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the way a traveler knows a traveler

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“Nat, what’s this?”

It’s approaching midnight and they’ve stopped for gas at a 24 hour self-serve station in rural Pennsylvania. It’s a miracle this place exists; no way there’s a need for anything to be open all night out here. The station is deserted and Steve is rifling through Natasha’s bag looking for the backup credit card.

“What’s what?”

He waves a little plastic bag in her direction.

She raises an eyebrow. “Oregano.”

He rolls his eyes and tosses her the wallet before wandering toward the closed convenience store.

“Where are you going?”

“Vending machines.”

“Craving junk food?”

“Not really, but I need something caffeinated and you’ve banned things that have to be purchased from other people. I’m sorry, ‘witnesses.’”

“I told you, people in small towns are bored and nosy.”

“Uh huh. Be right back.”

He returns with a couple of cokes and an armload of snacks as Natasha is taking the receipt from the pump. They pull out of the oasis of harsh fluorescent light and back into the pitch black of the highway.

“I thought you said you weren't hungry.” She gestures at the pile of snacks in the backseat with her elbow, both hands hanging lazily on the wheel.

“Yeah, well, you know me. That could change.” He raises an eyebrow. “And you might need them, apparently.”

“Does this snotty yet predictable attitude mean you don’t want any, or…?”

“Oh no, I definitely want some, especially since you’re carrying it illegally in my truck.”

“The truck you stole, which you’re driving with no insurance and a fake license?”

His face shifts awkwardly the way it always does when he’s trying to justify himself. “Exactly, imagine how screwed I’d be if I got pulled over with all that and mary jane in my car.”

She smiles. “There’s a rest stop no one maintains 15 miles ahead.”

He’s stopped asking how she knows things like that, which is frankly rude of him considering how much she enjoys smiling mysteriously and giving bullshit explanations that don’t bear even a passing resemblance to the truth. She retaliates by putting her feet on the dashboard. He gives her a sour look, but says nothing.

Steve is easy to be silent with. At first glance he looks like he should be obnoxiously friendly, but in practice he seems to approach most social interactions as though they’re an inescapable responsibility he doesn’t feel he has a right to complain about.

They pull into the abandoned rest stop about four minutes later, because Steve apparently has no qualms about adding driving 20 miles over the speed limit to his potential rap sheet. The parking lot is empty. There’s a half-rotted information kiosk covered in graffiti and a restroom with the doors chained shut. None of the lights are on. The only sound is the ceaseless whisper of crickets.

They spill out of the cab and Natasha walks around to open the tailgate and hop into the truck bed. Steve sits next to her, the truck sinking under his weight as she quietly rolls a joint. Steve offers her the dented zippo he always keeps in his jacket even though he doesn’t smoke. The world feels empty, vast, and unspoiled out here, silent and unreal in the absence of other people.

She passes the joint to Steve and watches the cherry flare and illuminate his face as he inhales. She blows smoke rings while he holds his breath.

An indeterminate length of time passes. The highway is theoretically visible from here, but it’s partially obscured by a cluster of perfectly-spaced trees that were planted back when someone thought this was a good place for a rest stop. No one else has driven by since they parked.

“When you were a kid and some adult asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you say?”

They’ve been quiet long enough that Steve’s voice sounds strange to her ears. She’s starting to feel enough of a buzz that she doesn’t wonder why he’s asking. “Adults didn’t ask me things like that,” she laughs.

“All right, but what would you have said?”

She looks up at the sky, takes another drag, shrugs. “I don’t know that I ever thought about it.”

“You never thought about what kind of person you wanted to be?”

“Yeah, but not like… what kind of job I wanted to have. A job’s just a job, it’s not who you are.” She pauses. “Well. Usually.” she gestures vaguely at the two of them.

They’re silent for a few minutes, languidly passing the joint back and forth until it’s gone.

“I wanted to be a fireman.”

Natasha snorts. “Of course you did.”

He laughs a little, the joint making him giggly. “Yeah, yeah, I know.” He hesitates, getting distracted for a moment. “And an artist,” he says quietly.

She doesn’t laugh at that. “I see you drawing sometimes. You any good?”

He shrugs. “Kinda. It paid the bills a few times.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” He looks nostalgic for a moment. “Not that sign painting and shitty pulps are the most inspiring portfolio.”

“Someone’s gotta do it.” She watches the lights of a distant airplane moving overhead. “You liked it though?”

He smiles. “Yeah. It was…” He sighs. “Look, there’s a lot of ugly shit in the world. But if somebody tells me they want to sell some laundry soap, I can at least make an ad that looks nice.” He frowns thoughtfully. “Sometimes it feels like the universe wants to be ugly and sad, but maybe I can stop it for a minute.”

That’s such a Steve way of thinking about things, she’s not sure whether she wants to punch him or kiss him on the forehead.

“A ballerina.”

“Huh?”

“If you’d asked me. A ballerina.”

He laughs a little, confused. “Why?”

She takes a shallow breath and stares off into the darkness. “There was this studio near my apartment when I was a kid.”

His smile slips and he watches her intently.

“I used to climb up the fire escape and look in through the big windows and watch the ballerinas. They were…” She remembers the clean arcs of their bodies, the way they made impossible movements seem natural, their deceptive softness that made you forget their strength. “Precise. Beautiful. Controlled. Their bodies didn’t own them.”

He’s quiet, looking at her in a way that feels appraising without being invasive. The absence of force makes her want to confess.

“That’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. Powerful.”

He frowns, not following. “Powerful?”

“Yes.”

He’s confused. The word means something different to him, of course. He’s American, and a man. “I don’t think I see you as being that kind of person.”

“I don’t mean power as in…” She hunts for the word. “Domination. I don’t want to control the world.”

“What do you mean, then?”

“I want to not be stopped. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I mean, it could be snapping someone’s neck or committing wire fraud, but most of the time all I want is to go for a run or drink a bottle of wine on the roof.” She suddenly worries that saying it out loud will turn the reality of it to dust, but she continues. “I don’t really want to be bad, I just want to be the only one who controls me. I want to be untouchable.” She picks at a loose thread on her jeans. “That’s what power is. Being untouchable.”

“Yeah.” He stares at her seriously for a moment. “Yeah.”

He gazes down at himself and looks vaguely surprised, like he’d forgotten which body he was attached to. He’s far away, watching a memory she’ll never know about. “There’s a problem with being untouchable.”

“What’s that?”

He runs his palms over his knees absently. “Sometimes it means nobody touches you.”

“Yeah. Well,” she sighs, “you can’t have everything, I guess.”

A sad smile crosses his face, his eyes still gazing at something decades in the past. “Guess not.”

They’re far from any significant population centers and the stars show clearly against the rural darkness. Natasha stares at them and sees shattered glass and swirls of white smoke.

She frowns. “Does this shit even work on you?”

Steve is silent for a long moment. He’s lying in the truck bed with his legs dangling over the tailgate, and she wonders if he’s fallen asleep.

“Steve?”

“Huh?”

“Guess that answers my question.”

She watches the sky until Steve sits up suddenly in a way that probably would have startled her if she wasn’t baked. “I’m a genius,” he announces.

“No one’s a genius when they’re stoned in a rest stop parking lot, Steve.”

He climbs out of the truck and she hears him opening the passenger side door to dig around in the cab. A few seconds later, two bags of hot cheetos and a package of mini oreos land in her lap.

“Shit, okay, I take it back.”

“Toldja.”

