AN: I now have a BETA. This chapter has been BETA'd and is being reposted.

Special thanks to Kingofclubs8129. He's been a big help as a BETA. Go check out his stories.

Another special thanks to Prodigal Knight and momter. Along with King of Clubs, I've bounced ideas around with them. They've helped me really iron out some details.


She was a masochist.

At least, that's what anyone would have thought of Natasha Romanoff if they could peer inside of her mind.

She sat quietly at a quaint little café that was across the street from a public park. It was summer and there was no shortage of children frolicking on the playground. They swung on their swings, jumped on their see-saws, and ran around laughing with an innocent glee that could only be found in the young.

Some of the parents watched from the sidelines, shouting words of encouragement and caution, while others actively participated, making fools of themselves as they doted on their offspring's childish fantasies. However, no one paid that any attention. They were all just trying to have a good time, ensure the hour or so that they were in the sun made their children smile.

It wasn't the first time Natasha had sat at the same exact café, staring at the kind of life she knew she would never have. Envy was a distasteful emotion and Natasha would never say it out loud, but she was envious. Her childhood wasn't one filled with smiles, laughter, or love. It was all bruises, bullets, and blood. There were no caring parents to read her stories and tuck her in. There was a Madam who never hesitated to make it clear that failure was not an option.

Twisting around beside her envy was longing. While failure was not tolerated in the Red Room, success came at a very heavy price. The removal of possible futures. It may have been her lack of childhood that made her want to be a mother. She wanted a chance to give a better life than the one she had received. But there was no chance of that.

Natasha would always wonder what the joys of motherhood would be like. The question of what it would feel like to have life grow inside of her, to know that her body was nourishing and protecting something so amazing, yet so fragile. She would always wonder and never know.

There was only one logical conclusion. There could only be one reason why Natasha put herself through the torture of watching a future she could never have. It was insanity to put up with the dull ache that pounded in her chest every time a child's laughter rang in her ears.

Natasha was a masochist.

She had to be.

That life wasn't for her. There was no perfect husband, house with a white picket fence, and two and a half kids. Her world was one filled with corpses and caution. She barely had time to date, let alone have a meaningful relationship.

It was unbelievably difficult to find someone who could understand her. The hours, days, or weeks Natasha spent away on business made it hard to know someone. And made it even more difficult to find someone worthwhile who would stick around.

Not to mention the secrets. A very polite word for 'lies'. Her lack of social life and friends was not fully by choice. Natasha could hardly gossip about her boss or her day at work. Talking about what high-security target she had to escort or what supposedly secure facility she had broken into was not polite dinner conversation. Nor could she imagine talking about calibers and the effect barriers, windage, and distance would have on them. Those sorts of things tended to kill conversation almost as fast as they did her targets.

That wasn't to say that Natasha had a problem with being alone. All her life she had been alone. Natasha wasn't happy. No man was an island and all that jazz.

Natasha sensed him as soon as he got within threat–range. As creepy as it might have been to even think, she always sensed him. It wasn't some weird mutation or special power, but the training that was so ingrained it may as well have been instinct.

He was always at the same café, at the same time. Her paranoia made Natasha think he may have been a spy or an assassin who had come to take her out. He certainly moved like someone with training, possibly military. His movements were graceful, serpentine in fluidity. But weeks had gone by where the stranger had done nothing out of the ordinary.

Dozens of days passed with him doing nothing but drinking tea, reading the funnies section of the newspaper, and occasionally giving a small, wistful smile at the children on the playground. It was ironic that Natasha believed him to be spying on her, waiting for her to drop her guard, and yet she was the one clocking his every move.

It was just strange to her. The man was devastatingly handsome. Not in the way of models that you saw spread across billboards, but a realistic, comely way. He was average in most aspects, but she couldn't help but find average attractive on him. What was strange was that he was always alone.

There was a natural quality to him. He wasn't abnormally tall, standing at approximately five-foot-eight. His hair was spiky, but not from product. It was wild, untamed, and he was fine with that. A freshly shaven face always greeted her, showing off his chiseled and angular jawline.

