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"That's seventy-three," whispered Director Maria Hill, distraught. She, along with many other agents were standing in the room, shocked at the numbers on the giant screen. Not just the giant screen, but televised on the other screens, as well. It was all over the place. Steve Rogers stood next to her, his face grief-ravaged and his arms crossed on his chest. No one was able to talk; the death toll was too much to comprehend. "That's seventy-three people he's killed in two weeks." No one responded to the woman. No one really fathomed the possibility of this kind of serial murderer. Whoever he is, he's on a rampage and no one's been able to stop him.

"What do we do?" An agent asked. Silence loomed the room.

"We get him," Rogers finally talked, his arms uncrossing and his hands set on the desk, supporting him as he looked closely at the masked perpetrator. The suggestion seemed a little premature, considering that the killer's been dancing around the likes of SHIELD for so long, the agency not having inched closer to finding him ever since his emergence, but it was more of a pep talk than a literal contribution. The murderer was on a quasi-clandestine mission to destroy every living thing that involved themselves in illegal things, all of them felonies as the agencies have noticed. The FBI tried to stop him, but you can't really stop someone if you can't find them. Steve knows that whoever he was, he thinks of himself as a vigilante. But the soldier can't comprehend finding justice in slicing people's heads off. Every single one of his murders were committed execution style, his sword a guillotine. There had never been so many lifeless beheaded bodies in one place before. He really was mad. "Where did this take place?"

Hill finally found her voice. "Central Harlem," she said, typing keys and finding the case specifics through their database. "It's Boss Morgan's syndicate." Steve nodded, seeing that all the dead were part of the crime lord's cartel. It explained the machine guns. It doesn't really explain how one man was able to kill them all. There were about ten of them, all sans heads.

"Looks to me like he's doing our job for us," said an agent. Steve felt that it was merely a comment for humor and that the young man was probably uncomfortable with the situation before him, so the statement was a coping mechanism. Still, it didn't sit well with the soldier.

Without moving his body, he turned his head to the side, even though the agent completely behind him. "We don't kill. And when we do, it's because we're protecting ourselves. We never do it as a way to bring justice. We're not gods; we're soldiers." The man cleared his throat as an apology. Steve took it as it came. He looked forward again, seeing as Hill pulled up coordinates and more information about the drug ring. "This man isn't bringing security, he's serving terrorism," he said before standing up straight and approaching Hill. "I'm gonna get him."

"Bring Tony and Sam with you," she said, sending the location of the crime scene to Rogers' phone.

"Just Stark," he said. "We only need one aerial manpower for this one." The director didn't dispute, he knew what he was talking about, her statement was more recommendation than instruction.

And with that, the soldier walked off. He went to the landing pad and jumped in a plane, riding off the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier and heading to the billionaire's headquarters, the Stark Tower. He touched down on the engineer's landing pad unannounced. "Good afternoon, Captain Rogers," an A.I. voiced as the soldier made his way inside.

"Hey, JARVIS. Can you get me Tony?" He asked. The voice responded in its English accent, saying that he'll get the playboy soon. Meanwhile, the captain made his way into the top office, sitting on the man's chair.

"Lovely to see you here, Capsicle," Tony entered the room, thanking JARVIS as he walked over to his scotch tray.

"I need your help for this one," Steve said, turning the television on and the news being on the assassin as he expected.

"Aw, and I thought you were here because you missed me," Tony gave him a smug smile as he turned and looked at the screen, sipping some of his alcohol. "JARVIS, who is he?" Files popped up as the A.I. uncovered everything on the man.

"Alias: Ronin. Identity: Unknown. Location: Unknown. Alias derived from rogue samurai; warriors with no masters. Currently hunted by twelve international organizations and two American federal agencies for vigilantism and homicide. Victims: seventy-four, including murders of assassins and mercenaries of the notorious organized crime, The Hand. Last known location: Harlem, New York. Motives: Unknown. Family: Unknown. Ethnicity: Unknown. Status: Alive. Height…" the British computer kept talking, stating nonsensical and irrelevant characteristics.

"That's a lot of unknown for being the smartest computer alive, JARVIS," Tony chided him. They heard an apology, somehow making the two men feel bad. Tony has to remind himself that he's just a machine. "So what's the plan here, Cap?" He made his way to one of his suits, feeling his chin with his fingers to see which one he wanted to wear.

"Recon," he started, standing up from the chair and putting his helmet on. "We need a quick in-and-out at Harlem, see if we can find something that'll track where he is."

"I feel like matching. Do you?" Tony smirked. "Mark Forty-Three, you're up." He clicked a button and out came what looked like a neo-noir Iron Man suit. Mark XLIII was a good one, the machine decked in black paint. "I'm digging your stealth suit, Cap'n," he said with his usual wit. Steve didn't really care, but the black robot wasn't bad in design.

The soldier was already walking out of the building, making his way back to the quinjet he had landed there. Tony left through his own tunnel using his thrusters and the two headed to Harlem.

"FBI's already on this," Tony said, circling the crime scene from the air and counting the people in blue jackets. "CIA, too," he said, the computer in his mask zooming in on the amount of people trying to enter and investigate.

"I need you as a watch," Steve said through their comm. He landed the plane a few blocks away and was walking now to what looked like a barbershop. That was where all the mess happened. "Let me know if someone's going in, I'm not trying to get apprehended."

"Roger that, Rogers," the billionaire said. He landed on top of the rooftop, overlooking the entrance to the building and activating heat signatures to see who was inside. "Huh…I've been wanting to say that forever and lemme tell you, it's a bit underwhelming."

"It may be your delivery, boss," the woman said through his helmet.

"Okay, FRIDAY, you're not allowed to insult your maker," he said. Steve was too busy trying to comprehend what kind of stupid banter Stark was in. He went through the back of the building, stealing an FBI jacket and a baseball cap. His shield and helmet were abandoned around the corner to compensate for the espionage.

"I need you to focus, Tony."

"Aye, aye, Captain," he said. FRIDAY praised him for that one and the armor's driver snickered at her. "Back to the wall, you've got a mark on your three o'clock," he said. FRIDAY outlined the building's framework on the side of Tony's screen. The whole schematic was there to let him know how to enter without being caught. "On my count, you're going four paces down to your right, then back into the closet. Now." He saw through the heat signatures that the soldier did as he told. "Your best bet is through a vent at this point. This building's filled with agents from a million different stations."

"I'm too large for the vents, Tony," he said. "We're gonna have to think of something else." Then the soldier heard an explosion coming from outside. "What was that?"

"A distraction," the engineer said, his shooters settling back in the suit's arms.

"Tony, you didn't."

"Go, Spangles. I bought you some time."

"What did you blow up?"

"A CNN van."

"Tony! Someone could've gotten hurt."

"The closest friendly in the perimeter was thirty feet away! I checked for heat signatures and there were none. It was a truly thought out plan and the radial damage didn't even hit close to the person standing nearest," he said. "And plus, no one likes the press anyway. The FBI will thank me for it later."

Steve shook his head, making his way into the room. There were still a few bodies left, but some had been taken out. Others were in the process of being taken out, zipped inside black body bags. The remaining evidence were untouched. Ronin had killed these men with one slice each. It was an absolute nightmare, like walking into a mannequin warehouse with their heads detached. Steve put glasses on, ones that Tony designed. "Are you seeing this?" He asked him.

"Cap, the cops look so lost. Look at them with their puny little hands ready to shoot at like, absolutely nothing," the man was chuckling. "En garde," he said, making a gun with his right hand and putting his other hand underneath to support it.

"Tony," he said. He was losing patience.

"Sorry, sorry," he went back to looking at the building and looked at the formations on his helmet screen. "Yes, I see it. It's recording so all you have to do is look around. Gather all the intel that you can." And the soldier did.

"These men," he said. "They didn't see this coming."

"Do you think they knew Ronin? Not as Ronin but as his actual self?"

"Maybe. Only a few of them had their guns out. They barely managed to get them out. Whoever this guy is, he's quick."

"We can look at CCTV of whoever walked in the shop before this all happened."

"He's too smart for that."

"Or he's mad enough to make a mistake."

Somehow Steve thought that that would lead to a dead end. The FBI's probably secured all the public cameras around, he didn't know if there was any way he can get them. He doesn't know if S.H.I.E.L.D. has jurisdiction. But considering that there's absolutely nothing for them, the fact that this guy did his jobs as clean as he could, he'd take any lead or any move he can right now. "You got everything?" He asked the robot man.

"Yeah, just get out of there. They're heading back inside."

Steve was about to leave the way he came but saw that one of the forensic photographers was around the corner. He didn't know why he was going to do what he's about to do next, but he did. Steve put the man in a chokehold, subduing him silently. He grabbed the card out of his camera and input it in a section of the glasses that allowed him to encrypt it. He put the card back in its place and left. He hoped there won't be too much of a commotion once they hear that their evidence-man passed out.

"What took you so long?" Tony asked, shrinking his Iron Man suit and making it look like a briefcase. He flew down to meet with Steve who was on his way to the quinjet. The soldier didn't say anything, and instead clicked the side of the glasses and transferred the files into Tony's phone. "How'd you manage to get that?"

"I'm persuasive."

"Yeah, right," he responded with a tinge of sarcasm, hopping on the jet with him. The pair made their way back to the Helicarrier. "Good thinking, Gramps. Anything they upload and anything that that thing touches we can see." Steve nodded, shifting the plane up to the sky.

"You know your recklessness is going to kill you," a woman said to him. He took off his samurai gauntlets, hanging his black and gold kimono on the wall. He took off his mask and set it on top of it. There was some ritual that followed before he could place the sword on its holder, and he then went to kiss the woman on the cheek.

"Don't be worried about me," he said, heading to the kitchen to grab some water. "You know that I can handle myself."

She wrapped her arms around him, kissing his bare shoulder and leaning her face against his back. "I know" was all she said, and the couple remained that way for awhile. He turned and wrapped her in his arms. "What did you do today?" She framed that question every time he came home. He understood it more as a "who did you kill today" than the former, literal inquiry.

"Went on a trip around the heroin sector," he translated. "Killed some drug dealers" was really what the other heard. They've learned to speak in metaphors, just to preserve some normality. She never really lived the regular domestic life, but it would be nice to get a taste of it. So she and her lover settle for nonchalant and elementary conversations that have more meaning in their own ears, as opposed to others who witness them. The woman loved him, so much that it killed her sometimes. Yet she saw it all as a debt he's trying to pay, almost the way he saw it.

HIs family was killed last year, his wife and children collateral damage to opioid trafficking. The assassin's son got caught up in the unfortunate parts of New York, owing someone some sort of payment but not being able to follow through.

"Dad, look I'm sorry, but I can't let you know anymore," he says to me. I had never seen fear and pain in Cooper's eyes before. It is unfamiliar.

"What do you mean? I'm here to help!" I tell him. There's some yelling that ensued. My wife and my daughter are asleep. Cooper had not come home in a month, going completely AWOL. He stumbles on the porch steps at the crack of dawn, his face beaten up, skinnier than he initially was. My malnutritioned son, his battered skin; I'm broken. "What did you get yourself into, Coop?"

"Look all I know is they want money. I couldn't give it to them."

"Who wants money?" The rain is getting louder. I drag him above the steps and into the porch, away from the wet. "I'll pay, I can-"

"No, dad, it's bad."

"I'll sell the house for you, Cooper. What happened?"

He almost breaks down in my arms. I have never seen my son cry beyond his terrible-twos, like the tantrums he'd throw when he had to go to bed early. He fell off his bike at six and I remember him sucking his tears back in. This kind of cry is so heavy, so different from the fits he had as a young child. I'm almost taken aback about his emotions, seeing that spilling everything he has was the breaking of his temperament, a kind of hurt that he's been carrying for longer than I can imagine my son going through. I stand with the perspective of a loving father who's tried so hard to give so much that a shortage of happiness in my family is incomprehensible.

I find out about his gambling. He's only nineteen, for what reason did he do that? But I do not ask, I don't want to overwhelm him with that. That knock on the door at one a.m., me finally seeing my son after forty days, is the only thing that I could have ever ached in hopefulness for in my entire life. I'm not going to chastise him for what he did when he needs me to be there for him. He needs his family.

I spend a week at home, calling in for work because of the emergency. America can go a few days without my presence at the Pentagon. My son is home.

I go back to work after that week. When I get home after my shift, I see the lifeless bodies of the three people who mean the most to me. My home was made into a slaughterhouse in my absence.

"What are you thinking about?" She whispered softly, their face inches away, not from kissing, but just feeling.


"I'm sorry, baby," she said. It hurt her, because she knew that it hurt him. She knew that he hadn't moved on, and she didn't really know if she was a fling, but it was clear that he wanted her by his side. There wasn't a day in his life when he didn't think about them, so a day hadn't gone by in hers when she didn't either. She loved his family as much as he did. Her anger was fueled differently from his. He lets his out with a sword, she lets hers out with guns (comfortably and securely in their own makeshift shooting range).

She went with him on his first vigilante trip. It was at one of Kingpin's shipments at Staten Island. Rifle seeds pierced her side. He never let her out again. She didn't like it, but it scared him to the point where he almost stopped his vigilantism before it started. Before she got discharged from the hospital, he was gone. She realized immediately why he left, the television letting her know that the Slug (a crime lord's alias, a.k.a. Ulysses X. Lugman) was at it again. He was the boss that ordered the killing of his family and so she let him go. She tried so very hard to be okay with it.

A day later, the news broke that Lugman had lost his head, literally. It looks like her man had lost his, too, rhetorically. So madness plagued New York, nicknamed the assassin Ronin, and went with his mission. The only people who seemed to care about his actions were the cops. The civilians enjoyed the entertainment. She learned to, too.

Desensitized because of her past, numbed because of her present, she took the future as it came. She helped him scratch the names off his list, neutral to his constant pursuit of deepening the red in his ledger, even if she never showed him just how hard it was to cope with inside her head. She didn't lose hope, she just felt that he was doing what he felt was right. Her past didn't able her to speak of an opinion. She's killed so many people before, why couldn't he? It would just seem so hypocritical.

At some point in the relationship, she found herself giving him targets, letting him know who to go after. He felt warmth; that was the support he had wanted. She urged him. And in two weeks he had killed seventy-three. The accumulation of his kill list she contributed to more than he did.

She ran her fingers through his hair. "He's next," he said to her. He didn't have to say a name for her to know who he meant.

"This is so clean, I don't know whether to be impressed or be afraid," Tony said. He, Director Hill, and the captain were gathered around a table, a three-dimensional hologram beaming out of it to show them the barber shop and its contents. "JARVIS, I need you to run a trace, back up everything and give me the most likely scenario of how this happened." The computer obliged, reverse-screening images put together to come up with a small clip of how the assassin may have carried out his operation. "He had to be sitting down at the beginning for this to have happened," Tony said.

The clip started playing. Ronin was sitting on one of the chairs, his barber putting foam around his chin. "Wait, pause," said Steve. "There's no way he walked in there with a two foot blade and no one noticed."

"He had to have placed it somewhere beforehand, where it was easy to reach when he sat."

"But he also should've known where the barber was going to sit him," replied Steve.

"Well, there isn't much space. The shop only has two chairs. He had a fifty percent chance of getting it right. And even if he got it wrong, he would still have been quick enough to lunge and grab it because it wouldn't have been that far," Tony said, zooming in on the hologram, specifically at a vanity. "JARVIS, put a samurai sword there," he said. The computer conjured exactly what he asked.

"That millisecond of difference if he had gotten the position wrong would have been enough for at least one of the ten men to grab their guns," Steve said.

"So, that probably means he got it right," he said. It doesn't make sense that the assassin would risk such a thing. Was he caught up in the kind of pride and complex that let him know he was just too good for anyone to stop? Steve couldn't answer that.

The A.I. played through what may have happened. In a split second, Ronin (JARVIS did not conjure up a face, because there still wasn't any intel on what he looked like) snatched the katana from underneath, spun and sliced the stylist's head. One small leap and two other heads went in one sweep as the customer and the barber next to him would have both stood up by then. The rest was just pure skill. Probably a few punches were traded, but in the end they were all executed the same. The three agents sat down as the view unfolded.

"How are you supposed to stop something like that?" Tony asked, fixating his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose.

"You don't," Hill responded. "You kill it."

Steve wanted to protest. That doesn't make us any better than himthan anyone who thinks killing does justice. But even he found himself conflicted. There's a specific cognitive dissonance at play when he can't reach the kind of optimism he was used to. This man was dangerous. This man treated this all like business, and anyone who gets in his way is just a casualty, no more, no less. It's almost like he has absolutely no hope, and there's nothing worse than fighting a man who has nothing to lose. The usually positive soldier was clouded with pessimism.

Tony didn't know how to respond to Hill. It seems that he's having the same fight in his head as the captain. "When do you think he's gonna strike again?" The soldier asked.

"He isn't the typical serial killer," Hill said, flattening the three-dimensional hologram back into the screen on the table. She pulled up some files. "His M.O. can't be particularly traced linearly, but there's one pattern that seems to be extremely relevant," she said, putting up a picture of Boss Morgan, a heavy, black, and bald-headed man. "He finishes a specific drug ring first. He kills off the limbs, then goes after the head. He doesn't move on until he gets the boss of whichever he has a sight on."

"The FBI can't even trace Morgan," Tony said, crossing his arms and leaning back on the chair.

"We already have people looking for him."

"What makes you think this Ronin guy's gonna find him?" The engineer asked.

"He always finds them," said Steve, taking Hill's words out of her mouth. "We don't know how, but he does." Tony sighed, not knowing how this mission was going to fare the soldier and the director.

A few days went by and no sign of the assassin. They don't know if he's gone rogue or recuperating, or maybe he abandoned the sword officially? One can only hope. "There's a large shipment of unusual contraband that just left Brooklyn Heights," said Director Hill. Steve was on a bike while Tony took to the air. "By your pace, you're likely to meet them at the intersection of Hoyt and Livingston street."

"What are we going to do when we find this guy, Cap?" He heard Tony through the comm.

"I'm guessing we play it by ear," he replied, revving and zooming his bike through the streets. It was three a.m., there wasn't much life on the roads.

"What a tactician you are," the playboy chided with sarcasm, laughing as he activated his thrusters to keep level with the bike's pace.

"If we kill him, we kill him," said the soldier. "If not, then we cuff him." He sighed. "Something tells me he'll find a way to get through that, though."

"You don't know that, he's never been caught."

"Precisely my point." He skidded the bike to a stop, seeing the truck that Hill was talking about. "Is it a 14-wheeler, Hill?"

"Yes, around eight feet," she responded through their ears.

"This might be a dead end anyway, Cap. Crime bosses usually don't pick up their own merch," Tony said.

"We'll stop lawbreakers whichever way we can. We don't pick and choose our fights here," he said.

"You're such a soldier." Tony really meant to say "loser", but decided against it. It sucks being the only fun one on this team.

Steve took an alternate route, matching the truck three blocks away. "I need you on cover, Stark. This is a full on stealth mission."

"Okay, now you have a plan, just when I was about to rush in and make the truck explode," he responded in mock. Steve didn't care for it and remained silent. They followed the 14-wheeler through the streets until it led them to a cargo ship docked at the marina.

"Status?" He asked. He hopped off the bike and moved on his feet, looking at where the most efficient way to sneak inside the compound was.

"One heat signature on the truck," Tony said. "Cap, I'm counting at least thirty armed and ready guards at each shipping container. We have to call this in," he said.

"No," he said, hopping over a pile of boxes and jumping the fence, getting scratched at the barbed wire and ripping three slashes on the bicep of his stealth suit. "I'm taking three guards at the front, you get the ones at the back."

"Roger that, Captain Rogers," Tony replied. "Okay, I still don't know how to phrase that joke. FRIDAY, don't say anything."

"Work, Tony," Steve said as his shield went flying and ricocheted off three guards, knocking them out instantly. "One, two, three," he said in tandem with every hit.

"Four," Tony started. Steve could hear punches over the comm. "Five, six and—" Tony paused before delivering a blow. "Seven."

The partners did this until Steve reached twenty-three. "How's it looking?"

"An additional five inside the ship's bridge," he said.

"I've got the rest of the guys down here. Take those five out, I don't care if you make noise. I'll do my best to lay low, but we've knocked too many out, someone's bound to notice and call backup." The two continued their mission. There was a loud explosion at the ship's bridge, letting the captain know that Tony took the opposite route. The man really loved attention.

Steve wasn't a fond of guns but found that they were effective in getting the remaining ten. A gush of wind blew by him and his instincts told him that he was in the presence of someone he'd been dying to meet. He turned swiftly, trying to locate the samurai. "Ronin's in the premises," he said through Tony's comms. "I felt him going south. That's your way."

Tony didn't have time to respond, getting hit in the back of his helmet. He turned to see a black kimono, sword steady and ready to slice his head off until FRIDAY activated the beam from the chest of his suit. "Nice one. You're my absolute favorite sidekick. I forgive you for insulting my jokes," he said to the machine. The beam blew the perpetrator back, but didn't slow him at all. If any, he grew more furious and quicker by the moment. "I have him, Cap. Any sign of Morgan?"

"No, but two people just left the back of the ship," he said running to where he saw them.

Tony was in a purely hand-to-hand combat with the assassin. "FRIDDAY, read his fight pattern," he said. The computer did so and Tony found himself fighting a near match. "What's your endgame here, buddy?" He spoke to Ronin. He didn't respond. "Are you mute or are you too cool to talk?" Still, no response. "I'mma guess mute." He flashed him with a beam through the suit's palm, and simultaneously fired bullets through a machine gun that popped out of the suit's back. The ninja's sword shielded every one of them. "Capsicle, this man is kind of insane. Like, in the head, but also in a good way. Modern people use "insane" colloquially as "extremely good" by the way, in case your ancient-ness hasn't learned yet," Tony said over the comm. Steve didn't respond, because if he did, he knew that he would just egg the billionaire on the insults.

"I've secured most rooms in the ship," Captain said after putting down the two guys that he saw try to flee from the back.

"Good, now can I get some help?" Tony asked, Ronin running around him, landing a hit on one of the suit's panels and unleashing his bare forearm.

"Yeah, I-" Steve was interrupted when a door flew open at his face, swinging his back. A large man with a gun started shooting at him. "Morgan located!"

"Great, so I guess I'm not getting that help?" Tony asked in contempt, trying to flash his beams at the assassin, but failing to land because of his speed. It seems that Ronin may have heard Steve through his helmet (Tony doesn't think that's humanly possible, but it was too much of a coincidence), and he started moving like he was on a mission to finish this so he can go down to Steve. And in a fleeting second, before the billionaire's eyes, the sword punctured through his side, in slow-motion; its steel burying deeper until five inches of blade can be seen through his back. The assassin found a weak spot in his armor, slicing through it like it wasn't made of iron, like it was just an extension of the engineer's flesh. Tony knelt at the pain, barely letting out a grunt as blood dripped out of his mouth. Steve heard gagging noises through his ear. "A-agent…d-dow…down," he managed to get out between gasps.

"Tony!" Steve yelled, unable to escape, trapped behind his shield in a small ship hallway as the crime boss accelerated his machine gun. "Hill, I need back up. We're at Fifty-Eighth Street, Pier Four, near Owls Treatment Plant," he yelled over the gun shots.

"Already on our way," the woman said. "Tony, I need you to get yourself together."

Tony was clutching onto his side. The sword was still in his flank. Ronin, instead of taking it out, pulled it upwards to make him stand in agony. "Don't get in my way again," he said, pulling the sword out, causing more blood to leave the billionaire's mouth. The assassin jumped down from the ship's bridge, making his way to Boss Morgan.

"G-guys," Tony started, falling down to his knees and onto his side. "He's n…he's not m-mute," he said. The agents can hear him almost dying, yet he chooses those as his potential last words. Mechanical genius, but idiot at life, apparently.

"Hang in there, Stark," Captain said. It was about time the boss ran out of ammo. He started running and before Steve could throw his shield to stun him, a man in a black kimono came out of one of the ship's rooms and stood between them. Ronin straightened his sword, the shield hitting it, acting as a barrier between the soldier and Morgan. The boss was getting away, but that didn't matter to Steve now. He had finally met him. Ronin turned, running after the crime boss, but Steve outran him, tackling him to the ground before he could get to Morgan.

The samurai tried to hit him with the katana vertically but the shield stopped him. They went at it for a few minutes of matched combat, until Steve kicked his sword out of his hands. He took the opportunity to land a hit on his face. He took his shield and hit him on the head. Ronin retaliated and slid his legs under the soldier, tripping him. Steve felt a few punches lunge at his face. He used his shield to hit Ronin again, and when stunned, went to grab a gun he had had, but the other had retrieved his sword, slapping the gun out of his hand with it. He lunged at the soldier, cutting him at the bicep. Then he lands one on his thigh, making him kneel on one leg, his voice grunting through the comm, making the director apprehensive as the communication system aided her eavesdrop. She'd be damned if she lost her two best agents tonight. That's not happening. The sword almost sliced through his neck, but the soldier recovered, ducking in time and bringing an uppercut to his head.

His mask flew off. The soldier got a good look at his face.

"I know you," Steve said. He didn't really know where he knew him from, but his face was familiar.

"That'll make your death even sweeter, knowing you died in the hands of a familiar foe," said the assassin. He swiped his sword, but Steve knocked it out of his hands once again. On the offensive, the soldier landed another uppercut. He kicked his knees, forcing him to kneel. The soldier's knee met his face. His elbow met his back. Steve was winning this one. He pinned Ronin, punching him, one hand after the other. When he thought he was unconscious, he went to grab his sword, but got kicked in the head as the assassin recovered.

Ronin went to flee the direction that Morgan had gone. He didn't care if the katana wasn't in his possession. He had one mission and he was going to finish it, regardless of whether he was geared or weaponless. As he ran, he felt the shield hit the back of his knees. It made him trip, fall on two knees, but before he could fall forward, he felt a piercing pain enter through his chest. The soldier had sunk the sword through his back, and out his front, the sound of the slicing steel cutting every part that it touched on his insides. He felt some ribs split in half, his spine was split like a bamboo, and his lungs were definitely too hurt to recover. Maybe his heart was nicked, too.

He knew he wasn't going to finish this one mission. This was the seal of his fate. Blood poured out of his mouth, his last thoughts being Laura, Lila and Cooper. He was going to see them again, he knew it.

"F-finish it. F-for me." He said aloud. Steve took the sword out, the man falling on his back, his eyes shone the last bit of life he had left. The soldier thought that the assassin meant to finish him, but he was saying something else. "For my f-family," he coughed out blood. Then his eyes went dark.

The soldier didn't know if there was another way this operation was supposed to go. He didn't know if there had been a way to take him in alive. He was wrong. He thought that Ronin was notorious because of his lack of hope. He thought that the assassin was dangerous because he had nothing to lose. He thought that there was nothing left to the man and that's why his serial killings had been so easy for him. Yet in those last moments, the words that he spoke, Steve had regretted his decision. The man was fighting for something and it wasn't an easy thing for him. It wasn't for the lack of aspirations, but the need for closure, the need to bring justice to the world, similar to what Steve believes he, himself, does. This wasn't a fight driven out of pessimism, it was a conflict rising from pain. Ronin felt, and when men are still living with emotions, that was enough for Steve to know that there was something left in them. If he had the ability to still feel something, there was a potential to revive. Not all hope was gone.

Ronin lost his way, Steve understood that now. He shouldn't have killed him. And now it was difficult for him to distinguish the difference between him and Ronin. He couldn't.

She grew apprehensive when he didn't come home that night. The news in the morning told her everything she needed to know and her world collapsed into a million pieces, a world that she thought was so unfeeling that it was unbreakable. It turns out that she was still capable of it, and this would be so much better if she wasn't. If anyone ever questioned if Natasha Romanoff had a heart, today ended all discourse with the pain of losing Clint Barton shattering through her beating vessel and breaking her life apart.

Chapter Text

"What's wrong with you?" The soldier heard Tony's voice. They had been in the Helicarrier's medical bay for three days. Tony had a book in one hand, and the other stationary so as to not move his side injury. The billionaire survived the wrath of Ronin's katana, all thanks to Tony's suit (ahem, FRIDAY) for launching emergency protocol on his failing system. FRIDAY made the suit cauterize his wounds and bandaged them temporarily while Hill and the band made their way to the site.

Steve was sitting on a chair next to his bed, keeping him company even though Tony preferred otherwise. All agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. know that the first rule to Stark is to never leave him alone because he'll start walking on a broken leg a day after its fruition, despite the pain, just so he can work on hardware or new technology. It wasn't even safe to leave him with a sprained ankle for that matter. "Why do you ask?"

"You've been sulking," Tony closed the book, giving him his full attention. "You killed the mass murderer. I'm going to throw a party in your honor." 

"No you're not, Tony," the captain said sternly.

Tony went back to reading his book, giving him only part of his attention now. "Too late."

Steve sighed. "I don't think I should've killed him," he said. Tony shut his book again. "He was fleeing without his sword. I mean, he was going after Morgan, but fleeing from the fight with me nonetheless."

"Had you not done that, Morgan would be dead," Tony said, his brows furrowed the way it usually does when he gets into arguments with the soldier. They have those conflicts so often he's convinced he's growing a new and permanent forehead wrinkle solely because of the captain.

Steve shook his head. "I don't think that's the point." He stood up, walking to the window with his arms crossed as he looks out with a bird's eye view of Washington, DC. "Maybe I should've given him a chance."

"A chance at what?" Tony winced as he moved his body sideways, trying to get out of the bed. Steve turned to look at him and object, but the playboy held his index finger up to render him silent. For some reason that was enough for the soldier not to stay quiet. He limped out of the bed and stood next to Steve. "A chance at killing more people? He has innocent ones on his kill toll, too, you know?"

"A chance at letting him know there was another way. That he could live better."

"That wouldn't have been good for his conscience anyway," the engineer said. It irritated the soldier sometimes that Tony dictates what other people should, would or could feel. "It would kill him to go straight and then still live with his past."

"Your faith is just tainted and faint."

"Whatever you say, Gramps. But I'm sure sleeping better knowing he's not here anymore," he said, limping his way back to the bed. "I'm already upset I'm gonna have a reminder of that bastard on my side." The scar was going to be a good one. Steve knew Tony wasn't that mad about it, he'll probably be lifting his shirt more often at parties now. It would make for pretty interesting conversation and lots of "ooh"s and "ah"s from the crowd, particularly women who have a damsel in the distress complex and (possibly) a hero fetish.

The conversation died down with Tony getting back on his book and Steve remaining in his trance as he looks at the ground 30,000 feet below him. After a few more minutes of silence, the soldier asked the bed-ridden if he was going to be okay by himself. He said yes and so Steve left, but not without sending someone from Hill's team into his room. They rarely ever listened to each other, anyway.

