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Footprints in Mysterious Fire

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If one would have asked Natasha Romanoff about Steve Rogers after the Battle of Manhattan, she would have assessed him as a good leader, although possibly a little too idealistic for his own good, even with the whole man-out-of-time thing going on. Five months later she might have added that he was not the best sparring partner, because it was proving difficult to train him not to pull his punches with her. So more often she sparred with Clint or Maria, neither of whom had any qualms about kicking her in the head.

Or on the wrist, as had happened early that morning. Clint apologized but she gave him a look and he stopped in the middle of his sentence, shrugged, and said, "You ought to get that looked at."

Natasha rolled her eyes, but didn't protest when he picked up his towel and headed for the locker room. She looked at her wrist, which was starting to swell, and decided that yeah, she could stand to make sure it wasn't broken.

By the time she'd gotten down to the infirmary, she'd decided it definitely wasn't broken; the pain had gone down from sharp to manageable. She let the doctor on call poke at it anyway--if anyone asked later then yes, of course she'd been to medical--and refused his prescription for painkillers. She did let him wrap it, though, and took an extra roll of tape.

Steve came into the lobby while Natasha was picking up a wrist brace from the pharmacy counter, looking confused and holding a hand over the meaty part of his shoulder. He was wearing track pants and a tech shirt, which answered the question of where he'd been, and there were thin trails of blood oozing out between his fingers, which answered the question of what had happened.

"I got shot," he said to the nurse on duty behind the desk, and he sounded oddly calm.

The nurse pushed a button and hustled him through the door to the back, and Natasha watched, the brace half-forgotten on the counter in front of her. She didn't really need it anyway, and more importantly, who would be shooting Steve Rogers when he was out running?

Well. She could find that out herself, and probably before whoever Fury assigned to investigate could.

She hurried to her quarters in SHIELD HQ, rotating her wrist a little as she walked. It was sore, but not overly so, and she still had a full range of motion and her full grip strength. Yanking the door open, she flipped open her laptop and waited for it to wake up so she could log in.

It was surprisingly easy to figure out where he'd been; she didn't even have to hack into Steve's cell phone's GPS. For one thing, he ran almost exclusively in Central Park on a handful of consistent routes; for another, he used a program called MapMyRun to track his running stats, and so did she. (That is, she used the program exactly enough to justify being friends with Steve on the website without having Clint call her a stalker.) He'd set it to upload automatically, and she clicked on today's route. It took her only a moment to find the spot where he'd stopped and then veered off-route at a much slower pace--the corner of West Drive and the 85th Street Transverse.

Stripping out of her gym clothes, she threw on jeans, a t-shirt, and a jacket, all heavy enough for the weather but stretchy enough to allow her movement, and headed straight out the front door, walking briskly enough that no one would ask her where she was going. There was some benefit to being the Black Widow, after all.

About twenty minutes later Natasha stood at the intersection and looked around. It was November; the trees were bare, but there was no snow yet, and it wasn't that cold or windy this morning. Steve had been heading east on the 85th Street Transverse, and he'd been hit in the right shoulder, which meant the shooter was somewhere south, within the boundaries of the park. She hadn't gotten much of a look at the wound, so she didn't know the angle, but it seemed rather high on his shoulder. It made sense that the shooter would have been above him, anyway, knowing what she did about people who shot people, and to the south was--

--Belvedere Castle, the highest sight in Central Park and one of the visitor's centers, which didn't open until 10, and it was only a little after 8 now. Great.

Also, that was a distance of--she trotted down the paths to the Castle--somewhat over six hundred yards, which narrowed the number of people who could make that shot by a lot. Clint could, obviously, but why on earth would he be shooting at Cap? Nonetheless, she slipped inside the building and climbed up to the top to see if she could find anything there.

There were security cameras, of course, but they were extremely obvious and Natasha was able to avoid them without thinking too hard. Any shooter worth his salt would have been able to do so as well, but she'd get someone to check the security footage later.

The sightlines to the intersection where Steve had been shot were relatively clear from one corner of the roof; she could see almost straight through, thanks to the lack of leaves on the trees, and she sighed. A quick look around revealed no spent shells or footprints or anything, so unless the shooter had managed to get caught on the security camera, the only thing she knew about him (or her, she supposed) was that he could make a six-hundred-plus-yard shot.

Although--she leaned in and put one knee on the ground. There was a scuff mark, like metal on stone, just above the ground level on the parapet-like wall. She squinted at it, and it was just a mark, no secret writing, but it was fairly fresh. It could have been the people who ran the weather equipment a few feet behind her, or maybe a security guard or another unauthorized visitor like herself, but . . . She pulled out her phone and took a picture of the mark, and then backed up to get one of the view from where it was.

Maybe Ballistics could tell them something else. She took a more few pictures and then left as stealthily as she'd come, but not before blowing on the National Weather Service's windvane, just to screw with them.

* * *

When she got back to SHIELD HQ, she swung by the infirmary, but she'd apparently missed Steve; he was just getting off the elevator when she got out of the stairwell on the floor that housed their tiny living quarters. "Steve," she said.

"Natasha," he replied. He was shirtless, his shoulder bandaged and his arm in a sling, but he was flexing his fingers and didn't appear to be using the sling particularly. "I thought I saw you in the infirmary earlier. Are you all right?"

"Oh," she said, and blinked. She'd forgotten about her wrist, and flexed it quickly, checking. Still sore but nothing important. "I'm fine," she said, holding it up so he could see the tape. "Just a strain. I certainly haven't been shot. How are you?"

He shrugged, and it was interesting to watch the movement while he wasn't wearing a shirt. "It's not that bad. I think it'll take a couple days to heal. I, uh, was just going to get a shirt before I go tell Director Fury what happened." He looked a little sheepish.

"I'll come with you. Not to get a shirt; I trust you can do that on your own," she said, adding a smile. "But I went out to see where you got shot and I might be able to add more information."

"Oh," he said, as nonplussed as she'd been before. "Okay. Um. I'll just be a moment."

Natasha leaned against the wall and gestured for him to go ahead.

Steve returned about five minutes later, wearing jeans and a sweater over a white t-shirt; the sling was around his neck again, but it was too loose and not supporting his elbow properly. She tsked and stepped forward, adjusting the strap; he let her, gaze somewhere over her head, and she patted him on the opposite shoulder. "Now the nurses won't yell at you if they see you in the halls," she said, and he grinned.


The explanation to Fury went about how Natasha expected: Steve said he'd been running in the park, minding his own business, not wearing anything that would identify him as Captain America, and he'd gotten nailed in the shoulder. Natasha told Fury that she'd gone to the spot where Steve was shot, found the likely location of the shooter, and taken pictures, and that she hadn't had time to grab the security camera footage.

"Let Agent Backstrom do that," Fury said. "Give him your pictures. How long did you say the shot was?"

"More than six hundred yards," she said.

"And that's the only place the shooter could have been?"

"Unless he was up a tree, and since the trees are pretty bare, I'd think Steve would have seen him."

They looked at the man in question, who shook his head. "I didn't see anyone in a tree," Steve said. "I didn't see anyone on top of Belvedere Castle, either, but I wasn't looking that far."

Fury nodded. "Well, Captain Rogers, you're confined to HQ unless you take an escort for the next week, or until we catch the shooter."

Steve frowned. "How am I supposed to go running? Sir."

Fury rolled his eye. "There are treadmills in the gym."

Natasha watched Steve suppress a grimace and privately agreed.

"Or you can take Agent Helzer. He runs pretty fast," Fury said.

Steve still looked dubious, so Natasha leaned over and said, "He's got a 2:45 marathon. I think he'll be okay for a nice jog in the park." She watched him do the math in his head and then look impressed for a moment before he turned back to Fury.

"I would like to register that I do not think that an escort is necessary at this point, sir," Steve said, all politeness.

"And I'd like to register that I don't give a shit," Fury said. "You're not going anywhere without a friend; I'll get a list of acceptable people to you as soon as I can."

Steve gave a short nod. "May I be dismissed, sir?"

"Can't think of why not. Go. Agent Romanoff, you stay."

She did, nodding at Steve who smiled at her as he left. When the door closed, she said, "I assume I'm on the list of acceptable people."

Fury snorted. "No, you're not. You're the only person on the other list, the list of people who will be tailing Captain Rogers whether he knows it or not."

"Ah," she said. "Well, then. I'll get to that."

Fury snorted. "Go."

She did.

* * *

Steve thought it was pretty funny that Director Fury and Natasha thought he wouldn't notice that she was now tailing him, in addition to the agents who came to trail behind him every time he got anywhere near the outside door. Nonetheless, he liked Natasha, and at this point it wasn't worth his time to go argue with the director about it. It did mean she came and ate with him a little more often than her carefully-regulated pattern before, and he enjoyed that.

The bullet wound was healed in a couple of days, leaving a scar that only lasted for the length of a third day, but he contented himself with the treadmill for a few more days. By the time he'd broken a second treadmill--they really weren't meant to go top speed for very long--a week had passed, and he thought it would probably be safe to go running in Central Park again.

He wasn't worried about being shot again. Even though Natasha was convinced that whoever had shot him last time had not only done it on purpose, but had done it from a ridiculous distance in the middle of Central Park with hundreds of joggers around, Steve still thought it could have been an accident, or a training exercise, or, well, he didn't really know. But he'd barely been injured, and if they tried again, they'd get caught--probably by Natasha herself. He liked jogging outside, and in the Park, and he couldn't wait to get back to his routine.

Before that could happen, though, he got sent off with Natasha, Clint (finally off his double-secret mental-health probation), and Agent Coulson (also recently back, but from rehab) to try an undercover op. Steve wasn't entirely sure how that would work out; he hadn't done much undercover work, and although he'd spent the last six months training with SHIELD, the only times he'd gone out to fight crime, so to speak, were when the Fantastic Four or the X-Men needed an extra hand.

Or shield, as the case had been. But he digressed.

This time, though, he got outfitted in street clothes, mostly like his usual but the jeans were tighter and the sweater was more brightly patterned than his normal choices. He also had a standard SHIELD tac suit packed away, like Hawkeye's but with sleeves; he wasn't taking his shield, so he had a gun and a bulletproof vest as well.

His first task was to accompany Natasha--Natalie tonight, and he was Rob, because it was close enough to 'Rogers' that he'd respond--to a bar in a rather rough part of Boston. She'd dyed her hair a rusty brown and had donned a frankly strange outfit, with pink hose, denim shorts, a green t-shirt talking about Wisconsin's dairy air (he snickered mentally at the pun), black arm warmers, and thick-rimmed glasses that took up half her face. It was apparently something like a uniform, though, because other women in the bar were dressed similarly.

They sat at the bar and she ordered them a couple of PBRs, which turned out to be a type of beer he recognized, although surely it hadn't remained popular by always tasting this terrible. He drank it slowly, hoping he could switch to water or Coke next, and waited for Natasha to give him a signal.

At the moment, she was chatting with the bartender about some bands that he'd never heard of, which was unsurprising, and scanning the crowd behind her in the mirror above the bartender's head. When the bartender said something to him about whatever band they were talking about, he shrugged and said, completely truthfully, "I've been really into classic jazz on vinyl recently."

"Oh, man, you a fan of the 'Trane?"

"I meant older than that--I found a stash of Beiderbecke at a place in Brooklyn--"

"Aw, man, what are you doing up there? The best record shop is over in--" And the bartender was off and running again.

Steve met Natasha's eyes in the mirror, and her hand found his under the bar and squeezed. His brain shorted out for a moment before he realized she wasn't pretending to flirt so much as giving him a message in Morse Code.


Ahh. The diplomat's daughter--about to be kidnapped, if SHIELD's intel was correct--was sitting not too far away, with her boyfriend, whose father was likely to do the kidnapping. The boyfriend didn't appear to be complicit, but he could yet be. Natasha and Steve were inside, and Clint was outside, to foil the attempt.

At the target's table, the daughter stood and kissed the boyfriend quickly before heading towards the door in the back that led to the restrooms. Natasha waited a beat--he could feel the stillness in her arm, where it was against his--and then leaned over to squeeze his shoulder and say, "Be right back, baby."

The bartender paused a moment; Steve felt himself flush, probably bright glowing red, but he didn't look in the mirror to confirm. "So yeah," the bartender said, a moment later. "You really have to go to Treehouse Records. They have everything."

"Related to that," Steve said, "do you know where I can get a good needle?" He didn't actually need one, but he thought the bartender would have an opinion on the issue.

He did, but Steve didn't actually listen; there was movement behind him, and he looked up at the mirror to see someone talking to the boyfriend rather intensely. The someone also was holding the boyfriend's phone, and the boyfriend looked a little frightened, so Steve pulled out his phone and, pretending to note down the bartender's suggestions, texted Natasha, Clint, and Coulson. Boyfriend being worked over, tall man, dark blond hair.

"That's the father's right-hand man," Coulson said quietly into Steve's earpiece. "Do not intervene yet, but if he leaves, please tell us."

"What was the address on that one?" Steve asked the bartender, who repeated himself. Before Steve could text Coulson an affirmative, though, there was a crash; a chair fell and some glass broke, and Steve turned around to see the boyfriend take a swing at the right-hand man.

"Shit!" the bartender said, and the bouncer came over from the door, but two other men stopped him.

Steve quickly typed 'SOS' and hit 'send' before he shoved his phone back into his pocket and dove into the fray.

He managed to get a good punch onto the jaw of the right-hand man, laying him out cold and hopefully not snapping his neck. Grabbing the boyfriend by the scruff of the neck, he pulled him out through the back and into the alleyway where Coulson was waiting in a SHIELD van. Natasha was there, too, with the daughter, and the two lovebirds fell into each other's arms rather melodramatically, in Steve's opinion.

One of the other SHIELD agents came out a moment later with the right-hand man draped over his neck, unconscious, and said, "The police are coming; I left the two hired goons in there for them."

"We can transfer them over if they become necessary," Coulson said with a nod.

A slap-thud sounded behind the car as Clint appeared; he’d jumped off the building he'd been on, and everyone tensed for a moment until they realized it was one of them. "Well, I guess I wasn't needed," he said, hitching one shoulder up to resettle his quiver.

"That's a good thing," Natasha said, poking Clint in the side, and Steve felt a brief stab of jealousy go through him before a gunshot cracked through the air.

Agent Coulson was nearest, and Lord knew the man wasn't immortal, so Steve threw himself over Coulson, knocking him to the ground. There was a pop, and a fizzling noise, and then someone screamed; Steve looked up to see Clint--on fire?

Coulson squirmed until Steve let him up, and they both rushed over to Clint. He wasn't on fire himself, but his quiver had apparently exploded, burning through itself and also his tac suit. Steve yanked the quiver off and threw it as far as he could, hoping that nothing else inside would explode. He turned back to see Natasha attempting to smother the flames with a jacket.

"I need medevac immediately!" Coulson yelled into his mic. He turned to the van and dug around in the back seat until he found a bottle of something, and then told Natasha to move. She did, and he dumped the contents over Clint's backside, finally dousing the flames.

"Ow, ow, ow," Clint was saying, or actually whimpering; he was braced against the side of the van, but looked like he was going to fall over any minute now. That, Steve could help with; he put his shoulder under Clint's arm and tried to avoid moving him.

"Thanks, Cap," Clint said; behind them, Natasha was cutting something with a knife she'd produced out of thin air. She pulled something, and Clint whimpered again. "I think I'm going to pass out," he said, a moment before he did, leaving Steve holding him up.

"Some of it is stuck to him," Natasha said, and Steve grimaced. He'd been burned before, and it hurt like hell.

Faintly, over traffic, Steve could hear the sounds of an ambulance; it stopped short by the end of the alley, and a handful of people brought a stretcher over and left with Clint, hooking him up to oxygen as they ran. Steve watched them go, feeling weirdly detached, until Natasha slapped him on the shoulder, and he flinched.

"Come on," she said, ignoring his reaction. "We have to help Coulson get these assholes into custody, and then we can go rescue Clint from the hospital."

"Okay," he said.

It didn't take long; Natasha and Steve gave their reports, and maybe an hour later they were in a cab on the way to Massachusetts General Hospital. "I would have thought the quiver and his suit were fire-retardant, at the least," Steve said, after a couple minutes of silence. He spoke quietly enough that only Natasha would be able to hear him over the driver's music.

She looked over at him for a moment, and then scooted over, leaning her head on his shoulder. "They are, but he'd been experimenting with exploding arrows that can set anything on fire. I think maybe he'll let those go for now." She spoke quietly, her body language completely at odds with her totally-professional words, and he realized she was treating the cab ride like an op.

"Mmm," he said, resting his cheek on top of her head briefly. "That's probably a good idea." An inane comment, but he was hard-pressed to think of anything better with her so close.

They reached the hospital before he was expected to say anything else, and Natasha paid the driver quickly before they walked inside.

