It didn't register until she saw Sharon’s face. It was the surface of the sun inside the apartment, and Natasha had picked up the Skype call without thinking.
There was a pause. Sharon said, “Heat wave, huh?”
“Like a kiln,” said Natasha, and remembered she was only wearing a sports bra and shorts. She wanted to put on a shirt, but worried that acknowledging it would be more awkward. “I’d be a fully-formed vase by now.”
Sharon leaned back in the ergonomic desk chair. Behind her was hotel decor at its finest. Beige walls, stock wall art of a poppy field, a bed in the corner, and bathroom beyond.
“They give you robes in this place?”
“It's Dallas,” said Sharon. “You're either a cowboy or nobility.”
Natasha reached for her brush. Sharon had one of those jobs that not only allowed her to live by herself, but also own a car. Like, it was Boston, but still.
It also required her to travel usually once a week, sometimes twice. Why bother with the car if you're on a plane half the time? Natasha asked.
Why bother with the steak if a protein shake does the same job? she'd replied.
Natasha’s hair felt like a medieval tapestry; she worked the brush through slowly. “How'd the pitch go? Did the hypermale execs fall down at your feet?”
My cousin has a presentation tomorrow and needs a ballet consult, Peggy said last month, dumping her tablet into Natasha’s lap. Advise her.
Of all the questions Natasha had wanted to ask — I thought you and Steve broke up, Why are you in New York, Why would anyone need consultation on ballet at 11:30pm on a Tuesday — what came out of her mouth was, “Why is she blonde?”
The Carters shouted, in tandem. Peggy gleeful; Sharon pissy.
Now Natasha used words like ‘pitch’ and ‘exec.’ And ‘data-driven.’
“Good,” said Sharon. “We got the bid.”
“Of course you did.”
“We almost didn't! Thanks to That Moron. Like honestly, I think he's trying to sabotage the team.”
“He probably is.”
“But for real.”
“For real he probably is.”
Sharon carried her tablet with her to the bed, where she gathered herself under the covers. Her hair was damp from the shower.
“An old classmate of mine,” said Natasha, setting aside her hairbrush and also curling in bed; hers a bright orange duvet cast aside to the wall, with dirty clothes heaped on top, “slipped laxatives into another girl’s yogurt just before an audition. We were thirteen.”
“What the fuck.”
“Everything you tell me about the dance world sounds like ancient Rome.”
“You're not wrong.”
The video feed jostled. A burst of static and a flash of white. Then Natasha and the tablet were leaned against the bedside lamp, with a view of Sharon curled up in bed.
“So what happened to her?”
Sharon’s eyes were very light under the lamp. Almost translucent. They were so dark normally you could barely see the pupil.
“The sabotage target.”
“Oh.” Natasha also stretched out in bed, hitting the light switch. “She's fine. Lucky for her I saw the dirty deed in person.”
“You're not going to shower?”
“No point, will just be showering again in the morning.”
“And the sabotage girl?”
Sharon said, “You're terrifying.” It didn't sound like a censure.
The industrial fan Natasha had set up on the corner of her room, which was approximately two feet from the edge of her bed, was drowning out most other noise.
“I'm going to listen to podcasts now.”
“Okay. Work tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Then performance.”
“What time do you finish?”
“Late. What time do you fly?”
“Early.” Sharon reached a hand for the tablet. “Sleep well.”
The screen went blank. Natasha let her computer lull itself to sleep. It was more efficient than she.
Once, Sam had flopped on the couch next to Natasha around seven one evening, when he was getting home from work and Natasha was preparing to leave for hers.
“I was on your fancy artisan coffee shop site,” he said, scrolling on his phone. “You didn't tell me they had barista bios.”
“Yeah, why wouldn't I? A mystery.”
“Look at this: actor, actor, artist, musician, oh another dancer, actor, actor — Jesus, this one went to Juilliard —”
They weren't required to wear aprons, at least. One scrap of dignity afforded to all their master’s degrees and performance experience.
The good thing, too, was that everyone was in the same boat. And empathy went a long way.
“Please,” said Peter for the fifth time. “I won't make it to the lower east side in time with Friday traffic.”
“I have a rehearsal uptown,” said Wanda. “I wouldn't make it either.”
“Is this for another kid’s part?” Natasha asked.
Peter took the foamy latte from Wanda and slid it across the counter. “Obviously. I look like I'm fifteen. May as well use it.” He turned to Natasha, considering. “Actually —”
“Can't. Just ask Maria to go early. Pietro can close by himself.”
Wanda and Peter made identical faces of horror.
Natasha could have covered for him; but she'd given enough of herself away in the past to know altruism never paid.
She clocked out on time. The daily summary was: one terrible customer that reduced her to tears; two excellent scientists that told her their research; and a nice bulldog.
She ran to catch the bus for a backup gig.
Sharon was still logged into Skype when Natasha got home. She called out of pure curiosity. Nothing else.
“Go to sleep,” Natasha told her.
“You called me.”
Sharon stretched, her worn out t-shirt pulling across her shoulders. Natasha averted her eyes from the collarbone display.
“Yeah. Pitch tomorrow.”
“Organic chicken farm.”
“Oh, I worked at one of those for a while.”
“What, ” said Sharon, pitching forward. “This is valuable information! How long? What did you do? What were the drawbacks of mechanized labor?”
Natasha sleepily allowed herself to be interrogated, as her muscles throbbed and healed themselves.
“Three rabbits?” Sharon said, amused. Natasha realized she'd been babbling.
“I'm going to bed. Good luck tomorrow.” She reached for her laptop.
Before the lid closed fully, she heard Sharon say, still laughing a little, “Night.”
Natasha liked Bucky, despite his ridiculous name.
She liked that he never came over when Steve wasn't there, like all of Sam’s exes. (Samuel Wilson, U-Haul lesbian at heart, gave away house keys with his phone number.)
She liked that Bucky didn't hang out in the living room, but would go straight to Steve’s room and close the door.
“You can chill in the common area, you know,” Steve said once.
Bucky had made eye contact with Natasha over Steve’s head.
Natasha liked him a lot more then. She even forgave his long showers and inability to buy toilet paper or contribute to utilities.
The tapping at the door was soft and apologetic. It was a sorry, I know it's midnight on a Wednesday knock. Natasha rolled herself off the couch and padded to the door.
“Natalia.” He held out a packet of letters. “Fetched your mail.”
It was a hefty stack. They should probably check it more. “Thanks. Steve’s at work.”
“I know. Back at one.” He followed her to the living room. “You should check your mailbox more.”
“Why? It's all spam.”
“It’s called junk when it's not email. Also,” his hand hovered above Steve’s doorknob, “there's a letter from your girlfriend.”
“What? Shut up. We’re not dating.”
Bucky raised his eyebrows. “Tell her that,” he said, and let himself into Steve’s room.
Natasha heard the crunch of plastic paint palettes underfoot and the soft swearing that followed.
He exaggerated. It was a postcard. A polaroid shot of Graceland. A scribbled note on the back that made Natasha’s chest clench, a little, although it could have just as easily been a friendship interpretation.
It was signed just, Sharon.
But she'd remembered that Natasha loved Elvis. She'd made a special trip to Graceland, even though the company had undoubtedly put her up in a swish hotel downtown. Sharon, who only listened to trop house or trashy underground German glitch hop, like a freak.
Natasha didn't hang it on her wall. That felt — precipitous. But she propped it up on the cinderblocks that served as her bedside table, next to her record player.
(“What are you, sixty?” Sharon said the second time they’d Skyped.
“Are you? ” said Natasha, staring incredulously at the coaster set Sharon had on her coffee table.)
“Did you get the bid?”
Sharon made a face. “Not this time.”
