A/N: There's a lot of things to say before I post chapter 4, so please bear with me. :)

1: This story has reached over one hundred followerson fanfic. There are no words to describe the squealing noise I made when I realized that, for the first time, the follower count on something I wrote made it into the triple digits. I'm honored and amazed and want to hug all of you! In particular, thanks to rowergal for being the hundredth follower. But of course, there's enough hugs for everyone.

2: The next chapter of this will be an important author's note before I write/post chapter 5, the last installment. I will be running a contest for those of you who have artistic abilities.If you can draw (or Photoshop,) you might want to take a look. Details to come; keep your eyes open!

3: Further thanks goes out to my wonderful reviewers, Christina, Fuinn13, RushmanNatalie (love that username, by the way,) That-girl-from-outer-space6, Skewbald, MESPX13, Rosa Cotton, Littlesister007, sleeplessinbudapest (I feel your pain; I was shipping Clintasha until Captasha stole my heart, and I sort of still am, so I'm equally doomed,) InNeedOfInspiration, Drennilrem, mildlyholmes (you guys should read their Cap/Natasha fanfic, IN BETWEEN... it's beautiful,) Fhockey42, and The Freelancer Seal (I've missed you!... and as always, love the detailed feedback.)

4: Okay, deep breath... On to answering any relevant reviewer questions/comments. If I miss anything by MESPX13, I apologize, but I have to translate all your messages... and I tend to forget what they said. :P Darn language gap. It's still super cool that you're reviewing, though!

RushmanNatalie: I didn't think she had the serum in this universe but now I feel like she does in the movie she was way to okay in the end after being shot... I think she healed.

I never noticed that; I totally support that theory!

Drennilrem: So that last line...I totally didn't expect that to be coming from Steve. If anyone, I'd have thought Cap would be the embarrassed one, but I guess the 40s weren't that prudish.

I put a lot of thought into that "Good thing it's the 21st century" line, actually. My thoughts on it: First of all, we know that Cap occasionally musters the boldness to be candid (and even flirty) with Natasha. Examples: When she mentions how she doesn't wear bikinis, and Steve says, "I'm sure you'd look terrible in them." When she asks if it was his first kiss since 1945, and his response is that he isn't dead (that line cracks me up.) Also, I finally got around to buying my first comic book – it takes place right after Cap is revived from the ice – and there's a scene where he's sharing a drink with Tony Stark, and there are some girls of questionable character hanging out with them. Tony says something like, "Thought you'd be too straight-laced for this," to which Steve replies, "I'm probably blushing, but I'm not complaining."

So... given Steve's moments of boldness, given his straightforward honesty, and given the growing trust between Natasha and himself, I thought that the line fit, especially seeing as he still does the chivalrous thing: he leaves to get Natasha a shirt. (Of course, you're welcome to disagree with me!)

All right... on to what amounts to my longest Captasha chapter to date (and easily the hardest to write.) I was awake until 1 AM yesterday, trying to finish the last sequence because I promised myself I would post by today. Anyway, let me know what you think!

~x~X~x~

The fourth time they touch, it should be the end, but it feels like a beginning.

Natasha Romanoff is trained to follow orders. Her childhood as a Red Room acolyte was, at its core, a conflict between submission and rebellion. She was a tool, a loaded pistol in the hands of the Soviet regime, her targets carefully selected — but she fired of her own accord.

Even now, she still remembers sneaking back to the training room after dark, silent as a vapor. She remembers rehearsing her combat exercises, over and over until they were branded into her bones. She remembers her instructions, the echoes of which would linger long into the night.

More speed, more power. Do it again, Natalia. Don't do it right; do it better. More speed, Natalia. Do it again. Again. Again...

She grew older, of course. Years of repetition only drove her learning deeper, like nails hammered into her flesh. Every night, cloistered among the other women of the Red Room, she closed her eyes and recited her lessons.

Fulfill expectations, but subvert them. Obey orders, but exceed them. Become everything that is needed, and nothing that is expected.

Natasha is designed for obedience, forged for success through a crucible of struggle and loss. She adapts to each mission seamlessly, like water molding to the shape of a glass. But apart from an assignment — apart from a challenge to overcome — she is undefined, spread too thin, her identity a maze of contradictions.

A lesser operative might have been overcome by the sweeping chaos of HYDRA's resurrection; but when Natasha receives a new assignment from Maria Hill, she is honestly relieved.

"Sam Wilson is still inside the Triskelion. He's engaged with Agent Rumlow. There's a damaged helicarrier on a collision path with their location."

