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“Can I at least buy you a cup of coffee while you wait?” Steve Rogers asked, hands stuffed in pockets. He didn’t want to seem threatening but he didn’t want to act like he was begging or whining either. Asking someone out to coffee outside his therapist’s office certainly wasn’t on the list of things he thought he’d ever do, least of all on that day.

It was cloudy and he knew the rain would come soon. He glanced at the redhead in front of him, who he had to admit looked severe and intimidating even in jeans (Maybe it was the black heels? Or just her resting bitch face…) He had overheard her asking for a tow truck on her cellphone as he walked out to his own car.

As he slid into the driver's seat of the little red car that got him just from A to B, his conscience was what had pulled him to step in. He didn’t know a lot about cars but he had been there, broken down in an inconvenient place. He could see smoke billowing from the hood and shook his head. Option A was to drive away and go to the gym. Option B won.

She met his question with a glare that caused his ass to clench and his mouth to go dry. Man, I’m trying to help, he told himself in defense. It was one of his flaws, according to his therapist, who had argued that he was always trying to rescue people. You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped, Bruce had admonished him only twenty minutes ago. He sighed and looked over his shoulder at the door to the office building where he went every Tuesday for an hour and sometimes also on Fridays (in the early days).

“It’s ok if you don’t want to,” he felt himself explain as she narrowed her eyes and clutched her purse closer. “I just thought… who knows when a tow truck will get here. It might rain…”

She bit her lip, a gesture that normally would have turned him on if he wasn’t scared she’d mace him, and shook her head. “I’m fine, thanks.”

He raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “Well, there’s a Starbucks right across the street. I’m going to go pick something up in case you change your mind.” It was a bold move to keep the invitation open and he wasn’t sure why he was fighting so hard to convince her. She nodded and looked down at her phone. He took it as a nothankyoufuckoff and retreated. As he made his way to coffee, he vacilitated between a childish hope she’d show up and logic that this would just be fodder for next week’s session.

His thoughts turned to his agenda for the day: gym, grocery shopping, class. What he wanted to do was go home and watch Netflix for hours. He took a sip of his coffee and pulled out the notepad and pen he kept in his back pocket per his therapist's suggestion, and started doodling. Drawing helps unlock your right brain, he told Steve. And besides, you have a talent. He'd offered her some help, she'd turned it down, and he had to move forward with his day. Progress. Baby steps, he told himself as he finished his cup. He glanced quickly at his sketch, a black spider with long spiny legs that threatened to crawl off the page.

***

"So, what's on your mind today?"

Natasha shifted, reminding herself to sit straight and not fidgit. She sighed and made eye contact with her therapist. He smiled with sincerity and she took a mental note of his ruffled clothes. What kind of therapist doesn't iron?, she wondered, wishing again that her insurance had paid for a different provider. He sat back, relaxed and hands folded, waiting for her to talk. Which kind of pissed her off. She was in therapy for him to tell her how to live, not for her to talk to air.

"Not a lot. Things are ok."

"Nightmares?"

Yeah, she'd had her share. It was one of the reasons Natasha had sought help. Dreams about drowning, being smothered, dreams about a past she was trying to forget. They'd gotten worse over the past year, to the point that she wasn't sleeping, which in turn affected her ability to concentrate at work. A coworker had suggested meds when she confessed to nearly falling asleep at the wheel.

So she had called Dr. Bruce Banner, hoping for something. Xanax. Ambien. Anything. A quick fix so she could get her life back. In their first session, he asked about goals and then gently told her he was a PhD. PhDs can't prescribe meds. She’d nearly walked out right then and there.

"But I would like to work with you to see if we can't find some other ways to get through this", he had explained. It might take time and work but that she might feel better with coping skills that allowed her to function without relying only on prescriptions. She consented with hesitation, deciding not to tell him that the bottle of vodka in her freezer was getting her by just fine.

And now, a month in, she found herself still saying "I'll give him one more week." One more week of breathing exercises and creating good "sleep hygiene" before bed (no phone, no TV, just a dark room and deep breaths). She kept coming back because, as much as she hated to admit it, it felt nice to tell someone all she was keeping inside.

"Only once," she admitted to the bad dreams that had been slowly getting better.

"Same dream?"

"Yeah. I guess so."

He nodded and checked in with her about her other symptoms. Irritability, racing heart, difficulty breathing. She denied them, though she had been jumpy closing up the shop the night before.

"And isolation? Have you checked on any of the ideas we came up with to get more social support?"

Natasha shrugged. Go to church. Go find a group for domestic violence survivors. Go online. Nothing. Not that she had really tried. Being alone was safe.

"My car broke down last week. Right after our session." she offered. It had been the biggest event and certainly most stressful of her week. Waiting for the tow, praying the repairs wouldn't be so expensive or time-consuming.

"And how did you handle it?"

She bit her lip. "Well, I guess. I mean, it overheated. I probably should look into something new. I don't know. I just waited for the tow and then crossed my fingers. Got hit on while I was waiting."

Her therapist nodded. "What was that like?"

"Weird."

"Weird? What was your anxiety level? Scale of 1-10?"

Natasha remembered the blond man who'd offered to help her, to wait with her and buy her coffee. He had seemed innocent enough. She remembered his eyes as he had smiled at her. Kind. Maybe a little timid. But weren't those always the ones to watch out for.

"I mean, he just wanted to buy me a cup of coffee while I waited. It was...sweet. But yeah, it reminded me of Ivan." As soon as she said his name, her stomach lurched. She wondered if her therapist would be able to refer her out for a lobotomy just so she could forget.

Her therapist tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair but continued offering a blank face that betrayed no judgment. “Tell me more about that?”

Natasha just remembered feeling like he had come out of nowhere. She remembered memorizing everything she could about his looks in case she ever had to pick him out of a lineup. The sandy-colored hair, tall. Looked like he went to the gym or the beach often. Jeans, Maroon v-neck sweater. Did he have blue eyes or brown? She squeezed her hands into fists because, fuck that is an important detail. She hoped it wouldn’t ever matter. What mattered most was that he came out of nowhere and asked to help. Invited her to coffee. She’d immediately stopped breathing, the hair on the back of her neck standing up. She probably had scared him off, a part of her reasoned. But she was safe. She was in control. And best of all, she hadn’t had to reach for the knife kept in her bag, because she wasn’t even sure she could actually use it when push came to shove.

“I just felt nervous. Just. Didn’t get a good feeling”, she explained. “I mean. Everyone starts off nice. Ivan started off nice.”

And so her therapist walked her through the different things she’d been feeling in her body at the time, (tightness in her chest, nausea, shortness of breath) and reviewed the deep-breathing he wanted her to do daily that she always neglected.

“Natasha, sometimes your body remembers trauma kind of like muscle-memory. It’s the idea behind flashbacks. Like you are there, with Ivan.” Bruce moved forward in his chair, smiling. He smiles the way a father does on TV, she thought to herself. Like fathers are supposed to smile.

“Natasha, I wonder if you could experiment. Practice reminding yourself that there is only one Ivan."

She exhaled. “Not all men, right?” So far that had been bullshit but Bruce was a man and she didn’t want to get into a political discussion. Maybe not all men. Bruce and Mickey Mouse. They could be the exceptions.

“So what are you saying, Bruce? Should I have let this guy take me out?” Natasha felt her chest tighten. Her first date with Ivan. What had that been like? Had she ever been to coffee with him? She couldn’t remember. They had met through mutual friends when she was still in high school.

“I’m not saying that at all, Natasha. You should trust your instincts. But you should also remember that you have been through hell. That was not a normal dating experience or a normal relationship”.

She smirked. “What’s normal?”

He maintained his safe smile, picking up his black agenda from the floor. “You deserve love, Natasha. Can we test this and talk next week?”

Chapter Text

2

 

Steve had struggled with anxiety for his entire life. Certainly before he knew what the word anxiety even meant. Panic. Shortness of breath. Feeling disconnected. The desire to run, vomit, or maybe shit his pants. Sometimes maybe all three. The war didn't help. Because he'd gotten out ok, mostly, sure. But suddenly he couldn't drive because of the dread that filled his body that the car in front of him would explode or that there was a sniper on the hill waiting to take civilians out. Even the smell of gasoline, he just couldn't do it anymore. Fainting on the freeway is not a good plan. Suddenly staying at home was the best idea except that one has to leave one’s house to work and pay rent.

The depression was what moved him to get help. He had come home. Finished the contract. Discharged. Their verb choice, now matter how honorable, felt inadequate. How many had stayed behind? How many had he been responsible for that hadn't made it? And what if someone did attack and he couldn't do a thing? He couldn't even get to work. So the VA had suggested Dr. Banner. Twelve sessions and then he had stayed on with Bruce for a low fee. Talking helped. He'd been working on it for a year, managing panic when in public, finding ways to recognize what was going on. It was nice just to be heard. He liked Bruce. Felt like he had seen some of his own shit.

It was therapy that had helped him with the decision to go back to school. Coming home, he'd felt displaced. Mom died when he was in high school, Dad before he knew how to tie his shoes. No family. No one. Just an empty apartment and time to twiddle his thumbs. The goal was to get back. School. Work. People. Hope. It sounded Pollyanna at times but Steve had nothing to lose. So he'd signed up for graphic design. They paid for it and it filled time, so why not. He told himself it was no big deal even though getting through the first semester had filled him with a sense of pride and purpose he almost didn't recognize.

So now the goal was to stop isolating. He'd never been great at small talk. Never had a lot of friends or anything that could qualify as a “relationship”. Just Bucky. But, well. Again, nothing to lose.

"Tell me what makes it hard to talk to people?" Bruce asked him in their latest session.

Steve shrugged. "I'm just not good at it. I don't know... I'm not a very friendly person."

"When was the last time you tried?"

Steve thought about the redhead with the heels he'd seen the week before. Case in point. "I tried asking someone out for coffee last week."

"That's very friendly, Steve." Bruce had praised him, making him simultaneously feel proud and also a bit like a child. "What happened?”

"She told me to fuck off."

He reviewed the event. No, not literally to fuck off. Just, basically. She had politely declined. Why? Yes, it had been while she was waiting for a tow so not the best time. Yes, it's true he didn't know why and he wasn't psychic and he couldn't say for certain it was on him that she hadn't been interested. Bruce had this magical Jedi way of giving him hope. Try again. Yeah. Maybe. Ok.

As he sat in class and doodled spiders, he thought about that girl again and about his own distorted thoughts. Bruce had been reasonable. Steve wasn't the same skinny twig he'd been in high school. Bulking up and getting fit had been one good thing about military life. And he wasn't an asshole. His mom had raised him right, taught him a lot about working hard, doing the right thing, honesty and integrity. It’s what had kept him in active duty for so long. He was good at the appearance of normal. He was reasonably liked by most people.

Double date, come on. He remembered Bucky begging him. A double date to the remake of Psycho. He was pretty sure it would be dumb and he’d rather be at home finishing his homework or playing Zelda on his playstation. And he might be out cash he’d worked hard for. It wasn’t that it wasn’t worth it if they hit it off. Except that he’d seen this play out so many times. He was the wingman. Bucky was the one who got the extra valentines, who got the secret admirer notes in his locker, who had girls fighting each other to ask him to the dance.

The movie had sucked so much it was embarrassing. He wasn’t even sure which girl he was supposed to be dating as both ended up on either side of Bucky while Steve sat at the end of the row. The good news was that they had both paid their own way. After, the plan had been to go get burgers at Denny’s. One of the girls (blonde, flat-chested not that hed been looking), had kicked him in the shin and made the universal face with her eyes that said “go away or I’ll ruin you”. He feigned a stomach ache and gone home. It wasn’t that he didn’t like girls or didn’t try, at least in the beginning. The idea of dating and relationships was something he told himself he’d work out someday.

Its not about making a big commitment, Steve. Its about getting out, meeting people. No one is an island. This was Bruce’s response when Steve admitted to the boredom.

He chewed on his the cap to his pen. Getting a dog would be easier.

***

I feel it all I feel it all/I feel it all I feel it all/The wings are wide the wings are wide/Wild card inside wild card inside

Natasha hit the snooze button on her phone, and groaned, head still buried under her comforter. Not even Feist sounding cheerful was enough to make waking up easy or fun. Morning. Time to move. Time to get up. She closed her eyes. Maybe thirty more seconds. The hardest part of getting out of bed, she reminded herself, was putting two feet on the ground, no matter how warm the bed was and how long the day ahead might be.

She followed her own advice and made her way to the bathroom connected to her bedroom, her mind already making a mental checklist of all of her responsibilities for the day. As she turned the shower on and slipped out of her sweats, she sang the pop song that had played through her alarm softly to herself. Eyes closed as she let the warmth of the shower wake her up. Today is going to be a good day. Today is going to be normal. She repeated the mantra to herself as she washed her hair.

She was only momentarily sidetracked when she started washing her skin as her fingers brushed over the dime-sized dent in her belly. Still, she skipped the scars on her arms and legs, the knots in her gut telling her that she was probably running late for work anyway.

As she slipped on the dress pants hanging in her closet, the sound of kitchen cupboards banging alerted her to the presence of her roommate. She smiled to herself and crossed her fingers that the noise equaled someone making coffee (enough to share). She quickly finished putting together the rest of her outfit for work (plain white button-up) before rushing out to the living room.

“Morning, Red." Her roommate greeted her with a mug of coffee, black. Natasha took it gratefully, checking the clock on the microwave to calculate how much time she could give herself to fix her hair and makeup. She felt a pang of jealousy for the woman who she shared the two bedroom apartment with. Darcy Lewis juggled school and blogging, leaving her with a much more flexible schedule. It afforded her the opportunity to wear pajamas all day if she so desired, though Natasha often couldn’t tell whether or not Darcy never took her pajamas off or just preferred the comfort of clothes you could wear at any time of day. Natasha couldn’t remember the last time she had spent a day not looking at the time or feeling like she was running late. Usually, she felt like she lived minute to minute.

They’d found each other via Craigslist, at a moment when Natasha needed cheap rent in a location near the café that had been willing to hire her. She’d just moved to the Valley, hoping that Southern California would provide a fresh start and a place to hide. Flying to Los Angeles had been the fulfillment of a fantasy, the farthest she could get from New York, from Ivan.

She remembered the relief she’d felt after meeting the brunette with glasses shaped like cat eyes. Darcy had been friendly. Open but not nosey. She needed someone to help out with rent and the price was right.

“The girl that was supposed to move in backed out. Found a guy. I guess I can't compete with a good lay." Darcy had shrugged, stirring the iced coffee that she was nursing as they interviewed each other. Natasha had nodded, feigning agreement. She didn't really care as long as her roommate kept to herself and wasn't connected to anything that might cause trouble. She'd never had a roommate in this capacity before. They didn't have to be friends. Just two people who shared the same space and paid the bills on time.

It was terrifying and comforting at the same time. Natasha had only ever lived with foster parents and then Ivan.   All she could do was pretend that she understood when Darcy talked, because she’d never been good at interacting with other women. She prayed Darcy would keep to herself and that she wouldn’t have to indulge in “movie nights” or talking about periods and the inability of men to find the clitoris. Having friends meant letting people in and talking. Talking meant letting someone get close. There were two possible outcomes: getting hurt physically or getting hurt emotionally. Natasha happily signed the check over to Darcy each month and made sure that she contributed to the stock of toilet paper. Luckily, Darcy was able to keep herself busy and Natasha’s own job kept them in separate domains.

Except for morning coffee, which Natasha had conceded and even enjoyed. It was a compromise. Fifteen minutes or so to check in and listen as Darcy discussed everything from politics to the reconstruction on the 405 to the latest episode of whatever show she’d been watching on TV. She pretended she was interested or knew what Darcy was even talking about as she sipped her coffee.

Natasha pretended because it was safe. She was good at being the empathetic roommate who cared about whatever Obama was doing. If she was, for just a small amount of time, the person that Darcy wanted her to be, then Darcy would be less likely to look closely. Less likely to ask questions.   If she played “friend”, Natasha told herself she would have wiggle room to hide.

“Hey, I’m going to be going away next week for Spring Break. Thought I’d go up North to visit my parents," Darcy explained as Natasha finished her cup and started rinsing it out in the sink.

Natasha looked over her shoulder and smiled, considering the pros and cons to having a quiet apartment all to herself for a week. The thought automatically triggered a shortness of breath but she reminded herself that she was miles away, that she was safe, and that this would be the perfect opportunity to follow her therapist’s advice and indulge. Play loud music. Walk around naked. Sleep with her bedroom door open.

She took a deep breath, dismissing herself so that she could finish getting ready. Normal. This is what normal people do. Today will be normal. Today will be a good day.

Chapter Text

 

3

Doing things alone had never bothered Steve as much as he knew it should. Eating out by himself, seeing a movie alone. Those things that people usually did in pairs or small groups. Asking for a "table for one" and getting the sympathetic look from the hostess, it was a social transaction he was used to. It gave him freedom to do his own thing. He didn't have to worry about small talk or arguments about splitting the check. There was no sense of anxiety about where to sit in a theater. He could have as much popcorn as he liked.

It wasn't that he had never tried. He'd gone out with classmates before and felt fine. He'd even gone out a handful of times with one of the girls in his apartment complex, though neither had felt any sparks (a nice girl named Veronica with a borderline unhealthy addiction to Hello Kitty). A new movie playing or a new place to eat, and the thought of staying in felt ridiculous. He didn't cook and needed to eat.

 

He had gotten adept at keeping to himself, of observing without gawking, and of making use of the quiet time to multitask on homework or reading or drawing or mentally mapping his goals. It was a routine he got comfort from.

He hadn't expected to see her again. In fact, he had nearly brushed her out of his mind. He'd been craving matzah brei, something he had tried on a whim a few months earlier, and had decided to visit one of the delis near his apartment complex. Delis were one of his favorite things about living so close to Los Angeles, a taste of places he knew back home with menus the size of small phone books. And though he wasn’t Jewish, he found the combination of eggs and cracker with a side of applesauce soothing.

Sliding into the booth, his mind drifting to the logo design assignment he would have to start working on for class, he hadn't immediately registered the familiarity of his waitress.

"Good afternoon, my name is Natasha..." she introduced herself quickly, her attention on pulling the tablet out of her black apron. He blinked, first noticing her hair, the color of fire, fastened into a bun that he could tell had been intentionally made to look askew. She looked up at him with a smile that faltered only briefly as recognition hit her own face. He gave her a weak smile back, hoping the slight waver in her expression hadn't been caused by dread, her mouth opening and closing as if she meant to say something important.

"Hi...Water?" he offered apologetically. She nodded and scurried off, maybe a little too quick. As he waited, his mind raced. Natasha. She had had a nice smile, even if smiling was part of her job. He considered their last encounter, when she has presented as frosty and even a little angry. If he got to see her smile again, it wouldn't be the worst part of his day at all.

"You're the guy who...when my car broke down last week..." She returned with his water and an apologetic smile of her own.

"Yeah," he nodded, uncertain of whether or not he should try to talk to her or save his breath. He noticed her mismatched earrings, a mixture of diamond studs and little gold balls that pointed the way to her neck, a graceful curve he could imagine sketching. And kissing. And maybe sucking... he coughed because really? God, he didn't want to be that guy...

"You ok?" she interrupted his thoughts, taking a step closer to his side of the table. He nodded and took a sip of water.

"Fine. Just allergies or something. So did your car make it?" He tried not to look at her face directly. Don't be inappropriate, he reminded himself.

"It's fine," she answered, eyebrows raised. "So. What can I get you?"

He gave her the order and she smiled again before disappearing into the kitchen. His thoughts raced like a bullet train and he thought about the way she had looked at him a week before, as though he was below her or an annoyance. She must get asked out all the time. He wanted to slap his forehead because God, he was so awkward. He watched as she brought his food, the same smile on her face as before. He just wanted to eat as fast as he could to get out of there.

"Just... Just let me know if you need anything, ok?" she offered. Before he could ask for more water, she had already turned and disappeared, because she clearly only wanted to deal with him for as long as necessary per her job. He exhaled slowly and picked up his fork. You aren't psychic. You don't know her thoughts. He could hear Bruce's calm assertions in his mind.

Natasha stood inside the kitchen, hand over her heart and eyes closed, trying to regulate her breathing. What were the odds? It had to be a coincidence, she rationalized as she peeked around the corner to watch him eat. Natasha didn’t like coincidences.

"Hey, you ok, Nat?" a voice behind her asked. She opened her eyes and gave a hesitant smile as her coworker, Clint, stopped on his way to refill some glasses.

“Yeah… Just… See that guy over there?” She motioned to her table and he peeked over her shoulder. “I think he’s been following me”.

“Like what kind of following? Seems like an ok guy from here…Hungry.” Clint shrugged.

Natasha rolled her eyes, frustrated with the situation. She’d worked with Barton long enough to figure he was a decent enough judge of customers; he’d worked there longer than her and knew the area better. She’d seen the blond waiter handle problems like the demanding old man who had a million specifications and requests or the random late night parties where everyone seemed stoned and a dollar short, with calm and grace. Clint was a cool head in a business that could easily rile someone up and she enjoyed shifts with him. He did things on time, he was kind, and she felt like she could defer to him if she wasn’t sure and he wouldn’t judge her for it. Professional. He was professional. Never leering or making her feel stupid, never asking too many questions, never offering too much information about his own life.

She was tempted to ask him to cover her and give the check but she could handle her own battles. She glanced again over the counter. Its just a coincidence. He seems normal. No identifying tattoos or piercings. Just a guy eating breakfast. He did seem hungry, she mused as she watched him, eating as though he hadn't eaten in days. It occurred to her that he seemed anxious, hunched over and eyes focused down, and she wondered if it has anything to do with her. She hadn't been friendly, though she wasn't really friendly with anyone. Making friends led to being open. Being open could be deadly.

Walking up to him, she made sure to slip on her smile again. Not all men... She reminded herself as she slipped the check down next to him. He glanced up and she made a mental note of his eyes, which were in fact, blue. Blond-haired, blue eyes. This guy must be from California. He swallowed a bite and offered a smile of his own.

"Your eyes are blue," she blurted, saying it an octave louder than she would have liked.

He cocked his head to the side, as if unsure that he had heard her correctly.

"Sorry?"

"Blue… I was just trying to remember from when we met last week..." She tried to recover and save face.

He nodded and pulled out his wallet. As he handed her his card, he made sure to glance at her eyes, a deep green with traces of turquoise, as this seemed like a fair to trade of information.

"Ok. So I will just handle this and be right back." She clutched the card, uncertain of what else she could do next. It was painfully awkward and she felt frustrated with herself. She had zero reasons for uncertainty. She'd grown up with people telling her she was a pretty girl who could break hearts, and she had been well versed in using charm and a little flirting to get something. It was something Ivan had often praised her for, (it was also something he had often blamed her for). Maybe it was that she had done everything possible to avoid social interactions. She didn't know what script to follow.

Before he could answer, she was at the register.

Steven G. Rogers. She made a mental note of the name on the card. For research, she told herself.

As she handed him the receipt, she noted his hurry. He can't leave fast enough. A part of her was disappointed that he hadn't tried harder to talk to her and part of her was frustrated that she had automatically slipped into cold robot mode. And a part of her was angry that she had to overthink things, mad at Ivan for ruining her in this way.

You will never be normal, a comforting voice scolded her. Stop acting like a child.

***

"Are you afraid of women?" Bruce questioned when Steve talked about his encounter with the red-haired waitress. It was a valid question considering the all the tapdancing around whenever the topic came up. Steve considered it before answering.

"No," he shook his head, "I'm not afraid of women. I like women. I'm just not good at talking. To anyone. And I just haven't made it a priority."

"Why?"

"Why? Because I was bullied as a kid? Because I've tried before and it just wasn't working out?" he glanced at the clock. "I've been busy. I was on deployment and now that I'm back, it's not like I have a big social group to fish from.”

"Those are good excuses," Bruce agreed.

Excuses. It took Steve aback. Like he was actively doing something wrong or like being in a relationship was the root of all of his problems.

"I don't think that's fair. And why is it so important? What if I'm asexual?"

"So what if you were? Asexual people can be in relationships.” The therapist crossed his arms, face expressionless. "Steve, you don't have friends either, even though you are friendly. You don't go out. And that's dangerous, especially for a vet suffering from anxiety and depression. Do you know how many vets commit suicide each year? Having support from friends and loved ones makes a big difference."

Steve couldn't think of a good response so he didn't say anything.

Chapter Text

4

He had left his last session angry and frustrated. Tying his running shoes on as tight as he could, as if his shoelaces could mirror the knots he felt in his gut. Steve was not afraid. He wasn't making excuses. As he ran, he felt the force of the gravel and it made him angrier. He wanted to slam his feet into the ground, wanted the asphalt to split apart. His mind flooded with voices, sounds from the past.

Hurry up, Rogers! Men will die if they have to depend on a pussy like you!

You can't do art, no one makes a living doing art.

We don't want a fucking invalid on our team.

You should be ashamed of yourself, silly boy.

He stopped running finally, collapsing on the curb, head resting in his arms as he caught his breath and pushed all that was sharp and painful, stuck in his throat down as far as it would go. It felt like the challenge of his life, proving Bruce wrong. Quitting. Giving up. He'd been raised better. For every negative thought, he knew his mom would have called bullshit. He remembered her soft pink scrubs, her stringy hair that always smelled like the alcohol pads she used to clean his wounds, and the grey circles under her eyes. Howd you get this black eye? She’d ask it gently as she handed him the bag of peas. He’d had the nerve to tell her only once that he wasn’t good enough. The look she’d given him, God made you special, Steven. He is going to do amazing things with you. You are good, strong, and valuable. Never stop fighting.

Steve couldn’t really put together a lot from what happened during his senior year of high school. Mom hooked up to tubes, looking still asleep and about ready to wake up in order to ask him if he’d taken the trash out or hey, could he change that lightbulb. Even though it had just been the two of them for a decade and a half, Steve hadn’t had any input on whether or not Aunt Karen could turn off the machines or if Mom wanted her organs donated. He was only 17, what did he know? They’d done it when he was in school and he knew it was over when he got to the hospital and Aunt Karen (who he had only seen three times his whole life) had looked at him with tears in her eyes and hugged him. He didn’t see the body because it wasn't "appropriate" though a part of him preferred it that way too.

And then, mercifully, the adults had all consented to Steve living with the Barnes’ family for the rest of the year. Mom dying had filled him with something that he couldn’t quite understand. Anger. Sadness. Injustice. They could have saved her, the doctors, if they had listened and caught things sooner. If she hadn’t worked so damn much. It was her hospital. She’d given so many hours and they couldn’t save her.   And now he was alone. The last known Rogers in line. The pressure and the unfairness and the fact that he couldn’t talk to her or hug her or fucking remember her voice. Never stop fighting. Well. She’d stopped, hadn't she? God bless Bucky Barnes for going driving out with him into the mountains on the weekends so that they could drink and carve things into trees.

Anxiety gripped his chest and squeezed until every breath was a battle. He stood up and started walking. Slow, deep. Think of the ocean, the waves louder than your own thoughts. Think of the sand, warm under your feet. You are good, strong, and valuable.

He wasn't sure why he had returned to the deli. Isolation. It was easy to be alone but he knew that didn't make it right. The waitress. Steve could have made an effort to make small talk with a classmate or someone at the gym. Even meeting someone at the grocery store would probably have been easier. Pushing the door open, the bell announcing reentry into her space, and he had to admit that the whole idea was shaky and irrational.

***

"Hey, Clint," Natasha sighed as she tied her apron on. She hadn't been able to sleep well, largely because her mind had insisted on using every sleep cycle as a way to replay her own personal terror film. After waking up on the floor, shivering and covered in sweat, Natasha had thrown in the towel. The idea of tossing and turning or staring at the ceiling just so she could be blessed with the experience of those sausage shaped fingers forcing her down, ripping her apart like tissue paper, gripped around her ankles, her wrists, her throat, because she was his, goddammit, and she should know better by now

She chose to spend the night playing a game on her phone instead.

"Hey, Nat," Clint nodded his greeting as he stocked the ice machine. She located a Styrofoam cup from underneath one of the counters and helped herself to some coffee. With the cup in two hands, she prayed in vain that she would start feeling the sludge of caffeine course through her veins sooner rather than later. She watched with her mind numb as he flipped the "open" sign on and unlocked the door. No rest for the weary.

"Nat," Clint called out and she looked over to see him nodding his head in the direction of her section. Customer. She grabbed her pad and a pen from the jar by the register.

Not just any customer. Steven G. Rogers, who was by the way an excellent tipper in addition to his new job as a stalker. The fact that he had returned gave her goosebumps because she just didn’t know what to think about him. He was quiet and shy but she could tell that he thought about his actions. When he smiled and waved, he did so with deliberation, almost as if he was aware that she was analyzing every move. She wondered if he was a little masochistic to return, because she had made sure to send warning vibes.

“How can I help you?” she asked slowly, pulling her guard up. He answered with a shrug, his face red. He seemed less anxious than before, more drawn in. Not timidly looking to her for permission as in the past as much as concentrated and controlled. She noticed he was wearing track pants and a hoodie. Gym? It fit her impression of a California boy who spent the day at the gym and used the words “dude” and “bro” in every conversation.

“I’m not really hungry, yet. But I could use some water.”

She sighed and rested one hand on her hip. “You have to order something.”

He picked up the menu. “What is your favorite dessert?”

“The cheesecake and the éclairs are what we are known for.”

“Right. So what is your favorite dessert,” he asked her again. She fought the corner of her mouth that wanted to smile. It felt like a chess game. Weird flirting almost, the way he asked her with one eyebrow arched because he’d caught her in the act of telling him something personal, something she wouldn’t do unless it was worth it to her. He asked for the answer the truth. She bit her tongue, eyes darting to make sure no one heard her.

“The egg cream. Brooklyn.” Ha! There you go. She felt a little victorious over the admission, proof that she had told someone something and not spontaneously combusted in the process.

And then Steven G. Rogers nodded, as if in agreement that her suggestion made sense. “Ok. Brooklyn egg cream it is. Can I also borrow something to write with?”

She left his table without her pen, feeling a mixture of curiosity and care. It was one thing to be interested in why he had come back, clearly not out of coincidence anymore, and yet another to show anything other than professional courtesy. As she started the prep for his drink, she snuck furtive glances in his direction. He had flipped over the white paper placemat and was quietly making little marks in the paper. She noted that he was using a kitchen knife as if to measure, his face emotionless and fixed on whatever he was doing.

As more customers trickled in and the rush for breakfast picked up, she forced herself to lose interest. Maybe it was just fine that he was there. He kept to himself, didn’t even acknowledge her when she served an elderly couple bagels right in front of him. His forearms covered his work and she nearly dropped a tray of water glasses after one attempt to steal a look at what he was drawing had her bumping into another customer. Even then he hadn’t looked up.

That made her even more anxious. Like all of the angst she had created was for nothing. And so again, she was waffling, totally clueless about what this guy was even about. She’d worked so hard to project warning signals, because she definitely didn’t want anyone to notice her. But maybe in putting up the electrified fence to block even simple friendliness and conversation, she’d actually gone ahead and proved Ivan right after all. Who would you even be without me? No one. You are no one.

He came to her to pay the check, which she had brought over long before. She scanned him for the same measure of seriousness in his shoulders that he’d started with, feeling relief when he passed her the same smile she had started to expect.

“How was it?” she asked as she slid his card in the reader.

“Good suggestion. I guess I didn’t think they had egg cream on the West Coast.”

Natasha handed him his card and receipt, doing what she could to turn off any part of her that noticed just how boy-scout he looked. California boy, sure. But also like the kid who always knew how to tie knots and help old ladies cross the street. He met her eye and waved. When she lifted her hand, she found herself hoping he would come back, her brain searching for anything to say that sounded interesting or smart that he could buy into.

“I also really like the Apple Crumb pie.” She said it as fast as she could before she could change her mind and before he could turn around. She actually really preferred Pecan but his surprised hum gave her instant reinforcement so she decided she didn’t care one way or the other.

“Maybe I can try that one next time."

He’d been long gone when she found the drawing. She’d nearly missed it while tossing everything from his table into a bin. A portrait sketched using a pen that said Bobs Topanga Canyon Carwash and a placemat. She’d folded it quickly before really looking closely, because she couldn’t quite wrap her head around him spending the morning rush on a detailed drawing of her face. It was later when she was on her bed at home with the door shut and locked that she could spend any time examining the detail of it all. She might have squealed just a little because holy shit how did he get the way her chin pointed and that part of her mouth that drove her insane while still managing to make it look like art?

Her fingers traced the lines of the image to a hasty box at the bottom, a quote. “Maybe theres another way of looking at who you are”. She wasn’t sure what it meant or what he was trying to say but she grabbed some tape and pushed the picture on the wall next to her bed so that she could read it again and again. He’d signed it, Steve, and written more, Maybe we could start over and talk like normal people do? Natasha memorized the phone number scratched into the very bottom corner, almost as if he had nearly left it off, before closing her eyes to sleep.

personal

Chapter Text

5


May there always be sunshine,
May there always be blue skies,
May there always be mummy,
May there always be me!

 

“Do you want to call him?”

Bruce always asked the obvious questions. She’d confessed that she’d seen the blond stalker-turned-boy-scout again, and even admitted to keeping the picture. It was one of the few times that she had actually been excited about therapy, with something to talk about, something she needed advice on.

“I don’t think so,” she shook her head without much deliberation. “I mean, it’s kind of weird, right?”

Of course, her therapist had turned the question back on her. “What makes it weird?”

The question only highlighted the problem, or maybe the absence of problems. She could easily make a mental list of reasons why calling Steve was a bad idea. She had worked so hard on being alone, on being safe. What if he realized how messy she could be, how weak she was?

“Natasha, how much of you is expecting to hurt or disappoint this guy, who you haven’t really had a conversation with? And how much is afraid he will hurt or disappoint you?”

Natasha gritted her teeth, eyes scanning the room as she considered the question. “I just… I just don’t want to get hurt anymore.”

Bruce’s voice lowered, gentle but insistent. There were a few things he had told her she needed to keep talking about and though he had always respected her pace, he'd never fully let her stay on the surface. “What does it mean to get hurt to you?”

She couldn’t answer the question in words. Hurt. She’d had her fair share, even before Ivan, enough that she felt like an expert in receiving pain and punishment. Her life had been the definition of hurt. Bruce could remind her that there were good people in the world and that she couldn’t look at people in shades of “all or nothing”, but life had given her buckets of precedent.

“Natasha, you do an amazing job at protecting yourself. It’s how you survived, it’s how you’ve rebuilt your life after so much hell.”

Saying she'd survived made it sound like she had been stuck on an island with two sticks and some flint. She could remember learning how to tell foster parents what they wanted to hear so that they didn’t give her away, even before she knew how to tie her shoes. And she made sure to always keep a spare set of clothes in her suitcase, because inevitably it would be time to meet new parents, to impress another mother and father with her good manners, pretty face, and ability to recite poems about sunshine in Russian and English. It had never been enough. Survived implied something to her like living in the elements. Maybe in a sense she had. But in many ways, it had been like going to school, learning how people really are.

You could be a dancer Ivan had told her in the beginning, full of lust and pride. Someone who wanted her. In those early days, he had kissed her skin and told her promises of forever. It had felt like a movie. He would squeeze her breasts and tell her that she was better than parents who didn’t even want her, that she’d been put in his path because she didn’t have parents. He would be her family. It was meant to be. She would run away to his apartment, full of excitement that someone recognized her as capable, important, worth keeping around. A man who saw her as a woman instead of as the child everyone else pushed under the rug.

