The studio was quiet.
Director Fury had given her a key after the first time he found her there on a Sunday morning. It had been way too easy to break in through the second floor window, reachable from the fire escape. She had been doing it for months until Fury finally caught her.
He wasn’t terribly impressed by her breaking and entering skills.
“What the hell are you doing here, Romanoff? It’s your damn day off.”
“I feel homesick,” she had blurted out in her awkward English. “So I came to where it feels like home.”
That was almost 10 years ago.
It was still her home—even though the studio had moved to new location in a different part of the city, even though she was a principal now and not a member of the corps, even though it was the younger girls who looked up to her now, feared her in some cases. The barre and the mirrors, the smell of rosin, the sound of her feet brushing against the floor, the thin sound of the record player—the comfort she felt in the familiarity was far more than she felt anywhere else. She’d never had a real home, but she had always had a ballet studio.
She took longer to do her stretches than usual. Her knees creaked on her grand pliés and her shoulder popped on her port de bras. The older she got, the more aware she was of her body, of how it wasn’t as tolerant to weather, how she had to be even more careful about what she ate, how she had stopped drinking entirely—even a glass of red wine with dinner left her sluggish the next day. She’d even stopped smoking when she could see it affecting her conditioning.
Sure, she was in the prime of her career now, but she was verging on getting old. There weren’t Drosselmeyer parts for older women. There were only a few more Odette and Sugar Plum Fairy runs in her future. But if she took care of herself, then she had maybe 5 years left, 7 if she could manage to escape injury.
She pretended it didn’t scare her. She pretended that she didn’t obsess over every sore muscle, every twinge in her back, every time her knees creaked. She couldn’t betray weakness to the younger girls clawing their way to get her roles. But mostly she pretended because there wasn’t anything for her after the shoe dropped. She had been eating, breathing, and sleeping ballet since it got her out of the orphanage in Moscow when she was 6 years old.
The record skipped during her rond de jambes. She knew where each scratch was in the familiar melody, and the routine of it all helped her let go, helped her tamp down her fear.
She was going through the grand battements without music when she heard a door slam. She had chosen the smallest studio, the one in the corner, the last one where anyone would look, so she wouldn’t be disturbed or interrupted. It was probably one of the janitors or someone doing maintenance.
Then she heard a familiar laugh. Clint—the one person she would consider interrupting her routine for. Maybe he’d be up for a quick practice. They didn’t have the choreography for Coppélia yet, but the company usually didn’t push the boundaries too much with the classics. She was about to go look for him when she heard Phil’s voice and the distinct sound of a kiss.
She turned off the light in the studio and tiptoed down the hallway.
Phil was this mythical figure among the dancers. There was a lot of drama in the company—the principals sleeping with each other or sleeping with guest dancers. Director Fury and Assistant Director Hill used to be married, but both had affairs with various company members over the years. Members of the corps sometimes thought sleeping with a principal was the best way to get a lead—those dancers never lasted long with the company. Fury was ruthless about auditions—personal relationship or not.
The drama in a ballet company was sometimes like living in an episode of Melrose Place.
Even Natasha had been in on it when she dated Sergei. After seeing so much drama unfold among everyone else, she had sworn to never date another dancer and never one in her company. But Sergei had just been so seemingly perfect that she’d made an exception. And he was perfect, for a while, but he was mostly just a perfect dancer, a robot, and he was only interested in her because she was the best dancer there—and he always wanted “the best” of everything. As soon as he got a job with ABT, he ditched her like a bad habit.
But then there was Phil. He had been the company’s primary choreographer for years, and the rumors around him ran rampant. The most popular story was that he was sleeping with both Fury and Hill and used that to play them against each other. Only a few people were privy to the truth—he and Clint had flirted with each other for years before finally getting together, but they only had eyes for each other, a fact which they kept very, very quiet. Natasha wasn’t even sure Fury knew.
