Natasha doesn't have many friends. What she has are allies or assets, people she's worked with, people she's fought with, people she's saved.
Some people might find that a lonely existence, but they have no idea what true loneliness is, no clue about having to always live under the watchful eye of trainers and handlers, enemies and masters, where any wrong move, any trust betrayed, could mean death, or worse.
In order to protect the few friends she has--especially the rare civilians in that rarefied group--Natasha tries not to have a routine, tries not to be predictable. After so many years, that is her routine. Most people aren't good at being random; without conscious thought they'll develop habits, schedules, routines--taking the same route to work every day, doing their grocery shopping on Thursday nights on the way home, always using the middle stall in the ladies room.
Natasha develops as few habits as she can get away with, and the ones that have remained have saved her life--and the lives of others--countless times.
The bar is in Williamsburg. Natasha doesn't visit often. Rosa understands. She knows a little of what Natasha is from their days in Havana. Natasha helped her defect. The ninety miles from Cuba to Florida had seemed endless when there was nothing but ocean beneath them and the threat of angry men with guns from behind. Rosa had saved Natasha as much as Natasha had saved her, and that balance had made Natasha more comfortable with continuing the relationship later on, once Rosa was settled in her new life.
Now, they play dominoes and drink tea in the back room of the bar; Rosa's husband and sons work out front, and Natasha wishes she could forget how many years it's been when she sees them, tall and strong, bussing tables and behind the bar.
There's a stir when the door opens and closes and someone new walks in. It's a neighborhood bar, not one usually frequented by anyone other than the regulars who've been coming for years, and if the sudden hum of conversation weren't enough to ping Natasha's radar, Javier rushes into the room, his words stumbling out of his mouth half-English and half-Spanish and almost too fast to understand.
"Ay dios mio," Rosa says, giving Natasha a sly look. "You didn't say you were bringing a friend."
She and Steve are not friends but Natasha doesn't let her irritation show. The game of dominoes is a loss, as is the sense of peace and anonymity this place lends her. She takes a deep breath and gives Rosa a small smile. "Come on. I'll introduce you."
He's sitting at the bar, looking ridiculously large and blond and out of place. Hector is pouring him a glass of top shelf tequila while Jose looks on encouragingly.
"It's for sipping, not shooting," Natasha says when Steve raises the glass to his mouth.
He jerks in surprise and only his quick reflexes save him from wearing the tequila instead of drinking it.
"You're a little out of your neighborhood," he says, putting the glass down and surreptitiously wiping his hand on his trouser leg as he stands to greet her.
Natasha lets her smile widen, genuine now, in spite of herself, because there really is something endearing about him. "I could say the same for you."
He gives her a shy grin. "Not really."
"Rosa Torregrosa, I'd like to introduce you to Steve Rogers." Natasha makes a small flourish with her hand, and Rosa beams up at Steve. "Steve, this is my friend," she emphasizes the word just a little, "Rosa."
"It's an honor," Rosa says, holding out her hand.
Steve shakes it, and smiles through any awkwardness. "Ma'am, the honor is mine." Natasha raises an eyebrow and he says, "Meeting a friend of Natasha's, I mean." It would be smarmy if he weren't so sincere.
Rosa beams. "Likewise."
Natasha bites back a sigh. She should leave. Instead, she finds herself grabbing another glass and the bottle of tequila from Hector and leading Steve to a booth in the back corner.
"This doesn't seem like your usual kind of place," she says, pouring herself a drink and clinking the glass against his before she takes a sip.
"Really?" He takes a sip of his own drink and licks his lips afterwards. "This was a bar in 1942, you know." He gives a soft laugh. "It figures that'd be the thing that doesn't change." He takes another sip of tequila and looks around.
She follows his gaze, takes in her surroundings as if she hasn't been here half a dozen times over the years. There are framed black and white photos of famous Cubans on the walls, a couple of autographed snapshots of ballplayers--El Duque, Livan Hernandez, Rey Ordoñez, Cookie Rojas. A yellowing newspaper poster of the 2009 World Series Champions is taped to the wall above their booth.
