The UnDate Part 1
From what I can see in the reviews, people are expecting major recompense from Natasha. Frankly, I think her feeling guilt for the first time in the last chapter is a pretty severe judgment for her… but I guess I'll let you be the judge of that.
Perhaps Natasha's plan was too successful; all week she hadn't seen the upbeat Steve ringing the tiny little bell at the top of the glass door as he pushed his way into the coffee shop. She hadn't intended to hurt him - or at least, not a lot. Certainly not so much that he would avoid his favorite coffee shop for the rest of his life! Natasha only wanted Steve to get the idea that she wasn't interested, allowing him room to move on to a much more suitable, much less dangerous girl. With Steve not showing up, it looked like Natasha was going to have to add him as another casualty to her long list of relationship failures. She would have been totally depressed if she hadn't remembered that at least she had managed to not screw things up with Clint (so far). Natasha would never tell Clint this out loud (she knew she didn't need to), but she was extremely grateful for their friendship.
"Who needs Rogers anyway?" Natasha muttered to herself, as she rubbed down the counter especially hard one morning.
"What was that, Nat?" Clint asked.
Natasha was about to tell Clint "Nothing," but she was interrupted by the bell ringing and Clint exclaiming, "Hey, look who came back from the dead!" Natasha cocked her head up and saw that a bashful Steve had walked into the tiny coffee shop, still with the sloppy jogging attire that Natasha didn't think she'd ever miss. He kept his eyes on Clint as his feet led the rest of him to the counter as they had so often before, all while making a friendly yet awfully tight grin.
"Yeah, it's been a while," admitted Steve. "It took me some time to recover from that party last Friday."
"Oh man, that party was insane!" laughed Clint.
Steve nodded, and an awkward silence followed that only Clint couldn't understand. Natasha popped her gum (a little obnoxiously), but still Steve didn't look at her as he watched Clint preparing a fresh brew.
At last Clint piped up, "So, what would you like today?"
"Large black coffee, same as before," answered Steve.
A few minutes later, Clint plunked the drink in front of Steve and grinned.
"I thought you'd want the usual," said Clint, who after a pause stared strangely at Natasha. "Aren't you going to ring him up?"
Natasha blinked several times before mumbling "Oh, yeah," and numbly doing what she should have already done. Steve nodded politely as he handed over the cash to pay for his drink, and he pretended not to notice when their fingers brushed against each other. A single wave of the hand was Steve's only farewell before he grabbed his coffee and strode out of the shop as if he wanted to be any place but there.
"Well that was weird," commented Clint.
Eventually Clint got the idea that Steve wasn't much in the mood to chat anymore, so a series of quiet mornings followed that first uncomfortable encounter. Steve would come in with ears unplugged as usual, order the large black coffee as usual, and for most part keep his eyes on his fiddling fingers - which was certainly not as usual. Natasha wished she were the type to fidget, because she could find no outlet for all the nervous energy coursing through her body. Steve always smiled at Natasha, but it was stiffly, politely, joylessly, instead of the genuine beam that had previously been on his face every moment she saw him. It wasn't until this awkward chain of silent mornings that Natasha realized how much she had gotten used to Steve's friendly presence… and how much she had taken it for granted.
Natasha was not the kind of person to ignore the elephant in the room for long, and she certainly wasn't about to put up with any more of these oh-so-quiet exchanges. She was determined to snap the tension in half, and when she finally figured out how, she grinned mischievously to herself until Clint started thinking she was a crazy person. On the day that Natasha planned to carry out her scheme, Clint was behind her stacking cups and humming a Nirvana song to himself. Meanwhile, Natasha's sight flicked back and forth between the cash register's multi-colored buttons and the glass door across the room. She was about to open the register to count the money for the thousandth time when Steve, on time as always, entered the coffee shop. Steve stopped in front of the register and rubbed his eyes tiredly; he looked so bedraggled, with his blond hair messily arranged rather than perfectly gelled and the laces of his sneakers untied, that Natasha hesitated with going through with her plan. She didn't want to make a rough morning even rougher, but then Natasha reasoned that her plan actually might work out to brighten his day if all went well.
"Give me the usual," ordered Steve groggily.
"No," Natasha replied, loudly and forcefully enough to stop both Steve and Clint in their tracks.
"What?" asked a dumbfounded Steve after a perplexed pause.
