It's the kind of mission Natasha hates.
The kind where her job is to watch and listen and wait, while her two partners, the American and the Russian, Rogers and Bukonin, Captain America and Winter Soldier, are out in the field.
Worse, this time the two of them have very swiftly gone beyond the range of the transmitters they carry, so she's stuck here, in an adequate room in an adequate Paris pension, listening to static and waiting for the two of them to report on the arms dealers they've been tracking for the better part of the week.
She is more and more convinced that Waverly has sent them on a fool's errand, that Poulin, the mousey middle-aged man they've been charged with following, is at best a cat's paw, and at worst an innocent who's been set up by real arms dealers to keep U.N.C.L.E. out of their business.
She's just about to contact Waverly, to tell him the job is going nowhere and how dare he waste their time like this, when there's a rattling at the door.
She shoves the radio transmitter into the desk drawer, in case it's a maid who hasn't been scared off by the Ne pas déranger sign on the door, makes sure her gun is in easy reach, in case it's a real arms dealer, and prepares to complain about being left in the dark so long, in the far more likely case that it's her idiot partners returning.
The door pushes open, and Steven Grant Rogers tumbles into the room. Natasha opens her mouth to yell at him for keeping her waiting, then stops.
They've been working together for a year—a year since Alexander Waverly gathered the three of them on the balcony of Rogers' Rome hotel room and announced they would be the first team for his fledgling United Network Command for Law and Enforcement—and one of the many things Natasha Romanoff knows about Rogers is that he always dresses immaculately. He goes to the best tailors in New York and Milan, has a last at the most exclusive bespoke shoemaker in London, and even when he ends up dishevelled at the end of a mission, he takes the time to sort out his appearance before venturing back out in public.
To call him dishevelled now would be charitable.
The sleeve of his jacket is torn, his shoes are scuffed and coated in mud, and his tie has disappeared entirely. If his clothes are dishevelled, the man himself is worse. His lip is bleeding, his hair tangled, and there's a bruise forming under one eye.
And he's alone.
"Where's Yasha?" Yakov Gregorovich Bukonin has been Yasha to her for most of the year she's known him.
"Get your things together," Rogers says, as he pulls his own suitcase out of the wardrobe where he'd left it and starts packing. "We have to leave."
"Where's Yasha?" she repeats, standing, her weapon held loosely in her hand.
"We don't have time for this," Rogers says without looking up. He throws the last of his clothes in his suitcase and slams it shut. "Get your things."
She grabs his arm and pulls him to face her.
"Where. Is. Yasha." She keeps her voice calm, her tone smooth, but there's steel behind it.
Rogers looks her directly in the eye, and just for a moment she thinks she sees an emotion besides annoyance in his expression. An emotion that might be fear. But then he clenches his jaw and all emotion is gone, leaving only his usual smooth professionalism in its place.
"They have him." Rogers peels her hand carefully off his arm. "They have him, and if we don't leave now, they'll have us."
She pauses for a moment, but only a moment. Because Rogers may be hiding his fear, but she can still see the tension in his body, see his need to run. She needs answers from him, but now is not the time.
She nods, and sets about packing her own gear, stowing the radio in her bag beside her clothes, putting her gun in its thigh holster under her skirt. Together, they pack Yasha's clothes and equipment, then Rogers leads her out of the room and down the back staircase of the pension that only the cleaning staff uses. They've reached the back door when she hears shouting and a crash from above.
They don't look back.
They abandon their rented car, a sedate Renault, in favour of a Citroen DS that Rogers hotwires almost as efficiently as she could. Then Rogers drives them towards the outer banlieues-quickly, but not so quickly as to attract attention—while she keeps an eye out for pursuit. Neither of them speaks, and Rogers doesn't stop until he pulls into a garbage-cluttered alley behind a dilapidated apartment block. He shuts off the engine and closes his eyes, dropping his forehead against the steering wheel as Natasha forces her own shoulders to relax.
"What happened?" she asks, keeping her voice deliberately steady.
"Poulin wasn't quite the plump pigeon he seemed," he says without looking up.
"What was he?"
"Hydra." Rogers spits out the word. "They were waiting for us. They grabbed Winter as soon as we showed up. They nearly managed to grab me. Almost had me a couple of times. I tried to shake them off before going back to the hotel."
"You didn't, though."
Rogers finally sits up straight and turns to her. Even in the shadows of the alley, she can see the brilliance of his blue eyes, so different from the stormy grey of Yasha's.
"I'm sorry," he says, holding her gaze steadily with his own. The apology is as much for leaving Yasha in Hydra's hands as it is for leading their enemies back to her, and she feels the sincerity of it radiate from Rogers.
"Did you do all you could?"
"Yes." Even in defeat, he's certain. "I wish I could have done more, but if I'd tried, they'd have us both."
"Then there's no reason to apologize." She takes a deep breath and asks the question she isn't sure she wants answered. "Do you think he's still alive?"
"Yes." If possible, he sounds even more certain.
"Well, then." She straightens her spine and clenches one fist. "Let's go get him."
She hadn't meant to get involved with Bukonin. He was a spy, like her, a Russian, like the stepfather who'd given her his family name, and had a temper, like too many men she'd known. But the temper was always directed at himself, not others, and he could also be gentle and thoughtful and knew more about art and fashion and music than his surface suggested.
The first time Nat had invited herself back to his small flat in London, their home base while Waverly was arranging permanent offices for U.N.C.L.E., she'd found a crate of jazz records concealed under his bed.
"Why hide these?" she asked as she flipped through albums of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
"Jazz is not Soviet-approved."
"Then why listen to it?"
He didn't answer. Just reached over, pulled a Billie Holiday record from the crate, and put it on his player, smiling at her reaction as the music, lush and gorgeous and sad, washed over her.
It became a habit with them. After a mission, she would go to his flat. He would supply the jazz, she would supply the vodka, and they would listen to music until the tension faded from their bones. They didn't mean anything by it. They were co-workers. Friends. Relaxing after a job well done.
That's all they did, until one evening when vodka and Charlie Parker's Afro Cuban Jazz Suite overcame her good sense, and she climbed onto Bukonin’s lap, ran her fingers through his thick, wavy hair, and kissed him until his lush mouth opened under hers.
After that night, Bukonin became Yasha to her, and they listened to jazz from the comfort of his bed, not his couch.
She didn't delude herself that sex meant she knew everything about him. He might share his body with her, but he shared everything else—his thoughts, his feelings, his history—only sparingly.
And he was surprisingly protective of Rogers.
"Sometimes I hate him," she said, after one mission where she and Yasha had ended up neck deep in mud while Rogers had spent the evening wearing a tuxedo in a five-star restaurant.
"Who? Captain America?" he asked, using the nickname he'd settled on within hours of meeting Rogers.
She nodded, digging her chin into his bare shoulder.
"Cap is not what you think he is," he responded, carding his fingers through her hair in a way that nearly made her purr.
"What do I think he is?"
"Arrogant, privileged, and overconfident."
She didn't contradict him.
"And what is he, really?"
"Oh, lyubova moya. He'll have to show you that himself."
"We can't tell Waverly," Rogers says firmly.
Natasha nods her agreement, understanding exactly why. Alexander Waverly might look like an overgrown, affable British schoolboy, but he defends U.N.C.L.E. like a falcon defends its nest. And if that means throwing the occasional chick to its death to protect the whole clutch, so be it.
Fortunately, his chicks are predators in their own right.
"Where would they have taken him?" Natasha asks, hoping Rogers has an answer, hoping that they won't have to search all of France for Yasha.
