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It's always a dance.

Sometimes it's a game, too: some dances are playful, and sometimes play means the equivalent of giggling in corners and sometimes it's the equivalent of just barely pulling your punches because you're only trying to make the other person call uncle, not actually hurt them. But sometimes it's not a game, sometimes it doesn't need to be and sometimes it damn well shouldn't be.

It's always a dance.

And the only time that wasn't purely a dance, wasn't purely and solely her acting on her best analysis of how to dance with this person to try to build the relationship she wants (that will end up the best), she'd been nineteen and she'd broken into Clint Barton's financials and cleaned up the mess.

It was the first time she wormed into Clint's life behind his back and did something for his benefit without asking, and that's because it was a test. It was a way of saying that she knew - just because of how she came to SHIELD - that he already knew all of her secrets (at least the ones that she knew by then), already saw all the ways her life worked, already had all the keys just because it couldn't be avoided, at least not for a while, and she couldn't take that away, so now she wanted to know what he'd do if she went after a different kind of equilibrium.

Different way of putting them on equal terms.

It'd turned out that what he'd do was come down the hall of the old, pre-Triskelion SHIELD HQ with his open laptop cradled in one arm arm, stand in the doorway of the coffee lounge and point at it while asking, "Did you mess around with my banking stuff?"

Natalia's back was sort of to the door, but he was just barely in her peripheral vision. The intonation in his voice was all bewilderment. She tensed, knew it didn't show, didn't look up, and calmly continued to put sugar in her tea, even though she knew no matter what she did she wouldn't get it to taste right. Not made like this.

"Your portfolio was a disaster," was all she said. She stirred the tea and turned around, leaning back against the counter. He was frowning, but he looked more aggrieved than upset, and more puzzled than even aggrieved. "And your investments were severely neglected."

"I check on this stuff fairly often," he protested, and Natalia raised an eyebrow.

"I did it a month ago," she pointed out. At his . . . yes, and? expression she raised him a second eyebrow and said, "That's not 'fairly often', Barton."

He hadn't answered that one, instead turned to scowl at the screen again like he was going to find something exciting. Then he looked up, frowning at her this time, and demanded, "When did you find the time? Actually don't answer that," he'd interrupted himself, waving a hand at her, "next time just ask for access so you don't waste sleep-time hacking into things, that's how people get hurt. Why are you worried about my investments, anyway?"

She'd kept her voice matter-of-fact when she said, "This is a high-risk job with lots of potential for permanent injury, your investments are your retirement package."

She hadn't quite known how to interpret the look he gave her, except that it was bemused and not hostile; then he'd shaken his head. "Whatever makes you happy," he'd said, clearly dismissing it and closing the laptop, putting it on the lounge table and pulling his herbal tea out of the cupboard.

Later, she figured out that Clint had been prepared for - not necessarily expecting, but prepared for - stuff a lot more invasive and dramatic than that, up to and including waking up to find her watching him sleep, because he knew messed up people and the range of things they do, but he didn't know what kind of messed up she was. For that matter, neither had she: she'd had no real basis for comparison.

She'd never tested anyone else. Even Nick, she hadn't needed to: however much he meant, and he did, in the end she could always leave.

Like she did.

And it would be miserable, like it was, but it wouldn't . . .

In the basement where she spoke to Clint Barton face to face for the first time, she'd put down her gun, and her knives, and taken off her wristlets. And it'd been like jumping off a sheer cliff into total absolute darkness. So in the end she needed to know where she stood, and if it was really all that different from where she'd stood before. Needed proof she hadn't traded one wolf for another, this one just tidier, better at lying.

In that basement she'd told him that risking his life for the sake of an enemy asset was stupid to the point of being suicidal. Clint Barton had shrugged and said, Everyone dies of something. Far as I'm concerned - worse things to die for.

And in the end she'd put down her weapons. For a while.

Then picked them all back up again while they left that basement with the truly ambitious intent of getting out of Moscow alive. Then she'd dug into his life as deep as she possibly could and let him know it, and his response had been - more or less - another shrug.

Showed her the shape of a particular new kind of dance.

