A/N: I have an immense amount of gratitude to express. First and foremost, I have to thank my spectacular friend (NothinButTheRain on FF and currently sansastarkalaynestone on tumblr, a very talented writer-check her out) for reading this and critiquing it for me. I'd be lost without her. :) And, of course, I have to thank everyone who read, reviewed, and favorited "Spirits Shared". Since AOU has been released in many parts of the world, there's been an incredible influx of traffic to that story. (I actually haven't seen it yet, since the USA is one of the last places to receive it) I didn't think I'd be posting anything Brutasha-related for a long time, but the reviews and favorites were so kind. Thank you all so much. You're terrific, and I hope you enjoy this selection.
Ninety minutes isn't enough with Natasha Romanoff.
When someone suggests ice skating in New York, the first idea-the idyllic image illustrated by traditional and farfetched films-is The Rink at Rockefeller Center. Skating with held hands by the magnificent tree studded with starlight and adorned with ethereal orbs and ornaments-it's lovely in thought. Then there's reality: ninety minutes on ice loaded with strangers, most of them tourists- many who have reserved their spots ahead of time. Reserving a spot to skate in a supposedly quintessential winter wonderland. Crowds, the impatience of holiday shopping, the hustle and bustle of the city, skate concierges-he doesn't have the faintest inkling as to what a skate concierge is, but they offer one for a fee-it all accumulates to an experience that many find unforgettable, but he knows it won't suit them. Neither are suited for massive gatherings by nature. Not to mention the fact that he has never been ice skating before and he's fairly confident that Natasha hasn't either. The unpredictability of the people, instability of the ice plus the added factor of a time restraint equates to a less than ideal date.
A date-such a foreign, unusual concept after burying his head in his work, in his escapes, for so many years. So long has the Hulk and his insecurities consumed him that he's forgotten the life of a normal man that can simply date.
He wants to, though. He wants to take her out because she makes him remember that fabled, faded man. The barriers he's constructed to ward away a world he can so easily hurt, she whittles away piece by piece, layer by layer, until all that remains is them. Romance has been the most intimidating and most rewarding endeavor. And ninety minutes on a frozen sheet could never be enough time with Natasha Romanoff.
So he takes her somewhere much more isolated, where the population is sparse in the morning and clears out come late evening. Though the enclosure lacks a grand tree and a statue of gold, glass huts and illuminated tents line the outskirts, resembling gathered lanterns bordering a glazed pond. The lesser known retreat lies within close proximity to the famous Rockefeller Center, which they pass on the way there. She settles into the passenger seat of his car as they cruise by, her head falling back to lounge against the headrest and languidly watch the conglomerate of bodies shuffle about.
A mile down the street, packed with the usual, neverending city traffic, he pulls the car into a space parallel to the sidewalk. She waits for him to exit first, ensuring they've reached his untold destination. Once outside, she surveys their setting with a slow, trained glance while he busies himself with procuring change for the parking meter. He hadn't disclosed where they would go, only the time and date of the affair. At seven that brisk November dawn, he'd arrived at her apartment and joined her at her cramped table as she finished breakfast and readied to go. When she emerged from her bedroom with a light jacket and no scarf, mittens, or hat, he'd implored her to grab some gloves at the very least.
He now found his fingers bare and exposed to the wind's chill, quickly and painfully realizing that he had forgotten hand-warmers of his own.
A tantalizing smirk on her lips, she produces a pair of black gloves from her coat pocket (something that's a tad heavier than a jacket, at his behest) when he finishes his shivering fumble for loose coins-feed for the meter. In the solitude of his mind, he imagines a bolder him thanking her with a peck on her entrancing mouth, but that would betray who they had become. They don't kiss in public, except for the occasional brush of her lips on his cheek or the rarer full on goodbye embrace. Exposure of that emotional vulnerability settles uncomfortably with them both, not because of shame or fear, rather a preference for intimacy expressed in a shared seclusion. Contained inside a sequestered place for the two of them, they explore each other's concealed shadows and troves, and he discovers a freedom from worry and trepidation in the map to her sacred soul.
Instead of unveiling all that with a kiss, he shares a furtive grin and accepts the winter gear, his palm's naked skin grazing the sleek cloth insulating her hands.
They interlock fingers as they make their way across the street, matching each other stride for stride.