 

***

 

“You know, if anyone else with a codename like ‘Captain America’ told me their birthday was July 4th, I wouldn’t believe them, but since it’s you, I’ve never doubted it.”

He nods. “Okay.”

They’re sitting in a dive bar somewhere in North Dakota. Natasha hasn’t slept in 36 hours, but she’s too wired to go back to the shitty motel. Steve looks pretty exhausted too, eyes sleepy and chin stubbled. She figures it can’t hurt for them to look awful right now; they blend in better with the bar’s weather-beaten regulars this way. Steve is methodically peeling the label from his beer, leaving it intact as he slowly pulls it away from the glass.

He looks up. “When’s your birthday?”

“November 22nd.”

“Huh.”

“I’m a Sagittarius.” She affects a high pitched voice, adding a ditzy lilt.

“Is that right.”

“Apparently.”

“What’s it mean?”

“It seems I’m a bubbly, impatient extrovert with no tact.”

He snorts. “Oh, right. Perfect description, very accurate.”

“Of course it’s accurate, I read it on StarDestinies.com.”

“Gotta consult the experts.”

They text each other often on a rotating collection of burner phones, but it’s been about two months since the last time they spoke in person. They found themselves within fifty miles of one another, so here they are, trading thumb drives of updated intel and talking for a couple hours to avoid looking suspicious.

“How’s Sam?”

Steve grins. “Oh, y’know. He’s Sam.”

Natasha can’t tell if Steve’s got a crush or if he’s just happy to have consistent company again, but in any case, it’s cute. She’s kicking herself for not noticing he was into guys sooner; it’s not like her to miss something that obvious.

“He’s not sick of your shit yet?”

“I guess not.”

“Huh. Weird.”

“I know, I was surprised too.” Steve wrinkles his nose. “I might be getting a little sick of his shit.”

“Perfect Sam has shit?”

“Minor shit,” he hedges. “He has great taste in music, but God, Nat, how am I supposed to keep living with someone who honestly believes Star Wars is better than Star Trek?”

“Oh my God,” she groans. “Are you two still on that?”

“Star Trek is better.”

“I don’t care.”

“You should.”

“The only thing they have in common is that they’re both set in space, why are you having a months-long fight based entirely on comparing them?”

“Star Trek is a love letter to human potential, contains colors other than brown, and has Spock. Star Wars was created by George Lucas. I rest my case.”

“Star Trek was created by a production crew that wanted to fuck the color purple.”

Steve starts laughing, inhales his beer, and spends the next few minutes coughing.

“Okay but--”

“But nothing. When’s the wedding? You two deserve each other.”

“I’m not marrying anyone who isn’t won over by Leonard Nimoy’s eyeshadow.”

“I can’t believe I thought you were straight for two and half years.”

He kicks her under the table. “You know what I mean.”

“I need another drink.”

 

***

 

They could have left an hour ago, but they’re still here. Natasha is slumped down in the booth, her feet propped up on the other side next to Steve. Neither of them have bothered keeping count of his drinks, and she hopes he’s not keeping track of hers. He’s doodling on a brown paper napkin while she pretends not to watch. She tips her glass at the waitress, who nods and brings her another.

Steve remains hunched over the table, but his eyes follow the glass.

“How are you still awake and sober enough to be drinking that without dumping it on yourself?”

Damn, he’s been counting.

She’s tipsy, but far from truly drunk. She considers playing it up to stop him asking questions, but she knows he’ll cut her off and haul her back to the motel if she does that, so she just shrugs. He looks distressed.

“Seriously.”

She puts on her best bad Russian accent. “In mother Russia, we drink--”

“God, no, forget I asked.”

She gives him a too-sweet smile. “What are you drawing?”

He glances down at the napkin, visibly resisting the urge hide what he’s doing. She slides her feet off the bench and sits up, leaning across the table to look.

“Come on, I won’t make fun of you.”

“That’ll be a first.”

She spins the napkin around with one finger. The top corner is filled with a sketch of the bar and the customers that have been hanging around for the last hour. There’s a little doodle of her, cute and cartoonish, which makes her look like a 30s fashion sketch. The rest of the space is filled with drawings of a young man with dark hair and a dimpled chin.

“Barnes?” She asks.

His cheeks are pink. “Yep.”

“Good looking guy.”

He rubs the back of his neck, looking embarrassed and sad at the same time. “Yeah, he is.”

Steve refers to Barnes in the present tense so easily, like he never quite got used to saying “was.” They haven’t even come close to finding him yet, but Steve acts as though bringing him back into the here and now is just a matter of correcting a stupid mistake, like returning a misplaced library book or righting a tipped vase.

It’s still not clear whether Steve has more than friendly feelings about Sam, but she realizes he won’t do anything about it even if he does. Who knows if Barnes will ever show up, but she can see from the longing on his face that it hardly matters.

She has pity on him and changes the subject. “This is cute.” She taps the drawing of herself. “Pretty sure I don’t look that stylish.”

“You usually look stylish unless you’re trying not to.”

Sleep is starting to weigh her down. The edges of the world are soft and indefinite, and it feels as though time is in a holding pattern. Steve looks dazed and blurry too. He yawns.

“I think I’m gonna have to call it a night,” he sighs. “I don’t want to take a nap on a sticky bar booth.

“Mm. You’re right, the sticky motel sheets are better.”

He makes a face.

“Drive me?” She asks.

“Yeah,” he nods at the empty glass in her hand. “Still not sure how you’re conscious.”

“I’m talented.”

They pay the tab and wander out of the bar. It’s late and the air is bone dry, so cold it nearly burns. There are remnants of brittle, crusted snow on the ground. Natasha doesn’t think to button her coat until two young women step out of the bar and groan at the temperature, huddling into puffy down parkas. Steve looks equally absent, zipping his jacket and turning the collar up only when he sees Natasha doing the same.

They shuffle into the truck. It has different plates than the last time she saw it.

He lets his accent out. “Hey lady, where to?”

“The Ritz-Carlton,” she yawns.

 

***

 

Switzerland is dull. Peace and quiet always sounds appealing in the abstract, but Natasha finds that too much of it just makes her jumpy. She doesn’t quite trust the silence and finds herself reading it not as an indication that there is no danger, but that the danger is hiding.

It’s almost a relief when she’s caught while breaking into a HYDRA operative’s villa. At least she knows what to do when there’s a knife at her throat.

She debates disposing of the agent’s body and cleaning up after herself, but decides against it. She leaves him to bleed into the expensive carpet and makes the altercation look like a burglary that got out of control, crafting a fun little murder mystery to distract local law enforcement while she disappears. She gathers the personnel files and facility blueprints she came to find and slips out an old staff entrance.

The next day, the news reports her mess as the bizarre murder of a playboy investment banker, papers plastered with insincere quotes from friends and colleagues of the deceased. She indulges in a moment of professional pride before putting her ego aside for a thrilling day of data analysis. Finding the Winter Soldier is marginally easier now that he’s not just the bogeyman, but that’s not saying much.

 

***

 

It might actually be a good thing that Natasha’s hearing is shot from the last flashbang, because the facility’s intruder alarms are still going off. The shrieking sirens and red strobe lights slice through mildewed tunnels, the sharp flash providing the only light as she makes her way toward the exit. Violent bursts of red transform bland hallways into the visual manifestation of a migraine. It’s a distraction from the searing looseness in her right shoulder, at least. She’s irritated that such a minor fall fucked her up so badly. It was only what, thirty, forty feet? Maybe she’s getting too old for this job.

She regrets laughing at her own joke when her ribs scream in response. Damn. Can’t tell Steve about that; he’ll want to find a hospital.