 

The part where so many of her dances involve crossing lines other people can't cross and pushing buttons other people don't has less to do with how she wants to dance, as such, and a lot more to do with the people she ends up attached to.

She doesn't have to do that with Betty, or Bruce, or Foster, or Thor; she only started that way with Sam because she wanted to make it very clear that sometimes, she came just this Off, because Sam Wilson is too good at people not to get put off by a lie, and not to notice when she's playing Natasha instead of living herself. And she didn't want to start relying on him the way she figured out pretty soon she would, if that was going to make him tap out. She'd had enough pillars crumble under her, lately.

Otherwise, she doesn't have to do it with him either. She mostly doesn't with Maria: the months of breaking into Maria's apartment and going through her things had been because Natalia couldn't actually stand to talk to her yet, but needed to know how she was, that she was okay, in ways that nobody could pass along to her because nobody knew how to look for.

She only gently herds Pepper, and mostly because she's the only one that Pepper's subconscious recognizes as truly understanding how necessary it is, the play-acting and display tangled up in being the kind of beautiful woman she is, in the world she walks in. When Betty tells Pepper she should be careful about what her signature heels do to her feet, Pepper hears a well-meaning outsider; when Natalia tells her the same thing, she hears the voice of experience, and mostly listens.

Tony Stark doesn't know how to be friends without play-fighting and is more terrified of sincerity than he is of small dark places, and seems in general to find Natalia's sincerity particularly unnerving, which she actually understands. It means she occasionally wants to strangle him, but everyone occasionally wants to strangle Tony: if you're trying to have any kind of relationship with him, you're best off just accepting that and moving on. Tony frequently wants to strangle Tony.

In fact, that's a significant part of the problem.

And then there's Steve, and James.

She's relieved that she doesn't seem to have to explain to anyone that matters that you can't avoid that and, in either direction. At least not so far. There are all kinds of metaphors and poetic images you could come up with for the way they exist, have to exist, but what it comes down to is that you simply can't be close to either of them without the other being part of - to stretch one metaphor - your dance.

Even if, in James' case, you almost never see him. That's the part that could make it hard to understand.

She'd started bullying Steve back in SHIELD because he'd been a fucking disaster, and because nobody else would, and finally because on serious consideration she'd decided he'd take it better from a woman. You could start sentences like "for a man born in 1917 - " but the fact of the matter is that for a man, Steve is refreshingly free of gender-based assumptions and bad behaviour. But everyone has patterns and things they learn to expect and interpret, and after watching him for a while Natalia'd made a calculated decision.

It'd been borne out: it's not that no men can (to put it bluntly) nag Steve about things like looking after himself: at this point Sam's as free to do it as Natalia is, and he does. It's just that men have to be within the bounds of what Natalia's fairly sure Steve's subconscious thinks of as family, and then it's safe; the same thing from outside those bounds Steve interprets as hostile, aggressive, when it comes from men. It's an attack, an attempt to control, and Steve reacts badly to those.

But apparently his subconscious just expects women to interfere that way, even if they haven't made it into that category yet, and the furthest it takes him is to being put-upon - not bristling and on guard. He'll dodge and ignore, but he won't get worked up.

Now she does more or less the same things (with different details) because now it's comfortable, now it's part of how they dance, and also because he's still got some of the same bad habits. Some of them almost certainly come from living poor in the Depression, some of them come from the kind of self-worth issues and defensive thought-patterns you develop from living poor in the Depression, and some of them she suspects are just Steve and how Steve sorts out his priorities, but they're all more than a bit ridiculous.

Well. Some of them are ridiculous. Some of them are quiet mortification of the flesh out of guilt, and that's where he and James overlap - not surprising.

But James goes sharply downhill from there.

With James, Natalia knows what she's looking at. She feels bad for that, sometimes. When you're in those places, it's not comfortable to be seen, and she was lucky enough to keep most of her own trips down that pit very, very private - and she hadn't gone as far down, and she hadn't had to live there. He does, along with the tiny sliver of self that knows how badly off he is, and mostly takes it out on himself.

Frankly she's impressed he's still alive.

 

Their dance is . . . complicated. Clint would argue with the phrasing, and she'll never use it outside of her head because of how bad it would be for James, but - it's mostly because with both of them there's the part that's a person, and the part that isn't.

