The courtyard at the center of the office complex is silent as James and Natasha skirt around the edges of it, little puffs of mist betraying their breaths in the morning chill, the sky beginning to lighten in the east, purpling hazily at the horizon. An unexpected time for the sort of work that they're doing, but then, that's rather the point.
This is a one-man op, and they both know it, routine intelligence gathering at a security consulting firm. This is also the latest of the director's tests for James, all attempts to ascertain his readiness, to gauge whether or not he is going to snap and kill them all. Natasha's stated role is support and facilitation, but she is here to keep an eye on James, to ensure that he does what he is supposed to do.
Fury will likely never trust James Barnes, no matter that Natasha will vouch for him, no matter that he is Captain America's childhood friend, the famous Bucky. It is what it is, the grim reality that remains unspoken.
On point, James keys into the building, Natasha on his heels. They enter a dim hallway, lit at extended intervals by pale security lights, and move silently over the dark tile and down two flights of stairs, following the path plotted out on the blueprints Hill provided. Another keypad secures a heavy door at the second basement level, along with a guard who has a needle of sedative in the side of his neck before he even realizes that the door has opened. Catching him as he goes limp, James drags the guard into the nearest room, propping him gently against a metal filing cabinet and closing the door to hide him from sight.
"Let's go," James says quietly to Natasha, pocketing the spent syringe and starting down the hallway toward their target.
SHIELD intel stated that this is the extent of security in this facility on a holiday weekend; no one else is expected on premises. It is a surprise then, to hear the distinct sound of sneakers on tile echoing from around a blind corner at the end of the long hallway. Natasha's focus narrows; she sees James' shoulders go tense.
There is an unmarked door to their right; they both reach for the handle at the same time. Natasha darts inside, taking in the shelves full of neatly stacked boxes - simple storage - in the half-second before James joins her and pulls the door closed silently behind them.
Dark, pitch dark, not even enough light seeping around the door for Natasha's eyes to adjust, but she's been at worse disadvantages under far worse circumstances. There is barely enough space for the two of them here, her back pressed up against the shelves and her left arm against the wall. At her other side, James faces the back of the closet, the front of his shoulder against the front of hers, the lengths of their bodies pressed flush together in the limited space. His body is warm, even through layers of fabric, his breath ghosting over her face when he turns his ear to the door to listen. Natasha ignores the heat that curls in her chest.
His fingers slide over hers, tapping three times against her palm. They'll wait. She taps back twice, yes, and then drops his hand. Outside the door, the wearer of the sneakers - male, average build, dragging his feet in a lazy shuffle - passes and moves out of earshot. A moment later, the door at the base of the stairs closes with a heavy thump. Natasha allows herself to relax slightly.
In all likelihood it is a secretary or an intern sent to fetch something for a boss, a minor threat that could have been eliminated but is easier to wait out. James has always known how to bide his time; that was true when she first knew him. And this, this stillness, this waiting, is one of the things she remembers vividly. His warm, solid presence at her side, the way that they unconsciously synchronize their breathing.
She remembers other things from before. How he was the only man who had ever treated her like anything other than a tool. How he would look at her when he was particularly pleased with something she had done. How he would speak to her when he knew no one was listening. How he would touch her.
Natasha shakes herself mentally, narrowing her focus to her immediate surroundings: sharp shelf edges pressing into her back, the darkness, James standing in the silence beside her.
She remembers this, too. For all of the things that are different about him now, his attitude on an op is the same, the preternatural focus that makes him so incredibly effective, and that makes it even more important for her to remember that he isn't the man that she knew before.
James isn't the man that Natasha loved when she was a child.
His body is nearly the same though, and her memories of the things that he can do with it are betraying her with each breath she takes. Each inhalation causes her breast brushes against his arm, that small point of friction raising goosebumps over her skin. She catches the scent of his shampoo, clean and unremarkable, mixing with hints of leather and gun oil and something that is just him, and that is the same too, and if she lets it, it will all drive her to distraction.
Unacceptable. Distractions get people killed.
