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There is a part of Natasha Romanov that had always been Natalie Rushman. Natalie was not a lie as much as she was a distortion of the truth, though that truth is illusive at best. Black Widow is a woman of masks, of layers. She is built this way on purpose, first by Red Room and then by S.H.I.E.L.D. There are days where she was sure she was nothing but masks, some broken, layer after layer. Now she knows that isn't true.

She knows because while Natalie Rushman respected Pepper Potts, looked up to her, strived for her approval, Natalie Rushman sure as hell didn't fall in love with Pepper Potts. Natasha spent her life first mourning and then spiting love, but in the days after she returns from her mission at Stark Industries, she finds she can't shake the feeling in the pit of her stomach whenever she thinks of Pepper. It's an amazing, giddy feeling on the surface, but underneath it is bottomless, sinking in on it's own depths.

What's worse is that Clint seems to notice. Clint is the only person she trusts with any portion of herself that surfaces from under her masks, and as such he is invaluable to her. He is also the only being in the face of the universe who can properly read her emotions. As such it's not particularly surprising when Clint finally corners her. It was bound to happen eventually.
"Natasha." she simply raises an eyebrow in response. "You've been acting off lately."
"Have I?"
"Don't give me that bullshit, we both know you have." This she must concede, and does so with silence. "I'll admit you had me positively perplexed, but now I'm sure I've figured it out." he waits for her to respond, and when she refuses to do so, he continues. "You've been mysteriously quiet whenever a certain Pepper Potts is mentioned."
"Clint, am I ever not especially quiet?" She hopes the look she gives him is incredulous, but she worries it's actually the mild panic she feels beginning to set in.
"Not this quiet, and you usually don't blush when I bring people up. Are you feeling emotions again, Tasha?" She nods, swallowing the urge to punch him. "Well then we must talk all about it. Don't worry dear, I'll eventually get you to admit to being in love."
She punches him.

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A few weeks after the Avengers pulled together to kick Loki way the hell out of Manhattan, S.H.I.E.L.D. recruits one Pepper Potts. It's the logical choice, really, seeing as apparently Tony's girlfriend is the only one with any prayer of keeping him in line, she's already passed security clearances and she is easily one of the most capable people on Earth. To Fury, Natasha coldly re-states her impression of Ms. Potts, and supports the recruitment. To Clint, Natasha swears a blue streak in three separate languages and then goes to the gym for some hardcore super-spy sparring.

A few months later, Fury decides it's most convenient from a practical perspective, as well as in terms of publicity, to house all the Avengers in the same place. If nothing else, the superheroes should be able to at least keep each other in some kind of line. Natasha points out security risks. Fury points out that they're goddamn superheroes and of course their quarters will have the best security systems available to man, woman, or Asgardian. So arms are twisted, and they all move in to Stark Tower. This time, Natasha and Clint get drunk. It isn't easy, but they're really quite dedicated when they have a goal in mind.

Which is why Pepper runs into Natasha at 2:00 am on a Wednesday morning. Natasha is sitting on one of the communal kitchen counters when Pepper turns on the lights.
"Natalie! Sorry, Natasha. You nearly scared the crap out of me."
"Sorry." Natasha's mouth curves into a half-smile, her legs swinging off the counter ledge. Pepper is wearing nothing but an oversized t-shirt, her hair rumpled and her eyes blurry with sleep. Natasha thinks she looks beautiful, and her gut clenches, forcing her to look away.
"What're you doing up?" Pepper asks as she makes her way to the fridge, pouring herself some orange juice.
"Could ask the same of you." Pepper looks at her sideways.
"I was thirsty. You, on the other hand, were sitting in the kitchen with the lights off, not eating or drinking anything, at two in the morning. How concerned should I be?"
"Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to run off and do anything rash that may cause property damage or a media relations nightmare." Pepper laughs for a moment before going quiet again, walking around the counter to place a hand on Natasha's knee.
"That's not why I asked, you know." there is a pause that, for once, is unintentional on Natasha's part, and perhaps that's why it feels so tense. Natasha tells herself this, anyway. Pepper continues, "When we worked at Stark Industries, when you were Natalie, I...I did not consider you a friend, first because I was angry at Tony, and then because you were my subordinate. And I know we haven't seen much of each other lately, but...I liked Natalie Rushman, and...I think I'll like you even more, if you give me a chance."
Natasha can barely breathe, can barely think. One part of her knows that she has to stay away from Pepper, because if she doesn't it'll only break someone's heart--most likely hers--but another part wants so badly to be close to this woman, whatever the cost. Finally, she answers by way of saying. "I have nightmares of Russia. That's why I'm up."
She knows, by Pepper's smile, by the mug of hot chocolate that is thrust in her hands five minutes later, that Pepper understands what she meant.

