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She's a swell gal, with a gun in her hand

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“It could be fun,” she’d said, smiling and terrified, and he’d tossed her up onto the back of a damned flying alien vehicle.

Later, in the stillness of the aftermath, he’d looked at her and saw bruises forming on her cheek and knew there must be a dozen more in places he couldn’t see. She ate her shwarma in silence and said, “What’s next?” when they finished.

Steve thinks Natasha Romanoff is the most impressive girl he’s ever met.

*

She usually wears her hair up when she’s in street clothes and down when she’s in her SHIELD uniform; Tony says the street clothes are her real disguise and Steve guesses she likes to have her hair down when she’s really being herself.

It’s a month after the invasion that he sees Natasha dressed up, at some gala honoring them, something where Stark does all the interviews so the rest of them agree to show up. She wears a green dress that hugs her curves and shoes that add five inches. Her red curls are down, and when he catches her out of the corner of his eye his breath catches. He thinks for a second she’s Peggy.

She asks him to dance and he says no. He never did learn how. Nothing in her expression changes, but he feels like she’s a little disappointed. She dances with Clint instead, and smiles a real smile that Steve thinks is too rare.

*

It seems like most of her missions are classified even from the Avengers. “I need to know more about her,” he tells Fury in frustration, “if we’re going to be a team.”

“I don’t want her past to color your judgement,” Fury tells him, and Steve thinks that means ‘she did a lot of things you wouldn’t approve of.’

*

“How old were you when you became a spy?” he asks her one day while they’re sparring. She doesn’t like to spar with him, but he doesn’t know why. He’s not holding back as much as he should, and she still beats him as often as the other way around.

“I don’t know,” she answers, her eyes darting from his feet to his shoulder. He changes position to try and throw her off guard. Her mouth twitches, and his heart sinks.

“How old are you now?” he asks, trying to distract her, to keep her from doing whatever crazy acrobatic thing is coming next.

“I don’t know,” she says, but Steve can’t reply to that since he’s flat on his back with the wind knocked out of him.

*

“What is that?” she asks him abruptly one afternoon. (Steve is learning that Natasha is only abrupt when she’s being herself. When she’s nice and normal and soothing, she’s angling for something.) They’re in the living space in Stark Tower; Steve spends more time here than his own apartment these days, and Natasha comes and goes from the Tower like a phantom. She’s been gone two weeks this time, and Steve was surprised to see her when he came in from drawing on the terrace to find her at the coffee machine.

“Don’t know quite what it’s going to be yet,” Steve says. It’s a drawing that’s coming to him in pieces, a memory of something not too distant for him, but generations ago for her. “It’s just my guys around a campfire,” he says, holding out his half-finished drawing of the Commandos in a rare moment of rest. “That one’s Bucky, you can tell by the way he’s laughing.”

“Tell me about him,” she says, staring at him, unflinching. Talking about Bucky still hurts so he doesn’t do it much, but Natasha doesn’t usually show any interest in the team as people, save for Clint. He doesn’t want to discourage it.

“When we were fifteen there was a heatwave in New York that lasted three weeks. Bucky and I spent the entire time at the beach on Coney Island and by the end of the three weeks he had four girlfriends,” Steve says with a smile. Talking about Bucky before the war, before he became Cap and Bucky became Sergeant Barnes - somehow it’s easier.

“What about you?” Natasha asks.

“I had a sunburn,” Steve replies and she tosses her head back and laughs. Steve feels like he’s won a prize, getting to hear it.

*

Seems like the world is close to ending more often now that Steve’s living in the future. He worries about all of them when they’re fighting in the field - well, less about Thor, to be honest, and not so much about the Hulk, though he worries a lot about Dr. Banner - but they’re his team now, and tries to make sure he has their backs.

With Natasha he maybe tries a little too hard.