She feels a tap on her shoulder and instinctively grips the wrist to fling whoever it is on their ass, but the arm doesn’t give when she pulls.

“Nat!” She sees him saying her name more than she hears it. “Whoa, hey, it’s me.”

“Sorry.” She hopes Steve’s taken care of the remaining hostiles, because she knows she’s shouting. She points to her ear with her good hand. “Can’t hear.”

“Lucky you,” he grimaces.

They finally make it out. Steve is limping badly and Natasha’s vision is hazy. This entire mission was a waste of time. Her intel from Switzerland was out of date. The Soldier had been kept here a long time ago, but it looks like all the people who would have known anything about him moved on within the last two months and have been replaced by a crew of cockroaches who survived the collapse of SHIELD.

Steve, undoubtedly, will force a smile and say that it wasn’t a complete loss, since they cleared a HYDRA base and now know one more place Bucky isn’t. She hopes he holds that comment until after her stomach is no longer churning, because if he says it now, she’ll puke on him.

They’re in their creepy van on the way to the safehouse when her ears are finally functional enough for her to speak and actually hear the response. Steve is driving and Natasha is lying on the floor in the back feeling soggy and boneless.

“Sorry,” she mumbles.

“Huh?”

“That was my bad, taking us on a goose chase.”

He frowns. “That wasn’t a goose chase.”

“Please don’t say it.”

He looks amused and annoyed at the same time. “Say what?”

She flaps a hand at him dismissively, too tired to bother with this conversation.

“I was gonna say this was extremely helpful, because now we know at least one place Bucky’s been, when he was there, and what he was doing.”

She turns her head a little too quickly. “What?”

“Yeah. Your intel was good, all those people who worked on the Winter Soldier project? They were there until last month.”

She sits up, groaning a little. “What happened last month?”

There’s an intense and desperate joy in his eyes. “Bucky showed up.”

Huh. “I take it he wasn’t planning on returning himself to his handlers.”

“Nope.” His chin tilts up, proud.

She stares at him for a moment. They’re both silent, Steve watching the road with a small, fierce smile on his face, Natasha watching Steve. He speaks again, quiet but sure.

“He’s not going back to them, Natasha. He broke his programming. He went in there and killed the people who hurt him.”

She should tell him not to jump to conclusions, point out that there are a thousand reasons the Winter Soldier might return to an old base and slaughter half its personnel. She should explain that most of those reasons have nothing to do with the old Bucky coming back. But the fact is, she hopes like hell that Steve’s rose-colored explanation is the right one. By the time she defected to SHIELD, the people who created her were dead, mostly from disgustingly peaceful causes. Contrary to what baby spies might tell each other about her, she doesn’t generally enjoy killing. But there were a few people. Just a few. What she would have given for the opportunity to burn the Red Room to the ground. Hell, she can’t imagine what it would be like to do that and then have the option of returning to something she could call home.

She finds herself hoping that Barnes is a real boy after all, both for his sake and for Steve’s, and that he gets to have what she didn’t.

 

***

 

“Do you need a hospital?”

“Absolutely not, Steve.”

“Your ribs are cracked.”

“I’ve had worse.”

They’ve made it back to the safehouse and Steve is stubbornly ignoring whatever’s wrong with his left ankle in favor of worrying about Natasha, in spite of her attempts to shoo him away and lick her wounds in private.

“Do you need help?”

“Do you?” She nods at his leg, scowling.

“It’s just a bad sprain, it’ll be gone by morning. Nat, that shoulder--”

“I’ll deal with it.”

He looks suspicious. “Okay.” He looks her up and down. “Yell if you need anything.”

“Sure, mom.”

She stumbles into the tiny bedroom where she’d dumped her duffel bag earlier, sits down on the edge of the twin bed, and slowly works her boots off, every movement painful. She hears the shower go on. Natasha usually makes Steve take the first shower so she won’t feel guilty about using up all the hot water - they’re both efficient, but Steve is a lot faster. Nobody’s expecting him to shave his legs.

She tries to pop her shoulder back into the socket before he gets out, but she’s bone tired and still feels nauseous with pain. She can’t get the right angle and keeps tapping out before she can pull it back.

“Christ, Natasha, you don’t have to do that yourself.”

God, she’s really out of it. She didn’t even hear him turn the shower off, let alone clatter around in the bathroom like he always does or limp down the hallway to her room.

“I’m fine.”

“You’re not.”

“I’ve done this a million times.”

“I know.”

“Okay, so...?”

“Let me help anyway.”

Fuck it. She rolls her eyes and nods. He stands in front of her, grabs her collarbone and bicep, and pulls, shifting her shoulder back into place. She traps the scream before it leaves her throat, but the sick grind of bone is agonizing. The pain eases and the joint feels right again. Her pulse is roaring in her ears as she tries to steady her breathing. Steve makes a sympathetic face and gently pulls her toward him, resting a hand on the back of her head to hold it carefully against his sternum. She has a sudden, sharp memory of someone else having held her the same way when she was a kid, but she can’t remember who or why. She’s mortified by the sob that escapes and angry at herself for crying over such a stupid injury. He doesn’t say anything, but he pets her hair and squeezes her uninjured shoulder with the other hand, as though this is normal.

She eventually pulls away, irritated at herself for the wet patch on Steve’s shirt. “Sorry.” She wipes her face and contains the hiccuping tears that still want to bubble out of her.

“Quit apologizing.”

“I’ve got a lot to apologize for.”

“Maybe, but not to me.”

She laughs a little. The thought turns itself to words before she can examine it. “Do you know how many people I’ve killed?”

He’s understandably surprised by the sharp turn. She doesn’t know where it comes from either.

“Do you, Steve?”

His face is carefully neutral. “No.”

“That makes two of us, because I’ve lost count. How do you lose count of how many lives you’ve ended?”

He looks at her sadly. “Pretty easily, in my experience.”

“Yours are different. What I did, that was intentional.” She doesn’t know why she needs him to understand the distinction. “I’ve killed innocent people.”

“What makes you think I haven’t?” He says, voice heavy and quiet.

She looks away, frustrated. “Collateral damage.”

“Depends on how broadly you want to define that term,” He frowns. “Besides, you think the collateral damage cares that that’s what it was?” He carefully moves her hair out of her face. “We do our best. Sometimes our best has terrible consequences.”

“My best is terrible consequences.” She looks up again. “I’m really-- I’m not a good person, Steve.”

“I don’t know what people mean when they say things like that.” He sighs. “I know you were the first person to try to be my friend after I woke up. I know you love that cat you’re pretending isn’t a pet and you make sure Mrs. Stepanova feeds her when you’re gone. I know you’re out here helping me get my best guy back even though you think I’m an idiot chasing a lost cause.” He smiles slightly, voice quiet. “I don’t know who gets to decide whether any of that makes you a good person. But it makes you a person I like.”

Natasha avoids his eyes and tries not to absorb what he’s saying. Kind words are sometimes harder to hear than cruel ones.

“In any case, you don’t have to apologize to me for stuff you didn’t do to me. And you never have to apologize for being human.”

She takes a deep breath, her throat burning with the effort of holding back tears.

“Quit standing on that leg,” She grumbles.

He barks out a tired laugh. “Relax, it’s half-healed already.”

“It would probably be all the way healed if you’d sit down.”

He rolls his eyes and lightly tugs a lock of her hair. It’s a gesture that always reminds her of the brother she had once. She has no idea what his name was.

“It might hurt a little,” he admits with a tired smile.

