unmistakable bang of a gun going off and a sharp pain went up Steve's right arm.

He reacted quickly, pushing Wanda back into the jet and covering her as best as he could without his shield. His heart was racing, coming to the realization that he'd been shot, and they were already under attack, facing a fight they very well might not be prepared for.

"What the hell?" Steve exclaimed. He and his teammates pressed back against the walls of the jet, eyes wide as adrenaline surged through them all. He was hardly aware of the blood seeping down his arm, the ache of the bullet piercing his muscles swiftly fading to the back of his mind as more bullets whizzed through the air, clanging loudly off the jet.

"Why are we already dealing with this bullshit?" Sam grumbled as he quickly put on his gear.

"I'm assuming it's the Red Room..." Bucky huffed.

It just might've been the first mutual agreement they had ever reached.

"Do we try and take off?" Wanda asked.

Steve looked over at her, relieved to see she hadn't been shot. He was already angry at himself for not even thoroughly checking their surroundings before they got off the jet. He would be devastated if she got hurt because of his mistake. "We need to fight. If we take off, they'll follow us." He said as Clint, surprisingly, nodded in agreement.

Sam was the first to charge into the fray, wings spread wide as he ascended above the trees while bullets whizzed around him. Steve quickly followed after him, grabbing his shield and bracing it in front of him. The sound of bullets clanging off the vibranium rung in his ears, but he narrowed his eyes and dug his feet into the dirt, running into the line of fire. He could hear the footsteps of one of the shooters charging towards him, guns ablaze as they shot round after round. He didn't waste any time, ramming into them with his shield and knocking the shooter out cold. He glanced down at them, the breath forced from his lungs when he saw how young the girl was. He'd always known who the Red Room was, just what they did, and how they exploited girls. However, seeing a girl who couldn't be more than sixteen, aiming to kill someone, was unsettling. It only fueled his hatred towards the organization that should've never been founded.

He forced himself to focus as another shooter began targeting him from somewhere in one of the trees. He was starting to become more cognizant of the ache in his arm, and he knew he wouldn't be able to fight for much longer. Trying not to think about how young the shooter could be, he threw his shield with a grunt, taking out the sniper, and then his shield ricocheted back to him.

Before he could even prepare himself, another girl suddenly ran out at him from the underbrush. He threw his shield aside, catching her fist in his hand as she aimed a punch at his injured arm. "I don't want to hurt any of you." He said, glancing into the kid's eyes. He wished he hadn't, the haunting look, void of any emotion, shocking him to his core. For a brief moment, he conjectured how much the kid had control over her own mind... if any at all. He was surprised when she was able to jerk her arm from his grip and tried to kick his legs out from underneath him. He maintained his balance, swiftly coming to the realization that he shouldn't underestimate her. She was a hell of a lot faster than him, her kicks and punches relentless but impotent against his strength and experience. Despite the fact that she was trying to kill him, he couldn't bring himself to knock her out. It didn't feel right, the odds heavily skewed as he merely blocked her blows before she could land one. It was a flash of red that eventually knocked her out as Wanda used her powers to bring the kid down.

"You're going to get yourself hurt if you keep doing that... more than you already are." Wanda scolded him.

Silence enveloped the woods, and all that was left was the aftermath of the fight. He picked up his shield as Sam landed beside him, gesturing to the blood running down his arm that stained his jacket red. "I'll be fine." He assured him quietly, glancing around at the unconscious girls lying around the jet. His heart was in his throat, and guilt consumed him in its entirety because the Avengers hadn't been able to help them. It wasn't fair. The girls hadn't even given them a chance, brainwashed by the Red Room who sent children to do their dirty work.

"The safe house I know of is a few miles north. I'm going to get the jet in the air with Wanda while you, Sam, and Bucky should see if that's where they are hiding out. If so, we'll land the jet nearby and figure out where to go from there. If it's empty or you run into trouble, call us and we'll come get you guys." Clint said quietly as they grouped together by the jet. They were all on edge but otherwise unharmed.

"What should we do about them?" Steve asked about the girls.

"Leave them. Let's get out of here before they become conscious, but I think they'll be too injured to trail us anyway." Clint said, and Steve knew better than to argue. It wasn't like they could take the kids with them anyway. They couldn't free them from the Red Room, at least, not yet.

Sam insisted on wrapping Steve's wound before they put on their backpacks, and Clint gave them the map he'd drawn that would lead them to the safe-house. Steve was apprehensive about splitting up, but he knew it was the only option because they couldn't leave the jet while trying to locate Natasha and her family. He, Sam, and Bucky began their hike as Clint and Wanda put the jet in the air. He hoped the disastrous start to their mission wasn't how it would end, that maybe his bad luck had finally run out. They hiked in silence, listening carefully for any astray footsteps or the quiet murmur of a voice. It was a while later when they reached a clearing, a house off in the distance amongst the tall grass. It was bigger than he thought, the home well kept with a car parked out front. He wondered if it really wasn't a safe house but actually, a vacation home left empty during the winter. Even if it wasn't where Natasha and her family were hiding out, maybe whoever was there could offer them indications of where they might be.

Steve was relieved when no one tried to attack them as they approached the house. It was quiet, unusually quiet, especially because he had the feeling that they were being watched.

"You should go in first. We'll back you up, but I think if it's just you, they're less likely to try and kill us." Sam said.

He nodded in agreement, taking another deep breath. He stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door, hoping he wouldn't come face to face with a gun if someone were to actually open the door.

"Why are you knocking?" Sam asked from where he and Bucky stood by the car, sounding amused.

Steve couldn't help but roll his eyes. "To let them know we're here!" It seemed rather obvious. He was more than likely to get shot if he barged into the house.

"What if it's not them?" Sam asked.

"With all this yelling, I'm sure if someone is in the house, they already know we're here!" Bucky shouted, throwing his hands in the air with exasperation.

Suddenly, as if on cue, the door was yanked open.

He saw a flash of red as someone grabbed onto the front of his jacket, and he was thrown to the ground as the assailant used their legs to knock him off balance. The back of his head hit the wood floor, and he tried to blink away the stars flashing in front of his eyes. He was a super-soldier designed to take hit after hit, but he was still human. He could only take so many and although his bullet wound had already started to heal itself, he'd lost a substantial amount of blood.

"Why are you here?"


He would recognize her voice anywhere, and nothing could prepare him for seeing her again. He didn't recognize the look in her eyes, the fiery glare that shook him to his core as she stared down at him, her hands at his throat. He was torn between wanting to kiss her or yell at her. Her beauty still stole the breath from his lungs like the very first time, and he just stared up at her as she kneeled on his chest, his eyes wide and his heart pounding.

"My team and I just want to help... I swear. America isn't involved in this; it's just us here." He said softly. His head was spinning. He wasn't sure if it was from seeing her again or taking a blow to the head. Maybe it was a bit of both.

"I really don't believe you." She snapped, her hands tightening around his throat. Her jaw was set in determination.

"Natasha..." He breathed, reached up slowly and curled his fingers around her wrist. She faltered, her gaze flickering down to where he held her.

