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March, 2015

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Natasha came home from a mission at three in the morning, unsurprised to find Barnes sitting in the dark, smoking out her window. His prosthetic was on the floor at his feet, and what she could see of his face, illuminated by passing cars or the glow of his cigarette, revealed nothing. She dropped her utility belt with a dull thud that probably echoed through the apartment underneath her, and Barnes never flinched.

“Put that arm on,” she said, “and stitch me up.”

He turned to face her fully and pushed the hair that had escaped his ponytail out of his face. His eyes scanned down her body. They landed, unerring, on her left leg.

“Don’t you check in with medical?”

“Hometown missions don’t require it.”

Barnes snorted. “More fool they,” he said.

“Barton always kicks up such an unholy fuss, they don’t even know what normal aversion to medical looks like anymore.” Natasha shrugged. “Works in my favor.”

“Not if you bleed to death in your apartment.” He stubbed out the cigarette and bent to retrieve his arm. It was StarkTech, but no bells, whistles, lasers or bullets. It was just an arm, and Barnes never wore it if he could help it.

“Hardly a danger here,” Natasha said. “It’s just a scratch.”

“‘’Tis but a scratch,’” Barnes said, snide. He shook the prothesis at her. “Am I gonna get over there and find one of your limbs completely detached?”

Natasha swiped at him, got the arm, and hit him with it.

“Ow!”

“Getting slow, old man,” she said. She tossed him the arm and he disappeared into the bathroom to get her med kit. She unzipped her pants and got her right leg out, but blood had caked the fabric dry around the wound in her left calf, and she hissed at the way the fibers tore at the edges. The air shifted around Barnes’s silent return.

“Here,” he said, quiet. He eased her down into an armchair and knelt at her feet. He used the prothesis to brace the pant leg, and with his right hand he ripped open the sterile package of a new razor and began cutting away at the fabric.

“It’s dark,” Natasha said.

“I’m fine,” Barnes said. “I’m like an owl or something.”

“I’ll tell Barton you said that,” Natasha said, and Barnes snorted again.

He worked silently and swiftly, clearing her wound, flushing it out, cleaning and stitching it. His hands on her felt neutral and light, and he never looked up to meet her eyes. It was as close to comfortable with being seen to as she had ever felt.

“You could be a medic,” she said after he was done. He went still, and she pressed her lips together, wondering why her finesse chose this moment to leave her.

“I thought my stance was clear.”

“Medical only,” Natasha said, nothing left to lose. “Not an asset, or even an analyst. Just — helping other people heal.”

Barnes scoffed and stood. He turned back to the window and leaned his elbows on the sill. It was too cool, really, to have the window open, but they were both of them bred on Russian winters. He took his arm off again and cast it to the floor. Natasha would have to do something about the downstairs neighbors. What was the socially acceptable gesture? Fruit basket? Baked goods?

“I get why you’re with SHIELD, Natalia, I really do,” Barnes said. “But I already gave up all my secrets like the world’s biggest fuckin’ rat, and I figure that’s my part done. I won’t be the cog in a government machine anymore, not even on the dangling carrot of not being weaponized. There’s no such thing with them, and you know that.”

“I have orders to recruit you,” Natasha said. “You know that.”

In his half-profile, she could see him smile, sly and crooked, eyelashes lowered.

“Blind faith, Natalia?”

“Not for a second.”

He popped another cigarette into his mouth. “Tell me,” he said. “Steve got the same mission?”

“I don’t know. What’s he said?”

Barnes shrugged and swung one leg over the sill. “He’s so — careful,” he said. “He disapproves, but he wants not to so he doesn’t say anything, and then he gets this look on his face.”

“Like a puppy who’s constipated, but still wants to play?”

Barnes laughed. “Something like that.”

“You could use the front door, you know.”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

“Barnes, you work in a flower shop and live with a paragon of human perfection that you refuse to touch. I have no earthly concept of what your idea of fun is.”

“Oh, you know,” Barnes said. He swung his other leg outside and flicked open a Zippo. He lit the cigarette and took a deep drag. On his exhale, plumes of smoke bloomed upward and faded away. “Breaking and entering. Self-flagellation. The former brainwashed Soviet assassin usual.”

She watched the muscles of his back flex and bunch as he made to leave.

“Comrade,” Natasha said, and he turned halfway back to her, eyebrows raised. She paused, but she was never one to shy from the hard thing. “Barnes. You should let him go if you’re not capable of offering him what he wants. He deserves that much.”

