Steve didn’t really come into Nat’s space much. She liked to keep to herself when she was at the Tower, and Steve respected that. He had his own work to do. So it was strange, entering her private domain. He knew from random comments Tony had made that a lot of Nat’s space was training space. But he hadn’t really expected this.
The room was three or four stories high, and at least as long and deep. But there was nothing in it. The floor was made of shock-absorbent cork. What looked like unfinished construction at first up high proved to be more of a gymnastics obstacle course. But everything was black. The walls, the floor, the ceiling. There were no windows, and the room seemed to drink in all of the light so it was like being in the dark without actually being in the dark. Steve experienced a moment of disorientation and terror where he flashed back to being colorblind. Then he looked down at his belt, and saw red again. Phew.
He couldn’t see Nat anywhere, but Steve thought she was probably here. He’d knocked, and the door had opened for him, and he’d watched her leave the dance studio and head back here an hour ago. “Nat?” he called out, not wanting to intrude any further into her space--though he could see a more normal apartment-style room beyond the big black box--without her verbal permission.
“Come on in, Steve.”
Okay, so she was somewhere in the room beyond. The one with windows and potted plants. He walked swiftly through the negative space, eager to get back into the light. The room beyond was a lot like the common space in the tower, but with a few personal touches, like a good number of plants, a tastefully-patterned rose-colored sofa, a tiffany lamp. Steve kind of liked it. The style was very Frank Lloyd Wright meets shabby chic. There were some wooden chairs in the corner with interesting patterns on the backs. He wanted to draw them. He wanted to draw the whole room.
But Steve knew better than to assume this was Nat’s personal aesthetic. That by walking in here, he somehow had a glimpse into who she was. Sometimes he wondered if she even knew who she was. Maybe that was the point, like the truth, to be a matter of circumstances. Did that mean she wasn't the same even to herself? Steve thought it probably did. And it made him sad for her all over again.
Nat was in front of the windows in a swatch of sun, sitting in the lotus position. He was about to ask if it was a good time, when she said, “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
So she’d been expecting him. Right. It was her job to figure out what people were going to do next. And she’d been the closest thing he had to a friend before Sam came into their lives. She knew him pretty well after D.C. “You know what I’m gonna say, too?”
“I have a pretty good idea,” she smiled. “But go ahead. See if you can surprise me.”
Steve just stood there with his hands in his pockets, staring out the window, trying to find the words. Nat’s side of the tower faced north, looking out toward Central Park. It was a nice view. No wonder she liked to sit by the window. “I dunno how to say this…” And he honestly didn’t.
“Spit it out, Steve.” She didn’t say it confrontationally, but encouragingly. She knew how hard it was for him to open up.
“Is there…” he swung around to look at her. “Somethin’ goin’ on between you and Buck?”
Her smile widened a little. She looked at the floor. “Steve, you know there’s something going on between us. Don’t think Tony’s monitors only show other people’s rooms.”
Steve clenched his jaw. Was she making fun of him? No. It didn’t matter. It’s not like he’d been very good at concealing that he watched the studio all the time.
“Why don’t you ask what you really want to ask me? Be specific.” She smiled at him like an indulgent older sibling.
Steve frowned a little. What was it he really wanted to ask her? Well, he had concerns. A few of them. “Are you in love with him?” There was one.
She actually laughed. “No.”
Steve started to relax a little. He hadn’t realized how many muscles he’d had clenched walking in here.
“You...does he love you?” Okay, he hadn’t actually planned to ask that. It just came tumbling out.
She glanced up at him. “I’m not the person you need to be asking that question.”
Steve knew she was right, but it didn’t help his anxiety level to be told so. Of course, he’d already talked with Bucky about Nat once. “He said he feels safe with you.”
Nat inclined her head as if receiving a compliment. “The feeling is mutual.” And it wasn’t that Steve felt unsafe with Nat. He’d trusted her so many times to have his back, and she’d always come through. Even when it had meant betraying Tony and her promise to T’Challa. But this was Bucky they were talking about. He didn’t really trust anyone with Bucky. He meant too much to Steve, and he’d been through too much. If Steve could have protected him from everyone and everything, forever, he would have.
He’d trusted Tony with Bucky and look what had happened. Now they were in some crazy mixed-up love triangle. Steve hardly knew which way was up on any given day. He looked to the other two to let him know. They did an awful lot, talked an awful lot, planned out an awful lot without him. Steve figured his best course of action was to just go along with it. Otherwise he risked losing both of them, and he couldn’t go through that. Not again.
Nat interrupted his runaway train of thought. “What are you thinking, Steve?”
