It was late summer in New York, and Steve was taking advantage of the afternoon sun to help out around the house at Stark Manor.
Well, "helping out" was what he called it. Tony labeled it "raising the morale of the troops" and tried to get Steve to sign off on a Captain America shirtless cheesecake calendar. Pepper had intervened before Steve decided to deck Tony, with or without the suit.
Bruce hadn't helped. He'd offered to coordinate art design.
So anyway, it was a sunny summer day in a New York heat wave and Steve was washing his way through Tony's fleet of vintage automobiles.
It was calming. He didn't have to fight anyone, didn't have to think up things to say to the rapacious twenty-first-century media, or duck away from the paparazzi, as he had since he'd woken up on this bizarre century. All he had to do was lather up an automobile and hose it down, shine the metal surfaces with a cloth. Washing cars was something that had been around since before... well, since before the serum.
And if he was doing it shirtless... it was hot, there wasn't anyone around, and he didn't suffer from sunburn anymore anyway.
He gave Tony's Jag a final swipe, then moved on to the next car. This one was a bright red convertible from the early 1960s, Jarvis had told him. Tony wouldn't be born for years yet when the car rolled off the assembly line, and Steve had already been under the Arctic ice for nearly two decades.
With a shake of his head, Steve turned the hose on the car's shiny surface. He didn't want to think about the past. Not on a day like today when there was sun and warmth and possibilities lingering in the air of New York.
Steve was rinsing soap off the car's hood when the hairs on the back of his neck went up. He turned around, tensing up slightly, only to find Natasha in the shade of the garage, nearly hidden in the shadows.
"Is this a new SHIELD initiative where Captain America cleans up crime?" Natasha asked, the corner of her mouth curling up into a smile or a smirk, Steve could never tell which.
"Um," Steve said, dropping the sponge into a handy bucket. "I thought you were out of the country."
Natasha's smile vanished. "I have some business to take care of," she said quietly. For the first time, Steve realized that she was wearing an all-black dress that wouldn't have been too out of place in New York in 1943, far too hot for the heat.
Something that looked suspiciously like mourning dress.
"I'm sorry," he said, moving over to the bench where he'd left his shirt. He knew Natasha wouldn't mind if he walked around shirtless, but there were social niceties one needed to obey when around a lady. Steve's mother would've had his hide for appearing half-naked in public.
Not that any of that seemed to matter in this century.
"I need the Corvette," Natasha said, never taking her eyes off Steve.
"Sure, just let me finish the tires," Steve said, hefting the hose. Natasha didn't move a muscle as he finished up, just stood in the shade of the garage, taking up no space at all.
Steve still didn't know what to think of Natasha. She was an excellent fighter, scarily competent with a wicked sense of humor, and had the stealth of a black cat. But in the months since she'd shown up at Tony's house after Clint moved in, Steve still didn't understand her at all.
Other than that she played a wicked game of darts.
"There," he said, giving the car one last swipe. "Good as new."
"Better than new," Natasha said, picking up the small suitcase at her feet. "Thanks, Captain."
"Let me get that for you," Steve offered, holding out his hand for the suitcase. Like her outfit, it didn't look like anything from this century.
Natasha's gaze sharpened, measured. After a long moment, she gave Steve her suitcase.
Okay. Steve took the case, noted that it wasn't heavy enough to contain a bomb or the other usual implements of Natasha's trade (at least, so he thought), and moved to place the suitcase in the convertible's trunk.
"Where are you headed?" he asked, slamming the trunk closed.
Natasha ran her tongue over her lip, still not moving any other part of her body. Really, Steve had to know how she did that. Maybe there were some super-spy trick? "New Haven," she said finally. "Connecticut."
"I know the place," Steve said, unable to hold back a small smile at the memory. "I had an uncle who lived out there; my mom and I spent a week there one summer back..." he did some mental math. Nearly eighty years before. "In the late '30s. I bet it's changed a bit since then."
"Maybe less than you'd think," Natasha said enigmatically.
There was an awkward pause before Steve recalled his manners. He rounded the car to open the passenger door for Natasha.
She stepped out of the shadows, hair gleaming like rubies in the sun. "That's going to make driving a little difficult," she pointed out, bypassing the open door and going to the driver's side.
