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.

RATING: T (for language, violence, adult situations)

PROTECTING THE PROTECTOR

4

Natasha pulled herself together.

It was what she always did only it wasn't usually so hard. She'd killed so many of her own emotions so long ago that finding them rising from the darkness inside of her heart wasn't easy to accept or dismiss. She didn't know how to control what she was feeling, and control was what she prized most of all. She'd never come apart like before. Even losing Fury, the man who'd given her a second chance and helped her start to wash the blood from her hands, hadn't gotten to her like this was. A few tears had been all she could manage over Fury's body. But as Steve suffered in her arms, she had cried like she had nothing left, like the pain she was feeling would consume her. Maybe it would. Maybe it should. And it wasn't just that Steve was dying, although that was certainly upsetting. It was her security, her identity in not having an identity at all, her secrets. They were all dying, too. Everything she was, everything she had been and could be, had become inexorably tied to Steve surviving the night.

But she stopped sobbing and wiped her eyes until they were red and her cheeks until they were hot and raw. She was too damaged to even allow herself more than a moment of release. And once that moment was over, she went back to the mission.

The night wearily wore on until the first hints of dawn began to paint the sky. Steve's breathing had turned into a pathetic attempt to inhale at all, a slow, troubled wheeze from lungs that were too traumatized to function properly anymore. His erratic and desperate struggles against the pain were gone now. He lay limp, too weak to move, too weak to even shiver. She was losing him to blood loss and shock and sepsis and too many devastating wounds sustained too quickly. Captain America wasn't invulnerable. She'd known that, but somehow it had been okay to believe otherwise. He couldn't be hurt, and he couldn't be killed. It had taken old enemies and brothers turned ghosts to bring him down and show them all how wrong they'd been.

She'd been the most wrong of all. She didn't know how to save him. She couldn't protect him.

Not long into her vigil, she'd climbed onto the foldout couch. She'd settled next to him, her back against the sofa cushions, and gathered him into her embrace. His fever was raging. The sickening heat seeped into her skin like poison. She had her hand over his chest, feeling each breath rattle in and out of his body, feeling his heart weakly thump beneath her fingers. It was more for her comfort than for his. His head was pillowed to her breast, his face lax and waxy. His lips were slightly parted, dry and cracked and red. She'd been trying to get him to drink, but it didn't seem to be doing much to relieve the dehydration. He was too delirious and weak to manage it. He needed blood and IV fluids and proper antibiotics. He needed a doctor and a hospital.

Sam was right. They couldn't fix this. And she was letting him suffer by ignoring that, by remaining so adamantly certain that this was the right course. Sam had come and gone numerous times over these last long, awful hours, and every time he had appeared at her side the same words were poised on his lips and the same furious, frustrated accusations glinted in his eyes. Take him to a hospital. Take him to a doctor. Get help! Don't you see what you're doing to him? Can't you see you're letting him die?

She wasn't so sure she wasn't anymore even though she tried to seem steadfast. She wasn't so sure Steve could beat this on his own, that the serum could save him. He's strong. She had said that, hadn't she? He can fight this. He will. She believed that, didn't she? It won't kill him. But HYDRA will. You want to risk that?

I'm not going to sit here and watch him die.

This argument went on and on. At least, she thought it had. She was so damn tired that things were really starting to blur together, and the war between her conscience and the choices she'd made was beginning to sound an awful lot like the debate she had had with Sam. He watched her in anger and disgust and doubt as she uselessly soothed Steve with soft, meaningless words and cool wash cloths that did nothing to alleviate his fever. He watched her in fury and frustration, both for her and for himself. Any fledgling sense of trust between them was being dashed by Steve's suffering. If Sam really wanted to, he could have fought her about it. He could have forced her to listen. He wasn't, but not because he cared for her feelings or respected her opinions or because he knew she would have beaten him. Truth be told, he was as unsure as she was about what he thought they should do. If there was a right answer, a correct course of action in this hellish nightmare, it was impossible to tell. She wasn't used to there being an easy way out; she had no delusions about how difficult and complex life was. She was just afraid that, for the first time in all the hellish nightmares that had preceded this one, there was no way out.

