“Dude,” Sam said from his seat as the jet slowly landed and taxied into the hangar of the Avengers facility upstate. “The next time they haul our asses out of bed at the butt crack of dawn to save the world, remind me to grab a granola bar or something.”
Steve laughed, gathering his shield and securing it on his back as they came to a full stop. He pulled the lever of the ramp release and waited as it slowly lowered. It was early afternoon in New York now and he was just glad to be back the same day they had left. At an ungodly hour that morning, Hill had dispatched both him and Sam to Lima to deal with a drug cartel that was allegedly using civilians to transport their products across South American borders. Neither of them really had the time to tend to their basic needs as they hurriedly grabbed their gear and headed for the awaiting Stark jet. Nonetheless, their mission had gone smoothly. As it turned out, the so-called cartel was just a bunch of amateur thugs trying to make a quick buck. No real strategy. No tactics. Nothing. They had the numbers and the ammo, but they were no match for Captain America and Falcon. He and Sam had taken them down in no time at all. And with the hostages free and the hostiles securely in police custody, they made their way home.
“Bad guys don’t exactly respect meal times, Sam,” he said, walking down the ramp. He unclasped the lock of his helmet just below his chin and took it off, his blonde hair ruffled underneath.
“You don’t say,” Sam deadpanned. He lifted his infrared goggles off his eyes and rested it atop his head just as his stomach growled.
“Come on.” Steve chuckled and planted a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Let’s go get you something to eat.”
They both turned toward the main building but stopped when another one of the hangar’s gates began to open. Steve shared a confused look with Sam as the Avengers quinjet landed next to the aircraft they had just exited.
“Hill send Barton out?” Sam asked, looking into the windshield of the jet as Clint sat in the pilot’s chair and killed the engine. The archer wore an expression on his face that was hard to place.
“She didn’t mention anything,” Steve replied.
Another door slid open to their right and in came their facility’s medical staff. Steve recognized some of the doctors and nurses who regularly tended to his injuries after missions and grew even more confused by their presence. The ramp of the quinjet came down and the medical team immediately stepped onto it. Steve felt the urge to follow them and see what was going on, but the building was filled by a rush of activity before he could. A stretcher was wheeled down the ramp and then pushed toward the direction of the infirmary. Bruce was by the head, wearing his white lab coat with his stethoscope in his ears and his eyes trained on a screen attached to the metal railing of the rolling bed as he shouted instructions to the people around him. Clint was next to him, also pushing with a scowl still planted on his face. Steve craned his neck, trying to see what or who was being wheeled away, but there were too many people blocking his view.
“What the hell?” Sam asked as he watched the scene before them.
A flash of crimson in his periphery caught Steve’s attention. He couldn’t make it out at first with all the commotion around him, but then his sight came to focus and then he just saw it. Saw her. A flash of color amidst the sea of white coats. With her back turned, he could only see her jeans and the black leather of her jacket as she went along with the others. He couldn’t see her face, but he was completely positive it was her. Three years hadn’t obscured his ability to make out her form from anywhere or any distance.
“Is that-“ Sam began, eyes falling to where his were fixated.
“Natasha,” he finished, voice barely above a whisper. Without really thinking about it, he started walking toward them. They were farther ahead of him now, already outside the hangar and halfway to the back entrance of the infirmary. He jogged to make up the distance between them with Sam close behind, stride not quite as long as his. They both made it just in time as the automatic doors shut.
“Natasha!” Steve cried out. If she heard him, and he was certain she had given how his voice echoed through the sterile hall, she didn’t let on. She didn’t even give him a glance back as the stretcher turned and rolled into one of the exam rooms. He wasn’t daunted by her lack of acknowledgement though, and as if his legs were on autopilot, he went further down the hall.
“Cap, wait!” Sam called out from behind him, but he ignored the man and kept walking.
Clint met him halfway down the hall, standing in front of him to block his path. “Steve-“
“It’s her, isn’t it?” he asked, looking down at his teammate. Sam was now behind them. Clint looked like he couldn’t look at him for some reason. He still hadn’t answered his question, but he really didn’t have to. His expression was enough of an affirmation for Steve. “Move.” Clint stood his ground, so he stepped aside. Clint did too, blocking his path again. “Don’t make me move you, Barton.”
“You can’t go in there,” Clint tried, voice small.
Steve gave him a challenging look before he forcefully pushed him aside. He sprinted down the hall and heard Clint curse behind him before calling out his name.
“You really thought you could block a Super Soldier?” He heard Sam say as they ran after him.
“Not now, Wilson!” came Clint’s clipped reply.
Their voices faded as he burst through the metal doors of the exam room. A few seconds later, he heard Clint and Sam shout his name in unison. He didn’t look back at them, his legs frozen a few steps away from the door as he took in the events that were unfolding before him. Some of the medical staff were busy booting machines. Some gathered all sorts of vials and assorted bags of liquid. Bruce had a needle in his hand as he prepared an IV. He had no clue what was going on, but from what he could see, he knew it had to be serious. His reverie was broken only by the familiar sound of Natasha’s voice.
“Mama’s here, baby. I’m right here,” she said consolingly to whoever was now on the hospital bed.
Mama’s here, baby.
Her words reverberated through his mind and he looked up at her, shocked.
“Get him out of here!” Natasha shouted to someone behind him.
Steve felt a hand firmly on his shoulder. Sam? Clint? He wasn’t sure. He shrugged it off and started moving toward the bed. He could hear his name being called from behind him again, a hand coming to grasp his elbow firmly, but he shrugged that off too. Voices told him to stop as he inched closer. Sam. Clint. Bruce. Natasha. He ignored them all.
When he was finally close enough that his tall frame could see above the heads of the doctors and nurses surrounding the side of the bed, he felt his stomach drop. There on the bed was a little girl, two or three years old at most. Her head was tilted towards Natasha who held her little hand securely in both of hers. An oxygen mask was securely over her nose and mouth as ringlets of blonde hair clung to the side of her chubby face from her sweat. She cried when Bruce stuck the needle of the IV into her other arm.
Natasha’s words echoed through his head again.
Natasha was her mother. This little girl was Natasha’s daughter.
Before he could even begin to process that, the girl's face turned in his direction. That’s when he saw it. Her eyes. Big and wide and angelic despite the onslaught of tears. Eyes that were so piercingly blue it put the color of the sky on a beautiful summer day to shame. Beautiful eyes.
His heart stopped then. Confusion and shock rocking him to his very core as his mind raced with questions. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move.
His world was shaking.
*Gasp* Did I really write something that isn't smut? Yep, it happened, guys.
This is just something that's been swirling in my head for a while now. Also, this story doesn't really follow the MCU timeline after CA:TWS. I will make things up and alter a few things.
As always, I hope you all enjoy.
First off, there were two people that were kind enough to reach out to me and tell me that my story greatly resembled someone else’s here on AO3. I would just like to say that I honestly had no idea that piece existed until I was shown, and I would like you guys to know that I don’t mean to hurt any other author’s feelings by making them think that I stole their ideas. At any rate, I am trying to get in contact with the author to hash this out and to also let him/her know that I don’t mean for them to think that I purposely copied off of them. I also edited and reposted this chapter because I really don't want to start any conflict. I apologize to anyone who thought I might have infringed on someone else's creative property. I have edited and reposted this chapter in hopes of distinguishing my story from the other. I have chapter 3 already written out, but I will refrain from posting it until I resolve this issue with the other author.
Steve groaned when his head hit the arm of the couch. Hard. He heard laughter (at his expense, no less) prevail over the voices on some show playing on the television and sent a withering look at the assailant who had pushed him down. His harsh stare didn’t last. It couldn’t, given that in addition to laughing, the said assailant was busy straddling his lap and unbuttoning his shirt. He tried to school his tone into one of seriousness. “You think this is funny?”
“No,” Natasha said, making absolutely no effort to hide the amusement in her voice. “I’m sorry.” She leaned down and kissed him, parting his lips with her tongue and teasing his. She pulled away and smirked at him. “Can you forgive me?”
“I don’t know,” he teased, looking up at her with a smirk of his own. “I may need convincing.”
Natasha laughed, her breath hot against his face. Her voice was sultry and alluring as she spoke. “Captain Rogers, are you trying to exploit an innocent woman?”
“That depends. Is it working?”
Her lips hungrily sought his and he took that as a yes. He cupped her face in his hands and deepened their kiss, completely intoxicated by her. Their tongues fought for dominance as they let roaming hands explore each other. They took their time, caressing every dip and plane and valley of their bodies through the fabric of their clothes. It was only when her hands came to rest on his belt that he pulled away. “Nat, wait.”
Natasha shot him an incredulous look as he moved to sit up. “Getting cold feet, Rogers? Because that’s not what it feels like.” She rolled her hips suggestively against his as he groaned.
“No, no.” He put a hand firmly on her hip to steady her. “God, no. It’s not that. Trust me.” Steve rubbed the back of his neck with a hand as he started to get flustered. “I don’t have a…” He winced, not sure why he couldn’t just say the word when not less than thirty seconds ago he had no problem feeling her up.
Natasha caught on to what he was trying to say. “Always the gentleman,” she said, a hint of hesitation cutting through her amusement. She pecked his lips again. “It’s okay.”
“You sure?” he asked, a look of worry crossing his face. “I hear regrets are-“
The stiff tone of her voice caused Steve to stop. He watched her face carefully and saw her confidence slip for just a second. She looked like she was at war with herself, like she was weighing the pros and cons of something. She eventually sighed and lifted her shirt with a hand and lowered the band of her leggings with the other, exposing the lower part of her belly to him. He looked down at her skin, eyes landing on the thin silvery line he found there and ran his thumb gently along it. It looked like an incision that had been made so long ago that even his enhanced sight could barely make it out. He didn’t miss the hint of shame that made its way into Natasha’s voice as she spoke. “In the Red Room, we had this ceremony...” She said the word like she was testing it. Like the word she had chosen wasn’t the appropriate one to describe what had been done to her. “I can’t get pregnant.”
I can’t get pregnant. Steve replayed her words in his mind over and over again as he stood with his back against a wall in the hall of the infirmary. He wasn’t sure how he ended up outside the examination room. Clint probably pushed him. Or maybe Sam pulled him back. He didn’t really remember anything but the fact that he didn’t put up a fight. His head span with all the questions that were running through his mind. He thought about their possible answers and pressed his back harder into the wall, not quite confident his feet could support his weight.
When his mind wandered to the child he had just seen and those eyes of hers, he subconsciously started doing the math. He shook the image of her blue orbs out of his head and let out a deep sigh. He was probably getting way ahead of himself. Having the same colored irises didn’t mean anything and he certainly wasn’t the only person in the world with eyes blue like the ocean and hair light as sand.
Maybe you weren’t the only one. He chastised himself for even having the thought. Of all the things he began to doubt when he learned Natasha had left him, her love for him wasn’t one of them. Even when the idea came unbidden to his mind as he laid in bed in the darkness of his room on sleepless nights, he was always quick to squash it. He didn’t understand why she left him, but he was certain it wasn’t for someone else. But she is Black Widow. He lifted a hand to his face and dug the heel of his palm into his eye hoping it would quiet his thoughts. It didn’t. When his vision came back to focus, he caught a glimpse of Clint looking down at his boots as he stood against the wall opposite him. “Did you know?”
His voice caused Clint to look up as it sliced through the tense silence they’d fallen into. A look of confusion tainted the man’s face as he appraised his question. He supposed it was ambiguous given the complexity of the situation they were in, but he wasn’t really sure what he was specifically asking him either. Did he know where Natasha was all this time? Did he know why she came back? Did she know about her?
Eventually, Clint spoke. “No.” Steve wasn’t sure if he was relieved or even more frustrated that the man’s answer was as cryptic as his question, so he held his gaze instead, urging him to go on. “She called me this morning and… God, Steve. I was just glad to hear her voice.” He understood that, remembering the nights he and Clint would spend out on the balcony of the facility pondering Natasha’s whereabouts. How he craved to hear her voice then. “She asked me to come get her and to bring Banner with me. Said it was important. I didn’t even think. I just flew to Seville to get her before she changed her mind.” Clint looked him dead in the eyes as he uttered the next words. “I didn’t know, Steve. None of it. None. Bruce and I practically picked our jaws off the floor when she walked up the ramp carrying a kid.” Steve opened his mouth to speak, a million and one questions already at the tip of his tongue, but Bruce came through the swing doors before he could ask them.
“Look, Steve…” Bruce said, looking at him with an apologetic look as he held a chart in one hand and a pen in the other.
“Is she okay?”
“She’s stable for now,” Bruce said, tiredly running a hand through his dark curls. “They’re moving her to a new room but that’s all I can really tell you.”
Steve had to admit that hurt a little, but that was the truth. Despite being hungry for information, Bruce wasn’t at liberty to disclose any information to him. The doctor laid a firm hand on his shoulder and walked away. He looked between Bruce’s retreating form and the doors of the room he came out of and decided that he needed to speak to Natasha.
He turned to walk down the hall when he heard Sam speak. “Cap, maybe you should-“
Steve quieted Sam with the look on his face. He turned to walk down the hall again, but this time, Clint caught his elbow. The archer’s face was a cross between pained and anxious. “You sure you have to do this now?”
“I need answers, Clint,” he said in his Cap tone of voice.
Clint knew that there was no use in arguing and sighed in defeat. “Just… Don’t make her run, okay?”
Steve nodded and padded down the hall. He made a left toward the patient wing, looking through the glass windows in the center of each door he passed in search of Natasha. He caught sight of the familiar scarlet of her hair as he passed one of the doors on his right and he stopped right in front of it. Natasha was sitting on the chair next to the hospital bed where her daughter was sleeping and she as he peered through the glass. She gave her daughter one more glance before she hastily made her way to the door and opened it.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Natasha said, voice soft with fatigue but still icy cold as she stood by the doorway.
Steve looked at her and took her in for the first time in three years. She looked exactly like he remembered her – devastatingly beautiful and powerful in every way there was to be. She wore Black Widow’s famous mask of composure. To someone who didn’t know her, she appeared not the least bit fazed by the fact that she was standing in front of a man she loved and left long ago. But he wasn’t just someone. He saw the shades of fear and worry behind her calm and collected façade. “After all these years, that’s all you have to say to me?” His tone came out harsher than he intended and he immediately regretted it when he saw Natasha’s posture go rigid in defense.
Natasha’s eyes filled with anger as she glared at him. “I don’t owe you an explanation.”
“Like hell you don’t!” His tone bled with pain as he finally let the words out. “Natasha, I woke up from a coma after the battle over the Potomac to Sam telling me you were gone. No note, no clues, nothing! It was like you never even existed and now you’re back and you have a-“
“What’s it to you?” She tried to make her voice sound challenging as she cut him off, but it cracked with an emotion he couldn’t put a finger on.
“I want the truth-“
“Miss Romanoff?” Steve turned at the voice that interrupted them. Natasha looked on as well and saw a nurse standing there holding a metal tray of assorted medications. The woman raised the tray in her hands a little higher in explanation. “Doctor Banner wanted me to bring these in for Sarah.”
Steve froze as he took in the woman’s words. He saw Natasha’s eyes close as he looked back at her with wide eyes. Sarah. Reality started to sink in. The girl’s name was Sarah. Natasha regained her composure enough to take the tray from the nurse and thank her, but still refused to meet his eyes. He waited until the nurse was out of earshot before he said the words. “My mother’s name was Sarah.”
Her words weren’t an outright confirmation of what he thought he already knew, but they didn’t have to be. As soon as it left her mouth, everything clicked into place in his head. His assumption was right. His math was right. The sinking feeling in his gut when he saw her eyes, Sarah’s eyes, was right.
It was suddenly clear as day.
Sarah was his daughter.
A rush of emotions threatened to overwhelm him. Betrayal. Confusion. Anguish. Shock. Joy. His knees nearly buckled with the gravity of the truth he was just now finding out, but he swallowed them down. There was something he wanted more than to break down at Natasha’s treachery. “You have to let me see her.”
Natasha’s mask of coolness crumbled. “Steve, I don’t think-“
“Please.” His voice trembled with so much unspoken agony that he almost didn’t recognize it. For a second, Natasha looked like she was about to put up a fight, the conflicted visage she had when she first opened the door was back again, but it only lasted a second before she sighed and slowly stepped aside to let him in.
Steve couldn’t help his raising heart as he walked into the room. He heard Natasha close the door behind him before placing the tray she had taken from the nurse down on one of the tables. He stopped just short of the foot of the bed and watched as Natasha sat on the edge and ran a hand through the sleeping girl’s hair. Sarah, he reminded himself. He swallowed down the lump in his throat before looking back at Natasha. “How sick is she?”
“Very,” she said, voice pained. “Bruce is trying to find out why, but her nose bleeds, she bruises easily and her fever hasn’t broken in the last three days.” Steve watched her as she paused to take a steadying breath. She took the blanket that was wrapped around Sarah and pulled it down a little to reveal part of her neck. Steve saw the skin marred by multiple spots of red. “It’s getting worse by the day.”
Steve’s brows furrowed in confusion. If Natasha was so hell bent on keeping the fact that they had a daughter from him, even going as far as leaving without a trace, why would she return here of all places to seek medical attention when there was no way she could avoid him? He shot a questioning look at her. “Bruce isn’t a medical doctor. Not technically.”
“No,” she agreed. “But the world’s a dangerous place, Steve. There’s no one else I can trust to do a complete workup of my daughter’s genome without the results falling into the wrong hands.”
Steve still didn’t catch what she was saying, so he forced his hazy mind to focus on her words. Genome. He wasn’t that well versed in scientific terms, but he had heard that word enough times to know what it meant. He remembered Banner telling him that the serum used on him couldn’t be replicated because it had combined with his DNA. That was information he had gathered after analyzing his genome. His mind put it together in an instant and his blood ran cold in his veins. There’s no one else I can trust to do a complete workup of my daughter’s genome without the results falling into the wrong hands.
Sarah had inherited the serum.
He couldn’t find his voice, so he forced himself to look at Sarah’s sleeping form instead. He could see her features better now that the oxygen mask was gone and he committed every single detail of her to memory. She looked so peaceful with her hair fanned out on the pillow like a golden halo. Her skin was like porcelain and the apples of her cheeks were rosy. She had a button nose and thin pink lips and lush eyelashes. As his heart swelled with adoration and unexpected pride, it became clear to him that she was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen in his life. However, in spite of the elation he felt, his expression mirrored Natasha’s horrified one as he looked up at her. “God, Natasha. How could you have kept her from me?”
A look of regret flashed across Natasha’s face. “Steve, now’s not-“
“You’re right, now’s not the time.” He wasn’t usually this cold toward anyone, at least of all not to her, but he couldn’t ease the anger that was slowly rising in him. His voice got louder as resentment slipped into his tone. “So why don’t you tell me now because clearly the right time passed three years ago!”
“Will you keep your voice down?” She admonished, glancing between him and Sarah.
He was about to retort when a small voice silenced him. “Mama?”
Steve watched as Sarah’s eyes fluttered open. He saw the bright blue of her irises and found that he was once again mesmerized. Natasha took a seat on the bed and touched the back of her hand to Sarah’s forehead. “I’m here, baby. You feeling okay?”
Sarah nodded. Steve didn’t know what to do as he stood there, out of place. Sarah’s eyes landed on him and he felt his nerves rattle, half expecting her to be startled by his presence. He was relieved when she wasn’t. Instead, she turned to Natasha. “Who’s that?”
Natasha looked startled at her question but immediately regained her composure. “Just…” She looked at Steve, as if she was deciding on an answer that wasn’t all that true but wasn’t a complete lie either. “An old friend.”
Steve was a little relieved at her answer. He expected Natasha to brush off his presence, but he was glad that she had gone with a simple answer. He was about to tell Natasha that he’d come back later, the feeling of being an intruder in the room becoming a bit much, but Sarah looked directly at him and spoke. “Hi.”
He was surprised that she didn’t cower away at having a complete stranger in her room. Her voice was small, but it sounded so much like music to his ears that it took him a few seconds to stutter out a reply. “Hello.”
Steve wanted to say more. He felt the nagging need to speak to Sarah, to learn about her, to know her, but before he could continue, she spoke again, this time to Natasha. “Mama, potty.”
Natasha nodded and lifted her into her arms and looked at him. “Excuse us.”
She looked back at him with Sarah securely on her hip. “Later, okay?” He didn’t want to leave her, a small part of him scared that she would flee again if he left. “Please.”
As much as it pained him, he nodded. He had so many things he wanted to ask her, but the tone in her voice and the sight of her carrying Sarah appeased his anxious mind. He would just have to wait a little longer. He stood alone in the room for a moment, letting out a breath he didn’t know he was holding out when Natasha and Sarah disappeared into the bathroom. In the past when he thought about how he would see Natasha again, no scenario he had come up with had ever come close to this. He felt his head start to swing again as his mind was filled with the noise of his thought. With a final sigh, he left the room in search of a shower and some peace of mind. As if. He knew the latter would be hard to come by.
I just wanted to let everyone know that I was able to resolve the issue involving having nearly identical plots with the awesome myloveiamthespeedofsound. We agreed that due to tropes and the nature of our stories and how large this fandom is, it is hard to avoid having similarities. At any rate, we're both committed to keeping this community a great place for writers to share their creative ideas and to support one another. So, if you haven't already, check out her story "This Love". I'm sure you're going to love it. :)
Also, those of you who commented their support and understanding in the last chapter, a HUGE thank you to you all! Please know that I appreciate each and every one of you and the time you spend reading my work.
P.S. This chapter talks about Sarah's condition quite a bit. I am not a doctor, so all the medical talk is a mix of what I know, what I've researched, and what I've made up. IT IS IN NO WAY ACCURATE. And as I mentioned in the first chapter, this story doesn't follow the timeline after CA: TWS.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Natasha tried to swallow down the uneasy feeling in her stomach as she dressed in her blue skirt and blazer in front of the mirror and watched as Steve buckled the belts of his uniform. They were in Fury’s makeshift headquarters below the Potomac preparing to infiltrate one of the most secure buildings in the world to take down its three death machines. She knew the feat they were attempting was akin to a suicide mission and that heightened her already growing anxiety. It didn’t matter much that they had two Avengers, Falcon, the best spy in the world, and his right hand woman on their side. If every single SHIELD agent was indeed working for HYDRA, there was a good chance they all wouldn’t walk away from this. Her thoughts screamed at her. Tell him. Tell him now so you can both walk away from this. As pleasing as that idea was, she knew they couldn’t do that. They had an obligation to save the world. A moment passed and despite the noise in her head, she heard Steve mumble something at her and she cleared her throat in an attempt to hide the fact that her mind was miles away. “What was that?”
“I said,” he repeated, coming toward her to hug her from behind and plant a kiss just below her ear. “See something you like, Romanoff?”
She gave him a small smile in the mirror for getting caught staring and turned to face him. Tell him, her mind nagged again. She sighed and planted her hands on his shoulders. “Steve, when this is all over and done with-“
“I have to go after him.”
Confusion washed over her face. “What?”
“I know he’s going to be there,” he explained before adding, “and he’s probably going to fight me. But I think I can get through to him. He’s going to know me, Nat. He has to.”
Natasha felt the bile rising in her throat again at his words. “He won’t,” she said. “If the people who made him were anything like those who made me, no amount of pleading or trying to get him to remember you is going to stop him from completing his mission.” As Steve’s trademark stubborn expression began to paint his face, her mind told her to spit the truth out already, but she tried a different route. “Your best friend died when he fell off that train, Steve. The person he is now? He’s not the type you save. He’s the type you run away from.”
“You know I can’t do that.” He ran his hands up her arms and looked her in the eyes. “Never could, never will.”
She watched as Steve left the room, grabbing his shield and fastening it to his back as he did. Tell him!
Natasha was startled awake by the feel of someone’s hand on her shoulder and the smell of coffee filling her nostrils. Judging by the darkness of the room, she surmised it was probably well into the night. She looked up and saw that the hand that had woken her up belonged to Steve. He was freshly showered and wearing dark jeans and a navy sweater as he held out a cup for her to take. She thanked him and stood. “You didn’t have to bring me anything.”
Steve glanced at a sleeping Sarah before he shrugged a shoulder and held up the paper bag in his hand. “You probably haven’t eaten anything in a while, so I thought I’d take the liberty of bringing you something.”
Natasha was surprised by his hospitality. Given the events of the day, she didn’t expect him to be civil let alone concerned about her. But who was she kidding? The man didn’t have a malicious bone in his body. She took the bag gratefully and motioned for him to follow her to the table on the other side of the room. She set the bag down and proceeded to take out its contents and sent a puzzled look his way when she pulled out a box of fruit flavored cereal.
“I, uh…” He looked sheepish as he shifted his weight in discomfort. “I didn’t know what she liked or if she could even eat right now and that was the most kid friendly snack we had in the kitchen.”
She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling and tried to mask the amusement in her voice. “Avengers eat Froot Loops now?”
Steve gave her a small smile. “Tony.”
She nodded in understanding at his one word explanation but kept her eyes on him, expecting him to say something more.
She went back to unpacking the bag before she spoke again. “Aren’t you going to ask me if I want to take a minute to myself or tell me that I should rest or something?”
A halfhearted scoff fell from his lips. “Even if I did, you wouldn’t say yes.”
Natasha’s hand froze where it was inside the bag at his words. It only took her a split second to gather her wits, but she eventually took a seat on one of the chairs and began unwrapping one of the sandwiches he brought to hide the fact that her heart pulled at how his voice was filled with so much conviction and certainty. How was it possible that after all this time and everything that’s happened, he still knew her? She shook her head at the thought and took a bite. She suspected that he hadn’t had the time to feed himself given the amount of food he brought and expected him to sit and join her. But instead, he stood with one hand on the back of the chair in front of him and watched the rise and fall of Sarah’s chest across the room. Though she could only see his profile from where she sat, she could clearly see the amalgam of emotions in his face. There was confusion, so much of it and understandably so, shades of worry, and a tinge of betrayal. But in the midst of those, she also saw so much wonder. Exaltation. Enchantment. She understood the last one, she herself had been enthralled by Sarah the first time she felt her kick in her womb, but it paled in comparison to the complete euphoria she felt the first time she held Sarah in her arms and saw her hypnotic pools of blue. She was so lost in watching him watch their daughter that she almost missed his question. “How did you know she had the serum?”
She put the sandwich down as he turned to face her. ”The increased appetite even as a newborn should have been a dead giveaway.” One corner of her mouth turned up fondly and she saw his lips curl into a little smile too. “But I’d never held an infant before, let alone fed one, so what did I know?” Her fingers mindlessly ripped at a napkin in front of her as she went on. “I guess deep down, I always knew it was a possibility. But then she started walking at nine months and speaking in complete sentences just a little past her first birthday and there just wasn’t any doubt. She’s a couple of weeks short of turning three, Steve, and she’s reading.”
Steve closed his eyes as his face crumbled and Natasha didn’t know if it was from the anguish of missing their daughter’s milestones or from being terrified of the ramifications that came with Sarah having the serum. Probably both. He looked back at her and asked his next question. “When did she start getting sick?”
“Almost two weeks ago,” she said. Her words magnified the worry etched on his face so much so that she almost didn’t want to continue, but his gaze urged her on. “We had just settled in Seville when she started getting lethargic. I thought it was unusual, but we had just moved and I took her to play in the park that day, so I thought she was just tired. Then the rashes started and eventually the fever. I finally caved and called Clint after her second nosebleed.”
Anger overshadowed the worry on his face. “And even then, it never crossed your mind to call me?” Natasha had always prided herself in being in complete control of her emotions. She was a master at maintaining her composure in dire situations, but not cowering under his glare was proving to be an arduous task. “Were you ever going to tell me?”
“I’m sick of all the lies and secrecy, Natasha!” The volume of his voice caused them both to glance in Sarah’s direction to make sure she hadn’t been bothered. Steve looked back at Natasha when they saw she was still sound asleep. “You said you couldn’t get pregnant.”
“I couldn’t.” She lifted an eyebrow at him as her tone turned virulent. “But there isn’t much about you that isn’t super, is there?”
Steve wasn’t deterred by her harshness. “When did you find out?”
“I had my suspicions after we took down the pirates on the Lemurian Star,” Natasha admitted, shifting in her seat as she calmed down and relived the memories in her mind. “I took a test and found out for sure just before the fight over the Potomac.”
“And you didn’t think to tell me then?” Steve asked, voice strained as his face blanched in what Natasha could only describe as horror. She didn’t need to ask him what was wrong to know that he didn’t approve of her choice to fight while pregnant.
“I was going to-“
“So why didn’t you?”
His words came out more of an accusation than a question. Natasha knew she deserved that, but she couldn’t stop the bitterness from bleeding into her voice. “You said you were going after him.”
“And that made you decide that I wasn’t fit to be a father?” He shook with the effort to keep his voice down, spitting the words out in a whispered yell.
Natasha’s eyes fell back to him, stunned. “I never said that!” Across from her, Steve didn’t look convinced.
“Then why didn’t you tell me then?”
Natasha’s anger reared its ugly head. “Did you find him?” she asked in a cold tone.
Steve looked taken aback, like he hadn’t expected that to be her retort, but answered anyway. “Yes, but he’s in Wakanda now. In cryo. His choice. The programming done to him…” He shook his head as he realized he had digressed. “That’s not the point, Natasha.”
Her reply came as a soft murmur. “That is the point, Steve.”
His fist almost struck the wood of the table, but he restrained himself and threw his hands up in the air in frustration instead. “How was that fair to me, Natasha? I didn’t know. I would’ve have stayed if I did!”
“That’s exactly why I didn’t tell you!” Steve looked shocked by her outbreak so she took another deep breath to calm herself down. “You’re right, you would have stayed. But then you wouldn’t have found James.”
He looked like he still couldn’t understand what she was implying. “She’s my daughter, Natasha.” She knew his words were loaded with unsaid meaning. She comes before everything else.
“Trust me, Steve,” she said as she stared blankly at one of the discarded wrappers on the table. “Not a day has gone by since she was born that I’m not reminded of that every time I look at her.” She paused, garnering the strength to look his way before she continued. “I’m sorry you had to find out about Sarah this way.” His eyes met hers at her apology. “But if I had to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat. Because the man in front of me? He isn’t nearly as broken as the one who found out his best friend had become the enemy.”
Natasha saw Steve’s rigid posture soften as he let her words sink in. They stared each other down, his confused orbs on her contrite yet unyielding ones. His mouth opened like he was about to say something, but before he could, a distressed cry broke the stalemate they had seemingly fallen into. “Mama!”
Natasha leapt out of her seat in a blink as she heard Sarah’s voice call out to her. She made her way across the room in big strides, Steve right behind her. As she approached Sarah’s bed, she saw the blood red and flowing down her daughter’s nostrils and immediately reached for the box of tissues. She pressed a sheet down just below Sarah’s nose as she consoled her. “Mama’s here, Sarah. You’re going to be okay.”
Steve was already on the other side of the bed pressing down on the call button on the panel above as he shouted into the speaker. “Get Doctor Banner in here now!”
Natasha cursed under her breath as more blood dripped down Sarah’s nose. She threw the soaked piece of tissue to the floor and reached for another one. In her periphery, she saw Steve lose his patience as he made a move to walk out the door and get Banner himself, but the doctor entered just in time. Bruce rushed to Natasha’s side and scrambled to press the button that lowered the upper half of the bed. Once Sarah was lying completely flat, he produced a pad of gauze from his lab coat.
“Hold this here,” Bruce ordered, ripping the packaging open and signaling for Natasha to press the gauze down to where the tissue had previously been.
Natasha followed his instructions and winced as Sarah’s cries grew louder. As she tried to console her daughter, Steve stood across from her, watching as Bruce left her side to rummage through the cabinets on their right. His brows rose in worry when he saw the doctor retrieve a vial and a syringe. His voice was anxious and fearful at the same time. “What’s that?”
“Tranexamic acid,” Bruce replied, filling the syringe. He glanced at Natasha and a frantic Sarah. “You might want to hold her down for this.”
Natasha looked at Steve, silently asking him to do as Bruce said as she worked on applying pressure with the gauze while also calming Sarah down. Steve nodded in understanding and moved to place both his hands on Sarah’s shoulders as firmly as he could without hurting her. Sarah wailed.
