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Run to Ground

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There is a terrorist cell-- no. Scratch that. Start over.

There was a terrorist cell.

What there is now, is a lab. It’s not much of one: it’s in the basement of a crumbling warehouse, and the concrete walls are stained. Have been stained, for years, with soot and dirty water and black mold.

Now they’re stained with other, redder things.

Speaking of red: the woman who steps into the lab is red-headed, bright against the dim and dingy room. She takes in the scene with one sweep of her sharp eyes; she misses nothing. This is what she sees:

A gurney, restraints ripped open, and a tray of scalpels and syringes scattered across the floor. A canister, metal, man-sized, its glass door still rimed with frost. And bodies. A lot of bodies. Some are in lab coats; others in military-surplus castoffs; but all of them are equally, efficiently dead.

The woman reaches into her pocket and pulls out a phone. You wouldn’t think it would work from below ground, countries away from anywhere she might call home, but it does. “Hill?” she says into the phone, her voice flat. “This is Agent Romanov. We’ve got a situation.”

Back in New York, there’s a briefing. Natasha Romanov sits at the table, sharp nails drumming, and waits for everyone to settle themselves. There’s Hill, and Fury, and half-a-dozen agents and analysts with high enough clearance, and to her surprise there is also Captain America. He smiles at her, a quick flash across the table, before the meeting begins.

Natasha taps a button, and images flicker to life above the table. It’s the lab, the canister, the bodies, a map. “I’ve been tracking a Ten Rings splinter cell across Eastern Europe. They had cash, but not much in the way of competence. Rumor had it they were looking to buy weapons, and a former Red Room operative was in the area looking to sell. I thought I was in time to intercept the buy-off, but I got there after they opened their present, and found this.” She gestures to the images.

“They bought-- what? A body in cryo?” Maria Hill looks skeptical. “How’d one guy fresh out of the ice kill a whole room?”

“There are a few possibilities,” Natasha says, and the corners of her mouth flick down. “None of them are good. There aren’t a lot of organizations that have good cryo tech, and the Red Room was always head of the class. They’ve had it for decades, and they liked to keep their best operatives on ice between missions.” She looks down at the table. “And there’s one in particular who hasn’t surfaced since the Red Room fell apart. Someone better than any of their other agents.”

Fury huffs a laugh. “You’re not talking about--”

“Yes. The Winter Soldier.” She can see the skepticism on every face but the Captain’s. On his, there’s only honest puzzlement.

“Okay,” he says, “for the benefit of those of us who’ve been frozen for seventy years, the Winter Soldier is?”

“A myth,” Fury answers. “A ghost. Not, in fact, a real person.”

“Oh, he’s real enough,” Natasha says, allowing herself a small smile. “He had a hand in training me. Or someone they called Winter Soldier did, anyway.”

“You never told me that,” Fury says, fixing her with a stare.

“It was never relevant before,” Natasha says. “But it means I might be able to track him, and I know his face.”

“But who is he?” the Captain asks again.

It’s Hill who answers. “A Soviet operative, or a series of operatives, with an unparalleled ability to blend in. Especially in the US. He’s supposedly behind a string of assassinations throughout the Cold War, but there’s less than no proof tying him to anything real.”

“He’s supposed to be the Red Room’s masterwork,” Fury picks up. “So good, they kept him in cryo between missions so he wouldn’t be wasted on aging. But he hasn’t been heard from in twenty years.”

“Which would make sense, if he’s been on ice the whole time,” Natasha says evenly. “And if they got the protocols wrong when they thawed him out, if they didn’t reprogram him the right way--”

“Then he could have lost it, killed everyone, and made a run for it,” Hill finishes. “And now he’s on the loose with his brains scrambled and no idea what year it is. That’s not good.” She sets her mouth in a flat line, her eyes troubled.

“It’s not ideal, no,” Natasha says. “But there’s a positive. Without a mission, with his programming breaking down, the Soldier’s vulnerable. And if his memory hasn’t been wiped, he may remember me; I might be able to get inside his defenses long enough to take him down.”

Fury frowns. “You think you can handle it alone? Barton’s on assignment.”

“I’ll call for backup if I need it,” Natasha says. “But I think I’ve got it.”

The meeting adjourns, and the Captain lingers while Natasha’s packing up her things. “Are you sure you want to go alone?” he asks, real concern in his voice. It’s sweet, if misplaced. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind-- it’s not like I have anything much to do.”

“I was wondering why you came to this briefing,” she says.

Steve shrugs his big shoulders. “They’re not giving me much in the way of actual work, and Tony says I’m not allowed back in his lab until I can explain how a microchip works. I go to a lot of meetings. I’m getting bored, if you want total honesty.”

