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[1999]

First, there is violence. First there is blood. They come hand in hand, like sisters, like secrets. They pave the way. Stain the stark white ground under the slate-grey sky like brushstrokes from a madman on a virginal canvas. The stains had names, once. All 27 of them. Shukhova here, Voroshilova there.

The rations and supplies left are enough for a week if she spreads them out well. The journey will be longer, even if she minimizes rest to the limits of her body. It all fits snug into Koroleva’s big coat, which lies heavy on her shoulders when she knots it across them. Romanova cleans her knives, and tests their sharpness, and looks around. She can melt ice to drink, swallow clumps of snow whole, but the lack of food will need to be remedied.

When she’s done, Romanova starts walking south and east and doesn’t look back. She was born alone and she will die alone. There’s no sense in living differently. Not when she has a purpose, a goal that is greater than her mind and her body and her thoughts. Looking back is for fools.

Then come the tests. Tests of will, of character, of strength. Through the trek the blistering white blinds on every side, licks away at the senses with pellets of snow aimed true, like fists. Fruitless, restless slumber tricks the mind with the howl of the pack of dead girl weapons that do not follow. Winter grows in her bones, and she lets it. Winter is implacable. Winter is invincible.

Blood and violence, they go hand in hand. They come first. Then comes the ache in her head, and the gnawing, empty pit in her stomach bubbling like acid; the desperation to eat the emptiness full, drive that ache away. To keep walking, despite the pain and the loss of feeling in her legs, with the sun to her left and the bear at her back, and home somewhere ahead, waiting.

The cold comes last.

__

She wakes, or she thinks she wakes, an age later. An age spent numb in the dark, too tired to shiver. An age waiting for the will to break. The strength to give up. She burns. But no, she doesn’t burn. She’s meat and bones and the burning of both carries a scent. The scent of fat melting, making a crust, filling the nostrils, the lungs. The watering of the mouth at the promise of animal calories in the belly.

This is warmth, or the memory of it. A slow settling through skin into muscle, heating the blood. With warmth comes awareness, comes the reality of flesh frozen stiff, frozen dead. Comes pain.

Distantly, unable still to open her eyes, voices reach her. She keeps her breathing even, slow. Does the same for her heartbeat, for the beeping of the machine somewhere beside her, to the left. Recognizes the hospital wing by the quality of its sterile smell, so different from the sterile smell of the rest of the facility. Isopropyl alcohol over bleach on tiles masking the sweet undertone of decaying organic material.

“Who’s our lucky girl?”  A man says. Old, from the echoes of fluid in the rattle of his voice. A smoker. Muscovite, by his accent.

“The Room named her Romanova, sir.” A higher pitched voice, the words softly spoken, emphasis on sir. A subordinate. “It’s General Bezukhov’s protege.”

“He will be pleased, then.” He is pleased as well. Himself a subordinate of the General, perhaps, able now to reap the benefits of his service.

“Sir, there is…evidence of starvation, some frostbite. The beginnings of Pneumonia. That is without accounting for whatever damage there was to her mind. There may be…complications, that we have no way of knowing about until she wakes.” Fear, in the subordinate voice. Fear of what? Fear of whom?

“Speak plainly, doctor.” Exasperation. Impatience. A dislike for elaborate speech.

“She’s barely alive, sir,” the subordinate voice explains. “It may be premature to call this a success.”

Barely’s all we need.” Exasperation again. “The rest can be perfected, provided you do your job as instructed. Am I understood?” A threat. Thinly veiled.

“Yes, sir. Anything else, sir?” Fear for himself, then.

“Clean her up, fix whatever she did to that hair, make sure she looks presentable.” Disgust. Disdain. “And send a man to let comrade Karpov know he should expect some company for his dog. I’ll speak to the General.”

Someone approaches the stretcher with heavy steps. A pull on the needle beneath the thin skin on the back of her hand alerts Romanova to chemical fiddling, before the world goes to bright gossamer, to the empty space and endless drone of assisted sleep. 

 

***

 

He lasts at Wilson’s the exact, miserable length of a week. A week until his skin feels too small and the softest of his clothes chafe and the air burns, and he can’t stand a single second more of another human being in the same building, let alone the same room.

Morning of the eight day, everything grating and digging into his insides like a corkscrew twisted into the opening of his ear, Bucky picks up his bag, tucks his burner phone into his pocket, and steps out. Makes himself use the front door. Leaves a note on Wilson’s fridge with the number of the burner, a promise to check in at 0800 when possible; a scribbled “don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

Figures it’s common courtesy to at least do that much for a guy willing to put up with him, time and again, based on nothing but the word of a dead man.

A month after that, Nicholas Fury finds him.

It's not disconcerting. Bucky made it easy, staying Stateside, keeping a phone that could be tracked, speaking regularly to the same person for more than sixty seconds at a time; simply moving around on street level when roof top access became more of a hassle than actually getting over himself and risking security cameras and people.

He'd done his walkabout. Spent two years catching up on the seventy he'd lost, absent memory and will. Spent two years relearning how to be something like a person. If he'd meant to disappear when he'd walked out of Wilson's he'd have done it, easy as that. So to be found isn't worrying.

It's just…annoying. Annoying as fuck.

Bucky drops the gun from the automatic spot it took at Fury’s temple, clicks the safety back on. “The fuck do you want?” he asks, and it’s the first time in weeks he’s heard his own voice in a room. It echoes.

“To talk,” Fury replies, unmoving, hands still up. Without the floor length trench coat to lend rigidity to his shoulders their sharp downwards slope rounds him out, makes him look almost fragile. Old. About as old as he is, though Bucky’s sure he rarely looks it. Fury knows all this, of course. The best lies are the truest.

The water on the little camping stove chooses right then to come to a boil, bubbling beside the roll of the sleeping bag and the milk crate that doubles for a stool.

“So talk,” Bucky says, coming to crouch by the pot atop the stove. He rips the packaging off the night’s meal and shakes the contents in. Supposed to be soup of something or other. Chicken noodle. Something. It’s yellow, spots of white and orange here and there. Not that Bucky cares.

But Fury doesn’t talk, not right away. He looks around instead, walks the perimeter of the corner of the half-finished floor, of the half-finished building that Bucky’s chosen to spend the past couple of nights in. To say he’s been sleeping in it—been sleeping anywhere—would be to lie.

“Not much of a squat you got here, is it?” Fury asks, and it sounds like a question, but it isn’t, not quite. He’s not supposed to answer. Not supposed to have an answer.

“Does its job,” Bucky says, stirring the Whatever soup with the fat square top of a leftover chopstick from….somewhere, sometime this week. Mr. Li’s?

Can’t relax. Can’t stop tracking the specks of cement and drywall dust that float up around Fury’s heels, or the natural swing of his arms. Track the pattern of his breathing, his heart-rate (normal on both counts). Knows already that no one else followed him.

Fury points at the nearly empty bottle of jack on the unfinished, hip-tall wall that’s probably meant to be the beginning of a kitchen counter. Asks, “You mind?” But he’s already unscrewing the cap.

Doesn’t matter, so Bucky ignores it, stays quiet. Alcohol does nothing, solves nothing; the week long, failed attempt at achieving a state even close to unconsciousness attests to that. Attests to the kind of particular human stupidity that guarantees someone will do something, despite the fact that they know the possible results of that something beforehand, simply because that knowledge is second-hand.

Everyone thinks they’re special. Thinks life will work out because it’s them living it instead of anyone else. The brain’s hardwired to hope for uniqueness.

Cap unscrewed to release the tangy odour of barrel aged bourbon into the room, Fury picks up one of the empty water bottles on the ground, takes out a pocket knife. Cuts the bottom third off the bottle and discards the rest. He uses the little pool of water that's left over in between the dips and grooves to rinse the plastic out, picks up the bourbon and pours.

“You know,” Fury says, “Gabe Jones used to joke you were the closest thing to his mother the U.S. Army’d ever allowed him in the battlefield: smoked like a chimney, cussed like a sailor, nagged like you had a dozen kids under fifteen and snored so loud anyone who didn’t know you’d think a whole armoured battalion’d snuck up on ‘em when they wasn’t lookin’.” Fury swirls the drink, takes a sip. “Used to say you’d bleed yourself to death for each and every one of them, if it was blood they needed.”

“I don’t snore,” Bucky says, when he manages to make his jaw work again. That’d always been Steve. But they’d curled up so close in their foxholes Bucky supposes in the cold and dark of Bumfuck, Germany there'd been no distinction.

It’d been the only way he could get to sleep back then, close enough he’d wake up sweating from Steve’s superhuman heat pressed against his back, the ever-present rattling of his breath on Bucky’s nape the one thing that was still familiar from before Bucky’d had the soles of his feet scraped with scalpels, and his brain unwound like fucking orange peel in a Nazi freak factory.

“Is there a point,” he asks, acerbic, “or are you just here to reminisce?”

“He also used to say,” Fury says, undaunted, “that the only way to get a rise outta you was to get Steve Rogers on the wrong end of a gun-barrel; and that what anyone who’d managed that would get was never less than a bullet through the head—he always liked to end that story telling anyone was listening how, when they asked you why you always aimed so carefully for the octopi on their helmets when there were easier targets to shoot at, you replied it was proper punctuation after “fuck you.””

Fury pauses for effect, turns to face him from the edge of the tarp-covered hole that passes for a window. He downs the last of his drink, says, “So I’m wondering, given the circumstances, if you’re planning on writing yourself a very repetitive sonnet.”

Memory…memory’s distant. Anything before the winter soldier other than steve is…faded, like an old photograph after years of sunlight. Feels like someone else in those memories, in that body. He knows they happened to him, all of those things, but knowing doesn’t help the feeling. Doesn’t make the distance shorter, or the fog clearer.

Memory’s distant, but Bucky remembers that. It feels strange, in those terms, in what he supposes is as close to a direct quote of Gabe’s words as Fury can make it. He can feel Gabe’s Georgian drawl around the shape of the words like a taste in his mouth, the cheerful intonation he used to use every morning at sunrise, the end of his watch: rise and shine, motherfuckers, rise and shine!

On the best of days he’d go on to sing it in French and Frenchie’d join him, still half asleep, voice rough from the smoke of his morning Galois, and then Dugan would grunt along, and Morita’d curse the noise. Monty’d tell Frenchie to please, for the love of God, speak in a civilized tongue, and Steve would try and fail to make it seem as though the laugh didn’t shake him down to his toes.

Rise and shine, motherfuckers, rise and shine. If he wanted to scare the shit out of you, Gabe’d bark it in German—had a fun sense of humour like that.

Anyway, Bucky’d said that. Remembers saying that.

Autumn of ’44. The Herald Tribune’d sent correspondents that’d gotten to SSR headquarters while they’d been out in the wild, setting ambushes and bombing a weapons factory near the Polish border. The Tribune’d wanted to record a normal day in the unit, show people back home how the Commandos did it. Propaganda material, as though any one day in the unit had ever been normal. Like a war where the enemy had honest-to-god magic on their side could ever have a normal other than completely fucked up.

So a RAF plane’d dropped the Commandos off on its way back from a supply run. They'd been dead on their feet, irritable and aching, limbs stiff with the kind of chill that worms itself into the bone through layers of cloth and skin and muscle. The mud had carried it in, along with the stench of something rotten everywhere.

Steve’d gotten lead in his thigh, big, bright, dumb target that he was; bled like a stuck pig before Morita’d used his belt to tie it off until it healed on its own, closed up puckered and pink. It’d made him limp all the way to the command tent.

They’d not been allowed two hours of respite between sitting down for chow and being marched out for filming, pausing only to make themselves respectable and not like they’d actually been fighting for their lives, behind enemy lines, for any stretch of time. So Bucky’d done it on purpose. Cussed as much as he could that particular day, in front of that particular camera—profanities not allowed in the reporting of mass death and cataclysmic destruction aimed at all-ages America.

As far as he knows the Tribune’d had to discard most of the reel; he’d done his job so well there was no usable audio that didn’t have him saying something foul in the background, loud enough to be heard.

It’d earned him a dressing down from Phillips and a unit-wide dismissal, orders to get a minimum eight hours sleep. God forbid good, hardworking families ever have to deal with the realities of the men dying for them half a world away.

Bucky shakes his head, does a circuit of the room with his eyes. It’s easy to get lost inside his head, in the years this body lived with someone better than him at the helm. Makes himself stop roaming when he gets back around to Fury for the third time. What was the question? Sonnets. Right. He’s tempted to point out that sonnets couldn’t possibly have enough lines.

“And if I was,” Bucky asks, cynical, “would you try to stop me? Or would you just point me in the direction you want?”

Fury leans over the low, unfinished wall he’s been using as a makeshift counter, elbows white with cement dust where they touch brick below. “I don’t want a weapon, Sergeant,” he says. “I don’t need a weapon. World’s got plenty of those.”

“Then you’re wasting your time.”

“I don’t think I am.” Fury sighs. He walks around to Bucky’s side of the wall, leans back with his hands holding onto the uneven brick edge, elbows bent. “The world doesn’t need another weapon,” he explains. “It needs someone willing to do what it takes so that the weapons it already has don’t hurt anyone they aren’t supposed to. Someone willing to stand in the way of the unseen dangers so that innocents won’t have to. I think you’re that someone. One of a few.”

It’s a good recruitment spiel. The man knows all the right words, the right way to say them. The thing is, Bucky’s heard it before. “I'm not Avengers material.”

“Considering I’ve seen the footage from Thanos’ full frontal assault, I’d disagree, but I’m not talking about the Avengers.” Fury says, grabbing the bottle and pouring another two fingers’ worth into the cup. “Like everyone knows, they're benched until the leaders of the world get their heads outta their asses and stop trying to point the finger at the closest possible target. We're gonna be here awhile. Besides, the Avengers were always meant to be the nuclear option. They’re known, they’re public and they need to be.

"But what that means is that there are things the Avengers can’t do. Threats they can’t root out, can’t foresee; attacks they can’t prevent. Investigations they can’t conduct.” He tilts his head down, looks at Bucky over the black plastic rim of his blind-man glasses, both eyes fixed on him, one dark and depthless, the other dead, chalk white, grotesque.  “That’s what I need you for. Preventive action, not damage control.”

The problem here is that Bucky knows exactly what Fury’s doing —there’s a certain way all persuasive speakers use their bodies, exercise control over their countenance, occupy the space they move in, measure the language they use. Bucky can almost hear the words before Fury speaks them, can predict cadence, tone, infer desired result. He spent a quarter of a century listening, with his brain practically dripping from his ears, buzzing with left-over electricity, to Alexander Pierce do the same.

(Your work has been a gift to mankind).

And still, still, the words get into his head like a shiv through the temple, shoved in and snapped off at the hilt. They bounce, they echo. They appeal.

The problem here is that Bucky’s lost. Aimless, rudderless, alone. Fifty years he’d lived without a name. Fifty years he’d lived not knowing what it was to be something capable of doing more than terrorize, maim, or kill on command. Fifty years he’d had only cold, only pain and missions and his orders.

What does he have now? What use is assigning the name of a man long dead to a body that has nothing left to fight for, no one left to live for?

Bloody and terrible and monstrous, he’d had more purpose than he does now.

“Dirty work,” Bucky says, his voice flat, stare flat, face blank. Tell me more.

“Yes,” Fury admits. “I’ve been told it’s something you used to excel at.”

He’s not wrong.

__

In Austria, on the outskirts of the ruins of a labour camp, after seeing the impossible happen and still half-way to delirium, Bucky’d listened to Steve explain what chemistry and a high enough dose of certain kinds of radiation could do to a person. Had listened to Steve rationalize his own lack of a skinless skull for a head as a difference in procedures, an unfinished serum. Bucky’d listened and not argued, not contested the logic, because it was what Steve had needed him to do, but he’d known the truth.

And the truth was that Steve Rogers was good. Had always been good. Would always be good. And the truth was that being good had brought him there, had turned him inside out so the vastness he’d always held inside, that Bucky’d always seen, became the image of the man instead of a reservoir that lay hidden. And the truth was that, left to his own devices, being good would kill him.

(Men are laying down their lives, Buck. I got no right to do any less than them).

And all Bucky’d wanted to do was sit down on the spot, and rest his bloody, cut-up feet, and cry at the unfairness of the world. Find God just to punch the asshole in the face.

A Steve Rogers without the limitations of his sick, malnourished body was a Steve Rogers that wouldn’t hesitate for a second in taking Atlas’ place, wouldn’t hesitate to try and carry the whole world. Was a Steve Rogers that, between the twisted electrical impulses of Bucky’s melting neurones, had needed to be protected from himself.

So Bucky’d made himself a shadow, made himself something that would never leave his side.

The experiments, they’d turned him inside out as well. Their outcome was predictable, in hindsight. You can’t isolate the body from the mind, because the body’s a vessel, a perfectible carrier that allows the mind, the intangible ego, to interact with the physical realm, modify it in its image. So to upgrade the body means, by necessity, to augment the mind.

The thing inside of Bucky was an emptiness, a violence, a vengeance. It manifested in a keen eye and a trigger finger always willing to fire. The capacity for cruelty, for distance. Bucky’d become a weapon long before he’d been stripped of his name, had begun discarding the bits of his humanity that hindered his efficiency by nothing less than his own free will.

In a war were eight out of ten men had purposefully shot at the air rather than kill another human being, however just the killing, Bucky’d made it a point of pride to never raise his gun unless he meant to give it the use it was intended for. (He’d read, somewhere in the Smithsonian, that he’d held the American military record for most confirmed kills until Vietnam rolled around to take its turn fucking up gullible boys).

Someone needed to make the hard calls, the monster’s choice, and that was not a burden for Captain America. Couldn’t be allowed to become one more burden for Steve. Dirty work became the only work, and Bucky was glad of it. 

So Fury’s not wrong.

__

“What’s in it for me?” Bucky asks. For better or worse, he’s being made an offer, not given an order. The difference is important.

“You don’t strike me as the kind of guy that buys into the rousing path-to-redemption speech” Fury says, shrugging, “so how ‘bout this: you get to stop the kind of men that have the means and inclination to bring more Winter Soldiers into the world. With proper punctuation.”

Again, it appeals, sticks to the surfaces on the inside of his skull, pervasive. Maybe, if he does this, someone will realize one of him is one too many. Maybe they'll end it, do what he can’t—and why the fuck he can't is a mystery onto itself. Maybe they'll let him rest. And yet.

“Who would I answer to? You?” Bucky raises an eyebrow, leans forward, forearms on knees. “Because I have some memory problems,” he says, “but I seem to remember you being the main proponent of Project Insight, Colonel. Not to mention a weapons program based on the same technology that was capable of razing whole fucking battalions seventy years ago, in the hands of the motherfucking Nazi nut-jobs that built them.”

Fury raises both eyebrows, expression unnatural on his face, muscles unused to making it; mock-impressed. “You’ve done your homework,” he says.

“I’m brain damaged,” Bucky replies, “not stupid.”

“Glad to hear that,” Fury says. Shakes his head. “No, you wouldn’t answer to me. You’d keep me updated, someone needs to know operational details in case you need to be pulled out,” he explains, “but the choice to take the job and the manner of execution would be yours. And your partner’s.”

Oh, of course.

“Partner,” Bucky repeats, like saying it out loud will make a difference. Really, why even bother asking. He’s brain damaged, not stupid—it’s simple math. A spy is a spy is a spy. Bucky sighs.

Question: What would Steve Rogers do?

Answer, inevitable, unchangeable, undeniable: go with the stupid choice, Buck.

 

***

 

See, this is the kind of bullshit consequence that’s a product of having your face be a staple of the international news on and off for the better part of a decade. People watch. Some of them even pay attention. Faces associated with catastrophic events tend to stick, even if only vaguely.

Most people remember what sketches of the zodiac killer look like 50 years after publication, can recall basic features and tell the difference between them and the seedy-looking old man at the gas station, in the middle of the night. It’s the kind of pattern recognition the human brain is wired for, to see itself in anything and everything, and differentiate between two instances of the same sets of parts based on colouring and millimetric variation.

Sure, the more specific you get, the more difficult actual recognition becomes. Well applied make-up, the change of a colour here and there, a change in body language, and most people become invisible, one more generic face in an ever-present sea of people you’ll never bother to meet. There are ranges to specificity, tolerances set up within parameters of race, of gender, of public exposure. It’s easy to disappear under the poor vigilance of untrained eyes—it’s why her profession still works despite the increasing difficulty attached to maintaining even the barest modicum of secrecy.

The point is, faces stick. The point is, hers has the disadvantage of being well publicized and far, far outside the realm of generic. 

The thing about organizations like HYDRA and its many bastards, institutions that have survived in the shadows, backstage and controlling everything that long, is that their main skill beyond rotting everything they touch is survival. Like viruses and parasites, they adapt to the conditions of their environment in order to replicate unseen, and the first constant modification to master in order to secure success is to make itself safe.

Exhibit A: disruptive hologram scanners hidden alongside every single one of the security cameras placed above every biometrically controlled door. In a lab with two secure subbasements and a constantly shifting patrol.

And here they are. Here she is, with a gun to her head because the kind of stealth technology that she was counting on, that would let her look like anyone else, no longer provides anything but blaring alarms, and Mengele Jr. over in the corner watches more CNN than any sane person would recommend.

“I said, drop the knife, you fucking bitch,” says Thing 1 behind her, the cold muzzle of his gun biting through the wig into the back of her head. And god, the lack of vocabulary given to assorted henchmen is an epidemic. It’s like they say it by rote. It’s not even worth pretending to get worked up about.

Natasha sighs. She lets her fingers uncurl from the hilt of her knife, hears it clatter to the sterile white floor of the lab. Her shoulders drop, the muscles of her back loosening with a deep breath and a long exhale, tension moving down, to her hips and abdomen and the balls of her feet. She fiddles with the loose hem of her lab coat sleeves, feels for the thin metal discs she made sure to stash there.

Gotcha.

Thing 2 moves in front of her, gun held steady to her center mass. “Put your hands up!” he barks. “Hands up, ma’am, don’t make me shoot.” Miracle of miracles, this one managed to pick up some manners somewhere. Name tag says Unterman. Natasha may, in fact, send his closest female relative a thank you card. The unexpected has a way of making some jobs a little less boring.

(It’s the thing about Avenging: most other things blur together, become monotonous by comparison after a certain point).

Unterman continues to approach, as slow and careful and precise as he was taught. Clearly ex-military, protocol drilled into his bones. A shame, really. Natasha, hands above her head, flicks her wrist downwards in a fast arc, like shooting hoops in basketball, and lands the round little bite against his cheek, where it electrifies on contact, drops all two hundred pounds of polite security guard to the ground.

Natasha whips around before Thing 1 has a chance to paint the wall with the contents of her skull: drops her chin to her chest, spins on the ball of her right foot as she steps in the same direction with her left, pushing up with her forearm to dislodge the gun from the line of her head and then turning that point of contact into a hold.

She applies pressure on his wrist, and the gun falls, falls, falls, into her opposite hand. She passes him on the follow through of her motion, like an underarm twirl on a foxtrot. The motion ends with her at his back but he doesn’t know to turn with her. The wrist snaps, the elbow bends pushed up against his back, the shoulder pops out of its socket. Natasha kicks at his hamstring with her heel, shoots to the head as knees smack the floor.

Easy. It’s a lacklustre warm-up.

The door is shut. Sealed automatically after the guards posted outside flowed in. 500 pounds of steel between the biochemical nightmare in this room and the night-shift’s supply of warm bodies rushing to it in answer to the tripped silent alarm. Underground means no windows. Means the only way out is up.

Gun swings to the far left, zeroes in on the only other living body in the room. Her body follows, turns sideways. Natasha tilts her head, coquettish, and smiles wide. “So, Doctor. How fond are you of your kneecaps?”

__

The last guard standing crashes through the glass doors of the lobby, into the street, Natasha’s legs wrapped around his neck. It snaps under the torque of her hips as she swings mid-air, arms leading, drawing an arc with her upper body for the rest of her mass to follow. She lands on her feet to police sirens approaching and the next wave of the night-shift spilling out into the street from the second and third wings of the pharmaceutical complex; the two buildings on the right and across.

Natasha counts seven, approaching in a loose semi-circle, pistols drawn and pointing at the ground. She turns sideways, makes herself a smaller target, and shoots at the streetlights above. It’s not enough to blind them. Light pollution and the lengthening days as summer creeps steadily closer make sure there is always enough illumination to get by, but the sharp spark and pop of the glass cracking, the sudden leeching of light, the few seconds before most eyes recalibrate and pupils expand is all she’s looking for.

Attention spans are necessarily short under duress, a leftover from thousands of years of evolution. Sudden motion, sudden change—of anything—is distracting. Bodies are predictable, like algorithms, like code. Bodies are machines, and Natasha’s spent the better part of three decades learning to use them. She shoots and the glass breaks and the lights go out, and Natasha’s moving, moving, moving.

Her left foot finds purchase above the first stunned assailant’s bent knee—she pushes up with calves, and knees, and hips, with every bit of kinetic advantage small projectiles propelled by strength exponential to their mass can have. Her free hand smacks down onto the back of his neck; her right knee shoots up to meet her hand. The crunch of a dorsal bridge breaking into the cranial cavity is familiar, she can recall the exact sound by feel alone, despite the shouting, despite the rush of blood to the head.

A sideways shift of her hips and her knee keeps going, redirects, fluid and flawless, into a tangential trajectory to the lopsided sphere of that same cranium, over a drooping shoulder. Snaps open to land the brunt of her momentum into a kick to the side of the next guy’s neck. It’s not the way vertebrae are supposed to move, to rearrange. Forward and back, and up and down some, but not much, with some tolerance for sideways motion, some cushioning to counteract physics and outside force. But only some. Natasha’s heel hits the base of the skull from the side like a block of cement swung in an arc from the end of a chain.

Natasha disengages from both bodies as they fall, hits the temple of the man coming to tackle her from behind with the bony edge of an elbow. The guard stumbles back, disoriented, and Natasha follows. Grabs the knife in his belt, and turns back to slice down at Number 4’s swinging gun hand before he aims any higher than her belt. The sharp edge digs into flesh, tears through tendons; a hand goes slack and the gun drops to the ground, unfired. Her next move has the knife three inches deep into the side of his neck, snug in the hollow between collarbone and trapezius.

The dazed guard, to his credit, recovers quickly, raises his gun. Natasha’s faster. She swings the dead weight of Number 4 into 3’s chest, picks up 4's fallen gun, fires. Whips around to do the same to the rest and finish—

Bang, Bang, Bang. The shots come close together, from behind her, the pitch too low, the weapon silenced. So fast Natasha has no time to startle before 5, 6, and 7 drop dead like dominoes from synchronized cases of advanced lead poisoning; for every bullet a home and every home a head.

And there’s a very small subset of people who can make shots like that, that precise, that fast, in this light. Natasha turns, and feels light headed for the first time in the course of the night, and she’ll kiss him if she doesn’t kill him first, if—

Oh. The jolt of surprise-disappointment-anger, the lurch her stomach is apparently still capable of giving, helps. Stings, like burnt flesh right before the numbness sets in. Keeps her from floating away.

She knows those eyes, too, is the problem (sometimes far better than her own). Sees them, a vanishing barely-there blue, in the same nightmares that have her stomach spilling on blistering pavement in a deserted road of eastern Ukraine, the breeze from the sea carrying the smell of death to the pitch black birds that come to feast on her insides.

The same nightmare where she can’t fight, can’t move, and the dying is infinite. Where she doesn’t lose consciousness, where the pain doesn’t stop, where it rushes forward unending, reminds her she deserves it; the glint of hot shimmering metal always at the corner of her eyes, crowding the edges of her vision. The tastes of blood and gunpowder and ozone on her tongue, building in the air. The age-old punishment for tricksters, for liars, for traitors.

God fucking damn it, Nick.

Her back-up is the Winter Soldier. But of course it is.

__

Barnes tosses the backpack on his shoulder at her, says, quiet and gruff, “There’s a phone in the front pocket. Pick up. Don’t follow me.” He points at the security cameras across her and above him and she understands that he’s standing in the blind spot between them, won’t risk moving closer. But then he wouldn’t know she’s already tapped those for remote erasure later. It’s nothing but good practice on his part.

Natasha nods and watches him disappear back into the shadows of the alley without another word. The blaring police sirens come closer, grow louder. She slides the gun into her waistband, against the dip of her back, and turns back onto the street.

She jogs the first few blocks, down side streets and alleys, puts some distance between herself and the sirens. Then she walks. Lets herself stop in a back alley that turns out to be the rear of a restaurant with a busy kitchen. The air smells of burning sugar, of melting fat and the sharp-sweet tang of oranges. It makes her hungry, in the background, where bodily functions still matter.

Natasha ducks behind the dumpster, throws the wig inside it, disposing of it by way of one of the many black, heavy trash bags. Slides the bobby pins out of her hair and into the front pocket of her pants. Her head feels weightless without it, loose. Natasha wipes the sweat off the back of her neck with the sleeve of her shirt, then she strips to her compression shorts, into the swampy beginnings of a warm, humid night.

There’s a change of clothes in the backpack; jeans, a black short-sleeved shirt, a tan canvas jacket. A caramel newsboy hat, old fashioned and almost out of place but for the rising hipster population in the neighbourhood. The jeans are too long so she rolls up the hems into cyclist cuffs, and the jacket’s loose across the shoulders and baggy over her waist, and it’s good. It changes her silhouette just enough. She fishes a bobby pin back from the discarded pants, loops the length of her hair into a bun at the base of her neck and secures it there. Slides the cap on.

Inside the pocket of her coat she finds a garrotte looped on itself, the wire stiff, sharp, pristine. Sweet man, Natasha thinks, her snort muffled by the loud banging of pots and pans and the whistle of steam emerging like a tin-can orchestra from the kitchen doorway. (He always was).

As a weapon the garrotte is accessible, more easily concealed than the pistol at the small of her back, and silent; she leaves it where it is. She stuffs the clothes back into the pack, reaches for the burner phone in the front pocket. Earbuds stick out from the socket, trail after the phone before she catches them and sticks one in her ear. Slides out of the lock screen with a finger and finds a text written but not sent, waiting on the open message app. It’s an address a few blocks over, past some restaurants and a farmers' market.

Natasha nods to herself, memorizes the intersection, deletes the text. The staticky crackle of a radio filters in through the kitchen noise, startling her. Natasha goes perfectly still, listening as the crackle continues and the clicking of heavy duty boots joins in. She crouches, very slowly, against the brick wall at her back.

The radio cuts through the background noise. “This is Henderson,” says the man in the boots, stopped just beyond the open kitchen doorway. “No sign of her. She may have disposed of the tracker, sir. Signal led me straight to a dumpster.”

Tracker. Shit. No such thing as a simple fucking operation anymore. Sloppy, Natasha thinks, sloppy and reckless and nothing you were ever taught, in a burst of anger that dissipates quickly, gives way once more to calm. She’s done too much avenging lately. Worked too straightforwardly, too cleanly. It’s pleasant to find comfort in the trappings of her team of misfits, easy to forget, with them around, what she really is.

(Easy and dangerous, and if she were smarter than she is, she’d put a stop to it). 

“Copy,” a tired voice says through the radio. “Find the tracker, bring it back.” Then, “All units, this is dispatch, search radius to expand by a mile. We’ve lost electronic surveillance on target, visual confirmation is now a priority.”

Silence, above the background noise. Then the boots approach.

Natasha springs up from her crouch and bats at the just-unholstered gun with a hard smack of her open palm. Sucker punches the air out of his lungs before he can shout out, drags him down to the ground and puts him in a headlock, feet winding around his chest to keep him from using his mass against her, keep him from turning in her grip. He struggles, kicks and tries to twist his head, dig his chin into his shoulder, but Natasha hasn’t survived this long by being easily subdued. She keeps the chokehold tight and steady.

It surprises most people, how strong a woman can be. When they die well, when they die quick, surprise is often the last thing they feel. This one holds out longer than that. Long enough for panic, for terror and certainty. He stops struggling, eventually, under the pressure of Natasha’s arm cutting his airflow, and goes slack. He never makes a sound.

__

The tracker turns out to be a little dot of a microchip wired into the coolant base, rigged to blow a small explosive discharge that’ll shatter the test tube inside and contaminate the sample if tampered with. Life sucks and shooting people in the face can sometimes be a valid desire, if, apparently, not at all a morally upstanding response.

It’s wired to a battery is the point. Without that battery, even if the tracker has some sort of autonomy, which is doubtful, the charge can’t detonate. But that would also mean cutting power to the cooling system keeping the sample in optimal conditions.

Breaking the cold chain is probably fine, given it doesn’t happen for long. Maybe. Probably. Natasha’s not taking the risk either way. Can’t stay still very long with a dead man on the ground, with his team bound to check in any minute and get no response. She’ll just have to deal with the tail that’s sure to hone in on her the moment her signal moves.

Barnes is going to love that.

(God Fucking Damn It, Nick).

__

There’s a tactical advantage to crowds. It doesn’t lie simply in avoiding recognition by increasing visual input, though that’s a part of it. It is, also, that more people mean more witnesses, should something go wrong, and witnesses are a bad idea for covert ops. Witnesses ask questions. These days, questions of the sort demand very public answers.

So Natasha moves off side-streets and into the crowds of downtown New Orleans. She won’t exactly be hard to find, with her particular cargo, but it’ll be a pain in the ass to catch her.

The burner phone rings inside her jacket pocket as she hits the throng of people wading through the farmer’s market, a plan brewing in the back of her mind. Five bland, nondescript LEOs in equally bland, nondescript civilian clothes follow, standing out like sore thumbs with their military bearing and their radios. They're doing a piss-poor job of closing in on her.

Surrounded by amateurs. It's insulting, frankly.

“This is so creepy” Natasha answers, loud, as she moves up the line of the first sno-ball stand on sight, “I was about to call you.” She cocks her hip, crosses an arm below her breasts and into the crook of her elbow, tilts her head, loosens the line of her shoulders. The people around her absorb the change in body language, start paying half-hearted attention to the one-sided conversation.

“Status?” Barnes asks, business as usual with a side helping of stick-up-his-ass.

“Yeah, I'm on my way,” Natasha says, listening to the sounds of the opposite end of the crowd filtering in through his mic. “Had to take the long way ‘round, though, traffic is a nightmare.”

“How many following?”

“Oh, five or ten minutes,” Natasha says, moving up to the stand to point out a flavour at random, and making apologetic eyes at the lady vendor as she gestures to the phone, “don't get your panties in a bunch.”

Barnes chuckles on the other end, a wry, familiar sound. He asks, “You got what you came for?”

“Mhmm. Safe as houses, I locked the door on the way out.” Intel secured. The lady vendor snickers and finishes up with the sno-ball, stabbing the mound of ice through the hole in the plastic half-dome atop the cup with the edge of a bright orange spoon.

“Acknowledged,” Barnes says, clipped this time, as the blare of police sirens drowns out the the receding bustle of the crowd. “ETA ten minutes. Confirm.”

“See you in ten, sweetheart.” Natasha hangs up and hands over the money, rolls her eyes at the phone. The woman across from her interprets that as fond exasperation, not directed at her, and smiles in understanding. Natasha tells her, “Thank you so much.”

She shakes her head. “Don't you worry about it, Hun,” she says. “You have yourself a good evening.”

Natasha raises her cup in a salute as she turns to go, says, “Likewise,” and sets about disposing of five unlucky morons on her way to the rendezvous point.

__

LEO number 5 goes down by the ancient technique known as rammed-into-a-wall-by-car, to the sound of police sirens fading in and out like the Jaws theme in the background, courtesy of Mr. Subtlety and his impeccable timing throughout.

“How the fuck are they still following you?” Barnes asks, not bothering to wait for her to close the door behind her before engaging the reverse and driving them ass-first through the mouth of the alley, into the wider street.

“The wonders of modern technology,” Natasha replies. She fishes the sample out of her jacket pocket, holds it up. “There’s a tracker in this that’s wired to blow if I look at it wrong. I didn’t exactly have time to disable it on my way out.”

It's not like she's going to tell him she only found out about it through sheer dumb luck, while hiding behind a dumpster like a toddler playing a version of hide-and-seek that's more like seek-and-destroy. She has a reputation to uphold.

“So is now a good time to do that,” Barnes gripes, “or should we wait until we get the whole fucking state gunning for us, do you think?”

Great. Awesome. Amazing. The stick-up-the-ass is a mile deep and covered in barbed wire. She liked him better when he was going for the concussed baby bear way of life. (She liked him better when he was trapped inside a remorseless murderer, but Natasha's got issues, alright?)

“I don't know, I mean, I love a good car chase,” Natasha says. “Where's your sense of adventure?”

“Arlington,” Barnes mutters, and she probably should’ve seen that coming. He nudges her shoulder-blade with the back of his warm right hand, gestures to the mirror she's working in front of.

Natasha doesn't freeze on the spot, doesn't let loose on the shiver that wants to shake her down to her toes. She clears his sight lines. Twists down from kneeling on the back seat to sitting on the floor, and uses the seat for a surface as she begins the so-very-delicate process of ripping the quarter sized battery out of the circuit with one hand as the other slides the test tube from the rigged container, into the cool center of the raspberry sno-ball waiting on the cup holder. 

The container blows; a flash and a sharp pop. It fizzles and smokes and flies out the window like a fantasy Stark—with extreme prejudice and a helping hand. The tracker, disabled, goes with it, wires hanging out like entrails as it bounces on pavement.

“There,” Natasha says. “Happy now?”

Whatever answer he was planning on giving gets drowned out by the rear windshield shattering under a burst of sub-machine gun fire, by the impact of an SUV slamming into their trunk. The impact sends Natasha crashing into the center console, drives the breath out of her lungs.

She has to hand it to him: Barnes recovers quickly. Hits the break and braces for the second impact as he twists to fire at the offending driver through the ruin that's left of the rear windshield. He fires in bursts of three, clusters the shots in a triangular pattern intended for maximum damage on a single area. It’s every bit of the professional she knows him to be.

The last burst breaks through the armoured windshield, burrows into the driver’s neck and chest. Barnes turns back to the road, takes control of the wheel just in time to accelerate out of the way as the now-driverless car looses control and crashes into a road divider.

“Still breathing?”

“So far,” Natasha says lightly, biting back a groan as she climbs onto the softer, bullet-ridden seat, shaking bits of glass out of her hair. Her back is on fire, but everything moves the way it's supposed to. Breathing hurts, but it's manageable. Nothing broken, then. Nothing shot through. Only bruises everywhere.

Turns out she's not convincing enough. Barnes turns his head to frown at her. “You alright?”

Natasha smiles a smile she knows is sharp, knows is bitter and uncomfortable to look at. It’s also the truest one she’s willing to give him. “Just fine,” she says. “Would've been nice to know you'd be back-up, though. I’d’ve adjusted for mayhem.”

Barnes snorts. “S’not like I plan on it,” he replies, amusement in the set of his mouth and the lines around his eyes. Looks away, finally. “How many following?”

“Two, no, make that three more cars,” Natasha says, aiming for the front wheels of the first cruiser on the left. Firing. Then firing again. The patrol car goes into a tailspin, falls away from the chase. Two left. “Hey, what do I call you? I didn't ask, before.”

The look he gives her says Really? Right now? Couldn’t spell it out more clearly if he tried. It’s familiar. Steve used to wear the same one. “James is fine,” Barnes says, hitting the break pedal and and turning the wheel hard and fast, the tires screeching on pavement.

“You don’t prefer ‘Bucky’?” Natasha drops the empty clip, loads a new one. She smirks, balancing on her knees as he speeds them up, inquisitive and mock-cheerful.

He doesn't flinch, but he can't quite hide the tension in his jaw, in the lines around his eyes, in the white knuckled grip he has on the wheel. “James is fine,” he repeats.

And Natasha nods, lets it go because a name like that would hurt, without the man who gave it. She gets that. No one speaks to her with that soft a voice anymore. Instead, she says, as honest as she's able, “Thanks for the assist, James.”

The flash of something like a smile as he looks up at her through the mirror, awkward and out of practice. “Don’t thank me yet,” he says. “We’re not done.”

__

They leave the car in a burning heap on the outskirts of the city, the last police cruiser catching fire right alongside and the men behind the wheel regrettably alive, bleeding and groaning and tumbling out the doors. But they’re the last and won’t be following, and don’t need to die.

Barnes steals a motorcycle from a nearby parking lot while Natasha knocks the policemen out and makes sure the fire gets rid of all the evidence they might have left. When he comes back, she’s already standing away from the flames, back against a wall, sno-balled sample by her feet as she digs her fingers into the bruised ball of her shoulder, flexing her knees and rolling her ankles. Hurts ache more these days, leave deeper, longer-lasting bruises.