"I heard them mention a bistro in Montmartre. It's been a suspected Hydra meeting place for some time."
It isn't a sure thing; they both know that. But it's the only lead they have.
"We'll start there," she says. "I assume they've seen your face."
Rogers nods, curtly.
"Then, I'm driving."
She half expects an argument, but as infuriating as he sometimes is, Rogers is always professional. He nods, then slips into the back seat as she takes the wheel.
She takes them through the streets of Paris, back towards the centre, as the afternoon light fades into dusk.
Natasha concentrates on driving, on making sure she does nothing that stands out, that would cause someone to take notice of her or the car. She ignores Rogers, sitting slouched in the back seat behind her. She deliberately keeps her thoughts away from what might be happening to Yasha. She most decidedly does not think about the possibility that he's dead, that they may be chasing a ghost.
The sun is setting as they reach Montmartre, the streets overrun with pedestrians dashing into traffic, and busy with people flocking to the bars and bistros. Natasha drives past the Hydra bistro, noting that it's a little less crowded than those surrounding it, a little less welcoming. She slows as much as she can without causing a disruption, quickly taking in the surrounding neighbourhood, looking for surveillance points, for a way in.
When she's two streets away, she pulls into a parking spot and leans over, fiddling with the glove box as if she's searching for something, deliberately not looking at the man crouched behind her.
"There's a second story flat to let across from the bistro," she tells Rogers. "It looks empty. I'll break in. You follow and come in from the back."
"And then?" Rogers' voice sounds distant.
"I go by the bistro, plant a few bugs, and then we listen in on our Hydra friends."
"It won't be easy," Rogers observes. "If they're any good, they'll be watching for someone to come for Winter."
"I'm better," she says without ego. In the last year, she's more than proved herself in the field, and Rogers knows it.
"We need to act quickly."
There's a pause, and she can hear Rogers breathing, slightly quicker than usual, with an audible catch in his throat. She gives him a moment. After all, she's as worried about Yasha as he must be.
"You go ahead," he finally says. "I'll give you ten minutes, then follow."
"I'll only need five," she says, then pops the trunk. She retrieves her case from the trunk, pockets bugs and surveillance gear from Yasha's luggage, and walks away from the car without a backwards glance, confident that Rogers will follow her.
She manages to break into the flat in four minutes. Rogers taps gently at the door less than a minute later. The flat is one dusty room that looks like it hasn't been lived in for months. There's a broken-backed sofa, a rickety dining table, a sagging bed, and lace curtains that have seen better days. Rogers draws the curtains closed and observes the bistro across the street through them as Natasha changes unselfconsciously into black capris and a turtleneck sweater and covers her red hair with a subdued scarf.
"Recognize anyone?" she asks as she joins him at the window.
"That big blond bastard sitting in the window is the one who got the drop on Winter. Keep an eye out for him."
The big blond bastard in question looks like the Hollywood version of a Nazi, with close-cropped hair, a scar that cuts across one cheek, and a full-length black leather coat that only serves to make him look more menacing. Hydra certainly isn't intent on being subtle.
She pulls on the leather jacket she stole from Yasha months ago, puts her gun and a spare clip in one pocket, and Yasha's bugs in the other. (Don't let Cap talk you into using American bugs, she hears Yasha say in memory. Soviet tech is so much better.) She makes sure her scarf is securely in place, then moves to the door.
"Romanoff," Rogers says, when her hand is on the door handle.
"Be careful. I want Winter back as much as you do, but I don't want trade you for him."
She nods, and then is out the door without looking back.
In six months, Waverly persuaded, strong-armed, and blackmailed the U.N. into fully funding his United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. They were given an office in a New York brownstone not far from the U.N. building, with a tailor's shop front that hid a warren of offices and labs.
They all moved from London to New York. Yasha transferred his crate of jazz records and a small suitcase to an apartment in the Village. The place was tiny, smaller even than his London flat, but within a stone's throw of three jazz clubs. Natasha would still come over to his place after a mission, and they'd listen to live music from the back table of a dark, smoky club before going back to Yasha's apartment and his bed.
Natasha found a slightly more comfortable place further uptown, a place where she could retreat when she needed solitude. She rented space in a nearby garage and bought a second-hand MG convertible to putter on. When she got tired of pretending to be other people for the job, she spent hours with her head buried in the engine, then took it for spins through the streets of Manhattan and over to Long Island, the top down and her hair flowing in the wind. Yasha noticed the grease under her fingernails often enough that he started calling her his Chop Shop Girl again. She poked him viciously for it, but she didn't mind. It was nice, having someone who knew you well enough to give you a nickname.
Natasha half expected Rogers to rent a place on the Upper East Side, but instead he left Manhattan entirely, crossing the river to Brooklyn. Natasha might be a Chop Shop Girl from East Berlin, but even she knew that Brooklyn was an unlikely place for the worldly Steve Rogers to live.
"Why Brooklyn?" Natasha asked him. "Manhattan has so much more to offer."
Rogers responded with nothing more than a crooked grin, and Natasha heard Yasha's words in her ear: Cap is not what you think he is. She was beginning to believe that was truer than she could know.
Waverly raided universities and other intelligence services to staff his Command, managing the trick of finding people who were both idealists and pragmatists, filling U.N.C.L.E.'s brownstone with agents and scientists and strategists. But no matter how many people he hired, Bukonin, Rogers and Romanoff remained Waverly's top team. They got the best assignments. The most interesting assignments.
The most dangerous assignments.
Natasha exits out the back of the building, winding through narrow laneways before making her way to the street with the bistro. Two streets away, she starts playing the role of the wide-eyed tourist, speaking in American-accented English with a sprinkling of badly pronounced French phrases. She gushes about store windows and cobblestones, and says "Bonjour" to everyone.
When she's within sight of the Hydro bistro, she palms a handful of Yasha's bugs, then squeals about how adorable it is, "Comment allez vous"ing even the big blond bastard who took down Yasha. She fusses over everything--chairs, paintings, curtains--complimenting the sullen waiter on the (hideous) decor, and planting bugs throughout the place. She even tries to order "une petite café," but the big blond bastard's bigger, blonder cousin grabs her by the wrist. It's the only time she's really afraid, thinking for an instant that they've seen through her act, that she's going to have to put this thug down and blow her cover, but the man just steers her firmly towards the door and deposits her on the street. She squawks and complains like she imagines an indignant American tourist might and makes her way down the street.
She stays in character for another block, until she's out of sight of the bistro, then hurries back to Rogers. When she slips into the flat, he already has the headphones on, listening intently as he stares out the window and down at the bistro.
"That was quite a stir you made," he says, his voice as dry as his expression. "They're still talking about you."
"Only nice things, I hope," she says, shrugging off her jacket and making sure her gun is in easy reach as she joins him at the window.
"Not really. They're currently talking about how to make the place less welcoming to, and I quote, verrückte Amerikaner."
"I wasn't trying so much for crazy American as annoying."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, you annoyed me. Your accent was horrible."
“It was good enough to fool Hydra,” she says, and then concentrates on the street outside.
They settle in to watch the bistro, taking one-hour shifts on the headphones. The Hydra heavies don't mention Yasha once, don't even hint about the U.N.C.L.E. agent they've captured, and Natasha grows more and more frustrated. When they turn off the bistro's lights and shut it down for the night, dispersing in all directions into the neighbourhood, she nearly throws the headphones across the room instead of passing them to Rogers.
"I can break in," she says. "See if I can find any clue about where they have him." She peeks out the window. "It looks like the place might have a cellar. Yasha might be right there."
