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Some Of The Colors Have To Fade

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He checks the backseat and the trunk before getting into the car. It's a Ford Focus, year unknown. The interior is meticulously clean. There are two automatic rifles and a heavy wool blanket in the back, and a gun and two knives in the glove box. He doesn't recognize the make of any of them, but that doesn't matter. He could use them if necessary.

"Toss the blanket back over the guns, would you?" the Widow says.

She sounds casual, but the Widow lies. That's her mission, above all else. Still, he's well aware of the dangers of driving with exposed weaponry, so he does as she asks and gets in the passenger seat.

"Do you have an American license?" she asks as she pulls out of the drive. They go down a gravel road. The grinding irritates his mind, like a spider crawling across his ears.

When he doesn't respond, she says, "Bucky. You in there?"

"That's not my name," he says.

"That's what they called you."

"They..." He doesn't know what to say. He allowed them to call him that, in hopes it would bring him back to himself. In hopes it would help him identify a self to go back to. He doesn't particularly object to it; nor does he wish to be called it. Not by the Widow.

"Soldier, then," the Widow says. "It's just a name, right?" She pulls onto a side road, name unknown. Five minutes pass, and then she pulls onto a state highway

"I have American identification. A passport. A license."

"What name is on it?"

"You could steal it and put it back."

"Without you noticing?"

"I'm not what I was," he says. That's as close to the truth as he can get.

"Thankfully," she says. "You'll have to drive for part of the way, if we're really doing this."

"You wouldn't be tapping my expertise for a joke."

"No," the Widow says. "I wouldn't."

"You lied to them."

"Often," the Widow says, "about many things. What in particular are you referring to?"

"Our history."

"True," she says. "What name is on the license?"

"James Smith."

"Nice," she says. "I'm Natalie Rancourt."

"Your conceit is dangerous."

"The initials? Makes it easier to remember."

"No child of the Red Room would forget."

He thinks he's hurt her. He's not sure. He can read emotions easily, tell a lie from the truth in a long-range gun's scope, but the Widow is better than an old politician who's angered the wrong people. "I suppose not," she says. "But I can promise you, my conceit won't get us killed."

"I won't die for you," he says.

"I didn't think you would."

He realizes too late that he's given up a valuable detail about himself, perhaps the one she was looking for in talking to him. He doesn't want to die. He should, he thinks. Death is an abstract concept, but a physical reality. He's dealt death so many times - his mind shies away from the thought, and he doesn't force himself to continue. But now she knows he wants to live. She knows that he, foolishly, is clinging to life.

She'll use that knowledge. He has to be more careful.

"You should tell me where we're going," he says.

"Should I?"

"If you become incapacitated, I need to know where to go."

"234 Bridgeport Avenue, in Denver," she says. "It's a Best Western. I rented a room."

"You want to share a room with the Winter Soldier?"

"I figured you'd want to keep an eye on the Black Widow."

He doesn't respond. This is how she gets information. This is the craft that the Red Room bent her to. He wants no part of it.

They drive. As they get close to the city, he becomes more tense. His reflexes have dulled in the months since he pulled Rogers out of the water. He has nightmares; loud noises irritate him. Memory comes in a scent or a word, and he braces himself against it, knowing those thoughts can pull him down. The only thing that hasn't changed is hesitation. He still doesn't hesitate before a kill.

The Widow will appreciate that, at least.

He flexes his hand - the metal one - as they drive into the bowels of the city. Did she know this would irritate him? Does it matter? The Brooklyn of now is loud and smelly, too, heavily developed. He sometimes gets flashes, knows that a building is wrong or that a street should be wider. This city, at least, holds no history for him. And the Widow doesn't seem invested in bringing Bucky back.

He remembers enough to know that Bucky is dead. If he loses everything that they made him, he might as well be dead, too.

He thinks it again: he wants to stay alive.

They go directly to the room. "Are you going to secure the area?" he says.

She shrugs easily. "Did it already. No one followed us. You're welcome to double-check my work."

He does. There is no one of note on the streets; the curtains are closed, hiding them from any spying. The room is clean of bugs.

When he's done, he sits down on the bed the Widow isn't occupying. Steve and Sam were unaware that he slept on the floor. The Widow will notice.

"Want to watch Sesame Street or something?"

He wonders if Steve told her, or if she guessed, that his taste in programming runs to the childlike and the mundane. He prefers knowing when to laugh, and repetition of basic facts is soothing. He has no desire to watch falsified violence. The arrogance of it angers him.

"No," he says.

"Suit yourself," she says, and leans over. She has luggage. A single bag. She pulls a notebook out of it and begins writing. If she notices him watching her - and she must - she gives no sign of it.

He has nothing to do, but he doesn't grow bored. He sits on the bed and stares at the wall, registering every minute sound that makes its way into the hotel room. The Widow shifts, very deliberately, and clears her throat before saying, "We'll need to get you some clothes. Maybe a book or two."

"I don't need to be amused."

"Humor me," she says. "Plus, it's not a very good cover if you don't have anything to do when we're traveling, don't you think?"

He wonders if she knows that he would have startled if she'd just spoken into the silence. He wouldn't have killed her, but he startles easily. "Fine," he says. "Are you going to drag me to the mall? Dress me up?"

"Was that a joke?"

He was angry when he said it, so he doesn't respond.

"Anyway," the Widow says, "I was thinking more, we go to the Gap, pick you out a few things, drop into Best Buy, get you a tablet, and then leave. I know you have any number of accounts you could draw money from."

He stays silent.

"That was smart," she says. "Moving all the money. I wonder if that's why they were going to kill you."

"I was trained in a different kind of interrogation," he says, "but I know what you're trying to do."

"Sure," she says. "I was trained in your style of interrogation too, you know."

"But using it sickens you."

"It's messy and doesn't always produce the desired results," she says. "Do you think I'm a coward?"

"I think you're a child."

She switches to Russian. "Someone born in 1968 is a child to you?"

"They think you're young."

"Zola blew one of my covers. I just didn't correct him."

"The serum given to you was weak."

"They didn't think I'd survive. They were sexists."

"You heal quickly."

"And I don't age quickly. And I'm stronger than I should be. Is that enough intel for you?"

In English, he says, "Yes."

"Good," she says. "Let's go shopping, Soldier."

He thinks she means it to be a joke, tongue in cheek. He doesn't bother forcing a smile.

The Gap isn't feasible to secure. He could do it, but he doubts they'd let him shop there if he did. It makes him edgy, the racks of clothes that impede his vision, the chipper salespeople who aren't deterred by his glare. But the Widow is as competent at this as everything else, selecting a single style of pants and buying three of them, and doing the same with shirts. She gets a coat, too, less ragged than the one he has. They don't have gloves, but those are the only high-quality item he's currently wearing. He doesn't need to replace them.

Once she's purchased those, she leads them to a store where she buys a suitcase to put them in, and then to a Best Buy, where she purchases him a tablet. By then, he's tired and on edge, half-ready to snap. She looks at him and says, "Back to the hotel, Soldier."

They've wandered, but he leads them back easily.

"You can sleep in the clothes you have," she says. "We'll go to a laundromat in a couple days, keep stuff in rotation."

"That's not necessary."

"It is if you want to blend in," the Widow says. "Though that's never been your forte."

"There's no need to associate with others if you remove yourself from the public's eye."

"Is that what you'd call that scene on the highway?"

He feels a twinge of something he can't identify. A skipping in his mind, like a memory, but not quite. "I had a mission."

"They wanted you public."

"They wanted to send a message. Disorder. Chaos."

"Seventy years you terrorize the globe, and then they decide to blow you up." They're in the motel lobby now. The Widow glances around. Securing herself, he thinks. "I'm not surprised, but if I were you, I'd be angry."

"Would you?"

"If you want to know about my past, you'll have to ask more nicely than that," she says. The elevator arrives, and they step into it.

She puts the merchandise beside his bed. He has no desire to put it on now, so he sits on the bed again. After a moment, he pulls out the tablet.

"We're leaving tomorrow," she says. "Driving to Montreal."

"Why Montreal?"

"It gives me time to get to know you." She smiles at him. "And that's where the first target is."

"What's his name?"

"That would be telling."

He feels like HYDRA's pet again, chained up and kept in the cold. But he can't be angry with her; if she gave him a name, he'd leave to destroy the target on his own. The Widow never does anything without reason.

He turns the tablet on.

She bought a stylus. An outdated technology, one that arose and largely passed without him ever needing to use it. But with his metal arm, it's necessary. He uses it to navigate the tablet, opening up the internet and reading the news. Without HYDRA's intelligence, the action is facile at best. But he can see Steve's face in his mind, Sam's eyes on him carefully, and he needs some kind of outlet. A distraction.

"Did it hurt?" the Widow says.

He reaches down and clenches his flesh hand on the bed. Her words cause a roaring cascade of memories in him - the shreds of his arm being removed, and the attachment process for the first arm, barely functional. The attachment process for the most recent arm. These memories HYDRA lets him keep, as a reminder of all they've done for him. A leash, he thinks.

"I'm sorry," she says. "That was a stupid question."

"You meant to ask it."

"You have to accept I'll lie to you," she says. "Gathering information is what I do."

"Do you know how to do anything else?"

"Sure," she says. "I know how to live in the world. I learn stuff from you, and you can learn that from me."

He doesn't respond. Instead, he goes back to reading the news. At 10:30 PM, the Widow gets up, goes to the hotel bathroom, and brushes her teeth. "Here," she says when she comes out, throwing a toilet kit at him.

He catches it without reacting with violence. It was probably a test, he thinks as he goes into the bathroom.

Basic hygiene is something he's largely practiced under duress for the last 70 years, but the Widow values blending in. She'll want him to look normal. He did so, passably, at the Smithsonian; now, he showers and brushes his teeth before lying down on the bed.

The room is overly warm. He doesn't remove the comforter, or the top sheet. He'll have enough trouble sleeping on this soft a surface as it is.

The Widow hasn't looked at him since he went into the bathroom, and she doesn't comment on his sleep habits. She merely sets a gun on the bed next to her and turns off the light between the two beds.

He barely sleeps. Every time he closes his eyes, he can feel cold creeping along his toes, up his arms. When he begins to drift, he feels hot pulses of pain in an arm he no longer has. They're both immaterial, signaling his mind slipping, as it's been slipping since his mission to kill Rogers. Steve. But knowing that doesn't make it easier to sleep.

The Widow gets out of bed at 4:30 AM and does a series of body-weight exercises: squats, rows, pushups, and so on, bursts of movement that go on for an hour. By the end of it, she looks only slightly winded.

“I’m showering,” she says. She doesn’t look at him as she takes her suitcase into the bathroom. She also doesn’t lock the door.

He dislikes being manipulated, so he reminds himself that regardless of appearances, she doesn’t trust him.

“I was going to make you drive,” she says as they check out of the motel, “but you look like shit.”

He’s offended, or at least he thinks he might be. He wants to protest.

“It’s not an insult,” the Widow says, tossing her suitcase in the back of the car. She runs a device over the car’s body before getting in. A bomb sniffer? A bug scrambler? It’s not tech he’s familiar with. “You just look like shit,” she says again, as she pulls out of the drive.

“I’m combat effective,” he says, a little too sharply. He presses his lips together when he realizes he’s responded too strongly.

“Sure,” she says. “You’re always combat effective. That’s what they made you to be.”

He remembers opening up to Sam, because Sam was easy. Good. He could scare Sam, and control what he released, until he’d shaped a person for Sam and Steve who was someone they could understand. The Widow sees too much for him to do that with her.

Still, he says, “They wiped me. I don’t know how I can remember it, but I do.”

“I met you, you know,” she says. “Odessa.”

“I know,” he says.

“Do you remember training me?”

He jerks back, making the passenger seat squeal, some metal bending.

“Easy,” Natasha says. “I rented this vehicle. I’m not excited about property damage.”

“You did that on purpose,” he says.

“It was only for a few months,” Natasha says. “When I was ten. I didn’t mention it before, because I’m not entirely sure it happened. Though I doubt the Red Room would fabricate a memory like that. It’s not useful to their domination of me.”

“I don’t remember,” he says. He’s not sure why admitting that hurts. There are plenty of things he doesn’t remember.

But he knows the ghosts that haunt Brooklyn, and he remembers that Steve likes to draw.

“I didn’t think you would,” the Widow says. “And anyway, I was smaller then.”

They drive for - by the mile markers - thirty miles before she speaks again. “Did you lie to them?”

He blinks, unsure of her meaning.

“Sam and Steve,” she says. “Did you lie?”

They’re her friends, he knows that much. As much as the Widow can have friends. He wonders at it - that someone whose soul was beat out of her, tortured out of her, can have friends.

It doesn’t make him hope. He’s not sure he can hope.

But he does wonder if she’ll be angry with him for lying to them.

“No,” he finally says.

“You’re lying,” she says immediately.

“I let them find aspects of me they preferred,” he says. “I encouraged those aspects.”

“And you remembered?”

“Some things.” Not enough. Or maybe too much.

“Hmm,” she says. “You know, Steve told me that you can’t just make yourself be whoever your companion wants.”

“You’re the Widow,” he says.

“And you’re the Winter Soldier,” she says. “So what’s the difference?”

“None of my companions wanted me there,” he says. “They wound up dead.”

He doesn’t mean it to be funny, but she laughs a little anyway, breathlessly. He turns to look at her, then looks away. She’s very beautiful. He wonders how they controlled for that when she was a child - if the ugly ones were killed. They might have been. They probably were.

“Let me give you a tip,” she says, drawing him out of his thoughts. “The way to live through this is to lie, like you did with Steve and Sam. But.”

“But?”

“Find someone you don’t have to lie with,” she says. “Just a single person. That makes it easier.”

He’s uncertain about that, so he doesn’t respond. He doesn’t like the feelings that uncoil in his stomach. He can’t identify them, so he doesn’t know how to make them disappear.

It occurs to him to wonder if the Widow intends to be that person. He doubts it. She’s not given to generosity of spirit or overly-committed friendship. That’s not how they were trained.

He briefly thinks of Steve, then dismisses that idea. He has to lie to Steve. Anything else would break him.

The Widow drives all day. Bucky thinks of Sam, and Steve, and what it means that he's away from them.