"Men like you don't love terrible women like me." She said. She didn't sound angry anymore, and she loosened her grip around his neck.

"I don't love you. I don't know who you really are. But I care about you, and I know you feel the same way or you wouldn't have told me about this place." He said, and he meant every word.

Relief surged through him as she suddenly stood to her feet, stepping away from him and leaning against the back of the couch in the middle of the room. It was then he sat up and really looked at her, that he realized just how injured she was from the cyanide poisoning. He conjectured how she had even mustered the strength to take him to the ground when her skin was deathly pale and she'd lost weight underneath the sweatshirt and pajama pants she wore. His breath caught in his throat when he realized it was one of his sweatshirts that she was wearing.

"Наташа, что происходит?" [Natasha, what's going on?]

He recognized that voice too.

It was Yelena who came running into the room, a knife clenched in her fist. She seemingly sighed in relief when she saw that it was him. "You look like shit. What happened to you?" She frowned.

"Tell those two to come in," Natasha said coldly, referring to Sam and Bucky outside before Steve could answer Yelena. They evidently heard her as they stepped up to the porch and shut the door behind them, looking around the room awkwardly.

"You need to sit down or you're going to pass out," Yelena said so softly to her sister that Steve almost didn't hear her. His heart clenched painfully, trying not to think about her lying on the floor as he tried desperately to get her heart to beat again.

"Did you know about this?" Natasha grumbled at Yelena.

"Don't be mad. You've been unconscious, and I knew you wouldn't agree with this anyway." Yelena rolled her eyes, guiding her sister to the couch. It was then that their mother, Melina, Steve recognized from the video came downstairs followed by a burly man.

"Captain America!" The man shouted excitedly, and both Yelena and Natasha groaned in exasperation.

He raised his eyebrows, resisting the urge to step back as the man hugged him as if they were long, lost friends. "My name's Alexi... the Red Guardian." The man said as if Steve knew who he was, clapping him on the back and pulling away with a wide smile.

"It's good to meet you," Steve said, at a loss of what else to say.

He watched as Sam went to his knees in front of Natasha, unzipping the bag of medical supplies they brought with them.

"Are you a doctor?" Yelena asked.

"Not really, but I was a flight medic, so I'm going to put an IV in. Is that okay?" He said.

Natasha held her arm out to him and leaned back against the couch with a sigh. Steve came up behind the couch, taking the phone from Sam to reach out to Wanda and Clint. Natasha glanced back at him, and heat unfurled in his core as he looked into her familiar, emerald eyes he'd missed so much.

"You need a shower... and stitches." She crinkled her nose at him as a smile tugged at the corner of her lips.

He couldn't help but laugh, wondering how hard she would slap him if he tried to kiss her.

Chapter Text

Steve couldn't help but smile as he heard laughter coming from the kitchen. The smell of dinner wafted from the cooking of Wanda, Alexi, and Clint as if they weren't a group of strangers who had come together during trying times. It was certainly a scenario he hadn't envisioned, and he felt like he was home despite being so far from it. Bucky had turned on the television to play a show Steve recognized as The Office, a soft glow to the living room as snow fell from the dark sky shining with stars. The future was uncertain, and the Red Room could find them at any moment, but he knew no matter what happened, they would be okay. They were together, an unusual team that maybe stood a chance against the world.

"This could've gone a hell of a lot worse." Sam smiled as he worked on cleaning and stitching Steve's arm. He'd showered in one of the guest rooms and returned downstairs to join his friends. Liho had trotted after him, meowing persistently until he picked her up and sat down on the couch to give her the attention she so desperately wanted. He realized how much he'd missed her; how much he missed the life he had, even if it was entirely fabricated by Natasha. He knew he should be angry at her, and they hadn't even talked about what happened. He shouldn't want to hold her, to kiss her. He shouldn't be willing to lay down his life for hers.

He shouldn't.

Yet it was like he was falling for her all over again. He couldn't seem to separate who she really was from who she had pretended to be. He knew he was wishing on a star, that he had always been someone to hold onto too much hope. It wasn't like she felt the same way, and he doubted that he would even see her again after this. At the end of it all, he would be the one going home with a broken heart, even if she never meant to hurt him. "They are really good people." Steve nodded in agreement, looking down at Natasha lying beside him. Her head was practically resting on his thigh, the blanket he'd tucked around her pulled up to her chin. Liho was lying on his lap, purring contently as she napped. He knew Natasha hadn't meant to fall asleep, but Sam was pumping continuous fluids through the IV, and it was evident that she wasn't feeling well. He just recently noticed how bruised her lips were from giving her CPR, and the thought made his heart twist painfully.

He quickly tried to think of something else.

"Do you think she'll be okay?" Melina asked as she came into the living room. She leaned down to brush a strand of Natasha's red hair from her forehead before sitting across from them in one of the armchairs.

Her accent was thick, throwing Steve off every time she spoke. However, her eyes were kind, and she trusted them. He still had the note she'd written him, and he wanted to ask her a thousand questions. It just wasn't the right time.

"Yeah, I think so. She just needs a lot of time to recover. We saw a lot of cyanide poisoning in the army, but I've never seen anyone survive it." Sam said, snipping off the thread as he finished the last stitch to Steve's arm and stood to his feet. He checked Natasha's IV before heading into the kitchen to join Yelena and Bucky as they drank vodka straight from the bottle.

"That makes me feel much better." Melina sighed, shaking her head to herself. "I've never seen her so sick, and it hurts to see her like this."

Steve wholeheartedly agreed although he didn't say it aloud. "I'm sorry I couldn't protect her." He murmured. He had a lot of regrets, but hindsight was never 20/20.

"Don't say that. You saved her. She wouldn't be alive if you hadn't started CPR... Yelena and I should've never left that studio anyway." Melina replied.

It was palpable that she was taking the guilt of Natasha getting hurt upon her shoulders, and he longed to tell her that it wasn't her fault, that none of them should've had to endure the affliction the Red Room imposed upon them. "It wasn't yours or Yelena's fault. I promise we will bring down the Red Room." Steve told her imploringly.

"Oh, don't do that. You're going to get yourself killed. You already got shot!" Melina rolled her eyes.

He couldn't help but laugh. She sounded like his mother exasperated with his poor decision-making skills. "I promise, Melina." He grinned. She scoffed again but a smile tugged on the corner of her lips. Comfortable silence enveloped them, but he couldn't stop himself from asking the question he was longing to ask the moment he read her note. "Why did you trust me?" He said. It was a bold question, and he wasn't really expecting a response.

"I didn't, although I do now. It was actually Yelena who trusted you to help us. Evidently, Natasha did as well when she told you where we would be." She smiled softly.

He was surprised when she answered him so earnestly. "I just... I guess this is more of a question for Natasha, but why?" He asked. It didn't make sense to him. Surely, Natasha had many deep-cover assignments before. What made him so different? Trusting a man who served the United States' government agenda so closely was precarious.

How did she know he would do the right thing when he didn't know if he would do it himself?