“Sarah, honey,” Bruce cooed. “This might hurt a little, but I promise you’ll feel better. Okay, sweetheart?”
Bruce didn’t wait for the girl to answer. She was too distressed and way above reason at that point, so he counted to three for Natasha and Steve’s benefit before plunging the needle into Sarah’s arm. The girl yelped at the intrusion of the needle into her flesh but remained steady under Steve’s grasp.
The bleeding subsided in a few minutes as Sarah’s system absorbed the medication Bruce had given her. Sarah sobbed and Natasha immediately took her into her arms as Steve and Bruce worked on changing the blood soaked sheets. She swayed back in forth and whispered sweet nothings into Sarah’s ear as the little girl burrowed her face into the side of her neck. Time stilled for a moment as she breathed in the scent of her daughter’s hair and closed her eyes, thinking back to the time she’d last done this when Sarah was just an infant. Things were simpler back then. It was just she and her daughter. No worries. No sickness. No pain.
Minutes passed and Sarah’s breathing evened out. Natasha moved to put her back on the newly made bed and looked down at the drops of blood on Sarah’s nightgown, deciding against changing her to avoid waking her up. She pulled the blanket snugly up her daughter’s body and sighed, the stress of the last couple of hours catching up to her. She remembered that both Bruce and Steve were still in the room and searched for them. She saw them standing by the door of the room, talking in hushed voices, and made her way over.
Bruce was the first to see her approach. “I know this isn’t a good time and you’re probably tired, but I have the results from the samples I took on the jet.” He looked reluctantly at her and then at Steve. “We can discuss this in my office if you want some privacy.”
Natasha looked at Steve and she shook her head. “It’s okay. He has the right to know as much as I do.”
Bruce nodded and Natasha noticed how relieved Steve looked at her allowing him to stay. “Sarah’s body has slowed its production of blood cells. Her platelet count is alarmingly low and that’s what's causing her nose bleeds.”
Natasha stared at him in disbelief. “How did that happen?”
Bruce produced a Stark phone from his pocket and pressed a couple of buttons. He lifted the phone so it was eye level before he gave it a slight shake and a hologram of the data appeared in the air right before them. “This is Sarah’s genetic map.” Bruce’s hands pulled in one of the floating images and stretched it. “See these blue markers? Those are from Steve’s serum.” He paused before he pointed to another side of the image. “These red markers? They’re from yours, Natasha.”
Steve found his voice first, asking what was already painfully obvious. “Are you saying she has both our serums?”
“That’s what it looks like, yes.”
Natasha shook her head in confusion. “I don’t get it. If she inherited both serums, shouldn’t that make her stronger not sicker?”
“Not exactly,” Bruce said. “For some reason, the serums are only now figuring out that they’re incompatible so they’re essentially countering each other. One will build up cells to combat the other, but then the other serum does the same. That’s what’s making Sarah sick.”
Steve’s question was out almost immediately and Natasha was glad, still unable to wrap her head around Bruce’s words. “How do we fix it?”
Bruce let out a sigh. “The closest disease to Sarah’s condition that I can think of is called Aplastic Anemia. But obviously with two serums it’s a lot more complicated.“
“What about a blood transfusion?” Natasha suggested when she was finally able to speak. “I’m sure between Steve and I-“
“Like I said,” Bruce interrupted. “Sarah’s condition is like Aplastic Anemia but more intricate given the two serums. At most a blood transfusion would bring her platelet count up, but that’s a temporary solution. Our best shot at jumpstarting her blood cell production might be a bone marrow transplant.”
“So what are we waiting for?” Steve asked. “Let’s do it.”
“That’s the other thing,” Bruce said, rubbing the back of his neck. Natasha noticed the slight wince in his features though she wasn’t quite sure why. “Parents aren’t always a good match.” Bruce looked awkwardly between her and Steve. “Siblings are.”
“Well I don’t suppose Prodigal Red over here has another secret rugrat she’d like to disclose.”
Steve turned in the direction of the voice, his eyes landing on the door that was halfway open. There, backlit by the florescent lights of the infirmary’s hallway was Tony Stark, elbow leaning on the doorknob and an ankle crossed over the other. He was dressed in black pants, boots, and a Henley and looked every bit the rebellious genius that he was.
From behind Steve, Bruce shot the inventor a surprised look. “I thought you were in Malibu?”
“And miss all the fun?” Tony said, a smirk playing on his lips as he made his way further into the room and over to where they were all standing. “Did you really think you could use JARVIS’ processor to run and expedite the tests without me finding out?” Bruce looked down sheepishly as Tony tilted his head to the side and looked at Natasha. “Nice to see you again, Red.”
Steve glanced at Natasha, worried she’d been offended by Tony’s playful jab, but she said nothing at his greeting and opted instead to give him a curt nod. Steve turned to Bruce when he finally found his voice. “Are you saying that the only way we can save Sarah is if she had a sibling?”
“Yes and no,” Bruce sighed. “I should have been more clear with what I meant. The reason I brought up siblings is because Sarah is unlike any other child in history. Her genetic make up is so unique that it’s unlikely that we’ll find an outside donor with the same tissue type. The best and most viable match would be a sibling, but that doesn’t immediately rule out parents. So yes, a sibling would be her only chance, but not if you or Natasha are a match for her.”
“So why are we still standing here?” Natasha asked, speaking for the first time since Bruce had relayed the news to them.
“Because I need you all to understand that a bone marrow transplant is like slapping on a hypothetical band aid.” A look of frustration crossed Bruce’s features as he crossed his arms over his chest. “If, and that’s a really big if, it works, that only buys us time to figure out the bigger problem.”
Tony raised an eyebrow at him. “Which is?”
“The reduced blood cell production is the result of the serums counteracting each other,” Bruce explained. “Even if we do perform a transplant, that only stops the bleeding. We’re going to have to find a way to make them both cohabitate or else they’re just going to damage something else.”
Steve knew he’d unlikely get an answer, but he had to ask the dreaded question. “How do we do that?”
“I don’t know yet,” Bruce admitted, shoulders sagging. “But let’s start with finding out if either of you-“
“What if neither of us is a match?” Natasha interrupted, voice barely above a whisper.
“Look,” Bruce said, eyes falling to the ground. “I know it’s hard, but let’s start with what we have. Let’s check to see if either of you are a match before we resort to more drastic measures. The medication I gave her should stabilize her for now and give us enough time to wait till morning. I think we’d all benefit from some shut eye anyway.”
Steve looked like he was about to object, but Tony cut him off. “Why don’t we move her to the main building?” His question was met with blank stares, so he went on. “Well I doubt any of you are going to let any other doctor but Bruce handle her care, so why not move her to the main building of the facility? That way, she’s not cooped up in the infirmary and Cap and Red here can sleep someplace decent.”
“What if we need the equipment here?” Steve asked as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Tony rolled his eyes. “I can have the west wing remodeled by morning.”
Steve stood in the exam room with Natasha as they waited for Bruce to arrive and take samples. They remained on opposite sides of the room in complete silence, her with her back against one of the counters and him fidgeting by one of the many computer screens. His eyes roamed the room until it fell on the window on the computer screen Bruce had left on. He stepped closer and appraised the image carefully. It was the same model of Sarah’s genetic map Bruce had showed them last night, but what really caught his attention was the name on the top left of the screen.
Steve felt deflated as he read the words. Given her decision to leave, he supposed it made sense that Natasha had given Sarah her name instead of his, but he still couldn’t help but feel disappointed. There was just so much he didn’t know about Sarah and he itched with the need to get the answers. The anger that he put on the backburner at her leaving rose again, but he swallowed it down as he remembered her words last night.
The man in front of me? He isn’t nearly as broken as the one who found out his best friend had become the enemy.
Steve desperately wanted to hold onto that anger, but he realized he just couldn’t. Not when Natasha had been so selfless. And not when her actions had afforded him the opportunity to find Bucky and pull him out of the darkness. He may have chosen to go back to Cryostasis, but Steve slept every night knowing that one day, if they somehow found a way to undo his programming, they could reunite again. And that wouldn’t have happened if Natasha hadn’t left. That he was sure of. But yet there was this strange gray area in between those two situations that he couldn’t quite reconcile in his mind. Yes, he had found Bucky, but at what cost? There was no way he could get back three years of Sarah’s life.
Well, almost three years. Natasha’s words echoed in his mind again as he remembered that Sarah wasn’t exactly three yet. He looked at Natasha as he finally broke the tense silence in the room. “You said she was a couple of weeks short of turning three. When does that happen exactly?”
Natasha didn’t even look up at him as she whispered the reply. “July fourth.”
Steve was stunned into silence again for what felt like the millionth time in a span of forty-eight hours. Just when he thought nothing could trump his shock of finding out he had a daughter, life was determined to prove him wrong. It felt like an ironic destiny. Surely, Sarah was the best birthday present he hadn’t known he’d received. He kept his eyes trained on Natasha who was seemingly engrossed with a loose thread hanging off the hem of her cardigan and sensed that she didn’t really want to talk right now, but the words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself. “Has she ever asked about who her dad is?”
“No,” Natasha sighed. There was a brief pause as he looked down, but he was surprised when she went on. “It’s just been the two of us since she was born. I’m the only one she’s really ever socialized with so the concept of a dad or a family is foreign to her. We lived under so many different aliases that the moment she started talking I had to teach her not to say her actual last name without asking me first. It’s obviously not the life I envisioned for her, but it was the best I could do to keep her safe.”
Steve bit his tongue and resisted the urge to ask her why she didn’t give Sarah his last name. He decided now wasn’t the time for that discussion and instead thought that it was his turn to share information. “I tried looking for you,” he said. It was true; he had tried to look for her. In hindsight, he realized maybe the universe was trying to tell him something when he decided to search for her despite Clint telling him that if Natasha didn’t want to be found, the chances of him finding her were slim to none. He supposed he didn’t try hard enough though, multitasking between finding her and finding Bucky, his efforts falling more on the latter, but he felt it was significant enough for her to know.
A brief yet tense lull settled over them as his words lingered in the air. Natasha’s eyes finally met his as she let out a scoff. “You’re a soldier, not a spy. You were a fool to think you’d find someone who’s spent most of her life hiding.” Steve was about to argue, but she continued. “When I left, I wanted to go someplace familiar.” Natasha shifted her weight before revealing, “I ran back home.”
She didn’t have to say the words for Steve to know where she was referring. Russia. He felt stupid for not thinking of looking there, but Natasha shook her head as she caught the regretful look that swept his face. “Don’t,” she warned. “Don’t do that to yourself. After Sarah was born, we moved south through the country until finally going west. You wouldn’t have found us.” Her lips turned up in a rueful smile. “She’s been in most of the nooks and crannies of Europe, though she probably doesn’t remember.”
Steve thought about what she was saying and imagined the life she and Sarah had lived for the past three years. Moving from country to country every so often. Never planting roots or having a true sense of home. Not having any friends to turn to. No permanency. They went through all that just so he could find his best friend and bridge his past with his shaky present. Guilt pressed heavily on him just as Natasha spoke. “Do you want to tell her about who you are?”
“Of course I do,” he said quickly. He wanted Sarah to know who he was, of that he had no doubt. “But,” he paused, “I don’t want to just spring this on her when she’s this sick. I…” he trailed. “I just want it to be organic, you know?” He knew that didn’t make much sense. Organic wasn’t exactly the first word he’d choose to describe a situation where he had to tell Sarah who he really was. Luckily, Natasha seemed to nod in understanding, so he took the opportunity to look directly at her. “I do know I can’t stay away from her.”
Natasha looked like she was about to say something, but she was cut off by Bruce walking into the room. Steve sighed, letting the issue go for the time being. They would just have to have yet another discussion later.
“Aren’t you like a bajillionaire or somethin’?” Sam asked, looking at Tony as he put the screwdriver he used to tighten the screws on the TV mount in his pocket. “Why are we doing this stuff?”
“Because I let you live here for free,” Tony quipped, installing JARVIS’ protocols in the security system by the door.
Steve shook his head at their banter and continued to work on the bookshelf he was putting together. They were all gathered in the newly remodeled suite in the wing of the Avengers facility where all the living quarters were located. And while Tony had made good on his promise to have this part remodeled by morning, apparently, moving the new furniture from the delivery bay to the wing was not included.
“It does you no good to complain, Samuel.” Thor’s voice echoed through the nearly furnished suite as he entered carrying a chaise lounge on his shoulder like it weighed nothing. He had arrived that morning from visiting Jane in Manhattan and was quickly brought up to speed with the recent events. He was elated at the news of Sarah, even going so far as giving Steve a brotherly pat of congratulations on his back and welcoming Natasha with a tight embrace. He set the lounger down in the living room before he looked at Sam with a teasing expression. “Unless you’re admitting to being a weak midgardian.”
“Shut up,” Sam replied. He pushed one of the medical machines Bruce had ordered towards the newly remodeled office that would serve as Sarah’s bedroom. “We can’t all be gods.”
Steve was about to tell them to quiet down when he heard Clint’s voice fill the room. “Just remember, no matter what anyone says, I’m the coolest uncle you have.” Steve turned to see Clint and Natasha wheeling Sarah into the suite. The little girl giggled at Clint’s words and Steve savored the sweet sound.
“Okay, Unca Clint!” Sarah said, obviously feeling better as the bed she was on stopped in the living room where everyone was. Steve watched from his position by the shelf he had erected as everyone crowded around her.
“Hey now,” Tony said, sitting on the edge of Sarah’s bed and reaching a hand out for her to shake. “If he gets to be called uncle Clint, I want to be called uncle Tony. And contrary to what he thinks, I’m the best.” Sarah giggled.
“He’s lying, sweetheart,” Sam said as he came closer. “Uncle Sam’s the best.”
“Nay,” grumbled Thor. “Uncle Thor is the most magnificent.”
A delighted Sarah turned back to Natasha who was standing by the head of the bed. “Can I have more than one unca, mama?”
“Sure can, baby.” Natasha laughed at Sarah’s question before pecking her temple. “Don’t forget uncle Bruce.”
“I love all my uncas!” Sarah exclaimed, causing all the other Avengers to vie for her attention as they followed Clint and Natasha who continued to roll the bed into the bedroom.
Steve sighed happily at the sight. All things considered, he was sure that no matter what, Sarah would be spoiled and protected by each and every one of the people in the facility. She already had them all eating at the palm of her hand, just like she had done to him the first time he saw her, and that warmed his heart. She was so easy to love. And he would do anything to hear her childish giggle over and over again.
The afternoon faded into night, and with the suite all set up, the rest of them made their way out. Steve stayed behind. He had spent most of the afternoon tidying up around the suite as the rest of them dotted over the little girl in her room. As eager as he was to talk to Sarah, he couldn’t find it in him to join them. He loved that she was so excited over her newly acquired uncles, but he wasn’t quite sure where that left him. What would he tell her? He told Natasha that he didn’t want to push the news on Sarah while she was getting better, but he didn’t feel right lying to her or categorizing himself as another uncle. He let a huff of breath out. This was yet another obstacle they would have to learn to maneuver.
Steve thought about returning to his own suite, but the idea of leaving without telling Natasha didn’t settle well with him, so he made his way over to where she was in Sarah’s room. He secretly hoped that the girl would already be asleep. No such luck. As he leaned against the frame of the door, the sight before him caused him to freeze. Sarah was sitting on the bed as Natasha sat opposite her with her back to the door. He felt bad for eavesdropping, but he found that he just couldn’t make his feet move.
"Mama, why am I sick?” Sarah asked, her head tilted to the side as a blonde curl fell to her eye.
Steve watched as Natasha brushed away the stray tendril of hair and tucked it behind their daughter’s ear. She sighed. “Remember when I said you couldn’t just talk to people-”
“Because I’m not like other babies?” Sarah finished.
“Yes,” Natasha affirmed. “Do you remember why that is?”
Sarah’s brows furrowed as she thought about the answer. “Because they can’t do things like I can.”
“Da.” Natasha took both Sarah’s hands in hers before she went on. “Solnyshko-“
“What is it, mama?” Sarah pressed.
“You’re not like other babies because you have something in you that only you have,” Natasha settled. “It’s not working right now, but uncle Bruce is trying to fix it, okay?”
Steve watched their exchange from the door and was grateful that Sarah seemed content with Natasha’s answer. He decided to leave them both for the night, but was stopped dead in his tracks when Sarah caught sight of him and made his presence known with a question.
“Are you another new uncle?”
Steve turned to see Sarah looking at him from her place on the bed. Her eyes were bright and blue as she appraised him, waiting for him to answer. Natasha moved to face him as well and gave him a look he knew all too well. Ball’s in your court. Steve finally came to his senses. “I’m Steve.”
Steve inwardly cursed himself at his response. It didn’t answer Sarah’s question, but it was enough that he didn’t have to lie to her. He gathered the courage and walked into Sarah’s room, looking like he wasn’t sure what his next move should be, so Natasha stood and ushered him into where she was previously sitting. He adjusted himself so he had one leg on the bed while his other was still planted on the floor. He looked at Sarah and smiled. “Now that you know my name, why don’t you tell me yours?”
Though Sarah seemed comfortable and even a tad excited in the presence of new people, Steve noticed how she grew visibly nervous at his question. She gave Natasha a questioning glance from where she stood behind him, so Steve looked back at her as well and saw that she gave Sarah an assuring nod. He turned his attention back at the little girl. The look of worry she sported only seconds ago was gone and was now replaced by a beaming smile. “I’m Sarah,” she finally said. “Sarah Grant Rogers.” Sarah leapt into his lap from where she was sitting. “And I give everyone hugs!”
Steve caught Sarah just as she snaked her arms around his neck. His mouth fell open in shock, not quite believing what he just heard. Sarah Grant Rogers. She did have his name. A lot of it, in fact. Suddenly, the feeling of disappointment he felt in the exam room that morning was gone. His heart filled with so much love as he wrapped his arms tightly around Sarah. “It’s so nice to meet you, Sarah Grant Rogers.”
Steve turned back to look at Natasha and saw that she had her eyes fixed on the ground. With all the joy rushing through him, he couldn’t place the look on her face. Sarah let go of him and went to sit back against the pillows again. Her question caught his attention and caused him to look her way. “Do you know my unca Bruce?”
“I sure do,” Steve said. “He’s the best doctor I know.”
Sarah beamed at the praise he gave Bruce, obviously already fond of her doctor. “I’m sick, but mama said he’s going to make me better.”
“He sure is.” Steve was in awe at how smart and receptive Sarah was. He tucked the wayward curl behind her ear just as Natasha did only moments before. “You know,” he started. “You and I aren’t so different, Sarah.”
Sarah’s eyes went as wide as saucers as she took in his words. “You’re sick too?”
“Not right now,” Steve appeased. “But when I was little, I was always sick.”
“But you got better?” Steve nodded, but she already had a follow up question. “What did you do to feel better?”
“I drew,” he admitted. “I always draw when I’m not feeling so great.”
Sarah looked back excitedly at Natasha who was still standing behind them. “Can I draw now, mama?”
“It’s late, solnyshko,” Natasha said as she made her way to the side of Sarah’s bed. Sarah frowned, but Natasha lifted her chin with a finger. “Why don’t you ask Steve to read you one of the new books uncle Tony got you?”
Sarah’s face immediately brightened at the idea. She sent a hopeful look at Steve. “Will you read me a story, Steve?”
Steve knew it was irrational and silly, but he couldn’t quite help but feel that it wasn’t his place just yet to do something as intimate with Sarah as reading her a story, but he took one look at her and knew that he couldn’t refuse. “Of course,” he answered. Sarah squealed as Natasha handed him the book. He read the title but didn’t recognize it. The cover had a castle and a royal family on it and looked hand drawn and very expensive. Not that he would expect anything less from Tony.
“I’ll be next door unpacking,” Natasha said. She leaned down and kissed Sarah who started to lie back against the pillows, waiting for Steve to begin reading. Steve looked up at Natasha as she started to leave. She said nothing, clapping him softly on the shoulder and giving him a reassuring look before leaving. He turned back to Sarah who was looking up at him expectedly and scooted to sit next to where she laid.
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s find out what this book is all about.”
The book, Steve quickly learned, was unlike any other fairytale he had ever read. It didn’t involve the typical plot of a princess finding her one true love or anything of the like. Instead, it focused on a king whose views were a little unconventional for his time. The king only had one child, a daughter, and he went through extensive lengths to make sure that she, and not the neighboring prince of another castle, would succeed him as ruler of their kingdom. Steve thought the story was surprisingly refreshing as he read it aloud to Sarah. “My joy, they would have to tear down each and every wall in this castle before I let them take what is rightfully yours. And even then, I would use every breath-“
“Why does he do that, Steve?” Sarah asked, stopping Steve mid sentence. She caught his confused expression, so she clarified her question. “Why does the king want the princess to rule?”
“Because…” Steve paused. Sarah would probably be satisfied if he went with the simple answer that the king wanted his flesh and blood to succeed him, but he knew she was smart enough to comprehend the underlying theme the book contained. “More than just being the king, he’s her dad. And he would do anything to take care of her and make sure she gets everything she deserves.”
Sarah was quiet for a moment as she contemplated what Steve said. “Mama said she takes care of me because she loves me. Is it like that? Does the king love the princess?”
“He sure does, kiddo,” Steve said, looking down at Sarah. The irony wasn’t lost on him. Much like the king in the story, he knew he would do anything for this little girl. Blue met blue as Sarah looked up to meet his gaze and he let the words slip out. “More than the princess will ever know.”
Steve realized he got carried away and wasn’t sure if Sarah understood his words, but the girl nodded anyway. By the time he finished reading the last page, Sarah was already sleeping peacefully at his side. He closed the book and put it down on the table next to her bed and sat up. Sometime while he was reading, Sarah had pulled him down to lay next to her so she could see the pages of the book better, and he mindlessly went along. He looked down at her and found himself amazed all over again. She was such a ray of sunshine and he realized that she somehow filled a void he never knew he had. She made him feel whole again without even trying. He couldn’t explain it, but just her presence filled him with so much warmth and joy. It was unlike anything he’d ever felt before and he reveled in it. He didn’t think it was possible to love someone he’d only known existed for the last two days this way, this deeply and indelibly, but he did. He sighed for the millionth time that day. What he said was true, Sarah would never fully understand just how much he loved her. She stirred when he leaned down and pressed a kiss to her forehead and he tenderly hushed her back to sleep. Once she was settled, he stood and left to find Natasha.
As he made it out of Sarah’s room, Steve heard rustling in the master bedroom and made his way over. Once at the door, he saw Natasha filling the drawers of the mahogany dresser by the window. He took one step into the room.
“She out?” Natasha asked, her back still to him.
“Yeah,” he answered. He saw Natasha’s head nod in contentment. There were so many things he wanted to say, but he settled on something simple. “Thank you.”
Natasha turned to him then, confusion heavy on her face. “For what?”
“For letting me read her a story,” he started. “For giving her my name.” For everything.
“I wasn’t going to,” she admitted. “I thought it was too risky, but the moment I saw her I just knew.” She put the sweater she had in her hands down on the bed and took a step closer to him before smirking. “In case you haven’t noticed, there isn’t much of me in her.” She was right, Sarah was a spitting image of him. “I thought if she was never going to know you, at least she had a part of you that wasn’t running through her veins.”
Steve knew that at that very moment, there was no way he could be mad at Natasha anymore. Regardless of what she’d done, he just couldn’t be mad at someone who had sacrificed so much for him. She had given him so much and he didn’t even know it. He made his way further into the room and stopped just in front of her. “She has your will and your strength. That’s something only you could give her.”
“She can be stubborn though,” she said. “Thanks for that.”
He smiled at her remark. “If I remember correctly, you’re just as much to blame for that as I am.”
“We’ll split the blame fifty-fifty,” She suggested. They both laughed.
Silence enveloped them once again, the both of them not quite knowing what to do despite having so much to talk about. There were still so many unanswered questions and issues they had to resolve, but Steve knew there was one he wanted addressed immediately. He looked at Natasha, his voice pleading with her as he did. “Please don’t take her away from me again.”
“Pardon the interruption. Miss Romanoff, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS said, his voice stopping Natasha from whatever it was she was about to say. “Doctor Banner is at the door with urgent news.”
Steve held Natasha’s gaze for a moment before they both hurriedly made it out of her room and towards the main door of the suite. Steve pushed down on the handle and pulled the door open to see Bruce standing there.
“Results are back,” he said to both of them. Bruce looked directly at Steve who still had his hand on the door. “You’re a match."
Da - yes
Solnyshko - little sun
Again, I am not a doctor, so all medical speak has been made up.
Natasha walked into the room with two steaming cups of coffee in her hand and stopped at the sight that greeted her. Right in front of her, Steve sat in the chair next to Sarah’s bed with his back to the door. He watched their daughter’s sleeping form intently as he held her hand in his and gently ran his thumb over her knuckles. Even if she couldn’t see his face, she could clearly see how worried he was through the tension that coiled the muscles of his back. She understood his worry – she was probably the only one who did – as her eyes roamed around the room. They were in one of the recovery suites in the infirmary after a long and pressing day. Bruce, along with the geneticist and pediatrician he had vetted, Helen Cho, had performed the bone marrow transplant on Sarah earlier that morning and it had drained both her and Steve emotionally and mentally. Natasha’s mind wandered as she recalled the events earlier that day.
“Mama, I’m scared!”
From where she sat on the edge of the bed, Natasha wrapped her arms tighter around Sarah who was clinging onto her desperately as she sobbed into the crook of her neck. They were in the infirmary trying to prepare Sarah for her transplant, but the task of getting her to allow Bruce to administer the anesthetic was proving difficult. Steve, who had marrow extracted from him only hours ago, was standing a couple of feet away from them while Bruce and Helen stood right behind him. “It’s going to be alright, solnyshko,” Natasha cooed. “Uncle Bruce and doctor Cho are going to take good care of you.”
Sarah lifted her head and looked at Natasha, her big blue eyes wide as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Is it going to hurt?”
Natasha hesitated. The line between shielding her daughter to avoid tainting her innocence so early in life and outright lying to her was always so fine that sometimes it was hard to see, but she decided that this was something she couldn’t sugarcoat. She sighed. “The needle might, baby.” Sarah sobbed at that, so she gingerly ran her fingers comfortingly through her blonde locks. “It’s just going to make you sleepy,” she tried, “but you’ll be better when you wake up.”
“But I don’t wanna do this!”
“Hey,” Steve said, crouching down in front of them to rub a hand down Sarah’s back. Natasha didn’t even notice he moved closer to them until his voice interrupted her. “You’re going to be fine, Sarah.”
Upon hearing Steve’s voice, Sarah turned and let go of the death grip she had on Natasha. “But it’s going to hurt,” she hiccupped, her lower lip quivering.
“Only for a second,” Steve reasoned, and Natasha was glad that he’d chosen not to lie. His words did nothing to soothe Sarah though, as fresh tears quickly made their way down her cheeks, but he was quick to act. “Hey,” he said again, wiping away a few of Sarah’s tears with his thumb, “remember the princess from your book?” Sarah nodded, her chest still heaving. “What did she tell the king when the prince was being mean to her?”
“She said…” Sarah paused, her tears ceasing as she pondered his question and thought about the words from the book they’d read the night before. “She said not to worry because even if the prince is mean, she is big and strong and he can’t stop her.”
“That’s right,” Steve said with a smile. He caught Sarah’s chin tenderly between his thumb and index finger and lifted her face. “That little pain you’re going to feel? Well, it’s like the prince. It’s mean and it wants to hurt you. But you’re not going to let it, are you?”
Natasha looked down at her daughter as she considered Steve’s challenge. For a minute, she thought the waterworks would start again, but she was genuinely surprised when the Sarah shook her head determinedly instead. “No,” Sarah decided, “because I’m big and strong like the princess.”
Relief washed over Natasha as Sarah finally acquiesced, and from where he was crouched before them, Steve smiled and lifted a hand for Sarah to high five. “Atta girl,” he encouraged. Sarah smiled and reached a tiny hand up to clap against his. She squirmed from where she was seated on Natasha’s lap, so Natasha carefully set her down and watched as she made her way to Steve and wrapped her arms around his neck. Steve looked surprised for a second, but eventually pulled her tiny body closer to his.
“Mama promised she would hold my hand when uncle Bruce puts the needle in,” Sarah explained, leaning her head on Steve’s shoulder and looking up at him. “Will you hold my other hand?”
Natasha saw as the panic rose in Steve’s eyes at Sarah’s question. His eyes grew wide and his mouth went slack as he scrambled for an answer. Sarah was still looking up at him, patiently waiting for an answer as he stuttered. “Uh…” His eyes darted to Natasha’s then and she immediately saw the uncertainty swimming in his pools of blue. She wasn’t sure if it was because he didn’t want to do it or simply because he wasn’t sure she’d be comfortable with him doing it. She gave him an encouraging nod and immediately knew it was the latter when his panicked look dissipated as he looked back down at Sarah. “Of course I will, kiddo.”
A look of absolute elation filled Sarah’s face as she gave Steve a final hug and turned back to Natasha. “I’m ready, mama.”
Natasha was so warped by how much Sarah’s face of determination mirrored the one Steve usually got when he saw a battle he had to win that all she could do was gather the girl tightly in her arms. “Okay, baby,” she said, pressing a kiss to her temple.
To say Sarah was docile after that was an understatement. Natasha had to secretly wonder if the girl on the bed was the same inconsolable one they’d brought into the infirmary only an hour before. She noticed how calm Sarah was as she laid in bed with one hand in hers and another in Steve’s. Sarah was facing his way, happily conversing with him as Bruce and Helen prepared her IV to their right. Natasha wasn’t concentrating enough to know exactly what they were talking about, but found herself entranced by how big her daughter’s smile was. She stole a glance at Steve and saw that he, too, mirrored Sarah’s expression and felt her heart warm at the sight. Sarah had taken so quickly to Steve like it was the most natural thing in the world that there was just no doubt in Natasha’s mind. It wasn’t a coincidence that Sarah had gone from distressed to agreeable in a matter of seconds; Steve had a calming effect on her.
Much to Natasha’s surprise, Sarah’s calm demeanor lasted even as Bruce announced that he was ready to administer the IV. The little girl took one look at her and one at Steve, and gently nodded her preparedness. She wailed a little as Bruce stuck the needle in her arm, the pressure of her grip on their hands increasing, but she stuck to her newfound resolve of bravery otherwise. She was quick to fall asleep after, and Natasha soon found herself standing in the hallway with Steve as they both watched Bruce and Helen wheel Sarah towards the operating room.
The wait was long and agonizing. Natasha sat restlessly on one of the chairs in the waiting room while Steve paced up and down the hallway as both their patience and sanity ran thin. At some point, the rest of the Avengers had come one by one to offer both of them food or a caffeine fix, but they refused every time, too anxious to do anything but torturously wait for an update on their daughter. It was only when the seven hour mark approached and Natasha was nearly at her wit’s end when Bruce and Helen emerged from the swing doors of the operating room. Both doctors barely had a second to breathe before both she and Steve were bombarding them with questions, and as soon as Bruce let them know that Sarah was okay, she and Steve were running towards the recovery suite.
The heat of the coffee seeping through the cardboard sleeves of the cups in her hands brought Natasha back to the present. She shook her head, ridding herself of the harrowing memories of earlier that day, and made her way to where Steve sat. Steve turned as he heard her footsteps approach and she handed him the other cup.
“Thanks,” he said, taking a sip before turning back to Sarah.
Natasha stood next to him and observed how his face only magnified the worry portrayed by his rigid posture. He looked like he was fighting an inward battle and was sorely losing. She sighed. “It’s your stomach, right?”
Steve shifted in his seat to face her, his face confused. “Sorry, what?”
“Your stomach,” she repeated, “there’s a sinking feeling at the pit of it and you don’t know if it’s dread or worry or helplessness or the fact that you’re unsure if you’ve done enough.”
Steve stared at her incredulously before nodding in both realization and agreement. “Does it ever go away?” he asked, rubbing his face tiredly with his hand.
“Never.” Natasha didn’t miss the grimace that crossed his face as he took in the certainty in her tone. “Welcome to being a parent.”
If he had something to say to that, he didn’t get a chance as the door opened and Bruce and Helen walked in. Both doctors looked tired and haggard, but Bruce was able to muster a small smile as he neared them. “The transplant went well,” he started before either of them could ask, “her body isn’t rejecting Steve’s marrow so that’s a good start. Her blood cell production is still a little slow, but it should pick up. All vitals look strong and stable.”
