They never talked about the people they'd lost. That was the only rule.
Steve couldn't actually remember agreeing to the rule, but Nat kept cutting him off or changing the subject whenever he brought it up, and before long it became just one more thing they never mentioned.
That didn't stop the presence of that loss from filling up the room. It followed them everywhere they went. It was there in the frantic beat of his heart when Nat was blown back by an energy charge, her body tumbling head over feet through the air. It was in the tight, brutal pressure inside his chest when she didn't get up right away, when he threw himself into the battle like a man possessed trying to get to her, and it was there in the sudden release, the breathless, light-headed rush of oxygen when she rolled onto her stomach, punched the ground, and jumped back into the fray, her expression fierce and focused, almost feral.
That was another thing they didn't talk about. If the way they fought could have been compared to a razor sharp blade before, it had now gained a serrated edge.
Where Nat had become more ruthless, he'd become less compromising, and when the fighting was over they came together in a desperate tumble of torn clothes and marked skin, finding solace, not in words – never in words – but in hands gliding over warm, sweat-slicked skin, and mouths tasting, liking, biting at each other until they were spent and sated and too exhausted to move - too exhausted even to dream.
A few hours of dreamless sleep was the best they could hope for these days.
On earth, the day half of the universe had crumbled to dust had become a Day of Remembrance.
They ignored it, the way they ignored everything else they never talked about. The villains of the galaxy had always been very obliging in giving them someone to hunt down and fight when that time of year came around, but after two years of biting his tongue and swallowing his words, Steve was no longer content to let things lie.
It wasn't a deliberate decision on his part. He hadn't planned to broach the subject that day, but that niggling feeling of discontent in the back of his mind had been chipping away at the numbness that had taken hold of him until he could no longer ignore it.
They'd completed another mission, and Steve had barely closed the door of his apartment when Natasha jumped him.
She swiped his feet out from under him, and when he hit the ground, he found himself with a battle-bruised Natasha straddling his hips, fisting her hands in his short hair while she sank her teeth into his bottom lip. The post-battle adrenalin high always made her more aggressive, and Steve was usually more than happy to let her take the lead.
There was always a hint of desperation to their touches; as if their bodies were asking for the comfort and reassurance that they refused to give each other with words.
They way Nat trailed her mouth along his neck, her teeth grazing along the tendons - a gesture of claiming, of saying "you're mine." The way her hand splayed across his heart when she rode him, seeking the assurance of his heartbeat, rapid and strong beneath her palm, saying "I'm alive," and the way her arms came around him afterward, wordlessly asking "will you stay?"
She'd been injured during the mission. Bandages wound around her upper arm and thigh, and there was a bruise blooming on her cheekbone that made his heart squeeze painfully every time he looked at it.
He brushed his thumb gently across the unblemished skin beneath it.
Natasha growled into his mouth. Her hands tore at his shirt, short fingernails digging into the fabric, tearing it in her haste to pull it over his head. She canted her hips, rubbing her center insistently along his crotch, and Steve rested a hand on her hip as he arched up into her. Their breathing was labored. He couldn't remember if he'd ever managed to catch his breath after the fight had been over; Natasha had been handsy throughout the debriefing, finding ways to touch him and brush against him that had kept his blood pounding in his ears and made him shift in his chair more than once desperate to adjust himself without being noticed.
She did that sometimes. He knew it was about exerting control when she felt her own sense of it slipping when the things they didn't talk about threatened to breach through the door behind which she'd locked them.
There was dust in his hair, and he felt it cling to his skin where the quick wash in the infirmary had failed to clean off all of it. A building had collapsed on top of him, concrete and steel, tons of rubble crashing down around him as he ran for the windows in the stairwell and jumped through it only to land in a courtyard with the wall falling after him.
His shield had saved him. The vibranium had taken most of the impact, but he'd still felt the weight of it jar his bones and strain his tendons, and when the dust had settled, Nat's frantic voice had pierced the deafening silence. She'd shifted the debris with her bare hands, digging towards him, a shrill undercurrent in her voice which he'd never heard before. He wasn't entirely sure whether or not he'd imagined it.
