“Next of kin?”
“Better put Clint,” Natasha said, frowning at the forms; beside her, James hummed.
“Steve,” he said. “I do not want my sisters getting this call.”
“I’m running the team, I’ll get the call anyway,” said Steve. “Why don’t you put each other?”
“Why,” said Natasha, and stopped. Oh god, he’d worked it out. When the fuck had Steve worked it out, and if he had worked it out who else might have? “Uh.”
James glanced up; his expression didn’t change, but his eyes flicked back and forth between her and Steve a few times before he said, “Go away, Steve, and don’t come back without coffee.”
Steve blinked, twice. He and James stared at each other: were they telepathic? She wouldn’t put it past them. If they weren’t telepathic, that glower was a little weird. Then, as if James had said something, Steve said, “Jesus wept.” He sighed, disgusted. “Sure, you want sugar?” Then he stood up and left.
The door closed behind him gently but firmly, leaving them in private. The aircon hummed, and Natasha could see the dust motes dancing in the sunbeam lying on the desk. There was a silence, during which Natasha ticked off a few more boxes on the forms they were filling out, listening to the scratch of her pen on the paper and wondering if she was freaking out or not.
“It was my fault,” James said. “It must have – I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Natasha said. “He’s your best friend.” Clint didn’t know. “Besides, it’s pertinent information, for the team.”
“I suppose,” he said grumpily. “Don’t know where he gets off shoving his oar in, though.”
Irrelevant. She licked her dry lips, gripped the pen tightly. “He swears a lot more these days,” she said. “We had this whole thing going where he was trying to stop and doing really well and then telling everybody else not to swear because it set him off. It was cute.”
“He’s as ridiculous as he ever was,” said James, and now he sounded fond. “Will a post-office box do for an address?”
“Sure,” said Natasha vaguely. It always had for her, thus far. Suddenly she thought, but this is ideal, and nearly blurted it right out; but they were still in the office, and she swallowed it down, searching for an opening. “Where are you living, though?”
“Oh, you know,” he said vaguely, which meant I have a safehouse.
“Cause, um.” She pressed the nails of her left hand into the ball of her thumb, trying not to squirm. “I – I could find you something.”
James twirled the pen in his fingers. “I – really?” His voice rose, hopeful and delighted, for just an instant before he tamped it back down again and wiped the smile off his face.
“Yeah.” Even her self-control couldn’t keep her from blushing.
“That’s – that’d be great, Romanov.”
Natasha bit her lip. There was a bubble of pure joy in her chest, making her feel weightless and stupid with happiness. “OK,” she said. “Yeah.”
Two days later he came over at three a.m. with two old Army duffle bags of personal belongings and three canvas totes full of books.
“There’s still time to go back down and eliminate the cab driver,” he said, only mostly joking. He took his boots off at her front door and hung his jacket carefully on the coat rack; underneath he was wearing a Smithsonian sweater, his hair, long enough to curl under his ears, a little staticky from the hood. His jeans were clean but not pressed, and Natasha wondered if he’d ditched the safehouse and moved to a motel for the two nights before coming here, just to be sure.
The lights were all on, and she had left the radio playing, melancholy after-midnight music, and James was smiling at her, his face free of shadows, if nervous. Natasha was nervous herself.
“No,” she said, and caught his wrists to pull him into her living room: clean and sparsely furnished, save for the books, and her music player. “Leave the poor cab driver alone.” He looked around, slowly, lingering over the windows, the door to the balcony, the bedroom door that was open, showing her new double bed, the colourful prints on the walls – here and there she even had a painting she knew he would recognise as Steve’s. She was biting her lip so hard it rather hurt. “Uh.” Suddenly she felt ridiculous: what kind of a way was this to move in together – three in the morning and she’d only texted him the address when he said he was ready to call the cab. Laura would not approve.
On the other hand – on the other hand, the important thing was that he was here.
“It’s great,” he said.
“I leased it furnished,” she said, anxious. “We can – it’s only the books and there’re books everywhere. There’s a spare bedroom, and the kitchen’s through there, and the bathroom has a tub and a shower stall. And we’ve got a balcony, but it’s not big.”
“Natasha,” he said. She was still hanging on to his wrists; he pulled his hands away and took hers in his. “Heart’s own.”