Natasha, years ago, tried. She tried to be a normal woman, with normal hobbies and a normal capacity for affection. She tried, and she failed, and all she accomplished was hurting the first person she had ever valued with the full freedom of her own choices. At least Clint had forgiven her. Now, she knew better. She knew exactly what the Red Room had made her, with and without their programming.

“Yeah,” Barnes said. “I know.”

In the time it took to blink, he was gone, and languishing on Natasha’s floor was his silicone arm.

Steve came to her door the next day, shoulders rolled inward as if any force on Earth could make him look small. He blinked big eyes at her and said, “Sorry about Bucky.”

Natasha smirked and shrugged, stepping aside to let him in.

“I know you do that on purpose,” she said. She went into the living room to retrieve the arm and Steve trailed after her.

“Do what?”

“Wear the tragedy eyes so everyone’s heart melts like they’re looking at a hungry baby animal who needs their help.”

“Is it working?”

“Not on me,” Natasha said. She smacked him extra hard in the chest with the arm when she handed it to him.

“I guess you’re not as easy a mark as old ladies and Phil Coulson.”

“And Bucky Barnes?” Natasha raised one eyebrow.

“He can’t help it,” Steve said. “I got him when he was young and he had no defense.”

Natasha tilted her head, and Steve looked away.

“Any luck?” she said.

“I’m trying not to push,” he said.

“He might never…”

“Cut his hair?” Steve’s mouth twisted in a poor facsimile of a smile.

“It’s…a choice,” Natasha said. “It seems like something he gets a say in. That it makes him look like a grungy slacker is a bonus, because no one would ever mistake him for military.”

“I take it you haven’t had any luck either.”

“I don’t actually expect to,” Natasha said. “I get it. I get him. Fury…doesn’t. I’m calling it a long-term mission and someday we’ll put it to bed incomplete.”

“That mess with your stats?”

Natasha frowned at him. “You must think I’m stone cold, putting my stats over his wellbeing.”

“Sorry,” Steve said. “Sorry. I guess I just don’t know why you keep trying, if you don’t think it’ll work.”

“Was he ranting about me, or something?”

Steve hitched up one shoulder. “Just brooding, you know. The usual.” He raised the arm and made a step towards the door. “Thanks for this. Next time, you should dip it in something really foul before giving it back.”

“Why do you keep trying?”

Steve froze.

“Because of the way he looks at me when he thinks I’m not looking,” he said, voice low. “If he didn’t want me anymore, I wouldn’t hold on. I’m not that pathetic.”

Natasha allowed herself to wet her lips. She didn’t do apologies, but now she almost wished she did.

“Things can’t be how they were.”

Steve let out one derisive laugh.

“It’s so funny how people these days think I’m stupid or naive,” he said. “I would have thought you’d know better.”

He gave her a sloppy salute using the prosthesis, and then he let himself out.

On her way out of the building the next day, Natasha passed her downstairs neighbor and became the recipient of a dirty look. She was immune to people thinking poorly of her, but she knew courting ill will where she laid her head was just foolish. So, when she left HQ after a grueling day of debriefs and paperwork, she made a detour and found herself at the Sherman Brothers’ Florist. Behind the counter, ringing up an elderly man, was Sergeant James Barnes, sporting one arm, hair to rival Thor’s, and the kind of smile teenage heartthrobs were made of.

Natasha occupied herself with some pre-made bouquets while Barnes waited on his customer. Natasha had big questions about carnations. Namely, why anyone put them in bouquets. Maybe they cost three cents apiece and made good filler, for some people without taste’s definition of “good.” They seemed particularly insipid flowers — so bland as to be offensive, aggressively boring. Concepts that should be mutually exclusive but somehow were not. Carnations: contemptible in their mediocrity. Natasha would rather see dandelions in every clutch of flowers in the shop.

She found herself scowling at a bouquet that called itself “Autumn Sunshine” and forced herself to ease her grip on the vase. She felt Barnes approach from behind.

“You hate flowers or somethin’?” he said.

“Just carnations,” she said. “You got anything in here without the damn things?”

Barnes came up beside her to inspect the display, a smirk twisting his lips.

“I think carnations are sweet,” he said. “Like. There they are, fresh and wholesome, happy to fill out everyone else’s bouquets.”

“Are you…overidentifying with the ugliest flower?

Barnes laughed. “Nah,” he said, waving his hand. “A carnation can’t kill a man at a hundred paces, and I can’t spruce any place up. I just think they don’t get the kind of respect they deserve.”

