She hadn’t planned to come back. Maybe not ever, but definitely not only a month after she had left.
She was going to disappear; that was the plan. Find some place where she could blend in, dye her hair, start over as someone else. It was what she had been trained to do — slip into another life as easily as most people slipped into a new pair of shoes.
And she had gotten halfway there. She’d left D.C. after saying goodbye to Steve at the cemetery, made it to a safe house she still sometimes used deep in New York City. But then she stood at the sink in the rundown bathroom, a bottle of blond hair dye in one hand and a pair of scissors in another, and for the first time in her life, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t just disappear.
And she wasn’t completely sure as to why. If it was because of Hydra or because of losing SHIELD or if it was because of Steve fucking Rogers and the way he looked at her those couple days on the run, like he could see who she was, underneath all the facades and all the layers, and no one had ever looked at her like that before, not even Clint, and it unnerved her to no end.
“Maybe just take a break,” Clint suggested softly when she called him.
“I’m not supposed to have trouble with a cover,” she said.
“No,” he said, and she could tell there was more he wanted to say.
“Just say it.”
“You only have trouble being you, Nat. Maybe it’s time to try.”
In the end, she took Clint’s advice. She ended up in Russia — the first time she’d really been back since she escaped from the Red Room. There had been a couple times in her early days at SHIELD when there had been mission assignments to Russia, but both times, Coulson had kept her back.
She had been furious at him both times, telling him she could do whatever they needed her to do and he didn’t need to worry. And when he had told her it wasn’t that he didn’t trust (and somewhere deep inside she had known that wasn’t it anyway), she had told him coldly that she didn’t need to be protected either.
But being back in the place she had been raised, doing her best to blend into the crowds, she understood why he hadn’t let her go. For as much as she had perfected the art of not letting any emotion get in the way, it was a lot harder for her to control the memories she never had wanted to remember.
But she had come for a reason.
“You only have trouble being you, Nat. Maybe it’s time to try.”
But it was more than that. It was Steve’s voice in her head, replaying over and over.
“It’s hard to trust someone when you don’t know who that someone really is.”
It took her a few weeks. She had the file Fury had once given her that contained everything SHIELD knew about her past. And now she had everything she had released on to the Internet. Neither of those had any direct clues, but it had enough, and in the end, she found them, two unmarked graves on the edge of a small town, overgrown with weeds.
She didn’t know, and she knew she never would, what had really happened. If they had given her away in exchange for money. If they had been killed and she had been taken by the Red Room. Stories she had heard, but none containing enough details to know the truth.
It didn’t really matter. She didn’t have any conscious memories of them, didn’t have any attachment to them in any way.
She bought two bouquets of flowers from a dirty shop a few miles away and spent an afternoon clearing away the weeds. She left the flowers on top of the graves and walked away, feeling an odd sense of unease that she didn’t completely understand.
A day later she was back in D.C., letting herself into Sam’s apartment — she knew Steve was staying with him, knew they were both tracking down the Winter Soldier together — and making herself a cup of coffee while she waited for them to return.
She didn’t have to wait long. She heard the key in the door and leaned back in her chair, propping her feet up on the table, schooling her features into a completely neutral expression.
Sam entered the kitchen first.
“What the hell?!?! Natasha!”
She smiled into her coffee cup as apples rolled across the kitchen floor and shattered eggs splattered everywhere and Sam stared at her agape, his hand pressed over his heart. Steve appeared behind him, looking at her and the mess on the floor, and if she hadn’t seen the tiny glint of amusement in his eye before he frowned at her, she wouldn’t have believed it was there.
She set her coffee cup down. “Hello, boys. Miss me?”
Sam looked like he was still recovering. “No,” he said instantly, then, “How did you get in anyway? I have top-notch security.”
She raised her brows at him. He sighed.
“Yeah,” he said. “Don’t tell me.”
Steve smiled at that. He hadn’t stopped looking at her yet.
“Thought you were off finding a new cover?”
She shrugged. “Missed the action,” she said. “Besides, I heard you could use my help.”
She knew all too well they hadn’t found any trace of Bucky, but at the mention, she saw a flash of disappointment come over Steve’s face.
“I wouldn’t say no to it,” he said.
“I would,” Sam said, and then his face broke into a grin. “Unless little miss spy-sassin here cleans up the kitchen and buys us some more eggs.”
Natasha rolled her eyes. “You boys are so lucky I’m here,” she said, and they both chuckled, even as Sam chucked a dish towel at her head.
They settled into a rhythm easily, which, if she stopped to think about it, was almost odd. She had never really had roommates before, at least not ones she had willingly chosen. In the Red Room, she’d had no choice. At SHIELD, she had her own room, even if all the agents did live side by side. And once they had trusted her enough to let her out in the world, she’d lived on her own, hiding in solitary where she didn’t have to worry about keeping up appearances.
But with Steve and Sam, it was almost easy. They spent days training, running or sparring, and nights searching for leads on Bucky, followed by movies and popcorn and a lot of teasing of Steve.
Steve had insisted the first night on sleeping on the couch, being that Sam only had two guest rooms, but she’d rolled her eyes.
“We’ve slept together plenty of times,” she argued with him, to which Sam raised his eyebrows so high, she thought they were going to disappear into his hairline.
“Not like that,” she said. “Actual sleeping. We’ve been partners for two years.”
“I know, Nat, but …” Steve rubbed his face, looking considerably uncomfortable. “That was different. I don’t think …”
“I promise,” she said. “I’m not going to take advantage of you in the middle of the night.”