The soldier, clad in casual civilian clothes, got on a quinjet after getting permission from the director. He landed just a few paces from one of the Pentagon's gates where he was met with guards. They asked for his security clearance and let him in. Contrary to the precautions, everyone from the Pentagon knew his face and marvels at his name, so the clearance issues weren't that pertinent for an American legend.

A short elevator trip led him face to face with his old boss. "How's the new job?" Steve asked, walking forward to start striding with the man who had met him at the elevator door.

"I feel it doesn't match the excitement of my past job," he said. "But not worrying about my men dying in every mission they take is a plus." They reached his office.

"We love Hill so you can keep this as long as you'd like," the soldier said with a little chuckle. He took a seat on a chair as the other moved around the desk to sit on his own. "How's everyone taking it?"

"Better," the other said. It had only been three days since Ronin fell. "It's hard knowing our most decorated ally was all of that." He leaned back in his chair, fixing the strap of his eyepatch. "But everyone here's a soldier in some form or another. This is just another loss to all of us."

"Anyone claimed him yet?" Steve asked, Fury shook his head no. "What's gonna happen if no one does?"

"State law says he'll be cremated."

The soldier nodded. "I'll give him a proper funeral."

"Rogers," the man started. "This isn't your responsibility." Steve had already stood up and was making his way out.

"I took his life, Fury," he said, his hand on the door handle, ready to turn and open. "It's the least I can do." He spoke at just above a whisper and walked out, not wanting to hear further protest.

Steve took a little detour before he left, wanting to see something before heading out. He walked into a room that exhibited photos of ranking officers. Clint Barton was one of them, his face cheery and his black beret crooked. Steve heard he was a great shot, one of the most fantastic snipers they've ever seen. He heard that his commanding officer had allowed him to use bow and arrows during an op once and when he left the military, Fury took him under his wing. S.H.I.E.L.D. called him Hawkeye, and the soldier heard lots of stories about his impeccable fighting skills and his character. They never met. It was unfortunate the circumstances that put them together for the first time. Steve now knew why he looked familiar, pictures of his face were everywhere in S.H.I.E.L.D.. Barton was used as an example for everyone.

The soldier left after learning a brief synopsis about the archer. He walked to the medical facility, a few blocks from the Department of Defense's headquarters. Steve went and asked the front desk about him. The woman was charmed, even though he didn't consciously try to do so. The soldier never really notices how women act around him. He found out that the assassin was sitting in the morgue, waiting to be claimed. Steve wasn't going to be a beneficiary, but he lied and said that the man was his best friend, so they wehnt down to pull out Barton's body for him and now the soldier didn't know what to do.

He walked out of the hospital for a moment to finance his funeral. A few moments later, four ambulance cars pulled up, the EMTs frantic as they left the back of the vans.

Steve acted like he was talking to someone on the phone, but really did so as to not arouse suspicion that he was listening to the medics' conversations.

"GSWs. Every single patient, all perfect into the chest. 4th intercostal rib, right in the heart. It's important to attend to the open wounds first."

"How are they still breathing?" The trauma surgeon asked as four gurneys are taken out simultaneously.

"The bullets are delivering electrostatic shocks somehow. I've never seen anything like it. We can't defibrillate or their hearts will collapse at the current overload."

Steve was hearing the scenes of a mass murder unfold. He dialed an actual number this time, making the people hurry with getting a small ambulance to deliver Clint's body into the quinjet. He was on the phone with Hill.

"There was a shooting somewhere by the Potomac," Steve said, piloting the plane back into the Helicarrier. "Do you have anything on it?"

"Regular mob job," said the director. Steve could hear her clicking through a tablet, probably looking up the case file of the four collateral damages he just witnessed. "That's a mission for FBI homicide, Captain."

"Something tells me this is more than that," his quinjet was hovering over the helipad, touching down and bringing his phone with him. He ordered a few guys to leave Barton's body, for the soldier wasn't going to stay long. "What do we have on weapons-dealing here?" He said over the phone, making his way to the director's office.

"Few. The big name mafia are up in New York and Boston. It wouldn't make sense for them to start dealing on a river right next to the Department of Defense."

Steve barged in the office, hanging up the phone because he's facing the woman now. He grabbed the tablet (he was correct in assuming what she was using it for) and started sifting through information. "We have the strongest weapons the United States creates, right?"

"Yes," she said. She was very composed, but even she didn't understand what the soldier was doing. Instead of expressing her confusion, she let him continue. "Everything that anyone creates gets brought to us, and if it can be used by more commonpeople, gets applied to some covert military branches. After that it goes to the military. There's tiers to it. We're at the first and highest level. That's how we were able to find and get Stark first."

"What do you know about electric bullets?" It seemed that the soldier didn't really pay attention after her initial "yes" response to his question.

"Howard Stark tried creating them, but the bullets were just too heavy and it's inefficient during battle."

Steve proceeded to tell her what he overheard at the hospital. "They were still alive, Hill. Why didn't the person just use regular bullets since they were a good shot anyway? The medic said that the shooter was able to hit all of their hearts perfectly. It was like he was doing target practice." The director found herself amused. Maybe this shouldn't be delegated to the FBI.

"We don't have jurisdiction for this crime," she said, before turning around in her chair. Steve was about to leave and let it go until she said something else. "But…if you somehow find yourself in the vicinity of the investigation, and you get curious, let me know. I don't have authority in sending my agents there. Such a bummer, though, if only one of them accidentally stumbles and grabs me some intel. I wanna get my hands on some electric bullets." The soldier smiled at the subtle implication of assignment.

Steve called a funeral home. Clint Barton's later killing expeditions had made him unfit to rest in a veterans' cemetery, right next to the soldiers who had fought missions beside him, his "honorable discharge" distinction removed. The Medal of Valor he received working for S.H.I.E.L.D. was retracted. Ronin stained his reputation, and all for what? Steve didn't know, but he's sure the media does. He wasn't a fan of news but he should figure it out soon enough.

The body could be buried as soon as 5 p.m. and the soldier jumped at the opportunity. The confiscated regalia, his black and gold helmet and kimono, along with the katana, he put in the man's casket. Steve threw some dirt on the wooden box, before watching as his burial commenced. He was the only one who came.

Steve took a few steps back and he noticed a woman walking his way. She was dressed in all black and he didn't know if she was here to attend another funeral. "Were you two close?" The woman asked, her hair sparkling red in the sunset. "I'm sorry, I noticed you were alone. I'm heading to a different event but I can leave if you'd l-"

"No, that's okay," he said with a smile. He realized she was talking to him for his company. "And, no. We really only met once, but…" Steve's voice trailed, he didn't know what to say. He was the reason the man was there in the first place. The redhead nodded and stood in silence with him for awhile. He spoke once again. "It was unfortunate how we met, actually. I wish it had turned out different. I regret that our meeting was short. I think that if we had hashed things out before–uhm, before we parted–it would've turned out better. I thought that he was a great man before we met, j-just from what our coworkers would say about him. I still think that now." It was difficult to keep his cover, not that he really had one. He just didn't want to arise suspicion because the commonpeople probably don't comprehend violence the same way he and everyone in his workforce did. The woman seemed very understanding. He felt that she was reciprocating the somberness of this interaction, as well. Almost as if she was sad not only for him, but sad about the man now underground. Steve wasn't that grief-stricken, but he found himself disappointed at the whole situation and his lack of fortitude to see what the correct choice was. It led him exactly to this moment, a place he wouldn't be in had he made a different decision.

"I'm sure he's as great of a man as you think he is," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. He nodded at her before she left. She was probably heading to the funeral she had initially intended to go to.

When the dirt filled all the way to its brim, Steve thanked the gravediggers and left on his bike. He was a little confused because he didn't see any other burials happening, looking for one specifically in hopes of glancing at the redhead once more. He didn't dwell on that and decided to head to the quinjet to change out of his black suit and into his other, more agile, black suit. He hitched the shield on his back and went to the scene of the crime. There was still yellow tape everywhere, but it was late in the night so no one was around.

"It's kind of annoying that you left me in a hospital bed when there's a maniac on the lose with electric weapons. Do you know how much of a disgrace it is to leave me here when weapons are literally my thing, Rogers?" Steve heard Tony over his earpiece. The man was still all the way up in the Helicarrier recovering. He found out about this little side mission and was aghast that he didn't get an invitation. "I was an arms-extraordinaire once, you know?" He sounded vividly upset to Steve, but also verging on his character's perpetual need for comedy.

"Sorry, Tony," he said aloud, looking around inside the house. He wore the gadgety glasses Tony had given him to look around the room. "You can help me by looking for anomalies, though," he said, knowing fully well that the billionaire is looking at a screen of some sort. He just can't resist it, despite the burning pain that Steve just knew was aching on his side where Ronin branded him.

"What's that on the far right of the floor? It's underneath the cabinet." Tony said. Steve stifled a laugh, knowing the man's very desperate need to be a part of this assignment.

Steve looked down and shined a flashlight to the underside of the furniture. There was no way that the FBI would've seen it so Steve didn't know how Tony could have in the comfort of his hospital bed. "It's a shell casing," the soldier said. "How'd you know that was there?"

"You said to look for anomalies. I'm pretty competent if you hadn't known," Tony sniped. "I just asked FRIDAY to look for inconsistencies with your glasses. She's marking everything that has abnormal signatures. The casing, for one, does. Probably because of the mechanism it has to conceal the charge in the gun before electricity is released in the actual bullet."

"I'm keeping it but it's not going to lead us to the killer, Tony," he said.

"Why do you assume such futile things? Oh, that's right, you're a fossil." Steve ignored that and continued looking around. There were markers on two stools by the kitchen island. Looking at his surroundings, Steve was able to tell exactly what happened.

Two people sat on the stools, across from them and on the other side of the island, two people stood. The marksman entered the way that Steve had, facing the two standing victims. He fired a bullet straight into their chests with a clear view. The other two sitting down turned around, but didn't grab their weapons quick enough. Through deduction, this man had to have been carrying two guns.

"Whoever did this Tony, they have two guns that can fire these bullets," he said, Tony concurring as he looked at the scene and FRIDAY established that the soldier's notions were correct. Steve stuck around, looking into who lived here. There were few pictures but he was able to locate them. "Stark, I'm gonna need you to page Hill for this one. This place is owned by the Nefaria." Steve was making his way upstairs when he heard people enter the house. He stayed at the bottom floor and hid in a corner.

At first, he thought that FBI agents had barged in for a late-night recon, but Italian broke out in their voices. Steve was cornered in a house owned by arms-dealers and a syndicate of the Maggia. There is no greater pickle than the one he was in right now. He needed to leave without making a noise. Around the corner he saw the guns. They looked like regular AR-15s. No heavy ballistics or electricity were coming out of them.

His spectacles created an outline for him, showing him the different ways he could leave without being caught. He was about to take a route when he saw the unfolding of a violent scene. FRIDAY counted six mafia men in the house. One of them rolled down the stairs, unconscious and landing right on the feet of another man. There was a bullet on the center of his head. Panic ensued within the house, the man saying "She's here!" in Italian. The soldier didn't really know what that meant, despite understanding the dialect.

"You know," a woman's voice echoed around the house. Shots were being fired everywhere as the anxious men blindly fired at everything. "I told your brothers and sisters that I'd let them live if they didn't talk," she said. Steve was on the defensive, wherever she was, no death is happening in this house. Well, except the one guy that came down the stairs. "But they didn't keep their promises. The government is excited that you're being hunted down, though. So, I'd like to give them more gifts."

"Tony are you seeing this?" Steve whispered through the comm. Tony responded "yes". "Do you have heat signature on this thing?"

"Yeah, I'm not an idiot. Why would you even ask that?" There was no time for banter as the glasses shifted and showed Steve where the woman was behind walls and floors. He grabbed one mafia that headed his way, putting him in a chokehold to subdue him. He hit another one with his shield, alarming the rest. I guess stealth isn't an option anymore. Before the remaining gunmen could fire at Steve, he heard three shots, each one he saw exited their foreheads. When they fell to their knees, the soldier saw who was behind them.

"It's nice to see you again, soldier," she said, her voice seductive. There was only one gun in her hand, debunking the theory that she had to have two to achieve the feat with the four men he saw at the hospital. The insane ability to kill all three men in front of him with remarkable precision told him everything he needed to know. Steve couldn't focus on her because of the cloudiness of the glasses, the technology and schematics and other nifty things in the way of seeing her true face. He took them off, finally seeing the familiar woman in front of him. "Thanks for giving him a funeral," she said sincerely. He was a little stunned at the admittance of a relationship with Ronin, his brain catching up to her faint speak. Her gun was aimed at his chest, but he remained still, trying to gauge what her next move would be. Needless to say, he was caught off-guard.

She flicked something at him instead of shooting and it ricocheted off his shield as he brought it up to cover face. In the second that it happened, he heard another shot, but and he braced himself from feeling a bullet somewhere. Anywhere. But it didn't come. Did she miss? He lowered his shield in an instant to bring himself back into the battle, thinking that there would be one. Instead, he was met with a one-side domination; it was barely even called a fight.

The woman threw something at his shoulder, sticking to him and electrocuting the left side of his body. He went to chase her despite the hindrance, but she had already disappeared. Steve turned and saw that the one shot she fired entered the temple of the man he had subdued moments before. No one was left alive except him and he cursed at the fact that the vigilante slipped so fluidly from his fingertips and harmed others in his presence.

He said that no killing was going to happen in this house, but it all unfolded right before him.

"So he is actually a she. That was hot and very annoying at the same time," he heard Tony say over his comm. "I'm still in the dark though, what happened after you took your glasses off?" Steve didn't respond, keeping the glasses in his utility belt.

"She outran me," he said. "She has funky gauntlets." Steve got on his bike, driving his way to the quinjet. He looked in all directions and above roofs, seeing no trace of the woman. How she could have left so fast, he didn't know. And he had absolutely no idea where the woman could've gone.

"I can't believe you just admitted someone had outran you."

"Well, it happened."

Steve gave Tony all the gadgets he had recovered in the house. He left the dead bodies for the FBI to pick up. "These bullets are typical Glock 19," the genius said, forceps holding up the shell casings of the round. "And this disc," he said, pertaining to the object that electrocuted the soldier. "It emits electroshock at its contact. And it has the same mechanism as the electric cartridge FRIDAY found." Steve probably shouldn't have pulled Tony out of his recovery for this one, but Hill thought that this was just as important.

"Redhead woman, caucasian, green eyes, about five-foot-five," Steve said the moment the director entered the room. "She's a skilled marksman."

"I know," the woman said. The two men stopped what they're doing to face her. "That's S.H.I.E.L.D. technology. And she attacked four more of the Italian mafia that was in the hospital today. The four made it out of surgery, so I guess she went and finished it."

They were silent for awhile, Steve upset as he looked at the pictures of the dead mafia on Hill's tablet. "How'd she get her hands on these weapons?"

"Because she was an agent before," Hill said. She redirected the files on her tablet to the larger screen in the room. "We created something called the 'Secret Avengers' initiative."

"Okay but," Tony started, motioning his hands to point at Steve and himself (and flailed his arms to imply the existence of other heroes they knew and worked with). "We're the Avengers. How can you have a secret us?" 

"It's need-to-know," she said to him, and ended that topic with that vague answer. "Fury recruited her to work on that, and after the operation was disbanded, she decided to leave the force and do something less…dangerous." She pulled up a picture of the woman along with her biography. 

"Very impressive individual," Tony started, looking at her dossier. "I want one." The two agents in the room ignored him, making him sulk and return to his toys.

"Black Widow was her alias, among tens of others," said the director. Steve marveled at her biography. "She worked with Clint Barton in that initiative. When she retired, Barton continued his work as an agent with us. She decided to work for the private sector."

"Doing what?" Asked the soldier.

"PI work. Sometimes IT. More notably some mercenary activities. She'd help sometimes, in moments when we really needed her." The director kept pulling up files, like the confidential ones from the Red Room Academy. "We granted her asylum at Barton's request when she defected from Russia. They became quite the team. The initiative thrived because of their exceptional work."

"Why'd you disband the operation?"

"She left. Barton wasn't going to do all of that work anymore now that she wasn't with him. We convinced him to stay, just not working for that team anymore," Hill said. "She's probably the greatest espionage agent this agency's ever seen. Fury goes as far to say that she might actually be the greatest agent ever."

"I am right here, director," said the billionaire. He stopped ogling at the gadgets to give her a glare. Steve wasn't sure if he was being facetious or genuinely thought he was the greatest S.H.I.E.L.D. agent ever. He was a clown, for one, so the former could be true. He was also gravely conceited, so the latter wouldn't be far off from the truth either. Again, Tony was ignored.

"Romanoff's an expert marksman, a martial artist, a hacker, a spy. She's a gymnast, has incredible strength, and she was dosed with the almost same concentration as your super-soldier serum, Captain," she continued. She regained both of the men's attention.

"There's no way that's possible, I destroyed the last one," said the soldier, unbelieving.

"They tried to replicate it and it created assassins like her."

"Are you saying she's a super-soldier?"

"No, just that she shares some of the same characteristics. Regeneration, slowed aging, immunity, for examples." Stark fell back on his seat. "Captain, you are the only match to her. I'm not sending agents to hunt down someone that they can't get to. Thirty-year-old Director Fury and prime Clint Barton were the only ones who could possibly defeat her. We don't have either of those anymore."

Steve nodded, staring at the picture of Natasha Romanoff. He really wished she was just that nice woman from the funeral. Something tells him that both of them were going for a ride neither wanted to be on.

"Hill, you got anymore secret agents that can turn into murderous vigilantes? Now would be a great a time as any to tell us," Tony quipped.

I really thought I was hanging up the gear for good. Clint never wanted me in this position. It seems that it's up to me to take down Boss Morgan, but I honestly think I can do so much better than that. The Maggia*, an international crime syndicate, a group of families working in different sectors: drugs, weapons-dealing, trafficking, et cetera. Killing Lugman ended the trifling pain of the responsible party to killing the Barton family, but Clint wanted more. He wanted all of it to stop. And I'm going to do that, just for him. Attack the heart of the snake, not the head. The mafia worked where you take one head, two more will grow in its place. These groups rise above no matter how distended Ronin's work made them. But there exists a bigger group than anyone can ever imagine. Ronin took a lot of people's heads from them, but he forgot to kill the people running all of them.

A super-organization of families working together to dominate the weak, the lowly and the unfortunate of the world, that's what Clint wanted to take down. I'm just starting with the Italians.

My guns were still under the bed, the ones that S.H.I.E.L.D. had given me. My widow's bites were there too, but I'm tabling those for now. Four pounds of bracelets aren't efficient. I almost blew my wrists off once. The grappling hook, I'll take. The batons, too.

I loaded my belt with a ton of ammo, but decided that there's a way that I can get to this quicker. I had Howard Stark contraband from an extraction mission, I guess now's the time to use all of the only four bullets he created. They'd be of use when it came to communicating with them. Ronin never talked to his victims, but I think it's time I find out how these mafia syndicates worked. The Nefarias were living in the shadows of the government, quite literally a few blocks away from the White House. I spent two days doing reconnaissance, working my way up to find information.

I dressed in a showy dress, provocative and sure to catch a lot of attention. The man that I wanted approached me. It was easy work. "How you doin' this fine night, gorgeous?" He asked me. He had a large roll of tobacco in his mouth, the stick popping up and down as his lips moved. He put it between his fingers and silently offered me some. I said no.

"I could be doing better," I said, my fingers softly moving on the collar of his suit jacket. I made a finger trail on his tie, moving it from his chest, down to garment's its end. The termination made the man twitch at the need for my hands to move lower. That won't be happening, my womanizing friend. Not tonight. Not ever. He ended up paying for my drink and I tossed that away without a sip, his attention too focused on me for him to notice.

Paolo Nefaria, the youngest of the brothers, really liked talking. "I can take you back to my place," he said in my ear as we danced. His hand was trailing lower than I wanted him to, but I allowed it to continue the ruse. We got in his limousine after I gave him the affirmative and I acted drunk. His home was where I wanted to be. Likely not for the same reasons that he wanted me there.

"You live alone, Paolo?" My voice was seductive. This was like the KGB training days. He was an exercise to me, just how easy it is to get to him. Men's weaknesses are the things in their pants. Manipulate that and suddenly you're sharing a joint credit card with his billion-dollar business or, even better, finding out the extent of his father's syndicate.

"I got my siblings with me, but they won't be home tonight," he slurred in my neck, trying to get more of what he wanted. "My cousin's visiting for the weekend to do some business, but if you wanna come back another time, she won't be there," he said, trying to be seductive, but his testosterone and hunger for sex didn't let him. He just sounded desperate.

It was upsetting that they won't all be home tonight. Maybe I'll take him up on his offer and visit him another time again. I put a sleep dose in his water before bed. He won't remember the events of the night. "Did your father ever tell you not to trust anyone?" I whispered to his face, his body succumbing in drowsiness.

I came back the next morning. He was having breakfast with his family. I walk in in my tactical gear, standing behind the counter he saw me. His face forming from realization to regret, before I fired a bullet in him. Giuseppe, his brother, was next, the round straight into his chest. In slow motion Vittoria, his sister, turned in her seat with a gun, but she was too slow. Giulietta was the cousin. She was hit before she even saw me. "Good morning," I said, walking over to the four dying men. "Who wants to talk about your fathers?" I asked, switching the gun that I'd used with another one. The bullets inside this one were deadlier, I'm sure. I asked a lot of questions, but they were all too stricken with their chest injuries to speak to me. That's kind of a bummer. So I told them that if the police make it in time, and if their fathers knew really great surgeons, then they'll be fine. If they talk about me, I'll kill them. Somehow, I think they'll defy that, but they're definitely threatened.

I fled at the sound of sirens and ate lunch. Breakfast was a sickening adventure. I decided it was time to visit Clint's body, but when I went to the hospital, the front desk said that he had already been claimed by Captain America. That sounds like absolute bullshit. I controlled my fury and walked out. What on earth did Steve Rogers want with the man he killed?

I sat in our apartment. I guess it's just "my" now. There is no more "our". There's a photo of him and his family, right next to a picture of us on the windowsill. I cried and screamed like I've been doing the past three days. It's kind of unfair that the world is hitting me with all of this. Up until four days ago, I had no problem with Steve Rogers. And then three days ago, I had never wanted to kill a man more in my life. But today? I don't think I've ever felt this kind of anger before.

I'm grieving. Not only did he take away his life, he took away my chance to mourn. So much for America's sentinel of liberty. Right now, he is everything but hope.

I hacked S.H.I.E.L.D. (reminiscent of how Clint and I always would so we could see all the covert missions in the database, even assignments that weren't meant for us; Fury would always get angry, but he's learned to just live with it). It's surprising that they hadn't reconfigured the systems ever since I left five years ago. You'd think they'd take extra precaution. I looked at his phone records, found only one number he called today, and dialed that. "Glenwood Cemetery," I heard over the phone. I hung it up immediately.

I spent an hour of pacing before dialing the number again. "Hi, I was wondering if you have any events happening today? A family invited me a few days ago but I lost the invitation. I don't know if it's today or tomorrow."

"We have one this evening and two tomorrow, but I don't think the one you're looking for is today, it's a shotgun funeral and had just been called in until a couple hours ago. What's the name of your deceased?"

"No, that's all actually, thanks," my voice shook and knees trembled like I'm perishing to vertigo. I've never experienced that in my life. I don't fear high places.

I dolled myself up for my love's funeral.

I waited a block away for hours. I noticed a blonde man, dawning a black suit. He carried the casket like it weighed two pounds. He set it on a wheeled cart so he can roll it to the cemetery's house. Before he pushed the cart, he took something out of the front seat of the car. He opened the casket and Clint's kimono, helmet, and sword were placed in it. I followed paces behind, holding back my tears. In no way will I be able to see Clint's face again, but this was enough. There was no procession. There was no one here but him. The moment he made it to the site, his mouth moved. He was talking to him. Then they lowered him into the ground and the soldier tossed some dirt. I walked to him.

"Were you two close?" I asked him. He was taken aback, and I proposed to leave, though I knew he was too polite for that. He made me stay and told me how hey met, like how he would talk to a stranger. Rogers said some things, how he regretted it. It made me upset. He made this funeral for him, and for that I'm thankful. But everything else is unforgiven.

I walked off and went back to one of my safe-houses in DC. The first thing I see is a forensics sketch of my face on the television. The Nefaria bastards talked. I liked that they did, though, it would take my mind off of my grief.

I went to the hospital to say hello to them. Giuseppe was asleep, he was the last one to make it out of the operating room. He's no use to me unconscious so I unplugged the cardiac monitor and opened his mouth, popping the Glock in his throat. With a silencer of course. I did it to two others until I was met with Giulietta, the only one awake. There were cops around her. It's kind of sad how they only cared about her. What about the three other people that I had just killed over the FBI's heads? Don't they need protection, too?

It was good actually. It served as a distraction. There was a scream down the hall where Paolo was. Poor man didn't get to have sex when he wanted it. The agents around Giulietta left to investigate. An FBI agent was interviewing her so he let their security go because he was there. The grip of my gun hit the back of his head and Giulietta almost shouted. "Relax, he'll wake up in like five minutes," I told her, pointing my gun at her head. "Why'd you have to talk?" I asked. "We met at a compromise remember. Now, you're gonna tell me answers to the questions you failed to respond to this morning." And she did.

I still put a bullet in her head, though. The hospital was on lock down, so I shot one of the windows in a vacant room and rappelled myself down from the third story.

She went as far as to threaten me that men will be coming for me, waiting for me back in the house if I wanted to show myself. She said that her father was very angry. I guess I'm going to have to go back to Paolo's house. I can't believe he managed to get me in his home three times now. He really was a charmer.

I didn't expect Steve Rogers to be there. I should really keep tabs on him. "It's nice to see you again, soldier," I said after putting bullets inside three men in front of him. He looked shocked. My gun was still up. I don't remember him wearing glasses and he took them off just to see me. Aren't glasses supposed to help you see? He recognized me. "Thanks for the funeral," I said, delivering a statement that solidified that we'd met before. I threw an electric disc at him, which I knew he'd use his shield to dodge. I fired a bullet in the guy behind him, it's only for precaution because I don't remember having shot him. My guess is he was just asleep. I'd rather not have any of the Nefarias and their peasants wake up. Ever.

By the time he lowered his shield, I threw another disc. It caught him off-guard and stunned. Then, I ran. I scaled a wall to a building and stayed on the roof for awhile. Oh, how I wish you were here, Clint.

Chapter Text

A whole month. One whole month and they got nowhere. "Death toll?" Steve asked immediately as he walked in the compound with Tony after an assignment. He saw Director Hill and paced setting his shield on his back.

"Eighty-nine," she said. That's how many people Natasha Romanoff has killed in one month. She's managed to take down every single limb that's attached to the Nefaria crime family, anyone who was over sixteen is dead. The ones who were under? They were orphaned, or worse, left with zero family at all. Her M.O. was simple to Steve, just take down anyone who's related to the mafia, no questions asked. Anyone who breathed that name in the streets were killed. She was more notorious than Ronin, people were afraid to speak Nefaria's name. People were afraid to talk about the mafia at all. She bounced back from New York to Washington, often, so no one knows where she was at any given moment. People thought she was omnipresent.

What made her different from the sword-wielding guy was that no on knows her name. S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't released it because they're running their own investigation that the FBI doesn't know about. Interference would jeopardize the evidence they already have. Some people don't even believe she's a woman despite the sketch that the FBI put out. Romanoff was working in complete shadows, absolutely no limitations and no surveillance.

The organized crime sector of the FBI were having field days for the past month. She's been doing her job for them, just more killing. Illegal weapons off the street nonetheless. She was working alone, too. She has no family anywhere, they're either dead or unknown. The files of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s database of her past didn't help. Steve spoke to her previous job engagements. She worked for the IT department in Stark Industries and Tony didn't even know. She was invisible even when she wasn't killing. It didn't help any of the agents at trying to track her down.

"People are scared," Steve said. "They were scared when Ronin was around, but they were also kind of okay with it, but with Natasha…people don't even wanna talk about her or crime in general for fear that they're going to get sniped in the head."

There was an event last week where two people were sitting in the diner. They were accountants for a mob boss's family. He didn't know if it was a coincidence, but after they said his name—Luchino Nefaria—two bullets entered through the window and went straight through both of their ears. The waiter on the other side of the bar witnessed the whole thing and it spread all over the news. The rifle was found on the seventy-seventh floor of a building that was 1.5 miles away (which people had to balk at because that's far). That was all the United States media could talk about. She is causing mass terrorism and people didn't even know what to call her until today. If people still doubted she was a woman, they wouldn't anymore. Not after her latest killing. Steve and Tony just returned from the information they grabbed from these tapes.

"The notorious serial murderer of the east coast was found credited for the attacks at a gentleman's club in the East Bronx. Three men were found dead behind a private showroom. It has unfolded that the scene of the crime is a site for sex trafficking business. One man had a small camera on the lapel of his suit to take a video of a private show. Following are violent tapes and contain very sensitive material. Viewer discretion is advised."

On the tape was a body of a woman, from the collarbones and down. The tips of her red hair can be seen. She was fully clothed and the man wearing the camera spoke. "I think I paid for something a little more than this," he said in a flirtatious taunt. Natasha hummed seductively in the background. Her face still hidden from the camera. The man decided to take his jacket off, shuffling the view, but it was still again when he set it on the back of the seat. The camera was now filming upside down, but the news source calibrated it to switch right-side-up again. Face still hidden, she was about to start dancing when her hands reached the man's neck. Electric shocks flowed out of them and the audience can hear the crackling of the bracelets accompanied with his choking. He was made unconscious and the woman went out of the frame for awhile. The source sped it up to where she came back, dragging two men behind her. 

Hill said that everything else that followed was too graphic to be put on television so it was all omitted from the news. However, she played the raw tape to continue the scene.

"Now boys, I know you play dirty, but I'm gonna need you to be nice tonight," Natasha said. She was sitting on the chair where the first victim had been. The camera filmed her back and can easily see the men on the ground. Once they regained consciousness, they realized that their hands and legs were tied and the woman told them to kneel. The news source blurred their faces.

"I need a location on Luchino," she said, her voice all business, losing all its charm and flirtatiousness from earlier. No one was talking. "I know you boys are best friends," she said. "I mean two of you are twins so I'm going to assume you're close." Natasha stood up and went behind them, her arms crossed. "Ten seconds for one of you to speak or else one head's getting blown off," she threatened. The men weren't crying and they weren't pleading either. Natasha probably figured that the guy unrelated to them was the least of their attachments. Ten seconds passed and a shot went through his head, execution style. The twins were aghast, not knowing how to react. One started pleading.