That calmed her, oddly enough. She laughed a little, looking up at him, stepping in close.
“James,” she said. “Welcome home.”
The next morning she woke up near noon. It was a grey and chilly day, windy and threatening rain, the sort of day that made you want to crawl back into bed and stay there forever. For a few moments Natasha lay still and silent, frowning at the window, the drapes stirring in the breeze that was chilling the room pleasantly. She was warm, much warmer than usual, even with the blankets she usually piled on top of the duvet, and someone else was breathing, very close behind her, deep and even. It wasn’t Clint, because she was naked.
When memory came back she buried her face in the pillows to stifle a giggle. It had been a long, long time since she’d last woken up like that – hazy and unsure of what was going on – she must have slept like the dead. She squirmed around, slowly and carefully, not wanting to wake him, and pushed the covers back a little to better see him: stubble was already dark on his cheeks, his hair a tousled mess, and though the bed wasn’t small his comfortable sprawl took up most of it.
This was new – waking up with him and not needing to leave. Natasha snuggled up to him, draping her arm across his chest and pillowing her head on his shoulder; he shifted and murmured, wrapping his arm around her, and then he woke up properly, she felt him kiss the top of her head.
“Morning,” he rasped. “Is it morning?”
“Not for much longer,” Natasha said. “This is nice.”
“Lovely. How much time –” He stopped, laughing at himself. “Forever. I love you, my Natalia.”
Natasha laughed too, warm all over, feeling all… bubbly and light. “We’ve got a week off,” she said.
“I know it.” James sounded supremely satisfied.
“Well,” he said, rather earnestly. “There’s a lot to do.”
She blinked. “You’ve got two duffles full of t-shirts and jeans that don’t even need ironing and probably, like, one bottle of Old Spice” – he started laughing – “a toothbrush, and some books. What’s to do?”
“Look round the neighbourhood,” he said. “Explore. Figure out where everything is. Hunt up the nearest bakery for doughnuts and bagels and such, because I can guarantee you don’t know. Make love to you on every flat surface in this apartment, and a few of the vertical ones as well.”
“I think kitchen table sex is probably overrated and definitely unhygienic,” Natasha said, teasing.
“Only one way to be sure.” She was sure he was smiling, that dark wicked grin that made her blood hot, and honestly, the image was – was not unpleasant – herself on the counter maybe, him standing between her legs, all quick and fierce and too desperate to undress properly. Yeah. Why not?
“Hey,” she said suddenly. “Speaking of kitchens – can you cook?”
“Yeah, mostly. Why?”
“It just occurred to me that I’ve never seen you in one.”
“Oh. No, I guess not. Can you cook?”
“Boring things. Breakfast. You know.” She sighed, rather delighted with the whole world. “We’re going to get up in a minute and cook breakfast together.”
“Yes.” He pulled her closer and she kissed his chest, ran her hand over his skin, feeling the curl of his chest hair under her palm. James had always run a little hot, and he was strong and solid beside her, unmistakeably real. He was in her bed, her own bed in her own apartment, where the sheets smelt like her and the room was untidy: her possessions and his scattered about. He wasn’t leaving her – no check-out time, no mission, no handlers – not even the impersonal familiarity of the hotel they had taken to using most often as this new-old love between them deepened and solidified into something real and true and unshakeable again. This was her space and he was in it and staying in it, for good.
“Penny for your thoughts,” he said.
Natasha pressed closer, slid her leg over his; she hadn’t quite meant to press her thigh against his morning wood, but. “That I – I love you.”
James sighed, all lazy contentment, and rolled his hips up a little, rubbing against her, luxurious. “So,” he said, and suddenly his touch against her back had… intent. “Breakfast or breakfast?”
She snickered. He drew his knee up and reached down with his left hand to stroke her thigh, pushing the covers back and letting the chill air in. Natasha groaned, but James said, “Think I can keep you warm,” deep and assured.
“You keep saying that you will, boy, I wish you would.” He didn’t recognise the song, which made her laugh, but that died away quick. They were so close, and she tugged him up so they were on their sides, facing each other, and then, for the first time since she’d woken, they kissed – morning breath was mildly terrible, but what did that matter? James was in her bed. She’d asked him to move in and he had. They had all week for this, just this.
