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A Peculiar Advantage

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Steve’s not really certain what day he fully realized Peggy was gone. It was long after he’d woken, and awhile after the Battle of New York. Long enough that he had ridden off on his motorcycle; long enough that he’d figured out buying a helmet would keep the police off his back and result in a lot fewer awed looks and pissing contests and autograph requests. Probably it was summer; probably, but the weather doesn’t affect him much, and at the time he forgot to pay attention to the trees and what they said about the world. Which was weird because, as an artist, the seasons changing used to be one of his favorite things to depict.

He does remember how it happened. He’d stopped by a library in a small town just to read for a bit and enjoy the air conditioning—it was Texas and even a super soldier can feel that heat—and an elderly librarian edged up to him with a shy smile and said, “I remember you. From when I was a very young girl. You were something else.”

He was older than she but he couldn’t help but treat her as a senior, rising to his feet and offering what he mentally dubbed The Hero Smile—the one he breaks out for PR opportunities and press releases. Or rather, used to break out; he doesn’t do that shit anymore. The new world's brass doesn’t like to celebrate its heroes for fear of painting targets on their backs; the new world's brass seems to have forgotten the fact that his shield itself is a target.

“Something I always wondered about you . . . Did you have a girl you were fighting for? Seems like all the fellows had a girl whose picture they kept to remind them about what was worth it, back home, and I think I remember one of the newsreels saying something. Or a guy,” she added hastily, eyes twinkling. “I know they wouldn’t have let you talk about it but . . . .”

“Not a guy, no,” he replied, pushing the memory of Bucky away, and instead pulling Peggy to the forefront of his mind. “I did have . . . there was a girl worth fighting for. One whose picture I carried. We never even had a real date, though.”

“Have you looked her up?”

He dodged the question, not wanting to get into things like S.H.I.E.L.D. files. “I can’t seem to figure out what a phone book looks like nowadays.”

She smiled again. “That’s because it’s in this. A computer.” She turned to indicate the machine quietly humming on the table behind her.

“Right.” He still hadn’t figured the regular ones out, or how they worked, but his body was young and his brain was adaptable enough that he expected to be able to get it soon, now that he was actually interested in fitting into his new world. He’d decoded the secrets to using S.H.I.E.L.D.’s, after all. These were just a little different.

He followed her to sit at the computer. She leaned over him to click the oblong thing—the mouse—moving the onscreen arrow onto the picture of a fox curled around a blue sphere. Once she did that, another picture appeared. “I can type her name into this field here.” She pointed at the rectangle with the blinking line. “And then when I hit the enter key, information about all the people with her name will appear. It might take a while to narrow it down, if her name’s relatively common, but we could figure it out with additional details, like her place of birth, things like that.”

“I need to take a class,” he said slowly, making a face with the realization. After his previous life of being relegated to studies simply because his physicality didn’t lend itself to athleticism, he loved that his body could do everything he needed. But bodies didn’t know how to operate computers. “I need to know how to work this stuff.”

“Our local community college offers one of those,” she encouraged him. “Do you want to tell me her name and whatever else you can remember about her?”

Steve opened his mouth and found himself wordless. Or rather, he found himself with too many words, too many things he could have said.

Her name was Peggy Carter.

She was an Englishwoman.

She liked fondue.

She loved to dance.

She was the most beautiful and the strongest woman I’ve ever met. Well, one of them.

One of them. Because no one who had met Natasha Romanoff could labor under the delusion that Peggy Carter held a monopoly on beauty and strength.

“It’ll be quite a shock for her,” the librarian mused, showing no impatience with his indecision. “Still looking the way you did when you left her.”

And that was when he knew. Peggy Carter was gone. He had been all over the news after the Battle of New York. All over. Either she had seen, and chosen not to contact him for reasons of her own, or she was dead despite what the file from S.H.I.E.L.D. had said, but there was no chance she could be lucid and not know he was back. Either way, she was gone.

S.H.I.E.L.D. must know his whereabouts, but he hasn’t bothered looking over his shoulder. Hell, maybe they’ll keep him safe from whatever else would love to use him. Bruce Banner mentioned that they had done something similar for him, “protecting” a monster that never needed it in the first place from being used by interests opposing S.H.I.E.L.D.’s.

Steve just keeps driving west, once the community college class is over, driving and trying to adjust to the world in which he finds himself, both frighteningly different and depressingly the same. So much wrong, and so little urge to set it right. He feels every minute of his age when he watches the news, and cannot muster the anger that always fed his desire to deliver justice.

Sometimes, he sleeps outdoors, just to see what someone will try to do to him. Most of the time he’s unmolested. Sometimes, someone tries to steal from him. Sometimes he lets them, because it just doesn’t seem like a fair fight. He’s so much stronger than them all, and hungry, desperate, crazy people are no grand enemy like the Red Skull. They’re just… people.

When he dreams—and he dreams of her every night—Peggy looks at him like he’s someone else’s problem.

He doesn’t get far into Nevada before he heads north instead. It’s too hot and he doesn’t want to see the Pacific yet, because somehow that view has come to symbolize the end of this particular trip, and what he’ll have to face at the end he doesn’t know but it won’t be good. Instead, he goes to Montana and spends weeks at Yellowstone. He can tell the park rangers recognize him immediately but they don’t say a word—most of them are too conservation-minded to want the huge crowds of visitors their celebrity guest would attract if his whereabouts became known. He walks and draws animals and geysers and remembers to look at the trees. He finally starts to feel connected to the world again.

Eventually, the pleasures of hiking and nature dim. The kid from Brooklyn feels most at home surrounded by people and their noise, and the soldier feels most at home when he’s doing something to help, even if right now he can’t figure out the right way to do it. He looks at his suit and his card, neatly packed in his duffle bag, and heads for Seattle. He’s learning more, and quickly, about the way things work, the way impossibly small things hold great power. He knows the card isn’t just an ID. He tries to see if he can turn it off, but there is no switch he can see.

In his dreams, Peggy looks at him the way she did when he was doing his traveling circus act for NATO.

Seattle’s less rainy than he expected. He goes to Pike Place Market, watches the fish throwing, and then wanders to look over the Sound, and that’s where he catches a glimpse of a familiar head of red hair.

Natasha’s wearing street clothes, which he’s only seen her do once before, and the ponytail makes her look impossibly young, bouncing as she walks down the street. Steve’s no idiot, and he learned a lifetime ago that some women have agendas he doesn’t need to know, so he watches and restrains his automatic greeting. He thinks about following, but she’ll be sure to notice if he does. In fact, he realizes, she must know he’s here, and this is no accident. Maybe he should be grateful she hasn’t just yanked him into the nearest S.H.I.E.L.D. facility without warning.

In case she hasn’t found out yet, he stops at a newsstand and asks, “Hey, can you tell me how to get to the Watertown from here?”

The vendor gives completely unnecessary directions to his hotel while Natasha strolls past.

That night, Steve orders room service for two—so much meat and so many fresh vegetables now, that’s one good thing about the hibernation—and manages to conceal his start of surprise when Natasha steps from the bathroom after the food arrives. She’s dressed in her usual black catsuit, a clear sign she’s here on business.

“You want wine before you tell me about the aliens?” Steve says with dry humor, pouring a glass. He doesn’t care for the taste, and the alcohol has no effect on him, but he doesn’t want to assume anything about her. All he’s certain of is what the Battle of New York showed him.

“No aliens. Yes, thank you.” She accepts the red and raises it to her lips. “This isn’t very good.”

“I don’t know wines,” he says, flushing. “This hotel is a . . . whaddya call it . . . hippie? Place? I think they’re more into beer.”

“Hipster,” she supplies, not smiling at his error. “Hippies were mostly in the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, I think, although we didn’t have many in Russia from what I was taught.” Setting down the wine, she sits at the table and adds, “It’s not bad, either. I’ve had worse.”

“Why are you in Seattle?” he asks. “Do I have an assignment?”

“No, I’m here off the record.”

Steve doesn’t believe that for second. “I don’t think any of us are off S.H.I.E.L.D.’s record.”

She waves a hand in dismissal. “I don’t doubt they know where I am. They couldn’t bring me in against my will, though, unless they sent another Avenger, and the only one who would agree to try would be you.”

“Then why are you here?”

Natasha shrugs. “I’ve read your file. It seems a shame to let all that go to waste when the world has need of you, but I don’t want you to think you’ll be forced to participate in operations.”

He offers his best “aw, shucks” smile. (So he’s got a gallery of smiles. It’s served him well.)  “I’m not exactly the most useful guy to have around these days.”

“I disagree. You’re a strategist. You’re intelligent. You’re strong.”

“There are other strategic, intelligent, strong fellows.”

She takes the last bite of her steak and starts in on her salad. “Most of those don’t have the same urge to prove their relevance, or the ability to do it.”

Steve’s heart gives a startled pound at being caught out. He feels like the scrawny kid again, the one who was always left behind and then had to prove he deserved to be in the line, over and over again, until he was the only one who didn’t believe it. “That might be true.” The words trigger another realization. “It was Fury who sent you. Not S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“Fury is S.H.I.E.L.D.,” she says with a laugh. “But he might have planted the idea in my head, it’s true. Hawkeye is my preferred partner, but he’s on deep cover assignment for God knows how long, and I have to admit you impressed me in New York.” Leaning over the table toward him, she cocks an eyebrow. “C’mon, Cap. You know you’re bored shitless.”

He isn’t, not exactly, but on the other hand his life isn’t precisely stimulating either. After a few more slow bites, he gives in. “All right.”

Natasha gives him what looks like a genuine smile. “Thanks.”

He asks, “Do you ever doubt your ability to talk somebody into something?”

She shrugs. “If I did, I would be of no use to myself or my employers.”

That night, Peggy looks happier, but she puts her arm through his with a decided air of possession.

They meet at Sea-Tac the next evening. Everything is so loud, constantly, in a way even the battlefield wasn’t; constant noise with inorganic origins, wreathed through with human voices speaking in casual tones as if this is all perfectly normal. Which it is, but Steve wonders if he’ll ever be able to catch up with his world.

He does his best to sleep on the red-eye flight, but constant wondering about what exactly Natasha’s up to keeps him awake.

“I didn’t retrieve you in order to harm you,” she says at one point.

“I don’t think you’d harm me, but I think you could get me to harm myself,” he replies.

Ne ponimayu,” she says, blank-faced.

