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A Stolen Season

Chapter Text

***

I knew these woods so well before.
Now I've lost the path that led me down to your door.
Breadcrumbs lost forever on the forest floor,
and the wolves are circling me.
I know there's treasure yet to find,
but I must either lose myself or leave you behind.
I never meant you any harm at all,
did not think I'd come here just to watch your castle fall.

By moonlight and by falling snow,
I call upon your oath to let me go.

***

Somehow it had been a year.

Somehow, while the Avengers had been busy putting the world back together as best they could, spring had grudgingly bloomed to summer. And since they weren't noticing things, they also didn't notice that it was with much less lustre. There was no less rain, and not too much either. And plenty of sunshine to be had.

But there were fewer flowers.

Summer had done its best to shine, and autumn in its wake, though both were unseasonably and oppressively hot. There was no graceful, bowing slip towards snowy slumber. No days of green fading nobly to gold. It was as if the leaves had just given up all at once and fallen from the branches to skitter across the ground like insects. And winter was little more than a pall of gray gloom that clung to the earth like a funeral shroud for far too long. It barely even snowed much. And when it did, it was always just a dingy, dreary slush that turned to mud after only a few hours.

And then, it was spring once more, though again the Avengers could be forgiven for not noticing. Upstate New York had been constantly tousled with heavy rain for weeks Not a proper storm of course. That would have been a relief really. Thunder and wind would have been a welcome break from the wearisome monotony of gray drizzle day after day after day. The new green of the year was buried under endless mud. Blossoms were knocked from the trees before their prime to wilt on the ground.

Not that anyone really cared to notice.

But Natasha did notice that one of the trees in the courtyard had died. And the birds that had nested in it the previous year had not returned.

The remaining staff of the Avengers facility had stayed on for the first few months or so, diligently working to repair communication channels and implement new emergency precautions and protocols in the absence of a great deal of the world's security forces. But as it became clearer and clearer that there was no plan B to undo what Thanos had done in a snap of his cruel fingers, people began to drift away. There were offers of "Should you need me" or "If something comes up" but it was time for a lot of them to move on.

Natasha understood, of course. And so did Steve. They were treading water at this point and their support staff had lives of their own to try and rebuild. That was all there was to it.

As the facility began to empty, Natasha began taking on more responsibility. Especially when Carol broke atmo, heading out to deal with an invasion on the planet of her Skrull allies. Natasha somehow knew she would never be back. Not really back. Her home and her priorities were elsewhere, just like Natasha's were here. But she wasn't the only one of their number looking beyond the facility walls.

Tony was… Tony. Gone as soon as he was able, and clearly trying to get as far away from Steve as he could. Bruce was applying for research and teaching positions. Trying to rebuild a life and a career that had been over long before the Snap. And Clint? Clint felt like he was just… fading from Natasha's radar. Disappearing little by little into the shadows of the farm he'd built with Laura. He checked in less and less. And had less and less to say when he did. It had reached the point that it was almost like he would just call her so he'd know she still drew breath.

But Natasha was determined not to drift. Or to fade. Or to leave. There was work to do, even if it was just to keep their heads above water. So she dug in deep at HQ, setting up a place for herself in the constantly readjusting scheme of things as a sort of information hub. A one stop shop for all that was happening in the world, and across the broader universe. She set up daily briefings with Rhodey and Okoye about threats happening on earth. Rocket checked in weekly. And once a month, there was a conference call with everyone, including Carol Danvers. There was work to do before it was perfect, of course, but it was a start. People could drift, but Natasha was making it so that where they were drifting away from was her. And that meant she could call them back when she needed them.

It felt… strangely good to be so grounded. To be a fixed point around which the wheel turned rather than a spoke on said wheel. She understood now why such a position had appealed to Nick Fury. Especially after a life in the field. It was a nice change of pace. And she was finding more and more that it appealed to her too. At least with the way things were now.

And Natasha dug even deeper into that newly minted trench when she began to feel Steve drifting as well.

It was slow at first. By the middle of summer, he'd finally made the decision to go see a therapist in the city. One of Sam's old friends from the VA. And Natasha was glad, even if the announcement had felt like a cold knife in the gut. And she hated herself for it.

It wasn't that she didn't think he needed help or didn't want him to get it. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was just that she could practically hear some nebulous clock begin to tick in her head when he told her that he was finally going to take Sam's advice. If not for his own good, at least in Sam's memory was what he'd said. But there would be more to it than that, she somehow knew. That was a long way to travel just for therapy, when they could easily have the best come right to their doorstep. They were still the Avengers after all. But instead he was going to travel for it.

Natasha could feel that the threads that laced their lives together had begun to pull tight, and eventually they would either snap or unravel as circumstances dictated. She just hoped it would be gentle. Hoped it would all be slow in coming apart.

Slow and kind.

Something in this world had to be.

The months ticked by, and while Steve never stayed in the city overnight, he was getting back later and later as the months dragged on. He was going to group therapy by the time autumn rolled around, sometimes as often as three times in a week, which was something of a shock. At least so soon. But was it really soon? Was half a year later "soon?" Natasha couldn't stop the debate within herself over the possibility that this wound that invisible clock in her head forward. Or perhaps she'd just not been paying attention to this too.

But she was glad. She really was. Steve seemed better. More sure of himself than he had been in years if she was being honest. Since before his blowup with Tony over the Accords and Bucky. She was glad he'd found some kind of relief, or at least some redirection for all that self loathing and guilt. But it meant she was alone in the compound more and more. The few people still on staff left earlier and earlier, with there being less and less to do. The lab staff were all but gone by then. With no Jane or Selvig to lead research, they'd found other projects. Other places to make a difference.

So aside from the maintenance staff, that just left Natasha, diligently monitoring their newly minted but often terribly quiet comm channels. And checking in with Okoye, Rhodey, and Rocket on a regular basis, and with Carol when she was available.

Sometimes it was okay. Sometimes the work was enough. Sometimes she got to solve problems, and it felt like the old days. She really felt a little like a clone of Fury… or better yet, a clone of Coulson. Handling ops and securing aid across the globe. Maybe there weren't as many moving parts as there had been back during SHIELD's heyday, but it was still a lot of them. And that felt good.

But it wasn't always enough.

Sometimes, when she got really low and her threadbare recreation of her old days at SHIELD wasn't enough to keep her going, Natasha would go down to the training hall and visit their old Avengers equipment. It had all been shipped over from Wakanda when they'd returned, but no one had ever taken it out of the crates. No one but Natasha on those occasions when she just… needed to visit it and put her hands on it and just… remember.

She always did so under the guise of needing to make sure everything was in working order. In case they needed it… someone needed it. She felt a little like a grave keeper in that way. Since they didn't have actual graves it was the next best thing.

Wanda's earpiece. And her armored jacket.

Clint's collection of bows, and all his fancy arrowheads.

Sam's old wings. And little Redwing in his charging cradle.

Natasha's M249 SAW. Though she never thought of it as hers. It was the one Bucky always asked to borrow, even when she kept telling him to just keep the damn thing. Especially when he changed out the grip for one that better fit his metal hand.

She was field-stripping the M249 one night that second spring when she heard footsteps echoing off the walls of the equipment bay. She didn't need to look over her shoulder to know that Steve was home. And that he had stopped just a few feet away and was just... watching her.

"Need some light to be doing that?" He asked after he'd stood there for an uncomfortably long amount of time.

"I can do this in the dark." she answered with a rueful smile. "With my eyes closed."

"So could Bucky." His footsteps resumed as he drew closer. "Watched him do it a thousand times."

"Me too. Kept telling him to keep this stupid thing. I hardly ever touched it. It's… too much for me. Not my style. But he loved it."

"He loved you too." Steve said, the words falling like motes of dust in the darkness.

Natasha's hands stopped for a moment, movement halting suddenly like a record skip. She closed her eyes and tried like hell not to shake her head. Steve would always do this after he got back from his therapy and group counseling sessions. The language would cling. The reassurances and the affirmations and the uplifting outlook would stick to him like burrs. She tried to appreciate it, she really did, but it was hard. Especially when he found her like this.

When she didn't respond, Steve moved closer, his heavy motorcycle boots echoing off the polished tile. She looked up at him sidelong when he came up beside the table where she was working. His shoulders were square. His jaw was tight. His eyes were distant, looking at nothing far off in the dark of the field beyond the window.

She knew that look.

Steve had something to tell her. She knew it suddenly and with an icy certainty that weighed in her stomach like a millstone. And furthermore, she wasn't ready to hear it. Whatever it was, she wasn't ready. Not yet… just…

The wheels in her head spun. A distraction… anything…

And thankfully he was thinking along the same lines, rapping his knuckles on the armored straps of Sam's wings as he talked about nothing.

"Y'know in all our time together, I never actually got to fly in these things." He said

"Really?" She cocked her head, but didn't take her eyes off what she was doing.

"He never offered and… well, I don't exactly have the greatest track record as a pilot."

Natasha was blindsided by the little scrap of pitch black humor. So much so that a startled cough of laughter bled from her lips before she could staunch it with her fist. And right on the heels of that laughter was a wave of terrified grief so strong she thought she might choke on it.

This had been building for longer than she'd realized. Shit.

She looked up at him, knuckles still pressed to her teeth and eyes glittering with something unnameable. And he stared down at her in that moment, his face half shadow, but it was not enough to hide the hateful guilt that perched on his tongue.

And just like that they were back on the precipice of admissions wrought of maliceless barbs.

Whatever this was, Natasha couldn't take it. Not yet...

She stood abruptly, the sound of chair legs scraping over the tile nearly deafening them both as she grabbed the harness. "Come on." She said slinging the hardware over one shoulder and tugging on his elbow.

"Nat, I don't know how to use those things." Steve said, still following her despite his protestations, easy as anything.

"That's why you're not going to use them." She said, ripping the side door open and dragging him out onto the training yard. "I am."

Once they were clear of the building, Natasha dropped his arm and slung the flying harness across her shoulders. It took a little fiddling and finagling with the straps and buckles to get the hardware secure on her narrower shoulders, but once she was confident the rig wouldn't fly off without her, she stepped around behind Steve.

"Lemme get on your back." She said, flattening her hands to the tops of his shoulders. He obliged and bent down a smidge as she hopped up to sit piggyback across his broad frame.

"That good?" He asked as she cinched her arms around his shoulders and hugged her knees in against his side.

"Yep. Can you hold on?"

"I've got you." He confirmed, squeezing each of her legs under his arms. "Hey Nat? For real though… how many times have you done this?"

"Oh… like twice at least."

Steve shot her a wide-eyed look of shock as the thrusters roared to life and the wings unfurled. "I'm kidding." She said, kissing the expression from his parted lips. "I used to take these out all the time. Just don't let go of me and you'll be fine."

"I won't let go." Steve replied, his smile returning though he still looked a little apprehensive.

"Good! Here we go!"

The thrusters fired and the two of them launched into the air. Steve's arms cinched painfully tight around her thighs and she clung to his jacket as up up up they went. The air whistled in their ears as they rose towards the starry canopy. Natasha only leveled them out when they were above the treeline and she could bank around to send them sailing up the river.

They didn't talk. They could've shouted back and forth over the roar of the jets, but they opted not to. Talking was too much right now. But this view… the Hudson beneath them, a shimmering band of moonlight instead of water and all the world a beautiful velvet shadow spreading out to the horizon. Everywhere below dots of light twinkled like will-o-the-wisps in the gloom. And everywhere above too. The sky was nothing but dark, diamond-studded glory.

But to Natasha, even more treasured than the view was the feel of Steve beneath her and around her. He was so solid and warm, even as the chilly spring air buffeted them. He was so close. She buried her face in his neck as they banked to follow the river inland. He smelled the same. Better with the crisp air rushing by. He smelled like home. Like security.

And he had something he needed to tell her that he didn't want to tell her.

Even up here there was no escaping that. Not forever.

But still… she could fly pretty fast and pretty far. She could outrun it for now.

Natasha adjusted her grip across his shoulders and tipped them downward into a shallow dive towards the water. The surface was choppy in the wind, but the white caps glittered silver. She took them down and down until they could reach the water, and Natasha put out her hand to skim it, watching as the reflected moonlight tickled her fingers. And when Steve opted to look at her instead of the beautiful water, she kissed him for it. A ghost of warm breath across his temple.

They flew for a long time, following the river, before she turned them west towards the mountains which still wore their snowy caps. The snowfall had been abysmally wet and grey all winter, but now, with only the bright moon to show it, the mountains looked like a postcard. Like the thick blanketing snow of a Russian winter. Pristine and snow white. And just like when she was a girl, Natasha could look at it and not hurt for a moment.

But only a moment.

Eventually, she always had to go back inside. And Sam's wings weren't built for long overland flight, so she knew they needed to get back home.

But rather than touch down back in the training yard, she landed them up on the roof. It was a cool night, but the view was beautiful. And Natasha wasn't ready to go back inside. Not yet. Inside there were… things waiting. Old memories and new worries. But out here? Out here, there were stars.

They were vaguely in the middle of nowhere, and the stars here reminded Natasha of the stars above the Red Room. They were the same stars really. Just shifted ever so slightly south. In the Red Room, the north star was nearly directly overhead, but here… here the star pointed north.

The star pointed north…

She'd been to those stars. And suddenly she wanted to go back. Go sightseeing. Maybe… maybe they could talk Rocket or Carol into it. Wouldn't it be nice to leave this all behind? Just for a little while, and leave all this behind.

"I can't believe I've never thought to come up here." Steve said, watching her shrug out of the flight harness.

"It's beautiful." Natasha agreed, eyes up and her lips bent in a soft, wondering smile in spite of the roiling pit in her stomach. She shivered and did her best to convince herself it was the cold.

Steve took notice, because of course he did, and shrugged out of his leather jacket to wrap it around her. Natasha accepted it gratefully and was fairly swallowed up in the wonderfully soft leather, but she still burrowed under Steve's arm. She could feel him smile as he pressed a kiss against the part of her hair.

"You're really letting it grow out, huh?" He said, winding a lock of it around one finger, watching the color shift as it trailed over his knuckle.

She shrugged as much as she was able as she settled against his ribs. "It was a lot of work keeping the roots from showing. Not really hiding anymore, I guess. Not like that anyway."

"No." Steve said with a faint smile. "It's sounding more and more like you're the new Nick Fury."

"Half hiding and half not." she said.

"You don't sound entirely happy about that."

She gave a weaving sort of bob of her head. "I'm still trying to decide on that one. Didn't really have much time to decide how my public life was gonna look before I had to go back underground."

She felt the air grow thick again… a sort of heavy stiffness between them. A brittle and strange distance that she pushed against, both physically and not. She pushed them both back onto the roof until they were lying flat and she was pooled up at his side. She traced up the line of his calf with the toe of her boot, half to see how he would respond and half as an idle caress. In response he reached over and hooked his finger under her chin to draw her face up to his. His eyes searched hers, finding and catching on all her anxiety… her loneliness… and on the starlight tucked into the depths of her gaze.

He kissed her then, perhaps a little more fiercely than he'd meant to. But she didn't startle or shrink from it. In fact, she seemed to welcome it with literal open arms. He could feel her give as he rolled halfway on top of her. Feel her relax and pull him to her, even closer than he'd initially dared, until he lay between her knees.

It had been a bit of a desperate play, she realized and quickly chastised herself. This was another distraction. The stars and the kissing and whatever they were about to get up to next… just another excuse to not go back inside and discuss the looming thunderstorm. Whatever it was. She actually had no idea, she realized.

But she did, really. Her gut was never wrong about these things.

The clock had wound down.

So she kissed him just as fervently as he had kissed her. A kiss fringed in teeth and want, and she was gratified by the fact that his reaction mirrored hers. His mouth dropped open, inviting her to explore it freely. He drew her in… closer and tighter and up and away from everything they were fleeing. Her legs wrapped around him and he rocked against her. He wasn't hard yet, but the heat seeping through the thin material of her leggings had certainly gotten his blood pumping. And hers too.

"Natasha…" he whispered, his voice little more than a harsh panting against her neck. He wound his fingers in her clothes and in her hair, pulling needily at her.

She kicked her shoes off awkwardly by digging her heels into the metal slats of the roof. Her hands were already at the waistband of her leggings, rather clumsily pulling them off. Normally he'd tease her about them, she thought to herself. But not tonight. Not with all this standing between them. Whatever it was. Nothing was light or funny tonight. Everything had teeth. Even their want.

She got one leg free and had the other down to the knee when he pushed her thighs apart and dove between her legs. Nothing about his tongue was subtle or gentle. It was just white-hot suction on her clit and his insistently tongue wriggling into the tight space of her pussy. The sensation bordered on uncomfortable with no lead up, but she sank her hands into his hair anyway to urge him on. She wanted him. Wanted anything he wanted to give her.

Except whatever it was he needed to tell her.

It wasn't long before she began to warm to his ministrations. He licked her open and thrust his tongue inside as his thumb found her clit, working it in expertly tight little circles. That trick never failed to have her fall apart in his hands. It never took long. Even now when she was cold and barely worked up, she was squirming and writhing under his touch, chasing every sensation he gave her.

She reached down, groping for and finding his elbow. It was her usual signal, when she was deprived of her faculties of speech, that she wanted his fingers. She didn't want him to have to take his time opening her up once she'd come. The sooner she could have him inside her, the better to her mind. She wanted him close. She wanted to suck on his tongue and cling to him as he plowed into her.

He was, as always, happy to oblige. This was going to be fast, he knew. Especially for them. His tongue moved to her clit as his finger breached her. First one, and then two just like always. Just like he knew she needed. It was rote at this point. A perfectly memorized combination of sensations that could have her falling apart in his hands in no time.

And it did. He curled his fingers inside her and swirled his tongue around and around her clit, and she was falling down into the wonderfully hazy abyss of pleasure. It was like a drug. She could never get enough of it.