"No, please, I swear I don't know," said one of them.

"Let's make a deal. If one of you speaks, then you both live. If neither of you do, I'll only kill one of you and I pick by tossing a coin. Sound fair?" Still neither of them talked. Natasha put her gun on one of their thighs, shooting him. "I'm giving you boys a pretty good bargain. And as you can see"—she pointed at the first dead guy and then at his thigh—"we're too far deep in this for you two to think I'm bluffing."

"Okay, okay!" One of them said.

"Mateo, no," one said, his Italian accent thick. "Uncle made us promise. Our families are with him," he said in Italian (subtitles appeared). Neither of them knew that the Russian could understand what they were saying.

Mateo didn't listen to him. He told Natasha about their marina location. Her demeanor changed. Steve realized that the same place that might hold Luchino Nefaria was also where he battled Ronin. It was the location where he killed him.

"Please, let us go," Mateo told her.

"I'm not very good at keeping promises." Two silent shots fired in the room and both men went limp, their heads punctured.

This whole scene was cut from television, but the following continuance made it in the news.

Natasha can be seen holding her gun and walking over to the camera. "Death's around me. That's why I'm the Black Widow," she said to the dead men (who were out of frame) without showing her face in the shot. The last that the audience sees is her poising her armed hand up and shooting the camera.

If the public was having a debate about her sex, that ended it. She gave them something to call her, too. Natasha outed herself to the whole world. The FBI had a title for her case file now, instead of just "Homicide case no. 1863473".

The tape also disclosed the possible location of Luchino Nefaria. It was where Steve and Tony had just been. They went and saw that all men were dead. No sign of the crime boss and no sign of the assassin. The video was recovered too late and had let them know way past when this could've all unfolded. The director has never seen Steve so distraught.

"You should take a break," said the director. "She isn't going to hit for awhile. You don't have to worry about it."

"She's probably already running another lead," said the soldier. The operation was taking a toll on him. "I should find out what that is." Before he could leave, Hill extended her arm to prevent him.

"There will be no pursuit, Captain. That's a direct order," she said. The soldier let out a huff of disappointment. So he laid low, staying in the building in the sky. He was sitting on his desk, looking at all the files on Natasha Romanoff. The director can stop him from leaving, but she can't stop him from searching.

Steve read every aspect of her life. The brainwashing. The KGB. How she was forced to kill her best friend, Marina, the only woman she ever trusted, severing the only genuine relationship she created in the Red Room. Jobs. Insane mercenary work. She took down one of the largest organizational threats, a capitalist monster that fed off the lives of the poor. And that was all without Clint. These side missions she took for Fury were covert, classified targets that the public could never know. All of this sensitive information.

There was no one in her file but her. The woman preferred to work alone, and he couldn't really complain because it's clear that she got so many things done by herself. She thrives off of her self-induced isolation. It was almost sad. Everything that can ever connect to her was dead, and so he was met with a dead end.

Tony saw Steve, how obsessed he was getting. He didn't know if that was the right word, but it sure fit the description. It had been days since Natasha's last attack on the men at the marina. The soldier didn't sleep, buried in the papers, intoxicating himself with information about her. It didn't go unnoticed to Hill either, but she'd much rather prefer this over him driving on a motorcycle and going on tours around the country by himself, expecting to get somewhere. The disappointment would kill him. She'd take this version of Steve all day.

He had never been so riled up about anyone. Perhaps he was intrigued. Perhaps he felt indebted, he did kill her friend after all. Maybe it's the fact that he can do it differently this time. He wouldn't pull the trigger—or impale the sword—this time. There was hope in everyone who thought that what they were doing were good, despite the preventative measures they take. He saw that in Clint Barton's eyes before life left him. There are reasons these people do what they do, and the difference they have with the social construct of the "regular" criminal is that they try to make the world a safer place, one where no one should face danger. The sad thing is, Natasha's causing terror not only to the terrorists, but to the people. It's creating silent unrest.

But Steve knows now. He won't kill her if he catches her. He'll just find away to make her see. He's extremely adamant with that tactic.

Natasha throws a knife at the makeshift target she created on the wall. Hopefully her apartment neighbors can't hear the constant stab the steel makes with the wall. She hasn't done target practice in awhile.

It angered her that she hasn't gotten anywhere closer on the weapons' dealer. She thought she would get somewhere but his subordinates preferred bullet to the faces instead of surrendering information. It was a bummer.

She had a list of most of the people she needed. Some had the last name "Nefaria", others were related, and most were not. The ones who weren't related to him were surely dead. The others who are semi-related were almost all wiped out. Most of the ones who shared his last name were underground, too.

She's ask herself if this gave her joy. She'd always respond with "no". That's almost always followed by her conscience asking why she was doing this. For which she'd respond with "for Clint". That was enough to shut down any moral or ethical conversation she was having in her head. It's for Clint. It's for the Bartons. She never really liked putting herself at the forefront, but a part of her felt that she was doing this for herself, too. It masks the pain. Every kill she makes is another step to diminishing empathy. It's a step closer to psychopathy. Maybe when she gets there, she'd be so incapable of feeling that Clint's death won't hurt her anymore. And then she can put the guns down for good.

There weren't any other leads she could take. She could try to find the families that the twins in the strip club were talking about. But there isn't anywhere to start. So she takes all the three knives from the wall and steps back to start over again.

She thinks about S.H.I.E.L.D., how she actually misses being there. The only reason she left was because she was done with all the fighting. But when she did leave, she found herself doing contract work, trying to kill things that needed to be killed because they were a danger. She didn't really get away from it all. Somehow it upset her that this is what she was. It's what she is. She never really had a choice of who she could be, predestined as a killer the moment she turned five and stepped in that red room.

Natasha remembered working for that program, the missions she had to take, the sacrifices—hard ones—she had to make. One assignment ordered her to pose as an ally to a Cuban family who were threatening relations with the Soviet Republic. She worked with her best friend, Marina*, at that mission. There was so much promise in her, how the entire fate of the Soviet Union relied on her. Madame B said that she was the best. That she never failed her. The Cuban family trusted her, but she put bullets in their backs, sniping all of them dead from the roof of a three-story building, right in front of their five-year-old child.

And then Madame B said that Marina wasn't as good as her so she had to kill her.

She killed her boyfriend first. Then, Natasha pressed a gun to her best friend's back in the middle of her shower. Marina died in the bathtub, at the hands of the person she trusted the most.

She thought about that often. She always had a choice. Path A or Path B. Kill Marina or get killed by the Red Room for not succeeding. Did she really have any other choice?

There was sound that came through a speaker in the room. The woman had planted a bug in the event that Luchino decided to visit his super dead men back at the marina. She looked at her transmitter that was emitting noise and threw a knife at the wall without taking her gaze away from the speaker. Bullseye. She walked over and listened to a conversation between two men. She was disappointed at the voices.

"We're late," said Captain America.

"This is a massacre," she heard someone else's voice, possibly his partner. There was a bit of ruckus, probably the men turning over bodies to see who they were. "Are we going to clean this up?"

"That's for the FBI. For now, we need to find clues to get to her," the soldier said. She smiled at his optimism and his innocence. Did he not know who she was? For sure he did, she had just unleashed her identity to the whole world. Maybe he still didn't understand just how much of a professional she was, despite him seeing firsthand how good she can kill. She was astonished at his drive to find her. He won't succeed, but she liked his pursuit. It was a change of pace. Agents usually give up looking for spies when they realize that they're spies and that they're good ones. He'll probably figure it out soon.

She realized that he did figure it out soon. Three days later and no sign of Captain America. Well, it's not like the Black Widow's appeared either. The Nefaria were silent. She was in the middle of a shower when she heard something, though.

There was static on the same radio that she had planted at the Brooklyn marina. She turned the water off and went out wet and naked, too captivated to grab a towel. She walked over and listened to a conversation in Italian.

"She is killing my business, Silvio!" a voice sounded in Italian. Natasha relayed the sound into an earpiece so she can hear the whole conversation as she makes her way to the pier. She put on a coat to cover her tactical suit and tied her hair in a ponytail. She hailed a cab and gave him a destination that was a few blocks from the marina.

"This is all your doing," another man said. Natasha was sure that it was Silvio Manfredi, a drug lord. She got so excited she might get a chance to kill two mafia heads, instead of just one. She was certain Luchino was the other talking.

There was a punch that sounded through her comm. "No! This is about the lack of loyalties of your men! I don't need your children being compromised in a sleazy nightclub. And even in the event near their deaths they couldn't shut. up!" It didn't sound like Manfredi punched him back. "If you don't fix this, our partnership is over. Find your money somewhere else."

"I am not interested in renewing our contracts, Luchino," Silvio said. The cab couldn't go any faster. "I do not want to do business with the incompetent."

Natasha was afraid that one of them was going to kill the other. That was her job and it'll really infuriate her if one of them gets the credit for taking down a mob boss.

"Then what is this meeting about?" Luchino asked. It was nice to know that the men were keeping their testosterone in check and not shooting at the first sign of threat.

"You'll see. I have big plans for us, Luchino. The uprising of the Italians. I'm talking about controlling the whole New York. Massachusetts. I'm talking about something bigger than yours and my business combined. This is bigger than the mafia, ciccino."

The cab stopped and Natasha didn't tip. She preferred crazy fast driving over a safe slow one. Maybe it's the danger and it's definitely the objective. The two men continued talking in her ear, which she couldn't care less about.


I'm a lot of things. Stupid isn't one of them. I don't particularly make a lot of mistakes, but nonetheless, I still make them. There was a lot to be suspicious of, but I guess I was too blinded by the excitement with shedding blood of two very wanted criminals.

The cab driver was slow. That was my first mistake. I should've stolen a motorcycle.

I didn't expect the men to be alone when I got there but Silvio Manfredi was. I rappelled myself up the large ship, stealthily landing on the railing that gave me a view of the two men while remaining hidden to their watchdogs. Well, Nefaria's watchdogs at least. Manfredi was alone. It let me know that he saw no threat in this transaction. This meant pure business. He wasn't planning on shooting anyone tonight. Nefaria, on the other hand, was paranoid out of his mind. It made sense, I had just went on a month and a half killing spree of his most trusted men. I'd be surprised if he wasn't threatened about my presence at the least.

There were two ways I could take this, stealthily take out all of his guards that were walking around the ship, or kill them both first and flee. Both were possible.

Let's assess the situation. And this is where I made my second mistake. I failed to realize snipers until this moment. So Manfredi wasn't any less paranoid than the other man. I notice three straight ahead and two in the back. I can't see the red laser on Nefaria, so they were merely aiming for precaution at the moment.

Because of those, I have to scratch all of the ideas I had about taking them down.

I could lead the men inside the ship, make it impossible for the snipers to see. That puts me at a disadvantage. It would be one against fifteen.

I could also just leave and realize that this would be too difficult for me. That was my third mistake, an existing pride and need for vengeance that I really really should've suppressed.

I went with the fourth option instead. I'm moving the ship, ladies and gents.

I went into the engine room, jumpstarting everything. I had to find a way to untie the ship from the dock at four different places, so in the water ago. It was too dark for the snipers to catch me, and I find myself swimming underneath the dock to remain completely hidden. The container ship was tied at three different points, the front, the back, and the center. A pocket knife wouldn't do that job, so I was forced to actually untie them, heavy ropes that almost took all of my strength. The willpower to kill this men were stronger, though. It took me thirty minutes.

That was my fourth mistake: tiring myself out.

I went up to the control room and unanchored the ship. The men felt that we were moving and they were now absolutely frantic. Good job, Natasha. It's easier to strike apprehensive people than composed ones. They can't think straight. I made my way down the engine room and heard Nefaria over my comm. "Why are we moving?!" He blamed Silvio, as I'd expected.

I thought he was going to kill Manfredi out of fear when the guy spoke. "This is not my doing! It is yours!" I laughed a little bit. I love playing this game.

The men made their way down the engine room because that's where they'd all look first. Idiots didn't think to separate and all went at once. I killed them all. I don't know how many, but I'm fairly certain that waiting another thirty minutes would mean that snipers won't have a good shot at us. That leaves me with the two men I'm very interested to meet, and maybe a few more of Nefaria's bodyguards.

My fifth mistake was expecting an easy fight. I went back up to the control room and saw that I had to kill more of his men than I thought. I heard Silvio call for back up and a helicopter was making its way to us. I have no time, I either kill Nefaria or they get to me. That wasn't going to happen.

I shot Silvio in the shoulder, as intended, just so I can alarm Nefaria's guards and kill them. That whole encounter resulted in me taking the mob boss back down to the engine room. I put two bullets in his knees.

"It's nice to finally meet you" was the first thing I said to him. The man was on the floor, his joints bleeding.

"I do not know what I have done to you for you to destroy me the way that you have," he said, breathless and powerless. In the back of my mind I thought about Manfredi. I should get him in this place, too. There was no time, a helicopter was on its way.

"It's not me that you've done anything to, dear," I said. "It's what you've done to everyone else."

"The good cannot fight using the work of the devil," he said to me. "You are no better than I am. You have taken more lives than I have. What makes us different?" He laughed tauntingly and I almost shot him in anger.

"I just make sure people like you don't see the light of day again. The difference is that this is not for personal gain," I said to him.

He laughed again. "Are you sure Black Widow?" That was the last straw. I put three bullets in his heart. I put another one in his head, just because one round isn't enough.

My sixth mistake was taking too long with him. I went back up to the deck where they used to be and saw the helicopter landing.

I was perplexed. On its side was the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo. I don't understand. Some agents helped Silvio get into the chopper. That makes absolutely no sense, finding myself freeze, flummoxed.

"Stand down, Natasha Romanoff," the speaker of the helicopter said. "We have order to shoot come perceived resistance. Surrender immediately."

My seventh mistake was not assessing the nature of this situation in the first place. I hurriedly pulled myself out of the shower to listen to this conversation and got on the next cab to Brooklyn. I was a fool to think that this was going to be easy, acting like a gift had been thrown on my lap.

It's looking like Silvio had sold out his connection to Luchino to S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to lure me out. Somehow there was a sense of pride. They had to resort to one boss turning over the other to find me. It was an absolute mess and damn, did Maria Hill pull some strings, their desperation showing in their tactics. I wasn't going to let Manfredi out alive, not when I finally killed his other boss friend. I shot into the helicopter, missing him. I should really do more target practice. I needed to be better. Maybe do it with guns more than knives. I shot him once more and it hit him in the gut.

My final mistake was keeping my finger on the trigger and going for another shot. It was the greed. Pride. I stared at the man's chest and pulled the trigger. I didn't know where it landed because a shot left the helicopter at the exact moment and got me on my side before I could assess what happened. I had no time. I went back inside the ship, limping as I made my way down into one of the rooms in the lower floors. As I went down, I left explosives behind. I shot a glass window and left another explosive in the room. I jumped as soon as the explosion happened, sinking myself for as long as I could and swimming at the direction of the explosion under the water. I needed to shield myself from their thermal imaging by mixing with the fire that entered the ocean. It was getting really hard to breathe.

I'm exceptional, I had to tell myself that over and over to fight the urge to give up and sink. I can hold my breath underwater for seven minutes. But with a side injury, that number's cut in half. There was an opening in the ship where it was in tact from the explosion. I rose up and took a breath in the small cave, hearing as the helicopter flew away. I know that they're going to send some people down here to hunt for my body, so I had to think fast.

I swam. I swam so fast that I went numb. My side hurt. I'm upset that it took so much energy for me to untie the ship. I'm upset that I didn't see this coming.

I knew I was fainting. But I'm really not planning to be caught by S.H.I.E.L.D. tonight. This is for Clint…for what they did to him. I can't. I swam as far as I could from the ship's dock. People would be waiting there. I needed to make it to another pier.

I couldn't do it anymore. I faded. My last thought was an illusion that someone was grabbing me.

"You know, you need some rest," he told the man whose head was slumped on top of the desk. Tony set a cup of coffee next to him. "Does that work on you? The caffeine? I don't think it does, but maybe you can dupe yourself into thinking that it does."

"We're just missing so much here, Stark," Steve said, flipping through the papers.

"Not really," he replied. "A cold-blooded killer gone rogue. She's as lost as we are. She can't find the mafia and we can't find her."

"I think that there's so much more than that."

"You can't bring that into this, Cap. I know you like thinking of rainbows and butterflies and good things and heroes and happiness, but this? This is not it. Romanoff is not it."

Steve didn't respond. He stared at the picture of Natasha on the paper. "That can't just be it."

"And that's where you're wrong. You're innocent and naive. You don't think that bad people exist."

"I know they exist, Tony," the soldier grew upset. "I destroyed one of them and flew his plane in the middle of the ocean and froze for almost a century. Bad people exist. I know that. And the difference between you and me is that I understand when someone's not it."

"She's killing people, Rogers! She's an executioner." he yelled. "She went into a hospital of dying people and pulled the trigger in their mouths!"

"But she's not trying to take advantage of people. She isn't HYDRA."

"And that's where you fail. You can't distinguish that there's different kinds of bad. HYDRA is not the only kind of terrible that exists. They are alive in many many different ways and they exist in different forms." The soldier remained silent. Tony tried to ignore his frustration, but he couldn't. "Maybe you aren't fit to find her. You're not a prime Clint Barton or thirty-year-old Fury, Rogers. You can't catch Natasha Romanoff and it's because you don't want to."

"That's not fair and you know that's not true."

"Then what's the truth?"

"That there's more to her than just what she's doing."

"And where did you get that? From the hundreds of files the agency has on her? Did you read all about her past, Rogers? Do you know everything about her now?" Tony pointed his finger at the papers on the desk, his digit making contact with the files. It was so stiff on the papers, it could have impaled them with enough willpower. "Well, Captain, I did, too. I'm sorry to inform you that I didn't reach the same conclusion. From KGB assassin to S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to serial vigilante murderer. I would've liked her better had she defected back to some neo-Soviet regime. At least back then she was fighting for the country that she felt was right. Now? She's just killing whoever she wants and answers to nobody. Come find me when you realize that that's a different kind of dangerous." The billionaire walked out heated, leaving the soldier to ponder his lasting words.

Steve still didn't submit to his thinking. Maybe killing Barton clouded his judgment. He just didn't want to find a reason to end someone's life without looking at everything like he did before. The issue was that he was looking for something that's not there. She was an assassin in her past, way before the vigilante escapades. She was already tainted with her work in the KGB and any kind of reputation she may have wanted to build even when she was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, will always be retroactively dismissed. If he were to list a "pro and con" paper about her, there would be so much more written in the latter that any hope Steve could have of having to defend her would be weak.

What he didn't understand, though, was why he was looking to defend her anyway. Tony was correct. She kills and kills and kills. It sounds like that's all she ever knows. She might be doing it for a cause she believed was right, but that's not enough to convince anyone in this organization about how they feel about her. She is a terrorist to everyone.

Steve spent a few more hours in his office before leaving. He went to the strategic quarters because he thought that that was where he'd find Hill or Tony, but they weren't there. In fact, there were eerily only few people in the place. "What's going on?" He asked one of the agents.

"Director Hill left in a chopper to run a mission," said the agent.

"For what?"

"I'm afraid that's confidential."

"I have top clearance, you can't say that to me," Steve said, grabbing a swivel chair and pushing the agent out of his computer to see.

The guy didn't protest and spilled the information. "They're running an extended ops back at the Brooklyn marina. I was told that it was need-to-know even if you asked," he started, a little apprehensive because of the man's urgency, adding the latter remark to erase the responsibility of withholding things from the captain and to save himself from the man's frustrations. Steve was trying to make sense of what's happening.

The soldier controlled his impending glare, and asked him for more instead. "For what? The FBI already cleared a crime scene."

"Director Hill made a deal with Silvio Manfredi. She said that she'll make the FBI drop their cases on him if he cooperates in the finding of Natasha Romanoff."

"She can't do that," Steve said, looking at the agent in disbelief. "As in the FBI wouldn't allow her."

"The Department of Defense said it was okay, but they weren't going to honor the contract. They just want to lure out the Black Widow. We also cut a deal with members of the UN Security Council for more leverage and the FBI can't really trump global agencies even if they tried."

Steve knew that this place wasn't always ethical. That was a great example of it. There's a thin line of moral ground around here, one that he hates teetering over. He mentally chided himself considering that he's crossed these lines in the emotional compromise of finding the assassin. His own hypocrisy was something that he needed to keep in check. "In what way does Silvio have to do with that?"

"He gave up his contact with Luchino Nefaria. They are having a meeting at the Brooklyn marina to see if she'll come," said the agent.

"How do they even get the information to her? This doesn't make sense I don't know how they expect her to come unless they write it in the sky for her to see."

"Agent Stark found a transmitter when you both went to visit after she had killed all those men." Ouch. Somehow that felt like an act of betrayal. Tony saw him visibly upset after uncovering absolutely nothing at their recon mission in Brooklyn many days ago. Omitting that information from him hurt and professionally warrants distrust. "They have snipers in the surrounding buildings, Captain. Director Hill wants her dead or alive."

The soldier slowly stood up. "Let me know how that all goes. I don't know why they didn't include me in the mission, but I'll be in the office," he said. The agent nodded at him. He went back to the office to grab his shield and helmet. It wasn't a complete lie, because he was back in the office, but only for a short second. He ran out to the helipad and saw that the quinjet was missing. Why couldn't Stark have just used his own boosters? They're in his damn suit.

There wasn't really any other option but to grab a bike and jump off the Helicarrier. The headquarters were hovering 30,000 feet just above Baltimore, that gave him two and a half hours if he revs his motorcycle at max speed, once the tires hit the ground, to get to the port. He would've been seen as a maniac if he wasn't Captain America, driving that bike out of the flying headquarters. He deployed the parachute and made it to the ground safely. Now it was just a matter of getting to the operation in time. In time for what? He didn't know. All he knew was that he had to be there. He doesn't know if he'll stop them if they tried to kill her, he just knew that he has to be there.

He arrived too late. There was an explosion meters out of the dock with the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicopter flying over it. He couldn't show his face at Pier 4 where all the other agents were, because they hid this mission from him for a reason. It disappointed him that the chopper was flying back, meaning that they were certain that the woman was dead. He saw them them drop people from the aircraft to scuba dive for her body. Steve was about to leave when he peered at something unusual in the water. He took out Stark's custom glasses and saw a heat signature, swimming quickly, though their right arm isn't reaching full extension. His eyes widened and he went after the woman, jumping into the water to meet her halfway.

Steve grabbed the spy, clutching onto her as he carried her over his shoulder and swimming with the force of his one free arm. He sighed as he got back on the pier. America's Number One Security rescuing America's Number One Threat? This wasn't going to be good. He stepped on Tony's custom spectacles, knowing that he can't bring it with him because the billionaire would find him. After he broke it, he tossed it into the ocean. Steve hopped on the bike and tied the unconscious woman's hands around him as he drove them to a safe house.

Chapter Text

She woke up in a bedroom she's never been in before. The woman instantly thought of her past lovers, her small rendezvous that she thought gave her life some flavor. She grew up with all guns and death and espionage, it only made sense to release some steam in some intimate form or another. All the faces of the men and the women that helped her with that popped up in her head. Still, this place was unfamiliar. It took her awhile to remember last night, though she doesn't know after swimming for her life. She doesn't remember sleeping with anyone. She was also clothed in the spandex she wore underneath her catsuit.

Natasha sat up on the bed, feeling discomfort in her gut. Her side was bandaged. Whoever it was that took her, definitely took care of her. And definitely took my shirt off.

She got out of bed, wincing as the side throbbed. Natasha limped to what she felt led to the outside. The instinct didn't fail her. There was no one here. The place also looked deserted, no pictures, no personality. It lacked furniture also. There wasn't even a television.

There was a scuffle in one of the rooms and Natasha headed to the small kitchen attached to the living room to grab a knife. It isn't sharp but it's definitely sharp enough if she wields it hard enough. And that's not a problem at all for the assassin.

A man with broad shoulders and a large stature emerged from another room. It looked like the bathroom. He was glancing at the ground as he wiped his chin with a white towel, having just finished shaving. When he looked up and saw the woman, he froze.

"I just shaved without getting cut. It'd be nice for you not to brand me with that after my feat," he said, his voice charming. The woman grew confused.

"Steve Rogers?" She asked, keeping the knife up. She knew he wouldn't hurt her, that's not how the man work despite having stabbed her lover through the chest. He still, however, can manage to catch and imprison her, so she kept the weapon up taking no chances regardless.

"Yeah, nice to see you again, Natasha," he said. She didn't like the way her name rolled off his mouth smoothly, like it made sense for him to use that. It fueled her ire. They haven't established being on a first name basis. She shouldn't be talking to Clint's demise. It was hard for her to gauge the situation.

She dropped the weapon, figuring out that he's not a hostile. She remained alert. S.H.I.E.L.D. can bust through that door any minute but…the soldier doesn't look like he has any obligations right now. This doesn't seem like some operation. He genuinely looked like he just got out of bed. Steve walked to the fridge to grab some milk. He put out two glasses and poured it in one. The soldier looked at her and gestured if she wanted one but she didn't respond, vocally or facially. He shrugged and poured water in it instead of milk.

Natasha thought of three ways to escape. They were on the third floor of a Brooklyn apartment. Even though she didn't see, there's a chance that there's a fire escape out one of the windows. The front door can be utilized, but that's the most likely place where someone would enter to corner her. She could see from where she was standing that there's a window in the bathroom. She could rappel herself out of that if the fire escape idea doesn't prove fruitful.

"No one's getting you here," Steve said, sensing her wariness. "S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't know about this place. No one really does." She didn't move. She remained expressionless. There was no reason to trust this man. "Look," he started. "At least take a seat so you don't stress your wound."

Natasha weighed her options. She didn't wake up bound, so the soldier can't possibly be hostile. His demeanor is relaxed, with a hint of worry, but she can't tell what from. He grabbed his glass of milk and went to the couch to read a book. He's living in this apartment that no one knows about, and he's acting like she isn't even in the room unless it was to address her apprehension. If Natasha didn't know any better she would think that the agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was voluntarily inviting her to his secret home and providing shelter and a place to recuperate.

That's if she knew better. And as people know, she's made a lot of mistakes this past night. She undertook the whole mission with the foundation of "not knowing any better". Her guard was higher than ever.

"There's some gauze and treatment in the third cupboard. It's a clean through and through by the way," he said, not looking up from his book. Natasha now noticed that there was a blanket and a pillow on the couch, deducing that the soldier had stayed the night there instead of in his bed. She was now clear that she had just slept in Steve Rogers's queen. "And I have answers to your questions if you have any. I'm sure you don't, though, with your lack of talk."

That came out a little snarkier than was character for the man. The spy even knew it. She decided to sit on the kitchen stool away from him in his sofa. This was a great place to be because it was just the correct amount of paces to leave if the situation goes awry and the soldier lied. After much consideration, she drank the water. If he wanted to kill her he would've done it by now, or by yesterday, or by just leaving her in the pier. He didn't do that. He literally and physically cared for her. The widow was still confused. She thought she should probably ask for answers now since the captain just set up the floor for her. She didn't speak.

"You can also leave anytime you want or if you want," he said. Then, closing his book, he looked up at her. "I'd advise against it, though, since there's an absolute manhunt in Brooklyn. They don't think you could've gotten far…I mean with your side and everything. My boss is pretty upset."

She still didn't talk and he left her there so he could change in his bedroom. The woman dressed her wound and waited for him to come out, but he didnt. She noticed her catsuit and remaining weapons on the dining table, folded neatly, as if inviting her to take them. And she did.

"Also, before you leave," he started, peaking his head out of the bedroom door. "There's breakfast." He went back in and the woman saw the food next to her things. She took the toast out of courtesy and left.

That whole interaction was amusing. A part of her even regretted leaving, not because of the soldier but because there's surveillance everywhere. He wasn't lying. If her face hadn't been publicized that much in the past month, it definitely was now. Black bulletproof FBI SUVs were present at almost every other block. There were some cars she knew belonged to S.H.I.E.L.D. She climbed the roof of the captain's apartment to get a better vantage point; there's no way she could manage to leave without being caught. She was already down on half of her torso, she wasn't at her best.

Steve got out of the bedroom fully dressed in casual clothes for work. He smiled noticing the missing toast.

He had three hours to get back to D.C.; he's not sure if his absence went unnoticed. Regardless, he's involved in assisting a fugitive. He's only been in this new century for ten years, but he's aware that he's looking at a felony. The soldier didn't know if he can feign any of this to the highest intelligence agency of the world. He didn't even know if he was capable of something illegal. So he visited a place to form an excuse to even be in New York, seeing as agents scattered the streets, perfectly placed to be incognizant alibis.

Her gravestone was newer than all the others in the landscape. He had been very excited finding that one of the most important connections he built back then was still alive when he woke up. She was old. Steve had heard about Alzheimer's back in the day, but it was a fairly new thing. He didn't expect his old lover to fall victim to it just because people mostly died of pneumonia or tuberculosis back then. He was surprised to see that she'd lived this long because it wasn't common then. The soldier put his hand on her gravestone. He made sure to visit her at least once a month, and more if he ever found time between his hectic line of work. The flowers that he had left a couple of weeks ago had almost withered away. "I don't know what you'd think of me right now," he said to her ghost. "I know you would've been okay with me going after Bucky. He's doing great by the way, running errands for the agency up in Berlin. He calls me every day." He paused, smiling as he glanced at the epitaph. "But Natasha," he started, sighing. "I know that if you were here you'd probably be upset about my choice with Agent Barton. I just don't wanna make the same mistake again. What good am I if I don't see some good in people?" He kissed the stone and left a new bouquet of flowers before turning his heel and heading out of the cemetery.

He went to the New York S.H.I.E.L.D. compound. "Fancy seeing you here," said an agent. "It's been awhile, captain." Agent Phil Coulson wasn't as excited as when he first met the soldier, but he's still very elated every time they met with each other.

"I just need a ride to the Helicarrier," Steve said.

The other agent laughed. "What'd you do? Jump off?" By the captain's silence, he realized that his joke wasn't all too humorous. His face straightened in bewilderment and shock. Then he realized that he was talking to a super soldier and let it go.

When Steve got to the flying office, he was surprised seeing Hill in the command station. "You did an operation without me," he said to her, crossing his arms. "What happened to me being the one to take her down?"

"You've invested yourself too much in this, you needed a break," she said without looking away from a screen. Steve knew that was a lie. Tony probably told her about their altercation and now he was out of the loop on the search for awhile until he convinces the billionaire that he's changed his mind about her. But what was so wrong with thinking good things about people? He didn't dwell on it and instead needed to find an answer to her next question. "You were in Brooklyn?"