“Doubt you’d be willing to admit to anything you actually didn’t understand.” He lifts the Russian phrase book he has in his lap and shows her the cover.

“You have been busy.”

Da, nimnOga. Not having anybody to talk to does weird stuff to your brain. I’ve been alone so much, I started talking to myself. Then I guessed I might as well do it in different languages. So far I’ve studied Spanish, French, and Italian. Now Russian. It said online that Natasha is a nickname for Natalia.” He catches himself right after he says it, and his face heats at the acknowledgment that he searched for her name, but she doesn’t bat an eyelash.

“That’s true, but nobody uses Natalia; it’s too formal. Russians love their nicknames. The nickname others use says a great deal about you.” Watching him write this down in the margins of his book, she asks, “What will you study next?”

“Mandarin or maybe Urdu. So what would my nickname be?”

She gives a tiny smile. “There are a few for Stepan. Stepa, maybe, since we’re coworkers.”

Coworkers. The words give him a quick burst of gratification—someone as competent as Agent Romanoff considers him a colleague—followed by the internal reminder that she’s an expert in telling people exactly what they want to hear. “How many languages do you speak?”

“As many as I need to.”

Right. She’s a spy, not a conversationalist, except maybe for when the spying requires conversation, but from what Steve can gather most of her interrogation technique is looking helpless and wounded and then using the arrogance of her victims against them. “That’s spiffy.”

For the first time, Natasha shows a flash of uncertainty in the back of her eyes. After a moment, she admits in a soft voice, “I’ve never counted them. Latin, Russian, English, French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Arabic, and several others.”

Steve blinks. “That’s really impressive.”

After a brief hesitation, she shrugs. “We’re going to be working together a lot. I want us to be on the same side.”

“If we’re going to be on the same side, I’d need to be able to trust you.”

“It’s because we’re on the same side that you can trust me.” At his skeptical look, Natasha sighs. “Look, Cap. I’m not particularly patriotic, and I know that seems suspect to you, but I’m trying to do what’s right by working for and with people who are good enough to know what that right is. I think you’re a good man.”

The words have the ring of truth, but then again so would anything she wanted him to believe. Steve still doesn’t know much about women, especially a Sheba like this one. At some point, though, he’s going to have to make a choice: distrust everything his new world presents to him, or ally himself with the people who proved brave and strong enough to fight alongside him. Natasha closed the portal, after all, when she could have sought out Loki and offered her services to him instead.

Bucky was never particularly patriotic, either.

“I can understand that,” Steve says at last. “What’re you reading?”

She lifts her Kindle to show him the screen. “Twilight.

“I hadn’t heard of that one. Is it any good?”

“No, not really. But I can’t stop reading it, for some reason.” When he pulls out his notebook and scrawls the title, she adds, “There are four in the series, total. And five movies based on the books. What else have you got in there?” He angles the pages to show her, and she tsks. “You need Yuri Gagarin, Vladimir Vysotsky, the Soviet Union dissolution, Moskva slezam ne verit…”

Steve obediently writes them all down, even though none of them ring a bell besides the Soviet Union dissolution. “Thanks. There’s a lot to get caught up on, you know?”

“Yeah. Losing time can make you feel like a stranger in the world you wake up to find.”

Something about the way she says it grabs his attention. Lifting his gaze, he studies her face closely. She pretends not to notice even though he makes no attempt at subtlety. “You understand that more than most, I think.”

Natasha sends a wicked glance in his direction over the red leather cover of her Kindle. “Just because we’re working together now doesn’t mean I’m telling you all my secrets, Stepa.”

He grins in appreciation and settles back into his seat, finally able to sleep. When he closes his eyes, Peggy brushes his hair back and smiles.

They disembark in Baltimore hours later, wait for his suitcase, and then head for the exits. “Are you coming with me?” he asks as the doors slide open before them.

“No, I have other things I need to take care of, but I’m sure I’ll see you soon.” They step out the doors into bright sunshine and heavy humidity. Steve starts walking to the cab line, but before he waves to a driver Natasha grabs his hand. “Wait.”

People try to grab Steve all the time. Young women, old women, some men . . . each of them trying for contact with the legend, few of them truly interested in the man beneath it, and even if they were he wouldn’t be interested in revealing that man to them. For some reason he can’t truly pin down, the impersonal nature of Natasha’s touch sends a thrill right through his spine. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t want a piece of him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just—” She fumbles around in her courier bag and then hands him a file folder. “They didn’t give you all the information on her, before. I thought—and Fury agreed—that you deserved to know the whole truth.”

And she waited until after she persuaded him to join her to give him the information, rather than use it as leverage. Maybe she really is on the same side. “Thanks. See you around.”

Once he’s in the cab, Steve gives the driver the address for the Triskelion and then flips open the folder to see an old woman smiling back at him. Peggy Carter. And her current address in a nursing home. It hits him like a blow to the gut, but at the same time his heart leaps with excitement. Even though she went on without him, as she should, Peggy knows him—knows before-serum Steve as well as the Captain. They’ll actually have common ground to cover. He has so little shared experience with anyone these days.

Natasha gave him a cell phone, too, so he digs it out and texts her the way she showed him before their plane took off in Seattle. Thanks for the file.

A few minutes pass, and then: Thanks for coming back with me.

He doesn’t realize he had expectations for the meeting with Peggy until they’re shattered by reality.

Things settle into a comfortable pattern after that. Missions with Natasha, visits to Peggy at the nursing home, nights spent at home figuring out the pop culture he’s missed, mornings spent running around the Mall. It’s not perfect, but it’s a life. He grows to trust her as much as he trusts anyone—which might not be a sizeable amount compared to what other people have to give, but Nat would only laugh at him if he were that gullible. She would probably laugh if she knew how much he’s come to like her, too.

Or maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she would run faster from the realization. He isn’t dumb enough to miss how hard she tries to throw other women in his path, while she’s the only woman with whom he socializes regularly. If taking down terrorists together counts as socializing.

Then comes one particular hostage rescue mission, and Fury’s assassination. And then comes Bucky.

Suddenly life is turned on its head all over again.

(* * *)

After they say goodbye to Fury, Steve catches up with Natasha on her way out of the cemetery. “Come with us. You shouldn’t have to answer for what they did.”

She stops in her tracks, still facing away from him. “But maybe I should answer for what I’ve done.”

Steve swallows, trying not to picture her behind bars and failing even though he realizes it’s a ridiculous thought. As if she’d ever allow that to happen. “Maybe you’ve wiped out the red in your ledger.”

“Oh, no.” She gives him a smile over her shoulder that isn’t quite sad. “Not even close.”

As she walks away from him again, the words float back on the breeze. “Call Sharon.”

“You gonna call her?” Sam asks, already at his shoulder.

Steve turns away, knowing that when he looks again Natasha will have vanished. “Nope. I’ve got work to do.”

“Nothing keeping you from working and playing, Cap,” Sam points out.

“Somehow I don’t think a D.C.-based agent is gonna be following us where we’re going.” Steve starts back for his bike.

“And where’s that?” Sam has a rental until his insurance pays up; he pulls the key fob from his pocket to unlock the door.

“I’ve heard some stuff about B—the Winter Soldier showing up in Finland.”

“Sweet. I’ve got my passport all ready.”

Steve raises his voice to yell above the roar of his engine and waves his phone in the air. “Great, ‘cause I just bought the tickets.”

He zooms onto the road before Sam’s wiped the astonishment from his face.

The lead turns out to be bogus, but before they can head back Stateside a real sign of Bucky’s presence turns up in France. They end up crisscrossing the continent, following bread crumbs, and growing as close as Steve was with the Howling Commandos. Steve learns in Provence that Sam takes his coffee with four sugars. In Malta, Sam discovers that Steve can never remember to drive on the left side of the road, and, later, that Peggy does the driving in Steve’s dreams. While they’re trying restaurants in Berlin, Steve finds out that Sam loves enchiladas—unless they’re made with German sausage.

Each does the other the favor of waking him when the nightmares get too bad.

Finally they end up in Amsterdam, where the most clues have dropped, pretending to be married.

“Since 2001.” Steve looks up from his phone and cocks an eyebrow at Sam. “Told you. First country on earth to legalize it. And Natasha said public displays of affection make people uncomfortable, which means fewer eyes on us.”

If he expected Sam to object, he would have been disappointed. As it is, he’s obliged with a kiss on the cheek and a smack to the ass.

“Hey!”

“Gotta make it real, babe.”

Steve bursts into laughter. “We’re still in the hotel room.”

“You never know who could be watching.” Sam threads his fingers through Steve’s. Being touched by another human being is such a change from the norm that Steve’s answering grip might be a little too tight, but Sam gives no sign. “Let’s go sightseeing.”

“Sightseeing” is actually reconnaissance, of course. They examine a few buildings, crawl into a few damp spaces, and find no sign of Bucky, but it’s early days yet, so they decide to head back to the hotel and get some rest.

They walk into the room still holding hands for the hall cameras. Steve comes to a sudden halt, and Sam walks into his back. “What’s—oh. Hey, Black Widow.”

“Nat!” Steve forgets what he was doing, stepping forward with a grin, but she holds up one hand.

“Close the door,” she prompts. Sam kicks backwards and it clicks shut. With a barely suppressed smile, Natasha looks from one to the other. “I guess that explains why you didn’t call Sharon.”

The two men drop each other’s hands and avoid eye contact.

“I’ve ordered dinner.” She motions to the covered dishes on the table as she sits. “The Dutch eat early.”

They make it halfway through the meal before she finally sighs and sets down her fork. “Do you know why I’m here?”

“You’ve run into something weird and you’re not sure how to handle it.”

She gives him a Look, probably because he didn’t have the courtesy to even pretend to be guessing, but nods. “Accurate. To be honest, I’m not sure if I should handle it.”

“So you came to me?” The flash of pleasure accompanying the realization fades when she doesn’t roll her eyes.

“Uh, she came to us,” Sam points out.

Steve ignores him. “What’s up, Nat?”

“I’ve been doing a lot of pseudo-diplomatic stuff, rooting out HYDRA agents in the government. Pepper Potts has put the equipment at Stark Tower at my disposal so I’ve been making a lot of headway. Of course, I haven’t been sticking to the diplomatic things.” She slides a photo towards him, and Steve has to clutch at the table edge to keep his balance when he sees its subject.

