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Old Self, New Century

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“I am truly sorry, friend,” Thor says solemnly. “The device in question was a gift from my mother, one I had not had need of before. She had meant for it to be used on an average Midgardian, I believe, particularly Jane. If I had known, if she were here to ask… Perhaps this would not have been the outcome. Perhaps she would have a solution.”

“No, it’s fine. The Asgardian tech saved my life, Thor. I’m not complaining.” Steve wants to complain but the alternative was being dead and whining about that seems indecent. Being nearly bisected by a slab of tank armour was the kind of thing even Captain America didn’t walk away from. Steve’s not ready to think about how bad that was. “I owe your mother a debt. I’m sorry she’s not here for me to repay it.”

“Damn it, Thor. You shrunk Captain America. I told you he was dry clean only, but did you listen?” Tony’s standing in the doorway to the exam room, arms crossed over his chest. “This is the last time we let you do the laundry.”

“It was not a cleaning machine,” Thor says defensively, turning away from Steve. “It was… Oh, I see. You were being facetious.”

“And, I was kidding as well,” Tony says brightly. “What’s not a joke is that we have another attack, this time in Toronto. Picking on Canadians is just low. We need your hammer, big guy.”

“It is always at Midgard’s service—especially where the Chitauri are concerned. It is only right that I be here to clean up what I believe is my brother’s mess. Even years later he disturbs our peace and nearly costs us your life.” Thor picks up said hammer and salutes Steve with it. “Rest, friend. Be assured that all will be well. We have defeated this enemy before.” With that, he’s out the door, cape swirling nobly.

“What he means is I have my biosci division working overtime on this. If all else fails, we’ll just try Bruce’s trick again.” Tony gives Steve a thumbs up. “Don’t worry, you won’t be pitiful forever.”

“What trick?” Bruce peers in, removes his glasses, looks again before putting them back on. “I heard that Steve… Well, look at that. We have before and after samples, we could reverse-engineer—”

“Already on it, Anger Management.” Tony pokes Bruce in the ribs. “And I meant the trick with the gamma radiation. Come on, we have to go save some beavers and Mounties.”

“We are not putting Steve—” Bruce stops talking to Tony, turns to Steve. “Ignore him, he’s insane. We’re not exposing you to gamma radiation. Is anyone getting you something to wear?” Of course Bruce is aware of the problems with suddenly changing size.

“I’m on it.” Natasha slides between them with a pile of clothing in her arms. “Go save Canada. Make the Chitauri regret finding us again. Tony, we don’t need two Hulks.”

“Okay, we’re going, and no one but me has any sense of adventure anymore. Don’t lose him, Romanov! Hold his hand when you’re crossing the street, make sure he drinks his milk. Have you seen the head of their Department H up in Maple Syrup County or wherever we’re going?” Tony says to Bruce as they disappear down the hall. “Mac-something. Red-head. What is it with red-heads in this business?”

“Hi.” Natasha kicks the exam room door closed behind her. “Glad you’re okay.” She gives him a crooked smile. “As okay as you can be. I have clothes, shoes, watch, wallet, phone, a new set of ID from scans we got when you were getting discharged, and an inhaler in case your asthma makes a return. That’s for starters, I’ll grab anything else you need on the way home.”

“You thought of everything.” Steve is painfully aware that he’s sitting here on an exam table, dressed in a papery hospital gown, bony heels bumping against the cupboard doors under the table. The doctor, he thinks she was a doctor, has long-since retreated after declaring him physically sound. Six hours ago he was nearly in two pieces, now here he is. All in one—smaller—piece. “Don’t suppose you picked up some serum while you were at it.”

“Sorry.” Natasha gives him a little shrug and smile as she puts the stack of clothes and other items on the table beside him. When she looks at him again, her expression is serious. “I really am glad you’re okay, Steve. You scared us there for a bit.”

“Scared.” He laughs quietly. Bitterness really is indecent but it’s burning him up from the inside out like there’s a fire in his guts. “First you, now me.”