Closing her eyes and wetting her lips, Natasha acknowledges her growing arousal - she refuses to call it anything but what it is inside her own head - and then pushes it away for later, ordering herself to focus on the job instead of the extraneous details. When both her nerves and her heart rate are steady, she opens her eyes to stare into the darkness as she waits.
Fifteen minutes. James keeps them in the closet for fifteen minutes before sliding the tips of his fingers over the back of her hand, signaling her and sending a jolt across her nerves. Tapping back twice, Natasha steadies herself, narrowing her eyes slightly against the light when James pushes the door open and steps out in front of her.
It takes fewer than ten minutes to complete the mission, and then they are back out in the damp morning, a thumb drive full of encrypted files tucked into James' pocket and Natasha's head buzzing with thoughts she can't yet allow herself to think.
Her dress is black because sometimes it is easier to give in to the expectations, paired with gorgeous red stilettos, an unnecessarily extravagant gift from Pepper on her last birthday. She dabs perfume behind her ears and on her wrists, and she limits herself to only two weapons hidden on her person.
She feels restless in her skin, but it's easy enough to treat the party like part of a deep cover op. Playing herself but friendlier, politely interested in inane chatter, and not at all distracted by thoughts of a former Soviet assassin. It's imperfect but works well enough. She avoids meeting Clint's eyes when he presses a drink into her hand, letting herself get caught up in a conversation about birds in Central Park; he knows her too well and she doesn't want to have this conversation with him tonight. He will ask too many questions, and she doesn't have any answers to give.
Since she and Steve brought James in, she has been asking herself all of those same questions. It's been weeks, but she hasn't been able to find answers for herself either. It isn't just that she isn't entirely sure who James is now - whether he is Steve's Bucky or her James or the Winter Soldier who isn't of this time. Natasha doesn't know exactly who James was when she knew him before, what exactly he meant to who she was.
And she has no idea what he could mean to her now.
However, in all of that mess of unknowns, there is a certainty, one thing made clear by the morning's op: She wants him.
Everything was simpler when just wanting something was enough, she thinks, swallowing back the last of her drink.
And so she pretends that she isn't imagining heavy hands on her hips when she is posing for pictures with attention-seeking socialites, that she isn't thinking of broad shoulders and hot skin when she accepts another drink from Bruce, that she isn't desperate to just get out when she's listening to yet another backhanded, useless speech.
Coulson finds her when she's lingering near the bar, avoiding being drawn into any more inane conversations. He smiles at her, gesturing for the bartender. "I hear this morning went well."
He hasn't yet been reinstated for active duty, but clearly Fury or Hill has been keeping him in the loop; Natasha disapproves and lets it show on her face. "Well enough."
"And James?" Natasha raises an eyebrow. "You're still working well together?"
"Well enough," she repeats evenly.
He nods, turning to take his drink and thank the bartender. And even though he isn't back at work yet, Natasha knows that he knows everything; he's read the files and seen the reports, and he knows her well enough to have filled in all of the pieces that she left out. Sipping his drink, he turns back to her.
"Don't you have somewhere to be?" She blinks, inscrutable even as Coulson watches knowingly, one corner of his mouth ticking up slightly. "I'll make your excuses."
He cuts her off, "Good night, Natasha," just this side of dismissive.
Phil Coulson is infuriatingly, wonderfully perceptive.
Laying a hand on his chest, right over his new scar, she leans in to kiss his cheek. "Good night, Phil."
She is close enough to feel the heat of his body before he acknowledges her, just a sideways glance and a hint of a smirk as she leans back against the counter beside him, her shoulder brushing up against his, an imitation of how they were pressed together in the closet this morning. His eyes flicker over her body once, and then all of his attention seems to return to rinsing the mug in his hand.
Natasha knows better. His breathing changes subtly, his body shifting marginally closer to hers.
And when she lays her hand on his arm, her fingers grazing over the inside of his elbow, he drops the mug with a clatter of ceramic on stainless steel and pins her against the counter with his hips so he can kiss her.
They have each lived lifetimes since they were last together this way, but his hand in her hair is familiar, the slide of their lips desperate and perfect, just like she remembers. Deep and messy, he licks into her mouth, tongue curling against hers and then tracing behind her teeth, setting her nerves tingling like only he ever could.
