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Remembering What It Is To Be Human

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It was always strange to Natasha the way Americans sexualized nudity. Growing up she had always bathed communally, had regular medical inspections in front of her peers, and was never given a bathing suit for swimming practices. For all the abuses she suffered in the harshness of her Red Room training, sexual abuse wasn’t one of them.

She was always being trained as a weapon, not anyone’s toy.

After she started menstruating, after her hips widened and her breasts grew round, she was taught all the ways to use her body to her advantage. If that meant sex, then she had sex. Her instructors never had sex with her, but they taught her how men’s minds worked. They taught her the subtle signs of arousal. She could enter a room and immediately know which man would give up secrets in bed, and with little more than a wiggle of her hips, a smile, and a wink, she could get those secrets.

She could lure both men and women into her lair, trap them, and either use them or kill them—whatever need dictated.

She was the Black Widow, after all, a trained fighter, a hacker, an assassin, a spy, and an Avenger.

And her deadliest weapon of all was sex.

* * * * * 

The only person who seemed totally immune from her sexual wiles was Coulson.

He was an enigma to Natasha for a long time, even after S.H.I.E.L.D. took her in and she began working with him. From the moment they met, he was impervious to her smile, her cleavage, her ass. He made eye contact with her always. If not for that one time when they were on the run in Rabat when he grabbed a dress off a rack in a shopping mall for her to change into and it ended up being exactly her size—and flattering on her figure—she would have thought he didn’t know she had a body at all.

It took her years to figure him out, and when she did, she was furious at herself for missing it. But once she determined Coulson’s single weak spot—Clint—everything made a lot more sense. The rest of the pieces came together one night after Clint drunkenly rambled to her all about Coulson’s demisexuality as the reason why it took him so long to make a move.

Clint also told her Coulson was an enthusiastic and proficient rimmer—more information than she ever wanted to know. But after that night, she routinely caught Coulson checking out Clint’s ass like a man staring at a religious icon. Clint did have spectacular buttocks, but Coulson’s study of them was nothing short of devotional.

So Coulson was on the very short list of persons immune. She liked him too much to be offended.

Clint was also on that list, but that was because she put him on it. Natasha never fully forgave herself for sleeping with Clint in Budapest. She never told him she regretted it. He joked about it on occasion and she would just shrug, not wanting to give him even more leverage if he knew he could lord her regret over her.

She couldn’t think of a logical reason why she would ever need to have sex with Clint again, and, anyway, Coulson would probably torture her in ways unimaginable until she was begging to be put out of her misery, so Clint was off limits.

They were her team. The closest things she’d had to friends or family since Ivan. They had her back and she had theirs, so she didn’t mind giving up her advantage to them.

* * * * * 

Sam was an easy target. He ogled her openly and flirted with her every chance he got, even when Rogers would smack him upside the head. Of course, it wasn’t like Rogers was immune either. She knew he’d never try anything, that he considered her a friend and a teammate, but she didn’t miss the way his eyes bugged out of his head when he saw her dressed up for covert ops in Miami.

Tony was Tony. He would flirt with a mop if it had nice tits, so he almost didn’t count.

Bruce was trickier, complicated. He was a control freak and self-sacrificing to the extreme, but she would catch him looking at her lips or the way she moved her hips. So if it meant the “other guy” would have her back in a fight, she didn’t feel the least bit bad about exploiting it.

Maria still gave her better assignments than anyone else at her paygrade—a fact which Clint both noticed and was infuriated by. She and Maria only slept together twice, when Natasha was an agent on a probationary basis. It was Hill who put a stop to it when Natasha’s clearance went through. Hill still stared at Natasha a little too long sometimes. And if Natasha went to tropical locations on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dime more often than any of the other agents, no one needed to know why.

Fury did know and never put a stop to it. He wasn’t on the short list by any means either. Everyone else, even Maria and Coulson, thought of Fury as this mythic omniscient creature who was somehow immune from human appetites. No one would believe he preferred bland, vanilla, missionary position to an annoyingly predictable smooth jazz soundtrack even if she told them—which she wouldn’t. Not all of her secrets had come out with the public collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D., so she kept Fury’s sexual preferences to herself, and he kept her in safe houses no one else knew about.

She was comfortable with all of these arrangements—they were like second nature to her.

Then they found James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, and everything changed.

* * * * * 

Natasha was fairly certain Barnes actually turned himself in, even if that wasn’t the official “New S.H.I.E.L.D.” tale.

Dr. Selvig had promised that his memories could be restored and the brainwashing could be erased with the cosmic cube. She wasn’t sure Barnes could really consent to the procedure, given the mess his mind was in, but they did it anyway. Of course they did.

She wasn’t there when he woke up, but the haunted look on Steve’s face when he told her about it gave her enough of an idea. To remember everything he had suffered at the hands of Hydra and all of the things he did as the Winter Soldier, well, Natasha was glad they had never offered to bring back her choppy memories—first destroyed as a protective measure if she were ever captured and tortured into revealing training secrets, and then frequently rearranged to fit whatever assignment she was on.

The Soviets’ procedures weren’t perfect, though. The Red Room didn’t get Hydra’s best and brightest by any means. She still remembered Ivan very clearly. She still remembered Grigor issuing tests and the training barracks where she spent her adolescence. But sometimes she had flashes of memories that left her unsure if she could ever do a perfect fouetté or not.

