DISCLAIMER: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the property of Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Studios, and Marvel Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended. Please do not repost, copy, or archive this work without the author's permission.
RATING: T (for language, violence, adult situations)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This fills the gap between when Camp Lehigh was destroyed and when Steve and Natasha arrive at Sam's house in DC. It's Steve/Natasha, though maybe a little more unrequited than I had originally anticipated. Enjoy!
Natasha came awake with a gasp. "Easy!" pleaded a voice in the darkness. The shadows were thick around her, heavy with a black night, and her vision wouldn't clear no matter how many times she blinked teary eyes. Pain filled her head, pounding and pounding in time with her straining heart. She couldn't remember where she was or what had happened, and the past blurred with the present. All she saw was a man leaning over her, and that was enough to open the floodgates of a hundred horrible memories. "Easy, Natasha. You took a hit to the head. Just stay still."
But the panic was too strong to ignore, and she planted her hands against a firm chest and shoved the blurry man back. He was surprised, losing his balance and landing on his rear, but he was up again quickly. "Natasha!" he cried. He had blond hair and blue eyes and a white, alarmed face. He was familiar, and some part of her knew that and knew he meant her no harm, but that part was quickly drowning in the past, in nightmares and things best left to the darkness. There was so much darkness here, though, and everything was meshing together and all she knew was she had to kill whoever was trying to kill her.
So she attacked. She was deadly fast, trading blows with her assailant that were lightning quick, blows that he blocked and dodged but only just so. She leveraged every bit of her training, of her speed and agility and strength against him. They'd made her into an assassin, a murderer. She could kill anyone. "Natasha!" the man cried, sidestepping her advance and pushing aside her punch. He retreated, staggering under her rapid attacks. She shoved him back, not thinking, driven by her rage and fear and desperation. Her next strike slammed him in the chest, and then she whirled in a mighty roundhouse kick that caught him across the jaw. She wasted not a breath, dropping to a crouch and sweeping his legs out from under him. He went down heavily and roughly onto the ground with a wrangled yelp.
She drew her knife from beneath her sweater and threw herself on top of him while he lay prone and dazed. Straddling him, she raised the blade to strike. Even in the blackness it glinted wickedly. "Natasha, no!" cried the man, grabbing her wrist as she stabbed at his neck. He barely had caught her hand in time. The razor-sharp edge of the knife quivering above the heaving flesh of his throat. Beads of crimson appeared where she cut him. "Stop! Stop!" She wouldn't stop. She couldn't stop. The lust for blood, for vengeance and domination, took her and it wouldn't let go. This monster was going to hurt her. He was going to hurt her, like so many other monsters and demons and bad men had before. She let loose a ragged cry, driving the blade down as hard as she could, squeezing his chest with her knees and thighs, driving precious air from his lungs. He gasped and groaned. He was going to die. She would never let them touch her again.
"It's me! Snap out of it! It's Steve!" His grip on her wrist turned painfully tight, crushing the bones in her hand, and she couldn't stop her traitorous fingers from loosening. The hilt of the knife was gone. The blade fell into the shadows. His huge hands grabbed hers, warm and forceful, and suddenly they were rolling. He was stronger than her. Much stronger than her.
Now he had her pinned, his tall, muscular body pushing her down into damp, musty leaves and twigs that poked into her back. He pushed her hands to her chest, and no matter how hard she struggled, she couldn't fee herself. She wriggled and pulled and bucked, violent and frantic and terrified. Her guns were jabbing into her back beneath her, but she couldn't reach them. He was too big. He had her completely at his mercy. He could do anything he wanted to her. Anything.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said in a low, calm voice. "I'm not. You know me. You know I won't hurt you."
Suddenly she saw him. The mussed blond hair. Those deep blue eyes. There was no sign of malice or lust or rage in them. He was handsome and brave and stronger than anyone she'd ever seen. He was filthy and worried and disturbed. He wasn't a monster at all.
Fury. Hill. SHIELD and HYDRA and the most painful lies of them all. Camp Lehigh. The bunker. The missile.