A directive: extract the Falcon. Natasha holsters her pistol. Like a bird upon the wind, she's in her element again.

~x~X~x~

Sam Wilson is intact, but the Triskelion is burning. As their helicopter lurches away, Natasha Romanoff turns to catch one last glimpse of the once-great S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. It is a battered colossus, a funeral pyre against what ought to have been a strikingly blue sky.

It is a monument to all she has ever had, and all she has now lost.

Falcon and Fury banter. Taunts and laughs are exchanged, and something about the floor numbers not being painted on the outside of the building.

Natasha presses an open palm to the window. The sky beyond is a cataclysm of smoke and fire and shattered glass. Her thoughts scatter and strike like a spray of bullets, each revelation a fresh rush of pain.

The Triskelion, falling to ashen memory. S.H.I.E.L.D., cloven in two as if by the sword of a god. Her past, unveiled; her present, aflame.

Her ledger, dripping red.

"Natasha," Fury says, above the helicopter's roar.

She turns her voice to steel. "What?"

"Are you all right?"

And she shouldn't answer, but this is Nick Fury — this is Nick and he is alive — and she doesn't want to lie to him. What would be the point? Her layers of deception have been scraped away; she feels like a beating heart, like a single exposed nerve, like an intricate web of shatterpoints. The world has seen her as she really is. She has nothing left to hide behind.

Truthfully, in a low whisper, she says, "I've been compromised."

Fury doesn't reply. He stares straight ahead, his attention focused on piloting. He grants her the privilege of personal space.

To the contrary, Sam Wilson looks at her with contemptible pity. "You're a soldier," he says. "I understand. It takes time... to find your way back."

"I'm a spy, not a soldier," Natasha says. "I serve a directive, not a flag."

Sam opens his mouth to reply when, from below them, there comes a horrible, horrible crash — a roar of crashing and collision. Fury curses. The roar rises to an almost unbearable crescendo, then dwindles down into utter silence. As an icy fear slides down her spine, Natasha makes a mistake. She looks down.

She looks down, and time stands still.

The helicarriers obliterated each other, which means that Steve undeniably completed his mission. But he never commed to confirm his location, and the final helicarrier – the sight of his last stand – is submerged in the Potomac.

(And if he was on board, if he didn't get out, if he was shot or stabbed or killed –)

Natasha's chest clamps. "Agent Hill," she says, tapping the comm at her wrist. "Do you have a read on the Captain's location?"

A pause. Static. Dead, stale air. Then: "No. No, I don't."

"Comm him."

Maria hesitates. "I've lost the signal, Agent Romanoff."

Natasha chokes on nothing at all, nothing but the pressure that's building in her lungs, closing up her throat. "Then find him," she says.

Maria takes a breath. "Natasha..."

"He fought his closest friend," she says.

"I know."

"He sacrificed everything."

"I know."

Something wedges between Natasha's ribs, a swift, sharp lurch in her gut, like an invisible knife sliding in. "Then find him, damn it!"

Seconds pass. Sam Wilson looks at her, his grief unmasked. Fury takes a slow, deep breath. The unspoken truth bears down on them, inescapable.

"Natasha." Maria Hill's voice is barely a whisper. "I'm sorry."

~x~X~x~

She comms him for the third time — "Captain, what's your status?" — and she grips the comm at her wrist with her other hand, as if by force she could elicit a reply.

Silence answers, absolute.

Fury's knuckles are white around the copter's controls. "Romanoff —"

"Say something, Rogers," she says through her teeth, but the only sound is the whirring of helicopter blades. Her heart pounds. "Say something, damn it."

Silence.

A little louder, Fury says, "Romanoff."

The comm hisses with static. Something inside of Natasha gives way, some long-forgotten fracture that's splitting again. "Steve," she says, choking. "Talk to me, Steve." Her breath hitches. "Steve. Steve."

"Natasha," Fury says, forcefully. "You have to stop."

All at once, this moment is irrevocably real. She jams her fist against her gritted teeth, fighting to keep back her answering scream, but it tears loose anyway. It is an unnatural sound; it breaks her apart; it opens up inside her chest and presses up against her ribs, and it grows and grows and it's never going to stop. She's screaming into a closed mouth, screaming into nothing.

It sounds like she's shattering.

Maybe she is.

~x~X~x~

They tell her to stay faraway from the wreckage. They tell her that a S.H.I.E.L.D. rescue team will delve into the Potomac — but S.H.I.E.L.D. is splintered, its agents scattered and disorganized. When she asks exactly who is in this rescue team, and when they'll start, and what exactly their plan might be, she is swiftly silenced.

