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She knew perfectly well that this was a bad idea.

It was important to Natasha to admit that to herself, to know that she was, technically, theoretically, smarter than this, even if she wasn’t acting like it. She scuffed her boots in the sand beneath the swing and bit back a sigh.

This morning, after showering, she had stood in front of the mirror and studied her scars for a long time. She did not have as many of them as most people probably thought. Two of the ones she did have were from Him.

Natalia Alianovna Romanova, born 1984, former Asset of the KGB, former agent of SHIELD, currently (probably) still an Avenger, never not a graduate of the red rooms: at this precise moment, offering herself up to a man who terrified her like other people would offer a Christmas turkey, strung up and helpless.

Here was the thing Steve hadn’t quite understood, that she had neglected to explain to him. She had never escaped him, not once in all their encounters. He had always decided he didn’t need to kill her.

If she wasn’t so afraid of him she would find it kind of humiliating.

Two a.m. The streetlights were out, the playground was silent, the wind was warm and the cars a few streets over were dulled and quiet; the moon was full and friendly, and the Winter Soldier was sitting down beside her on the other swing. Her breath came faster, her palms became clammy. Hello Soldier on the tip of her tongue; for any other man, she would have said it.

“I do hope you’re not here to kill me. I don’t think you are – you’ve had enough opportunities this week – but I can’t work out what else you’d be doing here.”

He glanced at her sideways. Unnecessary remarks weren’t his style. She suspected he didn’t have enough of a personality to make them. (Steve wouldn’t like hearing that.)

But then he said, “I’m collecting data.”

“On me?”

“From you.”

Natasha stared. “About what?”

“Memories,” he said, “and having them taken away, and dealing with that.”

“I have plenty memories, thank you.”

Now he looked amused. “You were smarter than this when you were seventeen.”

Like a concussion.

She breathed hard. “Never met you when I was seventeen.”

“Well in that case, Tasha, I’m FDR.”

Years in this country and it still took her precious seconds to translate that: FDR = Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the U.S. between 1933 and 1945.

It was the sort of remark that Steve would’ve made. Steve might not have sounded so openly fond of her when he said it, mind, or addressed her by a diminutive that denoted such intimacy.

“You – who are you?”

He shrugged and turned his head; out of the corner of her eye she saw the way his shoulders hunched. “Not too sure just yet. Who are you?”

“Natasha Romanov.”

She didn’t stress the first syllable of her first name at all.

“KGB assassin? Agent of SHIELD? Captain America’s faithful sidekick?” He sounded curious, as if he were trying the identities on for size. He sounded brittle, every word and attitude carefully chosen to keep it from revealing too much, from breaking things open he was not ready to confront.

She stretched her legs out in front of her and gave a tiny swing. The chains creaked. A car passed. In the house opposite the park, the light in the living room of the apartment on the fourth floor went out.

“Noo-oo-o. Just. Natasha Romanov.”

“Just,” he mused. “How’s that working out?”

Almost as if they were friends.

“Not bad,” she said chattily. “No thanks to HYDRA I’ve blown all my covers so I’m staying with a friend… we’re both kind of unemployed right now. We’re mostly living off pizza and terrible cop shows.”

For the first time, she looked at him. Jaunty. Braver than she felt, certainly. A muscle was ticking in his jaw. He hadn’t shaved in a good few weeks. Clothes out of a thrift store, wandering that thin line between ‘appealingly lost-looking’ and ‘homeless creeper’. It was kinda cute.

Natasha could picture herself sort of… circling that thought, wary and weirded-out. Was it going to bite? Had she gone crazy? She tightened her lips across her teeth and rubbed the tips of her fingers across her mouth. Cute.

The really creepy thing was, it wasn’t a thought that felt unfamiliar.

*********

“Just so we’re clear,” said Clint. “This guy is a brainwashed super-assassin wanted in several dozen countries for several dozen degrees of murder, used to be Steve’s best friend, has tried to kill you at least four times, and is just generally one of the only people aside from the Hulk I’ve ever known you be afraid of, and you… bring him back here for skittles and beer?”

“The beer’s good,” said the Soldier. “Those skittle things are disgusting.”

“What was I supposed to do? Leave him in the park like a stray dog?”

“I would’ve let you keep the dog.”

“I’ve just recently given up on being a possession,” said the Soldier pleasantly.

“Bad for your health I expect,” said Clint.

The Soldier fixed him with a look that reminded Natasha horribly of Steve’s You Disappoint Me But I Guess I Gotta Put Up With You-face.

“Clint, I’m begging you, shut up and have another beer.”

*********

They fed the Winter Soldier pizza; he made a thoughtful face, but he ate a whole one and then the rest of Clint’s. Natasha couldn’t imagine he had been starving in the backstreets, but… there were a lot of things she couldn’t imagine, as it turned out; finding the Winter Soldier sorta cute, for example, or –far worse – feeling as if she should know him.

She was uncomfortably aware that she should probably call Steve, but the Soldier hadn’t brought him up – hadn’t really said anything about what he remembered of who he was. Natasha was afraid of doing something that might… set him off.

Besides, if it was her, and Clint was Steve, she didn’t know if she could’ve faced him either. Clint as he was had his own share of blood on his hands. Steve was another matter entirely.

Anyway. Natasha didn’t actually sleep on the couch – she slept with Clint in his big bed, because his apartment lacked a spare room and couches were uncomfortable and they both liked it: it felt like sleepovers and comfort and similarly childish things neither of them had ever really had.

The Soldier showered, slowly and awkwardly. They could both hear him moving around the bathroom like he was 95. (Ahahaha.) He had been favouring his real, right arm all night, as if his shoulder was sore – Steve had been close-lipped about the details of their fight on the helicarrier, but Natasha sort of liked the thought that he had managed to inflict some damage of his own. It was mean, but she wasn’t known for being nice. When he came out he had shaved, and it made him look younger. Clint gave him blankets; the Soldier gave Natasha an odd look when he realised where she was sleeping. Across the city, Steve was already running laps around the mall and the bay, and Sam was just now waking up.

When she and Clint got out of bed around noon, he was gone. There was a note on the fridge: thanks for the pizza. He hadn’t signed it. He had folded the blankets they gave him and left them neatly on the couch. They were both sure he had slept at least a couple of hours.

Clint said, “Natasha –“

Natasha shivered. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I really don’t.”

*********

But she was starting to suspect.

*********

The morning after he had left, Natasha showered in cold water and drank coffee as if it were going out of fashion and then she got dressed and rode the subway to Steve’s.

He greeted her with a surprised “Hey!” when he opened the door; his smile was wide and sunny, as if he were glad to see her. She had always had trouble reading Steve. People called him open, but Natasha had never been able to work out why; he played his cards almost as close to his chest as she did. He might never make a spy, but he had at least one essential quality for it down pat: wariness. She respected that, but she wished she could get a better handle on him.

“Hi,” she said. “How’s things?”

Steve waved her inside. “Complicated,” he said dryly. “They want me to help chase down rogue HYDRA cells. On the one hand, I don’t wanna do it; on the other hand…”

“It might lead to a lead,” Natasha finished. She comforted her conscience with the thought that even if she told him of the Soldier’s visit there was nothing he could make of it, no lead it would give him.

“Yeah.”

They repaired to the kitchen, where he offered her more coffee, which she accepted, and then he also offered her breakfast, which she also accepted.

“I had the bacon already, so it’s fruit and yoghurt,” he said.

“Fine by me.”

He didn’t ask how she was doing. She appreciated that.

He kept smiling at her.

Without quite meaning to, Natasha smiled back. They talked a little: Steve’s adventures in soul music, Maria’s new job, Sam shopping around for someone who could rebuild his wings for him, had Steve called Sharon yet?

He shook his head. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, but hesitated to say it.

Natasha propped her chin on her hand, curious.

“Hmm.” He folded his arms on the table. “I’ve been thinking about quitting DC.”

“You’d move back to New York?”

“Nicer apartment than the SHIELD one, I promise.”

“Why?”

“I hate DC,” he said, grinning. “I’ve always hated DC.” Neither of them mentioned the bullet holes in his walls, or the boarded-up windows, or the laptop she had seen on the couch, the files scattered across the living room floor.

“What, isn’t it loud enough?”

“Something like that.”

Natasha heard herself laugh, and heard herself say, “Well, if you need help with the packing…”

Screw her for being a sucker for a pair of pretty blue eyes.

*********

Clint volunteered for Project Stamp HYDRA Out And Grind Their Crushed Remains Into The Carpet. Natasha didn’t. Clint said, “You gotta sort those nightmares out.”

“I know,” she said. They were standing in his living room, by the couch the Winter Soldier had slept on. He was in full gear, ready to leave. She was in pyjamas, unshowered and hiding from her own reflection, the circles under her eyes.

“Are they nightmares?”

“No,” she said, and rubbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her pyjama top. She didn’t consciously realise how childish a gesture it was. “I think they’re memories.” Oh, she wished Clint would stay. “I thought I knew all the ways I’d been unravelled,” she said, fighting hard to keep a sob of fear out of her voice. “I thought I’d found all the pieces and put them back in the right constellations.”

He reached for her. She tucked herself under his chin easily and angled her ear to hear his heartbeat. Thu-thump. Thu-thump. Thu-thump.

“I’ll stay,” he said. “I’ll call Talbot and cancel.”

“He’ll decide you’re HYDRA. Get outta here, go do your thing.”

“I don’t wanna leave you alone.”

“I’m helping Steve move. He and Sam’ll look after me.”

Clint sighed. “You’re gonna skip outta New York and do something really dumb and reckless, aren’t you.”

Natasha laughed at last. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I probably am.”

*********

Steve drove his things to New York in a cranky-sounding truck he had rented off a removal service in DC; Sam was mock-disgusted to discover he insisted on moving his things himself, and Natasha curled in the cab of the truck between them and dozed off to the sound of a cheerful argument about Steve’s DIY attitude, her forehead lolling against Steve’s shoulder.

*********

They stopped over in Manhattan at the Memorial outside Grand Central. Steve and Natasha both laid flowers. Sam stood to one side, hands in his pockets, gazing up at Stark Tower overhead and the unbroken blue sky.

*********

The landlady’s name was Spielman, she thought Steve was about the cutest thing ever, made a great lemon cake, offered Sam the apartment on the floor below Steve’s – “the girls who live there now are movin’ out, they’ve just graduated, they’ve got fancy impressive jobs in Manhattan now” – and asked Natasha how long she and Steve had been together when she thought the boys couldn’t hear her.

“Bout three months,” said Natasha, smirking.

*********

“That’s for the kitchen,” said Steve, “and that’s the gramophone, and then I’ll take the table and the bed.”

“You know what’s missing here?” said Sam, juggling a large cardboard box and a paper carrier bag full of books. “A cat is what.”

“I’m allergic,” said Steve absently. He thought about this for a minute. “Well, I was allergic.”

“A puppy would also suit,” said Sam, straight-faced.

Steve was thoughtful. “Hmm.”

“Maybe a Golden Retriever. Or a Great Dane. Batman’s got a Great Dane.”

“First a sidekick, then a butler, now a dog,” said Steve.

“Who’s got a dog?” asked Natasha.

“Steve should get a dog,” said Sam.

“A dog would look good on Steve.”

“Who’d feed it when I’m on missions?”

“The blonde nurse across the hall you still haven’t called,” said Sam. “Ba-dum-tss! Excuse me.” He hefted the cardboard box, grinning, and marched up the front steps into the apartment building. Steve heaved a mock-put-upon sigh.

“You’re not ever actually gonna call her, are you,” said Natasha.

Steve turned away, shrugging. “Well, you know.”

“You can’t actually convince me you’re shy.”

“I’ve got a lot on my mind. You know, moved house, brought down SHIELD, found out my dead best friend isn’t actually dead. That kinda thing.” The line of his shoulders was stiff, but his voice and words were casual.

She sighed. “Where was it?”

At that, he turned to look at her – sat down, in fact, on the edge of the truck, long legs sprawled out. He inclined his head to the left. “A few blocks over. Closer to Marine Park. It’s an office building now, diner on the ground floor. They do good breakfast.”

“It might not help.”

“Well,” said Steve. “Maybe it’s helping me. I can keep on my feet for myself pretty well. I think. But if I gotta do it for Buck as well then I need…” He gestured, waving a hand in the space between them.

“A place to stand.”

“A place to stand. Yeah.”

“Hey,” she said, and reached out to him. They had touched; they had saved each other’s lives, they had sparred and fought, she had kissed his cheek, he had carried her, unconscious, out of a bombed-out ruin when he could have easily left her to die; when the sensible choice would have been to leave her to die. She owed him a debt, whether he thought of it like that or not. Now her hand rested deliberately and carefully on his shoulder. His body temp was a degree or two higher than hers. His hands were in his lap. He got this adorable little crease between his eyebrows. “Anything you need. End of the line, OK?”

His eyes opened wider: he was surprised. Natasha would have liked to either smack him or kiss him. Had he really thought she was going to walk away? (Wait. Hadn’t she meant to do just that?)

But: “OK,” he said gently. He wasn’t a fool. He knew what it meant for her to say that to him. “Thank you.”

She smiled. He passed her a box to carry and manoeuvred the dining room table out of the truck, and when she was ahead of him on the steps he called up to her:

“Hey, where’d you hear that?”

“What?” She shouldered the front door open, squinting against the dimmer light inside. “It’s an expression, I guess.”

Steve said thoughtfully, “Yeah, I guess it is.”

*********

At breakfast the next day, Natasha said, “I gotta leave town for a couple days.”

“OK,” said Steve. “Official business?”

“No, not really.”

“I’m back in DC on Sunday night,” said Sam. “See you before then?”

“Should do, yeah.”

“Cool.”

*********

She drove out of the city in a beaten-up pick-up she stole from outside a cemetery gate, a pile of gardening tools rattling around in the back. She had left the boys at the subway but not actually caught a train, leaving the underground station by the opposite exit and weaving quickly into the crowds. Brooklyn was lovely, which surprised her, though she couldn’t have said why, or what she had expected it to be like. But in walking its streets she thought she understood why Steve had needed to come back here, why it steadied him. DC cultivated its own short history like a museum exhibit, cementing a past to pass on to its future. The very deliberateness of it was a kind of mockery to Natasha’s nerves – and surely also to Steve’s – history as a curated project, instead of the living, breathing mess it was. Perhaps when her own memories felt less fragile she would be able to face a city full of monuments to other peoples’ once again.

First, of course, she would have to dig those memories up.

*********

Steve’s new apartment was bigger than the DC one in several ways: it had a dining area as well as a table in the kitchen, it had a (tiny) balcony, and – most significantly – it had two guest rooms, one of which Sam Wilson was currently occupying. Steve had woken before sunrise – he almost always did. Half of it was habit, and half of it was just that he didn’t need as much sleep as most people.

He ran for a short while around new-familiar streets, mapping his surroundings; then he made a beeline for Marine Park. He pelted past the ballpark, swerved and went past the Nature Centre, whereupon he was in the park proper, and it was still gloriously deserted. He ran flat out, heading for the water, and was panting when the path came to an end.

On his way back from the creek to Avenue U, Bucky Barnes was sitting on the back of a bench by the path. Steve slowed to a halt a few metres away. His heart felt as if it was about to jump out of his chest; it was not an unfamiliar sensation, but for a change he wasn’t experiencing the accompanying certainty that it would kill him this time.

Bucky had grown a beard, or most of one, and he was eating a bagel, and his clothes were clean, though neither pressed nor new. His hair was tucked underneath a baseball cap.

Steve said, “Fancy meetin’ you here.”

Bucky snorted. Then he gestured with the bagel at the park around them. There were one or two other joggers now, and the distant noise of cars on Burnett Street. The sun had come up and then slid behind a cloud bank, but there was no wind in the park. “This isn’t exactly deep cover, you know.”

“That… wasn’t really the plan.”

“Then you’re an idiot.” Said with calm conviction.

“You’ve told me that before,” said Steve.

Smoky blue eyes looked him up and down. “I believe you.”

Steve’s laugh rasped out of his throat without his permission. He rubbed a hand over his face, his eyes. "I don’t know what to call you,” he said after a moment. He hadn’t moved any closer; there was about two metres of space separating them. Bucky could leave at any point, up and disappear.

“I’ve never had a name before.”

All Sam’s advice, all Steve’s own good resolutions went flying out of the window. “That’s not true.”

Bucky smiled. “I went to the museum,” he said. “In Washington. The, uh, the Smithsonian. I saw the exhibits.”

Steve would have reached out to him then, if he had had the courage.

“James Buchanan Barnes.” Bucky rolled the words, the syllables, around in his mouth, as if shaping them for the first time, tasting them.

“Yes,” said Steve.

“James Buchanan Barnes.” More confident this time, but he still spoke the name as if it belonged to a stranger. Then he sighed, and ate the rest of the bagel. Steve waited. “This has – this has happened to me before. I’ve remembered before, or tried to… I’m sure I have. I thought she would know, but she didn’t, she didn’t know me at all. I don’t blame her, I think I’ve tried to kill her.”

An echo in Steve’s mind, waiting to evolve into understanding. End of the line, OK?

Not his secret. He said, “What do you need from me?”

Bucky said, thoughtfully, “I don’t know.” He stood up, rolling the bagel wrapper into a loose ball. “But when I figure it out, I’ll tell you.”

“I want you safe,” Steve blurted. “I want you outta HYDRA’s hands, for good.” He drew a breath. Perhaps, given time, Bucky might understand how difficult the next words were for him to say. “Beyond that, you don’t owe me a thing. You don’t ever have to look at me again if you don’t wanna.”

Bucky didn’t look at him. He was staring, instead, at the trees and bushes on the other side of the path. Some part of Steve even wanted to know what he was seeing.

Finally, Bucky said, “Thank you.” His voice rasped across the words as if they were as unfamiliar as his name had been. After another short silence, he turned his head in a movement oddly quick and jerky, nervous but decisive. “I – listen. They’re looking for me. My – handlers. Don’t come looking for me for a while, OK?”

“Well, they’d never dream of wanting to kill me too.”

Bucky said, “You punk,” and threw the balled-up bagel wrapper at him. The word took Steve’s breath away: you punk, you punk, you punk. A heartbeat: a lifeline. The bagel wrapper bounced off Steve’s right shoulder and fell to the tarmac. “Do as you’re told for a change. Stay outta trouble.” He smiled again, wider this time, and seemed to enjoy it, to revel in the expression. “I’ll see you, Captain Rogers.”

Then he turned and walked away. Steve stood and watched him, anchored to the spot by Bucky’s words, by his smile. You punk, you punk. The hair was too long; the beard was frankly ridiculous; the shoulders were wider, and slightly lopsided where the metal prosthetic bulged a little larger than the human arm. Probably no one who did not have Steve’s enhanced eyesight would notice. The swagger – the swagger was coming back with every step.

Suddenly Steve was seized with superstitious fear. Don’t look back. Don’t look back. Orpheus walking away from Eurydice. If you turn around we’ll both be lost. Don’t look back.

Bucky didn’t look back.

Once he had disappeared from Steve’s view he let out the breath he’d been holding in a long and ragged gasp; then he bent over and propped his hands on his knees and concentrated very hard on breathing: in through his nose, and out through his mouth, until the urge to scream had passed. He straightened up.

Then he bent down again and picked up the bagel wrapper, and dropped it in the trashcan on his way out of the park.

*********

*********

*********

The man in white said, “You understand that this is an entirely experimental procedure –“

and your own voice says, “Yes, Doctor, I do.”

*********

They called it the red rooms, but that wasn’t a descriptor, because everything was grey on grey on grey.

*********

– she hurts

*********

“Our allies have agreed to provide you with a teacher.”

*********

“Natalia, Natasha, it’s all right. Here, come on. We’ll be all right.”

She’s frightened, she can admit it. She’s frightened for him. She needs not to lose him. They’re hidden in a service corridor, tucked into the perfect blind spot between the cameras, and as she presses against his side he wraps an arm around her shoulders. She ducks her head underneath his chin, breathes in, breathes out, feels safe, warm, protected. Loved? She doesn’t know. She’s never been loved before.

“There’s a way out of this. There’s always a way out.”

“Out?” She’s confused.

“Of this. Of here.”

“What? What are you talking about? What’s – what’s happening to you? What’s going on in there? You’re different… I’m not the only one who’s noticed.” Suddenly she adds, “They’re going to think we’re fucking.” It’s the first time she has ever taken the word into her mouth. She heard it from the guards. She’s heard other things, too. It has not gone unnoticed that the Winter Soldier considers her to be his particular protégé. That’s fine; her handlers are pleased she’s done so well under his tutelage.

But this isn’t tutelage. This is… a friendship.

“They’re scum. Listen, Natalia, I know things… I think… my dreams are… hell. Tasha, if I told you I could get us out of here… away from the red rooms, away from Karpov…”

She scoffs because she doesn’t know what else to do. Other people don’t live like this… she’s not stupid, she knows that perfectly well.There might have been a woman once, who held her tight and sang to her, and a man with a bushy beard, and another little girl with red hair who played with a stuffed bear whose ears were lopsided. She never told anyone but him about that. When she did, he held her tight and said, I think I had a sister too.

Now she says, “What? We’ll run away and change our faces and live like normal people?”

“Why not?”

She’s speechless. “Because it’s crazy!”

He laughs. “You’re seventeen, Natasha, and all your life you’ve trained to kill people for a country that doesn’t even exist anymore. They say I’m an American; maybe that’s even true. But even if I’m not I have enough intel to make it worth the Americans’ while to listen to us both. And from there….”

“You’ll send me to one of those high schools, like in the films, and we’ll live together in some plasterboard American suburb and buy a pet and pretend neither of us have ever killed a man?” Halfway between scornful and hoping. Maybe she can have a teddy bear with lopsided ears. Is she too old? Maybe you throw them away when you turn twelve, or something. They could have a house with a garden. Every time she goes on a mission the colours there are in the world astound her; maybe she could learn to grow flowers…

“Why not?”

All of a sudden it panics her, how much she wants to believe they could do it. “Stop, stop – if they find out they’ll wipe you. They’ll put you back in that coffin. You’ll forget me…”

He tilts his head to kiss her temple. “Never happen. You and me – we’re in this together, OK? Till the end of the line. I’m not going to abandon you. We’ll get out of here yet.”

*********

“How long? HOW LONG??”

Smack of a hand across her face. She spits her own blood at him, laughing. “You trained me to be better than this.”

“Enough,” says the American. “Enough. You’ve damaged my property enough, and you won’t get anywhere by damaging yours as well. Wipe her, and wipe him, until it takes, completely.”

*********

“The famous Black Widow. Christ. I was expecting you to be older than this.”

*********

“Take me to your leader, Agent Barton.”

