Chapter 1: Episode 1
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.
Chapter 2: Episode 2
Clint was smiling. It was too early in the morning to be smiling.
“Someone got laid last night,” Natasha said, dropping her bag beside his and flopping down next to him on the bench where he was putting on his shoes.
Clint smirked. “First day of rehearsals today.”
“I don’t even want to know why that gets the two of you hot and bothered,” Natasha said, as she brushed her hair up into a bun.
“Come on, you know you’re excited, too.”
“Not that excited.”
Natasha had been surprised to get the role of Swanhilde. The story was a comedy, which wasn’t at all her thing. Her whole image, crafted by the company, was of the technically perfect Russian ex-pat. Financial backers seemed to think that her having trained in Russia, taught by former-Soviet dancers, gave the company more clout, and she let the company play it up. She hadn’t even protested when they put her obnoxiously long, full name up on the website. She didn’t even remember her father, the man who made her middle name Ivanovna, but Steve had been the only one sensitive enough to ask if it bothered her. Even if it did, she wouldn’t have told him to take it down.
She still wasn’t sure Director Fury had made the right choice in making her Swanhilde. When she had looked at the casting list after auditions were over, he had been standing behind her.
“No one else could play off Barton,” was all he said, as if he was anticipating her question.
The only thing she could think after that was that Clint really got her the part, because he was born to play Franz. She hadn’t really earned it on her own, and that thought kept running over and over in her mind.
“So no sex with the ex yet, I take it?” Clint asked as they stretched.
“It’s not like that with James.” She left out the “anymore,” even though Clint knew enough about their history. “Anyway, I’m just staying with him temporarily.”
“Uh huh. I give it two weeks. Tops.”
“I’ll take that bet.”
“Yes. Come on, two weeks is nothing.”
Clint didn’t need to know that when Bucky had gotten back home late the night before he told her he’d be out of town for most of the month.
Clint crossed his arms and eyed her up and down. Natasha tried not to laugh at Clint’s attempt to look stern.
“I’m not insisting on a nanny cam, because gross, so I’m trusting you to abide by the honor system here.”
“I cross my heart. I will tell you the second after I get into James’ pants.”
“Oh, you can enjoy the afterglow a little. I’m not a monster. Within the hour will do.”
Natasha snorted. “What are the stakes?”
“I promise not to drop you on the wedding pas de deux,” Clint said with a smirk.
“That’s not even funny.”
“Fine, fine. What about a foot massage at that awesome place in Chinatown? I win, you pay. You win, which you won’t, I pay.”
That was definitely a worthy cause. Natasha had actually had masseuses refuse to touch her feet because they looked like a train wreck. Of course, that was usually at cheap places where they didn’t really know what they were doing. The best foot massage Natasha had ever gotten was actually from Bucky—he even had massage oils—but she didn’t dare tell Clint that.
“You have yourself a deal, Barton,” Natasha said, reaching out her hand.
As they shook hands, the door opened. Pietro and Wanda came in together.
Clint had taken Pietro under his wing when he joined the company a few years prior, and with Pietro came Wanda. They were dubbed “The Twins” by everyone in the company, like they were interchangeable and not separate entities. It was true they mostly kept to themselves, and once Wanda was promoted out of the corps most directors avoided pairing them in a pas de deux because, though not identical, they looked so much alike. But they both danced beautifully, with preternatural grace and perfect lines. When they danced together, it was like watching two extensions of the same person.
“Good morning, Natasha,” Wanda said with a shy smile.
“Hi, Wanda,” Natasha replied.
She tried to be friendly. She knew how hard it was to move to the U.S. without really knowing the language or anything about the culture, and she had no problem with Wanda. But Natasha just didn’t have the energy or the right personality to be a mentor. She was trying to hold her own career together; taking Wanda under her wing would have been just one more distraction. But she wasn’t mean to her, and she never talked about her behind her back like some of the other women in the company did.
Yelena—the company’s other high-profile principal—had been furious that Wanda was the understudy for Swanhilde. But Natasha begrudgingly liked Wanda. Unlike Yelena, Wanda wasn’t blindly ambitious. She loved to dance, and it was obvious in the way she danced. It also might have been that, like Natasha, Pietro and Wanda were orphans from a former Soviet country, but they were genuine people. Natasha sometimes felt guilty for not making more of an effort.
Yelena was second generation American, born to Russian immigrants, and she acted like she was somehow better than Natasha and Wanda. She spoke both Russian and English flawlessly. She could still claim she was a Russian dancer, which she milked. But she grew up in Bedford with a silver spoon in her mouth. Natasha couldn’t deny that she was a good dancer, but Yelena was also a complete snob.
Natasha tried to ignore her, but Yelena had a way of getting under her skin. She was always ready to make a comment about Natasha’s body—her feet, her weight, the height of her grand jetes. One time she saw Natasha eating a protein bar—an organic protein bar made out of egg whites—and snorted like a pig.
Luckily Yelena was in the mood to ignore Natasha during their morning class, as if the silent treatment was really a punishment and not a gift. The problem was she took to picking on Wanda instead.
When Melinda adjusted Wanda’s position at the barre, Yelena huffed loudly.
“Do you have something you want to say, Yelena?” Melinda asked. A normal person would have realized that she was calling her out for talking, but Yelena was too self-involved to notice.
“If you have to work for your turnout, then maybe you’re not in the right line of work.”
“You do your job. I’ll do mine.”
Melinda was a saint for putting up with all of them.
Yelena continued making snide comments the whole morning. Natasha kept shooting Wanda what she hoped were sympathetic looks. And Melinda kept working them harder. Meanwhile, the nerves about first rehearsal were starting to form a knot in her stomach.
Natasha was wound up by the time morning classes were over, so she went to find Clint, who was usually capable of talking her off the ledge, forgetting that he was teaching a class that morning.
Looking for solitude, Natasha went out to the loading dock in the back of the building. Apparently Wanda had the same idea, because she was leaning against the building smoking. She startled when she heard the door open.
“Sorry,” Natasha said. “I didn’t know anyone else was out here.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I was just,” she waved her hand with the cigarette in it.
“I’m tempted to bum one off you.”
Wanda started fumbling in the pockets of her sweater.
“Oh, no, it’s okay!” Natasha said. “I really shouldn’t. I could when I was your age, but I’m getting too old.”
“You’re not old,” Wanda protested.
“Thanks,” Natasha replied. “I hope you don’t let Yelena get to you. She’s just a bitch, because, well, she’s a bitch.”
Wanda giggled and then caught herself. “I know, and I try not to. Miss Melinda said same thing to me after class. How do you ignore her?”
“I dance better than she does. That’s the one thing that she can’t tear me down for.”
“You are a better dancer. You are best,” Wanda said.
It made Natasha uncomfortable to hear it.
“I don’t know about that. I also try not to react to her. It’s good that you ignore her. She’s just a bully.”
“Bully? I don’t think I know that word.”
“Uh, zadira.” Natasha had to root around in her head for the Russian word.
“Oh, yes. She is that.”
“She’s just jealous of you because you’re good.”
“Thank you, Natasha. That means a lot from you.”
Natasha felt a little better after making Wanda feel better. It wasn’t mentoring or friendship, but she could see them maybe being friends eventually, after Wanda got over her hero worship. At least she was pretty sure Wanda wasn’t going to stab her in the back.
She regretted not taking the cigarette, though, because she was still a bundle of nerves when the afternoon rolled around.
First rehearsal was always rough. Taking classes, training, conditioning, teaching classes on the side, they all required hard work, but there was nothing like rehearsal for a show. The repetition, the falls, the failure, training your body to move exactly but expressively, trusting the other dancers, it was taxing. Natasha loved it—but it was near constant work.
The whole cast met at the theater at first. Dr. Coppélius was being played by the semi-retired Jim Rhodes, who was based in San Francisco. Natasha loved working with him. He seemed very no-nonsense until you got to know him, and then he was snarky and hilarious.
“Natasha!” he said as soon as he saw her, crossing the room to pull her into a hug. “How’ve you been?”
“Oh, you know how it is. Over-functioning as a dancer, under-functioning as a person.” She said it jokingly, but there was a whole lot of truth in it.
Jim chuckled. “I do know how it is. When you retire that’ll change—family, kids.”
“Oh my god. Did you finally propose?”
“Yep. And Pepper and I are expecting our first in March.”
“That’s fantastic! Congratulations! I recommend the name ‘Natasha’ if it’s a girl.”
“And if it’s a boy?”
When Jim laughed again, Natasha realized that everyone in the room was looking at them out of the corner of their eyes.
“Oh, I think we’re blowing our cover as hardasses,” she whispered.
“Oh shit, you’re right. We’d better make someone cry later or we’ll lose all our cred.”
Clint came up to them and confirmed the reason for the awkward silence in the room. Usually Jane and Darcy would be giggling together. Trip and Leo would be doing their embarrassing dance of flirting.
“You’re scaring everyone,” Clint said. “They think you’re plotting to overthrow Fury.”
“Oh come on, no one’s afraid of us. Jim is probably the nicest person I’ve ever met, next to Steve.”
“Why, thank you,” Jim said. “It’s complete horseshit, but thank you.”
“It’s not him they’re afraid of.”
“They see you and me joking around all the time.”
“But I’m the class clown. I can get away with it. Jim once made Maria cry.”
“She was crying because of the torn Achilles,” Jim reasoned.
“But they don’t know that,” Clint whispered.
Luckily Phil walked in, which effectively ended the conversation.
The rehearsal was mostly a walk through. Phil introduced the choreography. The set and costume designers were there, taking notes.
Natasha secretly loved that Phil would make changes on the spot. A lot of dancers complained about his “improvisations,” but if they thought about it for two seconds they would get that he knew and understood the dancers better than they knew themselves. If something didn’t work for a particular dancer, he didn’t insist on it being perfected, he would change the dance to suit their style.
By the time Phil called it quits for the day, Natasha barely had the energy to take off her pointe shoes, let alone walk home. But it was only going to get worse as rehearsals wore on, so she sucked it up, and tried to revel in her achy muscles.
She stopped for groceries on the way home, picking up Epsom salts for a bath. Bucky’s apartment had two bathrooms, but she was hoping she could use the giant tub in his master bathroom. It had jets.
As a thanks for helping her move, she was cooking Sam and Steve dinner—a meal 75% of which she wouldn’t eat.
She was “naturally” slender, but she hated hearing people say it, because she wasn’t “lucky.” Born in a village outside Volgograd, she and most of the children she grew up with at the orphanage were malnourished. It was hard for her to put on needed muscle, and she was more prone to injury. Plus, she still had to work for the right weight distribution. Conditioning, diet—her body was the one thing she had control over, and she obsessed over it.
She didn’t call it an eating disorder, because she did eat. She’d known plenty of dancers who were bulimic, and she had definitely made some unhealthy choices, including poppers, diet pills outlawed by the FDA, and chain-smoking. But as she got older she finally figured out which foods she needed to eat and how much of them and when. It was a little obsessive, but it was necessary. Her body was her whole life—it wasn’t just how it looked, but how it ran.
The apartment was empty when she got back.
She got to work in the kitchen, making a basic chicken picatta with rice and a salad. It was easy to make, but it was more cooking than Sam or Steve was capable of, so they’d be impressed.
When Bucky walked into the apartment, his arms were full of dry cleaning, which meant he was about to head out of town. It also meant Natasha’s bet with Clint was pretty much a sure thing. Her feet were already tingling at the thought of a good massage.
“This is elaborate,” he said as he wandered into the kitchen. “Smells good.”
He grabbed a piece of tomato off the cutting board.
“Hey!” Natasha said, slapping his hand. “Sam and Steve are coming over. I wanted to thank them for helping. I guess you can have some, too.”
“Gee, you’re so generous.”
“If you call me a freeloader, I will cut you with this paring knife.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said, his eyes dancing.
Natasha smirked at him, quickly trying to think of another quip so they could keep the banter going. But she was totally distracted. He was close enough to her that she could smell his aftershave, and it made her brain short-circuit.
The door buzzer went off, which meant Sam had arrived. Bucky left the kitchen to buzz Sam in. Natasha took a deep breath as soon as he was out of the room. Had they been flirting? What would have happened if Sam hadn’t shown up when he did? It was dangerous territory.
She heard Sam and Bucky talking in the other room, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying, only catching a word here and there. It sounded like they were talking about politics, which she had absolutely no interest in. One of the things she had a hard time getting used to when she and Bucky were dating was that he had CNN on almost all the time.
She knew she should probably care more about what was going on in the world, but it was really just one more distraction. Living with Bucky was going to force her to pay a little more attention.
While Natasha waited for the timer to go off, she sat down at the table in the kitchen and started inspecting the damage rehearsals had done to her feet.
“That’s disgusting. Get your feet off the table,” she heard Sam say before she saw him enter the kitchen.
Natasha huffed. “Hey, Buck?” she called.
“Do you mind if I put my bloody feet on your kitchen table?”
“It’s your world, babe,” he called back.
“House rules,” Natasha said to Sam before sticking her tongue out at him.
“Not even dating and you have him whipped. How do you do it?”
“Please. He knows it wigs you out,” she said. Sam and Bucky bickered like siblings.
“Uh huh,” Sam said, raising an eyebrow at her. She knew exactly what he was insinuating.
She heard the door open and Steve’s voice give a muffled greeting to Bucky.
“Smells awesome in here, Nat,” Steve said when he came into the kitchen. He bent down to give her a hug.
It had taken her awhile to get used to Steve. He was so…American. Big and friendly and warmly affectionate with all of his friends. Kisses on the cheek, Natasha was used to, being folded into the wall of muscle that was Steve Rogers had been another thing entirely. But she appreciated them now, valued that kind of friendly touch—Steve was a great hugger.
The timer went off, and Natasha got up to fluff the rice and plate everything.
“You leaving now?” Steve asked Bucky, who had wandered into the kitchen while Natasha was occupied.
“Yeah, sorry I can’t stay for dinner, Nat. The guys I’m working with are seven hours ahead. The car is going to be here in a few.”
Bucky almost never actually said where he was going, but Natasha did the math in her head. Moscow was seven hours ahead. The first time she met Bucky, he had hit on her in Russian. His accent was so impeccable that she thought he was Russian until he started talking to Steve in a Brooklyn accent.
“I’ll be back next week. Liho should have enough food and litter.”
“I’ll take good care of her,” Natasha said.
“Just don’t kill her or let her escape.”
“Hey! I think I’m being insulted.”
“You killed my fern.”
“Hey, I didn’t know that plant was real until it started turning brown. I never saw you water it,” Natasha protested.
Bucky’s phone buzzed.
“That’s the car. See you guys later.”
He took a hesitant step toward Natasha that almost looked like he was going for a hug, until he caught himself. Instead, he gave Steve’s shoulder a squeeze and Sam a quick salute before he turned and left.
“He’s going to Russia,” Natasha said as soon as she heard the front door shut.
“What makes you think that?” Sam asked, though he was giving her a strange look while he spoke.
“They’re seven hours ahead.”
“A lot of places must be seven hours ahead,” Sam reasoned.
“What would he be doing in Russia?” Steve asked.
“Spying on Putin,” Natasha suggested.
“I don’t think real spies wear all those suits,” Steve said. “That’s a James Bond myth. Don’t they have to blend in and look unassuming?”
“He might travel with dignitaries, ambassadors, especially if he’s spying on Putin. He’d need suits for that.”
“I’ve known Bucky almost my whole life. He’s not a sp—though…”
“What?” Natasha said, intrigued.
“I almost forgot about this. Strangest thing. It was maybe a year ago. Buck and I were on the train going to Coney Island, and this rough looking dude, basically dressed in tac gear came up to him and said hello. Bucky gave him this crushing handshake. And the other guy said, ‘how do you like your pussy new position at the UN’ and Bucky said ‘I’m still State Department, Rumlow’. The dude—Rumlow, I guess—flinched and then got off on the next stop. It was almost like he was afraid of Bucky.”
“I don’t know. Even if Bucky was a florist, he’d still scare small children. He’s just an intimidating guy,” Sam said.
“He is?” Natasha wondered out loud.
Steve and Sam both stared at her in disbelief.
“What?” she asked.
“Are you kidding? You’ve never noticed how people clear out of the way when he walks down the street? He has a murder walk!” Sam insisted.
“No he doesn’t!”
Sam raised an eyebrow at her.
“He doesn’t! Back me up, Steve.”
“Nope. I’m with Sam on this. I picked fights with bullies when I was a kid because they were all afraid of Bucky and I knew he’d have my back.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. He’s not murdery!”
Sam and Steve both looked about to protest, but she cut them off by setting plates down in front of them.
“Oh, just shut up and eat your dinner.”
They both dug into the food, while Natasha picked at her salad and chicken breast. She knew she needed to eat, but she always got this way before a show.
“Damn, this is amazing, Nat,” Sam said around a mouthful of food. “You sure you don’t want to move to Queens?”
“You think I’d be cooking for you every night?”
“Of course not, I’m an evolved male. I would bribe you. Or steal your carefully-labeled leftovers.”
“So what happened with the girl at the V.A.?” Steve asked. “Didn’t you go out on Friday?”
Sam sighed. “It was okay. She was just kind of bland—couldn’t carry a conversation, kept agreeing with me about everything like she didn’t have her own opinions.”
“That’s too bad,” Steve replied.
“I’ve gotta get out of this dry spell. The more bad dates I have, the more it throws me off my game and the less I feel like I’m going to meet anyone.”
A lightbulb went off in Natasha’s mind.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Clint has a cousin—Kate—if you stop giving me a hard time whenever I mentioned Bucky, I might consider setting you up.”
“Hey!” Steve interjected. “You’ve never mentioned a Kate to me! What does Sam have that I don’t?”
“Charisma, charm, luscious chocolate skin, a huge—“
“Please stop,” Steve said, throwing a piece of tomato at Sam.
“Hey! No food fights! And it’s not like I’m picking Sam over you!” Natasha insisted. “It’s just that Kate and Sam would be perfect for each other.”
Sam started bombarding her with questions about Kate, most of which Natasha couldn’t really answer. But she didn’t notice that Steve didn’t say too much for the rest of the evening.
Chapter 3: Episode 3
Thursday after two classes in the morning and a brutal afternoon rehearsal, Natasha was about three levels beyond exhausted. All she wanted to do was plop down on the sofa with some sugar-free chocolate pudding and marathon-watch Say Yes to the Dress until she tucked herself into bed at 8:30.
When she finally walked into the apartment, ready to collapse, she was startled to find Bucky sprawled out on the couch in the living room with the TV on.
“Oh! I wasn’t expecting you back,” she blurted out.