Natasha looked up, betrayed. “But you worked so hard. You did so much research. Like, a ridiculous amount of research.”
“That's how it goes.”
Sharon stretched and flipped the view so that Natasha could see out the hotel window.
“Get some doughnuts.”
Sharon flipped the screen back, the corner of her mouth turned up. “Do you know anything about the Midwest?”
“What’s to know? It’s corn and suburbs.”
“You're a born and bred New Yorker, aren't you? Everything west of Jersey is just wheat and Jesus.”
“Am I wrong though?”
Eyes crinkled at the corners, Sharon pulled on a hoodie and tied her hair up. Natasha envied how nice it looked. Natasha in a ponytail looked like a child. Sharon could have been dropped onto Wall Street.
“You're not wrong.” A pause, and then: “But there's nice people here. And good food. It's relaxing. It's just a place with people. No different than New York.”
“How dare you.”
Natasha scowled. She reached for her moisturizer and applied with clean strokes.
“I knew it. Brighton Beach by way of … Moscow? Saint Petersburg? Yekaterinburg?”
Natasha blinked. “Who are you?”
“You've seen what I do.”
“When have you have anything to do with Russia?”
“Russians. A family owned carpet empire, based in Queens. Originally from Yekaterinburg.”
Natasha tossed the bottle aside. It landed somewhere in her duvet. “I think you just like to google.”
Sharon laughed, properly, caught off guard. Something akin to warmth settled in Natasha’s stomach. Her computer was overheating. She deposited it on the floor and flopped back onto her mattress — which was also on the floor. “Minsk.”
“It was Russia when they left.”
“It was USSR when they left.”
“Technically it was —” Sharon stopped herself.
“Go ahead. Look it up.”
Sharon already had Wikipedia open by the time Natasha finished speaking. “Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Society,” she said triumphantly.
There was a slightly tense silence. Natasha rearranged her covers while Sharon scrolled through her phone. She kept glancing up, a little embarrassed, but also stubborn.
Finally she tossed the phone aside. “Were your parents from Minsk?”
“No.” Natasha turned over on her stomach. Her neck was at a weird angle, but there was a better breeze this way. The window was thin, but long. “They moved there. From somewhere else in Russia. I don't know, nobody ever told me.”
There was a pause. Natasha kind of wanted to hang up but also didn't.
“Are they still around?” Sharon asked. It was more tentative than Natasha had heard her. “Your parents.”
“Never knew them. I mean, I wouldn't have known my dad anyway. But my mom died when I was like two. I lived with my aunt and uncle as a kid.”
“In Brighton Beach?”
“In Brighton Beach.”
The conversation turned to Sharon’s upcoming itinerary, but like a tide’s pull, circled back to family and holidays and childhood grievances, ostensibly shoved aside and recovered, but —
“ — and Mom still doesn't allow any guests,” said Sharon, “since Peggy decided the very best way to come out, before me, was to publicly suck the face off her college roommate in front of the extended family at dinner —”
“What?” said Natasha, thrown. One, she hadn't even the slightest inkling that Sharon was queer. Two, “Peggy’s gay?”
“Bi. She must've mentioned Angie around you. Never shuts up about her usually.” Sharon threw a rolled up pair of socks into her suitcase.
“That is the worst idea. Are they on a year lease?”
“Yep. But what would life be without a little gasoline sitting by the fire?” said Sharon, an edge to her voice. “At least for Peggy Carter.”
“It'll be fine, though.” Sharon shifted. The screen went pale as bone. “Peggy always works things out to her advantage.”
It was funny how fast you could acclimate to a schedule.
Natasha would roll over in bed as soon as morning light hit her eyes, and scroll through her messages before she was fully awake. She would find her phone in her hand on the subway, no recollection of taking it out, but there were two waiting messages on the screen.
There was eight-hour stretch once where Sharon was stuck in a conference without reception. Natasha’s phone looked wrong every time she opened it. She couldn't figure out why.
Then she realized: there were no notifications waiting on the lock screen.
Natasha deliberately kept her phone on vibrate at work. Incoming texts were her link to the real world: to a place where people cared about her, and interactions didn't resemble dadaist art.
She hefted her face into the semblance of a smile. At this point she was desensitized to anything beneath outright verbal abuse. She spun the Square tablet around, waiting for the customer to leave.
steve: is it ok if peggy stays the weekend?
steve: basically just saturday morning to sunday night
steve: you'll barely see her!!
Natasha typed, where is she sleeping, just as Maria came in from the back.
Maria frowned. Natasha hastily stowed her phone.
She arrived home early enough to eat, change, and leave for her second job. She forgot about Steve’s texts until the following night, when she opened the front door to find half of Brooklyn in their apartment.
Bucky, who was smiling, shouted, “Natasha!” Several unknown arms hauled her inside and shoved a beer into her hands.
She sat on the kitchen windowsill, listening to a freckled teen monologue the virtues of Tarantino until Steve wriggled into their space. His foot caught briefly in a empty Bud Lite box.
“Is it okay?” Steve said urgently. It took him two tries to dislodge his foot. “You didn't text back. I thought you were mad.”
Natasha checked. She'd never pressed send. Maria had distracted her.
“I know you hate it when Smerm’s —” Steve swallowed back a burp. “Beg pardon. Inexcusable. When Sam’s hookups show up here without notice.”
Natasha chewed on a smile. Steve had purged all photographic evidence of his scrawny pre-pubescence, but Bucky had described it enough for her to imagine. And it was never so apparent as when he was trashed.
He patted her arm, ever so gently, staring intensely into her eyes.
“You're my best friend, okay? Not like Bucky. He is too, but I love him. I love you too, but not like that. But you're friend, okay, I mean it. And I want you to tell me when you're upset. Okay?”
A flash of light caught her eye. Bucky was surreptitiously filming on his phone.
Steve howled and launched himself at Bucky. Mainly into his arms. Natasha fled before the PDA could border on the truly outrageous.
She gifted her beer into the willing hands of a barely-legal adult and escaped to her room.
There was someone in her bed.
Peggy said blearily, “Is this not Sam’s room?”
“Sam has curtains and bookshelves and an armchair,” said Natasha. “His room is nice.”
Peggy lifted her head, with great effort. “Looks nice to me.”
Natasha nudged the plateau of dirty clothing into the ravine of discarded shoes.
“I'll just.” Peggy shifted a leg off the mattress. “I'll just. Go find Sam’s room.”
“It's okay. You can stay. Just don't hog the covers.”
“Too hot for them anyway, you lunatic,” Peggy mumbled. Her face was smushed into the pillow. Natasha scowled at the red lipstick stains it had already acquired. “I’m not the Carter you want. But close enough?” She started giggling to herself. “No, no. Almost only counts in horse — in house — grenades.”
“What?” said Natasha, and finally processed the preceding sentence. “Wait, what?”
Peggy sat up, bellowed, “HOUSE GRENADES,” and then fell asleep.
Natasha stood frozen. Her stomach felt like it had withstood a jumper cable.
She climbed resentfully into bed, kicking Peggy only a little. Totally on accident.
“So. I hear you had Peggy in your bed this weekend.”
Natasha made a face. She kicked her shoes into the corner and dropped her bag.
“Well?” Sharon waggled her eyebrows. “How was it?”
Natasha threw away a heap of old takeaway containers. “Nothing happened.”
She sounded far too disbelieving.
“I don't hook up with strangers.”
“What, not at all?” The screen jostled. It looked like Sharon was home for once. “Wait, you’ve never had a one-night stand?”
“I have. Didn't super care for it.”
Sharon chewed on her lip. It looked like she was working something out. “So you're not really into casual sex.”
Natasha shrugged. She shoved used dance clothes into the hamper and shoes into the closet. The door mostly shut.
“I mean. That's fine, though,” said Sharon. “Like, everyone's different.”