*********

*********

*********

Steve was woken by an odd noise on Monday morning. For a few seconds he lay motionless and tried to work out what it had been; Sam had left in the early evening, and Bucky – but Bucky had come to him once this week already; it wouldn’t be him. Steve rolled out of bed silently and slid his shield out from under the bed. If HYDRA had decided to take a shot at him after all…

The window in the living room – the one that opened onto the fire escape – was open. The wind whistled in and flapped the drapes. Blood on the floor, smeared across the wall by the entrance to the kitchen. Something was moving in the kitchen, scrabbling on the tile. Steve stepped into the doorway and flicked the light on.

Natasha made a noise reminiscent of a wounded animal and flung her arm up to cover her eyes. At first glance she was bleeding everywhere, and her clothes were wet: rain was predicted, but not till tomorrow, and Steve suddenly realised it was sweat. Her face shone with it.

He snapped the light off and laid his shield down.

“Natasha?” he said, careful not to come too close. “Natasha, what’s happened to you?”

Her breath was coming in quick harsh pants, and her eyes were glassy. “Them. Waiting for me. I know why. I remember why. I remember.”

“Remember what?” But Steve thought he might already know. End of the line, OK? He inched closer; she flinched and snarled. He held up his hands. “Will you let me help you? You’ve been hurt, Natasha, you’re bleeding…”

Slowly, slowly, he reached out to her. Her eyes had closed; she was shaking. Then she drew a breath and opened them. He was instantly sure she didn’t recognise him.

“Natasha?”

She spoke in Russian, but Steve’s Russian was limited to hello, thank you, is there food and where are the Nazis, so that wasn’t much good. He tried in English: “Natasha, do you recognise me?”

She snapped at him; he thought she might be asking him who he was. “Natasha –” he held out his hand to her in what he hoped was a calm, non-threatening gesture, but she slapped it back, and then she attacked him. He caught her wrist, twisted the gun out of her fingers; it went skittering away under the fridge. God, her skin was burning – she was running a hell of a fever, unnatural. She flung her full body weight against him, driving her shoulder into his chest; they went flying back to crash onto the living room floor, and Steve, healed but still sore from the beating Bucky had given him, cried out.

Thin hot hands gripped his throat with desperate strength, and for the second time in weeks Steve was fighting for his life against someone he loved. Natasha was terrifyingly quick, and far more skilled than he was, but fever and blood loss had drained her, and she couldn’t hold him down for long. They crashed into the wall, clawing at each other – Steve trying to keep her hands away from his face, Natasha focussed on doing some kind of damage to him, somehow, anywhere – then staggered apart in a flurry of blows. She had taught him martial arts in a calm, methodical way he hadn’t had time for during the war, but this wasn’t her controlled, deliberate style. This was instinct, vicious, untaught and desperate.

Well, Steve could do that too, if he had to. If he could get hold of her wrists, pin her against the wall, talk her down… she was hallucinating, he was sure. That fever should be killing her.

Didn’t stop her aiming a kick at his head that had him seeing stars. He was just barely fast enough to grab her ankle and topple her; she screamed when she hit the coffee table, shattering it and falling to the floor, and Steve spared a heartbeat to hope devoutly that his new neighbours were all hard of hearing. He dived for Nat’s wrists, forcing her to roll over, then hauling her up and pinning them at the small of her back with one hand, trying to force her onto her toes without hurting her too badly. He couldn’t see where she was shot – or stabbed? She threw her body weight back at him again, but he was ready for that this time: he planted his feet and wrapped an arm around her torso, holding her tight to his own chest. She was faster than he was and better-trained and smarter, but she wasn’t stronger, and from here – as long as he kept his face out of the way of the back of her head – all she could do was kick her legs at the wall and curse. He stumbled forwards, half-carrying her with him, in a kind of run until she was trapped between him and the wall.

“Nat,” he said. “Nat, Nat, calm down, please, it’s me, it’s Steve. You’ll kill yourself like this, sweetheart, come on, you’ve lost so much blood already.” He kept his voice low and calm, searching for that warm, gentle tone that his mother had used on her sickly little boy night after night. It seemed to work; gradually, Natasha stopped struggling, and her breathing slowed. Steve kept talking, nonsensical reassurances, peppering his speech with endearments he was sure no one had ever used to Natasha Romanov before, remembering how safe and loved his mother’s pet names for him had always made him feel.

Finally, Natasha rolled her head back against his shoulder and croaked out, “Steve?”

“Hi there.”

She laughed. It sounded as if it was tearing her throat up. “Hi.”

“OK,” he said. “I’m gonna let you go, OK? Then I’m gonna patch you up and see if I can get your fever down. OK? All right?”

Dazed, she said, “All right.”

He wasn’t sure she had actually understood what he’d said. “All right.”

He shifted his grip, releasing her wrists; she sagged, and he slid that arm under her knees and lifted her up to carry her into the bathroom. When he got there, he realised she had already passed out.

Steve sighed. “Well, this is gonna be a fun night,” he said to her ruefully, and fetched out the first-aid kit.

*********

When Natasha came fully to her senses it was broad daylight, sun beating against half-drawn, heavy drapes. They weren’t Clint’s. She stared at them for several minutes; they, and the window beyond, seemed familiar, but her head was too stuffed with cotton wool and needles to make out why. She was lying in a bed. The mattress was irritatingly hard, but the duvet was warm and the sheets smelled freshly washed. Her whole body ached, and her eyes felt sticky. When she raised her hands to touch her face, she saw they were bandaged.

What had happened to her? She was sure she ought to know. This was no safe house of hers, no designated hideaway maintained by her handlers….

Wait, wait, she didn’t have handlers anymore. Clint? Clint – Clint was a friend. That was it. A friend. Someone who loved her.

Well done, Natasha, said the Soldier, smiling at her proudly.

Wipe her. Wipe them both.

They had been waiting for her when she had woken up. They had wanted her alive.

How many years of her life had she lost? Dozens? None? How many days, minutes, seconds? How many embraces, encouragements, touches, how much kindness, how much comfort, how much simple human affection? She no longer knew what she had believed about her adolescence before – before going to New Jersey, and she could no longer understand how she had functioned in the world until now.

Suddenly his dead-seeming face behind the cryo window filled her mind’s eye; she had never seen it in life, but she had read the file she had found for Steve, and now – now – the glaze of dispassionate pity was dropped – everything was a sham and a lie – they had done that to him for decades, and just when they had relented, when they thought he would be safe, when he had had a chance, she had brought it on him all over again. There had been other girls alongside her, other students, but he had seen something in her, something to cherish and protect: the first real friend she had ever had. And that friendship had cost him everything. He had never even had a name, she had always called him Soldier, always – but he did have a name: James Buchanan Barnes. She didn’t know what was worse: knowing he had nearly killed her, or knowing she had almost killed him.

He had come to her, and she hadn’t known him.

Silently she started to cry.

*********

It was raining when Natasha woke again. The apartment was toasty warm, but there was a man’s sweater on the end of the bed: for her? She sat up and struggled into it. It hurt to lift her arms, and to move her head, and to swing her legs off the bed, but she managed. Standing made her dizzy. Her underwear had been left on and it was filthy, stiff with dried sweat.

She limped to the bedroom door. She had been shot and stabbed and hunted; she had climbed through a window? There didn’t seem to be any weapons in the room. Someone had taken care of her… bandaged her up, maybe given her stitches. She pushed a hand under the sweater to touch the bandages.

Suddenly she remembered: the drapes were Steve’s. She and Sam had hung them less than a week ago. The room was Steve’s. She was in Brooklyn. At Steve’s.

God almighty, she was hungry.

“Oh my God,” she said when she reached the kitchen. “I did this?”

“Mostly,” said Steve. “I helped.” He was sitting at the kitchen table; he must have put his book down when he heard her stumble out of the bedroom. The radio was playing quietly, and there was a pot of tomato soup on the stove. At least, it smelled like tomato soup.

“I trashed your new apartment,” said Natasha. “Steve, I am so sorry.”

“Eh.” He smiled at her. “You were pretty out of it. C’mon, sit down.”

She sat. Steve said, “Coffee?”

“Food,” she said hoarsely.

He served her both, and – bless him – didn’t speak again until she’d drunk three cups and chased the very last drop of soup from the bowl with a chunk of bread; it was warm, he must have gotten it from the bakery down the street.

Finally he said gently, “Fun week?”

The Natasha of three weeks ago – twenty-nine, brashly flippant, working around people as if they came with an instruction manual, picking her words and reactions from a multiple-choice list of Things Normal People Do – would have tried, even now, to laugh it off. Instead she smiled at him, and could see (because she was still Natasha Romanov, after all) how it wrong-footed him.

What words to use for this? I went to New Jersey and let someone crack my mind open and shine a flashlight inside? I love him just as much as you do? He was the first person in my life to give me trust and friendship and affection, and they cut it out of both of us with a knife? The Nat you knew was a half-formed shadow of who I really am? (And you trusted her anyway; you made her your friend.)

“I went looking for a place to stand,” she said at last.

“Did you find it?”

It was a curious thing, but people didn’t expect Steve to be kind. They expected him to be heroic, noble, and brave. They didn’t expect him to be straight-up, uncomplicatedly compassionate, or to act on it.

“I’m not sure yet.”

“OK. Well, you don’t need to know by tomorrow morning.” He smiled at her. “You left a bag of your stuff here, I found it the other day. Shower’s all yours.”

“Thank you.”

*********

It was over a week before colour came back into Natasha’s face and her movements grew visibly easier. She didn’t speak much, preferring to sit silent in Steve’s company while he read, or listened to music, or pored over HYDRA documents and SHIELD files off the internet, or – once or twice – sketched. Sometimes she would read for a short while, but more often she’d sit gazing into space. She had the curious sensation that her mind was… re-arranging itself; memories would surface and slip into a kind of order, or not, and she would open her eyes and find she had not moved in minutes, watching movies on the inside of her eyelids.

On the fourth day, Steve came back from grocery shopping with two leather-bound books for her. One was a journal, the other a sketchbook.

“It helped me,” he said.

“Which?” Her bruised fingers caressed the expensive stationary, the thick, smooth pages. He would never have spent that much on stationary for himself, she was sure.

“Both. But whichever you’re comfortable with.” He tipped her a smirk. “Not everyone went to art school.”

It was the first time he had teased her since she had arrived. In revenge, she started drawing first. Her perspective was all over the place and her lines were wonky, but it did help. She sketched training rooms and floor plans, dormitories, shooting ranges, snowy landscapes. She tried her hand at faces, but they never turned out recognisable. The sleek, silver contours of a metal arm did. (She hid that one from Steve.) The journal, too, grew well-thumbed and ratty in the shortest imaginable time. Natasha’s fingers suddenly had semi-permanent ink stains.

Sometimes they would watch TV together, and she would fall asleep leaning against him, soaking up his body heat. Steve never seemed to mind.

*********

She called Clint’s apartment at night sometimes just to hear his voice on the voicemail message. He sent her texts whenever he could, dumb remarks and dumber jokes. She had left the arrow pendant necklace in Steve’s apartment when she went to New Jersey. She put it back on and fingered it often; the re-arrangement of her mind and memories didn’t erase what Clint was to her. If anything it made it more important. She had been even less of a person than she had realised when he had decided to save her.

*********

Eventually, Steve started getting twitchy.

There wasn’t really any other word for it. Natasha noticed, of course. Steve didn’t have any blatantly obvious tells – the war, and then two years of SHIELD, had drummed those out of him – but they were there, if you knew him well enough. He was more easily distracted; he cooked a lot. Giving himself something concrete to do with his hands, she guessed. And he hadn’t made a single noise about – about the Soldier – all the time she had been here.

Steve wasn’t built to sit around all day and sketch. She couldn’t even imagine how bored he must have been as an invalid.

Finally, over lunch one day, she got a call from Clint.

“Cleveland!”

“Cleveland?”

“Cleveland!”

In the background, on Clint’s end, something blew up with what Natasha considered admirable enthusiasm.

“What’s in Cleveland?” she asked when the noise had died down.

“HYDRA, you doofus,” said Clint. “I can’t sort it out, I’ve got my hands full. You up for it?” Are you OK, he meant.

Natasha looked at her half-eaten box of ice cream. Then she looked at Steve, who was glowering unseeing at a re-run of The Daily Show and tapping a pencil on the arm of the couch. She had seen brave men turn pale and cower when faced with that look. She looked back at her ice cream. She scratched at her nose.

She thought about the fact that HYDRA had been waiting for her when she left the old AIM lab in Trenton, and that they had very carefully not been trying to kill her. She thought about what might happen if they got wind of the two-for-the-price-of-one deal on Captain America and Black Widow that had been running in an apartment building in Brooklyn for nearly a month already. She thought about the Soldier, and she thought about Steve.

Then she said, “Leave it to Beaver.”

Clint said, “I love you,” and hung up.

*********

Steve said, “We’re not going to Cleveland. You’re a mess. I’m a mess. We’re not going to Cleveland.”

*********

Six hours later they were stuck in traffic on the New Jersey turnpike.

“We really should have kept a Quinjet,” said Natasha.

“Get your feet off the dash,” Steve grated out between clenched teeth.

*********

“Cap,” said Sam, voice crackling over the phone line, “Steve, I’d follow you into Hell itself, but I draw the line at Cleveland.”

“Fuck my life,” Steve said in a muffled voice, forehead resting on the steering wheel. The car behind them honked at them.

Natasha put her feet back on the dash and started whistling The Star-Spangled Man With A Plan.

*********

The Cleveland HYDRA base was a back-up of a back-up type deal, and as such mostly abandoned. Maria called them afterwards to chew them both out for unauthorised missions and/or taking advice from Clint Barton; then she sent them to Illinois.

“I’ll handle the military, I’ll handle everything,” she said. “Anything to keep you two from getting bored, I don’t wanna imagine the havoc you’d wreak, somebody oughta be paying me alimony for this, I swear.”

“You’ve been spending too much time with Stark,” said Natasha.

“He sends his love,” Maria said, dry as dust.

“He sends his something,” Steve muttered.

*********

Sam caught up with them in a tiny diner by the Indiana border, where they had milkshakes and played Go Fish for three hours for Twinkies until Maria’s intel came in.

*********

Airports and planes were too much of a hassle, Steve decided. Stark (or Pepper, anyway) would probably have sprung for a jet, but just the thought of it made Steve shudder. Wherever he was headed, he would drive.

Where was he headed?

Maria said, “I… don’t know.”

“You’ve already given me one,” Steve wheedled.

She groaned; he laughed. A girl passing him on her way into the grocery store gave him a slightly suspicious look. He blinked against the bright sunlight and grinned at her. It was lunchtime in New York. He wondered if Maria ate in restaurants or SI cafeterias or at her desk.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” she asked gently.

He chewed his lip. “I gotta be, or I go crazy.”

“Steve…”

“Anything,” Steve said quietly. “The dumbest, most unlikely make-work recon missions you got. I don’t care. I just need a reason –“

“A reason not to sit still.” She sighed. “I get it. I do. All right. But you say make-work and you get make-work, OK? I’ll put a list together.”

“Don’t sound so long-suffering,” said Steve affectionately. He liked Maria – always had. “You’re delighted to get me out of New York and safely out of the blast area, wherever that is.”

She said, “Consider the fifth pleaded and go pester someone else, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He hadn’t expected either Sam or Natasha to want to join him, not for more than a week, two at most. But Natasha looked delighted and Sam grinned.

“Sounds good,” he said.

“No it doesn’t,” said Steve. He was more grateful for their company than he had realised he would be. “You know it doesn’t.”

“OK,” said Sam. “Sounds like a terrible boring no-good very bad team building exercise designed by a dickbag in a suit who’s never been on a team-building exercise in his life. Better?”

“Define better,” said Steve. “I mean, yeah sure.”

Sam grinned. “It’s not as great as flying,” he said, “but I like to drive.”

“Good, cause I hate it and Natasha can’t tell the difference between an Interstate and a tactical assault course.”

“How you got along without me is one of life’s great mysteries, huh.”

Steve was beginning to think it might be.

Still, it shouldn’t have taken them actual weeks to drive straight across the country, not when there were three of them to share driving duties and Steve could go for a week or more with less than four hours sleep a night. The truth was, they meandered a lot. Spent a week in Chicago, bummed around all of Illinois after they had searched the base Maria had sent them to, drove for miles along the Lake Michigan shoreline before they turned east somewhere north of Milwaukee, driving through endless green and golden fields under a cloudy summer sky. Maria wanted them in Washington State, “sometime this century, don’t bother to hurry”. Sam said he would’ve liked to head further north into the forests near the Canadian border.

“Must be gorgeous up there,” he said wistfully.

“Wet, muddy, impossible to sleep in, impossible to walk through, and covered in stuff that rots and stinks if you look at it sideways,” said Steve.

Sam and Natasha looked at him askance.

“Well did you think Schmidt built his secret bases in nice comfortable built-up civilized areas of Europe?”

“Killjoy,” said Sam.

“Desert’d be somethin’ to see,” said Steve thoughtfully. “Wide open and endless and empty…”

Sam cackled. “Trust me, it’s never empty. What about you, Nat?”

“Hmm?”

“Landscape you’d like to see.”

“Huh. Um.” She shrugged, thought hard about it. Landscapes were – landscapes. They had their different advantages and disadvantages; you had to know about them in order to survive in them, and sometimes even that wasn’t enough. They were all very pretty from a distance, or on a photograph.

Sam said, “I think our Nat’s a city girl at heart.” It wasn’t a judgement or anything, but as he said it Natasha knew it wasn’t quite right.

“Mountains,” she blurted. “Mountains are gorgeous. They – they take you out of yourself. They make you more yourself.” She remembered the first time she had been able to climb out of bed under her own steam after Vienna, remembered limping to the door of the chalet and throwing it open onto that view. For minutes she had stood and drank it in with her eyes, barely breathing. Later Clint had told her that seeing her face in that instant was the moment he knew he had done the right thing.

“Mountains,” said Steve distantly, staring out the window of the car. Then he smiled, perhaps a little sadly. Natasha remembered too late that Bucky Barnes had fallen from a HYDRA transport train in an undisclosed mountain range in Europe. Nevertheless, Steve said, “Yeah.”

“The Hindu Kush, man,” Sam said, shaking his head. “It’s the most amazing… they’re endless, you know, and they’re so huge. It sounds obvious, but it’s the only thing you think about the first time you see ‘em, they fill your whole world. I’m not a believer, you know, but up there, up in those hills… I could’ve been. I really could have.”

Natasha thought she knew what he meant.

Steve sighed. “If I ever do quit this job for good, I’m gonna go travelling.”

“I’ve never been to Egypt,” Natasha said.

“Egypt?”

“Yeah, you know, sand, pyramids, big statues everywhere.”

“So you’re goin’ for the culture,” said Sam, laughing.

“What would you go for, flyboy?”

“To discover the sources of the Nile,” he said promptly.

“Dr Livingstone, I presume,” said Steve. “Hey, that might be fun. I mean, some sort of adventure trip that doesn’t involve shooting people at the end of it.”

“Knowing our luck we’d only discover, like, the ark of truth or a Stargate or something,” said Natasha.

“Well, but at least it wouldn’t be on purpose.”

Sam said, “Who was it that went round the world on their motorbikes? That’d be awesome.”

“India,” said Steve.

“Hell yes.”

“Or we could go on a hiking tour of Australia and get eaten by dingoes,” said Natasha, and then they had to explain to Steve about the Chamberlain case, which depressed everyone until Sam brought the conversation round to Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead. Steve was properly appreciative of the concept, because he was a well-brought-up boy who had a thing for pretty girls who could turn him inside out with their little fingers, and Natasha made a mental note to buy the DVDs.

*********

One sunny afternoon Sam made them turn off the road into a lonely stretch of empty fields and took them both up with him, one after the other. Steve whooped and laughed, red-faced with the wind and utterly delighted. Natasha held on tight in perfect silence, tiny smile curling her mouth, green eyes dreamy, focussed on something far, far away. Sam turned his face into the sunlight, dipped and looped and swerved and dived and was so fiercely happy he could have cried.

*********

All Steve had to do was wait. He could be patient if that was what Bucky wanted, needed. For Buck, he could be. There was no rescue he could plan, no Nazi base to storm; whatever Bucky needed from Steve, even solitude, Steve would give him.

Sometimes Steve thought about asking Natasha about – everything, but – Bucky had said, she doesn’t remember me. And anyway, Steve had no right to poke about in her life.

But he caught himself watching her sometimes, the curl of her hair growing out, the line of her profile. He knew her crisp and professional, irreverent and teasing; contemplative, smiling, trusting Natasha was new to him and very lovely. He had seen quite a bit of her in Brooklyn, and he was gladder than he could say that she hadn’t closed that part of herself away when they had left the city.

*********

The journal stayed hidden in Natasha’s duffle. Once or twice she took it out to write in the small hours of the morning, but more often she read over previous entries again, tracing and re-tracing the slow realignment of her memories. She couldn’t stop – but then again, it was her mind, her memory, unravelled and then made anew.

Wipe them both. Had that been Pierce? Maybe. He had stood in the shadows and she had been in too much pain to remember his face clearly. If it had been … he must have found it amusing. She could have destroyed him any time she wanted, if she had only known she had that power.

Sometimes when she woke she thought about slipping away, leaving the motel room, stealing the car, disappearing to nowhere. Everything she had ever done was flung across the Internet for any fool with a browser to read, but she was Natasha Romanov: she could still vanish. It wouldn’t be hard. It might be safer for everyone. Perhaps she could find the Soldier, make what apologies she could, urge him to go home to Steve. Perhaps she could find that house in the suburbs and the quiet life he had painted for her when she was seventeen, the one where she was safe, her dreams less bloodstained.

But she wasn’t a child anymore. And – what was more – she still had debts to pay to both of them. Every time she made Steve smile her books grew a little more balanced, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough, not yet.

Strange to have built herself on layers of debts for all these years and then find an overlap where she’d least expected it. Sometimes she thought about sitting Steve down and telling him everything, but her mind shied away from the idea as soon as she tried to picture it. Not yet. Not yet.

It would be a kind of turning herself inside out, offering herself up for his perusal. She owed Steve and she trusted him, but she wasn’t ready for that just the same.

*********

Calling his mother had never been a chore before, not once in Sam’s life: not at college, not on his tours, not on that six-week backpacking vacation to Europe that he’d gone on with Joey and Raquel after high school. Calling his mother still wasn’t really a chore, not in the tedious I don’t wanna sense, but…

Well, you try calling your social activist mother and telling her you’d sub-let your place and taken a sabbatical from your job in order to road trip across the continent with Captain America and the Black Widow hunting down rogue Nazi secret organisations and conspicuously avoiding conversations about Captain America’s not-dead amnesiac assassin boyfriend.

His mother said, “Captain America’s gay? Fox News will be delighted.”