The thought of Yasha being in Hydra's hands so close to them makes her clench her fists and stand. She's ready to grab her jacket, to make her way outside, to pick the lock on the bistro door, no matter that there are still people on the streets to see her.
But then Rogers' hand is on her elbow, a light pressure that guides her back to the rickety chair she'd claimed as her own.
"We can't play our hand yet." Rogers' voice sounds less polished than usual, his accent less educated, his tones less smooth. "We don't know if there's anyone still in the back, and we still have some element of surprise. We should keep that as long as we can."
"What good will that do if they kill him?"
She tries to keep her voice calm, professional, but she knows she's failed. She's looking at the floor, but Rogers reaches out and lightly tips her chin up until her eyes meet his. It's dark in the flat, the only light coming in from the street outside, but Natasha can see the divot in Rogers' forehead, can see the clench of his jaw.
"I'm worried about him, too," he says. "But we don't have backup, so we need to be careful. I promise, though, if we don't have any information by tomorrow night, I'll help you break in." He gives her a wicked smile. "I'm very good at breaking into places."
"So am I." Her smile isn't quite as wide as Rogers', but she already feels less fragile.
"I know." He gives her shoulder a light squeeze. "C'mon, we'll do two-hour shifts to make sure the bastards don't try anything during the night. I'll go first."
"No, I will," she insists.
"Whatever the lady says."
"And don't you forget it." She puts on the headphones, turns back to the window, and ignores Rogers as best she can as he settles on the couch behind her.
Natasha didn't think about what Rogers was to Yasha, or Yasha to Rogers, until the assignment in Argentina.
Oh, she knew they liked each other. Were friends, even. Rogers needled Yasha more than anyone else, and Yasha grumbled back at him differently than he did with everyone else, even her, but she didn't give it a second thought.
Then Waverly had sent them to Buenos Aires following rumours of exiled Nazis, and they'd stumbled onto a lab of the bastards working on biological weapons wicked enough to take out the western hemisphere. The mission had started out bad, gotten worse, and ended when Rogers stepped in front of a blow meant for Yasha. Natasha heard the crack of Rogers' arm breaking from across the room, saw him fall to his knees.
She'd had to complete the mission herself, taking out the three Nazis that surrounded them, then setting the explosives to incinerate the lab and its contents while Yasha got Rogers out of the building. She was never really sure how they made it out of the Nazi lab and to their extraction point, but she remembered every excruciating moment of the flight out of the country, with Yasha splinting Roger's arm as best he could in the back of their chartered cargo plane while Natasha made sure their pilot wasn't going to sell them out to Hydra.
They hopscotched their way up South America by plane and truck, with Yasha fussing over Rogers the whole way, Rogers looking white with pain any time they hit turbulence in the air or a rough patch on the road, and Natasha standing guard over both of them. She only let herself finally rest when they got on an U.N.C.L.E. jet Waverly had sent to Mexico City for them.
When they landed after dark on a small New Jersey airstrip, Waverly was waiting for them with an ambulance and a town car. Natasha took one look at the way Yasha was vibrating with concern and pushed him towards the ambulance with Rogers before striding over to face Waverly herself.
"So, Agent Romanoff," Waverly said, as he watched Yasha help Rogers climb into the ambulance, and then turned his attention to her. "Perhaps you can explain to me why a simple surveillance mission turned into me apologizing to the Argentine government for an explosion outside of their capital."
By the time Waverly finished with her, Yasha and Rogers had already escaped from U.N.C.L.E.'s medical wing.
"I made sure Rogers' arm was set properly, put it in a cast, and sent him home," Dr. Lawrence told her when she went looking for her partners. "Bukonin promised to look after him, make sure he doesn't run a fever or show signs of infection."
Natasha thanked Lawrence, and then went and pulled Rogers' file from the Enforcement section's office. She copied down his number, started the beginnings of their report on Argentina, and then left for home.
She picked up borscht from her favourite deli, poured herself a shot from the bottle of vodka in her freezer, took a breath and called Rogers' number.
"Hello?" Yasha sounded exhausted and wary.
"How is he?" Natasha asked, skipping the niceties neither of them cared about.
"Sleeping," Yasha said. Then, after a pause, "Restlessly. He's a horrible patient."
"I bet he is."
"I'm sorry," Yasha said.
"That I left you to face Waverly on your own."
"I'm a professional. I can handle Waverly."
"I know you can. My Chop Shop Girl can face anything."
She was swept by a wave of fondness for Yasha.
"Can I come see you?"
"I promised Cap I would stay with him for a day or two."
"I could come to Brooklyn. Help you with Rogers."
"No need," Yasha said, a little too quickly.
"It's no trouble. I could get some groceries. Or pick up some takeout. There must be takeout in--."
"Natasha," Yasha said softly, cutting her off. "Please don't."
"But..." She paused for a moment, then and everything came together. How Rogers had taken a blow for Yasha. How protective of Rogers Yasha had been in Argentina and after. How Yasha had taken it upon himself to look after Rogers. "Oh." She breathed out the syllable.
"Natasha?" Yasha sounded worried. No wonder. A lifetime's experience was screaming in her head that she should feel jealous, angry, hurt. And yet, she wasn't. What she had with Yasha, it wasn't diminished by what he had with Rogers. She was certain, absolutely certain, that he cared for them both.
"I'm still here," she said, knowing she sounded distracted as she tried to sort out the feelings tumbling around inside her.
"Are you okay?"
"I am," she said, her voice growing stronger with her newfound resolve. "I really am."
"Natasha..." Now it was Yasha's turn to sound confused and uncertain.
"You look after Cap," she told him. "Make sure he's comfortable. If you need any help, let me know. I can be in Brooklyn in an hour. I'll handle Waverly, tell him you'll be taking a few days off. And I'll come to see you when you're ready."
"I'm going to need some jazz after all of this," she said, hoping Yasha knew she wasn't just talking about music.
"Well, if you need jazz..." Yasha said, his voice dropping low and sultry in a way that told her he understood exactly what she meant.
"Sweet dreams, Yasha."
"Sladkikh snov, Natashka."
She went to bed that night feeling like a part of the world that had always been hidden to her had been revealed. Like when her stepfather had let her open the hood of the broken-down Opel that had come into his garage and taught her how to listen to an engine, how to figure out what was wrong with it. How to fix it. But now what had been revealed to her was a new way to think about the people in her life, how she and Yasha and Rogers fit together.
It was a brave new world, and she was eager to explore it.
She and Rogers take turns watching the empty bistro all night, one at the window while the other tries and fails to sleep on the lumpy couch. Which is awful, but still more comfortable than the sagging bed.
By the time the sun comes up, Natasha's eyes feel gritty and a hum of anxiety runs along every nerve. She's not alone. Rogers may have discarded his torn jacket and replaced his missing tie, but the split on his lip has scabbed over and the bruise under his eye looks worse, not better. She's struck with an urge to smooth down his ruffled hair, but keeps her hands to herself.
"Breakfast?" she asks instead.
When Rogers nods his response, she stuffs her hair into Yasha's cap to hide its colour, pulls on Rogers' trench coat, and ventures out the building's back exit. She finds a patisserie two streets over, and returns with a paper bag full of enough pastries and baguette sandwiches to keep them going all day, along with two cups of coffee.
"Any sign of our friends?" she asks Rogers as she passes him his coffee.