She tried hard not to think that everything was perfect, because as soon as she did that something was bound to go horribly wrong. But kissing him like this – making love as slowly as they could stand, because they had all the time in the world to do so – holding him close and knowing they did not need to leave each other, ever again – everything, basically, was perfect.
There was a diner a few blocks over from her apartment that did great pancakes; neither of them being very good at cooking those themselves, and James having a fondness for them that surpassed even Natasha’s, this was a godsend. The first morning they were due back at HQ after he’d moved in, they went for breakfast first, demolishing pancakes and bacon and eggs and coffee and orange juice in companionable silence, careful not to touch, even accidentally.
Outside, on the street corner, Natasha said, “I’ll take the subway. You should get a cab,” without giving it any thought at all; it wasn’t until James had finished his cigarette that her brain caught up with her mouth, and by that time he was frowning.
“Uh,” she said.
“I don’t mind,” he said at once. She knew he wasn’t lying. It wasn’t just the Avengers, or anyone at work. It was also the potential for tabloid stories, gossip – public knowledge, in short. Besides, some habits were so ingrained she didn’t know if they would ever be able to get rid of them. But arriving together couldn’t possibly hurt, though maybe they should take the subway, so if anyone noticed it would look as if they simply tended to catch the same train, by whatever coincidence. And if they took the subway chances were it would take longer and that way they would spend more time together, in this close sweet silence. The world was brighter and lovelier to see just because he was near her.
She should be shot for thinking that. Natasha shook her head. “I – we’ll just get the subway.” Yes. Good plan. Totally normal-looking. Totally not something that ordinary people needed a plan for.
“Come on.” He reached out and took her hand, jaw set stubbornly. She laced her fingers with his, feeling cold and panicky.
Nothing continued to happen. They were standing on a New York street corner on an ordinary, rather grey Tuesday morning, in full view of all the public, holding hands as if they belonged – as if they were allowed –
They did and they were. What a thing to forget. Natasha squeezed his hand. After a moment, movement a little jerky, James lifted her hand and kissed it as if they were at home. She went hot all over.
“Subway,” he said.
“No,” she said, tugging him close. She didn’t know if that gesture had made her brave or afraid, but she was sure she wanted nothing to do with any other human beings today but him. “Put – put your arm over my shoulders. Let’s go home.”
When they were at home, that stance of James’ – where he was in the chair with his legs apart, all sprawling loose limbs and smile – was an open invitation for her to come sit in his lap that she never passed up. Natasha glanced at him as she came up the stairs: pale blue shirt and grey slacks and waistcoat, but he’d left off the tie she’d suggested. He looked lovely.
Beside her, Hill said, “Barnes, you clean up nice.” She was laughing. “I thought you’d go for leather jackets and motorcycle boots.”
James laughed too. “Well I own a closet now, so I’m making use of it. Cheers.”
“Incidentally, are we allowed to give Parker alcohol?” Natasha asked, dropping into a chair to his left. He glanced at her as casually as she had at him, no flicker of interest whatsoever, though he’d told her not five hours ago that the dress she was wearing was his favourite of hers. She knew the lighting was doing her hair and skin favours, and she knew that her heels were doing the same for her ass and legs. It was warm in here, but not yet unpleasant, and the low hum of laughter and music all around them was… comforting.
“He’s an adult,” he said cheerfully.
“He’s a teenager,” said Hill. “Which, granted, you probably don’t remember what that’s like, old man, any more than Steve does…”
“We weren’t teenagers,” said James, pulling a face at her. “We were adolescents. You invented teenagers in the Fifties and yes, I realise how this sounds but I do not understand them in the slightest.”
Hill was laughing. Natasha was smiling too: unlike Steve, who fobbed you off with a showbiz smile and a vague, noncommittal response, James would actually talk about their childhood and youth, if you indicated interest. He made it sound more fun than it probably had been, mind you.
His hand was on the arm of the chair; if she leaned a little and put hers out she could easily lace their fingers together, hold him comfortably, the way Tony and Pepper were holding hands right now, on the other side of the room. His knuckles were scarred with fights and training, and there was a burn below the bone of his wrist that Rebecca had inflicted on him as a small child – he said she’d been playing near the fire or something; he didn’t remember exactly what had happened. After a minute, she realised she was staring and looked away. A tilt of her head, and she was watching Thor and Scott play pool instead.