“Sorry,” was all Bucky said, his voice was hollow. “Had to come back early.”
Natasha dropped her bag inside the door and approached the couch slowly, trying to figure out what was going on. Was he sick? Hurt? Bucky wasn’t exactly the most emotionally open person in the world, which was actually one of the things Natasha liked about him—strong displays of emotion made her uncomfortable. The problem was it made him extremely hard to read when he didn’t want to be. But she had never heard his voice sound that way.
“Are you okay?” Natasha asked tentatively.
He was clearly anything but fine.
“I’m going to go into the kitchen. I’m going to get the chocolate pudding that I have been day dreaming about since I went into the studio at 7 o’clock this morning. Then I’m going to come back in here, eat my fucking pudding, and you can tell me as much as you want about why you are absolutely not fine.”
Bucky gaped at her.
Natasha had tried not to look at the label on the pudding box when she made it. It was probably full of chemicals she couldn’t pronounce, but it was the only way she could justify eating chocolate, especially when getting ready for a show.
She pulled the container out of the fridge and grabbed a spoon. Then she went back into the living room. Bucky started talking before she even sat down in the chair nearest the sofa.
“I was in Yemen. Saw some shit that was beyond the pale. Kids slaughtered, in pieces really…” His voice was hoarse.
“Shit,” was all Natasha could think to say. She hadn’t considered that he might be in the Middle East. “So, I’m guessing if they sent you home, that’s not what you were expecting? Do you want to talk about it?”
“Can’t. Don’t really want to think about it anyway. What are you doing back this early? I thought you had rehearsals.”
His question meant he remembered when she was in other productions how late she sometimes stayed, especially when the shows involved a lot of younger dancers who were still in school.
“Coulson and Hill made me go home,” she admitted. She had offered to stay. But they were rehearsing the scene with Franz sneaking into Dr. Coppélius’s house, and she really didn’t need to be there.
Had it been back when they were dating, Bucky would have made a comment, would have made some snide remark about how even the directors noticed that she worked too hard or given her the “I’m just worried about you” guilt trip. But he didn’t say anything like that, didn’t even look at her with any kind of passing judgment, he just nodded.
“Well, I’m going to watch cartoons until I feel better,” Bucky said. He moved his feet, making room on the sofa for her as an invitation.
It was silly, but it was something they’d done together back when they were dating. When Natasha first moved to the U.S., her English was terrible. She learned from Wheel of Fortune and the Animaniacs and always kept a soft spot for cartoons.
Natasha got up and moved to the empty spot Bucky made for her. She started to dig into her pudding. She didn’t care if it was chemicals, it was smooth and cold and it tasted like chocolate.
“Want some?” she asked around a giant spoonful.
Bucky looked like he was trying not to laugh. “I’m good, thanks.”
Natasha didn’t even recognize the cartoon on the TV. She worked so much that she never watched much television, and Sergei was pretty much opposed to television and pop culture in general. It had been a stark difference from Bucky. Even though he worked a lot, as much as Natasha, he also believed in down time. A wave of nostalgia hit Natasha as she thought about curling up with him in bed to watch a movie or going to the park and lying in the grass.
She tried to tamp it down, ignore the warm, fuzzy feeling bubbling up inside her, but then as they watched, Bucky moved his feet into her lap.
“I don’t think so,” she said, half-heartedly trying to shove his feet off. She tried to ignore the fluttering feeling in her stomach that started as soon as their bodies touched. Bucky wasn’t particularly affectionate, not like Steve, but ever since they broke up the last time, he avoided touching her, even in friendly gestures. Just the feeling of his feet in her lap was enough to put her on edge.
She didn’t know what it meant. She didn’t know if she missed being touched or if she missed being touched by Bucky.
Natasha didn’t even know Bucky’s intentions until he wiggled his toes.
“Come on. Rub my feet, I’ll rub your shoulders,” he said.
“What about my feet?”
“I don’t have that much energy right now.”
“My feet aren’t that much work.”
“How many shades of purple are they right now?”
“Fine. Feet in exchange for shoulders.”
What could be the harm in a foot rub? Friends could rub each other’s feet.
She put her hands on his feet. He was still wearing socks, which she was grateful for. She didn’t think she could handle feeling his skin without making a complete fool of herself somehow. She dug her thumbs into his arches, working out some of the tension.
He groaned obscenely when she pressed down on the ball of his left foot.
“Oh my god, right there.”
She wanted to crack a joke to ease the awkwardness that she felt as her cheeks start to heat. But Bucky didn’t notice; he had his head thrown back and his eyes closed. So, she tried to control her breathing and gave what she felt was a decent foot rub.
“My hands are starting to hurt,” she said eventually.
“Mmm, that felt great, Nat. Thanks.” He smiled at her softly, looking a lot more relaxed than he had been when she got home.
“I didn’t do it for nothing.”
He smirked at her.
“Turn around. Or do you want to lie down.”
Bucky straddling her while he worked out the knots in her shoulders was more than appealing, but it didn’t seem safe at all given the way giving a foot massage had affected her, so she turned around on the couch so her back was to him.
She had changed into a tank and shorts when she left the studio, but she had a sweater thrown over it due to the chill in the autumn air.
“It would be easier if you—“ Bucky started, before she felt him tugging at the hem of her sweater. Her whole face was on fire as he helped her lift it above her head.
It was just a back rub, she told herself as he started at her shoulders. There wasn’t anything inherently sexual about it—but, it was Bucky.
Bucky’s hands on her body were warm and steady. She melted into his touch. He knew exactly how to work a muscle until it felt like jelly, finding knots she didn’t even know were there. She knew she was moaning, but she couldn’t help it. It felt so good.
“If you keep making those noises,” Bucky muttered.
Natasha turned around under his hands. He was closer than she expected somehow. Their faces were inches apart, close enough that she could feel his breath.
She met his eyes, holding his gaze. She vaguely wondered if she had ever done it before. She’d seen his face thousands of times, but there was something new there in his eyes that she hadn’t ever noticed. She couldn’t help but lean in.
“What are we doing?” she whispered against his lips.
“Don’t think about it,” he said and then he pushed his mouth insistently against hers.
Her arms came up around his neck instinctively, and his hand pressing against the small of her back was so familiar that it felt like coming home. She hadn’t realized how lost she had been feeling until she was enveloped by Bucky. As she climbed onto his lap, trying to get closer, she couldn’t remember why they had ever stopped doing this.
Bucky had always been the best kisser. He wasn’t sloppy; he didn’t shove his tongue into her mouth like he was probing her. He used his tongue to explore, pushing it gently against hers and then pulling it back, begging her to chase it with her own.
His thighs were so strong and thick, straddling them meant her crotch was right there against his dick that she could feel hardening through the thin layer his sweatpants were providing. Bucky rarely wore underwear. Her breath hitched as she pressed her body down against his crotch.
“God, Nat,” he hissed.
She tugged at his shirt, a threadbare gray t-shirt that he’d had as long as she had known him. She used to wear it to sleep in. She threw it aside and brought her hands up to roam his chest. She dragged her fingers through the patch of hair on his chest.
“You too,” he said, looking at her like he was asking permission to get her undressed, giving her an out.
Natasha didn’t hesitate. She didn’t want an out. She wanted Bucky. Topless, she leaned in closer; feeling his skin against hers was almost agonizing as she got more and more aroused. Neither of them made a move to get off the couch, but then Bucky licked around her nipples, and Natasha snapped. She couldn’t help but grind down even harder on his erection, circling her hips, seeking friction against his sweatpants, when he finally let out a choked off—“bed?”
“Yeah,” she panted.
He put his arm under her ass and then stood up, carrying her like she was nothing. He kissed her as he walked down the hall to his bedroom—he only ran into the wall once, and it might have been intentional, because Natasha was trying to push down his sweatpants with her foot. He made it easy for her and left his sweatpants pooled on the floor in the hallway.
When they got to his bedroom, he stepped over his suitcase and tossed her onto the bed. She shimmied out of the rest of her clothes while she watched him. He was thicker than she remembered—he must have put on muscle. She wanted to say something—anything, but she didn’t have the words. Instead, she grabbed at him, pulling him down on top of her.
After all the times they’d slept together, she never stopped feeling the rush of excitement. It was never rote or obligatory—sometimes it was romantic, sometimes hard and fast and needy. But Bucky Barnes fucked like a man on a mission each and every time. And he almost always seemed to know what she needed without her telling him. She’d never come close to having that with Sergei.
When he pushed inside her, she knew he was taking something from her, too, and it made her feel better to know he wasn’t just doing it for her.
They stayed close, Natasha with her legs wrapped around his back, slipping down to his thighs to urge him deeper. They only broke their kisses to moan or murmur soft words.
“I’m gonna pass out,” Bucky said afterward, his voice thick with sleep.
“Yeah, me too,” Natasha yawned.
“You can—you know—stay,” Bucky said after a few beats.
“Okay,” she replied, unable to think of a reason to say no. “Yeah, I’ll be right back.”
She got out of bed to pee, slipping out to the living room to grab her phone. Reluctantly, she typed out a quick text to Clint, I am queen of the idiots. You pick the day you want a foot massage.
She hesitated for a second before deciding to climb back into bed with Bucky. That had definitely been comfort sex. And comfort sex involved sleeping in the same bed. It didn’t have to be anything more than that if they didn’t want it to. But for Natasha, it felt different. It wasn’t just sex—they’d had “just sex” before—this was intimate.
Bucky seemed grateful when she returned. He sleepily slung his arm over her waist.
When she woke up the next morning, he was still asleep. She indulged in the moment and watched him. He looked years younger, almost innocent, when he was asleep. His hair was getting long. Usually he brushed it back into a bouffant, held in place with hair wax and fiber and products she had never even heard of. But it was long enough now to get in eyes. It made him seem more innocent somehow.
She wanted to touch. She wanted to wake him up with a kiss and push his hair back. She wanted to stay curled up against his naked warmth and forget that the rest of the world existed.
But she had to get to the studio.
Bucky shifted when she left, and she caved. She gave him a quick kiss on the forehead and then grabbed her bag and headed out.
The whole way to the studio, the only thing running through her head was “stupid, stupid, stupid.” In the light of day, everything looked different. There was always a spark that ran between her and Bucky, even after they broke up, and giving into it was so easy. But it was just about the dumbest thing she could have done. The last thing she needed was a distraction in the form of James “Bucky” Barnes.
Warming up helped. She had to clear her head in order to think about keeping her shoulders down, pulling her ribs together, tucking her seat under, and holding her arms just right. She focused on her breathing until it was just her and the barre.
Eventually the other students in the class started filing in.
Wanda smiled at her as she positioned herself in front of her.
“Young blood, circling you like a shark,” Yelena whispered as she passed by.
Natasha rolled her eyes and tried to focus. She knew Wanda didn’t have an agenda. Natasha was a good judge of character, but that was all it took to put her back on edge, and she faltered, losing all focus. Melinda noticed that Natasha was off.
“Are you feeling all right, Natasha?”
“I’m fine,” Natasha said. “Really.”
She made it through the class and successfully dodged Yelena afterward. When she got to the theater, she curled up in the corner of the dressing room to wait for rehearsals to start.
“Are you really okay?” Wanda asked as she taped her feet.
Wanda was tentative, bracing herself like she half-expected Natasha to snap at her. But she had risked it anyway, and Natasha respected that. She made up her mind not to let Yelena get to her. Wanda wanted to be her friend, and she could do that.
“I slept with my ex-boyfriend, who I’m living with because Sergei kicked me out, and my best friend only has an uncomfortable sofa and a snoring problem,” Natasha blurted out.
Wanda’s eyes went wide.
“You slept with Bucky and you didn’t tell me?” Clint burst into the dressing room, Pietro on his heels.
“You dated a guy named Bucky?” Pietro asked.
“I sent you a text!” Natasha said to Clint. “Within the hour! And his name is James.”
“You did not!” Clint said.
“I did, too! Do you even know where your phone is?”
Clint started rummaging around in his bag, tossing athletic tape and t-shirts and tights around until he triumphantly pulled his phone out.
“Ah hah! And I still have 10% battery—oh, shit, you did send a text.” He started laughing as he read it. “Love you, too, Nat.”
Wanda looked concerned, but with Clint and Pietro around, she didn’t say anything else about it.
Natasha braced herself for Clint’s mockery the whole day, but when they started rehearsals after lunch, he was acting off to the degree that even Jim noticed.
“Is Clint okay?” he asked Natasha during a break.
“I don’t know. He’s definitely acting off though, right?”
When Phil forgot some of the changes he had made the day before, Natasha put two and two together. Rehearsal was terrible. Everyone picked up on the bad mood, and by the end of the day Natasha wanted to stab someone.
She cornered Clint after rehearsal outside the studio before he could escape.
“Did something happen with—“
“It’s fine,” he cut her off.
“It’s not fine.”
“Leave it alone, Nat,” Clint snapped. “You just want to pick at my love life because yours is fucked up.”
Natasha gaped at Clint. He was never angry, ever, and not at her. She didn’t know what to do.
“Well, fuck you, too,” she spat back and then spun on her heel and headed home.
“Wait! Nat!” she heard Clint call after her, but she didn’t turn around.
By the time she got home, she was almost in tears. The last thing she wanted to do was face Bucky.
She and Bucky didn’t work. Aside from the petty jealousy about their respective careers and Natasha’s paranoia that Bucky was cheating on her, they bickered over the stupidest things.
One time he got back from a week-long trip to and didn’t call her until two days later. Or he would forget that she was allergic to strawberries—the one thing she was allergic to. They even argued about their taste in music. But in her defense, she didn’t want to have sex while David Lee Roth was singing about being hot for his teacher.
Sure, she had matured a lot since then, and Bucky had, too. But that didn’t mean they were compatible outside of sex. That didn’t mean she wanted a relationship outside of sex.
She couldn’t deal with Bucky, and seeing him was going to make her feel even more confused—what was she going to say to him? It had been a long day and an awkward encounter was going to make it worse.
Instead of going to Bucky’s place, she stopped on Steve’s floor and knocked on his door.
“No,” Steve said when he opened the door and saw her standing there.
“What? I didn’t even say anything!”
“That was a warning. I’m not talking about what may or may not have happened between you and Bucky last night. I’m not going to give my opinion. You are both grown adults and you can do whatever you want, but I am not a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on—for either one of you. I am neutral territory.”
Natasha tried to look offended.
“That’s not what I came over for.”
That was exactly what she came over for.
“What did you come over for then?” Steve crossed his arms.
“Bucky only drinks coffee and I finished my Kombucha yesterday. Do you have any tea?”
“You came to my place, with all your ballet gear still in hand, for tea,” Steve said blankly, clearly not believing her. And thankfully not commenting on the fact that she called him “Bucky”—she only called him Bucky when they were together.
“Can we just pretend I did?”
“Fine,” Steve said, as he ushered her inside, politely taking her bag from her. “I actually do have tea if you want some.”
“Thanks. Now that I’m talking about it, I actually do.”
Steve shook his head fondly, but did turn on his electric kettle. Natasha sat down at his table and watched him putter around the kitchen.
“Look, Steve,” she started. “I’m sorry I never thought about setting you up with Kate, but the first time I met her, I immediately thought she and Sam would be perfect for each other.”
Steve spun around.
“It’s okay, Nat. Really, I get it. And I hope things work out with Kate and Sam.” He sighed. “I’m just lonely, I guess.”
Steve was still hung up on his high school sweetheart. It was endearing when he was in his early 20s, but the older he got, Natasha wanted to shake him and tell him to stop pining over a woman who had moved on, gotten married, and was already on her second child.
“What happened to Lillian?” Natasha asked.
“Lillian was a little, uh, intense,” Steve said, handing a basket—an actual basket—of tea bags over to Natasha to choose from.
“Intense?” she asked as she picked through the tea.
“Did you know you can get a ladder pierced onto your dick?”
“Oh my god.”
“She asked if she could do it to me. We hadn’t even gotten through the main course and she was asking to stick needles, multiple times, into my penis. And she was serious.”
“I’m sorry,” Natasha said, ducking her head. She was the one who suggested Steve ask Lillian out in the first place. She worked at the coffee shop on the corner, and she was really nice—always gave Steve free pastries.
“What about that nurse who lives across the hall?” she asked, as she handed Steve a bag of mint green tea.
“Yeah, she seems to like you.”
“She’s that nice to everybody.”
Natasha sighed. Steve was stubborn. Women flirted with him all the time, but he was either oblivious or he had an excuse for why he couldn’t date them.
“Are you really lonely?” she asked.
“Sometimes. It’s hard to find someone with shared life experience.”
“What do you mean?”
“Former military. Current loner web designer. Struggling artist who doesn’t get out much. Women always assume I’m a dumb jock, and when they find out I’m not, that I just hit a lucky growth spurt, they seem disappointed by that, too. I’m just never right.”
“Then that’s their problem for not knowing what they really want. Steve, you’re the best guy I know. I mean that. No one else even comes close. You’ll find someone who gets you.”
“I’m the best guy you know?”
“Yet, you’ve never been interested in me.”
“I don’t even remotely come close to deserving you. I’m a human disaster.”
“Now, that’s not true.”
“And you’ve never been interested in me either,” Natasha threw in.
Steve gave a noncommittal shrug.
“What? What does that mean?”
“I said I wasn’t going to talk about it, and I meant it.”
He meant Bucky. Steve would never let himself be interested in a girl that Bucky was into. He was even the one who introduced Natasha to Bucky.
“Let’s talk about something else, then. I’ve already hit my limit of sad bastard moping today.”
Steve rolled his eyes and then gave her a questioning look.
“Oh, one of the other dancers.” Steve knew Clint, and he might have had some helpful insight, but Natasha wasn’t up for speculating without weaseling more out of Clint first.
“How are rehearsals going?” Steve asked.
They talked for a while about normal things—the show, Steve’s horrible clients who didn’t understand how much work went into web development, movies that both of them wanted to see but would never get around to seeing.
But, Natasha finally had to bite the bullet and go upstairs. Of course, Bucky was in the living room.
“Hey,” Natasha said, trying to sound like her heart wasn’t trying to beat out of her chest.
“Hi,” Bucky said.
“Is this going to be awkward?” she blurted out.
“Has it ever been awkward before?” Bucky asked.
After the first time they broke up, they kept sleeping together on and off for two years. It was always uncomfortable whenever they had to see each other socially. And now here they were, sharing a living space. What about it wasn’t awkward?
“Then we make a deal not to be awkward,” Bucky responded.
Natasha inched forward until she reached the chair across from Bucky.
“And when it happens again?” she asked.