"No, I will not make you the same boring drink and doom you to another boring day," asserted Natasha, gaining more confidence as she spoke. "You're going to find out what it's like to take a risk and try something new and amazing."
Steve's jaw dropped, and his blond eyebrows rose until they nearly touched the crown of his head. He quickly snapped his jaw back up and leaned over the counter with an intrigued gleam in his eyes.
"Go on," Steve drawled interestedly.
"I'll give you my personal favorite, the Red Eye," stated Natasha. (1)
"I thought the caffè corretto was your favorite," piped up Clint, who had finally managed to regain his sassy, sarcastic voice. (2)
Natasha glared momentarily at a smirking Clint, and then turned back to a pensive Steve, whose fingers were folded around his chin. For the first time in a while, Steve was looking directly at Natasha. In response, Natasha offered a small smile as a sign of renewed friendship; she internally breathed a sigh of relief when he accepted it by smiling back.
"Okay, I'll try it," he replied pleasantly.
Another customer came inside as soon as Clint had finished preparing the Red Eye, so Steve patiently waited until that person was taken care of before he took his first sip. Clint and Natasha raptly watched him swish the coffee around in his mouth, as if he were trying to ensure that every single tastebud got to try the new drink. Steve swallowed slowly and licked the dark liquid off the edges of his mouth, purposely driving the two baristas mad with impatience as he mulled over the taste. Finally, he smirked at Natasha and said "It's okay" in a tone that made it seem like the drink was hardly even that.
"You're too hard to please, Rogers," scoffed Natasha, ringing Steve up while Clint laughed.
Steve did a half shrug and beamed wider, letting Natasha know that she was - finally - off the hook.
Every day Natasha would prescribe and Clint would concoct a new coffee drink for Steve to try, and every time he would be amazed. Steve was glad that Natasha made that first suggestion - not just because his taste buds were experiencing sensations they never had before, but also because it meant their friendship was back in full force. Steve hadn't liked being so distant from her, but it had taken a while for the image of her making out with that stranger to stop making him feel physically ill. He couldn't help himself. It wasn't as if he necessarily wanted to be that guy she was kissing, because given her past love life it probably wouldn't have meant good things for him. Still, it wasn't exactly fun to watch. Either way, neither she nor him would probably see that guy ever again, and - at least for now - Steve could relax enough to simply enjoy their companionship.
So thrilled was Steve to be friends with Natasha, that he began scratching up ideas from every corner of his brain to find a way to hang out with her outside of the coffee shop. It was a very delicate matter, since Natasha had so quickly and mercilessly struck down the prospect of a romantic date. However, Steve reasoned that since she seemed to spend most of her hours with Clint even outside the coffee shop, she did believe in platonic hangouts. He would use that belief to his advantage. Steve had to be sure to make his proposal casual - or at least as casual as you can when your hands are sweaty and one knowing smirk from her sent your body reeling.
Finally, Steve just came out and said it: "We should hang out."
Natasha expressed no reaction on her wrinkle-free face as she meticulously counted Steve's change.
"Okay," she replied nonchalantly. "There's a new action movie out. You, Clint and I can see it this Friday."
"Actually, Steve and I already have plans for Friday," announced Clint.
Natasha froze. "You do?"
"Yeah," answered Clint. "I invited Steve to the archery shooting range to teach him my tricks - you know, since you vowed never to return to that place, and I like showing off to people."
"I had meant just you and I should hang out," Steve clarified.
"I don't know about that, Steve…"
"Look, if you're worried about it being a date, don't be. If anything, it'll be an undate."
"An undate?" echoed Natasha amusedly.
"Yeah," said Steve brightly. "We'll do everything you don't do on a date. We'll each do something we know the other hates, we'll eat terrible food, and instead of a kiss you can give me a smack upside the head like you always do to Clint."
"Hey!" protested Clint.
"You know it happens, dude," said Steve.
"So let's say I agree with this," began Natasha, "what would be the hated thing I would have to do?"
"Going to a baseball game," answered Steve. "Clint… may have mentioned your supreme hatred of all sports - not just archery."
"Why not go to one of your famous football games?"
Steve snorted. "That wouldn't be us hanging out, it would be you watching me running around a field in a helmet for a few hours. Besides, the season ended ages ago. Didn't you go to the championship game?"
"Does it seem like I would?"