She didn’t take his hand, and she didn’t offer hers.
They didn’t even dance together.
One night a car alarm went off in the street and she jerked awake in surprise, reaching for the gun on the bedside table. Behind her James said, “It’s OK.”
“Urgh.” Natasha dropped back into the pillows, sighing. Then she wriggled around to look at him; he was lying on his side, propped on an elbow, looking at her. “You watching me sleep?”
“Not really. Woke up… I don’t know.”
She frowned, reaching out to touch his face gently. “I thought you’d stopped.” Before he’d moved in with her he’d used to wake regularly in in the night, pacing the hotel room, sometimes unable to settle for the rest of the night. She hadn’t realised he still did.
“Mostly,” James said, and turned his head to kiss her fingertips. “I’m all right.”
“Are you sure? Come here.” Natasha sat up, piling the pillows behind her, and he crawled into her arms, his ear against her heartbeat; she cradled him close. “You never said anything about it,” she said, an opening in case he wanted one, but not a question that looked like she was pushing.
“No,” he agreed. He didn’t sound upset – thoughtful if anything. She smiled a little: it made her warm all over and giddy when he showed that he trusted her. “I used to – I’d wake up and think, I have to go, I can’t stay here, we’ll be found and they’ll hurt her.”
Natasha shuddered. “I thought – nightmares.”
“Yeah I get those too.” He laughed. “It’s been much better since – since I moved in.”
“Since it’s been the same bed every night?”
“Sometimes I wake up in the mornings and I think you’re a dream,” she said. “You know, I don’t dare move or everything will shatter. And then I move and it’s dark and I start screaming, but of course it’s still the nightmare.” She sighed. “But then I wake up properly and you’re there after all.”
“Yes,” he said. “Yeah.”
“I think I’m gonna go out and take a rocket launcher to that car in a minute though,” she said.
“We don’t own a rocket launcher,” said James glumly. “Get Wanda to come over.”
“Thought we’d go out Friday night,” said Sharon. “Hill and Hope and Scott are coming, and Sam, and Steve if I have to drag him by the scruff of the neck; he works too much. And coming from me you know that means he really works too much. You in?”
“Oh!” Natasha said. “I can’t.”
“Hot date?” Sharon grinned.
“No,” Natasha said, though as it happened James had reserved them a table at their favourite pizza place for Friday night just this morning. “Work.”
“Oh come on,” said Sharon, disgusted, but Natasha wouldn’t be budged. They went out most every Friday, dressed up sometimes, dressed down others, just got on the subway and rode out to another part of town and wandered around till they found something interesting. It was always fun, and it was freeing, disappearing into New York like that, and it prevented them from developing a routine that someone could exploit easily. There was no way she was passing that up, no matter how fond she was of Sharon normally.
They didn’t sit next to each other in meetings; they rarely left the building together, and Natasha never, ever called him James in public; usually he called her Romanov, sometimes Nat, the same way Steve did. They worked together as flawlessly as they always had, but she was fairly sure that most of their friends thought they didn’t much like each other. Only she caught Steve frowning sometimes, when something happened where they could or should have brought up their relationship, or at least relaxed a little.
She couldn’t. James couldn’t. It was fine to touch and kiss and hold hands when the people around them were perfect strangers, or when they could play a role of a kind, but as soon as it was all a sea of familiar faces and cameras in strategic positions she froze up into a kind of panic mode, and they spoke to each other in noncommittal sentences so loaded with double meanings only they understood that sometimes, thinking back over what they had said and what they had meant, Natasha thought that maybe she and James were the telepathic ones. She went home in the evenings feeling restless or hollowed out, and she wasn’t whole until she shut their apartment door behind herself and saw him smile at her.
Once she tried to tell Clint, and he blinked at her owlishly.
“There’s… a guy,” he repeated.
Natasha could feel herself blushing as red as her hair. “You know.” It’s James, it’s Bucky Barnes, we moved in together, he makes me happy. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
“It’s,” said Clint. “I mean. You’re – happy? It’s good?”
“Then I’m happy.”