Steve was somewhere over her. She could feel him and hear him working the fly of his jeans, but couldn't be bothered to open her eyes. Not until he settled between her legs and bumped the head of his flushed cock against the sloppy wet folds of her pussy. She canted her hips just so and he sank in a scant inch, his breath catching. And then he pushed in all the way. All at once.

He moaned and shook as she wrapped him up in her arms, her knees falling wantonly open as he curled his pelvis against hers to sink just that much deeper into the sucking heat of her body. God, there was nothing better than that first moment, save maybe the eventual orgasm or three. Nothing better than feeling Steve Rogers lose all sense of decorum and deference and just… taking. Taking from her, greedy and clutching as he rutted up into her.

She'd give him anything he wanted, of course. Anything at all that she had to give him was his.

Anything that she had.

Everything she had.

But she didn't have everything...

Overhead and far away, movement caught her eye. A meteor, bright and brilliant red, streaked lazily across her view. She gasped, and Steve buried his face in her throat thinking it was him. And it was in a way. Steve had begun plowing into her at a nearly punishing pace, given the hard roof under her back, and it was perfect... and all the while she was staring up at the stars.

And everything in the world was wonderful. Just for a second. She lost herself a little gazing up into the yawning vault of space. She found herself wishing with her pleasure-drunk and anxiety-addled brain that it would just swallow them both up. Carry them away from here. Away from responsibility, and from the people they kept trying and failing to be. Maybe they could find their own garden. Their own Eden… a little farm that grew nothing but peace and sunlight…

She drew his face up to hers and saw the desperate frown that pinched his brow. He seemed to read every line of her face in the pale light. He was like a shadow over her. No starlight caught in his eyes here, but they burned with a fevered light all the same. He stared down at Natasha like she might be magic. A power… a safety that he craved but that was always out of reach, save in these handful of moments they could steal. Just a few.

Could they stay here forever? Here in the cloistered vastness of the star-pierced dark?

No. Of course not.

The dawn would chase them inside, if the mosquitos didn't find them first. Something always moved them from their perfection.

Ultron. The Accords. Thanos…

We have what we have when we have it. That's what she'd always said.

And she only ever said it when she knew she was losing something.

"Natasha…"

Her name. She loved how he would say her name right before he came. It always came out a beautifully broken thing. She cradled his face, kissing those shattered pieces from his lips as his hips lost rhythm. She rode his desperation and his want all the way to a climax of her own. Brilliant and bright, just like the stars that burned overhead.

They lay together for a long time. Usually they would flop apart after they'd both come, letting their sweat cool before they puddled back up together. But tonight they lingered, until Steve had softened enough that he couldn't stay inside of her. Only then did they grudgingly part to redress and sit up. But they still didn't drift far. And strangely they both started laughing and blushing a little at the idea that they'd just had sex on their roof.

"Hope there weren't any security cameras taping that." Steve chuckled, sheepishly smoothing one hand down his jaw.

"Oh there were." Natasha pointed to a spire of cameras out on the training lawn.

He pulled a face, blushing anew. "Oh that poor security guard."

"Nah… it's just me. All the cameras route to my console in the break room, so… I'm the only one who'll see them. Your dirty little secret's safe with me."

"Well… no one keeps secrets better than you." Steve said, trying to make light of the fact that he'd only just realized that she was the only one working security at the compound these days. He'd… forgotten that maybe? Or just not really thought about it.

They were quiet again for awhile, sweat cooling quickly on their skin and driving them even closer together. And that was when Natasha realized they were out of time. Out of distractions and jokes and frivolous conversation. It was time to go back inside.

"Come on." she said, rather stiffly as she scooped up Sam's rig again. "Let me get us down. I'm getting cold."

Steve looked like he wanted to argue. There was probably some quip about, "let me warm you up" perched behind his teeth, but he didn't loose it. Instead he just nodded. He knew it was time too. "Yeah okay."

Once on the ground, they headed back inside the facility to the break room that Natasha was slowly converting into a comm center. A few holo screens, some GPS and comm sat gear… It was coming together. There was a state of the art communication hub above the hangar, but it was designed to be manned by no less than half a dozen operatives. This was easier for just one. And it was closer to the coffee maker.

Steve drifted to the kitchenette as Natasha sat down at the makeshift desk. She'd noticed a blinking message light on her tablet which turned out to be an alert from Rhodey.

"Any news that's new and improved?" Steve asked as he started the electric kettle.

Natasha pouted in thought for a moment before she started reading. "It's Rhodey. Message reads 'A massacre has been reported at a known mobster's counting house in Chicago. No survivors. No witnesses.'

"Mobsters? We getting into the crime fighting business?"

"Not unless it's something weird. So get this. 'No gunfire reported.'"

"I assume they were armed?"

"I mean they're mobsters so it's a safe assumption. But that's not even the weirdest part. Listen to this. 'Though all the victims were heavily armed, it appears no one had time to draw their weapons. The assailant did not use a gun. All fatalities were from slash and stab wounds.'"

Steve spared her a concerned and bewildered frown over one shoulder. "This new?"

"Seems like." Natasha said, scanning the report again. "I'll dig a little deeper and have Rhodey keep an eye on it. I mean… if someone's killing trash like that, I'm all for it. I'd just… y'know. Like to know who they are."

"And if people like that are their only target." Steve added darkly.

"Agreed."

Natasha typed out a reply to Rhodey and then flopped back in her chair, propping one booted foot on the edge of the table. She took a minute to watch Steve in the kitchen. His back was to her, as he was shuffling around looking for mugs and fiddling with the teabags. He was still avoiding whatever it was, and he was getting desperate.

It was time, she decided. And it would be easier to do if she didn't have to face him.

"Alright so… out with it." she said, the words a little more pointed than she really meant them to be.

But he didn't flinch. His reaction was more of a slouch. Just a pull of his shoulders, the way Atlas might sag under his burden. "Out with what?"

"You came down to the training hall earlier to talk about something. But I took us flying instead."

He snorted, back still to her. "That obvious?"

"Only to me." she smirked, but the look faded quick as a morning glory. "Come on, you've been dancing around it all night. We both have."

"Maybe just… because I keep finding better things to do." He said, crossing to pass her a mug of tea which she accepted gratefully. She practically cuddled with it, and with his jacket which she was still wearing.

"Like goofing off with Sam's wings?"

"Among other things." He said, and she could practically taste the galling guilt that dripped from his voice. "I almost don't want to tell you."

"That could be a sign it's a bad idea."

"Maybe."

Natasha sighed. They could almost leave it there. Distract themselves again. But no… the ball was rolling. Only thing left to do was chase it. Or kick it.

"But…?" she pressed.

"But it's the right thing to do." He evaded. "I think…"

"Well, when has that ever been a good idea." Natasha shot back. "Come on, Steve. Out with it."

Steve licked his lips, sucking in a slow breath through his nose. And Natasha watched him debate with himself. She actually saw cowardice on the face of Steve Rogers. And that frightened her more than anything she'd ever witnessed in her long career of facing frightening things.

"I'm… I've been asked to start leading a new support group in the city." He said finally. "In Brooklyn actually. At the V.A."

Her eyebrows crept up. Not really what she expected… and yet… "Really. You leading a support group?"

"Yeah, I… I don't know why they asked me, but-"

"I know why." She interjected in equal parts cynicism and genuine admiration.

"But they've asked me to actually start running some of these group therapy sessions I've been attending."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah… so… what that means… It means I'll be spending more time in the city. Maybe even... staying a few nights a week." Prising the words out sounded more difficult and painful than pulling teeth.

But there it was. The bad news. He wasn't staying at HQ either. He'd found something else to do. It had taken a year, but Steve Rogers had found something else to do besides be an Avenger. It was clearly painful for him to say, but it was no less painful for Natasha to hear it.

"I see." she said, barely managing to keep from clenching her teeth. She didn't want to be bitter. She didn't. But she had been right.

He saw the hurt well up in her eyes, and backpedaled almost instantly. "It would just be a few nights. Sometimes not even that. I just… the meetings are usually in the evenings, and it's a hell of a commute. Especially if the weather's going to keep being awful."

"No, no, I get it." she said, feeling instantly guilty that her reaction made him feel the need to placate her.

"I mean… do you... Would you want to… come with me?" He asked, peeking up at her through his eyelashes, with a look so full of uncertainty that nearly broke her heart.

Natasha swallowed around the question. It was an unexpected offer. She's been nigh certain that he would eventually leave the compound, but she'd never expected him to ask her to come with him. They'd said "I love you." They'd saved one another's lives more times than they'd ever bothered to keep count of. Even her. And she loved to keep count of things like that. Her whole world spun on that calculus. They'd been running together for the better part of the last decade… they were as close as you got. Still no words to hang on it. Still no titles or names or values. But they were what they were.

But moving in together? In a little flat in Brooklyn? Not the Tower, or Wakanda, or HQ, but… just an apartment. Even just "a few nights a week," which she knew was bullshit. That was a big step. Not one she was afraid of making with him. Hell, they'd practically lived together for years at this point. But it had been here. They'd been together here. They'd been the Avengers together here. Not in New York City, trying to find some new breed of normal. What would she even do there? What he was really asking was for her to leave here…

Leave home…

To leave this. Whatever it was...

And what would happen to the facility if she left? Now that Steve was going, she was it. She was the last Avenger left in this place. There would be no one minding their new comm network. No one for Carol to check in with… or Okoye… or Rhodey… or… anyone who needed help...

Natasha spun a little in her chair. The one in front of all the quiet holo screens. It reminded her of Fury's holo-stand on the helicarrier.

That position stood empty too. But she could fill it. She could be that. Someone should...

So after a deep and quaking breath, she shook her head. "I need to stay here." She couldn't look at him when she said it. But it was the truth. And he always told the truth, and now so did she.

Steve blinked in surprise. "Natasha..." he started.

"No, it's okay. You've got your new thing. This is going to be mine." She said, tapping the hand that wasn't holding her mug on the surface of her desk.

"But why?" he asked. "What are you staying for?"

She swallowed thickly, tears pricking at her eyes. "Someone should be here. And that someone should be me if there's no one else. There network we've built is helping people. We're able to keep tabs on things… even more than when SHIELD was still around. We're… we're all trying to figure out how to live in this new world, and it sucks, but I might be able to help it suck a little less. Just… just like you're going to help it suck a little less for the people in your therapy groups." She wasn't certain of what she was saying, but it felt right. It felt…

Like something Steve would say.

She looked up at him with uncertain eyes and found the expression mirrored. They were both unsure of these new paths, but something told them both that what they were doing was right. Maybe only in the broader sense. It might not be right for them together. Maybe that was done.

Maybe this was the gentle "coming undone" that Natasha had asked for. No hard feelings. Just duty and circumstance.

"Besides…" she says brokenly. "What the hell would I do in Brooklyn anyway?"

"Okay." Steve relented at last. "But if you change your mind… Y'know. Or you could just come visit me in the city. It'll be just like…" The words caught in his throat as if they were made of fish hooks.

"Old times." she finished for him. "Sure. I'll think about it."

And just as surely as Natasha had known that Steve was lying about it just being a few times a week that he would stay in the city, he knew she was lying about thinking about coming to visit. Neither needed to say it. And they didn't hold it against each other. These things happened when big changes came. And this was the biggest.

They were lying to each other.

Natasha abandoned her tea mug and rose to meet him, just listing against him and tucking herself into her favorite hiding place against the column of his throat.

"I'll keep the sheets changed on your bed." She said.

That earned her a small puff of laughter against the part of her hair. "You should probably change them on your bed." He said, the saddest smile in his voice. "Since that'll be where I'm coming back to."

"Come upstairs?" she asked, looking up at him and letting herself sag across his shoulders to feel the press of his broad hands across her back. "Or do you need to go back?"

Steve shook his head, leaning to drop a kiss on her upturned mouth. "I can stay tonight. I've got an appointment in the morning though."

"Then shouldn't you get back?"

He shook his head, rubbing his nose against hers. "No… I think this is where I want to be tonight."

Something in Natasha released a little at that. He at least wanted to be here, even if he couldn't be. Just like she was going to fantasize about taking a little trip to the city to see Steve. Even though she couldn't. She tried to convince herself that maybe she would… but she was fooling herself, she knew. There was too much of him in her now for that to ever be true. But she wasn't going to think of any of that just now. Right now, Steve was here and she wanted to enjoy it.

"Come on." she said, weaving their hands together and dragging him upstairs.

***

Natasha came to grudgingly the following morning. She didn't open her eyes, could tell it was morning. But she could also feel Steve's body tucked in and around and under hers. He wasn't awake yet anyway. His breathing was easy and deep. And he was still. So still. It was a secure and wonderfully familiar feeling. And if she just kept her eyes closed, then it wasn't morning. And he wasn't leaving.

So she could just enjoy it.

You're being silly. she chastised herself. You're acting like this is some dramatic American high school breakup.

And here in the slowly creeping daylight, she could admit that she felt a little more confident about where she stood. And about where she was making her stand. He had things to do and so did she. They would sometimes be apart and they would sometimes be together. Just… it was probably… eventually… going to be more apart than together. At least for awhile.

But maybe just for awhile. And she was holding down the fort until then. She was keeping the doors open for anyone who wanted to come back. But especially for him. Probably mostly for him now, if she was being honest, and he was the one who taught her about honesty.

Steve eventually started to rouse. A long slow breath shifted him under her, but it only served to pull her closer. And tuck his swelling erection into its familiar place in the hollow of her hip.

She actually felt him freeze a little at the contact, and she gave a nigh instinctual roll of her pelvis to encourage him. He met it with a sleepy, languid grind of his own.

"Good morning."

"It is." She agreed.

"You're going to make me late."

Natasha smiled against his throat and nipped at the skin there. "You don't even know what time it is."

"I know I want you." He said, shifting over her. "And that I like to take my time."

"You could always let me suck you off." she offered. "Then you don't get the option of taking your time."

He turned and buried his face in her hair. "I want you up here where I can kiss you."

"Fair enough." she said, hooking her thumbs in her underwear as he shucked his own. On a split second impulse, she flung a leg over his thighs and flipped them. He let her, easy as anything, just like always, she and pulled the sheet up over her shoulders as she rocked forward to let the swollen lips of her pussy drag over his length.

He was always so hard in the morning. His morning wood did not fuck around, and she loved it.

She would miss it when he wasn't here.

She would miss him...

Thoughts like that were poison, she knew. So to distract herself she canted her hips up and sat on his cock in a single hiss-inducing thrust. It stung, but it felt like it should sting a little. And it stung in the best way… that pinch that bled into a wonderfully heavy aching.

"Careful, Nat." he said, his voice sounding none too careful at all. His hands certainly didn't feel careful, his powerful fingers eating into her oversensitive skin.

She pitched herself forward, resting her forehead against his and holding onto his shoulders as she set up a deep, almost scooping sort of rocking motion with her hips. One that chased every word from both their mouths, leaving them panting and moaning humidly against each others' skin.

Steve wound his arms about her and she pulled the sheets down taut around them. They weren't kissing anymore, but their breath still mingled. Their skin was pressed together everywhere and in every way it could be. And she felt so full. Her skin felt tight with it… as if he were stretching her open further and further…

"Steve…" she moaned brokenly.

"I've got you, Natasha." He said, his arms squeezing even tighter.

Only then did she sink her hands into his hair and kiss him. She kissed that promise from his lips. Because this was Steve Rogers and he was always honest. No matter what, his word was good. He had her. He would always have her. She could tell herself a thousand stories about what she was and what she was becoming, but this was the beginning of it. Steve was her cover. He had her. Always.

Her orgasm surprised her and surprised him in turn. They came together, hotly moaning into the shadows where they pressed together. She could feel him flooding up inside her as she milked his pleasure from him. And she clung to him. She squeezed up tight around him where he still furiously pumped into her. She inhaled him, pulling the smell of his sweaty skin down into her core like a waft of incense.

And she tried like hell not to feel like this was any sort of a last time. It wasn't. That was stupid. He would probably be back tonight.

But it was a hard feeling to shake.

It might not be the last time. But things would be different from here on in.

They rolled apart as they panted for breath, but not that far apart, just like up on the roof. Even in spite of the cooling sweat and mutual stickiness, they weren't ready to be apart. Not yet… just a few more minutes like this.

It should have been a sign.

But finally, Steve reached over and grabbed his phone.

"Shit… yeah, I'm gonna be late." he laughed and started to roll out of bed. Natasha let him slip from her grasp, not really having the strength to put up an argument. Especially not post orgasm.

"You need a shower?"

"Don't think I'll have time." He said, pawing around in the sheets and finding his underwear. "Not with traffic the way it is."

She just nodded, wilting against the pillows again.

"Hey, leave the light on for me, okay?" he said, pulling his jeans on. "I'll be back kind of late."

The corner of her mouth threatened to smile. "Of course. I'll be here. I'll probably be up too, if Okoye's got news for me."

Steve rooted around in her drawers and found a clean shirt he'd left in there. She'd washed it with her laundry, after stealing it for herself. She sometimes slept in it.

"Well… wish me luck." he said, once he was decent. "I've got my appointment, but then I'm braving apartment hunting in Brooklyn."

She did smile then, but it was hollow. "Good luck then."

He looked at her for a moment, and Natasha almost felt as if he was expecting her to ask to tag along. He had invited her to move to Brooklyn with him after all. And for the span of a breath, she reconsidered. She saw that little flat in her mind and with her heart. With the sunshine coming in the windows and the noisy street below… heard the record player and smelled the coffee in the morning…

They could have that. Clint had gotten it for awhile, so why not them? It would be new. It would be different...

But she couldn't have it either. Not with everything as it was. The person that would live there in that apartment and wear her skin wasn't her. Her place was here. Mostly because it was no place else. And this was no one else's either. Not anymore. She was it. She was all that was left.

The last Avenger. Natasha Romanoff.

"I'll text you when I leave Brooklyn." Steve said, breaking her from her reverie.

"Alright." She said, looking up at him. He was dressed and she was still half naked in bed, wrapped up in the sheets with sweat still cooling on her orgasm-flushed skin.

