Captain Stephen Rogers could not get the question out of his mind. Was that your first kiss since 1945?
Asked, so innocently. Like she honestly didn't remember. Looking into those big, blue-grey eyes across the front seat, Steve had been sure she didn't. But then, those sorts of judgment calls were hard to make with the Black Widow.
Among her many talents, Natasha Romanova was very good at lying.
Now, Steve rested his forehead against the windowpane – the one in his bedroom, not the one in the living room, which had been replaced after the Winter Soldier (Bucky, Steve reminded himself; the Winter Soldier was just a code name for his old friend Bucky) had shot Nick Fury through it. Steve's trusty canvas bag was waiting by the front door. As soon as Sam got here, they were off to Kiev, to pluck that thread Natasha had warned him he might think twice about following. The one that might lead him to Bucky, and probably whatever remained of Hydra.
Natasha. Steve watched his breath fog on the windowpane, seeing his own blue eyes looking back at him. His mind drifted back six months, to another late night in this apartment…
"You really should invest in better locks, Captain."
"Jesus." Steve swore under his breath, automatically feeling guilty about it – he just wasn't made for this century, with all the "fucks" and "goddamns" and "cunts" people dropped on a daily basis. Slowly, he lowered the pistol that had been aimed at the small figure curled up at one end of his couch. The front door had been ajar when Steve had gone to put his key in the lock, and he had entered the darkened apartment with his weapon drawn.
There was a click, and a warm pool of yellow light spread across the hardwood floor: Natasha had switched on the lamp beside the couch. Obviously, she had been here a while. Her practical black sneakers were shoved underneath the couch; the coffee table was littered with her utility belt, sidearm, extra clips, two knives, and a bottle of Russian vodka. An almost empty bottle of Russian vodka. They had gotten back from a mission less than six hours ago; Natasha was still wearing the all-black stealth bodysuit she had worn to sneak into the terrorist lab in Mumbai, rescuing a young computer scientist – the modern phrase seemed to be "hacktivist" – who had been kidnapped by enemies of SHIELD a month before. The kid had been all right, just scared and dehydrated, but Steve had stayed with him in the infirmary until he fell asleep. Captain Rogers knew from experience what a frightening place SHIELD headquarters could be for an outsider.
After that, Steve had gone a few rounds with the heavy bag in SHIELD's underground fitness facility – which was why he was in a pair of old navy sweats and a stiff-drying white tee-shirt. He had been looking forward to a nice, hot shower and an early date with his feather pillow. Now, he rather resignedly dropped his pistol and his gym bag beside the bookshelf. Over on the couch, Natasha tucked a strand of scarlet hair behind her ear. She had still been wearing it curly then, Steve recalled, though it had grown out past her shoulders in the almost two years since Loki's alien army had attacked New York. "Want a drink, Cap?"
"No thanks." Steve settled himself in his armchair, noting as he did that the cabinet beneath his record player was open. He wondered what Natasha had been listening to, or if, true to her spy nature, she had simply been snooping through his collection. "I can't get drunk anymore – one of the side-effects of my rapid cell regeneration. So I don't really see the point in drinking."
"Yeah, but on the plus side, you did survive almost a century as a human popsicle," Natasha pointed out. Steve did not disagree; he knew what a gift Dr. Erskine's serum had been to him. Drawing her feet up on the couch, Natasha looked at him. "Aren't you going to ask me what I'm doing here?"
"What are you doing here?"
To Steve's surprise, Natasha laughed. "I'm sorry," she said, waving off his look of puzzlement. "You're just – so polite. Even on a mission, when we're about to kick some bad guy's ass, half the time I feel like you're about to call me 'ma'am,' or something."
Half the time, Steve didn't tell her, he had to stop himself from doing just that. It wasn't that Steve considered women incapable of combat, or minded taking orders from them, or anything like that. It just felt rude not to open a door for a girl, or offer to carry her bags up the stairs. He had gotten enough frigid looks over the last two years to train himself out of those actions, but the impulse was still there. "Is something wrong, Natasha?"
She shrugged. Her eyes were guarded – but then, Steve reminded himself, she was a spy. What was it Stark had said about Fury once? His secrets have secrets. Natasha was cut from that same cloth. Though they had been working side-by-side for months, Steve still didn't feel like he really knew her.
She picked up the bottle of vodka, dumped some into one of Steve's juice glasses. He watched her take a sip. Her eyes, in addition to being guarded, were also glassy. "Did the kid say anything after I left?"
"The scientist?" A little surprised, Steve shook his head. "No. Only what he already told us on the plane. He got grabbed out of his dorm room at M.I.T., woke up in that lab we found him in underneath Mumbai, and some guys he had never seen before ordered him to hack in and start implanting malware on major foreign Internet providers – whatever that means," Steve added, dryly. The technobabble still went right over his head. Just recently did he feel he had mastered usage of the verb "to Google."