Bucky smiled. “Then it won’t be awkward then either.”
Chapter 4: Episode 4
Living with Bucky after they slept together was totally awkward. At least, it was at first.
He was only home for a couple days after it happened, and Natasha was mostly gone for late rehearsals, but when they did run into each other, it was like neither of them knew how to act.
Bucky came home sweaty from the gym one evening, and it was everything Natasha could do not to just jump him. When she could hear him puttering around getting ready for bed, she imagined herself lying in his bed, forcing herself to stay awake, waiting for him to kiss her goodnight.
But she didn’t think it was one-sided. She was making breakfast in the kitchen the morning before his next work trip, and he moved toward her like he was going to kiss her good morning before catching himself.
Rehearsals distracted her when he was out of town. Plus, Clint still wasn’t talking to her about whatever was going on with him and Phil. Sam was pestering her with questions about Kate. She kept trying to come up with women to set Steve up with, but none of the single women she knew were quite right. When she caught herself mentally trying to pair him with Wanda, she finally gave up.
Anyway, it wasn’t healthy to fixate on Steve’s non-existent love life, because she was so obviously doing it to avoid thinking about Bucky. Plus, she was pretty sure that some of the women in the company noticed her sizing them up. They probably thought she was being a competitive bitch, trying to figure out who was the likeliest to replace her.
When she first started at the company, she was far more judgmental of the other dancers. She knew the strengths and weaknesses of every other woman in the company and what she needed to do in an audition to get the part ahead of them. Eventually she realized that the best thing she could do was just focus on herself and her own strengths. But she definitely burned a few bridges along the way.
Yelena never confronted her about it, but Natasha knew that she had once overheard Natasha complaining about her to Fury. In Natasha’s defense, Yelena had been screwing up the pirouette sequence.
But it didn’t matter. Yelena was never going to like her anyway. She had the uncanny ability to immediately know a person’s personal insecurity and exploit it. She thought she had figured out Natasha’s—her reliance on Clint—but she was wrong. Natasha and Clint only seemed co-dependent to Yelena, because Yelena couldn’t fathom having genuine friends.
Natasha didn’t even know herself what she was afraid of until the end of her dancing career started looming ahead of her, and she realized that dancing was all she had. The one thing that saved her from a crippling fear of abandonment was inevitably going to abandon her, too.
“He’s going to ruin the show,” Yelena said to Natasha one afternoon, loudly, during break.
“What are you talking about?” Natasha said, giving herself a mental slap in the face for even engaging.
“I don’t know why you’re covering for him.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Yelena.”
“Well, you should. If he goes down, you’re going down, too.”
“I really appreciate you being so concerned about me,” Natasha said, making her voice sound as saccharin as she could muster.
Yelena narrowed her eyes at Natasha, luckily Jim’s voice booming down the hallway interrupted her.
“Nat, there you are,” he said. “Hi, Yelena. I don’t mean to interrupt, but wardrobe asked me to come get Nat for her fitting.”
“We were done anyway,” Yelena said sweetly.
“Great,” Jim said, shooting Yelena a disarming smile.
Even Yelena didn’t have any shit to say about Jim Rhodes.
It didn’t matter, though, what Yelena said did get to her. And afternoon rehearsal was another disaster.
She was wound up so tight when she got home that she had forgotten Bucky was coming back that day. He was in the kitchen, standing at the stove, wearing a white tank and tight black jeans, and seeing him there made something inside of Natasha snap.
“How was your trip?” she asked.
He looked over his shoulder, looking slightly dumbfounded, which made sense—she had obviously been avoiding him before his trip.
“Boring. How are rehearsals?”
“Do you want to fuck?” Natasha blurted out instead of the rant that was on the tip of her tongue.
“Uh, do you have to ask?” he said as he shut off the stove.
He abandoned whatever it was he was cooking and crossed the kitchen to her in three steps. Then he wrapped his arms around her and planted a bruising kiss on her lips as he backed her into the living room. She clawed at his back, trying to get his clothes off him as quickly as possible.
They didn’t even make it to a bed. He took her from behind, bending her over the back of the sofa, fucking into her hard and fast. She was gripping a cushion with one hand as she rubbed her clit with the other. She got herself off surprisingly fast, orgasm hitting her from out of nowhere.
“God, Nat. That’s so fucking hot,” Bucky murmured.
He gripped her hips and kept fucking her through it until he came.
Afterward, she dragged him into the shower with her, where he proceeded to get her off again, eating her out while she stood under the shower stream.
When they got out, she followed him into the kitchen, and she picked up the rant she had intended to go on in the first place. She told him about how bad rehearsals were going and how she was worried about Clint. She needed to tell someone about it, and it was only halfway through recounting the day’s episode where Phil essentially benched Clint and had Pietro do all of Franz’s parts, when she realized that talking to him didn’t feel awkward this time.
They fucked, and now she was bitching to him like they were friends—maybe this could work.
“So you think Phil and Clint split up?” Bucky asked her when she was done.
“I can’t tell. I’m worried that’s what it is, but I feel like Clint would have told me that. And they live together. God, that would suck.”
“Clint’s always welcome to crash here,” Bucky said. “You can tell him that if you ever find out what’s going on.”
She knew he meant it. A little knot of warmth started to form in the pit of her stomach.
“Thanks, Buck,” she said. “If it comes down to it, I’ll let him know.”
So, that was how they started sleeping together again.
They didn’t talk about what they were doing. They definitely didn’t talk about what they were feeling. Natasha honestly wasn’t sure what she was feeling. Rehearsals were so rough that the studio and the theater were feeling less and less like sanctuaries to her. She found herself wanting to be at Bucky’s place more and more, even if he wasn’t there.
Over the next week or so, Natasha started to notice little things started appearing in the apartment. Fresh fruit appeared in the fridge right before Bucky was set to go on another trip. One day it was a water filter on the kitchen faucet a few days after she complained about the taste. Another day it was a lavender-scented infuser in the guest bathroom. Another day, after a 48-hour trip to wherever his work sent him, it was an array of good herbal tea that was definitely not from the U.S.
One day they were in the kitchen together and Natasha was digging in a cabinet hoping to find some of Bucky’s junk food. Natasha had a terrible sweet tooth. During her formative years at the orphanage, food was always used as a reward and she never quite shook that habit.
“It looks like you’re about two minutes away from crawling in that cabinet. What are you looking for?” Bucky asked her.
“What happened to your Pop-Tarts?” she demanded. Bucky always had Pop-Tarts around.
“I ate them.”
“You didn’t buy more.”
Bucky shrugged. “They’re full of shit I don’t need to eat. As long as you’re eating clean for Coppélia, I may as well, too.”
Or was it because he knew that Natasha would stress eat them and then hate herself later for it? Natasha didn’t know what to say to that.
Was he fucking with her? Had he always been so considerate?
She couldn’t even worry about it because opening night was getting closer, and Clint was still acting so off that it was fucking up rehearsals. After the first week of bad practices, Phil had seemed mostly back to his old self, but Clint continued to be stiff. He was still technically doing all the moves right, but he wasn’t lively—it was a comedic ballet and he wasn’t dancing with any expression. Natasha was starting to wonder if Pietro wouldn’t be given the lead instead.
Always before, Clint was valuable to have at rehearsals, even when he wasn’t the lead. He joked around a lot, and it was good for morale. It kept everyone loose. Jim picked up the slack a little because he was so friendly, he kept people at ease, even if they were intimidated by him. But everyone noticed that something was wrong with Clint.
The strangest part was that Phil wasn’t calling him out for it.
Pietro pulled Natasha aside one day during the break before rehearsal—Hunter and Ian were like shadows behind him.
“Is something wrong with Clint?” he asked.
“I overheard Coulson talking to Melinda,” Hunter piped in. “Melinda suggested giving Pietro the lead and replacing Clint with me.”
“Are you serious?” Natasha asked.
“I was with him,” Ian said, nodding.
“I can’t say I wouldn’t benefit from it, but I don’t want to get a role that way,” Hunter added.
“And we’re worried about Clint,” Pietro said, narrowing his eyes at Hunter.
Natasha groaned internally. It was way too out of hand, and she felt responsible. Part of her job as Clint’s best friend and dance partner was to pull his head out of his ass. If she were a better friend, not hung up on the looming end of her career and her ex-boyfriend who was maybe sort of becoming her actual boyfriend, then it wouldn’t have gotten this bad.
“In class he’s fine,” Hunter added. “But during rehearsals…”
Clint didn’t have classes with Phil. The two of them were so stupid. It didn’t take too many brain cells to realize the obvious factor in Clint’s attitude change between class and rehearsal.
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked, knowing full well the answer to the question.
“You’re closer to Clint than anyone…” Pietro started.
Natasha pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Yeah, I’ll talk to him,” she said. “I make no promises, though.”
“Thank you, Natasha,” Pietro said.
He looked like he was going to hug her—and Natasha could tell he really was genuinely worried about Clint. Natasha was definitely going to use that to make Clint feel like shit.
Natasha got into street clothes and went to find Clint. He was warming up in the small studio.
“Come on. We’re leaving,” she said.
“What? Nat we can’t just leave.”
“We can and we are. I’m not fucking around. Get changed, and I’ll go tell whoever’s in the office.”
“No. You’re fucking up the show, and I was just bombarded by your understudy and your potential replacement because they are worried about you. Get changed—now.”
Clint’s eyes went wide, but, wordlessly and miraculously, he did what she asked. Natasha stormed down the hallway. She must have looked pissed off, because even Yelena jumped out of her way.
She burst into the office, lucking out that Phil was alone inside, and got right in his face.
“I’m stealing him for the rest of the day, and I’m fixing this. And I’m not doing it because I give a shit about either of you, which I do, you know. You’re my family and this sucks. I’m doing this because I can’t fucking work like this. And it’s fucking up the show.”
“This isn’t a discussion.”
Then she spun on her heel and slammed the door behind her.
She nearly bowled over Maria on her way back to get Clint.
“Natasha are you—“
“Not now. Clint and I are taking the afternoon off. Ask Phil.”
“Oh thank god,” she thought she heard Maria mutter.
Clint was slowly packing his bag when she found him. She shoved everything else in his bag, this close to grabbing Clint by the scruff of his neck and dragging him out of the building.
“We can’t bail on rehearsal,” Clint said at her heels as she marched toward the front door.
“Maria gave me permission.” Natasha didn’t add that it was a possibly muttered tacit permission. “So, you’re cashing in on our bet and we’re getting foot massages.”
“You need an appointment.”
“I know people.”
She was already frantically texting Steve to get his friend Tony to pull some strings. Natasha had only met the elusive Tony Stark a handful of times. She didn’t really like him all that much on the surface, but he was unfailingly generous.
I’m not doing that, Nat, was Steve’s first response.
Not lying. C’s career + relationship depend on this, was her reply.
How could a foot massage have that much of an impact?
I left rehearsal dragging him with me and Maria let. me. go.
He didn’t respond right away.
They were already on the subway into Chinatown when her phone buzzed.
You have an appointment at 3.
You owe me is what you mean.
She sent him back the blowing kiss emoji.
Sure enough, the spa was ready for them when they got there.
“Friends with Tony Stark?” the receptionist asked, eying them up and down.
Natasha dropped the name of the ballet company and then added, “Tony wanted to treat us before our next run of shows.”
Clint side-eyed Natasha hard.
“So you’re friends with Tony Stark, now?”
“He’s friends with Steve. Close enough.”
“How does Steve know Tony?”
“Steve got a grant a couple years from the Stark Foundation to develop some kind of app for a Children’s hospital. They stayed in touch.”
“You think Tony Stark keeps in touch with everyone he gives a grant to?”
Natasha had never really thought about it.
“Maybe they just hit it off. You don’t think we’d still be friends if we didn’t both dance?”
“How would we have met if we didn’t dance?”
“I don’t know. I’d probably be a prostitute,” Natasha said. She was joking, but there was a hint of truth to it. There weren’t many ways to leave Russia as an orphaned girl, and she didn’t have any other life skills.
“Shit. I’d probably be a prostitute, too.”
“See? We would have met on a street corner.”
“Like Pretty Woman. Only we’re both Julia Roberts.”
“Richard Gere will just have to share us.”
Once they were settled into the massage chairs and Clint seemed sufficiently relaxed, Natasha finally cut the crap.
“Okay, spill,” she said.
“Oh, oh damn, right there,” Clint said to the woman working on his feet. “Sorry about the blisters.”
“Dancer, yes?” the woman asked.
“Clint,” Natasha scolded.
Clint sighed. He leaned back against the chair and sighed. Natasha waited. She knew Clint well enough to know when she could push him and when she couldn’t.
“Do you think I’m immature?” Clint finally asked Natasha as they were letting their feet soak in a quiet room with the lights dim and soft, instrumental music playing.
“No,” she replied immediately.
“Really?” Clint said, clearly surprised.
“Clint, you had as shitty a childhood as mine. People like us don’t get the luxury of being immature. Do you not take some things seriously? Yes, but that’s because you like to find humor where you can.”
“You’re being so nice. And insightful.”
“Why is everyone always so surprised when I’m nice? And does this have something to do with Phil.”
There was another long pause. Clint closed his eyes before he spoke.
“He wants to have kids.”
“And I said I didn’t know if I wanted them, and I certainly wasn’t ready now. But he’s older than me. And the age difference is usually a good thing, you know? But not about this. And so we got into a massive fight about it, and he called me immature.”
“And that’s why you’re being so fucking stiff in rehearsals? You’ve been a really shitty dance partner, you know.”
“Shit. I’m sorry. I know I’m fucking everyone else up. I know I am. It just got under my skin so bad. He apologized for saying it, but I don’t think he meant it and now our stupid unborn children are hanging over my head.”
“He brought this up right before a show?”
“Don’t blame him, Nat. It wasn’t out of the blue. He’s been hinting. I’ve just been avoiding it, because I just don’t know. And I don’t want him to break up with me because of it. We live together, and we work together. Phil is my world. When we’re not in sync, it throws everything off. What would I do without him?”
“Well, if he was going to break up with you over it, I think he already would have. He’s been a really shitty director, too, because he’s probably trying to give you space or something stupid like that.”
“You haven’t noticed?”
“I thought he just stopped caring about me.”
Natasha almost did a literal face-palm.
“You don’t notice how he’s beating himself up about it?” she asked. Phil was a wreck, he clearly didn’t know how to act around Clint, which was so unlike Phil. Natasha felt even worse for not stepping in sooner.
“Maybe you’re too busy trying to avoid him, but it’s killing him. What has it been like at home?”
“Um,” Clint said, looking away from Natasha “I’ve sort of been sleeping in the studio.”
“Clinton Francis Barton!”
“You’ve been living at the studio for three weeks?”
“Why didn’t you tell me? You know you could stay with me. Bucky even offered the other day when I mentioned I was worried about you. What did you tell Phil?”
“I told him I was staying with a friend.”
“Goddammit, Clint. You’re going to talk to him about this tonight. I’ll go with you to mediate if I have to.”
“But what am I going to tell him?”
“Tell him that it fucking hurt you when he called you immature. Tell him why you’re concerned about having kids. Jesus, he knows about your childhood, doesn’t he?”
“Some of it.”
“Tell him all of it!”
“Nat, it’s been so long. I don’t want him to think I’m broken.”
Natasha understood. It was a lot harder when she was younger. There was no way she could fit in in with girls who grew up in suburbia, who were homecoming queens with good educations. Dating was a whole other nightmare. Bucky had, on more than one occasion, said he felt like he didn’t know her. But to really know Natasha Romanoff was to know a sob story—one she didn’t want pity for.
“One, Phil loves you more than life itself. Two, you’re not broken. You had a horrible fucking father, and you’ve made a life for yourself in spite of it.”
“Can we not talk about this anymore?” Clint said, clearly starting to shut down. It was a defense mechanism Natasha knew well.
“Will you promise to talk to Phil tonight?”
“Will you get off my dick if I do?”
“Clint, I have absolutely no desire to be on your dick.”
“Thank god, because I think I just scared it.”
The spa worker retrieved them after that. Natasha was pretty sure they had been waiting outside the door for them to finish arguing. Natasha didn’t want a pedicure, but two women did sit and work at Clint’s and Natasha’s callouses for a while.
“I think I want kids,” Natasha blurted out to Clint.
“Why are you so surprised?”
“It’s just not something I would expect from you.”
“Because I’m an orphan? Because I’m a bitch? Because I’m not nurturing?”
“Because I don’t see you letting yourself get fat.”
“Hah, very funny,” Natasha said. “Clearly it would be after I retire. But I might adopt.”
“Does Bucky want kids?”
Natasha’s cheeks heated.
“Why would that matter?” she asked, hoping Clint didn’t hear her voice waiver. So what if sometimes she thought about what their kids would look like if she had them with Bucky. It wasn’t as if she had picked out names for them or anything.
“Oh, Nat,” Clint said, shaking his head at her.
“Stop it. Or I’ll get back on your dick about Phil.”
When they left the spa, Natasha checked her phone. She had a message from Sam.
Heard you were in Chinatown. Want to get ramen?
YES, she texted back.
“Hey, Clint. Sam’s just around the corner. Want to grab dinner with us? Sam can help you figure out what to say to Phil.”
“Oh my god. Fine.”
They walked a few blocks and found Sam standing outside a little hole-in-the-wall ramen place. Natasha gave him a hug.
“No hug for me?” Clint asked when Sam started going for the door.
“Come ‘ere,” Sam said and enveloped Clint in a tight hug.
Sam gave the best hugs.
“You two are not allowed to talk about dancing. No work talk,” Sam said as the hostess led them to a table.
“You could try to forge an interest in what I do, Sammy,” Natasha said.
“Hey, I support the arts. I’ll come see you. You have a brother in one of the lead roles—you know I will support that. But I don’t need to hear about your bloody feet or your dancer’s belts keeping your junk in.”
“You just want to ask Clint about his cousin. I get it.”
“Kate?” Clint asked.
“Wouldn’t she and Sam be perfect for each other?”
Clint tilted his head thoughtfully.
“You know, they kind of would.”
They spent the next few minutes pouring over the menu. Clint asked Sam for recommendations, while Natasha got what was probably the least caloric bowl on the menu. A fact that didn’t escape Sam, who gave her a hard side-eye when she ordered.
“You’re basically a professional athlete,” he started.
“Sam, we’ve had this conversation before.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. Women’s bodies don’t work like men’s. It’s just wild to me that you can work out all day and not eat to make up for it.”
“An athlete’s success is in their performance, right? Well, part of my performance is how my body looks. And I have to be extra careful, because my metabolism sucks because I was basically starving as a child.”
Clint started coughing to fill the silence that followed.
