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These Broken Things

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Steve carried her into the Wakandan medical bay, shouting orders despite not being in charge, and Natasha knew his handsome face was marred by a frown, knew the deep creases of concern that were etched between his brows without seeing them.

She could hear it, though she couldn't focus on it. Her head hurt, and she recognized distantly that it was the blood loss. Her mouth was dry, or she would open it and tell Steve not to be such a mother hen. She had endured far worse than a few gashes, even poisoned ones like this. Natasha was sure she was in for a rough night though. Her stomach was twisting like a ball of coiled snakes and the muscles throughout her body ached like she'd been stretched on a rack.

“Your Majesty. We wouldn't have come unless we had to,” she heard Steve murmur, voice lowered in recognition and respect.

“Think nothing of it, we are always honored by your visits Captain Rogers,” came the soothing, confident voice of T'Challa, but she couldn't seem to lift her head to greet the monarch. “We will take her to Medical straightaway.”

“I never seem to bring you much more than trouble,” Steve replied, and even though she couldn't see them, she wanted to smooth away the stern, guilt ridden frown lines she knew were pulling at the corners of his mouth. He wasn't just talking about her, she knew that. But since she couldn't figure out what he wasn't saying; her specialty of reading between the lines and following the undercurrents failing her, she knew she was in bad shape.

She was handed off to gentle hands, she could feel the shifting as the blackness crept into her vision. She could hear Sam's voice murmuring low and urgent in the background. It felt hot, swollen beneath her skin, as though her brain was swaddled in cotton and she could not pull it away. She was dismayed to see her own hand curled into the ripped fabric on Steve's chest from her vantage point slumped against it, unwilling to let go.

How weak, she thought as it fell away and she scoffed at herself before she lost the fight against the black.

--

The weather here was balmy, the winds cool and carrying the warm sweet scents of dried grass and manure. It was the end of a temperate summer and the animals around him grazed indiscriminately on the low growing plants at their feet. The sky was a boiled, endless blue streaked with wispy white clouds, and Bucky followed the lines of the mountains with his tired eyes while he waited for the visitor who had come up the path behind him to speak.

“You're looking good, Bucky,” the voice said from behind him after a long pause, but he didn't turn around quite yet. He had heard Steve coming, had recognized the cautious steps of a man never quite comfortable in his own great size. Footsteps not hesitant but careful. Steve Roger's had never forgotten the scrawny boy trapped within the All American hero. They walked within one another.

“You're looking pretty average for a Super Soldier,” he replied as he turned around and took in his bedraggled friend.

Still appallingly handsome covered in dirt and scorch marks, Steve came to stand a comfortable distance away, leaning forward slightly as if resisting the urge to hug him. Bucky was both glad of it and dismayed. But a simple handshake would suffice where words could not and it was offered solidly. They clasped hands, and Steve's blue eyes took him in, cataloging him in the familial, hopeful way he always did. He was looking for fresh wounds to bandage, for visible signs of healing. He wanted something he could actively fight against and champion. He was looking for Bucky, and Bucky was not sure that what Steve needed would ever be found. Self-consciously he reached up and touched the empty space where his arm used to be. It was wrapped comfortably, didn't bother him at all except for the phantom touch of limbs no longer there on the mornings when he woke up on the ghost-gasp of a nightmare, reaching for a gun or a knife or a garrote that wasn't there. Then he felt vulnerable, and forgotten.

“What brings you to my lonely little stretch of goat hill? You just stopped by a few weeks ago,” he sighed, smiling slightly as he gestured around with his remaining arm.

Steve looked away, swallowed, squinted at the horizon. Something weighed on him then, some burden of guilt he was shouldering alone judging from the set of them.

“Mission went south.” he said in his clipped, military tones. “We got cornered, ended up taking on some dangerous people we hadn't expected to see. Blew up another bunker full of illegal weapons. We're good at that.”

Steve looked at the ground, and Bucky could feel the guilt radiating off of the other man palpably. His shoulders sagged visibly, as open with his feelings as Bucky was closed.

“Agent Romanoff. Natasha. She's in the med bay here,” he wiped his hand across his mouth as if he were erasing the words from the air.

It took all Bucky had within him not to jerk to attention when her name was mentioned. He stilled sharply as Steve continued.

“There was something coating one of their weapons and she took a deep cut to the hip. She's burning up with fever. I thought that this was the best place to bring her quickly. It was touch and go for a time.”

Bucky swallowed in a mouth suddenly gone horribly dry and his stomach heaved, knotting terribly. He tried to hide his visceral reaction as anxiety and want and pain swelled together within him like a horrific tsunami. It crested, blinded him, broke over him, and he trembled. His knees buckled slightly as sweat broke out on his forehead, but they held.

“Buck?” Steve said, and stepped forward to place a hand on Bucky's only arm. “Are you alright?”

He opened his eyes and nodded but could not manage a smile to reassure his friend. Steve didn't know, had never known, would never know. The closest he had gotten to those secrets was that he knew Bucky always had a weakness for redheads.

“I'm fine,” he coughed. “That just happens sometimes.”

It didn't.

He had been remarkably steady, healing even if he didn't deserve to. He felt a flicker of guilt at the concern that darkened Steve's blue eyes, but looked away.

“Romanoff?” he tried, fumbled over the name with his dry tongue; Romanova, “She going to pull through?”

Everything within him was stretched tight as a wire past its breaking point. Everything within him was poised to snap if Steve told him she would not. There was a gnawing urgency low in his belly, waiting to flare up and engulf his entire world if Steve didn't tell him the truth and quickly. Tension thrummed through him, squeezing his chest painfully. He kept his face as still as he could and glanced at the ground. This had blindsided him. He had been so very careful to keep his thoughts flung far from his past, from that particular time. He was not ready to face that reality yet, was afraid that he would be swept under it in a tide of loss and rage and greed.

So much had been taken from him. So much.

“Nat, she's stronger than she looks. A formidable woman. She'll make it,” Steve said with confidence.

Bucky relaxed slightly, muscles unclenching. His jaw cracked when he loosened it and he realized he has bitten his cheek hard enough to draw blood. He swallowed it. It coated his parched throat.

“That's good,” he said blandly, squinting back up towards the mountain line to hide the red smeared over his teeth, tasting nothing but salt and copper and old wounds.

--

Natasha woke up to the the low murmur of doctor's and the soothing bright white of Wakanda's medical bay. Wide expanses of glass opened to a panoramic view of the mountains and the hills were the first thing her mind could focus on. She breathed in and out slowly, and allowed herself a slow catalog of her own body. She tested until she was satisfied that all her limbs were intact and unrestrained, and that she was in full control of her faculties. Shifting, her hip ached, but it was a negligible pain all things considered.

“You're awake!” came a cheery, accented voice, and Natasha turned her head to spot the young princess of Wakanda skimming over a three dimensional scan that she was quite certain was Natasha's own as she approached. It disappeared in a scatter of three dimensional particles at the wave of Shuri's hand.

“Captain Roger's was difficult to keep away,” she said. “But I kicked him out of here so you could wake up and not feel like a bug under glass!”

“Thank you,” Natasha croaked, throat dry, and leaned her head back, closed her eyes. “He dotes in his old age.”

“Drink,” the girl said, closer now, and Natasha opened her eyes again to see a glass of water being offered. “You need to hydrate. That was a nasty poison in your bloodstream. You are lucky you are enhanced else it would have killed you within minutes.”

“Very lucky,” Natasha smiled slightly, one corner of her mouth quirking ruefully. Of course the technology of Wakanda would pick up on her bastardized serum enhancement. She wondered if she would have to explain herself to Steve, and if she was ready to. She took the glass in treacherously shaking hands and sipped. Slowly. She knew the drill, having been poisoned enough times during her Red Room training to know that the recovery was slow.

“You are a very beautiful woman, though I expected nothing less from the Black Widow,” Shuri nodded approvingly and removed the glass from her hand. “I always thought it would be wonderful to have green eyes.”

Natasha had read the files on the young genius before, and knew that she spoke her thoughts seemingly as soon as they entered her head. If she wasn't so tired she might have some witty reply, but words failed her momentarily. There was a low ache in her temples, her stomach. She felt as though she was fogged over somehow, and knew it was the pain medication and antibiotics no doubt coursing through her system. She glanced at Shuri, who was studying her with a keenly assessing eye. Has she missed something? How very unlike her.

“Thanks,” she said hoarsely, and lifted her head, rubbed her temples.

“You will have a wicked headache but should be mobile whenever you feel ready after today. Go easy on that hip. I mended the skin synthetically but it will tear easily for a few days. Maybe lay off the hand to hand combat until then,” Shuri cautioned.

“Is Captain Rogers waiting?” Natasha asked. She wanted to debrief, to talk about what went wrong. Failure did not sit well with her.

“He went to see the White Wolf,” Shuri said, and Natasha's senses were still keen enough to recognize that there was definitely something in the way the girl was looking at her. She was being studied.

White Wolf. He'd been awake long enough to gain another moniker.

Her heart stuttered away from that line of thought. Carefully, she masked any and all expression, shifting her persona into something else entirely, something neutral and banal. A chameleon shifting into yet another color. This was, after all, what she did better than anyone else.

“Thank you,” she said with a warm smile. “I think I had better rest some more before Captain Roger's comes back.”

Shuri looked disappointed at her lack of recognition, but shrugged. “That would be best. I can dim the lights.”

And she stepped away without another word, and in a moment the huge windows with the expansive view of the beautiful skyline dimmed to a comfortable haze. Natasha shifted as best she could off her bad hip, rolled onto her good side and tucked her hand beneath her chin. Rest was not easy with her but there were too many drugs coursing through her system to fight the pull of sleep for long, and knowing that her teammates were outside and had her back reassured her in a way she refused to admit out loud but was undeniable. She stared, unseeing, at the darkened windows. For a long time, she fought the force of her eyes closing. She did not want sleep to claim her, did not want to dream with him so near.

--

A girl of fifteen, with soft red hair curling around her beautiful face, a perfect button nose, a beguiling scatter of freckles and stunning green eyes. Natalia is one beauty among many beautiful young girls training for deft and cunning carnage in the Red Room. But she is by far the best, the most skilled, the most intelligent and quick. She has known nothing but the Red Room since Ivan brought her, has had the wants and needs of the young bred out of her until she is nothing but a whip of speed and brutality and sheer cunning. There is nothing outside of her duty to her country, to their cause. It burns within her like a constant inferno, the grandeur of the Greater Good everything she has been taught to fight for, until she is given the honor of training for a week with the Winter Soldier to further hone her skills.

He is menacing, brutal, dead eyed and lanky haired. The first thing that strikes her about this ghost of a killer they have all been taught to revere is that he looks unkempt. This surprises her, as her own appearance is scrupulously maintained by her handlers. She knows that they keep him in cryostasis between missions, it is whispered about in the mess halls and on darkened nights, but he looks older than she expected him to be, nearing thirty, practically ancient. His silver arm, emblazoned with a red star, is a thing of obscene, unparalleled menace. A weaponized extension of Hydra's grand design, he is everything a perfect assassin should be. His eyes are as blue as the frozen winter skies when the chill bites into your skin like fangs.

She is forced to try him in hand to hand combat, his specialty, over and over and the training is more arduous and torturous than most any she has endured to date. He is punishment in motion, brutal and cold and giving no quarter to her despite her age and size. He has been told not to show mercy, and he follows his instructions to perfection as he teaches her the proper way to snap a neck, to incapacitate a man three times her size, to use her light weight and the strength of her thighs to strangle the life from a mark. She leaves each session with huge bruises that heal more rapidly than they should, and muscles thrumming with fatigue and excitement. She is growing in strength. She is blooming beneath his relentless tutelage.

The flash of his silver arm begins to haunt her at night long after their lessons end.

He is sent on mission after mission and between bouts in the cryochamber she ages while he remains the same. She sees him at a distance sometimes, trailing resolutely behind whatever handler has unthawed him for his dire purpose. Sometimes he is sent to them to hone their sniping skills, to teach them the intricacies of firing between heartbeats. At the nod of a head of a superior, she sees him break the arm of a girl who fails to grasp the concepts quickly enough, and begins to question in the deepest parts of her mind if the Red Room is truly on the side of good at all. Yana is taken away and never seen again, like many girls before her. He leaves the Red Room and is not seen for some time.

And when she is eighteen, she finally meets him again.

He has returned to the Red Room to train her in another specialty, and it is an early morning session where she waits in the training room for him to arrive. She has not seen him in about two years for all she can determine in her loose concept of time. She heard he had been frozen again for some time after his last successful assassination and she is eager to prove herself to him. She wonders if time passes for him within the ice like a coma patient who is still aware of the world around him or if the years stolen from him are like a simple sleep. It unsettles her somewhere in her core, and she turns her mind away from the thought.

Natalia is standing beside the barre in her standard white leotard, stretching out her legs, anxiety fluttering slightly in her belly before his arrival when the door opens and he steps within. It closes behind him with a solid click, and his eyes lift to hers. His eyes are blue and flat and hollow.

“Come,” he says in stoic Russian, and his voice is so much younger than she remembers. “Show me what you now know.”

Dutiful but proud, she approaches the center of the mats and settles into a wary stance, biting her lip when she catches his cold gaze. A ploy. Let him think her intimidated.

She moves first as he intends and he sidesteps left, spins around her, throws a heavy punch with his bionic arm that would crush her skull if it had landed. She is adroit, moving with speed and a touch of desperation because she remembers how painful his landed blows are. She remembers the punishment that is later mete out by her handlers for each one that lands because they are watching. They always are, and they do not allow failure from their most promising project. Breath in, steady, she darts forward and lands a strike against his chest, useless but encouraging. If she can land one hit she will land more. They spar for some time and she breaks out into a fine sweat though he remains unfazed.

She tries to read him, tries to use the sum of her training as a Black Widow, the Black Widow, to find the information she needs to dismantle him.

For the first time in their history she looks.

His forehead is just slightly too low, his eyes just slightly too spaced, his nose just slightly too small, to be considered truly beautiful. His nostrils flare slightly when he exhales, his brows remain lowered and angry.

But her eyes flicker lower and his mouth, oh his mouth.

The wicked slant of his dour lips, slightly uplifted at each corner even at rest as though his mouth has secrets he will not share. In that split second, this is the first thing in the entire history of her existence that she has ever wanted – blindingly, stabbingly – for herself. There is a sudden intense need that explodes within her to touch those lips, to taste that mouth, to feel it move against hers, and she nearly gasps. It strikes her painfully, the only outward sign a slight shift in her stance, and if he noticed her falter he did not react, only used it to his advantage to flip her onto her back with precise, punishing force.

“You lost yourself,” he says in perfect Russian.

But no, for once, she thinks, hot and fearful and defiant as she looks up at him. “I am still here.”

He blinks, unmoved, while her entire world has shifted.

She brushes herself off, trembling as she gets to her feet once again as she keeps her wary, shaken eyes upon him. He returns the look impassively. She drags in a breath, shakes out her shoulders, and moves into an offensive position once more.

She makes a vow to herself to keep this flash of self, of identity. She is more than the sum her makers have intended.

She is here.

Chapter Text

Natasha woke up some time later, eyes remaining shut and breathing even so she could assess her situation before anyone knew she was awake. Defensive, ingrained into her since she was a tiny child, but handy nonetheless.

She had dreamed, and she does not like to dream. Too many versions of herself appear when she cannot fend them off. Too many ghosts have things to say to her.

It should upset her more, she knew that. The mind wipes and the toying with memories, but it did not overly. She remained detached, unaffected. Did it matter what blocks she was built with so long as the structure held now on this given day? She recognized distantly that yes, it did, but it failed to move her. She did not yearn for a past she never lost. She did not lose a family, or cherished memories from before the Red Room; only a vague burn of cold snow beneath her skinned knees and the scorch of fire in her nose, perhaps a sense of a mother she could only assume she had. She did not mourn her beginning for it had forged her, and she knew she was a thing of dark, shadowed strength who once fought hard for great evil and has also fought even harder against it. She has never been ordinary, and she did not miss it. She was made of incredible things and was proud of her strength.

Though in her loneliest, solitary moments she mourned those fragmented, crystallized months where she had gone from a glacial chrysalis to an inferno of wings and color beneath his ardent hands. She could admit this now, secretly, in this strange future she never anticipated full of superheroes and aliens and incredible strangers who counted her among their number. She mourned what she had lost as a young women with a shriveled heart blooming for the forbidden. She mourned what had been taken and never found again.

But none of it did her any good now.

She had picked up on the flicker of a smooth page upon awakening and summarized that Steve was sitting beside her bed reading a book. Her eyes opened, feigning a waking shift of her body in the bed to draw his attention.

“Nat?” he whispered carefully, and she could feel the weight of his hand fall to the bed after he put his book down.

“Steve,” she murmured, turning her head and offering him a beautiful smile he would never recognize as false.

Most things about her were false. Beauty was automatic to her, every gesture a code, every movement a choreographed show. She did not know how to move without beauty, without sex. It was mapped into her very skin and as everyone knew, beauty was fleeting and hollow. So what did that make her? Sometimes she wished she knew.

“Shuri told me you're going to be just fine. Nothing a bit of R and R won't fix.”

“When are we hitting those sandy beaches,” she said, “Because I've got a new bikini to try.”

He laughed, shook his head because he could never figure out what to do when she flirted, which she did indiscriminantly and often.

“I thought you said bye bye to bikinis,” he smiled.

Her stomach jumped at the reference and she inhaled quickly, not enough to draw Steve's attention but enough to make Natasha realize that she could not stay there and remain unaffected. She had so much more than Red Room experiments and KGB missions to hide from Steve that he didn't know, didn't ever need to know.

The Winter Soldier sat between them, invisible and heavy, and if she truly considered Captain America her friend she should have told him years ago that her greatest love was his greatest friend and the greatest loss for them both, but that part of her life had always been her most vulnerable, her most bruised. She did not prod at it because every time she had the blood poured freely once again. She had nearly died in Odessa for so many reasons other than bullet wounds.

“I would probably look okay in a one piece,” she said, sitting up gingerly. Steve was immedietly beside her, offering her the strength of his heavily muscled arm which she waved away.

“Probably,” he grinned, and she knew that he was ecstatic at her recovery because reading Steve had always been the simplest thing in the world. It was like glancing out a window. What was there was there, with very little hidden. “You won't know until you try.”

Natasha settled her feet onto the cool floor and stood, putting a small amount of weight on her tender hip. It held almost perfectly, and as she settled more weight upon her leg she glanced at Steve to see if he had picked up on her rapid healing. If Shuri has mentioned it to him he was hiding it extremely well which would be very unlike him. He just looked relieved and apologetic. Shuri had kept her secret. Natasha owed her.

“I'm sorry I didn't stop them fast enough Nat,” he said, frowning.

“You can't be everywhere at once, Steve. Besides, I handle myself pretty well.”

“I know you can.” he said, and settled firmly back in his chair when he accepted that she wasn't about to fall over or faint. “But as a teammate, you don't have to go it alone.”