“This isn’t a mission for someone new to covert ops, Captain,” she says. “You’re kind of-- overt.”

“Call me Steve,” he says, and offers her a shy, hopeful smile, at odds with the confidence she remembers from working with him. “I did work with the French Resistance during the war, you know; I can do covert. And I need something to do.”

“Let me think about it,” Natasha says, and goes.

She doesn’t really consider it, not seriously: she can work far more efficiently alone. The Captain-- Steve-- would be nothing but a liability, anywhere outside a fight. He’s too big, too American, too obvious, and the Winter Soldier will call for subtlety. Natasha’s sure of that.

So she leaves, back across the Atlantic, to pick up the trail. SHIELD agents on the ground have done some good work already, picking up reports of Red Room remnants gone mysteriously dark, of others coming to life where they’d been silent for years. Natasha spends a few weeks infiltrating one of them, learns nothing useful, and loses valuable time to taking down a group that wasn’t posing much of a danger to anybody.

The only real intel she gets, those first few weeks, comes from the murder of a Czech businessman with defunct but long-suspected ties to the Red Room. SHIELD pulls the footage from every security camera in the vicinity, and while they don’t get anything as good as a face, there’s a man with straggly dark hair in the right place and time. It’s the first time anyone’s gotten live footage of the Winter Soldier-- if it is him, at all. He’s been on ice long enough that he wouldn’t be used to the omnipresence of security cameras, she realizes, which gives her a slender advantage.

But he’s still a ghost, and there’s not enough to the footage for Natasha to make an ID. It’s frustrating. Natasha knows how easy it is, for someone with the right skills to disappear. She learned from the best, after all.

There are things she’s not thinking about, on this mission. Not even in the privacy of her own head.

In Prague the trail goes cold: no more bodies, no more sightings. No more anything useful, and Natasha gets annoyed. The morning after beating up six mobsters who didn’t, after all, sell guns to the Ten Rings, she sits at a street cafe outside the Mucha museum. She drinks coffee and mulls over intel, until she comes to an internal decision and stands up.

Natasha likes museums. She finds them soothing: the hush, the lovely things to look at, the good sightlines and multiple avenues of escape. She’s studying the face of Medea when something catches at the corner of her eye.

She turns, and Steve Rogers is standing with his back to her, gazing up at a huge framed drawing, a sketchpad in his hands. She walks up beside him and he doesn’t turn to look at her, just says, “Hi, Natasha.”

“Did SHIELD put you onto me?” she asks, irritated.

“No,” he says. “I found you on my own. I can do covert, remember?” Her estimation of him rises a few notches.

“I don’t need backup,” she says quietly. “I thought I made that clear.”

“You did,” Steve says. “But I’m still at loose ends, and you’re not getting anywhere. Besides, I always wanted to see Prague. And I like Mucha.” Natasha glances down at the sketchbook. There’s a creditably Art Nouveau version of herself posed on the page, surrounded by swirls and lines.

She doesn’t dislike Steve, is the thing: they worked well together, when they were called upon to do so. He’s patently unsuited for her sort of work, but the trail’s cold enough that she doesn’t think he could make things much worse.

“It’s not going to be all museums and day trips,” she warns him. “And you’re going to have to follow my lead.”

“I can do that,” he agrees. “You’re the expert, anyway.”

They move through Europe, chasing smoke. Natasha does most of the legwork, letting Steve loom behind her when people need to be loomed at, and he does an admirable job of looking threatening. He even cracks his knuckles. No one would know he spends his days at whatever art museums he can scrape up the time for, or in parks sketching the passersby. Natasha likes that about him.

There are more bodies, and more security camera footage. There’s a man with the same build, same long dark hair hiding his face, same vaguely military clothes, at every scene. There’s never enough of his face for confirmation, though, and only his methods and his ability to disappear keep Natasha hoping that she’s right about his identity.

“Did you know him well?” Steve asks one day, when they have been particularly unlucky and Natasha is feeling particularly annoyed. “The Winter Soldier?”

She shrugs. “Only for a few months. He wasn’t the only one who trained me, but he was one of the best.” The most memorable, certainly.

They’re sharing a hotel room, posing as backpackers, and it’s been a long day with nothing to show for it. Steve tosses his sketchbook down on the bed as he digs for a t-shirt to sleep in, and it flutters open to a page. Natasha freezes, just for a fraction of a second, but Steve doesn’t notice.

“Who is this?” she asks, her voice carefully level. “This picture you drew?”

Steve glances down, and his expression gets a little distant. “Oh,” he says. “That’s, uh, Bucky Barnes. He died in the war. We were best friends, before we ever fought together.” He looks up at her, meeting her eyes, but she makes sure there’s nothing there to see. His own face is sad, and fond. “Why do you ask?”