Steve crossed around to her side of the bed, scooped up her face in both hands and kissed her. And she let him. Let him have her mouth as surely as he would always have all of her.

And then, as he started to slip away from her and head towards the door, she found her voice.

"Hey Steve?" she called, her voice loud in her own ears.

He paused and turned. "Yeah?"

I love you, perched itself quite naturally on the tip of her tongue, but it didn't taste right. It was too sweet and too smooth for a goodbye like this. No. Something else needed to be said. Something they hadn't needed to say in a long long time, so the words when she spoke them came out like an old incantation. Dusty and disused. But still heavy with old meaning. An old ritual of parting.

Their old ritual of parting.

"Be careful, Steve." she said, her voice cracking at the edges.

Steve's face changed then. The angles hardened and his eyes turned glacially sad. He understood then. Not that he hadn't before, but he'd been ignoring it. Trying to press past it. Because that was Steve and that was how he handled difficult things.

"Natasha..." he immediately started in on a denial of what she was thinking.

But she was having none of it. She shook her head, scattering her mismatched tresses over her shoulders, and pinched her lips together until they disappeared. "Say it." she whispered brokenly, not looking at him.

All the air rushed out of him on the saddest sigh. He dropped his temple against the doorframe and stared for a moment. But then he spoke. Because he knew she was right. "Be careful, Nat." he said, the words little more than reluctant ghosts.

"I will." she replied.

He crossed the room in three quick, powerful steps and kissed her again. Warm and chaste, but all too quick. And then he slipped out the door, still smelling like her.

Natasha showered and dressed before she headed downstairs. The coffee pot was still on and was still half full where Steve had made coffee for the both of them like he always did. Like this was any other morning. Like he wasn't late for an appointment in Brooklyn followed by hunting for a new home. Like all this was normal.

And Natasha didn't grudge it for an instant. She was grateful. There would come a point where she would come downstairs to no coffee, she realized. It would be the first time in years. She swallowed mightily against the realization as she poured herself a cup and headed for her makeshift workstation.

Her mug of tea that he had made her was still there on the desk. It had gone cold of course, but she quickly drank it down before starting in on her cup of coffee. It, like the coffee, was something Steve had made for her, and she felt bad for not drinking it. These things were a luxury to be savored now.

He'd left his jacket too. It was still draped across the back of her chair where she'd left it last night. She blinked at it, a sudden realization dawning on her. He'd ridden his motorcycle back to New York City without a jacket.

Because he'd left it for her.

So of course she pulled it on, incongruous as it was over her lounge clothes. She pulled it on and put her nose in the collar and breathed in the cold smell of him.

Sam's wings were also waiting on the desk, right where she'd left them last night. She fingered the straps, feeling the worn grooves where the buckles and adjustments had normally sat to accommodate Sam's broader shoulders. She'd had to tighten it a good bit to fit her for their little flight of fancy. She set her coffee down and got to work loosening them back into their usual fitting.

Just in case. She had borrowed them, after all. So she needed to put them back. Just in case.

Just in case...

This was just for a little while, she reminded herself. All of this was just for awhile.

Or maybe she just hoped it was. But either way, hope had to be good enough. It was all she had left now.

***

I must wrap my world around me and leave you where you are.
I can't believe I've lost you after flying half this far,
but it was just a stolen season in a lovely house of cards.

***

Chapter Text

***

I thought I knew this game,
thought I'd lure you from your winter wood before I knew your name.
It turns out neither one of us is prey
'cause I'd barely aimed my arrow when you carried me away.
We were all the ways that fools rush in.
If I could spare the blood, I'd surely winter here again,
but they'll be missing me outside.
It's been half a stolen season and a roller coaster ride.

By moonlight and by winter's throne,
I call upon your oath to let me go.

***

It was summer again. Somehow.

A year had flickered by, and Natasha had barely marked it. Time didn't register in weeks or months for her anymore, but it did move in seasons. Just not the usual ones. The weather outside was incidental to her life. Day and night barely mattered in the way they used to. Now? In Natasha's world? It was either "mission" season or "observation" season. Time for a briefing or time for training and research. Time to work, or time to prepare for work. Nothing else mattered. Just her position. Just her mission. Just the job.

She showered once a day, slept when she was tired, and went to the grocery store when she ran out of coffee. And that was it really outside of work. In fact, she barely noticed the world outside the giant glass window behind her comm station. Sometimes it rained, and sometimes it was sunny, and for a long time it snowed nearly every day. If she hadn't had the Quinjet to get out of the compound by air, she would have had to dig her way from the front door at one point. But she rarely ever left unless it was for a mission or a grocery run anyway. And while she was snowed in, she just lived on peanut butter sandwiches until the snow melted enough to let her through to town. Nearly a month...

There was no staff left at headquarters really, save the janitorial and maintenance people that came in once a week. Sometimes the lab crew would come in, either to borrow equipment or to help do analysis or follow-up for a mission, but they rarely stayed more than a few days. They'd all found other work. Rhodey stopped by when he could, but he was keeping tabs on the situation in DC. It was helpful to have him down there, truth be told. Steve was around more often, and happy to help out on missions that needed a little muscle. But as Natasha predicted, he was actually staying at HQ less and less. Now it was just a few nights a week… less than half the time.

By the time spring rolled soggily around again, usually, and especially in the evenings, it was just Natasha and her quiet comm channel.

That channel became her anchor point after a few months. Everything she did revolved around it. She always kept it open. Always. Sometimes if only to keep her company. Something to fiddle with when the stillness crept in. When Steve wasn't in the compound, she practically lived in the break-room. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the kitchenette. Some of her bed clothes permanently migrated down to the couch. And more often than not, she used the gym shower rather than her own.

But only when Steve wasn't there.

And he increasingly wasn't.

At night, when the facility halls would get uncomfortably quiet and Natasha knew there wouldn't be a call coming til Rhodey's morning check-in, she often thought of Steve, equally alone in his Brooklyn apartment that she knew she would never see. She especially gravitated to that particular musing when she was trying to remember to take care of herself. If she thought about him puttering around his apartment, it helped her remember to putter around the Avengers HQ too. It made her feel more… grounded. More like doing the things she needed to do. Thinking of Steve making coffee. Putting on a record. Staring out the window. Making a sandwich. It helped.

Sometimes the little things were hardest.

Especially since Clint hadn't answered his phone in almost six months.

Natasha had gone to the farm after a month had passed with no word, but he was nowhere to be found. Their cars were still there. Clothes were still there. Clint's go-bag was still under the bed. All of it was covered in a thin layer of dust.

And most worryingly, his bow was still there. Still in its case. Still in its place behind the door. Quiver and glove too. All ready at a moment's notice.

But he was gone.

It was nauseating. Standing there in that empty house, listening to the old wood creak around her. There wasn't even a note. Clint was just gone. If she hadn't been in touch with him after the Snap, she would have thought he was dust too. She'd tried to call him every day after that. His cellphone always went straight to voicemail, but after the first one she didn't leave any more. What else could she say that she hadn't already said then.

Call me. I'm worried. I love you.

But it had been six months, and she'd heard nothing.

Six long months of gray dismal nothing. A few missions. Little things. Milk runs by comparison to her old life. Even her older old life… the one with Strike Team Delta. Her life before Iron Man or The Avengers any of it. The world was just little problems now. Kidnappings… warlords… All things solvable with just a little leverage and coverticy. And sometimes a few bullets. She was happy to supply all of it.

Natasha supposed she should be grateful, and to her credit she certainly tried to be. She tried to see the glass half full. Steve tried to coax her towards it as well. He always had a hard time shedding the therapy-speak when he'd come back to the compound after spending a few days in the city. But the outside perspective he brought helped her keep her head up. Maybe there was something to all this after all. He was probably helping people far worse off than her. Or maybe it was just him being there that helped.

It certainly helped her. At least for a little while. But it never lasted.

So the holding pattern continued. For weeks. And for months.

And then it all suddenly shattered during a briefing in late August.

It had started off normal enough. Captain Danvers, Rocket, and Nebula had finally routed a gang of space pirates who had been terrorizing some of the outer planets in what had been the Nova Corp section of space. Wherever and whatever Nova Corp was. It sort of sounded like the U.N. but with aliens. Natasha was getting used to all the space stuff, but she would forever and always have to stifle a giggle every time someone said "space pirates" with a straight face.

Likewise, Natasha and Rhodey had run a group of international drug smugglers to ground and handed them over to the newly reformed U.N. security council. Minimal casualties all around. It didn't sound as impressive as chasing down space pirates, but given how everyone seemed to talk about both events in the same dismissive tone, Natasha tried not to feel too down on herself. Space pirates there. Drug smugglers here. It was just another day at the office for everyone.

She still wanted to go on that space vacation though. She'd even be willing to make it one of those working vacations and chase down some space pirates of her own. One of these days… when the world didn't need saving. Or was it just maintenance at this point?

"Well," Natasha let the word out on a sigh before polishing off her coffee with one hand and striking through the last line of her agenda with the other. "That's all from me. Anybody else got anything?"

"I may have a lead on our stab-happy vigilante." Rhodey replied, his image dipping out of the hologram frame as he reached off-screen.

"Yeah?" Natasha leaned forward with an interested little half-smile.

"Seems he's gotten sloppy. Let someone catch him on video." Rhodey had picked up his tablet and was flicking at it with one finger. "I'm sending you the file now." As he spoke, a loading bar appeared for everyone as he continued. "Caught him in an old Soviet era warehouse in northern Krakow."

Natasha's brows shot up. "Krakow? He hopped the pond?"

"Apparently. But it's another human trafficking bust, so it's still on brand for him."

Natasha inclined her head. "He does have a type."

"Any chance we can get him to break atmo?" Carol asked, folding her arms. "I'd love to turn him loose in Knowhere right now."

"Hey… there's some honest criminals in there too." Rocket sniped. "That guy's a psycho."

"Whatever." she tossed back.

"This wouldn't be more than a footnote, except this is the first time he's gone international." Rhodey pointed out. "The feds stateside seem willing, at least so far, to turn a blind eye so long as he's actually helping. But the U.N. security council? They're not so live and let live with this sort of thing. They feel like they've got a job to do, and it should only be their job."

"Seems reasonable. Technically the Accords are still in play." Natasha replied, just as the file finished loading and auto-played for everyone.

It was a security cam feed from a makeshift office in what appeared to be a Soviet era factory or warehouse. Concrete walls with peeling paint. High windows, some of which were broken out. Some mismatched furniture scattered around. A man with slicked hair and a boxer's build sat at the desk, bent over a computer and typing away. There was about thirty seconds of this before one of the windows shattered and another man, clad from head to toe in black leather with a hood covering his face, swung in like Errol Flynn with sword in hand.

He was fast. Not enhanced-fast. Not Steve-fast. But faster than the man sitting at the desk. And agile. Before the man could grab his gun from the desk drawer, the intruder brandished his single-bladed sword and practically flew at him. There was barely a scuffle. Just a quick slice and run-through that brought the attacker down over his victim. It looked like the man in black leaned down in the victim's ear and whispered something before withdrawing his sword, to calmly wipe it down and sheath it again. The man at the desk slid to the floor in a dark and expanding puddle of his blood as his killer ran back to the window to rappel down to the street below.

Natasha had never thought of herself as being grateful for the training she received in the Red Room. She'd never resented it, but she'd never been truly grateful for some of the abilities they had molded onto her. But she was now. She was grateful for the fact that she could willingly dissociate herself from her emotions. She hadn't done it in so long, but she did it now. She retreated from her own face, leaving it a perfect, unwavering mask. Serene and alive. Her eyes blinked, her mouth moved, and her head tilted, all as fluid and as natural as could be.

But she was far away. Beneath that mask, the gears in her magnificent mind turned a thousand miles an hour.

Because she recognized that sword.

It was Clint's.

She remembered when he got it. Remembered it crystal clear… as if it had been yesterday. It was back in their Strike Team Delta days. A mission to Osaka. Clint had attempted to disarm a Yakuza boss with his bow, but lost it in the scuffle. Then he'd gotten his hands on a katana that had been mounted on the wall and used it to run the boss through. And being ever so proud of his improvisation, Clint had kept the sword, swearing he'd learn to use it one of these days.

But surely not… surely not now. It was a grainy video. How could she be sure… maybe it… maybe...

Natasha kept it all off her face. She breathed and focused on what Rhodey was saying. He had information, and maybe that would give some context to what she'd just seen. Or thought she'd seen. Maybe she was mistaken? It was all static in her head. On the surface she listened to Rhodey, but beneath her mind churned.

They had video of Clint. He'd been in Poland. He was alive. She just needed to find him. Get him to stop whatever vigilante bullshit this was and come home.

Oh the irony.

"His face is covered, obviously." Rhodey was saying. "So we can't get an ID. No fingerprints. Shoes are smooth so no treads, but Interpol did get a size at least. And we have a rough height and build from the video. Doesn't give us much, but it's more than we've had since he cropped up a year ago."

"Do we think he's enhanced?" Okoye asked.

"Doesn't seem likely?" he replied. "At least not from the video. But he has training of some kind. That's for damn certain. But it's hard to pinpoint what kind… could be Spec. Ops. Could be paramilitary. That sword though, man. That's a choice."

"We should keep tracking him." Natasha said neutrally. "Might be better for one of us to get him rather than Interpol or the FBI. There's less chance of casualties."

"Agreed." Rhodey said. "Again… sorry it's not more, but it's more than we've gotten in a year."

"Thanks Rhodey." Natasha replied with utmost sincerity. "Stay on it for us, alright?"

"You got it, boss."

Natasha felt herself smile involuntarily at that. Rhodey always called her "boss." She'd felt a little strange about it at first but it had grown on her.

"If there's nothing else?" Natasha looked to all the hologram screens and everyone was shaking their head. "Same time next month?"

"Same time next month." everyone chorused back.

"This channel's always open. I'll be here if you need me. Take care everyone. Romanoff out."

"Good night. Rhodey out."

"Good morning." Okoye grinned. "Wakanda out."

"Catch you later. Rocket out.

"See you next time. Danvers out."

And that left Natasha alone, bathed in the blue glow of her blank holo-screens. And the moment they were gone, the dread descended like a mudslide, carrying her facade of calm with it. For a moment, she could only breathe. Could only will air into her lungs and back out again. She might've been shaking, but she couldn't feel her body. Everything was numb. Like the first seconds after a concussing blow stretched out to a horrible eternity.

Clint was killing people. In droves. By the dozens. No chance for repentance. No chance for reform. No questions or conversation at all before the killing blow.

She shook her head hard. So hard her vertebrae popped. This wasn't Clint. This wasn't her Clint who had given her a chance.

He was gone too. Just like Steve. But unlike Steve, he was going to get himself killed. She had to find him.

"V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A.? Please play the video again." She asked, her voice high and stretched as she spun in her chair to squarely face the holo-screens.

"Yes ma'am." The security footage restarted, and Natasha forced herself to keep breathing while she waited for Clint to come back into frame. If it was Clint. She still couldn't quite believe it. Or just flat didn't want to.

The figure in the hood came sailing through the window again with sword drawn, brandishing it overhead in both hands.

"V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A. freeze video."

The image froze with with Clint halted in midair, the dim light catching on the edge of the blade.

"V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A.? Please run this image through your noise cancellation filters."

The image sharpened and brightened considerably.

"Complete, Agent Romanoff."

"Brighten, please."

The shadows filled in. "Complete, Agent Romanoff."

"Please enhance sound."

"Done, ma'am"

"Resume play."

The video started again and Clint launched himself at the man behind the desk. The boss barely had time to twitch in the direction of his gun before Clint had him spitted. And then he leaned down in his victim's ear and whispered in a voice so rough, Natasha barely recognized it as his.

"I'm told that Thanos called his purge fairness. Fairness is not what we needed. We clearly needed justice. The rest of the world got Thanos. You just get me."

And then he ripped the sword out sending a spray of ink-dark blood flying, and disappeared out the window.

"V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A.? Run it back to where I had you paused before."

The video rewound.

"Pull S.H.I.E.L.D. files for Strike Team Delta. Mission dossier for Osaka. 2003. Target was Inazuma Matsuo."

"Is this what you're looking for, ma'am?" V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A. asked as a file populated across her secondary holo-screen.

"Yes, this is the one. Find me a picture of the katana Clint picked up, and compare it to the weapon seen here."

There was a flash of various evidence photographs as V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A. did her work, but eventually the A.I. found what she was looking for.

"Match confirmed, Agent Romanoff. It would appear to be the same sword. Shall I inform Col. Rhodes?"

Natasha shook her head and had to swallow hard on the rising lump in her throat before she could speak. "No… It… It can wait until morning."

It had all been for show. And all for herself. Especially the sound enhancement. She'd known it was him. She'd just wanted to hear his voice, even though she hadn't wanted to believe it. But there was no denying the truth now. This masked vigilante was none other than Clint Barton.

She couldn't be sure how long she sat there with this revelation weighing her down in her chair. It was unthinkable. What was Clint doing? Why would he do this? And without her? Without anyone!

It was really only then that Natasha realized that she'd barely glimpsed the reality of Clint's suffering in the wake of the loss of his family. She had tried to pay attention, but she had also tried to give him space since that seemed to be what he wanted. But as it turned out it had been the exact opposite of what he needed. She and the rest of what remained of the Avengers had given him space, and this is what had grown in that space. This… demon. An old demon.

One she recognized because she'd had the very same compulsion once. She knew what it was to feel that she could only do one thing. Only be one thing. To have all choice seemingly stripped away by the things she was capable of.

She remembered it all too well. She had been that once. Maybe she still was that. It was a question that had never been answered. Not really. And now it reared its head again. If Clint Barton, her savior, could fall this far, then couldn't she fall farther? Could someone as stained as she was have a prayer of bringing Clint back from this?

Only if she went at it alone...

Her eyes fell on her burner phone. It lived on her desk when she was down here. Which meant that's where it usually was along with the scrap of fabric that had once been the star on Steve's uniform.

She picked it up, swallowing at the panicked tears threatening to form in her eyes, and she called the only number in the contact list.

