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Talk Some Sense to Me (You’re My Warning Sign)

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The day started off bad when Natasha noticed the date while swiping away her alarm, and remembered something she’d avoided thinking about for the last 365 days.

August 14.

“You idiot,” she whispered, rubbing her already aching forehead with the knuckles of one hand.

And then she threw back the covers and got ready for work, because life doesn’t wait for you to be ready.

First on the itinerary was a breakfast meeting with her agents. Maria and Sam were cordial to each other as always, full of frank yet polite disagreement about the proper division of Natasha’s time over the next twelve months. Sam argued that Natasha’s attention and presence were required for the next stage of It Takes A Village, and to support the latest fundraising effort by Tony Stark’s foundation. Maria argued just as strongly, but with a little more of her natural edge, that the new charity wouldn’t get off the ground if Natasha neglected the three screenplays she’d signed on for in the next year.

“We won’t be able to grow anything without widely-sourced capital and publicity,” Maria reasoned. “And if I remember correctly, one of the draws for the Village this year was that we’d match any contributions made up to five hundred thousand dollars. If at least two of these projects don’t have big returns and positive reviews, you won’t pull half that.”

“On the other hand, if we don’t make an effort to fundraise and get the word out at all, a big segment of potential new donors will be lost in the shuffle,” Sam replied, half-shrugging. “I know the schedule doesn’t leave much time for it, particularly Avengers 3, but it’s crunch time over here. We’ll have to fit it in somehow.”

Having heard the same calmly-delivered arguments at least four times in the past two weeks, Natasha was zoning out over her Rooibos. She could feel herself slowly going insane from all of Sam and Maria’s logical argument. It was only when the pair turned to her for a reply that Natasha realized that last thought hadn’t been hers.

“Uh- I…”

Sam peered at her with concern, while Maria merely frowned with just the tips of her mouth. Natasha’s mind was whirling.

“One day, I’m gonna fly a fighter jet,” Clint announced.

His voice sagged with exhaustion, and Natasha had to force her head to loll to the side to squint at him. They were both covered in sand from their long swim and subsequent beach wrestling, but Clint’s eyes were sharp and serious.

“I’m gonna be one of the top shooters in the world. A master gun guy.”

“The word you’re looking for is marksman,” Natasha pointed out, smirking.

“Whatever.” Clint waved her away. “I’ll be so famous, within the circles of secrecy outside of which no one will know my name.”

“And where will I be?” Natasha propped her head on her wrists, humoring him.

“My partner, of course,” Clint scoffed. “Like I’d survive a day in the world of top assassins without you.” He rolled over, grunting with effort, and wrapped his arm around Natasha’s midsection, nuzzling into her hair.

The smile faded from Natasha’s face, slowly. She would have gone on with the joke, if she hadn’t seen the pamphlets for the CIA and the NYPD and the Air Force that Clint had stuffed half under his mattress, half on the floor under it. If she didn’t know better.

“I don’t know if they’d let you fly a fighter plane,” she said quietly.

“What?” He leaned back so he could stare at her lips. His hearing aids weren’t waterproof; they were back with their clothes and the cooler.

Natasha hesitated. “Have you… do you have any ideas for after high school?”

Clint blinked. “Yeah, I just told you,” he sassed.

“I mean real ones,” Natasha said bluntly. “Things you have a chance at doing.”

Clint flinched. Natasha felt bad, but- it was a real concern. He didn’t see it that way, though.

“Because being an actress is such a good bet,” he said sharply.

Clint’s hand wrapped around her started to brush sand off her back and side. “You’d be lucky to get my paycheck while you’re waiting in lines in Hollywood.”

Turnabout is fair play, but he’d hit on her fears a little too well. “Whatever. Just start looking for jobs you’re actually qualified for. Be rational.”

Movements jerky, Clint rolled away and got up. “I’d rather be take a chance on being happy and fail than go quietly crazy from all your ‘rational’.”