Steve looked down at the open car door under his hand. "Good point." He'd thought... he didn't know what he thought. That something told him that she shouldn't go alone? That he didn't know how to ask Natasha Romanoff if she needed backup, didn't know if her mission was personal or professional, didn't know why a woman like her was headed to a place like New Haven.
But she was part of his team. If she needed him, he'd be there.
Natasha slid into the driver's seat with an effortless grace. Her hand hesitated over the ignition. "Well?" she said after a minute, not looking at Steve. "Are you going to close that door?"
The tiny scratchy feeling in his head, that Natasha was a fellow soldier going off to battle, pushed him to climb into car and close the door behind him.
Natasha hummed in the back of her throat. Still not looking at Steve, she started the car and backed out of the yard and through the gate.
A few minutes later, as they sat in traffic at one of New York's impossible red lights, Steve glanced at Natasha. She was looking straight ahead, watching the people cross the street. New York City on the mend.
"Do you want me to put the convertible top up?" he asked, because Natasha had really pretty hair and she might not want it blown around during the drive.
"In this heat?" Natasha asked, her voice dry. "You can leave it down."
She reached into her handbag and pulled out a length of silk scarf, tying it around her hair with a practiced flick of the wrist, before reaching for her sunglasses. The light turned green and Steve tried to relax as Natasha sped out into the crush of afternoon traffic.
Every time Steve went out into New York, he saw things amazing and new, with the occasional painful hint of familiarity. Now, however, Steve was torn between watching his surroundings, and watching Natasha. She was silent as they drove, her expression behind the sunglasses enigmatic. This was the Natasha Romanoff of SHIELD that Steve knew; collected and on guard.
They'd nearly hit the parkway when something started ringing. Natasha reached into her seemingly bottomless handbag and pulled out her phone to hand to Steve. He took it, nearly dropping the small rectangle. "Hello?" he asked when he got the thing to his ear.
"What are you doing?" Stark yelled. "Have you gone insane?"
Steve took his eyes off the road long enough to glance at Natasha. She seemed.... faintly amused. "What are you talking about?" Steve demanded.
"I saw the footage! You and Comrade Svetlana stole my pride and joy, for what? A taco run?"
"We didn't steal anything!" Steve shot back. "Calm down, we'll bring it back. You have a dozen other cars you can drive."
Tony cursed, long and creative. "When you get back here, I swear to god I'm lo-jacking both of you!" The line clicked off.
Steve sighed. "Tony says hi," he said to Natasha, putting the phone back in her handbag for her.
"Is that what Tony said," Natasha murmured, glancing over her shoulder to cut across three lanes of traffic.
When Steve's heart climbed down from his throat, he said, "Tony also threatened to lo-jack us."
Her hands tightened on the wheel.
"But I'm sure he won't," Steve added hastily. "What does that mean?
"It means embedding you with a tracking device to you so he can find you wherever you are," Natasha said.
"That's ..." Steve frowned. It might come in handy in a battle, but he wasn't sure he wanted Tony Stark to be able to track where he was going.
"Yes, it is," Natasha bit out. She reached for the dashboard, turning on the radio with the twist of a dial. That, at least, was something Steve was used to, even if the music wasn't.
They drove north, then east for a bit, drifting along the freeway with the traffic. The last time Steve had been out this way, in 1938, he'd been squished in a third-class passenger train car, trundling along the tracks past shacks and forests. Now, the freeway was paved smooth, the cars around them sleek and very much of an aesthetic Steve didn't understand.
But he was getting there.
As they approached New Haven, Natasha started making turns and twists through first a commercial area, then past houses with large green yards, before slowing the car to stop across from a graveyard. She turned the engine off and they sat, the car making soft ticking noises in the heat of the afternoon.
"This is it," Natasha said softly. She pulled off sunglasses and scarf, looking oddly vulnerable in the summer sun.
Steve had not expected this. "So, what happens now?"
Natasha pulled the keys from the ignition and dropped them into her handbag. "I take care of unfinished business."
Steve raised his eyebrows. "I can't tell if that's cryptic or creepy."
"Did you just call me creepy?" she demanded, showing more life than she had in the entire drive.
