The first time Steve sees Natasha after Manhattan, she’s standing in the gym facing down a group of new S.H.I.E.L.D. recruits. They’re mostly male and mostly young, though there are a handful of women scattered throughout the room, and one man with silver hair and a posture that says former military. Barton’s there too, he realizes after a moment, talking through some kind of a demonstration.
But it’s Natasha who’s caught Steve’s attention, something about her energy, quiet and still and electric all the same. Steve hasn’t intended to watch; he’s on his way back to his quarters after a workout, hoping for an uneventful escape from the public space more than anything else. There’s a comforting familiarity to the training, though, and suddenly he needs to see what’s about to happen.
Steve takes a step closer to the large glass observation window, which is obviously designed so that classes like this one can be monitored if necessary. He’s glad when nobody turns to look his direction.
As Steve watches, Barton finishes whatever he’s been explaining to the group and Natasha falls into a practiced defensive posture opposite him. What comes next goes so fast that it takes Steve a moment to register what’s actually happened. Barton takes a step forward, blocks a couple of punches, and has her neatly trapped in a headlock in under a minute, grinning victoriously. That can’t be right, Steve thinks, because he’s seen her fight, because he knows she was the one who took Barton down on the Helicarrier, and because she looks utterly unfazed. But the recruits don’t know any of these things and some of them cheer, impressed.
After a moment, Barton lets go of Natasha and issues a challenge to the rest of the room to come up and attempt what he’s just demonstrated. The first volunteer is a dark-haired young man with bulging muscles and a cocky grin. He even cracks his knuckles, like he thinks he’s something out of an adventure film. Natasha looks him up and down, raises an eyebrow, and neatly kicks his legs out from under him the instant he moves. She takes the next three men to the ground just as quickly, and after that nobody looks eager when their turn comes.
Steve smiles slowly as he realizes that her earlier performance was a trick, that she’s played them all.
He’s still standing at the window when the session ends and the recruits file out the door at the far end of the room. He supposes he shouldn’t be surprised when Natasha practically materializes behind him--he’s lost track of her in the flurry of movement--but he jumps at the sound of her voice all the same.
“Enjoy the show?”
Steve contemplates coming up with an excuse that doesn’t involve skulking around watching her at work—he could say it’s observation for the purpose of building his team—but dishonesty won’t exactly benefit anyone right now. “It was an impressive performance.”
Natasha smirks. “First lesson: never make assumptions. Being overly confident will get you killed. I guess that’s two lessons, strictly speaking.”
“Important lessons,” says Steve. He thinks Peggy would have agreed with her.
“Also it’s fun watching their faces as the realization hits them,” says Natasha. “So what brings you here? Surely you didn’t come just for the fun of watching S.H.I.E.L.D. combat training in progress.” She sounds like she means the exact opposite of fun.
“Actually I was on my way out when I saw you,” he answers. “Finished with my workout for the day.”
For a moment she gives him an appraising look, weighing options for her next move like she’s still on the job.
“Good,” she says finally. “Then come have lunch with me.”
Natasha navigates the bustling S.H.I.E.L.D. mess hall the same way she does the Helicarrier, with a swift and silent assurance that has crowds parting and people stepping out of the way before they’ve even realized why. Steve is acutely aware of their eyes on him, and finds himself wishing foolishly for the shelter of his uniform and hood. It isn’t that attention is anything new or alarming in itself, but there’s something to be said for the protective veil of stage lights, the structured necessity of a battle. Here he could be any one of Natasha’s trainees, only that’s not what anyone else sees when they look at him.
When they’re seated, finally, at a table nestled mercifully in the back corner, she seems content to simply watch him while picking unenthusiastically at her food. Her gaze feels as though it could extract volumes from this moment, as though she might be capable of telling him the life story he has yet to figure out for himself.
“So,” says Steve, taking a bite of his sandwich and swallowing before he settles on the rest of his sentence, “how are you adjusting?” He means after the aliens, after having the world turned upside down and damn near losing her best friend. But it sounds patently ridiculous once he hears his own words out loud.
