Rogers?", she asked calmly, "Do you feel ready to talk?"
He slightly wriggled himself into a more comfortable position though he knew the problem had nothing to do with the seat itself.
"I don't", he answered challengingly with a stern face.
She stared at him with that same steady and calm look as before. Like always.
"Then why are you here?", she asked.
Steve sighed heavily and itched the top of his temple. He hated to be rude, but this whole situation was pushing his limits. His repellent behaviour became a new element to add to the list of things he hated about himself at present.
"I am here because Fury and Stark won't let me go back on the field until we're done here". He sighed in frustration, "but you knew that already since you are working for them."
She did not flinch. "You think I'm on their side?"
"I don't think there is any side", he answered, "I don't see myself as a victim."
"Do you often do that?", she asked "Taking the responsability or the blame of every situation?"
He looked away and ran his hand over his face.
"I know what you are getting at", he commented, "but I don't want to talk about it."
"Alright", she said coolly, "do you want to talk about her, then? About agent Romanoff"
His body slightly tensed at the mention of her name. He hadn't heard it in a while, in fact. Most of the group had been calling her by her first name. Even Thor had ended up dropping his Asgardian manners and followed the movement. Only she could manage to bend the strongest customs and protocols.
"When did you first meet her?", she asked, taking his silence for a positive answer.
That he remembered well.
"On S.H.I.E.L.D's hellicarrier. I had just been enrolled by Fury to be part of the Avengers project. She came to welcome me."
It was a memory just as clear as the day it had happened, maybe if not even clearer. He had had time to replay this moment and recall details; and, as time went by, it grew more valuable than what it had been in the first place. From an encounter with a random agent of S.H.I.E.L.D, it had become the memory of an encounter with an ally, then a friend, and then...
"When did you realize you had feelings for her?", she continued.
Steve looked away feeling violated in his privacy. He was not ashamed, quite the opposite actually, but the idea of sharing such an intimate information with a complete stranger felt like a betrayal to his personal decency, but most importantly to their history.
"Was it during your mission to take down Hydra and Alexander Pierce?", she asked.
He shook his head. "Not entirely", he murmured, "Natasha was my teammate at the time. During the mission, we had to learn to lean on each other. We also got to know each other. She..." He smiled lightly, "she sort of let her guard down and allowed me in". It was not completely accurate. If there was one thing he knew about Natasha, it was that she would never allow anyone in. No matter how comfortable or loquacious she felt at a given moment, Natasha always was willing to confide in to a certain extent only. When she was showing you one thing, she was hiding ten other things behind; when she was unveiling a mystery, it was only to conceal a bigger secret. She mastered the trick of the greatest illusionists; she knew how to divert attention.
He, Fury and Clint were one of the few privileged who had received her entire trust. And when Natasha trusted someone, she opened up just enough to get their trust in exchange. This pattern could never work the other way around.
"When was the exact moment you knew you loved her?", she asked again.
There had been many moments on that mission during which they had bonded, but it hadn't been anything else but deep trust and friendship.
"After the mission" he trailed off, "Sam and I were on the cemetery, standing by Nick Fury's grave, and she came."
"Was it the first time you were seeing her after surviving your fall?"
He shook his head. "No, she came to the hospital room many times. She even stayed whole afternoons to keep me company. But she was still only a friend back then."
She nodded silently. "So what was so different about that day in the graveyard?"
"She came to give me a file she had managed to retrieve that concerned Bucky...hum James Barnes. That's when she also told me she had to leave", he paused and gulped.
"What did you feel back then?" she asked after writing down some notes on her book.
"She said it so...lighly and yet it felt just as painful. She's never known how deeply those few words hurt me in my flesh."
"What was so painful about it?", she inquired.
He remembered how confused and lost he had felt, but the worst part had been to act like he was not. Answering casually without letting slip out one bit of the turmoil of questions and worries that had invaded his mind had been one of the biggest challenges of his life. He remembered how her kiss on his cheek felt more bitter than pleasant.
"I..." he stammered "I couldn't bear the idea of never seeing her again".
He wanted to stop her or force her to let him accompany her but the fear of getting a no, the pain of knowing she completely bared with the idea of being away from him for an undetermined time had been enough to keep him from saying anything. Thinking this could be the last time he might be seeing her made him lose all his bearings. He would remain Captain America but she was about to take Steve Rogers away with her.
