"fall into place"
Genre: Drama, Character Study, (Could be shippy if you want to squint)
Time Frame: Pre-Avengers
Characters: Natasha Romanov, Phil Coulson
Summary: She gets him the card to complete his collection, during those long pre-dawn days when the Captain was just awakening from his slumber.
Notes: So . . . how much symbolism can Mira wring from these cards? The world may never know. This started as a short character study on Natasha, and then it took on a life of its own. I hope you enjoy the result. Someday, these characters will give me back my soul. But, not yet. ;)
Disclaimer: Nothing is mine, but for the words.
"fall into place"
The ghost man slept like a princess in a tower, ready to wake up.
Steve Rogers was the name that lingered with the ghost, hiding in that hollow place between throat and voice; memory and thought. It was a name that slipped from tongues on every level of SHIELD - from the aides running too and fro with coffee in their hands, to the higher ups with classified folders clenched tight and eyes brimming with secrets and orders. Their sharp mouths were tucked and held words close with ease, but this was one secret they could not keep. This was a secret that found its way through fractured lines and spread, like sunlight finding its way through cracks in a shelf of ice.
One of many in a long line of well wishers, Natasha Romanov found herself stopping by out of a sharp sense of curiosity as much as anything she could properly define. She did not come to the Captain's side out of an old sense of heroism, or even out of a simple patriotism – for that fervor in her veins was one that belonged to another time, another place. Instead, she merely felt a tug on the edge of her world, and decided it was one which she wished to follow to its starting point. She had a high enough clearance to gain admittance to the back wing of the hospital without gathering too many looks – after all, those who truly wished to know the extent of the Widow and her web were few and far between – and she had build up a name enough to ensure that there were eyes which lingered on her as she pressed her fingers to the glass of the observation bay that overlooked Roger's room. She leaned in close to see, spying out a face in the shadows and sterile white of the medical room. The tip of her nose brushed the glass as her eyes narrowed in her hunt. Her breath fogged before her, clearing and clouding in time with her breathing, ever advancing and retreating.
He was different in color than he was in black and white, she finally decided. He was a veritable mountain of a man, and the dips and turns of the sheets and his hospital gown could hardly hide that fact, even after more than seventy years of slumber. She remembered the file she had been shown earlier that week, and in particular she remembered the the grey scale print of a man with wide eyes and a simple smile and a body of David when he was needed to face Goliath and all of his might. The serum may have changed his body, but the laugh lines around his eyes had remained even through Erskine's transformation. He had a mouth made for smiling, she thought, even if it was now creased while he slept, as if remembering the crash of ice and the wreck of the Valkyrie; as if his sleeping mind was already mourning what would be left behind.
His sleeping expression showed not a day of his long years in the ice. He had a soft face, a child's face in the way that the planes were still smooth and clear. It was the type of face that would hide no thought, conceal no motive. Steve Rogers was a man who was bare in the most painful of ways, and in her world a face like his was an open wound, a bloodied place ready to fester and rot. It was a luxury, and one she had always been ill to afford.
Natasha stayed rooted to her spot, her feet squared. In the tight circle of her mind, she could feel her world – narrow, narrow, narrow as her Red Room had taught her – take a wall and shift, just slightly. The circle stretched. It grew.
At her sides, her hands clenched, making a fist. They relaxed. Her fingers tapped against her thighs as she heard the tell-tale slip of shoe soles against linoleum. She knew the shape of that stride.
"You haven't gone home yet?" she asked, not looking behind her as a shadow fell into place next to her own. She shouldn't have been surprised, she thought. Few were the agents who looked upon the Captain with such a vigil, but then, Phil Coulson was nothing if not the most devoted of fans.
"He's a childhood favorite, what can I say?" Coulson said in answer, the shape of his words slipping through his small smile.
"I think that I've heard that before," she said, a ghost of a smile creeping onto her face in a reflection of his. It wavered before holding. At the words, she found herself remembering early days – fledgling days, spent with long rides in cramped spaces, high in the sky or low on the ground as the weapons of flesh and bone were transported to where they were needed next to strike. No matter the side, the journey was always the same.
But the handler on this side was different, she reflected. Different in every way from her far away masters, Phil Coulson had been Clint Barton's commanding officer long before he had been hers, and in the days when the Widow and the Hawk had been synonymous, it had been to Phil she had reported as well. He had been a cool presence in that time of her life – calm and liquid, like a high mountain spring. He had not minded her silences, and his eyes had not judged or weighed – merely watched. And he had filled the silences with words enough of his own when neither she or Barton had words to say.
Of which, she remembered wryly, Captain America had always held quite a few.
