Steve had known they’d be going their separate ways again shortly. This may not quite have been a war, but they were still soldiers, in their way. (Some of them, at least. He still remembered the look of raw pain, raw rejection, in Tony’s face at the suggestion. And to his mind, Tony was, Tony still was, because Tony put on the suit, and stood in front of the enemy, and put himself on the line to defend them, and that was what a soldier was, at the base of it, what soldiers were meant to be, but he wouldn’t say it. Not to Tony, not again. He’d struck at the man’s pain once, because he hadn’t understood - and, admittedly, because the man had been asking for it - he wouldn’t again).
He’d known he mightn’t see them for a while. And her, her in particular. Natasha had a job to do, and enemies still to fight, and missions that would have no place for him. He knew that.
So he asked her. He got up his courage (and it took it - more than aliens or battles, this took courage), and asked if he could draw her. Just quickly. Just some sketches.
Studies, he’d meant. To hold her in his mind, to catch the lines of her face and the shapes of her form, to see the way she moved and the way she stood still. Just small things, to catch a hold of her, fix her inside his head. So he could see her when she wasn’t there.
There were a lot of people he wished he’d had the chance. To fix them in his head. To hold them more safely. To be able to see them now that … now that they weren’t there.
He’d only meant some studies. But she’d quirked an eyebrow at him, the corner of her lip lifting, amused question and wry knowing all at once, and even before she’d asked, he’d realised she thought he meant … something else. Something the guys had teased him about, before the ice, something Peggy had known about, too. For the same reasons, maybe. Natasha was a woman used to being looked at, and not for what she could do. Not for who she was.
“What kind of drawings?” she’d asked, and it had been light. It had been playful, with a small twitch of her hip and a curl of her lip. But shadows, in her eyes. Cool and professional. And Steve hadn’t been able to bear that.
“It helps me remember,” he’d explained, softly. He wouldn’t have, to anyone else. Wouldn’t have trusted those memories, of all memories, to any of the bright, brash people of this new era. But there was something in Natasha that he recognised, something he wasn’t sure most people could see. She was cool, and aloof, and deadly. She was also … somewhere inside her, somewhere tired, she was … good. “It helps me keep hold of people.”
And there. In her eyes. Something raw, and pained, and soft. Something that understood.
She smiled, though. Not answered. She smiled, a wry sparkle and a hint of teeth, and still some edge of suspicion. “And will you be drawing the others, too?” she’d asked, soft and with a tilt of her head.
He’d blushed. He hadn’t really been able to help it. “Ah. Maybe?” he’d ducked his head, and she had laughed, then. Chuckled softly at him. But there’d been no offense in her eyes. “I wanted you, first,” he’d explained, earnestly. “The others too, but … I wanted you first.”
She looked at him. Still with that soft curve of her lip, her eyes narrowing, sharp and light and assessing. “Why?” she’d asked him. And she’d been still smiling.
So he smiled back. Rueful, and embarrassed, and real. “You remember against the Chitauri? When you leaped upwards off my shield?” She blinked at him, and nodded, questioningly. He shook his head. “That moment, you were the first thing that really seemed … real, you know? The first thing that felt like something I could understand.” He smiled, tiredly. “The others. Tony? Bruce? Thor? Sometimes, I just have trouble … believing they’re real, maybe. They’re all so …” He waved a hand, frustrated, and she grinned at him.
“Larger than life?” she suggested softly, and he nodded eagerly.
“Yeah,” he agreed, quietly. “Larger. But … You. When you leapt. It was real.” He’d struggled, for a second. Trying to come up with the words, for standing beside her, both of them breathing heavily, outmanned and outgunned. Seeing the … the raw courage of her, the grit and the strength, from someone so hopelessly outmatched, and fighting anyway. Watching her think, trusting her to act, to know, to be right. Feeling her trust him, feeling her take his strength and use it, let it fling her up into the fight. He struggled to explain that. To explain any of that. “It felt like being a team,” he said at last. Softly, heavily. “A unit. I want … to remember that.”