Natasha smiled slightly, shaking her head. Her hair fell delicately into her face which she angled just so, carefully choreographed to make him think of vulnerability, of shyness. She wanted to pluck at his gentlemanly heartstrings just enough to get what she needed, which was to leave Wakanda immediately before more ghosts stirred. She was desperate.

“What do you say we blow this popsicle stand?” she said, “Shuri said I'd be fine to travel after a day and I would rather be on the ship.”

“Wakanda has amazing technology,” Steve hedged and glanced out the window, blatantly obvious in his evasion.

“Steve?” she asked warningly.

He turned his handsome face back towards her, looking troubled. Guilty.

“I went to see Bucky,” he said quietly. “He's awake.”

Natasha held his gaze, searching as she swallowed her surprise, her hurt to know he lied by omission, and asked a question she wished she could deafen her ears to the answer to because the less she knew about him now the better. “Okay, and how is your favorite melted popsicle doing?”

Steve gave her a wounded look at her flippancy. She was unrepentant. Clearly the Winter Soldier had been out of cryostasis for some time and Steve did not seem surprised. He had known but hadn't mentioned it, which puzzled her, made her begin to turn his behavior over in her mind. Bucky was practically Steve's favorite subject to expound upon, their vivid history and the memories of Brooklyn before the war a subject Natasha avoided whenever she had to, which was often. Why would he hide that Barnes was awake in Wakanda from her and Sam? More importantly, how had she not picked up on his secret. Steve traveled frequently, keeping a low profile for solo missions as they tried to rid the world of stolen alien tech and other catastrophes while off the grid... clearly some of his missions had been to Wakanda.

“He's living away from the villages, farming if you can believe it. His arm hasn't been replaced after Tony... Well. He seemed lost, like he wasn't truly hearing what I was saying. He's vulnerable. I'm worried I haven't been there for him enough since they woke him up,” Steve said, wiping his palm over his face in a gesture of exasperation, of guilt.

She processed his admissions quickly, recognizing that some of his guilt was because he had been snagged on this secret. He had lied to her. They both knew it, but it would have to be shelved for now.

Natasha knew that the Winter Soldier didn't need a bionic arm to still be one of the most incredibly dangerous men in the world. He was an enhanced super soldier with super strength, durability and agility. He was a master martial artist, had favored knives with his human hand, was a master marksmen and seasoned spy. He could slaughter dozens with one arm, blindfolded, if he so chose.

However, Bucky Barnes might have the skill set of the Winter Soldier, but he had the free will, the discretion and the guilt of a brutally high kill count to keep himself from using it.

“We can't stay here. Tony and Ross, they haven't let up yet. And we risk more harm than good coming to Barnes if we stay. If Tony finds out he's here, they'll come after him,” Natasha said, coloring her words with just enough urgency to alert him to her disquiet but not enough that he would think her judgement was impacted.

“I'm not planning on settling down and buying the farm next door, Nat. I just want a couple weeks to regroup. You need it too. We made a mistake on this last mission and our intel is drying up. We are burning out, getting sloppy.”

And damn him if he wasn't right but staying here wasn't an option for her. Neither was leaving his side. They were a team, her and Sam and Steve, and she is vulnerable without them guarding her back. Clint's absence had opened up a vacancy in her life that Captain America and Falcon filled as best as they could, though it was never the same as with Hawkeye. Those shoes would never be filled again but she couldn't just walk away. She had nowhere else to go.

Stark's reach was too expansive with all the money and technology he wielded, and Ross was a maniac with the US military and all its allies to back him. Natasha felt trapped and her chest tightened with panic, a wounded hare run to ground by hunting dogs. She did not want to face this part of her past, did not think she had the strength within her to look at Barnes and not crumble within like a sandcastle succumbing to the tide.

That was too pretty a comparison.

She did not have the strength within her to look at Barnes and not scream inside like a flayed victim stretched on a rack with the fire well stoked beneath her.

“I could disappear for a bit,” she said slowly. “Go deep with my contacts to find out what they know.”

“That isn't something you should be doing alone anymore and you know it. What are you running from, Nat?” Steve asked suddenly, bluntly, and his blue eyes were on her with the strength and focus of Captain America and damn him but it was becoming so hard to deceive those she considered friends.

“Nothing,” she replied automatically, hearing the lie so obviously placed before him.

Everything, always, she thought.

He stared at her, brow furrowed, blue eyes serious, and did not pick the lie up.

--

The Asset feels the cold of the snow through his knees but it does not affect him. He keeps his target in his scope, does not shiver. His mission is brief, concise. Keep the Black Widow safe. Stay unseen, on rooftops and hallways, always her shadow in the darkness. Eliminate her if she tries to escape. She is not the first Widow he has watched through a mission. She would not be the first he has eliminated.

They are one day out in Kiev, a city of many bolt holes and escape routes, and her mission is information gathering and contact termination. They are testing the girl-child for skill and loyalty. They will brook no failure on either count. She is currently weaving her way though the dark, tall shelves of a library, keeping herself within his sight range. He has marked all exits, scanned regularly for outside threats. She is dressed in a soft peach colored dress and low heels, her hair tied primly back. She looks innocent and pliable, nothing like the girl he has sparred with deep in the Red Room. He remembers this one for her fiery hair. He watched from behind the one way mirrors as she took down an opponent three times her size when she was no more than ten years old without batting an eye.

She has been positioned as a lure, chosen for her particular looks, and as he watches her struggle delicately for a heavy book on a high shelf, the trap closes. A man moves in to help her, quickly pulling the book down for her and handing it over while she tucks a strand of burning red hair behind her ear. He can see the blush that lights her cheeks through the scope, sees how she struggles daintily with the weight of the book until the man gallently offers to carry it for her.

“Target acquired, first contact initiated.” he confirms flatly into the mouthpiece to their faceless overseers.

He watches as she curls her slender fingers into the hem of her dress in a feminine gesture of hesitation, shyness, and for a moment his eyes stay on the pale skin of her smooth inner wrist, the veins soft and blue. He blinks, and she moved away from the windows as she leads her target away.

Quickly he stands, disassembles his weapon, shoves it into an inconspicuous case and leaves for the next position. His knees are soaked in ice from the snowy rooftop, his hand is chilled beneath its glove, and the bareness of her pale wrist with its slender map of delicate veins stays with him.

--

Bucky was no fool. Steve had come to him with the thin excuse of needing down time and had taken it upon himself to be there for him in any capacity he could be, and while he appreciated the sentiment, he was doing just fine on his own. It was hard to sort out his inner demons with the quintessential hero looking over his shoulder, it was hard to look at Steve and not feel pained.

Steve was currently trying to fit his large frame into his small hut at his small table without looking crushed by the walls. He was not succeeding, and Bucky wanted to laugh at the humor of it, cry at the reality of it. He had never asked for any of this.

Their paths had not been so different, their trajectories had not been so wide, before everything had gone to hell. They had both been soldiers fighting for their cause and country. They had both been working for the greater good, only it had been Bucky protecting Steve for so long that when the roles had reversed and Steve was the stronger one it was strange... And then they had been comrades-at-arms still fighting for their country and they had been heroes as the Howling Commandos and everything had seemed right again because it didn't matter if he was a serum enhanced super soldier, Steve was still Steve...

And then he had tried to save Steve again, like he had always done, and their paths split apart like the branches of forked lightening, and he had become a soulless assassin murdering for the enemy, ripped from his timeline, and forced to serve great evil without even the ability to question it.

So it was hard, sometimes, to look at handsome, honorable, good, two armed, fifties-at-heart Steve Rogers and not see everything he lacked staring back at him with hopeful eyes like he was now.

Sometimes it was hard not to seethe with the injustice of a life hijacked a hundred times over.

“So you're just taking a break from world saving and heroism to sit down with a hundred year old assassin and shoot the breeze?” he scoffed.

“Pretty much,” Steve said with a shrug. “Us old timers have to stick together.”

Bucky laughed a bit, shook his head. How ridiculous to be sitting in a tiny hut in a secret country with a goddamn verified superhero a hundred years into a future he never should have even seen.

“Yeah, well, very few people will really be able to stick with old timers quite like us, will they?” he snickered.

And his mind plummeted to her before he could stop it, with her blazing red hair and plush lips and her equally brutal kill count and the ageless years between the Red Room and Wakanda. She still looked like an incredibly beautiful woman in her twenties though she had been murdering alongside him way back in Russia when the great evils of the world had given them no choice.

His smile fell as his heart skittered painfully away from the image of her, and he looked at the floor while he took a brief moment to compose himself.

“I'm still here, Buck,” Steve offered, like he always did.

“I'm not sure what for,” Bucky sighed, scrubbed a hand across his unshaven face. He felt irritable, breathless, like most of the air had been sucked from the room. The thought of her here, wandering the streets of Wakanda where he might be confronted with her, when his most recent memories were of his fingers wrapped around her neck, forcing her back into the table while she struggled against him you could at least recognize me and her face turned just slightly away from him in the hangar, not a single glance, like he was nothing, like he was air. This is what he has left -

He derailed the train of thought as abruptly and viciously as he could, yanking himself back to the present. Too raw, too real, his nerves were flayed open and every word inside his own brain was a shock. He wasn't ready for this. Steve always pushed with his earnest eyes and open I've-always-got-your-back bleeding heart, and would he feel the same if he knew that some nights Bucky woke up puking into the dirt beside his bed when he dreamed of sinking a knife into the heart of a target's daughter and how the cartilage had pushed back, how the ribs had crunched and the blood had surged up around the handle before he ripped it back out and went for her little brother. Steve didn't wake up screaming and coughing up bile while scrabbling at his own skin, his own missing arm, because the whir of the bone-saw was whining in his ears once again and they didn't use anesthetic and he was kept awake when the final strings of cartilage and veins were sliced from his body and his arm thudded onto the table beside him and he screamed so hard he could taste the blood and horror electric on his tongue.
The panic swelled, and with force Bucky yanked himself out of the past and dragged in a harsh breath to quell the anxiety.

“Bucky Barnes is still in there,” Steve began, and Bucky laughed harshly, shaking his head as the fragile walls damming up his words crumbled and the truths he didn't like speaking leaked out in his panic, twanged by a Brooklyn accent.

“That's what you don't understand Steve. I'm not still in here, I am here. The years that made me, the years back in Brooklyn pulling bullies off you, the years as the Winter Solider with my kill count climbing! All of it put together has shaped me into this. What you see before you now is James Buchanan Barnes. These were the cards I was dealt, same as yours only mine were much, much bloodier. I have to play this hand, Steve, because I wasn't the dealer, none of us are. I'm not the man you used to know because every year between then and now that I lived may have been horrific and empty, but I still lived them even if I wasn't in the driver's seat. They don't just disappear because I got good intentions now. This is me.”

Steve swallowed, looking at him with that half confused, half pained expression so blindingly left over from the boy he had been. “Bucky,” he said, “I'm with you till the end of the line. Who you are now is better than good enough for me.”

Bucky blinked, staggered once again by Steve's unwavering loyalty. He didn't know, didn't understand just how murderous an automaton he had been as the Winter Soldier. He was willful in his faith, absolving Bucky of all blame but it wasn't that simple. Steve didn't know about the children in their sleeping beds, the Black Widow program girls with the blood dripping down their perfect white throats when he carried out the execution of failures, the panicked wives of powerful men whose screams choked off abruptly when he snapped their necks, the slice of silenced bullet after silenced bullet in the air changing the course of history over and over for Steve's greatest enemy.

“Of course it is,” Bucky muttered with a miserable grimace. “You're the nicest guy in the world. And damn stubborn, because what you see is what you get and it ain't pretty.”

Steve shrugged. “The dames never seemed to mind what you looked like, though damned if I could understand why. If I had a mug like that...”

Bucky blinked, a flash of a white toothed smile appearing so momentarily Steve almost didn't see it. “I didn't miss you at all, buddy.”

“That's okay,” Steve smiled, shook his head ruefully. “I missed you enough for both of us.”

--

Hours later, when night had fallen and the birds in the forests around him had begun their low night calls as they settled in, Bucky sat outside his hut by the low fire pit and watched the embers spark upwards and burn out against the black sky. He felt exactly like that sometimes, a flash of heat burning out fast, a flicker of light swallowed by blackness. The darkness of night soothed his uneven nerves. He knew if he needed to he could slip into the shadows and lose himself before anyone would even think to look for him. He knew intimately the sound of feet trying to slip through long grasses, his instincts honed to pick out a sniper in the trees or a knife sliding from a sheath in the shadows. He was secure in the knowledge that he was far more deadly than most creatures here, and though Wakanda's impressive soldiers were not to be trifled with, he was not their enemy anymore. And together with their leader and tech they would be able to take him out if they needed to. There was comfort in that.

He leaned over, and put another log on the fire. He settled back in his chair, tilting his chin back to quietly watch the stars.

--

“Nat! How's life on the run?”

The cheerful voice of Clint Barton was a balm to her ears, and she smirked slightly into the phone. “I can only assume this line is still secure?”

“You know me, I keep Ross's bugs where I think they'll do the best job; the hallway, the shed. Stark's are a bit harder to find but who doesn't like a challenge? Retired life ain't so bad when you still get to give the Man the finger.”

“I'm glad this is a social call then, rather than a world crisis,” she hummed. “Wouldn't want to keep you from retirement.”

Natasha could hear metal clang in the background and knew Clint was in his barn, likely tinkering away on whatever old farming equipment he had decided to overhaul this season. World class super agent turned hobby farmer indeed. She also knew that he would be stung by her comment, chafing a bit under the weight of the life he had picked up when he put the other down but still longed for in the darker aspects of his heart. He was a nomadic soul cut from patched and bloodied cloth. He had spent most of his life catching bullets in his teeth, running wounded back into the firefight. Civilian life sat awkwardly on his broad shoulders no matter how much he loved his wife and children. She ached for him though she would never say so. He knew anyway.

“You must not be actively dodging bullets or punches if you have the time to call me, though that hasn't stopped you before,” he sighed mightily, apparently satisfied with his tinkering. She could hear him set some mysterious tool down. A wrench, she theorized, imagining the dust motes in the air lit by afternoon sunlight, the dirty blonde of his sweat-spiked hair.

She sidestepped the unspoken question, bit her lip. “How are Laura and the kids?”

“Better than your skills at dodging, Nat. Life on the lam has made you rusty. They're good. Cooper has been into airplanes lately, which is great because I'm a crack pilot, but I don't happen to have the Quinjet hidden in the backyard so he is pretty disappointed in dear old dad.”

“I wasn't dodging,” Natasha sighed, “I was weighing my tactical options.”

“This is messy stuff then. You don't play coy otherwise. What's going on, Nat? Cap finally pop the question or something?” Clint snickered.

“I don't think Steve sees me that way,” Natasha smiled, and rolled her eyes at Clint's snort.

“He has eyes and is a straight male. He sees you that way even if he's too uptight to ever admit it.”

“We're friends, Clint. Just friends, like you and I are.”

He didn't touch that one. Wouldn't, because there were some wounds that didn't heal no matter how many lives you lived between them and they were one of them.

“Then what is this about? Are you hurt? Existential crisis? You didn't call me to talk about the weather, Nat,” Clint prodded.

“Have I mentioned the weather even once? Quite a chill in the air this morning though, feels like rain to these old bones.”

“Natasha,” he warned, and she swallowed. Though much time had passed this was a delicate matter between them. There was history. Their partnership had transcended the word, had been bone deep, vital, breathing. Nobody knew her better than Clint and his advice was the most important to her, but her heart had been a point of contention between them. She was prodding at stitches long closed that still had the ability to bleed heavy.

“It's the Winter Soldier,” she murmured after a pregnant pause where she knew he was frowning at the ground, seeing nothing and trying to read her silence. “He's awake.”

“Barnes, yeah,” Clint sighed. “He go AWOL again? Need help bringing him in?”

“No, he's fine and you're supposed to be retired. His triggers have been broken. He's a free man. But he doesn't remember everything... and I need him too.”

He fell silent, his quick mind ticking. She could practically hear him weighing his words before finally deciding on the straightest tactic. He called her out as sharp as he shot.

“Why Natasha?” he asked quietly.

Natasha had always been notoriously closed off about her past, and the love that had kept her chained to history and another man had not been among her favorite topics of conversation with Clint. She had to tread so carefully, because he was an intelligent man and though he had made many comments about her aging well he hadn't seemed to suspect that she was more than what she seemed yet. Love was, after all, blind even to super serums. So many times she had wanted to tell him but fear had always held her back. She left it too late, and now telling the truth would do nothing but damage the deep, integral trust they shared.

“We have history,” she said shortly, and waited.

“You and the hundred-year-old cryogenically frozen Soviet Super Assassin have history... why am I not surprised?” Clint snorted. “Wait, hasn't he tried to kill you every damn time you've met?”

“Clint,” she warned, and hovered over the edge of the truth, wondering how much line she could spool out to him without him catching the bait she didn't want him to have. “I knew him a long time ago in the Red Room.”

Dead silence across the line, and she knew connections were being made for him. She felt the bite of them sinking their teeth into her with guilty fangs.

“So Barnes is the guy. The one you used to wake up calling for,” Clint asked grimly after a long and heavy pause. She had kept the timeline of her life so loose and vague to SHIELD, had woven an intricate tapestry with no defining features, had operated long enough for the KGB below the radar that it was easy to appear and catch Fury's attention, to later take Clint's hand and defect. The Winter Soldier had been a ghost, and so had she until she had chosen not to be.

Natasha sighed, shying away from the memory of countless nights in faceless hotels and camps on endless missions where she was wrenched from uneasy sleep on the cusp of gasping, bloody nightmares where she reached for James and Clint's strong hands were the ones to catch her in the dark and bring her back to herself. That unwilling vulnerability had led them deeper into one another, had allowed him to breach her defenses and become the sun to her shadow that made them such an efficient team. But it had not been enough.

“He never had a name other than the Winter Soldier, and even that was more of a designation. I didn't want to tell anybody until I knew for sure it was him. And then I knew but James Buchanan Barnes was somebody else entirely and with Steve looking for him there were so many more plays in the air and I didn't know which one to follow. It stopped coming up.”

“Jesus Nat!” Clint spat, temper flaring. “Sure convenient that Cap's best buddy being your ex lover never came up in conversation all these years you've been working right beside him. Your pathological need to keep your secrets is going to cost you the best damn friends you've ever had.”

And her eyes stung hard enough that she wiped them with her free hand though her voice didn't waver, because the only one she truly feared losing, deep in her marrow, in the poisoned chambers of her treacherous heart, was him.

“It seems to be a moot point anyway Barton. He hasn't spoken a word to me even after he got his memories back. If nothing else, that's a pretty clear message.”

“What will it change if he does remember, Natasha? What do you get from it?” he asked her. “You going to pick up where you left off with the brainwashed super assassin? Because the way I see it that history you just mentioned was in the middle of the bloodbath I dragged you out of and I don't know if you know this, but I'm retired.”