If possible, he turned even more red. He was almost resembling a tomato at this point.
“I don’t … I didn’t … that’s not …”
“Steve.” She reached out, touched his arm, waited till he looked at her. “It’s not a big deal. And I’m not going to let you sleep on the couch for me. So we sleep together or I sleep on the couch, or I can leave.”
“I don’t want you to leave,” he said quickly. “That’s not …”
“Great,” she said, grinning at him. “Then that’s settled.”
Apparently Steve did find it all that settled though. The first night he tried to put so much space between them, she was honestly surprised he didn’t end up on the floor halfway through the night. But as the days went on, he became more comfortable with their arrangement, and so did she, if she was honest with herself.
She liked having the weight of someone next to her, especially someone who had a way of making her feel safe. She almost was beginning to think she could get used to this.
And then the phone rang. At three in the morning about three weeks after she had moved in. The phone she kept for emergencies with the only people who knew the number being the two people she was living with and Clint.
She answered it immediately.
“Nat, get Steve. You’re going to want to see this.”
Clint’s voice sounded strange, even to her. She usually knew exactly how he felt about anything by the first word out of his mouth, but it was like he was purposely guarding against letting her in.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he said, then, “I promise,” like he knew what she was thinking. He gave her an address to a place in upper New York. “Meet me there as soon as you can. And make sure Steve comes with you.”
And then he was gone and she was staring at the phone in her hand.
“Nat?” Steve’s sleepy voice came from behind her. “What’s going on?”
She turned around to look at him. “Clint wants us to meet him. He has something to show us.”
He frowned. “He didn’t say what?”
“You trust him, though.”
“With my life.”
“Then let’s go.”
They grabbed Sam and were in the car within ten minutes. Six hours later they pulled up to the small, non-descript house Clint had given them the address for. All of them were tired and hungry, but the only thing they were really focused on is what Clint had for them.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Natasha expected it to be something about Bucky. She had told Clint about their search for him, and she couldn’t think of anything else he would need Steve to see.
She wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about it, though. She wanted to find Bucky for Steve’s sake — it was, after all, why she was spending so much of her time helping him. He deserved to have his friend back, or to at least the know the truth about everything that had happened to him. But at the same time, she usually didn’t go in search of people who had already twice tried to kill her, or at least not to help them.
They had barely stepped foot on the front porch when the door swung open. It was almost pitch black inside the house and they couldn’t make out anything past the threadbare floor of the entryway, but they stepped inside nonetheless.
It wasn’t until the door shut behind them that Clint stepped out of the shadows. He looked a bit more rugged than the last time she had seen him, the smallest trace of a scraggly beard starting to show on his chin, his hair longer than he usually kept it and dressed in dirty jeans and a ripped t-shirt.
“Nat,” he said and embraced her in a quick hug before pulling back and shaking hands with Steve and being introduced to Sam. “Glad you guys could come. Follow me.”
He led them through the small house, through a dirty living room with the furniture all covered in protective sheets, down a dark, dank hallway to a closed door at the end. There he took a deep breath, knocked softly and then opened the door, leading them inside.
It was exactly as she had suspected, hoped for and feared. Sitting on the small bed was the man she had only ever seen before when he was shooting bullets into her.
Behind her, Steve let out something that sounded somewhere between a gasp and a choked sob. He pushed by her, moving quickly toward the man on the bed.
Buck stared at Steve, at all of them, his face blank. Natasha glanced at Clint, but he didn’t seem at all worried.
She turned back to watch Steve and Bucky look at each other, neither one moving.
And then a smile spread across Bucky’s face. “Stevie,” he said, and she watched as the two men embraced, and this time she was sure it was a sob she heard from Steve.
She turned back to Clint, not wanting to intrude on their moment.
“He’s okay?” she asked quietly.
“Not okay,” he answered, just as quietly. “But not a danger.”
“We’re safe here, Nat.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
“Come on.” He nodded at the door. “Let’s give them some space.”
She followed him out, and Sam followed her. They ended up in the kitchen, sitting around the small table, as Clint tried to figure out how to use the coffee pot.
“How did you find him?” she asked.
“Seriously, man?” Sam shook his head. “We’ve been trying on purpose for months and haven’t had so much as a trace.”
Clint shrugged. “Before SHIELD fell, I was on the trail of these guys. Thought they were running some human experimentation schemes. Decided to finish up with them anyway. Turns out they were working for Hydra. And those Hydra goons just so happened to be the ones watching out for your little friend here.”
“And you got him out before anyone noticed?” Natasha focused on Clint, even though he was now searching for mugs for all of them.
“I wasn’t followed,” he said.
“But they’ll be looking for him,” she argued.
“Of course. But I think they have a lot to deal with.” He finally pulled out a third mug and began to wash it off in the sink. “We’re safe here, I promise.”
“What is this place anyway?” Sam scrunched his nose as he looked around. “I hope not your vacation property.”
Clint snorted. “Old safe house I’ve had forever.” Natasha saw him glance at her. “No one but Fury and Coulson knew about it,” he said. “It was off the books.”
“Well …” Sam glanced around. “Not sure how to break it to you, but could use a little fixing up. Especially if we’re going to be staying here.” He glanced between Clint and Natasha. “We are staying here, right?”
Natasha couldn’t help the sigh that escaped her. She should have known their little life in D.C. had been going too well.
“Yeah,” she said. “We’re staying here.”