A thunderstorm has broken over this small mid-western town and the rain has not stopped all day. Natasha has watched it from the hotel room window, a cardigan pulled around her, and waited for Steve to come back. She can see his truck, silver and unobtrusive, pulling into the hotel parking lot below now. She is practicing stillness, ignoring the top of her head, which itches, and the way her thigh is beginning to protest the way she is sitting in the dark, grey-washed room. Perfect stillness is an asset to her, and the ability to maintain it must be constantly practiced. Scar tissue on her back and around her hips ache, and her left shin feels cold and tight, affected by the wet weather and a reminder of when Russian doctors set it with a steel pin when she was a child. She ignores the ache. She will have to hide one day, with injuries much worse than these old scars, and her life, or the lives of others, may one day depend on her ability to ignore it. Her whole life is about being prepared.
Below, Steve steps out of his truck, ducks his head under the rain and shrugs a heavy sports bag over his shoulder. Natasha scans the other cars, the windows that overlook the parking lot and shrugs her shoulders when she doesn’t register any threats. She unfolds from her position at the window and rises as soon as Steve steps through the door in to the hotel. He can handle himself from here.
She closes the curtain and turns on the light, blinking slowly against the sudden bright yellow light. There’s food, fruit and cereal and the assorted snacks it takes to keep the metabolisms of a super-soldier and a trained-since-birth spy going, and she grabs an apple, taking a bite and going to sit on the double bed with a folder of maps. HYDRA hunting is long and slow work, mostly boring, but interspersed with short, sudden bursts of violence. Sam has a life and a job, a family who expect him to be in certain places at certain times, so kicking HYDRA in the face in secret mid-western bases has become Natasha’s job.
A keycard clicks in the hotel door and Natasha, without looking up from the maps she’s reading, lets her hand drift over the gun on the bedside table, but it’s only Steve, pushing the door open with his shoulder with his phone in one hand and his bag and keycard in another. The door slips shut behind him, and Steve drops his bag in front of it, sitting down on the bed by Natasha’s feet. She lifts them up and moves her eyebrows and he, well-trained by now, moves them into his lap. Her feet get cold.
“We’ll be in Iowa City tomorrow,” Steve says, into the phone, and there’s a soft, tinny reply, just beyond Natasha’s range of hearing. It’s probably Sam. They’ve told very few people where they are, and keep even fewer updated on their movements. Tony knows they’re in the country. He paid for the truck and their new, fake identities for what he’s calling their “roadtrip”. She checks in with Clint once a month on the dark web, on the single use website they built for check-ins. They have an arrangement older than Steve’s warmth under her feet.
Steve nudges her foot and passes her the phone.
“Hey,” Says Sam’s voice, tinny but warm and close.
“Hi,” She says back, smiling and setting her maps aside. “How’s it going?”
“Not much,” he says, “Just a bit disappointed I don’t get to come to the land of corn and eat corn on the cob with you guys every day.”
Natasha chuckles and Steve smiles. His hearing is better than hers; he can probably hear Sam still. She looks over at the pile of cereal and Walmart snacks and raises her eyebrows at Steve.
“I don’t think we’re eating much corn on the cob.” She says, feeling the ironic twist to her mouth.
“Well, eat your vegetables and don’t let Mr. Metabolism tell you he can eat lucky charms every day, I don’t care what nutrition was like in the freaking 1800s.” Same says, in a familiar and comfortable bitching tone.
“We’ll look after each other,” Natasha says. Sam worries about them, and she misses him. She cannot be a warm, safe place for Steve the way Sam is, a man of genuine compassion and kindness.
“Be good to yourself, Nat,” He says.
“You too. Take care,” She says, and hears Sam breathe one last time before he hangs up. She tosses the phone to Steve.
“Iowa City tomorrow?” She asks. Steve nods.
“It’s small, so no one goes looking there, but there’s enough people to stay a stranger. Good place to go to ground.” He says and Natasha nods.
“I would do the same. If he’s in the area, it’s a good place to start.”
