Length: 51 mins
"Natasha!" Steve shouts, and she turns, sees the rocket launcher and thinks 'fuck'. Steve whips his shield towards her, lightning fast, her arm extended to catch it. They'd done this in training, but she doubts Steve has thought to slow down for her reflexes. She focuses on the shield hurtling towards her, not the whirling melee of the fight around her, not Barnes on her 8 o'clock blunt force trauma-ing his way through fighters.
Her arm threads the needle easily, and then the shield's on her and she dives down, curling her body in behind it. The force of it landing on her has dislocated her shoulder; she heard the crackle and then pop, the characteristic lightness in her arm. The rocket hits the shield seconds later and she screams, the pain white-hot behind her eyes. No one hears it over the explosion. She rises, turning to throw the shield back to Steve, but, before she can, there's a guy coming at her side. Instinctively, she raises her arm and his staff comes down on the shield. Each hit is excruciating, the muscles in her shoulder and side burning with the pain. Defend, neutralise, eliminate, says training deep in her mind, and she leans hard on that. Defend, neutralise, eliminate. She feints in, twists in reaction to one of the target's swings, and step sideways, as if she's been knocked off balance. He falls for it and comes inside her reach, and, with her good arm, she grabs his wrist, breaks it easily, and snatches his staff. She smacks him in the neck, than the groin, and when he stumbles, she twists at the hip and kicks him in the centre of his chest, knocking him backwards. With any luck, she's broken his ribs and he'll stay down.
She's not as good at the angles as Steve is, but she dashes the shield off the floor back to Steve, and he doesn't even look at her twice, just snatches it from the air and drives it into the solar plexus of a humanoid robot.
Behind her, Barnes turns and shoots over her shoulder. She hears something fall, probably one of the robots if it made that much noise, but she ignores it to shoot three Hydra agents who were trying to gang up on his unaltered arm.
HYDRA laboratories are becoming less robots and more goons lately, although she can't tell if that's good or bad. Being in the field means she hasn't had access to analyst work recently, and the increase in human HYDRA operatives could indicate increased recruitment in response to the threat, or that the work agents had done in Europe targeting their funding meant they couldn't build robots any more. She hates relying on other analysts. They make mistakes.
Steve surfaces from a brief skirmish with a robot with extra arms, they usually let him take those, and shouts "Prep for extraction, we've got air support!"
She turns and jams her widow's bite against a guy's throat when he tries to take advantage of her distraction, but the crowd of fighters have started to thin out, especially since Barnes threw a grenade at a cluster of robots, which took a tree with it and a big chunk of the robot.
The sound of the jet becomes audible over the metal clank of Barnes punching through a robot and assorted groans. A guys makes a grab for her but he's been shot and he's not really up for it, so she kicks him, but not very hard. He falls back down easily. She winces. Even kicking not very hard made her shoulder twist funny, and it hurts like anything.
The shadow of the jet fills the packed-dirt bowl around the entrance to the HYDRA lab, and whoever's still moving scrambles to the edges. She refills the clip on her pistol idly; she's long been used to the way battles seem to end without any clear cause. Her internal clock, calibrated through the careful Red Room technique of continuous torture when she got it wrong, says they've been fighting for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, though it felt like much less than that. An hour barely makes Steve break a sweat, but an hour and a half is just short of her limit. She can manage about two hours flat out, three if the world is about to end, but she's not built for endurance. She's a spy, not a solider.
The quinjet sets down easily. It had been hell vetting former SHIELD employees for new missions. For one, Steve had been jumpy and suspicious of all of them, and insisted that Barnes vet every one of them, which had whittled down the team significantly. She hadn't trusted herself to vet them. She'd let Sharon Carter do it.
"Come on," Steve shouts, over the sound of the engines, and waves them towards the jet. Barnes squares his shoulders, the plates in his arm settling, and stalks over to the ramp. She checks their six, shoots one of the robots when it twitches suspiciously, and climbs onto the plane after, holding her arm carefully.
Steve claps Barnes on the shoulder when they board, and when he makes eye contact with her, she nods. Twisting so he can't see her shoulder, she slides onto one of the benches and lets Steve slip forward to direct the jet away from the site.
