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I Come With Knives

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His smile is pretty difficult to trust. It’s too wide, too full of teeth, and the eyes remain blank and cold. The Winter Soldier tries again, less wide this time and remembering to squint at the eyes. In theory it’s the same muscles involved, but it’s wrong somehow. It looks like a lie.

He digs out a folder with an old picture of him, from back when he knew how to smile. The ink is showing clear signs of wear, the paper soft and creased after being carried around for a few months, but the image inside is still clear enough. The position of the eyelids is different somehow in the photo, but he can’t replicate it no matter how hard he tries. A tilt of the head gives an illusion of innocence and obscures the missing details. Yes, this is definitely better. It isn’t perfect, but it is a good enough imitation to fool most people.

Of course he’s not just trying to fool civilians. Some of these people will see past the lie if he slips up. Captain Am— No, Bucky Barnes would never refer to his friend like that unless he was being sarcastic. Steve’s not going to be a problem, he’s too blinded by the past, the fight on the helicarrier proved as much. But he’s surrounded himself with spies and agents living in Tony Stark’s fortress of a tower.

If he had a choice, he wouldn’t go near them. He isn’t afraid of dying, but being captured is an entirely different matter. He will put a bullet through his brain before he’s captured again.

Exactly two sentences have turned his quest for revenge into one for knowledge. Spoken by a HYDRA scientist with a certainty you usually only have when you point a gun at someone, not when it is the other way around: “You’re not as invincible as you seem to think you are. I could stop you with a word.”

She didn’t get a chance to though, the Soldier stopped her with a bullet first.

And now he needs assistance if he’s to root out every single shut-down code and fail-safe device they’ve booby trapped him with.  Unfortunately there’s HYDRA bases even he can’t get into without competent backup. If it was just a matter of manpower he could just have paid some guns for hire, but he needs at least 10 or ideally 15 minutes uninterrupted work after he’s gotten to where he needs to be. And that kind of skill level is rarely available outside tightly knitted groups or organizations.

He gets to practice his smile for exactly 9 days before their best spy leaves the tower carrying a big suitcase.

There’s no sound on his surveillance cameras, but then there’s no need for it as it clearly shows her saying LaGuardia to the driver. It’s as good a chance as he’s going to get and he moves his schedule up immediately. The laptop he’s been using for research is destroyed and dumped, his clothes left in a clothing bin, but his weapons are harder to leave behind, even safely locked away and hidden. He feels naked without them.

Returning to the motel he’s stayed in for the past few days, he makes the final preparations. A panel is wrenched off from the bicep part of his arm before he rams a pair of needle-nosed pliers into the opening. It hurts like hell and the forearm drops like a brick, but according to the schematics so helpfully provided by the last HYDRA scientist he killed, it is an easy fix. The Soldier jams the remains of a spent .44 caliber bullet into the hole, before stepping in front of a mirror to survey the result.

The pants have tears in them and the vest is smelly and stiff with dried blood, but still recognizable from the last time Steve saw his childhood friend. Gaunt cheeks from failing to eat enough to keep up with his super-charged metabolism compliments the look, but the hair is looking too neat. He had it cut short to be able to blend in more, but now it clashes with the rest. The soap dispenser secured to the wall in the bathroom holds what can at best be described as a cleaning agent; the liquid is foamy and nearly scentless. He spreads it evenly over his hands and drags them through his hair.  It makes his hair look greasy and curly, while on his hands it makes the skin on his right one feel too tight as it dries. After rinsing some of the soap off - can’t be too clean, wouldn’t look right - the transformation is complete. He’s Bucky Barnes now, friend of Steve Rogers and perhaps the longest held POW.

Moving through the streets unseen is easy for someone used to work in the shadows, but Barnes pauses at the end of the alley when he sees the brightly lit Stark Tower. Once he steps out into the street lights and crosses the road there will be no turning back. If he slips up there’s no telling if he can get out of the heavily fortified building.

In the end the mission wins out. If there’s one thing HYDRA succeeded in it was making him ignore his personal safety in favor of the mission. Too bad they hadn’t accounted for him turning on them.

The cacophony of tire screeches and honking horns announce his approach, but the guards prove their worth by gathering in the lobby behind the glass doors before he’s halfway across the street. You don’t let someone so obviously out of place come near the place you guard without spotting them and keep the job.  Or your life.

The first one is through the door before he reaches the curb and he’s surrounded after just a few steps onto it. Barnes raises his arms above his head, or he tries to. The left one stops at shoulder height and he’s so used to imitating reactions that he barely has to think about what to do when the motion sends pain stabbing though the bicep. Brow, eyes, and mouth scrunches up in perfect unison as he clutches the hurt arm and drops to his knees.

For a brief moment he wonders if he’s overdoing it, then a few of the guards lower their guns.

Someone inside must have notified the residents, because only seconds later Steve Rogers comes running out through the glass doors. Steve pushes past the guards, but stops a yard short of his target, mouth open and eyes filled with hope even as his hands are balled in to tight fists.

Barnes opens his mouth slightly, staring up at the imposing figure in front of him. “Steve, I—” he gasps out, wondering if he should cry a bit or not.

He doesn’t have to. Steve closes the distance between them, drops to his knees, and engulfs Barnes in a hug strong enough to break ribs on a weaker man.

The game is on.

 


 

As lies go it’s a pretty good one, but that doesn’t mean everybody should fall for it that easily. Natasha is gone for one week and when she comes back she finds the Winter Soldier cozying up to everybody. Steve’s walking on air and even Stark’s relaxing in the company of the man who most likely killed his parents. Not her though, not even a little bit.

She keeps her expression neutral and just stares at him.

They try to placate her, telling her that he has broken his programming, that he’s no longer dangerous. She ignores them of course; Natasha Romanoff knows a lie when she sees it.

I know what you’re doing. You’re not fooling me for a second,” she says in Russian. But he just glances back at her so carefully relaxed it feels like looking into a mirror.

“Jarvis, what did she just say?” Stark asks.

“No,” she interrupts. “Don’t you dare.” It was her one condition for moving into the tower, that she could keep her secrets.

The AI is silent for a few seconds, then responds, “I’m sorry, Sir. I really can’t say.”

She leaves Stark to his tantrum and walks out of the room. It’s not like she has expected Steve to never see his returned-from-the-dead friend again, even if his and Sam’s manhunt has been unsuccessful. It’s just that she has hoped that the circumstances would be different. So that maybe one of the few people she considers a friend didn’t end up playing with a loaded gun.

The moment she’s inside her apartment she calls Clint. Or rather, right after she’s checked every inch of her apartment for tampering she calls him.

“Yeah?” he answers by the second ring, trying to hide the fact that she clearly woke him up.

“I need you in New York. Right away.”

“Tasha? What’s the matter? You sound--“ He doesn’t say upset and she’s grateful.

“Apparently the Winter Soldier has taken up residence in the Tower.”

“So I heard, seemed a bit risky, but--“

“You knew?”

“Steve convinced me it was for the best. Second chances and all that.” He’s pouring something she’s willing to bet is coffee.

“Steve jumps out of airplanes without a parachute. He’s not the best role model.”

“Fair point.” He pauses to inhales half a cup. “So what do you need me for? Haven’t you got enough firepower to level the place?”

“I can tell he’s lying. I need you to tell me if he’s lying because he’s learning how to be human again or because he’s pretending.” She doesn’t say like she did during the relapse, she doesn’t have to.

“Right, I’m packing right now. I’ll catch the next flight to New York.”

“Thank you.”

His voice is soft when he answers, “I’ve got your back.” Then makes a sound of regret when he realizes how cheesy it sounds.

Natasha’s still staring at the phone when there’s a knock on the door. Standing right outside, Maria Hill looks impatient when Natasha opens the door.

“You need to be debriefed,” Maria says, getting to the point without superfluous niceties.

“Now’s not a good time.”

“You still need to be debriefed.”

“Mission went fine. I’m more concerned with the living weapon in the lounge.” Natasha keeps her voice perfectly toneless without effort, but her left foot really wants to tap out the impatience she’s masking.

“Thank god! I’m not the only one having a problem with that bright idea.”

“So you don’t approve?”  She sounds way too eager for someone who makes a living as a spy, but Maria’s distrust of the assassin downstairs means that by tomorrow they’ll outnumber his fatally optimistic companions. Not that’s she’s counting or anything.

“Are you kidding me? It’s a security nightmare and that’s not even taking into account what happens when this leaks to the public. We’ve barely recovered from the whole SHIELD is HYDRA and now this whole mess?” Maria rolls her eyes. “Sometimes I wonder why I took this job.”

“The money, right?” Natasha relaxes enough to flash a sincere smile.

“Right, the money. Because who needs a life when you can have idiot bosses and lots of money to spend on exactly nothing, as you don’t have the time.”

“Exactly. Of course beating up bad guys is fun too.”

“See, I don’t get enough of that these days. Now that Fury’s gone, I’m left with Tony and Steve fighting about who gets to call the shots. At least you get to go out on missions.”

Maria lets out an exasperated sigh and the end of her speech and Natasha realizes just how much she’s missed this during the week she was away. She might be her own woman – first, last, and always – but exchanges like these make up for strict regulations and sitting through boring meetings. Well, that and beating people up.

It was late in the evening when she returned from the mission, it’s even later when she’s done with the debriefing. When she runs into Steve in the hallway afterwards, sans Winter Soldier, she blatantly ignores him and continues on her way. Since she’s the one ignoring him it shouldn’t hurt when he does nothing to stop her, but it still does.

The hair left caught in the doorframe an inch above the floor is in place when she returns, but she still checks the apartment before going to sleep.

She wakes up in the middle of the night feeling the Winter Soldier’s shoulders under her thighs as she tries to garrote him. She wakes up feeling his lips against her skin, his fingers in her hair. She wakes up.

Sleep loses its appeal to her and when the sun comes up she’s not scared anymore, she’s well prepared and armed to the teeth.

Chapter Text

While curiosity killed the cat, Romanoff is more problematic to get rid of. Barnes has anticipated obstacles, but he hasn’t anticipated this mixture of uninhibited resentment and guile. She follows him like a shadow, at times unseen, but always ready for him to slip up. She’s hiding the hostility when other people are around now that she’s realized that he has them fooled, but she clearly pulling strings behind the scene.

It’s slowing down planning and even shifting allegiances. Hill used to be firmly neutral, but now she’s asking questions that require further surveillance and analyzing of the data. Hill’s latest idea, presented casually as she just happens to run into them in a hallway, is to include Romanoff on the team. For strategic value, not to delay the process further. Not at all.

He wants nothing more than to shoot the idea down, but besides the timing issue there’s no logical reason why he wouldn’t want someone of Romanoff’s skill level on the team. To say that it’s a last minute addition is an understatement of enormous proportions. The meeting this afternoon is the last one before the mission, the mission itself is supposed to be the day after tomorrow. But even with the scheduling problems the idea is solid, they might as well take advantage of the fact that two Avengers more could be included. Barton is an easy addition to the team outside, but Romanoff’s inclusion means that the actual attack team needs reshuffling. Steve agrees to think about it and Barnes just hopes he can talk him out of it before the meeting.

Steve’s quiet for a long while afterwards as Barnes follows him to the large common room near the top floor. Fiddling with his cup of coffee and looking down at the counter, Steve finally lets out a deep sigh and says, “I’m sorry, Buck.”

Leaning against the counter with a relaxed attitude that has taken hours to perfect, Barnes shoots him a wry grin. “I’m pretty sure that wasn’t your fault.”

“But having Natasha on the team could be great,” Steve continues, looking even guiltier. “Maybe you should talk with her. Could be quicker than her going through all the recordings of our meetings.”

When Barnes fails to answer, Steve glances up at him. “I know she hasn’t exactly been welcoming to you, but she’ll come around. I’m sure she will.”

He doesn’t sound sure.

The frustration makes a smile harder to fake and he settles for a crooked one and a resigned shrug. “Sure, why not. Can’t hurt.”

Romanoff materializes in the doorway like discussing her has worked like a summoning.

Dark blue sweat pants sits low on her hips and her hoodie is tight enough to pull the hem of the thin undershirt up to reveal a strip of pale skin. The tight coil in his stomach winds further up with the reminder of yet another territory she’s taken from him. The gym is packed with equipment strong enough to stand up to Steve, and Barnes has let off steam going at it more than once. Not so since she returned. Her eyes boring into his back have made him too conscious of his every move for it to be relaxing. Strong, but not too strong. Fast, but not too fast. Formidable, but not dangerous.

Giving the two the space neither asks for, Steve picks up his cup of coffee and moves away, while Romanoff pulls out a barstool opposite Barnes, keeping the counter between them.

“Why did you come here, Barnes?”

As he launches into the riveting and emotional story of Sergeant Barnes, POW, she cocks her head and smiles. It’s a near perfect imitation of his own, the light of it never quite reaching the eyes. It disturbs him far more than it should.

“And now try to sound like you haven’t rehearsed this speech until you could recite it in your sleep.”

He rubs a hand across his face. “Sorry, I’ve been asked that question too many times since I came here. I guess my answer has become a bit automatic.”

“Riiight,” she says like an impatient teacher with a slow student, “So would you like to try again?”

“Natasha…” Steve says, from the open door. He sounds tired and Romanoff’s reaction is curious. Something like regret flashes over her face before the blank expression is back.

“No, it’s okay, Steve. I don’t mind being questioned when it’s by a dame this pretty.” He winks to include her. We’re all pals.

Despite the coldness in her eyes when looking at him, her voice is warm when she waves Steve away. “I’ll behave. Now go away, he doesn’t need you to babysit him.”

“I came here because I needed help,” Barnes says when Steve finally leaves, holding up a hand when she looks like she’s going to interrupt him again. “No, not like that, the therapy is Steve’s idea. I needed help in the form of people with guns.”

“So the Winter Soldier needs help killing people.”

“Not the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes needs help making sure the people who brainwashed, tortured, and used him can’t get him back. And yeah, that involves killing people who have harmed me in the past, people I might even enjoy hurting back, but that’s not why I’m doing it.” It’s close enough to the truth to fool lie detectors, even human ones, he can only hope it fools this one too.

The latest therapy session had probably been considered a break-through by the therapist, as Barnes, alternating between wringing his hands and hiding his face in them, admitted that he was afraid that he would enjoy taking revenge on the people turning him into a monster. The therapist had assured him that didn’t mean that he was a monster, but then he had also said that their talks were confidential and Steve clearly walked on eggshells around him afterwards.

“I’m not the monster I used to be, but that doesn’t mean I’ll wait meekly for them to muzzle and control me again. If I’m ever to have a life, I need to dig out every single fail-safe and shut-down code they have embedded in me.”

Sharing secrets makes people more likely to trust you, he knows this, but so does she. It’s clear that the strategy has failed when she only raises a single eyebrow at him. The anger roiling in his gut lashes out.

“Just tell me what you want. What do I need to do to get this show on the road? Show you my psyk eval? Wear a shock collar so you can punish me if I step out of line?”

“That last one might be a good idea,” she retorts, her face relaxed and calm, “But you can start by going over the plan, step by step. Maybe we’ll be done by the time the next meeting is scheduled.”

The meeting is in over seven hours and she knows this. His right hand closes around his cup. The coffee is still so hot that if he throws it at her, it’ll distract her long enough for him to jump the counter and possibly even crack her skull open. Not that he’s going to ruin weeks of careful planning on an impulse, but the thought is satisfying.

Romanoff makes him go over every single detail of the plan, including the how, where, and when he got the intell it’s based on. She will no doubt check up on names and dates later, but she won’t be able to find anything to contradict his story, he made sure of that before coming here. When torture was needed to extract the information he made sure to cover it up. Nothing will show evidence of anything other than a victim desperate to reclaim his life.

The sun is low on the sky before she’s done and Barnes doesn’t need to look at the clock to know the meeting is at most 30 minutes away. She looks at it though, demonstrably so, and flashes him a warm, friendly smile.

“Right, that’s it for now. I’ll see you at the meeting.”

If he had half her talent for manipulation, HYDRA would be reduced to burning rubble by now. He’s almost envious.

“I’m sure I’ll have more questions by then,” she continues, “But I’ll have to see what I can do about that collar.”

He waits until she leaves to get up too, and it’s not until he’s on his way out he realizes that they haven’t been alone. The blond archer is sprawled on a couch in the other end of the room with a book, hidden from view from the counter. They were formally introduced when he arrived, but they haven’t talked since. The profile Barnes gathered on him shows two obvious angles, not only are they both snipers, but Barton had been brainwashed and used by an enemy just a few years ago.

With a deep sigh, he flops down onto the couch opposite Barton and rubs a hand over his face.

“See, this is exactly why I became a sniper.”

Barton raises both eyebrows at him and Barnes barks out a laughter that makes the other man looking even more taken aback. “Jeez, not to shoot people. I meant so I could stay at a distance, away from people.”

“I thought you were a ladies’ man.” It’s not a question, but it still demands an answer.

“I was. Before. You know.” He pauses and gestures at his head with a circling motion. We few, we happy few, we band of brainwashed snipers.

There’s a look in the archer’s eyes like he gets it, really gets it, like Steve never will. Because the only way to get it is to have someone reach inside your skull and yank everything out that made you who you are. It’s a miracle that Barnes manages to keep from recoiling physically.

Why does everything have to backfire on him today? Barnes scrubs a hand over his face because he’s tired, not because he needs to hide his face. He exits the room shortly after because he needs to clean up before the meeting, not because he wants privacy to collect himself. Of course not.

When it’s time for the meeting he’s back in full control of himself, so much so he can reacts with minute signs of discomfort every time Romanoff opposes or questions him. Not enough to be obvious, but sufficient for the attentive observer to notice. Steve’s frowning whenever Romanoff opens her mouth during the last part of the meeting proves as much. He won’t even have to tell Steve how hostile she was earlier, now he can stand back and play stoic victim. Steve will observe, analyze, and react without need for further prompting.

 


 

No, she’s not going to give in so easily. It hurts like hell. Not just the cuts and bruises, her muscles are screaming for rest, just to keep standing is a struggle. She has pushed herself too far, trying to better him. She knows that she will lose eventually, but between knowing it and actually giving up is a line, a line she refuses to cross. Natalia Romanova is no quitter.

Grinding her teeth, she watches her opponent closely as she knead her right bicep, her arm still numb from his last blow. He knows she won’t be able to stand up to this much longer, she can read it in his stance. The fight will soon be over and he will be victorious, while she... Natalia shudders. Because he won’t just kill her. Oh no, that will be far too easy. What he wants is to teach her is the true meaning of defeat.

He is a formidable opponent, tall and muscular, yet he moves with swiftness that belies his size. Almost a head taller than her and twice her body weight, he towers over her. The Winter Soldier, a living, breathing weapon. But that is just it, he might be the perfect killer, but she’s so much more. Eyelids drooping, she lets the fatigue she has been battling show, dragging her feet as she sidesteps to continue facing the circling predator. Hoping that he will become overconfident and make a mistake.