“I think that’s why I don’t think I will call him," she explained. “I don’t know. I mean, you’re probably right that it’s theoretically possible to meet people who don’t fuck you over.”

“What about the possibility that you could positively impact someone else? Even just friendship. Not just this guy but other people too. Natasha, is there anything about you that people might want more of?”

She knew what he was getting at. That she was kind, loyal, funny, easy on the eye. Some of those things might be true, she could concede. But historically, people give up or change their minds and all of that "cute" ends up being dead weight that pulls me down.

He allowed her to keep her “yes, but” instead of pushing the subject, moving instead to the review of her week and what things she’d done that worked. They problem-solved things to do when she was feeling the most wound-up. Sing. Count. More breathing. Therapist small-talk that signaled the end of the session.

***

If Steve had to see one more slide of the Virgin Mary with a baby on her hip, he figured he’d fall asleep just to mentally check out. Art History had its pros and cons but the Gothic period tested his patience. The Mother of Christ, the Saints. He was ready to move to the Renaissance. If he was honest, he was ready to dump the class altogether because prerequisite or no, he really just wanted to create.

The professor pulled up a Pucelle manuscript of the angel Gabriel telling Mary she was pregnant, her face passive and accepting. Steve rubbed his eyes, holding in a groan. His phone buzzed in his pocket and he sent a quick thanks to the Virgin for sending him something to distract his mind, as though even she was bored with the subject.

Thank you for the drawing. It was very good.

Steve sat up and read the message about five times because even though he didn’t know the number, he knew the sender immediately. He started typing a response but deleted it because he wasn’t sure how to acknowledge her without sounding ridiculous at best or at worst, like a dick.

You' re welcome.

He settled for short and simple. She responded seconds later.

Where did you learn to draw like that?

He glanced up at the lecture to make sure he was still following before pulling the phone down below the desk, in his best effort to disguise his interest in something definitely more important.

I dont know. I go to art school. It's easy to draw when the subject is beautiful.

He sent the text with hesitation because it was such an obvious line. The truth was that she had been easy to draw, maybe because she was fun to look at but also because he had felt motivated and inspired watching her scurry around the restaurant, flitting from customer to customer. She had an impressive ability to maintain a consistent level of energy and something like confidence. He hadn’t been able to get things as close as he would have liked because of his choice of medium but he also hadn’t been focused on the technical aspects as much. The point had been to sit and draw, to stick with what he'd been doing with Bruce because even if Bruce had pissed him off, the therapist had helped him get through a lot.  Steve watched as she projected calm and unfazed, even when the crowd got heavy and loud, and he wondered where she got that from.

He had chosen to draw the expression she had in one of the small lulls in the breakfast rush, when she was standing in the entryway between the kitchen and the dining hall, back against the wall. She’d been listening to the guy she worked with, brows furrowed in concentration while he spoke, but Steve observed her eyes, drifting and unfocused. Her body was oriented to the speaker and she did an excellent job pretending, but Steve could see her disconnect, as though her mind had carried her somewhere else entirely. The way she did that, pulled on a mask and made herself look so normal, so in control. It was just a shade of vulnerability, something curious. Steve wondered if he was the only one who saw it.

The waiter said something and Steve watched Natasha look up and smirk, a joke shared. Steve had felt a pang of jealousy for the man who had managed to pull the serious, all-business face away. Maybe he was wasting time, fighting a battle that was already lost.

Thank you.

Steve looked to see that she’d messaged him back. He debated on how to keep the conversation going, grateful they were texting and that she couldn’t see him stammer and hesitate.

Are you working today? I was thinking about getting some pie after class. As soon as he sent it, he cringed. Or coffee. Or dinnerHe backtracked, hoping the ellipses would assure her that he was going for charming more than weird.

Time passed and he distracted himself by copying the notes on the bored, even though he didn’t think he would need them. As class ended, his phone buzzed again.

I'll text you and let you know.

It was a maddening response. It wasn’t the first time he’d ever texted a girl. During their brief run, Veronica had a habit of sending him messages with pink Hello Kitty emoji to let him know when she was feeling pleased, angry, or crying. This, however, was the first time he had ever texted a girl who sent short, distant replies. Not ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but a cloudy ‘I’ll let you know’. He wasn’t sure how to take it except to take it as something that she had contacted him at all.  He stuffed his phone back in his pocket and promised himself he wouldn't check his phone every five minutes just in case she had sent something and he missed it.

Chapter Text

6

What are you doing tonight?

She sent the message into the ether and waited.

The day that Darcy had left for Spring Break, Natasha filled her own mind with plans. She made lists on scratch pieces of paper during stolen minutes at work. Things to buy for the fridge, things she would do while she had the place to herself. I'm going to be alone tonight. The thought started as a whisper, something that she listened for at random moments as she prepared for the day or started her shift. Alone. The thought felt delicious, like something she deserved but had never really indulged in.

As she prepped for the next day's kitchen, she considered the little kitchen she and her roommate shared. She thought about stopping at the market on her way home. Bananas, maybe some eggs, coffee. Coffee. Who would make coffee if Darcy was out of town? That she was even remotely concerned about it was secretly embarrassing. She could make her own coffee or buy something instant. Besides, it wasn’t the first time Darcy had spent the night somewhere else. Just the first time she would be gone for a week. As Natasha checked the salt and pepper shakers in the main dining hall, she mentally chided herself. What she needed to do was buy a pint of good coffee-flavored ice cream to celebrate the freedom to play music as loud as she wanted without having to consider a roommate she barely socialized with and truly new little about.

I'm going to be alone tonight. And tomorrow night. And all week. By myself.

The whisper became a frenetic shout until it was all she was thinking as she shut down the register and locked up cabinets. She guessed she could have talked to her coworkers, even if it was just about work. She didn't know them well either. She hadn't formed much opinion of the cooks or any of the staff. Jose and Javier worked in the kitchen. The former she found to be quiet and punctual and the latter, shiny-eyed and flirty in a ratty enough way that she kept her distance. The handful of waitresses who whispered about Javier's fluid relationship status and how much fun it was to work on his shifts (he sings!) always gave her reason to walk a wide circle. She worked with two other girls in front, Margaret and Silvia, but both were younger. Natasha counted the ability to be critical about her coworkers as a special skill. Instead of building rapport, even with Clint, she had chosen to stay as icy and disengaged as possible. Forming opinions meant caring. Caring meant opening wounds that had barely started scabbing over. As the shift supervisor when Clint was off, she had to command respect and seniority. In, out. It was a job. She was there to make money and get out of the house, not to make friends.

She disguised her shaky hands as they locked up because it was a cold night, nodding as everyone went their separate ways, but clutching her car keys tight, her pointer on the panic button just in case. Looking over her shoulder and then in the back seat, she started the car, her heart and pulse beating out the message, I am alone. I will be alone.

The negative thoughts clamored inside her brain, clumsy and obvious, and leaving her no room to breathe as she opened the door to her dark apartment. She tried to make a game out of turning on all the lights and checking every corner. If she could turn them all on before she finished singing the "Happy Birthday" or if she could check under all of the beds and in all of the closets before she could finish singing "Love Shack" by the B-52s, she would win. She kicked her shoes off and raced around the apartment, her voice louder as she ran through darker areas. If anyone was coming, they might hear her singing about the Atlanta highway and believe she wasn’t ready. Forming tight fists, she opened her eyes wide because goddammit, she was ready.

Satisfied that home was quiet, she dug out a Lean Cuisine from the freezer and a water bottle. She was being ridiculous. The door was locked, she had checked. It was time to be a grown-up. Be rational. She lived in a safe enough neighborhood. People walked their dogs and went jogging at night. And no one here knew her or where she lived, not even bill collectors per her decision to use a post office box for mail.

Which is perfect because then it will take forever to notice when you are gone.

Natasha looked over her shoulder before opening the freezer. She was making frozen pasta. The best dish to go with vodka, after all. What better way to celebrate freedom, she reasoned, bringing her dinner into her bedroom with the bottle.

A little goes a long way, she reminded herself before taking a small chug. As she ate quietly on her bed she considered all of the things she wanted to do during the week. The pile of laundry in front of her closet door served to remind her of one or two things she could do even before going to bed and she took another swig before standing up to gather up her clothes. The vodka was starting to do its’ one important job and she felt her shoulders relax as she opened the door, a load in her arms. She’d gotten to the laundry room on the other end of the apartment before hearing a clatter outside. Raccoons. Rolling her eyes, she measured out a capful of vodka because her throat was parched after all, before tossing everything into the washer.

The raccoons continued dumpster diving outside and she closed her eyes, resting on the hum of the machines. If only she could breathe in tune. She absentmindedly rubbed at the lint that had built up on the lid, her brain spiraling and thoughts whooshing as fast as the cycle. Clean. No matter what she did, it would never be possible.

A loud thunk outside, something against the pipes, and her brain was done.

Fuck. This. Shit.

She hustled back to her room and shut the door before grabbing some necessities (phone, blanket, vodka) into the closet. She moved her shoes over and sat on the floor, the sloshing of the bottle suddenly a vivid metaphor for her brain. What could she do? What do grown-ups do instead of being ridiculous and hiding out amongst an assortment of heels and boots? She peeked her head out and rested it on the doorframe. She felt tired and muddied and pathetic.

Maybe theres another way of looking at who you are." The girl in that portrait looked over as if to suggest that she had other options aside from cowering in her closet. She sighed and opened up the messenger app.

What are you doing tonight?

She sent the message into the ether and waited. As though she had pushed the first domino forward in a chain. It could send the rest toppling forth or nothing could happen at all, leaving her with nothing but unfulfilled expectations and disappointment.

***

Steve was brushing his teeth when she texted him again. He hadn’t been staring at his phone for the past day or so waiting for her to text him back. He hadn’t been secretly prideful that she hadn’t because then it would only prove his point, that even when he tried to be friendly and meet people, things were just blocked in some way. He almost couldn’t wait to tell Bruce. So when he got her random message well past midnight as he was getting ready for bed, he didn’t nearly choke on spit and toothpaste.

What are you doing tonight?

He looked at his phone like it was crazy. What kind of nonsensical question was that on a Sunday night?

Nothing, you? He texted as he sat on his bed. He was unprepared for the paragraph that followed.

SGR, I' m going to ask you to come over but before I do, I need some questions answered. When is your birthday, where do you live, and what is your mother' s name?

He set his phone on his bedside table because the entire situation felt problematic. She had pretty much only ever regarded him with iciness and ambivalence and now she wanted him to fill out a form in order to see her? He hesitated. He wasn’t doing anything. He never had plans. Holy fuck, she knew his initials. Flashes of famous crazy women in movies spun threw his mind.

Why?

Because I need a friend.

Steve bit the inside of his cheek, feeling like a sucker. His phone buzzed, imploring, as he considered the pros and cons of whatever game she was playing.

7.4.87. Woodland Hills. Sarah.

Chapter Text

7

Ninety-nine percent of the world probably doesn' t know how cold it can be at night here.

Steve watched his breath fog up as he stuffed his hands back in his pockets, having found the apartment he figured was hers. It wasn’t New York cold, by any means, but it was cool enough to bite just a little on his cheeks. The apartment itself seemed quiet and he wondered if maybe she had gone to sleep. Knocking one more time, he bounced on the balls of his feet and crossed his fingers that the trip was worth it.

The door cracked open and he exhaled, relieved that she hadn’t reneged on her offer. She peeked around at him, eyes narrowed, and he found himself only half-smiling. The truth was that he felt a little like a kid going to the doctor’s office. At best, he’d just be weighed and measured, maybe a lollipop. But at worst he’d get a shot. She looked him over and it made him even more impatient.

“Are you ok?” he asked gently, holding his tongue against the question of whether or not she’d actually let him inside. He pulled his hands out of his pockets and held his palms out, an unconscious choice perhaps, to show that he had only brought himself.

Her eyes seemed darker at night. Hell, everything about her seemed darker. He looked over his shoulder, wondering if the standoff they were in had something to do with the neighborhood. Almost one and most people probably had work and school in the morning, so it was reasonable that only a few scattered porch lights and the soft hum of the nearby freeway pointed to any life.

“Natasha? Are you ok?” he repeated, maintaining a steady voice because something about the whole situation reminded him of those times of tenuous negotiation he had seen overseas, when moving any faster than slow could agitate someone into making a dumb move that ended with dust and body bags.

She clutched at the doorknob and reviewed her choice to text him. She had nearly forgotten doing it, if she was honest, because she was teetering on the precipice of dumb moves herself. She straightened her back. The last thing she wanted to do was communicate that she was impaired. His nose reddened and she sighed, opening the door. This is how people get murdered, she scolded herself. She ignored the whisper that said it wouldn’t matter one way or the other.

“Fine,” she mumbled in a voice lower than she had planned out in her mind, looking over her shoulder as he stepped over the threshold and shut her door.

He automatically slid the locks in place, a simple action that made her feel warm all over even while she mentally reviewed her exits. The fact that she had never actually invited anyone over to her apartment was not lost on her but when she met his eyes, she felt a little bit more at ease. In some ways, he looked a lot younger than 27, with his hands in his pockets and an expectant expression. He was waiting for her to talk or explain or do something. She motioned towards the kitchen and pulled two shot glasses down from the cupboard.

“You drink, right?” she only half-asked because she didn’t really care, her hand a bit heavier for her own shot.

“Uh… not, really…" he explained, suddenly standing next to her. She hoped he wouldn’t notice the drop of vodka that spilled onto the counter. Natasha handed him the drink and looked him in the eyes, an action that she was sure she would only have the courage to do at present.

“You do right now."

He raised an eyebrow but took the shot, quietly observing the frayed edges of the mask she had on so damned tight. The clear alcohol burned just a little, reminding him very much of medicine he’d been forced to take as a kid, and he stifled a cough. She smirked and refilled their glasses, taking her second shot before leaning into the kitchen sink to exhale, her own reaction to the alcohol. He set his glass on the counter but kept his distance, looking around the apartment. It wasn’t cluttered, exactly, but it did carry the mismatched pegboard furniture and shelves of books that had him wondering if she was in college herself. Wine bottle vases decorated the kitchen window. She was either really into wine or she was one of those people who chose wine based on the artwork on the label.

“You wanna talk or something?” he asked again, because he needed some direction for why she had reached out.

She shushed him, waving her hand to gesture that she had everything under control. No, she didn’t want to talk. She didn’t really want to do anything except sleep, a skill that she feared she was forgetting. Looking him over, she wondered if she could temporarily hire him to sleep in the living room as her guard dog. Those arms alone looked substantial enough to punch a few holes in her walls…

“Ok…” he started, getting agitated only because he was in a position to force her hand. “Ok, so what…”

She sighed and glared at him. “I can’t sleep. That’s all.”

That admission alone pained her and she bit her tongue. She was not going to tell him how lonely she was and how humiliating it was that she was so damned needy. “Look, I’m sorry to bother you. I’m sure you need to go home…”

“No, that’s not what I mean…” he backtracked, frustrated at the state of limbo he’d put them in, frustrated at his inability to just go with things for a change. He briefly considered grabbing the bottle of vodka from her, if that was what he needed in order to loosen up. He wondered if he could channel Bucky for just a second, to carry some of that calm and confidence for a change. You think too hard, Steve. Girls are easier than you think.

Natasha folded her arms, suddenly wishing he would go. She could feel a subtle nausea building underneath the surface, a reminder that she had completely forgotten about her dinner. She’d put herself out there and failed spectacularly.

“It’s late. I’m here if you want to talk but I’m here if you just want to… sit,” Steve offered, uncomfortable with the silence. She looked exhausted and well-worn, he observed, and wondered if maybe she really had meant it when she had said she couldn’t sleep. Her cheeks were rosier than he’d ever noticed before and he stole a quick glance at the bottle next to her. Guessing she’d started long before he arrived, sitting sounded like an excellent idea.

Before Natasha could relent, her body took over and made the decision for her, forcing her hand.  Steve watched as her face paled and her body swayed, his chest tightening for her. She needs to lay down, shes going to be sick

And then she was. All over his jacket, the floor, her clothes. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but couldn’t because whatever words he could find would only make the situation worse. All he could do was hold his breath as she gasped and leaned against the wall, hand over mouth, hair covering her face. He considered the way in which maybe this moment had been why he had been so sick as a kid, why he’d been present for his mom’s darker times. He did a quick sweep of the room before grabbing a roll of paper towels, shrugging his jacket off.

“I think I ate something…” she whimpered and he nodded, reaching for her shoulder to lead her toward the faded blue sofa in the living room. She jerked slightly but consented, her body falling onto the cushions.

He directed her as gently as he could to lay back so that he could clean up the kitchen floor, slipping his shoes off when he was finished. The room carried a signature smell and his heart hurt for her. Looking over his shoulder to double check that she was still breathing, he grabbed his jacket and the paper towels and rushed the bundle to the porch before returning to open the kitchen window just slightly.

“Natasha, you need to get cleaned up. Where’s your room?” he knelt in front of her, his mind running on adrenaline. She opened her eyes wide and he saw a sliver of panic.

“I’ll be fine. Just stay here…” she started to get up, her mind a foggy mess of shame and confusion. I deserve this.

“You will be fine. I will be here. I’m going to get you some water.” He reached out his hand to help her up and she swallowed the need to cry. Instead of yelling at her or worse, he was offering her water. She looked down at her shirt and groaned.

“Steve, just stay here.” She tentatively accepted the hand and let him pull her up so that she could bolt into her room and shut the door.

What. The. Fuck. She repeated it to herself as she peeled her clothes off. The entire scenario merited an award and she found herself mentally writing the narrative she’d tell Bruce. She’d definitely followed through with the homework to stop isolating. And then fucked it up in gold-medal fashion. She pulled on her pajamas and rushed into the bathroom to gargle mint mouthwash, the taste in her mouth of self-loathing probably thicker than anything.

Steve opened her cupboards and pulled out a plastic tumbler to fill with tap water before knocking on her door, crossing his fingers she hadn’t passed out or worse.

“Natasha? You ok?”

She opened the door, white tank top and cotton pajama bottoms, and he swallowed because Christ, she looked so vulnerable. His eyes wandered to the shape of her waist, her curves, the strength in her bare shoulders. She raised an eyebrow and he moved his eyes to the doorframe.

"I think I need to lie down." Natasha took the glass with gratitude, her mouth dry.

"Actually," he shook his head, "you might want to sit. I mean, it depends on how much you've had to drink but my mom was a nurse and I remember her saying that it could be dangerous to lay down after alcohol poisoning."

She scowled. His sincerity gave her a headache. "I'm not drunk."

They both knew it was a lie but Steve refrained. He thought about making a comment on just how utterly sauced she was and the hangover she would surely have later but decided instead to step past her into the room. "Well, at least, let's put the pillows up like this so you are resting at an incline, ok?"

Natasha could feel her legs freeze into the floor. He was in her space. The idea of it made her stomach spasm. He pulled back her comforter and adjusted the pillows, and she felt caught.

“Thanks but you don’t have to…” she rushed over, grabbing at his forearm. He paused and looked over, his eyes betraying that same sugar-sweet sincerity and something else she couldn’t put her finger on. He took a step back, his eyes sweeping over her room.

“Steve, thanks. Again.”

He started to respond, about to tell her that it really was nothing compared to that one time he had thrown up on the Cyclone after Bucky had dared him to eat six hot dogs in sixteen minutes, if only to convince her that she didn’t have to pretend to be so tough with him. His eyes steered toward the portrait he’d drawn, stuck on her wall, and he lost his words.

She had kept it. For any number of reasons but she had kept it and kept it somewhere close. It meant something to her. He met her eyes but didn’t quite know what to say, finding himself in uncharted territory.

“It’s really good,” she explained, looking directly at him, digging into herself for some courage. “It’s really amazing, actually. And no one’s ever made something like this for me.”

He could feel his cheeks burning. “I’m glad you like it."

Natasha sat down, her heart pounding, and watched confusion shade his features. It made her tired. She was tired of the game, of being afraid, of waiting for the next reincarnation of Ivan to appear. Mostly, she was just tired, her bones vibrating and mind feeling increasingly disconnected from the rest of her body.

“Steve, I am really drunk,” she admitted, feeling like she might as well continue with the honesty as long as she was in the present hole she was in. “And I’d like for you to stay”.

“Yeah, sure,” he nodded, feeling overwhelmed because he could count on one finger the times he’d ever been at a woman’s house overnight. “I’ll just…go take the couch.”

She rolled her eyes, “That’s ridiculous. Look, I don’t make friends easily. Are we friends?”

He shrugged because he wasn’t sure.

“Well, we are. So let’s be grown-ups. Stay here. I’ll put a pillow in between us.” She reasoned, turning off the light and moving over so that she was pressed against the wall.

He exhaled and obeyed, mentally exercising all the power he could harness to stay as still and respectful of her personal space as possible, grateful she at least had a queen bed and not a twin. She turned on her side so that her back was to him, and sighed.

“Natasha, I don’t make friends really well either,” he whispered in confession. She didn’t answer and he listened for her soft and even breathing before resting his own eyes.

 

Chapter Text

8

Natasha woke up to a loud thump. Snapping her eyes open, she ignored the dullness behind her brow and looked up at the ceiling. Darcy must be moving furniture, she decided, her mind relaxing back into sleep. A low grumble came from the floor next to her, flicking her back to consciousness and the fact that Darcy was out of town. She held her breath and made conclusions about the owner of the commotion below her.

Shit.

She wasn't sure if she had cursed out loud or if the grumble was suddenly speaking. Holding her breath, she rolled onto her stomach and peeked over the mattress to find the source, all back and shoulders, rustling like a big, sleepy ox on her floor. He looked up at her, eyes squinting.

"I know. I fall off this bed all the time," she smiled in commiseration. She had retained fuzzy memories of asking him over and then later to stay, impressed with herself for letting him into her bedroom and just as surprised that he was still there. He moved his body into a quick child's pose before kneeling on her floor. She glanced at the uneaten TV dinner on her nightstand from the night before and groaned.

"I got sick last night, didn't I?" she asked, even though she had a clear visual of his wide eyes during what she decided she could fairly count as one of the top three most humiliating moments of her life. He nodded with a straight face, and she picked up her pillow, hugging it against her body. She had more or less switched out nausea for hunger, thirst, and a resolve to never drink again.

"Did you sleep, though?" He figured he remembered things a little better than her. He didn't want to hash out just how messy she had felt, reasoning that her issues were likely none of his business. She deserved an "out" that he knew he could spare. But she had mentioned trouble sleeping, something he had struggled with himself.

The curious part in Natasha's mind was that she actually had slept, and even that she had actually been granted a reprieve from the nightmares. She hadn't dreamed anything at all. Rubbing the back of her neck in order to nurse the consequences of the night before, she reviewed all of the ways she could repay him.

"How bad is your jacket? I will buy you a new one or pay for dry cleaning.”

He shook his head. "Nah. I’m sure I can throw it in the wash.”

She wrinkled her face, “Isn’t it leather, though?”

He shrugged her off but Natasha insisted, the need to feel redeemed like an itch bubbling underneath the surface. She’d managed to make one friend, as frail as that relationship was, and she didn’t want the foundation to be built solely on her inability to be kind or care for someone else.

“Breakfast?” he suggested. Even with her tradition of rejecting him, he banked on their momentum and hoped she wasn’t too hungover to eat.

In for a penny, in for a pound, Natasha rationalized. Her body wasn’t happy with her dinner selection and she hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before.

“As long as I can pay for it.”

This earned some grumbling and resistance but she rolled her eyes and shot him a look that communicated her limited patience. While waiting in the living room for her to change, he reminded himself that only a few weeks earlier, he had dismissed doing anything with her out of the sheer logic that she was so very out of his league.

***                                                     

“So, you are an artist?” she asked as she stirred her oatmeal. After disagreeing on who should drive (Natasha accepted defeat when he reminded her that they had met while she was waiting for a tow), they had been silent aside from the agreement to go to whichever pancake house was closest. Silence was something Natasha had trained herself to find comfort in but she couldn’t shake the curiosity.

“I guess so? I’m studying graphic design at the school a few exits down,” he responded as a question. She allowed herself a small smile at the humility.

“Why? You look like you could teach second grade or something.”

He laughed, a simple baritone she found contagious. “I don’t know. I like creating things. I mean, it’s the only thing that really makes sense.”

Natasha watched as he poured syrup over his pancakes, enough to make her teeth hurt. As far as she knew he seemed smart and if nothing else, persistent. She would have pegged him for a young professional.

“What did you do before you started school?” she pushed, as if to dig for the catch or whatever it was he had to be hiding. She watched as he put his fork down and focused on her face.

“I was in Iraq. Only been home about a year.”

A piece of the puzzle clicked into place and she wondered if he had been on the front lines, because that might explain why he sometimes looked at her like he was afraid of her. She didn't want to ask more, resisting because more would violate her own rule about knowing too much. Instead she scraped her spoon against the bowl and waited.

"What about you? You're in school, right? I saw the textbooks..." Steve asked, glad she hadn't investigated further and even gladder that she hadn't given him the sympathetic-faux-grateful look he got when he told most people about the army.

"No, those are my roommate's," she shook her head. "I don't do anything special. Just the deli."

"And before?"

Natasha shook her head, mentally rehearsing the script she'd prepared for these kinds of questions. "Nothing. Same. I'm from New York. I waitressed there for a while. Did a little dance training when I was younger."

It was just enough truth but she held her breath while she waited for evidence that he believed her and was satisfied.

"New York? What part? I grew up in Brooklyn."

Steve watched as she furrowed her brow and stiffened, a random response that left him wondering if that had been the wrong question.

"Bath Beach..." she admitted, the name sliding out of her mouth for the first time since she had left.

"Really? I wonder if we know the same people or something." He found it to be incredible that they had grown up so close together.

She shook her head, "I doubt it. I mean, it's a heavily populated area."

"So wait, are you Russian then?"

Natasha bit her lip because he was asking a lot of questions. "Are you?"

"Irish-German."

Natasha signaled for the check. "Well I thought you were from California. You look like a surfer."

Steve sat back. "So I'm a Californian kindergarten teacher who surfs? You make a lot of assumptions."

"Don't we all?" she retorted. "What have you assumed about me? That I'm pretty? That I'm a bitch who wouldn't give you the time of day?"

“I don’t know what would give me that idea,” he answered back, and she huffed. It was an accurate if jarring response. Natasha didn’t think of herself as mean but she had worked hard to be intentionally standoffish.

“Well, I’m like that with everyone. It’s not personal."

“Why?” he asked. “I mean, why don’t you… Honestly, I would expect someone like you to be surrounded by people.”

Natasha swallowed. “So you assume people would want to be around me? Maybe I don’t want to be around people. It’s safer."

She had said too much, revealed too much. That he had figured out how to get her to talk made her feel disoriented and frustrated, like she was losing something.

It was also exhilarating. If quizzed, she didn’t think she could identify the source of the knots in her stomach as panic or a different kind of high.

“So, do you surf at all?” she asked, wanting to hold his attention but on her terms.

***

Steve didn’t know how to surf, hadn’t even seen the Pacific yet, but consented to the thirty minute drive to the ocean with her in his passenger seat. He tried to accept the whole scenario one bite at a time, driving through the winding canyon roads, trying as hard as he could to focus on the road instead of on her still expression as she looked out the window.

He’d seen the ocean before, certainly on the Atlantic side, and yet he was still struck by how neverending it seemed, the way in which he had to squint to tell where the sky ended and the water started.

He pulled over and they got out to walk on the sand and he suddenly got why Bruce was always trying to get him to think of the ocean when he was having a panic attack. The air felt cleaner and lighter, so that he could feel his chest opening up. They didn’t talk as they trudged through the sand and he found himself grateful that the beach crowd wasn’t so heavy.

“I get it, Natasha," he confessed as they made their way to the ramp of an uninhabited lifeguard tower. “I know what it’s like to lose people. I don’t think I even want to be around people anymore, sometimes."

She hugged her knees but didn’t say anything and he hoped he wasn’t digging himself into a grave. Taking a deep breath, he continued.

“See that pier over there? Santa Monica. It’s on TV all the time and I would really like to take you some day. They have a ferris wheel and it just looks incredible.”

“Right now? I still have time before I need to get back for work,” she gave him a small smile. He shook his head.

“Maybe someday. Right now, I think this is as close as I can get. I think it’s probably too crowded…”

And then he told her. In a steady and even tone, he confessed the way that he felt like jumping out of his skin sometimes.

“You hear all the time about things that cause stress. Just being there and knowing that nothing I could do to really stop things. But my therapist thinks it’s connected to surviving the explosion. Those happen all the time, and I should have expected it. I… I was the only one to make it.”

He could feel her fingers graze against his, a small touch that felt warmer than the sun.

Chapter Text

 

 

9


Can you pick me up at work tonight?

Steve looked down at his phone and smiled. They hadn’t really discussed meeting again when he had dropped her off at her apartment a few hours earlier, and he’d been trying not to hold his breath because there are rules about these sorts of things. He could hear Bucky, schooling him on how many times you had to see someone before you could text or call, how many times you had to wait before each boundary could be safely and confidently crossed.

He had convinced himself the whole episode was a fluke, a fascinating and emotionally charged encounter that had only cost him some sleep and his jacket. He couldn’t type yes fast enough.

When?

He waited, watching the highlighted ellipses that meant she was telling him something, and tried to calm his nerves. Thinking about her, about her smile, the paradox of her tough fragility- it reminded him of a panic attack without the feeling of impending death and doom.

She texted him back with the time. He debated on whether or not to send a message to tell her how much he couldn’t wait and whether or not he was supposed to accompany this message with an emoticon, (and which one? The smiley face with heart eyes? Thumb and forefinger together to say “ok”? The eggplant to illustrate how much of a dick he thought he was being?).

Suffice to say, he did not pay attention to the study guide review in class. He counted the minutes, stopping every minute or so to write the time in the margins of his notebook. What mediums did Botticelli use for the Birth of Venus? What is the definition of a sacra converzazione? Steve had honestly forgotten and was sure he didn’t even care, his thoughts otherwise preoccupied with her bare arms the night before, the curve of her shoulders, the constellation of freckles that scattered along her skin. All answers, if he had to write them in right then and there, would be Natasha.

***

“Someone’s in a good mood.”

“Hmm?” Natasha looked up from her phone, her face feeling unnaturally frozen in a smile to look up at Clint. An eggplant? What in the world?

“You just seem distracted today? And maybe a little more…happy than normal,” he grinned as he walked past her to the fountain drinks.

“I’m fine, I promise,” she assured him, mentally kicking herself for stealing time to play during work. Costly mistake, Natasha.

“Seriously. It’s cool. Sounds like you’ve met someone…” he shook his head, his face telling her that sneaking texts at work is something normal people do.

“No,” Natasha denied it, “No, just a friend. Whatever, now you are distracting me.”

He handed her a stack of cups to put away and patted her on the arm, “I’m sure the fine patrons of our little chophouse would live if you are a few minutes off.”

She rolled her eyes, mentally forgiving him for touching her arm because maybe sitting next to Steve on the sand in Malibu had thawed her heart just a little, and started toward the supply room.

“Never thought I’d see Natasha Romanoff sending flirty texts at work,” she heard him chuckle to himself. She considered a response but held back. She thought about all of the intentional walls and masks she had built up, with good reason, and how they had made everything harder, like walking through quicksand.

She didn’t know why she suddenly cared that everyone thought she was so cold and cut off. Maybe it’s a good thing, she told herself. It’s a good thing that people at work think I’m in a relationship. I’m normal. I don’t stick out.

Natasha was grasping at straws and she knew it.  Her eyes glazed over the pies in the bakery case as she prepared to wipe down the glass.

“Hey Clint, ring me up for an apple crumb and a pecan?” she called out.

***


Steve pulled into the parking lot and closed his eyes. Was he supposed to go inside and wait for her there? He didn’t want to embarrass her or push her boundaries. The lot was darker than even he felt comfortable with, the street lamp flickering in tune with the hums of the moths that pinged against the pole.

He could see her through the window, wiping down tables and collecting condiments in a bin. She had left her hair loose, he noticed, and he visualized wrapping his fingers around those curls. The thought alone made his cheeks burn and he shook his head. How had he made it through the desert, the barracks, fighting alongside men who told jokes and stories about donkey shows in Tijuana if he couldn’t even look at Natasha without feeling like he was fourteen?

He had a deep empathy for those moths, drawn to the yellow lightbulb and their impending doom. As he unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the car door, he smiled to himself. If he had made it out, if he was still alive, Bucky would bust his balls for this and tease him without mercy. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s dark. Be a gentlemen and go meet her. It’s too dark for her to walk out here alone.

She looked up when the bell chimed to announce his delightfully unsubtle arrival and waved, giving him a quick smirk. He couldn’t tell if she was happy he was there or if he amused her. Logically, it didn’t make sense that she would be playing, teasing him. Not anymore, not after the past twenty-four hours. Memories passed through his mind of girls saying hello only to ask him if he was Bucky’s best friend. He’d trained himself after that had happened a few times to anticipate the rejection, even when it seemed illogical.

“We’ll be done in a sec,” she explained, untying the apron around her waist and tossing it on the table where he sat. It all seemed so easy, how nice she was. He pulled out his notebook and started sketching spiders again, filling the body and legs with systematic patterns of circles and squares instead of coloring them in. He was starting on the thick rope that would make up the spiderweb when he realized she’d been sitting across from him.

“How do you just do that?” she asked, reaching out to touch the edges of his notebook. “That rope looks like intestines.”

He looked up at her, resisting the urge to cover up his work. “Ready?”

“So, is this the guy?” one of her coworkers walked up to the table. The sandy-haired guy who had made her laugh the week before. Steve looked him over, assessing how much competition he was, stilling a base instinct to call him a schmuck before he even knew his name.

“Clint, yes. This is Steve. The guy I was texting earlier.” She sounded cool and calm, not a hint of embarrassment about being seen in public with him. “Did you ring me up?”

He slid over two boxes and nodded at Steve, holding his hand out in a fashion that was downright paternal. “Have fun, kids. Steve, I’m glad someone is around to loosen her up.”

Steve looked at Natasha, who was rolling her eyes and nearly pushing them out the door. He considered the ways in which she might have projected the same front with everyone. It was insight that he found fascinating.

“What’s in there?” he asked as they stood up and walked to the door.

“Pie. I told you I liked apple crumb but I lied. Come over and I’ll show you the pecan,” she raised an eyebrow. “One bite, SGR, and you’ll be telling me your current sexuality is pecan pie.”

He nodded, still unable to make it mentally past the fact that she was inviting him back to her house at all.

***

“Glitter on the mattress, glitter on the highway, glitter on the front porch, glitter on the highway…”

“Are you singing?”

Natasha looked over her shoulder as she turned the lights on to see him smiling in the doorway, his forehead creased in a look of disbelief as he clutched the pies.

“What? No…” she frowned, feeling defensive. She hadn’t meant to sing out loud, only in her head.

“Sounded like the 90’s to me,” he shrugged and put the pies on the counter in the kitchen.

“I get nervous when I come home and it’s dark…” she said quickly, unnerved by his observations, waiting for judgment and scoffing.

He shrugged and reached to turn on the kitchen light. “It’s a neat idea.”