Sam said, “No, Mom, I didn’t mean it literally, like I have no idea what’s going on there beyond insanely important to him and also no longer dead. If, in fact, he was ever dead in the first place.”

“Aha,” said his mother. “OK, honestly, I… I don’t know what to do with that.” Sam could picture the way she was shaking her head perfectly. They both went quiet for a bit, contemplating the weirdness that Sam had allowed into his life. Then she said, “Why didn’t you come see us when you were in New York?”

“…. Uh,” said Sam.

He genuinely didn’t have an answer for that. He could have. New York was big, but that was what the subway was for, he could have hopped on in Brooklyn and hopped off in Harlem and left Steve alone for a day. He could have brought Steve along, come to think of it. Had he even told Steve he’d grown up in Harlem? He honestly couldn’t remember.

Darlene Wilson said, “… yeah?”

Sam said, “Steve’s Catholic?”

“Sam,” said his mother, “You are my baby boy, my only son, and I love you, and I know that sometimes when you’re feelin’ guilty you say some pretty stupid stuff, so I am not gonna repeat that comment to your father. However, if you pass up another opportunity to come by this house and have an actual face-to-face conversation with people who love you, and if, furthermore, you fail to bring Captain America with you when you do so, I will ruin your life, honey, OK?”

Sam said, “Yes, ma’am.”

It didn’t pay to argue with his mother. It just didn’t.

*********

Montana, as if in answer to that conversation of days and days ago, gave them mountains and forests both aplenty. They lingered for over a week in near-silence, barely speaking to each other unless they had to, sitting silently at campsites and riversides when they weren’t on the move. It was nothing and everything like the Swiss Alps Natasha remembered. Sam went flying at night and came back with a look on his face as if he’d touched the sky itself. Steve had drawn Chicago skyscrapers and Wisconsin farms and North Dakota rivers; now he dropped the pencil out of his fingers almost before he’d put it to paper. Sometimes Natasha thought he was on the verge of crying, but he never did.

They would come back here, she decided, as soon as this (whatever it was) was over. They would come and camp and hike and be for as long as possible. Anywhere that put that look on Steve’s face, that awed, grateful peace…

She blinked, frowned, dropped her eyes to her lap and closed her book. Come back here, her and Steve… Bullshit. He didn’t need her to look after him. For fuck’s sake. Was she his mother?

*********

But the next day she bumped into Sam in the parking lot outside a grocery store and said, “Is it weird?”

Sam had been texting with Marcus and hadn’t even noticed she’d come up to him until Natasha had nudged his shoulder with hers. He tossed his phone from left to right and said, “Is what weird?”, still caught up in the conversation he’d been having with Marcus about possible birthday presents for overactive three-year-old goddaughters.

“Me and Steve.”

Change gears, Wilson, change all gears. Sam gestured with the phone while he tried to do so. “Uhhhhhh, with the flirting?”

“We flirt?”

“I don’t know,” said Sam. “People flirt all the time. It’s allowed.”

“It’s…” said Natasha, trailing off. She was oddly annoyed at herself. She’d teased and joshed and mocked for months, friendly and easy as between herself and Clint – well, all right – maybe a little different than with Clint – and when had it become flirting? Why hadn’t she noticed?

Had Steve noticed?

“Please don’t make me your relationship counsellor just because I’m a good listener,” said Sam.

“I’m not,” said Natasha.

Hopelessly confused, Sam shook his head. “Then what exactly is this conversation about?”

She laughed. “I don’t think I know.”

“Well, if you don’t,” said Sam pointedly. Then he cursed when she leaned over and grabbed his phone.

“S’up, who… aww, what’s a Care Bear? It sounds really cute. I want one. Is it a therapy thing?”

“Oh my God, no, it’s for my goddaughter. Who is three. Give it baaaack.”

“Nu-uh. What kind of idiot makes your sorry ass responsible for the immortal soul of a small child?”

“My dumbass best friend since high school,” said Sam. “Bully!”

“Neener, neener,” said Natasha, scrolling through – hell, she was probably scrolling through the whole phone. “Oh my God, all your friends are adults. Half of them have children. That’s so weird.”

I’m an adult,” said Sam, feeling defensive.

That was ridiculous. If anything, Natasha oughta be defensive about how much she was twelve.

“Baby, you’re Captain America’s superhero vigilante sidekick. Please.”

She had a point. Sam ignored it. “Quit reading my private stuff!”

“Quit being a gi-irl.”

“You’re a disparaging a-hole.”

“You’re whiny. And not adult, for the record.”

Sam crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m telling on you to Captain America.”

“He likes me better than you.”

“I’m not a weird invasive douchebag who reads people’s private stuff and mocks them in order to try and feel ‘em out,” said Sam.

Natasha blinked, and then she laughed easily, caught out but unashamed. “No one ever said I was subtle.” She tossed him the phone back. He caught it one-handed.

“Maybe just ask?”

“Please,” she said scornfully.

Sam shrugged. “I thought we were already friends, you know? I’m hurt. That’s what it is, I’m wounded. Down to my very soul.”

She said, “I don’t… trust easy.”

Sam was speechless. “I – you – after DC? Seriously?”

She sighed. “There’s trust and there’s trust, Sammy. You know that perfectly well.”

He supposed he did, kind of – but that didn’t make it OK. If the three of them weren’t all on the same page here, what the hell did they have? “Well, maybe now’s a good time to be re-thinking your life choices in that particular regard. You know?” He sounded pissy and didn’t care.

Natasha cackled. “Oh, honey. What do you think I’m doing here?”

“Hmm,” said Sam. They watched each other, curious, waiting for the next blow, both trying to read the other’s expression. Sam hated it when he caught himself treating the people in his life like his patients, but sometimes it was harder than others, and this was one of those times. Steve he got: on that fundamental baseline where they were both soldiers, both knew a need to help others, Sam understood Steve inside out. But Natasha… Natasha put on personalities, attitudes, like other people put on clothes.

He wondered if she understood herself. Then he wondered if that was what she meant, re-thinking her life choices.

Finally he gave up and looked away – let her have the victory, if that was what she considered it. He was too tired to work her out, and didn’t know that he wanted to. It made him sad.

“So we’re good?”

“Yeah,” said Natasha. “Yeah, I guess we are.”

*********

But she wasn’t, not really. Flirting. With Steve. Flirting. It was – when had she – she poked at the notion, remembered the conversation in Sam’s guest bedroom, in the graveyard. I owe you, she’d told him. I’m not leaving you, she’d told him.

Fuck fuck fuckety fuck.

Not long after that – the day Natasha woke up after another nightmare about St Petersburg and the Soldier and the American leaning over her saying wipe her and waving a taser – but now he had Steve’s face – anyway, that day she hustled a bar full of biker thugs out of several hundred dollars at pool and started a fight that almost got her arrested in the parking lot. Her whole body felt hot and tight and wound up like the string of an instrument, a pulled-tight garrotte wire. Every bruise was a triumph, the ringing in her ears a kind of victory march. It certainly cancelled any other sounds out.

Christ Almighty, she was a mess.

Sam said, “You terrify me,” slapped the first-aid kit into her hands, and left her to it.

Steve said, “You’re not gonna keep the money, are you?” and seemed to understand perfectly well why she had done it.

*********

“Hey, look,” said Steve. “I am not the one who showed up on their friend’s fire escape at 2 a.m. the other week with a stab wound and a bullet in me and a fever that should have killed an ordinary human being who rolled off the couch like three days later, threw a gallon of Ben & Jerry’s in the trash, seriously, that alone should be a federal offense, and then climbed onto said friend’s brand new coffee table and proclaimed – and I quote this verbatim, lest you think I’m exaggerating for effect – and proclaimed I have too many feelings and I don’t know what to do with them, let’s go raid a HYDRA base.”

Clint said, “Ohhhh, the feelings thing,” and started to laugh.

Steve said, “I hate you.”

Clint said, “OK, look. I know Nat probably hasn’t told you anything about her childhood. Sometimes she lets stuff slip, but that’s a strategic decision, not an accident. But the way she grew up…” he left it hanging for a minute, as if searching for words. “Sometimes, she doesn’t – she doesn’t know how to process stuff. You know, in the kind of emotionally mature, grown-up way that you and I do.”

“Is that a joke?” said Steve suspiciously.

“A little bit. Mostly not. Look, she’s about thirty, really, and most of the time she acts it, and then stuff happens, and she’s… if she’s not sure how to cope, sometimes, it’s like hanging out with a teenager. That used to be… she used to be like that a lot, right after she came to SHIELD. Years ago. Lately of course the whole world’s gone crazy, and then Fury died on her.”

“That….” said Steve, “that makes sense, I guess.” And as for the bar fight, oh, he understood that all right. Sometimes I think you like getting punched.

Clint snorted. “Did she tell you about her nightmares?”

“No. Did she tell you she went to Jersey and got shot?”

“No. Did she tell you the Winter Soldier came to see us?”

Steve sighed. “No.”

“But you knew.”

“I – sort of. I guessed that she might know – and she said some stuff while – hell. Clint, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I don’t know what to do. It’s been a couple weeks now, and I thought – I thought, sit quiet and hope she’s OK. I don’t have any right to push her but I just – I need to know she’s OK, I guess.”

“I can’t promise you that. And you know there’s nothing either of us can do.” Clint’s voice was gentle, but the words cut Steve to the quick. Nothing, it seemed, would ever be up to him again – maybe it was just his lot in life to wait and watch and wonder and hope and lose and lose and lose, over and over. When he and Clint had hung up Steve threw himself angrily into bed and tried to sleep, but his dreams were a kaleidoscopic mess of bad memories and he woke upset, on edge and irritable as Natasha had been the day before. He drove that day – at least it was something to do – and they halted early; Steve went for a run that lasted three hours and still hadn’t tired himself out by the time he returned. But he felt human enough to go to dinner with Nat and Sam and apologise for his short temper.

Maria said she had a few things lined up for them on the West Coast, but nothing that couldn’t wait. Steve wasn’t exactly bored, and he didn’t feel guilty for doing so little, but dear God – it hadn’t been long, but – the truth was – how much longer would he have to wait, anyway?

He wondered if he should ask Nat direct about the fight, but – well, he liked his kneecaps where they were, thank you, and she seemed… not calmer, she had been calm before, but… yeah.

He caught her watching him sometimes with a look on her face he almost wanted to call resigned. It kind of hurt.

*********

After the bar fight Natasha started writing in the journal again. She wasn’t sure if it actually helped keep the nightmares to a minimum or not, but it was a comforting routine, to sit at diner tables or balance the book on her knees in the car, tapping a pen against her lips and searching for the right words to describe landscapes and small towns and tiny motels. Sometimes she would look at a page and realise she had written Steve’s name about once on every line.

*********

Sometimes Sam thought he was the only sane man in the damn car, the only sane man, perhaps, in either Steve or Natasha’s entire lives. It wasn’t babysitting, they were grown-ass, competent, terrifying adults and acted it, but they had zero coping methods, just none. Bar fights. Seriously. And Steve had understood Natasha completely and had not been bothered by it for a second.

Sam had a life, for God’s sake. His mother was right: he should have gone up to Harlem. He was absolutely not going to turn into an appendage of Steve’s, like a human version of the shield. It occurred to him that this would be a really, really easy thing to let happen.

He was tempted to compare it to kids who self-harmed, and the more he thought about it, in the days after, the more he wanted to take them both by the scruffs of their necks and give them a talking-to they wouldn’t forget in a hurry. You got that urge sometimes, doing his job: the urge to shake someone until they listened to you, until they understood that none of the shit they were talking about themselves or their lives was true. You are not broken and you do not need to act as if you are, there is nothing wrong with you, you don’t need to do this, stop talking like this, just stop it, just stop.

If he was gonna start thinking of them both as patients instead of comrades in arms he really shouldn’t be on this road trip at all. He had done right to get out of the military when he had. Sam knew that. He had made a life for himself that was good, worthwhile, made him happy. And then he had thrown it away, more or less. If he had actually been looking for an excuse to go back in, of course Captain America was the perfect one, but Sam didn’t think he had been looking for an excuse.

And yet.

Captain America.

How many toys had Sam owned as a kid, how many comics had he read, how many terrible movies had he sat through? What kid in America hadn’t? What soldier in the US Armed Forces had not been taught to look to Cap as a shining ideal of everything they were supposed to be for seventy years? And then the man who had died to save them all from magic and monsters beyond even their understanding of Hitler and the Nazis had come back to life, and – had done it again. In the wake of the Chitauri invasion, as world leaders showered sympathy and aid money on New York, as the clean-up crews began to work, as funerals were held and the dead were mourned and the world had exploded with questions about a formerly-obscure UN spy agency that had apparently known for months that there were dangerous aliens out there in the universe, the truth was that in spite of its grief and anger most of the US had had one question and one question only on its mind:

Cap, is it really you?

It was. And it was probably impossible to explain to someone who hadn’t grown up with Captain America the way American kids had been doing since 1945, but in a way it was like King Arthur had ridden into London town one morning with Excalibur in his hand and nonchalantly saved the world: they had needed him, and Cap had come back.

Sam had never really had any faith in any kind of divinity (a thing which his minister father had been deeply if stoically hurt by). There wasn’t any God; there wasn’t any overarching purpose to life beyond the living of it. The only thing you could be sure of in this world was yourself: who you chose to be and how you chose to act. You only got one chance, one life. It was a crime to piss it away trying to guess at what came after.

Cap could make you believe, though. Cap could put a shining light into your chest, a hope that seized hold of you and squeezed until you could barely breathe with the glory of it, the sort of feeling that overwhelmed you against all your better knowledge and cynicism. Sam had seen it in the Triskelion, had spoken afterwards to a pale-faced tech agent in an interrogation room who had said, I couldn’t do it. Captain’s orders. Sam had felt it himself.

But it wasn’t Cap in the car with him now, pulling faces at terrible pop music or gazing, lost, out of the window as the landscape slid by, and it hadn’t been Cap who had come to Sam’s door that morning, or to the VA earlier that same week. Not really. Not in the way that had mattered most.

So what, exactly, was Sam’s goddamn problem now?

*********

The anniversary of Riley’s death fell on a Sunday, and Sam got drunk. They were stopped by Lake Pend Oreille – they had left the Interstate and turned north to see it – and in a dive bar just outside of Sandpoint Sam settled on a stool and devoted himself to drinking his way through all the different beers on offer and then started over. There weren’t that many, and he had a head for it, so when Steve tracked him down he was still only on his fifth beer and mostly capable of holding a conversation.

“Don’t get the impression you usually do this,” Steve said, slouching at the bar and signalling the bartender for a beer of his own.

“I don’t,” said Sam. “But apparently no one ever behaves like a goddamn adult on a road trip?”

Steve thought it over. “This about the bar fight?”

“I don’t know,” Sam admitted suddenly.

“Heh.” Steve’s beer came; he drank half of it down at once. “You don’t have to do this, you know,” he said when he put it down.

“I do know that,” said Sam. And he did. But that kind of made it worse, because it meant he didn’t have an easy excuse. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at them, grimacing. “I’m entitled to a bad week too.”

Steve laughed soundlessly. “Yes you are.”

They drank together in silence, working their way steadily through one beer and then the next. The bar was slowly emptying; the clock hands were creeping towards midnight. Sam didn’t know where Natasha was and didn’t ask. He wasn’t angry at her or anything. He was just… tired. Thoroughly and completely tired.

The bartender turned them out at twelve-thirty a.m. Steve did not appear any drunker than he had when he had arrived. Sam – via heroic effort and two years of practice at college – walked, slowly and carefully, across the parking lot and into the town proper, squinting against the street lights. Steve fell easily into step beside him.

“It’s not fair, is it,” said Steve when they were nearly back at the motel. “That I get him back and you don’t.”

Sam pondered this, bending the exactness of attention of the extremely drunk upon the question as they crossed the street.

“No,” he said. “No it isn’t.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t need you to be sorry,” said Sam, nettled. “I need…”

“To sleep it off.”

“Right. And” – inspiration hit – “to call my Mom.”

“Not like this,” said Steve, hugely amused.

“Probably not, no.”

“Tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow morning,” said Sam, “you are buying me breakfast. And then I wanna go swimming.”

Steve looked pained. “It’ll be freezing.”

“Serve you both right,” said Sam.

*********

They went swimming. It was freezing. Natasha turned up in a sports bikini in black and white; when Steve saw her he said, “Thought you’d given those up,” and got pushed in the lake for his trouble. After the first twenty minutes Sam climbed out swearing and shivering, hangover banished. Then he went back in again and swam out as far as he could manage, a huge loop out and back to the shore, breathing hard. The weather was holding, the sun was out, warm on his face and shoulders and arms when they broke the surface of the water. The world was very quiet, this far out. There was only Sam: his own breathing loud in his ears, the splash of the water, the way it slid over him and enveloped him, the endless shining glitter of the sun-path on the lake, scattering into shards of light around him as he swam. He would go flying again, tomorrow, when they were out of town somewhere…

It wasn’t fair. It was a fucking vicious joke perpetrated by the universe, although… on whom? On Sam and Riley or Steve and Barnes? Riley at least had died cleanly and stayed gone, had been brought home and buried, not been tortured, broken, used and manipulated… fate worse than death. Was there such a thing?

No, Sam decided. Alive was alive was alive. As long as you had that you could face anything. And if even half the books that Sam had read about Bucky Barnes were even halfway true, he would face it all right – face it and pull right the way through. Sam felt kinda sorry for HYDRA. No, wait, they were Nazi scumbags. Fuck ‘em.

He paused at last, treaded water, turned onto his back and floated, starfished. Above him the sky was infinitely blue and empty.

“What are you gonna do about it, then?” he asked himself, chest heaving, voice hoarse with the effort of the swim he had made, the swim he still had to make back. “You could back out now but that would just make you a douchebag. Or you could remember that some things are worth it, and get your ass back in that car.” Suddenly he added, “Let’s face it, if you were the only sane man on this trip you wouldn’t be on this trip.” He laughed to himself helplessly. He had never been to Seattle. And there was probably still a mile-long list of places Agent Hill wanted them to, uh, examine. And everyone said the West Coast was gorgeous.

And, you know, if the reasons why this road trip was a stupid idea boiled down to “Steve and Natasha”, then the reasons why this road trip was an awesome idea also boiled down to “Steve and Natasha”. So maybe he was an idiot for coming and an idiot for ever getting involved with their whole ridiculous superhero deal. But, well. Think about what would have happened if he hadn’t. Think about the possibilities of this friendship, the chances they offered him: the chance to fly again, the chance to help people, the chance to make a difference on a larger scale than ever before…

He swam back, feeling pensive.

“Have fun?” said Natasha.

“I’m dead,” said Sam, falling onto his towel. “I am. I’m never moving again.”

“Awww. OK. We’ll leave you here to ossify into a part of the landscape.”

Sam started laughing. He levered himself up onto his elbows to look at her. “You’re a crazy person. You know that?”

“I do and I am. At least, on the days when I’m a person at all, I’m a crazy one.” She grinned. “Why?”

Sam sighed. “No reason. I was just –”

“You had a hit-the-roof moment. We’ve all been there.”

“Hit the roof?”

She shrugged. “When you realise just what it is you’ve gotten in to, and it freaks you out so much you don’t know what to do about it except get really really furious?”

“Oh, yeah.” He thought about it. “When was yours?”

“Aliens invaded New York and kidnapped my family. When I came down from the roof I’d joined a superhero team.”

“How’d that work out?” Solemnly.

“Well,” said Natasha thoughtfully, “that was actually some really great schwarma.”

“I don’t think I even know what that is,” said Sam and dropped back onto the towel, grinning hard.

*********

That evening he called his Mom.

“This mean you’re in town?”

“No,” said Sam. “Sorry. I – uh.”

He thought she was probably smiling. “Go on,” she said.

“First of all, it’s not about Cap,” said Sam. “Or even Riley. It’s just not. It’s about me.”

Darlene stayed silent.

“I save people. That’s what I do. I’m a soldier, but it’s not – I protect people, I rescue them. That’s who I am. That’s the choice I made, that’s who I want to be. And after Riley died, I – I didn’t run off the rails, I didn’t start drinking or God knows what. I just knew. I knew it was time to find another way to do what I do.”

His mother was moving through the house; he heard the door into the back yard give its familiar creak as she stepped outside, sat down on the porch swing.

“And then – they came by, during the SHIELD thing, Steve and Natasha came by and they were lookin’ for somewhere safe, somewhere to hide. Everyone had been trying to kill them, and they were gonna go back out there and do it all again, to protect people. These two brave stupid idiots against – against the whole world. And I know you probably think – but it didn’t matter that he was Cap. That they were, you know, Avengers. Heroes. It didn’t matter at all. Not really.” He was lying flat on his back on the motel bed, staring up at a ceiling painted a green so soul-destroying it shouldn’t have been permitted to exist. Darlene made a noise in her throat, an encouraging hum.

The only thing in life that truly mattered was what you chose to do with it.

“I had to help them,” Sam said quietly. “And maybe it messed me up and that’s why I’m doing this. I don’t care. But I had to do it. I couldn’t not have done it.”

Silence again for long, long moments.

“I’m proud of you,” Darlene said at last. “I want you to know that. I hope you already did. I’m so, so proud of you.” There was the faint, familiar jangle of the charm bracelet Sam’s grandmother had given her as she moved her arm. Then she sniffed.

Sam closed his eyes. “Thanks,” he said hoarsely. “Thanks, I –“

“You bring them both back here. In one piece. I want to meet them.”

“OK,” said Sam. “I will.” He smiled. “I want you to meet them too.”

*********

Steve had an odd way of running his hand over the shield sometimes; it was as if he was checking for notches or dents, and then his hand would pause in around the centre and his fingers splay out as if searching for a certain spot in particular. He had been doing it for as long as Natasha could remember, balancing the shield on his lap on the way back from a mission.

“There aren’t any dents,” she said one day.

Steve looked up. “I know.”

She gestured at him, at his fingers resting in that strange, precise position on the surface of the metal.

“It’s just habit.”

Does it dent?”

“Oh, yes. They hammered ‘em all out when they dug me out of the ice, though. Painted over the scratches.” He shook his head.

“You miss ‘em.”

“I guess. It’s like – that favourite pair of boots you’ve got, with the broken laces or the hole or whatever.”

Natasha smiled.

“Yeah, I get that.”

*********

The HYDRA base in Washington State was hidden under an abandoned funfair on the outskirts of a small town a few hours outside of Seattle. It was larger than the Cleveland one, and Steve laid his plans with characteristic care and attention to detail.

Unfortunately, none of them had known about the dude with the yellow eyes and the ability to start earthquakes by stomping.

“They must have hit the Fridge already!” Natasha shouted.