Natasha’s practice was ruined by the intrusion, so she tried to slip down the hallway without being detected.
“Come on, babe,” she heard Clint say. “You know it’s going to change a million times during rehearsals anyway.”
“But I’m changing up the Petipa choreography, and I want to see what this looks like. Now come over here and be Swanhilde.”
“Why, sir. If you wanted me in a tutu, you just had to ask.”
The idea of new choreography piqued her interest, so Natasha hovered in the shadows and watched. She had seen videos of Phil dancing on YouTube, but he had been retired when Nat started with the company. It was a shoulder injury that cut his career short, but he was still inhumanly graceful.
Clint did her part flawlessly. The chemistry and tension between them was more was palpable than any kind of connection she and Clint could generate. Even without the lifts, the way they pushed and pulled each other as they walked through the steps was intimate.
During one of the planned lifts, Clint moved into Phil’s space and kissed him, pulling back only to murmur, “it’s fine,” against Phil’s lips.
“Clint,” Phil’s voice was playful, not at all the tone she was used to hearing from him. But he was pulling Clint in closer toward him.
“You know you want to fuck me in front of those mirrors,” Clint said.
This time Phil instigated the kiss.
Natasha took that as her cue to leave, except she didn’t really want to go home, because, well, it wasn’t home. It was a temporary landing place because she was 27 years old and didn’t have her shit together. She had been crashing at Bucky’s place for approximately 24 hours, and she already felt in way over her head. Rehearsals were starting the next day. She couldn’t afford to be distracted.
But she had to go back because she was meeting Steve later, who was helping her move the rest of her stuff.
She was hoping Bucky would be gone when she got home. On a Sunday afternoon, surely he’d be out with friends or at the gym or at work—he worked crazier hours than she did.
Instead, the door was propped open and there were two burly men shaking hands with Bucky, whose face lit up when he spotted Natasha.
“You’re back early,” he said as the men walked past her down the hallway.
“I got interrupted. What’s going on?”
“Come here,” Bucky said.
She trailed behind him through the living room and to the spare bedroom that was her temporary home. The room that had held a bunch of Bucky’s junk just the day before had been cleared out. Her suitcase was in the corner, but that wasn’t what he was showing her.
“You bought me a bed,” she said, shock evident in her voice.
“No, I bought a new bed for my guest room, which I offered to you—temporarily—so you don’t have to live with Steve and Steve doesn’t have to clean out Liho’s litter box when I’m gone,” Bucky said.
On cue, the little, one-eyed black cat that Bucky had rescued from the alley a few months before appeared, giving Natasha’s ankles a circle before jumping up on the bed.
“Oh.” She tried to believe him, to take him at his word, but the nightstand and quilt patterned in black and red—her favorite colors—begged otherwise.
“I mean, I’ll probably be traveling a lot for work, so you’ll mostly have the place to yourself. And I lived with Steve and his snoring for years,” he started.
Nat knew the story. After Steve’s mother died, he had finished high school living with Bucky’s family. When Bucky went to college, Steve joined the army.
“And I know you’re a really light sleeper,” he added tentatively.
She shot him a glare. “We don’t have to pretend we weren’t together.”
“I never have,” he muttered. The implication that she had was left hanging in the air.
She almost snapped back at him. It wasn’t her fault she had moved on. She might have broken up with him, but he was the one with the double standard—jealous of her career, of the time and discipline it took to get her where she was, but then jetting off to god knows where every other week for his own job. He was the one who got jealous of the time she spent at the company, with Clint, while she had never, not once, met anyone he’d worked with.
“I’m—this is great, James. Thank you. I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping on an air mattress.”
“I needed to clean out that room anyway,” he said, which was clearly a bullshit explanation because he’d lived there for three years without touching the spare bedroom.
“What happened to the boxes?”
“Unpacked a couple of them. Apparently I own the complete works of Shakespeare, about three thousand paper clips, and a pair of nunchucks.”
