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The hardest time comes when she starts to see that Clint is beyond reach and probably not coming back.

After about half a year, civilization has started functioning almost normally in most parts of the world and the usual ways of tracing people moving through it aren’t totally useless now. Natasha starts trying for a few weeks to pin down some sign of his whereabouts, if only to keep tabs on him from a distance while he still needs time alone. It doesn’t take long for what she should have already realized to become clear: that he’s taking care to cover his tracks because he absolutely doesn’t want to be found.

It’s around this time that Rhodey ends up coming by the compound, needing to do some kind of maintenance on his car in the garage, and finds her in the kitchen when she just broke a glass and sliced up the bottom of her foot on one of the shards on the floor.

“Jesus, Nat,” he says after he brings a first aid kit and sees how much she’s bleeding into a paper towel. His eyes show restrained concern as he watches her apply some gauze to it, because Rhodey isn’t stupid. Natasha never walks into a room without immediately taking note of every possible escape route and every object that could potentially be used as a weapon; even when she’s relaxed, she’s not relaxed. He knows it’s not like her to make a clumsy, careless mistake like this.

He also has eyes, and she hasn’t thrown out either of the drained liquor bottles sitting by the sink.

Instead of saying anything of it, he goes to get a broom and starts sweeping up all the glass on the floor while she sits there putting pressure on the cut.

As he drags over the trashcan a moment later, he says, “I saw Tony and Pepper a couple days ago.”

She’s on the much less sharp side of tipsy, detached, but that makes her look up and give him her full attention. “Is he…any better?”

“Well.” Rhodey looks at her a little strangely as he empties the dustpan, like he’s holding back from saying something. “Yeah, he’s better.”

She tilts her head a little. “What is it?”

He takes a seat on one of the kitchen stools right next to her. “They’re having a baby.”

She blinks, looks down at her own bleeding foot for a second. “Oh.”

“Yeah. A girl.”

A girl. Natasha breathes in through the pain as she reinforces pressure on the cut, understanding his slight unease in mentioning this. “So she’s already that far along.”

He nods. “I knew a while ago, but I didn’t ask until I just saw them if it’s okay to tell everyone.”

Meaning even he was thinking there might still be some possibility of Tony coming back into the fold and delivering the news himself, but after this many months that’s clearly not happening.

She watches him as he gets up to put on a pot of coffee and asks, “Have you said anything to Steve?”

“No, just you.”

“Will you let me be the one to tell him? You know things are still…complicated. Between him and Tony.”

“You mean completely fucked up?” He turns to face her again, leaning back against the counter. “Yeah, I know…How bad is it? You need stitches?”

She is carefully peeling away the gauze to examine her foot. “No, it’s stopped bleeding,” she says, reaching for the first aid kit to find a large band-aid.

Waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, Rhodey absently looks at a potted plant on the counter, one Natasha moved from one of the bedrooms that doesn’t get used anymore that is starting to look a bit wilted. He lifts up one of its limp leaves and feels the soil inside the pot that must be totally dry.

Wanda and Vision were the ones who picked out the only house plants there are around here, shortly after they moved in. Natasha hasn’t been thinking to water them for a while. Wordlessly, she plucks a stray glass half filled with water from one corner of the island countertop and hands it over to him so he can pour the water out over the plant. After that he takes the empty glass over to the sink, taking with him another used dish sitting out.

Seeing Rhodey do small tasks around the kitchen unavoidably makes her think of when this place was, for a short time, constantly filled with people. It was Rhodey and Sam who at one point made a big deal of putting together a proper hot meal for everyone’s breakfast a couple days every week, and for some reason they started a pattern of announcing it was ready by semi-ironically blasting cheesy old-school hip hop through the compound, which brought a lot of raised eyebrows from those who had not been around for the inception of this inside joke. It lasted until the morning Natasha overheard FRIDAY responding to their song request with “I’m sorry, Mr. Stark has placed a two-week ban on playing ‘White Lines.’”

“What!?” Sam exclaimed, throwing up his arms, while Rhodey just cracked up laughing. Sitting across from Natasha nearby, even Wanda giggled and exchanged an easy smile with her.

Natasha remembers this well because it was the first time she ever heard her laugh, or possibly even saw her smile. Wanda had the most gorgeous smile of perfect white teeth, the kind that belonged in an innocent high school yearbook photo accompanied by some generically optimistic quote about the future. Much like Natasha she’d been denied things like that, and she remembers observing how Wanda seemed to cherish little things like being able to brighten up the place she lived in with plants and understanding exactly what that was like. Latching onto the things that were no great luxuries but were hers, which no one could make her give up.

Sipping at his cup of coffee now, Rhodey looks over at the same seats where she and Wanda sat that morning years ago, the whole space empty and clean. After a while he goes still for a long moment, like he’s forgotten about the coffee in his hand. “Sometimes I don’t see how you can live here,” he says quietly.

She and Steve are the only two who actually sleep here regularly at all anymore, and only Natasha has made it more or less her home, always here to receive the occasional communications that come in. It’s not like she doesn’t know exactly what he means, with all the memories she gets caught in because of the remaining personal touches that came from Wanda or Sam or someone else who’s gone.