“The what?” Steve yelled, dragging her into the elevator as half the corridor ceiling collapsed, leaving them neatly trapped. Thank God the elevator shuddered into life and began to climb a few floors, but there were twenty-seven of them and who knew how long that would last.

“Uh,” said Natasha. “… SHIELD superprison for people with superpowers?”

The next few minutes were given over to a frankly impressive demonstration of Steve’s wide-ranging and inventive vocabulary. Natasha made mental notes so she could look up some of the words he used later on. The elevator had stopped moving again, but neither of them noticed.

“This is why I hate secret organisations! Two years and I had no idea this was going on!”

“I think everyone felt it would be kind of an awkward conversation, given that you, y’know, have superpowers?”

“For God’s sake, Nat!” The whole elevator shaft shuddered; they both toppled into a corner, Steve bracing himself above Natasha with a hand on either wall. “Could you be any more pointlessly flippant?”

“If I try,” she said, eyes locked on his. He was pretty when he was angry, there was no point denying it. Adrenaline was making her blood thump, loosening her tongue in a way she would never have allowed a year ago. It was a strange sensation; a bit like giving up control, though of what (and to whom) she couldn’t have said. “For example, it’s been months, why haven’t you called Sharon yet? Seriously, I thought we had this conversation.” She gestured between them.

Steve closed his eyes briefly. The elevator shuddered again; she caught at his arms to steady herself. Sam should reach them any minute, if this went to plan…

“I trust you,” said Steve, misinterpreting the conversation she was talking about. “That’s kind of what’s pissing me off, actually.”

Suddenly Natasha was furious. “Right! Because God forbid I don’t lie down on your couch and spill my guts to you like a good little –“

“This isn’t about your secrets!” Steve bellowed. “Keep your damn secrets, I don’t care, I don’t! This is about SHIELD and you know it! God, you are the most infuriating –“

“Oh, that is rich coming from you, you smug sanctimonious prick,” said Natasha, and hit him in the chest with the heels of both her hands. Steve, of course, was immovable as granite. “You flounce around my entire life thinking you know better than anyone else and turning your nose up at ordinary human interaction –“

“I turn my nose up? ME? Half the time you talk to people like you’re reading off a cue card titled List of Possible Answers A Real Person Would Give In This Situation, and you tell ME I turn my nose up at ordinary human interaction?”

If she hadn’t been so angry Natasha would have been terrified that he had noticed that. No one else ever had.

“WHY HAVEN’T YOU CALLED SHARON?” she bawled instead.

“BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO!”

“Why the fuck not? I thought you did, I thought you were gonna –“

“Yeah, well, so did I, and then I thought, hang on, Steve, is this really the moment to start settling for second-best, especially now it actually looks like things are changing –“

“SECOND BEST!”

Steve looked like he was close to tearing his hair out. “Do you not understand that you have spent the better part of the last two years trying to fix me up with every SHIELD agent under the sun except the one I might actually wanna go out with!

“Well then tell me who she is! Unless oh wait, is it a he, because I will fix that up as well, it’s not actually illegal anymore, YOU JUST HAVE TO TELL ME.”

Steve stared at her, mouth hanging open. Then, in the tones of a man having a divine revelation, he said, “Oh my God, you’re worse at this than I am.”

Natasha felt as if all the hinges had fallen out of her jaw. She wasn’t sure why this should make her particularly kissable, but apparently it did. Just as unpractised as the one in the shopping mall, but considerably more enthusiastic, and it took her a second – OK, two – but she got with the programme as soon as her brain rebooted, climbed him like a tree, wrapped her legs over his hips, got a decent grip on his hair, and settled down to the very important business of teaching Captain America how to kiss.

He was a very quick study. Ten out of ten for concentration and effort.

*********

Sam kvetched all the way back to the motel about dumbass seat-of-your-pants plans that involved trapping yourself in elevators and waiting for the dude with the wings to drop taser-nets onto crazy people with superpowers. Steve drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel a lot. Natasha said, “But you gotta admit that the part where the giant purple dinosaur fell through the ceiling was kind of hilarious.”

*********

Maria wasn’t particularly impressed with them either. Steve had a few choice words for her about the Fridge, and she had a few choice words for him about things that were and were not his business, and if he was really that mad about it he was welcome to take it up with Fury in person; meanwhile she had information to pass on and teams to organise who would handle their superpowered prisoner, please try to behave themselves, they’d been doing so well for so long, it would be a damn shame to break that streak.

Steve fumed for hours after Maria hung up, so Natasha dragged him out to the hotel garden and arranged for… lessons to resume. There was a patio of tables and chairs overlooked by a security camera on the corner of the building: no. A bench: too visible from the bedroom windows. A rose bush, a tree, a group of three deck chairs in a corner of the garden out of sight of the building.

“… and how the hell she dares tell me not to worry about it after everything that’s happened…”

“Steve,” said Natasha, and pushed. He stumbled, sat down on the deck chair. Then he looked up at her, and his eyes were very wide, lips parted, hands on the edge of the deck chair by his thighs.

Natasha said, “There are other things you oughta be thinking about right now, Captain.”

Steve licked his lips. She swallowed hard.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and got this wicked little smile that – well.

Anyway.

It turned out he liked it a little bit rough (oh, the noise he made whenever she bit down on his lower lip) and a lot joyful; Natasha had never before managed to laugh this much while kissing anyone. It was… nice. She’d never really kissed anyone – just kissed – for this sheer length of time, either. That was nice too.

“It’s in public,” Steve said for the thousandth time. He was making absolutely zero moves to lift her off his lap, mind you.

Natasha bit at his lower lip again and relished the full-body shudder that went through him. She was flushed and oddly shivery, and couldn’t stop her hips moving in quick little circles; she was sure it was very distracting for both of them. His left hand was big and warm and heavy on her thigh, a pressing weight she was thoroughly enjoying, and she kind of wished she was wearing shorts. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“Security cameras.” But he was grinning as he said it, dropped his head to kiss her throat, the underside of her jaw. His fingertips at the small of her back were rubbing, slowly, at a stretch of exposed skin above the waistband of her pants.

“Give me hickeys and die,” said Natasha breathlessly. “This is the only blind spot in the whole damn garden.”

“I know,” he said against her collar bone. “I checked ‘em too.”

She crowed delightedly until he kissed her mouth again.

*********

At breakfast Steve said, “Don’t think you’re off the hook about the Fridge thing.”

Natasha threw her hands up. “And what do you think you can possibly do about it, Steve? It’s already been broken in to.”

“I can make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Steve, “and I can try and set something up that actually helps the people who were there instead of locking them up to be experimented on.”

“That’s not what was going on,” said Natasha, indignant.

“Like HYDRA wasn’t in charge of SHIELD?” Steve shot back. “I’m still workin’ through the files but I’ll find it if it’s there and I will make Nick regret it.”

Then he went and got Pepper, Maria and Fury on a conference call that lasted three hours and involved a predictable amount of yelling. Somewhat surprisingly for a woman who had spent fifteen years of her professional life working for a man justly dubbed the Merchant of Death, Pepper was as pissed about the Fridge as Steve himself.

Outreach programmes,” Natasha overheard before she fled the room. Outreach programmes for people with superpowers, God almighty. She would bite her tongue out before she admitted it was probably a good idea.

When the conference call was over Steve called Banner. And when that conversation was finished he called Colonel Rhodes and put him in touch with Banner.

“Wait, I don’t get it, Rhodey you trust?” said Natasha, amused. “You’ve met him like once.”

“Well he’s not HYDRA is he,” said Steve. “Or a politicking scumbag. Or, you know, a spy.”

“Ouch,” said Natasha.

“Tell Ms Potts I can put her in touch with people about the outreach programmes,” said Sam.

Steve looked smug.

*********

At the same time as Steve, Sam and Natasha were busy wrecking the HYDRA base in Washington State Clint Barton was tied to a chair in an abandoned factory outside of Detroit while his ex-wife hit him in the face.

Honestly, he wasn’t too bothered about that. Rumlow, on the other hand… or what was left of Rumlow, at least. He was hooked up to all kinds of tubes, his burns redly angry, and he could still barely take a breath unaided, but he was struggling to sit up all the same, claw-like hands ripping at the covers, and his eyes…

A lot of people had looked at Clint with various degrees of hatred over the years, but he had never seen anything quite like the way Rumlow was watching him now.

“Kill him,” he croaked out. “What are you waiting for, Morse? Lingering sentiment?”

“Fuck you,” said Morse. “Are you outta your mind? He’s reporting to Talbot direct. And what happens when Romanov hears you’ve strung him up by the intestines? Cause I don’t think you’re in a condition to get into a fight with a teddy bear, let alone her.”

Rumlow snarled. “Look, we got our orders. We can’t afford to waste time with one dumb grunt with a circus act –“

“It was a very classy circus act, I’ll have you know,” said Clint.

Bobbi hit him again.

“Waitin’ a while for that, doll?”

“Feels like forever,” she said cheerfully. “Hey, call me doll again?”

Clint grinned, feeling blood drip down his chin and soak into his t-shirt. “Sweetheart.”

She raised her hand, but the others were back: ten goons who clattered in like a herd of elephants. It was amazing that they had ever had a reputation for being good. It was amazing that Clint had ever thought he would have had their backs under any circumstances whatsoever.

None of them looked at him with so much as a hint of recognition.

“Perry,” he said, spitting the names out coated in his own blood. “Meier. Tanner. Fredericks –“

He got that blow Bobbi had been threatening after all. It snapped his head back, and he couldn’t keep a groan down, breathing hard.

“Time to go,” said Perry. “Boss, they want you moved. Morse, get rid of him.”

Bobbi threw her hands up. “If they wanna risk it, it’s on their heads. But I want five more minutes.”

“You think I’m falling for that?” Rumlow demanded. He struck the bed with the heel of his hand; considering the state he was in, it was a bit like watching a small child have a temper tantrum. “You think I trust you?”

“Rumlow,” said Bobbi, “I didn’t divorce the asshole ‘cause I loved him so damn much, you dumb, pathetic fuck. I divorced him because he brought his little whore home to our house and kept her there for months while I was undercover, and one day I came home and found her draped all over my furniture, wearing my clothes, and she had the fucking cheek to hold a gun on me. You really think I haven’t been waiting for this for eight years? Pack your crap, boys,” she added to the men. “HQ has clearly spoken. Get Rumlow out. I want five more minutes, and then I’ll join you.”

“Always wondered if you were fucking her or not,” said Rumlow to Clint, drawing his ruined lips back from his teeth.

“Always will wonder,” said Clint. “Don’t think you’re ever gettin’ laid again, Mr Burns.”

“For God’s sake get him out of here,” said Bobbi when Rumlow snarled. “Rumlow, you’ve lost it. First you let some random kid Rogers picked up off the street do this to you, and now you’re behaving like a child. Get him out of here.”

“It’s the painkillers,” Clint said helpfully. “He’s high as a kite. It’s cute, you know, like a helpless kitten.”

Bobbi snarled herself. Perry and the others jumped to it and wheeled Rumlow out. They had started packing up the operation even before Clint had come round from the knock to the head Bobbi had given him; there was nothing left in the factory now. That was all right. He’d got the intel Talbot had wanted, and he’d found interesting bits and pieces of information that Talbot hadn’t wanted but Clint had collected just the same. He’d been particularly intrigued by the information that HYDRA had put a hit out on a dude who looked suspiciously like the super-assassin Natasha had once had over to Clint’s place in DC for beer and skittles.

“Hope you’ve got a comfortable ambulance!” he called after the retreating backs of his former colleagues. The vans were out on the factory floor, blocked from his view. Engines revved; he could hear them folding Rumlow’s stretcher into a van. “Wonder why the hell they’re bothering to keep him alive.”

“The brass think he’s cute,” said Bobbi, rolling her eyes. That meant she didn’t know either. She didn’t bother to look at him. The vans rolled out; then there was silence. Clint breathed in, and out, and in again, trying to work out if his ribs were broken. He didn’t think so, but to be honest he’d been hit in the head a few too many times tonight to be thinking reliably. His nose was full of the smell of burnt flesh and old blood and antiseptic and dusty, rusting metal; his mouth was full of his own damn blood. He was not going to snap the ties at his wrists in any kind of a hurry.

Bobbi said, “Out you come, Perry.”

Perry moved out of the shadows, grim. “Rumlow wants eyes on you.”

Bobbi said, “Fair enough. But he really should have sent someone smarter.”

Perry’s head snapped back with the bullet’s impact; the noise of his corpse hitting the floor was far louder than the shot had been. Bobbi said, “If he was wired we’ve got less than five.” She cut Clint loose with quick, efficient moments; he stumbled to his feet and said, “I’m good,” even though he probably wasn’t. Bless her, she had not let them destroy his gear.

“Tell me you didn’t walk into this alone,” she said as they ran for the doors leading off the factory floor. At least one van was coming back; Bobbi spun and lobbed a grenade back into the open space they had just vacated. They plunged into a corridor leading past disused canteens and locker rooms.

“Of course not,” said Clint. They ducked through another door and out into a second factory floor-type area, completely empty, as the grenade went off; they were well out of range but the noise was horrific and some of the ceiling of the corridor behind them collapsed.

“Uh-huh.”

“I spotted you on the cameras three days ago.”

The exasperated noise she made was very familiar. “I hope you understand that you’re the idiot who gets to explain to Fury why my cover’s blown.”

“It wouldn’t have held for much longer,” said Clint. “Ninety-five percent confirmed HYDRA agents so far have been white dudes. They’re just not an equal-opportunity organisation, Nazis.”

Bobbi snorted. They flung themselves out of a back door that led into a huge, empty lot, grass pushing through the tarmac, the fence sagging and rusting. Beyond that there was another factory, and then another; Clint was breathing hard when they finally reached the corner where he’d left his truck this morning. Bobbi snatched the keys off him and climbed into the driver’s seat; he hauled himself into the back and sprawled there, trying to calm down.

“What’s the news?” he panted. Water, water bottles. Under the seat. He scrambled for them, sat up enough to gulp it down without choking, passed one to Bobbi.

“Not much,” she said. “I can give Fury a handful of names and locations, but we’re gonna have to act fast. They’re re-building already. I don’t know who’s running it, but I don’t think they’re in the States. I think Pierce was the top of the food chain around here. My feeling is, the new bosses, whoever they are, are willing to sacrifice most if not all of what’s left of HYDRA here in the US. That probably means their network in other countries is at least as extensive as the one Rogers just brought down.”

“OK. OK.” As they moved back towards the city proper the streetlights lit up the truck, yellow, black, yellow, black. Dizzy, Clint closed his eyes against it. Potholes weren’t much fun either.

“Rumlow – someone high up in the food chain seems to trust him – Rumlow in particular has got his boys looking for someone,” Bobbi added.

He frowned. “Steve? Nat?”

“No. Actually it took me forever to work out it was a person. They just kept calling him the asset. I thought at first they were referring to tech, maybe a weapons cache.”

I’ve just recently given up on being a possession.

Clint said, “The Winter Soldier.”

“What? He’s a ghost. A rumour.” She glanced back at him sharply, probably thinking he had a concussion.

“He’s a person,” said Clint. “At least, he was a person.” He thought about it more. “I think they conditioned him. And I think he’s breaking loose from it.”

“Like Natasha?”

“Yeah.”

She sighed. “Where do you need to be?”

“On a beach in Maui with a margarita and you.”

Long silence. Clint closed his eyes, focused on staying awake. Bobbi said, “I hate margaritas.”

He laughed.

“But I hear Maui’s nice this time of year.”

Longer silence. She threw a glance at him over her shoulder. “You still with me?”

“As best I can be.”

“I’ll settle for that.”

“You never settle for anything,” he said, and knew he was going at last. “It’s one of my favourite things about you.”

It was her turn to laugh. She had a safe house; it was on the other side of the city, and she drove the most circuitous route she could find. He managed to get across the parking lot without needing her help, stumbled through the apartment, sank onto the toilet lid in the bathroom while she set up the first aid kit with brisk efficiency.

When she had his face in her hand, gently cleaning the blood away from the cut at his temple, she said, “For the record, I’ve never thought you and Natasha were fucking.”

He let his eyes close. “I know that.”

“I’ve never blamed her for the divorce, full stop.”

“She’s the one who needs to hear that. Not me.”

“Don’t pass out on me yet. I’m not carrying you to the bed.”

He leaned towards her. “Morse,” he said tiredly. “It’s damn good to see you.”

She kissed his forehead. “It’s good to see you too.”

When he woke up later she was gone, but she’d made him breakfast. It was waiting on a plate in the oven to be re-heated. Neither of them were good with words. Breakfast, in their language, had always meant some variation on I love you, you dumbass.

Clint ate it, humming tunelessly to himself, and then he put on a suitably contrite and sombre mood and called the number Bobbi had also left him to explain why her cover was blown. Fury was on a chopper somewhere, yelling at the pilot to bring her down, over there, over there, so Clint got off pretty lightly, considering he hadn’t been supposed to know – and indeed hadn’t known until Bobbi had told him – that Fury was still alive.

*********

In a bar one evening, Sam said, “Do you guys keep in touch?”

The news was playing on the TV mounted on the wall. Steve had skipped dinner and had turned in for the night already; another bad day, though he remained a sweetheart who tried to hide it. Natasha was steadily working her way through the remnant of a truly impressive portion of fries. She had been at it for so long that they had gone cold, but wasting food went against every gut instinct she had. On the TV Stark was giving a press conference in New York, something about men and women who had just wanted to help people and salvaging what he could of his father’s and Director Carter’s legacies. He was thinner than he should be, but his eyes were bright and his voice was firm.

“Not really,” she said. “Well, with Pepper.”

“Is he really that much of an asshole?”

Natasha laughed. “Yes, oh yes. Just ask Steve. But – to give the guy his due – when he’s not being an asshole at you, he’s pretty hilarious.”

“Riley’s brother Jake was like that. You had to have this – this baseline where you were comfortable with him being an asshole to people – where you found it funny to watch him, you know, deliberately wind people up. If you didn’t, it was impossible to stomach him.” Sam stole one of her fries thoughtfully.

“You stay in touch?”

“With Jake? Kind of. It’s always weird. Riley was the thing we both had in common, you know? Seeing each other again… not easy.”

“Too many memories.” It sounded like the way she had trouble, sometimes, thinking of Steve without thinking of the Soldier, or the other way round. Not when Steve was actually there with her, or anything, but, well. It happened.

“Yeah, exactly.”

The fries dwindled. Natasha ordered another beer to wash them down. Sam joined her. The tall round table they were sitting at was up against one of the wooden columns that dotted the room. She could see the main entrance, Sam the back. Natasha unwrapped her ankles from the bar of her chair and swung her feet a little bit – sometimes it was fun being short. Sam was contemplative, probably because of bringing up Riley.

“Clint does it as well,” she said abruptly. “On purpose though. It’s a weird combination of this... dumb-hick underestimate me act and sort of being weirdly aggressive at people without them noticing – oh, I can’t explain. You have to see it. He pushes you, and then he sits back and watches the results and looks smug. People don’t expect him to be smart, or observant.”

“Clint Barton?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s your partner.”

“He brought me in to SHIELD.”

“When was that?”

Natasha had to count back. She hadn’t thought about it in ages. “Nearly ten years.”

Sam blinked. “You woulda been – what – twenty-one?”

“Around then.” Natasha didn’t mean to be evasive – it was just habit not to get specific about these things.

“That’s pretty young to be an agent.”

She laughed at him long and loud. “Haven’t you read my files?” Honestly delighted.

Sam looked affronted. “What, just cause they’re there? No, of course not.”

“Oh!” It was exactly the thing Steve would have said. Clint would have read them cover to cover and back to front before agreeing to come on this stupid trip. And Natasha adored Clint, but – but it warmed her, somehow, that Sam was so indignant at the very idea. She thought of Fury saying, I didn’t know who to trust, and suppressed a flicker of anger.

“Thank you,” she said instead. “I mean, you’re a moron. But thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Sam. “You’ve probably read mine so often you know it by heart.” He was grinning. It was OK. Mostly.

Natasha opened her mouth to say something joking in return, but: “I haven’t, actually.”

He was amazed, and a little doubtful. “Really? Seriously? You?”

She really, seriously hadn’t. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she’d forgotten that she hadn’t. (On the other hand, she knew why she hadn’t. Six-foot-something of superhero gorgeousness and a frankly terrifying tendency to trust without reason and beyond hope of returns was probably responsible. Sometimes she wanted to hit the man with a Mack truck for doing this to her, she really did.)

“Really. Seriously.”

Damndest thing, the way Sam grinned. Or maybe not; if it warmed her to know that he hadn’t read her files, it stood to reason that he would feel the same way about her not reading his. Well, fair enough. They finished their beers in companionable silence, paid up, went to bed.

She was building a proper friendship with Sam Wilson. Natasha examined the thought, and found it – acceptable. Good, even.

*********

Once they had been on the road for a while, all the towns started to blur together. Laundrettes, motels, grocery stores, restaurants and bars, parks and parking lots all began to look the same to Steve. Names over the doors, advertisements on the walls, menus and décor and goods didn’t change from one town to the next. The proprietors’ faces bore the same expressions, bored disinterest or fake-friendly enthusiasm. The other patrons were always the same people. Even the streets began to look identical, so that he made Sam do the navigating more often than not.

He didn’t think it was exhaustion. He knew what exhaustion felt like, knew the numb fog of indifference, the way you had to fight to focus your attention and concentration on anything but the most mundane and necessary tasks. No, this wasn’t that. It wasn’t boredom, either. Steve turned it over in his mind for several days before he decided that the simple truth was: it didn’t matter anymore.

It didn’t matter where they were, who they spoke to, what they did with their days. Maria called and made suggestions, but few of the trips they took were necessary and even fewer were urgent in any way. It didn’t matter if Steve couldn’t remember which town was where and who he spoke to while he was there. He didn’t need to have an eidetic memory for the briefest of interactions. He didn’t need to look at the map every time they left a farm behind and choose: left, right, straight ahead, north south east or west.

He got up in the mornings and whatever decisions he made that day, none of them were wrong.

The serum ensured he rarely looked tired, didn’t display most physical symptoms of exhaustion, but the serum had no influence over the frequency with which he smiled, the ease or otherwise of his stance and bearing, the way he let himself take up more or less space according to how comfortable he felt. Steve didn’t realise it himself, but Natasha for one was more than half convinced that Nick Fury, Tony Stark and most of SHIELD would not have recognised Steve now if they passed him on the street.

“Body language is where it’s at, baby,” she said to Sam.

“Like Clark Kent,” he agreed. “Look at that, it’s practically a swagger. I’m so proud.”

“It’s the fresh air,” said Natasha. “It does him good.” She nodded sagely.

Sam eyed her sideways, smirking. “That all?”

“Oh yes. Fresh air and total lack of any responsibility. Magic.”