"And the Yankees winning the series every other year. That hasn't changed either," he says, curling his lip at the poster. He doesn't sound like he's talking to her this time. If he is, he's barking up the wrong tree. Natasha doesn't care about baseball.
"So nostalgia brought you here?" She tries not to sound judgmental. Possibly she fails.
"What? No." He gives another of those soft laughs. "Maybe. Mostly I was trying to avoid--" He gestures vaguely.
"Ah, yes," she says. "The rough life of the celebrity superhero."
Steve shakes his head. "That's Tony, not me."
"I've seen your films."
He ducks his head. "I'm almost afraid to ask."
"Good, because I'm not telling." She finishes her drink, grinning around the lip of the glass, and pours some more.
He finishes his and holds the glass out. She's read his file. She knows he can't get drunk. She doesn't think he knows that, in effect, she can't either, or not like this, anyway. There's so much he doesn't know, and she is not going to be the one to tell him.
They drink in silence, Celia Cruz singing softly over the speakers.
After two more drinks, she stands and he stands with her. He opens and closes his mouth, and she can see the indecision on his face--does he offer to see her home or does he trust her to look after herself? The answer matters more than she expects.
"Get home safe," is what he says, finally. He reaches out and then lowers his hand before he touches her.
She smiles. "We should spar sometime," she says, dropping some money on the table, a raised eyebrow challenging him to say something.
His answering smile is wry. "You know where to find me."
She hums in response and heads towards the door, inexplicably pleased. She ignores Rosa's knowing look, and doesn't let her own smile widen into a grin until she's outside.
She knows a lot more than that.
"So what are the rules?" Steve asks, bouncing on the balls of his feet as Natasha climbs into the ring. There's something of the eager puppy about him that makes her want to--Well, she thinks, cutting that line of thought off short, that's a surprise.
"Not in the face," she answers, checking to make sure the tape around her hands is secure, keeping her expression neutral.
She looks up, gives a small shrug. "I have a thing at the embassy later. People notice a woman covering bruises with makeup."
He nods and knows better than to ask what thing, or what embassy. "That's it?"
She levels a kick to his ribs in response, rocking him back on his heels.
"Okay, then." He answers with a leg sweep of his own.
Natasha is better trained and more agile (more vicious, Clint would say, and he wouldn't be wrong), and she uses every bit of her training to lay Steve out flat two out of three times the first time they spar. The third time, he gets wise to one of her moves, grabs her ankle and flips her, landing on top with a knee on her back, and it's not that she couldn't get out of it, but that the damage she'd inflict in doing so is too much for a friendly spar. Besides, it's always best to let the men think they can beat her. It always comes as such a shock to them later when she returns the favor. She enjoys the looks on their faces when it finally happens, and it always does.
She's still breathing heavily when he lets her up, and he's barely winded at all.
He smiles at her. "You thought I'd have trouble hitting a woman."
The corner of her mouth quirks up reluctantly and she gives him a half-shrug to go with the half-grin. "The thought had occurred to me."
"You must have known Agent Carter," he replies, as if that's an answer.
Of course, Natasha had, so it is. Suddenly, he's much more interesting. And that, she thinks, is just the adrenaline talking.
After that, they spar regularly. He's smart and quick; he learns fast, though she's still better. His reach and strength are advantages she can turn against him, and he's still too much of a brawler with his fists, doesn't play the angles the way he does with the shield.
If sometimes she's breathless for reasons other than the fight, if her heart races or there's a rush of heat low in her belly and down between her legs, well, that's just hormones, chemical attraction that means nothing except it's been too long since she got laid and Steve is very, very attractive.
He scrambles off her sometimes, face red, after he's pinned her, and she knows she's not the only one who feels it.
She's the one on top, her knee nudging his windpipe, when he says, "There's a Chagall retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. I was thinking of going this afternoon."
Natasha leans back surprised, and shifts so she's sitting on his chest. "Are you asking me to go with you?"
He lowers his gaze and she notices how long his lashes are, the way sweat sheens his skin, the small stubbly spot on his jaw he missed while shaving.
"Okay," she says, getting to her feet. "I'll meet you in the lobby in an hour."