But it’s her own steps that falter, her foot wraps catches on an uneven floorboard and she goes down. Her hip slams into the floor, her head connects with a sharp crack. The pain stuns her for a few precious seconds and Natalia only has time to look up before the Soldier closes in on her, grabs her by the neck with one metal hand and slams her head back against the floor. Exploding stars fills her vision as she gasps for air.

Cold, hard fingers dig into her neck, closing her windpipe, cutting off the blood to her head. Her most basic instinct takes over, overruling the training telling her to go for his eyes, his throat, the soft parts she might damage with her nails and fingers alone. He doesn’t even try to stop her as her nails scratch futilely against metal plates. There’s no reason to. The silence of his act screams at her, he’s said nothing, not uttered a word or a sound since she saw him standing before her. Nothing can be read in his eyes, no hate or murderous lust, no regret or sadness for a life about to wink out. She is dying and he hardly seems to care.

 

 

The sheet is clammy with sweat and somehow twisted between as well as around her legs when Natasha wakes up. Untangling herself takes so long she almost resorts to cutting it with the knife stashed in the nightstand. There’s only one thing for it and she barely stands under the shower long enough to wash the sweat from her body before she’s off to the gym a few floors below her apartment.

She’s almost at the entrance when Steve catches up with her, not even a little bit winded despite how fast he was running. Dressed in shorts and a gray tee he’s obviously going to the gym like her, but he’s been through his morning routine before coming here. He’s freshly shaven and his hair is neatly styled, unlike Natasha’s makeup free face and still damp hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“When are you gonna stop attacking Bucky?” Steve says in a clipped tone of voice. He’s only this direct in his confrontation when he’s beyond frustrated with someone and the accusation shocks her enough to ignore the question and just throw something hurtful right back at him.

“He’s not Bucky. He might look and sound like him, but that’s not him.”

She regrets her words the second they’re past her lips. This is what she gets for hanging around Captain Honest, who can convey so much hurt in just one look when he catches her lying to him. He doesn’t even have the common decency to look hurt or angry, instead he looks disappointed. Like she’s the one blinded by her feelings.

“Nat, you don’t know what’s been done to him, how that changes a man.”

She’s not having this conversation now, not when she’s feeling raw and exposed and she just want to hit someone hard enough to break the skin and spill blood. Even though Natasha doesn’t say a word of it, he looks like she did and she forces herself to relax her muscles and blank her face. But before she gets to continue she’s interrupted, by none other than the subject of their brief spat.

“I thought we were going to work out, not flirt,” the Winter Soldier says, like he can’t feel the tension that makes the few other early-risers give them a wide berth.

The casual way he wraps his real arm around Steve’s shoulders, dangling a pair of workout gloves, makes him look relaxed until he turns his head to her and blanks his face like a robot shutting off. He doesn’t even try to fake a smile, he just observes her like he’s looking at a particular boring brick wall, confident that Steve won’t notice as he’s focused on her as well.

“You know, it’s a good thing I bumped into the two of you now, to give you a heads up. I’ve thought about this a lot and you’re right,” she says with a pleasant smile aimed at the Soldier. “We have no idea what kind of fail-safes HYDRA might have put in you. It’ll be better if you stayed behind. Safer.”

Steve frowns and the Soldier’s arm drops to his side, but neither gets a chance to respond before she continues.

“I’ve talked it over with Maria and she agrees,” Natasha lies smoothly. She hasn’t, but it won’t be a problem to talk Maria into it. “We won’t be able to spare the manpower to transport your unconscious body and our track record of fighting you isn’t exactly stellar. So, you know, safety first.”

At last he drops the façade and she greets the open hostility like an old friend. They square off like he’s going to go for her and she’s almost begging him to attack so they can see him for what he really is. But then he pulls a hand, the human one, through his hair and in the split second his face is hidden from view it changes from murder to friendly competition.

“How about we try sparring first? You get to learn my moves and we’ll talk about it later. Might get you to change your mind if you saw I’m not as dangerous as you seem to believe.”

So that’s how it is, he’s going to pretend she didn’t hit him where it hurts and just keep up the act of the poor misunderstood victim. But why not, she’s itching to hit someone and hitting him would be so much more satisfying than a punching bag. He won’t be able to injure her deliberately, not with onlookers, but that concern won’t hold her back. She gives him a single nod and enters the gym without waiting for the other two.

In the far corner there’s an area designated to sparring sessions, it’s not in use now and she puts down her towel by the wall before stretching to limber up. Natasha eyes her opponent; his metal arm is glinting under the lights, the red star almost glowing. If this had been a movie, he would have been the good guy, dressed in gray sweats and a white tank against her tight, black shorts and tank top. He’s not even wearing the black leather gloves. Without a word, she wraps her hands and feet, leaving the heels and balls of her feet bare.

They begin to circle each other. There’s an easy grin on the Soldier’s face, the most genuine one she’s seen on him - he’s been itching for this as much as she has.

She strikes first with a sweep of her leg that he easily sidesteps, leaving his side open as she scissors and connects with her other foot just below the kidneys. He wipes the grin from her face with a punch she avoids by a hair’s breadth.

Only a fraction of their attacks lands on the target as intended. While she likes to move with an attack and use the force to launch one herself, he seems to prefer just blocking attacks with his metal arm. However they both adapt to the other one’s style faster than should be possible. So that when she tries to kick him in the head, he doesn’t block her like expected, instead he ducks under her leg, wraps a metal hand around her other ankle and lifts her off the ground to slam her into the floor so hard she bounces.

Natasha doesn’t know if she should be flattered or offended that he’s not pulling his punches either.

Like on an unspoken agreement they both pull back and begin circling again. There are more people around them than there were in the gym when she entered, but she’s not sparing them a single glance. She can’t afford to. They are different in size, but not so in viciousness. When he punches her in the chest hard enough to send her to the floor again, she returns with a heel to the side of his knee and sends him down to join her.

Natasha can’t remember the last time she has enjoyed herself this much.

It’s not often she gets to go at someone on a par with her, especially not with this minimal risk of a fatal injury. Not that either has escaped without injuries. He is bleeding from his bottom lip and a lump forming under his chin from when she kneed him, and the bicep of her right arm will be sore for days as he got a direct blow to it with his left.

The next time he punches at her, she ducks and moves closer, using his arm as leverage to flip her legs up and wrap them around his neck. Continuing the movement, she unbalances him and he goes down like a tree.

The fall turns into a tussle. She’s not really sure how he escapes the vice-like grip of her legs, but suddenly he’s on top of her, pinning her to the floor with the weight of his body. His eyes are inches from hers, wide with shock. No, not shock, recognition. A previously undetected wall snaps inside her under the weight of his gaze and what was behind it floods her. Too jumbled and messed up to make sense of, but with comes the certain knowledge of how his lips feels against her when they curve into a grin, how his laughter rises and falls like water over stones.

It’s not panic that sends her scrambling back uncoordinatedly. The Black Widow does not panic.

Anger at faceless people who have messed with her head again and again turns into anger at the man kneeling in front of her. At how he allowed them to turn him into a weapon, and turn him against her. Anger makes her shift when she stands and angles her right foot so it’ll connect with the line of his jaw. And anger lets her see with crystal clarity how at first his hands move by instinct to block her before he stops and stills, waiting for the blow.

She doesn’t even stop to pick up her towel on her way out of the gym. It’s not like she needs it. When the door finally closes behind her it’s cool against her back and her apartment is silent, but everything inside her is chaos.

The image of two gray eyes locked on her as her foot connects is burned into her retinas. Never closing, never looking away. Calmly awaiting punishment.

Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Go directly to jail.

Chapter Text

Sleep isn’t something that comes easily to him. Lying on the left side makes the metal of his arm cut into the flesh and lying on the other makes him acutely aware of the weight of it. Sprawling on the back makes too many soft spots easily accessible to an attacker and sleeping on his stomach leaves his back open to attack from almost every angle. Most nights he sleeps on his back, at least that way he’ll have a greater chance of detecting and countering an attack.

Some nights, like tonight, he sleeps crouched in a corner of the bathroom. Because the walls are thicker here and it has no windows. And because if Steve gets up early, the bathroom is the least suspicious room to be in.

He didn’t use to have trouble sleeping when he was just the Winter Soldier, or even when he was Bucky Barnes. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that, but when he’s close to sleep the notion becomes harder to ignore. Bucky could fall asleep at a moment’s notice, catch five minutes between briefings, the Soldier could shut his mind off whenever necessary, but now he can’t do either. This imitation game brings more complications than expected.

The lack of sleep makes his mind run in circles, and when he closes his eyes again the Black Widow’s face pops up in his mind’s eye.

Did the Widow slip him something during the fight? Or did she plan on their close physical contact to wake whatever it is inside him. Because it has to have been her plan. She blanked her face the second she saw he had been triggered and even tested the result afterwards.

He stepped right into her trap, so certain of himself that didn’t even see it until it closed on him. If the memories come from a modified version of a mission with her or if it is completely fabricated is impossible to tell right now, but the goal can only be to leave him open to further manipulation. As if the Winter Soldier would ever have been allowed to be involved with anyone without punishment.

The taste of rubber fills his mouth.

A shuffle of feet outside the door rips him from his near catatonic state. Not only has Steve gotten up without him noticing it, but he has been awake for long enough to wonder where Barnes is. Fuck. He flushes the toilet and walks out with a comment about how he almost fell asleep on the can.

During breakfast he regains enough control of himself to bring up Romanoff. Luckily Steve agrees, the Black Widow is far too hostile to be near Barnes during the mission. He doesn’t agree on leaving her out though and Barnes doesn’t push it.

Steve’s grim-faced when he leaves and he’s gone for far too long. When he finally returns he goes to the kitchen without acknowledging Barnes, turns on the radio at a near painful level, and begins cutting up vegetables so aggressively that the chopping board probably won’t survive the session.

Brooding is a bad sign. Brooding means Steve’s working up to confront someone about something that’s been nagging him. Steve is a headstrong punk—No. Fuck. Stop.

Barnes’ fist is a fraction of an inch from the wall when he regains self-control. He wants to reduce the room to rubble, to hit and kick and rip until his insides stops screaming. He wants it so much he’s shaking.

But he stops himself again and again and again, with the promise that tomorrow this will all be over. He had originally planned to stay a while after the mission, making sure he’s gotten it all. And then leaving in a way that will make it possible for him to call on them again should he need it. The plan has changed. He’ll bolt the second he gets what he needs. Nothing is worth subjecting himself to more of the Widows manipulations.

 

He manages to avoid the Romanoff until the next day when they are loading up the plane which will be their main transport for the mission. She’s in the other end of it near the cockpit, lost in an argument with Barton conducted in hushed but intense tones as he enters. He drifts near enough to catch part of Barton’s words “—listen to what you’re saying,” when he’s stopped by a quick double tap on the back.

“Sergeant Barnes, just the man I was looking for,” says Hill in the clipped, professional tone she almost always communicates in.

There’s no doubt in his mind that her purpose is to stop him from hearing their discussion. Their brief conversation all but confirms this as nothing new is exchanged. Impatience begins to tear at him even before they take off, when they finally nears the HYDRA base and goes into stealth mode he’s almost vibrating.

They hit the base like a flashbang, with lots of noise but little carnage.

The air strike, lead by Stark, distracts the guards outside long enough for the ground team to close in. The archer and his team stay outside while the rest enters the base only minutes after they touched down.

Once inside they each follow the plan, or rather the others follow it, Barnes follows his own plan. The scientists are in the secure room they fled to the second the alarm sounded like expected, and getting them to corporate is easy as each fear death far too much for someone working for HYDRA. He has them back in the lab by the time Steve checks in with him.

“Status?”

“Just about to get into the records.” He grabs the balding scientist, who has been crying openly since he saw Barnes face, and puts a hand over his mouth, pressing hard enough to feel teeth through the lips.

“Great. Let me know if you need help, otherwise see you in twenty.”

“Yeah, of course. See you.” Shifting his focus to the tall gangly one with the defiant eyes, he picks the earpiece out, drops it on the ground, and steps on it as he drags him to the metal chair in the middle of the room. Nothing can make him go back onto that plane.

“So,” he says conversationally as he puts the scientist into the chair, “I have a few questions. You gonna help or do we have to do this the hard way?”

The only answer he gets is an arrogant sneer.

“Right. I’ll give you to the count of five to think about it.”

The man barely flinches as the Soldier fixes his hand to the armrest and breaks a finger at each count. He’s almost impressed, but that doesn’t stop him from crushing the scientist’s throat and walking away while the blood still gushes from the wound.

“I’ll make this real simple: The one of you who gets me what I want gets to live. Who has access to the records?” He says to the remaining two scientists.

The woman’s eyes shifts minutely to her crying companion.

“Him?” The Soldier asks for confirmation.

She swallows hard a few times before answering. “We all have access to the database, just different parts of it. He has access to your files if that’s what you’re after.”

“Smart girl, you might get to live. You’re new, right?”

“I’m not stupid, if that’s what you’re asking. I just hope someone stops you before you kill all of us.” She doesn’t wait to see his reaction, but pulls the other scientist with her to the computer consoles in the right side of the room.

She’s not wrong about their end, but he’ll make her death quick. Not because she’s smarter than the others, but because he doesn’t taste rubber or feel electricity run through his veins when the looks at her. Unlike when he looks at the other two.

 


 

The worst part is the decision, but turning off the earpiece and leaving Clint to cover for her afterwards is almost too easy. She has diverged from the official plan before, but that had always been sanctioned from above. Even if Maria placed the bug on Barnes before the mission, neither she nor Clint had agreed fully with her plan. She has to be right, if she’s not she’ll be letting down them as well as Steve. Natasha’s not sure she can bear that.

Even without the blinking dot on the screen to show which room Barnes is in, he’s easily located. The noise is audible even through the thick steel door. Whether this means she’s too late or not is yet to be determined.

The door is locked, but that barely slows her down, she has the lock disabled in seconds. However the state of the room makes her pause in the open door. She was right in her assessment of Barnes still being the Winter Soldier, as if there had ever been any doubt. At least now the others will see it too.

Twisted metal sticks up from a mount in the middle of the room, the metal dentist’s chair ripped from it is lying discarded in the far left corner. There’s a body still tied to it with bits missing you really can’t function without unless you have some pretty serious medical support.

Besides it are two more identifiable bodies, a man with a mangled throat and a woman with a broken neck. The blood pooled around the mount probably comes from him as well, it takes more than one person to spill that much blood.

The only one still alive in the room is by what’s left of a wall of computer consoles, tearing through glass, metal, and plastic like paper.

Natasha’s slipping out a couple of stun-discs when he finally stops and slumps to the ground, with his head in his hands.

“Barnes?” She doesn’t know what she’s asking him, if she’s asking him if he’s Barnes. Well, he wasn’t Barnes to begin with, but at least he was pretending to be before.

“It’s not enough. It’s never enough. I escape and find out they have codes to shut me down. I get the codes and find out they have a kill switch.” Neither the fury of his recent actions nor the slumped resignation of his posture is evident in his voice. It is utterly toneless. “They give me something far more efficient to replace my damaged arm, but it’s not mine, it can never be mine. It’s just another instrument for them to control me.”

He’s unbuckling his vest and shrugs it off to rip the shoulder seam of the thin, black vest underneath the leather. The fabric hangs in tatters, revealing the angry scar tissue where the metal meets flesh. His human fingers move along the seam, searching for something to grip onto.

“Barnes.” Part of her wants to stop him, forcibly or otherwise, but movement might trigger more violence.

“Shut up. Stop calling me that name when you don’t mean it.”

“What should I call—“

“I don’t fucking care. Just get this off me.” He grunts as he gets a hold and pulls. She doesn’t have to see his face to know how much it hurts.

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea. There are people better equipped to do that sort of thing.”

He stops abruptly. “Equipment. Right.”

Almost ironically, it’s his left hand he uses to pull the Mark II from its place on his right hip. He only manages to place the tip of it on the seam before she reaches him and kicks it away.

He reacts with a snarl and launches himself at her. Before he can reach her, he seems to change his mind and twists to punch through an already smashed computer screen.

There’s a click in her earpiece as it turns on, followed by Tony’s voice. “You know what the advantage of designing the tech for your team? You get to override it when people act like morons. Cap wants to talk with you, Romanoff. I think you’d better listen.”

Okay, she can add another name to the list of people she’s disappointed today. Tony only calls her by her last name when he’s pissed at her.

Even being right has lost its luster with Barnes reacting like an actual damaged human being instead of a killer robot. Natasha looks over at him and sees him sitting on the floor again, staring at his mismatched hands. It shouldn’t affect her like it does, but her heart feels like it is being squeezed.

“You need to get over here,” she says when the earpiece clicks again and Steve begins to yell at her. Her voice is calm and her inner turmoil completely hidden. He doesn’t need her excuses; they’ll fall on deaf ears anyway.

To his credit, Steve handles it much better than she had hoped for. He surveys the room calmly and barely even flinches when Clint comes with a set of restraints developed by SHIELD for enhanced individuals.

The trip back to the tower passes in silence, it even spreads to the people they encounter as they escort Barnes to a cell in the basement. But that changes when Tony catches up with them, free of his Iron Man suit.

“Please tell me you’ve contacted SHIELD.” Tony’s not asking. It’s an order, not a question, and it goes over about as well as expected with Steve.

“And why would I do that?”

“He’s not staying here, that’s for sure. He tortured, murdered, and ripped his way through goddamn lab techs. Your pal clearly hasn’t been completely honest with us, Cap.”

“We’re not turning him over to them.” Only a slight frown betrays Steve’s fury, his stance tight and controlled, contrasted by Tony’s wild gesticulating.

“It’s them or the police. Your call.”

Natasha interrupts before the discussion can devolve further, stepping between the two and gripping Tony’s face between both hands. “Tony,” she waits until he focuses on her, and then says slowly, drawing out each syllable, “Wormhole.”

“Ohhh, that was mean, Romanoff. Ohh, that was—ohh.” He begins pulling at the neck of his shirt like it’s strangling him. “You know what? Screw this. You can deal with Tin Man on your own if that’s the thanks I get for helping.” He turns and marches out of the room still pulling at the too tight neckline.

“Please make sure he doesn’t do anything foolish,” she says, looking pleadingly at Clint. While his face clearly says that he doubts he’ll be successful, he still follows Tony.

She turns to Steve and asks, “You ready for this?”

Chapter Text

Back to square one, back to waiting in a room while other people decide for him. Decisions about his freedom, his life, his body, his— No. No more. He won’t allow it. His decision is easy, he made it a long time ago.

The cuff-like shackles around his forearms are made for someone stronger than a regular human being. If he had been worried about damaging his left arm they might even have held him. Standing with his back against the two-way mirror, the Soldier retracts his left arm far enough for the heel of his hand to rest against the edge of the cuff and uses it as leverage. The gears inside his arm whines as he works to force open the shackles.