She took a slow breath, let his acid wash over her. Clint had a habit of being unable to restrain his bite when he could feel her moral compass spinning. He had the need to keep her on the straight and narrow even though their straight and narrow had been just as bloodied and wavering as the KGB's, there was just an American flag stamped on it now. He had made a different call, she knew that, lived it, never forgot it. But she had made different calls to, and here they were now. She forced truth out of her lungs, offering it to him as a bandage because she knew that despite all the words buried between them the things she was saying would still cut. Wanted it to, if she were being honest with herself.

“I know you are Clint. Every day I wake up on the run, without you, knowing that,” she husked, and heard him wince, cursing softly. “And probably nothing. Maybe it doesn't even matter. But all these years I've lived with him in the back of my mind, and if Department X or Hydra erased me from his mind than that is just one more thing they've stolen from me. One more mark to balance in the ledger. I can't just let this go.”

“He means that much even after... after all this time?” he fumbled for a minute, breathed quietly because he understood exactly what she wasn't saying, as much as she hated that he could read her even over the phone.

“Yes,” she said, and turned her head away from the desk to the window.

She knows what comes next. She knew men, had spent more than her fair share of lifetimes learning them, and at the end of every day that is what Clint Barton is whether he was being the greatest shot in the world or watering the tomatoes. He was a man, with his pride and his pain and his old wounds. And he had been closer to her than her own skin, dearer to her than it as well. She knows what comes next.

“Was I ever what he was to you?” he asked with a long, embarrassed sigh.

“Why does that matter now?” she replied flatly. Deflect, redirect.

“It shouldn't. It does. Humor an old guy like me.”

And she smiled inwardly because she had fifty or so years on him and he didn't know it. Would he still be her best friend if he knew she'd kept such a huge part of her life from him? Would any of them? The smile fell from her face and she stared blankly ahead at the wall in her room in Wakanda.

“No, you weren't,” she said bluntly. And because she knew him better than the back of her own hand she knew he was looking at the ground, shaking his head while his hand tellingly rubbed the back of his neck. Pain, resignation, annoyance. She swallowed, grimaced, forced herself to bare herself to him in a small degree because this was Clint and he would gripe and pout but figure it out eventually. He would read all of it in her face the next time she stood before him if she slipped off her mask for even a second. “I loved you because you were everything he wasn't. Loving him was like loving a gaping wound in my chest. It bled endlessly. Loving you was like loving the stitches that brought me back together. You made me whole again, helped me become a person instead of a weapon.”

“Nat,” he swallowed, bruised, because only after it was years too late and he was a happily married father was she willing to divulge that she had loved him at all. “You kept that pretty close to the chest, didn't you?”

“I play the long con, Barton. You know that,” she hedged, prickled with bared sentiment.

He let it go, because he was gentler than her in that way. He didn't used to be. Back when he loved her he was torn apart by her merest glance, riddled with need and passion and tortured by his inability to pin down her love. She had brought him no peace. Now, he had found some even though a part of him remained an Avenger, longed for that life. She envied him and the life he had that she did not want for herself but would do everything in her power to help him protect.

“Well what does it mean then? With Snowy Soldier Boy?” he said after a long and pained pause. He let her off the hook he had caught her on, and she was so grateful because a part of her would always be at his mercy when it came to emotion. He was written into her skin deeper than tattoo ink, a part of her, indelible. Clint Barton would never wash away.

“He's not a boy. He's older than you by about fifty years Clint,” she drawled.

“Yeah, I'm a young and incredibly handsome buck and I'm glad you noticed. So he doesn't know who you are?” Clint asked bluntly.

Natasha shook her head and sighed, stood up to pace. She was itching with impatience. “I don't know. I haven't been able to get a read on him. He hasn't seemed to recognize me in the slightest. And I know he didn't when I fought him in that cafeteria in Berlin. Eye to eye, legs wrapped around him, his hand on my throat and not even a glimmer. Talk about bad for the ego... But when Steve knocked his head around and brought everything back it didn't seem like his memories of the Red Room were intact. It makes me wonder if Hydra didn't just wipe his memories of when he broke through their brainwash, I wonder if they somehow dug out those parts of him, destroyed them.”

“If that even possible?” the archer asked skeptically.

“I don't know what's possible anymore, Clint. Why don't we ask the Norse alien god controlling the lightening, or the eight foot rage monster who disappeared into space, or the cybernetic pinnacle of humanity who was literally born yesterday but has the sum of human knowledge at his disposal? They might know.”

Clint winced, she heard it in his voice. “Jesus Nat! I don't know. It just seems odd if that knock to the head jarred everything loose except you! Seems a bit convenient.”

“I have another, more depressing theory,” she frowned, dropped herself gracefully (for her there was no other way) onto the edge of the bed and pressed a hand to her temple.

“Let's hear it. Can't be worse than reality!” Clint said cheerfully.

“I am not sure if it's possible but the Red Room altered my memories many times. A part of me wonders if maybe it never happened at all. Maybe he doesn't remember us because all the memories I have of him are solely mine.”

A low whistle pierced her ears. Natasha continued to stare at the floor. She desperately wanted this to be untrue. She didn't want to learn that she had been in unrequited love with her imagination for fifty years.

“That would... suck,” Clint said loudly. “For all of us.”

“Stow your pride, Barton,” she smiled slightly. “These are my messed up memoirs, not yours.”

“Why don't you just ask him Tasha? How hard would it be to just sit him down and say hey, you don't know me or maybe you do. Did we have a stern soviet spy affair back in Russia before Hawkeye came into my life and swept me away to the other side because he is really cool that way and has great hair?

“That is exactly how I would word it,” she deadpanned.

“You can totally use that,” he said. “I won't even be mad.”

“It isn't so simple as just asking, Clint. There is Steve to think of, and Barnes himself. He is in no shape to take on what we were. It was bloodied, and dark.”

So dark. Too young when it started and drenched in the blood and viscera of the innocent and choked off screams and bullet wounds and syringes from detached scientists and bright lights on every inch of her body during examinations and his mind raped over and over and bruises on her ribs from his training and the air knocked from her lungs and the crush of his metal hand over her small wrist and deep breaths before she pulled the trigger like he taught and the ice soaking into her knees when she pulled him into her mouth and the red of the blood on the snow and their whispered promises and his hands in her hair and his screams in her ears and his mind broken completely when they wrenched him from her and he had screamed like someone being flayed alive, blue eyes wide and stricken and still beautiful to her despite the terror burning low in her belly as they held her back and they had fought so hard to get to one another but there were too many of them in those small corridors and she had lost it while he kept screaming her name like a tortured animal and tried to break herself from their hands so hard her wrist had broken and she had killed another widow candidate and two guards before they subdued her again but she'd failed to help him...

“So you're just going to sit on it?” Barton asked, skepticism ripe in his voice.

“I don't know,” she replied woodenly.

She had been hoping this conversation would mobilize her, give her a direction to choose. Instead it had just added more guilt to the burden and left her wondering if she was so messed up that her mind had fooled her into loving someone that she had never even truly existed to in the bloodiest and ugliest of love stories. She did not even have the comfort of knowing she was not that broken inside.

Because she just might be.

Chapter Text

The base in Kiev she is making her way back to is one of countless, faceless abandoned hotel rooms papered with watermarked wallpaper and darkly painted trim. She knows the floors creak when she walks over them, and do not when he does. She has marked every potential exit and entrance of this building, the layout is mapped in her brain. She knows he stands silently beside the window and waits for her. She knows what will happen if she does not appear on time.

She slips from the rooftop as silently as a wraith and twists her body nimbly through the window he opens for her with his shining silver arm.

“Mission status,” he orders.

“Target terminated,” she replies coolly.

“Witnesses?” he questions.

She shoots him a scornful look.

“None.”

She moved to the bathroom, stripping herself of her peach socks and shined slippers with the grip beneath their soles, the garrote wire tied into the bows, dropping them one by one behind her until her feet are bare. Her small toes curls against the icy ground, one of the only parts of her not yet weaponized.

“I must bathe. He stunk of cheap cologne and hair grease.”

He watches expressionlessly as she strips out of her dress and drops it onto the floor, standing in nothing but her simple white all-in-one. He is unmoved, nor is she trying to move him. Instead she enters the bathroom and fills the basin within with water from a jug he had left there earlier. It would be problematic if there were more blood but she snapped his neck, left him to look like a robbery. Her skin pebbles with goose flesh when the cold water hits it but she doesn't shiver. She glances behind her to where he is watching her blankly and he turns back to his surveillance of the window while she washes.

She comes into the main room and stands at his side now dressed in a drab grey woolen skirt and white blouse. He stands more than a head above her, the top of her head only reaching his shoulder. For a moment his breath fogs the glass, a grey cloud blooming across the dusty pane, and hers joins his, the soft breaths blending over the glass together until both their views are obscured. It is a long, strange moment between them, where she realizes distantly how human he is despite what has been done to him, and he smells the soap in her hair with a pang of something he doesn't recognize deep within him.

She looks away first, turning to move from the window, and as she does he catches sight of her pale wrist where the sleeve pulls away. Something within him, visceral and unasked for, reacts at the notion of something small and female under his guardianship being manhandled. His head aches sharply, and his arms snaps out and grabs her wrist, twisting her towards him. She reacts immediately, defensively, a flare of defiance and real fear widening her green eyes as she contorts her fluid body in an attempt to break his hold. He releases her instantly, recognizing that all she would see is a threat.

Wary, she hunches, ready to flee because she is intelligent enough to know that even with all her training thus far if he as been ordered to kill her in this tiny room, he will succeed.

“Failure to report injury,” he says by way of explanation.

She is confused for a moment, then looks down at her arm, at the circle of finger shaped bruises braceleting her small wrist.

“He grabbed me as soon as he had me out of sight of the library and alone. I allowed him to think he had the upper hand until it was no longer necessary.”

He blinks down at her, eyes sharp and blue in the gray winter light filtering inside. He swallows, and she sees the motion, her eyes following the bob of his Adams apple before flickering up to meet his gaze. For just a moment, there is someone else looking back at her, a man rather than a machine. She does not look away.

“I will report all injuries in the future,” she says carefully.

He says nothing, moving to stand sentry by the door to their hotel room, and does not look at her again.

--

The knock on her door drew her from the deep thralls of meditation and memory, pulled her away from the lure of those waking blue eyes and all that followed. She had been trying to follow the tangled strings of her memories, was holding them up against once another looking for blanks, for inconsistencies, frayed ends. But the months and years are unbroken, linear. They tangle and weave but they are not cut.

Uncrossing her legs and opening her eyes Natasha glanced at her window and saw that the afternoon had slid by her. Hours have passed. Quickly she pulled back the cover of her bed, yanked off her leather coat, undid the top button of her jeans and mussed the curling red ends of her hair into what she knew was a charming disarray.

“Coming!” she called. For good measure she pinched some pink into her cheeks before opening her door.

Steve stood outside with his hands in the pocket of his sweatpants, his face only looking marginally concerned. Behind him Sam leaned against the opposite wall, sunglasses on and very much looking like he was on vacation.

“Hey Nat,” Steve said, eyes flicking over her. “Sorry to disturb you. You didn't answer your phone and Sam here got a bit worried.”

“Sure Cap,” Sam snorted, “blame it on me. You're such a bad liar I don't even know why you try.”

Sheepishly, Steve threw her one of his boyish smiles and Natasha shook her head, stepping back to let them in.

“I'm all in one piece boys,” she murmured. “Just catching a few winks.”

“We can come back,” Steve said, immediately backing out the door.

Natasha reached out and snagged his arm, steering him inside the room before he could back-peddle.

“I've had my beauty sleep, Rogers.”

“That you have!” Sam said cheerfully, throwing her an appreciative smile. She returned it with a smirk. Sam had a definite appreciation for beautiful things, but he was always respectful and had never crossed any lines with her, which she was grateful for.

“Alright, alright,” Steve said, coming to an uneasy halt in the middle of her suite.

He could joke and tease with the best of them but was always cautious about encroaching on her personal space, and for her, with her coat thrown over the bed and a pair of her heels abandoned by the wall, this was about as personal as it got. Roots were not her style, and in her lifetimes where she managed to put her head had never been a home. Sam immediately went to the table and chairs by the huge window and snagged one for himself. He let out a low whistle.

“His majesty must like you because your room is higher and your view is way nicer than mine!”

“He just didn't want you trying to fly from any of the higher suites,” Natasha snorted delicately.

She took the chair opposite Sam, and Steve glanced around for a minute before settling himself awkwardly on the edge of her bed.

“Why so nervous Steve? You look good on those sheets,” she said, grinning lightly when his cheeks flared red.

Sam shook his head, laughing.

“We came to see how you were feeling, Nat, but you seem in pretty good spirits,” he said.

Natasha shrugged, crossing her legs and feeling the synthetic skin stretch delicately. “I have been far worse,” she conceded. “But I can admit the rest is helping. Wakanda is good for the soul.”

She purposely glanced at Steve when she said it, and his eyes lifted to hers for a tense moment. She knew why he was here, had read it in his posture as soon as she had opened the door. He wanted to ask something of her, and in this place and at this time, there was only one thing it could be.

“That's what I thought too,” Steve nodded. “Glad you think so.”

Here was a man who could mobilize an army or galvanize a team of superheroes into action, and he was still so bad at the personal aspects of his life it was embarrassing to be a spectator for it.

“Just say it man,” Sam sighed.

Steve glanced at him and squared his shoulders.

“It's Bucky,” he started.

“Isn't it always?” Sam muttered, pretending to be entranced by the outside view when Steve shot him a look.

“I was talking to Shuri, and she suggested, well implied, that you might be really helpful to Bucky's recovery because you've both been through similar transitions.”

Natasha eyed him coolly for a moment, her pride snagging on the word transition like cloth caught on a bent nail. Her ripping of self from assassin was not some smooth change, some state of chrysalis where she emerged like some lovely butterfly from a shining cocoon.

“How so?” she asked sharp enough that Steve met her eyes searchingly. He paused.

“He just needs someone to talk to,” he said haltingly.

“He has you,” she snapped, and crossed her legs, looking away. Sam caught her eye, arched a brow at her and she relented with a testy sigh.

“Steve, I know you want to help, but sometimes the best thing for him is going to be silence and distance. Being alone may be what he needs,” she said.

“Alone? Are you speaking from experience?” he asked seriously, and Natasha thought back to long missions with Hawkeye when the sweat and adrenaline had coalesced into hot wet mouths and legs wrapped around his waist and his strong frantic hands unzipping her catsuits and brickwork scratching her back raw while they tore at one another and they bled with one another and for one another like one solid being.

“Yes,” she said without batting an eye.

“Well even if you can't share what you went through with him, Natasha, he could use another friend. Everyone he ever knew is dead,” Sam said quietly.

She shot him a heated look, annoyed that he poked a hole in her resistance by reminding her of how it felt to be alone in a world that hated you.

“And you think he's going to welcome me with open arms, gentlemen? Last time we met was on opposite sides of a battlefield.”

“I think we're past all that Natasha,” Sam sighed. “And what have you got to lose by going and saying hello to a murderous old relic living with a bunch of goats on a hill?”

“Hey, hey,” Steve frowned, shooting Falcon an injured look.

“Sorry. Living with a bunch of goats by a lake,” he corrected himself seriously.

Natasha's lips pulled into a smirk despite her best efforts, before falling away as she turned her head to look out the window. Steve didn't know what he was asking her. He had no idea that he was throwing her into an inferno of memory and regret and confusion. And the only way she could keep it that way was by not refusing him this seemingly kind, banal request.

The lady doth protest too much.

“Okay Steve, I'll go see the ice man,” she said quietly, shifting him a look askance through the curtain of her hair. “But if you don't like the results, I won't apologize.”

Steve tried to search her face, tried to get a read on her with his earnest, troubled heart.

She gave him nothing.

“I trust you,” he said solemnly.

And she hated herself just enough because she knew how deeply he did.

Chapter Text

Natasha found herself hesitating at the small footpath towards his home. She could see the roof of the hut from the crest of the hill, and she was torn between amusement at the humble home of such a bloodied superhuman, and envy because of the peace he must feel bearing witness to sunsets just like this one every day. It smudged the sky with brilliant coral and oranges, burning the mountainside black and casting a warm glow over the fields stretched all around her. She sensed no movement around her other than the lazily grazing animals scattered below. It was warm and alluring in its solitude.

She was a woman who had faced down a Chitauri horde, hundreds of Hydra agents, a squad of super-humans on a tarmac and she could not bring herself to step forward. There was so much more at stake here than her pride, and while she could fake whatever persona she needed to in order to fool everyone with an air of studied nonchalance, she had no idea what face to put forward with this man, in this time, and that threw her.

Steve likely wouldn't hold it against her if she came back and said Barnes' hadn't been home when she stopped by. That was simple, and plausible. The man had goats to tend, after all. Who knew what that entailed?

Natasha stepped back as the wind stirred her hair, turning away as she slid her hands into the pockets of her fitted leather jacket and refused to call it defeat. A dark form caught her eye, a brush of long dark hair swept by the breeze stark against the darkening sky.

Barnes was there, astonishingly silent to sneak up on her considering all she was, though admittedly her guard had been down, his skill set just as good, her thoughts recklessly elsewhere.

And now elsewhere was staring her in the face with those pale blue eyes that had haunted her in her weakest moments for most of her life. He was wearing traditional Wakandan robes of deep blue, his empty sleeve tugged securely against him by more fabric, his hair pulled back and disheveled in a small tail and he looked ridiculous in his native garb and utterly incongruous in this landscape and so miserably handsome she wanted to punch him in the jaw exactly the way he had taught her to.

“Hey,” he said, blinking, his voice so American that it was an affront to her senses.

He spoke with a lazy, drawling cadence as though he had constantly just awoken from a sound sleep. Apt, considering the years in cryo. It was appallingly American, and though a part of her ached for the guttural rolling vowels and consonants of her homeland from his lips, she knew his tongue had always been nothing but a foreign deception. Just like hers was now.

“Hey,” she replied, and it was obvious even to her that she was devouring him with her eyes for just a moment. She swallowed, marshaling herself. This was no different than any other time she had seen him in the past few years, though he seemed far less hellbent on killing her. “Steve sent me.”

Wrong thing to say. She could read it easily as the wariness in his face slid into resignation.

“For what?” he asked on a sigh, moving past her.

He started down the hill without waiting for her reply, and she grit her teeth and followed him down the slope after a moment. Her eyes were caught by his sandaled feet, the length of them smooth and pale. She could not remember a time that she had ever taken notice of them bare and it struck her both as ridiculous and sad.

“To talk,” she said bluntly, and bit her lip hard enough to sting because she was far more adept at wordplay than this. He nodded coolly, as if this was no big deal and people like her popped by his place every day for chit chat. Like she was nothing, and maybe she was now. An unwelcome stranger at his doorstep. How belittling. How soul crushing.

He shouldered his way into the house, dropping whatever he'd been carrying down near the entrance. She was forced to brush open the curtain and follow again, unsure of the etiquette without doors in this foreign land with a stranger she had known for half a century. Her sharp eyes took in everything they could, from the unmade bed to the candy bar tucked away on a shelf to the dozens of notebooks and pens scattered on the table. She caught the words Steve, pavement, fairground, barracks and roast chicken before turning away. Memories than, mapped out to the best of his abilities in those dog eared, ink stained pages. Was she hidden somewhere in there too?

