"I made a mistake," Natasha says, when she gets off the plane. She isn't looking at Steve, but straight at Clint, and he nods. He knows what those words mean. She'd said that to him on the day she came in, after Clint had offered her a chance. It meant 'I picked the wrong side.' It meant 'Sorry'.
Clint nods. He doesn't need anything else to forgive her.
"It's alright," he says, "It happens."
He turns and walks away from the landing-strip, back towards the Wakandan palace. She lets her eyes skate over his gait, checking for injuries. He looks okay, operational, and it settles something between her shoulders. Steve is like a mountain, looking at her with his arms crossed. She meets his eyes, thinks of a joke, and then says nothing.
"Thank you," he says eventually, and she nearly flinches. She hadn't expected that. It's her instincts that save her at the last moment, and she blinks back at him. "For letting me go, letting us go."
"You weren't going to stop," she says. He nods and unfolds his arms, something satisfied. She has a feeling she's passed some kind of test and feels adrift. Steve doesn't set tests. Even when he hadn't trusted her, he'd never set traps for her to fall into, lies to catch herself in.
"You wanna come inside? T'challa's got a pretty great setup." He says, gesturing back to the palace. Its clean, futurist lines jut out over the promontory, and other, connected buildings twist back, hidden behind trees or mist at points, to form a snaking semi-circle around the flat land of the landing site. She looks behind her, at the jet she'd commandeered. Technically, she stole it. Tony owed her.
"Well, I guess I can't take that back." She says, raising an eyebrow at Steve. He snorts, nearly a laugh, and she feels accomplished. They fall into step alongside each other.
"You planning on staying?" Steve asks, looking over at her. The rhythm felt familiar; she had to take two steps for every one of his and he looked like he always did, confident, centered and ridiculously, unnecessarily beautiful.
"Do you want me to stay?" Natasha shoots back. "I signed the Accords, they might come looking for me." They might not. You never knew, with Tony. She knows she'd picked a good time to leave, Tony's hands full with Rhodey's recovery and Pym Tech giving him hell over the beating Lang took; Vision and Thor in Asgard figuring through his powers; that damn kid back wherever Tony had found him. It had been her best chance, and she'd made the call. Maybe Tony was right about her.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Steve says, "If you want a place on the team, you've got it."
"Team?" She asks, "You're planning ops?"
Steve shrugs, his wide shoulders rolling.
"If there's work to be done, we can do it."
She smiles. Steve knows what he's doing.
"I didn't come just to apologise," she says. "I like being useful."
"Tony not put you to use?"
"Tony doesn't understand my skillset," she says, which she feels is pretty diplomatic for how she's feeling about Tony right now.
They stop before the wide glass door to the building complex and Steve turns to her, reaching to hold her shoulder.
"I'm glad you came," he says. "I think you can help."
Natasha has done intelligence work all over the world. She has assets in every major business centre, and experience in every continent, including an excrutiatingly boring assisnation in Antarctica. But she's never been to Wakanda before. They'd side-stepped neutralism in the later years of the Cold War while she'd be an active asset, and she's never been commissioned by them after that. They had their own security operation and didn't interact with private assets.
The buildings are beautiful, the ceilings sweeping away from the walls in wide, high, graceful curves. The people, who walk by without looking at Steve, as if he was now a common sight, are tall, dressed in modern fine lines.
She's impressed, and struggling to hide it, which is a sign of degrees, if nothing else.
T'challa has allocated Steve a section of the royal compound, including access to the medical quarter. Steve sets her up with her own room in a long white corridor of other rooms, Wanda's dark eyes peering out from one of the doorways. Natasha waves at her when Steve's back is turned, though Wanda's expression doesn't change.
"I'll speak to T'challa when I see him in the morning," Steve says, holding the door open to her new room. She has some things in the quinjet, although she left most of her things behind. There are clothes in neutral colours hanging in one of the closets, a towel on the end of the bed. It could have been any safe room she'd hunkered in before, although cleaner and lighter.