Steve.

One ring.

Two rings.

Three rings.

Four rings.

And then something happened that had never happened before. A woman's voice comes on the line, familiar and mechanical.

Voicemail.

It's the generic voicemail message and the number mechanically recited. Because why would he have ever set up a different message? This phone never went to voicemail. Ever.

Until that moment.

The beep came at the end of the greeting and Natasha found she had no idea what to say.

"Steve." she said, startled at how broken her own voice sounded. "I… It's Clint. I… we found him… it's him… the one killing people? With… the one with the sword. He fucked up and got on camera. He was in Poland and… Steve?"

She nearly bit her tongue in half before she could ask, "Where are you?" Instead, she snapped the phone shut and let it tumble out of her numb fingers back onto the table.

He hadn't answered. The reality of it slipped down her spine like ice. Steve hadn't fucking answered the burner. For the first time ever. Part of her wanted to panic. To throw the tracking on and jump in the Quinjet.

But the calmer part of her mind, the part that lived behind her perfect Black Widow's mask, glanced at the clock. It was 8pm on the dot.

Ah.

Steve was in a group session. She didn't know his schedule exactly, but somehow she knew. Just knew that was where he was. He was in the middle of his new mission now. And so that meant he wasn't answering the phone like he used to.

She truly couldn't say how long she stayed there, sitting at the quiet comm station and staring at the phone. It was a long time. She cried for part of it. And then didn't cry. Sat there unblinking until her eyes itched and ached.

And then she went upstairs to shower.

The phone stayed on the desk.

Her ears rang with the quiet in her room, but she couldn't bring herself to do anything about it. She should call Rhodey, but she knew that she would be completely incoherent. So she went upstairs. She couldn't be down here right now. Not in the same room as that phone. V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A. would wake her if something happened. She didn't need to be here and she couldn't right now.

So she went upstairs to her room. She showered. She brushed her teeth. And then she changed into pajamas. Just her underwear and one of Steve's shirts. She was hurting, but she still just wished he was there.

But he had therapy late that night, obviously. He would stay in Brooklyn.

Where he belonged.

He didn't belong here anymore. Just like Clint didn't think he belonged here anymore.

No one stayed at the facility anymore.

It was just her.

The last Avenger.

Of all of them it was her.

There were more tears before a fitful sleep claimed her. She didn't even bother to wipe them away. Just let them fall on the pillow or soak into her shirt. Steve's shirt.

She pulled it up, pressing it to her tear soaked face and inhaled. Even though it was clean, she could still smell him. Through the tears and the detergent. It still smelled like him.

And she let herself miss him as she finally fell asleep.

***

Steve stood at the door of the V.A. seeming not unlike a preacher as he mechanically shook the hands of his "congregants" as they headed out from that evening's group session.

"Good night, Desmond." He said with hand outstretched.

"Good night, Steve." came the almost ritual response.

"Good night, Alli."

"Thanks Steve. Have a good night."

"Good night, Aaron."

"Thanks… sorry I was a mess tonight." The man was still a little red-faced from the ugly crying jag he'd gone on while talking about, of all things, an automated email he'd received reminding him to sign his son up for football practice in the fall. His son who was gone.

Steve felt himself mechanically shake his head and give a perfectly charming and reassuring smile. "You weren't a mess."

Aaron smiled back looking a little relieved at the reassurance. "It's getting easier. Talking about it, I mean."

"That's the whole point." Steve said with a pleased nod of his head. "See you on Thursday?"

"Yeah. See you Thursday. Have a good night."

Joseph, the administrator of the therapy groups at the V.A., was bringing up the rear of the line. He only spoke after the last person had left. "Y'know, I don't know if anyone's ever actually said it, but you're good at this."

Steve just lifted a shoulder and studied the tops of his motorcycle boots.

"No, I'm serious. You have a real knack for this. For leading the conversation. For getting people where they need to go." Joseph pressed on. "Seriously dude. You've really never done any training for this?"

Steve just gave a slow shake of his head, now pondering the texture of the concrete under his boots. "Not really. Just… It's the same skill set, I guess. Getting people where they need to go. Keeping them on their feet when they get there."

"Same skill set as Avenging, you mean?"

"Yeah. I guess so."

"Well, wherever you get it from, keep it up. You're gonna wind up with my job one day. If I ever retire."

Steve's mouth pulled in a not quite smile as he unwittingly considered the idea. It wouldn't be bad truth be told. He was building a place for himself here. And it wouldn't be the first time he'd thought about it. He could see it taking shape. He already had a few walls up… an apartment. A job. No dog yet, but in time?

But something in him soured at the thought, so he said nothing either way. He just kept admiring the ground as he adjusted his bag over his shoulder, and when he did, he felt a faint vibration. The barely-there smile turned to a frown as he reached inside and pulled out…

Natasha's phone.

There was a voicemail.

On the burner phone.

Oh shit.

He'd let the burner phone go to voicemail.

"Everything alright?" Joseph asked, reading the look on his face plain as day.

"Yeah. Yeah, everything's good." Steve said, the frown self consciously melting from his face. "Just… family stuff."

Joseph smiled in turn. "I gotcha. Have a good night, Steve. See you in the morning."

"See you in the morning." Steve said.

He waited until Joseph was inside his car with the door closed before he cracked open the phone and listened to the voicemail. After the tinny automated menu greeting Natasha's crackling voice came across the line. But it wasn't crackling from static or interference. She was crying.

Suddenly, his shoes felt like they were filled with ice water and the tide was swiftly rising.

"Steve." Her voice cracked across the fault line of his name. "I… It's Clint. I… we found him… it's him… the one killing people? With… the one with the sword. He fucked up and got on camera. He was in Poland and… Steve?"

And the line went dead. Like she'd just given up on trying to tell a machine what was going on. But it was enough.

Steve checked the time on the voicemail.

Two hours ago?

Jesus.

Right when the group session had started. He'd missed the call because the phone was in his bag, not in his pocket. Shit.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

He immediately called her back, but it went straight to voicemail. He tried again. And again.

Nothing.

It would serve him right. He shook his head before burying his face in his palms. She'd called him when she'd needed him. And he'd promised to always be there.

And now he'd broken that promise.

He looked at the phone, and then at his motorcycle.

It was a little after 10pm. And it was well over an hour's drive to Avengers HQ.

He could do it in less.

***

Steve hit the facility doors at a dead sprint. He didn't even bother to put his bike away in the hangar. He just left it laying on its side in the grass out front. It was almost midnight, but if he was lucky she might still be…

Natasha wasn't in her makeshift command center. Her phone lay on the desk along with a star-shaped scrap of canvas. Steve paused and stared at it, feeling its presence there and not with her upstairs as the deepest and most cutting condemnation.

And most assuredly deserved.

But Steve didn't linger. He ran for her room, taking the stairs two at a time. The door was unlocked, and he opened it as quietly as he could, schooling his heaving breath as he did so. It wouldn't do to scare her. She was probably already asleep.

And she was. The light from the hallway sliced into the room to show Natasha as just a dark lump in her bed. The fall of her hair visible was beneath the sheets, spilling across the pillowcase like fresh blood. She really was letting it grow out. It was taking some getting used to after all the years of blonde. Her sleep seemed shallow and fitful, her fingers twitching in the air and clutching at nothing. Her eyes darting restlessly beneath her eyelids.

And it was here that Steve truly paused and looked. He questioned what on earth he could hope to accomplish by going to her now. He was late. Too late. He hadn't answered the phone. And he'd promised. And now he just wanted to fix it.

But could he?

Could he wipe out his negligence? His inattention? His faithlessness? He had to try. She had called him, and he was here. Late, but wasn't there a saying about that? He only hoped it was true.

Steve lowered himself gingerly down onto the mattress beside her. Just sitting, but that alone was enough to make her wake her from her shallow sleep.

"Steve?" she croaked, her voice rusty from sleep and, as much as Steve didn't want to hear it, from tears. Even in the dimness he could see the dried tear tracks down her face. The stains on her pillow and her shirt...

"Hey, it's just me." He said reaching for her hand.

She met him halfway, pawing the covers back and dragging him towards her. It was an awkward stumble as Steve kicked his shoes off and let himself be pulled into bed with her. Beside her was his intention. He wanted to spoon her up next to him. Cradle her. Cuddle her. Try to provide her some reassurance that his negligence was just circumstance. That he cared… that he loved…

But she rolled so that his knee hit the bed between her thighs and she caught him with all four limbs, wrapping around him like a climbing vine and just holding on. Steve barely kept from crushing her, catching himself on his elbows as his body slotted down against hers. God, it was so wonderfully familiar… She was...

She was wearing his shirt, he realized. His shirt and her underwear and nothing else.

He couldn't answer her damn phone, but she still slept in his SSR shirt.

"Fuck." he swore hands sliding up under the material to grasp her ribcage and hold her tight against him.

"Steve…" she said, his name a broken thing on her lips, and he kissed the bitterness of it from her mouth. She clung to him as he licked between her teeth, giving him sweet, bereft sounds to swallow whole.

And he did. He would swallow up her grief if he could. Leave her smiling and content again.

"I'm so sorry…" he said, the words hot and humid between them. "I'm so-"

She didn't let him say it twice. She ate the apology from his lips with teeth bared turning them into a moan so filled with longing she could taste it. Steve wanted to keep apologizing. Wanted to tell her how sorry… how embarrassed he was. But she didn't let him. She was just grateful to have him there. She was clinging to him with all her limbs, nails dug in and muscles straining until she'd closed every space between them.

And of course his body reacted. Who's body wouldn't? Natasha Romanoff was clinging to him, pressing every curve and dimple against him, her skin's warmth seeping through his clothes like water. He kissed her neck. Kissed her collarbones. And he trembled. He actually shook as he touched her, so shocked at his own need that he couldn't do anything but moan her name.

"Natasha… Natasha…" He wanted to keep apologizing but she censured him with another kiss before he could even get a word out.

"I want you in me." she said finally, the words muffled against the line of his jaw.

The request was so simple. Like the mixture for gunpowder. Or nitroglycerin. Steve's breath caught in his ribs and he felt every hair on his body stand on end when she whispered those words in his ear. She wanted him. She wanted him still, and he wanted her. Ravenously. Feverishly. And guiltily too.

He didn't deserve to be welcomed home like this. He didn't deserve her warm and open beneath him. He should apologize. And then apologize some more. On his knees. On his face. Again and again before he dared touch her like this.

But here in the cloistered dark of her room, where her grief still hung in the air so thick he could barely breathe, he couldn't do it. He couldn't stop himself from giving her what she wanted. He had failed her... but he wouldn't fail her in this. He could give her this simple thing she wanted now. They'd deal with the actual apologies and all the rest in the morning.

Steve worked a hand down between their compacted bodies, until he could push her panties aside and press the pads of his fingers against the lips of her pussy. She wasn't wet. Not even close, but she gripped his elbow and ground against his hand like she was. Moaned for him like she was. She would probably let him take her like this, if he was so inclined. It wouldn't be the first time.

But no. Not tonight. Not like this.

"Easy." he breathed the word into her hair as he withdrew his hand again to lick his fingers. "I've got you."

He only got a muffled, plaintive mewl in reply. A wanting whine that thinned when he touched her again with his freshly slicked fingertips. He found her clit with practiced precision and her head fell back on the pillow with a soft thump as she rutted up towards his touch, chasing the sensation where she needed it.

Steve wasn't in the mood to tease tonight. He followed the instructions her body was giving him to the letter. Slow stroking gave way to even slower circles. Then tighter, and faster, and just a little more pressure. He was winding her up around his fingers tighter and tighter before he let his index finger breach her body. She was wet now. Wet and eagerly swallowing his finger up as he kept up the pressure on her clit with his thumb.

"Steve…" she moaned hotly against his throat.

"I've got you." he said again.

"Fuck me."

"I will, I pro-" the word stuck in his throat, but he make himself say it. "I promise. Just… wanna make you come first."

She seemed to melt around him a little as he added a second finger, finding that perfect angle for the pads of his fingers to rub against her slick inner walls. Everything she did was to press herself closer. Hold him tighter. She set her nails into his skin so he couldn't escape her grasp, wound her fingers in his hair, and pushed her teeth into his chest. And God if that didn't make something primal and animalistic in Steve want to pin her to the bed and just have her.

Not that he actually wanted to. He didn't want anything of the sort. All he wanted and, quite frankly deserved to do was lie here between her legs, coaxing orgasm after orgasm from her beautiful body until he'd washed away what he'd done to her in the welling tide of her pleasure.

Expert at her body that he was, it wasn't long before she came, shuddering and shivering and gasping. And he'd expected her to puddle up beneath him the way she always did. But she only pulled him closer with quaking limbs.

"I want you inside me." she said again, this time working one hand down between them to cup the bulge in his jeans that he had been stalwartly ignoring up til now. He had no choice but to rut against her palm, trying to hide his face all the while. Christ, she was amazing...

"Alright." He said. He wasn't going to tease her or deny her anything she wanted tonight. He didn't have that right after what he did to her. "Let me get out of my jeans." It was an awkward fumble to kick them off without actually getting out of bed, but he didn't want to leave the circle of her arms. And she wanted him there. Wanted him close.

She probably always did.

Once he was rid of his jeans and underwear, Steve resettled himself between her legs. She caught him again, wrapping him up and wedging her hand between them again to give him a series of slow, firm strokes. He was already mostly hard, but she seemed to have no patience.

"I want you." She whispered, and Steve thought he might pass out as all his blood rushed downwards. God, she was perfect. Always and always. Perfect pressure. Perfect speed. Perfect everything. His perfect Natasha.

Satisfied that he was plenty aroused, she tipped her pelvis forward and guided him into her. But he went slow. So slow it made his head buzz with desire, but he wanted this slow. This was not some quick fuck to scratch an itch in the middle of the night. Not one of their usual romps to blow off steam or burn off energy after a round of sparring.

No. She deserved to be worshiped.

And he did.

He fucked her slow, and with so much reverence he thought he might fly apart. It wasn't even fucking really. Just an easy, almost tidal drawing of their bodies together. She had melted under him again, just hanging on weakly and letting him have her. Enjoying being had. It was bliss. Utter and total and completely primal bliss.

Steve buried his hands under her t-shirt again, finding her breasts and palming them. Their softness made him ache as he thumbed at her nipples. As he pillowed his face between them, and moaned through his t-shirt.

"Don't stop…" Natasha said, the words barely more than puffs of air in the closeness of the dark.

As if he had any choice. As if he would make any other choice.

It was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. They melded together in the dark of her room, arms and legs and warm slickness as Steve fucked up into her slowly. Still so slowly. He wasn't trying to get either of them off. Nor was it an idle motion. He savored every movement like wine. Like whiskey.

Like it was her.

His Natasha.

He couldn't stop. Couldn't speed up. Couldn't slow down. He was caught in this ecstatic, syrup-slow dance with her that she seemed to welcome. To drink in and bask… no, she almost seemed to bathe in it.

"Natasha…" Steve whispered her name against the hollow of her throat. "Fuck…"

Her arms tightened around him then. "Don't stop." she said again. Again, as if he could. As if he wanted to. As if he ever wanted to be anywhere but here.

His orgasm was building, easy and molten, low in his core. Winding tighter and tighter, slipping lower and lower until he was dangerously on the edge. He was buried in her, fucking into the tight willingness of her body and she only seemed to want to give him more.

She'd welcomed him home...with open arms.

He should never leave.

Never...

He came with her name decorating his lips. And his orgasm was as steady and as velvet soft as everything else. Sweet and slow and liquid… drawn out of him as she tipped past her own edge of no return again. He could feel her inner walls gripping up around his length as surely as she held onto him with all her limbs. And he was gone. Lost to everything but her...

It was heaven.

This was heaven.

This was home.

He truly should have never left…

And yet...

"Do you need to go?" She asked, before he'd even slipped out of her. Before they'd even really finished catching their breath.

He gave a self-deprecating laugh."Do you really think I drove all the way from Brooklyn just to fuck you and leave?"

"No, of course not, but… It's Wednesday. Well…" She glanced at her clock as he collapsed to her pillow beside her. "Technically it's Thursday. You've got group in the morning, don't you?"

"That's in the morning." Steve said, spooning her up against the broad expanse of his chest. "I'm staying right here. Unless…"

Her only response was to pull his arm tighter around her.

"I suppose it's a little silly now to say I got your message." Steve said, pressing his forehead against the nape of her neck. The fine hair there tickled his forehead.

He couldn't see her face but he could feel her smile. Just a little as she burrowed back into the sheets and against his chest. "We can talk about it in the morning."

"Okay."

"Fuck me again in the morning?"

He stuck his nose in her hair and inhaled the scent of her. "Count on it."

***

They fucked in the position they woke up in, which was the position they'd fallen asleep in. Steve actually gave her what she asked for that time and just slipped his cock inside without any other foreplay. She had liked it like that sometimes. Especially in the morning. Liked feeling how tight and how heavily he fit inside her. Especially after he'd fucked her the night before. He was just big enough that even slow gentle sex left her a little swollen. And he couldn't deny that it felt amazing every time.

She was so soft and ripe and very very wet…

Sometimes, Steve wondered if Natasha would entice him into fucking her the night before just so they could have this in the morning. He certainly wasn't complaining.

As they lay there with sweat cooling, Natasha rolled to face him a little.

"Can I tell you about Clint?" she asked him.

"Yeah. If you're ready."

She licked her lips, swollen from her biting them while they'd fucked. "The masked swordsman is him." She was saying. "The one we've been tracking all this year."

Steve just nodded. "You're sure." But it wasn't a question. Or at least not that question. How do you know? He was asking.

"All Clint's gear is still at the farm. I checked months ago. But the sword matches one Clint took off a Yakuza boss back during our Strike Team Delta days." Natasha replied. "He always swore he would learn how to use it…"

"Your message… you said someone caught him on camera?"

"Yeah. Krakow. Murdering a bunch of human traffickers."

"Do you think he's been made?"