Melina shrugged. "I have no idea why Natasha chose to protect you. She was the Red Room's best agent, and I have a hard time believing she simply let herself become compromised. This was never the plan, anyway. Our plan was for her to complete this mission and then we'd deflect. But when she stole files from the Avengers Tower, she hid a lot of them, and Dreykov knew that something was up." She explained.

"Is Dreykov the leader of the Red Room?" He asked quickly. He didn't recognize the name, but it was one he wouldn't forget.

"Yes. He sent agents to track her, and they found out what she was doing and how compromised she was. The problem is that he has so many good agents, and she didn't realize you two were being trailed until it was too late." She said.

Before he could say anything else, Alexi called from the kitchen that dinner was ready. He still had questions for Melina, but he hoped they would have time to talk eventually.

"Let me get you guys a plate. This is one of the first times she's been able to rest comfortably." Melina smiled fondly as she walked past him.

"Natasha, dinner's ready." He said softly, gently shaking her shoulder. He smiled when she groaned in protest and pulled the blanket over her head. "You need to eat. It'll help you feel better." He murmured, trying to ignore the way his heart thrummed.

"It'll just make me sick." She grumbled quietly.

"The fluids Sam is giving you will help with the nausea. Just try to eat a little bit, okay?" He implored.

She mumbled a few curse words, slowly drawing her legs up underneath her. She braced herself on her arm, but he realized just how weak she was as she struggled to sit up. He quickly hooked his arm underneath her to help, tucking a pillow behind the arch of her back and trying to ignore her eyes regarding him carefully.

She didn't entirely trust him.

He was expecting that, but he would prove her wrong.

"If you hadn't cracked my fucking sternum..." She said, still not really believing he was here, that he wanted to help them. She almost felt guilty about taking him to the ground, especially after he was just shot. She hadn't been wrong about him; his heart was true, and he always did the right thing, even if he stood alone with his team. She'd pathetically fallen asleep before she had the chance to really talk to them, but she knew they were just as benevolent. If her family had any chance of evading the Red Room, this was their shot in the dark.

"I'm sorry. I really am." He murmured to her, taking the two plates Clint offered to him as he came into the living room. Steve set one on her lap, the other on his own while Liho sniffed at the food. He gently set the cat on the floor, hushing her as she meowed in vexation. Yelena, on the other hand, sat down on the floor with Liho and offered her a piece of dinner from her plate.

"I'm just teasing because I wouldn't be here if you hadn't." She sighed. Her hands were shaking slightly as she picked up the fork, but she grit her teeth and narrowed her eyes despite the fact her head was spinning. She was unnerved feeling so ill, needing help from her family to do the simplest of tasks. She was supposed to be made of marble - unbreakable. Yet she was the most vulnerable, slowing them down and putting them all at risk. She couldn't muster the strength to go off on her own to protect her family when she couldn't even change clothes without needing help. On top of it all, she was surrounded by strangers and Steve, of all people, who had the misfortune of seeing her like this.

Never before had she needed to rely on anyone.

She was embarrassed, frustrated, but most of all... scared. She was never afraid of dying but now she had something to lose.

"Let me help," Wanda said softly, offering her hand out to Natasha when she saw her struggling to open her water bottle. She was sitting on the floor beside Yelena as they had been petting and feeding Liho.

She was too proud to ask for help and thought her futile attempts at opening the damn thing had gone unnoticed. Evidently, they had not. She knew Steve would've opened it without acknowledging her to save her the chagrin, but he was too busy talking with a weirdo with a metal arm and Alexi, who was entirely enthralled with actually meeting Captain America. It was essentially three, weird people caught up in a conversation she couldn't be bothered to listen to. "Thank you." She said to Wanda. She had come to like the woman despite the few, brief conversations they've had. Wanda opened the bottle for her, but her head spun as she forced herself to swallow a sip of the water. For a brief moment, she wondered if it was better to have died, rather than to feel like this and burden everyone around her. Her body was poisoned - tainted - and she knew her road to recovery was long if she even made it that far. The odds were against her, a stark reminder every time she looked at her bruised abdomen and the red splotching of her skin.

"Are you okay, Nat'?" Steve whispered to her, carefully steadying her hand when she started to spill water onto the blanket they shared.

She could only nod with bile rising into her throat. The warmth of his fingers curling around her hand didn't help either, and she scolded herself for feeling like such an enamored fool. He was never hers to love, and the fact that he came to Budapest meant nothing.

He said he didn't love her.

How could he?

Not after everything she had done to him, everything she'd put him through.

"I... I'll be back." She said quickly. The churning in her stomach was so unbearable that she yanked the IV from her arm to stand up. She stumbled over Wanda sitting on the floor and barely made it to the bathroom in time to lean over the toilet. She threw up the dinner she'd just eaten, everything else left in her stomach, and a bit of blood that tasted metallic on her tongue. Tears stung her eyes and her head was swimming. She wanted to cry when she heard familiar footsteps follow her into the bathroom. Of course, he wouldn't let her fight through this alone; it wasn't in his nature.

"I got you," Steve murmured. He kneeled down beside her, pulling her hair back from her face and rubbing her back.

Fuck him.

Fuck his stupidly, handsome face and his stupidly, good heart. She was so fucking gone for him, and she entirely despised herself for ruining everything between them. She should've told him the truth the moment she met him.

Surprisingly, despite it all, she didn't hate herself for falling in love with him.

How could she not fall in love with him?

Everything he was and everything he stood for... she loved him, and she hated herself because he deserved so much better.

Nonetheless, she was selfish.

Oh, how she was selfish.

She couldn't help but lean into him as her stomach finally settled, and she closed her eyes when he kissed her forehead as if nothing had changed between them. She longingly wished they were back at their apartment, that she could go back in time to relive those precious moments when she was simply his girlfriend and a dance teacher. It felt far too good to be in his arms again. The ache in her heart seemed to dissipate as her world righted itself, and she tucked herself against him to hide the flush coloring her cheeks.

"God, you're burning up." He murmured, feeling the warmth of her skin against his lips.

She wanted to reach for him when he drew back from her, but she realized it was just to take the water bottle Wanda was giving to him. She was grateful when the door shut, and it was just the two of them. She didn't have to pretend with him anymore. It's not like she could pretend to be okay, anyway. "I need this off." She huffed, feeling uncomfortable as sweat beaded on the back of her neck. She tried to lift her - well, technically his - sweatshirt over her head, but a sharp pain shot up her chest as she stretched upwards. She gasped, and she would've fallen back against the cabinets if he hadn't been there to catch her. She looked up at him, feeling stupidly helpless. However, he was already helping her slide her arms through the sleeves of the sweatshirt and lifting it over her head so she was left in her tang-top. As he gently combed his fingers through her hair, smoothing it down, she closed her eyes. Ever so slowly, she was coming to realize that he wanted to be here for her. She didn't know why; he should really be out to kill her. However, she was also coming to realize that maybe... just maybe... she needed him.

"Better?" Steve asked, and she nodded quickly.