In this new world, with all these people, still so new, so tentative. Where he still wasn’t sure what he had, if he had anything at all. That, before anything else, he wanted to remember.
She had smiled at him, then. And it had been darker, it had been different, there had been a thousand things behind that smile, a thousand fights, a thousand emptinesses, a thousand lonelinesses. A thousand things, in that moment, when she looked at him like she understood, and smiled.
“Alright,” she’d said, softly. And for a second, he’d honestly forgotten what she meant, what she was saying yes to. For a second, he’d heard the answer to another question altogether.
But she’d meant the drawings. She’d meant the chance to have a piece of her, a little one, to hold on to.
… Actually. Maybe she had, in some small way, meant that other question, too.
They were just rough sketches, at first. Studies, like he’d promised her. Rough work, the quick lines of her spun in thick pencil onto paper. Standing, leaping, crouching. Moving, still. Some finer ones too, maybe, some small level of detail. Her face, one close one in profile, one in three-quarter. Not full on. Natasha didn’t feel quite right, full on. There was always something edged about her, something slightly turned away, something just beyond grasping. At least for him. So never quite … never quite direct. Not yet.
Some sillier ones, too. Quick doodles, spiders and birds, flashes of red, sly eyes flickering up at the viewer. Little things, to make her smile, quick and amused, and grin at him with pearly, fierce teeth. She kept one of those, actually, just a quick one of her, lithe and dark, thick pencil, crouching over an oblivious figure in red and gold, smirking down at the top of his head. Her smile for that one had been a flickering thing, sly and dark, and her eyes had been bright, and in a quick, grinning impulse, he’d handed it to her. She’d flicked her grin from it to him, quick and dark, and tucked it away with a tiny smile.
For the time she was with him, for the space between that mission and the next, they were quick sketches. Roughs, studies. Drawings for memory, drawings for amusement, drawings to see the quick, laughing light in her eyes.
The later ones, once she was gone, once she’d left, for now, forever … Those were different. He knew, he did know, that she was probably not lost to him, but … They were soldiers. Even before the ice, he’d been a soldier. And he was still one now. He knew their chances, knew what it felt like to defy them, knew what it felt like to lose.
Those drawings, the later drawings … they were different.
It was Clint who approached him about it. To be fair, Clint was probably the only one outside of the two of them who’d known (with the possible exception of Tony’s Pepper, who seemed to know a little of everything. Including, maybe, a little of Natasha). But … Steve had been expecting Natasha herself. To ask him, to want to see them. When she got back. He’d been expecting … her.
Instead, he came back to his apartment one day, and there was Clint, sprawled out casually on his couch, looking up at him with a casual grin, and a dark, watching thing in his eyes. Languid, careful ease, that could not have broadcast ‘predator’ more clearly if Clint had actually shouted it.
Steve wasn’t sure why he’d been surprised. He really, really shouldn’t have been. Maybe it was just that it had seemed so private. The drawings. They had seemed almost a little secret. He wasn’t sure Clint had known.
He really, really should have been.
“So,” Clint grinned, rolling up from his sprawl to rest his elbows on his knees. “I heard you’ve been doing some drawings of Natasha.” A long, slow grin, that might as well have been a gauntlet. “Anything I ought to know about?”
Oddly, it didn’t even occur to Steve to be angry at the question, at the breach of privacy, at the insinuation, even. It didn’t occur to him to wonder if Clint had the right. Because …
He’d seen Natasha. He’d seen the tools she used, and the way she was looked at, and the confidence in how she used that, dealt with it. He’d seen the faint shadows, despite that confidence. And he’d seen her rest, shoulder to shoulder with this man. He’d seen her put her life in Clint’s hands without a thought, and stand for the man when maybe no-one else would, and destroy him to save him. He’d seen them fight, side by side, and the confidence in her just for knowing Clint was there. Steve had seen that.
Clint had the right. And Clint would never, ever act to hurt her. Steve believed that.