Natasha smirked dryly. "Look at you slinging the spy lingo. Not that I'm aware. Rhodey found the footage and we all watched it at last night's briefing but I didn't want to say anything. Not until I had a chance to look at the footage in detail. I… after I did, you were the first person I told."

And he'd missed the fucking call.

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

"No, it fucking isn't." Steve said. "I promised you years ago when you gave me that thing that I would always answer that phone. No matter what."

"That was a long time ago." she said, fiddling with the edge of the sheet.

"That shouldn't matter."

Natasha dropped her eyes and visibly swallowed her thoughts.

Clearly it does…

"I'm sorry." He said again. "I know that doesn't change that I fucked up, but… It won't happen again."

"Okay." She said, but it didn't feel like enough. "I believe you." she added.

And she did believe him. But she also had a strange feeling that this might not come up again.

It was odd… the sudden tone shift. She didn't feel quite as awful as she did last night. The news about Clint was still terrible, but that black pit that had opened up in her stomach didn't seem quite as much of a ravening menace as it had just a few hours ago. Maybe it was because the sun was shining. Maybe it was because she'd cried and fucked and slept a good portion of the despair out of her system.

Or maybe it was because Steve was here.

"I can stay." Steve said, as if he were reading her thoughts on her face.

She shook her head. "No, you can't. You've got group. You said so."

"But-"

"I know you Steve. You feel like you're making a difference there, yeah?"

He nodded, not looking at her.

"Then you've got to go do what's right. For you. Just like I've got to go figure out how to set this right." She said. "Clint is my responsibility. Just like I was his."

"I miss when doing what was right also meant being with you." he said.

Natasha nodded, feeling strangely clear about the whole thing. "I'm still here."

"I know."

She kissed him then, soft and deep. "Then you've got to go home, and-"

"Home is right here." he cut her off, pulling her close so he could press his nose into her hair for a moment.

"Home will always be here. I'll always be here." She said. "But you'll feel guilty if lunch time comes and you've left them in the lurch."

He could only nod in sullen agreement. "I guess you're right. I should probably head back."

Natasha did smile then. "There's the Cap I know and love."

A frown pulled at his brow. "Is…" He bit the question off with an audible click of his teeth.

She cocked her head a fraction. "What?"

Steve's tongue skirted his bottom lip before he answered. "Is it still the Steve you know and love?"

Natasha was fairly sure she actually heard the sound of her heart breaking. "Of course. You're too hard on yourself, Steve."

"I fucked up."

"And I haven't? Remember last year when I left and didn't tell you where I was going just to see if you'd follow me?"

Steve snorted. "That's different."

"So? It was still kind of manipulative."

"That's… not entirely accurate…"

"Yeah yeah. Something something not all things to all people?"

Steve did finally smile then. A real smile. "Yeah yeah… Something something." he said, the words blending into another kiss.

"Come on…" Natasha said after awhile spent with lips lingering. "We both have work to do."

***

She kissed Steve goodbye in the break-room. It felt a little like being a princess left in a tower while the knight ran off to do knightly things. Though she was pretty certain most princesses in fairy tales didn't have a global and intergalactic security and communication network. Or gauntlets that were capable of tasing a bull elephant into submission.

It was nicer than before, but it still felt like he was leaving her all over again. Felt like one of those major tectonic shifts. But it felt… easier this time. This always seemed easier in daylight. Maybe that was the secret to getting through this. Or getting used to this.

Wait for daylight...

She looked around at the scrolling holo-screens. At the dirty dish from dinner last night. Her hoodie draped across the chair with Steve's jacket on top. He'd never taken it with him to Brooklyn. She looked at the pillows and a blanket on the sofa. Coffee mugs in the sink. All evidence that she was here. That she was always here.

And she realized that this really was home. Her new home. She was making it all over again. By herself this time… but not alone. Not really. And she also realized that this was good for her. Again… daylight did wonders.

Steve went to group because he was helping people. And that helped him. And she was going to do this because it was helping people. And helping her. She would find Clint faster this way than she would putting boot to pavement anyway. She just needed to be patient and trust it would work. Clint would screw up again. No one was perfect. Not even him and not even her. He'd caught her. She could catch him. She just had to be patient. Like Steve with his therapy.

And while she waited, she could help other people.

As lives for people like her went, this wouldn't be too bad. She was getting used to it. And she was getting used to actually liking it sometimes.

Steve had made coffee for her before he left, and she poured herself a generous cup. Then she rang Rhodey to tell him what she knew. What she didn't tell him last night. Ultimately the clock was ticking now. They needed to find Clint before someone else did.

Good or bad.

***

We have fair destroyed each other, souls together, worlds apart,
but what you call a stolen season was the harvest of my heart.
What you call a stolen season was the harvest of my heart.

***

Chapter Text

***

If I'm to steer without your star,
I'll have plenty of time for dancing in the dark.
First I have to learn the trick of holding up my head again
and flying blind.
Even in our dreaming, we are running out of time,
but it was just a stolen season in a land that wasn't mine.

By moonlight and the tears I've known,
I call upon your oath to let me go.

***

Spring to summer. Summer to fall. Fall to winter. And now, it wasn't quite spring again yet.

The world outside the Avengers facility certainly didn't seem to be aware that spring was due. The snow had abated for the most part, but it was still bitterly cold. For the whole of the month of March, the Avengers headquarters seemed trapped in an unending caul of fog and rain and not quite sleet. The sun could barely show its face through the thick, sodden clouds, not even enough to cast the weakest of shadows. Nothing but gray and cold for weeks on end.

Not that it mattered in the slightest to Natasha. Her routine and her mood were still largely undisturbed by the weather mostly because she rarely ventured outside anymore. Her focus was elsewhere. She might exist at their old headquarters, with the building wrapped in its veil of New England gloom, but her mind was always far afield. Scurrying and skittering over news briefs and data from everywhere on Earth.

And a few places that weren't on Earth as well.

Not that she had any concrete plans to go off chasing space pirates, just yet. But it never hurt to keep tabs. Rocket and Danvers were keeping tabs on her after all, and she appreciated that. It would only do to return the favor, regardless of how much help she could be.

Just like that, another year had passed. Another year of routine and regimen. Another year of monthly check-ins with a talking raccoon and an intergalactic warrior goddess. Another year of Okoye's now weekly morning briefings… well, they were morning for her in Wakanda anyway.

Another year of Steve stopping by once or twice a week. They would watch bad movies and eat good takeout while he did his laundry.

Another year as the last Avenger left holding down the now completely empty fort.

Though that wasn't entirely true. Rhodey was in the saddle with her. He didn't stay at HQ proper, but he was in touch about business more than anyone else. Even more than Okoye. Natasha worked closely with him, monitoring domestic threats and helping where she could. She found herself looking forward to his calls more than anyone else's. He always had something for her to do. A milk run to take. An itch to scratch. A tail to chase. It was small potatoes of course, but it wasn't nothing.

So, Natasha had a routine, and she rarely wavered from it, even when Steve would visit. In fact, he usually just slotted into the rhythm beside her as if he'd never left. There was room after all. She made sure of it. There was room for anyone who wanted to come back, though he and occasionally Rhodey were the only ones who did. But that could change. Things always did. She was just holding down the fort for everyone until… well…

Until.

And until then, it was morning briefings from Rhodey, taken with lots and lots of coffee. Training and conditioning during the day. Dinner and V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A.'s summation of the day's events from a cache of curated global news sources. Evenings were spent reading usually if there were no meetings or briefings from Wakanda. Time well spent trying to stay abreast of new threats, new weapons, or just filling in gaps in her knowledge base. Then a shower and sleep. Usually in the break room on the couch.

Just in case the comm system went off.

Like it did one night in March.

She was drying her hair when she heard the comm channel chime. She looked at the clock first before she answered it. It was too late to be Rhodey and far too early to be Okoye. And Rocket and Carol weren't due for another week. She frowned and tipped her head back to talk to V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A..

"Do we have a name or number on this call?"

"No ma'am." The A.I. responded. "Signal looks to be from southern Idaho. Very rural location." Just like that the tracking map flipped up onto one of the holo-screens.

Natasha frowned and hard. "Patch them through."

"Connection successful."

"This is Natasha Romanoff of the Avengers." she said in an affable but officious tone. "Please identify yourself."

Her second holo-screen flickered to life and she was greeted by the dirty face of an adolescent child that she did not recognize.

"Hello?" the girl said, eyes wide and uncertain as she peered at her own screen which she seemed to be holding in her hand. "Are… are you Natasha?"

"I am." She said warily sitting down at the console and trying to school a surprised frown. "Who am I speaking to?"

"I'm Adelaide. I'm… I'm…" The child was clearly on the verge of tears, and now that Natasha was really looking she could see that it was more than dirt streaked down her face. There was a fairly livid bruise coming along on her cheek.

"Alright, Adelaide." she said adopting her most soothing voice. Her best approximation of the voice Steve had used all those years ago to talk Wanda down from her night terrors. "Can you tell me where you are? What's happening?"

"I'm… I'm not sure where I am." She started to say, hiccuping with every syllable. "I've… We've been here for weeks. Some of us longer than others. They move us around… we…"

"V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A.? A more detailed trace please." Natasha said softly, swallowing against a wave of dreadful queasiness. This was bad.

"Already running, ma'am." the A.I. replied.

"Go on Adelaide. I'm listening. I'm just getting a jump on finding you."

"I… we're… We've been here for weeks… months. It's… I don't know where we are."

"Can you describe it? What do the walls look like? The doors?"

"Everything's metal… I think it's a barn or warehouse or something."

"Is someone keeping you there? Is an adult with you?"

"There… were." she hesitates. "There were men keeping us here."

"Did they ever tell you why?"

Adelaide's voice became unbearably small. "They… they bring people through."

"People? What kind of people?"

"Um… Men. With money." Adelaide's voice starts shaking. "They um… they pay for us."

Natasha felt a sudden and sharp wave of nausea claw its way into her gut. "Okay, Adelaide. How many of you are there?"

"About a dozen? I think?"

"Are you in danger? Is… are the people keeping you there with you right now? Or nearby."

"They're dead." the girl says shaking her head. "A man in black came through and killed them all. Unlocked all the doors."

"I see." Natasha kept one eye on the video call and another on the trace V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A. was running. "Can you tell me how you got this number, sweetie?"

"Um… the man in black gave it to me. Gave me his phone. Said to call and ask for you, and you could help us."

Now, Natasha was not only watching the trace and the call, but she was also remotely fueling up her Quinjet. That detail, however, stopped her dead. "A man in black." She repeated.

Adelaide nodded, eyes wide and round.

"Can you describe him?"

"Not really? He… he had a hood over his face. And… he carried a sword. He killed… a lot of people. All of the… the ones keeping us. They're… they're all dead in the other room."

"I see." Natasha said.

"He said you were a friend of his? That you would help us?"

Natasha put on her best counselor smile. She'd learned that one from Steve too. "I am his friend. And I can help you. Is he still… is he still there?"

"I don't think so. He left… and said to call you." Something kindled in the girl's eyes then. A spark of recognition. "Are… are you like... the Avenger Natasha?"

Natasha let a proud smile creep across her features, hoping it would instill some courage in the girl. "I am. Is anyone hurt?"

Adelaide, seeming bolstered by the news that an honest to goodness Avenger was coming to their rescue, looked around behind her. "I don't think so. Not..." she swallowed. "Not like… "hospital" hurt anyway."

"Okay." Natasha said just as the location trace finished running. The verdict was in fact rural Idaho. No towns for miles and miles. "Alright, I've got your location and I'm coming in my plane, but even in my super fast jet, I'm gonna be a little bit. So I need you to help me out, okay?"

Adelaide nodded with childlike dutifulness, wiping her damp nose with her knuckles.

"You said there are about a dozen of you. I want you gather everyone up and get to a safe room. Keep the phone the man in black gave you and keep it on. Its signal is how I'll find you. I'm on my way as fast as I can get there. Just keep everyone calm okay?"

Adelaide gave a resolute if rather sniffly nod. "Okay."

"Help is on the way, Adelaide. Just get everyone to sit tight."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I'll be there soon."

Natasha hung up, eyes darting feverishly around the room. Clint! Holy shit, it was Clint! He'd finally let her know where he was! He'd practically sent her an engraved invitation to meet him. But the kids… No way was she going to be able to deal with human trafficking victims. Especially not children. They were going to need medical care in the short term and God only knew what kind of resources in the long term. She was definitely gonna need help. Plus, putting the kids aside, she would need to do recon and possibly need to deal with retaliation. And what the hell was she going to do with a dozen traumatized kids once she got them out of there?

She dove for her burner phone and had it flipped open when she looked at the time on the display.

7:47pm.

It was Wednesday.

Steve was in group right now, and not likely to answer. And even if he did feel the phone… maybe she shouldn't. She snapped it shut again. No… this… this wasn't his gig anymore.

And for the first time in a very long time… she thought of Bucky. Actually thought of him. Not just as some phantom pain to be ignored until it went away. She actually thought, "I should call Bucky." as if he were still alive. As if he could come help her, because honestly, he might've been more use than Steve. And she thought this as if he were just upstairs, or in Brooklyn with Steve or…

She shook her head. Hard.

No. Here. Now. Job to do. People to save.

But she definitely did need help on this one. She wasn't equipped for potential hostage extraction or victim care. This was outside of the Avenging paygrade. And she would need backup in case she ran into trouble.

"V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A.? Will you please contact Rhodey and patch him through to my earpiece." She said, launching herself out of her chair and heading for the equipment bay.

"Dialing him now." came the response.

Rhodey answered on the second ring. "Hey Nat! What's up?"

"I just got a call from Clint. Or more specifically from some kids he rescued from what sounds like a child prostitution ring. Sounds like his usual M.O. Kill everyone before they have time to do anything. But he left the kids there. A dozen of them at least. Presumably for us."

"Jesus." he swore.

"I'm headed for my Quinjet now. You game for a little small-time Avenging?"

"Girl, you know it. What's the location?"

"V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A. should be sending your suit that info now. Looks like someplace out in southern Idaho?"

"Copy that. Coordinates received. Hook down over Philly and I'll meet you enroute. No need to stop."

"Thanks, Rhodey. I knew I could count on you."

"Of course. Happy to help. Rhodes out."

Natasha couldn't help but smile as she broke into a run headed towards the hangar.

***

The location in Idaho was a sprawling warehouse situated on what appeared from the air to be an abandoned farm. It was still a few hours before sunrise, but the moon was out so they could get a pretty decent visual. No visible fortifications or obvious places for a sniper to potentially hide, and when V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A. confirmed a lack of heat signatures, they moved in. Natasha landed the cloaked Quinjet in an overgrown field about 100 yards out and together she and Rhodey crouched in the tall grass for cover as they scoped out the site further.

"Flyby showed no lifesigns save in this building here." Rhodey pulled up a map on the small holo-pad on his forearm. Natasha leaned her shoulder against his to give it a once over as she tightened the straps on her Widow's Bite. The scans showed a large number of empty rooms and a cluster of heat signatures concentrated in this enclosure towards the back at the end of a long hallway.

"That'll be the kids." She said. "They're probably holed up in there. I told Adelaide to gather everyone and get someplace secure. Any sign of Clint?"

"Negative inside the building if he's not with them."

"He's not. Adelaide said he left."

Rhodey nodded. "Didn't look like there was much outside either, but I'll sweep wider. You good for me to do recon, or should I stay with you?"

"Go for it. I trust that Clint's made certain all threats are eliminated. It's just the kids, but you never know. They might've been able to call for backup. I'd feel better with you in the air."

"Copy that." Rhodes said, machinery in his armor whirring as he stood. "I'll fly casual."

With that he went sailing off into the sky.

Natasha kept low as she approached the target structure, which looked to be an abandoned warehouse near a long disused railroad line. As she approached, she kept sweeping her gaze across the edge of the surrounding woods, but so far nothing was pinging on the radar, heat scans, or movement detection. She deflated a little. Surely Clint wasn't gone already...

The external locks on the doors were already picked, but all of the internal locks were busted apart. Probably with the hilt of the katana if she had to guess. And inside she found the perpetrators of what she was increasingly suspecting to be a child prostitution ring.

Well, what was left of them anyway.

It wasn't that she felt sorry for them. If anyone deserved it, it was people like this. Nor was it that the scene was gruesome to the point of horror. Natasha had seen worse. She'd perpetrated worse both for the KGB and for SHIELD. But this…

It was the fact that she was having to picture Clint doing this. That these men died quickly… and with a horrifying methodical plan. Natasha could practically replay Clint's strike in her head just from looking at the wounds and the places and positions in which the bodies fell. She could track him through the room. Every step. Every assault. She could follow him through his perfectly systematic extermination of these awful people. No one had gotten a chance to draw a weapon. Some of them were killed before they could even stand up. Eight in total.

And one of them had a visible police badge.

That rattled her at first. Had Clint caught a bystander in the sweep of his Reaper's scythe? But a closer look at the broader picture showed her the truth. The cop had been behind the desk. And his wallet was full of cash. Fucking hell...

Yeah, she definitely did not feel sorry for these people. She could practically taste Clint's rage. Not just at them for their crimes but… in general. At the unfairness of it all…

But still… this wasn't who they were. Who they had been, either as Avengers or as SHIELD Agents. It wasn't who they were supposed to be. Now she understood why he wouldn't come home. She had to come stand in it to get it. Maybe rather than meeting her, he was trying to show her? She should have known this was a trap of sorts. He'd lured her here and left her hostages to find. People to save. Probably in hopes that she would stop trying to save him.

A spy's equivalent of an olive branch.

Or at least a ceasefire.

Natasha breathed against the nausea. She breathed, and breathed and tried not to smell the blood in the air as she pushed herself beyond the room. There were children here counting on her. She needed to focus on getting them to safety, and then she could think about what to do about Clint.

"Adelaide?" she called as she stepped into the long back hallway.

"In here!" came a small voice that rang off the metal and concrete walls.

Natasha broke into a jog and followed the voice down a corridor to a series of storage rooms with roll-top doors. One was cracked and she could see shadows moving inside.