She smiles back. “Go to bed, Steve.”

“Yeah.” He obediently wobbles toward the door. He must be even more exhausted than he looks.

“Steve?”

He pokes his head back into her room.

“Thanks.”

She cries as she tries to sleep, but they aren’t hopeless, lonely tears. She feels them rinsing something thick and sad out of her, and she falls asleep relieved.

 

***

 

Natasha has a soft spot for New York. Nowhere is really home, but New York is an easy place to pretend. Half the population is from somewhere else. Anywhere you go there are thousands of witnesses, but no one is actually looking at you. The social contract demands that you give your neighbor privacy through a constant game of make-believe, imagining you can’t hear through your thin walls and pretending that you don’t see anyone on the busy street or packed subway car. There’s always a crowd to blend into, and everyone in the crowd is invested in letting you blend in.

Steve loves New York too, and his reasons don’t seem to be as different from hers as she would have expected. It isn’t really home for him anymore, but like Natasha, he finds it easier to fake it here than anywhere else. Unlike Natasha, he bitches constantly - about the cost of living, the subway, and the hipsters. Like most native Brooklynites, he’d probably pay good money to push a few into the East River. She wishes she’d gotten a video of the eloquent tantrum he threw upon discovering that a building which had been an auto shop in the forties was now an artisanal craft supply store that sold $20 skeins of hand-spun alpaca wool and not much else. She’s waiting to show him the organic mayonnaise shop on a day when she needs cheering up.

Right now, though, she’s leaning out the window of his new apartment, breathing in the air that almost seems fresh in the early spring chill. He’d abandoned the one in DC, leaving the landlord a check for twice the actual cost of repairs. Normally, SHIELD would have paid for that sort of thing, but, well.

He’s arranging furniture while she pokes her head around corners and in closets, looking for good spots to install the security system. She already put extra locks on the door and windows. She’s considering bribing or threatening the landlady into having bulletproof glass installed. She hadn’t had to coerce her own landlord - he’d considered it an investment. Steve doesn’t live in that kind of neighborhood, though.

By the time Tony found out that Steve was moving back to New York, he’d already signed a two year lease. Tony was aghast and offered to pay the cost of breaking it so that Steve could have a floor at the tower, convinced that it was impossible to live in an apartment this small. Steve had shrugged mildly and commented that he’d lived in a smaller one with three other people before the war. He was lying, of course, because he only ever lived with his mother and Barnes, but he gets a kick out of horrifying Tony with tales of his former poverty, who unfailingly falls for it. Steve cheerfully retains his Brooklyn shoebox. It’s not like he’s ever made a secret of hating the tower.

“I won’t even make a joke about how this place is too small to bring dates home,” she sighs. They’re shoving a mattress through the door of the cramped bedroom.

Steve raises an eyebrow. “I’ve been told size doesn’t matter.”

She throws a pillow at his face.

“Anyway, that’s beside the point, because I’m not going on any more dates.”

“They weren’t so bad, you’re just too picky.”

He makes a face.

“What was wrong with them?”

“Nothing, it’s just-- blind dates are awkward,” he grimaces. “They were bad in 1942 and they’re bad now.”

“The last one was okay!”

“Are you kidding? The last one was easily the worst.”

“What do you mean?”

He rolls his eyes. “I don’t remember why or who brought it up, but we ended up in one of those god awful conversations where you’re both embarrassed and pretending not to be because you don’t want to look like a crumb.”

“What about?”

He huffs. “Our, uh. First times. Who, where, how old we were, that kind of thing.”

She laughs. “Pretty spicy for a first date, Rogers.”

He groans. “You joke, but really--”

“I wouldn’t even know how to answer that. No consistent definition, first of all.”

“No shit, neither did I. You think you don’t know, try being a queer in the 30s.”

She smirks at him, “See, now I’m curious.”

“Shouldn’t have brought it up, I guess,” he grumbles.

“Well?”

He rolls his eyes. “That’s the thing, depending on what you think counts, I was anywhere from thirteen to twenty-five, and I have no idea which one of those is more embarrassing.”

She grins. “Thirteen? Jesus Steve, what were you--” Oh. “You and Barnes, huh?”

He’s turning pink. “Maybe.”

She’s struggling not to laugh. “You gonna tell me it was his idea?”

He clears his throat and starts digging around in a box to avoid eye contact. “I’m not that good of a liar.”

She gives in and laughs at him. He grins and laughs along sheepishly.

A few minutes later, Steve frowns thoughtfully.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“How old were you?”

She pauses, suddenly feels cold. “I don’t know.”

“Whatever you think counts, I mean.”

“No, that’s not--” The world is tilted and strange, static buzzing in her ears. “I mean I don’t remember.”

A worried frown crosses his face. “Uh.”

“Nothing like that,” she hedges, although that might be a lie. It could have been like that, she has no idea. “I just… there are things I don’t remember about my life.” She’s aggressively casual to hide that her thoughts have gone gray and scorched. “Barnes wasn’t their first try.”

Steve looks startled. He’s quiet, attentive; she can see that he expects her to elaborate. She doesn’t.

“Anyway, it’s probably for the best. No one’s first time is anything but embarrassing.”

Steve flushes and smiles. “Speak for yourself.”

“Ugh,” she rolls her eyes with exaggerated disgust. “Would you stop being the way you are for five seconds? I can feel my teeth rotting whenever I go near you, and my dental insurance is gone now that you’ve very literally dismantled my place of employment.”

He laughs and lets the subject drop.

“You are absurdly particular, though,” she adds.

He looks affronted. “No I’m not.”

“I managed to get you to go on dates with four women and you didn’t like any of them.”

He looks even more offended now. “I didn’t not like them.”

“You didn’t go on any second dates. I’d say that’s pretty picky given that all of them were gorgeous, funny, and smarter than you.”

“I’m not arguing with any of that.”

“So what was the problem?” If she didn’t know him, she’d think those things were the problem, but she’s never noticed Steve falling prey to that type of masculine vanity.

He shrugs helplessly. “There wasn’t a problem,” He sighs, frustrated. “They were great, I just-- Why were you so set on me meeting somebody, anyway?”

She looks at him seriously for a moment. “Do you want an honest answer?”

He rolls his eyes again. “The answer to that question is never gonna be ‘no,’ Nat.”

She sighs and leans against the window sill, considering how to phrase it. Steve does pretty well with blunt. “You were scaring me, Steve. I was afraid you were a suicide risk.”

He looks like he’s been punched and says nothing. She regrets answering the question.

“Steve?”

His voice is soft. “That obvious, huh?”

Oh.

She sighs. “I don’t know about obvious.” She doesn’t know what to do with the knowledge that she was right. “You really were, though?”

She watches him deciding whether or not to bleed on her and struggling against the impulse to avoid bothering anyone with his problems. Usually, she sees the vulnerability of others as a resource, but it doesn’t feel that way now. The cowardly part of her wants him to shrug and push her away, steering the conversation back into safe territory. The rest wants him to trust her, but she’s still scared of the answer. She’s asked because she wants him to say it, not because she wants to hear it. Who wants to hear a friend say what he’s about to say?

He takes a breath, slow, considering. “There was one night when I didn’t sleep, because I was sitting on the end of my bed with a gun in my hand, trying to stop being such a chickenshit.”

Natasha feels woozy, a mixture of misplaced grief and memory settling like sludge in her stomach. She remembers doing something similar, once. The temptation of an otherwise unobtainable ending.

“I’d say you should have called me, but I assume this was before you would have done that.”