Natasha shrugged, as if to say it didn't really matter. "Well, we loaded up all the computers from the lab, so maybe we'll still find some clue about who he was working for, and what they were trying to do. In the meantime, I hear it's a shame we were so wrapped up in India. Sounds like the real show was going down in London…"
Steve had heard the reports already while he was at SHIELD – more mischief churned up by the Asgardians, their alien war with the Dark Elves spilling onto Earth's soil. At least this time, Thor's brother Loki didn't seem to have been behind it. Natasha reported that Loki had sacrificed himself to save Thor. Steve would believe that when he had seen it. Loki hadn't struck him as the throw-yourself-on-the-grenade type. "Have you talked to Banner or Stark yet?" he asked. Natasha shook her head. "What about Barton?"
At that, Natasha's head came up. "Why would I have talked to Barton?"
"I…Well, I mean…aren't you two…?"
And he was blushing. Steve looked away, at his bookshelves, stuffed with the greatest works of the last seventy-odd years. He was slowly but surely working his way through them, during the scant downtime between missions.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Natasha grin. "Aren't we two what, Captain?"
"I thought you were together. Sweethearts."
Natasha laughed. The laughter had a different timber to it this time, something that pricked up the small hairs on the back of Steve's neck. "I can't quite imagine," Natasha said, sliding off the couch, onto the balls of her bare feet – lithe as a panther, and a look in her eyes that was just as predatory, "Black Widow and Hawkeye as 'sweethearts.'"
"You aren't Black Widow, though." Steve swallowed, unsure just when his throat had gone so dry. "That's just a call sign, like 'Captain America.' You're Natasha Romanova."
"Right," Natasha said, softly. "Whoever that is."
She was standing in front of him now. In one smooth motion, she shifted forward, and the next thing Steve knew, she was straddling his lap. Then, before he could say, or do, anything, she was kissing him.
There was a bitter tang to it – the vodka. Steve's lips parted instantly beneath the pressure of hers. Natasha shifted against him – the chair rocked back gently, bumping into the wall – and slid her hands into his hair, her thumbs stroking the skin behind his ears. Steve swallowed a moan, gooseflesh shooting straight down his arms, along with a shock of something visceral he felt in his fingertips and toes. For a moment, all that existed in the world was her mouth, a ripe strawberry waiting to be devoured by his.
For her mouth was under his now. He had taken control of the kiss without even realizing it, catching her by the waist and drawing her down alongside him in the armchair. One black-clad leg (what the hell was that material, that it could be so soft yet so clinging at the same time, molded to her like a second skin?) wrapped around his, her hands – small hands, with bruised knuckles – running down his shoulders to grip the swell of his arms. In the center of Steve's belly, a fire was building like he had just guzzled that bottle of hooch. He pressed her down into the chair, trying not to crush her with his weight, need and tenderness and desire all warring away in him at once…
Steve had always thought Natasha was beautiful, of course. He wasn't blind, or a saint. But he had stopped short of ever letting himself imagine how the muscles in her thighs would feel working against his, how the soft hollow of her stomach would tauten as she arched up against him. Her tongue flicked across his bottom lip, and Steve turned his face away suddenly, smothering a ragged breath in the crook of her neck. She even smelled delicious. "Natasha – ," he started, brokenly.
She sounded breathless. Steve forced himself to look at her. He was sure she could tell how much her kisses had affected him, with nothing to hide it from her but those stupid sweatpants. At ease, soldier. "Maybe we – we shouldn't be doing this. You haven't even told me why you came here – "
Again, Natasha laughed. She looked up at him, head resting against his arm. Steve could not have known how adorably flushed he was in that moment, all blonde and tousled. "I would have thought that was obvious by now, Captain."
Steve flushed even hotter. Still, he held firm. "Nat, you've had a lot to drink. I wouldn't want to, you know, while you're…I mean…What I mean is, I want to – " obviously " – but…it would feel like…taking advantage…"
"Steve." Natasha extricated herself from him and stood. Her face, her voice, were gentle. She was, Steve thought, so very, very strong, and so very, very lovely. "I'm in control. You aren't taking advantage of me. Here, let me show you." Taking his hands, she tugged him up out of the chair. "I can walk a straight line. See?"
And she did. Straight into his bedroom.
The lights were off. Natasha didn't bother with them. Enough light was streaming through the curtains (there were always lights, in New York City, even past midnight like it was now) for Steve to see the glint of the zipper at the top of her bodysuit. She stood at the foot of his neatly-made bed, facing away from him. With one hand, she lifted her hair away from her neck. "Could you – "
"Of course." Steve heard his voice like an echo from another lifetime. He stepped closer; caught the zipper; and drew it down. The fabric parted soundlessly. It was like watching a pure white flower emerge from its black-lacquered shell: As the cloth fell away, he could see the snow-white skin down to the small of her back, the knobs of ivory that made up her spine. There was a tiny, puckered scar just above her hip on the right side. Steve brushed his fingertips over it. Natasha shivered.
Without stopping to think anymore, he leaned down and kissed the roundness of her shoulder.
Natasha turned. The suit slipped easily off her arms; she pushed it down over her hips, and then she was stepping out of it, graceful as a ballerina. Steve's heart was pounding. He was sure she could hear it, in the absolute silence of his apartment. He found he couldn't speak as she looked up at him, arms crossed demurely over her simple black cotton bra; and he loved that, loved that she was as straightforward underneath as she was complicated on the outside, even as he noted the scar on her abdomen, a twin of the one beside her spine.