"They've just arrived," he says, giving her a grateful nod without taking his eyes off the street. She peeks out the window, and sees the Hydra thugs, including the big blond bastard, getting out of a Peugeot. She notes the plate number as the driver pulls away, then nibbles on a pain aux raisins and sips her coffee as the Hydra agents open their Hydra bistro.
When she finishes the last crumb of pastry, Rogers hands the headphones over to her. He pulls Yasha's cap off her head and pulls it down low over his own eyes.
"You keep an eye on our restaurateurs," he says. "I'm going to bug their car."
"Be careful," she tells him, and he nods in response before leaving.
Rogers returns twenty minutes later with the news that he found the Peugeot three streets over and fitted it with both a tracker and a bug. It's the most excitement they have all day. The bistro is quiet, the Hydra agents looming over anyone who shows an interest in ordering food. Natasha would find it boring, if not for her constant awareness that Yasha's life is in their hands.
As the Hydra agents start to close the bistro for the night, it's Natasha's turn with the headphones. She listens to them arguing about whose turn it is to wipe the tables, and her frustration starts to burn. Maybe they shouldn't just break in to the bistro tonight, she thinks. Maybe they should kidnap one of these Arschlöcher and find out what he knows about Yasha.
She's just about to suggest doing exactly that to Rogers when the big blond bastard starts talking about der Russe.
She comes to attention, and Rogers is at her side immediately with a questioning look. She puts up a hand to stop any questions from him as she strains to hear every word, scribbling down place names and directions and anything else she thinks might help them find Yasha. Rogers waits, vibrating a barely leashed impatience.
"He's alive," she tells Rogers as soon as the bistro thugs stop talking. He's as controlled as ever, but she can see his shoulders relax a fraction in relief. "They're holding him at a farmhouse outside Lyons. And they're heading out tonight and planning on moving him tomorrow. They didn't say where to, but it can't be anywhere good."
Rogers is moving before she finishes speaking, packing their things, pulling the tracking receiver out of Yasha's bag. She does the same, packing up the listening equipment, throwing it into her own bag along with the few things she's taken out of it.
They steal another car. Natasha finds them a BMW that has both speed and room in the back seat for Yasha once they get him back. She neatly hotwires it and takes the wheel, while Rogers sits beside her, the tracking receiver, her scrawled notes and a map he finds in the glove box in his lap.
Rogers directs her to where the Hydra agents' car is parked, and she drives up the street, finding a good place to observe it from. She grips the steering wheel hard, wanting to be on the road, wanting to get to Yasha. She envies Rogers his calm, but then a sound catches her attention and she turns to see him tapping a finger nervously on the map. With the bruises and cuts and the slept-in clothes, he looks more vulnerable than she's ever seen him. More vulnerable, even, than when his arm was broken. She wonders what he sees when he looks at her.
She reaches out and takes his hand in a firm hold.
"We're going to get him back," she says, as much to assure herself as him.
Rogers gives her a wan smile.
"I know," he says, then returns her grip with a light squeeze.
Their troop of Hydra agents appear, and she sparks their stolen car's starter wires and begins the careful job of trailing them, grateful that she has to concentrate on keeping a good distance from their mark instead of how worried they both are.
"Here we go," Rogers says.
It had been a glorious night. They'd survived another one of Waverly's missions, disarming a vicious bomb and saving most of Manhattan from annihilation. Rogers had disappeared back to Brooklyn with a wink in her direction, and she and Yasha had managed to get a table at the Village Vanguard and caught a set by Ornette Coleman. Then they'd come back here, to Yasha's place and Yasha's bed.
They'd already gone one round and Nat's skin was buzzing with pleasure. She leaned on Yasha's shoulder and let her free hand trail idly up and down his bare chest, smiling when she teased a shiver out of him. She leaned in to give his jaw a slow kiss and caught herself thinking about Roger's wink. And once she'd thought of Rogers, she couldn't stop. Couldn't help but wonder about what he and Yasha had together.
"Do you fuck him?" she asked before she'd even realized she was going to speak the words out loud. Yasha frowned at her, but now that the thought was out, she wasn't going to back down. "Or does he fuck you?" Natasha continued. "I'm sorry. I'm not sure what your preferences are."
"I think you know some of my preferences." Yasha let his hand play down her side with a lightly teasing touch.
"Not where Rogers is concerned," she said, batting his hand away in annoyance.
"I'm sorry, lyubova moya," he said, grabbing her hand and placing a light kiss on her knuckles. "But I don't tell him your secrets. I don't think it's fair to tell you his."
"Then he has secrets."
"We're spies, Natashka. We all have secrets. But part of being a spy is knowing which secrets to keep."
"I could make you talk." She drew one nail down his bare chest, lightly scratching as she went.
"You could try." He rolled her over onto her back, propping himself up on his elbows above her.
"I like a challenge."
"So do I," he said, then leaned in for a kiss that started out tender but that she quickly pushed to bruising.
When she got her breath back, she got the most terrible idea.
"Why are you smiling, Natashka?" Yasha asked, his brow creased in a worried frown.
"I was just thinking," she said, arching up into him and running her nails lightly across his back. "Perhaps I can send a message to Cap."
"What sort of message?"
"Oh, I don't know." She gave him a wicked grin, and then before he could react she rolled her hips into his and scratched down his back hard enough to draw blood and make him hiss.
"You are a wicked kotyonok," he said. "You're going to leave marks."
"That is the point," she said, and nipped at his chin, hoping Rogers would see her marks, and would realize what they were. She wondered what his response would be.
She didn't have to wonder for long.
Two weeks later, the day after Rogers and Yasha returned from a week-long mission in Japan, she pulled Yasha's turtleneck off over his head and found a row of bite marks in a line across his left collarbone.
Yasha saw her noticing the marks and gave her a rueful look.
"Cap says hello."
Natasha licked at one of the marks and smiled.
"Cap's saying a lot of things with these, but I don't think any of them is hello." She licked at his collarbone again, then bit over one of Rogers' bruises hard enough that Yasha yelped.
"I don't know why I like either of you," Yasha said, struggling to sound petulant as Natasha licked and bit her way down his body.
"You don't like us," she said, giving his hipbone a nip. "You love us." It was a risk, using a word that hadn't been any more than a teasing endearment from either of them until now. But the time felt right.
Yasha responded with a non-committal hum, so she worked to make sure he wasn't able to respond at all.
"Bozhe moy," he finally said, stroking her hair as she cuddled against him, both of them enjoyably spent. "I think I might enjoy your new method of communicating with Cap."
"That's good," she said, examining her handiwork on his neck and side. "Because I have so much to say to him."
The Hydra thugs pull into a farmhouse an hour before dawn. In contrast to the well-ordered properties they've passed on the way, this is a ramshackle place, with a wooden gate they chain shut behind them, and several crumbling outbuildings behind.
Though every instinct screams at Natasha to burst into the place, to find Yasha now, she drives past it, and pulls into a copse of trees half a mile on.
She and Rogers grab their weapons, ammunition and communicators—neat things the size of a cigarette case that Waverly's scientists have created for the field—and make their way back to the Hydra property. They're crouched behind a tractor when their four Hydra friends emerge from the back of the farmhouse and head for the nearest outbuilding. Natasha pulls Rogers back further behind the tractor as they pass, wanting to avoid a fight until they know where Yasha is. The Hydra thugs disappear into the outbuilding, and when they emerge a minute later, there are two more of them, dragging a man between them. From their hiding place, Natasha can see their captive is slumped, barely conscious, and has a familiar shock of wavy dark hair that she's run her hands through too many times to count.
"Yasha," she breathes out quietly, as her friend, her partner, her lover, is hauled into the farmhouse.
