Natasha finds him on a rooftop in Berlin.
The rain soaks his long dark hair as he lingers close to the edge. He's not holding a rifle, not staring down the scope for his next victim, but that doesn't mean he's not armed, not poised to strike.
"You've been looking for me," he says. He doesn't look up. She stays where she is. In situations like this, the press of her gun against her side is source of comfort, more than a simple fact of life. His metal arm is uncovered and exposed, and his eyes are cold and empty. He reminds her of the weapons they taught her to use as a child, something dangerous, something to be handled with care.
"No, I haven't. Steve has, though," she says. She tugs on the hood of her jacket until it's covering her face better, the rain catching and rolling down the thin plastic. She's in Berlin because she's heard some rumors about HYDRA activity that have turned out to be false. After the hearings, she had trouble accessing the most reliable parts of her network due to her new-found fame, but it's been easier to move through those circles now that she's dyed her hair blonde.
A smile spreads over his face, thin and cruel. "He's looking for Bucky," he says.
"No," she says. "He's looking for you."
He turns away from that, and he doesn't say anything else.
He follows her back to the nearest safehouse, abandoned now that SHIELD has been shutting down operations, and she lets him. She's not sure what his motives are just yet, but she's willing to wait him out.
The safehouse is empty, lacking most of the amenities of a better base of operations, but it's still well-located, quiet and hidden away.
There's a standard layout to all of the safehouses. The Winter Soldier navigates its rooms with a practiced ease. If Natasha needed any more proof that he'd been working for 'them' the whole time, she has it right here.
"What's your mission?" he asks her. He stands in a nondescript doorway of their nondescript hallway, blocking her way into the weapons room. Pale white light filters in through the windows.
She shrugs. "I don't have one right now. Free agent. It's a good change of pace." She puts on her sweetest smile. "How about you?"
He blinks at her. "No," he says, "nothing at the moment." He stands there like he's been fixed in place, like he doesn't know what else to do. It would be so easy to twist him like this, it's almost kind of pathetic. A dog without its master.
Natasha pushes her way past him to grab her stuff. She has a pack hidden away here, a sleeping bag and a pillow. She's fine with beds and hotel rooms, but she never quite trusts them.
"Are you going to tell him I'm here?" he asks.
She stops to study him. "Do you want me to?" His expression is cold and blank, but his eyes are wild, restless.
He hesitates. "No," he says.
"Then I won't," she says.
He sticks around, all through the night. Natasha was looking forward to getting a good night of sleep, but his presence keeps her on edge; she doesn't rest deeply.
When she wakes again, he's sitting in her room, back to a corner. His knees are up, head bent. She can see the scuffs on his shoes. There's a dent in his metal arm, close to the wrist.
"I thought you'd be long gone by now," she says, not bothering to check if he's awake.
He shrugs. The room is quiet enough that she can hear the gears in his arm as they hum and turn. She doesn't like the thought that he just watched her all night, doesn't like that he could have made an attempt at any moment. She wonders what he saw when he looked at her.
"Can't sleep?" she asks, stretching out her back, her shoulders, her arms. This early, this quiet, she likes to go for runs. It lets her body move, lets her shake off her restlessness until all that's left is the burn in her muscles, the breath in her lungs.
He looks up. She thinks about all the ways she could take him out right now. A knife to the throat, a kick to the head, a bullet through his brain. Not easily, not with how fast and how strong he is, but she could do it. Two hits. One for Odessa. One for DC.
He shakes his head. His fingers tense as if he's about to go for the knife in his boot. She holds his gaze until they relax again.
She stands up and feels the blood rush through her body, rolling her shoulders and shaking herself out of it as much as possible. He watches her, eyes flicking over her every movement, readying himself for an attack.
This is getting ridiculous.
She raises an eyebrow in his direction. "Wanna spar?" She hasn't fought anyone since she and Clint briefly saw each other in Madrid, and her body itches for it. She thinks he might need the release, too.
"Okay," he says.
The gym is still where it usually is, the sparring ring left untouched, even as the lockers have been stripped bare. The walls are still gray here, still empty. No mats have been left behind. When one of them goes down, it's going to hurt.
Natasha ties back her hair, strips off her shoes, her socks. He's still wearing the clothes she found him in. She doesn't ask him if he has his own stash somewhere else in the city. She's here to fight, not to insult his intelligence.
They square off. "Ready?" she asks.
He throws a punch in response, and she dodges it. More of a jab than a real strike, designed to feel out her reactions. She throws a kick. He blocks, deflecting it easily with his metal arm. He darts forward again, a feint before a stronger attack. She spins. His arm slides past her. They pull back, circling again. Neither of them are breathing hard. This is still a test.
She wonders what he sees when he looks at her. A soldier? An equal? An enemy? When she looks at him, she sees a lost little boy, cut adrift now that he no longer has parents to guide him or give him direction. All those years, all those rumors, the boogeyman they used to scare baby spies straight, and the Winter Soldier isn't anything but a petulant child. If Natasha were somewhere else with someone else, she might have started laughing.
He launches proper attack this time, a set of kicks and punches that forces her back. She manages to sneak in an elbow that catches him off guard, opening his ribs up. She gets in a few good punches, and he steps back, giving her some room. They settle to settle into an easy rhythm, back and forth, back and forth. The only sounds in the room are of their breaths, heavy and deep, the slap of their arms, feet, and legs, against one another. It's been a while since she last felt this, the sharp spike of adrenaline, the thrill of genuine danger.
She gets a good kick to the back of his knee, and he goes down. The heavier ones always land hard. She takes advantage of the moment, tackling him to the ground.
He looks up, not struggling or fighting against her as she pins him, and for a moment, she thinks he looks like the man in the old photographs. His eyes are clear. His face is calm. She can almost see why Steve likes -- liked -- him.
"Better?" she asks, after she lets him up again.
He shakes out his shoulders, and nods. "Yes," he says. His eyes never drift away from her face.
"I'm going to Reykjavík next," she says later, after she's showered, after she's tied back her hair. It's stopped raining, and with her pack on her back, wearing a brightly colored windbreaker, she can pass as an American backpacker, crossing Europe for no particular reason at all. Sometimes, it's easiest to hide in plain sight.
"Should you be telling me that?" he asks her. His eyes are narrowed, sizing up the situation.
This is a terrible idea. Stark has Clint tied up with some kind of mutant prairie dog infestation in North Dakota. She's been dodging Steve's well-meaning e-mails. Fury is waiting for her to make her own way back, and she's going to take her time. But she knows what it's like, to be caught unaware, to have your eyes forcibly opened, to lose your sense place and self. "No," she says, "but you can come along if you like."