Steve stood from his seat and looked hopefully at Bruce. “So she’s better?”
Natasha held her breath as they waited for Bruce’s reply. “For now,” he said cautiously. “As I said, this stops her from bleeding out and buys us time to figure out the incompatibility of the serums.”
Anxiety rumbled within Natasha once again. “Where are you on that?”
Helen stepped closer to answer her question. “Doctor Banner and I are working on an antidote.” Natasha’s brows rose in question, but Helen was already elaborating. “Each cell in the body produces a protein called Human Leukocyte Antigen-”
“HLA,” Bruce supplied.
“Yes,” Helen agreed. “These proteins help the immune system identify which cells are foreign and which belong to the body. We believe that the since there are two serums in Sarah’s system, they’re each producing cells with different HLAs.”
“So what will this antidote do?” Steve asked.
Bruce was the one to address his concern this time. “Well we already know we can’t derive the serums from either of you, but we were able to extract HLA from the samples you gave us. Helen and I have been working to form one protein. If the antidote works and this protein bonds with Sarah’s cells then they’ll all have the same HLA-“
“And they’ll stop attacking each other,” Natasha finished quietly.
Helen nodded. “That’s the hope.”
Steve tried to make the hope in his voice less obvious. “How long until you complete the antidote?”
“A day or two,” Bruce surmised. “We’ve successfully integrated the two proteins, but we just want to make sure the formula is right before we give it to Sarah.” Bruce turned and looked at Natasha. “That is, of course, if you’re on board with this.”
Natasha’s mind worked to consider all the possibilities. “What are the risks?”
“The antidote is basically just a new protein for her cells,” Bruce explained, “worst case scenario is Sarah’s body won’t bond with it and both serums will just work to eliminate it from her system and we go back to the drawing board.”
Natasha glanced at Steve who looked like he was deferring to her before nodding at Bruce. “Do it.”
Bruce nodded back and with a promise to be back in a couple hours to check on Sarah, left with Helen right behind him. Natasha watched the door close before she turned back to Steve and saw that despite the relatively good news Bruce had given them, he still looked sullen. She was about to ask him what was wrong when his phone buzzed in his pocket. Steve pulled the phone out and swiped his finger across it, the light from the screen illuminating his features. His brows furrowed as he read the message and cursed under his breath.
Natasha took a step closer to him. “What’s wrong?”
“Hill needs me and Thor to handle a situation in Sao Paolo,” he answered, frustration seeping into his face.
Natasha found herself confused. She couldn’t ever recall a time where Steve looked burdened by the idea of taking a mission. It was only when his eyes darted to Sarah that she finally understood. She moved closer to him and laid an assuring hand on his arm. “Go,” she encouraged, “we’ll be fine here.”
What little was left of Steve’s composure crumbled. “I can’t just leave,” he reasoned. “What if something happens while I’m away? I… I don’t even know how long-“
“Steve,” Natasha said, stopping him from rambling on. “You can’t just turn down a mission. You have a duty-”
“I have a duty here too,” he firmly reminded her, eyes intense with just how serious he was.
Natasha sighed. She understood better than anyone just how painful it was to even think about being away from Sarah right now, but she knew this wasn’t something he could just sit out of. If Hill needed the God of Thunder and the best soldier the world has ever known to handle a situation, you could bet that the situation was dire. “I know it’s hard, Steve. But you heard what Bruce said,” she reasoned, “Sarah’s okay. She’s stable. You can go… You have to.”
Steve grimaced, knowing very well that she was right. He let out a deep breath and reluctantly nodded at her. “You’ll let me know if something changes?”
“I’ll have Hill patch me in,” she promised.
Steve seemed satisfied enough with that and Natasha’s eyes followed him as he moved to stand by the side of Sarah’s bed. He reached a hand down and brushed a few strands of hair away from her face before he leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. He took a second to just look at the steady rise and fall of Sarah’s chest before he turned back to Natasha and gave her a final nod and made his way towards the door.
“Steve, wait,” Natasha called out. Steve turned back as she closed the distance between them. She wasn’t quite sure what she was doing or what had brought this on, but she surprised both of them when she took his hand in hers and looked up at his shining blue orbs. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“For what?” he asked, his eyes never leaving hers.
“For saving her,” she said. He looked like he was about to argue, but shook her head at him. “I know what you’re about to say,” she started, “but please just let me say this.” She let go of his hand and raised hers to cup his cheek. “Thank you for saving our daughter-”
“Nat-“ he interrupted, his eyes closing as he leaned further into her touch.
Natasha’s hand lingered on his face longer as she realized that it was the first time she acknowledged out loud that Sarah was not just hers but their daughter. It felt liberating somehow. “I could never repay you for this.”
Steve opened his eyes at her words, staring at her almost pleadingly as he put his hand over the one she had on his cheek. “You could be here when I come back.”
Natasha desperately wanted to look away from his ardent gaze, but she found herself frozen, unmoving. She tried to answer him with words, but much like her body, her voice was spectacularly failing her too. An eternity seemed to pass them by before she was able to give him a small nod. Catching that, Steve let one corner of his mouth tug up in a small grin before he gently lowered their hands back to Natasha’s side and with one last look at her, turned and left.
Natasha stood right in the spot he had left her, staring blankly at where he stood only seconds ago and let a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding out. “Bozhe moi.”
Natasha was quietly watching the sun set through the wall of windows in Sarah’s room when the sound of the door opening caused her to whirl around. She backed herself closer to Sarah who was still asleep and got into a defensive stance on instinct, not sure who was bold enough to enter without knocking, but quickly calmed down when she saw it was just Clint.
“I brought dinner,” he said, closing the door behind him before walking into the room and going straight to the table to lay down the container he had in his hands.
Natasha came closer to him, her arms crossed around her chest. “I’m not hungry.”
“Tell that to someone who actually believes you,” Clint replied with his back to her. His hands went about pulling the lid off the large container and the room filled with the aroma of something rich and cheesy. “Laura’s lasagna,” he explained. Natasha saw him slice into the pasta before scooping it out and setting it on a paper plate. He threw in a plastic fork before he turned to face her and held the plate out. “She’s still pretty pissed that you left without saying goodbye, so I suggest you eat this since she spent hours in the kitchen slaving away since she knows it’s your favorite.”
Natasha rolled her eyes at him but took the plate anyway. Clint went back to where he had set the lasagna down to prepare himself a plate and Natasha went to sit back in the chair next to Sarah’s bed. She took a bite of the lasagna with the fork and almost moaned at the familiar taste of Laura’s scrumptious cooking. She waited for Clint to turn around before she spoke. “Laura figured out she’s too good for you yet?”
Clint smiled. “Fortunately for me, not yet.” He made his way over to her with his own plate in hand before he went on. “She’s really great. Same old super woman I married. I’ll tell you, I don’t know how she puts up with me and three kids.”
Natasha’s eyes widened as she remembered that Laura was heavily pregnant when she left. “Little Natasha,” she whispered. “She’s what now? Four?”
“Just turned four,” he confirmed. He had a minatory look on his face as he went to stand next to her and pulled out his phone. His fingers glided on the screen before he lowered it down for her to see. “Turns out she’s a Nathaniel.”
Natasha let out a chuckle as she looked at Clint’s youngest son. “I bet Cooper was ecstatic,” she said with a smile. “He’s a heartbreaker, Clint.”
“So is she,” he said, pointing his chin in Sarah’s direction.
Natasha nodded in agreement as she looked fondly at her daughter. “Can’t really expect anything less since she’s every bit her father.”
Clint snorted. “I figured his genes would be just about as bossy and commanding as he is.”
Natasha laughed as she and Clint caught up on the last three years. She had to admit it felt really good just to be able to talk to him again. They bantered back and forth as if it hadn’t been years since the last time they sat and did this, and she was glad that not much has changed since. Clint was still apparently starting home projects he didn’t always get around to finishing – much to Laura’s chagrin – and he still had that humor that no matter what she was going through, always managed to make her laugh. He was still a wonderful husband and an incredible father to his kids, something she always admired about him, and most importantly, he still had that uncanny ability to understand her even when she didn’t understand herself.
“She adores him,” Natasha found herself saying once they were done with dinner and packing away the leftovers. Clint hadn’t brought up the matter of her leaving or the current situation with Steve, and for that she was grateful, but she’d bottled up her feelings for so long that it was all overwhelming her now that she had her confidant back.
“I’m sure the feeling’s mutual,” he said, putting the lid back on the lasagna. He looked at Natasha and sighed. “You know you can’t take her away from him again, right?”
“What else am I supposed to do, Clint?” Natasha asked, clearly in distress after a minute of silence. “It’s not like we can just stay-“
“Why not?” Clint challenged before she could finish.
She sent him a disbelieving stare. “Because I left! I knew I was pregnant and I left without telling him.” Everything she kept to herself for the last three years was pouring out of her like water through a broken dam and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Unbidden tears began to sting her eyes as she slowly started coming apart in front of her best friend. “I can’t just come back and pretend like nothing happened. I hurt him, Clint,” she whispered as tears rolls down her eyes. “He’s too good to say it, but I see it every single time he looks at Sarah and his eyes fill with the agony of missing out on so much of her life. And you know what the worst part is? Despite everything I’ve done, he’s still willing to do everything he can to save her. I don’t deserve it, Clint! I don’t!”
“Hey, it’s okay.” Clint wrapped his arms around her before she could get the chance to object. She wanted to push him away and chastise herself for breaking down, but she couldn’t find the strength to as she succumbed to his embrace and sobbed into his neck.
When she was finally able to reel in her emotions, Clint spoke. “You really have to get over your ‘I owe you’ thing, Nat.” He gently pushed her shoulders away so he could cup her face in his hands. “What you did for Rogers?” he said, wiping away the wetness on her face. “No one could ever be that selflessness enough to do that for him. So maybe you hurt him and maybe he hasn’t been the same since, but who cares? You’re here now. You’re both here now, Nat.” Clint pulled her back into his embrace and kissed the top of her head. “You’re home.”
Clint stayed for another hour and Natasha let out a sigh once he left. Clint was reluctant to leave her alone for the night, but after some major convincing on her part, she was able to get him to leave with a promise that he could drop by again first thing tomorrow. She made her way back next to Sarah and took a seat. Her mind replayed Clint’s words over and over again as she leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes. Was he right? Could she really just come back after all these years? Was it really that simple? All the questions kept piling up, but she didn’t have the chance to ponder their answers as her expended body and mind succumbed to much needed sleep.
Natasha leaned against the kitchen counter in their suite and watched as Sarah joyously danced along to The Little Mermaid in the living room. It had only been six days since her transplant, but her daughter was thriving in her newfound health. Of course, Natasha knew it wasn’t only that. True to his word, Bruce had finished running tests on the antidote a day after Sarah’s transplant and suggested administering it as soon as possible. Natasha was reluctant to agree at first for a few reasons. The first being that Sarah had only been out of surgery for a day and she feared that undergoing yet another operation would be too much for her daughter to handle. Bruce was quick to settle that fear; the antidote was a simple injection that didn’t require going under the knife. That left Natasha with one more problem: Steve’s absence. Natasha remembered how it had taken some coaxing from him before Sarah agreed to the transplant, and she wasn’t sure her daughter would be compliant again without him by her side. True enough, the moment Sarah had woken up, she immediately asked for Steve, prompting Natasha to come up with the excuse that he had something important to take care of. She knew that it wasn’t entirely the truth, but how was she supposed to explain to a not-quite-yet three-year-old that not only was her father a super soldier, but his job also came with so many different responsibilities?
Luckily, the stars were on her side. As Natasha explained to Sarah that they needed to do one more thing to make her better, the bravery that she’d picked up from Steve’s analogy of the princess in her storybook remained. Sarah had agreed to the injection provided that Natasha held her hand. Natasha was quick to agree, and after sending Steve a text as promised through the burner phone Hill had provided her at his request, Bruce and Helen had given Sarah the antidote.
After that, it was as if Sarah had never been sick at all. Between the transplant and the antidote, her body had gone back to regularly producing blood cells. Her nosebleeds were a thing of the past. The rashes were gone and so was her unbreakable fever. Her cells had bonded so well with the new protein that the serums were actually agreeing. Relief washed over Natasha as Sarah went back to the being the lively ball of sunshine she always was.
“Miss Romanoff.” It was JARVIS that broke Natasha’s reverie as the AI’s voice filled the room. “Mister Stark is at the door requesting permission to enter.”
“Let him in,” she said as she made her way to the entryway.
Sarah was faster. Upon hearing JARVIS’ voice, the little girl abandoned her movie to run towards the door. “Unca Tony!”
“Hey there, squirt! Up top!” Tony said, waiting for Sarah to give him a high five. “Whatcha up to, munchkin?”
“I’m watching Ariel!”
“Ariel? She’s my favorite one! After Cinderella, of course.”
Natasha got caught up in watching Sarah and Tony that it took her a second to realize that Tony had brought someone along with him. She smiled when she saw the familiar strawberry blonde locks. “Pepper, hi!” she said as she moved to give her a hug.
“It’s so good to see you again, Natasha,” Pepper whispered into her ear. “I missed you.”
“I missed you too,” Natasha said, a wide grin on her face as they pulled away.
Pepper’s eyes landed on Sarah who was now clinging onto Tony’s leg. Natasha watched as the woman bent down and smiled at her daughter. “Well, aren’t you just the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
Sarah’s eyes lit up at Pepper’s praise. “I’m Sarah!”
“That’s a beautiful name, Sarah,” Pepper cooed. “I’m your aunt Pepper.”
Sarah looked up at Natasha excitedly. “I get an aunt, too?”
Natasha smiled and nodded. Sarah was on cloud nine at that, quickly running into Pepper’s arms to give her a hug before hastily taking her hand and dragging her off to show her new aunt all the new toys she had in her room. Natasha looked at Tony before motioning him to follow her to the kitchen. “Can I get you anything?” she asked, looking back at him.
“I’m good,” Tony answered, taking a seat on one of the tall stools by the island. “Spangles back yet?”
“No,” she replied, taking a seat across from him. “Hill said he should be back tonight though. What brings you and Pepper here?”
“Still going straight to the point, huh?”
“Among the things that have changed, that hasn’t. Spill, Stark.”
“Well…” Tony started. Natasha watched as he squirmed a bit and raised an eyebrow at him. “A little birdy told me-“
“’A little birdy’?”
“Okay, so I saw that Sarah’s birthday was the same as Steve’s and since that’s in two days…”
“Oh, no,” Natasha moaned. “You didn’t tell Pepper, did you?”
Tony grimaced. “She may have been there while I was skimming through the files on the mainframe.”
“It’ll just be here,” Tony interjected. “Just us, maybe Barton’s kids so Sarah isn’t so lonely. A few trusty NDA-obliged agents. We’ll keep it small.” The look on his face told Natasha that there was something more to this than he was letting on.
“What aren’t you saying?” Natasha asked, voice threatening. She may have been gone for a few years, but she could clearly see that she could still incite fear in Tony with just a stare.
Tony swallowed. “Pepper may be hell bent on making up for the two other birthdays she wasn’t able to throw Sarah.”
Natasha soon found out just how serious Tony was when he said Pepper wanted to make up for the two birthdays she’d missed. After he and Pepper had come to visit her and Sarah, Pepper had come back a half-hour later carrying a portfolio full of party ideas. Natasha blanched as Pepper showed her page after page of party favors, sample menus, and cakes that were taller than her. She had never exposed Sarah to this much extravagance before and she had to admit she felt a little uncomfortable with it all. She didn’t have much growing up and felt that as long as Sarah had everything she needed, the rest was just unnecessary. However, one look at Sarah’s elated expression told her that she would just have to suck it up. So as much as Natasha hated it, she surrendered all party planning to Pepper.
Sometime during the initial planning, Sarah had mentioned how much she loved the storybook Tony had given her, and just like that, the theme was decided. For Sarah’s sake (and really, Pepper’s too), Natasha faked a smile and did her best to hide her disapproval every time Pepper came up with an idea for the party that she thought was too over the top. There was talk of a seven-tiered cake in a shape of a castle, of replacing the dining room set in the main lounge of the facility with a large rectangular table fitted with thrones as chairs that could be ordered from this place that made movie props, and of gold goblets and cutlery. And just when Natasha couldn’t think things could get any worse, Pepper had called for a tailor to get them fitted for costumes.
The day went by quickly and by dinner, Sarah’s entire birthday party had been planned. Pepper insisted that Natasha and Sarah have dinner in her and Tony’s suite, and Natasha was quick to take her up on her offer – just the idea of not having to cook was music to her ears. Pepper ordered some gourmet Chinese food and the four of them sat around the table and listened to Sarah answer a string of Pepper’s questions. By dessert, Natasha caught herself watching Pepper feed Sarah some ice cream and she had to admit to herself that this was something she terribly missed. Tony’s incessant chatter. Pepper rolling her eyes at everything Tony suggested. Having dinner with others. Chinese food. She quickly realized just how much she had taken these simple things for granted before she packed up and left all those years ago.
While Natasha was helping Pepper clean up the remains of dinner, Sarah had fallen asleep on the couch. She thanked Pepper for dinner and bid both her and Tony goodbye before she lifted Sarah into her arms and made her away back to her own suite. She was a couple of feet away from her door when she saw Steve turn the corner. He looked like he had just gotten back, still dressed in his uniform with his shield securely on his back and his face fatigued, but he smiled when he saw them. He jogged the remaining distance between them and Natasha gestured to put Sarah in his arms. His shook his head in refusal, pointing to the grime caked just by the star on his chest. His hand reached for the door and Natasha whispered the code to him so he could open it.
“Tough mission?” Natasha asked once she walked through the door.
Steve pushed the door closed behind him. “You don’t know the half of it.”
Natasha was going to ask him to elaborate when Sarah’s head peeked up from her shoulder. “Steve?”
“Hey, kiddo,” he greeted softly with a smile on his face.
“Sure am,” he said. Sarah smiled, but her eyes quickly dropped back shut and Natasha walked further into the suite to put her down in her bedroom. Steve went along, turning a light on here and turning one off there to make it easier for them to navigate around. When they got to Sarah’s room, he ungloved his right hand to pull the covers off Sarah’s bed as Natasha set her down. He made his way over to the wall to turn on the nightlight and saw Natasha pull the blanket snuggly over Sarah and kiss her goodnight before they both made their way out of the room on light footfalls.
“How is she?” Steve asked once they were by the living room.
“She’s great,” Natasha answered. “Like she was never even sick. The antidote… well, it’s a miracle.”
Steve nodded and grew visibly relaxed at Natasha’s words. “So she’s out of the woods?”
“Bruce is continuing to monitor her,” she explained, “but so far it seems that way. Blood cell count is good. Everything seems normal.” She took in his disheveled appearance and tilted her head to the side. “Six day mission, huh?”
Steve sighed. “We found a HYDRA base just outside Sao Paolo. Thought it was just going to be a routine takedown, but it got… complicated.”
Natasha was intrigued. “How so?”
“They have special weapons-“
“Is that what nicked you there?” Natasha asked, reaching a hand out to the spot on his shoulder where his suit was cut and ran a thumb over the already healing gash there.
“No,” he answered, his eyes watching her hand that was on him. “Their weapons aren’t machinery. They’re human, or at least they used to be. Twins. They’re… enhanced?” Natasha looked up at his words and their eyes locked as he whispered, “one of them is really fast.”
“Fast enough for a god and a super soldier?” Natasha asked skeptically, her eyes never leaving his.
“Fast enough when I’m the only ground operative,” he bemoaned.
Natasha was confused, but didn’t break their gaze. “You had Carter, right?”
There was a pause as her question lingered between them. “She’s not you,” he finally said.
Natasha had to look away at his words, pulling her hand back to her side as Steve watched her. She cleared her throat to drown the sound of her heart in her ears. “I... I should go to bed.”
“Yeah, of course,” Steve stuttered out, giving her one last glance before turning towards the door.
Natasha silently followed him as she slowly regained her composure. “Oh,” she said, causing Steve to turn back to her just when his hand landed on the knob. “Pepper wants you to come by their suite as soon as you can. She needs to have you fitted for a costume.”
“Costume?” he asked, a brow rising in confusion. “What, the stars and stripes aren’t enough?”
“It’s for Sarah’s party,” she explained, “and yours.”
“Party?” he clarified.
She shook her head and sighed. “Don’t ask.”
Steve just shrugged and made his way out. Natasha was about to close the door when he turned back. “Hey, Nat?”
Natasha stopped the door with her hand and peeked her head around it. “Yeah?”
“Thanks for being here when I got back,” he said, a small smile on his lips.
Natasha gave him a nod. “Goodnight, Steve.”
“You look beautiful, mama.”
Natasha smiled as she entered the living room in the costume Pepper had made for her. The dress was deep red, almost burgundy, and was made of velvet. The neckline was lined with gold laurels as it fell off her shoulders and the long sleeves encased her arms. It tapered at her waist before the skirt fell gracefully to the floor with a train right behind her. She may have felt silly putting the costume on, but even she had to admit that it fit her like a glove. She bent down and tapped Sarah on the nose with her finger. “Not as beautiful as you, birthday girl.”
“I feel like a princess!” Sarah exclaimed as her hands smoothed over the bodice of her own dress. It was lilac with silver and gold stitching with poufy shoulders caps and a skirt that flared from the ridiculously thick petticoat underneath. Her blonde hair had been braided with a few tendrils falling loosely at her face. She really did look like a princess.
“That’s because you are, solnyshko,” Natasha said as she pulled her daughter in for a hug. “You ready to go down?”
“Yes!” Sarah all but screeched as she pulled away from Natasha and dragged her to the door and towards the elevator.
Sarah bounced on the balls of her feet as she and Natasha stood in the elevator as it descended to the main lounge. Natasha could practically feel the excitement radiating from her as she placed both her hands on her shoulders and looked down at her. “We’re almost there, baby. Calm down.”
“But it’s time for my party, mama!”
Natasha didn’t get to finish her sentence as the elevator came to a halt and opened to reveal Steve standing a few feet away from the doors. The ding that signaled her and Sarah's arrival caught his attention and Natasha looked up just in time to see him glance their way. Her breath got caught in her throat. If she thought her costume fit her well, hers had nothing on his. He was devilishly handsome with his hair combed and gelled back neatly as his broad frame filled the dark black and gold coat that was buttoned from mid-thigh to just around the center of his chest where a white button up was exposed. He looked majestic, like complete and absolute royalty.
He looked like a king.
Warning: if you're currently holding a hot beverage, please put it down.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It wasn’t often that Natasha let herself get swept in the moment. It was a luxury, she knew, and it was one she couldn’t afford herself as a child trying to survive the cold streets of Stalingrad on her own, and even more so as a hardened assassin of the Red Room where one moment of unfocused attention could lead to death. So even after she had gone straight and decided to use her skillset to put a stop to the evils of the world as a SHIELD agent, and then later on as an Avenger, letting time stand still to watch life go by was still so difficult for her that she could count the number of times she let it happen with one hand.
Becoming part of a team. Realizing she finally had people to come home to. Meeting Clint’s kids. Holding Sarah for the first time.
And then, there was now, as she stood frozen in the elevator with her eyes locked on Steve’s across the room.
She wasn’t quite sure what it was. Maybe it was the way he stood in his costume looking all strong and dauntless and devastatingly beautiful. Or maybe it was how his hair shone golden under the countless lights of the crystal chandeliers that now hung on the ceiling, or that somehow, his eyes looked impossibly bluer from where she stood. Or, as she was slowly realizing, it was the intense look that painted his face with an emotion she couldn’t quite identify that just completely obliterated her ability to look away.
And breathe, apparently.
She didn’t know how much time they had let pass as they just stared at each other. Seconds? Minutes? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that ever since the elevator doors slid open and they caught sight of each other, his eyes never left hers and hers never left his. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she tried to will herself to look away, but apparently years of training to subdue her impulses were useless when it came to him.
Beneath the grip Natasha had on her shoulders though, Sarah was oblivious and getting increasingly impatient. “Mama,” the little girl called out, tugging on her hand to get her attention. “Let’s go.”
Natasha finally found the wherewithal to break their gaze so she could look at her daughter. “Sorry, baby,” she said before shaking her head and offering Sarah a hand. “Come on.” Sarah took her hand and together they walked out of the elevator. They were halfway out when Sarah let go of her and started to run.
“Steve!” Sarah shouted, her legs moving faster as she caught sight of him.
Natasha kept her pace steady as she watched Steve’s eyes turn to their daughter, a smile spreading across his face when he saw her running towards him. He bent down and Sarah ran straight into his awaiting arms and squealed when he lifted her up and settled her against his hip to greet her. “Happy Birthday, kiddo.”
“Thank you,” Sarah said with a giggle. “I’m a princess.”
“That you are,” he said. “You look very beautiful, Sarah.”
Sarah’s face lit up at his compliment before she smiled and turned her face to the side. “Mama’s beautiful too.”
Steve turned in the direction Sarah was looking to see that Natasha had finally made her way to them. “She sure is.”
Natasha gave him a small toothless grin before turning to Sarah. “It’s Steve’s birthday too, solnyshko.”
Sarah’s eyes went wide as saucers as she looked at Steve. “We have the same birthday?”
“We do,” he confirmed, “but I think today should be all about you, your majesty.”
“Is that the birthday girl I see?” Steve turned with Sarah in his arms, Natasha following suit, to see Tony looking utterly ridiculous as he stood behind them in clunky knight’s armor. He pulled out a plastic sword from his side and knelt before them. “I pledge my sword to you, Princess Sarah.”
Steve put Sarah down as she squirmed in his arms and laughed at Tony’s antics. She made her way over to hug him. “You’re silly, unca Tony!”
“You have no idea, munchkin.” Tony stood up and gestured to the lounge behind him animatedly. “You ready to party?”
“Yeah!” Sarah screamed excitedly, bouncing on the balls of her feet as she followed Tony.
“So…” Natasha started, turning to Steve once they were alone. “I may have forgotten to get you something,” she admitted sheepishly.
Steve waved her off in dismissal. “Don’t even worry about it.”
“But I-“ she began, but before she was able to finish her sentence, a pair of arms wrapped around her legs. She looked down to see Lila’s brown eyes looking up at her.
“Lila,” she said in recognition before scooping the girl into her arms to pepper her cheeks with kisses. “You’ve grown so much, sweetheart!”
“Well she was only five the last time you saw her,” a voice remarked from behind.
The sound of the familiar voice caused Natasha’s head to whip in its direction. Right before her, Laura stood in a royal blue and silver gown that cascaded to the floor. There was a teasing smirk on her face that Natasha knew all too well. “Laura,” she gasped out before putting Lila down so she could engulf the woman in a tight hug.
“If you ever run away again,” Laura began, tearfully whispering into Natasha’s ear. “I’ll actually ask Clint to teach me how to use his damn bow and arrow.”
Natasha laughed in Laura’s embrace. “I missed you.”
“Likewise,” Laura said as she pulled away from her. She directed her attention to Steve who was crouching down as he talked to Lila. “Hi, Steve.”
Steve rose to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Great to see you again, Laura.”
The sound of trumpets accompanied by the burst of rainbow confetti in the center of the room caught everyone’s attention. Suddenly, Tony’s voice was loud and booming on the PA. “Are you ready to partaaaay?”
Natasha shook her head in both disbelief and amusement. “I guess that’s our cue.”
After dinner was served, Natasha sat alone in the table she shared with the Bartons. Her eyes scanned the room as she took in her surroundings, and though the party had been going for the past hour or two, she still found herself in disbelief. If she thought the plans for the party were overly unnecessary, words couldn’t describe how she felt seeing them come to life. Pepper, who she had only been able to talk to for a second to thank before the woman had other details to attend to, had truly outdone herself. The party wasn’t just over the top – it was outrageously extravagant and borderline profligate. The sleek and modern lounge of the Avengers’ facility now looked like the inside of the castle. The once plain white walls were now covered in what she thought looked like real marble (how the hell did Pepper pull that one off in two days?) and the usual hardwood floors were replaced with checkered tiles of red and white. The floor-to-ceiling windows were covered in rich velvet drapes with red and gold accents that matched the tablecloths that covered several round tables scattered across the room. At the center, everyone was gathered in a circle as they watched the skit being performed by the live performers for the kids. Natasha couldn’t help but smile as she looked at all the people so near and dear to her dressed ridiculously in costumes to indulge her daughter. Sam. Tony. Thor and Jane. Jane’s assistant, Darcy. Laura and Lila. Clint and Cooper. Bruce. Rhodey. Coulson. Even Maria Hill, who was probably the most serious woman she’d ever met, looked like she was having fun in spite of the outrageously poufy skirt of the dress she had to wear as she spoke to other fellow agents. Her eyes zeroed in on her daughter and her smile grew wider as she saw her happily watching the show with Steve who had her on his lap as he sat cross-legged on the floor.
Natasha was so lost in watching Sarah and Steve that she didn’t notice Laura sit back down at the table until her voice startled her. “You’re staring.”
“Am not,” Natasha said as she tried to hide her embarrassment at getting caught.
Laura scoffed. “I know you and my husband think of yourselves as master spies, Nat, but neither of you could ever lie to me.” Natasha gave her a sheepish smile and Laura’s eyes fell to Steve and Sarah. “Have you told her yet?”
“No,” Natasha sighed. “He wants to wait till the time is right, and to be honest, I’m not really sure when that is or if it’s even a good idea.”
“You’re crazy, right?” Laura asked in disbelief. “She adores him. And by the looks of it, the feeling is mutual.”
Natasha grimaced in her seat as she rambled. “But this… this is a big change, you know? Once we tell her there’s no going back. And… and what if he decides that he wants nothing to do-“
“Stop right there,” Laura interrupted. “You and I both know that’s impossible. Any other man, maybe. But Steve Rogers?” she asked, giving Natasha a stern look. “Never.” She put a hand on Natasha’s arm. “But I know you already know that, so what’s really bothering you?”
Natasha was quiet for a moment as she pondered Laura’s question. She was still watching Steve and Sarah laugh as they watched the show when she sighed. “How could he possibly forgive me?”
Laura’s face softened. “Oh, Nat,” she said. “He forgave you the second you came home.” Her words caused Natasha to look her way and she gave her a small grin. “Maybe it’s time you forgive yourself.”
Natasha was at a loss for words as the gravity of Laura’s statement hit her. Thankfully, Clint chose the right moment to come over. “Here,” he said putting a glass down in front of her. “You look like you could use this.”
“Where did you get this?” she asked, sniffing the contents of the glass.
Clint’s head motioned to the now open bar at the back of the room. “Don’t tell Pepper, but I may have opened a bottle or two.”
The PA went on again and Tony’s voice filled the room as he announced that it was time for everyone to ask the princess to dance. Across the room, Natasha saw Thor immediately stand to make his way over to Sarah, his cape swaying behind him as he walked. He bent in front of her and loudly proclaimed that as the rightful prince of Asgard, he would like the honor of having the first dance with the princess of Midgard. Sarah giggled and took Thor’s hand as the music started to play.
Clint looked at his wife and offered her his hand. “My lady?”
Natasha saw Laura give her a hesitant glance and shook her head. “Go,” she encouraged. “I’m going to get some air.”
Once Clint and Laura were at the dance floor with the others, Natasha stood and picked up the drink Clint had given her. She looked around the room in search of a place of reprieve when she saw the glass doors of the balcony. She slowly made her way over and the warm summer air hit her face as soon as her fingers slid the doors open. Closing it behind her, she walked over to the edge and leaned her elbows on the railing and closed her eyes.
He forgave you the second you came home. Maybe it’s time you forgive yourself.
Laura’s words echoed loudly in her mind repeatedly like a broken record. She sighed. Was she right? Had Steve really forgiven her? Was it her own stubbornness and inability forgive herself for her ledger of sins that was stopping her from seeing what was clearly in front of her? Would staying here really make Steve forget what she did? It just couldn’t be that easy. Nothing is ever that simple. But then she thought about how Sarah had taken so quickly to Steve and wondered if maybe this was the exception. She’s never seen her daughter light up the way she does when she sees Steve and she didn’t know if that was something she could take away from her. Frustrated with her thoughts, she let out another heavy breath and took a sip of her drink and just watched the greenery of upstate New York before her.