Natasha collapsed onto the bed. She retrieved a Clif bar from nightstand. She was too tired to eat real food. “You got a different girl every night?”
Sharon protested half-heartedly. Then, rubbing the back of her neck: “For me it's just — it's the easiest part of being gay. Girls are kind. Mostly. And no one worries about getting pregnant. Everyone knows the setup down there. You have a good time and then go your separate ways. It's easy.”
Natasha, who had never remotely felt this way, took her word for it.
She sat the wrapper aside and curled up in her duvet. “I'm going to watch TV. You up early tomorrow?”
Sharon’s brows knit. “Regular time. Did I upset you?”
“No. I'm just tired.”
Sharon hesitated. “You sure?”
“Yes. Weirdo.” Natasha smiled so that Sharon would believe her. She reached for the screen. “Say goodbye before I make you walk the plank.”
She hung up the sound of Sharon laughing. She wished she didn't like it so much.
It was just after 2am and the apartment was finally quiet. The heat sat on Natasha like a weight. She felt drained and keyed up at the same time. It was always like this after late performances. Her fan was making no difference. Even the open window let in only arid moisture.
She pulled off her shirt, throwing it aside. She dozed for a few minutes before the tossing and turning started. Then, giving into temptation, she slid a hand into her underwear.
She and Sharon hadn't spoken today. Natasha wasn't self-deluded enough to pretend that wasn't the reason. She let herself relax and build up a rhythm.
The phone blasted at full volume. She must have hit the volume switch by accident. It was so loud, and everyone was sleeping.
She pawed at the screen with one hand, for the cancel button.
She did not hit the cancel button.
“Hey,” said Sharon, squinting at the screen, “isn't it really late there?”
Every one of Natasha’s muscles seized up.
She saw Sharon’s eyes drop to her breasts, and then to her hand.
Sharon’s jaw fell.
Natasha’s mind was white static. Her chest flushed. She opened her mouth to — apologize? Admit she'd understand if Sharon never wanted to speak to her again?
Sharon’s tongue flicked out to wet her lips.
“Feel good?” she asked.
All the air left Natasha’s lungs.
Sharon leaned back. Natasha could see her chest rise and fall, a shallow breath.
“Don't let me stop you.”
All of Natasha’s joints felt rusted over. She unlocked them, one by one, as her body allowed her to lay back down again.
She said. “Tell me. Tell me what to do.”
Sharon swallowed, eyes dark. “Take your fingers out.”
Sharon talked her quietly through. Slowly, torturously. Voice never wavering.
“Aren't you?” said Natasha. “Aren't you going to —”
Sharon shook her head. Her neck was flushed, and she was breathing heavily. In the end, all it took was Sharon’s eyes watching Natasha to push her over the edge.
Shaking, Natasha wiped her fingers on the sheets. A rattling breath left her lungs.
Sharon licked her lips once, then swallowed. Natasha was already drifting off when Sharon said, hoarsely, “Goodnight.”
Natasha woke up late. She flew out of the apartment, grabbing a KIND bar on the way, and arrived in time to witness Peter walk out in the middle of his shift. His eyes looked red.
The owner, one Brock Rumlow, former welterweight wrestling champion from the 80s, smiled.
He said, “You don't mind staying an extra hour, do you, Anastasia?”
Rumlow hovered the rest of the day, raging about the state of things in his establishment. Natasha could count on one hand the times she'd seen him before this.
He followed Wanda around close enough for his breath to stir her hair. He kept a steady barrage of censure, indiscriminately in front of customers. Pietro had permanent nail marks on the inside of his palm.
Natasha ate a granola bar on her way up the stairs. She hadn’t had a lunch break. She fell into bed, nearly forgetting to set her alarm.
She didn't notice that Sharon hadn't texted all day.
Her stomach turned the next afternoon to find, unfathomably, Rumlow there again.
They were overhauling the place, he announced. Everything was changing. The standards of this place had been far too lax for far too long. It was incredible how difficult it was to find decent help in this city.
Wanda quit. Pietro shouted some choice words, and then quit.
Natasha, who needed the money, did not quit. At least the twins were still students, and lived with their family.
Natasha did notice that night that Sharon hadn't texted.
A two day silent stretch was weird. Was she stuck in a basement conference hall in Duluth? Had her superhuman body finally succumbed to something as mundane as the flu?
you ok? Natasha asked.
She woke up twice that night to check for notifications.
By the next afternoon, there were still none.
She went to work with ice in her lungs. She'd forgotten half the clothes she needed to change into after work.
Her phone vibrated just after 5pm rush. She fumbled for it.
SPECIAL OFFER!! the email notification screamed.
Natasha felt someone's eyes on her. She looked up.
Rumlow was staring.
“Sorry,” she said, putting it away. “Girlfriend’s sick. l’m worried about her.”
Rumlow’s expression transformed. But it was no more pleasant than the previous one.
He came up to her at the end of the night, as she was counting the register. Maria was downstairs. Everyone else was gone.
“So,” he said, leaning ever-so-casually onto the counter. “When did you know you liked females?”
Natasha didn't pause her counting. She listened, strained, for Maria.
“Not even trying to be gross,” he said with a spread of his arms — and a smile he clearly thought was attractive. “But like, did you know instantly?”
His gaze was hovering just above her neckline. Not low enough to cry foul. Just high enough to make her nervous.
Maria came in from out back. Rumlow didn't move.
Natasha handed the petty cash to Maria. “I'm late,” she said. She hoped the distress that was invisible to Rumlow would be apparent to Maria. “Okay if I take off?”
Maria, bless her, nodded.
Rumlow’s eyes followed her as she left.
talk later? work’s being weird
“Natasha,” Maria said quietly.
One of their regulars — and Natasha’s favorite — waved goodbye, stuffing a kind tip into the jar.
The look on Maria’s face was not encouraging.
“Probation?” Natasha said blankly. She barely felt the cold of the fridge she was leaning against.
Maria was not one for bullshit. “You're on your phone too much. You leave early a lot, and you're often late.”
“Everyone leaves early. You employ a bunch of artists and actors.”
“I know. Also customers love you, which is why this is a probation and not a termination.” Maria tapped the side of the desk. “If you want to talk about changing your schedule, that's something we can work out.”
Something was nagging at Natasha. “I've been working here two years. This is the first I’m hearing of this?”
Maria looked uncomfortable. So not her move, then. “You've just been a little distracted lately. It happens to us all. Rumlow wants to crack down on inefficiency.”
No, thought Natasha that night, as Rumlow came in yet again to breathe down on her neck, Rumlow is smarter than he looks.
“Hey. Got a blind date for you,” he said. He didn't even wait for a break in customers. “It's a chick, don't worry. Smokin’ hot. Could be a stripper, if she were dumber.”
The older gentleman at the register looked taken aback. Natasha’s hands shook as she made his change.
“No,” she said.
“Oh right!” said Rumlow. Like he'd just remembered. He crossed his arms so that his biceps bulged. “You've got a girl. I forgot. What's your type? Asian? Blonde? Do you like girly girls or like, the ones you can pretend are men?”
Natasha froze. The customer she was serving also froze, horrified.
“Yeah, I'm quitting,” said Natasha.
Rumlow looked surprised. He held up his hands.
“Aw, hey, don’t get mad. I just don't know any lesbians. You've got to teach me the lingo.” He grinned. “One bro to another.”
Natasha, hands still shaking, went to find Maria.
Maria’s eyebrows shot up. She didn't ask for any explanations — just told Natasha that she'd consider this her two weeks notice.
“No,” said Natasha, “I'm leaving now.”
Maria’s eyebrows lifted further.
“Look, I know how Rumlow is,” she said. “But these overhauls never last more than two weeks. Then he loses interest again, until his daddy cracks down on falling profits.” She leaned forward. “Are you sure you don't want to stick things out?”