"Adelaide, it's me. It's Natasha. Open the door for me, sweetheart."

There was a groan of steel and the door rolled open and there stood at least a dozen children, all of varying age. One girl who looked to be about thirteen was holding a little boy who couldn't have been more than three.

Natasha felt sick again, but she focused on Adelaide who stood near the front, her thin shoulders square. She'd taken Natasha's instructions to heart. She'd taken care of her people. Natasha wished she had time to admire it.

"This is everyone?" she confirmed, keeping her voice as gently businesslike as possible. Adelaide seemed to respond to that well.

The girl nodded, face set and serious.

Natasha gave her a tight nod and put her fingers to her earpiece. "Rhodey, I found the kids. I'm sending them out to you. Going to find a different door. Clint, he…" she paused to sigh. "He kind of left a mess. Can you meet them and get them to the jet?"

"Copy that. There's a roll-top on the eastern side. Keep going down that hallway and to your right. I'll meet you there."

"On our way." She turned back to the kids and smiled at them, particularly Adelaide. "Hi everyone. Let's get you out of here. Do you know where the exit is on that side of the building?" She pointed down the eastern end of the hallway.

Adelaide nodded. "It's where the cars came to pick us up." Natasha swallowed against that. Against the image and against the wide-eyed and receptive look in Adelaide's eyes. She knew that look. She was ready for her next mission. Something about it made Natasha's heart hurt. Adelaide wasn't that much older than Natasha had been when… well, when a lot of things happened. The pre-teen years were rough in the Red Room.

"Great." she said, waving her and the rest of the children out into the hallway. "Can you get there from here? Any locked doors that you know of?"

Adelaide stayed by her side, watching her charges and visibly counting heads. "I think the external door is locked, but that's it."

"Alright wonderful. My friend Col. Rhodes is going to meet you there. He can bust that lock for you. If he hasn't already, just give it a hard knock okay?"

"Rhodes? Like War Machine?" One of the boys from the back perked up.

"Exactly like that. Armor and all. He's gonna help me get you guys out of here." Natasha laid a hand on Adelaide's back. "You've been so helpful for me, Adelaide. I'm sorry I had to put this responsibility on you."

The little girl squared her shoulders, and if Natasha wasn't mistaken she grew up a little right before her eyes. "It was nice to actually be able to do something for a change." she replied, and with that, Adelaide took the hand of the girl next to her. That prompted her to thread her fingers into the next child's hand. So on and so on, until they were all headed for the door in a line like little ducks.

Natasha was about to follow them when she heard a chime on her earpiece. She had an incoming call.

"V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A.?" Natasha said softly as she watched the children file down the hallway.

"Untraceable ma'am. But a quick trace seems conclude that it's coming from nearby."

"Patch it through, please."

There was the sound of breathing on the line. And somehow, even though she hadn't heard the sound of his breath in years, Natasha knew. She'd know him blind.

"Clint?"

"You find the kids?" His voice was rough.

"I found more than that." Natasha said. "But yeah. Rhodey should be meeting them at the eastern entrance. I didn't… I didn't want them to see.

"Smart."

"Where are you?"

"Close." he answered. "But don't come looking."

"Will you come to me then?"

"No."

"Clint… Clint please, you… you shouldn't be doing this."

"They were orphans, Natasha." He spat, his voice pulled tight as one of his bowstrings. "Orphans from the Snap. And these monsters were the ones that took them in. Took them in with this exact intention. And the police were in on it. I know you saw the badge, Nat. You go look at them and tell me they don't deserve this."

Natasha had worked her way back to the front room. The one strewn with corpses. "Clint… Clint, I know. But I'm not talking about this situation. It's awful, sure, but… we can't be the ones fixing it. Not like this. It shouldn't be you. That shouldn't be us. Not like this, Clint."

"It isn't you." he said, bitterness dripping from his tone. "But this is me now. So don't. I know you've been following me, but don't. Stop it."

"You know I won't do that."

"You should."

"I'm not giving up."

"You should."

"Should you have given up on me?" She bit back, her temper rising.

Silence on the line. Long enough that she thought he might've hung up.

"Natasha…" her name was just the sound of desperation given form.

"Let me join you." She said finally. Wretchedly. Hopelessly. Pleadingly. She would do it. She could wet her hands again. Pour red onto her ledger again in buckets if it meant… if she could somehow just get closer to… Maybe she could...

"No." he said, the word falling flatly like the strike of a hammer. Or maybe the fall of an axe.

Natasha's mouth drew into a thin line as she turned in place, looking at Clint's handiwork. Letting it fuel her. Letting it anger her. "I'm not going to stop looking for you then. You didn't give up on me."

"I didn't give up on you because you had a choice. This is my choice."

"And if I had told you no?" she argued, her voice beginning to shake. "What would you have done then?"

Another silence, cutting and cold. "Stop following me, Natasha." He said finally. "Find something better to do."

"Not gonna happen."

"Then I won't let you find me like this again."

Natasha bared her teeth, the plastic of her earpiece digging into her skin. She was angry now. Really truly angry. And that turned over into a proud and vicious stubbornness. She let it fuel her. Let it incandesce and burn through her veins like napalm. It felt better than abject grief any day. It felt like action. Grief felt like helplessness. This felt like hope.

"Good luck with that." she growled before she disconnected the line.

She would find him. She would. There was nothing he could do to stop her.

She stood there for a moment, defiant in her zeal. But then like a breath of wind, the moment passed and she dropped to her knees on the bare concrete floor. He'd forgotten who he was, but worse yet he'd clearly forgotten who she was. She wouldn't stop. Not in a million years. She would follow him to the ends of the earth no matter what he was doing. He would actually have to kill her this time. He should know that. Why didn't he know that?

Because he had forgotten who she was.

Furious tears streamed down her face, hot and heavy like lava. Had everyone forgotten who they were? Who she was? Was it all for nothing? If she was all that was left, and she couldn't even be sure of who she was… then it was for nothing. Wasn't it?

She screamed then. Livid and grieving. It was a wounded, horrible sound that welled up like oil from a split rig and rang off the metal walls. A sound that had Rhodey running up the hallway to her full tilt.

"What? What's happening?" He asked, eyes thrown wide, but he stopped dead as soon as he crossed the threshold. Bodies… and blood… and Natasha Romanoff in the middle of it, on her knees and in tears. "Whoa…"

His presence snapped her to. She still had a mission. Clint had given her a mission, and she needed to see it through. She sniffed hard and pulled herself to her feet before Rhodey could offer his hand. "Talked to Clint." she said, ignoring how pitifully broken her voice sounded having been stretched with tears and tantrum-throwing. "He left the victims to us because local law enforcement is compromised."

"Fucking shit." Rhodey swore.

"Yeah. One of these guys has a police badge. Saw it on the way in." she nodded, wiping at her face and shaking herself back under control. "Who do you trust at the FBI?"

"I've got a guy or three in the Salt Lake field office."

She nodded sharply. "Call them."

"Will do." But he didn't move. "Are you okay?"

"Fine." she said flatly. "Let's do this and then deal with me. These kids have been through enough. I'm fine."

Rhodey gave a tight nod. "They're already on the plane. Let's get going."

***

Rhodey made his calls and it was determined that the victims would be taken to an FBI field office in Salt Lake City. Aliens they could handle. Killer robots too. Super soldiers, bio weapons, and squid-worshipping fascists, oh my! But a dozen or more sexually brutalized orphans of the Snap? That was definitely above the Avengers' paygrade. Even back in their hayday. Better to let the professionals handle it.

The actual professionals.

"You headed back to New York?" Rhodey asked once all the paperwork had been filed.

"Don't want to overstay my welcome." Natasha replied. "I am technically still a war criminal, I think?"

"Only technically." Rhodey said shooting her a half-smile.

"Still. Best not to get anyone's attention. Vision was right… sometimes making a splash makes things worse. Are the kids okay? I mean not… okay okay but-"

"No, I feel you. They're… holding up. Seems like they've been taking care of each other for awhile now. It's awful. But they're helping each other cope."

"Good."

"What are you gonna do about Barton?" Rhodey asked, his voice softer now so the words wouldn't escape to anyone's hearing but their own.

Natasha's eyes clouded and she shook her head. "I don't know."

"He's not going to be able to stay under the radar for long." Rhodey warned. "Not pulling shit like this."

"He's smart. He'll-"

"He killed a small-town cop, Nat. Dirty or not, that's going to get someone's attention."

"I know." Natasha replied. "But if I can't track him, I doubt anyone else is able to. At least for now."

"It's that last bit that has me worried." Rhodey said. "He can get locked up for this shit, Natasha. He's… that's not Avenging, what he did in that warehouse tonight. I'm not saying the sons of bitches didn't deserve it. Hell, it's my personal opinion that they didn't suffer enough given what I've seen of these kids, but that's why it's not up to me. And it's not up to him either."

She gave her head a slow nod. "I know."

"So what are we going to do about it?"

Natasha drew a slow breath. "We gotta find a way to track him first." she said. "I can't do anything if I don't know where he is or where he's going next or how he's getting there." She cut her eyes up to Rhodey. "Can you help me figure any of that out without… alerting anyone?"

"You still want to handle this internally? After what he told you tonight?"

She shook her head and gave a sagging shrug. "He did it for me."

"That was a long time ago."

A smile pulled the corner of her mouth. "Call me sentimental, but some things never change."

It was Rhodey's turn to shake his head. "Alright. As long as it's assholes like this, I'll help you find him before the feds or, God forbid, fucking Interpol. But if it seems like his judgement's gone off the rails? If he starts targeting… I don't know-"

"No, I'm with you." Natasha said. "But we can't start with the what-ifs right now. His targets are still the same as they have been for the last two years. Methods too. I don't see why he'd suddenly change."

"Yeah… yeah, alright." he said, but he didn't sound convinced. "You'd better get home before someone decides they want to question you." He put up one arm for a hug and she practically fell against him and squeezed his ribs tight."

"Thanks, Rhodey." She said, nose on the seam of his shirt.

"Anytime, Natasha." He said, still holding on for one more tight squeeze. "Fly safe."

"You too."

Once she was back on the Quinjet with the autopilot engaged, she pulled out the burner to call Steve. It was late, so he'd either answer or he wouldn't, but she needed to hear his voice right now. Even if it was his voicemail.

One ring.

Two rings.

Three rings.

She inhaled against the growing tightness in her ribs. It was fine if he didn't answer. It was totally fine. It was really late and-

"Nat?"

"Steve." she let the word out on a long exhale of the breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Hey."

"Hey, Nat." He said his voice foggy and thick. And she could hear the sound of rustling sheets. She'd probably woken him up.

She tried to care but she just couldn't. She was too happy to hear his voice at that moment. "Hey Steve. Sorry for the-"

"No, no… never apologize." he soothed. "What's going on? Everything okay?"

"Yes and no? I mean yes but..." she replied, willing a tremor from her voice. Or at least trying to. Finally, she just swallowed and started again. "I… heard from Clint. Sort of."

"Sort of?"

"He… he cleared out a human trafficking ring in Idaho tonight. One specializing in children. People adopted Snap orphans and… yeah, you get the picture."

"No survivors, I take it."

"Not among the traffickers, no. But… the kids were still there."

She heard him suck in a hard breath. "Jesus."

"Clint left them a phone to call me."

"Why you? Why not-"

"He'd worked out that the local police were dirty. In on the whole thing. There was one on site actually. Had his badge on him."

"Dead too?"

"Throat slit but not his windpipe. Died slow." Natasha replied, her voice mechanical. "None of them had time to get to their weapons though. He was fast."

"The kids?"

"All fine. At least as much as they can be." she said. "Rhodey and I took them to the FBI field office in Salt Lake."

"Rhodey?"

"Yeah, he… he's got in-roads with people, y'know. Especially at the federal level. Since, he's been working to help get the U.S. military and security sectors back on their feet.\, I figured if I had victims to deal with…"

"Of course." Steve said, but he sounded anything but okay about it. In fact, he honestly sounded a little jealous.

Wait, really? Natasha didn't know what to say.

"Did you find Barton?" He asked before she could find her tongue.

"No." Natasha huffed out the answer, sitting back in the pilot chair. "But… he did call me. He was watching from somewhere. I guess when he saw Rhodey loading up the kids he knew he could call me and talk privately."

"What did he say?"

"About what you'd expect. ""I have to do this. I'm not that person anymore. Stop following me." So on and so forth."

"And?" Steve prompted. "Are you?"

"Going to stop? Of course not. I'm not losing him, Steve." she said tightly. "I can't."

"I know."

"No, I really…" a fresh and unexpected wave of hot, livid, rage-fueled tears spilled down her face. "I really don't think you do. You don't… you've never looked in my file from before I joined SHIELD, so you don't know what he saved me from. What… what he spared when he decided not to take his shot. He's full of shit if he thinks I'm giving up. I will find him and I will bring him home."

"I believe you." He said. "But… maybe its…"

"Don't you dare tell me it's better this way." she spat out the words like an angry cat. "That I should leave well enough alone. I'm still in the air on the way back to HQ, but don't you dare think I won't swing by Brooklyn just to punch you in the face. I don't care how much serum they injected into you. This isn't Clint, Steve. It isn't. Just like I wasn't… I wasn't the thing Clint was sent to cross off all those years ago. This isn't him… it isn't..." She finally broke off into a bout of furious sobbing.

"I wasn't going to say that." Steve said gently when she'd quieted some. "I was just going to say that while you're hunting him, you might be able to use his movements to get a better idea of what's going on in the world. Where the problems are happening. Maybe… maybe Hawkeye is the canary in the coal mine. He's got a type right? And… he's bound to make another mistake sooner or later."

She sniffled as she considered his words. "Just like I did. Two birds with one stone."

"If you're wanting to keep with the avian metaphors."

She could hear the smile in his voice and gave a watery chuckle. "Thanks, Steve. Sorry… this is just. Really hard."

"I'm the one who should be sorry. I should be there. I would have come if-"

"Rhodey's got me covered." she said quickly. "You've got your thing."

"You're my thing too, Nat."

"I know." she said. "But like you said… Maybe Hawkeye's path is one we can follow. Rhodey's gonna help me with that."

"I wish I could help." Steve said quietly.

"You are. You're letting me yell at you even though none of this is your fault and you're just trying to help me talk through it." she assured him. "It's just… different now. It's gotta be, I guess. Nothing lasts forever."

"We have what we have when we have it."

"You're not allowed to quote my advice back to me, Rogers." she said with a damp, sniffling grin.

"I am if it makes you smile." he replied. "You are smiling, right? I can hear it."

"I am."

"Good." he said, and she could hear he was smiling too. "Want me to meet you up at the facility tonight?"

She considered it for a moment. He'd make it in time to greet her if he left Brooklyn now. But she checked her phone quickly before pressing it back to her ear. It was Wednesday. Well… Thursday now. He never stayed Wednesday nights. "You've got your therapy appointment this morning, don't you?"

"Thanks, Mom." he jabbed blithely. "I can reschedule."

"No no… no, it's…" she took a deep breath. "I'm okay. I'll be okay."

There was a breath of tense silence through which only the hum of the Quinjet engines and the crackle of the phone line passed.

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah… yeah, I'm sure." she replied. "You're still coming up on Friday though, right?"

"Laundry and movies." he confirmed.

"It's a date, then."

"Hey Nat?"

"Yeah, Steve?"

"I love you."

"I love you too."

"And be careful okay? Not… just about Barton."

"I will. I promise. You too, okay?"

"I'll try not to get mugged on my way to my appointment in the morning." he said with a smile.

"I would love to see that actually." she laughed.

"Wouldn't be nearly as entertaining as watching someone try to mug you." He replied. "You should come down to the city sometime. Seriously."

"So you can watch me get mugged?"

"So we can go wander around in the city together." he said. "Just like…"

"Old times." she finished when he hesitated to say it.

They had old times now. They'd been together long enough for things to change. But at least they were still together even if they weren't together together.

They were both quiet again until an alarm sounded on Steve's side of the call.

"What's that?" Natasha asked.

"My alarm." Steve answered. "Time to go run twenty miles."

"You're crazy."

"Not as crazy as those stretches you do for ballet."

"Fair." she assented. "Have a good day, Steve. Hope your therapy appointment is… nice?"

"Thanks, Nat. See you Friday, if I don't talk to you before."

"I love you. Be careful."

"I love you and be careful too." Steve replied. And it made her smile.

They both hung up without actually saying goodbye.

Natasha arrived back at HQ well after dawn. Everything was as she had left it. Her half-drunk mug of tea on the counter. Her crumb covered sandwich plate from dinner beside it. An abandoned notepad and pencil. Her pointe shoes on the couch.

Steve's jacket over the back of her chair.

Natasha sighed as she sank down in her seat and surveyed her nest around her. She'd expected to feel sad. She so frequently felt sad and lonely sitting here. But strangely… she didn't this time. Clint was out there, and he was going to help her do her job because now he had become her job.

And Steve was coming to stay on Friday.

Maybe… maybe this was the life she'd been looking for. It wasn't much anymore, but it was hers. It was a life. Just… quieter than it ever had been. And more empty. Maybe with time she'd find ways to fill the space. The space was certainly filled in the short-term anyway.

"Welcome back, Agent Romanoff." V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A.'s prim synthetic voice greeted her. "I understand the mission from Agent Barton was a success."

"It was, thank you." she replied with a smile, speaking as she always did to the A.I. with her eyes vaguely on the ceiling.

"Shall I archive this mission?"

"Please. And…" she paused frowning to herself.

"Yes, Agent Romanoff?"

"Please pull all the information you have on the movements of the masked swordsman and add this mission to the file." Natasha said. "Cross match this with Agent Barton's known patterns and safehouses."

"Compiling."

"Make this file available only to myself and Col. Rhodes." She bit her lip. "And Captain Rogers too."

"Understood, ma'am."

"Thank you, V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A."