“You aren’t the only one with a history,” she sighed, permitting herself a small grin as she entered the kitchen to grab some forks.

“Dig in,” she raised her fork in a salute, not bothering with plates or a knife.

“You sure?”

“Trust me, Steve. We don’t need plates for this baby.”

***

“You’re staying, right?”

Steve nearly bit his tongue, save that his mouth was full of brown sugar and pie crust.

“If you don’t have any other plans…” she added, her fork digging in to the pit of dessert that sat between them on the couch. He watched with awe as she took a sizeable chunk in one bite, certain he had never seen anything as erotic in his entire life.

“No, I…I’m totally free,” he stammered. “Are you sure? Why?”

She swallowed and crooked her head to one side, her smile incongruent with the heaviness in her eyes. “It sounds ridiculous.”

Steve couldn’t conceptualize anything she did as ridiculous.

“My roommate. She’s out of town for the week,” she explained.

He wanted to touch her hand or anything, his heart pounding as she disclosed her discomfort at being alone. She put on a brave face but he recognized the slight waver, even though she tried to brush it off.

***

He waited in the living room as she prepared for bed, his mind wandering dangerously into thoughts of what her bedtime routine might be like. He looked around for traces of what little he knew about her in the décor, recognizing that he really didn’t know much about her to tell either way. The hodgepodge of furniture, books, and color didn’t fit his impression and he wondered how she kept up the ability to hold so much of herself in secret.

She opened the door and nodded, letting him know that she was decent, and he cleared his throat. It would take all the willpower in the world to keep his eyes focused on her face, even though she was wearing the same pajamas as the night before. He obeyed and followed her in, breathing a sigh of relief that she’d set up the same wall of pillows in the middle of the bed.

“I appreciate it, Steve. I know it’s weird. I appreciate this,” she said as she crawled onto her side of the great wall. “Maybe tomorrow you can bring something to sleep in?”

He was pretty sure he’d sleep on a bed of nails if it allowed him to be in her proximity.

“Should I kill the lights?” he asked, daring to sit on the bed. She nodded.

And then it was dark. He lay down beside her, hoping she wouldn’t hear the sound of his heart or take his inability to breathe as a sign of weakness.

“Natasha,” he whispered, feeling her weight shift on the mattress.

“Yeah?”

“Why? And why don’t you have a boyfriend or something? I don’t understand.”

He listened for a sigh or any kind of confirmation that she was irritated or some kind of valid explanation for why he was laying next to her with the flimsiest of barriers between them. He jumped at the feel of her hand on his shoulder.

“I don’t do relationships, Steve. I’m literally the worst person to be in a relationship with.”

He pondered her answer, confused, because surely she couldn’t have the baggage he carried. The whole situation topped the list of strangest things he’d ever gotten himself into.

“You aren’t as bad as you think…” he offered, “I mean, your walls aren’t any higher than mine.”

He could feel her pull back, heard her sigh.

“What does it mean, the quote you put on my picture?”

He turned toward her, “It’s something my therapist tells me all the time, I think it means things get better.”

“Maybe there’s another way of looking at who you are.” She recited it to him, giving it a poetry he didn’t think he’d noticed before. “Maybe…”

“Maybe change is possible,” he interrupted her.

For the second night in a row, he fell asleep feeling close to someone else. The warmth of her hand still resting on his arm was the best high he’d felt in his entire life, filling his body with a sense of calm he couldn’t remember the last time he had experienced.

It felt nice to feel close to someone else, even if it was just the heat of her palm against him and the sound of her sleeping. He had spent so much energy avoiding people, dismissing Bruce’s careful insistence that he needed some kind of attachment and contact. But this, even if they just stayed like this, had done more to heal him than he ever would have imagined. He felt needed. It felt revolutionary.

She shifted, resting on her side so that she was lacing her arm through his, as though he was her own personal teddy bear. He let himself fantasize that they were a couple, that this is what she would do if he let her stay every night. It was a dream he didn’t realize he wanted until that moment, the feel of it working on needs he had long since grieved and denied.

Chapter Text

 

El Puente/Bridge

I'm standing in a muddy pond. I can feel the algae getting into my toes so I must not be wearing any shoes. I can't remember why I'm there but I have to hurry up, like I'm against a timer or something. I walk around and try to find the exit for the pond, but no matter where I go, there's this fence. I'm trying to find a hole in the fence because it's sharp at the top and I can't climb it. Time is running out and I've just got to get through that fence. And then I do, but I don't even know how. I'm not in the pond anymore, I'm in the ocean. I'm treading water, trying to find the direction of land, and I'm starting to panic because the waves are coming in and if I can't find land, I'm  going to get caught. My feet finally feel rocks, like maybe a way out, and then I wake up.

Bruce sighed, hands folded.

“It’s just a dream. They don’t mean anything,” Natasha looked up, trying to decipher what the sigh meant.

“It depends on your philosophy. Why do you think we dream?”

“I don’t know. To help our brains recharge?” she shifted, going over the dream in her own mind and what it could possibly mean.

“That is one logical reason. Or to work through things,” he explained. “Freud talked about how our dreams are often symbols of the unconscious. Our dreams are often the fulfillment of wishes, things we wish we could have.”

“Well, I dream about being shot again. Does that mean that I’m wishing for another abusive relationship?” she asked, feeling a lick of anxiety building in her chest, something hot and suffocating.

“Well, imagine that everything in your dream is a symbol of you. So, you dream about Ivan hurting you. If you are Ivan, how are you hurting yourself?”

Natasha could feel the heat moving north to her throat. “I don’t think I can answer that.”

He nodded as if to say fair enough, but he continued. “What are some of the things you tell yourself, Natasha? About being with others? What do you tell yourself when you make a mistake?”

Natasha bit her lip. She felt like a dam wall was creaking behind her brain, rattling and threatening to break. Letting anything out felt dangerous. Unfixable.

“I want you to take your time, Natasha. You are safe here. You have to go through it though.” He gave her a gentle smile.

“I tell myself,” she started slowly and tentatively, as if dipping her toes in, “I tell myself that it’s my fault. That I am the reason for all of my mistakes. That I am a fuck-up and everything I do and everything I touch is inevitably fucked.”

“Whose voice do you hear when you hear those things? That you, Natasha, have fucked up everything?”

She shivered, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hands. It didn’t matter if it was Ivan or a foster mom or a caseworker, or herself. She had earned everything, the weight of her historical inability to make good choices around her neck like a noose. It had been her fault that she had said the wrong things or hadn’t been cleaner or cuter or had better manners to hold onto a family. And it was her responsibility to accept choosing someone like Ivan. She’d known better.

“What is the difference between pond water and ocean water?” Bruce interrupted her thoughts. She shrugged, feeling herself untether and disconnect.

“I don’t know. Ocean water is salty. Blue.”

“And cleaner, right?” he interjected. “As long as we don’t think about it too hard and get into a discussion on pollution.”

She sniffled. “Ok.”

“Well. And you talked about algae. Pond water sounds dirty. What’s it like be trapped in dirty, stagnant water?”

“Uncomfortable,” she agreed, her mind trying to follow where he was going.

“But you got out. Into a big, clean ocean.”

Natasha relaxed her shoulders. “Yeah, but I was still drowning.”

“Were you? When did that stop?” He gave her a quizzical look, a smile on his lips.

“Until I felt the rocks,” she admitted.

“Something to anchor you, give you some footing. We all need people and things, even ourselves, in ways that support us. It’s how you didn’t drown in your dream.”

Natasha took a deep breath, feeling divided in her heart about the ramifications. Connect or die. It was ultimately her choice.

***

“So, I’ve seen that waitress again?”

Steve said it in the form of a question. “To see” felt like the wrong word choice, because he’d seen her vomit all over the place. Truly, the past few days had been an exercise in all five senses. Just waking up next to someone, sharing someone else's space. He wasn’t sure where to start or how to put the experience into coherent words.

 

Smell. The notes of her perfume, something earthy and organic. Vanilla, maybe, but not quite. The smell of sweet and savory from the kitchen, something that had surprised him earlier that morning. She had woken before him. He remembered looking over to see the indentations in the blankets where she had been, remembered looking at her minimally decorated room as he tried to figure out what his plan for the day was.

He heard her, singing something else from the 90’s, in another room. Clanging of cupboard doors and metal. He got up and checked his hair in the bathroom, looking over his shoulder to make sure she wouldn’t see him sneak a splash of mouthwash. Yes, if this continued for the rest of the week, he would probably do well to bring an overnight bag or something.

Natasha sang better than she probably realized, he guessed, as he followed her voice into the kitchen.

“Good morning…” he called out, trying to give her as much notice as possible, a courtesy one should always give to jumpy people. She stood at the kitchen counter, still wearing those damned pajamas that caused his whole body to overheat, holding a red mixing bowl.

“Good morning to you too,” she smiled, stirring. "I have this idea that you never cook."

He could smell the butter and flour she was mixing to make batter . It was true, that he never cooked. He hated wasting food and cooking for one person was overwhelming.

“It’s just me, so I guess I don’t.” He walked over to stand next to her. She looked good. Fresh-faced instead of weary.

“Well, if I can repay you in any way, breakfast is something easy,” she said as she reached into the cupboard for some spices. “So I hope you don’t have food allergies.”

“I’m sure anything you make would be perfect,” he exhaled, saying it before he could regret it.

She maintained the same smile and handed him the bowl. “Well, maybe even more so if we make it together.”

It was the best response. Standing next to her, making pancakes, he couldn’t help think of other kitchens he had been in. His own, countless mess halls. Mrs. Barnes, who kept a tight ship but who also used lots of oregano and garlic. His mother’s…

 

“Which waitress? When did this happen?” his therapist asked, prompting him back to the present. Steve briefly wondered how his therapist could forget. There was only one waitress, after all.

He pretended not to hear the note of surprise in Bruce’s voice when he asked for more details.

“She texted me and invited me over. It’s been… bizarre.”

“So, what has this whole dating experience been like for you so far? You sound skeptical.” Bruce asked, “Like there’s a catch.”

“I don’t know,” he fumbled for a way to explain it. “To start, I don’t think I can describe it as dating. Or as a relationship.”

“What does that mean?”

“We… sleep together.”

“So friends with benefits? Steve, there are worse things. That might be helpful, actually.”

“No. Not like that. Like just sleep,” Steve cringed. “And breakfast.”

He tried to unravel his feelings about all of it, a big ball of spaghetti noodles that didn’t make any sense.

“So, just friends. You definitely need that,” Bruce arched an eyebrow. “So, what’s the catch? What about any of this is making you hesitate?”

Steve tried not to read disappointment in his therapist’s tone, telling himself that there was nothing really to be disappointed about. Were they friends? She’d used that label. In the short term, that worked fine for him.

“It’s confusing.”

Bruce nodded, not really giving Steve any answers or anything to go on. The ball of noodles that represented his thoughts grew bigger and he could feel his shoulders tense.

“What have you been drawing lately?” his therapist changed the subject. A distraction. He was minimally thankful, pulling his notebook out. "Spiders still? Tell me about them.”

Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “They feel relaxing. And that feels weird. Like they shouldn’t because they are spiders.”

“Not just any kind of spider, black widows,” Bruce mused. “Those are deadly, aren’t they?”

“I don’t think I want to read too much into this, Bruce. I look like a goth or something. I mean, I’ve been in my share of darkness but I’m not a goth.”

“Are spiders necessarily bad things, Steve? Can’t you think of any positives?”

He tipped his head to the side as he looked at the last one, the one on the intestinal-rope according to Natasha. Faceless, going up the page.

“No?” he sighed. “Can you just tell me so I don’t have to do all the work?”

“I know. Therapists who love to make their clients do all the heavy lifting,” Bruce laughed. And then he mercifully continued, “So I’ll tell you what spiders mean after you tell me what spiders make.”

“Spiderwebs.”

“It takes a lot of creativity and patience to do that. And spiderwebs are pretty strong, aren’t they? You get stuck in that and you can’t ever get out.”

“So I’m stuck. I can’t get out,” Steve unclenched his fists, hadn’t even realized they’d been so tight. Stuck. A word for his life. Frozen in ice. Everyone else passing him by, leaving, moving forward. Dying.

“But we know that’s bullshit, Steve. It is. You can get out. You have gotten out. And what in your life is asking for an open mind?”

It’s too painful. He didn’t want to say it out loud, knew Bruce and anyone else would tell him it was more painful to stay where he was.

“So how much of you chooses to be stuck, Steve? You are in charge of your own life. You say things are confusing and bizarre. Un-confuse them.”

Chapter Text

11

Natasha Romanoff drove home from therapy with a mission.

Connect or die.

It wasn’t the first time Bruce had reminded her of the need to make friends and meet people, but it was the first time that it had resonated within her. She felt an instinctive resistance to the pull to develop anchors in her life, a basic need that she had spent so much time and effort convincing herself she could do without.

She had gotten so good at being “busy” or having “other plans” when people asked her to join them, that people had long stopped asking. The list of people she would even consider reaching out to was short. Steve (someone she couldn’t categorize), Darcy (was that a friendship or was that someone she chose to live with?), no one at work except Clint (was that a friendship? Or was he a coworker who kept her sane but who she also chose to keep at work). She’d shown different personas, different masks to all three.

Natasha had a short list but this time, it was in her control to choose who belonged on that list. She rolled her shoulders and sat a little straighter at the thought.

And so it all led back to Steve. It was logical, she reasoned as she sat the edge of her bed and clutched part of the pillow wall against her chest. He made her feel safe. He didn’t push, seemed willing to let her make the rules. Natasha had chosen to minimize the way he looked at her, all of the timidity and sadness and hunger and authenticity bottled up tight. He wanted to be there with her.

This should be easy, she told herself. She knew sex. She knew what men wanted. She knew what Ivan wanted.

Except that it wasn’t easy at all. The value of all of those skills and tactics only had weight in her past life, a life she had buried. Natasha had no idea what Steven G. Rogers liked. She honestly didn’t even really know what she liked anymore. It was as if someone had taken a giant pencil eraser to all of her likes and even her boundaries, so that only a faint echo of who she used to be was visible. It was up to her to redraw everything.

She sat on the bed, feeling small and a little ridiculous. What do normal people even do?

“Fucking Google,” she muttered, pulling her laptop out from underneath her bed to open up a new web browser.

 

Ask: How to ask a guy out on a date

Ask: Safe date night ideas

 

If anyone from her past would have looked at her Web browsing history, they would have thought she was playing a prank. As one of Ivan's girls (a plurality she learned about near the end when she was already in too deep), she knew seduction. It was a skill set she had mastered, from the right look, the right words, touches, down to what to shave and what clothes men liked.

In a past life, Natasha could have written a book on how to be the “perfect girlfriend”.

Natalia Romanova was only worth her place next to Ivan Petrovitch. After all, he had rescued her. Because of his kindness, all of her needs were met and more. He gave her a roof, food, clothing when she had no one else and no other places to go. He told her what to eat, what to wear, who it was safe to talk to. Like a god, he made sure she knew how lucky she was to have caught his eye, especially when so many other girls would kill to take her place.

He was also a fucking narcissist, but no one ever said something like that to his face and lived.

When she first saw him, playing pool in Laura Antonova’s basement, (Laura’s brother Valentin had invited his older friends) she hadn’t known what to think. She guessed that older was an understatement for the man who they introduced to her as Ivan. He had a thick black mustache that made her laugh because any longer and he’d look like a cartoon character. Her first impression had been to ignore him, because for all of his muscles and commanding voice that told everyone he had come from the Old Country, he wasn’t really her type.

She agreed to go to a movie with him when he met her at her school with a dozen roses. Natalia remembered feeling a little exhilarated but also a little embarrassed, holding on to the chain link fence at the edge of campus with one hand and the bouquet in the other. Everyone at school eyed her with curiosity, fueling the desire she already had to prove that she was better than all of them.

A free movie, going somewhere and doing something instead of sitting at home. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

“Come on, Natalia,” he would lean over and whisper in her ear at the end of the night. It was damn exciting sitting in his black firebird, the radio playing softly in the background. “You are mine. We make sense. You make me look like the luckiest man in all of New York.”

She moved in after they’d been together for only one month. Her foster parents didn’t even care that she was leaving, actually seemed relieved. She only had the one suitcase, so it wasn’t a long, drawn-out process or anything. Her expectations had been to live with Ivan, maybe enroll in school, maybe get married one day or maybe not.

She did not expect to move into a big red brick house next to the Belt that housed Ivan along with all of Ivan’s “colleagues” and their girls.

She also didn’t expect that being Ivan’s girl meant she was in charge of setting the example, keeping house, keeping herself nice. She had to learn how to be an expert at lying and covering up. Natalia was a quick learner.

“Isn’t that Ivan?” Laura hissed one afternoon. She and Natalia had been walking arm-in-arm down 86th street because Laura had been craving paczkis from the bakery.

Natalia looked across the street, prepared to pinch her friend for the most ridiculous joke ever. "I doubt it, he knows better..."

Famous last words. It was most definitely her live-in boyfriend clutching some blonde in the short pink mini skirt, definitely her boyfriend's hands on said girl's ass. And definitely her boyfriend's tongue down the dumb bitch’s throat. She felt her face grow hot, her foot stepping into the street before her thoughts could form straight sentences.

"Natalia!" Laura grabbed at her arm. "Natalia, don't. Don't embarrass him in public.”

Natasha spun around to look at her friend. "Embarrass him? I'm going to go kick his ass. And then I'm going to kick the shit out of her."

"Natalia, please. It's just a kiss. It's a guy thing. You own his heart." Her friend looked at her with eyes that begged her to stand down.

"Are you fucking kidding me, Laura? It's broad fucking daylight. I'm not going to let him make me look like the clueless girlfriend who has no idea."

Laura dragged her into a pharmacy so she could catch her breath. It was a temporary solution because the truth burned hot in her veins.

He didn't even flinch when she confronted him that night.

"You have balls if you think I'm going to stand here and let you deny this, Ivan. I was there. I saw you with my own two eyes." She stepped up to him, looking up into his face, just waiting for him to say anything that would justify the punch in the nose she ached to give him.

He grabbed her wrists, tight, his eyes darkening to the color of asphalt. "You didn't see anything. Drop it, Natalia."

It was a warning she ignored, that moment when he so clearly changed from being her boyfriend to being a monster. In hindsight, she didn't know if she would have responded differently. When did it all start? It was hard to pinpoint a when, but this moment was on the short list.

"Go fuck yourself, Ivan." She spat, wriggling loose. He held her tighter.

The first time he hit her, she didn't believe it. Maybe it had been stress. Maybe Laura had been right. She added an extensive knowledge of makeup concealer and powder to her growing repertoire as an actress in her own life.

She also learned how to make plans, how to separate herself from her body when he assaulted her. A slap and she was thinking about what to make for dinner. A kick took her to the mall, where she would try on new shoes or hold a set of bangles in her hand.

She only rejected sex once. He told her once that he didn’t even want her, but that you had to follow through when training animals and children. That time her mind mercifully carried her all the way to the swings at the park down the street. She visualized swinging as high as she could, the wind combing through her hair as she flew. When he stopped asking, stopped caring whether or not she even responded, she imagined sitting in the swings, twisting the thick chains and spinning as fast as she could.

"Where would you go, Natalia? I am the only one who would ever take you and I'm starting to feel like you take advantage."

It was true. She had tried once to tell Laura, who only shook her head. "Natalia, don't get me involved."

Laura stopped returning her phone calls.

"Natalia, you made me look like an asshole out there," he said on the last day.

She opened her mouth to speak but stopped. She tried to remember what she had done at the Christmas party. Keeping to herself, she hadn't even made eye contact because the last thing she wanted to do was look like Ivan's slutty girlfriend.

"First, you’re fucking depressing. The girl I fell in love with used to laugh and smile and fucking play," he said, shaking his head, his body tensing. She instinctively stepped back, knowing the look and the signs that said she was about to be punished.

"Ivan, I was trying to be polite. I don't want to give the wrong impression."

He slapped her so hard she fell backwards onto the couch. "The wrong impression? Do you think I'm stupid? What kind of impression do you think people will get if you keep showing your tits to the world?"

Natalia looked down at the black sweater he had chosen for her to wear that morning. "I thought..."

She was tired and he was right. It seemed like a natural and inevitable consequence, and she had long accepted her role in causing all of it.

When he finally shot her, the white of the couch turned a shade of red reminding her of wine. She found out later that he had replaced it the next morning when she was still in surgery.

A god who provided shelter and blessings but also a god of wrath. She left the hospital with the decision to stop believing in gods and fairy tales and love. She hoped they told anyone who asked that she was dead.

 

Natasha drummed her fingers on the keyboard, feeling frozen and blocked on what she was doing. It felt a little like starting a new diet, trying to figure out all of the rules and things to avoid. Exciting but with an underlying fear that comes with any kind of lifestyle change.

I’m going to mess this up. She closed her eyes and rubbed at her temples.

 

Ask: How to tell someone you used to be in a relationship with a sociopathic asshole

 

She exhaled, erasing the sentence in the search bar.

I’m in charge of where I stand and who I connect to. I am in charge of my own life.

Something about Steve Rogers demanded honesty. Something about any possibility of trusting him demanded a skill she’d never cultivated, not even before Ivan. Ivan had wanted an image. A mirage. She wanted to be clean. She wanted truth.

With her breath held in her throat, Natasha started typing a clear but strange truth. She felt a little like an imposter, pulling the threads of her memory out and separating what definitely happened with what she had spent years telling herself wasn’t real or hadn’t really been as bad as she thought.

 

Ask: How to tell someone you like that you’ve been a victim of domestic violence and rape.

 

Natasha did not clear her browser history as soon as she had decided she was sufficiently ready to get ready for the rest of the day. That felt like a victory.

 

***

 

After getting confirmation that she still wanted company, Steve went home to pack. Socks, pants, a toothbrush, and a resolve to get unstuck.

As he weighed what to bring and what was probably over-packing, he reviewed what he wanted from spending the night with Natasha in the first place.

Clarity. Steve didn’t want to push her, knew she kept people at a distance. But the grey area was confusing. He just wanted to know, either way, what they were doing. Were they going to be friends? That was acceptable. But being just friends changed something.

With all of her brokenness and damage and the parts of her that were locked up tighter than Fort Knox, he wanted her. The funny and amazing part was that he wanted her in every way- as a friend and something else, something more. He wasn’t going to lie to himself and say that he didn’t want to tear down the great wall to feel her skin, to find out if she tasted as sweet as he imagined. But he also wanted to tear down the defenses they had both been playing with, letting just enough in to stir feelings.

He wanted to trust her, to believe that she really wanted him close, that she wasn’t going to change her mind. He wanted clear and uncomplicated. It was probably an ego thing, he admitted, that he wanted to feel needed and valued.

“I am going to have an open mind,” he announced to his empty apartment before locking the door.

 

***

 

“I’m taking you out,” she announced with a hint of pride as she opened the door. “I know you probably don’t like surprises but I promise it’s safe.”

“Okay…” he said slowly, waiting until she stepped back and opened the door wider before stepping inside. “Do I need to change or anything?”

She shook her head and grabbed her purse. He noted that she was wearing sneakers and jeans. “I didn’t think you even owned tennis shoes.”

She shrugged. “They fit for where we are going.”

Chapter Text

12

 

In the middle of a war, a hot meal is a luxury.

The boys used to gripe about this, when memories of meatloaf and lasagna were still vivid. It was the perfect ice breaker, talking about the first meal you’d have when you got home (and then later talking about what your ideal last meal would be). Everyone could sit in a line and remember different tastes and smells, ranging from sweet to spicy to aromatic but all ending in rumbling stomachs. Gabe Jones told everyone one afternoon about his mom’s specialty (fried chicken), taking some to school on the meaning of soul food.

Everyone, even Steve, could think about one or two meals that were aptly defined as “soul food”. They traded recipes when boredom led to sadness. Towards the end, they stopped only because everyone knew everyone’s mother’s recipe for meatballs and tuna casserole. Thinking about it in between bites of whatever was in the MRE (those got old fast), was at least one reason everyone eventually ate fast and in silence.

It was perhaps because of that monotony that Steve Rogers became an unabashed and unmitigated foodie. He added it to his reasons for not cooking at home, though breakfast at Natasha’s told him he needed to brush up on those skills too. Trying new food, new tastes, exploring things that sounded adventurous, all seemed like a natural coping mechanism after the slow torture of beans and rice and protein drinks.

Sitting in his car with Natasha, eating from a cardboard tray outside a food truck? Yes, he was definitely game for that.

Sitting with her eating from a food truck advertising a “sushi burrito”? In between bites of tortilla, spicy tuna, soy sauce, avocado, and ceviche, he was pretty sure he was in love. When she let him try something called a “Jalapeño Bomb” that included eel, he damn near proposed marriage.

“Sounds like you are having a religious experience over there, Rogers,” she noted, sitting with her back against the passenger door and her legs crossed.

“I can’t tell you in coherent words how much I love food,” he admitted, his mouth full. “It’s one of the best things about Los Angeles.”

“They don’t have food trucks in Brooklyn?” she asked, reaching up before he could stop her to wipe at the salty caramel sauce on his cheek.

“I think they do…” he swallowed, meeting her eyes, his mind unable to wrap itself around the feel of her fingertips on his face. Did that just happen? She shrugged and took a sip of her water, and he wasn’t sure.

“I think they do,” he said again, shaking his head as if to recalibrate, “but I haven’t really been back in a long time. I don’t even know for sure.”

“Everything goes on without you,” she nodded. He guessed by the tone in her voice that she was picking up the thread, that she hadn’t been “home” in a long time either.

It was a doorway to a conversation that Steve didn’t know if he wanted to take because the evening had started off as an adventure, kicking off with a playful discussion on who was driving that ended with him handing her his keys. Russians are the safest drivers in the world, she’d said.

He was admittedly easy to convince, especially when she licked her pale pink lips and smiled in a way that was simultaneously innocent and dirty all at once.

They drove through the Los Angeles freeway system for about an hour, giving him ample time to appreciate her ability to change lanes (sometimes pulling into the exit lane and then maneuvering just at the last minute, narrowly squeezing in front of passing cars). Natasha drove like someone who was running late, as if driving at 75 instead of 65 would make a difference. He wasn’t sure what impressed him more: her ability to move through the freeway parking lot or the fact that it took so long to go about ten miles (knowing New York wasn’t much better, he was always amazed by how small Los Angeles actually is).

Driving through a sea of Prius’s, white Toyota trucks overloaded with lumber and tools, and shiny SUVs that showcased the continnuum of concern that Los Angelenos have for fuel efficiency, Steve Rogers wondered what kind of drugs he was on that he was having fun. Natasha was fearless (and sometimes reckless) as a driver but she was also hilarious, swearing at the cars around her in Russian. He didn’t think he wanted to know what zalupa meant or why she was saying it when a mini-cooper wouldn’t let her pass, but his ears burned anyways.

“You get passed a lot when you drive, don’t you?” She smirked at one point, nodding to his tight grip on the armrest. “Must be frustrating always driving in the senior citizen’s lane.”

“They don’t have a senior citizen’s lane…” he said before catching the joke. “Hey, I’m not that bad.”

She answered by shifting gears and shrugging. “And we’re almost there.”

As they turned into the entry way for Griffith Park, a volcano-sized mass of everything from succulents and cacti to oak trees to lilacs and yellow wildflowers, Steve wondered for a second if they had crossed into a different state. In the middle of smog and buildings and concrete, the winding road from flat into near-mountainous felt surreal. Pilgrims of families, couples, aficionados in bike shorts, lined the way up.

“Are we hiking?” he asked as they passed a group of teenagers in flip-flops, one with a guitar strapped to his back.

“I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” she confessed with a smile, shifting gears as they gained in altitude. “Maybe next time?”

His ego wanted him to convince her that they could take the mountain and he nearly said something until she reached the top, pulling in front of a chalk-colored art deco castle.

“This looks like a temple,” he noted, thankful he had remembered to bring his notebook.

“To the stars. It’s an observatory,” she pointed to the copper domes that topped the central structure.

They toured the star museum together, not quite holding hands but close enough that they bumped into each other while passing through the different dioramas of the stars.

“I guess you don’t see stars very often anymore,” she noted as they stood in line to enter the planetarium.

“Not in the city. I used to see them in the desert though. And the mountains when I was a kid.”

“Well, and in school. Though I couldn’t tell you anything about stars. Aren’t they just big balls of gas that die?”

“Everything dies,” he answered matter-of-factly. It was an obvious point but something about the statement had them both retreating back into silence.

He tried not to obsess over whether or not he’d disrupted everything, whether he had said something painful, because her face was sometimes impossible to read.

So when she rested her head on his shoulder through the presentation on Orion’s Belt and the Milky Way, the theater so dark he couldn’t see his hands in front of his face, he let out a deep breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding. It was warm and comforting and he tried not to inhale the smell of her hair, tried hard to focus on the narration.

Her hair smelled like coconuts. It was girly and amazing and he felt like a teenager. His hand tentatively reached around to her shoulder, pulling her in. She fit naturally, even though they were in awkward theater chairs.

As the narrator discussed Norse mythology and the origins of the aurora borealis, he reflected on how easy it was, holding her and being with her. Maybe not clarity, exactly, but something as light and beautiful as the display of charged electrons and protons projected above them.

***

The view of the city from Griffith Park is majestic, especially at sunset. Hollywood Hills give way to an ocean of city lights, the blanket of fog from exhaust and chemicals just light enough that it feels calming instead of distracting. For just a moment, the purples and oranges of the sky match the glow of the traffic lanes and dots of life, all leading west to the Pacific.

Natasha had never in her life felt like a tourist. She’d felt like an observer at times, or maybe a silent witness, but never in a situation that demanded something like sight-seeing. Sitting next to Steve while he sketched the skyline, she felt anxious. As though there were rules she didn’t know. As though someone was going to call her out for being an imposter.

It was foreign to step outside of the city (or rather above it), as though for only a minute she wasn’t included in the tightly wound race. Her insides felt kinship with the clouds, the smoky atmosphere that floated away, only minimally dangerous and deceiving.

“This has been nice,” he smiled as he used his pencil to shade in clouds above his skyline.

“Well, you took me to Santa Monica. I figured as long as I’ve found someone who wants to see LA, we might as well get started,” she reasoned, still walking the razor’s edge of how excited and wonderful she could allow herself to feel.

 

He put his pencil down and turned his head to look at her, forehead creased. “I would love to see more of the city with you. I still don’t understand why someone else hasn’t done any of this with you?”

Natasha felt herself bristle, felt the underlying doubt creep in. “Why do I need to be attached to anyone?”

“I didn’t mean it that way…” he shook his head.

“Well, I’ve done that before, been so totally dependent on someone that my entire identity is wrapped up in being someone’s girlfriend. It was … awful.”

“I don’t think you… I’m not saying that you have to belong to someone or something,” his face flushed as he tried to backtrack. “I’m just saying that you are amazing. Like not only gorgeous but fun and funny and sweet…”

“This is the first date I’ve gone on in over a year. I know you think I’m a pretty face and a great pair of tits but I promise you that I’m trying really hard to stay away from relationships,” she explained, feeling her chest ache and her words fall out like rambles.

“Hey!” He held a palm up. “Hey, wait a second. I didn’t say any of that. Assumptions, remember? You don’t know that this is what I’m thinking at all.”

“So you don’t think I’m a pretty face and a great pair of tits?” she challenged, feeling irrationality flood over her.

“Natasha. Stop. Look at me,” he said in an even tone, something in it commanding her attention. “Look at me. I’d be lying if I didn’t say you are those things. But I also just said how much more than those things you are. I barely even know you. I don’t even know your last name but goddammit, you fascinate me.”

Natasha met his eyes, still at war with herself on what she even wanted. He was trying to be nice and her brain’s fantastic ability to sabotage things and only hear messages about control and fear overwhelmed her.

“It’s Romanoff,” she smiled, apologetic.

“Yeah? Nice to meet you,” he smiled back. “This is a date?”

“Yes. And the sun’s almost down and I’m hungry. Come on, let’s go find some food trucks.”

And so there they were, sitting in his car eating Mexican-Japanese fusion, and Natasha found herself listening to hipster indie music and a symphony of Steve Rogers groaning into his food. It was such a boy thing, the sounds he made into each bite leaving little to her imagination about how he might sound during sex.

The first thing that surprised her was that she found it endearing. Instead of eating quiet and fast as though he was eating to save his life, he was enjoying himself. And it had been a while since Natasha had seen something like that. Joy.

The second thing that surprised her was that she had been thinking of him sexually at all. She didn’t like to describe herself as broken or damaged, because it felt almost cliché, and yet a part of her had always assumed that part of her had been amputated.

Reaching to wipe the soy sauce from his face had been an exercise in thoughtful deliberation, an act to prove to herself that she could still touch someone and not feel (or cause feelings of) repulsion. Her body bloomed at the thoughts, something inside her unfurling after so much time clamped shut. A tall drink of water, indeed.

She watched him fluster as they talked about New York, and she’d had enough.

“I don’t want to go back, Steve.”

“Where? New York?” he asked.

“Yeah. I mean, I think everyone back there thinks I’m dead anyway…” she shrugged, trying to hold in her thoughts and composure.

He nodded, as if mentally chewing over her disclosure. “Do you want to stay dead?”

She paused before responding, ambivalent about how much to share.

“I do. I… the person I was, is dead, Steve. There’s a lot I can’t talk about out loud, not yet.”

And then Steve Rogers shrugged, communicating an understanding that she needed to carry the weight for a little longer, that she could only open up so much. She thought about all those times when she’d been in Ivan’s car, literally pushed wide open.

“Natasha,” he said her name as an anchor, pulling her out of the memories. She swallowed, suddenly understanding that she’d been trembling. “Let’s go back to your place, okay?”

She opened her mouth to agree but held back. “Wait. There’s a lot I can’t talk about. But I want to and I will. Just, I need to do something first.”

Before she could reconsider and before he could protest, she had leaned over, invading his space. It was precarious, she knew, but it was a straight direction and it was her choice.

“Steve,” she lowered her voice, her focus traveling from his eyes to his mouth and back again. She watched him, looking for the consent in the confusion. “I am going to kiss you.”

The “sure, yeah” stumbled out and she attacked. Her lips touched his, feeding off of the awkward, fueling her courage that she was on the right track. The position, her almost over him, the control she had to decide pace and impact. Natasha licked his lips, her own burning just a little from the jalapeno dinner, and bathed in momentary power. She felt his hands push against her back, light at first and then heavy as he relaxed.

It was Natasha who broke the kiss, sitting back into her seat. He looked at her and then looked forward, blue eyes darkened, and touched his lips.

“That…” he rasped.

“Not so bad, right?” she smiled, hugging her body. It was what Bruce would have called “corrective” and she felt proud, as if she had managed to shake off just a little of the dust that layered her. She had been in charge and it had been delicious. Even though it was a small thing, she’d proven Ivan wrong.

Chapter Text

13

They didn’t talk on the way home (thankfully a shorter drive), though even if they had Steve was sure he wouldn’t have said anything remarkable, his mind fuzzy like a cotton ball.

Natasha had kissed him. She had made that move. He could think of ways to negate it, but it had been real.

When they got to her apartment, he followed her inside, still feeling as though every move was a request for permission. She’d confirmed the underlying suspicion that she had her own demons, though he still wasn’t sure if she was actively trying to soothe them or erase them completely. He understood the feeling of rebirth, being so totally unsure of anything anymore. He certainly wasn’t the boy he’d been before the war.

“Can I help?” he asked as she started her rounds with the lights. She looked up at him and nodded, her hands still on the first switch right inside the door.

Steve took a deep breath and dared to move with her as she reached to turn on a corner lamp, fingers fumbling with hers to turn the little knob. He listened as she took in a breath of her own, her body stiffening.

“The next one?” he whispered, his voice incapable of much more power.

“In the kitchen.” She met his eyes, her voice calm but her body betraying an underlying charge in the way her chest rose and fell.

And so they traveled together through the apartment, reaching for switches in unison. It felt like a dance, him letting her lead, covering her frame with his every time they moved for a light. In the kitchen, he let his fingers touch her wrist, his heart pounding in anticipation of a recoil that didn’t come. In the hallway, his other hand moved to her waist, a touch that brought them only physically closer by pull of gravity.

“Bedroom,” she whispered, grabbing his hand. “It’s the next light.”

As they moved into the room, he realized how backwards their entire relationship was, everything muddy and obscure, a constant theme of blurred boundaries and thick walls. He reached with her for the lamp by her bed, could hear his own heavy breathing and nerves.

“Natasha,” he started to speak, not really sure what he wanted to even say, or if he should say anything at all.

“Me too,” she smiled slightly, leaning into him.

Acting on instinct, Steve pulled her into him, turning her by her waist so that he could have access. His entire body ached, thirsty for more contact, but he held on to logic. It boiled down to a tactical strategy, waiting for her to make the next move. It was a curious limbo, a yellow light that told him to go slow, as much for his own sanity as for hers.

“What do you want?” she asked, looking up, eyes wide and brave, as if testing him.

“I want you to feel safe,” he responded, holding on to the inclinations and requests that were on the tip of his tongue.

“Bullshit,” she challenged.

“It’s not bullshit,” he protested, surprised that she’d called him out. “I want us both to feel that way.”

“That is bullshit. I’ve seen enough to know that the last thing on a man’s mind is how I feel and if I feel safe.” She said it with an edge of something sharp, angry.

He could feel his chest tense, recognized that he was gritting his teeth. She frustrated him, a puzzle that he couldn’t quite unlock, a constant struggle for straight answers.

“What do I want, then? Since you know?”

Natasha grabbed a fistful of his shirt, an action that sent shockwaves and tugged at his patience. “You want to kiss me. Probably more. I’d bet money you’ve thought about fucking me.”

“You are a pain in the ass,” he clenched his jaw, irritated that she had told him what he wanted and irritated that she was right.

“Do you want to kiss me or not?”

“Jesus Christ, Natasha, I have since the first time I saw you and even more…”

“You talk too much,” she huffed, reaching for his neck to pull him down, again taking charge.

Even kissing her, he felt like he was fighting. Fighting with his own need to do everything right, working to get one more confirmation that she wanted him, and fighting with her, communicating that she had the power to say how she wanted things to be. Too much pressure, more tongue, more air, faster, slower. He wanted her to set the rules. A tiny piece of his unconscious peeked out at the thought. He liked it.

He started to pull back, not wanting to push her too far, not wanting her to feel how much he wanted her, not wanting to be her next source of regret.

She shook her head, held on tighter to his shirt. “I’m not done. I want more.”

Steve was more than happy to oblige, tucking his doubt a way for just a second because her fingers had reached underneath his shirt to tickle at his stomach, teasing out an unspoken message about how much more she was looking for and how willing she was to be there with him. She shoved him, just a little, so that the backs of his knees hit the bed. He fell back, his arms bracing his fall, and looked up at her.

“Natasha…” he sighed, physically aching as she stood between his thighs, running her hands through her hair. She shrugged off her jacket, tossed it by the door. It was like the golden ticket, anticipating her lips, her skin.

“I feel like I don’t even know what I’m doing,” she confessed, breaking character.

“I’m good at following directions,” he promised, mentally adding the caveat that he wasn’t a beacon of experience either.  

“And I suck at giving people what they want.”

It was a comment that came out of nowhere, something Steve wasn’t quite sure how to parse. He flashed to all the disappointed looks he’d ever gotten from classmates, teammates, women… She was perfect, and yet altogether not. He hesitated and then touched her hand.

“Can we test that?” he gambled. “Can you do that again?”

She raised an eyebrow and smiled, as if proud of how he responded to her. And then she was leaning into him again, and all he could think about was how marvelous her lips were, how soft, how focused. Until she was tugging at his top, those lips kissing his neck and his throat. He was sure he should be doing something productive with his own hands, which were stupidly grabbing fistfuls of her comforter as though the connection between his brain and limbs was severed. She reached for his belt line and one of his hands covered hers, though he couldn’t quite figure out why the one time he was moving, it was to stop her.

“Natasha, wait…”

She looked at him as though he was speaking German, bending down to lick at his shoulder. “Why?”

“Too fast?” he asked. “I feel like I should be working harder for this. Like you are doing all the work.”

She laughed and started unbuttoning her jeans. “Seriously?”

“Come here,” Steve motioned with his head. Natasha squinted her eyes, as if unsure, and he drew her close, eye level with her stomach. His hands found place on her hips and he looked up, checking that she was still ok. She nodded, lips parted for shallow breaths, and he pulled her so that she was on his lap, adjusting her legs to lock around him.

What had started as a power struggle, as desperation, as a series of moves in which she was playing chess and he was still on checkers, had morphed into slow and sweet. Steve felt her relax and loosen, his own tension lifting as they kissed. Maybe it was just having more practice? He couldn’t put his finger on when things had shifted from devouring to exploring, teeth and tongue not in push and pull anymore.

He reached up to touch her cheek, wanting to brush through that hair with his fingers. “We’re ok?”

“Still ok,” she closed her eyes, leaned into his hand. That wonderful line drawn from her neck to her shoulders, just as inviting as the first time he had noticed it at the deli. She’d asked what he wanted, and tasting that pathway of skin and tendons and muscle was his new primary goal. Natasha shifted, falling into him, her grip on his shoulders tightening, as his lips kissed her.

He wondered as she gave a soft moan in his ear, if there was a cap to feeling as good as he felt holding her, a limit that he was close to reaching. Feeling bold, he lifted the hemline of her shirt, an investigation to see if more was possible, if her skin was as flushed and smooth everywhere.

Stoy…” she mumbled something into his shoulder, breath wet on his skin. “I mean, stop. Wait.

Steve snapped his hand back and lifted his head. “Is this ok?”

Natasha straightened and he was able to see her face, eyes glossy and dark. “Yes. No. Wait a second.”

“Yeah, of course,” he said, shaking his head as if to send emergency messages to his body that it needed to stop responding. “Do you need…”

She sighed and scrunched up her face. “I’m sorry.”

“I don’t have any expectations, Natasha. I’m not good at any of these things either.” When he said it, she looked away, chest rising and falling, mouth shut tight. There was something familiar in the deep breaths, something like panic.

“It’s ok. I promise it’s not a big deal, Natasha,” he said with deliberation. He wanted to remind her to breathe but stopped. It pissed him off when people told him to breathe.

“It is a big deal, but it doesn’t have anything to do with you,” she shook her head and unwrapped her legs, sliding off so that she was standing again.

He shrugged, “I have a running PTSD diagnosis, Natasha. I get it.”

She opened her mouth to answer, and he started to stand up, his own mind racing to how he could get her to believe he was fine, that the last thing he was feeling was anger.

A thump from outside served as the perfect diversion.

“Is that from the front…” he asked, his veins suddenly buzzing. Before she could answer, they heard knocking, soft and then louder. Knocking on doors. Make sure any civilians are evacuated. Smoke. Rolling tires thumping on dirt roads.

“Door,” she nodded, her shoulders up to her ears, face full of grimace.

“Door,” he echoed, reminding himself of where he was. Natasha’s. California. 2014. Home.

Natasha took his hand, and started towards the living room, quiet and bright. That is a useful coping skill, he reflected on the lights, as they made their way to the front door.

The knocking was inconsistent. He heard scratching and something almost musical, jingling.

“Hey, when is your roommate…” Steve asked as the front door opened.

“Darcy,” she sighed.

Steve watched her exhale, felt the tension in his upper body fade, as the door swung open and a suitcase was tossed through the entryway. The owner was a blur of brown waves that matched her luggage and limbs overloaded with brown paper bags that cursed as she shuffled in.

“Darcy,” Natasha stepped forward and repeated the name as her roommate carried the bags to the sofa.

“Hey Red. Sorry I’m a day early. I mean, I’m not really because I live here but Holy Shit, you actually brought a guy home…” the other girl smiled as she looked up, making eye contact with Steve immediately.

Steve noticed the surprise in her voice and thought he caught Natasha wince, dropping Steve’s hand.

“You’re home,” Natasha said.

“I know. It’s a long story. The short version involves Norwegians, who are collectively a bad idea.” Darcy explained, pulling her hair up into a ponytail before directing her attention to Steve. “In this case. I mean, not all guys from Norway, in case you are from Norway. Though you look like you are from Orange County. Or Idaho?”

“New York,” he shook his head and smiled.

“Really? That surprises me for some reason.” She held her hand out.

“It’s the truth. Brooklyn,” Steve accepted the handshake.

Darcy took a step forward and laughed, suddenly shaking his hand with both of hers. “There it is. I think I hear it. Tell me you want to park the car.”

“Darcy,” Natasha interrupted, “I’m glad you’re back. We thought we heard something when you came in but it’s fine and we’re going to get out of your hair now.”

“What?” Darcy waved her off. “No! You aren’t in my hair. We should sit down, have some drinks, play a game or something.”

Steve raised an eyebrow at the exchange, impressed by how much the energy had changed in the room. Hell, even the temperature had changed, from cold to hot, in just seconds.

“Steve.” Natasha reached for his arm.

“Steve. Steve from Brooklyn. Brooklyn Steve. Who is going to teach me how to talk like Judge Judy.” Darcy started towards the kitchen. “Hey, Brooklyn Steve, what do you drink?”

“Um…” he looked at Natasha, who was shaking her head. “I’m ok actually…”

Darcy appeared in the entryway to the kitchen holding a bottle of red wine. “Really? Natasha?”

“We were in the middle of something,” Natasha said firmly and Steve watched as she stiffened, putting that face of control on tight.

“Ohhhh.” Darcy groaned. “You guys were in the middle of something. Brooklyn Steve, you better know your geography because she needs it.”

“Geography?”

“Geography. Gotta know your way around the South pole, Steve. Though maybe I shouldn’t be giving you pointers on how you eat because I like this roommate and I really don’t want to lose another one to a dude.”

“Ok, we are going to let you get settled back in. I will see you in the morning?” Natasha said quickly, pushing Steve back toward her room.

“Yes, absolutely. Steve, I fully expect to see you in the morning making breakfast. Her, because you are a gentlemen. Me, because these walls are damn thin…”

Steve nodded, still mentally translating all of her code words, as she disappeared back into the kitchen.

***

“Breakfast…”

Natasha looked over at Steve, who was standing against the doorway with a confused look on his face.

“Steve, that was Darcy. She’s my roommate.”

He nodded and flushed, “She’s funny.”

“Yeah. Well, we don’t hang out or anything,” she said, feeling like she should apologize. As if the evening had morphed from a sweet date into an oil spill of apology and disaster. She felt tired, her body coming down from the adrenaline high of fight or flight.

“I do know where it is,” he blurted, face flushed. “The South Pole.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow, mentally filing away the information.

“I just got the joke. I think,” he continued, looking blessedly hopeful and innocent, like he’d just answered a test question correctly.

“K,” she nodded, sitting on the bed. “That is definitely important to know…”

He stood his ground by the door, hands in pockets, and swallowed. “So, if she’s back, do you want me to go home? I mean, the place isn’t empty anymore.”

It was a logical question but she hadn’t considered it. On paper, of course he could go home.

“No, stay,” Natasha decided. “We can talk about it tomorrow morning.”

He took in a deep breath. “Ok. That’s good…”

It was good, Natasha reminded herself. And that had been the whole point. Connecting, talking to someone, being close to someone without running away. She moved the Great Wall of Pillows, pushing the cushions back to their spot at the head of the bed. It felt like a big gesture, a sign of good faith, and she recognized that it was honest.

“My blankets smell like you,” she noted out loud as she started pulling back the covers.

“Sorry?” he walked over slowly, as if uncertain.

“It’s nice,” she confessed. “Like…..’

She thought about Ivan, who smelled like artificial mint and sweat and Drakkar Noir. This was clean. Subtle.

“It’s like soap,” she explained, smoothing imaginary wrinkles out of the sheets. “Plain soap.”

She watched as he picked up his overnight bag and put it on the edge of the bed, unzipping it to pull out blue sweatpants. Without speaking, she motioned to the bathroom so that he could prepare for the night.

Listening to him sigh behind the closed door, she reflected on the situation at hand. They had to talk about everything that had happened, even if a part of her wanted to ignore it and go back to innocent slumber-party mode. She reached under her shirt to unsnap her bra, her fingertips circling around her scars. He hadn’t even said anything about the lashes on her arms, and she wondered if maybe they weren’t as obvious as she had thought.

The scar, she knew, was obvious. Not as angry as it had been the year before, but not as faded as the doctors had said it would be. A wonderful raised reminder. She was sure it looked like a tumor. The fact that he had almost seen it was what had triggered her episode, because suddenly they were moving lightning fast and she was hanging on by her fingernails.

She pulled her bra out and climbed into bed, annoyed with herself for being so self-conscious and weak. Like she’d never feel normal.

“How long have you had panic attacks?” he whispered as he climbed into bed with her, turning on his side to face her.

She sighed. “I don’t know. A few years. You?”

“Since forever, I think. I’ve always been anxious,” he said, evenly as if it was as simple a fact as his eye color.

“But the war made it bad.”

“Yeah. I got lucky though. I mean, I saw the boys… we were on patrol,” his voice dropped to a scratchy whisper, eyes staying focused on her. “I saw my best friend die in an IED explosion. All I have to do is carry some ghosts around with me? I got damn lucky.”

Natasha reached out, instinct driving her to touch the side of his face, grazing his ear. “What does it feel like to carry them?”

He shrugged. “Heavy sometimes. Sometimes it’s just that I can’t sleep anymore. Or I can’t turn my mind off.”

“It’s like window-shopping through your life,” she added, wondering if her experiences matched his.

“Yeah, sometimes,” he smiled, sardonic and cutting. “Sometimes it’s like that. And sometimes it’s like I’m being chewed to a slow death by dull, metal teeth.”

Natasha sat up and hugged her knees. “I guess it’s pathetic that I know what you feel. I mean, I haven’t fought in a war or anything.”

“I think we can share a spot on the pathetic train, Natasha,” he propped himself up on his elbows.

She debated on whether or not her wounds matched in worth. Connect or die, she reminded herself.

“I…my ex.” She spat out. He furrowed his brow and sat up. She checked herself, making sure her pulse was still beating. “He was… he did…”

She ran a hand through her hair, because fuck it shouldn’t be so hard. Steve sat there with eyes open, waiting for her to get out a clean sentence and she couldn’t figure it out.

“Hey,” he started, making her even angrier, because this was her moment. She looked away, slivers of pain pulling at her throat, her eyes watering.

“This is so fucking dumb,” she huffed, pulling her shirt over her head. “I’m such a fucking child. I got shot, ok. He fucking tried to kill me. Again and again and again for years. Like there are so many things that happened, that I let happen, that I’m pretty sure showing you this damned scar is the easiest of them all.”

She waited for him to say something about her scar, about her breasts, about her emotion. It felt like hours before she heard him talk.

“I’m glad you made it out, Natasha,” he said as he reached for her hand. “The wounds people don’t even see, huh?”

She shivered, feeling lighter, as if she had unloaded some of the dead weight she’d been hauling. In some ways, his answer had been perfect. Nothing of “get over it” or “I know how you feel” or “yes, you are an idiot.” Just acknowledgement and recognition, as though she’d earned her own stripes in her own war. She reached for her shirt.

“Thanks,” she shrugged, not sure even why she was grateful

When they fell asleep, she was curled into him, safe and quiet, the warmth of his body shielding her in a way she hadn’t felt since she was a child.

Chapter Text

 14

Surreal.

The first word that came to Natasha’s mind when she woke up against the cold wall next to her bed. Rolling away from Steve wasn’t so hard to believe, though she found herself missing the heaviness of his arms.

It was the sound of something like panting that woke her. She could feel Steve next to her and knew he was by her side. She looked over at him, her eyes straining to make out the shadow of his form on the mattress. He sounded like he was running a marathon, his limbs jerking at an erratic pace.

“Steve,” Natasha whispered, a feeling of empathy and dread washing over her. She had never been a spectator to someone else’s nightmares but she considered herself an expert, nonetheless. She debated on what to do, whether or not to wake him, part of her feeling very much like a scientist. So this is what it looks like from the outside.

He mumbled, slurred words that didn’t make sense in his sleep, and her heart ached for him. Natasha sighed and reached out, gently grazing his arm with her fingertips.

“Steve,” she repeated, moving closer. She could see the fluttering of his eyelids, the tell-tale sign that he was dreaming, his brow creased as he worked through the tableau in his mind.

It was when he started to whimper, broken moans that filled the room that she started pushing on his chest.

“Hey,” she leaned against him, a small sliver of panic touching her stomach, “Steve, wake up.”

His eyes snapped open and she felt his hand around her wrist, tight as a handcuff, an action that took her breath away.

“Christ,” she whispered. “Steve, wake up. You’re having a nightmare.”

“Bucky,” he whispered, eyes unfocused. She shrugged it off, not able to make sense of what he had said, deciding it wasn’t as important as helping him adjust to his surroundings. Instead, Natasha reached over him, letting her weight rest on his chest, so that she could turn the lamp on. She looked over her shoulder to see him blinking in reaction to the shift from light to dark. He maintained his grip on her hand and she moved back to his side, letting one of her legs drape over him.

“You had a bad dream, Steve. But it’s not real,” she whispered, wriggling her hand out of his grasp so that she could put it against his forehead. He winced, clammy and cold to the touch, and she watched as his expression changed from confusion and disbelief to sadness and relief.

“Natasha…” he swallowed, breath slowing to a more reasonable pace.

“Yes,” she nodded, feeling almost maternal in her desire to soothe him, to fix him in ways that no one had ever even attempted with her. Resisting the temptation to run her fingers through his hair, she put her hand back on his chest, back into his own hand where it suddenly felt it belonged.

“I’m here,” he acknowledged, something that sounded like a fact and a lament, and she lay her head on his chest.

“You are here.”

As she listened for his heartbeat, he let go of her hand to stroke her arm, something simple that made her smile even before she could stop herself.

“Thanks,” he whispered, his voice a low vibration that tickled her ear.

Natasha looked up, her chin on his shoulder, “I’m glad I was here.”

Natasha pressed her lips against his, gentle enough that they almost didn’t touch, wanting to communicate an understanding, an extra layer of intimacy not found in sex. She wanted to tell him to stay, that they could lick their wounds together. That desire to care for someone surprised her, as she was so used to caring only about herself. She was inherently selfish. It was a theme for her life, one of the reasons why she had been such a disaster at caring for Ivan, one of the reasons she had never been good enough to stay with one family.

Steve lifted his chin as she pulled back, almost rooting for more contact, eyes still half-lidded from sleep. It was a temptation, an indulgence to kiss him again, but she did it anyway. They had already seen enough weird and awkward and painful, and he was still there. A few kisses arent going to break the bank, she reasoned.

Surreal. That word came up again as they kissed quietly, save for the occasional sigh or smacking of lips. She understood that like everything else so far, he was patient. The slow build drove her mad but also left her feeling dizzy and drunk, because it felt good to just kiss, with no expectations for anything further. She led every surge in intensity, something he readily mimicked, as though waiting for her. As though she was the instructor and he the student.

His hand stayed on her arm, as if it belonged there, and she found herself wishing he would explore. She wanted to crawl into him, to push things as far as they could go. It was as primal as those thoughts about caring for him, a desire to bring them both fully to the present, so that the only thing that mattered was the subtle vibration of her heart pounding against his skin and the sound of his breath, ragged because he wanted to be with her because of who she was or something she was doing right, instead of because of the dead left behind as it had been earlier.

Logic won, as it does, and she pulled away before she made decisions she would regret. She wanted Steve, her hips betraying her in pressing against him, and she knew he wouldn't protest if she had kept the pace. An accidental brush of her leg against his own hips had told her as much. That she hadn’t had sex in over a year was the superficial excuse for an underlying fear. Whatever morals she had left told her that unprotected sex did not need to be added to the list of ways that they were speeding to disaster.

"I don't have any condoms," she admitted when he looked up at her, his hand moved thankfully to her waist. He curled his fingers against the cloth of her pajama pants and nodded.

"I don't either."

"We have to stop. Again," she continued, part of her almost wishing he would show more emotion, at least to match her expectation. She waited for a push or a tantrum, her body flinching even when his eyes still showed something of admiration and not contempt. He shifted so that her leg was no longer pressing into his groin, and she felt simultaneously guilty and relieved. He deserved more than someone who couldn't follow through. It was disorienting.

"You are too nice," she sighed, as if in resignation.

"I've heard that before. Usually before rejection, not after making out with a gorgeous redhead who is slowly driving me crazy."

It was things like that. Natasha chewed over his words as she bit the inside of her cheek. How could he be so grateful, even after how cruel she'd been to him? Even after she'd shown him the sides of her that were the opposite of gorgeous. It was as if he saw past the projections, either not caring or denying that they were there at all.

She looked over to the blinds, sun peeking out. "I have to open today."

"Saving the world, one bagel at a time," he teased. She rolled her eyes before moving away.

"Says the one who had a sushi orgasm last night."

"I wouldn't deny it. I take food very seriously," he laughed, standing up to stretch. She took in the view of his tall form as it moved, appreciating the groans as he swung his arms and pulled at his elbows. Something all man, in her bedroom.

"I will keep this in mind," she smirked, getting out of bed to stretch near him. She was leaning to touch her toes when she felt him behind her. Imagining the spike in temperature, she rose slowly, letting her body fall against his

"Natasha," he rasped, hands finding their place on her waist. She pushed into him, counting on the reaction received. He was so different, but at the same time so much like any other man that Natasha found herself feeling thankful for her previous education.

"Natasha," he repeated. "I meant it when I said I don't have expectations. But you just may kill me."

At his admission she felt a surge of pride, her mind correcting learned schemas for how men behave. That it was even possible for someone to so obviously want her and yet be so goddamned restrained. It felt like an urban legend that might actually be true. It was a revelation she pushed out of her mind, something she wasn’t ready to think about.

"Nah," she purred. "I haven't killed a man yet. You'll give up and move on before that slow death. "

"Did that happen to you? He gave up and moved on?" Steve turned her so that she could see his face,, sober and searching. She furrowed her brow, not sure how to respond.

"Natasha, I... I couldn't do that to you. If you and I... If we were."

"Big promises considering you barely know me."

He touched her cheek. "I don't think I'd do it even now and I don't know what we are or what we are doing. I'm sure you'd give up first, at least once you find someone who’s not a shell of a man."

She looked down. "You sell yourself short. Stop it."

"I'm not the only one."

Natasha nodded. "So if you are a shell and I'm just broken shards of glass, why are we even trying?"

He leaned closer, "The obvious answer is that I've never wanted anyone more than I want you."

"And after you've had sex with me?" she held her breath, not breaking eye contact. She knew she was testing him, confident he would tell her something sweet.

"If I'm a shell and you’re a pile of broken glass, maybe I'm supposed to hold your pieces."

Natasha exhaled, stuffing at the emotion rushing up. She’d expected something simpler, an empty promise that he wanted her for more than her pretty face. "I would scratch you all to shit."

"What if you get all smoothed out though? Like sea glass. Yeah, you start with these sharp edges but Natasha, you are there. I think I can handle sharp for all the good parts. You make me feel less alone.”

She rested her head against his chest. "This is the start of a really fucked up relationship."

"Maybe. I'm ok with that."

His stubbornness and his conviction made her laugh. How does he still believe what he says, even after all he's been through?

"So, the next time we meet, can we agree on condoms?" She redirected the conversation back to what felt safe.

"I was planning on buying a caseload," he raised an eyebrow playfully, a piece of boy slipping out. Natasha smirked, doing her best to mimic his expression, delighted at his eagerness.

“Alright, SGR, let’s get moving. I’m going to go get us some coffee. Shower if you need it.”

***

Walking into the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee, Natasha felt like she was living in an alternate version of her life. Darcy still standing next to the coffeemaker wearing pajamas, staring at it as if that would make it brew faster. Natasha still had to rush to get ready for work, her uniform still hanging in its spot on her closet door. Nothing had changed. The sun still rose, cars still hummed as they passed their apartment, she was still breathing.

There was the small matter of tentatively agreeing to a mutually-decided codependent relationship with a tall blond in her shower. She wondered if she could get a trophy in therapy for “biggest risks taken in the shortest amount of time."

“So, Brooklyn Steve…” Darcy smiled conspiratorially as she poured the coffee into two mugs. “Tell me more…”

“Just Steve,” Natasha corrected, opening the cupboard for the promised mug to be handed to her guest later.

“More than just Steve, Natasha. That guy at Ralphs who bags groceries- the one with the snaggletooth and the 80s glasses. That’s ‘just Steve’. Your Steve? Let’s start with that ass…”

Natasha pushed her smile down, distracting herself with the search for the bag of sugar they kept somewhere.

“You are acting all smug and quiet, Natasha, but don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’ve spent the year living as though this is a convent.” Darcy added, taking a seat at the kitchen table.

“I’ve been busy,” Natasha argued before she could stop herself. Something of what Darcy said made her feel defensive. Darcy, Bruce, even Clint. Everyone had pointed out how lonely she was, as though she was one cat away from cliché.

Darcy shrugged. “I’m sure. But it’s nice to see this side of you too. You need more of it. Sexual healing. A good fuck cures all.”

Natasha held her tongue, because she was counting on it.

“So,” Darcy got up to put her cup in the sink. “In hopes that he sticks around, I wonder if we can talk about that game night I was trying to have last night?”

“Game night?” Natasha rolled her shoulders back, feeling a familiar irritation at possible boundaries being crossed. Letting Darcy joke about Steve’s ass over coffee was one thing, but playing Monopoly with Darcy and Steve was another.

“Yeah, well, we could have a party or something. I’ve been meaning to do it for awhile but didn’t want to disrespect because I thought you had like agoraphobia, or something.”

“I’m not agoraphobic,” Natasha interrupted. “I just don’t know a lot of people in California is all.”

“Well, I do. It might be fun. I could make dinner. People can bring their own beer. You can make cupcakes.”

“I don’t bake, Darcy,” she stood up and filled the cup for Steve.

“Enlist Brooklyn Steve. Watching a man fill a muffin tin is one of the most erotic things in the universe, Natasha. I promise you will thank me.”

Natasha pulled a spoon out of the drawer, marveling that she was actually considering a group social interaction with Darcy and Steve and possibly others.

“When you say party, you mean how many people?”

Darcy shrugged. “I dunno. I mean, I’m not Christ. I can’t feed 500 people with a loaf of bread and two fish. But you can invite people too. It’ll be fun. However many we need to play a game of Pictionary.”

Natasha took a deep breath, doing her best to dismiss any thoughts about how this was probably a mistake. “I’ll talk to Steve.”

Darcy patted her shoulder on her way to her own room. “Proud of you, Red. This just may be a level of friendship I didn’t think possible.”

Me neither, Natasha thought to herself, feigning agreement. An alternate version of herself, someone that everyone wanted to be. She thought about playing board games with friends or baking with Steve. Friends. Maybe-one-day-boyfriend. Labels she didn’t deserve but that a secret part of her wanted, had always wanted.

She made a mental note to google cupcake recipes on her lunch break.

 

Chapter Text

15

 

“When do you get out of class?” Natasha asked as she ran what looked like an angular paint brush across her eyelids, her face pulled tight in concentration as she leaned forward into the bathroom mirror.

“Eight,” he responded, reminding himself that he was supposed to be tying his shoes. Because watching Natasha put on makeup for work was like watching a swirling black and white hypnosis circle. He had to look away when she opened her lips into the shape of an “o” to apply color, her tongue hiding behind her teeth, because he was sure she hadn’t meant things to look as obscene as they did.

“We’ve been invited to a party.” She looked over. He noticed the way her hand gripped the counter, a hidden signal of vulnerability behind the mask. “Darcy wants to have people over for dinner. She told me to make sure you come.”

He smiled to himself, half in disbelief because even a week ago he would have never thought he’d be having this kind of conversation with anyone. “Dinner? Here?”

She nodded, opening her closet door to pull out a pair of black flats. “Yeah. Here. I don’t know if you already have plans but I was hoping you would come back tonight.”

Steve considered the ramifications of being social, of being around other people. It was an easy thought because of Natasha. Her home, the safety of her domain as something he already knew well enough and trusted. A dinner party sounded almost easy. How much small talk would he even have to do, especially if he was with Natasha?

“No, I don’t have plans,” he stood up. “Is eight too late?”

She shrugged. “I don’t think so. She mentioned games so I’m sure it’s ok.”

Natasha on her way to work made him hungry. In truth, she didn’t look that much different from when he’d seen her any other time in the deli, except that there was something exciting about seeing her in her uniform in her bedroom, the daylight accenting how white her shirt was, particles of dust around her face and hair like something innocent and wishful.

“What?” she frowned, hopping on one foot as she slipped a shoe on.

“Hmm?” he blinked.

“You are staring. Like I have something on my face.”

Steve Rogers looked down, debating on whether or not he could fairly tell her how beautiful she was. They’d climbed over some high fences in the past twenty-four hours but he was still afraid she would jump back like a live wire. He thought about holding her and the small noises she made when they kissed. Had he really only an hour ago told her that he was going to buy a case of condoms? He couldn’t even believe the words that came out of his own mouth sometimes, because he was sure he sounded like a seventeen year old kid who had no idea what he was doing.

He mentally kicked himself for his lack of filter. But he also stood a little straighter, because hadn’t she suggested it in the first place? Steve let himself briefly imagine the amount of sex that would necessitate a case of condoms. A flash of Natasha making those sounds, of looking at those lips as they parted in pleasure.

“So, the other thing. Darcy asked us to bring baked goods,” she interrupted his thoughts.

“Baked goods? Like muffins?”

She nodded and moved toward the door. “Yeah. She asked for cupcakes but I’m sure muffins would work.”

“Cupcakes. From the store or homemade?” he asked as he followed her.

“Do we have time for homemade?” she asked as they walked out into the living room. “I’ve never made them before.”

“I’m sure it’s not that hard,” he smiled. “I’m sure I have a recipe at home.”

She stopped and looked at him. “You have a recipe? You don’t cook.”

He didn’t but he did have his mom’s cookbooks, pushed tightly into an old box in his closet. He thought he could remember her making cupcakes and tapioca pudding and thumbprint sugar cookies with apricot jam filling at Christmas.

“It’s true, but I do have my mom’s recipes. Do you want to come over after work? I think we have time before I have class. How hard can it be?”

Steve realized he’d invited her over, a sneaky invitation couched in between admissions about baking. She wrinkled her face and he waited for her to make a reasonable excuse.

“Ok…” Natasha said slowly, biting her lip. “I can do that. Can you text me to let me know if I need to bring anything from the store? Like eggs or something?”

He shrugged, doing his best to hide his nerves and excitement. “I have time. I can look things up and run to the store.”

Steve volunteered partly because he was so grateful that she’d agreed to come over and partly because he wanted to make it as easy for her as possible in case she changed her mind, though it was hard for him to put those two thoughts into words.

Natasha agreed, insisting that he let her know how much she would owe him for the supplies. Which was how he found himself pushing a cart through the market, a piece of paper in hand that listed all of the things he definitely never kept in his own apartment. Things like the aforementioned eggs but also things he’d never thought he’d ever buy, like baking powder and vanilla. He’d pulled the banker box out and thumbed through his mom’s old books, feeling a little overwhelmed and unsure of where to even start.

He didn’t even know why he kept them, because cookbooks seemed a little like an obsolete genre, especially if anything could just be found online. Except that he remembered seeing them scattered across the table, especially during the holidays, when he would turn the pages and look at the pictures while his mother made gravy or measured sugar. When he thumbed through the stiff pages, some bearing the marks of grease splatters or other mystery stains, an occasional margin note would catch his eye.

“Substitute egg white.”

“Canned ok.”

“Your father’s favorite. Made a lot when I was pregnant,” small script next to a soft gingerbread cake that he remembered her making in the fall.

When he wrote down the recipe for plain vanilla cupcakes, he added ginger and molasses to his list, feeling extra ambitious.

***

When Natasha pulled out her phone during the lull between breakfast and lunch, she let an uncharacteristic “awww” out because Steve wanted to know if plain vanilla cupcakes would be ok, or if she preferred chocolate. He was so sweet, so considerate, that she wondered if she was in a movie. The fact that he was a willing participant to baking at all, and that he seemed excited about it, was overwhelming. It wasn’t the first time she wondered if he was even real.

“Awww?” She heard Clint ask as she sent a confirmatory text that yes, vanilla was perfect. She waved her hand and shut down any seeping emotion like a mask.

“It’s nothing. Just a text about making cupcakes later.”

“Cupcakes?” Clint grinned. “With that guy?”

Natasha nodded, putting her phone back in her back pocket before grabbing a rag to wipe something down, feelings of guilt simmering because she didn’t want to be caught idle.

“Yeah, Steve. It’s for a party.”

“You ever hear the idea that you know you are in love when you bake for a guy?” he teased, standing beside her to fiddle with a stack of cups.

“That’s ridiculous,” she shook her head.

“It’s not. I can tell you the stage of a relationship by whether or not the girl has brought me brownies yet. I once dated this girl who used to make the best peanut butter and chocolate bars. It was hard to let her go,” he confessed, a nostalgic look passing through his eyes.

“It doesn’t count if we are making them together,” she explained, unwilling to even entertain a hidden motive behind making vanilla cupcakes with Steve.

“Say what you will, but I’ve seen it time and again. It’s like an animal instinct or something. A girl’s way of saying she can care for her mate’s babies.”

“This is your ‘get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich’ argument, isn’t it?” she narrowed her eyes.

Clint shook his head, “I guess it sounds that way. I promise I don’t ask for these things though. I mean, when I am with someone, I am more than happy to make her a sandwich myself.”

Natasha smiled and surveyed the empty dining hall, thoughts returning to her plans for the rest of the day. If she was honest, she was looking forward to having plans that involved other people. It felt indulgent, scary, and a little like coming out from hiding. She had spent so long locked up. And now she was diving into social life. It was like diving into Niagara Falls.

“You can come, if you don’t have anything to do tonight,” she blurted because Darcy had encouraged her to invite her own friends. She didn’t have friends but she reasoned that Clint qualified closer than anyone that wasn’t her therapist.

“To help you bake?”

Natasha cocked her head to one side, “No. To the party, Clint. It’s probably just dinner. My roommate mentioned board games. Not a big deal at all…”

“Yeah, sure. Just text me the address,” Clint laughed and grabbed a pad and pen for the customers that had just walked in. “Do I need to bring something?”

“Yourself,” she answered, her stomach muscles clenching because it had been easier to be social than she would have thought. She didn’t even have to beg. As she wiped the counters down, she made a mental note to leave Steve’s address on a piece of paper by the register, just so that there would be evidence of where she was going, that little “just in case” that she had almost forgotten.

***

As Steve walked through his apartment, making sure random items like shoes were picked up and opening the windows so that the place didn’t smell like the gym, he reflected on the last time he had invited someone to his place. Which was never, not even Veronica.

It seemed like a big, grown-up step to have someone over. A step requiring trust. And he supposed a part of him had trusted Veronica enough, but they just hadn’t seen enough of each other to even have the kind of conversation that required inviting her over. They hadn’t moved past the surface, though he admitted that he hadn’t really let her knock on those doors.

He was putting bread in the toaster (a guest wants to smell toast when he or she comes over because it smells like home, a small refrain he remembered his mother saying when he was little), when he heard the doorbell.

“Hey,” she greeted him, eyes wide and clutching her purse tightly. It reminded him of when he’d first seen her, waiting for a tow outside Bruce’s. She had been so intimidating, so seemingly out of his league, and here she was standing outside his apartment.

He thought about those little slices of vulnerability he’d seen over the past two weeks. He’d seen literal scars, something that he’d put on a straight face for because he hadn’t wanted to shame her. A bullet wound was hardly the same as a scraped knee, but he figured it was just a scratch compared to the stuff on the inside, the reasons why she reminded him so much of a stray cat. Scared and angry but just as hungry as he for contact.

Her mantra had been “don’t expect anything from me, I can’t give it to you.” But having someone next to him when he came out of another nightmare, someone there when his mind registered that Bucky was still dead (that they were all dead), was exactly what he had wanted and needed.

He stepped aside and opened the door wide, motioning her in. “Did you find the place ok?”

She nodded and looked around. His apartment wasn’t the picture anyone would find in an Ikea catalogue, just a few pieces he’d picked up at the thrift store because he didn’t have the energy or motivation to do things like make sure his feng shui lined up. An old brown card table with little spots of plastic peeling up served as the marker for his dining area. It was usually littered with pizza boxes and red solo cups, but today miraculously holding up the box of his mom’s books.

“Have you lived here long?” she asked, her shoes clicking against the cheap vinyl flooring of his kitchen.

He nodded, moving a forgotten glass into the sink, “Yeah about a year or so.”

Natasha shrugged and he took the initiative to start pulling purchased supplies out of the brown paper bag on the counter, feeling uncomfortable with the silence.

“Where’s your recipe?” she asked, still holding onto her purse as though it was a shield.

“Over here,” he crooked his head toward the table as he pulled out a bag of sugar. “I’ll get it. In the meantime, make yourself at home. You can put your things wherever.”

Natasha gave a small smile and stood next to him, putting her purse down finally so that she could reach into the bag. He let her unload while he collected the red and white Betty Crocker with the clearest pictures of what their end goal was supposed to look like.

“Looks like you got everything,” she said, something playful and light suddenly entering her voice and changing the feeling in the whole room. He looked over to see her waving the box of condoms he’d hastily thrown in the cart.

“I… I forgot to take those out…” Steve tried not to stammer, his ears feeling hot.

Natasha raised an eyebrow and studied the purple box, one hand on her hip. “The pleasure pack, hmm? That sounds ambitious.”

Steve took a deep breath, feeling defensive. “I didn’t know what to get.”

And then she took a step forward, moving close enough to him that he could see the lines on her lips.

“Thanks for picking these up,” she said, tilting her face up as an invitation. He clutched the cookbook tight, his heart threatening to pound out of his chest.

“You’re welcome,” he responded, his voice thick. He didn’t really know what else to say, his mind blank because all he wanted at that moment was to suck on her pink lips and pretend that the rest of the world didn’t matter and would go on without them. She met his eyes and drew in a deep breath, something in it relaxing him because it was a sign that she was as invested in opening that box as he was.

“Cupcakes…” she murmured as he was gathering the courage to kiss her.

“Here. The recipe is in here.” He stopped and straightened his back, holding out the book, a visible wedge in between them.

She nodded and turned back to the bag, placing the condoms gently on the countertop next to the sugar. “Let’s get started.”

He opened the book to the right page and pulled out the eggs and milk from the fridge. As they worked, Natasha turned out to be a natural at navigating, reading the recipe and overseeing quality control. They cracked eggs and mixed together dry ingredients, stopping only so that he could rummage for something to pass as a teaspoon or measuring cup.

“Do you have an electric mixer?” she asked when they’d combined everything together.

He shrugged, feeling inept because he wasn’t really sure even what that was. “I have a blender.”

Natasha laughed, an infectious and even flirty giggle that communicated that this was ok, that she didn’t expect him to have a bakery in his kitchen, and maybe even that she thought the whole scenario was adorable.

“Alright, then. Grab a fork. We are going to have to whisk like our lives depend on it,” she instructed.

He supposed it took a while longer than it would have with modern technology but something that looked like batter formed. He tried not to stare as she stirred the mix with the fork, instead busying himself with finding space in his cupboards for the spices and dry ingredients.

“There,” she stopped, dipping a finger into the batter. “It’s ready.”

“Seems so easy,” he smiled, unwrapping the disposable aluminum muffin tins he was thankful he’d had the foresight to collect.

“Taste?” she asked, offering her sugar-covered digit as though it was a spoon.

He swallowed, because licking cake batter off of Natasha Romanoff’s finger felt as though his life had suddenly turned into the best porn flick he’d ever watched, with nothing uncertain or grey to have him questioning whether or not she was serious. He wanted to lick the batter off her finger more than he wanted to breathe. He wanted to lick it off her finger and then lick it off anywhere else she’d let him, because suddenly vanilla cupcake mix on her body was more necessary than food, shelter, and sleep.

She shivered when he grabbed her wrist, touching his tongue tentatively to her fingertip, lifting her hand as his mouth opened so that he was sucking gently. Skin and sugar, something about it activating the reward pathway in his brain so that he had to stop before he started biting her, his own reminder to check her eyes that she was still ok and hadn’t shut down.

“It’s pretty good,” he nodded, trying to hold a noncommittal expression despite the fact that he was suddenly hard enough to need a long shower while the cupcakes baked.

“I’m glad,” she let out a shallow breath and clenched the hand he held into a fist. He thought she would move back but she surprised him, dipping her finger back into the bowl and brushing the batter across his lips.

Steve opened his mouth, not really sure what to say because his brain couldn’t compute that making cupcakes had turned into foreplay, when she leaned into him and drew his bottom lip into her mouth, a suction that sent shockwaves down to his groin.

“I’m not sure,” she whispered, setting the bowl on the counter. “It’s missing something.”

“Hmmm?” he hummed, unable to come up with words. Natasha rested her hand on his chest and trailed her finger to his chin, following it with her lips. Gentle kisses with tiny flutters of tongue that made his eyes roll into the back of his head.

“It seems a little too sweet…” Natasha said as she started licking and sucking on his throat, her body pressing dangerously against him.

“Natasha…” he hissed, grabbing her hips. She paused to look up at him, something of a challenge in her darkened eyes.

“I want you,” she said, voice loud and clear. “And I’m ready.”

Steve stifled the groan that rose in the back of his throat because he’d never been with anyone so wonderfully direct and honest. He’d waited and waited for her to judge him and she’d dodged every opportunity. And now here she was, telling him with hooded eyes that she wanted him. He held his breath and kissed her, communicating in lips and tongue that he was ready too.

Steve let his hands travel to her neck, his fingers embedding into her hair, that soft hair that smelled like coconuts. She smiled into his mouth and pushed into him, and suddenly they were traveling, crashing into the fridge and the counters, as clumsy as his thoughts. When she started unbuttoning her shirt, he had to stop, not wanting to tear his eyes away from her skin. The first time he had seen her stomach had been to reveal something terrifying and raw, something he didn’t think she wanted to do but that she had done out of necessity.

This second time felt marvelously different, a view into something else. He wanted to prove that he was worthy of the privilege. She let her shirt drop to the floor and he lifted her up, placing her on the countertop so that he was between her legs, his fingers dancing in delight across skin.

“Just stop me, ok?” he looked her in the eye. She nodded and kicked her feet so that her flats flopped onto the floor. He took it as a green light to plant his lips across the tops of her breasts, still covered in the best white bra he’d ever seen in his life. His hands gripped her thighs as he tongued at her cleavage. He watched as she shut her eyes tight, her head against the cupboard door, hands holding onto the edge of the tiled countertop. When he stopped over the scar, as beautiful as it was ugly, she tensed.

Covering that small space with kisses felt like the most important mission of his life, a communication that this part of her was important and sacred. She exhaled, a hand moving to his shoulder, and when he looked up he could see that her eyes were round and watery, a dam ready to break if he didn’t move slow and careful.

“We’re good,” she breathed, still open and consenting as she wrapped her legs around him. He kissed her again before leaning over to grab the box on the counter.

“Stop me if you need to, Natasha,” he repeated. She bit her lip and reached for the button on his jeans.

“I promise I will. But right now, I need this, Steve.”

He would be lying if he said he didn’t need it too, maybe as much or more. He’d also be lying if he said he didn’t panic briefly that he’d come right then and there when she slid his pants down to his ankles, using her feet to push them down. It was sexy and unnerving the way she stared at him while exposing him, serious as he had ever seen her but with an underlying look of want that made him feel like more of a man than he had in his entire life.

Wanting to catch up instead of standing like a bump on a log, he fumbled with her pants, silently cursing whoever invented zippers. She lifted her hips when it was time for him to take her slacks off, clinging to him for support.

“Everything. It’s all perfect,” he mumbled, hands on her bare thighs. She smiled and wiggled on the counter, giving him the best image of her cotton-covered ass on the place where he made sandwiches for lunch. He was sure he’d never wipe down those counters again. Filing the sight into the back of his mind, he spread her legs and ran his finger along the waistband to her panties.

“If you go lower than that, you won’t regret it,” she teased.

“Is that ok?” he asked, fingers itching to explore, remembering the joke about the South Pole.

“SGR, I swear to God…” she huffed impatiently. He laughed and turned his attention to everything about her that was vulnerable, stroking her through the fabric, a thin barrier between him and the promised land. When she didn’t protest, instead jutting her hips against him, he picked up some courage and replaced fingers with lips, his tongue gently searching for that tiny spot of nerves. When she squeezed his shoulder, he looked up. She licked her lips and nodded, eyes wide.

“Still good.”

Steve debated on his next plan of attack, deciding to hook his fingers into her underwear and pull. The sight of her, those wiry red curls at the entrance to something secret and special. Anyone he’d ever been intimate with (not that there had been many), immediately paled in comparison.

“More,” she whispered after he’d pulled her close, lifting a leg onto his shoulder. He would have spent as long as she wanted right there, exploring and tasting and feeling her quake above him. An encouraging moan and he held off restraint, letting one of his hands go to his cock, because he was sure he’d pass out if he didn’t release some of the pressure.

“Steve,” she shifted, tugging gently at his ear, everything about her telling him she was close. He flattened his tongue for a little more pressure, letting fingers of his free hand dip into her to explore everything fleshy and wet. If he wasn’t watching, he’d say her breathing sounded panicky, sharp and sudden, except that she was pressing into his face almost violently, her mouth open in a silent scream as she finished.

“Holy shit,” she gasped as she collected herself. He moved to kiss her, feeling high that he’d done it right when she slid off the counter, a hand sneaking into his underwear.

“I think I’m going to die today,” he said as he leaned forward for support, boxing her in against the counter. Natasha laughed, pulling him out.

“Condom?” she asked as she slowly and expertly pumped him, something he tried not to think about too hard. He reached for the box again, ripping at cardboard and plastic in a way that was decidedly not graceful. She grabbed a kitchen chair and pushed him to sit down, not that he would have put up a fight. He watched slackjawed as she took the condom from him, as she rolled it on, his body jerking only slightly to her touch.

And then she was in his arms, positioned so that he could slide in, still open and still wanting what he had to offer. He reached for her chin, pulling her lips to his because he needed one more green light. As they kissed, she opened herself up, adjusting so that he was no longer peeking at the doorway but rather deep inside her, a blessed consequence of the position she had chosen.

They moved tentatively at first, both hesitating, not breaking eye contact because of the high stakes. This was the next step. He knew things were different and he knew she knew, as she rocked her hips slowly against him. He’d maintained enough cognitive functioning to understand that this was a risk, a point of no return. He worked to memorize every skin cell, every freckle, every little hair follicle as she clenched around him, until he reached that part where his brain stopped working altogether.

It happened as she started shuddering, burrowing her head into his neck, and suddenly he was no longer thinking about hurting her or doing something to embarrass himself. At a certain point, he was moving with her, thrusting up as she rode him, unable to form complete thoughts and grateful that this wasn’t the time for a discussion.

She was moaning into his skin when he came, unable to hold back for as long as she deserved. He was pretty sure she’d bit him, (he actually hoped she had so that he’d have proof that this had all really happened). His first coherent thought, when he no longer heard the rush of his blood in his ears, was how light she was and how amazing it was that the chair had held up.

Natasha clung to him, still hiding her face, and he ran his fingers along her spine. He wasn’t sure what to say, how to start post-sex conversation, but he knew he needed to clean up and figured she might as well.

“You ok?” he asked, touching her cheek.

She nodded, sighing as she stood. “Thanks.”

Steve furrowed his brow in confusion, moving off the chair so that he could dispose of the condom. He hadn’t expected her to thank him. “For what?”

Natasha padded to his side, lacing her fingers into his hand. “Just thanks.”

He let it go instead of pushing, deciding that the best response was to kiss her, intentionally gentle so as not to start round two. She pulled back long enough to wipe at her eyes with the back of her hand. Before he could say anything, she’d kissed him again.

“It was perfect, Steve. I’d like to do that again.”

“Really?” he asked, that old bit of him that was used to rejection poking through.

Natasha laughed and grabbed the neglected mixing bowl. “Really. But first, we do have a commitment to these cupcakes.”

It was probably dangerous that they prepped everything while mostly unclothed (though he did hand her a t-shirt just because he couldn’t bare the imagine of her opening the oven without anything on). They sat on the floor in the kitchen, kissing and touching like teenagers until the timer went off, and he considered it a damn miracle when the cupcakes didn’t come out blackened for all of their distractions.

Chapter Text

16

Birthday cakes. Brownies. Chocolate chip cookies served with a tall glass of milk on the side.

These were the kinds of things that Natasha couldn’t remember ever having as a kid. It was something she didn’t even realize she was missing until she was an adult. Birthdays were just like any other day. You eat whatever your new mommy makes for you, making sure to kiss her on the cheek when you say thanks after.

In high school, she remembered watching TV and seeing a commercial where mother and daughter make chicken together. “It’s Shake and Bake, and I helped!” the little American girl with blonde pigtails and dimples would exclaim.

Natasha knew this was supposed to be adorable but she didn’t buy it. A wonderful fairy tale about the perfect family that didn’t exist. Her current foster mother made a pretty nice frozen pizza but there weren’t any immediate plans to bond over poultry. Which was actually just as well, because Natasha was pretty sure she’d laugh in foster mom’s face and go back to her homework or painting her nails. Respect had to be earned and she had more important things to do with her time.

She thought about all of those cute little mom-gestures as she thumbed through the cookbooks on Steve’s kitchen table while he changed in his room. She wouldn’t say that she was trying to snoop, except that this was partially true. It was an unconscious choice to walk around his living room, bare except for a book or two, one of those spy thrillers she imagined middle American white men read when forced to read anything. A few notebooks and schoolbooks, things about art theory and art history. Nothing exciting at all.

His apartment was as bare as her own space, something that made her a little sad. If we die, no one would ever know anything about us. It was the kind of random, morbid idea that might normally comfort her. She decided to brush the thoughts out of her mind, because what did it mean? That she didn’t want to be invisible? That Steve deserved more than white walls and someone else’s old furniture?

So the cookbooks seemed like respite, something to look at, something that might tell her even just a little about the man that she had spent the past week or so with. The man who had done more to peel back her defenses in forty-eight hours than anyone else had done during a lifetime.

The box on the table held a stack of cookbooks, all different sizes and colors. The Joy of Cooking. The Ballymaloe Cookbook. Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. Natasha picked each of them up, fanning them open and snapping them shut just as fast. She didn’t know a lot about Steve’s family. Where was his mother? He hadn’t mentioned brothers or sisters or any family at all. Natasha knew she hadn’t asked, that the conversation hadn’t come up organically, and she was content to leave those answers unknown. It wasn’t as though she was willingly sharing her own origin story.

She picked up the book they had used for baking, an old hardback held together by masking tape, faded colors of turkey and pot roast on the cover. Betty Crocker’s Cookbook. She flipped it over, eyes glossing over the picture of a coiffed woman (Betty, she assumed).

“A new cookbook for a new you,” she mumbled to herself, imagining the woman who would have picked up this book. Steve’s mom. Was she like the woman on the back cover, well-groomed and gentle? Natasha imagined her as harried and disorganized, swatting at little hands as they reached up to grab another cookie. She fantasized that Mrs. Rogers would tuck the kids into bed after a long day cleaning house, sit down to prop her feet up, and thumb through the book in order to learn how to make Waldorf Salad.

“It’s probably ridiculous that I have all those. I would have never even used them had Darcy not sent us on this mission.”

Natasha looked over her shoulder and smiled, glad that he was there again. For all his anxiety and shyness, he felt good. Warm and considerate. She thought about how tentative he was in making love to her, worried about breaking her to the point that it was almost maddening. She had never been with someone who took every move she made so literally. She knew she needed to be on guard, knew he’d start expecting and demanding.

Steve stood next to her and picked up a small book on making Irish soups and stews, his posture relaxed and free of judgment that she had been going through his things.

“Why do you have them?” she decided to ask, opening her own book to a page that described five different kinds of pudding.

He shrugged, face wrinkled as he thought about it. “I guess because I don’t have a lot of other things to remind me of my mom. I mean, she didn’t cook every day but when she did, I can remember her looking at these. And I think I remember just that she loved them. That she was proud that she had collected these.”

Natasha ran a finger along a small postscript on banana pudding. “All Stevie eats after a bad day of attacks.”

He laughed and looked over, “Really? She wrote that?”

She shifted to book so that he could see it clearly. “Can I call you Stevie now?”

“Ma. Oh man…” he slapped a hand to his face. “Finding little ways to embarrass me even from the grave.”

Natasha bit her lip to hold her own laugh back. “You sound like a picky kid, Stevie.”

“No, I don’t think so,” he shook his head, his eyes suddenly rueful and sad. “No, but I had asthma bad. And when I was sick, it was the only thing that sounded good. Don’t you remember that one thing your mom would make when you felt bad?”

Natasha shook her head. “Nope.”

“Come on. Everyone has something. Chicken soup. Grilled cheese. Jello.”

“Ugh,” Natasha made a face. “Jello. Gross.”

“Nothing? Seriously? What kind of food do Russians make for sick kids?”

She shut the book and sighed. “Nothing. I mean, I’m sure someone’s Russian mother makes her kids something. I never had a mom.”

“She died?”

She knew he couldn’t help it but his face changed. Flashes of sympathy and concern, something she expected. His jaw hardened and she knew he was getting ready to say something. She felt another layer wiggle, another piece of her threatening to be exposed.

Natasha walked away, a passive aggressive move that she hoped communicated that they needed to change the subject. She ran her finger along the edge of the muffin tin holding their un-iced cupcakes, as if checking for invisible crumbs. Anything to shut it all down.

“You think it’s ok if we don’t ice these?” she asked.

Steve walked over and opened a drawer that miraculously held a roll of aluminum foil. He pulled it out and handed it to her. When Natasha looked up, she tried not to feel anything at his wide eyes and pained expression.

“My mom died. Cancer, when I was in high school. It took her awhile and when she finally did, I was kind of ready for it.”

Natasha put the roll of foil on the counter and met his eyes. She imagined him as a grieving boy and wondered who made those cakes when his mom died. She took a deep breath.

“I don’t have parents. I couldn’t tell you anything because I grew up in foster care,” she admitted. It was a secret she didn’t share freely and she regretted it after she’d let it out.

“I don’t either. So we are both orphans,” he shrugged.

She grabbed the foil again because it was a necessary distraction against the tiny shards of glass piercing her heart and traveling all the way up to her throat.

“You know how you tell people something like this and their first reaction is to say they are sorry?”

Steve nodded. “It’s part of the deal, I guess.”

Natasha started covering the cupcakes, her hands shaking only slightly. “What is that even about? Sorry for what? What did anyone do that caused my fucked up childhood?”

“Maybe they say it because they wish they could make things different?” he offered, his voice strained as though he wasn’t sure why himself.

Natasha shook her head. “But I would never wish for your life to be different. Or mine. All of it. Living out of a suitcase, getting smacked around, being raped…”

She sighed because she knew that once she opened the door to all of those secrets, they couldn’t be stuffed back in. He took a step closer and she winced, an instinctive action that frustrated her. Steve is not Ivan, she reminded herself.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want things to be different, Natasha. I’d be lying to you and to myself if I said I didn’t wish my friends hadn’t died or that my mom had been given at least a few more years. I’d even be lying if I said I am glad you had to go through all that.”

“Why?” she asked, biting her lip to stifle the emotion.

“Christ, Natasha. To start, maybe because it would be easy for us to trust each other if we weren’t both so afraid of being hurt?”

She remembered Bruce telling her that she often hurt herself just as much or more than anyone else. If her life had been easier, she wouldn’t have learned about the games people play. If studying parents and Ivan hadn’t become a necessary part of survival, she wouldn’t have been as careful and as safe as she was.

I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here in Steve’s kitchen.

Natasha shivered because her thoughts had started snowballing, the existential progression of it all triggering panic in her chest. Steve. Even if nothing happened and they parted ways, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so hopeful, as though good things were actually possible.

“I think,” she whispered as she reached for his waist and pulled him against her, “that right now, I believe that everything happens for a reason. I need to believe this or else I will go literally crazy. More than I already am.”

Steve nodded, wrapping his arms around her like a blanket. “Like destiny?”

“Sure,” she conceded, though the word was maybe a bit heavier than she would have preferred.

“Can I have both? Can I believe in destiny and yet wish destiny would go fuck herself?”

She laughed, the knot in her throat mercifully smoothing out. “I guess you can. I hope that isn’t playing with fire though.”

He leaned in to kiss her, carefully and with the right amount of pressure. She felt her shoulders relax in pace with her nerves. “Everything happens for a reason. I never would have expected you to be so optimistic.”

“Surprising even myself,” she smiled ruefully before sneaking another kiss, something she recognized she had the potential to get dangerously addicted to.

***

“Cupcakes! Without icing!” Darcy exclaimed, hands grabbing for the tin as they entered the kitchen. Steve hesitated before placing a hand on the small of Natasha’s back as she handed their hard work over. She leaned into his hand and he exhaled, relief flooding over him. It was as close to being high as he could imagine, that she went with him instead of pulling away.

Darcy met his eyes and winked, nodding toward his careful placement and the fact that Natasha had maneuvered into him.

“It smells great in here,” he said, because it did and he could tell that Darcy had spent some serious time in the kitchen making dinner. “Italian?”

“Lasagna,” she nodded, a proud smile spreading across her face. “Actually, two in case someone is a vegetarian.”

“Amazing,” he added, impressed and suddenly hungry, his stomach responding as if on cue. Oregano and garlic and other smells from his childhood, of Mrs. Barnes’ kitchen and Bucky's sisters pestering the boys to play with their dolls. He’d forgotten about those meals.

Darcy nodded and handed Natasha a vegetable tray, neat little piles of carrots and broccoli and bell pepper arranged around on a plate around a bowl of dip.

“Something simple to tide you both over,” Darcy explained as someone knocked on the front door.

“We’ll get that,” Natasha added, handing the tray to Steve. He watched as she slipped into waitress-mode, cool and unfazed, even though he knew she didn’t open up her home easily.

He sat the tray on the coffee table and stood back as Natasha opened the door, greeting Darcy’s friends as though it was her job.

“Hi, come on in,” she said warmly to the couple that walked through the threshold, seemingly mismatched in everything except for their plaid shirts.

“You must be Natasha,” the woman gushed, holding out a hand.

“Yes…” Natasha nodded, though Steve noted she didn’t immediately shake, as though she needed to inspect the intruders thoroughly first.

“I’m Jane. And this is Thor,” the woman shrugged, motioning toward the beast behind her. It was comical, the sight of Jane standing in front of her boyfriend, only because he had to duck to walk into the apartment with her aligned against him like a toy doll. He seemed agreeable enough, even despite the fact that he looked a wrestler, only swapping the spandex for denim.

Deciding that it wouldn’t be fair to let Natasha socialize all by herself, he stepped forward and held his hand out. When he introduced himself, the wrestler smiled and pat him on the back before shaking his hand.

“We brought beer!” he announced, holding up two bottle carriers, his eyes crinkling in pride.

“Yes, and bread.” Jane rolled her eyes and moved around him. “Thor cares very much about microbrews and craft beers so I’m just going to say that we spent way too long at Bev’ Mo.”

Steve didn’t have an opinion on beer but he nodded anyway and motioned toward the kitchen. “I can take those back to Darcy for you.”

“And I’m sure Darcy has a plan for the bread if you want to follow me to the kitchen,” Natasha added, her expression still calm but at least not as guarded as only minutes earlier.

“I know where it is. I used to live here.” Jane grinned. The two women started walking towards the kitchen.

“Oh so you are the girl who was here before me…” he heard Natasha say slowly.

Thor was handing him a case when he saw a familiar face peek into the open door. The guy from the deli, hands in pockets and looking unsure, as though he might be lost.

“Is this Natasha’s place?” he called out. Steve stepped back and waved.

“Yeah, you found us. Good to see you again.”

Natasha’s coworker held his hand out in bro-handshake. “Steve, right? Alright, I made it.”

Steve struggled to remember his name, only remembering that this was someone who he had initially been wary of.  Competition. He watched as Natasha’s coworker shook Thor’s hand, gripping it with confidence and ease.

Steve wanted to hate him, an illogical conclusion that he knew wasn’t fair. So you’ve known her longer, I know her better. It was a childish and indulgent thought, but with enough truth that he felt himself stand taller.

“Hey, we’re just about ready to eat, guys!” he heard Darcy call out from the kitchen, her voice clear over the sound of the girls laughing and cupboards clanging open and shut.

“Hey Clint!” Natasha called out, mercifully reminding Steve of the new arrival’s name. He mentally filed the data, moving the group of men to the kitchen entryway so that they could hand off the beer.

“It’s a one-butt kitchen, guys,” Darcy announced as she opened the oven door. “Not that I wouldn’t want to share the kitchen with any of your fine asses.”

Jane stood next to her holding a glass of wine, waving her hands to shoo everyone out, even Thor, who managed to sneak a kiss in, his body covering hers like a blanket.

“Out!” Darcy ordered again.

Natasha pulled Steve’s arm, her touch making him jump only a little. He reached over with his other hand to feel her fingers. She smiled as she led him back to the living room, and he decided that all he would ever want to do for the rest of his life would be to let her lean against him. It was a sappy, sentimental thought and he was sure Bucky would have teased him relentlessly for it.

They sat down to eat potluck style, everyone grabbing a plate and then finding a place to eat. It was the first time in his life that Steve wasn’t the odd guy out, a designation given to Clint, who perched on the edge of the sofa.

“What’s your name?” he watched as Darcy started conversation, holding a plate in one hand and a beer in the other.

“Clint. I work with Natasha.”

“What? Clit?” she asked innocently, crooking her ear as she spoke. Steve choked, his mouth full of pasta.

“You ok?” Natasha asked, patting him on the back. He nodded and grabbed the bottle she held in her hands. Steve watched as Clint shook his head and repeated his name, emphasizing every letter.

“That’s a dangerous name,” Darcy raised an eyebrow, putting her beer on the coffee table so that she could take in a big bite of food.

“It could be worse. At least my name’s not Richard,” he smiled, his posture open in such a way that Steve was suddenly very thankful for Natasha’s roommate and her ability to steer any perceived attention to herself.

“Yes, clit over dick one hundred percent. I already like you.” She raised her fork in salute.

***

Sitting in her living room with other people, Natasha fought not to go back to parties she’d gone to in her past life. Having fun with other people felt like a novelty. Not just eating dinner and playing games with others but also maintaining control. No matter what happened, she was safe. Darcy and Clint and Jane and Thor. They were having fun and it was contagious, filling Natasha with a sense of euphoria after so much time spent in hiding.

Her favorite part of all of it was that she wasn’t on display, that her function was to play games and laugh at everyone’s jokes, but that she wasn’t in charge of making Steve look good. They sat together, sneaking in small touches that took her breath away, but she knew that he wasn’t expecting her to preen and fawn and pretend.

“Ok, ok, listen guys,” Jane stood up, holding a tiny black card with two hands. Natasha leaned her head on Steve’s shoulder and diverted her attention from the chugging contest her roommate was holding with her coworker on one side of the room to the brunette standing on the other side.

The evening was already a list of things she’d never done before. Not just baking with Steve, but an actual, grown-up dinner party. A dinner-party with a decidedly Darcy-twist, as evidenced by the use of Cards Against Humanity as a drinking game, but a party nonetheless. Between Thor and Jane’s discussion on gender politics and whether or not it was fair to say that Europe did things better, and Darcy and Clint’s thorough debate on whether or not California’s medical marijuana laws made things better or worse (it took them an hour to realize they both agreed), Natasha found rest in Steve. Everyone seemed organically matched and she was relieved that she was matched with another spectator.

“Ready,” Darcy said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand in satisfaction, before pointing at Clint to communicate that she had won that round.

“Last round though,” Natasha yawned. She felt Steve lean in to kiss the top of her head, something about it pulling at her gut because the whole scene felt so normal.

Jane nodded and read the card, “How am I maintaining my relationship status?”

The room groaned and she gave everyone a guilty smile, her apple-shaped cheeks growing as she promised that she’d picked the card at random.

Natasha’s “nipple blades” beat Steve’s “children on leashes” and Thor’s “Joe Biden” with ease, but the real game was clearly between the two singles.

“Lockjaw’ versus ‘Overcompensation’,” Jane read the two white cards out loud, rolling her eyes.

“I don’t get how either or those are better than mine!” Natasha crossed her arms as everyone else laughed.

One day, when she was ready, she would say that listening to everyone laugh and have fun was one of the seminal moments of her post-Ivan life.

“Alright, before anyone leaves make sure you all eat these cupcakes because I don’t want them,” Darcy announced, bringing the muffin tins into the living room. It gave Natasha pride and she thought about asking everyone what they thought, her first baking experiment on display.

“They seem kind of like cupcake-muffins,” Jane smiled as she unwrapped one, offering her partner a quick bite.

“These,” Darcy sighed as she took her own bite, “These, children, are sex.”

Natasha felt the hand Steve had placed against her arm curl and she knew without looking that he was probably as red as a tomato.

“Tastes like a vanilla cupcake to me,” Clint shrugged, reaching for one more.

“Is there some secret ingredient?” Jane asked as Thor reached for his own seconds.

“Ummm…” Steve responded, though it sounded more like he was clearing his throat than anything.

“It’s just an old recipe,” Natasha smiled, moving to stand so that she could start collecting beer bottles.

Everyone seemed satisfied with the answer, moving on to conversations about Jane and Thor’s new apartment and how much Thor wanted to have everyone over so that he could grill. Natasha took the cue to move into the kitchen, cleaning up as the excuse to retreat. She was proud of herself for socializing, for stepping out of that comfort zone. Even though she tried to ignore it, something pulled her down.

Being friendly had been overwhelming. The group had surpassed any expectations she’d had and she knew her life would continue into the next day, but when she stopped to think, her insides shook. Playing card games. Sitting next to Steve as though they were established, with no one knowing just how tentative they were. Listening and pretending to care about Jane and Thor’s quest to find a couch that was easy to clean but within their budget. It felt wonderful and safe and scary all at the same time.

She piled the dishes into the sink and stood, head hanging down as she gripped the counters. This is real. She felt guilty and dishonest. She hadn’t needed to pretend but she wondered if she had done it anyway, as though she’d been tossing out clues that she wasn’t the image she expertly projected but that everyone was actively choosing to see and believe something different.

“Natasha?”

She looked up to see Steve standing in the doorway, holding the leftover lasagna in one hand and the empty cupcake tray in the other. He looked at her with eyes open, wordlessly checking in with her. She nodded, communicating without words that she was fine, before signaling that he could put the food on the counter.

She watched as he carefully set things down before walking over, standing next to her close enough that his arm bumped into hers. Natasha thought about all of the little things that they did nonverbally, communicating something that started with respect and traveled the continuum through tenderness and desire and a few other emotions she found foreign.

“You are going to stay, right?” she asked quietly, looking over as she reached for one of the belt loops to his pants. She tugged on it, hoping that he’d understand that she was pulling not just because they’d had sex but also because she’d developed a learned need for him to share that space with her.

When he pulled her into his arms as a response, his lips effectively quieting anything else she might say, she again thought about the incongruency. He felt warm, his arms covering the shivering she didn’t realize she’d been doing. She mentally danced around the idea that she had really died when Ivan had shot her. She’d really died and this was all a big reset button.

“You ok?” he whispered with concerned eyes.

Natasha nodded before grabbing his neck so that he’d bend down to kiss her again.

“I’m ok now,” she answered, as much to herself as to anyone else, believing for just a second that positive thinking might really make a difference.

 

Chapter Text

17

When he first started therapy, Steve didn't really talk. His life was full of empty spaces and it didn't seem like much to share. Once he'd worked through some of the basic symptoms that had kept him home, he was able to talk about the war.

And then he hit a sweet spot after about thirty sessions where he was able to talk about dying. He talked about watching civilians get caught in the crossfire. He talked about losing the team. He even talked about what it had been like to hold Bucky as he died, and all of the mindfucks attached. He talked about visiting Bucky's Ma, about not being able to do it even though Mrs. Barnes had been just as much in his life as his own mother, and how that had been one good, cowardly reason to get out of Brooklyn.

Steve even talked, once, about his own fate and the inevitability of everything. He couldn't remember how that session had even started but suddenly he was talking about all the times he had known he was about to die. He and Bruce went over the usual forty-five minute session time to talk about what it meant that even though he had been to the front lines, people around him dropped like flies. He felt like a goddamned vampire, especially when Bucky died, because no matter how much he threw himself into danger, he had the gift of always being the last one standing.

It might give the normal person a sense of invincibility, the clichéd death wish.

Steve had long decided that he wasn’t afraid of death, that much was true. Even in his most paralyzing and debilitating days of not leaving the house, the fear had never been for his own mortality. What kept him stuck, feet planted to the ground as if glued there, was the fear of someone else dying. At the end of the day, he’d been the shepherd to lose the sheep. It had been up to him to make sure they all got home, not just Bucky, because they all had homes to go back to. Mothers and wives and family and futures that were completely disregarded when the scales tipped out, because death doesn’t care who you leave behind when it’s time to collect the check.

It was almost prophetic the way that all six had gone down. He couldn’t even remember why he’d stayed behind, except that he had. Because the ultimate irony was that Steve had only been just a kid, really. Not the youngest, no, but definitely not someone with the years of experience and wisdom to lead a team and definitely not of age to command the kind of respect and seniority that he received. It hardly seemed fair that someone who had only been of legal age to drink for a few years and whose primary education was in shooting bad guys on his playstation, was able to make decisions that cost much more than anything Steve could wrap his head around.

And that was what kept him up at night, what haunted him. When he dreamed about doing it differently, of steering the truck instead of Bucky or of having the men hang back for a second, it always ended the same. The truth was black and white. He was alive and they were not.

Bruce accused him of being a white knight, of trying to save everyone. It was something he honestly was trying to work on, because he understood the bit about boundaries and self-preservation. But what Bruce would never understand is that somehow, saving someone else was something to keep him going, to keep him from digging out the service pistol in the back of his closet. It was why he had panic attacks, because the flashbacks were most terrifying when it all connected back to his core flaw of being fantastically inept at being there for anyone. Which should have been a signal to stop trying, except he was certain he had been genetically engineered to respond to the suffering of others.

So talking to Bruce after spending so much time with Natasha made him nervous. As though she hadn’t dominated the conversation already for over a month. Bruce had been the one to tell him to follow through, to identify what he wanted instead of moaning and groaning about being stuck. He reasoned that what held him back had to be the underlying notion that whatever he had with Natasha was good, but that it was also slipping through his fingers like sand.

“So things are good,” Bruce summarized, “but you are waiting for them to get bad again.”

Steve nodded and looked at his hands. “It’s not just Natasha. Because I know that neither one of us are necessarily in the headspace for a relationship. It’s everything. It’s getting out of my house, Bruce. I went to a party on Saturday.”

“I hear a couple of things here, Steve. You brought up a relationship. How do you know that’s not what… Natasha wants? How do you know that’s not what you want?” His therapist held up a palm, nonverbal communication to slow down. Steve took in a deep breath, realizing that he had sped up, his body full of excitement and anxiety.

“It’s just a conversation we haven’t had time to have,” he reasoned, though he knew they’d both actively avoided defining the obvious. He didn’t even know if he could put into words what he even wanted. The sex, no question. The feel of a warm body next to him, not just at night when it was dark and quiet, but also during the day. He’d been allowed into her life and all her little rituals and habits, and he didn’t want to let it go. Especially because she kept asking him to stay. For someone who was addicted to caring for people, the knowledge that she wanted him and maybe even needed him, was like winning the lottery. Except, he reminded himself, for the caveat that the winnings might be monopoly money and worth nothing at all.

“Then what do you talk about? Or do you talk at all?” Bruce asked.

 

***

 

He pulled her ankle so that she was forced closer, close enough for him to kiss her toes in such a way that she squealed, her arm grabbing his bare leg as though she need some kind of anchor to keep her from jumping out of the bed. They’d been laying on opposite ends of her bed, with her head near his own feet, naked and eating post-sex bowls of cereal, when he asked her if she’d teach him Russian.

“Seriously?” she laughed before taking another bite of her Captain Crunch.

“Yeah, seriously,” he said, putting his finished bowl on the floor. “I should know what you are saying when you curse.”

“I don’t curse,” she protested weakly, unable to hide her smile.

“You do. You do all the time,” he teased because he had a hunch it would get her riled up.

“Like when?” She narrowed her eyes in mock anger and put her own bowl down. She said it like a challenge, perhaps a sign that she was equally adept at finding and pushing his buttons.

And that was when he grabbed her ankle and pulled. “I’m pretty sure I heard some swearing about thirty minutes ago…”

“What happened thirty minutes ago?” she asked innocently, though he could hear a jolt in her voice.

Steve let his fingers tiptoe along her leg, circling her knee. “You don’t remember?”

“I do,” she nodded, her own hand imitating his in tracing his own leg. “But I bet you five dollars that you’re too nice of a guy to say it.”

That challenge again, her calling him out and fishing around his comfort zones. It wasn’t that he never cursed, but talking about sex had always been unnerving and private. He thought about blaming his mother for that, because she’d given him the talk in the kind of frank and clinical way a nurse might. But even around other guys, talking about dick and pussy had never really been his style.

“Tell you what,” she interrupted his thoughts, sliding even closer so that she was nearly sitting on his lap. “I’ll teach you some words…”

“And then?” he raised an eyebrow, waiting for the condition.

“And then you can tell me how we are going to top what happened thirty minutes ago. Specifically.”

Steve blanched and then mentally kicked himself because he didn’t want to say something to hurt her or make her mad, and he definitely didn’t want to embarrass himself. It was honestly ridiculous, being afraid to talk dirty, especially with Natasha. Not only had they just finished doing some wonderfully dirty things on her bedroom floor, things definitely worthy of a couple Russian curses, but hadn’t she lived through worse?

He recognized that she was vulnerable and delicate but that some of that fragility was his own projection, that she was stronger than anyone probably gave her credit for.

“This,” she grabbed his hand, “is your ‘rookah’”.

“There’s no way I’ll be able to roll my ‘r’ like that,” he admitted.

“Try,” she ordered, before saying the word again, her lips pursed something beautiful and mesmerizing when she said it. He obeyed and tried, and she was nice in that she only smiled instead of laughing because he definitely sounded like he had a mouth full of marbles.

When they’d worked on ‘hand’ for a few minutes, she graduated to his chest, his arms, his neck, each word punctuated with a gentle pat and slow pronunciation.

“Follow closely,” her eyes met his and she stuck out her tongue. “yii-zik”

“I like that one,” Steve sighed, before doing his best to imitate her, nearly choking on the guttural sounds separating the syllables. She laughed and leaned into him, whispering words that he resolved to understand one day as she kissed his lips.

“Now, your turn,” she said as she pulled back, shifting against him in such a way that he was grateful she wasn’t fully atop him or any possible lessons on language would be over. “A deal is a deal.”

“I didn’t commit to that deal…” he teased, his palm moving toward her bare ass.

“Rooz,” she chided, even as she was bucking her hips gently into his side.

“I don’t know if I want to know what that means, Natasha....”

“It means,” she sighed as she planted a kiss on his shoulder, “that I am not going to break, Steve.”

“I know,” he said defensively, moving to sit up. She groaned and moved so that he was below her, her hands pushing into his arms, her face full of determination.

“This is what two people involved in a relationship do. We talk about sex. Talking about sex leads to sex, Steve.”

He nodded because it was hard to argue with her breasts in his face. His mind mentally skipped over the word “relationship” in favor of the logic about sex and the fact that she was saying she wanted more. He took a deep breath and grabbed her waist, flipping her over onto her back so that he was on his hands and knees above her, as an unconscious power move to show that he was indeed capable of being on top if that was what she wanted.

Natasha opened her mouth in surprise and for a split second he thought maybe he’d gone too far. He braced himself and looked down, feeling flutters of movement as one of her hands traveled between her legs.

Steve wondered if she realized how easy he’d be? Watching as she writhed below him, her skin bumping occasionally against his cock as she pleasured herself below, her knees locking him in as though they were weapons. When he caught her eyes, dark green and on a mission, he thought about all that he wanted to tell her and that he couldn’t even verbalize.

“Tell me what you want,” she whispered, her chest rising and falling faster as she continued, a sight that had him wondering where he kept that inhaler he hadn’t used in years.

“I want…” he croaked, “God, I just want to watch you…”

‘Hmmm?” she raised an eyebrow before craning her neck to lick at his arm. “Watch me what?”

He looked down again, watching she pressed her fingertips down around her clit, her other hand reaching to grip his shoulder. Her eyes had been wide open, studying his reaction and comfort level, until she was squeezing them shut as a natural response.

“Do you want to stop, Steve?” she teased, arching her back into him. His arms wobbled for a second and he knew he was staring but his brain found a way to sputter out something coherent to tell her that he definitely did not want her to stop.

“Then use. Your. Words,” she snapped her eyes open, calmly bringing him back to the original challenge.

“I want to watch you do that…” he stammered, feeling hot and foolish.

“What,” she interrupted, dragging the toes of one foot along his calf.

Steve took a deep breath, recognizing that she was relentless and competitive and that no one learned to swim by standing awkwardly outside the water.

“I want to watch you come,” he blurted, feeling light and flustered all at once. She opened her mouth to say something and he continued, “Goddammit, Natasha. I want to watch you make yourself come. And I want to make you come, you know I do.”

She gave him a satisfied smile and he leaned in to kiss her, possibly with more force and frustration than intended. The taste of her mouth and the way that her tongue battled his in combination with the visceral imagery of her fingers, all of it was enough that he nearly forgot all about manners and niceties.

“I want you to show me how you like it, Natasha, so that I know how to make you fall apart,” he whispered as he started a trail of wet and messy kisses along her collarbone. “And I want to find new spots and places that no one else knows about.”

She whimpered and he met her eyes again, his hand covering hers in between her legs, the temperature hot enough to start the fire alarm.

“I mean it. Places that no one knows about,” he repeated with sincerity, because she deserved to forget and he was romantic and foolish enough to believe for a second he might help her forget.

She shook her head, eyes still focused on him, and he thought for a second that she might stop everything, something about that causing the panic to stir in his gut again. Without words, she’d told him “no”, though she also flipped her hand so he was directly connected to her skin, her fingers pushing and urging his hand to give her more. At her insistence, he was pushing inside, pumping into her as she clutched at his wrist.

“Yebat,” Natasha mumbled in low breaths and then chanted, her body twisting and bucking below him. He ached for her, selfishly wanting to fill her if only because he was sure he’d come fantastically undone right then and there if something didn’t happen. As if reading his mind, she shimmied and adjusted so that the hand gripping his shoulder was now wrapped around his cock, masterfully squeezing and jerking to the point that he was sure he would start crying. It wasn’t enough and yet it was, the intimacy of touching her and letting her stroke him in the most private of ways.

She’d told him no, and he didn’t understand if that was “no” to the places she kept hidden or “no” to his desire to find places no one knew about, until she was pushing his hand aside and guiding him inside, flinching as he let his weight fall on her briefly.

“Steve,” she dragged her thumb along his cheek, her eyes as serious as they were dark. "Tell me again...”

He would have told her anything in that moment, all of his secrets and some made up ones too, but his mind couldn’t think past the original declarations already made. And so he told her again, meeting her eyes as they found rhythm together, that he wanted to find and fix all of the damage, all of those small little secret spots that the last guy had missed or ignored or subverted. When he told her, he believed it, not just because she literally had him by the balls.

Quaking below him, a mess of “da” and other moans, he only half-registered the whispers of “I want that too.”

***

Steve waited for his therapist to lecture him on finding someone else to fix, on boundaries and expectations, and going too fast.

“It sounds like this has been really positive for you, Steve.” Bruce crossed his arms.

“No lecture?”

Bruce laughed and picked up his calendar. “No lecture. I’m sure I wouldn’t be telling you anything you aren’t already telling yourself.”

“So you don’t think I’m making a mistake?” Steve asked as he reached for the copay in his wallet.

“Do you think this is a mistake?”

“No,” Steve asserted, “no of course not…”

Bruce shrugged, “Steve, I’d like for you to accept whatever choices you make. Can you think about that this week? Stay in the present instead of mulling over what you could have done differently?”

Steve sighed and handed over the small fee that kept him anchored to the ground each week. Staying in the present. With all that he’d seen and lost and all that he was responsible for, it was a skill set he struggled with.

Da,” he said to himself before looking at Bruce. “I’ll work on it.”

 

Chapter Text

18

I don’t know what I’m doing.

Natasha said it out loud, shaking her head at herself, her voice full of chagrin as she looked herself over in the mirror.

She’d been picking up the clothes on the floor, multitasking as she brushed her teeth, silently reflecting on how those clothes had gotten there in the first place, and she hadn’t meant to sit on the bed and hold Steve’s shirt in her hands. She definitely hadn’t planned on putting her toothbrush on the bed so that she could inhale the collar, because man smell or not, the whole act felt full of sugary schmaltz not to mention like a colossal waste of time.

Putting the shirt carefully on the bed, she finished brushing and started working on her hair. It was the feel of the white cotton, soft and comforting, that had her sliding next to the shirt again only minutes later.

When she pulled her arms through the sleeves, she resolved to wear it just to try it on. Just to see what it would look like to wear a lover’s shirts. No one was home to see her reenact the scene that would otherwise classify her life as a rom-com, her bare legs peeking out from a shirt that she was swimming in. It would be a secret she would keep with herself.

Except that she kept rationalizing. Just a few more minutes, until I finish cleaning up. Just until I find the shirt I wanted to wear with these pants. Before long, she was procrastinating and prolonging the inevitable. The nail in the coffin was standing in the bathroom, looking at her reflection as she got ready to leave for therapy.

“It shouldn’t be this hard,” she sighed, a tiny part of her noting that she actually looked clearer than she had in years. Dark circles replaced with the silly, uncontrollable urge to smile in response to the butterflies fluttering in her stomach because she was wearing Steve’s t-shirt. Just smelling him made her stomach flip. It was a problem, one of many.

The truth, she understood as she went through the list of things to discuss with Bruce, was that being with Steve had left her totally exposed. In physical and tangible ways that she had sworn she’d never do again, like having him stay with her and then going to his place.

In the most intimate of ways. Ways that felt like he was stabbing her heart with an icepick, chipping and peeling at the frozen walls and barriers. Not just the way he understood her when she panicked or the way he kissed the wounds she kept hidden from everyone else. But also in the way that he held her gaze, his hand in hers as he made love to her, slow and patient. In the way that he whispered that he wanted to care for her the way that Ivan never could. Little promises that she tried in vain not to believe.

He disarmed her. She’d spent over a year creating a system, a way to protect herself because giving an inch was dangerous. Her script, the word she repeated to herself again and again, had been survive.

When an addict makes the choice to relapse, it isn’t always a clear choice. Sometimes, Natasha understood, it is a slow burn. A series of choices, like letting Steve in, each choice a little step further into destruction.

One little bite won’t hurt.

One kiss won’t change anything.

One night, because I deserve this.

The sex is just physical.

Wearing this shirt doesn’t mean anything.

For what could be described as “since birth”, Natasha Romanoff’s life had been a series of following directions and doing what others wanted of her. Sitting straight, looking pretty, saying the right things. She knew and expected the little cues from others that told her she’d worn out her welcome, cues she’d gotten from foster parents, social workers, teachers, and even Ivan. Little sighs or glances with arms folded that shut her down and told her she was at her best when she was quiet.

She’d grown up feeling like a pet, only useful when she played along.

Of course Steve was different. He was like a mirage, someone who had appeared out of nowhere and accepted everything she told him, waiting patiently for each reveal as she gave it. She kept waiting for him to give up or shrink back.

“You are too much, you’re too overwhelming. This is too much work.” It was something she’d heard before, so much that it was as much part of who she was as the color of her hair. Natasha waited for Steve to say it. In her heart of hearts, she didn’t think he ever would.

Did that mean that they were going to become something? At what point was this a relationship and not just two really fucked-up people pretending? What was next? Should she give him a key to her place? Start expecting things? Natasha wondered if they were supposed to start have those cute little couple fights about why she never knew where she wanted to go for dinner or why it was unacceptable for him to respond to her text messages with “ok”.

The longer you let this go, the harder it will be to make a clean break.

Natasha felt caught between adult choices to think carefully and rationally about the whole affair and childhood wishes. She wanted to stamp her foot because she wanted the fantasy. The reality, she knew, was Steve wasn’t perfect and once they got out of the bubble of needing to cuddle and have sex all the time, they’d both show their true colors.

Pulling into the parking lot outside Bruce’s office, Natasha pulled out her phone to text Steve. Just by being careful and slow, he’d made more inroads into her psyche than she would have thought possible. It had snuck up on her, hadn’t it? The series of aforementioned choices and suddenly she couldn’t wait to see him again.

He wouldn’t say she was too much work because he wasn’t built that way. Steve Rogers was Ivan’s antithesis. Steve was kind. Whether or not she thought she deserved it was almost irrelevant.

I don’t play well with others. I work alone. If he expects me to be the kind of girlfriend who buys him sweaters and brings him lunch, I’m only going to disappoint him.

She hit “send” on the question of when they were going to meet up again before glancing at the time. Just like all of the other warning signs, the clock’s bright numbers caused her to pause and hold her breath.

In obsessing over whether or not she’d get in trouble for wearing Steve’s shirt, Natasha realized she’d lost any sense of time. She was late for Bruce.

***

If the session with Bruce had done anything, it had given Steve some inspiration. As he stood in line for coffee, he thought about what it would be like to tell Natasha that he wanted more. “More” specifically meaning that he wanted the relationship, however they wanted to define it, and all of the baggage attached. The idea of it caused his throat to go dry, largely because it was the kind of conversation he’d never had before.

What he knew for certain was that he didn’t want to be a coward. He didn’t want to be so afraid to tell her what he wanted that she decided he was too much work, too awkward, too afraid of his own shadow that she was better off giving him a handshake and parting ways.

They needed to get out of the apartment. A lot of emotional ground was covered while she was in his arms but it was also damn distracting. And Natasha deserved a date. She deserved for someone to take her out and buy her flowers. He wondered if she’d go for sushi.

Steve reached for the cell phone he knew should be in his back pocket, its absence causing his chest to tighten.

Losing one’s cell phone, in the grand scheme of things, is not really the worst thing in the world. Steve realized that this was not the situation worthy of a panic attack as he checked the counters at Starbucks and then combed through his car. It was honestly insane how important that little device even was.

It’s not at Natasha’s. I checked my messages right before I saw Bruce….

Steve exhaled. It had to be at Bruce’s. He kicked himself for getting so worked up over something that was probably very easy. A quick visit would only take a few minutes out of his day.

***

“What’s on your mind, today?” Bruce asked as they sat down.

Natasha looked around. Therapy had been more helpful than she would have originally given credit, though a small part of her still wondered what she was even doing there. Her fingers played with the edge of the white leather couch she sat on and she wondered for the billionth time why Bruce had chosen the artwork that was hanging above his own head, a watercolor of different faces and expressions. At times, that painting was intriguing and she figured the artist was high when he or she painted it.

The strokes that created each face were light and at times, Natasha felt as though the theme must be about someone’s dreams. Sitting across from Bruce, Steve’s t-shirt soft against her skin, Natasha thought maybe the faces were actually ghosts.

“Steve,” she answered, crossing her legs.

Bruce coughed as though she’d said something funny or wrong. She looked up and furrowed her brow but he waved his hand and cleared his throat.

“Steve,” he repeated. “I’m not sure…”

“The guy I’ve been… seeing.”

“You paused. What’s that about?” Bruce asked, zeroing in on exactly why she was uncomfortable.

“I paused,” Natasha admitted. “Because we… whatever this is… it’s a trainwreck.”

“A trainwreck?” Bruce asked, giving her a small smile as if to remind her that she was exaggerating. “Natasha, I’m sorry but how do you know this guy? Maybe I’m confusing you with another client, but I thought things were going well…”

Maybe I’m confusing you with another client…

Natasha knew that Bruce was only trying to get her to see that things might not be as bad as she imagined. It was in that kind of broken logic that she had zeroed in on any possibility of him mistaking her for someone else. Even understanding that he was trying to be ironic, he’d reminded her that it was impossible for her therapist to remember every detail she brought into their sessions. It made sense that he wouldn’t remember, even if Steve was quite possibly the most important detail in her present life. She tried to stifle the frustration and indignance, to ignore that confirmatory thought that said, “See, you aren’t special.”

“It’s the same guy I’ve been talking about for over a month,” she explained, trying hard not to clench her teeth. “I met him downstairs when my car broke down?”

“You met him downstairs,” he said slowly.

“Yes. And you said to reach out to him. So I did. And now we are heading towards disaster.”

Bruce took in a deep breath and picked up his calendar, an action that triggered Natasha even more, the sound of him flipping the pages like an aggravating itch under her skin.

“Why are you and Steve headed for disaster?” he asked, glancing up from his datebook, his brow creased as if concerned.

“Because,” she clenched her fists and took a deep breath, “He’s too nice.”

Her therapist shut the book quickly, the pages flapping together in such a way that she wondered if he was mad at her.

“Natasha. This is ridiculous. He’s too nice?”

“He is too nice. I keep looking for the signs and I can’t find any. I feel like I’m making a mistake. As soon as I get comfortable, I’m going to get sloppy and stupid…”

“Enough, Natasha,” he interrupted her, leaning back against his chair, a hand pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Enough?” She shook her head, her blood boiling because he looked as though she was boring him. “What the fuck? I feel like a fucking basketcase because I’m falling in love with this guy and you are telling me enough? Have you been listening to me for the past six months or so to know why this is hard?”

“Enough,” he repeated, the tone of his voice rising to the point that she could feel the hair on the back of her arms stand up. “You need to stop. You are panicking. You don’t know if Steve hasn’t also worried that he’s making a mistake…”

The thought of Steve angsting over whether or not he was going to hurt her only fueled the negative thought spiral that was rapidly consuming her, her entire body a taut wire.

“Not all men? You’ve said that before. Except that we both know this is bullshit. Yes, Bruce. Yes, all men. And even if Steve is nice, it doesn’t mean that I am.”

Natasha,” Bruce leaned forward, “Stop. Because right now I’m feeling how overwhelmed you feel about this guy.”

“What you are saying is that this guy is too perfect for you. You are so mean to yourself. Isn’t there room for you to believe that you might be exactly what Steve Rogers needs?”

Natasha flinched, pulling her knees up to her chin, a reflex to what she hoped was an auditory hallucination. “I didn’t tell you his last name.”

It was such a small detail, and insignificant enough that she was second-guessing herself. Maybe she had said something. Or maybe he’d just had a lucky guess. She couldn’t even consider the alternative.

“Natasha,” he looked down so that she couldn’t see his face. His shoulders tensed as he spoke, evenly and with the kind of control that reminded her of Ivan, the only difference that she could hear his voice waver.

“You know him?” she asked, the sound of a piano below her slashing through any thoughts she was having about what might be happening.

She jumped as the piano tune, a few tinkly keys, repeated. A ringtone. Shifting in her seat, she moved the pillow next to her, the blue screen of the ringtone’s source a curious anchor back to the present moment.

Bruce opened his mouth and she waited for any kind of rebuttal that didn’t come.

The truth, she recognized, could be just as violent as a fist or words from Ivan about what an ungrateful whore she was.

If he was here, he would be laughing at this. At me.

“I am so stupid,” she acknowledged as she picked up the phone, the lock screen a fun-house mirror showing her as a girl who smiled. He’d taken that photo just the night before, right before telling her that he’d never be able to fully capture just how beautiful she was.

“It’s not what you think…” Bruce mumbled. She looked over to see anger and tension turn to the poker face she knew so well, except for the glint of panic in his eyes. He looked like a mouse in a trap.

“I think I need to go,” she stood up, still clutching Steve’s phone tight. She wanted to believe that it wasn’t what it seemed. She wasn’t even sure she knew what it looked like. Except that she’d been waiting clearly for a sign, almost begging the universe for a clear indicator that she needed to pull herself together.

The air changed when she opened the door, to something colder and cleaner, almost like the change in air felt when walking onto a jet bridge after a long flight. Her first thought was that she needed to get home, that she needed a quiet place to think.

She didn’t know why she wasn’t surprised to see Steve Rogers sitting in one of Bruce’s stiff waiting room chairs, attention focused on the floor as he rested his elbows on his spread knees. When he looked up, she registered the confusion, as if she was the one who wasn’t supposed to be there.

“Natasha?”

Steve said her name as a question, something to confirm that she was really in front of him. For a split-second she wondered if his eyes were as wide as they were because he’d been caught, even while a part of her wanted to believe he was just as shocked as she was. She looked over her shoulder to see Bruce right behind her, his own posture one of uncertainty.

Her therapist clearing his throat and wringing his hands in one corner, and her lover standing in the waiting room, face so white she thought he nearly matched the color of the walls. She could feel the sense of weightlessness as she mentally stepped out of body, an observer to the odd triangle happening before her.

“Bruce, why is Natasha here?” he asked , looking past her. She didn’t want to wait for the answer.

“I didn’t know that you two knew each other,” she heard Bruce say. Backtracking.

“Your phone,” Natasha tossed it, briefly catching his eye because she needed him to explain and tell her it was a simple coincidence. He caught the phone and she allowed herself a split second to entertain the idea that he didn’t know either, that he’d been just as in the dark as her.

“I think we should probably spend a few minutes processing this,” she heard Bruce offer, a suggestion that felt unreasonable and absurd.

This was supposed to happen, Natasha rationalized. In truth, she was done with the entire situation. She didn’t want to talk or process or discuss what it felt like to consider the fact that the two men had been talking about her and analyzing her behind her back.

“Actually, I’ve got to go,” she said, pulling on her tightest voice and the protective mask that communicated just how unaffected by the entire scenario she was. If Natasha knew anything, it was how to shut down and retreat.

“Natasha,” Steve stepped forward and reached for her hand.

“I’ve got to go,” she repeated, moving away faster than if he’d literally been on fire.  The truth didn't matter. She'd been looking for a reason, for the sign. The universe delivered and it was as clear as Steve Rogers, standing before her as though his feet were nailed to the carpet. She wanted to hesitate, wanted to wait but the instinct to run felt stronger. She gave another glance to Steve, something indulgent and heartbreaking all at once, before moving for the door.

 

Chapter Text

19

“Bruce…”

It was just about all Steve could get out, at least until he’d finished wrapping his head around whatever it was that had just happened.

The facts. He went over them even before his therapist, looking even more haggard and disheveled than before, could explain.

Only about an hour ago, he’d been mentally writing out the script for how he’d ask Natasha out on a date. A real one with flowers and holding hands and maybe talking about the future, whatever that meant.

And then she was there. Walking (or storming) out of Bruce’s office, wearing his shirt and an expression that could be universally read by anyone as “something just went down." It was akin to one of those horrible car accidents, where someone drives their car through the front window of a donut shop or someone’s living room. Natasha was not supposed to be angrily exiting his therapist’s office, clutching his phone as though that proved anything.

“I didn’t know that you guys were together. I should have but I didn’t, Steve,” Bruce explained, sitting on his couch with a sigh. Running a hand through his hair, Bruce looked up at Steve, as if he was expecting a pardon.

Steve sat across from him, his attention very much on Natasha and the other fact, that she had left without hearing any explanations. She’d given him that face when she’d left, the one he’d seen from the beginning. The one that expected something from him, the one that left him shrinking back because she could clearly see what kind of man he was, and hadn’t he just proved it?

“Steve, I am sincerely sorry. I promise that everything said was kept in confidentiality…”

“I know,” Steve admitted even as he looked past Bruce to that damned ghosty painting, certainly appropriate for all the ghosts that walked through Bruce’s office. He believed Bruce, at least to the extent that Bruce hadn’t known. Bruce wasn’t sitting before him like a man who had just been caught stringing clients along because of some great big con. He wasn’t begging, wasn’t bringing up the fact that he could very well be sued. And Steve knew that at least on some level, his therapist cared. Probably for Natasha as much as for Steve, though Steve had no way to know for sure.

He didn’t think that Bruce and Natasha had spent hours talking about all of the reasons why Steve was useless, or that they had discussed every detail together of what Steve brought in to sessions. She had been through a lot. He’d seen the scars enough that he was actually glad she was talking to someone.

“The problem, Bruce, is that I believe you. But she won’t,” he nodded slowly, meeting Bruce in the eye. “She won’t believe either of us.”

“Steve...” Bruce started, preparing for the knee-jerk response to tell Steve that he was catastrophizing, that he couldn’t make assumptions.

“Bruce, I don’t think I want to talk about this right now. Not with you,” he interrupted. Her face was etched into his memory, the face that said “I knew this was going to happen." A part of him understood and maybe had known it was coming too, that this was the kind of thing that he didn’t get to hold on to. When he looked down at his phone, he saw a different person entirely.

That photograph of her laughing hurt, left him feeling as though a part of him was bleeding out all over Bruce’s fancy white couch and nondescript office. As though the four walls of the room had held and contained everything he’d gone through, even the perfect reenactment to all of the things and people he’d lost.

“I’ve got to go,” he said quietly before standing up to make his way to the door.

***

“I don’t like taking pictures, Steve,” she’d told him the night before when he had pulled out his phone. They’d been washing the blankets and sheets and God, if she hadn’t been beautiful, even as she was doing something as menial as pulling apart the bed. He wanted to capture all of it, but mostly he supposed he wanted a memory. Something to look at when he was bored in class or waiting in line at the bank.

Which, of course, made him sound very needy and awkward, fully living up to his high school potential. He was aware, but he felt safe enough to do it anyway.

“I’m going to use it as a frame of reference to draw you later,” he lied while helping her stuff the blankets into the washer, though he figured maybe one day that might actually happen.

“You can draw me without taking a picture,” she’d pouted, actually crossing her arms and stamping her foot, which only made her even more irresistible.

“We can take one together,” he offered as he scooped her into his arms. “I swear, even if I did, it would be impossible for any photograph or drawing to ever capture how beautiful you are…”

Natasha had softened then, relaxing into him with her arms slipping underneath his shirt as if to hold him tighter, and he didn’t know why she had put down her sword but he didn’t really care. Lifting her chin up so that he could get another good look at those eyes that looked up at him, just to see (he reasoned) what shades he needed to use in order to capture them perfectly, he kissed her. Something simple and without hurry because there were merits to be found in taking one’s time, after all.

“This is my favorite thing,” she sighed into him, her hands finding their way underneath his shirt to his skin. It was intimate and honest and he wanted to laugh because kissing her was his favorite thing too. Because being with her, making her smile and moan and doing his part to make her a little more honest and less rigid, those things were high on his list of favorite things just as much.

She squeaked when he spun her around so that she was leaning against the cool white of the laundry machine, moving that hair to one side just so that his lips could find place her neck. He personally thought he was being rather stealthy in sneaking a hand into her jeans, pausing only to unbutton so that he could feel her, the overt way she pushed against his groin more than compensation. Another check to the growing list of things he wanted more and more of was easily the sound of her ragged breath as he parted her legs and used his fingers to make her tremble.

“Darcy,” she whispered at the sound of the front door, not quite slamming but loud enough to be code for “roommate’s home”.

“So then you really have to get a handle on those curses…” he reminded her as he pushed aside the cotton to her panties. She responded with a very low and very English “fuck”, her head leaning back and he decided it was a challenge, a bit of her stubbornness peeking through. He wondered if she could get any hotter, any wetter…

“Hey Natasha,” they heard Darcy call out, “I’m gonna make some pasta if you want some…”

“Darcy…” he watched her holler back masterfully, her voice only barely stilted, as her hand reached behind to fumble with his zipper. “M’good…thanks…”

"Are you sure?" her roommate answered, the sound of footsteps outside the flimsy door. He figured Darcy knew something was up, had to hear at least the sound of his heart beating, had to question why Natasha was being so quiet in the laundry room of all places, and again, he was marveling that she'd brought this boldness out of him.

"Are you sure? Not hungry?" he teased, nipping at her ear. She responded by reaching clumsily to push the "start" button, the sound of the sheets enough of a rattle that he felt safe breathing when she'd wrapped her own fingers around his cock.

"Thanks, Darcy-oh!” Her response ending with an extra vowel because he'd grazed her clit with the pad of his thumb.

"Ok," Darcy answered and then they both heard her pause, something in the space that had him frozen, three fingers deep inside Natasha but not daring to move. "Hey, Steve...gonna start charging you rent soon."

He didn't answer and, thankfully, Natasha’s roommate didn't stay by the door long enough to wait. Instead, he took it as a sign that the apartment was filled with pop music only minutes later. It served as extra stimulus, Darcy singing "sugar" in the kitchen at the top of her lungs as Natasha slid her jeans down just enough for him to pull out of her, (the action itself causing her knees to buckle) before tugging him free.

"Fuck me," she looked over her shoulder, eyes wild and needy.

"Not here. Condoms are in your room," he hesitated, the ache for her not helped at all by the way she'd pressed her bare ass against him.

"I'm clean, Steve..."

"Yeah but what about other things," he protested, weakly because her skin was so cool and soft and he was certain all the jokes about men thinking below the belt were founded on the possibility of feeling an ass like that...

"IUD. Ivan made me..." she shook her head and glanced at him, and he saw again the flash of vulnerability she fought so hard to hide. He wanted to apologize, if only because he knew that no one else had, but he remembered the promise to find and uncover her dark places and so he took her willingness to be so bare as a sign of good faith.

The mental picture of slipping into her from behind, his jeans still mostly on and yet feeling very much exposed, the vibrations of the washer and the whole apartment like a random soundtrack. By then, she was resting her forehead on the machine, one hand gripping his shirt and the other outstretched to who knew where, and he felt like home. It wasn't a graceful fuck and it didn't take long, because all he really needed was the feel of her tensing around his cock and the way she cried his name, as though she'd momentarily forgotten where they were.

And then he was spilling out into her, the intimacy of filling her instead of latex something he’d never done before and enough that he was pretty sure he’d groaned a little too loud himself. It was beautiful and obscene and suddenly hot like July, something he decided he did not mind at all. They pulled apart slowly, both stumbling a little as they straightened up, and she was laughing.

Before she could think about it, he had his phone out and did take the photo, if only to capture the flush in her face and the way she bit her lip after she laughed long enough almost as it to pull it all back in.

“You planned this…” she said as snapped the picture, but she smiled and kissed him anyway.

***

Natasha drove home on autopilot, her mind completely disconnected as she made the necessary turns or tapped on the breaks to slow down. She’d had enough presence of mind to turn off the radio, if only because the sound of music was suddenly grating. Synthesized sounds created in a music studio. It made her want to slam her shoe against the radio, except that she was trying to keep her irrational and reactive impulses in check.

You’ve done this to yourself, a clear thought emerged. It was sharp and bitter, an idea that stuck in her throat and made it hard to see.

Her phone buzzed, a quick glance showing her that Steve had been sending messages. Long ones and short ones that lit up the screen. She didn’t have patience for those either, turning her phone off at a stop light.

You don’t want to see what he has to say because you might be wrong…

It was uncharacteristic, the small voice that usually scolded her now talking her off of the metaphorical ledge. She scowled, turning her phone off when she’d parked her car.

Keys in the lock, all she wanted was to go to her room and take a long shower. She wanted to crawl into the furthest corner and press pause on everything…

Jesus fuck” she cursed, her startle response triggered by the sound of laughter and muffled voices, clear indicators that Darcy was home. Not only home, but very topless and very straddling someone on the living room couch, long brown hair hiding faces.

“Jesus fuck,” she repeated, shutting the door quick in order to save her roommate the agony of flashing the entire apartment complex. “Darcy, I’m sorry to interrupt…”

“Natasha!” Darcy looked up with surprise, reaching for the grey t-shirt that had been resting on the arm of the sofa. “I thought you had work!”

Natasha shook her head and started toward her room, only barely missing the snips of blond that identified Darcy’s companion. Clint looked her way, eyes wide and face red enough to give Steve a run for his money, quickly moving his hands away from her roommate’s hips.

“Nat.. You don’t work today?”

“Sorry to disappoint you both,” she muttered, stopping en route to her room only to open the freezer for an important and needed alcohol grab. She didn’t care. Didn’t care what her roommate did or was doing, didn’t want to know why the lines between work and home were blurring and her coworker had only seconds ago been caught with Darcy Lewis’s tits in his face. ..

“Natasha, you alright?” Darcy asked as she straightened her shirt, sliding down from her position so that she could take a step closer.

Natasha didn’t look up to answer, fairly sure that any coherent answer would involve tears, something she was not prepared to share, least of all with Darcy and Clint. She wasn’t trying to be melodramatic, even though it felt that way, as though she was creating a huge, ridiculous scene and practically begging everyone to respond and hover.

No, if she had learned anything, it was that she wasn't a drama queen. She actually took pride in the way she rushed into her room and shut the door, intentional in the amount of force used even when all of the feelings bubbling through her body wanted to yell and slam the door until it was hanging by the hinges. Locking the door carefully, she put her bag on the floor and grabbed the bottle. She and vodka had a very important date with the shower.

Which was where she sat, bottle in between her legs, not even bothered by water or taking her clothes off. The need to feel entombed, held in by the coolness of the stall tile much bigger than the need to feel clean. She recognized that she didn't really even want to drink, just wanted to stare at the way the label peeled or listen the way the slosh of alcohol echoed in her tiny chamber.

She decided, after reasonably deciding to fuck everything and take a quick drink, that she would give herself an hour to grieve. Sixty allotted minutes to feel sorry for herself before mapping out a plan of attack. Because at the end of the day, finding out that even things she discussed with her therapist weren't ever private, was actually perfect. Even if everything was a mistake and even of Steve was as good as he seemed, being close to him had been careless. A liability.

Move on. It was a clear directive, because in all honesty, she had let her guard down and she had gotten clumsy. Not just with Steve but with everyone. Bruce, Clint, Darcy. Friends and cute little words like trust and home and entertained fantasies of permanence.

You are so mean to yourself, Bruce had told her, suggesting that maybe she was actually making the lives of everyone around her better.

She wanted to believe it. She tugged on a loose thread to her shirt- Steve’s shirt- while considering the possibility that maybe there were some redeemable parts, pieces of her that were good.

But building up fences was easier.

It was like the suitcase she'd always kept packed as a kid. All the other families she'd joined had started off with good intentions for permanence and lovely ideas like tradition. But Natasha was transitory and had learned early on that she wasn’t meant to have anything long term, at least unless created by herself. She'd stayed too long only with Ivan, missing the signs until it was too late and then it was just painful for everyone.

***

“Hey, Steve…” Darcy opened the door, stepping aside as if to indicate that he was still welcome. He looked over her shoulder. Not seeing Natasha, he decided that her roommate’s friendliness was at least a good sign.

“Darcy, is Natasha home?” he asked, noticing that Clint (of all people) was sitting on the edge of the couch with a bottle of beer in hand.

“Yeah, just,” she said, furrowing her brow and exchanging concerned looks with Clint. Steve paused, not sure if those looks were because Natasha had filled them in or something else. Darcy nodded her head toward Natasha’s room, not really giving him any answers but at least giving him the nonverbal push to check on her.

He looked over his shoulder and watched as Darcy grabbed Clint’s hand and led him to her bedroom, both of them stealing apologetic looks as they disappeared. The kind of looks that said that they knew something between Steve and Natasha had happened or would happen. He appreciated the consideration and space, taking in a deep breath before he started knocking on the door.

“Natasha,” he called out, lightly because he only wanted to see her and talk to her and find out what in the hell was going on. “Natasha, can I come in?”

He was met with silence, which he had anticipated, but he knocked again anyway.

“Natasha, I don’t know what happened,” he called out. “I didn’t know that you and Bruce… I didn’t know.”

He pressed his head against the door and waited, resigned to the conversation he was having with himself, not sure if she was even listening.

“I just… Natasha, let me in. Please.”

And then he was begging. Shamelessly because he didn’t want to walk away, didn’t want to turn back time and pretend that they hadn’t happened and that he hadn’t been changed in the process. He thought about how brilliantly fucked the whole situation was.

All he could do was beg, really, because he’d found her and didn’t want to let her go, didn’t want to let this go. It was fucked up and unfair. Hadn’t he proven that she could trust him? Didn’t baring himself completely to her time and again count as a buffer against a stupid misunderstanding?

“Natasha, let me in. Don’t shut me out,” he spoke into her door, for once not feeling any panic in his chest. He felt the doorknob move and heard the click that had indicated it was unlocked, a precious sign she had at least heard something.

“Natasha,” he couldn’t open the door fast enough, and then he was standing before her, her face pale and streaked with tears. He wanted to kiss those trails, kiss everything, get on his knees if she wanted, but he held back, shutting the door carefully so that he could stand against it.

“I didn’t know,” he repeated.

He watched her sigh and sit on the bed, eyes noticeably to the floor. “I believe you.”

Her words should have cleared the air and cleaned the slate, allowing him entrance back into her space, except that they didn’t.

“You believe me…” he repeated after her, taking a tentative step forward.

“I think we need a break, Steve,” she slid the words out with a cold professionalism that undoubtedly had taken years of practice to refine. It was as though the door hadn’t been opened at all, and he could almost literally see her adopting the same thick defenses she’d worked so hard- they’d worked so hard- to tear apart.

“A break,” he said evenly, the word heavy on his tongue. What could he do? How could he even argue with her, especially if all he wanted to do was give her what she wanted. She met his eyes only for a minute, enough to impress him with just how clear hers were.

“Natasha,” he reached for her hand, noting how quickly she pulled away, her entire body jumping to create distance.

“Why do you always try to hold my hand?” She asked, not out of curiousity but rather as an accusation.

“What? Because I want to touch you,” he stammered, caught off guard.

“Sometimes I don’t want to be touched, Steve. You can’t fix things just by touching my hand,” she responded, something in her voice that he found confusing. Not anger, exactly.

“Natasha, that’s what people do when someone they love is hurting…”

“Stop, Steve. This isn’t going to work,” she stood up and walked to the door, as if she hadn't just heard him confess that he loved her, a word he hadn't used for anyone in almost a decade, not since his own mother and in a very different capacity. It was impossible that it didn't mean anything...

“Natasha, you can’t block people out. It’s okay to feel…” he felt his face redden. He didn’t want to stand up, didn’t want to leave even if it meant having a tantrum in her room.

“You think I don’t feel?” she spun around, “I feel everything.”

“Bullshit, Natasha. You know, you are doing this, not me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want a break…” he stood up, his body temperature rising more than he wanted.

“I think you should leave,” she opened the door, and he knew she was using all the mental tricks she could find to hide the emotion. Hadn’t she been crying? Why was she doing this to herself? To him?

“Natasha, please…” he walked up, again reaching out for her, wanting to bargain and negotiate, not wanting to let any foothold go.

“Steve, please,” she bit her lip and looked at him, answering him with a plead of her own. Space. Distance.

He thought about any possible thing he could have said or done, any number of combinations that might break her down. Except that he didn’t want to break her down, not like everyone else had done to her. He didn’t know why and he regretted it as soon as the decision was made, but at the end, he yielded, nodding and stepping forward.

It was only later, when he’d gotten home, that he’d been able to feel anything other than desperation and despair. Despair at losing Natasha, at letting her choose and taking the comfortable position as a bystander. It turned easily into anger and then even rage, because hadn’t this been one time when he should have been able to keep something?

“Fuck,” he muttered and then yelled, letting out his own feelings, about Natasha and everything else. The war. The dead. Bucky. Mom. All in the long string of judgment and loss. “Fuck,” he repeated the word as violently as he could and then in companion with his fist as he knocked it into the wall nearest his bedroom door. Cursing and punching, everything one hundred percent child brain, even the hot tears that clouded his vision, until he was blessedly numb, clutching a bloodied set of knuckles as he stumbled onto his bed, the pain just enough that he felt comfortable to close his eyes.

Bloodied knuckles and all, he really only had himself to blame.

 

Chapter Text

20

After the time making it through the grieving period she’d promised herself, followed by a long shower (making sure to bury Steve’s shirt at the bottom of her laundry basket), and a dream-less nap (covers over head), Natasha had hoped or at least anticipated a clear head and motivation to go to work. All it called for was some master disassociation, as though her brain had truly been eaten by zombies. When she brushed her hair, she even tried putting on her fakest smile, because it wasn’t like she’d never had to do a walk-through of disappointment.

That she physically hurt surprised her, enough to take her breath away when she least expected it. Little side stitches that pinged when she let herself think, making her tremble later that day just a little when she was supposed to be carrying a tray stacked with water cups and dinner plates. Enough that she made it to work but couldn’t blame half of her customers for punishing her on tips. Natasha couldn’t very well blame anyone for the fact that she was so impaired.

She had to wonder if the withdrawal symptoms and detox from Steve would be as intense as some of the things she’d seen back in New York.

Standing in the bathroom at work, splashing water on her face because she’d messed up another order, this time forgetting the cheese on a customer’s burger, Natasha tried to tell herself to get a grip. She felt foolish, because it wasn’t as though she and Steve had the long history that would justify the kind of hold he had on her. Logically, he hadn’t been around long enough to be classified as more than a wonderful fling. Great sex. And proof that she could enjoy it, that she wasn't irreparably broken.

Natasha hadn't expected the regret, a bottomless well deep in her chest, sticks and needles that had her wondering just why she'd shut the door on him.

Or at least something like regret. Something not rational.

It was like walking on a razor thin wire, because she had made that choice. Just as she had chosen to reach out. She'd let him in. She'd chosen to reveal her scars. And then she'd chosen to cower and slink back, for reasons that didn't entirely make sense.

To protect herself. That had been her excuse at first, and she doubted anyone could look at her hospital records and challenge her. They’d only known each other for a handful of weeks, that sliver of time when people still showed the highlight reel.

To protect him. That had been another lie her brain had fed her, more than a few times. A kind of “I’m going to hurt you before you hurt me” defense, as though she was some wounded animal who psychically could tell what his motives were. Because she wasn't good at belonging to anyone, because she'd never been good at making anyone happy.

Natasha tried to table these thoughts but they were as slippery as eels. She’d managed to make it through closing, though not without some lingering sadness. A dull background noise that in all actuality wasn’t so different from how she felt on most days anyway, until she got home to Darcy and Clint making dinner in the kitchen. They weren’t obvious, and she was grateful, but when Clint stole looks at Darcy while making the salad or when Darcy laughed a little too loud at some joke Clint made about cucumbers, it was like those eels had whipped around in Natasha’s brain. Little electric shocks that jolted her, little memories and reminders about all she had said “no” to.

They smiled when they saw her and invited her to sit with them. There was more than enough “meatless Monday” to go around, after all, and Natasha got that they were trying to give her space but also support. She nodded because she didn’t know what else to do, even though she really wasn’t hungry.

“Yes. Let me feed you. Food cures all,“ Darcy clapped her hands and even jumped a little before reaching for a brown Easter basket which she handed ceremoniously to Natasha.

“What?” Natasha scrunched up her face, looking down at the contents. Tiny little airplane bottles of vodka and glittery star stickers and silver-foiled Hershey’s kisses and a thick plastic package…

“It’s a ‘men suck, I’m sorry he broke your heart’ basket.” Darcy grinned, lacing her arm through Clint’s. “I got you Kill Bill and the best little vibrator on the planet too…”

Natasha looked down at the thick plastic, which on closer inspection carried a small hot pink bullet. Steve would have passed out at the thought. A thought that made her heart ache enough that she was biting her lip as though physical pain might help relieve some of that pressure.

Darcy had made her a care package. Just when she thought she’d gotten rid of any emotions and feelings, there they were. Those bastard eels that snaked around her stomach and squeezed at her heart.

“I… Thank you.” she leaned against the kitchen table and clutched at the gifts and all of the meaning behind them, her tongue heavy on the fact that Darcy had assumed Steve was the bad guy.

“Well, I figured, he must be some kind of asshole for however things ended...” Darcy shrugged before stirring something she’d been browning on the stove. It smelled like onions and cumin, an excellent cover for why Natasha’s eyes might be watering.

She stood stunned, pretty sure that all of the sentiment behind the basket coupled with the fact that Darcy was immediately on her side, had to be one of the realest events she’d ever experienced in her life. Not only had Darcy spent time and money on chocolate and vodka, (she had paid attention and noticed that Natasha preferred vodka?) and all sorts of wonderful soothers, but she had also called Steve an asshole.

With no information and a heavy hand of bias, Darcy had called him the asshole and backed Natasha up. It was a loyalty unparalleled, the kind of friendship that Natasha had only seen on TV. She picked up the DVD as if to read the back, only because she didn’t want to stare or start weeping.

“The best vibrator? How would you even know that?” Clint asked, eyes narrowed playfully as he looked down at Natasha’s roommate. Natasha had actually forgotten he was even there and then forgotten that he was fucking her roommate, that he had almost as much knowledge of her anemic love life as Darcy.

She couldn’t help the flashbacks to guys who wouldn’t even look her in the eye when she was with Ivan, guys she had sat next to in class or who had been friendly and nice until it was obvious she was taken. Flashbacks to Laura Antonova, who suddenly walked wide circles around her and pretended she didn’t know her, or any one of the girls who hung around the house and talked to Natasha when they wanted to borrow some lipstick or who were happy to hug her when everyone was laughing, until she was asking someone if they had any extra concealer for that bruise that had painted its way onto her cheek and then she was speaking an alien language.

“The best little one. And wouldn’t you like to know?” She narrowed her eyes right back, holding her ground even as she’d turned into him and Natasha was fairly sure she’d have to excuse herself because she was not interested in watching them make out.

“Darcy,” she interrupted, “did you know that my real name is Natalia?”

Darcy paused and turned her head, again smiling and Natasha was sure she’d start laughing because it was, admittedly, a random little fact to just throw out.

“Is it?”

Natasha nodded and waited, as though this would be the test that would tell her whether or not people like Darcy and Clint and even Steve were real. She’d lied and held something of her identity back. Here was the opportunity on a silver platter to push Natasha away.

“I like it,” Clint answered, reaching around Darcy to turn the stove off. “I mean, it’s better than Clinton.”

“Clinton? Like the president or the parliament funkadelic?” Darcy laughed.

“Neither? I don’t even know what my parents were thinking,” he laughed back, and Natasha didn’t even realize she’d been holding her breath until she was exhaling because they obviously didn’t care.

“Meh, tomato, tomaaaato, Natasha,” Darcy rolled her eyes as she brought the salad to the table. “He also has a funny name and I have a weird long toe that looks like it’s pissed off at the others and won’t even look at them…Point being that we’ll call you whatever you want . You’re my girl and I got your back.”

“Ok,” Natasha said slowly, tentatively. She’d let another piece of her real self pass through, maybe at a time when she should have been even more guarded, and the ground hadn’t swallowed her up.

It was a small little lifeline, the revelation that she could keep things intact with Darcy and Clint, that they were there for her. As though Darcy was feeding her more than carrots and soy crumbles impossibly camouflaged as taco filling.   She was connecting and not dying and it felt important.

Dinner carried her, anesthetized her emotions enough that she was caught off guard by how hard it was to go to the quiet of her bedroom.

Those tiny pains and shards of regret came back up as she slid underneath her covers, suddenly uncertain of whether or not turning the light off would be a smart idea. For once not because she was afraid of the dark or the sounds outside her window or even because of the nightmares.

It was as clear as the way her fingers danced around her cellphone, begging her to do a few screen swipes. A simple text message because he belonged next to her, warming her with his body and calming her with the sounds he made when he was dreaming. And then she was thinking about the feel of his lips against her skin, the way he so earnestly looked into her eyes when he was inside her, so careful and intentional, as though even the slightest force would rip her apart. Even just thinking about his voice as whispered her name, simultaneously raw and tender and she was a mess, a thick coil of heat between her legs and stubborn tears rolling down her cheek.

What would she even say? Even if she started with “I’m the one who is an asshole,” she’d still been the one to end things.

I miss you. I've never felt as open with anyone else as I am with you. You make me feel safe and it scares the shit out of me because I'm so used to there being a catch, because girls like me don't get happy endings with nice guys who do sweet things like hold hands and ask what I want, because knowing that someone else knows who I am and doesn't care and wants me anyway is terrifying.

Her thoughts rambled and rattled in her head to the point that it became a nightly routine, rehearsing what she wished she could tell him if she could go back in time. That she even ached to have done things differently was a mindfuck in and of itself, though she couldn’t decide if this was also a sign of weakness or not, or even what her own feelings were trying to tell her. That she needed him? Or maybe that she just needed to be around people. Every once in a while, she’d have a brief moment of clarity and recognize that it was fucked up that she was feeling guilty and weak for actually wanting to be in a relationship with someone, because she was also pretty sure it was normal to want to feel attached, pretty sure that belonging was about as basic a need for survival as air.

She obsessed, wondering why he hadn’t tried calling or texting, except that she knew he’d give her whatever she wanted because he’d always been that way, letting her lead and set the pace every step of the way as though he understood that no one had ever taken her “no” seriously. And then she obsessed over whether or not she’d hurt him, even in her stupid attempt to save him the heartache, and that made her feel even worse, because she’d never actually hurt anyone before, only ever been the one that everyone else pushed around.

What burned and swallowed her up until she was sometimes literally gasping for air and biting into her pillow so Darcy wouldn’t hear something and get suspicious, was the lightbulb thought that none of this was actually Ivan’s fault. Not his or foster parents or Bruce’s, just hers. She had adopted and clothed herself into the victim role, waiting for someone to hurt her as though the world had some cosmic plan against her. As though she had no power or say in her own life at all. Yeah, she’d been abused and had her own fair share of near-death experiences, but it was like she was waiting for it to just keep happening until she was actually making it happen all over again.

It made her feel useless, because all she could do with that knowledge was move forward. She’d burned the bridge with Steve, and she wouldn’t blame him if he was thinking about how much he hated her, if he was thinking of her at all.

And so was the nightly routine of clutching her phone as she tossed around in her bed, until she was exhausted and able to get even a handful of hours of sleep.

After three nights of rumination and mental torture that she’d ruined everything, she didn’t even recognize the buzz of her phone against her stomach, vibrating stubbornly until she was enough awake to push it off her bed and onto the floor. A last-ditch effort to get even just a little more sleep. It wasn’t until later when she was scrambling on her hands and knees to find her phone because the alarm was yelling at her about how it was time to get up and be an adult that she realized she’d missed eight text messages and two phone calls.

All during the four hours or so she’d been able to actually sleep. Speech bubbles with question marks and are you okay?? And when she opened the messenger app and read the timeline in reverse, he’d only been responding naturally to her own short messages. Messages she’d so clearly sent even though she couldn’t remember sending them.

J^/61fb

%/:z

And a handful of random emoticons. Baby. Heart. Question mark. Piña Colada. Cry face.

Natasha bit her lip hard enough to break skin as she sat slowly on her bed, all of her attention focused on her phone because holy fuck.

Feet on the ground because she couldn’t even process the fact that she had basically butt-dialed (or somehow just dialed… in her sleep?) lines of gibberish to Steve, her fingers tapped frantically on the voicemail icons. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to hear his voice as she’d spent the past seventy-two hours and change trying in vain to forget all about him, and then she was shaking her head because all she heard when she pressed “play” was the sound of him hanging up and that had to be a mistake because what she wouldnt give to hear him saying her name.

Twenty minutes. He’d called twenty minutes before her alarm and she’d missed it.

The eels in her brain had a field day as she debated on whether or not to text him to tell him that she was sorry and embarrassed; whether or not to slide down that slippery slope.

The sound of Darcy in the kitchen was enough to snap her back to the present. And then she was telling herself that she really couldn’t make any decisions until she’d had coffee, which was ridiculous and she knew it, but she was a master at deceiving herself after all.

“Hey Red,” Darcy nodded, eyes squinting with sleep as she pulled down their coffee mugs, “I think it’s going to rain today.”

Natasha nodded and sunk down into one of the kitchen chairs, resting her head in her arms at the table because she was suddenly too tired to even try holding her head up. Phone on her lap, she snuck glances at the screen, as though by staring at it, it would magically light up with more messages from Steve.

That it was staying dark hurt more than she could bear.

“Natasha, you okay?” Darcy put the cup of coffee down in front of her and put her hand on Natasha’s back, a small physical touch that made her choke on the ball of tears that had lodged itself in her throat.

“I… Steve…” she whimpered, head still down because she was actually confiding in Darcy, something she’d never thought she could even do, and the thought of telling her roommate why she was so upset and then looking her in the eye was just pushing her boundaries farther than she could handle.

And when Darcy crouched beside her with her brows knit tightly together and a look of concern, not repulsion or irritation, as though Natasha’s emotions were a bother, a switch inside Natasha’s heart flipped on. No matter how many times anyone in her life showed her that kind of mercy and patience, Natasha wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to get over it. But there she was, holding back tears until Darcy was opening her arms and implicitly offering Natasha a fucking hug.

And then Natasha was melting, letting Darcy hug her as she sobbed into her shoulder in the kind of way she’d never cried before in her life. Baby tears that wracked her body and echoed throughout the apartment and very possibly within earshot of their neighbors. A kind of wailing, only her face was hot and there were eyeprints on Darcy’s t-shirt and she didn’t even care. She couldn’t even articulate why she was crying except that she was crying for everything. For her parents, for the little girl she’d been, for Natalia Romanova who was cowering in a corner and waiting for it all to just be over, and for Natasha who had to look over her shoulder all the damn time, so that she couldn’t even let good things like Steve Rogers happen.

“Hey, Red, hey…” Darcy whispered as she patted Natasha’s back. “You do know you can apologize, right? I mean, he’d eat out of your hand if you asked him to.”

Natasha hiccupped and wiped at her face, mentally chewing over Darcy’s suggestion. How could something simultaneously sound and feel so dangerous and logical?

“Yeah, it shouldn’t even be that hard. All you have to do is call him and tell him that you were an idiot and that you want him back…” Darcy stood up and straightened her legs as she explained how easy it would be for Natasha to be humble.

”I don’t think it works that way. And besides, we are a disaster as a couple. The fact that you think he’d eat out of my hand is pretty toxic, don’t you think?”

Darcy took a deep breath and put her hands on her hips. “Natasha. It does work that way. Saying you are sorry literally works that way.”

Even if Darcy was right, it was in Natasha’s nature to fight it. Her entire life was a “yes, that’s true but…” She rubbed at her sore eyes and sighed, because all she could think about in response were the millions of excuses she’d expertly crafted in her own mind over the past few nights. Starting with the irrational belief that Steve was too good. Before she could counter with her list of reasons, Darcy continued to talk even while walking over to refill her coffee mug.

“Natasha, you deserve nice things. You’re a nice person and when the two of you are in the same room together, it’s so nice and wonderful it’s almost gross. Like I had to live with the two of you being adorable and sweet for the past few weeks. And I don’t even know what happened but the fact that you guys won’t even try?”

“I deserve nice things…” Natasha repeated quietly, spinning her phone on the table like a top because she couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“You do. Seriously. Not that I’m not glad I don’t have to listen to the sound of you two fucking anymore, but even that sounded like music…” Darcy insisted.

“Darcy, there was this guy though… I’ve been through too many bad relationships,” Natasha gave one more argument, really the best argument that she had.

“Natasha, you either do or you don’t. I’m your friend through both outcomes.”

And even then, when Darcy was calling Natasha her friend, and Natasha was seeing with her own eyes why Bruce had bugged her so much about connecting, she wasn’t convinced. She nodded and weighed it all out but clung stubbornly to the fear that she’d made a mistake but that maybe the choice to distance herself had been wise.

Until she was back in her room getting ready for work. Brushing her hair and looking around her room, empty on purpose in case she needed to hurry and pack her stuff to leave. Her eyes rested on the drawing taped to her wall, that girl who suddenly looked so much freer than anything Natasha could ever remember feeling. That girl who told her that there had to be another way, something that Natasha really wanted.

Free. Beautiful. Alive.

How Steve saw her.

She wanted it. Natasha wanted to take the opportunity even just to choose that other way and see if it fit, if it was possible. Instead of waiting for everyone else’s choices to topple onto her, instead of shutting down like Steve had begged her not to, she could actively grab hold of any way that she wanted. And she wanted that attachment. She wanted the game night banter between Clint and Darcy while Steve stroked her elbow. She wanted the naked bowls of cereal and laying next to him while he did his homework. Hell, she even wanted the stupid little “couple” arguments that she’d been so afraid of and all the little “couple” labels like “boyfriend” and “love."

With conviction and a deep breath she was texting Clint to tell him that she wasn’t coming in to work because something important had come up.

An active choice that she was making with power that she was tired of giving away or letting slip through her fingers. Maybe not the only way or the best way but something Natasha Romanoff was choosing for herself.

Chapter Text

21 (AKA 20 part 2)

“A Boxer’s Fracture.”

This was the cute name the urgent care doctor gave after examining Steve’s hand, an announcement that followed a bit of poking and “does this hurt?” Pushing his glasses up on his nose, the doctor flipped a light switch on the wall and did some explanations about the way Steve’s pinky finger should look in an x-ray.

“It doesn’t look as bad as it could, you’re pretty lucky,” he promised, writing out a prescription for ibuprofen and a follow-up visit with Steve’s primary care doctor.

Steve nodded and shrugged through all of it, trying his best to guard his emotions. It wasn’t the first time he’d been injured- he’d been to the ER more than a few times as a kid- but it was the first time he’d ever put himself there. He almost hadn’t even gone in, except that he couldn’t concentrate because of the steady ache that was higher on the smiley-face pain scale the nurse showed him than he would admit to her. That swell didn’t look too good either.

He hadn’t tried to talk to Natasha in three days. Not that he was counting hours or minutes, instead using all the energy he could find to focus instead on school or running or anything to distract. He even tried for five minutes to look at his mom’s recipe for gingerbread, though it had ended up being an excellent choice for mental self-harm because he still didn’t have the right measuring cups and spoons and honestly, baking without Natasha was futile and only had him thinking about her ass on his countertop or the way she’d tasted so goddamned sweet, and then he was literally salivating because his lips and tongue and the rest of his body remembered too vividly. He could hear her moan and swear, and he’d learned enough that he probably knew some choice Russian words but maybe he’d also grown a little proficient in her body and the way she shivered when his head was between her legs.

Memories he had to work hard to block, partly for his own sanity and partly out of respect for her. He didn’t know if it was bad or not, to still ache for her to the point that he was jerking off with a forgotten cookbook by his side, but it felt a little creepy, least of all because he couldn’t even say he was masturbating to memories of an ex-girlfriend. They weren’t really ex-anythings, technically speaking.

According to her, it had been a mistake. He was her ex-mistake. The proof was in the bloat of his knuckles.

Steve should have seen a doctor sooner, probably, but he’d clung to the pain a little stubbornly. How had he seriously broken his hand? He thought Bucky might tell him he deserved it, punching walls over a girl. (Of course, his dominant right hand. Of course. No painting or drawing or writing. Jesus Christ, Steve).

Though as he stood in line at the pharmacy waiting for his pain medication, newly splinted hand hanging at his side and a whirlpool of frustration stirring in his stomach, he wondered if he’d just tell Bucky to go fuck himself.

“Steve,” a familiar voice called out, and he instinctively ducked before looking around, as though it was unbelievable that he’d run into anyone who knew him in public.

“Clint,” he said, impressed and proud that he’d remembered the name even if Clint was on the short list of people that he didn’t want to see. Least of all because he knew he looked like shit, knew that Clint and Darcy had been bystanders to the scene between him and Natasha, and what kind of conversation could they even have? Every other time he’d been around the guy, he was mentally sizing him up and categorizing reasons why he shouldn’t be jealous that Natasha was friends with him at all.

That he’d lost any foothold with her, that she was fair game again if Clint or anyone else wanted her, was something he couldn’t even consider without feeling as though his heart was being squeezed in the tightest vice grip.

“Hey Steve,” he walked up naturally, without any awkwardness or apology, as though he and Steve might actually be friends. Easy. “What happened to your hand?”

Steve hoped he wasn’t looking at Clint as though he had an extra head, because he’d always been nothing but decent and genuine, even then with hands in pockets and totally open. He looked down at his hand, pinky and ring finger immobilized and sticking out alongside the dark blue sleeve of the splint. He danced between truth and lie, feeling that no matter what he said, he’d sound like a schmuck.

“Just…an accident,” he admitted carefully, meeting the other man’s eyes. “What are you doing here? I mean, what’s going on…”

He curled the fingers of his good hand because it was too soon and too obvious to ask about Natasha. Except that he didn’t really know enough about Clint to have any ideas on what they could even talk about. Not that he cared about anything else anyway.

“Just here to pick up some things is all,” Clint explained easily. Steve imagined it was probably something mundane. Vitamins. Antacids. Condoms and lube, likely.

If Clint picked up on Steve’s wariness, he was a master at dismissing it, something that seeped under Steve’s skin and made him feel like taking his pills and running. Instead of standing there with an injured hand and his heart threatening to escape his chest because even it didn’t want to stick around anymore.

“So, um…” How is she? Is she okay? Has she said anything? Does she still smell like coconuts? Steve bit the inside of his cheek to hold in as much as he could. It had only been three days. Three days after such a short time, it wasn’t like he had any claim over her, they hadn’t even had the chance to discuss any official labels.

Which made everything so incredibly unfair. When he replayed things in his mind, he thought about how close they had been to talking about those labels and then he started panicking that maybe they hadn’t been as close as he had thought, which was the kind of dangerous idea that had him holding his head between his legs in order to keep from passing out.

He tried not to think about how real everything had felt. All of the late night confessions and gestures, and they way she would look at him when they weren’t doing anything except laying in her bed, as though her green eyes knew something or saw something he didn’t. She’d been so close and he knew it, because for every uncertain “no” she’d given him a handful of “yesses” and “das”, and it couldn’t all be one big game.

Because that would mean that things hadn’t really ever changed, and that he was the same awkward guy he’d always been. Something that filled him with a probably unreasonable amount of dread and fear, as though maybe he’d never be enough, as though the whole goal of connecting and forming relationships with anyone was about as realistic as clinging to the belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Something childish and unreasonable.

“I’m really bummed about you and Nat, Steve,” Clint offered an apologetic smile, as though he was offering condolences on a major death.

Steve nodded and looked at the pharmacy counter, as if to send a mental signal to that they could hustle a little more in filling his prescription.

“It’s not like we were together or anything. You guys were a lot closer…”

Clint hummed, pausing as if to choose his words carefully. “Close?” he finally answered. “I mean, we work together. And she’s great to work with but I don’t really know her, if that makes any sense. Like all I knew before you came around was that she was a perfectionist and that she was never late. Other than that, it was always a little like talking to a brick wall. All business but mostly hidden otherwise. I mean, I want to say she’s a friend and now I think she is, but really man, you’re good for her. She’s like a different person lately.”

Steve took in a deep breath, because it was simultaneously relieving and cruel that Clint could only talk about her in a professional capacity, suggesting that he wasn’t any kind of competition ever at all. It didn’t change the fact that she’d asked for space, that she’d put the brakes on everything before they could even go anywhere.

“Anyway, I was just telling Darcy that it would have been nice to do something with you guys. Darcy keeps wanting to go up to Solvang…”

“Solvang,” Steve repeated, brow furrowed when he thought about any kind of double date with Clint and Darcy.

“Yeah, it’s this little Dutch town up North. Supposed to have wine tasting and shit. Anyway, it would’ve been fun and any excuse to get Darcy drunk, man…”

“You and Darcy?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I mean, we seem to keep happening…” Clint shrugged. “She was born the same year as Terminator 2 and fuck me because I saw that in the fucking theater but whatever, so far it’s been kind of nice.”

All that Steve could say was “ok” and give his most convincing smile because he wasn’t really sure he wanted to know the details of someone else’s happiness. It was a different kind of jealousy that pinged at Steve upon the realization that Clint not only knew Natasha only professionally but that he was involved with someone else. Relief mixed with a measure of good nature because now he could actually comfortably like the guy, even if he was standing there talking about how nice it was to be with someone.

“You really need to call her, Steve.”

And suddenly the guy who Steve had only ever seen joking and smiling was serious, holding Steve’s gaze. “I can’t give you advice but you calling Natasha is a really smart idea.”

“She said we needed a break,” Steve explained, hoping his voice didn’t sound as weak as he felt. And I never want to force her… I will give her whatever she asks for.

The blond didn’t answer him back, only shaking his head with his hands in his pocket, as if to recognize that really the whole thing was just one big shame.

Mercifully, the pharmacist interrupted them to call Steve’s name. Any longer and Steve feared he would’ve left even without the medications just to keep from crumbling. There’d be no recovery from public displays of emotion next to the pharmacy aisle endcap that advertised therapeutic shoe insoles.

“I guess I’ll see you around,” Steve held out his hand, a gesture he genuinely meant, even if he didn’t think he’d have the stomach to be friendly with anyone for a while. Clint nodded and shook his hand, telling him that he should stop by the deli anytime. Steve waited for a final request that he call Natasha and it looked as though Clint was going to say it, until he was walking away instead, maybe because the request to convince Natasha to change her mind was already thick in the air. Maybe because Clint understood that a man can only beg so much.

Maybe to acknowledge that it was like trying to push a round peg in a square hole. That Natasha had been right. Steve and Natasha as “they” wouldn’t work.

He wanted to be reasonable about everything. He wanted to shrug his shoulders like it was no big deal. He had too much on his plate anyway, so it was probably for the best. Maybe in another lifetime, in another universe, when they both weren’t so afraid the sky was falling. The path of least resistance.

Steve thought about that path, because truthfully he’d never gone for the easy road. And maybe that’s why he was where he was. Maybe he’d had a little more say in putting himself in the hospital after all, because he’d certainly never let someone call him names and get away with it. And he’d chosen to follow Bucky to the Middle East, originally maybe to follow his friend and because he was young and zealous and got a little teary when they played “I’m Proud to be an American" during a Fourth of July fireworks show. Until he was there and bouncing rubber balls on concrete with the guys because there was literally nothing else to do other than listen to Dum Dum Dugan spout poetry about Pamela Anderson’s tits, except that no one could really ever let his guard down, not when insurgents with grenades were trying to storm the COP and you had men and civilians to protect…

And even then, that path of least resistance had dragged him through the mud, so that he wasn’t the same kid he’d always been.

The path of least resistance was also the most fucked up, pot-holed and knotted road available and damned if he’d chosen against it again and again, but he wasn’t sure he could fully regret it.

He remembered telling Natasha that he wished they could have lived a different life, an easier life where people didn’t die. He’d seen her struggle and confess and then admit that even after all she’d seen, she would still not go back in time and live things out differently. He might have been picked on from time to time and maybe he’d filled a lot of his time feeling sorry for himself, but he knew that anything he’d seen might not even compare to her own history of violence. So he’d had a few broken noses. She’d lived with a sociopathic rapist who’d nearly killed her, leaving her with the kind of permanent tattoo on her stomach that would make it impossible to forget.

It was there forever. A loud and ugly and shameful reminder of every way she’d been violated, and he knew she’d had a lot of fear about showing him. Because he also knew that it was something that she was always aware of. He'd seen her fingers skitter over it when she was getting dressed, or flutter to cover it when she took her top of, as thought she'd forgotten that he knew it was there and didn't know he was looking. Maybe he could relate because a day didn’t go by that he wasn’t thinking of the clusterfuck that had been his life thus far, but he didn’t have any scars to prove it. Being afraid to walk around the Santa Monica Pier because there were just too many civilians wasn’t the same as looking down every day and being reminded that someone had the ego and the hate to take your life away piece by piece.

Not the explosion and smell of gasoline and flesh that terrorized him nightly. Not the blanket of self-doubt after years of socially awkward and sickly, or the slow burn of watching a parent die. But still, he could only imagine the steady chipping away of every fiber of her being. Because he’d always had at least someone who wanted him as a kid. Because even when someone was kicking the shit out of him or a girl was giving him the unmistakable look of disgust, he’d always maintained a sense that even through the hard way, there was still light at the end of the tunnel.

Steve hurt for her, and maybe that helped. Whoever this guy was, the one who’d put the cherry on top of all of the steel walls she already had around her heart, the one that had beaten her and controlled her until he was bored and then he’d nearly killed her, Steve hated that guy. He hated that guy for her, even though he knew she didn’t need it, and he hated that there was really nothing he could do.

He couldn’t white-knight in. He couldn’t make her let go.

He couldn’t make her love him.

He also couldn’t fairly hate her for not loving him. He wasn’t Superman. At the end of the day, he couldn’t break through those walls. She had to move them herself.

So he tried to go on, at least for the rest of the day. He had work to finish up before the end of the term, including some things he’d pushed off because he’d been so occupied with Natasha. He recognized that any sense of self-preservation would mean not dying on his sword and letting school go.

He tried to concentrate on his life and the things he could control. Eating (even if it was Cup of Noodles and toast), staring at the television, homework, only minimal pacing and he was sure Bruce would be proud of that. Even going to bed at a reasonable hour.

When his phone pinged in the middle of the night, he didn’t even have to fumble for it. He’d been wide awake, actively trying to sleep. Visualizing the ocean, counting his breaths, stopping only seconds to curse himself when his hand started to throb a little. And then a tiny ping.

He could have ignored it. Who sends messages in the middle of the night? He should have ignored it but the logical answer was that only Natasha would send him late-night messages. She was the only person he actively texted, not counting his cell phone provider for the once-a-month reminder that he owed them money.

He thought he was dreaming, at first, because it didn’t make sense. That she was texting him at all, to start, but also what she was texting.

Her content- random letters and emoticons- made no sense.

Baby. Heart. Question mark. Piña Colada. Cry face.

What did that even mean? That she missed him? That she was crying? Nothing except that she was still fucking with his head and his heart, (this last thought leaving him feeling ribbons of guilt because she’d never come off that malicious).

Maybe shes in danger, he rationalized, because it was a doorway. For whatever reason, she had sent him messages. Even though he knew and was trying to accept that they were not going to be together, that tiny little crack of an opening left him hoping maybe he could at least engage her in some kind of conversation.

Are you ok? He typed out, swallowing hard before pushing “send”. And then he waited. No answer.

Steve stared at as the numbers changed on the clock in the corner of his phone screen, until he couldn’t look at the screen anymore because it meant looking at that picture of Natasha that he really needed to delete.

He texted her two more times before he got up to get a drink of water, deciding that if she answered at all, it would be on her own time and staring at his phone wouldn’t help things.

But because he was already a glutton for punishment, he went for a glass of water only to come back and text her again, stopping to groan because he had to text with his left hand. Even with the splint and a million reasons not to, (including the simple fact that she hadn’t responded), Steve Rogers was texting into thin air.

After the final text, he tried to stop. Turning his phone off, and then back on in case he missed something, he tried to put his head on his pillow and close his eyes.

Clint’s voice echoed in his mind, You really need to call her.

And then Bucky's, telling him girls were easier than he thought.

Steve tossed and turned, using every trick he could think of to quiet his mind. Even when he was allowed a few seconds of fitful sleep, his body startled back to consciousness.

Call her.

That her voicemail picked up on that first try was no big surprise. The generic female recording telling him that he could leave a message, instead of her own smooth voice giving permission. He hung up quickly because the weight of oxygen was suddenly too much and he was sure the only thing he could even say to her would be something stupid.

I miss you. I dont know what happened but I miss you and I will do whatever you want if you'll just let me in again.

Words she probably didn’t want to hear. A truth he couldn’t think about fairly until after he’d had some sleep.

He resolved one more time to let it go, to call it a fluke. Turned the radio on, tried to focus on the sports report, tried to distract and block. And then the little seeds of doubt crept in and he wondered if maybe she hadn’t answered because she couldn’t or maybe he’d misdialed.

The birds were chirping outside his window when he tried the last time. He didn’t even know why he was trying, except that his anxiety wouldn’t let him let it go.

Even as he listened for the ringing of her phone, he knew. Mistake, mistake, mistake.

The second time, he didn’t leave a voicemail because he decided it didn’t matter.

He was tired.

Chapter Text

22

Standing outside Steve’s apartment door waiting for him to answer only made Natasha dizzy and glad that she hadn’t eaten more than toast for breakfast. After gathering the courage to drive over to a place she’d only been to once, she hadn’t expected to stand outside his door waiting and doubting.

Clutching her placemat portrait, something she’d folded up carefully as if for courage, Natasha stood outside his door and knocked, her knuckles rapping tentatively on the wood because while she was sure that she wanted to be there, she still wasn’t sure what to say or do. Darcy had made it seem so simple, apologizing and admitting that she needed him and that whatever they were doing, she wanted to try.

She wouldn’t let herself consider the possibility that she’d pushed him away indefinitely. The very real possibility that he’d decided he was done with her head games and all of the literal and figurative walls, that he had finally figured out what she’d been warning him of all along, was enough that she very nearly turned around and went home. This is Steve. Not Ivan. And yet, the tiny sliver of doubt in her mind that he would open the door only to shut it in her face because she’d after all made herself crystal clear, was something she didn’t know if she could bear.

Steve had asked to stay, to not shut him out when he’d come to her house after everything with Bruce went down. She held on to the hope that this was still true, that he still wanted her. That if she didn’t try, she’d be thinking for him, deciding and choosing what he wanted instead of letting him have a say.

She faltered only a little when no one answered the door. Even though she could rationalize that this meant he was probably not home, her mind couldn’t help reach into panic mode. He knows it’s me. He won’t answer the door because he knows it’s me. Checking her phone for the time, Natasha mentally listed all of logical reasons he wasn’t home. About ten different places he could easily be but none of them included him standing at his doorstep while she fumbled through an apology.

It felt precarious, her nerves not soothed at all by the fact that he hadn’t answered the door or the fact that Darcy might have been right about the weather forecast when she’d predicted rain. The sky was darker than it felt it should be for a day in Southern California, the air thick with an earthy smell that made her glad she’d worn her boots and grabbed a jacket before running out of the apartment. She wondered if she should wait, even if it meant being stuck in the rain, as though giving up and going home wasn’t an option.

Natasha had apologized countless times in her life. Part of being an expert at being whoever everyone else wanted her to be was learning when to apologize, whether authentic or not, if only to keep a roof over her head or worse. Even with Ivan though, she’d never begged. Standing outside Steve’s doorstep, waiting with her fingers around her wrist as if to check her pulse because her heart felt like it was about to explode into a million little pieces, Natasha wondered if she’d have to get on her knees and beg after all.

The folded piece of paper in her hand was what anchored her. A little reminder that she couldn’t assume anything until she’d talked to him. Looking over her shoulder in case his neighbors or anyone might be wondering why some strange woman was waiting outside his doorstep like a solicitor who wouldn’t quit, Natasha caved to the temptation to at least wait in her car.

She’d canceled all of her plans and obligations for the day because the only thing she could even consider doing was finding Steve. She didn’t know why it seemed so critical, that she find him right then, why it had to be all or nothing.

Because you tried. You tried to push him away and forget and you failed.

It was as though finding Steve was the only way to relieve the growing pressure in her chest. Like a compulsion or a sick craving, as though she couldn’t think or function until this part of her life was fixed. As though telling Steve that she was sorry, that she had made a mistake because she wanted him and wanted to try, wanted the relationship and the safety and the trust; as if all of that was her path to salvation.

The obvious answer to all of her anxiety was to text him, to find out where he was and set up a time to meet. She thought about this as she leaned against his door, her phone in hand, counting and bargaining with the universe that she would wait for thirty more seconds before she went home.

It felt ridiculous, the way her fingers seemed so paralyzed over the keyboard of her cell. All she had to type was “hey, can we talk.” She couldn’t even think of a lame excuse for why she shouldn’t. Except that she didn’t want to text him. She wanted to look him in the eyes and tell him things that might get lost in translation. In a text, he wouldn’t be able to hear the desperation or the sincerity in her voice or the way her face creased when she told him that she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about him, even when she used every trick she could think of to try.

I can always come back, Natasha reasoned, feeling occasional drops of water hitting her hands. He lives here, he’ll be back.

She sighed and started walking the sidewalk path to her car, keeping her eyes open in case he happened to be coming home. The possibility of seeing him walk up made her insides twist, as though she had reason to apologize or feel nervous for standing outside his apartment. As though he might think she was stalking him.

“Stop,” she said out loud, scolding herself because she was tired of the same bullshit irrational thoughts. “How about the goal for the day being that you just let this happen instead of trying to guess what’s going on or what people are thinking?”

Natasha couldn’t remember a time when she’d just let something happen, because part of her survival had been to anticipate and plan and control as much as she could. As she slid into her car and watched the sprinkles of rain splash on her windshield, the realization of the reasons that trying to control hadn’t worked for her slammed into her consciousness. Just like the rain, she couldn’t ultimately control whether or not people loved her or even hurt her. She couldn’t control whether or not Steve was home, or whether or not he would listen to her, just as she couldn’t control his feelings. She couldn’t assume he hated her for pushing him away, just as she couldn’t manipulate whether or not he wanted or cared for her.

Whether or not he would ever love her.

But you have to try, she insisted as she put her keys in the ignition. And there was the life or death truth, the reason it felt as though finding him was so urgent. She had to try because even if he didn’t feel the same, all of those feelings were present in her own heart. Big blaring neon signs that shouted feelings at her that she’d thought she was incapable of, or at least feelings that had died in New York. Love. A fantastical lie created so that one person could have power over another. Things a man says to someone before she gets fucked, almost like a magic “open sesame” passcode.

Love or not, whatever she had with Steve had been different. Because he got her and didn’t flinch when she was honest. Because when she looked into his eyes, she saw someone else who had seen suffering and pain. Years and years, and maybe other lifetimes of heartbreak. And maybe because he wore it so on his sleeve, like a tattoo all of the pain he’d been through, she knew he’d be there by her side if she asked him.

He was wounded but she wanted to be the one to help kiss those wounds away. The thought of anyone else holding his hand or waking up with him during a nightmare made her throat close up. It felt foolish, to want someone so desperately after such a short time, but she did. She wanted to touch his forehead and hold him, and then she wanted to rest in the shade he provided for her own scars, the ones he’d so tenderly kissed again and again.

I have to keep trying. I will come back, she promised to herself before turning her car on.

***

When it rains, it pours.

Steve thought about his mother saying it as he pulled his car over to the side of the road. He could almost hear her voice, and the way she might sigh the common refrain, as though his car running out of gas was predictable. He couldn’t even remember if she’d ever said something like that but it seemed like something that all mothers say. When it rains, it pours. When life is fucked up, just you wait because it’s gonna get worse.

Of course he’d break down in the rain. Of course.

Hands firmly gripping his steering wheel, Steve recognized that it could be worse. He was, after all, not far from home or a gas station. And at least his car had had the mercy to wait until he was off the freeway before it started sputtering. He was grateful he had been able to pull over at all. It didn’t help that he’d dismissed the warning light, figuring he would have enough to make it home. At the time, going home to somewhere quiet had been his primary goal.

He’d only gone out at all in order to follow through with a visit to his doctor about his hand, (yep, still broken). A waste of time that entire visit had been, because there really wasn’t a whole lot he could do while things were healing. The frustration and exhaustion that had flooded his body by the time he’d gotten to his car was reason enough to ignore the orange warning light next to the spedometer that told him softly he was about out of time.

Out of time and then he was left with no choice but to sit and watch as fat drops of rain splashed across his windshield. A dramatic metaphor for his mood. At least he was dry. He wasn’t even wearing the right clothes for rain, just a short-sleeved button up he’d found on the floor by his bed.

“You know, you are fucking depressing,” he muttered to himself as he considered the alternative, which would be taking a hike to the station to buy one of those red plastic canteens with gas. He felt like a zombie, tired and then tired of being tired, his patience growing thinner by the second.

He just wanted to take his dumb hand, which had gracefully slid down the pain scale in favor of his whole body, and crawl into bed or even onto the couch. He hoped there’d be something mindless on TV. A serial killer documentary, if he was lucky. Nothing makes you feel better about your own shitty life than watching a forensic psychologist narrate how they finally caught Ted Bundy.

“Fuck it,” he sighed before opening his car door, the spray of rain a mist on his face and arms as he stepped out, hitting the locks as he shut the door.

Which seemed logical until he was rummaging through his pockets for his wallet and phone, only to recognize that he didn’t have his keys.

Because there they were, still plugged into the ignition, taunting him as if to say, “You dumb fuck. You fucking deserve this for how dumb a move that was.”

Steve wanted to cry but he held it in, even as he could feel his insides crumbling and breaking like a mountain eroding into the ocean. He could already feel the way his jeans were starting to stick to his legs, making them heavier, and he figured it was just a matter of time before his socks started sloshing in his shoes.

He walked around his car a few laps before leaning with his ass against the trunk. Really, he wasn’t that far from home. If he got lucky, he might be able to find the landlord, who would have an extra key to let him in. It seemed a little stupid to leave his car parked on the side of the road with the keys in the ignition but it wasn’t like anyone could take it, not if it was out of gas. Like one more stupid choice wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket anyway, he figured as he grabbed his arms and shivered.

When he saw headlights, when another car was slowing and stopping, the squeak it’s wipers almost a song, his instincts flew into shame and embarrassment. Not that he wasn’t grateful someone might stop to help, but he also didn’t know if he was in the mood to explain that he’d forgotten and ignored the need to put gas in his car. The wipers served as a brief soundtrack for how pathetic he felt.

It surprised him, given how little sleep he’d had and given the fact that his thoughts were like thick sludge, that he recognized the car as fast as he did. The little two-door with a dent next to the bumper, most memorably seen under a small cloud of anti-freeze heavy smoke.

Natasha.

He recognized the car but he didn’t believe it was the same until he saw her get out, arms hugging her chest and eyes squinted. And even then, he wouldn’t have been able to form any coherent words because of all the jumbled and sluggish thoughts in his mind. He hoped his jaw on the floor would be greeting enough.

Steve didn’t know what to think, or even whether or not to believe she was really there until she was calling his name. God, even in the rain she looked perfect. Even with her hair sticking to her cheek and drops of water gathering on her eyelashes, all he really wanted to do was pick her up and throw her over his shoulder so that he could take her back to his apartment. It didn’t matter that she’d been at the center of his current breakdown and sliding mental status. It didn’t matter that she could probably write a book on mixed signals and ambiguity.

“Steve,” she said his name almost as a whimper when she stood in front of him, the shakiness in her voice mirroring how unsteady he felt. His fingers wiggled and twitched from want to wipe the drops sliding down her face but he held on, frozen because not even the rain could make him move away from her.

“I was looking for you,” Natasha called as she made her way to him, “why are you outside in the rain?”

“You were looking for me?” He wrinkled his brow because somehow that didn’t make sense. If anything, it only made him want to shake her, just to communicate how frustrating she was. He didn’t think he could listen to her talk, only to tell him that she couldn’t be with him and that they wouldn’t work. All of the effort he’d put into letting her go and she was standing in front of him, as painful and sharp as his knuckles.

“Steve,” she lifted her hands and let them fall, slapping against her soaked thighs. “Steve, I tried. I thought I was making the right decision to end it but I couldn’t. I can’t…

He watched as she took a weak breath in and met his eyes, and then he wasn’t sure anymore if those were raindrops in her eyes or tears.

“So, there was this girl,” Natasha took a step closer, “Natalia. Alianovna Romanova, if you want to know everything. And Natalia grew up fantasizing that she’d be a ballerina. I know, that’s kind of stupid. Or maybe it’s what all girls dream about. But anyway, yes, a ballerina. With pink and everything. And she pretended that every move she made earned all of the love and devotion she could handle. She used to practice dancing, not even with music because she didn’t want to be too loud, because maybe if she kept practicing she’d get good and then she’d be special.”

“Natalia,” Steve let her name roll off his lips. He knew she was talking about herself, pulling the veil off another piece that she’d kept hidden, but he wasn’t sure what to do with it.

“And then she grew up, Steve. And stopped believing in stories and fairytales and even love, because those things aren’t real. Not for girls like that. Not for me.”

She was so vulnerable that it only made his heart hurt. There she was standing in front of him, looking drowned and yet oblivious to the fact that they were both drenched, as though the only thing that mattered was getting her words out.

“Natasha,” he reached for her arm with his good hand, even before he could stop himself, jumping back a little when she choked out a sob that seemed bigger than her own body.

“Steve, not until you, ok? You make me believe again. Parts of me that I don’t even recognize and I tried to push you away because I didn’t think it was possible that anyone would ever see me that way. I was scared. I still am but I can’t let go. You can’t go.”

He paused only for a second, just to verify that he’d heard what she’d said, everything about who she’d been as a girl and just how close it all stuck to his own experiences of wanting to be loved and special. And here she was, “don’t go, I’m sorry, don’t go…”a ceaseless plead as if he would do anything other than just that.

He hesitated, maybe also to make sure he was breathing, before pulling her into him, before grabbing onto her neck with his good hand so that he could quiet her down with the kiss he’d been dying to give her from the second he saw her step out of her car. Something hard and bruising, if only to communicate how much he’d hurt over the past few days, how reliant on her he’d become. He thought he heard her, a small moan mostly hidden behind the distraction of lips and tongue, and it only drove him to kiss her with as much intensity as he could dig deep to find. His modus operandi had always been to give her the lead and set pace, but at that moment he didn’t care. When he drew her bottom lip in between his, something he’d wanted to do since he’d first seen her outside Bruce’s, he didn’t think he could stop. And miracle of miracles because she was holding onto his shirt with both fists as though her life depended on it, her body pressing into him as though she wanted to climb inside his skin where it was warm. It didn’t matter that they might never be dry again, because he could still hear her breathing into him even over the sound of tires hitting puddles and car horns honking approval.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, breaking the kiss long enough to rest her forehead against his chin. “I was such an asshole, Steve…”

“Natasha,” he interrupted her, “Stop.”

He didn’t know how else to communicate that he had heard enough, that he had already let it go in favor of being with her and that the last person she should ever have to grovel to was him. He didn’t know how to tell her in words what he could communicate just as easily in the way he stroked the line from her earlobe to her chin or kissed at the droplets of rain that ran down her face.

“Stop,” he told her again, this time met with a nod and a weak smile, as though she had accepted that he wasn’t going anywhere except wherever she would take him.

“Come home with me?” she asked, maybe not knowing that this question was another trigger to his surrender, because it only reminded him of how they’d gotten together in the first place. A reminder that she’d needed him as much as he’d needed her.

When she took him back to her place, without even asking why he had been standing next to his car on the side of the road, when she was pulling him into her apartment, puddles of water and clothes marking where they’d stood at the threshold so that she could take his shirt off or at the sofa, where she’d taken her own and tossed it aside in between kisses, his brain had slowly begun to compute that he was enough. That he belonged and that she really had meant that she’d wanted him to stay.

He wasn’t even sure the door to her room was really shut because she was in his arms with her legs wrapped around his waist before he could register anything else other than the feel of her soaked jean-clad thighs hugging his stomach and the way her lips and ragged breath made him forget that he’d been shivering.

When he tossed her on her bed and knelt between her legs to fumble with the button to her jeans, something difficult with one and a half hands, while she was flushed and panting below him, she’d covered his bruised knuckles with her own hand.

“Tell me about this,” she looked up with concern, moving his splinted hand carefully in between her two palms.

“I hit a wall,” he confessed, eyes down because he couldn’t look at her, because he’d known better and because it had been such a clear example of exactly the kind of man who she didn’t deserve, someone who solved problems by punching things.

“Steve,” she bit her lip and then pulled him down so that he was belly-to-belly against her, the swell of her breasts under her damp cotton bra sending shivers down his spine. “Steve, I am so sorry for this…”

“It was my stupid choice, Natasha,” he reminded her before tugging on one of the clumped curls that had been stuck to her hairline.

“I know,” Natasha reached for the splint to kiss his fingertips. “But I don’t want you to hurt.”

“It was nothing, Natasha. My pride probably hurt more,” he promised her, meaning every word.

“Steve, I don’t want you to hurt anymore. I don’t want to be the reason you are in pain,” she explained, her eyes watery. He didn’t think he would ever get over the shock of seeing her so completely unmasked, so vulnerable and open, so the opposite of the woman who he knew fought so hard to control all of her emotions and projections. Little glimpses every once in awhile hadn’t prepared him for just how bare she was below him.

“Life is pain, Natasha. Remember? I told you I would take my chances, that I don’t care if you are flawed or messed up. I get why you freaked out. And it hurt like hell...”

She opened her mouth to speak but he kissed her before she could give him a rebuttal, before she could challenge him with more arguments about why she wasn’t enough or why she’d only break his heart.

“I think we could look at it this way,” he ran a finger along the trail from her collarbone through the cute little bow at the middle of her breasts and down all the way to her navel. “We are kind of like children. I mean, I’m just as fucked up. God, I can’t even go outside half the time without worrying that I’m going to die or without having some kind of flashback about someone else dying.

“Neither one of us are experts and maybe we are both re-learning. But Natasha, I’ve got time and patience. I want to learn how to love with you. What it means to love Natalia Alianova Romanova from Bath Beach and give her what she should have received a long time ago. Because temper tantrums and panic attacks and all. You are worth it.”

***

What it means to love Natalia Alianova Romanova from Bath Beach.

The kind of words Natasha hadn’t known she’d needed until he’d said them, until they were sealed tight in her heart. Little seeds of love and desire and patience, but maybe most importantly acceptance, planted in ground that she’d thought was solid rock. All of those doubts magically washed away, as if the rain had done more than chill her to her bones.

It set a precedent. The feelings that she’d missed in parents, that she’d confused with Ivan. And when she said it, she meant it, as though it was a that prayer of salvation and confession she’d anticipated all along.

“I’d like the same. I’d like to love you too. To love Steven Grant Rogers, the boy from Brooklyn.”

It was overwhelming and beautiful, putting her emotions to words, looking into his eyes and seeing that he wasn’t hurried or pushing to control what she said or how she felt. She didn’t see the arrogance or disbelief she’d once expected, only tenderness and gratitude, as though he couldn’t believe his fortune to hear her say his name and the word “love” in the same breath.

“Can you stay?” she asked him again, pressing her hand over his heart, not realizing then that it would be for the last time that she’d ever have to ask.

Not realizing that he’d never leave and that she’d never want him to do anything other than make his home next to her. A piece of hopeful and romantic truth that had been saved just for her, even with all of their wounds combined.

Connected and tethered, maybe even with the universe’s blessing.

Chapter Text

Santa-Fucking-Monica

“Are you sure?”

She asked him with her eyes squinted, partly because it had been a sunny day but partly (he recognized) to give him an out. He watched as she toed a line in the warm sand. It was tempting, he supposed, to just sit on the beach for awhile.

“The sun’s going to set soon,” she added, an edge to her voice. He wondered if she’d been thinking the same thing.

“It is,” he agreed, noncommittal. They’d been walking the path from Santa Monica to Venice, a feat in and of itself because it was so full of people. Tourists, rollerbladers, bums with honest cardboard signs about just wanting to get high and then the handful of kids who wanted to get high too, trying to look as normal as possible as they walked in to one of the street’s dispensaries. Crowded but nothing he couldn’t handle, especially with Natasha there to distract him and squeeze his hand every time a skateboarder rushed past them.

He was sure her feet were tired. It had been a long walk, after all, and she’d been stubborn about wearing those damned sandals. Not that he’d complained when she’d slipped them off at lunch in order to perch them on his lap, her face serious and totally natural while she took a bite of his slice of pizza. Not because she was testing him or anything- he’d have given her the moon and she knew it. But she’d slowly started relaxing and letting herself do those kinds of things more and more, little gestures because she could and because she knew it was safe.

Little moves that communicated intimacy and relationship. Something he’d reasoned he didn’t really need until he had it. He wanted to say that he’d been fine without Natasha, and he had been functioning. Coming home and learning to be in public again, going to school, redefining himself- all of that had been his own hard work, not hers. But it was like making a pot of spaghetti noodles without the salt. His life had been palatable before her.

It was his girlfriend who was invading his space. The tiny redhead who was all legs in those shorts was sitting in a back booth of some hole-in-the-wall on Venice Beach tapping her foot to the James Brown on the radio, (the same foot that happened to be resting pretty close to his crotch thank you), she was with him…

Steve couldn’t believe his good fortune. They’d been together for seven months and he still spent a good amount of time scanning her and committing everything to memory, even when he knew logically that she wouldn’t go anywhere and that the other shoe wasn’t going to drop. After all, everyone knows adding salt to wet noodles serves the main purpose of making it all taste better. She was the salt that made his palatable life rich.

The easy choice would be to sit down on the sand and watch the sun go down. It sounded like the best plan ever, her sitting between his legs with her back against his chest while they listened to the waves and watched the sky paint itself in oranges and pinks. And then they could go home and do any number of things which would hopefully involve her trembling and calling out his name, and the day would be easy and perfect.

Of course, the easy choice isn’t always the best choice. Steve knew that. It was something he’d learned long ago, probably the first time he’d realized it was better to fess up to breaking that glass or getting a rare consequence from Sarah Rogers.

“Let’s go,” he nodded toward the boardwalk. Any other choice, no matter how tempting, would be cowardly. If ever there was something Steve was done with, it was letting fear have any foothold in his psyche.

They walked hand-in-hand against the crowds and he kept himself grounded on the peeks of water beneath their feet; only damp, sea-salted planks separating them and everyone else from the ocean. A street performer encouraged enough people to gather around while he breakdanced to a remix of “Thriller”, and Steve tried not to think about how vulnerable everyone was. Sitting ducks that anyone could just pick off one-by-one.

“It’s neverending,” he heard her sigh and followed her gaze to the sea. “I think I take it for granted that we live here.”

“What? Can’t you see Hawaii?” Steve teased, though she hadn’t said anything he didn’t believe himself. The ocean was long enough that it was easy to believe it reached on forever. He supposed they needed to make the forty-five minute drive more often.

“We aren’t that close,” Natasha stuck her tongue out.

“We are- it’s right there!” he pointed, trying his hardest to be convincing. It was so easy, to play and tease and just have fun, enough that he let himself forget just for a second about his irrational fears. She walked ahead of him to the edge of the pier and he caught his breath, only because temptation was there again. He fingered the small black velvet box in his pocket and breathed into the uneven waves of fear and excitement that coursed through his body.

It would have been the perfect opportunity, a scene picked just for them with the sun coming down and enough distance between them and the rest of the pier’s guests. He wondered if the water had ever been as blue, except that it made sense that everything was more vibrant with her against its horizon. Even her hair only made the sky brighter.

He held back, instead opting to snap a photo of her against the ocean with his phone. It was a sight he wanted to remember, as if one day he might be sitting somewhere and get the chance to think about how incredible she was.

“Hey, you wanna go to the midway?” he pointed in the direction of the massive ferris wheel, lit up like Christmas and spinning faster than he’d remembered those rides did.

“To the ride area? You want to win me a giant panda bear, SGR?” She smirked, not even trying to hide the way her eyes sparkled. He wondered if she’d gone to many carnivals as a kid, if she’d spent hours riding roller coasters and bumper cars as he had. The possibility that she hadn’t motivated him, if only because it was another thing he could give her.

“The biggest,” he promised, “As long as you sit next to me on the ferris wheel.”

***

“Have you noticed how much we eat in bed?” he raised an eyebrow as she raised a forkful of pecan pie to his mouth.

“You complaining?” Natasha rolled her eyes before licking the fork, making damn sure he had full view of her tongue. Eating in bed, listening to Otis Redding. Rituals that she loved and craved, parts of that normal and even cute that she had grown attached to.

“I’m definitely not complaining,” he smiled as he swallowed his bite and licked his lips. “I’m sure if you weren’t here to feed me sugar after sex, I’d die.”

“From lack of sex or starvation? Maybe I should start feeding you carrot sticks.”

He laughed, rich and deep, and something contagious.

“Carrots after sex just doesn’t sound as fun,” he said, his laugh slowing into a kind of contented sigh, before reaching for her fork so that he could steal another bite.

“Greedy,” she smirked, moving the plate so that she could lay beside him, tightening the blanket against her skin. He smelled like cinnamon and sugar and Steve and she decided that if they spent the rest of the evening curled up in his bed, their already wonderful day would be close to perfect. They’d already spent their day off walking around Santa Monica, with the big brown teddy bear on the floor by the door proof that even they were capable of acting like children. She didn’t think she could ask for more than a day that ended in sex and pie.

“A little,” he confessed before pulling her tight. “I guess you bring that out in me.”

Natasha bit her lip, as if to hold back her smile, instead choosing to listen to the sound of his heartbeat. It felt indulgent, but time had after all proven that she could make those little indulgent moves without regrets. She almost forgot about why it sometimes felt dangerous, little things like imagining that the soft “bum-bum, bum-bum” of his heart wasn’t some kind of morse code, a message tapped out just for her.

Bum-bum, bum-bum.

You’re safe.

Bum-bum, bum-bum.

You’re home.

“I found something,” he cleared his throat and whispered to her.

“Yeah?” she hummed, drumming her fingers across his sternum.

“Yeah, when I was going through that box of my mom’s.”

“The cookbooks? You know, you have space to put those out,” she closed her eyes, “if you wanted to.”

He grabbed her hand and kissed it, “You could help me with that.”

“Steve,” she snorted, because honestly. “It’s a box. It’s not that hard…”

Her train of thought was interrupted by the hard box placed into the palm of her hand. Something soft and undoubtedly containing more than just some random little thing found in the bottom of a box of cookbooks.

Natasha Romanoff didn’t think she’d be one of those girls who’d cry, not during moments like this. She held the emotion inside, until she was looking into his eyes and communicating in blinks and searching, to say you can’t be serious. Not because she didn’t want to open that little black box or because she wanted him to give her a goofy laugh and say that yes, he was kidding…

“I really did find it in her box, Natasha. And it’s really not as nice as it should be but it only makes sense, you know, that I give it to the woman I’m stupidly in love with.”

He was stammering. It reminded her of all that she had fallen for, least of all that guy who couldn’t believe his life because he was with her. As if he was the lucky one, as if she wasn’t the damaged girl who was lucky to be alive let alone in the arms of someone who loved and trusted her. Who worshipped her, as though her past meant nothing.

“It’s really not a big deal. I remember her wearing it, talking about it, but I guess I’d forgotten it was in there…”

She didn’t even have to open the box, couldn’t even breath because she was too busy telling him to be quiet with her lips. Because in truth, he really didn’t have to keep talking.

“Steve, what is this?” she asked, daring to peek inside just a little, decidedly ignoring the way her body betrayed her with tears and trembling because yes, that was definitely a flash of gold and prism.

“Well, whatever you want, I guess. But I think the traditional question is whether or not you’d mind marrying me,” he scrunched his face and she could tell he was holding his breath, knew that he had done a lot of thinking and panicking already just to ask her.

“Bozhe moy,” she cursed under her breath as she opened the box, because Holy Lord indeed. It was perfect. A simple solitaire diamond on a gold band, exactly like she might have expected. He’d given her something he couldn’t give to anyone else, maybe something that was one of those last small pieces he even had to his mother. It was almost too much, too extravagant…

“Bos..What? What does that mean?” he pushed himself up so that he was sitting with his back against the headboard, his face flushed enough that she wondered if maybe she should let him panic just a little more.

“You talk too much,” she kissed him quiet, moving so that she was straddling him as she held the box in her hands.

“Yeah, you’ve told me that before,” he exhaled into her.

“Besides, this is probably the easiest and truest ‘yes’ I’ve ever given in my life,” she raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t a lie. She’d already made the commitment to moving with him instead of against him, talking and giving the benefit of the doubt because he’d long ago proven that he really was different, or maybe more likely that all of her experiences in the past had been anomalies. She’d lived her life with the firm belief that everyone had an ulterior motive and a bottom line until Steve. Natasha had long ago decided that even if he wasn’t real, or if he was just too good to be true, she would go ahead and ride with it for as long as possible.

He blinked, as if he wasn’t sure she’d really said what he’d thought she’d said, and she told him again and again, until she could feel the tension leave his body. Saying yes to a velvet box was not as intense as saying yes once she had the ring around her finger, something heavy and foreign but not totally unnatural. Certainly something she knew she’d be able to adjust to.

“It fits,” he laughed, as if surprised, holding her hand up against the light of the lamp on his nightstand.

“Yeah? You know what else fits, right?” she allowed herself a laugh because he looked like such a boy then, relieved and excited, before wiggling her ass just enough.

“I have a good idea…”he bucked his hips against her as he wrapped both hands around the hand that showcased their new decision to firmly try having a future together.

Natasha hadn’t expected to be a crier but she also hadn’t anticipated just how much want she’d feel in the moment that someone was asking her for her hand in marriage. She couldn’t put her finger on why, except that she’d always anticipated engagement and marriage as the kind of things she’d end up doing when she’d had no other choice. The girls from her childhood married out of economic necessity or teenage naiveté, a cigarette and baby bump different from how tied down she’d been with Ivan. Nothing happy or romantic, just a part of life. Something she’d honestly hoped to escape.

It didn’t hit her until he was inside her, until she could feel herself stretch around him the way that she loved because it simultaneously felt like a hunger pang soothed and yet never enough, just how much it fit. How much they fit. Not just because they were both so fucked up and wounded or because they’d spent so much time already taking turns kissing each other’s scars. Not just because he’d spent hours making her feel like the slashes on her arms or the bullet wound on her belly were badges or beauty marks, or because she’d held him while he stared at the wall after a nightmare or a trigger.

Maybe all of those things in combination with the way that his hands fit around her breasts or the way he looked at her with his blue eyes glazed over as she whispered how much she loved him in English and Russian. The way he’d learned her body and breathing and knew when to let her steer, unspoken permission to rock her hips so deliciously and selfishly, to take whatever she needed as she rolled her hips above him. Or maybe the way he took over, gripping her hips so that he could thrust up, only filling her deeper than she’d thought possible, his attention never leaving her eyes and face, as if her rattled breathing and moans were feeding him.

“Natasha,” he whispered her name again and again, and then she was falling into him, her face burrowed into his neck as he split her open and tore down the last of the walls she’d kept up around her heart. When she came, licks of pressure and bliss that painted themselves in strokes from her head to her toes, she knew she was gasping and that she’d be blubbering if she’d enough breath to talk, but it didn’t even matter. All of the defenses and bridges and traps had been demolished. Even without the ring, because he’d been right about them re-learning and that heartsong was something she’d be a fool to try living without.

“Holy Christ,” he mumbled into her hair as she clenched her cunt around him, as she clutched his body and licked at the salt that marked their bodies because it was all she had presence of mind to do. She knew he was close just by the way he jerked and stuttered inside her, just by the way his eyes clenched shut and his mouth fumbled through curses, and she’d never been more sure of that lock-and-key fit.

“I guess,” she sighed later when they’d both been able to collect their thoughts and move, weak-limbed to his shower, “that it’s reasonable to request that we get some decent mixing bowls and an electric mixer…”

Even that kind of small request sounded dumb, as though she couldn’t be too presumptuous about taking over his literal space too much even with a ring that declared the opposite.

“The best one we can find,” he kissed her cheek as his fingers continued playing with the diamond on her hand. “How else are you going to teach me to make anything besides ramen noodles?”

Bum-bum, bum-bum.

You’re safe.

Bum-bum, bum-bum.

You’re home.

Demolished and torn down, and with no indication that she needed to rebuild, as though together they’d already started a firmer foundation for something better.

Torn right down.

Free.