"No, I'm calling an assassin talking about 'unfinished business in a cemetery' creepy," Steve said, gesturing at the headstones in the quiet green space.
"Please," Natasha said. "The dead don't hurt anyone." She paused. "Except for that one time."
Steve sighed. "There's always that one time, isn't there?" he asked rhetorically. He got out of the car, stretching his legs as he moved around the vehicle to open Natasha's door. "What was it Bruce said?"
"One time is a data point," Natasha reminded him. She reached up her hand for Steve to help her out of the car, which was strange because Natasha never needed help getting out of anything. "Twice is correlation. Three times is statistically significant."
"Do you understand what he means?" Steve asked, holding on to Natasha's hand for a moment as she regained her balance on her heels. Natasha never needed to regain her balance.
"I usually let him and Stark figure it out," Natasha told him, withdrawing her hand from Steve's. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. "So."
"I'll be a few minutes."
Steve nodded. "I'll scout around."
Natasha gave him a look. "Worried about a zombie attack in the heart of Connecticut?"
Steve shrugged. "Well, there was..."
"...that one time," Natasha finished for him.
She retrieved her suitcase from the trunk and set off resolutely into the graveyard, her slender black-clothed figure blending in with the shadows from the trees and headstones.
After a few minutes, Steve sighed and headed after her into the cemetery.
Steve was no stranger to death, even before the War; New York in the thirties had seen more than its fair share of illness and accident. Steve and Bucky used to cut through a parish graveyard on their way to school, tramping over graves until Sister Mary Francis had come after them with a whip.
What was odd, Steve reflected, was seeing headstones that dated to the decades after Steve fell into the ocean. 1965, 1972... Even some as recent as 2010.
Steve stopped in front of one headstone, for a woman who had been born in 1926 and died in 2007; eighty-one years old at the end, and she'd been born a year after Steve.
It didn't feel quite real.
And he still didn't know what Natasha was doing here.
More twists and turns, and he caught a flash of red hair through the headstones. Walking closer, slowly in case he had to hide, if this was a secret spy meeting (but no, she hadn't told him to wait in the car), Steve came out of a sea of stone markers to find something he had certainly not expected.
Natasha sat on the grass in front of a modest headstone, an odd assortment of items on the grass of another grave. From Steve's vantage point, it looked like a bottle of vodka, a single glass, and a small piece of paper that may have been a photograph.
As for Natasha herself, she sat looking at the headstone, not acknowledging Steve's presence. After a few minutes, not sure what to do, he cleared his throat. "Do you need a few more minutes?" he asked.
He couldn't miss Natasha's sigh. "Come over here," she said. He edged around the grave and sat down on the dry grass. She seemed paler than she had in the car, skin nearly translucent. With her pallor and her black old-fashioned clothes, Steve wouldn't want to meet her alone in a graveyard. It would be... unnerving.
Natasha uncapped the bottle, poured a healthy amount of vodka into the glass, and knocked it back in one swallow. She then poured another dose and handed the glass to Steve.
This ritual at least Steve was familiar with. He swallowed the alcohol, not wincing at the burn down his throat.
Natasha took the glass back, poured a third helping, and emptied it on the grave between them. When she spoke, her voice was low. "How much do you know about the Cold War?" she asked.
"A bit," Steve replied. He let his eyes linger on the headstone before him, wondered who 'Patrick' was and how Natasha knew him before he died in 2008. "There were a lot of things I needed to catch up on when I woke up."
"I can imagine." Natasha shifted on the grass, leaning her shoulder against the older headstone behind her. "You remember what the Americans thought of the Russians during the War, right?"
"Yes ma'am," Steve said carefully. Even in 1943, the Red Menace and communism were lodged in the minds of Americans as nearly worse than Hitler.
Natasha smiled, a ghastly smile. "Nearly forty years under the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation is a long time."
Forty years. Steve felt cold in spite of the sun. He'd seen the footage of the nuclear end to the War; saw the black-and-white devastation in Japan. What would it have done to the psyche of a world under threat of another war, a nuclear war, for forty years?
"At the height of the Cold War, both America and Russia were sending their agents into each other's territory on intelligence-gathering missions, undercover. Sometimes the job took a few days, sometimes.... things were deeper, took a little longer."