She reached out to pull him closer, despite the fact that they were sitting on the bathroom floor, but he froze, his eyes wide with something akin to fear. She quickly realized what he had seen. He caught her wrist in his hand as she went to adjust her tang-top that came up with her sweatshirt. She no longer painted a pretty picture of the Black Widow... Dreykov would've been ashamed and had her killed by now. She was unusually thin with the distinct splotchy, red skin of cyanide poisoning and the dark bruising of internal bleeding spreading from the back of her neck where she'd been injected to the front of her hips. To make matters worse, her chest was battered from how long CPR had been done on her. She knew how awful she looked, and she wished they would've just called her time of death at the hospital.

"Your stomach..." He breathed. He looked like he was going to cry. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Natasha." He gasped. Then, he was actually crying and cradling her in his lap. She was wondering what good she'd done in her life to deserve him.

"Stop this... don't apologize. I'm the one who should be doing that." She told him, letting him bury his face in the nape of her neck as she ran her fingers through his hair. She hated seeing him so upset, but he had no reason to be. At least, not from her perspective.

"You... you don't understand. I thought I l-lost you." He breathed. After a few moments, he seemingly composed himself and pulled back from her.

She brushed away a stray tear from his cheek, her breath catching in her throat when he turned his head to kiss the palm of her hand. She didn't deserve him. "Maybe it would've been for the best." She whispered. She couldn't look into his eyes, not when he was staring at her so openly and earnestly.

"Don't say that." He shook his head. "Wanda has these weird, sort of powers, and she saw some of your past in Red Room. I know you were... raped and t-tortured. I know why you hated me so much and wanted to complete your mission when it was assigned to you. I'm so damn sorry I wasn't good enough to help you. I just wish you would've told me about everything." He said.

She felt like she was going to throw up again for an entirely different reason. She felt Wanda's powers that day in the studio, but she hadn't thought anything of it. She had even perceived the shock in Wanda's eyes; the fear and sadness.

She should've known.

"Oh, hell. Don't let that skew your judgment, Steve. I had choices, and I'm not a good person." She said indignantly.

It hurt.

It hurt so much.

She wasn't mad at him or Wanda - no. She was mad at herself for being such a coward, for hiding in the shadows just like Dreykov did. He could've chosen not to tell her about what he knew, but he did the moment he had the chance. She'd done the opposite. She had lied to him for months, and he hadn't even found out the truth from her.

"You're right. You had choices, so here we are... but I also think you're very wrong." He told her softly. He could read her like an open book; he could see the confusion and affliction in her eyes. He could see how much she went back and forth with herself and her feelings. 

"How do you not hate me? I did awful things to you... I took advantage of you, and I'm so sorry." She said, cupping his jaw in her hands and gently pressing her forehead against his.

"I could never hate you." He murmured, bumping his nose against hers just like he'd done all those times when they were 'dating.'

Then, she was the one crying, and he held her just as close as she'd held him. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for what I did to you." She repeated over and over again, curling her hands in his shirt and wishing she could go back in time. Maybe she could've convinced him to run away with her, and they could've helped her family deflect... but maybe she was just wishing on a star. She was never one to let her emotions get the best of her, but she wasn't going to lie to Steve anymore. She wasn't going to pretend because he deserved so much better. She sure as hell didn't deserve him, but she was going to try her hardest to give him everything that she could. "Can we get out of the bathroom?" She sniffed after she managed to compose herself.

He laughed, helping her to her feet. "Sam needs to put in a new IV." He mused.

She quickly brushed her teeth and then they walked back into the living room together, Steve keeping his arm around her and holding her close. Her family and his team had set up pillows and blankets on the couch, and Sam was already waiting with a new IV kit. Feeling entirely pathetic, tears brimmed in her eyes when she saw how much her family and his team cared. It was something she'd never felt before, something she knew she didn't deserve.

"You are so loved," Melina murmured to Natasha as she helped Steve guide her onto the couch.

She laid back, squeezing her mother's hand with the strength she had left as Sam kneeled down beside her and inserted the IV.

"You're on nurse duties from now on. She's a terrible patient." Yelena smirked at Steve. Her eyes were fond, however, as she tucked a blanket around Natasha and brushed a hand through her hair.

"You were fired after you tried to overdose me on that medication and nearly burned me alive in the bathtub." Natasha rolled her eyes, but she was grateful for her sister who'd never left her side.

"Well, we're trained killers... not nurses!" Yelena laughed.

"Trained killers..." Wanda scoffed. "All of you are big softies."

Everyone laughed, settling back into their seats in the living room. Steve sat down on the opposite side of the couch by Natasha's legs, finishing his food as she picked at hers. He could tell she'd lost most of her appetite, and he wished to take her pain away, to bear it upon his shoulders so she didn't have to; that even for one, precious moment, she could feel free.

He was surprised a while later when she shifted closer to him, and he looked at her to see her regarding his gunshot wound closely. "Did Sam not do a good enough job?" He teased. Her emerald eyes flicked up to his, and his breath caught in his throat. He longed to wrap his arms around her, to simply hold her even if they were surrounded by his teammates and her family. He didn't think they'd mind; Bucky and Yelena had become rather close themselves.

"It looks fine. I could've done better, though." She shrugged.

"I thought you and Yelena weren't nurses." He smirked boyishly.

"Fuck you, Rogers." She mumbled, shifting away from him to the opposite side of the couch. He laughed, taking her hand in his and pulling her back to his side. She didn't fight him, tucking herself into his side and laying her head on his shoulder. Heat unfurled in his core, and he closed his eyes as he rested his head atop hers. He wondered if they really had to say goodbye, that maybe... just maybe... he didn't have to lose her. "I missed you." He told her quietly.

"It's hard to miss a person you don't know, but I'm very much capable of missing you." She murmured.

He couldn't help but smile. She really was a big 'softie.' "I know exactly who you are." He said, kissing her forehead and running his fingers through her hair the way she always liked. She sighed, pressing even closer to him and letting the world fade around her as sleep enveloped her.

It was a while later when almost everyone had gone to sleep. The soft glow of the television cast shadows upon the living room, but Steve paid no mind to the show on TV. Natasha was asleep in his arms with Liho resting on the arm of the couch, and he couldn't seem to draw his eyes away from her. He felt like the luckiest man in the world; Melina really had been right in her letter to him. It was just Alexi who had stayed downstairs with them after everyone else had turned in for the night while Yelena and Bucky took the first watch on the porch together. He tried not to laugh at the irony of it, but he knew both Yelena and Bucky had shared life experiences.

He'd thought that Alexi had fallen asleep because the man never really seemed to stop talking, but he was taken by surprise when the burly man stood to his feet, turning to look at him.

"Thank you for taking care of her," Alexi said softly.

"She's always safe with me," Steve replied, feeling unusually demure.

"I know. If she wasn't, you would already be dead." Alexi grinned, patting him on the shoulder as he walked by the couch and then ascended the staircase.