Another three months pass and now there are two people Natasha trust. She and Pepper watch movies together in the middle of the night, they go shopping and get drinks together and wander aimlessly through museums. They laugh and talk and tell secrets. They comfort each other in dark hours of the night, when Natasha wakes from a nightmare that leaves her with a lingering desire to be alert, when Pepper dreams of Tony almost dying, twice now. Natasha wishes Tony weren't such a monumental idiot, for Pepper's sake, but try as she might she can't hate the man. He's a bit of an asshole, yes, but underneath all that he's a good human being. And Pepper loves him, so...that's points in his favor. Meanwhile Natasha ignores the way her heart rate literally doubles when Pepper smiles, ignores the tingling feeling when Pepper touches her. And if they sit too close together, or hold hands as they go off and explore the world, if Pepper lays with her head in Natasha's lap and lets Natasha run her fingers through her long, red-blonde hair, well, that's okay because that's what friends do, right? Natasha doesn't exactly know. She's observed a lot of friends before, but until Clint hadn't actually had any friends, and she knows girls interact differently with each other, and all this is totally normal. Right? She can do self-delusion. She's good at it.

Until one night, when they're coming home late. They've been out dancing together, ballroom dancing. Turns out they're both more than proficient at waltzing and swing and even salsa. Blessedly, the tango was not involved. But they're walking back to Stark Towers--which Pepper normally isn't allowed to do without security trailing her, but tonight she's with Natasha, so that's not an issue--and they're still high on music and adrenaline, dancing down the sidewalk. Pepper nearly trips on a sidewalk crack, and Natasha pulls her in to prevent her from falling. There they are, lit only by the moon and a dying streetlamp, faces inches apart, Pepper's hands on Natasha's shoulders, Natasha's arms around Pepper's waist. Slowly, painfully slowly, Pepper raises her hand to Natasha's face, and then, without thought, they're kissing. It's slow, deep and painful with want, and when they finally break apart, Pepper's breathing is heavy, her checks are red. Her head falls to Natasha's shoulders.
"Shit." Pepper whispers, muffled by Natasha's coat. "Oh shit." Natasha just holds her, pretends the world isn't falling apart, but it is. She can't delude herself any more.

There is no hangover the next morning because they weren't drunk, but Pepper won't meet Natasha's eyes, and somehow that hurts more. That night the entire Avenger's crew watches Mean Girls together, but for once Natasha isn't paying attention to Steve's reaction or Clint's snide comments or Bruce's corrections, she isn't paying attention to the movie. Instead she notices how Tony has his armed wrapped around Pepper, how he nuzzles her neck, and she notices how this is more painful to her than a knife wound to the belly (and she would know). She excuses herself early, ignores also the quizzical look Clint gives her, and goes to bed.

That night she dreams of kissing Pepper.