"Lift up your arms," she commanded, softly.
Obediently, Steve raised his arms. Natasha pulled his white tee-shirt off over his head, letting it drop on the floor next to her bodysuit. Her eyes traveled over him once, head to toe; then she melted against him like silk, arms winding around his neck as her lips found his again. "Even better than I imagined," Steve thought he heard her whisper…
But he wasn't hearing much, or thinking much. They fell over on the bed, tangled up in sheets and pillows. It was like being drunk again, almost, drunk on kisses that kept getting deeper, drunk on skin sliding over skin. Steve Rogers had never had much experience with the ladies. His hands shook as he caught Natasha's wrists, pinning her hands down gently on the pillows. Her legs scissored around his, the little sounds she was making urging him on as his mouth moved lower along her throat; she was tossing slightly beneath him, and Steve hoped that meant he was doing this all right – it felt so ridiculous, to be a grown man, a soldier, with so little knowledge of what to do with a woman in bed – especially when the only woman he had ever really wanted to take to his bed had been only the second woman he had ever kissed, just once –
"What is it?"
Natasha's voice was soft and ragged in the dark. Balanced above her, Steve looked down into those storm-colored eyes and shook his head. "I can't do this," he said.
It sounded almost like a groan.
He rolled over, off of her, onto the pillow. His chest was slick with sweat, his stomach still aching with desire down low. Steve ignored it. Natasha raised up slowly on one elbow. Scarlet curls tumbled over her shoulder, tickling his bicep. "Why?" she asked, sounding truly curious; it was pretty obvious to them both how much he wanted her.
"Because." Aware that what he was about to say made him sound like a little bit of a jerk, Steve hesitated. But it was the truth, and Captain America always told the truth, didn't he? "I'm in love with someone else," he said, in a rush.
Peggy. Steve's throat felt tight. He hoped Natasha wouldn't force him to speak her name.
Nick Fury had been the one to tell Steve about Peggy, to explain about her involvement in the founding of SHIELD. Then he had dropped the ultimate bomb: Peggy was still alive.
Steve had never been so nervous as he had been walking down the paneled hallway of that Upper East Side mansion with its view of Central Park, where Fury had told him Peggy was dying. She hadn't looked like she was dying. When her granddaughter had opened the door for Steve, she had been sitting in a pink silk bathrobe by the windows, and Steve had not seen the gray hair or the wrinkled skin or the bent back. He had just seen Peggy, with tears of joy and disbelief running down her face as he walked toward her, dropping down on his knees beside her rocking chair.
He probably would have left SHIELD and asked her to marry him, lived the rest of whatever days she had left quietly with her in seclusion, had the disease that was slowly stealing her life not already stolen her mind. She could not remember who he was for more than a few minutes at a time. She would get the past and the present all mixed up, sometimes knowing he was Steve but thinking it was 1945 again, sometimes not recognizing him at all and asking over and over again for her late husband.
Steve still went to see her three times a week. In the end, it had not been the gray hair or the wrinkles or even the loss of her memories that had stopped him from devoting the rest of his life to her. It was the gulf of years that lay between them – that span of time during which Steve been literally frozen in place, while Peggy had gotten married, raised a family, become a grandmother, founded SHIELD. She was an amazing woman, but she was not his Peggy – the Peggy Captain Steve Rogers had loved, who had loved him back. She had lived a life. She had grown; she had changed. If the universe had been fair, Steve thought, those would have been pictures of their sons and daughters on her nightstand. They would have grown into their gray hair and wrinkles together. Instead, inside and out, Steve was still the same young man he had been in 1945. This new, old Peggy, as much as he admired her, was just another once-familiar thing in a once-familiar world.
The problem was, Steve was still in love with woman she had been.
It was like being in love with a ghost.
Natasha placed a hand on his chest. Jarred from his reverie, Steve looked over at her. It was difficult to see her expression in the dark. "You could pretend I'm her," Natasha said. "I wouldn't mind."
"It doesn't work like that for me," Steve said, simply. Natasha nodded.
The bed shifted as she rose, still unsteady from all that vodka, and walked over to the window. Drawing the sheets up to his chest – he felt self-conscious suddenly, still that ninety-five-pound asthmatic on the inside – Steve watched her twitch the curtain aside. Her bare skin looked luminous in the moonlight. It was the first inkling he had, an inkling that would keep growing over time, as they learned, mission by mission, to trust each other, that there might be ways of moving on, that time itself might make it possible for him to heal, and love again.
Still, that realization would not be made that night, or many nights to come. Steve cleared his throat, casting around for the right words. "Natasha, I'm – "
"It's all right, Cap. No need to apologize." Steve wasn't sure she was aware of it, but he could see her reflection in the darkened windowpane. Six months later, standing at that same window after facing down the Winter Soldier with Natasha by his side, he would remember thinking her smile had looked rather wan. And he would not be able to help wondering about the truthfulness of what she had said next: "I'm sure by morning, I won't even remember this."