It happened eventually, a few days later. As they were in the elevator, going up for the morning briefing, Natasha interrupted the silence.
"This is where you last spoke to me," she murmured softly, pensive. He raised an eyebrow and turned to look at her. "It was late in the evening, I was stepping out of
the elevator; you were stepping in," she stated at the same pace than the train of her thoughts. "And I told you 'See you tomorrow'. That was the last time, wasn't it?"
He watched her intently, hopeful but afraid to give in to the joy within too early.
"Yes," he whispered. "Do you…remember?"
Natasha frowned, biting her bottom lip as she seemed to go through some memory scan. "I think I am." She glanced up at him and smiled, looking as hopeful as him.
From what she said, the full picture was still blurry but some specific memories were beginning to emerge in details, like a wave washing over the shore repeatedly, in slow but consistent motions, leaving a deeper print on the sand each time around. And hearing her refer to Natasha as herself was the greatest step forward the whole situation could take. If she began to identify herself as the modern Natasha, then it meant their two consciences were merging as one.
Soon, Natalie and Natasha would fully become the same and one person.
"Since you're too noble to ask me then I will tell you," she murmured one night as they both lay in bed, looking at each other. Days were hardly long enough to quench their satiability of each other — most nights they would talk until slumber got the best of them.
"Tell me what?" he said softly as he brushed a lock of her hair to the side of her face.
"What I- what Natasha felt for you before we merged," she said. His heart skipped a beat. He had been afraid to get an answer he could not bear to hear. And, with the days going by since Natasha had fully recovered her current self's memories and yet not answered his burning question, the certitude that she might have not felt anything more than friendship for him had grown too.
She smiled. "She loved you," she said simply but with a slightly shaky voice. Her pupils quivered as she seemed to look into his eyes and be overflown with a wave a memories. "So vividly. Much more clearly than it was from me before I used Thor's device."
A deaf sound slipped out of his lips and he reached over to cup her face gazing at the Natasha he had known until a couple of weeks before. She rested her hand on top of his.
"She was only afraid to forever remain the second woman, the one whom whatever love or affection you could feel for her would always be doomed to be less. But yes, she loved you."
She smiled to herself and went on. "It's funny. I thought I could never love you more than I already do. But now, adding hers, it's more than I knew humanly possible."
He smiled back. "I know the feeling," he said gently.
As indescribable bliss and sheer relief took hold of all of him, he leaned over to her and for the first time since that one moment on the escalator a year before when they were on the run from HYDRA, he kissed his Natasha. And his Natasha kissed him back.
And after sealing their mutual love in his kiss, he never dissociated the two women he loved ever again.
Standing alone on the terrace looking over Manhattan, Steve and Natasha heard the footsteps of a person approaching. Bucky walked up to them with the most bizarre mix of self-confidence and unfamiliar reserve.
So far Bucky and Natasha's interactions had been brief and cordial in the way you would converse with a stranger. Mostly, the awkwardness seemed to come from James, Steve had noticed.
"I'm here to…," he began hesitantly, shaking his thumb above his shoulder to point at something behind him.
"…congratulate me on the sex?" Natasha finished with a smug smirk.
Bucky froze and his mouth slightly fell open. He glanced at Steve. "You told her?!" Steve muffled a chuckle and pressed the side of his closed fist against his mouth. "You…traitor," Bucky grumbled at him then turned stern again. "Stark wants to review the new equipment with you."
Steve nodded, threw a glimpse in Natasha's direction and headed off, leaving together the two people he loved the most.
Aware of the new unexpected situation, James rubbed his jaw awkwardly and started towards the sliding doors when Natasha called his name.
"Bucky," she said and it made him halt. "We used to be friends. Really good friends. How about we break that ice standing between us?"
He turned around and examined her.
"Are you saying that as Natasha or Natalie?"
She smirked. "Natasha. Mostly."
She then stepped up closer to him. "And you? You don't miss me?"
He sighed. "Of course I do."
Natasha shrugged casually as if she had just finished demonstrating her point.
Bucky's expression was grave.
"But I can't deal with you seeing me as a murderer. Let alone as Steve's killer."
Her features hardened. "I don't," she answered briefly and firmly.
His brows furrowed deep and he shook his head. "Bullshit," he called out and his voice cracked, then he pointed a finger at her. "This is bullshit!" His eyes filled up with tears and carried distress and self-resentment. "If I can't forget about it without even having a single memory of it, then you sure as hell can't when you have witnessed it with your own eyes."
She watched him closely, seeming to gauge the depth of his emotional distress.
"You're right," she said softly. Soothingly. "First, I hated you for it. Even when I knew what you meant to him, and that he had never ceased to see in The Winter Soldier, I still hated you for taking him from me."
Bucky swallowed the lump in his throat, somehow finding some peace of mind in the harshness of her words.
"So why did you save me on the train?" he asked. "To save Steve?"
She reached out for his arm. "I saw what he saw in you. It took me time to realize, but once I did, I understood that you and The Winter Soldier were nothing alike." She went on ", that day on the train, I saved two lives. Steve's and yours. I'd do it all again if I had to. You deserved to be saved, Bucky."