Natasha could see the strength in his form. The broad shoulders and wide back that tapered to a slim waist. It wasn't a gym body. None of his muscles looked overly developed, no visible striations. It was functional, useful, and judging from the callouses on his hands, probably from some sort of martial arts training.

His clothes were tailored to fit his physique. They weren't custom, but tailored for a professional look. A light blue long sleeve shirt that had the top two button undone and the sleeves rolled up to just before his elbows. Beige slacks with a perfectly ironed crease down the center and brown oxfords accompanied his assemble.




The kind of person she never would have paid attention, never have given a second look. He was visually harmless. If only it wasn't for his eyes and smile. Those were what caught her attention, something Natasha had only caught on a chance glance in his direction.

Her own eyes were sea green, like the color of the ocean as it splashed along the shore. To call his eyes green wouldn't have done them justice. Even, comparing them to emeralds was unjust. Emeralds were unfeeling, jaded, and sharp. His reminded her of grass. Lush, green grass that poked out of the snow in Russia, signaling the end of winter.

There was a coldness in his eyes, a tinge of jealousy as he watched the children play. He longed for something as the tiny humans ran around. Something from his past or a longing for the future was anyone's guess, but Natasha understood the feeling.

She understood the small curling of his lips, a grin that he always hid behind his cup of tea. He took pleasure in their joy, wondered at their endless naivety. Natasha couldn't fully comprehend it either. The simplest things could make them laugh endlessly. One minute they could cry like the world was coming to an end, only to stop with a small comforting gesture; an embrace, a small kiss, and the world was okay again.

"They are beautiful aren't they?" He asked, his accent distinctly British. Natasha did her best not to turn before he addressed her, did not give away that she was abundantly aware of his presence.

"Excuse me?" Natasha replied, turning slightly to look at the sharp planes of the visage she had already memorized.

"I'm sorry, that ended up making me sound like a pedophile." The man laugh lightly, "I meant the children. They are pleasant to look at."

"That doesn't make you sound any less like a pedophile." She joked over her shoulder. He gave a noncommittal sound, standing for only a moment, before turning. Natasha did not know why she spoke up. There was no reason for her to entertain him. But, the words just jumped out of her throat before Natasha could even try to stop them.

"But, yes, they are nice to look at." Now she was the one to sound like a pedophile. To his credit he didn't repeat her words, giving just a small chuckle.

"May I join you?"

"Why?" It came out harsher than she intended, instead of out of the curiosity it was born from.

"You look lonely."

The comment hit closer to home that Natasha would ever let on. Not only was it not his business, but she was ninety-eight percent certain he did not have the clearance to know anything real about her.

"Is this where you lay some cheesy line on me about how pretty girls shouldn't be alone?" She plastered a fake smile on her face.

"No," He replied, sitting down on the chair opposite of her, "I'm not nearly smooth enough to pull that off."

"I didn't say you could sit down." Natasha challenged with a raised brow.

"Considering you are still entertaining this conversation, it would only be a matter of time. I figured we could skip that and go on to the part where I try to brighten your day." He smiled back before placing his attention on his newspaper.

"That's awfully presumptuous of you."

"You can blame an old friend of mine. She always said I have this thing for saving people."

"And I look like I need saving to you?" Natasha could not help but grin. The byplay was amusing. On most people, the words would have sounded conceited. But, coming from the attractive British stranger, it was just a recitation of facts. His friend had said something, so that was how it was.

Natasha doubted he would have any thoughts of her being a damsel in distress if he knew half of the things she could do. Just from their position, on the table they sat at, there were no less than half a dozen items she could use to kill him. Not that she was bragging.

"Yes." Was his curt, but polite reply.

"And what exactly do I need saving from?" She humored him.

"Yourself." He said matter-of-factly.

"Ha! And you said you weren't smooth." Natasha scoffed in good humor. He didn't know a thing about her. "That has to be the smoothest, monosyllabic line I have ever heard."