"I don't know if you'll need to," she says back to Steve. "Wakanda air control let me land, so he'll know I'm here." She pulls back the light brown curtain to look out over the jungle treetops. It's certainly impressive, although it fills her with the familiar dread of knowing she has no way out. She'll find one eventually. She always does.
Steve makes the slightly cross-eyed face he makes when she's suggests something he thinks is unsportsmanlike.
"I don't want him think we're sneaking around." He says.
"Sneaking around is my job," Natasha says back to him, raising an eyebrow. He crosses his arm but he looks amused.
"Yeah well, keep it in your pants for a little bit."
Natasha wakes in the middle of the night for no reason. No noise or light or twitch of a curtain, she just wakes up, her jaw cramping from the effort of holding it closed. She knows not to scream. She massages the corner where her jaw meets her neck until the cramp subsides and then moves her bottom jaw back and forth.
She's been waking up this way since she was a child. She doesn't remember when it started, although she doesn't remember a lot of things from her childhood, so it doesn't bother her much. Her room is cast in dark shadows, but after a moment, she adjusts and it falls into focus
She dresses in the clothes from the closet without turning on the lights, letting her eyes stay adjusted. It's unnaturally quiet, but she can hear the faint hum of machines in the distance. The hallway are so damn white, and she grumbles to herself as she moves down them, following the sound of the humming. She knows someone's watching - she clocked the hidden cameras in the alcoves when Steve walked her in - but she likes to keep herself in the game, so she ducks into a few of the blind spots before she slides through the door into the medical compound.
It's very white, enough that it stands out in the already incredibly white building, and the whole place is humming loudly. She can see enough vibranium on one shelf to make her rich for life many times over and, although her medical technology briefings are a few years old now, she can identify a few of the more advanced pieces in the lab.
She ducks past what looks like the blood lab, and the lab opens up into a lighter room, with large sky windows. The crycochamber set in the middle is almost noiseless compared to the hum of machinery around it, and Barnes, his eyes closed, could be asleep.
Natasha stares at the cryochamber for a long time. Without his arm, his hair washed and pushed back from his face, he looks peaceful, quiet. Her memories of him are in jagged pieces, pushed together but not contiguous, and she shakes her head to clear them. She remembers the shot, the bullet entering her and leaving and the sound of the asset behind her choking. But that wasn't it, the other memories, the Red Room, the other girls. He had been there, she thinks. She can't be sure, she can never be sure, but she remembers his face, the flesh-and-blood hand reaching for her, his voice in Russian saying "Try again Natalia" and then it was gone, the memory over.
She watches him for another hour, sitting on the padded bench across from the chamber. She can imagine Steve sitting there for hours, watching Bucky sleep, although she hopes Sam has kept him away.
The weak morning light is just peeking through the high windows when she hears footsteps behind her. They're T'Challa's gait and weight, though she suspects he's being polite if he's letting her hear his approach. She shifts slightly, so that the knife strapped to her side is accessible, but keeps her face blank.
"I did not think I would find you here," T'Challa says, standing to the right of her. He settles into a neutral stance, his hands behind his back.
"Here?" Natasha asks, nodding towards Bucky. "Or in Wakanda?"
T'challa meets her gaze with a strong, solid stare.
"I understand why the Captain has come here, and why the others followed. I did not expect you to follow."
"I have red in my ledger," she says, because it has always calmed her, to focus on the debts to be paid, the accounting of her life. "I'd like to wipe it out."
"Was that your help, after the death of my father? A debt?" He asks. She shakes her head.
"I'm sorry I couldn't get you your revenge." She says, keeping her eyes on Bucky. She hears his pause, and his sigh.
"Revenge is for sons. I am a king now."
She nods, although she thinks she understands that he stands alone in that. She'll never have his responsibilites
"Agent Romonoff," he says, turning towards her. "I hope you will understand that I do not intend to offend you, but I must ask: are you a threat to Wakanda?"