Sam’s hand on her shoulder woke Natasha up. “Nat, is everything okay?”

“Yeah- yes. It’s just the heat,” she blustered, waving her hand around her face. “Shouldn’t have got an outdoor table.”

Sam didn’t look convinced, but he sat back down. Natasha made an effort to present the cool, collected face she normally showed the world.

“I think I’ll manage both. It’ll be tight, time-wise, and maybe I’ll have to do a lot of travelling, but it’s worth it.”

Sam looked proud of her, but Maria was eyeing her with suspicion; Natasha was not known for allowing herself to become flustered.

For her own part, Natasha just felt unsettled. Suddenly, she wasn't sure if those were her words either. She gave her agents their running orders and paid for brunch, kissing them both on the cheeks before heading out. She popped a few Tylenol once she was safely on the road, away from any paparazzi and accusations of drug addiction.

From the bistro she headed to the burbs. Bucky’s condo was just over the city line, which meant the taxes were way lower, and it had less traffic nearby. However, no pool. Natasha liked to tease him about that.

To be fair, the lack of a pool in the building wasn’t that important when he answered the door dripping wet from the shower, his hair fetchingly framing his yet-to-be-shaved face and his privacy barely protected by a low-riding towel.

“You’re early,” he drawled, elevator eyes taking in her new Nick Fury ensemble, the one that cut just low enough to show off without being objectionable- for Hollywood, anyway.

“I’m right on time,” she corrected. She settled her weight on her three-inch heels so as to better display her assets.

“Maybe you are,” Bucky rumbled, and stepped backwards into the apartment.

An hour or so later, Natasha was pulling her designer skirt back on while Bucky reclined on his white sheets. “Going so soon?”

“Tony’s throwing a party this afternoon. It’s all the way in Malibu-”

“His cliffside mansion, I remember. I don’t even get you for lunch?”

Natasha smirked. “You just had me for lunch.”

Bucky blew a raspberry. Natasha flipped him off.

“I want to talk to you,” he said, sitting up. The sheet dropped down to his waist, but Natasha was strong, and did not look.

“What’s up?”

“I feel like I never see you lately,” Bucky told her. He was looking at her through his hair, which always melted her heart and annoyed her in equal measures, because she didn’t appreciate obvious manipulation, however adorable. “We live so far apart…”

“It’s less than an hour.”

“With good traffic, and that’s only if we’re both in town and our schedules match. I’m just testing the waters here, but would you consider it if I wanted us to look for an apartment together?”

Natasha felt her mouth drop open. “Bucky, we’ve only been dating for a few months.”

“I know, but I feel like we could have something solid here. And we knew each other before,” Bucky countered.

“Years ago. I… I don’t know.”

Natasha headed out to the balcony, whispering all the swears she didn’t want to say to Bucky’s face.

Yes, what they had was more stable than any of her past relationships had been, and from Natasha’s understanding, less homicidal than any of Bucky’s. They were a good match intellectually and in temperament; they had similar jobs, so that wasn’t a barrier, and they even supported the same political candidates. But there was still a huge alarm going off in Natasha’s head at the thought of moving in with him, and she could see that crash and burn coming from a mile off.

It looked like tail lights swerving around a corner in the dusk, sounded like the crackling wail of an old car accelerating too fast on a road made of pebbles. It felt like a cheap ring cutting into her shaking fist, because he wouldn’t take it back when she said no.

Bucky’s hands, one warm and one cool, came down on Natasha’s bare shoulders, jolting her out of unwelcome memories. “You’d be giving the neighbors a show, if I had neighbors,” he murmured in her ear.

Natasha rolled her eyes. “It is a great view,” she admitted.

“You want to see more of it?”

She sighed, let her head fall back until it was cushioned on Bucky’s shoulder. His warm, hard muscles pressed up against her back; of course the asshole hadn’t bothered to get dressed. “I think it’s too soon to move in.”

Bucky hummed behind her, waiting.