He nods distantly. “It was all right. I just went running real early. That was the morning I met Sam.” He shrugs. “And then everything happened with SHIELD, and I found out Bucky was alive.”

She nods back, quiet for a moment. “So you don’t sit on your bed with a gun anymore, right?”

He shakes his head. “I still feel like hell sometimes. But there’s stuff I have to do. People counting on me.”

She smiles weakly. “Exactly.”

He stares at her for a second, frowning. “What, you thought if I met someone, I’d at least stay alive for them?”

“Well, yeah.”

He laughs bitterly, exasperated with himself, not her. “I guess you have a point.”

 

***

 

Illegal flights in cargo holds aren’t the worst way to travel, but they’re damn close. They’re loud, turbulent, and boring. There’s never a comfortable place to sit, and they’re freezing cold. Which Natasha doesn’t mind so much, but--

“How are you two still functional?” Sam grumbles, teeth chattering. “I thought for sure this asshole was unconscious from hypothermia, but nope, he’s just taking a goddamn nap like this is the beach or something.” He gestures irritably at Steve, who’s curled up between two rolling suitcases with his back to the two of them.

Natasha shrugs. “It’s not that bad.”

“Again, how are you doing this?”

She starts to say, “In Mother Russia, we--” but stops because Steve is grumbling it along with her.

“Hey, fuck you, Sam hasn’t heard all three of my jokes yet.” She kicks his foot. “I thought you were asleep.”

“I was, but the sound of bitching woke me up.”

Sam looks offended. “Natasha’s right, fuck you.”

“Go cuddle with Steve if you’re cold, he’s like a furnace.”

Sam scoffs. “No, he’s a dick.”

“A dick with a regular body temperature of 100.3 degrees.” Steve mumbles. Natasha can hear him smiling.

“See? Very cozy.”

“Are you wingmanning him right now? You are, aren’t you?” Sam looks incredulous.

“Who, me?”

“Both of you please stop talking.” Steve hasn’t opened his eyes.

“Hey, be nice to me,” Natasha says. “I’m trying to get you a cuddle buddy.”

“I thought you were trying to keep Sam from dying of exposure.”

“I’m multitasking.”

“You two make me sound so dramatic.”

“You don’t need any help with that, Sam.”

Steve groans deeply. “I am begging both of you to shut the hell up. Anyone who's cold can come be the little spoon as long as they do it silently.”

 

***

 

“I don’t know about this, Nat.”

“Relax, it’s not rocket science.”

“No, it’s just my hair that I have to have on my head all the time.”

“The idea is that I’m taking it off your head.”

“Funny.”

“I’ve done this before; I promise it won’t turn out any worse than it did when your idiot boyfriend cut it with nail scissors in 1935.”

“That’s not comforting.”

“Hey, you let him do it.”

“I was blinded by youthful infatuation.”

“Quit being a baby and hold still.” She turns on the clippers. “I still think you should let me do an undercut.”

He leans away from her warily. “Absolutely not.”

“I won’t, I won’t.” She pulls him upright again and tilts his head forward to trim the hair at the back of his neck. Now that he’s offered the obligatory token resistance, he’ll sit quietly on the edge of the tub and let her work. They don’t speak beyond Natasha’s mumbled commands.

She runs her fingers through his hair, knocking the loose strands out. “Finished.”

He reaches up to touch it. “Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me until you look at it.”

He smiles, sleepy. He’s a like a big clumsy dog, nodding off when you pet him. “I’m sure it’s fine.”

“Oh, now you trust me.”

“Yeah, of course.”

“You might regret that.”

“Haven’t yet.”

 

***

 

Iowa is disgusting in the summer. The air is thick and clammy and the unnerving electric buzz of the cicadas is inescapable. It’s no wonder Clint is so perversely indifferent to his own well-being; this climate probably encourages nihilism as a coping mechanism.

Natasha says as much and Steve laughs. They’re sitting on the porch of a splintering farmhouse mowing through a sack of burgers from a dilapidated Dairy Queen. Steve vetoed onion rings on the grounds that they’d be stuck with each other in a very small car for the next five hours. She’s stopped hiding how much she eats, though Steve still looks surprised when she goes for a third burger.

“You sure you don’t have a tapeworm?”

She rolls her eyes. “I’m hungry.”

“No judgement whatsoever, I’m just wondering how the hell you’re fitting three hamburgers into a body half the size of mine.”

“Must eat to store energy, survive cold Siberian winter,” she growls.

“You’re not from Siberia,” he says mildly. He doesn’t bother looking annoyed at her fake Russian accent.

“Close enough.”

“If Iowa summers make people casually self-destructive, do Russian winters make them…” he casts around for a descriptor.

“Spitefully self-preserving?” she suggests.

“Your self-preservation isn’t driven by spite,” he says.

“How would you know?”

He looks at her critically. “I don’t know, I think it’s a trait that stands on its own.”

She hums a vague acknowledgement. “I could crank out some bullshit about the impact of climate on your personality, but I think the psychology of New Yorkers has probably been talked to death.”

He snorts. “No shit, spare me.”

“Speaking of the psychology of New Yorkers, Stark is still texting me about your apartment.”

Steve makes a face. “It’s been months!”

“He’s very concerned.”

“Does he not have enough to do? Does he need a hobby?” Steve shoves some fries in his mouth and keeps talking, because he’s vile. “There are soup kitchens he could be working at if he’s bored. After school programs.” He swallows. “Why is he texting you?”

“I think he thinks I’ll talk you around.”

“And he thinks that because...?”

“I truly have no idea.”

“I mean, I understand why he thinks you could talk me around if you somehow gave a shit where I lived.” He takes a deep gulp of his coke. “My question is why he gives a shit where I live.”

“Eh. Having us all under his roof probably appeals to his sense of order.”

“Does he have one of those?”

“I think people who are unaccounted for make him nervous.”

“He doesn’t have to account for me. I’m a grown up; I’m allowed to vote and buy cigarettes and everything.”

“He meddles because he cares,” she smiles. “I can relate.”

“I understand that. It’s just--” He frowns. “I mean, it’s sweet that the guy wants to do stuff for me, really. I’d never criticize him for lack of generosity,” he shrugs, “but why? I can’t speak for the rest of you, but he’s got no special obligation to me. It’s not like we’re friends.”

She feels like she’s tripped over a bunched rug. “You don’t consider Tony a friend?”

He looks defensive. “I mean, he’s a great teammate, it’s not that I don’t like him. Nice guy and everything.”

“Sure.”

“We just don’t really... know each other?”

“Glad he’s not around to hear you say that,” she says, raising an eyebrow and digging around for more ketchup.

Steve sighs. “It’s not a criticism, it’s just true.”

“Does it matter?”

He snorts. “Kind of an important starting point for friendship. Knowing someone, I mean.”

“Plenty of people love people they don’t really know, Steve.”

“They love an idea. You can’t love a person you don’t know, just the version of them you made up.”

“Jesus. You hold everybody to such unattainable standards.”

“Maybe.”

She rolls her eyes. “What the hell does that even mean, though? People ‘knowing’ you. Personalities aren’t real, they’re just a collection of traits you’re wearing at any given time.”

“Not even you can believe that, Natasha.”

“Why not?”

He shakes his head and smiles, but doesn’t answer, which is even more infuriating. He’s always so unbearably certain about things.

 

***

 

Cities are alike at night, each one painted with the jittering wash of neon signs, sodium lights, and traffic signals. Distinguishing quirks fade behind a predictable camouflage of shadow and flash, the same pattern appearing in every place with a high enough population density. Everywhere you go, people build a big fire in the middle of the village to keep the wolves away.