"It isn't a line. It's the truth." He replied from behind his newspaper, only to fold it a moment later.

As he placed it on the table, Natasha was met with the most intense stare she had ever received from anyone. And she had stared down the gun barrels of some of the most ruthless villains on the planet, so that was saying something.

He was staring directly at her. Not at her face, her eyes, or as most men did, her breasts. After a moment under his gaze, it felt as if he could see what she really was, like those bright green eyes were lances, piercing right into her soul, and Natasha was unsure if he would like what he saw. After all, there were plenty of times where she even couldn't bear to stare at herself in the mirror.

"You sit here alone, watching the children at the park. You don't understand. You know they're happy, but can't really comprehend why. The concept is foreign to you. And you envy them that. Stop me if I'm completely off base."

She resisted the urge to gulp. On the outside her face was stone, as hard and cold as a statue of glacial ice. She had never been the type to wear her emotions on her sleeve. They had trained that out of her. Facades of emotion could be used as strength. But true emotions…they got people hurt or killed. Emotions were a weakness. And Natasha was anything but weak.

That did not mean he did not intrigue her. Because he was right. He saw directly through her, even if she wouldn't admit it out loud. A part of her was frightened. It had been a long time since someone had known what lived behind her eyes, an even longer time since anyone could relate. And even if he hadn't said so, Natasha had a feeling he could empathize with her on some level.

"Not completely off base." Was the only response she offered, letting him take the lead.

"I'd say rough childhood."

"You could say that." Natasha nodded.


"Yeah." While not exactly an orphanage, it was the closest polite term that could be used to describe the Red Room. And, it wasn't the cliché version of a rough childhood, but there hadn't been anything normal about her upbringing. Her whole life had revolved around spy craft. While other little girls were pretending to be princesses, Natasha was being taught various parts of human anatomy; the ideal places to strike, stab, or shoot to put a target down and make sure they never got back up.

"It's okay you know." He said, surprising her.

Good looking men like him didn't want damaged women. They weren't worth the time or trouble. They could have their pick of the litter, no need to spend time fixing the broken ones when there were plenty of pretty women who were already ready to go.

Especially not on their first meeting, most people would have excused themselves and never looked back. But he was still there, drowning her in his understanding.

"But, it could be better." She replied.

"Everything could always be better. The grass could always be greener. The land just beyond the horizon," He deftly waved his hands as he listed off clichés. "But, we must never fail to enjoy where we are in favor of what may be on the other side."

"And what if there isn't anything worth enjoying where we are?" Natasha questioned, unable to help herself.

He had hypnotized her, drawn her in with his fortune cookie wisdom. There was no denying he found her attractive, the signs were obvious. But, it wasn't his intent to seduce her. He genuinely just wanted to help, to 'save her'.

She almost scoffed at the thought. A real White Knight in their day and age. A valiant hero who fought for the sake of idealism. It was preposterous, but nonetheless real, as he was right in front of her.

"Our lives are what we make them." He smirked, causing her to giggle. She wanted to smack herself for sounding like a crushing teenager, but Natasha couldn't help it.

"Even you can't be that optimistic." She said, failing to control her laugh.

"It's pragmatism." He riposted. "I understand that there are things in our lives that we can't control. If you can't find pleasure in one aspect of your life, then find it in another. You hate your job, find a hobby. Needless to say, somethings are much easier to say than do, but ultimately, we are the ones in control."

It wasn't a competition. There was no score card, no prize at the end. But Natasha knew she was losing. Losing what, she wasn't sure. Maybe, losing the battle with herself to brush the stranger away. He wouldn't be around. Whatever their current situation was, he wouldn't be around long. And it disappointed her to a degree that she couldn't fathom. He was no one to her. It should have been nothing for Natasha to get up and walk away. But she found herself not wanting to.

"And you?" She asked, hoping to turn the tables. "What do you see when you look at them? You come here just as much as I do."