Across from her, Barnes hunkers down onto the bench, strapping into his flight vest. She feels his eyes on her, and wants to move away, but resists the urge. She's been looked at by worse men.
Strapping into her flight vest is difficult around her shoulder, and when she yanks at one of the straps, the urge to scream is nearly overwhelming. She feels every muscle in her body clench, and across from her Barnes shifts on the bench. She looks up, and his dark eyes are looking straight at her.
"Dislocated?" He says, looking at her shoulder. She nods. Her jaw has locked shut from the effort of not screaming and the muscles in her cheek are starting to twitch from the strain. Don't show weakness, she thinks, in the voice of her instructors.
Looking shiftily across the plane at Steve, who is still giving orders, he moves across to sit next to her. He lifts his hands up slowly, telegraphing his movements, and then puts both hands on her arm, his fingers curling carefully. His raises his eyebrows at her, almost to say 'let me?' She nods shortly, and turns to bite down on the flight strap of her uniform. There is a moment before he moves when she is looking away, and all she can feel is his hands on her arm, supportive but not forceful, and he could be anyone who has held her gently. She can count them all on one hand.
Slowly his grip becomes more insistent, and the white flowers of pain light up behind Natasha's eyelids, in her temples. Oh god, it hurts. She remembers Madame saying 'do not scream Natalia' as she brought the cane down on her feet. The strap in her mouth is thin enough that she can feel her teeth pressing through. He is working so slowly, too slowly, she wants to spit out the strap and curse him in Russian, tell him to hurry the hell up, but the pressure in her shoulder, in her head, is too much to think, too much to shout. Slowly, he rotates her joint back into place and the pain is horrible, but there's no sensation of wrongness in her shoulder. She tries her fingers experimentally, and her range of motion is back, the feeling through her arm returning. She spits out the strap and turns to look at him, maybe say thank you if she can bring herself to that, but he's already slid away, letting his hair fall over his face.
She tries, she really does try, to duck the medical screening after their quick debrief when they land, but even years of the Red Room, freelance, SHIELD, the Avengers and she still can't dodge Dr. Cho when she's set her mind to something.
"Why can't you clear Steve and Barnes first?" she gripes, but still hops onto the medical bench when Cho pushes at her gently.
"Because Steve and Bucky are superhumans who could wander around with rusty bar through their arm for days and be fine, but you'd keel over and probably get yourself killed from sepsis." Dr. Cho says without much sympathy.
Barnes ambles into the medbay and leans against the counters, waiting his turn. He nods at her, and she nods back, and then winces when Dr. Cho pokes at her arm.
"What did you do to this?" She says, lifting Natasha's arm. Natasha hisses when she feels her joint push against her pain limits.
"I caught Steve's shield," Natasha says back, and Cho makes a disapproving noise. She lowers Natasha's arm and turns to dig in a drawer, pulling out a bandage roll and ice pack. Barnes crosses his arms, meeting her eyes, and half his body blocking her path to the door makes her feel like she's being guarded. Is she? Dr. Cho strips her of her uniform jacket carefully, and wraps her shoulder once before holding an ice pack to it.
"Hold this, I'm gonna wrap it to you and you're gonna leave it there." Dr. Cho says, and Natasha holds the ice pack against her shoulder. "Next time you think about reducing your own damn shoulder, don't."
Natasha likes Dr. Cho, and her no-nonsense approach to treating superheros, the way she talks while she works. She's spent her fair share of time in medical labs treading a fine line between treatment and experimentation. Barnes has spent his unfair share of time. The cool of the ice pack makes her joint ache and her skin goose-pimple, making the smaller pains of her various cuts and bruises become more insistent.
She thinks Dr. Cho is talking to herself, but Barnes is staring at her. She can't see out the door, she left her weapons in the armory, all she's got is her boot knife and her belt chain. She runs her eyes over the terrain, judges the distances to the locked drawer where Dr. Cho keeps the scalpels, calculates her chances of breaking the lock in time. She's fast, but Barnes is faster, and she estimates she'd have three seconds before he'd have her in reach of that arm.