"All fucking day," he mutters, dragging his teeth over the hinge of her jaw. He nips at her earlobe and groans when she jerks against him. "Natasha."
Natasha catches his wrists in her hands and pushes, switching their positions so he's against the counter, caught between her and the marble, his hands pressed flat against the surface. Groaning again, he tips his head back, exposing his throat for her mouth. His pulse beats staccato under her lips, and he struggles against her grip when she closes her teeth around the tendon straining at the side of his neck.
He moves without warning, pushing himself up to sit on the edge of the counter, pulling his hands from hers to bury them in her hair, tipping her head back to kiss the breath from her lungs. James has one foot hooked behind her knee, the insides of his thighs pressed against her waist, but she doesn't feel trapped as his metal hand trails down the skin of her back left bare by her dress.
And it's good, it's so good, something she has never allowed herself to think of missing, but, oh, she has.
She fists her hands in the sides of his tee shirt, pushing up, forcing him to take his hands off of her so she can pull it up over his head. She drops it on the counter at his side and lets her hands fall to his chest, sliding over muscle and scars, tracing the lines of his clavicles to his shoulders, skimming past the seam where his metal arm connects to his body. His hand is curved around the side of her neck, his thumb stroking against the soft skin just behind her ear.
She takes a step away from him, reaching around her back for her zipper, lowering it slowly and rolling her shoulders forward to let the dress slide down her body to pool on the floor at her feet.
James' feet hit the floor without a sound, and then he is wrapping an arm around her waist as he turns, lifting her with him so they're both sitting on the counter, her legs framing his hips, knees against his ribs. "You," he begins, but he says nothing else, watching his hands as he skims them over her thighs, thumb sliding across the sensitive spot at the inside of her knee that she'd all but forgotten about.
"James," she breathes, arching mindlessly toward him.
"I thought..." He leans forward to kiss her, his metal hand coming to rest at the small of her back. "Never," he mumbles against her mouth, teeth scraping against her lower lip. "Fuck, Natasha."
She pushes her tongue into his mouth to save him, to shut him up before he manages to say too much, but he's guiding her onto her back before she can take control. There is something uncomfortably hard beneath her shoulder blade and his fingers hooked into the sides of her panties and his teeth against her pulse point, and Natasha wants to let him do whatever it is he has a mind to do.
The way he bites at her hipbone makes his intention perfectly clear.
It's almost embarrassing how close she already is when James leans in and curls his tongue around her clit. She gasps, hips jerking hard before he lays a heavy arm over them, keeping her still beneath him. He drives her up fast and hard, sucking mercilessly at her clit and pumping two fingers inside of her. Natasha buries her hands in his hair to keep him close, her hips rolling in the scant room that he gives her to move, and she comes when he crooks his fingers forward on the slow drag out of her body, tongue fluttering against her. It draws a low, breathless sound from her chest, and one of her stilettos clatters to the floor when her toes curl.
He gentles her through it, tongue tracing lightly until she shies away. He is smirking wickedly when she opens her eyes, lips shining with her, eyes gleaming dark. Natasha swears under her breath, pushing herself upright and dragging him forward by his hair into a deep, filthy kiss, licking the taste of herself from his mouth and biting at his lips.
"Bed," she finally manages, the word muffled against his mouth.
James chuckles darkly, dipping his head to mouth along her collarbone until she shoves at his chest. "Impatient."
Natasha suppresses a snort, leaving her other shoe behind when she slips down from the counter. She moves toward his bedroom without hesitating, reaching behind her back to unclasp her bra.
It's barely hit the floor before she hears James moving behind her.
His bed is large but not obscenely so, made up neatly with a dark, simple duvet and white linens. The pillows, however, are oversized and look soft, their decadent appearance at odds with the utility of the rest.
Natasha doesn't dwell, preferring instead to close her eyes and enjoy James' lips skimming over the back of her neck.
"I thought about this," she admits quietly, fingers flexing at her sides when his teeth tease lightly across her shoulder. "Stuck in meetings with Hill and Fury, and then that fucking dinner, and all I wanted..." She trails off, not quite willing to put it into words.