He looks down for a moment, and the war inside his own head is almost palatable. He's been drifting, she knows, and for people like them, that long without a purpose, a target, a goal can be unbearable. She's offering him a chance to change that right now. He looks back up again. "Okay," he says.
It feels like a victory, but Natasha isn't sure if it is.
He can't make it past the metal detectors at the airport, so they take a train to Denmark, then catch a ferry to Iceland from there.
He doesn't say much, letting her take the lead when it comes to making arrangements and creating a cover story for the two of them. Under his leather jacket and his baseball cap, he watches everyone with angry, suspicious eyes while she tries to play the ditzy, talkative girlfriend to deflect attention, leaning in close to his side and giggling at everything he says.
The thing about traveling the slow way is that they have a lot of time to themselves. When she's by herself, she likes to sit next to a window and watch the scenery go by, to see the world change as it goes past. With Clint, they like to play games against each other. Card games, dice games, games they make up on the spot. With the Winter Soldier, she waits, keeping an eye on him as he sits there, silent as ever. He's good at keeping his expression impassive, but he has a hundred other tells, from the way he curls his hands into fists to the uncertain flicker of his eyes over everything. Something is bothering him. Natasha is trying to decide whether or not she cares.
"I'm remembering things," he says eventually after they pass through Hamburg. The urban density gives way to green trees as they climb ever northward.
"What do you remember?" she asks him.
He takes a deep breath. "Cold," he says. "Falling."
He waits a beat too long before he shakes his head.
She doesn't push it. He's told her this much already. The rest will come with time.
Iceland in the summer is lovely. The long days take some getting used to, but it's almost nice, the way the light lingers, the way it makes the hours feel stretched out, slowed down.
Her contact is waiting for her, has been waiting for her since SHIELD disbanded. They meet in a quiet back alley, where they're hidden from the eyes of passing foot traffic. Her contact is a middle-aged woman who has deceptive, kind eyes and who goes by the name of Nadja when she's working. Natasha has known and worked with her for years.
She hands over the intelligence Natasha wanted on a few more HYDRA outposts, folders stuffed full with photographs, maps, intercepted notes. Natasha tucks them into her backpack.
The Winter Soldier hangs back and watches the trade like a surly bodyguard. No one recognizes him like this. Without his facemask, his metallic arm hidden away, he can pass for generic muscle, but the way he carries himself could draw attention if they're not careful.
"You're keeping different company these days," Nadja says. She smiles, almost motherly, but Natasha knows better than to trust it.
Natasha just smiles back. She's always been good at deflecting curiosity when she needs to. "Circumstances change. You know how it is."
Nadja nods. She doesn't push. All good spies have better ways of gathering information. "As always, a pleasure."
"Until next time," Natasha says.
SHIELD doesn't have a safehouse in Iceland, so they're staying in the cheapest hotel room Natasha could find, which smells like old cigarettes and leaks water through the windows during the one afternoon it rains.
"We should cut your hair," Natasha says. It stands out, makes them obvious. The color isn't particularly distinctive, and with bland enough styling, he wouldn't have to wear so many hats. Sure, there's a risk he could get mistaken for Bucky Barnes now that there's been a surge of interest in Captain America again, but there's only a handful of people who know the real story behind the Winter Soldier. Cap was never quite as big in Europe.
The Winter Soldier looks up at her from where he's sitting on the bed. "All right," he says. He touches his head, feeling the strands before yanking his hand back, uncertain, like he's afraid of getting attached to it.
They don't have much to work with. The bathroom isn't much more than a tiny shower, a sink with a mirror over it, and a toilet.
He sits still on the closed lid of the toilet as she cuts. It's quiet enough in the room that the loudest sound is the steady clip-clip-clip of her scissors. His physicality is different from Steve's, though she's not sure why she expected them to be similar. Steve carries himself like he's not used to taking up space, hunching and squeezing his shoulders together when they get packed in too close. The Winter Soldier widens himself, spreading his legs and his arms like he needs to fight for every centimeter he can get.
He's wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Her human arm brushes up against his metal one as she moves. She shifts her cutting position, moving in front to figure out what to do about possible bangs, and he stares at the place where her own shirt rides up.
"Odessa," he says. He reaches out, not quite touching the exposed scar.
"Yes," she says.
His eyes are unfocused, somewhere else. "On a bridge."
Natasha nods. "I was protecting your target." She remembers it so vividly.
"And then…" He holds up his hands, mimes the pulling of a trigger with his human fingers.
"Yes," she says.
He looks up at her. There's an eerie chill to his expression. "I thought it might have been a dream," he says, "but it wasn't, was it?"
"No," she says. "Not a dream." She lowers her arms. The scar disappears from view. She doesn't punch him in the face, doesn't fight him down, doesn't extract her revenge now that he is capable of understanding what it is that he did to deserve it. She could. She could slit his throat right here with the scissors and no one would be the wiser.
"It probably doesn't mean much," he says, "but I'm sorry." There's a rawness to his voice, some deeper emotion that doesn't quite make it across his face.
"You're right," she says. "It doesn't mean much." She steps back to assess her work. It's not a good haircut, but it's a serviceable one. She starts to pack up her things. "Get some sleep. We leave tomorrow morning."
According to the documents Natasha has, the nearest HYDRA outpost is buried under the streets of Lisbon. When she tells him that their next stop is in Portugal, he just nods and doesn't argue. She had wondered if he'd be hesitant or uncertain about turning on his former masters, but if he is, he doesn't show it.
They spend their traveling time putting together a plan of attack, pouring over the intel that they have, whispering underneath the smooth rumble of the train cars.
She learns more about him, the way he thinks, the way he plans. He's a good hunter, a good tracker, and a good fighter, but he's not a good spy. He doesn't think in feints within feints, misdirection, or subtlety. The language he speaks is violence. While Natasha can appreciate the effectiveness of his methods, they're not prepared well enough for the smash-and-grab approach on this one.
"We should target their resources," she argues. "They're easier to get to. It'll make it difficult for them to set up shop here again. We don't exactly have an army to back us up."
He shakes his head. "No, if we leave anyone alive, they'll just come back." The tone of his voice reminds her of listening to her father when she was still a girl, the way he was so certain that the only way to end a fight was with blood.
She watches the Winter Soldier's expression, the downward twist of his lips, the deep furrow of his brow. It's a cold calculation, the one he's making right now. Natasha wishes she could say that he's completely wrong. But she holds the line here, because this is what she wants and this is what she's learned. "No," she says. "Not if we don't have to."