But to have 70 years’ worth of memories of kills and assignments and cryogenic freezing and unfreezing—Natasha could only imagine what sorting through a past like that was like. She never admitted out loud to anyone the guilt she harbored for all the sins of her past, nor the guilt she harbored for the sins she was sure to commit in the future. But she had always at least had an idea of who her targets were, how bad they were, the crimes they committed but would never be tried for or convicted of. She could at least rationalize some of the terrible things she had done.

To not know that information, well, Natasha didn’t have much of a conscience, but the longer she hung around Captain America, the more it seemed to develop. Apparently a sense of right and wrong could be learned. Grigor would have mocked her weakness.  

At first, she was cautious around Barnes—James, he had asked to be called. They all were cautious with him except Steve, who still called him Bucky and was indignant at everyone else’s hesitance to trust him. Sam was the most skeptical of any of them—probably because he was the most well-adjusted. But then James had asked to go down to the VA to sit in on Sam’s support group, and even he softened.

“His guilt complex is worse than mine,” Clint had quipped to her when they learned James was a regular fixture at the VA.

It was supposed to be a joke. But ever since the Chitauri, Clint’s jokes had been hit or miss. There was too much truth in them sometimes to be laugh-out-loud funny.   

“Yeah, well, maybe you should find a support group for former carnies,” she had replied.

Clint told her to fuck off.

Whether it was guilt or not didn’t matter. Natasha found Barnes fascinating, and she spent a great deal of time watching him. At first she told herself it was because she was protecting Steve, because he was stupidly trusting of the situation and had a terrible sense of self-preservation. Then it was because she knew she’d be working with him and needed to know as much as she could about him.

But those were all just excuses.

She was fascinated by him.

James’ exterior was mostly grim. He worked out for four hours a day in Stark’s new Avengers headquarters, usually sparring with Steve, sometimes Thor—no one else had the balls at first. Barnes wasn’t technically an Avenger, but he wasn’t exactly not an Avenger either. His role—one he had readily agreed upon—was to be a ghost, a non-entity, an invisible man. After being the Winter Soldier for so long, it was a role he felt comfortable in. He let himself be used as bait to draw out Hydra cells.  

It bothered Natasha for reasons she didn’t understand. He knew what he was getting into. He had more reason than anyone to want Hydra destroyed. But he shouldn’t have had to do it. He was a prisoner of war for seven decades, and then his own government treated him in exactly the same way.

It wasn’t right. It was, well, too much like what Natasha was doing—trading KGB for Hydra for the shattered remains of S.H.I.E.L.D.  

* * * * * 

It was after a particularly difficult mission in Southeast Asia drawing out an A.I.M. cell that still seemed to worship Arnim Zola like a false god.

They were back on the helicarrier. She was covered in blood from multiple people, and Clint was making fun of her for going for the jugular of their target—former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative who had been inches away from taking Clint’s head off with a katana of all things.

“You could have just shot him.”

“Fuck off, Clint. I went for his throat because he wouldn’t fucking shut up.” Then she flicked her finger against his ear, a gesture he hated. “Go get me a towel.”

Clint snickered, but went dutifully to find a towel.

After Clint got up, she felt James’ eyes on her. When she looked over at him, he smiled at her—not the wry smile he would give Steve when he teased him or the smirk he would sometimes exchange with Clint. His eyes were lit up, and he looked nothing like a trained assassin. He looked like the man Steve talked about, the one who wasn’t tainted by years of war and killing and torture.

She had never seen him smile like that for anyone before.

It made her uneasy.

* * * * * 

It wasn’t that she avoided interacting directly with James. She was busy. Even though Fury hadn’t been seen in months, he still saw fit to put her on missions—Coulson, too. Meanwhile she had a few other scores to settle, trying to even out her ledger so she could sleep at night.

It wasn’t really helping with the sleeping at night, but she didn’t know what else to do other than to keep her head down and do what she was good at.

It had been a month since she had seen any of her fellow Avengers when Rogers invited her over for dinner. She found it impossible to say no—the man was so damn earnest. He promised that it would just be him and Bucky, maybe Sam depending on how his date went.

She brought a bottle of vodka instead of wine—good stuff.

James answered the door of Steve’s townhouse. She shoved the bottle at him to avoid an awkward handshake, or, worse, a hug.  

“How’s the de-brainwashing therapy going?” she asked cheerfully.

“Natasha!” Steve scolded, coming in to greet her. She didn’t escape his hug.  

“That’s what it is, Steve,” James shrugged.

Rogers narrowed his eyes at James but didn’t argue.

“Need any help?” she asked. Not that she would be any help. She knew how to cook about as well as she knew how to knit, which was not at all. No matter how many times Bruce tried to teach her, she could never get the hang of casting on. Anyway, he kept them all in scarves and hats anyway.

“No, I got it. Make yourself comfortable. Buck’ll make you a drink.”

“Just vodka,” she said.

“Xорошо,” he replied. 

He handed her a glass and sat down on one end of the couch with his own glass of vodka. Unlike Steve, he could still get drunk. A fact they had learned in Ecuador when he and Clint had nearly gotten themselves deported and James’ cover blown after they started a fight in a cantina.

“I really wasn’t being flippant,” Natasha said after a long drink. “How is the therapy going?”

“Thanks to that alien cube, I remember everything,” he said quietly, low enough, Natasha assumed, so Steve couldn’t hear. “It’s sort of beyond the experience of Coulson’s therapist.”   

She crossed the room and sat down on the other sofa cushion.  

“Were we ever in the same place at the same time, you think?” she asked.

“I don’t know how much you remember, but I know where they trained a lot of the girls on the compound in Moscow.”

Her breath hitched.