“Hey, you’re going to be—” Natasha puts her hand on his arm as he cuts her off.

“Fine? Seventy years, they don’t get anywhere on this serum thing and you think I’m going to be fine? Do you know how many vaccines I just had? Because I actually lost track. How about bad the air quality is? You can’t see across Central Park some days.” It’s not fair to do this to her but Steve does it anyway and hates himself for it. “And what am I going to do with myself, assuming I survive the twenty-first century, Nat? Teach art?”

“You’d be a great teacher, Steve.” She doesn’t pull away. Instead, her hand tightens on his arm—she can almost wrap her fingers around it—and she pets him gently with her thumb. “But you’d be wasted. You’re a soldier. A leader. An agent. That doesn’t go away because you’re not Captain America anymore.”

She’s so cool and certain. She eases Steve’s pain even if he’s left with shame like ashes where the flames used to be.

“I’m a soldier. Like this?” He gestures at himself. His hand is nearly translucent, his knees are knobby and bruised. When he taps his chest, it’s like a birdcage made of bone. “This doesn’t look like a leader to me, Nat.”

“Well, you’re what we have,” she says evenly. “So suck it up, buttercup. And if I can learn to fight, so can you. Physically, you’re not as bad off as you were back in ninety-forty-whatever. You just have to be taught by someone who knows how to make the most of what you’ve got. Get dressed, let’s go home.”

Home. His apartment. Alone. Steve looks away from her so that she won’t see the fear in his eyes. How the hell is he supposed to—

“My place. You need to be under observation.” She heads for the door, doesn’t check over her shoulder to read his expression. Her voice is still so neutral, it’s what he needs to hear right now. He couldn’t take pity. “I’ll be right outside. I won’t go anywhere.”

***

“I used to have nightmares about this happening.” Steve is changing out of the oversized uniform Natasha gave him back at the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, the smallest one they had, and into one of her track suits. Fortunately, she had something that was unisex. It says NYU in large letters across the chest and it’s comfortably worn, soft. Even if it’s small, it hangs loose on him. She has curves where he doesn’t. “It’s worse than I thought.”

“Does it hurt?” She bumps the bedroom door open enough to see him but doesn’t come in. “I’ve got some pills. I think some of them are still good.”

It hurts. His bones ache and his joints ache and his lungs ache. “Yes, but—”

“Then you should take something.” Funny how different Natasha looks, too, from this angle: substantial, when he always thought of her as small. She leans in the doorway, arms crossed under her breasts, and her expression doesn’t allow for argument. “You’re gonna feel like shit from the vaccines,” she offers, as though it’ll let him skirt around his pride and his fear. It works.

“Sure. Well.” Steve holds his arms out. “Guess we can share clothes now?”

“Can’t wait to see you in hot pants, hot stuff.” Natasha grins and winks at him. “Come on, you need to eat.”

“I can get myself something.” Steve picks up the re-folded uniform; he has no idea where he’s going to put it. Maybe he can borrow a duffel bag from her. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m okay. If you need to catch up with the rest of the team…”

Natasha just turns her back to him and walks away, hips swinging. She says more with body language than most people could in an essay—she’s not having any of his shit. “I ordered from this place down the street from me—authentic American down-home cooking. Thought you’d like that. Lucky for us, they’re open late.”

“Nat.” Steve follows her out, clothes still in his arms. The fold-out couch is made up into a bed, his medicines are arranged neatly on an end table next to his other personal items. “I’m okay.”

“Yeah, I know.” She turns around, hands on her hips, and shakes her hair back in that way she does that’s like punctuation. “You’re breathing. You’re not gonna die. That’s great. This isn’t just about you.”

“It’s not?” Steve feels eighteen again. No, maybe twelve. His bare feet are icy cold, his chest hurts when he inhales, he’s about to crawl into a bed that isn’t his—used to be at Bucky’s house, now it’s hers.

“We need you,” she says bluntly. “The team isn’t the team without you, and it’s not the shield and it’s not the great hair or the great ass. It’s you. So… maybe this is about you but it’s not about coddling you or keeping you safe. This is about me getting you back to the team.”