"If his fever isn't down by the morning, we're going," Sam had declared with a ridiculous amount of confidence and authority the last time he'd been beside her in the den. He was overcompensating for uncertainty and indecision. She'd nodded, feeling dead inside. But morning was coming, and indecision was the only thing that persisted.

That and her unwillingness to let Steve go for even a second. Sam hadn't come back in a while. She wondered if he had fallen asleep on watch. She supposed she should have been angry at him if he had, but that required more energy and concentration than she currently possessed. In fact, she envied him if he had nodded off. She'd never wanted sleep so acutely. Her back ached from remaining motionless and stiff for so many long hours. Her shoulderwas so sore she could hardly stand to move it. The place on her arm where she'd been clipped by a bullet was burning. She was hungry and thirsty and dizzy with fatigue and fear. And paranoia was torturing her senses. Every creak of the house was HYDRA. Every shifting shadow was a threat. She desperately needed to rest, but she couldn't. She couldn't.

Steve moaned. He'd been brushing with consciousness off and on for quite some time, but even when he woke he wasn't grounded in reality. The fever was wreaking havoc on his mind. Every time he came around (which was becoming more of a rarity), she'd tried to reach him through the heat and pain. But he was lost. She didn't know how to get him back. He mumbled something, trying to turn to his right side. She halted his movements and hushed him softly. "Just lie still."

"It hurts…"

"I know." Even if the painkillers hadn't been completely useless in providing relief, they were long gone. Just a little while longer. She wanted to whisper that, to promise him that, but she didn't. They both deserved more than another promise she couldn't keep. Her helplessness cut deep. She didn't ever admit to anyone, let alone herself, that she wasn't capable or that she couldn't get the job done. That she could fail. But the evidence was pretty damn stark before her teary eyes. It pushed despair into her hoarse voice. "Hang on, Steve. Please. You have to keep fighting. Please."

He didn't speak again for long time. She closed her eyes and caressed his hair from his forehead and let the pace of his shallow breathing and her own heartbeat lull her for just a moment. The blackness swooped in from all around, and before she knew it and against every wailing wish inside her head she was slipping away into the comforting pall of nothingness. Sleep. Maybe when she woke, she would find this was all some sort of bad dream. Like the end of a fairy tale, the ones she'd read in her youth, and they could all live happily ever after…

It wasn't, and they couldn't. Voices poured from the blackness. "Would you trust me to save your life?"

"I never want you to lie."

"It's stuff like this that makes me have trust issues."

"How about you, Romanoff? Do you think the Cap's invincible?"

"He's gonna be okay, you know. The doctors said he'll be okay."

"Are you ready for the world to see you as you really are?"

"I've been compromised. I've got red in my ledger. I'd like to wipe it out."

"What a waste."

"HYDRA will kill him. HYDRA will kill all of you. This isn't the end."

"Peggy?"

A whisper slashed through the nothingness in her mind, and her eyes shot open. She jolted to awareness, an uncomfortable rush of energy leaving her panicked and reeling and trembling. The room was gray as the first touches of dawn slipped in through the drawn blinds. Her gun was still on the bed beside her. Steve was still warm and breathing against her. They were still alone. They were still safe.

The thundering misery of her heart slowed. She cursed herself for her lapse, even if it had only been for a few minutes, and looked down to Steve's face. He was awake and staring at her. Staring at her but not seeing her. Not recognizing her. "Peggy?" he whispered again.

She didn't know who Peggy was. "It's Natasha, Steve," she reminded. She didn't like the lost look in his eyes, as though the fever had scorched away everything since he'd come of out the ice. His delirium was worse than before. His eyes wandered and then slipped shut. She shook his face slightly, vehemently trying to ground him. "Look at me."

"Peggy… Please…"

"It's Natasha. Don't you remember what happened?"

It was painfully obvious he didn't. He was far away from her. That scared her. "What… what happened?"

"You got shot, remember? The hospital?"

"Peggy?"