He leans forward and snarls out a, "You know what we're dealing with here. You don't cut off its head and let it grow back twice as strong. You have to burn it to ashes so that nothing can grow there ever again." He reaches over the armrest between them, grabs ahold of Natasha's wrist with his right hand. "You know I'm right about this."
His grip is tight but not crushing, a deliberate choice on his part. There won't be bruises later. Natasha gives him her darkest look before she breaks his hold, moving fast enough that she's got his wrist in a lock before he can fully react. She presses into it, enough pressure to hurt, and he grits his teeth at the pain. "My op, my rules," Natasha says, letting go. Maybe she is getting soft, but the thought of killing an entire outpost turns her stomach in a way that it wouldn't have ten years ago. "And don't ever think about doing that again."
He doesn't argue any further. His expression stays grim. But he nods his head, conceding to her threat. "Yes, ma'am," he says, a soldier to the end.
His training is more trouble than it's worth, though. When they're on the streets, he carries himself with his shoulders square, his eyes bright and distrustful. She can all too easily imagine him on a battlefield, and that's a problem.
"Don't do that," she says to him. They're sitting at tables outside a cafe, watching the pattern of people who disappear down the alleyway that leads towards the entrance to the HYDRA base. It's warm today, and the sun is bright. She's wearing sunglasses. He's wearing a baseball cap.
"Do what?" he asks. There's an edge to his tone.
She smiles, as brightly and vacuously as she can manage. "We're supposed to be tourists," she hisses. "You need to stop staring."
His attention shifts, all the intensity now focused on her. She meets his gaze without blinking.
"Relax your shoulders," she says. She stands, reaches over the table, and under the guise of straightening the collar of his jacket, forces his shoulders down. "Face me at all times." She cups his cheek and draws him into a kiss, tilting his head in the correct direction as she does so. His mouth is softer than she expected. Sometimes, it's easy to forget that only half of him is made out of metal. After she pulls back, she says, "And remember to smile." She brushes the corner of his mouth with a thumb, and his lips curve up obligingly.
"Better?" he asks.
"Yes," she says.
Even with preparation, their mission falls apart within the first twenty minutes. He slips up and exposes his left hand to one of the guards, and then it all devolves into chaos.
This HYDRA base is a storage facility. The original plan was to smoke out as many of the guards as possible before sneaking in and destroying or reappropriating the remaining equipment.
They just didn't get enough of the guards out of the way (a strategically placed fire at the north end of the compound) before moving in themselves. The base is all narrow, brick hallways, badly lit. But the Winter Soldier is a tank. He doesn't stop. He doesn't slow down.
They've sparred enough on this trip that she can match him. She knows his body, knows the way it moves, the way it fights. She kicks a guard in the ribs, and he follows it up with a punch to the face. He rips open a door, and she lays down covering fire.
He watches her back while she places and arms explosives in each of the storage rooms they find. Natasha can hear the shouts, the bullets being fired, but she doesn't let that distract her. She trusts him as far as his hatred for HYDRA, and that's far enough for now.
Pressing the button on the detonator after they've made it clear from the building is one of the most satisfying things Natasha has done in months.
They spend the night afterwards resting, patching up their wounds (all minor, thankfully), and cleaning themselves up.
"Well," Natasha says, "that could have gone better."
The Winter Soldier is sitting on the bed in their shared hotel room, shirt off, while Natasha disinfects the remnants of a grazed rib on his right side. She's been aware of him, of his arm, for a while now, but this is the first time she's been close enough to inspect it. It's even more massive than she thought. An entire arm, plus the shoulder and pieces of his chest. She thinks about what it must have taken to remake him from the bottom up, the remnants of Bucky Barnes refashioned into a weapon. She focuses on making sure his ribs are bandaged. The machinery isn't damaged. No reason to inspect or touch it.
"No inspiring speech?" he asks. The briefest flash of a grin crosses his face. It changes him into someone else. He almost looks like the man from the newsreels, like someone who would be called 'Bucky' by his friends and family.
"That's always been more of Steve's thing," she says.
The grin falls off his face. "I-- I remembered that, I think."
Natasha pauses, her hands stilling. "Yeah?" she asks.
"We'd be making camp after a mission," he says, "and he'd be smiling that smile. You know the one I mean? The tired one."
"Yes," Natasha says. She saw it after the Battle of New York, on the day they found Fury alive and well, the night after they took back the Lumerian Star.
"Then he'd say something noble and kind, because that's just how he is."
They haven't mentioned Steve since the first night they met. Natasha figured that if he remembered her, he must be remembering far more about his childhood friend and war buddy. She's been waiting for this moment, even if she hasn't been conscious of the waiting. "He's a good guy," she says. "Better than most of us."
His smile brightens, almost flirtatious. "Better than you?" he asks. He leans, ever so subtly, forward. It's unsettling, watching him turn into this other person, a ghost inhabiting a body that doesn't belong to it.
"Yes," she says. She grabs another roll of gauze and avoids his gaze. "You don't have to be him for me, you know."
She watches as he pulls back, almost as if he's been slapped. "I-- I don't--" Confusion crosses his face, a wildness once again returning to his expression, the mask falling away as quickly as it appeared. He's more like himself again, but rawer; something has been exposed.
"You don't have to be anyone other than who you want to be," she tells him. It's something she wishes someone had told her the first time she got out. It's what she was thinking when she was dumping all of her old covers, all those other people she's been. It's something she thinks he could do with hearing right now.
His shoulders slump, the fight draining out of him. "I-- okay." A wryness in his expression lingers.
She finds herself smiling at him, gentler than she would have thought herself capable of. "Hold still," she says as she wraps the gauze around his ribs.
"Okay," he says, surer this time.
Sam sends word through channels. Congrats on the mission. Steve's doing well. They both want to meet Natasha's new partner, the one they've heard so much about.
Natasha sends them back her own message. Thank you. We're going to stay in Europe for the time being. We'll see you when we get back to the States.
"Thanks," Barnes says, when Natasha tells him about Sam's message. It's hard to keep thinking of him as the Winter Soldier, when he's gaining new and different pieces of himself every day. On Wednesday, he laughed at one of her terrible jokes and watched some terrible Portuguese soap opera with a lot of shouting in it. On Thursday, he stared at a wall for three hours before Natasha managed to get him to eat something. Natasha isn't sure she's equipped to deal with any of this, but she's doing her best.