It should be comforting, that she’s survived in this world long enough for her body to start resenting the uses it’s been put to, but it isn’t. It’s almost scary. Things aren’t going to get easier. There’s no point in this race after which her body’ll be allowed to fall behind the peak she keeps it in by habit. Eventually, she’ll just finally die horribly or she’ll get booted out of the game, and it’s not dying that worries her. Spies don’t age well. Female spies even less.

Either the beast of a machine he stole was the only two-wheeled vehicle available, or James Barnes has some expensive tastes Natasha couldn’t have suspected of existing. It’s bright neon-yellow-and-chrome and it roars and rumbles as it gets near. It’s flashy, and turning heads is the last thing they need.

And here’s the thing: that’s how she knows to lean towards the former instead of the latter. His skills and his competence, the rigours of his training. Those are the only things Natasha can trust, and she can trust them only because she knows them in the marrow of her bones.

(Under the skin, they're the same kind of monster).

It’s not ideal; she can’t count on ideal anymore, but Natasha’s made do with worse. She will again, before long. So she opts for saying nothing and instead looks at it pointedly, then at him. Raises both eyebrows. Barnes rolls his eyes and shrugs—what can you do?—and throws the extra helmet at her, scoots forward to carve her a space.

Natasha makes do.

__

 

Their safehouse for the night is the basement suite of a town house deep in the suburbs whose owner is glaringly absent, and looks to have been so a while. It’s not exactly clean inside but there’s power and running water. It’ll do just fine. 

Barnes gets rid of the motorcycle and makes a bee-line for the shower once he gets back, trusting, apparently, that she's cased the place for any manner of surprise unpleasantries while he was away. She has. All the bugs in the house are her own.

Natasha claims the stairs to the backyard for herself, puts three doors and the sound of running water between them.

Fury answers on the third ring. “You’re on the news,” he says.

“My life’s goal, finally achieved,” Natasha rasps, tired, voice box sore from the smoke. “Again.”

“I take it the night went well.”

“Yes and no,” she says.“I got the sample, but I’m still waiting on the intel. The bastards were smart enough not to keep everything in one place.”

A silent beat. Then, “That why my car’s a bonfire in the middle of gang-land?”

“Mm. They’ve implemented stealth disruptors as part of their security measures. I got blown. Had to fight my way out.”

“Well, you’re good at that." It's sincere praise. She knows because it's related to the profession, related to her effectiveness. It's a safe topic to be truthful about, for a man that wouldn't trust the information on the left side of his brain to his right, if he could split the hemispheres apart. When she says nothing he asks, "Barnes there?”

“In the shower,” Natasha says. And she's not his employee anymore, not subject to his orders, or his wishes, or his whims. She's not sure if someone like Nick Fury has friends, but she supposes it remains the most accurate word to describe what they are. What they continue to be, trust or its lack non-withstanding. What that means is: she's allowed to be angry. “You know, we’re no longer part of a super-secret intelligence organization, you could have mentioned you were sending the fucking Winter Soldier as my back-up plan.”

“I could’ve,” Nick has the decency to acknowledge, “but where’s the fun in that?”

“I don’t think that word means what you think it means, Nick.” Natasha sighs, runs a hand through her hair. “You want me to assess him.”

“I do.”

She's not his employee anymore, but that doesn't mean the man's not still every bit as good at seeing the bigger picture as he used to be. Doesn't mean she shouldn't listen. He doesn't need to know she'd do it regardless, for reasons she never has and never will share. Some things are hers to keep. “Anything in particular you’re looking for?”

“Stability,” Nick says. “Operational Efficiency. Possible reactions to Steve Roger’s blood being used to create an assembly line of modified super-copies in a basement somewhere.”

“By which you mean,” Natasha interprets, “how do we make sure that last one doesn’t turn into a world tour of blood and random body parts, with his own very dead and cooling corpse marking the end.”

Natasha sighs one more time, just because she can. Because this is her life, and nothing surprises her anymore, and sometimes she wishes it did. Knows she'd hate it—surprises in her line of work tend to mean disasters and deaths, but it'd mean feeling something, at least.

Something other than the desperation, the gripping, all-encompassing terror that this is all there'll ever be. All she'll ever be. The job and the job and then the job again. Blood spilling on the floor, drenching her from head to toe. Hands that will never be clean.

Always alone.

She asks, “Why do you do this to me?” And it's a rhetorical question; Natasha’s overqualified for this. She possesses every necessary skill, and a lifetime of experience. But that's never stopped Fury from wanting the last word.

“I appreciate you,” is what he says, in as saccharine a voice as is possible when the only tones you're in the habit of using are bone dry, dry, and go-fuck-yourself. Which translating to plain English means, of course, that there’s no one else who has a sno-ball’s chance in hell of still being alive by the end of the job.

“My therapist friend,” Natasha says, “has recommended I find avenues unrelated to work that will allow me to express my appreciation for the people I value in my life. I thought it was valuable advice.”

“And how’s that going for you?” Go-fuck-yourself, reporting for duty. It's so familiar it makes her smile.

It’s a clear night. This far out into the suburbs the black sky reveals a spatter of stars like light through a blindfold. Little microscopic dots like keyholes to locked rooms beyond, like an invitation to eavesdrop on the universe. It’s enough light to see by.

“Not good,” Natasha admits, more to herself than anything else, the stars her silent witness. “Give me some time,” she says. “I’ll let you know when I know.”

Fury hangs up without saying goodbye.

 

***

 

He falls asleep without planning to, wakes up choking on air. The old, cracked leather of the too-small couch creaks and groans below him, squeaks overwhelmed under his sweat-drenched weight before he catches himself.

Bucky squeezes his eyes shut, digs the heel of his hand into the soft tissue of an eye socket as he gulps down the stale air in the room. Sits up with some difficulty, a machine lagging, running on empty. Realizes that he’s shaking when his knees refuse to still, when his feet twitch on the cold dusty floor of the living room.

A quick survey of the room reveals nothing unusual: the lights are off but for the blue disco flickering from the silenced television across him. The cheap, grimy, off-white blinds over the windows remain drawn and the background noise is made of nothing but the hum of the avocado coloured refrigerator and the occasional car driving through the block. Nothing but the metronome heartbeat of another person through the thin walls separating the bedroom.

Bucky rises to his feet unsteadily, scrambles to the kitchen. In the kitchen, he opens the faucet to temperate water, ducks his head into the sink. Cool droplets running down his back help with the sweat, with the fog between his ears, the pressure in his chest. He rinses a glass he finds inside the cupboards. Fills it up. Drinks it down once, twice, three times.

It’s June. The clock on the wall’s stopped an indeterminate amount of time ago, but the digital readout from the microwave pronounces it 2:15 in the morning of what must be Monday. The phone he’s still got in his pocket confirms both.

The marble of the kitchen island is solid under his fingers, smooth and cool to the touch, cleaner than most else in this place. The wooden flooring bends ever so slightly when he steps, creaking under his shifting weight. The air is humid and swampy and uncomfortable on the live-wire that’s the seam of his shoulder, and digging his fingers into it brings only momentary relief and the half-moon prints of short-sharp nails on perpetually chafed flesh. 

Wakandan engineering is superb. Though the arm looks much the same, it’s about a third the weight of the older one, resistant to virtually everything. He feels more with it, too—or more accurately, rather, than he used to. But none of that’s managed to convince his brain it’s up to snuff, so it hurts, still, like the older one hurt.

Most of the time it’s just noise, a vague discomfort, like truncated feedback from a ghost limb (exactly like it). He can ignore it then, he’s used to it. Other times…other times it’s like this, like a hot iron digging through the top of his ribcage into his insides, not hot enough to burn the nerve endings before the signal makes it all the way to the brainstem and leaves numb, empty cold behind. Not hot enough to skip past the pain. It’s exacerbated by temperature, or the way he slept the night before, or manner of use, or who the fuck knows. It’s there and he can’t change it.

It happens less now, the episodes diminishing in both intensity and frequency as the receptors in the arm continue to calibrate and adapt to the electrical impulses from his brain, just the way the techs promised before anchoring it onto his collarbone. They’d explained the process was designed to take months. Easier for the brain to acknowledge a change through time, like growth, than a sudden absence of something it’d known as a constant for so long. Promised it’d eventually stop hurting, too, once calibration was through. Bucky’s not holding his breath.

It’s June and the year is 2018; Bucky’s a hundred and one years old and Steve’s been dead little more than a month. This is the world.

A gun cocks in the silence. 

It’s June and the digital readout from the microwave pronounces it 2:47 in the morning of what must be Monday. What used to be a glass of water is a mess of razor-edged shards of broken glass and a puddle on the floor, translucent like black ice. There’s a network of cracks like the broken crust on day-old bread running along the width of the marble slab atop the kitchen island, starting at the spot where Bucky’d been resting his left hand.

The gun is Natalia’s, and it comes attached to her outstretched arm. To her glare and her frown and steady hands. Soft, warm halogen light streams into the room from the old lamp on the nightstand, through the bedroom door thrown open behind her. It lights up the tangled curls of her hair in a flaming halo while she’s left in shadow. Like a renaissance painting, except the violence is writ large. No longer veiled.

Chiaroscuro, little Steve supplies straight out of 1935 from the back of his mind, an old heavy tome on the stuff, borrowed, lying among the ratty blankets and under-stuffed pillows strewn on the floor as though the thing was pink-cheeked baby Jesus in Bethlehem, and they the angels come witness.

(Or the donkey, in Bucky’s case, like Mrs. Rogers always said).

He notes with some detached measure of relief that he's stayed rooted to the spot, that for all she’s got him at gunpoint Natalia's still across the room. That under visual scrutiny she appears uninjured.

A different pain registers, at last. Bucky looks down at his right hand and finds a mess of glass and welling blood, and barely feels the sting. It’s the mess of it that’s the final straw, the jolt that brings him back from the reaches of the fog and into full fucking consciousness. “Shit.”

Peripherally, he registers Romanova sighing, setting the gun down. She disappears for a minute into the bathroom, comes out with a faded red bag filled to bursting with contents that rattle over the steady sound of her breathing. First aid kit. Unzips and unfolds it onto the coffee table in front of the couch. She throws him what turns out to be a pack of sterile bandages, as per the lines of black block letters on white. “Here,” Romanova says, “before you get blood everywhere.”

Bucky catches it mostly on reflex, tries to speak but coughs instead. He looks away and finds the faucet still open, the water running sluggishly down onto the stainless steel at the bottom of the sink. Sets the packet down on the kitchen counter. The water’s cold on the wound. It’s deep, not long. He must have closed his hand on one of the bigger shards before it managed to fall.

What’s left of the glass in the wound is no bigger than gravel, comes out easily with some poking and probing. Bucky closes the tap, tears the pack beside him open with his teeth and stuffs the gauze into his palm, balled up, as he makes a fist and bends the arm up, knuckles pointed to his shoulder. 

2:49. Bits of glass glitter faintly on the ground, around the spilt water, and Romanova’s taken a seat on the floral print club chair, watching him silently as he moves about.

“Thanks,” Bucky says, quiet, still looking only at the space around her in quick flashes. She shrugs, leans her head back against the edge of the chair.

There’s a Swiffer hidden in the small space behind the fridge. The kind that’s just to sweep, uses no water. He locates it in the dark by the citrus-and-zest smell of the dry cloths, like a scent hound (it’s an apt description, he supposes. Dogs obey). Bucky takes it, and manages to sweep the rest of the detritus to a corner, one handed, where it’ll keep until clean-up in the morning without hurting someone.

The blood’s stopped. Bucky takes a seat on the groaning couch, surveys the exploded view of the First Aid kit spread onto the coffee table. He finds what he needs—antiseptic swabs, medical tape, a clean roll of bandages—and moves it onto a little pile in front of him. Everything else, Bucky puts back atop the open bag, which he then slides to the side. Someone else would need to turn on the lights, but he sees just fine.

Romanova’s eyes follow. “How much time did you lose?” she asks, finally, voice betraying nothing as he begins with the antiseptic swabs.

“Twelve minutes,” Bucky answers, almost automatically. The words come out unbidden, mechanical, before he has a chance to check himself. It makes him grit his teeth until his jaw aches.

(Mission Report—no, no, there is no mission).

Bucky holds his hand up, tapes the wound shut. He’s done wrapping it by the time she asks, “When’s the last time you slept more than two hours a night?”

(Damage sustained?).

“I’m fine.” It comes out a growl, harsher than he meant it.

“Right,” Romanova says. “Look, I’m sure getting violent when you randomly black out is just routine for you, but if you really want to try and kill me a third time, I’d rather you did it while fully conscious.” She brushes an invisible speck of dust from her bare left leg. “Preferably after I finish this job.”

A third time. Third. He wonders when it was that she started counting. What she considers an attempt. The number is too low. The number is wrong. Killing doesn't always mean ending lives, isn't always about snuffing them out. Sometimes it's going in and emptying someone with your bare hands after you've ripped them open, and then stitching them back together around the chasm inside.

Sometimes it's standing by and watching as it happens.

I'm sorry, I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry. Bucky says, under his breath, “89 hours ago.”

She raises her eyebrows. “Consider me impressed that you can still shoot straight, and your ample masculinity validated,” Romanova says dryly. Condescendingly, for that last part. Then crosses her legs and picks up the remote and says, “Now do us both a favour and go the fuck to sleep.”

Bucky frowns. “What, you gonna sit there and watch?”

“Don't worry, Barnes,” Romanova says, sweet as cyanide, smiling in the dark, “I can take the monsters in the closet if they come around.”

“Just don’t draw shit on my face,” Bucky says, and follows it with a sigh and a groan as he gives in and lies back on the couch, dragged down by exhaustion. It startles honest-to-god laughter out of her, and a fleeting stare he thinks might be sad, after, but she doesn’t ask. Somewhere old and forgotten, the sound of her laughter is a balm. 

June. Monday. 3:16 in the morning. Reluctantly, Bucky closes his eyes. She’s already gone when he wakes up.

(There's a hot pink post-it half-fallen off his forehead, the words ceci n'est pas une merde scribbled in elegant cursive under a cartoon turd with a smiling face).

Chapter Text

Here’s a universal truth about people who like women everywhere: mini-skirts loosen tongues.

All it’d taken for Natasha to get the specifications of the security system she needed to crack was to mix that with booze, peer pressure, and deliberately botched shop-talk. There is, after all, nothing a certain kind of man wants more than the opportunity to correct you.

Unlike what television will tell you, there is very little mystery to spy craft. Only strategy, and patience. The trick to getting information is to try as little as possible, to provide seemingly-innocuous absences in a narrative, opportunities that’ll let others fill in those absences and do the job for you without them noticing. When confronted with silence, most people talk.

So getting the information was easy. Verifying that it was the right information...that took more effort. Some time. The nature of the job is to triple check. The only thing worse than a spy working on faulty information is a spy that assumes any and all information is worth acting upon, independent of facts and source. Assumptions get you killed faster than bullets.

The issue with not having an entire, well-funded department to do the triple checking for you, never mind the advanced AI, is that the process is slow and tedious and annoying. Take, for example, the past three sleepless nights, spent probing a governmental network for back doors and procedural information to the sound of early 2000s trip-hop from the next door neighbour's bass-heavy stereo (not to mention the ceaseless barking of the mangy demon mutt that's made the alley behind this particular safe house its home). Then coding a program to mirror that network with those scraps.

There's this thing called flow. It's the headspace where tasks become automatic and everything outside them turns to whale song, becomes noise. Like so many other skills, Natasha learned to excel at getting into it early on. You don't have to think, during flow, and time doesn't matter. It stops.

She breaks it as she hits compile on the coding program and begins the hard and arduous process of waiting for the silicon brain of the thing to move through the bits of the program for the oh-god-hopefully-please last time. She waits. And waits. And waits.

Outside flow, things she’d left in the background of her awareness start standing out, filter back in. The roof of her mouth tastes like the warm beer still half-empty on the coaster. The sweats she couldn't be bothered to change out of are starting to ripen and should probably be burnt. There may be bodily remains of dismembered Cheetos in her hair. There’s a skin-deep ache in her legs that’s mostly dehydration. If anyone busted through her door right this moment, Natasha’d have to kill them not just on the basis of invading her space without permission but on seeing her like this. On the possibility of that information propagating, the way most of it does.

If there was ever a sickness that spread at the rate of gossip, humanity’d be wiped out in the span of a week.

Compilation notwithstanding, Natasha's spending the rest of the morning in the shower. Then she's going to sleep for a month. Or eight hours, if the scheduled meeting in her calendar fails to fall through. (Please please please let it fall through). She'll take what she can get at this point.

__

The meeting fails to fall through.

One day, Natasha’ll mock Fury about the stereotypical hole-in-the-wall restaurants he deems appropriate as secret-meeting places. One day. It won’t be today, though. The ribs are to die for.

“You could use Rhodes,” Fury says, wiping his moustache with a piece of paper towel torn from the table’s roll and then licking his fingers. “He has the clearance.”

Theoretically Fury’s right. Theoretically, not using someone as well positioned within the very institution Natasha’s trying to get information out of as a pro-accords Brigadier General with the president’s ear is a green-recruit mistake. In practice, it’s nothing but self-preservation tactics coming into play. Using Rhodes would be like the worst game of telephone ever played, and he’d be the line, not the person getting the message on the other end.

“Yes,” Natasha replies, gesturing with a sticky hand and chewing as fast as she can, “and a best friend that’ll immediately blow this out of proportion and turn my covert operation into a international scandal.”

“You really think he’d tell?” Fury asks, and the fact that he’s asking, Natasha knows, is both a sign of professional respect and an acknowledgement that she’s closer on this one. That he’s been too long removed from the game. It’s almost sweet. Strange, too, even after this long, to listen to Nick Fury let others make calls without butting in to judge. Without being the active force behind those calls.

“I’d rather not take the risk just yet,” Natasha says. There’s a finality to it.

Some kinds of loyalty you don’t mess with. Some people you don’t get between. Not because it can’t be done, but because trying would damage too much. Natasha’s not in the business of damage anymore, refuses to be an instrument of it.

Fury seems to know what she means. What she’s trying to say without saying it. He doesn’t argue. He sits back and finishes his rack of baby back ribs without speaking another word other than intermittent requests for her to pass the bottle of barbecue sauce.

When his plate is clean, he says, “It’ll take a while to find an alternative.” He waves his hand at the waiter in the universal check, please sign. Then, “I’ll signal when I got someone.”

Natasha smiles. She says, “I already have someone, Nick,” and has the pleasure of watching her former boss do an actual double-take at the words.

“You couldn't have mentioned that five minutes ago?” Nick drawls, eyebrows raised, hands falling from the table and into his lap.

“I thought I'd let you speak at me. Remember simpler times.”

“I’ve never known you to be nostalgic.”

Natasha shrugs. Says, “Just trying it on for size,” and it’s not even a lie.

The check arrives in the hands of a young boy, all gangly limbs and a bounce to the tight kinks in his hair where they slip onto his forehead from the back of a brand new Knicks cap. The official NBA merchandise sticker’s still on, reflecting the overhead lights like a camera flash. His cheeks dimple when he smiles at the generous tip Fury leaves and he winks at her before he turns to go. Natasha winks back.

Once the boy's out of earshot again, Fury ventures, “This someone…”

Ah, second guessing. That’s more like the Fury she knows. It’s a great reminder that she didn’t actually miss it. At least not a lot? Yeah, not a lot. “Owes me,” Natasha says. “And is grateful for it.”

“I see.” Fury stands, and runs his hands over his old leather belt and the pockets of his pants, checking absentmindedly for their contents, like a fumbling old man. It’s his favourite act these days, the fumbling part. Even if it’s still only one of many. “Well, keep me updated.”

“Will do.”

“And get yourself some ice cream, Romanoff,” Fury says, in monotone, dropping his spare change on the table just to pretend to be the condescending asshole an entire governmental apparatus once depended on. “Cheer the fuck up.”

Natasha smirks, and winks at him, and says, “Thanks, dad.”

“Don't even joke.” The shades come down so he can glare at her from the edge of them as he says it, pointing a skinny finger at her. Always so fond of theatrics.

He leaves his side-dish of coleslaw behind, untouched, whole. (Americans). Natasha asks the waiter to pack it in a styrofoam cup. The homeless man she gives it to later pays her with her his blessings, offers to pray for her between mouthfuls of it and gulps from the soda she sets by his feet. Natasha smiles, and thanks him, and keeps going her way.

Doesn’t tell him not to bother, just on the off-chance there’s someone listening up there. A good word on file never hurt anyone.

__ 

As a girl of thirteen living in Falls Church, Virginia, Miriam Gonzalez made her debut in the media by appearing as the focus of a column in a local paper covering a high school track & field tournament, which, as luck and a passion for running would have it, she’d happened to win. It was a small column. It gave an overview of the tournament and some background for the tradition behind it, and then followed with a profile of the winner and her team.

Although she’d never again appear in any such publication, her talent for outrunning everyone else on the track led Miriam to pursue a business degree on an athletic scholarship at Penn State. For the middle child of a blue collar family, it was quite the achievement. With academic success came a budding social life, through which she met the man that would later become her husband, himself a successful and well connected law student who’d go on to become a congressman with a particular interest on military spending and the development of biological weapons. A congressman who’d make sure his wife got a job somewhere in government or with one of his military buddies, but didn’t care much for the details so long as she could be kept under his thumb.

None of those things, not even that last observation, are important, except insofar as they’ve converged over the years to paint the picture of the middle-aged woman presently sitting on the metro station’s bench. To the naked eye she is the epitome of upper middle-class single motherhood: average height and a thickening build around the middle; shoulder length hair, a full face of subdued make-up, most of it earth-toned. Manicured fingernails. A dark business suit off the rack of an Express or a Calvin Klein, with a pencil skirt instead of pants in the only non-work-related concession to her appearance that she’s made for herself—it shows off well muscled legs, a testament to her ongoing affair with the desire to outrun all problems and be someone else, somewhere else. It exhibits no further tailoring. To the naked eye, she is unimportant, invisible, a bit of scenery that gets lost in the chaos of people carrying on.

No one cares that she has two children under fourteen, or an absent husband, or that she’s drifted away from both family and friends. No one cares that she’s taken refuge in work, where she is able, and respected, and in control.

As a forty-three year-old potential security risk, Miriam Gonzalez might as well carry a neon sign with a blinking arrow pointing down to the bottle blond crown of her egg-shaped head and call it a night.

“You’re late,” Miriam says, doing a moderately convincing job of looking absorbed by the smartphone on her lap.

“I am,” Natasha replies, apologetic, fiddling with the earphone in her ear as she sits down. “I’m sorry, I know your time is important. I got held up.”

“Important work?” Miriam turns her head to look at her. It’s understandable. Natasha’s hair is dark for this one, where it peaks out of the polka dot hoodie she’s draped over her head. It is shorter and curlier than the last time they met. Makes her slightly harder to recognize for someone used to seeing bright red around her face. Understandable, however, doesn’t mean right.

“Only kind there is.” Natasha smiles. Says, “Keep looking straight ahead, please,” in a tone that brooks no argument, but remains gentle. Making someone do something they don’t want to do for reasons they don’t understand is an impossible task. Persuasion depends on the existence of an unacknowledged desire. On the capacity to create that desire, in the event of its absence.

“How are things for you?” Natasha asks. “Your family?”

“The same, really.” Miriam smiles, looks down at the family photo that’s the lock screen on her phone. “Busy. Holly, my youngest, she won the spelling bee at school last week.” She sounds proud. Overall, she sounds thankful and relieved, and that’s good for business.

“No more trouble?” Natasha knows for a fact that there hasn't been. That there won't be. But Miriam needs the illusion of power, needs to think of her private life as a belonging only to her. Needs to think of herself as the only one in power to grant someone access.

It is human to ask this, and it is comforting to be asked. To be worried over by a perfect stranger with a world famous face and little tolerance for a man only too willing to unburden himself by mistaking his own wife for a punching bag.

“No.” Miriam shakes her head, starts to turn towards her before remembering the admonition earlier, and then makes up for that by reaching down to the hand bag on the seat beside her, pretending to look for something she then pretends to find and setting it back down. “He—he hasn’t been around since—We’re good,” she says. “We’re happy, and we’re good. Thanks to you.”

“Believe me when I tell you it was my pleasure, Miriam.”

“Why did you ask to meet me?”

“Because I need you to do something for me now,” Natasha sighs. “And, Miriam, you’re allowed to say no…but I hope you won’t.”

Natasha’d learned about Miriam the same way most of her business associates usually did: she’d looked for her boss and found her manning the emails, the schedules, the phones. Unlike the rest of those business associates, she’s been Natasha’s focus from then on.

Any kind of hierarchy functions, generally, with a single person of exceptional qualifications at the top, overseeing the work done at descending levels of the chain of command, wherein the number of people multiplies exponentially, until it’s more a pyramid rather than a straight line downwards. This person, because of their singularity and the fact that they come to represent the entire group of people they sit on top of out of a necessity for simplicity during necessary interactions with peer groups of similar composition, tends to be deemed important enough to be made virtually untouchable to outside forces. This is a feature of humanity.

Which means it’s convoluted, redundant, and deeply fallible: like any other man in such a position, Thaddeus Ross is only as safe as his people’s commitment to that safety remains in place, remains untouched. And it has to be true for every single one of them.

If Natasha has done her job the way she’s supposed to, for the woman closest to him, the keeper of his keys, that commitment doesn’t mean much at all anymore.

Miriam says, “Whatever you need.”

__ 

In the otherwise empty public restroom of a different metro station thirty minutes away, Miriam gathers her wits about her and processes the information and directions Natasha’s given. She fiddles with the little black flash drive that contains three days and nights of Natasha’s work and asks, “Are you sure they won’t suspect me? If something goes wrong?”

“No, I’m not,” Natasha says, honestly, without guile. “That’s a risk you should be aware of.” Miriam’s not the kind of person who backs out of commitments just because the risk involved turns out to be greater than she’d budgeted for: see husband, see children, one of whom is most probably accidental given the age gap. Miriam’s also the kind of person that believes in something like karma. Believes in life as an ongoing transaction. There’s no reason to lie.

“Aren’t you supposed to try to put me at ease? That’s what those counterintelligence seminars always say you guys are supposed to do.”

“Would you prefer it if I did?”

“No,” Miriam admits. “Not really.” She fuzzes with her hair to keep herself from chipping what’s left of her nail polish, brushes invisibles dust specks from the shoulders of her suit. “It just…isn’t it the obvious thing to do? To turn the secretary into a…an asset?”

Smart woman. Natasha smiles and turns to look at her directly for the first time in the span of the afternoon. Says, “Just because an answer seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s the wrong answer.” Then she turns back to the mirror, blots the excess lipstick on a piece of paper towel, aware of the older woman’s eyes following every move, analyzing every gesture. It’s good to be active. It gives the impression that not all of her attention is pinned back to her target, lets Miriam relax slightly, act more natural. Done with the unnecessary touch up, Natasha asks, “Is everything clear?”

“I…yes. Yes, everything’s clear.”

“Good.” Natasha caps the lipgloss end of the little tube and throws it back onto the canvas purse slung over her shoulder. She says, “You have my number, if anything comes up,” and turns to go.

“Tell me you’re working for the good guys,” Miriam calls, somewhat pleadingly but in a mostly-just-tired tone, before Natasha reaches the door.

And Natasha thinks, I wish I knew, but what she says is, “I don’t need to. If you didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t be here.” At least that’s true for most people. And if it wasn’t, Natasha just ensured it would be by pointing it out. It creates an expectation. Then, in the interest of that same certainty, “Miriam?”

“Yes?”

“You’ll do fine.”

__

Barnes opens the door with a flat stare and a hoarse, “What.”

As far as greetings go it's not the worst Natasha's ever received, and it's probably better than she deserves considering it's four in the morning and she’s here unannounced. And she'd be fine with it any other day, would spin it into something funny, would point out he very well could ignore the knocking and keep the door closed and bolted, but she's not in the mood to take things lightly and he's not really going to break if she returns the lack of enthusiasm.

Sometimes even the facade of unending devil-may-care cheerfulness is too much of a fucking weight to drag around, and trying to keep it up only makes her glib. And glib could be fine but there's nothing insincere about how much she hates standing here right now—and every other fucking thing in the universe for that matter, including but not limited to: the governments of the earth and their continuos need to cover their asses, mess with shit they don’t and don’t plan to understand, and use people like tools to perpetuate a dick-measuring contest Pleistocene cavemen could’ve told them was fucking stupid in the first place.

He’ll probably appreciate the honesty in the long run, and she’s getting the feeling she’s going to have to endure the company for a while, so ripping this particular band-aid off this soon is most likely an investment for later improvement. And if it’s not then it’s just a bad fucking mood and no one loses.

Moods are people things. People things are good, and still being capable of them means Natasha's still got some perspective when she looks at the situation, even if they’re inconvenient and inefficient. Perspective of the sort that points out that screaming in frustration may very well feel good, in theory, but it may also induce the neighbours into thinking the guy that looks the sketchy kind of homeless in room 205 is a serial killer (ha), and it will draw undue attention to the general existence of this meeting, so don’t.

So Natasha stands her ground and stares back at him, and says, “Shut up and let me in.”

Barnes blinks first. He moves to lean his back against the wall and gestures to the inside of the cramped little hotel room with his left hand. He closes the door behind her. “On the job?”

“Why else would I be here?”

“Divine punishment?”

“I’m pretty sure those involve quieter suffering than I’m used to inflicting.”

Barnes huffs. Says, “Depends on who you ask,” and sits back down on the dip his ass has worked all night to leave on the couch. The bed is perfectly made and the covers smooth, which tells Natasha a lot of things, none of them unexpected, the least problematic and most obvious of all being that insomnia reigns, still. “So what’s the job?”

To get the ten-foot pole out of your ass, Natasha doesn’t say. She says, “I’m getting to it,” and sits on the chair across him. She retrieves a folder and laptop from the back pack she’d been using to carry them. She lays them on the table between them and flips the folder open, tells him, “Look at these and tell me what you see.”

Barnes stares at her for a minute, searching for something he either finds or gives up on, and then reaches for the folder and the stack of pictures inside. She can pinpoint the moment he gets past the photos of equipment—of stainless steel chairs and tables and shackles, of scalpels and forceps and clamps, past the multiple contraptions of dubious use—and into the clinical documentation of butchered bodies, butchered people, murder. He goes eerily still, jaw clenched, eyes struggling to focus. He flips through them all, does it quickly, matter-of-factly, absorbs the horror like a champ. Then he lays each one of them down on the table softly, carefully, spread so he can see them all at once: mutilations of various appendages, sometimes more than one on a single body; bones, broken to show the soft marrow inside, spearing through skin; a crushed skull still showing the five-fingered bruise of the hand that did it on what skin remains; the ridges of someone’s spine like spikes breaking through flesh; a disembowelment. Every other body riddled with long, snaking lines of fresh stitches and older scars. It goes on.

It’s a shitty move, to show him these. Heartless even. There’s nothing in them that has the chance of missing his triggers. But Natasha’s never been known for being considerate, or kind, and some things have to be done. Chasing abstracts and hypotheticals is one thing, but seeing the damage, having it burned behind your eyelids—knowing what each of those wounds feels like in your body, what it feels like to give them to someone else under orders—that's the kind of information that creates investment.

If he's invested there's less of a chance that he'll choose to off himself before he sees it through, before they've caught the people responsible. And that could be tomorrow or it could be a long time from now. Maybe even long enough for grief to stop being the defining factor in what’s left of his life.

“It’s an experiment,” he says, what feels like an eternity later but is actually about five minutes of the tensest silence there is, the one that’s there as a stopgap to keep you from screaming. Barnes’ voice comes out strangled, rough, his english stiff and awkward, like he’s forcing the words past his throat. Then he gives her a look Natasha will only ever be able to describe—poorly—as haunted, and he says, “But you didn’t need me to tell you that. You should know one when you see it.”

Funny.

So Natasha’s not important enough to remember, but the program that made her certainly is. Or maybe it’s not memory, maybe he did some digging. That would be the smart thing to do, the operationally sound decision of any professional forced to work with elements unknown. She’d do the same thing, in his shoes.

And it’s not like that detail of that part of her life is a secret— after all, she was the one who made sure it was out there to see. What was left of it, anyway; the harmless things, for a certain value of harmlessness; the things she's done, most of the people she's been. The facts she'd weighed and measured and considered, a long time ago, to be both essential enough to be kept and not dangerous enough to merit erasing from the face of the earth.

A paper trail can be a good thing, in a world where memory is fragile, and unsafe, and easily shaped. Can be a touchstone, a line back to what's real. Natasha learned that lesson early. Learned it because of him, like so many other things.

The smile she gives him in answer is mean and bitter and tight. “Just double-checking,” she says. “It’s a good habit to keep.”

The edge on it misses him. Barnes leans back into the couch, lets his hands relax at his sides as he sighs. “HYDRA?”

“No.” Natasha shakes her head, then stops herself. Reevaluates. Says, “More or less. The problem with that kind of long term infiltration is that eventually everything can be traced back to them, but so far they're only peripherally responsible for this one.”

Barnes nods, and looks back at the horrors on the table, his face blank but the line of his shoulders telling of something bubbling underneath. “So who else?”

“The remnants of a think tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics. They were partially funded by some interested parties in DARPA. Which in turn are funded by some interested parties in congress that have had HYDRA ties in the past, which in turn...you get the picture.” He nods again, so Natasha goes on, says, “So a few years back Stark and Potts accidentally burnt down the most prominent cell of the organization, which seemed to be the end of it as such, but a lot of the people involved were welcomed back into government research facilities, or the private labs they outsource to. Apparently, they were encouraged to continue with their research.”

“How far up the government does it go?”

“TBD. I'm still trying to work my source into telling me who exactly's involved, but so far the highest ranking members are in the DoD and DoS.”

Barnes points to the pictures. “That the same source that gave you these?”

“Yes.”

“Do they know where this is happening?”

“Probably. Unfortunately, I can’t just ask.”

“Why not?”

“Because my source isn't the kind that talks back.”

__

When Barnes summons the blank stare of bemusement (different from the blank stare of annoyance, the blank stare of barely supressed rage, and the blank stare of assessment, Natasha's noticed), Natasha smirks and opens the laptop, and explains that what he’s looking at is, at the moment, a remote copy of Thaddeus Ross’ personal computer.

“You copied a hard drive.”

Natasha leans back and crosses her legs, and huffs. “I had someone on the inside download a script into the State Department’s entire computer network, which then allowed me to bypass their firewall and encryption, and mirror that network onto a laptop. Not to mention store copies of the information, without getting noticed. But sure,” Natasha shrugs, “I copied a hard drive.” Adds, “It updates in real time.”

“That means you have access to the email that got these,” Barnes says, pointing at the pictures on the table after a moment of silence. “Why not trace it back to the source?”

“Already tried that. It bounced off of 17 different servers in three different continents, and then stopped right back at the IP for the source computer. Whoever sent them was prepared for that.”

“Paranoid of them,” Barnes says.

“Or just smart,” Natasha points out. “Even if this is actually government-approved, what they’re doing is somewhere between highly illegal and irresponsibly unregulated in most places, not to mention completely unethical. The potential for public backlash is enormous. If there’s at least one other player with as much political power and status as Ross that’s even aware of this, let alone actively participating, and hasn’t reported it…they may be able to avoid being prosecuted in the event that this gets out, but they’d be waving goodbye to career, political future, and public standing.”

Barnes says, “I’m assuming exposing them’s the plan then,” and stops there, but the steely look in his eye adds, right after we stop them.

Natasha smirks. “What ever gave you that idea?”

__ 

The problem with the plan as it stands, Natasha explains, is that it’s slow. The manpower for getting it done consists of him, and her, and Fury, who’s not much help beyond providing leads and ideas, and keeping his ear to the ground, so to speak.

The algorithm necessary for sorting through the sheer volume of the data being downloaded into a frankly gigantic external hard drive is something Natasha can do. From the ground up, if necessary. She has the knowledge and the skills. But they only have so much time and she can only type so fast, and so they have to prioritize some of the information to sort through, choose which terminals in the network to—remotely—take apart and look through and scrutinize. And that takes time.

“Have Stark’s AI figure it out,” Barnes says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

And it is, is the thing. It’s the fastest solution that guarantees results. It will happen, eventually. Natasha knows it will happen—that she will have to make it happen— because she’s weighed the pros and cons of it and come to a couple of unsettling conclusions.

The consequences of including Tony Stark in this ongoing operation are: dealing with Tony Stark, handling Tony Stark’s impulses and moods, and preventing Tony Stark from going on National television, dressed in one of his suits, to accuse the secretary of state of what amounts to mass murder with nothing to support that but the thinnest of evidence. Which would most probably end in Tony Stark sitting in a cell without any sort of electronic locking mechanism that he can bypass, under the sea somewhere south of Greenland. Which would then mean breaking into an underwater prison somewhere south of Greenland, again, to break him out.

The consequences of not including Tony Stark in any part of this operation are absolute shit on one end (they lose time, and miss information, and the combination of those deprives them of an actionable window) and annoying-as-fuck on the other (Tony Stark’s wounded ego hangs over their heads for the rest of their earthly existence). Considering that, the answer looks simple. But. But, sometimes, irrationally, against all logic, Natasha’d rather go with her gut. “That would take talking to the guy,” She says. “And explaining what I’m doing. I’m holding off on that until I have to.”

It’s not a no. It’s an I’ll deal with that later, and Barnes understands as much. “So you can have something on him when you do?”

“So I don’t kill him prematurely,” Natasha says, perhaps more severely than she’d intended. Endless questioning of her methods tends to have a detrimental effect on her patience these days. “Stark is volatile. Involving him in anything other than an outright firefight is a risk I won’t take until I know the right way to push him. And I can’t know that until I’m certain of the details of what’s going on here, what they want, and who’s involved and how much.”

Barnes processes that, and nods and says, “So you wanna do this old-school then.”

“Yeah. Round the clock surveillance both on the computer and the man. Bugs wherever we can get them. A record of everyone he meets, everyone he speaks to and for how long, and what they spoke of.”

“I assume your mole is out of the picture for that one.”

“Yes,” Natasha says. “They’ve done enough, and at great personal risk. That's why I'm here.”

“Just so we’re clear: you want me out there, in this heat, tracking his every move while you sit around and wait for him to decide to look at relevant shit and type his passwords.”

“Yup.”

“Fine. Walk me through his schedule.”

__

If this works…” Barnes starts, “if we find this place or places, if we find the people responsible for these—“ he points to the pictures—“what then?”

“You mean the ones holding the electrodes and scalpels?” Natasha asks, raises an eyebrow for emphasis. She says, “Well, unregulated clinical experimentation is a dangerous business. Accidents happen in those.”

“Oh, good.”

__

The thing about Sam Wilson is that he exudes enough warmth and gentle charisma that people who’ve never seen him take any sort of violent action would be hard-pressed to believe the level of laser-focused discipline that hides behind the little gap in his teeth when he smiles. Which is often, and in good humour.

Working with him, training with him, is a different beast altogether.

Lately, Sam’s developed a fondness for the gymnastics equipment Natasha makes sure to requisition and cycle through every iteration of their “training course.” Which basically amounts to a Stark-designed, infinitely reconfigurable jungle gym on steroids. So Natasha’s not really surprised when she finds him on the rings, completely horizontal and holding absolutely still.

“I never thought I’d say this,” Natasha calls from the bench along the back wall, “but I’m a little bit jealous right now.”

Sam startles and looks up; when he sees her he smiles wide and swings down to hanging from the rings and letting gravity stretch the muscles in his back and arms. He lets go of one hand to gesture at himself like he’s presenting a masterpiece, says,  “Oh, yeah, take in the glorious eight pack, girl. Or is it the ass?”

And it’s funny, how the comment would make anyone else sound like a douchebag outright, but it just sounds funny from him. Self-deprecating, even though he’s earned that body. He works on it for a purpose, and that purpose saves lives. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of it, with flaunting it.

Over the years, Natasha's managed to stop needing the constant reminder that not everyone else thinks of bodies as necessities, as things they’re saddled with and are responsible for making into tools streamlined for efficiency of use. The urge to measure that efficiency in others as an indicative for danger is another matter entirely. It is, so far, not something that can be turned off.

Natasha chuckles, and approaches. “Show off,” she says. Then tilts her head at him, and explains: “You just came out of a perfect ten-minute planche, your grip’s not faltering, you’re not shaking, and you’ve barely worked up a sweat.”

Sam laughs, delighted, and lets go of the rings, drops down into a crouch and then a half roll onto his back to take the strain from the impact off his knees. He’s gotten better at falling, too. There’s a corner of her mind where Natasha still cringes every time the footage from DC ’14 comes up and shows his parachute barely opening on time, and him breaking the fall by locking both knees and doing his best at fucking them up. “Do I get a medal for impressing you?” Sam asks. “I think I get a medal, right?”

“I’ll give you a gold star in your next performance review, Wilson,” Natasha says dryly, makes a show of rolling her eyes.