Some people forget what she is. Other people never see. A very few see and know and acknowledge, and then move on, know it and let it go. Those are the people she's been able to tentatively consider something like friends.

James . . . can't.

Natalia is absolutely certain Steve doesn't appreciate just how far James' hypervigilance goes, not because he doesn't try, but because he can't: even she has to remind herself, sometimes. Hunting people, killing people the way the Winter Soldier did, at the levels expected . . . you have to be tuned to every cue, every signal your target gives off, you have to to be so aware of them that you know - for instance - where Nicholas J Fury is likely to go when he's cut his way away from you, to know which of the several million surveillance devices to watch for the moment something odd happens (like the music turning on before Steve could possibly have got home) and know where to go.

You have to be able to track a target across a city he knows and you don't and know where to be to kill him. And up the numbers and you have to know who'll fight and who'll run and why and when and none of that's even counting whatever twisted thing ran between him and Pierce.

Out of respect, Natalia doesn't speculate beyond what's obvious in how he is in the here, and the now, and keeps that mental door firmly closed. There are a lot of roads to the same edge. But the point is that for so long that's all James was, all he was allowed to be, and it dies hard. May die hard someday, really - so far, it's barely starting to sicken.

And that, that part that isn't a person, sees every part of her that isn't, either. Sees her and knows her. No one else is a threat beyond what he could deal with, and that part knows it: the Hulk is terrifying but it has the planning and impulse-control of a toddler - impossible to kill, but easy enough to avoid, as long as you're not trapped in a cramped space on an aerial vehicle thousands of feet above the ground. Thor thinks like a warrior, not an assassin. And on, and on.

Natalia is a threat, a potential threat. Not because of anything her body can pull off, but because of the ways she can crawl inside people's minds, change the way they see the world, change how they think. She knows it, he knows it, they both know she was made for that: both know that every bit of violence she can bring down is just . . . dressing, icing, on what she was made to be.

And there isn't any sure way for him to stop her being a potential threat that isn't killing her, and the thing that keeps her in potential instead of anything else is her choice, and they both know it. And it'll be a long time before he can ease down on how attuned he has to be, to her, when they're in the same room. Even if Steve's not there.

So she has to let him see her, all the time, not even try to hide, and that's . . .

It's a challenge. More than enough of one that Natalia spent a damn good long time thinking about whether or not the cost was worth it. Decided yes, in the end. But spent a long time thinking.

But it also means that one of the things she can't hide . . . is that it drives her more than a little crazy when people she likes deprive themselves of completely reasonable fucking pleasures and comforts for stupid reasons. She can't hide it, so she doesn't bother: fundamentally, she treats him like she treats Steve, just with a bit more attention to the sharp edges.

And that's the kind of thing that leads her to waiting until she knows they're both out of the condo, in order to keep from getting accidentally killed when she breaks in through the bedroom window to forcibly replace every cleaning product - human, feline, laundry or household - that they own.

 

It's of a piece with never asking about coming over, or giving too much advance warning. She'd explained that one to Barton, because he'd been giving her sideways looks she could potentially deserve, and it's so convoluted it doesn't surprise her that he didn't immediately follow.

It means I'm not a guest, she'd explained. There's always a warning, I always buzz up, James can tell me to fuck off himself if he wants to and Steve's probably going to warn me off before I even get there, but as long as I don't ask and just show up, I'm not a guest, I'm an imposition. That means James doesn't have to be nice to me and put on the full show.

Clint'd looked thoughtful and said, By which you mean the brick-wall-worth of projecting It's Fine, I'm Fine, Everything's Fine, We're All Fine Here, How're You? and when Natalia nodded, fixing her lipstick in the vanity mirror, he'd added, He's pretty good at it.

Distressingly, she agrees. But as long as I'm an obnoxious intruder he's just putting up with because all Steve's friends are crazy, he doesn't have to be polite and put that on and be fine and approachable and human, he can flat out refuse to acknowledge I'm even there if he wants, and it won't bother him later. And home stays a place where he doesn't have to pretend.

After a moment Clint said, I'm not sure what disturbs me more: that all that makes sense, or that post-seventy-years-of-Nazi-torture the guy still thinks he has to play host.

