Sam drew the short straw. Literally. He literally reached in to grab the green straw peeking out on the left edge of Maria’s grip and groaned when he realized what had happened. Then he narrowed his eyes at the others, all holding their long and flowing straws in the air, looks of delight on their faces.
“I think you all cheated,” he said. “All of you, with all your superpowers, getting an advantage.”
Steve threw his head back and laughed at that, probably out of relief because he hadn’t drawn the short straw, Sam figured.
“Come on you guys,” he tried. “Doesn’t it make more sense for one of you to stay? At least then it would be a fair fight if she tries to make a break for it.” He pointed to Steve and Wanda. “You two with your powers.” He pointed to Rhodey. “You with your flying suit.” A point at Vision this time. “And you. You can fly and throw heavy objects, and can you even get hurt?”
They all stared back at him, their faces suddenly expressionless, but they couldn’t completely hide the hints of smiles on their faces and the touches of twinkles in their eyes. Even in Vision’s.
“Come on,” Steve teased. “Are you really telling us you’d rather go into battle against an army of Hydra operatives than stay here with her?”
“Yes!” Sam said instantly. “No one in their right mind babysits an assassin.”
Steve laughed again, and Sam wondered how he had never noticed before how annoying that chuckle could be.
“You’re not babysitting her,” Steve said. “You’re guarding her. Like a prison warden.”
“That does not make it better.”
Steve patted him on the back. “Have fun.” He started across the bunker, the rest of the team behind him. Halfway out the door, Steve turned back. “And good luck!” he called.
“Screw you!” Sam hollered, and glared at them good-naturedly until they had disappeared up the ramp of the Quinjet.
Natasha was actually exactly where she was supposed to be, curled up in a ball in the middle of her bed. Sam couldn’t see much of her, being that she looked like she was lying under at least four blankets, but what he could see of her — mostly part of her face — looked very pale and very exhausted. Even her hair seemed less red than usual.
“Did you draw the short straw or something?” she croaked out as he walked over to her, her Russian accent more pronounced than he had ever heard it sound before (okay, he actually didn’t even remember ever hearing it before, if he were honest). He stared at her, almost horrified. How did she know that? Or was she kidding and had just unintentionally guessed right?
He decided it was safer to go with the truth. She might have a one hundred and one degree fever and be sentenced to bed rest, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t maim him if she wanted to for lying to her.
“The rest of them cheated,” he told her.
The corners of her lips turned up at that. “And what did the winners get?” she asked.
“A ticket to fight more Hydra operatives, this time South America.”
“Sounds fun.” She looked like she was going to say something else, but whatever it was got lost in a hacking cough that was painful to even listen to.
Sam’s teasing demeanor was gone in an instant, replaced immediately by concern and empathy. He had known, of course, that she was sick, but he hadn’t realized quite how sick she really was until right now.
The doctors had told them it was the flu. Natasha insisted that it couldn’t be, because Maria had made her get the stupid flu shot that Maria made everyone on base who didn’t have super serum get and besides Natasha hadn’t been sick since she was seven, not even a cold, so obviously she was drugged or poisoned or cursed by some evil sorcerer, assassin or Hydra lackey.
The first doctor argued with her. The second didn’t bother, probably figuring it was easier to let her think what she wanted. But she did order her to stay in bed, which was what had eventually led to the straw drawing.
Natasha wasn’t a bad patient per se — in fact, Sam wagered, she was probably the best of all of them. She didn’t argue when the doctors ran tests or poked her with things, but she also took the first chance at escape she could get.
Sam didn’t know too much about Natasha’s past. He knew enough to know it was her most guarded secret, and he respected her too much to try and get more out of her than she was willing to give, but he also suspected from little things she and Steve had let slip that doctors doing things to her was probably not an uncommon occurrence in her life, and he was also observant enough to see the way she’d grow still and silent when someone examined her. So he didn’t blame her for trying to hide knife wounds or broken fingers or attempting to slip out when no one was looking, but he also understood why Maria (and Fury) had told the Avengers that someone needed to watch her in case she went off on her own and made herself sicker.
Though looking at her now, huddled, coughing, under a pile of blankets, he couldn’t actually picture her trying to go off on a mission anyway. But then again, this was Natasha Romanoff, and if anything, Sam knew, underestimating her was never a good idea.
He did want to help her, though. He crouched down beside the bed so he was more eye level with her.
“When’s the last time you ate or drank anything?” he asked her once she finally stopped hacking up a lung.
She shrugged. Sam figured as much.
Ten minutes later, he came back to her with a mug of tea and a bowl of soup. She stared at him with something almost akin to surprise in her eyes that he pretended not to see as he helped her sit up, adjusting the pillows behind her and smoothing the blankets out over her lap. Then he placed a tray in front of her so she wouldn’t have to hold it and sat with her while she sipped the tea and sparingly nibbled on the saltines, mostly just stirring the chicken noodle soup around with her spoon.
“You don’t have to stay with me,” she said quietly, after they had been sitting there in silence for a bit. “Or take care of me. I won’t go anywhere. I promise. I’ll do what Steve asked me to do.” She almost sounded resigned. Or maybe she just really didn’t feel well and she didn’t have the energy to argue.
He reached over, placed a hand on what he thought was her knee, though it was hard to tell through all the layers of blankets. “I’m not here because I have to be,” he told her. “I want to be.”
She titled her head at that. “Why?”
“Because it’s no fun being alone when you’re sick. And I don’t want you to be alone.”