Sam helped. Sam understood that he wouldn't be better every day, that he'd fall back into who he is during a mission. He tried to keep Sam and Steve safe, because Sam was kind despite him not deserving it, and Steve was - someone. Someone he remembers in bits and pieces. Determined fighting. Drawing.

He wishes he could still love Steve, but he can't. Bucky Barnes is dead. He died when he fell - a fall he feels when he sleeps, a freefall that he doesn't think will ever leave him.

At 9:17 PM, outside of Lansing, Michigan, the Widow says, "Holiday Inn okay?"

"I'm indifferent," he says.

"You know, having opinions is a marker of recovery."

"I'm not that recovered yet."

"Yet," the Widow says. She pulls into the Holiday Inn parking lot and turns the car off.

"Widow," he says suddenly, a need to know pulling at him.

"Yes?" she says, looking at him.

"Does it - I'm not him," he says. "Bucky Barnes. I'm not who he was. Does it get easier? You found a self."

"It's not easy," she says. "In the end, I kept my name...a version of my name. But I don't really remember being anything but a killer." She tilts her head a little, looking at him. "You can still be his friend. Who you are now. Who you'll be."

"I don't know who I'll be."

"I know," she says. "That's why I'm taking you to get some revenge. Nothing like getting a bit of your own back to figure out who you want to be." She smiles at him - an easy, beautiful smile - and gets out of the car.

After a moment of turning her words over in his mind, he follows.

He dreams.

In the dream, he's being transferred. He's been woken for the transfer; HYDRA wants proof that the Soviets haven't mishandled their cargo. They send ten men into the small room he's being kept in. He has a small knife. He kills them.

Afterwards, he presses his metal hand against his forehead, against his breastbone. It's cold, always a little cold, and it reminds him of the ice. He doesn't dream in the ice. He's not a person when awake, but he's also not a person when under the ice; the difference is, the ice doesn't hurt. It's peaceful.

"He's damaged," someone says through the observation window. His ears are enhanced; he listens.

"He's functional," a familiar voice says. "Wipe him, store him, use him. We agreed."

"So we did," the first voice says.

His handler unlocks the door. He doesn't know the name, but he knows the voice. Bite down on this. Don't scream. Here are your targets. Whip her until she obeys. "Time to go," his handler says.

The Winter Soldier follows obediently.

He doesn't wake with a start. Instead he wakes slowly, aware of a vague ache in his calf - the result of being sedentary - and, as always, the slight chill of his arm. It's 3:30 AM, according to the clock, and the Widow is sleeping, her body still but for the rise and fall of her chest, one hand on her gun. He wonders if she always sleeps like that, or if the gun is for him. He wonders if she wants to seduce him.

He wonders if he'd allow her to.

In the end, he doesn't go back to sleep. He lies awake, eyes focused on the ceiling, barely feeling his own body, and trying not to remember.

The Widow wakes up at 4:34. "You overslept," he says.

She blinks at him, fully awake in seconds. "Was that a joke?"

It was, but he doesn't want to talk about it, so he stays silent.

"Let's get on the road," she says. "We'll hit a laundromat tonight."

He's not sure he's ever been in a laundromat. He has no desire for a new experience, but their clothes need to be washed if they're going to continue to blend in, the way Natasha wants to. As they get in the car, he says, "Do you like Sam?"

"He's a likable guy," she says. She drives down the short street leading to the motel, then gets on the highway. "Why do you ask?"

"I liked him," he says.

"And yet, you don't want to be called Bucky."

"The name has expectations." He thinks of the Smithsonian. "That man was a hero."

"You could be a hero, too," she says. "Or, at the very least, you could help the cause."

He laughs. It hurts his chest. "The cause? What cause?"

"Keeping people from being hurt."

"Is that your cause?"

"I'm not a double agent, if that's what you mean."

"I remember the Red Room," he says. "HYDRA sold me to the Soviets, then bought me back."

"I know," she says. "Well, I thought I knew. There were rumors."

"Spies talking among themselves?"

"They trained me," she says casually, like she's referencing a happy childhood in some small schoolroom. "I was discovering their secrets before they sent me on missions to collect more for them."

"It's a wonder they didn't kill you."

She laughs, and there he hears it: the bitterness, the anger. He wonders if she hides it with everyone. He wonders if she hides it from herself. "They tried."

They're driving into the sun for hours. Around 10, it starts to get too warm. Bucky cracks his window a little.

The air that whips into the car smells of industry. He starts and rolls the window up.

"Something wrong?"

"Nothing," he says, as images of a forgotten Brooklyn race through his mind.

They reach Montreal as the sun's setting, around 8 local time. He's been tired since border patrol, edgy and waiting for someone to pull a weapon on him. Natasha seems to sense that, because after they secure a room at the Delta Montreal Hotel, she pulls a file out of her suitcase and hands it to him. "Our target."

"You were carrying this with you the whole time?" he says, then opens the paper folder. It holds only a single microfilm.

"Stark tech," the Widow says, smirking a little. "If you'd tried to rob me, you would've come up empty-handed."

He doesn't answer, only examines the information.

Their target is named Jacques Caron. He's a smuggler, a sometimes-hired killer, born in Quebec but largely an enforcer for Senator Jameson of New Jersey. "He's been hiding out here, biding his time," Natasha says. "Eventually HYDRA will recall him, but he's a natural-born coward. And..."

She trails off just as he sees it: Caron helped bring the Winter Soldier to the States.

He doesn't crush the microfilm, but it's a near thing. "I want him dead."

"Oh, he'll be dead," she says. "You saw his coordinates. I doubt it even needs to be a two-person op, but I did promise you revenge."

"Tonight," he says.

The Widow looks at him. He can't guess what she's thinking, but he knows the feeling that tightens his chest when she says, "Yeah, okay. Tonight."

Anticipation. Readiness for a kill.

She insists that they dress nondescriptly, carry weapons that can be hidden. He only takes a knife. She has two guns and two knives; then again, he has his arm.

They walk down the street arm in arm, the Widow deliberately loose and easy, strolling, while he marches. They stop outside his dwelling and, as one, cut through the alley. The back has a fire escape. He jumps up silently and turns, expecting her to need help.

She jumps up next to him and nods at him. He climbs - slowly, carefully.

Caron's window is locked, but that's no matter. The roof is secured only by a simple lock. Careless, he thinks as he breaks it with his left hand. He pushes the door open, and motions for the Widow to go first.

She's good: her hand is ready to draw a knife, but she moves casually, as though she's a resident. He does his best to imitate her, knowing if he doesn't, she might call the op off entirely.

They reach his door, and she knocks on it.

"Yes?" comes the reply, in French.

Also in French, the Widow says, "Health and safety, we're here to inspect your oven."

"What? I didn't order fucking health and safety."

The Widow locks eyes with him and nods. He kicks the door open.

Caron tries to scream, but the Widow is on him, hand over his mouth. He walks in, and Caron's eyes widen.

"Hail Hydra," he says, and slits Caron's throat.

The Widow gently lowers the body to the floor.

For a second he's not standing in Caron's apartment. He's lying down in the trees, with a gun, shooting men so that Steve has a clear path to a HYDRA facility. He hears Sam's voice, as though from a dream: You can find a way to live in this world.

He comes back to himself, and the Widow is looking at him, eyes wary. He nods at her. "That was good, Widow."

"Call me Natasha," she says.

Caron's body is cooling. They need to leave. But he turns the name over in his mind, thinking about it. Natasha Romanoff. The Black Widow. Natalie Rancourt.

Natasha.

"Let's get out of here, Natasha," he says.

Her eyes widen - in surprise, he thinks. Then she smiles, nods, and leads the way out.

He doesn’t sleep soundly that night; in fact, he barely sleeps at all. The only notable thing about that night is that, rather than lying still on his bed, he tries both sides. He’s not scared to turn his back on the Widow - Natasha. Nor is he particularly frightened of having his back to the wall. But the entry is down a short hall, in the same direction as the wall, and he can’t quite turn his back on that.

But he is uncomfortable, and he shifts, over and over.

It’s a new sensation. He turns it over in his mind. Bucky wouldn’t have been used to sleeping in a bed, not after being overseas, fighting a war he doesn’t remember. But then, Bucky probably tossed and turned, thought about pulling Steve close, or a girl he’d picked up…

Those thoughts are of no use to him. They’re not even memories, just a crude guess, based on his observations on missions. Human beings are base. They crave comfort, companionship.

He’s human, but then, he’s not. When he thinks about that, he doesn’t think about his arm. He thinks instead about the serum, about the steady wearing away of his mind, how he became a little simpler after every mission. A little easier to manage. Until this last mission: the man on the bridge. Steve.

Steve, who took him in, and never pressed him to stay, to eat with him, to sit with him. Steve, whose lack of expectations were easy to handle, but whose hope - pure, optimistic hope - was impossible to live with.

He drifts for awhile, until Natasha makes a quiet noise and shifts minutely. Then he turns to look at her, moving a pillow over his arm so the metal doesn’t dig into his cheek.

She’s beautiful. He’s noticed it many times. He doesn’t know why. He noticed Steve, but in an abstract way; thinking about Steve’s beauty brought back the ghost of emotions, which made him all the more aware of his current lack. He’d noticed Sam, but Sam reminded him too much of a HYDRA doctor, for all that his stated intent was to help.

But Natasha…

She was raised to kill. If he trained her, then she must have been magnificent. Even now, she moves and thinks like a killer. Not like the Winter Soldier, but a more insinuous kind of danger. She was made into someone a person trusts and loves, and believes in wholeheartedly, right before she slits their throat. And yet she professes to have changed. Can he believe her? He can believe that she thinks she’s changed. He can’t trust that she has.

But she’s beautiful. He has to force himself to look away, and even then, he’s on edge. Not aroused - not yet, he thinks with the barest bit of worry. But on edge. Disturbed.

He doesn’t want her to have that power over him, so he forces himself into a trance, going over the layout of the hotel and refusing to think about how the Soviet Union, and then the Russians, used the Widow.

The next morning, Natasha says, “We’re spending a day in Montreal. Let’s get breakfast.”

They end up at a bistro with a patio. Natasha gets them seats inside, where he can sit with his back to a wall, with both exits visible. She sits with her back to the door, seemingly comfortable. He doesn’t know how to ask if she’s lying, and he doesn’t know if she’d tell the truth even if he did ask, so he stays silent.

He’s sipping coffee when she says, “You should jerk off in the shower.”

“What,” he says.

She raises her eyebrows at him. “I know they tried to take your libido, but you have to have done it since escaping.”

Escaping. Is that what he did? “I don’t have urges.”

“Sure you do,” Natasha says. “They never made you sleep with someone for an op, did they?”

He shakes his head. He wasn’t that sort of asset.

“They did with me.” Her voice stays steady, but the skin around her eyes tightens minutely. “I didn’t do anything when SHIELD took me in, not for months. But eventually, I started again. It’s been awhile for you. You should try it.”

He shakes his head and takes another sip of coffee. She’s one woman, but he feels surrounded. Cornered.

“Okay,” she says. “Well, when you pop a boner midway through killing someone, remember what I said. The body needs release.”

He doesn’t choke on the coffee, but he does drink it a little too quickly, scalding his mouth.

She doesn’t make him walk the streets. He goes back to the hotel - he’ll order lunch and dinner. She says, “I’m going to have a little fun on the town,” and leaves him.

He knows she’s going to contact Steve and Sam. The thought gives him a sick twinge in his stomach - anticipation, concern, he’s not sure. He tries to determine what it is by looking in the mirror, but the mirror shows him only his own face, and he doesn’t look much different than he normally does. Though since he stopped being an asset, he supposes he’s started looking sadder.

Or maybe he always looked like this; he wasn’t given to mirrors when on missions. All he knows is that he looks nothing like the boy who stood at Steve Rogers’s side, once upon a time.

He doesn’t shower that day. He tells himself it has nothing to do with Natasha’s advice, and his own discomfort with it.

She comes back after he’s eaten a takeout dinner. “Get a lot of sleep tonight,” she says. “Our next target’s in North Carolina.”

“Are you arranging for an efficient travel pattern?” he says. It doesn’t seem like she is, but she just smiles.

“The targets are organized by importance, not geographical location,” she says. “Relax - we’ll get them all eventually.”

“I could just murder everyone on Capitol Hill,” he says.

She looks at him, eyes suddenly sharp. “Yes. But you just said that would be murder.”

Discomfitted, he doesn’t answer.

They stop at a laundromat on their way out of town the next day. Natasha seems content to read a magazine as their clothes wash; he paces, uncomfortable with their surroundings. The washing machines are loud, and it feels like they’re boring into his head, making him crazy. He’s not fond of the sensation.

When they’re back on the road, he can relax marginally. This, at least, is growing in familiarity.

“It’s a thirteen-hour drive, give or take,” Natasha says as they get on the southbound highway. “Do you want to drive part of that?”

He actually considers it, but finally says, “I don’t think I’m ready.”

“Interesting phrasing,” she says. “You do that on purpose?”

He scowls.

She laughs a little. “You know, I’m on your side.”

“You wouldn’t know it by how you act.”

“Sure you would,” she says. “I’m drawing you out of yourself. I might not be as soft-hearted as Sam, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to help you.”

He’s not sure he’d describe Sam as soft-hearted; Sam has a steel core, steady and knowing. But he doesn’t tell her that. Instead, he stays silent as the world races by outside.

That night, in a motel 15 miles outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, he has to shower: Natasha tells him specifically that he’s pushing the bounds of his ability to blend in. He gets in the shower, washes himself, and then - as his hand is going to turn off the water, he pauses.

She suggested it. If he takes too long, she’ll know he’s doing it.

But she’s beautiful, and she’s not wrong. Lately, his body has been expressing needs to him.

He runs a hand down his chest and thinks.

He can’t think about Steve. Steve is a friend to him, even if the memories he’s slowly regaining are tinged with want. He’s tried to feel that again, and he can’t - and besides, Steve’s in love with Sam, and he’s not going to intrude on that, even in his own memory.

He’s seen beautiful women before, many of them. He remembers dancing with them, and he’s seen them in the scope of a rifle. But none of them feel real enough to imagine doing anything with. They’re all just apparitions.

In the end, he just strokes himself, purely physical. He doesn’t imagine anything, just focuses on the physical sensation, makes it build until finally he’s spending himself on his hand, shuddering.