Bryant Park-bursting with smiling faces, a swell of bodies huddled around an inferno tucked away in one corner, and exuberant children on the weekends-still awakens from its slumber early that Tuesday. Rousing from its sleep, the bazaar flickers to life before their eyes, washing the path to the ice rink in a tender glow. Shoprunners prepare their stands, some stopping to gather warmth by portable space heaters. Chocolate and cider scented steam pours from the confines of other stores, saccharine temptations partnered with an array of sandwiches and desserts that are best saved for after their icy exploits.
They breeze through the market's trail, engrossed in small talk-an assortment of comments and observations. No questions arise until they rent their skates, and he pays both fees without a second thought. They're working the laces up and through their boots when she asks, "So, why skating?"
The cloud misting from her lips floats over and bathes his cheek in its fleeting warmth. Tugging the shoe's strings taut, he shrugs then angles his head the slightest fraction so he can shoot a close-mouthed grin at her. He teases her with an inquiry in return, "What were you expecting?"
Her gaze roams down, following the contour of his nose, pausing on the shape of his mouth, and skirting along his clavicle before returning to his eyes. She challenges him with a lighthearted, blunt remark, "Couples yoga?"
He holds her stare in a challenge, a straight-faced contest that lasts all of three seconds before they simultaneously dissolve into light chuckles and crinkled-eyed smiles. While the laughter fades into residual smirks, she bumps his head with hers and waits for him to secure his ankles in place with a clunky knot.
Four shaky steps beside them, winter's solitude awaits, its cold, quiet essence breezing by every so often. She's the first to step into the arena with a slide, spinning back to offer her hand and a slightly lopsided grin he knows so well. When doubt gnaws a crack in their bond, he thinks of all her exclusive smiles, flashed in the safety of a coalesced seclusion . He thinks of the time she told him to notice how he brought that small joy to her face more than anyone else. He thinks of all the moments since, when he's been a private witness to her unabashed happiness. Each smirk and hint of teeth possess the power to shine through the maws of fury untamed and illuminate tireless nights when she reminds him of her affection with roaming hands and ephemeral caresses.
Never are her fingers entirely idle against his skin, including now when their gloved hands connect. Her thumb finds a swath of him exposed at his wrist, the conjunction between his coat's sleeve and the insulating material covering his palm. She doesn't pull so much as guide him in his inexperienced tread to separate the gap that has sprouted amid them.
He teeters into her, lacking a bit of grace. Their bodies bump and shift together just enough so he's aware of his heartbeat's eager drum. In their light collision, his free arm darts out for stability and finds the perfect cradle in the dip of her waist. The motion has them almost flush against one another, connected by their conjoined grip, sharing the same breath. Fear seizes him for a suspended moment, whispering harsh self-depreciation into his ear. The heat of embarrassment flares up his neck; he's boiling in humiliation, and grateful for the chilly climate that keeps him contained, but he's left questioning his own logic. Every catastrophic scenario bombards his thoughts in repeated sequence-him on ice with the person he trusts with his very heart because he can't even believe in himself. He's thinking of what a stupid, idiotic, mindless idea he has concocted when her soft grin surpasses his apprehension and skepticism. She chances a gaze at him, sunlight sparkling in the shards of sapphire, olive, and hazel swimming together, before putting a hint of distance between them. An apology dangles from his tongue, but there it stays. With a squeeze and her smile maintained, she dismisses the need for one.
They try to skate at a comfortable proximity, hands connected. Alas, they've never been the most elegant of couples-and of that they aren't ashamed, though it makes synchronization and equilibrium difficult to establish, what with their mismatched strokes, regardless of his innate fluency on the ice.
To his surprise and hers, it's he who moves with more ease out of the two of them, despite his rocky start. She's endured years of the highest, most rigorous combat training; he's seen her in action and take down opponents double her size. She handles most any weapon with a natural grace and navigates the churning gut of destruction and city traffic atop a motorcycle. Yet here she stands-slides, more appropriately-struggling to keep herself on a linear path beside him. All the while, he cruises over the slick surface, gaze downcast to disguise the fact that he's fixated on her, ensuring her safety, confident she'll catch on fast like she always does.