That earns her a distracted thumbs up and as he jogs over to the bench, and focuses on drinking from his water bottle in small sips; wipes what sweat there is off his forehead with one of the soft towels they’ve got lying in piles of threes and fours all over.

When he’s done with that, he turns to her, hands on hips, and asks, “Okay, what’s up?”

It makes one of her eyebrows go past its natural arch and try for a full circle. “Why would you think something’s up?”

Sam yanks the towel off his shoulder and snaps it once against his thigh, throws it onto the little laundry basket beside the bench. He’s gathered himself back from the flush of exercise into cool, calm, and composed. “Well, you ain’t here to train,” he says, looking her up and down and noting the lack of sportswear to make his point, “and you didn’t give me a warning. No time to prepare myself for whatever you’re gonna ask. So. What’s up?”

The fact that she’s shared enough space and time with a group of people for them to pick up on habits and patterns makes her back stiffen and her skin itch, despite the advantages inherent in it. Despite the fact that they’ve picked up on them because she’s let them. When she doesn’t answer Sam crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow of his own like a challenge, like calling a bluff on poker night. As though Natasha'd ever be an obvious cheat, as though she'd ever have to bluff to win at a game that's nothing but numbers.

She'd like to return Humanity. It's not at all the product she was sold all those years ago.

This,” Natasha says, looking at the ceiling as though looking for answers somewhere in the labyrinth of steel beams, “is the thing I dislike about being around the same people all the time.”

“That they get to know you?” Sam asks, in a teasing tone that’s not teasing at all, that's dead serious underneath, and maybe a little bit mocking. “Yeah, that sounds terrible. Why would anyone want friends at all?”

“Shut up.” He’s so much like Steve was, sometimes, except perhaps calmer. She’d hesitate to call him less angry—he simply doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. Natasha takes a seat on the bench, crosses her legs. Takes a deep breath and says, “I wanted a second opinion.”

“On?”

“Barnes.”

Sam sighs with his whole body, a sag like a wave, like a time lapse of the tide receding as the sun rises, the slow erosion and crumble of a crag under the unrelenting punishment storming in from the sea. He says, “That ain’t a second opinion, Natasha, it’s a field readiness assessment. What do you want him for?”

“Nothing that’ll hurt him more than he already is.” There is no other answer she can give him and mean. Some people deserve the effort of honesty.

“I think being alive hurts him,” Sam says. He grabs his water bottle and the duffle bag he’d stashed under the bench. Says, “Lemme grab a shower, I’ll meet you back here in 10. We can get that coffee you promised me a month ago.” He’s already moving away.

“Sure, Sam.”

“And you’re buying!”

“Sure, Sam.”

__

Because Natasha has no desire to tempt fate and hold this conversation anywhere a Stark AI might overhear, she drives them to the nearest Starbucks, a good hour outside the facility.

It's limbo time, not right after lunch but not long enough after it to merit a snack, and the shop is mostly deserted. It helps that they’re far enough away from downtown New York that the place isn’t crawling with students leeching off the free wi-fi.

“So,” Natasha says, setting twin Ventis on the resin-covered veneer of the table and taking a seat.

Sam takes his coffee, gives a testing sip. “So. Why don’t you hit me with the first impression before I give you my take?”

Natasha looks him in the eye, and smiles. She says, “The way we look at people isn’t that different. You spent however many years getting a degree on showing people how to piece themselves back together. I’ve been learning to pick them apart since before I could read.” No reaction but an impassive expression and attentive listening. Natasha continues, “I am extremely good at it. Right now, I can tell you he’s barely sleeping, and that when he does sleep it's because he's dragged himself to the point where the alternative to controlled collapse is his body ceasing to function and blacking out. He eats, but he takes no pleasure in it. I can tell you he’s so soul-crushingly depressed he can’t even muster the energy to be angry at all the shit that’s happened. He expects it, he thinks he deserves it. He has frequent dissociative episodes. I wouldn't be surprised if he was suicidal. Frankly, it's nothing short of a miracle he's still alive, let alone functioning at the level he is.”

“Sounds like you figured him out alright on your own,” Sam says, leaning back into his chair and giving her a scrutinizing look that’d make anyone capable of self-consciousness squirm in their skin.

“Like I said, it’s kind of my life’s work.”

“So why’d you need me then?”

“Because I know all that,” Natasha says, “but I can’t help him. I couldn’t even if I knew how. He knows what I am just as much as I know what he is, and that means I’m always going to be a threat to him. And that means all I’m going to get whenever I’m there is a solid wall of Everything’s Fucking Fine.”

“You’re assuming that’s not what everyone else gets,” Sam says.

“No, I’m sure it is. But I’m also sure he actually wants to trust you, he just needs time to convince himself it’s okay to trust anything. You’re going to be around him, and you’re going to be his friend, because you’re you and you can’t not help him, but I need you to keep me updated. On everything. Eating habits, mood swings, the kind of clothes he wears and if he gives a shit about the weather. And get rid of whatever bullshit patient confidentiality argument you’re about to make—you’re not his therapist. You wouldn’t be even if you wanted to.”

“And if I say no anyway?”

“Then you get to live with the fact that without the kind of insight I can lend you to help him, he will eventually go off the deep end and kill me on an op along with anyone else that happens to be around. And then when he snaps out of it he’ll see what he’s done and he’ll finally put a bullet through his brain, and Steve Rogers will rise out of his empty grave to destroy whatever’s left of us both.”

“You’re one hell of a manipulative bitch, sometimes, Natasha. I hope you’re aware of that.” Sam says, and it's as good a yes as she's going to get. He says it gently, without force behind the words. Says it tiredly, as though the timing is off but the request is not unexpected.

Good. Natasha has, slowly but surely, made sure it wouldn't be.

The best lies are also the truest ones: manipulative and a bitch. Yes, those are things Natasha Romanoff is. They are also things Natalia Alianovna used to be, and Romanova before her. Manipulative is the core of her, the scaffolding upon which everything else is built time and again, and which remains long after those things have been torn down in favour of something more appropriate to the company, more easily swallowed. Bitch is subjective. It means: unpleasant. It means: unlikeable. It means: no one will ever love you if you keep acting like this, like you have an opinion, like you have a brain in your skull, like you should be listened to. It also means: rabid. It also means: animal, sharp all over, willing to tear into flesh and the blood underneath.

People are patterns, a set of recognizable, repetitive behaviours. Individuality lies in frequency, in variation, in perception. It's an illusion. People are patterns, and to recognize those patterns in others reaffirms their humanity, highlights that modicum of sameness necessary for seamless continued interaction. It's comfortable to be surrounded by a world that's known, and people who are comfortable share more of themselves, feel the need to lie less, hand over the most relevant information.

It's the only reason Natasha's let herself stick to these patterns so long. To this illusion of a person she spent years and years tricking herself into thinking she could come to be, if she just worked hard enough, long enough, for the right people and the right reasons.

It's a hard thing to maintain.

(She'd tried. To be knowable. To be known. She'd tried not to lie. But there are some things people don't want to be subjected to, don't want to face or be aware of. The truth is ugly. It's made of guts and bone and the spaces between them. It's full of zig-zagging lines of dark clinical stitching, of serpentine silver scars. Of clean porcelain skin, smooth and unmarked and washed of memory. Periodically robbed of history, denied identity. The truth is emptiness, and cruelty, and the cold. To be known is to be shunned, is to remain unwanted).

(The worst part of human experiments is that some of them survive).

Natasha says, “That's the thing about friends, Sam. Sometimes, you get to know them."

Sam huffs and gives her a thin smile. He cleans invisible spillage from the rim of his coffee cup and drops his hands to his lap. “You want a suggestion?”

That's the nice thing about Sam. While he has opinions about most things, he is also unwilling to burden the world with them. He knows to ask. “If I didn’t we wouldn’t be having this conversation," Natasha points out.

“Yeah, I just don’t think you’re gonna like this one.” Sam gulps down the last of his coffee, takes the cap off to check that the cup is empty and then throws the cup in the trash. He says, “So he doesn’t trust you, so what? Be around him anyway. And be honest. And care, and show him that you care. After a certain point, that kind of thing either drives people away or becomes reciprocal.” He shrugs. “Might even give him a reason to stick around.”

“You’re right,” Natasha says. “It's really not my thing.” She says it and she means it, and it’s true. As true as the fact that that was always the plan.

 

***

 

After weeks of moving him around from safehouse to hotel room to safehouse, Fury, sight unseen, sends him a key. It comes in a standard policy envelope, shoved under this week’s door while Bucky was out, preoccupied with finding something for dinner bland enough that he wouldn’t be likely to throw it all up. Decades of scar-tissue carved into the stomach’s lining will do that. Still do that sometimes, when he’s forgotten to eat for a while, or has a shitty night, just to add insult to injury.

The key’s heavy brass, new enough it’s shiny most places and still sharp along the teeth’s edges, straight from the machine. It’s attached to a dark grey disk of a keychain with a dirty piece of masking tape around it bearing the number 7B in bright red permanent marker, and a badly scuffed multi-tool that used to be black. The kind that’s shaped like a screwdriver’s head on one end and a bottle opener on the other, no blades of any kind so it can be taken on a plane.

There’s nothing else inside the envelope, and the envelope’s thick paper with no markings other than a carefully hand-printed return address, so with nothing to do, and no other more explicit instructions to contradict the action, Bucky packs his one bag, gets himself out into the street, and walks there.

The address, as it turns out, is in the middle of the residential sector of a Brooklyn neighbourhood much closer to the bridge than anywhere Bucky’d ever lived. A nice neighbourhood, by the looks of the people around; the bright-coloured hair and the retro fashion trends on display help form that impression, but most of all the way they walk and weave around one another: never slowly, never unhurried—this is still New York—but no one’s running, no one’s hiding in the alleys or squatting under a building’s shadows. No one’s hanging about staring at someone else like they’re thinking of having them for dinner. At least not now. It’s still bright out.

The building itself is a skinny low-rise, done in an older style but with the sharp industrial edges of recent manufacture. The facade’s been renovated a few times, judging by the colour-and-texture shifts between old and newer bricks. A fire escape zigzags to the roof, wrought iron painted a gritty-textured black to keep rust out. Quick surveillance of the front door reveals a top of the line electronic lock and a partial list of the building’s inhabitants on the wall, punctuated along the margins of the plexiglass-covered display by the apartment numbers and little chrome speaker buttons like bullet points. On the top right: 7B—Jacob Grant.

Bucky blinks, then frowns, then sighs. Doesn’t bother asking himself how the fuck Fury figured out the name on the government ID Bucky’s been carrying around. He’s got three guesses, and two of them don’t count. Only one of them has hands small enough and quick enough he might miss them picking the pockets of his pants. He presses the round little keychain to the pad beside the door, and it unlocks with a brief beep over a droning noise. Inside the door, a small lobby with a few chairs and a table on one side, and a wall of post office boxes on the other. The hallway between them leads to a pair of elevator doors at the far end and serves as an imaginary boundary between the apartments on either side. One of the doors is ajar. It lets out the smell of something spicy cooking and the muted sounds of latin jazz.

A third door, beside the elevators, opens to the stairs. Bucky takes them, notes they have unfettered access to every floor from the outside and virtually no surveillance. Stops on each floor to familiarize himself with the particular sounds and smells and layouts. Commits them to memory. Looks for blindspots and exits. On the seventh floor, he lets the door to the staircase close behind him and comes to stand with his back to the strip of wall between both elevators, key still in hand.

Apartment 7A’s quiet but for the shuffling an snuffling of a small animal that’s probably a dog, recently bathed and still carrying the harsh chemical smell of flea-killing shampoo, and the low voice of a show host on NPR from a computer or radio. Across from 7A, the door to 7B, wood painted over in powder blue. The number on it is old, copper plating scratched and peeling at the edges, cloudy with oil from countless fingerprints. There’s rust on the heads of the screws.

The doorknob’s newer, and sturdy. There are no sounds beyond the door, and the strip of cool light at the bottom of it is steady, remains unchanged. The key fits and works when he tries it, but then he’d expected it would.

The apartment is well lit and bigger than he’d expected, than he’s used to being in. With the exception of a new refrigerator still covered in factory plastic, an electric stove and dishwasher attached to generic kitchen furniture, and a wide-but-flat cardboard box sitting below one of the windows, the apartment is also bare. Like the facade outside, it shows signs of more than one renovation in it’s history. The building’s not new enough to have the bare-brick interior walls be an original architectural decision, be anything other than someone’s attempt at keeping with the times.

The floor’s dark wood that’s scratched and old under a layer of wax covered in dust, but its the kind of dust that’s powder, the fine-grained detritus that’s a consequence of emptiness and disuse. Paint particles, wood grain, cement dust shaved off by the small and constant movements of the people in the building, on the roof, on the staircase and the hall outside and on the neighbouring apartment. The walls that still have a finish were painted recently. The paint’s still got a sheen to it under natural light.

It’s a defensible layout, inside and out. The building across from this one’s three stories shorter and the one beside is of comparable size but wider. It has the same kind of facade except the stone they used for it’s lighter, the snaking fire escape painted rust-red and facing the alley between both buildings instead of the main street.

Inside, the short entrance hallway beyond the door leads out into a big rectangle of a room that’s got the open plan kitchen along the left wall, four double-hung windows grouped in twos on either end of the big brick wall that faces the door and the street both, and nothing but empty space besides. The’s a doorway to the right, on the wall across the kitchen, that leads into a second room big enough for a bedroom and then some, and two windows on the wall directly beyond the door. All the walls are finished and painted the same white as the living room. The colour’s soothing, edging into old-fashioned vanilla instead of the sterile too-bright shade of hospitals and labs.

And then on the last wall of the bigger box: two doors in a row. Behind the first one, the one farthest from the bedroom, is a room no bigger than a jail cell, as empty as the others but for a new paint can the same colour as the walls and a mop and bucket leaning into a corner. The piping on the back wall suggests it was built as a laundry room. The other door is the bathroom. Cabin shower against one corner, a sink and cabinet with a dirty mirror across it and a generic toilet against the wall between shower and sink. Plenty of empty space left for…whatever else.

Bucky turns the light off in the bathroom and walks a second circuit of the place. He does it slower, counts the steps it takes to get from wall to wall, door to door, door to window. He ends it when he gets back to the box. Notices, this time around, the flat little disk scotch-taped onto a top corner like a maniac's idea of a greeting card. Rolls his eyes.

He slashes at the tape holding down the top flaps with the knife on the inside of his waistband, and spends the next twenty minutes staring at the contents of the box without daring to touch anything.

__

The first thing in the box is a sketchbook. It's a dark synthetic-leather softcover, letter sized, spine cracked and covers boxed around the edges. The pattern on the cracks snaking out from the spine is enough to let Bucky know whose it is, what else is packed below. And it should be ridiculous to say that, to think that, to know that. To know, from a web of ragged black lines, the hands that spent hours bending it open and folding it and running over it, pouring life out onto the pages in pencil strokes.

On minute twenty-one Bucky takes his jacket and holster off and spreads the jacket on the floor. Lays the sketchbook down on it gently, still unopened. He starts taking things out, methodically, one by one. Below the sketchbook there’s a compass, familiar, well-loved; a long pencil box with his tools, with pencils of all kinds: regular, mechanical, the new solid graphite kind, even coloured ones, an eraser and a sharpening knife; a little velvet bag with his tags inside.

The papers for the apartment come in a dark blue folder labeled with the address and number, and inform Bucky that his alias now apparently owns it. An unexpected inheritance of sorts. He sets that folder aside on a different pile, on the dirty floor.

A tablet comes next, its charger bundled beside it. A few books—hardcovers, the lot of them. A small stack of vinyl records and a heavy foam-wrapped box done half in pale lacquered wood and half in cloudy brown, semi-transparent plastic. It turns out to be a slim little turntable when Bucky opens it, all modern finishes on the same old design. Expensive, too, by the looks of it, the care taken on the shape of every compact hinge and knob and switch.

Beneath the turntable Bucky finds a thick cardboard partition, a false bottom given away by the weight still remaining in the box. He pulls it off and out, and then immediately wishes he hadn’t.

__ 

There’s this memory he keeps coming back to, perhaps because it remains strangely vivid among the sea of muted, distant moments some version of him maybe lived through. In it it’s December 1943 and the world’s frozen over and gone to Hell on the back of an army-issued Harley. An there’s Steve standing under the stadium lights in Stark’s dank and damp bunker-slash-lab, stepping into his uniform for the first time just to feel it out.

And part of Bucky’s thinking, in the memory, that Steve looks fucking ridiculous, but so’s everyone else and at least this particular ensemble (sadly, miserably) has decided to forgo the tights and seems to offer some protection. The rest of him’s worried it’ll be bright and loud in the mud and grime of the battlefield, a perfect fucking target for anyone with eyes and a rifle.

Stark’s saying the fabric’s something new, something special, something blah blah blah patented blah blah blah. But he says something during this tirade of self-congratulation, something that catches Bucky’s ear and turns over and over like a spinning dime in his mind. And that something’s slash-proof. The fabric’s supposed to deflect the edge on most bayonets and knives. It’s supposed to be armour.

So Bucky, never one for unquestioned belief or blind faith, to the endless dismay of every nun and priest he ever met, decides to test it out. He gets a trench knife out of his boot and says, “Hey, Punk, watch out!”

Sees Steve startle and look up from inspecting the stitching on his helmet just in time for the edge of the knife to slide across the fabric on the slope at the top of his chest, just below his throat. It’s a shallow cut, faster than its powerful and meant only to knick the skin, but Steve, who never even finished fucking basic and never had anyone to teach him to knife-fight, reacts on instinct and shoves at Bucky while stumbling back.

It punches the breath out of Bucky’s lungs and maybe bruises a rib or two, and it lands Steve on his ass, makes everyone around cackle for a fucking week at their expense. But the thing is: the uniform holds.

And at that Bucky thinks, That’s great and all but it still won’t do shit for a bullet. So, considering the only other person in the room somewhat actively listening to concerns instead of prancing about like a six-foot mass of overexcited lunatic is fucking Stark, once he’s caught his breath and is back on his feet Bucky says something along the lines of “That’s great and all but it still won’t do shit for a bullet.”

To which Stark proceeds to switch from Smug Look #1 to Smug Look #2, and then power-walks around his work table like a high-fashion model on the runway, up until he hits a thick round box like you’d expect musicians to use for a particularly awkward-sized drum. He unbuckles the clasps and opens it and turns the thing around like…well, like an arms dealer making the sale of a lifetime.

Inside, seated in wine-dark velvet, is a glossy metal disk painted in the same colours as the flag, the same colours as the uniform, and that Bucky realizes only later—as Steve picks it up with a little kid’s christmas-morning smile and wide eyes, bending his arm this way and that so it catches the light—is meant to be a shield.

“That’s what this is here for, buddy,” says Stark.

__ 

So the shield’s at the bottom of the box and Bucky didn’t ask for it, didn’t want it. And maybe he didn’t because on some level he hates Captain America for stealing Bucky’s fucking brother, Bucky’s best pal, and maybe he didn’t because he couldn’t, because the thought of using it is sacrilege and anathema and makes his hands shake and his throat tight. And hanging it up like a prize is a travesty, isn’t an option.

He didn’t want this. Then again, the world’s never cared about what Bucky wants except to twist it into something awful and bloody and gift it like that.

Absently, to fill in the emptiness with something even if it’s only noise, Bucky pulls up the message app on his phone and finds Romanova on it. Types, So I guess this is what it feels like to have a sugar daddy.

An answer comes back lightning fast. Ha. I'll tell Fury you said that, send you a picture of his face.

Thanks for the stuff, he makes himself type next. It’s polite, and people are polite even if, often especially if, they have no fucking clue what to say. Polite is a baseline. And maybe it’s stiff and weak, and not nearly enough for expressing gratitude at being given something he hadn’t thought of, didn’t ask for and and will never deserve, but it’s something.

Don’t mention it, Natasha replies. Security really needs to be upgraded around here anyway.

Does it.

Apparently, having team of supers around means some people get to slack off on that kind of thing.

Bucky pauses at that. Takes a deep breath. Types, Some people should be taken out back and shot in the face. Hovers for a minute before he sends it, then sends it anyway.

That’s the spirit :D, she tells him. Then, without prompting, He’d have wanted you to have it.

Bucky doesn’t answer. Doesn't have words for that. The last thing in the box, packed carefully below the shield, is another envelope. Manila yellow, letter sized, smooth. The stack of paper in it spills onto the floor like blood from a neck wound. At the top of the first official, heavy page: Revocable Living Trust Agreement.

Signed in thick black ink, at the bottom of every page: a scratchy, fast SGR. Fluid, as though penned without thought, a flick of the wrist, like the final touch on one of his paintings. Bucky can see the motion of that thin bony wrist if he closes his eyes.

Bucky reads it. It serves as punishment; he had one job, was put on this earth for a single all-encompassing purpose: keep him safe. And Bucky failed. He reads it. He can’t not.

Everything in it, everything Steve Rogers ever had, copyrights and bank accounts, the not-insignificant sum that remains of seventy years of back-pay, is left, in the event of his death, to one James Buchanan Barnes. The document’s dated November 20th, 2014.

Something collapses, smacks against the ground. It might be him. Paper folds and crumples. The world turns sideways, falls out of focus. It occurs to him, distantly, that the pain in his chest is pressure from lack of air. When he forces his mouth open Bucky gasps and gasps, like a fish out of water or a man trying not to drown in it, and at some point the sound that comes out of his throat becomes a laugh, wet and ragged, the kind you choke on. Becomes a wail.

It doesn’t stop.

(Steve, you goddamned hopeful asshole, you fucking idiot. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck—come back. Please don’t leave me here alone).

There's a fist sized hole on the floorboards the next time Bucky takes stock of himself. Dried blood around his knuckles and his wrist, and a galaxy of splinters burrowing under the growing seal of new-pink skin.

 

***

 

No spy works in isolation. Even in the most extreme and long-term of undercover operations, there is always a network, always a system to get information out to the hands that will eventually choose how to use it. Most of the time there’s back-up. A legitimate, responsible institution will generally try to safeguard the investment inherent in the training and maintenance of its assets, so while those assets do remain deniable and liable to be burnt as needed, any option that implies a permanent loss tends to be the last in a long list of alternatives.

Alone is different than isolated. Alone is straightforward and fluid, and sometimes a necessity; isolated is dangerous. Which is why Natasha chooses to expand their little operation to four instead of three.

Also, Sharon’s jump when she finally sees Natasha sitting on her couch is too good to pass up.

Jesus fucking Christ, give a girl some warning, Nat,” Sharon says, dropping the gun she’d pulled from her waist holster on reflex and leaning back against the door, head thumping against the wood.

“Long day?” Natasha asks, not even the least bit apologetic about the scare. Sharon’s good, but Natasha’s a firm believer in constant self-improvement. Someone in their line of work should always be on their toes.

That Sharon’s automatic reaction to being startled and invaded is a gun to the offender’s face is reassuring, if nothing else.

“I’d say you have no idea,” Sharon says, “but I’m pretty sure I’d be lying if I did.” She sets her X-Five down on the catch-all table between the door and coat rack. She finishes taking off her shoes and blazer and pads barefoot over to the kitchen.

Natasha chuckles, but there’s no real humour in it. “Yeah, it’s been more like a long decade.” Understatement of the century, once you consider the parasitic hidden Nazis, the robot-induced quasi-extinction events, and the multiple alien invasions on top of the run-of-the-mill wars, genocides, mobs, lynchings, and every other cultural staple the human race is able to provide all on its own, with only minimum cheerleading and special attention to the comments section on the wiki-how for “How To Ruin Everything.” Natasha’s tired. God, she’s so tired. “What’s it feel like to be a desk jockey?”

“Ass-numbingly boring,” Sharon says, offering a bottle of chardonnay over the edge of the refrigerator’s open door. Natasha nods at the offer, so Sharon shuffles over to the cupboards and retrieves two clean glasses instead of going for the single one drying in the dish rack. “How’s nannying the toddlers with superpowers?”

“Business as usual,” Natasha says. “Everything’s fine, so long as I keep a few treats on me.”

“That’s dogs, Nat, not children." Sharon sits on the empty end of the couch, one of her feet sliding under her opposite thigh as she turns to face Natasha. Hands Natasha her drink.

Natasha raises a brow, lets her eyes widen in mock-surprise. “Is it?”

It makes Sharon choke a little on her drink and laugh for the good half of a minute. Then she sobers and sets her glass down on the table beside her. Says, “You know I love to chat…”

“But?”

“But I’m assuming your lack of warning means this isn’t a social call.”

Shit, that’s twice in as many weeks. Maybe she needs to change it up a little—food for thought. “Damn,” she says. “I really am going soft.”

“Oh, please,” Sharon scoffs. “If anything’s impossible anymore I’m betting on that. So?”

Natasha throws back the rest of the wine in her glass, rolls her neck, takes a while about getting started. Anticipation can be your best friend, right after a finely honed ability to induce terror. They go hand in hand, most of the time. Feed off of the horrors trapped inside the human imagination, the human need to know, despite the peace of ignorance. She asks, “You still have contacts at Interpol and MI6?”

“Does the Pope shit in the woods?” Sharon gives her this look—this familiar look, it says: what kind of amateur do you take me for? Says it in big block letters like she’s planning to put it on a billboard. It makes something old and shunned constrict within the cage of Natasha’s chest, shrink back to take refuge against the bones of the spine. It’s not something that happens often. Not something she lets herself feel often.

Natasha wonders, not for the first time, what Sharon looked like as a child. What the shape of her face was like at 10, at 12, at 14. Did it look much different, at 15 and 16 and all the ages after? Was she just as blonde as she is now? Was she blonder? Was she always tall for her age, or did she go through growth-spurts that made her bones ache? Did she hate the cold? Was she ever allowed to feel cold enough to hurt?

Is this what she’d’ve—no.

“Why do you need my contacts?” Sharon asks. “You’ve got plenty of your own.”

“I do,” Natasha replies. “Except most of them aren’t talking to me, seeing as I am also under anally microscopic scrutiny from the UN oversight committee currently dictating my entire life. You should try it some time. It’s fun.”

Sharon, sharp as always, says, “Which means what you want me to get you’s part of an unsanctioned operation. Of course.” She sighs, and then she shrugs and asks, “What do you need?”

“Anything you can get me on these people.” Natasha says, digging the list she’s accumulated out of hours and hours of running code over terabyte upon terabyte of information out of her pocket and handing it over. “Profiles, priors, addresses, known associates. The works.”

Sharon looks over the list without preamble, scans the names once and then goes back to the beginning for a second read through. Natasha can see it on her face when it clicks—a sudden placid expression, the kind you pull over surprise when you’d rather not have present company recognize that you’ve been completely caught out. She says, “You’re going after him.”

In the interest of plausible deniability, Natasha resolutely doesn’t smile. “I’m sorry, going after whom?”

It makes Sharon chuckle, roll her eyes. “Right,” she says. “Give me a couple days, I’ll see what I can do.”

“This is exactly why I like you.”

“Do you mean the authority issues—“ Sharon gestures abstractly with her wine glass— “the impeccable style, or the can-do attitude?”

“Yes,” Natasha says, getting up to grab at the bottle and refill her glass. “And it’s nice to not have to explain everything I’m doing with footnotes and annotations.”

“Oooh, Stark?”

“Please. I have Potts on speed dial,” Natasha says. Then, on the basis that a measure of trust given tends to be returned, and trust is a thing both fickle and necessarily nurtured among a network that might become your only link to the “real” world and your place in it, Natasha says, “Barnes.”

“James Barnes?”

“You know another one?” Natasha explains: “One of Fury's magical ideas.” Doesn’t actually need to say anything more. Sharon’d been, by virtue of her own hard-earned skill, one of the few agents in SHIELD to ever work directly for Fury. She gets exactly what that means.

Sharon says, “Well, I suppose hovering is instinctual by this point. I mean, imagine being responsible for making sure Steve Rogers' one-minute plans won't get everyone under your command turned to fertilizer.” The fondness,—the sadness—she says it with speaks to her own un-processed grief over the issue, but at least she can speak about it without faltering. It's a start.

“You forget,” Natasha retorts, “I don’t have to imagine.”

“…Point. Imagine basing your entire personality on keeping a disaster magnet with a martyr complex alive.”

Which, when you think about it, is an extremely accurate assessment of Steve Rogers—not that Natasha’d expect any different from someone that not only surveilled his private life for the better part of two years, but also had a personal relationship with the man. Instead of pointing any of this out, she voices the thought that’s really the lens through which she understands the very existence of James Barnes. Natasha says: “Imagine failing.”

 

***

 

[1999]

For every punishment there is a reward.

They say: this is your name, and it is not a punishment. In her hands, a piece of paper, thick and smooth and heavy. Cyrillic greets her in black ink like the bruise of broken bone beneath pale skin, the sweet tang of rust on her tongue, in her teeth. Romanova, Natalia Alianovna.

Natalia Alianovna.

(In her head, electric and unsteady: the blocky shape of a heavy-set man with hair like flame curling up to the sky, streaked through with silver-white smoke. A small round cap on his crown. The steady thump of a heartbeat across the machinery of the inner ear. A hand, cool, streaked with charcoal and chalk, petting her head, running through hair just as curly, just as red. A soft hum cutting through the noise, and then just the noise, and then nothing).

She has done good. She is valuable, and worthy. She has been given a name. Natalia smiles at the man across from her, the General. Ivan. He has been partial to her for some time. Asks to be only Vanya when they’re alone, which is not often, and is abnormally free with the little bars of soy candy he keeps in his pockets like loose bus fare.

Despite her close-cropped hair, and her too-thin frame, and her chapped lips, Natalia notes with relief that his eyes linger. If you must be watched, make them love what they see. Natalia lives for the task and the program and the glory of the motherland. The General embodies the program. The General gives, and so the task is to be useful to him. To follow his lead.

The General, in a training room so brightly lit it feels like the tundra all over again, points and says: this is your teacher. Across the room, a wolf stares through her. No, not a wolf. Only the eyes of one in a man, an absence in them that isn’t a hunger.

Natalia thinks: he is already dead.

The meeting is set up to intimidate her. It is a test. Natalia knows this from looking at the man, the way he’s been left naked to the waist, his hands in loose fists, his feet bare. He is brutally made. They want her to see that. The General wants to see if it makes her afraid.

Natalia’s curious, so Natalia stares. There is nothing subtle about him. Nothing to mask what he’s for, from his eyes to his toes. He is brutally made, and the strokes of his making are beautiful. Muscle corded under pale skin stretched taut, standing out like unsown rows on plowed earth, built for a clear-cut purpose. There is ice in the waves of his hair, and water dripping down from the ends of it onto his shoulders where the ice has melted. A scar like a lightning strike over his left side, as though the forging of the metal on his body is the accident of a meteor strike, the skin melted like a crater around its edges. On the silver of that shoulder, a proud red star.

So, Natalia is to be trained by a legend. She has done good for the program and the motherland, and in doing good has done well for herself. If religion were anything but a tool for the enslavement of peoples, this man—if he is a man, the rumours never said with certainty—would be the god of killing. At the very least its patron saint.

“I’ll leave you to it,” the General says. He leaves. The armed operators standing in a semi-circle around the training mat in the centre of the room retreat to put the cement walls of the facility at their backs. Remain watchful.

There is a looking box above the training room, the plexiglass obscured so looking up shows only the bird’s eye view of ones reflection and nothing, and no one, inside. The green light below the window sill turns on; a signal is given.

The Winter Soldier moves. He must have moved. The next thing Natalia knows is the chill of metal fingers against the back of her neck pressing her cheek into the thick plastic of the training mat, the heat of his inner thighs across her ribs keeping her down, and blood down her nose, blood in her teeth, blood on her tongue.

Natalia thinks: he is perfect.

Chapter Text

 

 

[1999]

The Soldier teaches with his body. He teaches with his hands.

He speaks only rarely, usually only when his meaning becomes difficult to convey without his voice, though he’s done it enough within earshot that Natalia’s certain he’s capable of it. Certain that he speaks like a native, that, unlike her own, his accent is distinctly western, but remains flat enough that pinpointing a more exact location would be difficult without another speaker to compare to.

The Soldier is surrounded on all sides by a vacuum of information, a moat deep enough and wide enough to swallow up even the simplest of questions. It makes her ravenous for knowledge of him, for the whats, and the whys, and the hows.

Natalia wonders, for instance, why it is that he’s so tightly monitored, what reasons an asset as cherished and celebrated as him could’ve possibly given the chain of command to merit so tight a choke-chain. For she figured out rather fast that the armed escort that follows him around was not meant for his protection. No, the Winter Soldier mobilizes at the head of his own firing squad, the bones of his spine always dead-centre on their crosshairs.

It is clear that they mistrust him, question his commitment, doubt his loyalty. And something else as well. Something gleaned by the tightness around the eyes on each and every man on that firing squad, by the shift to a white-knuckled grip on their weapons every time the Soldier passes within arm's reach: they fear him.

She wonders also: will they fear her, too, when her training is over?

But she knows, she knows, the moment she has the thought that it won’t be that way. They fear what they do not trust, and she'll give them someone loyal. Someone deserving of their praise. Someone worthy of their loyalty in turn. Trust won’t be a problem.

The training is hard. For the first time since she can remember, Natalia fails. She fails constantly, and relentlessly and, most surprising of all, without punishment. The lack of it sinks in like an itch, a wound where the skin refuses to meet but heals anyway, leaves a dent behind. When the itch passes, there is something like relief in the space it inhabited.

(Despite the time in the tundra, indelible still and present every night, Natalia has no scars. The treatments have seen to that).

The Soldier will make her hit the dummies for hours, looming presence eerily still on the periphery of her vision, ready to press into her correction upon correction, anything and everything from posture to footwork to breathing rate. When he catches a flaw he'll reach for her and shift her feet with a nudge of his toes, change the angle of an elbow with a soft tap of his flesh hand. Makes her demonstrate that she's integrated the corrections, and once he's satisfied makes her start the count all over again.

And when she’s faltering and drenched in sweat and the very thought of moving to take a single step hurts, he’ll fight her.

After the first few broken bones—through which she’s made to keep fighting until she drops—Natalia catches on. From the beginning she’s been trying to mimic him, to fight like him, to play the immovable object. But that's not what he wants. Every correction makes the motions of what she's doing feel more natural instead of strange, like any change initially would. Every shift pushes the posture of her body farther away from his, and every bit of that change makes it easier to act faster instead of stronger, makes her flexible and mobile.

What he wants out of her is the unstoppable force.

When she figures it out and starts leaning on the strengths she already has—speed and flexibility, viciously targeted hits—he changes the dummies for real men, all taller and older and stronger than her. Always all of them at once. It is still only a warm-up, and she beats them all, but it's progress.

She gets better, not in leaps and bounds like she's used to, but steadily. Natalia finds it is as rewarding as it is frustrating, to have to work to hone a set of skills she’d mistakenly thought she’d already perfected. But she has never backed down from anything, and the program has done too much for her, has given her a purpose, has kept her fed and clothed and alive—she owes too much and has done too much, gone too far to quit. To quit is to fail.

At the end of every day of uninterrupted physical training—unlike the days where a chunk of the time is spent working over tactical reasoning or chemical tolerances or weapons skills, before the Soldier hands her off to her other instructors--he'll sit with her and help her stretch. It's strange. Not that there's someone pushing and pulling and prodding at her; cool downs and stretching used to be group activities growing up; it's easier with someone helping to get you that little bit further into the burn of the stretch.

It's strange because the Soldier feels strange. Because the way he uses up her space is unlike anyone else's. Because the intent, or more accurately the lack of it, in the way he interacts with her is like a blank spot in the middle of a sentence in a language Natalia never learned.

Even the way he touches her is different. His hands on her, fleeting and light and always both chilled and warm, are not a demand, are not a question. It is not the body translating its want into communicable gestures. It is…instructive, if it’s anything. Helpful in a way that watching him do the motions isn’t, because he has the body of a cybernetically enhanced operative many years her senior, and surpasses her in speed and strength and skill. When he shifts her body around she can feel the change in her bones, in the positions of muscle and tendon, and the different tensions in both.

Most of all it is a constant, and Natalia has no idea what to do with it. No idea how to answer, what to give.

Strange and all, she likes that the space for it’s there. That it’s shared and directed, like some sort of ritual to end the day. It’s quiet time where she gets to enjoy the giddy feeling of exercise, the rubbery, shaky limbs and the sudden clarity of a world in exuberant colour. A world that’s undisputedly real. The Soldier seems to agree, though she's never gone so far as to voice the opinion. Seems calmer somehow, less guarded. Almost relaxed as he plants himself in her orbit for her to reach out and brace against.

(She supposes her progress reflects as well on him as it does on her, and all progress is good for the program).

It is, also, an answer to the hunger for information that possesses her every time he’s around. The past few months have taught her that this segment of their sessions is the right time to ask her questions. Every once an a while he’ll actually give the kind of answers that satisfy.

__

Somewhere along their second month of training, he'd dislocated her shoulder in the grab and throw where he'd intercepted her takedown before Natalia could wrap herself around his neck. It'd been her left, her dominant hand, still, despite a continued attempt to make herself truly ambidextrous. He'd helped bind it to her side after she'd set it back into place, and then he'd targeted that side exclusively throughout the remainder of the day's fighting.

She'd gotten very good at compensating for balance while ducking and jumping out of the way, and the session had gone better than she’d have expected, but it’d meant she needed an extra hand to stretch her back evenly without worsening the injury to the aching joint.

The Soldier’d started to help before she’d said anything, kneeling behind her so her hips fit between his knees and pushing gently at the top of her spine, between her shoulder blades, forward and down, down, down. So Natasha’d asked instead, just to fill the silence, “Do you have a name?”

Remembers thinking, immediately after: stupid question. She’d earned her name on the great and terrible and insignificant accomplishment of staying alive for a fortnight, competition won and no enemies to speak of, no advancement for the program gained. It followed then that the Winter Soldier, with his rumoured accomplishments, must have always known it, or near enough for the difference not to matter at all. But the words were out, said before she’d been able to stop them, lock them tight in the space behind her teeth.

Then the Soldier’d stopped pushing, stopped touching her at all, and Natalia’d had to turn her head to look back at him as he looked at her, and found, for the first time, something resembling an expression on his otherwise impassive face. A bewildered cascading thing that’d creased his forehead, that’d made the faint lines around his eyes stand out and the corners of his mouth turn ever-so-slightly down. (Natalia’d noted, briefly, that they were laughter lines, those little crow’s feet—that she’d never once seen him smile, let alone laugh).

The Soldier had, against all logic, said, “No.”

“Why not?” Natalia’d asked, perplexed, again unable to help herself in what’d clearly been some bout of insanity (your superiors are to be obeyed and not questioned).

“Don’t need one,” The Soldier’d said, fluid this time, as if finally sure of his answer. Expression remained, as though the tectonic motion of his features, so sudden and unexpected, had forbidden all notion of a placid rearrangement, of features smoothing back out to blankness. He’d set his hand back against her shoulder blades, asked, “Do you? Have one?”

It’d sounded…genuine. It’d sounded curious.

“Yes,” Natalia'd said, but he hadn't asked for it and she'd not given it. Possessions breed possessiveness, after all.

__

The first time Natalia puts the Soldier on his back is also the last, but the sheer undiluted pleasure of it, of having been capable of moving fast enough, well enough, skillfully enough to drop the greatest living legend in the program to the ground like a sack of potatoes is the headiest rush. She’s earned it. She can see it in the flicker of surprise that registers on his face when she settles her weight on his chest and her hand around his throat to keep him down, a spark in the ever present sea of nothing lighting up the little blue highlights around his pupils with the minute widening of his eyes.

Natalia can’t help it: she grins. She’s never been very modest anyway.

Surprise turns into something like approval, even as he wraps a hand around the wrist she’s got placed against the fragile bone of his trachea and bends both knees to plant his feet on the ground. He nods, and the stubble on his chin scratches against her hand with the motion. “Good work, Widow.”

The praise is so unexpected she blinks down at him, uncomprehending for a few seconds before the words sink in. Widow. Not Recruit. Not Little Spider, like all the other trainers used to use interchangeably, for all 28 of them as though they were all one singular entity. Widow, like a title, like Winter Soldier is his title, conferred solemnly, out of respect.

And then he grabs a fistful of her shirt and throws her head-over-feet to the opposite end of the training mat, all with the push and flex and swing of a single arm, back still flat against the ground. It happens too fast, and Natalia’s too stunned to land on her feet. It strikes her, as she comes down hard on elbows and knees, that he never tapped out, never surrendered. That she didn’t use the chance to put him in a lock, to actually put pressure around his throat. She got distracted. Let herself be blinded by the rush of an empty victory.

Damnit.

Wonders, also, if he knew all that and called her what he called her with a measure of derision she didn’t catch, if he meant it mockingly. But the Soldier approaches when she stays down, too winded and too tired and too angry to get back up, and he offers a hand, and there’s nothing about the way he looks at her (calm, evaluating) that suggests that. That suggests it was anything but the praise she saw.