For a moment, as she calculates, cold in her tank top, everything around her seems far away, older. The tile floor looks like the one in the basement of the Red Room, with the blue accents, but the light had been greener. Her cover had been blown once, early on in her career, when she was sent to the Balkans for an assassination, and she'd limped home to the Red Room on a broken leg, her head wound unhealed, her programming shattered but pulling her ever forward towards Moscow. She'd arrived to the Room a mess and Madame had been so angry, enraged by the failure of her best daughter, her prized possession. The days that followed are a black sea in her mind, one of the few blank portions she's been unable to piece together, just pain and darkness, the tiles of the basement.
She feels her breathing speed up and she's about to dive for her boot knife, ready to go, her adrenaline spiking, when Dr. Cho puts her coat in her lap. Everything snaps back into place and the green sheen on the tiles in gone. She can see the door behind Barnes' shoulders, and he's still staring at her, arms crossed. He raises his eyebrows and she smiles thinly, willing her heartbeat to slow.
"You're fine," Dr. Cho says. "Keep ice on that shoulder until the swelling goes down and don't do anything mad until I clear you."
"Yes ma'm," Natasha says.
Barnes moves out of the way to let her out, but he watches her walk away. She can feel his eyes on her down the long corridor.
She makes boiled eggs one-handed at the kitchenette in her apartment and eats them with toast, and by then her ice pack's warmed up. She swaps it out for one of her own from the freezer and lies on her sofa under a blanket, feeling tired and cold, leaving sports playing on the television on quiet. She prefers to read in her downtime, or do work, but she knows better than to try to concentrate after a mission, so she watches a soccer game, and then a basketball game, only sort of paying attention. She dozes lightly, quick catnaps the only kind of sleep she can do after a mission, so she's awake when someone knocks on her door.
"JARVIS?" She asks, sitting up and cracking her neck where'd she slept oddly.
"Who's at the door?" JARVIS would have warned her if he'd identified a threat, but she trusts an analyst's instincts better than a clever box.
"Captain Rogers, Agent."
She hums in response.
"That's all JARVIS," she says, and the small light above the door blinks off. She's insisted she have a way of knowing when she was being monitored before she'd move in.
Steve is running a hand through his hair when she opens the door, sheepish looking.
"Hey Natasha," he says, and then stops, looking like he was going to say something else. She sighs. Steve couldn't do covert if he was undercover as himself.
"Come on in," she says, stepping out of the way of the door. "There's juice in the fridge if you want some."
She goes back to the sofa, and wriggles the ice pack out of the bandage wrap on her shoulder. It still hurts, but the swelling's gone down and it looks more normal now. The fridge opens and closes, and the sound of glasses and juice pouring sounds normal and boring.
Steve passes her the orange juice when he comes round the sofa, but she puts it on the floor untouched.
"It was a good fight," Steve says, draining his glass in one gulp. She tucks her feet up next ot her on the sofa, keeping herself on her side of the sofa.
"Yeah, it was fine." She agrees. Sometimes Steve'll come around after a mission, of the morning after, to look at intelligence with her and discuss their next target. She's got some folders on her desk, new intelligence from some old contacts she'd managed to shake out of cover, but she's tired, and half-asleep, and Steve's looking at her like he's got something to say.
"You hurt yourself when you got the shield," he says, and Natasha makes a face.
"Yeah, we've done it in training, it worked fine." She says, shrugging, although only with one shoulder.
"You dislocated your shoulder," Steve says seriously and Natasha smiles at him. His concern is sweet in a friend, although annoying in a team leader.
"Well, technically, you dislocated my shoulder." She points out and turns to lean against the sofa's arm and tuck her toes under Steve's thigh, where it's warm. He looks affronted.
"Hey, I didn't do it on purpose." He shoots back and she sticks her tongue out at him.
"Yeah, well I didn't get dislocated on purpose, so quit worrying." She says, wriggling her toes.
"I'm not worrying," Steve says defensively, but she just rolls her eyes. She picks the remote off the floor from where she'd left it and passes it to him.