“Focus, Captain,” she tells him through the earpieces that Tony invented so they have a channel all their own, away from SHIELD's prying ears. There’s a giant robot thing heading her way, and she’s not backing down. Steve runs toward her, nevermind that he’s defying his own strategic plan. He tosses her bodily out of the way of an incoming shot, takes the robot down by hefting it over his head and slamming it into the pavement in a rush of adrenaline he hasn’t felt in a while. When he looks back, Natasha’s on her feet, hands on her hips. “You have your own to deal with, go!” Natasha says firmly, waving him off, and Steve tries to put her out of his mind as he tears a few robots down, the metal of his shield making a satisfying *clang* every time it hits a target. That doesn’t stop him from glancing her way a few times before the end.

After, she glares at him through the debrief. “What the hell was that?” she asks as they leave Fury’s office.

“Maybe,” Steve says, “we should ask Tony to make you a suit that’s more... you know, sturdy,” he finishes lamely.

“I need to be able to move in a fight,” she tells him, arms crossed. “I like my suit.” She’s still wearing it, and Steve glances down to the places it clings to her narrow waist, her strong thighs, her breasts. “What, don’t you like my suit, Cap?” she asks, her voice suddenly a low, husky rasp. Steve feels his blush and knows she’s playing him. He also knows he kind of has it coming.

“Sorry,” he says, “I shouldn’t have...”

“I can do my goddamn job,” she snaps, and he knows that, she’s just. Smaller than she seems to think she is.

*

The next time they spar, Natasha is brutal. She executes a flip-spin that Steve barely sees coming. His hits almost never make contact. Sparring with Natasha is never fun, but it’s usually not like this, not like a tiny war that Steve didn’t know he was fighting. He evades a kick with a shove of his hand and Natasha stops dead, eyes boring into him.

“You’re holding back,” she accuses, and Steve sighs.

“Not that much,” he assures her, because she’s had him on the ropes a lot, and some of that was for real.

“Don’t,” she says, eyes flashing.

“I don’t want to risk hurting you.” She snorts. “I know you’re strong - “

“And I know you’re stronger. Strength isn’t a whole fight, sometimes it’s even a weakness,” she spits at him.

“We get enough of the hard stuff in the field,” Steve tries to reason with her. “This is for training, for technique more than anything else.”

“You do this because you need to learn what we’re capable of out there, right?” she says. Steve nods. “I need to learn the same thing. I need to know what you can do.”

“Natasha,” he starts, because he doesn’t want to hit her with his full strength, he doesn’t want to knock her down, to make her bleed, to know he did that.

“I need to know what you could do to me,” she says firmly, and Steve pauses at that, thinks back to her dossier full of blacked out intel, but Steve can read through the lines well enough to see a history of divided loyalties. And while there may be plenty of Natasha’s enemies who are now her allies, she’s also had her share of allies who became enemies. She wants to trust that he’s showing her his full deck, that he’s letting her learn his tells, just in case she needs to know them in the future. He wants her to trust that he’ll never be her enemy, but he needs her to know that he trusts her even more.

“Okay,” he says. “I promise you ten minutes, no holding back. But you promise me that if I really hurt you, you tell me right then and there, and we stop for the day.” He can see her think it over slowly before she nods.

*

He draws her, sometimes. Her face is a frustrating combination of angles and softness, her hands small and deft, her hips wide and solid. Her hair is nearly impossible to get right when it’s down, but Steve doesn’t much want to sketch her when it’s up.

She’s the first person he’s drawn since waking up who hasn’t been long-dead.

He hides them under his bed at first, but that makes him feel like they’re a dirty secret, so he moves them to a shoebox on the shelf of his closet, the same place his mother used to keep old family heirlooms, photos of his father in his WWI uniform, recipes handwritten by his great-grandmother in a language Steve didn’t understand. It makes the drawings special, sacred in a way that scares Steve half to death.

*

“Whoa, what happened to you?” Clint asks when they gather for dinner in the Tower the day after Steve and Natasha’s weekly sparring session.

“Cap got a lucky hit in,” she says, grinning wildly even though it must hurt to, what with the purpling bruise on her jaw. Steve thinks that maybe Clint is going to deck him right then and there, but all he says is “Watch your back, Cap, her payback tends to be a bitch.”