"It's Natasha, Steve. Listen to me. I'm not…" Suddenly the image of that woman with the dark hair and the striking eyes from the secret SHIELD office at Camp Lehigh flashed through her mind. Steve had been so tense, so quiet and withdrawn when she'd asked who the woman in the picture had been. Natasha closed her eyes again, eyes that stung with anger. Her heart was a heavy, dead weight in her chest. She'd never felt like this before, so much sorrow on behalf of somebody else. But she felt it for him.

"Please stay with me," he whispered plaintively. He reached up a shaking hand and pressed his palm to her cheek. "Please stay."

She grasped his hand with every intention of pulling it away, with every part of reason and rationality and self-preservation that was still intact within her demanding she keep trying to reach him and convince him of reality. That she keep her distance. But she didn't. She didn't know who he thought she was. She didn't care. "I'll stay," she swore.

Steve's face crumpled in obvious relief. He licked his lips again, closing his eyes and sagging against her. He nuzzled his face into her body more. "I'm so tired…"

"I know."

"Did we win? Is it over?"

"It will be soon. Just hang on to me."

Tears escaped his half-lidded eyes and slid down his temples. She wondered what sort of misery he was reliving. A battle from the war. A nightmare from his past. Maybe this Peggy woman had sat then just as she was sitting now, holding a wounded Captain America on the battlefront, whispering solace and stroking his hair and promising things she couldn't know were true. Hurting just as she hurt for a man that had come to mean so much to her. Somehow that emboldened her. Somehow that validated something that was fundamentally wrong. She had no idea if this scene had truly played out in the past or if it was merely something his stricken mind was conjuring up to ease his pain. It didn't matter. If she could ease his pain, she would. Even if nothing could make it right for her to steal a moment that wasn't and would never be hers.

But steal it she did. Her hesitation faded. "Peggy…" he whispered again. His relief was all the encouragement she needed. It was the first time since she'd met him that she'd ever seen him so at ease, without that look of perpetual tension holding his face hostage. He always seemed like he was carrying the weight of the whole damn world on his shoulders. "Peggy?"

"I'm here."

"I missed you…" He breathed a sob. "So much."

"Steve," she whispered. He looked at her with those deep and beautiful blue eyes. Impulse and desperation drove her – she shouldn't do this – to lean down and capture his mouth with her own. The kiss was chaste at first, her lips lightly pressed to his, before the power of her fear for him and for herself and desire pushed her to deepen it. It wasn't like before in the mall when he'd been so surprised and uncomfortable and she'd been entirely in control. She'd been teasing and taunting back then, despite the gravity of that situation, enjoying his flustered confusion. This was something else, something open and pure and built of things that went deeper than she thought she could admit. He tasted like blood and tears, but that didn't dissuade her as she held him tighter and kissed him harder. Inside she broke again. This is wrong.

"When this is over…" he whispered against her lips. "I want… I need to tell you. I need to tell you how much I–"

"Just sleep." She kissed him again, wanting to trap whatever he was going to say before he could say it. She knew what he wanted. She didn't want to hear it. She couldn't hear it. "You don't need to tell me anything."

But she couldn't stop him even if she truly wanted to. He was driven, too. "I love you."

He wasn't saying it to her. Not to her. She wasn't the woman he loved. He was talking to a ghost, promising his heart to the past. She'd never imagined hating herself quite so much. They were partners, fellow agents, barely even friends. They hardly knew anything about each other, and were it not for these difficult and traumatic circumstances, that wouldn't have changed. The tentative bond between them was only that: tentative. A first brush at something that could grow, given time and the right circumstances. This stolen moment wasn't real. It couldn't be real.

He wasn't saying it to her.

When she made herself realize and accept that, the grief was crushing. The tears came back, tears she couldn't deny or hide. But she didn't let it slow her, didn't permit the pain any purchase in her heart that might shatter the illusion. No matter how much it hurt her, she would make it real for him. "I know," she whispered. "I love you, too."

