sparsenicjade
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AN: Thanks to theletterelle for her beta of this. All remaining mistakes are completely on me. Using this for my "unrequited pining" square on hc_bingo.

***


Natasha made a vow the day after she moved into Avengers Tower: she was not going to break Captain America. No matter how much he looked at her with those serious, earnest blue eyes like she had hung the moon and he wanted to go retrieve it for her. No matter how often he softly called her, "Ma'am," and then apologized, still not sure how she viewed feminism in all its forms. No matter if she caught him shirtless in the gym, testing himself against Thor's superior strength eight times a week. She was not going to do it.

*


A month later, she made the same vow with regard to Tony and Pepper. Maybe if it had been Tony all by himself. Tony was a bit like Clint: endowed with an abundance of annoyingness to bury all the fear and desperation, and too far gone for Natasha to do much damage. But it wasn't just Tony. And Pepper had never done a thing to Natasha, aside from promote her once. Pepper was gluing Tony back together piece-by-piece and Natasha wasn't going to walk in and pull like a sadistic child with a pinned fly.

Natasha knew she didn't have much of a moral compass, but she could usually tell what was really really wrong. And if she couldn't, she had an unacknowledged policy of asking Coulson. She didn't need to ask this time. She knew better. What she wanted, what she thought might be fun, what made her get up in the middle of the night and case the Tower, lonely and restless, was beside the point. She wasn't going there.

*


She hadn't expected Steve to go there. Or, well, kind of. She knew she was probably—somewhere around ninety-three percent—fucked when Steve started trying to get her alone. She was better at avoiding him than he was at dogging her, but it was only a matter of time before circumstances came to a head and he got lucky.

It happened due to what Natasha could only consider betrayal of the highest order. That is, Clint slipping out of the hospital room where she was waiting to be sewn up when Steve poked his head in the door. Steve, taking the opportunity, checked her over as a team leader would and then began fidgeting. Natasha was good under pressure, really good, and while she could resist giving into Steve's clear discomfort, she was tired and didn't particularly want to. She asked, "Something I can do for you, Cap?"

Steve stilled. After a moment he said, "This—this is not an order."

"All right."

"It's just, well, I, I know that you don't really like me that much. We don't…I guess we come from different worlds, that sort of thing, and I—that's fine. I'm not, I'm not asking for that."

Natasha frowned slightly, because Steve was looking anywhere but at her, and she could get away with it. She knew she was a hard read, that was on purpose, but it was kind of surprising to realize her reserve in this case had caused Steve to think she actually felt negatively toward him. She bit back a sigh. Softly, she prompted, "What are you asking for?"

He made himself look at her and Natasha ignored the way her stomach jumped like some silly child, the sort of which she'd never been. It was simply that he was brave in a way she sometimes forgot existed, a simple way she wasn't used to seeing. He said, "There aren't many women I can trust. And those I can, well. Pepper's taken and Hill terrifies me."

"I don't?" Natasha batted her eyelashes, slowly.

It made Steve smile, the expression surprised. "Only when you want to."

She hadn't wanted to in a while. "What do you need?"

Steve was slow to respond. "Before, uh, before the ice, I was kind of…busy. With the war. And HYDRA."

Natasha nodded. He grimaced. "And since waking, I haven’t really-- Girls are kind of different, now. How to talk to them, and all. And I wasn't all that good at it back when I wasn't seventy years out of touch."

Natasha knew Steve was a virgin. It was implicit in his file, and she was good at reading between the lines. It was a significant part of her no-breaking pact. Still, this was going to suck. "You want help flirting?"

Steve blushed, going from slightly pink to fevered red. "I was thinking, um, more along the lines…" He closed his eyes, then opened them, "Would you teach me how to, ah bewithsomeoneelse?"

It took Natasha a second to unfurl the jumble of words Steve had thrown at her. It took her another second to push back the strange, hysterical laugh that wanted to come out of her mouth. She said, glad for all the years of training, for her ability to make anything seem casual and normal, "You want me to teach you about sex."

"I realize the request is completely inappropriate on a number of—"

"At the first hint I get of this making you think of me as more woman than team member, I will be the last person you have sex with. Ever."

Steve nodded, looking as though that thought had never occurred to him. "I meant as your team leader."

Natasha just let the threat hang in the air, hoping he would take the out. She knew she should be the one to say no, be the adult here, but every time she tried, her vocal cords seemed to just shut down. After a moment, Steve asked, "So, you'll help me?"

Natasha damned herself three times over for being an idiot. She gave him a sharp smile, but not half so sharp as the tone in her head asking, sure, I mean, what are friends for?

*


He brought her flowers. Not even anything so stupid as red roses or tri-colored carnations, no, petunias and pansies and phlox, things that knew how to survive a winter and come back pretty as before. She would have put it down to sheer dumb luck, except Steve wasn't dumb and he didn't expect Natasha to be either. She took her time arranging them, slipping into her knowledge of Japanese flower arrangements—which, like dance and table etiquette, and all other random but useful skills, had been trained, drummed, crammed into her—to give herself a bit of breathing room.