Beside her, Rogers tenses, then slides his gun from his holster and begins to creep forward. She wants nothing more than to follow him, to get Yasha safely away from this place, but it's not the right time. They don't know how many more of the enemy await them in the farmhouse, and their getaway car is too far away. The shape Yasha is in, she doesn't know if he'd be able to make it to the car before any pursuers caught up to them.
So, she grabs Rogers arm and holds him back until Yasha has been pulled into the farmhouse.
"Not yet," she hisses at him. "Wait until I get the car." She nods at a curve in the road that will provide some cover, just beyond their position. "I'll pull in there, then we can both go get him."
Rogers looks like he's going to argue for a long moment, but he finally relaxes in her grasp and nods.
"Okay." He looks back at the farmhouse, and she sees the same tension in his shoulders she feels in her own, senses the same pull towards Yasha she's suffering. "But keep your communicator close. I'm going in closer, see if I can find exactly where they've got Winter."
She wants to say so much. Don't get caught. Keep Yasha safe. Look after yourself. But she doesn't say any of it. He's a professional. He knows what the stakes are, knows what he has to do, knows what failure will cost them.
"I'll be back as soon as I can," she says, and then she's off without looking back, moving swiftly and silently into the French countryside, leaving her heart behind her.
She'd written countless messages to Rogers on Yasha's skin, but in person she never knew what to say to him. After all, it wasn't like she could ask what he thought of the circle of love bites she'd left on Yasha's shoulder last week. Or what he'd been doing when he'd left those teeth marks on Yasha's calf two nights before. So, she was left with awkward small talk and conversations about their work. Until, that is, Yasha was called back to Moscow for a week to report on the successes of the Command, and Waverly decided to send her and Rogers to Lisbon for what turned into five days of fruitless waiting in a hotel room for a contact who never showed.
They resorted to card games for the first three days. He taught her pinochle, and she taught him skat. But then, on the fourth day, when he was shuffling the deck for their tenth game of skat that morning, she asked the question that she'd asked him several times since they'd moved to New York, but that he'd never answered. "Why Brooklyn?"
"What?" He riffled the cards together without looking up.
"Why did you move to Brooklyn?"
He paused, carefully freezing in place as he considered her question.
"What has Bucky told you?" he asked, his voice showing the sort of cool control she recognized from missions.
"Who the hell is Bucky?" she blurted out.
"Sorry," he laughed. "I meant Winter."
She stared at him, waiting for an explanation for the ridiculous name.
"It's a private joke," he offered.
She stared some more.
"We were talking about nicknames. I told him I'd have called him Bucky if I'd known him when we were kids. From Bukonin," he added in response to her confused frown.
"Oh." It was a ridiculous American nickname, but at least it made sense to her now. "And what does he call you?"
"Styopa." He grimaced. "Or Styopochka if he's really annoyed."
"I imagine you get called Styopochka a lot," she said with a snort.
"What does he call you, then?" he shot back. And she owed him an honest answer.
"Natashka," she admitted. "Or kotyonok."
"Well, I know where that came from, at least." Rogers grinned back at her. "I've seen the results of your claws, little kitten."
"You know Russian?" she asked.
"A little. Bucky is teaching me. You?"
"My stepfather taught me some, before he died. Yasha is teaching me more."
She began to feel more relaxed with Rogers than she ever had. Which meant she felt confident in circling back to her original question.
"You didn't say. Why Brooklyn?"
"I grew up there."
"But..." She struggled to make sense of this revelation. "I didn't know there was a nice part of Brooklyn."
"There isn't. Not really. At least, not where I grew up."
"But..." She struggled some more.
"I ain't who you think I am, doll," he said, his accent shifting suddenly into something that sounded like it came from the old Hollywood gangster movies they sometimes watched on Yasha's tiny television set. "I'm just a kid from Brooklyn."
She stared at him in shock, and he smirked at her. Then he straightened his cuffs, schooled his features and winked at her.
"Well," she said, crossing her arms, "Yasha told me that you're not what I think you are."
"I won't ask what you think I am," he said, his accent returning to its usual smooth tones.
"That's probably best," she said, adding an extra dose of annoyance to her voice. But she was very much not annoyed. She was fascinated, beginning to see more of what Yasha enjoyed in this man. "Now, are you going to deal or talk?"
She's reached their stolen car and is just pulling out onto the main road when Rogers' voice comes over the communicator.
"Change of plans. I'm going in now. Hurry—" He's cut off abruptly by the sound of gunfire, and then there's nothing but static.
Natasha doesn't know what Rogers saw to make him go in without her, but it can't have been anything good. She swears under her breath, then viciously shifts the car up a gear and pushes the gas pedal to the floor. As she approaches the farmhouse, she mentally measures the strength of the car against that of the gate in front of her. She grips the wheels, and shifts up one more gear, then crashes through, the car jolting as wood splinters around her.
There's no time to recover from the crash, as there's a flurry of movement ahead of her. She pulls the handbrake and slews to a stop in front of the farmhouse as Rogers bursts out of the building supporting Yasha with one arm, four Hydra agents, including the big blond bastard, behind them. A bullet shatters the passenger window and Natasha ducks, then returns fire and unlocks the car's back door.
Rogers yanks open the door and pushes Yasha into the back seat of the car, before tumbling in behind him. Natasha leaves it to Rogers to lay down covering fire, and slides back behind the wheel, pealing out of the farmyard before Rogers can get the car door closed, bumping over the debris from the gate, hoping she hasn't cracked the radiator or bent an axle.
In the rear-view mirror, she sees the Hydra horde fire at them, then head for their own car.
"They're coming after us," she says.
"I left a little surprise for them," Rogers says, his voice low behind her.
She glances back and sees the Hydra Peugeot hit the road behind her. It accelerates briefly, but then she sees sparks on the road, and it swerves into a ditch.
"You slashed their tires?" she asks.
"I slashed their tires," Rogers confirms. At that moment, Natasha is absolutely certain she loves him.
Their pursuers might be sidelined, but Natasha doesn't slow down. She wants to put as much distance between them and Yasha's captors before they have to stop.
"How is Yasha?" she asks, not daring to look back as she shifts down only long enough to take a sharp turn.
"Yasha is fine," the man himself says,
"Yasha is not fine," Rogers says. "They shot you, Bucky." Rogers' voice is tense, and Natasha feels a flutter of dread in her gut. "Twice."
"One is just a crease," Yasha says.
"And the other?" Rogers shoots back at him.
"They didn't hit anything important, Styopochka," Yasha says.
"A doctor should be the judge of that," Rogers shoots back at him.
"You're worse than my babushka."
"I'll take that as a compliment. Now hold still. I don't want you to bleed to death before we can get you out of France."
"You just don't want to get my blood on your suit."
"It's too late to stop that."
The two of them bicker as Natasha drives through pastures and vineyards, and it's the best thing she's heard. She knows Yasha's injuries aren't minor—when she glances in the rear-view mirror, she can see the concern on Roger's face, and Yasha's voice is far weaker than she's ever heard it—but the bickering tells her they aren't life-threatening. Yasha will live. They're all safe.
They've been on the road for an hour when Natasha finally risks stopping. They stop in the outskirts of a small town, and Rogers changes, throwing blood-stained clothes into the trunk before going back to help Yasha do the same. When he gingerly helps Yasha out of his shirt, she sees the makeshift dressings Rogers has applied to his wounds on shoulder and arm are already going pink with blood, and winces.
"We need to get you to a doctor," she says.