The really weird thing was that she probably meant it. Sam shook his head, still grinning. Who’da guessed they were both so terrible at this?

Steve, if they had referred the matter to him, would have laughed – laughed, and looked at Natasha.

*********

They hadn’t had sex. Steve kind of felt like it would’ve been… a little sordid, kind of unworthy, a probably-hurried screw in an anonymous motel room outside an Oregon town whose name he hadn’t even discovered – no. He had wondered at first if Natasha would expect or ask for it, but she never had, and he was grateful. He wondered if she was grateful he hadn’t brought it up either. (Maybe at home, in Brooklyn, one day in the future. Maybe.) They mostly made out like teenagers in a high school movie and sometimes got as far as getting their shirts off.

Like now. The cotton of her bra rubbed pleasantly across his chest; he sank against the pillows, drew her with him, settled his hands in the small of her back and shifted his legs so she fell neatly between them, kissed the taste of sweet-and-sour Chinese chicken off her lips. She’d tied her hair back, was lying with her elbows sort of propped on his shoulders. She was so small. That never registered with him when they weren’t kissing, for some reason. The radio was playing on his laptop; the night was hot and the fan above their heads spun endlessly with a rickety whirr.

Outside this room, nothing existed. Natasha’s warmth, her weight on him, the cheap shower gel or moisturiser she used that he could still smell on her skin, even hours after her shower… a little fruity, warm; it suited the Nat he knew but not the one she showed to other people. Her foot hooked under his knee; neither of them were devotees of French kissing but necks and collarbones and quick, teasing little bites – oh yes. They had lost hours and hours like this already.

“Thank God I don’t need much sleep,” he murmured, felt her laugh against his throat.

“And what about me?”

Feeling a bit daring, he dropped his hands to the tops of her thighs, tugged her further up. Her knees landed on either side of his waist; she giggled (giggled!) and bit his earlobe, kissed the shell.

“You – you sleep in the car.”

“Maybe I’d like to – to drive – every once in a while.”

“You’d complain about being made – being made to do all the work.”

“Oh!” she said, and dropped her weight onto his chest, and dragged her hands down his sides – “Mayyyyyybe…”

Steve’s hands were still on her thighs; he was shivering deliciously but he managed to plant his foot on the mattress and rolled them over in one smooth movement, settling over her, grinned when she bucked up and held on and tilted her head back, long arch of neck asking to be kissed. “You’re never happy,” he said, propping himself on his elbows; gasped softly when she bracketed his thighs with her own for a moment, then hooked her legs over his, holding him close. He closed his eyes for a moment, feeling – feeling hot and shivery, loose-limbed, drunk.

“Too much?”

“No.”

He had started wearing his dog tags again after SHIELD went down. She hadn’t ever bothered to ask why; it was as obvious a statement as the uniform itself, and very useful things they were too. Natasha hooked her fingers in the chain and pulled his mouth back down to hers.

“Sam thinks we’re gonna kill each other,” he murmured a while later.

“He’s probably not wrong.”

“Hmm.”

“Hmm?”

Brush of another kiss across her lips. Natasha circled his nipple with the pad of her thumb, traced the long-vanished lines of the scars the Soldier had left on him. Matched set, she thought with an unexpected edge of amusement.

Suddenly she pulled back and said, “Six months ago…”

“What about it?” Steve wasn’t paying attention to her words.

Natasha said, “Before DC.”

“Hmm?”

She sighed. Then she rolled them both over, straddling his waist again. They teetered for a second on the edge of the mattress, then slid off with a thud. Should’ve gone the other way.

“Ow,” said Steve.

Natasha bent forwards so she could hide her face against his chest while she laughed. After a second, Steve joined in.

“Sorry,” he said, rubbing his hands up and down her back in long warm sweeps. “You have my full and undivided attention wherever you want it.” He smirked.

She shook her head, still laughing. “Before DC,” she said again.

“Yes.”

“This?” Gestured between them.

“Nope,” he said promptly.

“You didn’t want it?” Natasha was obscurely offended.

Steve chose his words carefully. “Well, yes, but not under those circumstances.”

She pondered this. “The SHIELD circumstances?”

He pulled a face. “Uh. Kinda?”

“Speak, and be not silent.”

“The circumstances where you kept lying to me all the time.”

“…oh.”

“I – this – it’s not –“ He floundered, sighed, tried again. “This isn’t easy. For me.”

Natasha tilted her head. “You’re a much better kisser now?”

Steve laughed. “Thanks. Thanks to you. Uh, but what I meant was –“

“You wouldn’t do this with just anyone.”

“I couldn’t do this with someone I didn’t trust,” he said quietly.

“Oh.” She chewed her lower lip thoughtfully.

“Tasha?” He brushed her hair behind her ear, cupped her cheek for a moment, caressed her jaw, touched his fingertips to her lips. She kissed them, smiling.

“You?” he asked.

She’d answered before she stopped to think. “Never thought about it.”

He winced theatrically, grinning.

“I mean, I’ve had sex. But.” She thought about it this time. “Never with someone I knew.”

“Everyone you trust was outta bounds for that?”

She thought about it more. “I guess. It wasn’t – it was divorced, you know, from –“ She shrugged.

“I have no idea,” said Steve. “But – this?”

And again without thinking – “Is different.” She didn’t want to have sex with Steve.

Wait a minute.

Natasha reeled that thought back in and unwound it for examination. She was… curious about sex with Steve. The suspicion that she would be his first, or at least one of a very few, was an unexpected but complete turn-on. She liked – this, what they were doing, liked kissing him and lying close to him and being held, liked touching him, liked the way he touched and spoke to her, and – yes. Yes, she wanted to have sex with Steve. She wanted to get all his clothes off and see him naked, wanted the look on his face when he saw her naked. She wanted his hands on her everywhere, wanted to slide her hands into his hair and teach him exactly what else his mouth could do to her, show him what hers could do to him. Wanted to pin him down and ride him through the mattress, be held against a wall and fucked breathless in return. Just – just not – not here. Not like this. Not – yet.

“Why?” He sounded curious rather than demanding. It warmed her to know she could walk away from this conversation whenever she wanted to and he would not push her. He had dropped his hands to the floor at his sides.

That was easy, too. “Because I’m different.”

“D’you think?”

Natasha didn’t react. “Don’t you?”

“No,” said Steve. “I think you’re more honest, and I appreciate it. Don’t pull your face, I’ll be sappy if I want to. I appreciate it. I understand a little of what it means for you. And I’m glad – glad that it’s me. Grateful that it’s me.” He gave her a smile that could have lit up all of Brooklyn, powered Stark Tower for a year. “But I don’t think you’re different.”

As if it had been a deliberate choice. Natasha couldn’t look at him. She pressed her fingers against her mouth, blinked very hard, frowning at the dresser behind Steve’s head. He lay still until she clenched her other hand into a fist, resting on his chest. She wasn’t crying. But she yelped when he picked her up, stood up, crawled onto the bed with her.

“Here. Just – come here. Go to sleep. Let’s just go to sleep.”

She curled against him easily, instantly, put her hand on his hip and her head on his shoulder. If she let herself think about it she would scream.

“You don’t ever have to tell me what happened in Jersey,” he whispered. “But something happened – something did a number on you – but you didn’t come back different. Not in the essentials.” He kissed the top of her head. “I don’t know what you’re afraid of, but I know this. You’re still Natasha.” My Natasha. Went unspoken. She had been someone else’s Natasha, once, though not in the same way that Steve meant it. Still was, in her heart of hearts. It made a difference, to know that one other person, just one more person, had loved you completely. Had not willingly abandoned you. Your memories were what made you you. It made you different, to regain stolen memories, to remember a family ripped away from you, uprooted from your very mind.

Didn’t it?

“We’ll see,” she whispered a long time later. Steve was already asleep. “Maybe you’re right. But we’ll see.”

*********

Soul-searching find-yourself type road trips were all very well and good, but three empty HYDRA bases and four escaped super-powered ex-cons after Washington, Natasha was starting to get… twitchy. They had driven in circles and looped back on themselves and crossed the same state borders on the same damn interstates so many times over the last month that she was starting to go absolutely cross-eyed.

And then, too, the conversation with Steve in Oregon… for days now she had been wound up and jumpy. Before that she had almost forgotten about HYDRA entirely, which was stupid: if they didn’t catch up with HYDRA, HYDRA would catch up with them, eventually. And the Soldier – him, too, she had nearly forgotten, or tried to forget. What would Steve say now if she told him the truth, now that things between them were so utterly changed?

“I need you to tell me something,” she said.

“I don’t have any motel recommendations,” said Maria promptly. “It’s Natasha,” she added to someone in the room with her, and then to Natasha herself, “Pepper says hi.”

“Hi, Pepper,” said Natasha. She was pacing atop the low concrete wall surrounding yet another motel parking lot, and did a pirouette while Maria relayed her greetings to Pepper.

“What do you need me to tell you?”

“Why all the HYDRA bases we’ve been sent to so far have been mostly or entirely abandoned, occasionally knee-deep in dust, and never ever particularly important. The pattern’s pretty obvious: I imagine Pierce was pulling all his resources back to the DC area in preparation for Project Insight. I’m not sure why you’ve sent the two best fighters, the single best strategist you have out west to play janitor when it’s clear all the good stuff is happening way over yonder.”

“Hmmph,” said Maria.

“I won’t tell Fury you told me if you don’t.”

Maria laughed, and then was honest. “Steve told me he couldn’t face anything too, uh, interesting. And Fury wanted you away from the East Coast at whatever cost.”

Steve had said that? Natasha waited. She thought she heard the chink of glass on glass, a quiet glug of liquid being poured. Plop – Maria had always had an odd habit of putting her ice cubes in after she’d poured her drink.

Then: “Firstly, we have conclusive evidence that HYDRA wants Steve and Sam dead. We expected you would be on that list as well, but interestingly they seem to want you alive.” Maria paused; perhaps to take a sip, perhaps to give Natasha a chance to jump in and comment. She didn’t. Maria went on: “Secondly, someone’s been tearing through HYDRA here like Hurricane Katrina. Aside from a few individualised operations – Garrett going psycho a few weeks back, for instance – we’ve been playing janitor ourselves. And by ‘we’ I don’t even mean Fury; Talbot and the FBI, the CIA, half a dozen other organisations… It’s been ugly, Natasha. Really ugly.”

“The Soldier.”

“We don’t know that.”

“I do,” Natasha said sharply. “I know him, I know how he operates.” She knew how Steve operated, too. If the Winter Soldier had taught her more than half her skills, Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes had come by theirs in tandem. Together she and Steve should have been able to track him down in a month at most, but something had happened to prevent Steve from going on his own little raiding spree along the East Coast. Something had taken the edge off his anger, persuaded him to step back from his battle plans, content instead to take this ridiculous road trip into nothingness. She wondered if it had been her injury, and then felt conceited.

Maria said, “He’s broken out of the conditioning. I think that’s obvious.”

“Fury wants him dead.”

“Fury wants him contained. Talbot wants him dead. HYDRA, logically, does too.”

“Where is he now?”

“No leads. It’s been weeks since the last attack we were able to conclusively trace back to him.”

Natasha sighed. “OK. I’ll –“

“You nothing,” said Maria. “Hang tight. Look after Steve. Barton’s headed back this way. I’ll call you if I need you.”

Natasha wanted to yell, but as far as Maria was concerned she had absolutely no reason to be so… invested. “For the record, I don’t like it.”

“For the record?” said Maria. “Neither do I. But Fury’s pulling strings; he might be able to convince Talbot to back down. I’m hoping we can get this sorted out before Steve gets wind of the fact that Special Ops want his best friend dead. Captain America punches head off USAF Colonel Glenn Talbot…

“USAF Colonel Glenn Talbot plotting assassination of World War Two hero Bucky Barnes after Barnes escaped decades-long imprisonment and torture at the hands of Nazi terrorist organisation HYDRA,” said Natasha dryly.

“Yeah, that wouldn’t look good either.”

When they had hung up Natasha just barely resisted the temptation to fling her phone at a wall. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she snarled uselessly. “What the – why – oh, fuck.”

She hunkered down in a dark corner of the parking lot and breathed very slowly, fighting the clawing fury back. All that was going on, and she was stuck on the most ridiculous – babysitting Captain America while the Soldier – she should be there. They should both be there, with him, facing HYDRA. With him.

There was no mention of the Winter Soldier’s partiality for Natalia Romanova in the official files, but they had wanted her alive in New Jersey; they obviously knew something. Perhaps they thought she would be more easily controlled than Steve…

Steve whom she couldn’t abandon, no matter what else was going on.

“Fuck!” she said again, and then marched out of the parking lot, found the nearest bar, drank three gin and tonics in rapid succession, walked back to the motel room and slept like the dead for twelve hours straight.

*********

“The guy could turn himself into mist,” said Sam, shaking his head. “I mean, this is officially the weirdest road trip I have ever been on. Mist!” They were stuck in traffic again. Sam was driving because he didn’t have a temper. Steve was slouched in the passenger seat, half-asleep with boredom. Early afternoon California sun was shining full into his face, but he seemed to be enjoying it. Curled in the back seat with the laptop, Natasha wondered idly if super-soldiers were capable of getting a tan.

“I’ve never been on a road trip before this,” said Steve. For once the deep, precise voice was slurred with contentment, Brooklyn accent creeping in. Natasha kept forgetting to ask him when and why he had begun to keep it out of his voice. “I mean, I don’t think Nazi-occupied Europe really counts for that.”

“You’ve missed out on a lot of crummy roadside attractions and worse motels,” said Sam.

“So not much, then,” said Natasha.

“Well,” said Sam, “the real point of a road trip is doin’ it with your people, you know? Your best friends, your girl, whoever.”

Momentary silence. Steve made a ‘hmm’ noise in the back of his throat. Natasha grinned down at the Solitaire game on the laptop.

But Sam was kind of a sneaky asshole, when he wanted to be. He let the silence stretch for a short while longer; then he said, “You haven’t mentioned Bucky in weeks.”

Steve sat up straight and pulled his sunglasses off. Natasha froze; then she closed the laptop and waited.

Finally Steve said, “He came to find me in Brooklyn.”

Sam’s hands clenched on the steering wheel until his knuckles went white, but he didn’t say anything. Natasha breathed out very slowly.

“I don’t think he remembered me,” said Steve. “Not really. He understood that – that we had been friends. He said he’d been to the Smithsonian.” He sighed. “He asked me not to look for him. So I haven’t.”

Sam sighed too. “That’s – you can’t do more than that.”

Steve shrugged miserably. “I figured. They took everything he was, and just…” He turned his head away to stare out of the window. “He doesn’t need me telling him who he has to be any more than HYDRA.” His voice was hoarse. Natasha couldn’t imagine what it must cost him to admit that to himself, let alone to anyone else. If Clint had woken from Loki’s brainwashing without any memory of who he was and what they were to each other, she would have… she would have done what Steve was doing now, because she knew what it was like to have someone take her brain and play. But it would have killed her.

She should say something. She should tell him everything, now… but her stomach swooped with sudden fear.

While she was dithering, Sam beat her to the punch. “Which then begs the question – look. Bucky aside – are you plannin’ on doing this forever? Cause all friendship aside, I’m not up for that.”

Natasha admired that about Sam – the way he tackled the worst questions head-on, without flinching. Steve was silent for another long while, turning his sunglasses over and over in his hands. Natasha still wasn’t really breathing.

“You asked me once what made me happy, and I told you I didn’t know,” Steve said. “I thought about that a lot, you know, when Nat was hurt, and now on the road. And… I still don’t know. I’m not sure I ever have known, not since I was a kid. Not had a lot of time for happy.” He shrugged, very matter of fact. (Even when I had nothing I had Bucky. Oh, they were a matched set all right, through and through. She almost giggled.) “So I’m trying to work it out. It’s about the worst possible time and place to do it… but I need to do it sometime. And it’s not – you’re right. Eventually we’re gonna go home. And neither of you need to stick around for any longer than you want, that’s not – not the idea. I’m grateful for the company, you have no idea. But go home when you need to, both of you. But for me, I can’t – I still need – space. Just for a bit longer.” He drew a deep breath. “I can’t sit in Brooklyn on the periphery of that circus that’s goin’ on in DC and at the Tower and – and twiddle my thumbs while I wait for him to either come home or not. But I can’t wade back in, either. I’m a mess. So I’m just gonna be elsewhere, for now. For a little bit longer.”

Sam said, “OK. Just so long as we’ve got a plan.” Natasha saw him flash a grin in the rear view mirror, grinned back, not sure if either of them saw, hoped Steve was smiling too, though she couldn’t see. Steve put his sunglasses back on and slouched into his seat again. Natasha rested her head against the window; the traffic began to move, inch by inch. Should she mention Talbot, at least? What good would it do? Steve needed time. She needed time.

*********

She should say something. She should explain, confess, tell him the truth from the first time she’d laid eyes on the Soldier to the conversation with Maria. But she couldn’t – just couldn’t. On the road, in diners or grocery stores or bookshops (in Portland Steve had dragged them into what was reputedly the largest second hand bookshop in the world, and all three of them had come out laden with bags the truck had absolutely no room for), nowhere was the right place to lay herself open like that. Once she’d tried while they were making out again: might as well make herself naked in more ways than one.

“Steve,” she’d said, shivering with every stroke of his hands down her upper arms. She was straddling him again, trying not to rock her hips too much, sure the inseam of her jeans scratching his naked waist would be one of the least pleasant things ever. Her shirt was hanging over a chair and had been there for half an hour. She’d walked in on Steve damp from a shower and just buckling his belt up, and again she didn’t know what look her face had worn but he had pushed her against the door and kissed her till she moaned long before they had made it to the bed.

“Natasha,” he’d answered, murmuring the word to her collarbones, the hollow below her throat. “Tasha.” She was bent over him; her hair was falling around his face and shoulders. She had cut it shorter in Brooklyn but it had grown out again and frankly needed a trim. Her ends were splitting. Why was she thinking about this when Steve had his hands on her bare skin?

“We should talk…”

Steve moved his hands from her arms to her back, traced the line of her bra with his fingertips, then swept down and back and down again, light touch and then firm, then light again – oh, she hated him. She did.

“We talk every day,” he said between kisses: short, sharp, nipping kisses that left her breathless, catching hold of each other’s mouths and drawing back and then leaning in again. She remembered she had hands; they were shaking a bit but she pressed him down and took a hold of his chin and kissed him, wet and messy, so thoroughly he shook.

“About stuff.”

He looked dazed, blue eyes hazy and unfocussed, and his hands were cupping her ass now, his fingers flexing, holding her to him in a way that – well.

“What stuff?” Not so dazed that he couldn’t tilt his head up and reciprocate; Natasha’s eyes slid shut and she lost herself in it, the heat and slickness and the way each kiss tied knots in her gut and jolted heat through her whole body.

“I – you know –“

Her hands trailed from his shoulders down his chest to his abs, and she held them there when he sat up and manoeuvred her into his lap, oh, that was lovely, yes, yes it was. She wriggled until her legs were flung over his hips, ignoring the way it made him groan and flush and press his forehead against her shoulder, trembling a little – ignoring the way she was losing control of her breathing, how her heart was hammering wildly against her ribcage, how she ached and ached, all over, all the way through, for him.

“Know?”

“What?”

“I don’t –“

“I meant to say,” Natasha said into his mouth, but it was no good trying to say something like this, she’d already forgotten, say what? How important could it be, when faced with this? Steve’s hands were on her hips – her fingers tangled with his; slowly she drew them across her stomach and – and further down, between her legs. His fingers pressed, deliciously; she shook and moaned; then they moved to the button of her jeans. Ached, ached, ached.

He said, “How far –“

She said, “Like this. Just. Your hands, please, I –“

He said, “Oh God, me too. Tasha –“

“Steve,” she said, and helped him fight, fingers trembling, with the button of her jeans.

*********

The internet appeared to call it petting, which was an abominably stupid and cutesy name for something that managed to be so much fun without actually being proper sex. Look, she was a grown woman, she wasn’t ignorant or inexperienced – except, apparently, she was.

“Look at all the things I’ve missed out on,” she said to Steve, waving the Wikipedia article under his nose in the laundrette the next morning.

“What,” he said.

“By not being an American teenager.”

“As far as I can tell it hasn’t changed much,” he said. “People still get bullied and half the country doesn’t have enough to eat.”

“Oh, so now we’re Mr Grumpypants.” She twisted sideways in the chair and flung her legs over his lap.

“I liked those jeans and they’re probably ruined,” he said. Steve had a terrible, terrible poker face. Natasha liked it.

“Next time don’t go commando,” she said unsympathetically.

“If you recall, I just got out of the shower.”

“Oh! I recall. Believe me.”

He gave her a look that made her want to rub her thighs together and swallow hard, but then the washing machine finished and the timer pinged.

Steve dragged his wallet out of his back pocket as he stood. “Got a quarter for the dryer?”

“I was saving mine to bounce it off your ass.”

He flung his sopping jeans at her head. She shrieked and flailed and nearly fell off the uncomfortable plastic chair, choking with laughter. The woman behind the counter eyed them over the top of her romance novel, torn between finding them cute and throwing them out. The romance won out. (Go team.) Steve retrieved his jeans while Natasha was still laughing and shoved their stuff in the dryer. Then he pushed her upright and sat down beside her again. She slumped into his side. He took the phone off her and scrolled the Wikipedia article, shaking his head.

“Fascinating reading,” she said cheerfully.

“Yeah, yeah. Can I ask you something?”

Natasha frowned. “Sure.”

“Have you ever actually dated anyone before?”

“Uh.” She took the phone back, closed the browser and tapped it against her knee. She’d told him she wasn’t a virgin, she was sure she had. “Define dating.”

“Any and all aspects of a romantic relationship that don’t directly involve sex,” Steve said promptly.

Natasha said, “Well, that’s a pretty all-encompassing definition.”

“That’s a pretty all-encompassing no.”

It was. She held herself carefully against him, unsure why she felt so… unsure of herself.

Steve said, “Well, that makes two of us at least.” He slumped into the chair – it creaked alarmingly – and stuck his legs out in front of him, crossed at the ankles.

Natasha whipped out her phone again. “Wikipedia may know something!”

“Come off it! I’ll wrestle you for that goddamn phone, I swear –”

*********

But she still hadn’t told Steve the whole truth.

*********

One early morning in Nevada, Natasha’s phone cut through the anesthetising morning show on the radio with a screech like an air raid siren. Usually she kept the damn thing on silent. Everyone in the car jumped and swore in surprise.

“The fuck are you up to,” said Clint. “You’re driving Hill into an early grave, running around the country looking for things to blow up, seriously, pyros.”

“Ya, it’s been fun. You wanna join? We’re in Nevada.”

“Give me a couple of days,” said Clint. “I’ve just got to New York, I wanna chase up a thing upstate, I’ve got a bad feeling about everything.”