Steve smiled to himself knowing he had her father's approval. Even if Alexi really wasn't her biological father, he was the closest thing she had to one. He turned off the television and closed his eyes, listening to Natasha's soft breathing and running his hands over her back as she lay on his chest. He felt how tight her muscles were and began to carefully knead them, massaging the knots and feeling every curve of her body he knew so well. He'd counted all of her scars, her freckles and birthmarks; the marks that made her the woman he adored.

She moaned quietly, stretching her legs that were tangled with his and curling her hand in his shirt. "Feels nice..." She mumbled languidly.

"I'm sorry. Did I wake you?" He asked, but he didn't stop. Her moan had gone straight to his core, and he tried to recite all the saints he could think of, remembering all the reasons why he shouldn't want to bury his head in between her thighs. She shook her head, bracing herself on her elbows above him. The look in her eyes said everything she didn't, the flutter of her eyelashes igniting the orb of heat in his core. He knew sex should be the last thing on their minds, but it had been too long since he'd had her. He wondered if she was thinking the same thing.

She coughed suddenly, shattering the alluring spell around them as she abruptly sat up and grabbed the box of tissues on the living room table. His heart sunk into his stomach when he saw the dark splotches on the tissue, knowing it was blood even in the dim lighting.

"I think I'm going to die." She told him softly after her coughing subsided.

"Don't say that, Natasha." He shook his head. "I won't let you." He couldn't harbor the desperation in his voice.

He couldn't lose her.

"That's not the way it works." She laughed solemnly, shaking her head. "I'll be right back." She then said, getting off the couch and heading to the bathroom. He didn't follow, not wanting to be more overbearing than he already was. He grabbed his phone on the table and quickly typed a message to Sam, hoping he was still awake.

✉️ SR: Natasha coughed up blood

He sent to Sam, even though he didn't know if there was anything he could do for her. A few moments later, she came from the bathroom and laid down atop him as she had been before, her head on his chest and her legs tangling with his. He kissed the top of her head as his phone pinged with a text from Sam.

✉️ SW: Steve I'm sorry, but I think we need to get her to a hospital. I can only do so much for her here. I'm worried she's going to have some sort of organ failure if she's not already

✉️ SR: Damn it... I'll talk to Yelena and see if we can figure something out. Steve typed back with a heavy sigh. He knew Sam was right. There was nothing they could do for her here. He picked up his phone to text them as he didn't want to leave Natasha's side, and he was far too comfortable laying with her. Just as he began to text Yelena asking her to come inside, he received another text that made his blood run cold.

"Captain Rogers, we know your location and who you are with. We have a S.T.R.I.K.E team incoming for extraction, and I suggest that all of you surrender before doing something stupid."

Chapter Text

"Natasha, we need to get you guys out of here!"

Steve sat up so fast that her head spun. It took her a few seconds to move off him to sit onto the couch while he leaped to his feet. She was just about to fall asleep. "What are you talking about?" She mumbled, rubbing her eyes. He pushed his phone into her hand before rushing to the front door to call Yelena and Bucky inside. She read the text from Nick Fury who she knew was the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and her blood ran cold. Their luck had run out, and they were trapped. She wanted to cry, but she knew it would do them no good. She could never have the life she wanted with Steve, and she had to face the stark reality of it. She would always be on the run until her past caught up with her. Bad people didn't get good endings, and she was the villain in this story.

Yelena and Bucky came rushing back into the house, shouting for everyone else to wake up. The living room was soon filled with hushed voices as his team and her family converged together on what to do. They only had minutes until S.H.I.E.L.D. closed in on their location, but the answer was becoming increasingly clear to Natasha. "We... I can't outrun them, and they're after me, anyway." She said, sitting down on the couch because she was so damn exhausted. She had been silent the whole time, and everyone turned to look at her as they realized what she was implying.

"We'll put you guys on our jet," Steve said quickly, shaking his head. He knew what she was planning to do without her even having to say it aloud. "Surrendering is not an option."

She had to bite her tongue to not yell at him. Why couldn't he see the bad in her? Why was he so damn stubborn and selfless? She had lied to him, stole his virginity, and dragged him into this mess. He should be grateful she was willing to surrender herself and face the consequences.

She deserved what was coming for her.

"I'm sure they have a way to track the jet. My family can run on foot, and I will surrender." She argued. She hated the look in his azure eyes she loved so much; the panic and hurt reflecting in them. She hated being the reason for it, but she wasn't going to back down with her decision. She was in no shape to run with her family, and the last thing she wanted to do was slow them down, especially when she knew they would never leave her behind.

"No, Natasha. I'm not letting you do this." Steve said firmly.

"It's not your choice to make." She replied sharply. She had made few, genuine choices in her lifetime, but she was certain about this. She wasn't going to drag everyone down with her.

"What the hell is wrong with you? We can fight them." Yelena snapped. She kneeled down beside her, and Natasha knew if she wasn't so ill, her sister would've quite literally tried to shake some sense into her.

Natasha reached for Yelena's hand, squeezing gently. There were only a few times in the past she'd actually felt like a big sister, but this was one of those times. "It doesn't make sense for all of us to be on the run. You know I'll be fine." She told her. She hated the idea of leaving her family just when they finally had the chance to be together, but she had to. She had to be selfless, to let them go and hope that maybe... just maybe... fate would bring them together again.

"This may sound terrible, but I think this might be the best option. S.H.I.E.L.D. can get her to a hospital and then we can go from there. We may be able to work a deal with Fury and if worst comes to worst, we can help Natasha escape from S.H.I.E.L.D. once she's healed from all this." Sam said. He sounded apprehensive like they would all renounce the idea.

"I actually agree with that," Clint said quickly. "We have a lot of leverage over S.H.I.E.L.D. being ya' know... the Avengers. Natasha won't be alone in this."

There was the sound of a helicopter in the distance, an austere warning that their time was up. "Go. Now." Natasha said firmly. She hugged her mother and Yelena quickly, brushing away Melina's tears before shoving them towards the back door with Liho crated in Yelena's arms. She and Alexi's relationship was complicated, but she still loved him like her father. They embraced quickly, and she watched them grab the bags of money, documents, and clothes they'd packed years ago. She was proud of them, and she hoped one day she would be able to tell them that.

Steve met Alexi's eyes just before the man slipped out the back door with Melina and Yelena, remembering their conversation about Natasha always being safe with him. It was a nod from Alexi that said everything he didn't need to, and Steve wasn't going to let him down.

He wouldn't fail her.

Natasha felt the heavyweight of fear and despondency settle upon her shoulders as she watched her family leave. She internally cursed herself for not being able to be there for them, but at least they wouldn't be on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D.. They only had to look out for the Red Room, but she didn't know which was worse.

"Natasha, I need you to cooperate, okay? Don't say anything and just cooperate. I'm going to try and talk them down." Clint said to her. There was something in his eyes that reassured her she would be okay, that he understood the position she was in. For a brief moment, she conjectured how he'd become an Avenger. Had he fought for the wrong people before? What lies had he told that weren't his own? "And you... don't do anything stupid." He pointed at Steve as he sat down beside Natasha.