“There was a dormitory with a birdfeeder outside one of the windows. It always seemed so out of place. Everything else was gray—the buildings, the clothing, the faces—but there was this bright green birdfeeder hanging on a branch.”

Her throat was too thick to reply. It had belonged to Starkovsky’s widow. She had been severely injured, supposedly in a training accident, but she stayed at the facility to watch over the girls.

“They let me out sometimes, let me train, taught me new ways to kill, new weapons…” he trailed off. His expression went distant, like he was remembering something he’d rather not.

“You don’t have to—“ she started, but he cut her off with a shake of his head.

“I remember how they trained the girls. They were—they were brutal. ” He turned toward her with wide eyes—his expression not so much sympathetic as understanding.

She was the one who asked, but she didn’t really want to hear about it. It was her past, and she knew intellectually that she had lived it. She had taken the lessons from it to heart, but there was no sense in dwelling on it. Whatever it was that enabled her to repress was what made her a good spy.

Coulson had once referred to her and Clint as “the repression twins” under his breath. It was a spot on assessment.

“I’m glad I don’t remember,” she admitted to James quietly.

He angled his body toward her. They were so close that she could feel body heat radiating off him. She hadn’t remembered moving closer to him, but she was nearly pressed against his side.

When Steve came into the living room and called them out to dinner, the look he shot her made her feel about 9 years old.

* * * * * 

It felt different around James after that evening.

He still made her uneasy, but she couldn’t rationalize it anymore. He wasn’t outwardly dangerous. He wasn’t The Winter Soldier. His and Steve’s bond—from childhood and through a world war—was still there.

Even Clint liked him.

“He’s fucked up beyond belief, but, hey, we all are. You don’t voluntarily do any of this shit without having a whole lot of issues,” he said after she asked him about James.

“I hate it when you make sense.”

“Spoiler alert, you’re fucked up, too, sweetheart. Why are you asking me about Barnes anyway? I thought you liked him.”

The problem was she didn’t know why. Sometimes she thought they were cut from the same cloth, and there was no reason why they shouldn’t be friends. Steve found someone with shared life experience in James, but so did she. It was the portion of his life that he probably wished he could forget, but it made him who he was just as much as growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression had.

In spite of her uneasiness, or maybe because of it, she felt herself drawn to James when they were grouped together. She’d sit next to him in meetings. She’d angle to get put on missions she knew he would be involved in. Natasha was fully aware she was doing it, and it was making her increasingly frustrated that she couldn’t seem to help herself.

Stark had invited them all over for “team bonding,” which ended up being a surprise party for Banner. Stark—the asshole—insisted that Banner knew about the party was just faking surprise, but Natasha didn’t miss the way Banner’s hand turned green.

James got there late. He was wearing a leather jacket and dark jeans that fit him like a glove.

“You’re drooling,” Clint whispered in her ear, coming up behind her without her even noticing.

“He looks good,” she said, irritated that Clint caught her checking James out.

“He does,” Clint agreed. “So what are you waiting for?”

She waited for the round of greetings. She waited for Steve to get distracted by Tony. She waited until James was sitting down on one of Stark’s ridiculous white sofas looking into an empty glass.

She slid her hand across his shoulders and sat down beside him.

“Hey. You were late.”

“Yeah, it’s been a rough few days.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“Not really. Just some bad memories that came up on my last mission. Had to do some clean up at an old Department X testing facility.”

“That sounds like the kind of thing only alcohol can solve,” she replied with a smile.

He smiled back. “I like the way you think, Natasha. Can I get you anything?”

He made a move to stand, but Natasha put her hand on his knee.

“Don’t get up. I’ll get it. I know where Stark hides the top shelf liquor.”

She could feel his eyes on her as she got up and headed toward Stark’s bar. She exaggerated the sway of her hips.

Steve cornered her in the kitchen.

“I need to talk to you.” He was using his serious voice.

“Can it wait?”

“No.”

She sighed. Rogers never could relax and cut loose, even for an evening.

“Natasha, I’m only saying this because I know you’ll listen to reason.”

That’s when she knew it wasn’t about work or a mission. “What is it, Rogers?”

“You have to stop toying with Bucky.”

“What are you talking about?”

Steve glared at her—the patented “you’re being an idiot” glare usually only reserved for Stark.

“I know you’re consenting adults, and Bucky was always a ladies’ man, but it’s different now. After what happened to him, you can’t—you just can’t do that.”

“I’m not doing anything, Steve.” She crossed her arms.

Steve mimicked her stance, crossing his arms and leaning against the counter opposite her.

“Buck doesn’t need to get laid—at least not with someone he works with. His circle of trust is pretty much non-existent. He’s dealing with 70 years of not-so-nice memories and manipulation.” He put emphasis on the word “manipulation.”

Who did Steve think he was? She hadn’t been toying with Barnes at all. He was obviously attracted to her. It wasn’t any of Rogers’ business what she did or didn’t do with his friend.

“Maybe he wants to get laid. Maybe it’s a nice distraction for him because of the shit memories. Just because you’re a prude doesn’t mean the rest of us are.”

She stalked out of the room, brushed past Tony, ignored Clint who tried to ask her if everything was okay, and left the Tower.

* * * * * 

She went all the way back to her apartment in Harlem and curled up on her window seat with her arms wrapped around her legs.

The cat she still hadn’t named jumped up beside her.

“I’m not manipulating him,” she said to the animal.

She could only manipulate someone if she wanted something from them.

The cat nudged her elbow. She uncurled herself so it could jump in her lap.