“We can turn around if you need back-up.”

“I’ll let you know,” Clint promised. “Saw Morse. She says hi.”

“Hi back,” said Natasha awkwardly. Bobbi had never really liked her. Natasha couldn’t blame her.

“Saw Rumlow too, he sends his love.”

“Did you put an arrow through his skull?”

“Too tied up.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Guys, Clint says Rumlow’s alive.”

Hell,” said Steve.

“OK,” said Clint. “Hang on. Uh. How about you double back into Oregon, I’ll text you coordinates, might be nothing.”

“Look forwards to it.”

Sam said, “Where we going?”

“Back to Oregon.”

“He couldn’t have called before we got stuck in traffic?”

*********

Three days later, Natasha called Clint back.

“I need you to come bail us outta gaol.”

Clint was briefly silent. “What.”

“Look, I don’t know where you get your intel from, but this was one hidey-hole that was definitely not abandoned, and everything went a little bit… wrong.”

“Right,” said Clint. Then he said, “You’re gonna go down in history as the woman who got Captain America arrested.”

“It’s not funny,” said Natasha wearily. It might have been funny – she could see why it sounded funny – but this hadn’t been a forgotten back-up cache of weapons and food established in an old military installation. There had been a lab, and while it had not been in use, the records they had found had been recent enough, and plenty explicit. People had died there, been experimented on, had their bodies turned inside out, their minds untangled and strung out for the inspection of a pack of Nazi megalomaniacs. It had hollowed her out and made her bone-deep angry.

“It kinda is?” said Clint.

She couldn’t tell him over the phone. The police station was neither big nor soundproof, the Sheriff was standing in the room with her, and Steve had preternaturally good hearing. She couldn’t make so public an explanation.

Instead, she raised her voice a little and said, “Well, I’m not laughing, I swear to God, seriously, I save his life, I help him bring down SHIELD, I spend months touring the continent in a crappy camper van and sleeping in scummy motels looking for HYDRA bases to blow up to take his mind off of his not-dead best friend, and all he’s done for two straight months is point and laugh, I’ve never been so disappointed in an American icon in my life.”

Two rooms over, Sam started laughing. Steve yelled, “That’s not all I’ve done and you know it!” and then started laughing himself, too exhausted to do anything else.

Clint said, “I’ll be on the next flight out,” and it was impossible to tell whether he saw past her words or not, but he didn’t start sniggering.

Natasha put the receiver back on the cradle and sighed. When Clint got here… when he got here, she would pick his brains, and then call Maria again, and this farce of a trip would be over: she’d go back to the East Coast and start carving up some HYDRA agents of her own. Clint could keep an eye on Steve. Oh he asked me not to look for him, her perfect ass. She was going to hunt the fucking idiot down and smack some sense into him, into him and Steve both, and when she was done – when they were done – there would not be enough left of HYDRA to wipe the goddamn floor with. Or of Fury, or Talbot, or anyone else who tried to stop her.

The Black Widow was done playing around.

*********

“You got Captain America arrested,” said Clint. “This is officially the greatest day of my entire career. Hi, I’m Clint Barton.”

Sam shook the proffered hand. “Sam Wilson. Appreciate the, uh…”

“Extraction,” said Clint.

Sam grinned. “Extraction.”

They were standing in the entrance of the Sheriff’s office, signing for their personal effects and chatting. The cant of Steve’s mouth had a distinctly exhausted angle, and Natasha was clawing her hands through her hair and grimacing. The Sheriff looked distinctly awestruck; Sam Wilson… well, actually, the dude was kinda hard to read right now. Clint mustered him curiously. Neither Steve nor Natasha trusted particularly easily. That was a thing to respect. So, too, was his service record. Not to mention the fact that he had had the backs of two people Clint loved and respected at a time Clint himself had been unable to.

He wondered, vaguely amused, how Sam might get on with Tony Stark. The six of them hadn’t exactly put much effort into staying in touch since New York – though he and Nat had sent Tony a care package of Iron Man merchandise when he had had his surgery, and once Banner had asked him for a hand with a thing he had in Peru – but – but maybe that should change. SHIELD was dead, and men Clint would once have taken a bullet for had turned out to be Nazi psychos, but the Avengers… the Avengers had never been about SHIELD.

It was fucked up, but he was glad he wouldn’t ever have to explain that to Coulson.

*********

They hunted up the nearest diner and ordered obscene amounts of pancakes with bacon. Steve and Nat were at the outside of the booth, Steve’s long legs stretched out, Natasha angled to lean against Clint. Sam was heaping sugar into his coffee and looking thoughtful. Clint was feeling kinda curious about stuff himself.

“So?” he said at last.

“So,” said Steve.

The silence grew and developed a flavour of awkwardness the way cheese grew mould. It resembled schwarma in that way, but with less wholesale exhaustion to take the edge off the awkwardness. Sam tapped a finger on the tabletop for a couple seconds and then put another sugar in his coffee. He’d give himself a heart attack.

Finally, Natasha said, “What was that in… wherever it was?”

“Oh!” said Clint. “Two dead HYDRA agents in a motel room upstate, looks like they were chasing someone down. Pretty nasty fight. No lead on the dude who got them. It was a couple months ago, but I wanted to double-check some stuff.”

“What, just vanished?” said Steve, sounding fake-interested.

“Essentially, yeah.”

“That is weird.”

“Shows that our guy is very, very good. And HYDRA want him pretty badly; I don’t know who’s calling the shots at the very top of the tower, but they want this guy dead almost as badly as they want you dead.”

No reaction. Finally, Steve said, “You know who he is?” The look on his face… strangely tense, strangely intense.

Clint didn’t let his own expression change. “I think they’re chasing the Winter Soldier. I think he’s shaking off his conditioning, and I think they’re terrified of him.”

Natasha looked at Steve. Steve looked at Natasha. Sam said, “The Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes.”

Clint just barely avoided spraying coffee across everybody’s empty plates and broke into an extended coughing fit. Natasha slapped him between the shoulder blades. The other patrons in the diner twisted to glare at them.

“Bucky Barnes,” Clint croaked. “Holy shit.”

“Yeah,” said Steve.

“The man’s a national icon,” said Clint blankly.

“I’m aware,” said Steve.

I’ve met Bucky Barnes, fuck me sideways, holy Mary mother of God.”

Natasha said, “I didn’t –“

Clint said, “I did.”

Natasha said, “Oh.”

Steve said, “We’re good. It’s good.”

Sam said, “OK, does anyone else want orange juice?”

Steve said, “So, now we’ve cleared all that up –”

Natasha said, “Nothing’s cleared up.”

Sam said, “That’s the impression I’m getting, at any rate.”

Natasha said, “Your impressions aside, I’m not done.”

Steve said, “Other people go to therapy, Tasha. And if Bucky –”

Natasha said, “What, other people like your sweet self?”

Steve said, “Low blow, all things considered.”

Natasha said, “Maybe so, but I don’t need therapy; I need to kick people’s heads in and – and –“

Clint said, “And wait for everything in there to magically sort itself out?”

Natasha said, “Hey, neither Captain Tightpants over here nor Mister Brainwashed twenty-twelve get to criticise the way I handle my mental health, OK?”

Sam said, “Then do I get to do it?”

Everyone went quiet. The waitress brought them all orange juice and flashed a smile at Steve that he, poor oblivious puppy, didn’t even notice. When she had gone again Natasha said evenly, “You get one free pass, Wilson.”

“OK,” said Sam. “Fair enough. Then one question.”

She paused. Then she nodded.

“Why does kicking people in the head help?”

“Because that’s all I know how to do.”

“Then learn something else,” said Sam, blunt and utterly lacking in compassion.

“Such as?”

“Such as everybody get your fucking heads down now,” Clint bellowed, and the front windows shattered. Everyone in the diner started screaming; Steve dived under the table for the shield; Sam broke out a string of curse words and a nine-mil, and Clint, cocking his own gun behind a barrier of shot-up diner booth benches, began to feel something clenching around his stomach that he hadn’t felt in quite a while: white-hot fury was climbing into his throat.

Even while he was shooting back a plan was starting to form in the back of his mind.

*********

Two of the patrons in the diner died; the waitress was rushed to the nearest hospital. Within hours the FBI had descended on the town, and Clint had to use all the pull he had with Colonel Talbot – which wasn’t as much as he would have liked – to stop them all from being arrested again and marched off for questioning. Talbot wasn’t happy, but even he could see the sense in not arresting Captain America over a HYDRA attack that had undoubtedly been meant to kill him.

Steve knelt in the shot-up kitchen and scrubbed the waitress’s blood off his hands as Clint dealt with the authorities. Daria, her name tag had read. Sam had probably, hopefully, saved her life.

Natasha hadn’t spoken at all since the last HYDRA agent had gone down.

*********

The local doctor’s office was re-purposed into an emergency field hospital; Steve and Clint were both adamant that Sam and Sam alone would treat them, and the doctor retreated in unspoken but obvious relief.

After she’d left, Clint said, “Bound to happen sooner or later.”

Steve breathed in a lungful of antiseptic-smelling air, reminded suddenly of his mother. God knew he’d spent enough time in hospitals since her death for the smell to have other associations by now, but Sarah Rogers was at the bottom of all of them. The small treatment room felt about the size of a broom closet with all four of them crowded in here. Sam was bent over Clint, sitting on the gurney and wincing as Sam’s needle drew thread through his shoulder in small, precise stitches. Natasha was slumped on the floor, legs drawn up to her chest.

“There’s no way we can go back to Brooklyn with half of HYDRA on our asses,” she said hoarsely. Steve carefully didn’t look at her. We. Back to Brooklyn. Then she added, “I’m sorry, you guys. I am.”

“None of this is your fault,” Steve said quietly. “I knew what I was letting myself in for. I knew better than any of you.” He barked a laugh.

Natasha sighed. “It doesn’t make a difference.”

Sam had put the needle down and was carefully taping a pad over the wound. “It doesn’t,” he said.

Steve sighed too. “We should call Maria,” he said. “Or Stark. Or someone. Hell, I don’t know.” He had been on his feet, hovering in the middle of the room; now he sat down not far from Natasha and rested his wrists on his knees. He didn’t realise how tired the pose made him look. His filthy shirt was half-unbuttoned, the bandages wrapped around his upper ribcage gleaming white against the plaid.

She looked away, feeling cold.

“For our next trick, I really think we should consider whacking the HYDRA dudes who are trying to whack us,” said Sam. “You know, pre-emptively.”

“If we’re not careful this road trip is gonna turn never-ending,” said Steve.

“It’s not a road trip,” said Natasha, “and it never was. It’s the beginning of a war, Steve.”

Clint said, “Christ, you kids are melodramatic.”

Everyone turned to look at him. He waved his bloodstained shirt at them with his good arm. “Hey. Hey. You’re not internationally wanted fugitives, you idiots. We’re not frigging Ulysses, doomed to wander around kicking people’s heads in and getting shot at forever. We dig up the leader of the HYDRA cell that’s been smart enough to put a hit on us, we rip him and his little operation apart, we hitch a ride back to New York and we start the first day of the rest of our lives, however that looks.”

But Sam said quietly, “Steve?”

Steve had sunk his head into his hands halfway through Clint’s speech. Now he raised it again, rubbing at his aching eyes. “I’ve never felt too old for this before,” he said. The words burst out of him in a torrent he couldn’t stop, pouring his heart out like leeching poison out of a wound: “I’m tired of spending half my days getting shot at and the other half stitching up wounds on people I love, Sam. I’m tired of heads growing back and unwinnable wars. I’m tired of being a target, I’m tired of learning people I love are targets, are being hunted because of me. I’m tired of fighting all the damn time for everything I have, and then losing it over and over. Two people died today because I let my guard down, because we stopped for breakfast, Jesus Mary and Joseph. We’ve been driving around the country like teenagers on a joyride, kicking at hornet’s nests and pretending they’re all extinct when we knew perfectly well that they weren’t, and now –“ He broke off. No one tried to say anything. After a moment, throat tight, he went on: “Clint’s right. I know that. It’s up to me to stop HYDRA, I’ll finish what I started, so help me God, I’m not afraid… but for once – just for once – I would like, for a couple minutes today, for the rest of today, not to have to fight.”

Natasha went to him then. Steve pressed the heels of his shaking hands into his eyes and let her wrap her warm arms around him. After a moment he returned the embrace, hiding his face in her shoulder. He breathed shallowly in and out and felt razorblades in his throat. He had not cried, he thought distantly, in seventy years… maybe it was about to catch up to him.

His cell phone rang. It shrilled out in the silence, vibrating angrily in his jacket pocket where he had dropped it on the floor. Steve shuddered, once. Then he kissed Natasha’s cheek and unwound her arms from his neck.

“Leave it,” she said quietly.

“It’s probably Maria.” His voice was hoarse. Clint had turned his face away. Sam was watching the ground. Steve caught at his jacket, shook it till the cell fell out. Number unknown.

“Rogers,” he said, wishing he wasn’t – wishing, just then, that he was anyone else in the world: anyone at all, just for a moment, just for today.

A voice he loved said, “It’s me.”

Steve choked on his next breath. If he hadn’t already been sitting, he would have fallen; as it was, Natasha gripped him tight.

“You idiot,” said Bucky fondly. “Where are you? I’ve just left Brooklyn, the place is abandoned, for God’s sake, did you think I wasn’t coming back?”

“I don’t –“ said Steve.

“Think? Yah. I knew that. I have known that, Steve, since 1922, OK.”

“Jerk,” said Steve, and began to laugh. “Oh God. Oh, my God. What the hell, you sonovabitch – what the actual fuck do you think you’ve been doing?!” He didn’t realise until Clint jumped to his feet that his voice had risen to a shout suited to a drill sergeant on a parade ground. Bucky was laughing. The sound of it was raw and hoarse and unpractised, but he was definitely laughing.

“Don’t you talk about my Mam like that,” he said. “I’ll knock your teeth out, I really will.”

“You shot me,” Steve bellowed, “you shot me three times and – for fuck’s sake you bastard – did you drag me out of the Potomac? Did you?”

“Name me three other people on God’s green earth who’d bother to haul your sorry ass out of anything,” Bucky yelled back.

“And then you had the fucking gall to fuck off and tell me not to fucking look for you!”

“FOR GOD’S SAKE, STEVE, SINCE WHEN HAVE YOU EVER LISTENED TO A DAMN THING I TELL YOU?”

Steve collapsed then, utterly, laughing until he choked. Bucky didn’t stop berating him for a second, a litany of insults garnered from half a dozen languages: Steve was an idiot, a reckless fucking idiot who waded into fights he had no goddamned business going anywhere near, why hadn’t that changed, Jesus Mary and Joseph after seventy years you would have thought he’d grow some common sense, where was he now, where the fuck was he now?

“Oregon,” said Steve when he got his voice back. “I’m in Oregon.”

“Oregon,” Bucky yelled, “Jesus wept why are you doing this to me.”

“Consider it payback,” Steve said.

“You’d think it was on purpose,” Bucky snapped. “Christ alive, Steve.”

“Yeah,” said Steve. Clint was still on his feet; Sam was gaping at him; Natasha had clapped a hand over her mouth to keep in what appeared to be a fit of laughter at least as hysterical as Steve himself had just let loose with. “Yeah, I – Buck. God. What’s happened, what’s been going on – where have you been?” He sounded desperate even to his own ears.

Bucky heard it too. Hilarity crossed with anger went right out of his voice – his next words were perfectly level. “I’m all right,” he said. “I woke up a month or so ago in upstate New York in a motel room with a couple dead HYDRA agents… I knew exactly who I was, and I remembered what had – I remembered Him. Being Him. The Soldier. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember DC, or much at all of the last three months. Fitzsimmons called it cognitive recalibration. May called it getting hit really hard on the head. Guess I needed a jump-start.”

Steve laughed again, a mad sort of cackle that ripped out of him. “You didn’t remember me?”

“Not at first, not for a week or two. I was sure I’d been in DC, but I didn’t know what I’d done there… every time I stopped for five minutes HYDRA crawled all over me. I, uh, appear to have, uh, provoked… that… a little. Hem. Anyway. And after… never mind. I’m comin’ to get you. Where? Halfway?”

“I suppose,” said Steve. “I don’t know. I – I can’t think, I haven’t thought in months. HYDRA tried to kill us just this morning.”

“Fuck,” said Bucky. “I didn’t think it would’ve got that far – but it makes sense.” Steve knew this voice – Sergeant Barnes bent over a set of battle plans, thinking through them. “Listen. HYDRA on this side of the pond are in a damn shambles right now. Everyone who’s anyone has drawn back to Europe, some to South America – Vermis, Rumlow, most of the science lot. Anyone who’s left here isn’t important enough to the higher-ups to warrant extraction. There’s a lot of panic going around right now, everyone’s trying to carve out some kind of security for themselves…”

“So it’s open season on Captain America,” said Steve.

“You kill a legend, you make yourself a legend,” said Bucky.

Steve looked down at his free hand lying in his lap and clenched it absently, watching the tendons move under his skin. “Can you get me a name?”

“Probably, by the time I see you. Where do we meet?”

“Montana? Can you make it to Montana? Somewhere near the Interstate.” Steve closed his eyes and pictured a map of Montana, the blue lines of the Interstate running through it in his mind’s eye. “I-90.”

“Just north of Yellowstone, that whole forest?”

“Yeah.”

“OK. I can be there – I can probably be there by tomorrow evening. I’ll text you the coordinates, OK? It’ll be an airfield.”

“Did you steal a plane?” Steve said suspiciously.

“No, I’m the scruffy hitcher,” Bucky said cheerfully. “I’ll tell you everything when I see you.” And then, “Promise me you’re not alone.”

Steve looked up from his lap at last and smiled. “I’m not alone.”

*********                                                                         

Getting the four of them were back on the road again was left up to Clint and his powers of diplomacy and/or exasperating senior officers: Steve, red-eyed but calm, clutched his phone and glowered at Sheriffs and Special Ops idiots alike while Clint harangued Talbot with talk about contacts and intel and recon missions until the man snapped and sent them off, presumably just to get rid of them. No one could blame him for not wanting the pure hassle of dealing with a HYDRA assassination attempt on Captain America, not given everything that had happened in DC, and Clint did a convincing imitation of a man in charge of a mission to bring the culprits down. Talbot issued them with phones and contact numbers and had them escorted out of town, just to make sure they were really leaving.

Once in the car Steve folded himself into the passenger seat and found he was trembling. Sam drove in blessed, understanding silence; neither Natasha nor Clint spoke. (She was leaning against him, a little pale, his arm around her shoulders. Steve could count the number of times he had seen them touch before today on the fingers of one hand; then again, that had always been at SHIELD.) There didn’t seem to be anything to say. Bucky Barnes was alive and he remembered Steve and HYDRA could frankly just lay down their guns and surrender right now: after two and a half years, all was right with the world again. For miles and miles there was nothing to distract Steve from the feel of the cell in his hands, the memory of Bucky’s voice. It’s me. It’s me. He felt dizzy, stunned, blasted with happiness. Every other thought in his head was gone: even, selfishly, of the families of the dead in the shoot-out. In a few weeks’ time he would remember, go back to Oregon, give his condolences in person, lay wreaths, but just now... it was over an hour before the landscape they were driving through registered on him.

Once he looked at Sam. Catching the movement out of the corner of his eye, Sam glanced back at him, raised an eyebrow.

Steve grinned.

Sam grinned too.

*********

That same evening, shut up in yet another anonymous motel room while the others went out for food, Steve paced restlessly, told himself not to be an idiot, looked at the phone, checked the received calls list again and again: he hadn’t imagined it, there had been a call – finally flung himself onto the bed and called the number Bucky had given him in a burst of terrified resolve, closing his eyes against the fear that it wouldn’t – that he wouldn’t –

It rang once, twice. Then: “Hey. Hang on.” Footsteps, a door opening and closing, silence except for a strange background hum…

“You’re on a plane,” said Steve.

“Yeah. Everyone on this bus is a shameless eavesdropper, I’m hiding in the interrogation room. It’s got cameras but they’re disabled right now.”

Steve could just picture the way Bucky was rolling his eyes. “The plane has an interrogation room.”

“Don’t – just don’t ask.”

Steve started to laugh. Bucky joined in, easily, and oh it was so good to hear him, so unbelievably good. Steve wiped the tears away with the heel of his free hand and tried not to sniffle audibly.

“So – so HYDRA?”

“They’ve gone off me a little.”

Steve sighed. “What did you do?”

“Nothing they didn’t deserve.”

“That didn’t work on Mrs Rosenberg after the time you hog-tied Willie O’Loughlin in the privy, and it’s not gonna work now.”

“The number of homicidal lunatics I’ve hog-tied in privys…”

“Seriously.”

Bucky laughed again. “It’s fine, Steve. I blew some things up, lots of people want me dead, I blew some more things up… they got a little desperate, started hiring outside help. French dude called Batroc seemed to think I was taking my orders from Fury, whom he apparently has an impressive hate-on for.” Bucky sounded deeply amused.

“Oh, him.” Steve sighed again. “God, what a mess.”

“I know.”

They sat in silence for a long while, and it was perfect, just perfect, Steve’s eyes closed against the sight of the motel room, listening to Bucky breathe as if they were sitting side by side on a fire escape in Brooklyn, around a tiny campfire in occupied Europe. Someone (Monty? He had had dozens of sisters) had once said to Steve that there was no such thing as small talk between siblings… They had so much to say to each other, so much to explain and tell and share. Lacking a starting point, it was better to say nothing, to simply sit and remember that whatever they did say, when it came time, would not change what was between them.

At last Bucky said, “I don’t want you thinking I’m – I’m perfectly put-together, you know. Truth is I’m a mess. I can’t sleep much without getting nightmares, and I keep – keep losing track of myself. Spacing out. I get lost in my own head trying to make sense of my memories… And I’ve done” – his voice shook and nearly gave out – “I’ve done terrible things, Steve.”

Steve thought of Natasha’s thousand-yard stare, back in Brooklyn in the days after her injuries. He almost smiled. “I don’t need you to be perfectly put-together. I need you to be safe. That’s all.” It’s enough that you’re alive, he didn’t say. I didn’t dare ask for you to come back to me as well; but you did, you have. I didn’t think anyone out there bore me that much good-will. He knew Bucky wouldn’t hear it if Steve tried to tell him that nothing the Winter Soldier had done had been his fault. It was too soon for that. Like his memories, you couldn’t force it on him.

“You said that. In a park?”

“Marine Park.”

“That’s right. Marine Park.”

“Hey,” said Steve. “How’d you find my cell number, anyway?”

Snort. “The contract was lying in the bottom dresser drawer in an envelope marked do not lose. Along with the lease on the apartment and the info about your bike. Don’t worry, I didn’t read any of your diaries.”