“He looks a little like someone I used to know,” she says. “It’s a good drawing. You’re talented.” It’s nothing, she tells herself: a coincidence, nothing more. Her memory’s not perfect, anyway, and it’s been years.

Still, it nags at her. She draws out more facts about Bucky Barnes over the days that follow, guised in questions about his past, and learns about Steve’s wartime experience, his childhood, and his USO days into the bargain.

He’s not what she expected. She thought he’d be the perfect soldier, the field commander who’s never unsure, who never wavers. But when he’s not being Captain America, Steve is someone more tentative, quick to look to her for guidance, perfectly willing to follow her lead. He’s also slyly funny, and surprisingly graceful for such a big man, and completely hopeless at talking to women.

“How are you so bad at this?” she asks him, after his normally competent-but-antiquated French has deserted him in the face of a pretty shopgirl who nearly witnessed a murder. “You talk to me fine.”

“That’s different,” he mumbles, looking down at his feet. “We’re working together. Not that I don’t like-- I mean, you’re very--”

“Forget I said anything,” Natasha says, with a roll of her eyes.

Her next dead drop comes from SHIELD, and with it the files she’d requested. She’d gone straight to Hill when she asked for Steve’s file, and she gets the rest of his wartime team’s files on the pretense of wanting better background on the man she’s working with. There’s a note included pointing out that she can just ask the people she wants to be friends with when she wants to know more about them, instead of requesting deep background from SHIELD, but she ignores that.

She scrolls through them impatiently, the names flicking past-- Dugan, Morita, Jones-- and pauses for a moment on the picture of Steve, pre-serum, looking nothing like she’d expected. She’d known the facts of the procedure, of course, but it’s a little shocking to see in front of her. Sometimes she forgets that she’s not the only one who’s been remade.

But that’s not what she wanted the files for. She pauses again before she opens up BARNES, JAMES, trying to decide if she knows what she wants the outcome to be. If her suspicions are confirmed, it’s a new set of problems; on the other hand, it might make her job easier. Steve still thinks the mission is to take the Winter Soldier out, but that has always been a last resort for Natasha. She means to save him. He’s an outstanding entry in her ledger, and has been for a long, long time. She’ll fix that, if she can, by helping him.

She takes a breath, and opens the file. A face looks up at her out of an old photograph, and her breath catches, because there is no chance she’s mistaken.

There’s the sound of a key in the door, then, and by the time Steve enters the room her expression is carefully neutral. The memory stick is out of the laptop and back in her pocket. “How was the museum?” she asks.

“They had a Van Gogh,” he answers, and smiles. She smiles back. Her face betrays nothing.

Their slim leads take them to Paris, where Steve is more or less art-drunk and Natasha is uneasy. “He’s been here before,” she volunteers, when they’re sitting at their hotel window, Steve sketching the view by moonlight. “At least once, on a mission. He took me with him. It was one of my first times out.” It’s the most she’s told anyone about the Soldier, possibly ever, but Steve doesn’t know what she feels she owes to him. He doesn’t know what it signifies.

But something in her tone must betray how much it means, because the look Steve gives her is careful, measuring. “How old were you?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” she says, because she doesn’t. That’s something the Red Room took. “Young.”

It’s a happy memory, though, is the funny thing: what she remembers is not the ending, but the moments of freedom found in between times. Posing as young lovers, and pretending the cover was real. A kiss, stolen in the shadows of the Louvre. The way he held his hand out, incongruously courtly, to help her step over a pool of blood.

But there’s no way of knowing if that man exists anymore, or if he remembers her at all. She wonders what he remembers of Steve. The Red Room took his past away as surely as it took hers, but maybe they can get it back for him together.

She almost tells Steve, right there. There’s never going to be a way to break it to him gently, and now’s as good a time as any. But that’s when her phone rings, and the moment shatters.

She answers, and it’s a SHIELD flunky telling her the security feeds they’ve been watching have picked something up. There’s a former Red Room functionary living near the Sorbonne, and Natasha’s been hoping the Soldier will make a play for her soon. Tonight’s the night, apparently.

The slip through the nighttime streets, dressed in dark, loose clothing that lets them blend into the shadows and won’t look out of place. She’s always surprised at how quiet on his feet Steve can be, for someone so big.

The house, when they find it, has a second-story window hanging open, and a drainpipe that makes it climbable. Steve give her a boost halfway up to the window, and then starts climbing. She shimmies up the last few feet, and slips in the window, as silent as a shadow herself.