His mind races. He can't lie, that's just not who he is. "Peggy," he said. It was kind of manipulative and low, going to her gravestone as an excuse. It didn't sit well with his conscience. He also knew that the director would buy it and not ask any further questions. His past and old lover were sensitive and everyone who knew about it acknowledged that. "You've got lots of eyes there, Hill. It didn't go unnoticed on my way to the cemetery," he said. Steve knew that he was seen, if not by S.H.I.E.L.D. then by the FBI. He had too good of an alibi for anyone to pursue the matter. If Hill had asked where he was specifically last night, then he probably won't be able to answer with sincerity. But she didn't. The director actually thought that that was a good move for him.

"It's good to get your mind off this case" was what he heard her say. She decided to let him know about the mission. "I'm sure you know by now that we granted Silvio some immunity," she said. That was a lie he saw through, but he didn't say anything. There isn't a lot of candor around the place these days. "Tony gave me the idea that that was a good way to lure her out. I mean"—she pointed at the screen of the list of names that Natasha has killed—"it's pretty obvious the mafia that she was targeting. We all know her endgame with that one."

"How were you able to contact Manfredi?"

"Let's just say that we're not the first organization that he's created a relationship with," she said. It was ominous. What kind of relationship? An immunity deal kind or a corrupt and busted government kind? He didn't ask any of those questions because he didn't want to think about the mafia at the moment, he just wanted to know what they have on the woman.

Hill told him all about the events at the marina. "How'd she get away?" He asked.

"We don't know," she said. "She fled the moment I hit her with a shot. She disappeared inside the ship and I had a couple of my men pursue. We didn't expect that she'd blow it up because she was in it." Hill let out an exasperated sigh. "She killed three of our men, Captain."

He looked at the screen, Natasha's case file open. "We'll get her," he said. It wasn't a complete lie. They will, only after he's figured out a way to get through to her.

"We tried to find her through thermal imaging, but figured she had died. I sent a few others to retrieve his and our agents' bodies but they never found her. She has to be working with someone else."

The last part was what got him. It sounded like he was an accomplice. Tony appeared and they exchanged civil nods. The director saw through them and their glances, knowing that the two were at a disagreement again. They do that often.

"Captain," he said. Steve didn't reply, just acknowledging him in silence.

Steve went inside his office, pouring himself a glass of water and staring out at the D.C. landscape. "We almost got her," said Tony. He didn't know that the billionaire had followed him.

Without looking behind him to make eyes contact, Steve answered, "I know. Hill briefed me."

"She's good," he said. Steve didn't respond and nodded at the comment. "She killed some of our own. You gotta realize that she's not the saint that you paint her to be."

Steve looked to the side. "She's protecting herself."

"At the expense of our people."

"It's not like you were all that nice to her," he said. The soldier turned around to look him in the eye as he made conversation. "Snipers on the roof? Were you all trying to kill her? What if she decided to leave the situation instead of pursue Nefaria, what would have been your next move Iron Man?" There was a stench of indignation in his voice.

"Chase her," he said. "Figure out where her she lays low."

"And then?"

"Arrest, Rogers? The same thing we do every time. Look, I don't know what you're on thinking that there's innocence left after all she's done. Just get on the same page so we can have you back on the team," he said.

"My belief about her character says nothing about how I do my job."

"It says everything about your intentions."

"If cops came in every scene already angry at criminals, they'd just be fulfilling a vendetta. I'm not going to go in a situation knowing that I'm going to kill her." Steve's face was mad. It was frustrating that the man opposite him didn't understand.

"It's not like you haven't let emotions get in your way of trying to catch someone," Tony said, referring to the Winter Soldier.

"Was I wrong?" He challenged. "Looks to me like he's a fully functioning member of society."

"At what cost brought him to where he is today?"

"If you can't let go of the fact that people's past aren't as clean as yours, I'm surprised you're still standing in this organization," Steve sat on his chair and turned it so he could look out of the window again. "You have lots of killers around you, Tony. If you don't mind me suggesting, you've created them, too. Ultron wasn't a particularly nice invention, don't you think? By proxy, you've killed lots of people, too."

Tony stood, hurt. "I vividly remember you telling me that I shouldn't be guilty about that."

"No," the soldier started. "I remember saying that I'm sick of other people paying for our mistakes. I put your creation on my back, too. Please leave so I can figure out a way to get Natasha. This is still my assignment and even if none of you consider me a part of it anymore, I'm still gonna do my duty." The engineer left his office, obliging to his request with a snicker. Steve didn't know how much more he can go working under the authority of people who have casted him out. He knows he's in the wrong for aiding Natasha, but he can't have another death in his hands. He thought about Tony, how he said that when he thinks he's right in situations that are wrong, it makes him dangerous.

It turned out that he was right about Bucky, despite having kept something from Tony. Maybe he can be right a second time. He can't let bloodshed be in his conscience, not after what he did to Clint.

My hair's blonde now. It averts eyes that would be looking for a redhead. I got some bangs. The catsuit's in the trash.

I'm not giving up the whole Black Widow identity, I just need a new one. It's really difficult trying to get jobs done when I have people watching me everywhere. I think cargo pants and a black shirt with a leather jacket was more like it. Plus, boots are cute. I managed to get out of Steve Rogers's apartment by trapezing on rooftops and crawling on alley walls. The spider in me jumped out. I thought I was going to lay low for awhile, but seeing the knives I left on my wall and my attempt at Silvio Manfredi really just fueled a lot of the anger in me. Not only that, the reminder of Captain America stabbing my best friend and the love of my life through the chest, but later quartering me to recover, was a whole new confusion I didn't really want to be a part of. I was already perplexed with him giving him a funeral, but questions are rising. Is he betraying S.H.I.E.L.D.? If he is, then he's no better than all the criminals out there. He's no better than me. I don't get to be a hypocrite getting angry at him for backstabbing the agency; they're just trying to protect the public.

Was I a consolation? Did he regret killing Clint so he wanted to change the outcome for me? Sounds like bullshit. I don't really like redemption stories. I had a pretty good one, but I'm more into the tarnishing my reputation kind of business now. And also, he'd have to catch me to even get a chance at redeeming himself. That's not going to happen. He caught me at my weakest and served to strengthen me. Was he looking for a challenge? I don't know.

It's been a week now. I think I have to come out with some sort of attack against another Maggia family. The Costa mob sounds like a good option.

"I think you're missing the point here." I infiltrated a drug lab. I've never seen so much cocaine in one place. I think I killed pretty much everyone except for the women that were slaving away, putting the white powder in packets. I was left with two men. I'm not sure which one's which. One of them's married to a Costa sister. The other one was his best friend. "I'm just trying to get Bruno." Bruno Costa was the head of the syndicate. He ran things with his brother Frank Costa, but I'm not interested in him just yet.

I hung the two men upside down, sitting on a chair with my gun pointed at them. I'm sure blood will be rushing into their head, sooner or later. "There's three ways you boys are dying today," I started. I put my feet up on a desk and crossed my ankles. This part of the job is the fun part. "Anyone who hangs upside for too long is at risk of their blood vessels rupturing in their brain. I read on WebMD that that isn't good," I said. I have the flair for the dramatic, nowadays. "But you're more likely to die suffocating because your other organs are pushing down on your lungs. Those are the two heavy bags in your chest that help you breathe and stuff." Neither of them said anything. "But there's an even bigger twist. You both are most likely to die with bullets in your head because I'm here. WebMD didn't really say anything about that, but I'm sure it's fatal," my voice grew dark. I was kind of getting annoyed with their silence. They've been hanging for thirty minutes. "The first thing to get hurt are your eyes. In thirty minutes you're gonna want me to let you both out, the pressure will be unnerving."

It wasn't until I said "Joey, you have kids don't you?" that I caught their attention.

"You don't kill children," he hissed at me. He's not wrong.

"I can make exceptions sometimes," I said. "And the only reason I haven't killed children yet is because their parents have, historically, always cooperated with me."

That statement made him think. He was going to die today and he knew it, but was he going to bargain the life of his child? Don't be silly, I wouldn't kill children. I just need him to think that I would.

It worked and he told me where Bruno Costa was, only after he made me promise that his daughters were safe. Now, was that so hard? I made sure to put a bullet through both of their heads so they didn't die a painful death. It's the least I could do with their cooperation and support.

I headed over to Bruno Costa's place.

The media moved really fast. People now know that I'm after them. It's kind of frustrating because I would hope they'd keep it a secret so I can pop in to surprise Bruno, but we can't have everything.

His mansion was large. It had two stories and I realize that it would be more efficient to start from the top then head down. I got on the roof and hopped down on a balcony. Five rooms had their lights on, sometimes shadows moved past them letting me know that there were at least eight people in the house. There could also be more. I entered the bedroom, slicing Mrs. Costa's throat as she cleans herself in the powder room. The rooms next to hers were her grandchildren's, Joey's daughters. Both of them were sound asleep. Better not wake them up.

I subdued the maids. They're the only ones I really have sympathy for, they don't deserve to die for making a living. No one else was on the second floor, so I headed to the first. This was a mansion. I don't know how many doors I have to go through to clean this place, but there's quite a lot. I really want this job to be quick, but I don't think that's how it's going to work, not with the mob meeting happening in the living room. There were six of them around the table, five men and one woman. They were talking about their sex and human trafficking scheme; it angered me. None of them was Bruno Costa, though, so I don't know where he could be in this house. I surveyed every single person on the table, doing a double-take when I realized that Silvio Manfredi was in here, his arm in a sling. What's the mafia got to do with a mob? They're competitors. Drug lords don't usually work with other drug lords.

I realized that Manfredi worked heroin and Costa did cocaine. It started to make some sense. It wasn't until I realized an anomaly on the window behind him. It was a red dot, the reflection bouncing off the glass of a laser from a sniper's rifle, and I found myself in a bit of a pickle again.

Shots fired through the giant windows in the living room. I saw Silvio die first. Then the chef. Everyone else left alive hid under the tables, but were inevitably caught. I got shot. It's really annoying how many bullets are in this line of work. It went straight into my collarbone and I yelped in pain. I needed to get away from there, but I was crawling too slow. I realized that I would've died if it weren't for a man standing in front of me, shielding me with his all-too-familiar steel barrier. What the heck was he doing here?

I recovered from the hit. It shouldn't be a time and place for conversation but I started one anyway. "What are you doing here?"

"S.H.I.E.L.D. business!" He yelled over the shots firing. "We have to get you out of here," he said "you" as if he wasn't a part of this, too, like this was a rescue mission for me.

"You're lying!" I also yelled over the bullets.

"Maybe we can talk about it some other time?!" In any other situation I would think that he's asking for a date. I know that he really wants to get to know me for a different reason. I'm not trying to be caught tonight.

I stood up, my hand on my collarbone, and ran up the stairs. "No, Natasha! This way!" He tried pulling me to the direction of the back door.

"No!" I shouted, my collarbone in pain. The bullet was lodged in there. "I made a promise."

"What does that even mean?!" He made his way over to me. He realized that he couldn't stop me from going up the stairs so he just followed me to keep shielding me from the shots entering the house. It was like it's raining rounds.

I realized that Bruno Costa wasn't here because he planned it. There were shots firing upstairs, too. I can't believe the man was going to kill his own blood just to keep his disgusting business alive, just so he can destroy his competitors. He was going to sacrifice his whole family. I went in his grandchildren's room and they were nowhere to be found. Bullets were entering in all the shattered windows.

"Natasha, what's going on?" The soldier can't make sense of it. He doesn't realize the toys and child paraphernalia around the room. The posters. The action figures tipped over. The pink vanities. The two pink and purple beds.

I went over to the closet to see two small children holding each other's hands, their knees up to their chins, hugging their bodies in fear. "Come on, I won't hurt you," I said faintly. They looked at each other as if in a telepathic conversation, asking the other if they should believe me. "We need to get you both out of here! It's not safe!" I had to shout with all the bullets firing. I got grazed in the back. I winced in pain and I hear the soldier shout my name.

The two children (they couldn't be older than seven) went to me, finally making up their minds. I carried the younger one on the side without the collar bone injury, and held the other's hand. "I need you to get them out of here," I said to Rogers. He had no room to save all four of us. "Go, I can take care of myself you know?" He nodded, took both of them in his arms and kept the shield up. Once he ran down the stairs, I couldn't resist. "Oh and Steve?" I asked. I rappelled myself down, gave him a kiss on the lips that were exposed beyond his Captain America headgear. "Thank you," I said, and brought myself up with the same grappling hook and disappeared.

"We have to act," Steve said, seeing that the Widow had murdered a couple of the Costas. It was on the news now.

"Her M.O. says that she doesn't hit twice in one day," said Tony.

"Okay, but she can have information about where Bruno or Frank Costa are. We have to head there," he said.

"We don't even know where they are," Tony said.

"Look," the soldier was irate. "You don't get to act stupid around me. You know that Maria Hill knows exactly where every single crimelord is in this world. So shut up about not knowing." The billionaire didn't respond, keeping his eyes fixed on the computer.

Steve knew he wasn't going to get through to him so he went and talked to another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, the one who had let him know about their Brooklyn marina mission. The guy told him the exact coordinates of Bruno's house. He had a quinjet this time; it only took him an hour.

It was eerily silent around the neighborhood. He didn't know if it was just peaceful or if his gut is telling him that it was a calm before the storm. "Come on, Natasha, where are you?" He whispered to himself. He was propped on a tree, many feet away from the house, just enough so he can see through all the windows.

He saw the woman on the balcony and he was about to pursue when she disappeared inside. She saw her subdue people, but not kill them. Moments later, shots were being fired. He had no other option but to go inside and find her. He saw her on the floor, groaning as she clutched her neck region. The woman was surprised to see him there, which he expected. Steve had a plan to get her out but she was too stubborn to. It annoyed him a little bit, but he knew that he couldn't stop her.

"What does that even mean?!" He said after she told him that she made a promise. It was confusing, but he had to go with the current, not away, or else they're both going to get hurt. They entered a room that he didn't bother to look around in. It wasn't until he saw two children cooped in the corner of a closet that made him realize what she was doing. Natasha, however, got hit again. Dammit, Steven. "Natasha!" He said as he clutched himself closer to her so the shield could accommodate for them both. They were touching and Steve got distracted. He snapped back to what was happening when she turned and had a child in her arms. He knew that it must be toiling to carry her. She told him to get them to safety but he knew that he can't save all of them, not if he's prioritizing the children. So he let her go.

Bullets were still firing when he heard the woman call his name. His first name. He turned and all he felt was her lips against his. He was confused and because he was flustered, it all happened too quickly and he didn't have enough time to return it. And with that she left and he didn't see a trace of her anywhere. Steve hoped that she finds her way to safety.

The firing bullets stopped as soon as Steve got out of the house. He realized that S.H.I.E.L.D. was here and they've shot the snipers and shooters. There were about ten of them. They find out later that Bruno Costa had arranged for a meeting with notorious mob bosses only to have them gather in one place and kill them.

"There were children in there," Steve said as he walked by Tony, handing the two frightened kids to a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. The other man didn't respond and the attention of the director was gathered.

"What happened?" She said, her voice a little upset.

"They were firing at all angles. I couldn't really find cover. Natasha w-"

"Romanoff was there?"

He nodded. "I said that we needed to move, but no one did."

"There's no point in pointing fingers, Captain," she said. It was annoying but he dropped it because he wasn't going to get into a petty fight. "Why did you let her go?"

He grew frustrated. "I didn't," he said with a glare to the two of them. "I was preoccupied with the children she saved."

"Why didn't you apprehend her?" Hill's questioning told him everything he needed to know. She didn't trust him for this case anymore.

"Because I was carrying two children in my arms, director." His voice was stern. "I had to choose whether to get them to safety or to catch a woman with bullets raining all over us, did you expect anything more? If S.H.I.E.L.D. had listened to what I had to say, maybe we could've stopped this whole thing and caught her and the gunmen. But we didn't. Do you have anymore questions for me?" Both agents were silent. Hill shook her head no.

He turned to walk away, but paused when Hill responded. "We're not the bad guys here, Cap."

"I know, but you're treating me like I'm one." He got on his quinjet and flew away.

Steve purposely omitted some things. He didn't tell them that her hair was blonde. He didn't tell them that she was injured and vulnerable. He didn't tell them that he shielded her and that's why she survived. He definitely didn't tell them that she kissed him.

And he thought about it the whole jet ride to his covert apartment in Brooklyn. He called Hill and told her that he won't be at the Helicarrier for awhile. Maybe he will take that needed break that she keeps mentioning to him.

Natasha Romanoff kissed him. He liked it. But he didn't know if he should.

The moment he turned the lights on in the apartment, he saw the unconscious spy on the couch. She made use of the gauze and equipment because she knew where to find it, her clavicle clearly cleansed and bandaged as seen through the opening of her crewneck. He went to walk over but with a misstep he hit the stool, causing it to graze the hardwood floors. That split second, the spy quickly brought up her gun to his direction, her eyes remaining closed. "You have really unorthodox ways of thanking me," he said, pertaining to both the kiss and the fact that a gun was aimed at his chest. He knew she wasn't going to shoot so he kept walking, removing his shoes and tossing his keys. He unhitched his shield from his back and set it on the ground. The gun followed his every move. It was impressive because she can't even see.

"I'm a complicated person," she said, lowering the gun, opening her eyes and sitting up to grab her jacket.

"You don't have to leave," he said, grabbing a glass of water for her.

"What's in it for you, soldier?" She said, putting the jacket on.

"I don't know what that means."

"Why are you helping a criminal?" She drank the glass that he gave her.

"I'm gonna need you to turn around," Steve said, dodging the question. "I know that you didn't dress your back properly."

She did as he said, taking off her jacket just moments after she put it on. The soldier pulled up her shirt to reveal the small of her back. "You don't really owe me an explanation because you've already done so much, but I'm gonna use Clint's death and the grief it's caused me as an excuse that you do."

He grew sad at the thought of Clint. He cleaned her wound and he was astonished because she didn't flinch at all. "I think my agency has an agenda that I don't fully stand behind."

"What is it?"

"I think they live by a black and white code," he was putting ointment on the wound. She didn't speak, letting him know that he should continue speaking. "They don't see all sides of the story, despite saying they do." He taped the gauze. "And I was a part of it for awhile. With the whole Ronin situation," he said, pulling her shirt down to let him know that he was done.

She nodded. He saw that she had some tears in her eyes when she turned around again. He can tell that she fought very hard to keep them from falling. "Now the truth," she said, putting her boots on.

"It is the truth," he said.

"I want the whole truth." She zipped the boots up.

He sighed. "Clint Barton," he said. She knew that he was the reason and she saw it coming, but somehow, it still hurt very hard. "I made a mistake," he whispered. Natasha grabbed her jacket and stood up. He stood up with her. "I'm sorry. I know that's not enough and I know that I'm never ever going to make it up to you, so I'm just gonna spend my whole life making sure that it doesn't happen again."

She nodded. "Can you tell me what his last words were?" She whispered to him. Her eye-line was to his chest, because they were standing so close. She had to crane her neck up to see eye-to-eye.

"He said to finish it. To finish it for him and his family," Steve said. It made the spy even sadder and it was clear that she tried her best to shake it off.

"Thanks, Steve," she said his name again. He didn't know why he liked it so much.

"I like your hair," he said. She smirked, her seductress nature coming out. Natasha walked out of the door and he thought that was the last time he would see her.

Chapter Text

In the course following the fallout of the massacre at the mansion, he found out a few things. Steve found out why they wanted to kill her. He was also told about a new mission that involved taking her alive (which is great don't get me wrong), but the consequences were absolutely dire...maybe even deadly. Ethics slipped the agency and he didn't feel particularly obligated to work with them anymore.

Steve didn't go back to S.H.I.E.L.D. for awhile. He spent six months in sabbatical as the agency tried to stop the woman. The public hasn't seen her. They still don't know her hair is blonde. Tony tried to contact him a few times, but he never answered. The next time he found out anything about her was through the news.

He opened up his phone to watch the media. "Breaking news: As of this Thursday morning, five men were found dead in an abandoned subway tunnel. All bodies have been identified with two being the notable Frank Costa and his brother Bruno Costa, the newest drug kingpins of New York after the massacre of crimelords in Bruno Costa's home six months ago. There is still much to unfold but sources say that this is favoring the works of Natasha Romanoff, who we've come to know as Black Widow"—Steve paused, flummoxed that S.H.I.E.L.D. was so desperate, they tipped the FBI about her personal files and they publicized all of her information, from her Russian background to her asylum in America. People knew her name now.—"There is a warrant for her arrest and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is on the outposts, anticipating her return and hopefully with the lack of casualties."

He had to take a seat. Steve doesn't know how long he can last keeping the secret that she had been in his home. He hasn't been in contact with S.H.I.E.L.D. and he honestly feels that they don't care. They know where his New York safe-house is at this point, but no one's showed up at his doorstep. Partly also because Natasha had been in New York only three times in the past six months, the rest have been spent in D.C. or Miami to unravel much of the drug sector whether it was related to the Costas or not. The agency has some people here but they're not prioritizing this location, the Black Widow just hasn't been here frequently enough to allocate resources. So Steve stayed in hibernation, praying that the spy will pay him a visit soon.

He heard a knock on the door and he opened it to reveal his best friend. It looks like Berlin just isn't as fun as being with him. "Steve," he said with a smile, his metal arm making a robotic noise as he poised it up on the doorjamb to hold himself.

"Buck," Steve breathed as he pulled the Winter Soldier in for a hug. The man laughed as he pat him on the back. His other hand carried a duffel bag. "How long you in town for?" Steve asked, opening the door wider to let him in.

"Indefinitely," he said, setting his things on the couch and helping himself to the fridge. "Just went on a hunt for ISIS for the past year."

"Where'd you get to?"

He downed a glass of water before putting it in the fridge dispenser to get some more. "Mostly Germany. That's where my jurisdiction was. A few comrades took to Turkey, but everyone else I worked with were at the heart of it all in Syria."

"Why are you here then?" The captain took a seat next to his best friend's things.

"The infiltration's mostly in the Middle East, the Berlin sector's kind of dead. They said they're shipping me to Iraq, but they didn't tell me when. So…I came home."

Steve nodded, smiling at the other product of the 1910s that he would've thought he outlived. He remembered seeing him fall off the train. After that frozen adventure, he wasn't expecting another fossil to live with him in this age. Seeing him and his metal arm for the first time in his conflicts against Andrew Pierce was a surprise from the fallen. It hurt his heart trying to to relieve him, to make him notice that whoever he was, whoever the Russians made him, wasn't actually who he was. It led to a full blown fight against Tony and the government. His troubles with the Black Widow were uncanningly reminiscent of the whole Winter Soldier situation.

Bucky turned out okay and maybe she could, too, with a little push from him.

"I'm glad you're home, Buck," Steve said with a smile.

"So what's been happening with you? I've been gone a whole year. I wanna hear about the women," James said with a smug grin.

The other soldier laughed. "There aren't any."

"Oh, please," Bucky replied. "I heard about Agent 13 from Sam."

The other guy didn't say anything. There was that stint in the whole year he was gone. Sharon Carter just reminded him of Peggy so he didn't say much about that situation. It was just a need for him to recover what it was that he lost. He thought he could find that in his almost-lover's niece.

"Ooh, the Steve Rogers going on a fling," he said, taunting information out of him.

"It wasn't like that," he shook his head at the accusation. "I thought it could be something, but it had to be short-lived. There just wasn't a connection."

"Your lips made a connection."

"And that was as far a it got."

Bucky narrowed his eyes. "Whatever you say, Steve."

The captain didn't tell him about Natasha. He didn't say anything about the kiss at Costa's mansion or the fact that she's come over twice. He especially omitted the fact that he way have been aiding a fugitive. It would be a trap telling James, knowing that he wouldn't shut up about it. "A woman in Steve's apartment?!" was something he would constantly say. It would just be a source of mockery. Even with Bucky's newfound allegiance to doing good things, Steve knows that he won't berate him for it. He'd probably understand better than anyone, but he would just think that he's in love with her or something.

"I met a woman, by the way," Bucky said, catching his attention. "It was only for a couple nights, but…" he started. "I don't know, Steve, she was definitely special."

"What's her name?"

"That doesn't matter. It was just a fling and I know I'm never going to see her again."

Berlin, 2 Months Ago

My hair's red again. I also left America. It's kind of pathetic, the TSA and Homeland Security. I know that there's increased surveillance in airports, but they didn't bother to put in as much effort in ships as they do airplanes. I found some side work that pays. I can't really get a job with my face in every corner.

Someone hired me for an extraction in Germany, apparently they stole something very important. I still don't know what it is, but it's enough for my bills so I don't ask. I stayed at the ship's dock, getting bumped on my shoulder. I followed the person who did that. She was my contact.

There was an eye on my corner and I took notice of another person. There were four here who I know are following me. I'm certain they're sent by the same person that hired me.

The woman I was following disappeared and I was about to go and follow her when I realized that she left something behind. There was an envelope left on a table of the outside of the coffeeshop. I took it and read whatever it said.

Encoded in the message was a name. Baron Zemo. I don't know what I'm supposed to do with that information, if he was friend or foe. But I went to the nearest Apple Store to use a laptop. My German's a bit rough, but when a consultant asked me if I needed help, I told her that I didn't.

I crashed at the hotel my employer told me to.

I found him the next day and followed his moves for the next week. I didn't really know what to do, but when I decided to make contact he was dead when I got there. I was told that I needed to get out of there, but I really really needed more information. Zemo's files were everywhere and in the middle of my search, an explosion happened. Someone bombed the place and I didn't know why. There was mass chaos going on outside and I found myself underneath rubble.

Some guy with a metal arm lifted a brick wall above me. It was fascinating. His arm, I mean. I've never seen anything like it. I noticed the S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform. I had to grab as much intel as possible before they try to grab me but, it didn't look like he even recognized me. I don't know if the whole agency knows what's going on in America, but I don't want to find out. 

I grabbed Zemo's files and fled, losing the man with the steel arm and anyone else who wanted to question me. I'm not a witness, I'm a perpetrator. If I let myself be known, I'm a liability to my employer and then I'll get an eviction notice.

"You know," Someone entered through my hotel's window and I unhitched my gun as quickly as I could and shot the man without looking. I don't care who he is, I don't trust anyone in this place. I'll frantically unload rounds without looking because a spy's gotta be paranoid to be good, anyway. The bullets bounced off his hand. I shot a few more times, but he used his steel arm to shield them against me every time. "Relax, I'm a friend."

"I don't have a lot of trust these days," I said, keeping my gun up. He unholstered his gun and set it on the table, but that didn't make him any less of a threat. One short extension of his hand and he can choke me to death. I threw a disc on his arm and disabled it.

"Okay, that's mean," he said as his prosthetic went limp. "I'll forgive you for that." He sat on the couch like he was invited. "We work for the same people."

So maybe the S.H.I.E.L.D. sector in Berlin did know me. Why don't I have cuffs on my wrists?

"I don't know who you are, but I know you were just perusing in Zemo's office when it went kablam," he said, opening his fleshed hand and mimicking an explosion. He propped his steel arm on his thigh and tried to undo my zapping. "I'm gonna need you to work with me. I was assigned on a side mission to track down this neo-Nazi thing."

I lowered my gun. So I guess that's what my job was. I still don't know what I'm supposed to be extracting. "If this is your side mission, then what's your main mission?"

"ISIS," he said. "There's a lot of radicalism goin' on around here. They just fled so I'm not really doing any work for my usual job right now."

I nodded. I still don't trust him. S.H.I.E.L.D. could just be luring me here. "And this isn't exactly legal. I do some mercenary-work on the side. This is one of them." Okay, so maybe I can trust him, but a my job is to always be suspicious. "Some vigilante stuff that I guess isn't really all that vigilant-ic because it's approved by some private sector of the government. I'm not really sure."

He sounds like me. I don't even know my employer's name. I don't even know what my mission is. I don't know if I'm on the side of the good guys. I sat and relaxed on the kitchen stool. If he wanted me dead, I would be. I mean, not that I would be—we would get in a fight and he would lose and he'd be dead. The point is if he wanted to kill me, he would've attempted it by now. He could be trying to lure me into S.H.I.E.L.D., but if he tried he wouldn't get very far. So I guess that I have no choice but to trust me. He wasn't even in his S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform, so there's some comfort there.

"Did you get anything from Zemo's files?" It was suspicious, but I let him look through them. He couldn't get his arm to work. I sighed and went over to his arm to fix it; I felt bad. "Oh, thanks," he said with a sheepish grin as he looked through the papers I laid out on the island.

"I didn't get much. He was dead when I got there," I said. He looked on with confusion.

"Who would've wanted to kill him?" He asked.

"Didn't you say this was a neo-Nazi operation?"

"Yeah, but he's just gathering information on them. He isn't actually related to the whole thing. I mean, I guess that's why someone wanted him dead, because he poked his head in too many places." I got his arm to work and he felt it. He gained control of the steel again.

"He had a failsafe," I said, finally realizing it. "There must be some kind of system set in his office where in the event of his death or if someone started poking around, it would explode and erase everything."

"How'd you come up to that conclusion?" He asked, still looking at the papers.

"Because I've been following him for a week and checked the surveillance for the past few months, Zemo's been the only one going in and out of the building. It's abandoned and there's no way someone could plant a remote-detonating bomb in there. It would just kind of have to be impossible," I said. "And you know that it didn't come from someone shooting a bazooka in the place." He nodded in agreement with all my statements.

We worked together for the next month and I got close to him. Not too close, though; I still missed Clint.

"Sorry, but I really am just not that into you," I said to him. I was undressed, my hands on either side of his head and my arms straight to prop myself up to allow myself to look him in the eyes. "This is purely sexual and platonic in nonsexual situations."

"I know, you keep saying that," he said, a smirk forming in his face.

"It's just a reminder," I said. "I mean I find you attractive. If I didn't, I wouldn't be sleeping with you."

"Thanks?" He said with a laugh. "You don't have to let me know every single time before we have sex, you know?"

"Yeah, I do. Men have a way of twisting sex into love sometimes," I said, bending my elbows so my lips could reach his neck.

"Trust me, I won't," he said. I believed him.

The whole mission to take down the regime was a bust, but I didn't fail. I found out along the way that my extraction was a young child caught up in the whole system, a kid who—just like me—is growing up in a torture facility to raise soldiers for the incoming Nazi reich. I know S.H.I.E.L.D.'s going to take down whatever it is when it gets to that dangerous point, but for now, I've finished my job.

I slept with James a fifth time before I left. He and I had a whole capacity for lust that needed to be let out. That was as close as we got because we were both mutually just not into each other. We were both okay with it. I told him that my name was Anna, and he didn't ask for my last name. I didn't ask for his. I don't even know if his real name was James. We never shared personal information. The only thing he knew about me was that I was a spy. Before I left for the last time, though, I told him about my work in America.