James hums, pressing close against her back so that she feels the vibrations travel through her body, his hands skimming up her ribs to cup her breasts, conflicting sensations making her shiver.
"It was like before," she whispers, so quiet that he might not even hear. Because it wasn't really like before, not at all.
His left hand slides down to curve around her hip, the tips of his fingers pressing in just hard enough to begin to hurt. "Natalia," he murmurs, lips against her ear. "Natasha."
She sucks in a breath and turns in his arms, kissing him hard and grabbing at his belt, opening the buckle as she drags him back toward the bed. "Off," she orders, scraping her fingernails along his skin just above the waistband of his jeans. He makes a low noise, dropping his pants and kicking them aside, then pausing to stroke his cock and watch her.
Natasha pushes him onto his back as soon as he follows her onto the bed, pinning his wrists and straddling his hips, wasting no time grinding down on him, slick against his stomach, tormenting them both. He lets her hold him, but surges up to capture her mouth, sucking on her lower lip, biting at its fullness until her hips roll and make them both groan.
James pulls himself free when her grip goes lax, one hand falling to her hip while the other comes to rest between her breasts, thumb teasing at one nipple. He leans forward to take the other into his mouth, and Natasha stops thinking, just closes her eyes and lets the sensations wash over her, her hips rocking slowly and James' mouth doing wicked, beautiful things.
"James," she finally murmurs, opening her eyes and finding him staring up at her. "James, I want--" She loses her words when his teeth close around her nipple, her head dropping back until his hand in her hair guides it forward again.
"Take it," he says.
She is flushed all over, sweating, burning up. His cock is hard and heavy when she takes it in hand, stroking slowly, sliding her palm over the tip to hear his ragged groan. His eyes fall closed when she lifts up, using her hand to guide him inside as she lowers herself slowly.
"Christ," he chokes when she begins rocking her hips, an easy, teasing rhythm that sends frissons of heat all through her body. His hands never stop moving, sliding up from her hips to cup her breasts, curling around the back of her neck to draw her down for a kiss, weaving their fingers together to give her something to clutch at when she begins to move faster, harder.
"Touch me," she orders, placing his hand, warm, living flesh, where she wants it.
James is obedient, and his fingers clever, two sliding on either side of her nerves, perfect pressure and friction, and Natasha falls apart around him, dropping her head forward and keening softly, hips stuttering against his.
After a long moment, James rolls her beneath him, propping himself up on one elbow and pushing her hair off of her sweaty forehead. He kisses her, wet and messy and nearly frantic. "Fuck, Nat."
Natasha hums, wrapping her legs around his waist and tightening herself around him so he groans. "Fuck me."
Chuckling darkly, he licks a stripe up the side of her neck and nips at the hinge of her jaw before drawing his hips back slowly. The careful drag sends sparks along her nerves; she scratches her nails down his back and cries out softly when he thrusts forward again, the movement as full of purpose as everything else he does.
She can't come again, she knows, but it still feels good, and she can tell from his faltering rhythm that James is close. Twining her fingers into his hair, she leans up until her mouth is against the juncture of his neck and shoulder, tasting of sweat when she bites down.
Making a low, nearly helpless sound, he grasps the back of her right knee and pushes it up to her shoulder, fucking into her deep and hard until she feels him expand inside of her, hips jerking and body going tense above hers when he comes.
His weight is just the right side of crushing when he collapses on top of her, breath hot against the side of her neck where his lips touch. Natasha sinks her fingers into the short hair at the back of his skull, fingernails scraping gently against his scalp. Lips brushing her skin, he makes a soft noise, leaning back into her touch.
"I remembered you." He pushes up onto his hands, arms bracketing her head as he looks down at her. The streetlights outside the window make his eyes shine. "Even when--" He cuts himself off to kiss her gently before skimming his nose along her cheekbone until his lips are against her ear. "I think I missed you."
And there are so many things that she could tell him that it's a wonder that she doesn't choke on the words at the back of her throat.
With a kiss to the underside of his jaw, she shifts so she's lying at James' side instead of beneath him. He pulls her close, one hand pressed flat between her shoulder blades, tangling their legs together.
Natasha swallows her words and closes her eyes.