The characters and situations in this story belong to Marvel Comics, Fairview Entertainment, Dark Blades Films, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.

This is the second movie, of course. Long live the rare pairings. Cincoflex is, of course, responsible for Gwendolyn St. Lavender and all her works!

She'd been wooed before. It was nothing new; it happened all the time, in fact, given that her job quite often involved alluring. Suggestive comments, expensive gifts, requests for dates...she'd seen it all, and turned most of it down. She was never anything less than professional.

Though, on occasion, the job had required her to accept.

This wasn't even different, at first. Hogan was a classic type, big and brawny and spinally reflexive when it came to protecting the fairer sex. He was good at his job, she had to concede; good enough for Tony Stark and even good enough for Virginia Potts. After all, bodyguarding for them was more a matter of keeping off the riff-raff than it was taking bullets. And he certainly hadn't been trained as an assassin. She liked him well enough; he didn't slack and he obviously cared about Virginia and Stark both.

But out of his league didn't even begin to cover her.

When Virginia ended up keeping the CEO position, Fury asked Natasha to stay on as the assistant, and she agreed. It was an interesting assignment, and she liked Virginia, and Stark was bearable--more so now that he was focusing on his new girlfriend instead of running through the motions flirting with Natasha. Hogan didn't like the idea, that was obvious, but he settled down when Natasha made it clear that he was still Virginia's primary bodyguard.

And he watched her. Big eyes, desire with the underlying indignation of a strong man bested. Fortunately for him, he didn't go all macho on her and try to prove his dominance; setting that record straight was always annoying and frequently messy, and she just didn't need the hassle.

First move: a little clumsy flirting. She ignored it. She'd long since lost the reflexive touch of guilt the rebuff brought, and he took it gracefully.

Second move, asking her out. Courteously, she appreciated that, even though the answer was the same. He didn't press, but the indignation was fading.

Third move, and most of them didn't persist that far, bringing her food. She had to remind him that as a bodyguard, official or not, she never ate anything she didn't prepare herself. That one stung, but he took it well.

There was nothing more for a while. It was a relief, really; Hogan was a genuinely nice guy, and they had to work together.

She got to know him a little better as time went on. She had his files, of course; ex-boxer who was smart enough to get out of the game when he peaked low. He'd run a gym before being hired as a bodyguard/driver/wingman for Stark. His only family was an elderly aunt and uncle; he lived in the gatekeeper's cottage on Stark's estate and split his off time between boxing, polishing Stark's fleet of cars, and writing bodice-rippers under a pseudonym.

Natasha was pretty sure that Stark didn't know about that last.

It had been a bit of a surprise to discover that one of her favorite authors was actually a broad-shouldered XY with a history of controlled violence. Not that she admitted as much. Her e-reader kept her titles safely anonymous, and it wasn't like she was going to ask him to autograph the case or anything.

But it snuck up on her in quiet moments, the fact that the stone-faced man who had a fighter's scars and who protected his bosses with a quiet ferocity was also the writer who not only composed stories full of angst and passion and happy endings, but also created sex scenes that made her skin heat and her pulse speed up. It was so incongruous.

Natasha would remind herself that there was no reason he couldn't be sensitive enough to come up with such things, but the astonishment lingered. Half the sex was done from the heroines' perspectives, and she had to wonder how he'd done his research, because the descriptions were pretty much spot-on. And yet his last girlfriend was years in the past…though Natasha had quickly come to realize that working for Stark didn't leave a lot of time for a personal life.

She tried to shelve the realization and move on, the way she always did. But it didn't quite work. Working for Virginia was a longer-term assignment than she usually took, and Natasha found herself warming to these insane people despite herself. Virginia appreciated her and considered her a partner, and they evolved their own set of code words and in-jokes without much effort; Stark treated her with a wary respect that didn't preclude the occasional tease, and made her smile despite herself; LTC Rhodes accepted her as a colleague without discernible effort; and Hogan…

…Hogan kept that old-fashioned courtesy that drove her quietly crazy.

He knew what she was, that she could kick his ass into powder without half trying. He knew she worked for a shadow agency that had its own purposes, not all of them aligned with those of Stark or his company. He knew she could be reassigned in the time it took to read a text message, and vanish from their lives forever.

And he still watched her with that half-concealed yearning, as if he waited long enough she would come around.

It scared her when she began to want to.

The dreams were the worst; imaginings on the edge of sleep. Scenes from the books playing out in her mind's eye, except that instead of the hero it was Hogan himself, lavishing the heroine with the slow, erotic attention he wrote so well. Those battered hands removing clothing and sliding over soft skin; that strong mouth laying kisses in tender spots; the wide frame and heavy muscles overwhelming and protecting.

The fact that her weakness was tall men didn't really help.