“I really am sorry I said anything, Nat,” Sam said.
“You would have silently judged me anyway. May as well get it out in the open.” Natasha cleared her throat. “Speaking of childhood development, in your professional opinion, what would you say is the best way to have a discussion with your partner about whether or not you want to have children?”
“Don’t tell me Bucky knocked you up.”
“Fuck you. I’m not talking about me, and Bucky and—we’re not—”
“I basically haven’t talked to Phil for three weeks, because we had a fight about him wanting kids,” Clint blurted out in a rush, effectively saving Natasha.
“Oh, shit. You’re being serious,” Sam said.
“I didn’t mean to! Why are you so easy to talk to? With your soulful brown eyes and your charming smile.”
“Are you hitting on me? Because I’ll let you continue.”
“You have a pretty spectacular ass. I’m pretty much exclusively a bottom, but…”
“I take it back,” Sam said. “Please don’t continue that thought.”
Natasha smirked at Sam, who flipped her off in response.
“So, you absolutely don’t want kids and he does?” Sam asked Clint.
“No, it’s not that I don’t want kids. It’s—it’s that I’m afraid to have kids.”
“Did you tell him that?”
“Well, then I’d have to tell him why I’m afraid to have kids, and he’d find out I’ve been keeping a few things about my past from him for the last, oh, six years, give or take.”
“Goddamn, Barton,” Sam said.
“That’s what I said, too!” Natasha exclaimed.
Lucky for Clint, he was saved by the waiter bringing them their ramen, and they ate in relative silence for a few minutes. Natasha ate slowly, savoring the warm broth and the combination of herbs she couldn’t identify. Meanwhile, Clint slurped his noodles with no finesse until a stray one smacked him in the cheek, splattering broth all over his face and shirt.
“Aw, ramen, no.”
“Well, if you would remember you aren’t in the barn anymore,” Natasha said.
Sam snorted and then looked up at Clint. “Wait, you weren’t actually raised in a barn were you?”
“Not exactly,” Clint said. “It was more like a traveling circus situation.”
Sam’s jaw dropped.
“Yep.” Clint took another bite. “I can shoot a bow and arrow with my feet.”
“I’ve seen him do it,” Natasha said. “It’s pretty impressive.”
“Does Phil know about the circus thing?” Sam asked.
“More or less.”
“Clint,” Natasha scolded.
“He knows about the bow and arrow thing!” Clint insisted.
“See, this is why you have to talk to him. You have to let him know all the factors you’re dealing with,” Sam said around a mouthful of noodles.
“But what if he breaks up with me?”
“The man has put up with you for six years. I find you exhausting after six minutes.”
“My point is that after that long together, you think he’s not willing to listen to you?”
“No, I know he will.”
“Then talk to him, man.”
“Okay, okay fine.”
“Good, now that that’s settled, Natasha, what about you and—“
“Not on the table for discussion tonight.”
Chapter 5: Episode 5
After Clint talked to Phil, rehearsals started going a lot better. Natasha barely had a chance to ask Clint what happened between them, and it wasn’t as if she could ask him at the studio.
One evening after rehearsal, Phil signaled to Natasha to stay behind.
“Have you been working with Wanda?” he asked her.
“No. I mean, I give her a pointer every now and then, but she’s pretty good at picking up on everything.”
“It seems to be helping. I think we made the right call putting her in as understudy.”
“Are you trying to replace me?” Natasha asked lightly, trying to mask the very real worry that it was true.
“Never,” Coulson said. Natasha almost believed him.
He turned out the lights and guided Natasha into the makeshift office where he stashed his things during rehearsals.
“I just wanted to thank you and I haven’t had the time,” he said as soon as the door was closed. “Whatever you said to Clint was, well, I’m just glad he has a friend like you.”
“I just told him to get his head out of his ass.”
“But he listens to you because he trusts you, and trust isn’t something he gives away easily.”
“I’m sorry that he didn’t—wait, he did tell you about—“
“His father?” Coulson spat out the word. “Yes, he did. And if that son-of-a-bitch wasn’t dead, I would go slit his throat myself.”
“I’d help you,” Natasha replied with narrowed eyes.
Clint told her once that he had forgiven his father, but Natasha certainly hadn’t. The scars of abuse were still very apparent to her.
“I wanted to ask you something,” Phil said, his voice still serious. “It’s not fair of me to ask you, and if you want to tell me to fuck off, I will understand completely. But do you know why he didn’t tell me? Why he didn’t think he could trust me with it?”
Natasha looked down at her lap.
“It’s not something anyone wants to talk about. You have to re-live it and the humiliation and guilt that come with it. And then when you start seeing someone, you want them to see you as whole. You don’t want them to know that part of you, because it’s the unlovable part, the ugly part, the part that makes you still think you’re this broken, helpless thing.” She paused, trying to blink back the tears starting to form in her eyes. “It’s really hard to say, ‘My alcoholic father used to beat me to within an inch of my life while my mom watched and did nothing about it, and now I have massive trust issues’. You always wonder if anyone could ever love you, you know? Because the people who were supposed to love you clearly didn’t.”
“It sounds like you know first-hand,” Phil said quietly, resting a steady hand on her shoulder.
“My sob story is different from Clint’s, but it’s similar enough for me to get it.”
“I’m glad he has someone like you.”
“I could say the same thing about you. You’re good for him, you know. You let him be Clint.”
“I understand a little better now how important that is to him.” Phil walked over to the window. “There’s one more thing I have to ask.”
“Go ahead,” Natasha said. She hoped she wasn’t breaking Clint’s trust by having the conversation. She didn’t think Phil would use her that way, and he was just as much her family as Clint was. They just didn’t have the same kind of daily rapport.
“Did his father know, do you think, even back then, that Clint was gay?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it before,” Natasha said. “But I guess I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“I hate that man,” Phil said.
“I do too.”
Natasha looked at Phil, who was still looking out the window. His fists were clenched. She understood the anger. And she understood why he had come to her. You wanted an outlet for it, but there just wasn’t one, and Clint, for whatever reason, still didn’t like to hear anything disparaging said about his family.
“The thing is, Clint would be a great dad,” Natasha said, after Coulson visibly relaxed.
“There is a waiting list for his summer classes. I don’t think he realizes that it’s because of him, not because of the time slot.”
“I’ve told him.”
“I have, too.”
“Maybe he’ll start to believe it now,” Natasha said.
She got up and walked over to Phil. She wasn’t a particularly affectionate person and neither was Phil, but he seemed grateful when he melted into her hug.
“I’m glad you two are talking again. Rehearsals have sucked,” she said.
“That’s on me. I’m afraid I’ve outed us to the rest of the company.”
“Nah, they’ve all just been blaming Clint.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“Then make it up to him.”
“Thanks, Natasha. Now go home and rest. We have a long week.”
They had to do a few PR events leading up to opening night. Interviews for various city publications, a black tie fundraising event for supporting the arts, where Natasha had to schmooze with wealthy donors who couldn’t even fathom the poverty she grew up in.
Tony was at the fundraiser. He’d given a sizable donation that year. Natasha meant to thank him for getting her the spa appointment at the last minute, but she couldn’t manage to get him alone. That and she wasn’t entirely sure he knew who she was. But he always had a small cluster of people around him.
Instead, she spent most of her evening having old women tell her how thin she was and how they regretted that they had never been dancers. She didn’t mind it, really; it was part of the job.
Her favorite patron was an elderly woman named Lorraine. She had been a Rockette in the 60s and had done USO shows in Vietnam, and Natasha loved talking to her. She had so many stories.
“Are you still seeing Sergei?” Lorraine asked her.
Natasha shook her head. “No, we parted ways.”
“Mmm hmm,” Lorraine said. “I never liked him.”
“You could have told me that, you know.”
“Dear, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about life, it’s that the heart and the loins don’t listen to reason.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Natasha muttered.
“So, do you have a new man in your life then?”
“Well—“ Natasha started.
Natasha put her hands up to her cheeks. “I don’t know why he makes me blush. I’ve known him for years.”
“What’s he like?”
“He’s—“ Natasha started, but how could she explain Bucky. “He’s a good man, Lorraine.”
“He’s gotta be good to be better than no man at all.”
“I think this one really might be,” Natasha replied.
When she got home to an empty apartment, she was feeling wrung out from the fundraiser. So she curled up in Bucky’s bed instead of her own. The sheets still smelled like him, and it was more comforting to her than she wanted to admit. Liho jumped up on the bed and curled up on Bucky’s pillow.
“I wish you could talk, Liho.”
She scratched the cat behind its ears.
“Maybe you could tell me if he ever talks about me to you.”
Liho purred in response.
A few days later, they went to a local school to perform a shortened version of the ballet for the students. Those were the performances that no one really took seriously, but that went better than any of the ones for a paying audience.
The kids laughed in the right places, mostly at Clint, who had finally breathed life back into Franz. For the first time since rehearsals started, Natasha felt like maybe the show wouldn’t be a disaster.
Bucky was only home for a few days before the first run of shows. He knocked on her bedroom door one evening after a hushed but heated phone call, presumably with his boss, or one of his bosses. Hell, for all Natasha knew, he was talking to the President.
“I’m really, really sorry, Nat, but I’m going to miss the show. I thought I’d be back in time, but the assignment I’m on is a lot more nuanced than we first thought.”
At first Natasha thought it would be a good thing. She didn’t need a distraction during performances, and knowing Bucky was there would make her nervous. The run of performances was a whirlwind. Natasha loved it. The rush of performing on a stage under the lights with a live orchestra never got old. It didn’t matter how many times she did it. But she still found herself thinking about Bucky, even when she was taking her final curtain call.
The whole group had met for a final group hug. Afterward, Natasha had shaken all the right hands, kissed all the right cheeks, and accepted all the flowers. She just wanted a few minutes to herself to change alone.
She was mostly dressed in her street clothes and was taking off her makeup when Clint burst into her dressing room and collapsed down on the sofa.
“I fucked up the sleeping powder scene with Jim.”
“No you didn’t,” she said immediately, even though she hadn’t actually seen it.
“Phil said I didn’t either, but I don’t believe him.”
“The show’s over anyway--”
She didn’t finish the thought. She was going to ask him why did it matter, but she knew why it mattered. You always wanted the last show to be perfect, because there wasn’t a chance for redemption. Every performance was different, but each one was a quest for perfection.
And everything lived on in the era of YouTube.
“You coming to the after after party?” Clint asked.
She groaned. “You realize it’s at my place, right?”
“So it’s your place now.”
Bucky had been the one to suggest bringing the celebratory party to their—his—apartment when Natasha mentioned that the company was too cheap to rent out a bar. She wasn’t sure exactly why she offered. It just felt like a nice gesture, especially after the bad stretch of rehearsals that she still blamed herself for.
There was a knock on the dressing room door.
“See that? Knocking. It’s what civilized humans do before they enter a dressing room,” she said as she wrenched open the door.
The first thing she saw were flowers—a giant-ass bouquet of black roses.
There was only one person in the world who would send her black roses. She thanked the delivery guy hurriedly and dug through the flowers to find the card.
“Well that’s morbid,” Clint said.
“They’re my favorite…” Nat trailed off as she tore open the tiny envelope and pulled out the card.
You looked great out there, Twinkletoes.
It wasn’t printed. It was Bucky’s messy scrawl. He hadn’t just ordered flowers, he picked them up and brought them to the performance hall. Her heart started pounding in her ears.
“What? You look like you’re going to puke. They’re not from Sergei are they?”
“I thought he was in Mogadishu or wherever.”
“I think it was Moldova.”
“Close enough?” Clint said.
“They actually aren’t even remotely close.”
“Hey, I only finished 10th grade.”
Natasha shook her head at Clint and looked at the flowers again. Bucky got away from work and he came to her show.
“So, what’s really going on with you two? Are you back together?” Clint asked.
“I don’t know. It’s—I don’t know.”
“You should either stop fucking or stop dancing around each other. It’s boring.”
“I’m sorry my love life isn’t as sordid as yours.”
Clint narrowed his eyes.
“You wouldn’t dare.”
She put up her hands in surrender. “You know I wouldn’t say anything, which means you shouldn’t give me a hard time about this.”
Clint snatched the card out of her hands and looked at it.
“I wouldn’t have made that bet with you if I realized you were in love with him.”
But she couldn’t say the words.
“You are. I don’t think you were before, not even back when you were together, but you are now.”
Natasha knew Clint was right. She hadn’t even admitted it to herself, but she had fallen for him hard. It wasn’t nostalgia for how things used to be. She was falling for the man Bucky was now.
“What happened?” Clint asked, pulling her out of her thoughts.
“I think we both grew up,” she said.
They left the dressing room together. Natasha clutched the flowers with one arm and grabbed Clint’s arm with her free hand. He was kind enough not to say anything about it. She had survived another performance in a lead role at one of the premier ballet companies in the city, but the idea of seeing Bucky was making her nervous.
Sure enough, Bucky, along with Steve, who had already come to opening night, were waiting for her outside the stage door. Steve reached her first, giving her a hug, careful not to crush the bouquet she was holding. Bucky hung back, awkwardly scratching the back of his neck.
“You were awesome, Nat,” Steve said.
“Thanks, Steve. You didn’t have to come a second time.”
“My date insisted,” he said, tilting his head toward Bucky.
Natasha didn’t know what to say, so she just handed Steve the flowers and threw her arms around Bucky’s neck. It was easier than looking straight at him.
“Thank you for the flowers,” she said softly into his ear.
“You’re welcome,” he said hoarsely.
“Well, I need a drink,” Clint said loudly.
Steve drove them back to the apartment building. They moved some furniture out of the way, Clint set up a makeshift bar, and Bucky locked his wall safe like a weirdo.
Before anyone else showed up, Clint insisted they do shots. Natasha tried to protest, but Steve and Bucky egged her on. The vodka Clint gave them burned as it went down.
“Yuck,” Natasha said.
“You’re such a bad Russian,” Clint teased.
“That’s just bad vodka,” she said.
“We have better,” Bucky said. “Hold on.”
He opened the freezer and dug around, coming out with a bottle of vodka with a label totally in Russian.
“Shit,” Clint said. “How did I miss that?”
“I hide it behind the vegetables.”
“That would be why.”
Clint poured them each another shot, making Steve’s and Bucky’s doubles.
“You have a weight advantage on me and Nat,” he insisted.
That round went down a lot smoother, and Natasha could already feel herself loosening up.
Pietro and Wanda arrived together, and then some of the corps started trickling in. Yelena had scoffed at the invitation. Phil said he would show up later, probably to make sure Clint got home. Natasha was surprised that so many took her up on the invitation.
Before long, the apartment was filled with 30 to 40 people, mostly dancers, but some of their partners, too.
Of course, the thing with having a bunch of dancers at your party was that if you put on some music, they couldn’t help but dance. Natasha pulled Wanda and Pietro into the cleared out space and tried to get them to loosen up.
“It feels good to not be doing ballet, no?” Natasha said.
Wanda grinned and nodded in response.
Natasha took a break from dancing and went into the kitchen. Clint made her a drink that was pink and fizzy. She had no idea what was in it, but it hardly tasted alcoholic. She really never drank, so it didn’t take much to affect her. But she was still feeling jittery with feelings for Bucky, so she drank it quickly.
“What was in that?” she asked Clint.
“Make me another one?”
“If you drink a glass of water first.”
“Aw, are you taking care of me?”
She downed the water and a second drink and headed toward Bobbi and Jemma, who were both trying to do hip hop moves and failing spectacularly. Ballet dancers were too stiff, their posture was too embedded in them, but that didn’t stop them from trying. Natasha joined them, ignoring the looks of surprise they gave her. She got into the music, lost track of time.
Nearly everyone at the party was on the makeshift dance floor, even a very tipsy Bucky, who was being taught how to do the Dab by Trip. Natasha was going to take a break when she saw Steve standing awkwardly by the windows.
“You should dance, Steve,” she said, laughing.
“I don’t dance.”
“’ts easy. Follow me.”
She put her hands on Steve’s hips and forced him to move them to the beat.
“See?” she said. “That’s all you gotta do.”
“I look like an idiot.”
“We all look like idiots,” she replied, waving her arm at the group.
She twirled Steve around a few times and then pulled Bucky in to spin around with them. Natasha had been around Steve often enough to know alcohol made him warm and happy, and they were all laughing by the time the song ended.
But then the song changed to a rhythm that was much dirtier, more suggestive. Steve started to step away from her, but she grabbed him and pulled him in closer. Bucky was standing behind her, his hands holding onto her hips. She backed up into him, pulling Steve forward with her, sandwiching herself between them.
She never really saw Steve that way, but whatever was in the drink Clint gave her was making her bold. The air around her felt thick with lust.
She circled her hips slowly, getting lower and lower until she was basically riding Steve’s thigh. Steve’s khakis were doing nothing to hide that he was getting hard. She arched her back and reached her arm around to hold onto the back of Bucky’s neck. He was laughing in her ear.
“Getting handsy are we, Romanoff?”
“Steve’s the handsy drunk, not me,” she laughed.
As if to prove her point, she grabbed Steve’s hand and pulled it around so it was on Bucky’s ass.
Bucky tensed slightly, but he didn’t pull away. In fact, he stepped in even closer, pressing against her, rubbing his erection against her lower back. Natasha reached around to cover Steve’s hand, using it to give Bucky’s ass a squeeze.
“What do you think, Steve?” Bucky asked.
“Not bad,” Steve said, a tone of challenge in his voice.
“Not bad?” Bucky replied. “Just ‘not bad’?”
“Don’t be mad, James,” Natasha said. “Have you seriously never noticed Steve’s ass?”
Natasha slipped out from between them, grabbing onto Steve’s hips and turning him around so she was facing him and his back was to Bucky. She wrapped her arms around Steve and gave his round, firm cheeks a squeeze. Steve gasped in surprise and jumped a little at her touch, which made his gluteal muscles flex. Natasha spent most of her life around professional dancers, but Steve’s ass outdid them all.
“It’s a national treasure, Steve,” she added.
Steve laughed. “I’m feeling a little objectified here.”
“Aw, you know we love you, Steve,” Bucky said. “But the lady makes a compelling argument. That’s one fuckable ass.”
“Yeah?” Steve asked as he turned back around.
They were practically chest to chest.
“What do you think, Nat?” Bucky said, still looking at Steve.
“I think you won’t know until you try it out.”
Bucky looked from Natasha to Steve and then back to Natasha, looking like he was asking for permission. Natasha nodded at him.
Bucky leaned down and gave Natasha a searing kiss. She went up on her tiptoes to chase his lips, but Bucky had other ideas. Steve had started to back away.