Watching her as she gradually conquers the uncertainty of the ice, he rediscovers his admiration. He astounds himself with how much he adores her. She's everything he lacks-control, wit, courage. And, somehow, beneath the masks and the layers and the barriers, their souls share the same outline. At their very core, they bear the same scars and beckon identical dreams. Their pasts are so different, but the ghosts that remain to haunt them match. He trusts her when he cannot possess any faith for himself; he does so because she gives him a life worth living, and it's the same existence in which he lives as he is now. She thinks she knows, and all the spirits know that he tries to show her, but the human race has invented no words and no way to express the utter, complete gratitude and devotion he feels.
Increased confidence leads her strides now. Their pace is gradual, gravitating toward the border of the rink. She's sturdy enough to have an attempt at conversation, something light. "I didn't picture you as the skating type."
He breathes the faintest noise of amusement. "That would make sense, since I've never skated before."
Immediately, she zones in on his face, the rhythm of her legs sustained as she analyzes his features, peering in the farthest reaches of his expression in a search for jest. When her hunt uncovers nothing but honesty, she plainly repeats him, "Never." His modest nod provokes her next inquiry, "Where did you get the idea then?"
If he's honest with himself, he can't quite remember his source of inspiration. An image of them a week or so ago materializes-they were entwined on her couch, submerged in darkness. Light had long since left their world. Hours had passed since the television had last flashed its vivid, opalescent colors; they had turned it off after their movie-a drama from the early 2000s-when they deemed it time to part ways for the evening, but their goodbyes were postponed by conversation. When their words faded, he stayed still, captivated by her essence and her fascination with the timid snowflakes that the sky shivered upon the skyscrapers and city streets. It had been moving, but he can't quite remember if the notion struck him them.
"I, ah-whoa," he intercepts himself, taken aback by her sudden loss of balance as they rotate about their first curve. The memory of them flees his mind's intangible grasp, reigned back to the present where she wobbles beside him.
They're lucky that the ice is still relatively vacant. In an instant, they become a mesh of limbs, at the mercy of the tangle their blades have become, continuing to slip them along until they surge to a stop. Momentary fright has made him as quick as she, which results in his arm around her back and her knuckles against his chest with a fistful of fabric. If he had any oxygen to spare, she would've squeezed it out of him when they collided at their odd angle-not quite chest-to-chest, but rather her right side buried in the middle of his torso. What concerns him is not their clunky position or the way his free arm awkwardly hovers before her, as if she were on the verge of tipping, instead he's focused on her and the vibrations of laughter that ripple throughout her body.
She fixes herself, pivoting into him to hide her low chuckles from the few passerby that surround them now. For a moment, he's selfish and indulges in the alluring scrunch of her eyes, the heart her mouth has formed, her chinks tinted with splashes of a sunrise's pink. He revels in the marvel she is, and finds a grin on his own lips. The realization combined with her intoxicating bubbles of laughter have him dissolving into chuckles right with her. Her bliss fills him with the courage to curve his head into hers, reminiscent of the way that swans do.
He wants to travel her skin with his touch, delve under her hair's blanket of fiery waves, and drop marks of affection to the spots of vulnerability she's stowed for so long, pulling back only to witness the reward of her smile, her content. Were they not subject to the public eye and rid of their ice shoes, he would do all that and more. Alas, he settles for the beauty of the present, and he asks her, "Are you gonna fall if I let go?"
She teases right back, "Not if you catch me."
After that, they unwind all but their hands, their fingers fastened together for comfort's sake. Their momentum is inconsistent yet, but she's stable and they're content as a gentle surge of people begins to occupy the ice.
By the time they reach the opposite side of the arena, he feels secure enough to prompt her with the question, "So you haven't skated before?"
"No-I never got the chance. I wanted to." She's centered on the fragments of memories tucked into the distant city skyline. "There's a lot I wanted to do that I never did."
Not too insistent, he goads her back to him with a follow-up query, "Like?"
"Dogsledding." She said to him without pause.
"I thought it would be fun," she weaves farther out and back in again, adding, "That and horseback riding, mountaineering, hang gliding…"
"All the boring stuff, huh?" Visions of her exploring woodland on horseback and soaring between heaven and earth trickle into his imagination. Trepidation accompanies the idea, quickly quelled by his faith and determination to turn her fantasies into reality.