Natalia'd smiled, slightly. Clint's relationship to ingrained social expectations is idiosyncratic to say the least, but . . . he's not wrong. She'd said, I'm not going to touch that one and left it alone.

This is, if not the same, at least similar. This dance where she has to make them try nice things, accept things that are good for them, that'll make life that little bit more pleasant. She's broached the general subject with Steve, once or twice, but even when he agrees he never quite gets around to doing anything about any of it, the impulse to act running aground on the inertia of but do I need it? that turns even small, meaningless changes that might improve things just a little into huge moral quandries, digging for justification and inert without it - and "because it'll make me feel better" never justification enough.

She can give Steve things, but given that the sheets she gave him in March are still (and she checks) once-washed and sitting on their own shelf in the linen closet, Natalia's come to the conclusion that then these things become like Grandmother's china, or the lovely basket full of bath goodies some women get as gifts or even for themselves . . . and then never use because it's never a special enough occasion, and so the basket just sits on the bathroom counter gathering dust until one of the bath-beads finally dissolves into the oil and the whole thing's ruined, and thrown out.

And you can't give James things. Not without messing him up. Not in any way that might possibly be mistaken for an offer, a gift, an optional thing. If he can refuse it, he will; if not, he'll do the same thing as Steve, except for him the whole thing comes with an added shadow of fear, and bad memories.

It's Betty she had to walk through that one because it's Betty who spontaneously gives people gifts out of nothing more than the impulse to say I'm thinking of you with something tangible, concrete. Never anything big. Scented candles, a couple amusing magnets, a mug. Natalia had to stop her, once. And had to explain.

And it's something she'd rather never do again, for no reason except that Elizabeth Ross's suppressed expression of heartbroken horror gets to Natalia. Something about the eyes, or the way her jaw moves.

Just doing things James clearly (at least to her) wants done, or providing things he clearly wants provided, or that you can be pretty damn sure he'll like, where "providing" means just making it available and acting like it's his (or even nagging him about it) - that seems to work, so far. Granted it works alongside a lot of nasty names and a huge performance of aggravation, and occasionally a death threat, but that's just part of the dance. A display that proves mostly to him that she can't make him do sweet fuck all, so she's not a real threat to him and he doesn't have to kill her.

And once he's made it clear he didn't ask for her interference and actually she's being incredibly obnoxious as far as he's concerned, and he doesn't have to put up with any of this, James can settle back down.

So far it's worked with the extra-strength topical menthol balm and the faux-mink blanket that has, in fact, taken up permanent residence on the couch at the Tower despite the lengthy "what the fuck is this even Romanova" speech when she first tossed it at him, one of the evenings they used his mini-theatre to watch a movie. So that's something.

Natalia has the vague suspicion that she's tapping into some kind of instinctive male-female dynamic in both of them, the kind of thing you learned to assume if you happened to be raised in an poor Irish-Catholic neighbourhood in Brooklyn at the beginning of the last century. She's fine with that: considering all the things she could easily provoke from James, whether or not she wants to, memories and patterns from the time before HYDRA broke his life on the floor and then ground the pieces into dust under their heels are frankly a blessing.

And when you mix all of that together and, Natalia supposes, have only so much patience for remaining at the mercy of human foibles, what she's doing makes perfect sense. To everyone else, she's well aware, it looks insane.

She unhooks the window and slings the shoulder-bag in first, onto the bed so nothing breaks; then she climbs in herself and drops to the floor.

In any other home she'd feel obliged to point out to whoever lived there just how easy it was to break in, but the fact of the matter is it that here, it doesn't matter: in this one, locks are for the protection of the potential house-breaker, lines in the sand saying that it's not worth it to try, symbolic communication of go-the-fuck-away and don't-even-try. And on the fourth floor it's probably enough, and in a neighbourhood like this someone equipped to climb to the fourth floor and get through standard locks isn't going to bother, because there's unlikely to be anything valuable enough inside to be worth the trouble.

Which is good, because if anyone does ever for some godforsaken reason get it into their head to scale the brick wall and break in, Natalia's going to have to come over and coach Steve on how to make absolutely sure you didn't miss any of the blood-spatter on the ceiling.