“Still have a thing for hiding in the shadows, huh?”
Natasha kept her eyes straight as Steve came to stand next to her. “Old habits die hard.”
“Apparently,” he said, resting his hands on the cool railing of the balcony before eyeing the crystal tumbler in her hand. “But now, instead of drinking in the dark at one of Tony’s fundraisers, you’re doing it at a three-year-old’s princess party?”
“Did you really think covering the bar was going to stop Clint from finding the alcohol?” she asked, albeit rhetorically, as she turned to face him. “Besides, I gave up vodka for nine months for that three-year-old. I think I’ve earned this one.”
Steve chuckled. “You reap what you sow, right?”
“Or so I hear,” she answered before lifting her drink to him with a challenging look. Steve took the glass from between her fingers and took a sip, wincing at the burn of pure liquor down his throat. Natasha laughed. “Happy Birthday, Captain Rogers.”
“Thanks,” he said before handing her back the drink and gesturing to his costume. “Though I’m pretty sure the US Army would strip me of my title if they saw me wearing this thing.”
Natasha scoffed after taking a sip of her own. “Just be glad yours doesn’t have a train,” she countered before adding, “And I won’t tell if you won’t. ” Steve raised an eyebrow at her and watched as her lips curled into a devious smirk. “But even if I did, I don’t think they’d be that cruel to a fossil. You’re like what now, a century and a half?”
Steve’s eyes narrowed as he sent her a withering look. “Thirty-one.”
“If you say so,” she teased as they both laughed.
A brief yet comfortable silence fell over them as their laughter tapered and they both stared into the darkness of the night ahead. Behind them, the party was still going, the sound of the music playing slipping faintly through the small space between the glass doors Steve hadn’t completely closed. Natasha let her eyes drift lower, watching the branches of the trees below them sway under the moonlight. She turned her head when she felt Steve’s eyes on her. “What?”
Steve smiled. “You know how you said you felt bad for not getting me anything?”
“Yes,” she said, “but I also remember you saying not to worry about it.”
“I might’ve lied,” he admitted, moving to press his side against the railing before holding a hand out to her. “Dance with me?”
Natasha hesitated for a second, looking down at his outstretched hand and then at his face before giving him a smile. “Can’t really turn down a king’s request, can I?”
“At least not on his birthday,” he quipped.
Natasha acquiesced and took the hand he was offering. She was about to let her other rest on his shoulder when unexpectedly, Steve lifted their hands and twirled her. A gasp of surprise fell from her lips when he pulled her close, a hand coming to rest firmly on her hip.
“Smooth,” Natasha said once they began to sway. “You know, the princess might kill me if she found out I danced with you before she did.”
“I think she’s a little occupied right now,” he said, looking to the side. Natasha moved her head to follow his line of sight and saw Sarah dancing with Cooper through the glass window. When she turned back to him, he was smiling. “It’s cute.”
“I doubt you’ll find that cute twelve years from now,” she retorted playfully.
The smile faded from Steve’s lips as his blue eyes stared deeply into her green ones. “So I still get to be with her in twelve years?”
Natasha was so mesmerized by his stare that it took her a second to find her voice. “I don’t want to run anymore, Steve.” She didn’t know when she found the answer to the questions that plagued her mind only a few minutes before, but suddenly there it was. “I can’t.”
An amalgam of emotions flooded Steve’s face then, but before he could say anything, the sound of someone clearing their throat caused them to step away from each other. Natasha turned towards the sound of the intrusion and saw Clint standing by the now open glass doors staring sheepishly down at the ground. “I, uh… Pepper wanted me to tell you guys that it’s time to cut Sarah’s cake.”
Natasha nodded in acknowledgement and with one last look at Steve, followed Clint back inside. She felt her best friend’s eyes practically burning a hole into the back of her head as they walked towards the center of the room, so she looked at him. “What?” she snapped.
There was a teasing grin on Clint’s face. “Nothin’.”
Natasha lifted an eyebrow at him in a challenge when Sarah came running to her. “Mama!” Sarah exclaimed. “Aunt Pepper said it’s time to cut the cake!”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” she asked, picking Sarah up and kissing her cheek. “Let’s go cut your cake!”
Less than five minutes later, Natasha found herself standing next to Sarah who was bouncing in excitement as she sat on the special gold throne Pepper had made for her with everyone huddled around them as they waited for the cake. Her eyes roamed the room, searching for Steve and found him standing in between Sam and Tony to the left. The crowd burst into a chorus of happy birthday and Clint and Thor stepped aside to let the three caterers who were carefully lifting the cake through. Sarah’s eyes widened in astonishment as she saw the three sparkling candles atop the massive castle-shaped cake as it moved closer to them and Natasha winced, already thinking about the sugar high her daughter would inevitably get herself into. As the crowd’s song ended, the cake was set down on the table a couple of feet in front of Sarah.
Natasha picked Sarah up and walked towards the cake. “Make a wish, solnyshko.”
“Wait!” Sarah exclaimed, causing everyone to look at her.
“What’s wrong?” Natasha asked concernedly.
Sarah turned in her arms to look directly at Steve. “It’s Steve’s birthday too,” she explained, “I want him to blow out the candles with me.”
Everyone’s eyes turned to Steve and Natasha watched as a look of surprise and uncertainty filled his face, but then his eyes drifted to the beaming girl in her arms and she knew he wouldn’t refuse. Almost on instinct, he looked at her, silently seeking permission. It took a small smile of assurance and a gentle nudge forward from Sam, but he eventually got his feet moving towards them. Once he was close, Sarah reached for him and Natasha carefully shifted the girl into his arms.
Steve smiled at Sarah before setting her higher up on his hip so she could be eyelevel with the candles. “Make a wish, kiddo.”
With a deep breath, Sarah did just that.
Once the candles were blown, Sarah had insisted on personally cutting everyone a slice of cake. Usually, this wouldn’t be a problem for Natasha. She really didn’t mind helping her daughter out with the heavy knife, but this time, Sarah had also insisted that Steve stay with them, and, if she wasn’t capable of saying no to her daughter, Steve’s chances of doing so were slim to none. So the three of them stood there, slicing the castle shaped cake a piece at a time. Once the last person in line had left with their plate, Steve handed Natasha one with a slice for Sarah.
“Open wide,” Natasha said, holding up a fork for her daughter. Sarah opened her mouth and Natasha fed her the cake. “Good?” she asked as Sarah swallowed.
Sarah nodded, her upper lip full of icing. Steve and Natasha laughed, and Steve bent down to wipe the icing away with his thumb. “Did you make a wish?”
Sarah’s smile was wide and beaming. “I wished for me and mama to stay here forever with you!” she said before she lunged at Steve and wrapped her arms around his neck.
To say that Sarah had stunned her parents was an understatement. Natasha heard the audible gasp of surprise that fell from Steve’s lips as he caught Sarah on instinct and wrapped his arms around her. He looked up at her then, and as she stared into the depths of his blue eyes, she knew that this had to be it. They were never going to find a better moment than this. She gave Steve an encouraging nod and he smiled in understanding.
“Sarah?” Steve coaxed, rubbing his hand tenderly over her back to get her to look at him. Sarah let go and pulled away. “I have something for you,” he said, reaching into the inside pocket of his coat. He pulled out a small blue box with a simple white ribbon that barely occupied the flat of his palm and handed it to Sarah.
“What is it?” Sarah asked with a smile on her lips as she took the box from Steve and shook it lightly. From where she stood, Natasha looked down curiously as well.
“Open it and find out,” Steve suggested.
Sarah excitedly pulled on the ribbon and took off the lid as her little fingers dug inside the box to pull out what was inside. She gasped as she held the bracelet in her hands and Natasha moved closer to see. It wasn’t anything extravagant, just a simple silver chain with a thin platinum bar in the middle. Sarah ran her thumb over the inscription and smiled at Steve as she read it. “That’s my name!”
“Turn it around,” he ordered, confusing both Sarah and Natasha. “Go on,” he encouraged.
Natasha watched as Sarah did as she was told and flipped the bar over and slowly read the words inscribed at the back aloud. “For…ever my prin…cess.” Sarah’s eyes widened in shock as the words on the inscription registered in her mind. The corners of her mouth were slowly turning up as she looked back at Steve. “I’m your princess?” Steve nodded with a smile and watched amusedly as Sarah slowly put the pieces together. Her smile grew impossibly wider. “You’re my king?”
“Yes, sweetheart. I’m-“ Steve didn’t have time to finish his sentence because Sarah was already back in his arms and hugging him tightly.
Sarah nuzzled her face into his neck before whispering in his ear. “I love you, Daddy.”
Steve wrapped his arms around her as he stood up with her in his arms. “I love you too, Sarah,” he said as he kissed her temple. He closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh as he rested his nose against her hair. “You’ll always be my princess.”
From where she stood, Natasha had to look up to the ceiling as she fought the tears that were threatening to sting her eyes at witnessing such a tender moment. From that moment on, one thing became painfully clear to her: things were never going to be the same again.
Steve and Sarah were practically inseparable after that. For the most part, Natasha stood back as Sarah went around and proudly showed off her father and her new bracelet to all her guests. People were elated, smiling at both the little girl and Steve as they went around the room together. They gave smiles of encouragement to Natasha too, and she politely returned them, but mostly, she stayed quiet.
The number of people started to thin as it got later. Just a little past ten, Clint came up to Natasha with a snoozing Lila in his arms and Laura and Cooper right behind him. He gave her a kiss on the cheek and a look that told her they were going to have another talk soon while Laura engulfed her in another hug, making her promise that she and Sarah would come visit the farm. Natasha agreed, and after ruffling Cooper’s hair, bid the Bartons goodbye. She had just finished saying goodbye to Jane and Thor when Steve came up to her from dancing with Sarah, the little girl now resting her cheek on his shoulder.
Sarah yawned as she saw Natasha. “Mama, I’m tired.”
“Let’s go say thank you and goodbye to aunt Pepper and uncle Tony then we’ll go, alright?” Natasha said, tucking a stray tendril of hair behind Sarah’s ear.
Sarah looked at her and then at Steve. “Can daddy tuck me in?”
Natasha smiled warmly at her. “You’ll have to ask daddy, solnyshko.”
Sarah’s eyes wandered to Steve who just smiled and kissed the tip of her nose. “Sure, baby.”
The three off them went over to where everyone was sitting to thank them for coming. Sarah hugged both Tony and Pepper with so much gusto that Natasha had to shake her head. Her daughter already had them wrapped around her tiny fingers. After they bid everyone goodbye, they made their way up to Natasha and Sarah’s suite. Once inside, Steve got Sarah’s bed ready as Natasha went about washing her up. Sarah refused to take off the bracelet Steve had given her and Natasha really didn’t have the energy to argue. Not that she was going to.
Once Sarah was clean and in her pajamas, she looked at both of her parents who were standing before her. “Can we read the princess story again?”
Natasha looked at Steve and nodded. “I’m going to go get ready for bed.”
Steve was about to protest, but Sarah beat him to it. “But mama, I want you and daddy to read it to me.” Natasha looked unsure, so Sarah pushed her bottom lip out in a pout. “Please?”
“Alright.” Natasha sighed (when had she become this easy?) and made her way over to the other side of Sarah’s bed, picking up the storybook as she went. She settled on Sarah’s left before she smiled at her. “But only because it’s your birthday.”
Sarah squealed in absolute delight and turned to Steve. “Come on, daddy.” Sarah said, patting the space to her right. Steve followed and held the other end of the book as Natasha began to read.
Natasha barely made it halfway through the book when she noticed Sarah’s breathing even out. She closed the book and set it on the bedside table and watched as Steve kissed Sarah’s forehead and pulled the blanket just short of her chin. She followed suit, wishing her daughter goodnight and flicking the light off before following him out of the room.
Natasha didn’t speak as she made her way across the hall. She could hear Steve’s footsteps close behind her, and stopped to face him once they were by the living room. “Steve, look-“
She didn’t have a chance to say what she was going to as he planted his lips firmly on hers and cupped her face in his hands. Her hands came to rest on his arms, her fingers curling into the fabric of his coat as he backed them into the wall. “You’re wrong if you think I’m going to let you run again,” he whispered into her lips as they pulled away.
His face was so close to hers that she felt his words as much as she heard it. She could hear her own heart beating in her ears as she put her hands on his to pry her face away from his grasp. She closed her eyes and turned her head away. “Steve, you can’t-”
“I can’t what, Nat?” he challenged, putting a hand on her chin as he tried to make her look at him.
She resisted. She knew she would break if she looked into his eyes. “You can’t want me,” she said softly with tears on the brink of falling. “Not this way.”
His thumb traced her bottom lip. “You don’t get to tell me how to want you.“
“I hurt you,” she mumbled, a tear slipping down her cheek.
Her words didn't deter him. “I love you.”
Her eyes snapped open at that. “Don’t say that!” She pushed herself off the wall and passed him, but he caught her arm before she could go far. She shrugged out of his grasp.
She turned back to him with her chest heaving. “Don’t you get it, Steve? You can’t say or feel things like that for me because you’re supposed to hate me!”
“For what?” he asked, “For leaving so I could find my best friend? For not telling me you were pregnant so I wouldn’t have to choose between being a father and pulling my best friend out of the dark side? For sacrificing all these years and raising Sarah all on your own so I wouldn’t have to give up my past?” Natasha stood silent and unmoving as he spoke. He came to stand in front of her again, and she didn’t even flinch as he tipped her head so she could meet his eyes. “I can’t hate you, Nat.” He thumbed away the tears on her face as she stared at him. “I loved you,” he whispered. “Even after you left, I still loved you.” Her head shook in his hands as she tried to fight his words, but he went on. “I loved you even when I was supposed to hate you.”
“You shouldn’t,” she whispered, but it was weak, hollow, and they both knew it.
“You can’t make my decisions for me anymore,” he answered. “I love you, Natasha. Everything you were and everything you are. And not just because you gave me Sarah, but because you’re you. I love you.” Blue and green eclipsed as their eyes met once again and he shook his head. “I will always love you.”
She wanted to beg, plead, scream at him for being so stupid. He couldn’t love her. Not after all she’d done and all she’d taken from him. But despite all that, here he was, professing his undying love to her like she hadn’t been away all these years. Like she hadn’t broken his heart by not telling him about Sarah. Like not a day had gone by that he didn’t love her. Her resolve cracked then, and before she could stop herself, her lips were on his again.
Their kiss was hungry, visceral, filled with so many apologies and unsaid promises; everything they both felt in the last three years bleeding into the lock of their lips. Natasha clasped her hands at the back of his neck, and his fell to her hips to pull her closer as the tip of his tongue licked at the seam of her lips. Natasha moaned, her mouth opening as their tongues battled for dominance.
“I love you,” he repeated, pulling away before nipping her bottom lip.
“Don’t tell me,” she gasped as she tried to pull him closer. “Show me.”
He bent down slightly at her words, his arms snaking their way just behind the top of her thighs to pull her up without breaking their kiss. Natasha let out another whimper and locked her legs around his waist as he carried her towards her bedroom and closed the door with his foot. They pulled away as Steve set her down and their hands were quick and hasty on each other then, working on buttons and zippers and tossing the pieces of their costumes carelessly in every direction. Natasha was left only in her cotton panties once her dress was but a pool on the floor of her bedroom next to their discarded shoes and her stomach coiled when she saw how Steve’s eyes darkened to a deep navy as he looked at her. She stopped to admire his smooth skin and the dips and planes of his chiseled body as he stood there in nothing but his boxers, but her ogling was cut short when his lips locked on hers again, his hands on the bare skin of her hips sending shivers down her spine. He backed her up slowly until the back of her knees his the mattress, and then they were falling.
“I missed you,” Steve whispered as his mouth trailed south and he sucked on the pulse point on her neck. “God, I missed you so much.”
“Steve,” Natasha gasped, her back arching off the bed. She could feel him rubbing up against her between the fabric of their underwear, and every nerve ending in her body was screaming for more friction. More pressure. More anything.
Steve’s lips peppered the top of her breasts and that only intensified the heat between her legs, making it increasingly uncomfortable. He sucked at her skin and she whimpered. He still knew her body so well but she wasn’t the least bit surprised, she had taught him long ago how to make her squirm and writhe under his mouth and fingers and with a memory like his, it was unlikely that he would ever forget.
She felt his lips moving lower, kissing just above her navel, but she put her hands on his cheeks to force him to look up at her. “Please, Steve. Please.” She wasn’t above begging. Not now, and definitely not for him. He smiled and nodded in understanding as he sat back on his knees and hooked his fingers into the band of her panties and pulled it off her legs. Natasha’s stomach clenched in need as he rid himself of his boxers before coming back between her legs. His lips found hers again, and Natasha moaned into his mouth as she felt him right at her entrance. “Steve.”
Steve braced his weight on his elbows and snapped his hips forward slowly. Natasha’s mouth parted in a silent gasp as her head turned to the side in pleasure and Steve groaned as he began to thrust, his rhythm slow and deep and sending delicious waves of pleasure through both of them. If their kisses had been hungry and possessive moments ago, their pace now was leisurely and languid, like they were discovering each other all over again. Natasha couldn’t stop the whimpers from slipping from her lips. It felt so good just have him inside her again that her mind was hazy with so much pleasure and wanton need. “So beautiful, Nat.” Steve whispered, and she had to bite her lip at a particularly delicious snap of his hips. “Love you so much.”
Natasha let one of her hands move from his back to the side of her face and Steve quickly tangled their fingers together. Natasha opened her mouth to speak, to say his name, to tell him how good he felt, that she missed him too, and that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this whole, but every push of his hips into her punched the air right out of her lungs and clouded her mind with pleasure that she could only muster a gasp. Her senses were on overload and she couldn’t quite understand it, it was like it was all too much but not enough at the same time and that somehow only drove her closer and closer to the crest. “Missed you too,” she managed eventually, though it came out as more of a labored breath. She was so, so, close and she knew he was too as his thrusts grew erratic above her.
“With me, Nat,” Steve said. “With me, okay?” Natasha nodded, the only action she was capable of doing and almost screeched when his hand made its way between her legs. He pushed in once, twice, and then her vision blanked as pleasure, white hot and burning, coursed through her veins. Vaguely, she felt Steve follow, her name on his lips as the grip of their hands close to her face tightened.
“Don't ever leave,” Steve whispered after a while, slanting his lips tenderly over hers. He was still on top of her, his weight pressing her to the bed. She was so sated in a way she hadn’t been in so long that she didn’t have it in her to move, not that she wanted to. Natasha cupped his face again as he looked at her, running a thumb at the side of his jaw. He turned to kiss the inside of her hand and smiled and she couldn’t stop herself as she leaned forward to kiss him again.
“Okay,” she whispered as she drifted off to sleep.
A sound of a voice startled Natasha awake. She cracked an eye open and saw that it was still dark and stilled when she felt an arm around her waist. Memories of last night came rushing back to her and she calmed down. Steve. She smiled and reached for her phone on her bedside table to check the time. 3:22 a.m. She was probably just hearing things.
The voice was back and her blood ran cold in her veins as her brain registered that distressed cry.
Natasha bolted out of bed, quickly grabbing her robe on the back of the chair before hastily wrapping it around her. She heard Steve stir behind her as she turned the knob on her door and walked out, leaving the door wide open.
Natasha looked up at the sound to see Sarah already standing at the front of the hallway leading up to her room. Her body shook as she cried and Natasha’s eyes grew wide when she lifted her face upon seeing her approach. Blood was flowing down Sarah’s nostrils, making its way to her jaw, and down her chin. The front of her purple pajama top was soaked and darkening with her blood and her hands were already stained red.
Natasha recognized Steve’s alarmed tone from behind her, but she was already running across the suite as fast as her legs would take her.
She was too late.
Sarah fell to the floor unconscious and Natasha heard her own scream.
Steve never knew what to think of his eidetic memory. It seemed like a blessing, especially in his line of work; one glance at a building’s schematic before a mission and he knew exactly where to go. It was also useful to him as an artist when he wanted to put to paper the nitty-gritty of the terrain he’d laid eyes on for only a second. But then, being able to recall vividly everything he’s ever seen like it was happening in real time was also a curse. There’s a plethora of things he wished he could forget but couldn’t. The gruesome images of war. Bucky falling off the train. The Chitauri coming through the large hole in the sky.
And then, there were the events of only hours ago.
They were all so fresh in his mind that he felt like he was reliving them all over again – every detail, every image, every emotion. He could still see the faint light peering through the open door of Natasha’s bedroom as he sat up in bed, still feel the smooth hardwood under his feet as he padded down the hallway and saw the snug cotton of her robe from where she stood at the end with her back to him. And then, like he was standing there all over again, he could still feel the fear coursing through his veins as he saw the crimson of Sarah’s blood as it pooled in the center of her shirt before her knees buckled and she fell to the ground unconscious.
Everything happened so quickly after that, but his mind catalogued each and every detail regardless. The sound of Natasha’s piercing scream as she ran towards their daughter and gathered her in her arms. The weight of Sarah’s bloody, lifeless body as he picked her up and ran to the elevator. The looks of horror on all their friends’ faces as they ran down the hallway of the infirmary. The way Sarah’s body jerked as Bruce quite literally shocked the life back into her with a defibrillator. Once. Twice.
Steve couldn’t remember ever feeling more relieved as he and Natasha watched the flat line on the monitor rise as Sarah’s pulse picked up and her heart started beating again. But it was short lived, lasting but a second to allow them a moment to breathe as Bruce turned to them with a heartsick expression to utter, “She’s in a coma.”
Steve felt his world stand still at Bruce’s words. Vaguely, he was aware that the doctor was somberly telling them that he’d be back when he got the test results back. Vaguely, he heard the voices of the others as Bruce stepped out, and then the click of the door as it closed behind him. Steve’s eyes closed then, and he shook his head as he fought the feeling that was permeating through his being as he stood frozen. This feeling was one he knew all too well. He felt it when his mother had passed. When he watched his best friend fall off the train. When he woke up in a new century with no one. When he found out who the Winter Soldier really was. And again when Sam told him Natasha had left. It was ruthless, unyielding, demanding that every bit of it be felt.
Photographic memory? A curse, he decided.
“Do you think she’s in pain?”
Steve’s eyes snapped open and landed on Natasha as her voice broke through the tense silence in the room. She was standing by the side of Sarah’s bed, her posture visibly rigid even under the thick material of her robe. Her arms were folded across her chest and her lips were pressed firmly in a hard line as she watched the ventilators next to Sarah’s bed pump up and down. Steve sighed and ran a hand tiredly through his hair. “Bruce said she wasn’t.”
If his answer appeased her even by the smallest bit, he couldn’t tell. Natasha’s expression remained stoic, the infamous mask of the Black Widow back in place. The distance between them seemed to become too much and he moved to stand next to her, resting a hand on her arm, but she flinched away. “Natasha-“
She shook her head. “This is it.”
Her words were spoken so softly that if it weren’t for his enhanced hearing, he wouldn’t have caught it. His brows furrowed in confusion as he moved to stand in front of her to put his hands on her arms. “This is what?”
“My punishment,” she said, her eyes refusing to meet his. “For all the red in my ledger. For all the darkness I’ve inflicted on the world. For taking Sarah away from you. This is it.”
“Nat, no. Don’t-“
“I didn’t want her.”
This time, it was his turn to flinch away almost like she’d shocked him with her Widow’s Bite. Her words stopped the comforting ones that were about to make its way out of his mouth as her eyes locked on his and he recognized the glimmer of emotion swimming in her pools of green. Guilt. “What?”
“I thought about it. So many times when I was alone.” Steve watched her as she thought back to the memories. She tried to force her expression to exude detachment, but she couldn’t. She shook her head and swallowed. “I thought, you didn’t know and I was never built to be a mother, so I was probably doing this kid a favor.”
Steve stood frozen in shock. “What stopped you?”
Natasha sighed and looked up to the ceiling, and Steve could see that her eyes had gotten glassy. “I felt her kick for the first time.” She uncrossed her arms and used the back of her left hand to wipe away the stray tear that made it down her face. “I was scared and alone and cold to the bone and just at my lowest point, but it was like she just knew. She wanted me to know that she was there and that she would love me regardless of what I’ve done.” Her voice cracked on the last word, and the tears fell freely from her eyes. “It was just so pure and it reminded me that she was a part of you and that the world needed more goodness.” Her eyes finally met his and his heart broke at the pain he saw in them. “I knew even if you didn’t know about her… I just couldn’t hurt you anymore. Not that way.” Natasha let a hand fall to Sarah’s on the bed as she entwined her fingers with her daughter’s. “Having her is the only good thing I’ve ever done. She doesn’t deserve this! I can’t lose her, Steve. I can’t!”
Natasha’s body shook with sobs, and though he was still taken aback by her earlier admission, Steve moved to envelop her in his arms. She resisted at first, using her fists to push his chest away, but his embrace was firm and unyielding. Eventually, she gave in and sobbed into the crook of his neck. “God, Steve, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”
“Hey,” Steve said, running a hand through her hair as he held her even closer. He took her face between his hands and thumbed away the tears. “We’re not going to lose her, okay?” Natasha’s head shook in his hands as if she was about to disagree, but he was relentless. “We’re going to figure this out,” he said firmly, his eyes directly on hers. “She’s you and me, Nat. She’s our daughter. And if there’s one thing you and I don’t do is give up.”
Another tear made its way down Natasha’s cheek before she gave Steve a reluctant nod and fell back into his embrace.
Steve watched Natasha as she slept with her head in his lap. Sometime after she’d broken down in his arms, he’d carefully maneuvered them to the cot next to Sarah’s bed and convinced her to lay down with a promise that he’d keep an eye on Sarah. He ran his fingers repeatedly through her silky locks as she breathed evenly and sighed. He knew how strong and resilient this woman was, but for the first time since she’d come back into his life, he saw the fatigue in her features that went beyond the physical. He recognized it because he felt it too, the emotional pain that weighed him down in every aspect, making him feel heavy and uneasy inside from the events of the past three weeks. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what it’s been like for her to shoulder these burdens all on her own for years.
The bravado he’d had in front of Natasha only moments ago was starting to crack. He didn’t lie, he truly believed that somehow Sarah would pull through, but he couldn’t help the dread and helplessness that was crushing him deep down as well. He needed a breather, he knew, and moved gently to untangle himself from Natasha without waking her so he could make it out of the room and into the hallway before his emotions overwhelmed him. Once out, he pressed his back against the wall and tipped his head back as he let out a heavy breath.
This feeling, being scared, was such a foreign concept to him. He was Captain America after all, and in being so, he’d encountered some of the most gruesome things in the world. Those things had made him feel anger, repulsion, and outright disgust, but none of them had ever really made him feel scared. He’d defeated Nazis, foiled some of the most destructive plans by the most despicable villains, defeated an alien army, and stopped illegal human experimentation being conducted by ill-willed scientists. He’d toed the line of death several times, even succumbed to it once, but even as the Valkyrie descended lower and lower until it eventually crashed into the ice, he never truly felt scared. He had accepted his fate. He had made his choice. He was Captain America, he was brave and valorous and the epitome of strength. He would do anything for the greater good because he believed that no matter what, good would always triumph over evil.
But this was different.
As Captain America, he was The Man With The Plan. He was the most brilliant military strategist the US Army has ever had and the capable leader of the Avengers on the battlefield. He always knew what to do even when his plan had to be formulated on the spot. But now, all that meant nothing because this wasn’t a battle Captain America could fight his way out of. This wasn’t some mission where he needed to device a strategy to successfully complete. There wasn’t a bad guy to neutralize or a secret organization to put a stop to. No, this wasn’t something Captain America was never trained for or equipped to handle. This was nature. Science. This was something for the man behind the shield, the heart and soul that fueled the bravery and goodness and truly made him the best soldier the world has ever seen.
This was something meant for Steve Rogers to tackle.
But right now, at this very moment, Steve Rogers was downright terrified.
“You look like hell.”
Steve opened his eyes to see Sam standing before him. His friend offered him a small smile along with his light jab, but even he could tell it was empty. He sighed. “Feel like it too.”
Sam nodded and handed him a pair of sweats and a hoodie. “Figured you might get a little cold.”
Steve looked down to appraise his current attire. When he woke to an empty bed and a door wide open, he only really had the mind to put on his boxers and undershirt. And through the chaos of the last couple of hours, the cold of the early morning hadn’t really bothered him until Sam brought it up. “Thanks,” he said, taking the garments from Sam. If his friend noticed how scarcely he was dressed, he said nothing of it to which Steve was glad. Though, he was pretty sure between his current state and Natasha’s robe, the others had already deduced what they’d done as they watched them carry Sarah into the infirmary hours ago. Not that he was ashamed, and not that there was anything to be ashamed of. He stood to put the clothes in his hand over the ones he was already wearing and took a seat on the bench across.
Sam followed his lead and angled himself so he was looking at him. “What’s going through your mind?” he asked. “Besides the obvious.”
Steve sat silently for a moment, contemplating whether or not to voice his concerns. “For as long as I can remember, all I wanted was to do what was right,” he started. “Fight bullies. Serve my country. Protect people… Other than that, I didn’t think there was anything else I could ever want.” He paused for a second, as if he was letting himself come to terms with what he was saying. “And then all of this happened…” He shook his head in disbelief. “This is just something I didn’t know I wanted, you know? Kids, family… that all seemed to go out the window the second I plunged into the ice.” He turned to Sam with a pained expression. “And now there’s nothing I want more than to be her father.” His chest heaved with a sob as he put his head in his hands. “God, Sam, she’s only known of me as her dad for hours.”
Next to him, Sam winced at the devastation in his voice. He desperately wanted to say something to console his friend, his Captain, the one person who never cracked no matter how much pressure he was under, but he came up empty. What could he possibly say to alleviate the pain and misery Steve felt of having his daughter in this much peril? He didn’t know the future, so he didn’t want to offer false hope. Steve deserved better than that. Letting out his own sigh, he settled on placing an assuring hand on his back as he let the man give in to a much-needed catharsis.
A soft knock roused Steve from his brief, restless slumber. He turned his head towards the door as it opened to reveal Clint, who silently showed him the duffel bag in his hand before putting it down next to the door. Steve nodded at the archer, lifting a finger to his lips as he gestured to Natasha’s sleeping form sprawled across his chest. Across the room, Clint nodded in understanding as Steve carefully lifted Natasha’s head off him and set it down on a pillow. He gave both Sarah and Natasha one last glance before he stood and followed Clint out into the hall.
“Sam said he only had the passcode to your suite so I brought some clothes for Tasha,” Clint explained as Steve closed the door behind him.
Steve nodded gratefully. “Thanks.”
“Any change?” Clint asked, the concern evident on his face.
“No,” he said as he ran a hand tiredly over his face. “She made it through the night, but she’s still comatose.”
“She’s shaken,” Steve admitted. “Everything just happened so fast.”
Clint nodded and looked him straight in the eye. “We’re all here if you guys need anything.”
“We know,” Steve said. “Thank you.”
“Listen, Cap, uh…” Clint mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. “I know this is a bad time, but Hill needs to see you upstairs in the command center.”
A look of confusion painted Steve’s face. “What for?”
“She wouldn’t tell me.”
“I can’t leave,” Steve said exasperatedly as he ran a hand through his hair.
“I know,” Clint sighed. “But from what I could tell it seemed urgent.”
Steve gave him a look of disbelief. “Things are urgent here too, Barton.”
“I know,” Clint repeated. “Look, Hill knows how important it is that you be here so I don’t think she’d ask that you come see her if it weren’t important.” Steve still didn’t look convinced, so he went on. “I’ll stay here and keep watch,” he offered. “I swear I’ll come get you if anything changes.”
Steve stood there for another second as he considered Clint’s argument before sighing. “Be back as soon as I can.”
Steve waited for Clint to close the door to Sarah’s room before he made his way over to the elevator in long strides. He alerted JARVIS of his destination as he leaned against the clear glass wall. As the elevator went up floor by floor, he silently prayed that this wasn’t another mission. While he couldn’t exactly say no if the world really needed him, part of him knew that he was too compromised to think clearly out on the field. He’d be a liability and probably hurt himself out there, and that wasn’t something he could afford to add to the already growing list of problems they had to deal with. The doors of the elevator opened as he finally reached the floor of the facility’s command center and he hastily made his way out.