Natasha laughs, deep and genuine and not at all mocking, and that surprises him more than anything else about her so far. “Isn’t that supposed to be my line?”
Steve shrugs. “It’s an adjustment for all of us, right? You were a spy. Now you’re headline news.”
“And you’re used to the spotlight?” she asks. “Is that the idea?”
He looks down at his plate, because he has grown accustomed to playing a role, to seeing his image used in ways that aren’t always recognizable, but he’s not sure that’s what she means. “Something like that.”
“All of life is adaptation,” says Natasha, still smiling, and for a moment he’s torn between wondering whether that’s a quote from a philosophy book and noticing that she hasn’t actually answered his question.
“I suppose,” he says noncommittally.
“So,” Natasha parrots, folding her napkin into a triangle and dropping it atop the remains of her food, “how are you adjusting?”
Steve sighs, because he clearly wasn’t ever really in charge of this conversation, and takes a moment before deciding on honesty. “Everything’s a bit ironic.”
Natasha rests her chin gracefully in one hand and leans forward just a little. Suddenly Steve feels as though he’s the most interesting and important thing she’s ever seen, as though she wasn’t staring into a portal to the other side of the universe a few short weeks ago. “Go on.”
“Well,” says Steve, searching for the right words, “I wanted to join the army to help out, because it seemed like the clear choice. Winning the war was the right thing to do, plain and simple. But I ended up going from a classified lab experiment to the mother of all secret organizations. Even when you’re following orders and winning the fight, it’s not really clear who the good guys are.”
“Nothing’s clear-cut these days,” she agrees, and he wonders if she’s chosen that particular phrasing intentionally.
“Nothing ever was,” says Steve, maybe even bitterly.
The next time Steve sees Natasha it’s because he’s looking for her, but he’s still surprised by what he finds. He’s been told that she’s giving a briefing, that he’ll have to wait in the hall. But S.H.I.E.L.D.—for all its secrets—seems to have an aversion to employee privacy and this conference room has a little window in the door. Steve peers into it, unable to resist the urge to check that he’s actually waiting in the right place.
He’s expected to see Natasha in some variation of S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform, but instead she’s wearing a dark green dress that hugs her body crisply to the knee, her hair curled loosely around her face. She’s writing on a board displayed in the front of the room, the delicate loops of her letters looking as though they ought to have come from a demure school teacher.
Steve steps back to stand with his back to the wall next to the door and thinks that he’s seen Natasha be at least three different people in the short time he’s known her, and he isn’t sure which one is real.
She’s the last to emerge from the briefing room, as if she knows that he’s waiting and wants to afford their conversation some privacy. Natasha pauses just beyond the doorway and says nothing, raises an eyebrow at him instead. She looks the picture of an ideal S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, a hundred times removed from the deceit and torture he knows are in her past, still coloring her present.
“Hi,” says Steve, trying to remember his reason for coming here as he meets her eyes. He’s always been a little breathless in the presence of women who command respect. “I needed to ask you a favor.”
“Go ahead,” says Natasha, taking a few steps toward him and choosing not to make any one of a number of choice comments about phones or computers he knows she could.
“You know how to get things done around here, right?” he asks. Now that he’s about to make it, the request feels a little silly. But he knows from his days in the army that this is how organizations work, that official channels are well and good, but knowing the inner workings of the system is better.
She gives him a curt little nod.
“There seems to be a problem with my apartment,” Steve plunges ahead. “The lights are—Well, they go a bit crazy if I try to turn anything else on.”
“What?” asks Natasha, completely straight-faced. “Don’t you know that’s how electricity works?”
He absolutely knows better than to believe it even a little, but she’s so convincing that it takes him a moment to realize she’s joking, that teasing is a thing Natasha Romanoff does. He huffs a short laugh and she grins broadly.
“I put in a maintenance request,” says Steve, when he’s regained his composure. “But it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she agrees. “But you should really think about looking for a place off-base. The upkeep budget here is pretty much nonexistent. And you don’t really want to be at work all the time.”