The nightmare shattered. She gasped and stilled her struggles, but her body still shook. The blackness was still thick around them and heavy upon them, but she closed her eyes to it. Tears blurred her vision, tears she couldn't hold back. He let her go, and she ached and the world spun and she wanted to throw up. Her heart was booming. He was panting, loud and harsh in the silence. "You okay?"
No. Fury was dead. SHIELD was compromised. Everything she knew was a lie. Everything.
And everything she was, everything she had been made into, broke.
Natasha gasped a sob and reached for Steve, desperately clawing at his dusty jacket and shirt and pulling him close. She wanted him to touch her, to hold her close and tight. She needed something, anything, to fill this gaping void in her chest. He was surprised for a moment, but then he wrapped his arms around her. She buried her face into his shirt. He smelled like dust and the woods and sweat. He was so warm. "Hey," he said softly into her hair. "Hey, it's okay. You didn't hurt me."
His shirt grew wet under cheek. She closed her eyes. She hadn't cried in years and this was twice in one day. The pain was punishing her, and suddenly all the power of her panic and terror utterly abandoned her. Her limbs felt leaden. She felt dead.
Time drifted. She drifted with it.
"Natasha? You with me?" She couldn't answer. She tasted salty tears and sweat and dust in the back of her throat. Her tongue was dry and wouldn't move. "Nat? Come on. Talk to me here."
He pulled away and looked into her eyes. "I think you have a concussion. Can you stand? We can't stay here."
She couldn't focus. Everything was distant and twisted and covered in shadows. She felt ripped and tortured and dizzy. Her head was throbbing. "Steve?" she whispered.
"Stay down," he said breathlessly. "We need to run. Nat? Can you hear me? Nat?" He set her back into the leaves and disappeared. Natasha breathed deeply of the cold night air. Numbness was coming, sweet, blessed detachment, and she opened her embrace to it. She was vaguely aware when he came back, bearing his shield and a determined, worried look on his face. He slipped his arm under her knees and another around her shoulders and lifted her like she weighed nothing. Her face was pressed to his chest, her hands clenched in his shirt. The world was spinning, spiraling down into nothingness. But his voice cut through. "Hang on to me. I got you."
She trusted him enough to let him take her.
The whisper was harsh against her ear, pulling her from the oblivion of dreamless slumber. She stirred slowly, senses dull and body unresponsive. Blearily she cracked open her eyes. It was still black.
Then a figure dropped to a crouch in front of her. "Natasha? You with me?"
"Rogers?" she weakly whispered.
He wasn't looking at her; instead, his keen eyes were darting around the woods, scanning, searching. He was listening. He turned back to her. His face was glistening with sweat and bruised and pale. He looked haggard. "Rumlow's on us," he murmured softly. "I don't think I can outrun them anymore."
Her muddled brain failed to make sense of that for a moment. Memory failed her again, stubbornly hiding in the fog inside her head. She had a migraine that rivaled the worst hang-over imaginable. "What?" she moaned. "Where?"
"We're somewhere south of Philadelphia," he returned quickly. The hard edge in his voice and the desperation in his eyes suggested there was no time to talk about it. "They're triangulating. They got out ahead of me. We have to make a stand if we want to get out of this." He handed something to her in the darkness. She winced and looked down, swallowing her nausea. It was her knife. He held the blade in his palm, the hilt offered. "Think you can fight?"
What she had done to him, what she had tried to do to him, flashed through her mind. The murderous, driving anger and fear. She couldn't quite believe he was giving her back her knife after what had happened. She shuddered at that unhinged and wild panic that had consumed her. She wasn't in control. She loathed not being in control. She felt raw and open and splintered. Her demons were caged again, but it wouldn't take much for them to escape.
He didn't know that and he was still trusting her to have his back.
As irrational as it was, she was furious with him for being so goddamn naïve. He was stronger than her, probably faster, maybe even smarter. But she was ruthless. Still, she took the knife. "How many?"
He shook his head, bringing his shield to bear. They were pressed to a large tree, the trunk and shadows hopefully obscuring them. "Dozen," he whispered. Natasha closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, trying to pull herself together. They were two against a dozen black ops SHIELD STRIKE specialists. They were two against the best soldiers, the best fighters, the best sharpshooters and marksmen in the world.