“Who else is going to?” is all she can say.

He moves to leave the room with his coffee, stops a moment as he passes her with a hand on her shoulder. He seems to be waiting for her to just look at him, to give him that much of a small assurance. She meets his eyes and places her hand over his, giving it a light squeeze.

“Well, try not to cut anything else and bleed to death while you’re here alone with nobody to help you,” he says, getting a weak smile from her before he draws away.

 

 

Most of the lights are off when she hears him come in very late that night. Something about his heavy but rigid gait is unmistakable, identifying him to her at once. He still walks like Captain America, moving and carrying himself not quite like anyone else she’s ever seen, even now, in the dark where nobody cares anymore.

She’s sitting on a couch near the computers, relaxed back against it with a drink in hand and her feet up on the coffee table, staring at one of the many walls in this place where that giant A stares bleakly down at her. She doesn’t look away from it as he approaches.

“How did I screw up so bad?” she mutters, mostly to herself, making him freeze in place for a second. In the very dim light he hadn’t noticed her there until she said anything. “Me of all people.”

He moves around to the front of the couch and sits down next to her. “What do you mean?” he asks.

Instead of explaining, she rolls her head to the side to look at him. “I guess you’re here because you talked to Rhodey?”

His impeccable timing means that Rhodey probably suggested that he might want to come check in on her, and his face seems to confirm it.

“He’s worried about you. And so am I.” His eyes shift to glance meaningfully toward the computer console for just a second. He was here recently and noticed she was running a program to track down Clint, and can now plainly see there’s nothing running, the station dead and dark. “Also you just called me earlier, so…”

“Oh, right. Shit.” She closes her eyes a second. She forgot moments after she did it that she did call him, then immediately hung up before he could answer. Her first ever experience doing the classic quickly aborted drunk-dial. She’d had the horrible idea to tell him what she heard from Rhodey that way.

Maybe she also just wanted to see Steve. Reaching for him, however subtly, when she’s at her lowest points has become reflexive somehow. Like a fighting technique perfected only through endless repetition in sparring, but unaccountable, as by comparison she has very little practice at the kind of things that always feel natural between the two of them.

“I needed to tell you something,” she says, sitting up to reach for the bottle of gin on the table—the expensive stuff that Tony always kept this place stocked with—and refilling her glass halfway.

“That’s why you called?”

She gets up to go over to the nearby minibar and grab an empty glass for him, forgets until she’s on her feet about having cut herself. When she hisses with the light sting of pain and immediately shifts most of her weight to the other foot, Steve automatically reaches up for her elbow to steady her, his brow knitted in this look of worry he has sometimes that looks so boyish somehow it’s kind of painful to see.

“What happened?” he asks as she passes him, limping her way toward the bar.

“Nothing, I cut my foot.” Absurdly, she finds it takes more of an effort than she expected to go pick up the glass and carefully step back over to him, the room reeling a little around her.

“Pepper’s pregnant,” she says before she makes it all the way, so that he’ll stop watching her so attentively.

At once his eyes go unfocused in a very distant look. “Oh.”

“They’ve known for quite a while.”

She sees the full range of bittersweet reactions she expected settling on him little by little as she returns to her seat next to him. She knows he must be very happy for them, but also how painful it must be to unceremoniously find out this way through someone else. It’s hard to think of anything that could more brutally drive home the fact that things aren’t going to go back to the way they were between those of the Avengers who are still left.

Natasha can see that the mistake he made with Tony—though she can’t say she would have chosen differently in his place—weighs on him more heavily than ever these days. She doesn’t fully understand it, but despite all the tension there’s often been between them she knows Steve truly loves Tony, knows this with a clarity that somehow probably wouldn’t be possible in any less hellish a time than the one they’re living in now. She knows what might kill him the most is that Tony, being Tony, probably has none of that clarity, may never know now just how sorry he is. She can only imagine what it must be like to have lost one friend trying to protect another and now not have either of them.

“That’s good,” he finally says. “It means he’s…moving forward. As much as anybody can.” He looks up at her. “Are you okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be? I’m not exactly the type to feel left out because I didn’t get sent a link to the baby registry.”

“Nat.” He says it faintly.

Her gaze wanders back up to the same spot on the wall. “I never saw myself having that kind of life, but it was okay, you know,” she says after a long hesitation. “It was okay because I had…”

“I know,” he says, his voice very gentle.

She gives a vague, circular gesture toward the living space around them. “All this…gave me an identity I could fall back on if everything else failed. But I fooled myself that it wasn’t fragile somehow, not like other things are. I didn’t realize even this was just…my stupid, frail little house plant I was desperate to keep alive, that it was that important and that small.”

He looks at her with some confusion at what she’s saying as she raises her glass to take a long drink.

“Aren’t you going to tell me to slow down?”

“Do you want me to?” he says a little dryly. “It always makes me feel kind of hypocritical, given…”

“You don’t even have the option of overdoing it.” She starts pouring a drink in the other glass for him. “Have one with me anyway.”