It’s not enough and he’s forced to pull his hand further into the cuff, dislodging his glove as well as a small panel at the base of his thumb. The pain-like pressure feels like a finger burrowing into his brain, but he can’t stop and after a few long seconds the cuff gives. It opens completely just as a click announces the unlocking of the door to the cell.

Rogers is through it first, quickly followed by the Widow and the Soldier has her by the neck and slams her against the mirror before either can react. When they do react, neither does it in the way he’s expected. Rogers backs away, further into the room, and the Widow pushes the door shut with her foot and raises her hands slowly as if not to startle him.

Then she uses a raised hand to pushes a strand of hair out of her face. The gesture is far too calm for someone a fraction of an inch from being choked out and he searches her body for weapons with his right hand, somewhat hindered by the broken cuffs still attached to it.

“You know, I usually expect at least dinner and a movie before I let someone feel me up, Barnes,” she drawls at him and smiles a crooked smile.

Rogers makes a startled sound, part cough and part laughter, and the Soldier flicks his gaze over to look at him in the two-way mirror. Rogers doesn’t look like someone laughing though, his brow furrowed and mouth turned downward.

Looking at him feels like a knife in the heart he doesn’t have, but it’s almost impossible to stop.

“The choice is quite simple,” he says, eyes locked on Rogers. “Either I’m allowed to leave or I kill her. Pick one.” If he’s lucky, the Widow will pick a third choice and just kill him.

He secures her wrists with one hand, locates the carotid artery on the side of her neck with the other, and pushes down on it.

But she’s strong and his movements hindered by the broken cuff and she slips one hand free with ease. It’s by his shoulder in a fraction of a second, allowing him a glimpse of a stun-disc before she activates it and puts in on him. The pain, which isn’t quite pain but more like intense cold and pressure, runs down his arm before it drops like it’s switched off. Although not before seeing the muscles in her jaw bulge and her eyes roll back as the electricity hits them both.

When he tries to get the stun-disc off the broken cuff hinters the movements of his right arm again, and she brushes his fingers away to peel it off.

“Don’t make me regret my decision, Barnes,” she says, slightly out of breath, when he looks at her.

Despite the large mirror, he hasn’t even realize that Rogers has moved closer until a large hand lands on his shoulder, the thumb warm against the unprotected skin of his neck.

“Bucky, please,” Rogers says, voice pleading.

It makes the rage coiled in the Soldier’s abdomen lash out. To the Widow’s credit, she doesn’t even flinch when his metal fist connects with the mirror right next to her head.

“I’m not Bucky Barnes! I’ll never be Bucky Barnes. He died a long time ago,” he screams at the mirror image of two men, one dark haired and one blond.

Steve looks like he’d slapped him.

The slow, steady movement of the Widow’s hands snaps him from the trance. When she sees him looking at her raised hands, she lowers one to a pocket, unzips it, and slips out a key ring with a rectangular metal tag attached. Still holding her other hand high, she lowers the key ring until it touches the broken cuff. There’s a click that he feels more than hears, and the remaining cuff opens and drops to the ground with a loud clatter.

“Okay, if you don’t want to be called Bucky Barnes, then what do you want us to call you?” she asks.

He doesn’t have an answer. He doesn’t want to be called anything.

“You told me once…in another life that the only people who call you James are those who don’t know you or those you don’t like. How about we call you James then?”

He whirls around to see if Rogers is mocking him, but what he sees isn’t ridicule even if the smile doesn’t reach the eyes.

“James,” the Widow says, like she tastes the word. “Yes, that will do. Now, will you behave so we can get a look on that arm or not?”

                                          

The scans look like something from a nightmare. The unaltered parts of his body are like soft shadows against the stark white of his arm and the parts that has been replaced, muscles and bones alike. To compensate for the added weight of the arm and to keep bones from shattering when he uses it, Stark explains trying not to look anyone in the eye.

It’s the first thing he’s said since the hushed discussion with Rogers and Romanoff earlier and the anger is gone like it evaporated in the green light of the scans. He keeps his shock better under control than Steve, who can’t stop pacing or one of the guards, who is standing stock still with a hand clasped over his mouth, gun forgotten.

But the thing upsetting them isn’t just all the white areas, it’s the wires, five, ten, fifteen, going up through the base of his neck to embed into various parts of his brain. Romanoff turned white when she saw it, it’s the embodiment of his old master’s hold on him.

He stops watching the screens then and picks up the tablet Romanoff abandoned when the scans came up on the screens. The remaining two guards startle at his movement, but the AI controlled artillery merely adjusts to his new position. It’s easier going over impersonal reports of wipings and brainwashing than listening to an increasingly heated discussion of how and why they should fix him. The unrestrained emotions make him uncomfortable.

 “Can’t you just take it apart? This is what you do, Tony. You tinker,” Steve says.

“I can, but that’s not the point.” Stark sounds angry now, frustrated. “Even if I could take it apart without triggering the kill-switch, the interface is so tangled up in his brain that killing him first would be kinder. I’m good at mechanics, no, I’m great at mechanics, it’s the human-mechanics interface that’s the problem. In case you forgot, this thing,” he thumps his chest, “Almost got me killed. And that was a really advanced magnet. I’m not touching him with a ten foot pole unless I get access to some pretty clear schematics. And a brain surgeon.”

“How do you display things from this onto this?” the Soldier asks, waving the tablet at the screens before the discussion turns into an argument.

Stark shows him and he sends parts of two digital reports and a scan of an old handwritten one to different screens.

Romanoff’s voice is almost soft when she says, “You missed one.”

The scan she sends to the screen is about the chair, but thankfully she zooms in on the bottom of the page, below the design sketches. After a few tweaks of lighting and colors a word stands out, a signature, or rather the imprint of one, like someone signed a paper lying on top of the scanned one. Vasily Karpov.

“I’ll go with you,” she says and doesn’t continue with ‘I don’t trust you on your own’ because she doesn’t have to, but that’s okay because he doesn’t either. Especially not since he has stopped calling her the Widow.

 


 

There are people in the meeting room even before they get there; a couple of engineers and a group of analysts who is already going through the data recovered on the HYDRA base. Natasha recognizes about half of the analysts and they have high clearances, she can only assume that goes for all of them.

Steve takes the chair at the head of the table, places it in the corner, and wordlessly directs James to sit in it. The guards still have their guns pointed at him, but as the room is without the weaponry in the ceiling, a remote-controlled Iron Man suit is standing guard instead.

Steve takes his place at the head of the table, standing at ease with his hands clasped behind his back, while Tony is as closed off as humanly possible without involving a neon sign flashing ‘No’ over his head, ankles crossed on table and arms folded over his chest.

It takes more than a little effort not to join Clint by the window, but she stands her ground next to Steve, watching people as they settle down.

When everyone who’s supposed to be there is present, Maria whistles between two fingers for order, and says, “Most of you have been in on Barnes case for a while now, the rest of you have worked at Stark Industries long enough to know that breach of confidence is not tolerated. There will be lawyers involved, but more importantly I will be involved. Now, let’s get started. Miss Romanoff, if you would, please.”

“As you might have heard then Barnes has kept a few things from us. This meeting is about what we do next. One thing is not up for discussion: Whether we are helping him.”

When the uproar dies down, Tony stands up and asks, calmly as ever: “Why?”

“We’ve already had this discussion.”

“No, we haven’t. I tried to, but you and our illustrious leader shut me down.” He gestures towards Steve.

This is clearly payback for the wormhole comment. It had been a low blow, but she had been pressed for time.

“Who’s only the leader, might I remind you, because that guy shot Fury,” Tony continues, shaking an angry finger back at the man of the hour.

 “Oh, so what.” Clint interrupts. “Nat shot me before I brought her in and you don’t see me holding a grudge.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Should I hold a grudge against you for the people killed with your weapons? None of us are free of blame.”

“That’s like comparing apples and oranges. It’s. Not. The. Same.”

“No it’s not, because you knew what you were doing when you sold weapons, even if you didn’t know exactly who bought them. He had no control over it when he shot Fury and those lab techs were fucking HYDRA. Did you see the chair? Because I did.”

Before either can continue, Natasha interrupts. “Okay, here’s how it is: We help him not just because it’s the decent thing to do, or even because he was Steve’s friend. But also because you really don’t want him back in HYDRA’s clutches or even as a free agent with a grudge against us. You saw the kind of damage he could do as a brainwashed shell, how dangerous do you think he could be now that he can think for himself?” Steve shifting like he’s going to say something and she continues even though she should have stopped right there. “But you know what my reason is? They fucked him up, messed with his mind, and altered him to the point where he’s never going to be the person he once was. I know what it’s like to have someone reach inside you and yank everything out. It’s not a choice if I help him or not, but I would like you to have my back while I do it.”

The hum of the air condition is loud in the silence that follows.

“Goddammit, Romanoff. Why couldn’t you just let me stay on my high horse?” Tony sighs and sits down.

As she turns to the screens, she catches a glimpse of James, leaning forward in his seat, eyes alert and focused on her. Yeah, giving that speech definitely hadn’t been her brightest decision, even if it did shut Tony up.

“Okay then. When Department X made the Winter Soldier they fitted his arm with a kill-switch. B— James and I are going to find intell on it to disable it. But let’s start with discussing safety measures, we have two so far, but I’m open to suggestions. Keep in mind that it won’t just be big cities with good cell coverage. And there will probably be periods of time when I can’t break cover.”

When the screens display the right image, Natasha turns back to her audience and continues.                

“This is a heart rate monitor Bruce developed with Tony. It just needs skin contact to record the wearer’s heart rate and perspiration, to follow stress levels and mood swings. Tony’s modifying it to include a tracker as well as getting it to stream the data no matter the connection. Wi-fi, mobile networks, satellite, whatever means necessary.”

Tony looks like he’s ready to burst and she give him a look before continuing. “Tony will no doubt talk about it at length later, but for now what’s important is that James has agreed to wear it and taking it off will not end well.” She pauses again, looking over at James. She wants to spell it out to him, they are the good guys, but crossing them will have consequences.

“Also, I’ll be checking in each day at different times, we’ll need to set up some kind of schedule.”

Maria interrupts, calling out, “On it,” while taking notes.

“My last item on the list is the intell we got on the HYDRA base. Going through it needs to be a coordinated effort. We cannot afford to miss something they can use against us.” She spreads her arms and takes a step back. “And now the floor is open for suggestions.”

There are suggestions and even more questions, but thankfully Steve takes over before her patience runs out. Team leaders are appointed and everyone leaves to go do their things. Natasha can almost smell the coffee when Steve calls her back.

“I still think it’s a bad idea for the two of you to go alone,” he says, crosses his arms over his chest and looks down at her. With anyone else Natasha would have suspected them of trying to intimidating her, but not with Steve. She tilts her head back gives her best impression of looking down at despite the several inches he has on her.

“You’re not coming.”

He just looks at her frowning. That tactic works great with people who can be guilted into agreeing with him. Natasha isn’t among them.

“You’ll stick out like a sore thumb,” she continues.

“How? You’re just as famous as me these days, Nat. You don’t think I’m—”

“Because the people we’re going to talk to aren’t good people, Steve. Do I have to spell it out to you?” James interrupts. He has gotten out of his chair and walked over to them with the guards trailing behind.

“Apparently, yes.  Because it sounds like you’re implying that the two of you won’t have that problem. That you aren’t good people.”

Natasha groans, but neither man reacts, too busy with staring the other one down. Bucky Barnes might be dead, but he left quite an inheritance. It takes years of annoyance to get to the point where people can have an argument by just staring at each other looking exasperated.

She leaves them to it and goes to finally get her cup of coffee. Clint follows her with even more coffee and proves yet again why he has been her closest friend for years by distracting her with chatting about things that doesn’t currently annoy her. When she has her bag packed, she is calm enough to check on Tony’s progress with the tracker in person instead of asking Jarvis.

The door to the lab opens without a sound, but James obviously notices her despite not being within his line of sight, because he shifts, back going stiff. It’s unsettling, but she’s used to it with Steve and it doesn’t surprise her. The lab is livelier than usual. Not only are Tony and the two engineers at work, but the three guards are playing cards, just as loudly, trusting Jarvis to cover for them.

“An hour, two tops. We just need to make and test the new casing,” Tony says when she asks for an update.

She continues to James’ corner, where she’s met with a curt nod she can’t quite decipher.

“I’m assuming you have papers you can travel abroad with and avoid detection,” she says when she’s a few yards away.

He answers with another nod. Oh yeah, travelling with him is going to be a joy.

They are in a cab on their way to JFK Airport under two hours later, his hand camouflaged by an adapted photostatic veil and her red hair by a blond wig. Since they are travelling on commercial flights, weapons will have to wait till they get to their destination, but just to be sure she has carbon-fiber knives hidden in the soles of her boots and the frame of her glasses can be pulled apart to deliver two injections powerful enough to stop an elephant.

There’s a million ways this can go wrong, her lacking in preparation or weapons won’t be one of them.

Chapter Text

He sees the bridge almost a full minute before the train reaches it. It looks nothing like the bridge in the mountains where — No.

He tears his eyes from it and begins to disassemble the new Sig Sauer. First you release the magazine and pull the slide to the rear. Check that the pistol is unloaded before rotating takedown leveler clockwise. Besides the bridge is only 13 feet above the river it spans, falling won’t — No.

Disengage the slide catch leveler by retracting the slide slightly. Separate the upper slide from the pistol frame, lay it on the table. The crisp smell of snow — No.

His fingers close around the recoil spring guide, but he can’t feel it. All he can feel is wind rushing past as—

Romanoff says something but it makes no sense.

 “What?” His voice was a whisper, lost in the sound of the wind rushing past. No, sound of the train. Passenger train. They’re on a passenger train.

“The red bag. On the shelf over your head. Can you get it for me?”

“Why?” He doesn’t want to move, moving might make him — It  won’t, though. Because all the walls are intact and this is a six-person compartment, not a boxcar.

“I’m thirsty and that one has water in it.”

“Get it yourself.” He places the pistol frame, recoil spring and guide still inside, on the table without shaking and looks over at her.

She wriggles a foot clad only in a thin sock at him. “The floor is dirty.”

It would be easier to stay seated, but he wills himself to stand up and grab the bag she asked for.

“Take one for yourself, too,” she says as he holds it out to her. “Travelling dehydrates you.”

“I’m not thirsty,” he answers, mouth dry enough to rasp the words.

“Don’t be so stubborn, Barnes. It doesn’t suit you.”

He takes two bottles out of the bag and hands her one. It isn’t until she starts to tap away on her tablet again he realizes his breathing has returned to normal. He almost smiles then.

“See? Told you some water would do you good,” she says without looking up.

“Yeah. Water. Exactly what I needed.” He inspects each part of the now disassembled Sig in turn.

“I’ve got that one down. I’ve kept plants alive for several months a few times.”

“Impressive.” The Sig is sparkling clean and he begins to assemble it again.

“I know, right? Yet Clint still doesn’t trust me enough to take care of his dog. That kind even lets you know if it needs anything by barking.”

“Unbelievable.” He breathes out as he holsters the gun.

In the following silence he turns to look at her. She’s shifted to face him, one leg folded under her, and the tablet discarded.

“If you’re up for it, you might want to start on the shutdown codes. We’ve got a few hours till Shostka. But only if you’re up for it.”

 She hasn’t acted hostile since she discovered that he had in fact, lied and deceived them from the second he arrived. It makes no sense. Instead of answering he just stares at her.

“I went through the same process when I, ah, switched sides,” she continues when he doesn’t say anything.

“I know about exposure therapy,” he says, cutting her off. He doesn’t say that they’re not the same, because he’s becoming less sure of that.

She reaches into her jacket and pulls out a stack of white business cards with a single word printed on each.

“Just... take it slow, okay? I don’t wanna have to drag your unconscious body around.” The crooked smile she flashes him would’ve taken some of the edge off her words if the worry in her eyes hadn’t already.

He reaches for the cards without a word. He doesn’t need her pity.

He manages to look at all four cards before the headache becomes too severe. Just looking, not even allowing himself to pronounce the words inside his head, still makes his head pound. This will take some time.

A while later he listens in as Romanoff calls ahead and chats with their contact. He blames the headache for how long it takes for him to realize that not only is she speaking Ukrainian with a thick Eastern Polissian dialect, but he understands it perfectly and can identify the dialect.

They have already gone over their plan earlier, so strictly speaking there is nothing new revealed, but he still listens fascinated as crossing the Russian border becomes visiting the Panteleimon Kulish memorial museum and their contact there becomes dear old babusya.

It sounds simple when presented like that. Like none of them are risking their lives trying to evade both the government and less official organizations.

She looks over at him when she hangs up. “We’re staying at a hotel overnight. Kozel already has people staying. From Crimea,” she adds, like it’s supposed to mean anything to him. “Jesus, Barnes. You need to catch up on current events if you’re ever to fool anyone into believing that you’re human.”

The headache is bad enough that he just wants to stare out of the window for the rest of the trip, but he takes the tablet from her outstretched hand and begins to read instead. He’s still reading when they get to Shostka and he sticks the tablet into his backpack without asking, planning to continue reading when they get to the hotel. If it can distract him from the headache, it might distract him long enough to fall asleep.

He doesn’t want to admit it, but being around Romanoff is easier than being around Rogers, even with all her prodding. There are no expectations he can’t live up to and no hurt eyes when he doesn’t.

 


 

Despite the volume being turned all the way down and the phone itself is tucked under her pillow, the ringing still catapults Natasha from sleep more effectively than the sound of a gun being cocked.

It’s not that she hasn’t expected the call, she has, but part of her had hoped it wouldn’t come.

“Nat,” asks Steve on the other end, sounding about as far away as he is.

“Yeah, what is it?”

“It’s just… Bucky’s monitor is going haywire.”

She doesn’t breathe out a sigh of relief, because Steve would notice and get even more worried. “So he hasn’t bolted?”

“No. The alarm isn’t even triggered. But his heart rate is getting really high and it’s picking up sweat too.” He pauses and she bites her lip instead of asking how he has noticed the spike then. “Can you…?”

“On it.” She leaves the phone on the bed, grabs a gun as well as the keycard to James’ door, and heads out.

The light on the lock switches from red to green right away, but the door sticks slightly when she tries to open it. When it finally gives a spoon falls to the floor with a clang. Not only has he jammed a spoon between door and frame, but he has pulled the carpet back to expose the hard concrete underneath.

The door to the bathroom opens while she’s still staring at the quite ingenious, low-tech alarm to reveal the barrel of a Sig Sauer and James, wide eyed and with damp hair at the temples.

Natasha puts her hands up, dangling the gun by the trigger guard. “Sorry,” she says quickly. “Thought I heard a sound.”

“That would be me, going to the bathroom.” In a blink of an eye he’s back in control of himself, face stony and movements smooth and controlled. If he wasn’t still wearing jeans as well as the white tee and dark blue sweatshirt from yesterday she might’ve believed him.

“Sorry,” she says again, “So I see. Getting jumpy, I guess, being so close to what used to be home.” The lie comes easily to her, as she did used to get jumpy when travelling in Eastern Europe. “See you in a few hours.”