He threw her a look over his shoulder, a flash of blue eyes veiled by messy black hair. “Natasha Romanoff, right?”

“My reputation precedes me,” she smirked, while inwardly her stomach plummeted and her heart split open like a hollow, thin glass ball hurled against concrete. Inside she bled. No memories scribbled in shorthand, no crumpled pages sketched with their history. He didn't know her. He didn't remember tracing her face with his hands in the dead of night at the juncture of two halls where the cameras were blind. He did not remember gripping her hips on the forest floor while pine needles dug into her back and she arched into him, her fingers pulling his hair while she whispered in desperate Russian. He did not remember pressing his mouth coolly into the nape of her neck while she lined up her shot, murmuring tender, filthy things to her as she tried to shoot straight. He did not remember kissing her lips for so long that they were chapped raw, nearly bleeding, never sated. He did not remember frantic, frightened hands tearing at one another in excess because they were getting closer and this was the last time. Their punishment would be severe. He did not remember screaming her name as they dragged him back to the cryochamber and away from her, voice hoarse and raw and speaking startling English as he told her to run, to get out, to get out, to get out...

And after the reconditioning where she played their own game so beautifully they thought they'd broken her again, after the punishment for her transgressions which was torturous and lengthy, she had plotted and gone rogue with him at the back of her mind, the theft of him from her the final straw that led her from Red Room. She had thought he was dead, his handlers exacting the ultimate price when he never resurfaced. She had mourned him. Foolish, for he was far more valuable than her. She should have known they would not have wasted the resource. Hydra had put far too much into him to ever let him go. The Red Room had kept her alive for the same reasons, their prized Widow.

He had changed the course of her entire life and he did not even know her name.

She turned carefully to examine the small assortment of books sitting below the tiny window of the hut with an air of nonchalance, and when she turned back around her eyes were dry because marshaling herself in the face of agony and danger had always been the key to her survival.

And she had survived the Winter Soldier at his most heartrendingly lost and at his vicious, murdering worst. She would survive him now.

Bucky offered her a tight smile. “I looked into everyone after I got off the grid. Wanted to put names to the faces of everyone that beat me up. Black Widow came up pretty often.”

He sat down at a small rattan table in a chair that didn't seem wholly capable of bearing his muscled weight. She studied his face while keeping her own still, the low brows and sharp nose. Boyish and handsome even now. She could distinctly recall standing on her tip toes to press her mouth to his split one and the taste of his blood on her tongue. She had licked the cut, perversely thrilled to know that the next day it would be gone but she had tasted him, touched him, sealed herself inside him with the scar. She had been so young in love despite her twisted upbringing; so very young.

“I remember getting beat up far more than I beat,” she murmured with an arched brow, coming to sit primly in the chair opposite him.

He winced slightly and his hand jerked as if to touch the empty space his metal arm used to be. Was he remembering pinning her to the table with that ruthless metal hand? Her soul felt tired and sore. Natasha waited for him to make a move, whatever it may be. For the moment she was out of them.

Bucky felt surreal, wavering. He could not quite believe that he was sitting across the table from Natalia, that they had both survived this long. Steve had said she was recovering, and he knew she had the ability to heal faster than a normal human, but he had not even considered that she might seek him out. She hadn't tried to contact him in all the months he had been awake, hadn't acknowledged him to Steve in any way. He wasn't sure if she even knew him anymore, if perhaps the Red Room had altered her memories like they had his so many times. Her punishment for their transgressions might have been the same as his and he had resigned himself to that reality. He was unwilling to drag the corpse of what they were into the light when he had no idea what to do with it next. Better to leave it buried. Better to forget, but if it had been that easy he would have pushed the memories aside when he had awoken in Wakanda, free. Instead they'd flooded back with all the others, leaving him shivering and dry heaving on the laboratory floor while the sympathetic scientists covered him with a warm blanket. And he had wept. For the terrible things he'd done, for all James Buchanan Barnes had lost, for who he had become and for who he would never be again.

Seeing her standing at the top of the hill bathed in the dying sunset, cast alight in red and orange where her red hair burned hotter still had sent his pulse racing, his memories skipping over what she had meant to him at a time when there had been nothing outside of her but blood and missions. She had been everything, that tiny redhead with the burning green eyes that had reached beneath the monster to pull out some sembalance of a man.

It felt awkward, to sit with her here pretending he didn't know her. Like he had sloughed on some other skin and was trying to act like it fit.

“You don't have much to worry about these days,” he said, glancing at her uncertainly.

She was looking at him coolly, not a trace of warmth or care in her green eyes. A perfect, creamy skinned, long lashed mask that was wrenching on all of his nerves and making his mouth go dry. Being so close to her again was torture so sharp not even Hydra could have devised it. He thinks, slowly and distantly, that if the Red Room and Hydra had ever wanted his unquestioning obedience all they had to do was place her within sight but not reach. He would have moved mountains to touch her, because it was all he could do not to reach for her now. He knew the curve of her jaw, her plush mouth, could feel the ghost of them pressing against his palm. He curled his hand tightly along the edge of his table, grounding himself.

“Come now Barnes, we both know better than that,” she murmured, still watching him, and Bucky forced himself to reach deep down inside and pull up his Winter Soldier training, wrap himself within it and school his features once more into a blank, immovable mask. He wasn't speaking to Steve, or a Wakandan therapist, or a friend. He was speaking to one of the most deadly spies in the world who was trained in the art of nuance and inflection, who could read what a mark's worst childhood fear was solely by the way he blinked.

How long could he hide what he knew from her?

“Want some tea? I just got some new stuff. The lady said it would help soothe nerves,” Bucky rasped, looking away from her. “Worth a shot, I figured.”

Without waiting for an answer he moved to the fire pit and stoked the low embers up, placing the waiting cast iron kettle over the heat. His motions were smooth and practiced despite only having one arm. Natasha allowed herself a shaky breath, seeing that same muscled back a dozen different times in the same position, stoking campfires and wood stoves and helping them survive mission after deadly mission. There had always been a flash of silver catching the firelight, and she had loved the way the heat burnished the metal as he slid his hands over her pale body.

“Tea sounds nice,” she husked, swallowing. “Steve thought it would be good for us to get to know one another,” she said, wincing inwardly with each word at how juvenile it sounded, like their All American dad was setting up a play date.

She knew him! Had known him? Wanted to know him again. He had been everything to her for far too short a time and she was as hungry for him now as she had been in the Red Room, the KGB, all the lost years between while she was haunted by and then hunted for his ghost after Odessa and he kept agonizingly out of reach. At least when he wasn't trying directly to kill her. And they said romance was dead.

Did his shoulders tense up or was she looking for more than was there?

“I guess,” he said blandly.

“I'm pretty good at being likable,” Natasha said, struggling for levity.

“Yeah, I read the files,” he muttered.

Her mouth firmed, displeasure setting in alongside the pain. Was there judgement in his voice? If so, that was rich. Her frayed hackles rising she stared at his back. He looked at her in profile as he sensed her irritation.

“I just mean you're good at the whole espionage gig. Beautiful women are easy to trust. Easy to forget why you shouldn't trust them sometimes. Men lose themselves at their feet. You were picked for a reason.”

And she was beautiful, devastatingly so. She had always been aware of it but it had ultimately only been used against her. Perhaps if she had been plain than Ivan would have left her in the snow and ashes. The path of that little girl would have been very different had she ended up in a cold, overcrowded orphanage, or very short if she had frozen to death in the snow. She took little consolation in Bucky's compliment. It was said offhand and with no warmth. Observational, detached. Her beauty held no intrigue for him, apparently. He returned to his seat before her then, and seemed to have trouble meeting her eyes. She felt marginally like a bully, forcing her way into the house of someone clearly suffering from PTSD and staring him down while giving him no clear reason as to her presence at all.

“From what I understand you aren't exactly a stranger to espionage,” she drawled.

“I was more their errand boy. You know, wet works. Sniping. It wasn't about infiltration with my skills so much as positioning and trajectory. You didn't send the Winter Soldier in for intelligence gathering. You sent me in when you needed a one man hit squad.”

This is the most he had spoken to anyone about what he did under Hydra's rule though she didn't know it. Besides, it was nothing she did not already know.

He watched her sidelong, gauging her reaction, her belief in his ignorance of her and of them. He had no idea how much of her own memories were intact. In their limited interactions she had only ever dropped one hint.

You could at least recognize me.

And right then as he studied her she bit her lip, white teeth against flushed pink, two times, just softly catching the lip as he stared back at her with his carefully blank eyes.

His heart cracked like it had been split by a bolt of lightening because he had seen that same gesture a hundred times before during their years in Russia and it had always been unspoken code between them. It had meant a thousand things for a thousand reasons but the underlying message was always for him, to him, because of him.

It meant she knew him. It meant she remembered everything in this empty future where he could give her nothing. He resisted the urge to swallow, to taste his own misery. It would be a tell, and he could afford none of them.

Carefully, he made himself glance away disinterestedly. He gripped the edge of the table where she couldn't see and his knuckles whitened. The wood groaned and he covered the sound with a scuff of his foot on the floor.

He nearly broke right there, nearly let go of his control and his intentions, because as ruinous a creature as he was he still had a beating heart. All the men within him would have died for her back when he trained her in the Red Room. He wondered if he was the same man, if there was anything inside of him not already dead that he could throw at her feet.

Bucky was there at the base of his bones and in his marrow, hot and sweet and screaming. Cocky grinning gentlemen, loyal friend and brother-in-arms; a young man cut off at the brink of every potential, a swaggering, lovelorn, hasty and heroic man just shy of a boy who had gone off to crusade for his country and hadn't even been allowed to pay the ultimate price. That part of him was an intrinsic piece buried deep within the rest and left to starve. Bucky Barnes was as foreign to him as the hot sands of a desert and as natural to him as blood. And there was such blood. Oceans of it, scalding and black and pouring over those ridiculously pure malt shop memories of Big Band music and the waxy taste of pink lipstick smeared off his lips.

It drowned out the charming smile of that young man stolen from his own timeline and left an icy eyed murderer in his place.

In a torrent of sighted shots and kill counts, of garrotes and cut throats and slicing into his own tongue with his teeth when the electrodes jolted his brain during wipes the Winter Soldier stood, unstoppable, vicious, frozen. There was nothing outside of threat assessments and trajectory calculations. There was nothing inside of him that his handlers did not place there. He was their secret weapon, their pride and joy, but they did not anticipate her and the nature of the soul and heart that overrode even their arduous conditioning.

Between both those lost men was James and his vicious, fevered longing for a woman who appeared randomly in his disconnected memory sequences. A girl? A teenager? Too young and too deadly. Bucky within might have been horrified as he watched the little redhead grow and felt his heart begin to speed up with her, even severed as he was from human emotion as the Winter Soldier. Her lithe curves and green eyes called him from dreamless sleep until he sat up gasping on mission nights. The fringe of her auburn lashes made him twitch when they sparred. Bucky, hazy and mild and a ghost of a ghost at the back of his mind, ached to woo her. The Winter Soldier, dominant and squeezing any remaining humanity from him with his silver hand, wanted to subdue her. Her fragile collarbones winging outwards were a source of agonized pain to him. He had often focused his gaze there lest he lose control and kiss her, or snap her neck, or both. Savage, an animal, and he had caught her scent.

And he felt his gaze falling there now in this shattered timeline, sitting in a dusty, humid hut in Wakanda, tethering himself to the delicate flare of her bones as if they were all that could keep him from breaking apart. Beads of sweat popped out at his hairline. He felt the rise of panic tremble upwards within him as he could not decide what he should do. It brought him back to the moment in Odessa where he had seen the redhead that was between him and his target, her eyes wide and green and staring at him not with fear but with agony, and his finger had hesitated on the trigger, he had blinked unseeingly into the scope. Something within him had quaked. And he had realigned, settled his trajectory through her midsection instead of taking her out with a head shot first. One bullet, target down. And she had collapsed to the ground gut-shot and he had melted back into the darkness and become ice once again. He had shot her twice now and still she sat before him looking for all the world like neither of them were aware of it.

“Yes, handlers do love keeping us in tidy little boxes, don't they?” she said archly.

“Some of us literally,” he scoffed, swallowing, eyes falling away from her.

He missed the twist of amusement in her lips, the way her eyes lit up because she could not recall in any of their shared history him having a sardonic sense of humor. How fascinating to discover something new about him after over fifty years pining for a specter. She supposed that there was plenty to discover about Bucky Barnes though. As far as she knew the Winter Soldier didn't really exist anymore in this shared space with her. Soldat. The Asset. These men were no more than ashes in the wind.

What did that mean for her?

She studied him sharply as he leaned forward and adjusted his arm awkwardly against his knees. A nervous tell; he was uncomfortable, on edge. The Winter Soldier never would have been so blatant. His face was still painfully handsome, his brow still too low, his nose too fine for true perfection. His lips were still starkly sensual, quirking at the corners like a Cheshire cat even at rest. She knew the feel of those lips on her own, on her body, had dreamed of them pressed to her skin for years. Her fingers curled inwards into her palm as it itched to slide over his stubbled jawline and know for certain that she had touched it before. Was the skin on his neck as sensitive as she knew it to be? Would he still make that low, pained groan when he climaxed? Would he press his sweaty forehead to her own and murmur rough Russian endearments to her the way he always had?

But of course not. Russian was not his mother tongue.

Natasha blinked, pained.

“Sergeant Barnes,” she husked, trying to come back to herself because she was supposed to be good at this but she kept losing her footing with him. “I think the water has boiled.”

He stood up, shifted past her and removed the heavy pot from the fire with surprising adroitness for a man missing a limb. Of course he had proven himself ambidextrous many times over.

“Apparently it's got lavender and Valerian root and some soothing things in it,” he said by way of explanation as he carefully set two mismatched mugs on the table between them, one by one, and a chipped black teapot.

The Winter Soldier owned a teapot. And a diffuser.

And Natasha, an expert at undercover, who had learned how to brew tea the staunchly British way poured into perfect bone china cups, or the painstaking artistic display of the Japanese tea ceremony, or to brew the thick and sweetened chai tea preferred in India, giggled a bit wildly into the silence.

Bucky stilled, uncertain. “Sorry it's not fancy. I don't have much company. Steve bought it for me.”

He was rambling, humiliation causing heat to scald his cheeks. She must be used to fine wines and thousand dollar steaks in world renowned restaurants. And here he was pouring her dried herbs and hot water in a goat hut. The cups weren't even a set.

“It's nothing about that,” she smiled softly, her hand twitching slightly before she restrained herself from reaching out to touch his arm, soften his embarrassment. They weren't there yet. “It just dawned on me that two of the world's deadliest assassins are sitting down together for a nice cup of tea on a summer evening.”

He offered her a slightly pained smile, sitting down across from her again. A strand of his long hair slid over his cheek as he met her eyes. She held his gaze.

“That's one way of looking at it,” he drawled, smiling ruefully for a short second, and she got a glimpse of the full charm and impact of Bucky Barnes in that instant. “I have a lot of those surreal moments. Never quite sure any of this is actually happening. Gets that way when your mind gets unstrung and rewound so many times. All of it becomes this giant tangle of string.”

Natasha felt a shiver run up her spine, basking slightly at having his full attention, his attempts at honesty, annoyed with herself for being even slightly susceptible to him.

“We live in strange times, Barnes,” she sighed. “Super serums and cataclysmic alien family feuds and telekinetic witches and billionaire play boys strapping themselves into metal suits and rocketing off to save the world.”

“In my day we worried about Nazis, mainly. And of course the Great Depression definitely had its bad moments,” Bucky shrugged. He reached for the pot and poured them each a mug, nudging one before her, but careful to keep his fingers away. “I don't have any cream or sugar. I should have bought some but they're just some of those things I never had so I do without.”

“I'm the same,” Natasha murmured, wrapping her slender hands around the steaming cup.

Her hands were slim and fine, each nail tipped with a simple sheen of clear polish. Bucky was fascinated by their daintiness and remembered the feel of them sliding down his back with detached, agonized ecstasy.

He looked away and sipped his hot tea. It scalded his tongue a bit and he coughed slightly. Natasha smirked behind the rim of her own mug, eyes shining, and Bucky could feel heat flooding his cheeks again. The Winter Soldier had seduced (been seduced by) her with far more adeptness and he had been a soulless monster. What did that say about him?

“Steve said you uh, nearly died,” he tried. Failed.

She shrugged elegantly, leaned back a bit in her chair and managed to make the gesture queenly and smooth despite the setting. Bucky's lips twitched slightly in a smile. This was Natalia at her best, making herself belong anywhere at any time for any reason. And he did not doubt for a moment that she would become a flurry of limbs and blades and weaponry in an instant if he became a threat to her. The Red Room had trained it into her bones no matter how languid and at ease she appeared. He had trained it into her bones, but he couldn't talk to her about that.

“I'm a fast healer,” she said.

Of course she was. She was a serum enhanced Super Soldier with a finer skill set than either him or Steve. She was built for stealth and acrobatics, for martial arts and subterfuge. She healed quick, was disease immune, aged extremely slowly and so much more. She was a finely honed Russian weapon, and he knew all her old secrets. But what about her new ones? What about the years that stretched between them now?

“You like partnering up with Steve?” he blurted the question, felt a wave of envy wash over him and for a moment he wasn't sure if he was jealous of his best friend or of her.

“He's... an easy man to follow,” she decided to say.

Bucky nodded, and knew this was a safe enough subject for the moment.

“I followed him as a kid cleaning up his messes, I followed him as a soldier into Hell itself... I would follow him anywhere,” he admitted.

“Do you want to follow him now?” she asked, watching him.

Bucky considered, glancing down to where his left hand should have been. He felt so oddly lost without it, the strength and power of the silver arm that he had not asked for nor wanted. “I'm not ready for that yet.”

“So what are you ready for?” she said, and his eyes shot to hers quickly because the words were just slightly suggestive enough to hook him. She arched her perfect red eyebrow at him, her face a study of polite curiosity. Tease.

“Healing,” he offered truthfully. “I don't know how to atone for the things I've done. The things that have made me... whatever this is.”

Natasha shook her head, her curls catching the light as she smirked just a bit. Of course, this was why Steve had sent her, the sneaky and earnest man. This was what she was supposed to get beneath the meat of through to the bone. Because she had sat in the same seat Bucky was now in and had managed to stand up again.

“Between you and I,” she said with a sigh, “I don't think we ever get to truly atone. Every murder, every mission, they stay with us because we don't deserve to forget them. If we forget the evils we committed, than those we did them against have no justice. I keep them with me. Every scream, every begged-for life, all the blood, all the suffering I caused. They're with me, always.”

“Than how do you live?” Bucky asked, his mouth dry with misery and panic at the prospect of never letting go. Maria Stark's windpipe crushed beneath his hand, the delicate cartilage crumpling so easily. Howard Stark's skull giving way like an eggshell against the ground after several smashes, the blood soaking into the dirt while the smell of burnt rubber and oil and ashes rose all around him.

