Natasha climbs through his window on a wet Wednesday night.
“I gave you keys,” Sam says, ignoring the way his heart shuddered in his chest when he first heard her moving – probably some deliberate telegraphing on her part so she wouldn’t startle him too much – and instead moving to put the coffee maker on. “You could use them, you know.”
Natasha rolls her eyes, fond but dismissive, and bends down to unlace her boots. Her hair is sodden, shorter than when he last saw her, and a knife clatters out of an ankle holster.
“Also,” Sam says, “I thought you were in Europe.”
That gets a smile from her, and she’s already a little softer than the woman he found a couple of minutes ago, crouched in the dark with glinting predatory eyes. Her socks seem the only part of her that’s stayed dry, and her feet look startlingly small on his carpeting.
Steve’s in New York, Sam’s pretty sure, arguing with Tony Stark about something or maybe tracking down another lead for them to chase, and Natasha is meant to be running around putting out fires. Instead, here she is, damp and quiet and gentler, somehow, lacking the urgency he’s come to associate with her. Maybe it’s just that their lives aren’t in danger right now, and even that’s starting to feel like a novelty.
Natasha sits upright, dignified, on his couch, until Sam hands her coffee and a towel, and her spine relaxes a little.
“Thanks,” she says, her voice rough, and Sam knows he’s trying to discreetly look her over for injuries but it’s not as discreet as he thinks it is, and she knows. “I’m fine,” she adds, and a year ago, if you’d told Sam that he’d be hanging out with superheroes, he’d have laughed in your face. He’d have said that he left that life behind him, and he wanted to help people now, but not that way. Not like that.
Now, he sits and sips his own coffee and watches Natasha drinking hers. “You sure you don’t need any bandaids?” he offers, keeping his voice light.
“I’m sure,” she says, and knocks his knee with hers, wet denim to his sweatpants.
Sam’s first aid box is better equipped than it used to be, too.
“I’ll take the couch,” he tells her, instead of asking questions. Natasha will avoid them neatly, brightly, and it’ll waste both of their time.
“I won’t be here long,” Natasha says, scrubbing at her wet hair, adding: “thank you”, almost low enough that it can be lost underneath her movements.
Sam leaves her the bedroom anyway, and when he wakes up in the morning the rain has stopped and she’s gone, his bed made, the towel folded neatly in the bathroom, the mugs washed up, like no one was ever there.
He rolls his eyes, and makes a mental note to take it up with her next time.
“This is Barton,” Natasha tells Sam.
“Hey,” Barton says from the floor.
Natasha’s cheek is grazed, and there’s a nasty slice across the shoulder of her uniform, and Barton’s conscious but he doesn’t look like he’s getting up anytime soon.
“I know him,” Sam says, “he’s the guy with the arrows.”
Barton makes a sound that might be a groan of pain, but might also be a ha. “You owe me ten bucks, Nat.”
“I’ll deduct it from the thousands you owe me by now,” she responds dryly, kneeling next to him. Sam takes his cue, bending on Barton’s other side so they can drag him up between them. There’s blood on the floor, now, but at least he doesn’t have a carpet in this room; he doesn’t want an accusatory stain left behind.
Barton grumbles incoherently as Natasha and Sam manhandle him into the bathroom and sit him down on the side of the tub, Natasha staying to steady him as Sam goes for his first aid box. He’s only been home maybe fifteen minutes, after a long day at work; he has a weird suspicion that Natasha has his schedule memorised, but he’s not going to specifically ask.
“We weren’t followed,” Natasha says, as Sam rips open a pack of antiseptic wipes and passes her some to clean her hands. “I ditched the car several blocks away.”
Sam isn’t sure how Natasha managed to get Barton to cover the distance unseen, and doesn’t really want to ask.
“Sure,” he says, “that’s what I’m worrying about right now.”
“It should be,” Natasha says, voice mild, stripping the remains of Barton’s shirt off and throwing them into the tub. Barton is dirty and bloody, eyes bright and unfocused, and he makes little hissing noises between his teeth as Natasha examines a nasty-looking gash across his ribs.
“Worry about pizza,” Barton says vaguely. “Order a lot of pizza.”
“You’re going to take some painkillers and sleep,” Natasha tells him, “not get my friends to buy you takeout.”
Barton makes an annoyed burbling noise, teeth visibly gritting as Natasha bends to clean up the wound. Sam concentrates on passing Natasha the medical supplies she needs, and stepping in to stop Barton from tipping backwards into the tub from time to time. Even in a moment like this, it’s clear to see there’s something practiced in both of their movements, like this is nothing new, something they’ve done too many times before.