"I'm gonna sleep, but you can choose the channel," She says, wriggling herself lie down on the sofa, her legs in Steve's lap. She closes her eyes for another catnap, and hears Steve switch over to nature documentaries before she falls into another doze.
She finishes her sleep cycle after about two more naps, waking up enough in between to check on Steve, sweep the entrances and fall back asleep. Steve's watching nature documentaries about penguins mostly, she thinks, though he's turned on the subtitles and the sound's off.
She wakes up later, easily rested. She doesn't need a full eight hours, and the naps give her what she needs without making her lethargic. She hasn't slept a full night in a very long time. Light's coming through her window, although very faint, so it must be a few hours short of full dawn. Steve's still awake, the television bright in the dark room.
"My watch," She says quietly, once she's fully awake. Steve might not be a spy, but he's alert, and he nods, not suprised she's awake. "You want the bed?" She asks, stretching her arms. Steve shakes his head.
"Sit up a bit, I'm okay here,"
She sits up, rotating her feet to stretch them, and taking the remote. Her shoulder hurts, but only dully now, and she'll ice it in the morning.
Steve's too big to lie on the sofa like she did, but he turns to put his head on her thigh, his legs hanging over the sofa arm. She restrains herself from petting his hair, from touching his mouth, the corners of his eyes. They've slept curled around each other before, under cover, too cold, needing to sleep near each other for protection. In the soft light, she can see the vulnerable parts of his neck, pressure points she could exploit. Even superheroes have vulnerabilities, and she knows how to exploit them, where she could press to immobilise him, hurt him, kill him.
She sighs and gently compartmentalises that thought. She'd told Steve it was her watch, and settles down to watch the light outside her window brighten through to dawn.
Steve leaves after the sun has fully risen. When he says goodbye, he touches the hair that falls forward from behind her ears and looks like he might be about to hug her, or maybe kiss her. She smiles blandly at him, and steps away, letting the moment end. She'd be bad for him.
He moves to walk away, but turns back to her, just looking over his shoulder.
"There's a dance hall, like before I froze." He says, with a kind of fake casualness she's willing to tolerate. "They have a dance tomorrow night, but I need a partner."
She chuckles quietly. Steve's direct and bad at lying, one a few of the things that would kill him in her profession, but he doesn't back down. That'll teach her to decide whether she'd be good for him without his permission.
"Sure, Steve. I'd like that."
He smiles unrealistically widely, which always makes her wonder if it was the serum or who Steve was before, to make him smile like that.
"I'll see you at 9? In the garage?"
"I'll be there."
Steve throws a few more looks over his shoulder as he leaves, and she tells herself that she isn't watching him walk away, she's observing, it's her job.
She's rested enough and bored, her shoulder already dull. Clint's is the Middle East, working, and Hill won't be awake until 08:00, so she's out of people to distract her. She wraps her hands while trying not to think about Clint's check-in schedule. He's trying to break-in a new handler, and if she keeps bursting in correcting her she'll never learn.
The gym is only the floor below Natasha's, and she ignores one of the security analysts, Jones might be her name, running laps on the track. There're punching bags hung over the padded training area but she restrains the urge to immediately roll into her sparring practice, sitting down to stretch, moving through push-ups and some yoga poses. Her shoulder is definitely weaker than it should be, and she tries to keep her weight off it, stretching the muscles around it.
She's taken more serious injuries in her stride easily, but she was younger then, so she tries to set it out of her mind, somewhere she can't think about it, and rolls onto the balls of her feet, shifting her weight back and forth, sizing up a punching bag. Her practice isn't designed to push her limits, just stretch her out and keep her limber. She spins a few times, mostly for effect and because sometimes she needs to be showy. She shakes out the burn in her arms and gets back to it, punching high and then low.
She ducks away and practices her tumbles, running through some flips and rolls, and when she surfaces, eyes scanning the gym, Barnes is beating up her punching bag furiously.
He pulls back when she steps over to him and holds up his hands. He almost looks sheepish.
"I wanted to get some practice in," he says, "Sorry."