“Holy shit, that’s him!” Sam grabs the photo up and stares, then repeats, “Holy shit. How long have you had this?”

“I’ve been sitting on it for a couple of weeks. Normally, I’d give it to Hawkeye to take care of things.”

Not Steve. She still doesn’t trust him not to be emotionally compromised. Of course, she’s probably right. No, scratch that, she’s absolutely right. Weighing his words with care, Steve stares at the sausage and apples with cabbage on his plate. “Hawkeye struck me as a man who knows how to follow orders.” Deep waters between those two, deeper than a straightforward soldier type understands how to plumb.

“He is. But the photo is just a bonus. I’ve come because of Clint, actually.”

“He sent you?” Steve sits up straighter and tries to read her expression. It’s a lost cause, which tells him she’s more upset than she’d like him to believe.

“No. He’s disappeared and I can’t find him.” Natasha picks up the silverware. Cutting a piece of sausage, she pauses and says, “He wasn’t on assignment. He vanished before the HYDRA takeover went down and no one’s heard from him since.”

Steve cuts into his own food, thinking over her words. “So you’re hoping he’s just on deep cover and hasn’t been taken out. Maybe what’s left of the real S.H.I.E.L.D. could call him in.”

She nods and cuts more pieces. “That would be ideal, yes. But I have reason to believe they can’t find him either. Whispers, deleted files, unanswered questions, the usual sort of thing. If they want to trick me into believing he has fallen off the radar, they have succeeded, though I wouldn’t cry if I found out I was wrong.”

He considers the information. “Where does his trail go cold?”

“The U.K. The last video I have found is of him stepping out of Heathrow. Coincidentally—or not—that photo of the Winter Soldier is in London as well.”

Her lack of expression is driving him nuts. This isn’t the Natasha he knows. Even though he’d trust Sam with his life, and has, she might not feel the same way. “Hey, Sam? Can you give us a minute?”

Sam shovels the last few bites of his food into his mouth all at once and nods. With a wave, he walks out of the room. That was way too easy, but probably he’s counting on Steve to tell him exactly what went down after he leaves.

Steve and Natasha wait in silence until the sound of the door to the stairs shutting reaches their ears. “What aren’t you telling me, Natasha?”

“Anything I told you right now would be speculation,” she deflects, picking up her water glass and hiding her face behind it.

Another long silence, and he tries again. “I’m still not sure why you’re here instead of getting him yourself.”

For once, he hears uncertainty in her voice, although her expression remains as remote as ever. “I trust you to do the right thing as you see it.”

“As I see it.” Steve thinks it over. “You think he’s into something bad.”

“We have means of contacting one another. I’ve never not known where Clint is, barring Loki’s kidnapping him, since we developed those means. Loki is imprisoned in Asgard. The thought of another being who could prevent Hawkeye from keeping me apprised of his whereabouts is . . . disturbing.”

“That’s putting it mildly. But still, I don’t understand why you’d want a moral compass along.”

“That’s not what you are.”

But when he waits for her to elaborate, she says nothing. “Hey.” He reaches across the table to squeeze her arm in reassurance. “Don’t get yourself so twisted up. He’s just deep undercover, that’s all.”

“But what if he’s not? He and I are a lot alike.”

And now she’s worried Hawkeye opted for the wrong cause. “You picked the right side. I’m sure he did too.”

“I wish I could be as sure.” Without seeming to notice what she’s doing, she raises her hand to overlay his. Natasha always knows what she’s doing, though.

Her shirt’s collar is high around her neck, but he can see the glint of the silver chain around it. She’s still wearing the arrow necklace. “I’ll find out for you.”

“You’ll find out with her,” Nick Fury corrects from a shadowy corner, and Steve nearly jumps out of his skin.

“I knew you were there.” Where the hell was his head that he didn’t notice?

“You were distracted. It doesn’t bode well for your mission.” Fury moves with more ease than he did the last time Steve saw him, but there’s a deliberation to his walk that wasn’t there before. “We have reason to believe that Hawkeye might be involved in a HYDRA cell in London. If that proves to be the case, I want you to be in charge of the takedown.” Natasha stirs, a tiny protest, and he directs a meaningful stare her way. “Agent Romanoff will follow your orders.”

“What about Wilson?” Steve feels bad now for having sent his friend out of the room.

“He’s coming with me.”

“I need him with me!” Steve protests, but Fury just looks at him like he’s lost it.

“He’s not your damn sidekick, Cap. I’ve got my own uses for Falcon.”

Natasha’s looking at him now, too, like she doesn’t understand. She’s got company in that, because Steve can’t quite understand why he’s so resistant to the thought of being alone with her, either. He trusts her more than anyone alive, tied with Sam, even if she doesn’t believe in herself right now. “Okay. That’s fine.”

“Nice of you to agree,” Fury says dryly, and Steve can tell the former director hasn’t quite given up on giving the orders. “You’ll leave in the morning. I need to go with Falcon now.”

After he says his goodbyes, Steve gives Natasha the bed. She’s aware enough of his current mood not to protest the unnecessary chivalry, although she does make a comment about respecting her elders. He lies on the floor, listening to her breathe, telling himself it’s keeping him awake because she sounds so different from Sam, until she speaks.

“So I guess you and Sam are an item now. Probably a good thing considering what happened the last time I tried to make out with you.”

“You took me by surprise!” He’s overthought the moment so much that he has a variety of explanations and excuses at his fingertips, but he settles for, “I would’ve done better with some warning.”

She laughs. “Go to sleep, Stepa. I’m not leaving without you.”

At last, he’s able to obey.

(* * *)

He’d like to look around Heathrow, but Natasha doesn’t linger, heading straight toward baggage claim once they clear customs. All the TV screens everywhere still catch his eye, over and over again, another rectangle glowing for his attention until the next one looms in the periphery of his vision. He’s used to the noises now, has always been used to people, but the screens—he might never get used to their prevalence, or to the little cameras everywhere, constantly rotating, watching his every move. Heathrow has more than most of the other airports he’s seen. If Hawkeye really doesn’t want to be noticed, he’s come to the worst city in the world for his mission.

When they step out to the cab line, she stops so suddenly he grabs her shoulder. “What?”

Her eyes scan their surroundings. “We need to get to cover immediately.”

“The cab might be our best bet,” he says.

“Unless you want the driver to die, better to avoid it. I recognize three HYDRA agents from the surveillance photos.” Dropping his hand, she ducks back through the doors. “Let’s go to the Underground.”

“Too many civilians,” he objects, following in her wake.

“Too many witnesses. Only three agents? They don’t want to make a fuss.” She dashes down the escalator. Steve barely remembers to stay on the left-hand side as he passes the people standing. Everything is backwards here. The women he hears speaking remind him painfully of Peggy’s voice and it’s messing with his head even worse than the opposite-side thing. He tucks his bag under one arm and tries to stay in the present.

Natasha dashes to a machine and presses some buttons while Steve turns his attention outward. “I don’t see any of the people from outside.”

“HYDRA doesn’t react quickly when things go off-plan. Not enough autonomy for their agents on the ground. C’mon, this way.” Handing him a card, she heads for the turnstiles. He watches her to see how it’s done, and then imitates her actions to get through to the platform.

He doesn’t see the destination on the coach when he follows her inside, but he does notice a man and woman with familiar faces slip in just as the doors are sliding shut. Natasha surprises him by backing towards the two, her face blank. She twists her wrists, just a quick motion, one-two, and stops, still facing away from the HYDRA agents . . . and collapses. Steve leaps to her side, catching her before she hits the floor, but the other passengers crowd around.

“Is she all right?”

“Here, open her collar.”

Steve can see the HYDRA agents edging closer while still remaining on the outskirts of the little group bent in concern over Natasha.

C’mon, he silently urges them. Natasha’s eyes crack open, seemingly rolling around but really checking their positions. Just a little closer.

“Sir!” he addresses the man standing between the agents and Natasha. “Would you mind checking her bag? Maybe she’s got medicine or something.” The man moves to the side, and that’s all that’s required for her to flail in a very convincing approximation of a seizure, brushing the underside of her wrist across both the agents’ feet in the process.

A couple of seconds later, she sits up, hand to her forehead, claiming dizziness and turning down all further offers of help with a confused smile. Steve helps her to her feet and moves away, watching the HYDRA agents in disbelief as they continue to stand, perfectly hale and hearty.

Until the next stop, anyway, which is where Natasha runs off the train. Steve catches on a little late but makes it onto the platform while the warning to mind the gap still plays. The HYDRA agents step off with them—and then collapse.

“New toy?” he asks, following her to the escalators.

“Yeah, I thought the electric stingers were a little obvious sometimes. These are chemical.”

“Well, looks like you were right about Clint being in the middle of something.”

“Yes, but I’m wondering if I should have let them capture us if it would lead us to him. It might have been a poor judgment call on my part.” A faint line is drawn between her brows, the only outward sign of perturbation. “This is why Fury wanted you in charge for this one. I haven’t been a very good soldier so far.”

“He might not be with them though, and then we’d have to fight our way out; besides, if they took us to separate locations we’d have to waste time getting free and reconnecting.” Steve knows she must have already considered all that, but he hopes reiterating it will bring her some peace of mind. “And we’re partners, no matter what Fury says. You know more about what’s going on here than I do.”

The line disappears. “You’re right, of course.”

“Yeah, but my point is, so were you.”

She gives him a sharp look, and then nods in acknowledgement. “Let’s go to the hotel.”

They stay at what Natasha calls a mid-grade place but to Steve it seems pretty nice, with queen-sized beds and connecting rooms, both of which Natasha seems surprised to see. They order room service. Natasha sets up her computer and answers emails for a good hour, typing one-handed and eating with the other. Steve watches her out of the corner of his eye.

“What?” she asks, not looking at him.

“I missed—” Catching himself at the last moment, he revises to, “working with you.”

Now she lifts her gaze from the screen to give him a quizzical stare. Instead of the dismissal he expects, though, she replies, “I missed… working with you too.”

She’s the only person he knows who still makes him blush.

Later, when he asks Natasha if she’s ready for him to close the connecting door, she seems puzzled and replies, “I wouldn’t have gotten rooms like this if I wanted to be separated from my teammate.”

Once again feeling like a walking, talking anachronism, Steve says, “Right. Sorry,” and heads into the bathroom, where he’s surprised to see separate hot and cold taps even in the sink. He stays awake for a few hours afterward, studying classified records of the locations of all the CCTV cameras in the city—making only a fifth of the way through—then heads to bed.