"Of course, Agent Romanoff. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

A cavernous yawn overtook Natasha suddenly, sending her arching back against Steve's jacket. She was officially twenty four hours without sleep at this point. "Do I have any briefings on the docket today?"

"None until General Okoye's check-in this evening."

"Great. Please, set an alarm for noon. I'm going to get some sleep."

"Probably for the best. It was a long night for you." V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A. opined. "Alarm set. Have a good nap, Agent Romanoff."

"Thank you, V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A.."

Natasha slid from the chair, fingers hooked in Steve's jacket to drag it with her. She collapsed onto the couch with the veritable blanket of supple leather surrounding her. She breathed deep, stared at her little cloister, and then shut her eyes.

Sleep was blissfully not far off.

***

Sleep will never find me 'til the morning air has turned
if I can't reach out to hold you in the dark and keep you warm,
but it was just a stolen season where we danced a perfect storm.

***

Chapter Text

***

I would hold onto the magic we have made
but the seasons must turn and the icicles fade.
Small wonder we could not withstand the spring,
surviving on a diet of the kisses wishes bring.
Thief that I am, I'll be found out
and your fairy fruit will surely turn to ashes in my mouth.
It matters not what riches I have found
'cause I know too much of leaving to be still and settle down.

***

They made Scott explain it again. And explain it again. And then explain it one more time for good measure just to make absolutely sure that the nonsense he was spouting really did add up to a serious proposal of time travel. And unfortunately, it never sounded any less ludicrous than it had the first time through it.

And yet…

And yet, the answer was never, "This won't work." or "It's out of the question!" It was always a sigh from Steve and a shake of Natasha's head and a resigned, "Okay… explain it again."

"Look, where the hell is everybody?" Scott finally asked after the third time through it. He gesticulated rather dramatically with the second part of Natasha's sandwich before cramming one corner into his mouth. "Don't you guys have a science team and stuff? A lab? Where's… Where's that Banner guy? And Dr. Foster?"

"They've… they're working on other stuff. It's been a rough few years." Natasha answered, very pointedly not looking at Steve.

Scott pulled a face and swallowed. "Did… don't tell me you two are all that's left? Everyone didn't just go-" He made a little poofing sound with his cheeks.

"We took some losses in the Snap." Steve said, his eyes finding the tops of his motorcycle boots. "But mostly… people kind of went their separate ways after we discovered that Thanos had destroyed the Stones." The mask around his voice was heavy and creaky, but it was still iron-clad. He sounded like the old Cap to Natasha, although tired and worn, and her heart hurt for him.

"So unseparate them." Scott said, spraying crumbs across the carpet as he flopped down on the couch. "We… we got a chance to fix this!"

"I don't know that I'd go that far just yet. It still sounds utterly insane, and while I only know enough about quantum physics to seduce an egghead at a party, there were several parts of that plan that fall under the heading ‘And then a miracle happens.’ So…" Natasha looked up at Steve with peaked eyebrows. "Your call, Steve."

"Your call, you mean." Steve cut back with a wry grin. "I mean look at you." He gestured around at her little command center as he set one hand on his hip. "You're the one leading the Avengers these days. Not me. All I've got going for me is a great therapist and robust group grief counseling attendance."

She shook her head. "I mean. I've got my contacts sure, but… It's all national and international security related. They're not what we need."

He pressed his lips together. "Wakanda?"

She lifted a shoulder. "I'll call General Okoye, but their science division isn't what it used to be without Shuri. I mean they might be able to help with fabrication should we need it, but… they've been floundering without her ideas driving innovation. They're mostly focusing on defense these days."

"You talked to Bruce lately?" he asked, a careful turn to his voice.

"Not often, but we're on speaking terms if that's what you mean." She shrugged again. "But I'm gonna tell you right now, this is not really his thing."

Steve just sighed, saddling his hands on his narrow hips.

"You know who we need to call." She said softly.

"I know." he replied, not looking up at her as he paced the length of the desk.

"And it's gotta be you."

He did glance at her then. "He's not talking to you?"

"He's not talking to anybody." She said with a shake of her head.

"Then why the hell would he talk to me?"

"Because you're who he wants to hear from." she answered, her tone so flat and bald that the look Steve gave her cut to the quick. "Look, I'll go with you, Steve." she said, schooling her tone to be a little more gentle. "You know I'm with you on this. I'm with you on anything. But him? It's gonna have to be you."

Scott had been watching the exchange like a tennis match. "Who the hell are we talking about here?" he asked warily.

"Stark." Natasha answered, tossing the name across the room while her eyes stayed fixed on Steve.

Scott scoffed as he sank back against the couch cushions. "Then I'm gonna have to go with Cap on this one. I don't think there's a chance in hell that-"

"You really think he'll talk to me?" Steve asked earnestly, his voice painfully quiet. "After everything?"

Natasha considered the question for a moment and then lifted one shoulder. "I think there's only one way to find out. Do you even know where he is?"

"Yeah, actually." Steve answered. "He uh… he sends me a Christmas card every year."

Natasha had to laugh at that. "That's as blatant an "I'm here if you need me." as you're going to get from Tony "Reigning Emotional Repression Champion" Stark. And need I remind you, your message of the same sort was sent by mail too."

Steve snorted and did the sweet little thing with his eyebrows that he always did when something funny caught him off guard in a serious moment. It made something in Natasha's heart ache to see it. Was it always this hard before? This awkward and emotionally mired? Or had it just been so long...

"You're telling me you couldn't find him yourself?" Steve finally asked.

"Easy peasy." she replied. "But he and I made our peace. Made it a long time ago. It's not me he needs to hear from, Steve. He's sure as shit not sending me Christmas cards."

Steve blinked at that and soaked it in.

A loud snort from the couch made both of them jump. They looked over to find Scott had fallen over sideways on the couch, still cradling the remnants of his appropriated peanut butter sandwich. And he was sound asleep, crumb-covered mouth wide open catching flies.

Steve and Natasha exchanged warmly amused smiles.

"It's a long drive from San Fran, I guess." Natasha said softly, pulling a blanket down from the back of the couch and draping it over Scott's hips. "Come on. We should get some sleep. There's nothing about this that won't keep til morning. And I desperately need a shower."

"Actually…" Steve said, catching her hand as she passed him. "Go run a bath in my room. I'll be up in a minute."

A perplexed little frown flickered across Natasha's brow but she smiled through it. "Alright." she said. "I'll see you in a minute."

She'd barely gotten her hair in a braid and the giant, near-lake sized bathtub full when she heard Steve's knuckles on the door. But he didn't wait for her to tell him to come in. He just pushed through, already in his sleep shorts and nothing else, and carrying… a sandwich. And a steaming mug of what smelled like tea.

Natasha smiled so hard the bridge of her nose wrinkled. "Is that another peanut butter sandwich?"

"Scott stole yours." Steve replied, elbowing the door closed.

"Thought you weren't going to make me dinner." She said, pulling her tank top over her head.

"Pretty sure I can make a peanut butter sandwich without poisoning you. And besides. Your stomach was growling." He set the sandwich and mug of tea on the edge of the tub.

A contemplative frown cut across Natasha's face as she fumbled her way free of her leggings and socks. "You cut yours corner to corner too?"

Steve lifted one shoulder. "No, I just noticed you did it that way."

She smiled a little then, her thoughts clearly flying far afield. "Coulson taught me."

"Taught you what?" he asked with a perplexed look.

"Proper peanut butter sandwich technique."

Steve blinked, his pretty lips parting with something like shock. Something so simple… she had to be taught...

"I don't mean he taught me how to put peanut butter on bread." She explained as she lowered herself into the water. She'd caught the perplexed look on his face. "I knew… I knew how to make a lot of things. Once, I was undercover as a sous chef in a Michelin star kitchen for a month. It wasn't that I didn't know how to make a peanut butter sandwich. More just…" her eyes went distant as she searched for words. "It wasn't part of my internal… I don't know. Mechanism? Dialogue? My therapist had a word for it, but I don't remember it now.

"But anyway… we were out on an op in Budapest. Early Strike Team Delta stuff. A stakeout. Coulson asked me to make sandwiches for him and for Clint at the noon shift change. And I just… didn't think to make a sandwich for myself. He'd given me an instruction and I carried it out before thinking about myself. It's… a hard habit to break. But anyway, Coulson shared his with me. Anyway, long story short, he cut it on the diagonal. Said that if I was ever out on an op with Fury, I should cut my sandwich that way so he wouldn't steal it. Something about Fury having a weird thing about the direction toast is cut or something." she splashed a little in the water, reveling in the heat soaking into her bones. "You going to join me?"

Steve was still just standing by the tub wearing that sad little frown he always had when Natasha talked about her past. He had to physically shake himself to make himself move. Meanwhile Natasha was stretched out on her back, eating part of her sandwich and looking very much like a little redheaded otter.

"In a minute." he answered, taking in the scene for a moment. The column of her neck. The brightness in her eyes. Her braid trailing the water. "I wanted to wash your hair, actually."

"Ooh be my guest." she said, wriggling her shoulders to sit up a little straighter.

Steve sat across the back of the tub with his feet in the water on either side of her and ran her braid through his hands a few times before he picked the rubber band fastening it loose.

"Seems like something that should have been covered in SHIELD rehab?" he said, working her tresses apart between his fingers. "The whole sandwich thing?"

"I mean I had a therapist and we talked about things like that. About how to think about taking care of myself. Recognizing and prioritizing my needs. She had fancy technical words for all of it, and that made it much easier to think about and talk about, but as you've probably figured out from going to therapy, it's one thing to talk about it. Another thing to do it and…" She paused thoughtfully for a moment. "I think Phil knew that. He pulled me into the field pretty early. Had to get special dispensation from Fury to do it. I thought it was because he was eager to get me out in the field. Or maybe Fury was..."

"But that wasn't it?" Steve said, indulging himself and letting his hands sink into her hair until his fingers were covered in her blood red tresses.

She shook her head, partly to disagree and partly to feel his fingers rubbing on her scalp. Even in the warmth of the water, it raised goosebumps on her arms. "It took me a little while to work it out, but I eventually figured out that Phil wanted to teach me that sort of thing himself. To help me build memories and associations with mundane things that weren't about therapy and protocol and rules and training. So that… so that I'd be able to make a peanut butter sandwich without… without thinking about it too hard."

"He was a smart man." Steve said as he guided Natasha down to wet her hair.

"Well… he probably learned a lot from handling Clint fresh out of the circus." she shrugged. "I heard tell that he was a handful."

Steve could only nod as he poured the shampoo into his palm. It was such a strange thing to think about. Natasha was so… normal. She didn't talk to him about her past often, probably because he was making the face he was making right now. But it meant he forgot sometimes… he forgot about exactly where she came from. About how she got here. About how much influence Phil and Clint must've had on her life… on her mental landscape…

Clint…

He'd saved her, but he still wouldn't let her rescue him.

Jesus. What a mess. And it never seemed to get any better.

"That feels good." Natasha half-moaned as Steve's fingers worked up a lather in her mismatched hair.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." she replied, a viscous smile spreading slowly over her lips.

For a space only the sloshing of the water kept up the conversation, and they were happy to let it. It felt good to have that companionable quiet again. Like the old times… long Quinjet flights or stakeouts or just quiet nights in Wakanda. This silence was so much different than the usual quiet that enveloped Natasha when she was alone these days. So much softer… so much lighter… so much warmer…

It was just good to have Steve there. It always was.

"How was group?" Natasha asked, leaning back into his hands and feeling him press his fingertips into her scalp in response.

"It's… the same old, same old." Steve sighed. "Lot of new people last night. Some guys from Alan's work came with him. So y'know… it was a lot of the usual starting-out stuff."

"The usual?" she arched an eyebrow.

"Yeah, just… after awhile, you can practically guess by their posture who they lost, or how many. You would have a field day."

"You make me sound so cold." she pouted teasingly.

"Nah… I think it just reflects badly on me. I mean seriously, I could practically sing along at this point. I'm… I'm not sure it's helping."

"Them or you?"

"Me. It's helping them plenty, I think. I've seen them come and go… and sometimes they come back and sometimes not. Sometimes it's worked so well they bring friends."

"But… it's not helping you?" Her brow puckered slightly as she craned back to look up at him.

"Not really."

"So why go?"

He lifted one shoulder as if it weighed a thousand pounds. "It helps them. And I guess that's better than nothing. But I just feel like I keep singing the same old tunes. I felt like for awhile if I just… said the words enough I would believe them. But I should know myself better than that, I guess."

She gave a considering tilt of her head but elected to say nothing.

"Anything interesting on the whole… Avenging front?"

"Nothing new." She shrugged. "Which is good, I guess. Coulson always said it was a good sign if people like us were stir crazy or bored."

"Anything from Clint?" Steve hadn't really wanted to ask, but he couldn't pretend that wasn't half the reason Natasha was holding down the fort here. After five years. All alone.

"Rhodey found a report of a masked swordsman taking out a bunch of drug lords south of the Texas-Mexico border." Natasha replied around a bite of her sandwich. "That's… that was the news I got when you first arrived."

"Drug lords? Not his usual racket these days. You think he's branching out?"

Natasha shook her head. "They were probably dirtier than our people have figured out yet. That's happened a few times."

"Canary in the coal mine." He shrugged.

"Yep." Natasha replied.

Steve tapped her shoulder. "Rinse for me." he said before things got too strained.

She did, holding her sandwich hand out awkwardly as she arched back to shake her hair in the water.

Steve already had a palmful of conditioner and once she'd wrung out her hair with her free hand, he began combing it through the strands. "No one's figured out it's him though, right?"

"Not even close." Natasha replied. "Clint's good. I'd forgotten how good. He stayed off SHIELD's radar for years even just as an untrained kid. He's good at not being noticed when he doesn't want to be."

"You're going to have to find a way to bring him in if we try whatever lunacy this is that Scott's trying to cook up. We'll need him."

"Oh, you can count on it." Natasha said with a tightly confident nod. "I'll drag him in by his ear if I have to. I've just gotta catch him first."

"Good."

"So… fun question." Natasha said, arching back a little to look at him as he massaged the conditioner through the russet roots of her hair. "Assume this works and we get the Stones. Who do you think should Snap their fingers?"

Steve's mouth bunched up as he mulled over the question. "I wonder if Danvers could do it?" he suggested as he continued to work the conditioner into her hair.

Natasha gave her own pensive little pout. "Or Thor maybe."

"Is he even still planetside?"

"No clue. I haven't heard from him in ages. His buddy Valkyrie checks in sometimes from their colony, but only if there's a disturbance up in those parts."

Steve nodded absently. "I should check in on him."

"We all probably should." Natasha agreed.

What a mess.

"Rinse again for me." Steve said instead of what he was thinking.

Natasha complied, dropping her head back to soak the conditioner from her hair and that's when she caught the look on Steve's face. Distant and almost stricken… as if all this talk of their lost and wayward teammates had finally weighed him down too far.

"What?" She asked sitting up a little and turning.

"Just… I dunno. Something my therapist said to me this week." Steve sighed, propping one elbow on the edge of the tub. "He said that I am a tremendously guilt-motivated person."

Natasha blew a breath out through pursed lips and propped her chin on the edge of the tub. "You're not paying him, are you Steve? Because I'm pretty sure I can get about six different people on the phone in as many minutes who can tell you that. And probably then some."

Steve smiled then, but only for a moment. "I know. And I knew it, you know? How could I not? After what happened in Berlin? After… what Bucky said to me? About not feeling like he was worth all the trouble? God… I've never felt so guilty. Not in all my life. But it's like you said. It's one thing to say it. It's another thing to really face it. I run from my guilt. I always have. I mean... I pretend that I don't, but I do. Just like…" he paused and swallowed so hard Natasha thought the pressure might break his perfect jaw. "Just like I've been pretending that I'm not running from you. That I'm not running from this place. Because being here reminded me every fucking day of how badly I'd failed those closest to me. Dusted or not. And I just… I couldn't stay here."

Natasha could only stare at him as he confessed to her half a decade's worth of his perceived sins and shortcomings. And it was shocking. Wow. There it was. Just… out there. Naked as she was right now.

"I'm so sorry, Natasha." He said when he ran out of words, crushing his eyes under his palms to keep from crying.

She reached up with her wet hand, caressing his cheek with her knuckles before pulling his hands free. "It's alright." She assured him. "It's alright, Steve."

Steve shook his head but didn't pull away from her touch. "It's not." he insisted. "After all you've done for me, and after all I've done to you? Then I leave you here and run off?"

She frowned then. "After what all you've done to me?" She asked, genuinely perplexed.

"You let me pull it all out from under you, Nat." He said, as if the thought horrified him. "SHIELD… way back when. It was your whole world. You just… you let me tear your whole world apart. Hell, you helped me do it."

She blinked in confusion and shook her head. Wow, talk about old ground. "I let you because it was the right thing to do. "

"But… You just let me, Nat. If you had spoken up, or wanted to… I don't know. If you'd wanted to do something different? I would have listened to you at least...."

Natasha shook her head, mystified at this strange turn. "I would have said something if I had thought you were wrong, but I knew you were right. You're still right. I'm aware of the mistakes SHIELD made, and I'm doing my best not to make them now. Because you were right."

"How are you so sure, Nat?"

"Because you're you. You had to be right. Because Nick… he was wrong. It was a hard thing to think about then, because it was hard to think about myself without SHIELD and Nick and Delta in the picture. But… having walked in something not unlike his shoes for the last five years? It's not so hard now. There were things from SHIELD worth saving, sure, but they mostly had to do with the way Phil ran Strike Team Delta. On the whole though? Fury was wrong and you were right. It's as simple as that for me."

He was still shaking his head. "I haven't always been right."

"No. Of course not. No one is, Steve." she rested her hand on his bare chest. "But you've always been good. And that's… that's what matters. In the end."

"You're good too, Nat. Don't ever doubt it."

"Only because I had people like you, and Phil, and Clint to show me how. And you kept showing me even when I'd fuck it up. I guess… I guess that's the good thing about it. You're supposed to keep trying whether you succeed or fail. Because that's what being good is."