But they were Captain America and Black Widow.
She wanted to make sure these bastards never forgot that.
The forest was silent around them. Neither of them moved, as still as statues, crouching beside each other under the cover of darkness. Thick rain clouds hung low, barely above the canopies of the trees it seemed, and without the moon and stars everything was blanketed in night. They didn't have to wait long. Natasha looked to her left when leaves rustled. Two. Behind them a twig snapped and somebody stopped walking. Two more. She felt more than saw the three ahead of them. Steve tensed beside her, and then he caught her gaze and gestured that she should go left and he would go right. She nodded.
Then he rose in one swift, smooth motion, and that shield of his was glinting and ringing as it flew through the air. It slammed into one of the agents, knocking him flat, before careening toward another and clipping him in the head. A cry rang out, but the shield was already back in Steve's capable hands and he was charging through the woods.
She darted to the left, using the sweeping shadows as cover. Her two targets were distracted, bringing their rifles to bear and unloading them at Captain America. Thus they didn't see her leap from the blackness. She swept the legs out from one of them, knocking him flat to his back, and easily plucked the gun from his dazed hands. Then she whirled, sending her knife slicing through the air and into the neck of the other soldier. He went down with a gurgle. Natasha dispassionately squeezed the trigger on the rifle and killed the man squirming at her feet.
Bullets whizzed around her. She dropped the ground, crawling over to some cover behind another tree. She huddled behind it, wincing as the rounds struck the trunk violently, sending shards and chunks of wood spraying into the air. Over the roar of gunfire and the men shouting, she could hear Steve, his shield ringing with that deep sound that only it made as he fought. Clenching the rifle tighter, she waited for her attackers to pause in shooting before angling herself around the remains of the tree and returning fire. It was damn hard to see in the darkness, but she heard a satisfying shriek. She scrambled back behind the tree, breathing hard and suffering with her head a moment.
There was the distinctive sound of a pin being pulled from a grenade, and a second later the little ball thudded to the forest floor in front of her and rolled to her feet. Her eyes widened, her heart halting its frantic pace as she turned and dug her fingers into the moist forest floor for leverage and flung herself away. The grenade exploded behind her, showering her in dirt and detritus as the force shoved her down a small hill. She haphazardly landed and rolled, pained and dazed.
Sound was sucked into a vacuum. Everything was distant and unreachable. She watched the dark trees spin languidly, lost in a haze of agony. Her ears were ringing, but she thought she heard someone shouting her name. "Nat! Nat! Get up!"
Steve's shield soared overhead, an elegantly spinning silver disc, and it struck a man running toward her with a heavy clang. Natasha sucked in a desperate breath, her chest aching as she struggled to prop herself up. She ripped around, firing the rifle at the SHIELD agents appearing from the trees. Her aim wasn't exact, and a lot of her shots missed, but a few hit their marks. She scrambled to her feet, glancing around desperately for Steve.
His shield was back on his arm, and he used it to block the strike of a combat knife, moving much faster than the agent trying to kill him. A powerful kick sent the man flying back a good twenty feet and slamming into a tree. The trunk cracked with the force, wet leaves fluttering down as the man slumped. One of the other agents lunged at Steve, getting him around the neck in a choke hold, but Natasha couldn't see anymore as she was forced to run from another grenade. The explosion was deafening, filling the forest with a bright burst of fiery light. She emptied the rifle and then reached into her hoodie for her handguns that she kept concealed. She skidded to a stop, rolled, and took aim. Her head was pounding more and more by the second, but her aim was far more accurate this time. Two more agents went down, shot in the knees.
But there was no time for relief. Something hard and firm smacked her across the head from behind. She saw stars, unconsciousness pressing again, as she tumbled to the forest floor. One of her guns skittered into the shadows. A meaty hand reached down and grabbed her by the hair and hauled her up. It was Rumlow. His unshaven face was amused, but his eyes were filled with cold, deadly anger. "Give it up, Romanoff," he gruffly ordered. Natasha struggled, swinging her arm around and firing her gun, but she missed and he kicked her down and drove his boot into her midsection. She gasped as her lungs constricted and her throat closed, barely curling into herself to avoid the next hit. Rumlow knocked the other gun from her hand. He leaned over her. "I thought you'd be better than this," he sneered.