He looks reluctant for a second but takes the glass when she passes it to him, then knocks it all right back, the only way he can feel it for just a brief moment.

“I just keep wondering exactly where it was that I fucked up,” Natasha goes on. “Getting attached, or just…believing all my life that having my secrets and covers could actually protect me from a damn thing in the end.”

“You didn’t fuck up,” Steve says firmly. “None of us could have been prepared for this. Nobody. Nothing could have made it easier. Some people got a lot less lucky than others, but it was only luck. This thing hit everyone, indiscriminately. At the end of the day you’re the same as anybody else, Natasha.”

“‘Indiscriminately’ means fairly,” she says bitterly. “It sure as hell wasn’t fair, or I wouldn’t still be here, while other people who—”

“If you’re going to start talking like that I will make you stop drinking,” he says uneasily.

She rubs at both her eyes for a moment, sighing softly. “I really haven’t had that much today,” she says, which is true—the bottles she went through earlier she’d found nearly finished off.

Steve raises a doubtful eyebrow at her.

“Don’t tell anyone, but my tolerance really isn’t very high.”

It gets the lightest huff of laughter from him. “That’s actually not very surprising,” he says, perhaps realizing he hasn’t seen her drink very often. “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that even at parties you just pretend to nurse a drink.”

She feels a genuine smile tugging just slightly at her mouth. “What, like how you go to parties and pretend you can’t lift ancient enchanted weapons because you don’t want to embarrass anyone?”

Both his eyebrows have slowly raised by the time she gets to the end of that sentence, his whole face dramatically changing with the realization that truly nothing escapes her notice.

Though honestly, she hadn’t been entirely sure about what she saw before causing his reaction just now. “I thought so, you asshole,” she says, now smiling more broadly at his surprised face.

Impossibly, they’re laughing now, just for an instant. Steve looks momentarily so much better just for seeing her show a real smile.

After a moment she lies her head back against the couch, suddenly aware of the heaviness of her whole body.

She can feel Steve looking closely at her. “When did you last get any sleep?”

“Last night,” she says with a hint of affectionate irritation at his predictable mothering.

“When did you last sleep well?”

She scoffs softly. “I’ll let you know when it happens.”

She sits up and slowly gets to her feet, as dizzy as ever. This time when she starts to struggle to limp away on her loose limbs, he decisively gets to his feet and smoothly and effortlessly picks her up into his arms without a word.

Naturally he carries her with an almost inhuman steadiness; it barely even feels like she's moving as she resigns herself to letting her head tiredly fall against his shoulder. It’s like being held by a stone statue, his strong hold under her knees and her back not slipping or shifting the least bit the whole way as he makes it up the stairs and into the bedroom she uses.

Her eyes are already closed when he very carefully lowers her to the bed. There’s a shifting of blankets over her, and she’s already too close to drowsing off to be aware of the moment that he’s no longer there.

 

 

She wakes up the next day to hear a vacuum running downstairs, music playing, and nods off again. Some time later Steve is still busying himself; the next thing she’s aware of is him passing by the half-open door to her room, dragging what looks like the mats from the training room one by one toward the terrace, and the sounds of him spraying them down with a hose outside.

When she pulls herself out of bed it’s well into the afternoon, making a shower much overdue. After taking one she heads downstairs with wet hair and a fresh change of clothes, a little confused to feel some damp spots on the floor on the way.

The music he has playing, seemingly a randomized selection of songs in the computer’s library just to have something on, isn’t very loud but still covers up the sound of her approaching when she finds him in a hallway putting the vacuum cleaner away in a closet. He then stops a moment when he sees his reflection in a mirror close by and she sees him lean in a little closer, running a hand back through his hair, which is close to getting overgrown enough to get a bit floppy.

“You want some help with that?” she asks.

He looks up and gives her a small smile. “Hey.”

“I could trim your hair for you,” she clarifies as she starts toward the kitchen.

Steve follows and falls in next to her, rubbing some fingers along his jaw. “I really need a shave to start with. I’m sorry the hallway’s wet.”

“Yeah, what the hell?” She gives him a mildly amused look that makes him smile a bit sheepishly. “Did you take the mats outside on the second floor just to wash them?”

“I thought they’d dry faster in case we need them today,” he explains, throwing his hands up a little to demonstrate the futility. “You know, sitting out in the sun high up. But now it looks like it’s going to rain so I had to take them back down while they were still wet.”

She smirks as they make it to the kitchen, thinking how only someone with Steve’s ridiculous strength would ever think to haul the rolled-up mats so far for that reason. Heading over to the coffee machine, she sees Steve left out some cooked food, some potatoes and a few steaks crowded together in a big pan.

“I made some dinner,” he says. “Figured you might not have eaten much lately.”

“Dinner,” she says, just repeating the word with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, it is just about closer to dinner time now. There’s a lot of meat in that deep freezer I figure won’t be good for much longer, so…”

“Don’t like wasting food even now, huh?” she says, realizing grimly that Steve has lived to see bread lines in the 1930s and now a shortage of people to consume what stocks of food there are.