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It's another week before Natasha lets Pepper find her. The leaves have turned an orange to rival Natasha's hair and the two of them sit in the park. After moments of silence, Pepper finally speaks.
"I can't leave him."
"I know." She wants so badly to argue, to explain all the reasons Tony's shit for Pepper, but she can't. She doesn't hate him.
"I can't leave him, he needs me too much." tears are beginning to trickle down Pepper's face, and Natasha feels helpless.
"It's alright," she finally whispers, brushing Pepper's tears away. "I'll disappear. You won't see me anymore."
"We live in the same building," Pepper replies with a choking laugh. Natasha just arches an eyebrow.
"Seriously, Pep, tell me that you never want to see me again and I promise, I will do everything in my power to make that happen." Her firm, unwavering mask of emotional neutrality begins to slip but she doesn't let it. She can't let this hurt Pepper more, and she knows that Pepper would never forgive herself for causing her the sheer amount of pain she's feeling.
"Is that what you want?" Natasha can't lie to Pepper, so the mask falls away entirely.
"I want you." Her voice has easily dropped half an octave, rough with emotion. Pepper's fully crying now. "It's okay," Natasha strokes her face, pushing her hair behind her ears. "You'll forget me."
"No," Pepper whispers, embracing her, "I won't remember anything else."

Chapter Text

When Natasha didn't answer her door, Clint tried the ventilation system. She was crying. Natasha Romanov was crying. He slipped out of the vents, landing with a soft thud. Suddenly she turned, gun raised, to face him, tears still streaming down her face.
"Jesus, Clint, are you trying to get shot?" she holstered the gun.
"You wouldn't open your door."
"Yeah, well...." she broke completely into tears again, and Clint caught her, held her up, maneuvered them both until they were sitting on the couch.
"Hey, there," he rubbed her back in slow circles as she nestled into his shoulder. "What's going on?"
"She's gone. She couldn't or wouldn't leave him....and I can't get her out of my system. She's everywhere she..."
"Does she love you?"
"It doesn't matter."
"It's all that matters."
"I don't believe you."
"Call Coulson." Natasha tries to laugh and fails.
"Don't bring your boyfriend in to this, she's gone."
"Then why are you the one running away?"
"What do you mean?" Her face is a mixture of contempt and genuine curiosity. She has an idea what he means, but she's not quite sure, and Natasha Romanov, no matter how emotionally compromised, does not jump to conclusions.
"The mission you just volunteered for. Fury told me he'd been trying to keep you on short missions so you could continue to 'bond' with our teammates, but you specifically requested a longer deployment."
"I've been myself for far too long, Clint. It's not a good thing, it....hurts, and it leaves me weak, compromised."
"It's not a weakness to be human sometimes."
"You never answered my question, you know."
"Which one."
"Does she love you."
"I....I don't know, I think....maybe...." finally, with a sigh, she gives him a proper answer. "Yes. She does love me. And I love her. I've never...never loved anyone this way before" And with that she dissolves once more, and Clint holds her against his chest for hours.

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Natasha leaves for the mission, and it snows in New York. Pepper steps outside, feels the cold flakes against her cheeks, and wonders if it's snowing where Natasha is, if she's cold. She imagines them in mittens, getting hot chocolate together and having snowball fights with the rest of the Avengers in Central Park. She doesn't notice the tears frozen down her face, but Tony does.

It's Thanksgiving, and Natasha, deep undercover in Czech Republic, pauses for a moment to think of her team, no doubt making a spectacular mess of having dinner together. She thinks of Pepper getting them all sorted out, scavenging the meal, and she wishes she were there. She loves seeing Pepper in her element. She loves Pepper. And with that her stomach churns and she slips more firmly into the role she's been assigned once more.

On the first of December, Pepper runs in to Clint as he's watching another action movie. She sits and watches with him, both of them missing Natasha for different reasons. Finally, as the movie ends, Pepper works up the final piece of nerve she needs to speak.
"Do you think she'll be home by Christmas?" Clint gives her an appraising look before answering. She seems so desperate. He leans forward, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"I think you need to leave Tony."

Natasha's almost angry that she finishes up her mission on Christmas Eve. She was hoping it would take her until spring at least, but it turned out her target was an idiot in love. So horribly easy to manipulate. That's what love does to you, she repeats to herself as she steps on the plane back to New York. It only makes you weak. But she can't help dreaming of Pepper again when she finally drifts off to sleep.