Natasha rolled away weakly, trying to get her leaden body to cooperate, but the concussion and the exertion from the fight was wearing on her. She climbed to her knees just as a big, thick boot cruelly found its way into her midriff again. She cried out, feeling her ribs bend, and as she lay gasping Rumlow reached down and wrapped his hand around the pale column of her throat. Natasha kicked vainly as he pressed over her, his eyes wild with anticipation of a kill, of killing her, the infamous Black Widow. His powerful fingers squeezed tighter and tighter. He was crushing her windpipe. Her lungs burned for air, air she couldn't inhale. Her eyes filled with tears, and the world blurred again. That wild, frenzied insanity from before threatened, but she was helpless now. It was so dark again, pressing, squeezing, choking.
Rumlow narrowed his eyes. "I'll send Barton your regards."
Rage rushed over her, warding away defeat. She was going to kill him.
"Rumlow!" Steve shouted. Before Natasha could even register what was happening, the horrible vise squeezing her neck was loose and the weight over her body was gone. She sucked in a breath, trembling and wheezing and struggling to get herself together. Quickly, she rolled to her side, willing herself to move even though every part of her hurt. Steve was atop Rumlow, delivering blow after blow to the man's face. His hands balled in Rumlow's combat vest and he stood, lifting the man. "Tell Pierce he's going to have to do better than this if he wants me dead." Then Steve tossed him into a tree. Rumlow struck hard and crumpled to the ground. He didn't get back up.
It was silent.
Steve stood still a moment, surrounded by the fallen STRIKE Team, the lines of his muscles hard and tense beneath his filthy clothes. His chest was rising and falling as he struggled to catch his wind, fighting for air nearly as much as she was. Natasha watched him in the darkness, watched how he breathed. She pushed the hair from her face and swallowed through a dry mouth. He finally pivoted and stepped back to her and reached out his hand. "Come on."
She didn't take it, staggering to her feet by herself in spite of the pain. That anger came back, swift and harsh. "Who the hell do you think you are, Rogers?" she snapped. She wasn't weak. She wasn't vulnerable. She'd never needed anyone to save her before. Never. She could forget this had happened, forget that SHIELD and HYDRA were one and the same and Fury was dead and she'd lost it. She could be the Black Widow, because that was what she knew. That was who she knew best. "I don't need your help."
"Yes, you do," he snapped, frustrated and angry as well. He fished his shield out of the leaves and then collected her guns. "For the same reason I need to trust you." He shoved them toward her. His blue eyes flashed in the night.
She looked at the guns, abruptly feeling small and low and hurt. You don't want me to be your friend, Steve. She wanted to say it. She should have said it. Swallowing the bitterness in her throat, she took back her weapons. They felt cold and insufficient in her hands. "Now let's go."
He took off in a jog, and she followed, wondering who the hell she was supposed to be now.
It occurred to her after walking for quite a while in complete silence that Steve had run, carrying her, for miles and miles. And it occurred to her that he was hurt and worn and exhausted. His stature was a bit slumped. His reaction time avoiding the hidden ruts and pitfalls in their path was uncharacteristically retarded. His pace wasn't as brisk or as directed. He was bleeding.
She supposed even Captain America had his limits.
They reached a little country town in Maryland. The cloud cover had broken, leaving only a few wispy fingers caressing the full moon, and everything seemed to have an unreal, ethereal quality, bathed in pale light. Hesitantly they emerged from the woods onto a small road that ran through the town. SHIELD could be (and probably was) everywhere. It was deathly quiet, the denizens of this little hamlet fast asleep. It was very late. If they kept traveling at this rate, they could be back in DC by the morning.
Natasha didn't think Steve could keep going, however, and neither could she. "Let's stop," she whispered to him as they stood in the shadow of an old, rusty tractor. He looked doubtfully at her, but she refused to waver under his stern gaze. And she refused to let on how cold she was. The night had become downright chilly. "Come on. We can't keep going like this."