“Uh uh,” Bucky said, and then grabbed Steve’s shirt, pulling him in.
Steve leaned in, raising an eyebrow like he was giving Bucky one last chance to back down. But Bucky was already going in. He took Steve’s lower lip in between his gently, and that was enough for Steve to surge up, pushing more insistently against Bucky’s lips. Natasha was watching them so intently, she didn’t see Bucky’s hand move. But he brought it up behind her head, teasing his fingers against the back of her neck until she was shivering.
If there was anyone watching the three of them, Natasha didn’t notice them. Bucky was kissing Steve like the ship was going down and it was the single hottest thing she had ever seen in her entire life.
“Bed,” Bucky gasped, pulling away. “Your place.”
“Yeah, okay,” Steve said, his chest was heaving.
Then Bucky looked over at Natasha in that way that never failed to make her stomach do somersaults and her heart race. “Coming, sweetheart?”
“I better be,” she said, her feet already moving toward the front door. She registered Bucky saying something to Clint, though she didn’t hear what. Clint held up his hand as she walked past. She slapped him five and then followed Steve and Bucky out of the apartment.
Bucky somehow managed to share Natasha and Steve, making out with both of them in turn during the short elevator ride down to Steve’s floor. Natasha had sometimes wondered what it would be like, having a threesome. She could never figure out how it wouldn’t end up with someone feeling left out, but she didn’t feel left out. Bucky was so overwhelming that she almost needed the break when his attention turned to Steve.
Both Natasha and Steve immediately went for Bucky’s clothes once they were inside of the apartment. Steve was unbuttoning Bucky’s shirt while Natasha unbuckled his belt.
“Eager, are we?” Bucky asked.
“Shut up,” they responded in tandem, which made them both start giggling.
They made it to Steve’s bedroom in various states of undress. Steve was oddly shy about getting fully naked.
“You know that men change in front of me all the time, right?” Natasha said, as she tugged on the white undershirt that was clinging to Steve’s torso.
“Yeah, but I assume you aren’t about to have sex with them when it happens.”
“Off with it, Steve,” Bucky said.
Steve followed Bucky’s order, sliding his boxer shorts down.
“You’re like a specimen of hotness, isn’t he?” Natasha asked Bucky.
“I’m right here.”
“You are really hot, Steve. What are you benching now?”
Natasha rolled her eyes at both of them.
“Stop bro-ing out. It’s killing my ladyboner.”
Bucky maneuvered Steve so he was kneeling on the bed. Natasha moved around in front of Steve, tracing his cut muscles first with her fingers then with her tongue. When she got to his nipples, she licked around them tentatively.
“Fuck,” Steve hissed.
Natasha tugged on one of his nipples gently with her teeth.
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” Natasha said with a laugh.
Steve looked down at her with a raised eyebrow.
“You’ve got great tits,” she said.
Bucky laughed from the side of the room where he was digging around in Steve’s dresser.
“Hah! I knew you had lube. Sock drawer, though? Really?”
“Fuck you,” Steve said.
“Fuck you? I’m trying, I’m trying.”
Steve’s laughed was cut off by Natasha tugging on his other nipple while Bucky’s hand circled his cock.
“You’re both trying to kill me,” Steve said.
“No, we’re all just trying to get each other off,” Bucky said, capturing Steve’s mouth in another kiss.
Steve didn’t kiss Natasha—it would have been too weird for both of them. Somehow having his face between her legs, circling his tongue around her clit as Bucky gave the orders, was less intimate. Even though Steve clearly knew exactly what he was doing, following Bucky made Steve like a conduit for what Bucky wanted.
“She tastes good, doesn’t she?” Bucky said, leaning over Steve and resting his chin on his shoulder. His eyes were hooded while he watched Steve eat her out.
“Mmm,” Steve hummed against her, making her feel the vibrations tremor through her.
“Put two fingers in her. She gets even wetter when she comes.”
“Oh god,” Steve said, as he did what Bucky said. Natasha clenched around Steve’s fingers, to which Steve responded, “Shit, Nat.” Followed quickly by, “Shit, Buck.”
Natasha was right on the edge as Steve worked her over, alternating his pace, using the flat of his tongue and then the tip, all while he rubbed his fingers inside her.
When Steve cursed a third time, she looked up. Bucky’s face was hidden behind Steve’s ass. Steve’s pattern changed, and Natasha wondered if he wasn’t doing exactly to her what Bucky was doing to his ass.
The idea made it infinitely hotter. Natasha tried to spread her legs even wider, pushing herself against Steve’s hot mouth.
She heard the crinkle of a condom wrapper and then the sudden absence of the warmth of Steve’s mouth on her.
“Steve,” she groaned. “I was close.”
“Fuck, Steve, you’re so tight,” Bucky said.
Steve made a whimpering noise against Natasha’s thigh.
“Focus on Natasha. Relax. Just relax, I got you.”
Steve took a deep breath and then took his orders seriously, working his tongue around Natasha’s clit at double speed, like what he had been doing before was just a tease. Her legs started to shake, and a tingling warmth rushed down to her core, finally tipping her over the edge.
When she started to come, Steve started groaning. He grabbed onto her thighs, tightening his grip. Bucky was moving, thrusting his hips slowly, and Natasha could practically feel the rhythm he was setting.
Natasha came down from her orgasm panting and watched Bucky’s face. He seemed to be concentrating on holding onto Steve’s hips and thrusting steadily. But then he looked up and caught her eye. He gave her a wink. He put an arm around Steve’s chest to pull him up to a kneeling position. Steve leaned back against Bucky, giving Natasha a full frontal view of Steve. His cock had softened, but with the change in angle, it was getting harder fast.
Bucky’s hand was loose around Steve’s neck, holding him in place. Bucky titled Steve’s head and then leaned down to bite Steve’s neck, looking at Natasha the whole time. God, he was putting on a show for her.
“You take cock so well, Steve. You like this, don’t you?”
“Better than your fingers, isn’t it?”
“You want to come?”
“Goddammit, Buck. Is he always like this?”
“Nat,” Bucky said, ignoring Steve’s question. “Do you want to help Steve out?”
“Yeah,” she said, still feeling fucked out.
She wrapped her hand around Steve’s cock, which jumped at her touch. She pumped his dick a few times, gauging his reaction. Men were all particular about how they liked to be stroked, but Steve was hard to read.
“Don’t choke me,” she said, mostly to Bucky, because Steve was quickly losing control.
Then she got down on her knees and put her mouth around Steve’s cock.
“Jesus, that’s hot,” Bucky said. “Look at you both.”
The angle was awkward, but Steve was already on edge. It didn’t take long before he was warning Natasha that he was going to come. Natasha didn’t pull off, and when Steve shuddered and pulsed into her mouth, she swallowed.
Bucky followed soon after, with his head thrown back, covered in a sheen of sweat, and Natasha couldn’t help but stare.
Steve passed out almost immediately after. Natasha went to clean herself up a little, when she got back to the bedroom, Bucky was lying down opposite Steve.
“Come ‘ere,” he whispered.
She crawled across the bed toward him and rested her head on his chest. He wrapped an arm around her and kissed the top of her head.
“That was fun,” she murmured.
“Next time, just you and me,” he slurred.
The first thing she felt the next morning was a throbbing headache, then a dry as fuck mouth, then an unfamiliar pillow, and then two mostly naked men—one on either side of her.
So it hadn’t been a dream.
She had to pee and needed water and aspirin, in that order. So she slid down to the end of the bed, trying carefully not to wake Steve or Bucky.
After she took care of her immediate needs, she went to make coffee.
The pot was just finished brewing when Steve came into the kitchen. He had horrible bedhead, but his eyes were wide as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened either.
“I made a full pot,” Natasha said, pulling Steve’s favorite mug out of the cupboard.
“Thanks,” Steve said roughly, filling the cup. “Shit. I’m going to need some water, too.”
He rummaged around in the fridge, pulling out a Gatorade. Of course Steve kept sports drinks in his fridge.
“Want one?” he offered.
“Those are full of sugar.”
Steve shrugged and downed half of it at once.
“So, uh—“ Steve started.
They heard Bucky padding down the hallway, which silenced Steve. They were both staring awkwardly at the doorway when Bucky sauntered in, looking artfully mussed, wearing only his black briefs, scratching his belly.
“So that happened,” he said, a smirk tugging at his lips as he got right in Natasha’s space, reaching around her for a mug. “Frankly, Steve, I’m shocked and appalled it took us this long to fuck.”
She saw the tension in Steve release. “This long? I have two words for you, my friend. Camp Cukumunga.”
Bucky’s jaw drop with mock horror. “Handies don’t count.”
“What?!” Natasha gasped and started laughing. “Oh my god, the two of you fooled around at summer camp?”
“We were 13. We were experimenting. I helped Steve discover his bisexuality.”
“And your bisexuality?”
Even when they were dating she hadn’t really known much about Bucky’s sexual past—asking him how he identified wasn’t something she even would have considered, mostly because of her own naiveté. But there were a lot of things about him she hadn’t known. They were usually too busy bickering or fucking to talk about anything that mattered.
She had been way too young, way too self-centered, caught up in her own bullshit to understand what it meant to be in a healthy relationship. Whatever this was, whatever was happening between them, she wanted to do it better. She was starting to think they could.
“Oh, please, I’m Kinsey scale 1, maybe 2,” Bucky said.
“My ass says 3,” Steve quipped into his cup of coffee.
Natasha started laughing even harder. Steve cracking jokes about it was a good sign that he wasn’t freaking out.
“Well, congratulations to you both for popping my threesome cherry,” she said, raising her coffee cup as a toast.
“This isn’t going to make things weird is it?” Steve asked.
“Other than the hard time Clint’s going to give us? I’m cool with it,” Natasha said. “It was fun, right?”
“Surprising, but fun,” Steve agreed, but then realization dawned on him and his cheeks colored. “Why would Clint find out about it?”
“Uh, he was the one who high-fived us on the way out of the apartment,” Bucky said. “You do still have my spare key, don’t you? I can’t believe I just left my own place in the middle of a party.”
“For Steve’s ass, I’d say it was worth it,” Natasha said. “I think Darcy and Ian were making out in the corner, Jane was passed out on the couch, and Bobbi and Hunter were probably fucking in the bathroom—they do that at the studio all the time, too. Clint had everything under control. Nothing gets by on his watch.”
The three of them went upstairs together to survey the damage. There were bottles and half empty cups strewn everywhere. The doors to the balcony were open, the couch cushions were in total disarray. The bedrooms looked surprisingly untouched. Liho, who had been asleep on Bucky’s pillow, seemed annoyed when Natasha poked her head in his room. The guest bathroom smelled vaguely of vomit, though mercifully it seemed to have been flushed.
“This place is a mess. I’m hiring a maid,” Bucky said.
“You can’t just hire maid at a moment’s notice, that’s not how cleaning services work,” Natasha scoffed.
Bucky gave her the you-have-no-idea-what-kind-of-connections-I-have face.
“Oh come on, you lazy bastard. It’s not that bad,” Steve said.
Begrudgingly, the three of them spent the afternoon cleaning the apartment.
Chapter 6: Episode 6
The success of Coppélia was short-lived. It only meant the start of Nutcracker season.
The whole company hated doing the Nutcracker every year. Even with Phil’s choreography changing up the production and with doing different roles during the show’s run, it was still the fucking Nutcracker. With so many roles for younger dancers, it meant a lot of evening and weekend rehearsals. Luckily, Natasha wasn’t involved in most of the group scenes.
The only good thing about it was that auditions were marginally less competitive. Shocking for a company, but the principals were pretty congenial and agreed among themselves to trade off the lead roles from year to year—mostly because they all hated the Nutcracker. Even Yelena was pretty nice about it. There was a showcase in February that they cared about more. They got to choreograph their own numbers, to explore with modern and jazz and to dance to contemporary music.
Those auditions were a lot tougher. The principals would all be in the show, but how they would be showcased was always up for grabs. They all worked on their own dances during Nutcracker preparation.
At least, Natasha thought everyone hated doing the Nutcracker. A girl Natasha didn’t know very well, Daisy, had been cast as Clara, and apparently Wanda had been devastated by the decision. Natasha found Wanda before the first rehearsal out back, smoking in the crisp November morning.
“You’ll get another chance to play Clara, but you don’t want to do it every year,” Natasha assured her.
“Why not? She’s the star. I won’t be young enough to do it for much longer—oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
A year or two before and the comment might have stung, but it bothered her less now. She knew Wanda didn’t mean anything by it. It was the truth.
“She’s on stage the whole time and she barely gets to dance. Do you know how much rehearsal time that is? It’s hell.”
Natasha had been Clara her first year with the company. Over the years, she had played pretty much every solo role in every version
This year, she was playing Dew Drop. Yelena had gotten the role of Sugar Plum Fairy. Some years, they shared both roles. This year, Phil was including the Snow Queen and King, so Natasha was also learning the Snow Queen part along with Bobbi. Clint was playing the Snow King, which was going to make rehearsals hell—for reasons unknown to Natasha, Clint hated Bobbi.
When she asked him about it, he just said that he knew her back when he was dancing in Los Angeles. Natasha took it that asking what happened in Los Angeles was off the table.
Before rehearsals got crazy, Natasha managed to set up a date with Sam and Kate. Kate insisted on it being a double date, just in case Sam was crazy.
“He’s one of my best friends, Kate,” Natasha insisted.
“That doesn’t mean he’s not a psycho,” Kate said.
“But he’s not.”
“You know how it is being set up. I need a buffer in case the date goes spectacularly bad.”
Natasha relented. So, without wanting to be a chaperone or a third wheel, Natasha had to ask Bucky to go along with her.
“You have to do me a favor,” she said.
“You mean like let you live in my apartment rent free or…”
“Fuck off. It’s not for me, really, it’s for Sam.”
“And you think that’s helping your case?”
“Oh come on, you love Sam. You know how mopey he is around the holidays because he’s single? Well, I want to set him up with Clint’s cousin, so I need you to go on a double date with me.”
“Why not ask Steve to go with you?”
“To be my date? Are you kidding me? Anyway, Steve’s still mad that I’m not setting him up with Kate, even though he claims he isn’t. Even though they have nothing in common and he hates it when I try to set him up.”
“Lillian was a nightmare.”
“I didn’t know she was that into piercing!”
Bucky was smirking at her, and she realized he had been fucking with her the whole time. She punched him in the arm.
“You’re buying, right?” he asked.
Natasha glared at him. She didn’t know how much money Bucky made, and Steve had confirmed that Bucky only stayed in this building because he and Steve were co-dependent. But she supposed it was only fair.
“Yes, I’ll buy.”
“Then I’m in.”
“You were in anyway.”
He grinned at her and then opened the fridge, pulling out leftovers and sniffing them, before putting them back. Natasha thought it was a sign of personal growth that she didn’t yell at him for it. He settled on his Kung Pao shrimp from the night before and popped it in the microwave. As he waited, he leaned against the counter and crossed his arms.
“Did you ever think about setting Steve up with a guy?” he asked.
The thought hadn’t actually crossed Natasha’s mind.
“Well, I just always assumed because of Peggy, he…” she trailed off.
Steve obviously liked having sex with men, but having a relationship with one was entirely different.
“You think maybe he fixates on Peg and finds faults in every woman he meets because he would actually prefer dating men and hasn’t admitted it to himself?”
“Clearly you have,” Natasha said. “Did you initiate a threesome with him to push him in that direction? Like you did at Camp Cowabunga?”
“Cukumunga. I was drunk, Nat. That sounds a little too elaborate for drunk me to come up with.”
But then he winked at her before he pulled his food out of the microwave.
“I can’t believe you.”
“So I’m going to have to find single gay men, then,” Natasha said, mostly to herself. “Think he’d want to date a dancer?”
“Your kind is really flexible.”
So that week, Natasha started scoping out the men in the company. Half of them were straight. She was pretty sure Pietro was bi, but he was too young for Steve. The only decent options were Trip or Leo, but they had been fucking each other off and on for years, and Natasha wasn’t about to get caught up in their drama.
Maybe she could sign Steve up for Grindr.
By the time Friday rolled around, Natasha was a little nervous, not for Kate and Sam’s sake, but for hers. She and Bucky hadn’t actually gone out together since, well, since they started sleeping together again. They had gotten takeout a couple times, but nothing like an actual date.
The restaurant Natasha had chosen had some of the best Indian food in the city. There were paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling that were all decked out in gaudy Christmas lights. It also happened to be one of Bucky’s favorites.
“I love this place,” he said when he realized where they were going.
He grinned at her and grabbed her hand, not letting go until they got to the restaurant. Natasha had purposely told Kate and Sam a later time so she could get there early, but both Sam and Kate showed up a minute after she and Bucky did.
Kate was a little rough around the edges, but she was also incredibly disarming, real, what you saw was what you got. Clint never gave Natasha any specifics, but she’d gone through something kind of traumatic. And now she worked for a non-profit organization that supported survivors of domestic violence. She traveled across the country, speaking at colleges and doing programs at women’s shelters.
Natasha made introductions. Sam was clearly nervous, which was kind of adorable. Sam was usually pretty confident.
“Hey, Barnes,” Kate said, giving Bucky an awkward wave. “You look a lot less like a murderer with the haircut.”
They had only met once or twice, years before, when Bucky was still working up the ranks as an office drone, with his “anti-establishment” long hair. Natasha used to put it in French braids to fuck with Bucky’s co-workers.
“That’s funny,” Bucky said. “I was just thinking that you look a lot more like a murderer with the leather thing you’ve got going.”
Kate did look distinctively less East Coast prep than she did the last time Natasha had seen her.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t come for Coppélia, Nat,” Kate said. “I was in LA for work dealing with an administration crisis.”
“It’s okay. Clint gets nervous when you’re there. I’m sure there’s video if you really wanted to see it.”
“Does he really get nervous? That’s so cute. Did the show go well?”
“It was fine. Probably my last run as Swanhilde.” Nat said with a shrug.
“I don’t know anything about ballet, but isn’t Coppélia one of the classics?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, but I’ll be ancient when it comes up again in three years.”
Bucky didn’t say anything, but Natasha felt him take a step closer to her. He gave her shoulder a squeeze as the hostess led them to their table.
When the waiter came to the table, Bucky started chatting with him—in the waiter’s native language. He gave his order to the waiter, but let everyone else give theirs in English. The waiter said something to Bucky afterward and Bucky laughed.
“Want to let us in on the joke?” Sam asked.
“Just making fun of you plebes,” Bucky said.
“What language was that?” Kate asked.
“Hindi,” Bucky replied nonchalantly.