He slept peacefully after that, enveloped in the warmth and safety of her arms. She didn't. She stayed awake long after he lost consciousness, long after his fever finally began to break. Long after the new day began. She felt numb, not wholly aware, dazed by pain and exhaustion and disappointment. She felt dirty, like this black and vile muck was covering her spirit, but she couldn't make herself regret what she'd done. This was who she was. Different things to different people, whatever the situation required. A thousand contradictory covers. An actress. A liar who spoke this most convincing lie because it was mixed so deftly with truth. She was ashamed to have taken the place of the woman he'd loved. She was ashamed to admit to herself how selfish she really was.

But if the cost of his moment of peace was her lifetime of shame, it was worth it.


"Natasha?"

Her eyes snapped open. Her hand flew to the gun beside her and tightened around it. She swung it up without a moment's hesitation and pointed it at the blurry face looming over her. "Whoa!" gasped Sam as he backed away and raised his hands disarmingly. "Easy! Take it easy. It's just me."

Her heart was pounding and she couldn't catch her breath or remember for an achingly long minute where she was or what she was doing. She darted her eyes around the unfamiliar room, the books and nice furniture and pleasant family pictures. Daylight rushed inside, blasting away any lingering shadows. She was uncharacteristically disoriented, her memories a jumble of pain and terror that refused to coalesce into anything meaningful. The barest of instincts took over. The gun didn't waver. It never did.

Then she saw Sam's eyes, wide and wet with relief. And she felt Steve against her, warm and breathing and alive. "They're here," Sam said. He smiled. "They came."

There was a flurry of activity on the other side of the den. Men came rushing inside. Leading them was Maria Hill. She looked as she always did: meticulously kept, stoic and strong, with not a hair out of place or the tiniest sign of distress. But when her stern eyes fell upon the scene before her, they softened. She walked over to the bed and nodded to Natasha, holding the other woman's gaze. "I got your message," she said. "And I called for help."

"And does the help deliver, or does it deliver?" Tony Stark entered the room, flanked by bodyguards and soldiers. He, too, seemed calm and composed, wearing nice jeans and an expensive blazer and sunglasses that he took off when he saw the sad mess around the couch. His face loosened in alarm. "Well, shit."

Natasha couldn't quite make heads or tails of this, her mouth hanging unabashedly open, her mind too overwhelmed and muddled to comprehend what was happening. Surely she was dreaming. Surely this was something her battered brain had come up with to ease the pain of her failure. Hill reached down and laid a hand on Steve's arm, wincing at all the blood. She looked back at Stark. "Get the doctors over here."

Stark shook his head. He looked pale and worried and troubled. "Christ, Rogers, can't ever do anything halfway, can you? You guys get your asses in here! Just sit tight."

Men with bags and medical equipment and a stretcher poured into the room, pushing their way to the foldout couch, scrambling to help. Hands covered in latex reached for Steve, trying to assess the situation and take vitals and pull him from Natasha's arms. "Pulse is weak. BP is low. He's severely dehydrated."

"Let's get a line in him. Hurry."

"Looks like a through-and-through in the right shoulder. Significant blood loss. Shock?"

"Captain Rogers, can you hear me? Can you open your eyes?"

"Call ahead to Johns Hopkins."

"Natasha," Sam said. His low, calm voice cut through the noise buzzing around her aching head. His eyes were worried but calm and caring. "Let him go. Let them take him."

The medics couldn't get close enough to treat Steve, watching her expectantly. She looked down, not having realizing she was holding Steve tighter than she had ever held anything or anyone else. Her arm was around him, holding his hand over his bandaged stomach. Her other was keeping his head pressed to her chest, covering his eyes as though to shield him. It was so hard to take her hands away. To let them in. It was so hard to trust. Everything was so raw, and nothing seemed quite real, and this went against every desperate thought to which she had clung since she'd walked into Steve's hospital room last night. The most important of missions that she'd assigned herself. Protect him. Keep him safe. Don't let him go.

Dazed and dizzy, she looked back up at Sam but found him the same as he had been before all of this had happened. Strong and sure. He laid her hand over where she held Steve's. "Let him go. It's okay now. I promise."

Everybody was watching her. Waiting for her. She looked down at Steve again, at his flushed face where it was tucked to her chest. He was calm. There was no sign of pain, no distress or fear, and he breathed easily. He would be alright. He would be.