"I'm fine," Yasha tries, but it sounds like he doesn't even believe it himself.
"You're not," Natasha insists, then pulls out her communicator. "And now that we've got you, I think we can safely ask for help."
"Waverly won't be pleased," Yasha says.
"He can take it out on me." Natasha turns the control on the communicator.
"Or me," Rogers says.
"Open Channel D," Natasha says. "We have a medical situation."
When Yasha arrived back from Moscow, Natasha was waiting at the airport for him.
"How's Mother Russia?" she asked, after giving him a thorough, welcome home kiss.
"Still there. How's New York?"
"I wouldn't know. Waverly's had us in Lisbon most of the week."
"Me and Captain America."
"And?" Yasha's tone was mild, but he clearly expected there to be more to the story.
"And, nothing." She refused to take the bait, enjoying stirring his curiosity.
"You're not nursing any hidden wounds? You haven't killed him and hidden the body?"
"Now, why would I want to hurt Cap?" She stopped and gave him a sly look. "Or should I call him Styopochka?"
Yasha stopped cold, right in front of a car trying to turn into the row of the parking lot they were walking down. The driver beeped, then backed up quickly when Yasha turned and glared at him.
"Did I say it wrong?" Natasha asked, knowing full well her accent was perfect.
"No, you did not." He took a deep breath and then started walking again, keeping his eyes firmly directed ahead. "Do I want to know what you talked about? Besides my nickname for him, of course."
"He also mentioned his nickname for you: Bucky. So ridiculous." He looked back at her and she rolled her eyes.
"Yes, well he is a ridiculous American, after all," he said with a grin.
"Quite ridiculous." She smiled, enjoying the sparring between them. "But you were right. He's not at all what I thought he was."
"No, he's not."
"I might even like him. Just a bit."
"Maybe the three of us can go out for drinks together tonight. Purely for the good of the team, of course," she added.
"For the good of the team," he agreed
"Then it's settled." She took his arm and guided him to where she’d parked her MG. She put the top down, and as she pulled onto the Parkway, Yasha beside her and the wind in her hair, she couldn't help feeling a wild sense that everything was moving towards the way it should be.
She was not ready to share jazz nights with Rogers. Not yet. But she was very ready to get to know him more thoroughly, to see deeper below the surface than he'd allowed her in Lisbon, to get to know the man that as Yasha did.
To be his friend.
When they land in the small airfield in New Jersey, Natasha has a strong sense of déjà vu. Except this time it's Yasha who's injured, and Rogers pushes her to travel with him in the ambulance while he goes to face Waverly's wrath for acting without orders.
It's no small sacrifice on Rogers' part. She has no doubt that Waverly's wrath will be considerable. When their boss took her call from France, he'd been livid, a falcon outraged that his chicks had let their prey escape. It was only once she'd given him the location of the Hydra stronghold so he could send a strike team in to take it out that he'd organized the care and extraction of his wayward chicks.
There'd been a doctor waiting for them at Aurillac airport, a serious young woman of Indochine descent, a few years older than Natasha, and like her, one of Waverly's discoveries. Dr. Tran had fussed over Yasha all the way back to New York, letting Natasha and Rogers sit with him in the confines of the U.N.C.L.E. jet only once she had his wounds properly dressed.
In the ambulance, Dr. Tran lets Natasha stay beside Yasha on the ride back to headquarters. Yasha has long since given in to the pain medication Dr. Tran has given him, and dozes on the stretcher while Natasha holds his hand, letting go only when the doctor needs to checks his vital signs.
Once they reach Manhattan, Dr. Tran whisks Yasha into the surgical suite, leaving Natasha to pace the floor of the medical wing waiting for word on his condition. Tran appears in the hallway after an hour, wearing surgical scrubs stained with what must be Yasha's blood, a smile on her face for the first time since Natasha has met her.
"He's going to be fine," she says, taking Natasha's elbow and leading her deeper into the medical wing. "The wound in his shoulder was as clean as you get with a bullet. Luckily, the bullet was small calibre and didn't fragment. As long as no infection develops, he should heal quickly." She stops at a door to one of the recovery rooms, and Natasha can see Yasha inside, clean white sheets making the bruises on his face stand out starkly, an IV in the back of one hand. "Just let him sleep, and have the nurses call me if anything goes wrong."
Natasha thanks her, and takes her place at Yasha's side, curling up in one of two chairs at the opposite side of the bed.
She startles awake when someone lightly touches her elbow, blinking her eyes open to find Rogers standing over her.
"How is he?" he asks. He glances to where Yasha still sleeps, and his expression is as fond and concerned as Natasha imagines her own is.
"Dr. Tran says he'll be fine." She looks him over. He looks drawn and drained, the bruises on his usually handsome face a mirror of those on Yasha's. "How was Waverly? You don't need Dr. Tran to look you over, do you?"
"No." He laughs quietly. "He wasn't that bad. Though I suspect we'll be getting the worst assignments for the foreseeable future."
"Don't we always." She grabs his hand and pulls him down to sit in the chair beside her. His hand is warm, his grip firm, and she finds herself reluctant to let go once he's settled beside her.
When Yasha wakes up, she's tucked into Rogers' side, her head on his shoulder, his arm curled around her side. Yasha blinks at them both blearily, no doubt pushing through a cocktail of exhaustion, pain, and whatever drugs Dr. Tran and her medical team have pumped into him.
"I want to go home," he says. His words are slightly slurred, his eyes barely open, but Natasha can see the determination in his face.
"We'll see what we can do," she says over the objections she can see Rogers already forming. She gives Yasha a gentle kiss on the forehead, then pulls Rogers out of the room to find Dr. Tran.
It's not easy, convincing Dr. Tran to release an agent recovering from a gunshot.
"We'll take him to my place," Rogers volunteers to Natasha's surprise. "It's more comfortable than his," he adds. "And there's an elevator." Natasha can't argue with that. Yasha's apartment may be close to the coffee houses and jazz clubs, but it's hardly suitable for an injured man. It's a fourth-floor walk-up, and barely big enough for two people, let alone three.
"If you're certain…" Dr. Tran looks at them both with suspicion, as if she's not certain they can be trusted to look after a houseplant, let alone an injured agent.
"We are," Natasha says, injecting as much confidence as she can into her voice.
In the end, Dr. Tran insists Yasha stay at headquarters for another 24 hours, to make sure there's no internal bleeding from the beatings he suffered before they got him free of Hydra. But after that, she agrees to release Yasha into their care.
She can see the relief in Yasha's face when they tell him about the doctor's decision, can see how his shoulders relax and he drops off to sleep again almost immediately.
Twenty-four hours later, Rogers bundles Yasha into the back seat of his ridiculous American car (only ridiculous Americans would call a car a Thunderbird) and heads off to Brooklyn. Natasha takes her MG and a key Yasha gave her two months ago, and ventures into the Village to get Yasha's things.
She rummages through his clothes, avoiding the turtlenecks he always seems to wear in favour of button-up shirts and loose t-shirts that will go more easily over his wound dressing, and then throws together his toothbrush and shaving kit in the bathroom. She loads his things into her trunk, and is about to drive away, when she remembers one last thing.
She flies up the stairs, two at a time, bursts into the apartment, and pokes her head under the bed. When she pulls away from the curb five minutes later, heading for Brooklyn, she has Yasha's crate of jazz records in her back seat.
Flipping through a copy of the Village Voice, it was the name that caught her attention. A Russian name, the director of a film that had won an award in Berlin and was playing here in New York. She showed the listing to Yasha.