He sighed. “Thinkin’ I’m not in control anymore. And I don’t like it. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. And I don’t know what I can do to--I don’t know what I can do.”
“That’s hard for you,” she observed.
“Yeah.” Understatement of the year.
Nat patted the mat next to her, beckoning him to sit down. Steve did, awkwardly squatting to pull his boots off so that he could cross his legs--no full lotus. That hurt. He wasn’t Mr. Flexible, unlike both the guys he slept with.
She reached out and covered his hand with hers. “Maybe it’s okay.” Steve glanced over at her. What was okay? “Maybe it’s okay to not be in control all the time.” Steve wasn’t so sure about that. “Sometimes you just have to trust people.”
“I trust people all the time.” He said it resentfully, though.
“And what about when the fighting’s over? Do you still trust us then? What does Steve Rogers do when there’s no one to fight?”
But there was always someone to fight. Was that her point? Was he incapable of enjoying down-time? He heard Sam’s voice asking him again: What makes you happy?
“There’s always someone to fight,” he said. The world would never be done being saved. He’d believed that was a possibility in 1945. When he woke up, he’d learned different.
“You mean like Tony?” He turned to look at her, surprised.
“No, not like Tony. I mean--”
“But you like fighting with him.”
Of course he did. Fighting was half of their relationship. If they hadn’t fought like cats and dogs from the moment they’d met, they never would have gotten together. “I wasn’t talkin’ about that kind of fighting, Nat.” It was that irresistible chemistry that constantly had them at one another’s throats, no matter what they’d intended to do in the beginning. Tony would open his mouth, and Steve would just itch to prove himself against that razor-sharp wit. Only his best rebuttal was less clever and more physical. Meanwhile, he was the mountain full of hornets Tony could not resist trying to climb. One day the mountain had just realised getting climbed was kind of nice.
“Okay,” she nodded. “So what’s the difference?”
Steve raised his eyebrows, surprised. “The difference between, like Ultron and Tony?” Okay, bad example. “Or Tony and Loki?” He didn’t even like to say the name. It made him feel superstitious, like speak of the devil. “You really askin’ me that, Nat?”
“Do you ever stop fighting?” She looked at him like he was being dense. Maybe he was.
“Fighting evil, bad guys, Hitler. That’s totally different from going a few rounds with Tony. He’s not the bad guy. I care about him. He puts up with me. Lets me vent. And vice versa.”
“So you’re not really fighting him?”
“No.” His answer was immediate. “And he knows that...doesn’t he?”
She smiled. “You’re asking the wrong person again.”
Well that was just great. Now he needed to go and have a talk about his feelings with Tony. Just what Steve always wanted. One of the perks of being with Tony was that you didn’t have to talk about all that stuff. He wasn’t comfortable with it, and neither was Steve. It worked great. Or so he’d thought. Dammit.
Now Steve had completely lost his way. He’d come in here for a totally different reason. He just stood there for a moment, feeling defeated.
“Come on,” Nat was saying. “Do some yoga with me. Maybe it’ll help clear your head.” He took a deep breath and followed her lead. They were in half moon when Steve remembered. “So about Bucky…”
“He’s afraid you’re mad at him,” she said.
Are you mad at me or something, Stevie?
“I was mad,” Steve confessed. “But not at him.”
“Maybe you should tell him that?”
“He cares about you a lot, Steve.”
Why was she saying it as if he didn’t know? “Bucky...I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Bucky.” Literally. And that wasn’t the only way. “Bucky’s...he’s everything to me.”
“You don’t spend a lot of time around him for someone who’s everything to you.”
“I don’t--I need him. I’m just not so sure he needs me.”
“Are you asking me a question?”
“No. Sorry. Sorry, Nat. You don’t need to be hearin’ all this from me. Sam says...Sam says we all take you for granted.”
She smiled. “Maybe that’s the way I want it.”
“No, it’s not right. It’s not fair. That’s why--” He looked at her with hurt eyes. “Well, if you were in love with Bucky, then--”
She stopped, stood up. “You were going to give me the person who means everything to you?”
“He’s not mine to give,” Steve said. “But he’s not mine to take either.”
Her smile widened, eyes twinkling with amusement. “You were going to fight me for him?”
Steve looked more hurt. “He’s not a thing, he’s a person. The person I--I can’t live without.”