(Possibly. It's also possible James would just crush their neck and the blood would be minimal, and it's much easier to explain away any traces of the various voidings the body does on violent death when it's in a residence than it is to explain away blood. Still.)

Since she's come in the bedroom anyway, after she hooks her bag onto her shoulder Natalia pauses to give the closet, the clothes-press and the dresser drawers a quick scan.

More of James' clothes are in here now, although either some are still in the other bedroom or he's resisting replacing ones that wear out beyond use - there aren't nearly enough of the zip-up sweatshirts or sweaters she knows he still wears. He doesn't like having bare skin and Natalia's not convinced that's all about just being cold.

Actually she's pretty damn sure it's not. But that's not her business, not yet, and she leaves it alone.

They need a bookshelf, she realizes, looking at the books piled underneath both night-stands, and on both dressers, and knowing there are probably more on the nightstand in the other bedroom and on the dresser in there, and on the kitchen bar counter, although probably not that many on the living-room side-tables because it might impair James' ability to get ahold of whatever weapon he's keeping there for the time being.

She wonders if he still has that Browning in the baking cupboard. For that matter, she wonders exactly where he gets them from. She'll have to ask, because now that she's thought about it she's actually pretty curious. It isn't like he can wander into a store and she really doesn't see him being in a hurry to find an illegal seller.

The bed's made, and there are a couple little circular indentations in the coverlet with a fine sheen of orange fur; the kitten isn't here, is at the Tower where they are. Steve's put the framed photo-prints in here, mostly, and Natalia supposes that makes sense. They're calming - a close shot of a hummingbird at a flower, one sepia print of an old photo of a Brooklyn neighbourhood with the laundry out on lines, a couple of old buildings somewhere in Europe with the photos of the kind the kind where the artistry's in the angle and the composition of the shot, not in the subject. Simple things, recognizable, very definitely what they are and not easily mistaken for anything else.

She only glances into the second bedroom, notes the bed clearly isn't being used much as a second couch these days and that to all appearances the cat rarely comes in here, but there's still a reading-light screwed to the wall inside the open closet door. And she's right about the books: the night-table is covered with them, in stacks.

The Browning is still in the baking cupboard. She opens the fridge and pulls out some grapefruit juice, pouring herself a glass - both because she's thirsty and because leaving a glass with a lipstick print on it on the counter makes it clear that anything that seems to be subtly moved or disturbed is because she's been in here looking around, not because James' mind is being unreliable.

Then she digs a garbage bag out from under the sink and starts by dropping the dish-soap into it.

Natalia's sense of smell is good enough, but mostly just educated, at least when it comes to details like what scent someone's wearing and why; Clint's is better, enough that most perfumes, colognes and scented products give him faint headaches and turn him into a slightly crankier asshole than either of them enjoy. Or anyone else enjoys, for that matter. Clint's never bothered to claim the honour of being able to say I'm the reason Nick Fury stopped wearing cologne to work, or even the reason SHIELD embraced the rules of 'scent-free workplace' before it was cool, but Natalia suspects that's just because there's never been the right moment. She knows he thinks it's funny.

But Natalia's well-aware that Steve's sense of smell is at least as acute as Clint's, and James's she thinks is even better. Or maybe he's just hypersensitive to what he has the same way he's hypersensitive to every damn thing: when she already has a list of scents that send his reactions downhill, even though she's only barely started paying attention, there's at least no way it could be argued smell isn't important.

(Wet stone or pavement; sweat more than an hour or so old; any kind of fish - oh yes, she's got a list.)

The point being, Natalia can be pretty damn sure that if something bugs her it has to be bugging them whether they realize it or not, and right now Steve still defaults to the cheapest things that work. Which means bottles of the most basic Suave or Pert 2-in-1, Zest for soap or worse, dish-soap that smells like the most plastic grapefruit in the world, GreatValue detergent . . .

And she's mentioned it, god knows, and Steve's admitted it, more or less - resigned agreement over the smell of dishwasher detergent, sorry, my hands smell of soap, it'll wear off, that kind of thing. Natalia's even watched and worked out that it's not a touchstone, not comfort of familiarity: Steve's complained that you can't get the right kind of soap, in a laughing way, complained that even the brands that still exist - like Ivory and Dial - smell wrong now, aren't made the same.