“I’m pretty sure you’ll find me cooking anything is a lot like wasting it,” he says, getting a couple mugs out of a cupboard as she scoops some coffee out into the machine. “Will you make enough for me, too? By the way, there was a transmission from Danvers.”

She looks up with some surprise. “It should have come through to my room, too.”

“Yeah, I told FRIDAY to let you sleep if anything came in.”

Usually she might complain that he didn’t have to do that, but she finds she just feels grateful. Steve always seems to have a strong sense of her boundaries, able to guess when doing the smallest things he can to take care of her will be welcome and when it won’t be. Probably no one else would ever try to carry her drunk to her bed without worrying she’d want to deck them.

“What did she need?” she asks.

“She just wants us to look out for a group of outlaws that may be hiding out on Earth. In the chaos six months ago a lot of people escaped from prisons out there, just like here. She says they stole this weapon that’s really dangerous, it’s like a…Well, she didn’t have much time to explain and I didn’t really understand what she said about it. I don’t understand what she’s talking about a lot of the time. But it’ll attract some attention if they use it, I got that much. I said I’d ask you to see if their profiles yield anything.”

“Okay, I’ll replay what she said and figure it out. She can be hard to get a hold of but I’m sure the raccoon can translate if I have any questions about it.”

He shows a faint smile at her words, at the absurdity of their lives now. As he leans back against the island counter and crosses his arms, his tone gets a little softer, him trying to still sound a bit light. “How you doing? Hung over?”

“No.” She turns slightly to look directly at him. “I’m…better. Thanks, Steve.”

He looks at her a little strangely. “I didn’t do anything.”

Natasha just smiles softly.

She ends up not touching the coffee for now, filling a plate with some of the food he made while he goes upstairs to take a shower. She finds she has more of an appetite than she’s had in days and doesn’t mind that the meat is cooked more than she’d ever order it. Food safety can’t have been what it is now back when Steve was growing up, and she supposes there are some things he just never gets used to.

Whenever he showers here Steve has started using the bathroom in her suite, the one closest to the main entrance to the living quarters. Every room here is just so huge and it’s such a big walk between them that it’s much less of a pain to keep just one bathroom up to any standard of cleanliness now that taking care of this place falls on just a few people who only use a small fraction of its space anymore. Natasha remembers after she puts away the leftovers that there may not be a fresh towel for Steve in there, and goes upstairs with one intending to knock on the door and leave it outside. But she finds him already dressed in his jeans and a beater, shaving at the sink with the door left open to let the steam out.

She comes back a minute later dragging a lightweight chair into the bathroom with her. Dabbing his face dry with a towel, he gives a light laugh when she digs some barber shears out of the drawer and slides the chair up behind him. “Now?”

She gestures for him to sit down. They stay in a relaxed silence as she carefully trims his damp hair, the music still playing on the speaker system out in the hall, going erratically from Prince to Sam & Dave to Aerosmith.

He looks thoughtfully at her reflection in the mirror as she finishes up and starts brushing off snipped-off pieces of hair from his shoulders and back. “You’re not limping on that foot like yesterday.”

“It doesn’t really hurt anymore.”

“Think you could spar with me at all?” he asks a moment later as he gets up and follows her out into the bedroom.

“Hm.” She sits down on the end of the bed. “Maybe later. I should go listen to that thing.”

“I’m sure it’s not really that urgent.” He sits next to her on the bed and takes his phone out to check it briefly. “We already have our contacts around the globe who would notify us of anything really unusual. And the info she had really wasn’t much to go on.”

She lies back on the bed, just relaxing and breathing out for a second. “Still, I should find out what I can and forward it to everyone.”

In the next moment of silence the current song fades out and finishes. When the very familiar opening of “White Lines” starts playing, she tosses restlessly to one side, drawing her feet up onto the bed until she is curled up that way, and says a little bit sharply, “Turn this off.”

She was speaking to Steve, somehow forgetting in the moment how easily done it could be, but FRIDAY follows it as a command and the music immediately shuts off.

She doesn’t meet Steve’s eyes but can see him looking down at her out of the corner of her eye for a still moment, everything now quiet. He backs himself up all the way onto the bed to reach the nightstand and set his phone down there.

“I can’t take it,” she spills out, in a tone that draws him closer with that look of concern that makes him look so young, the one she doesn’t know how to meet, until they’re both lying on their sides facing each other. “I can’t take listening to music sometimes. And I can’t take the silence either. It’s so quiet everywhere you go, almost like there’s nobody left at all. It’s a world full of people who didn’t get the chance to say the things they needed to. So now there’s not much left to say.” She gives him a tiny, dry smirk. “Guess now everyone can relate to your experience a lot more.”

Looking at her with his head propped up on his hand, he swallows and seems to find his voice from some deep, locked-up part of him. “I didn’t think I had much left to lose. But I did, and…”

He can’t seem to finish what he started saying, and she just smirks darkly again. “Truth is…if I didn’t even have you left, if I…”

Steve automatically reaches to take her hand when her voice ever so slightly breaks, and she steadies herself with an intake of breath.

“I don’t know what I’d do then,” she finishes, barely managing. “I don’t know.”