The room is an office, and it’s empty. Natasha steps cautiously into the hall, and holds up a hand to forestall Steve behind her. “Let me go first,” she murmurs, and steps toward the open bedroom door across the hall. She hears a whimper.

The woman is tied to a chair, and bleeding. If she hadn’t worked for the Red Room, once, Natasha might care about that. Her attention is reserved for the man standing over her with a knife.

“Hello,” she says, evenly. He spins and raises the knife in a black-gloved hand, and she ducks, deflects, twists away from his grasp. He moves back over to the woman in the chair, and holds the knife to her throat. In the pause while they both regroup, she gets her first good look at him.

He doesn’t look any older, but he looks a lot worse. He’s too pale, his hair long and unwashed, his eyes bruised. They widen with recognition. “Natalia?” he asks. “They sent you?”

“I came on my own,” she says. “I’ve been looking for you. They’re gone. There’s nothing left but splinters and the flunkies who got away, like her.” She nods her head at the woman in the chair, whose eyes are pleading. “Kill her if you want. They can’t hurt us anymore.”

“Oh,” he says. “That explains some things.” But he doesn’t lower the knife. “You’re a lot older.”

“And wiser, I hope,” she says. “I’m sorry about how things went, before. I’m here to help if I can.”

Behind her, she hears an indrawn breath, a tiny gasp. Before she has time to think more than a swear word, Steve is pushing past her into the room.

It’s no more than a whisper, and only Natasha is close enough to hear it. “Bucky,” says Steve, and the Winter Soldier’s face goes slack with surprise. He backs away from the woman, towards the window, as Steve advances. He still doesn’t lower the knife.

Natasha catches Steve’s arm, and the look that he turns on her would make a lesser woman cringe away. It’s a little shocking, to see such anger on his open, kind face.

“You knew,” he hisses, and she meets his gaze levelly.

“I suspected,” she answers, and looks back over at the Winter Soldier. At Bucky Barnes, who is studying Steve’s face. Something clicks in his expression, and now his eyes are wide with horror.

“No,” he says, “no. You can’t be here. Not you--” and he scrabbles towards the window. Steve reaches out to him, and is thrown back into Natasha with a blow that, she knows, should knock a normal man unconscious. By the time they are back on their feet, the window is open and the Winter Soldier is gone.

They give chase, leaving the woman tied to the chair. But the streets of Paris aren’t good for chasing, and they lose him to the night. Grey predawn light is staining the horizon when Natasha finally calls it.

“He’s gone, Steve. We’ll track him down again, but for now--”

Steve rounds on her, angry again. “We’re not giving up on him.”

“No,” she says, “we’re not. But we need to go about this the right way. He knows we’re looking for him now, and he knows how to disappear.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he demands.

“I wasn’t sure,” she answers. “Not completely. And I didn’t want to hurt you if it wasn’t true.”

“I don’t need protecting,” he snaps. “I need the truth. I need to know what happened to him.”

“I only know so much,” she says.

And then Steves deflates, goes plaintive, a little lost-looking. “Was it really-- how is it even possible?”

“I don’t know,” she says again. “I don’t know anything about his past. As far as I’m aware, neither does he.”

“But he recognized me,” Steve said. “He knew me. He must remember.”

“He might be getting some memories back,” she ventures, “but there’s no telling which ones. Or what his mental state is, right now.”

They turn back towards the hotel, miles away now. Steve walks in silence beside her for a little while, before he finally speaks.

“What are we telling SHIELD?”

“That’s a good question,” she says. “We’re not on the mission SHIELD thinks we’re on. Are we?”

Steve gives her a long, measuring look. “You never meant to kill him. Did you?”

“Not if it could be avoided,” she admits. “I was hoping he could be brought in from the cold. It’s worked before.” The fact that she would have killed him if she had to isn’t one that needs to be shared. She thinks that’s off the table now.

“If we tell them,” Steve says, considering, “we’d have SHIELD’s resources. He’d be easier to find.”

“But we don’t know if they’d agree to the change in mission,” she says. “I doubt they would, in fact. And they might put other agents on the trail.”

“Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, then,” Steve says. “We find him ourselves, and we bring him in.”

The trouble is, SHIELD’s resources really would be a lot of help, if they could only tell SHIELD what they know. Without using that information, they’re flying nearly blind, and Barnes isn’t leaving a convenient trail of bodies anymore. Natasha has her own resources, cultivated carefully over the years and rarely called upon, and she exhausts them, each and every one. It doesn’t get her as far as she’d hoped.

Steve, meanwhile, is exhausting himself. He has no distance at all. The mingled hope and fear she sees on his face every time they get a lead even makes her tired, so there’s no telling what it’s doing to him. She finds herself wanting to ease it for him, somehow, to reassure him that it’s going to be all right, but that’s foolish. There are no guarantees of that.