So she let him go.

The medical team swarmed the bed as she let Sam help her up. They were shouting orders for this medication or that, relaying vitals to each other, working rapidly to stabilize Steve. She watched wearily, leaning into Sam despite herself, as they pulled away the rumpled and bloody blankets and cut off the soiled bandages and started applying new ones. Her eyes never left Steve; the urge to go back to his side was damn near unbearable. But she didn't. The medics got him onto the stretcher, and then they rushed him away from her.

Natasha released a quivering breath and looked down. She couldn't stop shaking. Sam's hand found hers and squeezed tight. She didn't even mind.

Stark came closer, his face pale and his eyes steeped in worry. "What the hell happened?" he asked. The question was directed at her. It was angry and alarmed and worried but not accusatory. He wasn't blaming her. Nobody was. Still, she couldn't help but feel guilty all over again. "I saw the battle. It's all over the world. They came to finish him off?"

"They tried," Sam answered.

Tony looked furious, but his expression softened into one of grim determination. He glanced at Hill. "Well, if they try again, they will regret it. I'll make goddamn sure of it." If the number of soldiers bearing Stark Industries security logos on their uniforms was any indication, Tony would make good on that threat. Natasha had never been quite so glad and relieved to see him. He stared at her; if he saw the way her hands were trembling or the tears that were blurring her vision, he didn't call her out on it. She was grateful for that. Grateful for Tony Stark showing up like the goddamn cavalry to rescue them. So grateful.

"You two look rough," Tony said. "You want the doctors to look at you? I brought a few extras." He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder at a whole second medical team waiting idly down the hall.

Sam laughed softly and shook his head. "No, I'm alright. Sam Wilson, by the way."

Stark nodded, shaking Sam's hand firmly. "Rogers' new sidekick. Impressive show. Gotta say that your wings looked familiar."

"They should. You designed them."

"I might have had a hand in it. I have great respect for people who like using my tech to fly and kick some serious ass. Where did you get a hold of one…"

Natasha lost track of their conversation and drifted, her weary eyes looking back at the foldout couch where the sun now shone so brightly. All of the terrors were blasted away. And all that remained was the ghost of the woman she'd been. "Natasha?" She forced herself to pay attention and turned to regard Tony with eyes that wouldn't focus right. He was concerned, well and truly, for a friend. For her. "You okay?"

She didn't know, but she thought she would be. "Yeah." She looked from Tony to Maria to Sam. Sam gave her a small nod, the corner of his mouth turned in a knowing smile. She'd finally stopped shaking. "Yeah. I'll be fine."


The hospital was quiet. The afternoon was peaceful, filled with soft and pleasant chatter, with the warm sense of safety, with rest and recovery. A serene evening was ready to arrive, and the world was ready to receive it. For now, at least, danger seemed very far away. It wasn't gone; if they had learned anything from the last difficult days, it was impossible to eradicate evil completely. But it was distant, a remote threat they could fight another time. This night they could sleep, free and unburdened.

Natasha silently walked down the gleaming hallway. Outside Steve's room there was a slew of armed guards standing watch. The sight was a little off-putting at first, but these were Stark's men. She trusted that Tony trusted them. Tony himself was standing near the door to the room, speaking in hushed tones to Hill. They had been conspiratorially talking with one another for most of the afternoon. Natasha didn't know what they were doing, but it was encouraging that without SHIELD the Avengers still stood together. Hill had never cared for the Avengers Initiative, but seeing her working with Stark suggested she would be regrouping and changing her opinions about the nature of world security. Maybe the hulking mass of SHIELD had ended up being too exposed, too vast and easy to infiltrate, too buried in its own size, bureaucracy, and rhetoric. Maybe Fury had been right: what the world truly needed were heroes who fought their hardest and never gave up and gladly sacrificed themselves to see people safe. As long as those heroes were willing to fight, there was hope.

Tony spotted her approach, lifting his chin and smiling that cheeky grin that she found so obnoxious. Today it didn't bother her so much. Hill stopped their conversation mid-sentence, turning and regarding her evenly. Her arms were folded across her chest. "How's the arm?" she asked.