Natasha couldn’t look at him. They were in the elevator and no one could see, so he put his arm across her shoulders and hugged her briefly, and for the first time in her life she hated that he always, always refused to push her. If there was ever a moment when pestering her into talking might have helped, that was it.
Steve kept texting her. He’s fine. He’s OK. He’s waking up. He hates Jell-O. Who doesn’t? Everything’s fine. A constant stream of short, reassuring little messages. She wanted to delete them all. She wanted to scream. She wanted to kill someone, and she wanted to run over to the hospital and fling herself on James’ prone form and weep.
Maybe not that last, not in reality, but it was the emotion behind it that counted. Natasha paced the living room restlessly, wringing her hands like an idiot: there was no more work to do, nothing she could distract herself with; all the others were probably crowding round his bedside right this minute, proffering flowers and jokes and bunches of grapes. (That was what you took to hospitals, right?)
“Damn,” she said out loud. They’d made love on that rug. He’d crowded her up against that wall and kissed her breathless just yesterday. She liked to curl into his lap in that armchair if they watched TV, and sometimes in the mornings she would drink her coffee standing at that window and he would come up behind her and put his arms around her and a whole hour would drift away while they held each other. She couldn’t even sit on the couch because she missed the phantom weight of his head in her lap. As soon as their front door closed behind them they were constantly, constantly touching each other, and now – now she couldn’t even bring herself to go see him in the hospital. Pathetic. Just. Pathetic.
The front door opened and shut. She jumped a mile, stumbled into the hall –
“Honey, I’m home,” James said tiredly. Deep deep bruises under his eyes and his face was pale, his clothes wrinkled and unwashed. He was the most beautiful thing she’d ever laid eyes on. “God, I couldn’t stand it in there. Too bright. I told Steve it was giving me flashbacks, he got this panicked twitch and cleared everyone out.” He laughed ruefully. “Haveta ‘pologise tomorrow.” He was swaying on the spot. “Natasha?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Oh, god. Nothing. Just.” She held out her arms to him, and stumbling he came to her at once, shaking with exhaustion, heavy and hot and a little sticky with sweat; he needed a shower. She couldn’t keep upright for herself but she could hold him without any trouble. “James,” she said. “I love you, you idiot.” He laughed helplessly, and she did too. “C’mon. Bed. And you should probably eat again. Steve said you threw the Jell-O at the wall.”
“Then he deserved to think I was having a flashback,” James said sulkily. “You weren’t hurt, were you, sweetheart? I couldn’t see – Steve said not.”
“Kiss ‘em better,” he promised.
Natasha giggled. “You’re so tired you’re drunk with it. It’s adorable.”
“Well they did make me a teddy bear,” said James. “They didn’t make Steve a teddy bear. Sucker.”
She pulled him into their bedroom, laughing, punch-drunk with relief.
“Why did you do that?” Natasha said as she slid into a chair next to Steve. It was crowded, the noise level high, but she kept her voice low just the same.
“What?” James offered her fries and frowned at her.
“Tell poor Stanford I didn’t have a boyfriend.”
“What was I supposed to say?” said James, exasperated.
“I don’t know, something noncommittal. He’s a perfectly sweet kid and I’ve just made him feel like an ass.”
“He’s thirty,” said Steve.
“He’s twelve,” Natasha said. “Come on.”
“Besides, you do have –”
Steve blinked twice. Then – you could always tell when his patience snapped. He put his cutlery down, very deliberately, but when he spoke it was much more Steve than Cap. (Natasha had begun to see the difference, slowly, day by day, after James came back.) “OK,” Steve said. “You know what, you have massive issues. Which, on the whole, I understand, but this is not something that you need to have an issue about. Do you just think it’s funny, is there a bet going on that I’m not in? Everybody in this building –”
“Don’t come the fucking righteous Captain America bullshit with me,” James said before Natasha could get a word in. “The worst that did happen was mindwipes and torture all around, so you can get off of that high horse and fuck right off.” He jabbed a fry at Steve for emphasis, and, really, that should have been that.
But there was a muscle going in Steve’s jaw. For a few seconds he looked sorry, but being Steve that didn’t last. “You know what?” he said. “Get the fuck over it.”
James blinked twice. “I’m sorry, what?” he said, dangerously – dangerously loud too, and Natasha, staring between them, realised all of a sudden that unless she did something now they were going to have an actual punch-up in the public mess hall of Avengers HQ.