There is so little she can give him that would help. Everything she knows about the Soldier’s past would horrify Steve, break his heart a little further, and a pool of silence grows between them as the days pass. She’s not much of a talker by nature and training, is comfortable with holding her tongue, but she doesn’t think it comes as easily to Steve.

They’re riding a ferry together, on their way to see a source, and she’s looking at the lights of the Greek coast. The Winter Soldier-- Bucky Barnes-- might be on any one of half a dozen islands. Steve isn’t looking at the lights, or at anything but his own hands, which are restless in his lap.

Natasha says, “He was my first kiss, you know. The first that I remember, anyway.” He was her first for a lot of things, but most of them are not things that would make Steve look at her the way he’s looking now: sharp, but maybe relieved a little. Maybe grateful.

When he says “He was mine, too,” it’s not what she was expecting to hear, but it makes a few things slot into place. She doesn’t reply, just nods and watches the lights. Steve scoots a little closer to her on the bench-- it’s chilly, out on the water, with the sun down. It’s nice, having him pressed to her side. It’s nice, not being alone in this.

They find him on Corfu, holed up in an apartment that overlooks the sea. Natasha picks the lock silently, Steve standing over her with every muscle tense. When they move through the door, Barnes is already standing, facing them, a gun in each hand. He’s not wearing gloves, and Natasha hears Steve’s intake of breath when he sees the metal of Barnes’ left hand.

“What do you want?” he asks, his voice a little rough. “Why have you been following me?”

“It’s okay, Bucky,” Steve says, and Natasha can hear the effort he’s making to keep his voice soft. “We’re here to help.”

“We want you to come in,” she says, and the effort doesn’t show in her voice at all. “You don’t have to be alone anymore. We can help you.”

The sound Barnes makes is too ugly to be a laugh. “You can’t help me.” He’s backing away, towards the balcony. “You never could.”

He trains one gun on Natasha, and it’s only Steve tackling her out of the way that keeps a bullet out of her shoulder. When they sit up, Barnes has slipped over the balcony. Steve is bleeding from a shallow graze on his bicep.

“He tried to shoot you,” he says, disbelief plain on his face.

“He didn’t shoot to kill,” she says. “I’ll take it as progress.”

Barnes is gone within the hour-- Natasha finds someone down at the docks who saw him bribe his way onto a fishing boat.

Back at the safe house, she bandages Steve’s arm. It’s healing already. He watches her work, a steady level gaze, but she doesn’t meet his eyes until he says her name.

“Natasha,” he says, “his hand--”

“He had it when I knew him, too,” she said. “It’s the whole arm. He doesn’t know how he lost it.”

“I can guess,” Steve says. He looks-- guilty. It makes his shoulders hunch. He’s not good at making himself smaller, but he’s trying.

To her surprise, Natasha realizes she wants to kiss him. Has wanted to, maybe, for some time. She’s used to knowing herself better than this, but she thinks it’s been sneaking up on her for a while. It’s not about comfort, precisely, because she is in no position to offer that. But there are ties between them, and she wants to cinch them tighter.

So she reaches out and tips his chin up, and presses her mouth softly to his. He makes a surprised noise, but doesn’t pull away. He leans his forehead against hers when the kiss is over. “Natasha,” he says, “is this about--”

“Yes,” she says. “And no. Mostly it’s because I want to.” And that’s true enough for now.

They kiss for a long while, touching each other gently, experimentally. When clothes start to come off, Steve stills her hands on his belt, and meets her eyes. “I haven’t,” he says. “Since Bucky. With anyone, I mean.”

She kisses him again. “That’s all right,” she says. “I have, but I’ve had a lot more time.”

He’s a little clumsy at first, but he learns as quickly in this as he does in anything else. His hands find the spots that make her arch and moan; she rides him hard enough to make him swear. It’s good, better than she’s had in a long time. It means more than anything she’s had in a long time.

After, he sprawls across the bed, and she tucks herself neatly along his side. There is a comfortable silence. Finally, Steve says, “When we find him--” Not if, she notes. When.

“Yes?” she asks.

“When we find him-- it’ll change things.”

“Yes,” she says.

“Maybe not in bad ways, though,” Steve says. Natasha considers the possibilities.

“Maybe not,” she says.

It’s a week later that she gets the call from Clint. “So I hear you’re chasing ghosts with the Captain,” he begins conversationally. “How’s that going?

“It could be going better,” she admits. “We’ve run him down twice, but he doesn’t much want to be caught.”

“Well, I’d hurry up if I were you,” he says. “Before someone else gets to him first.”