The wiring—or whatever—is fixed by the time Steve gets home three hours later. It’s only dinnertime, the sun outside his windows just starting to fade, but he falls immediately into the routine he’s developed ever since his appliances went crazy. He turns on the offending lights, followed by the television and the ceiling fan. He’s expecting the lights to flicker, or at least to make a wholly disconcerting electrical hum, but all he hears is the droning of the evening news and the soft whir of the fan blades cutting the air. For a moment it seems too good to be true, and he takes one breath and then another, half expecting the ceiling to fall in.
When nothing happens, Steve nods once at the lights, feeling slightly foolish—as if they need his approval for doing their job. The apartment probably isn’t about to catch fire or explode, he decides, but it still feels like something is off, like this whole thing is simply too easy. Shoving the unease to the back of his mind, Steve turns his attention to food.
He makes it as far as putting a casserole dish full of leftovers into the microwave--which also appears to behave appropriately--and heating it up. Then he goes looking for a fork and discovers the entire silverware drawer empty, save for a folded slip of paper in the bottom.
Welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D., says the note in handwriting he now recognizes as Natasha’s, where nothing is private and favors come with a price.
Steve thinks probably he ought to be irritated by the intrusion. Instead he smiles to himself and reaches for the phone.
He’s a little surprised by how easily Hill hands over Natasha’s address, but he takes it at face value. He hasn’t known her long, but he’s pretty sure she has neither time nor energy for nonsense like pranks. So it’s with a heady sense of confidence that he gets on his bike and rides the few miles to Natasha’s place, the rush of the evening breeze in his hair carrying him up the steps.
Steve grins as he knocks, keeps grinning right up until Clint Barton answers the door and the certainty goes out of him like a punch to the gut. Suddenly he isn’t sure whether he’s in the wrong place, if he’s been set up to interrupt something, or just gotten incredibly unlucky.
“Uh,” he says, realizing he’s gaping in a way that probably looks incredibly rude. “Hi. I was just—“
“You were right,” Barton calls over his shoulder, sounding vaguely bemused. “He’s here already.”
“Of course I’m right.” Natasha appears in the hallway wearing gym shorts and a faded t-shirt that seem wholly out of place on her, plus a smug expression that suits her perfectly. “I’m impressed, though. I was thinking it would take you longer.”
“I was just,” Steve repeats, trying to collect his thoughts. “Could I have my utensils back, please?”
Natasha shrugs. “Sure. But first you’re going to come in and eat something that didn’t come out of a can or the microwave.”
It takes him a beat to register what she’s just said, and another to decide how to respond. “Are you threatening me with food, Agent Romanoff?”
“Yes.” But she doesn’t step back yet, doesn’t move to let him in. “And my name is Natasha. If we’re going to work together, you’d better use it.”
“Right,” says Steve, and her order feels oddly like a privilege. “Sorry.”
She and Barton both turn in one of those moves that seem eerily not-quite-choreographed, and Steve follows them down the hallway. Natasha’s apartment is a loft, with cream colored walls and a surprising number of windows, the last light of sunset turning the living room pale gold. He’s hit immediately with the pungent smell of cooked meat and spices, his stomach growling loudly enough that he’s sure she must be able to hear. Containers of food are laid out on the bar that separates kitchen and living room, far more than two people could ever reasonably hope to eat in one sitting.
“From the Indian place on the corner,” says Natasha, handing him a plate and a fork that he recognizes as one of his own. “Only place to go if you want decent curry.”
“You planned this,” says Steve, holding up the fork for emphasis. “So—You robbed my apartment to invite me to dinner?”
Barton laughs, grabbing one of the containers and heaping rice onto his own plate as he speaks. “Petty theft is her version of affection. One of the first times we ever went into the field together, she swiped all my socks.”
“It was cold,” says Natasha, carefully selecting her own container—some kind of meat swimming in bright yellow sauce.
Barton snorts. “Right. Then you stole my keys.”
“I needed access to your apartment. In case of emergency. Besides, you had a spare.” She takes the rice container out of his hand, and he makes a helpless gesture--see what I mean?--in Steve’s direction.