Natasha didn't know how to explain it. She didn't know how to make it seem serious. It was serious enough — her stomach and hands and heart rate said so — but she was afraid that saying it out loud would sound like an overreaction.
“I'm sorry,” she said, and left.
Bucky took one look at Natasha’s face and handed her the remote. She closed the front door, dropped her bag, and settled next to him.
Natasha gave herself a week to sleep. She spent of this time picking up her phone, staring at it, and setting it down again.
Sharon wanted to ghost? Fine. It was totally fine to have sex with somebody and then never speak to them again. Maybe she just wasn't into Natasha. Maybe she was, but knew about Natasha’s disinterest in casual sex (stupid, so stupid to have shared that) and was now afraid of accidentally acquiring a long distance girlfriend.
Sharon was busy. Sharon was an Ivy League graduate. Sharon was going places and didn't need to be tied down by a part-time dancer, part-time barista on Medicaid with no savings account.
Sharon owned stock. Natasha couldn't remember the last time she'd been to the dentist.
One week bled into another and then it was two months since they’d last spoken. Their last 5:40-minute Skype still lurked in the recent call list.
Natasha deleted their text thread. It was embarrassing to see so many blue bubbles with no grey following.
She couldn't bring herself to erase Sharon’s contact altogether. She changed the name instead, so that she wouldn't get a jolt every time she scrolled past it.
It was the routine she missed the most. She hadn't realized how much her days and hours were bracketed by messages and calls.
I care about you, the notifications meant. I want to talk to you. Tell me your things.
Drained by the oppressive heat and vicious unemployment, Natasha spent the daytime on her mattress with no covers and three fans, applying for jobs and wiping sweat off her face.
Every couple of hours, depleted by self hatred, she would collapse onto the bed and watch something until the sun grew tired. In the nighttime it didn't seem so bad. There was a breeze and she would leave for whatever evening gig she'd picked up.
The day after she paid rent, she swallowed her pride. She and her $50.20 checking account marched themselves to the coffee shop to ask for their job back.
“We’re not hiring right now,” Maria had to tell her.
Natasha thanked her. She then went to find the best place for a stealthy public cry.
“The VA needs an intern,” Sam said. Natasha waited for it. He added, “Unpaid though.”
“My boss is looking for an assistant,” Steve said hesitantly, and they all winced, because they'd been hearing stories about Alexander Pierce as long as they'd been living together. Just like they all knew, instinctively, never to say his name aloud around Bucky. He was always ‘Steve’s Boss.’
Nobody knew the details of why Bucky quit. Nobody wanted them.
“No,” Natasha finally said, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. “I'll see if McDonalds is hiring.”
McDonald’s was hiring. She was overqualified.
“You should've left your Bachelor’s off your resume,” the hiring manager told her.
“You recruit through LinkedIn,” Natasha said desperately. “It's automatically filled.”
Steve shoved two hundred dollars of cash into her hand that night. “Shut up,” he said. Then: “No. It was all of us.” Then, “Take it or I'm never talking to you again. Also I've got you an interview with my boss next week. You can quit as soon as you find something else.”
The next morning, three months and one day into unemployment, she woke up to a text.
john smith: You busy at 3pm?
Natasha typed, yeah, self-loathing followed by ramen
john smith: I mean any dance shows?
It was a weird phrasing, and Natasha froze.
The guy she'd been filling in for every so often was Johann Schmidt. John Smith was the stupid fake name she'd assigned to Sharon.
The cursor blinked. She'd already responded, so the satisfaction of ignoring Sharon was no longer an option. She also had revealed exactly what an excellent place she was currently in. Great job, Natasha! Well done as usual! Dignity saved!
It really killed her to respond, not till tomorrow night
Sharon sent her an address.
john smith: Part-time front desk thing. Show up. Dress nice.
Natasha took ‘dress nice’ to mean ‘no boobs on display’ but otherwise disguised black jeans with a button down and flats. The upside of being a dancer was that she knew the power of a good updo and lipstick.
The girl interviewing her had a buzz cut and a lip ring. They eyed each other. Natasha rolled up her sleeve to expose a tattoo, and the girl relaxed.
“Sunday through Wednesday, fifteen an hour, no benefits,” said the girl. “Ten to six.”
Natasha, whose nighttime things usually started around seven, said, “Hand over the W2.”
Thanks, she sent to Sharon later, after deleting and re-typing five times.
john smith: No problem.
The typing bubble popped up. Then disappeared. Natasha stared at the screen, anxious.
john smith: Did you get it?
john smith: Nice
That was the end of it — until late that night; late enough that Natasha was getting ready for bed.
A snap: what looked like a Russian bakery, warm lights inside. минск, the sign said.
What the fuck, thought Natasha. She sent back a star emoji, threw her phone into the sheets, and went to sleep.
It helped that they were on the same schedule. Sharon snapped her, hesitantly, on her morning commutes, and Natasha, who always ran too late in the mornings, paid her in kind on the commute home.
Sharon still stayed up till ungodly hours doing abominably niche research, but Natasha was now usually asleep by midnight. She'd wake up sometimes to disjointed messages, like abstract poetry.
01:02 Did you know Modest Mussorgsky, the composer, used to spell his name Mussorsky
01:03 The g didn't show up till later, in letters, prob to differentiate from similar Russian word
02:24 But then in later years he no longer gave a shit and would sign his name ‘garbage-dweller’
02:26 Dominos doesn't deliver past 2am here wtf
08:15 The moon technically has eight phases
Natasha went on a couple dates. She didn't tell Sharon. It felt weird. She slipped up once and snapped a photo with someone else’s wrist beside the mermaid sign.
john smith: Oh cool, where are you?
Natasha panicked and didn't answer. Apparently passing up an opportunity to show off to Sharon was suspicious enough. Sharon didn't snap or contact her for three days. Natasha, stubbornly, didn't either.
john smith: Judy Garland marathon on TCM in outdoor theaters nation wide, you should take your gf
Natasha’s eyebrows flew up. don't have one
john smith: Take Bucky then
A corner of her mouth lifting unwillingly, Natasha said, james falls asleep during movies
john smith: Steve?
headaches, Natasha responded, and refrained from saying: you could come with me.
john smith: If I were in town, I'd take you
Natasha let her phone sit on the covers for a while before replying. It wasn’t something. But it didn't feel like nothing.
sharon: Yeah, next time for sure
After a teasing spell of 70-degree weeks, the heat returned in murderous rage.
Natasha woke with the sun and the birds, who were also livid and not inclined to be quiet about it. She was soaked in sweat.
She threw her duvet off with a snarl. She couldn't quite remember her dream, but from the heavy way she was breathing, she had an inkling.
Sleeping on her stomach was useless. Sleeping on her side was useless. Sleep itself was useless, so she gave in and turned on her back.
Fitting that she would have hit her phone off vibrate when plugging it in around midnight. Fitting that Sharon would text her now.
Natasha bravely typed out a few responses, and then could no longer.
Sharon, correctly suspecting something amiss, video called.
There was a split-second panic where Natasha nearly didn't pick up. But if Sharon didn't want this — if this was off the table — if it was going to chase her away again — it was better they both knew sooner rather than later.
Natasha picked up.
“Hey.” Sharon was close to the screen. “You're up early.”
Natasha saw the exact moment Sharon realized what was happening.
She made her voice deliberately light. “Want to join me this time?”
Sharon swallowed. She nodded, gazing open-mouthed for a moment, and then in one movement pulled off her shirt. She kept her bra on. It was a neat little pink lace thing, unlike the heavy-duty beige utilitarian straps Natasha favored.
She didn't let the video fall below her stomach.
“I work in research,” Sharon said.