Her voice broke. "And I'm sorry I didn't see it sooner."
Looking into her eyes, his pupils quivered and yielded in. He leapt forward and held her tightly with all the length and strength of his arms. Taken aback at first by a move she, for once in her life, had not seen coming; she mellowed into his eager embrace and held him back.
"Thank you so much," she heard him murmur. "From the bottom of my heart, thank you."
She felt overwhelmed being the recipient of such profound and genuine gratitude. In this unfathomable moment of grace, it seemed her red ledger toned down a shade.
"Come on, Rogers" she breathed out hopping on the mat. "You're pulling your punches."
He leaned sideways to dodge hers then stood back right up, bouncing too.
"I'm not," he assured her half-heartedly as he noted that Natasha calling him by his last name meant she was not totally fond of him at this very minute.
"Fine, then. Prove it." She lifted her leg and kicked him in the chest. He blocked her foot and his fingers wrapped around her bare ankle. Natasha stared at it then back at him. "Are we sparring or not?" she asked, urging him to give her her foot back with a hard look. He sighed. Wrestling wasn't exactly in the top 5 of things he desperately wanted to do with Natasha after her return.
She let out a slight grunt of disapproval then attacked. She jumped up, prepped her other foot on his slightly bent knee then flipped backwards to release herself from his grip. She landed back on her feet and raised her fists.
"Come on, Steve," she said again, purring her words. A devious smile played on her lips. "Play with me."
She charged again and threw multiple, quick hits at him. He blocked or dodged them all then began to retaliate. He threw a punch but Natasha grabbed his hand and twisted it behind his back. He bent in and thrust her forward over his back. He then folded one arm around her chest and pinned her against his chest. It made her laugh. She jerked her leg far up and hit his shoulder hard enough to destabilize him and break free from his grip. She then hung to his neck and threw herself forward as she motioned to wrap herself around his neck. He saw it coming though and took a grip of her leg before it could cloak him; he then held her waist with his other hand and tackled her to the ground.
She panted hard under his body, pinning her head against the mat.
"Tired, yet?" he asked.
He felt her chest vibrate.
"You wish," she sniggered. She clasped her leg around his waist and spun them both over so that she was the one lying on top of him. "But I appreciate the effort," she whispered huskily. She then lifted her bust off of him and rose to her feet.
She leapt forward and threw another hit as soon as he got up; he ducked, spun around, catching her wrist in the motion and pulled her towards him, pinning her back against his chest as he securely locked his arms around her, trapping in his firm hold.
"You've gotten rusty," he purred into her ear, both their chests panting at a perfectly synchronized pace. "But I appreciate the effort."
She groaned. "Or maybe that's just my body craving to be against yours," she murmured suavely. He raised an eyebrow, immediately appealed by the thought. She compliantly let herself be spun so she would face him, and her big green eyes locked with his, her soft breath tickling his lips as she cunningly began to wrap him around on her web.
"Don't tell me the thought didn't cross your mind," she said huskily and she slipped her hand under his shirt, nonchalantly brushing her fingertips over his abdomen. Her pupils inquired him boldly. He frowned to himself; as hard as it was to admit, the idea had not crossed his mind until now —and he resented himself for it.
She slipped her arm out his grip and gently wrapped it around his neck. His grip loosened at the prospect of her next move.
The corner of her mouth curled up into a devious smirk; she swiftly flipped her leg around his and hit the back of his knee with her heel. He lost his balance like she had planned and she struck him on the chest to make him fall completely. He landed flat on his back and shut his eyes, sighing. She stood over him, smiling proudly.
Steve reached for her ankle and jerked her forward making her fall. He softened her fall by catching her by the waist before she would touch the floor and flipped them both around so he would be lying on top of her like earlier.
"Cheater," he whispered.
She sniggered unapologetically. "I'm a spy. By definition, I never play by the rules."
He shook his head and smiled. "I guess I should have seen it coming."
She looked up at him and a new kind of tension, akin but stronger than the one she had feigned earlier, ensued. She bit her bottom lip and, in a smooth motion, flipped them over again before hardly pressing her mouth against his. Then she caught his bottom lip between her teeth and smirked.
She slightly pulled away to look him in the eye.
"I wasn't totally dishonest either," she purred huskily. She smiled down at him and he relished on her beauty. His hand cupped her face and pulled her in for another kiss. More ardent, their lips wrestling with more passion than their bodies had done earlier. Her hand slid up his chest and she grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him up to her whilst his arms clutched each side of her waist. She then suddenly broke the kiss and jumped up on her feet.
He watched her numbly, quizzical.
"That's for calling me rusty, by the way." She said devilishly. His jaw almost detached itself from the rest of his face. Without any second look or sign of remorse, she made he way out of the ring. "But beating you kind of got me horny. Meet me in the shower in five," she purred and headed out of the gym.
The last thing she heard was his light chuckle.