“By combating them with the good you do. For every life I took, I try to save ten. For every stolen piece of information, I try to steal another that will help, not harm,” she said. “I try to wipe the red from my ledger by balancing the black. It doesn't change what I did. It doesn't mitigate it. But I know I've made a difference and that's something.”

“I'm not going to be able to do much of that here,” Bucky scoffed. “Unless the goats count.”

“No, I don't suppose you are,” Natasha murmured, finishing the last sip of her tea. “Thanks for the tea, Barnes.”

She stood to go, because she was counting on the can of worms she's just opened to galvanize him into stopping her. He would not want to be alone. She did not want to leave him alone, but that was not the point. She needed him slightly bruised, slightly cracked open. He had to reach for her first or she could not give him a hand through this. She would be his hand the way Clint had been hers. The way Steve had calculated with his clever tactician's mind. But would he have fed her to this particular wolf if he had known the truth? More likely he would have tried to save the wolf from her.

Bucky stood up quickly, some far off waft of chivalry urging him to get the door. But there was no door, only a drape, and he was lost for a moment. She turned to go, took three steps towards the doorway while he froze.

“Romanoff,” he tried, halting her. She turned with one small hand drawing back the curtain and he stepped towards her but couldn't bring himself to get any closer without the safety of the table between them. He could smell her soap lingering in the air, faintly, and even that was like a punch to the gut because it filled his head with thoughts of her skin he had to force away. There was no way he would inflict himself on her again. How could she want a lost-in-time relic of a man, this hollowed out shell, all scooped out memories and scarred brain tissue? He was a punishment, not a benediction, and he would not make her carry him along with the rest of her baggage.

His entire past was several jumbled puzzles all tossed into the same dented box. He needed to make himself a whole and cohesive picture before he could even think of life outside Wakanda. And he wasn't sure he would ever get there. Besides, he knew what they were; the ugly, impassioned, obsessive riot of themselves. Love, sex, obsession, devotion, misery, pain. People with that much darkness between them couldn't come back from it. She was just one more thing he would never have.

He knew he had to spare them both, but he couldn't help himself now that he had been this close to her again, now that he had seen that the freckles of dark green in her eyes were true to memory, that her mouth still quirked to the side when she was amused.

“What is it, Barnes?” she asked politely, and her face was smooth and completely unphased.

“Maybe tomorrow, you... I could use a hand with...” his words dried up in his throat, leading nowhere.

“I'll come by in the morning,” she nodded, and was gone into the dark.

Bucky stood beside the table for a moment, lost, swaying slightly on his feet. He hadn't meant to ask her to come back. Hell, he hadn't even managed to. It was better for them both if she didn't. How long until he let something slip, until she figured out that he had woken up from this entire disaster still madly in love with her, only this pathetic, one armed shell of a man?

He reached over for her cup, trailing his finger over the lip where her soft mouth had been. The pads of his fingers came away damp. He shivered, sucking in a long, shuddering breath and blinking rapidly to get rid of the sting behind his eyes.

Chapter Text

Steve was sitting at a small table beside a huge glass wall opened to a panoramic view of the city. Wakandan architects seemed very keen on open windows. He had his face propped up on his chin, and Natasha could tell his gaze was pensive even turned away. He was dressed as Steve Rogers, not Captain America, in jeans and a grey tee he had no doubt raided from his stash on the plane. He radiated Old Pain from the tips of his shoes to the tips of his mussed hair. He even had a smattering of stubble across his jaw, something she had rarely seen even during their time on the run.

“Good morning,” she said, taking the chair before him and setting down two cups of coffee. “Where's Sam?”

“Thanks, Nat. He went to the market to look for some fruit T'Challa told him about,” Steve said, pulling his eyes away from the cityscape with difficulty.

“Do you want to be alone?” Natasha asked quietly, but he shook his head.

“I've been alone for hours. I don't think it's been good for me,” he sighed, smiling slightly in his pained, ridiculously handsome way.

“What's on your mind, Cap?”

Like she didn't already know.

“Remembering things. Reliving things I shouldn't be. You can't change the past, but I wish I could at least get over it,” he murmured. He picked up the coffee she had brought him and took a sip. Caffeine did nothing to him but it was still an old comfort to drink it. “I keep going back to the train. I always end up back there. I have played it out so many times in my head, found so many ways to save him that I missed that day.”

“Steve,” she offered. “You can't change what happened to him. But he's alive. He's here. He's safe.”

“Is he?” Steve asked quietly, meeting her eyes directly.

“As safe as he is going to be,” she responded honestly.

Every time, without fail, Steve lost his head when it came to Bucky. He lost objectivity, the ability to rationalize. His friendship with Bucky Barnes meant more to him than anything else in his world, and his resurrection had been the catalyst for so much dissension, anger and joy. Bucky was a symbol of everything he had had in his life before the serum, everything he had been giving up without truly knowing it. The bond they had shared was enormous, deep enough to smash through Hydra's conditioning more than once. Natasha had watched this single mindedness come over him over and over again, but had never seen this uncertainty.

“I looked for you last night,” Steve said. “I wanted to know if you had found him, spoken to him at all. I know I was asking a lot of you, considering.”

“I was out late,” she shrugged, knowing that he had no idea at all of just how much he had asked of her.

She had needed time to herself, had known that Steve would want to debrief her on her meeting but would never be able to comprehend how monumental it had been for her. He had asked many difficult things of her, none without due consideration and weight, but what he had asked of her last night was the hardest without him even being aware of it. That of course, wasn't fair to Steve. It wasn't his fault that she kept such secrets. Nonetheless, she had needed space.

“I did manage to talk to him. We had tea,” she began, her eyes unseeing a she remembered the blackness of James' long hair falling across his face and her urge to push it back, to slide her hand over his stubble. “And we talked.”

“I won't ask you about what,” Steve shrugged. “That's unfair and private. I want you two to be friends and you can't be if he thinks I'm peering over your shoulder babysitting.”

Natasha grimaced slightly, forcing her mind away from the curve of James' mouth. Friends indeed.

“I just want to know if you think he's recovering. I know you've gone though something similar. I figured you would understand him in a way I haven't been able to. He thinks I want him to just turn into the Bucky I knew... And maybe a part of me hopes for that, but I just want him to find himself, whoever that is now that Hydra has no hold on him.”

Steve couldn't understand that Hydra would always have a hold on him, no matter how scrubbed clean his mind was of triggers and code words. Their mark was deep and indelible where nobody could see.

“And what if you don't like who he finds?” she asked him seriously, observing the expressions crossing over his honest face.

“It doesn't matter what I like or don't. What matters is that he's allowed the freedom to find it.” Steve said with all seriousness, and she knew he meant it with every ounce of righteousness and honor in his body. No small amount.

“I think he needs time,” Natasha said slowly. “But I was right. He's finding some peace here. Wakanda is good for him.”

He slumped forward as though an enormous weight had been lifted off his shoulders, and maybe it had been. Vindicated at last, to know that he had brought Bucky here, orchestrated his escape and refuge. That it was working.

“Good,” is all he said, and took a deep swallow of coffee.

“I told him I would come back this morning,” Natasha admitted, hearing the words in the air with a sense of unreality, as though their strange, broken, incomplete reunion last night hadn't truly happened. She had resigned herself to never crossing paths with him again if she could help it, and then at the slightest push she had walked straight to his door. She swallowed back her uncertainty, her selfishness at the situation. Her skittering heart suddenly, desperately wanted Clint to be beside her, backing her up, pushing her to be stronger. She missed him, and the way he could see through her without even trying unlike anyone else ever had.

You gonna let this beat you Tasha? As soon as you catch what you were chasing, you gonna turn tail and run? Come on. You're better than that.

“Really?” Steve brightened. “That's good then. He doesn't have much company. Shuri checks in, and he said that kids come play with the goats sometimes. They call him the White Wolf here.”

“Do you want to come along?” she asked, because he is practically thrumming with the need to ask but too polite to intrude.

“Do you mind?” he asked with a blooming, boyish grin.

She does. She doesn't. She wants him there as a heavily muscled barrier so she doesn't throw herself into James's one remaining arm and make a fool of herself. Because the attraction she feels towards the Winter Soldier is bone deep, chemical. Being across the table from him in the heat and sweat of that hut had been nearly impossible with so much rioting within her and if she hadn't been made of the sternest stuff possible she might have caved and made a mess of everything. She wanted to touch him, taste him. The pout of his mouth and the cleft of his chin and nobody had the right to be so handsome and so neutral. She had dressed purposely today, knowing where she would end up. Tailored jeans, simple boots, a red t-shirt beneath a black jacket. She also knew she looked fantastic.

“I told him the other day I'd be back,” Steve mused. “His roof was in dire need of some help and he didn't seem too interested in fixing it.”

“So you want to go do home repairs for the Winter Soldier?” Natasha snorted delicately, shrugging her elegant shoulders and pushing herself to her feet. “Then let's go.”

“Yes ma'am.”

With a smile Steve stood as well, politely gathering their empty coffee cups and bringing them to the mess hall on their way out.

--

Bucky watched them approaching his house down the straightforward path, partially hidden in the shaded window. There was something unsettling in seeing them together, smiling and talking, the two greatest forces in his life. His only connections to the past or the future and they had somehow found one another in the midst of it all. Steve had his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, all blonde hair and huge muscles. Natasha was tossing him sideways smiles, her hair loose and free and red streamed into the breeze. They looked undeniably, stupidly attractive together, like an advertisement for great hair and teeth brought to life. There was clearly comfort between them, intimacy. And of course there should be. They'd been insurgents running from multiple government agencies for some time now. There was bound to be bonding. It was understandable. Reasonable.

It still pissed him right off.

Steve caught sight of him, waved happily, and Bucky knew he had to face this.

But still, she had said she would come back and she did. She was here, smiling and joking with Steve, at his doorstep such as it was. It made his stomach flutter with anxious excitement.

“Buck!” Steve cheered, “Sorry for coming so early but I wanted to get a head start on that roof.”

Bucky raised a brow, threw a skeptical glance at the thatched roof behind him. He knew Steve was grasping for a task, for a mission of aid. If this was the form it was taking who was he to stop him?

“You into home repair now?” he jested weakly. Steve just grinned and began to circle to building.

“Thought I'd try my hand at it anyway!” he shrugged.

There was an uncomfortable silence between Bucky and Natasha as they shifted slightly beside one another.

“Hey,” he murmured, looking carefully at the countryside behind her.

“Hello Barnes,” she said, making sure to place herself in his line of sight until he let his eyes fall on her and then she turned a thousand watt smile his way. “I came to see what you needed a hand with.”

He laughed slightly, tearing his eyes from her with effort and running a hand through his hair, awkward. “Yea, I definitely need an extra hand.”

“Was that an arm joke, Buck?” Steve shook his head as he came back and slapped Bucky on the back. “That was absolutely awful.”

Bucky smiled, a bit pained, and shrugged. “I can't let you get up there all by yourself, Steve. But I also can't climb a roof in what I'm wearing. Give me a couple seconds.”

And he slid past Natasha and inside the hut with barely a whisper of sound, the art of silent movement natural to him now.

Inside he reached under the bed and yanked out his old battered backpack, digging inside for the pair of faded jeans and one of the t-shirts he had stowed away when Shuri had presented him with his Wakandan garb. He had insisted on maintaining the tradition of Americanized underwear beneath the loose fabric. Next he gathered up a pair of socks and his old shoes from Bucharest, glad they were still holding together.

Dressing was not as simple when you only had one arm to work with, but he had adapted well and pulled off the robe swiftly, tossing it to the floor and stepping quickly into his jeans. He buttoned them one handed, frowning at the tighter waistline. He would have to work out a little harder. He was losing muscle tone which wasn't easy due to the serum. He stretched his t-shirt over his head, sliding his one arm in and glancing at the empty sleeve with a shake of his head. Sitting on the edge of his bed he got to work on his socks and shoes, though it took him more time than he hoped. Dressed, he stood and glanced over his disheveled bed and the ripped backpack spilling forth his belongings. A black book overstuffed with pages, dog eared and torn and as battered as the rest of them peeked out, and with a guilty glance behind him he picked it up, risked cracking it open.

She used to stand on her tip toes, en pointe, to reach up high enough to kiss me.

Her hair used to burn against the snow, and it was always snowing.

She had a scattering of freckles along her spine. I used to follow them with my hand, and she would smile, and ask me why my hand was so cold.

I kissed her for so long her lips bled, my mouth ached. It was never enough.

Her little feet were so hot when we slept that she stuck them out of the blankets no matter where we were. We did not sleep often.

She knew my name. Sometimes I called her 'my darling' in Russian.

He closed the book, slid it deep into his bag and stuffed it all beneath his bed once again.

James came back outside and Natasha bit back a colorful Russian curse to see him dressed in tight faded jeans and a dusty blue shirt with his hair loose like the cover of a romance novel written specifically for her. Apparently two could play hardball. He came to stand beside her once again, tipping his head back to where Steve was now standing gingerly on the edge of the roof, surveying the ripped thatching. She practically itched to grab hold of any and every part of him.

“You know as well as I do that he has no idea what he's doing, don't you?” he murmured.

“You mean Steve Rogers didn't learn how to thatch a goat hut in 1940's Brooklyn? What did they even teach you at school in those days?”

“Can't rightly recall,” Bucky chuckled dryly, the sound raspy and disused. “It all seemed pretty easy at the time. I think I was a good student, a great athlete. I guess I knew the basics because I can write a mean cursive and even do a bit of math.”

“That'll come in handy this tax season,” she said with a straight face, and Bucky cracked a grin, shaking his head and sighing.

“Yea, I get the impression I might owe a bit of back taxes,” he muttered.

Up on the roof Steve had caught sight of them, and studied them as best he could without making it apparent. They were standing close, close enough that Bucky's empty sleeve was brushing against her, and he could read something charged between that closeness, an electricity he was unsure of. Both Natasha and Bucky seemed to be very deliberate about not making eye contact. And as he watched Bucky smiled, broad and white toothed and exactly as he had all those years in Brooklyn, all those after mission parties in the Howling Commandos. And Natasha was not immune. There was a flutter of lashes that she kept cast down over her eyes and her own smile was unrestrained and vulnerable for the span of that moment. That stung. She had never, in all his years by her side, smiled like that. Even though he could never really tell with her, his gut instinct told him what he had just seen was not intended to be seen by anyone. And as much as he wanted to see them both happy, Steve felt as though there was something unseen here that was dangerous.

“One of you jokers care to lend me a hand?” he called down.

Natasha stepped back, arms crossed in front of her. “Oh no, this is your show and pony. I didn't come here to fix a roof. I came here for more tea.”

“But you think the best plan of action is to have the two heaviest people probably in this whole country, climb onto a thatched roof?” Bucky raised a brow and Natasha shrugged. Bucky sighed.

“If we collapse through it, you ain't going to get that tea party, darling,” he snorted, and moved towards the house, eyes already searching for a good spot to grasp so Steve could help pull him up.

He missed the way Natasha's eyes widened slightly at his endearment, the way the color drained from her face then flared up again, cheeks blushing becomingly as she swallowed and glanced away. My darling, my sweetheart, my only. Lyubimaya moya. He missed the pain that flashed across her eyes.

Steve did not.

--

Months after she has been cleared for full operation and has run several solo missions, they are paired together once again. Natalia has not seen him since that frozen hotel room in Kiev when they breathed patterns on a pane of glass and he grabbed her wrist with something human in his eyes. She has thought of him on the cold, black nights in her regulation cell when she is not deployed, twisting restlessly beneath the sheets as she remembers that flare of life and the heat of his skin. He is a cautionary tale to her, as well as a guide. She is frightened that her handlers will do to her mind what has been done to his should she step out of line, should she fail them. But this does not stop her thoughts from racing over his curled lips and the dark brown strands of his hair. They call him a ghost and he haunts her now.

They are sent into the heart of Saint Petersburg to route out a rogue scientist named Badim Khloponin with knowledge of the Red Room who plans on selling it to the United States. He has amassed a following under the guise of political dissent, tenuous safety in numbers. They must dispose of the others without leaving a trace of who has done it. Intel had been sparse and they did not know how many people he may have shared information with in his group. There was a large enough number of them to warrant a pair of agents, but they deemed her skill set the simplest way to find their base of operations. They needed to rip out the roots of rebellion and betrayal, and what better way to slide into an insurgent group of men than by targeting the youngest members with sweet and vulnerable bait?

Her target was named Anton Dyatlov, a young and handsome blonde, and she had already spent three days appearing in the bakery where he worked and ordering bulka, smiling shyly at him and making sure to blush becomingly. She was dressed as a poorer caste girl, her face scrubbed free of makeup and her hair artlessly tied back. She looked fresh and delicate, and knew he would never see the invisible blood drenched over her when he was too distracted by her wide green eyes.

In the evening after he had finished his shift and left the warmth of the bakery, tucking his hat down over his head and his hands deep into his pockets, she trailed him several lengths back, as she had every night prior, watching sharply as he took several corners away from his own address, skirting any place he might get a drink or food in favor of the cold pavement. Tonight was it then. Above her in the shadows of the great stone buildings she knew the Winter Soldier followed her relentlessly.

This went on for some time, until Anton halted outside a closed down warehouse, windows boarded and nailed shut, glass shattered. She moved through the throng until she was ahead of him a block. He stood outside for a moment, pounding his feet against the pavement to stay warm, and glancing warily about.

Now.

Natalia pushed her way from the shadows and snow in her long bulky coat, purposely unflattering, carrying a cloth bag of laundry and a book under her arm, struggling with both enough to gain his notice. He caught sight of her and glanced around, alarmed by the recognition.

Natalia chose that moment to look up and meet his eyes, blinking widely and letting a shy, happy smile spread over her lovely features.

Anton looked torn, taking another look around him to no doubt make sure his associates were not arriving yet. He stepped quickly towards her.

“You are the girl who bought the bulka,” he says, “it is very cold tonight, you must get home.”

“I am on my way now,” she breathes, casting her eyes down and adding hopefully. “Are you off work now?”

“Yes, no, no,” he stumbles. “I have another job to go to now.”

“Oh, I see,” she replies, coloring her words with disappointment. “Here?”

“No, I... You must go home, it is not safe and it is getting late,” he urges, helping to adjust the bag in her arms. “Perhaps if you come by the bakery in the morning.”

She already had the intel she needed, their meeting obviously to take place here and his eagerness to get her safely away instead of getting to know the pretty girl is more than enough of a tell. She thanks him and hurries off down the street, turning the corner and immediately ditching the laundry and book in the nearest heap of garbage. She shifts directions, blends into the milling crowd and doubles back. She slides into a darkened alley and checks to make sure she is alone before looking for a suitable ledge to vault up on, discarding her thick woolen coat and skirt to reveal the leather suit she wears beneath. She removes gloves from her pocket, slides them on, and finding a ledge she flips and twists adroitly until she is on the roof of one stone building, than further up a second. She reaches a good vantage point and stands in the silent snow of the empty roof where she can now see Anton talking to another man, their heads drawn close together.