It’s still hot outside after dark, the searing pavement exhaling the day’s oppressive heat. Arizona’s air is so dry that every breath seems to turn the inside of Natasha’s lungs to dust. She’s not sure whether or not she prefers it to the soupy, narcotic humidity of the midwest, but at least sweat dries too fast to stain her dress here.

Natasha is standing outside an overpriced nightclub that’s actually a HYDRA-affiliated human trafficking operation. Steve is inside looking conspicuous by the bar. She’d sent him in through a back entrance thirty minutes earlier, telling him that people would be more likely to recognize them if they were together. In reality, she just doesn’t want him having to poker face his way into anything, since that would inevitably get them caught.

The club is so loud that Natasha feels her teeth vibrating. Dizzy, distracting lighting makes it hard to distinguish individuals in the seething mass of bodies. It’s an environment designed to disorient. It works on most people.

She slides along the edges of the room, attracting the kind of superficial attention that won’t get her recognized. The dress isn’t what she would pick for herself, but it fits her cover. She likes this aspect of the job, the trying on other selves, the flirtation with things that draw her eye but aren’t quite for her--

She nearly stops short in the middle of the club, belatedly irritated at Steve for managing to be right again.

 

***

 

The evening was successful, but not without its casualties. Natasha didn’t tell Steve how much those jeans cost before she made him put them on, and she’s certainly not going to do it now that he’s bleeding all over them.

“Do I at least get points for an unusual injury?”

She sighs, grimacing at the improvised weapon stuck in his thigh. “Nope. I’ve also gotten stabbed with a letter opener.”

“Damn.”

“Hey, what’s that over there?”

“What? Wher-FUCK!”

“Done.”

“Jesus Christ, Nat,” he groans.

“I can’t believe you fell for that.”

“Fuck you.”

“You’re welcome. Hold this.” She puts his hand over the motel towel she’s using to slow the bleeding.

“You know, I’m nice to you when you get hurt,” he grumbles.

“I gently remove a dangerous piece of office equipment from your leg, and you accuse me of not being nice.” She drops the letter opener in the trash.

He sighs. “Peggy told me she knocked a guy out with a stapler one time.”

“I believe it,” she murmurs. “She was like the Hulk in a tasteful pantsuit.”

Steve looks confused. “How would you know?”

Shit. She course corrects and proceeds as though he’s misunderstood her. “The former director of SHIELD had a reputation.”

His face clears and he smiles. “Yeah, I bet she did. She was a bruiser. I think if you gave Peggy her pick of weapons, she would have gone for whatever was the heaviest just for the pleasure of hitting something really hard.” Natasha wants to laugh at the dreamy look on his face, but he sounds so earnest she’d just feel bad about it.

“Yeah, well. She probably had some anger to work off.”

“No shit.”

Even before she defected, Natasha never quite managed any hard feelings for Agent Carter. Not when she cracked Natasha’s jaw with a steel-toed kick; not when she made Natasha fumble a mission and earned her a week in a cold, windowless cell with no food; not even when she killed three other Widows before Natasha could stop her. It’s pointless to hate a snake for biting you; that’s the nature of snakes. It was no sign of weakness to lose to a woman that determined to win. Her ruthlessness was built from years of having to fight tooth and nail for every miserable scrap of power. Natasha could relate.

After she joined SHIELD, she only encountered her one more time. By then, she was Director Carter, her hair was white, and her face was deeply lined, but she still carried herself as though her spine was made of iron. She took one look at Natasha, smiled slightly, and said, “Thank goodness. It was really quite an inconvenience to have you on the other side, Agent Romanoff.” It’s still the best compliment she’s ever received.

She doesn’t tell Steve any of this, but she understands his starstruck expression.

 

***

 

Summer is fading and there’s a breeze coming off the ocean. Natasha’s always liked the clean, white sunlight of Greece, the cobbled-together feeling of the cities. It’s a nation built on grave dust, but it feels grounded rather than haunted. They decided to meet here on the way back to New York because they realized that for once there was nothing pressing for them to get back to.

The last time they were in the same place was Phoenix, but they’re not in a rush to talk. Steve’s on-and-off beard is tentatively on right now, though she’d bet money he’ll shave it when he gets home. He’s sitting twenty feet above her on one of the massive boulders that litter the mountainside, and she’s leaning against a crumbling rock wall that keeps the footpath from eroding.

Eventually, she hoists herself up the hill to join him on the boulder.

“I was here once, during the war,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“It looks the same.”

“This part of the world is like that.”

He hums. “It’s quieter, though. Wars are noisy.” He tosses a bit of gravel off the hillside. “You know, I always felt silly about it, but being here made me anxious as hell. I kept thinking about all the stuff that might not survive the shelling.” He laughs at himself. “Stupid. There were people here, and I was worrying about old buildings.”

“Irreplaceable old buildings.”

He shrugs. “Ah, they got those everywhere.”

“They’ve got people everywhere, too,” she jokes. “They make more of them every day.”

They drop back onto the footpath and keep walking up the mountain. There’s a small church with crumbling walls at the top. At first, it looks as though it’s abandoned, but when they walk around the back, they find the thick wooden door wide open.

The air inside is cool and somnolent and the walls are covered with weathered Byzantine frescoes. There are a few candles guttering near the altar and the dirt floor is swept clean. She sees a little hand-painted sign posted near the door which says that the oldest parts of the structure have been here for over a thousand years. She turns back to Steve to tell him, but the words die in her throat. She knows from having seen the outside of the church that the room is small, and knows from having seen Steve that he isn’t, but the ancient icons and dusty gray light swallow him. Under the piercing gaze of the saints, his looming frame shrinks. For a moment, she feels the length of human history echoing in her ribs like a pebble dropped in a well, her own overlong existence as short and sharp as a gunshot. If she believed in that sort of thing, Natasha might say that speaking right now would be a sin.

They stand there until the light begins to change and the last candle flickers out, staring silently back at sober faces and inhaling centuries of residual incense in a room as removed from time as they are.

 

***

 

They’re halfway down the mountain before they shake off the spell.

“Natasha?” His voice is quiet.

She hums a question mark.

“Do you believe in God?”

She’s silent for longer than it would take most people to think of an answer, but he doesn’t prompt her further.

“Do you?” She asks.

He looks at her curiously. “Will my answer change yours?”

“No,” she says. “I’m just not sure how to explain my answer.”

His mouth tips up on one side. “Me neither.”

She mirrors his expression. “That surprises me.”

“Why?”

“You seem like a believer.”

He lets out the ghost of a laugh. “You don’t.”

A few more minutes of comfortable silence.

“I used to be sure,” Steve says. “My mother was Catholic. Which makes me Catholic too, I guess. They baptized me. I sure ate enough communion wafers.”

“Why the ‘used to?’”

He sighs deeply. “This sounds whiny when I say it out loud.”

“Try me.”

He hesitates and stares at the ground. “How could God let any of this happen?”

“Any of what?”

“I…” he makes a face, rearranging his thoughts. “Look, It’s not like I didn’t know what people were capable of. I could read the papers, I knew there was war and genocide. But then my war happened, and seeing it up close threw me. And all this shit with Bucky, who doesn’t deserve--” He swallows hard. “Look, I know I’m disappointing my ma right now, but what am I supposed to think?”

She hums. “Everyone loses their innocence sometime.”