When she was ready, she turned, and smiled at Steve, who smiled back, but the expression was a mix of anxiety and uncertainty. She wondered, idly, who it was she was training him to impress. She could probably ask Clint. Clint generally picked up on the things Natasha missed, and vice versa. She filed the possibility away.

She asked him, "This is supposed to be fun, you realize?"

It got a laugh out of him. "Some people would tell you I'm no good at that."

"Nobody ever listens to Stark, though."

His smile widened into something real and Natasha made herself not look away. She was going to enjoy this. If this was what she could have, she would take it. She'd never lived by a code of "all or nothing." That would only have ended in her having nothing all the time. She held out her hand. "C'mere."

Steve came, sliding his hand into hers, looking awed at even that much contact. Softly, she said, "'I'm going to do something, and I want you to do it back."

"O-okay."

She hid a smile at the hesitation in his response. "I'll take it slow."

He was still for a moment, then raised his free hand almost to the height of her face. "May I…?"

"Instincts are good," she told him, and he swept a curl away from her face, behind her ear.

Natasha had been touched time and time again. Pleasant touches, violent touches, humiliating, sweet, any and all kinds in between. It was stupid to want to arch into his, give into the gentle hum it started along her nerves. She hated being stupid.

She brought their hands up to her lips and kissed at his middle knuckle. His eyes widened. She wanted to smirk, to get some of her control back, but she couldn't, not with him looking at her as if she'd just given him the world. Instead, she said, "Now you."

His lips were warm and soft and Natasha told the voice—which sounded suspiciously like Coulson—reminding her that there were still parts of her that could be broken, to shut up.

*


The first time, she limited it to making out. For one thing, in a greedy way, the slower she taught him, the more time she got. For another thing, kissing was central to seduction, and something few people ever took the time to learn properly.

When they were caught up in it, Steve trying the different things she'd suggested, Natasha began to notice how he clung to her, holding her like she might disappear. She pulled off his mouth—a feat, because mostly she just wanted to continue feasting until she had eaten him all up—and said, "Ease up a bit."

Steve's eyes widened and he let go of her like she'd burnt him. "I'm so sorry. Did I hurt you?"

Natasha smiled, unsure if she was responding to the consideration or the ridiculousness of the idea that she wouldn't have kneed him in the groin long before it came to that. "No, but sometimes with kissing—"

She cut herself off, considering the way his ears and cheeks were a dull red. She reached out and unbuttoned his shirt just a bit. He stayed still, a rabbit caught in the sights of a predator. All she did, though, was press her palm to his chest. He shuddered, and she knew for a fact it was involuntary, because he bit his lip and looked away.

There had been a time in her life, a time before everything was erased and replaced by red, when she'd wished desperately that someone would touch her with kindness. When Clint had brought her in, after the deprogramming, the feeling had rushed back, and for months she had thought she was going insane, unsure of how to respond to such intense need. It had been Coulson who had asked her to come to his office, and sat on his couch for hours with her tucked into his side until the worst of the need passed.

She asked, "How long since someone hugged you?"

Steve shrugged. "Bucky, maybe."

Bucky. Before the ice. She rose up on her knees, brushing his forehead with a kiss and enveloping him in her arms. "I changed my mind. We're starting here."

"Natasha, you don't have to—"

"I hate one way hugs, Cap," was all she said. He took the hint. His arms were warm and gentle and perfect and Natasha carefully did not think about herself. This wasn’t about that.

*


For the second session—green basil blossoms and bright tansy—she had them both take off their shirts. She leaned close, but not into him, her lips nearly brushing his ear, and whispered, "Tit for tat, again."

He looked unsure of whether he was supposed to appreciate the double entendre. She took pity on him and kissed his sternum. He looked at her chest, then away, clearly understanding what he was supposed to do, but also, not quite that bold. It made Natasha's stomach hurt in a way she strangely didn't mind, how he could rush into burning buildings for kittens and babies, but not press his lips to the skin between her breasts.

"Steve," she said softly.

"I—" He turned back, and then, before he could lose his nerve, he brought a hand up, cupping it gently below one breast, his thumb swiping over her nipple. Natasha almost gasped at the flash of heat that pooled inside her. Steve was watching her, his eyes apologizing and asking for permission all at once.

"I've always wanted to…"

He's going to make some girl very happy, Natasha reminded herself, because this wasn't real, the way she felt new right now, felt valuable for something other than her skill set, felt…warm. She told him, "It's good. Your hands are lovely."

Artist's hands. Warrior's hands. Large and careful and curious, just like every inch of Steve. He brought his other hand up, hesitating before touching. She said, "Please," and he let himself explore.

*


The third session, her hands smelling of the bouquet of different varieties of honeysuckle he'd brought her, she taught him about hickeys and asked, "Can I give you a blowjob? Or is that something you want to save?"

His expression was hard to read. The lust was obvious, but something else was there, something that felt dangerous and attractive and that Natasha made herself not poke at. She made herself think of just how disappointed in her Coulson would be if she broke Captain America. It did the trick.