Natasha couldn’t argue with that, although she had seen Steve and Barnes at Stark’s pool over the summer, and being down one limb didn’t exactly make Barnes an eyesore.

“Well, I disrespect the hell out of them, and I need something without a single carnation in it.”

Barnes turned his flirty grin on her full blast, shoulders relaxed, lines on his face eased. Natasha felt a moment’s dissonance — she did not know this man. He was neither the operative who had both trained and protected her, who helped her retain her mind and, eventually, achieve her freedom, nor the brooding shadow who lurked on the edges of her new life, making everything a little more tense.

“What’s the occasion?” he said.

“My downstairs neighbor hates me,” Natasha said.

Barnes snorted. “And here I was, thinkin’ you were sweet on someone.”

“You caught me,” she said. “Tonight’s the night I pop the question. I hope Hulk says yes.”

Barnes nodded, brow knit, faux-pensive with a smile threatening to curl the corners of his mouth.

“Hulk love?”

“What can I say?” Natasha bounced her eyebrows once. “I like ’em big.”

Barnes wrinkled his nose, but the smile came out again.

“I can’t judge,” he said. He turned from her and led her around to a refrigerated room. “We’ve got those, tulips only, and all varieties of lily come carnation-free for your convenience. Out of season sunflowers over there, but they’re a little pricey, and I say if you’re gonna drop that much, you might as well do it on an orchid.” He swept his arm out as if presenting row upon row of potted orchids in all different colors, somehow delicate and robust all at once. He looked bright and proud. “They can be finicky, but I think they’re worth the effort.”

Natasha stared at him until he tilted his head in question.

“You really enjoy this,” she said. “Slinging flowers.”

His smile faded.

“Is that wrong?” he said. “I’m not allowed to do anything less than protect the free world with a bomb in one hand and a rifle in the other? To hell with all this free will I suddenly have?”

“Barnes—”

“I don’t get you, you know? You and Steve and Fury and SHIELD. You all tell me I have choices now, that I can do anything I want and not be beholden to anyone, but when I don’t do what you think I should, you all look at me like I failed some test I never knew I was taking.”

He picked up an orchid at random and thrust it at her. She held on without thinking and watched him walk out of the cool room. She wondered what it was like, to be able to turn off the weapon someone else had made of you. To be able to look regular people in the eye and not resent them for their ignorance, not suspect them of subterfuge, not imagine all the ways you could kill them with your bare hands and hide the body so it would never be found. She wondered what it was like to go home to someone who loved you, even though they knew what you were.

When she emerged from the refrigerated room, she saw Barnes showing off bonsais to a pretty girl in her twenties who looked just about ready to swoon at the attention. He didn’t even glance in Natasha’s direction.

She set down the orchid and left the shop. Maybe her neighbors wanted a box of chocolates instead.

Fury didn’t look surprised to see her lounging on the couch in his office when he opened the door.

“Didn’t you already leave once today?” he said. “Get out of my hair, Romanov.”

“Almost as good as an eye joke, sir,” she said.

Fury loomed over her, but when a lift of her eyebrows was her only response, he sighed and sat down on the coffee table in front of her, bracing his elbows on his splayed knees.

“Well?”

“I’m calling off the Barnes mission,” she said. “It was never going to work anyway. I have better stuff to do.”

Fury took a deep breath and sat back to exhale it long and slow, gaze never leaving Natasha’s face.

“Never known you to throw the towel in on an order, Romanov.”

Natasha was too professional to roll her eyes at her boss.

“What’s next, you dare me to recruit him?” She shook her head. “We should let him be, Nick. He deserves a little peace.”

“Peace isn’t for people like him.”

“You know, you sound a lot like the handlers he and I used to have.”

“Now who’s unsubtle?”

Natasha got up and made her way towards the door. She paused in the jamb and looked back at him. He looked exactly the same as he had twenty years ago, telling her she could come in from the cold. Handsome and unyielding.

“It’s nice,” Natasha said. “To know that he sees the world in color again. I envy him.”

On her way out, she passed by Steve’s office, where light shone out from underneath the door. She stopped short in front of it and hesitated only for a moment before knocking. He called for her to come in, and she pushed the door open and stuck her head in.

He was in a t-shirt and khakis while his uniform hung on a coat rack, and he was staring at it, a furrow in his brow. When he saw it was her at the door, his expression pinched a little further and he went right back to contemplating the uniform.

“What?” he said.

Natasha raised her hands.

“I come in peace, Cap.”