He presses his lips together. “I grew up reading stories about saints getting tortured to death. I had plenty of warning about what God would allow. But it turns out I’m as small and stupid as anyone else and I only understand things when they happen to me. I thought I could believe even though the world was terrible, but it turns out I just didn’t know how terrible the world was.” He looks miserable. “I still feel like there might be a God, but I’m not as sure as I used to be. Even if there is, I’m not convinced it’s a good thing.”

“That doesn’t sound whiny, Steve.”

“I just didn’t mean to turn out so cynical.”

“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘reasonable.’”

He raises an eyebrow. “You would say that.”

She reaches over and takes his hand for a moment. Steve squeezes back, looking fretful and distant. They let go and return their hands to their pockets, listening to the soft crunch of their shoes on the grit.

“God is the name we give to the feeling of bumping into our own limits.” The thought leaves her mouth before she can consider it.

He looks up suddenly.

“I don’t believe in God the way you do, you’re right about that.” She nods slightly, indicating the top of the mountain. “But in the church up there, you felt that too.”

He nods slightly.

“I don’t know what causes that feeling. I don’t know if it’s a universal feature of the human brain or something supernatural. It doesn’t matter. People starve themselves, spin in circles, take drugs, go sit alone in the forest for years. Or they stare at the ceiling in a thousand-year-old church, because the reality of that place is something beyond what we can process.” She shrugs. “We experience things that feel too big, and we call the feeling God. Giving it a personality and imagining that it has some kind of will is an attempt to make it less overwhelming.”

He’s quiet for a long time, allowing himself a smile. “So how did you end up being the one with the less-miserable belief system?”

She shrugs and smiles back. “I’m willing to share if you want to sign on.”

She wasn’t wrong about him; he is a believer. Not believing has weighed him down and shoved his head under the water. His shoulders drop, a shaky grin splitting his face as he accepts the lifeline. “I’ll take it.”

She loops her arm through his and returns her hand to her pocket. Their gait is a bit unsteady as a result, but they stay linked together anyway, snickering at each other when they stumble.

 

***

 

Natasha’s apartment smells stale and the invisible tape remains unbroken on all the doors and windows. There are no disturbances in the dust. No breaches. She opens the fridge and throws out the tub of yogurt she knows has gone bad. She’ll do an actual shopping trip tomorrow; the Venezuelan food truck down the street will work for now.

She climbs out onto the fire escape and looks for Liho. She holds out for a few minutes, telling herself she’s not going to call her. She probably doesn’t even know the name Natasha’s given her.

She finally gives in and calls the cat, feeling silly. She purses her lips and makes a chirping noise, since that sometimes works better than her name. She’s about to climb back inside when she hears a noise from below. She looks down expecting rats, but there’s a little black cat, now wearing a red collar.

“Liho?”

The cat wriggles, preparing to jump up onto the ledge near the window.

“Who got a collar on you?” The cat squeaks in response, her head bobbing back and forth as she calculates the jump to the railing. Natasha gets out of her way.

Liho is already purring slightly when she hops down onto the fire escape. She weaves between Natasha’s legs and squeaks again. She can’t quite manage proper cat noises, so she always just sounds like an broken party horn.

“I’m surprised you remember me.” She crouches down to pet her. It feels pathetic to be asking for company from an animal, and stupid to get attached to something so fragile that lives in a world of raccoons and garbage trucks. It’s hard not to sympathize with a fellow stray, though.

She hears a window open below.

“Natalia! Finally you’re back!” Mrs. Stepanova greets her in Russian. She usually talks to Natasha like she’s a kid, but that’s okay. She has no way of knowing Natasha’s age.

“Yes I am. Thank you for taking care of Liho.”

“You’re welcome, she’s easy company.”

“Did you put the collar on her?”

“Yes, now people will know she is someone’s pet.”

Natasha looks at Liho. Her fur is glossy and soft, and she’s happy to let Natasha pet her, purring loudly and nuzzling into her palm. Natasha remembers watching her kill a rat that must have been at least half her size. Her left ear has torn and healed - probably a fight with a dog.

She smiles down at Mrs. Stepanova. “Don’t let Liho hear you call her that.”

The old woman laughs. “Oh yes, she thinks she’s very fierce. She also thinks I starve her, but I fed her this afternoon, so don’t listen if she starts crying.”

Natasha nods. “Good to know.”

Mrs. Stepanova goes to bed and Natasha lets Liho inside. She shouldn’t let an outdoor cat that usually lives behind dumpsters sleep in her bed, but it turns out she’s as much a sucker for a pair of big green eyes as any of her marks.

The next morning, she feeds her and moves to open the window again, but hesitates. Liho looks at her expectantly. Natasha reaches for the collar.

“I never liked people trying own me,” she murmurs. “Let’s skip that whole ‘pet’ business and just settle for being friends, sound good?”

Liho squeaks and paws the window, insistent. Natasha reaches over to smooth out the line in her fur where the collar was. She opens the window and the cat slips outside.

 

***

 

Steve’s apartment doesn’t look any more lived in than it did when he arrived. His stuff is all here, and there are no more cardboard boxes or half-unpacked duffel bags, but it still feels vaguely anonymous. Natasha’s apartment is the same, but given how much Steve complained about the tower being cold and impersonal, she expected him to at least put up some pictures. She smiles at his plain-jane coffee maker, though. Stark’s fancy coffee machine at the tower was designed to stop people from making the kind of over-brewed paint thinner Steve usually drinks. Steve made it clear that he hated this, but his repeated attempts to sneak in his own coffee pot were thwarted.

Natasha dumps an unseemly volume of coffee grounds into the filter. She hadn’t gotten involved in Steve and Tony’s pissing match, but the truth is, she also has horrible taste in coffee. Blame Clint.

It’s late enough that decent people are all asleep. Steve is hunched over the scratched wooden table, squinting at a page of handwritten notes from an old HYDRA file.

“This is chicken scratch. My Russian’s not good enough to read any of it.” He passes her the file. “You?”

She takes the page and freezes, schooling her face. He’s right, the handwriting is nearly illegible. She recognizes it, though. One of those long-dead bastards she wishes she could resurrect just so she could kill him again.

She scowls at the page, pretending to decipher it. “It’s not just you. I can only read a little.” A benign lie. She knows what it says, but it’s not relevant to their search, so he doesn’t need to hear it.

“The only part I could read was something like… ‘Red Room, yada yada, training facility terminated in 1975.’” He frowns. “That can’t be right, isn’t that where you trained?”

She’s getting sick of Steve’s exceptionally retentive memory. She makes something up. “Yeah, a lot of people were. This probably has some intentional inaccuracies,” she shrugs. “Either that, or the place I trained was a better-hidden offshoot of the original that the guy who wrote these didn’t know about.”

He looks at her for a half a beat too long. She feels the back of her neck prickle, but he goes back to digging through the dusty box of files that are slowly taking over his kitchen table.

He’s flipping through another, older file when he stops suddenly and looks at her again. “You said you met Bucky in Odessa.”

“‘Met’ might be a generous term.”

“Okay, ‘got shot by,’” he says. “Are you absolutely sure you never met him before that?”

She looks at him impassively. “Why?”

He looks down at a few open folders. “Seems like you ran in the same circles, is all.”

She frowns slightly. “These files are decades older than me, Steve.”

He hesitates for a moment, something complicated crossing his face. “Yeah, I know.”

The prickle returns. What the hell did he find? “Anyway. No, I never ran into him before that, unless they had him on undercover, which I doubt.” She flips through her own stack of files and avoids eye contact. “Ghost story or no, it doesn’t sound like he had enough autonomy to do that kind of work.”