“Like this?” Steve wasn’t fit for service back when the world was desperate for men to throw themselves in front of a bullet, he’s sure as hell not fit to lead a team of heroes, gods, and geniuses. “Because if you want to get me back to the team, maybe you should go kidnap some evil geniuses or build a time machine and go back to save Erskine.”

“I’m starting to think the serum did just more than give you great abs,” Natasha says, just as an alert sounds to let her know someone’s at the door downstairs. “The Steve I know doesn’t back down from a fight. I thought that was why you got picked for this thing: because you didn’t give up, because you thought outside the box.” The alert sounds again. “I’m gonna go get whatever the hell the science gurus at SHIELD think you need so much it can’t wait until the morning. And when I come back, you tell me whether or not I’m wasting my time.”

***

Turns out what Steve apparently can’t live without is something called an EpiPen. Four of them, in two little kits that he’s supposed to carry around as well as his inhaler—at least until they find out if the inhaler is enough and whether or not he has any serious allergies.

Steve is on the fold-out bed, reading the instructions, while Natasha serves up dinner. He isn’t sure he can eat, he’s so knotted up with shame and resentment. As he reads, he can’t help thinking how much his mother would have loved knowing he had these, how interested she’d have been in all the things available to him now.

Life would have been so much better if he’d had these when he was a kid. Apparently there was even a junior version of these things. Steve’s mother had worried about him so much, worried that he was going to die without her to give him his various treatments, advocate for him with doctors.

Yet, he’d lived—thanks to her at first, then thanks to Erskine. He’d lived a long time, he’d been incredibly fortunate, but even before the serum he’d been a survivor. Kind of an idiot, trying to throw his life away for a good cause, sure, but a survivor. And he’d been so damn sure he’d had something to offer back then, even as he was.

“You want to watch something?” Natasha comes in with a tray that’s got their meals on it—chicken, gravy, dumplings, corn pudding. It smells amazing. “I think you’d like Buffy. It’s about this cute blonde who has to save the world from vampires whether she wants to or not. You really should watch it.”

“I’m glad this happened.” Steve looks up into her wide, startled eyes. “This.”

“Why?” Startled gives way to serious. Natasha slides the tray onto the other end table and then crawls up to sit with him.

“I forgot who I am, what I believe.” Steve lines up the epinephrine kits with the rest of his belongings. “I turned into someone I don’t like, Nat. Someone who thinks that good looks and physical strength makes a person more valuable because they’re better in a fight or on a poster. None of that is true. I could do as much good in the world as an art teacher as I could as Captain America—it just wouldn’t be as obvious. I would rather be like this the rest of my life than be someone who forgot that.”

When Steve risks meeting Natasha’s eyes again—he’s afraid of seeing disappointment there, he’s disappointed in himself—she’s looking at him with a little frown. It’s not disappointment or anger there, it’s thoughtfulness, maybe a bit of calculation. The corner of her mouth curls up in a crooked little smile.

“So, you’re in?” she asks quietly.

“Yeah, I’m in. And I’m—” Steve is about to say he’s sorry when she leans over and kisses him on the mouth. The first time it’s soft, then when he touches his fingers to her cheek without thinking about it—anything to keep her close—she kisses him again. This isn’t the way she kissed him on the escalator. That was for show and this is something else, slow and open and intimate.

Now. She’s kissing him like that now. He’s too busy kissing her back to argue with himself about whether it’s a good idea or what her motive is. All that matters is the softness of her lips and the slick dart of her tongue between his teeth and she makes this little noise in the back of her throat that’s more arousing than anything he’s ever felt in this body.

When Steve leans into her, Natasha lies back and draws him down with her. His aches and pains fade in the rush of wanting her. She tangles her fingers in his hair and kisses him hard. Their bodies fit together, her softness suits his new angles, they match in a way they never did before and that in itself turns him on. He pulls back a little to read her face, to make sure she’s okay.