He feels different when he gets out of the shower. Not relaxed, but a little more clear-headed. He wonders if this is what Natasha meant. He’s certainly not going to ask her.

“Bathroom’s yours,” he says when he gets out.

“Have fun?”

He doesn’t blush. He’s not sure he’s capable of blushing. But he does sound a little annoyed, even to his ears, when he says, “It was an adequate shower.”

She laughs and passes him, going into the bathroom.

She’s making it easy for him, and he knows it. He finds himself sometimes almost replying with jokes, a ghost of the flippant Bucky who went off to war. He’s been tortured so much that it all blurs together, but he thinks he might remember Bucky’s torture, that first time in HYDRA facilities. Steve rescuing him, an enormous sense of relief washing over him. He doesn’t tell Natasha any of this, but he thinks she might know anyway; she’s becoming less careful by inches, a bare easing of her typical guardedness.

That night, though, all of his progress disappears in a dream.

He’s back in HYDRA facilities. His programming has broken, and they’re shocking him, beating him. After every shock, they say, “You are the asset. What is your name?”

“James Buchanan Barnes,” he says, and they shock him again. When he whispers, “Please,” it’s in Russian; they’ve stripped his English away.

Then they apply the lash, and he starts to scream.

He wakes up screaming, thrashing back and forth. Then there’s a hand over his mouth, wiry arms pinning him to the bed.

“Quiet,” Natasha says in Russian.

He realizes that he’s been screaming in Russian - no, please, stop.

“You were a HYDRA asset,” she says, still in Russian.

The implicit request for information pulls him back to himself. It’s not an interrogation, not torture, but he knows what to do all the same.

“HYDRA was allied with the Soviets,” he says. He forces himself to speak in English. “I was their asset. Bought and sold.”

“And then bought again.”

Bucky nods.

To his shock, Natasha strokes his hair. There’s controlled gentleness there - the fingers of someone who soothed a baby, crying after she’d just killed its parents. “You’re here,” she says. “You’re safe, you’re here. They don’t own you anymore.”

“They do,” Bucky says. He’s feeling suddenly, a wave of overwhelming despair, unlike anything he’s felt since he saw Steve on the bridge. “Every night, they do.”

“And every night, you wake up,” she says. “Don’t forget that.” She starts to move away.

He’s tired. He’s so tired. “Please,” he says, not even sure what he’s asking.

She freezes, every muscle going stiff. Then, just as suddenly, she relaxes, climbing fully onto the bed. His head is in her lap. He’s vulnerable.

The despair is receding, though it still hurts, like a cut to a strong, important muscle. He closes his eyes. He doubts he’ll sleep, but he can at least try.

He falls asleep before he can even attempt to meditate.

When he wakes in the morning, he’s alone. Natasha comes back before he has time to investigate, though, holding two paper cups of coffee.

“Continental breakfast,” she says, handing him one. “You were starting to stir. I wasn’t sure if you’d remember the night.”

“Did you sleep?”

“I didn’t need it as much as you.”

“Your serum -”

“Was good enough,” she says. She takes a sip of coffee, looking unconcerned. “And you haven’t been sleeping enough, even for a super-soldier.”

She says super-soldier a little sarcastically. He snorts and says, “I slept for ten years once, doll, that’s plenty for me.”

He wouldn’t realize he said anything unusual, except she blinks just a little too hard. He reviews what he’s said.

It sounded like Bucky. The Bucky who was.

He takes a long drink of coffee, then says, “Where’s our target?”

“This one’s going to take a little more work,” she says. “He’s a top aide to the governor, and he’ll be hard to get to.”

“Hard how?”

“Well, he’s using some basic sedation and hypnosis on the governor,” Natasha says. “And he might suspect we’re coming.”

His hand tightens on the paper cup. “Why?”

“Caron was his brother.”

“Then let’s go,” he says. “We’ll need time to get set up.”

They arrive in Raleigh at 9:43 AM. By 10, they’ve stolen visitor’s passes and are covering the capitol building. He wants to do a targeted strike, make a statement right there; Natasha wants to confirm their target and follow the bastard back to the governor’s mansion. He’s decided to follow her lead yet again. For now, he tells himself.

“God, this is dull,” Natasha says over the comm. “I’ve swept the whole place. The governor and his aide are in his office. Stake out the office; I get the feeling that’s where he does his dirty work, not at the mansion.”

“So what you’re saying is you were wrong,” he says. He can’t hold back the smirk from his voice.

“I’m saying I’m re-evaluating the mission,” she says, but she sounds amused. “Stake out the office.”

He does. It’s easy; the office is at the end of a hallway. He finds a reason to sit in one of the chairs, going over some paperwork he stole from the aide who furnished his visitor’s pass. If anyone asks, he’s an intern in on a trial basis. With his hair cut and some sleep, he passes as young enough.

Though he’s not sure he was ever that innocent. His scraps of memory before the war are tinged with worry, the heavy weight of the Depression. Being frightened for Steve.

It’s almost easier to remember when he doesn’t think about it, though, so he turns his mind away from that and focuses on the door. He needs to be ready.

Natasha joins him at 8 PM, after he’s had to dodge janitors twice. No one has left the office. He nods at her when she pulls out a lock-picking kit.

Picking locks is easy; picking locks without alerting anyone on the other side of the door is more difficult. She does it flawlessly, and then he draws a gun and pushes the door open.

The governor is slumped in his chair, staring into space. Caron’s brother has a complicated bit of tech dangling from a chain, in front of the governor’s eyes.

“Who the fuck are you?” Caron’s brother says.

“A friend,” he says, and raises his gun.

The wallpaper’s nice, birds and flowers. It’s a pity about the blood.

“Time to leave town,” Natasha says, after they’ve rapelled out of the governor’s office. They’re over the fence and walking down the road by the time the alarm sounds.

“I’ll drive,” he says, and finds that he means it.

Natasha tells him that their next target is in Oklahoma, a member of the Oklahoma City CIA. The facility isn’t particularly secured, she says, and it should be an easy kill.

The car feels strange beneath his hands. He’s driven since being unfrozen, but this is different; there’s someone next to him now, making conversation largely with herself as he focuses on not being overwhelmed by the highway.

They stop before they’re even out of North Carolina; they’ll finish the drive tomorrow, and case the CIA building that night. He changes into sweatpants that he bought in Raleigh and settles shirtless in bed as Natasha brushes her teeth. He’s not sure what will happen; he doesn’t want to ask for her to sleep with him again, but he also doesn’t want to be alone.

The force of his desire surprises him; he’s so accustomed to feeling numb. To obeying orders. Natasha’s giving him orders now, but this is just something he wants - moments of relief from his own mind.

But as it turns out, he worried for nothing. She comes out of the bathroom and gets into his bed, moving smoothly, as though she does this every night. She doesn’t even try to pull the covers on. Bucky rolls over and curls up, and she curves her body around him, one arm around his waist.

He falls asleep. When he has nightmares, she wakes him up, reciting mindless facts in a low and steady voice until he can re-focus and fall back asleep.

Oklahoma City is advertising a traveling version of the Smithsonian’s Captain America exhibit. He goes still when he sees the ads as they walk closer to the CIA offices. It’s 8 PM, the sun is setting, and Steve is staring at him from a billboard.

“It’s a big deal,” Natasha says. “Sometimes people even recognize me.”

“I’m not him,” he says. “I can’t be him.”

“Let’s get some coffee,” she says, and takes his hand, leading him into the nearest Starbucks.

They get their coffees and sit down. “If Bucky’d come home, he would’ve been traumatized,” she says, looking at him steadily.

“Would he?”

“He was tortured.” She still looks steady, but her fingers tighten minutely around her coffee cup. “As someone who’s also been tortured, without being wiped - believe me. He’d have come back traumatized. Soldiers often do. The world seems strange to them, they have trouble acclimating…thousands of books have been written on the topic. There’s no guarantee that the carefree Bucky in the exhibit would have been who finally returned to New York.”

“What’s the point, then?” he says. He can hear Brooklyn on his lips, see it in his mind. He’s here, but he’s also still stuck in the past, lost in his own pain. For a moment, he feels sorry for Natasha. He’s not much of a traveling companion.

“The point is living,” she says. “The wind on your face. The freedom to buy a coffee, even when you’re on a mission. A higher purpose. Take your pick.”

“What’s your point?”

She shrugs, studiously casual. “Doing good. Balancing my checkbook.”

He knows she’s not talking about actual checks. “And should that be my point?”

“I don’t know, Soldier,” she says. “But you might want to consider letting yourself be a Bucky Barnes, even if you can’t be the Bucky Barnes.”

He nods, unable to respond just then.

The CIA building is embarrassingly badly defended. Natasha explains that here, it’s largely administrative; they’re not expecting rogue agents to attack them. He still finds the lack of security distasteful. They determine that they’ll enter from the roof; it’s easy to get to from the next building. From there, they just have to get to the sixth floor northwest corner office, kill the target - Smith - and exit.

These missions are beginning to have a sense of routine. He prefers it. It makes it easy to deal with.

That night, Natasha sleeps with him again. He sleeps well, and wakes up ready to carry out the op. They access the roof with relative ease, dressed as maintenance workers for the office building they’ll be entering from. The office is easy to find, and when Natasha opens the door, they encounter no resistance.

Until Smith pulls a gun out. “I know who you are,” he says. “I know what you’re doing. The Winter Soldier.”

But Natasha already has her gun out, and so does he. He says, “The name’s Bucky, pal,” and fires.

He doesn’t miss. They exit via the window, with harnesses that they smuggled in as maintenance equipment, and get into their car.

“Bucky, huh?” Natasha says as they head for the highway.

Bucky thinks, yes. “Yeah,” he says out loud. “Call me Bucky.”

“Excellent,” Natasha says, and speeds up as she merges onto the highway.

He jerks off that night, flush with victory. It’s going to get harder, now; their targets will be ready. Bucky’s ready, too. He wants to fight, wants to kill them. He wants to get someone of his own back. It’s fucked up and he knows it, jerking off to thoughts of himself and Natasha beating up henchmen and carrying out executions. He doesn’t care. This feels a little like his scraps of memories of the Howling Commandos, which blur into what he read at the museum. It feels right.

HYDRA is afraid, and he wants them to be.

He has trouble falling asleep that night, but for once he welcomes the insomnia, because it’s largely because he’s excited. Natasha still sleeps with him; he’s disciplined enough to hold himself still, even when he’s fired up from an easy victory. But he’s so focused on planning, on tactics, that it takes him a moment to realize what’s happening when Natasha has a nightmare.

Her Russian is different from his, more natural. “Don’t make me,” she whispers. “Please - don’t make me. He’s a child. Don’t -” Her body jerks, and she cries out, fingers tightening into fists. Bucky shakes himself and then leans over, closing his metal hand around her shoulder, whispering, “Natasha. Wake up. Wake up, Natasha, it’s a dream.”

She goes very still, and then her eyes open. “Bucky,” she says.

The entire time, she didn’t scream. How many nightmares did he miss when they were in separate beds, and he was lost in his own nightmares? “I’m here,” he says. It feels pathetically inadequate, not enough by half; but it’s enough to make her relax marginally.

“I’ll go back to sleep,” she says. “I’m fine.”

He wants to say he knows. He wants to comfort her. He wants to be a man who can - hell, he wants to be a man who can kiss her, and right now he’s barely a man at all.

Instead of saying anything useful, he just says, “I know,” and rolls back over. She curls up against him, breathing deliberately evenly.

They must both fall back asleep, because Bucky wakes up to Natasha watching him. He says, “See something you like?”

Natasha’s lips quirk. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she says, and stands up. “Ready to go?”

“Where we headed?”

“California,” Natasha says. “To a corporation called Google.”

“Google?”

“You’ve heard of it?”

“Of course I’ve heard of it,” he says. He’s vaguely offended. “Everyone has.”

“I wasn’t so sure about you.” She sighs. “Their CEO is HYDRA. Likely surrounded with security by now.”

“What’s the play?”

“Still working on that,” she says, and nods to the coffee on the nightstand. “Drink that. I’m going to shower.”

They drive all day and well into the night. Around the ten-hour mark, Natasha says, “Ugh, can you pull off at the next rest stop? I have a cramp.”

They’ve both taken to working out in their hotel rooms, doing as much as they reasonably can in such a constricted space. Bucky’s got cramps too, but he wasn’t going to say anything while Natasha seemed fine. He gets off at the next rest stop, and they both get out to stretch in the warm, dry air.

Bucky’s doing casual hip flexor stretches when a twig snaps behind him, too close. He whirls around, left arm raised to hit someone.

The little girl behind him screams and takes off running.

“At least your arm was covered,” Natasha says. She’s standing off to one side. She must have watched the whole thing.

Bucky lowers his arm. “Let’s go,” he says, and walks back to the car.

As they approach Phoenix, where they’ll be stopping for the night, Natasha says, “It’s your primary weapon, isn’t it?”

He doesn’t need to ask what she’s talking about. “It’s self-sustaining, self-repairing. They grafted me - half my left side is metal.”

“Must’ve hurt.”

“I don’t remember much of it.”

“You don’t seem to mind it much.”

“Not much to mind,” he says. “If I didn’t have this, it’d be a lot harder to get around.”

“They wanted you to be a weapon.”

“That’s pretty obvious.”

Bucky won’t snap at Natasha, not when he just frightened a little girl. But he’s getting more and more tense. Thankfully, she lets it drop.

That night, his nightmares are of the children he killed. When he wakes up, he’s in a cold sweat, and his face is twisted with pain.

It’s almost a relief. He doesn’t normally outwardly present much of the distress he’s feeling. Being sticky with sweat, his lips pulling back from his teeth, is a reminder that he’s still human.

“We can’t attack him at Google offices,” Natasha says as she drives them the next morning.

“I didn’t think so.”

“The complex is massive. I have blueprints. Even if we found him, it would be a very public assassination.”

“And that’s a bad thing.”

He didn’t phrase it as a question, but she answers like he was questioning her. “It’s a problem,” she says. “It sends the wrong message. A message of terror, not justice.”

“You think we haven’t been terrorizing HYDRA?”

“Do you want to be responsible for innocent people witnessing a murder? I have enough on my conscience, personally.”

That didn’t occur to him. He turns it over in his mind. “No,” he finally says. “No, I don’t.”