"It's no problem," she say warily, stepping to keep him in her eyeline. She'd tried to do some research, discreetly, about his muscle requirements, to maintain balance with his arm, but he doesn't let doctors do anything more complicated than bandage him.
"Do you wanna spar? I know you took some hits yesterday." He asks, shifting his legs apart into a ready stance. Her instincts immediately tell her to disengage and find an extraction point quickly. Her other instincts, because layers of programming sometimes conflict, are telling her to information gather, to assess future threats and bide her time. He doesn't look dangerous, or out for blood. She always struggles to read him; she's never sure what's conditioning, what's genuine, what's fake and what's confusion.
"Sure," She says, and darts in. Using the punching bag to block his metal arm, she throws a kick around it and lands one on his side. He grunts and she feels the easy surge of victory, the knowledge she was faster and smarter, if only for a second. He falls back from the bag quickly. She'll not get another hit in like that, although she's willing to try again if it means not having to tee-off with that arm. She tries to circle around him, stepping up onto a gym bench to give her height. Not having the weight to threaten most targets is an asset in her business, since it means she's rarely seen as a risk, but it means she's had to learn different ways to leverage her skills in a fight.
Bucky seems to realise she's not delicate, or only interested in a fight without props. She's fought Steve without props for sport a few times, but if she actually had to fight either of them, without any of the ways she's learned to even the playing field, she'd lose every time. He goes for her knees, trying to knock her off balance, but she's faster than him, and she kicks downwards at his shoulder, landing a solid shove at the delicate point where the metal meets his shoulder. He falls back, but only a step, and forces her off the bench only seconds later, so she's moving backwards over ground she, stupidly, hadn't assessed earlier.
On the same footing as him, she's slower, lighter and shorter, and he keeps her on the back foot as well, dodging instead of attacking. He get a few hits in, her side when she misreads a feint, her leg when she kicks him. She tries to get some space between them, dodging for a weights rack, but she's too slow, or she telegraphed it too obviously, and his punch catches her in her bad shoulder, pain blooming dramatically behind her eyes.
She hears the click in her mind more than feels it, although she's always known that she's imagining the sound. It feels like pulling an elastic band too far and then releasing, everything snapping back into place forcefully. The worst part is always how easy it is, to feel the part of her built in the Red Room assert itself.
She ducks Barnes' next swing, he hasn't even noticed the change he's triggered, and she dives down and around him, coming up onto her feet behind him, her boot knife in hand. Every fibre of her training is screaming neutralise at her and she jumps for the back of his neck, throwing her legs over his shoulders. He gets his metal hand up in time and the knife just glances off. She hears her frustrated growl almost distantly, although the pain when Barnes pulls her down forcefully is more present.
"Agent Romonoff!" He says, and she sees his big eyes when she gets the knife up under his guard, against his neck. She doesn't answer to that name. He holds very still, which is good, that's how targets should behave, says her hindbrain.
"Natasha," he says quietly, and the elastic band snaps. It's anticlimatic but she blinks and then steps back, lowers the knife. She slips it back into the holster inside her boot, and looks at him. She's lost friends or colleagues like this before, hurt them or scared them and they'd refused to work with her. It's a weakness waiting to be exploited, something that she cannot control. Her asset is control.
"You're a Red Room asset." He says. It isn't a question; it's like he just noticed. She tilts her head at him.
"Yes. I was the Black Widow. You knew that."
"I'd heard that." He says, and she winces. It isn't fair of her to assume he remembers the same things she does. "You left?" he asks, stepping towards her, just quickly, and she steps back without meaning to. He stops. She smiles at him, showing her teeth.
"No. The Red Room ended. I survived."
He smiles in a way that she recognises from Steve, with eyes that don't change with the expression. He knows she's lying, but also that she can't tell him. She doesn't remember the point when the Black Widow decided to be Natasha Romonoff. She remembers Clint and his question, remembers coming in from the cold, but she doesn't remember the end of the Red Room, not really. She has memories, but she knows they aren't real. They feel like memories of distant dreams.