Natalia thinks it’s rare, that a man in this profession, in this life, in this place, has eyes that expressive, a face that honest when it forgets it should show nothing at all. Rare, and curious, and perhaps ill-advised on top of that. She takes his hand.

(Braces for a punishment that refuses to come).

It’s only when he frowns at her as he pulls her up that she realizes she’s shaking, in his grip and all over. The Soldier lets go and looks her over, does a full visual check looking for injuries that aren’t there, and then asks anyway, “Are you hurt?”

“No, sir.” It’s just adrenaline. Just a little blood on her knees, and the bruises that’ll be there tomorrow.

The Soldier stares at her as if evaluating the answer. Eventually comes to a decision about it, judging by the nod that follows. “We're done,” the Soldier says. “Jog for the remainder, then stretch.”

It's unorthodox. Most training sessions end with Natalia physically unable to stand at once, coordination lost to exhaustion, and a need to be mindful of the way she moves, where she steps and when and how. For a moment she entertains the idea of pointing this out, asking what changed. Only for a moment. The line is thin and hard to spot, at times, between curiosity and insubordination.

So she follows the order to the letter and jogs until the light below the observation room blinks thrice and turns red, signalling both sundown above ground and the scheduled end of their session. When she sits on the ground to stretch hips and thighs, he sits across her and presses his scarred feet to the insides of her knees, pushing until she taps on his ankle, a signal to stop. Enough.

“It's Natalia,” she says, impulsively, without knowing why except—except maybe its a chance at seeing that face be alive again and she wants that. “My name. Natalia Alianovna.”

She expects politeness. Expects it’s a good name, and it suits you. Maybe even you don’t look like a Natalia, but he only says it back, sounding it out as thought it’s a new and unprecedented concept he has to wrap his head around, deconstruct to understand; as though he’s tasting the vowels and the consonants, making sure he’s got them right. What he says is, “Thank you.”

__

It stays with her for decades, those words, that tone, that reverence. Even when everything else is gone, she remembers that. A soft Thank you, from the first person she ever gave the gift of her name. 

They start sending them on missions by the end of the week.

 

***

 

Washington’s a hypocrite city. It is a monument, all of it, to violence, to the dead and the dying and the machine that churns the coffins out. Marble and granite adorn the parks and the buildings and the sidewalks, say: here we remember these poor fucking idiots, by name of such and such, who gave up the ghost because they thought the only way to fix the world was by applying a little more blood, by spilling it and spreading it just far enough. These poor fucking idiots that weren’t ever told the blood that would be spilling was their own.

It is also disquietingly quiet, but then Bucky supposes that’s true of almost everywhere if your measuring stick happens to be New York-shaped. It’s a curious thing, how the silence is the thing that draws the ghosts out, the thing that makes them speak. Every pamphlet, every book, every resource that’s out there that tries to help, that tries to explain the kind of mess in Bucky’s head, in every other soldier’s head, talks about noises as triggers. Talks about fireworks, and car engines, and exploding balloons, and even popcorn. Signals that might get easily reinterpreted along well trodden pathways in the brain as the call of war, the songs of suffering.

(Triggers: the term’d made Bucky laugh the first time he’d come across it, mostly for its accuracy. This thing, little, innocuous, seemingly normal and everyday—this thing that, pulled just right, makes your insides gush out and spill everywhere, break everything).

They say nothing of silence in the dark, in the dead of night, when the city’s asleep and there’s only procedural noise in the background: machines going about their tasks, strays howling and scratching and scrambling for whatever sustenance the bipeds have surely discarded. Horrible things in the distance, a few humans awake turning on other humans like animals—but this is normal, it happens everywhere, day or night (welcome to the essence of the human condition: somewhere, there is someone suffering; prepare to want out).

There are no sounds in cryo-sleep. There are no sounds in isolation, or in chambers made for sensory deprivation. There are no human sounds in torture rooms, once you tune out the screaming (this part’s easy. You forget your own throat, your own voice, your own ears. You go away somewhere else, and let your lungs kill you one fruitless exhale at a time, let your throat work until it aches and bleeds like everything else, if only so the ache is everywhere, so the lack of it somewhere unlucky won’t make the things that hurt seem worse). There is only the crackle and drone of electricity.

It was frowned upon, the screaming. Silent weapons are obedient weapons are better weapons, and a mouth is only for acquiescence.

__ 

For a man of his influence and political stature Thaddeus Ross lives modestly, spends on himself with a moderation that borders on austere. Which is not to say he doesn’t live like the kind of rich son of a bitch Bucky spent a good time of his early life pretending not to envy, if only because it was feasible for them to go a whole week with a full stomach and still make sure the rest of the family was clothed and healthy and fed, but at least he’s the kind of rich son of a bitch that chooses not to flaunt it.

The location of the two-story townhouse in the suburbs of DC that’s been Ross’ residence for the past eight years is not a national secret. Given access to the internet, inclination, and time it’s relatively easy to find. It is also, on account of that ease, as well secured as is possible for someone that wants to maintain the impression that his security detail is minimal, casual and perfunctory, a perk of the job that he was forced to accept.

Paranoia kept unchecked and displayed in the open tends to spread—tends to turn into outbreaks of seemingly preemptive violence that do nothing but engender hatred and intolerance and more violence to keep the wheel turning, to keep the money flowing back into the pockets of the people handing over the guns, and the bullets, and the reasons to use them. It’s an effective weapon. As far as Bucky’s aware it rarely fails. He should know—he spent a lifetime as an instrument of it.

It’s a nice house. Not the nicest Bucky’s ever seen, but it’s pleasant, well distributed, neither imposing nor easily dismissed. Tudor style, built in dark brick and dark wood and cement tiles on the roof; the second story’s painted coffee-with-cream all around and chipping along the edges, weathered. The backyard is hedged in on all sides by well trimmed blue firs that grant the illusion of privacy.

There are operational advantages to silence. Reducing auditory input makes it easier to get a layout of the placement of CCTV cameras hidden along the street and its outer perimeter by the roll and shift of their rotating hinges. Lets him know the guard sitting out back on the porch listens to radio shows on his phone instead of paying attention, and leaves his post at least once every couple of hours to piss the coffee he guzzles back into the bush. It’s not that it’d be hard, exactly, if it were otherwise. If he didn’t have the cover of night and the things that come with it. But the silence takes away the effort of sorting through the noise, of choosing what to listen to—it’s comfortable to work in. Known.

Bucky gets into the townhouse during the two minute window between guard shifts, meticulously researched and recorded in the three days he’s spent following Ross everywhere and assessing vantage points, escape routes. Evaluating the protocols of the security detail that drives him around, shadows him everywhere; a standard tac team: one in the car by the little driveway manning the monitor for the multiple cameras, the one sitting out back on the porch, two at each end of the street, and two more a street over in either direction, sitting in identical black armoured cars.

Private security for the ex-military man: therein lies the hypocrisy.

They’re good but Bucky’s seen better. Made his way past better. He sneaks into the neighbours’ backyard through the park that runs along the street behind that row of houses. The neighbours, when building, had chosen not to cut down the oak tree north of the spot they used for the house, chose only to take a saw to the lower branches in a half-hearted effort at landscaping. The limbs that remain are strong and sturdy and happen to curve nicely above the fir hedges beyond.

Bucky vaults onto it by running a few steps up the trunk and then pushing off it to grab at the branch closest to him, twists up onto that branch by hooking one of his ankles over it and swinging his body-weight sideways and up until he’s straddling it. Cushions the fall of his body onto the wood by doing this slowly, carrying his weight on his hands and bending his elbows, set parallel to each other and close together, into his midriff to support his hips as they align with the branch. Then he lets himself down onto it.

The good thing, operationally speaking, about Tudor style architecture: cross gable roofs. Intersecting slopes. Handholds everywhere. Once stable, Bucky comes to stand on the branch and walks along it as far out from the trunk as he dares to before it’s bound to start buckling and creaking and giving him away. Eyeballs about sixty feet from there to the closest blindspot on the roof when looking up from the street. He retreats back to the trunk, bounces on the soles of his boots to memorize the sway of the branch until he’s certain he can compensate for the movement. Then he runs as fast as he’s able—and as fast as he’s able is very.

At the end of his run he jumps, swings hips and legs forward during the descent of his parabolic trajectory so he skids on his back as he comes in contact with the tiles of the roof instead of smacking against them, minimizing the damage and the noise of what would’ve otherwise been a harsh impact, allowing friction to gradually stop his descent. He catches himself on the intersection between the two slopes of one of the roof gables by grabbing onto the thicker tiles atop the shorter slope with his right hand—flesh gives, it leaves no trace and muffles the cracking and scraping that’s inevitable. Then he stills, and he waits.

While he’s waiting, he listens. The guards on the new shift inspect the property, make small talk first face to face and then over their radios as they move to take take their places. None of them looks up once. They settle. The guard out back taps over to a show on his phone that turns out to be a compilation of TED talks. Unscrews the lid of his coffee mug and lets his focus wander.

Bucky lets go of the roof tiles, slides down to the roof’s edge. Below him the porch’s own little roof extends some ten feet from the brick walls of the house, right at the line of insulation between the ceiling of the first floor and the floorboards of the second. He lowers himself down onto it gently.

There’s a sliding window on the wall above the porch’s little roof that has no curtains, no blinds, and the light stays on in the room inside it for longer than anywhere else in the house, with the exception of the bedroom. The difference is minutes; seven on three days’ average. It’s not much. The room is, also, as far from the master bedroom as it can get. Bucky presses both hands to the glass of the half of the window that’s inset into the wall, presses the glass and the frame around it up and over and off the rails, bypassing the mockery of a lock altogether. Then he sets it back down, carefully, noiselessly, and slides it open. He climbs inside.

The room beyond the window is the bare bones of what anyone’d call a study. Expensive looking glass-and-steel desk over on the corner, perpendicular to the window to take advantage of the natural light, glass laminated an opaque white. A painting above the desk, long, split in three vertical cards that could pass for three different paintings except for the related nature of the subjects and the cohesion of the colours chosen (triptych, Steve’s voice suggests). A two-seat couch, old burgundy leather, against the wall with the window; two books in a small pile on the farthest of the cushions, a pair of slim reading glasses on clear plastic frames topping the pile. Two bookshelves perpendicular to each other covering the other two walls. Books, most of them treatises on law or history, with the adequate space allocated for the study of warfare through the ages.

A sculpture, porcelain, hollow, placed at eye level on the bookshelf behind the desk, is the only thing that doesn’t match the intellectually spartan decor of the room. It’s a child’s sort of trinket, modelled in the likeness of a little wooden rocking horse. Bucky puts the window back together in a reversal of the same process he used to open it, then slides it closed and locks it. He pulls on the strap of the bag around his shoulders until he’s got the main compartment resting against his chest. He unzips the pocket, retrieves the slim little box with the bugs.

They’re not something the Soldier’d seen or used before this, in the rare occasions where they’d used him for something more than butchery, which means they’re not SHIELD issue, not old stock Romanova’s repurposed. Bucky supposes they must be from Stark. Regardless of provenance, they’re better designed than anything out there: slim enough to feel like paper and half the size of a dime, with a film of something or other that mimics the camouflage from stealth masks. Lets it blend in with its surroundings, chameleon-like.

Romanova’d said he could put them anywhere—said it with the kind of evaluating stare that still makes Bucky grind his teeth just to think about, but that’s life for you: what goes around comes around, sooner or later.

Despite her assurance, despite the fact that as far the job is concerned he’d trust her if she told him he had to go in naked with his hands tied behind his back and blind, habit makes Bucky cautious. He presses one behind the middle painting on the triptych, another in the square of hidden space made by the edges of the bookshelves where they meet and the corner of the walls, a third on the hollow of the little horse’s belly. Redundancy’s a good policy for the collection of information. Especially when that information is of the sort that most parties involved would rather keep private.

Bucky steps into the hallway through the study’s open door. On the small strip of wall immediately to his left there’s another window, this one with a ledge wide enough to sit on from the inside. There’s an ashtray on it, beside a pack of Dunhill Fine Cuts; man even has rich asshole cigarettes on hand. Figures.

To his right, Bucky finds that the hallway opens into a small landing area, a crossroads of sorts between all the other rooms on the floor. Turning right again, the staircase to the first floor and the basement below it. To the left, the wall opposite the study stops short and opens into a wide rectangular space that has been co-opted for a library: a big sectional sofa taking up the length of one wall and a good chunk of a second; a thick rug, a big pair of windows that’ll catch the afternoon light all the way through sunset, and more bookshelves everywhere filled to bursting. A big stereo. Straight ahead, with the hallway’s window behind him, the door to the master bedroom, and inside the master bedroom two sets of lungs working alongside two distinct heartbeats, both of them slow and even enough to qualify for deep sleep.

If it’s anything, it’s interesting: nothing on file suggested Ross would have company. The company, in fact, must have gotten here before him, must have parked somewhere other than the driveway, perhaps the garage. Bucky would’ve seen them otherwise, would’ve noticed. Beyond the staircase to the right and adjacent to the master bedroom Bucky finds another room, which, upon inspection through the doorway turns out to be a guest bedroom, the bed made and the curtains drawn and otherwise completely empty.

Bucky takes the stairs. Chooses, on the basis that he’ll have to make his way out of the house the same way he came in and thus further inspection of the floor might as well wait until he’s come back up, to leave Ross for last.

__

It feels as though he’s been handling missions like this all his life. Like they are his life, and always have been. It feels like that, until he remembers his war began with a letter in the tail end of 1942 that stripped him of humanity and replaced it with a rifle and a target and a series of numbers to define him. Until he remembers it was only his body pushing a reign of terror like a tightening leash around the world for the next half of a century. Until, wading backwards hip-deep through the mud and the gore and the fog of memory, he remembers twenty-six years of hunger, and struggle, and sisters, and the kind of hope that lies upon you feather-soft and whisper-light because the world has not yet become real enough or cruel enough to have carved it out with the tip of a shovel, the head of a nail, the sting of battery acid through the brain.

Sixteen years of Steve. Sometimes when Bucky sleeps he still convinces himself that was the dream.

He has to make himself remember it, is the thing. The good stuff doesn’t come naturally.

__ 

So he bugs the first floor, and then he bugs the basement with the treadmill and the flatscreen and the rowing machine. He gets into the modem for the wireless network and taps that, and makes back-ups by also tapping the signal amplifiers spread throughout the spaces in the house. And then when all that’s done Bucky comes back upstairs, steps into the master bedroom. Ignores the bodies on the bed for a minute longer. Steps into the walk-in closet and the bathroom beyond it. Bugs them, too. There's a safe in the closet but he doesn't bother.

In the bathroom, he looks at himself in the mirror, and sees nothing but the dead bodies in Romanova's pictures. The mottled skin, the vacant eyes, the scar tissue. The broken bodies, the blistered fingers, the bleeding mouths. A few of them looked—must've been—barely older than children, just old enough to enlist. Still fresh-faced and idealistic. Still holding on to the belief that just wars exist. That there is such a thing, as though the concepts are not anathema.

Necessary wars are real. Bucky’s been in enough of them to know as much. To know the difference. But justice, decency, morality…they have no place in a field where apes with guns have chosen to stand against each other and kill or die.

Bucky’d thought he was done being angry. Sometimes he still finds it in himself to be foolish, to think the world’s done with him just because he’s long past done with it. He stands at the foot of the bed, pistol in hand, arm stretched out, but he’s not really there. He’s in that room with those fucking photographs, with those fucking stupid kids, and he’s one of them. He’s one of them, was always one of them. It never mattered that he hadn’t wanted the war, any war—hadn’t wanted there to be people in the world despicable enough that the rest of it had had to fucking mobilize to stop the mechanical slaughter of millions; hadn’t ever wanted to kill someone before they put a rifle in his hands, hadn’t wanted it to feel good to know that he was good at it. It never mattered and it doesn’t matter and it won’t ever matter.

The world doesn’t give a shit. It won’t ever give a shit, so long as it's run by people who profit from the broken hopes and broken souls and broken homes of others. Thaddeus Ross is one of those people. He’s proud to be. If there were justice in the world…if there were justice in the world. But that’s the punchline, isn’t it? There’s no such thing.

Question: What Would Steve Rogers Do?

Answer, same as always: not this. Never this.

Bucky lowers the pistol, unscrews the silencer. He slips the weapon back into the holster suspended snugly under his armpit and, quietly, he sighs. Zips up his jacket to put straps and weapon out of sight, if not out of mind.

__

A block away from the house and certain he’s not been spotted or followed, Bucky texts Romanova, tells her it’s done. What she sends back in answer is an address and instructions to knock. The address is a local one, farther west. Not very far.

So Bucky drags a hand down his face, and takes a deep breath, and starts walking west.

(Whatever punishment this is, he figures he deserves it).

She opens the door when he knocks, which he was not expecting but perhaps should’ve, and moves away to let him pass without comment. The first thing Bucky thinks is that she looks tired, which is probably like saying water’s wet at this time of night, at this point in what they’re doing. The second’s that there’s something in the house that smells good. It reminds him he hasn’t eaten since the half-hearted pastrami sandwich from lunch.

It’s not quite a surprise to him that she prefers houses for the places she chooses to hide in, to store whatever personality she’s dressed in for the day. They’re easy to run from without breaking anything. Easy to sterilize and clean of all evidence without compromising the lives of countless others. A house can burn and kill no one. Building, on the other hand, not so much.

The surprise is that they all look lived-in, cared for, if sparsely furnished and a little run down. It seems to him that they’d all be too much of a chore to maintain. Too much effort expended on the upkeep of what’s really little more than a bolt-hole. A place to hide in until attention is diverted elsewhere.

There’s no hello. No how did it go? No superfluous attempt at normal conversation. They’re working, and it feels like work. There is, instead, a swift visual check-up and a no-nonsense, “Feeds are all working. Let me walk you through the set-up,” and walk him through the set up she does.

Romanova leads him into the living room, where three flatscreens-turned-monitors have been hastily set up and anchored to the wall, thick ethernet cabling snaking down the wall and pooling on the floor, leading over through the door to the next room, which Bucky supposes is the base for the computing power in the house. There’s speakers, but they’re not connected. There is, instead, a pair of big round headphones on the coffee table, thick cables taking their place on the monitors' sound output.

Each monitor is divided in a grid of six rectangles that show a live feed from the cameras of every electronic device accessible through the wifi networks they’ve each tapped into. From the CCTV on Ross’ home street to the perimeter of the State Department building where he spends most days. There’s more than Bucky would’ve initially assumed, but then there’s cameras on everything these days. Nearly one for every room in the house, and more than that for the office and the meeting room and bullpen inside the Department. Cameras on the phones too as well the microphones, though the former are only useful once the phones actually come out of the pockets and off the nightstands and the desks. Smart TVs and Computers are better, even if they're stationary.

“You get a signal from the extra phone I mentioned?” Bucky asks.

“Yeah, it’s the one right there,” Romanova points to the square on the bottom corner on the left-most monitor, “you’ll get the sound once you click over to it. Why?”

“‘Cause it’s not his. Ross had company.”

“Company?”

“He’s fucking his legal advisor. Andrea Moretti, fifty-two.” He’d managed to take a look at her driver’s license, among the contents of her purse: lipstick, compact and mirror, wallet with credit cards and library cards and Starbucks cards, two hundred and thirty-seven dollars cash, an old movie ticket. A couple of condoms, one of them expired. A snub-nosed revolver, and the concealed carry permit for it alongside it in its pancake holster. Garbage from half-eaten snacks, a set of keys with pepper spray and a dog whistle. An old paperback.

“Could be a one-time deal.”

“It’s not. There’s extra toiletries in his bathroom, two different kinds of beer in his fridge. And unless he has a fondness for wearing high heels at home, there’d be no reason for there to be more than the pair she was wearing when she got there. I counted three.”

That raises an eyebrow. Romanova leans back into her seat. Says, “Okay, so we put some eyes and ears on her too, then, just to be sure. It should be easier without the protection detail.” She looks back at the monitors with a frown, then back at him. Asks, “Have you eaten?”

“No, and if you’re gonna offer some of whatever it is that smells like it’s got meat in it the answer is yes.”

“Beef bourguignon,” she says, with a smirk that Bucky thinks might finally be real, an actual signifier of amusement. “The giant styrofoam bowl on the counter is yours, and there’s drinks in the fridge. I’m gonna get back to that algorithm.”

__

Life, in the days that follow, turns sideways, becomes strange as though tilted on its axis. As though he missed the sudden cue that’s meant to announce the shift over to a funhouse mirror reality.

It distills into a series of repetitive actions: wake up to the sound of Romanova opening her bedroom door from a bad night on the couch, make coffee to drink on the basis of the taste providing at least some measure of comfort for himself, and some sort of life-fluid and/or mead of inspiration for the other occupant in the house, who not so much drinks it as keeps herself on a constant mechanized intake, a sip every other minute, a gulp whenever hands pause on their slow tortuous murder of the keyboard as she—presumably—thinks through whatever comes next on the piece of code she’s wrangling. Maybe eat something depending on his stomach’s particular mood, sit ass down on couch to keep an eye on the surveillance and his ear to the headphones, listen to boring, pointless, procedural conversations that only reinforce the idea that politics is a game where lives are little more than collateral damage. Stay there until said housemate taps his shoulder to relieve him and wait until he’s vacated the couch to sit on the exact same spot he previously inhabited, somewhere around mid-afternoon, after which point Bucky’ll take himself for a long fucking walk and come back with whatever she texted she felt like having for dinner.

Eventually, through no effort on either part, sharing a space turns into habit. Sharing meals turns into habit. Company turns into habit. Like one day she popped out of thin air beside him and just stayed there, and it’s been so long, so fucking long since the last time Bucky shared his space with anyone that the immediate, snarling instinct before he manages to convince the damaged animal hindbrain that’s in charge of always freaking the fuck out of the harmlessness of the situation is to get out, get away, find someplace secluded and solid and preferably small for him to climb into and put his back against.

It gets better, for a loose definition of the term: he starts sleeping in longer stretches—four hours at a time, sometimes five; almost enough to pass for the lowest permissible limit of a full night. Starts doing it somewhat consistently around the unspoken schedule Romanova’s devised for their shifts. This may seem, upon first thought, like an ideal situation, a healthy arrangement. The thing is, Bucky doesn’t get good things, doesn’t get a measure of relief that comes untainted. Sleep time and sleep schedule get longer and more regular and all it does is give the nightmares time to shine, to grow in complexity and horror, and dig excruciatingly explicit detail straight out of the reality of his life.

Some of them he knows already. He’ll go through them tense and weary and perfectly aware of every step, every beat in their narrative. At this point they’re more like memories. Sometimes he can even wake himself up. The rest, new and improved and in impossible technicolor, he learns to brace for. Learns, after the first night of waking to Romanova dropping the contents of a lukewarm water bottle on his head with a hand firmly wrapped around a loaded gun, to bite his tongue until it bleeds, lest he scream.

It not a problem. Everything that’s not his brain actually heals.

__

They speak to each other intermittently, mostly when necessary, sometimes over meals. It’s not stiff, but probably only because of a superhuman effort on her part to keep the conversation light. There is something…pained, almost, under the surface of her, always hidden just out of reach. The mask is admirable, the cracks hairline, gossamer thin. She’d make a fool out of anyone who wasn’t looking for it. Anyone who didn’t have enhanced senses always tuned to taste the tension in the air like an animal scenting fear.

Bucky wants to say to her, I'm proud. You fought them, and you grew up good, and I'm proud of you. Of everything you've done with the little you were given. It'd be good to say but it wouldn't really be true, wouldn't really be accurate. The word's not really pride. The word is awe.

(The word is envy, the word is jealousy, the word is he's a fucking idiot and he wasn't ever that good to begin with so why the fuck is he surprised someone so much better than him got over the damage when he couldn't? When he still can’t. How dare he be fucking surprised?)

So he says nothing, and watches instead, and helps when he can. He’s only here for back-up.

Still, Bucky has no idea what her game is. He harbours no doubt that there’s something afoot in regard to his presence, in regard to his use. There’s nothing about this operation that the Black Widow can’t handle on her own. He helped make sure of that, a long time ago.

__

He asks her, once. She’s invited him to dinner after learning he’s never had Vietnamese food that didn’t come out of a microwavable cup—all but bullies him into it. Dismisses his excuse of staying to watch and listen on the live feed by pointing out it’s being recorded and them missing a couple hours on something where they’re not looking to move out immediately anyway won’t actually hurt him, and does he even remember what it’s like to have a life that involves more than not-sleeping and staring at the wall or the tv and then working when he's not doing that?

Arguing, he figures out pretty quick, is pointless. In the end, Bucky swallows his protests, makes himself somewhat presentable and shows up, because he’s a fucking pushover, apparently. (Besides, it’d be good for her to get out the house).

In the middle of a—delicious, really, point to her—bowl of soup that he orders on the basis that soups are familiar and if the taste ends up being bad the warmth will compensate a little for that, Bucky asks, “Why are you doing this?”

“This?” Romanova stops eating, gestures vaguely at the little hole in the wall with a few worse-for-wear tables and mismatched plastic chairs that’s the restaurant, says, “Because the shit you were calling Pho was giving me nightmares, Barnes.”

“No,” Bucky says, biting down on exasperation and stomping on the little voice in the back of his mind that chants lying, lying, lying like an alarm every time she opens her mouth. “I mean all of this. You don't really need me. There’s two dozen ways you could pull this operation off without anyone’s help. It's not even convenient; I could--I could just have a shitty night and kill you by accident, and there's no version of the world where you're not perfectly aware of that.” He doesn’t mean to stab his point with with the chopsticks, the gesture unconscious and sudden, but his body doesn’t listen, never listens. “So what are you looking for? What do you want?”

Romanova sets the little rice-paper shrimp roll she’d been planning to bite into back onto her plate, pauses to truly look at him for the first time in what feels like ages. “Steve Rogers loved you,” she says, eventually, softly. “And I repay my debts when I can.”

It doesn’t answer his questions, but maybe it’s a start.

 

***

 

Sharing a safe house turns into habit. Sharing meals turns into habit. Company turns into habit. He makes her feel displaced. Displaced and unstable and all of fifteen, and the terrible thing of it is that there’s part of her, locked down and for all intents and purposes both unkillable and parasitic, that likes it. Finds comfort in it. In old patterns rising back to the surface, flipping the finger at the passage of time and personal growth and everything else Natasha fought--still fights--tooth and nail to get past, to leave behind.

None of it’s his fault. She tries to remind herself of that. It’s not his fault that they played with his mind more than they ever did hers, that they hollowed him out and then punished him for the humanity that not even the worst of their tortures could get rid of for long. That he remembers none of that. The crimes committed against him make a mockery of hers.

The most jarring thing is that as familiar as it is, it is also different. James Barnes speaks, for one, without prompting. Displays signs of a wicked sense of humour buried somewhere, trying to dig itself back out. He doesn’t hover, but his presence stays in a room he’s passed through like a change in air pressure, not a ghost so much as a magnetic field of sorts, drawing everything capable of movement ever so slightly toward him, following in his wake. She’ll be focused on the characters and symbols on screen and a cup of coffee, a glass of water, a mug of the peppermint tea she keeps in the pantry will appear on the coaster beside the monitor as if by magic. He’ll bring food around without prompting. He’ll keep the space he uses up immaculately clean.

The truth of him, Natasha suspects, is a soft heart and a gentle nature, exasperation a shield like a callus against a world that scrubs him raw at every chance, and doesn’t give a single fuck about how bad it hurts.

James Barnes, most of all, is a person, and Natasha’s not used to that.

Steve Rogers loved you, she tells him, when he finally asks. Tells him, also: I repay my debs when I can. Barnes says nothing, but she can see him take the words in, register, once the familiar pain of that absence goes by, that they don’t even begin to answer the questions he’s asked. And then she sees him let it slide because he misunderstands.

Death erases all debts. For all that his memory shapes the world he left behind, for all that it’s useful to invoke him and the better angels he still awakens in the people that met him, the truth is that Steve Rogers no longer cares. Can no longer care.

Natasha owes to the living, to the vestige of the weapon that taught her, somewhat accidentally and without the capacity for intent, that she could be something more than the second best option in the business of cold-blooded murder and the systematic ruin of lives. She owes, and she’s been given the chance to correct that.

(Maybe once it’s done she’ll finally put him in the ground. Maybe she’ll even mourn him).

She decides the next night that its high time she called on Stark.

 

***

 

It occurs to him, very late and in a manner not unlike the metaphorical lighting strike, that she remembers him and he remembers her, but she doesn’t know that he remembers her. That a vengeful Natalia Romanova would be making his life a living hell, not facilitating it with the ghost of a bitter smile around her mouth and a very firm detente under the guise of a continued attempt at making friends.

When it happens it’s five in the morning of the day before returning to New York to wait for whatever Stark can do once involved; they’ve been manning the monitors and following Ross and Company to no avail for something like a fortnight, give or take, and he gets the sudden and undeniable urge to find the nearest flat surface that’ll be strong enough to maybe crush his skull.

Nobody ever accused Bucky Barnes of being the sharpest tool in the box.

(Oh, fuck).

 

***

 

The problem with Tony Stark is that once his ego’s off the table he’s the kind of person Natasha looks at and feels as though she might be staring into a fractured reflection. Theirs is the kind of relationship built on the knowledge that they’ve each, on their own steam, landed the villain’s role in the casting call of an overarching story. That when it’s time for selflessness they might as well drop dead and let those better than them do the leading and the choosing. That their faces are masks they’ve perfected, built around themselves like cages; that the formless stuff under the masks is dangerous, is toxic to everyone around them and shouldn’t—can’t—be let out.

If there’s a saving grace there that’s the sole responsible of them having any sort of relationship, adversarial and irritating as it is, is that Tony’s ego’s never off the table. No, Tony’s ego has a permanent pedestal, an infinite energy supply. If Natasha was factory-made, and the specifications of her machine shared by many, then Tony’s the product of an artist’s unchecked god complex—an attempt at encompassing human will all in a single piece. Tony’s singular, and sure enough of that singularity to profit from it, to make it both his defining factor and his greatest asset.

It takes ten minutes in a room with the man to realize the real armour isn’t the one that makes the front page of the news every time he wears it. That the real armour’s invisible and always there, always a weight on his shoulders that he’s incapable of setting down. That if Tony Stark ever divorced himself from his ego he’d be dead in days, drowned at the bottom of a bottle steeped in how much he hates himself.

It means that volatile as he is, full of vices and strings to pull on as he is, once he’s looking for the catch in every interaction and look and conversation—and he has been for as long as he’s known what she is and how she works, and he catches on quick— he’s actually one of the hardest people to manipulate Natasha’s ever met.

“You were looking for me?” Natasha asks, knocking on the glass doors to the lab only for show, perfectly aware that FRIDAY has already announced her.

Tony doesn’t stand, but he pushes away from his desk on the wheels of his chair, and gestures at the holographic display that’s flickering at the centre of the semicircle of the room. The gesture makes the files spread out in a spherical grid behind him, blue-tinted photographs and documents and video files suspended in Natasha thinks, vaguely, counts as Stark’s version of a murder-board. “Were you ever going to fill me in on this?”

“I left it for you to find, didn’t I?”

“That’s not—did you fail the “human communication” course at Duplicitous Backstabber Academy?”

Natasha smiles, and there’s real amusement in it because it’s funny, that he still thinks he can hurt her. If that kind of verbal baiting did anything, she’d never have gotten very good or very far at what she does. She makes a point of looking around, lingering on the computers and the machines and the junctions in the ceiling where FRIDAY surveils every aspect in his world. She says, “Tony, look around. You wouldn’t know human communication if it hit you in the face.”

That it does nothing to her doesn’t mean she can’t play.

“Right. Right.” Tony stands and leans his hip against the curve of his desk. Crosses his arms. Says, “So what does it take, in the Black Widow’s eyes, to be part of whatever little secret police club you seem to be running? Is the first rule of secret police club that you don’t talk about secret police club? ’Cause I’d have thought I’d’ve qualified for it in the past three months. No, you know what, scratch that—the past three years.” He gestures around workspace, and then at himself for emphasis, looking not unlike a very anxious and irritable puff-fish blowing up to make itself seem three times its size and thus more of a threat.

Tony drops his hands and sets his fingers on the surface of the desk, lowers his voice, something truly hurt sneaking in at the edges of his expression. “I stayed. I stayed here and I pulled a team together out of thin air when everyone else was running around after Rogers and leaving all of us undefended. I was there, when the first wave came in an wrecked every major city on the planet, and I was still there when you all decided it was about time to show up, and I’ve been here, trying to get the governments of the world to fucking agree on something so that we don’t devolve into some sort of pseudo-feudal dystopia.”

This is why Natasha's never ever entertaining the idea of having children, ever (independent of the fact, obviously, that she can't). After a certain degree of tantrum intensity inflicting life-threatening injuries starts seeming like the kind of response that'll at least make it stop.

“Patience would be nice,” Natasha says, in a tone that’s calm and slow and deliberately dipped into a not-insignificant measure of Patronizingly Patient. “Maybe a little less entitlement. This isn’t the work of alien invaders bent on obliterating the human race, Tony. It’s the government of the United States, among others, with which you’ve been uncharacteristically cooperative lately. So forgive me if I didn’t think coming straight to you was a good first move.”

“For your information, I want Ross discredited, arrested, and eating supermax cafeteria slop three times a day just as much as you do.”

“Good to know. So what have you found?”

Tony turns back to the holographic display, says, “Nothing you’ll like.”

__

Pragmatism is, the majority of the time, the complete opposite of ego. It is not so much that Natasha lacks one as it is that that ego can and will often take a backseat to the things that truly matter in the moment, such as whether she and-or the people that matter are alive, functioning, and out of danger. And, if there is danger, what getting out if will entail, as well as knowing that sometimes putting yourself in danger of your own volition is the only way to get at the overarching goal of whatever the mission is, and, for that matter, that sometimes the end does justify the means.

Case in point: weathering Tony’s need for validation and its resulting tantrums in order to get a chance at putting his brain, existing resources, and money to work on a problem that would take Natasha months to solve on her own.

And then Tony brings up a cluster of files arranged in a fractal cube headed by an overarching title reading, in bold-faced all-caps German,  Projekt: ZEPHYR, and all Natasha can get herself to do is mutter, “Shit.”

This sudden moment of eloquence is designed to denote a momentary and partial-but-intense system shut-down where the voices that sort of live in her brain all pretty much sit down to rock back and forth and scream. Mostly in frustration. They scream because a side-effect of pragmatism as a core tenet in life is forethought, and forethought, by definition, means Natasha’s thought ahead to the outcomes and consequences of most plausible scenarios in any given situation before she knows which one of them will come to pass, if only so she can prepare for them.

This particular scenario’s not one of the good ones. Sometimes Natasha hates it when Fury’s information turns out to be right. 

“What?” Tony pauses in his gesturing, the files half open and projecting around the space in disarray.

“I was really hoping it wasn’t quite this bad,” Natasha says, thinking, thinking, thinking. “I need a terminal I can access.”

He frowns in her direction but thankfully refrains from pressing her for more information, having got the cue that Natasha’s getting ready for her own bit of show-and-tell. Points to the other end of the desk, where the computer monitor and keyboard are not quite standard but closer to it than anything Tony’d ever be caught using himself. Natasha knows exactly what she’s looking for, knows exactly where to find it and the fastest way around the security keeping it locked down—she’s always had the habit of leaving herself backdoors in case there’s a need for immediate access on any of her data caches. It doesn’t take very long.

It’s all cyrillic, so as she enters the command to have it displayed alongside the cube of Tony’s information, she says, “FRIDAY, please transcribe.”

“I assume this is where I’m supposed to ask what Project…BOREAS is.”

“See for yourself,” Natasha says, gesturing to it, and bracing for what comes next.

Zephyr, from the greek Zephyros, god of the west wind and the bringer of Spring. Spring, which always follows Winter.

__ 

“How did you find that, and how long have you known about it.”

“The HYDRA faction that made the Winter Soldier was Russian,” Natasha explains, not quite answering the question directly. “They borrowed more than a few encoding practices from the program I grew up in. It wasn’t hard to find, or to decrypt. Let’s just say Helmut Zemo wasn’t the only one concerned with the possible uses the Winter Soldier could be given, if he were found.”

The file hovering like evidence above them was opened in 1945 and closed in 2001 upon the asset’s transfer, location of transfer and organization transferred to not specified, and Natasha had known about it long before she knew that they were both, Winter Soldier and Black Widow, still working for the same side. In it is everything there is to know about HYDRA’s methods for command and control.

“And you didn’t think it was relevant that we know about this? Maybe, oh, I don’t know, before it blew up in our faces?”

“It wasn’t relevant,” Natasha says, and before he manages to voice the protest she can see rising up like something solid up his throat to the back of his mouth, she says, “It wasn’t relevant, Tony, because the man that walked away from the Potomac wasn’t the Winter Soldier, and I had no way of knowing whether the programming was still dormant in his brain. I had no way of knowing what it would do when activated on the off chance that it was, and I would’ve had to locate him to test it out, possibly inciting a second massacre nobody had time, energy, or resources for, because we were busy cleaning up after HYRDA and then fending off an extinction-level event sponsored by murder-bots. You may remember that last part.”

“And what about later, Romanoff?” Tony asks, “At the GS9? At the airport? Did it never occur to you that it’d’ve been better if you stopped him?”

“Stop him,” Natasha chuckles. She really didn’t want to do this when she came through the door, but  that’s life for you: exposing the ugly bits one at a time, whether you like it or not. Sometimes the price for getting stubborn people to do what you need them to do is to offer a more honest version of the truth than you could ever be comfortable with sharing.

Tony’s look is mulish and expectant, and he won’t back down, and that, Natasha’s self-aware enough to admit, that makes her angry. That he thinks he has any right whatsoever to tell her what’s right, what her skills should be put to use on, when he has no notion of the shape of the atrocities he’s proposing, when his judgement is no less flawed that anyone else’s and tends towards radical shifts in opposing directions every time it’s exposed to its owner’s guilt.

So Natasha walks to where he’s leaning against the desk and doesn’t stop until she’s practically breathing in his ear. And because Natasha is who she is and Tony is who he is and they met the way they did, he freezes. Starts breathing shallow, textbook deer-in-headlights, just like Natasha was expecting. Not bothering to hide the hostility in the action, Natasha says, “Do you have any idea what “programming” someone actually entails? What electroshock and psychotropic drugs can do to a person? What it’s like to have someone else reach into your head and take your thoughts, your memories, your secrets, and yank them out over and over again until they’re uprooted and you’re empty enough that the filth they pour into the absence is the only thing that you can hold onto, that you can be?”

“They erase you, Tony. Everything you are, gone. ” She slides a knuckle up his chest, to where his shirt hides the scar from the shrapnel that used to float around his heart and the magnet that kept it from killing him, and digs it in. “And when you’re complacent, and pliant, and malleable, and helpless they strap you down and take their scalpels and they cut into you, and they take whatever’s left of you that’s human inside, and replace it with a ticking time-bomb, just in case there’s any sort of conscience in you that they didn’t get on the first try.” Takes her hand away, steps back. In a louder voice and a softer tone, she asks, “What kind of person would you be if you knew all that, and still did it to another?”

“Like you wouldn’t do it if you had to,” Tony bites out, wounded and desperate.

Well, he’s not wrong. “I didn’t have to,” Natasha says, leaning back once more into a separate and iron-clad bubble of space. “Now, if you’re done with your tantrum, do you think we could get back to stopping the deliberate murder of innocents before the parties involved actually manage what they want?”

“Fuck,” Tony says instead, and walks past her toward the door, shaking and sweating cold and trying not to let it show. Doesn’t stop moving until he’s left the lab.

__

“Miss Romanoff?”

“Yes, FRIDAY?”

“Sir asks that you remain on the premises for further discussion. He says he will only be a few minutes.”

“Tell him I’ll be here when he gets back. And thank you.”

__ 

It takes him an hour instead of a few minutes, but eventually Tony does come back. He walks in looking strung out, shoulders drooping, the kind of tired that makes Natasha think of the very old or the terminally ill, the difference between them only a matter of degrees. Surprisingly enough, underneath the exhaustion Natasha finds only a placid sort of calm, a quietude that’s as uncharacteristic in Tony as anything. So he’s chosen something, or stopped fighting something, or he’s on one of his early stages of drunkenness.

(There is a chart. Natasha has made it, and kept it in case she ever needs it for reference, if only in the back of her mind).

She narrows her eyes at him. “Were you drinking?”