“Fine. I’m going home in a few minutes, do you need something?”

“I just thought I’d tell you the mission’s off. I’m gonna leave him alone about SHIELD and his job and everything. And…and I think you should too, if you haven’t been.”

Steve was quiet for a while, so Natasha figured that was her dismissed and she started to close the door again. But just as she backed out, Steve piped up.

“He called me SHIELD’s dancing monkey,” he said. “He accused me of following their orders blindly. I yelled at him, but you know? I don’t think he was wrong. But I yelled. That was two days ago and he hasn’t been home since.”

He looked like a man who wished he had it in him to cry. Natasha gave him the dignity of looking away.

“I saw him today,” she said. “At the shop. He looked… better than fine. Maybe being a florist was his life-long ambition, and we’re stifling his dreams.”

Steve passed a hand over his face, muffling a snort. He sobered quickly.

“I called him useless,” Steve said, and Natasha couldn’t help it — she winced. “Not in so many words, but… I implied. Heavily. And now I’m sitting here, wondering what I’ve done with my life other than make war, and wondering why I did any of it if not to protect people who arrange flowers, or teach pottery, or work construction, or busk in the street, or, or whatever it is that normal people choose to do when they get the full privilege of that choice.”

Natasha stepped inside fully and closed the door behind her. Steve was hunched in on himself, gaze steady on the stars and stripes of his uniform. She thought, for the first time, that perhaps she and Barnes hadn’t been the only ones to lose essential parts of themselves to blood and battle.

“He’s probably at the store until closing,” Natasha said. “You could go over there? And…say something?”

Steve leaned his chair back on two legs to crane around and send her an incredulous look.

“Am I getting interpersonal relationship advice from someone who once told a child she had just saved from a burning building that no, her dollies weren’t in heaven because heaven didn’t exist, but maybe Daddy would buy her some better ones anyway?”

“I was flustered and singed, Rogers. Someday you’re going to have to let that one go.”

Steve levered the chair back down to all fours with a heavy clatter that did nothing to disguise his sigh. He put his head in both hands and scrubbed roughly at his hair before rising to his feet and grabbing his jacket. He turned off the light and ushered her out the door.

“Well?” Steve said as they walked down the winding corridors. “What do I say?”

“What happened to my being too much of a hypocrite to offer advice on this very pressing emotional matter?”

Steve didn’t even duck his head and blush. He was getting better.

“Maybe I’m hard up enough to take any advice that comes my way right now,” he said.

They made it to an elevator before Natasha said anything. They got in and Natasha smacked at the button for the ground floor.

“You two seem to communicate in a complicated code of insults and pretending you’re not in love; how is anyone supposed to know what you should say to each other?” In her peripheral vision, she watched him clench his teeth. “Have you ever, I don’t know, said anything sincere? None of this you ugly jerk mook lunkhead thing you guys do?”

“The sincerity is subtext?”

“Steve. I’m no one’s agony aunt. I’m not nurturing. I have a dead ficus in my apartment. You must know that.”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Just — apologize, right? And don’t just tell him you support him, prove it in action and deed. Show him you value him, even if he’s selling flowers instead of shooting people through the heart. Start acting like a man who’s grateful he gets a second chance at his first love already.”

The elevator pinged and the doors slid open. Natasha beat it out of there as quick as she could, but Steve was a super soldier, and before she could clear the doors of HQ altogether, Steve closed a hand around her wrist and yanked her towards him.

“Thanks,” he said, voice gruff. “Just — you sell yourself short, you know? We should all learn to be kinder with ourselves.”

He let her go, and she bolted before he got a chance to decipher the look on her face.

The next day, Natasha’s downstairs neighbor gave her a polite nod-and-smile in front of the mail. Gourmet chocolate-covered strawberries had definitely been the right choice. When she opened her mailbox, a prosthetic arm tumbled out, the neighbor looked horrified and scurried away, and Natasha cursed the name of James Buchanan Barnes.

She bent to retrieve the arm and found a note stapled to it.

Gone fishin’, it read in Barnes’s habitual scrawl. Tell Fury not to wait up. On the bottom there was an elaborate doodle of two monkeys hugging — one wore a little mask with an A on the forehead, and the other was missing an arm but was significantly cuter than the first one.

Natasha snorted and stuffed the note into her pocket. She swung the arm to and fro all the way back up to her apartment. When she got there, she threw it on the couch, pulled out her tablet, and ran a search for adult ballet classes.

Maybe she could learn to see the world in color, too.

End