"The pain was so intense, so much more real than the injuries I had suffered on the helicarrier a few weeks before. I was ready to go through all this again as long as it meant she would remain by my side. The idea of losing her meant losing everything", he recalled vividly, "This is when I knew I was in love with her."
He looked at the plate put on her weel-organized desk.
"If you allow me to ask", Dr Sanders started after a short pause, "How would you explain you developed feelings for agent Romanoff in spite of the fact you were so different?"
"We weren't that different", he retorted calmly, "Actually, we were alike on so many levels."
They were both orphans, outsiders. He had waken up in a time and a society that were not his, and she had been forced to flee her native country. Both of them had to learn to start anew and build a new life, trying to leave behind the haunting phantoms from their pasts. They were both survivors on a foreign land. Surely, Natasha had developed cynicism to face it whilst he was more nostalgic, but that did not alter the fact they both woke up feeling a gap in their hearts.
Ethically speaking, they rarely resorted to the same methods. He had often questioned her moral -or her lack of moral to be precise, had frowned upon her shenanigans more than he could recall, but he had eventually understood they were both fighting the same fight. Natasha had merely accepted to get her hands dirty sometimes as long as it meant making the world a bit of a better place at the end of the day. Her history and her cyniscism had taught her not to rely on people's conscience and hope. But she had often told him how much she admired him for doing so.
"We understood each other", he continued. And they completed each other. She was the iron fist and he was the velvet glove. And together, they could accomplish wonders.
Dr Sanders scribbled some short notes then looked up at him again.
"Did you tell her how you felt?", she asked.
"No. That was neither the good place nor the good moment". The corner of his mouth slightly rose, "And I was still doing terrrible around women."
"Were you afraid she might not reciprocate your feelings?"
The memory of his constant thoughts at the time made him chuckle. "I was not afraid, I was pretified. Not because I wondered if she might ever love me, but because I knew for a fact she never would."
"Why not?", Dr Sanders asked.
"Natasha once said that love was for children, and she had been deprived of her childhood". She had been physically and mentally trained to let go of it because being a child meant being weak. She had therefore registered that love was a weakness.
He had felt confronted to a double wall. "On the off chance she might have felt something for me, she still wouldn't have allowed herself to give in to those feelings", he shrugged.
Their hypothetical relationship was doomed before it had even started.
"But yet, she did give in those feelings", Dr Sanders said.
"Yes", he murmured, his eyes sparkling for a short second.
"When did your friendship evolve into something more?".
He remained silent, hesitant and suspicious.
"What do you want all these details for?", he asked.
She took her square glasses off. "I am not collecting information for anybody if this is what you are wondering. You can trust me", she said, not kindly because it was not her role, but reassuringly.
He didn't feel any more at ease than before but he bent under the weighty mental exhaustion. Truth was, he was worn out, tired of fighting against painful memories.
"Things changed during our fight against Ultro. It had been our most wearying mission. Ultron was a powerful enemy. He was always one step ahead of us, and he knew how to play with our minds" Steve said.
He could still remember the struggle, the doubt and the dismay he and all teammates had sunk in. "Following the first battle we had lost, some had been injured, but we were all hurt and sore in our flesh. We were quiet, ashamed to have been uncapable of protecting people from an abomination we had brought upon them. Ultron was our responsability."
"Mr Stark had created him", Dr Sanders spoke up.
Steve waved it off. He remembered the multiple raws with Stark that followed after Ultron had broken free. They had all blamed him for making Ultron, for being its 'father', but then they understood how all of them had contributed to its creation by dreaming of a normal and peaceful life. Stark had merely tried to make it possible for all of them.
"Anyway, after the battle, I was probably the most affected one. The team was under my orders and I had failed to make it work together efficiently. We had lost numerous civilians, too. I couldn't sleep that night. I just sat on the bed, playing the battle in my head over and over again, trying to decypher our flaws, trying to find a reason to hold my head up. Everything was feeling so...hopeless, unevitably hopeless. Nat silently walked into my room in the middle of the night; she had figured what state of mind of mind I woud be in. She-", he paused as he mentally pushed himself to reveal such an intimate episode of their relationship, "she stood right before me and held me close against her". He could still remember how simple but tender that gesture was.
She embraced him protectively, shielded him from any threat and from any self-loathing. He instinctively responded to it and put his arms around her waist. He breathed in and out synchronously with the motion of her breast, as she tenderly stroke his hair and the back of his neck. "I held on to her like to an ancre", he uttered, a lump in his throat.
"What did you feel?" Dr Sanders asked.