"We can all go," she told him. "Styopa and I get to practise our Russian, and you get to see a piece of home."
"New York is my home," Yasha countered, but reluctantly agreed to her plan.
Rogers was more enthusiastic.
"We'll go out for vodka and blinis after," he said.
"Vodka does not go with blinis," Yasha sniffed.
"We'll go tonight," Natasha said. "Styopa will pick us both up." Rogers raised an eyebrow at her, but he nodded in agreement.
Drinks with Yasha and Rogers had become a regular event. After assignments, after meetings with Waverly, increasingly just when they felt like it, the three of them found a new bar or lounge, ordered outrageous cocktails and talked.
They talked about their assignments, they complained about Waverly, they raved about the latest gadget the science section had created for field agents. And every once in a while, they'd each share a sliver of their pasts. Yasha mentioned the muraveynik cake his babushka used to make for him. Rogers talked about getting into fights in the schoolyard. Natasha told them about her stepfather teaching her how to fix a clutch. She considered Rogers a friend, and Yasha more than that, but if she'd thought about it, she would have realized that she didn't know that much about either of them, and they didn't know much about her.
Then they went to see Ivan's Childhood.
From the title, she'd thought it was a children's film, and it started off innocently enough, with a fresh-faced, lively boy playing in an otherworldly forest. But then the boy woke from his dream, and she realized her mistake. It was a fairy tale, but not the sort that parents read to lull their children to sleep. It was a fairy tale in the original, blood-soaked, Brothers Grimm sense, a story of a young Russian boy caught in the war. And she knew enough about what the Nazis had done in Russia to know it wasn't going to end well.
As the story played out, with the boy, Ivan, insisting on fighting the enemy, even as the adults around him constantly tried to send him to safety, she felt Yasha tensing up beside her. Minutes in, she reached out to take his hand, and held it until the end. Several times, Yasha tightened his grip on her so hard that tears prickled her eyes, but she didn't complain, and she didn't let go.
The film ended with Ivan's last surviving protector finding a record of the boy's execution in a liberated German prison and one last dreamlike sequence of the murdered boy playing on a beach. When the lights came up, she looked over and saw Rogers holding Yasha's other hand. Both men looked ashen, their jaws clenched shut, their eyes glassy.
The film had cut close for her, bringing back childhood memories of hiding in their cellar as allied bombs pummelled their neighbourhood, of being taken to her grandfather's farm near the end of the war, where there was more food, and less chance of running into rogue Soviet soldiers. Watching the film, she realized why the Russians had been so eager to take their revenge on every German they found, young or old, man or woman.
It had cut close for her, but not like it had for Rogers and Yasha. Looking at them, it struck her that she had no idea what either of them had done during the war. They were older than her, but not by much, and she'd assumed they were both too young to have been involved in the fighting. She'd clearly been wrong. And a Manhattan movie theatre was no place to find out how wrong she'd been.
She broke her own paralysis, and got both men moving, bundling them into a cab she flagged down, and giving the cabbie her address.
Her apartment had always been her refuge, her place to escape. She'd never had Yasha over, let alone Rogers. But now she settled the two of them on her overstuffed couch and then went to rummage in her tiny kitchen. She'd just pulled out the brandy she'd bought months before, when she was missing her mother, when she was startled by Rogers, standing in her kitchen like a ghost.
"Bucky was a partisan fighter, you know," Rogers said, his voice almost a whisper. Not that she hadn't guessed as much. "Like the boy in the film."
"How old was he?" Natasha said, looking over Roger's shoulder to where Yasha sat, unmoving on her couch.
"Ten, maybe twelve," Rogers said, and that just made things worse.
"Mein Gott." She found the glasses she'd been looking for and passed them to Rogers, then held up the brandy. "If this runs out, I have vodka in the freezer."
"I don't know if there's enough alcohol in the five boroughs for this," Rogers said, then followed her back to the living room.
"I could hear you, you know," Yasha said when they plopped down on either side of him.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Natasha asked.
"Okay," Natasha said, then passed him a glass of brandy. "Then we drink."
They drank. They polished off the bottle of brandy, and then moved on to the vodka in the freezer. Natasha knew they were all going to have regrets in the morning, but she didn't care.
When the vodka came out, they started making toasts. To Yasha's childhood best friend. (Misha, shot as a spy when Yasha was only ten.) To Rogers' mother. (Sarah Rogers, dead of TB in 1937, when Rogers was nine.) To Natasha's grandfather. (Dietrich Teller, killed by a stray allied bomb three months before the war's end, when Natasha was six.) They toasted friends and family, alive and dead. They laughed. They cried. Some time after midnight, Natasha found herself sprawled in Rogers' lap, one arm wrapped around his shoulder. When it was closer to one, she watched as Rogers held a trembling Yasha and gently kissed his forehead.
Yasha was the first one down. (He'd been taking two drinks to every one of Rogers', and Natasha had switched to water halfway through the vodka.) Rogers steadied him on his walk to Natasha's bedroom, and the two of them help him strip down to his boxers. He was unconscious before Natasha even had him tucked in.
Natasha headed back to the kitchen—she hated falling asleep drunk, and she was going to need a lot of water and a lot of coffee to stop feeling drunk—and Rogers followed behind her. He poured them both glasses of water with ice cubes from the freezer while she put the percolator on the stove for the coffee. When they both had coffee and water in front of them, Natasha asked the question that had lodged like an ice sliver in her heart.
"When did he tell you what happened to him during the war?" She should have felt relieved that Yasha had someone he could tell, but instead she was hurt that the someone hadn't been her.
"He didn't exactly tell me," Rogers said, before taking a sip of coffee. "I've pieced things together. He's had nightmares at my place a few times. And he's let a few things slip." He looked over at her, and his expression suddenly softened. "I don't think he meant to keep things from you. He probably just wanted to protect you."
"I don't need protection," she snapped out.
"I know that." Rogers smiled. "Bucky probably does, too. But we all want to protect the people we love. Have you told him everything that happened to you during the war?"
She shrugged, because of course she hadn't, and for exactly the same reason, to keep her pain from Yasha.
"You're wiser than you look," she said and forced her shoulders to relax. She took another sip of coffee, observing Rogers across from her, then asked a slightly trickier question.
"Does he know what happened to you during the war?"
"Nothing happened to me during the war," he said mildly. "I was only a kid when it ended." He was trying hard for nonchalance, but Natasha could see the wariness in his posture. And she knew what she'd seen in his eyes in the theatre.
"Now who's trying to protect me? You might have been a kid, but you got into the fighting anyway. Didn't you?"
Rogers took a sip of coffee and seemed to evaluate her over the rim of his mug. She'd seen that look in his eyes on missions when he was deciding what to do and who to trust. She sat under his evaluation as steadily as she could.
"Well," he finally said, "I had an early growth spurt. And it's amazing what a recruiter will overlook when there's a war on and you don't have any family to notice you're gone." His tone was calm and even, but he was clutching his mug so tightly in his hands that she could see his knuckles had gone white.
"Does he know what happened to you?" she asked again. This time he didn't evade the question.
"I'm sure he's pieced things together. I have nightmares, too."
Natasha had a sudden vision of a gawky, adolescent Steve Rogers in a uniform, a boy who hadn't quite figured out what to do with the height he suddenly had, having a gun thrust into his hands.
"Children shouldn't fight wars," she said suddenly.
"Children shouldn't get caught in wars, either," he said. "But they do." He paused for a moment. "You did."
She couldn't deny that, so she only nodded.