She didn't want protection, and she sure as hell didn't need it; in fact, Fury rated her as one of the most dangerous people on the planet. But she found her daydreams turning stupidly romantic, the kind of romance she kept confined to her e-reader. A date--a movie, or a picnic, or a walk on the beach--with her wearing something utterly feminine and entirely impractical for fighting in. And a strong hand under her arm, or wrapped around her fingers, belonging to a big burly guy in a tux. Just the two of them, no duty or obligations or people who needed protecting.

Life's not like that, she told herself, and kept working. And very carefully kept it all out of her eyes whenever she looked at Hogan.

When Pepper and Tony announced that they were getting married, Natasha wasn't surprised. She helped Pepper set up the wedding, admiring her boss' skills as Pepper combined Stark's desire for an extravaganza with a mere month's time of preparation, and spent a few late nights with Happy and Stark Industries' head of security, eating pizza and discussing how to keep the happy couple safe in Venice without driving Stark to ditch them.

The message ordering her to report in to Fury wasn't a surprise, but as Natasha drove to the meeting spot she was astonished to realize she was sorry. Reassignment had to come sooner or later, but she was actually going to miss them. Even Stark.

Half an hour later she was driving back in a daze. Vacation? What the hell does he mean, "vacation"?

It was bull, she knew it, but Fury was the boss, and if he wanted to quote arcane SHIELD regulations at her that was his right, even if Natasha suspected he was making them up on the spot. Other SHIELD agents would handle the honeymoon, he'd told her. She was to take the month off and…relax.

Fury knew perfectly well that top-level assassins didn't relax. Ever. But orders were orders. The fact that she had absolutely no idea what to do with that much time off mattered not at all to him.

The wedding was, of course, perfect, but it was also fun, extravagant, and a really great party. Pepper was radiant, and Stark looked ready to explode with delight, and Natasha had to smile at them both, because it was clear they were crazy about each other.

After all, she did enjoy a good romance.

Stark's private beach was a mess that night, after the newlyweds had left for the airport and the guests had all gone home, but it wasn't her problem. Natasha watched the robots start the cleanup and took the elevator back up. Her car was in the driveway out front, seemingly undisturbed, but she spotted the package on the passenger seat before she'd even put the key in the lock.

Training and instincts had her calling Jarvis. He let her borrow Dummy and the X-ray machine, but the results were quite tame; the object inside the wrapping paper was a book.

Natasha didn't feel stupid; paranoia wasn't just her job, it was what kept her alive. But as she tore open the package, she was aware of feeling tired.

Passion's Midnight Captive, by Gwendolyn St. Lavender. Her first thought was puzzled, because it wasn't out yet, but then she realized that it was an advanced reader's copy, a proof sent to the author prior to publication.

The author who, unbeknownst to all but one of his readers, was actually named Harold Hogan.

How did he know?

She started the book in bed that night, and finished it the next afternoon on a lawn chair in her backyard, filling the first day of her unaccustomed vacation. On the last page was a sticky note bearing Hogan's cramped writing. What do you think?

Natasha considered it for a while, then checked the time. It was still early enough in Italy, she decided, and picked up her phone.

"I liked it," she said when Hogan answered his cell.

"Really?" He sounded cheered. "I'm always obsessive this close to publication."

"It works," Natasha replied, amused at finding herself in the conversation. "The plot's strong, and I like the way Sabrina doesn't give in until the Duke grovels."

"I'm big on groveling when necessary," Hogan agreed. "It takes a confident man to grovel right."

That actually made her laugh. "Taking lessons from Stark?"

"You know it." He snickered. "Mostly in what not to do."

"I can just imagine." Natasha leaned back in the lawn chair and smiled.

"You know, it's funny," Hogan said, and at just that moment Natasha realized that there was an intruder in her yard--

She had the man pinned against the side of her townhouse, her thumb pressing at just the right angle to cut off his blood flow, before she recognized the face pinned behind her arm. "Hogan."

"The bosses gave me the month off," he said, his voice a little constricted from the pressure, and there was no fear in his eyes, no indignation, just a calm acceptance.

Acceptance, and something else that made her own blood pound harder. Natasha shoved away from him, spinning around and stomping back towards her chair, dizzy with the conflict. He wasn't afraid of her. He didn't resent her.

He still wanted her.

"I'm glad you liked the book," he said.

She turned back. He was just standing there, hands in his pockets, not making any demands.

"Happy," she began, and didn't know what else to say.

"There's a beach down there," he said with a jerk of his chin past her house. "Want to go for a walk?"

Somewhere in the back of Natasha's mind, Fury was grinning. She shot him a mental rude gesture, took a deep breath, and looked down at her shirt and shorts. "Let me change clothes."

The beach was lovely, and if the hem of her skirt got wet in the surf, well, so did his pants cuffs, and his hand was warm around hers. Natasha glanced back at their prints wandering along the sand. Their feet were different sizes, but the strides matched.

She smiled.