Her memories drifted past her, like mist, before falling away again. There were very few memories which she allowed to sit solid in her mind. It was dangerous that way – dangerous to feel so, dangerous to give such things substance. For to give the memories substance was to give them weight, and things that weighed could strike as a blow. They could bruise.
Natasha breathed in deep. She leaned back from the glass enough so that she could see her own reflection, shadowing the Captain's sleeping visage.
A moment passed. Then two. Together, they watched as the slumbering man breathed. The monitor by his bedside beeped in a mechanical rhythm, the lifelines red and steady in the half light.
"You never mentioned your own childhood heroes," Coulson said then. The timbre of his tone dipped, just slightly. There was humor there, she decided. It teased. "Did you ever have any?"
Her reflection flickered in the glass, as if she wasn't even there. "One or two," she gave, the answer vague. Nothing about her or her own revealed. "A very long time ago . . . Just like everyone else."
Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky, Fred Astaire, her mind still whispered in answer where her mouth would not. At the last name, her mouth curved with a smile that was all her own. It ghosted before departing, like the fog on the glass.
He nodded, his eyes dipping in thought. She waited, silent, knowing that he would speak without her encouragement. She had little to wait. "Everyone needs a hero to look up to – something larger than themselves that they can identify with. Lose themselves in. For some it is the stories of others that ground them; anchor them. Others find that anchor in other things," Coulson said, shrugging. Where she would give nothing, he was content enough talking about himself. "I play the piano when not working here. When I was younger, I thought that I'd be able to make a living off of my talents."
A team, Coulson had spoken as such to her in those dawning days of her career on this side of the line. He had spoken, and while she had listened, she hadn't quite heard. Or, at least, heard enough to get her tongue to work in return. She couldn't quite get herself to speak in more than whispers of the things closest to her. At least, of the things that she truly held close. Lies were easy enough to spin, even about things as simple as her favorite color. Lies were nothing more than strands in a gossamer web, and she had been long adapt at holding the strands at the web's heart, and pulling them tight.
Before her, Steve's honest face slept on. Beside her, Coulson offered a shoulder in words without reaching out his hand. It was a discomforting feeling to her, one that had her resisting the long broken habit of shifting her weight from foot to foot, letting her unease show. In her mind's eye, she saw Clint's wide face show pity rather than revilement. She saw empathy. She saw understanding. And that understanding clashed with who she was – with what she had been molded to be.
She remembered the Red Room and her world narrowing, smaller and smaller and even smaller still until there was nothing else – nothing but the orders in her ears and the coil of her muscles; the flick of a knife, the diamond patterned grip of a gun. She clenched her fists, and for a moment thought she could remember a set of eyes over the generic gazes who had became her world – remembered whispers of Natalia in her ears, and a pilot's red red grin as he looked up to the sky.
Alexi, the deep of her remembered where her mind would not, and -
She bit her lip, allowing herself that one slip.
"Did you ever complete your collection?" she asked instead of commenting on his last words, the deflection the same as blocking a blow with her hands. This was further from her, she decided – further from them. This was tangible. Safe.
And Agent Phil Coulson's set of Captain America trading cards were near legendary around SHIELD, besides. There were few who didn't know about the man's quest to collect the whole set.
Coulson's face brightened, just enough to notice. "I am one away from a complete set," he said, his voice turning proudly – the words were not quite a boast on his lips, but they were words he was eager enough to share. "There's still the VE-Day card that's escaping me. I'm finding it hard to track down one in good enough condition to place next to the others."
He would settle for nothing less than the best. A set was made whole only by all of its corners, she knew.
"That's a shame," she said, her voice caught between her mouth and the glass.
He shrugged. His mouth quirked. "I enjoy the search. It makes the finished result that much more worth it."
Beyond them, the monitor beeped. It promised.
Natasha looked again through the glass, considering. "I hope you find what you are looking for," she said, the words soft. He would have had to have been listening closely to hear then as she turned away.
"And you as well, Natasha," he said as she took that first step away.
Her stride veered, just slightly. A second step, and her path was corrected. She kept to her course.
She walked on straight.
In the end, it took a day of searching, two days of travel, a lump sum of euros equal to a week's paycheck, and a bottle of Kauffman vodka before she walked away with her target in hand.
During the plane ride back to base, she sat quietly in her seat and stared at the card in her hands, her eyes captured by the smiling gaze of Steve Rogers. She looked the picture in the eye, having already looked upon the likeness and approved of its resemblance. The man on the card was honest and smiling, the captions boasting of one of the proudest days in American history – in world history, at that. The lines were straight and bold, a strength found and reflected in ink and card stock. The plastic coating protecting the card was thick under her hands. She would had to have pressed in order to bend it. When she tipped the card back and forth, the Captain's eyes were a too bright shade of blue. They caught the light, the glare from all blue sea of sky around the plane, and threw it back at her.