There is no noise, no warning sign, but she knows he is behind her.

“Report,” he murmurs, voice distorted by the black muzzle he wears. She would still know it anywhere.

“It is there. The condemned building. They have an entrance down the alley he stands in front of.”

“Three ground level entry points. We confirm Khloponin, barricade all access points, enter from the roof. Terminate.”

“I have not seen him yet.”

“Then wait,” he said blankly, eyes focused completely on his mission below.

She turns from him, watching as men begin to trickle in from the street and funnel into the alleyway, casting obvious looks behind them as though a bogeyman stalks their heels.

She glances beside her at the Winter Soldier in his tactical gear loaded with artillery, then looks down at her own leather clad hands.

Perhaps they are not far off the mark.

--

The doors have been barricaded shut with debris. They had climbed quietly through a back alley window near the top floor and carefully wound their way past broken plaster and rotting wood, navigating the pitfalls of creaking stairs and shaken dust with a skill set only they were capable of. Natalia was incredible, fleet footed and agile, but he was masterful even with his huge size and substantial weight on her. It was maddening, and her competitive blood fired up even as she admired him. At one point the stairs were completely demolished between the fourth and third floors, and she watched as after a careful survey of the floor, he holstered the gun at his back, chose the safest edge possible and lowered himself to his belly. He swung himself around, not even his belts clinking, and used the strength of his metal arm to slowly, painstakingly lower himself to the next floor. He dropped the last two feet without even a sound before looking up at her. Natalia looked down at his stern face and he braced himself slightly against the floor. Understanding, she brought herself to the same safe edge he had used and taking a breath, jumped.

He caught her as easily and carefully as breathing, and she hitched her legs around the bulwark of him for a moment to stop her own light momentum before dropping her feet silently to the floor. For just a moment, his hands did not let her go as he looked down at her, still blank, and she faltered inside as her eyes fell on his mouth before the moment fell away.

He signaled for her to follow and she did, unholstering her pair of glocks as they approached the final staircase. They could hear the men below, urgent voices and angry murmuring. The Winter Soldier gave her a sign for an estimate of twenty men.

“They are acting as we speak!” they heard a man saying. “They will discover us soon, we must leave!”

“Where is the buyer?” Another spoke.

A long, uncomfortable silence fell, and another voice raised. Khloponin. “Our buyer has withdrawn his offer. He does not understand the value of what was offered him.”

“Badim, you fool! You should have lowered your price like we told you to!”

Natalia met the Asset's eyes. They were barren. She knew she was staring into the eyes of a killer even more hardened than she was. He gave a minute signal to go and with a nod she readied her guns and leapt over the rail, landing in a crouch and immediately opening fire on the sea of men.

A hail of bullets backed her from above, precise and bloody, silencing screams and ripping through the night without mercy. Natasha took out the knees of the man closest to her, dropping her gun when one of the men closed in on her reach, heavy fists and the terror of death making him dangerous. She swept her leg out and he stumbled, and she used the weight of his fall against him, twisting deftly past him and behind and wrapping her garrote around his neck. She pushed her knee into his back as he fell to his, using his weight against him. There was no time, more men were behind her, and she pulled harder until the blood began to leak around the wire and choking, he collapsed.

She glanced around to see nothing but bleeding, twitching corpses, drifting dust and broken glass littering the filthy floor. A pool of blood was seeping around her foot from the man whose throat she had cut with the wire and coolly she drew her boot away. Natalia caught a blur of black and silver as the Winter Soldier holstered his gun and withdrew his knife, systematically going to every man and slitting his throat to confirm the kill. She watched with a distant tremor of something when he reached down and yanked over the body of young Anton Dyaltov. His body did not move as the knife bit his throat and blood spilled forth blackly. She was unsure of whose kill he was. She breathed out, leaning slightly against the concrete wall behind her.

Finished, the Asset came to stand in front of her, blocking her view of the dead men with his broad chest.

“You should not have jumped. That was an unnecessary risk,” he says to her, voice cold and unwavering.

Anger at his lack of faith when she has nothing but for him floods her. Her cheeks wash with red despite her best efforts to curtail it. He was not her trainer any longer. He had no right to question her methods. She was not cleared to carry an arsenal of firepower. She did not have the same level of brute strength he did.

“I needed the element of surprise. There is no such thing as unnecessary risk in this service,” she hisses back, low and heated. “I do what is necessary.”

She is standing before him, and her red head barely comes up to his shoulder. There is a smudge of blood smeared along her cheek, the crimson blending into the pink edge of her lip.

And the Winter Soldier is suddenly, indescribably furious, the anger flooding through his veins in a completely foreign sensation, as though a dam has just collapsed within him. It washes through him and without warning he slams her against the wall behind, pushing his metal arm against her collarbones and forcing her backwards. His upper lip trembles with fury, he can feel the edge of it curling, cannot marshal it back under control and it frightens him, excites him. To feel.

“You do not make the calls,” he growls, and at the change of tone she blinks at him.

Her hand comes up, wraps around the metal pushing painfully into her chest. She does not push, but flattens her fingers over the coldness, wraps around it. She is searching his eyes for whatever is hidden there and he stares back at her and tries to swallow back the heat of anger that is engulfing him. He is distantly aware of her hips close to his own, the press of her stomach against him. She is soft, pliant, female. There is a ghost whispering quietly in the back of his mind, of smiles in darkened rooms and soft warm skin sliding against his own, fingers tugging at his short hair, of warm breasts heavy in both his hands, and toes curling against scratchy sheets. His head aches, and he releases her, stepping away.

“You do not make the calls,” he says again, voice faltering slightly. His arms fall to his side.

Natalia follows, refusing to give up the rare advantage, stepping close enough to him to peer up at his lowered eyes. He lifts them to hers, holds them, frosted blue against emerald.

“You are still here,” she says, an echo of what she had said to him years and years ago in the training room when she had found something within herself that Department X had not placed there themselves in the wanting of him.

“I am lost,” he replies simply.

And she surges up against him in one perfect, fluid motion and her mouth presses against his hungrily, years of shoved down, pent up longing coalescing into one rash and passionate impulse. His hands, human and metal, snap around her biceps and she thinks she will be shoved back into the concrete wall behind her with enough force to shatter her skull. He freezes, she can feel the seizure of his entire body, muscles going rigid beneath her hands, but instead he yanks her against him and returns her avid kiss. It is messy and wet and hungry and she tears at him, wrapping her hands around his jaw and into his long hair while his own clutch her back, seeking a way to pull her further into him. He tastes of smoke and metal and blood, and his tongue is deft and precise against her own for several long, hot moments.

He pulls away hard, looking down at her with dark, stunned eyed. His mouth is obscenely wet with her kiss, and she knows instantly that she has claimed some part of him fiercely as her own. She quakes inside with fear of this indiscretion, every nerve alive with it. She has touched the forbidden. She has broken through their ultimate monster, and shivering, she twines her arms around his neck once more and pulls his mouth to hers again.

Chapter Text

Natasha had now discovered that when Captain America and The Winter Soldier teamed up together they accomplished... surprisingly little. The roof was not repaired, indeed how could it be without any of the thatching on hand? It had been surveyed, supposed over, studied, and the two of them had come back to the ground defeated. Bucky went inside to start the tea and Steve turned to Natasha with a lengthy sigh.

“Nobody can say I didn't give it my all,” he said firmly, and took a seat on the grass.

Natasha shrugged. “I'm afraid this exploit isn't likely to make it into the great adventures of Captain America and Bucky Barnes.”

“No, I don't suppose it will,” Steve said, and shot her a look from the corner of his eye. Natasha caught it of course, mulled over it momentarily. He had something on his mind, that much was obvious.

But James came back out at that moment and stood hesitantly back, looking at the two of them as if unwilling to intrude. Natasha glanced between the two of them, assessing but remaining silent until Steve caught sight of him. Bucky was fully trained in observational tactics. What was he reading here that kept him back?

“Come on Buck, help me figure this out. It looked like the roofing was threaded together. Does it come like that or do we have to do it?”

He came closer, kept his eyes away from her, and Natasha watched his bent head for a long moment.

An hour later they had finalized their game plan, drawn out their tactics, and had written a list of supplies to buy in town. They now sat outside on the grass with a pot of tea nestled in the dirt and a cup each. Steve was splayed backwards on the grass, legs stretched before him as he squinted at the sky. Bucky was hunched forward with his arm on his knee and between them Natasha sat with her legs tucked beneath her.

“Must be quiet out here at night,” Steve sighed contentedly.

“You'd be surprised at what a ruckus those friggin' goats cause,” Bucky snorted. “I barely get to sleep. And if it ain't the goats, it's the kids.”

Steve grinned, picking up his cup in his huge hand and taking a drink. He squinted around him against the bright sunshine.

“Not a bad life,” he breathed. "We didn't have too many days like this back when we were kids."

"That's because you were too busy starting shit to give me a break," Bucky scoffed.

"What can I say? Trouble followed me sometimes," Steve laughed.

"Followed you? Followed you?" Bucky snorted, catching Natasha's curious gaze. "Don't let his innocent act fool you. He was always the runtiest guy in the room, and he would beeline for the biggest jerk there while I trailed after him doing damage control. I took more beatings on behalf of this guy in our school days than I did in my first year of military service."

"Hey now," Steve waved him off. "Those guys barely ever landed a hit. You were a boxing champion, and you said you liked the practice."

Both of them chuckled and Natasha watched, distantly wondering what it would have been like to see James Buchanan Barnes in his element back in those days. Young, handsome, charming and eager to face what life was going to give him. He would have been something to behold. The days that he was pulling bullies off his best friend and taking girls on polite, painfully sweet dates though, she was a very small child whose body was being broken apart and sewn back together exactly how Department X had wanted it to be. She could not share in the memories of a boyhood spent so simply.

The silence spilled over them, and for a long moment the pressure of the world outside pushed downward, hidden as they were beneath the dome that protected Wakanda. It was becoming so apparent that none of them could hide forever. The world outside loomed large and painful. It would come for them eventually, for help or for ruin.

Bucky glanced at Natasha as she slid her legs out from beneath her and leaned back into the grass on her elbows. Her hair was a violent splash against the dry grass, her eyes were soft and green, her lips red, and suddenly he imagined rolling over her, pressing her back into the ground, grass pressing marks into his bare forearm, scratching the metal, while her arms wrapped around his neck and he kissed her open mouth.

Not imagined, remembered. He had been pulling strands of green grass from the plates of his arm for hours. He knew the difference between reality and imagination most of the time now and this felt real. Arousal and panic swirled uneasily within his stomach, the feeling singing the ends of his nerves like static. Memories were hard to fight off, didn't go as easily as they did when he was alone and he pushed them away. Sweat popped out on his forehead and he fought the urge to sink his head between his knees in an automatic response to the fear. He couldn't bear the thought of losing himself in front of Steve or Natalia. He could remember how her mouth had tasted, the heat of it against him.

He shifted his eyes away and they were snagged by Steve, who was looking at him intently.

“I'll be right back,” he muttered, raw with is, embittered by it, angry at being so blatant when he was trying to hide this from everyone. He hurried into the hut.

Natasha looked after him assessingly, seeing the tension straightening his spine, sensing the electric flicker of panic like scent on the air as he disappeared into the shadows.

“Steve,” she murmured. “I think we've overstayed our welcome.”

Steve's troubled gaze met her own and to his credit he didn't push. He nodded, grabbed his and Bucky's mugs and got to his feet, offering her his free hand to help her up. Natasha took the warm hand offered and he tugged her upwards as though she were air. She flattened a hand on his chest.

“Easy with the muscles Rogers, you'll give a girl the vapors,” she smirked.

Steve rolled his eyes and Natasha stepped away. “I don't think its possible for anyone to give Black Widow the vapors,” he sighed.

“You'd be surprised,” she muttered, and flicked a glance towards the doorway of the hut only to find Bucky standing there, watching them both with something dark and cold in his blue eyes.

Natasha immediately stilled, hands falling to her side open and passive, non threatening. The sunshine and breeze beat down on her, catching her hair and dragging it across her face while she kept her eyes glued to him. The look he was leveling them with was cold, predatory and infinitely familiar. The Winter Soldier was staring back at her, assessing her with all the heat and viciousness contained within him. There was something else in the way he was pinning her down with his eyes, so light a blue they were like a blade of ice in her stomach. She had met this monster so many times before, could see the triggers etched into his skin, but there was something edging the way he was staring at her. Something that pulled at her. She could not look away from him now, in this place out of time, in this bizarre reality where they were themselves again but they did not recognize each other.

“We've got to get back,” Steve said, breaking the tension that had suddenly dropped between them like an axe through ice.

She gave no outward sign but she snapped back to herself. “Thanks for the tea, Barnes. Let me know how it goes with the roof.”

Bucky said nothing to her, finally breaking eye contact to nod at Steve. “Thanks for trying, Steve. I'll go get supplies in town tomorrow.”

“Then I'll be here tomorrow!” Steve said firmly, stepping forward to clap his hand on Bucky's shoulder.

Natasha had already turned and headed towards the hill, refusing to look backwards. She was afraid he would be watching her. She was terrified he would not be.

Steve caught up when she had already made good headway back towards the city.

“He seemed to be doing well,” he said without preamble.

“Sure,” Natasha drawled, holding the tattered shards of her armor up around her with obstinate grace . “For a recluse hiding in a goat hut in a secret country suffering from post traumatic stress disorder he is doing exceptionally well.”

Steve shrugged. “He's got to start somewhere.”

They drew closer to the bustling city, drawing the gazes of no few townspeople as they passed. Natasha resolved not to speak anymore. She had to process her surreal afternoon, mull over what was happening and how much say she had in it. What had set Barnes off? Disturbed him enough to bring out the Winter Soldier's cold eyes? What had he been saying to her in that moment? She felt clumsy footed and wrong, as though she were stumbling in the dark with partners who knew all the steps while she had never even heard the music. Steve wasn't helping, his thoughts so loud she was quite confident the stall vendors lining the streets could probably hear them. He had been eyeballing her all afternoon and she was eager to leave him behind before he started poking holes in her rickety defenses. The warriors let them pass with barely a nod, and Natasha got into the elevator still without a word to Steve. He was obviously not letting up, however. She saw it in the set of his brow. He was choosing his moment.

Which was apparently when the elevator doors shut on them.

“Something is going on,” he said firmly, shoulders back and stance wide.

“Isn't it always? The world is a busy place,” she sighed, pretending to adjust the strap of the slim watch around her wrist. The elevator slid rapidly upwards and stopped at her floor. She was dismayed to realize that he had not even bothered to hit the button for his. His intention was relentless confrontation. She was not walking away from this, and she knew what was coming, the lines he would want to draw that she could not promise not to cross. She stepped out and proceeded down the long corridor to her rooms, nodding once to the beautiful warrior woman stationed on this floor.

“Between you and Bucky,” he said bluntly, right on her tail. If she hadn't been so well trained she would have winced at the clumsiness with which he was confronting this.

“He is a broken man that I can understand,” she said. “You asked me to help him, so I am.”

Her shoulders were tensing despite her best efforts. Her insides were tightening with uncertainty and indignation. He was nosing far too close to the sections of her life she had designated off limits. He was her friend but he had no idea, and no right, to push the buttons he was pushing. He was rapidly building walls between them, at a time when she had nobody else at her back but him. She sucked in a deep, calming breath, trying to center herself.

“We both know that's not it. I saw things today. I haven't connected the dots yet but I will. What am I not seeing here? I know you Nat. I know the difference between you flirting and what I saw today.”

“And what exactly is it that you think you saw, Rogers?” Natasha asked curtly. Her defenses were on high alert, her hackles raised.

Steve stopped them before her door, forcing her to look at him.

“I saw Bucky looking at you like a starving man. And I saw you looking back,” he said.

“Men look at me sometimes. I'm lookable,” she said flippantly, arching a brow at him.

“You could hurt him, Natasha,” Steve said curtly, and the hand he placed on her arm made her tense. He should have known by now that was the wrong thing to do with her.

She shook him off none to gently, and he had the audacity to look injured.

Steve was blinded by his over-encompassing need to coddle Barnes like an infant. All he could see was his epic war buddy, and every single one of his other friends; the ones who came after, who stood beside him after, who had fought beside him and had his back for years after suddenly became dust. Honorable and righteous Steve Rogers famed for his loyalty, who could not be counted on the moment the name Bucky registered. God, it always smarted when Tony was right about something.

It stung, as she looked at him and remembered putting pressure on his chest when he had been shot in Helsinki, and how his blood had pushed thickly against her palms until she was slick with him, red soaking into her tac gear and staining the leather, and he had laughed slightly and made an off color joke about red being her color before losing consciousness. Every time he had had her back, fought by her side, felt oddly cheapened by him now. Because she knew where she stood on the friendship pole; how squarely he had put her in her place with his staying hand.

“I could hurt a lot of people,” she hissed. She took a deep breath, tucking a strand of hair behind her ears and stepping away, sliding her wrist across the sensor that would open her door. She heard it release.

Steve blinked at her, large and wounded eyes, and she shut her heart to them. She should have known that deep down in his All American blood she would still be seen as a threat, as an invader. That no matter how many times he had looked to her for aid and partnership, she wasn't good enough to trust with the care of Bucky Barnes.

“You asked me to talk to Barnes, Steve. You asked me without having any idea of just what that meant for me. You never even stopped to think it through, because all you saw was him. ”

And she turned and let the door shut behind her, shoulders back and chin high, eyes dry, because damn him anyway but there was no way he would wring any tears from her for being such a selfish, blinded, fool when she had thought he was her friend.

Chapter Text

The roof was not perfect, but if definitely would keep out the majority of the rain now. When Steve had showed up that morning, he had seemed solemn and quiet, but Bucky didn't have the emotional capacity to sit and draw his problems from him. Instead he had just got to work, taking the sheaf of twigs and twine and tossing them up one handed to Steve who caught them easily. They worked mostly in silence, and every once in a while Bucky caught the other man's troubled looks but honestly didn't know what to do about them. Either Steve needed to come out and say what was on his mind or he needed to hide his thoughts better.

With all the years between them, Bucky knew which one it was going to be.

It came in the afternoon after they had finished the repairs and were sitting back in the shadowed closeness of his home. The heat rose off the grass outside, scalded the dirt, and they sat together in this long silence drinking the cold water Bucky had drawn up from the well in his mismatched mugs. Steve was studying the mug in his hands while surreptitiously Bucky studied Steve and waited for the ax to fall. It didn't take long.

In the cool shadows, Steve raised his eyes to Bucky's, held them.

“You know her don't you?” he demanded.

“Know who?” Bucky asked flatly, turned his eyes away as though he had never been trained in the ways of lies and manipulation. Like some green boy, some young fool giving away all his cards when he should have been keeping his poker face still. He hated himself in that moment for not having the strength and cunning of the Winter Soldier. He was quailing beneath the stare of Captain America, of Steve Rogers. He could not defend himself against a direct assault against the lies he was trying to tell himself. His hand trembled as he put down his mug.