Natasha gets Barton cleaned up, makes him swallow some of the painkillers Sam keeps that are technically a little stronger than most over the counter pharmaceuticals, and carries him off to tip him onto Sam’s bed, still muttering to himself, still asking for pizza, while Natasha rolls fond, frustrated eyes.
“I’ll find another DC safehouse,” Natasha promises, afterwards, as Sam wipes antiseptic over the cuts on her face. She doesn’t flinch.
“You don’t have to,” he says.
Natasha’s eyes are shuttered, but as he sticks gauze over her cheek, her expression softens into something quietly grateful. Sam’s learning her expressions, her tells; he suspects even a lifetime of study couldn’t reveal them all.
“We can still order pizza, you know,” he tells her.
“Clint’s asleep,” she replies.
“So?” Sam asks, and her grin is sweet and wicked.
In the morning, Barton eats cold pizza and grumbles at them, and Natasha teases him with half-details of something that happened in Rio once, and Sam no longer wonders how his life came to this.
“You got any details you’re not telling us?” Sam asks Natasha.
It’s not an unreasonable question; there’s something in her expression that perpetually suggests she has the keys to the world, if you can provide the locks.
Natasha doesn’t blink, which is one of the many reasons Sam doesn’t play poker with her, and wouldn’t, even if Clint hadn’t warned him against it before a pissed Maria Hill turned up with a car to take them both away.
Sam’s just returned from another week in Europe, with Steve’s happy determined veneer slipping a little more with every day they spent together. Sam’s tired, a kind of bone-deep exhaustion, some of which belongs to him, some of which he’s carrying for Steve.
“It’s killing him,” Sam adds.
Natasha came in through his front door for once, a calm figure in jeans and a shirt, drinking his coffee – a much more expensive blend than Sam ever buys appeared in his kitchen at one point – and clearly awaiting news, even though she’s pretending otherwise. That, more than anything else, tells Sam that this means more to her than she’s letting on.
“Have you considered that maybe you shouldn’t find him?” she asks in the end, not looking at him.
Sam dips his head, kneads his eyes for a long moment. “Of course,” he says. “Of course I have. But Steve hasn’t, and… hell, if Captain America wants to find a guy, then you help him find him.”
“Because Captain America can’t be wrong?” Natasha asks, amusement threaded in her voice, though her eyes are serious.
Sam thinks about watching Captain America cartoons as a kid, that red white and blue symbol with his shield and his helmet and his jawline. Steve’s a man, one who Sam’s seen bleed, seen cry, seen staring lost and dejected at another dead end. But Captain America… that name means something, and Sam’s willing to follow that.
“Because he only got out of that helicarrier crash because Bucky, or the Winter Soldier, who whoever the hell is in there, got him out,” Sam responds. “And, hell, I’ve got people I’d follow to the end of the world, and so do you.”
He watches Natasha open her mouth to lie, watches her close it again, and is grateful for the show of respect that that is.
She doesn’t fidget, doesn’t shift, doesn’t twitch, but she doesn’t look at him when she says: “I worked with the Russians for a long time.”
“I know,” Sam says, careful, treading on eggshells.
Natasha sighs, shoulders dropping. “He tried to escape a couple of times,” she admits finally. “I mean, he wasn’t Bucky then, he was just this confused guy with a metal arm and a desire to be far away from the people slamming him in cryostasis, and he was pretty bad at running.”
“And you brought him back?” Sam asks after a while, when Natasha doesn’t move, doesn’t say anything, and the silence strains between them.
“And I brought him back,” she admits, quiet, but firm. Owning up to it. Sam’s pretty sure she hasn’t mentioned this to Steve, but he doesn’t blame her. “He won’t remember,” she adds. “He didn’t know who I was; he didn’t know who he was. And the last time I ran into him, there was nothing in those eyes, and he shot me, and I don’t blame him.”
Natasha’s owning up to her sins these days, brazening it out as SHIELD’s intelligence hits the rest of the world, and Sam’s impressed; most people would be cowed by public admission of what they’ve done, with a past like Natasha’s.
“So you know somewhere he might run to?” Sam says, and Natasha’s head flicks up. When she smiles it’s cracked, sheepish.
“I can think of a couple of places,” she allows. “If you’re sure about this.”
“Are you afraid that he’ll hurt us, or afraid that we’ll bring him back with us?” Sam asks.
“Yeah,” Natasha says, and laughs, loose and tired. “That.”
She shakes her head, hair skimming her cheeks, and Sam thinks vaguely that he should probably be scared of her, just a little, but he isn’t.