"So you have been watching me." He teased. But she didn't take the bait, content with waiting for an answer. A part of her wished she could catch him in a lie. Walking away would be so much easier if he were a fake. Especially if he turned out to be a good fake.

"Hope. I see hope." He replied reflectively. "I grew up with a rough childhood myself. Dead parents, abusive relatives, being bullied, and all the other clichés."

The smile that crossed his face was not fake, to her surprise. He did look back those times and was able to brush them off. Not for one moment did Natasha discount his tragedies. Until she knew more, Natasha wouldn't discredit anything. After all, she outwardly appeared normal, but that didn't mean her mental scars were anything to laugh at.

"It took me a long time to be able to see my situation from the outside. And even I can't take full credit for that. For a long time I felt sorry for myself. It wasn't until my eyes were opened to how bad life could really get that I just stopped. I stopped pitying myself and moved on. There was a whole life ahead of me and I would never live it to the fullest if I kept looking backward. So, believe me when I say that it's okay." His tirade was short, but sweet and ended with a smile. A smile that Natasha could not help but reciprocate.

It was happening a lot between them. More on her part than his. She was finding herself unable to regulate the basic functions she had been taught to control around him. Worse yet, Natasha couldn't explain why. What she did know was that she was slowly warming up to his company. In the last few minutes, Natasha had genuinely smiled and laughed more than she ever had on a first meeting. She found herself craving more of it. Desiring to continue this small bit of normality.

"I think we got off on the wrong foot. Natalie Rushman." Natasha said before presenting her hand.

"Harry Black." He introduced himself, surprising her with a firm squeeze. It was a subtle showing of respect, that he regarded her as an equal rather than some fragile doll that needed to be handled delicately. Her regard for him rose. Only by inches, but it rose nonetheless. "And what is it you do Ms. Rushman?"

Natasha leaned in closely, pantomiming that she had a secret to tell.

"I work for a secret government agency that is tasked with defending the world." She whispered, before tapping her lips with her forefinger.

It felt good to be honest, even if he wouldn't believe her. That moment of honesty was liberating. She fully expected him to laugh, brushing off her statement as a flight of fancy. But, surprisingly, he took it all in stride.

"Sounds dangerous. Does it include hazard pay?"

"No," She answered absently. "But, I get to travel to exotic places."

"Do you include all your work related receipts for tax purposes? People don't think it equates to much, but you'd be surprised how much of a tax break you can get." He replied interestedly. Much more interestedly than most people would be when talking of taxes.

"What are you? An accountant?" Natasha asked with a teasing smile.

"Of a sort."

"Oh, how mysterious." She said much to his amusement. "Tell me more."

"Nothing as exciting as being a government agent." He smiled. "I'm an auditor of a sort. The company I work for has interests all over the world. If there is a problem or something is amiss, I'm sent in to fix it. As I said, not at all exciting."

"I don't know. Sometimes excitement is overrated. Having a nice, stable job sounds nice."

"The government agent field is unstable?" He smiled, going along with her joke that was not so much a joke. "There are always bad people that need to be put away."

There were times when people arrived at a crossroads. Natasha was at that point. She could go on about her real life, having Harry think their conversation was one gigantic made-up story. Or, she could tell him some semblance of truth. Something that he would believe. It wouldn't be a lie, just not totally accurate.

"I'm a model. Asian circuit mostly, but I'm looking for some work in the States." Natasha said, as if admit some shortcoming. It was a point in his favor that there was no gleam in his eyes, as if he had just snagged himself a trophy. His smile shifted from teasing to something softer, something pleasant and understanding.

"Does it make you happy?"

It shouldn't have been as loaded a question as it was to her. It should have been simple. He was just asking if he enjoyed her job. But Natasha wasn't thinking about the job that was going to be her cover. It was the job that came before that came to mind.

Did it make her happy?

She had joined as a way to survive.

Natasha had caught their attention in a very bad way. They had sent one of their best to eliminate her. And if it were anyone else, things could have ended very differently. If Clint had seen anything less in her, seen something wrong, Natasha could have been six feet under in an unmarked grave and disavowed.