“Good,” Natasha says. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, though. His home is heavily guarded. He sleeps with a two-guard detail outside his door, and the home is patrolled by 10 more.”

“That’s…”

“Overkill? For a tech giant, yes. For a HYDRA agent with almost as much private information as the NSA, it barely counts as paranoia.”

“I can take out twelve agents,” Bucky says. He shifts a little. This much driving is foreign to him. He’s starting to realize that the feeling he so frequently experiences is boredom. “Easily.”

“We’ll take them out together,” Natasha says. “The key will be making sure the police don’t get called.”

“His security system -”

“It’s biometric. It will detect intruders based on retinal and vocal recognition.”

“Glasses.”

“Exactly,” Natasha says. “Though someone will probably still trip an alarm. And of course, there’s the chance that if the house recognizes our weight and walking patterns as foreign, we’ll wind up with police at the door.”

She sounds excited, which pleases him. It’s good to know that even if he becomes an agent for peace, he can still get excited about a good fight.

Maybe “agent for peace” is a bit much. But whatever Natasha did with SHIELD - he’s sure HYDRA’s file on her was partial at best - it’s still better than what Bucky was doing for HYDRA.

Guilt eats at him. He tries to ignore it. He was a tool, not a person. He’s barely even a person now.

As the desert speeds past, he thinks about Steve. He can’t help but wonder what Steve must think of them. He largely looked stunned when they all met at the burned-down HYDRA facility. He remembers it as though through another’s eyes. He’d been ready to kill Natasha. That was two weeks ago; he wonders how long it will be before he stops thinking about how Steve would look at him if he could see him killing HYDRA agents now. He knows he’s frightening. Steve’s looked frightened of him before - not just when Steve was his target, but also when Bucky was living with Steve and Sam, when he could barely control his movements.

Would Steve still be frightened? Would he be disgusted?

Does it matter? Steve’s not his best friend. He’s not Bucky’s friend at all, really.

“How are you liking your tablet?” Natasha says.

He blinks. “Excuse me?”

“You’re brooding,” she says, “and it’s kind of irritating. All this driving is boring.”

“I’m thinking about Steve.” He’s not sure if he means it as a defense or not.

“Steve and Sam.” Natasha sighs. “You know, if I could’ve drawn you out without them coming with, I would have.”

“They’re soldiers. They know about death.”

“Is that what you’re telling yourself?”

After a tense moment, Bucky admits the truth. “No.”

“They’re good people. They’ve both seen more than civilians, they’ve both struggled, but that inner core of goodness - they never had it taken from them. You and I have.”

“Brainwashing.”

“More than that,” Natasha says. “That implies a clean slate. You know that’s not what we are.”

Similes pass through his mind: a tangled ball of wire, a shattered mirror. None of them are accurate. He’s not sure there’s even really a way to think about the pieces of himself, scattered among a web of pain and fear.

“No,” he says finally. “We’re not.”

“But we’re still people,” Natasha says. “Despite everything. They can’t take that from us. Nothing can.”

“How do you know we’re doing the right thing?” Bucky says.

“I don’t,” Natasha says. “But Steve didn’t try to stop us. I think that’s a pretty good yardstick, don’t you?”

Principled, good, strong Steve, who somehow hasn’t changed from the little shit Bucky half-remembers, fighting bullies twice as big as himself, trying to go it alone. Steve.

“I wish I could be his friend,” Bucky says.

“Give it time,” Natasha says. “Time heals all wounds.”

“Scar tissue is ugly.”

“So’s the world,” Natasha says, and speeds up a little. Palo Alto is only nine hours away.

It’s almost tradition at this point to take a night off before killing a target. Bucky does his best to ignore his previous stray thoughts about kissing Natasha. She’s not interested; he’s pretty sure he’s also not interested; it would be a disaster. There are a hundred reasons to repress that, and it’s not like repression is particularly difficult for him. He enjoys the press of her hand against his stomach, and tells himself it doesn’t mean anything. They have work to do.

They case Google HQ the next day, “Just in case,” Natasha says. They identify Page’s car and tag it, to ensure he’ll be home when they break in. All of that is relatively quick work, though, and by noon they’re done.

“Back to the hotel room?” Natasha says.

Bucky nods. “I have a book on my tablet.”

“What book?” Natasha says.

“New Lies For Old,” Bucky says. He doesn’t need to tell her the author. It’s a book about Soviet Russia; she’ll know it.

“Ah,” Natasha says. Bucky’s relieved when she drops the subject.

Their target is in his home by 8:15 PM. They want him in his bedroom, so they wait until midnight to leave the hotel. They park several blocks away from Page’s house.

“Firepower?” Bucky says. He hasn’t asked until now, largely because he assumes the trunk is full of weapons.

Natasha slants him a smile. “I thought you’d never ask,” she says, and pops the trunk.

Bucky arms himself with six knives, a Glock, and an AK-47. Natasha has four knives and two Glocks. “You don’t think the automatic’s a little overkill?” she says as they walk towards the house.

“Anyone who sees it will think it’s a costume,” Bucky says.

“Sure they will,” Natasha says, and pulls her dark glasses - they decided against ski masks - on.

They look ridiculous, wearing dark goggles in the night, but that doesn’t matter. They’re treated not to impede night vision, and they’ll keep the alarm from being triggered.

They meet the first guard at the gate to Page’s home. The guard’s eyes widen when he sees them, and he looks ready to cry out - but Bucky slits his throat before he gets a chance to, and opens the gate with the dead guard’s fingerprint.

“Let’s get going,” Natasha says, and together they enter Page’s residence.

His driveway is long, with what looks like half a forest on either side. They stick to the shadows, following the driveway and going tree to tree. After about half a mile, they’re on their bellies at the top of a hill, looking down at Page’s mansion.

“Nice neighborhood,” Natasha says in a low voice.

Bucky surveys the dwelling. The front door has two guards posted; four more are circling the property, patrolling. They’re not going far enough out to detect Bucky and Natasha, which is how Bucky knows that Page is probably more interested in a sense of safety than he is in well-trained guards. Six guards outside, two at Page’s door: where are the other two?

He didn’t speak out loud, but Natasha says, “The other two are in the security room, third floor. They’re the backup.”

“They’re not well trained,” Bucky says.

“No,” Natasha says. “HYDRA’s paranoid, but they’re not running scared. Not yet.”

“I want them to be.”

“So do I, trust me,” she says. “Let’s go.”

They take out the two guards before they can cry out, with throwing knives to the throat. As the guards bleed out, Bucky forces the front door open.

They have three minutes, approximately, before the guards try to check in with one another. With that target in mind, they move directly to the bedroom.

Natasha says, “Hey, boys.” That’s all the warning the two guards get. Bucky gets the one on the left; Natasha gets the one on the right. Two bullets in two separate foreheads. They used silencers, so the loudest noise is the bodies thumping to the floor.

“Should we wait for the backup?” Bucky says.

“We’ve got about two minutes,” Natasha says. “Let’s finish the op. Leave them scared, so they can tell HYDRA what happened here.”

“I like the way you think,” Bucky says, and opens Page’s door.

He’s standing there with a gun out. Maybe there was more noise than Bucky thought. It doesn’t matter, though. Natasha keeps a gun trained on Page as Bucky knocks Page’s gun away and lifts him by the throat, in his left hand.

His gloves are off. He knows how inhuman he looks. He wants Page to know, too.

“Please,” Page says.

“Goodbye,” Bucky says, and snaps Page’s neck.

“We should probably have a signature kill,” Natasha says as they speed out of Palo Alto.

“There will be security footage,” Bucky says. “They’ll know it’s us.”

“Still.”

“I don’t care about style.”

She snorts, glances in the rearview mirror, and speeds up a little. Bucky finds all those movements fascinating. “Please. No one who fights like you do can lay claim to not caring about style.”

He shouldn’t rise to her bait, but he can’t help it. No one’s ever accused him of that before. No one’s ever lived long enough to - or he’s never been unfrozen long enough. “Explain.”

“The goggles. The hair. The arm.”

“All forced on me.”

“The way you move,” Natasha says. “You wanted to be known as a presence.”

“Intimidation tactic.”

“You still move that way. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying being a little terrifying, you know.”

“If I enjoy it -”

“That doesn’t mean you enjoyed the kills.”

“I’m enjoying these.”

“That’s different and you know it.”

“Would Steve think so?”

“I’m not Steve,” Natasha says, “and neither are you. That's what I keep tryingn to tell you.”

He doesn’t respond.

They don’t stop for the night until they’re out of California. “Our next target is an oil magnate in Texas,” Natasha says as she pulls into a Days Inn parking lot. “Outside of Houston.”

“Do you enjoy driving?”

“I don’t hate it,” Natasha says. “It’s given me time to figure you out.”

He would never expect the Widow to be so blunt. But she’s not the Widow to him anymore, not really. She’s Natasha.

“What have you figured out?”

“More than I thought I’d get. Not as much as I’d like.”

He snorts. “Do you even know how to communicate without being cryptic?”

“Sure I do,” she says. She’s smiling when he looks over at her.

The moment turns awkward. Then, as quickly as it became awkward, it’s over. She pulls the keys out of the car and they both get their bags.

That night, Bucky dreams.

In his dream, he and Natasha are fighting, back to back. The nature of their enemy is unclear, but Natasha shoves him to the pavement and shoots someone who would have killed him. Then, the dream shifts and they're in a bedroom - not a motel room, but an actual bedroom, with sheer white curtains and a well-worn desk next to the bed. Natasha's over him, straddling him and smiling. She loops her arms around his neck and kisses him, and he puts his hands on her hips.

He wakes up hard, aching, and confused. Natasha's arm is still around him, and she's sleeping peacefully. He closes his eyes and tries to ignore the feeling of her against him, the warmth of her breasts, her hand - which he knows is incredibly strong - on his stomach. He can't. He wants to roll over and kiss her, and he knows she wouldn't welcome it. Who would? He's broken - barely a person.

But regardless of Natasha's disinterest in him, he still has to take care of the needs his body is suddenly pressing upon him. He rolls out of bed and goes into the bathroom, turning on the shower. Jerking off is quick and efficient, an uncoiling of energy within him. He thinks about Natasha, shamelessly, about kissing her breasts and fucking her, her riding him. He comes quickly, then puts his underwear back on, leaving the bathroom.

She's sitting up and watching the bathroom door. "Couldn't sleep?" she says when he comes out.

He can't fight the suspicion that she knows, even though there's no way she possibly could. "No," he says. "I might be able to now, though."

"Come to bed," she says, her voice suddenly gentle.

He swallows. That tone -

No.

He circles the bed and lies down. She lies next to him, one leg hooked over his.

It's easy to fall asleep after that, regardless of the thoughts - and guilt - spinning in his mind. The next morning, they get up and drive to Houston.

The oil magnate, Weller, owns a tall building downtown - 15 floors high. "It'll be heavily guarded," Natasha says. "Are you up for the challenge?"

"Of course," he snaps, before realizing she's teasing him. He attempts to gentle his tone. "Yes."

"Good," she says. "Let's go, then."

They case the place. His office is on the top floor. They watch the entrance all day; he doesn't leave until ten. "Should we kill him in his home?" Bucky says as he drives away.

Natasha opens her mouth to respond - and someone shoots her in the shoulder.

Bucky reacts instantly, whirling around. But a rag is pressed to his face as a taser shoots him, and even as panic engulfs him, the world falls away.

-

He wakes in pain.

The first thing he checks is his left arm, but it's functional, as far as he can tell. He can't actually move it much, because he's chained to a wall. But they haven't tried to remove it, and he feels a wave of relief at that.

Relief, however, is almost immediately replaced by fear. It's a similar emotion, and he thinks of the wiping, the electroshock, the deep freeze. For a moment he's immobilized, lost in his own memories.

But he forces himself back. He has to. HYDRA won't show him mercy; they have Natasha, and he doesn't think he's going to be permitted to live. He has to find a way out.

He's in a cell about six feet square, with a window high up and to the side, and a door. The chains don't budge when he tugs at them. He'll have to wait for them to attempt to move him before he escapes. But he will escape. No other option is acceptable.

At least he can stand in the chains. He stands and tries to look in the high, barred window.

He can't reach, but his movement must be obvious, because a hoarse voice says, "Bucky?"

"Natasha."

"This isn't good."

"No," Bucky says.

"You're chained up?"

"Yes."

"So am I."

"What's your plan?"

"I'm working on one," Natasha says.

Bucky doesn't respond. The rooms are probably bugged, even if all he can see are anonymous cement walls.

No one comes. Not to feed them, not to give them a bucket to shit in. No one's there.

Then he hears noise from the other cell.

"Natasha?"

"Hang on," she says.

He waits, and waits. Then there's the clanking of chains, and a door opening.

"Hey there, pretty girl," a stranger says. "Good job getting out, but we're not going to allow -"

Bucky grins when he hears a neck snap. Then his door is being opened, and Natasha's holding the guard's keys.

Her wrist is bloody. He looks at it curiously as she unlocks him.

"Never put anyone with small hands in chains where she can reach her mouth," Natasha says. "Let's go."

"Where are we?"

"I have no idea," she says. "How about we find out?"

No alarm is going off yet. Bucky flexes his wrist and checks his pants. They took his gun, but left his knives. Idiots.

"Let's go," he says.

They're in a basement level, judging by the piping and the lack of windows. They encounter three guards on their way to an emergency exit. Natasha takes care of one; Bucky kills the other two, slitting one's throat and snapping the other's neck. It's a relief, he thinks, to be able to do this.

The alarm sounds as soon as they push the door open for the exit, but that doesn't matter. They run up the stairs, and then they're free.

They haven't left the oil magnate's building, he realizes. Their car is less than three blocks away.

"We need to get out of here," Natasha says. "You can dig the bullet out of me later."

They run.

The car hasn't been ID'd, as far as Bucky can tell. Natasha has to break in and hotwire it, but then they're driving out of Houston. They stop in a suburb and check into a motel - or, rather, Bucky checks into the Best Western, and they sneak a bloody Natasha in. He gets the first aid kit from the trunk, along with their clothes. It's not until he makes it back up to the room that he realizes his flesh-and-blood hand is shaking.

"It's okay to be scared," Natasha says quietly. She's sitting on the bed, a hand pressed to her shoulder.