Predictably, Tony bristles. “What the fuck do you care?” Then he deviates toward the fridge at the back of the room and grabs for one of his chlorophyll shakes. Breaks the seal. Drinks until his lungs make him come up for air. When he finally drops back into his seat it’s more like he melts into it, letting the back of his head rest against the edge of it. He sighs, and looks up at the the files still suspended in mid-air between them. “I went to see Pepper,” Tony says. “The right thing to do, apparently, would be to extend any and all help I can give you until you don’t need it anymore, because life sucks.”

It explains a lot. “Well, she’s good for you.”

Tony snorts, looks at her from corner of his eye. “No shit,” he says. Then he sits up and reaches for a file that Natasha noticed earlier was tagged by a glowing yellow ring like a depiction of a planetary orbit wrapped around it’s edges. Tony says, “It’s one of those days I think it’d be nice to have big green around.”

It’s totally an I’m done talking about this, but hey, Natasha’ll take it. It gets her exactly what she wants. “Why’s that?”

Tony places a closed fist underneath the little blue-and-yellow cube, fingers to the ceiling, then pushes up and opens his hand like he’s tossing something—the file blows up, for lack of a better term, into a stack of selectable, readable pages, keywords highlighted and clustered in a hovering cloud above the pages like an angry bee swarm.

“This file was directly linked to in multiple portions of the ZEPHYR info dump,” he explains. “Took longer than usual to decrypt considering the size, so I had FRIDAY focus on it. Turns out it’s a review of nearly every experiment Ross ran while he was head of the Weapon Plus program, barring the Gamma experiments, annotated with recommendations that later made it into the main ZEPHYR goals and methodologies by this Belgian bio-tech guy—“ A photograph expands outwards from the file until it hovers beside it, of a middle-aged man in a suit and lab coat, olive skinned, black haired, an aquiline nose under a pair of thin titanium-rimmed prescription glasses “—Dr. Philippe Arnaud. MIT graduate on microbiology, worked on a few important labs throughout his career before becoming a contractor for the French government. Now—“

He keeps talking but Natasha’s only vaguely listening. She says, “He was lead scientist for some of it. Bruce. That’s why you want him.”

“Bingo. There’s science in this that I’m actually gonna need some time to wrap my head around. He’d be able to explain it in a couple minutes—hey, where are you going?”

“You will never hear me say this again,” Natasha says, “and if there are recordings of this moment I will personally destroy whatever server your security system is in, but Stark: you may just be a genius.”

Bruce Banner wasn’t the only lead scientist in the Gamma experiments. He wasn’t even the only scientist with a score to settle on the Weapon Plus lab.

__ 

SHIELD had refrained from recruiting Dr. Elizabeth Ross after the Harlem incident on the understanding that not only would she vehemently refuse any attempt to do so on their part, but that whatever knowledge she had in regards to the process responsible for both Abomination and the Hulk was, firstly, nearly impossible for her to implement on her own, even if she demonstrated a desire to do so, which she resolutely did not, and secondly, that she would never be able to share it with anyone that did have the means to implement it without SHIELD noticing and stopping it.

Natasha has wondered since, on more than one occasion, whether this is one of the few things Nick Fury’s direction had actually been able to salvage from HYDRA’s machinations, or if HYDRA was sapient enough as an organization to understand that the main particularity of forces reliant on a lack of control in the subject is that they also resist external control. If they’d seen the opportunity and weighed it against the cost that lay in taking it, and chose instead to let it pass them by.

For reasons that she’d never be caught admitting to with a gun to her head she’s always hoped it was the former instead of the latter.

After New York, Natasha had entertained the possibility of slipping a photograph of Bruce Banner at Stark tower under Elizabeth’s door, make both their lives easier by helping her find him. She'd been thinking maybe that'd be enough leverage to get the other woman to recruit herself, become an asset to get Banner under control and sitting still where they could keep an eye on him.

But Banner never reached out even as he settled semi-comfortably with Stark, and Elizabeth's attempts to find him or communicate dropped off in the months following; two things that may have seemed, to those paying only half-hearted attention, to be completely unrelated but are still, to Natasha, as simple as cause and effect. Anyone watching the news that day or in the days following knew the Hulk had played a big part in the so-called Battle of New York, which meant whoever the Hulk was when he wasn't giant and raging and green had to be there too. Had to be present, and back in civilization, and most of all had to be stable in order to allow himself to be.

That that was true and he'd never once called, never once visited, to Elizabeth, must've seemed a clear and definite rejection, a very eloquent Do Not Want, instead of Can't.

So Natasha'd filed the thought away and tried a different strategy.

(She’d only broached the topic once in the years that followed, with Banner. It had gotten her unspoken fury of the kind born of protectiveness for a loved one, and a deep mistrust of Natasha’s intentions toward her. So Natasha’d backed off and made it a point to check periodically that Elizabeth was safe and sane, and as happy as she could be, lest they get a rampaging Hulk intent on meting out indiscriminate revenge were the opposite true. Because people are stupid and it's always easier to resort to violence than it is to use the mouths they were given at birth to fucking speak).

Elizabeth Ross is not in hiding, and remains attached to her profession, though she’s chosen to make teaching her focus instead of going back to her research. Culver, Natasha has been made to understand, is more than happy to have her in whatever capacity. All of those things make her incredibly easy to find, which means Natasha’s already sitting at the main desk in Elizabeth’s lecture hall when she arrives, about fifteen minutes before her scheduled office hours are due to start—she’s on her phone, talking to someone familiar, a close friend judging by body language.

A body language that then shifts first to surprise, then alarm, and then, with a swiftness Natasha can admire, into the shrewd kind of security risk assessment that a subsection of very smart people learn to make after the kind of incidents Elizabeth Ross has lived through. She looks down at the otherwise vacant lecture hall mid-stairwell and finds Natasha staring back, recognizes her, and instead of freezing up and turning to run in the opposite direction chooses to case the room for more potential threats that she may have missed while she was engrossed in conversation. Her eyes linger on the exits, but she continues walking toward the desk. She also, Natasha notes, does an admirable job of ending her call without alerting the person on the other end that anything’s off.

“Dr. Ross, I’m Natasha Romanoff,” Natasha says, extending her hand for the other woman to shake the moment she comes within reach of the desk. It's always safe to stand on formality, even if it's unnecessary. Elizabeth takes her hand. Her handshake is firm and quick, her hands only barely sweating-- easily attributed to the heat outside.

“Yes, I gathered,” Elizabeth says with a tight, close-lipped smile as she breaks away to set her purse and folders down on the chair and desk. “Normally I’d say it’s nice to meet you, but I think you’ll understand if I choose to reserve my judgement on that until you’ve given me more information.” She says this matter-of-factly, no hostility whatsoever colouring posture or tone.

It’s comforting, sometimes, to know that there are still smart, cautious people in the world. Even if it has the side-effect of making Natasha’s job slower and harder to accomplish.

“That’s probably a good choice,” Natasha says. “I’ve been keeping track of you for a long time, Dr. Ross. Someone I’d like to call a friend is…very invested in your safety.”

That makes Elizabeth stop rearranging the files and the folders on her desk and raise her head to stare directly at her, as opposed to keeping watch out of the corner of her eye. “Bruce,” she says, and it’s not a question. Then, almost immediately, “Is he okay?”

(It’s kind of adorable).

Natasha shrugs. “I couldn’t tell you. He’s decided he’s better off staying away from big clusters of people, despite his help in the invasion. We haven’t been in contact for some time.”

“That sounds like him. But that tells me you’re not here because of him, or my safety, so what do you want, Miss Romanoff?”

That again. Maybe it’s the kind of comment Natasha can start relying on to figure out which of the people around her have considerably more than shit for brains and would be useful to keep. It seems to be accurate. It is also inevitable: sacrificing stealth in favour of speed is a necessary bargain considering the situation at hand. Doesn't mean she has to like it, though.

(What does it take, Natasha would someday like to ask the primordial forces of the universe, to be a woman that’s goal oriented and can keep her goals unquestioned?)

“Strange as it may seem, I do want to keep you safe.” Natasha wraps the statement in a wry smile that Elizabeth's unconsciously beginning to echo by the time she says, “But you’re right, I’m not here because of him. I’m here because of you.”

__

 Once they've moved to Elizabeth's office, office hours hastily cancelled, Natasha locks the door and pulls the blinds closed, and drops one of Tony's holographic displays on the floor. Turns it on.

“What I’m showing you," Natasha says, "is a condensed portion of top secret military research sponsored by the State Department. It very recently moved on to human trials. I think you may find sections of it very familiar.”

The photographs and video files start moving into place around the centre of the room and begin to play themselves. Elizabeth works her way around them, staring at two and three photographs at a time, skimming over carefully curated sections of video showing medical procedures that can only be described as such because to do otherwise would be an insult to the butchers of the world. They're all soundless; it makes them even more disturbing.

She chooses to stop over a three-dimensional projection of a molecular structure. After studying it for a minute or two she gestures to it, says, “This is—this shouldn’t be possible." She touches her forehead with the back of the hand not gesturing before sliding it back to untangle her ponytail in a motion that is clearly nervous, and turns back to Natasha, looking very pale and more than slightly out of sorts. "It’s being tested?”

“Yes,” Natasha says. “We've been made aware of a number of failures.”

“Deaths, you mean." Her already scandalized tone turns scathing, and Natasha's starting to think not putting more effort into recruiting her earlier may have a been a miscalculation on her part. Elizabeth says, "My father did this. He’s still doing this, isn’t he?”

“That’s the working theory. I need you to help me and my people understand it.”

“So that you can use it?”

“So that we can stop it. The world’s suffered enough because of people like us.”

Elizabeth looks over at the papers on her desk, the stack of folders beside the stack of lab reports, the photographs and diplomas hanging from the walls. Bites her lip. Brings a hand up to fiddle with the small diamond-studded heart hanging from the little gold necklace that's about the only jewelry she wears. Then she stops, and stays very still, and Natasha knows what she's going to say before the first of the sounds comes out of her mouth (but it's her job to know, so that's alright).

Elizabeth says, “When do we start?”

Chapter Text

“Would it kill you,” Barnes says in lieu of greeting, “to fucking text me before showing up?”

He’s cut his hair. It’s the first thing Natasha notices, after he opens the door and stands there, frowning at her in perpetual annoyance and grabbing onto the door jamb like a man about to jump from an airplane into the battlefield below. The top’s still longish, but the strands at the back and sides of his head taper down to nothing but fuzz. It makes him look younger, his features sharper. Makes him look, she supposes, more like himself.

It’s just hair.

(So why does it feel like someone stuck a knife underneath her ribcage?)

“I brought dinner,” Natasha says, holding up one of the bags filled to bursting with styrofoam boxes and hot soup cups. When he raises his eyebrows and shifts his weight in a gesture that might as well be a yeah, so? she rolls her eyes and says, “It is a custom of most normal humans to accept the free food and offer hospitality in exchange.”

Barnes looks at the bag and then back at her, mutters something that sounds suspiciously like fuck it, and steps aside to let her pass. Once she’s through the door he kicks it closed and locks it. Bolts it. The bolt is new, if not entirely unexpected. It’s there, Natasha knows, for peace of mind and little else.

Pity the thief that chooses this home to break into.

The hair, goddammit. It’s like a bright red dot on a white wall—the eye is bound to find it, lock on it and stare, maybe get closer to pick it off with a fingernail just so it’ll stop being the visual equivalent of a fog horn in a noiseless room. Now that he’s turned around Natasha can see there’s a couple of uneven strands right around his blindspot and up on his crown, thick and unruly and haphazard, and did no one ever tell him you’re supposed to use a mirror for that?

Probably went straight for the clippers without cutting off the excess length with scissors first, the animal.

Natasha has to make herself stop looking at it, stop acknowledging it, stop thinking about it, so she sets the bags down on the kitchen counter and looks around at the apartment instead. Finds that everything inside it barring the tv, the couch, the bed, and the cooking utensils is still in boxes; that there are two unwaxed, unscratched, newly installed floorboards by the foot of the stool that’s sitting beside what looks like the base of a breakfast bar, sans the slab of rock or formica that usually goes on top. The walls are bare, the windows are bare, and still dirty, and the fridge’s still covered in plastic.

The rest of the place, by contrast, is unnaturally clean, almost scrubbed to a shine. Evidence number five-hundred-and-sixty-three for the case on Bucky Barnes’ extreme tidiness problem.

The window that’s right between the kitchen counter and the breakfast bar is open, lets the breeze drift in. There’s a soda bottle at the bottom of the fire escape’s platform beyond it, still bubbling faintly, glass clouded and damp. Recently opened.

“Barton out of town?” Barnes asks, sitting on the arm of the couch and crossing his arms, frown on his face. There’s no meaning to it, no barb intended, he’s only curious. He probably assumed she’d be with them. Any other year, he wouldn’t be wrong.

Natasha reminds herself to breathe and keep breathing and keep her shoulders straight and her head up, and she shrugs. Says, “Wouldn’t know. He’s not exactly speaking to me.” Clint’s been home for two months. He was running errands in downtown Waverley this morning, when she checked the one bug on his phone that he didn’t know to disable.

“You’re not exactly speaking to him,” Barnes points out. 

“And you care about this because?”

“No, you’re right, I don’t.”

“Great. It’s Thai,” Natasha says, opening the second bag and snapping the tubs of soup open so the smell fills the room. Setting them on the not-breakfast-bar between them with a thud that’s not louder because it wouldn’t be fun to have to mop spilled-over soup from the floor. “Happy fourth of July.”

__ 

It slips out, and it is a barb. Meant to sting, meant to be nothing but mean. It’s like she’s smacked him. Backhanded him with a ring on and left his mouth swollen and cut up, and bruising around the edges, and he can’t hide it, doesn’t have time to get out of her line of sight and keep that ache private. It’s cruel. Almost unspeakably so. Cruel, and insincere, and she didn’t come here intending to hurt him.

Natasha sighs, drags a hand down her face. Everything’s off balance lately—she just didn’t want to acknowledge that “everything” might include her. She says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t meant it like that.” Drops her empty hands, turning them palms up in the universal gesture for surrender. She expects him to glare, and maybe curse, expects him, even, to retaliate.

But Barnes only sets his jaw, and turns to look at the fireworks still out the window, leaves her hanging for a minute. Then he turns back to her, and there’s the hint of a smile on his face, as though he’s thought of something amusing, but his eyes are vitreous and tired, two little blue fires running out of fuel in the darkness, between the shadow of the line of his brow and the sleepless bruises underneath. He chuckles, out of the blue, and says, “Liar.”

“I—What?” (Yes, she is).

“That’s exactly how you meant it,” he says. Holds a hand up before she can even start to think about some sort of reply. And then, “It’s fine. No one ever taught you not to aim for the sweet spot, least of all me.”

__

Backhand, meet gut wound.

There’s only one possible meaning to that sequence of words, to that look on his face, context notwithstanding. Three years ago, five years ago, ten years ago, she would've--she would've....done something. Smiled and meant it. Something. The problem is Natasha’s spent the last two years convincing herself she didn’t want him to know. That it was better that she was the only one with the memories, because then they'd stay private, and they'd stay safe, and there’d be nothing to corrupt them.

“How much do you remember?” she asks, when she remembers how words are supposed to work again. Her hands are shaking. Trying to stop them by holding onto something will only make it obvious. Trying to hide it will only make it obvious.

Then again he’s the one looking at her: it's already obvious.

Something like disgust flickers through his face, there and gone. Of course. Natasha looks away before disgust turns into anger, before betrayal sets in. He remembers, alright, and she didn’t see this coming, could’ve seen this coming. It catches her wrong-footed, unguarded, unexpectedly raw. A universal exercise in be careful what you wish for.

“Enough,” Barnes confirms, but it’s not anger in his tone, in the line of his shoulders, not anymore. She gets guilt instead. She gets, of all things, regret. “I—”

It makes her angry, almost explosively, all of a sudden. The kind of anger that’s sharp and blinding, burns like coal—where the heat of it’s still there even if it doesn’t show. Natasha stops him, voice slow, the cadences of English awkward, wrong. “Don’t worry about it,” she says, smiles tightly. “It was a long time ago.”

Pushes off the counter and gets out onto the fire escape through the open window, where there’s a clear view of the sky and the fireworks. Easier than trying to go for the door. He doesn't stop her, doesn't say anything more. Natasha looks at the stairs, thinks of taking them two at a time, three at a time. Stays put instead and embraces futility by praying to deity that doesn't exist or doesn't care that the smoke coming in from the fireworks and the barbecues is thick enough for her lungs to choke on.

Sun’s going down.

Stupid, stupid girl. Natasha forgets, sometimes: things can always be worse.

__

Eventually, he follows her. Steps out onto the iron-wrought platform silently and leans forward onto his forearms beside her. He's gearing up to say something. She can feel it, he's practically vibrating with it. Knows what it's going be.

James Barnes opens his mouth and out comes, “Natalia, I’m sorry.” Sighs a shuddering sigh, and continues on with, “I know it’s not worth anything, but I’m sorry.”

The last person to call her that, to use her name, was Zola, before Alexander Pierce tried to blow her up. Figures.

“Fuck you.” It's torn out of her, wrenched from her mouth through gritted teeth. When he startles at it, she says, “You don't get to be sorry. You don't get to regret me. You don't get to take that from me.”

“Take—I hurt you. I did things that—I hurt you.”

Oh, of course that’s what he’d focus on, the fucking guilt-ridden angst whore of a martyr. She can feel him looking at her, looking for something, some explanation, something to hold onto. Fuck it.

Natasha says, “You know, for the longest time I thought I’d dreamt you. People do that sometimes. Make someone up to help them get through the fucked up shit they can’t deal with. My imaginary friend, the cyborg super-assassin.” Saying it out loud makes her snort, chuckle. Then shrug. “I was crazy enough that I didn't question it. And then you left me to die like fucking roadkill in the Ukraine, and I realized a hole the size of a golf ball through the stomach could give someone hope.”

And by the end of it her voice has gone flat and flatter still, reined in and in control, and she's made herself turn to look at him. Sees him swallow hard and look down at her hips, everything about him screaming bewildered, from the slope of his shoulders to furrowed brow. She wasn't expecting him to understand, but he wants to.

“Hope?”

“Meant you were real. And if you were real I could find you.” I could get you out. I could pay you back.

He’s silent for a long time. And then something clicks and his face shifts through shame and confusion into something serene or at least approaching it, shadows softening, lines smoothed out. James says, “I’m here now.”

For the first time, it really feels like he is.

__ 

“Let me see?” Hands gesture for the space above her hip. It's a request. She could say no and he wouldn't protest. Natasha rises the hem of her shirt, up, up and steady, and sees anxiety turn to terror on lovely, tired features, expertly contained. She never thought his face could get more expressive, but this seems to be a day designed to prove her wrong. James swallows hard, reaches out but doesn’t touch. Asks, “How much damage?”

It’s not something she likes to think about. Likes to remember. It was—is, still, to this day, the worst of her injuries. She was trained to handle pain, but that's never stopped it from hurting. The training’d only meant she hadn’t passed out until the blood loss got to her, meant she’s still got the memory of it, what it felt like, what it looked like, the ringing in her ears, the certainty that everything was over and the fear that came with that. But that was years ago.

Natasha moves into the out-stretched hand that still refuses to touch, human, warm, and lets it curl around her hip from the scar there to its better looking twin on the dip of her back, from exit wound to entry. Drops the edge of her shirt. She says, “A lot of bleeding, and, uh, a kidney blown to bits. The left oblique had to be cut shorter to clean up the ragged edges, then stretched and anchored. PT was a bitch.”

The pain was, after she was allowed to be conscious most of the day and only on moderate painkillers, bearable, but Natasha had never before had her body broken such that simple tasks like walking unassisted and turning over in bed hurt enough to drench her in cold sweat. If not for Laura’s iron will and propensity for being as much of a bitch as Natasha herself where therapy was concerned, she’s still not sure she’d have made it.

James drops his hand, brushes the back of it over the shirt as if to smooth it out. “Do I get to be sorry for shooting you?”

“Which time?” she asks, snickering with the kind of twisted punch-drunk amusement that always made everyone else at SHIELD look at her as though she’d grown a second head and give her a wide berth, with the exception of a few.

He sees the humour in too, apparently. Huffs a little silent laugh that’s less a sound than a twitch of his shoulders. “Fuck,” he says, soft, dragging a hand down his face and then shaking his head as if to clear it. “All of them.”

“I’m alive, Barnes.” Natasha shrugs, going back to lean against the railing and look out at cosmopolitan life lighting up on the horizon as the sun goes down. “It doesn’t really matter.”

“I don’t regret you,” he says then, like he’s been going over the conversation and found something to debate. Something worth his disagreement. “I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.”

“But?”

“But I’m not that guy anymore.”

Right. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? The Winter Soldier’s always going to be a ghost, a shadow of the man, a mask. Natasha doesn’t get that luxury. The Widow came first. The Widow will be there, always. She'd thought she was at peace with that.

Envy’s unbecoming, ugly, and exhausting. She doesn’t want to feel it anymore.

“Lucky you,” Natasha says, wishing she had something to do with her hands, something more interesting to look at than him.

__

“Hey,” James says later. She tilts her head to look at him, sees him pull out a little bag filled with black, sugar-dusted candy from the back pocket of his jeans. “Stop pouting and help me get rid of these.”

Salmingar. Jesus. The blast from the past can fucking stop now, please and thank you, message fucking received. She’s never even seen them in the states (never looked for them either). They taste exactly like Natasha remembers, right after she takes the bag away. She doesn’t pout.

“How did you even get these?”

“Candy store over in West Village,” James says, looking down at the festive collection of drunks walking in little packs down the street. “Was walking by and I saw them on the window display and I couldn’t stop myself. I think I bought them out.”

“This is the shittiest piece of candy I’ve ever had.” Something about that makes him laugh. Really laugh, this time. It might be the tone she says it in, or the face she makes as she all but shoves her hand back into the bag for second piece to pop into her mouth. It really is terrible. Absolutely fucking awful, can’t decide if it’s salty as all hell or overbearingly sweet. Terrible and addictive, apparently.

It’s a low, rich sound, his laugh. Not something she’d’ve ever imagined could come from his throat—not the quality of the sound but the existence of the sound itself, unfamiliar like the upturn of his lips is unfamiliar. Like someone took the piece of the inside of her head that’s got him in it and twisted it into something barely recognizable under the basic veneer of face and body and voice.

But that’s nonsense. The thought is nonsense: of course he laughs. Of course it’s a genuine sound. Bucky Barnes is not a stranger to joy, or amusement, or the expressions of them. Natasha’d known that for years and years before she ever knew the name that went with the face, just from the memory of the lines at the corners of his eyes.

__ 

It’s easy, to let James pull her in with only the infinitesimal pressure of human fingers on her elbow, to take a single step and find herself pressed against him, her cheek turning of its own accord to rest against the plane of his chest like the steps to a dance she has no memory of learning but her body remembers. To notice her breathing shifting into something fuller and deeper the moment he lets his chin rest on the top of her head, stubble catching there on hair when he moves to press the world’s chastest kiss to her temple—brush of smooth damp skin, no force to it, no machinations, no end goal other than to offer comfort. Always comfort.

Natasha resents that, in the background, where there’s still cold clinical thought and she can ignore the want to melt into place and not move ever again. It shouldn’t be easy, it shouldn’t be familiar, it shouldn’t be something her feet just agree to and step into, twenty years on. Even the way he smells is the same, under the generic scent of whatever shitty soap he’s using.

It hurts. That’s the truth. It hurts, and she doesn’t want it to hurt, doesn’t like that it hurts, doesn’t enjoy it, and if anyone ever threatened to take the hurt away she’d kill them. Extreme prejudice, no questions asked.

(Only people can hurt, is the thing. Even if it’s rare that they understand the privilege).

“Want to know the first thing I remembered?” James asks, the bridge of his nose replacing his lips along the edge of her hair. Somewhere far off there’s still fireworks going. Natasha’s pretty sure if she looked at the clock she’d find it’s not the fourth anymore. Americans.

(It’s grounding).

“The awesome taste of bunker borscht?”

“You scratching me like a hellcat that time your hair got caught in the grooves of my arm in your sleep,” James says. He sounds…fond. Fond, and that was in a hotel room in Denmark, and the nightmare he’d eventually managed to wake her from had made her gouge out bloody tracks under his collarbone, try and break his fingers when he touched her face.

She’d been close enough to do that because by then hotel rooms during missions meant at least five hours of existing without eyes on her—his didn’t count, his never lied about anything, never said anything or wanted anything; they didn’t count. Meant that the best, warmest, softest (safest) place to sleep on was him, meant it was okay to let herself be lulled to sleep by the weight of a human hand resting pliant and light on the cusp of her shoulder blade and the give of skin under her cheek.

That day there’d been the mission, fast, bloodless: poison in a diplomat’s drink as Natalia brushed by him and stole the keys to his safe from his suit pocket; and that night the nightmare, always the same blinding white and the blood, and in that state between terrified-asleep and wide-awake the sharp pain of the pull on her hair and the way it twisted her up inside made her want to scream. She’d bitten her into her cheek until it bled instead, until reality reasserted itself.

His voice is fond, and he needs to stop talking.

When she can finally unlock her jaw to answer, she says, “Well, it hurt, asshole,” and reinforces outrage by pinching him, a sharp twist of her fingers on the skin of his lower back under his shirt that makes him squirm. As in: arch his back away from her hand and swat it with one of his, hissing the kind of hiss Natasha’s only ever heard from angry wet kittens that want you to know you’ve gone and fucked everything up, it’s absolutely your fault, and nothing will ever absolve you of the sin that is this absolute catastrophe.

And that’s strange and new, and so fucking absurd it’s hilarious by any standard, let alone hers, so Natasha lets herself snigger, laugh about it until her shoulders shake ever so slightly under his arms. Pretends there isn’t an edge to it that borders on hysteria.

How long will it take, Natasha wonders, for the truth to come out? For guilt to turn to resentment? For resentment to chase the answers that’ll make it turn to loathing, and disgust?

For him to figure out the difference between them is he got to be a whole person before that person was taken from him, and so it’s natural for him to rebound to the known shape of a former state, once programming’s no longer there to exert pressure, to dictate anything else. That, by contrast, the reason Natasha continues to be the best at what she does while still being fundamentally plain-human is that she didn’t. That there is no shape to go back to that’s not paper-thin, not more than a quick, haphazard set for a theatre production, seen better from a distance and ready to be torn down the instant it outlives use.

That personhood has both a beginning date and an age limit, and once they’re past it’s not the kind of thing you can just pick up whenever and still achieve.

That the Red Room made Natasha in its image, and Natasha carries the Red Room with her. Can’t cut it out, can’t burn it off, can’t choke it dead, and staying around her means locking his own cell door to trap himself back in it with her.

How long until then?

(How much of this feeling can she steal in the meantime, to hoard for when it’s gone again?)

Chapter Text

Fury’s next summons comes in the form of a business card Maria passes over the gummed up surface of the bar’s table on Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of an innocuous conversation that’s there for the benefit of the idiots listening in on the booth to the left. They’ve been tailing either or both of them with all the subtlety of a jackhammer on cement. The card is bright yellow, vaguely taxi-shaped, minus the bottom curves that’d normally be there for wheels. It’s got a four syllable name on the back, and a local number scribbled in ballpoint pen under the name. It makes Natasha want to disrupt Maria’s rehearsed monotone and laugh.

(She did that costume for hallowe’en once. It was fun).

When she calls the number later that night, from one of her burners, Natasha makes sure it rings before she hangs up. The text that follows the call is a time and a street corner by Central Park, no date attached.

So Natasha, looking at the clock and deciding that yes, there’s enough time, takes a walk. She’s standing on the sidewalk by the intersection mentioned a whole fifteen minutes to the hour, is not at all surprised when a cab swings by and stops before her fifteen minutes past. He always liked to make people wait.

Fury’s at the wheel, of course, in a pair of glasses that make his bad eye match the good one (it’d be hard to excuse the blind man get up from behind the wheel of a cab in the middle of the night), and a full beard. Successful in covering his identity, and thus the right choice, but it’s rather like someone dunked the bottom half of his face into a bucket of ash while it was wet.

“Black Santa’s a good look on you,” Natasha greets, climbing into the backseat.

“You wanna get on my shit list, Romanoff?” Nick asks, peeling off the curb and meeting her eyes through the rearview mirror. “‘Cause I got space in it.”

“I’ll pass,” Natasha replies, voice dry. “Listed in too many places as is. Hill said you have something for me.”

“Seat pocket in front of you,” Fury says. When Natasha grabs the envelope in the seat pocket and empties it to find another small, thin hard drive, Fury explains, “From Carter. Said she’s sorry she couldn’t contact you, but apparently someone caught wind of one of your earlier meetings.”

“Took them long enough to start watching her too,” Natasha sighs. All good things.

Fury says, “Good thing no one cares about a brother trying to make a living with his car, ain’t it?”

“For a given definition of good, sure.”

They’re moving south. South and East. Been moving that way steadily for minutes, green light after green light after red, when Fury finally asks, “How’s your end going?”

Natasha sighs again, for good measure. “As of this morning,” She says, “we have a location, and the names of every lab they’re using to process their samples. They’re all redundancies in place that we’ve got to secure and destroy before we hit them directly, so I’m gonna need to use some of your resources overseas.”

Fury nods, takes the first right turn of the night. South and West. “You got them,” he says. “What does Barnes think?”

Barnes thinks he hates everything, Natasha doesn't say. Barnes is tired of everything. Natasha says, “I’m not taking him. I don’t need him. More to the point, I don’t want him out there.”

“Why not?” Fury frowns. Looks a little like a huffy buffalo while at it, with that beard. He’s going to fight her about this. Of course he is. It interferes with making James’ skills useful to him. This operation is an assessment of his own. Of her and how she and James work together, of the ways he might make use of them. Doesn't matter that Nick cares about people. Doesn't matter that 95% of the time he does what’s necessary to keep them safe and alive. With him, it’s always about use.

Natasha doesn’t mind being the lynchpin of his designs. Not usually. She was made for it.

It’s not about her.

“He’s not ready for this one,” Natasha says.

“Are we talking about the Winter Soldier here?” Fury asks. Escalation tactics. Refer to asset by code name. Invoke his skills and his reputation to invoke the pragmatic response. Tradecraft is about using all possible resources, after all.

Two weeks ago, it might’ve worked. Two weeks ago, Natasha’s information was outdated. Today, the pragmatic response is to keep James Barnes as far away from the pit of the world Natasha was made to move in as possible. Pragmatism is about survival, you see.

(It is about her).

Natasha slips the hard drive into the inside pocket of her coat. Crosses her legs. “You wanted my assessment,” she says. “He’s erratic, he has violent flashbacks and intermittent dissociative episodes, and his trust issues have trust issues. None of that’s anything I want to be working with on something like this.”

“You realize you’re describing your first couple years at SHIELD, right?” Fury asks. Right turn again. North and West. Doubling back to point of origin? Open to debate. Knowing him, Natasha won’t know until they get wherever it is. Fury says, “Because I remember sending you on missions then. And I remember being on task was the only thing that really helped, other than Barton.”

Escalation tactics: make the conversation about your target. Mention emotional bonds. Underline similarities to asset. It’s useless, Nick, you don’t know the half of it. Age gets to us all.

“I wasn’t tortured by the enemy for seventy years,” Natasha counters. “I did not have an original established personality that needed to be constantly, consistently wiped so it wouldn’t reassert itself. I was not given a piece of technology that keeps me in intense chronic pain. I did not just lose the center of my world in an alien invasion. This thing we’re doing, this operation…it’s not a hit, it's not a firefight, it’s not a battle. It’s tradecraft, pure and simple. It’s not for him, Nick.”

“You’re saying the man that shot JFK’s a bad fit for covert ops,” Fury says. Grasping at straws.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Natasha scoffs. “I’m saying he’s too important to spend like this.”

“Important to whom, Natasha?”

Oh, a misstep. Well, she makes those too. Trust Fury to ask the right questions at the worst of times.

“Don't ask me questions you already know the answers to,” Natasha says, exasperated, as sharp as she means to be, which is more than the conversation’s worth. Something for him to pick up on. “You’re better than that.”

Given her answer he reaches the conclusion she knew he would. The only one that makes sense, with the context he has. It’s not a wrong one. Fury says, “Steve Rogers is dead.”

“Yeah,” Natasha says, keeping he voice even, her tone hard. “And if he wasn’t he’d die all over again so James Barnes could be free.”

Fury pulls over on the curb, turns the parking lights on. Not at the origin point, but in walking distance to it. A long walk. An intersection on the other side of the park. He turns in his seat, looks at her over his shoulder, one hand still on the wheel. He says, “So give him the freedom to choose whether he wants in on this.”

Win by knockout. Fuck you, too, Nick.

Natasha exits the cab.

__

Time collapses sometimes. Still. Becomes meaningless and insignificant. When the window to the fire escape slides open with a whoosh and a click, and startles him back into hyper-awareness Bucky doesn’t know how long it’s been since he sat down in the corner between the walls of bathroom and bedroom, at the farthest corner of the living room. Knows only that he tried sleeping in a bed for a change. That it didn’t work because he woke up not an hour later with his heart pounding in the vicinity of his throat, and aching everywhere with no memory of why except in the dream there was something horrible happening, the way it always is, neck and shoulder and half his back on fucking fire from getting too tense too fast.

Didn’t help that it was all already sore from pushing himself farther than he should’ve on a training run with Wilson, but he knows it wasn’t that. Knows his body heals those kinds of aches on its own and fast, because they’re procedural and chemical. The pain that gets him these days is psychosomatic, born of stress. That and his body’s constant rejection of the inorganic grafts along his left side. He’s been reading up on that a lot, though he’s not really sure what for. To put a name to the symptom, perhaps.

Bottom line is: he’s the kind of fucked-up no one can do shit about, and he’s either got to live with it or let it kill him.

The floor’s cold, and the silhouette framed by street light out the window’s known. Who else would it be, really? Natalia sees him immediately. When she steps through and slides the window closed behind her she keeps him on sight at all times. There’s a gun under her armpit and a gun at the small of her back, both under her jacket, and God knows how many knives. He can tell from the tension of her posture that she knows something’s not right.

She keeps her distance, and drops the folder she carried in with her on the copper counter of the breakfast bar to free both hands. “James?”

“M'here,” Bucky says. His voice comes out like the inside of his throat’s gotten cozy rubbing on a strip of sand paper, but he doesn’t think he was screaming in the dream, doesn’t think he speaks at all when he checks out. These days he just stays frozen in place until something changes around him and he’s jolted back into himself in order to register the change, assess it, make sure it’s not a threat.

The immediacy of the answer makes Natalia stand down, makes her approach even if she chooses to keep the motion of it slow, easy to pull back from. She leans on the jamb of the bathroom’s door as she gets within arm’s reach, asks, “Couldn’t sleep?”

That’s one way of putting it. Probably better for whatever dignity he has left than I’m afraid of closing my eyes because every time it happens all I get is nightmares. But then she knows that. “Yeah, something like that,” he says. And then, because Goddammit, the door’s right there, Bucky asks, “What’s wrong with knocking?”

“Less fun,” Natalia replies, with a look and in a tone of voice that suggest that it really shouldn’t need explaining, and her having to do so is clearly a mark of painful stupidity on his part, and what am I going to do with you, Barnes?

Sometimes the sheer amount of personality she managed to grow into still catches him off-guard, still manages to surprise him. It makes him want to smile. “Right,” Bucky says. “Everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” she replies “Just dropping off some stuff I thought you’d like to see.”

The folder. It looks heavy. Official. Probably operation-related. Which means it’s not fine, not really. Means there’s something important enough that she’s not the only one who needs to know. Bucky frowns, asks, “What about?”

But Natalia only shakes her head, steps around his feet to stand between them, and crouches down. “Nothing that can’t wait till morning,” she says, pushing sideways on the inside of one of his knees with the back of her hand. “Gimme some room.”

Does he look that bad? Is he that bad? Bucky’s pretty sure she’s not the kind of person that cuddles, except maybe for warmth.  When it’s practical and necessary. The Black Widow doesn’t do anything for one reason alone, doesn’t put herself in a situation where the net gain goes to anyone but her and hers. Then again, keeping him in working order’s probably important enough.

(It sounds…harsh, in his head, when he thinks of it like that. It’s not meant to be. He tries to call a spade a spade these days. Operationally advantageous: that’s all he is. All he’s good for, all she needs from him).

“Gimme some room, she says, doesn’t even buy me a drink first.”

That gets him a smirk, a roll of her eyes. Another push, firmer this time. “You’re funny. Come on.”

Bucky looks at her pointedly, lets his eyes trail down to her holster under the jacket, the places where knife sheaths rub audibly (for him) against skin at the line of her hip and down under the edge of her boots. He says, “You’ve got an arsenal on you, so no, thank you.”

She returns fire by glaring at his arm. “Seriously?”

“It’s attached.”

“Oh, fine,” Natalia says, then follows it up by muttering, in thick Russian and under her breath but loud enough an ordinary human would hear it in the silence of the room, about grumpy, whining old men. She stands back up and maneuvers out of her jacket, lays it open on the ground so he can see the handles of the garrotte taped to the inside of one of the lapels. She takes the gun out of the shoulder holster and lets the magazine drop onto the cushion of the jacket, pulls the slide back to release the bullet chambered there. Catches it in midair just to show off a little and sticks it in the front pocket of her pants. She drops the gun beside the magazine, and repeats the process with its twin on the small of her back.

After that she pulls out four knives. Two skinny stilettos, one from each boot, and two throwing knives from the circumference of her waistband, handles angled in their sheaths for underhand throws. “There,” she says, folding back down into a crouch. “Happy now?”

“You missed one.”

“No, I didn’t.”

Bucky sighs, and reaches out with his left hand to tap on the little triangle of space at the bottom of her sternum, right below the curve of her breasts. He hits something solid, and metal clinks, and echoes. “Liar.”

“Okay, how did you know?” Natalia asks, exasperated, sneaking a hand under her shirt to pull a push dagger from the strap of her bra.

“I can hear the sheath rub against your breastbone when you move,” Bucky explains. He curls his hand around the one of hers that’s curled around the hilt of the knife before she can throw it back onto the pile. Shakes his head. Keep it if you want. 

A knife won’t matter anyway. All the weapons in the world wouldn’t matter—if she wanted him dead he would be. He’s just pushing her buttons to see where she’ll fold. She does it to him all the fucking time, which is probably the only reason she agrees to disarm in the first place and doesn't protest too much. They both know she’s weapon enough if it comes to that.

“Damn it,” she curses, but there’s no real weight to the words. No punch. The knife slides back under her shirt. And then she pushes on his knees one last time and weaves herself between them, turns around to lie back against his chest the same way he’s resting on the wall. Bucky lets her, helps brush her hair away from the plates of the arm and onto her shoulder when she turns her head to do just that.

They fit together. Always have. He figures it’s stayed the same because she’s not that much taller than she used to be; heavier maybe. Curvier. The thing that strikes him is this: she’s beautiful. Intellectually speaking, Bucky knows that by any definition of the term, by any social standard, Natalia Romanova’s beautiful, and he doesn’t feel a thing. Can’t feel a thing. Not even the vague pull of aesthetic appeal, the flash of cursory lust that’s easily dismissed. It’s like…like colour blindness.

Like knowing that something’s supposed to be red only because everyone else has always pointed at it and called it such, because you’ve gotten used to picking those things out in a sea of other colours by identifying the shape of an absence, all meaning leeched from the concept until it’s just something else you’re missing, something else that’s broken, something else that’s wrong.

It’s not that Bucky wants to want it. Not that he wants to want her. He’s mostly sure that’d be a terrible idea for all parties involved, even in the remote instance that she doesn’t find the interest repugnant. The closer she is, the easier it is for Bucky to hurt her. To hurt her again, rather. And it’s not about her, anyway. It’s not even, he doesn’t think, about sex, the way sex itself was never about the expectations that went with it, back then; the status it got you to be desired and desirable, the implication of possession centuries of stupidity’d managed to press into it. Wasn’t even, despite neighbourhood gossip, about getting his dick wet.

Sex, for him, was about…it was about making people he liked feel good. About being able to make them feel good. About getting as close as they’d let him in a context where it was accepted, being allowed to enjoy that closeness, enjoy them enjoying themselves, viscerally, in exchange for whatever they wanted to give him in turn. He remembers that.

(Remembers how that distinction led to more than one shouting match, more than one irreconcilable difference).

So it’s not about that. Here’s what it is about: the only gut reactions Bucky can still experience are fear and terror, and the anger they fuel, like a dog that’s been starved and isolated and beaten too long, that bites even at the hand that wants only to pet it. The first thought, the instinctive reaction that flickers like a warning sign through his mind when the curve of her back touches his chest is danger, is trapped, is get out. It gets drowned out not a second later by the comfort of another body breathing there, easy and relaxed, by the familiarity of having her weight resting against him, the smell of her hair and the dab of perfume on the curve of her neck, but it happens. He can’t ignore it, can’t not doubt her.