“And you’re wearing all my clothes right now. Or at least they used to be my clothes.”
“Common law property?” says Natasha, quirking an eyebrow in a way that makes her look impossibly innocent. She hands the rice to Steve, and it’s all he can do not to drop it.
“I think I get the point,” he manages, and busies himself with serving food. But it isn’t really that the nature of their exchange has him shocked, Steve realizes after a moment—though it is a little jarring to see anyone talk to Natasha Romanoff this way and escape unscathed.
The thing that’s got his heart in his throat and his stomach in knots is the fact that their easy banter reminds him of the way he might have teased Bucky once, the fragile camaraderie he’d begun to feel with the other men in the army. The reminder—like all the reminders—seems only to widen the chasm in his life.
“Where are you?” asks Natasha, the light brush of her fingers on his wrist shattering his thoughts.
Steve blinks. “What?”
“I have a talent for knowing when people aren’t home in their heads,” says Natasha, a statement clearly steeped in meaning. “You definitely weren’t just now.”
He shakes his head futilely, like the motion might actually clear it somehow. “Just—thinking.”
Barton’s moved over to the couch, Steve notices, and is watching a TV show where the contestants are attempting to run a superhuman obstacle course while he shovels food into his mouth. Natasha motions for Steve to sit with her at the counter, and he wonders suddenly whether the move was deliberate, another of their not-quite-telepathic exchanges. He takes a seat and then a bite of his food, and decides instantly that she’s right. There’s something about the mix of spices that seems to warm him to his core, gives him a peculiar sense of comfort.
Natasha is smiling again when he glances at her sideways.
“So,” he says, swallowing, “you stole my utensils to coerce me into eating dinner with you. Why? Seems like an odd price to pay for a favor I already owe you.”
“It’s not about favors,” says Natasha, licking a stray bit of curry from the tip of her finger in a motion that Steve thinks has probably cost other men their lives. “It’s about the fact that you’ve been at S.H.I.E.L.D. for almost three months and you’re still living in an empty apartment furnished by base housing.”
Steve pauses with his fork halfway to his mouth “My living conditions are a problem for you?”
Natasha rolls her eyes. “No, Cap, they’re a problem for you. Not just because S.H.I.E.L.D. is monitoring your quarters—they’re going to do that no matter where you go—but because pretending you’re still in the barracks isn’t any way to live.”
“So this is an intervention, then.” Steve spoons more rice onto his plate and tries not to be too proud of that pop culture reference.
“Call it what you like.”
“But no matter what I call it, you’re going to play me until I decide to—what, pursue happiness?” It’s a strange thought, that she would care, and for a moment Steve wonders whether he’s really seeing yet another façade constructed for his benefit, orchestrated by Fury or Hill.
Natasha sighs, and there’s something so genuine about her eyes that Steve can’t bring himself to doubt her, even while thinking that this is what makes her as deadly as she is stunning.
“Look,” she says when he’s been quiet just a moment too long. “I understand living with the bare minimum. When you’ve been alone and hurt and starving, an empty apartment with enough tasteless food to keep your belly full can seem like a blessing. But that does not mean that’s all you should allow yourself.”
Steve thinks about what he knows of her past, what he’s read in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files. It sinks in slowly that of all the people who’ve been claiming to understand his situation, in this way Natasha actually does.
When Steve finally decides to start apartment hunting, Natasha meets him at the subway station. He almost doesn’t recognize her, standing with her back to the wall in jeans, a baggy t-shirt and a baseball cap, her hair pulled back so it’s all but hidden. Her eyes are deceptively downcast, but he’s sure she’s aware of every detail in the environment.
“Is there a reason you’re going incognito?” he asks, coming to rest against the wall beside her.
Natasha looks up at him from beneath the rim of her hat and he realizes it’s her posture that’s making her seem so unlike the woman he knows, her shoulders hunched like she wants to curl in on herself, telegraphing harmlessness to the rest of the world.