He approved of it, though he told me not to mention it to his superiors or he'll get fired.

James's potential, his constant need for chaos, reminded me of…well, me. I've constantly found myself surrounded by men who always wanted wreak havoc, whether it was good or not. Alexei Shostakov. Clint Barton. James whatever-his-last-name-was. Maybe I needed a change of pace. I thought about Steve Rogers. He wasn't one of them. Maybe I'll pay him a visit once I land back in the states.

But I didn't.

I did a few more jobs here and there. I got a new lead for the Costa family, found out that one of the drug labs was near a subway tunnel. It didn't take long for me to realize that some members hid out in the actual tunnel. Did they think I was stupid? I killed all of them this morning.

I don't know what I'm supposed to do now. There are still more mobs, more bad people to kill. I never really understood what my purpose was, but it's not like I'm looking for it. I could go for the rest of the Maggia, but they all fear me. There hasn't been a trace of any other mafia or gangwork. I can go to the west coast, there's a lot of crime there. But for now, I find myself in the apartment, what used to be mine and Clint's. It was saddening, but I'm getting over it. Everything around the Black Widow dies.

I thought about James and hoped that he's okay. He's one of the men that I've touched who hasn't died. Hopefully he won't anytime soon.

I went to pay a visit to Steve Rogers. I looked in the window and shocked myself.

James and Steve Rogers in one place. Did he play me? Did he send him to fool me? I don't know what's going on so I pulled out a small bug that can enhance their voices through the glass and listened to their conversation.

"Oh, come on," Steve said. "Go find her."

"Nah," he said. "She was a lovely woman, but we're not right for each other. I think it was good that it happened, but we both said that it wasn't correct. The chemistry just wasn't there."

"You do that all the time. It's been eighty years and you haven't changed." Eighty?!

"I don't know what you mean, Steve."

"Remember when you met that nice girl before we enlisted," Steve said. They lived in the 20s together. Both of these men went into cryostasis. I just always find a way to shock myself. "She was perfect and you went: 'I don't think we're right for each other'. And then you got all upset she married someone else."

"Uh, yeah, because we had just ended things like three months before that. How could she have moved on so quickly?" James asked. Steve was laughing.

"Buck, you gotta figure out your girl problems at some point," he said. Buck was a cute nickname.

"Okay, punk, I will." Punk was an even cuter nickname. "I honestly think she would be more right for you than me," he said. Is he talking about me again? He literally knows nothing about me.

"Why is that?"

"She's a fighter," he said. "She's independent. She doesn't let things get in her way. Almost reminds you of a certain someone." I mean, yeah, that's all of me, but they lost me at the last statement.

Steve shook his head, standing up to grab something from the fridge. "I don't know if that's something that I can go through again."

"Peggy was everything to you."

"Yeah, and now she's dead, Bucky. I don't want to have to compare the women of this century to her. It's not fair to either of them."

"But this isn't a comparison," James's voice grew soft and sincere. "You're a soldier, you're out here constantly trying to save people, but the one thing that you've always wanted in your life is a partner who doesn't need saving. That's why you fell in love with Peggy. You don't need to constantly save people anymore and there's a clear difference between the women you keep at bay and the ones you let in. I think we always want to protect the people around us, but we don't need to constantly save them." Steve nodded at his statement. "But honestly, I don't even know why we're having this conversation, Anna's in Berlin and I'm sure that's not even her real name. I love you man, but I'm not gonna go on a manhunt for a woman—no less a spy—no matter how perfect she is for ya. We can let that go," he said to him with a pat on the back.

I should probably leave, but a part of me wants to bust in there and get welcoming hugs from the both of them. Not that I trusted Steve, but I definitely like James. Also, not in that way, but in a way where I'd be upset if something happened to him. There were just too many things that happened in Berlin that I felt connected to him.

It's different, though. Somehow I missed Steve.

A few days later, I realized that it's been half a year and decided it's time to go visit Clint. I drove to D.C. to say hi to him.

"I've been doing it for you," I said to his gravestone. This wasn't the prettiest cemetery, but I know Steve tried. I know that this whole burial thing  was the remedy for his guilt, but I don't much care. He didn't want it to end the way it did, none of us did, but there's still that hint of resentment from me. Even if he didn't mean to kill Clint, there's still so much about his judgment that I don't trust. There should've been another way. "I took down a few of the Maggia by the way, the Nefarias, the Costas." I sat on the ground, my legs criss-crossed. "I'm afraid if I do anymore there'll be a power vacuum in the east."

It's true. I don't know if I can keep doing what I'm doing because of how it's going to affect people. There will always be mobs. There will always be organized crime. The issue is I have to weigh just how strong I want them to be. Take down enough crime families and the remaining will thrive. That's not what I want.

"I really wish you were here to tell me what to do next." Tears started falling out of my eyes. I'm grieving again. "I guess there's only enough killing in the world that I can do to distract me from you. I don't know how I'm gonna get through this at all." He said that he got over the death of his family with time, but I never really believed him. He used his sword as a way to free himself from the chains of pain. He never gave himself a chance to mourn and maybe that's why he got so angry. I'm angry, but never to the extent he was. And it's not because I didn't love him enough that I didn't care for his death, but maybe because it was his time.

Clint wasn't a lost cause, he was just lost. I tried to help him the best that I could, but the hardship of losing everyone you love was too much for him to bear. I know how to lose people. I lost Ivan, the man who raised me; the man who fought the Red Room for me. I lost Alexei, the one man that I built a life with. I loved him to the point where I wanted to have children with him and he was pained with my inability. Both of those times I resorted to systematic murders, the kind where I was ordered by the Soviet Union, not the kind where I went rogue and did it all by myself. Not the kind where I set my own agendas. The kind where the criterium fit a political purpose. I still killed, though.

But Clint—he didn't know what it felt to lose family. He had lost comrades and brothers-in-arms, but not family. I never stopped him because I would be a hypocrite. I murdered when I lost, so why couldn't he?

All of this thought and this one-sided conversation with my past lover has me thinking about my mistakes of the recent. I don't regret killing the Costas. I don't regret killing the Nefarias. I don't regret anything. I don't hate, but I anger.

It wasn't until I looked down to cry that I saw fresh flowers. Someone had been here yesterday, from the looks of it. It had to be Steve. There was no one else it could be. So I cried some more.

I was walking back to my motorcycle so I can ride home to New York, but there was an altercation just a few feet away.

"Let go of me!" A woman yelled. A man held her wrists, gripping them so tightly, trying to get her into a van. "Help! Please!"

I decided not to think about my tears. I saw that another man left the van to help the other fight her resistance.

"Gentlemen," I said. "Is everything okay?"

"Yes, lady, mind your own business," one of them hissed at me. That pissed me off.

I shot him through his wrists, his hands were parallel enough so that one bullet went through both of them. He let go of her hands and I realized that the other man pulled a gun out. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," I said, aiming my gun at his friend's head. "How much do you care about your partner here?" The woman ran away as I occupied both of the perpetrators.

He dropped his gun on the ground and put his arms up in surrender, the other guy was groaning from pain. "Now, I'm gonna need you to drive"—I pointed at the injuryless man—"and I'm gonna put your buddy with me inside this truck, and we're gonna go on an adventure, okay?" He had no choice but to nod.

I hopped in the back of the van, dragging the injured man with me. He winced in pain, but I really wasn't up for mercy. "You're just gonna keep going straight until I tell you to," I said. The man nodded. "You're gonna answer my questions." He nodded again, frantically. He kept staring at me on the rearview mirror, paranoid. "What were you going to do with her?" He didn't respond. I fired the gun in the van, scaring them both.

"W-we're gonna go to a bodega!" The driver yelled. "Th-this man w-was going to pay us."

"For what?" My voice was angry and they both knew it.

"I-I d-don't know." I'm a lot of things. Professional killer. Super-spy. Mixed martial artist. I'm also a walking polygraph. I shot his friend in the calf muscle. I made sure it was a through-and-through. "Jesus, lady! What's your p-problem?!"

"You wanna know my problem?" I asked him. I moved up and opened his mouth to put the barrel in it. "My problem is I really really hate when people lie to me," I said. He nodded. He had tears in his eyes. "When I pull this gun out of your mouth you're going to tell me what's gonna happen at that bodega, okay?" He nodded again.

"He-he said that i-it was for a project. L-like a trafficking scheme!" That was a better answer. The answer didn't have good content, but I needed a truth and that made more sense.

"Where's the bodega?"

"Seventh and Jefferson," he said.

I told him to turn right at the intersection. I bound his friend's hands and his feet, not that his hands could move if he tried considering the immense pain he's in. "You can stop the van here," I said. There was nothing around. We were in the middle of nowhere. I hit him in the head with the grip of my gun, knocking him unconscious. I did the same thing to the other man.

I drove to the nearest police station and stopped the car in the parking lot. I honked and exited the car. I made sure to take off my hat and look at the surveillance camera, winked, then left the premises before they can pursue. The police are going to find out about the bodega and detain the two men. I made sure to leave a note about it inside. I figured that I needed to let the police know when they find lots of bound bodies at the trafficking site. I'm going to have a peaceful night after capturing them.

I could also kill them, but I don't know if I'm in the mood. I guess we'll see.

There was a photo of Natasha on the news, the first real one. It wasn't a sketch of a blurry CCTV ghost, or a ten-yea-old S.H.I.E.L.D. mug, it was her, staring straight at the camera, with lights emanating from the police station highlighting her face. It was Natasha in high definition.

"Whatcha lookin' at?" Bucky asked Steve, trying to look over his shoulder and into the phone. He moved it away.

"Just reading the news," the captain replied. James didn't press further. Steve couldn't believe that Natasha was back. His phone started to ring and he realized that it was Tony.

He clicked the green button. This would be their first real conversation in months. "Tony."

"Hey, Cap," he said over the phone. "I know we've had our differences, but Hill wanted to know when you'd like to come back."

"Just Hill?" He challenged.

"No…all of us wanna know."

He sighed. "She was the one that told me to go on a break."

"Yeah, but," he heard a sigh over his phone. "We wanted to know if you were ever coming back."

Steve just shrugged even though the billionaire can't see him. "I don't know. Soon?" He responded vaguely.

"It's just—we—okay, these past few months were hard. We couldn't even get close to the Black Widow, but you managed to find her that night at the Costa's. You know her so much better than we ever will and we need your instincts, Cap. I've read the same files you have and it seems like you have the highest chances at catching her."

"Is that the only reason you want me back?"

"No. We miss you here."

"I'll be there, then," he said, then hung up without hearing what else the other had to say. "We're going on a trip, Buck."

The other soldier groaned. "But I'm on vacation," he whined.

"No you're not. You're furloughed," Steve insulted him, in which the other rolled his eyes at. "Come on. We're going on the Helicarrier."

The other didn't protest further and went with him to hop on his bike to get to the quinjet parked at the New York headquarters.

"Manchurian Candidate is here," said by none other than Tony Stark. He went to shake the Winter Soldier's hand. "Nice to see you again, Cap," he said, giving the soldier a nod.

They walked to the command station so they could visit Hill. They exchanged pleasantries, but went to work quickly.

"Holy shit," Bucky said. No one really heard him. He felt himself inching closer to the one screen that showed a picture of the woman who knew.

"Buck, come on, you're a part of this," Steve said. The three agents were huddled around each other, with both Hill and Tony briefing him on the mission. The soldier was in no-man's land. "Bucky," Steve said again, without looking at him. He just felt that his presence wasn't there with them so he kept calling out to him.

"Steve, that's her," Bucky said.

"What?" The other soldier responded, still not looking up.

"That's her. That's Anna," he said. Steve snapped his head up to see what he was looking at. Natasha's picture, the one he saw that same morning, was on the screen

"What? What are you talking about?"

"That's the girl from Berlin," Bucky said, perplexed and flabbergasted.

"That's…" Steve pointed at the screen. "That's the girl you were with in Germany?" The other two agents were paying attention now.

"Yeah, we were both assigned on an op," he said. "She didn't tell me by who, but I know that my mission was laid out by Max Eisendhart."

"Holy shit," said Tony. "You're telling me she was in Germany this whole time her trail went cold? I mean, until yesterday at least."

"Yeah and no one ever told us about her. I didn't know she was a wanted criminal. No one in the Berlin office knew about this or at least they did and didn't bother to tell us because it wasn't that important up there. I mean with the radical groups and all, we didn't really need to put resources on an American vigilante," Bucky responded.

"And you're telling me you had a relationship with her?" Asked Steve. It was an oddly phrased question. One would think that it almost sounded territorial.

"No! Steve I told you about her," he started. "We worked together on the mission. That's it." Obviously Steve knew more than that, but he didn't feel like it's pertinent to publicize that to his boss and his comrade. "Obviously, I would have arrested her if I had known." Would he have, though? James asked himself that over and over.

Hill and Tony crowded around Bucky now. They wanted to know every single detail that happened with the Black Widow. Steve was aghast. He didn't really know what to think. The other two wanted to know how she moved, her tendencies, her mannerisms, the way she talked, what she ate for breakfast (in which Steve wanted to respond: Toast!). They pestered James with questions and he's giving them all the clues to catch her.

Steve doesn't know if he wants them to get her. Well, he knows, but doesn't want to be a part of it.

He watched the news as the three of them talked. Natasha had sent two men, who had tried to abduct a woman, to the police station. That wasn't her M.O. She's notorious for killing, but she stopped. Why? There was another breaking news. She left seven men injured at a sex-trafficking bodega. She didn't kill any of them. By the time the police got there, all the women were waiting outside. The women told them about the woman who let them go, the woman who freed every single one of them. There were about twenty of them, beat up and torn down in almost every way possible. Some of them were naked, but they said that the woman gave them blankets.

Steve can't let S.H.I.E.L.D. catch her after finding out what they were planning on doing to her. Part of him wanted them to kill her more than take her in alive, just because the punishments they have in place were so severe. Dead or alive, Natasha was going to suffer.

Chapter Text

Steve was sitting on the kitchen stool. Bucky had explained to everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D. the way that the assassin moved. It was going to be difficult to keep them from finding her now that they know twice as much as when they first started—not that they even knew much in the beginning, but they know enough. He didn't expect to make contact with her because he didn't really know how. He's taught himself to be an expert on modern technology, but even then didn't really care much about it, so his knowledge wouldn't be useful considering that he didn't know how to use it. The internet wasn't an option at trying to find her. It's been a few weeks since his last visit at S.H.I.E.L.D. with Bucky. The Black Widow hasn't returned since the bodega incident.

He thought of one thing. There's only been one place that both of them have seen each other that no one else knows about. He grabbed his bike and made his way to D.C.

"You visit him often?" she asked. The woman was new. It was like something changed with her that no one else could detect but him. Her hair was a shorter red and this was the first time he's seen her in seven months. He was making his way over to Clint's gravestone when he saw light bounce off crimson. He knew it was her meters before he could even recognize her face.

"Yeah," he responded, putting his hands in his coat pockets. The seasons were nearing winter. "I make sure to stop by—change the flowers," he said. It seems that he spends quite a lot of time in cemeteries nowadays.

She nodded, staring at the stone instead of making eye contact. Natasha decided to start a conversation. "Why haven't you taken me in?"

Steve had many answers for that, but he decided to respond with the largest truth. "I feel guilty," he said, his voice sullen.

"That's not enough," she started. "Soldiers don't just stop because of guilt. They're soldiers for a reason." She finally looked up and he was met with green and a glow that could only be from the resistance of polling tears. Strands of her hair flew in front of her face, and despite having been painted a murderer, Steve saw nothing but sorrow and humanity. That wasn't the face of a cold-blooded killer.

"He didn't deserve what I did to him," he said. "I think I could've saved him."

She shook her head, the confrontation was too much to bear. She collected herself, in fear that she'll collapse and streams will leave her eyes. That's not an image she wanted him to see. Natasha stared at the ground. "No," she said, sniffing. His face transformed in confusion. "You couldn't have. That was my job." Her tone was poisoned with guilt. "Every day that he left our house to go on a rampage, I always tried to stop him; tell him that there's always another way. And then one day i just decided that I should help him—give him targets, let him know that I support him in hopes that maybe he'll start listening to me after."

"I don't think there's any more of a higher standard you should've held yourself up to. Stopping him from whatever he was doing shouldn't have been your responsibility," he said, stepping a little closer so he can take a full look at the gravestone.

"That's hypocritical."


"Because that's exactly what you're doing to me," she said, staring up at him for him to see that her eyes were completely red. "I'm a lost cause, Steve Rogers. Just like he was."

"I don't believe it," he said. "No one ever is."

"Clint was too far gone. If I couldn't save him, you couldn't have either," she said. "And you can't save me. I'm a spy. I know what you're doing. You're only looking up for yourself, trying to mend a guilt that's eating you up. Trying to save me is a selfish thing to do. Stop doing it. I know, of all people in this world, about trying to erase the past by helping the present. That's not how it works."

Of all things he was, selfish wasn't one of them. "But is it so bad to be selfish about this when I'm trying to help you have a better life?"

"You can't save me," she said softly. "I'm too angry to be saved." Natasha pulled out a knife and turned to hold it against Steve's neck. He didn't move. He didn't feel threatened despite the sharpness that inched on his skin. "Leave me alone. You killed Clint and I'm not just a piece you left behind to be picked up. I'm not a contingency to your mistake."

He nodded, his chin touching the blade. "I have a warrant for your arrest," he said quietly.

"I know."

"If I stop chasing you to save you," Steve sighed at what he was about to say. "I have to chase you to catch you."

"I know."

"But you don't deserve that," he said. "You are capable of change. You brought down the sex trafficking scheme with no casualties."

She released the knife from his throat and hitched it in a holster underneath her trench coat. "People change."

"Then why won't you let me help?"

"It's not good for my conscience to contact the person who killed my boyfriend, Rogers," she said.

"I can ask for your pardon. I can help you continue the vigilante life without having to be a vigilante."

"I worked for S.H.I.E.L.D., I know. But I've been pardoned once. It's not going to happen again," she said. She was starting to walk away.

"Bucky told them all about you," he said.

"Men always find a way to betray me," she smiled.

Steve nodded. "He's just doing what he thinks is right."

"You don't think he's right?"

"No," he said, stepping closer with every step she takes back. "If I did I would've told them every encounter I've had with you."

"You should," she said. "It's your job and you're betraying your country. Where are your loyalties?"

"Where are yours?"


"My loyalties are to whatever is right."

She sighed. "The right thing here is to turn me in."

"The right thing here is to give people a chance."

"You're an optimist," she said with a smile.

"I'll tip them off your trail," he said.

"I can't ask you to do that. That's like giving up everything you believe in."

"I just have faith you can change," he said. "That isn't compromising any of my beliefs. You were an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., the same way Clint was. You'll find that same purpose again."

"Don't talk to me about Clint," she said, her voice angry. "And you're naive in thinking you can change everyone."

"I was just blinded thinking that I couldn't," he said, looking at the gravestone to let her know what he was talking about. "Have a good rest of your life, Natasha Romanoff. I'm an ally. Don't forget that," he said as he turned and left.

I didn't expect to see the soldier there. I knew he wasn't hostile so I thought that striking up a conversation couldn't be so bad. It's been a long time since I've needed to let off some steam. There hasn't been any sign of other Maggia families working, probably because I scared them. There are only a few left since Bruno Costa shot a lot of the crime families dead at his house.

I decided to sell the apartment I shared with Clint. There's this whim that I might be able to let go of my grief by separating myself from everything that he was after the Barton family died. That apartment, all of the memories I shared with Ronin, were all grief-stricken. There wasn't a moment that I spent in that place happy unless I spent it in bed with Clint or having conversations that didn't involve his escapades. It was a really broken place.

I loved him. I still do. I once told him that love was for children, and, honestly, considering that every man I've ever loved is six feet under, I'm starting to believe it again.

My dalliance with Clint was an unexpected one. I was Auntie Nat. Laura and Lila and Cooper were the only family I had. Clint gave me them. After their deaths I stood by his side, watching him cry to seeing him develop into Ronin. I felt something in that time and I still feel guilty about. Laura was my best friend and a part of me felt that I betrayed that. But with my grief combined with Clint's, there wasn't a lot of self-preservation that can overpower our need for each other. I know that I loved him. I know that he loved me. Now I'm just starting to realize that the only reason that that happened was because we didn't have anyone else but each other. We were both in pain and we lived under the same roof. Even a psychologist can explain why it happened. It was realistic and understandable and expected. Our relationship was predictable and inevitable.

I will never look at my past with Clint as a stint. We didn't feign the relationship. But I will forever understand that I wasn't the right one for him. Laura will always be the one for him, no matter how much he tried to move on with me. It doesn't hurt me to think that. Deep down I understand that had he remained alive, our relationship would have been a short one. We were better as best friends, not lovers. I resent Steve Rogers to a level that made me angry that he killed the only family I had left. I don't resent him from ending my relationship with someone who, in the depths of my heart, I know couldn't exist for very long. He ended a relationship that was birthed from loss and shared experiences. It was one that didn't know happiness. I'm not angry at the captain for that.

But I am angry that he killed my best friend. I am angry that he's trying to make up for it by saving me. No one saves the Black Widow, even though Clint went into his grave thinking that he saved me once. There is no redemption from a person raised as a killer. There's too much red on me.

I went into my new apartment. It was smaller. It didn't remind me of Clint. It was a place that can only fit one person, and considering that I've spent my whole life alone, it's a place fit for me. It's also in Washington D.C., and I know it may sound stupid considering that the people who want me dead are literally stationed in the sky above me, but I'm tired of running. This way, I can visit Clint as much as I want without having to drive three hours every time.

The Black Widow hasn't resurfaced. It's been a month since the bodega incident. S.H.I.E.L.D. found itself re-allocating its resources, taking away fewer and fewer agents from the Romanoff trail because her presence has died down. She was still an outlaw and because of that, someone will always be looking for her no matter how small the team gets.

Steve has spent his last few months going rogue behind S.H.I.E.L.D.'s back. Behind Bucky's back. Every time he wasn't needed at the agency for missions, he was hunting down the Black Widow. He returned to the cemetery many times but found that he always missed her at the lest second. There were always new flowers there; he was always too late.

He's adamant at finding her because he wants to know why she stopped. He wants to know if he got through to her. But deep down, Steve just cared. She was in pain and he knows it. He read everything in her file. She has absolutely no one around her after he killed the only person that was there for her. He admitted to himself that this constant pursuit was out of guilt. The need to save her and protect her was an obligation, a debt to Clint that he needed repaid.

Initially, Steve kept going back to New York. He asked around about her, but no one really knew. She was under the radar, but it wasn't until he stumbled across her landlord in a bar.

"She used to live here," he said, drinking a large beer. "I never said anything because she was my friend. She guaranteed me and my family protection. She guaranteed everyone in the apartment protection. I used to get a lot of thugs around here. People from gangs. She scared them off. She also paid twice the rent. You can arrest me and everything for helping a criminal, but she doesn't live here anymore. She moved out a few weeks ago."

Steve asked if he could show him her old apartment. The man was more than happy to.

There were patches on the wall. The landlord said that she liked to throw knives on it sometimes. He said that Natasha always had it fixed every time she did. There were also compartments everywhere. Steve accidentally stepped on a soft spot on the wooden floors and realized that if he pressed on it, it would open. He thinks that at least four handguns can be fit in there. There were more places like it. There was one on the wall and one on the ceiling. This really looked like the place of an assassin or a spy.

"Clint was really nice, too," the landlord said. "He cooked a lot and gave me food. He also helped me fix plumbing issues and any other problems tenants had with no cost. She told me that he did it because he felt bad about how much they've fucked up this room."

"You knew them both?" Steve asked.

The man nodded. "They were the best people I've ever met. I gotta admit, it was scary finding out that Ms. Romanoff is doing all that and that Ronin was Clint, can you believe that?! I didn't because I knew they're good people inside. I know that they'd never unleash their anger here. I always felt safer that they lived here, even if they left a trail. Like sometimes I have a dream where my building explodes because people found out they lived here, but somehow, I trusted them. They were the guards of this neighborhood. More people in this place knew about them, but no one said anything to the police about Tash because we really liked them."

"Why are you telling me this now?"

"Because they're both gone. They're just legend now, Mr. Rogers," he said. "You can arrest all of us, but we can't help you even if you did. She just gave me three times the amount of her last month's rent and left. That was a couple of weeks ago."

"You have no idea where she could've gone?" The landlord shook his head no. Steve sighed and before he saw the landlord leave, he said one last thing. "I'm not with the police. I just wanted to let you know that you can trust me. And..." he paused and smiled, "I'll make sure to keep this place safe. I'll see to it that the gangs don't come back to your doorstep now that she's gone."

The landlord smiled and disappeared. It kind of upset Steve that he always missed her by a sliver. He was finally catching up to her tail yet he was always a moment short. He biked back to his apartment where Bucky was waiting.

"Where you been?" the Winter Soldier asked.

"Out," he said.

"Terrible answer," the other replied with a laugh.

"Looking for Natasha, that's all," Steve said. There really was no use to lying to his best friend.

"We have other agents doing that. And also me. Why didn't you let me know?"

The dynamic has shifted to where Bucky was leading the search for the Black Widow. Steve agreed wholeheartedly to Maria Hill's decision because it made sense considering that he's had the most contact with her. Part of him feels that there's a weight lifted off his shoulders because he's not in charge of trying to catch her anymore. He felt tied down because his obligation was to the agency. And even though his allegiance were still to them, the responsibility was on James's head, not his. So even if Steve found her, his conscience would feel better knowing that he's not prioritized to bring her in. He's still an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and his job is to do that, but his energies aren't supposed to be there anymore.

"I guess I was just addicted to finding her trail," he said. It wasn't the complete truth, but it made the most sense. "I guess I just got so caught up having this mission assigned to me and you know that I was obsessed with it from the beginning. Tony let you know that I've never slept since this happened, right?"

Bucky laughed. "Yeah, he said you were drooling on her paper reports."

Steve smiled. "Somehow I'm still very motivated trying to find her even though I went on that sabbatical." He never really went on that, he was just given a break by S.H.I.E.L.D., and in that break, he wast still using his time to find her.

"You don't have to do that, Punk," he said, lifting his bionic arm on his shoulder. "She's a master spy, it's very difficult to find her and you'd just be breaking your back and losing sleep over an assignment you're not even responsible for."

He sighed, if only his best friend knew how it isn't as hard to him as it is to them. "I know. I just..." he started. "I feel upset with how the Ronin situation to work out." Bucky nodded. Steve had told him about that whole situation. "I guess I just have a terrible soft spot for murderous vigilantes now."

Bucky laughed. "It's not like we're going to kill her when we get her Steve. I have a personal soft spot for her," he said with a wink and somehow that didn't sit well with Steve. He almost grew territorial over the issue. "And if it gets down to something like that, it won't be your job anymore to neutralize her."

The soldier nodded to placate him and to let him know that he's ending this conversation. Bucky thought that his last comment would reassure Steve, but he was scared. He doesn't want it to come to that point.

So for the next month he tried to find her. It took over his life. She's resurfaced, but in less violent ways. She brought a couple gang members with their hands chopped off to the police, and though it was a terrible sight, it's better than dead bodies. The patterns of her missions were centered in D.C., letting him know that this was probably where she moved. It was more convenient and it made a whole lot of sense, so he went on the hunt.

It was a sprinkle of luck that led him to her. He and Tony had just finished doing a little recon for a side project Hill assigned them to and now he and Bucky were catching up at a local pub—it was called Jerry's—talking about how their days went. The two soldiers were playing pool and when Bucky went to the bathroom, a woman approached him. She had glasses on and her hair was tied up. She grabbed a pool stick and took Bucky's place.

"If I didn't know any better, I would think you're following me, soldier," she said, hitting the cue ball and putting three balls in three different holes. "Twice in two months?"

"Natasha," he smiled. "You could be caught here."

"Isn't that what you want?" she asked. She was dressed in commoner's clothes, her eyes a different color—brown—because she put contacts in. Her hair was still the same shade of red. The spy bent over in front of Steve, trying to gauge her position so that she can hit a ball in. The soldier wasn't uncomfortable and it's not like he hated being in the position, it's just that she was seductive and his 20s attitude shifts his behavior around gorgeous women. He does his best to treat them with respect, yet he felt like he was losing his dignity with her backside almost pressed up against him. Steve moved to the side, even though the warmth in his midsection tempted him to stay in that position. "I won't get caught," she said, putting a ball in. "You're in a notorious gang's club, did you know that?"

Steve shook his head no, unable to speak, doing his best to hide the red of his face because of the encounter just seconds before. He reads her and concludes that she wasn't aware of what she did. She was just playing pool.

"There's a crap ton of criminals here," she said, moving around the table and playing some more. She hasn't looked at him ever since she started playing. "At least every person in this bar has been charged of a misdemeanor. I'm surprised you even made it through here."

"Me, too," he said. "We just stumbled upon some place new. Buck and I thought we'd check it out," he said, mentioning the other soldier almost as a warning to her.

She crinkled her eyebrows in a cute way as she concentrated on putting another ball in. Natasha stood up straight, putting a hand on the tip of her cue. Steve found himself attracted to her and it unnerved him. He feared it. They've only encountered each other five times, all in a span of nine months. He shouldn't be feeling that way. He fools himself into saying that it was purely sexual, and it makes sense. She's an attractive woman. He would be more confused if he wasn't attracted to her. "James is here," she said with a smile. Steve felt a tug on his chest, the way her face lit up at the mention of his best friend. He didn't know what that feeling in his chest meant. "I can't wait to see him."

"Natasha," he started, his voice a whisper and urgent. "He's going to take you away in cuffs if he sees you. He oversees the hunt for you."

She nodded, setting her cue down. "Maybe I can persuade him," she said seductively. Steve took that with an innuendo. He didn't want to think of his best friend and her having sex. It's not that it's disgusting, he saw it more as infuriating.

"I'm serious," he said.

"I know, I know," she said. She walked around the table again and placed a chaste kiss on his cheek. "You know that I don't really trust anyone," she whispered into his ear, sending shivers down his spine. She left him, moving her hips in a way that mesmerized him. Natasha turned and mouthed, "except you," before smiling and exiting the pub.

Bucky came back a few minutes later with Steve hitting balls in the holes. "Did you just skip me?" He asked. "It was my turn when I left."

"Oh," he said, having lost the thought after a redhead occupied his time. "Sorry, I forgot."

"Cheat," Bucky said with an overdramatic, exasperated sigh. The other soldier laughed.

Natasha disappeared again for another month before Steve finally got her. He calculated that the bar was probably close to the place she lived, so he worked in a ten block radius. He was on the last possible apartment when a person stopped him. "Who are you?" The man said with a Russian accent, his eyebrows furrowed and defensive.