“Come on, Bucky. Natasha. You two know each other. I can see it in between the things you aren't saying. I am missing some pieces here and it's becoming more and more clear that they're bigger than I thought.”

“Your mother taught you not to eavesdrop on things that don't concern you and I know that for fact, Steve,” he hedged, throat dry.

He stood and took his mug to the basin where he did his dishes, keeping his back turned where he tried to shore up his defenses and keep his shit together. He heard Steve stand as well, step closer, and Bucky's flight or fight responses were triggered. He clenched his fist. He thought of how perfect the two of them had looked walking in the sunlight and green grass towards him. He thought of her small hand resting against his best friend's broad chest as she stared up at him, dimples in her cheeks and green eyes shining. Jealousy and rage flared up agonizingly in his gut, eviscerating him. He sucked in a breath, choked by the helplessness of his own feelings and the inadequacies of everything he was. What kind of man was he now?

“This concerns me. Deeply,” Steve intoned soberly, and because it so obviously did not but Steve could never see past their friendship to the fact that Bucky was his own man and had his own life such as it was, Bucky rounded on him. He wished desperately he had both arms, was still wearing jeans and a shirt, wished he wasn't just slightly shorter than Steve, wished he could sock him in his self righteous, stubborn, perfectly chiseled jaw.

Why is it any of your business Steve? Are you in love with her? Are you some stone age gentlemen and this is a talk about hurting the delicate dame?” he hissed.

“How I feel about Nat is not the point here. I'm not afraid of her getting hurt, I'm afraid of her hurting you, Bucky.”

And suddenly it was all Bucky could do not to haul off and punch the wall, the table, Steve's face. He closed his fist, one slow finger at a time, trying for calm.

“You don't need to protect me Steve. I ain't some milksop kid gettin' a shiner roadside like you were. I don't need protecting from this world. It needed protecting from me.”

“Bucky, you - “

But Bucky moved quicker than Steve thought possible with his human hand and hurled something past Steve's head too fast for even him to react. His ear hummed with the sting of it brushing past his skin and he frowned darkly, looking behind him to see a butter knife stuck into the wall of the hut. He felt the blood trickle, but refused to reach up and stop it. He frowned at the other man.

“Save it Steve. I murdered old men in their beds while they slept. I killed babies in their cradles, children in their bunny slippers, mothers and wives, sons and brothers. I killed whomever I was told to kill for a century. The blood stays on you. You don't know even a quarter of the horrible things I did and that's only the stuff I remember. I'm not something you protect just because I can make my own choices now. I'm something you are protected from.”

There's a faraway look in Steve's eyes that Bucky can't place. He knows he's remembering something.

“You still deserve protection, Bucky.” He said soberly. “And Nat is not like other women. She is absolutely incredible and has proven to me that there is nobody I can trust more with my back, but she isn't some soft-hearted damsel. The things she's made of... she's more broken than even I can understand. She might not be good for someone like you, who has been through what you have.”

Bucky's jaw clenched, he felt chilled, and he looked Steve straight in the eye. “If you think that than you have no idea what she is.”

“And you do?” Steve scoffed. “I've worked with her for years. I've spent the better part of the last year on the run with her, night after night. You wake up, meet her for a weekend and suddenly you're the expert on the Black Widow, a woman whose bread and butter is keeping secrets?”

And Bucky can't answer that, shouldn't answer that, but he's losing his already frayed temper and Steve always treats him like an invalid, a victim. He's a grown man and Steve might have all the best intentions at heart but that doesn't mean Bucky wanted them! He turned away, his hand reaching up and rubbing at the scar tissue on his shoulder. He couldn't think. He didn't want to! But her red hair splayed over white sheets in soviet billed hotel rooms, her wounded green eyes as they dragged him back to the Conditioning room, her small, lethal hands wrapped around his mismatched tea cup, the husk in her voice when she said his name all flooded across his mind like wildfire scorching across a field in high summer and of all the things he had ever wanted to share with Steve this wasn't one of them... this wasn't just his story to tell but his treacherous mouth was opening anyway beneath the force of that vindicated blue gaze.

“I knew her,” he whispered, mouth dry with betrayal. He turned his head, kept his eyes forward, blind to the wall in front of him as the loose grasp he held on his secrets slipped away.

“When?” Steve, ever the tactician, asked bluntly.

“In the Red Room. I trained her,” he rasped.

When, Bucky?” Steve asked sharply.

“In the nineteen forties and fifties. My timeline is pretty loose. Hydra wasn't big on keeping me in the loop about current events.”

“That's not possible. Natasha was born in nineteen eighty-five.”

“You know it's possible,” Bucky breathed, finally turning to meet his eyes head on. “She's one of us, experiments from scientists with big ideas too cowardly to test it on themselves. Outsiders in time, and I shouldn't be telling you any of this because she hasn't chosen to yet.”

“Why would she hide it?” Steve asked, jaw set and eyes suddenly, deeply wounded.

“We weren't given the choice you were, Steve. They didn't want heroes, they wanted monsters. And they got them,” Bucky said coolly.

Steve's jaw flexed, he swallowed. Bucky watched him as he tried to align himself with this new knowledge, tried to shore up the facts with the reality he had been living, the trust he had placed in this woman who had deeply, irrevocably lied to him by omission.

“What will you do now?” Bucky rasped, his stomach fluttering sickly when he realized the enormity of what he had done.

Betraying her over and over whether by words of by bullets seemed to be his modus operandi, the only thing he was consistently capable of despite centuries between them. He sunk back against the wall, tried to lift his hands to run over his face and through his hair only to remember he only had the one. The phantom ache of his missing arm burned through him. He ran one hand over it, let it fall to his side.

“Don't tell her, Steve, I'm asking you,” he breathed. “For me. You have no idea what this will cost.”

“Then help me understand,” Steve shook his head, face still and surprisingly unreadable.

For the first time in their history Bucky felt as though he were walking on thin ice with Steve Rogers.

He swallowed and scrubbed a hand over his stubbled face. A memory flickers by, of her teasingly rubbing a soft hand across his cheek, murmuring something in Russian with a mouth full of warm laughter. She was teasing him about growing a beard to keep away the cold, he remembered, the language still with him in his head.

“She thinks I don't remember her,” he whispered. “I hid it from her. When my memories came back, so did the ones about her.”

“You were her trainer? I've read the files. I know how brutally she was raised in that place. She won't hold it against you Bucky, she's not like that.”

“Its not that,” Bucky frowned, casting about for the words, for some way to order his spinning thoughts. “I made her what she is,” he finished lamely.

The well of truth he had been drawing upon dried up, guilt and shame crawling over his skin as he lost purchase on any moral justification he had had. Instead he just felt regret. He had given up so much of their history in the last few minutes, he couldn't bear to tell Steve that they had been more than trainer and pupil. Natasha deserved the chance to offer that side of the truth to Steve should she so wish it.

Steve settled back in his chair, looking far more like Captain America than Bucky was comfortable with.

“Natasha has made herself what she is,” he said firmly. “She has paid incredible costs, some no human being should have to pay, and has become the woman she is now; a woman I am proud to fight alongside.”

“Even knowing the truth of what she is?” Bucky asked, eyes narrowed.

“I've always known what Natasha is, whether she was born in nineteen thirty or nineteen eighty-five. She's an Avenger,” he crossed his arms and settled back into his chair.

He seemed to be satisfied with the answers he had gotten from Bucky, but he could read the tension in those shoulders, and could not trust in Steve's need to be truthful and honorable and above all vindicated, to keep his secrets.

“Steve,” he tried, “let me talk to her first. I need the chance to... to explain myself to her. She deserves that from me, to hear it coming from my mouth. I ain't asking for much, just till tomorrow. I gotta handle this my way.”

“Alright Buck, I won't say anything if I see her, but Natasha can read me like a book. I suggest you go talk to her soon.”

Disbelieving that it had come to this, Bucky nodded and walked over to his bed. He yanked out the battered backpack and dropped it onto the blankets, picked up his discarded jeans from the day before and sat on the edge of the bed. He dragged them over his legs, trusting that Steve would not have pity in his eyes if he happened to look up. He wanted to be less White Wolf and more Bucky if he was going to have to tear out his own shivering heart and place it on display. He fumbled with socks, shoes, before standing and removing the Wakandan robe he had been wearing. He dropped it on the bed, and still Steve sat silently.

“Just so you know, I don't want you there when I do this,” Bucky frowned.

He glanced behind him in time to catch Steve's irritated snort. “I have a bit of discretion, Bucky.”

“Not that I've seen,” the other man scoffed.

Bucky hesitated for a moment as he pulled on a dark blue shirt, glancing over his belongings to where one particular notebook lay amidst the scattered pages of his blown apart, blood stained history as far as he could piece it together. He snatched up the right one and stuffed it into the back pocket of his pants.

Steve stood with him. “Ready?”

Bucky within trembled, stomach knotting at the thought of facing down the one beautiful part of his past life as the Winter Soldier. He could feel the anxiety electric over his skin, the way the hairs on his forearms raised just slightly. No he wasn't ready. He didn't know if he ever would be.

“And if I'm not?” he rasped.

“You told me that I had no idea what this would cost you, Bucky. If the price isn't one you are willing to pay...”

Bucky looked at Steve for a long moment, his blue eyes dark.

“I never said I was worried about how much it would cost me,” he said quietly, and moved past the other man and out into the warm, fading light of the Wakandan sunset.

Chapter Text

The walk back to the inner city was far too short for Bucky to process. He felt as though he were on autopilot, an uncomfortable feeling reminiscent of his Winter Soldier years. In front of him Steve marched on, back tall and shoulders back. There was no escaping this, and perhaps a part of him was even relieved. It meant one last layer he had to keep control of, one last thread he had to keep from tangling. Steve was angry and hurt. And as much as Bucky loved his friend, sometimes his unwavering black and white morality seemed unfair. Hypocritical. Natalia had kept this secret from her team, but hadn't Steve kept the knowledge of Howard and Maria Stark's murderer from his own? To protect Bucky. That didn't make it any more moral. But now the anger was radiating off of him in heavy waves but there was nothing Bucky could do. He had already inflicted the damage. He had to mitigate the fallout now.

God, he longed for the quiet, solitary days when the only company he had had to keep was goats, and the only memories he had to wrestle with were the ones he scratched on paper.

The tall, elegant women guarding the palace eyed him as they passed and he kept his head down. They were not fooled. They read potential threat in every line of his body and he knew it. It was always that way despite T'Challa's extension of a helping hand.

“She's on the seventeenth floor,” Steve finally spoke, gesturing to the elevator. “I'm going to go talk to Sam.”

“Not about this, Steve,” Bucky frowned. “These aren't your secrets.”

“I know that, Buck,” Steve replied tersely. “I just need a friend I can trust.”

The implication sat quietly between them. It stung, but Bucky pushed away the burn. Hadn't he been waiting to disappoint Steve this entire time? He shared a long look with the other man, read the hurt and sadness in Captain America's blue eyes, then turned away and stepped into the wide elevator. They both needed time.

“There are two rooms on that floor. Turn left,” Steve offered quietly, and watched the doors close.

Bucky dragged in a shaking breath as the elevator surged smoothly upwards, watching the repetitious blue and white glow as they shot up floor by floor far too rapidly for comfort. He still remembered the claustrophobic old elevators with their wrought iron doors that had to be slid back and forth between stops by tired attendants in rumpled suits. Such a foolish thing for his mind to have brought back to him after losing so much else but he would have had time to think, to plan his course of action in those creaking boxes. He couldn't remember the color of his mother's eyes but he could remember the taste of watered down wheat bran and molasses that had passed for coffee in his years of American military service. There were so many broken pieces in his mind, so many short circuits and sharp edges. So many half told stories that always ended in horror and ice. And he was intelligent enough to know that even if he regained every single memory of every man he had lived, it would always be that way for him.

The elevator had stopped, the doors opened expectantly. He wet his lips and took an uncertain step onto the right floor. He turned left. The silence was unnerving, the corridors all lined with windows that showed the black sky dotted with stars outside. Too open, too obvious. Anyone with a scope could be aiming for him in the dark and his shoulder blades itched with exposure. He wanted to go back to his home, to the quiet of the hills and their whispering grass and the comfort of knowing what was around him in the endless dark.

Taking a deep breath, Bucky marshaled himself. He owed Natalia so much more than just showing up at her door and telling her he just stabbed her in the back with her own knife after hiding the fact that he had the knife at all. She had brought him back to himself in the Red Room, in the thrall of Hydra. She had given him something that made him human again. Something to reach for, something to hide, something to have, when everyone else had stripped him bare.

He knocked on her door, and pulled on the resilient strength of James Buchanan Barnes to get him through this.

After a long moment it slid open and there she was, dressed for comfort in a black tank top and leggings with perfect, tiny bare feet. He faltered slightly to see her so normal looking instead of in tac gear and catsuits or leather jackets and jeans. It struck him like a hit to the solar plexus, pushing the air from his lungs. Just a young woman in an apartment. The tumble of her curling red hair pained him. The tip of one strand was catching on her mouth, and he wanted to howl with misery at the injustice of everything that had ever happened to her, to them both, to this beautiful woman who was anything but normal and had been hollowed out of everything she might have been.

She studied him for a moment before stepping back to allow him entry.

“Barnes, is everything okay?” she asked quietly. Her face was closed off to him, calculating if he was a threat to her here, maneuvering herself into a better attack position. Weighing her tactics.

“No, it isn't,” he muttered. The door slid shut behind him and they were completely alone.

“What can I help you with?” she asked carefully, brushing that errant strand out of her face.

He glanced up, met her eyes, and realized she was still assessing his threat level.

He opened his hand, held it out palm first, fingers spread.

“I'm not here to hurt you,” he tried for reassurance, and if he heard the hurt in his own voice he pretended he hadn't.

Stronger, stronger. Bucky, James, Soldat. You are all of them and none of them. Use them. Learn from them. Make them yours.

She relaxed incrementally, he saw the slope of her shoulders relax minutely. She turned carefully and moved back into the main room, and he followed after a moment, glancing around her quarters.

“Nice digs,” he tried shakily. “I mean, its no goat hut by a lake but we can't all luck out.”

She threw a smirk over her shoulder and moved to the table by the window. She took a seat, crossed her legs and leaned back.

“If there is one thing you and I have in common Barnes, it's our unimaginable wealth of luck.” she drawled wryly, her eyes steady on him.

For a selfish moment as he looked at her, Bucky let himself forget why he was here and indulged himself in the idea that he was just the luckiest guy in the world and had managed to charm her into taking him home with her some amazing, fun night back in the days when music was actually meant to be danced to and they might have had a chance to be people rather than wraiths on the shadowed outskirts of humanity.

He came back to himself, letting the image of James Barnes in his sharp military uniform and Natasha in some hunter green number with the line of nylons running up her calves fade from his mind. Impossible anyway. She had just been a child when he had joined the army. The only way they had even been able to meet at all was because Hydra and Department X had played God repeatedly with both their bodies and cheated time. There was no alternate timeline when they could have just been two young fools in love.

“Yeah, we do seem to have all the luck,” he smiled sadly and came forward to take the chair before her.

He settled in front of her, the bulk of him awkward in the little chair. She seemed to notice because she smiled slightly, and he saw the flicker of appreciation in her eyes when they skimmed the breadth of his shoulders. His cheeks heated slightly, and he reflexively reached out to cover his empty shoulder before forcing his hand down.

“So what brings you to my apartment, Barnes? I doubt you were out for a nighttime stroll through the Black Panther's palace and from what I've heard you don't make social calls.”

“I used to,” he said wryly, his eyes distant as memories trickled in. “I used to be a real social guy.”

“Steve told me as much,” Natasha sniffed delicately. “Boxing matches, drinks at the bar, parties and picnics and sports...A dame on each arm, dancing till four in the morning, different dates on every leave... Steve loves to expound on the exploits of, and especially the complicated love life of, one Sergeant Barnes.”

And if there is any jealousy or irritation in her voice he can't find it. She sounds neutral, detached. Damn Steve for filling her full of no doubt exaggerated stories about who Bucky had been. How hard to live up to the charming ghost of the past, especially when seen through the eyes of his best friend.

“Yeah, well that kid didn't last long,” he murmured. “He died in that war. Hydra made sure of that.”

She waited.

“I'm here to talk, I guess,” he frowned, ran a hand through his hair. She followed the motion with her eyes and he wondered what she was thinking when the strands settled messily around his jaw.

“I know a lot of what they did to me, they did to you,” he said. “Gettin' into your brain and telling you what to think, what to believe. Taking you apart from the inside and rebuilding you into something else. I know that's why Steve wanted us to talk. He knew we could understand one another better than he could. He always... always wants to help, but some things can't be helped. We both know that better than him, I think.”

She murmured her assent, letting him continue. After a faltering moment he did. Soon enough the words started to spill, and he couldn't stop them, didn't try to. He let himself unfurl before her as best as he was able to.

“I'm not sure who I am. Sometimes I get a glimpse of Bucky Barnes, and all these memories of running through the streets of Brooklyn kicking a ball with my friends or helping wipe off Steve's bloody noses or bandaging up my knuckles before I pulled on the gloves... Pictures of that boy. But he joined up, and that boy got left behind for the uniform, I think. Because war changes you, though war never changes. It cuts pieces out of soldiers, leaves them hollowed out, full of holes both literal and not. And he wasn't any different, I wasn't any different. I killed men, and something inside of me died too, I think. I remember the grief.”

He realized he was hunching forward, and pulled his shoulders back.

“After Azzano, I was so much older. I didn't know Zola had pumped me full of serum. All I knew was that I was alive after so many other men hadn't come back. And that Steve was so much bigger when he showed up to save me. I felt like I was trying to be Bucky Barnes after we got out of there, and that sometimes I failed but nobody ever noticed, not even Steve. And then the train. I remember falling. I remember the cold wind and the sound in my ears and Steve's horrified face as he watched me drop. I was so terrified but I had no regrets. I was okay with dying in that moment, and sometimes I wondered later if that was why I wasn't allowed to."

Across the table Natasha's hand twitched, as though she had resisted the urge to reach for him. He flicked a glance at her eyes but the same calm expression of mere listening was all he read in her face.

"So I fell. And Bucky Barnes died in the cold snow of Russia even when that soldier dragged me back to some godforsaken Hydra base and Zola got his hands on me again. I didn't know the serum saved me. I didn't know he was working for SHIELD and rebuilding Hydra within it when he made me into the Winter Soldier. Because they chewed out that part of me, and filled all the bloody holes with triggers and programming and turned me into a monster. And what Steve doesn't get, but you might, is that I still am that monster. That's why I am hiding out in the country trying to piece together this mess. I still am the Asset, the Winter Soldier, but now I have so many of Bucky's memories and experiences that I am him too. How can I feel both, be both? Am I either of them now? How can I wake up at night grabbing for that knife wound the Asset got in Paris that bled so much it filled his boots, and crying another night when I dream about the gloves my kid sister knit me out of her old red sweater. There were six fingers on one of them, and I wore them till they fell apart, and then I took the yarn to Germany with me and kept it wrapped up in my kit with my spare laces.”