Steve said, "I'd like that. But only if—"

She kissed the side of his mouth lightly. "Mm?"

"Only if you teach me how to do it to you."

She heard Clint and the sounds of battle in her mind. Captain, she thought, it would be my genuine pleasure. And really, that was the sum total of her problem.

*


Natasha was well-versed in sex, all positions and flavors, really. What she was a positive neophyte at was true, unadulterated worship. She could mimic the feeling, but she'd never actually known it. Which was why it was almost impossible to guide Steve through the lesson he'd requested, because his approach to her was…unprecedented. He made her feel as though she were a goddess, a creature upon an altar, something more than human. Sometimes, when he would look up at her, prompt, "Am I-- Is this right?" she would pull it together enough to give a little bit of direction, "harder," maybe or, "scrape your teeth lightly there," or whatever she could manage to mumble out.

Mostly, though, despite his inexperience and insecurity, it was the most perfect thing Natasha had ever done. She repaid him with every trick she knew to make him come out of his skin, drawing things out over the course of an hour. She soothed him when he started to come off the bed, kissed his pleas from his mouth, told him, "You're doing great, you are."

And when he was done, all loose limbs and damp skin and slow, languid breaths, she cleaned him up and tucked him under her covers and said, "Sleep."

He did. Natasha, on the other hand, went into the arsenal on her floor, to quietly, privately freak out. Sex, for Natasha, had always been about physical inclinations, whether hers or someone else's. Even with Clint, it had been more about the sort of thing friends did for each other, the bodily release it provided. Natasha had always suspected this was three quarters of why they worked better as friends, but she'd never quite found the right way to ask Coulson.

She'd never had it feel like something…bigger than her body, something more interesting, more important. She was smart enough to know this was a bad thing, terrible, and that when Steve woke up she needed to kindly kick him out and explain to him that he really was a natural and the rest of it would take care of itself.

She didn't want to. Which was mind-boggling, since Natasha wasn’t used to wanting to make bad decisions. Making them, sure, everyone made them. But actively thinking about it because it seemed attractive, that was new and unpleasant.

On the other hand, it was far less unpleasant than breaking a national icon and having to leave the team. Just the thought of having to operate on her own again, without even Clint—he'd follow her, he'd try, but she wasn't taking this from him, she wasn't—made it hard to breathe. She hated fear. It made her feel small, worse, young, and she'd sworn when she'd reinvented herself, learned to use her skills for people who didn't look at her like something that had managed to crawl back from the rubbish heap, that she would never feel that way again.

It had been a lie, but it was often a lie she could tell herself without consequence. Now, though…now Captain America was sleeping it off in her bed and all she wanted was to go and lie with him, to have him curl around her when he woke, say something endearingly kind that would probably make her laugh, but not meanly. This had to stop; before someone beside her got hurt.

*


One of the first serious things Clint had told Natasha—aside from, "I'm taking you in"—had been, "You're like me in that regard; you see better from a distance."

He'd been talking about the fact that she'd never seen his interest in her coming. She'd snarled at him and withheld sex for a week, but mostly because she'd been aware he was right. The closer someone was to her, the worse she got at really seeing them. This was definitely true for Steve, Tony and Pepper, or else she would have seen the solution to her problem all along.

She figured out what she'd been missing—what Steve really wanted—about three days later, after they'd all had the crap beaten out of them by a massive infestation of crustacean-like robot-ish things. Tony had tried to explain why they weren't really robots in the truest sense, but Natasha had stopped listening pretty early on, mostly just letting herself be lulled by the cadences of an excited and pissed off Tony.

He'd been pretty roughed up, the arm of the suit having been caught by one of the Not Robot's pinchers, and Pepper was trying to get him to just sit down when Steve intervened and physically forced the issue, the three of them ending up in a sort of cluster, with Tony finally calming once between them.

Oh, Natasha thought. It kind of sucked, really, that it had to be the two of them, that she couldn't be allowed to just be jealous of some pretty girl who'd caught Steve's eye along with her low-burning ever-present jealousy around Tony and Pepper. But perhaps that was why she should have seen this coming. She told herself it made things easier, really. It wasn't exactly a lie.

*


Natasha tried telling Steve. She held what was essentially two handfuls worth of hydrangeas and dahlias in between them and looked at his face and even opened her mouth to say, "This part, this is the part you should save for Pepper and Tony."

He tilted his head and said, "The red and white ones made me think of you."

That particular breed of dahlia came to a point at the end of each petal. Natasha froze up inside. Steve said, "Just, the colors, bright and clean and confident and…I'm going to stop speaking before I sound any stupider."

Natasha wasn't a bad person, she wasn't. She'd given that up. But she was still a person, she still needed things to hold onto, like the collection of flowers, dried and pressed and organized into a book, hidden in her safe. So she asked, "Would you draw me?"

Steve's smile was confused, but sweet, always so damn sweet. "I draw you all the time."

"No," she said, low and invited. "No, Steve. I want you to draw me.