Something cold uncoils in her stomach. “What have you heard?”

“Just rumors so far,” he tells her, “But the Ten Rings get pissy about losing cells, even the crappy ones. Word is, they want what they paid for.”

“Do they want to kill him, or reprogram him?” she asks. For Clint, she’s willing to let her voice show a little of herself, and she knows he hears the urgency.

“Sounds like they’re not picky. I’m guessing you don’t actually want him taken out?” Of course he knows her well enough to guess that.

“No. That’s not the plan.”

“How does the Captain feel about that?”

“He’s on board. We’ve both got skin in the game, but it’s-- complicated. You’ll get the whole story when it’s over.”

Now she can hear his concern. “Tasha, you want more backup? I’m in New York, I could be there by tonight.”

He can’t see her shake her head, but she does it. “No,” she says. “There’s no one better suited to bringing in the Soldier than Steve and me. For a lot of reasons.” She takes a breath. “Trust me.”

“All right,” he says immediately. “You know I do. Just-- try not to compromise yourself.”

“I’ll do my best,” she says, and hangs up, and goes to get Steve.

They shift their focus, after that. The Ten Rings has resources they don’t, and they’re a lot more likely to find Barnes than her and Steve alone. So she infiltrates a couple of compounds, leaves bugs in the right places, lets Steve intimidate a few of the right people. And they wait for the intel to come in.

When it does, they’re ready. The Ten Rings has found Barnes in East Berlin, and they arrive at the house as swiftly as they can. Steve is tense beside her as they get out of the car, and make their way up the steps.

Natasha knows they’re too late before they’re even in the door, which is half off its hinges. There are signs of struggle everywhere, smashed furniture, broken glass, bullet holes in the walls. Blood trails mark where the bodies have been dragged away, but the place is deserted.

“Did he get away?” Steve asks, as he takes in the scene.

“I doubt it,” Natasha says. “They sent a lot of people to take him down. We need to find out where they went.”

Ten Rings has a facility in a block of warehouses. From the outside, it looks abandoned, but as they watch from a nearby roof a van pulls up and disgorges a dozen heavily-armed men. They enter through a back door.

“Do we do this the easy way, or the hard way?” Natasha asks, watching Steve’s reactions. He’s gripping the edge of the roof so hard, the brick is crumbling a little.

He bares his teeth. It’s not a look she’s used to, on him. “I’m leaning towards the hard way. You?”

“Tell you what,” she says. “Let’s split the difference.”

So when the next van pulls up to the back door, Steve swings himself out of the shadows and starts throwing punches. Natasha watches from the roof for a moment, just to appreciate him in motion, before she leaps lightly onto the warehouse’s fire escape and slips into one of the broken windows.

Inside, it still looks abandoned, but she knows all the real activity is probably underground. As she watches from a catwalk, a door opens and more mercenaries tumble up from a flight of stairs, heading for the back door where Steve is making his presence known. She smiles to herself.

The lower levels of the facility are full of people and things: mercenaries and techs and scientists, rooms of supplies, weapons and lab equipment. Natasha slips from shadow to shadow, until she can steal a lab coat and pop the lenses from a pair of glasses, pin her hair up and start walking like she owns the place.

A soldier stops her as she’s turning a corner. “There’s a security alert, what are you doing on this level?” he asks roughly.

She widens her eyes, makes her body language unthreatening. “Oh! Sorry, sorry, I just needed--”

“Never mind,” he says, and gives her a shove in the direction of the nearest flight of stairs. “Get down to blue level with the rest of the eggheads.”

Blue level is occupied by fewer soldiers but a higher level of panic. Natasha moves from lab to lab now, listening for the sound of fighting, and is pleased to hear it getting closer. She finds a fuse box and sets merrily to to work, figuring that it can’t hurt to add to the general chaos.

Once the lights are out, she sheds her disguise and slips through the darkened labs, dispatching anyone unlucky enough to cross her path. Most of them don’t know anything useful, but at last she gets a man who wants to live enough, and when she asks him where they’re keeping the Winter Soldier he tells her. She knocks him out, and leaves the room at a run.

The sounds of fighting get louder and louder as she approaches what she hopes is the right lab. She swipes her stolen keycard, and the light turns green.

Barnes is strapped to a table inside. He’s semiconscious, muttering to himself, straining futilely at the straps. There are syringes and scalpels on a tray beside him, but they don’t look like many of them have been used yet.

Natasha steps towards him, and his eyes flicker open, trying to focus on her face. “Sergeant James-- James-- fuck, what’s my-- the 107th, don’t-- get back,” he finishes muzzily. “Get back. S’not safe.”