She could not tell if the eyes were an accurate resemblance.
He would have to open his own first.
She did not stand behind the glass that second time.
It was late in the day when she finally made her way through the grey halls to where Rogers was sleeping. The lights were half glowing in the dark, holding the shadows at bay but not eliminating them completely. This time, instead of observing as they had done the night prior, Phil Coulson was in the Captain's room, slouched in one of the hard plastic chairs that sat there for visitors. The pose was an odd one to her, and it took her a step into the room to realize that Coulson was sleeping. His head had slipped forward, and it rested on his fisted hand. His elbow was propped up on the arm of the chair, supporting his head at an awkward angle. He still had on his suit jacket and tie, but Natasha could not remember a time when she had seen him more at rest.
She bit her lip, considering.
When she finally walked forward, her step was silent, like a whisper across the floor. She placed the card down on the bedside table, right where it would be in his line of sight were he to awaken.
He still didn't open his eyes. Natasha breathed quietly, her eyes sharpening as she considered.
And then she turned to leave.
It wasn't from any sound she made, but she wasn't sure if it was Coulson's body protesting the way it had fallen asleep, or the long developed sixth sense that any agent who had lived that long developed over time. Either way, Coulson woke up right before she reached the door. She heard the change in his breathing, heard as it shifted from deep and steady to moderate and aware.
And then it hitched.
The door was only a few steps from her. She considered leaving, but that felt like a retreat as Coulson's too sharp eyes picked up on what she had left behind.
So, she stayed, her body taut upon her spot. Slowly, she turned towards him.
"I didn't mean to wake you," she said, not quite meeting his eyes. Instead, she watched the way he was holding the card. He held it like a traveler would hold a map that led their feet home. His hands tightened, they cherished in the way a pilgrim would hold a religious artifact at a shrine.
"I didn't mean to fall asleep," Coulson said, addressing her words rather than the gift of the card. "His vitals jumped earlier," he explained. "We'll be moving him soon – to a room less . . . modern than this one. One where he can wake up to something familiar."
Natasha nodded, feeling her chest tighten at that. After seventy years, what could possibly still be familiar about the world? What was left of those bygone days besides the few pieces of memorabilia like the one he held in her hands?
"That is a kindness to him," still she muttered. Even a few moments of peace after a blow could make the difference in a fight.
Phil's smile was drawn. It tightened, holding in the corners of his mouth. It was weary for a moment, weighed down by the years of such a way of life. It was a life that ached at times, but, for them, it was the only thing they knew.
He didn't ask the words outright – he wouldn't do that, instead, he raised a brow, and invited her to speak. He left her a path to follow, one way or the other, with no wrong turn.
And she opened her mouth. It closed.
"I dance," she finally said in explination. "My heroes growing up . . . they danced too, every one of them. I wanted to be a ballerina."
Her file probably said as much, she knew. It probably spoke as much about her grace and agility as it did about the hours she had spent in pointed slippers, practicing the forms and the arches of her body until they were as second nature to her as breathing. Past that, he probably knew about the leotard she still had packed in the corner of her room – whatever room she happened to be passing through at the time, in any area of the world – thanks to Clint. He had probably seen her, in the late hours in the gym, trying out old pirouettes and seeing if she could still remember the shape of them.
But she had never told him herself. And that . . . that was not trust. That was not a partner – or a team. That was simply her, and her alone; her path straight with a single set of footprints.
And, past that . . . she wanted him to know.
And that was a new feeling to her. As new as the Captain beyond her waking up in a too old world. She let the feeling rise in her, calming her heart as if she were taking aim, rythmatically calming each muscle in her body as if preparing to strike. She stood there with her hands clasped over her stomach so as to hide their fidgeting. Her hair, newly shorn, hung down in front of her face, and she tilted up her head so as to let it fall away. She would look at him clearly, she thought. That was how one looked when one spoke with honesty, she imagined.
"You would have been excellent," he said simply, his eyes warm. They thanked. They understood the weight of her words – the way her breath was caught behind the stone in her throat. His fingertips over the card in his hand were white. They pressed.
Beyond them, Steve continued to breathe. His breath jumped, as a dragon awakening to the spring.
"Perhaps," Natasha inclined her head, her mouth slipping upwards into an expression that was easy upon her face. It felt real. It awakened.
Coulson didn't say anything more – but he did smile, his thoughts clear enough upon his face to one looking. He settled into his chair again, and went back to his watching. The VE card was still clenched tight in his hands.
Natasha looked back at the door, once. She considered, her body caught halfway between wanting to turn and walking forward.
And finally, she decided. Silently, she took the chair next to Phil, and sat down without a word. He said nothing, either, and, together they both watched. In silence, they waited for the Captain to awake.