The naked relief on her face when he'd broken through and clasped her hand was stuck in his memory, a picture of sunlight and dust motes dancing in the air, while her fingers clutched his hard enough that a normal person's bones would have broken under the force of her grip.
"Don't scare me like that," she'd said, the professional mask slipping back over her face. Then she'd turned and rejoined the fight and they'd said no more about it.
But she was clawing at his clothes the way she'd been clawing at the rubble. Frantic. Desperate. Tearing the fabric, breaking the zipper on his pants. Her mouth moved over his skin, heedless of the sweat and dust covering rapidly fading bruises as if she wanted to devour him... as if she was running out of time, and he would be snatched away from her at any moment.
"Natasha," he tried while she latched onto the soft skin below his nipple and sucked another bruise into his chest.
She ignored him, her mouth trailing down his stomach, teeth nipping at his abdomen.
Pushing his hands into her hair, he gently nudged her head up. "Hey, it's okay. I'm here," he tried again. "I'm not going anywhere."
And Natasha Romanoff, who stared down hydra agents, extraterrestrial aliens, and death itself without flinching - wouldn't meet his eyes.
"I know that." Her tone was defensive.
"Look at me."
He could see her expression close down. Her hands were damp against his chest, her hair more gray than red from the dust that clung to it.
She'd taken down dozens of armed mercenaries today. Killed more than a few. Helped him save the city from another megalomaniac who wanted to rule the world. And she still wouldn't look at him.
"I'm not leaving you. And we will bring the others back, Natasha. We will find a way," he said quietly. He didn't know where he found the certainty. Maybe it was pure stubbornness. Maybe it wasn't healthy not to accept the loss and move on. But he'd never been good at giving up.
Nat's eyes fluttered closed. Abruptly, she jumped to her feet. "I need to take a shower."
"I won't be long."
Pushing up onto his elbows, he watched her close the bathroom door behind her. He let his head flop back.
"Fuck," he said quietly.
Kicking off his shoes, he inspected his clothes and realized that they were torn beyond repair. Discarding them, he pulled his knees close to his chest and flipped to his feet.
A loud crashing from the bathroom whipped his head around. He was through the door within seconds, barely realizing that he broke the lock in order to open it.
Inside, Natasha stood with her back to him, her shoulders stiff, while the dark gray tiles on the wall in front of her were broken, hairline fractures radiating from the point of impact to the seams.
"Did you just punch the wall?" he asked only to realize how redundant the question was in light of the evidence before his eyes.
"Go away, Steve." The tone of her voice made him freeze.
"Are you crying?"
Placing a hand on Natasha's shoulder, he gently turned her around. "Let me look at your hand."
By some miracle, her fingers weren't broken. Her knuckles were skinned, and he fished around in the medicine cabinet for a few seconds before he found a salve to massage into her hand.
He watched her face, while he gently ran his fingers over her knuckles, rubbing a thick layer of ointment into her skin. Her eyes were downcast, her gaze riveted to his hands cradling hers as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world. Her expression was blank, but that only meant that she was hiding more of herself from him than usual. And he was tired of it. There was a delicate line between letting Natasha know that he could handle all of her secrets, her past, and her fears and pushing her to reveal more of herself than she was ready to let him see.
"We get the job done that's in front of us," he said quietly.
"Yes, we do. Whatever it takes," she agreed automatically. But Steve wasn't talking about Loki, or Ultron, or Hydra, or whoever came after them. He wasn't even talking about Thanos. Not really.
"The job is to bring our friends back."
The sound Natasha made was half exasperation, half resignation. "I don't want to talk about this."
"We've been not talking about this for two years. It's okay to grieve for them, Nat. But I'm not giving up hope. We will find a way to get that gauntlet and undo what Thanos did."
She pulled her hand away. "Steve, please. Just... just let it rest. It won't do any good. It's been two years."