"You want to risk SHIELD finding us here?" he returned in a harsh murmur. "They'll kill us and everyone else."
"Steve, you need to rest," she said slowly and firmly like she was explaining something painfully obvious to a small child. "SHIELD will definitely be waiting for us back in DC. You think you can take them on like this?"
He sighed, his jaw set in annoyance, and looked away. Then his eyes focused on a small shed across the road. It looked old, its roof a bit rotted and its sides coated in peeling paint. "Four star accommodations," she muttered.
"I've slept in worse."
So had she. They darted across the street after making sure they were alone. Stepping through the unkempt yard and around old, rusted junk, they reached the only entrance to the shed. It was secured with an ancient-looking padlock which Steve quietly broke with his shield. He pulled open the door, the heavy wood fighting him for every inch. They slipped through.
Inside there was about as much junk as there had been in the yard. But there was room to sit at least, a small spot on the dusty floor clear of the clutter. A solitary window, crusted with dirt and crud, was stationed over a nicked work table. Moonlight shot through the filthy glass in a blast of pale illumination. Steve closed the door as gently as he could and then rammed a crowbar through the latch. He bent the metal into a loop. Nobody was coming in through the door, but this place was flimsy and looked about ready to fall in the face of a strong wind. SHIELD would get in if they wanted.
It was a risk, but so was everything else.
It took her beleaguered mind a moment to realize Steve wasn't moving from the door. His shield slipped tiredly down his arm as he leaned against the old work table, the discarded and dusty tools rattling. She watched him worriedly. Suddenly all the anger and fear from before was just a nightmare that she could ignore. Suddenly she felt almost normal again, like she hadn't almost killed him. "You okay?" she asked.
He nodded and finally pushed himself off the wall. "Yeah," he said, half a grimace on his face.
She didn't argue with him. He tried to squeeze past her, but the space was narrow, hardly enough room for the two of them. She grabbed his arm insistently and he stopped. There was blood on his hand. Blood on his forehead. Blood on the bottom of his shirt. She grabbed the hem and lifted it. In the meager light she could see the bruises all over his chest, particularly running up his left flank from under his jeans all the way to the top of his shoulder. They were mottled, angry welts, lavender and red and blue. Cracked ribs and torn muscles. She touched them hesitantly and as gently as she could, but he still winced and sucked in a short breath.
He'd run for miles, carrying her, with his chest like this. And he hadn't said a word. That made it all so much worse.
Suddenly there was so much shame, as thick and black as the night had been. All of it was hazy and distant, but she remembered enough. She had straddled him, pinned him down, put her weight on those sore ribs. She looked at his neck, but the place she had nicked him with the knife was long gone. She wished her guilt could disappear so easily. She didn't do well with guilt. He'd saved her life countless times over the last few days, but all she'd done was try to kill him. "I'm sorry."
"I'm okay. It'll heal," he swore.
"Not just for that," she said. "For everything."
He looked at her as though she was a stranger. His eyes were unreadable. Normally she had such an easy time detecting what he thought and felt. They'd been working together on and off for two years since the Battle of New York, but it hadn't taken her long at all to figure out Steve Rogers. He was earnest and kind and compassionate. True of heart and strong of will. Naïve and hopeless with women and no-nonsense. A virtuous symbol of everything SHIELD wasn't. Of what she wasn't. But today the world was inverted and twisted out of shape, and she couldn't see what he was thinking. "Evil is evil. It never changes."
He didn't realize how deep that cut her. Or maybe he did and all of this craziness since the Lemurian Star had twisted him, too. She dropped his shirt and averted her eyes, not wanting him to see her tears. When the hell had she become so goddamn weak? "Here." He'd slipped his jacket off his shoulders and offered it to her. He stood nearly a head taller than her, and standing so close, it seemed they were infinitely different. "Take it. You're shivering."
She hadn't realized it. And she didn't want his jacket. She could take care of herself. She'd been trained to, been built to, and she always had. She didn't depend on or need anyone. But he watched her with eyes that now seemed open and pained, and all the walls fell. She took his coat and slid her arms into it. It was warm and it smelled like him.