“I don’t know,” he’d answered, honestly. He didn’t know what they considered need-to-know, between them. “Do you want to see? Check?”
He didn’t like it. Didn’t like showing his work, not when it was … When it had been a private thing. A small piece of her, just to hold. He didn’t like showing that. But there was something between those two, something quiet and old and good, and he didn’t want to damage it. He didn’t want to breach the trust she’d placed in him, wanted Clint to understand that. So.
There’d been a flicker in Clint’s expression, then. Surprise, maybe. Steve wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like he didn’t understand, what Clint would do for her, why. He didn’t see why it should be surprising, that he understood that.
“Yeah,” Clint said, quietly. And there was no posed challenge, in it, in this. The false casualness was dropped, almost abruptly, so much that Steve had to blink at him. “Yeah, I would.”
Steve blinked some more, slightly off-balance, but nodded, moving to his bedroom, and the drawer where he kept the private things. He went to the drawer, feeling Clint follow behind him, and pulled out his sketchbooks, the stray scraps of paper for the smaller ones, or just the ones that had come loose from their books. He pulled out the sheaf of papers, and looked back at Clint.
Who, with the kind of casualness Steve still wasn’t used to, plopped himself down on Steve’s bed, and raised one eyebrow in question. Clint didn’t reach out, didn’t hold out his hands to do his own examining, just tilted his head to the side. Inviting Steve to sit beside him. Inviting Steve to show him. And Steve realised, abruptly, that that was a show of trust, from Clint. That it was an offer, an opportunity for Steve to prove himself.
And, realising that, Steve … wanted to.
He put them in order, shuffled them around between his hands while still standing. He felt, suddenly, that that was important. That Clint needed to see it in the right order, the way it had unfolded. From those rough, quick sketches, onward. That Clint needed to see … how Steve saw her, and why. Clint, watching him, just raised an eyebrow, and waited.
The first one was that side-on view of her, that quick but still fine study of her face. The early one, the first proper one. There was a faint smile on her lips, knowing, sly, amused. She’d been faintly amused that whole session, like she’d been expecting something else, and amused not to find it. She was sly, and edge-on, and still so far away, in that one.
Clint, for some reason, had a not-dissimilar expression, seeing it.
Then the three-quarter view. She’d turned to him more, for this one. No smile, not this time. She was more intense. Vibrant. Something watchful, now, though so rough around the edges. He hadn’t really had time, in just the study, to catch the depths of the expression, the vaguely surprised, evaluating edge of it. Something fierce, and wary, and confused.
Clint … touched that one, gently. Brushed a finger over the edge of her shaded cheek, a small frown settling over his features.
And then the first of the later drawings. The first real one. A full work-up. He’d put effort into it, time. He’d wanted the memory of it. Wanted that moment.
Her, standing, fists clenched, knees bent, poised to run. Not away, not from, but towards. Poised to run right at him. Her eyes fierce, and fearful, and determined, her body leaning and ready, so sharply defined in her black leathers. That moment, before she leapt. That moment, before she put herself in his hands, to his strength, before she leapt skywards to do battle as only she could. Natasha, and the Black Widow, all at once, and one and the same. Because only Natasha’s fear could inform the Widow’s courage. Only Natasha’s fire could explain the Widow’s cool.
That had been the moment Steve felt her. Saw her. The moment he understood her, just a little, and … loved her. Just a little. That had been the moment.
Clint smiled, seeing her. Small, faint. Fierce and proud, touching the edges of her, rubbing his nail lightly over the lines of her shoulder, canted and ready.
“Yeah,” Clint said, looking up at him. “Yeah.”
And Steve nodded. Acknowledgement. It wasn’t her beauty. Not really. It wasn’t her face. It was that terrified, courageous thing inside her, the fighter in the lines of her body, the deadly thing in the slant of her eyes, the soft, gentle thing in the turn of her lip. It was … Natasha. And Natasha was so much more than red hair, and curves in all the right places.
And the next one, the next drawing … It was to show that. It was for that.