"Sure you don't want to see him again?" Natasha asks. She doesn't bother specifying who she means.
He shakes his head. "Not yet," he says. Their next HYDRA base is in Istanbul. It'll be a few days, probably, at the rate they travel. They can always change their minds later, but she will be cranky if they throw out a week's worth of planning in order to take off in a different direction.
They're squaring off again, a friendly spar before they get on the next train. She's been trying to change things up, keep herself from becoming predictable, but he's been matching her attack for attack. He's learned the way her body moves, too. "He'd be really happy," she says, "just to get a chance to talk." Sam was the one who carried Steve through most of that once they discovered the identity of the Winter Soldier, but she only needed to hear the gist of it to understand how Steve feels about all of it.
He throws a kick. She dodges it easily.
"Not yet," he repeats. There's no anger in it. She's not under any illusions that there's still something there, underneath his surfaces, but for now, he's calm.
She twists and jabs. He blocks the attack. "Sure," she says, "but don't blame me if he comes looking for you anyway."
A grin flashes across his face. It's a little sharp, a little uncertain, but it's genuine all the same. "Okay."
"You sure about this?" Clint asks. They're on a secure line, as secure as they can make it. Barnes is napping on the train, eyes closed. He's been quiet and thoughtful during this trip, lost inside his own head. It gives him a stillness that could be unnerving, but he's lost some of his harder edges. Maybe it's because of the memories or maybe it's because of something in him. She doesn't know.
"We could use the backup," she says. It's true, but it's not the whole truth. She wants someone else's opinion on this whole situation, and there's no one else's opinion she trusts more than Clint's. His mission in North Dakota turned out to be a former Stark Enterprises geneticist with an axe to grind and way too many stolen lab supplies, and now that it's all been handled, he has the free time to come visit her.
She can practically hear Clint's skepticism over the phone, can practically see the raised eyebrows, the flattened line of his lips. "Did he agree to that?"
"This is a bigger base. It's more heavily guarded. It'd be good to have another person around to cover our backs for when things start getting hairy." She resists the urge to tap her fingers. It's a tell that she only shows around Clint.
Clint sighs. "I'll be in Istanbul the day after tomorrow."
She knows that this is a favor to her, another debt to him that she'll have to repay. She takes a breath. "Thank you," she says.
They shack up in another abandoned SHIELD safehouse. It's underground, buried beneath a block of old buildings. It's dim and smells vaguely like wet dog, but it is still laid out like every other one she's been in. Even if it's a little cramped, it's is more than big enough for the three of them, though Clint and Barnes insist on circling each other like giant cats, attempting to stake out their territory. The idea that she might be the territory is -- well, it's not the first time, and it won't be the last -- but it's still ridiculous all the same.
"I think you should just fight it out," she says to Clint over breakfast, "get it all out of your system." She tears her simit in half before taking a bite out of it. It's still warm, crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. She got it from a street vendor four blocks over at the break of dawn, when the morning was still hazy and unformed.
Clint snorts. He's checking the tension of his bow, and she watches the flex of his biceps, the curl of his fingers. He says, "I just don't want that psycho putting a knife in your back the second you turn around."
"I wasn't planning on turning my back on him," she says. It may have been a miscalculation to bring Clint into this. Barnes has reverted back to being prickly and uncommunicative ever since he got here.
Clint leans forward, the way he always does when he wants to establish that this isn't business, it's personal. "Are you sure you know what you're doing here, Nat?"
"No clue," she says. "But I figure it's better to put me in the line of fire instead of some shrink."
He cracks a smile. "I think Captain America can take care of himself."
Natasha raises her eyebrows. She only manages to stop the twitch of her lips through practice. "Last I checked, Fury never authorized Rogers for that psychiatry degree."
"Yeah, but I get the impression that he'd be really into talking about feelings."
That's the easy conversation. When it comes to Barnes, Natasha has no way of knowing which way he's going to jump. He's not erratic, not unstable, but he shifts between personalities so quickly, Natasha isn't sure which one it'll be this time.
"I don't think he likes me very much," Barnes says in Ukrainian. As they get all of their gear in order for their op, he leans in closer to Natasha, but his eyes still follow Clint as he moves around their makeshift storage room. The table in front of them is laid out with weapons, armor, knives of all shapes and sizes. Clint, very obviously, pretends not to listen in. He can understand the language just fine, though his accent is shit.
"He's testing you," she says.
"Maybe I don't want to be tested." A glower crosses Barnes's face again, and it makes him look even more like the Winter Soldier than usual. Natasha deliberately does not tighten her grip on her gun.
"Look," Natasha says, "Clint's a puppy dog. He doesn't trust easily, but if you play nice, he'll probably warm up to you." She meets his eyes. She knows he respects that.
Barnes stands there, tight-lipped and unresponsive. Natasha watches him, waiting. After a moment, he nods, the slightest dip of his head. "Okay," he says.
Natasha lets out the breath she was holding and breathes in deep.
This mission is simple: get in, grab the mystical artifact, get out as soon as you can. It works, more or less.
It takes them a few hours and a surprising amount of glue, but afterwards, they manage to walk out of the outpost with a magical doohickey that glows when you touch it. Clint assures her that it won't give her cancer, and out of all of them, he would know best.
They don't get away entirely unscathed. Clint breaks one of his fingers while trying to deal with a finicky blast door. Natasha gets a nasty slash on her arm from a stray knife. Barnes manages to come away with just a few bumps and bruises.
In the quiet of the safehouse later, he stalks around the room as Natasha patches Clint up. she wraps Clint's fingers in a splint after straightening them. Barnes' expression is grim, and his eyes are unreadable, but he doesn't try to interfere. Clint looks amused by the display, but he doesn't say anything about it. Natasha doesn't even know what he would say.
Afterwards, Barnes hovers as Natasha cleans and bandages her own wounds. A softness has returned to his expression, but there's an oddness to it, a discomfort.
"You're okay, right?" he asks. His reaches out to touch her elbow, just below where the cut is.
Her answering smile is tense and thin. She can appreciate his concern, but she doesn't know what it means. "I'm fine," she says.
His eyes never leave her face. "You're lying," he says. "You're angry about something."
In the base, she saw a familiar face, one of her favorite SHIELD medics wiping down the counters in the HYDRA infirmary. She hadn't said anything, but it's a cold reminder of why they're here, what they've lost. Clint gets it, but only in the abstract. SHIELD wasn't a part of how he defined himself, and the next time Fury or Steve or Tony need to call in his help, he'll be fine.