It’s a cheap shot, and his shoulders fall just slightly, face turning grim. “Yeah,” he murmurs, going back to the pile. She feels something like a rock in her stomach.

They’ve already found boxes of records on the Winter Soldier program, clinical language describing an endless barrage of experiments and brutal missions. None of this was news to Natasha. She’s intimately familiar with the grueling training sessions, mind games, unethical surgeries, and the screaming buzz of electricity that left emptiness in its wake. She was spared, to some extent; her ability to make decisions independently was an asset rather than a flaw. Barnes wasn’t so lucky. A blunt instrument is better off without free will.

Steve doesn’t have the luxury of her blasé attitude. Every shot, slice, and shock that hits Barnes reverberates through his body too. The ruthless part of her grumbles that Steve is foolish for being so easily distracted, but the rest of her hates herself for pouring salt on his wounds to get him off her back.

“Sorry,” she says softly, patting his arm. He shakes his head, smiling weakly and giving her hand a squeeze because he doesn’t understand what she’s apologizing for. He doesn’t give her any more suspicious looks for the rest of the evening.

 

***

 

Natasha steps out onto the roof of the tower, taking a deep breath of the freezing air as the door slides shut behind her and muffles the sounds of the party. The music is loud enough that she can still hear the heartbeat of the bass through the walls, but it’s swallowed by the night breeze and the distant chatter and howl of the city. After a moment of consideration, she steps out of her shoes. The concrete is searingly cold on the soles of her feet, but the painful numbness is almost a relief after hours in the world’s most uncomfortable heels. At this point it’s a choice between blisters and chilblains.

It’s not exactly that Natasha isn’t a party person - she doesn’t mind this kind of controlled chaos when she’s working, and maybe in another life she would have gone to these things for fun, but most of the time they just wear her thin. She finds herself following the thread of every inane conversation she hears and tailing random strangers for no logical reason until she’s bleary and frustrated. Parties are easy when she has something to focus on, but without a mission her brain sifts through the overwhelming rush of input for leads that go nowhere.

She walks to the railing and leans over, seriously considering tossing her shoes off the edge.

“You might want to just throw them in the incinerator. New Year’s Eve brings enough concussions without you dropping your pumps on some schmuck’s head.”

Steve is standing against a wall a few yards away.

“Some schmuck might be happy to have them. They were unbelievably expensive.”

“Maybe not the incinerator then.”

“Oh no, I’m considering it.”

He shuffles over to lean on the railing next to her. “Wearing out?” He murmurs.

She hums in agreement. “You too, huh?”

“Music’s pretty loud.”

“It looked like you had some very cute company there for a while,” she smirks.

He rolls his eyes and scoffs. “Would have been a lot cuter three drinks ago when she was sober enough not to grab my ass unprompted.”

Natasha starts laughing. “Oh God.” He starts snickering too, so she knows he’s not really bothered about it. “Maybe she’ll meet the guy who thought it was necessary to stand three inches away from me to have a conversation. It’ll be love at first sight.”

They stand in comfortable silence for a while. Steve shrugs off his suit jacket and drapes it over her bare shoulders as they watch the shifting glimmer of the city.

“Not that you’re cold, I imagine,” He says a few minutes later. His tone is uncharacteristically cryptic.

She raises an eyebrow. “Not really, but thank you anyway.”

He looks at her for a long moment. He doesn’t look cold either, so she doesn’t give the jacket back. A gentle but frigid breeze brushes the roof as they listen to sirens and the pop of fireworks gone off too soon.

“What’s that about?”

She fidgets almost imperceptibly. “Hm?”

“You don’t get cold.” He says. “You don’t get drunk. You don’t seem to get full, either. You run just fine on no sleep, you heal too quickly.” he looks at her. “All that. What’s it about?”

She looks over the edge.

“What do you think it’s about?”

His mouth tilts up at one corner, not quite a smile. “I think you weren’t born in 1984.”

That’s not what she expected him to say. She considers revealing that she was born in ‘83 or ‘85 and making up some story about the Red Room concealing the Widows’ identities with false dates of birth, which would be partially true. She could show a hint of a smile and raise an eyebrow; act impressed that he’s figured it out. Maybe he would soften at the praise and stop asking inconvenient questions, mistaking his own pleasure at earning her approval for evidence of her sincerity.

She watches his face and knows she won’t lie. He’s too soft, trusting in a way that scares her, but whenever she hands him a way to hurt her he just examines it closely and then puts it aside with a smile on his face, accepting the knowledge of her weak spots as a gift.

“No, I wasn’t.”

He nods.

She pauses for a beat, watching her last opportunity for dishonesty disappear. “1934. Easy to alter the records, at least.”

“You have serum.”

She’s disoriented by his lack of surprise. “Yeah. A little different from yours. They were trying for more of you, I think.”

“What does yours do?”

“I’m hard to kill and I age very, very slowly.”

“So you’ve been awake the whole time?”

“They didn’t freeze me, if that’s what you mean.”

“Huh.” He looks thoughtful. “Okay.”

She’s never needed to tell anyone this. The only people who knew she was different were the ones who figured it out on their own, and they either offered her the professional courtesy of keeping their mouths shut or spread the knowledge around in such a way that it sounded more like a ghost story than actual intel. There was a time she might have thought that Steve knew because Carter told him, but now she knows better than to underestimate either one of them like that.

“When I asked about Bucky, whether you’d met him before--”

“I told the truth. I’d heard of him, but Odessa was the first time we crossed paths.”

He nods.

“I don’t lie for shits and giggles.”

He huffs gently. “Yeah, you do.”

“Not about things like that.” Her chest feels tight. “I don’t lie when it could hurt you or when you have a right to know.”

He’s silent for a minute, considering her. She’s beginning to think it was a mistake to tell him when he speaks again, his voice quiet and speculative.

“You were the first person to be nice to me.”

“Sorry?”

“When I woke up.”

“That’s not true,” she frowns.

“I don’t mean polite. Everyone was polite.” He examines her as though he’s learning something new. “You were friendly. You made jokes.” He smiles a little. “You tried to get me to go on dates and take up hobbies and shit.”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“That was why. We’re alike, and you were the only person who knew it.”

She feels her throat close a little and rolls her eyes to hide it. “I’m not sure being ageless science experiments makes us alike.”

“Maybe not.” He turns away, looks up at the airplanes and satellites crossing the starless sky. “Maybe it’s everything else.”

She finds she can’t argue with that. He’s not angry, and she’s surprised by the intensity of her relief.

“November 22nd isn’t my birthday.”

“Oh?”

“It’s actually Christmas, believe it or not.”

He grins. “‘Natalia.’ I guess I should have figured that out.”

“Eh. You did okay for an amateur.”

He gently kicks her.

She reluctantly slips her shoes back on. “I’m going inside. Pretty sure I can still get frostbite. Coming with?”

He glances back at the door. “In a minute.”

“Come on, I’ll defend you from your new girlfriend.”

He groans and follows her. “And they say chivalry is dead.”

 

***

 

They’re in an elevator on their way to a meeting they’re pretending to take seriously. They’re both dressed in their tac gear, as though talking to a junior Senator as a favor to Hill and busting a terrorist cell are things that could conceivably happen in quick succession. Steve gives her a sudden critical glance.

She sighs. “What?”

“And to think you sullied the reputation of StarDestinies.com. It’s not their fault you’re a liar, Nat.”

“Oh, fuck you,” she laughs.