Only then does Natasha understand that the rescue is a farce, a desperate grasp at a fading dream. They don't expect to find Steve Rogers alive.

They don't expect to find Steve Rogers at all.

"I could come with them," Natasha says, hating the tremor in her voice. "I've been an assassin. I know how to track a missing man."

"Your cover is blown, Romanoff. You may have lost friends, and you'll certainly have made enemies. Now is not the time for you to be out in the open." Maria Hill manages a weary smile. She says, "We'll tell you if we find him."

Natasha bridles at the casual if. As though Steve Rogers could simply vanish. As though the river could erase even his legacy.

As Agent Hill turns on her heel, Natasha tethers her feet to the floor. She stands silent, her expression schooled into neutrality. Her pulse pounds. She listens to Hill's footsteps until they collapse back into silence.

Behind her, Nick Fury says, "What are you thinking, Romanoff?"

There is something in his voice – a raggedness, a wearing thin, a well-masked vulnerability. Suddenly, he is not Director Fury; he is only Nick.

Natasha swallows. She remembers how he gripped her shoulder after the Battle of New York, as if to say, I'm still here. She remembers the first time they spoke of her darker days; how she whispered of all she'd lost (and taken away), and how he simply answered,I've lost an eye, Romanoff... but I keep my good one on the future, not the past.

Then she remembers his body — the body she believed to be dead — stretched out on the medical table.

She remembers trusting him, but the world is different now. (Or perhaps the world has always been this way.)

Natasha grips her pistol. "I'm going to the crash site," she says, starting to walk.

"Agent Hill said —"

"I know what Hill said."

He speaks her name, softly; not an order, but a plea. "Natasha."

But she doesn't turn to look at him, doesn't even break her stride. "Don't follow me," she says over her shoulder.

~x~X~x~

Somewhere, Maria Hill is organizing a rescue team.

On the banks of the Potomac, Natasha Romanoff is already there.

There's a terrifying moment when she doesn't see anything but sand upon sand, and the dark abyss of river-water, and the smoke-stained sky. She looks down at the sunken monolith of the helicarrier, and every part of her constricts to block another scream.

Then, on the wind, she hears, "...Tasha."

And then she's running — her heartbeat alive in her throat and in her fingertips — running and running and Steve is right there. All of her panic retreats in a rush.

She drops to the sand, kneeling beside him. "Damn you, Rogers."

He raises his eyebrows. "You should be thanking me."

"For what?"

"Surviving."

Somehow she laughs, though her throat is raw from screaming. "What makes you think I care?"

Weakly, his mouth lifts into a smile. His eyes are blue and fierce, like summer skies. "You're a terrible liar."

"Am I?" she breathes.

"To me," he says.

Everything rises up at once, a cleansing, searing tide that wipes her clean.

The absurd glint in his eyes, every time she looked at him during the Avengers Initiative.

The foolish fact that she found herself smiling whenever he laughed, and whenever he missed a pop culture reference, and whenever he questioned her judgment (because who really decides to hijack a Chitauri sky-sled, after all?)

The night in Chicago, when his heartbeat lulled her to sleep.

The moment she awoke from surgery, and his best friend had tried to kill her,but his primary concern was if she was okay.

The effortless way that he moved to guard her, during the Battle of New York — how the fireballs came swirling over and around them, but his shield stood firm — how he held her tight against him, and she saw the blush he tried to hide — and how he did the same in the bunker in New Jersey, how he doesn't even have to think about protecting her because it's just what he does.

It has been so long since Natasha was certain of anything, but this — this thing between them — it is aggressive and persistent, and the thought of losing him now, after all they've been through, after all they've fought for, was enough to buckle her knees.

On impulse, Natasha grips his face between her hands and kisses him, slow and sure. His lips move in time with hers, and his fingers find their way into her hair, pulling her closer. She can't remember how to breathe.

Steve Rogers doesn't need her, and she sure as hell doesn't need him. But she wants him, not because of an assignment from S.H.I.E.L.D. but because, when she's with him, sometimes for the briefest moment she believes this could be home.

Abruptly, he cries out in pain.

Natasha draws back, her lips hovering inches from his. "Steve, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I..." She looks down. Bloodstains bloom across his chest, staining his uniform a dark, dark red. She pulls back, her face white. "Oh, hell, did you get shot?"

Steve shrugs, wincing. "Once or twice."