It could have also gone the other way. Clint wouldn't have gotten much more than she did. Declared missing, the only acknowledgement to his actions to be a nameless star on some wall of a government building. His wife and children would have been fed some lie about a training accident or something equally ambiguous before being offered his sizeable life-insurance policy as consolation.

There wasn't much difference. One man's terrorist was another man's freedom fighter. Such was the way of life. When all the propaganda was taken away, when the situation was looked at objectively, it all just came down to a matter of allegiances.

But, in the handful of years since she had changed her allegiances, Natasha could honestly say that her work-life was better. There was a lot of red in her ledger, so many names on the list of lives she had taken. In recent years though, her job revolved around protecting people…saving people.

People still died, but in defense of her or someone else's personal safety. To some people, it was a small change, but to Natasha, it made all the difference in the world.

However, that didn't answer his question. Her profession didn't make her happy. She was good at it, praised for it, and held in high-esteem because of her proficiency. But, that didn't mean she enjoyed it.

The closest comparison would be to soldiers in war. They didn't do it for enjoyment. Rather, it was just the amoral reality of life. Someone had to do it. It was a necessary action, lest a civilization or society be caught unprepared and destruction come down like rain. Violence, whether as a threat or an action, as a deterrent.

So, was Natasha happy with her job?

"No," she finally answered, "but like you said, if we can't find enjoyment in one part of life, find it in another."

"Well, I hope you find it, Natalie." Harry said, looking at his watch. It was a classy looking piece. Breitling, if her guess wasn't off. "I hate to leave, but I'm due for a teleconference soon. I will say that it has been a pleasure to speak with you. I couldn't fathom why we waited so long."

She took a glance when he presented his hand, a signaling of goodbye. Natasha knew that whether she shook his hand or not, Harry was going to leave. Nonetheless, she hesitated because she didn't want him to.

Her brain mentally reset from a hard slap courtesy of her subconscious. Natasha grew painfully aware that she was entering the realm of the love-sick teenager. It was a miracle that she hadn't started to swoon.

She was a successful woman. A government agent and trained assassin with forty-eight confirmed kills under her belt. She had broken into some of the most secure facilities around the world. Trained and hardened agents had broken under her interrogation technique. Natasha knew how to keep her cool, knew how to take the shot when the opportunity presented itself.

Natasha offered one hand, elbow placed on the table, her other hand closed with her knuckles lightly holding up her chin.

"You're not going to ask what I'm going to do?"

"Well, I was going to patiently wait until our next meeting. But seeing as your offering, what do you plan to do?" Harry asked.

"I'm going to take you to dinner."

"Now who is being presumptuous?" He laughed.

"I'm not hearing a 'No'." She pointed out.

There was a moment of silence. A moment where they both just smiled and stared. She wasn't sure if Harry was giving her an out, a chance to take back her proposal. If he was, he was going to be sorely disappointed. Because the words were out there. And, just like bullets, once they were out there, there was no taking them back.

"I'm staying at the Ritz Carlton. Shall we say eight o' clock?"

"So, I'm the one going to be picking you up?" Natasha chuckled.

"Well, you were the one to ask. It's only proper." He countered.

"Fair point." She conceded. "Eight it is."

They gave each other a single, firm shake. He shook his head slightly before turning away and making his way down the sidewalk. He was already twenty-feet away when Natasha realized that she had no way of contacting him.

"Aren't you at least going to give me your cellphone number?"

"Don't have one." He said over his shoulder.

"How am I supposed to get a hold of you?"

"Front desk. Room 421."

She just shook her head as he kept moving. Not that Natasha minded. It provided her something very nice to look at. Yes, she did not like that he had to go, but she certainly enjoyed watching him leave.

Even as Natasha watched his very firm looking derriere making its way away from her, she thought about the questions Harry had made her ask herself.

No, she wasn't happy with her life.

But, with the night to look forward to, it certainly got a little bit brighter.