She interrupts his reverie, quizzical and daring in her prodding, "What about you? You never wanted to do anything like that?"
"I was kind of scrawny when I was younger. I didn't think I'd be strong enough to do anything like that." Normalcy in his life had been scarce when tragedy thrived, even in the volatile stages of his youth that he tried so hard to repress. Despite those scars that could still bleed, he felt secure above the safety net she cast out for him, enough to confess, "I really wanted to travel." "Escape" would be more appropriate, but he wouldn't dampen their outing for his trivial psychological struggles. He continued, honest and unfiltered, "Going to Antarctica always appealed to me for weird science reasons."
Silence overtakes them as they swing about another turn, a bit more caution to their movements since the rink had gathered a plump ring of people. He thinks the conversation came to a close after his geeky admission until she surprises him with a nonchalant statement, said so casually that he nearly misses it, "I'd go with you to Antarctica."
His stride falters, just enough so that they slow a titch. "You would?"
"I'd have to practice skating a bit more, but yeah. I would."
Her lips, her eyes, her whole face tips up to show her sincerity. What she offers him is more than he could ever ask for, he can only repay her by wholeheartedly giving her the same. They've learned to escape, run, get lost, cower, and conquer on their own, and now they're learning that they want to do all of that with each other. When the world turns their back on them, they encounter one another roaming the lands of desolation and make a home. So he promises her, "Then I guess I'll take you dogsledding."
She swaps looks with him, tones of hope and commitment softening her expression. He embraces her curiosity and assures her as she did him, because he would participate in the extreme for her. And he would love every minute (perhaps with the exception of hang gliding hundreds of feet above the earth attached to a metal bar).
They immerse themselves in talk about the picturesque destinations they want to visit-rainforests, mountains, and canyons appeal to them both. Monasteries and gardens have always been an indulgence of his, a serenity he realizes he wants to share with her. From discussing a retreat to the warm, volcanic mountains of Bali, they shift into envisioning trips they'll take, adventures they'll have together, landscapes they'll explore. As they plan a getaway to South America, a refuge from the frigid New York winter, he smiles at the crisp excitement that laces her voice. Whereas others hastened when anticipation seized them, Natasha grew quiet, private with any thrill she may have.
In the midst of reflective salt flats and budgets, she loosens her grip, his fingers dangling betwixt hers, and draws them from the masses and through the largely vacant center. A few kids, too young for school but old enough to walk, dart by with their parents. Groups of college students gather near the middle as well, where the crowd is thin, but there's not much traffic otherwise.
Absent of any big congregations, they fan out, giving his legs the space to take longer sweeps as he trails behind her across the enclosure. Quiet dawns on them in light of whatever scheme she's brewed and the jovial suspicion she's aroused in him.
They land in a secluded corner that the multitudes have neglected, tucked away from the spotlight of the middle. There she swivels into him, for neither really know how to properly stop, and tugs him against her. She offers him the gist of a provocative grin paired with a hooded stare, and invites him to withdraw it with an enticing hand retreating from his grasp, up his torso, and finally curving around his jaw. He meets her halfway to indulge in the sweetened taste of appreciation and passion on her lips.
Surrounded by skaters, bustling shops, and the commotion of impatient morning traffic, they can only halfway lose themselves in each other and the sultry hints they pass with the flux of pressure against their mouths. It's enough to make him forget the cold, replaced by the heat of air shared between their parted lips. She tells him "thank you" and asks for him to stay connected to her through the silence of their embrace. At the same time, she fills him with the emotion she shrouds from the scornful face of the world.
They keep it chaste and pull apart before the stares accumulate and discomfort builds. She trusts both of her hands in his and tries to glide backward, reluctant to venture outside of their intimate pocket amidst the throng of adults, tourists, and relaxing scholars.
She, however, falters almost immediately, resulting in the return to his chest and another uninhibited smile concealed in the crook of his shoulder.
When the first streams of people begin to catch up, they part with a cursory glance and reestablish their easy pace along with a new conversation, something light that dwindles after a few laps. It's then that they part company, which doesn't unnerve him in the slightest because he knows how she enjoys time spent in her own thoughts. Personal respite is a luxury they both require, sometimes more than most. It works for them.