She clenches her teeth, but she can't protest. He has a right to ask.
"I won't bring anything here intentionally, but I have enemies. I can't make guarantees."
He nods, more calm than she expected.
"I understand, but I will be clear now, Agent Romonoff. Wakanda does not turn away those who are fleeing pain and need protection, but I will not tolerate those that place my people and my nation in danger recklessly."
She can feel a headache building behind her right temple. She'll be tired soon, when her body clock decides her current mission is over. She'll need to speak to Sam, and Wanda, and brief Lang if she has time before she crashes. Clint will wait till she's ready. She looks up at T'challa, aching to press a hand to her temple.
"I am not a threat to Wakanda, as far as I am aware."
For others, adding "as far as I'm aware" would mean nothing. It's just something you say. T'challa understands, she thinks, or hopes anyway, that it means she cannot always remember if she is a threat, what orders she's been given. T'challa nods.
Silently and unnervingly smoothly, one of the tall, striking women who seem to be T'challa's bodyguards and assistants steps into the room.
"Excuse me," he says, inclining his head and stepping away to speak in hushed tones. She doesn't listen in on purpose, as a courtesy. When he steps back to her, and the assistant leaves, his expression is an odd one of consternation and amusement.
"It seems you and Captain Rogers have a guest arriving at my private runway," he says.
The plane is PymTech, which means it's distinctive, with a thin yellow stripe down the black body, but not nearly as ostentatious as a Stark plane. At least the quinjet was designed for stealth. T'challa's assistants or bodyguards, Natasha's still figuring out which, had got Steve, and someone had said something to the other not-Avengers, who had followed him out to the runway. She watches Scott Lang actually fall over twice getting out the plane, which she hopes is from excitement and not a regular occurrence. His file hadn't been particularly illuminating.
She keeps back from the small crowd until she can fall into step with Clint.
"You know anything about this?" He asks her, quietly. He's keeping Wanda in his sightline the whole time, which is new. She'll ask him about it later.
"No idea," she says. "PymTech were giving Tony hell about Lang being missing when I left, but I thought it was corporate."
Clint's nervous without his bow, she can see it in the way he keeps clenching his fists.
"Scott knows the PymTech people," Sam says, sliding in on her other side. "He says this is fine."
"You trust him?" She asks, and then regrets it when Sam raises his eyebrows at her.
"He came through for us," he says, and then steps away again. Clint looks at her evenly, waiting to see a reaction. She restrains herself from snapping at him. She does not like being tested.
"I deserved that," she says instead. Clint shrugs.
When the plane doors open, T'challa and Steve have an odd moment where both of them want to be at the front, but neither of them wants to step in front of the other, and Natasha nearly laughs out loud. She sees Wanda snort to herself.
Hope van Dyne would be recognisable even if Natasha hadn't read PymTech's sizable security file. She's put together in a very sleek kind of way, and looks serenely prepared, even though she must know there's at least six long range rifles focused on her from the nearby palace.
"Your majesty," she says, when she reaches T'challa. The assistant following her bows slightly, but she doesn't move.
"Miss van Dyne," T'challa says evenly, his voice betraying no question. She guesses kings don't really feel they have to ask questions.
"I apologise for the intrusion," she says, through a well-practiced easy smile "but I have a proposal for Captain Rogers, and he's a rather hard man to pin down at the moment."
"A financial proposal?" Steve says skeptically, crossing his arms, after Hope explains to the team inside.
"Yes," Hope says, and her assistants puts down thick files on the table between her and Steve. Scott seems to be having a hard time choosing between sitting next to Hope or Steve, and the other team members have arranged themselves loosely behind Steve, Sam with his arms crossed directly behind him, Clint leaning against the wall, bored. Natasha's aimed for neutral ground, in line with the table.