“Hey.” It’s the softest mutter, an unthinking breath. He raises her hand and kisses the back side of it.

His lips feel so warm they should burn her. For just an instant his breath is on her skin.

And for perhaps an instant too long, like he’s caught inside a terrible thought, he doesn’t let go of her hand.

The proximity of him is too much now and all at once she betrays what she didn’t even know she was uneasy about, blurting out softly, numbly, “What are you doing?”

She doesn’t realize until she sees Steve’s reaction how cold it sounded. Not quite an accusation, but something. He doesn’t draw back at all, pinned in place with alarm, but he lets her hand slide away. He looks scared in a strange way that she doesn’t think she’s ever seen before, his mouth opening to say something a few seconds before he’s actually able to. “I…didn’t mean…You know I…”

But he looks like he isn’t quite sure what he meant, like she’s suddenly thrown something out of balance inside him. Seeing the guilt on his face makes Natasha feel kind of terrible now and she reaches for him, putting her hand on his arm and sighing at herself.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and something seems to uncoil in him at once. “Obviously I’m the one with things on my mind and it’s making me scared of shadows.”

His mouth twitches in the smallest smirk and then his tone is very familiar, almost teasing. “Okay?”

He waits a while for her to explain as the first sounds of sprinkling rain come from outside, a welcome relief from the total and unforgiving silence.

“I’ve gone through a lot of life holding people at arm’s length,” she starts a little slowly, hearing how weak and sort of scratchy her voice is coming out now. “I thought I was used to what it’s like to have nobody. But now it’s so…I hadn’t been with anyone for a while even before all this, and now I feel like if someone actually touched me I might just break apart into pieces.”

Steve’s eyes hold something very haunted, and he points his gaze down a second. “Yeah,” he says softly, like he knows too well. “Well. Maybe you should try to find out. It’s not like it’ll get easier with time.”

She lets out a light huff of breath like bitter laughter, because it’s not like he needs to tell her that. “You first.”

His mouth twitches into a smile again, and he hesitates a moment. “I’ve still never…”

“Gone on any of those dates I was always trying to push on you? I know.”

He doesn’t smile at her tone this time, just meets her eyes steadily. “I’ve never slept with anyone, you know,” he says, and she can’t smile anymore. “After all this time.”

“Yeah, I kinda thought so.” She pauses, hearing the rain starting to come down harder. It’s getting to be loud with the doors to the terrace nearby still left open from earlier, the sound filling the whole floor, and neither one of them moves to go shut them and stop any of the rain from coming in. “Guess you were waiting for the chance to make it kind of special.”

Steve’s shoulders just barely lift in a shrug. “I wouldn’t put it that way. I mean sure, for a while I was. But it would have been enough for it to just be someone I like enough I plan to see them again. But being constantly on the move these past years and all, there just wasn’t...”

“Yeah.” She picks at a loose thread on the comforter under her. “I don’t blame you, I guess. My first time was part of my training.”

His eyes widen just fractionally before his expression settles back into the same old worn-down one. He stays silent a moment before asking, “How old were you?”

“Seventeen.”

Another drawn out silence, matter-of-fact. “I’m sorry,” he says, his eyes now soft. “I…didn’t know that.”

“You can’t be that shocked.”

“It’s just…You never really talk about your past. Not in any detail.”

She shrugs. “You’ve never asked me about it.”

That seems to take a little mulling over before he continues. “I guess I just didn’t want you to think that I care about it. About what you were before.”

“I know,” she says softly, thinking fondly of another conversation they had on a bed long ago at Sam’s place. “But you never had to prove more than once that it doesn’t matter to you.”

He looks at her carefully. “Has there never been anyone special for you?”

“Oh, sure.” She smiles sardonically. “A few real assholes here and there. I don’t know, I guess I’ve always had a way of never sleeping with the ones I can actually trust, since it’s usually been a short list. Not wanting to shit where I eat and all that. And I got sick of the other kind a long time ago, so like I said…It’s been a while.” She smiles at him a little more warmly. “You’d be the closest thing to it for me, it turns out.”

He mirrors her smile as if it’s just automatic, even as he looks a little confused. “The closest thing to…?”

“Anything special. If we were to…”

Steve goes silent, his lips again parting slightly without any words to say.

As long as they’ve known each other the two of them have danced around the possibility now and then, when it felt like there were so many reasons not to, before there came so many urgent distractions from the very idea in the past few years. Now she watches his expression slowly shift to something more serious as he realizes they’ve just gone from pretending it wasn’t what they were talking about to actually talking about it.

His brow furrows slightly for a moment like he’s thinking a little too hard. Then he slowly and very lightly places his hand on her side, his eyes fixed carefully on her face as if he’s waiting for something to stop him.

Natasha raises herself to sit up, leaning on one hand and keeping eye contact with him. She’s leaning slightly over him, near enough that when he also sits up it brings their faces very close together. She raises her hand to his chest and smooths it upward until she reaches his neck. His hand on her waist pulls just slightly to draw her forward.