But Natasha had been one of the true believers. Not to the point of absurdity; she knew it was as fucked up as any other human organization. But there is a huge gap between 'fucked up' and 'downright evil' and Natasha had let herself get comfortable, let herself become loyal, and look at what it got her: her existing covers blown, reamed out in front of a Senate committee, cast adrift to find her own way.
"Yes," she says. Her hands ball into fists, fingernails digging into her palms. "I'm angry. It's not any of your business, but I'm angry."
"I'm angry, too," he says, shaking his head. It doesn't show in his face, his voice, or his behavior, but she can see it now. Natasha knows how that is, when it lingers in you, so deep, so constant, you can almost forget that it's there.
Clint leaves the next morning so he can deliver their artifact to Stark and Stark Industries. Stark's a narcissist who wouldn't recognize a threat if it smacked him across the face, but his heart's in the right place and at least he'll have Pepper around to keep the artifact from falling into the wrong hands. It's the right thing to do for now until they figure out something more permanent.
Natasha sees Clint off at Sirkeci Terminal. It's a busy morning, and the two of them disappear into the ebb and flow of the crowd. Clint's expression is cool, impassive, but there's a thoughtful twitch of his lips if you know how to look for it.
"Take care of yourself," he says to her instead of 'goodbye'.
"And you too," Natasha says.
He gives her a quick hug, there and gone again. It means something, but it doesn't have to, and that's how they like it. That's how they've always liked it.
When she gets back to the safe house, Barnes is waiting for her. "Where to next?" he asks, eyebrows raised. He's having a good day, and he's wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and a pair of cheap pants from a vendor down the street. He looks like he could be anybody, a contact, a friend, an ally, an enemy.
"Greece," Natasha says.
Barnes tilts his head in confusion. "What's there?" he asks. He's seen the files. There's been no reported HYDRA activity there for years.
"A vacation," Natasha says.
One of Natasha's old weapons dealers has a beachside villa on the island of Kea. It's also convenient that he owes her a favor. Natasha tends to hoard her favors, but she figures she can make the exception for this, a chance to rest and recharge for a bit. For all that she's learned to do without, she's not above taking advantage of a few luxuries that she has at her disposal.
Barnes doesn't seem entirely on board with this plan, but he doesn't raise any objections.
On the train, he stays quiet. It feels different this time around. It's a little more open, less closed off. He bites at his lips, shrugs his shoulders, taps his feet, and studies the world outside his window with a furrowed brow. He's more relaxed now that Clint's out of the picture, but it still feels as though they've been tilted off balance, and Natasha doesn't know how to re-establish their equilibrium.
"Penny for your thoughts?" she asks.
That seems to shake him out of his reverie, and he glares at her, the Winter Soldier reasserting himself for a moment before he pulls back, settles. "I've-- I'm not good at relaxing."
The expression on his face is awkward, halfway between the glower and a rueful smile. It makes him seem caught, suspended between the different men he's been.
Natasha finds herself answering his not-smile with one of her own. "You'll pick it up," she says. "Just have to practice it a bit."
"All right," Barnes says. The smile lingers. The glower fades away.
Sun and sand and a collapsing economy. Natasha can appreciate all those things. Their villa has a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean from on top of a steep hill in the middle of an island, the bright sun glinting off the rich blues of the water underneath. It's tastefully expensive, with huge glass windows and hardwood floors and sparkling stainless steel appliances.
Barnes doesn't take to it immediately. He's still tense, wound so tightly Natasha is sure he's going to burst. The owner isn't around at the moment, so it's just the two of them all by themselves. The space is big enough that he could disappear and she'd never see him, but he shows up wherever Natasha is, while she's brushing her teeth in the bathroom, while she's fixing herself some food in the kitchen, while she's stretching before a morning run. It's a little bit like having a sulky cat who desperately wants your attention but doesn't know how to get it.
"Jeez, Barnes," she says one afternoon while she's trying to get some light reading done, on the deck by the pool that overlooks the Mediterranean. "You look like you've never had a day of fun in your life." All the relaxation has loosened her up, made it easy for her to tease him like this, made it easier for her to let a bit of her go, the part of her that's always eager and waiting for a fight.
He stops his pacing, which thankfully hasn't yet turned into a restless twitch of his legs, and shoots her a dark glare. "I told you I was bad at this."
Natasha wants to laugh, but she doesn't. He's taken to wearing his hair the way Bucky did, keeping his face neat and clean-shaven, and he's wearing something borrowed from the man who owns the villa, white linen with sleeves that are too long and have to be rolled up to his wrists. He looks like he's been taken out of time, a GI still stuck overseas during the war. "Sit down," she says instead.
He sits down in an empty deck chair, the wooden body of it sagging underneath his weight.
"When I first got out," she says, "I was a mess." She doesn't need to clarify what she'd gotten out of.
Barnes doesn't say anything, but she can feel the shift in his focus, his attention centering him and calming him down.
"I was still a girl at that point; all I'd ever known was my training. I-- It took me years before I felt like a human being again, at least a human being like everyone else around me."
"And?" Barnes asks. He's impatient, the way she had been at the time. When she first joined up with SHIELD, they didn't know how to handle her, too overprotective in one moment and too careless in the next. Even as young as she was, she'd been too professional to claw any of their eyes out, but Clint was the only one who could get her talking. He didn't get it either, but at least he'd listen to her, take her seriously, treat her with respect. That was worth a lot. That was worth everything.
Natasha sits back, watches as a multitude of expressions crosses his face. "I always wanted someone to tell me I wasn't crazy. Or, at least, that there's a place on the other side where maybe you're a little less crazy."
"That's your advice," Barnes says, deadpan, "be less crazy?" There's a bite to his words.
"No," Natasha says. "My advice is to believe that it's possible to be less crazy."
He'd opened his mouth to say something, but now he snaps it shut with an audible click of his teeth.
"They fucked you up," Natasha says, "and you'll probably be a little fucked up forever, but that doesn't mean you can't be less fucked up than you are now."
Barnes stays quiet for a moment, and Natasha lets him. The only sounds are the chatter of voices and cars from the street below them. The sun is warm on her skin. The book is a gentle weight on her lap.
When he finally speaks, his voice is rough, scraped raw by an emotion that Natasha can only guess at. "Yeah, okay," he says.
"Here," Natasha says. She hands over the book, some young adult novel about high school girls and first crushes and all the things that Natasha never had while growing up. It's hardly groundbreaking literature, but Natasha likes to read trashy romance novels with ugly covers during difficult ops, so this is probably a step up from that. "It's nice to get out of your own head for a while."