"You need financial support in order to commit to legitimate operations within any reasonable timeframe," Hope says, after Steve continues to look at her skeptically. "And while international charity may be maintaining you currently, it is hardly sustainable."
"You seem very up to date," Same says humourlessly, looking at Lang, who at least has the good grace to blush.
Hope frowns, but only momentarily. She's good, well-trained, and not put off by the sheer power in the room, and while she's falling into the easy trap Steve left her, doing all the talking while Steve listens, Natasha thinks that's on purpose. She can see Steve mellowing.
"It is a very good deal," Hope says, directing it at Steve. "Financial and technological support, relocation services to give safe, legal residence to your team and family members," only Natasha and Clint are fast enough to catch the quick glance to Clint, but it's only meant for them, before Hope presses on, "a legal liability shield from some of the best lawyers in the world, and medical care and research for your specific needs."
"Sounds expensive," Wanda says, and Clint must have given her a sign Natasha doesn't know, because she's letting a bright energy burst roll over her fingers and arms, and doing her best to look especially scary. Not knowing the sign makes Natasha's heart clench, but it doesn't seem to perturb Hope.
"I assure you, PymTech can afford it. Our calculus here is not profit."
"And that this'll be sticking one to Stark Industries? That doesn't feature in your calculus?" Steve asks, finally weighing in. Hope smiles crookedly.
"Captain Rogers, I won't deny that's an added benefit I'll enjoy. But PymTech has some penance to make, I think." She leans back in her seat and opens her hands before her. "PymTech has let the technology that should have been helping and protecting people be used against them. It made the company a lot of money, and I'd like to use that money to right some of those wrongs."
"What kind of control are you looking for?" He asks, and Natasha sees the glint in his eyes. This is the bit-between-his-teeth Steve, who knows how to get what he wants through sheer stubbornness. Hope smiles.
"Virtually none, Captain. We'd like to use our security analyst operation to forward specific cases or escalating situations to the team, but you and the command structure you appoint will have final say over all missions, and a veto would not endanger ongoing funding."
"I'll admit I like the sound of that, ma'am. But you'll understand if we're a bit jumpy."
The first sign Natasha sees of Hope having a stake in the negotiation is a quick glance at Lang, something like concern in the look. Lang looks at her like she hangs the stars, but Natasha's instinct would have said puppy love, not reciprocity.
"I believe I do understand, Captain Rogers. I flew out personally for a reason. PymTech wants this. I want this."
"Can you give us some time?"
Hope pushes the files across the tables towards him.
"Take all the time you need." She says, and leaves with her assistant. Something relaxes in the room with her gone, and Natasha makes quick eye contact with Steve. She's got a question, but she doesn't want to ask out loud to stay. Steve nods, almost imperceptibly, and she lets out a breath she didn't realise she was holding. She can stay.
Three days later, the medical staff wake Bucky up to run tests, and Steve asks her to be there.
"You said you knew him," Steve says to her, and Natasha frowns, watching the medical staff reverse the cryo process.
"That was a long time ago, Steve. A different lifetime." She says, but she doesn't know if she means it. Bucky, the Winter Solider, present again in her life, it makes that lifetime feel a lot closer.
Steve talks to Bucky for a while, alone aside from the Wakanda medical staff checking his heart rate, measuring his brain waves with hand-held scanners. She can see them through a gap in the white curtain, the way they lean in towards each other while they speak. There's a pause while Steve is speaking, and then she sees him point to her. Bucky looks up and she makes real eye contact with the Winter Soldier for the first time in a long time.
He's tense when she walks closer, although less of a fight response, and more flight, she thinks. His body language has always been hard for her, even the few memories of him she has confuse her.
"I know you," he says, when she's close enough. She nods.
"We knew each other, a long time ago," She says, not wanting to lead him anywhere. Few of the memories they are likely to share are pleasant.
"Nadya?" He says. "No, Natasha?"
Steve practically glows, but she restrains herself to a nod.