“Do you know how to use nunchucks?”
He shrugged. Natasha took that for an unsettling yes.
“And the guitar? Wasn’t there a guitar in here?”
“I found the stand in one of the boxes. It’s in my room now.”
“I didn’t know you played,” Natasha mused, not really meaning to say it out loud.
She wondered sometimes if she ever knew him at all. On and off dating for five years and she didn’t know whether or not he played a musical instrument. Then again, she never asked.
“Well, I don’t really. Not well anyway. Never in one place long enough for lessons.”
“And the night stand?” Natasha said, looking at the piece of furniture next to the bed that was way nicer than anything she would have been able to afford.
“It’s, uh, I have two and I really don’t need the other one.”
He had broken up his own furniture set so Natasha could have a nightstand. She almost made a quip, asking him if she got to keep the condoms in it, too. But the idea of Bucky needing a drawer full of condoms because he was sleeping with other women wasn’t really one she particularly enjoyed entertaining. Shit—where did that come from? She had zero grounds to be jealous. She was the one who had moved on with Sergei.
Luckily Bucky’s phone made an obnoxious chirping noise. The interruption was a welcome diversion from the dangerous path her thoughts were heading down. She was going to need a mantra—Bucky is just your roommate.
“Shit, that’s work,” he said, pulling a different phone out of his back pocket. He scrolled through something on the second phone. “Goddammit. I need to go into the office. You need anything else right now?”
“No, Steve’s helping me get the rest of my stuff later.”
“Cool. I’ll—shit—yeah, see you later.”
And then, while still reading on his phone, he grabbed his jacket and dashed out of the apartment. Natasha wanted to ask him why he couldn’t work remotely—email, Skype, conference calls—there were so many ways to work from anywhere, but he was always going into the office. When they had been dating she was convinced he was cheating on her, but she wasn’t so sure any more.
She took a final look at Liho asleep on the new bed and then went down to Steve’s apartment. Steve was the only one of her friends with an SUV, and he was unfailingly generous.
She was friends with Steve purely by accident. He was a web developer, hired by Fury at Coulson’s recommendation to revamp the company’s website. Steve had come to take some photos of the building, of rehearsals, and he’d struck up a conversation with her. They hit it off immediately, probably because of their matching sarcastic dispositions.
He was the first friend she’d ever had who wasn’t a dancer.
“I’m sorry I can’t come with you—I’ll be back around 5 to help you unload,” he said as he handed her the keys.
“It’s cool, Steve. None of my stuff is that heavy.”
“Still, fewer trips with two people.”
“It’s fine. You’re letting me use your car. That’s plenty.”
She didn’t tell him that her driver’s license wasn’t valid. She wasn’t a bad driver; she just hadn’t had time to renew it. Anyway, she made it to Queens with the car in one piece.
She knocked on Sam’s door.
“You’d better be here for these boxes,” he said before the door was all the way open.
“It’s nice to see you too, Sammy,” she said with a big smile. “I heard you were crying about them, so I thought I’d put you out of your misery.”
“I appreciate that,” he said, his arms crossed as he stood in front of the pile of boxes that Sergei had basically thrown on Sam’s doorstep after giving Natasha 48 hours’ notice that he was breaking the lease. “Did you come alone? Where’s Steve?”
“He got called into work.”
“You ever wonder why he can’t just call in to meetings or email himself his work like a normal person?” Sam asked.
“I was just thinking about that on the way over,” Natasha said.
Bucky had one of those jobs where you had to have clearance to talk to him about what he actually did. All Natasha really knew was that his degree from Columbia was in international relations, he spoke random Eastern European languages, and he wore a lot of suits—and he looked damn good in those suits.
When anyone asked what he did for a living, he always said, “I’m a policy analyst. It’s really not that interesting.”
Natasha was pretty sure he was CIA. Though she might have just told herself that to justify his behavior—it had caused more than one fight back when they were dating. But there was a lot of evidence for it, not the least of which was that Steve didn’t know what Bucky did either.