Natasha shrugged slightly. "I've had much worse."

Hill nodded, needing no further explanation. "So you're in the wind, huh," Tony said. "No more SHIELD. That's gotta be upsetting after slaving away for all these years."

She appraised him coolly. "Not as much as you'd think."

Stark winced. "But then again, finding out you've actually been carrying the torch for your enemy would probably redefine the concept of 'upsetting'." It did, but she'd get over it. Things healed, after all. Stark cocked an eyebrow. "So what now, ex-Agent Romanoff? Fury's dead. All your secrets are exposed. Where do you go from here?"

She wondered at what he was getting at, if he really cared or if he was trying to manipulate her into doing something he wanted. Stark had good intentions, even if he was a self-absorbed ass. And he always did the right thing in the end. But she didn't have an answer, so honesty seemed to be the only option. She was too tired to lie. "I don't know."

Stark kept smiling. He was so damn proud of himself and not at all adverse to showing it. "Well, when you figure it out, give me a call. I've got plenty of uses for someone of your, uh, skillset around my office. Seems like there's a huge, helicarrier-sized crater in the world of international security. Privatization seems like a fantastic idea right now, don't you think?"

She hid her surprise. "You offering me a job, Stark?" The thought wasn't entirely unappealing.

Tony was a little embarrassed. "Maybe. There's a place for you if you wanna come work for Stark Industries for real this time. Though, when I really think about, thanks to you your last employers just saw their multibillion dollar plan for the future crash and burn into the Potomac."

She regarded him evenly for a moment. But she knew almost immediately that it wasn't right for her. At least not now. She was free. For the first time since her childhood, nobody owned her. Nobody controlled her. She wanted to see what that felt like. "Thanks for the thought, but I'll pass for now."

He was disappointed but not hurt or angry. "If you change your mind, you know where to find me."

She nodded to him and to Hill before stepping inside Steve's room. Sam was sitting beside Steve's bed but at her entrance he hastily got to his feet. "I was figuring you were going to come down," he said.

Her eyes fell to Steve. He already looked worlds better. He was flushed and sweaty with a broken fever, perspiration setting his face aglow. There was healthy color to his cheeks. His wounds had all been redressed in clean bandages. He was sleeping contentedly. An IV pole stood near the bed delivering fluids and blood and morphine and antibiotics. "Doc says with the transfusion he'll be as good as new in a couple of days. Already things are healing."

Her relief was so damn strong that it was all she could do to school her face and keep her voice level. "Good."

Sam watched her as she watched Steve. After an awkward beat, he smiled and bowed his head and moved away from the bed. "I, uh…" He rubbed his hand on the back of his neck. "I just wanted to say you were right. I should have trusted you." Natasha turned to look at him. He was still worn and tired, but his eyes were bright. And the sincerity in his voice was unwavering. "So I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I didn't know it was going to be okay. I took a chance. A really big one."

"You had faith in him," Sam answered. "I'm thinking that goes with the territory."

"Of what?"

"Of being his friend." Sam smiled. It was real and warm, filled with a fledgling sense of companionship and hope. She felt grateful again, grateful that Steve had found this man. Grateful that he wouldn't face the dark and dangerous road ahead of him alone. "Well, I'm gonna get some shut-eye. You got this, right?"

She didn't know if he was purposefully echoing the last tense conversation they'd shared before this had all gone to hell. She didn't care. It seemed appropriate somehow. "Yes."

"Good." Sam left.

Natasha stood at the foot of the bed a moment more, basking in a fuzzy feeling of exhaustion and a novel sense of euphoria, before taking her place at Steve's side. She sunk into the chair slowly and then stared at his face once more. Handsome. Calm. His hand lay atop the blankets of the hospital bed, but she didn't dare touch it. Memories of the night before, of her battered soul straining against the thought of losing him, prodded at the edge of her consciousness. She didn't want to let those thoughts in again. They were too powerful, too frightening, and she didn't need them now. He wasn't dying. She didn't need to protect him any longer. It didn't feel right to touch him now. He wasn't hers to touch. He wasn't hers.