He wakes up with the click of the main door to his room opening.

He almost calls for Natasha, but opts to stay silent and wait for the newcomers to identify themselves. There are definitely at least two, maybe three, from the footfalls he counts with his eyes closed. And if he's heard them, then there's no doubt Natasha has heard them as well.

The intruders creep across his bedroom and, as he watches through slitted eyes, lift his satchel. Light-fingered, one flips through its contents while the other two spray something on the hinges of his wardrobe and then ease its doors open without a sound.

Not for the first time, Steve's glad that he keeps anything of value on his person. It was a lesson hard-learned, in the camps, when any sleeping moment might be interrupted by bombs or a firefight and you never knew if you'd make it back before your tent had been destroyed—or, in a few cases, ransacked by your comrades in arms.

Once they clear out of Natasha's room, he pads to the connecting door to see her pulling her boots on over her black clothes. He gets his own boots, after considering and discarding the idea of putting on the suit. For whatever reason, he feels like he's here as Steve, not The Captain.

Together, they slip through the shadows, following the other agents.

At last, they arrive at a warehouse—of course it's a warehouse—and watch as the guards step aside to let the people who crept into their rooms enter. The surrounding buildings look as though they’ve been converted into flats, but this one is dilapidated, an eyesore with scaffolding and tarps everywhere.

Steve gestures to signal Natasha to look for an alternate entrance. They creep around the perimeter, then climb to an adjacent building and jump to the roof. There’s only one guard there, and he’s fallen asleep on his stomach, probably the position he was supposed to use to keep an unobtrusive lookout. The two intruders tiptoe past. Natasha hacks the key code to the door within seconds, and then they’re both inside.

At the bottom of the stairwell, they take a look around. The warehouse is set up with a mezzanine floor overlooking the main level. Too many people walk on the mezzanine to justify trying to join them, but the rafters are exposed, so Steve and Natasha climb up. Steve leads the way to the center, balancing on the widest beam he can find. A couple of times, Natasha touches his arm to stop him and sprays just past with a tiny aerosol bottle, and it’s only then that he sees the security cameras she’s blocking. The lax external security isn’t quite as bad inside, then. Once they get to a good vantage point, they lie on their stomachs and examine the scene below. What looks like several laboratories, at least judging by the glimpses they can catch through windows, are connected by a series of hallways laid bare to their gaze from above. People in white coats travel from room to room, stopping at each door to have their eyes scanned. It’s obviously a longstanding, well-funded operation, despite the worn-down exterior and slightly unfinished air about the interior. As Steve searches the walls, though, he sees no signs of affiliation. No S.H.I.E.L.D., no HYDRA, no flags. So is this a HYDRA building, or is it a S.H.I.E.L.D. division that was so deeply covered that it wasn’t even documented in the data dump Natasha engineered?

Those HYDRA agents at the airport probably indicate the former.

Steve’s getting more nervous the longer they sit tight. He turns to Natasha, ready to tell her to start back, but the look on her face renders him immobile. He’s only seen her so stricken once, when Fury “died.” Following her line of sight, he sees a beautiful blonde in a lab coat exit a lab, and then walk to an office with an open door that reveals Hawkeye standing there. Shit.

Natasha’s arm, pressed against his calf, starts shaking almost imperceptibly.

Hawkeye and the blonde scientist talk, but their mouths are frustratingly hidden by the angle at which they stand so he can’t lip read. The blonde is gesticulating in short, sharp movements, and Hawkeye’s face is expressionless. She starts pacing, enumerating something on her fingers. Finally, Hawkeye reaches to touch her elbow, and she stops in her tracks, shoulders slumping. He leans to speak in her ear… and then kisses the top of her head before he leaves the office.

Steve dares to look at Natasha’s face again, and sees her eyes have reddened with unshed tears.

That devastated look disappears, though, when she glances back and her gaze sharpens. Steve looks back too, only to see Natasha’s face staring up at them from the stairwell through which they entered. The cognitive dissonance momentarily throws him, but Natasha suffers no such confusion. Within seconds she’s on her feet and leaping across the metal beam with a dancer’s grace. Mentally cursing a blue streak, Steve starts after her. The other Natasha whirls and disappears up the stairs.

To his surprise, no alarms sound, nor are there any shouts or warning shots, even when they burst through the heavy storm door into the night. The guard is awake again, looking at the receding figure of Other Natasha, but he’s still on his stomach so it’s easy enough to just hop right over him onto the roof of the next building over. A mere second later, Steve dodges to the right as he hears the silenced bullets slice through the air behind them. Natasha barely deviates from the beeline she’s set in Other Natasha’s wake.

Too focused, Steve thinks. Normally Natasha’s the ultimate operative, awake to every alternative and ready to follow orders, but every once in a while something flips a switch in her and then she develops tunnel vision. He’s only seen it two or three times before, but every time ended with her hurt.

“Nat,” he calls, low-voiced, leaping over yet another gap between rooftops. “Nat, let’s strategize.”

But she ignores him, her feet flying even faster.

All right then. He puts on the brakes and looks around for an alternate route. The Other Natasha’s path seems to be taking her toward the Thames, which means, if she thinks like the Natasha he knows, that she’s going anywhere but.

How does the Black Widow operate? She makes herself look harmless, and then strikes when others seek to take advantage of her vulnerability.

“Out in the open,” he whispers to himself, and changes course.

A few minutes later, he has to resist the urge to pose while examining his fingernails. He does let himself lean against the storefront wall, arms crossed, just before the Other Natasha drops down from an awning right in front of him.

“Hey there,” he greets her, and then ducks when she sends a roundhouse kick in his direction. “Whoa, wait, I just want to—”

Natasha, his Natasha, lands on her doppelganger’s shoulders and everything turns into red-and-black blurs, strike and counterstrike in a rapid rhythm almost too fast even for his eyes to catch. He stays where he is, waiting till Nat asks for help or shows she needs it, but the two of them are evenly matched. Other Natasha is faster, but his Natasha is wily and better at predicting what her opponent will do.

The third time they stagger a little too close to the display window, Steve decides it’s gone on long enough and says, “Nat. Finish it.”

She blocks the girl’s hands and lands a smack on the chest, then steps back. Seconds later, the electric shock kicks in.

“They might have given her my face, but she didn’t get my toys,” she says with grim satisfaction as the younger version of her falls to the ground.

And then she collapses at Steve’s feet.

With a sigh, Steve bends to remove the disc he spotted a moment too late, careful to use Natasha’s glove to maneuver it. Probably a bad idea to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. technology lying around, but it seems stupid to carry it in his pocket, so instead he sticks it into Other Natasha’s belt. He knew as soon as he remembered this street, with cameras whose points of view didn’t intersect, that they would choose here to confront each other, so it seems safe enough to toss each over a shoulder and walk into the nearest unsurveilled alleyway.

Once he sets them both down gently, leaning them against the concrete wall, he can see some differences. Other Natasha is younger, her face rounder and with less character imprinted upon its features. His Nat looks intense even in unconsciousness, and her clothes are sturdier.

Other Natasha starts to come around first, struggling against the restraints he got from the Black Widow utility belt and glaring. That’s another difference.

“What’s your name?” he tries.

To his surprise, she answers. “Yelena.”

Another Russian. Wonderful.

Natasha comes around suddenly and completely, slumped against the wall one moment and… slumped against the wall the next. He isn’t sure how he knows she’s conscious and assessing the situation, but he does. She must realize she’s safe, because she opens her eyes.  “Black Widow, meet Yelena.”

Rising, Natasha walks to stand just behind him and face her counterpart. “Who do you work for?”

Yelena just smiles, a hint of incredulity tinging the expression.

Natasha’s voice goes hard. “Do you really think anyone will come and rescue you? You’re on your own, so start talking.”

When Yelena speaks, it’s with an American accent. “My superiors would never let me go. I’m too big of an investment. Talk all you like; it only gives them more time to find us.”

Steve tries a different tactic. “Nice job taking out the guard on the roof. Were you just testing the defenses?”

With a laugh, she shifts to sit straighter. And, of course, start working on getting her hands out of the restraints behind her back, but she probably thinks neither of them realize it. “I’ve warned them that they needed pairs of sentries, but they’re more concerned with keeping a low profile than they are keeping the facility safe. Now I’ve proven my point.”

Natasha laughs, too. “I’ve been telling them that for years.”

Yelena gives her a petulant look, the tiny movements of her arms pausing for a second. “Whatever.”

Natasha crouches to get on Yelena’s eye level. “You’re one of the newer batch, right? The ones formed after the Battle of New York.”

What the hell?

A tiny bit of the tension eases from Yelena’s shoulders. “Yes. They stepped the duplicate program up after they realized how badly they needed backups.”

“I didn’t realize how far they’d come. It used to take a lot longer.”

“Needs must.” The suspicion hasn’t drained entirely from Yelena’s features, but she seems more apprehensive than angry. “Did they send you to test me?”

She’s looking at Steve, but again, Natasha answers. “More to test the facility. All your suggestions haven’t gone unnoticed, and that sort of laxness needs to be punished. Loyalty to the cause is hard to find these days, though, so we’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention meeting us until we’ve had a chance to test the others.”

Yelena hops to her feet, hands free. “Whatever you say. Can I go?”

It seems unlikely that anyone like Nat would trust so easily, but Natasha is the one who says, “Sure.”

Yelena shoots a grappling hook gun onto a nearby roof and whispers, “Hail HYDRA,” before sailing upward.

Steve manages to restrain his incredulity until his ears confirm Yelena’s retreat. Before she can double back, he grabs Natasha’s hand and starts running as dawn’s light creeps over the roofs of the surrounding buildings. Only after they’re on the Tube does he turn to her and say, “What the hell, Nat?” But he stops himself from continuing the diatribe because she looks shell-shocked, face pale and eyes staring at nothing. “Hey. How bad is it?”

She says one word in a tiny voice. “Mockingbird.”

“I don’t know what that means.” It sounds like a code name.

Natasha only shakes her head, but when he puts his arm around her, she leans into him, pressing her face in his shoulder like she does when she has to shelter behind his shield on missions. Her body is so small compared to his that it’s a constant surprise to see how much power she wields with it.

The only other thing she says on their trip is, “I should have told him. I should have found him sooner and I should have made him come with me.”