“But I do want to see more of the view.” Natasha turned around in his arms and gave his chest a covetous glance.

Bucky laughed. “Me too. I just figured, it’s about time.”

“About time?”

“You know. We get along. We should get along more.”

Natasha nodded thoughtfully, though she didn’t meet his eyes. “Maybe we can trade apartments. Mine for a week, yours for a week. See how it goes.”

Bucky didn’t look satisfied, but he agreed. And then he surprised her by pulling her favorite veal lasagna out of the oven.

Natasha held him by the hair for a long, deep kiss, counting up in her head lunchtime plus sort-of-cohabitating sex.

Tony could wait.

 

~ ~ * ~ ~

 

Tony gave Natasha a deep, probing look when she finally caught up to him on the humongous pavilion that served as his back porch and broke out into a wide grin. “Someone’s been a naughty girl,” he quipped.

He reached out his arm and Pepper Potts, his manager and fiancee, appeared from the crowd of party-goers like a teleporting magician. Natasha wouldn’t doubt that the woman was actual magic; it must take a good amount to keep Stark in line.

“What’s the punishment for lateness, my dear?” Tony asked extravagantly.

Pepper tapped a long, manicured nail against her chin. “I’m not sure. How late was she?”

“Two full hours, for my Very Important Party!” replied Tony, scandalized.

“Isn’t this a birthday party for your niece or cousin or something?” Natasha crossed her arms.

“You’re late, you don’t get to talk. Her Majesty speaks!”

Pepper grinned. “I think she gets thrown in the pool.”

Natasha tried to run, but she didn’t get very far.

A half hour later, sipping a martini in one of Pepper’s soft silk robes on a recliner by the poolside, Natasha glared at an approaching Tony.

“In my defense, I didn’t name your punishment, and I didn’t realize Odinson was in the vicinity. Or that he took hosting duties so seriously. Like, this isn’t even his party.”

Natasha continued to glare.

“At least it didn’t go down at one of my winter bashes. You’d be a Russian ice princess, in that case.”

Natasha sighed. “For the last time, I’m not related to the last Tsar.”

Tony winked. “I haven’t seen a birth certificate yet.” He sat down in the chair beside her and stole one of the three martinis she’d stockpiled on the side table.

“And you never will.”

“Alright then, my pureblood American friend. Why the long face?”

Natasha directed her questioning look at Tony’s drink. “What do you mean?”

“Come on, Nat, it takes one to know one, and there’s no way you can act relaxed enough to get by my radar. Something’s wrong.” He reached over and flicked the bottom of her glass. “Not to mention you don’t usually drink alone.”

Natasha took a long sip.

Sooooooooooooooooooo-”

“It’s nothing serious,” Natasha interrupted, caving, because she knew exactly how annoying Tony could be if he didn’t get his way. “I’ve just… been thinking a lot about the past lately. I’m not where I thought I would be.”

Tony laughed. “Is second highest-paid actress in the world not enough for you?”

Natasha stuck her tongue out at him. “I wouldn’t talk, Mr. Number One. And that’s not it. I pictured my life as a series of struggles and now…”

“And now you’re nearly thirty, with enough money you could literally build a villa out of it, international fame, boatloads of screaming fans, and not much in the way of upward mobility.” Tony stirred his drink with the little stick that came with the olive.

Natasha stared at him. “Yes. That.”

“What, you think I wasn’t exactly where you are now? I just didn’t realize it at the time. Thought what I needed was the next big role, more women, more booze, more cars. You’ve got a leg up on me, mid-life crisis-wise.”

“Mid-life-!”

“Okay, existential crisis, whatever,” Tony corrected. “Point is, you can see a therapist, or get married and have kids, or pick up an addiction, you know, the usual options.”

Natasha let her head fall back to the chair.

“Hey, I didn’t say I had a solution. But yeah, figuring out the problem is the first step, as they say.”

Natasha stared at the cloudless sky. She imagined she could feel sand in her hair.