It's endearing, but at the same time, it makes Natalia want to smack him.

A good half of the stuff she replaces everything with is virtually scentless, and that includes the laundry detergent that also happens to be what Keisha from Wardrobe used to swear by, which doesn't even manage to carry the harsh chemical edge of hello I am laundry detergent with it, and the dishwasher detergent that's the only one she's found that doesn't smell a little bit like poison, but still works.

Most of the rest has faint scents of herbs and spices, simple and quickly gone: the strongest is cinnamon oil in one of the cleaners, and even that dissipates within minutes and is largely there to cover the faint tang of the vinegar.

The garbage bag fills up with generic versions of Lysol and PineSol and Mr Clean; she leaves the baking soda alone and then tosses the off-brand laundry detergent, leaves the bleach but pushes it to the back of the cupboard and puts the scentless laundry soda and the detergent in front of it.

Then she strips the bathroom.

The bottles, bars of soap and little containers she leaves here are slightly different. Every single one has a small label she's added with either Steve or James printed on it, where the caps or tops for all of Steve's are white plastic and for James's they're all blue. With these she's flat out showing off; with these she's making the dance into a game that's got a lot in common with ravens that pull wolves' tails and then fly away. But everyone has to have some fun. Even her.

And just because that's true doesn't mean she doesn't . . . well, mean them.

She leaves the way she came in, because it's the least conspicuous window from the street, and waits for the snarling texts she knows she'll get relatively soon.

 

Natalia's sitting at her own kitchen table in the Tower the next morning, on her laptop with her tea at her elbow, chasing down the lyrics of a song she heard out of someone else's car when her messenger application tosses up the dialogue-box from James, where he not only invites her to fuck a dead hyena but gives really, really specific instructions.

Since no one's around, she doesn't bother suppressing the smile. She shifts her keyboard from Latin to Cyrillic and replies, That was detailed. And you're welcome.

James replies, I know where you fucking SLEEP, Nashenka, and she rolls her eyes even though he can't see her.

As if he would try to kill her while she slept.

She returns, the shit you were using was hurting my soul, it *has* to be stripping your skin and irritating it, there's no *way* the smell doesn't bother you, both of you are RIDICULOUS, this is NOT the Great Depression anymore, TRY what I left, and then I *dare* you to tell me to my face it's not better. And isn't the slightest bit surprised when she doesn't get a response, because she's fairly sure he wouldn't have one other than more curses or threats, and he wouldn't want to give her the satisfaction.

Natalia shifts the keyboard back to Latin and looks for a bio on the artist behind the song.

After a few minutes - long enough to get another cup of tea - Steve's box pops up, with a rather more polite, out of curiosity, where did you get this stuff?

She sits back down and replies, a friend of mine justifies the existence of New Jersey by hand-making it out of her basement. She has a fairly extensive online following. She already makes stuff for me, and she didn't mind making a new couple of scent-blends for me. Just TRY it, Rogers.

Steve replies, Thanks. I think. And then, what did you do with everything that was here?

I threw it out, Steve, she replies, fairly sure he'll imagine the right patient tone. Because it was terrible. Even you know it was terrible. You've saved the world three times now, you have a very comfortable steady income even though I just KNOW you have the credit card Tony sent us all hidden somewhere in a drawer, you are ENTIRELY financially stable and, as I mentioned, have SAVED THE WORLD more than once, so you are allowed to have nice things. Just ask Sam.

There's a pause for a moment and then Steve's dialogue-box provides the retort, someday I'm going to be able to invoke him BACK AT YOU, you know, and then you're going to be sorry.

You're welcome, she informs him, and then adds, and while I'm thinking of it: boil 8 parts water to 1 part salt and 1 part baking soda for three minutes, pour it into a bucket and soak James' shirts in it for at least five days, they should soften without having to be worn out first.

Not that she isn't planning something there, too, but it'll do to start with.

You need a hobby, Steve tells her, and she smiles slightly.

This IS my hobby, she retorts. Just ask Maria.