“It’s not your fault,” he says, but he can tell she doesn’t believe him.

They have to go back to the hotel to retrieve Natasha’s computer, hidden in a panel she created in the bathroom cabinet on some previous trip. After searching everything else for bugs, they head off to another hotel, a cut-rate bed and breakfast near Victoria Station. They work mostly in silence, barring a few terse exchanges, until they sweep for bugs again. Once that’s done, and Steve’s checked the perimeter, Natasha sits heavily on one of the twin beds. The room’s so small that when Steve sits on the opposite bed, their knees almost touch. Natasha clasps her hands and rests her elbows on her legs, head bowed, and Steve puts one hand on hers. “Tell me.”

“Mockingbird is Bobbi—Barbara—Morse. She’s Hawkeye’s wife. Or maybe ex, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if Barton’s married or not?”

She shrugs, and Steve reminds himself not to be surprised that her morality is more fluid than his. It’s not like he didn’t realize before. And it’s not like he actually knows the nitty gritty details of their relationship, either. “They’ve been separated for a while. But this… she’s the one person I can see getting him to switch sides, and she has reason to hate S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“Any superpowers?”

“No, she’s human. But she’s a top-level agent and she’s got her Ph.D. in biology.”

“What did you mean when you said ‘the newer batch’? What the hell is the duplicate program?”

She laughs and pulls away to collapse back on the bed. “I was only guessing when I said that to Yelena.”

Steve makes a guess of his own. “But now you’re not.”

“I think I know now, yeah. Awhile back, there was some talk of making clones of some of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top agents. We still had your DNA—have you learned about what that is yet?” At his nod, she continues. “And of course they had mine, Hawkeye’s, several others.”

“With or without their knowledge?”

Natasha gives him a derisive look. “I’m sure they went through all the proper channels for an illegal cloning operation, Steve. C’mon.”

“Right. Sorry. But you knew?”

“I knew they had my DNA on file. I wasn’t sure what they’d use it for but this makes sense. After New York, they’d have their excuse for implementing the program. I don’t know how they made Yelena grow so fast, let alone train her, but I guess that sort of thing is no problem for people who can recreate whole humans.” She sits up in a movement so sudden it makes him flinch. “Oh my God. What if it wasn’t your Bucky in the picture? What if it’s a clone?”

His Bucky. Even if he caught the Winter Soldier now, he wouldn’t be Steve’s Bucky. He wonders when it’ll stop hurting. Pain doesn’t just keep perpetuating itself, does it? There has to be an end, or at least an alleviation. “If it is a clone, it’s still a useful thing to catch him.”

“There might be others. Stark. Probably not the Asgardians since they’re not human. I don’t see the point of cloning Banner; they’d want things they could control.”

“I don’t see the point of any of this,” Steve protests. “They can’t think that they could just replace us and no one would notice, can they?”

Natasha shrugs. “They might. Hell, it could work. People see what they expect to see, even in S.H.I.E.L.D., and Fury was the one who brought us in. No one else knows us all as well as he does. Now that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s gutted, they might have decided to rebuild from the ground up with the few faces the public trusts.”

“You mean somebody besides me trusts you?”

She gives him a grin, but it only lasts a moment. “That girl, Steve. She’s me. She is me,” she insists even as he opens his mouth to protest. “I was so sure I was doing the right thing. And now I just keep hoping.”

“Yeah, I was pretty sure too.” He heaves a sigh. “What next?”

“I left Hawkeye a message. Several, actually, across the city, asking for a rendezvous. We’ll have to see if he responds.”

“If he does?”

Natasha starts to speak, but then shuts her mouth again, looking uncharacteristically helpless. Well, uncharacteristically with him, anyway. “What do you think? You’re in charge.”

“Yeah, right.” When she doesn’t smile, he tries to think what to say, but seeing her at such a loss almost hurts. Natasha always has a course of action or three laid out. “We’ll have to suss it out. He might really believe he’s on assignment still.”

“He’s not cut off from the world!” she protests. “He’s got to know what happened in D.C.”

“Just because he knows what the world thinks happened doesn’t mean he believes it’s the whole truth.” Steve reaches for her hands again, and she lets him hold them in each of his own. Soft, a rebellious part of his mind notes at the touch of her skin, but he quashes it, angry at himself for paying attention to that sort of thing while her fingers are still trembling. “Let’s just talk to him, Nat. For all we know, he thinks he’s doing this on Fury’s last orders.”

Natasha nods. He can tell she’s latched onto that thought like a life preserver in a storm at sea. “Right. It’s true. We can’t have the full picture till we talk.”

“Exactly. Hey, we haven’t eaten since yesterday. Wanna go grab some sandwiches?” He doesn’t want to let her out of his sight at this point.

“Sure.”

Once they’re back in their room, eating in desultory fashion, she checks her email and Steve plays on his phone for a while. He’s on the billionth level of Angry Birds when she asks, “So, did you ever call Sharon?”

Steve drops his phone and tosses a pillow at her head. She ducks it, laughing. “What would I say, Nat? ‘Hey, Sharon, not in the country at the moment, but the world’s best spy wants us to hook up so put it on your calendar now’?”

“Ooh, ‘hook up.’ Very contemporary language for a senior citizen, I’m impressed.” He throws his other pillow, and she snags it in mid-air. “See, that was a mistake. You’re going to be sleeping on a flat mattress and I’m going to have all these pillows to myself.”

“I’ve raided Nazi fortresses; I think I can retrieve my pillows.”

Natasha ignores that. “Seriously, why don’t you at least email her? She’s stubborn and would rather stand up for what she believes than, you know, live. Like you!”

“I don’t want a person who’s like me.”

She busies herself plumping the pillows. “Do you want anyone at all?”

The answer flies out before he can think better of the impulse. “Yes.” She gives him a bright-eyed look of inquiry, and he chickens out. “I, um… it’s just hard to picture. After all this time.”

“You’ve made it into a huge deal in your head and now you’re frozen. A Capsicle again.” He groans, and she grins at the derision. “Frozen in a glacier of frustration. You’ve just gotta jump back in! Not every relationship has to be this epic thing of longing glances and missed connections.”

The devil gets ahold of his tongue. “Why is it so important that I get involved with someone?”

Her face goes immobile. It’s so imperceptible that even a few months ago he would have missed it, and she rolls her eyes almost immediately, but it’s too late. He saw it. “We’re friends. I hate to see you living your life without sharing it with anyone.”

“Like you share yours?” he shoots back without thinking, and instantly realizes he’s gone too far. Natasha draws in on herself so completely that she might as well have slammed a door in his face.

“Soldiers and spies have different ways of sharing. You know that.” Moving with care, as if she’s not sure her bones and skin can stand the effort of her restraint, she rises to put his pillows back on his bed. “We could both use some rest, I think.”

Steve wants to grab her chin and force her to look at him, or maybe kiss her and demonstrate the effectiveness of Private Lorraine’s lessons when he’s not totally nonplussed, but that's the sort of pushy shit he hates, so instead he just agrees. “Yeah, sure.”

She pulls the curtains shut. “If Clint meets us, it won’t be till after dark, so we might as well.”

Even though he knows it’s pointless, he waits until her breathing goes deep and even before allowing himself to drift off into the waiting dream.

“My God,” Peggy says, settling on a bench next to him. “You still don’t know a bloody thing about women.”

“The problem is,” he dares to reply, staring out across the park, “I keep on only being interested in individual women instead of trying to figure them out as a group.”

“Well then, Steve…” One gloved hand rises to turn his face toward hers. “You need to figure out which individual is going to give you what you need.”

“I don’t know what I need anymore,” he whispers.

She tsks. “Then maybe you need someone who can tell you what that is.” Turning her gaze away again, she redirects his face. Natasha, dressed in civilian clothes, reads a book on the bench opposite, but he can tell by the angle of her head that she's listening to every word.

Steve blinks awake, sleep weighting his eyelids and making his thoughts sluggish for a moment before he sees that the light creeping through the crack in the curtains is artificial.

“You up, Nat?” he asks, and she swings her legs over the edge of her bed to sit up in response.

Checking her phone, she says, "We've got time to wash up."

"Great." He grabs clean clothes and heads down the hall to the floor’s communal showers, only to remember his soap once he's there.

When he turns, Natasha's right on his heels. She smacks his soap against his chest with a tiny smile. "Getting forgetful in your old age. And you need shower gel, not this bar soap stuff.”

“But then I’d have to use a washcloth,” he says, closing his fingers over hers to take it.

And Natasha blushes.

He’s literally never seen her show any sign of embarrassment except as a stratagem before, but there it is, red creeping up her neck in a fascinating progression. She looks at the bar of soap in her hand, and back at him, and then he realizes what he implied and the heat floods his face, too. She removes her hand, finger by finger, sliding it away with care, and then scuttles into the shower next to his without another word.

Well, that was weird.

Steve takes the fastest shower of his life, half-afraid that she’ll leave him behind, but when he emerges with his shoes in hand, he can see her through the open door to their room. That’s some impressive speed on her part. He pads down the hallway and sits on his bed to pull his socks on. “How will you know he’s willing to meet?”

“If he shows, that’s how. If he doesn’t turn up, then… we’re going to have to make alternate plans.”

He doesn’t show.

They wait until they’re kicked out by a very tired waitress, and then head back in silence. Steve wants to say something, to offer some sort of comfort, but all he can come up with as they ascend the steps to the bed and breakfast is, “Maybe tomorrow.”

Natasha doesn’t treat this with the contempt it deserves. “Yeah, maybe.”

As they lie in their beds later, Steve struggles with an unwelcome surge of rage. Fucking HYDRA. They take everything, and only become stronger when someone tries to take from them. He thrashes back and forth, trying to get comfortable. Usually he has no problem falling asleep no matter what the circumstances. It’s only when he’s with Natasha that he turns too hyper-aware to do so.

Natasha never moves while she’s asleep, but every once in a while her exhalation carries the faintest hint of a whimper.

The next day they visit the place where Bucky, or his clone, was photographed. It’s in front of a tiny coffee shop. The photo was taken by an ATM next to the front door. There’s no clue as to what drew him to the place.

Hell, maybe he just wanted caffeine.

After Natasha’s looked from every possible point of view to see if there’s anything of interest, they decide to walk around the city so she can leave more clandestine messages for Barton.

“So am I Sam, today?” she wants to know, hooking her arm through his.