She leans over him and takes his good hand in hers, her touch gentle. “James. Bucky,” she says, and his eyes get a little clearer. “I’m going to get you out of here, okay? But I need you to trust me.” She starts working on the straps.

“Natalia?” he says, blinking at her. “How did you-- you told them. Why’d you tell them?”

He remembers that much, then. “You know why,” she says. “There wasn’t any choice, back then. But we have choices now.”

They look at each other, Natasha’s hands stilled. The fighting is outside the door. Bullets crack against it, and Bucky flinches violently.

“It’s all right,” she reassures him, and a moment later the door comes crashing in. Steve steps through the cloud of dust, a little the worse for wear, his hair mussed and his lip split. “We need to get out of here,” he says.

“I know,” Natasha replies, and gets back to working on the straps. Steve makes an impatient noise, and starts ripping them free one-handed. Bucky sits up, dazed, and says “Steve?”

“Hey, Bucky,” Steve says. “We gotta stop meeting like this, okay?”

“Okay,” Bucky says obediently, and lets Steve swing his good arm around his shoulders. The other arm hangs limp at his side, dead weight, unmoving. Deactivated, Natasha supposes. They’d have had to, to keep him restrained.

Getting out of the facility is a matter of following the trail of destruction Steve made getting in. By the time they get back to the door, Bucky is more alert, walking on his own with only a bit of a shuffle. He’s still hollow-eyed and much too pale, though, and swaying on his feet.

“We’ve got a car,” Natasha says, “and a safe house. Are you coming with us?”

“Of course he is,” Steve says, “he’s in no state--”

Natasha cuts him off. “This is his choice,” she tells them both. “Do you want to come in?”

He looks at Steve, considering, and then he meets her eyes. Paris was twenty years ago, for her, but in his eyes she can see it’s still fresh. His gaze flicks between them, back and forth, and finally he says. “Okay. Okay, yeah. I do.”

The safe house is in Switzerland, a safe distance from the destruction they left in Berlin. Bucky falls into an uneasy sleep there, his eyes flickering under closed lids, Steve keeping an anxious vigil beside the bed. Natasha calls Fury on his direct line.

“We’ve got the Winter Soldier,” she tells him. “He came willingly. But there are some complications.”

When she tells Fury the whole story, he swears under his breath. “Bucky Barnes,” he says. “That’s a hell of a thing.”

“He’s damaged,” she says, “but I don’t think Captain Rogers is going to let him stay that way. He could be an asset, if he recovers.”

“He could be a real danger, if he doesn’t,” Fury retorts, but she can hear grudging acceptance in his voice.

“Give us a few weeks,” she says. “We all need recovery time, especially him. I’ll report back when he’s ready to make contact with SHIELD.”

She goes back into the bedroom, and lies down on her side on the other bed, turned towards Bucky. “Are you going to sleep?” she asks Steve softly.

“Probably not,” he admits. “I’m afraid he’ll be gone when I wake up.”

“Wake me if you need to, then,” she says, and closes her eyes. Steve’s breathing is familiar, by now, and to her surprise so is Bucky’s even after all these years. She slips into sleep between one thought and the next.

In the morning, the other bed is empty, and so is the chair. She goes into the kitchen, where Steve is making breakfast and Bucky is looking at his plate like he doesn’t quite know what to do with it. He tenses visibly when she comes into the room, but she keeps her body language neutral, and he relaxes after a moment.

She sits down opposite him. “What do you remember?” she asks.

He hunches his shoulders. “A lot of things,” he says. “But not in the right order, and there’s still plenty missing. I know who I am, though. I know who Steve is. I know who you are.”

“That’s good. That’s a start,” Natasha says. “SHIELD will help with that, to the best of their ability.”

His gaze is sharp, assessing. “Is that what they did for you?”

“Yes. Among other things.”

“There’s good people there,” says Steve, and Bucky twists in his chair to consider him. “They want to help.”

“Yeah. Okay. That sounds-- good.” Bucky exhales a shaky breath. Steve puts more food on his plate.

Bucky sleeps a lot, that first week, as the bruises around his eyes dim and the hollow look leaves his face. When he’s not sleeping, he’s restless, antsy, unused to staying in one place and still on a hair-trigger. As bits of his programming fade or unravel, though, he starts to relax.

“It’s like I’m waking up,” he explains to them at one point. “From a long, bad dream. Except it all really happened.” Steve looks stricken, but Natasha understands.

“It was like that for me too, the first few months,” she says, and Bucky nods.

“I didn’t get this far along, last time,” he says, and Natasha sees Steve frown from the corner of her eye.