"Hey," Clint said, once they got to his hospital room; he was lying on his stomach, hooked up to IVs but no more oxygen. The sheets were propped up to form a tent over his back, and his pupils were dilated. "Hipster Cap and Hipster Nat. You here to bust me out?"

Natasha laughed. "They've got you on the good stuff, don't they." She'd caught a doctor coming out of Clint's room before they went in; apparently she was his medical proxy. The doctor had said that approximately fifteen percent of Clint's body--mostly his lower back and buttocks--had second- and third-degree burns. He'd been given massive amounts of fluids and antibiotics; the muscles appeared intact, but the hospital wanted to do a skin graft to aid in healing on the worst part. After a conference with SHIELD medical, Natasha refused; she told Steve quietly that SHIELD had better methods and they'd come pick him up first thing in the morning.

"They damn well better," Clint said. "They were talking about using cadaver skin on me. Ew."

Steve swallowed--he really wasn't that squeamish, but still. "How are you feeling?"

"Higher'n a goddamn kite," Clint said, and chuckled--no, giggled, which was pretty funny to Steve as well. "No pain--well, a little pain, but I don't care about it, which means morphine, I think."

"You have to stay here at least overnight," Natasha said, "and SHIELD Medical will be here to pick you up early tomorrow."

"Nooooooooo," Clint whined. "Can you stay? That's, like, hours from now. I'm gonna be soooo bored." He tried to prop himself up but didn't get more than an inch off the bed before he fell back down into the mattress.

Steve froze--he wasn't sure if he should try to help--but Natasha just poked Clint in the arm gently and said, "No, we can't stay, but Coulson should be here soon. He'll stay with you. You'll probably just fall asleep, anyway."

"I'm not tired," Clint said, and punctuated it with a yawn.

"It's after midnight anyway," Natasha said, and Steve looked at his watch abruptly. Yes, it was that late. Not that he needed sleep, especially, but it had been a long day.

"Don't tell Stark that I'm in the hospital because my ass got burned," Clint said abruptly, no slurring at all.

"We won't," Steve said. Not that they'd heard from Tony much in the last four or five months--he was apparently holed up in California with Pepper--but if for some reason they heard from him, Steve wouldn't say anything.

"Okay," Clint said, and he was slurring again, now. "Okay. I might fall 'sleep," he said. His eyelids drooped.

"That's fine," Natasha said, and she brushed a hand gently over the top of his head. "You do that. We're right here, until Coulson gets here."

"Good," Clint said, and his eyes closed, his breathing evening out. "Hey, Cap?" he said, right when Steve was sure he was asleep.

"I'm here, Clint," Steve said.

"Yeah. You watch over Nat for me, okay? While I'm out because of my ass."

"I don't think she--" Steve started to say, but Clint opened his eyes and pinned him with a glare. "Yeah, okay, I'll do that," he said. "Go to sleep. It'll be fine."

"'Kay." And Clint was out for real this time, snoring faintly before a minute had passed.

Steve turned to Natasha and shrugged helplessly. "You know I won't--"

"I know," she said. "No problem."

Agent Coulson arrived before Steve had to make any more conversation and sent them away; there was a SHIELD flunky waiting with a car to drive them back to New York. It wasn't a very big car, unfortunately. At the driver's stony look, Steve bit back his request to sit in the passenger's seat for the leg room and sat in the back, legs awkwardly splayed.

Natasha chuckled as she buckled her seatbelt, and nudged Steve's knee. "Here," she said, and crossed her legs onto the seat. "You can have my footwell, too."

"Thanks," he said, and made sure the door was locked before angling himself to take up well more than his fair share of the back. He started to apologize, but Natasha cut that off with a look. She took off her jacket, balled it up, and put it against his shoulder, curling up against him like a cat, even with the seatbelt on.

It was surprisingly comfortable, and he found himself dozing off during the not-quite-four-hour trip back to SHIELD HQ. He thought Natasha slept as well, although he couldn't be sure, and that was . . . nice. The last time he'd had someone who was comfortable enough to sleep on him was . . . well, a few months and also nearly seventy years ago. He'd missed it.

(He missed Bucky, but he tried not to think about that.)

He closed his eyes and tried to think of nothing at all.

* * *

Natasha woke up from her nap, surrounded by warmth and leather and clean male scent; she shifted, and the arm around her shoulder tightened briefly before letting her go. She sat up, rubbing her eyes, and looked around her.

They were in the outskirts of New York; she estimated there was less than an hour before they'd be home, especially given that it was around four in the morning. Steve was slumped in the corner, but his eyes were open, and he smiled at her. "Good nap?" he asked.

"Not bad, not bad," she said, and rolled her neck from side to side. "You?"

"Pretty good as well," he said, but winced when he sat up. "Although I'll be glad to get out and walk around."

"I can't even imagine," she said.

The frosty presence of the driver discouraged further conversation, but Steve patted his shoulder and Natasha settled back against him. She watched the lights flash by for a few minutes before she realized that Steve was very gently stroking her upper arm, between the lower hem of the t-shirt's sleeve and the top of the arm warmers.

She didn't stop him, though; forced to guess, she would have said that it was an unconscious motion. It was a little intimate, sure, but she was pressed up against him, and . . .

Well, honestly, if she hadn't known he was single and, according to his official file, always had been, she'd have suspected he'd been in at least one long-term relationship. He knew how to fit himself against someone else, was comfortable with resting his head on top of hers and his arm around her, even despite his slight unease that it was her. She wanted to ask him, but couldn't figure out a way to do it that wouldn't break the mood.

Maybe later. At the moment, though, she would just enjoy it. When they got back, she'd have to stop pretending to be his girlfriend, and go back to just watching from a distance.

Four hours after they got back from Boston, Fury pulled her into his office and gave her the barest of updates on the situation.

"The bullet that hit Captain Rogers is at least superficially similar to the bullet remains they dug out of Barton's quiver," he said. "It's a modified sniper round, not one we use here, but one common in Eastern Europe. You got any names to add to the list?"

Natasha shook her head. "Anyone I knew who could make those shots is now dead, sir." She didn't mention that she'd probably killed them, because he already knew.

"We're currently operating under the assumption that both shots were made by the same person, and they either have it out for the Avengers generally or Captain Rogers personally."

"What about the rest of the Avengers, sir?" she asked.

"Stark can take care of himself and Thor's off-planet. Banner's holed up in Stark Tower, moping because his new best friend freaked out and ran away to California, and shooting him won't do anything anyway. Barton's in the hospital and once we transfer him here, he won't be going anywhere until his ass is healed. That leaves you and Cap."

"And Coulson," she said.

"Most people don't know what he looks like, and more importantly, Coulson doesn't have any dangerous habits like running in Central Park," Fury said, rolling his eye.

Natasha ignored the part about Coulson not being recognizable; supposedly, no one knew what she or Clint looked like, either. But the latter part was true: Coulson did a damn fine job of having no trackable patterns in his daily routines.

"And anyway, he's going to have his hands full making sure Barton doesn't do anything stupid."

Natasha tipped her head in acknowledgment. "So I'm still watching Captain Rogers, but I should also watch my own backside."

Fury snorted. "I didn't think I needed to spell it out for you."

"Just checking, sir."

A couple days later Steve started running in Central Park again, and took along Agent Helzer. Natasha was a pretty quick runner but she couldn't quite keep up with either of them, and anyway, she wasn't supposed to be visible. Nonetheless, she planted a bug on Helzer with his permission, and set up a command center with a laptop, a feed of Steve's phone's GPS on the screen and a feed of the bug in her earpiece.

"...speed do you normally run at?" Helzer was asking Steve, his voice clear and a little loud in her ear.

"Uh, I'm not sure. Maybe five-minute miles?" Steve said, and Natasha heard Helzer suck in a breath. "But we'll go however fast you want to go."

"Let's, uh, start out at about a seven-thirty pace?" Helzer suggested. "And, uh, how far did you want to go?"

"How far can you go?" Steve asked, and Natasha almost laughed; it was clear that he was aware that his usual distance was pretty ridiculous.

"Let's plan on ten miles," Helzer said. "I just did a marathon last weekend and I don't want to push it."

"Which one?" Steve asked. "Obviously not New York--that was the weekend before and it was canceled on account of the hurricane--"

"Yeah, I was going to run the New York Marathon but I ended up driving out to Harrisburg and doing theirs the next weekend instead," Helzer said. "I didn't want to waste a training cycle."

"Ahh," Steve said. "Well, shall we?"


Natasha watched the little dot on the screen with about half of her attention; SHIELD hadn't really been affected by the hurricane in terms of daily work, but she'd done a few shifts helping with cleanup, the last one being a couple days before Steve had gotten shot. A hurricane only a few short months after the wreckage from the Chitauri was horrific timing, at best, and a significant amount of new damage had come from temporary fixes being broken where the permanent would have been fine.

That was why they did what they did--so there wouldn't be another Chitauri invasion.

"Let's not go that way," Steve said abruptly, after several minutes of silence.

"Ah, yeah," Helzer said a moment later, sounding significantly more out-of-breath than Steve did, and Natasha checked the map--yeah, that was the turnoff that would lead them by where Steve had gotten shot before. Best to avoid it.

Instead they continued up Park Drive, past the Reservoir, and then took a winding route down by the ice rink. They stopped for a minute so Helzer could use the men's room--Natasha hit the mute button for a minute and when she checked back in, he was washing his hands. Perfect timing. "Keep going this way?" Helzer asked.


They were just in front of the MET when two fast cracks came over the bug, and Helzer yelled, "SHIT, FUCK, SHIT!"

Natasha would have given all of Stark's money for a visual feed at that moment, but a second later Steve yelled, "I NEED MEDICAL HELP! SOMEONE DIAL 9-1-1!" It at least answered the question of who had been injured. She slammed the computer shut and ran to find Fury, or at least Hill or someone with authority.

Five hours later, Helzer was out of surgery; even with SHIELD's experimental technology, the gunshots had been disastrous enough that they'd had to amputate both legs just below the knee. He was alive, though, and as an employee of SHIELD, he would have access to the best prosthetics that existed.

Natasha watched Steve pace around in the lobby at SHIELD Medical, waiting for the doctor to tell him that Helzer was awake. Guilt was written in every line of his body, particularly on his face, and every once in a while he'd stop pacing, run his hands through his hair, and sigh.

After the fifth time that happened, Natasha said, "Steve."

"I have no idea how I can possibly apologize for causing a man to lose both his legs," Steve said, looking at her briefly, and then starting to pace again.

"He's a SHIELD agent. He knew it could happen."

"And a runner, on top of that," he said, not acknowledging her words. "A fairly elite runner, too. Helzer talked about what he was going to do in the future, a new training plan, to get his marathon time down another couple minutes. He also wanted to run an ultramarathon or two, something called Western States? I looked it up. It's a hundred miles over mountains. I don't know why he'd want to do that for fun, but--" He sighed. "Well, he can't, now."

"There are a lot of opportunities for athletes with prosthetics these days," Natasha said.

"But he shouldn't have to," Steve snapped, as mad as she had ever seen him, and then backtracked quickly. "I'm sorry, Natasha. I shouldn't be yelling at you, of all people."

She wasn't sure what the 'of all people' part meant, but she just shrugged. "You're stressed."

"That's not an excuse." His jaw firmed, and he turned to pace again.

"Steve." He turned to look at her, his mouth still tight. "Sit down. You're making me nervous." He wasn't, but she wanted him to sit.

He dropped into the chair next to her, resting his forearms on his knees, and slid a sideways glance her way.

"Here's what you say to him," she said, reaching out to rub his shoulder briefly. "'Agent Helzer, I'm so sorry.' Just that. He'll probably take it from there. And then you know what you do? You find the bastard who did this and you make him pay."

"Yeah," Steve said, leaning into her touch; he was so unselfconsciously responsive, and it was almost painful for her to stop when the socially-acceptable amount of time had passed. "Yeah. That's probably a good idea. Keep it simple." He looked down at his hands. "So what do we know about the person who did this?"

"Uses a particular kind of bullet. Can make difficult shots." She shrugged and drummed her fingers on one knee. "Has it in for the Avengers, or you personally. Got any enemies?"

"Only the usual," Steve said, his mouth twisting to one side. "The only sniper I know--well, the only one who's still alive--is Clint, and I'm pretty sure he didn't shoot his own quiver."

"He doesn't use those rounds even when he uses a gun," Natasha said, and sighed. "I'll probably be checking video surveillance later. I'd say you should take a turn at it, but--"

"But I won't recognize anyone," he said, and sighed as well. "I hope someone can give us an ETA soon. I'm jumping out of my skin."

Natasha nodded. "It never gets easier."

"I know," he said, and stared down at his feet.

On a scale of one to ten, Natasha's desire to drag him into her lap and hold him--or more--was approaching eleven, but she couldn't, not right now. She could hold out her hand, though, and he took it and squeezed it gratefully.

The doctor came out a half hour later and let them back to see Helzer; Steve got about half a word into his apology before Helzer was apologizing back, and it turned into an embarrassing tangle. Natasha excused herself and went to consult with Fury.

By which she really meant 'barge into his office,' obviously. He was meeting with Hill and Coulson, but she went in anyway, and stared them down until the conversation stopped.

"Agent Romanoff?" Fury said, after a moment. "Did you have something to tell us?"

"When I find the person who shot Captain Rogers, Agent Barton, and Agent Helzer, I am going to go after him, and I'm taking Captain Rogers with me," she said, measured and intense.

Fury stared at her for a moment, and then nodded once.

She didn't wait for anything more; she turned on her heel and left.

* * *

Steve stayed with Helzer as long as he could; Helzer was woozy from the surgery, so he didn't make much sense. It wasn't even a given that he'd remember the visit, so Steve planned to come back in a few days. But after the agent fell asleep, Steve left, and wandered around HQ for a few minutes. He was still itchy under his skin; he desperately wanted to do something but wasn't sure what.

After pacing in his room for a few minutes he passed through the mess, taking a sandwich and a bottle of water. He ate slowly; he wasn't particularly hungry but he hadn't eaten since breakfast and he should be hungry. Draining the bottle, he threw it into the recycle bin and then gave up, heading for the gym.

Since SHIELD had finally reinforced the punching bags, Steve didn't actually manage to destroy any of them. He did work up a sweat, though, and he was pushing his hair out of his face with one hand when he finally noticed Natasha leaning against the wall. "How long have you been there?" he asked, panting a little bit.

Her gaze flicked over him, head to toe. "Long enough," she said. "Doing better?"

He didn't ask how she knew that he was not okay, partly because he didn't want to know if it was obvious. "I don't know," he admitted after a moment. "I feel strange. Restless."

"You did have your morning run interrupted," she said neutrally.

"It's true," he said, "but I don't think that's it. I run because it's easy and I'm good at it, and I like the fresh air, but I don't run every morning."

She nodded. "Do you need to go to Medical?" she asked, still in the same neutral tone.

Steve shook his head. He'd had enough of Medical for the day.

"Food? Sleep?"

"No, and no," he said, frowning at her. "I'm not a child, Natasha. I know how to take care of myself."

She pushed herself off the wall and strode towards him, hips swinging, and oh. He shivered, head to toe, and the itchiness transmuted to an electric hum that swept over him, settled low in his gut and burned. He couldn't move, could only watch her come closer to him, almost close enough for him to touch. Swallowing involuntarily, he licked his lips.

Natasha's eyes dropped to his mouth, and then she raised her chin just a little, studying his face. "Would it help?" she asked.

"It?" His voice sounded strange in his ears, rough and a little strangled.

"Sex," she said. "With me."

His face burned, red-hot in an instant, and he looked at the floor. "I would never--"

"You're not asking, I'm offering," she said gently, and he looked back up at her. Her posture was relaxed, hands at her sides, face open and friendly. "Believe me when I say that I'd very much like to," she added.

Oh. Oh. He didn't--he couldn't--

"Breathe," she said, and he coughed out a strangled laugh.

Natasha chuckled, too, and then said, "Look at me, Steve." He did, and she continued. "I like you; I find you attractive. I can help you with this--unsettled feeling."

"Yeah?" he said, and then swallowed again, his mouth dry.

"Yeah," she said, and then, still even: "That is, if you want to have sex with me."

"Yes," he said immediately. "Yes, I do; that's not--" He stopped, because he didn't know what was going to come out of his mouth next. He looked up at the corner, where the security camera was, and realized it was probably too late to worry about that.

"Oh, I took care of those," she said. Her voice sharpened. "Steve. You have two choices at the moment. You can either say, 'No, thank you, Natasha,' and we can go get ice cream instead, or you can say, 'Yes, please, Natasha,' and then trust me."

"What if--" He coughed again, swallowing repeatedly. "What if I have questions?"

"What kind of questions?"

What does this mean, do you want to get dinner with me afterward, can I kiss you-- He shook his head. "They're not important." Closing his eyes for a moment, he tried to get control of his mind. Yes, or no?

God help him, he trusted her, and wanted her, like he'd only wanted one person ever before. "Yes, please, Natasha."

She smiled, warm and calm, and held out her hand. "Come with me."