*

He doesn’t see it coming; he should, he really should, because Natasha is fond of reminding them that she has a very special skill set, but Steve isn’t at all prepared when he walks into his apartment and finds her waiting there. She’s clad in Steve’s favorite plaid shirt, unbuttoned to reveal some damn sexy black underwear. “Um,” Steve manages, and her smile is coy and inviting.

“Like what you see?” she asks and her voice has that rasp again, near enough to be mistaken for her real voice by most, but Steve’s been studying her for months now, and he knows the difference.

“I don’t think you should be here,” he says, because he’s being played, she’s playing all the cards she knows about him, pushing all the right buttons just to find more. Maybe it’s payback, maybe it’s a test; whatever it is, Steve knows it isn’t real.

“I think you don’t know what to think,” Natasha says, her bare feet silent on the carpet as she walks slowly toward him, around him, her fingers skimming over his chest. “I think maybe you need a totally different kind of training than what we do in the ring, Captain.” And it’s not like he hasn’t thought about this, about her, about how well his hand would fit in the small of her back, around the curve of her breast. He feels ashamed by it most days, because he likes her, he respects her, and thinking those things isn’t gentlemanly. Steve can’t help his blush or the way his body tenses at her touch, but he can help himself.

“You should go home, Agent,” he tries, and his voice sounds stupid in his own ears, weak and uncertain. Natasha laughs and leans up on her toes.

“Isn’t this what you want?” she purrs in his ear, and Steve wants, he really does, but.

“Not like this, Tash. Not if it isn’t really you,” he shakes his head and takes a step back, and when he looks at her, she’s looking at him, through him, in that way that makes Steve want to hide and hold his ground at the same time. Her stance is subtly different, the look in her eyes harder and brighter all at once, and Steve knows he’s looking at Natasha again, not whatever skin she was wearing a second ago.

“What is that supposed to mean?” she asks sharply, not angry, but unsure.

“What do you want it to mean?” Steve replies, because he’s a goddamn coward and he can’t face her pity. ‘Love is for children,’ she’s fond of saying, but Steve’s heart clearly hasn’t read that memo.

“Most men don’t seem to like the real me,” she says with a wry quirk of her lips, and Steve thinks that’s crazy - Fury adores her, and Clint, and Coulson did, before. She inspires shock and awe. She’s strange and strong and petty and blunt and magnificent.

“Maybe it’s your total lack of sparkling personality,” he says dryly, still dodging the question, and laughs when she punches him in the shoulder. She’s still wearing his shirt, and it flutters open enough that he can see a scar along her side, long-healed. He bets there are more. He bets there will BE more, no matter what he tries to do to get in her way. Getting in her way has never been a good plan, for anyone. “I don’t expect anything to happen, Natasha,” he says, because it’s true. “Just respect me enough to not pretend, alright?”

She stares at him for a long moment and then, lightning quick, she’s on her toes again, pressing a hard, dry kiss to his lips. It only lasts a fraction of a second before she pulls back. “I respect you a great deal,” she says before pulling a small sheath dress out of her bag and stepping into it, shimmying it up her body. Steve reaches out to help her pull his shirt off her shoulders, but she stops him with a hand on his. “I think I’ll hold on to this,” she says with a tiny smile - the same one that masked her terror during Loki’s battle - before slipping out the door.

*

“What’s the play, Cap?” Tasha murmurs in his ear. He barely hesitates before he orders it, a quick and vicious attack that should draw all the HYDRA agents out of their hole, but will leave Natasha flying solo on the inside if they don’t take the bait.

“Blow it sky high, Tash,” he says firmly.

“Should be fun,” she says with a hint of a smile in her voice, and moments later the air is shattered with the screaming crunch of metal and the sound of HYDRA on the run.

In the instant before the fight begins in earnest he sees her exit the now-smoking compound, face dark with ash, taking out any HYDRA agents that dare get between her and the battle to come.

Steve thinks Natasha Romanoff is the most impressive girl he’s ever met, and he might be a little bit in love.