“I’m fine,” Natasha says. She knows him too well. He believes her, though. Her cheeks are flushed, her lips are red and slick from being kissed, her eyes are bright. She leans up to kiss him again and he wants so badly to ask her why now, why not before, what’s changed.

Steve’s not stupid. He doesn’t ask. Truth is, it’s none of his business why Natasha has sex with someone or doesn’t, even if that person is him. It’s her choice to invite it and it’s his choice to say yes or no—there’s no way in hell he’s saying no, not tonight, no matter what he thinks of himself.

He doesn’t do anything but kiss her mouth and her stubborn jaw and the perfumed curve of her throat. When he kisses her there too hard and she sighs, lets her head fall back, he does it again—this time with teeth. She exhales something like ‘oh, God’ and clenches her hand in his hair, presses his mouth to her skin like an order.

This is something Steve would never do, never hurt her on purpose, but he does it now because she asks him for it. He leaves rose petals in the shape of his kisses on her throat and her clavicles and by the time he’s done there she’s unbuttoned her shirt. The white swells of her breasts, the shadowed valley between them, are his to explore, bordered by the beetle-wing green lace of her brassiere.

Natasha takes one of his hands in hers, steals it from where it cups the silk-covered outer curve of her breast, and puts his fingers to the clasp between the cups of her bra. Steve props himself up on his elbows, watching her face, her arousal-dark eyes and the way she bites her lip as she tucks one arm behind her head to pillow it. Then, she tugs his hair again with the hand still wound in it.

Steve looks down to see his long, slender hands, hands he hasn’t seen in decades but remembers well. They’re scarred from years of fighting, that hasn’t changed, but they’re still dexterous. He unclasps Natasha’s bra and opens it to bare her breasts. Her nipples are the same rose as her lips, the pattern of the lace is printed in pink lines on her white skin.

She likes his open mouth on her skin, his teeth and tongue on her nipples. He lies between her thighs, her breasts cupped in his hands, and divides his attention between them. Her moans shiver right down his spine every time he catches one of her nipples between his teeth and tongues it, sucks it hard so that his teeth press into her flesh. His erection is caught between his belly and the bed, when he rocks his hips the friction sends heat rushing through him and his breath catches in his throat.

“Stop,” Natasha says breathlessly and the word cuts through everything. Steve stops, rolls away as she wriggles out from under him. He’s about to ask if she’s all right when she grabs his inhaler from the bedside table and throws it at him. “Use that,” she orders as she strips off her blouse and bra all at once. “I don’t want to have to call 911. Or explain why to Coulson.”

“Point taken.” Steve can’t believe he’s still breathing without it. Natasha is more perfect than he’d imagined, with her pale skin mottled from his kisses and flushed with arousal. She stops, hands on the buttons of her jeans, to fix him with an emerald glare from behind the tumble of her red curls.

“Use it.” Natasha points at the inhaler, which he’s already forgotten. “I’ll get naked if you do,” she offers.

Well. That’s incentive. Any frustration at having to accept the new necessity of using the inhaler is lost in watching Natasha slither out of her jeans and underwear together. She tosses them onto the floor after the blouse and bra, then leans against the pillows piled against the back of the couch and beckons for him to join her as he exhales.

She’s so casual about it, so relaxed. Steve still hasn’t entirely caught up with the sexual revolution, such as it was, that lets her wait for him like that: sitting naked with her feet apart on the bed, forearms resting on her knees, hands limp like sleeping flowers. He was raised to expect coyness or reluctance. When he’s seen either from her, it’s always been for a purpose, for her purpose.

There’s neither shyness in her nor seduction, she is what she is and she’s allowing him to know her. She could be a sculpture, the entrance to a temple, cut out of white stone. There’s a sacredness to her calm and her openness and the trust he sees in her face. He knows that’s her real bareness there, not her nudity but her presence as herself.

“Take your clothes off,” she says gently, reminding him that he’s still the naif in this dichotomy. “If you want,” she adds. “You can keep them on if you need.”