“Um, you speak Hindi?” Natasha asked.
“Not a lot,” Bucky said with a shrug, as if it was normal for a white guy from Brooklyn to know Hindi.
Kate and Sam were both staring at him. Natasha was trying not to. Bucky seemed to never stop impressing her in some way or another.
“How many languages do you speak?” Kate asked.
“Fluently? Five. Passably? A few more. At least Hindi isn’t tonal. Those are harder.”
“How do you stay fluent in five languages?” Kate pressed. “Um, out of curiosity.”
“I use them a lot for work.”
Sam leaned over to whisper something to Kate and her eyes went wide. Sometimes Natasha wondered if Sam knew more about Bucky’s work than he let on. But Kate didn’t ask Bucky what he did after that.
“Which five languages?” Natasha asked.
“Russian, Romanian, Arabic, Spanish, and English. My Mandarin is passable. Apparently so is my Hindi.”
Natasha stared at him.
“So do you two speak Russian to each other?” Kate asked.
Natasha shook her head. She had spent the last ten years trying to leave Russia behind, trying to fit in to American culture. With her first paycheck, she bought a New York Yankees cap. She wore it everywhere. When Steve found out that she didn’t even follow baseball, he made her get a Mets cap. And he was serious—he refused to be seen with her in public until she replaced it.
Bucky somehow understood without her ever saying anything.
“I’ve always known Nat as an American,” Bucky said with a shrug. “And I only know the one dialect. Even in Ukraine my Russian is relatively useless. So, you travel a lot for work, Kate?”
Kate started talking about her work, and the conversation moved away from Bucky and his mysterious job that required him to be multilingual.
Their food arrived, and the conversation moved to eating. Natasha ate her mulligatawny slowly.
“Want to try this?” Bucky asked, gesturing to his tandoori chicken.
Natasha eyed it—she didn’t know if he ordered her favorite on purpose.
“Did you order it extra hot?” she asked.
“You know I did.”
He took a piece of chicken off the skewer and held it out to her on his fork. She leaned in and ate the small bite. It was legitimately hot; apparently speaking Hindi meant you were trusted with a respectable amount of heat.
“Oh wow, that’s good,” Natasha said.
“So, when did you guys get back together?” Kate asked, interrupting whatever moment they were having.
Sam burst out laughing. Natasha looked down at the table and chanced a glance at Bucky, who had put down his fork and was looking up at the ceiling.
“What did I say?” Kate asked, looking back and forth between Natasha and Bucky. “Clint said you were back together.”
“It’s—“ Natasha started.
“If you say ‘complicated’ I’m going to hit you in the face,” Kate said.
Sam laughed even harder before he leaned back in his chair and caught Natasha’s eye. “I like her,” he mouthed.
Natasha elbowed Bucky, but he had recovered himself enough to smile at her. “I’m also wondering how you were going to finish that sentence.”
“I was going to say, ‘It’s not something we’re labelling yet.”
“But you’re living together,” Kate said.
“And fucking,” she said.
“You two need to sit down and talk about your feelings.” She turned to Sam. “Aren’t you a counselor?”
“I specialize in PTSD. I am not qualified to root around the mind of Natasha Romanoff.”
“Hey! It’s not just me here!”
“Well, I don’t have clearance to root around in Barnes’ mind.”
Bucky glared at Sam.
“We’re playing it by ear,” Bucky said defensively. “Neither of us have a lot of down time, and neither of us needs relationship stress on top of workplace stress, especially this time of year.”
“Workplace stress? Did you just try to use counselor-speak on me? Did you really just work/life balance me?”
“It’s been good, okay, and I don’t want to fuck it up. Are you happy now?” Bucky blurted out.
“A feeling has been shared and no one died!” Sam said. “It’s a miracle! Now, Natasha is that how you feel, too?”
Natasha looked at Bucky, who was studiously avoiding looking at her.
She hadn’t actually thought about it. She was trying to actively not think about it. Fucking Bucky was like breathing. It grounded her. Meanwhile, falling in love with him was absolutely terrifying. So maybe she was doing exactly the same thing he was.
“Yeah, I—yeah. What we have going is good.”
“Well then, by all means, keep fucking. But you’re going to have to talk about this, because you’re both fucking lying liars who lie. But I am off the clock and there is a beautiful woman sitting beside me who I believe was telling us about a new exhibit at the Met.”
They didn’t talk about Natasha and Bucky’s relationship for the rest of the date, but Natasha had a horrible feeling that Sam was going to corner her in the near future.
Sam and Kate did seem to hit it off, though. Kate dragged Natasha to the bathroom before they left the restaurant.
“Okay, what’s wrong with him?”
“I need to know what’s wrong with him because I’m about two minutes away from asking him back to my place, because fuck the bullshit three date rule. Does he have three nipples? Small dick? Because I can work with that, but I want to know going in so I don’t accidentally laugh or something.”
Natasha tried not to laugh at Kate. Sometimes she was like a mini version of Clint.
“I can’t speak for his dick,” Natasha said, then paused trying to remember if she had ever seen Sam’s dick. “But he’s a good guy.”
“So why aren’t you dating him?”
Natasha paused. She had never thought about Sam that way.
“I guess I don’t like good guys. No, it’s more like good guys don’t like me. But I was already dating Bucky when I first met Sam anyway.”
Kate was giving her the same funny look she was giving her earlier.
“Bucky’s a good guy. Kind of scary, but he’s clearly stupid for you.”
“Oh my god, you do need therapy.”
Natasha spluttered, but Kate was out the door before she could respond. She and Bucky said their goodbyes to Kate and Sam, who were heading out for a nightcap together. Sam had whispered “thank you,” to Natasha when he hugged her goodbye.
“Does it make me old that I just want to go home and go to bed?” Natasha asked Bucky.
“Nah, it makes you someone who has to get up at 6 a.m. to be a professional dancer.”
They did have early rehearsals every Saturday up until the show’s run. Natasha used to be able to get through them on three hours of sleep and poppers. But the very idea made her want to cry.
“If you want to get a quick drink somewhere, I’d go with you,” she offered.
“I have a 5 a.m. flight.”
“Oh, shit. You should have said something. I would have re-scheduled this.”
“I wouldn’t go to bed this early anyway. The annoying thing is that they don’t need me until Monday, but there’s some big con call on Monday morning Beijing time. So I can’t be traveling during that time.”
“Do you like your job?” Natasha asked as they walked.
Bucky didn’t hesitate before responding with a soft smile on his face.
“The hours suck, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Natasha nodded. That was how she felt about ballet, or how she used to feel about it.
“I’m going to get burned out on all the traveling at some point, though, you know? I just read something that jet lag causes brain damage,” he added. “But for now it works. How many people can say they’ve been around the world by age 30, you know? When I have—well, for now it’s fine.”
Natasha wondered what he had been going to add.
They walked the rest of the way home in companionable silence. When they got home, Bucky blurted out, “It is good, right?” as he fumbled around to find his key.
Natasha didn’t need to ask him what he meant.
“Yeah, it’s good. Really good.”
“Want to blow me?”
“Only if you return the favor.”
“Baby, my favorite place to be is with my face between your legs.”
“That’s a terrible line.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
So instead of dealing with the perils of adulthood and scary things like feelings, they got each other off. Natasha spent the night in Bucky’s bed, trying to cling to him when his alarm went off at 3:30. She felt a ghost of a kiss on her forehead and then rolled over, beating Liho to the warm spot Bucky left behind. Eventually the cat found a comfortable spot curled up against Natasha’s back.
Things with Bucky were good. Usually Natasha was only focused on dance and whatever was happening at the company when she was there. But she found herself thinking about him all the time—while she was getting fitted for costumes, when she was waiting for the corps flower dancers to get their shit together before her solo cue, when she and Pietro would take a cigarette break together, huddled together by the backdoor out of the way of the chilly winter wind. She counted down the days until he would next be home.
“You have it bad,” Clint said to her one afternoon.
“Huh?” Natasha said. She had been trying to think of what she could get Bucky for Christmas. Here he was letting her live with him rent-free, changing his routines to accommodate her quirks, but what could she possibly get him to acknowledge that? She had thanked him, sure, but she wanted him to understand that her gratitude wasn’t just for the place to stay—it was for everything else he did that made her feel cared for.
“So bad,” Clint laughed.
“What’s bad?” Pietro asked, coming into the lounge area with Wanda on his heels.
“Natasha’s crush on Bucky.”
“Clint,” Natasha scolded. “Stop it.”
“Nope. You’re adorable like this. It’s fascinating. Who knew it would take a big scary dude like Barnes to melt your icy heart.”
“Crush on? I thought you were dating?” Wanda asked. “Does ‘crush’ mean something else?”
“They’re not ‘officially’ dating, because they’re both so stupid for each other that they’re literally acting stupid and not talking to each other about how they want to get married and have super scary babies.”
“Fuck off, Clint.”
She could normally take Clint’s teasing. She had a reputation for being a little prickly, but Clint never paid any attention to it. He treated her instantly like a sibling and never went back.
Wanda followed her out of the room and into the ladies room—not that that would stop Clint. Natasha leaned against the sink.
“Are you okay, Natasha? Clint pushing you too much, no?”
Natasha sighed. She quickly checked under all the stall doors to make sure they were alone. “He’s right, though. I have to talk to Bucky.”
“Why have you not? If he is stupid for you, as Clint says.”
“For the last few years whenever Sam bugs him about it, he says he doesn’t want a serious relationship. And we tried, twice, and it didn’t work.”
“I’ve never been in a relationship, but maybe it works now?”
“It might,” Natasha said, but she wasn’t convinced herself.
“You won’t know if you no try.”
“You taught me how to ignore Yelena is best. I owe you for lifetime.”
Except, the more Natasha thought about it, the more she realized that she was holding back for a reason. There was still something cautious about the way Bucky acted around her. She was doing her fair share of tip-toeing, too.
It took a pep talk to herself, an apology to Clint, and a trip to Yogurtland, but she made up her mind to talk to him. The worst that could happen would be they realized there wasn’t anything worth salvaging there and they would go back to just fucking.
And then Jane had to get injured, and Natasha had to learn the Arabian dance. It meant a huge increase in workload, extra rehearsals, and a whole lot of extra conditioning. The routine was more acrobatic than Natasha was used to, but Erik adapted the choreography to hers and Darcy’s strengths.
“It’s nice to not be wearing fucking pointe shoes,” Darcy said to Natasha one afternoon when they were waiting for the Chinese dance to finish.
“Seriously,” Natasha said. “My feet don’t know what to do with this freedom.”
“I didn’t know why Jane wanted this part so much, because it’s hell on my back. But I get it now.”
“Her shoulder okay?” Natasha asked.
“Yeah,” Darcy said, sounding surprised that Natasha asked. “Nothing torn. She’ll be fine for the showcase. You know, I don’t know how you’re holding together learning three solos.”
“Honestly, I don’t know how I am either,” Natasha said.
“I’ll fuck up the valdez when we get in there. That’ll buy you a few more minutes while Erik yells at me.”
Natasha shook her head but laughed. “I might take you up on that.”
Darcy was always friendly, but her being extra nice meant Natasha must have looked as exhausted as she felt. She almost wanted to ask around for poppers, something she hadn’t done since she was first starting out.
Sex with Bucky was the only thing that was keeping her sane, so talking to him about the state of their relationship was clearly out of the question. One night she came home and barely had the front door shut before she called out.
“Can you tie me up and fuck me?”
Bucky stumbled into the living room.
“Uh…what did you just say?”
“I’m so wound up I can’t even deal with deciding what to have for dinner. I just want you to hold me down and fuck my brains out until I can’t think anymore.”
“Would you rather have me make you dinner?”
“Fuck my brains out first.”
“Yeah, yeah okay,” Bucky said. “We never—are you, uh, into that sort of thing?”
“No? Not really.” Natasha said. “I mean, I don’t know. It’s not—it’s never something I thought much about, but I need it right now. Can you—is that okay?”
Bucky nodded. “Do you have like a safe word or something?”
“Untie me, you asshole? That work for you?”
“Perfect,” Bucky said, his eyes roaming over her like she was suddenly something new.
And then he tossed her over his shoulder like she was nothing, and carried her not to his room, but to hers.
“Why?” she started to ask.
He threw her down on the bed. She tore off her clothes. He didn’t even bother fully undressing. He flipped her over on her hands and knees and covered her body with his, biting at her neck. His clothes were rough against her naked body.
“Turn around and lie down. Let me get a couple ties.”
Natasha’s heart was pounding as she lay on the bed. She didn’t know what sparked it, really, most of the time she liked feeling in control during sex, or at least an equal participant. But all day during rehearsal her mind kept drifting to the idea of feeling helpless under Bucky’s body. And now that it was about to happen, she was practically throbbing with anticipation.
It felt like he was gone for an hour, but eventually he came back into the room holding three plain black neckties.
“How many of those do you own?” she asked, looking up.
“No talking,” he said sternly.
She exhaled loudly.
He was almost never like this. Everyone else seemed to think Bucky was scary, intimidating, and Natasha could never see it. Sometimes he was gentle with her, reverent even. Sometimes he would take his time as if he was exploring her. He was the only man who had ever rimmed her.
But he didn’t do any of those things. He stood at the end of the bed looking at her, calculating, and Natasha could sort of see why people found him so imposing. She shivered.
“Arms up. Hold onto the bars.”
He kneeled on the bed while she squeezed the wooden bars of her headboard. Then he tied her wrists to them. He made them tight. She could wiggle her wrists, but there was no way she was getting out of the hold.
“Okay? Just nod.”
“I brought the other one to blindfold you. Is that okay?”
She nodded even more vigorously.
He was right beside her head with the third tie, looking down at her.
“Lift your head, sweetheart,” he said.
She did as he said, melting a little at the endearment, and then let him fasten the tie over her eyes until she was lying in darkness.
Without being able to see, she found herself straining to hear as Bucky got off the bed and moved around the room. He was far too stealthy for someone of his size. He probably could have left the room without her noticing.
She felt it when the bed dipped in the middle. Then his hands were on her ankles. He rubbed up her legs to her thighs. He rubbed his finger between the lips of her vulva, brushing against her clitoris just enough to tease. She was already horny, wet, aching for it. The tease of his finger made her squirm, but then he put his hands back on her ankles roughly and spread her legs wide in the air.
There was no getting out of his grip, but it was exactly what she wanted. She felt him shifting, and then he pushed into her with one steady thrust.
He didn’t give her any time to adjust to the feeling of him inside her, because he pulled out slowly and then slammed back in. He did it again and again, gaining speed as he went. His thrusts were so hard, the headboard was hitting the wall at a steady rhythm.
It was overwhelming. There was nothing but the sound and feeling of Bucky driving into her. Natasha spent most of her day, most of her life, training her body, trusting her own precise control over it through complicated steps, jumps, and turns. Not being able to move her arms, along with having her legs held tightly in Bucky’s grip, was almost a relief. She felt surprisingly safe under Bucky’s control, and it gave her a razor sharp focus on every point of contact between them as he filled her over and over.
She could feel an orgasm building, which was surprising. She never came with her clit untouched, but the more she thought about it, the more she could feel the blood in her body rushing to her core.
“Oh god, Buck,” she gasped. “I’m—“
“Holy fuck,” Bucky groaned as she came.
He slowed his thrusts, to keep her pulsing and shuddering with aftershocks, until he gave one final thrust, pushing deep inside her as he came.
He set her legs down gently and untied her. He shut off the lights in the room before taking off the blindfold. She felt utterly boneless. Her mind was drifting somewhere right around utter relaxation and sleep.
“Better?” he asked.
“Mmm, yer the best,” she murmured.
“I know,” Bucky said.
She had neither the energy nor the desire to argue.
Chapter 7: Episode 7
Christmas was getting closer. Natasha stopped seeing daylight at some point. It was dark when she arrived at the theater and dark when she left. Sometimes she’d go outside during her midday break just to get some sunlight.
Natasha knew she wouldn’t do any of her Christmas shopping until after the Nutcracker run was over unless she took advantage of the one Sunday afternoon she didn’t have practice. Well, she had practice, but Phil took one look at her and told her that he wouldn’t let her back in the building.
She still had no idea what to get for Bucky. She and Clint only ever exchanged liquor, so he was easy to shop for. Steve and Sam were the other two mainstays on her list, but she thought it might be nice to get Wanda something, too, and Pietro, for putting up with Clint. And Phil. Maybe Kate, who texted her almost every day thanking her for introducing her to Sam.
She started at Macy’s. Steve dressed like an old man, so clothing was always a good option for him.
The storefront and display windows were lit up, decked out in trees and wreaths with twinkling lights, and she started to feel a little festive.
She went slowly through the store, not really shopping for herself, but it didn’t hurt to look. Eventually she went to the menswear section, where she ran into Jim, who was with Tony Stark of all people.
“Jim!” she exclaimed when she saw him.
“Hey!” he said, turning around. He gave her a hug. “Natasha, you know Tony, right?”
“Only through Steve. Hi, Tony,” she said as she reached out her hand. “I’ve been meaning to thank you for getting me into the spa. Honestly, I think you saved my best friend’s relationship and our production of Coppélia.”
“All I did was make a phone call, but I’m happy to take credit for everything.”
Jim was giving Tony an odd look.
“Is this the same Steve that—“
“Yep, same Steve that designed the Children’s hospital app,” Tony said, cutting Jim off. “He’s working on another one for the V.A. hospital.”
Jim was still looking at Tony like he had grown an extra head.
“Steve was the guy taking behind the scene photos at dress rehearsal,” Natasha said by way of explanation, though she was positive that Steve and Jim had met before Coppélia. “We’re all so used to him shoving his camera in our faces that we ignore him. It probably didn’t occur to him to introduce himself.”
“Oh, I know Steve the photographer.” Jim smirked at Tony. “That guy is a computer geek? He looks like a model. No wonder you have a crush on him.”
Tony’s jaw dropped. Natasha’s eyes went wide.
“He’s a good-looking guy. Even you noticed, and you won’t even let a bro hug go for longer than three seconds. That does not a crush make.” Tony spoke so quickly that, even after a decade in the U.S., Natasha had a little trouble following him.
“Uh huh, and the fact that you could design an app in your sleep, but hired him to do it instead has nothing to do with this at all, I’m sure.”
Tony’s face was blooming red. Natasha had no idea that Steve was working so closely with him. She hadn’t seen a lot of Steve lately, but she thought he would have mentioned a big project like an app design. He must have avoiding talking about Tony for the same reason Tony was being so cagey—interesting.