Steve looked bewildered, and it made her laugh despite the circumstances. She didn't push him away when he put his arm around her shoulder. She simply leaned closer to him. She knew she would be torn away from him soon, that if it was up to S.H.I.E.L.D., she'd never see the light of day again. She tried to commit to her memory what it felt like to be with him. She didn't want to forget the warmth in her chest as he held her or how safe she felt when she was with him.

She didn't want to forget anything.

"You've made some poor decisions in the past, Stevie." Bucky quipped, seemingly agreeing with Clint.

"Don't pout now that Yelena is gone." Steve teased him in return.

"Yeah, we're going to have to talk about that." Natasha raised her eyebrows at Bucky. The helicopter was hovering above the house now, and her stomach twisted with chagrin. Her instincts told her to run - to fight. She was never supposed to surrender, the will to survive drilled into her at such a young age. She was supposed to die for the Red Room, but she had really gone astray years ago. She tucked her trembling hands into her lap but when Steve tightened his arm around her, she knew he had seen how nervous she was. It was the way he turned to kiss her forehead that let her know that maybe, just maybe, she wasn't alone in this.

"Hey now... you're also cozying it up with my best friend." Bucky chuckled as he and Sam followed Clint to the front door. The three men stepped outside, closing the door behind them as there were shouts and flashing lights. It sent a chill up her spine.

"I got your back," Wanda said to Natasha, smiling softly at her.

"Thanks, Wanda." She returned her smile. Wanda stood in front of the door, watchful and guarded as Clint, Sam, and Bucky argued with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but she knew the odds were against her. They always had been. "Hey, Steve." She said quietly as he stood to his feet. Everything was moving too fast for her.

She wasn't ready, but she had no choice.

He offered his hand to her, and she took it as he helped her stand. "Yeah, Nat'?" He asked.

"I love you, and I'm sorry for what I did." She told him hurriedly.

She meant it.

God, she meant every word.

She cupped his face in his hands and kissed him before he could recover from the shock of it all. She kissed him like it was their last because it very well may be. She tried to pour everything she had into the kiss, imploring him to feel what she felt for him. His lips fit between hers like the last missing puzzle piece to her heart, and it was as if the world faded around them. It could've been seconds or minutes. She wasn't sure. However, it ended far too soon as the front door was yanked open, and she stepped away from him. Her head was spinning, and her stomach was fluttering with the stupid butterflies he gave her. She wanted to tell him again and again that she loved him, and she was so very sorry for everything, but she didn't have the chance. It was as if a cold bucket of water had been dumped upon her as a burly agent sneered at her and grasped her shoulders roughly.

She stumbled, falling to her knees before the man hooked his arms under hers and forced her to stand. "I thought you'd put up a fight." The man said lowly. "We should just give you to the Red Room and let them do our dirty work."

Oh, he was lucky she didn't fight back.

She grit her teeth, remembering Clint's advice to stay quiet and 'cooperate.' She was sure they had different definitions of cooperation in a time like this, but she knew she'd cross a line if she broke the agent's neck. She tried not to cry out as the man forced her hands behind her back and handcuffed her. It was a painful, burning stretch in her chest that made her eyes glassy and a pathetic whimper push through her lips.

She hated herself for it.

"Be careful, Rumlow!" She heard Steve growl. There was scuffling, the sound of a fight that she was swiftly dragged away from.

The agent, apparently called Rumlow, tried to push her out the front door until Wanda stepped in front of them. "Don't ever lay a hand on her." Wanda snapped, swiftly using her powers to break the handcuffs and wrap her arm around Natasha's shoulder. She leaned into her gratefully, letting Wanda help her outside where she was ushered onto the helicopter. 

Steve tried not to hurt anyone. He really did. However, Natasha was forced out of his arms before he even had the chance to tell her that he loved her too, and then Rumlow had laid his hands on her, talking about returning her to the Red Room.

He saw red.

It was Clint who pulled him off Rumlow just before he aimed another punch at the man. Rumlow shook him off, glaring fiercely at Steve, but he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut as he stalked outside.

"They had a kill orders on her," Clint told Steve, his hands firm and unyielding on his shoulders. "We talked them down, and Fury agreed to take her to a hospital. We're going to take the jet back to S.H.I.E.L.D." He said.

Steve jerked away from him, panic slivering up his spine. "I need to go with her."

He promised Alexi.

He promised to keep her safe. He already failed, and he wouldn't make that mistake again.

"No, you don't. Not right now. Wanda and Sam are with her, and you know they won't let anything happen to her. We need to play this very carefully, Steve. Both you and Natasha are beyond compromised to think clearly." Clint told him.

Bucky came back into the house a few moments later. "They're ready for take-off. Let's go." He gestured to their jet.

As much as Steve longed to fight his way onto the helicopter, he knew Clint was right. Wanda was the strongest of them all, and Sam would protect her just as resolutely. They had to be very careful for when it came time to negotiate Natasha's release, and they hadn't gotten off to a good start."Are they trailing her family?" Steve asked Bucky lowly as they loaded onto their jet.

"They aren't after them. I doubt S.H.I.E.L.D. realized they were here." Bucky responded after the doors to the jet were sealed and Clint had taken the pilot's seat.

They were in the air quickly, gliding through the night sky while Steve tried not to pace nor stare nervously out the window. After a while, Clint set the jet to autopilot and came to sit down at the table with him and Bucky. "I'm hoping to negotiate Natasha's release in that if she can prove her deflection from the Red Room, Fury may be willing to work with her. They'll probably want her under a contract, so we'll have to talk about those terms with Natasha. As long as she doesn't do anything stupid, I think we can make this work." Clint said. He had evidently been thinking about it for a while.

"Would she have to be put under a contract? There's no chance of her having any freedom?" Steve asked with a heavy sigh.

"I don't know. In S.H.I.E.L.D.'s eyes, she didn't prove that she wasn't going to kill you. All she proved was that she wanted out. Unfortunately, our word can only go so far." Clint replied, crossing his arms over his chest. He looked tired, just as they all were.

Steve ran his fingers through his tousled hair, wishing more than anything he could've saved Natasha from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s unyielding clutches.

"You're seriously not going to let me see her?" Steve snapped, his azure eyes narrowed at Fury sitting across the room at his desk. He was trying not to yell, to not let his anger get the best of him. He was better than that. However, he hadn't seen Natasha in a week. All he had heard was that she was alive, but she was in intensive care and refusing to talk to anyone. S.H.I.E.L.D. had drafted an austere, less than satisfactory contract, but there were only two options. Either she signed it, or S.H.I.E.L.D. handed her over to the Red Room. He wasn't going to let that happen. She deserved so much better.

"Do you really think that would be a good idea?" Fury rolled his eyes. "Captain, you are compromised and so is Romanoff." He told him adamantly.