"Good fight," she says, backing up for a few steps before she turns her back. She's brought up short when she sees Steve leaning against the wall. He's just inside the door, like he's just stepped in, but she's no idea how long he's been there. He raises his eyebrows at her but she can't stand it, the weakness he might have seen, the failure to control he might know she has, and she walks past him, leaving him in the gym with Bucky.
She's trying not to lie to Steve. at least not with her words. She hasn't made him any promises, about what he wants, what she's not willing to give, but she doesn't want to lie to him. So, she goes to the garage at 9, and Steve's waiting there in his leather jacket, in old fashioned trousers and a button-up shirt. He looks good, scrubbed up, like you could take him home. She tried for low-key, a black dress and flats, a coat she doesn't like but makes her look normal. There's a knife duck-tapped to her side, high enough you can't see it under her skirt, low enough no one will feel it through the dress.
"You look good," she says to him, when he's close enough, and he blushes.
"Thanks. I thought we could take the subway?"
The subway is busy, and loud, but they talk softly to each other about friends (Tony, Maria, Sam's family), and weather (in New York, in South Africa) and Wanda's lessons (in English, Calculus and magic). When she walks through the door of the dance hall, she feels less like she's stepped back in time and more like she's stepped onto the set of a film. The floor of the dance hall is butter yellow, and everyone seems to be wearing khaki. Steve doesn't even wear khaki in uniform. She knows history that she's needed for missions, but she's never read it for pleasure. She doesn't know if the dresses are right, but the horrible sideways frown Steve is making is as good an indication as any.
He gladhands for a little bit, and Natasha watches, smiles at the right time, stays quiet. These people like him, the women with thick make-up and shiny, curled hair, the men with rows of straight white teeth. They have big smiles, and pretty eyes, and they seem happy and uncomplicated. This is their hobby, not their real life.
They don't talk a lot. Steve likes the dancing. He smiles easily, not his press smile, but the shy one that she likes, and his hands are big and warm. Not talking is nice. She likes the dancing too. Her body remembers being a good dancer, much more easily than she does.
Steve steps on her toes and it makes her laugh, and he laughs too, spinning her across the butter yellow floor. He steps on her toes three more times, and she laughs every time, although he starts blushing more by the third time.
Afterwards, he walks her out with an arm around her shoulder. She keeps smiling, expecting him to do something stupid like call her "his girl" or kiss her. There's a part of her that doesn't expect her to say no, or to step away, like she has before. Steve wnats to take her to places with smiling people who will remember her face, even after her watching sleep in periods of a few hours, waking up to check the perimeter.
The light of the streetlamp outside is a soft yellow, reflecting off the folds of Steve's hair. He looks younger than Natasha has ever seen him, open and innocent, his mouth just parted.
He is beautiful. Natasha still remembers the pain of the dances at the Bolshoi, but it had been worth it, pain she gave willingly to see the perfect turn of her leg, the form of her body in the mirror. Steve's beauty cuts her, but it is pain she gives willingly. It is worth it.
"I don't think I'll go back there," Steve says, without preamble, and Natasha nods. She can't see Steve playacting at the past forever.
"I don't want to become a ghost," he says earnestly, turning to walk down the street to the subway stop and she falls into step next to him. "I know it would be easier to hold the past closer, to live there, to do what they do - have the past be a better home than the present, but I don't want to turn into a ghost." He pauses, and she thinks these are the most words he's ever said, to her, to anyone, about being woken up. She opens her mouth to tell him that he never has to explain himself to her, but he presses on.
"I just want to live in the world, you know?" he asks seriously, looking across at her. The light rises and falls across his face as they walk, his face falling in and out of shadow.
She shakes her head.
"I don't live in the world, Steve." She says. "I watch it from the outside. I am a ghost."
"Not to me, you aren't." Steve says and he looks hurt. She smiles at him.
"James and I, we're both ghosts. It's in my nature and his too, now."
Steve stops and makes an aborted gesture, as if he was reaching for her hand. He looks stricken, worried.
"You don't have to be something you don't want to be." He says, and he seems to settle on a gesture, reaching his hands to hold her shoulders. He wants to shake her, she can see it in his eyes, but he is always so damn careful around her, around everyone.