But her heart was aching and tender. It was loose of its cage, loose and wild and driving her in ways it never had before. Still, she didn't want it to stop and shrivel back into the shadows. So she carefully laid her hand atop his. And when he didn't wake or pull away, she folded their fingers together and starting sweeping her thumb over his knuckles over and over again in a mindless pattern. His hand fit hers. She smiled to herself at that, thinking back to the first time she'd noticed it the night before. It felt like a lifetime ago. Some things hadn't changed, but other things… She couldn't pretend to be who she had been anymore.

"Nat?"

She looked up and saw Steve watching her. He blinked tiredly, slowly gathering his bearings. Quickly she let go of him, ashamed anew for having been caught. Wondering at how much he knew of what had happened. She hoped for none of it and all of it at the same time. She managed to compose herself, leaning back slightly in her chair. "How are you feeling?"

He closed his eyes for a moment with half a wince. "Pretty horrible," he confessed. "But I'm not dead."

"No. Stark wanted me to tell you that you owe him, by the way."

He chuckled at that. "Yeah," he agreed. His gaze gained a sharper glint. "Not as much as I owe you, though."

She didn't know what to say to that. She wanted to dismiss it outright. He didn't owe her anything. "What do you remember?"

He pushed himself up with a grimace, but he got his leaden body upright. She inclined his hospital bed for him and propped the pillows behind his back for support before sitting back in the chair. "Enough," he murmured. She bowed her head and averted her eyes, terrified of that simple statement. Even with the best of intentions driving her, what she had done during the long night felt unforgivable. He would remember her lie and hate her for it. But when she finally summoned forth the bravery to actually look at his face, she saw that his eyes were bright and clear. "I remember enough to know that you saved my life."

She shook her head. "You did the same for me," she said.

"No," he returned. He reached for her hand and grabbed it tightly and squeezed. "I didn't." She watched, unsure and frightened of what she was feeling, of what she wanted, as his strong fingers slid over hers and wove in between them. "Thank you."

His voice was so earnest, so appreciative, that whatever doubts she'd had about what she'd done all but disappeared. There was warmth, warmth that melted away the chill her guilt had driven into her heart. She smiled. No lies or false pretenses. A true smile. "You're welcome."

Now he caressed her knuckles with his thumb. The touch was simple and soothing, and they sat for some time in silence. There were things she wanted to say to him. She wanted to confess what she'd done and who she'd pretended to be. She wanted to speak all the truths she'd promised him as he'd lain in her arms. They prodded at her lips but she held them back. It didn't matter who she had been. He'd known none of it before, but he'd still wanted her as his friend. As someone who cared about him. The lies of her past couldn't shape her future.

"Would you stay with me?" he asked. He looked sleepy and a little afraid and really sheepish. "Just for a while."

She stood and brought her other hand to his cheek and pressed a tender kiss to his forehead. She lingered, basking in the sensation of his skin beneath her fingertips and lips, treasuring the feel of him, cherishing the one moment he'd unknowingly given her. "I'll stay."

His lips pulled into a smile and his eyes drifted shut.

She held his hand and watched him sleep. SHIELD was gone. Everything was different. She'd been stripped bare. She'd been reduced to the lowest common denominator, but somehow it didn't bother her so much anymore. Underneath everything she had been she'd found someone who was strong enough and smart enough and brave enough to protect the man who'd protected her. Steve had trusted her to save him, and she had. That was enough. She wanted to build a new life, and this was a good place to start.

"I blew all my covers. I gotta go figure out a new one."
"That might take a while."
"I'm counting on it."

THE END


Well, thanks for reading! This was supposed to just be a quick "Natasha-visits-Steve-in-the-hospital" hurt/comfort thing, but it kinda ran away from me :-). Injuring Steve always does - what can I say? Anyway, thanks, as always, for all your wonderful reviews and alerts! You guys are the best.

If you'd like to read more stories featuring Steve/Natasha, I have an AU series entitled "Heart of the Storm". The first story in that is "Red Rain". Hope to see you again!

Feel free to follow me on Twitter and tumblr (thegraytigress) for story updates, announcements, and discussions!