Cold War in a Coffee Shop

By Julliette

Romance / Humor

Steve Bounces Back

I've been tracking the Romanogers tag for too long on Tumblr. It's seeped into my brain, and I had to get some of it out by writing this chapter. I'm sooo torn between MCU ships, you have no idea.

"Hey, Clint! Hey, Nat!" was the first thing the two baristas heard when Steve entered the previously quiet coffee shop.

When Natasha looked up, she saw as usual the sweat glistening on Steve's forehead, the friendly smile exposing pearly white teeth, and the eager cry for coffee in his excited blue eyes. The easygoing manner in which Steve trotted into the coffee shop made it seem like Natasha hadn't brutally crushed his pride the previous day - a fact which bothered Natasha immensely. When she had shot Clint down, he was quiet (and a little sullen) for a straight week, but this man sprang back up like a bouncy ball, almost as soon as she had thrown him down. Hearing the cheerful Boing! instead of the typical Splat! she heard after dealing with a man, Natasha was perplexed as to how to deal with Steve now. Thankfully she didn't have to figure it out, because before she could say anything, Steve slapped a flyer down on the counter and exclaimed, "They're showing my stuff at the gallery!"

"No way!" cried Clint. "They finally opened their eyes to your artistic genius?"

Steve rolled his eyes. "Aw well, I don't know if I'd call it that - "

"Oh stop with the humility and tell me when's the opening night," interrupted Clint.

"Next Thursday night," answered Steve, looking at both Clint and Natasha. "So will you come?"

Clint grinned slyly at Natasha, slung an arm around her small shoulders, and replied, "We'll be there."

Steve looked inquiringly at Natasha until she subtly nodded; pleased, he widened his smile and asked, "So, may I have the usual?"

Natasha had the impression that one had to dress nice for an exhibition at an art gallery, so she put on a slim-fitting, midnight black dress, matching pumps, and small diamond earrings shaped like stars. Her dress had a silky skirt that swished around her knees and a sweetheart neckline that exposed the silver arrow necklace Clint had given her for her birthday. At the time he joked that it was Cupid's arrow, and when she saw it no longer hanging from its chain, it meant it was lodged in the Black Widow's heart once and for all. Baloney, Natasha knew. Clint was just really into archery and he was trying to rope her into joining him for a shooting round on the weekend.

At any rate, arrows of any kind - Cupid's especially - were the last thing on Natasha's mind when Clint rolled up in front of her dorm and honked obnoxiously until she came out. Clint whistled approvingly when she stepped into the car, prompting her to stiffly slap the backside of his head and order him to just drive already. The gallery was humming with activity when Clint and Natasha arrived, although Steve's head of straight blond hair was distinctly lacking from the crowd. Finally giving up on finding their artistic friend, Clint and Natasha decided to poke around the gallery so they could see his and other people's works. Natasha was never the type to be biased, so she felt she could honestly say that Steve's artwork was some of the best out of the entire gallery.

The first of Steve's pieces featured a myriad of the backs of soldiers marching in the rain, along with a blue light radiating from the edges and pitch black mud swallowing their boots. Several pieces that followed had a similar theme, exhibiting the darkness and traumas of warfare, yet at the same time reflecting the vulnerability and resiliency of the human soldiers always marching forward. The final piece, however, was the most fascinating; it had only the presence of a woman, a somber, middle-aged woman whose face was tilted down so that she was cast in soft grey shadows. In the lower left corner, her fingers (one of which glistened with a small diamond ring) grasped a white letter folded into three parts. The contents of the letter couldn't be seen, but they were made clear in the tear that had crept to the uttermost edge of the woman's jaw and in the title of the artwork, which read "Joseph Rogers: Killed In Action."

Clint swallowed thickly, but he said not a word to Natasha, and Natasha not a word to him. After a few moments of respectful silence, the two of them finally stepped away to make room for new spectators. By then most of the crowd had thinned out, but Steve still could not be seen anywhere. Natasha was about to suggest to Clint that they leave when he urgently nudged her and pointed to the colossal figure of Steve. He was standing next to a tinier, slenderer female figure with strawberry blond hair that was half pulled back and slightly curly. Her hand rested on the crook of his elbow, and her head leaned dangerously close to resting on his broad shoulder. Her face turned towards Steve's, and their profiles could be seen by Clint and Natasha from a distance. A smile was softly pulling on the corners of her cherry red mouth as she spoke to Steve, who had an equally-sized smile on his face.

"Go, Cap," chuckled Clint, using Steve's title as captain of the football team as a nickname. "Guess it didn't take long for him to recover from the Black Widow's Bite, eh, Nat?"

"Yeah," muttered Natasha darkly.

Meanwhile, Steve and the young woman were discussing the art exhibition - really it mostly involved her raving about Steve's work while he blushed furiously.

"Thanks for showing me around, and I'm sorry that Tony couldn't come," she said apologetically, patting Steve's arm with the hand that wasn't holding onto the inside of this elbow. "I know he really wanted to come."

"Ah yes, but the big electrical engineering project of the year was calling," responded Steve with a chuckle. "I get it, Pepper. I know he would've been here if he could have."