Steve blinked down at where Natasha was fingering the edge of her blouse. He said, "Oh. You would-- I could do that?"

"I'm going to put these in water. Go get your supplies."

Steve went. Natasha didn't think about how the flowers she was cutting and shaping would make up the last pages of her book.

*


Since she evidently wasn't strong enough—and that burned, which was why she made herself acknowledge it—to tell Steve no to his face, she went to Tony. Or, well, she colluded with JARVIS to trap Tony in his labs with just the two of them and refuse to play any music until he listened to her. Tony pouted at this ultimate betrayal, but Natasha refused to be moved by the way he trusted his creations, the way he let her see inside of him, if just tiny, sharp-edged pieces.

Tony spread his hands. "Captive audience, here."

Natasha had thought long and hard about this, and had decided against any grand speeches or manipulations. For one thing, Tony reacted best when approached with honestly. For another, Natasha, even if she couldn't have the others, hated the thought of them not trusting her. "You have to tell Steve how you feel."

Tony opened his mouth, then shut it. Finally he said, "How I feel. You know Pepper and I—"

"Pepper's not the issue. Pepper thinks he's good for you, thinks the three of you could be good for each other, but she generally lets you come to these conclusions on your own because you're a shit listener."

Tony raised an eyebrow, then wandered over to sit on a bench nearby. "Why now? I mean, Cap and I've been flirting for months. I thought you and he—"

She cut him off. "He needed help with…" She couldn't give Steve away like that. "He asked me for help. I gave it to him. It's not what you think, Stark. I'm not—" the kind of girl you take home to mom, "his type."

Tony laughed, but it wasn't exactly amusement. "And I am?"

Natasha wasn't one for flowery language or excessive swearing when something else would get the point across, but she was emotionally exhausted and had probably been hanging out with Clint too much. "Evidently, because when you're not looking, he stares at you like you're going to shit a unicorn any day now."

"Well, that would be…painful."

"Stark." She made herself keep her hands at her sides. Otherwise she'd probably be palming her knives, and this situation didn't need to escalate.

"There is something deeply wrong with you, you realize that, right?"

"Pot," she said, not feeling the need to elaborate.

"Yes, but Pepp is around to dam up all the cracks."

She took a deep breath and it was only because he said it in a tone that recognized how very precious what he had was that she managed to keep herself from telling him to go fuck himself. She made herself focus on the mission. She pushed aside every feeling she had, every concern, everything that made her the person Clint had brought in from the cold—literally, there had been blankets and coffee involved—and said, "I won't be Steve's sloppy seconds, Stark. Take care of it, or I will. And nobody likes a kicked puppy."

She turned and said, "Jarvis, please," and the AI said, "Of course, Ms. Romanova," and Natasha made herself walk, because she was, and had always been, too old to run off and cry herself dry in a corner.

*


Coulson had, once or twice, told Clint, very seriously, to stop teaching Natasha all his bad habits. She was extremely glad Clint had never listened, though, because his skills had proven incredibly useful on more than one occasion. For example, the day after Steve sat next to her after everyone else had left the breakfast table and asked her if she wanted to join Pepper, Tony and him going to dinner that evening, like he didn't have the heart to just let her down easy and go get what he wanted. She'd very calmly told him she already had plans, and slipped out so that her confusion at his seemingly real disappointment couldn’t grow to a point where she gave into what she wanted and manage to break all three of the people she'd sworn to keep whole.

That day, she made her way through the complicated duct systems—made more complicated in the attempts to keep Clint and her from navigating them—to Coulson's recovery wing on the Helicarrier and dropped down, as casual as if she had knocked on the door. To his credit, Coulson pretty much received the situation as though that was what she had done.

He was looking better than when she had visited a few days before. At first every visit had been terrifying, like walking on a precipice she couldn’t see, but his color was starting to come back, the basics of his bearing and everything that made him Coulson returning. He raised an eyebrow and said, "Doing me the courtesy of stopping by before you go and annoy the Director into giving you a mission?"

Natasha loved Coulson. She did. It had taken her a long time to recognize the emotion and an even longer time to acknowledge and accept it, but she'd done so and moved on. That said, sometimes she hated the way he knew her so well, the power he had over her by his sheer existence. (And, as she'd found out in those terrifying few days when she'd thought him gone, his lack of existence.)

"I'm restless," she said.

"You're hiding," he said.

She kept her face impassive, despite the fact that she knew it never worked on him. He said, "You came through the vents, Tash. You've got 24 hour access. And there's not even anyone here you're hiding from. "

He paused. "Since Clint can come the same way."

"It's not Clint," she admitted, knowing she might as well just tell him the whole story if she was going to say that, but also knowing he wouldn't press. She'd been so used to keeping her secrets before Clint and Coulson, so at ease with it. Now, sometimes, they felt like they would gnaw away at her, acid seeping through her gut, poison spilling out.

"No, Clint says it's Steve." Coulson was doing his best not to look puzzled and a little disappointed, and Natasha was going to kill Clint. With her feet, for maximum level of disgrace.