"I'll comm a medical team," she says, her adrenaline pumping. Damn, that's a lot of blood. Some of the desperation must show in her voice, because Maria Hill doesn't ask questions. She simply agrees to come, then disconnects immediately.

"You're going to be okay, Steve," Natasha says. "I swear, you're going to be okay."

"Are you?"

"What?"

He holds her gaze, piercing. "Are you okay?"

At the question, heat flushes her face, burns through her veins. He watches her, unassuming. Willing to wait for her to gather her courage.

After a breath, she says, "I followed our plan."

Steve pauses, processing. A crease forms between his eyebrows, then vanishes as he remembers. "Your cover's blown," he says, and it isn't a question.

Natasha swallows. She's on the verge of something — a sob or a gasp or another scream — but she's repressed it all for so long, she can't even tell the difference. She wants to talk, but all she can do is nod.

Silence settles. There is only the river and their unsteady breaths.

"I don't have to see it," Steve says.

"See what?"

"Your history," he says.

She blinks, overcome. "Steve..."

"I don't have to see it," he says, not a sliver of deceit in his eyes. His smile is sunlight, chasing her shadows away. "I don't have to see any of it."

They stare at each other, barely blinking.

Softly, Natasha asks, "Why?"

He grips her hand, knotting their fingers together. "I trust you," he says. "To talk to me."

A single tear falls, slipping down her cheek. "Steve," she says. "Steve, you can't... I'm not..." Not who you think I am. Not the woman I'd like to be.

But he tightens his grip on her hand and says, "I trust you."

Without thinking, she leans down to kiss him again. He is inexperienced, allowing her to take the lead. And she does. He tastes like fire and steel and ash, like a thousand fractured yesterdays. She kisses him harder, long and deep, desperate and damaged, like a promise of tomorrow.

It's the fourth time they touch, and it should be the end, but it feels like a beginning.

When they break apart, they're both panting.

"Natasha," he says against her lips.

And she decides that, if Steve Rogers can allow her to keep secrets, there is still one secret he deserves to know.

"That isn't my real name," she says, trembling. For so long, she has been Natasha Romanoff; for so long, she has been the Black Widow. But maybe, for just one moment, she can be as she once was. "It's Natalia."

"Natalia," Steve says.

Damn, she loves the way he says her name. She adds, "Romanova."

"Natalia Romanova," he says, and then he smiles. "I like it."

"You'd better."

Together, they rest on the riverbank. Occasionally, Steve says, "Natalia," like it's a secret (even though the whole world now knows,) and she tells him to be quiet and save his strength. By the third time, her name is a gasp of pain — Na–ta–lia — and she reaches out for his hand, and he grips her wrist tightly, his thumb pressed against her racing pulse. And they stay that way until Agent Hill and the medical team arrive.

As they lift him on to a stretcher, as they inject a needle into his arm, as his eyes glaze and his head lolls, Steve murmurs, "I love you, Natalia."

And Natasha doesn't know what she would have said, because he falls asleep before she can reply.

~x~X~x~

A/N: First, the songs for this chapter: 1. Shattered (MTT Version) – Trading Yesterday 2. Unintended – Muse

Second, a few little what-I-was-thinking-while-I-wrote-this tidbits.

All references to the Red Room and Natasha's real name (Natalia Romanova) are drawn from the comics. I might be new to this, but I do my research. Hopefully, this is somewhat accurate to the Black Widow's history as a character.

You might have noticed the repetition of a particular phrase in Natasha's memories of Red Room training: "More speed, more power." That's sort of an inside joke... with myself. I used to take Tae Kwon Do, before I realized my complete and total lack of athletic ability, and my (very scary) teacher would say "more speed, more power" constantly. I'm fairly certain that the mantra is engraved into my skull. At least now I've put it to good use here!

I came very close to actually crying while I was writing Natasha's attempts to comm Steve. I was listening to the aforementioned "Shattered" song, and I suddenly thought of Peggy's radio conversation with Steve before he was frozen in the ice, and everything sort of bled together... I almost never cry, so that was weird. If I captured what I was feeling in the written scene, even a little bit, I'll count this chapter a success.

Hopefully, I've managed to keep the more intimate moments between these two realistic. Confession time: I've never kissed anyone. As Steve Rogers might say, I'm waiting for the right partner. So, for those of you who are a little older than I am, are those moments in the fic realistic? Any advice on improvement?

Well, that's all for now. Keep an eye out for the last installment and contest details. Thank you again for reading – if you have time, please do review. Feedback is a beautiful thing.