He gave her a feeble smile and tenderly lowered himself to the floor, setting his shield beside him. He leaned his head back against the desk though it couldn't have possibly been comfortable. She stared at him, wondering wearily at the strangeness of it all. She would never have fathomed this. She'd spent hours in foxholes and hideouts with him in the past, but it never felt so close and so intimate. She succumbed to the wants of her battered body and sunk to the ground beside him.
They didn't speak for a long time. Natasha wrapped her arms around her knees and rested her cheek atop them, trying to ignore the spike of pain in her chest and the ice pick digging into her skull. Beside her Steve was still, but she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and found he was awake. His eyes were glazed, and he was far away. The silence was so heavy that she thought she could hear her own heart breaking and yearning and fighting for something more to fill it. Fury's death had gouged into her soul. Clint had rescued her from the dark days of her youth, but Fury had been the one to give her another chance.
And now he was gone.
And Clint was gone, too, overseas in some deep undercover mission of which not even she knew the details. He was doing what they did best. Get in. Get the intel, get what they came for, and hit their targets so hard and so fast that no one would ever know they were even there. When he came back, it was going to be to the wreckage of this organization they had both willingly served. When he came back, he would have no warning.
If he came back.
She wasn't going to cry again about this. She'd been alone all her life. She didn't need SHIELD. Not now. Not ever.
She chanced looking at Steve again. He was staring at the ceiling, but his eyes were a thousand miles away. Or seventy years. "Who was she?"
Natasha's soft question seemed so loud in the quiet. Steve said nothing at first, but then he released a slow breath. "An SSR agent. She was involved with Project: Rebirth. That's where I met her." His voice was husky, rough with emotion that he was trying to keep under control. Steve always seemed able to keep everything under control. They weren't so different in that respect.
Natasha turned her eyes back to the shadows. It probably wasn't her business, but she wanted to know. "Did you love her?"
Steve swallowed and his eyes glimmered with a whole lot of pain. "Yeah."
"What happened to her?"
He sighed, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed again. For a moment Natasha thought he wouldn't answer, that he'd brush her aside like he had before in the secret SHIELD base where they'd seen the pictures on the wall. But he did answer. "She's still alive. I try to see her when I can." Something tormented crawled into his voice. "Sometimes she's like she was, but most of the time… It's like she's seeing me for the first time after… after–"
"After you came back?"
Steve nodded. He didn't continue, thinking. She watched the emotions swirl in his eyes. Something seemed wrong about it. She didn't believe in love. It was weakness, vulnerability. It was something she exploited to manipulate her mark and expose the information she needed. It was akin to lust, and lust she used to get what she wanted. But for Steve, love was what it was meant to be. Something pure and noble and valiant and precious. And it seemed wrong that it had been taken from him. "She lived her life. Married a nice guy. Had kids. I shouldn't expect that she would have wasted her life waiting for me."
He was so damn selfless. It repulsed her and impressed her at the same time. "Just because you want something you can't have doesn't make it wrong to want it."
He grunted noncommittally. "She was the only kiss I've had since 1945. A ninety-eight year old date."
Natasha wasn't surprised. She leaned closer to him, eager for contact. For warmth. "You're not that bad at it," she whispered.
He gave her a withering look. "That's a ringing endorsement."
Whatever else he might have said was swallowed by her mouth as she turned and kissed him again. This time she didn't do it to hide or to control him or to prove a point. She wasn't even sure why. Everything was so screwed up. She possessed him, devoured him, and he let her. He could have stopped her, but he let her. He was perfect, everything she could never be and never have. She was damaged, tainted, her hands stained with blood that would never come off no matter what she did or how hard she washed. She had red in her ledger. So much of it.
But he didn't seem to care as she deepened the kiss and pulled herself nearly on top of him. She swept her fingers into his hair, electrified by the touch of his hands on her back. When she pulled away, she stared down into his eyes and saw desire and surprise and confusion. Saw his lowered defenses. Normally those sort of things excited her because they were the signals that she had him under her control, that she could lure him into her trap and do with him whatever she pleased. Not now, though. Now it just made her feel sick.