“It’s not going to change what’s under them,” Steve says, more to himself than to her. He puts the inhaler back on the table before he peels off the sweatshirt.

“Does it bother you that much?” Natasha is watching him without any judgment.

“Yes.” Steve may think less of himself for that, but it’s true. He’s ashamed of himself, all his sharp edges and fragility. He pauses with his thumbs hooked in the waistband of the trackpants; his hipbones press into the heels of his hands. “I feel like a knickknack. Like I should be on a shelf, out of the way.”

“It’s okay. You’re wrong, but it’s okay.” Natasha holds out a hand to him, palm up. “Do you want me to help?”

“No. I want… I want you like that.” Focusing on her makes it easier. He slides the track pants down over his too-thin thighs. He’s still half-hard, wanting her hasn’t waned even though his mind wandered.

“Why?” She watches him undress with interest, not aversion, catches her lower lip between her teeth when she meets his eyes.

“Because I can touch you like that, if you’ll let me,” he says as he strips down. “Because you look like I could worship you that way.”

“What if I don’t want to be worshipped?” Her smile is mischievous, then she beckons to him.

“Then tell me what you do want.” Steve tosses his clothes aside, stifling the instinct to stop and fold them.

“To be worshipped,” she admits, laughing. When he gets close enough, she takes his face in his hands and kisses him on the mouth. “And to return the favour.” He doesn’t ask why but his breath catches, then she kisses him again, softer this time. “Trust me.”

“I do.” He’s just scared of her pity.

“Maybe this is me taking advantage of your misfortune,” Natasha murmurs as she draws him in so that he’s kneeling between her thighs. "Also, I nearly lost you today, Steve."

Oh. His mind isn’t letting him process that yet. He can’t think about that beyond the most vague, basic terms. Can’t, not just doesn’t want to—but he remembers the fear all at once and it drives him to kiss her hard as though he can find some kind of refuge in her. Her breath catches, her strong hands splay out across his back, and she pulls him close against her. He’s hard again, in spite of the fear and the ghostly memory of pain, hard and hot against her cool belly.

“I want you inside me,” she says bluntly, between kisses that sting from her teeth raking his lips.

It’s like setting fire to something in him, something that doesn’t remember he’s back in the wrong body—his own body—or something that doesn’t care. Steve grabs her by the hips, pulls her toward him, and how easily he moves her surprises him. Surprises Natasha, too, because she laughs and then kisses him, both hands on his face, when he leans over her.

Steve expects it to be awkward, this body has always been awkward and disobedient, but Natasha is all sinew and grace under her curves. She wraps her thighs around his hips, shifts under him, and the head of his cock slides against her slick folds. She feels like heaven already, it shakes a whimper out of him, his hips jerk involuntarily but she moves with him and his cock pushes into her.

“Fuck me.” It sounds like a demand but it feels like permission. It comes as a relief as he’s scrabbling for some self-control.

He doesn’t have a choice, not without fighting his body, fighting her. He doesn’t want any other choice. Her hands are on his ass now, her nails mark hot little crescents against his skin. It’s not him fucking her, not the way he learned to think about it, it’s fucking—both of them fucking, bodies working together, grinding toward some kind of perfect state of pleasure.

When Steve pushes himself up, locks his arms, Natasha looks up at him with a heat he never expected to see directed at him. She doesn’t say anything, the tangle of her hair and the flush of her cheeks and the red of her bitten lips say enough. When he thrusts into her wet, tight cunt at this new angle, she closes her eyes and cries out, her nails leave hot ribbons of pain across his shoulders. So he does it again and again and then she says something.

“Don’t stop.” She opens her eyes again and her expression is so vulnerable now, it’s almost fearful.

“I can’t,” he says, too far gone for anything but honesty. His skin is slick with sweat, sparking with pleasure, and he needs her, needs this, like he needs to breathe.

Natasha isn’t quiet, not now, not for him. She arches under him, gasping his name, and her breasts bounce with every hard thrust until she cups them in her own hands, her nails dimpling the white flesh. The marks of his mouth stand out dark against the flush down her throat, counting them helps him keep control long enough to turn her gasps and moans into an uncensored wail of pleasure as she orgasms.