"I wasn't scared," he says. Too late, he realizes he sounds like a kid - on the docks, fighting bullies. The memory washes over him. He tries to blink through it.

"Sure," Natasha says. "Well, either way, we need to get this bullet out of me." She shrugs out of her jacket and pulls her ruined shirt off.

Her torn shoulder is already showing signs of healing. Bucky gets tweezers out of the kit, along with thread and a needle, gauze, and isopropyl alcohol. He sterilizes everything, then digs the bullet out. Natasha's breathing stays even; she doesn't tear at the sheets. He wonders how much they tortured her to make her this relaxed during a medical procedure.

It's not until he's sewn up the hole, the bullet dropped in the trash, that Natasha says, "My wrist, too."

He disinfects it and wraps it. The whole time, he's barely been looking at her properly. He's been focused on her wounds. But when he finishes wrapping the gauze around her wrists, he realizes that they're both sitting on the bed, close together, and she's looking at him like -

Like a woman who's trying to trick him. He can feel his expression harden as he stands. "I don't know why you think you need to fuck me."

"What makes you say that?" Natasha packs the first aid kit up again, in efficient movements. She doesn't seem to be in any pain. Then again, she also seemed like she wanted him.

"You looked at me like -"

"Like what?" She locks eyes with him, expression one of absolute calm. "Is it hard to believe I'd want you?"

He has to look away. "Steve," he says.

She waits. It takes him a long time to say, "Steve understood that during the war, we had to do terrible things."

"That's the case of all wars. And plenty of peacetime, too."

"He watched me kill men. I watched him kill men."

"If you're worried about those goons back there -"

"I'm not," he says. "But it doesn't bother me, does it? And it doesn't bother you, either. We're too -"

"Broken?"

He clenches his left hand, then releases it, pressing it against his thigh. The metal is cold, a reminder of everything he is, now - and everything he's not. "You say it like you don't believe it."

"I did, for awhile," she says. She stands up and goes to the window, turning her back on him. "When you're not sure where you stand with yourself, or other people, it's easy to think so."

"You remember your childhood."

"I remember a childhood." She pulls the curtains shut. "There's a pretty big difference between the two. The Soviet Union and HYDRA wiped you. They implanted memories in me."

"Then how do you know your experience has anything to do with mine?"

"I was lying to you," she says. "Just now."

"And?"

"You could tell."

"You're very good." He knows that's not an answer. He doesn't want to give one.

"I am," she says. "And I lie to everyone. Do you understand? The truth is a malleable thing. I was lying to you, but no more than I would to anyone else."

"But you didn't want to."

"I never said that." She takes a step towards him, and then another one. He has to fight the urge to back away. "I thought you'd prefer someone soft."

"I'd be worried about hurting someone soft," he says as she comes to a stop a few inches from him.

She quirks her eyebrows, smiles a little. This is another mask; it has to be. But it's one he finds he wants to believe in, the frank seeming-honesty in her expression. "You don't have to worry about hurting me," she says, and kisses him.

Of the two of them, he's pretty sure he's the only one who's frightened. It's a cold ball in the pit of his stomach, one he doesn't want to be there. He could back off, and for the sake of his sanity he probably should - but instead he kisses back.

After a long moment, she pulls back. The kiss stayed shallow, but she's still breathing just a little harder than normal. "Tell me if you want this," she says. "I won't push you to do it just because I think it'll be good for us."

Like she was. Like he might have been, if his programming hadn't been so unstable. "I want this," he says.

Her expression doesn't change. Her eyes look huge in her face, her lips bee-stung. It's lipstick, he knows, or the remnants of lipstick. It still distracts him, even as she closes the gap between them and kisses him again.

She's the one who pushes him back on the bed, pulling his shirt off. Her movements are incredibly fluid for someone who just got shot in the shoulder; she makes quick work of all their clothes, and then she's kissing him, wet against his thigh. He thrusts his hips up and she gasps - and for once, he thinks it might be genuine. He knows it's genuine when he steadies her with his metal hand, half sitting up so he can suck on her nipples. She pushes him down, puts on a condom, then lowers herself on his cock, playing with her tits and riding him. He reaches out with his human hand and thumbs at her clit, then presses down hard. She makes a small noise, reaching down and splaying a hand on his chest.

He comes first, groaning as he does, his head spinning. But she follows even as he's softening, locking their hips together and rubbing her clit, hard, head thrown back. Suddenly she stiffens and lets out a single low moan, hand going still on herself.

He's uncertain what to do after she comes. He keeps one hand on her hip as she shudders, hips still moving minutely against him.

When she's done, she opens her eyes and looks at him. Her face is utterly unreadable. He thinks, as he looks at her, that she was - is - the Red Room's masterpiece. Even here, after almost dying, and after sex, she keeps her feelings to herself.

Of course, that assumes she's actually feeling something. Maybe she isn't, and Bucky's a fool.

After a long moment where they stare at each other and Bucky wonders if he's made an enormous mistake, she leans forward and brushes a kiss against his forehead. "We should sleep," she says. She moves off of him smoothly, pulling him against her as he stares down at himself.

He wants to do it again. His refractory period - they could do it again, easily, only he's fairly certain that's not what's going on, here.

So instead he says, "Yes. We should," and leans back against her, letting her spoon him.

She strokes his hair, the arm behind his head traveling from his temple down his shoulder, to where his metal arm begins. If he were braver - if things were different - he'd ask her if it disgusts her. If his malformation is something she finds disgusting. It didn't seem to be, but again: Natasha lies.

But things aren't different. He half-wishes he could stay away and mull this over, try and figure Natasha out, but his body betrays him. He falls asleep in her arms.

He wakes up the next day to see Natasha changing the bandage on her wrist. "Let me," he says, sitting up and taking the dirty bandages she hands him. He folds clean ones, smooths them over her wrist, and secures them with medical tape.

"We're taking this guy out," Natasha says.

Bucky nods. "I know."

"I very much dislike being threatened with rape."

He starts.

"You were asleep," she says. "Or - knocked unconscious. And nothing happened. But still. Weller is going down, and he's going down hard."

He thinks of the building and of how easily they were taken by surprise. He'd half like to believe it was just them slipping, their instincts failing; that at least could be fixed by training. But he thinks the reality is that HYDRA's paranoia has finally grown to the point where they're outnumbered. "A frontal assault won't work."

"Mmm, no, and they know what we look like." She slants a smile at him. "It's a challenge now."

It's a challenge he would prefer to avoid. He nods. "How should we get into the building?"

"Maintenance workers will be screened," Natasha says. "But there's an old SHIELD facility near here. It's been abandoned since...well."

Bucky understands. "But the equipment will still be there."

"Masks," Natasha says. "Micro-mesh, programmed to give you a different face. We go shopping for some wigs and we can easily look like whoever we want. We just need photographs of the faces we want, to load the images."

She's deliberately dumbing down her language to make it comprehensible to him. He understands and appreciates that, even if the thought does rankle a bit. "Who are we imitating?"

Natasha holds up her phone and shows him two pictures. "Tom Worthington and Abigail Townsend, Security International."

"Sales people?"

"Good ones," Natasha says. "You'll have to do a little more than give these guys puppy-dog eyes. But it'll get us a meeting with Weller, even if he's suspicious."

"And from there, we put a bullet in his head?"

Natasha smirks a little. "You're pretty straightforward, huh?"

"It gets the job done."

"Sometimes finesse is required. No; we take three masks, throw one on him, and he leaves with a gun against his back. Then we send a message to HYDRA."

"We can't exactly put his head on a pike."

"No," Natasha says. "But we can make sure he's found dead in a very public place."

"You're suggesting we kill him -"

"After we kidnap him. Execute him, then dump the body late at night, right outside his building."

"Police will notice he's missing. They'll be patrolling the area."

"He'll make a call to tell people not to wait up."

Bucky blinks. It's a simple plan - relatively simple - but it has a grandiose aspect to it that Bucky likes. And part of him really, really enjoys the thought of making a very deliberate point.

"Yes," he says. "Good. We'll do it."

"Excellent. Now go shower. We have work to do."

The SHIELD building is one of the older, hidden ones. The hat shop that used to be a cover for it has closed; Bucky wrenches the doorknob off the back entrance, and they go in that way. The lever to open the lower levels is behind the sales counter. He pulls it, and he and Natasha go down together.

It's only been six months since SHIELD went dark, so a little dust has accumulated, but not much. It's eerily quiet, though, as Natasha leads them in and goes to the weapons room.

She picks up a case. "It has four," she says. "You can just keep one in your pocket."

"That's it? That's the plan?"

"Sure thing, soldier." She opens the package and does some complicated stuff with one of the holo-screens. He sees the pictures she showed him pop up, and then the micro-film shimmers.

"As soon as it's molded to a face, the disguise will kick in," she says. "Handy, no?"

He nods. This place is making him jumpy; he wants to leave.

While they're there, they replenish their bullet supply. Bucky picks up a slightly bigger dagger, just because he can. Natasha replaces her guns. They walk out with their arms loaded down.

They buy their business clothes at a thrift shop that doesn't have well-placed security cameras, but does have mid-range business casual clothing, the type that not-quite-high-powered sales people might wear. Bucky puts it all on before he puts the mask on. He holds the mesh mask in his hand for a moment, memorizing his own face, before he puts it on.

Natasha comes out of the bathroom a moment later. She's wearing a blonde wig that she's apparently been carrying this entire time, and her features have changed, molded into a sharper nose and higher cheekbones. "I'm sorry," she says when she sees him. "I know it must be difficult, this soon out of the ice."

"I've been out of the ice for months," Bucky says, a little harshly.

"And you were a captive for years. I just wanted to let you know I regret this necessity." She picks up the purse she bought at the thrift store. It's bright red and looks just the right kind of tacky. It also holds all of the weapons they don't have strapped to their bodies. "Let's go."

Bucky knows that his role is to kill anyone who looks at them a little too closely, and to help Natasha subdue Weller. His role is definitely not to attempt to charm his way into the building, because he doesn't really have that ability, and it would end badly. He's well aware that when it comes to subterfuge, Natasha's the leader and he's following behind, trying not to make a face that will lead to their discovery.

Natasha, as it turns out, is a really excellent leader. She doesn't just get them in; she gets them a meeting with Weller at 2:30, just an hour after they arrive at the building. Well, part of it is Natasha. The other part of it gives Bucky a little thrill of satisfaction: Weller's running scared.

They're led up to his office, on the top floor. "Nice view," Natasha says. Weller's office itself has heavy blinds, all closed, but the other half of the top floor is an open demo room, and a fully glass wall overlooks the city.

"It's our pride and joy," the receptionist Amy says. She goes to sit back by the door. She'll have to be dealt with in some way; Bucky hopes he's not going to be responsible for distracting her as they lead Weller out, with a gun in his back.

At exactly 2:30, Weller opens his office door. "Please, come in, Mr. Worthington, Mrs. Townsend."

"It's Miss Townsend," Natasha says, but she smiles graciously and allows Weller to usher her in. "Your punctuality is greatly appreciated," she adds as she sits down in front of his desk.

The blinds are open now. That's a problem.

But before Bucky can even think of what he'd say to get Weller to close them, Natasha's delicately clearing her throat and saying, "This matter is, as I'm sure you know, very private. Perhaps a little more security is desirable?"

"I'd like to know exactly how much you know about the business that happened here yesterday, little lady," Weller says. He closes the blinds, though. Bucky looks out the window so he's not glaring at Weller - who is, overall, a distasteful kind of person.

"We pay attention at Security International," Natasha says.

"What kind of a name is that, anyway?"

"An unambiguous one," Bucky says.

Weller starts a little, like he'd forgotten Bucky was there, and stares at Bucky. Bucky stares back.

"What my colleague is trying to say is, we're very focused on our customers," Natasha says. "We'd be fools not to pay attention to our...potential customers, as well. People with assets, who might be targeted." She stands. "May I?" she says, gesturing to the window behind Weller's desk.

Weller stands up, too, and together they move to the window, overlooking the city. Bucky knows his cue. He pulls the gun out of Natasha's bag and, moving quickly, presses it against Weller's lower back.

Natasha's hand clamps over Weller's mouth. "This can go one of two ways," she says. Her voice still doesn't sound like her own - micro-auditory readjustment, she'd told Bucky - but the tone sounds more like her all the same. "Either you walk out with us, without raising a fuss, or we kill you here and leave your body for Amy to find. You want to walk out with us, don't you?"

Weller looks terrified. He nods quickly, hands trembling as he raises them to rest against the glass.

"Good," Natasha says. "We're going to leave together. All smiles, no secret signals. We killed your men once; we can do it again. You'll tell whoever it is you normally tell about these things not to wait up. Understood?"

Weller nods again.

"Great," Natasha says. She looks at Bucky; Bucky puts the gun back in Natasha's bag.

They walk out together. Weller tells Amy, "I'll be out for the rest of the day. Hold my calls." To his credit, he sounds perfectly calm. He doesn't keep a distance from Natasha and Bucky. They're all silent, but that's the only sign that anything's wrong.

They get into Natasha and Bucky's car, with Bucky and Weller in the backseat. As soon as the car starts moving, Weller moves to unlock the door.

"I wouldn't do that," Bucky says, gun trained on Weller.

"Who are you?" Weller says. "What do you want? Why are you killing us off?"

"All in due time," Natasha says, changing lanes a little more abruptly than is strictly necessary.

Bucky meets her eyes in the rear view mirror. Natasha shakes her head minutely. No; this is just a stalling tactic. They won't be explaining anything to Weller.

When they get back to the hotel room, Natasha pulls off her mask. So does Bucky. Both of them, it seems, want to do this as the people they actually are.

"What are you going to do to me?" Weller says. "Is that - oh god. You have tarp on the carpet."

"If you scream, we'll shoot you," Natasha says. "That's what the tarp is for. Keep the gun on him," she adds to Bucky. Bucky sits on his bed, motioning for Waller to sit as well.

Bucky and Natasha's things are already packed. They sit entirely still, watching each other and Weller, until 1 AM.

"Gag him," Natasha says at exactly 1.

Before Weller can protest, Bucky shoves a gag into his mouth and zip-ties his hands behind his back. Natasha kicks his knees out from under him so that he falls on the tarp. "Kneel," she says.