One morning Steve got prepared for his jog routine, an old habit of his, he often shared with Bucky, or Nat, or Sam (who always complained about the pace). That day it turned out he would be on his own after seeing Natasha was soundly asleep.
After getting dressed, he bent down, gently planted a peck on her lips and headed towards the elevator. As he stepped out on the sidewalk, he took in the sight and the sounds of the buzzing city, watching the few people already awake and ready for the new day to start walking along the street or crossing the roads.
He then got started.
He went at a slow pace, along the streets and round the corners until he reached Central Park and trotted through one of the quiet side entrances.
He sprinted down the paths, then along the lake and soon immersed himself into New York City's own jungle.
He instinctively turned to gaze at the bench on his right, the place from where his and Bucky's fates were changed as Natasha had once pointed it out during one of their common jog.
A basic looking wooden bench with a random inscription engraved on the side like you would find anywhere. And yet so significant, now.
He kept jogging up the quiet path when muffled steps emerging from the side caught his attention.
"It's been a little while, Captain," a familiar voice called.
Steve halted, took a deep breath in, not exactly taken by surprise. "I never thought you'd come and find me here," he said then he slightly shook his head as a smirk rose to his lips. "But then I can't say I'm surprised you're spying on my jog routines."
He turned to look at his interlocutor.
"Not spying. Just keeping a safe eye on my friends. After all I only got one, I might as well make good use of it."
Fury stepped out of the shadows.
Ever since Natasha had returned from her time travel, he had expected Fury to come out of the underworld to check on his protégée.
"Life has been quite…surprising lately," Fury commented puzzlingly but referring directly to the reason of his impromptu visit. "Hasn't it?"
Steve took a few steps forward.
"That's one way to see it."
Fury did not seem bothered to glance behind his shoulder, as he had made sure to pick the least frequented zone along Steve's jogging route.
Steve could not help but wonder what were the motives behind his old boss' presence. He began to suspect he might have come to get his hands on something valuable.
"If you're here for the travel device, Thor took it away. Back to Asgard, where it will be safe."
It had become evident to (almost) everyone that no earthling should get their hands on such a powerful device, much to Tony's dismay —and to some extent, Bruce's scientific curiosity.
"I had a chance to speak with Romanoff but I'm here today because I wanted to see you," Fury retorted sternly —and which Steve knew at least the first part was true since Natasha had told him about the unexpected encounter a couple of days earlier. Surprisingly, it was Nick's cryptically-worded attempt at expressing care. "How's Barnes?"
Steve shrugged. "He's getting there. Time is the best option we've both ever been given."
A faint smile came to Fury's lips. "That's one way to see it," he echoed.
His eyes conveyed satisfaction, though. Satisfaction that the team he had crafted lived on even after his departure. "If you need anything, you know you can count on me."
He nodded at Steve then stepped away, starting to leave.
A thought suddenly hit Steve. A question that had brewing in his mind. A certainty he could not shake off.
"You knew, didn't you?" he called as Fury was walking off.
Nick paused and slowly looked over his shoulder, an eyebrow arched.
Steve stepped closer, silently begging for an honest answer from him for once. He could not explain why — it did not make any sense — but he believed that Fury might have somehow known all along what even Natasha was not aware of until the merging happened.
"Back in S.H.I.E.L.D., you blocked me the access to the results of the fingerprints scan on the hairpin. That's because you knew — isn't it?"
Fury slightly squinted his eyes. He turned around completely but remained where he was standing.
"I had no idea," he replied matter-of-factly. Steve found it hard to believe. "If there is something I have learned in my career it's to never leave anything to chance. Agent Romanoff's fingerprints could not have ended up on that old pin by accident, and even though I could not think of a single rational explanation for it, there is one thing I've always known for certain: there is no such thing as coincidence. So I shut it down. Plain and simple."
That was the most truthful Fury had ever been and Steve found no reason to question it. Fury had acted this way because covering tracks was the thing he was the best at, even if he could not grasp the reasons behind them. Safety over logic.
Steve nodded." I guess I should say thanks. You played a big part in making the mission a success."
"So I heard," Fury smiled. Steve mirrored him.
He then watched as former Director Fury peacefully walked down the path until he disappeared completely. Steve had a feeling he would see him again soon enough.
He stood there for a few seconds, and smiled to himself.
This whole story was illogical indeed, beyond reason and the laws of the Universe, and yet it was the one thing in his life that made the most sense. Natasha had been, at many different times and in many shapes and forms, his bearing. She was the constant that had anchored him to reality at the moments in his life when he was losing touch with himself.
She had soothed him.
She had healed him.
She had loved him.
She had saved him.
All of him.
Steve turned around and resumed jogging back to the Avengers tower, to the woman he loved.
This whole story was illogical indeed, beyond understanding, but then none of his life had ever fallen into the vast prism of coherence. And amongst all of the extraordinary events that had come around and shaped his unconventional journey, Natasha was, beyond a doubt, the greatest marvel.
Author's note: Thank you all so much for your amazing reviews — I loved reading each and every one of them!