"It's not like that," she said.

"Nat." He started to sit up, but she glared him down. In concession, though, she came over and sat on the bed, allowed him to take her hand. She didn't let herself lie down, curl into him. That was for after missions gone too wrong, or times when she thought he'd died. He asked softly, "What's it like?"

"They're…my team," she said. "I need them whole."

She felt Coulson stiffen up, just slightly, like he was going to say something, but in the end all he did was squeeze her hand and say, "It'll work, Nat. You're just going to have to have a little faith."

She bit back a sigh. They both knew faith never had been, and never would be, one of her strengths.

*


Natasha took missions she normally would have rolled her eyes at and handed off to junior agents because it meant she could get away. She did it until Clint caught her filling out a post-mission report, taking care of formalities before getting another assignment. He locked them both in the room she was in and while she could have kicked his ass and let herself out, she was smart enough to know she should listen to Clint when he was serious.

He said, "Steve thinks he did something awful."

Natasha bit back her automatic response, the protestation that it wasn't her problem. Calmly, she said, "I'm certain Pepper and Tony will get him through it."

"Nobody's been able to get Tony out of his lab. JARVIS tried shutting down all the electricity in there and evidently Tony managed to find candles and work with pencil and paper. Pepper's quietly frantic, about Tony, about Steve, about the fact that nobody's seen you for the better part of two weeks. She came home from a board meeting a couple of days ago and burst into tears."

Natasha's hand didn't drop the pen she was holding, but only because she was a master at keeping herself together. Clint knew her, though. He sighed and came over to pull her out from behind the desk where she was sitting. He prodded her until she was sitting on the desk and then sat next to her. "Gimme something to go on, here."

Natasha didn't move, but she shrugged internally, knowing Clint would somehow read it. "Steve came to me for lessons. I taught him. It was time for him to fly on his own." She added, "I just needed some time to clear my head."

He looked over at her, his expression amused and exasperated at once. "Nat. I say this with all the love in the world, but you're an idiot."

"Takes one to know one." Clint had actually taught her that saying. And regretted it ever since.

"He didn't come to you for lessons. Nobody comes to a woman like you for lessons, but fucking Captain America, who looks at you with spangly stars in his eyes wouldn't even if everyone else did."

"He's head over heels for Stark and Pepper," she argued.

"Yeah, he is. He's Cap, he's…it's not that simple. And for you to try and make it that simple is kind of a dick move, since you damn well know love isn't like a straight line or even a circle. It's a fucking mess and was only bound to be even more screwy than usual with a group of people like us."

"Nobody said the word 'love.'" Natasha knew bringing that up only confirmed Clint's assumptions, but it was like she couldn't help it, like she'd spent so long telling herself that love wasn't for her, for people like her, that even considering it might be was against the rules.

She expected Clint to call her out on her bullshit. She expected him to maybe laugh at her in a way that wasn't unkind, but wasn't amused either. She expected anything but the hug he pulled her into. He said, "Tash. You trusted me once, and it meant a different path for you, a different life. Believe me when I say it's every bit as important that you trust me again this time. That like before, you risk everything, but it's—it's worth the risk."

She thought she should struggle, thought she should tell him once was enough for a lifetime. Instead she found herself admitting, "I'm tired."

Clint kissed the top of her head. "You've been going non-stop. Let's get you home."

"That wasn't what I meant," she mumbled.

"I know," he told her. "But it's still a good idea."

There were times, not that she would ever tell Clint this, or even probably say it aloud, but there were definitely times when Clint was always right.

*


She fell asleep with Clint wrapped around her and woke up with someone who was definitely not Clint in the place where he had been. This was terrifying, since Natasha didn't sleep though things like people getting in and out of her bed. She made herself feign sleep, made herself focus on what she knew. As soon as she was able to think, she knew who was holding her. She sighed. "Clint has a big mouth."

Steve ran his knuckles up and down her back. "Clint cares about you."

She forced herself out of the comfortable place her mind was in, where this was normal, where Steve was who she got to wake up to every morning, after every nap. "And Tony and Pepper care about you."

She was aware she sounded more tired than she meant to. Steve, to her surprise, gave a little huff of laughter. He said, "C'mon," and tugged her gently from bed.

She frowned at him—she'd been warm, all right?—but let him pull her into her kitchen area, where evidently, Tony and Pepper were having a quiet argument over comfort shawarma or Pepper's chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies for dinner. Tony, unsurprisingly, was a proponent for the latter. They broke off when they noticed her and Steve standing in the doorway. She nonchalantly said, "Burmese curry. Place in the meat packing district. Menu's in the drawer by the fridge. I generally just offer enough to compensate gas usage and time and they'll deliver."

Pepper smiled and gave Tony a, "Told you so," eyebrow raise, before moving to get the menu. Tony said, "Morning, agent."

Natasha was pretty sure this was all doomed to failure. Tony and she were not good at being creatures of emotion, each of them hiding behind ego and a reputation for danger, respectively. Pepper had her hands full with Tony, and Steve was too much of an idealist for his own good. She leaned against the doorframe and said, "Evening."