Steve snorted. "When did you get so smart?"

"I've always been smart, Steve. You just don't always want to listen to the truth when I tell it."

"Mmm… something something all things to all people?"

"Something something…" She said, wrinkling her nose and smiling. She twisted up onto her knees so she could get her arms around his shoulders and kiss him properly. And maybe nibble his bottom lip in retaliation for using her words against her yet again. He didn't seem to mind the water dripping over his smooth skin in clear rivulets. He seemed to welcome it in fact. He pulled her to him, letting the warmth of the water and of her skin seep into his own.

Yes, that was enough of that for tonight, Natasha thought. Enough moaning and retreading with bare feet the briar patch of the past. She didn't get to see Steve often these days. Sometimes it was less than once every week, so she didn't want to waste the opportunity. Even with Scott here going on about his mad time-travel plans. Even with Clint on the move again. Even with all of it… five years of it. Had it really been five years?

Of course it had been. And Natasha wasn't one to waste time anymore.

"Get in here would you?" She said, the words coming out like a purr against his open mouth.

Steve didn't need to hear it from her twice. He stripped out of his shorts and climbed into the tub, making the water slosh dangerously close to the edge. Natasha caught him by the elbow and reeled him in for another kiss, this one syrup-slow as she licked her way into his mouth. He fell down over her like a wave breaking on the beach, his hands sliding up her waist to cup her shoulder blades and press her to him from knee to collarbone.

Her hands were all over him too. Remapping and remembering all the wonderful shapes of his body. The cut angle of his hip bones. The taut arch of the muscles in his shoulders. The ridiculously perfect line of his jaw. The softness of his hair. He'd left it so long even though he'd shaved the beard. She could bury her hands in it, and clamp fistfuls of it between her fingers. And she did so as she plundered his mouth.

It reminded her a little of old times. When their physical relationship was new and they'd only do this rarely. Every time they took their time. Learning and relearning. All of it keeping that newness and excitement. It was like that again now since they saw each other so rarely. It was one of the few good things about it...

He'd gone so soft and sweet for her once he'd gotten in the tub. Usually Steve was greedy in bed. Not in a selfish way, but his want was unmistakable and he'd become bolder about putting his strength behind it. But tonight, he seemed content to let her just have him. Touch him. Caress him. Taste him. Hold him. Whatever she wanted with him she could have.

And she certainly was not without ideas.

"You wanna fuck me like this?" She asked, the words tickling that sensitive patch of skin just under his earlobe. She'd dripped water all over him when she'd buried her hands in his hair. It was her duty to clean him up again, so she licked a long stripe up his neck, chasing the water that dripped down his throat.

Steve just nodded, pulling her to him and just out of the water enough to place a kiss between the fullness of her breasts. He licked up the water there. Licked and scraped his teeth and begged with everything but his voice. There was a sweet little hunch to his shoulders, almost as if he were offering himself too her. Or like a cat that she had scruffed by the neck.

Natasha pressed both a smile and a kiss into his skin just behind his ear and reached down between her legs. He made to follow her but she caught his hands and knotted their fingers together. "No no… I'll do me and you do you. I'll let you know when I'm ready for you."

Steve gave up the most undignified whine at that, and Natasha grinned like the devil.

"Go on then. Touch yourself. Get yourself nice and hard for me." she encouraged, nipping at his bottom lip as she slipped her hand down between her thighs again. Her own touch was not nearly as exciting as Steve's. He could get her to come off like a bottle rocket in no time, but what was exciting about this predicament that she'd created was that she couldn't exactly see what Steve was doing to himself. Just the easy give and flex of his shoulder as he stroked himself somewhere under the distortion of the water. Just his pretty lips falling open in the sweetest little "oh," and that had her blood running hotter than it had in a very long time.

"I should make you touch yourself for me more often." she said, her voice a little breathy as she slipped one finger back and forth over her clit. "You look nice like this."

Steve just groaned low in his throat at that, coherence having long since fled.

"We should do this in bed." she told him, licking a wide stripe up his throat. "Where I can see you. And you can drip all over me."

Another groan, louder this time, and Natasha couldn't help but eat the sound from his mouth. Steve speared his tongue between her lips, mirroring with it the rhythm of his arm. Conveying exactly all the ways he wanted to split her open and fuck up into her if only she'd let him.

It was her turn to moan, one finger slipping inside to the knuckle and curling just so to follow his rhythm. Steve swallowed the sound whole, still thrusting his tongue into her mouth just as he was thrusting his cock against his palm. She pumped her finger inside herself, feeling the contrast of the water against the heated slickness of her inner walls and imagining how wonderful it would be to have the weight and length of Steve's cock pushing against all those boundaries. He was big. Not unmanageable, but she had to be ready to take him unless she was up to getting it rough.

And she was sometimes. But not tonight. She was warm from the bath, and he had such a pretty flush creeping up his chest. She wanted slow. She wanted him to beg.

Speaking of which…

"Natasha, please…" he keened, the flex of his arm speeding up.

"I gotta get off before I let you fuck me." She said, biting her lip prettily. "You don't want it to hurt, do you?"

"No… no…" He grunted the words out but his goodwill only lasted so long. Just a few more panting breaths and a few more drags of his palm over his cock and he was pleading again. "Natasha, please…"

"You'd do it if I let you, wouldn't you? You like to fuck me open when I'm all nice and tight."

Steve tried to duck and hide his face as the blush crept higher. Natasha felt her insides clench at that. He was so sweet, but he could be so filthy.

She wrapped her legs around his waist as she batted his hand away from his cock. She drew him to her until his length pressed against the plush lips of her pussy. Natasha kept a finger on her clit and rubbed him against her, feeling him tremble at the change in stimulation. He pawed at her weakly, trying and failing to grip her shoulders or her hips. All that strength but he was so weak for her. So sweet and weak.

Natasha kept rubbing, feeling her orgasm beginning to build in earnest. She arched beneath him drawing his mouth down to her breasts, and he followed her urging. He enveloped one nipple and sucked, his tongue hotter than the bathwater laving the sensitive skin. He licked and sucked and lapped like he was starving… or dying. And he absolutely trembled with the effort of keeping still and just letting her rub herself off on him.

She was close. Her skin suddenly felt hot and too tight on her bones. Her hand sped up and then with a tip of her pelvis and the slightest shift of her weight, she let Steve's cock slip inside her.

And she came just like that, with him holding onto her and groaning as the heat of her body swallowed him up. He very nearly wailed, the sound muffled against her damp skin. He couldn't keep still any longer. What he was doing wasn't even really thrusting. It was just rutting. These shallow, tight little movements that ground his length deeper and deeper into her body.

Natasha, awash in her own aftershocks, just lay back in the water and let him have her. Let him take control and just fuck her how he wanted her. God, he was good like this, when she managed to work him up until his inhibitions cracked and he would just fuck up into her like he owned her. Like his urges owned him. To feel Steve Rogers give in and just take from her... It was glorious and heady.

And she didn't even really come down from the first orgasm before a new one was building. She just wrapped herself around Steve's body, dug her nails into his shoulders and let him fuck her back up to the precipice. He was so good at it. He fit her body so perfectly, and no matter the position he knew exactly how to rut up into the delicious heat of her pussy and exactly how to rock his thumb on her clit. She was seeing stars again in no time.

Her second orgasm, especially when it came so fast, was always like an incoming tide. Slowly building, but inexorably rising, and she could just float on it and let it carry her up and away. Especially when it was Steve's doing.

"God, I'm going to come too fast…" Steve groaned, face buried in the join of her neck.

"I'm almost there Steve… just come for me. I've got you."

"Nat… God… you feel… you feel…"

He didn't finish the statement. His whole body went rigid as he thrust up into her one last time, thumb slipping on her clit and sending her over the threshold with him. She dragged her nails down his back and he gripped her hips hard enough to bruise, and they both moaned so loud the sound echoed off the tile.

Steve's hips stuttered involuntarily a few times before he collapsed on top of her, pliant as a sleeping cat. He cradled her face, kissing her lips even as his own trembled.

"I love you." he panted, eyes glassy and warm.

"I love you too."

"Still?" There was that wounded look. Not even an earth-shattering orgasm could chase it away… not that she'd ever stop trying.

"Of course." she answered, bumping his nose with hers.

"I don't deserve it."

"It's not about deserving." She said with a little frown. "I just love you. Because you're you. You're my family. So I love you."

Steve looked for a moment like he might argue. But then he just kissed her, and instead of arguing he whispered, "I love you too." against her parted lips.

They lingered in the bath until the water was nearly tepid, trading kisses and splitting the mug of tea. When their legs seemed to want to cooperate again, they dragged themselves out of the water and dried off with the ridiculously fluffy standard issue HQ towels. They didn't bother with clothes before piling in bed. Why would they at this point? Sex in the morning was nearly always a given.

"Do you need to set an alarm?" Natasha asked, her voice already going a little foggy.

"No. Do you?"

"V.E.R.O.N.I.C.A. will wake us if something comes up, will you?"

"Understood, Agent Romanoff."

Then she turned her sleepily salacious grin back to Steve. "Otherwise, my only plan is you."

Steve gave her a drowsy smile of his own. "I like the sound of that." He pulled her close then and kissed her before letting her come to rest against his chest, her nose against his breastbone. They nearly always slept like this, side by side but cocooned together. Somehow that night it all felt new again. Maybe it was the time apart. Maybe it was something else. But it felt a little like the first time they'd passed the night together all over again. Something tremulous… something uncertain… but also something terribly, terribly relieved at the fact that they would still be together when the sun came up.

***

When Natasha awoke the next morning, smell was the first sense to return to her slowly rousing mind. Her nose was still pressed to the hollow of Steve's throat, and she inhaled on a yawn, bathing her brain in the assurance that Steve was here with her. It was only an occasional thing now… once a week. Maybe less. But she hoarded it like a magpie.

She had long learned the trick of keeping her eyes closed until the last possible minute. If she didn't open her eyes, it wasn't morning, and if it wasn't morning, he wasn't leaving. She only had a good thing while she had it, after all. And she had the best thing there ever was right now, so she would enjoy it.

Steve roused right after her, a slow rippling of his muscles against her as he buried his face in her hair. He did the treasuring and indulgent little inhale too, before kissing his way along her hairline to find her lips.

"Good morning." he murmured, not lifting his head from the pillow or bothering to open his eyes either.

"Good morning." she responded, tucking one leg over his hip so that his already half-hard cock pressed into the soft skin of her stomach.

"Mmm… it is a good morning." Steve said, grinding his length against her with a pleasured little shiver.

Natasha used her position to roll onto her back, pulling Steve with her until he was slotted between her thighs. He kept rutting, his cock finding its perfect cradle in the hollow of her hip.

"Natasha…" he whispered, his face hidden against the cleft of her breasts. He licked there, hands coming up to cup and caress the fullness of her curves, thumbs gently massaging her nipples to hardness. He was hard too. Just a few stuttering grinds of his hips and she could feel his pulse kicking against her hip.

"Go on." she encouraged, dragging her feet up the backs of his calves as she palmed his ass. "I won't make you wait this time."

Steve looked up at her, his face like that of some sort of primal creature. Golden hair a mess. Skin flushed. Lips already swollen with kisses. A debauched god. His eyes asked for permission but his body was taking without his own or further encouragement from her. He twisted his hips and she canted her pelvis up and he slid his cock home with a practiced thrust and a ragged groan.

He buried himself in her… face, hands, and thick, hard cock. He sucked marks across her collarbones which was something he rarely indulged in, but she reveled in it, pressing her skin against his mouth in encouragement as she slid her hands into his hair.

Apparently there was still some bottled up need left over from Natasha's teasing the night before because Steve was relentless and artless in a way he almost never was usually. He wasn't forceful or hurried, but he took from Natasha's body with a wanton hunger that stole her breath. He fucked up into her with slow, deliciously rutting thrusts that she could ride like waves on the beach. And he groaned against her skin like he was dying.

"Steve… sweetheart…" she murmured endearingly as she gathered him to him and just let him fuck himself out inside her. She was distantly aware that she could feel her orgasm building. A pleasantly heavy warmth and pressure that began to slowly snowball. But he kept her focus. His mouth was on one of her nipples and he was buried so deep that she was seeing stars. Everything was was warm, and the sensation of his cock inside her had begun to turn electric.

Impatiently she reached down between where they were joined, her fingers searching for her clit, but he beat her there, his thumb circling the slippery swollen little nub and making her cry out. A few more steady rocks of his hips and she was coming, spasming hotly around his length and milking an orgasm out of him as well. An orgasm he seemed almost unwilling to give up… And yet he couldn't resist. He fell into her with a filthy moan and one last shivering buck of his hips.

Natasha cradled him against her, tipping his chin up to find him red-faced, dark-eyed, and panting heavily. "Better?" she asked with a curl of a smile.

He nodded, trying visibly to slow his breathing. "Natasha…" he moaned shifting up to kiss her and stopping short as an aftershock shook him from head to toe. She cupped his chin and carried him the rest of the way.

"I've got you." she whispered, letting him fall back down against her chest to kiss at the marks he'd left.

Mine he said but didn't speak aloud. He'd rarely ever been this possessive or outwardly grasping of her. But now he was...

"I'm not going anywhere." She said, the breath in her words making his hair tickle her nose.

Steve frowned up at her then, a strange and confused sort of look. "You… never did."

There it was. The guilt again. He'd never be free of it and she could never free him from it. There's nothing to say that he wouldn't argue against. So she just kissed him again instead.

"I'll always be here for you."

He couldn't argue with that at least.

After awhile, Steve slipped out of her and rolled to his side, pulling her with him so that he was no longer crushing her. They laid like that for awhile, basking in the familiarity as they watched the rising sun begin to paint golden swatches across the blinds.

"When should we go see Tony?" Natasha asked.

"The sooner the better. Today maybe?"

"Whenever you think is best. We should take Scott with us."

"Most definitely. If I try to explain time travel to Tony Stark, he'll laugh at me on principle. Even if he's furious with me."

She tightened her arm around his ribs. "He's not furious with you, Steve."

"He seemed pretty furious to me."

"That was five years ago." Natasha said, propping her chin on his chest. "And forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but you don't send Christmas cards to people you're furious with."

Steve snorted and gave the prettiest little flutter of his eyelashes, but didn't say anything.

"When do you have to be back?" Natasha asked. "In Brooklyn, I mean."

Steve swallowed and visibly weighed his answer somewhere behind the divide of his skull. "I’m… not."

"You're… not?" Natasha's brow bent in confusion. "What… Steve, what do you mean?"

Steve took another deep breath."You… You know how you always say, 'We have what we have when we have it?'"

"I do not always say that." Natasha cut him off lightly. "I said it once. You, however, say it all the time. But I think what I do say all the time is that you're not allowed to use my own words against me."

He smiled a little and Natasha's heart hurt a little less. "How about I argue with them instead?"

Her bright eyes narrowed in mock suspicion. "I suppose I can allow that."

"I suppose there's times that statement is accurate, but… not all the time. Sometimes… we have what we have because we made choices to make that happen. That's… something else we've been talking about. My therapist and I. I've… made some choices about what's important to me. I chose Bucky back during the mess of the Accords. And I've chosen to hide out in Brooklyn-"

"You weren't hiding, Steve."

"Yes, I was." He says with a gentle but censuring insistence. "I was pretending that I wasn't, but I was. I was choosing to do the easier thing, rather than stay here and face the world as it was. With you. I chose to leave you here to do it alone."

Natasha shook her head. "You had another mission Steve."

"I chose another mission, Natasha. That's what I'm trying to tell you. And now… you're right. The only person Tony wants to hear from is me. So I've gotta go talk to him. And… I need to stay here. With you. Even if he says no. Even if… this whole plan of Scott's is a bust. I… that's what I was coming back to tell you last night. Before he showed up."

She blinked. "What?"

"I'm not going back to Brooklyn, Nat. Not if you're here. Not if we need to find Clint. Not if… Not if this is where I'm supposed to be."

Natasha had to take a second to absorb all that. "Really?" Her voice sounded pitifully small, but she also sounded hopeful. But perhaps that was why the word came out as little more than a squeak. She hoped… but she was afraid of disappointment.

"Really." He said with a confident huff of breath.

"You're… sure?" she asked, cradling his face between her hands. "You… said you were doing a lot of good. That you were really good at the whole group therapy thing."

Steve gave an absent little nod. "I know. And… you're right on both counts. But… I can use those gifts to do something bigger than run therapy meetings. I can do something better for myself too. It's… it's not helping anymore, Nat. It did for awhile but… now it just feels empty. I can lead these people to talk about their problems, but… ultimately… I can't shake the feeling that it's just too small for me."

"Like me in Morocco after the Accords."

Steve frowned earnestly and nodded. "Yeah. I remember you saying that…"

Natasha snugged her arms around him. "You've always got a place here." she told him, kissing his chest.

"With you?"

"Always with me. But… leading the Avengers too. This is your place. I've just been keeping it warm for you."

"You've been doing a damn fine job without me."

She squeezed him again. "It fucking sucks doing it without you."

"Well. I'm sorry I made you do it all those years without me. You should never let me live it down."

"Not for as long as I live. Trust me, I've already thought of a few ways you can make it up to me."

Steve arched one eyebrow? "Yeah? Already? I already fucked you to orgasm. What else did you have in mind?"

"Waffles?" she asked, giving him her best pretty doe eyes. "The blueberry ones?"

It worked like a charm. He kissed her, sweet and warm before pulling her tight against his chest. "Your wish is my command. But… shower first."

Natasha burrowed down into his arms. "Mmm… then in that case, another orgasm first. Then waffles."

"Orgasm and then waffles? You're demanding."

She reeled him in for another kiss, this one biting and playful. "You've got a lot to make up for, Rogers."

He laughed then, and pulled her out of bed by the hand. "Well, I'd best get started."

***

I would turn at night to hold you as you dream and keep you safe
in the way the summer calls upon the winter for escape,
but we've spent a stolen season taking all that we can take.

There must be some kind of way out of here...

***