Except the problem was she did want something from James. She wanted, well, him. She wanted to fight alongside him. She wanted to run her fingers along the ridge of scar tissue where his metal arm connected to his body. She wanted to join in when he would tease Steve about his bad luck with women.

The realization came to her like a shock.

She didn’t just want to sleep with him.

But James was so observant. He was better at reading people than she was. For all she watched him, she knew he watched her back. Maybe she had been leading him on like Steve said. If she didn’t even know she was doing it, if she couldn’t trust her own actions, then how could he?

What if he saw it as manipulation? What if it was? How could she ever be sure?

She would just have to stay away from him.

And she was going to have to apologize to Steve.

Dammit. She hated apologizing.

* * * * * 

The problem was that she couldn’t avoid the Avengers facility permanently. Nor did she want James to think he had done anything wrong, because he hadn’t. It was all her, her own weakness, her own inability to just be a normal human being with normal human feelings.

So she adopted her Widow’s cool façade and pretended that nothing was wrong.

Sparring with Bucky was safe, she decided. Even Sam and Rhodey had started training with him. Bucky knew the strength and power of his left arm and never crossed a line with any of them. It was good practice for her to train with people whose tricks she didn’t already know.

Steve would go too easy on her. Clint knew all of her moves already. Sparring with James was a much needed challenge.

Except sparring with James wasn’t safe at all. Especially not when they were alone. Especially not when he was in nothing but sweatpants that were sitting loosely on his hips and his torso was covered in a sheen of sweat that made his chest and abs gleam.

They agreed on no weapons—no widow’s bites. She knew she had him when she had him back up against a wall, his metal arm pinned behind him and her hand on his throat.

But then he winked at her, and was tugging her in close, licking his lips and leaning forward. She inhaled sharply and then surged up to meet him. His lips were warm and soft, and she wanted to drink him in. There was nothing tentative or teasing about the way he kissed her and that was the encouragement she needed. She pressed against him, bringing her arms up to wrap around his neck, leaving no space between them.

His hands slid down to her ass, and it was on instinct she jumped up and wrapped her legs around his waist. He caught her weight like it was nothing. Not breaking the kiss, she thrust up against him, seeking friction, and he groaned into her mouth.

He spun around and so her back was against the wall. Finally giving her chance to catch her breath, he mouthed at her neck, sucking against her skin dragging his teeth until she was squirming. She threaded her fingers in his hair, gripping it to keep his head in place.

Her chest was heaving. She groaned as his right hand came up to cup her breast over her tank top. Then he squeezed her breast roughly , bringing his thumb deliberately across the nipple, hard and peaked against her sports bra.

“Nat,” he murmured in her ear, his voice thick with want.

Something in his voice made her freeze. He set her back on her feet immediately and took a step back.

“What’s wrong, Natasha?” he asked gently. He should have been angry, but he only looked concerned—flushed and disheveled, but concerned.

“I—I don’t know,” she stuttered. She was panting. Her heart was racing. Her whole body felt like it was throbbing, aching for him to touch her everywhere. She wanted him so badly it hurt.

But something was off.   

“I’m sorry if I—“

“No, no it’s not you. I’m just, I’m sorry,” she said.

She booked it out of the gym without looking back, leaving a bewildered James behind.

Happy drove her home. When the car pulled up in front of her building, she only fleetingly wondered how he knew where she lived.

She couldn’t stop the race of thoughts circling through her head. She prided herself on being in control of how she felt, what she acted on, even how her body reacted. Sex was easy. Sex was something she could do without thinking about it. She was trained to be a weapon, and sex was just another one of those tools.

It had been so easy to accept James’ advances, but it was different with James. She felt different. It wasn’t calculated. It was natural.

It was…new.

* * * * * 

She actually asked Fury for more assignments.

There was a man in Los Angeles who was directly involved with human trafficking, young girls from Mexico. It was only on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar because he also conveniently sold weapons to Hydra as well. He was exactly the kind of target Natasha liked to hunt—a man who was so disgusting and beyond redemption and so full of himself that she enjoyed toying with her prey before going for the kill.

Men like him made her the Black Widow.

Fury sent her to “take care of him.”

She put on a cocktail dress and charmed herself into the VIP room at his club. She didn’t even have to try to get him to take her back to his hotel suite.

Getting him out of his suit took about two minutes, strangling him took five, setting up the scene to make it look like auto-erotic asphyxiation took another minute—it was almost boring.

“What now?” she asked Nick when she checked in with him that night.

“Take a vacation, Romanoff.”

* * * * * 

She took a train up to San Francisco. She took the familiar route to The Mission and slipped in through the skylight in his loft. He wasn’t home, so she settled in on his fire escape and waited. It was nearly an hour before she heard the key scrape in his lock.

“Hi Natasha,” Matt called as he walked in the door.

“How do you always do that?” she muttered, climbing in the window.

“Your breathing, your pheromones, and you always smell like leather because you wear so much of it.”

She laughed. Matt had always been able to make her laugh.

He got her a beer, and she tucked her feet under her and sat on his couch. She asked about Karen and if he knew what Stick was up to. He answered her questions, but she could feel him looking at her in the way he had, reading her in that way only he could.

“Not that I’m not happy to have you here, but why are you really here, Nat?”

She sighed and shifted on the sofa. She wanted to ask him, but she also didn’t really want the answer.

“I was in L.A. Thought I’d come up for a visit.”

“Right, of course. Want to go out for dim sum? I can call Foggy.”

“Shut up, Matt.”

“Come on, Foggy loves you.”

“Foggy hates me.”

Matt laughed. “Not as much as he hates El. So that’s a no on the dim sum?”