When she comes, she shatters Steve’s fragile self-control. Something in the back of his head is frantic, fearful that he’s going to hurt her when he comes, even as he is. His body drives on in spite of it and then he’s coming in a heady rush. His hands are tight on her hips, he looks down to see his ruddy cock pushing between her glossy pink folds, and he curses over and over under his breath. She’s so tight around him and so wet and he can smell her, almost taste her, and she gets slicker as he spills inside her.

The wash of his orgasm is a relief but then Natasha’s hands close on his wrists and he looks up to meet her wild, green eyes. Steve leans down and kisses her hard. His heart is pounding so hard he’s sure she can feel it through his chest. They’re both still trembling, bodies still moving together, and Natasha tangles her hands in his sweat-damp hair as she kisses him back.

“Don’t stop,” she says again, this time her voice is shaking. “Please, make me come again.” At first he thought the tremor in her voice was pleasure but then the emotions behind it sink through the haze of his fading orgasm.

“Yes.” Steve never thought he’d be the one soothing Natasha tonight, that he’d have anything to offer her that would bring her comfort, not like this. He can’t protect her, can’t fight, can’t do anything but give her what she needs—so he does.

Steve pulls out of her, biting his lip to silence an inadvertent whimper, and moves down between her thighs. He pushes two fingers inside her and is rewarded by her little gasp and the way she clenches around the intrusion. She’s slick and bittersweet when he gets his mouth on her, he tastes his semen as he slips his tongue between her outer lips to find her clitoris but it’s actually a bit arousing, hardly a deterrent.

Natasha says something like, “Oh, God, that, please,” but he can’t hear her over the rush of blood in his head as he goes down on her. Steve fucks her like that, two fingers and then three, curving them inside her to find the place that makes her wild. When he finds it, finds the right rhythm of fucking her and tonguing her, he’s rewarded with her unfettered responses.

Her voice bounces off the walls, she shakes, she pulls his hair and grinds against his mouth, she begs him not to stop. Steve’s survived poverty in Brooklyn, then Hydra and World War Two, and everything since—including Bucky—only to risk being murdered by Natasha’s furious neighbors and he doesn’t care. He makes her come again and again until he can hardly breathe from it and finally she pushes him away unceremoniously with her heel against his shoulder.

“Sorry, sorry,” Natasha gasps seconds later, reaching for him until she grabs some convenient part of him, one of his wrists, to pull him back to her. Steve lets himself collapse against her chest, too exhausted for dignity. His lungs hurt but he’s not actually dying and he says a silent prayer of thanks to whatever saint is in charge of modern medicine.

“‘Sokay,” he manages to say. His tongue is reluctant to return to its usual duty of making words.

“Are you all right?” She rolls them over, side by side, and pulls away so that she can see his face. Her hair is in complete disarray, her cheeks are bright pink, tiny pearls of sweat bead the bridge of her nose and the delicate little wisps along the edge of her hairline.

“Inhaler was a good idea,” he admits, and is pleased that the words come out comprehensibly.

“You want it again?” She reaches for it. “You can use it twice.”

“Better safe than sorry.” It’s significantly less of a blow to his pride to use it when he’s cradled against her bare breasts, listening to the drum beat of her heart, still tasting her on his lips. She tugs the sheets and a blanket over him and they lie there in companionable silence for several minutes.

“I’ll reheat dinner,” Natasha says, once he’s given her the inhaler to put back in its place. “Since it’s my fault it’s cold.”

“And you should feel terrible about that,” Steve says, laughing. He has no idea where all that came from and regrets nothing. His aches and pains are gone and, for the moment, he feels at peace with himself—really at peace, for the first time in a very long time.

***

“Report?” When Natasha finally checks her phone she finds a message from Coulson texting to check in an hour ago. Natasha got some dinner into Steve before he passed out cold, which is a good thing or she’d feel more guilty and conflicted than she already does.