The way Fury appeared to be so disinterested made him grit his teeth. He knew S.H.I.E.L.D. wanted revenge. They didn't really care if she signed herself over to them. After all, she had killed a number of their agents. He knew everything wasn't black and white, but he knew she had a good heart. "I could get her to talk! Maybe she would read through the contract and actually think about signing it." He said. He wasn't going to give up on her, even if she had given up on herself.

"She has been read the contract a thousand times, Captain. If she wanted to sign, she would. If she wants to go back to the Red Room, she won't." Fury snapped.

"She doesn't want to go back to the Red Room. They'll kill her." He muttered. "Please, Fury. Let me talk to her. You owe me." He said firmly.

Emotion flashed across Fury's face so fast he would have missed it if he wasn't paying attention. He was remembering Steve bringing down Hydra, the Avengers saving millions of people, a threat Fury had failed to stop on his own. His eyes seemingly softened and for a long while, he was silent. "She's in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s infirmary. Room 315... I'll let the guards know." Fury finally said.

Relief washed over Steve, and a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. "Thank you." He said before he turned and left Fury's office without awaiting the director's response. He rushed to the infirmary, trying not to beam with excitement. As he approached the room, he disregarded the dozens of guards stationed in the hallway. He had one mission now, and it was saving the ever so stubborn girl he loved more than anything.

He tried to conceal his emotions as he stepped into the hospital room. The first thing he noticed was the handcuffs chaining her to the bed railing, and he tried to bite back the anger rising inside him. Although, he knew if Natasha really wanted to, she would've been able to escape them.

She was sleeping, and he was surprised when she didn't wake up as he shut the door behind him. She had always been such a light sleeper. Her red hair was braided from her face as she wore an oxygen cannula with multiple pale tubes running from her arms to dozens of machines around the bed. It hurt to see her like this, and he hated himself because he wasn't able to be by her side through it all.

"Natasha." He said softly. He longed to draw her into his arms, to kiss her and tell her that he loved her. However, he knew he couldn't.

He couldn't.

He had to tread the waters carefully.

She awoke slowly, her eyelashes fluttering and her head rolling to the side as a sigh pushed through her lips. Her emerald eyes were glassy and for a brief moment, he conjectured how many drugs they were pushing through her. She finally looked at him, but she expertly veiled whatever she was feeling when their eyes locked from across the room.

"I would've been here sooner. I wasn't allowed to see you." He said quickly as heat unfurled in his core. He didn't want her to be mad at him, but she was impossible to read.

"I know." She nearly whispered. Relief surged through him when he realized she wasn't angry with him.

Her voice was discordant with sleep and he knew if she was feeling better, she would've teased him for the smile that broke out on his face. The tension between them was seemingly broken as he walked up to her bedside. He reached out and broke the handcuffs from her wrist, wincing when he noticed the familiar scars he knew so well.

"I'm used to it. They used to handcuff us to our beds at night in the Red Room... I can tell you these things now." She said absentmindedly. She looked like she was going to fall back asleep as she laid back on her pillow. He knew it wasn't a great time to try and have a serious conversation with her, but he didn't know if he'd have the chance again.

"You're not going back there. I won't let you." He told her imploringly. He remembered her saying that she was sorry - that she loved him. He remembered it all from the day he met her to when he thought he was going to lose her. She was worth fighting for, and he would do anything to give her the life she never had. If convincing her to sign S.H.I.E.L.D.'s contract was the first step in getting her that, then he would give it his all.

"None of this is up to you. Do you even understand what's in that contract? I'd rather be dead than be trapped in all this bullshit." She snapped at him.

He saw the fire in her eyes, the determination that made him falter, but he wasn't going to back down. He wasn't oblivious to the power she held over him, just how tight she had him wrapped around her finger, but he was a soldier. He would solider on just as he was trained to do, to run through the fire to save the woman he loved, even if he had to drag her from the flames while she fought him. "Can we read through it together? Tell me what you want to change and let's just talk about it." He said.

"I don't want to." She huffed.

Her response made him smile. He wondered if he would ever get to see her stomp her feet at him. They had never really argued before, but one of the first thoughts that had crossed his mind was that she was cute when she was mad. "There are things in life we don't want to do but that we have to." He told her almost teasingly.

"Did you come here just to harass me?" She rolled her eyes.

"No, I came to read the contract with you." He shrugged, picking up the file on the bedside table. He sat down at the end of the bed, disregarding the glare she sent his way. If looks could kill, she might've just carried out her original plan to assassinate him.

"Whatever. I'm going back to sleep." She mumbled.

He had to bite back his smile when she tucked her feet under his thigh, and he rested one of his hands atop her leg. She was vexed with him, just as he was with her, but their argument really didn't mean anything. It was just words being tossed back and forth while their actions spoke louder. "Well, I'm not leaving unless they kick me out." He humphed. He knew the guards would eventually. Time was never on their side.

"I know you won't because you're stubborn." She mumbled.

"Oh, I'm the stubborn one?" He teased.

"I hate you."

"I don't remember if that's what you really said." He raised his eyebrows at her. She sat up so fast his eyes widened in surprise.

"Want me to say it again? Fine. I love you, but you're annoying the hell out of me right now, so are you going to shut up?" She said. She held his gaze for a moment, her eyes clouded with emotion he couldn't read before she laid back down.

"Nope, but I love you too." He said adamantly. It felt far too good to say it back, even if she hardly reacted to the three words. All he needed was for her to hear them because he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he never told her how he felt.

She huffed, pulling the blanket over her head. "You don't know me well enough to say that."

He almost took the bait.

He knew she was trying to evoke a response from him, to start a real argument that may end up hurting feelings. However, he also knew it was an internal conflict of hers, that she didn't believe he could love her after all that happened.

He would prove her wrong one day.

Leaning on her legs, he began reading the file aloud.

"This contract binds Natalia Alianovna Romanoff to S.H.I.E.L.D. for three years and to the United States for her lifetime."

He frowned at her. "That's your real name?"

"Natasha is a sort of nickname." She mumbled in response. He hummed in acknowledgment, continuing to read the document.

"These three years offer Romanoff protection from the Red Room and any of their agents, cells, and operations. Under S.H.I.E.L.D., Romanoff will operate on any requested missions, provide any knowledge when appealed, and will work under Nick Fury as the handler. Clint Barton will operate as Romanoff's partner until said otherwise. Romanoff will be provided $200,000 yearly while working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and any reasonable resources upon request."

He read through the dozens of papers, reaching a section that made his eyes widen and anger course through his veins.

"Romanoff will not engage in conversation with Captain America unless given permission. Romanoff will not romantically or platonically involve herself with Steve Rogers in any way, shape, or form. This still stands outside of America. Any infringement upon this will result in the contract being terminated at any point."

"This is bullshit." Steve snapped. Who was S.H.I.E.L.D. to tell her that she couldn't even talk to him? Who was S.H.I.E.L.D. to keep them apart? Why didn't he have a say in any of it?

She laughed at his reaction, and it surprised him because she had been so quiet. "I think that's the part they are most adamant about." She said bitterly. "Clint tried to get that part changed, but they wouldn't reconsider."