He doesn’t bother with an answer, but closes the door right away.

Steve is still on the phone when she returns.

“You might’ve mentioned the nightmares.”

“I didn’t.” He stops, and she can hear him breathe in deeply.

“I know - not any of my business. Except when I’m sleeping with only a cardboard wall between us. Then it kind of is.”

“He hasn’t told me about it, so I didn’t think it was any of my business either.”

“He also didn’t tell us about his plans to use us without any intention of joining.”

“I’m not being naïve. It’s just like back when I got him out of that HYDRA camp. He pretended to be okay and I pretended to not notice how frayed he was. And it worked, he got better.”

“It’s not like that, though. You saw those people in the lab. What was left of them.”

“Bucky’s in there.”                    

“True. But so is the Winter Soldier. Without all the information I might push too hard and let the latter take control.” It’s easier to blame Steve for failing to inform  her than to shoulder the guilt of causing James discomfort earlier. She can’t risk having him disabled in the middle of a fight, but she of all people knows what it’s like breaking the programming.

Distracting James will stop working if he gets too annoyed with her, but they lack the bond Clint forged with her by being an annoying, trustworthy little shit. James doesn’t trust her and every time she tries to build trust between them, she’s met with resentment. Like she’s responsible for messing with his memories.

Natasha manages to fall asleep again after saying goodbye to Steve, but the dark circles under James’ eyes show that he didn’t. His reflexes are still good though, because he catches a bottle she pretends to drop and spots their contact despite having only a general description of him.

Olek Kozel greets them warmly, like he really is seeing his dear niece and nephew for the first time in years, with kisses on both cheeks for her and an enthusiastic pat on the back and hug for James. On the ride to his house he talks incessantly, barely even stopping to breathe.

The family members staying with the Kozels almost make it easier for them to blend in, lost in the extended family. Not that it makes them any less welcome. They are fed until bursting and entertained by little Zoya and Iryna singing oh so prettily. Natasha takes care of most of the talking, but James handles himself better than expected. He keeps his sentences short, but he obviously understands every word and even tries to imitate her dialect.

When it is time to go Olek slips her a beautiful tin with a ribbon on top. She looks at him questioningly and he sighs deeply.

“My dear wife insists that a man with such pretty eyes shouldn’t worry so much. This tea will make your brother relax, do with it what you will.”

James will no doubt have heard him, but thankfully he stands behind her and she doesn’t see his reaction.  

The gift is stashed away with the books Olek gave her earlier. Books she’ll take apart later to get the map and various other pieces of information hidden it them. She’s itching to get started on the books - has been since he gave them to her - but opening the gift already would be rude and taking the books apart in their company is out of the question.

They locate the car by the derelict plant in the northern part of the city like promised. The window in the right rear door is missing and replaced by a plastic bag, but the car starts right away. It might look like a clunker, but looks can be deceiving. It will take them the 50 miles to the Russian border without any problems.

Chapter Text

They spend two full days watching people go in and out of a seemingly ordinary office building in the middle of Moscow. It’s not ordinary though - it’s the headquarters of what used to be Department X, but that doesn’t make the wait any easier to take. An operation like this needs preparation and preparation takes time. He knows this. Of course he knows this - he wouldn’t still be alive otherwise. But each second of staying still grates like sandpaper on his skin.

“Are you aware of how loudly you’re breathing?” Romanoff doesn’t even look up as she speaks, keeping her face in the book she’s pretending to read while keeping an eye on the building across the street.

“I need to do something. Anything. If I stay in this room any longer I’ll go crazy.”

“You’re in luck then. Come here.” She turns a page. “Slowly, no sudden movements.”

The distance could be covered in three steps, but walking at a leisured pace it’s more like five. Far slower than what’s comfortable.

“The couple leaving the building. Can you imitate his walk?” she asks when he’s next to her.

The man walks like touching himself might be dangerous, bow legged and holding his arms like he’s carrying a barrel under each. “I can. Not sure I want to.”

She snorts in response.

“Is he her guard?” he asks.

“Yeah, can’t tell if he’s to protect her from others or herself, though.”

“Does it matter?”

“No, but he might fight harder if he’s isn’t her jailor as well.”

As it turns out, the guard doesn’t stand a chance against them and the woman spills her secrets without much prompting. Not because she’s relieved to be free of her guard, but because she’s so used to obeying orders that it doesn’t matter who gives them.

Romanoff hesitates when they have what they need from the woman and he asks her to check the pair’s clothes for bugs. But he doesn’t wait for her to leave before he pulls the gun out, she would have done it herself if he hadn't offered her the out. The woman pushes her head against the barrel of his gun, making the coil in his stomach wind up further, but he pulls the trigger without wavering. He leaves her body in a different dumpster than the one they put the guard’s body in.

They get into the building without any incidents, the photostatic veils hiding their faces. While a cap hides his hair, her blond wig is a close enough match to leave on. The guard barely looks at them, but every single surveillance camera they walk past buries into him and he has to fight not to hide his face from them.

The lab that the woman worked in looks nothing like what he had imagined. Nothing implies an evil organization or even weapons development - not that he expects it to; the building looks like an ordinary office building and the people inside look ordinary as well.  Nothing explains the prickling at the back of his skull.

While Romanoff works on getting access to databases available only to computers inside the building, he tries very hard not to pace. He needs to appear relaxed, but there are three different entrances and she sits with her back to two of them. There’s a good possibility that there are surveillance cameras in the room too, but looking for more will be far too obvious. He almost misses the hollow feeling then, from back when he was nothing but drive. The drive is still there, but the target shifts constantly, like a compass spinning out of control.

It takes him several long seconds to realize that he’s been staring at Romanoff instead of watching the entrances. It takes him several more to pull his eyes off her. She’s tugging on a strand of hair, like she always does when she’s annoyed with something, mostly with him. The problem is that this time she’s wearing a wig, and it looks like the hairline is puckering.

Bucky clears his throat and adjusts his cap when she looks up at him. Then her eyes shift to the door behind him and he turns just in time to see the handle turn.

He reaches it as the door begins to open.

The woman just outside the door is stocky, wearing a light blue polyester tunic, and pulling a cart with cleaning supplies, but he doesn’t allow himself to relax. “Yes? What do you want,” he barks at her. His Russian is good enough to add the right inflection and the voice modifier does the rest.

Oh, sorry. Thought you’d all gone home for the day. Would you mind if I cleaned while you worked? I won’t make a sound.” She begins to step inside, like she expects him to let go of the door and step back

He’s about to close the door on her when Romanoff clears her throat and his free hand goes automatically to the gun on his hip. The woman sees it and snarls at him, beginning to pull a gun from the pile of rags near the cart’s handle.

She doesn’t get to complete the action before he has her dangling by the throat, pulls the cart inside, and closes the door. It’s only then that he notices her boots, they match the ones he took off the guard in the alley.

The woman is already unconscious by the time she hits the floor and he uses her own gun to finish her off.

“How long do you need?” he asks while rummaging through the cart for more weapons. There are none, she only bought the gun. So they haven’t been recognized at least, even if their intrusion has been spotted. This is a good thing, but it does nothing to relax him.

“Thirty seconds, a minute at most.”

He wedges the back of a chair under the door handle. “Do you have anything to block cameras or do I have to smash them?”

“Already taken care of.”

He’s by the third door when he hears the pounding of boots in the hallway outside. The only chair within reach is an office chair with wheels, but the metal filing cabinet next to it is a perfect substitute now that being noisy is no longer an issue. It topples easily, but the photostatic veil on his hand begins to spark from the abuse and the image of a flesh hand disappears as it glitches. Fuck. With his hand revealed it makes no sense to hide his face and he stuffs both veils in a pocket, relishing the feel of air on his skin again.

The prickling on his scalp has spread down his spine and he wraps the guard’s jacket around his arm before he smashes out a window. He could have removed the windows without smashing the glass, but no, he needs the outlet.

Jumping out of the window from fourth floor onto the garage below is far from their Plan A, but it’s easier than working their way down through a building on high alert. It’s not until he’s wrenched the bars off the window he realizes that the pounding on the door has stopped.

“Romanoff.”

“Ten seconds.”

“Move. Now.”

She grabs the laptop and is sliding over the counter of the lab station when the door explodes. Because of her momentum it only propels her over it faster and she hits the floor next to him with a grunt, but picks up typing right away. She seems unharmed and he peeks over the lab station, waiting for guards to step into his line of sight.

He greets the first guard who peers through the hole in the wall with a bullet to the head. The guard who attempts to throw a gas grenade into the room gets shot in the arm and the grenade lands closer to them than intended. He picks it up and throws it out the window before it can go off.

There’s a muttering in the hallway and the prickling turns to a cold hand gripping his neck. No. Not a hand, a metal clamp holding his head and arms and—

When he’s able to breathe again he sees that Romanoff has moved to crouch beside him, her hand reaching out to him, but not touching. At least his survival instinct had made him crouch down low during his, whatever the fuck that was.

The muttering voice in the hallway gets louder and ends in a loud “Now” in Russian and guards stream into the lab. He wants nothing more than to jump over the lab station and meet them head on, but he stays behind the counter with Romanoff and they pick the guards off one by one. Impulse control, you gotta learn it at some point.

The wave stops before they run out of bullets. What puzzles him is why it stops before they ran out of guards.

A small, harmless-looking man comes into view, neatly stepping over dead guards and into the room. He should know better than to judge someone by appearance alone, but he doesn’t shoot the man and he puts out a hand to halt Romanoff too.

Soldat?” The man sounds almost relieved and that can’t be right. “Sputnik.

If adrenaline hadn’t already flooded his system the headache would been blinding, even with the exposure training he’s been through the last few days. While it doesn’t shut him down like it’s supposed to, it snaps the grip he had on himself like a twig and he jumps onto the counter and launches himself at the man.

Toppling the man is easy, because he isn’t expecting the attack. The puppet isn’t supposed to turn on its master. The Soldier pins the man’s arms to the floor with his knees and it feels so good he laughs.

Privet Doctor Kovich, didn’t expect to see you again,” he says, even though seconds ago he didn’t know who the man is, let alone his name.

Pleading words are falling over each other on Kovich’s lips. The Soldier sticks his thumbs into Kovich’s mouth and curls his fingers around the hinge of the jaw, wanting to get a good grip on him before he yanks Kovich’s head up and slams it into the floor. The words turn into incoherent sounds.

What happened to your funny head games? Your clever speeches? Don’t you have anything to say to me now?” He marks each question with slamming Kovich’s head into the floor. By the third the hard crack of bone against the terrazzo changes, but he can’t stop. Doesn’t want to stop.

Something like a pin prick in his back, but nothing will stop him from pounding Kovich’s head into the floor again and again and again.

He finally stops when his knuckles hit the floor.

There’s blood on his hand and up his arms, there’s even some in his mouth. When he spits it out, his stomach flips and he almost throws up. Then he makes the mistake of looking at what’s left of his former tormentor. The taste of rubber fills his mouth, the smell of burned hair stings his nose, and—

He doesn’t stop throwing up until he’s spitting out thick globs of yellowish green acid. It burns his throat and stings his nose.

“Here,” Romanoff says and hands him a glass of water.

He gulps it down before he looks around. There are dead guards all around and she keeps positioning herself so he can’t see her face even after he gets up.

“Where’d—“ he breaks off. The jab in his side is starting to throb. He wipes his metal hand on his trousers and presses it against the back of his ribs. It comes back bloody.

“Most ran off when they realized they were faced with the Winter Soldier. We need to move before they regroup.”

“Right.” He checks a nearby gun for bullets and tucks it into his holster while she busies herself with ripping her discarded trench coat and refuses to look at him.

“Here, hold this against the wound.” She holds out an improvised dressing. Moving awkwardly, like she’s doing her best not to touch him, she wraps the belt around his torso and tightens it so hard he grunts.

“I would prefer to be able to breathe. If you don’t mind.” He keeps his face blank, not letting her see how fucking weak he feels.

“Fine, have at it.” She flings the belt ends at him and goes to look out of the window.

He loosens the belt, and then ties it again tightly enough to stop the worst of the bleeding, while still allowing him to breathe. When he joins her by the window she’s already halfway out of it. The hour long drive to the safe house they established before going into Moscow is spent in silence.

She calls Rogers while he drives the car and gives him a brief rundown of the mission, glossing over what happened after the failed attempt to use one of his shutdown codes. This at least he’s thankful for.

 


 

“Don’t bleed on my floor.” Natasha’s voice comes out harder than she intends, but she raises her chin in defiance when James looks at her.

“What?”

“I said: don’t bleed on my floor. I don’t want to have to clean up after you here as well.” Yeah, first grade diversion tactics. Clint would have laughed his ass off if he had been there.

In response James just shakes his head and goes to the bathroom with the first aid kit.

It’s bad enough how she stopped seeing him as a threat when he stopped pretending to be someone he’s not. Now she also has to deal with the fury that took hold of her when a guard shot him. Seeing him reduce a man to a bloody pulp barely affected her, because she’s been through that stage herself, but even if they had slept together in the past that didn’t excuse damn near obliterating some guard for a non-lethal shot.

She checks the phone for the hundredth time and, big surprise, no one has called or texted her. Because it’s a burner phone and only people who are on a need-to-know basis has the number. None of which sends her pictures of dogs or disgusting pizzas with the caption ‘wish you were here’.

Sighing, she picks up the photostatic veil and begins to clean it with the wipes that came with the veils. When she’s done she takes the wig to the bathroom to wash it out. Her own hair could use a thorough cleaning too, but James’s still in there so that’s not an option. He’s stripped down to the waist, twisting in front of the mirror above the sink to get a clear look at the wound as he dabs at it. The twisting contorts it and a fresh trickle of blood runs from it down his back.

Making up her mind, she dumps the soaped up wig in the bathtub and turns to face him. “I could help you, if you want me to.”

He looks at her with a blank expression, but hands her the first aid kit. Natasha stays seated on the lip of the bathtub and forces him to come to her. The gash is shallow, but almost four inches long, starting a few inches under his shoulder blade and curves around towards the front. If it had been on the other side where the ribs and muscles are still the ones he was born with it would have done a lot more damage.

Wearing a pair of latex gloves she probes the wound for bullet fragments. The part closest to the front have already begun healing, but she only realizes this when she cleans it and it breaks open again. His only reaction is a small hiss.

“You’re a fast healer. Do you want me to put in a few stitches to keep everything in place?” she asks in lieu of an excuse.

“Sure. Why not?”

When she’s tied the last stitch off he stretches to test their strength, she slaps him open handed on the other side. His yelp startles a laugh out of her, partly because of the hilarity of hearing the Winter Soldier make a sound like that and partly because you really shouldn’t slap the person you’ve just finished sewing up.

“Stand still or I’m going to have to do this all over again.”

She positions the bandage carefully over the wound, but the gloves cause too much friction when she tries to smooth down the adhesive and she removes them to use her bare hands. James stiffens when her fingers brush his skin, but they aren’t that cold so he can just suck it up. She wets some clean cotton wool to clean up the trail of blood below the dressing. When he stiffens again as she pulls at the waistband to clean the last bit, she realizes that perhaps she’s gone a bit too far and she stands up too fast for him to get out of her way. He turns without backing up and she trapped between his bare chest and the bathtub.

It’s not that she’s fazed by being so close to a half-dressed man, not even when she has the certain knowledge of how long it takes for red welts raised by her nails on his skin to go down. It’s the way her heart lurches when he looks at her like that. No one is supposed to be able to make her feel like a teenager just by looking at her. She grew out of that before she grew out of being a teenager.

“Thank you. I…” he begins.

“Yeah, I know. Wounds on the back are the worst. Impossible to reach.” Was that a nervous laughter? The fumes of the antiseptic wipes must have gone to her head.

He doesn’t answer, staring at her lips instead, but his eyes snap up to meet hers when her tongue darts out to lick dry lips.

There are a couple of flecks of blood on his cheek and she uses the clean part of the wet cotton to remove it. Which is the natural thing to do, right? It was in her hand and it was still clean. She has to stand on tiptoes to reach it because of the flat shoes she’s wearing, but it’s still no big deal. Right?

Except he misunderstands her movement.

And it’s clearly his mistake, because she never meant it like that, but now his warm fingers are weaving into her hair and she has to close her eyes against the sensation, because her scalp is itching like crazy from being under the damn wig while… Oh gods, his lips are soft. And the stubble rubs her just the right way. Her mouth opens to him by the merest flicker of his tongue against her lips and—

Her eyes snap open by the touch of a cool metal hand on the back of her neck.

A hard shove sends him stumbling into the sink and she backs away too, away from the heat of his body and his piercing eyes.

“What are you—“ She stops, gasps for air. Natasha turns her back to him, rubbing her hands over her face and teases the limp hair away from her suffocating scalp. A big calming breath and she’s back in control of herself. “I don’t know how you were raised, but you don’t just kiss someone out of the blue. I mean, Jesus, Barnes.”

He doesn’t look up at her, still leaning against the sink, fingers digging into the edge of it.                     

Ignoring him, she goes to the kitchen, grabbing a MRE packet from the box with their provisions on her way, and proceeds to get water boiling in a pot. Heating the so called ‘Meals, Ready-To-Eat doesn’t do much for the taste, but at least it’s easier to swallow hot than at room temperature. Barnes, for reasons unfathomable to her, is content to eat his MRE straight from the pouch without heating it. Well, she knew he was fucked up from the start, this only confirms it. When the MRE is ready she sits down to sift through the new data on a disposable laptop, wolfing down the hot food too fast for her to actually taste it.

It’s dark outside before she joins James in the living room.

Every single weapon they have is laid out on the dining table - even the knives she’s hidden in the soles of her boots. And every single one is sparkling clean and oiled. Everyone has different methods of coping. His apparently involves weapons. Not that she’s judging anyone, hers involves hitting stuff, preferably people.

He has his back to her at the table, but she has no doubt he knows she’s here. She still slaps the notepad in her hand against a thigh though, like she’s approaching a sleeping and possibly hostile dog, and walks towards the table.

“Did that man, the one in the suit, work on you? Before...” She doesn’t finish the sentence, but James nods as her words hangs in the air.

She sits down on the other side of the table and puts the notepad down in front of her. “His official title is Head Psychologist. He probably worked on others too.”

“So, you’re saying I shouldn’t feel bad about my, ah, reaction?” He still hasn’t met her eyes, pretending to be busy assembling the PSG1 rifle.

“I’m saying you did the world a favor.” It’s almost Nick’s exact words coming out of her mouth, but they fit this situation as well as they did when he said them to her.

James looks up at her then, but he’s impossible to read. “Kovich, right? Can’t remember his first name.”

“Ulrich Yakim Kovich. He’s been with them for over fifty years.”

“Huh.”

She’s not quite sure if his blank expression pisses her off because he’s so good at it or it's a near perfect mirror of her own. “I could barely find anything on you in their archive,” she says, almost challenging him to question her abilities. “HYDRA had a more extensive record on you than they did.”