Natasha actually did attend the championship game, and she saw Clint mouth this information to Steve from the corner of her eye. She had been impressed with Steve at that game, but it wasn't because of his strength, or his agility, or his speed, or his handsomeness - reasons that the more superficial would list. What truly got to Natasha was when Steve sacrificed his own self-glory to flip the ball to someone else on the team, someone who was a little behind him but had a clear path to the goal line. That guy was the one who received credit for making the winning touch-down of that game, and people didn't stop talking about it for ages. Knowing Steve's skills, he could have bulldozed across the line himself, but he allowed a less well-known, less phenomenal player to have the ball for the sake of winning the game, not fame. Most amazingly, out of everyone in the stadium (even the coach himself), Steve was visibly the proudest of his teammate. All of Steve's teeth were exposed in a brilliant smile as he tousled his teammate's hair moments before they were both tackled by the rest of the team. Clint didn't know how much Natasha admired Steve in that moment (good thing, or else he would've blabbed), and neither would Steve if she could help it.
"What about you?" inquired Natasha. "What would you do?"
"Whatever you say I have to do."
"Okay… What's your least favorite movie genre?"
"Horror," Steve responded immediately.
"Then there we go," grinned Natasha.
"Oh man, I really don't do well with horror films," groaned Steve.
"Hey, you said whatever I say you have to do," reminded Natasha.
"You're right, Nat," replied Steve after a pause; a light of determination entered his eyes. "And I am a man of my word."
Steve arrived ten minutes late for the undate, which Natasha should have guessed - it being not a real date and all. She imagined that if it were a date ("A dangerous thought, Romanoff," her mind warned her), Steve would have shown up on the dot, if she judged rightly by referring to his early morning routine. She was standing in front of the coffee shop when Steve drove in on a Harley, which came as somewhat of a shock to her. Natasha hadn't pegged Steve down as the motorcycle kind of guy, but then again Steve had arrived from the get-go with a variety of surprises, so she honestly should have expected it, really. It was starting to get irritating how he seemed to so frequently catch her off guard.
The pair walked across the street to a deli that was infamous for their mustard-sopped sandwiches with over-salty pastrami, limited selection of pre-packaged chips that no one ever heard of, and bad service from the inexperienced workers. Natasha wanted to gag as soon as she took her first bite, and from the look on Steve's face he didn't feel much better. He popped open his soda can, and a little of the drink sprayed up and sprinkled his face; Natasha struggled with hers, so he popped it for her and got even more sticky soda on himself. The deli was strictly take-out, so they had to sit on the curb outside as they munched on their disgusting sandwiches. To distract themselves from the food, they told each other embarrassing or shameful stories from their awkward high school years. Steve talked a lot about his friend Bucky, but it was when he mentioned a girl that Natasha got really interested.
"So then we ran into Peggy, whose dad was the local policeman that hated us so much (well really Bucky), and - "
"Whoa, who's Peggy?" interrupted Natasha.
Steve frowned. "Like I said, she was the daughter of - "
"No, who is she?" emphasized Natasha. "In all the time I've known you, you have never mentioned a girl, not even the one I saw you at the art gallery with."
"Do you mean Pepper?" Steve was even more confused. "She's Tony's girl - no, she's a frie- you know what, it's complicated between them."
"You're getting off-topic, Rogers."
"Right, so Peggy. Peggy, Peggy, Peggy." Natasha had the impression that he was repeating her name just to buy time. "She was a longtime friend - I didn't know her quite as long as Bucky, but we used to be really close."
"We grew apart."
Steve said this in a blasé manner, but the hunched shoulders and the shadow that had begun to grow upon Steve's features revealed far more than the tone of his smooth voice. His gaze was usually focused on Natasha's face, wavering neither upward or downward, as if what she said or how she reacted was devastatingly important. Right now, however, he didn't seem capable of facing her perceptive look.
"C'mon, there's gotta be more to the story than that," prodded Natasha.
Steve sighed. "Well, we knew each other in middle school and then eventually… we became high school sweethearts. She was my lab partner in freshman biology, and she won me over the day she squirted preserve juice on me when we were dissecting a pig."
"How romantic," deadpanned Natasha.
"With her, everything was," Steve replied, a faraway look coming into his eyes until he shook himself back into reality. "Hey, isn't it against the rules for me to be talking about my ex-girlfriend?"
"That's only for when you're on an actual date."
With some difficulty Steve swallowed the last mouthful of his sandwich and nodded. "Well all right then. Hey, we really should get going now."