"Steve Rogers," he said calmly.

"If you're a cop then you're not allowed around here," he said in a gruff voice. He was overprotective. "Don't keep showin' that picture 'round here." That statement let him know that Natasha was definitely here. "She's not here. We don't do criminals in this neighborhood. You're disturbing our people."

He nodded. "I'm a friend."

"Nice try. Get lost," he said.

"No, I swear," he said. He took his jacket off and pulled out his pockets. "No weapons. No FBI badge. No wires. I swear I mean no harm. I've been looking for Nat since we met at Jerry's," he said. The mention of her nickname and the naming of the pub softened the man's demeanor. Steve felt that same tug on his chest when he sensed the man's protectiveness for the spy. The man huffed and gestured for Steve to follow him. They made their way down a few alleyways and underground stairs until they reached an apartment complex.

The man pressed a button and spoke into it. "A man named Steve Rogers insists you seeing you, Natalia," he said in Russian.

"Really? That's a surprise. I'll buzz him in. Thanks, Nikolai," she responded in Russian as well. Steve smiled, understanding that exchange.

The door zinged open and the man named Nikolai growled at Steve before leaving. The soldier found himself getting excited as he walked inside the elevator. He opened it and was met with the living room of what looked like Natasha's loft. The door opened and he had to pry another fence barrier in order to get inside. He closed it behind him and looked around the room.

"You finally found me," a woman walked out of a room, her hair in a bun wearing lounge shorts and large shirt. She smiled and motioned for the man to sit. "It's only fair I let you in since you let me in your apartment a couple of times," she said. She handed him a glass of scotch. He really wished he could get drunk right about now; he can't believe he's in the apartment of an outlaw.

"I don't think it would ever sit well with me knowing that I didn't know where you are with all of your hiding," he said.

"Are you always this controlling?" she asked with a smile. Steve looked around the place. It didn't look like a spy's home at all. There were personal things everywhere, paintings and decor that told Steve the woman has more depth than anyone could ever think of for a criminal. There were photos on bookshelves. He noticed that Clint was on many of them. Some were her and of two children. Some were her and Clint and what looked like a family.

"No," he responded, walking around the room without her permission. She let him. "I'm always gonna wanna find you until I convince you to move to the good side."

"I am on the good side," she said, sipping her coffee as she twirled on her island stool.

"I know, but I mean on the better side," he said. "Work with us," he said, looking at her. Her eyes were back to the green unlike the brown that covered them the last time they saw each other.

"I'm too broken for repair, Rogers," she said with sincerity. "You have to stop this."

He took a few steps closer to her. "I know when I'm right about people."

She smiled slightly, shaking her head. "You thought you were right about Clint."

"I'm not going to make that mistake again," he said.

"You're not going to if you let me go," she said. "I shouldn't be on your agenda anymore. It's taking a toll on you." She put her hand on his cheek without his consent, rubbing her thumb on them as she noticed the bags underneath her eyes that accrued from his sleepless expeditions of trying to find her.

"Join us," he said again. He liked the warmth of her palm. He blinked and realized that it was gone too soon.

"I'm not killing anymore," she said with a smile. "I'm getting better. You got through to me. I'm coping better now. So you can go and let me go." He shook his head. "Why are you still doing this?"

He didn't respond. Their faces were inches from each other. "Because I'm not gonna stop until you're in safe hands."

She scoffed. "I know you have powerful friends, but even you can't change this tide. They're not just going to lift the manhunt on me, Steve." She said his name and it sent a shiver down his spine.

"I'll make them."

"Why are you so adamant on this? And you can say that it's because of your guilt with Clint. This goes further than that. I'm a spy, you know? I can tell when you're lying."

"How good of a spy are you?" He challenged her.

"Very," she said with a smirk. "The best of the best. I can see through you."

"No, you can't," he said straightly.

"I can read everything about you, Rogers."

"Tell me everything you can read about me."

"You're guilty. You're trying to repay for what you did to Clint by making sure you don't do the same mistake with me. You're conflicted. You don't want to be here because it goes against your orders. But you do want to be here because you think it's the least you can do to keep me safe. You don't lie, you just say partial truths to preserve your own integrity. You care too much. You sacrifice your life in all of its shapes or forms, physically, emotionally, mentally, virtually, whatever it takes to keep people safe. Even if they're hardened criminals like me. You're sacrificing your personhood being here with me and not turning me in. Every time you see me you're worried because I compromised your beliefs. Yet you still try to find me even though you know it's not good for your mental state. And that's the one thing I don't understand about you. Why don't you run away from a person you know will jeopardize your heroism? Why are you hunting for someone who, whenever you spend time with them, conflicts with your beliefs in actions? Why are you here?"

"I can't answer that," he said. And it's true because he didn't know.

She shook her head, getting off the stool to put her empty cup of coffee in the sink. "You need to figure it out. Every second you spend with me means that S.H.I.E.L.D. gets closer to finding me. And you don't want that."

"You don't know what I want."

"I literally just told you a synopsis of your life," she said, staring at him. "Trust me when I say I know what you want."

He set the glass of scotch down on the counter, walking over to her. "You don't," he said with a whisper. Her brows crinkled in that same way that they did when they were playing billiards. She turned her head slightly in confusion. He recognized that she's not used to being told she was wrong. He's not either. And in a fleeting second, his face was inches from hers and he felt her breathing pick up. He tried his best to compose himself.

"You shouldn't do anything that you might regret, Rogers," she said softly. Her voice was almost quiet in that if he didn't have enhanced hearing he wouldn't have heard her. "Don't confuse this as trying to protect me," she whispered again, their lips almost touching.

"I'm not," he breathed in her mouth. It was the last thing he said before their lips crashed, the woman's eyes opening widely, but then closing themselves in a split second. She was met with a passionate one, one that got hungrier by the moment. It took her a few seconds to respond because she couldn't comprehend, but when she did, she felt her arms come up and around his neck, moaning into him as he grabbed her by the waist.

This wasn't how it was with James. This wasn't even how it was with Clint. She felt a rise of panic inside her, but she let it pass as the man travelled his hands under the large shirt she was wearing. She jumped onto him, her legs around his waist and he led her to the only place in the room he was familiar with, the living room. He placed her on the couch softly, his lips making their way onto her neck, his libido peaking at every sound she let out.

"Steve," she said. It sent the warmth to his midsection. "You should stop," she said and he did.

He propped himself up and looked at her sincerely. "I'm sorry," he said.

They didn't move from that position. She caressed strands of hair on the side of his head, smiling softly. "You don't want this."

His eyes were still dark with temptation but they were also warm with a little bit of sadness. "You can't keep telling me what I want," he whispered.

"You don't even know me," she said.

"You know that's a lie," he said.

"Reading from your S.H.I.E.L.D. files about my history is not enough for you to know me." She smiled in a way that almost broke Steve's heart. It was obvious that she liked him, he knew it, but she was stopping him because she thought he would regret it. It almost made Steve mad at whoever made her to think that way.

"Then tell me something beyond the files."

She shook her head, deciding to take this in a different direction. "You don't want to be with a criminal."

"You're not a criminal," he said, taking the hand that was moving through his hair and kissing its palm. It was a sweet gesture that made Natasha's insides turn.

"In the eyes of the law, I am."

"I don't care about the law."

"You don't mean that. You work for the law."

He shook his head. "I work for what's right."

"You couldn't have possibly convinced yourself that me killing all of those people was right."

Steve looked at her earnestly. "You were grieving, Natasha."

Tears came out of her face that made the soldier's thumbs wipe them away. "You're blinded by me, reading all of those files has you obsessed. I'm not who you think I am."

He thought about it. Maybe she was right, but he doesn't get lost in infatuation often. He doesn't get himself mixed up in emotions. Even in lust, he goes to work out to calm himself. He didn't place women in his life because they fix him or whatever may be broken inside him. He's already complete, and despite his dissonance with the situation with Natasha, he knew who he was. This wasn't an obsession rooted in him reading about her dossier or biography. This was an accumulation of all of the times they have met. He knew this was real even if it didn't make sense. This was out of character for him, but he can't really help himself.

Steve bent down to place a deep kiss against her lips. She longed for him, tears coming out of her eyes as she put a hand on his cheek so he won't pull away. He felt her pain. He reveled in the moment, but knew that he had to go because the realistic part of her wanted him to. He sensed that. Natasha didn't want them to separate, but he found himself cutting it short. "It's not the files, Nat," he said, her nickname bouncing out of his mouth like it belonged there. That made her even sadder. "It's the two kids you saved. It's the women in the bodega. It's those and more." He removed her legs from around her and walked to the elevator. "You know where to find me if you change your mind," he said, clicking a button as he made his way back down to the ground.

Chapter Text

"Why do you look like you just ran over a rabbit?" Bucky asked. The two men were lightly sparring in the S.H.I.E.L.D. ground compound. The Winter Soldier noticed his best friend's behavior for the past week. Steve wasn't himself.

"I'm just tired," he said.

The other man scoffed, landing a hard punch to his shoulder. "Don't lie to me. You never get tired. It's a literal superpower, Steve."

He didn't respond, the two of them exchanging punches and kicks. Steve took his wrist and turned them in, making the armless soldier spin. The captain pinned him on the ground. "I'm fine, Buck," he said as he walked out of the ring.

"Don't treat me like I'm stupid," the other said as he chased to walk side-by-side with him.

"It's literally nothing," he said sternly. That made him drop the whole thing altogether. Bucky walked away from him, giving him space.

It wasn't expected. I should always be one step ahead of everyone. I'm a spy. The damnedest best there is. It's upsetting that I didn't see. It isn't new knowing that I can get people to be infatuated with me. For most of my life it's kind of been my job. I shouldn't be surprised, but I was. Steve. Steve Rogers was unexplainable, despite me thinking that I can see right through him. He was one of the first unpredictable things in my life.

I should leave. I should really pick up everything in this apartment and run away again. I thought of our kisses. My god, his lips. But I shouldn't. I can't. He's lost and he's broken at the thought of Clint. I can't let this be another thing that's rooted in pain. I'm in pain. He's in pain. This won't work.

I don't want to run. I'm so tired of it. I have to admit, I've never thought of the soldier that way. I mean, I did kiss him at the Costa mansion. That was really more of a seductive gesture of thanks. Was it? I'm confusing myself.

Clint. I can't. This would just be another tragic relationship I put myself in because I'm grieving. I miss James and the meaningless moments. I want to just have sex. But also with Steve, but is it really just sex if I sleep with Steve? Why do I want Steve specifically?

The rotors in my brain are spinning. My vision is blurring. He kissed me. It's like I astro-projected when he did. My soul left my body. It was warm. It was loving. It was needing. But I can't let myself get caught up in someone who thinks they want me. He's confused, the same way that I am. He doesn't know what he feels. I have to gather myself for a moment to see if whatever happened really happened. It's been a week and it still felt like a fantasy, an unreachable dream. I had never felt anything like it. Not even in the young love I felt with Alexi. It's sending me in a craze.

He told me that I should stop deciding for him, but is it really that bad? I grabbed a bottle of vodka. I sipped it and grew upset that it wasn't real vodka. Maybe I should visit Mother Russia, hibernate there for awhile and just be by myself. Run away from the vigilantism and run away from Steve. But I don't want to. I want his lips. I think of what he's like in bed. I remember touching his hair and the back of his neck. I remember his chest against my palms. I reminisce on the way he grabbed me, abruptly but gently, like he didn't want to break me, but like telling me that he wanted me now.

I feel myself getting hot at the thought. I don't know if I wanted him or if I needed him. I know that it was either one and now I'm in a full-blown scare. I don't know anything about him. When I was at S.H.I.E.L.D. I remember people thawing him out of the ice. That was a decade ago. I never met him because we worked for different departments. He was also overseas a lot. I was abroad a lot, too, working for the Secret Avengers. He was working for the Avengers Avengers (he and Iron Man are quite the team).

I don't know much, just the story of heroics. Saving the world. Bringing children back to their mothers. The sacrifices he makes. Almost dying every time he goes out into the field. But I honestly didn't care much then. Clint and I lived our own world in S.H.I.E.L.D. He and I kept each other company and if he went home I'd go with him because I was Auntie Nat.

Oh, god, Clint. What would he think of me? I've never felt so not-composed in my life before. Would he be mad? Would he be angry that I want the man that took his life? I'm crumbling in my seat.

I should run away from here. Maybe find a new apartment. I really am considering Russia, liquidate my assets and buy a log-house that was a hundred miles up a mountain from the nearest town. Isolate myself.

Before my encounter with Steve, if anyone had asked me, I would've said that I was a woman alone in this world. And, though I still am, there's a part of me that wants him to be with me. Madame B said that I have no place in the world, that I'm just planted here taking part in the affairs of other people. I'm just a pawn set in place for destruction or to be hidden in the shadows. I was a person you can't write a story about because I'm second to everyone else around me. I'm a supporting act even in my own story.

But, Steve. That five minutes that we spent in my loft. Those five minutes made me feel like I was finally a part of something. And I wanted to be a part of it. Maybe Madame B is wrong and I do have a place in the world. A place in Steve's arms.

I shook it off and grabbed some guns. I need to shoot somewhere.

"Nikolai, don't wait up," I told him as I exited the building. "I won't be back till later tonight, so you don't have to lose sleep over me." He nodded. My Russian confidant, a nephew of my father, Ivan. He was like a brother to me. We spoke only a few times since my defection, but he's always there when I needed him. He doesn't ever hesitate when I ask for something because father had told him stories about me, that I was a sister. Somehow he kept that sentiment so deep that he didn't mind a criminal living in the same building as him. We know few about each other, yet I trusted him.

I walked and walked and walked. My feet are taking me somewhere they shouldn't be. My feet are taking me somewhere I knew too well already. I went in the garage to grab my bike. I shouldn't be taking the interstate—the shooting range is not this way. I'm afraid, but I'm doing it. God dammit, Natasha.


"You're not allowed to do that," he heard me say. He looked to his window, seeing my hands prop the glass up from the outside and crouch in. He gave me a somber smile. Steve was drying the dishes, lacking a shirt that almost took my breath away. The sun was down.

"Do what?" he asked me, like he didn't know he had just taken all of my inhibitions. My accusation sounded irate, but he didn't look like he cared much for it. He turned so he could put a dish back in the cupboard. I felt the girl in me scream inside at the sight of his bare back. I really shouldn't have come.

"Dump all that crap in my apartment then leave," I said. I haven't seen him in a week. Is it possible that he grew more attractive since the last that I saw him? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, Natasha. That almost melted my insides, butterflies bouncing everywhere in my stomach.

"You wanted me to," he said. He turned and wiped another dish. He wasn't looking at the ceramic in his hands, his eyes are dead straight into mine. We were feet apart, but he was pulling me. With what? I don't freakin know, his good looks? Steve is a magnet.

I sighed at his response. He wasn't wrong. He turned around again to put the dish back. I felt my feet walking over to him. The only thing that separated us now was the island. "You can't just drop your feelings and then never contact me again."

He turned and smiled again. "Nat," he said. I hate that it sounds like he owned that name. It fits perfect coming out of his mouth. "You were the one that told me to stop. Did I want to? No. But the choice is in your hands now. I told you that you knew where to find me."

I felt tears streaming down my face because I'm so confused. "You killed Clint," I whispered.

His face grew sad. "I know and I will spend the rest of my life trying to fix it."

I sniffed and nodded. I know it was sincere. Clint's only been gone for ten months. I made up my mind. He won't be disappointed. He would want this for me. I walked around the island and he was about to grab another dish when I put my hand on his forearm. His back was to me and I felt his head shift to my face at the touch. "Show me," I said.

He looked confused and frozen. He turned and our bodies touched. His bare torso was on me, as warmth radiated around my body. Arousal flooded through my veins. "Show me how you're trying to fix it," I whispered. And then he knew what I was talking about. He set the dishrag down, his hands making its way around my neck and holding themselves around my jaw. His face was so far away. Dammit, Steve. It's too far away.

"Are you sure?" He asked me, his voice gentle. His eyes were searching for any resistance he might find in my face. Then his eyes met mine and grew dark. I know that he wanted this and I'm now a hundred percent sure that I wanted this. I nodded in his hands.

That was all that he needed. His lips met mine and I felt my whole body melt into his. I have never met a man who had that effect on me. It scared me, but I'm not scared of a lot of things, so I let the new emotion overtake me. It's okay, Nat, I tell myself. He wanted me, his mouth devouring mine with passion that I've never felt. And then he grew hungrier, like he was afraid that I'm going to let go. I felt his body, the way it reacted against me. I gasped in his mouth as I felt him and he pushed himself even harder to close a distance that was already pretty tight. He didn't move his hands from my face. He wanted me there for a moment. He just wanted my lips in that moment. I wrapped my arms around him, my hands dancing from his chest to his stomach then to his flanks and meeting each other around his back. I tightened them, afraid that he was going to separate from me.

Steve wasn't a playboy. He was raised not to have sex until he was sure of who he was with. In that moment, he didn't even want to sleep with her. He kept his hands locked into her face because all he wanted was to be close to her. He was afraid she was going to let go at some point, the way she had back at her apartment. He wasn't going to let her. He kissed her like he needed her more than anything. One of his hands finally loosened from its place and he placed it on one of her hips, turning them so she was against the kitchen island. Once he did that, he felt that same hand move inside her shirt. A moan escaped from her mouth and into his, arousing him even more. With how close they were touching, Natasha could feel every movement in his body, his midsection rising even more to her. Another gasp left her mouth.

"Steve," she whispered. It wasn't the same one as before. It wasn't going to be followed with asking him to stop. It was his name echoed with desire. His other hand left her face and he felt them feeling everywhere underneath her shirt. It was killing him how much he needed her. He separated their kiss for a moment, his eyes completely black. Natasha noticed and she'd never felt this kind of temptation run over her. This man was the death of her.

That moment of separation Steve used to undress her. She wasn't wearing a bra underneath which made everything easier on him. He went back to taste her mouth, but just moments before they touched, he felt himself groan under a pressure she put against his sweatpants. He closed the distance and moaned into her mouth, almost whimpering at the need to feel. her. Her hand veered away from where it was and that small moment of disappointment was met with fire and even greater arousal when he realized that she put that hand in her pants. There was nothing separating them now.

Steve picked her up and led her to the bedroom, setting her gently on the bed as he crawled on top of her.

Another sound left her mouth: "Steve." His libido had never rose to this level before.

Natasha found her hand back in his pants and he said her name this time. "Fuck, Nat," he said, barely above a gasp. She smirked, her seductiveness coming out. In an instant, the spy went from needy to controlling. She dictated everything that happened now. Her lips traveling to his neck and hearing her name at every touch she made. The soldier doesn't often cuss, and when he does, the arousal washed over her. She stroked and he gasped. No one could ever imagine seeing the super soldier so weak.

"I need you," she whispered in his ear and suddenly was met with a lustful Steve. He grew aggressive, though still treated her gently. He was calling the shots again and she let him.

She woke up and saw that no one was beside her. It was disheartening, though, only for a moment because she smelled the food cooking. Natasha smiled and grabbed a shirt from his closet, large enough to where it terminated mid-thigh. She smirked knowing that it's enough to show off small parts of her to arouse Steve.

She walked out seeing him cooking and smiling. He hadn't noticed her presence yet so she leaned on the doorjamb, watching him as he hummed to a jazz tune. The record was spinning on the other side of the room, music faint enough not to wake her but loud enough for him to hear. He was almost dancing to it. She smiled widely seeing him flip a pancake.

Natasha walked over and put her arm around him, feeling him tense for a second and then relax when he realized it was her. The woman wasn't a hugger, but Steve makes her a lot of things she's not. "Good morning, soldier," she said as her lips met his back.

"Morning, Nat," he said, turning the stove off and turning so he could wrap his arms around her too. Before she could speak his mouth met hers in a warm action of good morning and she smiled into it. "I made pancakes and bacon and eggs," he said softly.

"I'll stay for breakfast, but I do have to go soon," she said.

He almost pouted, but controlled himself. "Okay," he said, landing a soft kiss on her cheek and separating to fix the table. Natasha looked on with genuine happiness. That hasn't existed in her life in awhile.

She sat with him as they ate, exchanging small glances that made the both of them laugh and giggle here and there. It wasn't until he heard the jangling of keys outside of his door, when both of them panicked. Natasha's crazy reflexes made her run to the room. Steve set all the food she was eating onto his plate and tossed one of the place mats over the island. He downed her cup and put it in the sink.

"How you doin', Punk?!" He heard Bucky yell. "That smells good as heck," he said as he walked over to the dining table where Steve was eating alone.

"Hey, Buck," he said, eating nonchalantly. "How's S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

"God, it's terrible. I wanna go back to being an assassin," he said. Natasha, listening on the other side of the wall, scrunched her face in confusion. Steve shook his head at the joke. "No, really, I've been busting my butt leading the force trying to catch Romanoff, but we're at a dead end. So it's been boring. Just a lot of paperwork," he said, stealing a piece of bacon from his plate. "They finally let me go on break for a week."

That's a week that he won't be able to see Natasha because the man will be glued to his hip. "How've you been feeling?" he asked Steve, knowing that he's been uncharacteristically down.

"I'm good," he said with a doctored smile. He definitely was good, he was just currently apprehensive as he held a fugitive in his bedroom.

"No, you're not," Bucky said, seeing right through him. "Why won't you tell me what's bothering you?"

"Seriously, though, Buck. Nothing's bothering me…right now," he said, adding the last pair of words so it wasn't a lie.

The man sighed, knowing that he won't get anywhere with him, as with all the other conversations they've had in the past week. "I'm gonna go shower. By the time I get back you better start acting like a man and tell me your feelings," he said, carrying his duffel to his room and entering the shower. Natasha quickly walked out, dressed in the clothes she had come in with last night. She placed a long kiss on Steve's lips.

"I have to go," she whispered. He nodded in understanding. "You know where I'll be," she said with a wink that sent a loving warmth in Steve's chest. She opened the window that she had came in, left another kiss on Steve's lips, and ran down the fire escape to where her bike was waiting from the night before.


Okay, so that happened. A part of me really didn't want it to. Because—well, because of Clint. I'm on the ride home from the interstate, my bike maneuvering through traffic. I keep thinking back to the night with a clear head, hoping that it didn't all happen just because I was sad. The last thing I want to do for Steve was break his heart, despite his contribution to Clint's death, the soldier has me around his finger. I don't excuse or forgive him for what happened, but the built up resentment that I've had for him in the past ten months disappeared. He's done all that he can to make up for it; give him a funeral, keep me safe, apologize.

I was never an emotional person. I'm as real as they get. I'm practical in all of my affairs and the only time practicality disappeared was my short relationship with Clint. That whole entire thing was based on emotions.

But with Steve, I'm going to have to think about further. There is nothing in this that's practical. He's an agent of an organization that's trying to capture me. Him having a relationship with a fugitive is the least sensible route to go in right now.

But still, somehow, it makes a lot of sense to be with him. I don't even know enough about him. I'm going to have to dive into this blind, and though I know he won't hurt me—he's made that clear with every encounter we've had—it's still nerve-wracking feeling such a way for someone I barely know.

I parked the motorcycle in the garage, feeling an eerie ambiance around the neighborhood. I grabbed a gun stowed in the back of my motorcycle and walked to my apartment. It wasn't until I saw a figure on the ground of the elevator entrance in my apartment. "Nikolai!" He had taken four shots to the gut. My brother.

"I t-tried…to stop them," he said, his voice hoarse and struggling and Russian.

"W-what happened?!" I put pressure on his wounds, but saw him shake his head. With the small energy he had left, he put his hand on top of mine.

"They're l-looking for you-u," he said, his voice above a whisper. "Don't w-worry, Natalia. I will be…okay." He smiled at me, letting me know that he really won't be. He's giving up. "You must run," he whispered. And then the light in his eyes disappeared.

My fury rose to my head. I entered the elevator and opened it to see my apartment thrashed. The photos that I had everywhere were taken. Regret of spending the night at Steve's swelled up my throat as tears flushed out of my eyes in anger. Everything in my house was torn and I found myself trying to hold in a scream.

They didn't sweep my apartment after the immediate trashing, probably just cam in looking for any sign of where I could be. There's a strong chance that Nikolai told them that I had left and that's why no agent stayed behind. I slapped the side of my wardrobe, revealing a pocket that had a few guns, a stash of money, and a new identity. I grabbed that and put it in my bag. I got into newer clothes and packed a few more before I heard sirens around the block. They weren't coming back, but they were looking in the vicinity to see if they can find me around. This was S.H.I.E.L.D., I know it. The FBI would've stayed behind for intel.

Instead of taking the elevator, I took the back staircase through the window. And then I ran to the garage to retrieve my bike and drove to Jerry's.

"I need your help," I said to the owner (Jerry, obviously).

"What do you need?" He asked me with a Spanish accent.

"Extra guns," I said. He nodded his head, asking me to follow him in the back. I took what he gave me and paid. When I left the back room, I was met with an apprehensive Steve.

"We have to go," he said, his voice stressed.

"What do mean we?!" I tried to shove my way past him so I can get back on my motorcycle.

"I'm not leaving you," he said.

"You're an idiot."

"No," his voice was stern, letting me know that he won't take no for an answer. "Come with me," he said.

I was about to protest but he turned, grabbing my hand as we walked out of the bar. "How'd you find me there?"

"You don't think I know he's a supplier?" He asked me, not turning back as we walked through the streets. "I'm not stupid."

I shook my head, following him. We got on my motorcycle and he told me to climb on the back with him. "Where are we going?"

"Somewhere safe!" He yelled as the wind made it difficult for us to communicate. I didn't speak anymore as he drove the bike miles out of the city until I saw an aircraft. 

"Steve, what is this?"

He didn't respond and drove the motorcycle into the quinjet. We both got off and he secured his bike onto the wall buckles. I'm irritated with the lack of answers. I couldn't take anymore surprises until I see a figure turn in the ship's pilot seat. His metal arm shined as the sun hit it. I knew that anywhere.

"Nice to see you again, Anna," he said with a smile, a sincere one, not a menacing one. I can't believe I'm in an airplane with two men that I've slept with. I don't know if this is supposed to be awkward. I'm too fazed to even think about it.

"You ready to talk about your feelings?" Bucky walked out of his room fully dressed with wet hair. This was a little more than an hour after Natasha had vacated Steve's apartment. He was doing the dishes and left a plate out for Bucky to devour.

He sighed. He doesn't know how much he can keep it in anymore. "There's a girl," he started. He knew that he couldn't turn back now that he opened a can of worms.

His best friend's eyes went wide as he sat by the dining table. "Explain."

"That's it." And then they didn't speak for an hour. Bucky just sat there and stared at him, popcorn in hand, waiting for him to start the conversation. They were in a stalemate and Steve was acting like the topic had ended.

"Okay, punk, let it out," he said, growing impatient.

"It's probably not a good idea for you to know," he said. "I mean it's not a great idea by me either."

"Let me in, Steve," he said, saying his name straightly.

"She's…" he sighed as he turned on the couch. "She's kind of a criminal."

"Nice!" The other guy said. That was expected from Steve's standpoint. "Like, a pickpocket or something?"

He squinted his eyes and hummed, not knowing if he should tell him any more. "A little more serious than that."

"Oh, then what? I can't believe the little guy got a bad one," he said with a smirk.

"It's uhm—" he was about to speak when an alert on his phone got his attention.

"Earth to Steve," said Bucky. The other couldn't respond as he read the notification S.H.I.E.L.D. had sent him. The STRIKE team had raided Natasha Romanoff's apartment in D.C. and Steve had to get there now.

"We need to get on the quinjet now," he said hurriedly, switching out of his clothes into more tactical ones and taking his shield with him. He wasn't in his Captain America suit for fear that he'll get made.

"Wait, but I'm eating," Bucky protested. Steve threw on new clothes, ones more agile than the one he's currently wearing.

"Eat it on the jet," he said as he hopped out putting shoes on.

"Wanna tell me what's happening?"

"On the jet," he said, running out of the apartment and out into the street. The two ran the two miles to where Bucky had parked the quinjet just a couple of hours ago before barging in on Steve in the morning

Steve started it up, putting it on autopilot to D.C.

"Okay," Bucky started, pouring popcorn down his throat. "We're on the quinjet now and you're going to have to explain."

"It's..." he started as he clicked buttons on the jet dashboard. "The woman is Natasha Romanoff, Buck."

He didn't hear anyone reply so he turned to see Bucky with his mouth agape, bits of popcorn pouring out of it. "Are—when—you're joking right?" He said, finally getting the words out of his mouth.

"I wish," Steve said silently as he got out of the pilot's seat.

"Steve," Bucky said. "You're going to get in trouble for this."

"I know that's why when we land in D.C. you're going to tell them that you flew the jet there to follow up with the raid a—"

"What raid?"

Steve tossed him his phone and continued where he left off. "You're there to follow up the raid and spear-head it. Then you're going to tell them that Natasha stole the quinjet and cloaked it. You won't be able to track us, but I just can't let her get caught, Buck." The other soldier noticed as worry filled his face.

"Are you sure about this, Steve?" he asked, his voice sincere. The other didn't say anything and just nodded. "Then I'm staying," he said.

Steve shook his head frantically. "No, you're not. I'm not jeopardizing the life that you built after Russia."

"I'm with you till the end of the line, buddy," he said, tossing popcorn in his mouth as he took a seat on the copilot chair.

"Bucky, you're not doing that," Steve said sternly.

"I'm going to be on the right side of this," he said. "And you're always on the right side of things."

"Not this one."

"Yeah," he said. "You've never blinded yourself with love, now's not the time to start it. You're trynna save this woman for more reasons than that."

"Maybe I am blinded by what I feel for her. And you're not a part of that."

"It seems to me like you forgot how I ended up living this life after Russia in the first place." The Winter Soldier smirked, popping more popcorn in his mouth. "You believed in me, Punk. You believe in her, too."

"Yeah, because I owe a debt to Clint and because I feel something for her. She isn't brainwashed, Bucky. The things she did are all her and that's miles different from your situation."

"But it's also miles different in that I killed innocent people while brainwashed. She killed bad people when she wasn't," he started, making the other soldier sigh. "Look, it's not that I'm excusing her answers, it's that there isn't an equalizer, Steve. After saving me, you no longer lived in a black and white world." Steve shook his head. "And, plus, I was with her, too, you know? She wasn't a terrible person. She just does good things in terrible ways."

Steve tried to shake off the image in his head of Bucky and Natasha together. The dashboard beeped letting them know that they were nearing the Potomac. Steve cloaked the jet so that S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn't track it. "I'm gonna need you to land a few miles out. You're staying here as our get-away car kind of thing, I guess," he said.

