The first time they touch, she's broken and he's present, so they can't bring themselves to care about the details.
Steve Rogers hasn't slept in a month. He blames it on having been frozen in the ice for so long. Sleep feels like that — muscles locked, breathing slowed, thoughts swimming, everything drifting. At home, when rest evades him, Steve often slips outside and runs by moonlight until his mind is clear. But here, on a mission from S.H.I.E.L.D. — tracking a potential terrorist operation in Chicago, of all places — he can't afford to be wandering alone at night.
Blend in, Fury said during the mission briefing. It's easy to do that in the city. Don't distinguish yourself. Don't walk the streets with that shield on your back.
And stay close to Agent Romanoff.
Steve can't help but wonder what Fury was thinking when he planned this mission. Apparently, two hotel rooms would have been too expensive for S.H.I.E.L.D., so Fury decided that Cap and Widow could play happy-married-couple for the week. Steve is not amused, Natasha even less so.
While Captain America was reborn from ice, Black Widow has been tested in fire. She is S.H.I.E.L.D.'s iron fist — elegant and efficient, silent and lethal. She doesn't ask questions; she doesn't follow her feelings. She obeys orders to the letter. She kills with grace and poise, and perhaps with her own personal brand of conscience.
Black Widow is the opposite of Captain America in every possible way. Which, of course, means that Steve's instinct is to be so damn nice to her, it's no wonder the hotel receptionist buys their marriage cover story. Their room, thankfully, is spacious, so Steve can pace freely while Natasha sleeps in the bed.
Outside, the sky is heavy with gathering clouds. When the first lash of lightning whips across the sky, it heralds an immediate downpour. Rain breaks loose in blinding sheets. A boom of thunder follows; it reminds Steve of the crashing skyscrapers during what shall forever be called "The Loki Incident."
Even if I could sleep, he thinks, I wouldn't find rest tonight.
Natasha, on the other hand, appears unperturbed by the storm outside. As soon as their luggage is unloaded, she shuts the lights and says, curtly, "See you tomorrow, Rogers."
Not Steve, not even Captain, but Rogers — it makes Steve's fists clench. And without another word, Black Widow falls asleep, as though the sheets of rain and smashing thunder were a lullaby.
Steve sighs. For once, Fury has made a mistake. If he thinks that pairing Steve with Natasha on this assignment is amusing, his smile will fade when he hears what's guaranteed to be a very messy mission report. The Avengers Initiative was one thing; working alone with Natasha Romanoff is quite another.
As Steve paces the night away, making a circle of footprints in the carpet, he thinks, It would be easier to keep my distance.
But when Natasha starts screaming — real, terrible screams, half-strangled in the back of her throat — any thought of disengaging dissolves, and he finds himself running to her side.
He isn't prepared for what he sees.
Natasha is drenched in sweat, her muscles pulled tightly against her body — like a child, huddled small and strong, braced against the evil figments of the dark. And she's shaking. Black Widow, shaking, like the monsters are coming and there's nowhere to hide.
"Natasha," Steve says. A touch might wake her, but the nightgown she's wearing is so thin, and she's breathing so fast, and she's unconscious, after all. Touching her now would feel like a violation. Steve whispers her name again, sharply, leaning close to her ear. "Natasha."
And then her eyes are open, and Steve doesn't have time to react before her fingernails are at his throat, her knees pressing on his ribs, and he's pinned down on the bed and she's hanging over him, tense and feral and barely breathing, and he looks into her eyes, he looks and he looks but there's nothing there.
"Na–ta–sha." He's choking.
She looks at him, then — really looks at him — and understanding floods her gaze. With a gasp, she releases his throat. She withdraws abruptly, stumbling back across the bed, smashing the back of her skull on the headboard in the process.
Steve's heart bangs against his ribcage. He lays still, breathing hard, not daring to speak. Blood has rushed to his face, hot hot hot, whether from the sweeping shock of the situation or the recent proximity of Black Widow's body, he doesn't know.Cautiously, he dares to glance in her direction.
Natasha sags against the headboard, her gaze wild, and takes sharp, short breaths. Eventually, she closes her eyes.
A minute passes; neither of them move. Then Steve straightens, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. His throat burns from Natasha's fingernails, but he ignores the pain. Hardly daring to hope, wishing the thought didn't comfort him, he looks at her haggard face and asks, "You have them, too?"
Natasha's eyes snap open. "Have what?"
Steve crosses his arms, his biceps visibly tightening. "When I manage to sleep, Natasha, did you think I have pleasant dreams?"
His words strike her more sharply than he anticipated. Black Widow presses her nails into her palms. She doesn't speak, doesn't even look at him.
His pulse pounding, Steve powers through. "Who else knows?"
"About the night terrors."
"They don't happen often." Natasha takes a sharp breath. "Only Clint knows." She pauses before adding, "He's never actually... seen it. Seen me like that."
A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and for an instant, Steve sees a single tear on Natasha's cheek — a delicate, defiant thing. She wipes it away with the back of a hand, as if it never was.
"I'm sorry," she says as darkness returns. "I hurt you."
"No, I'm fine," Steve says. But when he touches his stinging throat, his fingers come away with blood. Natasha winces. "You weren't you," he insists. "It's fine."