“Oh my god,” she said.
“You fucking heard me, you fucking –”
“You pissant Paddy bastard –”
“Hey!” she yelled.
They both turned to look at her at once, movements smoothly synchronised; it was cute. Half the mess hall had gone quiet as soon as James raised his voice; someone had giggled nervously when James insulted Steve; there was a whisper, and then, slowly, the noise level ratcheted up again, bit by bit.
“Can I put this on youtube?” Natasha said. “The last time you had a fight you broke DC, let’s not forget this.”
Steve said, “Can I finish?”
James said, “No.”
Natasha said, “If you must.”
Steve said, “Thank you very much.” Now he was all Cap, precise and clear and calm. “Everybody on this team is your friend. If you’re not doing this for a joke, then it’s frankly insulting.”
“Steve,” Natasha said.
“Yes.” He looked mulish.
“Sure,” he said, and did so.
She stood up and took his seat, attacking his unfinished stew with the methodical absent-mindedness of someone who had been trained never to waste food. She couldn’t quite look at James, who was frowning at his fries; suddenly he sighed.
“It’s not too late to eliminate him.”
Natasha was startled into a laugh, and then charmed by the way he smiled at her, rueful and loving.
“Come on,” she said, “eat up. Let’s get out of here.”
But the afternoon wasn’t exactly much fun just because they were skipping class. Steve’s words hung heavy over both of them, though James refused to admit it. Insulting. Was it really about trust? Natasha didn’t think so. It was about privacy, about the need to have something to hold to herself, about her unwillingness to make her relationship with James a public spectacle, about how good it made her feel to look at him and know that she was going home to him at the end of the day, at the end of every day. Well, but that had nothing to do with privacy. That was just – oh, her head ached.
They had fetched up, somehow, in Central Park; James was holding her hand, their shoulders brushed, their steps in sync. It was a nice day, warm and breezy. Kids were playing, dogs were barking, men and women were passing them and talking and laughing. They had wandered, aimlessly, through half the park before Natasha spoke.
“Steve was right, wasn’t he,” she said.
James said, “No.”
She started laughing.
“I’m not taking out an announcement in the New York Times,” he said. “No one needs to fucking know. No one. Suddenly it’ll be all how come and since when and how’d you fall in love and people watching us and – no. And the fact remains that it is a security risk.”
Natasha tightened her fingers around his, silent, counting her breaths.
“But,” he said at last, very softly, “if we just – if they find out – they find out. That would be – OK.”
“The hospital thing,” she said, “when you had those stitches done, I kept thinking, I should be with you, and I didn’t know what it was achieving that I wasn’t. You know? What good did it do? I can’t stand in the middle of the mess hall and kiss you, that’s fine. I haven’t told Clint and Laura that we’re – us. But that I was too scared to come and be with you when you were hurt… that was stupid of me. Inexcusably stupid.”
James stopped and tugged her close to kiss her. For a minute they stood in silence; then they started walking again. “There was always someone around,” he said at last, slowly. “Always. I don’t remember – except on missions, and even then I was monitored half the time.” He worried at his bottom lip, thinking it over. “It’s not just old – old habits, from back before. It’s also that – that this means there’s a part of my life that’ll only ever be yours.”
“That no one else can pry into or poke at or stare or wonder about, because they don’t know it’s there. Yes. It’s the same for me. But we don’t – we can keep that without being –”
“Paranoid nutjobs about it?” James flashed her a grin that warmed her to the soles of her feet. “Yeah. Yeah. Hey, you want a hot dog?”
That same night Steve called her cell; Natasha, lying sprawled comfortably across James’ chest with her nose in a book, nearly fell off the couch when she leaned over to snatch it off the coffee table.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said back, easy as anything. “So, listen.” He cleared his throat –sign of nervousness. “I’m standing here in my kitchen with a bottle of Thor’s best liquor and a giant, giant apology chocolate cake, and I’d just put my shoes on to bring it to you when I realised I don’t actually know where either of you live.”
James dropped his own book and made a strangled, horrified little noise. Natasha rubbed her hand over her face, struggling to keep back a laugh that would probably have turned out a little hysterical. Steve didn’t know where they lived. Steve. Steve. Oh god, they were such messed up nutjobs.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll text you, hang on.”