The first kiss, light and chaste, lasts only a couple seconds and is like some needed confirmation before they barely pull apart at all in the rest between. Then she brings her hand around to the back of his neck, her fingertips grazing his hair, and their eyes fall shut naturally. His lips against hers part without coaxing at the same moment that hers do, but still slowly. They turn their heads to fit together, the searching press of his tongue already lightening her head.

Steve circles his arm around her lower back and deepens the kiss further, with an easy comfort that tells her this might not be his first real kiss, at least. She was prepared for him to possibly be receptive to this once they started trying it, but somehow not prepared for the restrained eagerness she can already seem to feel in his hold and hear in his subtly changing breath, for how quickly it already feels like it has escalated. He starts to dip her back until he’s supporting her upper body with his arms around her, her neck arched back and her arm around his neck also holding her up. One of his hands moves to hold the back of her head and rakes gently through her hair, his fingers smoothing over her scalp, and she hums very softly through her next breath.

It takes very little shifting around from there for her to pull him down on top of her. She likes his weight pressing down over her and starts kissing him with just a little more heat. She feels his skin on his shoulders and upper arms now enclosing her, runs her hands down both his sides.

He pulls away from kissing her to look at her face. With how much more she knows she could do to turn him on he shouldn’t already be such a stirring sight with his eyes so glazed over.

“This…feels really nice,” she says.

“Yeah.” He brushes her cheek with his thumb. “It does.”

“Not too weird?”

His eyes flick around her face a little as if he’s searching for something. Finally he answers, “No.”

He lowers his face to her neck and starts kissing her there, his mouth slow and hot. He does it very well, making her draw in sort of surprised breaths as she becomes gradually unsteadied with the understanding of what this is going to be like. Even if this isn’t meant as anything but a momentary comfort for both of them, she isn’t generally used to sex being as emotionally open as she knows it’s bound to be with Steve.

Instead of letting herself dwell on it she busies her hands, sliding them up under his top to feel the muscles of his back. Steve goes back to kissing her and she makes a soft, satisfied “Mm” sound against his mouth when he cups a hand over one of her breasts. She isn’t wearing a bra under her tank top and he starts lightly teasing and circling her nipple with his thumb through the fabric. She can feel him getting more sensitive to the close contact, his hardness grinding against her whenever he shifts around a little. She doesn’t wait much longer before starting to take the undershirt off over his head.

She meets his eyes directly to check in for a second, even though he is certainly giving no signs of wanting to back out. “Alright?”

He takes a while to answer because she then lifts herself up just enough to peel her own top off. Staring, he says faintly, “Yeah…”

She pulls his head down toward her to press a firm kiss to his neck. “Um. We don’t need to use anything, unless you’d prefer we do, I mean…”

“Oh. Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I can’t actually…”

The look in his eyes sharpens somewhat when he understands. He just leans back down muttering, “Okay,” and gives her what seems an especially soft and sweet kiss.

Natasha reaches down for his fly, meeting eyes with him again briefly. She unbuttons and unzips him, pushes the waistband down a few inches, and he starts taking care of the rest himself as she also moves around to finish undressing herself.

They sit up facing each other again, eyes locked on each other, all of each other. She sees Steve swallow and finally start to look a little tense. She smooths her hand down his torso, stopping just above where his desire is now quite increasingly manifest.

“Don’t start thinking too much now,” she says, trying for a light-hearted tone. “You’re doing so well.”

His gaze catches between her legs, then climbs upwards as he reaches down to catch her hand there. “Natasha,” he just says very quietly, like a plea.

She pulls him forward to kiss him again, deeply and with fervent pressure, making him groan softly. His hands are on her shoulder and waist, touching her a little stiffly now, unsure.

Then he pulls out of the kiss and looks intensely at her, their foreheads touching and ragged breath mingling together. He lowers her onto her back again, kneeling over her, and suddenly summons some kind of determination like he knows it’s the only way past this.

“Touch yourself,” he says. “Show me.”

He probably doesn’t mean for it to sound a certain way but Steve has that naturally authoritative nature about him, and as a surprising momentary departure from his hesitancy it definitely does something to her. Her breaths picking up, she reaches down between her legs. “You too, then.”

With a somewhat overwhelmed look, his brow knitted together with tension, he also reaches down. His lips open more and his eyelids get heavy as he starts stroking himself looking down at her. She sees his eyes seize on what she’s doing to learn, watching where she touches herself and what she does while she gives herself the lightest rippling touches of her fingers and then builds to softly rubbing at it. After she lets out a first broken-off moan, he brings his face back down to kiss her as if eager to catch her little noises with his mouth.

“What do you want?” he says not long after, his voice getting a little shaky.

“This isn’t bad for a start,” she says with the slightest smile, enjoying very much the sight of how he’s still using his hand and what it’s clearly doing to him.

He breathes out heavily, as if in frustration. “I…”

“You want instruction?”

For the first time some hint of embarrassment starts to edge into his features. “Yeah, basically.”

“Get on your back.”

With just a brief moment of disorientation he listens, turning over and lying back on the bed. She kneels over him, running her hands down his sides. His eyelids flutter, those perfect eyelashes trembling, as she takes him in hand and gives him a few slow, firm strokes. Then his eyes go a little wide as she starts to bend down.