"That's why we do what we do, isn't it?" he continued. "To keep other children from getting caught in wars. To stop other kids from having to learn how to kill."
In that moment, Natasha saw at last what Yasha always had, the Steve Rogers who had grown up poor and orphaned, who'd always fought for the defenceless. And she understood at last what had drawn the two of them together. She felt a flush in her cheeks, and a rush of attraction that she realized had been lurking below the surface for some time. Maybe even since she'd figured out just how close Yasha and Rogers were.
Another night, she might not have acted on her feelings. But this night she was more than slightly drunk and was ready to push further at the edges of what the world told her was possible.
Without quite knowing how she'd got there, she was suddenly standing over Rogers. She plucked the mug from his hand, placing it on the table in front of him, then grabbed the front of his shirt and leaned forward.
Rogers' lips were rougher than she'd expected, but his breath was warm when he opened them against hers. He was unexpectedly yielding, keeping his hands on the table, letting her lead the kiss, letting her pull him in closer.
When she finally pulled back, he leaned back and licked his lips as if he was chasing after the taste of her.
"You're fearless, aren't you?" he asked, a crooked smile making him even more handsome to her.
"No." She leaned in and kissed him again, a quick touch with the promise of more behind it. "But I'm not afraid of you."
His smile widened, and there was no trace of caution left in his expression.
"I think I'm a bit afraid of you," he said.
"You should be." She grabbed the front of his shirt again and pulled him until he was standing, and then started leading him towards the bedroom, where Yasha slept.
He slowed down.
"Maybe this isn't a good idea," he said, pulling against her. "I can take the couch."
"No one needs to take the couch." She pulled harder, starting him moving again. "There's room for everyone." She pushed him through the doorway hard enough that he stumbled slightly.
"Natasha…" There was a warning in his voice, and she had just enough common sense left that she heeded it.
"Tell you what," she said. "Tonight, we'll just sleep."
"Tomorrow, we'll nurse our hangovers and go out for breakfast and then we'll come back here, all three of us, and see what happens."
"You really are fearless," he said, his voice tinged equally with amusement and admiration.
"Maybe I am," she allowed this time.
Rogers stripped down and Natasha slipped into her nightgown. Then they settled into bed, Yasha between them, and their fingers brushing together over his hip.
The sound of Benny Goodman's orchestra fills the apartment, crescendos and breaks off. There's a moment of silence, then wild applause before the click of the needle lifting from the record.
"My choice this time," Natasha says. She stretches and rolls off the bed, shrugging into the man's shirt she finds on the floor to ward off the autumn chill that's invaded the apartment, and padding over to the record player, her bare feet cold on the hardwood floor.
Rogers' apartment is a studio, like Yasha's, but that's where the similarity ends. Rogers' place is large and open and airy, with tall windows that let in the light, and a paint-spattered easel set up in one corner. Finished paintings hang on the walls, streetscapes and still lifes and one portrait of Yasha that perfectly captures the stormy blue of his eyes.
Rogers' records sit on a shelf under his player, a mix of the swing that was popular when he was a teenager and the folk that's played in Village coffee bars today. Natasha replaces his Benny Goodman in Moscow record in its sleeve and pulls a Blossom Dearie album from Yasha's crate. She makes her way back to the bed where Yasha and Rogers wait for her as Dearie croons Someone to Watch Over Me. She lets the shirt slip off her shoulders back to the floor, and slides into bed beside Yasha, cautiously cuddling against him as he pulls the covers over her.
Natasha runs her hands over Yasha's chest, careful to come nowhere near the wound on his far shoulder. Rogers finally took the dressing off the wound yesterday, but it's still tender and healing. She looks across at Rogers, lying on the other side of Yasha, running his fingers through dark wavy hair.
Until this morning, they hadn't done anything more than cuddle with Yasha, and even this morning he hadn't been up for much, entirely willing to let her and Rogers pamper and coddle him. It had been one more revelation for her, seeing how gentle Rogers could be with Yasha, how protective. Just like the art had been.
"I didn't know you painted," Natasha says. She's wanted to ask him about the art for days, ever since they arrived here to look after Yasha, but the time had never seemed right. But this morning, they have absolutely nothing else to worry about.
"I started at the orphanage. It was the only good thing about that place." Rogers gets a distracted look on his face as he continues to stroke Yasha's hair. "I was scrawny and mouthy and the other boys picked on me when the nuns weren't looking. Sister Margaret was the history and art teacher. When she noticed what was going on, she let me stay in her room at recess. She taught me how to draw. Figures, perspective, watercolours, oils—she taught me everything." He smiles slightly, an expression that doesn't go all the way to his eyes. "I thought I was going to be an artist for a while."
Natasha looks at the paintings that surround them, full of colour and life.
"You could have been," she says.
"Maybe." Rogers doesn't sound convinced.
"Why didn't you? What happened?"
"The war happened," Rogers says with finality. "I couldn't just sit and do nothing. Not when the other boys started enlisting." He laughs. "They probably thought it was a good way out of the orphanage. I just wanted to do my duty."
"Of course you did," Yasha says, his tone dry as overdone toast.
Rogers gives his head a light warning tap before he continues.
"You know, Sister Margaret tried to keep me out of the war. She marched me around to every recruiting office in Brooklyn and threatened them with a nun's beating and eternal damnation if they let me in the army. They must have all been good Catholics because none of them would take me. I had to take a train to Queens to sign up." He smiles. "The recruiting officer there was probably a Protestant."
"Protestants aren't so bad." Natasha launched an automatic defence, though she hasn't been inside a church herself since her mother died.
"You wouldn't want to say that around Sister Margaret," Rogers says with a laugh. "She thought Protestants were only one step up from atheists."
"Hey," Yasha says. "Don't forget you have a godless Communist in your midst."
"I know." Rogers gives Yasha's hair a playful tug. "But I think Sister Margaret would have liked you anyway." He grimaces. "I went to see her the day before I shipped out. She cried when she saw me in uniform. Told me she'd say a prayer for me every day and gave me her St. Christopher medal. I didn't take that medal off until V.J. day. I haven't worn it since, but it's the only thing I've still got from the orphanage."
"Have you gone back to see Sister Margaret?" Natasha asks.
"I tried, when I moved to Brooklyn. But the orphanage closed down years ago, and I found Sister Margaret buried in the neighbouring churchyard."
"I'm sorry," Natasha says.
"Nothing to be done. I hadn't been to mass for years, but after that I went and lit a candle for her. I do wish I'd been able to tell her I survived the war, though."
Natasha wishes she could reassure Rogers that his nun protector is watching over him from heaven, but she has as much confidence in the existence of an afterlife as these two men. Which is to say, none at all.
"I'd like to paint you." Rogers breaks the silence that's fallen between them. "So there'd always be a piece of you here." His eyes flick to the side. Natasha follows his gaze and see he's looking at the portrait of Yasha on the far wall.
"Watch out," Yasha says with a laugh. "He's intolerable with his models. So bossy."
"Behave, Bucky," Rogers says, then drops a kiss on top of Yasha's head.
Natasha feels her heart clench, and is struck by a sudden desire for the impossible. For a world where she and Yasha and Rogers could live together in this cozy home. Where Rogers wouldn't need a proxy for them when they weren't here. But they don't live in an impossible world. They live in this one, where the desire they share has to be hidden. Where their love could get them fired. Could get them killed.
They can't have the impossible, but there are still things they can have. Like their refuge here. And she can give Rogers a piece of herself to keep beside Yasha's portrait.
"I'd like that, Styopa," she says.
She's never meant anything more.