His eyes widen, but Bucky's already got the gun pressed against the back of his head. He starts to scream against the gag, and Bucky shoots him.

The silencer keeps it from being that loud, but blood still sprays on the television. "I'll wipe that up," Natasha says, and goes into the bathroom.

Bucky rolls the body up in the tarp. Natasha gets their suitcases. They both put the microfilm masks back on and sneak out the back, avoiding security cameras. The drive into downtown Houston is quick this time of night. They stop outside the building, taking a moment to make sure there are no police officers.

It takes all of thirty seconds to dump the body, thirty more to unroll the tarp and arrange him spread-eagled, in front of the building. Five minutes later, the masks are off and they're leaving downtown Houston.

"License plate," Bucky says. It hadn't occurred to him to worry.

"Oh, right," Natasha says. She pulls over on the side of the highway and scrapes off the clay Bucky hadn't even noticed her applying to the license plates. "Did it while you were sleeping," she says. "By the time they find the make and model of the car, we'll be long gone. And there are a lot of silver Ford Focuses in the world."

Bucky nods. "The masks?"

"Can't hurt to keep them. There are places we can re-program them in." Natasha points to the sign they're driving past: 332 miles to New Orleans.

"Our next target," she says. "Are you up to it?"

"Of course," Bucky says.

"Good," Natasha says, and speeds up that much more.

They don't get into New Orleans until 8 in the morning. Bucky's driving, then, and he's the one who gets them to a Days Inn downtown. Natasha didn't sleep, but as soon as they've secured the hotel room, she changes into pajamas and pulls Bucky into bed with her.

For a moment Bucky's heart skips, and he thinks - maybe. He never notices it in the moment, isn't even sure he's capable of doing so, but now he can't stop thinking about how beautifully she executed the plan. How flawlessly she lied, how easily she manipulated Waller into sitting in their hotel room, silently, for ten hours, believing he'd be spared. He looks at her and he sees a weapon, but he also sees the woman under the weapon, burning with a desire to prove her makers wrong.

"We didn't do the right thing," she says. "We were cruel."

He doesn't think she's asking for validation. She has a different reason for saying that. "He was cruel," Bucky says. "We ended that."

"Another will move in to take his place."

"Then I guess we have more work to do."

"Lie down," she says after a moment. "Roll over."

He obeys. She curls herself against him. No part of her softens when she falls asleep.

He's hard when he wakes up in the morning. He doesn't realize it at first, but then he realizes that they've shifted in the night, and Natasha's half-lying on top of him, one of his thighs between her legs. She's moving against him, he realizes, shuddering a little in her sleep.

He reaches over with his metal arm and shakes her awake. She wakes suddenly, grabbing his arm - and then, slowly, running her fingers over it.

He shivers. He doesn't have normal pain receptors - he only feels pain when the arm is being damaged - but the arm is sensitive. She's touching it gently, stroking it, and if he was getting hard before, that's nothing compared to what's happening right now.

Slowly, so slowly Bucky's pretty sure she's giving him time to move away, Natasha moves in and kisses him. This should be a surprise, the kissing; it feels intimate in a way that simply fucking doesn't. But her lips are soft, and he's not any more surprised than he was the first time. They kiss slowly, moving against each other, Natasha's breath hitching when he presses his thigh up.

Maybe this is something different, Bucky thinks as Natasha strips his boxers off, rolls a condom on him, runs her hands over his chest. Maybe with her, he can learn to be a person. A person who wants her, a person who does this all the time, not just in the aftermath of killing. Maybe -

She lowers herself onto him, and she's so wet, clenching against him, that he surprises himself by moaning out loud, throwing his head back. "Please," he says.

He's not even sure what he wants, but she reaches out and pins his arms, hand encircling his metal wrist. And it's not real restraint, but he lets her pin him, savoring the illusion of a lack of control, the way she keeps him pinned as she rides him. It feels safe, and it makes something burn in him, mounting until he's coming, hot and fast.

He gets a finger to her clit, but it barely takes that; she shudders and comes after just a minute, slumping against him. "I could - more," Bucky says, barely managing to be verbal; but she shakes her head, moving so he slips out of her, then curling around him.

"We've got another hour or so," Natasha says, and Bucky realizes it's still dark out, except for the flood lights.

It goes against everything he's been trained to do, but he closes his eyes anyway, drifting still in that safe feeling he had before.

When he wakes up again, he rolls to look at Natasha. She looks back at him steadily, with an expression of expectation that tells him she might already know what he's going to say.

"This mission, of killing HYDRA," he says. "It's revenge."

"Revenge that you deserve," she says.

"I know that," he says. "I just think I might - not want to. For awhile."

She nods. "I thought you might say that," she says. "How about we go to a diner for breakfast?"

They usually just eat the motel's breakfast, loading down on bagels and muffins. He nods and says, "I'll get dressed."

It's not a date. For starters, Bucky's pretty sure you can't date the person you've been executing evil conspiracy participants with. And he still feels a little befuddled around the edges - Natasha requests a booth against a wall, and he sits with his back to the wall, scanning the restaurant.

"It's okay to be like this, you know," Natasha says. "Jumpy."

"Is it?"

"I was," she says. "For years. I still am, to some degree."

"How do you let it go? It's dangerous to - not be like this."

She doesn't toy with anything, doesn't even break eye contact, but he gets the feeling he's struck a nerve. "It is dangerous," she says. "But it's worth it, to live like a person and not a weapon. It's worth it to feel like you own your destiny."

"I don't know if I can ever let it go."

"I know," she says - and then her expression shifts entirely, seriousness melting away as the waitress brings them their coffee.

He's pretty sure she hasn't let it go as much as she claims.

After they eat, Bucky says, "What are we going to do?"

"Depends," Natasha says. "What do you want to do?"

He thinks it over. He doesn't know, really. He doesn't want to see a movie, which he's learned tend to have either fake, stupid violence, or people being terrible to each other. He doesn't want to go shopping; he doesn't really need anything, and he dislikes the idea of being in one of those claustrophobic stores. Finally, he says, "I want a book to read."

"We can do that," she says.

She takes him to a bookstore - "One of the last in the city," she says dryly.

He can't imagine bookstores, of all things, becoming common enough to circle around to being rare. But he says, "Thank you," and goes inside.

He doesn't like any of the fictional summaries he reads. He can't connect to them, and all he can think is that they seem frivolous. But he finds a book about 3D printers, which sounds impossible enough that he buys it.

Natasha buys a book about politics. He doesn't ask her what kind of politics she's interested in. He gets the feeling the answer would involve more history than he's been able to learn - or re-learn. And it might involve him to an uncomfortable degree.

They get back to the hotel room and sit on opposite beds, reading. Natasha's opened the curtains, which demonstrates an uncomfortable lack of security - but on a practical level, they're not likely to be attacked here, and the sunshine streaming in glints on Natasha's hair in a distractingly appealing way. Bucky watches her as much as he reads, trying to understand her, trying to understand what motivates her. She reads peacefully, giving no indication that she notices his scrutiny. Of course, she probably does, but he appreciates the pretext.

He's starting to think that maybe they can spend a few days like this, just reading and - for certain values of it - relaxing, when Natasha gets a phone call.

"This is Natasha," she says. "Steve, hi. What's - oh. Right. Noted." She glances at Bucky. "We can be there in a few hours. Believe it or not, New Orleans has an airport now." Something Steve says makes her smile, but it's a tense smile, a little bitter. "Got it. I'll see you then." She hangs up.

Bucky waits for an explanation. Natasha takes a deep breath, then says, "HYDRA has taken control of Stark Tower."

"What? How?"

"All too easily," Natasha says. "They have fifty employees in Stark Industries, and Stark Tower is running on a skeleton crew - repairs are still going on. Tony's not in there, but Pepper is, and Tony's going crazy. He can't use the suit - if he does, they'll kill her."

"So we need to infiltrate."

"As soon as we've secured the building, Tony will be free to move in," Natasha says. "But getting Pepper is going to be a big enough job on its own." She presses her lips together, clearly disapproving. "Sam's coming."

Bucky thinks back to telling Sam to come on to Steve, hoping that it ended well for Steve's sake. It's only been a few weeks since then, but it feels like forever. "He'll be in danger. We won't have time to protect him."

"I think he's aware. Steve certainly is."

"If he's a distraction -"

"Steve's more professional than that."

"Then let's go," Bucky says.

They're on a plane an hour and a half after that. Bucky's tense the whole time; their seats are in the middle of the train, and all he can think about is what will happen if the plane goes down. But of course, it doesn't, and by 4, they've landed.

They go immediately to Steve's safe house. "I'm sorry there's not more space," Steve says, as though that's a priority.

Bucky feels a pull of familiarity when he looks at Steve, a sudden wave of memory - getting Steve out of a scrape, pulling him up from the pavement. He's been too focused on revenge to think about his memory loss for awhile now, and he wonders if part of that was Natasha's intention.

"Really not a priority," Natasha says. But she says it gently, like she knows what Steve's doing.

"Pepper's a good woman," Steve says. "I - we -"

"I know," Natasha says. "We'll get her back, I promise."

"Will they keep her hostage once we attack?" Bucky says.

Steve takes a deep breath. "That's the thing," he says. "Here's the plan."

They're going to loop the security footage, he explains. An old trick, but an easy one for Tony to accomplish remotely, and one that will give him something to do while he's waiting. Tony's the only person they managed to get a life signature from, before JARVIS pulled out of Stark Tower entirely. That's why he can't enter the building in the Iron Man suit - they'll kill Pepper immediately. But with the security footage looped, it should be relatively simple for Natasha, Steve, Bucky, and Sam to secure the building.

"Once we have Pepper, stealth will be less important," Steve says. "Though still advisable."

"Noted," Bucky says.

Steve hesitates, then says, "It's good to see you back, Buck."

Bucky looks at Sam and Steve, at the way they're standing closely together, shoulders touching. Natasha is across the table from Bucky. He feels a tug in his stomach that he chooses to ignore, re-focusing on Steve. "It's good to be back," he says.

"Okay," Steve says. "Let's suit up."

Bucky isn't sure what to expect. New York is familiar and not; he's trying to push his memories away, the way he did with Natasha, but it's harder here. He sees the older buildings with double vision, almost, what actually exists now clashing with what he expects. But the closer they get to Stark Tower, the more modern everything seems. Until finally, they're standing at Stark Tower's doors, and Bucky's focus narrows. Now, there's nothing but the mission.

They walk in calmly. They're all wearing professional gear, Bucky in his vest, Natasha in kevlar and leather. Steve's got his suit on. "I feel overdressed," he mutters as they survey the abandoned lobby.

"You look good," Natasha says. "And anyway, unless I'm very mistaken, you're not exactly on the prowl anymore."

"I was never on the prowl," Steve says.

"Let's go," Bucky says, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. He walks quickly to the stairs.

They encounter their first guard on the stairwell. Their plan is to sweep each floor, only moving on when one is clear. Apparently the guards are leery of the elevators, as well. Steve dispatches him with a quick blow to the head. It's a killing blow. Apparently he's not in the mood for compromises.

Bucky's glad for that, because it means he can be as efficient as he was forcibly trained to be. There are five guards in the first floor lobby, but before they get themselves in firing position, each of them has taken out one guard. Steve and Natasha dispatch the other two while Bucky sweeps the long corridors of offices. He takes out three more guards, one by one, with his knife. Bullets will run out; the knife stays.

He's wiping it on his pants when Natasha and Steve catch up. "That wasn't so bad," Steve says.

"He wants to jinx us," Natasha says in Russian.

Bucky grins, then grins wider at the confused look on Steve's face. "If he has, we'll find out," he replies.

"Let's move out," Steve says, apparently having decided that discretion is better than demanding to know what they'd been saying.

They go up floor by floor. By the twenty-first floor, they've killed thirty combatants - there weren't nearly as many on any of the higher floors as on the first floor. The next twenty-eight floors are deserted.

Which means there are around twenty men on the top floor. And comms would be detected by Stark Tower's security, which means they have no way of knowing Sam's status.

They figure it out as soon as they get into the room, though, because there are four bodies and sixteen people ready to shoot at them. Bucky dodges immediately, getting one, two, then three with throwing knives, rolling and taking out a fifth with his knife. Then he gets the automatic off his back and kills five more, even as Natasha and Steve finish with their targets.

Only then does Bucky take note of the shattered window. Sam must have gotten Pepper out safely. She knew where to wait; Tony managed to communicate that much. Bucky's still not sure how.

Natasha immediately strides over to the computer console, prominently by the window. She hits a few of the immaterial keys, then a few more, and then there's an electronic beeping, and a voice speaks. "Thank you for restoring me, Ms. Romanoff."

"Tony gave me the protocols," Natasha says. "Have you alerted him that Stark Tower is secure?"

"I have indeed," the voice says. "There's a newcomer in your midst."

"This is Bucky," Steve says, clapping a hand on his shoulder.

It's a mirror of the movement Bucky remembers making, way back when Steve was much smaller, and now he's a little dizzy with remembering. "Um, hi," Bucky says.

"Hello. I am JARVIS, Tony's assistant."

Natasha snorts at the description.

"He should be arriving momentarily."

Tony does arrive soon, along with a bunch of police officers - which means it's Bucky, Steve, and Natasha's job to leave. They go back to Steve's apartment, slipping down Stark Tower's stairs before the police have a chance to secure the building. Tony will think of some explanation, though Bucky has some doubts about its plausibility. Money can go a long way towards making people not ask questions, though.

Sam's waiting for them when they get there. "I won't lie, I'm glad my mission was extraction," Sam says. "Those guys were not fucking around." He looks at Bucky and Natasha - Natasha's standing close to Bucky, a fact that he's aware of, and which has made him incredibly tense. "That you guys' fault?"

"It might be," Natasha says. "But there are fewer targets out there now."

"Is that all they are?" Steve says. "Targets?"

Natasha looks at Bucky, and he knows, suddenly, that it's his job to play point on this. "People," Bucky says. "Bad people. And now they're dead. But we're...going to take a break from that for awhile."

"I don't suppose you have a safe house in New York," Steve says to Natasha.

"I do, actually," Natasha says. "Not that it's any of your business where."

"Planning on taking Bucky there?"

"I'm planning on offering him a place to crash," Natasha says, like it's the most natural thing in the world.