“That’s a no on the dim sum,” she said with an eye roll. She drained the rest of her beer. Matt stayed quiet. He was horribly good at being quiet, and she knew he was waiting for her to speak. 

She cleared her throat. “When we were together, did I ever use sex to get my way?”

Matt laughed—a full belly laugh.

“I’m sorry. Nat,” he said after he caught his breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—are you serious? I honestly can’t tell.”

“Yes. Of course I’m serious.”

She knew he was reading her heartbeat. She knew when he crossed the room and his hand came up to cup her face what his answer was going to be.

“I never once knew if you wanted to have sex with me because you wanted to or because you thought it gave you leverage.”

She unfolded herself and twisted away from him.

“I wasn’t good for you,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if this makes you feel any better, but I wanted you to use me.”

“Why would you—“

“You were never going to let me in. It’s okay, Nat. Part of me wanted to be that guy for you, but I was never going to get you. We let off some steam together. I’ll always be on your side if you need me, and I know you’d do the same for me. It didn’t need to be anything else.”

“I wanted it to be different with you,” she confessed. “But I guess it really wasn’t, was it? Maybe I’m just being nostalgic.”

“This isn’t about Clint, is it? Because there’s something you should probably know…”

“He and Phil finally got together,” she interrupted.

“Oh, thank god. The sexual tension between them was cloying.” 

“Tell me about it,” Nat muttered. “I was about ready to lock them together in a closet like a bad sitcom.”

“How did they manage to get together?”

“Well, Phil died.”

“What the fuck?”

It was hard to surprise Matt, but that did it.

“Fury brought him back to life. Sort of a wake-up call for both of them.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

Matt sat back and crossed his arms. “So who is the lucky guy then?”

“It’s not—it’s not like that,” Natasha said, shifting uncomfortably, knowing he was analyzing her every move.  

“You’re confused,” he said.

“Stop doing that,’ she snapped.

“You’re capable of loving someone, Nat. I know you are. It just wasn’t me.”

* * * * * 

When she got back to New York, she had no less than 17 texts from Clint telling her to be at Stark’s that night or be square—“mandatory team bonding.”

Of course, when she got to Stark Tower, Clint wasn’t even there yet. It was just Steve and James playing video games in Stark’s penthouse while Tony and Bruce were arguing about plasma physics with wild hand gestures and 3-D virtual models of things she didn’t have words for.  

Watching two World War II vets play Xbox was far more entertaining. James was giving Steve a hard time about his hand-eye coordination.

“You’re not so tough when you don’t have your fancy shield,” he taunted.

Steve grunted in response, concentrating on the screen with a death grip on his controller. Natasha almost laughed at his intent expression. Steve was the worst loser.

“Dammit!” he shouted after another minute.

James cackled with glee. Steve threw his controller at him, but James caught it in his left hand with ease.

Natasha couldn’t help but laugh at Steve’s petulance. James head jerked up at the noise. When his eyes landed on hers, his smirk melted into a warm expression, and her heart picked up its pace as her stomach dropped.

She hated what she was feeling. It would be so easy to strut up to him and force his gaze on her body. It would be easy as breathing to fall into bed with him. And she wanted it. There was magnetism about James, a sexiness to him that had nothing to do with his washboard abs or his full lips that would quirk up in an unbelievably attractive smile. She wasn’t sure why he didn’t have women throwing themselves at him every time he went out in public. She couldn’t be in the same room with him without thinking about sex.

But then what? He’d be on a list with all the rest. She’d avoid him for years at a time the way she had done with Matt.

She tried to come up with an excuse then and there to leave the team-bonding party. She was actually considering PMS as an option when Thor came in with Jane and Darcy, and Darcy herded her toward the bar and started asking her for all the S.H.I.E.L.D. gossip.

They were a few martinis in when Darcy started ranking the men at the party in terms of their fuckability. She had a fairly complex algorithm that Natasha didn’t understand but mostly agreed with. Rhodey was leading the pack when Natasha tried to casually bring up James.  

“Metal arm guy?” Darcy said. “He’s terrifying.”

“Terrifying?” She tilted her head in confusion and looked over to the kitchen area where Clint was trying to stick magnets onto James’ arm.  

Darcy barked out a laugh. “Oh my god, he’s perfect for you. This is perfect. I finally figured out your type.”

“Terrifying is my type?”

“Yes.”

Natasha drained the rest of her martini. “You know, that actually kind of fits.” 

* * * * * 

She went on a mission with Clint and Coulson. It was just like back in their Strike Team Delta days. Except now that Clint and Coulson were out in the open, it was different.

Coulson had always been this unassuming G-man. He was snarky, sure, but exceedingly competent and no-nonsense when it mattered. It only took one mission with him for her to trust his call implicitly. But when he was with Clint, his face was so expressive that Natasha couldn’t believe she ever missed it before just how deeply he cared for Clint.

When they got to the safe house, she volunteered to take first watch. Clint was practically dry-humping Phil at that point, and Phil was actually starting to weaken his resolve. After the Tahiti incident, as he called it, Coulson stopped caring about fraternization protocol. Natasha was pretty sure he asked Clint to leave hickies where he knew Bobbi would see them because Coulson was kind of an asshole in his own subtle way.

Snow was falling outside the cabin. She put on her boots and grabbed Clint’s down jacket off the hook. The thick, wet flakes made everything muted, quiet. She pretended she couldn’t hear the mattress squeaking in the cabin’s one bedroom or the embarrassing stream of endearments that came out of Clint’s mouth. She couldn’t even make fun of him for them later because he was just so damn happy.