“Wonder why an organization that trains master spies doesn’t have information about their pet projects in easily accessible archives?”

“You think that was easily accessible? I seem to remember excessive gunfire and explosions.”

He tilts his head and looks at her without responding. Because he’s such a badass that things like that is an everyday occurrence. Whatever.

Natasha sighs and slides a piece of paper with a list of names over to him. “These are people within the organization who could have worked on your arm in the past. I’ve marked the ones listed as dead. When Hill gets back to me on them I’ll have it confirmed. Do any of them mean anything to you?”

“That one.” He points to a name halfway down the list, Vitali Rostislav Utkin. “Do you have pictures?”

“No, but I might be able to locate some. You remember him?”

“Nasty fella. Didn’t bother with knocking me out when he worked on my arm. Easier to paralyze me instead, takes less time to recover from.” He says this without any trace of emotion on his face, not even a twitch.

Her stomach turns and she swallows hard to keep her recent meal down.

“Who’s closest to our location?” he asks.

“Why?” she asks incredulously.

“We could pay them a visit, see what they know.”

“We can’t just pick them off one by one. It’ll get noticed. It’s bad enough you were recognized.”

“They already knew I had turned on HYDRA. I haven’t exactly been secretive about it, they’ve been expecting this. So, not a problem.” He crosses his arms over his chest as he dismisses her.

“Okay look, I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression. If I want you to kiss me I’ll tell you, but could we just move on and be smart about this? Because I can absolutely guarantee you that they are scrambling to come up with a response and they haven’t just been severely crippled and exposed to the public like HYDRA.”

“We go after him then,” he says pointing to the Utkin again. “He would have loved installing a kill-switch. That much I’m sure off.”

He gets up and stalks out of the room. She doesn’t have to follow him to confirm that he goes to the bathroom and she turns on the radio for his privacy. When Steve calls, she doesn’t even greet him just says, “Yeah, I know, the monitor’s going haywire.”

“Is he okay?”

“No, he’s not, but he’s getting better. Reacting like a human being even.” She rubs a hand over her eyes, feeling tired and heavy-limbed.

“I wish I could be there.” There’s not even a hint of bitterness in his voice, even though she’s the one who said he couldn’t come.

“And I wish I had a therapist here because I’m really not good at this sort of thing.”

“Clint seems to think you’ve helped him recover from Loki.”

“Clint just needs a steady stream of coffee, pizza, and dogs to stay happy. He’s not really that complicated.”

“Bucky didn’t used to be complicated either.”

“I’m not getting him a prostitute, Rogers.”

This at least gets a reaction out of him and his startled laughter turns to actual laughter. It’s so good to hear him laughing, she relaxes enough to prop her feet up onto a chair on the other side of the table.

“That’s really not what I meant, Natasha,” he says when he stops laughing.

“I know, long day.”

“But you think getting a prostitute might help?” he asks, sounding so fucking innocent she nearly weeps with laughter in the resulting outburst.

“Thank you,” she gasps out when she’s finally done laughing. “I guess I needed that.”

“I sort of figured. But I would love to know why you connect uncomplicated with visiting a prostitute.”

A ping alerts Natasha to an incoming call from Maria before the conversation gets too out of hand and she’s almost relieved to have to discuss impersonal things like evil people and how to get to them. Comparing the new data to what they got from HYDRA confirms that it’s Utkin they have to go after, but in the meantime Maria gets people working on locating Vasily Ivanovich Sobolev, who took over from Karpov as head of Department X.

She and James get a few hours of rest before hit the road again, as one of Natasha’s contacts has managed to get them on a private airplane bound for Sochi. This means that in just a few hours they should reach the dacha by the Black Sea Utkin has retired to. Now if only she can believe that it will all be that easy.

Chapter Text

It’s almost a good lie and he almost believes it. One more hit and he’ll be free. It’s not even a difficult one; he’s dealt with more dangerous situations on his own. Except that since he saw Utkin’s name on a piece of paper, there’s been a barely controlled rage simmering in him, just below the surface. It never goes away.

He breathes in deeply a couple of times, focusing on the now – on the sounds of the car and the smell of a previous owner’s cigarettes. After several long seconds the gears in his arm stop whining and he loosens his grip on the car seat. There is little to do as a passenger on these long, empty stretches of road, the lazy afternoon sun blinking off the calm surface of the Black Sea. Little to distract him. He finished all the preparation he could beforehand, what’s left can only be taken care of once they arrive. Well, except for one thing, because it’s been nearly six hours since his last meal.

He twists around in the car seat, digs through one of the bags on the back seat for the MRE’s, and pulls one out. There’s something comforting about MRE’s, both in the individual packaging and the unassuming taste. And right now it helps him keep focus on what’s right here instead of what’s to come.

Romanoff makes a sound, half disgusted and half disappointed, interrupting his thoughts. “Can you prepare one of those for me, too? Just take my water bottle.”

He shrugs in response and digs out a second package. Main courses and side dishes are put in the flameless ration heaters with water from her bottle and balanced in the open door to the glove compartment. The packaging said three to seven minutes, but until then there’s the crackers and spread. When he’s consumed it and the dessert there’s still a minute and forty seconds left.

“What’s my extras?” Romanoff asks, interrupting his staring contest with the watch.

“Some snack bread, jelly, and raisins,” he says after a quick look.

“Ugh, never mind. You take those, I don’t want them.”

If he hadn’t been so hungry he would probably have opposed her charity. He knows that Romanoff, like himself, needs more calories than her size accounts for. Instead, he focuses on eating the bread without crumbs getting all over the car. When he’s done, Romanoff thankfully turns off from the highway to find a place for them to park and eat.

“You really need to get acquainted with real food,” she says when they are both done.

“What’s wrong with this?” he asks, rolling up the bags and folding the cardboard boxes.

“It’s fine for missions, but you’re not supposed to enjoy it.” Natalia twists in the seat, tucking one foot up under her. “Like, there’s this tiny restaurant just around the corner—“ She pauses mid-gesture and just stares at him. “Nevermind, you’re not interested.” She turns, starts the car, and turns on the radio.

He wants to tell her that he is interested, just to see her that animated again, but it would be a lie. He has no plans of returning to New York with her and they both know it.

They pass Utkin’s dacha just a couple of hours later and drive half a mile past it, before they find a place to park the car and double back to a nearby hilltop.

“How many guards did you spot when we drove past?” It’s the first thing she’s said since the aborted food conversation and neither her tone nor her face gives anything away.

“Two at the gate and three pairs walking the grounds,” he says, matching her dispassionate tone of voice.

“So that’ll make eight guards just outside. Yeah, they definitely expect visitors.”

He doesn’t answer because he knows where this leads and pulls out the scope for the PSG1. It picks up movement inside the house after just a few seconds of calibrating. Phone signals carried by someone moving around show up with a red dot, moving subjects without a phone – human or animal – show up blue, and stationary signals like routers show up as green dots. After a few minutes of studying the building, he puts it down. “I count seven live ones.”

“With Utkin, the cook, and a maid, that leaves four possible guards. That’s doable. Plan A it is.”

“And if I don’t agree?” He keeps his voice completely neutral, unwilling to show his cards.

“Then you don’t agree, but we’re still going with Plan A.”

“I did okay before, without you.” Keeping the anger out of his voice is harder now.

“But we want him alive. We won’t get anything useful out of him if you snap and kill him.”

She might as well have slapped him, and it clearly shows on his face, because for a split-second she does that thing where she frowns while looking sad.

“But mostly because I’m the spy,” she continues smoothly and he hates himself for the way it mollifies him. “Hiding your face with the veil won’t be enough. The guards will be looking for you and we don’t know what kind of security measures there’s build into that place. We won’t get anything out of him if he’s stuck in a panic room.”

They don’t talk much after that.

Her phone pings when there’s half an hour till the day-time maid’s shift begins. Through scope he watches Romanoff flag the maid down and subdue her when she gets out of her little red car. He only gets a visual though, because Romanoff hasn’t turned her earpiece on, and it keeps him from hearing any info she gets out of the maid. Clever little spider. Less than four minutes after she stopped the car, Romanoff has the maid sedated, stripped, tied up, and placed in the trunk.

He gets into position as Romanoff nears the dacha, adjusting to the new distance. The world comes into focus when he settles behind the PSG1, distractions falls away. He barely feels the lower temperature of the earth beneath him, but at the same time is distinctly aware of the wind coming in from the Black Sea. It can’t be much more than five mph, because he can hear the leaves rustle, but the branches are still. It calms him like nothing else does.

He’s closer to the building than he likes, but the signal detection of the scope only has a 200-yard range. Even with the large windows, he would only have a partial view of the inside without the scope, and he needs to be able to track Romanoff throughout for support.

Romanoff finally turns the earpiece on, but doesn’t say anything until she greets the guards by the gate. He follows her way through the house with the scope, occasionally shifting his focus to keep eye on the other residents. The other maid meets up with Romanoff and hands over tasks before she leaves. Utkin stays in his study on the second floor. Just a couple of yards away from being visible through the large panel windows facing the Black Sea. There are two guards just outside the door to the study and one patrolling the place, moving from one room to the next. He can’t quite decide if the two shapes in the kitchen are a cook and a hungry guard, or a cook and assistant. Not that it’ll make much difference.

But even with the constant watch, he doesn’t realize that Romanoff’s cover is blown until he sees two guards zero in on her.

“They’re on to you.”

“Shit.” Her voice sounds tinny through the earpiece. “How long do I have?”

“Ten, fifteen seconds. Only two guards coming for you. You could just take them out.”

“Not yet, better to look like a manageable threat. The guards outside?”

“No movements.”

“Good. Now if—“                     

“I know. I’ll take them out if they move towards the house and warn you.”

She doesn’t say any more, and he loses visual of her as she disables all electronic signals in the house, except for the protected earpiece. It keeps them from calling for help, but it also cripples the advanced features of his scope. He gets a visual of her again when she enters the study on the second floor. One guard shoves her into the room, hard enough to make her stumble and Bucky has to shift his focus to ease his finger off the trigger. He’s a hair’s breadth from plastering the guard’s brain all over the wall behind him.

A couple of deep breaths and he’s back in control. The wig and photostatic veil have been discarded and from the change in the acoustics he guesses that the earpiece has been removed as well. They haven’t restrained her though and there are only three guards in the room. None of them will live to regret underestimating her.

The Black Widow? I’m not sure why I’m surprised. I should have guessed it was you,” Utkin says in Russian. The voice is distorted by the distance from the earpiece and Romanoff’s jamming device, but it’s him. There’s no mistaking the sound of that voice.

There’s the sound of a chair being pushed back and for a brief second Utkin comes into view, before he leans back against the desk.

What will your new masters say to you working with the Winter Soldier again? Hmm? Do they even know where you are?

But Romanoff doesn’t dignify the question with an answer. Instead she looks over her shoulders at the guard behind her and says, “Don’t stand in my blind spot.”

Sure, крошка. Whatever you say,” the guard answers with a hard laugh, but doesn’t move.

She moves too quickly for any of them to properly react, backflipping with barely a bend to her knees, grasping the guard’s shoulders, and pulling him down with her. His gun is in her hand before either of the other two has time to react, the still stunned guard held in front of her like a shield. The one by the window dives back, probably towards Utkin, but her gun flashes in the direction of the other one. She finishes the first guard and advances on the remaining one when the door behind her opens.

He fires the PSG1 at the same time as she takes out the third guard. She shoots a quick look behind her at the dead guard in the doorway. A quick nod in his direction in way of thanks before she’s out of the view, and judging by the sounds, dragging Utkin over the floor.

The guard outside have heard his bullet going through the window and they move for the doors. He takes out the ones closest to an entry point and works out from there. With his limited view one gets inside on the other side of the building.

“Incoming, Romanoff. Just one.”

She only grunts in reply and he’s up and running for the house before he can change his mind.

Of course the guard didn’t even get to enter the room. He finds the body beside the one he took out by the door to the study.

 “I’m coming inside,” he warns, in case Romanoff takes him for a guard.

“Dammit, Barnes,” she begins, but he’s already at the door to the study.

When he enters he sees why she wanted to keeping him out. He should have figured it out himself, Utkin fits the profile of a trophy hunter. There’s a large picture hanging behind Utkin’s desk of all the parts of his arm like they are suspended in the air, hovering inches apart – something between an incredibly detailed painting and a blueprint. To anyone else it would probably be beautiful, but not to him. It stops him dead in his tracks.

Utkin visibly pales when the Soldier finally manages to tear his eyes away from the painting over to its owner.

“James,” a woman’s voice calls to him from far away. “James!” she repeats and it’s Romanoff, standing less than a foot away, looking up at him. “You shouldn’t be here,” she breathes barely audible, to keep Utkin from hearing.

“I can handle it,” he mouths back.

“You should leave it to me. Torture will only make people tell you what they think you want to hear.”

He didn’t mean handle the interrogation and he frowns briefly in confusion.

Lover’s quarrel,” Utkin tuts at them.

He ignores Utkin, because Romanoff’s green eyes are shifting between both of his and he can’t look away. Doesn’t want to look away. Whenever they are close, touching her feels like a habitual, natural thing and he has to hold himself back not to do it. Because it isn’t natural, the memories are fake and he can’t trust them or her.

He abandons the line of thought, not out of fear of what usually follows, but because he can’t let himself be distracted. Not now.

Careful not to touch her, he goes to the painting and rips it from the wall, cracking the glass in the process. The ornate gold frame doesn’t stand a chance against him and he reduces it to scrap wood and slivers in just a few movements. He doesn’t want the painting, but he doesn’t want Utkin to have it either and he rolls it up, takes a heavy gold lighter from the desk and sets it on fire.

Holding the burning painting in his left hand, he walks over to Utkin. “Hope you weren’t too attached to it,” he says in Russian to ensure the old man understands.

Я, ah,” Utkin begins, but breaks off as the fire gets too close to his face.

The fire singes his glove, but he holds on as the last parts of the painting are reduced to black flakes. Never taking his eyes off Utkin.

I don’t know what you expect to get from me. It’s been decades.” Utkin tries to look big, tied to a chair with ashes in his hair and sweat on his brow.

The Soldier grabs Utkin one handed and lifts him and the chair, until the old man is at eyelevel with him. He wipes his soot stained metal hand on Utkin’s face before setting him back down.

You let him to act like this? I thought you were supposed to be the smart one.” Utkin looks past him, addressing Romanoff, squinting like he has trouble focusing.

The Soldier doesn’t ask why she should let him anything, because Utkin has been spewing nothing but lies so far.

Keep talking, старик. See how long it takes for his patience to run out,” Romanoff says with a smile that’s both sweet and terrifying.

The Soldier smiles back at her when her eyes flick over to him. He likes this side of her.

“How long till the drugs kick in?” he asks, switching back to English, pointing to the red pin-prick on Utkin’s neck.

“Any minute now.”

“Good.”

He goes to the carved mahogany desk and flips it as if it weighs four pounds and not four hundred. He rips out each drawer in turn, not knowing exactly what he’s looking for until he finds a small black book in a hidden compartment. There’s two different eight digit numbers on the first page, but the rest are blank. He holds it up for Romanoff to see.

A safe?” he asks in Russian, more for show than confirmation.

You think he’s that predictable?

He shrugs in response.

Romanoff doesn’t walk over to Utkin, she fucking slinks across the room, swinging her hips like she’s wearing a skirt and high heels instead of the maid’s gray slacks and dress shirt. Utkin’s mesmerized by the time she reaches him. So is the Soldier. When she reaches out, Utkin’s so enthralled he doesn’t flinch back, and she pushes a strand of gray hair back from his face.

Could you please help me? I’m not asking for much.” Her smile is pure sweetness now.

Utkin’s head lolls when he looks up at her, but he doesn’t answer.

Romanoff sighs. “I miss the old days. Don’t you?

Utkin nods eagerly, but then he glances over at the Soldier again and his brow knits up. “You two aren’t supposed to work together any more.

The Soldier walks over to Romanoff and casually puts his arm around her shoulders. The gesture feels far more familiar than it should, but the resentment lessens when she flinches at the touch. “If you help us, they’ll never know.

And they’ll never know about your secret,” she adds.

That does it. Utkin pales again and looks away. “No—how can you—they can’t know.

The Soldier looks down at her and she shrugs minutely as she meets his eyes. It was a gamble, but one that paid off. Everyone has secrets, especially people like Utkin.

So you’ll help us,” she prompts again.

Utkin’s eyes goes to the large Oriental rug in the middle of the room before he yanks them back at them.

This is a good thing, Витя. You’re doing a good thing.” She reaches out for Utkin and the fucker leans into her hand when she touches his cheek.

Turning away from them to hide his snarl, the Soldier rolls the carpet back. There’s a plain wood floor underneath it.

Utkin’s laughter sounds almost childish and it cuts his calm to pieces. He’s by the chair before Romanoff can react, tilting Utkin back and letting his head hover over a few inches over the floor.

You really thought it would be that easy, my dear, dear experiment.” Utkin can barely get the words out through bouts of laughter.

The Soldier’s arm burns like there’s tools cutting into it, but it’s all in his mind, because he can clearly see it and it’s fine. The plates are shifting and the gears are whining, but it’s fine and no one’s touching it. His hand is shaking with the effort of not killing Utkin, but all the joins are there and the interlocking plates are all in place, and—

A soft click followed by the hiss of released air snaps him back to reality. He releases the laughing Utkin, letting him fall the last few inches to the floor and turns to see Romanoff by a pair of large trap doors. The safe, and there is a safe, it wasn’t a trick played on them, was only hidden by the floor.

He punches in the first set of numbers on the keypad on the front, but the only reaction is two quick flashes of a green diode. He tries the second set and the green diode stays lit this time. Another hiss of air and the door opens slightly.

Now that he’s finally there, he’s almost afraid to open it. Afraid of what he’ll find. He doesn’t hesitate though, reaching out with his left hand, expecting the massive metal door to be heavy. It’s not of course, it’s meant to be opened by a fail old man and the hydraulics lets it glide open with barely any effort.

They find more than he had dared hope for. There are drawings, reports, schematics, and old recordings of ‘sessions’ on neatly labeled CDs. He tries to pick some of it up, but his hands begin to shake again and he lets Romanoff gather it all.

When she’s done, he turns to Utkin on the floor. It’s impossible to tell if he’s laughing or crying now.

“Is he even aware anymore? Can he still recognize me?”

“Probably not.”

“Too bad.”

He gives Utkin a far cleaner death than he deserves – a bullet between the eyes, followed by two to the heart. He doesn’t look at the body, not even when spreading gasoline all over the room and the rest of the dacha. Utkin isn’t worth another second of Bucky’s attention.

 


 

This time Natasha calls Steve before he calls her. Both to relate the events of the mission and to allow James his privacy in the bathroom. When the monitor starts beeping a few minutes into the conversation, Steve doesn’t ask, he doesn’t have to.

“He did well,” she says when he’s turned it off. “Kept the Soldier under control.”

“Good, that’s good.” He doesn’t exactly sound relieved, but he sounds less worried.