He’s almost definitely in the area. Their fights with HYDRA minions have grown fewer and farther between, and the last base they found was a burnt out shell. Someone had it hit it before them, and there aren’t many people who can do that level of damage on their own. Steve wraps a hand around her foot and she flexes, poking her big toe into his palm. He looks up at her, as much as a man twice her height can, and smiles the small happy smile that’s been growing on him for the past months.
She would have to be made of stone not to be moved by that smile and his long eyelashes and the slow, warm way he slides his hand up her calf. She sits up straighter and leans forward and his smile slides into something warmer and slyer. She wants to laugh, feels amusement bubble inside her, but keeps it quiet. Steve has a face like a book; she always knows what he wants.
He kisses her slowly, sweetly, catching her lip just slightly between his teeth, before they catch their breath and she pulls her feet out of his lap to lean forward and chase more of those kisses.
Iowa City is quiet in the early morning. They left the motel in the no-name town before the sun had risen and it’s only just peeking over the horizon now. Out of the window of the truck, Natasha watches normal, early morning things happen: someone in a server’s uniform opening the security gate over a Subway and the night shift leaving McDonald’s, tired looking and glassy eyed. She yawns and leans back to pull her hair into a pony-tail. She doesn’t like having it this long and it crawls at the back of her neck keeping it like this.
“I should get a haircut,” She says, looking across at Steve.
“Are you allowed to do that?” Steve asks, turning off the street that took them into town. She shoots him a hard look but he isn’t looking at her. She realises the question wasn’t mean-spirited, just curiosity.
“I doubt I’ll get another assignment anytime soon.” She says, with raised eyebrows. Fury is still licking his wounds and testing the loyalties of old operatives. Shield is active at only the lowest levels at the moment. “I hate long hair.” She says, after a pause.
“We’ll find a hairdresser without CCTV,” Steve says, without arguing. There’s a Best Western, surrounded by industrial plots and a strip mall, on their left.
“Turn in here. We’ll get settled and do recon today.” She says.
The hotel lobby is yellow and cream, with a cluster of sofas and a bored looking teenage clerk behind the desk. Natasha slides their fake drivers licenses, made by Tony Stark’s own hand and bottomless pit of money, onto the counter. They read “Natalie Martin” and “Steven Martin”.
“A king-sized double, if you can,” She says.
“How long are you staying for?” The clerk ask. Natasha turns to Steve, their bags hanging off him.
“Honey, how long do you think?” She asks, sweetly, with a smile. She turns back to the clerk. “We’re road-tripping,” She says, with an apologetic smile.
Steve sets their bags down next to her and slides an arm around her waist.
“How about three nights?” He says, looking at her. Natasha has years and years of pretending to be in love, the comfortableness of the lie around her, to support her in this charade. Steve does not, and the feeling in his eyes, the soft edges of his gaze, makes her shiver. She does not want him to love her. He deserves better. He deserves Sam, or the person he thinks the Winter Solider was.
She nods and smiles. Nothing shows in her eyes, she knows it.
“That sounds perfect.”
The hotel room looks like the last one, and Steve drops their bags on a chair, while she lifts up her purse and starts taking out trip wires. She sets one up over the window, and one by the door. Their routine in a new place is comfortable now, especially after the long months of practice. They’ll go out later and split up, walking parts of the city where it’s easy to hide and scoping out locations. They’ll do it obviously, without hiding their faces or the fact they’re looking.
It’s taken a little while for Natasha to stop thinking of the winter solider as a target. They are not here to neutralise him. He’s a wounded animal. They’re here to help.
Steve drew the short straw, so he got industrial and motels. Natasha gets residential areas, although they specifically pick those where there’s boarded up houses, or it’s easy to pass unnoticed.
It’s the afternoon now, and there are people about, reducing both risk and effective sightlines. If she had to cool an asset, this is when she’d meet.
The hair at the base of her neck prickles, which is all the warning she gets. It’s enough to catch a glimpse of a dark figure rounding a corner, moving with a solid purpose. She grabs her phone and starts moving, dodging around pedestrians and trying to keep a visual on the figure. They’re the right size and build for Barnes, and moving like someone fleeing. Her instincts are the best.