The fact that Coulson trusted her keep watch while he had sex with Clint surprised Natasha. As weird as the situation was, for Coulson to let his guard down that much was a level of trust she didn’t know existed between them. It wasn’t the kind of trust that Clint and Coulson had, but it felt, well, good. Trust was a commodity she never thought she’d seek out.

She felt the sudden warmth from inside as Clint slipped out the door to join her on the porch.

“Penny for your thoughts?” he asked, as he sat down beside her on the simple bench that adorned the porch of the cabin.

“Go back to bed, Clint. Your aim sucks when you’re sleep-deprived.”

“You know that’s not true. Remember that time I didn’t sleep for two weeks and was starting to hallucinate green fairies, and I still shot that Slovakian mobster in the eye?”

“He was Slovenian, and that was also the time you fell down the stairs in your own apartment building and cracked two ribs.”

“The dog got under my feet,” he huffed.

She leaned back against the cabin wall and wrapped Clint’s parka tighter around her. The snow was falling heavier now. There was no way their target would try moving in this. It would be safe to go inside and keep watch on the monitors. But the cold chill on her face was comforting to Natasha.  

“Coulson really loves you,” she said quietly, trying not to disturb the peaceful white flakes.  

Clint coughed, and she could see his shadow shift uncomfortably.

“He does. He gets you. He laughs at your stupid sarcastic jokes. He wants to make you happy.” Her voice cracked.

“Aw, Tasha,” Clint whispered. He scooted next to her until their shoulders were brushing and he leaned over to give her a nudge.

“What’s it like?” she asked after a few beats.

“Scary as fuck,” Clint replied immediately. “And it’s the best feeling in the world.”

* * * * * 

James was at the makeshift S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ when they got back from the mission—on the landing pad with his arms crossed, standing shoulder to shoulder with Nick.

He looked her up and down like he was scanning to make sure she was intact. Then he met her eyes and gave her a curt nod before spinning on his heel, nodding at Fury and then disappearing inside.

“He wasn’t too happy when I wouldn’t tell him where you were. Anything you want to tell me Romanoff?” Fury asked.

“You probably know more than I do,” she muttered.

She could have sworn the look he gave her was sympathy.

* * * * * 

After the mission debriefing, she went straight to the Avengers living quarters. Jarvis told her where to find James without her even asking.

He was in one of the lounges reading a book. He had amassed a small library since moving into the place—a fact that Tony wanted to make fun of him for but couldn’t bring himself to. James read in English and Russian, and she would be lying if his fluency in her mother tongue didn’t add to his appeal. This time he was reading The Master and Margarita.

She watched him for a minute before approaching. He was sitting stiffly, and she couldn’t help but think she was part of the reason for his tension. She knew he knew she was there, but he kept on as if she wasn’t. His lips moved slightly as he read, and she ached suddenly for him to speak, to read the words out loud to her.

She was in over her head. But if she didn’t say something and didn’t confront what she was feeling, she thought she might drown.

“James,” she said helplessly.

He looked up and then carefully put his book down on the table in front of him. “Just talk to me, Natasha.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“Come here then.”

He spread his arms open. She looked at him skeptically, but she thought about the way Clint would shove his feet on Coulson’s lap and get in his space. How he would practically purr like a cat when Phil tugged him in close. Clint could never keep his mouth shut, but Coulson managed to say just as much without speaking at all.

It worked for them.

So she crossed the room and curled up next to James, his warm arm came around her and he pulled her to his chest. He didn’t speak. He just dragged the pads of his fingers up and down her back tracing a pattern she couldn’t follow. She clung to him, twisting her fingers in his t-shirt while trying to find words that just weren’t coming to her. She fit beside him so easily and felt so comfortable that it shook her to her core.

Nothing was this easy. Life didn’t work this way.

When she heard the door slide open she sprang away from him, but it was just Clint. He rolled his eyes at her, but then his face went serious.

“We need you both. There’s a situation.”

* * * * * 

Everything went to hell when self-replicating killer robots tried to take over Brooklyn. It was an experiment of Reed Richards gone horribly wrong, but while he and Tony tried to figure out the programming issue, the Avengers had to take to the ground to keep the robots contained.

It was only after the fight when they were all in a room in Stark Tower for debriefing that she realized something was off.

Steve was looking from her to James and back with confusion. Clint was in the corner studiously examining his bow for damage and refusing to make eye contact with her—the coward. Bruce was still edgy from the battle and was tucked in a corner, but even he avoided her gaze.

It was Thor who spoke up. “What a fine battle team you and Buchanan make.”

“What?” Natasha said, wondering if she had been hit in the head harder than she thought.

“You and Boris were like merciless, telepathic, Soviet assassins. Dour and broody in skin-tight leather, doing some kind of pre-sex mating ritual where you systematically slaughter a village of robots. “

Natasha was too schooled for her jaw to drop at Tony Stark’s soliloquys, but she was sure it was spelled out all over her face.

James, on the other hand, burst out laughing. “I think that makes you the flying squirrel, Stark. Or should I call you Rocky.”

“Well, Cap’s obviously Bullwinkle. Banner’s Peabody,” Clint smirked from the corner.

“What does that make you, Barton?” James asked.

“A very fractured fairy tale,” Clint said.  

Coulson snorted as he came in the room.

“Excellent work, Avengers. I think what Tony was trying to say is that it was a good call teaming up Romanoff and Barnes. You might be losing your partner in crime, Barton.”

“I lost her the first time I got my mouth on your dick,” Clint said.