Tony's responding smile took her a moment to read. She'd seen him nervous before, but he usually went out of his way to hide it. When she didn't stop staring, he shrugged. "Pepp might have suggested that attempting to be a human would probably make this whole thing we are maybe doing here easier. Possibly."

"We're all human," Steve said softly, disapprovingly, but somehow not judgmentally.

"Not Thor," Tony said.

"Changing the subject, not useful currently," Pepper said, bringing over the menu. "I know what I want. The rest of you decide. Then we talk."

Tony screwed up his face. "The kind where we have to actually say things?"

Something inside Natasha loosened up and she found herself laughing. They all looked over at her, obviously concerned. She shook her head. "It never occurred to me that there would come a day where the person in the room with whom I most identified would be Tony Stark."

Pepper broke into a smile. "Fair."

Steve took the menu, looking unsure about its contents. "Where is Burma?"

*


Pepper started, because for someone who'd lost her parents before graduating college and never had siblings, she was shockingly and almost annoyingly functional. She said to Natasha, "Tony and I have pretty much fantasized about having you since we got together."

Natasha considered that. "It took me longer."

"Well, it took us longer to be interested in much more than sex," Tony admitted.

"I'm never interested in sex first," Natasha said softly, trying to bleed the statement of defensiveness, but most likely failing.

"Tony's very rarely interested in anything else, first," Pepper said, fondly. "But he comes around."

Steve, evidently feeling left out, said, "I fell in love when you jumped on the Chitauri vehicle."

"Lust," Natasha corrected, because she knew what love felt like with Clint, but not when it was something more than friendship, something different, and she didn't want it trivialized.

Steve shook his head. "Love. For weeks it was hard to breathe whenever you were in the same room. You're smart and funny if someone cares enough to listen and braver than anyone I've ever known. I might not know much about, y'know, mechanics, but I know what love feels like. I know what it is to want to protect someone from everything and care about her enough to know that wouldn't be right or fair."

Natasha wasn't entirely sure how to process that. She wasn't used to reading people so badly, not even the ones to whom she was close. She was off her game.

When the silence stretched too long, Steve said, "I don't need you to return the sentiment. I just need you to give me a chance."

Natasha hated the quiet melancholy in his voice, the way she had put it there. She did something she never, ever did and allowed herself to curl her hands into fists, to bare her teeth in fear and uncertainty and a whirl of other emotions she preferred not to have. "This is all I have. The three of you, the Avengers. Clint and Coulson. I—If I lose this, if I fuck this up, I—." She bit her lip nearly unto bleeding. "I don't know how to go back to being alone."

She despised herself for it, but it was true. Pepper frowned. "Trust me when I say you'll get Clint and Phil in the divorce."

To Natasha's surprise, it was Tony who said what she needed to hear, Tony who made a strange, broken noise and said, "Nobody is taking this away from us. Not even ourselves. So things go wrong and we hurt each other and it's terrible. We're fucking getting over it like people who love each other in one way or another do, because none of us are getting out of this. It's not allowed. And even if everyone ignores me, Agent and Fury will totally force the issue."

Natasha had to admit he had a point, a strangely calming one. She was still scared, but she had been scared lots of times and done what she had to anyway. The only difference this time was that she might get what she really, truly wanted.

*


Tony wanted to get straight to the sex. He explained to Pepper, who was doubtful of this approach, "Once she's had me, you and Cap, she'll be ruined for anything else, obviously."

Natasha, who might see better from a distance, but heard pretty much everything, caught the way Tony emphasized "you and Cap" ever so slightly, probably not even aware he had done it. Natasha didn't actually want Tony to doubt himself, all the ways in which he did made her want to punch a number of people in his childhood in their solar plexus, where it would hurt the most, but the fact that he wasn't entirely sure of himself made her feel more comfortable. Misery, she had heard it said, loved company.

"She's had me," Steve said softly. "Most of me."

Pepper looked between the two of them and said shrewdly, "I'm willing to bet she never thought she had any of you."

Steve looked at her. Natasha shrugged. She didn't know how to explain what she felt Steve deserved without upsetting him.

Slowly, Steve said, "The first time. When I came to you that first time, we hugged."

"You were touch-starved," she said.

Quietly, non-confrontationally, he responded, "You're affection-starved."

She appreciated him not bringing up love again. She knew he could have.

Tony spoke up. "Wait, are we agreeing to cuddle our first day together?"

"Hush, you," Pepper said, and Natasha thought it might be because Tony might be going for outraged, but was coming up just short of mildly interested.

Steve smiled, that genuine, All-American smile that reminded Natasha every time about how Steve had also slept in foxholes and handled weapons with less than half the precision of anything today. He asked her while canting his head toward Tony, "Was that a challenge?"

Casually, she responded, "It sounded a bit like a challenge to me."

Steve weaved his fingers through hers and tugged gently. She followed him to the couch, huge and cushy and decadent and something so clearly bought by Tony, but that she had fallen in love with despite herself. And didn't that sum up everything right there?