Natasha laughs — a slick, dark sound. "You overestimate my character."
"You underestimate my insight."
A minute passes with hardly a sound; only rain against the windows, like tiny claws tapping.
"Tell me, Rogers." Natasha moves, shifts, so that she's sitting beside him, like a shadow in the dim light. "What do you see, when you're alone in the dark?"
Steve closes his eyes, his stomach tightening. After a pause, he chokes out an answer – a word, a name, that burns his lungs on way out. "Bucky."
Natasha arches an eyebrow. "Am I supposed to know who that is?"
"One of my Howling Commandos." Steve pauses; takes a breath. "And a friend."
"You lost him."
"You blame yourself," Natasha says. And it isn't a question.
Steve lowers his head. Memories roll over him like the thunderclaps outside. "Yes," he says, and he wants to say something else, too, but then he makes a mistake and thinks of Bucky – Bucky, grinning, rifle held high – and everything inside of him grinds together, like even his post-serum body isn't big enough to contain such emptiness.
Time drags past, every second chafing.
Natasha's breath is warm against Steve's neck, tickling the edges of his cuts. A strange warmth shudders down his spine. "Steve," she says, in a voice that disarms him.
With difficulty, he meets her eyes. He's surprised to find them soft, vulnerable, as though layers of her have been sanded away. Nothing about Black Widow has ever been vulnerable, but her eyes are.
Steve read somewhere that eyes are windows to the soul.
Natasha averts her gaze. Softly, she says, "It doesn't ever stop, you know."
The phantom pain. The dreams. The void inside of him.
"I know," Steve says, and for a moment, they understand each other. Not touching, not talking, they listen to the thunder.
Neither the soldier nor the spy breaks their fragile, precious moment of simply being. They're always running, fighting, reacting; to simply exist, as a small thing in an infinite universe, is a privilege. Steve doesn't want to steal it away.
With a start, it dawns on Steve that they're so very, very close in the dark. Through her thin nightgown, Steve can feel the warmth of Natasha's thigh beside his own. It makes his pulse spike.
He looks at her face — at her scarlet curls and her sharp jaw and her suddenly haunted eyes — and he wonders how this woman, so beautifully intense, could have a nightmare powerful enough to make her scream.
"What do you see, Natasha? In the dreams?"
She doesn't have to answer him. Even if she chooses to, she's a practiced deceiver; she could weave any web of lies she pleased, and Steve would never ask again.
But instead, Natasha braces empty palms against the mattress. She squeezes her eyes shut, then opens them again.
"Myself," Black Widow says, not blinking. "Always."
Steve grasps for a reply, but then she starts talking again, and once she starts she can't stop.
"The whole world is red, I'm dripping red, and I don't even know whose blood it is. And there's a shadow chasing me, and I'm running and running but it always runs faster, and then it's on top of me, screaming, and when I pull the trigger and put a bullet through its heart, I watch it die. And it has my face. And I watch me bleed, and the sick part is, I'm not even sorry. And I wake up and I'm screaming."
Outside their window, lighting flashes. Brightness cuts across Natasha's face for the briefest instant before they're enfolded in darkness again. She won't cry again; that much is certain. But in that instant of illumination, Steve sees her for what she is. Hollowed out. Bled dry.
Without thinking, Steve puts an arm around her shoulder.
He expects Natasha to pull away, to set strict limits for physical contact and establish ground rules for the next week and so forth, but instead, she leans into his chest. She rests her head where his heart beats, listening to his racing pulse. And she really doesn't mind that they're close, too close, sitting together on her freaking bed in the middle of damn Chicago.
It's better than being alone with herself.
Some people say that Captain America is only a shield. And right now, maybe it's true, but he's one hell of a shield, his arms strong and secure around her, his heartbeat rapid but steady against her ear, like the rain.
Or like a lullaby.
It's the first time they touch, and she's broken and he's present, so they can't bring themselves to care about the details. Black Widow puts an arm over Captain America's shoulder, gripping the taut muscle beneath, and closes her eyes.
For tonight, at least, he'll keep her nightmares away.
A/N: This will be a series of five one-shots, solely because I need an outlet for my Cap/Widow emotions after watching WINTER SOLDIER in theaters for the second time. This chapter ran away into major angst territory, so don't expect this kind of length from every installment. Some of those upcoming chapters might be more along the lines of drabbles or vignettes, not full-blown sequences with backstory like this one.
This might be a little bit angsty for the characterization of these two – I'm very new to superhero movies, so you'll have to bear as I try to touch on this wonderful, layered couple that I can't get out of my head – but I did my best to ground it in what we know about them.
What I love about Cap/Widow is that they're both strong, but they both have vulnerabilities, and I wanted to portray that here. Missing Bucky is Steve's greatest burden. Natasha has done things she regrets; she has "red on her ledger," and as she told Hawkeye/Clint, she knows what it's like to feel like your head has been replaced with someone else's, to do things you thought you never could. Until this scene, I imagine that Cap & Widow largely bonded due to mutual respect for one another's abilities; this scene is the first time they bond over mutual pain, mutual brokenness. And so it's the first time they truly connect.
Please review, if you have the time – and truly, thank you for reading!
Song for this chapter: Castle of Glass (Linkin Park)