“Think about it,” she says quietly. “Did you watch the news or read the paper this morning? Because we’ve been in the media in some capacity just about every day since New York. You’re the one who told me everything’s changing.”
He tries to swallow down the sudden unease that rises in the back of his throat as he realizes she’s right. Steve is used to seeing his face in the papers, on posters staring proudly back from between the red white and blue. But he might as well be an alien visitor to this world where he knows that people follow every detail of the lives of their idols. He hasn’t been in public much since the battle, has mostly been focused on acquiring the many skills S.H.I.E.L.D. requires of its agents.
“Make it a lesson for the future,” says Natasha, taking pity on his uncomfortable silence.
Steve nods once, breathing a sigh of measured relief as their train arrives. It isn’t like he’s wearing the uniform or carrying his shield, but his plaid shirt and pressed khakis don’t exactly blend in with this crowd either. Already some people are staring, hushed comments and sideways glances catching his attention. If he were alone he might stop, might give them a few minutes of the time he doesn’t really have. But Natasha leads him straight through the crowd to the automatic doors of the train, and Steve follows without protest.
The first apartment they look at smells like stale dishwater and the hopelessly stained tile floor is littered with the desiccated bodies of several dozen cockroaches. Natasha wrinkles her nose, shooting him the most intense look of disgust he’s ever seen the moment they step over the threshold.
Still, Steve lets the landlady lead him through the whole place just to be polite, acutely aware of Natasha’s eyes boring holes of disapproval in his back the entire time.
At the next building they’re met by a frenetic young man who introduces himself as Glenn the Leasing Agent. Steve follows his unnaturally quick pace up two flights of stairs and refrains from commenting on peculiar modern usages of the word agent.
“This is our model unit,” says Glenn as he unlocks the door. “But it’s your lucky day, we’ve got a couple vacancies due to open up at the end of the month! We’re in high demand, you know. Full occupancy twenty-four-seven-three-sixty-five.” He says the last part all in a single breath, and Steve finds himself resisting the urge to frantically gulp air in compensation.
He’s practically assaulted by an overwhelming floral scent as Glenn swings the door open, and by this point Steve doesn’t even have to glance over at Natasha to know that she’s irritated. The inside of the model unit is done up in leather and bold colors, the wall over the couch adorned with a photograph of a lightning bolt that would probably impress even Thor. The whole thing feels artificial, though; he can hear the footsteps of people over his head, conversations floating through the walls on either side. Steve wonders how a place like this would ever become a home.
“Most of our units are two bedroom,” says Glenn, leading them into the master, which has a walk-in closet large enough to sleep in. “Perfect for couples looking to settle down, start a family.” He glances conspicuously back and forth between Steve and Natasha. “Are you? Looking to settle down?”
“No,” Steve says sharply, then immediately regrets it, wondering whether Natasha has intended for them to be posing as a couple for the sake of anonymity. But she only looks mildly amused when he glances over at her.
“I’m just here to make sure his bachelor pad has some degree of class,” she practically drawls.
Glenn looks immediately thrilled, leaning close enough that Steve can smell his aftershave as he stage-whispers conspiratorially. “Well, our community is also great for singles. One of the reasons I live here myself.”
Steve feels his face grow hot, the way it always does when he finds another person attracted to him. Too bad the ice couldn’t have permanently frozen this particular reaction, he thinks. “Oh. Well, I’m not really looking for—Just pretty focused on work lately.”
“He’ll keep this place in mind,” says Natasha, effortlessly stepping between them. “But we have other appointments to make.”
She takes his arm and Steve follows her gratefully out of the stifling apartment.
“Was that—Did he recognize me?” he can’t help asking, when they’ve made it back out to the street. There’s a big part of his brain that still can’t understand this kind of flattery in any other context.
Natasha laughs. “No. But have you looked in a mirror lately?”
Steve gapes at her for a moment, feeling the flush on his cheeks grow deeper as he tries very hard not to think that it’s possible she might share the sentiment, at least in a theoretical sense.
“Come on,” she says gently, pointing to the notepad he’s carrying with their list of destinations. “We actually do have other appointments.”