It didn't matter. It was enough for Natasha to see Sharon shaking, her expression shift. To see Sharon’s arm move, how her back arched, to see her eyes go half-lidded. In fact, it just took the idea of being able to touch Sharon — to see her — to unhook the clasp of Sharon’s bra with her own two hands — that had Natasha clenching around her own fingers, gasping.
She wiped her hand on her stomach and watched Sharon’s eyes go dark. The flush had spread all the way down her chest.
Natasha ran a hand up her own body. Sharon jerked; moaned involuntarily. Interesting.
Natasha pushed herself up, slowly. She leaned back on her hands, spread her legs. The muscles in Sharon’s neck tightened; her arms stilled and she fell back against the chair.
They stared at each other, breathing.
“Going to run away again?”
Sharon pulled her shirt back on. Her skin was still flushed. Smoothing her hair back into place: “I’m — it's hard for me to —” She broke off. “I've had one relationship before. I just work too much. I'm always traveling. It's a lot to ask of people.”
Natasha was too fucked out still to be properly indignant. “And I’m really poor and really private and also I don't talk much.”
“So what?” Sharon snapped.
Sharon fiddled with the hem of her shirt now. “But like. What if you only like me in small doses? You might not like me in person.”
“Pretty sure I'd like you more in person.”
Sharon’s alarm went off. They both jumped. “Shit. I’d better shower.” Blushing again, she said, “I'll talk to you tonight. Probably not Skype, but definitely text.”
With one last appreciative glance, she hung up.
Natasha rolled over for a couple more hours of sleep.
The other front desk attendant, Darcy, kept a running total on a secret piece of paper taped to the hidden side of the desk. On it were three columns:
It was a nice way of shouting into the void; especially since Darcy was usually running out to her second job when Natasha arrived. Like sending radio signals out to space.
Darcy flew out as Natasha came in, making cheery gestures to the list.
Natasha looked. Two new ticks under DECENT HUMANS. She tossed her bag into the bottom drawer. The zipper broke and her possessions flooded the floor.
Not an hour later, she'd added three new marks to SUPER ASSHOLES. She shuttered on her best Do Not Even stare as the human equivalent of a tropical storm blew in.
Not dickish enough to make real trouble; just annoying and blustery. Short, meticulous facial hair, middle aged, extra-large Starbucks cup — probably had a very bright car.
“Hey Red,” he called, not bothering to remove his sunglasses.
“Good morning,” she said. She did not stand. She did not call him sir. She gestured to the ipad on the side of her sleek metal table. “You can sign in here.”
“I'll save you the trouble. I have an appointment. With the chairman. Not a humble brag, I'm very important.” He drained his coffee and tossed it at the garbage like a basketball.
A tool. The lord of tools.
“Yeah,” said Natasha, “I could tell by the goatee.”
The man paused. He pushed his sunglasses on top of his head.
“E.T. or Iron Giant?” he asked.
“Iron Giant,” said Natasha, who'd grown up in post-communist Russia, and was good at proclaiming arbitrary positions with absolute confidence. “I still need you to sign in, Very Important. You can write a quadratic equation. I don't care. Just something.”
The man’s goatee twitched. He scribbled onto the tablet with his thumb and tossed a business card down at Natasha.
“Text me,” he said, and jammed his thumb at the elevator button. “You're invited to the next movie night.”
“Have a productive meeting,” she said, and dropped the card into the trash.
She opened the tablet. The last entry on the register was “quadratic equation.”
Natasha woke up to twenty messages, which was only slightly excessive for Sharon. They read like stream of consciousness, and she got halfway through before realizing they were from an unknown number.
If you show up at seven I can't promise anyone will be here
Dummy don't touch that
Leave it on the counter for happy
But by eight at least three quarters of the degenerates should have trickled in, it's not really a potluck but bring whatever you're not allergic to or don't want anyone else to eat
Pepper is still angry, dummy, okay, just wait
It should be chill and I promise everyone there won't be a self-absorbed gazillionaire or at least the first part
Natasha showered, even though she was going to get instantly sweaty at a dance job. She showered again at an Equinox gym around the corner, bluffing her way in with an ex-roommate’s old ID.
A text popped up on her screen. It appeared to be an address for Grand Central Terminal: Penthouse.
She took screenshots of the whole thread, wet hair dripping down her neck, and sent them to Sharon.
Natasha’s phone lit up with texts the minute she emerged from the subway.
sharon: Wtf how'd you meet Tony?
sharon: Tony Stark? The guy who’s Chill Hang you’re going to tonight?
everything you're saying looks like real words. but has no meaning
Natasha jumped. Her phone was ringing.
“Did your car keys hit the call button again?”
“No,” said Sharon. “I want to hear the full details of this story. Because so far I have A, C, and G, but I need the connecting parts.”
Natasha stepped around at kneeling nanny begging a toddler to please, please put its shoe on so that they could go eat sashimi. “That makes two of us.”
As it turns out: when you are a talented employee for a very large company, you sometimes come in contact with Ms. Pepper Potts, the red-headed bane of male corporate America. She might steal your intern, Shuri, and pay her an actual salary. You can't begrudge her for offering your favorite talented intern a bright future, much more lucrative than your own stingy workplace could provide, but you can start a friendly rivalry.
“I'm fine with you working for a Stark Industries subsidiary —”
“I'm working for who?”
“But I draw the line at socializing with them! Dishonor! You'll have to, I don't know, snap me the entire place tonight. Tell me what brand of lipstick Pepper is wearing. Serve a vicious burn about her shoes and then find out what size they are.”
“Do you love her or hate her?” said Natasha, amused.
“Yes,” said Sharon, and hung up.
The elevator spoke to her, because of course it did. It evolved to exchanging passive-aggressive Russian compliments with her by the time they reached the penthouse.
Tony Stark stood on the other side of the elevator doors: in a leopard-print bathrobe, aviators, and a Margarita in hand.
“Were you waiting here specifically for that shot?” asked Natasha.
“Obviously.” Then wonderingly: “You got JARVIS to talk about Pushkin.”
A blond man, whose shirt was more hole than cloth, came skidding around the corner.
“I'm going,” Tony shouted. He drained his Margarita and thrust the glass into Natasha’s hand. “This is Clint. He's a dancer like you—”
“Hawkeye, this is— Black Widow. Show her around, I'll be back in ten minutes. Hopefully alive.”
He sprinted away.
Natasha looked at Clint, shaken.
“It's how he shows affection, nicknames,” Clint explained. “He didn't have many friends as a child. Don't worry, no one’s going to call you that.”
Everyone called her that.
“This isn't a furry thing, is it?” she asked warily.
The man called Hulk choked on his mojito. “Er, no. Definitely not. Probably.”
“It is for me,” said the large blond man called Thor. Nobody seemed to know if he was joking.
Tony Stark didn't reappear until halfway through the movie, but to be fair, the movie itself seemed to be a prop for the gathering than a reason for the gathering itself. There were so many overlapping conversations happening that only the subtitles saved Natasha from being completely lost.
She mentioned this to the pretty Asian girl sitting next to her. The girl smiled and explained that Clint had grown up watching with them as a child.
“Was he an immigrant too?” asked Natasha, who had learned English through Sesame Street.
KIND OF, he signed at her across the room. He lit up when she signed back, COOL, and Natasha, vaguely baffled, left the evening with ten new numbers in her phone.
“I'm not used to people liking me,” she admitted to the elevator on her way out.
“I imagine,” said the elevator thoughtfully, “that most of the people in that room feel the same way.”
“You never told me,” said Natasha, “how it is that you know Tony Stark.”