"How much longer?" Steve asked. Something in Natasha's expression made him want to leave this alone, but she'd started it and he had to know.
"You've seen my file," Natasha said, seemingly changing topics.
"Um, yes," Steve replied. "The one since you joined SHIELD, I mean."
That file had far too much in it; Steve knew Natasha had joined SHIELD ten years ago and had spent a considerable amount of time (Clint's words, not his) before that 'freelancing'. Far too long for her to actually be as young as she appeared.
But then, he was nearly ninety if one went by the calendar, so what did he know?
Natasha picked up the bottle for another swallow, not bothering with the glass this time. "There's another file. From... before."
"Before," Steve repeated. Before SHIELD, before selling her talents to the highest bidder...
(Bruce had mentioned the worst of things between the USA and Russia had happened in the 60s, mostly to explain why Natasha had threatened to disembowel Tony over his 'Mother Russia's Summer of Love' joke.)
Before. When Natasha Romanoff had breathed and bled for Mother Russia.
Natasha reached for the square of paper on the grass, turned it over to reveal a photograph.
"Sometimes," she said softly, "The job can take a long time indeed."
Curiosity and something darker stirred in Steve's head, made him reach out across the grave to pull the photograph from Natasha's fingers.
It was a wedding picture. A young man in an unfashionable black suit grinned at the camera, his arm around...
Flowers in her long red hair, light in her eyes and happiness on her face, the woman in the old photograph was the same woman who sat across a grave from him in widow's weeds.
She hadn't aged a day.
While Steve stared at her, Natasha pulled a knife from somewhere about her person and cut a small square of grass from Patrick's grave. She dug down a few inches with the blade, spilling dirt up along the edge of the grass.
As she leaned forward, Steve could finally make out the lettering on the gravestone beside Patrick's.
Natasha plucked the photograph from Steve's hand, and dropped it at the bottom of the small hole. With the blade's flat edge, she brushed the dirt over her own face, then pushed the grass square back in place.
"How deep was your cover?" Steve finally blurted out.
Natasha didn't answer, just put the bottle and the glass back in her small suitcase, and closed it with finality. She stood abruptly, turned in the direction of the car, and strode off.
The shadows in the graveyard was doing strange things to the light, Steve decided as he sprang to his feet and followed Natasha. Because that was the only thing that could have explained that glint in Natasha's eyes.
Because Natasha Romanoff didn't cry.
He caught up to her before the car, moved ahead of her to get to the driver's side first. She veered and climbed into the passenger seat, tossing the suitcase and her handbag in at her feet.
"Natasha..." Steve started to say.
It was just one word, but it had the weight of ages behind it. Giving up for the moment, Steve held his hand out for the keys, waited until she shoved her handbag at him. After a few false starts, Steve got the car moving and pulled them out into traffic.
On the silent trip back into New York, Natasha let her hair blow free in the wind.
The trip back took considerably less time than on the way out; the afternoon traffic had cleared somewhat, and the sun was starting to set over Manhattan when Steve pulled the car back into the parking area behind Stark Manor.
He killed the engine and just sat, mentally exhausted by the day. Put him up against a hundred HYDRA agents, he could go all day. Make him think that his team's lone female agent might be almost as old as he was?
He'd rather take HYDRA.
Natasha roused herself after a few minutes. She hadn't said a word since the cemetery. "Thank you," she said quietly.
"Driving." She let out a small breath that in any one else would have been a sigh. "The ghosts are louder on some days than others."
This sentiment Steve could agree with; every time he walked the New York streets he felt the ghosts of time pressing down around him.
"You're welcome." Steve slumped down in the seat as far as he could go. It wasn't far; they obviously hadn't built convertibles with Captain America in mind. "Can I ask you a question?"
He took her silence for acquiescence.
"What happened to Natalie Sheppard in 1973?"
Natasha smoothed a wrinkle in the black fabric of her skirt. "There are a lot of ways to cause a car accident," was all she said.
A loud commotion was approaching. Steve let his head fall back against the headrest, unable to deal. Natasha, on the other hand, swung her legs out of the car and headed into the house.
"Aha!" Tony said, passing Natasha in the doorway. "You! You're back!"
He stormed over to the convertible, glaring at Steve as he did so.