Oh,” she hears, breathless and delicate, when she gives him her mouth. She sees one of his hands grasp the sheets under him. She takes him deep without much build-up, making him shudder under her so beautifully. His breathing starts to sound almost panicked as it goes on and she relishes it all, thinking how she can’t remember the last time she truly and fully enjoyed doing this for someone.

After a while it’s too much for him and his hand on the side of her head pushes back gently, his voice tight and desperate, struggling. “Honey—”

She pulls off of him with a last firm drag of her mouth and he helplessly bucks his hips forward, just barely following the movement. She wouldn’t mind making him come that way at all but he clearly has other ideas, immediately sitting up and pulling her close. With an appreciative reverence he holds her head and kisses her cheek firmly, then her lips, then the other side of her face near her jaw.

Then he’s touching her, his thumb brushing her clit in vaguely circling motions. His mouth working at her neck again.

“Yes, ye—” she breathes when he starts pressing a little harder, her speech dissolving into a moan. When she starts to sense some uncertainty in him again about how to know how to proceed from here, she lets him know when it’s time pretty simply, crawling up onto his lap and reaching down to guide him inside her.

Steve lets out a strangled, hurt sort of noise as she sinks down and takes so much of him all at once. She puts her arms around his shoulders and he takes hold of her waist, starting to lift and lower her in a slow rhythm.

After a while she leans her weight back, giving him a cue to get on top of her. She clutches his hips and mutters some guidance through the building fog of her arousal, praising him through short breathless utterances when he quickly gets the hang of rolling his hips through each thrust just right.

Every sound from her seems to make him look more pained. “God, you’re—being so good to me—”

“Because I want to,” she assures him, touching his chest. “Fuck, Steve—”

He gasps into her neck and she throws her head back through the intensifying pleasure, biting her lip.

Soon he seems past the point of no return, desperately needing to finish though she’s not quite getting close. She runs her fingers through his hair, making him shudder all the more as his movements start to get a little tremulous and out of control. She cries out roughly when he starts thrusting with peaked urgency and then he feels so much harder inside her in the last instant that his rhythm falters weakly and he comes.

“Shit,” he breathes out as he slides out of her. “I’m sorry.”

She touches his neck, stroking her thumb across his jaw. “It’s fine.”

He stops her hand where it is, pulling it away and kissing it lightly, and then moves a little bit down the bed.

Natasha’s breath catches when he slips his fingers inside her. Then he almost immediately follows this with his head dipping down between her legs. She winces softly at his tongue flicking at her, lightly until he can tell she’s responding to it, and then more insistently. She is already so worked up that he soon gets her writhing without much intensive effort, after a while sliding his free hand up to clutch her breast.

Her hands in his hair pull a bit roughly as she tightens all over with her climax. Then he collapses between her legs, resting his head over her stomach. “Wow,” he says in a kind of distant voice of awe, as if partly just talking to himself in realization. “I really like doing that to you.”

She bends a knee up to nudge him to the side, giving her a full view of him. “It looks that way,” she says, seeing he’s already hard again. “Come here.”

This time she lies on her side as he takes her from behind. She thinks having eye contact with him would somehow make it too much this time now that she’s already so disarranged and unguarded, and she can fully lose herself in it now.

She would be lying if she said she’s never wondered about a supersoldier’s stamina. He was maybe too overwhelmingly turned on to last terribly long before, but having gotten it out of his system he now seems to last forever.

She focuses on the feeling of him moving inside her and his warm breath on the back of her neck, and wants him to never come. She knows once this distraction is over, everything else will come back. As he slowly brings her toward the edge again, she can feel something rising up in her that she has tamped down too much, that she was maybe needing to confront head-on by taking things here with Steve. The loud rainfall diminishes the sounds they make, all of it mixing together, but everything else around them is silent, this whole building so expansive and empty and too large for them.

But if she can have him this close just by asking, which she might never have expected, it is almost enough to…

It is enough. For the moment.

Steve seems to sense something in her silence. He props himself up on his arm so he can look down at her and gently turns her face up with his hand under her jaw.

“You okay?” The words are barely audible.

She covers her own hand over his splayed over her throat. “Just don’t stop,” she says in a low moan, and lets him kiss her hard.

When she comes again it’s with tears brimming in her eyes, Steve holding her through it and breathing very roughly as if the feeling of her tightening around him is finally too much. His head falls weakly into the bend between her neck and shoulder as he feverishly drives it in her. His body convulses wildly around her, his breath hitching just before the end. The sound he makes is soft but harsh and shocked, as of someone being stabbed, like his orgasm feels almost unbearably explosive this time.

He pulls out of her and onto his back, panting for breath. She follows, also looking up at the ceiling, close enough to him her arm lies tossed loosely over his. She is still breathing a little shakily as she wipes what is left of the warm tears away from her face.

Then she turns her head to the side to look at him, raises her arm to rest the back of her hand over his chest.

He swallows and his voice comes out a little hoarse. “Was this…?” His eyes snap away from her briefly and then he seems to gather himself. “Thank you for this.”

“I needed it,” she says. “Believe me.”