His heart lurched painfully when he heard the defeat in her voice. Nat was a realist. He'd always known that. And maybe it was foolish of him to hold on when the world was trying to move on, but he'd always had a fighting spirit larger than the frail body into which he'd been born, a sense of commitment that had led him to crash a plane in the Arctic, and a sense of hope that carried him through losing Peggy and Bucky not once but twice, now.
He really, really sucked at giving up.
"Come on," he said nudging her toward the shower.
He didn't mention the red rims around her eyes.
Natahsa's clothes and their underwear went into the hamper. They undressed quietly, and once they'd stepped into the shower, Steve pulled her close. The water was warm and soothing as it cascaded over their battle-worn bodies. The bandages on Natasha's arm and thigh were soaked through within seconds, and he hoped that he had enough gauze left to replace them later.
She leaned against him, a sigh falling from her mouth as she nuzzled her cheek against his chest.
"Better?" he asked quietly while he reached for the bottle of shampoo. Squeezing a generous amount of the scented soap into his palm, he massaged it into her scalp. The water turned dark as the dust and grime of the battle washed down the drain.
"It's not fair," she mumbled when her hair color had returned to its natural red.
"Two hours ago, you were covered in just as many bruises as I am, and here you are looking as good as new."
He rinsed her hair and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "You're right. It isn't fair."
Something in his voice must have betrayed his feelings because Nat looked up at him and wrinkled her nose. "I'm not going to break," she said tersely.
He trusted her. Of course, he trusted her. They'd fought side by side for years, and she had saved his life as often as he had saved hers. He knew she was well trained. He knew that she was lethal. He knew that she would be absolutely pissed if he ever tried to coddle her or let his protectiveness get in the way of her mission. But it was hard... sometimes it was so fucking hard not to wrap her up in his arms and hold her tight and keep her safe from all the horrors in the world.
And this was one more thing he couldn't say because she would kick his ass... probably wouldn't even understand that impulse in light of where she came from and what she had done before she started working for S.H.I.E.L.D... before she became an Avenger... before he fell in love with her.
But he wanted to say it. He wanted her to know how he felt.
Words were powerful. They could be scary. They gave an illusion of substance, of permanence, that wasn't real. Words could lie as easily as tell the truth. And he didn't want to scare her off.
His hands wandered across her body, gently skimming down her shoulders to her waist, avoiding the purple bruises along her ribs. Dipping his head, he caught her upper lip between his own.
The kiss was slow and deep, and for once, Natasha seemed content to follow instead of lead. She sank against him, her arms looping around his waist, her slim, strong fingers splaying against his back.
He took his time exploring her mouth. She opened up to him with a quiet moan. His thumb brushed along her hip, and he leaned into her, his knees bending just a little to let Natasha know what he intended. By now, she was so familiar with his body, knew his tells as well as he knew hers, that she jumped easily into his arms. Her legs went around his hips, and he caught her one-handed, his arm crossing her back and cupping her ass.
A wicked little smile danced across her lips. "I'm not going to pretend that I don't love it when you do that."
Steve nudged his nose against hers. "I thought you enjoyed manhandling me. If I'd know that you'd like me to turn the tables, I would have obliged you sooner."
Her quiet, easy laugh poured over his skin and straight into his heart. It always beat a little faster when he was around her, and holding her so close, feeling the heat of her body seep into his skin, feeling the wetness of her cunt rub against his stomach, it hammered in his chest harder than it ever had on the battlefield.
Dipping her head, she latched onto one of his nipples. Steve groaned and braced himself against the tiles, caging her body between him and the wall. Undeterred, Natasha pushed one of her hands between them and wrapped it around his straining erection. His cock pulsed in her grasp. He was always so damn eager to lose himself inside her, it would have been embarrassing if he didn't know exactly how much she loved to make him lose control.
Her thumb brushed across the vein running along the underside of his shaft, and his knees went weak. Natasha laughed into his ear when he had to steady himself against the wall. In retaliation, he hoisted her higher, slipping out of her hold, and covered one of her pert breasts with his mouth. He sucked at her nipples, flicked and brushed across them with his tongue until she was squirming in his grasp, her hips bucking urgently against his stomach as her legs tightened around him.