Bucky could read all the diaries he wanted. The days when Steve would have cared were seventy years in the past. “Right.”

Bucky chuckled. Steve smiled helplessly. Another warm silence grew up between them, as comforting as the last; into it fell the squeak of Steve’s door as Natasha came in. She paused, watching him. He sat up on the bed and held out a hand to her.

She kicked her shoes off and sprawled next to him, the lines of their bodies lying parallel, close enough to hear Bucky’s voice.

“Did you know about Becca?” Steve asked.

“Yeah. I went looking. Becca a doctor, amazing.” Fierce, quiet pride in his voice. “Mam would’ve been proud.”

“Yeah,” said Steve.

“So would Aunt Sarah.”

How long had it been since anyone had spoken to him about his mother? Natasha stirred, wrapped her fingers around his wrist. She would know his mother’s name of course, just as she would know that Mrs Barnes had been Mary. She wouldn’t know that Sarah Rogers had delivered Rebecca Barnes into this world and saved the lives of both mother and babe in doing so… nobody alive knew that now but Steve and Bucky. Sweet, brave, fiercely intelligent, Becca had died six years ago, quietly and peacefully, in her sleep.

“Yeah. She’d be really proud.”

“Doctor Rebecca Barnes,” Bucky said wonderingly.

“Hey. Did you, in your research, happen to notice what she named her daughter?”

“I noticed she had one despite not getting goddamned married,” said Bucky. “Is it too late to kick in the appropriate heads for that?”

“I think it probably is,” said Steve, laughing.

“Desecrate a gravestone?”

No.”

Bucky sighed.

Steve added, “Jamie’s got two kids of her own, you know.”

“Of course you know about everyone’s kids and grandkids.” Bucky neatly sidestepped the matter of both his niece’s naming and his great-niece and –nephew. Steve didn’t think it was a good idea to push him.

“Like you don’t?”

“Hmmph.” Steve thought it had a vaguely evasive undertone. Beside him, Natasha was shaking with silent laughter. He laced his fingers with hers, grinning.

Then Bucky said, “Steve, listen.”

“Yeah.”

“About DC –“

“Yeah?”

“Apart from your pal with the wings, which are amazing, by the way –“

“Sam. I’ll tell him you said that.”

“There was a girl – a woman. Red hair.”

Natasha pulled back. Steve shifted onto his side to look at her. Here – finally. Did Nat know? Not for the first time, he wondered if that was why she had insisted on leaving Brooklyn. Not for the first time, he worried what her reaction would be if she didn’t know. She was – or had been – genuinely afraid of the Winter Soldier.

“Yes,” Steve said.

“Natalia Romanova.”

“Natasha. Yes.”

“Yes.” Bucky sighed. “I saw the files, the SHIELD stuff – Steve, is she safe? Tell me she’s safe.”

Steve said, “Hang on.”

Natasha watched him without moving. Her face had shut down – it wasn’t an unusual expression for her, just the same old stone angel face she had always made when she closed down her emotions and ran the numbers on any given scene or slice of human interaction. But it had been so long now since Steve had seen it on her that he almost fumbled.

He passed her the phone. She took it mechanically, sat up cross-legged, held it to her ear. Then she said, “Hello, Soldier.” Her voice shook. It wasn’t teasing. She used the word as if it were a name.

Steve could hear Bucky on the other end perfectly well. He gasped; then he said, “Natashka,” and – she promptly started crying. Two seconds later Steve had her in his arms, cradled close as she shook. He couldn’t tell if Bucky was crying too.

“I’m sorry,” she choked out eventually. “I’m so sorry –“

“No,” said Bucky. “No, little one, Jesus wept, you did nothing wrong – it’s on me. It’s all on me. Christ, Odessa.” He sounded sick. Steve felt nauseous himself. “I made you a promise and I couldn’t keep it. It’s on me.”

She sniffed and sighed and tried to laugh. Her fingernails were digging into Steve’s bicep. He didn’t care. “I guess neither of us could. Thank God” – she hiccupped – “Thank God for second chances.”

“Thank God you’re safe,” said Bucky.

“You too,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t – you came to find me and I just didn’t –“

He laughed, a choked-off little noise, and when he spoke his voice shook. “Natalia, sweetheart, I shot you. I think we’re more than even.”

“I’ve got scars,” she said. “Horrible scars. I’m gonna milk this for the rest of our lives.”

“I will never ever care,” said Bucky.

That didn’t help, Natasha was still crying. Steve held her, kissed her hair, wished fervently that Bucky was here. Then again, perhaps over the phone was the only way any of them could have this conversation. Another sob or two climbed into Natasha’s throat, shook her whole body, but her breathing slowed and gentled and her fingers unclenched. She turned her hot wet face against Steve’s chest. He could imagine how her eyes must ache. He would fetch her a washcloth as soon as she could stand for him to let go of her. Bucky was waiting for Natasha to wind down, or maybe trying himself to hold his emotions back. Should Steve say something? No. He probably couldn’t. His whole chest and throat ached, like in the doctor’s office earlier today. They were silent together, as Steve and Bucky had been silent together earlier, and it was all that was needed.

“Hey,” said Natasha at last. “Tell me something?”

“Anything,” said Bucky.

She managed to laugh this time. “What’s your name, Soldier?”

Pause. Long, careful breath. Steve held his own, though he didn’t mean to.

Then, calm and certain and threaded with triumph: “James. James Buchanan Barnes, Sergeant, 32557038, of the 107th and the Howling Commandos.”

Steve’s turn to shake. Natasha was smiling.

“James,” she said cheerfully. “OK then.”

“Uh. Any chance I can get you to go with Bucky?”

“None whatsoever.”

Steve laughed. Bucky sighed mournfully. “Of course not. I miss you,” he added fiercely. “I miss you both.”

“This time tomorrow,” said Steve. His throat was tight with anticipation.

“Yes.”

*********

They had fallen asleep without hanging up. When Natasha woke the cell was dead. She rubbed her eyes and face with her hands. Every particle of her body ached. Her eyes were particularly sore, felt swollen and puffy. She rolled off the bed to plug the cell back in to charge. Steve woke when the mattress moved underneath him – she had her back to him but she could hear him sit up, unscrew the water bottle on the bedside table. She twitched the curtains aside and peered out at a gloomy, overcast morning. The parking lot was empty except for Sam, who was holding a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and talking into his own phone. She couldn’t imagine the bills he must be racking up on this trip, he was always talking to someone. One thing had been obvious since he’d caught up with them after Cleveland: Sam Wilson had never been lonely a day in his life. A year ago Natasha would not have been vaguely envious.

“So,” said Steve when it became apparent that Natasha would stare into the parking lot for the rest of the day before she initiated this conversation. His voice was hoarse with sleep.

“Yes,” she said without turning round.

He sighed. “Tasha.”

She hadn’t become Tasha until after they had started… doing whatever it was they were doing. It was dirty pool for him to use it now. She yanked the curtains shut with a huff and turned to face him. He had the most adorable bedhead and his shirt was hopelessly wrinkled.

“Steve,” she said. “You knew? About –“

“I don’t know if you remember – when you and Sam helped me move my stuff to Brooklyn. We talked outside the building.”

She remembered. She had told him she wouldn’t leave, told him they were in this together. She hadn’t meant for that to happen at all. Clint would roll his eyes if she told him that and say sure you didn’t. But she hadn’t. She had meant to – to vanish, to slide sideways out of everything she knew, to lose herself in order to find herself.

Apparently life didn’t exactly work that way. Who knew?

“You said something to me.”

Natasha frowned. “I…”

“End of the line,” said Steve.

She did remember. It was just an expression.

“Bucky used to say that. When he was set on somethin’, when he meant to see it through no matter what. I’m with you till the end of the line.”

“Oh.” She sat down suddenly on the chair by the window, perched awkward on the edge of the seat. She was ravenous, stomach hollowed out with hunger. End of the line, Natalia, you and me. Yes.

“And when you’d been shot, when you had that fever, you called me soldier, over and over. Like you trusted me. Now, you call me Rogers and you call me Cap and you call me a fossil and once or twice you’ve called me sunshine but you’ve never ever called me soldier. Ever.”

She hadn’t realised. Hardly mattered. He was making her angry. Just another few words and she would be throwing things and yelling. That was how she felt right now: like the kind of person who would throw things and yell when she got angry. Steve was sitting on that bed and watching her and not moving a muscle. “All that mounting evidence,” she said, “and you still started this? You still – after everything you said the other week about not doing this with someone you didn’t trust.”

“I trust you,” he said.

“For God’s sake.”

“Look, I wanted us. This. And before you get angry, or angrier, will you let me finish? Because Bucky said, when he found me in Brooklyn, he said this had happened before, and that there had been a girl, but that she didn’t remember him now.”

Natasha had no idea what, if any, conclusions she was supposed to draw from that, or what conclusions Steve had drawn from that, even. She flung her hands up angrily. “I never know what’s going on in your head, Steve. Never. Was this – was this before or after I went to Jersey?”

“Before – during. I don’t know –“

“You don’t know?” She was incredulous. “This was… this was my mind, my memories of myself – and you don’t know?”

“I didn’t – was I supposed to force it on you? Something you might not even have wanted to know –“

“That wasn’t your decision! You had – you held that knowledge of me; you should have asked. It wasn’t a choice you got to make. I was not the one who asked you to walk away from her!”

Her voice rose briefly to a shout.

“No,” said Steve bitterly. “No, you weren’t. But have I lied to you? Look at me. Tell me that. Have I sat here and lied to you for weeks and weeks about the only family you have –”

Yes!

He had been playing with the water bottle; now he dropped it onto the bed, white-lipped. Coldly she flung his own words back into his face: “Even when I had nothing I had the Soldier.”

Silence hung between them. For once Natasha could read Steve’s emotions easily: shocked, angry, jealous – then nothing.

“What a pair,” he said, defeated.

Natasha said nothing. Her gaze dropped to her hands. She laid them together in her lap and wished she had this morning back, this awakening. Wished for other words and explanations.

“I tried,” she said abruptly. “I tried to tell you. I wanted to. But I didn’t know how – I couldn’t –“

“Couldn’t tell the truth to me? Couldn’t trust me?” He couldn’t even look at her.

“Couldn’t lose either of you.” The words tore loose without her volition. Some Greek tragedy, this. In some tiny corner of her mind that was not caught up with misery she was laughing at herself.

Then Steve said, “Did you think I could?” He stood up. Natasha wouldn’t look at him, but she heard his footsteps on the shabby carpet. Then, unexpectedly, he went to his knees at her feet, his hands closing over hers. “Did you think I could? Did you think – Oh, Nat. Don’t you know what it’s like – to be seen – and wanted – and held – and when Bucky said to wait, what, the way I waited for Peggy? For my Ma to get better? Some days I think all I’m good for is to wait around uselessly for the people I love until they slip away from me – but I was selfish. You’re right – I was selfish. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I hurt you…”

The glass was cracked, the wall was crumbled. She bent over the bright head in her lap and held it close. With a few anguished words he had given her back her equilibrium. Matched set, matched set. It made her laugh. He shuddered. She could feel him gathering himself to walk away.

“Shh,” she whispered, holding him. “It’s too late for that. Selfish, yes, and very stupid… shhhhh. I have you now. It’s too late.”

“Tasha,” he said again. When he raised his face his eyes were red. She kissed them, her hands clasping his head. He reached up, met her mouth with his.

“I’ve been selfish too,” she said.

He said again, “What a pair.” This time laughter threaded through it. He was beginning to smile again. His eyes were very, very blue.

“Yes.” She was triumphant – delighted – well-satisfied. Here was a turning to victory she had never expected... Steve dropped his head back into her lap, long sigh like a homecoming. She said, “I was seventeen. He was… the first person I remember who showed me any kind of, of human affection. He cared about me. He praised me and encouraged me and patched me up when I was hurt. D’you know what it’s like to live for years and years without anyone ever touching you?” She couldn’t keep the thread of wonder out of her voice. “He hugged me. I cried.”

“I was four,” he said. She thought she felt him smile against the curve of her wrist. “Our mothers were friends… he gave me a toy and told me not to bother him, he was reading. I threw it at him, I wanted his book.”

Natasha was enchanted. “Did you get it?”

“No! He read it to me. Aunt Mary made him. She stood over us tapping her spoon against her leg… you know, an old wooden one. We hated each other for a whole week.” His voice was gleeful. She was laughing. He drew her off the chair and into his lap. “We still did that, during the war… sit and read the same book at the same time. Not often we could get a hold of them, or the time to read…”

“We never really read. There wasn’t anything. I mean there was, but it wasn’t for pleasure. Educational. Some things we had to know about in order to pass as properly-socialised human beings, but they made us approach it like a military exercise... But he liked Tolstoy. I know that.”

“Yeah. Tolstoy and Dickens and Middlemarch… Dumas… Thackeray. All these big, sprawling, intricate books. If it was less than three hundred pages it wasn’t long enough for him… The biggest argument we ever had was over who got to read Ulysses first. And then Buck didn’t even like it.”

Natasha muffled her laugh against his shoulder. “We’d sit in this blind spot in the corridor in the basement, it was our spot. Like kids on a playground. I’d talk, and he’d put his arm across my shoulders… One day he said, you know, that we should leave. That we could escape. He talked about… he said we’d sell our information to the States and disappear. I was gonna have a garden and a teddy bear.” Steve’s hands tightened on her, pulled her closer. Natasha tucked her head under his chin. “But the next mission. Well, everything went wrong. And they sent him to extract me, and he… I don’t know what happened exactly. I mean if I did I don’t remember now. But…”

“Were you hurt?”

“Yes.”

“Whoever did it – he ripped them apart.”

“Whatever he did, it became obvious that their borrowed weapon was a human being after all. And that I was human too.”

There wasn’t anything to say to that. Natasha wrapped her hands around his arm, watching her fingers on his bared skin. He had freckles… hell, so did she.

“What’s he going to say about us?” she asked.

“Probably laugh his ass off.”

She giggled. “I guess we deserve it.”

“Oh, yes. Pair of idiots.”

“My idiot,” she said fondly. “Oh, Steve, we’ll never make it work.” She shook her head.

“That only just occur to you?” By the sound of his voice he was smiling.

“It’s not been real,” Natasha said. “Dreamlike. Outside our lives.”

“Well, I think we can do it.”

“Mr Optimism twenty-thirteen.”

“What’s the matter, Romanov – are you chicken?”

“Listen, pal – you can trash-talk me into any fight you like but I won’t be trash-talked into a relationship.”

He was laughing soundlessly against her neck, her shoulder, warm breath puffing over her skin. She had already made up her mind and he knew it. When she turned her face against him her nose pressed against his shoulder, just above his armpit. They both needed a shower. They would go and see the Soldier – James; they would deal with HYDRA; they would go home. It sounded very appealing, that. Home. She would have to arrange for storage for the Corvette in New York… she would have to find a safehouse in New York too, somewhere she could slip away to on those days when she and Steve couldn’t look at each other without starting a fight. Those would come. They were very alike, underneath it all…

Perhaps it was no wonder James loved them both.

Then somebody jiggled the lock on the door and swung it open. “Steve? Your phone’s dead. When d’you wanna –“

“Uh,” said Steve.

Natasha went red.

Clint knocked on the edge of the door in aimless astonishment and stood looking at them with his mouth hanging open.

“Well,” he said at last.

“Morning!” said Steve and brought his hand up to his face to hide behind it.

“Um, don’t tell Stark?” said Natasha.

Clint began to laugh.

*********

The airfield Barnes sent them to was larger than Sam had expected – he’d obviously hitched a ride on a fair-sized plane, but how and with whom? Stark? Steve didn’t seem to care either way, but the whole situation was making Sam a little twitchy.

He contemplated offering to get his wings out and do a little recon, but he wasn’t sure how Steve would take the implication. Or, come to think of it, Natasha, who seemed at least as wound up as Steve himself was.

Weird.

Only Barton was perfectly calm: he fiddled with the radio stations in the car, paid for gas when they stopped, offered to relieve Sam of driving duties. He was… what, around forty? and appeared to regard both Natasha and Steve as his annoying younger siblings, which was sorta cute. He was a sniper, Sam knew – an archer – and, to be perfectly honest, he was the single most well-adjusted superhero Sam had yet managed to meet.

Sam hadn’t decided yet if that was encouraging or not.

The mountains to the north and east were thickly forested, dark green and black against the darkening sky, red and gold sunset fading to grey. The lights were on at the hangar, the house beside it that seemed to be a cross between a proper restaurant and a clubhouse, a low one-storey wooden thing, hexagonal and unwelcoming. There was a group of people at the bar inside, and a dark-haired man coming out of the doors and heading towards them, walking quickly.

Steve drew away from the car and started to go to him. Natasha hesitated; then her resolve snapped and she broke away from Clint’s side, jogging to catch up with Steve. The man by the clubhouse started to move faster. As he did so, a light caught his left hand; it sent off a reflective gleam.

Sam turned his back. The car engine was still warm; he leant against the hood and peered vaguely down the road they had just driven up, the dark woods at one side, the whispering grass grey in the twilight. Summer was almost over, he realised suddenly. No clouds in sight yet. Someone had blessed them thus far, he figured. Behind him someone gave a choked-off little cry.

Clint turned too. Sam cut his eyes across to him but didn’t move or speak.

“Doesn’t seem to be any shootin’ goin’ on,” said Clint. He sounded rueful.

“That’ll be the day,” said Sam dryly. “What’s goin’ on with Natasha?”

Clint sighed. “Hell if I know.”

Sam rubbed his hands together thoughtfully.

“Did you know about her and Steve?” Clint asked suddenly.

“They weren’t hiding it.” If he hadn’t known before, he would’ve now, Sam refrained from pointing out.

“Good.” Clint rubbed the palm of his right hand over his chest, sighing – just about at the height of an inside pocket in his jacket. “Sometimes I really wish I hadn’t given up smoking.”

Sam laughed. “When did you?”

“Age sixteen,” said Clint, and Sam laughed again. “So I’m curious –“

“Figured you would be,” said Sam cheerfully.

“Yeah. See – well, the HYDRA thing I get. You know, you go out and you fight the good fight with Captain America against evil secret Nazis, that… ain’t difficult to work out why a guy would do that.”

“Lot of people find that difficult to work out,” said Sam, intrigued. “Or more would do it.”

Clint shrugged. “I’ve met Captain America,” he said. “But this road trip.”

“Oh, man.” Sam laughed. “Did I freak out about that. I don’t know. I guess I’m not a halfway measures kinda guy, you know?”

Clint said, “Pretend I don’t.”

Sam said, “You and Nat really piss me off, you know. Sometimes people are honest. Look – what price loyalty if you don’t… take off on a dumb… pointless road trip to nowhere when your buddies need you to come along?”

“The point I’m trying to make is that they did not, in fact, need you to come along,” said Clint.

“Well then maybe I needed to go along,” said Sam.

Clint considered this. “OK,” he said. “I can get behind that.”

“See, the selfish explanation is the one you accept.”

“The selfish explanation is usually the truer one,” Clint shot back. “People do good things for all kinds of reasons. On the surface, they wanna help people, you know, they wanna do good and be thought of as good and be remembered and appreciated. It’s the reasons underneath that that come back to bite everyone in the ass. You gotta know these things about yourself.”

“I don’t think my underlying motivations are gonna come back to bite anyone in anything,” said Sam. “Except possibly whatever bet you got going with your cynical side that says I’m a HYDRA plant playing a long con.”

Clint sniffed. “The world isn’t exactly split neatly into HYDRA and good people.”

Defeated, Sam started laughing again. “Fine! Fine. You be paranoid at me. I’ll put up with it cause I like Steve and I like Nat and they like you. And we’ll go get a beer some time and talk about something other than our jobs. How about it?”

Clint laughed too. “All right. I’ll take it.”

Then Natasha’s voice drifted over to them from halfway across the airfield. “Guys!!”

They both turned around. The three of them were standing in a tight huddle; Steve seemed to have taken hold of Barnes’ right elbow without any intention of letting it go, which was fair enough, but Natasha appeared to be tucked against his left side, just as permanently attached. Sam blinked. Then he bit his tongue. Clint was already walking; he hurried to catch up. As they came closer Natasha slid away from Barnes easily, just an inch or two. Sam thought she had an experimental air as she did so, as if she were testing if she could stand to be away from him.

Curioser and curioser, said Alice. Barnes looked a hell of a lot healthier than the Winter Soldier had: he’d cut his hair and there was colour in his face, a tan, a glow of health, though his eyes were bruised with sleeplessness. He was clean-shaven and dressed in jeans and a thin, long-sleeved shirt, and when he moved the slow, relentless stride was gone. He came easily towards Sam with his hand outstretched to shake and a smile lurking in the corners of his mouth and eyes, body language quick and wary.

“Sam, right,” he said. “I kinda remember you, which probably means I oughta lead with an apology…”

Sam broke into a grin and shook the proffered hand. “Never mind. I lived.”

“Yeah. Listen, uh –“ Barnes glanced back over his shoulder at Steve and Natasha. “Thanks.”

Sam nodded slowly. Barnes grinned at him, a tight, hurt expression. He was curving his shoulders in a little as if to hide how wide they were, how tall he was, and he knew – he must know – that both Sam and Clint were carrying guns. The look in his eyes was sharp, a little bit vicious. When he turned to Clint Sam put his hands in his pockets.

“Clint Barton. Professional flunky and occasionally superhero babysitter. We’ve met too.”

“… right. I don’t… think I shot at you?”

“Skittles and beer,” said Clint.

Sam tried desperately to strangle his shout of laughter.

“Clint’s a superhero, he’s just got self-esteem issues,” said Natasha.

“You promised me not to bring those up in public anymore,” said Clint. “So what do I call you?”

Barnes grinned. “Bucky,” he said. “Bucky works just fine.”

Clint said, “The whole country is gonna know exactly who you are in about five weeks of you using that one. It’s been outta fashion for a while.”

“I’m not planning to go on TV with it.”

“You’ll wanna be careful with it just the same.”

“Thanks for the advice.” They were outright studying each other, openly curious. Sam looked at Nat, who rolled her eyes, and Steve, who crossed his arms over his chest.

“What about this plane you came in?” he asked.

“Ah,” said Bucky, turning back to him. “Yeah. Have you met Gabe’s grandson?”

“Trip? Last year,” said Steve. “I tried to check up on him after SHIELD collapsed but Maria says he’s doing fine and not to bother him.”

“He’s in there,” said Bucky, waving at the clubhouse. “I was after one of the technicians who… one of the technicians, and there were these kids runnin’ around with computers gathering data” – he made air quotes – “and shooting at people, and then we all almost got blown up –”

“A bonding experience,” said Clint, solemn.

“Hah,” said Bucky.

Steve looked at Nat. “This is exactly – it’s like the Commandos all over again. You collect people,” to Bucky, accusatorily.