“What would you say if I told you I wanted to be a fighter pilot?”

No response.

“Or a super spy? A sharpshooter?”

“I, would, say that you may have an adrenaline issue?”

“Seriously.”

“Okay, seriously.” Tony drummed his fingers on his armrest. “You can take pilot lessons. I know people in the military, and no offense, but I don’t think they’re looking for your body type, so that’s unlikely.”

Natasha turned her head to glare. Tony held up his hands.

“Being honest here! The Black Widow might be a hand-to-hand expert in a size four catsuit, but that’s not the usual combination, gotta admit.”

Size four?

“And as for sharpshooter,” Tony said quickly, “practice makes perfect. You know, practice at a target. Not at people. Again, I know a few people if you want a referral. They live very far away from me and my bodily integrity.”

Natasha sighed and looked back up the sky. “Thanks for the advice.”

“Why do I feel like you’re not very grateful?”

She didn’t answer. Tony shifted in the seat, finished the martini, picked up the next one. She closed her eyes, waiting for Tony’s inability to let silence stand to overpower him.

“So, convince me to donate to your thing.”

Natasha cracked an eyelid to deliver a half-hearted glare.

“Come on. You’re helping me on the Foundation stuff and I don’t know anything about your thing. Let’s see the magic.”

She forced herself to sit all the way up and dragged on her sales face. “It Takes A Village is a community of former foster children and allies dedicated to supporting kids in foster homes and group homes. Our neighborhood focus offices work semi-independently to help the kids in their area, from food banking, supplemental education, and after-school tutoring or daycare, to job skills training, medical referrals, anything we see a need for. We’re a privately-funded non-profit based in New York City, currently serving around five hundred foster homes in all five boroughs, with plans for expansion.”

“Yawn,” Tony complained, and she nearly threw her drink at him. “No wait, seriously. Let your program director give the mission statement, that’s what you hired them for. I know this thing is your baby, but Nat, you’re the celebrity draw. It’s your job to make people care.”

“They should care,” Natasha insisted harshly, “and not just because my face is on the front of the website.”

“The tell me why I should care,” Tony coaxed.

Natasha’s cheeks were red, but Tony was waiting attentively, and she knew he was actually helping.

“I was six months old when my mother died. I don’t know what happened to my father. For four years, I was raised by a distant cousin, but when she contracted cancer, I was put into foster care. I had a series of shitty homes, and then one really shitty home. I reported everything to anyone who would listen, but I was a kid. No one believed me, or if they did, they didn’t do anything. I managed to graduate high school, because I skipped a year and moved out as soon as I had the paper in my hand. If I hadn’t been allowed to skip, I doubt I would have lived to see eighteen.”

Natasha’s chest heaved, but Tony just watched her.

“I came straight to Hollywood, which is the start of every terrible story. I am so incredibly lucky that I didn’t end up homeless, or a drug addict, or a prostitute, I know that. Because a lot of kids like me come here, or to New York, and they don’t survive. Or if they do, it’s not a good life. Particularly if they’re LGBT.

“It Takes A Village does a lot of advocacy. Many of our employees are also CASAs, advocating for abused kids. A lot of them volunteer as mentors, or run groups where they take the kids on camping trips so they can get out of the city, or they go rollerblading or to amusement parks- they get to be kids, when a lot of them don’t. And they serve as references or witnesses for kids to get jobs, or medical referrals. One of my- my best friend, growing up, he was in the system, too. He was deaf, and dyslexic, and the only reason he graduated high school was that no one cared enough to fail him. We didn’t even hear about sign language until we were seventeen. The Village is meant to make sure no one falls through the cracks like him.

“There are a lot of charities for kids who are sick, or hungry, and those are worthy causes. But it is so, so much harder to be sick or hungry when you don’t have parents, or when you can’t trust the people who are supposed to care for you, or when you don’t have any friends because you get moved every few months, or your friends are just as hopeless as you are-”

“Natasha.” Tony was sitting on her recliner and tugging her into his chest, because apparently she was crying. Big ugly tears, blotchy face, heaving sobs type of crying. She took an enormous, honking sniff.