No fewer than three tablets went flying across the room toward Clint’s head.

She watched the footage on her own un-thrown tablet, and Thor’s praise finally made sense. She and James moved around each other like they had been fighting alongside each other for years. They spoke to each other in Russian—Natasha hadn’t even noticed. There was an instinct there that wasn’t from practice or from observation.

She had been able to sense where he was and knew what he was going to do before he did it. She had never worked so well with anyone before, even Yelena.

It was just the way Matt could navigate through a crowded market without the benefit of sight or the way Steve just knew the angles he needed for his shield to be most effective.

But it was also nothing like that, because James was doing the same thing.

She bolted out of the room.

* * * * * 

He was already in her apartment when she arrived.

“How did you know about this place?” she asked. Though, if even Happy knew where she lived, she supposed it wasn’t much of a secret. She was going to have to move. The cat wouldn’t like it, but maybe she could find a place in the same neighborhood.

He rolled his eyes at her, his patented “I was the Winter Soldier” look, before speaking.

“We don’t have to work together. I can ask to be taken off Avengers assignments. There are enough special ops they can put me on. I’m supposed to keep a low profile anyway.”

“Stop being a martyr,” she snapped.

His eyes narrowed then, but his anger only made him more attractive to her. She tried to shake that thought out of her head.

“Just tell me what I did. Just tell me what I did wrong. I want to fix it if I can. Even if we never—if this doesn’t go anywhere, that’s—just tell me what I did wrong. I’m not good at being a person anymore, and I’m obviously screwing up my signals.”

Natasha started pacing back and forth. She had hurt him while trying not to hurt him. There was no way she could do this. She couldn’t be good for him.  

“Nothing,” she said. “You didn’t do anything. It’s me, James. Don’t you see? It’s me.”

“You say that,” he said, the heat rising back in his voice. “You apologize, but I don’t understand. I know you’ve been through hell. But that’s why you get me, and that’s why I trust you so much. I’m fucked up more than you could possibly imagine. Sam calls it ‘extreme PTSD’, but that’s putting it mildly.”

“I like you!” she blurted out over his raised voice.

“Oh,” he said. His expression went totally blank for a second. “Oh. That’s it?”

“What?” she asked.

“You’re acting weird because you like me,” he repeated, the tension he had been carrying seemed to drain from him.

She stamped her foot. It was a petulant and childish, but she was so off kilter it was all she could do. “It’s more complicated than that. You say you’re fucked up, but you don’t know what I’ve done. What I do. How I do it.”

He waved his hand, like her past could be dismissed that easily. “But you like me.”

“Yes.”

“I can work with that.” He smirked and his expression looked so much like Bucky Barnes from the old photos that Natasha startled. He took two quick steps forward, getting into her space. Then he dropped a kiss on her cheek and was out of the room before she could even react.

She stood stunned in her living room for a long time.

* * * * * 

Then she had to go and get herself shot during a mission.

She had been shot plenty of times before, but this one had been close range, only narrowly missed going right through her femoral artery. The pain had been excruciating. When she came to in the hospital room, she knew it was going to require physical therapy and keep her off missions for far longer than she could tolerate without going stir crazy.

Clint was perched on the window sill in the hospital room.

“Your Winter Boyfriend has been pacing the hallways for the last four hours.”

“How long have you been thinking of nicknames?”

“You were out for a while,” Clint said casually, but Natasha didn’t miss the slight tremble in his voice. She would never know what she did to deserve Clint in her life, but that was a mystery she didn’t need to solve.

“And Winter Boyfriend was the best you could do?”

“Really not my best material is it?”

“No,” she agreed.

There was a pounding on the door.

“I guess I should put him out of his misery.”

Clint sauntered over to the door that they all knew James could have ripped off the hinges if he had wanted to.

“She’s all yours,” Clint said with a smirk.

“I might have been born a century ago, but I’m pretty sure you just undid women’s lib in three words.”

Clint was about to retort when Coulson swooped in and tugged him out of the room by his ear.

“Glad you’re back with us, Romanoff,” Phil called over his shoulder.

James stood at the foot of her bed, giving her the careful visual scan to make sure she was in one piece. She didn’t feel like she was in one piece at all. Under his gaze she felt undone into a million tiny pieces. But then his eyes locked on her and it was like they all came back together.

“Will you just let me?” He asked the incomplete question with a helpless shrug, but she didn’t need the full one. She didn’t know what would happen or what they would become, but there was something between them. And it had finally reached the point where trying to fight it hurt worse than not.

She closed her eyes and nodded.

* * * * * 

“So what’s it like fucking a nonagenarian?” Clint asked her weeks later, after she had been released from the hospital. After she had been able to walk on her own again.

“We aren’t fucking,” she said casually.

“Making sweet, passionate love then. What do the metal fingers feel like? Can he make them vibrate? I need to know. For science.”

“We haven’t had sex yet.”

Clint didn’t succeed in face-planting, but he did spill hot coffee all over his shirt.

“Aw, coffee, no.”

Natasha patted him on the shoulder, but she didn’t apologize.

Clint opened his mouth and then snapped it shut. He did that three times, staring at her like she was growing a second head when she couldn’t take any more.

“I’m going to slap you,” she threatened. She meant it.

“Holy shit. You love him,” Clint blurted out.

She inhaled sharply. She hadn’t said it, not out loud, certainly not to James. But if there was any way to describe how she felt about him, and how she felt when she was with him, it was that.

“I don’t—I don’t know.”

“You’re going to have his super assassin babies,” he teased.

“Shut up, Clint.”