At three on Christmas morning, Coulson debriefs Agent Romanov. When they finish, Natasha looks up at him.
"You should be at home with Clint."
"And you should get some sleep. Come on." they climb into the car together, and are driven back to Avengers Tower.
It's five am when Natasha slides under the covers in her bed, but she doesn't sleep. She listens, and she longs for those evenings when Pepper would make her something warm to drink and hold her until the sun came up.

Christmas in Avengers Tower, as it's come to be called, begins at noon. Clint slips through the vents to wake Natasha up, and instead of shooting him she gives him a hug and t-shirt she knows he'll never wear that proclaims, in bold letters, "I'm not gay but my boyfriend is."
It's funny because it's true, and they both have a good laugh. This is the third Christmas they've given each other ridiculous t-shirts. It's become Natasha's favorite tradition. The shirt Clint gives her says, "Not a Robot" and has a picture of R2-D2. Afterwards they journey down to the communal living room in their new shirts, where (by some act of god) a fully decorated Christmas tree awaits them. They are the first of the team to arrive, and while Clint jokes about unwrapping all the presents just to spoil the surprise, Natasha grows increasingly nervous. Instead of sitting on the couch with Clint, she stands against the wall opposite the door so she has a clear view. While her body language gives every indication of listening attentively to Clint, he's well aware her mind is on other matters.
Pepper and Tony walk down the hallway together, and Natasha tries to swallow the bile rising in her throat. She knew this would happen, expected nothing else.

When Pepper sees Natasha, leaning against the wall, her entire world brightens.
"Natasha," It's barely a whisper, but it's reverent, and Natasha hears it clearly from across the room. In five short strides, Pepper takes Natasha into her arms, kissing her firmly. When they break apart, Pepper mummers in her ear, "I love you, will you still have me?"
"Of course," Natasha replies the only way she is able, sweeping Pepper into another, deeper kiss. Clint clears his throat. Unsurprisingly, Tony interrupts them.
"Moving on quick there Pep. Mind you, I can't complain, now can I?"
Natasha turns to see Tony smirking. She decides to ignore it, for now, because Clint's flat-out grinning.
"You!" She turns on him, "You knew they broke up and you didn't tell me!" she attacks him, and they spar, Clint giggling like a school girl and Natasha not really angry at all, until they've all collapsed on a heap on the sofa.

It does not take the rest of the team long to find out about Natasha and Pepper, in fact it takes most of them less than five minutes. They all trickle into the living room to open presents, and Coulson's as happy with Clint's t-shirt as he is--he even leans over to snicker in Natasha's ear "It's funny because it's true!" before snogging his boyfriend senseless. Which, of course, set a dangerous precedent, and as a result there is a good bit of oblivious makeouts that morning--Jane with Thor, Natasha with Pepper, Phil with Clint--which inevitably causes Bruce to look a bit embarrassed, Steve to turn all variety of funny colors, and Tony to loudly complain about his lack of kissing partner. Pepper tells him that if he ever let anyone stay for breakfast it might not be an issue, and Tony looks as apologetic as ever.

It is Natasha's favorite Christmas.

Chapter Text

To be clear: dating a secret assassin-spy is not exactly smooth sailing.

Pepper feels simply helpless sometimes, and it's not a feeling she's used to. Not a feeling dating Tony ever really provoked, because she'll always eventually figure what Tony's up to and he's legitimately scared of her. Pepper is used to being in control, to feeling powerful. It's somewhat of an advantage in her life, to be controlling.

Natasha Romanov cannot be controlled, and she is not scared of Pepper.

She is, however, scared of vulnerability. They work on that--slowly learning more about each other, Pepper learning about how difficult it is for Natasha to be open about herself, learning to appreciate what Natasha has already shared with her. Pepper understands, she really does. She understands that Natasha can't tell her about her missions, understands that sometimes Natasha will stand her up for a date not because she wants to but because something desperate has come up with work. Pepper's been there, knows that dinner out ranks low on the priority scale when compared to national security, she gets it. This is the kind of lack of control she is learning to handle.