Natasha and Steve recycled the soda cans and threw away the greasy paper wrappers that their sandwiches had come in. They kept chatting (not about Peggy, since Steve clearly didn't want to talk about her anymore), until they were back where Steve had parked his Harley.
"Nat, how did you get here?" asked Steve.
"I walked," answered Natasha, who was realizing the same thing that Steve was realizing.
"Don't you have a car?"
"No. Clint does, but he's using it to parade Bobbi around the town."
"Then we'll have to drive to the stadium on my Harley, but we'll have to go back to my apartment for an extra helmet."
"It's fine, we can just go now."
"No way, you are thirty percent less likely to die in a crash if you're wearing a helmet."
Natasha rolled her eyes. "Fine. Anyway, the more time we waste here, the less of that ball game I have to see."
Steve extended to Natasha the helmet he had brought with him, but she shook her head.
"You wear it, you're the driver," insisted Natasha.
Steve didn't respond at first; he just slid the helmet over her head and adjusted it so that she had a clear view of his don't-argue-with-me blue eyes.
"You wear it," maintained Steve, who squeezed Natasha's arms to reaffirm his insistence.
From that simple gesture, Natasha could feel a flood of blood rising to her cheeks, and was suddenly very grateful for the helmet that covered a good portion of her face. Never had a man caused this kind of involuntary reaction before, especially not with something as innocent as an arm-squeeze. Steve turned around, straddled the motorcycle, and booted it up as he waited for Natasha to join him. Natasha stood reluctant for a few moments as she stared at Steve's broad back and blond hair (which he had clearly spent too much time on to make "perfectly sloppy"). If a mere touch of his hands on her arms had such an effect on her, was it wise for her to climb onto the back of his motorcycle and hold onto his waist for dear life?
"Nat, is something wrong?" inquired Steve.
Impulsively, Natasha shooed her doubts away, mounted behind Steve, and said, "Nope, just drive!"
"Have you ever ridden on the back of a motorcycle?" asked Steve.
"Yeah, plenty of times." Natasha was lying; she had only done it once, and it was back in high school. "You've had passengers before?"
"Yeah," answered Steve honestly. "Peggy, Bucky, Pepper… out of desperation I once had to drive Tony to a convention on my bike. Out of everyone else I'd ever driven, he was the most freaked out."
Natasha grinned. "That sounds blackmail-worthy."
"Well, don't tell him I told you," Steve replied. "Hey, take my backpack from me and put it on your back. I don't want it bothering you during the ride."
Steve shrugged off his navy blue stringed backpack, and Natasha easily swung it onto her shoulders.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"Yup," she answered.
Before she knew it, Natasha was zipping through the air faster than thoughts of "Nope nope nope I'm not ready!" and "I'll kill Steve if we die in a car crash!" were crossing her frazzled brain. The lights, the people, the buildings were all a colorful, meaningless blur to Natasha's wide eyes. After the first minute of shock wore off, however, Natasha realized that she was actually really enjoying herself. Adrenaline was infused in her every cell, though she sensed that the pleasant throb that went through her entire frame might have also had something to do with the feeling of Steve's warm body in her arms. Steve wasn't complaining about having Natasha so close either.
(1) The Red Eye is espresso mixed with brewed coffee. It's also known as a Black Eye, a Shot in the Dark, an Eye Opener, and an I Can't Do This Anymore. I found all the names very amusing, and it sounds like the kind of killer drink Natasha would like. Also, the "red" in Red Eye reminds me of Natasha's hair color.
(2) The caffè corretto is an Italian cocktail of espresso, grappa, and samba or brandy. Coffee with booze, basically.
I honestly know nothing about coffee since I never drink it, so all of my descriptions/commentary about coffee come from random Internet searches. You coffee aficionados can probably tell. I also know nothing about football or baseball, for the record. I'm really outside of my comfort zone here by pursuing this project. I even asked my dad to tell me about the rules of football, and when he asked me why I was asking I was like o_O. It's not like I was going to tell him it was for my FanFiction (he doesn't need to know how obsessed I am with Romanogers).
Steve and Natasha's "undate" is partially inspired by a Victorius episode where two characters do everything that's not date-like to avoid any romantic tension (I guess it worked, because their relationship was not canon by the end of the series). I did take the idea and try to make it my own, which I hope I succeeded in. Let's hope things turn out differently for Steve and Natasha than it did for the two Victorious characters (kudos to the reviewers who know who I'm talking about… Psst, I'm talking to you, Quirky!).