It’s about getting smacked in the face with the shape of the absence every time you remember what it was like to see in full colour, and knowing that even if you get the colours back they won’t ever be quite right.

Apparently, he’s thinking loud enough to broadcast it. Natalia finishes braiding her hair and shifts her head onto the ball of his shoulder, so when she tilts her head she’s looking up at him from the corner of her eye. The look is curious, and expectant. “What’s wrong?” she asks.

So many answers to that. There’s a list, Bucky thinks, and you’d die of boredom long before I was done with it. Most of the things he misses are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Things people don’t think about because they’ve never had the chance to miss them. Things like the motivation to shower every morning, to put on clothes because he likes them and the way they look on him and not because they’re the closest thing that was serviceable and bland enough to help him blend in. To actually sleep in his own bed. To not flinch at human contact. To get out of the house in daylight and be able to just wade in through the throngs of people about without having to square his shoulders or monitor his breathing. To not be afraid someone’s going to end up dead if they so much as startle him at the wrong time, in the wrong place.

“Nothing,” he replies. For a moment, Bucky actually thinks she might drop it. Might do him the favour of letting it go. Then he remembers who he’s talking to.

Natalia raises her left hand slowly from the plates of his forearm, telegraphs the motion so that he'd catch it even if he wasn’t hyper-aware of her. She slides it down the side of his face to grab his chin and nudges him over with the curl of a finger so he can’t not look at her, and she used to do that, didn’t she? Whenever they were truly alone and she felt she needed to thank him for something. She’d grab him and kiss his cheek, like she needed to keep him still or maybe ground herself with the contact. Wasn’t quite as confident about it. And in hindsight Bucky thinks that’s because touch without expectation or violence was new, because she had no context for it, and at that point neither did he. Natalia says, “Bullshit, James.”

Oh, why even bother? Bucky summons a smile that can’t help but reek of self-consciousness, says, “I was just remembering abject panic wasn't always my gut reaction to getting an armful of girl.”

It makes her snicker, quiet and low. “Is that right?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, and he expects her to tease him, to make a big deal of it, but she stays quiet instead. Contemplative, almost, for a long time.

When she eventually speaks, turned and curled in so her breathing hits the side of his neck, she says, “Don't worry about it.”

“Hmm?”

“You've been worried about nothing but immediate survival for the better part of a century,” she explains, matter of fact. Like the topic deserves to be dealt with seriously, even, like it matters at all. “A sex drive is non-essential. That you’ve even noticed it’s missing probably means it’ll come back.”

There's a thought. It's not really a good one. Christ, he remembers being a teenager, and the memory of it's more than enough. “Maybe.”

“Trust me, you'll be getting inappropriate boners in no time.”

And there it is. Seriousness over, thank fucking God. Bucky huffs, and drops the whole weight of his head on the crown of hers, presses down until she's elbowing him half-heartedly on the side and protesting about it. He says, “Things I never wanted to discuss with anyone ever for 500, Alex.”

It makes her laugh, so maybe the tug of embarrassment in the pit of his stomach is worth it. She's warm, so very warm, and heavy against him, and he’s tired. He wants to sleep. Jesus, he wants it. Wants to just be able to close his eyes and feel nothing, see nothing, do nothing, for a night. And she’s heavy and warm and there, and it feels, ridiculously, like some kind of security blanket. If he were fully lucid and rested he’s pretty sure that’d be the funniest thing he’s thought in a while, but he’s not so Bucky lets everything else fall away and focuses on the feeling. Lets it stay. Says, as an afterthought, “You’ve got to stop breaking in like this.”

You’ve got to stop making it so easy to break in,” she says, curling in tighter so she fits between the v of his legs nearly sideways. A little ball of kill.

“My memory’s fuzzy on something,” Bucky says, words lazy, drowsy, and maybe if he can’t sleep he can at least rest if she just stays right there, “were you always this annoying or is it a recently acquired skill?”

“Neither,” she says, mock offence dripping from her voice theatrically. Then, “I’ve been working on it for a bit.”

“Good work.”

 

***

 

James falls asleep quiet and easy, breathing evening out and slowing down, body going lax and pliant behind her, moulding to her in sleep so she’s not so much resting against him as cocooned by him. It’s nice. Always was nice. It used to mean that anything that wanted to hurt her, back when that was possible without just killing her outright, had to get through him. If you cross out Stark Tower on account of it being impenetrable and obvious about it, this, Natasha knows, is the safest place in all of New York.

That means resisting the pull of sleep is futile, a matter of hours if not minutes, and this wasn’t the plan when she got here, but it might be better like this. Might be easier. There are stimuli the body will always respond to, independent of reason or time.

And then nearly an hour in he startles, all but jumps in his skin like someone dreaming of falling and goes rigid. The change pulls her back from the no-man’s-land of nearly asleep and into full awareness in the same second his right arm moves to hug her to him on instinct, grabbing onto the ball of her left shoulder and turning them both as if to block an impact before he’s awake enough himself to slowly let go.

“Fuck,” James breathes, when he can finally speak, shuddering through the curse and shaking all along the curve of her back like it’s below zero in the room instead of comfortably cool. He straightens, and angles back to peel away from her. Does it slow and awkward like someone gravely injured, his left side stiff, and when he asks, “You okay?” Natasha knows what he means is did I hurt you?

“Yeah,” Natasha says, rolling her shoulders to shake off the sudden tension in them, turning to look on as he digs the heel of his hand into his eye with a force behind it that can’t possibly be harmless, like he’s looking to crush his own skull. “Yes, I’m fine.”

Just looking at it makes her head hurt, so she reaches up and circles the bones of his wrist, pulls his hand back with her own. James lets her, lets the hand fall away to rest on the bend of his knee and doesn’t pull away from her grip. He’s unfocused, twitching everywhere but barely, the kind of involuntary movement that’d be hard to catch if Natasha couldn’t feel it on her skin through his own. There’s no voluntary movement away from her, though, when she closes the distance he’s put between them to press against him again, and that’s as good a sign as any that he’s as present as he’s going to get.

Natasha lets go of his wrist, but doesn’t drop her hand. She moves it up to cover the back of his instead, to lace her fingers through the spaces between his when he turns it palm up at her nudge, no hesitation and no questions asked. And Natasha breathes, and with every breath she tightens her hold on his hand, digs her fingers in only to release the pressure slowly on the exhale, until he’s caught onto the pattern and started mimicking it, full and deep and back to something that’s more or less even.

“I don’t think I can sleep again,” James says then, still sounding like he’s embarrassed, like he’s said too much. “Not tonight.”

“Okay,” she says. Then, “Do you want to stay here staring at the back or my head, or would you rather do something more interesting?”

“Why does that sound like the beginning of a terrible idea?”

Natasha stands. Smirks down at him, and shrugs. “Come find out,” she says. Looks him up and down and adds, “Maybe put some pants on, though. If you want.”

__

The good thing about New York? There’s always something open in the middle of the night.

Natasha takes him to a diner. One of those twenty-four hour holes in the wall that are peppered throughout the city every few miles. It’s a few blocks south, farther away from the bridge. She chooses it as a destination working on the mostly proven hypothesis that he’s always hungry, and diner-fare’s the kind of meal that’d be comforting, for him. Comforting and harmless.

She walks them there. Forgoes the car she parked a few blocks out in favour of letting him stretch out, move in open space without gaggles of people about. Night time is good for that, for reducing variables, things to keep track of.

This is how she learned this city, and every city she’s lived in as herself or someone close to it. Lit by moonlight and cold billboard lights and row upon row of neon signs. Walking about at night, ducking into places that seemed homely and quaint and—for Natasha, at the very least—like they’d been transplanted there from another planet entirely. Places where people were too tired and too self-absorbed in the daily litany of their own troubles to ask questions that would’ve demanded the kind of answers Natasha would’ve had to lie for.

Everything’d been strange and unknown, back then, and the strangest thing of all was the freedom to explore at her leisure. To do things because she wanted, without a purpose, without strategy other than the slow reconnaissance of a world under black skies where she could disappear and no one would look for her. A world with people in it that weren’t handlers, that weren’t marks.

The diner is cozy, checkerboard floors and appliances all in no-nonsense steel, scratched and old but well maintained, buffed to a scrupulous shine. Every booth’s covered in aged tan leather and every formica table’s painted old-refrigerator-blue.There’s other patrons inside, but they don’t bother turning when the bell atop the door announces their arrival.

Natasha looks back at James and sees him scanning the place, shoulders squared in a way that communicates caution and not imminent danger. Decides to play it safe. Leads them to the booth inset into the back wall, and slides over the seat until she’s got her back to the door. James, dutifully, seats right across, and lets his eyes wander over the words on the menu only after he’s gone over everything and everyone else that could be catalogued in the four walls of the room.

When the waitress comes around with a fresh coffee pot they both turn their cups over and let her pour. Natasha orders French toast for herself, and only that. She’s always thirstier than she’s hungry when she stays up late or wakes up in the middle of the night. James on the other hand…well, there’s probably something on the menu he didn’t order. Probably. He’s big enough despite the deliberate way he slouches to appear smaller that such an order goes unquestioned.

The food arrives quick.

“Christ, I’d forgotten about these,” James groans, pouring what looks like a liquid ton of syrup over a stack of pancakes and the swirl of whipped cream adorning them on top. The sound he makes when he digs in is positively obscene. Natasha chuckles and it makes him look up, break stride, as it were, from demolishing the food on his plate. “What.”

But Natasha only shakes her head, and bites into her toast. “I guess it’s a good thing you can’t actually get diabetes.”

James looks down at the chopped-up syrupy mess on his plate, and shrugs, his look turning sardonic. He wipes the whipped cream off his mouth with the napkin on his lap and sets the empty coffee cup to the side in the universal gesture for fill me up. “It’s the little things,” he says.

__ 

They walk around for a while, shoulder to shoulder in the direction of the apartment, once the diner empties and the lone server starts giving them dirty glances for staying in their booth well past the last bite of food. Don’t speak much, but then they never needed to, and Natasha doesn’t mind the silence, not at night. It lets the cityscape filter in, envelop them like a soundtrack. Alarms going off, some tenant playing music too loud and their neighbours shouting, threatening to call the cops in the distance, and over that the hum of cars cruising by, the intermittent beeping of the lights on pedestrian crossings at street corners, dogs howling. Real things.

The walk ends with them standing at the stairs to his building, and Natasha thinks of going then. Of leaving him to find the documents and process them on his own, in private. But James stops dead on the first step and touches the palm of his hand to her elbow, not grabbing, the way Steve would’ve done, but rather cupping the joint.

“Stay,” James says, and it doesn’t come out like a question in words but all his body’s doing is asking, asking, asking, and there’s an edge of desperation to it, a fear that doesn’t show anywhere except in the way everything about his face shuts down. And the mechanism at work is familiar, is: fear is weakness, and weakness means punishment, and showing even an inkling of it’s just asking to be hurt. He says, “Please, I—I just—I don’t—“

And Natasha stops him, doesn’t let herself hesitate for a second before she moves her arm over top of his, and slides her hand down his forearm to grab his wrist. She tells him, “Of course,” and that’s as far as she gets, as much as they discuss anything. For a long moment they just stand there.

There is no plan for this. No contingency outlining the steps to take to comfort someone that, for all intents and purposes—and excepting those physical intimacies already given, and which would be stupid to withdraw—Natasha barely knows. Comfort’s not something she was taught, is something she still struggles with, three decades in, and maybe if she were playing someone who’s good at it, someone nurturing and kind and warm, it’d be easier to do, natural to offer, but she isn’t and she can’t. He’s seen the core of her, participated in it’s making. He’d spot the lie if she tried. So it’s awkward, and it’s stiff, but she means it and it’s true, and maybe that counts for something.

(It’s difficult, she’s found, to caress with hands that learned young that touch was for lying and killing, and little more).

She looks up, his hand still in hers and warm, because she can’t really bear the emptiness in his face now that she’s gotten used to the constant rearranging of the features in it, like a sign language all its own. Ironic, isn’t it? Natasha gestures at the building, asks, “What does the sunrise look like from up there?”

It seems to be the right thing to say. James squeezes her hand, and turns to follow her line of sight up and up. Says, and Natasha notes he’s trying for casual and not doing very well, “Lets find out.”

__ 

“Will you tell me about him?” Natasha asks, maybe hours later. They’ve been sitting on the roof, or rather on the edge of the roof, legs dangling down over the brick-and-cement of the facade with nothing between them and the chance to be particularly expressive skid marks on pavement, other than a lack of initiative and a few hundred meters of empty air. They’re not quite touching other than to carry on with a game of footsie brought on by the kind of contemplative silence that’s sometimes indistinguishable from boredom.

James frowns. “Steve?”

Natasha shakes her head. “Bucky,” she says, and watches as he holds his breath for a second, two seconds, three, before he sighs and looks away, and runs his fingers over the fuzz that’s still prickly from the clippers at the back of his head.

“What do you want to know?”

“Anything.” Natasha shrugs a shoulder. “Something you remember. Steve was never comfortable talking about you. Not even after DC.”

“Didn’t want to get his hopes up,” James guesses, eyes tracking a bottle green sedan as it weaves around the street to get to the other end of the block and disappear.

“I thought that, too,” she says. “I’m not so sure now.” Now Natasha thinks he never did it because it hurt to share the memory of him. Because he wanted something he could keep to himself, away from the clutches of the world that made it seem as though his work for them meant they owned him. Meant they could decide who he was and what he stood for without asking. Natasha knows the impulse, knows the feeling.

“I think I have one,” James says, after a silence that goes on, anticipatory, for minutes on end. “Something I remember, y’know, from…from start to finish.”

The smile that accompanies that is wry and bashful and Natasha’s interested, so she lets that show on her face. She slides one of her legs under the other and leaves the other dangling over the edge of the building, gestures for him to go on. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. So, I had a big family.”

“Sisters, right?”

“Three of ‘em,” he says, smiling, turning all soft the way people get about those they love, and have loved always— people they’re proud of—before continuing on. “But I meant—extended family. Aunts and uncles, and so many cousins you could’ve staffed a small army with the lot of us. That was just on dad’s side. Never met anyone from my mother’s except an uncle. Younger brother, really attached to us all. His name was Jack.” Then he turns to look directly at her and fixes her with this dry, sardonic look, and he says, “So the thing to get about my family’s we were most of us second or third generation Irish-Catholic hooligans, good for nothing, prone to delinquency, and here only to steal jobs from hard-working Protestant Americans.”

Natasha huffs the laugh that deserves, under her breath. “Politicians don’t change, do they?”

“It’s probably been the same way since monkeys started organizing into hierarchies,” James replies, his face wrinkling in distaste. “Nothing unifies people more than having something in common to hate.” He pauses, as though he’s rearranging something into proper order in his head, then starts again, “Now, my dad, he was the youngest of five, James George, son of a James Michael, which as you can probably guess is why no one ever called me James if I could help it. He married young and mostly ‘cause people have always been stupid about marriage and they used to be even stupider about contraception, and it was expected you’d marry the pretty middle class Protestant one-night-stand if you’d knocked her up.”

Natasha raises her eyebrows at that, but he acknowledges it only with a wave of his hand. Not the point, the gesture says, and he says,  “Anyway, that amazing timing together with me being born with a dick meant, among other things, that I was basically expected to stand in for dad whenever work wouldn’t let him get to something official. Family-official. So that’s background for you.”

“Oh, that wasn’t the story?” Natasha raises her eyebrows, melodramatic, and presses a hand to her chest. “I’m shocked, James. Shocked.”

“Yeah, shut up.” He rolls his eyes at her, bites his lip. Then he says, “There was this funeral in…’37? I’d have to check to make sure, but…there was a funeral. The oldest of aunt Edith’s boys’d gotten caught in a neighbourhood spat, took a baseball bat to the back of the head, and dad couldn’t be there ‘cause there’d been a fire on one of the market’s storage units—he was a grocer. Didn’t lose everything in it, but it was a lean year.” He snorts at himself, says, “Leaner, anyway.”

The words make him look somber, if only briefly, and with the shadows under his eyes, with the way the streetlight rising from below makes him look pale and drawn she can imagine him poor and hungry. Can imagine him working long shifts and odd hours to make sure those three sisters that still make him soft and mellow scraped by, even if it meant he had to go without.

James looks down at the flash of silver that’s his hand, curls his fingers in one by one and then shakes them out. He does it sometimes, like a tick, like he’s making sure it’s still his. That he’s in control of it. “So we had the funeral, and then we all moved over to aunt Edith’s for the wake,” he says. “And the thing about any New Yorker in general is that there’s very little we like more than drinking at social gatherings, and that’s without getting into the particular Irish-Catholic background where there’s a tradition that calls for alcohol in times of grief anyway. So, it’s about mid-afternoon and everyone over twelve’s trashed, and this…woman really, you couldn’t’ve called her a girl, definitely a couple years older, definitely not family of any kind, saunters over to my corner of the living room—and you’ve guessed where this is going.”

Natasha leans back and raises an eyebrow, tampers down the grin that wants to come out. “Well, you’re not exactly making it very hard.”

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” James says, pressing both hands to his face, and damn the lack of light, she can’t tell if he’s blushing outright. “I’m going to regret this.”

“So, the woman?”

“So, the woman.” James sighs, and chuckles a little. Says, “We talk for a while, and she seems interested, and I’m definitely interested, and you know, I’m not exactly new at that kind of thing, I’ve had three, maybe four girlfriends and there’ve been…a couple other people you wouldn’t call girlfriends, but they’re mostly neighbourhood people, yeah? Nothing remotely unknown about those, and I guess there’s less of a thrill. Plus my self-control still needs a little work by that point, so you can imagine just how hard it was for her to convince me that taking a little break from the crowd in the upstairs bathroom was a good idea.”

He rolls his eyes at the face she makes and breaks the flow of the story to say, “Yes, pun completely intended, shut up,” before he picks it back up. “And we, uh, we have ourselves a good time and all, and then it’s over, and I’m trying to make myself not look like I just got my brains fucked out in a shower stall when she pats my cheek, already perfectly powdered and composed by some sort of fucking miracle, and thanks me, and you laugh, but see, under normal circumstances I’m okay on the brain thrust department?”

“Clearly.”

“But I, as I mentioned, am sweating whiskey, and post-orgasmically speaking not even downstairs is actually thinking, so the smartest thing that comes out of my mouth by that point is probably some version of ‘you’re welcome.’”

“James, no.” It comes out strangled by a startled laugh, and his face is great. It’s—it’s great.

“Yeah, I don’t know.” He shrugs with his palms up, elbows tight to his torso—what can you do?—and says, “I blame poor blood flow. It gets worse.”

“You realize I’m memorizing every detail of this conversation for future use, right?”

“I am mortifyingly aware, yes.”

“Oh, good.” Natasha grins as wide as she can. “Do go on.”

And James blinks a few times at that like he’s processing the words or the scene or—or something, before he laughs and rubs a cool left hand over the back of his neck. He says, “So once I’m finished fixing my business I follow her down the stairs, and nobody’s noticed because one, under the influence of alcohol no one lasts very long and if they tell you different they’re fucking lying—stop laughing—” He kicks her dangling ankle with the side of his boot, and it’s just motion, just another half-hearted front of annoyance. Laughter’s expected of the story, it’s the goal of repeating it, of the beats in it, just as he’s expected to be grouchy about his audience laughing at the telling. “—And two, there’s just that many of us.”

He takes a second to breathe, maybe remember what comes next or figure out the best way to say it. Exchanges the hand on the side of his neck and starts kneading at the slope of it, digging the finger pads right above the seam where skin turns into metal.

And then he goes on and keeps going without interruption until he finishes it. Says, “I’m about halfway through the appropriate sigh of relief at that when what do I see but the woman in question, hanging off the arm of one of the Italian neighbours that brought Edith’s boy back from the street the fuckers he was fighting left him to die on. Also not family,” James explains, “and not exactly a law-abiding citizen by reputation, but I guess he deserved a seat at the table for that.

“And soon as I recognize him he turns to look right at me there on the same stairs his girl just came down from. This is the point where I wish I could say I met his eye and went over to make conversation like the innocent lamb I should've acted like, but no, see, I’m still drunk and still kinda out of it, so what I do is fucking panic. Practically fucking run out to hide on the little porch, and in drunk logic I guess if the guy can’t see me I’m safe and sound, cause once I’m out of sight I stay there. Except after a while the guy follows me out, and short of running out of the house entirely I can’t avoid him, and leaving the house at all before the wake’s over’s a no-no that’d get me belted.

“So I stay planted and basically start fucking praying ‘cause the guy keeps coming closer, and I'm completely fucking certain I'm about to get knifed in the kidney for keeping someone else's pie warm. And the guy gets over to where I'm standing trying to look like I'm not swaying from the booze or shaking in my boots, and he offers, y'know, a cigarette, and it's bad form to say no, and I been smoking since I was fourteen anyway, so I take it, and get my lighter out and light both the sticks. Nothing happens. I’m actually kinda relaxing a little when he looks me over and says, “so what's your name boyo?”

“And it downs on me: getting knifed right then and there woulda been a blessing, cause this guy gets my name and the whole Sicilian contingent's gonna know I got in the wrong knickers, and I'm going to die bloody with my balls stuffed in my mouth and my eyes gouged out behind a speakeasy somewhere in motherfuckin’ Hoboken. So I look off to the side of him, into the street, and I’m trying to look all pensive and with-it and not, y'know, like I'm two seconds away from shitting myself in my Sunday best. Trying to stall and think of something to say, something to offer so I can keep from dying horribly cause it's all business all the time with these guys, and lo and behold, what do I see at the corner past him, painted all red in a yellow background but the little window sign for one Bev's Diner, finest steak and eggs in town.

“I don’t know why, but it was like a light bulb going off, so I fumble my cigarette up to my mouth and hold my hand out, and say, in the most undignified squeak a man ever uttered: Beverly, Beverly Grant. From the kitchen Grants. And clearly I hadn't noticed the guy was just as stupid drunk, ‘cause he bought it and didn’t have me killed, and that’s how I learned to never ever fuck anyone at a funeral ever again.”

It’s a good story, and he tells it well, voice dripping with self-effacing sarcasm and making faces at himself. His whole body's animated, and Natasha can see, finally, in every smooth-chosen word and every gesture, every beat, why people would want to be around him, be with him. Why a skinny little runt turned super soldier would give the world up in an instant, to see this, here, one last time. There’s something… magnetic about him, oozing the kind of charm that can't be learned, can't be trained into a person, and it's not dishonest, not hiding anything but a sweet guy with a finely honed sense of humour and a little boy's stole-the-whole-cookie-jar smile.

Natasha wipes her nose with the edge of the jacket and throws a hand over her aching ribs as she finishes laughing, and says, “You should think of going into stand-up comedy.”

“Y’think?” James waggles his eyebrows, and then gives a startled kind of laugh, a burst of it, like he’s just remembered something. Says, “My littlest sister heard me telling it to a cousin once. Used to be real good at hiding and sneaking around, and we all let her get away with everything. She was the worst fucking gossip. Must’ve been…I don’t know, maybe eleven by then? Ambushed me later ‘cause she had questions.

“Oh, no.”

“Which I, like any responsible older brother, absolutely flaked on answering and told her to go ask mom. I guess if she did she never told mom where she’d heard any of it, cause I’m still alive, but she called me Bev under her breath whenever she got pissed at me until…until I left.”

“What was her name?” Natasha asks, fond already of a girl she’s never met just from hearing him say all of two words about her. A girl who, in all likelihood, is probably dead, whether by life’s random accidents or old age. 

“Becca. Rebecca.” The name brings this little smile to his face, something tender and quick, gone again before Natasha can blink. And then he says, voice turned gravelly and solemn, “I think Steve loved that one.” Like he's not sure, like he can't be, and he's just James again. James, who knows enough, remembers enough of the man he used to be to know how much he’s missing, how different he is.

“I’m sure he did.” She’s glad, perversely, that Steve will never be around to see the extent to which his Bucky remains well and truly dead. Natasha’s beginning to suspect it might’ve killed him a third time.

__

It’s like the words steal the life out of him. Like every syllable he used to weave the story together and tell it sapped all the good the food and the walk might have done, and he’s right back to looking like he might fall down if he so much as stands. To looking terribly young, and terribly tired, and visibly aching, every muscle strung out.

(Something to think on: he only told it because she asked).

“Natasha,” he says, pauses, like he’s forgotten what comes next, or maybe like the name’s all the vocabulary he has left, like every letter in it’s precious, and Natasha’s too well trained to shudder at the sound of it, at the knowledge that he’s never called her that, but she can feel the start of it, like a zap straight down the bones of her spine. James asks, “Why are you here, really?”

Right. Friends are for other people. Wanting company’s for other people. Wanting’s for people, period. God forbid the Black Widow get lonely, get tired of breathing work, and living work, and bleeding work. But she dropped that folder on his breakfast bar hours ago with no intention to stay and discuss it in the middle of the fucking night, so in the end he’s got the truth of it, whether she likes it or not.

Natasha sighs. “There was chatter up the line,” she says, looks out at the sun finally rising over the horizon, orange fading to purple to indigo to black, like a bruise between the edge of daylight and full-dark. “We know where to strike.”

 

***

 

[1999]

 

With missions come degrees of freedom Natalia’s unused to, the kind of change that throws things off balance, a raging, violent undertow beneath a placid surface. The kind of high that shows no warning signs before the fall, like a patch of black ice underfoot.

Sleep in particular gets troublesome, in these strange too-soft beds in strange too-wide rooms, in strange countries. Gets disturbing, and easily disturbed.

Tonight it’s bad enough and visible enough that the Soldier wakes her. Shakes her shoulder with an icy hand that yanks Natalia awake, and when her eyes open there’s darkness and only darkness and a scream caught only by accident at the back of her throat. But the Soldier does not release her, and the warming metal on her shoulder can be nothing but real. It weighs her down, tethers her.

“What—”

“Nightmare,” the Soldier explains. “You were hurting yourself.”

When he lets go and turns the bedside lamp on Natalia can see the beads of blood she drew from the underside of her upper arms, the backs of her shoulders. Curved half-moon carvings, angry red and staining the bedding.

Natalia does not apologize. In the Red Room excuses get you nowhere, gain you nothing. No use to waste your breath on words without worth (it is always about worth). She nods, and looks down, contrite as she can while lacking full control of her shivering limbs, but the Soldier does not resume his position in the chair, does not dismiss her.

Instead, the Soldier turns and scoots over on the mattress until he’s fully on it, long legs stretched out. He does this slowly, eyes on her as though they’re looking for something, asking a question Natalia can’t translate into words. He moves his arm to hover strangely around her shoulders, slowly, slowly, fingers whirring with movement but not touching. Natalia stays still, uncomprehending. The arm goes slack, fingers dropping on the mattress, controlled and without bounce. His face remains impassive, but his throat works convulsively, his eyes—his eyes are very wide, and very light, and glassy. Afraid, she’d think, if she saw them on anyone else. He breathes heavily for long seconds, deciding something, thinking something.

Decides to lie down beside her, completely flat on the bed, and snakes the arm under the pillow she was using, and waits. And Natalia understands, then, what this is. It’s very simple math. This is the price of consciousness. The price of training, charged at last. She lies back down, close to his body, and tries to stop the shivering. Breathes. In and out, in and out.

The Soldier does nothing. Says nothing. Only breathes beside her, like a bellowing furnace in the silence of the room, half-underneath her, and doesn’t touch. It’s…strange? Unexpected. Not indecipherable. Sometimes instruction can only begin in the presence of initiative.

Natalia burrows closer. Slides her leg over one of his, as slow as his climb onto the mattress, as controlled. Divested from the jacket of his tac gear, the way he is during downtime always, Natalia feels only hot skin against her lips on the way from his shoulder to the base of his throat. The span of one, two, three kisses, open mouthed, slick. The Soldier freezes, stops breathing. Natalia hovers, breathes on skin and waits. Waits for direction, for feedback, for him to grab her and put her where she’s supposed to be and can’t figure out.

“No,” says the Soldier. His eyes are still open, fixed on the ceiling up above. Natalia nods, and drops her head back down (some men don’t do kissing with their whores). Assess the situation. Think. Denial is the only way he ever tells her what he wants from her. Process of elimination: if it’s not this it must be that. It makes her work for the skill, not only physically but mentally, strategically, as well. It's familiar, by this point, so Natalia changes tactics.

She supported her weight with a hand over his chest, as she hovered over him. It stayed there, unmoving, as she lay back down on command. Now she moves it. Down over the taut skin of his sternum, slow through the short wispy hair there. Farther down, over the line of his stomach and the dip of his navel and farther, farther, into—

No,” he repeats, harsh this time. Final. Doubles that, keeps her still, by grabbing her arm. He squeezes the bones of her forearm until they grind. It’ll bruise, in the morning. She’ll have to cover it up. “Sleep,” the Soldier says, letting go by pushing the hand away, throwing the inside of Natalia’s head into disarray.

No means she’s got it wrong. No means try something else. No means think harder. Work harder or else. No means we’re disappointed, recruit, the program’s put so much effort in you. No doesn’t mean—no never means—you don't say no. Bodies don't say no. No doesn't stop anything. She’s got it wrong. Missed something, and he won’t tell her what. (Sleep? Why sleep? Why would he say…why is he still in bed, then? Does he want…she’s never been unconscious for that, never been fucked unconscious, there was no mention of…why would he…she’s got it wrong).

“I don't understand,” Natalia says, and at some point she must’ve hit her head, must’ve ingested something toxic. She’s just asking to be punished.

“What's unclear?”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Sleep,” he says. Same tone, same lack of direction. Maybe she’s still dreaming. Maybe that’s why nothing makes sense. Maybe it’s a test, more of the isolation chamber training that made Malenkova go mad. Got her shot like a rabid dog years ago. But Natalia remembers—she remembers the mission before this and remembers this same room before she fell asleep and nothing’s different in it, there were no interruptions between those two things, those two happenings, that sequence of events. No skip, every second accounted for.

That guarantees nothing, of course. Reality, or rather a subject’s sense of reality is infinitely malleable with the right treatment, the right suggestion slipped at the right time. But then the Soldier is still pressed against her, hasn't moved, and his chest is bare and it gives a little, beneath her cheek, and the skin there is feverish and slightly sticky from air-dried sweat; it smells faintly of that sweat, smells like him underneath that, and it’s imperfect. Wrinkled in places, puckered, lined. Scarred. There are silvery stretch marks peeking over the portion of his hips not covered by his pants. Imperfect means real, most of the time.

So. “Why haven't you fucked me?” Natalia asks.

The Soldier turns his head and stares down at her. He looks like someone kicked him in the head. “It's not part of my mission,” he says.

“What is your mission?”

“Training and oversight.”

“Other trainers...” Natalia breathes. In and out. Steady. In and out. “Other trainers believe it is an important step.”

That makes him frown, sudden and deep. Makes the line of his mouth go severe and hard, as though she’s just told him something reprehensible. It smooths back out, though, just as fast as it arrived. He keeps still. He asks, “For what?”

“It helps cement authority and strengthen the chain of command.”

“Is my authority in question?”

“No, sir.”

“Then I have no need of that.”

That’s true. Logical. But. “Others do it because they want it,” Natalia says. It feels like a confession, a secret slipping from her mouth and dissolving on the next breath, void of value now that it’s been shared. It isn’t a secret. Natalia’s not made to be unattractive, and it’s part of training for the field. Another weapon to maximize potential, another use to give her body when there’s a need for manipulation and subtlety.

“I don't want,” the Soldier says, and he means I don’t have wants, and Natalia doubts that. There’s something human in him, still, and want makes the world go around. Then he says, “If something is expected of you, you will know.”

__

 

Later, though not much later, Natalia asks, “Why are you holding me?”

The Soldier stirs from perfect stillness, the way he’s been all this time. “Comfort,” he explains. “Body heat. It will help you sleep.”

“This is a mission priority?” It's near speaking out of turn, to assault him with these sudden questions, but training and oversight has gone on for eight months, and he has not given any indication that he does anything but welcome it. If something is expected of you, you will know.

“If you lack sleep, your performance will be suboptimal in the morning,” the Soldier says. “A suboptimal performance will reflect badly on the mission objective. Both mission objectives.” It's cut and dry and it makes perfect sense, except for how it doesn't. No one has ever not taken when given the chance. Then his voice turns softer, less sure, somehow, in its quality. The Soldier says, “If it's not comfortable I will move away.”

“No,” Natalia says, perhaps too quickly, the word spilling from her mouth. “No, this is okay.”

The Soldier nods, and lets his metal fingers find the lower rungs of her spine. It is only a nudge, like all the others he employs to correct posture or shift her fingers into a grip better suited for small hands, but it stays this time.

She thinks of the word comfort. Its uses. A well-fitted holster is comfortable; it hugs the body tight and allows for better deployment of the weapons in it. By comparison, sharing a bed outside of mission parameters is the raw bleeding feet and chafed skin from an unbroken pair of dancing shoes. A periodic necessity to be endured for the greater goal, sometimes a demonstration of obedience. Once, long ago, a countermeasure for the winter, when Natalia still had sisters.

Still, it is...not unpleasant…to simply be held, and the logic is sound, manifests itself in reality. Even now she can feel sleep creep back like a warm weight on her limbs, dulling the unforgiving edges of consciousness. That’s good. She’s supposed to sleep.

Comfort, he said. With the shift and melt of his body beside hers, beneath hers, Natalia can only wonder whose.

Chapter Text

 [1999]

 

“Natalia. What do you need?”

It’s the Soldier’s voice, rough around the vowels but steady; like a lifeline in a hurricane. Natalia holds onto the sound as she holds onto him, tight and desperate, fingers like claws on the muscle covering the arches of his ribs. Serratus anterior, latissimus dorsi. She shakes her head, takes deep breaths of ozone and old sweat against his neck. There is no need unmet. Nothing lacking, except an empty mind and the capacity for uninterrupted sleep. He can’t give her that, and if he could she wouldn’t ask.

It would cost her.

The nightmares have lessened, over time, but the trade-off for diminished frequency is a sharp increase in intensity. When they happen—in the safety of the confines of a hotel room or a safe house, away from the eyes of the program and under the Soldier's constant watch—they leave her shaking and drenched in sweat and aching everywhere.

Tonight, she wakes freezing and hollow, with spilled blood behind her eyelids and the smell of burnt hair and burning fat on her nose, to the Soldier’s hands on her shoulders and the shadowed contours of his face over her own. To his arms weaving slowly around her and lifting her up into his lap, his back against the headboard. To one of his hands rubbing slow circles over her back.

“What do you need?” The Soldier asks of her, and she has no answer to give that makes sense, that she wants to hear escape from her mouth. His skin is so warm around her freezing limbs that it burns through her clothes, stings against bare arms. Pain, she’s found, is often real. Even the negligible kind. The Soldier feels her forehead and neck with the back of his flesh hand, as though looking for a temperature that he doesn't find. He shifts, and switches his hand for a brief brush of his lips against her forehead, frowning when it yields the same null results. He sighs.

“There is a tub,” he says, “in the bathroom. I could—I could draw you a warm bath, if you'd like. It might help,” he adds. The words come quiet.

Comfort again, or at least the offering of it. She wonders who taught him how to give it, and why. What is that skill worth, to something made for killing? What has he needed it for? (How can she learn it? How long will it take? What will it cost?).

It’s not an order. Not take a bath, but I could draw you a bath. He’s been doing that more and more often, and Natalia’s still trying to figure out why. Having the choice is…is terrifying. It means she can choose wrong. It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful, but she’s done nothing to earn it, nothing other than her job. Sometimes the things she hasn't earned are given only to be taken away.

“Okay,” Natalia says. Any kind of warmth would be welcome, and it’s meant to help her sleep. She wants that. The price for it’s payable—it is only as excellent a performance as she can give under the eyes of the program. She’ll benefit from it as much as him. Reluctantly, Natalia starts moving away, forces stiff joints into motion, shivering still, to get off the bed and walk to the bathroom on shaking legs, but he makes a noise of protest. She stills.

The Soldier brings an arm under her shoulders and swings his legs off the mattress, cradling her to his chest. “Let me?” he asks.

Let me? Natalia thinks, let me what? The second arm weaves under her knees then, and it becomes clear: let me carry you. Why does he ask? Could she—

“No,” Natalia says, heart pounding, in a rush. “I can walk.”

When his hands fall away without another word Natalia flinches, expects he’s loosened his hold to—to retaliate—to correct aberrant behaviour. The Soldier does not move. He does not tense, he does not grab, he does not strike. He waits, unmoving and watchful, the same way he does while she rests.

Natalia sets her feet on the floor, and rises out of his lap. The Soldier doesn't stop her. He waits for her to reach the bathroom’s threshold, unassisted, before he rises. Slowly, Natalia lets herself relax—it’s dizzying, the relief of snapping tension, the suddenness of it.

She flicks the light on, and squints at the bright white walls with watering eyes while pupils shrink, adjusting to light. It’s not a big tub, old ceramic-covered cast iron showing thin, barely-there fissures, owing to material degeneration and the stresses of added weight.

She sleeps in a dark tank top and sweatpants, always has. They’ve always been the clothes provided by the program, replaced when she outgrows the size or mending them is no longer feasible. Both stick to her body now, uncomfortably damp and itchy with sweat. She takes them off, and folds them haphazardly, drops them onto a corner of the tiled floor. She’d break out in goosebumps from the chill, if the nightmare hadn’t already put them there. She shivers anyway. The main room lacks heating, and the bathroom’s no different.

Fresh-smelling terrycloth is thrown and then pressed over her shoulders, soft, if a little stiff. It’s heavy, and long; it falls past her knees. A bathrobe. “How warm you want it?” The Soldier asks, stepping by her to plug the tub and open the faucet.

“Very,” Natalia answers. It feels like the cold has taken root all the way into her shivering bones. It’s not a new feeling, or a new thought, but familiarity has failed to make it pleasant. She leans on the counter, and watches him adjust the temperature over and over with a near-imperceptible frown on his brow and, incongruously, the wet pink tip of his tongue peeking out of his mouth.

After a few minutes of adjustments and steam, he shuts the faucet off, flesh hand an uncomfortable shade of red, and turns the frown into withering glare, aimed at the little row of finger-sized bottles along the edge of the tub and their overlong German labels. The Winter Soldier picks one up, and turns to her, a single sable eyebrow raised. “Bubbles?”

Clearly, Natalia’s still asleep, and this is a new strain of particularly psychedelic dreaming. The subconscious mind is capable of anything. There’s an upside to this: she can do whatever she wants, in her sleep. “I—yes. Bubbles. Yes.”

__ 

Certainties are for fools, but Natalia’s willing to be foolish, this once. She’s sure of only one thing: nothing—nothing—feels better than a steaming bubble bath, except maybe the rush of adrenaline that follows winning a fight.

__

How do people spend hours in a bath tub doing nothing, thinking of nothing? Three minute showers are more than enough. The heat is incredible, but the utter stillness of it makes her restless. She’s just supposed to…sit there, until the water gets cold.

The Soldier sits on the floor beside the tub, with his back to her and his eyes on the door. His breathing is regular, steady, untroubled. With the base of his skull against the edge of the tub the ends of his shoulder-length hair fall into the water, the clumps curling loosely, a glistening pitch black when wet.

“There’s blood in your hair,” Natalia says, after what feels like hours and hours of silence. It must have gotten there when he helped her move the bodies, in the afternoon; the scene they left was meant to be bloody. With the words for warning and the slight turn of his head toward her as a signal of his attention, Natalia brings a hand up to brush away the line of rust running down his hairline and into the strands of hair on his temple, around the shell of his ear. The Soldier stiffens a little, but doesn’t move. She says, “You should wash it off.”

“Hmm.”

“I could…do it for you.” A favour for a favour, comfort for grooming. She’s not sure it makes them even, but it seems an adequate start.

The Soldier relaxes, leans into the fingertips still on his temple and swivels his head to look at her. “Please,” he says. His immediate reaction to touch that he does not initiate, outside the training ring, is always freezing. She’s never seen anyone inside the facility put their hands on him, and knows at least part of that is because they fear him. Because being close enough to touch could be deadly, if he so chose. With his head pushing into her hands like one of the overeager pups the guards train to track intruders above-ground, it occurs to her that perhaps he freezes because he’s unused to it. That perhaps he misses it.

“Sit up a little,” Natalia says, forcing the words to sound sure of themselves, to not come out questioning. The Soldier obeys (the Soldier obeys), and lets her tilt his head backwards so most of his long hair falls into the soapy water. It reveals the arc of his throat, thin skin tense over straining muscle and tendon, and the fragile bone underneath. Natalia moves from leaning against the tiled wall to sitting behind him, legs crossed in the middle of the tub. “Stay still,” she says.

She gathers the strands that get caught between the edge of the tub and the nape of his neck, and feels him shift to accommodate that. His eyes flicker once to her face, and then come to rest on the cracked and peeling paint on the ceiling. They close to avoid stray rivulets of water when Natalia wets the rest of his hair, and stay like that throughout.