Pepper nodded. "I'll be sure to tell him all about your amazing work - not that he doesn't automatically know your work is amazing. He can come see for himself when he has time."

"When he has time?" laughed Steve. "I'll be an old man by then."

"Well, doesn't he already call you an old man?" smirked Pepper.

"Old soul is what I am," corrected Steve.

"Same difference," Pepper and Steve said simultaneously, imitating their good friend with the perfect blend of scoffing and arrogance; they promptly burst into laughter.

"Wonder what they're laughing about," commented Natasha dully.

Clint smirked at Natasha, leaned closely to her, and whispered, "Let's find out."

"Wait… Clint!" cried Natasha, who clutched uselessly for Clint as he determinedly began marching toward Steve and the pretty woman beside him.

"Well I should go check on him," Pepper told Steve. "Do you think your barista friend can hook him up with a caffeine recharge?"

"I haven't seen her all night," sighed Steve.

"Keep hoping," urged Pepper, before kissing him on the cheek and waving him goodbye.

By the time Clint called "Hey, Steve!" Pepper was already well on her way out, which for some odd reason Natasha felt relieved about. The way Steve lit up when he saw them approaching was kind of adorable, which Natasha would never admit, of course. He hugged Clint with unrestrained vigor, but as he didn't quite know what to do with Natasha, they ended up doing an awkward half-hug-turned-handshake.

"I'm so glad you could make it," Steve enthused. "What did you think?"

"It was really moving, Steve," answered Clint. "That's not a compliment that comes easily from me."

"What did you think, Natasha?" Steve asked, biting his lip nervously.

"It's as great as Clint says," replied Natasha. "I especially liked the last piece… the Killed In Action one."

A wave of solemnity washed over Steve's chiseled features, and he nodded slowly.

"I've gotten a lot of comments about that one," informed Steve. "It's a depiction of when my mother found out that my father was killed in action."

"It's beautiful," said Natasha.

"Thank you." Steve smiled again, but there was a shade of pain in his eyes this time.

"We're real proud of you, man," said Clint. "Now… when are you getting to that coffee shop logo?"

Steve laughed, and a little of the pain seemed to fall away as he did so. Natasha, for once in her life, was envious of Clint's easy way of making people laugh boisterously the way Steve was. Now knowing just a small bit about what this man had gone through, Natasha figured he could use some lighthearted fun.

Unknowingly, Tony agreed with Natasha on that point, and for that reason he decided to blackmail, bribe, and coerce Steve into coming to a party with him. Tony readily acknowledged that the spindly limbs of an electrical engineer wouldn't accomplish much in terms of physically dragging Steve any place he didn't want to go. So, his persuasive techniques were the only weapons Tony had, and he used them as expertly as Bruce Lee with nunchucks. Steve and Tony both knew hat Tony's suggestion of the possibility of Natasha being at this party was what really sealed the deal; however, Tony knew better than to speak of this, and respected his friend enough to not poke fun.

Steve should have guessed he would lose Tony before they even took their first step into the frat house. It was a tall blond that had nabbed the dark-haired playboy - that was how it usually went, but sometimes it was a girl with brunette, black, or even multi-colored hair. The only hair color that Steve noticed was distinctly missing from among the array of girls that Tony tore through every weekend was strawberry blond. Like Tony with Natasha, however, Steve knew better than to bring up this fact… ever. So, while Tony was figuring out how long he could survive without oxygen with the blond girl, Steve wandered around the packs of partying college goers. His eyes were downcast and colored a depressing grayish blue, until they found a bundle of bright red hair in the midst of platinum blond and chocolate brunette hair.

He walked to her, trying his best to saunter and look low-key, but from the entertained look in her eyes he knew he was botching that pretty badly. She smiled in greeting, which caused Steve's heart to rise until it clogged his throat and he was stuck staring at her with a stupid grin on his face. Little did he know that she secretly found his dopey smile just the littlest bit cute - like a puppy begging you to pet it; Natasha almost wanted to scratch behind Steve's ears and start doing doggie talk. She ultimately decided against it.

"Did you come with Clint?" Steve finally managed to ask after a hard swallow.

"Yeah," answered Natasha. "He's trying out his luck with a blond girl named Bobbi. She's in his chemistry class."

"Okay," said Steve, not knowing how else to respond to that. "Um… are you trying your luck with anyone?"

Natasha arched her eyebrows, while Steve blushed and shifted uncomfortably.

"Does it look like I would?" inquired Natasha interestedly.

Steve decided that was a dangerous question; he didn't answer it.

"So what are you doing here?" questioned Natasha. "I know this isn't your scene."

"My roommate insisted I come out of my dark hole and socialize," replied Steve.

"He's done a wonderful job ensuring that," commented Natasha sarcastically. "He's not even here to be your right-hand man."

"Yoooo!" cried Tony who crashed into Steve from behind, swung his arm around his neck, and rubbed several noogies into his hair before Steve finally threw him off. "Where have you been?"

"Where have I been?" said Steve incredulously. "Where have you been? Did that girl figure out she was too good for you?"