“This better be important,” he said when he saw Hill sitting at the head of the long glass conference table in the center of the room. Next to her, Steve was confused to see the familiar blonde locks of Sharon Carter. “Sharon,” he greeted before turning to Hill. “What’s the situation?”
Hill sighed and Steve knew it couldn’t be anything good if their de facto handler looked frustrated herself. She hit a button on the panel next to her and images began to fill the screens around them. “These surfaced this morning. The media is going crazy.”
Steve looked at the slew of images on the various screens around the command center and froze. There was picture after picture of Sarah’s party last night. Sarah with Tony. Sarah playing with Cooper and Lila. Thor dancing with Sarah. Him holding Sarah as she cut the cake. “How-“ he began, but an image on the screen to his right caught his attention. It was a cover of a tabloid with a picture of him with Sarah in his lap watching the skit last night as the headline above read: CAPTAIN AMERICA’S SECRET CHILD.
His anger boiled, and there was nothing he could do to stop it from bleeding into his tone. “Who did this?”
“We don’t know yet,” Hill admitted. He knew it wasn’t her fault, but Steve was so angry that he had to bite his tongue to avoid lashing out on her. “Everyone at the party signed an NDA, so we’re going to start parsing through each and every agent there. We haven’t issued a statement, but I’ve asked Carter to help find the mole.”
“So you don’t have a solid lead?” he asked.
This time, it was Sharon who spoke. “Not yet. But I called in some favors from my contacts at the FBI so we could obtain the images from the tabloids and based on the metadata from whoever sent it to them, we have the make and model of the camera used.”
“JARVIS is running a trace now to see who purchased it and cross checking it with all the names on the guest list from last night,” Hill explained. “We’re on top of this, Cap. I just wanted to let you know before you found out from some Tweet.”
Steve nodded. “I need updates every step of the way.”
“We’ll send them to you on your phone as soon as we have it,” Hill said before her phone rang. She read the name on the screen before she looked back at Steve. “It’s the FBI.”
Steve nodded at her as he watched her retreating form leave the room to take the call. Add this to the list of things to deal with, he thought. His eyes fell to the picture of Sarah on the screen laughing as she twirled in her princess gown and let out a sigh.
“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” Sharon said. Steve was startled by her voice, completely forgetting that he wasn’t alone in the room. Sharon noticed and gave him a small smile. “Sorry.”
“No, no,” he mumbled, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, I’m a little out of it. Thank you for your help.”
“Any time,” Sharon said, standing from her seat to move next to him. She looked to where his eyes were fixed and smiled again. “She’s beautiful, Steve.”
Steve’s lips tugged into a grin. “She really is,” he said softly, not even bothering to hide the pride and fondness in his voice. “She’s…”
“Every bit you?” Sharon offered.
Steve chuckled. “I had no control over that.”
“I never said it was a bad thing,” she said. Steve turned to look at her and saw the congenial yet rueful smile on her lips. “Guess we’ll have to take another rain check on that cup of coffee, huh?”
Steve sighed as he looked down. “Geez, Sharon-“
“Hey,” she said, putting a hand on his arm. “I was just kidding.”
Steve grimaced. “No, uh… I’m sorry. I appreciated all your help when we were looking for Bucky and I-“
“Steve,” Sharon said firmly. “It’s okay.” Steve looked at her and saw the sincerity in her eyes. “You got your best girl back.” Her gracious smile was unwavering. “And gained another one. Despite the circumstances, it’s nice to see you happy.”
“Thank you,” he said with a nod.
Sharon smiled and leaned up to give him a kiss on the cheek. “Take care of them.”
“I will,” he promised.
Sharon gave him one last grin before she headed towards the elevator to leave him alone with his thoughts.
Steve opened the door to Sarah’s room to see Clint and Natasha talking by the window and the two spies turned to him as the sound of the door clicking closed announced his presence. Natasha gave him a small smile and he gave her one in return. He was glad that she had gotten comfortable and changed into jeans and a plain white shirt, but shifted his sight to Clint. “Mind giving us a minute?”
“Sure,” Clint said before looking at Natasha. “I’ll get us some coffees.”
Once Clint was out the door, Steve turned his attention back to Natasha who was now brushing a few strands of hair out of Sarah’s face. “Natasha-“
“Hill sent me the pictures.” Natasha didn’t even turn her eyes away from Sarah as she interrupted him.
Steve was surprised by the lack of urgency in her tone and stepped further into the room to stand on the other side of the bed. “It’s not just leaked pictures. The media-“
“They were going to find out about her eventually.” Natasha looked at him then, and Steve was dumbfounded by the absence of panic in her eyes.
“How are you so calm about this?” he asked incredulously.
“I knew what I was risking when I brought her here,” Natasha explained. “She’s your daughter, Steve. One look at her and there’s no denying that. You’re a public figure and with that comes the spotlight. This obviously wasn’t how I wanted people to find out about her, but things have rarely turned out the way I’ve envisioned them.” She walked around the bed to stand in front of him before crossing her arms. “But I know you know that because those are usually your lines.” She raised a brow at him before asking, “What’s really bothering you?”
Steve sighed and pointed to their surroundings. “I can’t protect her from this.” Frustration was rapidly leaking into his speech as he stuttered. “I can’t… there isn’t…” He took a deep breath to collect himself before he spoke again. “I’m not a doctor so there isn’t anything I can do to help her right now. But these pictures?” He shook his head in disappointment as he looked down to the ground. “I could’ve done something about this.”
Natasha exhaled and lifted Steve’s chin with her finger. “It was a birthday party, Steve. We were all having fun and Pepper assured us that everyone there had signed an NDA. Moles, leaks… These things are way beyond our control.”
“I just feel so helpless, you know?”
“You know I do.” Natasha forced him to look at her then. “But like you said, we’ll find a way.” Her eyes filled with intense determination and Steve found himself sobered by it. “She’s our daughter.”
After a momentary pause, Steve nodded in acquiescence. Natasha was about to turn away when he sighed again. “Nat, wait,” he said as he reached for her. “There’s another thing...”
Natasha looked at him expectantly. “What is it?”
Steve grimaced like splinters were being plucked from under his nails. “When Sam and I were looking for Bucky… Sharon helped. She and I, I mean… I-“
“Are you two together?” she asked, her voice a little too calm.
“What?” Steve asked panicked. “No, no! If we were… Last night… I wouldn’t have-“ He tried to regain his composure before he sighed. “We kissed, Nat. We were at a dead end in our search for Bucky and she was there and I… I’m sorry, I don’t know why I did it.”
Natasha couldn’t help the light chuckle that fell from her lips as she brought a hand up to his forehead to smooth the lines of his skin “If you keep grimacing, you’re face is going to end up like that forever.”
“Natasha, I’m being serious-“
Natasha shushed him with a finger to his lips. “I left, Steve. You had every right to see whomever you wanted.” He looked like he was about to protest, but she kept her finger in place. “Moving on? That was the most natural thing to do.” A sad smile made its way to her lips. “I lost you, along with every right to be angry with you, the minute I put a foot out the door without saying goodbye. You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“But that’s just it,” he said once she lifted her finger. “I’m still yours, Nat. I was then and I am now.” Both his hands came to rest on her arms as he pulled her a tad closer. “I won’t find anyone better when I’ve already had the best.” He raised his hand to run a thumb back and forth over her cheek as he whispered, “You’re everything, Nat. Always have been, always will be. You and Sarah-”
Natasha cut him off by pressing her lips to his. Rising on the tips of her toes, she wound her arms around his neck to deepen the kiss and he pulled her closer by putting a hand to the small of her back and another behind her head. “I don’t deserve you,” she whispered into his lips when they pulled away.
Steve shook his head in disagreement, the tips of their noses rubbing against each other at their proximity. “I’m the one who doesn’t deserve you.”
Steve was about to lean in again, but the door to Sarah’s room quickly swung open. Bruce and Tony entered with a distraught look on their faces that prompted Steve to step away from Natasha. “What’s wrong?”
“You guys have to see this,” Bruce said as Tony went to press a button on the wall to reveal a screen. The inventor swiped at the touch screen as Bruce went on. “We were in the lab waiting for the tests to process before Helen got here, and then this came up on Sarah’s latest genetic map.” Bruce turned to the screen and gave Tony a look when he saw it was still empty.
Tony sighed as he pressed a few more icons. “Sorry, guess this one’s a little buggy.”
“What did you see?” Natasha asked anxiously.
“I can’t explain it,” Bruce said flustered. “It’s easier if you see. Tony?”
“One sec,” Tony said, holding a finger up.
Steve turned to Bruce. “Does it have something to do with what’s causing Sarah’s coma?”
“I think so,” Bruce nodded. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Before, the serums looked like they were just fighting each other and now the red markers of Natasha’s-“
“Shit!” Tony muttered, causing everyone to look his way. Steve watched as the screen Tony was working on went haywire as pixels of every color appeared across the entire screen. “JARVIS! What’s going on?”
“Sir,” answered the AI, but his voice lacked the usual smoothness to it. “My” buzz. “protocols” buzz. “are being” buzz. “disabled.”
“By whom?” Tony asked angrily. “Activate backup security measures!”
JARVIS’ voice faded as the screen went entirely black. Frustrated, Tony hit the side with his palm, but took a surprised step back when it turned on again to what seemed to be a live stream. A man appeared then, his skin pale and his hair black as night. “Hello, Natalia,” he greeted, his accent thick and guttural.
Steve turned to see Natasha’s horrified look as she stood next to him and let out a surprised gasp. “Ivan,” she whispered.
The man on the screen gave her a sinister smile that reached his dull, gray eyes. “It’s been a long, long time, malyutka.”
“JARVIS! Where are we on those back up measures?” Tony screamed.
“Don’t bother, Mr. Stark.” Ivan said tauntingly. “Your entire mainframe has been blown to dust.”
“What do you want?” Came Natasha’s angry voice.
“Straight to the point. That’s what I’ve always loved about you, Natalia.” Ivan said, and Steve could feel the goose bumps form on Natasha’s skin from where he had a hand on her arm. Ivan’s smile grew bigger. “How is dear little Sarah?”
Steve felt his stomach sink at the mention of his daughter. “How do you know about her?” Natasha barked, instinctively backing towards the bed to shield Sarah.
“Oh, Natalia.” Ivan shook his head mockingly. “Did you really think you could come back to our home and not have anyone recognize you?”
Our home? It took a second for Steve to realize what he meant. Russia.
Natasha shook her head in disbelief. “You were dead! The Red Room, the KGB, they’re all gone!”
Ivan burst out in laughter. “That’s what we wanted everyone to believe.”
Steve just about had enough of the man’s antics. “What did you do to our daughter?”
“Ah, Captain America,” Ivan said as he acknowledged his presence. “America’s favorite weapon.” Steve stepped closer to the screen as his anger boiled further. “I always wondered what could have reversed the effects of our graduation ceremony. Now it all makes sense.”
“What did you do to Sarah?” Steve asked, his hands clenching into fists at his side.
“Nothing that can’t be reversed by this.” Ivan held up a small vial containing a purple substance and smiled. “You should watch your daughter more carefully when you’re at the park, Natalia.” The old man was obviously enjoying besting all of them and it only made this more sickening. “And you all ought to be more careful about who you invite to your parties. Do you know how easy it was to get one of the waiters to discreetly take pictures? To convince one of the caterers to slip our little concoction into Sarah’s plate?”
A sense of complete and utter violation rushed through Steve and he lost his voice for a moment as he shared a horrified look with Natasha. The pictures were nothing but a smokescreen and they failed to see right through it. Even worse, his skin prickled at the realization that they’ve been watching both Natasha and Sarah for years.
Behind Steve, Bruce spoke up in outrage. “What did you give her?”
“Just something to strengthen our serum in her veins, dear Doctor Banner.” Ivan shrugged. “It should’ve worked faster than it did, but seeing as Captain Rogers’ serum is also involved, I’m excited to see what happens. I know you and Mr. Stark already saw what it can do. Once the formula kicks into overdrive, it’ll attack every cell in her body until one by one her organs fail.”
“You sick son of a bitch!” Tony shouted.
The joy in Ivan’s laughter was sickening. “You can still save her,” he offered before looking directly at Natasha. “You know where to find me.” He brought his wrist up so they could see his watch as he tapped on it. “I’d decide quickly though, you don’t know how much time your little girl has left.”
As if on cue, Sarah went into a seizure as her body shook violently and the machines around her beeped frantically. Bruce, Tony, and Natasha ran to her side and began to lower her bed. From the screen, Ivan’s laughter echoed through the room loudly and tauntingly until Steve rammed his fist into the screen, shattering it to a million pieces. The sound died down then, only to be replaced by one that caused the eyes of everyone in the room to widen as panic kicked into full gear.
Steve felt his heart sink as he turned around.
The line on Sarah’s heart monitor had gone flat.
“Natasha, you have to move!”
Above the nauseating sound of Sarah’s heartbeat going flat on the monitor, Natasha heard Tony’s panicked voice. She felt the firm grip of his hand on her arm as he tried to get her away from Sarah’s bedside and the urgent push that followed as he moved it further up to her shoulder, but she refused to budge. She stood her ground, her lips parting with the urge to scream, but nothing came out. Her hand reached out to touch Sarah’s convulsing one, but before she could, a pair of arms wrapped around her from behind and lifted her away.
Her surroundings blurred and she wasn’t sure if it was because she was struggling in the arms of whomever it was that was holding her back. She probably was because she felt the hold on her tighten and a voice attempt to soothe her and snap her back to reality. Her mind registered the voice.
But it didn’t matter that she was in the arms of the only person who could ever make her feel safe. She thrashed harder in his arms in an attempt to free herself, but his hold was like a vice. She had nothing on his binding strength. She tried for her voice again, but like before, it failed her. Her eyes were wide as she kept them trained on the sight in front of her. Sarah’s body was no longer shaking, but the line on the monitor was still flat as Bruce performed CPR and looked at Tony across from him. “I need defib, now!”
Tony scrambled for the machine, pressing a few buttons as he hurriedly pulled it toward the bed and waited for Bruce’s instructions. The doors burst open then, and Helen Cho came scrambling in with Clint just behind her. The doctor immediately ran to Tony’s side to take over as the inventor dutifully stepped away. She pressed on a switch and the machine made a pulsing noise. “Charging to 180!”
Natasha watched as Helen took the paddles and pressed it down to Sarah’s chest. The little girl’s body arched off the bed, and this time, she heard her voice pierce through the deafening tone of all the machines around her. “Sarah!”
Helen’s voice was even but forceful. “No change. Charging to 200!”
She must have thrashed particularly hard in Steve’s hold at that, because she felt the both of them jolt forward as she caught him off guard. Suddenly, Clint was right in front of her and gripping her face. “Tasha, look at me. Breathe. Breathe.”
She tried to concentrate on the sound of her best friend’s voice, but she zeroed in on Helen’s words. “No change. Charging to 250!”
Tears blurred her vision as her head shook in Clint’s hands. “Sarah!” she cried out. Her knees gave out on her and she found herself sagging to the floor, taking Steve, who refused to let her go, down with her. “Sarah, please!”
“We have a pulse!”
Natasha felt Steve’s exhaled breath skim the top of her head at Bruce’s words. A strangled sob escaped her chest at the sound of Sarah’s steady heartbeat coming back and she immediately scrambled out of Steve’s hold and to her feet as she hastily made her way to her daughter. She haphazardly pushed past Bruce in the process, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. Not right now. She collapsed down onto the chair next to Sarah’s bed and raised her little hand to her lips as her eyes closed in anguish and hot tears rolled down her cheeks. Next to her, Steve knelt to press a kiss to her temple, and she noted how his face was wet with tears as well.
On the other side of the bed, Helen was still meticulously studying one of the monitors keeping track of Sarah’s vitals. She reached for the StarkPad on the table and frantically went through her earlier readings before furrowing her eyebrows. Bruce took notice of her troubled expression and moved to step closer to her. “What is it, Helen?”
The sound of Bruce’s concerned voice caused Natasha to open her eyes and turn to him and Helen. Everyone in the room watched carefully as Helen handed Bruce the tablet in her hands and moved toward Sarah’s head and leaned down. Bruce peered over her shoulder as she gently brought her thumb down to lift Sarah’s eyelid and gasped. “Jaundice.”
Natasha’s hand flew to cover her mouth at that, and she saw Steve stand from where he was kneeling next to her to appraise the two doctors before them. “What does that mean?”
Helen shared a worried glance with Bruce before she sighed. “It means her liver’s failing.”
A tense silence lingered in the air for what felt like forever before Natasha heard Steve find his voice and start asking a slew of questions. Helen and Bruce took turns answering, and occasionally Tony and Clint joined the conversation, but all their voices blurred into nothing but noise in her head as she stared at Sarah. Physically, it was obvious that her health had quickly degraded in only a matter of hours. There was a sullen sheen over the usual porcelain of her skin and gone was the rosy color of her cheeks and the golden shine of her curls. And Natasha wasn’t sure if it was because she had actually lost weight or because so many tubes and wires crowded her, but her tiny body looked impossibly smaller; it was probably both.
Natasha’s heart ached at the very sight of her sweet, vibrant daughter reduced to nothing but a sick husk subjected to all this pain and suffering. And for no reason other than the fact that she was her daughter. The idea alone caused her agony to escalate into roaring anger and right then and there, she made up her mind. She wasn’t going to let Sarah suffer the consequences of the life she lived before she had her. Not anymore. The people who had done this to her weren’t going to get away with this.
The Red Room wasn’t going to take anything else from her.
She gave Sarah one last glance before she set her hand back gently on the bed. She rose from her seat and was out of the door before anyone in the room could blink as she determinedly stalked down the corridor of the infirmary and toward the elevator at the end.
She didn’t look back even as she heard Steve’s voice call out to her. His booted steps tapping against the linoleum floor grew louder behind her and she tried to make a run for the elevator, but his reflexes were faster as he caught her arm and moved her to face him.
Her stare was cold and sharp. “Let go of me!”
“Where are you going?”
“To end this,” she said through gritted teeth. She took one look at the pained expression on Steve’s face before she softened her own. “Will you watch her?”
Steve’s eyes widened. “I’m not letting you go alone!”
Natasha closed her eyes. She was a fool to think he was going to make this easy. “This is my mess, Steve. Please let me fix it.”
“Your mess is my mess-“
“No, it’s not!”
“It became my mess the second they decided to hurt my daughter!” Natasha stared up at him in shock. Years of raising Sarah alone had made her accustomed to singlehandedly figuring things out on her own that it never once occurred to her during the whirlwind of the past few hours to factor him into all of this. She was so lost in her own pain that she missed the boiling rage and suffering evident in his eyes. “I meant it when I said I wasn’t going to let you run anymore. I’m coming with you.”
Natasha sighed. “We can’t just leave her.”
“She’s in the safest place she can be.” Natasha knew he was right. Though the very thought of leaving their daughter when she was in such grave a condition hurt her to her very core, she knew this was something only she could make right. And between four Avengers and two of the best doctors in the world, there was no place else she could think of leaving Sarah at a time like this. She nodded.
Steve took her hand and pulled her away from the direction of the elevator. “Come on.”
Natasha was confused as he led them to the other end of the hallway and through a different door. There was another elevator already waiting for them, one she’d never been in, let alone knew existed. She watched as Steve punched in a code before the elevator began its descend. “Where are we going?”
“If you’re gonna fight a war, you got to wear a uniform.”
“I don’t have one,” she said, her eyebrows furrowed in further confusion. “Not anymore.”
Steve said nothing as the elevator came to the halt and the glass doors opened. Natasha followed him as he stepped out and walked further into the room. One by one the lights went on as the motion sensors kicked in, and Natasha saw that they were in the arsenal. The room was sleek and modern just like the rest of the facility. Various weapons lined the walls and filled the numerous tables around the room, and she had no doubt Tony had made and improved each and every one of them. The arsenal was divided into sections for each Avenger. Sam. Clint. Bruce. Thor. Tony. As they walked past Steve’s, she saw his suit in one of the glass cabinets, the red, white, and blue of it a little less daunting than it is when he was actually in it.
They turned a corner and stepped into a different section all the way in the back. This one had the same bench in the middle and a mirror in the far corner, and still looked very much part of the room with the glass and chrome accents. But unlike the other sections, Natasha couldn’t tell whom this one belonged to. While the glass cabinets in Steve’s section were clear as crystal, the ones in here were frosted to conceal whatever was inside. She watched as Steve moved to the panel on the wall to activate the retinal scan and gasped when all the glass around her cleared.
“I guess we all believed someday you’d come back to us,” Steve whispered from where he stood.
Natasha turned to him in shock and saw the small smile on his face as he leaned against the wall. She turned back to the section – her section – and walked further in, laying eyes on all the familiar weapons in the glass case on the left that she’d left behind when she walked away from them all those years ago. Her favorite pistols, her shock disks, her Widow’s Bite – they had kept them all. They looked like they’ve been improved recently, and there were even a few new additions. She turned her attention to the center wall and walked toward it, placing a hand on the glass as she stared at the black Kevlar of her suit.
“I’ll meet you out there,” she heard Steve say behind her. She nodded without looking at him, and heard his footsteps as he walked away.
Natasha gently pushed down on the glass to unlock it and it made a whizzing noise as the case opened. Her hands moved quickly to rid the mannequin of her suit and she reveled in the familiar feeling of the dark material underneath her touch. She stripped off her clothes as if she was on autopilot and deftly got into her suit, working the zippers and belts like it hadn’t been years since she last donned it. When she was dressed, she turned to her weapons and secured a pistol in the holster on each of her thighs, loaded her belts with her disks before she lifted what seemed to be a pair of batons. She pressed down on the button on the center of the handles, and it lengthened and buzzed with blue light. Impressed, she pressed down on the button again to turn them off before securing them on her belt as well. She reached for her Widow’s Bite and locked each one onto her wrists and heard the familiar zing of electricity as it charged.
When she was fully armed, Natasha moved to stand in front of the mirror in the corner of the room before letting out a sigh. From the moment she decided to leave, she had pushed herself into a world where knowing what her next step would be was impossible. She likened it working a mission without intel as she tried to navigate pregnancy and motherhood all on her own while also trying to stay off the grid. It was uncomfortable to say the least; she could never be one step ahead like she was used to and she never had the luxury of knowing if what she was doing was right. But at this very moment, as she stood in front of the mirror, she was comforted by her reflection. The black leather of her suit fit her like a second skin and she felt empowered by the way it emphasized her strength. She let her eyes roam over the improvements Tony had undoubtedly made. The blue lining on the edges. Her signature hourglass belt that rested on her waist that felt more accessible. The gloves that now fully encased her hands. Her suit may have changed, but she found comfort in it. This was a sight she knew. This was Black Widow – accoutered to the nines and prepared to complete her mission.
Only it wasn’t.
On the left sleeve of her suit, the Avengers emblem was stitched in silver, contrasting brightly against the black material of her suit. It was a reminder, she realized, that even if she was Black Widow and about to confront the demons of her past, those demons couldn’t control her anymore. She was no longer the cold, calculating murderer they had molded her to be. She didn’t kill for the sake of killing and she didn’t blindly follow the orders of the despicable handlers that had manipulated her talents for the worse. That Black Widow was gone, buried. Things were different now. She was different now. She was an Avenger. She was Sarah’s mother. Her skills were still deadly, of that there was no doubt, but they were no longer used to harm. She used them to fight for what was right, to protect the innocent against the evils of the world, and most of all, to protect her daughter at all costs.
And she really did mean at all costs.
Natasha appraised her reflection one last time before she turned and made her way back to the front of the room. At the center of the arsenal, she saw Steve standing with his back to her. He was fully suited, save for the cowl that he held between his gloved fingers. His shield was securely on his back, the surface of the Vibranium shining and accenting the star at the center. He heard her approach and turned to face her, a smile spreading across his face as he saw her fully geared up.
“You ready?” he asked.
Natasha nodded and followed him back into the elevator. She stood in one corner, her back leaning against the rail as she watched him test the magnetic strip on his arm. “That’s new,” she remarked as the elevator rose, the silence between them a little too suffocating for her liking.
Steve looked at her sheepishly. “Tony designed it after he had to fish my shield out of the Potomac.”
Natasha nodded, not entirely up to reliving those memories at the moment. “I haven’t flown a jet in years,” she admitted quietly.
“I’ve learned a few things since the last time we were on a mission together.”
Natasha knew this was hardly the time, but she needed a way to calm the anxiety that was coiling in her stomach, and there was one way she knew how. She smirked. “I’ve noticed.”
Steve’s eyes darkened for a split second at that, and Natasha’s pride swelled just a bit. Steve shook his head to gather his composure before he gave her a smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t plunge it into the ice this time.”
“I think you should leave the piloting to me.”
Natasha was momentarily lost in his smile that she didn’t even realize that the elevator had stopped and the doors had opened. It was only when she heard a familiar voice interrupt their moment did she look away from Steve to see Clint standing in front of them already fully suited with his bow across his back. “Took you two long enough.”
Steve ignored his comment as he stepped out of the elevator. “What are you doing here, Barton?”
“Did you really think we’d let you two idiots go out on your own?” Natasha turned to her left to see Tony standing there as he secured his Iron Man armor-identifying bracelet on his wrist. Next to him, Thor and Sam were combat ready, the former looking every bit the god he was in his armor and cape as he wielded Mjölnir in one hand and the latter already strapped into the Falcon suit.
Natasha shook her head as she looked at all of them. “I can’t ask any of you to do this.”
“You’re not asking,” Sam answered. “And neither are we. We’re coming with you.”
“You don’t understand. These people-“
Tony cut her off and the anger in his voice was hard to miss. “These people hurt Sarah.”
“And we do not take kindly to vile, repulsive beings who dare hurt an innocent babe,” Thor said. “Our babe.”
A hand on her arm caught her attention and Natasha turned to see Clint standing before her. “We’re family, Tasha,” he said. “We’re not letting you two fight this one on your own.”
Natasha looked helplessly at Steve who sighed. “We can’t all leave Sarah-“
“Who said anything about leaving her?” Tony asked with a knowing look.
Natasha looked at him like he was crazy. “We can’t keep her on the jet!”
“Oh, we’re not taking the jet.”
Natasha was shocked by the voice she hadn’t heard in years. She turned around and gasped as she saw the familiar form of a man decked out in all black leather. “Nick,” she whispered.
“Nice to see you again, Romanoff.” Fury smirked as he pointed a thumb behind him. As he did, one of the large gates of the hangar that led to the runway slowly lifted to reveal the SHIELD hellicarrier already up and running. “She’s dusty, but she’ll do.” Fury turned to both Steve and Natasha. “Banner and Cho already have her set up in the med bay,” he explained. “So you two can waste time arguing with us or we can go out there and show those sons of bitches what happens when you mess with us.”
The finality in Fury’s voice caused Natasha to look back at Steve. The two of them shared a determined look for a second before Steve nodded at all of them. “Let’s go.”
Natasha had to admit that it was strange being back inside the hellicarrier after so long. As they made it up the ramp and toward the command center, she noted that a few things had changed since she was last on it years ago when they were first building the team. It still looked sleek and efficient, the way all of SHIELD’s (or what used to be SHIELD) property tended to look, but with a few enhancements here and there. The long rectangular conference table was still at the center overlooking the panel of windows, and the room was still filled with various equipment and machinery, but there was an updated feel to all of it. Natasha also realized that the number of agents were down. There were a few techs manning a few computers, but there wasn’t the usual team of agents that usually accompanied them aboard. At the main control panel, Natasha saw Maria Hill standing with her back to them but grew confused when she saw that next to her, an unfamiliar figure stood with her blonde hair also tied up neatly in a bun.
“Ready for take off?” Fury asked ahead of them.
“Yes, boss,” Hill replied, turning to face them. The blonde next to her followed her lead and Natasha recognized her. Carter.
“Are you ever not working for him?” Tony asked Maria as he moved to take a seat around the conference table.
Hill ignored Tony’s jab and cocked her head toward Steve and Natasha. “I thought we might need a bigger ride.”
Next to her, Natasha watched as Steve nodded and turned to face Sharon. “This one’s off the books.”
Sharon scoffed. “I sure hope so,” she said. “I really don’t want the things I’m willing to do to these people on my record.” She turned to Natasha with a smile and an outreached hand. “Hi, I don’t think we’ve officially met. I’m Sharon.”
Natasha shook her hand. “Natasha.”
“I know,” Sharon said warmly. “You’re a legend among the trainees. It’s an honor, though I’m sorry we’re meeting under these circumstances.”
Natasha gave her a small smile. “Thank you for being here.”
Fury’s voice broke their little exchange. “What’s our play?”
“Saint Petersburg,” Natasha immediately answered. Clint shot her a look of both knowing and concern, but she ignored him.
“You sure that’s where they are?” Steve asked next to her.
“E.T.A.’s in two hours,” Fury said before turning to both her and Steve. “Sarah is in the med ward down that hall if you want to go see her. Banner and Cho are there right now.”
Before Natasha could reply, Tony spoke up. “Well then I’m going to use this time to figure out how the hell that bastard was able to hack into our mainframe.”
“I thought he just disabled JARVIS’ protocols?” Sharon asked.
Tony let out a sound of complete disgust. “Do you know how hard it is to get directly to JARVIS’ protocols?” he asked. “It’ll take me hours to do it on a good day. This went deeper.”
As the others joined into the conversation, Natasha looked to Steve and took his hand as they made their way over to the medical ward. They passed by several empty rooms before they saw Bruce and Helen inside the only one that was lit. Steve pushed down on the knob to enter.
“How is she?” he asked once they were inside.
“She’s still in a coma,” Bruce replied with a sigh. “Helen and I gave her something to fight the infection, but her liver’s slowly failing. She’s too weak to go under the knife, so whatever we have to do to get that vial, we have to do it quickly.”
Natasha was still as she stood by the foot of Sarah’s bed. “How long does she have?”
Helen was the first to respond. “Usually? A few days. But with the serums and whatever else they gave her, there’s no way to exactly know. Hours, maybe. We’re not sure. Doctor Banner and I are flying blind here.”
Steve’s voice was tight and low. “Where are you on the tests you ran?”
“The results should be in in a few minutes,” Bruce explained. “We just wanted to wait until you got here before we left.”
“You’ll call us when they’re ready?” Steve asked.
“Of course,” Bruce promised as he and Helen left them alone with Sarah.
Natasha watched the door close before she turned her attention back to Steve. He had walked to Sarah’s side and was now running his thumb over the backs of her tiny fingers, his face solemn as he looked at her frail face. Natasha’s hands itched to touch Sarah as well, but she kept her arms crossed, irrationally scared of hurting her daughter even more as she stood by the foot of the bed. She was certain that her heart couldn’t break even further, but the mere sight of Sarah this way did. She sighed. “These people…” she began. “Whatever they want, they’ll stop at nothing to get it.”
Steve turned to her, his expression set with tenacity. “They’re not going to get it. We’ll stop them.”
“I know that you’d give anything to do that,” she said. “But I need you to understand that Ivan and the people who’s working with him… the Red Room… They don’t care what they have to do to get what they set out for.” Her eyes shifted to Sarah again. “Who they have to hurt.” She looked back at him and saw the silver star on his chest that symbolized everything he stood for: Honor. Valor. Integrity. Everything the Red Room disregarded. “They will strip everything from you if it means they get what they want. Twist you until you don’t recognize yourself and push you to make decisions that go against everything you believe in.” She looked deeply into his eyes that mirrored the pain that drowned her own. “Are you ready for that?”
Steve sighed before he looked back at Sarah. “I would sacrifice my life to save the world,” he started. “I have.” He turned back to Natasha and took a step closer. “And if I had to do it all over again to protect the lives of the innocent, I would in a heartbeat because that’s who I am. I’d do it because it’s the right thing to do.” Natasha saw the amalgam of emotions in his eyes intensify with his words. “I don’t want to kill people, Nat. Not even when they’ve done atrocious things toward me. That’s not justice, that’s vengeance.” For a second, Natasha was afraid that he was backing out, that she’d successfully convinced him that he was walking straight into something he just couldn’t stomach, but he went on. “They can beat me, take everything I have, and sully everything that I stand for and I would still choose to seek the line of good amidst all the bad. But it’s different this time. Hurt my daughter?” he asked, shaking his head. “It genuinely scares me how far I am willing to go to make them pay for what they’ve done.”
Natasha moved to stand in front of him to cup his face between her hands. “You don’t have to do this, Steve.”