“Oh, he's my cousin.” Sharon said this absently, scrolling through the increasingly insane progression of her work Slack chat. She saw Natasha’s face. “Oh, uh, not blood related. Our parents were friends. When his died, he'd stay with us during vacation breaks when the MIT dorms closed. Because landlords don't rent to sixteen year olds, even genius ones.”
Natasha had given up trying to memorize the convoluted lines of Sharon’s family. She knew about the American father and the British mother, now divorced, and her cousin Peggy, who was eight years older and really more like a sister.
But sometimes there was no logical step between Sharon’s backstory, and it was better to throw shame out the window and just ask. “He stayed with your family or Peggy’s?”
“Both! At our house on the cape. We’d stay there in summer.”
“Like, you and your mom and Peggy?”
“And my aunt. And my dad and uncle, when we were younger. They'd turn the den into an office and work remotely. Plus Tony. And sometimes his ‘friend’ Rhodey.” Sharon made quotes with both hands and a raised eyebrow. “But after the divorce it was usually just Aunt Becks, Mom, and I. Peggy sometimes, if she wasn't interning or on safari or going to the moon.”
She said that last part with a teasing smile, but really all of it sounded like a joke to Natasha.
It was strange that Sharon was so normal — and then she’d say things like “our” house on the cape. Where they'd casually hole up for a few months every year. With people named Rhodey or Miffy, wearing polos on a yacht at Christmas.
“I was pretty young with Tony stayed with us,” Sharon said, misreading her silence. “The drugs and partying and rehab came later. In my head he's still a dweeby teenager who makes robots in his garage.”
“Not much has changed. Only now he's progressed to talking elevators.”
Sharon snorted. Her side of the line exploded with alerts. “It's my boss,” she explained, swiping away the notifications. “God, he has no chill. That Moron probably replied all on routing info.”
“Or a dick pic.”
“Likely. Say hi to the elevator for me next time you see it.”
Natasha tossed her phone aside. 2% battery. The elevator, who'd politely informed her that its name was JARVIS (‘no prefix required, Miss Romanoff’), had in fact inquired after Miss Sharon Carter’s health the last time she'd visited.
This was worrying for several reasons; least of all which: Tony coded an elevator to pick up on human speech inflection and derive logical conclusions from it. And it had apparently detected an emotional reaction to Sharon Carter based on Natasha’s verbal and body language alone.
Her crush on Peggy’s cousin was so obvious that artificial intelligence could see it.
Natasha let her phone die as she fell asleep. Tomorrow was her day off.
Natasha had turned up at an audition to find the doors locked. She called the number on the posting. No answer. She went around to the front of the building and buzzed at the design studio on the second floor until an assistant pissily let her in.
“Oh,” said the receptionist at the rehearsal space. “They found enough people yesterday. They didn't update the ad?”
Natasha went to get herself a coffee. Far away from her old job. She took screenshots of three new auditions for the next week, anonymously blasted the company on a message board, and went into Skype to voice call Sharon.
A text came in before she could hit call.
CLINT GAVE ME YOUR NUMBER
want to hang?
sorry about the caps
my hand i mostly in bandagesz.
Normally Natasha might've ignored it. But she thought of Sharon always trying new things — sometimes until the point of exhaustion, which wasn't great. But still.
sure, Natasha finally said.
GREAT, Kate sent back instantly. Apparently the caps weren't solely from the bandages. want to meet in an hour?
Natasha squashed down the spike of panic. She checked the timestamp. 2pm. She wasn't sure what kind of lifestyle Kate had that left her free on a Tuesday afternoon. Student, maybe.
Though to be fair, most people Natasha knew had weird schedules. It was only the recently that her former work-all-night-sleep-all-day friends had started gravitating to the nine to five.
People got older. They got partners and apartments, and sometimes dogs or babies. So many of Natasha’s friends from her early twenties were entirely different people now. With incompatible schedules that never allowed them to see each other.
can't today, Natasha replied. tomorrow tho?
GREAT!! Kate said.
Natasha told Sharon about it that night in the kitchen. Her phone propped up against the sugar jar; Steve and Bucky watching TV in their room, and Sam at the gym.
She'd saved the news until they'd finished their small talk. It felt important somehow.
Sharon’s eyes crinkled up. Natasha relaxed. As good as Sharon was at hiding reactions, she could never fully hide it in her eyes. Or maybe it was just apparent to some people.
“That's so good.”
“She seems nice?”
“She does. Not fake sugary though.”
“Also good. What are you making?”
Natasha showed her the pan of stir-fry.
Sharon said, “Lettuce. Yum,” like she didn't subsist entirely on hummus and crackers.
“Are you watching your figure, Natashenka? Oh, how will you ever catch a man with those curves?”
Natasha fumbled the pan. She pretended to burn herself, to cover it up, and got to enjoy a few minutes of Sharon fretting over her.
“My mom told me last week I was ‘looking lenient.’” This was said normally, as statement of fact. “She dropped ten hints in the past week about staying healthy and living up to your best potential.”
Sharon’s collarbones had been sticking out lately. Natasha assumed she’d been stressed because of That Moron. “Jesus.”
“Yeah. So I ordered three cheeseburgers yesterday alone.”
Natasha gave her a look.
“They tasted extra great.”
Natasha’s classical ballet training had started at four, at the behest of her grandmother. At six, her teacher had told her that tights shouldn't ‘cause indentations in the waist.’ She was no stranger to the constant wrestling match with food.
“All-or-nothing as always, I see,” Natasha said.
Sharon frowned. “You’re taking her side?”
“I'm on your side. The healthy side.”
Healthy was the wrong thing to say. Sharon pretended to get another call and hung up.
Natasha finished her stir-fry with podcasts in the background, and then knocked on Steve’s door.
“What are you guys watching?”
Bucky scooted over. She perched on the edge of the bed, staying for a few episodes of some witty American sitcom, then retreated back to her room.
She woke up around 2am. She realized she'd forgotten to turn her phone upside down. The light from the text notification had woken her up.
Natasha typed out half a word, but her eyes were heavy and her brain dazy. The phone slipped from her fingers.
A text came in the next day, as Natasha was getting dressed for her front desk job. She shoved dance clothes for that evening into her bag, along with a small sewing kit for her shoes, and checked the notification.
sharon: I think that's the longest message you've ever sent me
Natasha frowned. She didn't remember replying at all.
She scrolled back and saw a message she'd apparently woken up and sent at 4am.
She dropped the phone.
4:02am you know i just care about you, right? i want you to live a long life and not be sad
Autumn, in the grand fashion of New York seasons, arrived unexpectedly and unapologetically when the calendar still technically said summer.
Natasha woke up frozen. She turned off her ten thousand fans and pulled on a hoodie. She woke up for real to the simultaneous shrieking of her alarm and call from Nick Fury.
Hesitantly, she picked up. “Did you mean to call me?”
“Yes. Okay time to talk?”
He sounded exactly the same.
“Okay as ever. How's the West Coast?”
“Wet. How's New York? Never mind. I know how that shithole is. Better be treating you well though.”
She smiled. “It's okay. How's Director life?”
“Stressful as hell, but I didn't call to gossip. We’re doing an East Coast tour soon and one of my corps just got injured. You always picked up choreography fast. How would you feel,” he asked, “about joining the company on the road for six weeks?”
“Full time?” Sharon said, in a tone that Natasha couldn't quite read.
“Contract. For six weeks. I'm subbing for a regular. But it's an actual position with an actual ballet company.”
“It'll look great for the future.”
“Yeah, exactly.” Natasha turned over on her side. She saw Sharon’s eyes drop down, then wrench back up. “And it could lead to other stuff after.”
“Yeah, for sure!” Sharon sounded over-earnest. There was an undertone of something else too that Natasha couldn't quite parse through. “What are you going to do about your room?”
Natasha handed over the keys. “No overnight female guests, you hear me?”