"I was the Black Widow," she says. Something like recognition flickers in his eyes.
"The Red Room made the Black Widow," he says, and then glances, almost nervously, at Steve. She grimaces.
"I was the Black Widow. I'm just Natasha now." But he still looks nervous, so she smiles at Steve. "Maybe give us a little space?" She asks. Steve looks hurt, but he nods, and, with a parting smile at Bucky, steps out of the curtain and keeps going, until he's even out of his earshot.
"You were from the Red Room though," he says again, "I'm not wrong."
"No, you're not." She says gently, pulling over a chair to sit in. "I was an asset for them for nine years, after you left."
He makes a thoughtful face, clearly thinking through the years.
"I remember leaving the Red Room," he says slowly. "Your class, it had graduated?"
"Not much after that, I guess?" She asks. He shakes his head.
"Bits and pieces. I remember older things easier - the war, living in New York."
"I don't know whether to say that's lucky or not," she says, bracing her elbows on her knees. "Most of us don't remember before the Red Room at all."
"Red Room assets. The teachers thought of you as a prototype, of sorts, I guess. Some of the conditioning was very similar to yours." She says, inspecting her fingernails, almost ashamed. Maybe the conditioning was similar, but the process, the product, both were different. There had never been another person to take out of her and replace. She'd only been a child. When she'd fought free, there hadn't been someone else hiding in her, that she'd needed to find, just a blank slate to be built on. In some ways, that seemed easier to her.
"The other girls, they got out?" He asks. She remembers that, she thinks, him being kind. The other instructors were cruel or disinterested, but he had been different, like them.
"Some of them," she says quietly. "Not many."
"Karina?" He asks. At least she can answer that. The memory of his metal arm around a girl's shoulders, not hers, an older girl, and her own voice, spiteful, thinking 'Karina always was his favorite'
"Karina killed herself in '03," Nat says. He tips his head, raises his eyebrows. She grimaces and looks over her shoulder, sees Steve closer than he had been before, his concerned face,
"They tripped her kill switch," she says, in Russian this time, to save Steve from hearing it. It has been bloody. Nat had seen what happened when someone's kill switch came on before. They'd done it to a wash out, to prove it wasn't just a threat. At least Karina had a weapon on her; she still remembered the girl clawing at her own throat until someone threw her a knife, out of mercy or boredom. That memory, at least, they had left intact.
"Quickly?" He asks, and she knows what he means. She nods. Karina had killed six agents and then herself, but it had been quick.
He shrugs, as if to say 'well, there's that'.
"They didn't trip yours?" he asks. She nods.
His eyebrows shoot straight up.
"How'd you do it?" He asks, and she wants to say it was easy, or that she had wanted it enough. She wants to say that they had come for her and she'd looked them in the eye and told them to go to hell. He was so hopeful.
"Clint hit me in the head until I went down." She says. She can only remember flashes of it. Her hands on Clint's throat, an arrow knocking the knife from her hand, pressure in her head building and building, the feeling of her ears popping, and then, nothing. Bucky snorts.
"Well, if it's effective," he says, and she smiles at him. It was a good sign, she guessed, if he could see the humour. For a moment, a long pause stretches out in front of them but then he shrugs, and stands.
"How much will I remember, do you think?" He asks, walking towards Steve. She falls into step next to him, and restrains herself from shrugging.
"You know it doesn't matter," she says gently, and he nods, just once.
She probably should have stolen a bigger quinjet, she thinks, looking around. It wasn't intended for team missions, but until PymTech finishes supplying them, it's what she's got. Clint co-pilots, because Steve likes to pretend he could fly a plane, even though his one experience is getting turned into an icicle, and she very reasonably don't trust him. Wanda and Lang are small enough, but Bucky and Steve take up one whole side of the personnel area, and Sam's gonna start complaining in earnest soon.
It's a good problem to have, not enough room for team mates, she thinks, navigating to the coordinates Hope sent them. It's good to be back at work.