His stomach tightens. Not from guilt, but from...uncertainty. He doesn't know what she's offering, and he can't ask - not in front of Sam and Steve.

"Makes sense to me," Sam says. "Not that anyone was asking."

"Eat dinner with us first," Steve says. "I'll order pizza. My treat."

Bucky decides not to point out that it's only 4PM. "No mushrooms," he says.

Sam and Steve both blink at him. He doesn't blush, or anything like that; his face doesn't even twitch. But he does feel a little embarrassed, even knowing they're probably seeing him having an opinion as a good sign.

"No mushrooms, then," Sam says. He looks at Natasha, a curious look that Natasha responds to with a minute shake of her head.

"Okay," Steve says, and gets his iPad out. Bucky watches as he orders. He wants to learn how to do that, order things with his tablet, but the thought of asking someone how to do it is disheartening - who's to say he could even master the technology? Guns changed over the years, but not enough to make his actions as the Winter Soldier impossible. But he never had the time - or inclination - to learn how to use more complex tools. Even the tablet Natasha bought him has been a bit of a challenge.

He's largely silent as Natasha recaps their journey, and Sam and Steve talk about their dancing lessons, the garage, Steve's art. It's all stuff he knows about, things he observed as he lived with them, but it seems different now. The ways in which people relate to themselves and each other are no longer completely foreign. Sam and Steve are so easy with one another, moving together like they've been doing it for years, and Bucky knows he'll never get that. He'll never get anything close to that. But Natasha's gone out of her way to demonstrate that he doesn't have to be like that to be a person.

He needs to come up with some way to thank her. Some non-sexual way. Though it's not like she doesn't seem to enjoy the sexual...aspect of their relationship.

The pizza comes, and they eat it, largely in silence. When he and Natasha are done, Natasha stands up. "Gentlemen," she says. "You have my number."

Sam waves. "We'll be seeing you."

"Definitely," Steve says. His eyes find Bucky's. "We should..."

"Get coffee?" Bucky says. It comes out drier than he means it to.

"Or something," Steve says. "Definitely."

Bucky nods, and he and Natasha head for the door.

It's not until they're ensconced in Natasha's safe house - a two-bedroom condo in Manhattan, which Natasha informs him she owns - Natasha says, "Are you still in love with him?"

"What?" Bucky snorts. "No."

"I wouldn't blame you if you were." She appraises him frankly. "He's easy to fall for."

"Are you speaking from firsthand experience?"

"I'm speaking from deliberately avoiding firsthand experience," Natasha says.

Bucky shakes his head. "I'm not in love with him. And I need to change."

"Take the bedroom on the left-hand side of the hallway," Natasha says. "The other one's mine."

Bucky feels disappointment settle in his stomach, heavy and very real. But they're not in a hotel room anymore, and it makes sense that Natasha would want her privacy. He goes into the room and shuts the door behind him.

When he comes out, wearing nondescript jeans and a t-shirt, Natasha looks him up and down. She's wearing almost the same thing, though it's the feminine version of his clothes. "Good," she says. "Now. What do you want to do?"

Bucky blinks.

"Those knives aren't fooling me," Natasha says. "You're not expecting trouble. You must want to do something. Take a spin class, go to the library..."

"I can't get a library card," Bucky says finally.

"I have a month's worth of falsified papers establishing your American identity's residence at my apartment," Natasha says, and smiles sweetly.

Natasha's apartment isn't high enough up that Bucky can't hear traffic below, people shouting, the common sounds of any large city. He remembers hearing them as the Winter Soldier, and knowing - with a certainty cold in his gut - that those noises had nothing to do with him. And now? Now he doesn't know what to think.

"The library," he says finally. "I want a library card."

"Then let's go, Soldier," she says. She picks up a bag - a purse, Bucky realizes. Apparently Natasha's civilian alter ego carries a purse. She flicks her fingers, motioning for them to leave.

Bucky has his nondescript wallet with its falsified license and social security card. He double-checks his back pocket for it and follows Natasha out.

The library is terrifying, in its own way. For starters, it's impossible to appropriately secure, same as the Gap Natasha took him too. There are children, and librarians who look a little tired, but secure in their positions. After he fills out the forms and gets the card, he looks around, unsure of where to go next.

"Let's try some of this," Natasha says, and leads him to the nonfiction section.

He can check out a dizzying number of books with this card, but it seems inappropriate to do so. In the end, he picks out just one book - a book on the history of computing.

"Planning on challenging Stark?" Natasha asks. She's got a few novels. He doesn't ask what they're about.

Bucky glares at her. Stark is far from his favorite person.

"I'm joking," she says, smiling a little. "Let's go home."

They spend the rest of the day reading. At the end of it, Natasha says, "I'm heading to bed. Goodnight," and goes into her room.

Bucky, feeling like an idiot, goes into his room.

He lies awake that night, his mind refusing to let him sleep. He doesn't want to be someone who needs something from anyone, much less Natasha. Natasha's everything Bucky's not: she was traumatized and used, but she's whole now. She has friends and a life. Bucky has...what, exactly? People who take care of him, out of fear of what he'll do if they don't. That's not remotely the same thing.

He tosses and turns, his left arm cold against his body. He tries to lie on his stomach, but his shoulderblades itch with how exposed he feels. He lies on his back and rests the side of his hand against a knife. He barely slept for 70 years; he doesn't consider the cryo-freeze sleeping. And now, apparently, he's become dependent on Natasha.

Eventually, he falls into a restless, light sleep. When he wakes up at dawn, he feels awful, eyes gritty with lack of sleep. He stumbles out into the kitchen, only to find Natasha already sitting at the table, a mug of coffee in her hands. The kitchen is sleekly furnished, brushed steel appliances and dark wooden cabinets. He stares at them, then at her, the dawn light just glinting in her hair.

"Good morning," she says. "How'd you sleep?"

Is that a leading question? It's Natasha; of course it is. "Poorly," he says, and goes to pour himself some coffee. The carafe is enormous. He wonders who else Natasha takes here.

"I did wonder," she says. She's keeping her voice soft, her movements slow, as he sits across from her at the table. "But I didn't want to press you, if you wanted time alone."

"Time alone is..." He can't find the words to express how it feels. Necessary, but also claustrophobic, like a weight on his chest.

"I know," she says.

"Do you?"

"It's not that different for other people, you know," Natasha says.

"I was frozen and used for 70 years. A weapon."

"And I was molded into being the perfect assassin. I killed my first person at the age of seven. Twenty-six that year alone." She sips her coffee. "Is it the missions?"

"It's..." Steve laughing at him, a head and more shorter than Bucky. Steve, tall and strong, leading them on missions. Steve, on the bridge - a jolt of recognition, even though he hadn't known what it meant. And now Natasha, Natasha all around him, so strong and tolerant that he's terrified of what it all means for him.

"I can't go to therapy," he says.

Natasha pulls out her phone. "Maybe you can."

Bucky blinks.

"Stark's therapists are very discreet," Natasha says.

Bucky shakes his head. "I can't pay for that."

"The Avengers have a vested interest in you not dying, or going crazy," Natasha says. "I was head-shrunk by SHIELD. I imagine this experience will be more pleasant." She puts her phone down. "I texted you the information. It's up to you if you make an appointment."

Even as she says it, Bucky's phone buzzes. He doesn't know how to respond, so he doesn't respond at all; he just drinks his coffee.

They stay in that day. Bucky's a slow reader, it turns out. He hasn't had much time to practice - not that he remembers, anyway - and the words all blur together after awhile, or he'll get caught on a phrase he ends up rereading over and over. It's nothing, information about the pistons on a new engine, but he reads it again and again, the words prodding at his mind, almost making him feel something physically.

He wonders if his arm has pistons. He'll probably need to find out, sooner rather than later. It's excellent technology, but he always had people doing non-routine maintenance on it - before.

His mind shies away from the memories, and he lets it, reading the next paragraph in his book, and the one after that.

It's not until Natasha makes them sandwiches that it occurs to him to ask, "Do you live here?"

"Sometimes," she says. "I wouldn't waste all this money furnishing it if I didn't."

He thinks back to one of the Winter Soldier's safe houses: a cot in the corner, MREs stacked on the single table. "I guess not," he says, and eats his sandwich.

The furnishings in the living room are luxuriously comfortable, big cloth-covered couches and chairs that he sinks into when he sits down. They're unlike the rest of the room, which is all modern, clean lines; he wants to ask where she got them, and why she's kept them, but he doesn't have that kind of nerve. After they eat dinner, Bucky says, "I should go to bed now."

So he has time to figure out how to fall asleep, he doesn't say.

"I'll go with you," she says. "Go into my room. I'll meet up with you in a minute."

She sounds perfectly calm, but she doesn't meet his eyes. He hesitates, uncertain. He doesn't want to press his presence on her - but she told him to, so finally, he goes.

She comes in a few minutes later. He's stripped down to his boxers, and she changes in her bathroom, coming out in sleep shorts and a worn-out shirt. She curls around him like they're back in a motel room, hand on his stomach. She doesn't start when he puts his left hand on hers, and her breath warms the metal. He wonders if it really does seem relatively normal to her, or if she's faking it to make him more comfortable.

He's pretty sure the sex wasn't faking. But there's no way to ask that, really.

He wakes with a start in the middle of the night. At first, he doesn't know why; but then he realizes that Natasha has his left arm in a death grip, and is whispering, in Russian, "No, stop. I won't. No," over and over.

He gingerly rolls over, trying not to disturb her. When he's sure she won't be able to hurt him, he shakes her gently. "Natasha. Wake up. Natasha, it's a nightmare. Natasha."

He doesn't realize he's speaking Russian until she opens her eyes and says, "Bucky? I - it was just a nightmare," in suddenly jarring English.

"I know," he says. He wants to offer comfort, but he doesn't know how. He leans in finally, awkwardly, still holding her shoulders. The kiss is gentle, light, but she kisses back much harder.

He knows this stage, trying to remind yourself that your nightmares aren't real. So he lets her kiss him, moves with her when she climbs on top of him. He scoots them both back so he's sitting up and keeps kissing her, his head angled up. It's a good angle; a safe angle. Her hair falls around him, her tongue is in his mouth, and her hands are hard on his shoulders, stronger that Bucky ever would've guessed she could be.

She rides him like that, sitting in his lap. His face is pressed into her neck when he comes, shuddering, feeling her clench his shoulders as she keeps moving. When she comes, she tugs his hair, and that alone is almost enough to get him turned on again.

The next morning, he calls Stark's reference. It's a woman, cheerful and older-sounding. She schedules him for an appointment in a month, the soonest she has. He thinks that's a good idea; it gives him time to work up to it.

He's eating breakfast when someone knocks on the door.

His hand goes immediately to his knife, but then someone says, "Tasha! I got back from Afghanistan, let me in and tell me what's going on."

"It's just Clint," Natasha says. "You don't have to stab him." She looks a little amused. Bucky glares, but his hand falls away from his knife.

She lets the man in. Clint. He looks - worn, Bucky thinks, like he's seen a lot. But also attractive, and he hugs Natasha lingeringly.

"Clint, this is Bucky," Natasha says when they pull apart.

"The crazy killing machine? No kidding. Nice boxers, buddy."

"I wasn't aware we were expecting guests," Bucky says coldly.

At the same time, Natasha says, "Clint," with a warning in her voice.

"Okay, okay," Clint says. "So...I'm unemployed now."

He and Natasha settle on the couch, and they go through their respective months. Bucky listens to their conversation intently, even though it's obvious Natasha trusts this man. He wishes he could remember if he'd ever been a target, or someone he was told about as the Soldier; his memories are so fuzzy that he eventually gives up.

Clint has a cup of coffee, then leaves, saying, "Bowling Thursday though, right? Bowling Thursday." Natasha agrees with a smile.

Bucky's long done with his eggs, so he settles for doing the dishes angrily. Natasha leans against the counter near him, looking at him with an undecipherable expression.

"Clint's the reason I came to SHIELD," she says. "He also gave me the couch and the chair."

"I was wondering."

"I know," Natasha says. "We were probably given the same training on evaluating behavioral patterns, you know."

And they'd both, apparently, needed rescuing. Bucky finishes the last dish, then says, "Do you think Steve will be going bowling?"

"Sure," Natasha says. "We're all at somewhat loose ends."

"I'd like to go," Bucky says. "If -" He can't quite make himself say if that's okay, acknowledging that he might not be welcome at a gathering that includes Natasha and his former closest friend.

Who he was in love with, once upon a time, when he was a different man entirely.

"Of course," Natasha says easily. "Why don't we go shopping? I'm running low on groceries. You eat a lot."

She says it with a gentle humor. Bucky nods, a little stiffly, and goes to get his wallet.

And a gun, of course. That goes under his jacket, where no one can see.

-

Bowling is, largely, terrible.

It's loud and there are too many people. That's a problem, though it's one Bucky's learning to deal with. The other problem is less easy to handle: as it turns out, he's very bad at bowling.

"This shouldn't be happening," he says, throwing another ball down the lane. It ends up in the gutter again.

"It's an acquired skill," Steve says. He gives Bucky a hopeful smile. "So eventually you might acquire it."

Bucky glares. "When did you have time to do it?"

"Sam took me," Steve says. It's his turn, so he throws the ball. He gets a strike.

Bucky hates this game.

"Relax," Natasha says when he stalks back to their seats. "I'm a good bowler."

"So is Sam," Bucky says. "We're objectively the weaker team."

"You're cute," Natasha says. "Oh, look, I'm up."

She gets a strike, too, but they're behind. They stay behind the whole game, and then the next game, too. Bucky finally throws a spare on his last turn, after knocking down just a few pins for two hours.

"Bowling isn't all it's cracked up to be," he tells Steve as Natasha goes for a last time.

Steve smiles crookedly. He's always doing this, smiling at Bucky, like that will draw Bucky out. in his defense, it almost works, sometimes. "I think it's okay. You always were overcompetitive, though."

"You'd do anything with him," Bucky says, jerking his head at Sam.

"I kind of think we have that in common," Steve says quietly. "With different people."

Sam bowls his last turn, and Natasha comes back to the table. Bucky shakes his head minutely, hoping she doesn't notice. He's pretty sure she does, actually, but she - luckily - just says, "Victor buys dinner. Are we ready to go?"