Bucky laughed. "Don't start using criminal terms on me now," he said taking the pilot's seat. "You have to think about this as an extraction. I'll be here for exfil."

Somehow that didn't calm Steve's nerves about his notions to harbor a fugitive. Bucky landed the jet and Steve ran out of it as fast as he can. He regretted not taking his bike in the heat of the moment after seeing the news. It took him ten minutes to get to Natasha's apartment and saw Nikolai on the ground. He shook his head, growing sad of the protective man.

Steve climbed up the wall of the apartment because he didn't have a key to get in the front door and couldn't be buzzed. The windows of Natasha's floor were blown out. He looked around and saw no sign of the woman, but clearly saw the opened drawer of a secret compartment. She was on the run.

He thought about where she could've gone to next and then ran to Jerry's. Seeing her bike outside, he let out a sigh of relief and ran in. A second later the woman resurfaced right in front of him.

"We have to go," he said. They had a conversation, one met with protest then confusion. Steve drove them to the quinjet, knowing that one: Natasha's not going to like him running away with her and two: she's especially not going to love the idea of seeing Bucky here. He weighed the chances of her surviving alone now that S.H.I.E.L.D. was inching closer to her tail. And so he realized that he'd handle the yelling match she'd give him for those two reasons because her survival hikes up exponentially now that two super-soldiers were with her.

"Nice to see you again, Anna." Steve could have slapped him with that welcome, but decided against it.

"James?" she said. She smiled at him, through the glare she had for Steve. "Do you two mind telling me what's going on?" Steve took the pilot seat and made sure the jet was still on stealth mode as they flew out of the Potomac.

"S.H.I.E.L.D.'s coming after you," Bucky said.

"Well, yeah, I figured that," she said. "It's not like you guys have stopped coming after me some point."

Steve spoke now. "They're hot on your tails. I know you're not going to like us helping you b—"

"You're right, I don't," she said, her arms crossing and taking a seat on the copilot chair of the quinjet. "You didn't steal this quinjet, did you?"

"No, we're borrowing," Bucky said, his mouth full of popcorn. Steve looked behind. That bag must be bottomless.

Natasha let out an agitated sigh. "You two are so stupid!"

"We're getting you somewhere safe, Nat," Steve said, looking out at the sky. "I'll cut a deal with S.H.I.E.L.D. or something."

"So stupid," she repeated. "Do you understand how incredibly idiotic this is, Steve?" He didn't say anything. "Look at me!" she yelled, turning his head to face her. "Planes won't hit us, we're too high. There's nothing in the horizon. I'm gonna need you to look at me."

Steve stared at her, the worry evident in his eyes. Natasha noticed it and grew sad and upset. "You're ruining your life. Over a stupid woman, Steve," she said, her voice soft.

"Even if we weren't together—or had s—even if"—he gathered his thoughts—"even if we didn't have something or whatever this is, I would still be in this position. And you're not stupid. Stop saying stupid."

"Don't give me the Clint bullshit again."

"I'm going to," he said.

"What is it with you and the fact that you can't make up for your guilt?"

"He's Catholic," Bucky chimed in with a smirk.

Natasha glared at him before returning her focus to Steve. "Why?"

"You've changed," he said. "Even you know it. You don't deserve whatever they have ready for you, Nat."

"I can withstand torture, Steve. And that won't happen because it's not like S.H.I.E.L.D. wants anything from me." Steve closed his eyes at her assumptions. "What?"

"That's not true," said Steve.

"She doesn't know?" Bucky asked, walking closer to them so they can all have a conversation.

"What? What are you boys not telling me?" She complained.

Steve and Bucky spoke to each other like she wasn't there. "It's not like S.H.I.E.L.D.'s going to publicize that," said Steve.

"Yeah, but I would think you'd tell her or something," Bucky said.

Steve didn't respond.

"If someone doesn't tell me what's happening I'm going to cut off James's other arm," she said, facetious but still scaring the other soldier. Bucky grabbed his good arm at the thought.

"They're giving you back to Red Room, Natasha," Steve said softly. "If they find you, they're going to send you back to Russia."

The woman was taken aback, taking everything in her not to gasp. "What do you mean?" She whispered.

"S.H.I.E.L.D. cut a deal with HYDRA. There's a nuclear arms race happening between a lot of countries and the UN can't control it. HYDRA couldn't retrieve me and James because we work for a contract under S.H.I.E.L.D. and the only way for their agency to stop the nuclear developments of Germany and Russia is because they want you."

"For what?" Her voice was low, almost scared.

"Super-soldier serum," said Steve. "They said that they wanted us two, but they wouldn't be opposed to getting you because of a psychotechnic thing. That's what Stark said. And I know we're not in the business of giving HYDRA the arsenal to make more human weapons, but they said that this whole arms race thing will end if they hand someone over. The U.S. can't gamble that right now."

The difference between Natasha and James's brainwashing was that the scientists couldn't implant new memories in his head. They can only erase his past. With Natasha, she has an arsenal of aliases wherein if they were ever triggered, she would forget Natasha Romanoff and start playing as a character. That's what made her such a great spy. When S.H.I.E.L.D. stole her from the Russians, the KGB were angry solely because she was the last Black Widow and they couldn't recreate anymore, no matter how many children they raised to assassinate. They weren't as effective as her because they didn't have the same serum. Before she defected, she was a lab rat; the scientists trying to figure out how to replicate it.

Natasha doesn't even know if she can dance ballet. Her toes weren't calloused and she's never tried. But she remembers her past in ballrooms and leotards. That's how strong the serum was.

"They're going to kill you there, Nat," said Steve. "I'm not letting that happen."

Chapter Text

Natasha had her hand on her neck, massaging a part. They had been on the jet for a couple of hours. She forced Steve to take a nap, considering that he didn't get any sleep last night because of their rendezvous and him constantly waking up at odd hours to eat. It took some convincing, but she let him know that if Bucky did something stupid and broke the quinjet, she'd know how to fix it. She told him that he's gone on plenty of missions in jets like this one. He finally dozed off for a nap.

"Where are we heading?" She asked Bucky, taking a seat next to him in the cockpit.

"One of our friends back in the war, he was a howling commando. Falsworth was his name," Bucky started. "Steve said that he was still alive when he got out of the ice so he went and visited him often, because he was the only one he knew from that time. After I was cleansed from all the Russian nonsense, I managed to visit him once before he died a couple of years ago. We still kept in touch with his family. He lives on the outskirts of Wales. S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't really go there. It's very secluded and country."

Natasha nodded. "Russian nonsense?" Bucky's eyes went dark at the thought, but he explained it anyway. He told her all about the cryogenics and the brainwashing and the super-soldier serum. He told her about how Steve was the last person he was with before he fell, thinking that it was his death. He mentioned the arm and the whole conflict Steve had with the government and Tony Stark over him. "Wow, we've got some baggage," she said.

Bucky chuckled. "I'm surprised Steve's willing to stand for people like us."

She looked back at the sleeping soldier and smiled. "Yeah."

"You picked a good one," Bucky said, looking out at the skies. "Way better than me." She laughed and agreed with him. "I talked you up to him when I got home from Berlin, before I found out you were a deranged assassin," he joked as the spy rolled her eyes.

She didn't say that she eavesdropped on that conversation.

Natasha also didn't know what kind of relationship this even was ("picking a good one"—there isn't even anything here yet). Did it commence last night when they went to bed together? Has it even begun? Will it ever? She hasn't even made up her mind entirely due to her consciousness telling her that this was yet another product of her grieving—but inside her grew a more accepting iteration of the consequences of Clint's death and Steve's guilt and that maybe this wasn't so bad at all. She had already been so cautious considering that this situation was reminiscent of her past relationship, birthed from constant pain, but there was a staggering difference in that she didn't feel any of that with Steve. Yeah, so if they do start a relationship, it may initially have been from negative emotions, but unlike with Clint, that emotion wouldn't be surrounding their dynamic at all. Pain didn't engulf either of them when they're together, at least not with her.

Steve awoke just a few minutes later, sitting up and setting his feet on the floor of the plane and looking out the windshield. Natasha sat beside him. "You know that you didn't have to be here for all of this, right?"

He shook his head. "I'm not handing you to them."

"I know," she said with a small smile. "You didn't have to be here for this part, though. I'm good at disappearing. I'm a spy."

He placed a kiss on her forehead. "I know. You're the greatest the world's ever seen. But I did the math and it looks like you have a greater chance of survival with the two of us."

She nodded. "Did he tell you about Berlin?"

"He initially told me about this wonderful woman he slept with," he said with mockery and jealousy in his voice. Natasha grinned. "And then he told me it was you later on."

"Sorry about that," Bucky chimed, hearing their conversation.

Natasha glared at the Winter Soldier, who smirked in his pilot chair. Steve laughed. "You're better in bed," Natasha whispered in his ear, his face turning red. She placed a kiss on his cheek and stood up to collect everything she stashed in her backpack.

"Does the Falsworth family know we're here?" asked Bucky as he landed the quinjet on grass that stretched more than a hundred acres. There was only one house in sight and it looked large enough to foster twenty people comfortably.

"I made sure to give them a call when we were up in the air," replied Steve. He realized that he didn't really have any belongings in the quick moments that ensued between reading the S.H.I.E.L.D. report and barging outside the door back in Brooklyn. He took note that he needed to go out to town to grab some new shirts and pants. Natasha sighed as the soldiers exited through the lowered barrier. She took a moment to gather herself, putting her backpack on along with a hat to disguise at least the burning red hair that folded itself in it.

She wasn't entirely sure that she's welcome here. She also isn't fond of having soldiers—good ones—take a hit to their reputations by harboring a wanted person and having her intrude in their otherwise pretty okay and normal lives (as normal as superheroes get, anyway). Steve gave her a kind smile letting her know that it was going to be okay, gesturing his head with a hither motion that solidified his intent. She had no choice but to follow, though in her head she was tempted to throw a tantrum—cross her arms and sit on the floor style—and stay in the jet unless they agreed to bring her back to the American East Coast and leave her be so they can go back to soldiering and agent-ing. She really didn't want herself to be the reason the decorated war hero goes to jail and the other not-as-decorated and more sidekick-slash-Russian-reject who've redeemed himself through the years to also return to confinement. There was a lot of heaviness on her shoulders at those thoughts, but nonetheless, stepped out past the ramp for her shoes to collide with the grass after the hundredth time that the voice in her head yelled at her to do so.

The trio walked across the expanse, strolling about half a mile until reaching the doorsteps of a brick mansion. It wasn't Bruno Costa style but it was definitely rich in culture, like a castle almost—which she noted is very prevalent in the United Kingdom. Steve knocked on the door, his hands in his pockets, seemingly nervous at the favor he was asking of them.

"Steve Rogers!" Yelled the person who opened the front door, the Welsh accent thick and inviting. Natasha smiled at the address of his full name. "Mum, they're here," the boy called out from insider the house. He motioned for the three to come in.

"It's good to see you, Steve," said a woman, old but not frail. Natasha could guess that she was in her mid-sixties. "You look like you haven't eaten," she said in a manner that reminded her of a grandmother character. Steve chuckled at her comment as he saw himself peering down at his physique and how it implied the complete opposite of her accusation. He understood it as the tone of a professional grandmother, taking the role of someone who constantly cooks and must feed her grandchildren every day. "Come on in, you both," she pointed at the two odd people out. "James! It's nice to see you again," she said, giving him a hug.

"Nat this is Daisy Falsworth, my late howling commando's daughter," Steve said to the frozen spy. She didn't know what she was supposed to do or how she was supposed to greet, but the old woman answered that for her by engulfing her in a tight embrace and welcoming her to her home. She also made a comment about having to put meat in her bones. Natasha laughed at the sentiment.

She met all of the relatives before she and Steve were led to their bedroom. She heard that two of their grandkids were switching rooms just to make room for them and Natasha felt a pang of guilt with their hospitality. She would never expect anyone to be so accommodating. It was sensed in Steve's demeanor, too.

"I hope you don't mind that I only asked for one room for us," he said. And then he stuttered. "It's just that the kids were forced to move around and all, I didn't wanna have to occupy someone else's space." She nodded congruently. "I also told them that Buck would be okay on the couch and he also feels the same way I do and we don't want them to constantly move around."

"I feel bad," she said. "I can take the couch and you boys take the bed. You're both too large for their sofa," she said, but Steve shook his head frantically.

"Bucky said he was okay," he insisted. Natasha was aware that he just wanted to sleep in the same bed as her, and though there was that guilt of inconveniencing the grandkids, there was also a waning hope that he got to sleep next to her. She didn't protest anymore, sensing his desperation.

"What are we gonna do?" She sighed as she slumped down on the queen bed, setting her backpack next to it. She made sure to lock the stash because there were weapons in it. She wouldn't dare bring in more danger knowing that there are nosy children around.

"Lay low for awhile," said Steve. "Come up with a plan."

"There is no plan, Steve." She said, looking up at him. He was standing in front of her, his arms crossed but his body relaxed. "I'm wanted. You're not. James is not. There isn't a complicated equation here."

He shook his head, almost frustrated at her stubbornness. He shook it off because he expected resistance from the beginning and that's why he didn't tell her when they ran outside of Jerry's pub. That's why he omitted the plans until they were already in the air and she couldn't go back. "We're not talking about that again. If you get caught the-"

"That's if I get caught. I told you that I'm really good at hide-n-seek," she said with facetiousness to relax his now tensing aura.

"No, it's when," he said, his voice hard and stern. "S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't give up. Especially because now you've become a weapon with the ability to stop a nuclear arms race." She sighed; there wasn't any fault to his talk.

"If I do get caught, then it's not the end of the world," her voice softened. "But it'll be the end of yours. And James's. And he just got his world back."

He shook his head. "What they're doing is unethical," he said. "I fought with Stark over it. A lot. I didn't work at S.H.I.E.L.D. for months over it."

Natasha's face showered with concern and worry for him. "That's why you spent all that time trying to find me." He remained silent. "Why didn't you just tell that that was the plan they had for me?"

"You were already an angry assassin. There was no use giving you more hurt than you were going through. It just seemed counterintuitive compared to my more sensitive method of trying to switch you to the good side so I can convince the agency that you're not a threat and that' you're an American citizen, just like everyone else." She nodded in understanding. "But after your brutal take down of the guys in the strip club, S.H.I.E.L.D. made up its mind by selling you out."

"Let me pay for my crimes," she said softly.

"You aren't that same person anymore, and even if the tides switched and suddenly they were just going to put you in a S.H.I.E.L.D. cell, you still don't deserve to be put there."

"You can't let your emotions of me blind your judgment. You're a soldier and an agent. The law is black and white, Steve, so follow it."

He shook his head, sitting next to her. "The law might be that, but people are not."

She gave up. That was how most of their conversations have gone when it comes to her criminality. He refused to address her as a murderer, even though in her eyes and the eyes of the public thought she was. She felt a warm hand settle on top of hers and Steve's concerned face met hers. For the first time, Natasha sensed fear. She doesn't think that it's a common feeling within the soldier.

They exited the room and went downstairs to reconvene with Bucky who rounded up the kids to show them his metal arm. They really enjoyed it to the point where they didn't even notice Captain America down the stairs, the man that everyone in the Falsworth family was excited to see, partly because of his shield. Now that he wasn't wearing his uniform, the grandeur of an American legend visiting dissipated—the image provided the territory, which made him chuckle. The three were forced to sit around a long table as food was set all over it, no one could tell that the table was underneath anymore. Daisy urged for everyone to eat and threatened that there shouldn't be anymore food left when supper was over. Somehow all the bodies took that earnestly and every single bowl and plate was cleaned off. Her apple pie took a beating the moment it hit the deck and the children looked like they were one pinky finger away from being pushed and tipping over altogether with the amount of food in their system.

The three guests especially spouted thank yous almost every other minute to the point where the grandmother said, "You three must not be eating enough if you can still talk." That shut them up in the quickest way.

The soldiers and the spy sat in the living room with their teas trying to recover from their food comas when Steve stood up and left the house. Natasha followed behind, but Bucky couldn't move. "Where you off to?" She asked, pacing her step quicker to catch up to him.

"I'm gonna grab your bike from the jet so I can head into town and grab some necessities."

"I'm coming," she said, not bothering to hear his refutations as she ran quicker so she could access the bike first. Though it was more practical for Steve to take the front reign, he didn't say anymore knowing that she would object. She followed the only road that led to the outside world and the two found themselves in a small mart where Steve could gather plain shirts and pants and also some food, now that Grandma Falsworth's cooking was all dissolved, his metabolism kicking in five times quicker than the average person. He found himself hungry again and Natasha laughed, buying him some energy bars.

They both sat on a curb at a petrol station, waiting for the bike's tank to fill up.

"Do you think you can ever live a life on the run? Is this something you've thought of, Steve?"

He nodded. "I don't think it's crossed my mind, but I don't really care for it."

"Look, I'm not trying to start another argument. I just want you to make sure that this is something you want before you resent me for it," she said, her voice sad.

"This is my choice," he said. She nodded, coming to terms with his decision despite still having a nagging voice in the back of her head screaming no at the thought of Steve and Bucky being featured in her runaway expedition.

She didn't say anything further until she realized that they were in a gas station. "How many more flights can we take with the jet?" She asked him.

He shrugged. "It was full when we took it last. Maybe an equal of one roundtrip from here to New York."

"I have a safe house in Alaska," she said, earning a look of confusion from the soldier. "It's a perfect place to hide around this time of year. The sun's barely out and if it is then it's only for about four hours. And no one would think to really look there unless S.H.I.E.L.D. and honestly, I don't think they do."

"We'll leave for Alaska in two days, then," he said as he unhitched the gas nozzle from the center of the bike. He hopped on it, letting Natasha know that he was driving this time. She didn't protest and they made their way back .

Steve fell asleep on the bed before Natasha could take her place. She was busy in the living room reading a book that one of Daisy's daughters gave to her to pass time. Bucky was gone, his mouth open and snores echoing, dead asleep on the couch that was barely big enough to fit him. She found herself in a perpetual cycle of guilt and she didn't know what to do about it. She stood up and sat on one of the porch rocking chairs to look at the bare landscape of grass, no hint of life in the horizon. The moonlight shone her way and it was the only kind of light that she let brighten her night.

The main door creaked open and the same daughter of Daisy's that had given her the book emerged with a teapot and some teacups. Natasha could almost gawk to protest the hospitality but she was already shaking her head, letting herself know that she won't be hearing it.

The tray was set on a small table and separated them as the woman sat on the other rocking chair. "You didn't have to," Natasha said, pouring the woman and herself some of the tea.

"You can't sleep," she said, her observations correct. "This'll help." Natasha nodded, sipping a cup full of green. "Steve didn't tell us the full extent of your situation."

Natasha tensed. "What did he say?" She said, keeping her composure, very used to being a victim of interrogation.

"Not a lot," she started. "We don't really care much for it, though." The woman saw the redhead's confused face before kindly smiling at her. "Captain America running away from the law is practically unheard of. I didn't spend my whole entire childhood listening to my grandfather's stories about his worthiness to not believe that he's doing what he's doing for the right reasons."

Natasha was hit with yet another round of guilt, a part of her refusing to believe that this was Steve making practical decisions and more letting his emotions dictate their destinations. She knew that she was raised to be a seductress; she's worried that she can no longer distinguish that in her real life relationships. She's afraid that there is no longer an off-switch to her luring men and that she had accidentally done it to Steve. It hit her with a different kind of pain, because she knew deep down that she really liked him and though she doesn't want to blame the Red Room for her flaws, still a voice in her head pierced her with a reluctance about her actions that may have been subconscious. It's absolutely unfair to him if that's the case and she might end up hating herself more than she already did.

"I trust his judgment," the woman across from her said. She exhibited rays of wisdom and understanding, filling the spy with a warmth that she didn't know her body could exert. "Make sure to take care of him along the way. I know he doesn't look like he needs it but he isn't one to admit when he's struggling." Natsha nodded. The woman had a familiarity with Steve that made her question if they have a history. She didn't press, too shy to ask when she was already living under their roof out of a favor.

The next two days were filled with so much food. A lot of food even to Steve's crazy standards. Daisy Falsworth packed them boxes upon boxes for their trip to Alaska, despite their refusals. She wouldn't take no for an answer so the two soldiers were forced to send here even more remarks of gratitudes that she fended off. "You boys just stay safe, alright?" She asked them both as they simultaneously hugged her from both sides.

"And, darling, I know they can be a ruckus so please keep them out of trouble," she said to spy, giving her just as intense of an embrace. Natasha, of all people, knew that the troubles were coming from her but the woman's facetiousness was too bright for her to refute. She smiled and waved at them before she entered the quinjet, leaving the three of them alone again (and the tower of food Grandma Falsworth packed out of the pure generosity and kindness of her heart).

Natasha locked in the coordinates that she memorized in her head. Bucky made sure that the plane hadn't left stealth mode and took a seat in the cockpit despite the plane running on auto-pilot. Steve took a seat next to him and Natasha was left behind to marvel at the two boys' relationship.

Here stood a woman who was doused in terrible things the moment she was born, a weapon made by the evil forces of humanity. She found so much happiness in Clint's rescue, thinking that that was the greatest thing to ever happen in her life. She thought about her demise—his death—and lingered at her inability to cope with her emotions. She always knew she needed therapy but blew it off because she was either beyond repair or she couldn't possibly have been that bad. She made herself believe that it was always the former. The woman had to keep herself in check, unleashing a murder spree—with good intention, Steve says—at the death of her best friend. She had lost so much worse, her father, her late husband, yet to react that way to another loss was inconceivably vile and she now felt that she was definitely beyond direction. She didn't know why she was with the boys, even if they're going with her on their own accord.

She sighed and shook her head, sitting silently as the two men in front of her laughed about a memory. Natasha knew she couldn't handle something like this, anymore, so she sat on the makeshift bed and took a nap, she barely got any sleep these past couple of nights.

"Nat," he gently shook her awake, his eyes blue and inviting. Natasha looked at him, how she hadn't felt his lips since they were last in his apartment. The times have grow too hectic to talk about it. They haven't grazed the topic at all even during the nights they shared a bed in the Wales house. "We're here," he said, putting a palm on her cheek only for a second before standing up and grabbing her back pack.

It was a log cabin, a typical Alaskan house in the middle of nowhere. Natasha said that the Northern Lights were beautiful up here. Steve and Bucky hadn't brought jackets that could withstand the cold; they both made a joke about their times in the ice and how this is "child's play" in comparison. Natasha laughed at the exchange as she walked with them to the small house.

"I don't really expect guests when I'm in hiding so you both are going to have to sleep on the floor," she said, opening the door to the small house. "Or you can Rochambeau and whoever wins gets the bed."

Both the men said they were fine with the floor, exhibiting their 20s gentlemen charm. Natasha nodded and sat on the bed as she saw Steve step outside to rip firewood in half. Bucky joined him there, but only to continue a conversation they'd had at the jet, not to help him cut wood.

The woman sighed and went over to the nonperishables she stocked up, then pausing at the realization that there were lots of food on the jet. She walked out in winter clothes and told the boys she was going to grab the boxes. They both let her and watched her from afar, Natasha knowing that they're talking about her in her absence.

"We haven't talked about it," Steve said, followed by a grunt as he took firewood between his arms and broke it.

"You should," Bucky said, leaning on the steps, relaxing at his position opposite from his friend who was panting in exertion. It was an insufferable dichotomy, one Natasha smiled at as she watched them from afar in the jet.

"We're a little busy," replied the soldier.

"You're never gonna not be busy, Steve."

"Yeah, it's just," he sighed as he put stacked wood on top of the other. "I don't even think she wants to talk about it."

"So? Be assertive."

"I don't think I can risk a negative shift in our relationship considering that we'll all be kind of cooped up in the same territory for awhile."

Bucky shook his head. "That's all the more reason to talk about it. There's tension and I'm the one that has to see it and it disgusts me," he said with joking disdain.

"Sometime, Buck," Steve said. Natasha was a little longer than they expected, probably because of the weight of food she was carrying as she had to pull her knee out from the tall snow with every step she took.

Bucky took the whole entire weight off of her, receiving a glare from the woman. "I can do it, you know?"

He smirked and nodded his head. "Yes, ma'am, but I don't care." Steve laughed though a part of him hoped that Natasha wouldn't kill his best friend in his sleep tonight.

All three of them went inside, with Steve incinerating the logs before they gathered by the fireplace to eat leftovers, just the way anyone would've liked it. There's a certain sweetness living more primitively than they used to after a few days spent under a kind and hospitable family that basically treated them like royalty. The change in scenery was almost a relief.

Natasha stepped out of the shower, her towel wrapped around her whole body. The door was open to where Steve could see her from the bed he was sitting on. Bucky was around the corner already dozing off. He didn't know what came over him. He walked over, not caring that it was lacking invitation, and wrapped her arm around her as she looked at herself in the mirror, putting lotion on her bare appendages. Steve placed a kiss on the back of her neck, feeling her crane it to the side to allow him access. He took that as a good sign.

They hadn't touched like that in days, letting Steve know that he had a sex drive he didn't even know existed. A small gasp escaped her lips and he can see all of her emotions on the mirror in front of them. "Steve," she said sensually, arousing the soldier and making him trail kisses from the back of her neck up to her jaw. He placed his hand under her jaw and tilted her face so that their lips could meet. The slight hums of pleasure that exited her mouth into his sent a fire through his body, opposite the chill of Alaska that radiated the cabin despite the burning fire across the room.

He didn't remove the towel wrapped around her, instead teasing her as his hands lift it from underneath, her back pressed onto him. He felt her everywhere except from the one place she wanted him to so badly. "Steve," she said again. He smiled at her remarks, smirking as more sounds made it out of her mouth. His hands travelled from her stomach, just stopping right before her breasts began. He moved them down, traveling to her thighs. She felt herself pressed against him, agitated that he was teasing her. "Please," she said to him, but she found out that he liked to tease.

She turned and he pressed against her, his sweatpants and her towel in the way of their skins touching. Her hands made it up to his face, looking at him with desire and…comfort? He couldn't make out, but it was a warm emotion, not a harsh kind of desire. It wasn't lust or desperation. She just wanted to revel in his presence and he sensed it, smiling as he caressed his hand on her cheek.

Using his foot, he closed the bathroom door. Knowing Bucky, he was probably long gone, but the extra precaution of setting up a barrier between them couldn't hurt.

Steve was surprised at her submissiveness. Her allure and seductiveness in other occasions told him that she would be more dominating in bed. His softness on the outside made it seem that he was soft during intimate times, too, but both bodies were the complete opposite when it came to these relations. Steve took the reigns. He just wanted her to forget why they were in this whole situation in the first place. He wanted to show her that it was okay, that she didn't have to hurt anymore with all of the running she's had to do. He felt that he needed to show her exactly that.

They had been staring into each other's eyes for awhile until Natasha felt his finger move up her thigh. She controlled herself, feeling that he was going to continue to tease her again. He didn't this time, catching her off-guard as her eyes closed and her back bent, his fingers finding their way inside of her. She said his name again, followed by other noises that Steve had to put a palm over her mouth. He continued the movement of his fingers, but leaned over to whisper into her ear. "We can't be too loud," he said, nibbling on her lobe before trailing kisses down her neck. He heard a faint "mhm" followed by another moan that would've been extremely loud had he not had his hand on her mouth. "What'd I say, Nat?" He asked, essentially torturing her as his hand moved faster.

"Not…" Steve took his hand off of her mouth as she panted. "Not too l-loud," she said, her eyes closed in all of the pleasure that he was giving her. She bit her lips, resisting with every movement his hand made. "Fuck," she whispered, making the man across from her smirk. She was pulling on his blonde locks. She felt an added pressure, another finger, making her gasp.

"Ssh," he said. "You have to be quiet for me, Natasha." He purposefully emitted her name with a seductive whisper in her ear. It almost sent her over the edge—not like the fingers in her weren't already doing that.

"S-sorry," she said between pants.

He kissed her on the neck again, his hair getting pulled tighter the fasted his hand moved. "It's okay."

"Steve," she moaned again, his hands moving in vibrations now. Her body responded, resounding orgasms that made her almost scream, but he clasped his hand over hers again. And he didn't stop, continuing to move his right hand as shivers overtook her, three different times. Three consecutive ones that she didn't know her body could even do. She opened her eyes, the green in them almost nonexistent with how large her pupils have dilated.

Steve took his mouth with hers, pulling her into a passionate make out session. "That was…" She couldn't find the words for it, making him chuckle. The intimacy had died down to just small pecks on the lips and Natasha was about to reward him with his own session when he stepped back and smiled. "Don't you want—"

"You don't have to," he said, kissing her again. "I did it so you can rest. I know it induces sleep."

She laughed. "That's definitely not the reason you did that."

He found himself close to her again. "You're right," he smiled. "I just wanted to show you that I care."

"Can I show you that I care, too?" She asked, seductively whispering it in his ear. She was about to get started when Steve heard a sound from the outside. His enhanced hearing letting him know that there was a group of people.

Natasha sighed and closed her eyes. She grabbed her change of clothes that were waiting for her after her shower and quickly dressed herself in them. "Nat, stay here." He ordered, but she shook her head, ignoring him.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"What are you talking about?" he said, putting a shirt on so he can investigate what's happening outside. "I thought you said we were safe here."

"You are," she said. She stepped out of the bathroom as she walked to the main door where Bucky was now alertly looking through the peephole.

"Natasha," Steve said longingly, realization coming over him. "What did you do?" His voice was barely a whisper.

She grabbed her coat that was hanging by the doorway, giving him a pained and apologetic look. Steve had followed her to the door and Natasha put a hand on her cheek. "You and Bucky will be fine now," she whispered.

"No," Steve said, his voice breaking. "You didn't."

She nodded as voices and flashlights shone through the cabin. Natasha gently touched Bucky's shoulder, silently telling him to move. He looked at his best friend, asking him for directions instead of listening to her, but Steve's eyes were affixed on the woman, bewildered and hurt. The other soldier moved, his demeanor just as upset.

Natasha opened the doorway with her hands already up in surrender as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had their weapons ready to shoot her. Steve could almost faint if his serum didn't fend off psychosomatic responses. He was blinded by the light and everything that happened that night he remembered in bursts of flashes, like a broken movie disc trying to play, freezing at every frame.

He saw the woman handcuffed and dragged to a quinjet that was parked next to theirs. The next thing he knew was Director Hill and Agent Stark going up to reprimand him and Bucky, though they weren't put in cuffs like her. The two men followed and all Steve could do was stare as the woman disappeared in front of his eyes, her quinjet rising to the air first and heading back to D.C. Or were they going straight to Russia? Panic rose in him, but he was immovable.

Natasha sold herself. He couldn't think of anything that could ever amount to this pain.