She takes her time showering and dressing, but doesn't fuss over her outfit or her makeup. She looks nice but not nice enough to raise expectations. (The fact that she's even thinking about it at all is an alarm she's choosing to ignore at the moment.)
Clint is in the elevator when the doors open. He raises an eyebrow.
"I thought you'd still be wiping the floor with Cap," he says. "I was planning to come down and watch.”
"We wrapped up early."
The doors open again and Steve gets on. He glances from Clint to Natasha and says, "Are you coming, too, Clint?"
Clint raises an eyebrow so Natasha says, "Chagall exhibit at MOMA."
His eyebrow quirks again and he gives her a little half-smirk. "No, you two go on without me," he says. "Tasha can tell me all about it later."
She gives him a quelling look that would put the fear into anyone else, but he just gets off the elevator with a jaunty salute and a "Have fun, kids," that makes her roll her eyes and Steve huff a small laugh.
"It would have been okay if he wanted to come," Steve says as they head west on 46th.
"I know. But Clint's not one for museums." Which is doing him a disservice--he can spend hours looking at medieval armor and weapons (so can she, but for her it's not a pleasure, it's a learning experience)--but given the gossip he's now happily starting among their co-workers, she doesn't really feel bad about it.
She uses her Stark Industries ID to get them in without having to pay, and they spend a pleasant two hours discussing art. She knows Steve did some work as an illustrator before he took the serum, and she enjoys listening to him talk about art from the perspective of someone who creates it.
He laughs when she says that. "No, I dabbled. I was never that great at it."
She nods at the pad he's been sketching in on and off the whole time. "Let me see."
He shrugs and hands it over. There are rough outlines of some of the paintings they've seen, and a few quick sketches of her that make her throat tighten. "These are really good." She clears her throat. "You should take some classes. Get back in the swing of it."
He looks both pleased and abashed. It's a good look on him. "I'll think about it." And the thing is, she knows he means it.
They eat lunch in the overpriced museum cafe and when the check comes, he snags it before she can.
"We'll split it," she says.
"I invited you, so it should be my treat."
"I thought we were just two friends having lunch."
There's a slight flush of pink on his cheeks but he says, "I don't know, Natasha. Are we friends?"
"Of course," she says. She might even mean it. She reaches out and covers his hand with hers. "Now let me see the check."
He laughs and hands it over.
The Avengers fight Doctor Doom and a crew of Doom-bots in Zurich. Tony and Bruce take one back to the lab and geek out over it until Thor melts it into slag during a training exercise. He feels so bad about it that in the morning, while Natasha and Bruce are having breakfast, he reappears with a new one slung over his shoulder. About fifteen seconds later, her phone rings and Fury is yelling at her to get her ass to Latveria and smooth things over before Doom decides to invade Manhattan.
Once she's accomplished that, Natasha spends a month infiltrating a crazy snake cult in the Pacific Northwest, gets the info Fury is looking for and helps SHIELD stop the cult leadership from massacring its own members. She gets back to the tower exhausted, and as disgusted as she always is with the way some people always feel entitled to lord it over others. Steve is in the kitchen when she gets out of the shower, with a steaming cup of tea for her and a solid, steady presence that doesn't demand anything, which may be why she pours the whole story out to him in between sips of tea and bites of the pumpernickel bagel he shares with her.
Tony invites the team to sit in the Stark Industries corporate box at Yankee Stadium on opening day. Natasha has as much use for baseball as she has for a hole in the head, but in the name of team unity, she goes. It doesn't take much maneuvering to end up sitting next to Steve, who, despite calling the Yankees several unflattering names that made everyone laugh (the worst language she's heard from him yet), takes the time to teach her how to fill in the scorecard when she confesses she actually doesn't know how.
They sit turned towards each other for much of the game, heads bowed and knees touching, passing the stubby little pencil back and forth (Steve had insisted on using it, said it was more authentic when Tony offered them pens) and filling in hits and outs, home runs and sacrifice flies. She ignores Clint's muttered commentary on whether she's ever going to get to second base with Steve, and enjoys the way Steve flushes when he overhears. She doesn't think he has much experience with women, and what would be annoying and coy in others just seems sweet in him.