Her and Clint, this time. A later moment, a smaller moment. Sitting next to each other on Clint’s hospital bed, after someone had wrapped his ribs. Clint was not really clear, in the picture. Steve hadn’t had a chance to study him, properly, so the face was more than a little rough, the features not quite right. But it was at least obvious who he was. That much was at least clear.
Even if it hadn’t been, though. Even if Clint had been no more than a blur. Anyone who knew Natasha would know who the other shape was. Because Natasha was leaning into him. Just slightly. Not fragile, not huddled. Just shoulder to shoulder, quiet and confident, slumped faintly in relief. Comrades in arms, after the battle. Brothers, resting side by side. Her head was turned towards Clint, towards the other figure, and she was smiling. That tiny, faint, confident grin, that soft thing about her that was … gentle. Sometimes. Once in a while. When she let you see.
Clint made a small sound, at that. A small noise. He didn’t look at Steve. Didn’t look at anything, really. Just down at the drawing, while something shuttered, briefly, in his eyes.
And the last one, then. The last proper one, anyway, other than the sketches and the quick cartoons, the silly little things. And Steve wasn’t sure he wanted to show this one, wasn’t sure he wanted anyone to see, because … Because that one was private, and that one was, maybe, something Clint should know about, and it was, maybe, something Steve had no right to. Something he shouldn’t have done, something he shouldn’t have drawn.
Just her. Only rough, this one. Little more than a silhouette. Natasha, standing at an edge, over a drop, over a fall. Natasha, on the edge. Her face in profile, looking back over her shoulder, and nothing in it but challenge, nothing in it but courage, and a small, sly smile. Natasha, on the verge of leaping away, daring anyone to follow her.
Steve looked away, at that one. Looked away from Clint, and the soft trace of the archer’s fingers over the line of her spine, ready to jump. Because … the longing had to show, in that one. The yearning.
She’d shown him how to fly. That moment where she leapt from his shield. He’d been falling. Since the ice. Always falling, tumbling without a grip through this new world, with nothing left, nothing to trust, trying to do his best regardless. He’d been falling. And in that one moment, in that one act … She’d shown him something else. Something real. Something about courage when there was nothing to hold on to, and trust when there was no other choice, and flying where there was nothing to do but fall. She’d shown him.
And he wanted that. He wanted to hold onto that, to have that, to know that. He wanted … just that little piece, to hold. That piece she’d given him, that tiny thing. He wanted.
“I wish you could have seen her,” Clint said, suddenly, beside him. Looking up to meet Steve’s eyes when he turned in surprise. “Before. I wish you could have seen … When she knows she’s going to die. When she understands that you can kill her. And she … stares you down anyway.” He smiled. Sort of. Strange, and distant, and something in his eyes Steve couldn’t fathom, not at all. “Not just courage. There was relief, too. And … confusion, when I didn’t. Like she just had no idea why someone would do that. Why anyone would … That was the moment I knew I’d made the right choice. That was the moment I knew she was something worth saving. You know?”
Steve didn’t. Not really. Not the way Clint did, not with the memories shining dark and heavy in the man’s eyes. But that Natasha was worth saving? Worth fighting for? Worth trusting? Yes. He knew that. That one moment, he’d known that.
“You don’t show these to anyone,” Clint said. Hard, suddenly. Fierce. “You get me? You don’t show them to anyone, okay?” He smiled, darkly, as Steve blinked at him, shadows from a life that, maybe, had nothing to do with being a soldier. “You draw some nudey pictures, you can show those fine. I’ll even pick up your pieces once she’s murdered you. But these? You don’t show these.”
And Steve understood that, the edges of that, but he wanted to be sure. He wanted, for reasons he wasn’t fully sure of, to hear Clint say it. So … “Why?”
And there was darkness, and pain, and such a weight of history, in the answer Clint gave him. Such a history. “Because,” the archer said softly. “Some things are more intimate than that. Some things … hurt more, brought up into the light.”