“I’m actually shopping for Steve right now,” Natasha said, trying to be casual. “I wear yoga pants when I’m not in a leotard, so I’m kind of clueless about fashion. What do you think would look best on Steve? Sweater? I was eying this gray cashmere one.”
“Go with the blue,” Tony blurted out.
Jim looked like he was trying not to laugh. He pulled out his phone and started texting furiously.
“Oh that will look good with his eyes,” Natasha said, grabbing the sweater off the display table.
Tony blushed again. Tony Stark blushed while talking about Steve. Natasha filed that bit of information away.
“His eyes? I wouldn’t know. We mostly email, when we’re working together, professionally, that is. Oh, look at the time. I have a thing I need to get going to away from—stop laughing Rhodey. There’s nothing funny happening right now. Nothing at all.”
“I’ll call you later, Nat,” Jim whispered to her as he gave her another hug goodbye. “I think we have something to discuss.”
After Jim and Tony went on their way, Natasha did end up buying the sweater Tony picked out and found a pair of leather driving gloves for Sam. She was mostly an idiot about fashion, but Sam was restoring some classic car she couldn’t remember the model of, and she knew he would appreciate them.
She got a tie for Phil, which was part of a running joke that he even slept in neck ties. She bought Wanda some ridiculously priced bath beads in a decorative jar. For Pietro she found a football jersey. She was actually proud of herself for remembering his favorite player. Pietro had been discussing the Giants’ game with Phil just that morning or she probably wouldn’t have. She couldn’t decide on anything for Kate, until she remembered that Kate was into archery. Clueless, she got a gift card for a sporting goods store.
She still didn’t have anything for Bucky, but she reasoned that she had plenty of time before Christmas to think of something. It was a comforting lie.
On her way home, she stopped by a drug store for more tiger balm. The whole store looked covered in red and green and tinsel, and she couldn’t resist. She bought a short string of white lights, a wreath, and a table top Christmas tree.
She was stringing the lights on the little tree when the door opened, and Bucky came in. He was sweaty from the gym, but he looked more worn out than usual—having gotten in from another trip just that Friday.
“Oh,” he said, looking at the tree with a frown.
“You’d think I’d get enough Christmas living and breathing The Nutcracker,” Natasha joked.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” He gestured toward the decorations. “My dad died around Christmas two years ago, so it’s just…I don’t know.”
Natasha remembered. They had been broken up when it happened. She was living with Sergei at the time, but she went to the funeral with Steve.
“Oh, shit. I didn’t think. I can take it down. I just got caught up in the Christmas explosion in the city.”
“No, I like them. Dad was never into Christmas anyway. Mom and Becca have a harder time with all the seasonal shit, so there won’t be any decorations up at their place. It’s nice.” He took a step closer to the tree, grabbed the cord and plugged in the lights. “Feels more like someone lives here.”
He was standing right there beside her, close enough that she could feel his body heat. She reached up and cupped his cheek with her hand. He nuzzled against it, bringing his hand up to cover hers. He gave it a squeeze and then pulled away and planted a kiss on her palm.
“I’m gonna shower.”
When he came back out into the living room, clean and soft, he seemed more vulnerable than Natasha could remember seeing him in ages, like he had scrubbed off a layer of his usually intact armor in the shower.
Natasha offered him some of the soup she had made, a leek soup that reminded her of the few good meals the cooks at the orphanage made.
“You made this?” he said, sounding surprised after tasting it.
“I can cook!”
“That’s not what I meant. Did you buy a blender to make this?”
“Steve had an immersion blender.”
“Why the hell does Steve have an immersion blender?”
“I didn’t ask. The handle vibrates a lot, though.”
“Less embarrassing going into a Bed, Bath, and Beyond than a sex shop,” Bucky mused.
“Well that blender has also been in the soup, so eat at your own risk.”
“I will,” Bucky said, taking another big bite.
Natasha cleaned up the kitchen while Bucky finished eating.
“Wanna watch my favorite Christmas movie with me?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said. “It’s—it’s nice to be home at the same time. I have to make one quick call and then I’ll join you.”
Bucky disappeared into the hallway, speaking in a different language. She thought it might be Romanian, but she wasn’t sure. When he came back into the living room, he still looked grim. Before he could settle into his typical spot on the couch opposite from Natasha, she scooted forward so he could sit behind her. His lip twitched, but he didn’t say anything as he settled into the couch. Natasha leaned back against him, trying not to sigh happily at the comfortable warmth. He wrapped an arm around her waist.
She hit play on Die Hard.
Bucky started laughing when he realized what movie it was. “I love y—uh, this movie.”
Natasha flushed at his slip. But it didn’t feel like the right time to acknowledge it or bring it up.
It ended up being the last moment of peace before the run of dress rehearsals, performances, and schmoozing with donors. Having to rotate through three parts, Natasha had never had another run like it. But the production got good reviews. She even got praised for her Arabian dance.
Natasha got a profile written up about her in some New York City magazine. The questions were generic—what’s a typical day like? When did you start dancing? What advice do you have? Over the years, Natasha had gotten better about being personable, but it was still one of her least favorite parts of the job.
She was doing okay, managed to crack a couple jokes, but when the reporter asked her what the future would hold, Natasha faltered.
“I’m always focusing on the next audition, the next performance, so the future is sort of a fuzzy thing in the distance.”
The reporter could see she was uncomfortable, but luckily didn’t push the way she could have.
“So you have a more live-in-the-moment kind of attitude?”
She didn’t, not really, but it was enough of a prompt.
“When you do something so physical, you just never know. Injuries happen all the time, so you have to focus on taking care of yourself—your conditioning, your health. It helps me to stay in the present.”
When the profile came out, Steve bought 10 copies and stuck a copy of the article on Bucky’s fridge. Natasha didn’t have the heart to take it down, even though the question about her future plagued her.
She made it through the show’s run, though. At the final after party, she and Darcy were leaning against each other to hold each other up, and Clint was literally sleeping while standing up. Pietro and Wanda had an aunt coming in for the holidays, so they left early. Natasha never liked to be the first one to leave, but she happily ducked out right after them.
Bucky was going upstate to surprise his family on Christmas day. He had actually invited Natasha to go with him, but she had already promised Steve she would help him at the soup kitchen. And Bucky had warned her that it wasn’t going to be a festive affair. But he needed to be with them.
Even though Steve had a few more years with his mother than Natasha did, he was still an orphan. Tired of being pity asked to other people’s houses for holidays, they started spending Christmas together the last couple years. Sergei hadn’t understood, but Bucky did.
“You really are both welcome to come to my mom’s place, but I get it. I’m not giving you your present until after Christmas, though.”
“You don’t have to lie. You haven’t bought me anything yet, have you?”
“I believe, Miss Romanoff, that you are projecting.”
“Shows how much you know,” she replied, trying to bluff and hoping he didn’t call her out on it.
She hadn’t got Bucky anything yet. She was totally stumped. She couldn’t get him something practical, because it was too impersonal. She couldn’t get him something generic or friendly, because he was too important to her. She couldn’t get him a gift card or anything electronic or clothing. But she was still hoping that after Christmas sales would give her an idea.
When Natasha went down to Steve’s apartment Christmas morning, Steve’s presents in hand, he was waiting for her with hot cocoa. Steve had a full-sized tree, a clear sign of a non-cat-owner, and so his whole apartment smelled deliciously of pine.
“I’m surprised you didn’t go with Bucky,” Steve said, totally failing at sounding casual.
“We’re not really together officially. I thought you didn’t want to talk about this.”
“Well I do now that you’re both being so stupid about it.”
“Everyone needs to stop telling me this. There really hasn’t been a good time to talk about it. And, anyway, I know Bucky invited you to his family’s, too. So shut up.”
“I called his mom and Becca earlier. I’d rather be at the soup kitchen, be with people who have less than I did growing up, you know how it is.”
“I do know. And I would, too.”
It was always the children at the shelter who reminded Natasha of why she was there. She ended up sitting with a few of them, and they taught her a card game that she was terrible at. She hoped it would be a good memory for them. She had so few good memories from her own childhood.
On the way home from the homeless shelter, they picked up Chinese food—per tradition—and then had their own gift exchange. Steve seemed appreciative of the sweater. He got her the nicest pair of headphones she’d ever owned.
“You can’t keep using the shitty earbuds that come with the iPod.”
“Huh?” Natasha said. “I can’t hear you.”
She took the headphones off to find Steve laughing at her.
“These are amazing. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Merry Christmas.”
He started to get up, possibly to retrieve the tin of Christmas cookies that Sam’s mom had sent. She stopped him by thrusting her second present—an envelope—at him.
“What happened to the one gift limit?”
“Just open it,” Natasha said.
“This is a ticket to an art expo opening,” Steve said, looking down at the ticket confused. “How did you get this?”
“I don’t know if you realize this, but I’m part of New York’s art scene. Principal ballerina here. I just had to ask.”
“But you don’t like art,” he said.
“That’s not true. I just don’t know anything about art. And I’m not going with you. I gave the other one to Tony.”
Natasha didn’t think Steve Rogers could look shocked, but he definitely looked close to it.
“What? My Tony? Er, my friend Tony?”
“Turns out he knows Jim Rhodes and we coordinated. Anyway, hear me out—the two of you are perfect for each other.”
Steve looked away, squirming.
“He’s straight, Natasha.”
“Are you serious right now? Are you that socially unaware? He was photographed coming out of Phoenix with two dudes hanging off his arm like three years ago.”
“What?!” Steve nearly shouted. “Why didn’t he tell me?”
“Probably because you act like you have a stick up your ass when it comes to dating?”
“I do not!”
“You’re the pickiest person I’ve ever met—don’t even argue with me because you are. So, Merry Christmas, you need to replace that stick with a dick. Tony’s dick.”
Steve looked down at the ticket.
“He’s a tech guy. He probably has no interest in this.”
“Steve. Stark Industries owns one of the most impressive art collections in the world. How are you this dense?”
“But Pepper is the one who runs that.”
“Oh my god. I made sure Tony knows that I’m giving you the other one. Jim is probably giving him the same speech right now. He will be there.”
“Just thank me later when you’re making out with Tony in the back of his limo.”
“I don’t quite know what to say.”
“Wear the sweater. Tony picked it out because he thought it would bring out your eyes.”
Steve turned as red as a tomato.
The rest of the day was lazy. They watched A Christmas Story and Facetimed with Sam, whose whole family down in DC had to wish them Merry Christmas.
Natasha wanted to ask Steve for advice about what to get Bucky, but that, too, seemed like it would make whatever she got him slightly less personal. But when she looked around Steve’s apartment, at the photos and knick-knacks from vacations, at the hominess and lived-in-ness of it that made it no question they would spend Christmas there instead of up in Bucky’s apartment, she got an idea.
“Say, Steve, did you take any pictures after Coppélia?”
“Did you happen to get any of me and Bucky?”
“Uh, yeah, I think I did. And those ridiculous flowers.”
“Hey! Black roses are my favorite.”
“They dye them, you know that, right? Black flowers aren’t found in nature.”
“They’re still pretty. And they’re all raised in greenhouses anyway. Florists don’t go out into fields and pick wildflowers.”
They had had this argument before.
But Steve pulled up the photos on his computer. There were hundreds of them. Some were already up on the company’s website. Steve had already sold a couple to the Times. Natasha scrolled through them, laughing at the ones from dress rehearsal. When Clint knew he was being photographed, he couldn’t help himself but make faces. But the ones at the end were the personal ones.
“There,” she said. “That’s it.”
“Which?” Steve said, looking over her shoulder. “Oh.”
Natasha and Bucky were slightly off center. The flowers were in the foreground. Natasha was holding them, about to hand them off to Steve. Bucky was looking down at her, smiling fondly, but Natasha, she was looking up at Bucky with pure adoration. She was bad at expressing her feelings, bad at finding the words to tell Bucky just how much he meant to her, but it was all right there on her face.
“Can I get a print of that made?”
“Of course, Nat.” Steve acted like he wanted to say more, but instead, he started asking about dimensions and coloring and finishes and frames.
She had texted Bucky a “Merry Christmas” earlier, which he had returned, but she picked up her phone again.
Had an acquisition delay. You’re getting a New Year’s present.
I hope it’s a pony, he texted back a few minutes later.
Liho would hate sharing a litter box.
Obviously you’d get me a housebroken pony.
She sent him a poop emoji.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s was supposed to be a break, but even without classes, Natasha still went into the studio. She needed to stay limber and in shape. Missing a week made her feel sluggish and getting back into classes and rehearsals was just that much harder.
She was working on her fouettes when Fury came into the studio.
“I need to have a word. I’ll be in the office.”
His instructions were always abrupt. Even though he didn’t say it, Natasha knew he meant now. So she didn’t bother finishing her routine and trailed after him.
“We want you to do a pas de trois with Wanda and Pietro for the showcase instead of a solo.”
“Huh?” Natasha said ineloquently.
“Wanda shared her story board with us yesterday, and we’re giving her the closing number. It’s innovative. Perfect to end the show with.”
Natasha was half flattered and half pissed off. She and Clint were supposed to close the showcase. They had performed the final number for the last four years.
“Have you talked to Clint?” she asked.
“His solo is going to be the opening. He and Coulson came up with it last summer. We’re not taking anything away. Your pas de deux can be middle of the show—either first piece of the second act or closing the first. Our donors love the two of you together. But we have to keep things fresh. You understand?”
She did understand. Rationally it made sense. Of course a ballet company had to balance tradition and innovation to try to keep younger generations interested. But it was exactly the kind of change that she was afraid of. Doing something different meant they were looking into the future, and that future didn’t necessarily include Natasha. She tried to keep it together in front of Fury, though.
“Of course,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what Wanda comes up with.”
Fury nodded, effectively dismissing her.
When she closed the office door, she stalked down the hallway. Clint, the asshole, hadn’t told her anything about it. She wondered how long he knew. She found him in the small studio, wearing pointe shoes—his solo was definitely going to be something different. He put his hands up in surrender immediately and awkwardly backed up toward the wall.
“I just found out this morning.”
“And you couldn’t have warned me?”
“You were already in the office before I realized you were here. It’s not a bad change, Nat. Wanda’s choreographing it for you. That’s huge.”
The problem wasn’t Wanda. The problem wasn’t that Coulson preferred to work with Clint—the two of them together were magic, and Natasha loved them for it. The problem was that Natasha wasn’t in charge of choreography for any of the numbers. She was just a dancer, a body for someone else to order to move around.
She was old. When you were old, you either taught classes or you ran a company or you did choreography, and she had neither the patience nor the business savvy to do the first two of those things. She hated teaching. In the summer she did workshops, and that was bad enough. The girls never liked her, and she never had enough patience for them.
Fury had never let her choreograph a number. And here Wanda had only been out of the corps for a year and now she was doing the closing number of the showcase? Was she sleeping with him or something?
She rubbed her temples. She knew she was being paranoid. Wanda wasn’t at all the type to sleep her way to an advantage. And Natasha had never given anyone any indication that she’d like to produce a number. In fact, she didn’t think she really wanted to. She could make up a dance on the spot, however the music moved her, but to think about how it looked to an audience? She just didn’t have that kind of vision.
She went back home early. Bucky’s bags were in the entry way, like he just got back from his family’s place. She found him in the kitchen, putting what looked like leftovers into the fridge.
“What happened,” Bucky asked immediately.
“I think I’m being phased out,” Natasha said glumly.
“Why do you think that?”
“They’re letting Wanda choreograph my dance in the showcase.”
“Oh,” Bucky said, clearly not understanding the gravity.
She moved around him to pull the bottle of good vodka out of the freezer. Bucky watched her warily as she poured herself a shot and threw it back.
“And it’s fucking stupid, because who knows if she’s good choreographer? I mean, I love her to pieces, but she has no experience and she’s closing the show? And I’m the one who encouraged her.”
Bucky nodded sympathetically, and for some reason it infuriated her.
“Why are you being so nice?!” she shouted.
“What do you mean? I’m listening to you!”
She threw back a second shot of vodka.
“But you’re not nice! You once started a bar fight because that hipster checked out my ass. You used to complain about how I take the company way too seriously and how I run myself ragged, and you’re not doing that. You’re being…nice!”
“Fucking Sergei was nice!” Bucky exploded. “Nice fucking guy. That’s all I heard about him. Sam and Steve, even Tony fucking Stark one time, would talk about what a nice guy he was.”
“You’re jealous of Sergei? Well, he turned out to be a dick, so that should make you happy.”
“That doesn’t make me happy. Jesus fucking Christ, Nat. Do I have to spell this out for you? I fucking love you. I want you to be happy. I’m trying to be what would make you happy.”
“I don’t want nice!” Natasha shouted back. “At least not all the time. I want you to call me out on my shit! You’re the one—you see all the shit and you stay anyway.”
“You want me to call you out on your shit?”
“You’re scared. You don’t know what will happen when you stop dancing. You’re like an animal backed into a corner and you lash out. And you’re trying to pick a fight with me so you can be pissed at me instead of scared. And if that’s what you want, fine, but at some point you’re going to have to admit that you’re scared.”
It was true. It was absolutely true, and it was exactly the thing she didn’t want to face.
“So what, you’re better than that? This is the older, wiser, mature version of James who isn’t afraid of anything.” Natasha was starting to deflate, and her words lacked bite.
“I picked fights with you because I was insecure, and I fucked up a lot because I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted or why you were in a relationship with me. But, shit, you fit into my life. You moved in here and you just—you fit, and I’m happier when you’re around.” He turned away from her and looked out the window. “My job is—it’s a lot—it’s easy to lose who you are. I’ve seen guys get messed up—anyway, with you here I feel more like myself. And I’m fucking terrified. Do you want me to say it? I’ll say it. I’m scared that I need you more than you need me.”
“Shit,” Natasha said. She leaned against the counter and put her head in her hands. “Shit, I’m not good at this. I might never be good at this.”
“Can you try?” Bucky asked quietly. “Do you want to try?”
Here Bucky had finally been honest. He was finally putting himself out there. He told her he loved her for fuck’s sake. And he didn’t think she needed him? He didn’t know how he was the best part of her day. How she couldn’t seem to be happy unless he was. She didn’t know how to tell him that.
“I was a mess when we were together, and I’m only starting to figure that out myself. And I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life after my career is over, and you’re right, I am scared—terrified—but I’m starting to realize that I whatever that life is, I want—need you in it,” she said. “So, yes, I want to try. Because I fucking love you, too.”
Bucky crossed the room and lifted her up to the counter. She instinctively wrapped her legs around him at the sudden shift in movement. He kissed her like he was trying to devour her.
She started tugging at his shirt, trying to unbutton it while pulling it over his head.
“We can’t just fuck away our problems, you know,” Natasha said, gasping as Bucky bit down on her neck.