“And he’ll be even better when we know more about his arm. You get Tony on it the second I’ve send you everything.” She doesn’t mention the CDs, because it’s up to James if anyone else should watch them and Steve is out of the question pretty much no matter what. There’s no reason to torture him like that.

“Of course, he’s already waiting for it.” He pauses and she can hear him exhale slowly before continuing. “Will you come back now? Both of you?”

“Sure,” she says, noncommittally. Because she’s not sure if James will come with her or even if she wants him to. “But not until tomorrow. We’ll stay here for the night to let Tony go over everything. If he’s satisfied, we’ll cross back over to Ukraine tomorrow and take it from there.”

“Looking forward to seeing you again,” he says in a tone a bit too light to be believable, unconcerned. “Maria wants to talk with you.”

“I can’t find Sobolev’s current location,” Maria says instead of a greeting, because God help them all if she shows any personality with Tony chatting in the background.

“Have you tried the contacts I send you?” Natasha asks, professional like and completely sympathetic about not wanting Tony to get the upper hand. Ever.

“I have, and they are clearly your contacts. But I still need to hear back from some. Barton managed to locate an old address, but it doesn’t look like he’s used it for at least a decade.”

“We probably won’t need him, but don’t give up yet. Knowing the location of the head of Department X could come in handy.”

They end the conversation and Natasha pulls out the papers to begin scanning them, when she’s interrupted by water running in the bathroom. Again the urge to go to James is strong, even though she knows that he won’t thank her for it. Was she ever this much of a pain to Clint? But no, it doesn’t compare, because she wanted to trade in KGB for SHIELD while James… Well, who knows what he wants. She’s not even sure he knows what he wants. The glimpses he shows, when not putting up that infuriating blank face, are too brief and contradictory to give her a proper read on him.

It would be easier if the memories of their shared past were just a fabrication, a residue from her past with the Red Room, but they aren’t. Even if she didn’t have the records of the two of them being at the Red Room at the same time, she can tell from experience if a memory is fabricated or not. And as disjointed the memories of her time with the Winter Soldier is, there’s no doubt in her mind that it’s real. They trained together and they had a relationship of sorts. It must have had a big impact on her, because sometimes he feels so achingly familiar it makes her to reach out to him, only to be met with a stony face. Which only makes it all the more frustrating, because she doesn’t mean to reach out. This isn’t who she is, she isn’t a mushy romantic who makes doe eyes at pretty men. She rules her feelings, not the other way around.

When James enters the living room, she’s busy scanning the pages and she doesn’t look up until she’s packaged, encrypted, and send it all off. It doesn’t really come as a surprise that when she does look up he’s cleaning their weapons at the sofa table.

“I appreciate a clean and well-oiled gun as much as the next girl, but there won’t be anything left for you to clean if you keep it up,” she says, combating complicated feelings with humor like a good soldier.

He looks at her with a blank expression for a long while before saying, “You can stop with the pretend now. We’ve got what we needed. You don’t have to keep up the act.”

“The act?” she asks incredulously.

“Acting like you care. About me.” He makes a dismissive wave with the hand holding a gun, seems to realize this, and puts it down with a thud.

Natasha pinches the bridge of her nose to calm herself. It doesn’t work. “This isn’t an ‘act’. I know this comes as a surprise, but actual human beings do things for a multitude of reasons.”

“Right. Because you trust me so much you let me call the shots.”

Natasha stands up so quickly the chair skits back a couple of inches, but stays there clutching the edge of the table, staring him down. “How can I? You lie more often than you tell the truth.”

“At least I didn’t manipulate your memories,” he says, leaning back on the couch.

“What are you talking about?”

“The whole shared past thing. I have to give it to you, it’s a great idea for building trust.”

“I hate to break it to you, but that wasn’t me. Those were actual memories. Our records put us at the Red Room at the same time.”

“Like they would allow two assets to fraternize.” James shakes his head in dismissal and gets up to leave the room, but she blocks his passage, forcing him to either walk around her or stop. He stops out of reach.

“They didn’t allow it. Why do you think the memory was removed?” In her mind’s eye she sees his face behind a window frosting over. The anguish she felt back then is fresh like it was only yesterday, while at the same time she’s unable to recall what happened before or after.

“Stop lying,” he says through gritted teeth.

“I’m not. Why would I? The second the data is confirmed, you’re out of here, off to find someone to pay for doing what Tony would do for free.”

“See? Manipulating.” He steps closer, a smirk on his lips.

“I’m. Not. Manipulating. You. If I wanted to manipulate you, I would’ve had you wrapped around my little finger before we left New York.”

 “Sure you would. That’s why you can’t stand me touching you.”

“You shot me. Twice. And conned people I care about. When I try to help you act like I’ve kicked your dog.”

“Then why do you help me if I’m such a bad person? Why do you even care?” He’s almost snarling at her, but it looks off, looks…forced.

That’s when it hits her, this isn’t anger directed at her and she knows exactly how to react. Because she’s seen this scenario played out already, only from the opposite direction.

“I know what it’s like learning to be human again,” Natasha says softly, but without pity. “I know how awful it feels to remove the mask when it’s all that keeps you safe. I do this because I’ve got red on my ledger and you meant a lot to me once.”

James just stares down at her. If it wasn’t for the shallow breathing she would almost have believed him calm.  “I’m not who I used to be. Not the man who shot you or even the one you loved. Not anymore.”

“You don’t have to. Be who you want to be. Be someone trustworthy, someone who doesn’t break Steve’s heart by disappearing.”

“What about to you?” His eyes are blue, blue, blue and they take her breath away.

“Be who you want to be,” she repeats.

“And if I want to be the guy kissing you?”

She doesn’t answer, stepping closer and angling her face up to his instead, but he doesn’t close the gap.

“Because I want to be sure you won’t push me away again,” he says and she’s not quite sure if he means it as a joke or not.

Instead, she grasps the sides of his face, pulling him down to her. He follows willingly until just before they touch, his breath warm on her skin, but still no kiss.

“Kiss me. I want you to—“ Natasha doesn’t get to finish before he feathers the softest of soft kisses on her lips. A brush against the middle of her lips, gone too fast for her to kiss back, because he moves to place another on the corner of her lips, then back again to capture her bottom lip with his.

She shifts her hands to his neck and push against him with the entire length of her body. He’s so firm and solid and just there it grounds her in the moment. She parts her lips further encouraging him to do so too. The minty taste of toothpaste on his tongue clash against the coffee on hers when they meet, but he’s so warm and so perfect it doesn’t matter.

His hands are trembling on her back like he’s afraid that she will break or disappear if he press too hard and she pushes him backwards, onto the couch, straddling his lap in a far more wanton move than she meant it to be. Proving to James as well as herself that this is real, this is actually happening.

He gets it, of course he gets it, he knows her as well as she knows him, and circles her waist with both arms. In the end she’s the one who breaks the kiss, resting her forehead against his before pulling back and looking down at him.

“Natalia.” His voice is as broken as she feels.

As much as the kiss makes her short of breath, the look of his red lips and blown pupils only makes it worse. It’s not just that he looks vulnerable, it’s that he allows her to see it. She dips down for a second kiss, cradling his head like she’s lost at sea and he’s a raft, provisions, and a radio all rolled into one.

Then the phone rings.

It takes three rings before she notices it and by then the level is so loud it’s almost painful. She breaks the kiss for the second time in far too short time and has to lean back to dig the phone out of the front pocket on her jeans.

It’s Steve, which means the monitor is beeping again. Because she didn’t think far enough to realize this would be a problem. James frowns at her in confusion as she gets up, turning away from him.

“It's fine, Steve. Under control,” she almost yells into the phone as a greeting.

No one answers. Then laughter comes from somewhere in the background and Tony says loudly, “Called it.”

“So, if we’re at that level of trust, perhaps Bucky should take off the tracker. Then we won’t have any alarms going off.” Steve doesn’t sound offended or disappointed, he sounds way calmer than she feels.

“Elevated heart rate, no sweat, and no adrenalin mean sexy time. Well, if he’s doing it correctly the sweating will come later, but—“ says Tony in the background.

“Enough,” Steve interrupts.

“I’m sorry, Steve. I’ll get him to remove it.”

“I’m glad you two are connecting—“ Steve says, going from reprimanding team leader to embarrassing dad.

“Please don’t.”

“Yeah, well now you know how I feel.”

When she finally manages to end the conversation and turns back to face James, he’s dangling the tracker by the cord, staring at it.

“So they knew because of this,” he says. As a statement, not a question.

“They did,” she confirms anyway.

“And this isn’t the first call you’ve gotten about it.”

“You knew it picked up your stress levels.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know—Fuck!” He barely slows down as he picks up his jacket and exits the safe house, leaving her with the pressing need for a punching bag or a local Hydra cell to beat up.

Chapter Text

Bucky doesn’t run, because running in jeans and a leather jacket makes you stand out. But he does walk fast enough to satisfy the urge to run. He walks until he has to pick a different direction or cross the stony beach, walking straight into the Black Sea.

It’s a cloudy day and the beach is empty except for someone walking their dog far away to his left. If he crouches down near the scraggly bushes they won’t be able to make him out and he’ll almost be invisible then.

Invisible. He could become invisible if he took off now. They won’t be able to find him if he stays under the radar. The Sig Sauer is resting comfortably against his ribs and he carries his fake identification papers as well as money to pay for new ones. He’d need to figure out what to do about his arm, but that’s not what’s holding him back.

What holds him back is a pair of sparkling green eyes, a slim hand touching his. Hell, even a strong arm wrapped around his shoulders and a laugh - deeper than it should be - that touched something hidden inside even when he called himself the Winter Soldier.

It’s dangerous to be dependent on people, it leaves you open to attacks both from them and from others targeting them. But part of him wants to depend on them and to be depended on. He wants to be able to relax because someone else got his back. He needs it.

He returns to the safe house.

The perimeter alarm going off inside the house isn’t loud enough for him to hear, but he sees Natalia in the window when he sets it off. He knows where it is and could have avoided it if he wanted to, just as she didn’t have to look out of the window to confirm that it’s him. They are both being very polite.

She’s on the couch when he enters, inexplicably wearing her jacket but with bare feet. “Wasn’t sure you’d come back.”

“I wasn’t sure I was going to.” He keeps back, near the door. If he gets too close to her, he’ll want to touch her and if he touches her, they won’t get to talk.

The tracker is on the dinner table. Its gray casing cracked and the guts spilling out, drawing his attention like a beacon. He didn’t smash it before he left, so she must have.

“I’m sorry about the tracker,” she says.

“It was my choice to wear it.” Bucky keeps his voice carefully neutral and body relaxed.

“That doesn’t make it right. We should’ve come up with something else.”

“Like what?” He tests her. Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.

“Well, kissing you sure made you return pretty quickly,” she says and shoots him a crooked smile.

She’s clearly joking, but it’s the wrong answer with him feeling so goddamn exposed. It sends ice down his spine.

She’s on her feet and next to him in a heartbeat, near but not touching. “No,” she says like she’s arguing with his silence. “Don’t do that. Don’t pull away.”

As a defense against an imagined attack he’s blanked his face, he realizes. He relaxes his features and winds a lock of red hair around a finger. “I won’t pull away.” It’s a gesture to emphasize his words, and luckily it works.

Natalia breathes out and brushes her fingers over his face, tentatively, barely even touching. “You’d better not. I have enough trust issues as it is.”

You have trust issues,” he laughs and drags a hand through his hair. When he moves away to sit on the couch’s armrest it isn’t as much to get away from her as is to clear his head.

“I thought that was pretty obvious from the tracker and my whole not trusting you when you came to the Tower.”

“Both of us have to work on it then.”

She looks as exposed as he feels and he reaches out a hand to pull her closer again. His arms slip around her waist and hers around his neck like they’ve done this many times before. And they probably have. It’s easy and comfortable and so very familiar.

“But you trust me now?” he asks, still testing, daring her to reject him.

She doesn’t answer right away, considering his question carefully. “I do,” she says after what feels far longer than the few seconds it was. “Do you trust me?”

He doesn’t need to think about it, he already has. “That’s why I came back.”

A barely perceptible tremor runs through her. If they weren’t this close Bucky wouldn’t have picked up on it. It doesn’t show on her face.

His hand doesn’t shake when he reaches up to push a loose strand of hair out of her face. But that’s only because it’s the left one and it never shakes. She leans into his touch and how can he resist? He snakes his hand around to the back of her neck to pull her down to him. Her lips are soft against his, her tongue clever, and he has to force himself to slow down. There’s no need to hurry.

When she makes an impatient sound he pulls away from the kiss and moves to her jaw, kissing along it to a sensitive spot underneath her ear. Goose bumps cascade down her neck in response and he has to hide his smile. He didn’t know how much he’d missed this, but now it pulls like bottomless hunger. Natalia captures his head with fingers far stronger than they look, guiding his mouth back to hers. This time her pace matches his, slow and steady.

The stitches in his back pull uncomfortably when he tries to shrug out of his jacket without breaking the kiss. He left them in for extra stability while taking out Utkin, but now they’re only in the way. Her jacket is far easier to remove. Except that when it’s off there’s an unfamiliar bump on the front of her shoulder, beside the strap of her top. It feels like a scar and he breaks the kiss to look at it. It’s small and circular, puckering slightly. A bullet wound. One that he gave her.

“I did this,” Bucky says, tracing a finger around it.

She’s silent for a long moment, and when he looks up at her, she asks, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. I came back, didn’t I?” He pulls her closer, or he tries so, but she resists.

“You’re still recovering. It’s easy to make a bad decision, fall for someone just because they’re being kind to you.”

Natalia is as scared of this as he is and it somehow makes it easier for him to handle it. “I’ve made my share of bad decisions in my life, but this isn’t one of them. Tell me you think this is a mistake and I’ll back off.”

With a minute shake of her head, she steps closer again and rests her arms on his shoulders. She smells slightly of soap and even fainter of the leather jacket he just removed. Underneath it all, so faint he doesn’t catch it until his nose is right next to her skin, is her scent, so familiar it makes his gut tighten.

The next kiss turns almost desperate.

He’s not sure which one of them makes the first move for the bedroom, but they stumble there, unwilling to let go of each other. She pushes him onto the bed and he lets himself fall back with a grin while she strips off her shirt and crawls after him. Her bra is black and as utilitarian as he expected. Somehow he can’t imagine her wearing anything lacy unless it was for a specific purpose.

When she straddles his hips, he sits up and it’s a goddamn miracle that neither ends up elbowing the other as he works to remove her bra while she tries to remove his shirt. He stops her chuckle with his mouth on a nipple, and she returns the favor by pulling on his hair hard enough to hurt. Flipping her onto the bed, Bucky moves down her body, kissing as much skin as he can until he gets to her jeans. They pose a bigger problem than he expected.

“What the hell?” He pulls at them again, but again they barely even move. No wonder, the fly zipper is only a couple of inches long.

“You have to, like-” she says, lifting her hips off the bed and showing him how to remove jeans that are just about shrink-wrapped onto her.

He almost falls off the bed when they finally come down off her hips. They slide down the thighs marginally easier and even more so with the calves, but as one leg catches on a heel he almost calls it quits. Except that Natalia is now sitting up on the bed, hair tousled and eyes bright with laughter, making his own pants feels uncomfortable tight. He gets off the bed for leverage and flings the damn pants into the living room once they release their hold on her.

Finally he has her naked on the bed and he crawls back onto it eagerly. Her skin is as soft as he expected, her body an intoxicating mix of hard muscles and softness. Kneeling in front of her he weaves his fingers through the soft hair at the nape of her neck, biting her bottom lip gently, and pushing her back slowly as she opens her mouth to him.

When she realizes what he’s doing she breaks the kiss. “Very smooth, Barnes.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he says, positioning himself above her, lining their bodies up while keeping his weight off her. He knows how strong she is, but part of him insists that he’ll crush her if he lies on her with his full weight.

Like she reads his mind, she wraps her legs around his, pulling him closer. Supporting his upper body on his left arm, Bucky skims the flesh and bones hand down her side and up again to cup a breast. The nipple hardens under his thumb and her breathing speeds up as he works it. He could do this for days and not tired of it. Though that might cause other problems, considering most of his blood has already migrated to his lap.

Did they ever get to explore each other’s bodies like this back then? His memories of that time are too fragmented to make out entire sequences of events. He gets snatches of sound or images, a few with both, but he can’t make out if the white her hair is spread out on is snow or pillows, if the moon light on her stomach is coming in the window or directly from the sky above.

He needs to ground himself in the moment instead of the past and he slips his hand down between Natalia’s thighs to find her oh, so ready. His groan is fainter than hers but no less heartfelt. A few gentle rubs and she’s digging her fingers into his back. Her fingers are firm, but not as calloused as his when they travel over his shoulders and down his chest. She yanks on the belt hard enough to pull him flush against her again, trapping his hand between them and he laughs into her mouth.

“Wait.” He slides off her and the bed, to go dig through his bag near the bathroom door.

“You brought condoms,” she says dryly, following him to sit on the edge of the bed.

“Yeah, to protect the guns under water if necessary.” He shrugs. Doesn’t everybody?

Because she apparently wants him to suffer, she leaves his boxers on while she removes his jeans, letting him kick them the rest of the way off along with his boots. Her eyes are trained on him as he straightens and she traces a circle around the waist band. He’s so hard it hurts, but she insists on taking her time. When she finally removes the boxers and wraps a hand around him, he has to close his eyes against the sensation. Thankfully she puts the condom on after that.

Bucky pushes her back on the bed again, less smoothly this time, and she wiggles back to allow him room to crawl after her. Her eyes are locked on his as he positions himself above her, pupils large and bottomless. She closes them as he enters her and she’s so tight he’s afraid to move in case he hurts her. Pleasure and pain can look so similar at times.

“Okay?” he asks, hesitantly.

“Definitely okay.” Her pink tongue darts out wetting her lips, almost in slow motion. “You?”

He nods and lowers his head to kiss her again before he begins to move. He likes giving her pleasure, seeing her pupils dilate when she looks at him. Once he finds a comfortable rhythm he begins to pick up speed. She meets him halfway each time and it drives him on and on. Giving as much as he’s taking. Bucky has no way of knowing how long it’s been since he’s been with a woman, but he knows his body well enough to judge when he can’t hold back much longer.

“Christ,” he chokes out. “I can’t—“

Natalia understands without further explanation and she wraps her legs around his hips and taps his side. He lies down on his back, holding her hips close to him while he shifts. Her legs frame his sides and he digs his fingers into her hips as she begins to move. Supporting herself with a hand on his chest, she slips the other one between her legs. Her face is partly obscured by her hair, but he can see enough to know she’s watching him with parted lips. Between his warm hand on a breast and her own between her thighs it doesn’t take long before she comes with an almost surprised gasp, a few hard snaps of his hips up into her and he’s tumbling over the edge with her.