“I don’t see how I have a choice,” he said. “Not when our daughter is lying here fighting for her life.”
“So let me fix this on my own,” she all but begged. “Please, Steve, you don’t deserve to be tainted with their darkness.”
“And you do?” he challenged, breaking free of her hold.
“I already am.”
“You were,” he conceded. “But you’re not anymore. And I’m not going to stand by and watch you let your past define your future. I’m here now, Nat. You never have to fight alone ever again.”
God, he was too good to be true sometimes. Natasha stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, nuzzling her face into his chest as he tightened his embrace. “Okay,” she whispered, and he leaned down to kiss the crown of her head.
An eternity seemed to pass them by as they stood there in each other’s arms by their daughter’s bedside. It was only when they heard a knock on the door did they break away from each other. Steve yelled for the person on the other end to come in, and the door swung open to reveal Sharon. “Bruce wanted me to tell you guys that the tests should be ready in a minute,” she explained.
Natasha looked up at Steve. “Do you want to go?”
“I can stay here and watch her if you both want to go,” Sharon quickly offered before Steve could reply.
“You don’t have to,” came Natasha’s immediate response. She didn’t want to offend the woman, so she went on, “I mean, one of us could always conference in so you don’t have to sit here alone.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sharon said. “I don’t mind. You both should talk to Bruce. It’d be nice to have some peace and quiet for a little while.”
Natasha shared another look at Steve who nodded before turning to Sharon. “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“Take your time,” she said, moving to sit in the chair next to Sarah’s bed.
Natasha gave her daughter one last glance before she followed Steve out the door. They made their way through the long hall hand in hand in long strides. When they entered the command center, they saw Bruce and Helen standing in front of the largest screen on the far wall waiting for the results to load. Sam, Clint, and Thor were seated around the conference table while Tony was still busy on the computer to the right of the room. Hill and Fury stood by the main control panel of the carrier as they conversed.
“What do we have?” Steve said, announcing their arrival.
Bruce turned to answer him. “Just a second. We’re at ninety-seven percent.”
“I’m close here to,” Tony announced as he kept his eyes on the screen, his fingers deftly pushing down on the keyboard.
Natasha watched as the upload on the large screen completed and the image loaded onto the screen. In front of her, Helen gasped and it caused the panic in her to rise again. “What’s wrong?”
“Jesus Christ,” Bruce whispered. “That’s impossible.”
“What is it?” Steve asked, his voice tight.
Natasha studied the image on the screen. She’d seen it enough times to know that this was Sarah’s genome. Only unlike the last time, the red markers were unmistakably overwhelming the blue and multiplying by the second. “What’s happening?”
Bruce was in total disbelief. “Whatever they gave Sarah the first time at the park didn’t work because they didn’t know that she had Steve’s serum. Like Ivan said, it was made with the Red Room serum in mind. At most, it made the serums counteract each other. But this? This is too exact.”
Steve didn’t catch on. “What do you mean?”
Helen was slowly putting the pieces together and gasped in realization. “With the second concoction, they knew Steve’s serum was in her too.”
This time, it was Natasha who shook her head in disbelief. “That’s impossible,” she insisted, echoing Bruce’s earlier sentiment. “They didn’t know Steve was her father until Ivan hacked into the facility.”
“They must have found out somehow,” Bruce insisted. “The first time we mapped Sarah, we found out that she had both your serums. Steve’s was countering whatever damage yours was causing. They didn’t succeed the first time because they never factored the super soldier serum in. This time? This concoction knows exactly what proteins to destroy in order to get Sarah this sick. They knew we gave her an antidote.”
Steve refused to believe it. “But how? The only people who had access to Sarah’s genetic map are in this room.”
“I got it!” Tony shouted, standing from his seat as he directed everyone’s attention to another screen. “Someone accessed the mainframe from the facility and planted malware in it. That’s how they hacked us.” His fingers pressed down on a few more buttons. “And the mole is…” Everyone watched the screen as the credentials of whoever hacked into the system came up.
Steve gasped as he silently read the words.
07/02/16 – 01:23 A.M.
“That’s impossible!” Steve exclaimed. Hill and Fury stepped closer and the rest of the Avengers stood from their seats to huddle around Tony’s monitor.
“Your credentials have access to Sarah’s files,” Bruce whispered quietly in horror.
Steve shared a horrified look with Natasha. “This can’t be!”
“That’s not right,” Hill said from where she stood and pointed to the screen. “Look at the time stamp on the bottom. Steve wasn’t even in the facility then.”
“July second,” Steve said as he thought back to the date. His eyes widened as he remembered. “That’s when Thor and I were in Sao Paolo.”
Tony shook his head. “This IP address isn’t from Sao Paolo.” He scrolled further down the page before bringing up another window. “It’s from Rio.”
“We set up command in Rio for that op,” Hill confirmed. “But it was just me and-“
“I sent Carter there after we-“ Steve’s eyes widened in realization. He took one glance at Natasha before they both took off full sprint in the direction of the medical ward.
Natasha could hear her heart pounding in her chest. She ran as fast as her feet could take her as she and Steve scrambled to reach Sarah’s room. The second she got to the door, she forcefully pushed it open.
The room was empty.
Natasha heard Steve curse behind her as he quickly made his way back into the hallway. He frantically checked each and every door along the ward before he ran back toward the command center. Natasha lagged slightly behind him, the pain in her chest hindering her ability to run at full speed. As they neared the entrance of the command center, she heard Maria’s frantic voice. “We have a rogue bird on the deck! We need to shut it down!”
Steve ran faster at her words. By the time they reached the command center, Tony and Fury were already through the door leading to the deck. Natasha followed Steve as they quickly ran to follow them, her eyes widening when she realized Tony was already fully encased in his Iron Man armor, his repulsor already aimed at the jet that had taken flight while Fury was poised next to him with his rocket launcher ready to shoot. “Don’t!” she screeched.
“Don’t take it down!” Steve screamed. “She has Sarah!”
“Fuck!” Tony muttered, before he took off in his suit in pursuit of the jet.
Natasha watched as Iron Man turned into a stream of gold and red as Tony tailed the jet. She silently prayed that he’d reach it in time, only to have her heart sink when she lost sight of it. Tony’s voice came on comms then, letting out a string of curses before he confirmed what she already knew. “It went into stealth mode!”
Natasha swore she had died right then and there, feeling the air being choked out of her lungs as she stood on the deck of the carrier.
Sarah was gone.
So what's a girl to do when the hubby catches the stomach virus while on vacation and she has to stay in the hotel and make sure he's okay? Write, of course!
Disclaimer: I've mixed parts of the comics, the MCU, and added some of my own stuff here.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“It went into stealth mode!”
Steve turned to Natasha behind him as he heard Tony’s words and watched the various emotions flash in her green eyes.
He’d seen her angry before. Seen her take down hoards of hostiles, firing shot after shot without so much as a blink, but somehow this was different. He could almost physically see the maddening animosity pulse through her veins, burning her and making her almost maniacal with rage. He felt it too, but somehow in her it seemed heightened by tenfold. Her rage consumed her. She turned away from him and started walking, and his worry was amplified when she walked past the door that led back to the command center and toward the quinjet by the end of the deck.
“Natasha!” Steve yelled after her, but she ignored him and kept going. He ran to catch up to her and caught her arm, something he found himself doing a lot as of late.
“She’s dead!” Natasha snarled, forcing Steve to let go of her and take a step back. He didn’t need to ask to whom she was referring to know. Sharon.
“Natasha, they have to have something big on her to get her to betray us like this!” Steve tried to explain. “I know her-“
“I bet you do!” Natasha spat.
Steve was a tad offended by her comment, but ignored it as he looked seriously down at her. “This is what they want, Nat. If you go out there, you’ll be walking straight into a trap you won’t walk away from.” He sighed before adding, “Sarah won’t walk away from.”
Natasha’s face crumpled at that. “They have her!”
Steve’s face softened as he saw the tears well in her eyes. “I know,” he said, taking her into his arms. He buried his face in her hair and inhaled the scent of her shampoo. “We’ll get her back, Nat. I swear to you, I’ll die making sure we do. But we have to be smart about this.”
Natasha looked up at him, her eyes intense in spite of the tears that filled them. “I’ll burn them all, Steve.”
Of that, Steve had no doubt.
Minutes later, everyone gathered around the command center’s conference table. A screen to their left replayed footage from Tony’s helmet as he tailed Sharon’s jet while another one to the right showed videos from the security cameras from the medical ward that the double agent had obviously hacked into. Everyone’s attention was focused on the largest screen in the middle though as they read the message that Tony had found swimming in the files. Natasha translated the words from Russian to English:
Already a step ahead of you.
“He’s calling us out,” Clint said, his arms crossed over his chest as he sat across Natasha.
“We must move quickly,” Thor urged, his fist colliding angrily with the table.
Steve turned to Bruce by the end of the table. “How long does Sarah have?”
“Based on my calculations, a little over a few hours,” Bruce answered. “But without proper medical care? There’s no way to account for that variable.”
“Thor’s right,” Tony piped in. “We have to move now. The only question is where we’re headed.”
Natasha spoke for the first time since they sat down in the command center. “Zolotoy teatr.”
“The Golden Theater?” Hill inquired, obviously confused. “The abandoned theater in the woods of Saint Petersburg, that Golden Theater?”
“It wasn’t just a theater,” Natasha answered. “That’s where they used to train us. And not just in ballet.” Her face was blank as she stared at the glass of the table. “It’s a theater by day and a lair by night. At least it was before the Red Room went completely underground.”
The look on Sam’s face relayed the disgust he felt. “So let’s get Sarah out of there and blow it!”
“It’s not that simple.” Natasha’s voice somewhat monotonous, defeated. “The entire lair is surrounded by a protective field. At least it used to be when I was their asset. I doubt they’ve changed it since then. If anything, it’s probably fortified.”
“So what do you suggest?” Steve asked her, unusually deflecting to her as they planned their strategy.
“We attack them from the front,” she said immediately. “There’s no other way. They want us, they’ll get us, but they’re coming out too.”
From where he stood next to her, Steve nodded in agreement before turning to Fury. “We can’t wait for the carrier to reach the destination.”
“Take the jet,” Fury said. “Hill and I will sit behind and recruit backup and more ammo. Once you get Sarah out, like Wilson said, we’ll blow the bastards to the core of the earth.”
Steve turned to Clint. “Can you pilot the jet?”
“In my sleep,” Clint said as he stood from his seat.
Steve looked down at Natasha. “Once we get there, you and I will stick to the ground.” He looked ahead of him and at the other Avengers. “Tony,” he called out, “you, Sam, and Thor keep the perimeter and the front clear from above.” He turned to his side to look at Bruce. “If we get Sarah to the jet, can you administer whatever’s in the vial from there?”
“Yes,” Bruce confirmed. “But I’ll need Helen for an extra set of hands just in case.”
“Tell her to get ready then,” Steve replied.
“Hold up,” Sam said. “How do we know that the liquid in the vial is actually a cure and won’t make Sarah even worse?”
Steve stopped then, realizing that he hadn’t thought about that scenario. Thankfully, Natasha spoke up. “The Red Room doesn’t make concoctions without an antidote,” she started. “They always need an insurance policy or a way out just in case the target could be of use to them. If they’re willing to be this bold and call us out, I’m certain the contents on that vial’s a cure.”
Satisfied with the explanation, Steve looked down at Natasha once again and saw that she had gone back to watching the footage of Iron Man flying after the jet and appraised the rest of the people in the room. “Gear up. Wheels up in five.”
On the other side of the room, Tony nodded with a determined look on his face. “Let’s get our girl back.”
“Here,” Steve said, grabbing Natasha’s attention as he wheeled in another motorcycle from a hidden compartment on the quinjet. He set it next to his own by the front of the upturned ramp and flicked the kickstand down with the tip of his boot. “We’ll be able to cover more ground with two bikes instead of one.”
Natasha nodded, but remained silent. The bike in front of her was exactly the same model as Steve’s, only this one was matte black instead of blue. The rims were chrome with red accents and the muffler was big enough that she knew it wasn’t a standard issue. Her finger traced the ribbed leather of the seat as she examined the controls between the handles. There was no doubt in her mind that Tony had enhanced it.
Across from her, Steve studied her features as she continued her inspection of the bike. Her stance was still taut with worry, and despite playing a massive part in planning their attack, she still seemed at a loss for hope. He understood why. He was probably the only one that really knew what she was going through at this very second, but it still hurt him to see how forlorn and beaten she looked. His voice was soft but determined. “We’re gonna get her back, Nat.”
Natasha didn’t look away as she got herself acquainted with the digital display on her motorcycle. “Getting her back is one thing,” she said as she turned her face to him. “Hoping we get her alive is another.”
“We had one job, Steve.” Natasha’s eyes were cold and emotionless as she spoke. “And she was taken from right under our noses.”
Steve sighed and made a move to come around to her, but Tony’s voice interrupted them as it came on comms. “I’m going ahead,” he said. “I want to survey the perimeter of the lair to see if they’re really using a protective field.”
“Roger that,” Steve confirmed, watching Iron Man overtake the jet on the monitor to the right.
From the cockpit, they heard Clint’s voice. “Approaching drop off.”
Natasha mounted her bike at that, placing both hands on the handles. Steve was about to follow suit when Sam and Thor stood from their seats. The former looked at him. “Do you want us to fly ahead and clear the way?”
“No,” he said firmly. “Tony’s got that covered. We’ll fight the oncoming, you and Thor destroy whatever’s on the flanks.”
“Aye,” Thor acknowledged. “There won’t be a weapon left standing when we’re through.”
“Drop off imminent,” Clint reminded as he lowered the jet. “I’ll circle around on stealth and wait for your pick up signal.”
Steve looked at Bruce and Helen. “You’ve got everything?”
Bruce patted the table of supplies he and Helen were standing over. “We’ve got her covered as soon as you get her on this jet.”
Steve nodded and got onto his own bike, sneaking a glance at Natasha next to him. “You ready?”
Natasha kept her eyes trained in front of her as she gave him a single nod. Steve turned back. “Barton?”
Clint hit a switch and the ramp started to lower. “Give ‘em hell.”
The engines of both motorcycles roared to life as Steve and Natasha switched on the ignitions, and as soon as the ramp was close enough to the ground, they were off, zooming through the rocky terrain of the Russian countryside completely in sync. Sam and Thor followed them, jumping off the top of the ramp and flying into the air as they flanked the two motorcycles as instructed. The air was thick and muggy around them and it made Natasha’s hair stick to the back of her neck as she sped toward the all too familiar ground. Her eyes squinted through the fog of the night, and as they rode further down the dirt path, the theater finally came into view.
Natasha noted that not a thing had changed about her former home. The wrought iron gate was still plated in gold, the tops curled and twisted in intricate detail. Beyond them, the massive structure stood, lines and corners clean and immaculate. Like the edifice itself, the sea of never ending stairs made of white marble shone and led to the large door that was blocked by seven pillars. At the very top was a dome, also made of gold, and at the very apex the Red Room flag was standing proudly like it wasn’t a symbol of all their cruelty. Natasha had to fight the disgust that was creeping into her as she saw it flailing gracefully in the wind. She heard Steve’s voice in her ear as they continued their ascend.
“Stark, what’s the view from upstairs?”
The sound of Iron Man swooshing in the air grew louder as Tony made his way back to them before positioning himself a little before Steve and Natasha, forming a triangle in the air with Falcon and Thor at the base. “Like Natasha said, there’s a field around it. It’s impenetrable.”
There was a chorus of loud rumbles before they saw headlights coming toward them. “We may have lost the element of surprise,” Sam deadpanned. “We’ve got incoming.”
“My bad,” Tony admitted. “I may have learned the field was impenetrable by poking it.”
“With what?” Sam asked incredulously, but before Tony could reply, a canon appeared from below the ground and took fire at Iron Man. Tony dodged it in time, Sam doing the same albeit a little less deftly behind him. “A little warning would be nice!”
Tony snickered. “Think fast, bird man!”
“Focus!” Steve commanded from the ground. The number of headlights in front of him neared and multiplied and with a flick of his wrist, his motorcycle sped and jolted forward. Next to him, Natasha did the same. “We’ve got company!”
As if to supplant his words, more bunkers and canons emerged from the dirt below and showered them with bullets. Steve and Natasha expertly weaved through them on their bikes, successfully dodging the spray of ammunition as Sam and Thor worked to turn the offending weapons to ash. Ahead of them, the unmistakable sound of Iron Man’s weapons wrecked havoc. There was an explosion followed by screams of the wounded, and Steve looked ahead to see that Tony had neutralized the biggest truck coming toward them. He turned his attention to his front to see a speeding ATV coming his way, the men on it firing shot after shot at him before he skillfully flung his shield at them. It arced, the Vibranium lustrous in the night, and took down all four of the passengers before it came back securely on his arm and he avoided the driverless vehicle with a quick shift of his bike. Steve glanced quickly at Natasha to see her still riding next to him. She pulled out a pistol from her holster to shoot at the truck coming toward her, landing a bullet squarely on the driver’s forehead before it span out of control and tumbled down the cliff.
“We might have to blow this thing to kingdom come!” Tony said. Iron Man was flying above the gate of the golden theater, his red repulsor beams coming brightly out of his palm as he tried to break through the protective field.
“Negative!” Steve replied, kicking a soldier in the chest before tossing him to the side with one hand. “Sarah’s in there!” He continued to drive forward. “Status report!”
Thor swung his hammer at the last remaining canon. “We’re clear on the left.”
“One sec!” Sam shouted, seemingly out of breath. They heard another explosion ring through their ears before he spoke again. “Clear on the right. Coming to you!”
“I’m nearing the front,” Steve announced.
Sam’s tone was frantic as he looked down from where he was flying. “Cap, you’ve got a tank on your 12!”
Steve looked up in time to see that a tank was indeed making its way toward him. Quickly, he accelerated, and with astounding accuracy, he hit the brakes before he flipped over his bike, grabbing onto its handles before flinging it toward the oncoming tank like it weighed nothing at all. The motorcycle landed on the tank with a bang, causing it to tilt over before it went up in flames just as Thor and Sam landed next to him. Not even looking the least bit tired, Steve looked around and grew worried when he realized that he could no longer see Natasha and turned, putting a hand to his ear. “Widow, what’s your status?”
Two bullets were fired before Steve heard the sound of Natasha’s bike approaching and her voice come through comms. “Coming.”
Steve watched as Natasha made her way to him on her bike, the blue lines of her suit brighter in the night against the dark Kevlar. She got halfway to him when he heard another sound of an engine growling before another ATV come up from the cliff on the right. Steve’s eyes widened in panic when the he saw the henchman on it had fired the small missile launcher perched on his shoulder. “Natasha!”
Natasha’s reflexes were quick. The second she saw the man pull the trigger, she jumped off her bike and ran at full sprint. The missile hit the dirt behind her and set the greenery around it ablaze, distracting the man long enough for her to back handspring off the vehicle’s hood. She landed perfectly on the dash before leaning down and clasping her hands around the henchman’s neck and unleashing her Widow’s Bite at full force. The man screamed in pain, and once he sagged forward, Natasha let him go, jumping off the vehicle and throwing an explosive disk at it before she landed on her side and rolled across the dirt ground. She watched as the ATV hit the tree at a distance, before the telltale beep of her disk detonating brought it up in flames.
Yards away, Steve, Sam, and Thor watched the smoke and flames with wide, worried eyes. Steve was about to run toward it, but stopped when he saw Natasha’s silhouette coming through the fog caused by both the weather and the wreckage. Against the brightness of the burning vehicle behind her, her hair glowed scarlet as it fell against her shoulders. The bright blue light of her Widow’s Bite on her wrists gave her the extra light that accentuated the perfect porcelain of her skin and deepened the green of her eyes. She looked astonishing – lethal and entrancing in a way that was paralyzing as she made her way over to them. She was so beautiful.
“So much for being rusty,” Tony remarked, the mask of his Iron Man helmet lifting to reveal his face as he landed next to Thor. “Now what?”
Natasha nudged her head forward, looking directly at the top of the dome where the Red Room’s flag was waving in the air and the protective field was housed. “We have to break the field.”
“Perhaps it needs only the power from above,” Thor suggested. He lifted Mjölnir toward the sky, about to call on lightning, but stopped when the visible shield of white surrounding the lair disintegrated.
“Well that was easy,” Tony said as the gates opened before them.
Steve looked at Natasha who gave him a stiff nod. “Let’s go.”
The five of them made their way past the gates and walked through the cobblestone. It was eerily quiet, and that had them all on the defensive as they walked toward the first step of the stairs leading to the main door. Steve had his shield poised in front of him. Natasha had a gun in each hand. Tony walked with his gauntlet aimed forward. Thor wielded Mjölnir higher. Sam kept his eyes moving, his infrared goggles analyzing the surroundings for movement. After the amount of force that had come at them to keep them away, there was something highly unsettling about the peace that surrounded them now that they were though the gates. Slowly, the large golden door at the top of the stairs opened and their eyes widened at what stepped out.
None of them had ever seen anything like it. It looked like it was modeled after the form of a man, but not in the way Iron Man was. It was distorted, enhanced to a point that it looked like an experiment gone terribly wrong. The being in front of them was undoubtedly made of metal, its muscles ripped far more exaggeratedly than a wrestler on steroids. It had sleeves of armor of red and blue around its arms and waist, and at its chest was a clear window that showed what looked to be a heart. The inside glowed with orange light and darkened the innards it encased. A cyborg. Natasha looked up at its face, her eyes narrowing as she took in the familiar chiseled features: the sharp jaw, the strong bridge of its nose, the full head of dark hair that was the same shade as its mustache over the thin gray lips, the glowing red eyes. Its lips curled into a sickening smirk and Natasha gasped in recognition. “Ivan.”
“In the flesh,” he replied, his smile widening as he raised his arms. “Or at least something much, much better.” He saw the confusion in their faces at his appearance and smirked. “Technology, so easily bent to make you see whatever you want. Like my human form on screen.” He turned his head to the wreckage they had left behind them, the piles of fallen henchmen and weapons all broken before he shook his head jokingly. “You always did like a dramatic entrance, Natalia.”
Natasha was not amused. “Where’s my daughter?” she seethed.
Ivan smirked before looking behind him. Seconds later, a large glass coffin was being wheeled to the edge of the stairs by one of his men. It was propped upright and Steve craned his neck to see what was inside. There was white smoke roaming inside it, the type that lingered in the air after closing the freezer door, and he felt his anger intensify beyond belief as he realized who was in the daunting contraption. Encased in the glass was Sarah, her hands laid daintily on her chest as she slumbered. In some sick attempt of a joke, it looked like she’d been dressed in a gown of silver and lilac, her hair done neatly in a braid. Steve gasped when he realized it was the exact same dress she’d worn on her birthday. “You’re sick!” he screamed, leaping forward and forcing Thor to lay a restricting hand on him. “You’re going to pay for this!”
The cyborg's laughter thundered in the night. “Careful, Captain.” He put a hand on the glass next to him just by Sarah’s face. “Right now this is the only thing keeping your precious princess alive.” His head cocked to the side as he smiled down at Steve who snarled at him. “I’m sure you’re wondering how on earth Agent 13 could betray you and kidnap your daughter.” His eyes squinted, and though they were entirely red, Steve could still make out the tormenting glint in them. “I understand you two were involved at one point or another.” Ivan looked back to the door and made a come hither gesture. “Yelena, will you bring miss Carter here, please?”
A figure emerged from the door and next to Steve, Natasha’s eyes narrowed as her old acquaintance came to view. “You remember Yelena don’t you, Natalia?” Ivan asked sarcastically, to which Natasha said nothing. Much like Natasha herself, Yelena hadn’t aged a day. Her body was toned, obvious by the midriff on display from the large gap between the pants of her suit and her top that ended just below her breasts. Her eyes were piercingly blue, her skin youthful and flawless, and her shiny blonde hair grazed her chin to frame her face well. Like every trainee of the Red Room, she was devastatingly attractive.
The same could not be said for the woman next to her. Sharon stood with her arms tied behind her back with one of Yelena’s hands gripping her arm tightly. Her usually pristine silver combat suit was bloody in a few places, and covered in dirt in others while a few loose tendrils of hair had come away from her bun. Her upper lip was cut and just below her nostril was a trail of dried blood. Natasha’s attention fell to the burns that lined the sides of Sharon’s face and she gasped when she saw the round silver plates attached to her temples. She knew those intimately, still felt their cool surface against the delicate skin of her face in her nightmares and the hard clench of her teeth as they delivered shock after shock of electricity through her body. That only heightened the horror already pulsing through her veins as she came to a realization.
They’ve been programming Sharon.
“I’ll admit,” Ivan started. “She was a tough one to break. She has unusual moments of clarity here and there.” He looked directly at Natasha with another smile. “But you remember what it’s like to fight the programming, don’t you?” He turned to the rest of the Avengers who looked at him with venomous glares. “You really ought to look out for your agents out on the field better. They’re so easily lured. So easily… altered.” His metal thumb pressed down on a button on a remote they all hadn’t noticed he was holding, and with a deafening screech, Sharon fell to her knees.
“Stop!” Sam screamed from where he stood next to Tony. “Stop it! You’re hurting her!”
Ivan took his thumb’s pressure off the button. Yelena yanked Sharon roughly up to her feet and gave her a hard slap on the face. Sharon’s eyes snapped open then, revealing her hazel eyes. There was no emotion in them as stared straight ahead and Natasha felt her gut sink. “Ready to comply?” Ivan asked, turning to Sharon. At his voice, Sharon nodded once, her face blank and her posture docile as Yelena cut her restraints. Ivan appraised the five Avengers at the bottom of the stairs again and produced a syringe from his back that looked to be filled with the purple substance in the vial he’d shown them on camera. Steve’s muscles grew taut at the sight – the cure for Sarah. “Now, let’s get down to business.”
“No!” Thor grumbled furiously. “You give us Sarah and you give our friend back her sound mind and maybe we’ll think about sparing your life!”
“Ah, the so-called God of Thunder,” Ivan teased. “You have no hand to play. Not in this realm.”
“And you do?” Tony spat. “Once we get Sarah back, we’ll blow this shithole to smithereens before you and your little side kick over there even have a chance to blink.”
Ivan smirked. “Tell me, Mr. Stark, is that before or after my army takes each and every one of you out?”
Herds of men and women emerged from the shadows then, corralling the Avengers from the left and right and trapping them at the bottom of the stairs. Ivan’s army wore uniforms made from the same material as Yelena’s. There had to be at least a hundred of them, probably more. They were a sea of black and red and outright disgust raked through Steve as he realized that they all had the same blank stares on their faces that Sharon’s now sported. They had all been programmed to follow Ivan’s will.
Next to him, Natasha’s voice rang loud and clear as she raised her chin at Ivan. “What do you want?”
The sickening delight was back in Ivan’s features again. “For you to return to me, of course.” He pointed at the swarm of soldiers he had surrounding them at all sides. “I have an army now. All of these men designed to bend at my will!” He looked Natasha in the eyes, and for a second, Natasha actually saw the deluded affection in them. “I can rule the world, Natalia. And I want you to help me do it.”
“Why?” Natasha shouted, shaking her head as she stepped forward. “You could program anyone you want. Make more Black Widows then you could ever need! Why me?”
“Because I love you, Natalia.” Ivan took a few steps down the stairs and though he was still a considerable distance away, Natasha took a cautionary step back. “I always have. All those years we spent just the two of us? I’ve always wanted you, malyutka.” He reached an arm out as if to touch her. “And now I can have you.”
“You’re deranged!” Natasha screamed.
“That’s what loving you does to a man.” Ivan shifted to face Steve. “Am I right, Captain?” Steve struggled against Thor’s hold again, but the Asgardian’s grip remained tight. Ivan raised an eyebrow at Natasha. “I realize that motherhood has softened you, which is why we’re so insistent on the graduation ceremony.” His words were said so casually, like he was talking about nothing more than the weather. “But as you know, I’ve always been good at exploiting weaknesses, so I’m here to offer you a token of good faith.” He raised the syringe in his hand again. “Come with me, and I will let your daughter go with the cure. You can even let your archer in the sky who thinks we cannot detect your jet’s signal fly her to safety before we execute all of your friends.” Ivan’s head tilted to the side. “What do you say, Natalia?”
Natasha glanced at her surroundings, at the sea of soldiers all ready to attack them, and then at her friends by her side. Sam, Thor, Tony… The look in their eyes all begged her to let them fight. She then looked up to Steve right next to her and saw the determined look in his eyes, the common understanding they shared. She turned back to Ivan, her green eyes filled with rage. “You don’t own me,” came her gritted response. “Not anymore.”
“That means go fuck yourself, asshole!” Sam spouted before Tony aimed Iron Man’s repulsor at Ivan, hitting him in the chest as the cyborg fell to his back and dropped the syringe on one of the steps.
“Kill them all!” Ivan screamed, scrambling to get back on his feet as he saw Iron Man come his way.
All hell broke loose.
At the bottom of the staircase, Steve watched as Yelena kicked the glass case with Sarah inside back through the door before she started running down the stairs. Next to her, Sharon stood, stoically watching the chaos before her. Sam took flight then, aiming his guns at the soldiers on the far side. Steve ducked, taking Natasha down with him as he covered them both with his shield and Thor hit Mjölnir against the star, causing a wave of energy to reverberate through the surroundings before taking out the first wave of men that were coming at them. The massive gate fell.
“We’ve got this!” Thor shouted, swinging his hammer into the abdomen of a soldier as Sam scooped down to take two more in his hands before unceremoniously shucking them as far as his strength allowed. “Get to Sarah!”
Steve nodded as he and Natasha started climbing the stairs as fast as they could. Soldiers came at them, but they were easily dealt with. A booted kick came his way, and he took a step back and found himself in the landing between the upper and lower staircases. He dodged Yelena’s kick before reaching a hand out to grab her ankle. The blonde was quick though, tumbling back before she tried to sweep Steve’s feet from beneath him as she twirled with an outstretched leg like a helicopter’s propellers. Steve jumped, avoiding Yelena’s tactic before he spun and tried to land a roundhouse kick to her temple, but she was already on her feet and moving. He tried to hit the woman with the side of his shield, but she forcefully kicked it away and out of his reach. Yelena threw a combination of punches at him then, and he sidestepped them all before he got a lucky shot in. His fist hit with the side of her jaw, and she stumbled back, but only for a split second before she rolled away. Steve turned, eyes desperately searching for her, when he felt her suddenly on his shoulders, choking him with the chain of her nunchucks. He tried to reach for her so he could throw her off him, but her grip on his neck tightened and he used his hands to try to loosen the chain around his neck. Just as his vision began to blur, the weight on his shoulders disappeared and the chain fell to his feet and he heaved to get air into his burning lungs.
As she stunned the soldier she was fighting with her new baton, Natasha ran to quickly grab Steve’s shield. She looked up to see Yelena perched on his shoulders choking him, and she quickly flung his shield at her. The shield hit Yelena directly on the side of her head and caused her to tumble off Steve and roll onto the marble of the landing. Natasha ran toward her then, letting out a series of punches and kicks of her own before Yelena could fully regain her composure. The blonde she battled didn’t falter though, taking a few of Natasha’s punches before starting a counter of her own. Aggravated about wasting time, Natasha landed a perfectly placed kick to her opponent’s chest that sent the other woman falling back. Refusing to be defeated, Yelena stood again, before running toward Natasha and throwing a miniature explosive at her. But Steve was already by her side, his shield spinning in the air before it batted the device away and sent it down the stairs where it detonated and took out some of the soldiers Thor had been battling. Yelena screeched in frustration and moved to fight them both. The woman was an able fighter, fast like lightning and lethally agile, and Natasha missed her wayward spinning kick. Natasha fell back, and Yelena lunged at Steve.
Steve refused to be thwarted this time though as he got a better sense of how Yelena fought. He saw her coming toward him and put a foot back to brace himself for her landing. “Nat!” he yelled, watching as Natasha got up to her feet. Natasha recognized what he was about to do and took a few steps back before running at full speed. Across from her, Steve caught Yelena’s shoulders as she leapt at him. He spun them around, making a full turn to gain momentum before he threw her at full strength at Natasha’s direction like he would his shield. Natasha jumped up then, her body going horizontal with the ground as she straightened her legs and kicked both feet into Yelena’s midriff. Natasha landed back on her feet, a foot in front of the other and her knees bent as she watched Yelena’s body limply roll down the stairs.