Steve tucked himself against one arm and pulled Natasha half-way on his lap, allowing Pepper to pull Natasha's feet onto her legs as she melted into her side. Tony grumbled, "Why do I never get to sit in Cap's lap?" but fit himself at the bookend of their cuddle pile, draped over Pepper, somehow managing to keep contact with both Natasha and Steve.

After a few minutes of quiet petting, soft touch and companionable worth, Tony said, almost sleepily, "JARVIS?"

"Sir?"

"Can you play some soft music?"

"Does sir have a preference?"

Pepper snorted. "When was the last time 'sir' listened to anything without an electric guitar, JARVIS?"

"Your point, Ms. Potts, is well-taken."

"Brahms," Natasha said, her eyes slipping shut. "Some Brahms, please, JARVIS."

"Yes, madam."

"I think he's starting to like you better," Tony groused. Natasha found his hand with hers and squeezed. After a moment, he squeezed back.

*


They migrated at certain points. For instance, they made it to the kitchen for a midnight snack. And later in the night, they all sort of found their way into Natasha's bed. (Also bought by Tony, which explained why it fit so many people.) Tony complained about the lack of sex, as was his duty and all, but fell asleep with surprising ease—given his nocturnal habits—once Steve bodily hauled him over Pepper, and snuggled him in between the two of them. Natasha couldn't help noticing how well they all fit, but she was only allowed to linger for a moment before Pepper looked directly at her and said, "Watch my back?"

When Natasha climbed in behind Pepper, the hand that pulled her in, flush behind the other woman, was surprisingly strong. It didn't let go once she'd gotten herself settled, just held on, like she might run away.

*


They slept late. Natasha was surprised, not just because she'd slept most of the day before, but usually her internal alarm clock got her up by seven at the latest. Also, two days in a row without a call at ass o'clock from SHIELD was akin to Christmas coming in mid-May. Nonetheless, when Natasha awoke to Steve rolling out of bed, the clock on her nightstand clearly read 9:04 and the light streaming in behind the curtains confirmed that it was at least somewhat correct.

He must have heard her shift, because he looked back, smiled and mouthed, "Coffee."

She had a feeling her expression was softer than she was really comfortable with, but it was Steve, so he just continued on his merry way. Natasha started to slip out of bed, but Pepper, who was evidently also awake, rolled until she was facing Natasha, one arm thrown over Natasha's waist. It wasn't anything Natasha couldn't easily escape. She stayed. Natasha asked, "Something I can do for you, Miss Potts?"

Pepper's smile was a slow curling of her lips, brightening of her eyes. "Don't you Miss Potts me."

"You know if we kiss, he'll wake up and make inappropriate comments?"

"It's part of his charm," Pepper said dryly. "And we should kiss anyway. Wouldn't want him thinking his actions have any effect on ours. He'd be insufferable. Even more so than usual."

"I actually am awake," Tony said from behind her.

"I know, dear."

"Don't let me stop you from making out."

Pepper rolled her eyes. "Hardly. But a little toothpaste might not go amiss."

Natasha found herself saying, "We shouldn't leave Steve out."

Pepper brushed a hair back from Natasha's cheek. "No, we shouldn't."

*


When Natasha made it to the kitchen area, Steve had made coffee and started on breakfast. She frowned. "Are you making biscuits and gravy?"

"I made a run down to my floor," Steve told her. "Pepper likes them."

This information was even more confusing, since Natasha hadn't known about it, and while Tony had been her assignment, getting to know Pepper had been almost as important for the job. Pepper said, "And grits."

"Mm, do we have grits?" Tony asked even as he was pouring himself a cup of coffee. "With cheese, lots of cheese."

Steve just smiled and stirred something. Natasha went over to pour herself a cup of coffee, but Tony handed her the one he'd just poured. Her eyes widened slightly, and Tony's responding smile was more than a touch ironic. Which was probably what made her lean in and trace her tongue over his lower lip. Or maybe it was just that she wanted to. Hard to tell, when all she could think was that she wanted more.

"Grits," Steve said.

"Not good enough," Tony said, his lips following hers.

She laughed. "With cheese."

"Not good enough," Tony repeated.

Pepper pushed Tony back against the counter. "Breakfast first." With a smile, "We're gonna need it."

*


Steve made them clean up, because Steve was like that, kind of A-type, but too sweet about it for anyone to really call him on it. Besides, Natasha thought it kind of calmed Pepper down. They hadn't managed to get her not to check her email and messages that morning, but they had torn her away from them to help put away dishes.

Tony said, "As awesome a CEO as you are, the company isn't going to fall to dust if you're not available for 24 or so hours."

"And if it does?" she asked.

Tony promised, "I'll buy you another one to run."

She had that face, the one she got when she knew she shouldn't laugh, but really wanted to. Tony reached out and pressed at a ticklish spot, right below her ribs, and she took up a defensive position behind Steve, who laughed, but let her hide all the same, the hero even in quiet moments. He said, apropos of nothing, and like an apology, "I want it to be Natasha."