The four apartments that follow feel like a parade of déjà vu. They’re all cookie-cutter modern spaces with beige walls and overly-plush furniture, so much emptiness that Steve despairs of ever being able to fill it with his life.
By the time they make it out of the last office, his head is starting to throb with tension, and he feels like he owes Natasha at least five apologies for dragging her along on this ill-advised adventure. Staying in base housing is starting to seem appealing again; at least it’s an inexpensive disappointment.
“Okay,” says Natasha, cornering him next to a little deli, the people inside too wrapped up in their lunches to pay any attention to a pair of strangers talking on the sidewalk. “A week ago, you were telling me all you needed was a bed and a roof. Now you don’t like anything we’re seeing. What’s going on with you?”
“Sorry,” Steve blurts, because it’s been on the tip of his tongue for the past two hours. He isn’t even sure what he’s apologizing for; after all, this was her idea. “I’m sorry. We don’t have to—“
“Don’t apologize,” she interrupts, her voice even and surprisingly lacking in judgment. “Explain. What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” says Steve. “It all just feels—artificial, I guess.”
Natasha raises an eyebrow at him. “As opposed to…”
“I don’t know!” His voice is higher than he’d like it to be; Captain America isn’t allowed to whine, but he’s not on duty right now. “I feel like I should recognize these places. If I’m going to get a place of my own, I want it to feel familiar, I guess. Right now I feel like I’m the one from outer space.”
“So we try a different neighborhood,” says Natasha, apparently undeterred by his outburst. She starts toward the subway station, then looks back over her shoulder. “There’s an old folks’ home a few blocks from here. Think that would suit you better?”
Steve laughs until he’s out of breath, then realizes it’s a feeling he’s almost forgotten.
The apartment Steve finally chooses is in a building that looks as displaced in time as he still feels, at odds with the modern cars driving by. It has brick walls and a large fireplace, the wood floor hopelessly scuffed by the footsteps of all the previous inhabitants.
“This is the one?” Natasha asks before he’s had a chance to say anything, and he thinks he detects the smallest hint of incredulity in her voice.
“How did you—“
“You’re smiling,” she interrupts. “You almost never smile.”
“I like it,” says Steve, running his fingertips along the mantle. It feels solid, well-worn, but built to last.
Natasha studies him for a moment. “Why this one? You could have practically any place in the city, but you choose one that’s just as rundown as the quarters S.H.I.E.L.D. gave you.”
Steve shrugs, at a loss for how to explain this like so many other things. The apartment feels lived-in, he thinks, like he might be surrounded by the ghosts of other people’s happiness.
“It has character,” he says finally. “Maybe it just needs someone to make it feel new again.”
A week after he officially moves, most of Steve’s things are still in boxes, the furniture he’s been slowly acquiring from second-hand stores scattered haphazardly around, lacking a permanent arrangement.
It isn’t that he’s avoiding putting the space together. (Okay, maybe he is just a little.)
It’s just that he’s still so busy with the endless S.H.I.E.L.D. trainings, and helping the clean-up crews put downtown Manhattan back together in between.
But he isn’t surprised, really, when Natasha shows up at his door on Sunday afternoon, looking like she’s stepped out of one of the gym advertisements he sees everywhere these days. Her t-shirt is faded, he notices, and for a moment Steve wonders whether it’s another item of clothing pilfered from Barton. Then he decides she would most definitely kill him for asking that, super soldier or not.
“Hi,” says Steve, feeling a little tug of shame at the state of the place. “It’s not quite ready for the grand tour yet.” He glances over his shoulder, knowing she’s already taken in the mess.
“Then it’s a good thing I didn’t come for a tour,” says Natasha. “I came to help.”
He thinks for a moment about refusing, about insisting on doing the work for himself. But it would be rude, he thinks, to turn down her offer when she’s already made the trip over here, and he wants her companionship besides. So he nods and steps back, letting her into the chaos of his life.
Natasha, it turns out, handles unpacking with the same cool efficiency she does everything else, and the living room begins to take shape within a few hours.