It wasn't right of her to kiss Steve Rogers like this.
Still she did it again, sliding her hand up his chest and feeling raw and unbridled strength as his muscles fluttered and flexed under her touch. He was unlike anything she'd had before, so different from the evil men and thugs and villains she normally encountered in her line of work. He was beyond her, above her. She couldn't be who she was with him. Not with him.
And she knew that. So she quickly pulled away. She knew she was in control, as she was with every man she'd ever had, and if she went on… As much as she wanted that, she wasn't sure he would stop her. Seventy years of unrequited love and desire might be a force too strong for even Captain America and all of his morals to withstand. And she wouldn't stop herself if things went any further. She couldn't hurt him like that. She swallowed the sob building in her throat and buried herself in his side. He drew a short breath, stiffening in surprise and arousal. "Natasha?" She closed her eyes against his flank, squeezing his shirt in her hand until her fist shook. Everything was blurry again. "Nat?"
"Just sleep, Steve. Please. I'll keep watch."
"Sleep. I got you."
He was waiting, waiting for more, for an explanation, for something to ease the tension between them. She wished she hadn't heard the yearning in his voice. This was crazy, and she knew it. She'd nearly murdered him, too broken inside to be anything other than a killer and so far gone in her own lies that she couldn't tell her enemies from her friends. She used people, abused people, manipulated and cheated and hurt people. She misled and misconstrued and outright lied and discarded masks when her mission no longer required them. She wanted to tell him that. She wanted to confess every part of her dark past, even the things she herself wasn't sure were real. She wanted to tell him that no matter what happened with SHIELD and HYDRA she was going to stand with him. She wanted to make promises she couldn't keep and swear oaths she had no intention of fulfilling. She wanted to admit that she'd been trying so hard to fix him up with somebody because she knew he was lonely and devastated and unhappy in this new world and she wanted him to be happy. No, that wasn't wholly true. She wanted him to be happy, but even more she wanted to convince herself that he could be happy without her because that was the only way she could let go of what she felt for him. She hadn't even admitted it to herself, not entirely, until right then. She cared about him. She wanted him.
She was a hundred things for a thousand different people, but she couldn't be what she wanted to be for him.
So she said nothing, clenching her teeth and holding back her tears and waiting out the awkwardness. She didn't know the whims of shame too well, didn't suffer with doubt or embarrassment, didn't often experience regret. Those things had been beaten and burned out of her long ago. She couldn't deny them now, though, and they cut her raw.
Somehow Steve had stripped away all her lies, all her defenses, all her weapons. All her shields. Everything she was. Everything.
He had completely disarmed her.
Eventually his uncertain breaths evened out and his stiff muscles relaxed. She dared to look at him only when she was absolutely sure he was sleeping. The moonlight bathed his face. She turned herself gently so as not to disturb him and lightly traced her hand down his cheek. Already the bruises were fading. Her fingers lingered, her thumb sliding over his slightly parted lips. She was tender with him, tender in a way she'd never been with anyone else. She wasn't sure how that felt, but it didn't feel bad.
She watched as he breathed again, finding some comfort in his chest rising and falling beneath her. Then she curled into him, laying her head on his shoulder and her arm across his stomach. His arm was draped protectively around her. She stared into the night. She wanted to pretend there wasn't danger ahead of them. The Winter Soldier was out there. Rumlow and SHIELD and HYDRA were out there. When they got back to DC tomorrow, it would all come to a head. They were would have to fight for their lives, and if he had his way, for the world. She didn't know how they were going to do that, where they could go, who they could trust. SHIELD was gone, taking so much of who she was with it. She didn't want to think about that, afraid that if Black Widow was stripped away, only the dark things would remain.
So she made herself believe there was only this night in this dirty shed with all of the pain and demons held at bay by the moonlight and his heart beating steadily beneath her ear. She imagined this was as real and right as she wanted it to be.
She imagined, just for a second, that she was good enough to be the woman he loved.
She'd lived so many lies. She told herself just as many. This was the only one she didn't want to give up.