Natasha turned at the warning in Steve’s voice, but she was already too late. Out of nowhere, Sharon had tackled her from the side and they both rolled down the stairs. As they fell to a heap on the dirt ground at the bottom, Natasha threw Sharon’s body off of her and painfully stood to see Steve starting to make his way down to her. “Go!” she yelled. She saw the hesitancy on his face as she prepared herself to fight Sharon who was getting back to her feet and gestured for him to keep going. “Go! Get to Sarah!”
From where he stood three steps below the landing, Steve hesitated for one more moment before he turned and continued to climb up the stairs. In his periphery, he saw Iron Man struggling with Ivan just where he had fallen, but the two metal men were so quick that he couldn’t really tell who had the upper hand. He saw Iron Man lift the cyborg up by the neck before flying away. As he kept going, a flash of purple caught his eye just as he made it a few steps short of the top step, and he stopped to pick up the syringe Ivan had dropped when Tony had fired at him. He secured it in his belt before he made it to the very top and ran straight into the lair.
Back on the ground, Natasha was struggling to fight a maniacal Sharon. Sharon had her on her knees and in a chokehold, as Natasha tried to pry the woman’s arms away from her neck. “Carter, listen to me!” she breathed out, her teeth clenched in struggle. She used the back of her head to hit Sharon, causing her to break her hold on her and stumble back. Natasha got back to her feet. “This isn’t you!”
Sharon shrieked in irritation and madness, her eyes wild as she ran to fight Natasha again. “I’m going to end you!”
Natasha stepped to the side to avoid Sharon’s punch. “Sharon, think!” Her elbow caught Sharon squarely on the cheek and she fell to the dirt. “Whatever they did to you, you can fight it!” Sharon was beyond reason though, rising again to her feet before screaming like a mad woman and launching herself at Natasha again. Natasha met her halfway, digging her arm into Sharon’s chest just below her neck as she pushed her toward the trunk of a nearby tree. “We’re not your enemies!”
There was no getting through to Sharon, no recognition left in her eyes that were filled with nothing but the thirst to fight. Natasha realized that and bashed Sharon’s head into the wooden trunk behind her forcefully as the blonde gasped.
Up in the lair, Steve kept his shield in front of him as he made it past the main door. The room was dark, lit only by a few candles and lamps, but it was nothing his enhanced vision couldn’t see through. Much like the outside, the room he found himself in was filled with pillars covered in panels of rich wood. The arches were magisterial, and the tiles below the soles of his boots were the most sophisticated he’d ever seen. His eyes quickly searched the room for the glass coffin that encased Sarah, but his gut sank deeper in disgust as he laid eyes on whatever else was in there. The sides were lined with corpses, their eyes all open and their temples marked by burns that went all the way down to their jaws. There were several chairs around the room and they reminded him of the chairs he usually saw at doctor’s offices only with restraints for the arms and feet. At one corner of the room, there was a gold throne and he surmised that it could only belong to the despicable man the rest were fighting outside.
His eyes finally saw the shining glass of the capsule that encased Sarah, and he hurriedly ran to it. His hands touched the glass, feeling the coolness of it even through his gloves and felt his heart tighten in his chest as he looked at Sarah inside. He tried searching for a lock to open the glass but thought better of it. Ivan had said this contraption was the only thing keeping her alive and he didn’t want to risk endangering her even more. And then he remembered.
He would’ve preferred Bruce to administer it for good reason, but he didn’t see how he had any other choice or the time. He frantically searched for a lock on the glass and grunted in frustration when he couldn’t find it. He sighed and shook his head in hesitation. “I’m sorry, baby,” he whispered before pounding his fist into the glass. The glass cracked underneath the force of his punch, but didn’t break. He tried it again until his fist finally made it through and shards fell to his feet. Producing the syringe from the pocket of his utility belt, he quickly threw the plastic covering the needle to the floor. He realized he wasn’t sure where to plunge the needle and once again the idea of calling Bruce enticed him, but he knew he didn’t have the time. He had to gamble. Swallowing, he decided that her arm was probably his best bet and quickly plunged the needle into Sarah’s right. Almost instantly, he could see the color slowly come back to her skin and he sighed in relief. His hands worked in a hurry then, unbuckling the straps that kept Sarah in place. Once he had the last one undone, he took her into his arms, resting her head on his shoulder and pressed a kiss to her temple. More waves of relief washed over him as he felt her weight in his arms. “Daddy’s here, Sarah. Daddy’s here.”
Steve ran. His hands held Sarah’s sleeping form tightly to him as he hurriedly made his way back out. “I have Sarah,” he spoke into comms. “Does anyone copy? I’m in the lair and I have Sarah. We need extraction now!” As he got a foot out the door, Sam and Thor landed in front of him.
“Have you sent a signal?” Sam asked.
“We can’t,” Steve breathed out as he raised his hand to his earpiece. “Barton? Anyone on the quinjet?”
Clint’s voice filled their ears. “We’re here, Cap.”
“Barton, they have something aimed at you even on stealth.” Steve heard Clint curse in response. “Listen, they can’t fire if they don’t detect a signal so I need you to tell us your coordinates so Thor can fly Sarah there. The minute you see him approach, kill stealth and hightail the hell out of here, you hear?”
“Copy that, Cap,” Clint answered. “59°56’11.1”N30°21’04.0’E”
Steve looked at Thor. “You got that?”
Thor nodded. “I’ll protect her with my life.”
“I know,” Steve answered. He pressed one last kiss to Sarah’s forehead before handing her to Thor who held her just as Steve had. The god swung his hammer in a circle before he took off, his red cape blowing in the wind as he did. Steve turned back to Sam. “I have to get back to Natasha. They have something inside aiming at the jet-“
“I’m on it,” Sam replied. “Permission to blow it to hell?”
“Don’t leave a single one standing,” Steve instructed. Sam ran into the lair, and Steve started running down the stairs again. “Nat? Tony? Come in!”
Tony was the only one who answered. “Cyborg’s down, Cap.”
“Sam’s trying to find their command center that has a target on the jet,” Steve explained as he went down step by step. “He may need your help.”
Steve heard the sound Iron Man flying close. “Got it,” Tony said before Steve saw a flash of red and gold zoom past him.
“Nat, do you hear me?” Steve asked as he prayed for her voice to come through his earpiece. “We have Sarah. Thor’s flying her to the jet. Where are you?” From the corner of his eye, he saw something explode by the cluster of trees a few feet from the bottom step of the stairs and recognized the opaque, almost blue smoke that followed. Natasha’s tear gas disk. He ran down the remaining steps and sprinted toward the direction of the smoke. Through the fog, he made out the silhouette of two people struggling.
“Fight it, Carter!” Natasha shouted, ducking to the left to avoid the blonde’s fist colliding with her face.
“I can’t!” Sharon yelped before she let out a shriek as pain pulsed through her skull. Her mind was falling in and out of clarity, but she couldn’t seem to stop fighting. It was like she was fighting her own mind for control of her own body, and every time she tried to stop her actions, her mind punished her by jolting electricity through her. When the pain passed, she looked at Natasha as her chest heaved. “You have to kill me!”
Natasha shook her head in disagreement. “No. No!” She sidestepped to avoid Sharon’s kick as the woman stumbled back to her feet. “Focus!”
“I can’t do this anymore!” Sharon wailed as blood dripped from her mouth. Pain jolted through her again and she pulled a dagger from the back of her boot and raised it up with the blade turned to her neck.
“No!” Natasha yelled as she tackled Sharon to the ground, causing her to drop the dagger in the dirt. She landed on top of her before she dealt the blonde a hard blow to the face to keep her down on the ground. She hurriedly switched her Widow’s Bite to the lowest setting possible and shook her head as her hands made their way to Sharon’s temples. “I’m sorry about this.”
A few feet away, Steve watched Natasha and Sharon fall to the ground as he ran to them. He saw the blue light of Natasha’s Widow’s Bite glow on her wrists, and just as she was about to lower them to Sharon, a figure landed behind her. “Natasha, watch out!” he screamed as he saw Ivan’s tattered body approach her. Natasha looked up at Steve’s voice just as he flung his shield at the cyborg behind her, but Ivan had released a beam from his wrist that caused the shield to fly in another direction before he aimed a trio at Steve, dropping him to his knees. Natasha tried to roll away, but Ivan had picked up Sharon’s fallen dagger and plunged it into her side. “Natasha!” Steve yelled. He tried to get back on his feet, but the area of his abdomen where the lasers had hit him felt like it was on fire. He watched helplessly as Ivan held Natasha upright by her hair and attached the same metal plates Sharon had to her temples before activating it. “No!”
Natasha shrieked, her body violently convulsing as electricity jolted through her.
“Natasha!” Steve cried out, still struggling to get to his feet.
Natasha’s screams tapered, and Steve could do nothing as Ivan stood over her and spoke. “Ready to comply?”
Opening her eyes, Natasha nodded.
“Stark, I’m gonna need help here!”
At the sound of Sam’s distressed voice, Tony doubled down on the power on his suit’s thrusters. Iron Man soared higher and then faster as he went horizontal and entered the lair. Tony landed at the threshold and surveyed the eerie surroundings through the HUB. “Wilson, did you find what they have aiming at the jet?”
“Yeah! I’m up in the dome!” Sam all but shouted into comms. “Come quick!”
Iron Man was airborne again as Tony passed floor after floor of marble and gold until he reached the very top. He maneuvered so he could land in front of yet another intricately decorated door and exited his suit. Pushing it open, his eyes widened when he saw what was behind. Though the entire lair was seemingly outdated, the machinery inside the dome was far from that; Tony had never seen anything like it. The screens all over the room were all large and modern and the central command station with a swivel chair just in front of it was massive. On the left, rows of what looked to be super processors lined the walls.
“Holy shit,” Tony muttered. He looked at Sam who stood wide eyed and horrified in the center of the room before taking in his surroundings and moving to examine one of the tall machines. “This thing alone could run an entire city grid,” he noted in disbelief. “But a room full of them? There has to be enough processing power for…”
“Hundreds of cities?” Sam finished.
Tony turned to face him. “What?”
Sam lifted a finger and Tony moved closer to him to see what he was pointing at. Right in front of them, a screen occupied the entirety of the wall and was divided into smaller rectangles, all showing various live feeds of individuals from all around the world going about their daily lives. There had to be hundreds of them, maybe more. Tony and Sam stood confused. If it weren’t for the fact that they were literally standing in the control center in the evil lair of some deranged cyborg and his evil army, they would’ve thought this was just normal surveillance. It all seemed like regular security footage at first glance, the type one would see coming from a CCTV camera, with a label on the lower right of each one to mark which city it was coming from. There couldn’t be anything sinister about this.
But Tony knew better. He read through the ones directly in his line of sight: Stalingrad. Madrid. Beijing. San Francisco. Kuala Lumpur. Chad. Melbourne. New York. “What the hell is this?” he wondered aloud, his eyebrows furrowing as he continued to read through the cities.
Clueless, Sam shook his head. “Cap told me to blow everything I find up, but I have a feeling that would be a very bad idea.”
Something caught Tony’s attention as he examined the feeds and stepped closer to the wall to get a better look. “Wilson,” he said, gesturing for Sam to follow him. “Look at all these people. Notice something they have in common?”
Sam’s eyes scanned the screen from left to right before he gasped. “The metal plates,” he said as he continued to check each and every rectangle for the shining silvers. “These people have the same metal plates they put on Carter.” Sam shook his head in disbelief. “But how could they…” He tried to desperately rationalize the situation. “They couldn’t possibly…” The idea that someone had pulled off something this evil and this large in scope was incomprehensible. “These can’t be more soldiers,” he concluded, turning to Tony. “You saw what it did to Carter. She went completely compliant and then mad with rage. These people all look normal.”
Tony looked over the back of the chair in front of him to all the buttons on the command station. “Probably because they haven’t been programmed yet.” He pointed to a button on the panel that was a much larger version of the one Ivan had used to activate Sharon’s plates.
“Sleeper agents,” Sam whispered in horror. “We can’t let them do this.”
“Agreed. But first thing’s first,” Tony said. “What do they have aiming at the jet?”
Sam pointed to another screen to their right and the panel of controls right below it. “Looks like a laser,” he explained. “It’s hooked up to some GPS thing. I think.”
“Eh, you’re not completely wrong.” Tony shrugged off the dagger look Sam sent his way as he moved to inspect the controls. “It’s a targeting satellite and it shouldn’t be hard to hack into. I’ll disable this before frying the system on those-“
Tony was cut off by Steve’s voice coming through comms. “Natasha!” Steve shouted before the telltale sound of beams being fired followed. Sam and Tony shared a horrified look.
“Rogers? Romanoff?” Tony called out. “What’s going on?” His inquiry was met by silence and Tony muttered a string of curses in worry.
“They probably need back up,” Sam said, already moving.
Tony agreed. “You go check on them, I’ll stay and make sure this thing is disabled.”
Sam nodded and ran down the endless flights of stairs as fast as his feet could take him. He got to the first floor in record time and ran to the main door of the lair and looked down, past the bottom of the marble steps and the fallen wrought iron gate, but there was nothing. The wings of his suit extended then, and he flew down until his boots hit the dirt on the ground. The fog of the night had thickened, and Sam wasn’t sure if it was due to the weather or all the used up ammunition, but he was glad he had his infrared goggles as he walked into the dark. He came across uprooted trees, more fallen henchmen, rubble, and broken weapons, and groaned in frustration when he couldn’t find any sign of Steve or Natasha. He was about to turn in another direction when he saw a glimmer of silver in the corner of his eye.
“Sharon!” Sam shouted, recognizing the material of her suit and running toward her limp body. He checked for a pulse and sighed in relief when he felt it beating faintly against his fingers. His head whipped around, checking his surroundings for any imminent threats, when he heard a strangled cry and saw another body on the ground a few yards away. “Cap!” He picked Sharon up and ran toward Steve before setting her down to kneel by his head. “Cap,” he called out, pulling Steve’s head into his lap as his body continued to writhe in pain. “Steve, stay with me, man. Stay with me!” Sam gave Steve’s suit a once over and saw the three holes by the stripes in his midsection where the beams had hit him. “No, no, no!” he exclaimed before he called out. “Stark, Cap’s hit! Do you hear me? Cap is hit and Carter’s down!”
“Cap and Carter?” Tony asked in surprise. “Where the hell’s Romanoff?”
Steve’s strangled mumble caused Sam to look down. “He has… Nat…Na…tasha,” Steve tried to say.
Confusion swept over Sam at Steve’s words. “He?” he asked. “Who’s he?”
“I…van,” Steve answered, struggling to breathe. “He… pro…pro…grammed her.”
“That’s impossible!” Tony exclaimed. “I fried that cyborg!”
“Obviously not well enough!” Sam deadpanned. “Where are you on disabling that laser?”
“I’ve disabled their targeting satellite so the jet should be safe,” Tony explained. “Working on their mainframe now.”
“Well we need evac now!” Sam shouted. He heard Tony say something back, but he couldn’t hear it through the strong gust of wind around him as the Avengers’ quinjet landed some distance away. The ramp lowered and Clint and Thor hurriedly ran to them.
“What happened?” Clint asked as he took in Steve’s current state and Sharon passed out on the ground. “Where’s Nat?”
“Help me get him to the jet,” Sam answered urgently. Thor helped him lift Steve to his feet before putting his arm around his back. Clint picked up Sharon as they all made their way to the jet. “The cyborg has Natasha and he programmed her.”
“Fuck,” Clint muttered. “How the-“
“Guys!” Tony’s voice rang loudly in their ears. “The bird Carter stole is in flight again! I don’t want to be Captain Obvious over here but that might be-”
“Natasha,” Clint whispered, his eyes widening in realization as he stopped by the ramp of the jet. “She knows where the hellicarrier is.”
“Get there now!” Tony commanded. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“We can’t leave you by yourself!” Thor reasoned.
“I’ll be fine!” Tony’s voice was stern and final. “I’m almost done here. Just get to the carrier!”
“This might sting,” Sam said to Steve, holding a pad of gauze with an antiseptic on it. With Sharon out cold and strapped to the actual med table, Steve had to settle for lying on the metal table in the center of the jet where they usually placed their equipment with both of Thor’s hands on his shoulders to keep him still. His injuries were slowly healing, but still needed reinforcement. Sam pressed the pad down onto the exposed flesh on Steve’s abdomen and winced when he groaned, his face crumbling in pain at the burning sensation. “A lot.”
Steve’s chest was still heaving as he ignored his friend’s attempt at lightening the mood and turned his head in Clint’s direction. “How… how long until we get to the carrier?”
“Fifteen minutes.” Clint turned in the pilot’s seat to face him. “This doesn’t make sense. You guys said that thing wanted Nat so she could help him run his evil army of freaks. Well, he has her. Why would they be headed to the carrier?”
Just as Clint had finished voicing his thought, the hologram projector by the jet’s windshield came on. Clint quickly swiveled in his chair to watch while Sam and Thor helped Steve sit up. The four of them watched as yet another live feed came through. Clint moved forward in his seat and gasped as he recognized the interior of the SHIELD-issued jet. “How does this son of a bitch keep hacking into our systems?” he asked angrily. No one answered his question as they watched the events unfold on screen. Natasha came into view, her hands, feet, and neck shackled to a chair as Ivan stood next to her. From where he sat, Steve held his breath, his bare fingers curling around the metal ledge of the table at the sight. The metal dented under his touch as he squeezed harder and harder and the anger within him escalated into something brutal. On screen, Natasha looked calm, docile. Her eyes were trained on something in front of her and her face had a calculating expression, like she was meticulously studying something. Watching something.
Thor was the first to speak. “What is he doing to her?”
“You know what I want you to do,” Ivan said, his voice coming through the speakers on the jet. Natasha said nothing, her eyes still watching whatever was in front of her. There was no hint of recognition in her features, like whatever she was seeing she was seeing for the very first time. Ivan moved to stand in front of her, his metal fingers lifting her chin so her eyes could meet his red ones. “Are you ready for your mission?”
“Yes,” Natasha answered, voice cold and devoid of any emotion.
The four Avengers watched as Ivan’s lips curled into a sickening smile before he looked directly into the camera. The look on his face had too much joy in it, so much menace, and it made Steve’s gut sink. “And what is your mission, Natalia?”
There was a glint in Natasha’s eyes upon hearing his question and genuine fear filled Steve at that, and judging by the glance Clint sent his way from the pilot’s chair, he knew he was right to feel it. He’d seen that look on her before. It was the look she got before she executed a well thought out plan. It was the look Steve sought in their every mission together when he needed reassurance that she could finish the plan correctly, efficiently, lethally. It was sheer determination. Natasha looked up at Ivan. “I’m going to kill her.”
The last word of Natasha’s sentence caused the blood in Steve’s veins to turn to ice.
As if to confirm his fear, the camera angle shifted to show what Natasha had been watching all along and Steve immediately scrambled off the table. A video of Sarah dancing and twirling in her princess gown during her birthday filled the screen and Steve struggled to put the shredded top half of his suit back on. Faintly, he heard Clint and Sam’s slew of profanities and Thor’s disgruntled declaration to put an end to this man through the sound of his own heart beating in his ears, but he didn’t care. His body ran on autopilot as he went about securing his cowl back to his head before he searched his shield with only one thought in mind.
Get to Sarah.
“Tic tock, Captain.” Steve turned at Ivan’s voice directly calling him out. The cyborg was smiling smugly at him again. “We both know how well Natalia follows orders.”
The live feed went black and Steve went back to hastily looking for his shield. He found it leaning against the side of one of the chairs and secured it to his back as he turned to Clint. “How much longer?”
Clint twisted in his seat to check the ETA. “Eight minutes.”
“We don’t have eight minutes,” Steve said before looking at Thor. “Fly me to the carrier.”
Sam made his way over to stand in front of him, his expression one of complete incredulousness and disbelief. “You’re in no shape to fight!”
“I don’t care!” Steve argued, his rage evident in his features. “They’ll have to kill me before I let them touch a hair on my daughter’s head.”
Sam looked like he was about to argue, but Maria’s frantic voice interrupted him. “We are under attack!” she screamed. “We have hostiles on a stealth bird! Turbine three is down!”
“Hill!” Clint shouted, his finger pressing down on the button on the panel to connect them to the communications line on the carrier. “Hill, can you hear me? Natasha’s been compromised! Tell Banner and send reinforcements to Sarah’s room!” A sound of something detonating was the only sound Clint got in return. “Shit!” He turned to his teammates behind him who all looked as horrified as he was. “Go! I’ll be right behind you!”
They didn’t have to be told twice. Despite his earlier reluctance, Sam hit the ramp release and Thor grabbed Steve as the three of them flew into the night sky.
Nick Fury didn’t get frazzled. He knew that losing his calm, especially in this line of business, was how you wound up dead. The same thing went for trusting the wrong people. That he escaped by the skin of his teeth, but not without consequences – it was rare, but he did miss having full use of his other eye. But sometimes, even the most seasoned master agents, even those who had been director of all master agents, were pushed to the brink. That tended to be the case when the carrier the said master agent was commandeering was under attack, half on fire, had a gaping hole right in the command center, and losing significant altitude by the second.
“I need agents protecting the medical bay stat!” Fury shouted to the agents he and Hill had managed to pick up. He watched as some of the technical analysts tried to extinguish the fire on the far wall that was hit by the missile they had not seen coming. “Protect them at all costs!” His eyes went in search of Hill to give her another directive. “Hill!”
“Sir,” Hill answered, alerting him of her presence. “Barton said Romanoff’s been-“ Four small, black projectiles came into her line of sight, causing her to pause as they registered in her mind. “Grenades!” she screamed, jumping in front of Fury to tackle him to the ground. The grenades detonated with a loud bang, setting all the equipment in the command center ablaze and dropping all the analysts to the ground as Hill scrambled to her feet while pulling out a gun from her holster. Next to her, Fury did the same as they saw a group emerge from the large hole in the wall and through the thick smoke that filled the room. They heard a spray of gunfire before they really saw the bullets coming their way, and they quickly scurried to opposite ends. The figures became clearer as they got closer and Hill immediately saw that the Red Room soldiers outnumbered them. In the back, Natasha stood, her russet hair swaying in the wind as the cyborg stood right next to her. Hill’s eyes widened when she saw the both of them turn away from the chaos. “They’re headed for med bay!”
Fury was emptying the magazines on both his pistols, taking down soldiers left and right. He ducked when one of them chucked a chair his way, and rolled to take cover behind a desk. “Banner!” he shouted into comms, praying that the lines hadn’t been damaged before letting out another round of bullets. “Romanoff’s headed your way!” He cursed when he didn’t hear Bruce respond and chanced a glance at Hill who was fighting a trio of soldiers a few feet away. “Where the hell’s the quinjet?” The sight of Mjölnir flying through the air and taking out the hostiles hounding Hill with a single sweep made him sigh in relief. “About god damned time!” Fury watched as Thor landed on the carrier with Steve in one arm and Sam right next to him. “A little help here!”
“Where are they?” Steve shouted as Thor set him down. Sam drew his guns as he flew to the middle of the room, shooting at a few soldiers as he did, to assist Fury and Hill. Thor threw his hammer at a group of soldiers to the left.
“Med bay!” Fury screamed back, dropping another soldier as he pressed down on the trigger. “Where’s Stark? Someone has to check on the turbine before he hit the water!”
Panic rose through Thor as he saw Steve already running in the opposite direction. “You can’t fight them alone!”
“Make sure we don’t hit the water!” he screamed behind him.
“Nick, is this a code green?” Bruce shouted and then groaned in frustration when he realized that whatever was going on in the command center was preventing him from answering back. He had heard Clint saying earlier that Natasha was compromised and that only heightened his already growing anxiety. He knew that there were agents in the hallway guarding the entrance to Sarah’s room, but he also knew that they were in no way a match for Natasha. As efficient and rigorous as SHIELD’s former recruiting program was, he doubted it could produce an agent worthy of defeating Natasha and her lethally honed skills. That left him with no choice. He knew what he had to do as he sighed and looked back at a terrified Helen behind him. “Stay here,” he ordered as he took off his white lab coat.
“You can’t go out there!” Helen said, a horrified look on her face.
There were screams followed by the sound of bullets being fired down the hall and Bruce sighed once more. “I have to.” He looked at Sarah’s sleeping form on the bed before walking over to a drawer on the side of the room and pulling out a Glock. He handed it to Helen who took it with shaking hands. “If someone comes in, shoot first.” Helen nodded reluctantly and Bruce gave her and Sarah one last look before he turned to the door.
And then he heard a single beep.
It took but a millisecond before Bruce’s eyes widened in recognition. “Get down!” he screamed, throwing himself to the floor by the foot of Sarah’s bed before the wall to the left of room was blown to smithereens. As the dust and debris settled, Bruce looked up to see Natasha and the cyborg standing amidst all the rubble. Ivan’s body was tattered and beaten, but Natasha looked both astonishing and deadly as she stood with a gun in each hand. Behind them, the agents guarding the hall of the medical ward were limp on the floor. Bruce scrambled to his feet, but not before he heard the sound of bullets being fired behind him. “No!” he shouted as he looked back to see Helen aiming the gun he had given her at their assailants. Bruce watched in horror as both Natasha and Ivan dodged the bullets before the cyborg aimed a beam squarely at Helen’s chest, dropping the doctor to the ground. “Helen!”
“Complete your mission, Natalia,” Ivan ordered from where he stood behind her.
The both of them walked further into the room and Natasha lifted the gun in her right hand. Bruce was quick to raise his hands in front of him. “Natasha,” he breathed. “It’s me, Natasha. It’s Bruce. Listen to me.” Bruce swallowed when he saw how empty her eyes were as he pleaded with her. “Please don’t make me turn green.”
A smirk made its way across Natasha’s face. “Goodbye, Doctor Banner,” she said before she pulled the trigger.
Bruce closed his eyes, bracing himself for the pierce of the bullet to his flesh, but it never came. Instead, he heard a clunk as it hit something solid and he grunted when he felt whatever had protected him from the gunfire strike him in the midsection to send him flying back. His back hit Sarah’s bed, causing it to roll towards the wall with a thud. Wincing as he touched his lower back, Bruce looked up to see that it was Steve’s shield, and the man already had it coming back to the magnetic strip on his arm as he ran towards them. Steve’s arrival had distracted both Ivan and Natasha long enough for Steve to fling his shield right into the center of the cyborg’s chest and into the glass that protected his heart. Ivan screeched as the force of the shield sent him through the wall and back out into the hallway of the medical ward.
“Get her out of here!” Steve screamed to Bruce as he tackled Natasha to the ground, causing her to drop both her guns.
Bruce moved quickly. He powered through the sharp pain that was permeating through his back to reach Helen a foot away before he lifted her and placed her on the foot of Sarah’s bed. He unlocked the wheels with his foot before pushing it through the hole where the wall once was.
“No!” Natasha screamed through gritted teeth as she watched Bruce run away with Sarah. She kneed Steve in the stomach where he had been hit by the beams, making him to groan in pain as she pushed him off and away from her. She got on her feet only to have Steve grab her ankle. She tried to kick him away, but he pulled her down before he himself got to his feet. Natasha stood, circling Steve before she let out a string of attacks. Steve blocked them all, spinning into a roundhouse kick. Natasha gasped as she misjudged the space between them and his foot met her chest, sending her right out of the room and into the hallway where Ivan was. Holding her chest in pain but refusing to be defeated, she stood once more.
“Kill him, Natalia!” Ivan screamed from where he was still struggling to rid himself of Steve’s shield that was pressing deeper into his heart. “Kill him and complete your mission!” At his command, Natasha got into a defensive position as she snarled at Steve as he neared her.
“Natasha, please.” Steve had his hands up as he walked closer to her, his cowl gone and his blonde hair mussed. “Think, baby. This isn’t you.” Natasha snarled once more and threw a right hook at him. Steve caught her fist in one hand and forcefully sent it back her way, causing Natasha to fall to the ground again. Natasha clutched her side and Steve eyed the bloody gash on the side of her suit from where Ivan had stabbed her in the woods and watched as she weakly got to her feet again. “You can fight this. I know you can.”
Rage burned hot and deep within her and Natasha let out a guttural scream as she lunged at him. They were a blur of black and blue then, an intricate dance that was mesmerizing yet deadly. Natasha threw a series of punches and kicks Steve’s way, and he carefully sidestepped them a little slower than he usually would. Steve defended more than he countered, a result of both his still tender abdomen and the fact that he knew how much power he could pack in a punch even while injured. He saw Natasha’s stamina faltering and he didn’t want to hurt her even more so he tried to sweep her feet from beneath her to take her down, but her reflexes were too quick for his ailing body. Natasha landed a well-placed kick to his face and he stumbled back, blood dripping from a cut on his lip. Natasha backed up, giving herself space to run and Steve quickly got to his feet to dodge her attack, but she quickly changed tactics. Her fist flew toward Steve’s face, and he grabbed it in one of his hands. From the corner of his eye, he saw the blue light of her baton as she held it in her other hand and tried to push it to him and he hurriedly used his much larger frame to push Natasha toward the wall to avoid the electricity.
“Enough of this nonsense!” Ivan screamed from where he was still pinned to the wall. “Finish him! Now, Natalia!”
“Natasha, please don’t make me do this.” Steve pleaded as they continued to struggle. He used all his strength to pin her body against the wall. Their hands were locked with the baton between them and Steve repeatedly slammed Natasha’s hand against the wall next to her face until she was forced to drop it. Once she was disarmed, his arm came to press down on her neck and Natasha gasped for air. “Nat, please. She’s our daughter.”
“She’s… my mission,” Natasha choked out as she tried to push his arm away from her throat.
Steve felt his heart shatter at her words. “I can’t let you finish it.” He hesitated for a split second before he applied more pressure on her throat. “I’m so sorry,” he said as he watched her struggle for air. Natasha gasped, her eyes bulging as she slowly lost the will to fight and her body slumped against the wall. Steve let her go, watching her body slide down, and for a second, he thought he saw something flash in her green eyes before they fluttered shut. His gloved hand tried to reach out to her, but before he could get to her, Ivan had fired another beam at him, hitting him behind his shoulder. Steve gasped, his body shaking with pain as he dropped to his knees and fell face down on the floor by Natasha’s feet.
“JARVIS,” Tony called out as his fingers pressed down on the buttons of the master panel inside the dome. “How much longer until we hack into this thing?”
“Just about…” the AI started. “Now. Virus is uploading. The mainframe should combust in about two minutes.”
“Brilliant,” Tony said, clapping his hands together once before he was out of the chair and running toward his suit. The armor encased him and he shot a hole through the roof of the dome before Iron Man was zooming into the night sky. “Where are they, J?”
“Just a little above the Atlantic now.” Coordinates showed up on the HUB as Iron Man flew in the direction. “I suggest you hurry, sir. The carrier is currently under attack and losing altitude rather rapidly. They may hit the water any minute now.”
“They started the party without me?” Tony asked in fake surprise before dialing into comms. “The mainframe at the looney castle’s been fried. Does anyone copy? I can blow that thing now!”
“Negative,” Fury said in reply. “Stark, we need you to fix the turbine! Thor’s trying to hold this thing up but he needs help!”
“What about the lair?” Tony asked as Iron Man flew faster.
“You leave the blowing up to me,” Fury said before the line went dead.
Tony flew lower as the hellicarrier came into view. He zoomed toward the end where smoke was the thickest and went under to see Thor fighting to keep the aircraft in the air. He flew into the broken turbine and saw that it had stopped spinning. “Go,” he shouted at Thor below him. “I got this!”
Thor didn’t need to be told again as he flew back up to the command center. He saw Fury trying to fight off more soldiers as Sam applied pressure to a wound on Maria’s shoulder as she sat with her back against the railing. “Enough of this!” he shouted before lifting Mjölnir up towards the sky. The thunder roared before lightning came down and illuminated the demigod as it powered his hammer. He pointed it to the soldiers left standing, and they all screamed as electricity jolted through their body and they fell lifelessly to the ground.
“We could have used that about five minutes ago,” Sam remarked from where he was kneeling next to Maria.
Thor just shrugged. “I was busy.”