She seemed to think about that.
"When I was small," she said, "I passed out once during training. I'd asked them if I could stop, but they told me that wasn't an appropriate question." She smiled at that, almost sort of nostalgic but there was no other emotion in her eyes. "When I came to, I was still on the floor. But my wrist was broken." She shrugged. He stared at her in horror.
"That's why you never got sick again," he breathed. Or at least why she hid it.
"Sickness is a weakness."
"Not here it's not." An idea popped into his head. "Do you trust me?"
She smirked. "I guess. As much as I trust anyone."
He smiled at that. "Good enough." He reached over and lifted the tray off her lap, setting it on the dresser. He could clean up later. Then he pulled her multitudes of blankets back. She was wearing black yoga pants and a black hoodie. Her feet were bare.
He snaked one arm under her knees and another around her back, and lifted her easily into his arms. She was lighter than he'd expected her to be, maybe because he'd spent the last few days in training lifting Steve during flights and the guy weighed practically as much as a bull or maybe it was because she could so easily take down men twice her size that he just assumed she had to be heavier. But as he held her against his chest and she rested her head against his shoulder, he barely had to exert any effort at all. He thought, as he carried her down the hall, that he might be okay just keeping her pressed against him forever, and he almost stumbled when he realized what he'd just thought.
Fortunately, she hadn't noticed anything. Or at least she made no sign that she had.
He set her down on the couch in the common area that was for Avengers' use only. The other agents that lived on base had rooms on the other side and, Sam guessed, their own common areas. He'd never actually seen them. But here on their side, everything was locked away, private, and with the rest of the team gone, no one would care that Natasha was spreading germs all over the couch.
He fussed over her, like his mom used to do for him when he was younger, propping pillows behind her and covering her with blankets and making sure she had a steady supply of liquids. He even found her socks and carefully slid them on her feet while she watched him with an expression that looked partially amused and partially grateful. Or at least it looked that way to him.
When he was done, he sat on the couch beside her, next to her head and her many pillows, to make it easier to talk to her, he told himself, definitely not so she could put her head in his lap if she wanted to or so he could run his fingers through her hair if she happened to fall asleep.
He handed her the remote.
"You pick," he told her. "Anything you want. Even those real housewives things you like to watch."
She frowned at him. "That's Rhodey who watches those. I only not change the channel."
"Mmmhmmm," Sam said. "If that's your story." He tossed a teasing grin her way. She narrowed her eyes in response, but her glare was not nearly as effective as normal. He fought the urge to ruffle her hair.
In the end, they watched Pixar movies while Natasha drifted in and out of sleep. He brought her more tea and more soup (that she actually took a few swallows of this time) and wiped her forehead with a cool cloth. She fell asleep for the night with her head on his lap after she'd complained about a headache and he'd offered to massage her temples, and he didn't have the heart — or the desire — to move her. Instead he rubbed her arm and stroked her hair and whispered soothing words he would deny ever having spoken if anyone asked when her dreams made her twist her face up in pain or her coughing got too bad.
He woke up in the morning with a crick in his neck and the startings of a cold brewing in his sinuses, his back screaming in agony and the feeling that he had hardly slept at all, but it was all worth it when green eyes locked onto his and she whispered, "I'm glad it was you who drew the short straw."
"Your fever is making you sappy," he told her. "It must be worse than we thought," but as he went to make her more tea and get her some medicine from the doctor, he couldn't deny the warm feeling in his chest wasn't from the incoming stirrings of a fever.
No, he realized, it was all because of her.
Two mornings later, Sam was half-asleep when the sound of footsteps entering the room had him cracking open his eyes in a hurry. He blinked up at Steve standing there, Wanda and Rhodey and Vision behind him, all of them grinning as they took in Sam on the couch, Natasha asleep with her head on his lap.
“Well, I didn’t expect this,” Steve said with a smirk, but Sam noted he sounded quite pleased about it.
Natasha shifted on Sam’s lap, slightly lifting her head to take in their visitors (although Sam would have been shocked if she hadn’t actually been awake much longer and just assessing the situation first).
“I’ve been good,” she croaked out, her voice still really hoarse, although she looked human again, and Sam could tell from the smile on her face that she was feeling much better.
“She has,” Sam affirmed. “No escape attempts.”
He saw the laughter in Steve’s eyes die down into something akin to tenderness as he looked them both over. “I think I’m almost proud of you,” he told Natasha, and Sam could feel, rather than see, her roll her eyes at him.
Later, when the rest of the team had drifted back to their own rooms to unpack and unwind and Natasha was half sitting up, half leaning comfortably into Sam’s side, she tilted her head to get a better look at him.
“Sam?” she asked quietly. “You want to do this again? When I’m better, I mean?”
He blinked down at her, trying to figure out what she was asking him. Did she mean just sitting here watching movies? Did she mean something more?
He was still trying to puzzle it out when she shifted, pushing herself up with her hands just a bit and leaning forward to press her lips against his. Then she smirked, probably seeing the realization go off. He was never very good at hiding his feelings.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her, his brain whirling. Of course he wanted to do this again. Heck, he’d like to do a whole lot more with her, but he didn’t think spilling his guts about that to Natasha would be the wisest course of action. At least not before the first date.
She was still staring at him, waiting, and there was absolutely no way he could sneak off and get some input from the rest of the Avengers before giving her an answer.
He decided to just go with it.
“Sure,” he said finally, hoping he sounded super chill and casual, slinging an arm around her as she settled back down beside him. “Why not?”