Steve resists the urge to pull her closer. “Ha! He’d tell you there’s only one of him.”

“Just as well. You two were a really convincing married couple. I think maybe I’ve been giving you the wrong sort of names.”

Steve shakes his head and smiles down at her. “How about today we’re friends?”

“That’s every day,” she chides, voice teasing, but her eyes don’t echo the sentiment. She keeps checking their six, making almost no attempt to hide it. Or maybe it’s not so obvious to anyone who doesn’t know the way she operates as well as Steve.

“Nat. It’s—” He cuts himself off, frustrated. It’s not going to be okay, regardless of what they discover if and when they talk to Barton. “I really wish I knew what the hell Bucky is doing here. Why would he put himself back in their hands?”

Nat stops looking at the reflection of the sidewalk behind them in the shop windows. “Sometimes it’s easier to go back to what’s familiar. At least from HYDRA, he knows what to expect.”

“He has to know on some level that he can expect me to help him.”

“Maybe. Maybe that scares him.”

“Yeah, compared to Pierce I’m sure I’m a real terror.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “You are, because you love him. Nobody’s cared about him for seventy years. He’s a man who was made into nothing more than a loaded weapon, and you love him anyway. That sort of thing can turn you inside out when you’re convinced you’re no good.”

On the one hand, Steve’s a little embarrassed to hear her put the matter so baldly, but on the other… is this really Bucky she’s talking about?

She veers in another direction, keeping her grip on his arm firm. “C’mon, let’s go to the British Museum.”

“Let me guess. You guys have a messaging system set up in the Egyptian exhibit.”

“It’s actually in the Gallery Cafe.”

Two more days of reconnaissance yields no results, and finally Steve has to warn her, “We’re going to have to contact Fury if he doesn’t show up tonight.”

But, as it turns out, he does show up, coming in through the staff entrance in a tiny noodle bar and sitting opposite them in the booth. Steve half-expected him to do the thing where he sat in the booth behind them and talked at a newspaper, but Hawkeye goes so far as to put down his hood, which is more than Natasha did.

He gives them both a brisk smile. “Natasha.”

“What’re you up to, Clint?” she asks, before Hawkeye can do more than nod to Steve.

“What do you mean? I’m on assignment.”

The corner of her mouth twitches upward just a little. “None of us are on assignment anymore.”

“Damn. Wonder who’s reading my expense reports.” He reaches across the table to grab one of her edamame.

“Who sent you?” Steve asks. For a second, he wonders if Barton will answer, but the other man looks at him with the same camaraderie he showed in New York.

“Fury. Right before everything went down in D.C.”

That sounds reasonable enough. And after all, it’s fully possible that this was a legitimate S.H.I.E.L.D. operation that’s been compromised without Hawkeye’s knowledge. “Did you—”

Natasha speaks over him. “Who’re you working with here? Anybody I know?”

“No. Just a bunch of low-level techs doing hack work that’s too compartmentalized for them to figure out its subject. Fury wanted me here to update security, but I figured I’d lay low after D.C. and see what happened. Nothing much has changed here.” He leans back and surveys them both with professional curiosity. “What’re you two doing?”

Natasha takes that one, too. “We’re here looking for the Winter Soldier.” Steve barely conceals his start of surprise, and looks down at the table to hide his face. “It’s time to take him out for what he did to Fury.”

Barton’s voice shows no sign of anything other than business as usual. “Haven’t seen him. But if I do, I’ll let you know.”

Natasha relaxes back in the booth, one hand coming down to rest next to Steve’s thigh, so close that her fingertips touch him. They’re trembling again. When he looks at her face, though, she seems fine. “Thanks. I’m glad you came out. When you didn’t contact me for so long, I was worried.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. Just wanted to lay low until things blew over a little.”

“I totally understand. Hey, want some ramen? The tonkotsu’s really good here.”

Hawkeye stands. “Nah, I’d better get back. Have some for me. Nice to see you again, Cap.”

“Same goes. Be careful out there.”

“Always.” Flipping his hood up over his head, Barton walks back toward the kitchen.

Natasha eats her meal with what looks like a hearty appetite, so Steve follows suit, but his mind is racing with speculation.

Once they’re on the street, Natasha takes his hand, palm cold against his. “I haven’t told you two things,” she says in an undertone, walking close to avoid all the other pedestrians. It’s a busy part of town.

“Only two?”

“No. But I have to show you something once we get back to the hotel room.”

When they’ve got the door locked behind them, she starts rummaging through her luggage. “First off: one of the things that got Fury’s suspicions up before we rescued those hostages from the Algerian pirates? Was that Hawkeye went AWOL. Disappeared without a trace.”

Steve’s heart sinks. “He just lied about everything, then.”

“Pretty much, yeah. And the other thing…” She pulls the surveillance photo of Bucky out of her laptop bag. “See that?”

He looks where she’s pointing. “I see a leg?”

She doesn’t smile. “It’s Clint’s leg. He was watching Barnes.”

“You knew that and you didn’t tell me?”

“It didn’t seem like necessary info until now.”

“Nat…” It’s stupid to get angry. Secrecy is a habit she’s never seen reason to break. It’s not her fault. He has no idea what things she had to go through to get where she is today.

None of that’s helping right now.

“I can’t believe you wouldn’t tell me this! It changes everything!”

Her eyes widen, but she does him the courtesy of standing her ground. If she acted scared he would really lose it. “I knew you would assume that he was working with HYDRA if I told you.”

“Well, it’s moved from an assumption to a goddamn certainty now, wouldn’t you say?” There’s no room to pace, and he needs to pace.

Natasha sets her jaw. “Keep your voice down. These walls are thin. And don’t be so dramatic; I told you what you needed to know when you needed to know it.”

Steve runs his hands through his hair in frustration. “That’s not the point!”

“Then what is the point?” She drops the photo to her bed and sets her hands on her hips.

“The point is, you’ve been scared this whole time, worried about what that picture meant, and I knew you were off but I had no idea why, so I couldn’t help.”

She stares at him. Her mouth closes, opens, closes again. With a laugh that sounds like she’s been gut punched, she breathes out, “Steve…” and sits down heavily on her bed, avoiding his eyes.

“I know you don’t let many people get close enough to be your friend. But we’re friends.” She laughs again, and he insists, “We are. Part of being friends is helping each other.”

“And how would you have helped me with this?” She doesn’t sound like she’s challenging him, more as if she’s looking for a reason to believe.

“Well, for starters, I wouldn’t have made you be there to talk to Hawkeye because I would’ve known how badly it would hurt you if it turned out he was lying.” A new thought whispers at the edge of his mind, calling for his attention, but Natasha speaks and silences it.

“You can’t keep me safe from it.”

“Not if you don’t tell me.”

“And you couldn’t have stopped me from coming.”

“Of course not,” he says with the impatience the notion deserves. “But even if you chose to be at the meet, at least I would’ve known what was going on. I could’ve been more, I don’t know, supportive.”

“You’re always supportive.”

“Don’t change the subject, Nat. When are you going to trust me?”

“With what?”

“With more than just your life.”

There it is. He can see it flash over her face for a bare second. He’s caught her. She speaks, low and measured, and that control confirms his hunch. “I trust you more than you realize. If that weren’t true, you wouldn’t be here right now, or at least you wouldn’t be conscious.”

He wants to push harder, but he can’t think how, and he hates this sort of thing. He’s better with sarcasm and banter. “I know.” Sitting down on his own bed, he repeats, “I know.”

After a moment of silence, alleviated only by the sound of traffic outside, she asks, “If I apologized, would you believe it?”

“You don’t need to apologize.” Sometimes the effort of staying present and engaged in a world that, even years after his awakening, still seems foreign, makes Steve weary. His bones are heavy with that weariness now. “You know more about this stuff than I do. I trust you.”

Natasha reaches to brush his hair back, out of his eyes. “You look sad.”

“Finding out someone I thought was an ally is working for the enemy isn’t exactly fun. Kinda getting used to it by now, though.” He offers a half-hearted smile, and she gives him a sigh that’s just as sad. “I know you’ve got it worse than me.”

A tiny smile appears, lightening her features. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I haven’t had to fill out my AARP card yet.”

He snorts with laughter. “Tell me you’re going to let that go sometime this decade.”

Natasha feigns open-mouthed innocence. “I’m just being honest!” Resting her hands on his knees, she rubs her thumbs on his legs, watching the motion without seeming to register what she’s doing. “You do have it a little hard, you know.”

She might not know what she’s doing, but Steve’s pretty damn aware. “There’s not really any point in thinking about it, so I try not to.” Take your own advice, son.

“Liar. You’re not like me. You’re an overthinker. You don’t put memories and feelings into boxes and save them for when you need them.”

Sometimes I can bury them under a bunch of survivor’s guilt, he thinks about saying, but it sounds too self-pitying even though he would mean it facetiously. Her unconscious touch is driving him nuts, and—

Natasha always knows what she’s doing.

He jerks his head up to meet her gaze directly, and that’s when her smile widens and she leans to kiss him.

Shock buzzes through him, arcing from the point of contact through every nerve in his body. That isn’t enough to keep him from responding, opening his mouth to the sweep of her tongue. She makes an approving sound in the back of her throat and kisses him harder.

Part of his mind, an inconsequential part, is kind of wondering about the whole lousy kisser issue, but the bulk of it is taken up with worry about her. “Nat?” he murmurs against her lips, even though one of his hands is already buried in her hair. “What’re you doing?”

“Saving you from overthinking?” she suggests, moving just enough to kiss his jaw, then his neck. Steve wants to ask her if this is another feeling she packed away and saved for whatever moment she deemed appropriate, but she speaks again before he can formulate the words. “I lied to you.”

His other hand slides down to rest on the small of her back as she straddles his lap. “That’s okay. I don’t care.”

She laughs, breath hot against his ear, and reaches down to stroke him—he’s already hard. Steve’s eyes squeeze shut at the sensation. “Don’t you want to know what about?”

“Uh…” He finally pulls his thoughts together enough to start returning the favor, dropping one kiss after another down the delicate line of her neck. She’s still wearing the arrow necklace, so he kisses around it, too. The cool metal brushing his skin is enough to kick-start the worry again.

Nimble hands unzip his jacket and push it down his shoulders. Steve almost can’t make himself stop touching her long enough to cooperate in throwing it to the floor. She tugs up at the hem of his shirt, taking his undershirt with it. “Well, it was really a lie of omission.”