After the game, they split up. Tony and Bruce take Thor out for a steak dinner and Clint heads for whatever bolt-hole he's meeting Darcy in these days. Natasha is secretly pleased that she doesn't have to do any arranging to get Steve back to the tower with her, though the subway is crowded enough that they can't really talk until they get there. The elevator doors slide shut and he says, "I can have a talk with Clint if he's making you uncomfortable. I didn't mean--"
Natasha raises her chin and meets his gaze. "So you don't want to get to second base with me?"
His eyes widen. "I--Natasha--Of course I do." The vehemence of it makes desire uncurl in her belly.
"Good." She curls her fingers in the lapels of his jacket and pulls him down into a kiss. He tastes of beer and salt and heat, and his hands are big and warm when they cup her cheeks. The elevator dings and the doors open and she thinks about dragging him back to her room right now, but there's too much surveillance here for comfort and this isn't--it's not work. This is something to be done slowly and savored, so that she can enjoy the memory of it once it's gone.
"Thank you," he says when she lets him go, his mouth pink and wet and curved in a goofy grin.
"You're welcome," she answers, and she means it sincerely. "We'll have to do this again."
"Yes," he says. "Please."
Clint and Natasha extract a compromised asset in Baghdad. While the woman sleeps in the back of the truck, Clint grills Natasha about her intentions towards Steve. She gives him her best enigmatic half-smile, the one she knows makes him crazy, and says nothing. Three days later, Pepper asks her the same question, though far more politely, and Natasha almost blows her off the same way, before she realizes that it couldn't hurt to get another perspective on things, and Pepper is in a unique position to understand. The next time she logs into her email, two tickets to the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Blue Note drop into her inbox, compliments of Stark Industries. Natasha knows how to take a hint.
Natasha likes jazz more than she likes baseball, though less than she likes ballet. She enjoys the syncopation and the improvisation, the way old things become new, the ephemeral nature of music as it's performed. The skill it takes to marshal what could be chaos into music and make it all seem effortless.
Steve taps his foot in time to the music, and demurs when she asks if he wants to dance. She lets him, this time, not ready for a fraught conversation about the past (because what else could it be?) to derail her plans.
They both have a couple of drinks with dinner and he insists on paying the bill.
"I invited you," she says.
"You paid for the tickets," he replies, and so even though she didn't, she lets him have this round.
At the end of the evening, she wraps her arm around his and pulls him into the cab with her. She gives the cabbie the address of Steve's apartment in Brooklyn, and Steve turns a surprised look on her that quickly melts into a wide, happy grin when she nods once. They ride in companionable silence, only the muffled sounds of the cabbie's never-ending phone calls breaking it.
He helps her out of the cab and she lets him, lets him keep hold of her hand as they walk up the steps to the brownstone. His palm is sweaty against hers and she wonders if she's making a mistake.
"Coffee?" he asks once they're inside.
"Water is fine."
He fills her out a glass from the tap, cool but not cold, as she examines the airy apartment, the walls white and the ceilings high, the hardwood floors newly refinished. It's almost completely bare of personality and neat as a pin, and she takes a moment to wonder whether that's leftover from the military or just part of who Steve is.
"I haven't been here very often lately," he says. "I'm sorry there's no ice."
She takes a sip of water and then puts the glass down by the sink. "Steve." She cups his cheek, fingers cool from the glass. "I didn't come here for ice."
"I hoped," he says, giving her another smile, this one small and nervous. "I didn't want to presume."
The kiss this time tastes of scotch and heat, and he lets her walk him back into his bedroom--the bed is large and neatly made, dark blue bedspread over crisp white sheets, and the mattress is firm when she pushes him down onto it and climbs into his lap.
They make out for a little while, and pop culture tells Natasha that this is what teenagers do, and they're not teenagers (she never was, not in that sense), but she's enjoying it too much to feel rushed, wants to take her time with him. His hands roam over her shoulders and back before settling on her hips, and she undoes his tie and unbuttons his shirt; he helps her tug it out of his trousers so he can shrug it off. His t-shirt is next, and her dress, slipped over her head to puddle on the floor next to her shoes.