The corner of Bucky’s mouth quirked up. “I can 100% swear to that.”
Natasha adjusted the side of her mattress. Bucky’s mattress. The room looked smaller without all her things. “Big step.”
“Middle step,” he said defensively. “We’ll still have our own space if we need it.”
“And then in six weeks we can— You know. See how it goes.” He looked surprised as Natasha moved into a hug. His arms tightened around her. “It'll be good, Nat. Tough at first, probably. Then good.”
“Yeah. Eat lots of pizza for me.”
“You trying to fatten me up?”
“Doing the Lord’s work!” Steve yelled from his room.
Natasha collapsed into her bed. Her calves throbbed. She couldn't wiggle her toes too much or they'd start bleeding, and her band-aids were all the way in her bag. Her roommate was in the shower, possibly forever. The beige walls and stock art where making Natasha homesick for a home that didn’t exist.
She opened Skype on her phone. When Sharon picked up, Natasha could see more beige walls and stock art in the background.
Natasha’s mouth lifted. “You sure you're not just down the hall?”
“I wish.” Sharon leaned forward. “I think the same painter did our stock art.”
Natasha felt her eyes closing halfway through Sharon’s story. Before they shut for good, she heard Sharon say, “Next week?”
Ororo noticed Natasha’s leg jiggling four exits out on the highway. If it had been anyone else, Natasha would've had to endure what's wrong, you look nervous, have you been to Boston before? But Ororo’s eyes just flicked down, then back up.
“Traffic looks terrible,” is all she said. “Did you grow up in a city?” Natasha was grateful for the distraction.
Their bus dropped off at the hotel first. Natasha wished desperately, selfishly, that a certain blonde were waiting in the lobby. But it was 3pm. On Tuesday. And raining heavily.
Fury, in what he imagined to be a gracious manner, gave them two hours for food and rest. They'd already spent two weeks before opening in rehearsal for the production. Now that they were on official tour, their rehearsals were more for blocking out a new stage, for acoustics, for familiarity of space.
“Dressed and onstage at 5pm,” Fury said. “The theater’s across the street. Please tell me I can trust you to make it there by yourselves.”
“Do you want us in costume?” Clint asked; in sunglasses, inside; a roll of duct tape dangling on his wrist like a bracelet.
Fury closed his eyes. “Based on solely on past evidence, Barton, do you think I want you in costume?”
Clint popped his gum. “Dunno, boss. You tell us never to assume anything. Like, daily.”
Fury looked at Natasha: like because she'd recommended Clint, she was now his official keeper.
The lobby cleared of duffels and dancers, replacing with hotel staff brandishing mops and towels.
Sharon was on a business trip until Sunday morning. Natasha’s last show was Saturday night. She knew this. She'd always known this.
But some buried part of her secretly daydreamed Sharon flying back early and surprising her; sitting maybe in the back row, where Natasha wouldn't see her until intermission. Natasha imagined the happy jolt of surprise, and then dragging Sharon to the hotel afterwards.
They'd still never discussed whatever it was they were doing. Sharon could be dating other people, even. Natasha didn't expect to be allowed to step foot into Sharon’s home, her sanctuary — but to be able to interact with her face to face was still overwhelming.
Natasha didn't hear a word of instruction that evening.
The actual performance was a blur. Every flash of blonde Natasha saw sent a shock up her spine; and she'd throw herself even further. The final night she progressed to hallucinating Peggy as well.
A haunting of Carters, she texted Bucky from the wings. He sent back: your messages have become completely illegible. get some sleep.
After every show, as a PR thing, Fury made a handful of corps members hang around backstage in costume to do a meet and greet. It was never more than ten people — usually starry-eyed kids or the occasional ninety-year-old enthusiast — who were happy to shake hands and leave with a phone full of photos. Or in Clint’s case: a few dozen Instagram stories.
Natasha, the newest member, drew the short straw on the final evening. She posed and smiled, and then turned to find a red-lipsticked Peggy in front of her.
Natasha found herself with an armful of two extremely beautiful brunettes. Peggy introduced the unknown one as: “Angie Martinelli — my girlfriend.”
Natasha shook her hand. “Like the apple juice?”
Angie gave her a startled look. Peggy snorted and pulled out her phone. Her red nails clicked against the screen in practiced rhythm.
“Like the apple juice,” Angie confirmed.
“We’re going away with Angie’s family for the weekend,” said Peggy.
“At our house in the mountains,” said the beverage empire heiress.
“Fun,” said Natasha. She pretended like she wasn't craning her neck, to see if a certain blonde was lurking behind. She wouldn't be, obviously, but.
Angie made a face. “There's like a billion people in my family. It'll be dramatic at least.”
Peggy snickered. She tapped at her screen, and then handed the phone to Natasha. “Sharon wants to talk to you.”
Heart in throat, Natasha looked down to realize two things.
One, Sharon was already on Facetime. Two, the timestamp showed the call at over two hours.
Natasha looped the headphones in shakily.
“Hey.” Sharon looked almost shy.
“You saw it?”
Natasha couldn't have held a normal conversation if she tried. She felt suffused.
Sharon had understood her question anyway. “I saw,” she said softly. It looked like she was in a hotel lobby bathroom, from the background. “I just kept it on mute. The meeting was a Skype conference with China. I pretended to take notes on my tablet.”
Natasha nodded, still in stage costume and makeup, stripped raw. She handed the phone back to Peggy, because there was nothing more to say. Sharon had been watching her — hadn't taken her eyes off her — while Natasha had exposed her truest self. The most entrenched part of her. In a way, it was more intimate than those two particular Skype calls.
Whatever happened after this, Natasha had already been laid bare.
Natasha woke up at 5am on their off-day, pleased with the prospect of a leisurely morning. She turned off her alarm, sent a one word reply to Tony’s continuous ten page message, replayed Kate’s snap of Pizza Dog, and then woke up again at 9:04am.
Ororo only stirred a little at the steady stream of cursing. Natasha located mostly clean pair of sweats, shoes that eventually went on the right feet, and, she realized at the elevator, Ororo’s jacket.
The elevator doors opened. The lobby was empty.
Natasha’s sigh of relief was followed immediately by one of panic. Did she mistake the time? Did Sharon change her mind?
Maybe she'd have time for Starbucks while she worried herself into an early grave.
A flash of yellow that turned out to be a glare from the sun. And then, from behind an utterly pretentious tall chair, Sharon unfolded herself.
The drive through the city was a lot of brick with interspersed green, but Sharon added personal touches like I tried a zumba class there once, That's where I saw that fluffy dog I snapped you, or That's the weird grocery store that always smells like marshmallows.
Natasha was hyper-aware of Sharon in the driver’s seat. Her hands capable on the wheel; absently changing gear; the way she leaned forward like she could reach clear through the windshield.
“Of course you drive a stick shift.”
Sharon glanced over with a half-smile. “Peggy said manual cars are for hipster show offs that can't afford hybrids.”
Natasha frowned. “It suits you.”
“Like my old lady name.”
They were passing through what seemed liked the heart of the city. Then onto a tangle of dense, thin side streets.
“Kind of. From the 50s. I hated it as a kid. It felt like The Parent Trap. Frumpy and trying too hard.”
Sharon parallel parked, seamlessly, on a sloped street. She leaned back in her seat and faced Natasha.
Natasha wet her lips. She saw Sharon’s gaze drop. “I like it though.”
A small smile. “That's what matters, I guess.” She reached over — Natasha's heart jumped — to unlock the passenger door. “After you.”
Sharon lived on the second floor of a row house with wide concrete stairs. It was light inside, sparse decoration, with light wood furniture. The opposite of Natasha’s hodgepodge space. It looked like an IKEA catalogue.
Sharon crowded her into the kitchen. The island had a fruit bowl; there were hanging edison lights from the ceiling. “Sit. I never have company. We’re going to make brunch.”