"You want to make time with Communist Barbie, you do it in your own car and leave my baby out of this." Tony started making crooning noises as he patted the car. "I missed you, girl, never leave me again."
"You've got a hundred cars, what's with this one?" Steve demanded, unfolding himself from the driver's seat.
"I rebuilt this car from the ground up when I was eleven; some lady drove it off a cliff and I bought the wreckage with my allowance," Tony said, full attention on a bug smeared on the windshield. "I learned how to weld on Petunia here. Wait. Is that a scratch in the paint? You scratched the paint?"
Steve left before Tony could challenge him to a death match. He was torn between the realization that Tony called his car Petunia and the disquieting juxtaposition of car accidents and cliffs.
For his own sanity, he decided to focus on Petunia.
Natasha was nowhere to be found once Steve made it into the house. Bruce and Clint were in the kitchen discussing the merits of frozen pizza versus delivery. It sounded like delivery was winning.
"Have either of you seen Natasha?" Steve interrupted.
"She said she was going out," Clint told him. "Be back Thursday."
"Which Thursday?" Steve asked. Clint shrugged, not about to tattle on Natasha. "Fine."
Steve picked his way deeper into the house, making his way up to the labs, the only place no one would think to look for him. He didn't know what to think. He knew Natasha lied to people for a living; he knew she'd sworn an oath to SHIELD and to his team. Their team.
So he sat down at the computer in the back of Tony's make-shift lab and keyed his way into the SHIELD server. Weeks ago, Bruce had patiently explained how to use the SHIELD database's search function, so Steve carefully typed in a name to the search box and pressed the enter key.
SHEPPARD, Patrick Martin
b. June 19, 1938
d. Jan. 21, 2008 (c.o.d. heart failure) [MORE]
Natalie May 1 1968 - July 14 1973 (c.o.d. car accident) [MORE]
Amanda Oct. 21 1974 - Aug. 8 1997 (c.o.d. cancer) [MORE]
John Alexander (file blocked)
David Patrick, b. Nov. 13 1975 [MORE]
Steve moved the mouse cursor to hover on the link to Natalie Sheppard's profile. But he couldn't bring himself to click on the word. Instead, he logged out of the computer and left the lab.
He'd ask Natasha herself when she got back. On Thursday.
He didn't get the chance. One thing turned into another, insanity coming out of the woodwork in New York just in time for Labor Day.
Thor came back to Earth, battles were fought and won (and lost), and the trust amongst the team finally began to feel real.
Summer bled into fall and Steve was in Central Park, watching the leaves fall from the trees. It had been a hellish month for all of the Avengers, but it looked like they might finally have some down time.
So Steve sat in the park, hands warmed by a cup of coffee, and watched the leaves fall.
He wasn't entirely surprised when, between one heartbeat and the next, Natasha appeared like a shadow.
"Thought you were out of the country," Steve said, looking out at the park.
"Not anymore," Natasha murmured. She curled up on the bench at Steve's side. "So this is Captain America spends his spare time."
"I've always liked Central Park in the autumn," he told her.
"As have I."
They sat together, watching the leaves fall, as people walking past the bench. For the time being, New York was calm.
"You once asked me how deep my cover was," Natasha said after a long silence.
Steve looked at her, red hair glowing in the light from the setting sun. "I remember," he said cautiously.
She twisted her mouth, not quite a smile. "Do you really want to know?"
"Only if you want to tell me," Steve replied.
Natasha reached into an inner pocket and pulled out a photograph. "This is how deep my cover was," she said finally.
Steve took the photograph from her fingers and she stood, regal coolness and sinewy grace. Steve wondered if she really had been a ballerina, or if that was just rumor drifting around the SHIELD halls. Without a backwards glance, she walked away into the swirling leaves.
Steeling himself, Steve looked at the well-handled photograph.
It was old and faded, of Natasha, her hair tied up loosely around her face. In her arms was a small dark-haired boy, no more than three years old. The boy grinned at the camera, while Natasha's eyes were only for the boy, full of love and happiness.
On the back of the photo, in a spidery hand, was written Nat and Johnny, Christmas 1972.
As autumn fell, quiet, around him, Steve stared down at the photograph.
John had his mother's eyes.