The text reads, "Remember that time at Fort Meade? We should do that again."
There are two people in the world right then who know how to reach Natasha, and one of them is in an underwater prison. Natasha types back, "Yeah, good times."
Steve texts back a set of coordinates, and from there it's a matter of three hours to reach him, another twenty-four for Bucky, Steve, and her to put together a jailbreak plan. There's a few hours of waiting, after that, since they need for certain satellites to be in exact position, and that's definitely the worst part.
They're all jumpy, ready to go, and Steve's shit at self-containment in a lot of ways. Bucky watches him pace for a while before forcing him into some card game Natasha's never even heard of. Natasha, for her part, reads newspapers, gathers intelligence, tries to put some kind of plan in place for after their little group of fugitives is safe and tucked away in Wakanda.
Her mind skips around. She's tired. Maybe it's soft, but she's gotten used to having the others at her back, and having to go dark again has been exhausting. She's trying to skim an article on uninhabited islands when she hears Steve say, "Hey," and realizes he's talking to her.
She glances up, dredging up a quirk of her lips for him. He returns it with that look he's got, the one she hates and loves in equal measure, the one that tells her he's got her number. On almost anyone else, she wouldn't allow it. "Hey."
"Wanna get some sleep?"
"We've got watch," Bucky says, and there's something in the tone, in the way he meets her eyes that makes her think he remembers, he does. She almost presses—he's clearly in pain, tired, and still scared, whether of himself or something else, scared—but in the end the truth just isn't that important, not yet. Not now.
She says, "Thanks. I'll give it a shot."
She doesn't sleep, not really, but she closes her eyes and breathes, and never once worries that someone will be able to get to her while she's not looking.
Then they move, on to where Wanda is, Natasha's hands steady as she undoes the collar, but only because there is no other option. Freed from the jacket, Wanda stumbles into Clint's side, and Clint catches her, says, "You're good, we're all good."
Bucky finds the darkest, smallest corner of the jet and does his best to disappear. Steve, unsurprisingly, budges up against him, providing a buffer between him and everyone else. Sam settles himself in a seat near to them, posture casual, but Natasha isn't fooled. Anyone who wants to bother the wonder twins is going to have to go through him.
Wanda perches on the edge of one of the chairs, her posture too tense for shaking, but Natasha can practically smell the way the small space is eating at her. It's somewhere to start, something to concentrate on that's not the fact that, except for Rhodey, Tony's on his own back at the compound. Natasha misses the days when anger was a friend, easy to hold onto and fortifying. She misses the time when she could have held a grudge. Mostly, she misses when she hadn't known how to read Tony, all his myriad fears and insecurities.
She hauls Wanda up and puts her in the co-pilot seat. Wanda opens her mouth to ask, "What?" but Natasha shakes her head once and buckles her in. She says, "Keep Clint company."
Clint raises an eyebrow at Natasha, so she raises one right back. Then she goes and challenges Sam to a no-holds barred game of gin rummy.
It's hard, almost impossible, to sit still, to let these strangers touch him, gather on his left side when he has no ability to defend himself. Steve stands across from him, though, solid, immoveable, his eyes on everything. Sam is also there, unusually quiet, off to the side, but more than close enough to come to Bucky's aid, should he need to.
Natasha is also there. Her presence is at once soothing and like an itch he cannot scratch. He knows her. He has almost killed her twice, once with his arm, once with a gun. He has killed through her once. None of these memories are the ones that pull at the edge of his mind. There is something missing, something important.
Every victim lives in him. Howard perhaps more vividly, his mumbled, desperate Sergeant Barnes, his pleas for his wife. But all of them. She is not his victim, at least not in death. Something tells him it might be something worse, something he doesn't want to know.
He has to know.
Eventually, the scientists decide they've done what they can. The pain is still intense in its own way, but pain is…familiar, if not comfortable. Besides, Bucky knows what has to be done. He might fear the ice, its dark, dreamless depths, but nowhere near the way he fears the traps in his own mind.
If nothing else, there is no pain in the ice. It is safe, or the nearest thing he knows. He's desperate for a little safety.
"Seriously, put some ice on your face, take a few painkillers and get nine or so solid hours of sleep. Then you can get back to being his support system, but let someone else handle it for a bit."
Sam looks over at Steve again, then sighs, clearly giving in. He tugs Natasha into a one-armed hug and says, "Yeah okay. You do your thing."
She squeezes back and then lets go, watches him until he's out of the room. Then she takes a deep breath and goes to pull Steve away from the cryo-chamber. He startles when she comes into his space and she puts her hands up. "Just me."
"Sorry, I—" He seems to deflate. "Sorry."
"C'mon," she says, folding one hand in his. He resists for a moment, his gaze still on the chamber. Then he visibly gathers himself and allows himself to be led from the room. She asks, "When was the last time you ate?"
"Uh," he says, and his brow wrinkles.
She rolls her eyes. "Okay."
She detours to the rooms they've put Clint in, because the first thing Clint had done after arriving was make food for himself and Wanda, who didn't look like she'd been eating while locked up. When Natasha knocks and Clint lets her in, Wanda's nowhere to be seen. Clint says, "Nat. Hey, Cap."
"Clint," Steve says.
"You have leftover food?" Natasha asks.
Clint stands back, muttering, "Do I have leftover food, she asks."
Clint's method of cooking involves simple ingredients and large portions. Natasha's pretty sure he picked up most of it in group homes and the circus. It's never gourmet, but it's always filling, and yeah, there's always leftovers.
There's an island in the kitchen area, and Natasha half-pushes, half-guides Steve onto one of the stools at it. She digs into the refrigerator, where there's a few Tupperware of what looks to be meat lasagna. She pulls it out as Steve asks Clint, "Where's Wanda?"
"Checking out the terrain. She needed to be outside for a bit. Or, you know, maybe a couple of days."
"How's she doing?" Steve asks quietly.
Clint catches Natasha's eye and they share a mental wince at how rough he sounds. Clint says, "She's fine, Cap. At least, she will be. Give her a day or so. But this isn't on you. And making it about you takes agency that she's fought pretty hard to have from her, so, you know, don't."
There's a few moments of tense silence, nothing but the hum of the microwave, and then Steve gives a small, only slightly broken laugh and says, helplessly, "She's a kid."
"In a way," Clint agrees. "But also not. None of us, not you, not Nat, and not me, none of us were still kids at her age. We might want to spare her what we went through. And we can, a little, by being here. But there are a lot of ways in which she's not a child. Hasn't been one for a long time. And it does her no good for us not to respect that."
The microwave dings, and Natasha puts the Tupperware between Steve and herself, handing him a fork. He digs in with the sort of focused gusto he has with food, and things are silent for a bit. When Steve is slowing down, Clint says, "You look tired. You both do."
Steve says, "It's been a long…" He shakes his head. "Yeah, I could use some sleep."
"Why don't you guys stay here," Clint says. "I was just going to do some stretching, hang around."
Natasha hears the wait for Wanda to come back he doesn't say. She also hears the way the offer's not really casual. He wants them where he can see them. Steve starts to shake his head, so she intercepts and says, "Sounds good."
Steve looks between them. Something must give Clint away, because Steve nods and says, "Yeah, all right, thanks."
When Natasha follows him, and tucks herself around him in the bed, he asks, "Nat?"
"Suck it up, buttercup," she mumbles, sleepy and calmed by his heartbeat. "None of us is letting you be alone until you make us."
His hand spreads over much of the breadth of her back. "Oh. Well. That's okay, then."