Natasha popped a grape into her mouth. “We?”
She had a chopping board and vegetables shoved toward her. But this was tempered with a steaming cup of coffee, from a Keurig that had clearly been timed for their arrival. She ducked her head, touched.
Brunch moved from the kitchen to the couch when Natasha insisted on showing her a video clip and Sharon insisted that this be projected on her flatscreen. Tablet research led to lounging, and a house hunting show in the background, while Natasha paged through an old issue of Vogue ( no, THIS was the Dolce campaign’), and then it was nighttime and Sharon was fighting tooth and nail for pizza delivery.
“I'm in the middle of a season,” said Natasha.
“They do chicken there too, I think.”
“We can just cook,” Natasha said, amused.
“We just cooked like three hours ago!”
It was Sharon’s turn to be pushed into a stool at the island. Natasha busied herself at the stove. She felt Sharon’s eyes on her as she rifled through the fridge and cabinets.
“Nothing,” said Sharon, breathless and pink.
One of the first things they teach you, as a dancer, is trajectory.
It takes time to learn to judge distance. At a glance, how does this sequence fit across this stage? How do I adjust it in this new space? What is the minute timing that will allow me to pass Betty, who has much longer legs, at the same beat of music?
As a child, Natasha had hated the waiting. She wanted to arrive at the end goal: at the jump, the spin, the interesting part. She was impatient with the preparatory steps, the ones that propelled toward the jump.
She appreciated them now. She appreciated the foundation. As an adult, it wasn't easy to leap into the unknown.
Natasha turned the stove down to a simmer, to be safe. She moved into Sharon’s space. Sharon’s breath quickened.
Even now, Natasha was uncertain. There was that part of her brain that taunted, like an adolescent, it's just physical, she doesn't Actually Like you. Natasha pushed it aside.
Sharon’s mouth parted under hers. Natasha always worried if she was doing things right, based on general lack of experience. But Sharon's hand was on the back of her neck, tugging her closer, scalding her skin like a brand.
Natasha stepped between Sharon’s legs, sliding her thumbs across the smooth skin of Sharon’s hips. At this angle, they were of equal height.
Sharon made a noise deep in her throat. Her hand fumbled at the waistband of Natasha’s pants.
Natasha stepped back. Sharon looked stricken.
“Not here,” Natasha clarified, cupping her hands around Sharon’s neck. She placed a kiss to the side of Sharon’s mouth, to smooth away the worry. “Kitchens are for hookups you don't intend to call the next day.”
A gust of breath. Sharon wound her hand through Natasha's.
She led her to the bedroom.
Natasha woke once, in deep night, with Sharon curled around her back and the covers warm across them booth. Something was missing. It took her a minute to locate the feeling as a lack of anxiousness.
Their last stop was Philly. Natasha felt like she could see New York — and her uncertain future — looming in the distance.
She texted Sharon back, but avoided Kate and Tony for a while. After the final performance, she showered and stared at the generic bed covers. Ororo, the picture of health, was already asleep; her face mask primly in place.
Natasha was in the lobby, keycard flashing between her fingers, before she had a plan. Go for a walk, maybe. Just get out.
Clint was crouched by the reception desk. He petted a cloud of a dog under the irritated gaze of the night manager.
“Is that yours?” Natasha asked.
Clint gestured to the manager. “I think it's his.”
“It belongs,” said the manager crisply, “to a guest. Who is enjoying the fitness center.”
“Nice of them to leave him!” said Clint, burying his hands back in the dog’s coat.
The manager’s lip curled. “Very.”
Natasha said, “Want to go for a walk?”
Clint bounded to his feet. The night manager, and the carpet, looked relieved.
Some people had the gift of perfect pitch. Others, a green thumb.
Clinton A. Barton, alias Hawkeye, could locate the nearest skeeball bar in a ten mile radius with only two senses intact.
Fury was reigning supreme over the lobby when they returned. He dismissed Clint with the wave of a hand. A handed down magic, maybe. Or perhaps it was a consolatory side effect of the eye patch.
Natasha flopped into an armchair.
“You'll put out your back,” said Fury.
She straightened, minutely.
Fury looked only very slightly resigned. “Tell me about your plans after tomorrow.”
“Beg for a new dayjob in Bushwick.”
Fury said, “How about joining the company instead?”
“So you'd be a stand-in,” Sharon said skeptically.
“Yeah.” Natasha wiped juice off her chin and tossed the apple core in the trash. “It's maternity cover, basically, and no guarantee of a place when May returns in six months.”
“But there might be.”
“There might be,” Natasha confirmed.
Natasha’s aunt hadn't had the money for dance classes every year. Natasha definitely had not been good enough, at eighteen, to audition for companies like other dancers her age, who were years ahead of her in terms of experience.
She could, however, afford a degree at CUNY thanks to FAFSA, and gate crash every single solitary dance class, club, and guest masterclass over four years. By senior year, her daily dark dance wear rivaled only the shadows under her eyes.
“A black widow,” she heard someone comment once, as she passed in the gym hallway. No stranger to adolescent bullying, Natasha had spun around ready for a fight.
But the girl on the floor, surrounded by textbooks, looked admiring.
“Girl, you look like you've just come from your ex-husband’s murder,” she said.
Natasha had never been so flattered; nor flustered. She gave the girl a packet of perennial seeds that had been free at the student union. The girl accepted with alacrity.
She'd graduated knowing there would be no place for her in a corps. Every year chipped one inch closer to her being too old to ever dance in a professional company.
And yet. That absurd hope, the one that managed to occasionally break through the blind panic and abject shame.
The Furies Co. was small and indie. But corps experience was corps experience and then one day it might be the Northwest Pacific Ballet Company, then the Portland Ballet Company, then the San Francisco Ballet.
“This could be my only chance,” Natasha said finally.
Keys were handed to Bucky, and ten bags of trash and donations to the sidewalk. Three duffle bags were loaded into a greyhound, and Natasha’s only hoodie instantly soaked in the Seattle rain.
The sun, repentant, then graced her with four straight days of burning hot devil’s weather for her craigslist sublet move in.
Her Skype login stayed the same. Her phone still lived in her pocket. Her favorite channels were bookmarked on YouTube, and her podcasts synced by themselves.
Winter quietly wept into spring. The rain became a comforting friend, and her hoodie an omnipresent security. She carried Sharon in her back pocket, through rehearsal and performance, but never quite lost the image of cooking side by side in a narrow Boston townhouse.
She patched her feet and painted over her bloody toenails, sewed herself into shoes and snapped Clint every dog outside a shop. She messaged Sharon at witching hour and called Steve on Sundays. (Nobody understood Catholic guilt like the immigrant parentless.)
She received a Save The Date invitation to Steve and Bucky’s wedding and dropped her phone in the sink.
Discontent sat on the roof of her mouth. She returned home one evening, kicked off her shoes, took meat out of the freezer, and then felt she might die if she stayed in the house a minute longer.
She went for a walk. She paused in front of the grocery store, the Starbucks, the neighborhood bar, and the park. None beckoned.
Melinda May, infant child safely entrusted to her wife’s care, returned to the company in full force. Fury asked Natasha that very afternoon to stay on for another year.
She signed the contract without looking at it.
By the first real heat wave, the corner grocery store felt as familiar as her old bodega. The sunset over water instead of sunrise felt expected. She grabbed an umbrella on the way out, as habit, and breathed in the normal sterile scent of the rehearsal space hallways.
Her hands, by muscle memory alone, called Sharon on the way home. It went to voicemail; but she called back as Natasha was stepping off the bus and onto her street.
Natasha said, “How would you like if I came for a visit?”
Sharon said, “How would you like if I transferred to Seattle?”