She collapses on top of him and then slides off to snuggle against his side. He buries his face in her hair and breathes her in again and again. They are both hot and sticky, but he doesn’t want to move because while he stays here, he doesn’t have to think about anything else. All the shit goes away, to be replaced by a hand on his chest, a slow breath that matches his own.

So while he’s usually the restless one, this time she’s the first one to move, shifting to look up at him. Her eyes going from one eye to the other and back again, over and over again.

“Natalia. I’m glad I came back,” he says in a voice that is far calmer than he feels.

She smiles and opens her mouth to speak, but closes it again. With a laugh, closer to a huff of air than actual laughter, she sits up with her side and back to him, looking down over her shoulder.

“Well, this is awkward. I don’t know what I’m supposed to call you anymore.”

There’s a small smile on her lips, but the look in her eyes is almost uncertain. He puts his left hand on her back and slides it down her spine. She doesn’t pull back, instead she leans into it, and he lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding.

 “I don’t know. I kinda like it when you call me James.”

With a toss of her head, she flips the strand of hair away and flashes him grin. “Thank God, because I’m not calling you Bucky. It sounds like a pet’s name.”

He laughs and pretends he didn’t see the worry in her eyes. “If I had run, would you have come after me?” he asks, because he needs to know. Even when he doesn’t know what he wants her to say.

Natalia stays still for far too long, then she shakes herself and turns to face him fully. “I honestly don’t know. I think I would have wanted to, but at the same time I wouldn’t want to stop you if you wanted to go.”

It is the perfect answer, or at least the only one that can settled the churning in his stomach like it does. He sits up next to her and leans his forehead against hers. “Thank you,” he says softly, almost in a whisper.

They get dressed without a word, even though she shoots him a dirty look when she has to retrieve her jeans in the living room. He lingers at the doorway for long enough for her to notice and look at him.

“I think I should call Steve—“ He trails off, not sure what he wants to talk with him about.

She doesn’t answer, instead she goes to her bag, comes back assembling a phone, and hands it to him.

“I always carry an extra burner phone,” she explains. “Call him on this number. It’s his private number. The two of you can talk without being listened in on then.”

“Thank you,” he says again.

“I’ll give you some privacy.”

He takes her hand to stop her. “You don’t have to.”

“I know, but I want to.” The smile Natalia gives him is warm and he takes the offer like she meant it – a gift between people who don’t have much to give.

After she leaves he ends up staring at the phone, with his thumb hovering over the call button, for so long he misses his opportunity. Perhaps he’s gone lax after letting down the wall between them, or perhaps he’s too distracted by wanting to let down another, but the end result is the same. Someone approaches the house and he doesn’t notice until they are half way up the driveway.

It’s a man, accompanied by the tapping of a cane. In different situation this wouldn’t have been a problem, but right now it very much is. The safe house looks abandoned from the outside and they have been careful to only enter and exit through the backdoor. And despite walking slowly with the aid of a cane, the man has avoided tripping the perimeter alarm.

Bucky is by the door before the man reaches it, gun aimed at the visitor’s head though the wood. Even with the film covering the windows, there’s no mistaking the man. The image Natalia showed him was old, perhaps more than twenty years, but the current head of Department X haven’t changed much.

Sobolev is wearing a well fitted suit that could easily be hiding a ballistic vest, but what catches Bucky’s attention is the hand not holding a cane. It’s curled into a loose fist. Why would he come this close to the unrestrained Soldier? Even with the kill-switch, it poses a risk to come within physical reach. But more importantly how? How did they track him down? Either Natalia or himself would have discovered it if someone had tailed them from Utkin’s house. The road had been empty and the sky clear for most of the trip, and they had changed cars a couple of times, just to be sure. He needs to know how so it won’t happen again and there’s only one way to figure it out.

He opens the door.

“Mr. Barnes, how are you doing this fine evening?” Sobolev says in perfectly unaccented English. He notices the gun still aimed at him and shakes his head at it. “Don’t be silly. I believe you’re familiar with this device?” He raises his hand and Bucky sees a glimpse of metal in his fist. It’s the kill-switch, like he suspected. “Shoot me and I drop this. I drop this and your arm explodes, taking quite a chunk of your torso with it. Oh, don’t be like that, did you really think I came here unprepared?”

He needs to stall then, figure out what the old man wants. With the gun still aimed at Sobolev, Bucky opens the door further and gestures for him to come inside. “What do you want?”

“I’m just here to talk with you.” Sobolev walks through the entryway and into the living room like he owns the place. When he sits down at the dinner table, he does so with the ease of someone who doesn’t have to worry about the window at his back or the one on his left.

Bucky stays in the entryway where he can keep an eye on both Sobolev and the single window he’s visible through. There’s no way Sobolev came without backup even if he entered the house alone.

“I’m afraid that you were sold off before I took over from Karpov. But I have heard great things about you and I wanted to meet the Winter Soldier.”

“And now you’ve met me.”

“Indulge an old man. Tell me how you’ve been.” Sobolev gestures at the chair opposite him, but Bucky ignores it and remains standing, the gun still trained at the unconcerned man.

“No. How did you track me down? Why?”                        

“It has something to do with a transmitter on the things you stole, I believe. I must admit, I don’t quite understand it.”

“Was Utkin even aware that he was bait?” The scans have been sent off already. If he runs for it, he’ll only lose the CD’s and a stash of weapons, as he has no need to see the sessions and new weapons can be acquired that’s acceptable losses. He can reach Natalia though Steve and they can meet up somewhere away from here.

“Tsh, he was of no use to us anymore, he should be grateful he got to be useful one last time.”

Bucky doesn’t respond, just stares at Sobolev. Even if the dead man’s switch, he should be able to reach the kill-switch after he’s shot Sobolev.

“I think it was for the best I came, you are an unpleasant person, Mr. Barnes.”

“You still haven’t told me why. Quit stalling.”

“I came here to inform you that the kill-switch was a ruse. Misinformation fed to those HYDRA people. Did you really think we would kill our greatest asset?”

They’re here to capture him. He briefly considers pointing the gun to his own head, but no, dammit, he won’t go that easily. He looks over at Sobolev. It’s a slim chance, but it’s the best option he has.

“Don’t do anything you might regret,” Sobolev warns.

He shoots the old man’s left knee out.

As Sobolev howls and falls down, Bucky flips the dinner table to cover the window facing the front of the house and yanks Sobolev with him into the only corner not visible from the outside. He presses the gun far harder than needed into the soft flesh under Sobolev’s neck, hard enough to cause him to cough.

“You… you utter fool,” Sobolev chokes out. “Koschei.”

It’s like a lead blanket is draped over him. Bucky can barely hold up his hands, let alone squeeze the trigger. The heaviness spreads to this brain, slowing down his thoughts, and he falls back into darkness.

Chapter Text

Natasha has barely been walking for ten minutes when the phone rings. For a second she wonders who is calling, since James and Steve can’t be done talking already, then she sees Tony’s name on the display.

“Is this some elaborate joke I don’t get?” he asks instead of a greeting.

“Possibly, but what in particular do you mean?”

“Ha, ha, Romanoff. The schematics. Could you please send me the real ones, so I could get started?”

“What’s wrong with what you’ve got?” There’s a block of ice in her stomach, spreading outwards, slowing her steps.

“I’ve gone over everything. The text is incredibly detailed technical gibberish and the schematics don’t make sense. He wouldn’t be able to sense pressure if this was really how his arm worked. And I assume you need that to be a good murder bot.”

“Track my phone and send support as fast as possible. Can you tell if—“ she cuts herself off, because no, they can’t track James – he’s not wearing the tracker anymore. “Never mind. Just send the nearest team to my location for backup. I don’t know how many to expect, but a quick extraction might be necessary.” She sets off running as fast as she can.

“Extraction from what?”

“We’ve been set up. I need to get back to James.”

“Damn, I’ll alert the team and make the arrangements.”

She doesn’t slow down till she nears the house, stun-discs ready, watching out for anyone who might want to stop her. Creeping around the house, Natasha uses the reflection on the flat, double edged knife she keeps in her boot to look through the windows. James is standing in the middle of the living room, body relaxed and face blank. Not blank like when he hides what goes on inside, but completely blank, like he’s been turned off.

“No,” she whispers. “No, no, no.”

He’s facing someone sitting in the sofa. Vasily Ivanovich Sobolev. She knew it had been too easy. Why hadn’t she trusted her gut instinct? It’s too late now and she surveys the room. There’s two soldiers by the dinner table and one standing next to the couch. The bedroom is empty and though there might be some hiding in the windowless bathroom or kitchen, it doesn’t seem likely. There might be more in the area, but anyone she doesn’t pick up while she sweeps the area will be the backup team’s problem. Sobolev obviously wants her and James alive; otherwise he would already be dead or long gone.

A single soldier is standing by the two cars in front of the house, smoking a cigarette. He goes down without a sound when she throws a stun-disk at him and she finishes him off with a knife before the charge runs out. That leaves her with five stun-disks, plus the two knives, and ten bullets in the Glock. With only the three remaining soldiers and Sobolev it should be more than enough, but with the Winter Soldier in the mix it’s an entirely different game.

A buzz from her pocket alerts her to a text from Tony.

‘Team of 7 on their way. ETA 18 minutes.’

The icon indicates he’s still writing but before the text arrives, Natasha has time to crawl under the two cars and slash the tires out of sight.

‘Will they be extracting 1 or 2?’

He doesn’t trust James, it makes sense that he thinks to ask this and it’s about as polite as he gets. But it still stings.

‘2, maybe 3 if including Sobolev, could be hostile. Will try to incapacitate,’ she writes back, purposefully not specifying if anyone else could be hostile. ‘The only kill-targets are soldiers, 3 left. Follow my orders with the rest.’

‘I’ll keep an eye on you. Don’t do anything I would do.”

She doesn’t bother to hide her smile before she looks up. The sky is a brilliant blue and entirely without clouds, but the satellite he’s hijacked is invisible to the naked eye at this time of day. She’s glad Tony didn’t ask her about her plan, because it’s uncomfortably close to something he would do. Namely walking right into a trap, claiming that it isn’t a problem because she knows it’s a trap.

Her approach has gone unnoticed, but there is nothing stealthy about how Natasha enters the house. She goes through the front door, locking eyes with the soldiers by the dinner table. They’re expecting her, but her direct approach unnerves them. The one closest to her begins to finger his submachine gun while the other one reports her arrival to Sobolev.

“Miss Romanova, so good of you to join us,” Sobolev says, not bothering to hide that they have been waiting for her.

She stays near the entryway, with the dinner table between her and the two nearest soldiers and just over four yard from James’ - no, the Winter Soldier’s - back.

“Come closer, dear.” Sobolev beckons from the sofa.

“Yeah, I don’t think so.” Stepping closer will put her within the Soldier’s reach and have her surrounded by armed soldiers.

Sobolev points James’ Sig Sauer to the Soldier’s head. In return Natasha raises a single eyebrow and inclines her head. James would rather be dead than back under control.

“What is it with you people? Why do you persist on being so stubborn?” Sobolev lowers the gun and sighs.

He winces and she spots the source of the faint smell of metal. Sobolev is bleeding from his left knee.

“He shot you,” she says with a grin.

“Oh, don’t worry. He will pay for that later.”

The anger that rises within her is pushed down immediately; she can’t allow feeling to get in the way if this is to work.

“James? James, look at me.”

She’s not nearly naive enough to hope that it’s her voice that makes the Soldier turn around to face her. Sobolev’s shoulders moved slightly just before the turn and even though she can’t see his hands, she’s willing to bet he controls the Soldier by mere gestures. And she’s right, it isn’t James’s eyes that meet hers, but curiously enough, it isn’t the Winter Soldier’s eyes either. They are blank, entirely without drive. That gives her hope.

“Aren’t you curious about who would win?” she asks Sobolev.

“Who would win what?”

“You’ve got the Winter Soldier and the Black Widow is within reach. Aren’t you curious who would win in a fight?”

“My dear girl, I’m not that foolish. I will neither allow you the possibility to self-destruction nor to delay me so your Avenger friends can get here.”

“So you’re convinced he would win? Even like this where he can barely move without your say-so?”

“Without the possibility of your mind-games, you won’t stand a chance against him.”

“Huh, I’m almost offended you think so little of me,” she says and raises an arm to point at the soldiers at her side without missing a beat. “Tell your lackeys to stop trying to inch closer or they’ll learn firsthand just what I can and can’t do.”

The closest one freezes when Natasha turns her head to look at them, teeth bared in a mirthless smile. Both of them flinch when she mimics shooting a gun at them. At least they have a healthy amount for respect of her. They shoot apologetic glances at Sobolev as they move towards his end of the room.

“If we must do this the hard way.” Sobolev sighs, like she’s disappointed him greatly. “Winter Soldier, restrain her.”

The Soldier lunges at her and she jumps over the dinner table, putting it between them. He’s as fast as ever, but the table makes him pause for a full second before he flings it away. There’s less space to move around in, but it also creates a barrier between them and the soldiers. He telegraphs the next attack so clearly it almost hits home in her confusion, the air whistling as his fist hurdles past her face.

While she needs the close contact, she can’t allow the Soldier to actually injure her.

When he turns to face her, Natasha gauges his ability to read opponents by smiling widely and warmly. He doesn’t react, not even a little bit. Instead he steps forward only to be met with a boot in his chest. The kick sends him stumbling backwards and she swipes his legs out from under him. A move that wouldn’t have worked if she fought the real Winter Soldier.

Not only is she not fighting the Soldier, she’s fighting something less than. Whatever they did to him it was messy, shoddy work. What’s left has his fighting skills but none of his instincts.

She’s on top of him when he lands, a knee at each elbow, hands gripping his head. There’s almost no pain reaction when she slams his head down into the floor, in a move reminiscence of his own against Utkin. The result is completely different though. Because he frees his left arm with ease, and slams her into the wall with enough force to knock the air from her lungs.

It delays her long enough for him to get to his feet while she’s still struggling to breathe. Forcing her to slide between his legs to escape the next punch.

The fight is hard and brutal, but it doesn’t feel as fluid or natural as when they sparred. His movements are almost bare boned. A list of bullet points instead of a story.

But one of his punches actually connects with her cheekbone. Her vision blurs for a second, a bolt of pain shoots from the impact straight into her brain, and she nearly fucking stumbles. It’s taking far too long. The backup is only seven minutes away. She slips a stun-disc out and pretends to stumble backwards. The Soldier follows and Natasha greets him with the disc to his neck.

While he convulses, she sends him to his knees with a swift kick and follows with a second kick to his head when he looks up at her. No blood flies from his mouth this time, but she makes sure to imitate her posture from when they sparred.

Sobolev is trying to get up, sprouting commands that none of his soldiers hear. They are far too focused on the fight. Seconds, she only needs seconds. She takes another step back and she’s up against the wall. The Soldier follows her, stumbling, faltering, but he doesn’t hit her. Instead he puts his hands on the wall on either side of her head. Like he’s trying to steady himself.

With a hand on the side of his face, she whispers, “Come back to me, James. Come back to me again.”

There’s no recognition in his eyes, but they are no longer blank and she presses a quick kiss to his lips before she ducks out from under his arms. Scaling the overturned table in two steps, to jam a knife into the ear of the nearest soldier. She rides the still dying soldier’s body to the floor and looks up at the other one with a grin that has frozen countless of her opponents before. It works just as well this time around. The soldier is still fumbling with his sub, when Natasha drives the bridge of his nose into his brain.

“No, stop them. This—“ Sobolev doesn’t get to finish his sentence because James shoves his metal hand into his mouth.

She watches as he calmly wraps his other hand around Sobolev’s neck and pulls his metal hand back out. Taking some of Sobolev’s teeth and his fucking tongue with him. The blood that pulsates from Sobolev’s mouth is bright red, arterial blood. This won’t take long then. But James turns away with Sobolev still struggling for air, to the soldier on the other side of the sofa, still frozen in horror. The soldier doesn’t even move as James takes the sub from his unresisting hands and shoots him point blank.

There’s a long second as he turns back to her. A heartbeat lasting hours, before she finally sees his eyes again. Bright red blood dots his face and his hair’s a mess, but it’s him, he’s back, it worked. The block of ice she’s been carrying in her stomach since Tony called finally melts.

One or both of them closes the distance between them. His hand is sticky with blood when he touches the side of her face, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is his lips on hers and his tongue, warm and sinuous, touching hers.

Even with his super-soldier resilience, there’s a slight chance that she’s leaving bruises on his back and neck, but she doesn’t care. The kiss tastes of sweat, a salty tang that only highlights his familiar taste. He repeats her name again and again, the word muffled, but recognizable to her still. Natasha slips her hands from his neck and grabs his jacket, tightening her fists into it, pulling him closer. He’s too far away, he—

He jerks back?

There’s a tiny metal dart in his neck. Short, fat, and with a red tuft on the end. Familiar design, Stark design. Natasha spots it the second before James pulls it out and crushes it in his fist. They turn in unison to look at the entryway.

“I - I - I -," stammers the baffled looking woman in civilian garb, holding a Stark Industries tranquilizer gun.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” James yells at her. He falters, shakes his head, and then straightens as if willing himself to fight off the tranquilizer. Amazingly, it seems to work.

“What are your orders?” Natasha asks, as calmly as possible.

“I - ah. Approach with caution, ma’am. Follow Romanoff’s orders. Use tranqs if necessary?”

“That wasn’t fucking necessary,” James interrupts.

“Sir, I thought you were attacking her, Sir.”

“Could you just please get your superior,” Natasha says pinching the bridge of her nose.

“He’s not available?” Her voice went up at the end of the sentence, yet again, turning the answer into a question.

“No shit,” James says and goes to the bathroom to wash up.

“We weren’t supposed to see actual action. We were on a training mission, ma’am, but our leader got hurt. It wasn’t our fault—“

“Did you tell Stark any of this?” she interrupts.

“No?”

“So the seven of you decided to come here. With no combat training. Against an unknown number of enemy combatants.”

“Six, ma’am. Our leader was the seventh one. And we were told you’d most likely have taken out any hostiles.”

Natasha pinches the bridge of her nose and begins to count slowly to ten.

“We had the fastest transport, ma’am. Other teams would have been too slow getting here. And we cleared the area before I—ah tried to stop your boyfriend.”

An equally keen-looking young man steps up to the window to Natasha’s left, holding a portable EMP device. Also Stark Industries design. He waves at her. It distracts her enough for her to ignore the boyfriend part.

“Please tell your friend not to trigger that EMP. I’d like to be able to use my phone.” She doesn’t mention James’ arm, because she’s not certain if an EMP will affect it. Her own stun-discs only have a short term effect on it.

“Oh, don’t worry ma’am. We were told there might be robots, but the scan didn’t show any.”

“At least they came really well prepared.” James comes back out, his hand concealed in a pocket. He’s listened in on the conversation and come to the same conclusion as her. Tony might not like or trust James, but at least he didn’t rat him out to a bunch of trainees.

“You can cross international borders, right? How fast can you get us to New York?” Natasha asks and adds, “What’s your name?”