“You know, one time Steve told me that Bucky is Facebook friends with his old C.O., who Steve isn’t even friends with. That’s suspicious, don’t you think?” Natasha asked Sam.
Steve didn’t talk very much about his time in the army or his two tours in Afghanistan. Natasha hadn’t even known Steve was former military until he introduced her to Sam. When he explained that he knew Sam from the V.A. where Sam worked counseling veterans, Natasha did a double-take. Steve was such an art nerd that it was hard to picture him in a combat situation. Sam was more open about his military career. He had gotten injured pretty severely in a helicopter crash, and, after his discharge, he got his counseling certificate.
“Bucky was never in the service, was he?” Sam asked.
“He was in ROTC at Columbia, but I think he only went into the National Guard? Is that a thing? I didn’t grow up here, you know. You never talked to him about this?”
“I didn’t know Bucky’s real first name for, like, two years. He’s a hard dude to get to know.”
“Yeah, I guess he’s in the right line of work, whatever it is.”
“So, you really think this is a good idea? Moving in with him?” Sam asked. There was a gentle seriousness in his voice as he softened his stance.
She didn’t like that it sounded awfully close to pity.
“Do you want to keep living with twenty boxes of my shit in your living room?” she asked, hefting one up and dodging around Sam to take it out to the car. She knew exactly what he meant, but it wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have.
Natasha heard him mutter something about emotional repression under his breath, but he did give in and grabbed a box.
“This conversation isn’t over. Just so you know,” Sam called after her. Once he caught up to her, he added, “If it gets to be too hard you can always talk to me. And I know you don’t want to live in Queens, but you know you’re always welcome.”
Natasha wanted to tell him she’d be fine, but she couldn’t get the words out in a convincing way.
“Thanks, Sammy,” she finally said.
“You know I don’t let anyone else call me Sammy but you.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re afraid of me.”
Sam snorted, but he didn’t deny it.
With Sam’s help, they got the boxes loaded into Steve’s SUV pretty quickly, but then Natasha got caught in traffic on the way back. By the time she finally made it, Steve was already home and ready to help unload.
He whistled when he saw Bucky’s spare room. The noise startled Liho, who took one look at Steve and dashed out of the room.
“Buck bought you a bed,” he blurted out.
“No, he bought his guest room a bed. He’s just letting me stay in it,” Natasha said, parroting what Bucky had told her.
Steve looked like he wanted to say more in response, but then he brightened and said with canned enthusiasm, “Well, it’s better than my couch!”
“And it’s better than the street,” Natasha added.
“Nat, we wouldn’t have let you live on the street.”
Natasha sighed. “I know. I do appreciate this—you, Sam, James—I just don’t like being a burden, you know?”
“I understand, Nat,” Steve said. “I really do.”
“Say, how do you afford a one-bedroom in this neighborhood, anyway?”
“Hey!” Steve said, giving her a playful shove. “I do all right!”
Steve made most of his money doing web development, but he sold his own art on the side. Natasha couldn’t tell if he was actually offended, so she backpedaled fast.
“I’m not saying you don’t! But James also lives in this building, and he has three separate work phones and a closet full of Armani.”
“Well, fine, rent control might have played a role,” Steve admitted. “And this place is way below Bucky’s income bracket. He just likes to slum it with us artist types.”
Natasha couldn’t help but find that a little endearing. It was hard to think of Bucky without thinking of Steve.
“Is that why he has a guitar?”
Steve laughed. “He’s always wanted to play, but he could never get the hang of it. You’ve never heard me mock his fat fingers?”
“Is that why?”
“Yup!” Steve said proudly. “I’ve been making fun of him about it for over a decade.”
“You guys are such dicks.”
“It’s done with love, Nat,” Steve protested.
Steve’s protesting trailed behind her as she went to get another box from the car.