Barnes takes it and thumbs through the pages. He glances up at Natasha and then nods once before starting to read.
Barnes burns through the book in an afternoon, but he sits still for it, eyes glued to the pages in front of him. He doesn't sit in the same spot the entire time. He will simply appear in a new room, still reading, hunched over the book, the candy pink cover contrasting with the seriousness of his expression.
During dinner preparations, Natasha chops some vegetables as Barnes pulls some plates and some silverware out of the cabinets and drawers.
Barnes says, "I still don't understand why Missy couldn't just tell Dave that she liked him."
Natasha shrugs. "Talking's a lot harder than it can seem from the outside." She scrapes the chopped garlic into the pan and listens to it sizzle as it hits the heated olive oil. "How's Steve doing these days?"
Barnes frowns, shooting her a withering look, and sulks off to go set the table. There was a time when that would make her tense and nervous, hyper aware of his every move, but now all she feels is affection for the familiarity of it.
She continues, "I know he'd want to hear from you."
This is usually the point at which Barnes gives a straight up 'no, ' and the conversation topic drops, but this time, he huffs out a breath. "Eventually," he says, like he's actually considering it. "Soon." There's a war going on in his head that Natasha can't see, but she's feeling ever increasingly more confident that he'll work it out eventually. He's made it this far.
Natasha nods. "Good," she says.
There are other books littered around the villa: something about financial planning with a pale green cover, a travel book about the top 10 places to visit before you die, a few popular novels with names like Gone Girl and Freedom.
Natasha expects Barnes to go on some sort of reading binge, but he doesn't pick anything else up. He gets sullen and morose, moping about the villa, and then he goes and stares out to sea for a few hours. Natasha expects that she'll need to intervene, but it turns out that it's not necessary.
After breakfast the next day, he actually talks to her. "Do you--" he starts up, hesitant, but then he composes himself. "Can we do some sparring?"
She studies him for a moment, the tension in his shoulders, the grim, turned-down corner of his mouth, the clench and release of his metal fingers. There's something steelier about him now, less malleable. He's never initiated one of these before. Usually, Natasha's the one who suggests it. "Sure," she says.
There's not really any gym space in the villa so they find some space on the pool deck, clearing away the loungers and the umbrellas so that they won't have to worry so much about destroying property while they fight.
They fall into their comfortable rhythm, trading kicks and punches back and forth. Natasha doesn't put much effort into it, content to let Barnes set the pace.
He seems lost inside his own head for a while until he decides to kick it up a notch, trying to slide past her to get his arm around her neck. She dodges it, ducking underneath his arm before he can get a good grip. Unfortunately, he's too fast, knows her too well, and he trips her while she's trying to spin away.
The fall is not easy, but Natasha manages to land on her back, the breath knocked out of her for a moment as she stares up at the rich blues of the sky.
Barnes is on top of her before she can roll away, his fingers tight against her wrists. Natasha doesn't struggle against it, though part of her is screaming to fight back, to force him off of her, but he's not gripping hard enough to bruise, and she looks him straight in the eye and knows that he's not going to hurt her.
She waits for him to make his next move. Her breathing remains calm and steady. His eyes are dark, focused, intent, almost curious.
He takes a breath before he leans forward. Their foreheads brush against each other. Then their lips do.
Natasha holds still, but she can feel her heart speed up, her fingers clench and flex. The press of his mouth against hers is like the press of their bodies: surprisingly gentle.
Barnes pulls back, lets go, and turns away before Natasha can catch sight of his expression.
"Barnes--" she starts.
"Bucky," he says. He's hunched over, and Natasha notices the way the muscles of his back move underneath the thin t-shirt he's wearing, and she notices the slope of his shoulders, the curve of his neck. "I think I want to be-- Call me Bucky."
"Okay," Natasha says. She sits up. "Bucky." She lets herself pause, so that she has the time to find the right words. "What do you want?"
He takes a shuddery breath. "I--" He turns again, and now Natasha can see his face. She recognizes the play of emotions across it, the desire to touch and be touched. She knows the question in his eyes.
"Yes," Natasha says, answering it.
She leads him into the master bedroom, her bedroom for the length of their trip. Barnes -- no, Bucky, now -- haunts her right shoulder. They climb onto the bed together. The sheets are soft, far more luxurious than anything Natasha would buy for herself. Bucky hesitates, just for a second, before taking off his shirt and lying down on the bed.
Natasha watches him, weighing her options. She knows how to cajole and seduce, and she knows how to burn off excess energy during an op, but she isn't sure either of those things are the right call in this situation. He's still skittish at times in odd ways, and one wrong move could be disastrous. She straddles his lap and undoes the drawstring of his sweatpants. He watches her, silent and still.
"Are you sure about this?" she asks.
It takes a moment, but he nods. This time, she's the one who leans over, who captures his mouth with a kiss. This one is deeper, slower, wetter. She draws it out. Her hands rests on his shoulders, one flesh, one metal. She decides she likes the contrast.
His hands rest on her hips, and he lets out a soft groan from deep in his chest when she bites down on his bottom lip.
His body is hard muscle and machinery underneath her. She knows the strength and power of it, has fought with and against it. A pleasant heat builds low in her stomach as she thinks about what they might do together, what he might let her do to him.
She sits back far enough to get her own shirt over her head, far enough to undo the clasp of her bra and slide it off her shoulders. His eyes are dark as they watch her. Something soft passes over his expression. He reaches up, cups her breasts in his hands. She can feel the callouses of one hand, the rough, scratched metal of his other. He's being gentle with her, far more gentle than he needs to be, and it makes her curious about the Bucky of 1943, how he would have treated the women then. Would he expect her to be like them? Coquettish, watching him through her lashes, sweetly accommodating to his his every need?
The first time with Clint, she tried to pull something like that on Clint. She was a lot younger at the time, twenty years old and too used to the idea that she would live or die on her ability to seduce older men. He'd freaked out about it, and they had to have a thirty-minute conversation about how yes, this was something she actually wanted and no, she didn't feel obligated by anything.
His fingers brush over her nipples. They pebble and harden under his touch, sending warm sparks of pleasure through her body.
"How do you want to do this?" she asks. She can feel his cock swelling against her ass. She grinds against it, listening to his sharp hiss of breath.
"Doesn't matter," he says before drawing her down for another kiss. "Whatever-- whatever you want."