"From each according to their abilities," she shoots back, and he frowns at her.
"You're not a socialist." He says, and she rolls her eyes.
"Of course not," she says. "I've been doing this longer than you have, Steve. I made my peace with the world." She has, really. There are times she is afraid, or when she cannot let go of her memories, but those are murmurs compared to the storm of becoming Natasha.
He sighs, and moves to take his hands away but she steps in closer, letting his hands fall around her to hold her close. She looks up at him, knows it looks good through her eyelashes.
"I made my peace with it, Steve." She says softly. "I have as much of the world as I want."
His arms are warm around her and, as she blinks slowly, he leans down to kiss her. She stands on her tiptoes to kiss him back, feels his arms tighten around her. She lets her hands rise to his neck, to hold him carefully as they kiss. It is warm and soft and amazing, gentle but insistent.
They break to catch a breath, and she's happy to see he isn't blushing, doesn't look embarrassed. She brushes a thumb over his cheek bone, just to touch his face. Out of the corner of her eye, something moves where it should not, and it is years of practice, instinct and regular beatings that stops her from flinching to look at it. She lifts up on her tiptoes to kiss Steve again, but this time when his eyes flick shut, she tries to glimpse, out of the corner of her eye, the target.
It should be impossible at this distance, but six impossible things happen to her before breakfast daily, and the red star of Barnes' arm sticks in her vision. She can see the window he's chosen, the curtain pulled slightly aside to free the muzzle of his gun.
For a moment, the sense memory is overwhelming and her instinct is to break the kiss, throw herself in front of Steve. It's phantom pain, she knows, but the scar on her side aches and burns. Why is he here? She wants to kick herself, for tempting fate, saying she was at peace with ghosts. Other people's ghosts don't stake out sniper positions.
Barnes must turn on the laser sight, because she sees it appear on the pavement across the street from them. She knows he doesn't need it. He could shoot with an eye closed and still judge the distance. The red dot jumps and swerves and then skirts around a garbage can and what the hell is he doing?
For a second, she nearly forgets she's kissing Steve, and the kiss slackens, Steve's eyelids flutter, and she pushes back into it, diving back into the kiss. Steve's a great kisser, but she's spent her whole life doing two things at once, minimum. The laser sight jumps again and then the gears fall into place. He's fucking with her. She nearly snorts into the kiss and then stops herself. A Soviet ice cube with a toy arm and a bad hair cut is following her on her date and messing with her with a laser scope.
Steve presses into the kiss and it distracts her enough that her eyes flick to him, to his closed eyes, the feeling of his lips against hers. Then, when she looks back, the gun muzzle is gone, the curtain pulled back over the window.
When the kiss breaks, Steve's eyes open and she realises he hasn't noticed. He's a soldier, not a spy. She smiles at him warmly, with genuine affection. She knows none of her worry or fear shows in her face, and she leans back to look up at him.
"Let's go home," she says gently, and he blushes at that, across his cheekbones. She likes that, the softness he still keeps, that it isn't an illusion.
She sees the laser sight appear a few more times on their walk to the subway stop, high up on a building behind them, or dancing in the footsteps of someone else walking near them. It makes her smile, seeing Bucky tracking them and the signs he's sending her, letting her know he's there. He's guarding them, she thinks, making sure they're safe on their date. She doesn't doubt for a second he'd do everything possible to protect Steve, and maybe, just maybe, she's now included in the small circle he protects.
Steve takes her out three more times, for dinner, for a drink, to the art museum, and she sees the laser sight each time. Bucky's letting her catch him. He wouldn't be this sloppy on another op, and they have two missions between dates where she watches his efficiency. He kills six child kidnappers after she radios in the state of the lab. She assassinates a HYDRA financial officer, and, although Steve broke the six robots she needed to pass to get to him, he always disapproves.
"You should try the new Serenka rifle scope," she says to Bucky, over dinner in the tower. Tony invites them to dinner sometimes, although she's finding she and Bucky have more and more to talk about. "It's got an excellent zoom, better than you or Steve's eyes, unless you've got a cybernetic one you've not told us about."