“So,” she says, sitting back on her heels to stack books on a shelf. Steve doesn’t have a lot of possessions, but reading is one of the best ways he’s found to fill up a sleepless night.
“What?” he asks when she doesn’t continue, glancing up from the coffee table with the wobbly leg he’s in the middle of mending.
“You could have all new things if you wanted.” She cocks her head in the direction of his current task. “But apparently you’d rather fix up old ones. Why? Most of these things are only a few years old, so it can’t just be that you’re looking for something familiar.”
Steve puts down the hammer he’s holding and meets her eyes, thinking that she already has an idea what his answer will be. “Just the way I grew up, I guess.”
He’s seen how history books talk about the Depression now, so remote from the current climate of overconsumption that it might well seem like a work of fiction to some of the people around him. But Natasha is smarter than that, he knows, and she has just as much experience with childhood scarcity a he does. This is some sort of test.
“But you don’t have to do that now,” she says firmly. “You have choices.”
“Right,” Steve insists, still not quite sure what he’s seeing in the shockingly green depths of her eyes. “And this is what I choose. Why are you asking?”
Natasha takes a breath, her expression suddenly softer than he’s ever seen it before. “Because I want you to know that it’s okay for you to do things just for yourself. Take a day off from saving the world and do nothing but watch movies on the couch. Buy something ridiculously expensive just because you want it. Make nice food and enjoy it by yourself or with someone else if that’s what you want. My point is—If you’re fixing things up because that’s what makes you happy, then by all means, continue. But it’s not your duty to be self-sacrificing all the time. You’re worth more than the thing you do for S.H.I.E.L.D., or your country, or Mrs. Taylor next door. I’m telling you this because I’m not sure you know, and I’m not sure anybody else has ever said it.”
For a moment Steve just blinks at her, surprised by the sudden tightness in his throat. She’s right, he realizes, though he’s never quite thought of it that way.
“So,” he asks finally, thinking of all that she’s told him, “when you finally got your own place, was it all the luxury you could get?”
Natasha laughs, not unkindly, but it makes Steve think he still doesn’t know the first thing about her. “God no. For the longest time, I had one chair and a mattress on the floor. Clint had to nag me into buying a bedframe.”
Steve spends most of his birthday in uniform, the newly-cleared streets of Manhattan cordoned off for a boisterous Independence Day parade. The others are there too, marching beside him, but it’s too loud to hear much of anything besides Stark flitting around in the suit and making cracks about bad alien invasion movies Steve doesn’t understand.
He stays longer than any of the others, signing autographs for droves of onlookers. The line is unending in a way that makes him wonder if they might be the ones pouring out of a portal on the other side of the universe, or at least New York. By the time he gets home, it’s dark out and all he can hope is that he’ll be tired enough to fall asleep and ignore the fact that he’s another year impossibly older, surrounded by potential but still just as hopelessly alone as the skinny kid from Brooklyn.
The lights are on when he opens the door of his apartment, and Steve stops short, momentarily trying to decide whether it’s an oversight on his part or if he ought to be preparing to defend himself.
“Don’t worry, I’m not armed,” comes Natasha’s voice from the kitchen, and Steve grins.
There’s an impressive spread of cardboard takeout containers on his table, he sees as he walks into the other room, along with a chocolate cake.
“Steal my spare key too?” asks Steve, immediately deciding it would be plenty fine by him if she did.
“Picked the lock,” says Natasha, mildly. “You really might want to think about a security system.”
Steve runs a hand through his hair, which is hopelessly wrecked from wearing his hood all day. “Duly noted.”
“Happy birthday,” says Natasha, moving to stand beside him. “You look good for a ninety-four year old.”
Steve catches himself rolling his eyes in a way that feels like it ought to belong to her instead. “Sorry. Thanks.” He picks up one of the cartons and inspects the contents.
“Chinese,” says Natasha. “Continuing your culinary diversity training.”
“On Independence Day?” asks Steve, though it isn’t like he actually minds.