(It leaves her a little breathless. It makes no sense. Then again, arrhythmia can often be attributed to lack of sleep, and it’s the most natural explanation, given the way she’s been since waking up, so she pays it no mind).

His hair is surprisingly thick. Natalia shampoos twice and rinses twice, massaging the soap into his scalp as gently as she can. She’s never done this to someone else; it’s awkward. She doesn’t know how much pressure is right without the feedback from the nerves of his scalp. It must not be terribly off, she doesn’t think, mostly on the basis that he’s still relaxed under her hands.

It occurs to her to wonder, as she reaches for the conditioner: do men use shampoo on their beards? Logically speaking, beards are hair. Therefore, beards get dirty, and oily, and must turn itchy and uncomfortable with that dirty and that oil. Perhaps even more so, considering their proximity to mouth and food, and the frequency with which human beings bring bacteria-covered hands to their faces.

Shampoo it is. A lot of shampoo. And conditioner after.

__

There’d been an old woman at the park, earlier. They’d happened upon her while taking a stroll, Natalia and the Soldier. The excuse for the unplanned outing had been losing all possible tails, being seen by passers by and security cameras around the same timeframe as Ambassador Sobol was due to return home and find the disemboweled bodies of his wife, his housekeeper, and his children.

They’d been left naked, bellies gaping open and empty below the line of the ribcage, liver and stomach and pancreas untouched and neatly tucked into the chest cavity, kidneys on the blood-red skin of their chests like small, densely packed versions of lungs, and entrails neatly arranged down their throats and out their open mouths, and from there around their necks and wrists and ankles like ropes, excess length coiled at their feet for each and every one.

While a serviceable and operation-appropriate explanation, the truth was they’d gone walking about because Natalia’d been too wired from infiltration and killing, and the hour’d not yet been late enough to merit shifting restlessly on an unknown bed until such time as sleep chose to present itself.

The woman’d been feeding the birds with breadcrumbs from a bag full of them. She’d looked peaceful and content so, naturally, Natalia’d stared. A grandson appeared. At least Natalia assumes it’d been a grandson. The resemblance had been obvious, in the shape of their noses and chins, the dimples on their sincere, amused smiles when the birds chirped and fluttered around the newcomer like a mob around their leader.

The grandson’d produced something small, neatly packaged and wrapped in a bright white ribbon, and pressed it gently into the woman’s wrinkled hands. Natalia’d not been close enough to see what the present was, but she’d been close enough to distinguish the sequence of emotion in the woman’s body, the rearrangement of muscle on her face like the shifting image of a kaleidoscope.

Surprise, excitement, delight. Her thanks had come loud and effusive, visible in words and body; she’d grabbed her grandson’s face into her hands and looked at him sweetly, murmuring endearments. She’d kissed both his cheeks. She’d wound her arms around his shoulders, and held him tight.

Natalia’d been able to see her face above his shoulder. Had seen the last shift of feeling there, at the end, settling like stones at the bottom of a river into the thing Natalia thinks must be joy. She can’t be sure. She’s never seen it in the mirror.

__

The water grows tepid, then cold. Natalia pulls the plug on the tub and stands. The Soldier helps her out and into terrycloth in way that'd be gentlemanly anywhere else, on anyone else. When she mentions thirst he goes out and into the kitchen, comes back with a glass of cold water that he presses into her hand. Then he retakes his post on the bed, half-sitting up. 

Natalia downs the glass and sets it, empty, on the bedside table. She yawns, and sits beside him. They breathe together for a minute, shoulder to shoulder, silent. It’s surprisingly easy. Then she turns her head to look at him.

On impulse, disregarding a decade of training, Natalia touches the palm of her hand to his cheek. Leaves it there. He doesn't startle, he's too vigilant for that, but he looks back at her curiously. She thinks, for an instant, that he looks almost afraid again, like in the bed those months ago, when she…he’s all wide eyes and slack jaw in his pale, blank face. Conditioner makes his beard softer on her fingers than she expected, downey against her lips when she kisses his cheek.

The Soldier blinks at her slowly. Then, as she drops her hands back to her lap and continues to be otherwise still, he nods and looks away. There's a flicker about his face in the shadows of the room that people with better night vision than her might have called smiling. It’s a trick of the light, she’s sure.

Natalia slides down to lie flat on the mattress, still in her robe, and goes back to sleep with her back pressed against the warmth of the Winter Soldier's thigh.

 

***

 

They’re crossing the atlantic and they can’t take a quinjet. Not if they want to remain undercover for long, with the Invasion still so close, the damage so fresh and terrible in everyone’s minds. Same goes for a commercial flight. Natasha could get through security undetected, but jamming mechanism or no jamming mechanism the risk involved in trying to get however-many-pounds of vibranium arm through the X-rays, let alone the metal detectors, comes in about five whole miles below Not Worth It as far as she’s concerned.

A private flight might be easier, but it poses the problem of making sure the pilots they’re assigned keep their mouths shut, and they’d still have to check in with customs on arrival, personally, within the confines of the plane. Which opens up the possibility that those officers might recognize either or both of them, because they haven’t been looking at a constant stream of strange faces for the past eight hours while sitting on their assess, and on an otherwise empty flight they’d be able to take a closer look.

Tony, helpful as always, offers an alternative: Pepper is flying to London. The excuse logged in all communications in order to justify the trip is the CEO’s highly anticipated meeting with the Prime Minister, in the interest of discussing the opportunity of switching all public electricity and transportation over to the Stark-patented renewable energy models, now that they can take advantage of the city wide repairs—the sentiment being that rebuilding is going to happen anyway, and that it’ll take a while and a monumental effort besides, so why not make the finished product better than it was before intergalactic warfare tore it up?

The real reason, never openly discussed and little publicized, is strong-arming the British into transferring all alien matter over to Stark Industries the moment it’s found. Natasha wonders what kind of leverage Pepper’s found to get the UN to agree to the arrangement, but whatever it is, it’s been enough to get each and every person on the committee bending over backwards to facilitate it. She can admire that. It surprises a lot of people, just how ruthless sweet-faced Virginia Potts can truly be, once they’ve been standing in the same room for more than fifteen minutes.

Natasha’s not one of those people, and never was. Even on paper, before they’d ever met, someone able to handle and more than once outright stop Tony Stark read like someone admirable. She knows better than anyone—appearances deceive.

So Pepper is flying to London, in a Stark plane, staffed with trusted Stark employees, that’s departing the continental US from a private air-field. The plane’s equipped with a private cabin attached to a soundproof conference room, and seeing as the plane will not be otherwise empty of passengers and they won’t be declared on the required flight manifest, it’ll be quite easy for them to sneak out of said plane, once they’ve arrived.

When Natasha runs it by James he takes a single look at the blue prints of the aircraft and shrugs. He says, “It’s your op,” with a smile that’s lopsided and tired, that doesn’t reach his eyes. Then he thinks something, or remembers something that flickers through his face and animates it, makes the smile smaller and truer and his eyes spark with amusement. He adds, “Whatever you want, boss.”

Natasha snickers, and grins back. It’s a good joke. 

She says yes, to Tony, to Pepper. On short notice, it’s the best offer they’re going to get. They get on the plane a week after that.

__ 

Pepper waits until they’re in the air to excuse herself from her attendants and check on them. She slides the door open only a few inches, at first, just enough space for her head and a single shoulder. She brings the hand attached to that shoulder up to make a shushing motion, finger to her lips as she looks around the room.

James started standing up from his spread-eagled sprawl on the couch fitted along the sidewall the moment Pepper’s steps started getting closer to the door, so by the time Pepper steps through and closes it behind her he’s been standing there awkwardly for almost a full minute. Nearly at attention, too, except for how the slant and curve of the overhead storage makes him hunch forwards ever-so-slightly if he’s to avoid braining himself against it. He clears his throat and nods, says, “Ma’am.”

“Hi,” Pepper says, blinking owlishly at the wall of ever-so-fucking-polite super soldier in front of her for a couple of seconds before smoothing the pause over by moving to him in her unflappably calm, professional manner, and extending her hand. “Pepper Potts. It’s wonderful to finally meet you.”

“James Barnes, ma’am.” James shakes her hand, and then moves aside to offer the end of the couch closest to the door. “Thank you for having us.”

Pepper waves the gesture away with a smile that’s just as smooth and polite and turns to Natasha, who’s still lounging cross-legged on the couch along the opposite sidewall. “How’s everything back here?”

“Comfortable,” Natasha says. “And convenient. You have no idea how much.”

“Oh, I’m glad,” Pepper replies. “I know how you feel about anonymity.” Then she smooths her hands down her vanilla-coloured silk blazer, and pops it open with a flick of her fingers. She retrieves a slim waterproof case and a coin envelope from the ticket pocket inside the left flap, then redoes the button. She says, “Now, the reason I’m here, drawing attention to this particular room when I probably shouldn’t—Tony wanted me to give you this.” Pepper holds up the case before handing it to her. “I don’t know what’s in it, and I’ve been briefed on plausible deniability, which means the official word is ‘I don’t want to know.’” Pepper smiles. “So, don’t open it until I’m out of here.”

“Of course,” Natasha says, taking the case, and setting it beside her on the couch.

“And this is from me, to you, in case you need it,” Pepper carries on, solemn now if still smiling. “For as long as you need it.”

Not having been told not to open it, Natasha rips a corner of the coin envelope and lets its contents fall out into her hand. A keycard, a pair of french-national driver licenses, and a small thrice folded rectangle of water-soluble paper with an address scribbled on the center fold. Natasha knows exactly what she’s been given, after glancing at it. She consulted on the security system developed for the place. It’s unexpected, and it’s a lot. “Pepper…thank you.”

“Consider it a bonus for all the work you’ve done,” Pepper says in a tone that’s almost as acerbically off-hand as one of Tony’s, or would be, if not for the slight tilt of her head and the relief evident in the slow easing of her posture. As though she didn’t think the present would be welcomed. “I’d best be going.”

She’s started to turn to do just that when James opens the cabinet under the oval table that’s the centre of the conference room and stops her leaving by saying, “Wait. What do you drink, Miss Potts?”

“Vodka martini, very dry, a lot of olives,” Pepper rattles with the immediacy and automation of a woman routinely asked that very same question. Then she frowns. “Why?”

“It’s as good a reason as any to be in this room,” James explains, rummaging around in what turns out to be the liquor cabinet, retrieving a cocktail shaker and strainer set with one hand and lifting a bottle of vodka on the other with the practiced movement of someone used to handling instruments of the kind. “You go back out with a drink in hand, everyone assumes you’re about as stressed as you look, and just wanted some time alone before resuming your meeting prep—no one asks any questions.” James shrugs. “Trusting the soundproofing is as good as Stark said, that is.”

Never one to believe without seeing, or, for that matter, without having much reason to trust the speaker other than whatever secondhand knowledge she has of him, Pepper turns to Natasha. Raises her eyebrows up above the edge of her pale strawberry fringe.

“He’s right,” Natasha says, tilting her head and giving an easy smile for confirmation. It’s a good excuse. Not to mention that, again, he’s right—Pepper looks tired. The kind of tired that gets dangerous, after a while, pale even with make-up that doesn’t do much to deter the practiced eye from seeing where it’s been skillfully applied to cover the bruises of restless nights, and to soften the sharp angles of a face subjected to constant, massive levels of stress with little respite.

Whatever else he is and has been, James Barnes was raised a gentleman, and doesn’t as such possess a single bone in his body that’s able to ignore the present and visible symptoms of someone made vulnerable under duress without offering whatever aid he can. It’s actually kind of funny—up until this very moment, Natasha didn’t know what being on the other end of that impulse looked like, from the outside.

“In that case,” Pepper says, approaching to lean her hip against the other end of the table with a smile that’s less polite and more genuine, “vodka martini, very dry, at least three olives. Please.”

“Coming right up.” He flashes an answering smile. “You want anything?” James asks, body turned in her direction, even if he’s not looking away from the bottles and the mixing as he works, whatever he’s doing carrying a definite rhythm of sloshing and clinking, out of sight beneath the tabletop—the cabinet pulls out, but she’d have to stand to see. It’s not like he has reason to poison them. Probably not, anyway. 

Not vodka,” Natasha says. “Strong though.”

James raises his head only far enough to look at her faux-innocently from under unfairly long lashes, glossy-black and curling at the tips. It’s a look worthy of a person plotting something, which he most certainly is. “At my discretion?” he asks.

Natasha narrows her eyes a little. “Sure,” she says. “Surprise me.”

__ 

The door closes behind Pepper’s retreating shape and James, still standing, closes the liquor cabinet and sets a grenadine-red drink on her end of the polished surface of the table. He turns to her, and crosses his arms. “Okay, what?” 

Natasha cocks an eyebrow, and lets a smirk flicker at the edge of her mouth. Teasing. Conspiratorial. “Ma’am?”

“She singlehandedly runs a multinational and we’re on her private fucking jet.” James rolls his eyes. He digs a human thumb under the neat triangular hollow between his eye, his brow, and the bridge of his nose, overdramatic. “I’m just being polite,” he sighs.

“Whatever you have to tell yourself, James,” Natasha says, smirk undaunted. Then she takes a sip of her drink. It’s a mistake. See, she was expecting something fruity and disappointing from the colour of it, regardless of his plotting. Something harmless, and ‘strong’ only for people that haven’t spent most of their lives cultivating the chemical tolerances of those three times their size. As it is, she has to use every bit of hard-earned self-control not to cough at the burn. What the fuck did he pour into the cup? Gasoline?

“By the way?” Natasha says, eyes watering but her voice only slightly strained, “I said strong. I did not say set me on fucking fire.”

James looks at her, sidelong and mischievous, and the dry, deadpan look that she gives him in answer only makes mischief bloom from a spark in his eye to the full breadth of a grin. He wiggles his fingers at her—a wave of light breaking gleaming white on the dark contours of uncovered metal, advancing relentless on one rippling finger after the next, like the hypnotic sway of a raging tide. “Surprise.”

__

Sometime around hour four of their flight James rises from his sprawl. The movement, out of sight but still disturbing the air in the sealed room, distracts Natasha from her audiobook. She catches a glimpse of his back retreating into the bathroom over in the private cabin, as the division between it and the conference room slides closed behind him. Natasha takes the minute of solitude to stand and stretch her neck, and her back after it. She pauses the audiobook on the reader’s next breath and gives her ears a break from the pressure of the earphones, reaches into the cooler inside the liquor cabinet for a bottle of water. She’s downed half of it when he comes back in.

“So how are we doing this?” James asks, leaning back into the closed division so she can get past him to her end of the room; for all that it’s lushly outfitted and well distributed it’s still a relatively small jet, which makes sharing spaces a matter of movement logistics. The sides of his hair are wet, and there’s a trail of water from the faucet tracing a line down one side of his face that he either missed or didn’t bother drying. It disappears under the loose collar of his shirt.

“You know,” Natasha starts, folding her legs under herself on the flat expanse of the couch, “I was going to give you about forty more minutes of conflicted wall-staring before I said anything.”

“How considerate of you,” James says dryly, with an expression on his face that makes clear exactly what he thinks of the sentiment, which can probably be translated into verbal language as ‘you’re welcome to shove the next forty minutes up your ass.’

“I’m a very considerate person,” Natasha replies.

“I’m sure.” James takes a water bottle for himself, but doesn’t continue on to the couch he’s been occupying so far. He walks around the table to hers instead, and climbs in on the end opposite her. He nudges her hip with one socked foot, and says, “Brief me, dear.”

Natasha grabs the foot before it, too, retreats. It’s sort of like catching fish barehanded but she’s done harder things. She pops every one of his toes, just for the ‘dear’ he tacks on at the end.

__ 

“You’re saying we want them to increase security.”

“Mhm. On their transport routes at least,” Natasha says, flicking through the image files on the projected document sphere until she finds the map she’s looking for. Enlarges that with a gesture that makes every other file minimize into hexagonal dots at the same time. The map is outdated and they’ll have to correct that, but right now it’s the best they’ve got. "If they’re forced to do it on short notice, chances are they’ll outsource to outfits they’ve worked with before. Which is where Qureshi and his boys come in. They cover London and Manchester, and we lie low until we know it’s done, at which point—”

“At which point we take care of Munich,” James interrupts, “replace the samples, and then ride back all the way to Bern in the truck, which gets us into HQ without having to blow anything up before we get there.” He says it as though he sees the plan unfolding before him, as though it exploded into being, comprehensible and complete, the minute she started speaking—for him, it probably did. He always had a knack for predicting strategy.

“Pretty much,” Natasha says, not offended by the interruption. It is, frankly, a relief not to have to explain everything step by step.

James brings the Munich-to-Bern route closer to him with the closing of a fist in front of the projection followed quickly by a fluid pull. He zooms in on the border controls and the area surrounding either side, especially, but eventually nods and says, “Good.” Then he flicks the projection away so he can look at her without the blue highlights in the way, and says, “I’m assuming you’re sure Qureshi can be trusted.”

“I’ve worked with him before,” Natasha replies, nodding. “He’s very dependable. He’s also Fury’s godson,” she adds, “so that’s something.”

“Alright.” James shakes the bag of salted pretzel sticks in his left hand, and takes another one. The package crackles and crinkles. “So how do we make them crack down on security?”

“An old acquaintance.” Natasha brings up the photograph in question with a flick of her index finger through the hexagonal icons and the Tony Stark Patented variant of Jazz hands. The man in the photograph is sallow and heavy-set, and older than Natasha remembers him. “Andrei Gavrilovich Ryabov. Ex-KGB. He was head of security for one of the biological warfare programs managed by Department X. Stayed on when it went splinter after the wall fell. Managed to jump ship when I sank it in '07, and moved to London, where he joined the British branch of IGH pharmaceuticals and was given the same position. He’s in charge of scheduling transport and assigning the guardsmen for each route.”

“Front page murder?”

“For the record,” Natasha says, “I really like the way you think. Front page murder,” she confirms. “Something scandalous. IGH has already amassed a number of protesters that haven’t been very peaceful or very quiet of late. We give them something to scrutinize and act up against, and they’ll make enough noise to make the people in charge even more paranoid.”

He nods, and smooths one of his eyebrows with a thumb, thinking. “And we’re approaching Ryabov how?”

“Carefully. I was sent to work under him for an unfortunate number of months in '01 as the undercover portion of one of his security teams, so he’ll know me when he sees me.” And now onto the crux of the deal. The thing that’ll get a reaction, if anything does. The thing (one of the things) that might change everything (the way he looks at her). Natasha says, “Unpleasant man, though, which means he does have a number of vices we could look into using.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, the common ones. Money, power, violent sex, redheads.”

The blank stare of oh-shit-don’t-react takes a while to fade into something truly neutral. James uses that time to look away from her and, apparently, memorize Ryabov’s face. Then his gaze returns and neutrality turns into something like hell frozen over, a clench of his jaw, a twitch of flesh fingers, and eyes like the clouds announcing a storm. But the warmth remains, muted, in the background, waiting for her.

Oh. Oh. Well, then. Stupid of her, to expect the first reaction but not the rest; she forgets sometimes—her Soldier’s still in there somewhere. Not just the idea of him. Not just the memory. The Soldier’s alive in James Barnes, taking residence in the back of his eyes when he’s unguarded, touching with his hands, speaking with his mouth. Natasha masks the shudder running down her body by taking a swig from the half-empty bottle that’s still in her hand.   

“So what you’re saying is we're shit outta luck,” James says, eventually. His voice is tight, but mostly normal. At her silent request for elaboration he explains, “I’m not giving him Steve’s money, I’m a political catastrophe, I probably can’t get it up, and I’d look like flaming chrome-plated shit as a redhead.”

She lets herself smile at that. He can make her laugh whenever he wants. That’s…rare. Even rarer how often he does it at his own expense. She finds that she resents it less and less every time. “Fortunately, I know people who don’t.”

“People.” James frowns.

Natasha leans back in her seat, crosses her legs, and knows the grin she’s grinning is mean. “Really nice, discreet people, who happen to be very good at their jobs.”

 

***

 

The Hangman’s Booze. That’s the name of the pub they’re meeting Natalia’s “people” in. The name’s emblazoned in a graffiti’d wall right by the door outside, and then in metal letters suspended from the ceiling behind the bar by lengths of rope, illuminated so the shadows hit the wall with an echo of the shapes. It makes him chuckle, and that makes Natalia turn her head just enough to look at him from the corner of her eye, with the kind of look that says she expects him to explain the joke at the earliest convenience. Bucky shakes his head. It’s not important; he’d forgotten the British impulse to name watering holes in the most ridiculous ways.

“People” turns out to be another woman, mid-to-late twenties, with curly copper hair that looks like it might have a life of its own and dark skin that shows the shadows of freckles pretty much everywhere. There’s a bunch of what look like advanced engineering textbooks peeking out of her bag when they sidle up to her table, chosen strategically so they can talk in a normal voice and still have the contents of their discussion remain private.

She greets Natalia like a long lost friend, pressing kisses on both her cheeks and half-hugging her while sitting down. Introduces herself as Esti Monroe, when Bucky shakes her hand. He lingers for a minute and waits for the pleasantries to be over before deciding the conversation that follows isn’t something he really wants to have memories of—the knowledge of what’s going to be discussed is more than enough to call up the murderous rage that does nothing but make him wish for a bucket to puke his guts into. He’s always hated being this kind of angry, the kind that burns like acid and makes the world unfocused and surreal, like a mirage. The kind he can do fuck-all about.

Besides, Natalia’ll be more effective if he’s not there to make anyone uncomfortable via male presence.

The barman looks bored out of his skull anyway, so Bucky takes the pretext of getting the ladies drinks by the scruff of the neck and runs with it, grasping at the faded, worn-out familiarity of it.

What downtime they’d had between late ’43 and the spring of ’45, the Commandos had spent in England. Most of the time that’d translated, for Bucky, into pub-crawling with the other Howlies and then closing whatever bar was last, either alone or with Gabe, who’d had a girl back home he was enamoured with enough that anyone else’d felt like betrayal. So Bucky’d stayed and drank, and talked, and sometimes danced, having grown up too conscious of the things that went on in street corners and brothels, for the women especially, to ever feel good about paying for sex. 

Working girl’d slapped him tomato red in another London pub once, for having heard him say that—in somewhat less respectable language—to repel Dugan’s insistent and impertinent questioning as to whether or not the Sergeant was a fairy. Which in and of itself was, firstly, worth breaking the man’s nose for making it sound like an insult, and secondly, nobody’s fucking business but his own, and maybe whoever was presently letting him sick it in them.

(Dugan’d laughed off the broken nose, and hugged him, and he’d paid for the next round. And Bucky’d been around Dugan enough to know that that’d be as close as he’d get to an apology; as close as he’d get to the promise of silence that’d be the only thing between him and being branded dishonourable, shamed out of a job the rest of his life, if he had enough of it left to go back. Enough to know he didn’t need to do anything more).

But the girl’d had no reason to know he’d never have meant it as disrespect, that being able to pay the bills and eat was never anything to be ashamed of in Bucky’s book, so he’d not really been offended past the first shock of the blow. He’d taken her over to a corner to the sound of cheering and obscenities to explain that they’d had a couple things in common, she and him, over the course of Bucky’s life, and would she do him the favour of putting her food and drink on his tab?

Steve’d sit with them some nights, but alcohol did nothing for him, and he refused to be taught to dance anywhere but in private, and intelligent conversation tends to dwindle in any establishment after a few whiskeys and more than a few pints. More often than not he’d take his leave after the second such establishment or so, to go sightseeing; he’d sit somewhere with a view until the lack of light made it impossible to see the pencil strokes on the page, even for him.

There’d been…almost a full sketchbook, choking on the images of half-destroyed buildings, and stone lions, and the arches of bridges. And Carter. Carter all over, a sketch here, flowing lines setting down gesture and tone more than detail, and a fully shaded, breath-taking piece there—the kind you’d think would step off the page any minute and start cursing you till you cried, or cursed back. A couple of Bucky himself, too, but Steve could draw him from memory with his eyes closed, he’d been doing it so long. 

At the bar, he lets himself get talked into sampling an array of new micro-brews, and encourages a rant about politics and the reconstruction that turns swiftly into a discussion of the renewed and sometimes violently expressed sentiment that the English in general really had fucked up a few years past when they chose to secede form the Union. This on the basis, the barman says, that if the borders were still open they’d at least have more people willing to come in out of their own ravaged countries to take the necessary, but ultimately shitty jobs that no one wants in return for better living, and things would be moving along.

Bucky resists the urge to mention that for all intents and purposes things are moving along as fast as they possibly can, because really, it’d fall on deaf ears. The grass is always greener, and all that. He does no more than nod and interject every so often with compliments for the beer, once the rant turns to the continued coverage of the Invasion, which has, apparently, made it into the collective conscious of the world as some sort of glorified epic for the ages.

Which is normal. The precedents for it are extensively documented. The effort to romanticize death and destruction and fantasize about it will only get stronger the more time passes and the tragedy of it turns to memories best left untouched, and memorials and plaques on sidewalks and parks. Every war has the same effect, it’s how people cope with their broken homes and their missing parents, their missing children and siblings, the unforgivable rape of their innocence. They try to make those deaths part of something heroic, something worthy of sacrifice so there’s some sense to it, some purpose at the end of everything.

Add in a healthy dose of aliens and super-powered mostly-human individuals, and you just know Hollywood’s going to be all over it before the end of the next decade.

It makes Bucky nauseous, but there’s nothing to do for that. Far be it from him to shatter the illusions that are often the only shield between most people and a broken psyche; sometimes the lies we tell ourselves are there for nothing more grand than survival. He ends up picking two different pints out of the sampler, Natalia’s mostly on a Hail Mary, and the Gin-and-Tonic for the lady nearly twenty minutes after first leaning on the bar.

“Thanks,” says Esti Monroe, call girl, with a smile. She barely turns to look at him as she says it, face receptive and fully focused on the details Natalia’s been explaining—very much the professional he was told she’d be.

“One last thing,” Natalia’s saying, grabbing her pint absently from his hand. “You may want to get a full check up before Friday.”

Monroe blinks once, twice. If she’s taken aback by the suggestion she doesn’t show it. She leans back in her seat and raises both eyebrows. “Oh, that much of an arsehole?”

“You have no idea.” Natalia returns the gesture. Then she takes a sip of the beer with a sort of caution Bucky supposes is induced by his earlier prank. It makes him chuckle a little, so she decides to be place-appropriate and gives him a two-fingered salute with her free hand. She doesn’t even spare him a glance. Bucky chuckles a little louder. Monroe looks between them once, and doesn’t comment, but she smirks. Natalia says, “I promise it’ll be over before it has a chance to get as bad as it can, but better safe than sorry, yeah?”

“Gotcha. Thanks for the warning.”

“Don’t mention it. I’ll throw in a big tip for you.”

The sound of a bugle blares from the tinny speakers of a vibrating cellphone left on the corner of the table, a blue-and-fuchsia polka dot pattern adorning the plastic case protecting the thin metal within. “Aaand that means I’ve got to run,” says Monroe, gulping down the last of the gin-and-tonic and slinging her bag around her shoulders as she stands, for all intents and purposes another grad student letting off steam after class.

“Say hi to Jolene for me,” Natalia says, standing to hug Monroe good-bye, and Bucky wonders how they met, what set of circumstances brought this seemingly mutually beneficial relationship he’s been watching evidence of. He probably doesn't want to know, considering.

“Will do,” Monroe says. She stops before him, and pats his shoulder once. “You’re cute,” she pronounces. “He’s cute.”

Bucky shrugs and slides into make-belief bashfulness while making an appeasing thank you, thank you gesture with his right hand at the same time. Says, smiling ruefully, “Born this way, ma’am.”

Turns out he still knows how to play a crowd. Monroe laughs out loud, throws her head back. Then she turns to Natalia, smirking impishly, and says, “I like this one.”

“He’s likeable,” Natalia says, lying through her teeth like breathing, necessary and easy. He can practically hear her eyes rolling in their sockets. “It’s why I keep him around.”

__ 

“Nice kid,” Bucky says, some time later, staring into his drink.

“Yeah, I told you she’d be.” Natalia fixes him with a look he can’t quite decipher. Almost puzzled, questioning something. “You’re surprisingly okay with all this,” she says, finally, half a frown between the dark red lines of her eyebrows.

“Blowjobs could pay the rent in the thirties, too, dear,” Bucky replies, dry as he can. Moves his foot out of the way right before she tries to punch a hole through it with her heel.

“Cheers,” Natalia says. She takes a long, deep drink from her beer, and doesn't ask.

Bucky doesn't tell.

 

***

 

It only takes four days from posting Esti’s photographs and contact information on Ryabov’s most frequented forums for her to get the call. She texts Natasha with the meeting place and time, exactly as instructed. Natasha uses an old undocumented alias to book two connecting rooms at the chosen hotel, and tells her to be there two hours in advance.

As always, she’s right on time.

“You ready for this?” Natasha asks, taking in the nervous energy from the other woman, from posture to gestures to breathing rate.

“Yep. In the zone,” Esti says, though she doesn't look it.

Natasha’s willing to take her at her word until proven otherwise, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need to be subjected to one last procedural drill. Natasha asks, “Where are you meeting him?”

“The lobby,” Esti answers, words ready and sure.

“When it’s done, what do you do?”

“Tap the wall three times.” They’d tested it. Made sure the walls were thin enough that even a mediocre knock would be obvious from this side. Not that that’s much of a problem given James’ hearing, but success in anything is about removing the minor risks before they grow into dangers.

“Which wall?”

“East wall,” Esti says, “over the headboard. Same wall with the connecting door.” She points to the door between both rooms, already unlocked from both sides though still closed. “I come back into this room, and close the door behind me, and you go do whatever it is you’re going to do.”

“Good.” Natasha lifts one of the backpacks she’d set on the floor into the room’s little desk. She opens it, shows Esti the contents. “We won’t have a lot of time to chat after you knock, so I’m leaving what I promised you here, with a hat you should wear on the way out and a change of clothes. Leave the ones you’re wearing in this bag—” she points to the black trash bag folded into the mesh pocket on the outside of the pack “—including underwear. I’ll take care of them. And don’t take too long getting out.”

“I won’t.”

“Es? If you need it to stop, at any point, for whatever reason, tap on that wall. I won’t ask, I won’t mind, and the money’s yours either way. It’d be better if it went how we talked about but all we really need is to get him in that room with you, understood?”

“Perfectly.” Esti smiles, and touches her arm, and says, “I’ll be fine.” She brushes a hand through her hair, and leaves the room without looking back.

James comes in about thirty minutes later, in a security guard uniform stolen from the locker rooms that can't help but strain over his chest and shoulders but is acceptable otherwise, all scratchy-looking woollen sweater with uncomfortably stiff epaulets sewed on, and pants with stripes down the sides and poor hemming, his forged photo ID hanging from a plastic retractable carabiner tucked into his belt. He’s pulling at the knot on the tie and sporting the kind of frown that’d make anyone give him a wide berth, squinting at all light like it’s personally offended him. Tension headache, Natasha guesses. He scans the room from the door with a look, and asks, “She good?”

“Yeah, we’re all set,” Natasha says. “Are the cameras taken care of?”

“Obviously,” James grumbles, dropping the hat on the bed and scratching the back of his head. “What d’you think I was doing? Takin’ a nap?”

“Oh, don’t be so delicate,” Natasha snaps. Whatever it is that’s finally bubbling to the surface via the magically re-appearing stick up the ass is a concentrated version the same thing he’s been stewing on for almost a week, and she can do nothing to change it, and she’s not here to fucking baby him through having fucking moods, so, he can either get with the program or fuck off.

She almost says it. It’s a very close call. What stops her is that she hasn’t been any better, that she’s been just as short and impatient and tense, and if they’re going to pull this off there should be at least one goddamned adult present that’s able to divorce work from their temper.

“I’ll be as delicate as I fucking want to,” he says, and she’s almost glad of his surliness, of the fact that it’s him finally breaking down and acting like a jackass and not her, if only so she can match him word for word and be justified in doing so.

She’s about to retort with something scathing when he tilts his head and brings up a hand, his eyes going distant. Few seconds later James goes lax, and sighs. “Argue me to death later,” he says. “Target’s here.”

 

***

 

Monroe bangs on the wall 25 long minutes after entering the room, in what’s presumably her first opportunity to do so naturally. It takes Natalia all of fifteen seconds to open the connecting door, confirm that Monroe’s off the bed and thus away from line of fire, and stick Ryabov with one of her stingers. Bucky comes in behind her just in time to see the man convulse from the shock running through his body, and pass out foaming at the mouth.

Shit electrical tolerance, for someone with his job history.

Natalia moves off to speak to Monroe in hushed tones, so Bucky approaches the limp body on the bed and feels for a pulse that is, regrettably, still there. He drops the backpack with their kit at the foot of the bed and shoves his left arm under the man’s hips. Bucky lifts him over to the sturdy-looking chair in the little facsimile of a living room between the bed and the television across from it—it’s no more than a love seat, a coffee table, and the aforementioned chair—and duct-tapes his forearms and calves to the looping limbs of it.

At the edge of his awareness Monroe leaves the room and closes the door behind her. The next room is consumed by heavy breathing and the shower running, and the rustle of cloth. Natalia steps over to the chair; she sets down a small slim box on the coffee table and holds up the ball-gag. Bucky nods and pushes Ryabov’s head back, digs metal forefinger and thumb into the hinges of his jaw and pushes down, pushes his mouth open.

Natalia shoves the ball between Ryabov’s teeth, and fastens the elastic belt of it around the back of the head as tight as it’ll go. She opens the box and takes out a strip of semitransparent material riddled with green and copper lines. It has the look of a circuit board, about the length of a finger and half as wide.

It’s a voice recognition and transfer device, Natalia’d explained earlier, when they went over the details one last time. It’s supposed to be able to store the resonance patterns of any voice box, and transfer them to another upon contact, like a voice modulator that doesn’t just change the voice of the speaker but lets it match anyone else’s, given it’s heard it before. They need to use it, need to wait to kill Ryabov until he talks, because the encryption on his personal laptop, which holds the real time information they need, is deactivated by voice. 

(It hits him every so often that he does, as a matter of fucking fact, live in the middle of an unbelievably convoluted science fiction plot).

Natalia strips off a clear plastic film from the back of the device and crumples it in one hand, the other reaching over to stick the device onto the base of Ryabov’s throat. They don’t have to wait very long for consciousness to return.

__

Ryabov twitches awake and groans, muffled and rattling and wet. His eyes open slowly, focus lagging and uncertain for the first few minutes as he takes stock of his situation and blinks himself fully awake. It’s a remnant from the shock, Bucky knows, the fog electricity leaves behind like a foot of cotton candy between the inside of your head and the world outside.

Bucky can see every new detail about the current condition register in Ryabov’s deformed, open-mouthed expression as more and more information becomes available to his senses. It’s progressive. Bone-deep ache in every inch of his body: check; mouth obstructed: check; state of undress: check; hands bound, feet bound: check.

Codename Black Widow, sitting casually on the coffee table of his hotel room in a bright green sundress and holding a silenced pistol aimed directly at his forehead: check.

Natalia leans forward, having noticed the flash of recognition herself, and pulls the ball in Ryabov’s mouth from the little tab on curve facing her. The strap of it’s elastic enough that it allows Ryabov to spit it out once it’s been pulled forward an inch. He coughs and slobbers all over himself, and shudders, and then coughs some more, trying to get air into his lungs.

After a minute of situational assessment post-coughing fit, Ryabov says, “It’s been a long time, little spider.”

Little spider. Jesus Motherfucking Christ, the condescension in it is fucking offensive. Like the fucking bastard thinks he has any power over her. All the instincts Bucky has that still remain from his upbringing scream at him to fucking belt the guy into speaking properly to the lady. They’re entirely fucking useless, but they’re right there.

Natalia takes it like it’s nothing, lets it bounce off, easy as anything. Bucky’d almost believe the words had never been spoken, except she answers them with her own. “Andrei Gavrilovich,” She greets,  formal, in the low, southern accent Bucky knows is her natural Russian. It’s almost sultry. “Not quite long enough, I don’t think. I still remember that tragedy you call a face.”

“Oh, don’t be rude, it’s never suited you,” Ryabov rebukes. Then, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Something about that—the tone, the voice, the words, something in it hits her wrong. Her face doesn’t change, her hand doesn’t stiffen around the pistol grip. Nothing changes visibly. It’s so small that for a second all Bucky knows is that there’s something wrong, like a sixth sense, but he can’t tell what it is until he looks for it. He hears it before he sees it: heartbeat speeding up, then the line of her shoulders stiffening slowly, the tension in them a string of sharp steel coiled too tight. 

“I see what you meant when you said he’d be obnoxious,” Bucky says. It cuts through whatever she’s feeling, near imperceptibly to anyone but him, who can hear the shift of muscle and bone and knows to look for it. The line of her back returns to something natural, controlled, shoulders loose. Bucky can’t do much, he’s only here for back-up, but he can do this. I’m here now.

“And you are?” Ryabov frowns, tone and look trying for authoritative and falling all the way into petulant. How much of a narcissistically delusional piece of shit do you have to be, to still sound like that while duct-taped naked to a chair in front of an armed woman known as one of the most dangerous people in the galaxy, whom you happen to have personally wronged?

A lot, probably. Bucky doesn’t want to understand it, doesn’t want to know.

Every filthy sound that comes out of his mouth makes Bucky hate the fact that they have to let this farce of a conversation play out before getting rid of him a little less. It means the moment he realizes he’s dead no matter what he does or says will be all the sweeter to watch. It’s a nasty feeling, but Bucky’s willing and ready to embrace it, this once. Some people need to be put down.

“The lady’s valet,” Bucky says, letting himself smirk at the way genuine amusement flashes at the corner of Natalia’s mouth. It’s gone in an instant, of course, but she knows he’s watching, knows he’s paying attention—it’s there for him to notice.

“Is that right?” Ryabov looks him up and down but there’s no recognition in his eyes. He probably never had the clearance. He turns to Natalia. “I see you still have great taste, little one. Despite your other…errors…in judgement.”

The smile on her face couldn’t be described as anything other than predatory. “Hmm, but I do so love my errors,” Natalia says. “Tell me, Andrei, do you like your job?”

“My job?”

“Gabriel Daalman, which is to say you, has been chief of security at IGH for the past eight years. It’s a cushy job. They pay you well, your men follow your orders to the letter, and they cover up your indiscretions without punishment. You must feel right at home.”

The remark disturbs him, finally, just the way it’s meant to. “I see you’ve done your homework,” Ryabov says, struggling to swallow. Delayed reaction, adrenaline finally kicking in, cold sweat beading on his brow about five minutes too late. How a man with so poor a survival instinct ever made it this far is a mystery.

“Discipline, Andrei. It’s only discipline. That was always the secret to my success.” Natalia leans forward on the coffee table, silenced Glock a long black line from her hand to about mid-calf as she sets it on crossed legs. “Well, that, and I have such big, pretty eyes, you know?”

Bucky snorts. Can’t help himself. It’s her tone more than the words, the way no-one’d be able to tell, right this second, that she’s the most dangerous thing in the room by looking at her or hearing the vapid edge she’s layered onto her voice. The amount of skill in it is breathtaking.

The sound catches Ryabov’s attention. “Something funny, valet?”

“You could say that.” Bucky hums but doesn’t turn to look at him, keeps his focus on the lines of Natalia’s face.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to share,” Ryabov says.

Bucky lets the smirk widen, lets the expression on his face turn dark. “Oh, you’ll get it.”

“Not the talkative kind, is he?” Question, but not directed at him.

“He has some trouble expressing his emotions.” Natalia sighs, effortlessly snide. “It's not his fault.” Doesn’t spare Bucky a look, eyes on the target always. It’d be childish of him to stick out his tongue. She says, “Now, I know that you have absolute control over both transport routes and security protocols. I know that the roster of drivers and guards for those transport routes is information that doesn’t leave your person until it’s outdated and unusable, and that that’s the only reason you’ve been able to keep your product from being hijacked by mobs of angry protestors.” Natalia points at the briefcase on the coffee table, it’s fingerprint lock. It’s only there for show. They removed the laptop and the documents while he was unconscious.

Natalia says, “All I want from you is for you to tell me one thing: do you still use the same Pushkin line as your password?”

“Y-Yes. Yes,” Ryabov stutters, fingers spasming around arms of the chair. “Still the same, but—but it—it’s verbal, it works on voice recognition. Y-you need me. Please. I can help you.”

“No, Andrei, I don’t.” Natalia reaches out and peels the voice recognition device from his throat. “Not anymore.” She stands, and presses the silenced end of the gun to Ryabov’s temple. She says, “Open wide,” and stuffs the ball gag back into his mouth when he does. Then she steps back once, twice, three times, until she’s standing at Bucky’s side. “It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy killing you personally,” she says, “but see, the thing is I really, really like this dress, and blood-spatter is a pain to get off silk this good, so I think I’m going to abstain.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” Ryabov says. Or rather mh, mmph-humph, mmph-humph with the gag in place, but the meaning is clear.