“I’m sorry, I don’t-” another big snort, “I don’t usually, get like this, when I give the spiel.”

Tony laughed breathlessly. “Yeah, I’d hope not.”

“Today- is- August 14,” Natasha forced out. “It’s…”

“Important?”

She nodded against Tony’s chest, then just sat there for a little while, calming down.

“He told me this was his birthday. Then a few years later he told me that nobody knew when he was born, and he chose today because it was the day we met.”

“Oh, Nat,” Tony murmured, squeezing her.

His embrace brought on another wave of small sobs.

Eventually, the tight misery inside eased off a little. “Sorry,” she repeated. “I don’t know why I’m like this. Maybe it’s my period coming early.”

“Okay, I didn’t need to know that,” Tony said dryly. Natasha giggled wetly. “And it’s cool. I get it. Blasts from the past can hit you hard. Anniversaries. Yeah.”

Natasha shook her head, but said nothing.

“Let’s get you inside, huh? A cool drink, something to eat, some weed-” Natasha laughed, then choked on her own air, “make that a lot of weed, you are a mess-”

 

~ ~ * ~ ~

 

After a few hits off a joint, a hoagie, a Mexican Coke, and a short nap in one of Tony’s many guest rooms, Natasha felt a thousand times better. Even so, Tony wouldn’t let her leave before she’d assured him she wasn’t about to have a breakdown and drive off a cliff. He was as crass as ever, but Natasha had years of reading between the lines that dysfunctional people came up with. He was worried because she’d never shown so much emotion to him before, or in public at all, and, despite his rudeness, Natasha appreciated the sentiment.

He gave her a big hug when he finally let her go and muttered something in her ear about a worthy cause, you conniving bitch, so she kissed him on the cheek and promised she’d call about the next fundraising event.

Natasha had to stop at her apartment to change into the Van Dyne dress, and she’d been planning a quick run on her treadmill and a yoga video or a P-90x throwback routine, but she wasn’t feeling up to it today. Definitely because the Village was on her mind, and the date, and not because of Bucky’s proposal and the way her life had been feeling increasingly empty for the last few years, and how meeting him had only helped a little. Her building had a small flower garden in one of its courtyards, so she took her tablet there and pulled up her notes for the camping retreat she was leading in October for some of the Brooklyn kids, which segued into a few fundraising ideas and thoughts on new programs.

As usual, brainstorming for the kids brought back some of the drive Natasha felt at the best of times, the starry-eyed wonder of a child granted enough power to raise mountains. The fact that her efforts usually involved a lot of paperwork, rather than hands-on application, could be draining, but- like Maria said bluntly- she had more of an impact acting full-time than running a non-profit, and anyway- as Sam pointed out gently- there was no one who could run the Village better than Melinda May.

Still. Natasha put her tablet down on the carved wood bench and looked around at the flower assortment carefully selected for the summer, and listened to the trickle of the artificial stream leading to the koi pond. The sounds of city life were loud outside of this oasis.

Her rent was nearly $28,000 a month. A mother with two young children in the Bronx could live on that for a year. Not very well. But many made do with less.

Maria and Sam agreed that it wasn’t a good idea to fund the Village herself. They had to grow the organization until it was bigger. A deluge of funds right now would be more trouble than help when the infrastructure wasn’t in place to support it. So Natasha donated to other charities instead, worked with Tony and others, the less famous people who got to do real work.

She tilted her head back and looked at the clear blue sky. For so long, Hollywood had been her dream, and the Village a side-project that she toyed with whenever the glamor started to feel over the top. But the last three years or so had been award after box-office success after magazine cover, and… maybe there was something wrong with her, that living the dream life made her feel like a poser, like the master spy she played in the latest franchise, rather than someone who’d worked for what she got. Rather than someone who’d lived through hell and deserved a happy ending.