He let her rest her hand on his arm and lead him through the mostly-deserted hallways to her quarters. It was sometime after lunch, and most people were busy working, not wandering through the residential quarters, but he wouldn't have put it past her to clear the hallways intentionally. She didn't say anything, and neither did he, but the pressure of her fingers on his arm made it easy--well, no, not easy, but easier--for him not to think of anything.

Once the door had shut behind her, she said, "If at any time you want me to stop, just say so, and I'll stop, all right?"

He nodded. His palms were sweating, and he felt--young. He felt very young, in a way he hadn't since the ice.

"Sit down," Natasha said, indicating the bed, and he did, perching on the edge. She sat next to him. "I have a couple of questions, if that's okay," she said.

He nodded again.

"Have you ever done this before?" she asked.

"Sex, yes," he said, and then looked down at his hands. "But not with a woman."

"Okay," she said; she looked a little curious, but not worried or disgusted. He hadn't expected disgust, but still. "Is there anything else I need to know?" she asked. He frowned, and she added, "Sore spots, places I shouldn't touch, something I shouldn't do in general, et cetera."

"I don't think so," he said after a moment.

"Can I pin you down?"

"You can try," he said with a lopsided grin.

"I'm stronger than I look," she said, with her own grin. "And if I'm doing it right, you'll want me to pin you down."

Steve felt his face turn red again at the heat in her eyes. "Okay," he breathed. "Yeah."

"Good," Natasha said, and stood. He made to stand as well, but she stopped him with a hand to his shoulder. "No. Sit."

Automatically his shoulders squared and his spine straightened.

"Good," she said again. "Stay like that." She toed his feet apart until she could stand between them, and reached for the hem of his shirt. In one swift motion, she pulled it off over his head, and then smoothed her hands over his bare shoulders.

Abruptly he remembered that he'd been in the gym; he couldn't smell himself, but he was sure Natasha could. He stiffened, and she said, "Steve?"

"I was just in the gym," he said.

She smiled, and bent down to lick his shoulder, her tongue flickering quickly across his skin. "I know. I like it."

He thought for a moment about how he'd feel if their situation was reversed and his mouth started watering at the thought of Natasha glistening with sweat after a few rounds with a punching bag. "Okay."

Trailing her fingers down his arms, she knelt in front of him and stripped off the rest of his clothing, tapping his side to get him to raise his hips. He almost didn't have time to be self-conscious, but he was definitely hard, had been at least half-erect since the gym, and she was careful working the elastic down. She dropped his track pants and underwear to the side, and then crossed her arms in front of her, taking off her own shirt.

Steve watched, rapt; he'd seen women nude before, mostly backstage at shows, but never . . . nude with intent. She was curvier than many of the USO girls--larger breasts, narrower waist, wider hips--but more muscular, too; lines carved in her stomach and ridges in her arms and legs spoke to many hours of training. Kicking off her pants, she stood before him and let him look his fill. She even turned around, and his breath caught at the absolute perfection of her ass.

"See something you like?" she asked, grinning over her shoulder at him.

"Yes," he said. "Very much."

"Good," she said. "Stand up for a moment." He did, and she pulled the covers down to the foot of the bed. "All right, now lie down. On your back."

Steve obeyed, head on the pillows.

"Arms above your head." He did that, too, watching her, and she looked pleased. "There's a wooden rail just above you. Hold on to that, but don't squeeze it or break it," she said. "Can you do that for me?"

"Yes," he said.

"Yes, Natasha," she corrected, and he flushed again. He didn't know the rules of this--whatever they were doing--but he wanted to follow them.

"Yes, Natasha," he said, and she patted him on the stomach.

"Good," she said. "That's very good. Stay there." She opened a drawer in her nightstand and rustled around for a moment before setting something on top of it and closing the drawer. He didn't look to see what, because she'd told him to stay.

A moment later she'd climbed on the bed and was straddling him, her knees either side of his hips, her hands on his chest. He gasped, and she laughed, not unkindly. "Don't let go," she reminded him, and leaned over, running her hands over him from his outstretched arms all the way to his abdomen.

Steve squeezed his eyes shut, because it was so wonderful, so intense. It had been months and months and years since he'd been touched like this, since he'd been touched more than casually. This wasn't in the least casual; he knew it might be the only time they were together, but it was purposeful, and it was evident that Natasha cared, or at least could pretend that she did. He was more than willing to believe.

Opening his eyes, he watched her stroke the planes of his chest; he squirmed a little when she ran her hands over the undersides of his arms too lightly, but when she gave him a look he stilled. She avoided the area after that, though, and he could enjoy the sensuality of her touch. He lost himself in her slow, purposeful movements, his only anchor his hands on the headboard.

He wasn't so out of it that he didn't notice when she leaned over and grabbed a foil package off the nightstand; curling his head up, he watched intently as she rolled the condom on him. When she caught him looking, he didn't even try not to beg as he said, "Yes, Natasha. Please."

She smiled and closed her hand around him again, stroking from tip to root, and he gasped again. "Are you ready?" she said as she swung a leg over him again.

He barely had time to gasp out, "Yes, Natasha," again before she started sinking down on him; there was no way he could form coherent words or even thoughts after that. Every cell in his brain was concentrating on the long, slow slide of her body enveloping his.

"Steve," she said, once she was seated on him fully. "Don't come until I say you can, all right?"

He nodded feverishly, not sure he could actually hold off, but he was more than willing to try. "Yes, Natasha," he said, remembering at the last minute.

Her lips curved into a satisfied smile, and she leaned over him, hands on the mattress by his chest. "So good," she said, lifting herself off of him and sliding back down. "You're being so good for me."

Steve wanted to disagree, wanted to say that she was being good for him, but so much more important than that was the movement of her body over him, up and down; her breasts, so close to his mouth. He wanted to touch her, wanted to suck on her nipples, wanted to taste the sweat running down from her collarbone, but he couldn't; he had to keep his hands on the headboard, had to concentrate on not crushing the wood under his fingers.

Instead, all he could do was feel the tight, wet, satiny heat of her, smell their combined sweat and the musk of sex. He caught a drop of perspiration from her hairline on his tongue and savored the salt; she noticed, and leaned down to press her temple to his lips. He whimpered and licked, tasting the fine grain of her skin and the rough silk of her hair. But she was gone a moment later, sitting straight up, using her legs to ride him. He watched her quadriceps ripple briefly, but then she spoke.

"Steve. Eyes on my hands."

Her hands were on her thighs, but they soon moved up her flanks to her breasts, cupping them and rolling the nipples; she moaned, and Steve bit his lip, trying not to echo her. She drew her hands up her neck into her hair, and then sent one down the midline of her body to--oh, dear God, she was touching his cock, right where they joined together. He curled up his neck to get a better view.

Natasha's fingers slid around the bottom edge of the condom for a long, delicious moment, testing Steve's control, and then she raised them just enough to spread her folds and rub her clit. "Watch me, Steve," she said, her breath uneven. "Watch me come, and then--then you can come."

"Yes--Natasha--" he gasped out, eyes flickering between her face and her fingers, until suddenly she tensed and lost her rhythm, leaning forward and shuddering. She cried out and tightened around him, and he hitched his hips up into her in a desperate motion, trying not to thrust too hard, trying not to break the headboard--

"Come for me, Steve," Natasha said, her face mere inches away from his.

--and he did, falling apart under her, losing everything but his hands on the headboard and her hands on his chest and the white-hot pleasure in between.

When he came back to himself, Natasha was leaning on his chest; she met his gaze and smiled. "You can let go of the headboard now," she said and lifted herself off of him. He did, and reached down to grab the edge of the condom before she got too far. Once she was on the bed next to him, he stripped it off, knotting it and tossing it in the trash can. Rolling over, he saw Natasha had propped herself up on one elbow. "Do you feel better?" she asked.

Steve blinked, and then lay on his back, flexing his hands. He took a quick mental inventory and found that yes, he did feel better--a little loopy from his orgasm, but a lot more settled, actually. "Yes," he said, fighting to keep a goofy grin off of his face and failing. "Thank you."

"No, thank you," she said, with another warm smile, and settled onto her back. "Come here," she said. "I think we both need a twenty-minute nap, and then we can get back to the stuff we have to do."

Steve nodded and scooted in to lay his head on Natasha's shoulder. He rested there a moment and let her stroke his hair, but he couldn't quite relax; another minute passed before he asked, "Can I kiss you?"

"Of course," she said, and turned her face to him, but he pushed himself up and pressed a kiss to her forehead, the tip of her nose, and the point of her chin before touching his lips to hers.

When he pulled back, she gave him a curious look and said, "I had an ex who did that, too. Is there something about my chin that makes it irresistible?"

"Yes," he said, "although whatever it is about your chin, apparently pre-serum, I shared it." He wasn't entirely sure what compelled him to kiss Natasha the way that Bucky had often kissed him, except that Bucky usually did it that way when he was feeling affectionate.

"Ah," she said, and he lay his head back down on her shoulder. "Tell me about him sometime?"

"Sure," he said. "But not now." He yawned, and pushed his nose against her neck, hiding another goofy grin.

"All right." She smoothed his hair back from his forehead and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, and he drifted off, finally allowing himself to just float on the sea of endorphins.

* * *

Natasha didn't fall asleep when Steve did, although she kept her breathing slow and even for his benefit. She had no idea what had compelled her to offer him sex--mildly kinky sex, even--when he was jumping out of his skin. Well, that wasn't entirely true: she'd have to be a very different person not to find him attractive, both physically and otherwise. She liked his earnestness, and his sense of humor; his chest was a thing of beauty and a joy forever. But more than that, she thought, even though she was nominally assigned to watch him, they were starting to be friends. Seeing him so uncomfortable made her want to help him, and while that wasn't a completely alien feeling--Clint had helped with that--it was still odd.

Now that she knew he wasn't a blushing virgin--although damn did she want to know who his ex was, who'd taught him all the little things like how to pace himself and how to cuddle--the idea of doing this again, of having him in her bed, kept invading her thoughts. It was a bad idea, it really was, top to bottom; he was Captain America and she was . . . who she was. She couldn't give him anything more than her body, and odds were that she'd die on the job sooner rather than later. He would . . . well, who knew.

At the moment, he was wrapped around her, his head heavy on her shoulder, radiating heat like he'd never been frozen, and she wanted this again, oh, she did.

Twenty minutes later on the dot, Steve stirred and lifted his head. He smiled at her and leaned down for a kiss, going straight for her mouth this time. "How are you doing?" he asked.

"I think I'm supposed to ask you that," she said, and he chuckled.

"I don't think I've felt this good in weeks," he said, returning to his back and stretching, arms over his head and toes pointed. "Thank you, again. But," he said, wrinkling his nose, "I think I need a shower."

Natasha felt a rush of relief that this wasn't going to be awkward, and nodded. "Me too."

He kissed her again at her door after pulling his clothes on, and she closed and locked the door behind him before sagging against it for a moment. She could deal with this, she really could. Okay. Time for a shower, and then back to going through surveillance videos.

Stopping by the mess to grab coffee and a banana, she passed by Steve sitting at a table with Sitwell and a couple junior agents. He gave her a friendly nod, as did Sitwell, and she returned it before leaving, hiding the stab of lust that went through her at the sight of his neatly-combed wet hair.

It had occurred to her to worry whether Steve's poker face was as good as hers; fraternization wasn't technically against the rules, but he'd seemed to want privacy as much as she had. But as she waited for the elevator, she remembered that he'd said something about the lover he'd had being pre-serum. Covering up a single afternoon with her was nothing compared to hiding a relationship with a man in the thirties or forties. Really, she didn't need to worry at all.

Natasha was three hours into what looked like the most boring nature documentary ever produced--Central Park in November was host to an epic flock of pigeons, it appeared--when she caught a glint in between some trees. The glint could be anything--a passing cyclist, a piece of glass--but it felt weird to her, and she sorted through the footage until she found a different angle on the same location. It took a minute to cue up the same timestamp and of course there was a branch blocking her view. She sighed and looked for yet a third angle, even though there weren't that many cameras in the park.

By some miracle, she did find a third view, and she was just fast-forwarding to the correct time when a dark-haired man wearing jeans and a brown leather coat passed by the lens. He looked--familiar. No, actually he walked familiarly, and Natasha stopped the playback, her heart starting to pound in her throat. No. There was no way it could be--he was dead, long dead, fifteen years dead, but--

Her hands shook as she rewound the tape a few seconds and went frame by frame. Yes. Right there, he'd raised his left hand and a bare sliver of silver had shown between his glove and the sleeve of his coat.

Fuck, Natasha thought, and then repeated herself inside her head in seven other languages. She flipped through the next couple frames and found one with him in profile, a small smug look on his face, and she knew. She knew that he was on a mission, although she had no idea where he'd gotten the orders from, and she knew that he was the one who had been shooting at Steve, although why he'd want to kill Steve was beyond her.

And she knew that he'd allowed himself to be caught by the security camera just so that she would see him, and come after him.

The worst part was that she couldn't do anything else. The Winter Soldier was alive, and in New York City, and was trying to kill Captain America. Natasha slammed her hand down on the table, printed out a single copy of his face in profile, erased the logs of her having been there, and headed straight to Director Fury's office.

She stopped short before she actually got there, though. The odds of Fury allowing her to go after the Winter Soldier without calling in the whole team were extremely low, and time was of the essence. Instead, she ran up the stairs to her quarters and, of course, because it had to happen, ran into Steve in the hallway.

"Hi, Natasha," he said, and then looked at her hands and frowned. "You didn't need to--to do research. I would have told you anyway."

Natasha looked at him, completely uncomprehending, and then realized she was still holding the picture of Yasha--of the Winter Soldier in her hands, not that that explained a lot. "What?" she said. She really didn't have time for this, but she also couldn't leave him right now.

Steve sighed and gestured to her door; she unlocked it and he followed her inside. She was hoping she could make this conversation as short as possible. "Bucky Barnes," he said, once she'd closed the door. "You're holding a picture of Bucky Barnes."

She knew that name; it was in Steve's file, although there wasn't a picture to go with it. James Buchanan Barnes, killed when he fell off a train just a few days before Steve went down in the ice. Apparently he and Steve had been more than friends, and that was not in Steve's file. If she'd known that, she might have bothered to search out a picture, better than the blurry shot of the Howling Commandos that was printed in every American History textbook. But . . . "This isn't a picture of Barnes," she said.

Steve tilted his head to one side and took the page from her. "No, I'm certain it is. I'd recognize him anywhere," he said, with a wistful smile. "I don't know when this was taken, and I don't remember his hair ever being that long, but--" He frowned again, and she guessed that he'd seen the security-camera timestamp in the corner of the page. "No, that's not possible."

"What's not possible?" Natasha said.

"He died--he can't have been in Central Park this morning." Steve swallowed heavily. "Who did you think he was?"

"The Winter Soldier," she said. "I called him Yasha. A Soviet assassin. I thought he was dead, too."

"What was he doing in Central Park?" Steve asked, and then his face went stony. "You think he's the one who's been shooting at me, the one who shot Helzer."

"He could have done it, even the first shot," Natasha said. "In the security footage, it's clear, to me at least, that he's letting himself be caught by the camera because he knows I'll come after him."

"And will you?"

She nodded.

"I'll come with you."

"No," she said. "You're the one he's trying to kill."

"And yet," he said, "you think he was trying to lure you out. I don't think you're in any less trouble."

She smiled bitterly. "Ah, but the last he heard, I was a Soviet assassin, as well." She ducked into her bedroom and came out a moment later with a small box; inside was the only photograph she ever had of herself and Yasha, taken some thirty years ago and carefully smuggled everywhere with her, and she pulled it out and showed Steve.

"It's really uncanny how much he looks like Bucky," he said a moment later, and handed the picture back to her. "Forgive me for asking, but how old are you?"

"Not as old as you," she said, "but older than I look. Yasha, he had a few years on me, too. In case you didn't know that the Russians were also trying to find the super-soldier serum, well, here's proof." She gestured at herself.

Steve's mouth twisted to one side. "Does SHIELD know?"

"Yes, but they try to ignore it, and it's sort of need-to-know information," she said, and sighed. "I don't mean to be rude, but I have to get going."

"And I'm coming with you."

She stared at him for a moment, and he stared right back. "Were you this stubborn before the serum, or was that enhanced, too?" she asked.

"No, ma'am, that's all me," he said, flashing her a media-worthy smile.

Natasha rolled her eyes. "Go put on a coat," she said, "and grab a hat or whatever else you need so you don't look like Captain America."

"Do you know where he is?" Steve asked.

She gave him a half-smile. "I'm pretty sure all we have to do is show up in Central Park and he'll find us."

"Find us, or just shoot us?"

"He could have shot you and killed you with the first bullet," she said. "He didn't. I'd guess that means he wants to talk to us first."

"Or maybe he's just trying to kill you, and going after me was just to get your attention," Steve pointed out.

"Maybe," she said, "but we've got a history. He won't just kill me."

He looked dubious, but after a moment he tipped his head in a nod and said, "If you're sure."

"I'm sure," she said, straightening up, looking Steve directly in the eye: all the tricks she'd learned to convince someone that she was telling the truth, even though she wasn't sure.

"All right then," he said, looking a little doubtful. "I'll go change. And if you leave without me," he added, "I think you know I'll just go to Central Park on my own."

Natasha nodded. "Ten minutes."

"I'll only need five."

The door closed behind him, and she resisted the urge to bang her head against it, or the wall, or any other flat, hard surface. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. She was supposed to disappear for a day or so and find Yasha and find out what he wanted, whether it was to kill Steve or kill her or rescue her or what, and then she was supposed to kill the Winter Soldier, or maybe bring him in for questioning. She wasn't supposed to have to worry about Steve, or the fact that Yasha bore apparently a more-than-passing resemblance to Steve's best-friend-slash-lover.

Sinking down to the floor, she spread her legs in a V shape and reached forward as far as she could, and then reached out for her toes. A few deep breaths later, she curled her legs into lotus position and folded herself down over that, too. Yoga wasn't as good as going a few rounds with a punching bag, not when she felt this out of control, but it took less time and meant she didn't have to take another shower, so she made do.

Okay. She could do this, and not get herself or Steve killed.


* * *

Steve threw on jeans, a t-shirt, a hoodie lined with kevlar, and a wool coat; he'd probably sweat to death, but the combination managed to disguise his physique. The hood and a scarf would distract people from looking at his face, and that was the best he could do without a few days to grow a beard. He shoved his cell phone and a knife into a pocket and strapped on a holster and a gun--obviously he couldn't take his shield--and spent thirty seconds wondering what else he should bring.

He wished he had a picture of Bucky, to prove how much Bucky looked like Natasha's Winter Soldier and the man in the security footage, but they hadn't exactly had a ton of money back in the day, and then there'd been a war. He was sure there'd been a few shots taken of the Howling Commandos as a group, but he didn't have copies any of them, and he didn't have any time to find them. Maybe later he could sit down and sketch one out, but she'd probably think that his drawing was influenced by the Winter Soldier.

(It wouldn't be. He would never forget Bucky's face; he knew it better than he knew his own, serum-related transformation aside.)

Other than that, he thought, if Natasha had wanted him to bring something specific, she would have mentioned it, so he shoved his feet into hiking boots and called it a day.

Natasha was wearing something similar, jeans and a pea coat, but with heeled boots and a knitted cap; her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she had a pair of sunglasses in one hand. "What do you have for weapons?" she asked once he was in her quarters again.

He showed her the gun and the knife, and she nodded in approval. She also nodded at his hoodie and the hiking boots and, with the hood up and the scarf on, she pronounced him 'less recognizable.' "It's the best we can hope for," she said. "Let's go."

Steve followed her out of SHIELD HQ and caught up to walk beside her down the street. "Where in Central Park are we going?"

"Belvedere Castle," she said.

"Ah," Steve said. He'd expected that, he supposed. It was just falling dark and the park would be clearing out of tourists; the visitor center part of Belvedere Castle would already be closed by the time they got there. Natasha didn't seem inclined to talk, so he was mostly silent until they got to the edge of the park itself. On the other hand, though, if there was a plan, he needed to know it. "So, we're just going to walk up to Belvedere Castle and go from there?"

"Yes," Natasha said, and there was something so final in that single word that he didn't say anything more, just stuffed his hands a little deeper into his pockets and walked beside her.

It was another ten minutes of walking before they got to Belvedere Castle; just before they turned the last corner, she put her hand on Steve's arm, stopping him. "Follow my lead," she said, again leaving no room for questions.

He nodded. "I'm your backup here." He'd expected that, and stayed a half-step behind her.

Ten paces away, he saw a figure leaning against the side of the Castle, smoking a cigarette. The figure took a long draw, and then flicked the cigarette to the ground, grinding it out with the toe of one boot. Steve drew in a sharp breath and heard Natasha do the same.

The figure--presumably the Winter Soldier--straightened, and took a step forward. "Natalia," he said, and the blood started roaring in Steve's ears, because the Winter Soldier was either Bucky Barnes or an exact replica. His hair was long, pushed back behind his ears; he was wearing the same black leather coat as in the picture, and he looked older, but the way he held himself, the way his face rested just on the verge of a smile: those, Steve would swear were exactly the same.

"Зимний Солдат," Natasha said. Steve had started studying Russian a few months ago at SHIELD's suggestion--that and Arabic--and he could translate her words easily, even if it hadn't been obvious. Winter Soldier. "What are you doing here?" The second part was in English.

"I came to see you, my love," the Winter Soldier said, also in English, and oh, he sounded like Bucky, except for the bland nowhere-in-particular American accent, exactly like Natasha's. "And," he added, tipping his head in Steve's direction, "to kill Captain America."

"I won't let you do that," Natasha said, stepping in front of Steve. She had to know it was ineffectual; he had several inches of height and width on her, and he was probably better set to survive a bullet wound. He appreciated the symbolism, though.

"You think you can stop me, Natalia mine?" the Winter Soldier said, taking another step forward.

"Yes," Natasha said.

He gave her a very obvious once-over that made Steve's skin crawl for two reasons: first, on Natasha's behalf, and second, because it was the evil version of a look he'd seen Bucky give a thousand times before. "How, exactly, little one?" not-Bucky said. "We're close enough that if I shoot you, the bullet will go through you and into the Captain behind you."

"There are ways," she said, and, almost too fast for Steve to see, she whipped a knife at his left shoulder and then sprang into the air.

She was back on the ground before Steve was entirely sure what happened, but the Winter Soldier was on his knees, one hand on his shoulder, a smear of dirt across his temple. Natasha was crouched, ready to kick him in the head again by the looks of it, but the Winter Soldier didn't move to retaliate. He looked at Natasha for a moment, and then up at Steve, frowning. His eyes widened in what Steve was willing to swear on a stack of Bibles was recognition, and he jumped to his feet in a superhumanly-graceful movement. Two steps later and he jumped on a motorcycle hidden in the shadows; Steve tried to intercept him but was too slow for once, and he and Natasha ran after the motorcycle for a few hundred yards, until it was clear they wouldn't be able to catch him.

"What the hell just happened?" Steve said as he and Natasha watched him go. "And what do we do now?"

"I don't know," she said. "He'll have a safe house in the area. Give me a couple of minutes to remember where the old New York safe houses were and then we'll go after him."

Steve nodded. "Why would he run?" he asked, once they'd started walking again, towards the nearest subway stop.

Natasha glanced at him. "I can't say for certain," she said slowly, "but usually in between missions, the Winter Soldier has his memories wiped. He remembered me, though, this time, and I don't know why, but it's possible that when I kicked him in the head he remembered something else."

"He didn't remember you before?" Steve said, feeling faintly nauseated.

She shook her head, but didn't add anything else.

"Then why on earth would he recognize me?"

"You saw that, too?" she said.

"What is it you call him when you don't call him by his code name?" Steve asked suddenly. Pieces were starting to fall into place, he thought, maybe--but no. It was impossible. "Yasha?"

"Yes," she said. "It's--it's not a name, it's a nickname, for Yakov, which would be Jacob or James in English--"

"James," Steve said, and stopped short. Natasha took another step and then stopped herself. "Did he tell you his name was James?"

"No," she said, "but he told me to call him Yasha." A couple of pedestrians pushed between them, and Natasha guided Steve off the side of the sidewalk and back onto the Park's grass by his elbow.

"Pardon me for this, but--" Steve took her face gently between his hands and kissed her, forehead, nose, chin, lips. "It was Yasha who would kiss you like that, wasn't it." It was impossible. There was no way that Bucky and Yasha-the-Winter-Soldier could be the same person.

"Yes," she said, "but it can't be that uncommon. Steve, what you're suggesting isn't possible."

"I know," he said. "That's the same word I've been repeating to myself, but I know what I saw."

Bucky. I saw Bucky.

He took a breath, and then said, "In 1944, when I was in Europe, the 107th had been captured, and I went to rescue them--that's pretty common knowledge. Most of them were being held in cells, but Bucky wasn't; he'd been strapped to a table, and Dr. Zola had been--He never told me exactly what Zola did, but it was some sort of medical experiment." Forcing himself to hold still and continue was difficult, but he managed it.

"No one ever said it, but it was assumed among those who knew what happened that he'd been given some version of the serum, too. He was--I don't know what, exactly, but a little more than he'd been before. More endurance, more speed, less sleep. Not as extreme as me, but then again, I don't know how much he was hiding. When he fell off the train--when I couldn't catch him--and we didn't find a body, we assumed that whatever he'd been given didn't work, that he'd died." He twisted his lips to one side. "And then I survived sixty-seven years in ice. Maybe he survived, too."

"Maybe, but . . . " Natasha trailed off, and then put one hand on his arm. "Steve. I don't mean to be a jerk, but you lost the man you loved in rather traumatic circumstances. Is it possible that you're seeing what you want to see right now?"

He closed his eyes as the old, familiar stab of pain went through his ribs. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, it's very possible." He took a couple of deep breaths and said, "But the good news is that it's not important, either way. We still need to find the Winter Soldier, whoever his civilian identity is, and we need to keep him from hurting other people to get to us."

Natasha nodded and squeezed his hand briefly before dropping hers back to her side. "Let's go."

The first place they tried didn't exist; it had been knocked down completely after taking too much damage during the Battle of New York. "Well," Natasha said. "One down."

"How many to go?" Steve asked.

She gave him a look. "Enough," she said, and then they were off to a second location.

That one was currently inhabited by a very nice family of recent Dominican immigrants; Natasha chatted with them cheerfully in Spanish long enough to determine that they had not seen the Winter Soldier. "That's good," she said, once they were back on the street. "I would have hated to kill them."

Steve figured there was about a seventy-five percent chance that she was joking, but he didn't really want to find out otherwise, so he said nothing.

The third place was now a liquor store, which he found more amusing than she did, and the fourth was an empty apartment, obviously between tenants, weirdly lit from a collection of neon signs outside. Natasha stood in the middle of the living room and, based on nothing that Steve could see, said, "He was here."


"Days ago," she said. "Maybe a week ago."

"How do you know?"

"I wasn't the first person to pick the lock with a stiletto knife and a piece of wire," she said, ticking it off on a finger. "No one's even opened the door here in a few days, or they would have noticed that the window is cracked open." It was, about an inch; the windowsill was damp to the touch, and Steve rubbed his wet fingers together. "Also, the cache of guns and ammo we'd stored here has been emptied." She pointed to a corner of the carpet that wasn't quite even, as if at one point it had been unceremoniously ripped up.

"Couldn't it have been someone else?" Steve asked. "I mean, it's been a while since you were last here, right?"

She shook her head. "No. I've checked this place a few times over the years and no one even came close to finding the box. They don't remodel places like this very often." It was in a run-down neighborhood, one that Steve had remembered as being a lot nicer before the war.

"And the open window, does that mean something?"

Natasha gave a short bark of laughter. "It's not an official sign, but Yasha hated sleeping without an open window, if he could at all help it."

"Ah." He stopped himself from saying, Bucky, too, but he added it to the tally in his head. "What, now?" he said.

"I don't know," Natasha said, and clenched her hands into fists. She paced from one end of the living room to the other, maybe six steps or so, the neon lights painting shifting lines on her face. Ten or twelve trips later, she stopped, and turned to Steve. "I don't know where to go next. You should probably go home."

He shook his head. "Not unless you're coming home, too."

"I can't," she said. "Not until I find him."

"Then I'll stay with you."

Natasha closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose, letting out a pained sigh, and slumped against the wall. She looked tired, and simultaneously impossibly old and young, a band of blue across her forehead from the lights.

If pressed, Steve would never be able to explain exactly what impelled him to cross the few steps that separated them and drop to his knees right next to her, but that was what he did, resting his forehead on her hip.

Natasha sucked in a sharp breath; he felt her fingers brush tentatively over the top of his head before settling on his shoulder. "Steve. Do you even--what are you offering?"

He inhaled slowly before answering. "Comfort. Whatever you want."

"Look at me." He did, and her face was complicated, eyes hot but jaw tight as if she were angry. "What if what I want is to cause you pain?"

"I'm pretty well built to take it," he said. He hoped she didn't want that, but if she did, he'd do whatever it took.

"What if I want to use you--use your mouth?" A small movement of her hips made it obvious what she meant.

He flushed, and said, "I've never gone down on a woman before but I figure you can tell me what to do."

She closed her eyes again and let out a wordless, frustrated noise before sinking to a cross-legged position to the floor and tugging him down to rest his head in her lap, his cheek on her thigh. "Here," she said. "Just this, for a few minutes."

He cupped one hand around her calf and nodded.

* * *

Having Steve, all six feet three inches and more than two hundred pounds of him, curled up on the floor, head on her lap, letting her push her fingers through his hair and trace the lines of his face, was weirdly calming.

Well, maybe not weird, necessarily, but Natasha hadn't expected herself to react this way. She'd been more than ready to pick a fight with Steve and make him go away, or maybe punch a hole in the wall, but he'd short-circuited all that by--submitting. Submitting to her.

Which was no small responsibility, and she could not treat it as anything less than the gift that it was.

She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes, one hand stroking across Steve's shoulders; he'd taken off the wool coat when they'd gotten into the apartment, but the sweatshirt was thick enough that she couldn't feel the heat of his skin, and she wanted to. Tugging at the end of the scarf he'd left on, she waited until he lifted his head a couple inches off her leg and then pulled the scarf out from under him. It left his neck bare, and she traced the soft line where his hair tapered at the back with one fingertip. He shuddered, and she did it again, getting the same reaction.

Rubbing her thumb along his jawline, she felt the end-of-day stubble there; she shuddered herself, thinking of how it would feel against her skin, if she'd chosen a different path. Her thumb dipped a little, finding the pulse over his carotid artery; she pushed just a little, no more than if she'd been searching for signs of life, and his heartrate jumped slightly before settling.

It struck her, right then and there, in a cold, dark apartment, that she wanted to keep him, more than anything at that moment, and just as quick was the bone-deep knowledge that she couldn't. Because he was Steve, and he was Captain America, and she had issues so profound that it would take a deep-sea drill just to uncover them, and he didn't deserve that. She had no idea how he felt about her, but she had to make sure that he knew there couldn't be anything more between them.

But not right now. Right now she wanted exactly what she had: his hair under her fingers, his cheek heating up the denim over her leg, and his hand curled a little possessively around her calf.

A few minutes later--maybe fifteen total--she shifted, though, and tapped Steve on the shoulder. "Thank you," she said. "But I think we need to get going again."

"Yeah," he said, and sat up, brushing his hair back into place. "Are you feeling better?" he asked.

"Much better," she said, giving him a smile that was about two-thirds real.

Her phone rang, right as she was re-locking the apartment; she'd already shut the window and smoothed the carpet flat. It wasn't suitable to be a safehouse anymore, but she might as well not leave it a mess. She'd left her phone on silent, but that wasn't exactly an impediment for about half the people she knew, so she pulled it out and checked the name of the caller. Nick Fury.

Well, she probably should answer it.

"Black Widow, report."

"With all due respect, sir, I told you where I was going and what I was doing earlier," she said, propping herself against the wall and signaling to Steve to relax for a moment.

"That's why I said 'report' and not 'get your ass back here,' Agent Romanoff."

She could feel him waiting even over the line, and finally said, "Contact made with the Soviet assassin, code name Winter Soldier. Searching former known safehouses at the moment. No need for backup; contact was non-lethal and appears to be continuing that way."

Steve sucked in a breath; apparently he hadn't expected her to tell Fury everything, or at least not so baldly.

"If the situation changes by so much as an iota, you will call in backup so fast that Coulson's hair will fly off, do you hear me?" Fury said a full fifteen seconds of knife-edged silence later. "If you get Captain America killed--or yourself--I will make them bring you back from the dead to kill you myself. Slowly."

"Understood," Natasha said.

"Your choice what to do about the Winter Soldier, but I expect that killing him will be the easiest."

"Acknowledged, Director," she said.

"Yeah, you better acknowledge me. Fury out." The phone beeped as he hung up.

Natasha re-pocketed her phone, making sure to turn it back on silent, and said to Steve, "Let's go."

The next place was in a warehouse near the river, over in Brooklyn; it was dark and gloomy and almost all the surfaces were damp, but Natasha knew about two seconds after they entered the building that that was where the Winter Soldier had gone. "He's here," she breathed, inaudible to all but super-soldier senses, and Steve brushed a hand lightly across her back in acknowledgment as they crouched just inside the door. She couldn't say exactly how she knew, but the clues were everywhere: the faint trace of gunpowder and leather in the air, the utter lack of footprints on the floor, the seemingly-random pattern of industrial junk and trash strewn across the cement. She knew his training, and she knew her training, and he was here.

The problem was, she didn't know where, and it was a large building. She'd injured him, if only slightly, and she'd caused him mental problems, so he'd probably be holed up somewhere in a smallish room where he could guard the entrance and exit. The only small rooms she could see were in the corner, probably offices of some sort, and they were almost directly catty-corner to where they'd entered. They should go around the outer walls; not that the walls would provide much defense from bullets, but the only other option was going right across the floor, and that was unacceptable.

She leaned back into Steve and indicated the offices in the opposite corner; he nodded. "Around the edge?" he whispered in her ear, just a puff of breath, and it was her turn to nod.

Five minutes of slow, steady creeping, careful not to dislodge any of the random pieces of metal and plastic, and they were just outside of the offices. There was no helpful flicker of light to indicate which one was currently occupied by the Winter Soldier, and all three doors looked identically ignored and abandoned; she'd have to get a lot closer to see any possible clues that he'd left, now that he was being stealthy. The only thing to do would be to guess, and if she had to guess, she'd guess the one in the farthest corner, because it would only be vulnerable to entry from one of the other offices and would likely have a window for escape.

She told that to Steve through tracing a map on her own hand, and he nodded in agreement. She held up three fingers, counting down silently, and when she got to one, she sprang forward, kicking in the last door.

He wasn't there.

The room was empty, the floor swept bare; he'd been there, possibly as recently as a minute ago, but he wasn't there now. Natasha clenched her hands into fists and almost bit through her lip to suppress the need to hit something; it was a combination of adrenaline and frustration, and she knew it. She also knew that he wasn't in the two other offices, but she didn't know where he was, and she'd been so sure that he was still in the building.

"He's not here," she said quietly, probably unnecessarily, but Steve just nodded. She could barely see him in the darkness, but there was just enough light coming in the window to let her see his movement.

"What now?" he said. "He can't be far."

"He can't," she agreed, "but I don't--"

"Can I make a suggestion? It might be a long shot, but--"

"But what?" she said.

"No more than four blocks from here is a building where Bucky and I once shared a basement apartment," Steve said, a little hesitantly. "If the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes, he might go there."

Natasha stared at the floor for a moment, and then looked at the ceiling. "Why the fuck not," she said.

"Look, we don't have to--" Steve started to say; he didn't sound mad, but she could tell he thought she was making fun of him or humoring him or something.

"It's on the way to anywhere else we might go," she said, interrupting him gently, "and you know what, if for some reason you're correct, that the Winter Soldier is, in fact, Barnes, then you may have given us the jump on him."

He let out a long, measured breath. "Okay. Yeah. Thanks."

Steve and Bucky's old building was still standing, although it had apparently been damaged by the hurricane. If anyone had actually been living there, it would have been evacuated; it was empty, and it was ridiculously easy to get in and find the basement apartments. They'd been renumbered since Steve had lived there, but he was able to lead Natasha to the one they'd lived in, second from the end on the left.

The door was open, maybe a half inch, because the lock had been kicked in rather than picked. There were muddy footprints leading to the door, matching the generic military-surplus boots that Yasha had been wearing earlier, although that didn't mean much; Steve's hiking boots had almost the same tread, and the boots were a pretty common size. Someone was in there; it could be a looter, or a homeless person, or a former resident.

Natasha could handle all of those. She wasn't a hundred percent certain she could handle the Winter Soldier, especially with at least some of his memories jarred loose.

"What's the layout of the apartment?" she asked Steve quietly.

He traced it out with one finger on the wall--a smallish living room, a galley kitchen with an attached dining nook, a tiny bathroom, and a single bedroom. The bedroom and the living room had egress windows in wells; the other rooms did not. "No back way out, no stairs out of the bedroom window?"

Steve shook his head. "Not when we lived there, but it's been seventy-odd years."

Natasha spread her hands. "Better than nothing." She unholstered her gun, indicated that Steve should do the same, and held it in front of her while she counted to three in her head and then kicked the door in.

No one shot, and Natasha's gaze flicked around all four corners of the room--empty, other than a couple of beer cans crushed in a corner. It appeared that at the very least some squatters had been in there since the hurricane. She pressed her back to the moldy, disintegrating plaster and went around the short wall to check the kitchen; it was similarly empty, although it had a stove probably dating from the 1950s and an avocado-colored fridge that couldn't have been newer than 1980.

Steve pointed to the short hallway back to the bedroom and the bathroom, asking her silently if he should go first. Some part of her wanted to say no, that she should go first, but she had to admit that he could take more damage than she did, in case a cornered and wounded Winter Soldier just started shooting indiscriminately. Instead she gestured him forward with the hand that wasn't holding her gun, and he went, Natasha right behind him.

The bedroom was empty at first glance, the window shut. Natasha ducked her head into the bathroom, and that was empty, too, the shower curtain around the cheap tub, obviously not original, clear and not hiding anything other than some particularly expansive mildew.

"Closet?" she said, when she came back; Steve was holding his gun, but he didn't seem as if he registered the weapon anymore. He was staring at the door to the closet, which was in the corner, taking up some room that otherwise would have been behind the bathtub.

"It's the same door," he said. "It's been painted a few times, but it's the same door as when I lived here."

Natasha didn't find that all that surprising; wooden doors tended to last, unless they were damaged somehow, like by a flying fist or foot. It seemed to mean something to Steve, though, and she watched as he opened the door, gun at the ready in case the Winter Soldier charged out at her.

He didn't, though; the closet was empty, too, but Steve wasn't looking in the closet. He opened the door until it hit the wall and then knelt, his fingers finding the bottom corner below the hinge. His smile was bittersweet as he said, "They're still there."

"What's still there?" she asked, and he gestured for her to kneel. She put her fingers where his had been and felt, carved into the wood, softened over time and paint jobs, JB + SR.


She gave him a moment to compose himself, but had to say, "Steve, I need to go check the window. Can you look in the closet to see if there's a back way out that's been added?"

"I can do that." He stood, and so did she; she went over to look at the window, which had afull coating of undisturbed grime. Clearly, it hadn't been opened any time recently. She turned back to look at the closet--

--just in time to see Steve fall through the floor.

"Steve!" She ran forward and dove into the closet, reaching out to find the hole, see if she could pull him up, but she slid on a patch of damp wood and fell in, unable to catch herself despite all of her so-called skills and enhancements. Stupid, Natasha, she thought as the darkness closed around her.

* * *

Steve landed on his feet, but it was hard concrete and he stumbled a little, ending crouched with one hand on the ground. Natasha landed on his back, feet first, and that smarted a little, but she wasn't falling fast enough to hurt him. She rolled to one side and they came up back to back, blinking in the darkness. Echoing sound and some water dripping made Steve think the room they were in was fairly large; he'd fallen less than fifty feet, certainly, probably more like twenty, and the ceiling was maybe ten or so feet above his head.

A click sounded above their heads, and Steve looked up instinctively, but back down only a second later when a flame flickered about ten feet away.

"It's an electronic lock. The trap door is triggered by pressure from above, and then it locks behind you. Don't worry. We're alone down here."

Steve and Natasha both turned to look at the speaker, who was, of course, the Winter Soldier, holding a lighter somewhat near his face.

But no--he'd actually said then it locks behind ya, betraying the barest hint of his old accent, and Steve couldn't stop himself from saying, "Bucky?"

The lighter flickered off, leaving them in darkness again, but Bucky--Yasha--whoever he was said, "I haven't been Bucky Barnes in seventy years."

Steve heard Natasha inhale sharply, but it was a little distant; it was taking all of his concentration to stay standing. Bucky's alive! some part of him crowed, but there were too many other things drowning it out. Including the most important question--

"Are you going to kill us?" Steve asked.

"Heh," Bucky--Steve couldn't help but call him that--said. "Not right now, probably not for the next half hour. I don't know after that."

"We can help you," Natasha said. "SHIELD can. They fixed me."

"Ah, yes, because if you have one indestructible, possibly-immortal Russian assassin, it clearly means you can open your heart to two," Bucky said bitterly. "Look, we'll just get out of here and I won't kill either of you and you'll never see me again."

"I don't want that," Steve said; even in his own ears, his voice sounded strangled.

"You want me to kill you?" Bucky said, and it sounded so much like him that Steve's heart gave a weird thump.

"No, I--"

"I get it, Rogers," Bucky said. "Look, I'm not--who I was. Who he was. So you should probably get it through your head now, and when we get out of here and I disappear again, assuming Natalia doesn't kill me first, it'll hurt less. But right now, we gotta figure out how to get out."

"Where are we?" Natasha asked.

"In a subway tunnel below Brooklyn," Bucky replied. "One that predates the regular subway system."

"Pretty sure there's an H.P. Lovecraft story about this," Steve said.

"Yeah, there is; it's terrible, and you made me read it," Bucky said, and Steve gave a short bark of laughter.

"So we're alone down here?" Natasha said pointedly, and Bucky flicked the lighter back on, letting them see one bricked-over end of the room, twenty feet behind him, and then the other, twenty feet in the opposite direction. The ceiling was arched, the room about twenty feet wide, and there were some broken pieces of wood to one side, but other than that and the three of them, the room was empty.

"There's no second way out?" Steve asked as Bucky closed the lighter again.

"Nope," Bucky said. "Just the trap door overhead. I've only been here maybe five or so minutes longer than you have, but the room's sealed, as far as I can tell."

"Okay," Natasha said. "Give me the lighter."

Bucky's shoes made almost no noise on the concrete, but Steve could feel the air currents shift as he moved towards them. When he was standing a couple of feet away, he stopped and turned the lighter on again, handing it to Natasha. "It's too high," he said, "and there's nothing we can climb to get to it. We're fucked."

Natasha was pulling her cell phone out of her pocket, and Steve abruptly remembered that he had one as well. No signal, obviously, so he turned on his flashlight app and held it out to look up at the trap door.

It was about ten feet above his head, maybe a little more, but there was a lock panel on one side of the door, and if Steve had to guess he would have said that the person who made the room down there probably had a ladder that had gotten removed when the room was cleared out. A couple of pieces of metal bolted to the floor, sticking up maybe half an inch, lent credence to his theory.

"I can pick the lock," Natasha announced. "I've picked this kind of lock before, and I have everything to do it. I just need to get up there."

Bucky snorted. "You just need to get up there, for how long?"

"About two seconds," she said, and there was enough light from the two cell phones to see her twist her lips. She pulled what looked like a black pen out of her pocket. It was a little thicker than most of the ones that Steve had seen, but it was somewhat smaller than the dry-erase markers floating around SHIELD HQ. "Trust me when I say this'll get through it in the blink of an eye. I just need to get to the lock."

"What, is that an exploding pen? Who do you think you are, James Bond?" Bucky said; Steve didn't get the reference, but Natasha just snorted, popped the side off the pen, and showed them the small computer parts inside.

Bucky whistled. "Slick," he said. "So how do we get you up there?"

"I'm going to go look for something useful in the junk pile," Steve said, and waited for Natasha's nod before he headed over to look near the pile of broken wood.

"No, really, how are we going to get you up there?" Bucky said as Steve walked away. "Throw you, and you catch onto the wall like you really are a spider? You know, I hear there's a kid over in Queens who can do that."

"I've heard that too," Natasha said, in that careful tone that meant that she knew more than she was saying. Of course, the fact that Steve could hear that tone meant that she wanted him to know, but Bucky laughed.

"Oh, Natalia," he said.

"It's Natasha these days," she said. "Natasha Romanoff."

"You mean Romanova?"

"Americans aren't so good at understanding the whole feminine ending business, so no, I mean Romanoff. Two effs."


Steve smiled and bent over, sifting through the broken wood. He didn't see any rope or anything bigger than a foot long, but he checked carefully, since this could mean the difference between getting out and not. And getting out soon: he didn't know how long Bucky was going to stay himself, or at least the self who wasn't going to kill Steve.

"Here, stand on my shoulders," Bucky said, and Steve looked up just in time to see Natasha jump lightly from Bucky's cupped hands up onto him. Much more quietly, Bucky said, "So, you and Steve are--?"

"Yes," Natasha said. She held the cell phone over her head and looked at the lock. Steve went back to sifting through the detritus, pretending he couldn't hear, even though Natasha almost certainly knew he could.

"You know he and I used to--"

"Yes," she said again.

"Does he know you and I used to--"

"Yes," she said a third time. "But until about an hour ago, we didn't know you were the same person."

"Huh," Bucky said, and then they fell silent for a moment. "Weird," he said after the silence.

"No, not really," Natasha said, although it hadn't been a question.

When they'd been quiet for another few seconds, Steve straightened, and went back to them, Natasha still on Bucky's shoulders. "Nothing useful over there," he said.

"Yeah, I didn't think so," Natasha said. She jumped down to the ground, landing lightly, and said, "Steve, I think we're going to need you on the bottom, then--Yasha, then me." She hesitated only briefly before using that name, but Bucky-Yasha-the Winter Soldier didn't correct her.

"Okay," Steve said. He tucked his cell phone back in his pocket, looked up by the light of Natasha's phone, and positioned himself as best as he could under the trap door. Spreading his feet apart a little, he braced himself, and then held his hands in front of him, fingers laced together.

Bucky stepped up and put the toe of his boot in Steve's hands. "You know, punk, I remember when you couldn't do this."

Steve was abruptly aware that Bucky was very close to him, and his mouth dried out, but he managed to say, "Well, it's probably better that I'm not scrawny anymore, if we want to get out of here."

"It's true," Bucky said, with a very familiar half-smile, and pushed his hands on Steve's shoulders, stepping up to stand there a moment later. "Now how does our Natasha get up top?" he asked.

"That's the easy part," Natasha said, and climbed the two of them as if, well, it were as easy as she said.

Steve wrapped his hands around Bucky's ankles and concentrated on holding still. They weren't anywhere near his maximum load; he could probably have held them up for hours, based just on the weight, but it was a little awkward.

"Got it," Natasha said a few seconds later. Steve heard Bucky grunt as she did something, he didn't know what, but just after that, the weight on top of him reduced by, well, approximately Natasha's body weight, and Bucky jumped down to stand next to Steve.

They both looked up at the trap door, and Natasha's head poked down. "Don't worry," she said. "I've got it propped open. Hold on just a moment and I'll get a rope."

"Okay," Steve said. He looked at Bucky, as much of his face that was visible in the light from the cell phone, and couldn't stop himself from smiling.

"You're calling me Bucky in your head, aren't you?" he said quietly, and Steve nodded. "Don't," he said. "I said already: I'm not him."

"What do you want me to call you?" Steve said.

Bucky shrugged. "Doesn't matter, does it? We get out of here, we go our separate ways."

"Or we don't," Steve said, "and I have to call you something."

Bucky opened his mouth to say something, but just then Natasha dropped a rope, one that looked like she'd rescued it from the docks, wide and rough and wet. Steve gestured for Bucky to climb first, and he shrugged and did, hand over hand as if it were easy.

Which, to be fair, it was; Steve did the same thing, and Natasha untied the rope from the radiator where she'd anchored it.

"Well, it's been real," Bucky drawled, and tipped two fingers at his temple in a terrible salute. "Don't get yourself killed."

"You either," Natasha said; it was good that she was speaking, because Steve had no idea what to say. "Are you sure you don't want to come into SHIELD, get the rest of the bad stuff flushed out?"

Bucky snorted. "Nope."

"Well, the offer's there."

A gunshot sounded outside, and Bucky's head flew up; suddenly, he really wasn't Bucky Barnes. Steve saw his face change in the light coming in the window, just subtly, tensing in his jaw and the half-smirk he'd had earlier wiping to utter blankness. His eyes narrowed, and he reached for a gun.

Shit, Steve thought, and he could almost hear it echoed in Natasha's head. He leaped forward, tackling not-Bucky, and managed to knock him to the ground before not-Bucky broke his grasp and rolled to one side. Natasha was there, though, and she laid him out with a thigh-hold. He broke that, too, and Steve was grappling with him, waiting for Natasha to dive in and help him when a thunk sounded. A couple seconds later, not-Bucky went limp, and Steve looked to see a tranquilizer dart sticking out of the side of the man's neck.

"Who shot that?" he asked Natasha.

"Someone SHIELD," she said, and helped him lower Bucky to the ground. She grabbed the rope and said, "If they didn't use the Hulk cartridges, that isn't going to last very long. Help me tie him up."

"They're the Hulk cartridges," Coulson said from by the door, and Steve turned to look at him.

"That was you?" he asked.

"No, Sitwell," Coulson said. "I was spotter. Let's get him back to HQ."

"Not that I'm complaining," Steve said as they carried Bucky out and into the waiting SHIELD SUV, "but how did you know we were there and we'd need a hand?"

Coulson gave him a placid smile. "Fury was having you monitored, and your phones suddenly went dark. He sent us over to check, and, well, you know the rest of the story. So, Sergeant Barnes is, in fact, the Soviet assassin with the code name 'Winter Soldier?'"

"Yes," Steve said.


When they got back to HQ, it was well past midnight, but Fury hauled them into a room for debrief. "Explain," he said--no, ordered, and Steve clenched his teeth.

"James Buchanan Barnes was born on March 20, 1919," he said, gritting the words out, "in Brooklyn. He joined the military in 1943, like so many of us did, and in late 1943 was captured by HYDRA. He likely had some sort of version of the serum, but I don't think that any doctors looked at him after we got back. As far as I knew, he fell out of a train on May 5, 1945."

"Sometime in the late 1950s," Natasha said, taking up the story, "I met the Winter Soldier; we were assigned to a few missions together. He never told me his full name, and at some point before I defected, he had a memory wipe and ceased to remember me." Actually, she’d mentioned multiple memory wipes and multiple meetings, but Fury didn't need to know that. "I thought he was dead some fifteen years ago. However, he wasn't, obviously, and when I confronted him in Central Park earlier, I performed a partial cognitive recalibration and he recalled having been Barnes."

"What's this about killing Captain America?" Fury asked.

"All of us were given orders to kill Captain America on sight," Natasha said, and Steve sucked in a breath. "There was a pervasive fear in the Red Room that the U.S. would resurrect the uniform, and symbolically speaking, it was rather powerful for all of us to be trained to kill America, anthropomorphized. But you knew that, sir."

Fury nodded. "So that's just old programming, not something specific against Rogers here."

Natasha shrugged. "I don't know. You'd have to ask him. Then again, if there was some remnant of Barnes's feelings towards Rogers, it might have been easy for the Red Room to use those against him and seat the compulsion to kill somewhat deeper than mine."

"Something I need to know about the nature of your relationship with Barnes, Captain?" Fury asked, his arms crossed, leaning back in his chair.

"I wouldn't say it's necessary for you to know anything other than that we were best friends," Steve said, keeping his face as blank as he could, even while he knew he was telling Fury more than had ever made it into any history book or even, apparently, Fury's secret files.

"All right," Fury said. "Now what happened in there?"

Natasha spoke this time, explaining about the chase, the fall, and the escape. "Who lives in that apartment?"

Fury shrugged. "Just looks like a run-of-the-mill serial killer who was forced out by Sandy," he said.

Steve shook his head, because really, only Fury could describe a serial killer as 'run-of-the-mill.'

"We'll take care of the trap door, so no one else falls in," Fury said, "and if we can catch the guy, well, that's great." He stood, and added, "If we need anything else, it can wait till later."

Privately Steve thought it could all have waited until later, but he also knew there was no way he'd be sleeping any time soon. He followed Natasha out of the room and over to the elevator, where he stared at the wall, seeing in his mind Bucky transforming back into the Winter Soldier, again and again.

He got into the elevator car when it came, and let Natasha push the button for the residential floor. Following her out, he stopped at the door to his room and fumbled for his keys for a moment.


He looked up, and Natasha was standing by her door, facing him.

"Shower, get ready for bed, and then come to me, okay?"

Her face was soft as she looked at him, and a little uncertain, but Steve felt no uncertainty at all; instead, he felt a rush of pure relief. "Okay," he said. "Yes. Please."

She smiled at that, and went into her own quarters.

* * *

Natasha took her own shower and changed into a clean t-shirt and yoga pants; she was brushing her hair when there was a tentative knock on her door. She let Steve in, and he looked absurdly young with wet hair, wearing a t-shirt and knit sleep pants. The illusion was helped by his bare feet, and she directed him to sit on the bed while she finished braiding her hair and turned off the lights.

He stretched out at her direction and she joined him on the bed, lying on her back and letting him curl around her; he buried his face in her neck and just breathed.

Neither of them fell asleep, but most of a half hour had passed before either spoke. It was Steve who broke the silence, saying, "I'm glad we didn't have to kill him."

"Me, too," she said.

"I don't know what's going to happen now."

Natasha didn't reply for a moment, partially because she didn't know to what he was referring. Finally, she picked the easiest one to address. "Deprogramming isn't pleasant," she said. "Likely it'll take a few months, and he won't be happy for a lot of it. But it worked for me, so I have no doubt it'll work for him."

"Ah," Steve said.

"They won't even let him out of the room, let alone the building, until they think he can handle it."

"That sounds miserable."

"It is," she said.

Steve's fingers stole up and stroked just behind her ear. "I'm sorry you had to go through that."

"It's better than what the Red Room did," she said, as dismissively as she could. "Maybe you should ask if you can take an assignment, go out of the country for a few weeks so you don't spend all your time thinking about him."

She felt Steve take a slow, measured breath against her collarbone. "I could," he said. "I could also stay here and help, since I'm almost the only person alive who knew Bucky Barnes."

"You could," she said as neutrally as she could, but she knew where this was going, could feel it as surely as she could feel his leg slung across hers. The morning would come, or maybe a couple days would pass, and then he'd explain to her how he wanted to be able to spend more time with Bucky, probably rekindle their old relationship, and it would be over with her. He'd let her down gently, she was sure, because he was sweet like that, but it was coming.

The thing was, though, she couldn't bring herself to break it off first, to save herself some pain.

"How long were you and Yasha together?" Steve asked, surprising Natasha a little, but she answered anyway.

"On and off for twenty years. We'd both forget each other, and then start over."

"That's . . . horrible, but very romantic," he said after a moment. "I can't imagine what the Red Room did to the two of you."

"It's in the past," she said.

"I know you don't want to talk about it," he said, "but I can't imagine anything anyone could do to me to make me forget you."

You. Not Bucky, not Yasha: you. Natasha sucked in a sharp breath, too wound up and exhausted to suppress her surprise. "Well, they've got it down to a science," she said, her voice sounding a little weird in her ears. "How long were you and Bucky lovers?"

"Not that long," he said. "About eight years, but we were best friends before that, ever since we were kids." He shifted a little, clearly uncomfortable. "We weren't . . . exclusive, I guess. Bucky dated some women as a cover for us. I tried, but never really managed."

"Your heart wasn't in it?" she asked.

"Not really," he said. "And you've seen pictures, I guess. I just wasn't what women were looking for."

"Or they could tell you weren't all that interested," Natasha suggested, and he laughed.

"Maybe you haven't seen pictures," he said.

"I have," she said. "You were adorable. I absolutely would have seduced you for a mission."

The minute she said it, she knew it was the wrong thing to say; he stiffened and tried to roll away from her, and she let him. "Is that what this was?" he said. "A mission?"

"No," she said. "No, it wasn't. Fury had me watching you, but that has nothing to do with this at all."

"How can I be sure?" Steve said; he was sitting on the side of the bed now, but he hadn't stood yet, which she took as a good sign.

Or maybe she didn't want to take it as a good sign. She could just make something up, shade the truth in such a way that he'd storm out. It would be a clean break, and an easy--easier--way to protect herself from the pain that was coming.

No. That wasn't protection so much as cowardice. She owed him the truth, or at least as much of it as she could tell.

"I asked you in tonight because I wanted to hold you," she said. "That's all. I thought maybe you would want that, too."

"Yes," he said, almost inaudibly.

"Then come back, please," she said.

A long moment passed, and then Steve swung his legs back onto the bed. He stretched back out, a little cautiously, and rested his head back on her shoulder.

"Thank you," she said, once he'd settled, and his arm over her waist tightened.

"No, thank you," he said. "I'm sorry. I didn't actually think you'd--you'd slept with me because Director Fury told you to. I just--it's been a long day."

"It's been a really long day," she said, stroking his hair. "You should sleep."

"So should you," he said.

"I will if you will," she said, and he chuckled again.

A few minutes of silence, and then: "Is it all right if I stay?"

"Of course you can," she said. "Why do you ask?"

"It's dawn," he said, and it was, pale fingers of early sunlight starting to creep around the edges of the miniblinds. "I didn't know if--"

"If what?" she asked, when he didn't continue.

"If you wanted people to see me come out of your room during daylight."

"Oh," she said. "I don't mind," she said, and as she said it, realized that she didn't.

"So we can do this again?" he asked in a rush.

"You mean--"

"All of it," he said.

It took her a moment before she could answer him, but she'd made up her mind hours ago, when he knelt in front of her without knowing what he was offering, when he'd trusted her that much. "Yeah," she said. "We can--whatever you need."

"Whatever you need," he said.

"Whatever we both need, okay?"


She listened to him breathe for a couple minutes, and knew he was going to speak when he held his breath briefly. "Did you love him?" he asked.

Natasha inhaled and exhaled slowly before answering; she didn't bother asking who. "We were taught very carefully not to love," she said. "It compromises the agent and the mission."

Steve seemed to be waiting for her to continue; he didn't say anything, and the quiet stretched out thin between them.

"But if I loved anyone, it would have been him," she said into the darkness.

He raised a hand, placed it gently against her cheek, and turned her face to the side so he could kiss her: forehead, nose, chin, lips. "He loved you too, I'm sure," Steve said quietly after he'd tucked his face back into her neck.

She felt a tear slide its way down her cheek, fortunately on the opposite side from Steve, and she wiped it away carefully.

* * *

Four months passed.

Every day, Steve would make his way over to where Bucky was being held, and ask to see him; sometimes he'd be allowed to look in a window while Bucky slept, but otherwise he was turned away. Natasha was doing the same thing; occasionally they'd come at the same time, but usually not.

They spent Thanksgiving with Clint and Coulson; the former was almost healed from his burns, and they made so much food that even with Steve stuffing himself to the gills, there were leftovers. Christmas was a bit more strained, what with all the Iron-Man-related crap that was happening. Natasha advised him to ignore it. "Stark will make more suits. He won't quit being Iron Man."

"I don't think that was what I was worried about," Steve said, but he laughed.

They exchanged presents, both publicly and privately. The public presents were a sweater and a book; the private ones were, well, lined heavy-duty handcuffs and silk ropes, from Natasha, and a drawing of the two of them together, from Steve.

(She'd taken one look at the picture and nearly ripped his clothing off, so he figured the gift was a success.)

New Year's Eve was champagne and watching the ball drop from a high-up floor in SHIELD HQ; they kissed at midnight, and then she tied him to the bed and teased him until he was begging and crying for her to let him come.

And then it was March, and the snow had all melted and the crocuses were popping up. Spring was just around the corner, which meant Bucky's birthday, and Steve was a little bit down because he wasn't sure he'd be allowed to wish Bucky a happy birthday. He went anyway, to try; they directed him to look in the window, and when he did, Bucky was awake.

Bucky was also looking back at him, which meant that the two-way mirroring had been turned off, so Steve smiled, and Bucky smiled back. It was the same old familiar smile from when he really had been Bucky Barnes, and Steve's heart clenched in his chest.

Bucky's face was thinner--all of him looked a little thinner--and he had dark circles under his eyes. He was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, and his left hand, which Steve had seen uncovered while he was sleeping, was in a thin, flesh-colored glove. It was a good thing that Steve had seen the cybernetic arm while Bucky had been out, so he could get over his initial discomfort with the whole idea. Bucky really didn't look as if he'd been getting enough sleep, even though every time Steve had seen him he'd been asleep, but he was standing a little stiffly and moving over to open the door. "Hi," he said. "Doc told me you'd be by."

"Yeah, I, uh--" Steve said, and then stopped and swallowed. "Happy birthday, Bucky," he said.

Bucky winced. "James," he said. "Please. At least for now. And thank you. Is it really March already?"

"Yep," Steve said. "Some of the trees are already starting to bud."


"How are you doing?" Steve asked.

Bucky--James winced again. "Tired," he said. "Hard to sleep when it's mostly nightmares."

"I'm sorry." Steve could only imagine. Well, no, he actually didn't have to imagine; that had happened to him when he first woke up after being unthawed, but he didn't really know what to say other than I'm sorry. He reached out to touch James on the shoulder, but James took a step back.

"Hey, it's not your fault." Before Steve could open his mouth to point out that yeah, it actually sort of was, James added, "Anyway, apparently I get moved to regular quarters like yours tomorrow. Want to stop by and help me out then?"

"Sure," Steve said, a little surprised.

"0900 work for you?"

"Sure," Steve said again.

"Awesome." James smiled, but it was as fake as Natasha's silver Christmas tree, and Steve found himself turned around and out the door before he even realized he'd been dismissed.

That had been . . . strange. He wanted to go back, actually talk to James some, but he didn't think he'd be let in this time, and James had clearly wanted him gone, so.

But why did James want him gone? Something was wrong, or at least weird, and the only person who would know it would be Natasha. Fortunately she was in town; she'd been in the gym the last he knew, so he started there.

It was empty, or at least empty of Natasha; a couple of agents he didn't know well were on treadmills, but they ignored him and he returned the favor. He tried her room next, and she was there, sitting on her bed; she patted the mattress next to her, but he slid to his knees in front of her instead and rested his head in her lap.

"It's like that, is it," Natasha said, gently humorous; she stroked his hair, and he relaxed just a trifle.

He shook his head, though, when he realized he should answer, rubbing his cheek against the fabric of her jeans. "I don't know. Maybe. Bucky--James; he told me to call him 'James'--was awake today, and we talked for a minute, but he kicked me out before I said anything."

"Ah," Natasha said. "I'm sorry." She continued stroking his hair, and he wrapped a hand around her calf.

"I don't know what to do now."

"Go back tomorrow, I guess," she said. "You might want to talk to Clint about this, actually, after he gets back from Latveria."

"Why?" he asked, before his brain could catch up. "Oh." Because Clint had been the one trying to see Natasha while she got un-brainwashed, and had dealt with her immediately afterward, although that brought up another point. "Were you and Clint ever . . .?"

"Yes, for a while. Not any more, obviously." She scratched gently behind his ear. "No need to be jealous."

"I'm not," he said, "I'm just . . . Well, no, I'm a little jealous," he admitted, and she chuckled.

"What do you want from James?" she asked.

"I want Bucky Barnes back," he said, thinking it was probably obvious.

"Yes, but which Bucky Barnes?" she asked, and her hand stilled. "Your best friend or your lover?"

Oh. Wow, he was being colossally rude. "My best friend. I thought the 'lover' slot was already taken."

"He does have a prior claim," she said, tone as even as if she were talking about the weather.

"Yes, but by that logic, he also has a prior claim on you," Steve said, and then it occurred to him the further implications of that statement. "So, I mean, if you and he wanted to--" He stopped, because it felt like something was tearing in his chest.

"No," Natasha said, quite firmly, her hand going around the back of his neck and gripping tightly for a moment before releasing. "I'm not going to leave you. You're mine."

"Okay," he breathed. "Yes." He folded himself as closely as he could to her and put his other hand on her waist. It was the closest he could get to saying I love you and You're mine, too.

"But," she said, "and I would like an honest answer here, do you still love him?"

"Of course," Steve said. Not loving Bucky, or James, or whoever he was, wasn't an option.

"Would you want to be with him if he was interested, and if I weren't in the picture?"

"Maybe," he said. "But you are in the picture, and he doesn't--he's not interested."

"Sweetheart," Natasha said, "there are ways that more than two people can be together."

Steve felt his face grow hot, and he squeezed his eyes shut. "I know that. I'm not completely sheltered," he said. "I just--it's not my first thought, and it wouldn't have occurred to me that--that what we have would have room for that. Or even if that's something I want. I don't know."

"You don't have to decide right now," she said, and tapped him on the shoulder.

He raised his head to look at her, and she patted the mattress next to her again. This time he sat next to her as she'd asked, and she turned ninety degrees to face him, her legs crossed.

"But maybe you can think about it," she said. "Think about whether it is something you want. Don't worry about what I think about it."

"But what do you think about it?" he asked.

"You and James together?"

He nodded.

"Sounds pretty hot to me," she said, with a crooked smile.

There was a long moment in which he could do nothing but stare at Natasha, and then he started laughing, leaning forward to rest his forearms on his knees. She reached out and tousled his hair, and he caught her fingers and kissed them. "You want to watch?" he said.

"Maybe," she said.

"Maybe I want to watch you and James together," Steve said, and for a moment he felt weird, but not bad-weird--good-weird.

Then, when Natasha got a delighted look on her face and tackled him to the mattress, it stopped being weird and started just being good.

Afterward, she said, "I'll go talk to him, if you want. About why he kicked you out earlier."

Steve shrugged. "I'm supposed to meet him to help him move into his new quarters tomorrow morning at 0900. Maybe he'll want to talk then."

"Oh.," she said. "Do you want me to come along?"

He thought about it for a moment, and said, "Yeah, I do, actually. Can you?"

"I can. But on that note, I have a meeting with Fury at 1100 and I need to shower again."

"I could help," he suggested.

"The last time you offered to help, I was twenty minutes late. Go. Use your own shower." She grinned as she pushed him off the side of the bed, and he laughed as he let himself fall.

The next morning he showed up at the door of the medical center with a box full of things he thought James wouldn't have gotten from SHIELD: a table lamp, an extra blanket, a box of tissues, a spare set of sheets, a framed picture for the wall, and other miscellaneous items. Natasha was right behind him; her box of gifts included more food, a couple books, and a set of matriochka dolls, mostly as a joke.

The door attendant made them leave their boxes in the lobby, but James was coming through with a couple boxes in his arms, dressed in a different long-sleeved t-shirt but the same jeans, the same glove over his cybernetic hand. "Steve. Natasha. I doubt it takes three people to move three boxes up a few floors," he said, one corner of his mouth quirking upwards.

"I doubt it even takes two," Natasha said, "but we brought more things for you."

"Oh. Thanks," he added a moment later. "Shall we?" He gestured with the boxes. "There's a third back in the other room, but it can wait."

"I can get it," Steve said.

James laughed. "Right. Super-soldier. I forgot for a moment."

What the hell was going on? James was acting even weirder than the day before. Steve went down the short hallway and into the room James had been staying in, and picked up the third box, which wasn't particularly heavy. He returned to the lobby, picked up his original box, and followed James and Natasha to the elevator. "What floor do they have you on?" Natasha asked.

"The floor below most of the residential rooms, I'm told," James said, as the elevator dinged. "It apparently has stronger security measures." He didn't bother to hide the bitterness there.

"Yeah, I spent two years there," Natasha said matter-of-factly, and once they were in the elevator car, she pushed the right button without asking. "You won't be able to get around into the vent system from that floor," she said once the doors shut. "Do you get gym privileges?"

"Two hours at the gym a day, supervised at first to make sure I don't hurt myself, and an hour at the range, always supervised."

Natasha nodded. "It'll probably be Clint supervising you. He's all right."

"He's the one who got you out, right?" James said.

"Yeah. Like I said, he's all right. Don't touch his bow, and you'll get along fine."

The elevator stopped, the doors opening, and all three of them had to scan their IDs before they could enter the floor. "This seems a little excessive," Steve said under his breath, and James gave a short, humor-free laugh.

James's door was also locked, but it took a thumbprint and retinal scan for him to get in. "They know these locks aren't secure, don't they?" he said to Natasha.

She shrugged. "Yeah, but I don't think the point is really to keep you out of your own place."

Inside it looked much the same as Natasha's and Steve's quarters, with beige walls, a kitchenette on one wall, the door to the bathroom right next to it, and a bed in the corner. James's couch was only a two-seater, but it was covered in the same awful stripes-and-squares pattern as Steve's own. James set his box down on the couch and said, "Yeah, so, like I said, don't really need three people to put away five items."

Natasha snorted and sat down on the couch, crossing her legs under her. "Well, in that case," she said, "someone fetch me a gingerbread cookie latte while I watch the two of you do all the work."

"I can't leave the building," James said.

"I'm not allowed in the Starbucks on the corner anymore," Steve said, which was true, and all Clint's fault, which Natasha knew, but James turned to Steve with a frown.

"What on earth did you do?"

"It's a long story," Steve said, setting his own boxes down. He found the pile of sheets, dropped it into James's arms, and said, "I'm going to unpack your new kitchen stuff."

"Is that what's in that box?" James said; Steve didn't bother to respond.

The dishes SHIELD had given him looked like they were from IKEA: plain white and sturdy. They were unboxed, though, and instead of a set of four, it was a set of three. Steve wondered what on earth had happened to the fourth set but dismissed it. The butter knives were pretty well blunted, which made Steve chuckle; he knew Natasha well enough to know it wasn't a deterrent to using a butter knife as a weapon. There were, of course, no cutting knives, which begged the question of how James would, say, make himself anything other than toast, but Steve couldn't really question SHIELD in its infinite wisdom.

He turned his head enough to see James struggling with the fitted sheet, and Natasha ignoring him completely to play Candy Crush, by the sounds of it, on her phone. The music drove Steve bonkers, but that might have been Natasha's point. She was acting a little strangely, but he trusted that it would make sense later.

By the time Steve had finished plugging in James's toaster and rearranging the meager provisions, James was wrestling with a pillowcase. Steve brushed past him, holding a lamp, and knelt, hunting around behind the nightstand for the electrical outlet he knew would be there.

"That's not how you do it," Natasha said, and Steve heard her stand. "Bunch it up, like pantyhose. Don't you remember the op in Krasnogvardeyskoye--ah. I mean, Biryuch."

"I do, but--oh. Didn't we agree not to mention that?"

"That was at least two brain-washings ago," Natasha said blithely, in a way that let Steve know she was being rude on purpose. A long moment passed in which Steve wondered whether he would end up in the middle of an ex-Russian-assassin tornado, and then James started laughing.

Steve relaxed, and plugged in the lamp; he'd found the outlet before Natasha even spoke, but had judged it prudent to wait. Now, though, he sat back on his heels. He didn't realize until he did so that it would put his head right next to Natasha's hip, but it did and she ruffled his hair absently. He leaned back a couple inches, resting his head against her for a moment, and then straightened.

James's laughter died out, and he spoke, his voice curious. "Oh, so it's like that?"

"Like what, exactly?" Natasha said, her hand on Steve's shoulder keeping him from turning or standing. He could have moved with little effort, but the weight of her hand said stay and he trusted her, so he stayed put.

Besides, he didn't need to see to know that Natasha and James were engaged in a staring contest. What he didn't know was who would crumble first.

James, apparently.

"I shouldn't be jealous of you, but I am," he said quietly. "I never figured out how to ask him for--that."

"Submission?" Natasha asked, also quietly.


Steve was struck with the image of himself on his knees, hands tied behind his back, Bucky (not James: Bucky) standing in front of him, and he just barely managed to suppress a shudder.

"Ask him now," she said, a gentle suggestion, and Steve bit the inside of his cheek.

"Talia, I can't," James said, sounding a little strangled. "He's yours."

"Tasha," she said. "And he is mine, but he could also be yours."

"Do I get to have you, too?" James asked, as if he fully expected to be told no.

"Not on my knees," Natasha said, and then her hand was gone from Steve's shoulder and soft sounds told him they were kissing.

He twisted around, remaining on his knees, and watched them kiss--or, well, something. If he hadn't been looking carefully he might have thought they were, in fact, trying to kill each other, or at least eat each other, from the mouth down. Natasha's hands made fists in James's hair; his left hand was on the back of her neck, trying vainly to hold her in place, and his right hand slid down her side, stopping just short of her hip, fingers pressing enough to dent in her skin. She was sucking in breaths between kisses and so was he, the sounds harsh and desperate in the air. She twisted against him; he tried to wedge a thigh between hers and failed. It was wild, in a way that Natasha never was with him and Bucky had only rarely been, and it was, by far, the hottest thing Steve had ever seen in his life.

Slowly, bit by bit, Natasha maneuvered James as she kissed him until he was against the wall next to the nightstand, in front of Steve. She reached down and tapped Steve on the shoulder; he stood, and she finally broke the kiss to say, "James. Ask him." She stepped backwards, leaving Steve standing in front of James.

James's eyes were wide and dark, his lips red and swollen from Natasha's ministrations; he licked them twice before he could speak. "Steve," he said, voice raspy and quiet. "Will you--will you kneel for me?"

Steve couldn't answer in words; it felt as though his heart was pounding so hard that it stopped his vocal cords from vibrating. There was no question in his mind as to what the answer was, though, none at all. He dropped to his knees as gracefully as he could--not very--and buried his face in the hollow just inside James's hip, fingers in his beltloops.

He heard James gasp over his head, and one of James's hands--the right, his organic hand--came to rest on his head, oh so gently. "What can I--"

"Anything," Steve said into James's jeans, and lifted his head enough to repeat himself. "Anything you want."

James said something under his breath in Russian that Steve didn't catch, but his other hand came down and he undid his belt and then the button and fly of his jeans in short order. "Suck me," he said roughly, pushing his jeans and underwear down, and Steve did, opening his mouth wide, taking in as much of James's erect cock as he could.

He dropped his arms to his sides, and then wrapped his right hand around his left wrist, a substitute for cuffs; James noticed, and said, "Yeah, that's it, Steve, keep your hands behind you, just use your mouth on me."

It had been--well, not that long, really, a few days since he'd last sucked someone off, but that had been Natasha's strap-on. It was well over a year in his own timeline since he'd gone down on Bucky, but it wasn't exactly something he'd forget how to do. He'd maybe forgotten quite how much he loved feeling a cock--James's cock--throbbing in his mouth, but he certainly hadn't forgotten that James loved having a tongue rubbed just there.

"Ohhh, God, yeah, just like that," James said, and his right hand came back to Steve's head, his thumb rubbing against Steve's cheekbone.

Steve debated for a moment, and, stopping with just the last inch or so of James's cock still in his mouth, let his wrist go. He reached up for James's left hand, sliding his fingers under James's cuff to find the edge of the glove. "Steve--no, wait, it's--" James said, trying to remove his hand from Steve's grasp, but Steve managed to slip off the glove and put James's metal hand on his head as well.

"He knows," Natasha said, standing somewhere behind them. "It's up to you whether you punish him for letting his hands go or not."

Natasha's punishments were usually along the lines of tying him up and then sitting on the bed and ignoring him for Candy Crush for an hour, so Steve wasn't that worried, but he did breathe an entirely metaphorical sigh of relief when James said, "No, I don't think--" and then flexed his fingers, both sets. Steve put his hands back behind him, right holding left, and then curled his tongue again.

Everything that wasn't James settled into a comfortable blur, but James's hands on his head and James's cock in his mouth kept him focused on the moment. Steve gripped his own wrist a little tighter, spread his knees just a little farther apart, and slid forward to take James all the way in.

James gasped, hands sliding down to cup Steve's jaw gently. Steve could feel the temperature difference between the two, but the metal of James's left hand was smooth, and James was careful, he could tell, not to grip any more firmly. He swallowed, letting the back of his throat work around the head of James's cock, and James groaned.

Unfortunately, even though he was a super-soldier, he did have to breathe occasionally, and he pulled off after a minute or so, instead setting up a bobbing rhythm. A few minutes of that, tongue swirling as much as he could, James's breath growing faster and more desperate, his moans more frequent, and his hands tangled in Steve's hair, and James gasped out, "No, wait, stop."

Steve stilled immediately, and James withdrew, wrapping his hand around himself and jerking quickly, desperately. "Close your eyes, open your mouth," James said, and Steve did so with a shudder. He could figure what would happen next, and he heard James make a low, guttural noise just before a stripe of hot come painted his face across his cheekbones. A second stripe went onto his tongue and lips, and Steve shut his mouth and swallowed.

"Oh, fuck, Steve, you're so--" James broke off and fell to his knees, almost on top of Steve, and kissed him, heedless of the mess on his face.

Steve would have sworn, himself, if his mouth hadn't been otherwise occupied, because James tasted the same, kissed the same, even smelled mostly the same as he always had--as Bucky had. Instead he poured everything he could into the kiss, let James search his mouth for his own taste, let James's hands roam over his face, his neck, his shoulders for long, aching moments.

When James finally pulled back, with one last swipe over Steve's skin to get, presumably, the last of the come, the look on his face was complicated. Love, hope, despair, and fear all tangled together; Steve wanted to kiss away all the darker emotions, but that was a lot to ask for from a kiss, so he said, "Can I let my hands go now, James?"

James looked surprised for a moment, and then said, "Yes, oh, fuck, I don't know what I'm doing."

"That's fine," Natasha said, and they both turned to look at her. "I do. Someone get on your back; I need an orgasm, and I don't want to do it myself."

"Me," Steve said, and James nodded. Steve stood, having long since let his wrist go, and stripped off his clothes quickly, laying them over the back of the couch. He pushed the flat sheet to one side, glad that no one had gotten to the blankets yet, and lay on his back.

Natasha had also been stripping while he was; she crawled onto the bed, and Steve watched with frank appreciation, thinking about nothing but how lovely she was. She leaned down to kiss him, brief but firm, and said, "I want your mouth, too."

"Yes, Natasha," he said, and scooted down the bed a couple inches so he could raise his arms above his head; they'd done this before, and it was easier on her this way, unless she wanted to pin his arms down with her shins.

But she was shaking her head when he went to raise his arms, and she said, "No, the other way." Turning to face the foot of the bed, she straddled Steve's head, knees splayed wide by his shoulders, and lowered herself onto his mouth.

This way, he couldn't see anything, except maybe the curves of her ass, so he just closed his eyes and opened his mouth, using his tongue to find his way through her folds to her clit. Natasha sighed and settled in a little more, before saying, "Yes, just like that, Steve." A moment later, she said, "Are you just going to stay down there, James?" There was another pause, and she said gently, "Ask him."

The side of the bed dipped, sort of near where Steve's hand was flat on the mattress, and James said, "Steve, can I touch you?"

He tapped Natasha on the hip once, and she translated: "He says yes."

"He doesn't want to know where?" James asked.

"I think he's assuming you're going to jerk him off," Natasha said, amusement evident in her tone. "But he's not going to complain if you want to give him a foot rub instead."

"What if I want to finger him?" James asked, tone turning dark.

Natasha moaned and ground herself against Steve's tongue, and Steve sucked in a breath through his nose as best he could. He waved his hand in the air, reaching for James, and found his hand, his right hand, and squeezed James's fingers. "Pretty sure--oh!--that's a yes," Natasha said. "There's--there's lube in the box I brought."

"You brought me lube?" James said as Steve felt him stand up, his hand dropping away. "So I could fuck your boyfriend?"

"So you--ohhhhhh--so you could, ah! Get yourself off without asking SHIELD for any, oh, God, just like that don't stop!"

Steve did not, in fact, stop; he kept flicking his tongue against her clit at the same speed. Since she hadn't told him to keep his hands anywhere in particular, he wrapped his arms over her thighs and put his hands on her waist, sliding down to cover her hips. He didn't exert any pressure; she was rocking back and forth slightly, and he didn't want her to stop.

James came back not long after he left, his weight at the foot of the bed this time, and Steve helpfully put his feet flat on the mattress. James chuckled. "Eager, aren't you."

Natasha let out a breathless laugh. "Do not break his concentration, James, or I will kill you."

"You can try," James said mildly. Steve felt James's fingers, the organic ones, on his hip, sliding in to rub a thumb along the crease between Steve's torso and thigh. "I don't think it'll be necessary. I think Steve can manage to eat you out and get fingered at the same time."

"I think he can, oh, God, getting close, yes," Natasha said, and Steve felt the muscles in her hips start to shake. He was pretty sure he could get her there before James managed to distract him too much, but it would be a bit of a race. Digging his heels into the mattress, he tilted Natasha's hips down a fraction of an inch and heard her gasp again.

James's hand finally made its way down to cup Steve's balls, and then up to wrap around Steve's cock. He'd been hard since his knees hit the floor earlier and even that little bit of contact was a relief and a torment. He couldn't keep his hips from jerking up, but he'd also never been told not to, so he didn't bother worrying about it.

"Definitely eager," James said, voice gone rich and dark. One finger trailed down the seam of Steve's balls and then behind, feathering over his hole. If Steve's eyes hadn't already been closed out of necessity, they would have closed then; instead, he curled his tongue just right and Natasha started to shake. She was so close now, he could tell, just a little bit more--

Suddenly James licked a wet stripe up the underside of Steve's cock, and Natasha cried out sharply, her hands falling to Steve's arms, fingernails digging in as she shook on top of him. Her thighs clenched around his ears, and finally she relaxed, sagging on top of him. "Fuck," she said. "Thank you, Steve."

He stroked a thumb against her skin--the way she was resting meant he couldn't speak, couldn't really breathe, but she'd move in a moment, he knew. And she did, sliding down to recline next to him and leaning over for a kiss, soft and sweet.

Or, at least, it was soft and sweet until James rubbed a slick fingertip against Steve, making him jerk upwards, into Natasha. She pushed back, and the kiss turned hot and desperate for a moment before she broke it. "Do you want me to hold him down?" she said to James.

Steve could finally look down and see him sitting near the foot of the bed, fully clothed, although his pants were undone and hanging open around his hips. He looked at Steve and said, "Would you like that?"

"Yes, please, James," Steve said, and Natasha made an approving noise as she moved behind him to hold his hands down against the mattress.

"You've trained him well, Natasha," James said, smoothing his metal hand over Steve's hip, but before Natasha could respond, he pressed a single finger inside Steve.

Steve groaned; it felt so good and it had been so long. Natasha was good with her fingers, and he loved having sex with her--loved her--in any possible configuration of the two of them, but with James there was the added patina of nostalgia and remembrance. The name difference, the personality difference--neither really mattered in the immediacy of the moment.

"You feel just the same, Steve," James said with his own groan.

"God, you too," Steve said on a gasp. "More."

The second finger made his memory flash on the first time they'd done this after the serum, one of the only times they'd been able to find something to function as lube while in Europe, when Bucky'd said the same thing--that he felt the same. And it had, at least this way; being larger than Bucky while on top had been a bit disconcerting at first, but after they'd worked out the new logistics, they'd both enjoyed it. Steve wondered, with a very small part of his brain, if he'd get to fuck James ever, if that was something they'd do now, but the thought vanished in a wave of lust when James rubbed a fingertip over his prostate.

James added a third finger shortly after that; Steve tried to curl up into a ball because it felt so good, but Natasha's hands on his wrists kept him pinned down to the mattress. That, of course, made it even better, and he could feel himself start to sink down a little into the hazy white place that he went when he submitted to Natasha.

"Do you want to come, Steve?" James asked, voice deceptively lazy compared to his fingers moving in and out.

"I don't know," Steve managed to say, even though every press of fingers inside him was sending him higher and higher and closer to orgasm. He wanted this to last forever and he wanted to be done right now and he had no idea how to say that anymore.

"Can he come untouched?" James asked Natasha quietly.

She chuckled. "Pretty sure you're touching him there, James, but to what you're actually asking, yes. Just tell him to come and he will."


"Not quite yet," she said, "and I'd suggest actually making him answer you first."

Steve could of course hear them, but the words didn't quite register; he was so close to the edge that all he could really do was struggle helplessly against Natasha and clench around James's fingers. It was like his skin was stretched out thin, the nerve endings doubled, and he loved it and hated it in equal parts.

Natasha must have either said something Steve didn't catch or just given him an expressive look, because James said to her, "I know how to do this but not . . . not with him. Not when it's important."

"Ah," she said. "Ask him again."

"Steve," James said, authoritative again. "Answer me, yes or no: do you want to come?"

And now, now he was fully in that hazy white place, and now he could just answer with the deepest part of himself rather than all of the ephemera that floated on the surface, and the only answer was yes. He gasped it out, and James said, "Now, Steve. Come for me."

And he did, jerking against Natasha's hands, one foot slamming into James's side. He barely noticed, though, through all the waves of pleasure and satisfaction rolling over him: the sheer physical sensations and also yes, I've been good and finally and Natasha and James.

And, hidden under all that, something in him that had ached for more than a year finally relaxed a little and said, Bucky.

* * *

Natasha watched Steve come with a strange sort of detachment; she had been involved with, as far as she knew, all of his orgasms over the past four months, and while she was here now, obviously, she wasn't the main focus. She wasn't actually jealous, she didn't think; they'd talked about this, and if years were any measure then the weakest relationship among the three of them was in fact hers with Steve. But she knew James, knew him in ways that she'd forgotten until he returned, and she could see love written in every line of his body--love for Steve. It mirrored the way she loved--

--the way she loved Steve, although she'd done a damn fine job of not saying it and pretending that just because they didn't exchange I love yous before they slept, that meant that neither of them felt it.

She looked down at Steve's face, his eyes closed, mouth open slightly as he gulped in air. His hands were wrapped around hers loosely in his post-orgasmic relaxation, and his legs had splayed across the bed, one on James's lap. It brought her gaze to James's face, which was wide-eyed and pale with his lips pressed together; she couldn't tell if he was trying not to cry or scream or what. "James," she said, and his head flew up to look at her. "Fingers out," she said, "and in the same box as the lube, there should be a washcloth. Go get it for me, please."

Their relationship, back in the day, had always been egalitarian or at least a struggle for dominance, but he seemed to need the help at the moment.

"Don't I need to--" James said, gesturing to Steve's face with his left hand as he pulled his fingers out slowly.

"Cleaning him up is part of that," Natasha said, and he nodded.

He returned a couple minutes later, washcloth in hand, and wiped Steve down. At Natasha's gentle direction, he removed the rest of his clothing, not even balking at baring the place where the cybernetic arm connected to his body, and curled around Steve's other side, opposite where she'd positioned herself. Steve was pretty out of it, so she didn't think he noticed that James's hand was shaking as he stroked Steve's hair.

Once she was sure Steve was asleep--he tended to fall asleep for a short nap after more intense sex--she caught James's hand where it was lying on Steve's chest and said, "You were wonderful."

It took him a moment to respond, but when he did, it was with a cocky, "How would you know? I didn't fuck you."

"You can," she said, "when you want."

"What if I want to right now?"

Natasha made a 'come at me' gesture, but James looked down at Steve. "Will he be okay?"

"Yeah." Steve never needed much aftercare, just her presence, and based on his reaction to the two of them kissing earlier, she didn't think he'd mind waking up to see James fucking her.

He still looked a little dubious, so she added, "Trust me."

Tilting his head to one side, he studied her for a moment before he crawled over Steve to hover over her on his hands and knees. "Do you want this?" he asked in Russian.

She stared at him, above her: the boyish lines of his face, even after all he'd been through; his hair, sweat-soaked and falling into his face in locks; powerful shoulders, one tanned and made of flesh and bone, the other with white scarring leading into matte-silver metal. It was familiar enough to make her heart ache nearly as much as when she'd seen Steve hurting for the last four months, and she nodded silently.

"Say it."

She gave him a dirty look at the order, and he softened it by adding, "I need to hear it from you. I don't ever want to take a 'yes' for granted."

Oh. Sometimes it was difficult to remember how much had happened in the ten years she'd been out: certain wounds had scarred over. "Yes," she said, and repeated herself in English. "Yes, I want you."

"Good," he breathed, and then lowered himself full-length against her.

He was somewhat more hesitant than she remembered, gentler than he'd been earlier, but at some point while he was mouthing at her breasts she dug her fingernails into the back of his neck and said, "Harder," and he shuddered and obeyed.

"You order everyone around in bed now, Talia?" he asked once he'd come up for air.

"Tasha," she said. "Natasha. Get it right now so you'll be screaming the right name later."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, barely suppressing a smile, and she laughed and flipped them over so she was straddling him. "Wait," he said, as she leaned forward. "Condom?"

She shrugged. "We didn't use them before. I don't see why we'd need them now." She couldn't get pregnant and neither of them could catch or transmit most diseases; once she'd gotten around to explaining that to Steve they'd ditched condoms, as well.

"Okay," he said, and she shifted up and sank down on him.

It was hot and intense and a little rough; he turned them over a few minutes into it so he had the leverage to thrust deeply into her. A few minutes after that, she flipped them back, and he let out a breathless chuckle as he cupped her hips.

Natasha felt Steve wake up a second or two before he let out a surprised oh; she turned to see him rolling on his side, avid interest, lust, and affection written on his face. "Can I touch?" he asked, when he saw her looking at him.

She nodded and looked down at James, who nodded as well, a little less confidently than she'd expected, until she realized that this was the first time James had let Steve see him shirtless. Well, then. She threw her weight to one side and rolled so James was back on top. "Go for it, Steve," she said.

"Anything I should avoid?" Steve asked, and yes, she had indeed trained him well.

"Left shoulder," James said, pausing for a moment and drawing in a ragged breath.

"Nothing out of the ordinary," Natasha said. She hitched her legs up around James and squeezed, and oh, yes, that got him to start again.

Steve's hands wandered over both of them, his touch gentle; he explored their bodies and where they met carefully and rather thoroughly, and when Natasha finally came, James following, it was with Steve's fingers on her clit and his lips on her neck.

James collapsed between them, panting, and Steve trailed his fingers down the hollow of his spine; the way James shivered made Natasha think it was something Steve had done before.

There was still a fine tension in Steve's hand, though, and Natasha looked down; he was hard again, and suddenly, almost painfully, she wanted him inside her. She stroked a hand down James's side and said, "James, can you roll over, please?"

"Why?" he asked, raising his head about an inch before he dropped back down.

"So I can fuck Steve again."

James groaned. "You're insatiable."

"Which one?" Natasha asked, but James didn't answer; he rolled into Steve, who got up and walked around to the foot of the bed. She watched with interest; Steve moving without clothing was always worth a good look.

He stopped, though, and said, "What do you . . .?"

She sprawled out a little bit more and said, "You're on top. I'm done doing work."

He smiled and knelt on the edge of the bed, easing himself down on top of her, full-length. His arms went around her, his face into the space between her neck and shoulder; she wrapped her arms around him and held on tightly.

"Come whenever you want, but make sure I come first," she whispered in his ear, and he nodded.

Every movement was slow, as if he were moving through syrup, but he was often like this while on the edges of subspace: languorous, romantic, and unwilling to let her out of his arms. When he finally sank inside her, she gasped at the feel of every inch of him rubbing along every inch of her. He settled in deep and moved in gentle thrusts, barely withdrawing. He was . . . sweet, really, and if she had to put a label on it, she would have said he was making love to her.

Steve's body surrounded her, and he was mouthing words into her skin; she barely noticed when James mumbled something about cleanup and left the bed. By the time Steve brought her to a rolling climax, she was inches away from being overwhelmed, and when he came she could do nothing but cling.

A few minutes later, Steve lowered himself to the mattress beside her, panting, and said, "Where did James go?"

Natasha froze. Half a second's worth of assessment, and she knew. "He's not here."

"His clothes are gone," Steve said, looking over the edge of the bed.

"Fuck," Natasha said, and she threw herself off the end of the bed and hurried into her own clothes.

Steve did the same, but once he had his jeans on he patted his pockets and said, "Wait." He bent over at the waist and peered at the floor, and then knelt to look under the bed.

"What?" she asked; she knew she sounded harsh, but she was in mission mode now.

"My ID's gone."

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Natasha said, giving in to her frustration and pounding her hand into the mattress.

"We can track him now, can't we?" Steve said.

"Sure," she said, "if you want everyone to know he stole your ID and escaped."

Steve frowned at her, and she sighed. "I'm sorry. But I don't think we should go looking for a track of your ID just yet. Where do you think he would go?"

"My room, your room, out to get a coffee, the armory?" He scratched the back of his head. "I don't know. What do you think?"

"If I were him, I'd be halfway out of the city by now," Natasha said bluntly. "But let's assume he hasn't left the building yet. We'll start with your quarters--well, except we can't get in." She frowned.

"Well, actually, your card will open my quarters," Steve said, looking somewhere over her head.

"Ah," she said. "Well, that's convenient." She reached out and ran her hand down his arm, because the thank you was stuck in her throat. "Let's go."

James wasn't in his quarters, nor hers, and neither had been disturbed. "Armory?" Steve asked. He'd dropped down to sit on her couch, although Natasha was pacing.

"There's a guard at this time of day," Natasha said, "and the card won't get him past the guard. They'd recognize him in most of the populated portions of the building, and the cameras will catch him in a lot of the other places. Of course," she said, "he is pretty good at avoiding surveillance, but."

"Yeah." Steve twisted his lips to one side. "Let's try a different tack. What would Yasha have done?"

"Armory," she said without even a hesitation. "Bucky?"

Steve did pause, and then said, "Sometimes after, well, sex, he'd go sit on the balcony, when we had one, or in the window well when we were in the basement. Are there any balconies?"

"Fury has one," Natasha said. "I'm pretty sure he's not out there."

Steve snorted.

A moment later, though, she stopped dead in her tracks and turned to him. "The roof." There was a narrow part of the roof that had a railing; she didn't think Steve had ever been up there, so she wasn't surprised he didn't think of it.

"I didn't know my card would get me roof access," Steve said, but he stood and headed for the door.

"Well, it probably doesn't," Natasha said, following behind him, "but it will get him pretty close."

Once they were in the hallway, he turned to her. "Do we need a plan, or are we just going to go up there?"

"What do you think?" she asked.

"I can't believe I'm about to say this," he said, "but let's take a page from Stark's playbook and just attack."

Natasha chuckled. "I won't tell him if you don't."

"Good call."

They rode the elevator as high as it would go, and then she led him up a tiny flight of stairs behind a heavy door; her card opened it, but not the second door at the top of the flight. She opened a tiny panel on the wall and crossed a couple of wires; the pattern came back to her as soon as she looked at it. She'd done this before, but not for a while; not since she'd pushed at the edges of her freedom and discovered that she actually liked having somewhere to come back to. But in the four years since she'd last set up plans for escape, no one had changed the wiring of the electronic lock to get outside, and she couldn't decide if that was an oversight or an intentional grant of power.

Didn't matter, she supposed, but her knowledge of the lock meant she knew that James hadn't come up this way. There were four other ways that she knew of, though; she'd just picked this one as it would be easiest.

She opened the door, once she'd convinced the lock that it didn't exist, and both of them blinked a few times at the brightness of the sun. "He'd be in the shade, if there is any," Steve said, and she nodded.

There was shade, a tiny circle of it on the far side of the roof under a satellite dish of some sort, and James was sitting there, legs crossed, leaning against the dish's base, protected from the wind. He held a cigarette in one hand but the long line of ash implied that he hadn't actually smoked much of it. He'd obviously known they were there from the first moment they opened the door, but it didn't look to Natasha like he'd moved at all, and he held still, like prey under the gaze of a predator, as they approached.

James did stand when they were a couple feet away, flinching a little from the bright sunlight, and dropped his cigarette. He scuffed it out with a toe again, but absently this time, his gaze flicking between Steve and Natasha. "Come to drag me back down?" he asked.

Natasha shrugged. "It is pretty sunny up here," she said. "I'm sure we can have this conversation somewhere more comfortable."

"What conversation?" James asked, almost belligerently but not quite.

"The conversation where you explain why you stole Steve's ID card and ran off," she said, matching his tone.

"I needed a smoke," he said, shrugging.

"Ah, and it had to be on the roof, before we were done." Natasha crossed her arms. She wasn't entirely sure how to play this, but she was willing to try this way--thinly-veiled hostility--to start.

"I don't know about you, but I was done," James said. He propped one hip against the wall and dug a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, going as far as tapping one into his hand before he replaced it in the packet and put it away. "Come to drag me back for cuddling?"

"Well, yes," Steve said.

James gave him a sidelong glance, but said nothing.

"Come back?" Steve said, and if anyone could have resisted that, Natasha would eat her boots.

James's face froze and he moved to lean against the balcony, arms resting on the metal railing. Natasha put one hand out to keep Steve from moving any closer; at the moment, there was no way James could escape unless he just jumped over the edge of the roof, and considering how many floors they were above ground, that probably wouldn't happen.

A plane went by overhead, and Natasha looked up; so did Steve. When the noise cleared, she looked back at James, who hadn't moved; he still hadn't moved when he started speaking a couple minutes later.

"I have no fucking clue who I am anymore."

Something deep in Natasha softened; she knew that reaction, knew it profoundly, and she hadn't even been anyone in particular before the Red Room had gotten her. This time Steve didn't try to move or speak, so she just held still and waited.

"I remember--well, not everything, but almost everything. I know I'm supposed to--allowed to--say 'I love you' to Steve when no one else is around, and I know all the little tells that mean that Natasha can't even stand the thought of a cock in her cunt, so if there's going to be fucking, it isn't going to be her on bottom." He wasn't looking at either of them; he was looking down at the city and Times Square, and Natasha wasn't sure who he was talking to, but she was listening.

"I know how to shoot every gun I've ever seen, and I know what it feels like to kill someone, and--and I remember falling."

Steve flinched and took a half-step forward, but Natasha shot out a hand to stop him.

"But all that means there's too much for me to be Bucky, or Yasha, or whoever you're expecting." James rubbed his hand over his face and sighed.

Steve looked at Natasha, who judged that James was probably finished at least for now; she nodded, and he took a step forward to join James at the railing. "I don't care," he said, low and intense and utterly unlike Captain America.

James gave him another sidelong glance and kept silent again.

"You didn't care when I changed; why would I care if you did?" Steve said.

"That's not . . . it's not the same. It doesn't work that way."

"Maybe it does for me," Steve said. "Or maybe you could at least give us enough time to find out."

"Us?" James said, and turned to look at Natasha.

"Us," she said in confirmation. There were words sitting at the back of her throat, words like I love you and I always loved you but she couldn't say them, not yet. So she said, "Why do you think we always kept finding each other?"

James swallowed, flicked his gaze between Natasha and Steve, and finally said, "Oh." His jaw worked for a moment, but he didn't say anything else.

Natasha took a step forward, joining the two of them at the railing, standing on James's far side; a gust of wind blew her hair into her face, and James's fingers helped her tuck it back behind her ear. "Your go-bag's still behind the fake bricks in the corner," he said, "I didn't move it. But you're going to need to replace the wire on the grappling hook. Something's been nibbling at it."

She nodded.

He dropped his hand to take a hold of hers, and kept it while he bumped a shoulder into Steve's. "Hey, punk, if you want to call me Bucky, you can." Despite the words, his voice was soft, just loud enough to be heard over the wind.

"Okay," Steve said, just as quietly, and despite the height disparity, leaned over to rest his head on James's--Bucky's--shoulder.

Another gust of wind almost knocked Natasha over, and she grabbed the railing to steady herself. "Time to go inside, I think," she said.

"Yeah," Steve said. "You coming?" he asked Bucky.

"Yeah," Bucky said.

Steve smiled, and then Bucky did a moment later; Natasha watched them stare at each other, grinning like fools, until finally she smacked them both on the shoulder. "Come on," she said. "I'm getting cold."

"God forbid," Bucky said, and Steve snorted.

But Bucky took off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders, and Steve dropped a kiss on top of her head, and Natasha could only add her smile to theirs.