"Rest", he breathed out, "Peace"
They did not say one word that night; their silence was far more loquacious than any possible speech.
He could not tell how long they remained in this position, but it had lasted long enough for him to feel healing, but too short to end up craving for more.
They both lied on the bed, looking in each other's eye, as she soothed his soul with every caress she laid on his cheek. He did not touch her, keeping his arms pressed against the mattress, afraid to break the delectable chimera lying by his side.
"I love you", he murmured, as these three words released off the weight of his long time secret. It was not demanding of a response, it was selfless.
Natasha did not react at all. She kept on grazing his face. And this was the best reaction he hoped for. Her instincts did not tell her to escape. Natasha Romanoff had always been on the run, but that night, she stayed.
He fell asleep in her arms that night and had a peaceful dream for the first time in months. Even the Winter Soldier did not come disturb his slumber.
The morning after, she was gone, only leaving behind the outline of her body on the quilt.
"What happened after your first night together?", she asked, pulling him back to present day.
That night was a hiatus during a time of war. The day after, reality came back to take its territory. They both left Steve and Natasha behind in that room to become Captain America and Black Widow.
"A new battle against Ultron was awaiting us", he answered. "It's not until one week after the defeat of Ultron that I got to see her again. She came to my appartment the night before I planned on travelling to Eastern Europe to follow up a trail concerning Bucky. She still looked broken from that battle and this time she was the one seeking comfort. She walked in and...", he stopped and looked silently at the psychologist. Dr Sanders invited him with a slight nod to complete a sentence of which they both knew the ending.
"We made love for the first time", he finished.
He opened the door and found her standing there, wearing a simple flowery dress; something he had never seen her wear before. She didn't speak, no word would have been eloquent enough. She passed the door and gently pressed her lips against his before he could speak.
Their movements were naturally adjusted as if they had trained their whole life to complement each other so gracefully. He exhaled, she inhaled; he grazed, she quivered; he kissed, she trembled. Each of her moans was an echo to his groans; and each of their kiss was a coordinated choregraphy. Their bodies converged in a fair combination of warmth and cold: their skins were on fire but they were shivering and his burning kisses left behind trails of goosebumps on her flesh.
His eyes were eager to explore but the urge to look in her big green eyes was just as vehement. His hands, soft and delicate, ardently and jealously took possession of every inch of her body. She was his promised land. The only woman he had wanted and longed for in silence. Every second that went by was an eternity of sheer bliss.
He remained lying on her chest, breathing in the delicate smell on her neck. Natasha laid her arms around him and ran her fingers through his hair until he drifted off lulled by the lullaby of her calm heartbeat.
"Did you talk that night?", Dr Sanders asked.
"No. We had nothing to say but everything to show", he said.
"Did you leave the next morning?"
He frowned a bit. "I had to. I could not give up on Bucky, and she knew it. She was gone even before I woke up"
"Did you think this night meant she loved you too?"
He rubbed his chin. "I don't know. I didn't know what to think. Natasha was hard to read, unpredictable. I did not expect her to tell me anything, but we both knew this night wasn't meaningless to neither of us."
She nodded and wrote down on her notebook.
"How would you define your relationship with agent Romanoff? Did that night often happen again?"
"Our relationship was not as physical as you might think", he said defendingly. "We...", he hesitate, "we didn't make love that often".
They spent more nights sleeping or lying in silence in each other's arms than having intercourse, and this became their habit. They needed comfort and healing more profoundly than they longed for pleasure and thrills.
"How would you explain it?", the psychologist asked.
Natasha had once said that love was for children, and with their blossoming relationship, she allowed her to explore the child in her. In his vicinity, she always dropped her femme fatale facade to become the young and sweet Natasha she had not had the chance to get acquainted with. She could show people a hundred faces, yet he was the one who could unveil to her her most unknwown identity.
"I don't know", he answered absently. "Like I said, Natasha was hard to read".
Dr Sanders conceded with a little smile, respecting his choice to stay private on that answer.
"Did she ever tell you she loved you?"
This was the funny part. He chuckled quickly. "She said it more often than I did".
It took time before she said those three words. But after she had voiced them for the first time, she could not have enough them. She said it in the morning, she said it several times in the middle of the night. She said it while watching a movie, before heading to the shower, or after making love.
"Guess what?", she once told him as they were putting their equipments on before going on a mission.
"What?", he asked whilst load his handgun. He glanced up at her.
Natasha smiled, "I love you".
And she said it this way countless other times, often preceded with "guess what?".