“Thor,” Fury called out. “Find Rogers. He may need your help with Romanoff and the cyborg.” With a single nod, Thor was gone and Fury turned to Wilson. “You find Banner and Cho and make sure they’re okay.”
Hill looked up at the director as Sam ran toward the medical bay. “What about the lair?”
Fury’s lips turned up in a smile. “Let’s show these sons of bitches what we got.”
Steve groaned as he tried to roll onto his back but failed miserably. Much like his stomach, the spot on his shoulder where Ivan’s beam had hit him was burning in pain. Faintly, he heard the cyborg’s voice calling out.
“Natalia. Get up, Natalia.”
Despite the pain, Steve forced himself to lift his head to look at Natasha. Her eyelids were fluttering slowly as she began to wake, and he tried desperately to reach out to her.
The voice was back again. “Your mission, Natalia.” Natasha’s eyes opened and Steve watched as her head tilted in the direction of Ivan’s voice. “Finish your mission.”
Steve weakly reached a hand to Natasha’s boot. “Nat, don’t…” he breathed out as he saw her eye the fallen baton a few inches away. “Don’t listen to him.”
Even when weak, Ivan’s voice was commanding. “Finish your mission,” he repeated.
Natasha got on her hands and knees as she began to crawl toward the baton. Steve groaned, pain shooting up his entire arm as he reached out and curled his fingers around Natasha’s ankle. “Please, Nat,” he begged. Steve’s chest heaved and he silently prayed he’d get through to her as he held on and tried to pull her back with all the strength left in him.
Natasha tried to dig her nails into the linoleum of the floor as she continued to push forward to keep herself from being pulled back. From where he was a few feet away, Ivan smiled weakly. “That’s it, Natalia. Come to me. Finish your mission.”
Steve’s face crumbled in pain as he pulled harder. “Natasha, please.”
“Should’ve…” Natasha started as she looked back at him. “Should’ve left you… in Bucharest.”
Steve’s eyes widened at her words.
“Drop off imminent,” Clint said from the pilot’s seat.
“Copy that,” Steve said, securing the lock on his cowl. Fury had tasked him and Natasha to take down a group of rogue scientists conducting illegal human experimentation in a secret lab in Beijing and Clint had volunteered to take them there. He lifted a hand to his earpiece. “Secure channel seven.”
“Seven secure,” Natasha confirmed from where she stood next to him, adjusting the lock on her Widow’s Bite.
“You two might want to take a couple of Stark’s magic masks over there,” Clint said, pointing a thumb over his shoulder to the table in the center of the quinjet with various gadgets. “They’ve got some magic voodoo gas in their lab that helps keep their test subjects in place.”
Steve walked over to the table and lifted one of the masks. “Can’t be affected by drugs,” Steve said, waiving off Clint’s concern. He looked at Natasha and offered it up to her. “Nat?”
“You’re not the only one with a toxin-fighting serum in their veins, Rogers,” Natasha deadpanned, rolling her eyes. “Besides,” she said, throwing a smirk in Clint’s direction. “It might be easier to get close to the doctor if you let me pretend like I’ve succumbed to their ‘magic voodoo gas’.”
Clint stuck his tongue out while Steve looked unconvinced by her idea. “But that means you’ll be exposed to it longer than the two minutes we planned. How am I supposed to know it won’t actually get to your head? Fighting you isn’t on the list of things I’d like to do. Ever.”
“Approaching drop off zone,” Clint reminded them.
Natasha shrugged as she secured the locks of her parachute to her chest. “If they ever pit us against each other, we’ll just use a safety phrase.”
Clint snickered from where he sat. “That sounds like some Fifty Shades shit.”
“A safety phrase?” Steve clarified, ignoring Clint’s joke as he walked closer to Natasha.
“A safety phrase,” Natasha confirmed. “If you ever think the drugs have gone to my head, we’ll engage in some sort of dialogue and I’ll sneak a safety phrase to confirm that I’m still me.”
“And this phrase would be?” Steve asked as he watched her walk toward the rear of the jet.
Natasha palmed the ramp release before turning back to him with a smirk. “I’ll remind you of that time I saved your ass from dying in Bucharest,” she said before she jumped into the dark night’s sky.
Steve looked into Natasha’s eyes and knew immediately that he hadn’t imagined the flash in them moments ago.
Slowly, Steve’s grip on her ankle loosened and Natasha jerked her foot away from his hold and continued to crawl forward until she could reach for her baton. Shakily, she got to her feet and limped toward Ivan.
The cyborg laughed in delight as he saw her make her way over to him. “You see, Captain?” he asked weakly. “In the end, she’ll always be mine.” He smiled at Natasha as she stood in front of him. “Go and complete your mission.”
Natasha’s green eyes narrowed. “I am,” she said venomously. Ivan’s smile quickly faded and his metal lips parted in a scream of pain as she lifted a foot to kick the shield further into his chest. The glass crunched further under the force and Natasha leaned down so her lips were close to his ear. “You know the one thing you can’t corrupt?” she whispered, pressing down on the button of her baton. The weapon extended, glowing blue as it buzzed with electricity. “A mother’s love.”
Ivan screamed as Natasha plunged the baton into his heart. His weakened body jolted with electricity, but he somehow managed to swing an arm that sent Natasha flying to the opposite wall. He raised his shaking hand and Natasha saw the light at the center pulse as he tried to fire a beam at her. She closed her eyes and lifted her hands to shield herself as she awaited the hit.
It never came.
Ivan’s screams grew louder and Natasha opened her eyes to see the silvery blue light of Thor’s lightning aimed at Ivan from the right and the red of Iron Man’s lasers coming from the left. In front of her, Ivan’s metal body seemed suspended in the air as it contorted and started to burn. Her hands came back to shield her eyes from the brightness until she felt someone lifting her tired and pained body off the floor.
“Come on, Nat,” she heard Clint say as he lifted her from the ground.
Natasha opened her mouth to speak, but the she couldn’t fight the darkness that was enveloping her.
Natasha awoke with a jolt, panic settling into her system as she tried to decipher where she was. The faint light coming from the lamp above her head burned her vision and the beeping noises around her made her head throb as she sat up. She regretted her decision immediately as pain shot up from her side and her head span. She tried to move her right hand up to yank the oxygen mask from her face, but the IV running through her arm made it impossible. She felt a warm hand rest on her left one and her head whipped up in alarm.
“Hey,” Steve said comfortingly. “You’re okay, you’re okay,” he repeated. He stood from where he sat next to her bed and gently pushed her until her back hit the slightly raised mattress. “You’re back at the facility,” Steve explained as he watched her eye her surroundings. Natasha’s hand shot up again to remove her oxygen mask, but he caught it mid-air. “You inhaled too much smoke. You can’t take that off.” Steve let go of her hand when she shook her head in understanding and she raised it spell something out in sign language. Steve watched her hand and moved back to show her what was behind him. Natasha tilted her head to the side and became noticeably calmer when she saw Sarah sleeping on the bed next to hers. “She’s okay,” Steve promised. “You both are.” Natasha pointed to his arm that was in a sling. “I’ll be fine,” he said as entangled his hand in her raised one and leaned forward to press a kiss to her forehead. “Rest, baby. You’re safe now.”
Natasha wanted to ask him what happened, how everyone was, but fatigue got the better of her as she slowly slipped back into unconsciousness.
The next time Natasha woke up, sunlight was peering brightly through the blinds. Memories of last night (or nights ago, she really wasn’t sure) came flooding back and she immediately remembered that she and Sarah were back in the facility. She moved her head to the side, expecting to see Sarah on the bed next to hers, but instead she saw the back of a man dressed in all black leather. He had his hands behind his back as he watched her daughter sleep and Natasha cleared her throat to get his attention.
Fury turned to her at the sound she made and walked over to the table between the beds. He poured water into a cup before moving closer to her side to hand it to her. “I have to say, Romanoff,” he began. “This isn’t your best look.”
She hummed softly as the cool water went down her dry throat. “Likewise, sir,” she answered, looking at the cuts and bruises on his face.
Fury eyed her empty cup and lifted the pitcher to refill it. Natasha shifted from where she sat in bed, obviously uncomfortable at the unusual situation of having her former boss tend to her. The director walked over to the windows, looking out into the mountains of upstate New York before he entwined his hands behind his back again. “You know,” he began as he turned back to her. “You’re lucky if Rogers ever lets the both of you out of his sight ever again.” Natasha turned to look out the window as well and she realized that though the room they were in was filled with medical equipment, the view outside showed a part of the mountains that was too high for them to be in the infirmary. It also wasn’t the same view of the gardens she got from her suite in the west wing of the facility. It all clicked into Natasha’s head then.
They were in Steve’s suite.
“I don’t think the man has slept more than a couple of winks in four days,” Fury explained as he watched her come to terms with her location. Natasha’s eyes widened a bit as she caught his words. Four days. Has she really been out that long? She watched as Fury moved to the foot of her bed. “He hasn’t left this room since you two were transferred here once the carrier landed. If it weren’t for government hounding our asses for a press conference, he probably would still be here.”
“Press conference?” Natasha clarified, not quite believing what she heard.
“We put a large hole in the woods of Saint Petersburg and dropped a shit ton of debris in the Atlantic,” Fury said with a scoff. “Did it to save the world from being invaded by an army of lunatics and their cyborg master, but somehow, that’s not what the politicians of the world seem to care about.” Fury waited for her to let out a sigh before he went on. “And there’s the matter of the leaked photos before all this happened.” He eyed Natasha on the bed. “Things will never be the same. You know that, right?”
Natasha cocked her head to the side to gesture to her sleeping daughter in the bed across. “It hasn’t been the same for awhile now, Nick.”
Fury smirked at her. “As if Rogers didn’t have enough anxieties, you had to go and give him a daughter.” He turned to look at Sarah once again, and Natasha could have sworn that she saw adoration flash in the director’s features.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” she answered. “She’s her father through and through.”
“I don’t know,” Fury said in disagreement. “Something tells me her fire is all Romanoff.” Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. “And my gut is pretty accurate when it comes to Romanoffs.” Fury gave her a knowing smile. “It’s nice to have you back, Natasha,” he said before he turned to make his way out the door.
“Nick,” Natasha called out once he had a foot out the door. Fury looked over his shoulder from where he stood. “Thank you.”
“You never mess with Grandpa Nick,” he said after a brief pause, another smirk ghosting over his features before he left.
The next couple of days proved Fury’s words.
Things would never be the same.
Following the press conference where Steve and Tony shared the podium to discuss the events in Russia, the one thing the public and the media seemed to zero in on was Sarah. Natasha wasn’t the least bit surprised that this was the issue that really lingered past the destruction in Europe. Sarah was Captain America’s daughter after all, and unfortunately, that fact came with a few unwanted realities.
Like the media’s fervent attention.
Natasha supposed she should be more bothered. In the last four days since the press conference, Tony had hired more security around the facility as the media hounded the premises to get another picture of her, Steve, or Sarah. Beyond accepting the idea that Captain America had a child, the fact the world couldn’t seem to get over was that Captain America had a secret child with Black Widow. That, and that it took them three years to find out. Rumors and conspiracy theories ran amuck in both the tabloids and the Internet, but Natasha ignored them all. She didn’t really care what they had to say about her, and quite frankly, she had bigger things to worry about.
Like the fact that her daughter was still in a coma.
It’s been seven days since the events in Russia, and both she and Steve worried over the fact that Sarah was yet to wake. Bruce had no answers. Helen couldn’t explain it. Each and every test they ran on Sarah came out normal, and her vitals were stronger than ever. Her organs were no longer failing and the serums in her genes were cohabiting harmoniously. She was healthy, and yet there was nothing that could explain the extended the slumber she was in. Bruce surmised that they just needed to give her time. Sarah’s body had gone through so much trauma in the last weeks and this may just be be her body’s way of recuperating. Natasha knew he was probably right, but it was hard to be completely certain or assured when her daughter was still comatose. Her patience was quickly running thin, but deep down, she knew that if her daughter could survive everything they had gone through, she could pull through this last hurdle. She just wished she could instill the same hope in Steve.
Steve’s been nothing but attentive since she woke up, almost borderline hovering at times. All the Avengers (and Pepper and Laura) have been in their own unique way, but Steve most especially. He made sure she ate and took her medication, made sure she was comfortable, made sure Sarah was changed regularly, and was never more than a call away. But despite that, Natasha felt the growing distance between them. Gone was the little bubble of intimacy they seemed to be wrapped up in after his and Sarah’s birthday. Their conversations never went further than discussing Sarah’s condition or her own health, and he avoided being inside the room when she was awake. She’s woken up enough times during the night to know that he sleeps in the chair between her bed and Sarah’s, but he’s already gone by daybreak. Natasha had a hunch that it was because the topic of her being programmed to kill their daughter still loomed over them, and while that weighed heavily on her, she prayed that he didn’t blame himself for it. Fat chance, she thought. She knew Steve Rogers better than he knew himself sometimes and it pained her that he was pulling away from her as the days passed.
On the eight day, Natasha sat in her bed with a book in her hand. She tried desperately to concentrate on what she was reading, but she couldn’t knowing that somewhere in the suite, Steve was still up and avoiding her. She sighed as she set her book down on the table next to her before reaching for the bag of things she had asked Clint to bring her from her own suite. She set it on her lap and reached inside to pull out a Manila envelope and a pen. Pushing the covers off of her, she swung her legs to the side before maneuvering out of the bed. She walked over to Sarah’s side and kissed her forehead gently before making her way out into the hall. She wandered further up and saw that the door to Steve’s bedroom was open, but the lights were off. She was about to turn to the living room when the sheer curtains leading to his balcony caught her attention. The delicate material swayed from the wind coming from the sliding glass doors that were left open and she saw the broad outline of Steve’s back as he gazed into the darkness. She slowly made her way into his bedroom on light footfalls and leaned her body against the glass door as she watched him.
“Still have a thing for brooding enough for the rest of the world, huh?” Natasha asked after awhile.
Steve turned at the sound of her voice. “Old habits die hard.”
“Apparently,” she said with a smirk.
The playful tone she had set didn’t last. “Something wrong with Sarah?” he asked worriedly. Natasha shook her head no and his eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Are you okay? What are you doing out of bed?”
“It’s been more than a week, Steve,” she reasoned with a roll of her eyes. “You’re not the only one who heals quickly.” She pushed herself off the door and made her way over to the patio table he kept on the balcony to sketch on and pulled out one of the chairs before setting down the envelope and pen on it.
“What’s that?” he asked as he made his way over to her.
Natasha pulled out a paper from the envelope and pushed it toward him as he took a seat across from her. “I was going to do this after her birthday, but things…” she trailed as she looked at him. “This is Sarah’s birth certificate,” she explained. “The real one, at least.” She pulled the cap from the pen before handing it to him. “I thought you might want to sign it.”
Steve took the pen from her as his eyes scanned the document. Most of the headings were in Russian, but he knew enough to decipher the details. Sarah Grant Rogers. Female. July 4, 2013. 02:54 A.M. 7lbs 8ounces. His thumb traced over the scrawl of Natasha’s signature above the provision for the mother’s name. Natalia Alianovna Romanova. To the right, where the father’s name was, his name was typed out but his signature was missing. Without so much as an ounce of hesitation, he put pen to the paper and signed it before pushing it back to Natasha.
“Mission accomplished,” she joked lightly as she took the document and secured it back in the envelope. Steve leaned back into the chair and Natasha sighed. “Steve,” she called out, her hand coming across the table as if to reach out to him. “What’s wrong?”
Steve hesitated for a second before he looked down at his hands. “It’s nothing-”
“Cut the bullshit, Rogers.” Natasha stood from her seat to come around to him. She leaned down to lift his chin with her thumb and index finger. “It’s never nothing,” she whispered. “Not with you.”
Steve sighed as he rose from his seat. He turned away from Natasha, his hands resting on the cool railing of the balcony as she shook his head. “During the press conference,” he began. “I said that I did what I had to do to save the world. But most importantly, I did it to save my daughter.”
“And you did,” Natasha reaffirmed as she came to stand next to him. “You saved the world and your daughter.”
“I helped save the world,” he conceded. “But my daughter? She’s still a coma.” He turned to face her and Natasha saw the hurt in his eyes that made her heart heavy. “She’s the most important person in the world to me and I failed her.” He shook his head again before looking down. “Christ, Nat. What’s the point of me doing what I do if I can’t save my own daughter?”
Natasha felt her heart crumble at his anguish. “Steve-“
“I fought you,” he whispered, finally alluding to the elephant in the room. “I tried to get through to you but I couldn’t. So I fought.”
Natasha shook her head as she moved to cup his face between her hands. “None of that was your fault, Steve.” She looked deeply into his eyes before leaning her forehead against his. “I was coming after Sarah. You did what you had to do.”
“I choked the life out of you.” His voice tight and pained. “I begged you to fight it, to recognize Sarah, but then you said that she was your mission and I…” Natasha felt the brush of his long eyelashes on her skin as his eyes closed and he relived the memory. “I didn’t have a choice. I felt your last breath leave you and if you hadn’t snapped out of… When you were crawling away and I was holding onto you for dear life… I truly believed that I was going to have to... to…”
Natasha’s eyes closed as he struggled to say the words. She didn’t have to hear it to know what he was about to say. He believed that he was going to have to kill her. She pulled her head away from him but kept her hands on his face. “Would you have done it?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Yes,” he breathed. “If having to live with the memory of personally taking you away from our daughter forever meant that she could live, I would have.” Natasha felt his warm tears against her hands as they fell from his eyes. “Nat, I’m so-”
Natasha cut him off by pressing her lips firmly against his as she rose to the tips of her toes and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck to pull him close. “Never apologize,” she whispered into his lips when they pulled away for air. “Never apologize for doing whatever you can to protect our daughter.” She knew he was about to protest so she put a finger to his lips. “Even if it’s from me,” she said. “Especially if it’s from me.” She rested her forehead against his again. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if you’d let me hurt her.” Steve wrapped his arms around her waist to pull her closer and she pulled him into a kiss once more. “I love you, Steve.”
“I love you, too.” Natasha felt his exhale on her face. “So much, Nat. So damn much.”
Natasha couldn’t believe how liberating it felt to tell him those three little words again after so long. In that moment, she let her senses take over her, drawing Steve in for another kiss as she pushed them away from the railing. She wrapped her arms tighter around his neck, and Steve he lifted her to him as he backed them into his bedroom. Once they were inside, Natasha slid off of him to push him into the lounger in the corner of his room before she moved to straddle his lap and slant her lips above his.
“Natasha,” Steve whispered breathlessly as her hands slid under the thin material of his shirt. Natasha’s hands worked to rid him of the garment, but his hands on her arms stopped her. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Natasha shook her head, capturing his lips in her own in a way that made both their heads spin. “You won’t,” she swore as she took his bottom lip between her teeth before lightly nipping at it. Steve moaned, and she let him go for a second to raise his shirt up and over his head before returning her lips to his. “You could never hurt me, Steve.” He shuddered as her hands raked down his chest to caress the dips of his chiseled abdomen, her fingers lightly tracing the fading lines that Ivan’s beams had left. “You’ll never lose me ever again.”
Her promise seemed to be enough to convince Steve. This time, it was his turn to passionately take her lips in his as their tongues battled for dominance and his hands worked to undo the sash of her robe and slide it off her shoulders. He paused for a second, and Natasha looked down at him with heavy eyes to see that his were fixed on the fading bruises that colored her neck. He ran his fingers gently over the marks and closed his eyes. “Hey,” she said, running both her thumbs over the tops of his cheekbones. “I love you.” Steve opened his eyes, and Natasha was taken by how beautiful he was in the moonlight. His perfect, flawless skin. The square of his jaw. His thin lips kissed swollen. The strong bridge of his nose and the lush fan of his eyelashes. And then there were his eyes, the ones he had passed onto their daughter, so brightly blue and oceanic even in the dark. She was mesmerized.
“I love you,” he echoed, his hands tangling in her silky locks as he pulled her closer to him as possible. Natasha ground down onto him, and they both moaned into their kiss. His fingers curled along the bottom of her camisole and she pulled away to pull it over her head. She threw the garment unceremoniously to the floor and watched as his eyes raked hungrily over her body, admiring every inch of her exposed skin like he was laying eyes on her for the very first time. “So beautiful,” he said, his hands grazing the bare skin at the curve of her hips, making her desire coil tighter in the pit of her stomach.
“You are,” she whispered. His hands moved up to cup her breasts and she gasped as his thumbs ghosted over her nipples. She shivered, the combination of his touch and the breeze coming through the open glass doors enough to send chills down her spine. The need to feel him, all of him, threatened to overwhelm her as she moved her hands from his shoulders, over his chest, and down past his navel. Her fingers danced their way into the waistband of his pajamas, but he caught her hands. She kissed him again. “Let me.”
Steve shook his head. “I need you.”
His voice was all but begging, and desire hummed loudly in Natasha’s veins. She nodded and they both worked to rid themselves of the last remaining barriers between them. She sucked in a breath as she wrapped her arms around his neck, her forehead on his again as she felt him hard and throbbing against the inside of her thigh. Her hand reached between them and Steve groaned as her fingers curled around him as she guided him to her. Slowly, she pushed her hips down and sank onto him. “Steve,” she gasped, his name like a prayer on her lips once he was fully seated inside of her.
They stayed like that for a moment, frozen as her nails dug into the skin of his shoulders. She could feel his hot, labored breaths in the crook of her neck and she smiled into his hair. It felt different from the last time they’d done this, when they were both so caught up in the moment of Sarah accepting him so quickly and fondly and Steve professing his undying love for her. There was something definite about this. Permanent. Natasha was dizzy, her senses on overdrive, but she basked in the feeling of being so connected, so whole, so complete. It felt perfect, how they fit, how there was nothing else she could feel but him. She knew it deep in her heart – it didn’t matter how many times she had him, she was never going to get enough of this man, of them together. There was no doubt in her mind that here, in Steve Rogers’ arms, wrapped so tightly in his embrace, was where she belonged. And then it was clear: she was home. And she’d be damned if she ever ran away from it ever again.
“Oh, Nat,” she heard Steve breath. She tilted his head back, her lips finding his again and Natasha felt the wetness running down his face. She opened her eyes just as he opened his own, and as blue met green, she saw the tears welling in his orbs. It was only when Steve moved a hand from her waist up to her face to wipe away her tears did she realize that she, too, was crying. This was it, she realized, all the pent up emotion they’d been skirting around since they first saw each other again down in the infirmary. They were all finally coming to surface and rapidly so. This was everything they had to push aside to save their daughter. The unsaid words. The unspoken apologies. The fallout of them almost losing their daughter, of almost losing each other. This was everything bleeding into the passion between them and they both felt it. Steve’s voice anchored her back to reality. “Never going to let you go again.”
Natasha intertwined both their hands before pushing him into the backrest of the lounger to pin their hands above his head. She leaned forward, her face millimeters away from his, and they both gasped as the movement caused him to shift deliciously inside her. “Mine,” she growled possessively as their lips met. She started a slow and steady motion with her hips, repeatedly rising before ever so slowly sinking down on him again, enveloping him completely in her heat and leaving both their mouths agape at the sensation.
“Yours,” Steve said, letting go of her hands to clutch her hips. “Always.” His lips moved to her neck, down to her collarbone, to the valley between her breasts before his hot mouth teased at her nipple. “Forever.” Natasha threw her head back in pleasure as his mouth and fingers worked over her in tandem. He began to raise his hips in time to meet her thrusts and Natasha swore she saw stars.
“Steve,” she whimpered, feeling the muscles of his back flex under her touch. She gasped as he hit a particularly good spot deep within her, and she felt her thighs start to burn and quiver.
“I know, baby,” he soothed. “I know.” His hand was suddenly sliding down the flat of her stomach, to where they were joined, and then his thumb was gentle yet firm as he rubbed circles as he touched her. Natasha keened, her vision nothing but white as her body shook with pleasure and her walls tightened around him. He was quick to follow, thrusting twice more before he let out a strangled cry. Natasha felt the rush of warmth, and though her lungs still burned for air, she leaned down to kiss him again.
Natasha woke up to the feeling of warm breath hitting the back of her neck. She smiled, feeling the weight of Steve’s arm around her waist as her face pressed against the softness of the pillow she’d rested her head against once they found it in them to move to his bed. She cracked an eye open and was surprised when the light peering through the curtains still wasn’t blinding. Her eyes landed on the clock on the wall next to the bed and she saw that it was an hour short of sunrise. She turned in Steve’s embrace, smiling fondly as she brushed an errant lock of hair out of his eyes as he slept. It reminded her so much of the same stubborn lock of hair that Sarah had. And then she remembered.
Deciding to check on her daughter, Natasha gently lifted Steve’s arm off her. He stirred, rolling over to the opposite side of the bed at the slight jostle. She shook her head in amusement and stood, stretching her hands over her head. She wasn’t in any hurry, comforted by the fact that JARVIS was sure to alert her if any of Sarah’s vitals changed during the night, so she slowly moved her head from side to side, the knot on her neck coming lose with a faint pop. She sighed, feeling deliciously sore in a way she hadn’t felt in a long time as memories of last night came flooding back. She looked back, smiling at Steve’s sleeping form on the bed. Her eyes surveyed the room for her clothes, and when she saw them strewn in different directions, she decided that one of Steve’s shirts would have to do for now.
Walking over to his wooden chest of drawers, she pulled the top drawer open and smiled again when she learned that time still hadn’t changed his habits even by a little bit. Her hand reached for the pale blue shirt at the top of the stack that had the word DODGERS written in large font and pulled the soft cotton over her head. It was at least ten sizes too big on her petite frame, but she didn’t mind as she was enveloped in the smell of fabric softener and Steve. She was about to push the drawer shut when something shiny amidst the stacks of shirts caught her eye. She hesitated for a brief moment, not wanting to invade Steve’s privacy, but curiosity got the better of her. She reached for the object, the metal of it cool under her fingertips as she pulled it out. It was a canister, one she had seen before, and before she could think better of it, she was pulling the lid off and pouring the contents into her palm. Natasha stared at the chain in her hand and ran her thumb across the information on Steve’s dog tag.
Another smile made its way across Natasha’s face as she remembered how fond she was of wearing his tag when he was away on a solo mission. She knew she was being silly, but she felt comforted by having a little token of his when they couldn’t be in contact. She sighed, closing her eyes briefly as she wondered just how she made it through these past three years without him. Shaking her head, she was about to put it back in the canister when she heard something else rattle inside. Confused, she tipped it over completely and gasped in surprise when the sight of two familiar round pieces of platinum fell into her hand.
Natasha sighed against Steve’s bare chest as they both laid in bed, sated and content beneath the covers. Her arms around his midsection tightened as she pulled him closer to her, her eyes closing shut as she took in his presence, felt his warm skin underneath her cheek, heard his beating heart in her ears. Hours ago, she was certain she would never hear this sound again as she watched an EMP go off in the building he and the STRIKE team were trying to infiltrate in Bhutan. She was with Hill at SHIELD HQ, acting as the handler of the mission, and she swore her heart stopped when the techs couldn’t get through to their communications channel. She held her breath until Steve radioed in to tell them that they had made it out okay hours later.
“I can hear you thinking from up here,” Steve teased, running a hand up and down her spine.
“Yeah?” she challenged, looking up at him so he could see her upturned eyebrow. “Did you hear the part where I called you an idiot for not jumping out of the way of a grenade?”
Steve sighed as he sat up. “Nat-“
He was surprised when Natasha’s lips were urgently pressing into his, her tongue demanding entrance as her fingers tangled in his hair and she slid herself onto his lap. “I can’t live without you,” she whispered brokenly as she pulled away and rested her head on his shoulder. The gravity of almost losing him was finally crashing heavily on her.
Steve held her tighter in his arms. “You won’t have to. Ever.”
Natasha pressed a kiss to the bare skin of his neck and sighed into his ear. “Marry me.”
Surprised, Steve gently pushed her away from him to look her in the eyes. “What did you just say?”
“You weren’t supposed to find those.”
Natasha turned back at the sound of Steve’s voice to see him already sitting up in bed, the comforter pooled on his lap. She looked back sheepishly at the two rings in her hand, not quite believing that she was holding them again. “You kept them.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Natasha’s head whipped up at his response, a look of disbelief on her face. “Because…” she tried to answer, but she couldn’t really finish her thought. “You never told anyone?”
Steve shook his head. “We said we’d do it together after DC. Just didn’t feel right telling everyone without you.” He reached a hand down to the floor to grab his boxers and pulled it on as he stood up and made his way over to her. He ran his hands up and down her arms as she looked up at him. “Did you really think I was just going to throw them away?”
Natasha’s eyes filled with tears. “Steve…” She stood there in shock, her mind unable to comprehend just how much this man loved her as she held the rings between her fingers. “I…”
Steve leaned down to kiss her as the tears finally fell from her eyes. “I’m yours,” he whispered, taking one of the rings from her. “In sickness and in health.” He caught her lips in his again. “For richer and for poorer.” And again. “For better and for worse.” And again. “Through crazy metal men with mind control Frisbees.” Natasha actually laughed through her tears at that. “Till death do us part.” He kissed her longer this time, his thumb wiping away the wetness from her face while his other hand slipped the ring onto its rightful place on her left finger. “Mrs. Rogers.”
Natasha wrapped her arms tightly around him, nuzzling her face into his bare chest. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Steve said, kissing the top of her head as he tightened his embrace.
They stood there for a moment, wrapped up in each other before Natasha pulled away. She lifted his left hand before she slid the ring onto his finger and kissed his palm. “Why don’t you go and shower,” she suggested. “I’ll check on Sarah and start breakfast.”
Steve’s eyebrows rose in genuine surprise. “You can cook now?”
Natasha let out a small chuckle. “Couldn’t raise a child solely on takeout now, could I?” Steve shrugged and she reached up to peck his lips. “See you out there,” she said before she made her way out the door.
Steve watched Natasha leave the room and sighed as he looked down at his left hand and the ring that now encircled his finger. Everything was felt so bittersweet. On one hand, he was beyond the moon to wake up to Natasha again, to hold her in his arms and kiss her at will. But then there was Sarah, still in deep slumber in the room down the hall. He wanted desperately to see her blue eyes again, his eyes, and to hear her call out to him. What he would give to just be able to read to her again. Another sigh fell from his lips as he turned to make his way to the bathroom, but Natasha’s voice had him running out of his room and down the hall. His heart raced as he ran the short distance to the guest room, his mind already bracing himself for the endless possibilities. He turned the corner and entered the room, and relief washed over him at the sight that greeted him. On the bed, Natasha sat with Sarah in her lap, the little girl smiling wide and brightly up at him from where she was nestled in her mother’s arms. “Sarah,” he breathed, walking further into the room before lifting the girl into his arms. Sarah squealed in absolute elation. “Oh, baby, I missed you so much.”
“Daddy,” Sarah whined in his embrace. “Can’t… breathe.”
Steve immediately loosened his hold at her complaint. “Sorry, Princess.” He kissed her on the cheek and she giggled before returning the action and burrowing her head into her father’s shoulder.
“Hey, what about me?” Natasha asked from where she sat on the bed, smiling widely as both her eyes and heart filled with so much love and adoration as she watched the two loves of her life.
Steve sat down on the bed, setting Sarah down on one of his legs and pulling Natasha to sit on his other. His arms wrapped around both of them before he pecked each one on the temple. “Do you know how much I love you guys?”
“This much?” Sarah asked, spreading her arms widely in front of her as she turned to face her parents.
Steve felt Natasha’s smile against his shoulder and he laughed at their daughter’s antics. “Not even close,” he said before tapping her nose with his finger.
The little girl shrugged, and Natasha couldn’t help the pride that filled her as she reminded her so much of her father. “Mama?” Sarah called out.
“Yeah, solnyshko?” Natasha answered, reaching a hand out to tuck a blonde curl behind Sarah’s ear.
“Can we stay here with Daddy now?” Sarah asked, her blue eyes full of hope.
Natasha smiled at her before looking up and sharing a look with Steve who pulled both her and Sarah closer to him. “Forever.”
First and foremost, a HUGE thank you to everyone who kept up with this story. Your comments and enthusiasm for this work was truly what kept me going. I hope you enjoyed taking a journey with our little Rogers family as much as I did and that this sugary sweet ending made up for all the tears (and feels) caused by the heart attack-inducing cliffhangers throughout these ten chapters.
You guys are truly the best readers an author could ask for.