“Oh, no, don’t thank me.” Natalia gestures toward Bucky with the hand not holding the gun. “He's not wearing an expensive dress.”

It takes Bucky a minute. A minute, and then: no, please, don’t. Don’t put this on me. But the thought is stupid. He knows that even as he thinks it. More than stupid it’s incredibly naive. Why would she go to all the trouble of bringing an attack dog, if it wouldn’t be getting any use?

Bucky turns his head to look at her, jaw clenched. He asks, “You’re sure?” because it should be her, because this kill is hers. Because he has no right to take it from her.

Because there’s an itch under his skin like a hunger. It started when the fucking sleazebag started speaking, like something trying to crawl out through his pores, like teeth gnashing on nothing in the pit of his stomach, the back of his skull. And they’re both there, the itch and the gnashing, but it’s far away, like it’s happening to someone else.

He’d thought it was anger. The same anger he’s been trying to get rid of all week, the same one he has no right to, but this is different. There’s no nausea, there’s no shouting in his head, there’s no reflex to crush anything that comes close enough to so much as brush past him. It isn’t anger. It isn’t something he can swallow down.

This is the thing beyond it, beyond hate, beyond loathing, so far past any of them it no longer resembles them. It’s white noise, an eerie sense of calm in his head, where the world’s flimsy, like a projection on a screen of steam in a pitch black room, where all he has to do to break the image is swing a fist through. And he knows it. Knows the feeling. He’s felt it once before.

The records say that it took HYDRA fifteen years to break him. ’45 through ’60. In truth, it’d happened in the space of twenty-three minutes and thirty-seven seconds, sometime after 1953. He’d gotten the timeline of it straightened only later but—

They’d shoved him, barely coherent from the electricity and the drugs and the day’s beating, into a room with a television in it. The image’d still been black and white, but it’d been clear as anything, defined and smooth. And on the television there was Margaret Carter, a few years older and a lot more tired, talking to a reporter about Captain America’s efforts in the war, and Captain America’s death on March 5th, 1945.

They’d told him, of course, that Steve was dead. They’d told him again and again, hoping it would stick and something’d change, that he’d stop fighting and they'd get some progress, but until he’d seen her face and her mouth forming the words years later he hadn’t believed it. They could fake newspapers, they could fake magazines, they could put him under the drugs and the lights for weeks to make him believe anything they wanted—for the few days before whatever it was they’d souped him up with healed the damage—but he’d never believed that. He’d refused to. He’d held on to the knowledge that Steve was out there, still fighting for the world he believed in, the people he loved. That he was building the life he always wanted.

And then they’d shown him that fucking recording.

How could he not believe Carter’s face and Carter’s loneliness and Carter’s tears? Carter, who’d never be corrupted by scum like Zola. Bucky’d been there first, had loved Steve Rogers first, but Carter’d loved him just as much, understood him for who he was outside the uniform in a sea of people who couldn't be bothered to look beyond it. Carter’d been allowed to have him. 

Bucky doesn’t know, doesn’t remember, what he did or what he said, in the moments immediately after. Doesn’t know if there were tears, or wailing, or just emptiness. He remembers the calm, a little later, and the itch and the gnashing far away, unimportant, underneath it. The way everything was suddenly clear.

Remembers his body going slack and the two guards that held him by the armpits dragging him back to his damp, stale, windowless cell, releasing his dead weight on the cold cement, and then making to leave. Business as usual.

And then he remembers grabbing the guard to his right with his remaining arm and yanking. Pulling down as hard and fast as he could so he could switch his grip to the back of the guard’s head, and push that head into the ground again and again and again, until bone cracked like an egg and spilled blood and brains. Remembers kicking the knees out from under the second guard and then crawling over to slam his elbow into his throat to keep him from shouting. Remembers the wet gurgle of it, and the feeling of a thrashing body under him as he pushed his remaining thumb into the man’s eye socket until he reached the soft grey matter beyond.

Remembers, in the few seconds between the squelch of pressurized gelatine deforming in the socket, and the electric discharge from the four or five cattle prods that knocked him out cold, feeling nothing but satisfaction. Adrenaline and exhilaration. Glee.

For the first and only time in his life killing someone’d felt nothing but good.

It hadn’t been another thwarted escape attempt. It hadn’t been self-defence. He’d done it because he could. Because he’d seen the chance and known, in his bones, that whatever he did or didn’t do wouldn’t matter anymore. That there was no life for him beyond that cell. That no one’d come looking. That he’d really, really like it if they killed him right then, but he’d go down fighting, and he’d be proud of every single death his hands could bring about, because if he was going to Hell anyway he might as well do enough for the trip to be worth it.

Madness is the word for it, Bucky supposes. There is absolutely nothing in him thatd like a repeat performance. 

Natalia doesn’t meet his eyes, doesn’t turn to look at him at all. She lowers her gun. “I’m sure,” she says, with something like relief in her voice. “He’s all yours.”

Relief, like a weight lifting off. Fuck. Well, that’s that then.

Bucky flexes his fingers in the gloves. “Any preference as to how he dies?” The question comes out in a voice Bucky doesn’t recognize as his own. It’s modulated, entirely devoid of tone.

“Beyond news-worthy? Not particularly.”

“Stay where you are,” Bucky tells her. Then he turns to Ryabov, in the chair. He asks, in that same eerie voice that doesn’t belong, “You still don’t recognize me, do you? Nod or shake your head.”

Ryabov blinks cold sweat from his eyes, and shakes his head, trembling.

“I see,” Bucky says. He hooks a finger between his own throat and the tie’s knot, and he pulls. It feels like breaking free form a collar, and finally being able to fucking breathe. “Well, that can be remedied. Watch closely, please. I’d hate for the suspense to drag on longer than necessary.”

Bucky steps forward, close enough he could touch the other man if he reached out. He takes the uniform’s sweater off, and the tie off. He drops them onto the coffee table. He untucks the stolen dress shirt, and unbuttons it, but doesn’t take it off, not yet. He takes the glove on his right hand and peels it off. Drops it on the table. Then does the same with the left glove, and pauses for effect.

The target: eyes wide, breathing panicked, heartbeat stuttering and racing, stuttering and racing, struggling to keep on. Unintelligible noises as Bucky finally strips to his undershirt, lets vibranium shine in the late summer sun. The star on his shoulder is white instead of red, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. Ryabov pisses himself.

Bucky’s smile has teeth in it. Too many of them to seem human at all. He gestures to the hot stream of urine running down Ryabov’s leg, uses his left hand. “See? Funny.”

Then he breaks Ryabov’s nose with the heel of his hand. Makes sure bone crunches sideways instead of up and in. A quick death is a mercy. It’s not for men like this.

Those precious few gulps of air before the nerve endings communicate extreme, disabling pain go by nearly unnoticed. Bucky gives him a few seconds to struggle, to try to breathe through the gag and realize that he can’t, to go red all over and then purple above the neck. When his eyes start bulging out in their sockets Bucky tears the gag away and uses the opening of a wide shuddering gasp to shove his human hand into Ryabov’s mouth, grab his tongue.

Pulls on it hard enough to hurt but not enough to damage. Not yet. Not yet. Bucky walks a tight half-circle around the chair, stops when he can see the balding back of Ryabov’s head. He leans down. Speaks in Ryabov’s ear, clear but soft.

“Keep your eyes open, Andrei.” Bucky pulls on Ryabov’s hair hard enough to make his head move back, his neck stretch out, his breath cut out and then gasp like a wounded animal around the hand in his mouth.

“Listen,” Bucky says. “I want you to know that in a couple of seconds I’m going to rip out your tongue, and you won’t be able to move, and you won’t be able to scream, and there is nothing you can do to change it. I want you to know that this is going to happen for no other reason than because I want it to. Because I’m stronger, and I’m in control. I want you to know that she’s going to be the last thing you see, before you choke on your own blood, helpless and alone, and I want you to know that when you’re dead she’s going to walk out of this room and resume her life without sparing a single stray thought for you. Nod if you understand.” Ryabov does nothing but whimper and shake for one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi—Bucky yanks on his hair again, tightens the hold on his tongue. Says, very calmly, “I said nod, Andrei.”

Ryabov struggles against the hold in a motion that would’ve been nodding, frantically, had he been able to do more than twitch. It’s good enough. “Good boy,” Bucky says, and rips out his tongue.

 

***

 

“One news-worthy murder,” James says, voice still soft but edging into unsteady, “ready to go.” He drops the tongue on the floor like so much trash, and steps back from the bleeding corpse strapped to the chair. The room reeks of cooling piss and hot blood, and the acrid scent of fear-sweat.

“It’ll do,” Natasha says. It’s only training that makes her voice come out without breaking. She can see him crumbling in on himself like a physical thing. It’s a reminder that he wasn't made for this. “Go clean the other room, James.”

The look he gives her is empty. Not blank, not guarded, empty. He says, “Sure thing, boss,” and picks up his discarded clothes, and goes.

It’s curious, how context changes everything. How people become versions of themselves they despise to get through the day, to survive. The Soldier's killing had always been methodical and unemotional, and as clean as any given mission allowed. Even merciful, at times. This was none of that. This was rage, and vengeance, and a bone-deep satisfaction at the end of it.

Until now, it had never occurred to Natasha that between the Soldier and the man sagging against the doorjamb looking at his shaking hands like they’ve betrayed him, the latter would be the cruel one.

Natasha sighs, and pulls the dress over her head to spare the fabric. She packs it neatly into one of the ziplock bags from the kit bag at the foot of the bed. Wasn’t kidding earlier, she does like it; it really is a pain to keep clean.

(She’d wanted very badly, in that moment, to be the one to kill him, so she hadn’t. She hadn’t accounted for the fact that James might feel the same, but would gladly take the burden of enjoying it from her, if she asked him to).

Nitrile gloves go on, and Natasha sets about painting the room with blood.

__ 

Blood spilled and the writing on the wall quite literal, Natasha texts one Raoul Figueroa, reporter for The Sun, and keeper of a painstakingly curated and well-followed true crime blog, with the hotel’s name and room number. She attaches a picture of the inside of the room, corpse and all. Then she turns the previously unused burner phone off, snaps the SIM card in half and then into quarters, and slides the battery off.

__

They drive away from the hotel, and somewhere between it and their safehouse, stop to get rid of the evidence that’s left. They choose a dumpster, in an alley nearby, and stuff the contents of the trash bag into a steel bucket Natasha made sure to stash in the car. She soaks the clothes and cleaning rags in half a bottle of the alcohol from the first aid kit, and throws in a match.

There’s something hypnotic about fire, always has been. Clint…Clint used to tease her about repressed pyromania, for the way she’d always opt for fire when there was something to destroy, something that’d be better off doing time as a pile of ash. She’s never denied it. It’s kinship, what she feels for it, a seer’s sort of understanding, where the tragedy in it is clear but warning of it is useless, doesn't stop anything from happening; you use fire but you don’t touch it, you keep it contained, and hungry, and out of reach. From a distance, behind bars, fire gives life. It’s the touching that hurts, the touching that kills, invariably, each and every time. Does fire get lonely?

Flame ignites and licks up and out of the steel, and Natasha figures this is what wolves felt like, looking in from the cold dark into the rings of fire of humanity; the thing most feral beasts have in common is that curiosity’s been outweighing fear for millennia. Domestication is, in the best of cases, little more than a fragile veneer.

“I’m not—I don’t want to do that again,” James says, leaning against the brick wall and staring at the flame. It comes out a whisper. It’s the first time he’s spoken, since he left the room. When he looks at her his expression doesn’t change. He licks his lips, nervous and quick. He says, “I will, if you ask me to, but I don’t want to.”

I will if you ask me to. Seven words and a promise. The offer of a weapon to destroy him, and the trust it takes to pile it into her hands and let her decide whether she’ll use it or not.

Fuck you, Natasha thinks, for putting that on me. There’s no heat to it, doesn't feel nearly as caustic as she guesses it should. It’s stupid of him. She’s not someone anyone should pin moral responsibilities on. Not someone anyone should trust. She could try to make him understand that, make him take the words back, but she gets the feeling that this isn’t something where he’d budge, where he’d change his mind. Sometimes arguing with him is like trying to convince a wall to move by talking at it.

And she had told him to do it. She’d done it by stepping away from the executioner’s role and naming him to take her place, and then she’d told him again, when he asked if she was sure, like by taking the killing upon himself he was taking something from her. Closure, she supposes. She doesn’t miss it, and doesn’t need it, and one man instead of an entire institution wouldn't’ve given it.

“You know, you could’ve just shot him,” Natasha points out. “Or cut his throat without stopping to chat. It would’ve been just as bloody.”

“No.” James shakes his head, the straggling remains of a fierce, all-consuming sort of anger flashing over his features like a glitch, a minor flaw in the code, there and then gone. “I couldn’t have. I know too much.”

“If you say you did that for me, I’m going to stab you somewhere extremely painful.”

“I wouldn’t say it, but you can pick any spot you like, if you really want,” James says, like he’s joking. He isn't. She glares at him and he shakes his head. “It wasn’t for you,” he sighs. Then he grimaces. “Not just for you. Maybe he was just an assignment, and maybe you don’t care, maybe it doesn’t really rank among all the other shit you’ve lived through, and if that’s true I’m really fucking glad of it, because it means it was just one more thing they used to try and keep you down and they fucking couldn’t, but I can’t forget that in 2001, you were seventeen years old, and you couldn’t say no, and that man raped you. Or that I know he was far from the first.”

“James—” Natasha starts to protest, but he cuts her off with a look like the words will kill him if he has to keep them in, so she lets it go, makes herself sit through the rest of it. It’s not much more.

“It doesn’t compare,” he says, so quiet at first that she has to strain to hear it, has to make sure of the sound by staring at the shapes of his mouth. “It can’t compare, but I know what it’s like to be powerless and afraid and in pain, and I wanted him to feel that before I made sure he couldn’t do it to anyone else.”

“You’re an idiot and an asshole, James Barnes,” Natasha says, eventually, when she can get words in at least one language to work again. Comes out in Russian, just for kicks. There’s a symmetry there: they’d rarely spoken anything else to each other, when there was no one else to overhear the words.

It really hadn’t ranked very high. Rape, that is. Not at the time. People are resilient, and children in particular are malleable. They can be made indifferent to anything. If you start exposure to certain behaviours early enough, anything can be acceptable, anything can be normalized. Natalia’d never owned her body, so she’d never had reasons to resent the use of it, never had reason to mourn it.

Sex was always just something that happened. Sure, it could be uncomfortable, even painful sometimes, but that made it no different from anything else. It was—and still is, at times—nothing more than another tool, another weakness to exploit in a world where beauty’s a coveted commodity. Another thing you did with the limbs you were assigned, just like shooting a gun and blocking a punch, and smiling at someone in a way that’d guarantee you’d be there at their side to steal every single one of their secrets when they were ready to spill them.

Understanding’d come later, with agency, like a unlisted side-effect of the growing tumour of conscience. (Part of her still sort of resents it). It’d been there as she counted all the things that were different, all the firsts she didn't remember, the choices she never had. And it’d mattered, like the counting of those things had mattered, only in so far as it served for Natalia-then to realize that the socially coded wrongness of those happenings should not be shared, lest it pollute whatever image she wanted to present, change however she wanted to be treated.

She’d wanted to keep the predator, but not the victim, so she’d locked her up like the proverbial wife in the attic, and moved on, shedding it to become something sharper and leaner. Or at least she’d tried to. The corpse of it’s there, still, a perpetual five year old made of yellowing bones that can’t be buried, rictus grin sickly sweet over the mottled skull of should’ve-been.

James smiles at that, at her, sardonic and fraying at the edges. “And a murderer, too,” he says, following the shift in language. “Don’t forget that.”

As if she could. As if she, of all people, has any right to deem him lesser for that.

“I’m not going to thank you,” Natasha says, leaning into his side, watching yellow-orange-red flames dancing in the deep blue dark.

“That’s okay,” James says, shrugging with the shoulder that’s not supporting her. He brings that hand to brush over her hair, and presses a kiss into the crown of her head after it. He says, “Wasn’t looking for thanks.”

Later, with the flames sputtering and running out of fuel and the evidence little more than ash and smoke at the bottom of the bucket, he prompts, “Trouble expressing his emotions, huh?”

“Was I lying?” Natasha replies, making an expansive gesture with hands and arms.

“I don't know, what does this express?” He flips her the bird, both in shining metal and pale flesh, and Natasha can do nothing in the face of that but laugh. 

“Come on.” She pushes off the wall, brushes invisible dust from the back of her skirt, and extends a hand. “Lets go mope somewhere people won’t be accidentally subjected to your idiocy.”

“Yes, dear,” James says, in English, in the same voice he’s always used, the same dry, put-upon tone he’s always spoken in to tease her, with the same look in his eyes that means he’s not serious at all, that means he wants to smile. Like the past day didn’t happen, like the damage done to her isn’t something that matters. She wants, desperately, to kiss him.

Natasha drops her hand and rolls her eyes, and starts walking away instead.

Chapter Text

The rest of the drive goes by in a sequence of interrupted silences not long enough to warrant being labeled conversations. The things they speak of in the interruptions are banal and of no consequence, except for how they help distract from the rest of the day, from the blood spilled. For how it brings them closer.

(It’s the banal kind of talk that reveals the core of a person. Shows the truth of their beliefs, and their desires, and what they’re willing to compromise of the former to get the latter. People guard their answers less, because they believe the risk in answering is null).

After a half hour of channel surfing, James finally gives it a rest. Stops at the sound of a soft crooning voice on a surreal soundscape, a heavy beat. He makes a sound, low, difficult to distinguish from the music, and he’s looking out the window. She can’t get a read on it—on him. It might be a laugh.

“What?” Natasha asks.

“I used to think jazz was the shit,” James says. It’s not quite an explanation, but he turns back to her. The quiet misery from earlier hasn’t left him, but it’s no longer the only thing evident in the tilt of his head, the look on his face. There’s a nostalgic sort of amusement mingling with it, rallying to dispel it. It’s impressive, the effort he’s making to keep it at bay.

It’s an opening, what he’s giving her by saying that. Natasha takes it. “You like R&B?”

“What’s not to like?” James shrugs. “Sounds like dancing feels.”

Well. That’s a whole other realm of interesting and new. “You’ll have take me sometime,” Natasha makes herself say, eyes on the road, before she stops to think it through and inevitably backs out.

James raises his eyebrows. “Dancing?” Out of the corner of her eye the look on his face is more than a little startled. Not quite aghast, but close enough.

Or not. She doesn’t know why she expected any different. It doesn't matter. “If you want,” Natasha says. Then she twists it into something harmless; she smirks, and adds, “I mean, I have to see the Winter Soldier do the robot at least once in my life.”

That makes him snicker. Snicker, and then shift the shape of his mouth into another one of those soft crooked smiles that make the crow’s feet on his temples stand out. “I’ll take you,” he says, seeing through her like she’s that transparent, calling bullshit on—on everything. “You might have to teach me a few things, though. I’m pretty sure the lindy hop’s not genre appropriate.”

“No,” Natasha says, mouth dry. “Not quite.”

__

The safehouse is one of hers. For all that she trusts Nick, operationally speaking, she’d rather avoid the surveillance he’s sure to have put in any room he either owns or has access to. Her own surveillance is no less exhaustive, but whatever it records will not leave her hands, will not be seen by thirds. The apartment is cramped, and old, and the finish on everything in it is cheap, but it’s clean. The shower’s even got a good forty minutes of hot water on a normal day.

James only takes fifteen, but the door stays half-way closed for almost thirty. Only steam and light come out from the crack between door and jamb. Steam, and the rhythmic clicking of something metallic. Not his arm, nor the hand attached. The sounds vibranium makes against a solid surface are distinctive, disproportionately quiet to the force of impact—a side-effect of its shock-absorbent properties.

Sound is a wave, and a wave is a movement in space caused by vibrations. Reduce the vibrations, and you reduce the frequency of the wave, which reduces the pitch. So it’s not the arm, and it’s not the tap closing or opening, and it’s a lot sharper, and louder, than water hitting the chromed lip of the drain. Natasha knows the sound, but can’t place it, like a word on the tip of her tongue that refuses to form. She knocks on the door, gives him ten seconds of grace before she pushes it open the rest of the way.

“Hey,” James says, fixing her with a questioning sidelong look as he clips his toenails from the closed lid of the toilet. Click-click-click, rounding edges and shaping them, one after the other. It’s so mundane it’s almost surreal to watch.

Almost, until it occurs to her that it must be something of a pain in the ass. If the enhancements done on him match those Steve had, and they’ve proven to be nearly identical so far, his metabolism is about four times faster than that of the average human man. Which means he probably does this a couple times a week, give or take.

“Give or take,” James confirms, when she says it out loud just to say something. “It’s annoying as fuck in the Summer. Can’t go more than about four hours without shaving if I want my face clean. Itches all the fucking time.”

As if on cue, Natasha notes that he has, as a matter of fact, just shaved. “You mean the homeless stubble’s not a stylistic choice? I’m disappointed.”

“Frankly, I leave it there as an excuse to practice self-restraint and not think about slitting my own throat every other morning.” James finishes the last toenail and stands, grabs for the sweatpants at the top of his duffle bag. He pulls them on under the towel slung around his hips.

“You know what’s hilarious about that?” Natasha says dryly, watching him yank the towel from his waistband and reach back into the bag. “I think you’re joking, but I can’t actually be sure, can I?”

“I’m clever like that,” James replies, pulling a soft-looking black t-shirt over his head. He opens the toilet lid and lifts the bathroom rug to shake the cut bits of his toenails into the bowl. Grabs his duffle and makes to leave, but Natasha doesn’t move from the threshold, doesn’t let him pass.

He rolls his eyes and drops the bag, lets the tension on his shoulders drop with it. Slowly, he relaxes against the other side of the wall, the doorjamb between them. Mirrors her posture, standing close enough that she can smell the mint from his toothpaste on his breath. Asks, gruff but good humoured, “What now?”

Natasha shakes her head, brings a hand up to untangle the edge of his sleeve from where it’s caught on the rills of his arm, and smooths it down. “Better?”

“Not really,” James sighs. Doesn’t ask her to elaborate, to clarify, doesn’t need to. There’s only one thing they’ve been talking about, beneath all the other words thrown around. He adds, “I will be,” and then he frowns and meets her eyes. “You?”

“I’m always fine,” Natasha says. Finds herself tracing up the ball of his shoulder and down over the broken stitching on the collar of his shirt, the little trail of holes in it, when she looks down at her hand.

“Yeah.” James straightens, stiffens. It’s like a wall coming down. The smile-like thing on his face is self-effacing and bitter. “Yeah, of course you are,” he says, and tries to move around her again, past her.

“Hey.” Natasha stops him, the hand on his collar moving up and around to the side of his neck. That a single hand is enough to keep him still, keep him where she wants him, is something she’ll have to come back to, think about, but not now. “I will be,” she concedes. “Eventually.” Then she drops her hand to grab onto his wrist and steps back. “Come to bed.”

Gets a shake of the head, and body language that turns into something that isn’t quite shy, but doesn’t know, doesn’t remember how to be anything else. “No, I—”

James.” It’s her tone for Don’t be stupid, Barnes, and he knows that. Shuts his mouth. Natasha says, “Come to bed, keep me warm, and don’t argue.”

“Okay.” James brushes a hand up his nape and over the top of his head and down his face. He bites his lip, takes her hand. “Yeah, okay.”

__

On the bed James curls close, the curve of his body radiating heat opposite hers. He’s looking at her, face smooth and clean of worry, naked as anything as the day drains away and sleep creeps in. He’s been looking at her all day. It feels like he’s been looking at her for the last couple of decades.

Part of Natasha wants to shrink away from it, wants to make it stop. The rest wants to get closer, wants to hide in the cocoon of his arms where he can’t see her but she can have him, can have that much and only that much, because she already has. Because it wouldn’t mean giving anything new, surrendering a boundary that wasn’t freely given a long time ago. 

The thing is—the thing is that over time Natasha’s learned that the Soldier was always James Barnes; that despite that James Barnes is not always the Soldier. And maybe what that means is that the one she likes, the one she’ll admit to herself (if not anyone else) that she wants, and wants to be around, isn’t, after all, the weapon stuck in the shape of a man.

Instead it’s the tired, traumatized guy that still finds it in himself to want to make her laugh, that’ll slide into bed with her because she asks him to and doesn’t think anything of it, doesn’t take it as a come on, doesn’t twist it into something she never meant it to be. The thing is—the thing is—even with that difference outlined and present she still can’t have him. Never mind that there’s even less of a chance that he would, without coercion, without her meddling, want her back.

And oh, how she could meddle. It would be so easy. So simple, to just be someone else for a few hours, someone that’s able and willing to slide in close and kiss him, and tell him it’s nothing, doesn’t have to mean anything, just a favour, just because she’s lonely, just because it’ll feel good. She could make him feel so good in return of a few hours of his body, a few hours of his time. 

Five seconds of that soft, gorgeous mouth, five seconds to taste him. That’s all she’d need. Five seconds and a few words to soothe him, convince him. Five seconds to ruin everything. To do the kind of damage she promised herself she was done with.

The question is, does she want it so much that she’d be willing to sacrifice whatever understanding they’ve achieved just to get it?

“I can hear you thinking,” James says, and all Natasha has the space to think is God, I fucking hope not, before he follows it up with, “Do us both a favour and go the fuck to sleep,” smirk and all over the bone dry voice.

Oh, the little shit.

And that’s her answer, right there, and the answer is: no. No, it’s not enough. Nothing could ever be enough to warrant losing this.

“Turn over,” Natasha says. The look he gives her is curious, but he doesn’t ask, he takes it on trust. (Idiot). He rolls onto his back and then keeps rolling, until it’s the nape of his neck that’s level with her head on the pillow instead of his face.

Natasha moves to press against his back, and curls an arm around his waist. James doesn’t tense, doesn’t move away—he probably heard it coming, it’s most likely he doesn’t mind. The smell of him is familiar and clean, and the skin of his stomach gives beneath the soft layer of the t-shirt, under the weight of her hand. She sleeps.

__

The sun wakes her. The sun and the smell of strong coffee brewing. It’s five-thirty in the fucking morning, and while Natasha has had enough time to herself to know that if work didn’t have the habit of happening mostly at night she’d be the kind of person to rise early, it is also five-thirty in the fucking morning.

And the rest of the bed is empty. Of course it is.

Natasha, in the interest of good sleep hygiene, skips what will inevitably be a failure to doze for another couple of hours and swings her legs over the edge of the bed. Pushes a hand through the field of horrible-no-good-argh tangles in her hair until they’re mostly undone and what’s left of them needs to be attacked via brush, possibly a lot of conditioner.

She can hear James puttering about in the kitchen, can hear the way he opens and closes cabinets looking for something, probably mugs; can hear every one of his steps. Which means he’s consciously compensating for his permanent stealth-feet, which means he knows she’s awake. It’s funny how you get used to privacy once you’ve been allowed it for a while; funny how you resent the lack of it when you have to share space with someone so attuned to everything moving around them—and for good goddamned reasons—that every move you make, however quietly, is immediately picked up on and pulled apart for threat analysis.

This despite the fact that Natasha shared sleeping arrangements, showers, dinning room, and various training rooms with up to fifty-three other girls possessed of no compunction about dispatching the competition by any means necessary, at all times, until the age of fourteen.

It’s unfortunate. Made even worse because she can’t exactly blame him for the super-senses, let alone anything else.

She finds him leaning on the stub of a bar that grows from the edge of the little kitchenette, reading an honest-to-god physical newspaper gotten from god-knows-where and intermittently worrying the left side of his neck. He does that often. Does it absently, which isn’t like him. The new prosthetic may hurt less, overall, may be lighter, but Natasha knows just from watching him move that it’s still not ideal, that it still hurts. Bipedal anatomical structures are not made to carry heavy asymmetrical weight, enhancement notwithstanding.

There’s also a loaf of fresh bread and a small tub of butter on the bar beside him, which means he actually left the house at some point this morning, before she woke up. In his pyjamas (why). He’s alternating between munching on a buttered slice and drinking from his coffee cup as he reads, expertly folding the paper in horizontal halves and then verticals as necessary, and discarding read pages on an orderly backwards pile as he goes.

“You’re old,” is what Natasha says, when he finally turns to acknowledge her.

“And yet I have no hip problems to speak of,” James says, disgustingly gleeful—by which she means both disgusting and full of glee, separately, yet all at once—around a mouthful of bread. “Which I’ve learned means I’m really, really lucky and extremely liable to be a hit with lonely ladies in retirement homes. How are you this morning?”

Yep, it still hurts like fuck when she bites a chunk right out of her cheek. Tastes exactly as it should, like a hot rush of tangy rust down her throat.

Diagnostic: most likely not dreaming, possibly not hallucinating an oddly cheerful episode of the Twilight Zone. First assessment: absolutely some kind of foul play involved. Possibility A: secretly replaced by aliens—sounds not-at-all outlandish, is in fact completely fucking possible, given recent developments. Possibility B: someone sneaked into the safehouse in the night and gave the Winter Soldier a brain transplant. More complicated, when accounting for complexity of procedure and the redundancies of her surveillance system. Still completely fucking possible. Possibility C—

Natasha leans across from him on the little bar, and steals the last of his toast right out from the buttery fingers of his bent right hand. Raises her eyebrows. “Sleep well?” she asks.

James snorts, and drags a hand down his face, and when he looks at her next it’s like flipping a page back to a known paragraph, underlined, highlighted, well loved. Back to his usual sardonic self, if a little lighter. “Like a baby,” he admits, sounding…well, sounding outright giddy, struck dumb about it.  “I may have to hire you. What’s the going rate for human body pillow?”

Absolutely fucking free, Natasha doesn’t say. Paid it in full a while back, Natasha doesn’t say. She pats his left hand, which he’s lain flat over the paper, and fixes her expression into the facial equivalent of three inches of melted, powdered sugar over coiled barbed wire. Blinks a lot. She says, “Not feasible with your lack of income, sweetie.”

“Damn.” He slumps, straight-faced, cheek falling on a closed fist. “Do you take favours?”

Oh, hell. If this is what a good night’s sleep does to him, she needs to find a way to get him drunk, no holds barred, any means possible, stat. She’ll settle for tipsy, film the results. Imagine growing up with this guy right here, living with him, being allowed to—Steve Rogers gets more and more relatable by the minute. Natasha lets herself smirk wide, asks, “Which kind?”

“Any kind,” James promises solemnly, taking her face, gently, in both his hands. “Any kind you want.”

Natasha rolls her eyes, snickers, refuses to dignify that with a response. She breaks his hold on her head by hitting his wrists with her own in mirrored downward arcs, down and in, up and out—his arms go limp immediately, let her go, hit the bar. She says, “I’m going to shower.”

Halfway through the negligible distance between the kitchenette and the bathroom door, James calls, “You need the towel warmed?”

“Shut up, James.”

“Yes, dear.”

God-fucking-damn-it, the man keeps up.

__

He’s still digging into his neck when she comes out, but the eerie cheerfulness has degenerated back into a placid neutrality, only a few steps removed from the natural fuck-this-fuck-that-fuck-everything that’s about eighty percent of his mood at any one time. It’s a relief. Natasha doesn’t quite know what she’d do, if she got handed a full-on twenty-four hour dose of gleeful James Barnes. He tends to play dirty, like that.

So does she, always, but—well, so does she. It’s a volatile mixture, hard to predict. Not something anyone responsible would want to work with.

“Are you looking to break your own neck?” Natasha asks, brushing wet hair over the slope of her shoulder. “Because I can help with that, if you want.”

“Would you? That’d be really nice.” He jokes, but as it happens she is actually more or less qualified to do something about it.

“Come on,” Natasha says, motioning for him to turn around with the looping motion of her index finger. “I want to try something.”

James frowns, then sighs, then says, “Yeah, okay.” And turns sideways on the under stuffed two-person couch so she’ll have room to sit on the arm of it, facing his back.

There’s a circle of yellowing bruises peaking out of the collar of his shirt when she gets close enough to touch him, to see. She sets her hands, lightly, on his shoulders. Leaves them there for a long minute, waiting for the tension of first touch to seep back out.

Nothing seems off, but Natasha knows, perhaps better than anyone, the body’s continued reticence to strange hands and strange touch after long periods of starvation. The last thing she needs is to finally manage to startle him into strangling her.  “Take this off,” she says, pulling at the fraying collar of the shirt just enough to indicate her meaning. James pulls it off without comment.

With the shirt out of the way Natasha can see the full pattern of the finger sized dots. Can see the trail of them marking the strip of skin right after metal shifts into bone and muscle, starting at the hollow bellow his collarbone and arcing back over the trapezius to end bellow cusp of the scapula, just above what should be the full reach of his opposite arm. A map of pain, or at least the places of it he could reach himself. It’s as good a place as any to start.

Very slowly, she drags her left hand over that line. The motion is met with an exhale and nothing else, so Natasha does it again, and again, softly, letting him get used to the feeling. Lets her hands skim over the tender edge of the seam of his shoulder, the gnarled layers of scarring there. Telegraphs the incremental movement of the touch from the edge of the scar to his spine, feeling for the shift between synthetic and organic tissue under the skin, and the knotted muscle surrounding it.

She knows the moment she finds it, if not exactly how she expected she would. James shudders, and makes a choked-off sound, like it's been torn out of him—best described, Natasha would say, as a whimper. He pushes back into her hands and breaks out in goosebumps, the back of his neck flushing pink like the beginning of a sunburn he’ll never get again.

(Oh). So he likes that. For a severely understated definition of like.  She can work with that.

“Is that okay?” Natasha asks anyway, hands unmoving, still pressed against the warming skin stretched over the wrought ruin years of abuse have made of his back.

Answering takes him a minute. James breathes, and swallows hard. He says, “It’s—uh, it’s good, yeah.” Looks over his shoulder at her, and explains, “Some of the places where the physical connections go live get a little oversensitive when things go haywire,” like he needs to apologize for anything. 

“That didn't look like a little.” She doesn’t really want to keep the smile out of her voice, so she doesn’t. It startles him into a disconcerted laugh, already halfway through to embarrassed. 

“Yeah, maybe not,” James says. “Didn't hurt, though. I—can you—can you keep going?”

“I’ll stop when you tell me to stop.” Natasha squeezes his right shoulder, untouched up to that point, for emphasis. “It’s easier if you breathe, though.”

__

It’s a long time before he stops her, the strip of skin from the seam of his shoulder to the line of his spine rubbed red against the raised, pale scar, and hot to the touch. Natasha’s kind of grateful when he does. Her fingers started going numb about five minutes ago.

Not that she wouldn’t’ve kept going otherwise. Not when every pass of the heel of her hand over the muscle underneath made him sag and then press back into the touch so subtly it couldn’t’ve been conscious. When it made him breathe easy, like nothing hurt. 

“You’re welcome by the way,” Natasha says, still sitting behind him, still running finger pads over the base of his head, down the nape of his neck, skimming the slope of his shoulder, but lightly now, letting it all wind down. She wasn’t going to say anything. She wasn’t. She was just going to store the image of the outline of his cock through his sweatpants together with the little sounds he made for personal use at a later date, and leave it at that. Despite popular belief—Tony—Natasha does acknowledge the existence of personal boundaries. She is, as a matter of fact, perfectly able to respect them so long as it suits her to do so. 

But James is smart enough to know that if it’s there she’s noticed, and when he’s a little less pleasure-drunk he’s going to stumble on that. And it’s going to be stumbling and not anything else, because he’s decent to the core and sometimes that makes him a little stupid and a lot ridiculous; he’d never want her to think he was asking for anything more than pain-relief, anything more than what she offered. Would never want her to think he was taking advantage. And while Natasha can’t be certain that that fundamental decency will actually make anything awkward, the potential for it is there, clear as day, and she’d rather avoid it.

There’s only one sure-fire way of doing that without compromising anything. Without changing anything. So when he raises his head and questions the statement with an abstract, absentminded hmm? Natasha pats the outside of his thigh and says, deadpan as she’s able, “I think it’s safe to say I’ve unlocked the secret to getting it up again.”

It works. The second the words register through the fog his eyes go wide, and the faint flush on his cheeks that’s been there since Natasha got started goes bright cherry red—he bursts into belly-aching, limb-shaking laughter. The kind that’s an answer to both hilarity and embarrassment, that makes him bend over in his seat as he shakes with it to stick his in his hands, make himself smaller, hide away the reaction she’s sure had gone unnoticed until she brought it up. It doesn’t last.

When the laughter finally subsides and he comes up for air James says, “Oh, Jesus Christ, you are trying to kill me.”

“I’m fairly certain you can’t actually die of embarrassment,” Natasha says, titling her head as if considering it seriously. “Or kill with it. I mean, I’d know if it were otherwise, it’d be a fun way to get rid of a specific strain of people.”

James snorts at that, unbends to lean back properly against the back of the couch, giving up on both embarrassment and modesty. “Fuck,” he murmurs, dragging both hands down his face. He turns to look at her, a roll of his head over the edge of the couch, smile wry on his mouth. Says, “Thank you,” then rolls his eyes and adds, “Not for that,” huffy, before she can tease him again. He raises his left hand and tucks a strand of damp hair away from her face, into the space behind her ear with the rest of it.  “Just…thanks.”

Natasha smiles back at that, small and true. “I’m glad something helps,” she tells him. And then, because she can, because he’s one of two, maybe three people in the world Natasha might be able to do this with and not have it mean anything other than what it is, she grabs his hand before it falls back and presses a kiss to the hard contours of its palm. Doesn’t wait for a reaction, gets up and walks over to the coffee pot instead. Pours herself a cup. Over her shoulder, she says, “Either take a shower or throw some actual clothes on. We’ve got places to be.”

 

***

 

The ghost of her hands kneading muscle into butter and his head into a hot molten glow haunts him the rest of the morning. It’s as though he can feel them, still, in little tremors, electrical misfires going off under the skin, burning into his spine.

It felt good. Only good. Natalia put her hands on him and Bucky didn't flinch, didn't feel nauseous from the sudden urge to flee upending the world for a long second, like some kind of vertigo. Nothing’s felt…untainted…like that in…well. Since the beginning of 1943, maybe. Before Austria, definitely.

Under the shower head after, still unsteady from it, his legs like jelly, his head’d been empty. No shouting, no running monologue, no perpetual imminent sense of danger. Absolute bliss. A single instance of utter stillness, of peace, stretched on and on like taffy to wrap around his insides and keep him warm.

And now he has a problem, and the problem is: he wants more of it. To feel both empty and full, and have those things not rage against each other, not threaten to split him at the seams. He’s going to have to keep wanting.

She offered and he let her, but Bucky can’t ask. Can’t get himself to ask. What would he say? The noise in my head stops when you put your hands on me? Fuck, she was just trying to get him back on track so he wouldn't devolve into a mass of aches mid-operation. Doing maintenance, as it were. He’s already enough of a fucking burden as is.

At the very least her sense of humour is a balm. That she has a sense of humour is a balm. Not something he would’ve expected. And Bucky doesn’t mind being the butt of the joke so long as it makes someone laugh, not really. Not now. There’s the show of it; the embarrassment that’s real, that he can’t help, and then the mockery of outrage that’s both flimsy as fuck and completely expected, that she sees right through, but that’s just playing at being a person. Doesn’t mean much.

He thinks he might’ve once. Might’ve cared, might’ve minded. But all pride does is riddle you with hairline fractures that get deeper and wider the longer it’s catered to. It’s a beacon. A call for others to stomp on you, to break you faster, pull you apart along the fault lines you put there yourself, year after year. Of all the things he’s missing, he doesn’t think he wants that one back.

__

The place they need to be, apparently, is a renovated warehouse turned office-and-training space in the south, a few miles into Croydon. A tall, wiry man opens the garage door mere moments after Natalia knocks, in well-fitted cargo pants and a dark polo shirt with a company logo over the left breast.

Everything about George Qureshi screams security contractor, from the military bearing to the dress code, to the close-cropped beard that’s only starting to grey over the fine-boned features of a swarthy face. 

“Natasha,” Qureshi greets, smile genuine and wide. “Nick mentioned you might come by. It’s wonderful to see you.”

“And you, Geordie,” Natalia replies, shaking his hand. “How are things?”

“Well, you’re here.” Qureshi’s smile is wry, his gaze holding only cold assessment as it moves first over Natalia, and then past her to lock on him. There’s no surprise in it, as though he sees what he expects. Bucky wonders what Fury told him, and how much. Qureshi moves aside and gestures to the wide-open space behind the door. He says, “I’m betting they’re about to get interesting. Please, come on in.”