It became a habit, a ritual between them. She never adorned it with any superfluous words, nor introduced it with a declaration; she just blurted it out. She voiced it so naturally, just as casually as a little girl would, but she meant it every time.
This sentence was like a music, a chanting, a spell. She was saying "I love you" to him, and she was saying "I love you" to her inner child.
Natasha had once said that love was for children and she had let herself love and be loved. With him, she often forgot about the trappings of feminity and adulthood, and became the little Natalia Romanova. And for that reason, she loved him even more.
"Were you happy?", he heard.
"We were not an ordinary couple, but neither did we have an ordinary life. But yes, we were happy." With her, he could forget about his late comrades and the society he came from. He no longer felt like a man out of his time and learned to embrace the new decade he now lived in. When Natasha was in his arms, he was positive he belonged here. "Natasha was my home", he admitted with a tender smile.
"Do you want to tell me more about it?", she asked.
His fingers nervously tapped the top of his armrest. "I know what you are trying to do", he said sharply.
Dr Sanders looked at him inquisitively. "Do you?"
"You're trying to put me at ease so you can get me to talk about it", he sighed, annoyed by this constant flow of insistent questions.
"Talk about what?", she asked though he did not doubt she was aware how painful it was feeling. It was like being forced to hold your hand above a fire and be ordered to describe the agony in detail before getting the right to pull back.
"You know damn well what!", he snarled as he jumped out of his seat. He clasped his jaw tightly with his hand. He stood behind the armchair and faced his torturer.
"Captain Rogers", Dr Sanders said calmly but demandingly, "you have to say it. You need to hear yourself saying it."
He spun his head away in reaction, passively despising her for forcing him down this road.
"Will it undo what happened?", he muttered cynically as he turned to face the exit door. How badly he wished he could break through it and escape the threat that was dangerously coming his way.
Dr Sanders sat forward on her chair. "Of course not", she said beningly, "but it will release you from that heavy burden you've been carrying on your shoulders."
He kept standing still.
"But this is the whole problem, isn't it? You don't want to be released", she concluded with a gentle voice. He closed his eyes and held his breath as he listened to her. "You want to carry that weight with you to punish yourself. Because you think you deserve it. But you don't. Noboody deserves to remain in such a torment."
Her words, as melodious as they were, sounded out of tune in his ear. It was an accurate statement that could not apply to him. It was an affliction he could not escape and did not wish to escape.
The room went quiet for a long minute during that Dr Sanders hoped to get a response in vain.
"Then what about her?", she asked, "Do you think Natasha would want that?".
His stomach twisted and his hands spasmed into fists at the mention of her name. In weeks of appointments, he had never heard Dr Sanders call her by her first name. But he was aware of what she was doing, he knew the difference he had unconsciously established between agent Romanoff and Natasha during their sessions and that she was now using to get him to confide in.
"Say it", she urged him, "say what happened to Natasha."
The anger he had been trying to repress suddenly boiled up and spurted out. He spun around as his eyes started to burn. "She died", he choked as he held back a shout, "Natasha is dead". The pain he felt when saying those words revealed itself to be much more acute than what he had foreseen.
Dr Sanders eyed him longly, with compassion, before nodding in approval. "That's right. Natasha died", she said sympathetically, "and I am sorry for your loss".
He frowned in surprise, taken aback. He looked at her differently, with gratitude. The gratitude of not being seen as one of her patients, the gratitude of not being seen as the unbreakable Captain America, but as a man who had lost the woman he loved.
"Thank you", he whispered then walked back to his seat with his head down, hiding the tears that threatened to fall at any moment. He sniffed, then, after a pause, murmured, "I apologize for my language earlier."
"That's fine. You are hurt and angry. I can understand that", she answered, "You said it, that's a big step. We have progressed so much more in one hour than we have since the first time you came."
She put her notebook on the table besides her seat and joined her hands together on her lap. "Now, would you tell me what happened the day Natasha died?"
The veins on his temples started to pound fast.
"It's not a good idea. Everytime I replay that day in my head, I break something", he warned her bitterly. He had lost count of the furniture he had broken for the past few months. After buying a new coffee table for the third time, he just stopped purchasing anything. His appartment was now gloomily uncluttered, dark; haunted by his new ghosts.
"I understand", Dr Sanders said, "I am not asking you to describe that day; I have read the report. I would like you to give me your insight".
He exhaled loudly and rubbed the tip of his nose.