Because there were so many like her who didn’t get one. Natasha thumped her head on the bench, wondering if this was why Clint was always so twitchy, so ready to dive in the lake or climb buildings, to just start running. Were his crazy dreams born from the same vibrating place inside as Natasha’s constant awareness of where she was lacking? Of the knowledge that the world was fucked up and nothing was fair and there were so many ways to fix it and so few that ever got done?

Or maybe he was just crazy. Maybe she was crazy. Natasha sighed and picked up her tablet, navigating to her emails. She spent the next half hour communicating with people who’d never met a foster kid, and wouldn’t care if they had, and pretended like it was enough. She put on the Van Dyne dress and did her make-up with enough time left over for a smoothie before the car showed up to bring her to the gala.

The car pulled over unexpectedly after only fifteen minutes, and Natasha’s blood started pumping fast. Warnings about kidnappings from a dozen people over the years flashed through her head. Whip-fast, she had a text to Maria written up and her thumb poised on the send button, when the door opened and Steve Rogers was suddenly squeezing his massive frame into the seat beside her.

“Goddamnit Rogers, you nearly gave me a heart attack!” Natasha closed out the text without sending and shoved her phone into her purse, taking a deep breath.

Steve looked apologetic. “Bucky didn’t text you?”

“No, he didn’t,” Natasha said darkly. “What happened?”

“His agent called, he got roped into a conference call about the assassin movie thing?”

“Winter Soldier? Did they get a green light?” Natasha sat up straight in her seat.

“I think so?” Steve scratched his jaw. “I don’t know why he has to do all these gory horror movies. He’s got great comic timing, you know.”

“Yeah Steve, I know,” Natasha said for the thousandth time. She pulled her phone out and shot of a text to Bucky. “So, that’s why he’s not my date tonight?” She studied Steve out of the corner of her eye.

Steve was a terrible liar, but smart enough to admit defeat. “Maybe he could have gotten out of the call,” he admitted. “But did you really want him moping around all night?”

“No,” sighed Natasha. “I guess we’ll have more fun, huh?”

“Exactly,” Steve said with a grin. “My turn for the high life.”

Okay, Mr. Face of Calvin-”

“I’m not the face!” Steve complained. “I know you know what that means, and it’s not me.”

Okay, Mr. Face on a Massive Billboard- well, not your face, but-”

“I didn’t have to help you out tonight. I could have let you go alone.”

Natasha smiled sweetly. “Leave me to the mercy of the paparazzi? Would you really?”

Steve glowered out the window. Natasha awarded herself points.

“You know, he is being stupid about this.”

She feigned a sudden interest in her phone. “Huh?”

“About moving in together. I think you guys are a great couple, but that doesn’t mean you need to rush things.”

“Mm-hmm,” Natasha hummed agreeably, peeking at Steve behind her bangs.

“You live in New York half the time anyway, and your work there is just as important- if not more important- than your work here, and there’s no way you should give that up.”

“Give it up?”

Steve turned wide eyes on her. “You wouldn’t, right?”

“What?”

“Live in LA full-time. Bucky is my best friend, and I want him to be happy, but the Village… it’s a good thing.”

“Yeah. I mean, of course not.” Natasha frowned at her hands, flustered. “Of course I wouldn’t choose- of course I won’t give it up. Why would I?”

“I wasn’t suggesting-” Steve backtracked. “I just meant, Bucky cares about you a lot, and I know he doesn’t mean to be pushy.”

“I’ve handled worse than a guy who cooks me lasagna after I reject him,” Natasha pointed out.

“I know. But you’re the best thing that’s happened to him in a long time, I just don’t want to see him screw it up.”

Natasha took Steve’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re a good friend, Steve. Even if I think you’re not so good at picking sides.”

“I’m on both your sides,” Steve grumbled. “And if fairness matters to you so much, I could bother you about why you haven't talked about your ex with him.”