Bucky wonders, as they walk back to Natasha's condo, if this is what ordinary people do. It must be, really; the bowling alley was full of people who looked like them, and so was the Thai place they went to. He let himself be caught up in it for a few hours, but now he just feels - let down. He's not sure what he's let down by; maybe it's the fact that when he leaves Sam and Steve and walks home in the dark, even Natasha's presence can't make the weight of all that's happened to him go away. He knows there's no easy fix, but he wants there to be one. He wants to be a person Natasha can -

No. That's beside the point, he tells himself.

When they get home, Bucky turns to Natasha to ask if she wants to watch a movie, since neither of them really need sleep right now. She shocks him by leaning up and kissing him.

He doesn't kiss back, he's so surprised. She pulls away almost immediately, looking at him searchingly.

"You don't want this," she says in a low voice.

"I - " Bucky shakes his head. He can't articulate it, so he leans down and kisses her, harder this time, sliding one hand around to her back.

She leans into him, kissing back eagerly. This isn't familiar, this isn't what they usually do, but it's so easy to lift her up and press her against the door. She braces herself, holding onto his shoulders and kissing him like it's all she wants to do, like she could do this all night. Holding her is barely an effort, and he gasps into her mouth when she runs her hand over his metal arm, fingers brushing over the scarring where it joins at his shoulder. It shouldn't be hot - he has no experience to tell if it should be, really. But it is, it's good, kissing Natasha like this as she wiggles her hands under his jacket.

He finally has to put her down, though, because he's hard and this can't go anywhere if neither of them can get their clothes off.

When he gets her pants down, though, she just slumps against the door, looking at him with a challenging expression. He doesn't know what to say, has no idea how to communicate what's going on in his head, so he does the most logical thing: he drops to his knees.

"Bucky," Natasha says, voice unsteady. But she steps her legs apart when he pulls at them. He looks up at her and says, "Is this okay?"

She nods.

"Good," he says, and closes his eyes, licking her slowly.

She comes with a hand in his hair, again, and then he's standing up and they're kissing desperately. She jerks him off right against the door, messy and fast, and the whole time they're kissing, kissing so hard that Bucky's lips feel bruised. He makes a mess, but she just wipes it up and drops their clothes in the wash, keeping one hand in his the whole time. They still haven't talked when she pulls him into her room and lies on top of him, red hair fanned out against his chest.

But he falls asleep feeling satisfied in a way he didn't before. Maybe, he thinks - maybe this can work.

When he wakes up, Natasha's gone.

At first he doesn't think much of it. He makes it all the way to the kitchen assuming she's just gone to run an errand, and then he sees the note: I have some things to clear up. I'll be back. Call Clint if you need anything - I programmed his number into your phone.

It's her handwriting. There's no code to it, nothing written on the back. There's no sign of forced entry. There is, in short, no indication that Natasha hasn't left of her own free will. Nothing implies that she hasn't just abandoned him.

Very quietly, he panics.

He goes through what skills he has, then realizes that he can't track Natasha. Before, as the Soldier, he was given targets and told where they'd be. His job was to eliminate them, finding them within a relatively small radius. Their home, their work. But Natasha? Natasha can disappear if she wants, and Bucky won't be able to find her.

For the first time since he dragged Steve out of the Potomac, Bucky feels fully human. He's scared, and he loves her, and he's panicking because he can't find her. He feels things, from head to toe - the air in his lungs as he tries to take deep breaths, his nails digging into his hands as he clenches and unclenches his fists. He tries to force the panic down, but it just becomes anger - why did she leave? Why didn't she tell him?

Then, finally, after long minutes of panic, he zeroes in on the important part of the note: Call Clint.

Clint might know how to find her. And if he's been told not to...

Bucky won't press. But he will try to make Clint see it through his eyes. Maybe Clint will cooperate.

Bucky doesn't want to wait. He knows he should, but he can't. Not now, not when he was starting to think he had a chance at things between them going well.

He calls Clint. "Uh, who is this?" Clint says when he picks up.

"Bucky," Bucky says. "We met at Natasha's, I'm -"

"The artist formerly known as the Winter Soldier, yeah, I know," Clint says. "What's up? How'd you get my number?"

"Natasha programmed it into my phone," Bucky says. "She's gone. She left a note."

To his surprise, Clint groans. "God damn it, Nat," he says. "Okay, sit tight. Don't do anything stupid. I'll be right over."

That's more promising than Bucky thought. He hangs up the phone; it occurs to him afterwards that he probably should have said goodbye.

Clint arrives in under twenty minutes. His hair is wet. He barges in - apparently he has his own key - and says, "Okay, so what you need to understand is that Nat is massively emotionally stupid."

Bucky blinks.

"I'm talking, so dumb. Like, however dumb you are. Dumber than that."

"I don't understand," Bucky says.

Clint pinches the bridge of his nose. "She took off twice before she went on her first mission for SHIELD. Once after she met Coulson, and once again after I told her I trusted her. She's gotten a little better since then, or a lot better, but you must've spooked her. What did you do? If it's a sex thing, feel free to leave out the details."

Bucky shakes his head. "I don't know."

"Well, luckily for you, she went to the same place both times," he says. "Unluckily for you, it's in California."

Bucky blinks. "That's a long way."

"Yep," Bucky says. "You ever booked tickets online?"

It was, at first, hard for Bucky to understand why Clint was a SHIELD agent. But the next three hours make some of those reasons very obvious. He's terrifyingly efficient, directing Bucky to book a flight, standing over him while he packs - which is vaguely offensive, but Bucky's too distracted to object - and getting him a cab to the airport. He sees him off by saying, "Just tell her how you feel, okay? That's what's worked in the past."

The prospect is mildly terrifying. But Bucky says, "Okay," and closes the cab door.

He has plenty of time on the flight to mull it over. He loves Natasha. He doesn't know if not saying that made her run away, or if she realized the truth, and that's why she left. Thinking about either makes him scared again. It's a new kind of fear - not the bone-shaking fear he remembers before the mind-wipes, but a more fully formed fear. This time, he knows what he stands to lose.

He touches down in California at 3PM local time. He only has a small bag, but he's got his debit card. He uses it to get a rental car, and then he programs his phone to tell him where to drive.

She has a small house on the ocean, just north of San Diego. The area leading up to the beach is grassy; the air is warm enough that Bucky takes his jacket off as soon as he gets out of the car. His arm is exposed to the air, but he's not worried about it, because there are no other houses in view. She must have bought up the property awhile ago. He tries not to think about what that means - that this was a property the Widow purchased, long before she joined SHIELD.

He walks up to the house slowly. It doesn't occur to him until she opens the door, before he has a chance to knock, that he has no idea what she's going to say.

She looks at him and sighed. "I knew I shouldn't have given you Clint's number."

Bucky doesn't say anything. He feels like he has something lodged in his throat.

She gives him a long look. He doesn't know what she's looking for, so he just holds eye contact and tries not to get twitchy.

Finally, she sighs. "Come in," she says, and steps aside.

The room is furnished differently from the apartment in New York. It's a single room, for one, with a kitchen nook on the far end of the couch, two chairs arranged around a bookshelf, and a bed in the corner. The floor is light-colored wood, and the kitchen appliances are few and look older.

He tells himself he's just evaluating the environment, but really, it's more than that. He's avoiding looking at her.

"You want to tell me what you came all the way from New York to say, Barnes?" she says. Her voice is dry and uninviting.

Bucky's not an expert at reading people, but they've spent a lot of time together, and he recognizes the non-expression on her face. He doesn't know what to say, but he has to say something. "I'm scared, too."

She blinks. "I'm not -"

"You've told me it's okay to be," Bucky says. "Are you going to argue that we're that different?"

"I'm not going to tell you anything," Natasha says. "You're obviously - no." She shakes her head. "Bucky, look, I -"

"I love you," he says. "I'm scared, but I love you. I know I'm not - I don't -"

This isn't going well.

But her face softens a little, and she reaches out and curls her hand around his left arm. Her hand is so warm that it's almost a shock. He shivers a little, but still looks at her. "I love you," he says again. It's not a coherent argument, but if he needs one of those, this isn't going to work anyway.

"I love you too," Natasha says. "That's the problem. I'm not exactly good at it."

"You've done okay," Bucky says.

"You're still recovering, and I'm -"

"Taking advantage?"

Natasha narrows her eyes a little. "Yes. Don't argue."

"I was taking advantage, too." Bucky shrugs. "But I'm not the one who went across the country because I'm scared."

"Love is for children," Natasha says in Russian.

In English, Bucky says, "You know that's not true."

Natasha looks at him for a long, agonizing moment. She's still almost impossible to read, but her eyes are searching his, like she's looking for an answer. He has no idea if he has it or not, so he just waits, then waits some more.

Finally, she leans in. But instead of kissing him, she turns her head and brushes it against his shoulder, where his skin meets metal.

It doesn't hurt. It feels good, even as he feels like his chest has clenched up. Natasha pulls back and looks at him. "If we fuck this up -"

"We won't."

"But if we do?"

Bucky shrugs. "We'll deal with it."

Natasha closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. "Right," she says, and pulls his head down.

The kiss is just a kiss, lips and tongue and breath. But it's more than that, too. It's slow, and sweet, and more gentle than Bucky thought either of them knew how to be. Natasha leans into him, then catches hold of his shirt and drags him over to the bed.

-

They lie together after they've fucked, with the window next to the bed letting in a salty-smelling breeze.

"How long were you planning on hiding here?" Bucky asks.

Natasha lifts her head from Bucky's chest. "As long as I needed to."

"So we have a couple of days?"

"Theoretically," Natasha says. "In practice, we have about twelve hours to call Clint, at the very least."

"But no one needs us back in New York."

"Not for the time being." Unspoken is the knowledge that there are more HYDRA bases, more research to be done - possibly with Sam and Steve, possibly as a two-person unit. The work won't ever end, not really. They've had a break, but they can't just disappear to a beach house forever.

Bucky's not sure he wants to. When he thinks about HYDRA, he still gets angry.

"Well," he says. "We have a little time, at least."

"Are you trying to put the moves on me?"

"No," Bucky says, and rolls them over. "I am putting the moves on you."

Natasha laughs. He kisses her neck, then her breasts, pushing her legs open as he plays with her nipples. She threads her fingers through his hair, tugging lightly as he goes lower.

He licks her slowly, winding her up. She's already wet, but he knows how wet she can get, so he circles her clit with his tongue, licking her folds and lifting her hips a little so he can get a better angle. She reaches down and shoves a pillow under her hips, so she's tilted up, and for a second he forgets what he's about to do and just stares at her.

But then she says, in mock irritation, "Is that it?"

He laughs a little, then lowers his head again.

He can smell her, and he tastes her, running his tongue up and down her cunt. He flattens his tongue against her clit, does it again when she gasps, hips rising to press her cunt against his face.

This is the easiest way for him to get lost, surrounded by her, her thighs clenching around him. He presses two fingers into her; they go in easily, and she moans, reaching down to clench his hair. He eats her out, open and messy, until she comes, clenching around his fingers.

"Come here," she says, and pulls him up, kissing him. Her tongue dips into his mouth, and then she's rolling them, wrapping a hand around his dick and scooting down to lick the head.

It doesn't take long. He's too far gone to be even embarrassed; she licks him and sucks him, and hardly any time passes at all before he's saying, "Pull off, Natasha, I -"

She pulls off, still jerking him off, and he comes, digging his hands into the bed and closing his eyes.

When he's done, she curls around him, kissing him gently: his cheeks, his lips, his forehead. He keeps his eyes closed, face buried in her neck, holding on.

-

They do end up calling Clint. He laughs at them - that's all Bucky really hears from his end, since Natasha's the one who calls him. They eat some of Natasha's stash of protein bars, and fuck, and swim in the ocean. Bucky's not sure what he expects, but it mostly feels like how it did before. More open, maybe, and he's got a tight little ball of happiness inside him that he's guarding as best as he can. But mostly the same.

They build a fire on the third night. It's not really cold enough to warrant it, but Natasha suggests it, and Bucky doesn't hate the idea. So they gather driftwood and some heavier branches from trees across the highway, and Natasha spreads a blanket out on the sand.

"Is this legal?" Bucky asks as Natasha leans into him.

"Technically, no," Natasha says. "But the police aren't likely to come down this stretch of road."

"You haven't told me how you ended up owning this place."

"I bought it back in the 80s," Natasha says. "I was in deep cover at the time, in San Diego. The mayor there..." Bucky can feel her stiffen.

"It's a long story," he says.

"Right," she says, a hint of relief in her voice. "I bought it, and - I think maybe that was the first time I fought back, a little. I didn't tell them about the purchase. I told them I'd rented it, and ensured the title was in someone else's name."

"And?"

"That person died in the 90s." Now there's a smile in her voice. "And Natasha Romanoff inherited the estate."

"Tricky," Bucky says. He approves.

She laughs a little. "Not as tricky as stealing tens of millions from HYDRA. You know, some people might accuse me of being a gold digger."

"I had a chance," Bucky says. "I took it."

"I'm amazed you had the knowledge to do so."

It was only half-remembered. Bucky's still amazed it worked. "Stock market crash," he says, but he doesn't elaborate. He doesn't want to draw out the nuggets of information about micro-trading that are buried in his brain.

She leans up and kisses him, pushing him gently onto his back. He kisses back and then, when she settles half on top of him, watches the stars.

On the fourth day, Bucky gets a call from Steve. "We found another backup of Zola," he says. "In Detroit."

"We'll meet you there," Bucky says.

"How's Natasha?"

"She's good," Bucky says. Then he realizes what Steve's really asking. "We're good. I could tell you about it."

"I'd like that," Steve says. "I'll see you in Detroit." He hangs up.

"Time to move?" Natasha says.

Bucky nods. "Zola. In Detroit."

"Good," she says. "I could use a little action. I don't suppose you brought weapons?"

"I flew," he says. "Even I'm not that good."

"For all I know, you had a lead-lined suitcase and a good diversion at security. Or Stark's jet." But there's no sting to her voice. She's smiling when she looks at him, like she approves of something.

"I checked my bag," Bucky says. "It has a few knives in it."

"Well, lucky for you, I've got plenty of guns." She walks over to a chest sitting under the window by the bed, and opens it up. Bucky follows her and looks in it. It is, in fact, full of semi-automatics.

"Excellent," Bucky says. "Let's get to work."