“Sleeping. Doing fine,” she sends. Then, “We had a late dinner. He seems in good spirits.”

“This looks permanent.” Coulson’s grim resignation comes across clearly.

“He’ll be fine.” Natasha’s not sure but she says it anyway. Steve’s fine right now, asleep with his golden head on her shoulder. He’s one of her favourite people, one of the only people she trusts, in any form. It’s just easier for her to admit she feels affection for him like this. “I’ll work with him, get him back in the field.”

“You think you can do that?” She can just imagine Coulson backspacing the smiley face off the end of the text message in order to stay professional.

“I was fourteen when I started training,” she points out, thumbs tapping irritably at the screen. “I managed to hit my targets just fine. I still do. How are his medical records?”

“He’s in better shape than he was. They want you to bring him back tomorrow, though. Not sure he’s Army-quality anymore, they’ll let him retire, but S.H.I.E.L.D. will take him.”

“You just want him all to yourself.” Natasha doesn’t blame him.

“Being practical. He’s an asset.”

“That’s what I keep telling him. You better believe it, Coulson.”

“I do.” That’s one of the things she likes about Coulson. He’s loyal.

“Then he’ll be back running the Avengers before you know it. I’ll have him there by noon tomorrow,” she promises. “He needs his sleep.”

“I’ll let them know.”

Natasha climbs out of bed and tucks Steve in as he settles back down without waking. He’s exhausted—nearly dying and ending up in a new body could do that to anyone. For a while, she sits on the edge of the bed to listen to his breathing. It’s steady and clear, no catch or rattle. That’s her main concern.

As tempting as it is to crawl back in bed with him, to make sure he’s all right, he’s not a child. Natasha folds the tracksuit and leaves it at the head of the bed, by the pillows, before she takes a shower. She has sex with people as necessary, though she usually prefers to avoid it as it can be dangerous at worst and time-consuming at best. She almost never has sex for her own personal reasons, simply to connect and to enjoy someone else’s body with hers.

She can trust Steve to respect her boundaries. He’s always so good about that—she wouldn’t have gotten in bed with him, in any form, otherwise. It’s also one of the reasons it would have been so terrible to lose him. There are far too few people in the world she trusts, but that’s not on her, it’s on the world.

If she sheds any tears in the shower, she refuses to admit it, even to herself. It had taken her the hours in which they were running tests on Steve—after Jane rushed Thor the Asgardian device—to get his blood out from under her nails. She’s not going to dwell on that or how ridiculous it is to think of fucking as intimate when she’s held his body, his organs and his bones, together with her bare hands. She needs to call Jane, to thank her, for driving full-tilt through a Chitauri invasion to save Steve’s life.

Natasha braids her hair like she did when she was young and falls into bed, curls in on herself and tries to sleep. It comes with the nightmares of blood and fire and the smell of the Chitauri that she couldn’t get out of her clothes or her skin last time. At least she could throw out the clothes. She sleeps lightly, restlessly, for some reason she dreams of fighting Clint to save him.

Sleep doesn’t last long enough. It’s the small hours of the morning when Natasha wakes again, sees the zero before the three on her clock and stifles a groan. Something’s wrong, though, and at first she thinks it’s the lingering images of her nightmares. She’s very still, listening to the breath of her building and her blood in her ears and then she hears Steve murmur in his sleep. Oh.

Natasha’s out of bed before she can think twice. By the time she reaches him, he’s thrashing, drowning in the blankets as he fights to sit up.

“It’s okay.” She pulls the blankets away from his limbs, pulls him into her arms instead. “Steve, you’re okay.”

“Nat?” He’s feverish and afraid and now she’s sorry she slept in her own bed.

“I’m right here.”

“I was dreaming, I was… I was… I was different.” Steve’s voice shakes.

“You’re okay,” she promises.

“That happened. All of it. The Chitauri, the device.” He pushes her away and she lets him go. He back up until he’s huddled against the back of the couch, staring at his own hands. “It’s real. I…” He checks his unmarked side, the one she held together with her bare hands, and then seems to realize he’s naked because he grabs a pillow to cover himself. “I’m naked. And small. We’re sure this isn’t still a bad dream?”