“Not surprised—that’s your favorite.” Her hoodie and shirt are easy enough to get rid of, but once he’s confronted with her bra, it’s difficult to choose between licking the curve of her breasts above the material—black, naturally—or figuring out its closures. Licking wins out because it’s less scary.

When his tongue strokes her skin, Natasha gasps and grabs his head, forcing him to look at her. “You’re not a bad kisser.”

He grins. “Liar. But it’s nice of you to say.”

“I’m very nice. This unhooks in the front. See?” She shows him the plastic clasp and he manages to open it without tearing anything.

“Fuck,” is the most he can manage to croak when confronted with Topless Natasha.

“Flattering,” she says with a decisive air. “Lie back.” Steve starts to obey and hits his head on the wall instead. “Okay, that’s even more flattering,” she adds with a laugh.

“I wish I could believe I’d have the same effect on you,” he fake-grumbles, but manages to rearrange himself lengthwise on the bed. “Hey, where you going?”

Natasha stands. “There’s no way you’ll be able to figure out my zipper without ripping the seams or something. I like these jeans.”

“I figure things out,” Steve protests, propping himself up on his elbows to watch.

“Trust me; it’s tricky getting someone else out of their pants until you’ve had some practice.” She shimmies the denim down to her ankles and steps out to reveal a tiny black triangle of fabric, only bound to its rear counterpart with a couple of strings. It might be the sexiest thing Steve’s ever seen in real life. “Now.” She straddles him again and sits back, ass pressed to his erection through his pants. Eyes alight with interest, she surveys his body like she’s looking for a target.

Fortunately, Steve’s too interested in staring at her to feel self-conscious. And there’s no sense in just staring when it’s obvious he can touch, too, so he slides his hands up her sides and cups her breasts, rubbing his thumbs over pink nipples. “Holy shit, you’re beautiful.”

“Likewise.” Apparently having made her decision, she ducks to kiss his chest, then works her way up to his collarbone so she can lick it.

Steve never imagined a woman who can literally kill someone without even using her hands could have such a delicate touch. Of course, he never imagined that she’d be willing to get naked with him, either, so maybe this just goes to show how he needs to expand his fantasy horizons. Blood pounds in his ears at a deafening rate, but her voice carries clearly through the din. “Why’re you so shy? Is it the first time you’ve done this since 1945?”

He laughs, then gasps and digs his fingers into her hips when she sucks on his earlobe. The wet heat combined with the press of her skin is too much. He forgets caution for a second. “C’mere.” Grabbing her hair to hold her steady, he kisses her—really kisses her, this is Nat he’s kissing and it should be weird but damn she feels so good—and after a bare second of uncertainty he’s got it, following the rhythm she sets as his tongue plunges into her mouth again. She whimpers. The sound makes his stomach flip with delight.

Natasha rubs herself against the hard ridge of his cock, which alleviates the ache a little but on the other hand worsens the desire to get the fucking clothes out of the way. Then again, it’s good manners to take care of her first, and if he keeps his pants on there’s a better chance of that happening without completely humiliating himself.

“Can we—” he starts, and in trying to roll over with her, rolls straight onto the floor. Natasha lands on her back beneath him, then snorts with amusement. He grins, too, but decides, “This might be better.”

“Works for me.” She reaches up and grabs a pillow, setting it beneath her head.

“Good, ‘cause…” Steve trails kisses down her deceptively fragile ribs. He can’t resist the urge to nuzzle her bellybutton, which prompts another laugh on her part, but then he keeps working his way down and she falls silent, her stomach’s rise and fall speeding up with every inch of his progression. Watching her for any sign of disapproval, he draws her underwear down until she kicks it off. He settles between her legs, head swimming with lust and nerves. He’s read a lot since coming back to life—and the Internet is a constant source of inspiration on this front—but it’s one thing to read and another thing to put theory into practice. After a second of looking, he thinks he’s figured out exactly where everything is.

Natasha gently bumps his face with the inside of one thigh. “Hey. Enjoying the view?”

Steve kisses the silky skin next to his cheek. “Well, I never would’ve thought anything could beat Mount Rushmore but there you go.” And, lowering his head, he licks the sensitive folds from bottom to top.

Natasha’s breath hitches. “Oh.

He licks again, then fastens his mouth to her clit. Glancing up, he sees her teeth clamp on her lower lip as she grabs her pillow with both fists.

That’s gotta mean he’s doing something right, at least.

Encouraged, he keeps his mouth busy while he slips a finger inside her, and keeps going while her moans grow closer and closer together.

“Oh, my God,” she gasps at last. Her legs start to shudder; she hooks one over his shoulder before gripping his hair with both hands. He makes an approving noise as she presses up, grinding into his face with enough pressure that it would probably hurt almost anyone else. “Steve…” Her voice goes high pitched and then she clamps her thighs on his face and writhes with a muffled wail. She collapses back, boneless and sweaty, and pushes him away.

His cock is throbbing and Steve’s pretty sure he’s going to do permanent damage to his anatomy if he doesn’t get his pants off within sixty seconds. Fortunately Natasha’s on the same page. She shakes off her momentary lethargy to sit up and fumble eagerly with the zipper and button until, working together, they’ve both managed to shove his remaining clothes away and she’s flipped him onto his back again. She reaches into her suitcase, sitting open on the bed, to fish out a condom. Watching her roll it on is almost too much; Steve has to redirect his gaze to the ceiling and breathe through his teeth until she’s done and he can meet her gaze again. Without a word, she rises up on her knees and slides down on his length, enveloping him in slick warmth.

Steve goes absolutely still, struggling to inhale while pleasure surges from where they’re joined and his brain goes fuzzy. Natasha seems to sense his distraction and stops too.

“You okay?” She reaches to brush his cheek with her fingertips.

It’s completely beyond his mental powers to verbalize that he’s never felt better in his life, or to beg her not to quit, so he just gives a jerky nod.

“Good.” With a pleased smile, she leans on his chest and starts to move. Within seconds, he’s matching her rise and fall with upward thrusts of his own, caressing her face, her breasts, her stomach, and finally between her legs again. She grasps his wrist and shows him how she wants to be touched. He’s instantly rewarded for his compliance by watching her whole body flush again and her arms begin to quiver. His free hand is trembling, too, as it moves restlessly across her body.

“Nat,” he mutters with what little air he’s got left. “Nat, I need—”

“I want you to,” she replies, and takes him in until he’s buried to the hilt, grinding against his stomach, and then the clench of her muscles around him is too much and he explodes into her while she cries out again.

Natasha lowers her head to rest on his chest. Steve wonders if it’s a ploy to avoid eye contact, but if so, he’s okay with it. He wraps his arms around her and strokes her back, idly counting the knobs of her spine.

When she speaks, her lips tickle his skin. “C’mon. Let’s push the beds together and go to sleep.”

He’d half-expected her to wait till he fell asleep and then sneak out to try to take on Barton by herself. The surprise ties his tongue. “I—um—yeah. That’s a good idea.”

Lifting her head to regard him with a raised eyebrow, she folds her hands and uses them to protect his sternum from her chin. “Are you sure?”

Steve pushes her hair behind her ears with fingers that still aren’t quite steady. “I don’t know; I just broke history’s longest lasting dry spell so the only thing I’m sure of is that I’m happy about that.”

I’m pretty sure it was my patriotic duty.” Natasha gives him a wide-eyed nod.

Once they get up, they both realize that they never got ready for bed, so they have to do that and it’s sort of awkward, but once they crawl into bed together, Natasha flips so that she can be the big spoon and suddenly everything’s okay. Steve falls asleep with her nose pressed into his back and one slender arm thrown across his chest.

While he sleeps, he dreams of Peggy kissing him goodbye, and in the morning he wakes to find the thought that had niggled at his mind the night before, fully formed. To his vague surprise, Natasha’s still there, curled against his side and hogging the blankets. He grabs a corner to cover his hard on and then nudges her shoulder. “Nat. Wake up, I need to talk to you.”

Her eyes open immediately. “What is it?” she asks in a voice unclouded by sleep.

“I don’t think Hawkeye lied because he’s working with HYDRA. I think he lied because he wanted to protect you.”

She sits up without bothering to cover her chest with a sheet. Her breasts are right at eye level when he’s propped up on his elbow like this. He has to quash the urge to kiss them, a bit of restraint aided by the frown on her face. “Protect me from what?”

“From finding out about Yelena. He must have known as soon as he saw her that it would hurt you to see someone like that—like you were when you were younger. I’m thinking he decided to handle it on his own rather than get you mixed up in it. And with his wife not on good terms with S.H.I.E.L.D., that would be another reason not to let anyone know where he was. It might not have anything to do with HYDRA from his point of view.”

Natasha cocks her head, gaze sliding away as she ponders. “What about the Winter Soldier?”

“We don’t know that Bucky’s involved with any of this stuff. When Barton went undercover we didn’t have any visuals of Bucky’s face yet, and he would have to know to look for it, which he might not. Maybe Bucky was following him for some reason. If you ran across Bucky during the course of your job Hawkeye might’ve too. We’ve made a whole lot of assumptions without a lot of proof.”

She looks a little sick. “You mean I have. I’m off my game.”

“Everyone has to have an off-day. Yours are just way fewer than most.” He rubs her shoulder, trying to comfort. “Hey. If I’m right, in a way this is partially Barton’s responsibility. He shouldn’t have tried to protect you by keeping you in the dark.”

Natasha gets the tiny smirk he’s only ever seen directed toward him. “The only reason you know that is because you would’ve tried to do the same exact thing.”

“I would’ve been tempted,” Steve admits. “But I’m no good at keeping secrets from my friends.”

“It’s more that you don’t see the point.” She ducks to kiss his temple, hesitates, and then kisses his mouth.

When she pulls away, he catches her by the arm. “Wait.”

“We’re friends, right?” she says, anticipating what he wants to know.

He's not sure exactly what else they're becoming right now, but, “You know we are.”

“Good.” She rolls onto her stomach, crosses her arms beneath her head, and gives him a look of clear invitation. “So grab a condom out of my bag and get over here.”

There’s nothing he’d like to do more, but he hangs back out of a sense of responsibility. “But what about—“

She reaches down and fumbles in her bag until she finds a condom and hands it to him, which is pretty much the only incentive he needs. He rips the package open and she turns it to the right side before he rolls it on. “They’ve been in operation this long; it’s not as if twenty extra minutes is going to make or break us.”