The kiss is slow, unhurried, and she reaches between them to slide her own sweatpants and underwear over her hips, maneuvering out of them while still remaining in contact. His tongue slides into her mouth, filthy and wet. Heat builds between legs, her thighs pressed against his bare torso. She grinds down again, this time to get some friction for herself.
"Just like this?" she asks, sitting back up. "I want to ride you."
A smile now, a flash of old-fashioned charm. Steve wears that same smile sometimes. "Yeah, okay," he says.
She slides down his body so that she can work his sweatpants and boxers down his legs. His
cock springs free, hard, flushed dark with blood. She presses a kiss to the underside of it just below the head. It smells dark and musky and undeniably male. Bucky lets out a soft moan.
Natasha slides a hand between her legs, feels the wetness there. She knows how to fake this, how to slip lube inside her body and imitate arousal, but she doesn't need to do that this time around. One finger goes in easily, pleasant but not enough. Two is better, and when her body adjusts to the stretch, she pulls them out again; it's not what she's here for.
Bucky's thighs are tensed, and the tip of his cock is leaking. Natasha wraps a hand around it, silky and hard in her hand, and squeezes once, twice. She listens to the hitch of Bucky's breath and crawls up Bucky's body so she can kiss him again. His eyes are closed, his mouth open, sucking in rough breathes as she strokes his cock. It's close, and it's intimate, and she realizes that she's not just doing this for him, but for herself. She wants this, the way he shivers as she cups his jaw, the twitch of his cock in her hands, the heat of his body beneath her.
There are condoms in the nightstand -- unsurprising -- and Natasha rips one packet open before sliding the condom onto Bucky's cock. She positions him against her entrance, waiting for his nods before she allows herself to sink down onto it. There's a stretch, a just a bit of burn, but Natasha has always liked it rough.
"Okay?" Bucky asks, and his voice sounds breathless, a little shaky.
Natasha grins at him, shifts a little so that he presses in deeper. "Yes," she says. "You?"
"Yeah," he says. And from the soft, open expression on his face, Natasha even believes him.
Natasha lifts up, pushes back down, slow at first, just enjoying the heat of him inside her, before speeding up, hands gripped tightly on the headboard for leverage. It's good, fast and hard and deep, and she lets herself ride the feeling. There are plenty of things in Natasha's life that she's hated, but she likes this, the ability for her body to feel and give pleasure. Once, she was taught to use it as a weapon, but she likes that she's reclaimed it for herself, as something she enjoys because she wants to and not because anyone else has demanded it from her.
"Fuck," Bucky says. "I'm going to--" He grips Natasha's hips, snapping his own up to meet hers. "Please, I just want--"
"Yeah," Natasha says. She reaches between them to rub her clit. The heat that was already building spikes, and she comes with a sharp gasp, shuddering her way through it.
She continues to ride him once the orgasm has faded a little, still buzzing with the aftershocks. She holds onto his shoulders as his hips snap up, letting her hair hang down around her face. "Come on," she says. "Let it out."
He comes with a loud groan, back arching, and Natasha waits it out, pulling off of him once he's once again slumped on the bed. His eyes are closed. His breath is heavy. His left eye is leaking at the corner.
She kisses him like this, their bodies sticky and sated, loose and relaxed, so that he doesn't have to say anything. He kisses back. She can think of dozens of reasons why he might want things to end here, why this might be a one-time thing, why he might not want to leave himself this raw, this open in the future, why he might want to forget this in the morning.
But he kisses back.
They have sex again, him on top of her as they lounge by the pool, her straddling his face before lunch, against one of the floor-to-ceiling windows of their bedroom. Bucky takes to it with an eagerness that surprises her, considering how hesitant he's been with everything else.
He still prowls through the rooms when they're not fucking, and his expression still goes dark and stormy at times. There are times when he will say things that remind her of the Winter Soldier, cold and icy and unrelenting and more than a little unsettling.
But he's more settled now. Natasha is less afraid that he'll crawl out of his own skin. He smiles when she calls him 'Bucky', and he'll go into town with her when they need to, and he laughs when one of the neighborhood children asks to touch his metal arm. The vacation seems to be doing its work. He'll reach out for her at odd times, to pet her hair or to hook his ankle around her own or to press his forehead against her shoulder. She doesn't say anything about it. She's patient. She can wait.
Natasha's phone rings on the day before they're due to leave Greece while she's packing up her things. She doesn't check the number. She can already guess who it is.
"Nat," the person on the other end of the line says. "I need to see him. Please."
Natasha frowns. "Steve, you know it's not my decision, right?" She's not here to play relationship counselor between them; she's not going to make Bucky learn proper communication skills.
"I just… I want to know that he's okay," Steve says.
Natasha is about to make bland assurances that Bucky is still figuring things out and is otherwise unharmed when Bucky materializes at her right shoulder. "Let me talk to him," he says. His teeth are clenched, and his shoulders are tensed. He holds out his hand, and Natasha gives him the phone.
She disappears into another room, leaving the two of them to have their much-needed conversation.
She does some stretches on the roof, feeling the pull of muscles in her back, her thighs, her arms. It's easy to lose herself in the physicality of it, a welcome distraction from fretting over what Steve and Bucky are discussing right now.
After half an hour, Bucky steps back outside, squinting his eyes in the face of the sun. "I want to go back to New York," he says.
Natasha has their train tickets to Rome stashed away in a purse, but she was never attached to it as a destination. New York is as good a plan as any other. And-- to be fair, she'd like to see Steve and Sam again, too. "Sure," she says. "We can do that."
Stark sends a private jet, which Natasha considers overkill, but it does make things easier on Bucky, not having to go through the commercial airport security.
During the flight, Bucky sits on the carpeted floor cross-legged and talks. He's been so quiet, it takes Natasha by surprise, but she lets him, just sits in her own chair and listens. She suspects that it's nerves from seeing Steve again so soon, but she never tries to get an answer to that either way.
The things he talks about are fragmentary, rambling, circling forward and backwards through time. He talks about the first time he pulled Steve out a fight when they were eight, when Steve had objected to the way some of the older boys were talking about the girls in their neighborhood. A memory of a pool of blood on the floor, 1976, a woman clutching her arm, screaming in pain. On the helicarrier, his hands wrapped around Steve's throat, trying to understand the look in Steve's eyes, the expression on Steve's face. The sick, dank smell of the HYDRA facility where they kept him over the decades. The orders they would give him, clean and neat and easy compared to the screaming inside his head.
He stares at the floor as he says these things, his arms folded across his chest, the red star on his left bicep twisting and shifting as he clenches and unclenches his fists.
