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Eye of the Storm

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Complacency is dangerous. It’s stagnating water. Black ice.

The calm before the storm.

Natasha barely makes it three days on a yacht in the South Pacific before she sells it, dyes her hair, and joins the first storm-chasing crew she finds.

It’s a different type of freedom in Tornado Alley, she finds. She trades in her disguises for weather-pun-related graphic tees and jeans, her network of spies for an array of radar maps, and her web of safehouses for a different parking lot every night, stretched across the back seat of a different car.

Some days, she puts on her sunglasses and re-checks for trackers and bugs while she waits for the weather to turn stormy, Liho sleeping on the hood. Other days, like today, she drives across three state lines to follow what meteorologists are calling the mother of all super cells.

Three sharp raps on her passenger side window from metal fingers put an end to that.

Complacency.

“Hey,” says Bucky, sheepishly, when she’s rolled down the window.

“Hey yourself,” she says, and unlocks the doors.

He’s barely in the passenger seat before Liho abandons her sandwich wrapper to headbutt Bucky into rubbing his ears. Bucky smiles hesitantly down at him. “Heard you were driving around after tornados. Wanted to see for myself.”

“Could’ve seen from your spaceship,” says Natasha, flicking crumbs off her I SAY HI WITH A HEAT WAVE t-shirt. “Could’ve gotten in my car without a manila folder under your jacket.”

 “I know,” says Bucky, looking at her frankly, his fingers buried in Liho’s thick fur. “But I wanted your perspective.”

Natasha sighs. “Barnes, you know I don’t work for S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore. I walked out of that world, and I’m not planning on going back.”

“It has to do with Chaos,” he says.

Natasha unlatches the door, crossing the parking lot to dispose of her trash. She stretches too, in the afternoon sun. Has she been away too long? The wind’s changing, and her car’s still in park.

She straps herself back into the driver’s seat. Bucky’s already fanned out the files on the dashboard, in chronological order, if nothing else. It’s a series of disappearances, too clean to be coincidental, and with no traces except for a calling card--a single exotic butterfly wing--pinned prominently so as not to be missed.

“What makes you think it’s not a copycat?” she murmurs, trying to link the cases together, “And why butterfly wings, of all things?”

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” says Bucky.

Natasha raises her eyebrows. “You think they’d really be that on-the-nose?”

Bucky shrugs. “Last time, they sent a raven to whisper in your ear, so, yeah.”

She rereads the file.

---

“You just wanted my perspective, huh?” says Natasha, looking down at the driver’s license and ring.

“Doesn’t hurt to be prepared,” says Bucky, without an ounce of embarrassment.

---

She’s used to working with Bucky, as comfortable as the image inducer she practically wears as a second skin these days, and storm chasers are a brand of loners all their own, despite their tendencies to congregate before a storm. Too many hours spent alone in a car, maybe, thinking about the next fix.

“Should’ve known,” is all Owen has to say about it, when Bucky makes his round of glad-hands. “Barometer might’ve just dropped another five, seven millibars.”

“Might make bunking a bit harder, though,” adds Chris, and Natasha remembers that, oh, right. Bucky might not fit so well in the back seat of her car.

The barometer keeps falling, but the radar maps stay stubbornly clear, so they scatter for the night. It’s not awkward, right up until they climb into the same bed together, and Natasha rolls towards Bucky out of reflex, only to find him curled up on the very edge of the bed.

Huh, okay, she thinks, and can’t sleep for the lack of seat belt buckles digging in her spine.

---

The next day is much of the same.

“C’mon,” says Chris, dragging his hands through sweat-soaked hair before stabbing the F5 button again, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.”

“You wanna calm down, buddy?” says Bucky, his face turned towards the sky. There’s not a single cloud in the sky, not a single bird, hunkered down for the oncoming storm.

“What’d you say?” says Chris through gritted teeth, “Calm down? Calm down when I’ve got a thousand dollars a day riding on my car and my gear? Buddy, this storm doesn’t appear, some of us are in it deep.”

Natasha drags Bucky away with an arm hooked around his elbow and an excuse. “You think our butterfly guy might be one of the crew?”

Bucky cocks his head. “You’re the one who’s been working with them for months. Anyone we should keep an eye out for?”

“No one...glowy enough,” she says, gesturing to her eyes.

She shows him the ropes, at least, what to look for on the NOAA’s convection outlook and radar maps, how to take apart and clean her camera and lenses.

“Kinda like field cleaning a rifle,” says Bucky, wiping down her wide-angle lens.

“Kinda like shooting one too,” says Natasha.

That night, when Bucky rolls towards the edge of the bed again, Natasha gives up and sleeps in the Comfort Inn parking lot.

---

Thankfully, the radar lights up red and yellow the next morning. They’re already gunning southwest when the siren wails into life. Rain hammers the roof and the sky glows pea green. The country road comes to a sudden T-stop. Natasha pulls off the road.

“The tornado’s going to start right here?” says Bucky.

Natasha rolls down her window. A blast of petrichor and ozone hits her face, as well as the stinging rain.

“Trouble in paradise already?” says Chris, pulling up next to them.

“I need your radar,” she says.

Chris starts to puff his chest, but then a spout starts descending from the roiling, black clouds. He turns and peels off to the left, churning mud behind him as he goes. Natasha slams on her own gas pedal chasing him, arm soaking through instantly. From this far, the tornado looks motionless, but as the train chugging noise growing louder tells her, it’s anything but.

“Grab my camera,” she says, jerking her chin towards the back seat. There’s a pitiful mew from inside Liho’s cat carrier, and then Bucky reemerges with her camera bag, screwing the zoom lens on with deft fingers.

He shouts something that’s lost in the sudden roar. A wall of rain and darkness hits them, and then their front bumper starts lifting off the ground. Through the flashes of green lightning, she catches a glimpse of Bucky twisted in his seat, one hand nearly shredding the seatback, the other wrapped around a signpost, the metal pole bending as the car is sucked upward--

Natasha’s teeth click as she’s dumped unceremoniously to earth. The darkness resolves into a receding tornado spout, leaving behind a wide swath of debris and dirt. Bucky’s looking shaken and wet, but very much in one piece.

“You’re bleeding,” she shouts over the ringing in her ears, brushing a thumb across a trail red running down his cheek.

He catches her hand with his, and suddenly they’re kissing, hot mouths and tongues sliding over each other, clutching at cold, wet cotton, until--

Until Liho’s pitiful yowling breaks them apart. Natasha huffs and hurriedly unlocks the carrier, and he streaks in a wet blur under the seat to probably hide for the rest of the day.

“Please tell me you saw what I did,” says Bucky, licking his already shiny lip. There’s a roar of something other than adrenaline coursing through her veins, but she knows as well as he does that there’s a time and a place.

Natasha gives him a rueful smile. “Yeah, guess like we’re still chasing that storm, huh?”

---

Complacency is dangerous. It’s stagnating water. Black ice.

The calm before the storm.

Natasha had let herself forget the world, where aliens played baseball and gods lived in Oklahoma. Where a single flap from a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could start a tornado in Texas big enough to unearth something that glows like the Prophet’s eyes.

“So does this mean you’re back on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s payroll?”

Natasha smiles and steps on the gas pedal.

No reason to stand still.