“I’ve got a distant visual, almost definitely him. Get yourself over here, fast.” She says, as soon as Steve picks up.
“On my way,” Steve says, without questioning her. The phonecall ends with a beep and Natasha starts moving faster. If Barnes is like Steve, he can outrun her, but he might not be trying to. She’s not running, and neither is he, so they’re both maintaining the charade of being normal people doing very purposeful errands. It’s a good sign.
At one point, Barnes glances behind him, and Natasha catches a glimpse of a jaw, dusted with stubble, and wide eyes, before he turns away again. When he stops suddenly, Natasha checks her sightlines and then swears under her breath. Steve’s on his other side, just appeared around a corner, and they’ve unwittingly cornered Barnes between them.
Barnes starts running.
“Goddamnit,” She says, and she can almost see Steve swear as well. They both start running, but they were almost equal distances from Barnes and Steve is faster than her. Barnes tears off around a corner, with Steve only a few meters behind him, and Natasha slows down. Steve can catch up with him, and, if it’s only the two of them, hug or fight it out as necessary. She wouldn’t be useful and outnumbering Barnes might escalate the situation. She’ll head back to the hotel, report back to Sam, and make sure there’s a safe basecamp for Steve to come back to.
She jogs back to the hotel, just to keep in the practice of moving quickly when needed to, and checks her phone regularly. None of the trip wired in the room have been triggered, and they seem secure.
One of their many burner phones is sitting on the bedside table and she plugs in Sam’s cell number.
“Hey,” He says, when he picks up. Natasha wants to laugh. It sounds like he has lots of food in his mouth.
“We had a visual. Steve’s trying to make contact now.”
There’s the sound of frantic chewing and then swallowing.
“Oh shit, really. Everyone okay?”
“As far as I know,” she says back, through a smile. “I’m waiting for check in now. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything. Thought you’d like an update.”
“Yeah, definitely,” Sam says. “I’ll be on the first flight I can get. You still in the same place?”
“That’d be good, we’ll need all hands on deck. We’ll be here till this is done.” She says. She opens her mouth to say something else, maybe how much she misses Sam or how glad she’ll be to see him. They’re careful on the phone but she wants to let something slip. She doesn’t have the chance because the phone Steve has the number for starts to ring.
“I’ve gotta go,” she says quickly, and then hangs up. Sam’ll understand. She dives for the phone at the end of the bed and thumbs “accept call”.
“Yes?” She says into the phone.
“Hey,” Steve says softly. She feels herself let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. She knows she can trust Steve to look after himself but she worries. “Bucky says he thinks he can meet my friend.”
“Really?” She says. “How is he?”
She thinks Steve hears the quieter “Are you sure?” in that question.
“I think it’ll be alright. We’ve talked. Come unarmed though,”
Natasha nods. Weapons would make her feel safer but she’ll manage.
“I trust you,” she says. “Give me a location and I’ll be there in ten.”
The Winter Solider moves slowly, powerfully, like a big cat. His shoulders flow, muscles twisting, and Natasha is afraid, deathly fearful. She was made a weapon when she was a girl, molded and diverted, like water taught to flow a new direction. This is a man disassembled and remade from broken pieces. She is a single blade and he is a thing of sharp edges. He could break her. He could kill her. He has tried.
She does not move. Steve told her to hold her ground, to be unarmed, and she keeps her hands empty and still. Her legs wants to shake but she tenses against it. She is ready to run if she must.
He comes to a halt just before her, leaving a space between them slightly longer than his arm’s reach. He is not the only fighter used to wary, ready weapons.
“The Black Widow,” He says, in a low, dark voice. It rasps, unused for names and words.
“Natasha Romonov,” She says, tries to make it an addition, not a correction. There is a long pauses. Steve stands, unmoving, his face a tense, stony mask.
“The Winter Solider,” She says, and although in English, her mouth is remembering the shape of those syllables in Russian. He nods, and the lank hanging parts of his hair shake.