“It’s worked pretty well so far,” he said into her skin.
“You make a compelling argument,” she said.
They didn’t do a whole lot of talking after that.
Chapter 8: Episode 8
New Year’s was Natasha’s favorite holiday. It was the only one she remembered celebrating in the orphanage. On the day before New Year’s Eve, she found herself looking at three separate invitations to parties. None of which she had responded to.
Bucky had been working in the city that week, but late hours. He trudged in at 9 pm, looking exhausted. She let him collapse on the couch—Liho immediately jumping on his lap—before she asked.
“Do you want to do anything for New Year’s?”
“It’s tomorrow, isn’t it?” he asked.
“I haven’t really thought about it. It’s your holiday, babe. What do you want to do?”
“I kind of just feel like staying in with you. I mean, I don’t want to stop you from going to a party if you want,” she backpedaled. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“You’re cute when you don’t realize that I would follow you into hellfire.”
“Let’s stay in. I have to work tomorrow anyway. Probably won’t get home until late.”
Bucky was right that he didn’t get home until late. He had texted her around 5:30 and told her he still had a couple hours left. It was after 8 before he came in the door carrying Italian takeout and a bottle of champagne.
She took the bottle out of his hands.
“This is real champagne,” she said dumbly.
“The words that were about to come out of my mouth were so douchey, I’m glad I stopped myself.”
“Now I want to know.”
“I’ve been to that growing region,” he said.
“That wasn’t douchey.”
“When were you in France? Was it for work?”
“Yeah, there was a big summit in Paris last fall. Turns out they didn’t need me for as long as they thought, so I took a couple days to tour the Champagne region.”
“Wow. Is there anywhere you haven’t been?”
“Disney World,” he said with a smirk.
“And that’s somewhere you’d want to go?”
“Becca and I used to beg mom and dad to go. I think she wanted to go more than I did, but the more they denied us, the more it became this mystical place to me.”
“Even Steve’s been to Disney World.”
Natasha only knew this because he had a framed photo of him and a few guys from his unit standing around Mickey Mouse.
“Well, he was stationed in Jacksonville. And he had a huge crush on Princess Jasmine growing up.”
Natasha started giggling. “Oh my god, I can picture a skinny Stevie Rogers doodling pictures of Princess Jasmine.”
“That’s exactly what he did.”
“So what about you? Which one did you have a crush on?”
“It wasn’t a crush. I knew she wasn’t real. But I always liked the little mermaid.”
“Even with the fish tail?”
“I’ve always had a thing for redheads,” he said with a wink.
Natasha shook her head fondly. “You already know I’m good for it.”
He stepped in close to her and cupped her face in his hands. He looked into her eyes for a few long seconds, smiling. Then he closed the distance between them and planted a soft kiss on her lips, like he was trying to tell her that this was so much more than just sex.
After dinner, when Natasha was so full of pasta she felt like she could go to sleep right then, she suggested that Bucky open his Christmas present.
“I thought you wanted to wait until New Year’s Day.”
“It’s already New Year’s in France,” she said.
“You just want your present.”
“All right, let me go get it.”
He disappeared into his bedroom while Natasha retrieved the wrapped frame that she had just picked up from Steve earlier that day. She perched on the couch awkwardly. When Bucky emerged, he was holding a flat box. It looked like the size of box you got from a clothing store. Would Bucky have bought her clothes? It didn’t seem like him.
“I see the wheels turning. Do you want to go first?”
He handed her the present. It was a lot heavier than she was expecting. She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Just open it.”
When she lifted the lid, nestled in tissue paper were a pair of blank airline tickets and a book of the 1000 places you should see before you die.
“What is this?” she asked.
“But to where?”
“Wherever you want. Paris, Thailand, Fiji, the Jersey shore, hell, we can just go to a hotel in Times Square if you want to. I just want to have some time with you—no work, no bullshit. I just, you know, didn’t want to plan anything without you.”
“Bucky this is—“
“Romantic? Thoughtful?” he offered.
“Uh, elaborate,” she replied.
“You were going to say expensive. Don’t worry about it, Nat. I have approximately a billion frequent flyer miles.”
“Thank you, Buck. I don’t really know what to say.”
“While you’re getting over the sticker shock, can I have my present?”
“It’s not—a lot,” she said.
“I don’t need a lot,” he replied. “Hand it over.”
He tore open the paper quickly. And then he went totally silent. The photo was in black and white. Steve cropped out Clint and somehow made the whole thing seem crisper, but almost old fashioned—Bucky in a suit and Natasha in her long wool winter coat.
“Natasha,” he said softly, looking up at her.
“I never know how to tell you.”
He set the frame down carefully on the coffee table and then wrapped his arms around her.
“I love you so much,” she said against his neck. “I’m sorry that it scared me, that I didn’t appreciate it.”
Bucky pulled back and grabbed her hands.
“I never stopped loving you, Natasha. Never. When we used to hook up after we broke up, it killed me. It fucking killed me. I’d go on benders and would wind up crying on Steve’s couch every time.”
“So that’s why Steve wouldn’t talk to me about this.”
“It was like you forgot about me, like you just erased me from your memory. You went back to me being Steve’s friend like it was nothing.”
“I didn’t. I could never. I just shut that side of me off. It was a survival instinct. I never had good things in my life. I’ve always had to work and fight and claw my way into having anything. And you were just—too easy to love and it was too much. And I couldn’t tell you any of that, so I tried to make it hard instead.”
“And I was such a hot head back then. I was easy to bait.”
“Any time you asked me about the company, I always heard it as criticism. I thought that you were trying to take it away from me. I know you aren’t now. But that’s how I felt.”
“I was just worried about you. You work so damn hard. I was worried that you were going to give them everything and get nothing back. It was probably me worrying about the same thing with my job.”
“I always thought you loved your job. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t want you to know, I guess. I was always trying to impress you, you know. Couldn’t show any weakness. It sounds so stupid to say that now. I was a shitty boyfriend in a lot of ways. I didn’t get it.”
“No, you weren’t. I was too much of a mess. I just didn’t know it. The company, it was all I had. Dancing was my whole life. Some people have families, and I never did. I never had a real friend until Clint and then Steve. And I’m starting to realize that I have more than just dance.”
“You know I’m talking about you. Are you going to make me say it?”
“So you’ll go on vacation with me?” he said with a grin.
“Yes, I’ll go on vacation with you.”
They put on a movie and curled on the couch together. Right before midnight, they paused it and Bucky opened the champagne. They watched the ball drop across the East River from the comfort of the couch.
On New Year’s Day, Steve came up in the afternoon to watch football with Bucky. Natasha pretended to be interested, but mostly she was flipping through the travel book Bucky got her. There were hundreds of places she wanted to see that narrowing it down was going to be impossible.
Between games—oh god, there were games, plural—the buzzer rang.
“Sam,” Bucky said by way of explanation.
Sam had Kate in tow. Natasha was grateful for someone to talk to who wasn’t reduced to communicating with grunts as their eyes were glued to the TV, but it turned out that Kate was a massive football fan, too.
“I’m outnumbered,” Natasha said during a commercial break. “You’re all speaking a different language to each other and it’s like when I first moved here all over again.”
“I’ve tried to explain the rules to you, Nat,” Steve said.
“I know touchdowns, field goals, I just don’t see the appeal.”
“The strength, the athleticism, the beautiful grace of a wide receiver making an impossible catch,” Sam said incredulously.
“That’s ballet, my friend,” Natasha said.
“There aren’t winners and losers in ballet,” Kate said. “Er, sorry, Nat.”
“It’s fine. I need some air. I’m going to go get food. What do you guys want?”
After way too much discussion, they decided on pizza and wings. So Natasha called in an order and then started bundling up to go pick it up. Bucky jumped up off the couch.
“I’ll go with you,” he said, trotting over to the hooks and grabbing his coat.
“You do realize the game is tied with five minutes left and State only has one timeout, right?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, are you feeling okay?” Steve asked.
“I’m fully aware of my actions, you idiots,” Bucky retorted.
He grabbed Natasha’s hat and put it on her head for her. She repaid him by wrapping his scarf around his neck. After she arranged it, she stayed in Bucky’s space too long. He was smiling at her goofily, and she couldn’t resist rising up to kiss him.
A chorus of “oooo”s came from the living room.
“So that’s why you’re abandoning the Rose Bowl,” Kate said.
“Oh god, if you’re going to be gross, do it outside,” Steve added.
“You two better have had a conversation about this.”
“Fuck off, Sam,” Natasha and Bucky said in unison.
So, that’s how Bucky and Natasha made it official that they were together.
Once they got back with the food, reactions ranged from Steve’s, “If either of you fuck this up, I’m Switzerland,” to Sam’s, “You’ve been together since the day Nat moved in.”
When her friends in the company found out, reactions were Clint’s, “Bucky and Natasha sittin’ in a tree,” to Pietro’s, “Do you really call him Bucky?”
Nothing was all that different from them being roommates, other than an increase in affection and Bucky’s bedroom becoming their bedroom. Liho seemed happy to have the spare bed all to herself.
The first time they had an argument, they actually talked about it after they cooled off from sniping at each other, and Natasha thought maybe they had a chance.
She cornered Phil the next day after rehearsals.
“How do you deal with Clint when he’s being a pain in the ass?”
“I should be having this conversation with Barnes, not you.”
“Hey! I’m not a pain in the ass.”
“Do I need to remind you of the costume designer you made cry?”
“She was already near tears before I even got there.”
“It didn’t have anything to do with me. Phil, come on, you’ve been in a relationship longer than anyone I know, and I know Clint is kind of high maintenance.”
“There’s no secret. Be honest, be kind, and learn how to get over yourself.”
“That sounds so reasonable when you say it, but I’m still not sure I can do it,” Natasha said.
“Of course you can. Do you want it to work?”
“Yes.” She might not have been able to say that when they were together the first time, but she really did mean it this time.
“Then you’ll put in the work, because that’s what you do. It’s who you are. If you don’t want it to implode on you, then you won’t let it.”
“Any time, Natasha.”
“Say, Phil, do you think Bucky’s scary?”
“Very few things in this world scare me,” he paused. “But I would want him on my side in a fight.”
Wanda’s choreography for the pas de trois was actually very inventive. It was a cross between modern dance, ballet, and contortion. Wanda confessed that it was Natasha’s Arabian Dance that had inspired her. Natasha found herself having fun during rehearsals.
She and Clint always did a more traditional number together even though it was supposed to be a “modern” showcase. Since they were always the headliners, they often did a pas de deux in honor of Balanchine. But this year, they were doing the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, which was probably the most demanding number Natasha had ever done.
They were still a few weeks out from the run, but they were still struggling with the coda and getting synchronized on some of the adagio. One day during rehearsal, after the third time that Clint nearly dropped her, Natasha had to call for a break. Phil shot Clint a look.
“Shit, Nat. I’m sorry.”
“What the fuck, Clint?”
“I need a minute,” Clint said. “Babe, we’re gonna…”
Phil nodded and made a shooing motion. Natasha’s jaw dropped. She wondered if Clint realized what he just called Phil.
“Clinton Francis Barton, what the hell is going on?” Natasha scolded once they were out of earshot.
Clint nearly dragged her into her dressing room before he started explaining.
“We were going to invite you over for dinner and tell you then, but I can’t think about anything else. It’s not fair for you not to know.”
“Know what?” Natasha asked, impatiently.
“We’ve started the adoption process.”
Natasha’s jaw dropped. She hadn’t been expecting that.
“It’ll be awhile, and, you know, the whole gay thing. But, yeah, we’re trying to become parents. I’m nervous, but I’m also really happy and--”
Natasha barreled into Clint, cutting him off.
“This is amazing news. Oh my god. You have to tell me everything.”
“We don’t know much yet, but we submitted the application. They’re going to do a home study. Phil is going to cut back his hours. Then we have training and a caseworker. It might not even be this year.”
“How are you feeling? Is that why you’ve been so flaky this week?”
“I’m excited, Nat. I really am. I’m—Phil and I are getting married.”
“It looks better if we’re married, but we’ve basically been married for, what, six, seven years? We’re just going to city hall after the showcase, but we want you to be our witness. Would you be willing to? It’s sort of like being my best man. Phil’s going to ask Melinda.”
“Stop rambling. Of course I will! I’m so happy for you, Clint.”
“Everyone’s gonna know,” Clint said. “I mean, I doubt we’ll announce it really, but it’ll be public record and you know some reporter will uncover it.”
“Is that why you’re nervous?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Clint, I’m pretty sure everyone can tell that you’ve obviously earned everything on merit.”
“I know, I know. But I don’t want to feel like a circus sideshow, you know?”
“I get it. I think so long as you are prepared to deal with backlash it will be okay, but I get it.”
“Thank you, Nat,” Clint said before pulling her into another hug. “Love you.”
“I love you, too, you idiot. Can you demonstrate that love by, I don’t know, not dropping me for the rest of the day?”
“I’m sorry. Now that you know everything, I’ll keep it together. Promise.”
A few days before the showcase, Natasha dropped her own minor bombshell on Fury. The next day, Maria cornered her.
“So you’re really not doing the spring tour?” Maria asked.
“Nope. I need to rest my ankles.”
“And this has nothing to do with the fact that Wanda’s career will get a boost from filling in for you?”
“That would be generous of me. Everyone knows I’m a bitch.”
Natasha did want to give Wanda the opportunity and touring was grueling and hard on the body, but she also wanted to be based in the city. Bucky didn’t have much say over his travel, but she didn’t want to add her own crazy travel schedule on top of that.
As soon as the spring showcase was over, he was actually using vacation time so they could spend a week together with minimal interruption.
Natasha had been in Europe a couple times and to Chicago and San Francisco, but in contrast to Bucky, with his passport needing extra pages sewn in, she hadn’t been anywhere. So, she finally settled on Disney World.
“Nat, we don’t have to go to Disney World.”
“I’ve never been there either! I knew about Disney even when I was growing up in Moscow. We saw Disney movies. The idea of an amusement park just seemed like magic.”
“There will be a bunch of screaming kids running around.”
“We’ll be in Florida. We can always lie on the beach all day,” she reasoned.
Natasha started packing early and realized that she didn’t own a beach towel. She figured Steve would have something she could use so she wouldn’t have to buy one. So she went down to his place to dig around. Assuming he would be working and annoyed at having to answer the door, she let herself in with the spare key.
“Hey, Steve?” she called out. “Sorry to bug you but can I borrow a—Oh! Sorry!”
Steve was home. But he wasn’t working. He was sprawled out on his sofa and Tony Stark’s face was right on his naked lap.
“See, I told you, Steve. Tony’s into dick.”
“Natasha!” Steve shouted, trying to cover himself up. “You’re killing my boner here.”
“Then I’m not doing my job very well, am I?” Tony said.
“I’ve seen your dick before, Steve. Anyway, I’m going to steal a towel from you and then I will be on my way. Keep up the good work, Tony.”
She gave Tony a fist bump as she walked by the couch. Steve was flushed red and had his hand thrown over his eyes.
“Why are we friends?” Steve whined.
“Because I set the two of you up,” Natasha called back to him. “I’m taking full credit for this one.”
Steve’s response was cut off with an, “Oh, fuck, Tony.”
Natasha slipped out of the apartment quietly.
The spring showcase ended well. Natasha, Wanda, and Pietro got a standing ovation after their final performance, although Clint’s solo got the most media attention. Natasha felt relieved afterward that the others were the ones being swarmed with well-wishers. She took her bouquet of black roses and slipped out to find Bucky as soon as she could.
The day after Clint and Phil’s city hall ceremony, and subsequent dinner that included way too much wine, Natasha and Bucky got up at six in the morning to head to Orlando. Natasha was hungover and grumpy, but Bucky was a master traveler and he took care of everything. He even waved some kind of badge and got them to bypass the long line for security.
“She’s with me,” he said to the TSA agent, who was looking at him with wide eyes. “Show him your ID and boarding pass, Nat.”
The agent barely looked at them before waving them through.
“Have a good flight, Mr. Barnes,” the agent said.
Natasha didn’t question it. Nor did she question not having to take off her shoes to be scanned. Nor did she question the early boarding or the first class seats that Bucky had sprung for.
“Do you always fly first class?”
“Usually business class, especially for such a short flight, but I thought why the hell not.”
The flight attendant asked them if they wanted a cocktail.
“Hair of the dog, babe?” Bucky asked.
“Go to hell.”
Bucky smiled at the attendant. “That was ‘black coffee, please’ in Natasha-speak.”
Natasha started to feel more human after the coffee and in-flight movie, most of which she napped through. When they arrived in Orlando she was actually excited.
“I forgot what palm trees looked like,” she said.
“I forgot what warmth felt like,” he said, grabbing her hand and leading her to the taxi line. Apparently his credentials didn’t get him a limousine, but Natasha wouldn’t have been surprised if it had.
“Don’t they send you warm places?” she asked.
“Not lately,” he said grimly.
Natasha didn’t ask any follow-up questions.
They were staying at a resort swankier than any place Natasha had ever set foot in. There was a Jacuzzi in the room.
“We’re christening that later,” Bucky said.
“We are, are we?”
“But I can’t wait for that now.”
He pulled her on top of him on the bed. She tore off her tank top and shimmied out of her shorts. Bucky reached around and unhooked her bra, cupping her breasts and then taking one of her nipples into his mouth.
She tried not to get distracted so she could get Bucky out of his pants.
“Condom. Wallet,” Bucky offered, before sucking a mark into Natasha’s skin.
“How do you expect me to get it when you’re doing that?” She squirmed in Bucky’s lap as she asked.
“You have a point,” Bucky said, groping around for his discarded pants to retrieve a condom.
Natasha was worked up even before she sank down onto Bucky. But once he was inside her, she was struck by an overwhelming emotion. She leaned down to kiss him slowly, deeply. The things she was never good at saying, she tried to put into the kiss. He held onto her tightly while she rode him slowly, squeezing around his dick until he was murmuring curses into her neck.
When he finally put enough space between them to bring his thumb to her clit, it didn’t take much to push her over the edge. He held onto her hips and thrust up into her hard and fast, and quickly followed.
They were sprawled out side-by-side on the bed when Natasha shifted, rolling onto her side.
“Say, I have a question for you.”
“If it’s anything more difficult than what year is it, you might not get an answer,” he said, his eyes still closed. “That was intense.”
“Do you work for the CIA?” she blurted out.
Bucky’s eyes snapped open, Natasha tried to read his expression, but whatever it was got lost in Bucky’s trademark smirk.
“Well, Natasha Romanoff. If I tell you that, I’d have to kill you.”