She and Steve sleep by turns, always sure to have one of them awake, and they don’t get a lot of chances to talk in private. One night, though, they’re both awake while Bucky sleeps in the next room, and Steve turns to her and asks, “What happened, with the two of you?”

“We have a history,” she answers, but Steve shakes his head.

“I know that,” he says. “But what happened?”

She doesn’t meet his eyes, but she does let her expression show her regret. “We were in Paris,” she says. “It was my first mission abroad. His programming started to break down, he started to remember things. He wanted to run. He asked me to run with him.” She looks down at her lap, at the slim clean hands that rest there, their history all hidden. “I reported him to our handlers. That was the last I saw of him, until now.”

“Oh,” says Steve. “That explains it. I’m sorry.”

“Why apologize to me?” she asks, curious. “I’m the one that betrayed him.”

“You didn’t have much of a choice, did you?” he asks. “You must have been so young. Both of you had all your choices taken away.”

The generosity of that astounds her, a little, that he can look at the bloody history she and Bucky have amassed between them and still see the people underneath it. It reminds her of why she wanted him, in the first place, and makes her want him again. She stands and crosses the room, slides into his lap and catches his mouth with her own. He pulls her in close, and tangles a hand in her hair.

They’re not kissing anymore when Bucky comes into the room, just sitting still entwined, her head resting on his chest. Steve looks up at him and smiles, the same wondering smile he has for his friend every time, like it’s still too good to be true. “Hey, Bucky,” he says.

“Oh,” Bucky says. “So you two--”

“Yes,” Natasha says. “It’s-- a recent development.”

“Turns out we have some things in common,” Steve says. “Or one thing, anyway. The most important thing.”

Bucky looks uncertain, like he doesn’t know whether he wants to step closer or run, poised like a deer on the edge of flight.

“C’mere,” Steve says, and Bucky pads towards them. Natasha peels herself off of Steve, and makes a space between them on the couch.

He settles himself cautiously, sitting back slowly before he turns to Steve. “The last time I remember doing this,” he says, “you were a lot smaller.”

Steve smiles. “That’s okay,” he says. “You’ll get the rest of it back eventually.” And he reaches out to cup Bucky’s face, and pulls him in for a kiss.

Natasha watches their mouths work, the naked hunger on Bucky’s face, the relief on Steve’s. Her hands are on his shoulders, her fingertips rubbing soothing circles into the spots where metal meets flesh. They haven’t figured out how to turn the arm back on, and it knocks against her knee when she shifts her weight.

When she touches the back of his neck, he pulls away from Steve and turns toward her. This kiss is as hungry as the first one, his mouth bruising on hers. She slings her arms around his neck, and feels Steve stroke a hand against the soft skin on the inside of her wrist. Bucky’s good hand combs through her hair, nails scratching at her scalp. It feels good, familiar, and Natasha leans into the touch.

They go into the bedroom, and Steve pushes the beds together. They move slowly at first, picking up speed and surety as they each become more confident in their touches. She and Steve bracket Bucky on the bed, touching and kissing, until he is limp and gasping. They sleep in a tangle, sweaty and sated, the first time all three of them have slept at once since they came here.

Natasha wakes up alone in the bed, a blanket tucked around her. She can hear voices coming from the next room, and a sound she can’t quite place. When she comes into the bathroom, she realizes that it is the snip-snip of scissors on Bucky’s hair. He is sitting on a chair, a towel around his shoulders, while Steve cuts away the shoulder-length tangle.

“He wanted a haircut,” Steve explains over his shoulder to her. “And I always used to do it when we lived together, before the war.”

“What do you think?” Bucky asks, as the Winter Soldier is shorn away.

“I like it,” Natasha says. “It’s a good look for you.”

Another week, and Bucky says he’s ready to go to New York. The SHIELD jet meets them on the airstrip outside Geneva, and when they walk up the ramp Clint is sitting in the pilot’s seat.

“Good to meet you,” he says, offering Bucky his hand. He looks over Bucky’s shoulder at Natasha, his gaze inquisitive but still kind. “I can’t say I’ve heard a lot about you, because Tasha’s not exactly the forthcoming type. But welcome aboard.”

“Thanks,” Bucky says, and glances at Steve and Natasha, as if for reassurance. She and Steve both smile at him, though Steve’s is rather broader than her own.

They strap into their seats, and Clint fires up the engines. Bucky is sitting between her and Steve, and she reaches over to put her hand on his knee. On his other side, Steve is holding his good hand.

“It’s going to be okay, Bucky,” Steve says.

“You sure about that?” Bucky asks, his gaze flicking from one of them to the other.

“I am,” she says, squeezing his knee as the ground drops away beneath them.

For the first time in a long time, she’s surprised to find that she’s being perfectly honest.