Ten minutes or so pass, during which he undergoes a lengthy internal monologue about whether or not he should bring back cider, coffee, or cocoa for her (He has a moment of guilty thankfulness when he bypasses row after row of jewelry stands. Had she been inclined for that sort of thing, he'd have been fraught with indecision. Alas, she's not and he can walk by without a semblance of remorse). He comes back with a pocketful of sugar and a plain cup of coffee and contemplates if he should lean against the rink's barrier.
Rounding the outer edges of the crowd's ring, she sails past individuals and groups he's blind to. He tries not to stare, yet he finds himself hypnotized by her, every single brilliant aspect of her. Crisp sunlight sheds its light, tamed by the frosted chill, on her contented expression, which she keeps to herself. Actually, to the untrained eye, she seems stoic, but he's learned to read her and he spots the spark that makes her muscles relax and her iridescent irises shine with the fire she hides. The susurrus of wind caresses her hair, enlivened tresses of a dragon's breath. She's a lissome sylph, she's a fighter, she's formidable and free and she chooses to stay with him. He hasn't quite reached the summit of his feeling-he's ascending toward love, closer and closer every day-rather he's sojourning in a place of passionate inspiration. On this journey, he's redefining himself not because he has to but out of limitless infatuation. He's doing it because she inspirits him.
When she notices him, she cuts across the center once more and meets him at the open gate. To help steady her on solid ground, he offers a hand and the little present he's brought. Both are accepted with a word of thanks and a scrunch of her eyes. Shards of green and hazel merge to create fragments of stained glass, ridged with the sky's blue radiance, carved with the tales of her adventures and downfalls. He's slightly crestfallen when she sits and, thus, has to remove her gaze from his to unlace her skates.
He extracts the steaming paper cup from her clutch so she doesn't have to pry the bladed boots from her foot with a single fist. Her silent preoccupation gives him the opportune moment to ask the question he'd formulated while waiting in line a couple minutes ago, "Would it be too forward of me to ask if you'd accompany me dogsledding?"
Exuberance illuminates the kaleidoscopic glass in her eyes when she stands, looks at him, and tells him, "I'll meet you in Antarctica."
The lake on which they skate is untouched, fresh with a dusting of snow and her parallel tracks threading through the white sheet. She cruises ahead of him in aimless loops and waves, so different from the woman who stumbled on her first turn about a year ago. If he didn't know better, he could've guessed that she's been doing this forever.
According to her, his grace on ice has also shown remarkable improvement.
How a collection of months have changed them so. They're worn and calloused from expedition, enlightened by discovery. Saving the world and fighting wars against creatures from celestial territories far beyond their own, it failed to provide them with the full scope of Earth's splendor when they believed they had seen it all. Over and over, they were surprised by the sheer breadth of nature's variety and humanity's hidden beauty. Every corner of the globe offered a new escapade that taught them how to love reality.
It hadn't been in the exhilaration of scaling mountaintops or swimming over intricate coral reefs that he'd fully devoted himself to her. No, he'd fallen in love with her after the exploits, when she had been so tired that she fell asleep in her clothes or robe, at the end of the day when just lying together had proven enough to satisfy them both. When she sank into the same chair as him to unwind, the days they'd been apart between travels and they'd called to say goodnight, all the secrets and scars she'd divulged in whispers and rumbles-these are the times he'd settled into a love that forgot boundaries and time.
He speeds up to join her with smooth strides.
She's engrossed in the mountain peaks piercing the horizon, slowed to a languid pace. The frost and power of the icy landscape stretches into fantasy, somewhere that can contain the ethereal scene. Breath flees her in small, transient puffs.
The touch he grazes at her waist catches her a bit off guard. Her hair does an abrupt, brisk shake and shuffle as she whirls to look at him, surprised at his sudden proximity. With his hands at her sides, he eases them to a stop, gently ushering her backwards on her skates. Where experience and time have changed her, the smile on her face and the radiance in her mystic eyes remain the same. He's seen the world, but her looking at him just as she is now is his favorite sight.
He folds her into him, connects their lips, and finds home in her kiss.
A/N: As always, thank you for reading. I'm so happy to see such a positive reaction to Brutasha, I'd love to keep writing for them if there's an interest. Please let me know what you think, any advice you have, and so on. :)
P.S. Bonus points if you spotted the two easter eggs