Then Natasha comes home from a mission one night (and she can't tell Pepper where she was). She's covered in blood, crying softly, bruises beginning to form on her surprisingly delicate face.

It takes serious force to bruise Natasha. Even more to make her cry. And right then Pepper hates SHEILD, for putting them both in this position. Wordlessly, she wipes the blood of f Natasha's skin, hauls her to the bathroom and peels off her suit. She uses her hands, more than her eyes, to check her lover for anything in need of stitches, antiseptic--anything she can fix. Because right now she just wants to make Natasha better again, and she doesn't know how. All she can do is hold her in the shower, wash her hair, support her as she crumples. All she can do is carefully kiss where the bruises aren't.

Once they're clean and Pepper has pulled a loose t-shirt over Natasha's head, the kind they sleep in, and made them both some tea, Natasha speaks.
"I love you," she begins, "I know you there's nothing you can do to make me better. And it's true that I'm broken hold me together, Pep, and you keep the nightmares away." Pepper had almost forgotten about the nightmares that used to plague Natasha so frequently, before they were dating, and looking back she realizes that in the nearly six months they've lived together, she's only woken to nightmares twice.
"What happened to you?" Pepper asks softly, not really expecting a response, but desperate to know. They are sitting on their bed together, and Pepper puts down her tea to slip an arm around Natasha, pull her back to her chest.
"I had to kill...a woman who...grew up beside me, in Red Room."
"Oh, baby, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." Pepper takes Natasha's mostly empty teacup and relegates it to the nightstand, drawing Natasha further in to her shoulder. After a moment or so she begins to softly sing, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord/he is tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored..." Natasha looks up at her.
"Really Pep? The Battle Hymn of the Republic?"
"It was my favorite lullaby when I was a kid."
"Sweetie, that's not a lullaby, that's a battle cry."
"Tell that to my mom."
And just like that they're laughing again.

Pepper wonders if anything will ever be as wonderful as dating her secret assassin-spy.

Chapter Text

It's Christmas Eve and Natasha and Pepper have snuck out of Stark Towers together. At almost eleven at night the streets are nearly deserted--well, for New York--and they walk in companionable silence. They're wearing mittens, because Pepper's always been more than a little whimsical and Natasha feels whimsical around Pepper.

Snow begins to fall as Natasha leads them to an achingly familiar park bench. Three, four months ago Pepper would have panicked, worried incessantly that Natasha was going to break up with her.

Now they've built enough trust between them that all Pepper can think is how perfect this is, the cold air, holding hands with her girlfriend, the glow of their faces under the streetlamp. It's like a dream. They both sit there for a moment or two, reflecting on the last year. On how much has changed, how much they've grown together. On how deeply they've come to rely on each other.

It's a beautiful night, as Natasha slides (with impossible grace, considering the bulky coat Pepper insisted she wear) down on to one knee, and Pepper's heart rate doubles.
"Pepper," she whispers, just loud enough to be heard. "You have an amazing ability to bring out my favorite parts of myself, beneath all the identities I've become and destroyed, and you remind me not only who I am, but who I could become." She takes a deep breath, steadying herself--she's not used to feeling this nervous, hasn't been this shaky since her first kill. "Will you marry me?" Pepper can't control the grin that breaks across her face as she pulls Natasha towards her.
"Of course." When they kiss it's like their first kiss all over again, all excitement and wonder. They look in each other's eyes and see the possibility of the two of them together, the spectacular ways they can move through the world. In that instant they glimpse their own possible eternity.

Across the city, church bells strike midnight, police are called to the scene of the crime, a woman goes into labor, and a million decisions are made. Life goes on.

Tomorrow will be about the family they've been forced to create, about the t-shirt Natasha's giving Clint this year (which has Katniss on it.) and the love they're surrounded by.

This moment, though, is for them and them alone.