“I think you might’ve seriously overestimated my staying power, there,” Steve warns as he moves to cover her, kissing her shoulder and slipping his hands under her breasts.

Natasha laughs. “Don’t worry. I’m way too self-centered to let you come first.”

“Good. Save me some embarrassment.” He buries his face in her hair. The enticing scent makes the tickling worth it.

With a hum of assent, Natasha lifts her rear and spreads her legs to give him better access. Steve slides inside her with a stifled groan.

“God.” She moves back, taking him in farther. “C’mon, I need…” She takes one of his hands and moves it between her legs. Following her lead, Steve rubs in small circles and feels smug when she grows even wetter. He arches over her to kiss the back of her neck, her shoulder blades, letting his touch say what she won’t allow herself to hear. They move together in languorous cadence until at last Natasha freezes, then shudders beneath him, moaning while her orgasm overtakes her. That’s enough to finish Steve off.

Once they’re cleaned up and dressed, Natasha asks, “What’s the plan?”

“I think it should be to determine exactly why Bucky’s here. Or if he’s even still here at all. Let’s go back to the warehouse and see what we can find.”

“It’s broad daylight.”

He shrugs. “Hawkeye knows we’re here, and so does Yelena. If they see us they’ll assume we’re doing what we told them, or they already know we lied and they’re coming for us. In that case, we’ll need to retreat, probably somewhere out of the U.K. Better to find out now.”

“If you say so.” She clearly disagrees, but Steve has every confidence that if she sees an alternative, she’ll take it without checking with him first anyway so it’ll all come out in the wash.

But when they check the perimeter of the warehouse, the first thing they see is Bucky.

He’s sitting out in the open at a café, although he’s wearing a baseball cap and jacket suspiciously similar to Steve’s. His back is turned to them, and sitting at a table two spots away, back turned to him, is Yelena.

Shock turns Steve’s gut to ice. Natasha reacts fast, clutching his sleeve and towing him into the closest alley.

“It’s a meet, right?” he says with lips so numb they can barely form the words. “I’m not imagining this, right?”

“You’re not imagining it, and yeah, it’s a meet. Steve.” She pats his face a couple times without force. “You okay? You with me?”

Without thinking, he turns his head to kiss her fingertips.

Natasha snatches her hand back and rolls her eyes. “I’ll take that as a yes. What do you want to do?”

“This is too easy. He shouldn’t be here right when I decided to come looking.” He thinks a moment. “Do you have a mirror?”

“Always.” She digs a compact out of her pocket and hands it over.

Right when Steve decides to risk it, Bucky walks into the alley and fixes his gaze on Steve’s face.

He looks and looks and Steve looks right back, because every time he sees him might be the last, and he’s learned that even an enhanced memory isn’t enough to cure the passage of time. The eyes aren’t as dead as last time, and there’s a scruffy beard concealing the line of his jaw, but he’s still so much the same that Steve just wants to grab him.

“Hey, Buck,” he whispers, when it becomes clear his friend isn’t going to speak.

Bucky doesn’t answer. Instead, he slowly turns his head to look at Natasha. She makes a tiny, aborted movement that tells Steve how scared she is, but she stands her ground, hands loose and ready to grab for whatever weapons she’s got concealed beneath her clothes.

At last, Bucky says something, but it’s so unexpected that at first Steve’s brain can’t process it.

“Natashechka.”

Natasha blanches.

Bucky turns on his heel with the same deliberate economy of motion he’s displayed since Steve first saw him again all those months before. Before Steve can reach for him, he’s gone.

“No, Bucky, wait!”

By the time Steve darts out of the alley, Bucky’s disappeared and Yelena is also nowhere to be seen. Looking back, Steve sees Natasha standing immobile.

“Nat, what’s going on? Why did he call you that?”

“Yelena,” she breathes. “That’s why they brought her here.”

“What?” He strides back to take hold of her shoulders. “C’mon, tell me what’s happening.”

She shakes herself free of her paralysis and gives him a frantic look. “We’ve got to go. We’ve got to warn Clint.”

“How?” he shouts, following her as she sprints from the alley toward the warehouse. From the beeline she sets, it seems her plan doesn’t involve her usual stealth.

“I’ll crash through the front door if I have to!” she calls back. Steve starts strategizing how he can divert her before things come to that.

They’re halfway there when the first explosion rocks the ground beneath their feet. Natasha curses and runs faster. Steve speeds up enough to flank her. “Was that the warehouse?”

“Yep!”

When they get to the warehouse, smoke is pouring through the windows and people are streaming from various doors into the streets. Sirens shriek in the distance. Steve and Natasha rock to a stop and start scanning faces.

“See Hawkeye or Mockingbird?” Steve asks.

“No. We’ve gotta go in.”

“Of course we do.”

They weave their way through the workers running out, covering their faces with their sleeves and coughing as acrid smoke wafts into their lungs. Together, they head for the labs. Natasha leads the way, disappearing a couple of times in the billowing black cloud.

It doesn’t take long before they find Hawkeye. He’s got Bobbi Morse’s arm in a death grip and is shouting words too muffled by the windows to understand. She ignores him to stuff various containers from a refrigerator into a cooler with her free hand. Natasha works at the key pad, trying to hack it, then gives up and pulls a gun from the back of her pants to shoot the latch open.

“Clint!” she screams as she finally pries the door to the side, and bends over with coughing, choking on the smoke.

Hawkeye whirls, eyes widening with shock. Morse takes advantage of his distraction to grab more containers and then slams the cooler lid shut. “Let’s go, Clint.”

“About damn time!” he yells.

Together, the four of them head out of a back exit. They barely clear the area before the warehouse goes up in a final mushroom cloud of smoke and flame, completely destroying what remained.

Once they reach a comfortable distance from the scene, Hawkeye turns on Steve and Natasha, face furious. “What the hell was that about? I had the situation under control. You could have killed Bobbi and me!”

“It wasn’t us.” Steve rubs his forehead with weariness that’s far more emotional than it is physical. “It was the Winter Soldier.”

“Do you have his DNA in there?” Natasha demands of Mockingbird.

The other woman lifts her chin. “That’s classified. I don’t work for S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore.”

“HYDRA’s not exactly a step up the employment ladder,” Steve says.

Both Barton and Morse laugh. Morse answers, “Believe me, I know. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get free of them ever since I figured out they weren’t S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s why I called Clint.”

It’s still too soon to be relieved. Steve takes a step closer to her. “What’s in the cooler?”

She shrinks back, hugging it protectively to her torso. “Part of an ongoing experiment.”

“Are you talking about tissue samples for clones?” Natasha glares at Barton. “Tell me you’re not actually on board with this.”

“We’re not always gonna be around to keep an eye on things, Nat.” He puts his sunglasses on. “Unless work like this goes forward.”

“Yeah, well, congratulations, you’ve got another me in HYDRA’s hands, so good job.”

“I had nothing to do with that,” Morse says, flipping her fair hair back from where it’s fallen into her face. “That was before my involvement with this experiment. They came and got me a few months before D.C. and I thought I was helping with national security.”

Steve can’t stop thinking about what use HYDRA could have for his clone. “You need to destroy those samples.”

Hawkeye shakes his head. “That’s not my call.”

“This is important work,” Morse insists. “It’s up to someone else to make that decision. Not us. And it’s not your DNA, I promise.”

Steve and Natasha exchange a glance. It’s clear that this isn’t going to end without violence if they decide to take matters into their own hands. Steve can’t let them go in good conscience without a warning. “If that’s the Winter Soldier’s DNA in there, he won’t stop until he’s destroyed it. And he won’t care if he has to go through you to do it.”

Morse meets his gaze with enough sobriety that he knows she’s listening. “I’m aware of the risks.”

There doesn’t seem to be anything else to say, from Steve’s point of view.

“Watch your backs out there,” Natasha says.

“Always.” Barton leans forward to whisper in her ear, and she cracks a smile. He squeezes her shoulder before backing away. “See you around.”

“Yep.” Steve watches as they walk away, and then turns to Natasha. “What’d he say?”

He half-expects her not to answer, but she just shrugs and points to her pocket. “He saw I swiped a couple of memory sticks from the lab.”

Steve laughs and pulls her into a one-armed hug. “Of course you did.”

As they head for the nearest Tube stop, setting a casual pace, they see several ambulances parked at different points with paramedics working over what look like gunshot victims.

“Tying up loose ends,” Natasha murmurs, and Steve nods.

Once they’re back at the bed and breakfast, Steve starts packing. Natasha sits on the bed to watch. “Where are you going? Barnes is still here in town.”

“I know, but not for long. I’m starting to think he’s going to find me, when he’s ready.”

“So what’s your plan?”

“Well…” He busies himself with re-folding shirts to avoid her eyes. “I was kind of thinking about visiting Morocco. Ever been?”

“Sure. It’s amazing.”

He waits, but nothing more is forthcoming. Squelching his disappointment, he rearranges his toiletries. A hand intrudes on his field of vision, resting on his own.

“Want me to show you around? I’m sort of unemployed at the moment and my former boss isn’t good about answering calls, so I’ve got some free time.”

Steve dares to look up, and sees her eyes warm with amusement and something else. “Having a friend who speaks Arabic could come in handy.”

“Couldn’t agree more.” She hops up to swing her suitcase onto her mattress. “And who knows what sort of trouble you’ll get in without me to watch your back?”

“Exactly.”

He finishes before she does. She turns away once her suitcase is zipped up and sees him watching her ass. “Pervy old man.”

“Mmhmm.”

Natasha slides her hand around the back of his neck and tugs his head down for a kiss. Every time she initiates contact, part of Steve believes in what’s happening between them a little more. He pulls her close and kisses her back.

She finally backs off enough to speak. “Thought you might be wondering.”

He nuzzles the curve of her neck. “I kinda still am, but this is good.”

“Okay, then.” She kisses him again. “Then this is what’s happening.”

If there’s one thing Steve’s learned over the course of the past few years, it’s that nothing is permanent. This sort of temporary suits him just fine, especially since he’s certain Natasha’s going to be his friend regardless of what happens in the future. “Does this mean you’re finally going to stop trying to set me up with other girls?”

With a laugh, she releases him to pick up her suitcase. “Yeah, you’re off the hook for now, Stepa. Ready?”

“Ready.” He takes her outstretched hand and follows her out the door.