"Hm?" Tony asked.

"The first time. I want it to be Nat."

Natasha took a moment to consider the nickname on Steve's tongue. Other than Coulson and Clint, nobody had ever called her by anything other than an alias or Natasha. She was surprised to find herself liking it. She looked at the others, Tony strangely silent with his cheeks flushed, Pepper watching her, like this might be the moment Natasha couldn't handle it anymore. Instead, Natasha asked, "How do you feel about watching?"

"We feel good," Tony said. "Really, really good. Right, Pepp? Really good."

Pepper didn't disagree.

*


Steve carried Natasha to the bedroom. She rolled her eyes, but didn't break his shoulder and help herself to her feet. She thought she would mention it to Coulson as progress, later. She did say, "Don't even think about it, Stark."

"What, you don't want to carry me over the threshold?"

Steve set her gently on the bed. He didn't look at her as he said, "Guess it's a little old-fashioned."

She put a hand to his cheek, made him look at her. "It makes me feel new."

He put his hand over hers, leaned into the touch a bit. She said, "C'mere," and moved backward, bringing him onto the bed. She rolled her hips into him. He was already hard, but she wasn't surprised. They'd waited a full day, and the serum tended to act on him like hormones on a fourteen year-old boy. Even that time with this first blowjob, when she'd drawn it out over an hour, he'd been ready to go when he woke up from his nap, less than forty-five minutes later. He almost pulled away, but she slid a hand under his t-shirt, against the muscles of his back, warm and taut. She was glad they were still both in boxers and tees, it would make getting to the fun parts easier.

She kissed him, slow and sweet, moving into deep and hungry. She dragged her lips along one cheekbone and rasped in his ear, "This is the easy part. You've done all the work."

"Want," he gasped.

"I know," she said.

"Auriculas and cyclamen," he said.

She tilted her head, "Hm?"

"The next bouquet I was going to bring. The internet told me they survive hard freezes."

She kissed him again, this time because she needed it, because she was bad at saying "thank you" or knowing how to respond to care. She pressed her forehead to his and said, "Let me take care of you."

He nodded, his eyes solemn and so trusting she could have cried. Behind them, sitting in the loveseat near the window, Pepper in his lap, Tony made a sound that might have been a gasp, or maybe a moan. Pepper said, "Mm."

She undressed him, taking her time with both shirt and boxers. It had been weeks since she'd had the run of his skin, the long, smooth planes of it, and she wanted to rediscover her territory. Their territory. She tried the thought out in her head and found herself liking it more than she would have thought. She went a step further, into our territory and was surprised by the sheer rush of pleasure that followed the thought.

In contrast, she threw off her own clothes, sucking in a breath when Steve put his hands on her waist. She wasn't a small girl, not really, but his fingers could nearly touch, their span long enough. She leaned into kiss him and pushed him fully onto his back, straddling him. He said, "We used to— We got pictures, in the trenches. Um, girls."

"Are you talking about porn, Captain America?" Tony did his best to sound scandalized.

"Pinups, Tony, they were called pinups."

Pepper giggled. Natasha focused on Steve, who was looking at her like she couldn't even be real. He said, "Some of 'em had bright red hair, curls and all. We all…we dreamed about those girls, like maybe that was what we'd go home to, if we were lucky. Like maybe that was what we were fighting for."

She pressed her hands to his chest. "Story goes you were fighting for a girl with black hair, Cap."

"Maybe, then." Steve's answer was soft, a little sad. "First time I saw you, though, on the helicarrier, I thought of the way it felt, looking at those girls. I know, I mean, I know for some of the guys, maybe a lot of them, it was about sex, but—"

"It's all right if it was about sex," Natasha told him. "I know it became about something more. It didn't get in the way."

"It wasn't, though, not really." Steve bit his lip. "It was about something to come home to. I— I didn't even think that was possible anymore, until I saw you."

There wasn't any way to respond to that. Instead, Natasha said, "Breathe," and lifted herself up in order to sink down on Steve, slow and controlled, dragging it out, making it something they could both hold onto.

Steve arched up a little, the muscles in his neck cording and she leaned over to bite at one. Steve came, hard and fast. He apologized weakly when he'd finished, not looking her in the eye. She bit him again, a little higher up and said, "That was just to take the edge off."

She felt it go straight to his cock.

*


Natasha took him through three rounds before Pepper peeled her off, cradling her while Tony sucked Steve off, finishing him for the time being. Natasha watched lazily as Pepper and Tony came together with the ease of two people who are each other's, forever and always. It was hotter than anything Natasha had ever imagined something that comfortable could be. She fell asleep with her face in Pepper's neck, her arm draped over Tony's waist, fingers pressing into Steve's hip.

The next time she woke, it was to the sound of charcoal on paper. She blinked all the way into wakefulness and caught Steve on the loveseat, his drawing pad propped on his knees, studying the three of them even as his hand moved. She gave him a slow drawl of a smile. He put a finger to his lips and smiled behind it.

Silently, she settled back into the position she had been in, and let him go back to work.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile