Operation Distract Steve was a success for approximately two weeks, three days, four hours and thirty-seven minutes until it came to an end in a spectacular failure at three twelve in the morning on a hot and sticky Friday night.
A rough hand on her shoulder pulled her out of a dreamless sleep, and if her instincts weren’t as finely tuned as they were, she would have kicked Sam in the face just for touching her. Instead, Natasha just glared at him, already wide awake and furious.
“What the hell are you doing?” she snapped just as “Steve’s gone,” fell from his lips.
“What do you mean he’s gone?” she said, but she was already racing into the bedroom of Sam’s apartment where Steve had been sleeping, checking under the bed and in the closet and in the bathroom as though a man of his size could possibly hide somewhere that even a dog would barely fit.
“Natasha,” Sam said as she was about to start her second round of checking, and she whirled around on him, grabbing his shoulders and slamming him up against the wall.
“You were supposed to be watching him,” she practically hissed.
He pushed her off of him. “So were you,” he said. “Don’t you pin this on me.”
“I was up the past three nights,” she said. “It was your turn.”
“This is not my mission,” he snapped. “And if you thought he was going to go MIA, you wouldn’t have been sleeping.”
“This is not my mission either. And I can’t be awake all the time!”
“If it’s not your mission, then why are you here.”
“Because Fury asked me to keep an eye on him, and now you let him wander off!”
“He didn’t wander off. He went to find Bucky.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Natasha crossed her arms, eyes narrowed. Sam mimicked her. They stared at each other in silence.
Sam gave up first. “Fine. It’s my fault. Whatever. What do we do now?”
He looked at her, waiting for an answer. Under his stare, she almost wilted. She dropped to the bed, sitting down.
“I don’t know,” she said, and the answer surprised even her.
She always knew what to do. What to do, where to look, who to seek out. She always had a mission and a plan and another plan and another plan after that for when the first few plans failed. But this …. this was different.
Fury had told her — ordered her — to keep Steve distracted, to keep him from looking for Bucky.
“How am I supposed to do that?” she’d asked.
“You’ll figure it out,” he’d told her in that infuriating way he had. “He’s not ready yet,” and she knew he was right. Seeing Bucky and realizing what had been done to his once best friend had messed Steve up more than he would ever admit. And she worried that if Steve found Bucky, things would only get worse.
“So we’re just supposed to pal around D.C. and be tourists?” Sam had asked when she’d relayed Fury’s orders. “Or should we go on a Hawaiian getaway and hope we don’t run into any Hydra soldiers?”
“How about we just stay here and keep him focused on other things?” she’d scoffed, and they had. There were enough Hydra agents tailing them and spying on them to keep them busy for months and give them enemies to focus on and beat up, so that’s what they had done, every day for two and a half weeks.
But every night, when they were done fighting and were tired of running, when they would sit together, staring mindlessly at the television and munching on some bland food and trying not to wonder about what was going to happen, Steve would get up and disappear into the bedroom, and both Natasha and Sam knew he was searching for any and all information he could get hold of to figure out where Bucky might have gone.
“Let me help you,” Natasha said the night before he disappeared, grabbing his arm as he stood up to retreat to the bedroom.
“This is not your fight, Nat,” he said, and pried her fingers off of him.
Now, he was gone and she was pacing the living room, back and forth, back and forth, until finally Sam stood up and stepped in front of her, causing her to run right into him.
“Hey,” she almost shouted, and scowled at him.
“You’re driving me crazy,” he said. “And that’s not going to find him.”
“I know it’s not going to find him.”
“Then why don’t you do something that will find him?”
“Because I don’t know what to do to find him!” And she kicked at the wall in frustration.
“Yeah, okay.” Sam took her arm and led her over to the table, pushing her down on to a chair. “Try not to break my apartment, alright? You have friends in high places. Try them.”
“S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t exist anymore, remember?” she said. “They’re not going to know.”
“Try anyway,” he said.
But in the end, she mostly paced and chased after dead ends and Sam mostly glared at her and asked her why she cared so much and together they searched as much of the D.C. area as they could, knowing they probably wouldn’t find him, and four very long days later, the front door opened and Steve Rogers walked back in as though he had just gone for a stroll in the park.
Natasha almost knocked him over she barreled into him so fast. “Don’t you ever disappear like that one me again!” she commanded, and when she finally let go of him, he made his way over to a chair and sat down.
“I didn’t find him,” he said, and he looked so sad, Natasha almost felt sorry for the guy.
“Let us help you,” she said.
“Yes,” Sam said. “Please let us. You’re the only thing keeping me from killing her.”
He shot a look at Natasha. She shot one back.
“Just try it, wing guy,” she said. “You will be in for one rude awakening.”
“Oh, will I …?” he started, but Steve put his hand up.
“Okay,” he said, sounding defeated. “I can’t leave you two alone together. I get it.”
He sighed. Natasha fought the urge to pat his hand. Instead, she crossed her arms and looked at him straight on.
“If you want to find him,” she said, “we’ll do it together.”
It would have been different if he had thought she was doing all this because she wanted to, but he knew the truth. Sam had told him in a hushed voice one night when she was in the shower that Fury had asked her to keep an eye on him. He wasn’t sure why she agreed, when he figured she probably wanted to be anywhere but here, but he thought maybe it gave her comfort to have an assignment. Something normal in this messed up world.
So he went along with it. Day after day, seeking out Hydra agents, stopping them from causing more damage. But every night, he had his own mission. He knew Bucky was out there and he was hurting, and he had to do something.
He wasn’t as savvy as Natasha was, but with Sam’s help (and a little inside info from Maria Hill), he had a list of places Bucky might be — places where people had seen someone or something that could have been him.
Every time there was a mention in the news of an unprovoked attack, Steve wondered if it was Bucky. Every time there was a sighting of an unidentified man doing something that scared someone, he wondered if it was Bucky.
He couldn’t just sit around and wait and see if he showed back up. Or worse, see if someone else found him first.
So he waited, until the apartment was quiet and no one was looking, and then he left.
He started with places he thought Bucky might have gone to, places he might have remembered from before. And then he moved on to the list written on the ragged piece of paper in his pocket.
But none of it was any use. Bucky wasn’t anywhere he looked.
Natasha surprised him with her reaction when he returned. He hadn’t expected her to be so intense. But then, for as fearless as she was, she probably didn’t want to get on Fury’s bad side, S.H.I.E.L.D. or no S.H.I.E.L.D.
“I meant what I said. We can find him together.”
He was sitting outside on the balcony, head back against the wall, eyes closed, breathing in the sticky summer air. He had needed to get away — from the claustrophobia of the apartment, from Sam and Natasha fighting, from the never-ending knowledge that he had failed. He hadn’t heard her come out or drop down beside him, but there she was.
He opened his eyes and looked over at her. “You don’t need to do that.”
“I want to help.”
“I don’t need a babysitter.”
She frowned. “What are you talking about?”
He sighed. “You don’t have to lie to me. I know what Fury asked you to do. And it’s fine. I won’t go looking. I failed anyway.”
“Steve …” She was sitting against the wall, her knees bent, arms wrapped around them. For a second he saw her hand flicker, like she was going to reach for him, but she didn’t. “It’s not like that,” she finally said.
“It’s not like what?” he said. “You’re not just here because you have to be?”
She blinked. For a second, he thought he saw a flicker of something cross her face.
“If you really think that,” she said, “you don’t me very well.”
“I don’t know that I do know you,” he answered. “I thought before that we were more than colleagues, but I think I was just wanting that to be so. But you didn’t tell me what Fury asked you to do. And you did what he asked. Because that’s what you do. What you’re assigned to do.”
She shot to her feet, her face turned away from him.
“Maybe it’s time I leave,” she said.
“Maybe it is,” he said.
She was gone in the morning. He thought she would be, had known it really, but he hadn’t expected the ache in his heart when it was just him and Sam sitting down for breakfast, no feisty redhead snagging the salt away from him before he could use it.
Sam shook his head as they ate. “You could have been nicer to her.”
Steve looked up from buttering his toast. “Was I mean?”
“You really think she doesn’t care about you?”
“You’re the one who told me what she told you Fury asked her to do.”
Sam nodded. “Yes,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that’s why she did it.”
Steve rubbed his eyes. “It doesn’t matter now,” he said.
Sam shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
It was quiet without her. Less exciting somehow. He and Sam fell into a comfortable rhythm, running, fighting, training, searching for news on Bucky. Days blended into one another, but something was missing. Something was always missing.
Until one afternoon three weeks later when the front door flew open while Steve and Sam were cleaning up dinner. They raced into the hall, ready for whatever was awaiting them, and froze.
She looked like she’d been through hell. Her clothes were ripped and her face was bruised and her hair was matted with dirt, but she was smiling.
“Nat,” Steve breathed.
She turned back toward the door and made a summoning motion. Behind her, a figure appeared.
Steve felt the air leave his body in a rush. Next to him Sam gasped.