Steve tried to think about all the possibilities, conjecturing the strings he could pull as Captain America to change that part of the contract. However, S.H.I.E.L.D. was offering her protection from the Red Room with Clint as her partner. That meant everything, and he didn't know if it was worth fighting S.H.I.E.L.D. when they had the power to entirely abrogate the contract. "I'll wait for you as long as I need to. This isn't goodbye." He finally said. He could feel her eyes on him. "You should sign the contract, and we'll figure everything else out along the way."

"I know it's not goodbye but don't wait for me." She said quietly. She sat up, wrapping her arms around his neck as their eyes met.

Heat unfurled through his core, and he pressed his forehead against hers gently. It sure as hell felt like goodbye. "I always will." He told her.

"Don't go then. Not until they steal you away." She whispered, pressing one of her hands on his chest.

He didn't, not until the armed guards forced him out of her arms and away from the woman that was his world.

That night, Fury informed him that she signed the contract.

He hadn't seen Natasha for over a year.

They said distance makes the heart grow fonder, and he was coming to find out that it was true. She was working closely with Clint and Wanda now and whenever he saw them, they informed him that Natasha was doing well, making "less stupid decisions," according to Clint, and adjusting to her new life in America. Steve remained in New York at the Avengers Compound while she moved to D.C. to be closer to S.H.I.E.L.D Headquarters. She spent her free time with the Barton family after his wife and children had taken a liking to 'Auntie Nat' after Clint introduced them. As much as Steve longed to see her, even just once, he wouldn't dare put her at risk of breaching her contract. She was meant for bigger things - for better things. A better life. He was proud of her and as much as he wished he could be by her side, an incredible woman like her didn't need a man beside her. She was resilient, selfless, and the strongest woman he would ever meet. He was the luckiest man in the world to have called her his girlfriend for the time that he did.

She was just as strong and vibrant as the lightning striking the sky as he watched the storm roll in. He stood in the kitchen of the compound, brewing coffee despite the fact that caffeine had no effect on his metabolism. He was supposed to be on his second run of the day before sparring with some of his teammates, but he hadn't wanted to get caught in the rain with the chilly, winter wind blowing through the woods. He was bored now, wondering if he would have time to run on the treadmill. With a sigh, he poured his coffee and carefully sipped from the steaming mug, lost in contemplation. He heard footsteps behind him, but he didn't turn around, mumbling a good afternoon to whoever had walked into the kitchen.

"After all this time, that's all you have to say?"

He knew that voice.

He'd heard it so many times in his dreams. He turned around quickly, nearly spilling his coffee onto the woman who had come up behind him.


Surely, he had to be dreaming.

He had run a thousand and one scenarios through his head, envisioning seeing Natasha again. Never had he imagined her showing up in the Avengers Compound looking more beautiful than he remembered. She stole the breath from his lungs, her emerald eyes bright and effervescent with light. Her smile reached her eyes, and her smirk that had always driven him crazy tugged at the corner of her lips. He wanted to kiss her, to draw her into his arms and let the world fade around them. However, he couldn't seem to recover from the shock of it all.

"I just wanted to say hi and you almost spill your coffee on me..." She laughed, finally breaking the silence between them as they stared at one another. "And then you look at me like I'm a ghost."

"I'm so sorry!" He said quickly. It was as if a bucket of ice, cold water had been dumped upon him. He glanced behind her, making sure no one was around to see her brazenly breaking the contract S.H.I.E.L.D. held over her head. It made his heart twist painfully thinking about her freedom brandished just out of her reach.

She noticed his wide eyes scanning the room, and she leaned up against the counter beside him. "Relax, Steve. I'm just here to meet Wanda for a mission. I've already broken my contract, and Fury could care less. Who do you think brought down the Red Room? Surely, it wasn't my family and I." She winked at him.

"I did hear about that. I should've known." He couldn't help but smile at her. It was then he noticed the tight, black catsuit she wore, an array of weapons strapped to her hips and thighs. Her hair was cut to her shoulders and in a way, she looked different. She wasn't the woman he'd known before but somehow, she was still the same woman he knew better than anyone else.

"It seems like you're doing well." She told him almost absentmindedly, drawing him from his own contemplation. "Clint tells me so, at least." She shrugged, sounding bitter. He didn't know why. At least, not at that moment. She was difficult to read, and he was never taught to be a spy.

"I am, but I miss you and Liho, of course." He told her. He feared she would snap at him, that his statement had been insolent, and maybe it had been. He hadn't seen her in over a year and for all he knew, she could be dating someone else. As much as it hurt to think about, all he wanted was for her to be happy.

However, her next words surprised him.

"Liho is living the life of luxury with Yelena now. She has a dog sibling." She said, a soft smile gracing her lips as she thought about her sister and her pets. "But I miss you and our fake life together. Although, I don't miss lying to you... so if you could do it all over again, what would you change?" She asked.

She looked up at him, and it struck him to his core. He wasn't expecting her to be so open with him, especially after being apart for so long, but he was pleasantly surprised. In return, he knew she deserved his honesty. "I would change a lot of things." He said softly, reaching out and taking her hand. She pressed her palm to his, stepping closer as the allurement around them came to life. "Firstly, I would change your god-damn contract so we could, at least, have a conversation." He smiled boyishly, and she laughed. He'd almost forgotten how much he missed hearing that beautiful sound. "Secondly, I wish I would've brought down the Red Room before any of you had to go through the program."

"Then we wouldn't have met." She said quickly, shaking her head.

He drew his arm around her lower back as she lifted hers around his neck. In her arms, he was home. "I don't know if I believe in fate, but I do believe that our lives would've come together one way or another." He replied, letting go of her hand to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. "But lastly, I would change the fact that we have to say goodbye after this."

"It's not goodbye. Remember? It's just a 'see you later." She told him imploringly.

He tightened his arm around her, silently cursing S.H.I.E.L.D. for thinking that they were 'protecting' him. "I know but that doesn't make it any easier. I don't want to wait another year to see you again." He sighed heavily, leaning into her hand as she cupped his jaw.

"I know you've moved on and you shoul..." She started to say, but he cut her off.

He promised he would wait for her.

His next words made her eyes widen and her cheeks flush as if she wasn't a Black Widow trained to seduce men. "I love you." He told her. He turned his head to kiss the scar on her wrist, and she didn't pull away. He heard her breath hitch in her throat, but a smile tugged on the corner of her lips that he longed to kiss.

"I love you too." She whispered back.

Wanda cleared her throat, forcing them to pull away from one another and interrupting something that may involve Steve pushing Natasha up against a wall and kissing her until all he could feel was her. "Don't mind me, lovebirds. I just need to grab my water..." Wanda smirked at them, grabbing a bottle from the fridge before hurrying out of the kitchen.

Natasha slowly stepped away from him, her hand slipping from his and his heart-shattering in his chest as he watched her walk away. Just before she left, she looked over her shoulder to give him one last look that said everything she didn't.

It wasn't a goodbye - no.

It was a look filled with unspoken promises, that even if this lifetime, they could have a life together.

Chapter Text

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.