“You know.” She sat down again with a wry smile. “All those months I was pushing you to ask out one of the girls at S.H.I.E.L.D...I just thought you were shy. I thought maybe you just felt out of place. That you just needed a push in the right direction. Turns out I guessed wrong about you. Instead of being shy of girls, turns out you were…”
Steve didn’t like the way she’d trailed off. He was what? Gay? Whatever they called this nowadays. Bisexual? He was a little hurt. He never would have pegged Nat for one of those ‘one man one woman’ people. “What?” He wanted her to say it. If she had a problem with him and who he was attracted to, they should talk about it sooner rather than later.
She looked at him, full of sympathy. “Grieving.”
That was the ultimate sucker punch. Steve was not prepared. “Yeah, I guess…” He took a second to breathe. “I’m just not worth much without him. I can fight for other people, do the job...but for me, there’s--” ... nothing. “Not much. For me...myself.”
She was smiling at him in that gently-teasing way. “Who knew Steve Rogers was such a romantic?”
Steve ducked his head, embarrassed. “I just can’t lose him again, Nat. I can’t.”
She bent down, trying to catch his eye. “What makes you think you could?”
But Steve was just shaking his head. How could he explain that he’d never been able to understand why Bucky was with him? Even as a friend? Why would the most handsome, popular boy in the neighborhood want to be friends with some wimpy little sick kid who missed more school than he attended? What could he ever give back? All those nights Bucky had slept by his sickbed, all the bullies whose asses he’d kicked--to his own peril. All the dates he’d missed, the girls he hadn’t kissed because Steve couldn’t breathe, or his blood pressure had suddenly dropped again. Why had that kid picked him to be his best friend? It didn’t add up.
And then, when he’d gotten big, and Bucky hadn’t known who he was anymore. He still missed the little guy he’d fallen in love with. Steve was more attractive now to everyone...except Bucky. If he did still care about Steve, it was the little Steve he’d known growing up. Not this Captain America guy. Sometimes he would catch Bucky looking at him like, ‘who the fuck is this guy?’
“He’s alive,” Steve told Nat, not for the first time. “That’s the most important thing.” It was Bucky’s life to do with as he pleased. If he didn’t want to live it with Steve...he didn’t know what he would do. Maybe fly another jet into the Arctic. That plan that had almost worked before.
“Wow.” Nat was watching him. “You really feel like he could leave you at any time, don’t you?” Steve just shrugged.
“Steve.” She gripped his shoulder. “Your voice is what brought him back. That was you. What you said to him on that helicarrier, that’s why he’s here. Not Bucharest or Leipzig or even Siberia. D.C.”
“You think so?”
Nat looked worried. “I know so.” Steve just wasn’t sure if it mattered anymore. He’d brought Bucky back, but Bucky didn’t owe him anything. He hadn’t freed him to just shackle Bucky to a new master. Bucky should be able to choose. “Steve.” His vision was blurry. “Do you remember? Do you remember what you said to him in D.C.?”
Steve stuck his thumb and middle finger into his eyes, pretending they were just sore. “I reminded him of a promise he made me once.”
“Do you really think he’d go back on his promise now?”
Steve shook his head. Maybe the promise meant something different to Bucky than it had meant to him. “I don’t know.” He found himself saying. “I just don’t know.”
“Maybe you should talk to Sam.” She sounded worried.
“Why does everyone keep saying that?”
“You’re stubborn as a mule, you know that?” That made him smile a little. Her tone gentled. “Go see Misha.” She could tell he was going to make excuses, so she pressed on. “Listen, I know dancing is some kind of weird trigger for you, but just go see him. Let him show off for you at least. It hurts him that you’ve been avoiding him, Steve. He loves you.”
Steve didn’t know why, but that really made him cry. He couldn’t hide it at all now. Nat sighed, and crawled over to kneel in front of him. She leaned over and put her arms around him. “You know, you’re lucky I’m a world-class keeper of secrets. If it got out that Captain America was an emotional wreck, I bet we’d get a lot more supervillains knocking at our door.”
Steve’s laugh sounded more like a sob. “You’re probably right.”
“‘Here’s a box of tissue for you, you big baby!’” she quoted the imaginary supervillains.
“Alright, Nat, too far.” But he was offering a watery smile.
She pressed full lips to his cheek. “Go on. You can get cleaned up first if you want, but I’ll be watching. If you don’t go down there in the next hour, I’m coming after you.”
Steve wiped snot on his sleeve. He’d never been a pretty cryer. “‘Kay.”
Nat just looked at him, so much sympathy and pity. “Oh, Steve.”
“I’m good, Nat.” He must really look a mess to get that expression from her. “Thank you.”
She shooed him out, repeating. “One hour.”
Steve stopped at the door to the dark room, turned around to look at her. “Someday I’m gonna help you with your secrets. I mean--if you want.”
She just smiled. “I’ll let you know.”