“Are you going to tell me how you found him?”
Natasha turned away from her position of leaning against the bedroom door. She rolled her neck to get rid of the ache and shook her head.
“I don’t think it’s such a good idea,” she said.
Sam nodded. “Well, you look like shit,” he said, and she let herself laugh at that. She knew it was true.
“Thanks,” she said, and returned to her position against the door.
“What do you think is going to happen?” Sam moved closer to her, so close she could feel his breath on her neck.
“I don’t know,” she said, and she tilted her head so her ear was as close to the wood as she could get. “But I want to be prepared.”
It was the truth. She didn’t know what was going to happen. She hoped nothing would. But she wasn’t sure and there was a part of her that was nervous.
From the second Steve told her she should leave, his words cutting across her like a knife she didn’t know he was holding, she’d known what she had to do. She had to make things right, and there was only one way to do that. So she’d called in every favor she could and beat up everyone who had got in her way, and she had done it. She had found Bucky.
But now, with Steve and Bucky locked together in a room, she was rethinking her decision. This wasn’t the man that Steve had known seventy years ago. This was a weapon who could explode at any second.
Bucky had triggers, triggers that no one knew about, and if any of them were hit …
Natasha didn’t want to think about it. She knew more than anyone what it felt like to have your past come back and attack you, but if Bucky turned on Steve …
She pressed her ear closer to the door, straining to hear what they were saying. Her body was coiled like a spring, her nerves standing on end. If she heard one raised voice, one unexpected thump …
She wasn’t going to let Steve get hurt again. There was no way.
She didn’t remember falling asleep. She didn’t even remember sitting down. But the faint creak that probably no other human could hear had her eyes flying open and she was on her feet before it stopped.
The dark bedroom confirmed her worst fear. Only one set of breathing, only one figure lying there.
She was outside not even a second later, her feet pounding as she raced down the street.
She didn’t know where Bucky would go, but her instinct told her he would head toward the water, and that was all she had to go on right now. She picked up her pace, her eyes scanning the dark streets for any shadows or corners, checking out the roofs for any solitary figures.
She hadn’t expected this. She had been prepared for an outburst — fists flying or a murderous rage or possibly a chokehold — but she hadn’t thought he would slip out in the middle of the night, as quiet as a mouse.
But she couldn’t let him go. If he disappeared back into the night, she didn’t know how they would find him again. And Steve deserved to have him in his life. Bucky deserved to have someone like Steve help him. They needed to be together. This couldn’t be how it ended.
She kept running.
She was sitting on the balcony in almost the same position as she was in when they had their last real conversation — back against the wall, knees bent, arms wrapped around them. Except this time her head was resting on her arms.
She didn’t react as he came outside and dropped down beside her, not until he reached out and put a hand on her head, silky red locks slipping through his fingers.
She turned her head to look at him. Were her eyes watery? He couldn’t be sure.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, and the only time he’d ever heard her sound so small was when they thought Fury had died.
“Thank you,” he told her, and she frowned.
“I lost him,” she said.
“You found him for me.” His hand slid from her head down to her hand, his fingers finding hers. “That’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever done for me.”
She cracked a small smile. “It wasn’t that big a deal.”
“It was a big deal.”
“I’m sorry I lost him.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I should have …”
“You shouldn’t have anything.” He squeezed her hand. “I’m the one who’s sorry.”
“What are you sorry for?” She looked confused.
“For making you feel like I don’t appreciate you.”
“Yes, I did.” He paused. “Nat?” he said.
“You are much more than a friend.”
For a second, he though she wasn’t going to react, but then she slipped her hand from his and placed it on his cheek. Her fingers were warm against his skin, and she was smiling. She leaned forward, and he didn’t hesitate before meeting her lips.
He made sure she was covered before he slipped out of bed. She looked so peaceful in sleep, and the last thing he wanted was to disturb her.
Sam was in the kitchen, making a sandwich, and Steve knew without asking that he had heard them.
“Don’t say anything,” Steve warned.
“Not even ‘what took you so long?’” Sam grinned.
“Definitely not that.”
“What about ‘what happens now?’”
“Not that either.”
“Because you don’t know?”
“Because I definitely don’t know. And I think she’s going to be the one to decide.”
“I don’t know,” Sam said. “If I were you, I wouldn’t let her get away without a fight.”
Steve leaned over and stole the jar of peanut butter from Sam.
“I wasn’t planning on it,” he said.
“Good,” Sam said. “Because she’s worth it.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “She definitely is.”