“I like people, which is not a charge anyone’s ever levelled at you, Mr Go-away-I’m-drawing.”

Natasha said, “What book was it?”

“Alice,” said Steve.

“You told her that story,” said Bucky.

“I’m getting all your stories,” said Natasha.

“Jesus,” said Bucky.

“We going inside?” Sam asked.

“Yes,” said Clint. “It’s getting cold and I want a beer.”

They went inside. Natasha tucked herself against Barnes’ side again as they walked, and seriously, Sam needed to know what was going on there; he couldn’t imagine it was anything – anything hinky, given that it seemed to be making Steve smile, but he’d like to know, kind of.

This must be what Barton was feeling about Sam himself.

Inside the clubhouse, six people were waiting for them, three men and three women, and as the older guy stood up and came towards them Sam realised Steve had stopped in his tracks. Then he and Nat and Clint all said, “Coulson?” all at once.

“Crap!” said Coulson. “I didn’t realise you were bringing the whole team –”

“Does nobody stay dead in this century anymore?” Steve demanded of no one in particular, and then Natasha punched Coulson in the face and everyone was yelling and Sam decided he really needed a beer.

*********

Maria said, “Coulson’s done what?” and made a noise that, in any other woman, Steve might have called a sob.

*********

“I wish I could work out what you think you’re doing,” said Steve. They were lying in the grass by the airfield, a blanket soft underneath them; it was long past midnight. A tapestry of stars glittered above them. It made Steve think of the first time he had ever seen them so bright – had it been in Italy, marching back to camp, Bucky at his side again…? That had certainly been one time, if not the first. City boys both of them, they had stared and stared and smiled, even shivering cold, starving and exhausted as they had been. Who had teased them – Dernier? Probably Monty as well.

Natasha was asleep on Steve’s chest. His left shoulder was pressed against Bucky’s right.

“Something right, or so I hope,” said Bucky quietly.

“You know I can’t let Coulson re-make SHIELD like it’s a toy I broke in a selfish tantrum.”

“I know.” Bucky sighed. “I’ve had that argument with him, actually.”

“What did he say?”

“He needs it to mean something, Steve. What it stood for. What it should have been.”

“The very concept of it was always the problem. Always.”

“Yeah. I’m not denying that. But – it’s in pieces. There’s nothing left. Except the idea, you know, that… that people should be protected.”

“You think I’m saying they don’t?”

“Of course not.”

“But now Coulson’s wandering the country with a plane full of highly trained and pretty damn dangerous people, randomly invading people’s lives in order to fulfil some sort of self-appointed mission.”

“I’m not taking him as a role model, no.”

“He needs to learn the difference between a shield and a muzzle.”

“Well, maybe I’m the guy to teach him.”

Steve turned his head to meet Bucky’s eyes. They were silent for a long while, watching each other, cataloguing changes – almost the first thing Bucky had done was ruffle Steve’s shorter hair in disgust; Steve couldn’t keep his eyes off Bucky’s too-wide shoulders, the power and strength he had only rudimentarily had in 1944.

“I don’t know why I didn’t see it sooner,” he said quietly. “You were always the only one who could keep up with me. I guess I was just used to that.”

Bucky smiled. “I was always afraid of it. Wonder if the others worked it out…”

“Don’t know. Hey. Will you go and see Peggy?”

“I already did.”

“Oh!” Steve smiled.

“What did she say about this trip of yours?”

“Nothing. Nat dragged me out of Brooklyn by the ear… but I saw her a couple days before that, and I’ve been sending postcards.”

“Her niece asked after you.”

“Huh. Never met her.”

“No? She seemed to think different. Nice girl. Blonde. Held a gun on me the whole time.”

Steve thought it over. Then he said, “Her name Sharon?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m gonna kill Nat when she wakes up. She tried to set us up.”

Bucky laughed. “Awwwwwwkward.”

“Yeeeeeeah.”

“How long, anyway?”

“Couple months.”

“Ahh.” Bucky was smiling. “You happy?”

Steve smiled too. “In between being afraid we’ll kill each other, yeah.”

“I’m glad.” Bucky sighed.

Steve’s right arm was lying across Natasha’s hips, his left by Bucky’s side; he turned it and tangled their fingers together on a sudden impulse. For a second or so Bucky didn’t respond; then he laced them together and squeezed, hard.

“You’re not coming home, are you. To Brooklyn, I mean.”

“No. Not yet. I want to, though. You gotta know that. I want to.”

“But?”

Bucky laughed. “Steve – OK. Tell me something. In ’44, could I have done to you what I did in DC?”

“Yes,” said Steve. “I mean – I don’t know – I’m better, now.”

“I noticed,” said Bucky. “But I don’t mean cause you wouldn’t have fought me in ’44.”

Steve opened his mouth again, but – but – the truth was: “No,” he said. “That is – yes, you coulda done it. But you would’ve done it differently.”

“More sniping, less hand-to-hand.”

Steve laughed in spite of himself. “Yes.”

“There you go.” Bucky raised their hands off the blanket a little, let them fall once, twice. “I have skills I don’t… ever remember learning, Steve. I can do things I have no idea about. I mean, do you know how many languages I speak? Because I don’t. I gotta find a way to understand this stuff. I gotta make it mine, for real, or it’s gonna drive me crazy.”

“And Coulson’s gonna help with that?”

“Well, May, really,” said Bucky.

Clint thinks she’s terrifying. I’ve seen that guy go up against an alien army with a bow and arrow.”

“She’s damn good.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“No, of course not. I’m fond of those kids. They make me forget.”

Suddenly Steve felt cold. “I make you remember?”

“You annoy me to death, same as you always have,” said Bucky. “You make me remember Bucky Barnes. They make me forget the Winter Soldier.”

“I’m not even going to pretend to understand that.”

“Fine by me. But look. I have – I can do all these mad things that…” He shook his head. “I need to know I can use all these skills for myself. For something better. Can you understand that?”

Steve sighed. “Yes,” he said. “Yeah, I can. So. What, you’re gonna keep hitching rides with Coulson, keep him on the straight and narrow?”

“Well, if you can think of anyone less likely to let his pet baby SHIELD grow into an organisation that’s infiltratable by Nazis, let me know.”

“I thought one of his people had already turned out to be a Nazi.”

“That was before I came alone,” said Bucky with aplomb. “Hey. Maybe it won’t last, and maybe we’ll have to tear him down just like the first one. But until that day… I need something, Steve. Call it a stopgap.”

“You know I’m gonna do anything you ask me to,” said Steve.

“Except stay out of trouble, apparently,” said Bucky.

From the vicinity of Steve’s ribs, Natasha sniggered.

“I knew you weren’t asleep,” said Steve resignedly.

“See, he’s teachable,” Bucky said to Natasha.

“He is,” she said fondly.

*********

Clint didn’t manage to get Barnes on his own until late the next evening, when he ambushed him in the clubhouse bar.

“I need that intel about the HYDRA cells,” he said baldly.

Barnes raised his eyebrows at him. “What for?”

“Uh, so I can go over there and bring them homemade cookies and ice cream?”

Barnes threw himself into a chair and chewed absentmindedly on his right thumb. “And I’m gonna trust you with this…”

“Because you gotta unless you wanna do it yourself, and I think you’d rather be with Steve and Natasha.”

“Well,” said Barnes.

Clint sighed. Then he clambered over the bar and fished a couple of beers out, passed them to Barnes and clambered back. “Look. I consider Steve a friend, and I like that Wilson kid, he’s good people. Incidentally, stop chewing your fingernails, you’re a legendary assassin, not a five-year-old. And Natasha’s been my… I don’t know. Part of me wants to call it little sister, but that’s too specific, and friend doesn’t do it justice. Partner, I suppose. So – ten years of that, with me and Nat. Whoever’s shooting at them, I want them dead. Plus I told Talbot I’d handle it, and if I can actually handle it and get some leverage with him I can maybe keep him off your backs for a while.”

Barnes sipped his beer thoughtfully. “It sounds perfect.”

“But?”

He sighed. “Maybe I’m just messed up. Do you know what I’ve been doing?”

“Butchering your way through the collected HYDRA population of the East Coast.”

“Yeah. That was before I woke up – d’you know the difference between knowing something because someone’s told you and you’ve verified the truth of it, and knowing it because you know it?”

“Not really,” said Clint.

Barnes smiled. “That’s what it was like. Steve told me I was James Buchanan Barnes. That was a verifiable fact. It was clearly true. I knew it. But I didn’t know what the hell to do with it. Sometimes I’d get flashes… one morning I woke up and I knew my sister’s name was Becca and that both our stepbrothers were annoying little goody-goodies who didn’t like baseball. Another morning I woke up and I remembered the birthdays of all the men in my team.” He shrugged. “But that was nothing like the morning I woke up and found I’d been hit on the head during a fight and I knew I was Bucky Barnes.”

“I see,” said Clint. “Well, I mean, kinda. What then?”

“Still missing some answers that I wanted – what had been done to me, why, by whom, the usual. I tried to find Natasha and Steve as well – that wasn’t so hard once I remembered that the Winter Soldier knew how to google.” Clint laughed. “But I was way less inclined to kill people unless I had to.”

Clint shook his head. Then he finished his beer a few too-long gulps and tapped it on the counter as he set it down. “I’m not,” he said. “Less inclined to kill people, I mean. Look. You’re a soldier. Underneath everything that was done to you, you’re a good man. I’m not, Barnes. I’m really not. I kill people for a living and I have done so for over twenty years. And now that SHIELD is gone all I really got left is personal loyalties, and maybe an edge of revenge against former comrades who have now turned out to be Nazi psychos. Give me the intel. Let me handle it.”

“No other loyalties at all? Coulson says your boy Fury is alive.”

“Fury!” said Clint. “Ah. Yeah.” He shrugged. “If he calls, let me know. I owe Fury. No question. But until he gets in touch…? Nothing but me.”

“Very philosophical.”

“There isn’t any going back,” said Clint. “Ever. SHIELD is gone. Coulson is gonna try and salvage something, because that’s the kind of man he is, but there are other ways to do what we did. Maybe even better ways.”

Barnes said, “I hope you’re right.”

Then he gave him the intel.

*********

The next morning Clint had gone.

“I gave him some intel,” said Bucky.

“Dammit,” said Steve. “The HYDRA thing –“

“Shut up, sit down and let the man do his job, Steve.”

Hell,” said Steve and sat down.

“For the record, I’m taking notes,” said Sam to Bucky.

*********

“Don’t forget me again,” Natasha said softly.

“Not if I can help it.” The Soldier – James – put his arm around her. They had climbed up to the roof of the hangar – it was nearly dawn, and Steve, Natasha and Sam were leaving sometime after sunrise. Coulson and the others had to get to Texas.

It had been a week. It wasn’t long enough.

“And will you come home?”

“I promise.”

She smiled.

“Will you be all right?”

Natasha stretched her legs and sighed. “I think so. I mean. I still don’t have a bear.” He laughed quietly. “But I’m good. It’s funny… I thought, after I remembered. I thought I would be – I thought I was this whole other person. But I’m not, not really.”

“No,” he said pensively. “That’s the weirdest thing, isn’t it. They wipe you and wipe you but you’re still you, under it all. It just keeps breakin’ out.”

“Like a rash.”

He cackled; she laughed with him, delighted. Had they ever laughed together before? Certainly not like this.

“I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too, Natalia.”

“I think you’re doing right,” she added. “Staying with Coulson.”

James kissed her temple. “Thank you. That – that means a lot.”

“You can’t wipe it out if you don’t actually do anything,” she said. “Steve’s a sweetheart but he doesn’t quite get it.”

“Let’s hope he never does.”

She nodded. The stars were fading; in the east the sky grew pale, the light about them thin and grey, the colours of the world still dimmed and waiting. A sliver of gold laid itself along the tops of the mountains and began to grow.

“It’s funny,” Natasha said softly. “I thought I’d have so much to tell you. Missions and stuff. I’d explain about Clint and Morse and Nick. And Coulson, the lying rat. And meeting Steve. But… but I haven’t really told you anything, have I.”

“That’s all right. When I make it home – we can talk then. Or – you could write it, you know. Email. Skye set me up an account.”

“Maybe I’ll write you letters. Or postcards. You can read them all when you come home.”

“That sounds fun.”

They didn’t need to talk, she supposed. There wasn’t anything vital to say that they didn’t both already know. End of the line. Natasha smiled to herself.

“I think about that house sometimes,” she said at last.

“The one where we change our faces and you go to high school…”

“Yes. And you work – I don’t know. Where would you want to work?”

“Hmm. Maybe – a garage or something? Something with my hands, I think. Something I can look at, at the end of the day, and say, I did this. I made something that’s good, useful…”

“You can still do that.”

“Yeah,” said James. “I’ll see if there’s courses in Brooklyn.” He was smiling. She was tucked too tightly against his side to see, but she knew.

“What there mostly is in Brooklyn is hipsters.”

“And home,” he said.

“And home.” Natasha Romanov was absolutely not going to cry. “I mean, we could put that wherever we wanted. But Steve likes it in Brooklyn. And I –“

“Yeah?”

“I don’t think I know how to like a place I live in,” she admitted. “Instead of just finding it convenient. But I wanna try.”

“Then try. You’ll make it.”

“You always believed in me.”

“You never cease to amaze me.”

Maybe she was going to cry. “You amaze me too.”

Fingernail of sunlight above the hills. Then, in a sudden rush, it burst across the airfield, painted the hangar, the woods and fields, in their rightful colours, blazed in their eyes so that they both blinked and turned fully away from it, watching their shadows on the roof. On the ground the others were moving around; voices called out, Steve and Sam and one of the girls – Simmons or Skye – were laughing.

“Time to go,” James said gently.

“I wanted that house,” said Natasha. “And a teddy bear and a garden. That was all. Just three things. Besides you, I mean. Besides a family.”

“I wanted it too,” he said. “But you can find a garden, and you’ve got a family.”

She sniffed hard. “And the teddy bear?”

“Those are available everywhere.”

“It has to be the right kind.”

“With lopsided ears.”

“Yes.”

He kissed her hair again. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Suddenly Natasha laughed. “The Winter Soldier, buying cuddly toys.”

“Excuse you, James Buchanan Barnes bought his sister a stuffed toy every Christmas for twelve years. I pinched and scraped for that money.”

“Your Becca was a lucky girl.”

Wistfully he said, “I just hope she was happy.”

“I think she was.”

“Hmm.” James looked down at her. “Hey. I’ll see you soon, anyway. Whatever happens.”

Natasha shook his arm off a little so she could meet his eyes. “I’ll come get you if you don’t,” she promised, and saw the gladness in his face. “You’ve got a family too.”

“Yeah,” said James. “I know.”

*********

Trip shook Steve’s hand goodbye and said gravely, “I’ll look after him.”

“Good luck,” said Steve. “You’re gonna need it.”

Trip laughed.

*********

“Holy shit I’ve just shook hands with the Black Widow,” said Skye. “Ahhh! I mean this whole week has been the greatest week in the history of ever. But listen.” She drew a breath. “I wanted to ask.”

“Yeeeeees,” said Natasha.

Skye bit her lip. Then she blurted, “Could you get me Tony Stark’s autograph?”

“Could you get us all Tony Stark’s autograph,” Fitz put in.

“I would quite like the opportunity to work with Dr Banner, actually,” said Simmons.

“You’re a menace,” said Natasha, smirking, and nodded at May and Coulson. “Ask your Mom and Dad.”

*********

“I know you don’t approve,” said Coulson.

“You’re damn right I don’t,” said Steve.

“I’ll consider myself on probation.”

“Don’t make a joke.”

“I’m sorry. I won’t. And I do – I do see your concerns. I don’t necessarily agree with them. But I won’t ignore them. I promise you that. Anyway, Barnes wouldn’t let me. But I wanted to ask you something – it occurred to me earlier – it’s something Ward said once, actually, which… I mean I realise he turned out to be HYDRA but it stuck in my mind.”

Steve put his hands in his pockets. “I’m listening.”

Coulson squinted against the sunlight, smiling. “Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division,” he said. “Someone really wanted our initials to spell shield.”

Steve turned away, blinking hard. Coulson waited in silence, head cocked, for his answer.

Finally Steve said, “If you ever try to use her to manipulate me again I’ll break your jaw, Agent Coulson.”

Coulson laughed. “Have a safe journey home, Captain Rogers.”

“And then I’ll tell Tony and Pepper that you’re still alive.”

Coulson blanched. Then he said, “Fine. Then I’ll tell Stark you and Natasha are in a relationship.”

They glowered at each other, stalemated, until Bucky came to say goodbye to Steve.

*********

“Good to finally meet you, Agent Romanov,” said May.

“Thank you, Agent May,” said Natasha.

May nodded. “Can I ask –“

“Family,” Natasha said. “Uh. Not real good at that, to be honest.”

May smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I’m fifty and I still can’t really figure out how to talk to my mother.”

“At least you’ve always remembered her,” said Natasha.

“Not according to her,” said May, grinning, and made Natasha laugh. “Unless it’s an emergency.”

“Thought that’s what it’s for,” said Natasha, thinking of Clint slinking off in the middle of the night to deal with a HYDRA cell that wanted her and Steve and Sam all dead, or mostly so. He had texted once in the last few days, just three words: rollins stay put.

“You’re quite right,” said May.

*********

“What’s my line again?” said Bucky.

“Stay outta trouble,” said Steve.

“Right.”

“And don’t do anything stupid until you get back.”

“Right.”

“Which would be physically impossible for me to do, because you have all the stupid with you. Right here. On that bus.”

Bucky sighed. “Yeah,” he said gloomily.

Steve laughed. Then he said, “Don’t ever walk away from me again.”

“Not,” said Bucky, “under my own steam.”

*********

Sam shook hands with him, smiling. “It was good to meet you.”

“Yeah?” Bucky looked amused.

“Yeah.”

“Good to meet you too. Hey, you know” – he looked wistful – “I really am sorry about those wings. They were amazing.”

“I’ll take you up some time,” said Sam, and meant it.

*********

Natasha still didn’t have any words for him. That was all right. She figured they didn’t really need them.

*********

“I’ll think about it,” Sam said at the airport, three weeks later.

“Come on,” wheedled Natasha. “You like New York.”

Sam said, “I said I’ll think about it.”

Steve said, “You’d love it.”

Sam said, “I’d hate you by the end of the first week.”

Natasha said, “So, live in Harlem.”

Sam said, “I’d hate my parents by the end of the first week.”

The PA said, “Mr Samuel Wilson to Gate 34, please, Mr Samuel Wilson –“

Sam said, “Crap!” hugged them both, and bolted.

Natasha said, “He’ll do it.”

*********

On the drive back in the cab Clint finally texted again: rollins all cleared up am coming to visit morse hates all of us nick says hi.

“I doubt that,” said Steve.

“D’you think he knows about us yet?” Natasha wondered.

“I’ve always kind of expected that the day Nick Fury knows less about my private life than I do would announce itself with some kind of celestial fanfare,” said Steve.

“Hey,” said the cabbie. “Ain’t you that Avenger girl who stuck it to those politicians in DC?”

“No,” said Natasha, straight-faced.

“Oh,” said the cabbie, disappointed.

Steve had to look away, grinning. They were getting closer to home; he needed to do laundry and sort out some groceries… he remembered another cab ride in a neighbourhood not far from here, with a woman he would come to love… Natasha was leaning against him, her legs crossed and cocked familiarly over his knee – they were always touching, weren’t they, he thought suddenly, and had to smile.

“Hmmm?”

“Nothing,” said Steve. “Just. Good to be home, isn’t it.”

She sighed. “Oh, yes. I did not realise how much I hate motel showers until I got our own back.”

Our own. He grinned. Natasha spotted it; her eyes narrowed. Then she bit her bottom lip.

“You know,” she said quietly, “now Sam’s in DC again…”

“Yeah?”

“Here you go, folks,” said the cabbie, pulling the car over. They climbed out; Steve paid, and jumped up the steps to the front door after Natasha. She was holding the elevator for him. When the door clanged shut he said, “What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking,” said Natasha, “that given that we finally seem to have acquired the necessary privacy, and given, also, that I don’t think we’ve done more than, like, hug since we saw James – not sure what that says about us, come to think of it – but anyway I would sort of like to get to cuff you to the headboard and ride you through the mattress, and I was wondering how you felt about that.”

Steve swallowed hard. He put his hands in his pockets and licked at suddenly-dry lips and knew his face was flaming when she looked at him – eyes front, Captain, or you’ll do something stupid, like push her against the elevator wall and put your hands – wherever she wanted them.

He had to say something. He took a breath – opened his mouth – thought, handcuffs, and had to take another breath. Then he had to actually find some words.

The elevator stopped. Natasha pushed the doors back and turned to look at him. She knew – she must be able to look at him and see everything he was (not) thinking on his still-red face. But there was a touch of something like awkwardness in her green eyes, and Steve really needed those words.

He tried again. “Whenever you’re ready, Agent Romanov.”

Natasha grinned.

 

 

*********

*********

*********

 

 

In late October they went out to Coney Island together to ride a few rollercoasters before the parks closed. It was a windy day, sunny but chill, and there were clouds on the horizon that promised rain by evening. Sam was moving next week. Steve ate innumerable hot dogs and couldn’t keep his eyes off Natasha. Nat kissed him whenever she caught him watching her – not exactly an incentive to stop: faintly ketchup-flavoured kisses on the Coney Island boardwalk in the sunshine, Natasha on her tiptoes, Steve bent to meet her, his hands on her waist like they belonged there, her fingers tangled in his scarf. She won a Bucky Bear at a shooting booth, and Steve snapped a photo of her with the thing and sent it to Bucky; he had endured the silly comics with moderately good grace, but he’d always said the bears were taking it a step too far. Dum Dum and Morita had spent two Christmas leaves trying to hunt one up in London to give him, but they hadn’t been imported to Britain. Bucky had been wont to say thank God. The Commandos had been wont to swear that they would find one yet and make him keep it.

what address do we post it to, Steve texted, grinning.

yours, Bucky texted back. stand still for ten minutes i can’t see you anywhere.

Steve whirled around, peering through the thin fall crowds, over the heads of families and couples and groups of friends. The sun was in his eyes; he blinked and squinted and pushed his sunglasses back on. Natasha said, “What?” She had tucked Bucky Bear companionably under her left arm.

Then they both saw him: he was wearing slacks and a smart leather jacket, hair slicked back a bit, shoulders flung back and his walk quick and easy. Natasha ran to fling her arms around him; he lifted her off her feet, laughing.

“Nice to see you too.”

“You always turn up when we’re out.”

“Timing,” said Bucky, grinning. “Don’t get any ideas, I can’t stay too long. Just a couple weeks.”

“Oh well,” said Steve. “Better than never, I guess.”