Contrary to what she expected, Natasha likes Steve. He’s not what she expected. The propaganda of her youth painted him in no favorable terms, and as an adult she’s cynical of anything people in power insist is good and noble. But Steve is both, and smart as well. He doesn’t speak her language as fluently as Clint does, but they understand each other. They were both forged in war. They talk about it often, or rather Steve talks and Natasha listens, an arrangement that suits them. Steve has burdens to unload, that’s part of it, but he knows that she won’t judge him when sometimes he takes obvious pleasure in his war stories. It’s the prerogative of soldiers to long for their darkest days. “It wasn’t fun,” he always hastens to add when his guilt compels him. “Things were just simpler. I knew I was doing good work and I was doing it with good people.”
(“And now you have us,” Natasha joked once and Steve tripped over himself to assure her that no, no, he didn’t mean that, the Avengers were all heroes, the work they were doing was tremendously important, et cetera, et cetera. She had just sighed and told him to drop it. Her sense of humor is perpetually unappreciated.)
One afternoon, Steve sits next to her on the library’s couch, a book clutched in his hands. She regards him evenly over the top of her own novel and waits for him to speak. “I found this,” Steve says simply and holds out a photograph—soft and faded, dead men smiling up at her in sepia. “The Howling Commandos.” Steve’s voice is as wistful as if he were murmuring a lost lover’s name. The look of loss on his face is too intimate for her so she turns her eyes to the photograph again and freezes with terror at what she sees.
Steve, his attention seventy years in the past, doesn’t notice; Natasha collects herself before he can. When he looks back at her, her face is placid as ever. This is the advantage of so often being silent: People don't expect many words at inopportune moments.She sits up and takes the photo delicately by the edge. “Who’s who?” she asks calmly.
With a small smile, Steve points at a man in the back with an impressive mustache and a bowler hat. “That’s Dum Dum waving back there.” His finger slides. “That’s Monty. That’s Gabe. And Jim. And Jacques.” He hesitates before he taps the last smiling face, the one she already has a name for. “And that’s Bucky.”
Here, in his group of friends with the rest of his life stretching out in front of him, he’s a benign looking devil. Carefree. Open. That’s not the face she knows. She’d seen him once before, just once, though his reputation preceded him. The Winter Soldier, the whispers call him, a bogeyman to bogeymen. Don’t be too bad, little assassins, or the Winter Soldier will come for you. They’re siblings in a way—the Black Widow, the Winter Soldier. The same hands sculpted them.
The night of her defection, at the port where she waited for SHIELD’s promised rendezvous, he had come for her. The fight was short; she lost. She was blind with her own blood and stupid from a cracked skull when he grabbed her by the throat with his metal arm. It flashed like lightning in the darkness as she scrambled for purchase on the ground, her feet slipping on her blood. Darkness bit at the edges of her vision as her struggles grew weaker and weaker. She was dying. For the first time since her childhood, Natasha felt terror.
The last thing I will see, she had thought, are these eyes. Cruel and cold, they looked like her own, and she wondered how many people had feared her as she feared him.
She’d survived by luck, by skill, by a hidden archer who had lied about leaving her alone. The Winter Soldier had left her for dead under Clint’s fire, and the Winter Soldier had been right. Clint told her that when he made it to her side, she wasn’t breathing. Her heart had stopped. But she was stubborn and SHIELD wasn’t giving up its hard-won prize so easily. They brought her back to life and then claimed it for their own.
Natasha holds the picture out and Steve takes it reverently. “You’re right,” she says. Steve gives her a questioning look. “They look like good men.”
Steve smiles the sad little smile he thinks they are all too futuristic to understand and tucks the picture carefully back into his book—a history of the Vietnam War. What science fiction it all must seem. “They were. I miss them. I’d give anything to see them again.”
What is better, she wonders—half of what you want or nothing at all? “Maybe you will,” she says carefully. Steve stares at her. Natasha cocks her head to the side and looks away. “Who knows what happened to them?” she says to the opposite wall.
“They died,” Steve replies, bluntly, quietly, almost kindly. Like he’s pitying her for believing the dead come back.
What can she say to that? Many things. She chooses none of them. Kindness locks her jaw shut. Kindness and fear because she can pretend that she’s sparing Steve’s feeling, but the truth is Natasha has no intention of confronting her nightmare man. So she just opens her book and settles back into the couch. “Thank you for showing that,” she says.
Steve knocks her knee with his. “Thanks for listening. You’re—you’re a good friend, Natasha.”
Her smile is tightlipped, her hands tensed. Steve doesn’t notice. He never does. He claps her on the shoulder as he stands. “I’ll let you get back to your book,” he says and walks away and Natasha is left there on the couch, huddled into its corner, her lips pressed resolutely shut.