“James Barnes,” He says, though he sounds less certain now, and he glances back at Steve, who nods. She seems to take some comfort from that.
Steve looks less nervous now. He looks open and wanting, keen like he’s waiting for something. She reaches out a hand, open and turned at the wrong angle to be an attack. Barnes, who she can just about refer to by surname, stares it for a long moment and then nods just once. He takes it, grips it and lets it drop.
It is not what Steve wants, and his mouth turns slightly down, but he is a creature of surprising optimism. This is all that she can give to this broken thing that was once a man; he who has taken blood from her, has taken life from those she knew and tried to protect. She is not afraid of many men, but she, better even than Steve, knows what a weapon is capable of. Barnes was a man and perhaps he will be one again, but he is an unloaded gun. Natasha will be prepared for when the bullets fall into the chamber.
“Steve will stay with you tonight,” She says and meets Steve’s eyes over Barnes’ shoulder. Steve makes a small, grateful smile and Natasha is warmed by it. She will only be alone for a night. Sam will be on the first flight out. She won’t be alone for long.
Barnes doesn’t thank her. How would he know to, how would be know to thank her for the sacrifice of a long, cold night. She has grown used to Steve’s warmth, his constant soft breathing that keeps her ghosts and nightmares at bay. How would he know what loneliness means to her, when to her it is an aberration and to him, so regular as to be background noise. She is only half a weapon now and the other half of her is a woman.
Sam’s flight lands that afternoon and she picks him up from the airport in Steve’s truck. His smile is as open and easy as ever, and his body language betrays no tension, but Natasha is better than he is, if only slightly, and she can feel the nervousness in him. She has the edge; Sam learned to read people and mask his own emotions in order to help them. Natasha’s abilities were carved forcibly, the threat of death and the desperate need to survive hanging over her.
Outside in the truck, where they’re less visible and Natasha isn’t ducking to keep her face away from the CCTV, Sam leans over and kisses her, and she leans into it. It’s good to see Sam, to feel his steady, no-nonsense presence. When the kiss ends, he leans his forehead against hers and curls a gentle hand around her neck.
“Please tell me I’m not the only one scared shitless,” he says, with a small smile. Natasha laughs dryly, before sitting back, and starting the truck.
“The Winter Solider has tried to kill me four times,” She says, and Sam snorts.
“So yeah, completely shitless. I get you.” Sam leans back in the passenger seat, letting his head hit the headrest. “Normally, the ‘I’d like to open this relationship to someone new’ conversation doesn’t include “this is my resurrected-from-the-dead boyfriend who tried to kill my girlfriend a bunch in the 60s” as a starting introduction.”
Natasha laughs and then rolls her eyes.
“I’m not that old. It was in the 90s.” She says, and Sam laughs.
The laughter makes Natasha feel slightly less nervous on the drive to the warehouse where Steve is staying with Barnes. She’s been trying to catch herself, to call him Bucky or James in her head, but Barnes seems to be sticking.b
Steve must have convinced Barnes to wash. He’s clean and his shoulder length hair is tied back away from his face. Natasha is surprised by the youth of it, even though she’s used to Steve’s deceptive youth. She’d never seen the Winter Solider’s face before. He’s handsome, she’ll admit, although in a different way than Steve.
Steve’s sitting across from him, both of the on rickety chairs dragged from somewhere, and Natasha can see Steve’s angled himself so his ankle sits next to Bucky’s, just touching. Steve loves Bucky. He has maybe always loved Bucky. She wouldn’t have followed him around on this four month road trip around America if she was not prepared to help Steve find a man he has loved for decades. But she is not stepping back. She is not stepping back to let Steve fight this battle on his own. Neither is Sam.
Sam steps past her, making enough noise so that Steve and Bucky can hear them coming. Bucky looks up first, and it takes him a handful of seconds to modulate his expression from wary to quiet.
“Hey,” Sam says, sitting down on an empty chair and reaching a hand out. His body language is open and deferential, giving Bucky space and distance. “I’m Sam. This is Natasha. It’s nice to finally meet you.”