He took the black book from his back pocket and set it on the table before him. It was so small that beneath it he could feel the heat of her legs when she turned and settled her feet on the floor. If he wanted to, if she let him, he could have reached out and touched her face. She glanced at it once, then kept her eyes trained on his face. He kept his hand over the book defensively. Talking about himself was hard, and if anyone understood why it was the woman sitting before him. He guarded the pieces of himself he had gathered up zealously, hashed and rehashed over them obsessively in order to glean whatever he could from the pictures his brain brought forward. To try to find a sense of self within the remnants of his shredded past.

“I don't really understand the science behind any of this,” he began haltingly. “I ain't a genius like Shuri with her algorithms and whatever else she's got repairing my brain, and the stuff Zola did to me in Azzano, and when he got a hold of me after, it was all mad scientist crap. Like the dime store magazines I used to buy as a kid. Just junk, but then I guess some of it wasn't.”

He was struggling to line up his thoughts into something cohesive as memories of being a teenager in the 1930's poured in little by little. Those guilty little magazines were less popular than they had been but he scoured the stores for them eagerly, traded them with other boys interested in crazed robots and slimy aliens stealing the dames for stalwart heroes named Burt and Henry to rescue with their laser guns. Lurid, florescent hues and adventure and space ships in the poorer side of Brooklyn, a city full of trash and grey and brick walls. Would that boy want to keep reading them if he had known what was in store for him?

Natalia was still watching him, and if he had had two hands he would have threaded the fingers together and placed them on the table, but he didn't, and instead he let it fall into his lap.

“I didn't get to read until I was older,” she offered him this piece of past in exchange for his own, a precious gift he understood the weight of. “They taught me Cyrillic, and English, and a dozen other languages, but I was only allowed to read what was approved by Madam and the other handlers. Propaganda, government speeches and the like. All for the glory of Mother Russia.”

“That's too bad,” he said, swallowed.

“I've made up for it now,” she smiled slightly, and the silence stretched on.

He began to speak, his eyes on the table because it was easier than staring at her calm, level green gaze. He was fueled by longing, and by shame.

“When I, uh, was on the run. When I was hiding out in Bucharest, I got a hold of notebooks. It helped me to write shit down. To see what pieces I could put together. I got dozens of 'em, all filled up. For the most part they aren't in any order, they don't have a sequence. One sentence I might be at home eatin' Ma's stew with the little cubes of carrots in it and the next I'm in Prague lining up a shot of some grey haired government official, then watching Steve paint some watercolor of a bridge with whatever old paint he could scrounge from the school and the next I'm watching the ice frost the glass and bite into my skin as they freeze me down again. Christ that hurt, every time. I got lists. Names, dates, places... And I don't know what all of them are. Some gotta be assassinations, others are places I went during the war. See, I was a killer before I was the Winter Soldier too. People like to forget that, like to make Bucky Barnes a hero cause he was pulling the trigger for the Stars and Stripes. I don't think its that clear, but war changes the rules, I've learned.”

He risked a glance at her, and saw curiosity in her eyes, and understanding. No pity, thank Christ.

“But these notebooks, they keep me grounded. I lugged them around with me even when I was trying to outrun T'Challa, when surviving was the only thing I could do and it was like running on instinct through those streets. I punched my way through a floor and grabbed this go bag full of books because they were everything I had and I took off with them while the Black Panther and Captain America were hot on my heels. I still write everything down, every moment, every whisper of color or sound I catch in my mind. Before Shuri started sewing me back together, they were all I had to reconcile Bucky Barnes with the Winter Soldier and narrow that disconnect. Now, I have them with me. I keep them close so that on those pages...”

His heart was jumping into his throat, he could feel the rapid beat of his pulse beneath his skin. She was watching him so carefully, and her face was so beautiful, and so solitary in this moment before he dropped his world back on top of her and hoped she was strong enough to catch it.

“...Even if I am lost,” he rasped, spread his fingers over the cover of the book and opened it to one of the hundreds of pages scattered with their past, littered with her memory, strewn with tangled sentences about her, to her, for her. She wrenched her eyes from the book, where the name Natalia burned over and over and over before her, and met the pale, searching blue of his gaze.

“I am still here.”

Chapter Text

Her chest was moving rapidly, inhale, exhale, the realization dawning in her eyes as he broke contact.

“You,” she breathed, husky voiced and a hundred miles away from the rushing in his ears.

For a long moment he did nothing, kept his eyes focused on the sweep of her collarbones, finally reaching out and skimming a single finger so lightly it barely ghosted over the skin, across the bone.

“Natalia,” he murmured, and mournfully he met her eyes again.

She stood up sharply, took a step away.

“Why?” she asked flatly.

“I wanted to spare us both,” he whispered, unable to hold her gaze and the betrayal he saw within it.

For a moment she was blinded by anger, cheeks flaring crimson as the blood rushed through her, her mouth shook open and words spilled out that she didn't calculate, didn't plan, losing herself in the rush of pain and fury swarming her.

“I have been questioning everything my own mind told me. After years of waiting for you, searching for you...” Natasha rasped, shaking her head angrily. “Your memory made me stronger, made me human during the time I was meant to be a monster! I was starting to wonder if you were just one more thing Department X shoved into my brain for some sick purpose! Real memories are precious to people like us! How dare you make me question mine!”

He stood, unable to bear the weight of her anger sitting down. His hand shook, and he had no defense.

“Everything I was that made me a man was polluted. I have seventy years of death and murder carved into my brain; languages I never learned, faces I never met. All my memories bleed. What kind of man is that? I have nothing left for you,” he said quietly.

“Why do you alone get to make that call? Do you think you're the only one of us with a broken mind? The only one to wake up with other people's screams in your ears? While you were under ice I was active! While you were waiting for your next mission I was doing ten more! We're cut from the same bloody shroud but I never got to shut down and freeze after my murders. I can never atone for the things I've done, there aren't enough good acts I could possibly do to undo the horrors I committed but I live with it every day. I have no choice.

She was trembling, with rage and pain and frustration. He could read it in the rigid set of her muscles, the slight quiver in her pale jaw.

“Isn't that even more of a reason to stay away from each other? I remember the blood in the snow, Natalia,” he scoffed painfully, flicking his eyes to her face. “I remember it all.

Natasha stood there, trembling with rage and pent up frustration. Her breath came out in soft pants, chest rising and falling, lips red in the soft white glow of her room. Her eyes glittered, her hair shone. Bucky mirrored her posture, straightening to his full height and lifting his chin because he could not stand to be less to her here and now, faced with the skeletons of what they were.

“Steve knows,” he admitted quietly. “He figured it out and I confirmed it.”

She stilled, panic burning hot through her, and she searched his face. “The serum? He knows about me?”

He nodded once.

For a moment Natasha nearly struck out at him, nearly lost her lauded control and unleashed herself upon him in a moment of blind rage. The audacity of this man, to hide from her, navigate her defenses without even trying, and dealing the killing blow while her eyes were stupidly, willfully shut against this particular man. He seemed to have that effect on those that loved him, the command of emotion, of devotion and loyalty even when he was running in the opposite direction at full speed. Instead she swallowed, stared blindly at the floor, the way her toes sunk into the plush carpet. She made herself marble, cold. Detached herself for a moment before she did something foolish. Bucky Barnes may have betrayed her in all ways tonight, but she had betrayed Steve and her team first. Perspective was a bitch.

“How did he react?” she asked calmly, calculating.

“He's hurt, angry,” Bucky murmured, “but he stands by you. He says it doesn't change who you are; an Avenger.”

“I knew I should have left as soon as I woke up,” she breathed. Her head ached, tension spiraling through her bones.

“He doesn't know about us,” he said carefully. “I told him I trained you but I didn't add anything else and he didn't follow that line of questioning.”

“You mean he didn't ask the right ones,” she said. Her mouth was dry and she could feel the thickness of tears she refused to shed tightening her throat. She went to the tiny kitchenette and poured herself a glass of water, than a second for him and left it there. She sipped at it blindly and moved back to the table.

She threw him a glance, seeking permission, and at his hesitant nod she pulled the small black book towards her and ran her fingers over the pressed ink, flicking her eyes through page after page after page. Some were written in Cyrillic, others English, a few even in French. Splintered memories carefully shuffled together until the reflection of them stood shattered, but there.

They were like ribbons of blue against snow. I could feel the pulse of her wrist against the metal of my hand.

The mission was in Naples. We caught a train. She wore pearl earrings and there was lace on her gloves, she kept touching them both, those luxuries, and looked sad when she turned away.

Moscow, more snow, blood on the ice, she was coughing it up. I dragged her out of the water and dressed the wounds. She is small but will survive.

She is insatiable, she burns like fire and I cannot keep up. If she burned me up, consumed me, I would not be afraid.

She kisses me on the chin when I do not bend down for her, and pulls me down by the hair to punish me. Her lips are sweet, and torturous.

They have not discovered us yet. It is only a matter of time. We have been so careful but today I snapped Yuri's neck when he grabbed her by the hair. I could not stop myself, an overstep I was punished for.

There are four spots of darker green in her eyes, two in each iris, and I count them sometimes in the dark when I need to know that I knew her face better than my own.

She is not afraid to hold the metal hand, have it touch her. She winds her fingers through those ones and I am certain she will not break because she is stronger than us all.

Her arm was dislocated by a soldier she had to gather information from. I snapped it back into place, and she did not scream and I was proud of her. I stroked her hair and called her my darling.

In Stockholm our target was to be assassinated on their afternoon walk, and could not be completed until the sun shone. The bed was soft, and the rain fell in sheets against the windows. She whispered against my ears and the heat of her skin against me is there, but the words she spoke in Russian won't come back to me.

Natasha looked up from the book, her eyes wet.

“I said that you were mine and I was yours and I would give us back our stolen lives. I said that I would save you, whatever it takes,” she husked.

“They caught us after that mission,” he swallowed. “They wiped me in the chair harder than they had ever done before, tried to scrub you from me completely. They deployed me somewhere else, new handlers. But once in a while there was a flicker of something. A redhead in a crowd, a words of Russian spoken in passing on a mission. Years and years of emptiness. And then Odessa. I had the clear head shot, and I couldn't take it.”

“I have the scar,” she whispered, uncurling herself from the table and standing. She dragged up her tank top and his eyes were fastened to the white strip of skin and the mark marring it.

“I'm sorry,” he said softly. His hand itched to settle over the scar, to curl his fingers around her hip bones.

“We're here now,” she murmured. “That means something.”

“Natalia,” he breathed, swallowing. “I wouldn't be here if Steve hadn't figured it out. I never wanted to betray you but I never wanted to tell him about us. We were mine to hold and to hide. A past that I wanted to bury because you are so much more now, you don't need to be dragged down by some relic of a bygone era without a penny to his name trying to piece together a shell of himself. I'm no good to you, no good to anyone.”

He watched her approach, rooted to the spot with want and conflict.

“I have chased your ghost my entire life,” she said slowly, “waiting for a glimpse of the man I loved year after year even if it meant it was going to be the last thing I saw. I lived more lifetimes than I ever wanted waiting for you so I could keep my promise. You're here. You're awake. You remember. Are you saying you don't feel the same about me here and now?”

She was so small, barely coming up to his shoulders, and so defiant as she looked up at him. Her mouth was plush and full, her eyes challenging. She was just as relentless and strong as she had been when she was ten, fourteen, eighteen, twenty, twenty-four. She smelled like soap and orchids, like clean hair and warm skin. His chest heaved as he sucked in a breath of her, the ache blooming in his chest like a dry hay field soaked in oil and set alight. He wanted to touch her face, bring his mouth to hers after all the years between them. He wanted to bury his hand in her hair and pull her to him but shame and uncertainty kept him back from the undertow pulling him closer.

“Natalia,” he said, her name nearly a sob.

She was too much for him. Too soon. He wasn't ready for everything she represented and panic swelled in his chest alongside desire and pain. His expression must have been telling because she stood down. The aggression melted out of her and was replaced with remorse. He could read it in her eyes. She crossed her arms and stepped back, turning her face away. As his panicking eyes drank her in, she straightened her spine and armored herself against him.

“It doesn't matter,” she murmured, voice dark and low.

And she turned her back to him, sliding beneath a curtain of coldness as quickly as her namesake fled into shadow. He stood, shell shocked and frozen for one long bare moment while the past collided with the future inside of him. Static, polarized, his mind stuttering over the possibilities before him.

But the flash of her bright red hair in the firelight as she hid herself away from him pained him like his arm torn from his body once more. Snuffed out, extinguished, doused. Flames and heartbeats and hot mouths and whispers and vermilion hair and centuries of thwarted love and longing vanishing into nothingness. He could not stand the thought of her disappearing from his life because he was too broken to reach for the only thing of value he had ever had since his friendship with Steve.

All the risks in life he had taken unwillingly on someone else behalf. Generals and Hydra and handlers who had cut away pieces of him and used the clay leftover to shape him into their soldier. But this was for himself, just the man.

His voice stopped her in her tracks, his eyes pinned to her back. “Lyubimaya moya,” he started shakily, took a breath and tried again and as he spoke his voice grew in strength. “I still count the speckles in your eyes to calm down. I still follow the path of the veins of your wrist when I need to ground myself. I still look for the red of your hair in every crowd. It has been decades without you and I would be lying to us both if I told you I could spend one more minute in this room without touching you.”

She half turned, glanced at him in profile, wary.

“I escaped the Red Room and burned them to the ground for what they did to all those little girls, to me, and for what they did to you and to us. I have been awake for decades following the trail of your ghost and never catching up. There is nothing I have not been, and nothing I would not have done to find you again. Whatever it took to bring you back to me and to bring you back to yourself,” She challenged, lifted her chin. “So what happens now?”

He stepped closer to her, reading the lines of her body with an ache in his chest. He thought of the weight of the metal arm lost to him, the way he used to slide both hands down her waist. He thought of the changes to his body, the wrecked scar tissue of his amputated shoulder, the changes the years between had wrought on him with a sort of detached horror. He was afraid to touch her, afraid to have her see him for what he was now, without the armor and reputation of the Winter Soldier to cloak him but could not keep himself apart from this, could not hold himself back.

“I don't even know which man I am, if any. I can guarantee you nothing!” he said harshly, feeling the cracks of his already weak control widening as his hand touched the silk of her skin.

“I don't recall asking you for anything,” she scoffed and stepped into his orbit, slid her arms up and around his shoulders standing en pointe. His hand clutched her waist and he curled over her, wishing he could swallow her up, contain her fire within himself and become as strong, as defiant. She threaded her hand through his hair and tugged him closer. He held himself apart, teetering on the precipice with baited breath.

“James, please,” she breathed against his lips and desire flooded through him like a tidal wave to hear her finally say his name again.

He surged against her, wrapping his arm around her and yanking her against his chest, letting himself go to the softness of her mouth and the strength of her hands on his shoulders as she braced against him and returned his kiss with fervor.

Her body was whipcord muscle and silk, warmth and familiarity. He knew the slope of her shoulders, the curve of her skull as he ran his hand up them and cupped her head. Her mouth was bruised open beneath his, strangely, wonderfully artless in her hunger. Her hands were everywhere, caution-less, wild. He shook despite his best efforts with all the longing and desire he had for her and what he could feel from her in return.

Natasha urged him backwards, corralling him towards the bed and he went willingly, allowing her to tug off his shirt and toss it aside. There was a moment when she ghosted a hand over the scars of his ruined shoulder and met his eyes, but she was unphased and he let himself let the insecurity go. He sat down on the edge and gathered her into his lap as quickly as she poured herself into it. His hand was full of her, and he had never regretted not having both arms more because there was so much of her he wanted to learn, relearn, and learn again.

Natasha was insatiable, running her palms over his chest, his hair, his thighs, starving for the planes and hollows of the body she had never completely known but still haunted her. The strands of his hair slid through her hands like water, his eyes were bright and liquid blue and were focused completely upon her whenever she pulled back to look at him again.

“You can stop me anytime,” she whispered. “I'll understand.”

“Don't ever stop,” he breathed against her mouth.

She yanked her tank top over her head and saved him the trouble of her bra by discarding it with a quick flick of her finger.

He swore softly, groaning, and buried his face in her breasts.

“James,” she moaned as he laved a nipple with his tongue. “I've wanted you every time I saw you. I knew your mouth, your fingers, your scars. It was hell not being allowed to touch you.”

“Then touch me now,” he urged, gasping as she settled her hips atop his. “Make up for lost time.”

“We'd never leave this bedroom again,” she chuckled shakily, feeling the weight of him between her thighs. She shifted to the side, anxious to rid herself of her leggings and panties. He took a queue from her and hastily undid the fly of his jeans and shucked them quickly alongside his underwear, eager to get his hand back on her again.

Natasha felt ravenous, starved for touch and body aflame. She was right in her memories, vindicated that she knew the tiny freckle at the top of his ribs, how the press of her mouth on the cleft of his chin felt just like she recalled, how her tongue could sweep up the side of his neck and he groaned, arching into her just like he had all those years ago. James was real, had always been real. She fought the sweep of tears that clung to her lashes, allowed herself the release of letting her body guide her instead of commanding every reaction. She allowed herself to just be in the wild, hasty moment without weighing the benefits and consequences, without measuring every step. This belonged to them.

He shifted beneath her, hips bucking slightly at the feel of her warmth pressing against him. He let her guide him in, and all at once he was pushing inside her, gasping at the heat and the tightness and the sweetness of it all. Never, in all his time awake and James Buchanan Barnes again, had he ever felt more like himself than at this moment with Natalia gasping above him as he moved within her, eyes half lidded with pleasure, his only hand reaching up to pull her down to his kiss.

Natasha found her rhythm above him as he arched into her, sweat and pleasure building within them both. Bucky could hear himself saying her name feverishly, could hear the gasps and whimpers that answered him. He remembered the way she bit her lip when she came, stifling her own cries, and he watched for it now with anticipation and urgency as his own orgasm began to spiral through him. He gathered her closer to him as the rhythm of her hips began to shake, waver. He captured her mouth and swept his tongue into her mouth as she broke over him, biting his lip instead. It pushed him over the edge and he cried out against her mouth as his orgasm pounded over him, sweeping through his bones and over his nerves in waves of electricity.

Naked, exhausted, hot skin on hot skin they stilled, catching one another's eyes as they caught their breaths. It was momentous, freeing, to be in a bed they were allowed, free to touch and taste, without the fear and danger of getting caught whipping them on faster. This was something they had never had in their history. It almost felt like a future they could have. Almost.

A strand of hair fell across her face and Bucky brushed it back, ran the pad of his thumb over her red, wet lower lip as she caught her breath and watched him with glittering eyes.

“It feels like I've been reaching for your hand all these years and you're always just one step too far ahead,” she whispered, her hand pressing gently against his cheek as she looked at him intently. “Just one step.”

“I know,” he breathed, boneless and breathless and just himself. He met her eyes for a long, dizzying moment. “Every time I've known you I've felt the same.”

Tenderly, she lowered her mouth to his.