Bucky eats steadily, like he doesn't get pleasure from it but he doesn't hate it.
"I can neither confirm nor deny," he deadpans, making her laugh and Tony double-take from his conversation with Pepper and Steve. "I don't like the new Serenka, it's blind on the sides."
"It's a scope," she says, gesturing with her fork. "It's supposed to be blind on the sides."
"No, no," he says, "It's blind on my other eye, the casing pushes it to the side of the rifle. I can't judge it."
"Whatever, wonder boy. It works for me."
"You're a lousy sniper."
"I was top of my class!"
"Yeah, top of your class of girls." He says, rolling his eyes, and she sticks out her tongue at him. Steve is smiling fondly at the two of them bickering, which Pepper notices but Tony doesn't. She expects she'll be receiving some well-intentioned gifts from Pepper's staff soon, which she'll probably share with Bucky, who'll laugh, but not Steve, who'll be embarrassed but also want to thank Pepper.
Bucky's been insisting on terrain walks recently, since he learned how bad her knowledge of New York is. She wiped the floor with him in the intel quiz on Johannesburg, but he's gloating about remembering all of New York, and beating both her and Steve, and now forcing her on terrain walks around the tower. It's only a little pretense, she thinks, and she can't fault preparedness. After dinner, he badgers her out of the tower and they walk the two-block radius she's memorising.
"I was wondering if you'd take an assignment for me," he says, when she's identifying fire escapes on a residential building. She has to take two steps for every one of his, but she's used to it, with Steve now.
"What is it?" She asks.
He puts his hands in his pockets, and his posture looks a lot like Steve when he's embarrassed. She's never seen Bucky do that.
"Steve's gonna take me to the ball game," he says. "The baseball game."
"I know what you meant," she says, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. "What's the assignment? Does it clash with a mission?"
"I need another pair of eyes," he says, after a long pause. Another pause drags out while she rolls over that in her head. They make another block in the time.
"At the game," she says slowly. He nods.
"Can I borrow your laser sight?" She asks, on a hunch, and he nods again, watching her. She smiles at him. "Sounds like a deal."
They walk another two blocks, and he stops, on the street with the long view of the back of the tower. He stares at it for a while, and she waits for whatever it is he's working himself up to. She's good at waiting.
"How did you do it," he asks, still looking at the tower. "How did you keep going?"
She wants to tell him she doesn't understand, to mishear him, but the turning kaleidoscope of her memories makes another turn, and she sees Clint promising not to lie to her, not when she needed truths to hold onto. No lies then. She meets his eyes.
"I realised the world was a pretty shit place," she says and Barnes turns, making a face at her.
"That must have been really uplifting for you," he deadpans. She raises her hand.
"Don't interrupt," she says gently. "I said, the world was a pretty shit place. and I realised I'd played a big part in making it like that. But if I stopped, if I stopped moving, there was nothing I could do about it. If I died, the world stayed like that. If I lived, I could do something about it." She pauses and smiles at him. "Russia didn't raise quitters."
He smiles back, and it looks, to her trained eye, natural.
"Neither did Brooklyn," he says.
This is why she didn't become a sniper: having to be tied to steel girders for hours with only baseball to watch. She's not Russian any more, not really, and maybe's it's naive, but she'd always thought a world power could have invented better sports. Like ice hockey, or basketball. Sam says basketball is American, but she's not stupid, she knows it was invented by a Canadian.
She shifts slightly in position, although nothing's going to make it more comfortable. The stadium's shade cover's high enough and angled enough to be perfect vantage, but the beams are too thin to be a sniper nest, so she's had to tie herself to them.
Bucky and Steve are clear through the rifle scope. It's a Serenka, despite Bucky's complaining, and she can see them easily, Bucky eating a hot dog and Steve gesturing broadly. She's got no idea if someone if winning, or if it is possible to win at this ridiculous sport; she's refusing to learn on principle, but Steve looks happy and comfortable. Bucky looks up from Steve, straight down the scope, and she doesn't even have to turn on the laser sight, he knows she's there.