There is a shyness about him now that is not quite like the uncertainty he demonstrated during the act, something almost totally unfamiliar to see in him. Naturally, not knowing exactly how to proceed afterwards is a whole different thing.

She turns onto her side and absently brushes the backs of her fingers over his upper arm. A slight smile tugs at his lips as he seems to catch something like amusement in her face. “What?”

She shakes her head. “You are such a fucking sweetheart,” she says, sounding almost annoyed.

He lets out a short laugh, grinning. But the smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. Maybe he didn’t notice her tears, but everything feels a little wrong like it always does now, even when the feeling is just looming darkly around the edges of everything they say and any rare moments of levity.

Natasha gathers up her top and pants and steals away to the bathroom for a minute, feeling the need to give him and herself some space while she cleans herself and gets dressed again. She comes back out to find him having pulled his pants back on and sitting up on more or less the same place on the bed as before, stirred from complete stillness when he looks up at her like he’d been frozen in thought.

She sits down in the middle of one side of the bed to put a pair of shoes on, and all the while he doesn’t move.

“Natasha,” she hears him say softly, and after some hesitation she twists around to look at him.

He just looks back at her for a moment, his eyes showing some kind of struggle. He slides his hand across the bed, stretching it out toward her, and she slowly reaches over to take it.

“You were wrong,” he says, looking down at their lightly clasped hands. “About there being nothing left to say.”

“Steve,” she says, already feeling the instinct to recoil a bit.

He tightens his grip just a little. “I thought I didn’t have much left to lose. I don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that again. I don’t want to…I’m sorry if this is too intense, what I’m gonna say. I know when things were different and we’d only been friends for a short time, we kind of had an unspoken understanding that this wouldn’t be the best idea. But I have to admit that in these past months the thought has crossed my mind that if I’d also lost you, I probably would have always wondered if we ever actually could have been…”

“Oh Steve,” she says, pulling her legs up on the bed to move a little closer to him. “I have to tell you I don’t really know what this is.”

He gives a quick, jerking shaking his head. “No, I understand, I don’t…”

“I mean all the typical terms don’t feel quite right.”

His face shows a brief flicker of a smile. “Uh. Fuck buddies?” he says, his tone echoing the same sentiment.

She shakes with a silent laugh. “That’s not the one I would expect you to think of.” She looks away from him for a long moment, having to innerly compose herself before she says what she needs to. “All of my old friends are gone.” She looks back over at him to find a deep well of sadness in his eyes, feels herself close to tears again. “The first person I ever allowed to really know me is in more pain than I can ever understand and he won’t come to me, and I know he’s got no reason left to...And Nick. Maria. They were all really the place I first got to start over from. It’s like most of me has been erased. That’s another thing I would think I’d be used to. I don’t know how the hell you survived this when you came out of the ice and it was like this for you.”

Steve’s voice sounds a little strained now. “I found support. After enough time. Even though Sam was always telling me I’m crap at asking for it...I had you.”

She gives the smallest nod. “You’re the only…the only constant that I have left. And I think you’re just going to have to let me feel kind of scared shitless by that for a while. But it felt good not to let that stop me today.”

“I get it,” he says with a weak smile that then slowly fades. “…It’s the same for me, you know. I don’t have anything without you.”

Natasha comes close to him to take his head in her hands and bows it toward her, closes her eyes as she kisses his forehead. Then she lightly kisses his lips, which seems to have some barely perceptible effect of relaxing his whole body again, before pulling back. “Still feel like sparring for a little while?”

He has to process that for a few seconds and then smirks a little. “Sure. I really need to not start losing my edge if we still might get alien threats showing up here.”

“Let me go see what kind of search I can get started for those guys and I’ll meet you down there later.”

“She said they’re all women, actually,” he says, starting to put on his shirt. “Five of them.”

“Huh.”

“And they all just look human somehow? Which I guess is why this is one of the planets she suspects they’d go to? I don’t know.”

She rises from the bed and starts brushing her fingers back through her hair just to tidy it a little. “It must really be something.”

“What?”

“The galaxy. You know, beyond that one little farm we saw.”

“Jeez,” Steve says through a scoff, looking overwhelmed just to be reminded. “Yeah. One new thing at a time for me.”

 

 

As broken as the world is, as obvious as it is that everyone she knows must feel as hollowed out and beaten down as she does, it is always somehow different to hear it said out loud. As well as she knows Steve, it has somehow made the world a bit different again and eased something deep in her chest to now know from his own words that she isn’t alone in the particular way this disaster has hurt her and that they are on the same page with each other. That they both aren’t entirely sure what page that is and what it means in their present lives but he does absolutely need her, too.

So that night when she has trouble falling asleep again, she doesn’t feel like being alone in that either. She goes to see if there are still any lights on in Steve’s suite and finds him sitting up in bed sketching in a notebook. When she mutters that she can’t get to sleep, he automatically lifts up the covers to invite her to get in bed next to him and talks quietly with her for a while. Then she lies close to him turned away with her eyes closed, relaxed by the sound of pencil lead scratching on paper, until she starts drifting off to sleep.