"Possibly," responded Tony vaguely. He turned to Natasha. "So what's this, and where can I get one?"

"Tony, this is Natasha, AKA the girl who will kick your ass if you try to get fresh with her," introduced Steve.

"Oh, you wouldn't let her do that to me, would ya Steve?" Tony asked as his lips formed a pout.

"You kidding? I'd hold you in place while she did it."

Tony snorted. "Some best friend you are… Hey, so you need to come with me right now."

"What? Why?"

"I ran into a few of your football buddies, and they wouldn't believe me when I told them I managed to bring you here. I need you as proof, so come on I have a rep to protect!"

"Oh right, because you are so well known for your honesty."

"Come on!" whined Tony.

"Okay, okay." Steve rotated to face Natasha. "I'll be right back."

"I promise I won't wait up for you!" called Natasha while Tony pulled Steve away by the collar of his shirt.

Steve's eyes stayed on her without wavering, until he disappeared along with Tony in the thicket of people; even then Natasha had a feeling he kept looking on, as if he were willing her to stay rooted to her spot with just his gaze. The guy clearly still had an interest in her, and she had to squash it before it grew to be too monstrous for either of them to handle. Natasha rapidly took inventory of the male population surrounding her, and zoomed in on a frat boy with a medium-sized build and messy dark hair that got in his eyes. She smiled grimly, adjusted the strap of her tank top, and strutted toward the unsuspecting college student with a charming smile spreading across her bright red lips.

"Hey," she drawled in a sultry voice, sliding a hand down his forearm.

"Well hello," greeted the frat boy, taking an appreciative look of her slender body. "What's your name?"

"Does it matter?"

There actually wasn't a group of disbelieving football players waiting for Tony and Steve; instead, there was a trio of giggling girls, who couldn't help but squeak with excitement when they saw Steve in his muscly glory. For their feelings' sake, Steve resisted the impulse to roll his eyes, but that didn't stop him from firing invisible knives at Tony from his cold blue irises (they must have had poor aim, because Tony looked cheekily undeterred). One by one Tony listed the names of the girls (one had to correct him), but they didn't even reach Steve's brain - it was too busy internally ranting at Tony. Steve understood that Tony was trying to help him move on from Natasha, but Steve was not interested in dating a fangirl who saw nothing besides his sky scraping height, pretty eyes, and muscular body. Really, Tony should have known better than this.

It took some minutes for Steve to untie himself from the knot of girls, shirk off Tony's grasp, and meander his way back to where he had last seen Natasha. When he had finally made it, across the way he saw something that made his heart sink: Natasha, whose arms were entangled and lips were locked with a strange guy Steve had never seen before, was standing in a very compromising and very public position. Over and over her mouth connected with that of her partner, causing a queasy feeling to crawl up from Steve's stomach and lodge in his throat. A two-syllable grunt of confusion finally dislodged the feeling, and Steve was able to make a getaway before Natasha or Tony or anyone else he knew could see him - or at least so he thought.

What Steve would never know was that Natasha, who had been watching him with half-lidded eyes the whole time, visibly sunk when he finally disappeared. Natasha scowled at herself. The whole purpose of this was to push Steve away from any romantic thoughts about her, yet his stricken expression somehow made her feel like a horrible person. Natasha never felt like a horrible person! Sure, she was aware of how ruthless she could be, especially with men, but she hadn't felt such a ridiculous thing as guilt before - at least that was what Natasha thought was the feeling strangling her gut at the moment. When Natasha propelled herself from the frat boy with a slight push, he stared at her quizzically, but got the idea when he noticed her looking anxiously in the distance.

"Oh, a weapon of jealousy, am I?" chuckled the frat boy. "I'm flattered."

"What? No, no, it's not like that - "

"Thanks for the… pleasurable event," interrupted the frat boy, who saluted her before walking away to laugh at himself.

"It's not…" Natasha trailed off when she saw that her make-out partner was already too far away to hear her amidst the party noises; she had a feeling that even if he wasn't, he wouldn't really pay attention to her explanation anyway.

"So, what did I miss?" Clint's voice asked rather suddenly from behind her.

Natasha didn't jump at Clint's unexpected appearance, but she nearly did; he really needed to stop that nasty habit of popping up out of nowhere.

She swerved around, crossed her arms, and smirked teasingly at Clint before she asked, "Aren't you supposed to be with Bobbi?"

Clint held up a slip of paper between his fingers. "Got her number."

"Did you check that there were enough digits?"

"Oh, Tasha, you wound me," groaned Clint, clapping his hand over his chest.

Natasha fell so easily into her friendly routine with Clint despite having just been inadvertently hit with the guilt stick by Steve. That came as a small relief to her.

"Let's go now," prodded Natasha. "The people here have just got boring."

"Okay," agreed Clint. "Hey, did you see Steve earlier? I caught a glimpse, but I didn't have a chance to say hi."

"You'll have a chance next Monday morning," reminded Natasha, who mentally added, "At least I hope so."

Nooooo, Nat! Why you do dis?

P.S. I fixed the typo in Chapter 1's A/N, QuirkyRevelations. Your review is OFFICIALLY OUTDATED!

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