His mouth is hot and wet on her neck and his fingers rub lightly against her ribs but never higher. She pulls back and gives him a look that he doesn't understand--they've all begun communicating well during battle, but obviously she needs to do a little more work one-on-one with him.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I've never--" He looks away and clears his throat. "This is all new to me."
It's rare that Natasha is taken by surprise. For all that he's supposedly an open book, he's done it more than once now. She revises her picture of him yet again, another piece slotting into the puzzle.
"Okay," she says. "Do you still want to?"
"Yes." His eagerness is flattering.
"Okay." She presses her lips to his again, quick and reassuring. "Let's do this."
He's as quick and keen to learn here as he is in their sparring matches, and she doesn't have to show him more than once how she likes to be touched, urging him to be more forceful, to skirt the line between eager and rough, the tiny, kiss-shaped bruises (and the larger, finger-shaped ones) he leaves in his wake a sharp reminder that this is really happening, a reminder she'll carry happily for days.
When she guides his hand between her legs, there's a look of wonder on his face that makes her feel nearly as good as the way he's touching her. She's wet and aching, impatient, blood singing with both joy and desire, a combination she's felt all too rarely in her life.
She pushes him back against the pillows and climbs astride him, shaking her head when he says, "Wait, don't we need a rubber?"
"No. You're clean and I can't--No." It's not that she can't talk about it (it's not that they took the ability, which she'd never planned to use anyway; it's that they took the choice that still rankles, even now). It's that he doesn't need to know the details.
"Okay," he says, gently, his hand coming up to touch her face, fingers brushing lightly over the curve of her cheek before they tangle in her hair and draw her into a deep kiss that helps the moment pass.
She sinks down onto him, exhaling slowly as he fills her, eyes closing at the glorious stretch of it, the slow friction that sets loose another long wave of heat in her blood.
He moans softly into her mouth and jerks his hips up against her. She grinds down and they move awkwardly for a moment or two before snapping into a perfect rhythm.
She rides him slow and hard, a combination that seems revelatory to him, if the half-choked words and sounds he's making are anything to go by. She smiles against the sweaty curve of his neck, licks the taste of salt from his skin as he shudders and shakes and comes inside her.
He starts to apologize, but she shakes her head and silences him with the tight grip of her muscles around him, still hard inside her. When she comes, it's like a slow-blooming firework, pop-pop-boom, bright light behind her eyelids and pleasure overwhelming her body.
He's still unable to form words when she collapses on top of him, tucking her head under his chin and allowing him to hold her for a while.
"That was--That was amazing," he manages, finally, fingers tangling in her sweat-damp hair.
She looks up and grins smugly. "I know."
They have a lot of sex over the next few weeks, and Natasha learns almost as much about herself as she teaches Steve. She'd forgotten this eagerness to please and be pleased, the joyful thrill of learning another's body and showing them what it can do, what she can do. The small jokes and shared laughs that are more meaningful for being only between them.
Steve doesn't presume anything, doesn't make any claims or demands she's not happy to answer, and they spend as much time at his apartment--freezer fully stocked with ice cubes and the fridge with food--as they do at the tower. After an initial threat to kneecap them, she ignores Tony and Clint's lewd remarks, and graciously accepts Bruce's congratulations and Pepper's pleased (if unasked for) blessing.
They sit next to each other at one of Stark's fundraisers, and when one rich old socialite compliments them on being a lovely couple, Natasha squeezes his knee under the tablecloth before he can fumble out an explanation that they're not together, and says, "Thank you."
The look Steve gives her is full of hope, surprise, and desire. They don't stay for the speeches.
Natasha knows better than to expect good things to last, and this is no exception. The fact that it will end--probably badly and at least sadly--is part of what makes it so sweet while it's happening.
Still, when she's woken by the shrill ring of her phone at three a.m., Fury's voice on the other end telling her about an assassination at the U.N., she sucks in a surprised breath when the surveillance photos come through on her phone.
Steve's awake and alert and dressed before the call is done. "What is it?" he asks when she puts the phone down.
"The Czech ambassador to the U.N. was killed," she says, tugging on her underwear and grabbing her suit. "Listen," she says, bracing herself for his reaction, "there's something you need to know about the shooter."