“Diversity is plenty American,” says Natasha. “Besides, you’re going to love sesame chicken.”
They eat dinner on Steve’s ancient olive-green couch, which sags in the middle, pulling them both down into its center of gravity so that he bumps shoulders with Natasha, amicably at odds with her left-handed chopstick use. The television is on, playing news of the day’s festivities but he chats easily over it until he hears the syllables of his name, looks up to see a feature on his own life playing. Steve catches his breath as footage of his years on stage flashes by, photos of him in the army with Peggy and Howard. He looks away abruptly, finds Natasha watching his face.
She reaches out and lifts the remote from the edge of the table, switches the television off in one fluid motion, then lays a hand on his arm. “Tell me about them?”
Steve swallows roughly. “You just saw.” He gestures helplessly at the television.
“I don’t want the official story,” says Natasha, her fingers impossibly warm against his skin. “I want yours.”
Steve forces himself to inhale and exhale a few times before he attempts to reply. “Agent Carter—Peggy—was in charge of the Strategic Reserve before it was S.H.I.E.L.D. You probably knew that. But I met her back when I was still—still the little guy getting the tar kicked out of me in every fight. She was one of the only people who saw me as more than a loser or a laboratory experiment. I guess you probably would’ve liked her.” He pauses, doesn’t tell Natasha that he has an address and a phone number, that he could visit Peggy if he had the guts. He just doesn’t think he can stand to see how she’s left him behind too. “What about you? Miss anyone?”
“My parents,” says Natasha, a little hesitantly. “Although sometimes I think it’s more the idea of them that I miss. I don’t have a lot of childhood memories. The ones I do have—It’s hard to know what’s real.”
“I’m sorry,” says Steve, out of habit. “Peggy was going to teach me how to dance.” He laughs sadly, feeling a little foolish. “We made a date. Guess I overslept.”
Natasha is quiet for a long moment before speaking again, like she’s measuring her thoughts against the silence. “Do you want to learn now?”
He meets her eyes, fathomless in the dim light, then nods once.
The music she chooses is slow and a little plaintive, not so different from what he might have danced to in his previous life, but not obsolete in this world either. He’s stiff at first, his hand trembling a little where it’s curled around her waist. But Natasha is patient like he knew she’d be, guiding him more with her body than with words, and he’s relaxed by the time a few songs have passed, the rhythm leading his muscles.
“How do you do it?” Steve asks quietly, his fingers trailing up the curve of her back of their own accord, needing to feel the soft solidness of her body.
Natasha raises an eyebrow. “Do what?”
“You’re—practically like a different person every time I see you,” says Steve, finally voicing what he’s been thinking all along. “You blend in perfectly wherever you go. No matter what you’re doing. Which one’s real?”
She smiles slowly, looking up at him through her lashes in a way that makes him feel like he’s just said something extremely important. “All of it’s real. That’s the secret.” She turns smoothly under his arm, comes back around to face him. “In the Red Room, everything I learned was about being what other people needed, making myself important so I could stay alive. But that’s unsustainable, you can’t live a life that’s not your own. After I came to S.H.I.E.L.D., I figured out that it works the other way too. Now all anyone sees is what I need them to believe.”
Steve pauses as the song ends, his hands still on her waist, the pieces falling together in his mind. It’s enormous, he realizes, this thing she’s just shared. In a way she’s just given him her greatest weapon, offered it for his own use. This time he doesn’t think as he moves, just leans down and kisses her cheek.
“Thank you,” he whispers into the opening chords of the next song.
When he sees Natasha at work a few days later, it’s through the distance of glass again. This time he’s got his own room full of recruits eager to learn basic combat skills from Captain America.
Steve feels the familiar butterflies in his stomach, the doubts, like at any moment he might still go back to being helpless. But he’s prepared this time, has a plan and knows what he wants to tell them.
“Lesson one,” says Steve, and everyone in the vicinity seems to stand just a little bit taller. “Never make assumptions about anything or anyone. Assumptions will get you killed.”
In the observation room window, Natasha smiles, and Steve feels solid and warm down to his toes.