“What ex?” Natasha said calmly, ignoring the hair prickling on the back of her neck. “He knows about Sharon and me.”

Steve squirmed. Natasha kept her evil grin inside and awarded herself more points.

“No,” he recovered. “I mean the old one? High school sweetheart?”

“Why would I tell him about that? That's ancient history,” Natasha snapped.

Steve’s ‘Friend Concerned For Your Welfare’ look snapped into place. “I just I think it might help smooth things over with the two of you,” he said, sounding a bit puzzled by her demeanor.

“If it comes up.” Natasha pulled up Words With Friends and got invested in a vicious battle with Bobbi Morse. She heard Steve draw breath to question her, but he was one of her more empathetic friends, and intelligently let them slip into silence.

The Gala was mostly a meet-and-greet, a photo op, for all that Natasha had spent on the tickets. They stayed for an hour or two, and she giggled at Steve getting tongue-tied when she introduced him to his favorite stars without notice- only the ones who she knew would appreciate it, of course. They hooked up with Tony and Rhodes for a while, but before too long Steve said he could feel a migraine brewing, and they said their goodbyes.

“Did you just do that to get out of sitting with Hammer for dinner?” Natasha poked Steve in the arm once they were back in the car. “Because if so I approve, and I’ve never seen you with a migraine.”

“I didn’t, but if I’d thought of it I might have. Asshole was staring at you all night.” Steve was rubbing at his eyes and then stopping himself every few seconds.

“You gonna be alright? I can drop you at your place.”

“No, I caught it in time, it’ll go away. If you have some shades, that would help.”

Steve dozed with Natasha’s $600 sunglasses on until they reached Bucky’s condo. When they got up, Steve let them in. Natasha glanced at his key and considered how crazy it was that she didn’t even have one yet.

The apartment smelled good. Bucky was an excellent cook; it was one of Natasha’s top reasons for dating him, and she had many. He greeted them as they dumped their jacket and purse on the armchair, kissing Natasha and bro-hugging Steve.

Steve set the table and Natasha started bringing dishes out while Bucky put the final touches on things. While they worked, Bucky and Natasha teased Steve about being star-struck at the Gala, and by the time they sat down Natasha had begun to badger Bucky for updates on the Winter Soldier project. Steve started humming the national anthem loudly to cover up Bucky’s exposition on his KGB assassin character.

They dug in. Around compliments to the chef and savoring sounds, talk turned to the Summer Olympics, which was a springboard for world politics. All of them liked to stay up-to-date, and Steve’s education and Bucky’s experience in different parts of the world made for good discussion. Natasha didn’t have much in the way of formal education, or travel outside the country, but she was smart enough to figure out what she didn’t already know, and she’d always enjoyed expanding her knowledge anyway. Altogether, the evening, like every night she spent with the pair of them, should have been comfortable and stimulating, as unexpectedly perfect as ever.

But tonight, something was different. Natasha zoned out watching the late summer sunset over the balcony, and Bucky gently called her name to drag her back. Once upon a time, such inattention would have resulted in a wet willie or a surprise water gun attack. They talked about Russia’s interference in Syria and no one made any puns on Putin’s name. Natasha finished her food and went to wash her plate, and Bucky talked about a recipe for macarons a friend in Paris had emailed him, and the air felt like it was growing stale in her lungs.

After dinner, Steve said his headache was acting up again and made his excuses to leave. Natasha farewelled him absently. Her mind was filled with memories of weeks-long prank wars, squeezing under broken-down porches to hide their alcohol, and a boy who couldn’t have spelled macaron but would have tried his best to make them for her, if she’d asked.

Bucky let her have her silence, putting away dishes quietly and going about his business. The only indication of his distress was one heavy sigh, done in the living room where Natasha wouldn’t have been able to hear it if she hadn’t been so still herself. Against her will, it only drove her through another round of memories: fights loud enough to make the neighbors complain, words too sharp because they knew each other too well, beloved knickknacks smashed in the heat of the moment and glued back together, painstakingly, when better nature reemerged.