He let her breast slip from his mouth and pressed a kiss to the underside of her jaw.
"Is there something you want?" he asked innocently.
"Stop teasing and get inside me," she said, and there was such a grumpy note in her voice, that it startled a laugh out of him. He buried his head in the crook of her shoulder. Natasha ran her fingernails lightly along the curve of his scalp. Her mouth brushed across his temple, his cheek, and his jaw, her fingers pulling at his hair to lift his head until she could capture his mouth in a searing kiss.
He pressed her into the wall. Letting go of her ass, he gently nudged her thighs apart. "Let go," he whispered against her lips.
Her forehead wrinkled in confusion. "Why?"
"So I can manhandle you a little more."
Her eyebrows shot up, but a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, and she unwound her legs from his hips.
Natasha never touched the ground. Steve had had plenty of experience handling dangerous objects with great care, and her strong, lithe body was no exception. He flipped her around in his arms, one hand splaying against her stomach pulling her back against his chest, while the other guided her thigh back around his waist.
"Oh, nice," Natasha laughed.
He pressed a kiss to her shoulder. "Brace your hands against the wall."
Once she'd steadied herself, Steve leaned back, took hold of his cock, and nudged the slick folds of her cunt open by running the head between them. Natasha arched against him. Her knees bent, her feet brushed against his back. "Yes." The words tumbled out of her mouth, both command and plea.
Steve sank into her, feeling the warmth of her body envelope him, the walls of her passage caressing every inch of his length. He loved being inside her, loved being connected to her like this, sharing his body with her and sharing hers in turn. He was careful not to touch her injured thigh, placing his hand close to her knee instead as he bent his legs and pushed up into her, burying himself to his balls in her beautiful body.
Natasha moaned. Her walls tightened around him every time he withdrew as if she wanted to hold on to him and keep him inside her as much as he wanted to stay. "Every time," she gasped. "We've done this for two years, and it still feels as if you're filling every inch of me."
"I want you to feel me, Nat. I want you to feel good."
A chocked laugh fell from her lips as he fucked into her. His thrusts were slow and deliberate. He wanted to enjoy this as long as possible, wanted to feel her wet heat engulf him, feel her muscles clench around him. If he were physically capable of holding out long enough, he would do this for hours.
"You make me feel so much better than good, Steve. You make me feel alive."
A shudder ran through him. It started at the base of his spine and climbed up to settle between his shoulder blades. Is that what they were doing? Was the only reason they came together again and again – feverish hands claiming each other, falling asleep in each other's arms, limbs tangled until neither knew where one of them ended and the other began – that it was the only time they felt alive? Is this what Thanos had done to them?
If so, it wasn't enough. Not for him. It was perhaps the only thing of which he was sure these days. He wanted more. Both for himself and for her.
He rested his forehead between her shoulder blades and stopped moving. His cock was buried so deep inside her that he could feel her walls flutter around him. For a breathless moment, he could feel nothing but her, could hear nothing but the beat of his heart.
The water drowned out the rest of the world.
He felt Natasha 's back shift beneath his face as she craned her neck to look back at him. "Steve, what's wrong?"
It was probably the worst time to bring it up again, but Steve felt the urge gnawing at him. It was like a tidal wave building up inside his heart until he couldn't hold back the words.
"Tell me you believe me."
"That I won't stop fighting until we bring them back. That we will find a way. That I love you. All of it."
"Tell me," he repeated, and he didn't care one bit that he was all but begging. He needed to hear her say it. "Tell me that you believe me."
Natasha was silent for a long moment. He could hear her breathing, labored and deep. Her body was tense inside his arms.
Reaching down, she covered his hand with her own, where it grasped her thigh. "I believe in you," she said. Her voice was so quiet that he barely heard it over the sound of rushing water.
He exhaled against her back. Close enough. "Thank you."