"Natasha and I were on a special mission to ambush a terrorist cell we had few intel on", he started.
It was an ordinary mission. They had had plenty of these before. The terrorists had irrupted into a restricted chemical laboratory.
As they parachuted on the roof, Steve gave his instructions. He would neutralize the criminals in the main lab while Natasha would intercept those patrolling in the corridors. The rest of the unit, mostly compound with former S.H.I.E.L.D agents, were in charge to secure the perimeter.
Steve and Natasha both made their way down the stairs inside the building.
"This kind of reminds me of my Budpest mission with Clint", Natasha said casually whilst scanning their surroundings.
He chuckled lightly. "Someday, you'll have to tell me what happened in Budapest"
She flashed him her favorite crooked smile as they reached the second floor door. "Sorry. Budapest is our Vegas. Clint and I made a pact. What happened in Budapest stays in Budapest". He smiled as she teasingly blew him a kiss as they parted in two different directions.
Steve silently made his way along the corridors, checking every room he walked by in the process.
"Agents in position, Captain. Two targets on your way. Over", Harris reported in the earpiece.
"Copy.", he answered with a low voice as he pressed his back against the white wall. He flung his shield at the first terrorist, knocked out the second one with a vigorous elbow strike and caught the shield flying back at him.
"On my way to the first floor. Out", she answered.
"Everything was going by the plan", he said. "Until we found out the cell was soviet and from the same training fortress as Natasha."
"What happened, then?", Dr Sanders asked. He wished he had the answer to that question; until then he was condemned to keep asking it to himself repeatedly.
"They knew she would be here and they waited for her", he answered with an imperceptible sob.
"Natasha?", he asked again for the fourth time through his transmitter as he dashed down the stairs.
"Civilians held hostages on ground floor", Harris informed.
"Natasha, where are you?", he called as he tried to control his growing anguish.
He trusted her, he reckoned on her skills, but finding out the cell was soviet unconsciously put him in alarm.
"Do you have agent Romanoff in sight?", he asked.
A terrorist suddenly came around. Steve dodged his attack, leaned in down and his struck the back of his neck. The man fell unconscious on the floor.
"Do you have agent Romanoff in sight?", he flared up.
"Agent Romanoff held captive on first floor", Taylor answered.
He halted. "Do you have the targets in your line of fire?", he asked.
"Civilians held hostages on ground floor. Firing imminent. Over" Harris transmitted.
He closed his eyes and clenched his fist. "I knew I had to make a decision", he said with a sniff.
He could still remember the turmoil that suddenly invaded his mind that day but that had not left entirely. He often woke up in the middle of the night, assaulted by this ferocious rush of thoughts. The anguish he had felt at that moment was so profound, so indescribable he felt like his sanity was going to desert him.
He stood in the middle of the staircase, barely hearing the muffled voices urging him to copy. He thought of Natasha; he thought of the last smile she had given. He thought of the last time his arms held her close to him, he thought of the first time her arms held him close to her. Then he shut everything down. His mind went blank.
"You saved the civilians", Dr Sanders finished.
He felt a rush of self-hatred take hold of him.
"I didn't save her", he corrected as he tried to muffle his anger.
He was fighting in the main room, diverting the bullets with his shield and took down the last three terrorists standing. A distant gun shot echoed through the corridors and his soul slipped out of his body.
"Agent Romanoff down", he heard in his earpiece, "I repeat, agent Romanoff down".
His shield fell out of his loose grip and hit the floor in a mute clatter, then he fell down on his knees.
"I let her die", he cried, forcefully hitting his chest with his finger. "She needed me and I failed her."
Dr Sanders listened quietly, looking at him with sympathy.
"Do you think you should have saved her instead?", she asked.
He knew this question. He was haunted by this question. He had asked it to himself a thousand times, and each time he hated himself more for the answer he had. If he had to choose again, he would make the same choice. Because it was the right thing to do. Because his righteousness did not leave any room for selfishness. And yet this noble choice became his shame. He despized himself for a thing everyone admired him for. Their respect had become his hell.
"I should have saved them all", his voice trembled as a tear rolled down his cheek.
He hated himself for letting two people die that day. He had lost the woman he loved and he had failed the little Natalia. Both of them had perished on that mission.
"I'm so sorry", he sobbed, "I'm so sorry".
"Guess what?", she whispered against his naked torso. The room was mute and dark.
He kept stroking her hair and smiled in anticipation. "What?"
Her chuckle vibrated on his chest. "I love you"