* * * * * 

She tried not to love James. She actively listed his faults over and over in her head, why it was a bad idea. Why it was illogical and dangerous to love. Why she insisted and lied to herself over and over again that love was childish.

But her reasoning just didn’t stick.

Of course, she was hyperaware every time he got close to her. He noticed, she knew, but he never said anything. He had his own issues. These were all things they should talk about, she knew, but they never did.

So they didn’t have sex.

And she didn’t say anything when out of nowhere he’d tense or get a vacant expression on his face when she touched his left arm the wrong way.  Or when certain sounds—and once the smell of pipe tobacco that she found out later was the favored tobacco of Alexander Pierce—triggered him either to violence or to a catatonic state.

They curled up together every night—either at her place or in James’ rooms at Avengers HQ—wrapped around each other like cats, and they didn’t talk about it.

* * * * * 

And then he took her dancing.

She didn’t know how he knew which club was her favorite. It was the only place in the city that reminded her of a European disco—the kind she looked at longingly when she was a teenager in Moscow killing men twice her age—with throbbing techno and terrible lighting to cover up the terrible dancing. It was nothing but bodies pulsing together without any sense or purpose other than to have that moment.

Clint used to make fun of her, called her “Eurotrash” to get a rise out of her, but dancing was the only time she could ever really clear her head. There was no room for thoughts or vigilance; it was the only way she knew how to lose a sense of time and space. Some agents with her type of training hated crowded places—Clint among them, but then Clint slept in air ducts for kicks so he had his own set of problems.

The tightness of a crowded club never bothered her, because if it came down to a fight, she knew she could leverage her way around the space better than the grown men who were her usual attackers. 

James showed up at her place wearing club clothes. Part of her wanted to laugh at the idea of a man born in 1916, who could never seem to remember that the Dodgers didn’t play in Brooklyn anymore, dressed up to go to a club in the 21st century. But he wore them well. Rogers never quit looked comfortable in 21st century casual clothing, more comfortable in his uniform than anything else, but James looked good.

In fact, he looked like the kind of guy who would fuck you in a bathroom stall in a club. Natasha’s stomach flipped. She was too old and had been through too much to feel giddy, but that’s exactly how she felt.   

James even used the photostatic veil Stark modified to cover his left arm, although it still whirred he moved. She was glad for that. She found the sound comforting. That sound meant he was dangerous, and she needed him to be dangerous.

He didn’t leave her side the whole night. She knew men were watching her, women too. His eyes were vigilant on the crowd, and whenever someone leered, got too close, he would tug her closer to him, joining their bodies at a different point.

There were just as many eyes on him, but those he paid no attention to.

After two hours of pulsing music and moves that could only vaguely be passed off as dancing, she thought she was going to burst. His thigh was shoved up between hers and she was grinding down on it. She was wet and hot and aching. So much so that she rolled her hips ahead of the beat to seek relief with the friction. When he spun her around, he rubbed against her and she could feel his cock hard in his jeans.

She leaned back against him and tugged his head down to her level. “Let’s get out of here,” she said into his ear.

It wasn’t manipulation then. It was a desire so strong that she couldn’t fight it—primal, below brainwashing and training, but mostly because it was James.

They didn’t even make it to her bedroom. As soon as they were through the front door, he was on his knees, pushing her skirt up, moving her underwear aside, and pressing his tongue against her insistently.

She gasped in surprise. For a moment she considered stopping him, but then he pushed two fingers inside her and moaned. She let go. The fear of intimacy would come back. The need to control would come back. But it occurred to her as gripped James’ hair—keeping him in place as he buried his face between her legs, flicking his tongue against her clit while he pushed two fingers in and out of her—it occurred to her that she trusted James to be able to deal with her issues and not run away.  

She felt way too good to feel terrified.

* * * * * 

There was a meeting the next day, Richards was working on a new project and decided, or Fury decided for him, to keep them in the loop in case something went wrong with the space-time continuum.

She and James arrived together. They met Clint outside, and as soon as he saw them a knowing smirk crossed his face.

“Super assassin babies,” Clint mouthed.

“You know Hydra sterilized me, right?” James said, flexing the fingers of his left hand.

Clint’s face went pale.

“He’s fucking with you, Barton,” Natasha said.

“Don’t do the hand flexing thing,” Clint said. “It’s fucking terrifying.”

James just smiled.

Natasha couldn’t help but smile, too.

* * * * * 

She got the “I don’t care if I’m Captain America, if you hurt him I will feed your body to a flock of hungry bald eagles” speech from Steve.

Supposedly Clint gave James the parallel version, but Natasha had a feeling Clint just asked him about the versatility of using his metal arm as a sex toy.

“I think I was propositioned for a threesome. Or my arm was,” James told her later.

“Sorry about that. Clint’s…well, Clint.”

“He seemed pretty sure that you and I are ‘super assassin married’, I believe was his term.”

Natasha groaned. They had only been officially together for a couple months, though the fact that James still liked Clint was a good sign. She looked away from him before she spoke, “We don’t have to, you know, be anything if you don’t want to be.”

“I was under the impression that we already are something,” he said reaching out to cup her chin, forcing her to look up at him.

She wanted to be something. She wanted for once in her life for her feelings to match her actions. She wanted to not second guess herself at every turn. She wanted to not be afraid.

James had waited for her to be ready. He didn’t hide away from his own bad days, and he didn’t begrudge her hers. Seeing that had made something settle into her. Maybe she could have this. Maybe in spite of their own personal dysfunctions they could make something good arise from the mess.

“We are something,” she agreed. “We are.”