It took him about thirty minutes to get to them. He really had brought a cake; she’d thought he was joking.
“Chronic sweet tooth,” Steve said wryly, meaning both himself and James. “It’s a great place.” He hung his jacket up neatly, smiling. “You called Buck?”
“Uh, there wasn’t any need to,” Natasha said, rather awkwardly.
Steve blinked; he leaned back a little and took in the hallway again. She could see him registering that there were more than one pair of James’ boots and two of his jackets lying around; then she saw a look cross his face that she never wanted to see there again – blank hurt – though he forced a laugh that, if she’d missed that expression just now, she might have thought was genuine.
“You moved in together and didn’t even let me get you a housewarming present?”
Natasha put her hand on his arm. Steve looked down at her, and, yes, there was that tightness around his eyes, the flat line to his mouth. She said, “I’m sorry.”
Quietly, earnestly, Steve said, “I’m glad you’re happy.”
She smiled at him, as honest as he’d been with her, and he blinked; then he leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
Three hours later the chocolate cake was gone and everyone was really wasted on Asgardian booze.
“I mean I’m your friend,” Steve said in disgust. “Stark’s debatable, fine, whatever, and I wouldn’t want, I don’t know, Nick or Hill knowing about my sex life either. But you didn’t even tell me. Anything.”
“So how did you figure it out?” Natasha said.
“You kept using the same shampoo,” said Steve. “Different ones but you both used the same stuff. Besides, I’ve known your dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks boyfriend for nine and a half decades.”
James put his head in his hands. Natasha was laughing helplessly.
“It’s not funny! We already did this. We blew things up over how much we didn’t trust each other and then we decided that we did, actually, in spite of everything, except apparently you don’t.” Steve poured himself another shot with remarkably steady hands.
“I do!” said Natasha. “We do!”
“You’re literally the only person who knows,” said James. “You’re literally the only person we’ve ever let into our home.”
Steve said, “Yes, but… no, that does make me feel better, actually.”
Natasha snorted; James started to laugh; Steve groaned, slumping sideways against Natasha’s shoulder, and she pulled at him till he was sprawled across her lap, his legs hanging off the couch. Being wasted was magic. Look how relaxed and clumsy Steve was, all his tense contained grace unravelled.
“I haven’t been this wasted since 1939,” he said thoughtfully.
“Same,” said James, rather gloomily.
“I’ve never been wasted at all,” Natasha said.
“Wow, we’re gonna regret this in the morning.” James yawned.
“I do get it,” said Steve.
“Shush,” Natasha said, petting his hair. “You don’t and I’m glad you don’t. I promise we’ll try and be less – less paranoid about it.”
Steve sighed. “Everyone thinks you hate each other.”
Natasha and James looked at each other, rueful.
“Maybe we kind of owe an apology,” James said.
“Housewarming party,” said Steve, amused.
“Absolutely not,” said Natasha.
“Come on.” James levered himself, rather unsteadily, out of the armchair; then he staggered around the coffee table and mostly fell on Steve’s legs. “You’re monopolising my girlfriend.”
“First one you’ve ever had that I’ve actually liked,” said Steve. There was a brief, indignant, drunken scuffle; Natasha laughed helplessly as they shoved each other around, and then manhandled her: she ended up tucked between James and the back of the couch, Steve so close that their legs were flung over his lap. He twisted round, his arm on the back of the couch, to look at them, his other hand on James’ leg near his knee. “I couldn’t do this without you,” he said, drunkenly earnest.
“Me either,” said James.
Natasha shook her head.
Three days later, when James was out, Natasha made herself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table to make a phone call.
Laura picked up on the fifth ring. “Nat! Hey, how are you?”
“Fine,” said Natasha. “Fine, you know. Are you OK? The kids?”
“They’re great. We’re great. D’you want a word?”
Did she ever. But then this call would go like all the others had for the last four months, with chitchat and fondness and teasing and Lila wanting to know how come Iron Man could fly but not Dad or Auntie Nat, and then – Natasha put her free hand on the table top, palm down, to keep it from shaking. OK, she thought. If you’re going to do this, you’re going to do this right.
“In a sec,” she said. “I – have you got some time for me? There’s something I’d like to tell you.”