"And just for the record. I love you, too." There was that grumpy tone again. It made his lips twitch. He felt lighter suddenly as if a pressure valve inside him had opened, and he could finally breathe again.
Natasha made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a groan. "Didn't think I had to spell it out for you."
"Say it again."
"Don't see why I should." Terse. Stubborn. Fuck, he loved her.
He pulled out of her until only the head of his cock remained within her. "Say it again," he demanded.
Natasha scoffed. "Yeah, no. I'm calling your bluff. You're just as horny as I am."
Smiling, he nipped at her shoulder blade. "Say it. He moved the hand that he'd been resting on her stomach down to her folds and lightly brushed his fingers across her clit. Too lightly. There was barely any pressure to his touch, and within moments, Nat was squirming against him.
"Steve," she growled.
She could probably take him. Hell, he wouldn't even put up a fight if she decided to turn the tables on him. But there was a part of him that loved playing with fire. You make me feel alive, she'd said. In the context of their grief, it hadn't been enough, but with the certainty of him holding her heart in his hands, it was more than that. It was everything. She made him feel alive, too.
His fingers teased her, running circles around the small bundle of nerves. "Say it again," he insisted. His legs were shaking, he realized. Actually shaking, not from the strain of holding her up, but from forcing himself not to surge back into her slick heat. Her muscles clenched around him, and he felt the pressure rushing through his cock up into his abdomen. A moan wrenched itself from his lungs. He pressed his legs together, trying to hold on.
Natasha cursed. "You're not playing fair."
He wanted to laugh, but the sound stalled in his lungs when she braced both hands back against the wall. Her legs folded up behind his back, urging him against her. His cock slid an inch deeper before he could stop himself.
"Neither are you," he accused her.
"Sure, but you know me better than to expect me to."
He didn't know how she found the leverage. He really didn't. But somehow Natasha managed to move her body in his hold, to roll her hips back against him in tight, shallow thrusts that had his nerve endings buzzing with electricity. She was so tight at this angle that everything felt more intense. He moaned against her shoulder. He could have stopped her. He could have pulled back and tightened his hold on her hips, but... hell, he really didn't want to.
"That's it," she gasped. "Let me fuck you. You just be good and stand there, and I'll make us both feel good."
"Natasha," he gasped.
"Shh. It's alright. I've got you. I love to make you come, Steve. I love the way you feel inside me when you let go. I love the look on your face when you let me ride you."
"Fuck." Every notion of teasing her went out the window. He was already unraveling when he sank back into her, bringing his hips flush against her center until he was buried to the hilt inside her cunt.
Natasha cried out. Her chocked "fuck, yes," bounced off the walls of his bathroom as he came, his heart pounding in his chest. For a moment, he counted his heartbeats, indulging in the sated bliss that rushed through him. Then he pulled himself back together. When his softening cock slipped out of her, he replaced it with two of his fingers.
Natasha squirmed against him, chasing her own climax as she bucked against him. "I've got you," he told her quietly. His nose nudged the soft spot behind her ear. "I love you."
She moaned in his arms. He could feel the liquid warmth of his own come drip over his hand, and he added another finger to push it back inside her. Natasha's walls fluttered around him.
"Touch my clit," she panted. "Please, Steve. I need you to touch my clit."
He pressed a kiss to her neck.
"I've got you," he repeated. Rubbing his thumb against one side of it just the way she liked it, it didn't take long for her to come apart around his fingers. Her body stiffened in his arms, and her head fell back against his shoulder. He gently fucked her through her orgasm, pumping his fingers in and out of her hole until he felt the tension drain out of her body and she sagged into his arms.
"Alright. Fine," she conceded, breathlessly. "I love you."
Steve didn't even try to brush the pleased look off his face as he gently sat her down on her feet. She turned around and leaned back against the shower wall, shutting off the water with her hand behind her back.
"I just want to be clear. You're not going to turn me into a soppy romantic," she added gruffly. But her eyes were soft and warm and welcoming.
Steve cupped her face in his hands and lowered his mouth to hers. "Duly noted, ma'am."