There was a reason Natasha tried not to think about him.

Since the first year Natasha spent in California, she’d had a coldness about her, an aura of aloofness that she had to make an effort to dispel, or else she was called an ice queen. She didn’t connect with people outside of a few specially chosen friends and acquaintances, selected because Natasha had weighed them and decided she could defend against any inquisition they would be capable of making. There was no one in her life whose measure Natasha did not have; she didn’t allow it.

Clint was the only person who’d ever escaped her complete knowledge and had used the fact to Natasha’s aid, rather than to hurt her.

The coldness seeped from her gut through her skin, and Natasha went to Bucky for warmth. She knew every inch of him, and it wasn’t difficult to convince him she’d gotten a little lonely in her head and wanted company, to turn him on and direct him the way she wanted him to move. With them both splayed out on his luxurious bed, Bucky pushed into her from behind, his hands tight on her waist, and buried his face in her neck, kissing and whispering to her sweet words.

Bucky was damaged. Natasha knew this. She also knew how hard he’d worked to overcome his circumstances, and how he still considered everyone around him carefully before making any moves, just as she did. She knew that he was starting to love her, and she knew that they were, in many ways, a good match.

All the things she knew didn’t help when Natasha closed her eyes and remembered what it felt like when someone looked into her eyes while they were inside her and stared like they didn’t know how they ended up there, like maybe it was supposed to be someone else and they’d been picked by accident.

Afterwards, Natasha’s body was sated but her mind was as calm as a hurricane. She turned around in Bucky’s arms and kissed him, whispered back and forth with him until they fell silent, until he fell asleep, and then she got up and walked out onto the balcony. She sat on one of the fabric fold-out chairs and clutched her knees to her chest.

There was a number in her phone, back in her purse inside the apartment, and Natasha could feel its presence like eyes on the back of her neck while she looked up at the smog-filled sky. The number was listed under ‘Uncle Phil’, but it would dial to the office of Phillip J. Coulson, social worker. The balding, smile-eyed man had done as much for Clint as he could back in the day, in between constant sick leaves for a heart condition the office’s shitty medical insurance didn’t quite cover. Even though Natasha hadn’t been his assignment, he’d helped her more than anyone else in the department, and when she left town he’d promised to always pick up when she called.

She’d nearly forgotten about Phil; he surface in her mind every August 14, along with the tidal wave of a thousand other memories that shaped her life the rest of the year, though she did her best to forget them.

The hill where the Hollywood sign blazed over the valley was a dark smudge on the night. The sign faced the opposite direction from her view. Inside, Natasha could hear Bucky’s breathing, deep and peaceful in sleep. He was a deep sleeper, unless he was having nightmares, but they weren’t as common now as they’d been back when she met him. Bucky said she helped.

Natasha watched the sky until a star or two was showing. Then, she went back inside and sat on the couch. She stared at her hands as they pulled her phone out of her purse and thumbed over to Contacts.

There he was: ‘Uncle Phil.’ Natasha had no idea what had happened to him, if the contact information was even still accurate. She didn’t know if he would remember her if she called. She didn’t know if she wanted him to.

Bucky snorted in his sleep. Natasha closed her eyes. In that bedroom was a man who would support her goals and her dreams and would make all her future struggles easier. A man who she could help in turn, make him a happier person. They would be partners, working together to face the world.

And at the other end of that phone number, a man who might remember her and might still have contact information for a man who might even condescend to speak to her. That was a man who had made her once anxious and fearful life into one full of fire and fight, who had brought out some of the worst in her so that she could learn it and improve on it. A man she’d hurt, who inspired her to help others. Together, they would be fractious, uncertain, wild, probably not stable; and that was if he even picked up the phone for her.

Bucky was the smart choice. Clint was a crazy risk, and Natasha was not normally a crazy person. Maybe that was the problem.

Natasha hit the call button.