Nothing that he says shocks or surprises Natasha, but it leaves her feeling exhausted and empty and tender in the oddest places. She doesn't fully understand the magnitude of what happened to him, but she appreciates this, this tiny view into what it's like inside his head.
Both Steve and Sam are waiting for them on the tarmac when they land. Sam is wearing a pair of dark sunglasses, and Steve is squinting against the bright sun. Natasha can see the two of them through the tiny airplane windows, colored specks on the bare, gray concrete that they are standing on.
When they finally end up face to face with one another, Steve pulls Bucky into a full-body, rib-crushing hug. From her vantage point, she can't see the expression on Bucky's face, but she can see the way he relaxes, the tension draining out of him all at once.
Sam shakes Natasha's hand. She can tell that, from him, it's a sign of respect. "Why don't we leave the two of them to it?" Sam says. Bucky and Steve have their heads bent together, talking in low enough voices that they can't hear them.
Most things in Natasha's life are temporary, ready to be discarded at a moment's notice, but this whole adventure feels shorter than she thought it would. She doesn't say anything at all.
They take one of Stark's cars back to the tower. Sam drives. Natasha takes shotgun. Steve and Bucky are in the back together. Sam makes small talk about the New York weather, summer rolling into autumn. Steve tries to keep up the patter. Natasha chimes in every once in a while to talk about their lovely sunny days in Greece. Bucky remains silent.
They have separate rooms in Stark Tower. Natasha's is bright and airy, with a gorgeous view of Manhattan rooftops and the Hudson River. It's decorated far more tastefully -- in gentle, muted colors -- than Natasha would imagined Stark capable of. Must be Pepper's doing, then.
Bucky appears at her doorway as she settles in. He sits on the edge of her bed, but he makes no moves to remove any clothing. He stares out the window into the distance, chewing on his bottom lip, a new habit that he seems to have picked up somewhere.
Natasha does what she always does -- she waits.
"I thought--" he starts.
"Yes?" Natasha digs her toothbrush out of her bag and set it on the night stand.
Bucky ducks his head, his shoulders slumping. "I thought it would be easier, being here… with him." She wonders how much he expected to be Bucky again, after coming back here, but it doesn't work that way. She's burned enough of her aliases to know that identities are shifting, ever-changing things. Who she is now isn't who she was two years ago.
"It doesn't have to be easy, yet," Natasha says. "It'll get easier."
He considers her with narrowed eyes. "How long are you staying?"
She could lie, could change her plans, could say 'as long as you need', but after that committee hearing, staying in the US, even staying in New York City, makes her feel tense and claustrophobic. "Two days."
"And I'm not going with you," he says. There's an edge to his words, a bitterness that she wouldn't have expected a month ago.
"Sam used to work in a VA," Natasha says. "Steve was your best friend for decades. They'll take good care of you."
There's a moment when he doesn't react, but Bucky gives a terse nod and takes a deep breath. "Okay," he says.
The next few days pass by in a blur for Natasha. Stark spends a few hours trying to recruit her onto his new version of the Avengers initiative. Maria Hill stops by to catch up with her again and to perform a subtle risk assessment on Bucky. Pepper plies her with more Stark espionage tech than Natasha would probably ever need in her life. Bruce manages to make it to dinner for the first night, separating himself from his lab long enough to go through the social niceties. He and Natasha spend an hour talking Iranian politics after Bruce admits that he spent a few months there while he was still ducking the American government.
She only gets to see Bucky infrequently. He's usually talking to Steve and catching up on his shaky memories, his eyes distant and far away, but she does catch him laughing at something that Sam says while they're standing in the main kitchen, a flash of a genuine, almost warm, grin crossing his face.
They keep their distance from one another, mostly by Natasha's design. It wouldn't be good for him to cling to her, to use her as a crutch. He needs to learn how to talk to other people. But he looks away when she watches him, and she wonders if he still thinks of this as a rejection.
On her last morning in New York, he shows up at her doorway again. He's wearing new clothes, an expensive button-down and a pair of high end jeans that cling nicely to his hips, and she has to wonder if it's the work of Pepper or Steve to get him a new wardrobe. He looks like he belongs here.
"Hi," he says. He shifts from foot to foot, and his expression is uncertain, like he's sure she's going to turn him away.
"Hello," Natasha says. She's packing her cleaned clothes back into her suitcase, trying to make enough room for the sweet pair of night vision goggles Pepper sent her.
"I wanted to-- I wanted to make sure I got a chance to talk to you before you left," Bucky says.
Natasha raises an eyebrow. "Sure," she says. She waits, as she always does for him.
"Thank you," he says. "You didn't have to-- not any of it, but you did it for me, and I'm thankful." His eyes are so clear, so steady, and she feels lifted up by it, that he can look like this, that he's made it this far.
"You're welcome," she says. Clint and Fury gave her a chance when she didn't really deserve one, and this was just her chance to pay it forward. And besides, Steve never would have forgiven her. She reaches for her next pair of combat pants.
Bucky watches her. His gaze feels heavy on her back. He asks, "Where are you headed next?"
She smiles. "Probably better for you if you don't know." To be honest, he can probably guess. She has unfinished business in Rome, after all. Might as well finish it off.
He nods at that. "Well, I'll let you get back to your packing." He turns to leave.
It feels wrong to let him go. "Wait, Bucky," Natasha says. He turns to look at her. She steps forward, sliding a hand behind his neck to pull him into a kiss, hard and dry and closed-lipped. It's not quite the kind of kiss that lovers share, but it's not exactly familial either. "I'll be back in a few months, see how you're doing."
Bucky smiles, wider than she's ever seen on his face outside of newsreel footage, and his smile is entirely boyish in its warmth. It's beautiful. She never thought that she'd get a chance to think of the Winter Soldier as beautiful. "I'll hold you to that," he says.
"Good," Natasha says, smiling back.
Natasha's flight is that evening, and Happy gives her a ride to the airport. No private jet this time. Natasha finds it both pleasant and miserable to blend into the crowds of bleary-eyed civilian travelers who are caught between places.
Her plane is half-empty, so Natasha has two seats for herself, and the cabin is quiet save for the roar of the engines. Most of the time, she'd take the first opportunity to get some sleep, let her guard down just enough to be rested by the time they land in Italy.
But there's a sunset outside, the sky streaked with pinks and purples, and there's a quiet, heavy, empty space in her chest. This is how she travels when she's by herself. She sits by the window and watches as the world go by.
So that's what she does, long after the lights of New York have faded from view, and the loveliness of the sunset gives way to the inky blackness of night.