Because Natasha would use the other, flaunt the other, turn it to her advantage. She would do the same, with this, with these, if she had to, if it was forced on her, they’d seen that with Loki, because Natasha would use anything and everything, even her own pain, to do what she had to do. But it would hurt her. Some things more intimate. It would cause her pain.
“I won’t,” Steve said, very quietly. As seriously as any oath he’d made in his life, because it was that heavy. Because she was that real. “I wouldn’t.” Spreading his fingers protectively over the sheets. His great, powerful hand, strength given by someone else. Not won. Not earned. Not the way theirs was. Hers was. “I wouldn’t do that.”
Clint smiled at him, then. A real one, and one actually for him, for Steve, in a way not many had been, since the ice, since this new world. Clint grinned at him, and clapped him gently on the shoulder. “Thought so,” he said, and let the smile turn secret, and sly. “And Cap? Steve?”
Steve blinked at him, lifting an eyebrow questioningly, and Clint, for a second, looked so much like Natasha, that sly, knowing thing in his eyes, those secrets between them that no-one else knew. Clint smiled, faintly.
“Good luck,” he said, oddly quiet, and it took Steve a second, took him a moment to understand, and when he did, he knew for a fact he couldn’t have looked more stunned. Because Clint had seen it, the longing in that last drawing, Clint had understood, and if Steve wasn’t quite mistaken, Clint … had just given his blessing.
For what, Steve wasn’t quite sure, but … Suddenly, for no real reason at all, Steve felt a surge of hope, and something more concrete, more trustworthy than anything he’d felt since the ice. Something … real.
He watched her face, the first time she saw the drawings for herself. He watched her eyes, the curve of her lips, the rounds of her shoulders. He watched for the knowing thing, the laughing thing, the fearful thing. Watched for offense, for fear, for rejection. Watched for … so many things.
Watched her as she traced her own figure, standing braced and ready and determined. Watched her as there was this flash of almost surprise, almost confusion. Not what she expected. Not what she had expected to see, in what he saw of her. Maybe not what she expected to see, in what anyone saw of her. Courage was not what people looked for, when they looked at Natasha.
Watched her as she looked at herself and Clint, watched as she saw that he understood the connection there, the strength of it. Understanding, maybe, his faint envy of it, his longing for it. He’d had that, once. He thought it must show, how much he sometimes desperately needed it again. If it did, he hoped she understood that he didn’t begrudge the fact that she had it. That he would never begrudge the thing she had with Clint, that connection, that trust, that no-one could touch. Remembering Bucky, remembering Peggy, remembering his unit, his team, he hoped she understood ... how much he could never, ever, begrudge anyone that.
Then … he watched her, as she came upon the last one. That most private, most intimate one. The one that could not possibly show anything but yearning, when he looked at her, when he watched after her. He watched her, when she came to that one.
Natasha … she turned to look at him. She turned to see him. And Clint was right, Clint had been absolutely right, these were intimate, these showed so much, too much, not just of her, but of him, of Steve, and it took more courage than any battle, more bravery than any fight, to sit there, to sit beside her, and let her see him. To just sit, and let her see.
And then she smiled, and it must have been what Clint saw, something like what he saw, something confused, and fierce, with all the courage in the world, and then she kissed him, Natasha kissed him, and this … This was why you fought, this was why you flew, this was how you put your life in someone’s hands, something more precious than life, and trusted them to bear it up. This was what it was, to fly.
Natasha leaned into him, her hands coming up around his face, small and hard and gentle, fierce, and she kissed him like he was something she didn’t understand, like something she wanted to understand, and for the second time, the third time, in this new world … Steve felt like something real. Steve felt like someone real.
“Yes,” she whispered, against his lips, holding him gently like she knew how small he was, under the uniform, like she knew how lost he was. “Yes,” she said, and it was the answer to that other question, and all he wanted in the world.
She smiled at him, poised on the edge, always on the verge, ready to leap. Natasha smiled at him, and Steve, in that moment, ready to fly … leapt after her.