“Um yes, a bit over three hours, and Stiles, ma’am.”

“Three hours and twenty minutes,” someone yells from the outside.

“Shut up, Markus, I’m doing the talking,” Stiles yells back and smiles brightly at Natasha. Nothing to see here, move along.

“And you can stop with the ‘ma’am’. You’re a tech team, right?” Natasha pauses long enough for the young woman to nod in agreement. “I need the corpses obliterated and any evidence of us being here gone.”

“Right you are, ma’am. Sorry. Will get right on it.”

Natasha has half a mind to leave everything not still packed, but James gathers up the weapons stashed around the place. He pauses in front of the pile of paper and broken CD cases. Everything got mixed up and smashed when he tossed the table to the side.

“It was fake,” she says and walks over to him. “The data useless.”

“Makes sense. Was meant as a trap.” He sighs and shoots her a tired grin.

He’s holding a bag in his right hand and she shifts her hold on her own bag to link arms with him. Making it seem more natural that he keeps the left one stuffed in a pocket. Neither make a move to recover the CDs.

“We’ll figure it out. Probably have a head start with Sobolev dead.”

“Oh, there’s no hurry. The kill-switch was the bait,” he says and leans his head against hers.

Of course it was. Because this hasn’t been a big enough fuck-up as it is.

The team has gathered the corpses, including the one Natasha stashed in the car outside, in the middle of the room and is now hovering nearby.

“So, you have what you needed to get?” a tall, gangly woman asks.

“Yeah,” James replies, hefting his bag up onto his shoulder.

“You might wanna, um, go outside. There’s flames and flesh melting. It’s not pretty.”

James looks at Sobolev’s corpse with his tongue neatly placed on his chest, and then looks back up at her.

“There are refreshments in the jet?” the woman tries again.

Natasha takes pity on the tech-in-training and pulls James with her. Secret tech is secret, and the team is in enough trouble as it is.

The two Department X cars have already been taken away and they a led to the backyard in another empty house down the street by the EMP carrier. As they board the Quinjet James looks back towards the house.

“You know, I kinda like having a clean-up crew,” he says with a wry smile.

“Oh you wouldn’t believe the paperwork they generate. It’s not worth it,” she replies and secures his bag along with her own.

The team is done in just a few minutes and by some miracle the refreshments consist of actual coffee and surprisingly fresh muffins. She's almost calm by the time they arrive at the Tower.

Chapter Text

The welcoming committee is ready when the Quinjet touches down on the landing pad. They’re only shadows against the light, but Bucky recognizes them with ease. Hill with her straight-backed stance and Steve who mastered standing at ease before he joined the military. He loses sight of them as the jet taxies into the hangar.

Even though Hill’s not here for him, it makes the skin on the back of his neck itch; he’s in no mood for a debriefing. A headache has kept him company since… well, since he clawed himself back in control of his own body. Like drill-bit chewing through balsa wood, it bores into his skull. All he wants right now is some downtime. Because if he talks with Steve about the invasion of privacy right now, there’s a chance he might blow a fuse. He just needs to be left alone.

And that’s not gonna happen however much he wants it to.

He feels Natalia’s eyes on him before she puts her hand on his. The metal of the seat has been dimpled by the fingers on his left hand and he forces himself to relax as she laces their fingers together. He hadn’t even realized he’d been digging holes into the frame. She doesn’t say anything, because most of the extraction team is trying to be invisible at the other end of the hold, and she likes her privacy as much as he does. Instead she taps a finger against his, lightly, minimal movements.

It takes Bucky a few seconds to remember the old cipher, but when he does, he smiles and shoots her side-glance.

The cipher doesn’t allow for niceties, but then that has never been her style. Her concise, “Status?” says everything that needs to be said.

When he answers, “All clear,” it’s not even as much of a lie as it would have been a few seconds ago. Because the tight coil in his stomach is loosening, unraveling by a slim hand on top of his.

As they get up to approach the opening bay door, Natalia squeezes his hand. When he looks down at her, she gives him a closed-lip smile that disappears just as fast as it appeared. She walks down the ramp and he follows, blanking his expression to appear as unconcerned as her.

Steve’s face is a mix of relief and worry as his eyes dart over both of them, pausing on the bruise on Natalia’s cheekbone and the lump on Bucky’s jaw. He says nothing though, because the extraction team follows right behind with shuffling steps. Bucky doesn’t have to turn his head to know that they’re even less excited about this than he is.

Hill waits until the entire team has left the plane before she orders them to follow her to what will no doubt be a part debriefing and part dressing down. Even with how unenthused Bucky is about the talk he needs to have with Steve, he’s glad he’s not in their shoes.

“I’m sorry, Buck,” Steve says and for a second Bucky almost believes he’s about to get an apology for the monitoring. “I’d hoped you would get the answers you were looking for.”

Only their location stops Bucky from asking if Steve has gotten the answers he was looking for watching that damn monitor. The wind up here is strong; he’d have to raise his voice to be heard. Who knows who might be lurking in the shadows?

Natalia keeps a conversation going with Steve for the entire trip to his apartment. Bucky stays out of it, focused on how good it’ll be to rid himself of the blood splattered clothes. The stains aren’t noticeable on the dark fabric, but he can smell it and it stings in his nose. Pulls at something primal deep inside.

By the time they’re through the front door, Steve’s shoulders are no longer hunched up, but Natalia’s watchful eyes clearly aren’t fooled by Bucky’s silence.

“Go take a shower,” she says. “We can eat when you’re done.”

He doesn’t say that that’s what he’s planning on, because she’s not telling him as much as narrating his silence. Instead he nods and grabs some spare clothes on his way to the bathroom.

The shower takes the edge of his headache, but washing his hair brings attention to a lump on the back of his head. A quick examination in the mirror reveals a faint shadow in the middle of his chest. The bottom of it matching the heel of Natalia’s boots. He has to give it to her, she didn’t hold back.

Clean and fully dressed again Bucky goes to join the other two by the breakfast bar. Steve greets him with a smile and gestures at the make-your-own-sandwich components he’s lined up.

The situation seems so normal when it’s anything but. This should have been like coming home, finally returning from his deployment. Safe in this fortress of scanners and hidden weapons. His best friend and his girl by his side. But instead the walls are closing in on him, the windows are too big, and the air-conditioning is like sandpaper on his skin.

Ignoring the niceties, Bucky lets the raw, naked feeling speak for him. “So when I agreed to wear a tracker, you took it as an okay to watch my every move?”

“Bucky, I—“ Steve begins, but is cut short.

“No, I want you to really think before you answer. You, of all people, should know better.” The urge to grip the counter is strong, but he holds back because the massive slab of 3 inch thick hardwood would be expensive to replace.

The miracle happens: Steve actually thinks before he opens his mouth next.

“I was afraid of losing you again. I’m sorry. It was a stupid thing to do, but I didn’t know what else I could do.” Head bowed, Steve fidgets with the sandwich.

“And keeping track of when I was freaking out was the way you chose to go about it?”

“What was I supposed to do? I know I shouldn’t have, but I thought you would disappear again.” The pain in his voice cuts through Bucky like a hot knife through butter.

A flicker of movement on his right gives Bucky an excuse to look away from Steven Grant Rogers patented look of hurt innocence. He rounds on Natalia, catching her half off the high chair she’s been sitting on. If he’d been feeling generous, he’d say she’s trying to give them privacy. But he’s not, he feeling too goddamn exposed. “Don’t think I can’t see you trying to sneak off. This is on you, too.”

She tilts her head to the side and looks at him with a perfectly calm expression. “And did you really expect me to act differently? The Winter Soldier was masquerading as Bucky Barnes. You posed a security risk. It might not have been the best solution, but it was the only one we had on such short notice.”

Her words are a slap in the face, but they don’t surprise him. Despite how soft she looks, Natalia has an iron core.

He wants to bolt, pack up his things and leave. During the night when everyone is asleep. But that wouldn’t really help would it? Because it’s not them he wants to escape. It’s feeling like his dirty laundry is hanging out for all the world to see and that won’t go away even if he’s alone. It clings to his skin, a tight band around his chest. He needs to protect himself, he needs to—

There’s a movement on his right and suddenly Natalia is leaning against the counter next to him, close enough for him to touch if he wants to.

“What do you want him to say? He can’t take back what he did. None of us can.”

The sting of the last bit was no doubt on purpose, but he stands his ground. “So I should just forgive and forget?”

“No, we should try to make up for it. It’s all anyone can do.” She says it as if it’s a simple thing to do.

“It’s not that easy.”

“No, it’s not, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

“And how do you propose we do that?”

“That depends on what you want to do. I’m pretty fond of bug scanners and you’re welcome to borrow some of mine. Or you can buy your own if you want to.”

Steve moves over to stand next to Natalia, with an expression on his face he probably thinks is calming when it’s anything but.

“How about he wears a tracker,” Bucky says, pointing at Steve. “Then I get to watch the monitor and call you when taking a shit makes his blood pressure rise.”

Steve’s entire mouth twitches and it’s very clear that he’s trying and failing not to laugh.

“This isn’t fucking funny, Steve,” Bucky says. But it sort of is, in a twisted way.

It only makes Steve laugh harder. There’s tears sparkling in his eyes, but Bucky is pretty sure they’re not there because of the laughter. “No it’s not,” Steve says, “but, if anyone had ever told me I’d miss being scolded by you, I’d never have believed them.”

“No. You’d have tried to start a fight with them. And lost it.” He drags a hand roughly through his hair. “Punk.”

“Jerk,” Steve says and pulls him into a hug that would have tested the limits of the bionic arm if Bucky had tried to break it.

 


 

The sheet finally gives up trying to stay on the mattress when Natasha turns for what must be the hundredth time. With a sigh, she gives up chasing sleep and gets up to do the one thing that seems to ease her mind. Her gym clothes are easily located and she’s out of the door within minutes.

The hallways are empty and silent, but when she nears the doors to the gym she hears the regular thump, thump, thump, of fists hitting leather. She’s not the only restless soul in the tower.

It doesn’t come as a surprise who the other late-night visitor is. James’ hair is plastered to his head and only the light gray left sleeve of his tee shows what color the rest of it was before. He meets her eyes when she walks through the door, but doesn’t stop the work-out.

The smooth slide of hard muscles under the wet shirt is predictably mesmerizing and she finds a spot near the back where she’s safe from distractions. She’s well into her routine with the resistance bands before she notices that the pounding has stopped. The air conditioner hums quietly and her breathing is even and she refuses to turn around to look at what he’s doing. Because she’s not a hormone driven teenager. She didn’t come here to look for him, she came here to work out so she could finally get some—

The resistance band snaps with a loud twang. Only her quick reaction keeps the ends from hitting her square in the face. Well, that’s just great. Just perfect.

A low chuckle interrupts her and Natasha turns to see James walking towards her, a towel around his neck.

 “Weren’t you trying to make that bag pay for everything that’s wrong in the world?” she says before he gets a chance to say anything.

“Your pull is too strong. Can’t seem to stay away.” The smile is crooked and almost fragile. She almost wants to believe it.

“You don’t believe that. You’re not that naive,” she dismisses him. Hours of exposure therapy with the shutdown codes has done more for him than her kiss. More than her hard-hitting brand of cognitive re-calibration.

The smile widens, crinkling the skin at the corners of his eyes. He’s testing her again, and she passed this one too. “It’s a nice story though.”

“It’s a fairy tale, and fairy tales aren’t for the likes of us,” Natasha says and pulls his head down for a kiss.

The kiss starts out as unhurried; no one will interrupt them. It doesn’t remain unhurried for long, though, the hunger growing as their tongues meet.

His upper lip tastes of salt from the work-out and when she weaves her fingers into his hair it’s damp. He must have held off cleaning his guns for the nth time, because there’s none of the gun-oil smell that usually clings to him. Instead, there’s just him. Musky is a cliché but she can’t come up with a better description because male is even worse, if still fitting. No matter the description, it smells like heaven to her.

The height difference is bad enough as it is and his trainers combined with her bare feet only makes it worse. His back is curved under her hands at what must be an uncomfortable angle and she breaks the kiss much to his displeasure.

“We should go upstairs, unless you feel like putting on a show for Tony.”

He locates the nearest surveillance camera and extends his middle finger at it. “Your place or mine?” he asks with a smile that’s bordering on rude, like he does this all the time.

“Your place as in Steve’s place, or my empty and soundproof place. Difficult choice.”

“He used to be in the army, he’s had to listen to worse.”

“Well, that settles it then.”

The hallway with the elevators has cameras, too, but apparently these don’t matter, because James pushes her into a corner and lifts her off the ground, allowing him access to her neck and collarbone. Her legs wrap around his waist, almost by instinct. He is perfectly capable of keeping her there with just one arm around her waist, but she’s not doing it to help him. She’s doing it for his reaction when she grinds against him. The groan, more felt than heard, interrupts his kisses, teeth scraping over her collarbone and she smiles widely.

They miss the ding of the elevator arriving. Instincts so engraved into them that they are impossible to turn off, alert them to the opening door, though.

The elevator is occupied by a single staffer pulling the graveyard shift. They aren’t touching by the time they walk into the elevator, and the corner was well out of sight, but the evidence from their previous actions is hard to hide – with red lips and breaths coming in short, hard bursts. The staffer's face gets redder by the second as they stand silently in the cart, Natasha biting the inside of her cheek to not burst out laughing.

The low Muzak only adds to the absurdity of the situation.

When they finally reach her floor she pulls James with her, fingers entwined, before he gets any bright ideas about what the empty corridor can be used for. Her lock isn’t that complicated, but with his hands roaming her body it takes her several seconds to get the door open. The contrast between the smooth metal and the calluses on his right hand is distracting, to say the least. Once through the door she makes him pay for it. Backing him into the closed door and pulling his head down into another kiss, this one hard and messy. His tongue is slick against hers and she bites his bottom lip as he sweeps her off the ground for the second time.

She wraps her legs around his firm waist and steadies herself with an arm on each shoulder. He’s so solid and hard, not just where the actual metal is. She knows how strong he is, has felt it on her body more than once and it sends a thrill down her spine. She moves to his jaw, nipping and kissing her way down his neck until she feels the staccato of his pulse against her tongue.

Pushing off from the door, he begins to move toward her bedroom and once there he nearly trips on the covers, lying discarded half on the bed and half off. The sheet hasn’t fared much better, but at least it’s still on top of the bed.

James laughs and puts her down. “Somehow, I expected that you would keep a neater home, Romanoff,”

“You want to critique my décor or you want to do something more interesting?” Natasha asks and yanks the top over her head. The sports bra follows quickly with the leggings and underwear right after.

He doesn’t answer. Ridding himself of his shirt as quickly as her and almost trips over the covers again as he tries to remove his pants and trainers in one go. When he’s finally free, he sits on the edge of the bed and she straddles his thighs, combing her fingers through his now dry hair. Sitting this close, she can feel the heat coming off him. He’s so damn warm all the time and for a brief second she wonders if it’s a super soldier thing or if he’s always been like this. Then his lips close around one nipple and she stops thinking.

Arching into the touch, she lets him have free reign as he switches from one to the other again and again, leaving her breathless and aching. She’d thought that maybe they would prolong it this time, explore more of each other’s bodies, maybe she would even see how it felt to have those metal fingers inside her. But it will have to wait. With a hand on his shoulder, she twists back to open the drawer in the bedside table.

James lets go of her breasts with a disgruntled, “Hey,” but smiles and adds, “Impatient as ever,” when he sees the condom in her hand.

Natasha shrugs as a reply and rips the packet open, rolling the condom down over his cock. It is hot and heavy in her hand, already leaking. She wants to take it in her mouth, leave him gasping for air, but that will have to wait, too. She only pauses to meet his eyes, searching for approval, before she positions him by her entrance and slowly lowers herself onto him, inch by straining inch.

Okay, a bit more warm-up would probably have been a good idea. He slides in easily enough, but her muscles haven’t yet relaxed enough for someone of his size. Sudden movements will probably be painful, but she doesn’t care. There are goose bumps coursing down her back and it’s all she can do not to let her breathing turn into outright moans.

James’s fingers are digging into her hips, hard enough to leave bruises. When she manages to open her eyes, his are bottomless pits.

“Jesus Christ, Natalia,” he huffs out.

She leans forward carefully and captures his bottom lip between her teeth. His tongue slides against hers and the kiss sends sparks flooding her nervous system, helping her body accommodate him.

As her muscles begin to release their taut grip, she starts to move. Rolling her hips, not actually lifting off him, no yet. The tightness, combined with the friction of the condom makes for a highly pleasurable if potentially painful experience.

After minutes of this, finally able to move more freely, Natasha lifts up and pushes back down. Slowly, enjoying the feeling of him inside her. If she angles her hips, the pressure is just right each time she pushes down, and she does so with excruciating slowness. As much to prolong the pleasure as to torture him.

He’s not putting up with it, of course. When his hands on her hips can’t make her speed up, James slides the left one up to her breast, showing her just how nimble those metal fingers are. His mouth on her neck adds to the mix and she’s falling apart on top of him. Half-choked moans escape her lips as fire courses through her body.

It takes her several moments before she’s able to move again, and when she is, she lets his hands on her hips set the speed. As he gets closer, he begins angling his hips up into her and it means he’s pushing against her in a way that— Biting into his shoulder as a second orgasm is ripped out of her is all that keeps her from screaming out her pleasure, but even through that she hears the low, desperate sound he makes. Hips jerking up a few final times, before he falls back, pulling her with him onto the messy bed.

His arms are crushing her to his chest and she smiles against his neck. As comfortable as it is, her legs are folded up on either side of him and that part is less pleasant. She slides off him and snuggles up against his side. His arms remain around her, the hold no less firm.

When she looks up at him, she sees that a lock of her red hair is sticking to his forehead. It takes two fingers to remove it and return it to its proper place. “A shower might be a good idea,” Natasha says with a smile.

James plucks a stray hair she had missed and says, “Ya think?” Reluctantly, he sits up and gets rid of the condom.

“I’ll make sure the bed meets your high standards when you’re done showering,” she calls after him.

He stops in the door to the bathroom and half turns. “You—you want me to stay tonight?” His face betrays less than his voice, only a glimmer of uncertainty.

They haven't talked about him moving from Steve’s apartment to hers, yet. She’s pretty sure his nightmares are holding him back from asking and she doesn’t want to push him. It seems too soon, too rushed for them to move in together yet, but if he asks she will agree to it in a heartbeat. “If you want to,” Natasha says, “If you don’t mind the walk of shame in the morning.”

If he’s relieved by the switch from the serious tone, James doesn’t show it, only flashes her a grin she’s only seen in the newsreels and says, “Ain’t no walk of shame when it’s coming home from your place, doll.”

After she’s made up the bed, she joins him in the bathroom and following the longest shower in her life they both sleep the entire night, almost without nightmares. In the morning, it isn’t a walk of shame, because she joins him as they pick up Steve to go for a morning work-out in the gym. If anyone notices that James’ clothes aren’t fresh from the laundry, they don’t comment on it.