“No, you’re awake. And you have a fever,” she says, trying to be soothing. It’s not her forte. “From the vaccinations.” In the light coming in the window, just ambient street light, she can clearly make out the wild-eyed expression he’s wearing.

“You. Did we?” Steve gestures between them.

“Have sex, yes, we did.” He’d seemed fine, lucid, consenting. Her hands go icy cold in a heartbeat. “Are you okay?” She doesn’t want to touch him, just in case.

“About us having sex, yes, that part’s great.” In spite of everything, Steve flashes her a grin. “Everything else is… not.” He trails off, looking around. “That was the good part of yesterday. You. You were. Yesterday. Last week. Year. Years. It’s been years. I think I have a fever,” he says as he focuses on her again.

“You do. I’ll get you something for it, and a thermometer.” Natasha slides off the bed. “You’re going to be fine.”

“I have you,” he says dreamily, curling up in the blankets again. “Of course I’ll be fine.”

“It’s gonna be a long night, Rogers." She hopes it's just a figure of speech.

His fever is 104, high enough for her to call Bruce while she's looking for something to help bring it down. Advil, cold packs, electrolyte drink from the fridge. Bruce finally picks up just as her hands are starting to sweat from anxiety.

"Natasha?" Bruce doesn't sound like he just woke up. Probably staying overnight in the lab, which makes her feel marginally less guilty.

"Hey, he's got a fever. It's pretty high. Hundred and four. Is that bad?"

"It's not great. Did you give him something for it?"

"Trying now." Steve is grumpy and uncooperative when she shakes him gently to wake him. "Rogers, you gotta take this," she says, trying not to sound worried. "Come on."

"I don't need it," Steve mutters, even as he obediently takes the two pills she gives him, then swallows them down with the cold drink.

"If you can't get it under 102, or if he has trouble keeping fluids down, call me," Bruce says. He doesn't sound too concerned, just cautious. "We'll bring him in and put a line in, bring his temperature down that way. Lukewarm bath or shower, cold drinks, you know the drill."

"I'm not cut out for this century," Steve says once Natasha puts the phone down. The words come out in pieces from between his chattering teeth.

"You're full of vaccines." Natasha is not going to have any of this bullshit, even if he is sick. "They do it to me, too. Let's get some clothes on you and you'll feel better."

"I might feel even better if you took yours off," Steve says even as he takes the sweatshirt she offers him.

"I'm worried about you dying on my watch and you're hitting on me?" Natasha can't pretend to be irritated, she gives in to laughter. "You are a tenacious little bastard."

"Only because I know you like my attention," Steve says sententiously. "Or you sounded like you liked it earlier. You could ask the neighbours."

"I can't tell if you're delirious or trying to make me feel better." Natasha waits until he's wriggled into the track pants before handing him his drink. "Drink that."

"I can't do both?" Steve is still shivering in spite of the beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He takes the bottle from her and drinks, as ordered.

"No." Natasha gets a crocheted blanket from the chair in the corner--details, to make it look like someone normal lives here-and folds it diagonally. "I'm not good at this. I'm sorry."

"Not good at what?" Steve leans forward so she can wrap the blanket around him.

"Being, I don't know. Comforting and things. I know what to do, what people do. I just don't know if it works."

"It works." Steve puts his thin, hot hands over hers. "Trust me." His eyes are glassy but he's focused, at least.

"I do. Trust you." Saying it out loud makes her voice crack embarrassingly and her own eyes burn with tears. "Just be okay, okay?"

"I promise. I'll drink my juice and everything, Nat." Steve lets go of her to wipe sweat from his face with the sleeve of his--her--sweatshirt.

"You better." Natasha slips into bed with him and slides an arm around his shoulders. Steve leans his damp head on her shoulder. Heat radiates off him like a furnace. "I need to prove a lot of people wrong."

"Won't let you down, Nat."