Chapter Text

"Why why why why why would you do that?!" Tony Stark's rambling echoed in his chamber. He was stuck in a confinement cell with Tony having to speak into a microphone for them to communicate. Steve could locate Bucky across the circular room, his hands under his head and his ankle on his propped knee, his back on his bed and his head facing the ceiling. He didn't seem bothered to be in prison. Neither was Steve. The source of his apprehension was about Natasha more than anything else. "What is wrong with you?" The billionaire was irate more because he cared about his friend and less because he and his best friend's escapades interfered with the investigation.

"How'd you do it?" He asked Tony.

"Do what?!" The volume of his voice almost broke the glass barrier between them.

"How'd you get her?" Steve asked, his voice soft making the yelling match one-sided. He was sitting on his bed, his legs apart and his arms leaning on his knees. He was looking at Tony now.

The playboy sighed and stood poised. "She called us," he said. Steve shook his head, fighting back the tears and anger rising in his throat like bile. "She said that she'd give us the coordinates to the quinjet if it ensured that you and Bucky's reprimands were permissive."

Steve put his hands on his face. He didn't know what to think or what to do. "They're going to kill her, Tony," he said faintly.

"I don't care about her. I care about you. I care about your stupid friend who you saved from jail. I care about the fact that this reckless behavior cost you your whole entire reputation. This cost your whole entire life, Rogers."

"I really don't care, Tony." The man was taken aback by the response. "I've been wanting to quit S.H.I.E.L.D. for a long time."

"That literally doesn't sound like you. Are Russians notorious for brainwashing or something?" He asked aloud and looked at Bucky who couldn't hear their conversation.

"No," Steve said as he sighed. "S.H.I.E.L.D. is willing to put an American citizen in the hands of torture chambers for what?"

"To save the world from a freaking war." His voice was low, letting the soldier know that he has reached his angriest.

"We don't trade lives," he said. "I stand by that."

"I don't know what this charade is," Tony started. "I don't know if you managed to fall in love with her or something. She's a spy who literally lived almost her whole life luring men into their beds. You read her fucking file."

"It's not about that," Steve responded. "It's about this rising guilt ever since I killed Clint a—"

"The criminal who drove a katana through my large intestine, yes," Tony said, crossing his arms.

"These people, Tony, they were only trying to do good."

"Rogers, I..." he stopped himself to take off his glasses and wipe his eyes from irritation. "You just said that you don't trade lives, yet you can't even manage to do what's right for people who did take lives. You know that I'm right on this and in any given scenario you would agree."

Steve shook his head stubbornly. "I was right about Bucky."

"He's literally in a cell across from you right now."

"Not for killing. I was right about him and it took a lot for you to accept that."

"I'm not fond of mingling with the murderer of my parents."

"You don't have to like him. I just know that you agree now when I say that he was coaxed into his past life," said Steve as he stood up to walk closer to the glass where Tony was opposite.

"Natasha Romanoff wasn't brainwashed. Your argument doesn't stick."

"There isn't an equalizer, but for what it's worth, her actions were under the notion that she was doing something right. I'm not trying to excuse her killing as right b—"

"Yes, you are."

"No, I'm just trying to make you understand that you're putting her back where she came from. You're the one that's going to make her into a killer again once she enters that Soviet territory. Once they beat her to a pulp, brainwash her, stab her with pins and needles, then kill her, that's on you. That's on Hill. That's on whoever's on board with this exchange."

"World war, Captain. We don't want that to happen."

"You're a coward," Steve said, the first insult to come out of his mouth.

"Excuse me?"

"You take the easy way out. You might be one of the greatest minds to ever roam this earth, Tony, but you don't use it when the situation doesn't convenience you." Steve grew angry.

He was frustrated, but he collected himself. "I'm gonna get my best lawyers working for the both of you," he said.

"Don't bother," Steve said before clicking a button that cut off his side of communication. He laid on his bed, facing the ceiling instead of the other guy on the opposite side of the glass. Tony was about to say something else when he shook his head and clicked a similar button.


Almost two years have passed, Bucky and Steve living in monotony of prison. Tony Stark worked on the PR, making sure that word didn't get out. He also made sure that the two could communicate through their cells and transferred them both next to each other, only glass separating them so they can see each other better.

Steve drew a lot, it was really the only way that he could pass time. Bucky toyed with his arm. "I'm sorry I got you into this," Steve said without looking up from his sketchpad. They were both sitting on the ground, leaning on the glass wall that divided them.

The other laughed. "Till the end of the line, pal."

"This is the end of the line."

"Shut up. You know it ain't," he said with a smile. "Remember when I said that I wasn't goin' on a manhunt for a woman for you, no matter how perfect she was?"

The other soldier sighed and nodded. "Yeah, you were talking about her."

"Boy was I wrong," he said. "I've never seen you happier than the short week you two spent together in Wales and like that one day in Alaska. If I had known, I definitely would've gone on that manhunt and not to hand her over to the Soviets..." He made a disgusted face before saying "man, I hate Russia." He then shook his head to return to the topic. "But I'd have handed her over to you in a heartbeat."

Steve wasn't feeling any better than he did at the beginning of this conversation. "She was a good one."

"Well she was a bad one, but like..." Bucky chuckled as Steve shot him a glare. "No, I mean like literally she was, but I also meant bad bad. Like, the colloquialism?" Steve didn't get it. "We're both above a hundred years old and I managed to assimilate in this new century better than you did even though you've been out the ice longer," he scoffed, making the other smile.

Steve had told Bucky that he wasn't going to take any of Tony's lawyers but insisted that he did. The other man shook his head violently and remained by his side. Steve could probably never forgive himself, wasting years of his best friend's life just after he got his consciousness back, but he was stubborn, telling off every single lawyer that Tony hit him with. It annoyed Steve considering that Bucky really only contributed to a small part in this and he didn't deserve to be put in a place like this again. Not after what happened to him.

The two were convicted for three years for aiding and abetting, all thanks to Maria Hill and a plea deal that Steve took. Had he not, it would've been six.

"She's probably gone now," Steve said, his eyes and voice somber.

Bucky hit the glass wall, but it didn't startle him. "Don't think like that, Steve."

He shrugged. The man grew more depressed by the day; it was disheartening for the other soldier to watch. "If she's still alive they probably coerced her into killing like before. Like another Winter Soldier project."

"She wouldn't," Bucky said softly.

"She could," he said, barely above a whisper as his pencil moved across the white on his lap.

Bucky leaned the back of his head on the glass wall, looking up at the ceiling, hoping that his best friend wasn't right.

Another couple of weeks would mark their second year anniversary of their captivity. They lived mundane lives though Tony visited them often to update them on S.H.I.E.L.D, information which was very interesting for Bucky, but Steve shut him out. There was a rising resentment that he tried to control, knowing that his compromised nature was because of his feelings for Natasha. But still, he was human, no matter how enhanced he was. The billionaire would hand Bucky the files of the current defense against ISIS, the organization that he was tracking back when he was stationed in Berlin. Bucky often asked him of the roster, just to see if his friends back in the German sector were surviving. He and Tony weren't the type to bond, but because the engineer was trying to make amends by visiting the prison with the man he was trying to reconcile with refusing to talk to him, that leaves speaking to the other soldier by proxy. Maybe by talking to him about the things he wanted to tell Steve, there'd be some sort of cordial understanding about where their friendship lain.

Tony came with a birthday cake the next time he saw him. Steve wasn't even sure what day it was.

"Eyo, Capsicle!" Tony yelled as he entered their section in the raft. He had put candles in the American-themed fondant (both for the occasion of the man's brand and the independence day celebration happening in the outside world) one, zero and seven next to each other, lighting them as he walked to Steve's cell. The soldier couldn't help but smile a little. "Happy birthday, old man," he said with a smirk.

Tony blew it for him after he and Bucky sang him the birthday song, then cut them up some slices and pushed them through a slot so they could all eat together. "What present do you want? I can get you anything, you know? And island. A mansion. A new Harley." Tony offered with spoonfuls of cake in his mouth.

Steve took a bite out of his piece out of courtesy for Tony's efforts, though he wasn't really hungry. He just shrugged and shook his head. Bucky saw his demeanor and gave Stark a somber smile. "We're just waiting for the year to be over, Tony," said the other soldier.

He nodded, but didn't relent. "No, really, I can buy you anything."

Steve set his barely-touched plate down and stood up to face the wall, thanking him for the energy, and proceeding to say that he was tired and needing rest (even thought they all know that the two were in a perpetual state of rest in the Raft). Bucky motioned for Tony to come over to his cell and to talk to him one-on-one. "Natasha," he said.

"Are you kidding me? That's like the one thing I can't give him," he said, his voice a whisper. They were aware of the soldier's enhanced hearing, but it slipped their minds.

"I know, so you should drop it," said Bucky. Tony sighed and nodded his head.

Steve slumped down on his bed. Every day he wishes that he could go back into cryostasis, he can't bear waiting another year to get out of the place.

Tony stopped by a few weeks later. He went and talked to Bucky as Steve drew in his corner. "I tried finding her," he whispered through the glass barrier. Steve could hear every word, but continued to do his art. He proceeded to talk about the efforts of finding the spy, raiding some Russian covert operations under the guise of hiring mercenaries. Definitely not legal, but Tony's past the point of obliging with the law if it could get him a few words with the soldier who hasn't spoken beyond pleasantries to him in the past two years. He's coming to a short realization of Steve's mindset, but excused himself by comparing the magnitude of hiring mercs to hiding an outlaw. He still wouldn't have changed a thing he did a couple of years ago, so he's doing the most he can to fix the inevitable rift it created.

"At all? Did you check Berlin? Did you look in Germany, too?" Bucky asked sorrowfully.

"We searched the whole of Eastern Europe," Tony said, shaking his head, sympathizing. He didn't know how he was supposed to tell Steve about it. "Do you want me to tell him?"

Bucky sighed and ran his metal fingers through his hair. "No, I'll do it," he said. He walked over and knocked on Steve's glass.

His blue eyes met Bucky's brown ones, the whites reddening and swelling as water built up. "I heard," he said loud enough for both of them to hear, his voice rough like his throat was void of water even though he drinks gallons. He shook his head and went back to work on his sketchpad. "Don't bother. Don't worry about it."

"I'm sorry," Tony said sincerely to him. He didn't respond. His head didn't move as the pencil danced all over the paper.

"He means well, you know?" Bucky said when the billionaire left. "He feels bad." Steve didn't respond, though in his head he was thankful for the attempts.

Some days that's how it went. Steve would go into bouts of depression that Bucky would try so hard to get him out of. He'd crack some jokes, maybe start an argument. Sometimes he'd punch the wall between them so loud and great that Steve swore the Raft shook. But even so, the soldier would constantly be silent. The only way he found himself entertained was through drawing or through thinking, sometimes it drove Bucky insane because he liked to talk. And it's not just the concept of talking, Bucky has never felt so far away from Steve since he had lost his mind as the Winter Soldier. This situation was giving it a run for his money. The captain always looked so lost, so deep in himself that Bucky shouting couldn't even pry him out of it. The man's mental health was deteriorating, not because he's in a cell, but every day he spent in it was another day of worry about Natasha's well-being. It crossed Bucky's mind often, too, but he found himself being more optimistic than Steve, which is unheard of. There wasn't any light left in his eyes.

The moments that Steve doesn't face his thoughts, he's punching bags away at the gym trying to zone out of it. Even then, his anger of losing Natasha translated itself in his punches. He wasn't able to run away from the thought of her and it's sending him in a deep hole that even Bucky couldn't recognize—a deeper hole than Bucky ever felt when he was held by the Soviet Union. The other soldier didn't know what to do, so he stands idly by as he sees the man in front of him deteriorate from someone who "can do this all day" to someone who couldn't do anything anymore. He was blank and unfeeling.

There were six months left in their sentence and though Bucky was excited for its nearing, Steve saw himself going down the rabbit hole further and further. He was afraid that once he got out of there and leaves to find Natasha, he won't be able to because there's nothing of her to find.

Sometimes Bucky would slam at the glass wall to wake him up from nightmares. They never turned off communication with each other across the cell for that reason. Steve needed to be woken up when he was going through his tremors and he silently thanks Bucky for that by letting him know small pieces of his dreams. He almost always omits Natasha from them, but Bucky needn't hear her name to understand that she's always a part of it.

One day, a few months before their sentence was about to end, Tony Stark came running in, his usual attire displaced by his Iron Man suit. Bucky and Steve could sense that there was trouble. The large robot ran to their cells and Tony ordered Friday to unlock them via the codes of their release.

"What's going on?" Bucky asked as he stepped out of his glass confinement. Steve stayed on his bed even though the door was open. He even made an effort to stand and close the door back in its place, not wanting to leave.

"Steve, come on," Tony said. "We have no time this is urgent."

"I'm a criminal," said Steve, his voice hoarse. He turned in his bed, his face facing the wall that wasn't glass. "Leave me alone. I have three months left."

Tony aggravatingly opened the door and sat on his bed. "There's a problem."

"Take care of it," he said coldly.

"We need your help."

"You haven't needed my help in almost three years, I'm sure you'll manage," said the soldier, his whole body faced away from the billionaire.

"They fucked us over, Cap," he said softly. Steve didn't reply, waiting for him to elaborate. "The Russians. They're still working with Germany. They just nuked Israel."

Steve's attention still wasn't caught. He stayed still. "So you gave Natasha away for nothing? Leave me alone."

The billionaire froze. "Stop sulking, your country needs you," said Tony, his voice getting stiff.

Steve finally looked up at him and sat leaning against the wall. "I'm not sulking," he said angrily. "You're back here again for your own convenience, asking me to fight a war that you couldn't prevent. Asking me to fight in a war that you thought could be fixed with a sacrificial lamb. Fuck off, Tony."

The Steve was gone. Captain America was no more. There was absolutely no hope in his eyes and Tony searched for it. Everywhere. He almost felt himself asking Friday to search for it for him, maybe a computer could calculate human emotion. "You put yourself in this place and you're resenting me," he said with indignation.

"No part of me is angry," he said straightly. "I put myself in this place and I'll see to it that I stay in here until my time is served. You can leave now."

"When did you turn into a drama queen?" He asked, standing up.

"When did you turn so heartless? I thought your arc reactor is there for that." Steve mumbled as he laid down again, trying to bury his head into the pillow.

"People are gonna die, Rogers," he said, latching the face plate of his suit down.

"And that'll be my fault?"

"You'll regret not being in the fight to stop it," Tony concluded as he walked out.

He was about to close his eyes when he felt another presence sit on the foot of his bed. "Come on, Punk," Bucky said with a smile. "Let's go fight a war and then we'll go find her. You and me."

"She's dead, Bucky."

"She doesn't give up that easily," he said. "Look, you didn't give up on me. You're not gonna give up on her."

"I'd never," he started. "But she gave up on me."

"No, she didn't," he said, putting his real arm on his shoulder. "She succeeded trying to give us a better life. Even though it took almost three years, but, she made a call. Tony opened the gates for us. We can go now."

Steve sighed, sitting up on the bed. "I'll fight the war then I'll be back here in the cell. I have three more months."

Bucky laughed as Steve finally stood up. "I'll be back here with you then."

Tony was waiting for them at the helipad. He gave Captain America a new suit but he also brought his old one to give him a choice. The billionaire saw Steve walk out in his old one, the star ripped off his chest. It sent some sort of sadness through him, not because he thought it was disrespectful, but because the man didn't feel like he belonged to the country anymore.

Tony handed him his shield and he was about to deny it until he made Friday spray it black to cover the pattern. Steve nodded at Tony for understanding. As they rode the helicopter he looked over to the robot. "You have a spray can in that suit?" Tony laughed instead of giving a coherent response.

He brought them to the D.C. Helicarrier where Steve and Bucky were met with applauses. He was also met with curious glances over the suit, his growing beard, the longer hair, and the missing star on his chest, but their excitement to see Captain America again trumped any other emotion they felt. The people had been told that the two were in retirement and were forced to get out of it when the A-bomb went off. Steve wasn't too happy about it and though he thought of rising on a table and telling everyone the truth, it was too late because Hill met his pace. "I spoke to the President," she said nonchalantly as she looked down at her tablet. "Full pardon as long as you help us get rid of this."

He felt uneasy about the pardon. He was the kind to take responsibility for his mistakes. Maybe there was still some hope for the old Captain America.

They all went to the command room where Hill enlarged the three-dimensional patterns. "Three atomic bombs hit Haifa, Golan Heights and Gaza simultaneously. It destroyed a radius of four miles from their detonation and consequently wiped out everything else in the receding ten mile radius," she said, her voice agitated and hurting. "Haifa and Gaza are completely devastated, killing all of their population. The explosion at Golan also spread to a neighboring village Syria."

"Why did this happen?" Steve asked, his chest sinking as he thought of the massive deaths.

"We don't know, but Russia took credit for it," Tony chimed as he switched one television to show a newscast.

"For a revolution, there must be sacrifice," the Russian accent resonated around the room as other agents began to watch. Russia's head of defense was on a podium with a diplomat from Germany right behind him. "We have had enough of extremist propaganda. Israel and Syria are ruining the countries around it with their radicalization and we intend to fend off this threat to international security."

Steve grew upset as Bucky clenched both of his hands in anger. "Evacuation," Steve said, starting a tactic.

"We can't harbor that many refugees in our land Agent Rogers," Director Hill said.

"No, but we have to get the people from West Bank to migrate to Negev," he said, pointing at the map. "This is the only place that's left for them that's still in their territory."

"Israelites aren't going to like Palestinians in their land, Capsicle. There's already an ongoing conflict there," Tony said with his metal limbs crossed over his arc reactor.

"Well if either of them want to survive, they're gonna have to learn to be friends," said Steve. "Stark, how much of the region is going to be affected by radiation?" Tony headed to the larger monitor, using his fingers to pinch out a circle and show everyone the estimated travel of energy after the three detonated bombs. "Hill, what's Jordan's refugee policy?"

"They've been taking in Israelis fleeing the Syrian War for the past couple of years." Hill responded.

"Great, I'm sure they can make space. Anyone left from the Galan nuke travels to Jordan. Haifa and its neighboring cities move south to Negev. Gaza can go there, too. The whole entire West Bank has to migrate to Jordan or South Israel, but no one has a choice here," he said, taking the attention of everyone in the room.

"I'll speak to Secretary of Defense to get all the bodies we need. I have a feeling a lot of our Afghani troops will be heading there," Hill said as she contacted the defense head on her comm.

Tony smiled as he saw Steve work. "I knew you'd be back," he said, letting a hand rest on his shoulder. The soldier looked up at him, his eyes visibly swollen and tired. He really couldn't blame the captain for giving up.

"I want two clandestine agents sent to their nuclear weapons complex," said Steve. "I want another two to head to Germany. I need recon to see if we can invade."

"Are you sure you want to do that?" Tony asked. "There's a chance that if we do this then United States is getting itself in a war."

"We're a UN agency, Tony."

"Yeah, but we," he flailed his arms all over the place to show Steve the people that inhabited the helicarrier. "We're mostly Americans."

He sighed. "I guess we're going to have to start a war." Tony nodded, knowing that there wasn't any other choice.

"I'll take Germany," said Bucky. "I lived there for two years. I know how it works and I know how to enter through their compounds. I'll take Agent 13 with me." He left to grab his things.

Steve nodded and looked at Stark. "I guess we're going to Russia."

"Da," the billionaire responded with an exaggerated American accent. "I hate the cold."

"You tell me you have a spray can in there, but you didn't think to build in a heater?" One of Steve's brows raised, sending a chuckle through Tony.

"The boosters might overload if there's too much heat generating inside the suit," he said.

Steve was about to respond when Bucky returned with Agent Carter. He was fully equipped with at least two large rifles, two handguns and Steve noticed a knife in his belt. "Leave by three. I want this done. Recon and then intel extraction. Try to be back in a couple of weeks. I don't want the war starting without you," the captain said. Bucky nodded and gave him a hard smack on the shoulder with his prosthetic hand. "I'll see ya. Don't get killed."

He smirked. "If it happens, it won't be the first time. Make sure you don't get killed, too. Two times isn't a charm," Bucky quipped and walked away. He knew Steve didn't understand the proverb but at least there was a nod of acknowledgment from the blonde agent as they made their way to one of the quinjets.

Steve and Tony made their way to another one with a S.T.R.I.K.E. agent piloting for exfil. The soldier was getting his belongings together when Stark stepped out of his suit to inspect it. "I'm sorry," said Steve lightly, looking at his shield as he fixed the straps. Tony turned and looked at him with a questioning face. "For treating you like crap these past three years. Four, actually, with our arguments prior to my sabbatical and stuff."

He shook his head. "You're dangerous when you're trying to fight against something you don't believe," he said as he spun a bolt in the inner corners of the suits neck.

Steve shook his head, taking a seat on one of the jet chairs. "I don't even know what I believe anymore."

"You still believe the correct things, Spangles," Tony said, still without looking at him as he fiddled with the rest of his suit. "You were right about our tactics with Natasha."

The soldier looked down at the thought of her. Pain shot through his chest at the thought that she is not likely to be alive. He wondered if she suffered, if the Russians bound her. And then he wondered if she escaped; she did constantly tell him that she was the greatest spy the world's ever seen. Maybe Natasha kicked Russian ass and made it back to Alaska in her safe house. Maybe she was roaming the streets of Russia with blonde hair. The hopeful thoughts made him sit straighter and more comfortable, but it only lasted for a moment as the negatives purged them out of his mind. He hadn't exercised being so optimistic in awhile since he's been confined. He realized that it wasn't easy being so positive all the time. Steve wondered how he did it back then, how he had so much willpower as a ninety-pound man. How was he able to keep fighting despite getting beat up almost every day? It's not like the jail cell was the worst of what he's experienced in his life.

He thought about waking up from the ice and the realization that he missed that dance with Peggy. He didn't turn into a pessimistic soldier at that situation. So what differed now? Natasha brought him so much happiness that he justified his depression with the loss of her. Maybe he had hoped too much in the beginning, strongly thinking that she was going to defect the their side again. And when it didn't happen and he was met with flashlights in the log house and a S.T.R.I.K.E. team cuffing her wrists right in front of him, all hope was lost.

He imagined that it could be that or maybe after Peggy he was still able to be free. He wasn't a captive. Sure, he was given gym privileges in the raft, but he didn't go on missions. He realized that he enjoyed his assignments when he worked for the agency and probably took it for granted after his hunt for Natasha.

Steve thought about the katana through Clint's back, the pain that he went through having to kill a man who may have deserved it, but nonetheless could've been saved. Maybe his depression stemmed on the failure of being able to help her. He succeeded at one point or another; she stopped her killings and though her vigilantism was still violent, Steve would call the fewer casualties a win.

"Earth to Rogers," said the billionaire. He didn't know how long he zoned out for.

"ETA two hours till touch down at Bashkortostan," said their pilot.

"We landing on the Ural Mountains?" Asked Tony.

"Yes, sir," he said.

"Did I say I really hate the cold?" he asked no one in particular.

"We're cloaking in an hour and you're both jumping ten miles out of Yamantau," said the pilot.

"You're telling me I have to hike in the snow?" Tony complained.

"You have boosters," deadpanned Steve.

"You're right but I'm not leaving your old ass behind," he chided as Steve smiled.

"I'll get a head start, then. You exit ten minutes after I jump," he said, positioning his black shield on his back and grabbing a parachute, setting it on his feet so he'll remember to put it on. Sometimes he just forgets and he heard that jumping ten thousand feet wasn't good for old men's knees. Tony handed him a black piece which he put in his ear.

Steve expanded an aerial view of the nuclear compound in the mountain of Yamantau. He zoomed in on the schematic and briefed Tony on the plan. "This should be an easy recon, and tomorrow we're going in for extraction." Tony nodded, taking the orders from the captain.

Everything went successfully that first day. It was the day after that brought the men some trouble. "You're going to have to be flying lower, Tony. Too high and you'll activate their censors. They're going to think you're trespassing in their airspace."

"I got that after almost getting launched out of the sky yesterday," he said, flying lower, his chest almost on the snowy ground. "I read two guards, the same one from yesterday."

Steve gave him an affirmative over the comm and launched his shield which ricocheted and sent both men unconscious. "Code?" He asked over the comm.

"628352, Сармат," said Tony, spelling out the word using the english alphabet.

"The C and the p are actually S and R if they're transliterated," said the captain over the comm.

Tony snickered. "Okay, well not all of us can speak Commie," he said as Steve chuckled softly.


"Seven on your right," he said. "This feels like one of those stealth video games." Tony was literally sitting on the side of a mountain, his helmet letting him know the heat signatures as Steve quietly infiltrated the compound.

"You're good at video games, right?" Steve asked as a grunt escaped his mouth after sending a soldier flying. He grabbed all the bodies and created a pile behind a truck so they wouldn't be found.

"Yes, I'm a genius. And one half of the Avengers," he said, sounding offended. Steve chuckled as he walked into one of the compound buildings. 

"No sign of nuke in here," Steve said.

"Any fancy computers around?"

"Nope," he said.

"You're in the wrong building then," Tony said.

"I thought during recon yesterday you said this was it?"

"There were just a lot of heat signatures in there yesterday. I thought perhaps that's where the codes would be with all the controllers," he said. "I do detect a couple of heat signatures, though, Cap. You might wanna take them out. Underground on your six o'clock."

Steve gave him an okay as he headed down the stairs. It was an underground jail, but people weren't in the cells. He wondered what could possibly be hiding there if it weren't for nuclear codes. He heard someone scream, initially thinking that his thoughts were playing tricks on him. She yelled again and Steve let out a gasping whisper. "Natasha." He ran, not bothering as Tony said something in his ear.

Steve put his back on a wall, looking beyond the curtain to see a woman just in her underwear. Her ankles and wrists were chained, forcing her to make an X standing up. His heart swelled and the anger built up in his throat. Two people were in lab coats, having a conversation.

It wasn't until one of the scientists put something around her head, emitting electricity, causing her to scream in pain when Steve threw his shield at one of them. He knocked the other with one punch. Steve grabbed the contraption on her head and used his shield to free her feet and her hands. Steve grabbed one of the unconscious doctor's lab coat and wrapped it around her. She was freezing, staring at the ground and not moving from her standing position.

Steve put strands of hair behind her ear. His fingers tipped her chin so she could finally look at him. "Steve?" She asked, her voice breaking, shattering the soldier's heart.

"It's me, I'm here," he said, sending a kiss on her temple as he guided her out of the underground.

"Jesus fucking Christ, Rogers!" He heard over his comm. "Can you hear me? Is your comm broken? If you don't respond in ten seconds I'm going in there," Tony yelled in his ear.

"I'm here, I'm here," he said, guiding Natasha as they walked up the stairs.

"Someone's alarmed and called back up," Tony said. "I see four trucks coming in hot from the west entrance. You better get your ass here so we can do the extraction another day."

"No, no," Steve said. "There's only three buildings in here. I can find it. I need you to get Natasha back on that quinjet."

"What? Natasha?"

"She's here and alive, Tony," he said. Steve hitched his shield on his back and opted to carry the redhead bridal style.

"I-I can walk, you know?" she whispered. Even when she's badly beaten she still managed to be hyper-independent.

He placed a chaste kiss on her chapped lips. "I know. I don't really care. I kinda want you in my arms." She was still weak, but she responded to his words with a smile.

"Rogers, I'm not leaving you here. If the woman's going back with me, you're coming, too," he heard over his comms.

"This world war is not starting, Tony. And even if it does, we're dismantling all the arsenal they have," he said. "Get Natasha back to safety. I know where the control room is. I'll finish the extraction and I'll meet you two at the quinjet."

"But R-"

"That's an order, Tony," he said, pulling rank. "I'm not saying you owe me, but get her away from here."

"I don't understand why we can't come back another day."

"They're already alarmed. They're going to wipe everything in that god-damned computer." Steve ran to where he had entered the code in the back gate, seeing that Tony got up from his ass on the mountain and flew there to meet him halfway.

"D-don't leave, please," she said.

He kissed her again. "Nope, not this time," he said with a reassuring smile. "I'll be back before you know it."

Tony grabbed the woman and flew as fast as he could to the waiting quinjet ten miles away.

Steve hid behind trucks and leaped over boxes to get to the building he was sure the computers were in. According to the schematic that he had memorized, this was the only place it could been in.

Tony set her on a table, creating a makeshift bed in the jet. He was about to tell the pilot something when an explosion engulfed the nuclear site.

"Steve!" Natasha found the energy to yell at the sight.

Chapter Text

"Make sure Spidey here stays put," Tony said to the pilot, trying his best not to sound worried. "I'm going out to sweep Yamantau."

"But sir, I w--" The pilot tried to protest.

"Air Force, I swear to the gods if you don't do as I say, I will hurt you," he said, clasping his gold mask shut in his headpiece. The pilot didn't respond and nodded frantically.

"I'm going with you," said Natasha as she rose to her feet.

"Not a chance, Red," he pointed as he boosted out of the plane and manually closed the ramp behind him.

The billionaire flew the ten miles to the scene, seeing that the building he last saw Steve come out of was completely destroyed. All the other buildings saw damages from the initial explosion. "Friday, can you see Cap?" He said into his mask.

"Negative, sir. No sign of Agent Rogers," said the automation.

"Shit," he said, flying around the vicinity in order to prevent being seen. "You’re really gonna kill yourself in Russia during peak winter so you can freeze again, Rogers?" he whispered to himself, anxious and upset.

He heard coughs as someone traversed up the snowy mountain. "Not today, Stark," he said, his voice rough from the explosion.

Tony felt his body relax at the scene, seeing soot and grime all over his face as he tried to get on his feet. "I wasn't gonna let you leave me with a Russian knowing that when you die I gotta take care of the other quasi-Russian." He said with a smirk inside his head piece. He opened the mask so Steve can look at him as they talked. He helped the soldier on his feet and they walked to the quinjet.

"I got the intel on a drive. We should get it to Hill," he said panting as he walked over the snow.

"Did they see you?" Tony asked.

"No, but they knew someone was there," he said. "I went back in the first building to read the files on what they were doing to Natasha first before heading into their control room to gather the nuclear information."

Tony was about to scold him for not staying on the task and potentially compromising everything, but decided against it. "They wouldn't risk launching a missile to this nuclear site, but I'm sure they noticed something unusual in the first building. They didn’t risk sending in men and it was far enough from the atomic bomb so they just decimated it." The billionaire nodded.

He closed his mask back and grabbed Steve by the hand as he flew them up to where the quinjet was hovering. The moment the ramp opened Steve was finally able to bask in the battered woman who was pacing across the quinjet, her eyes to the floor in apprehension. It took her awhile to notice that the agents have returned. "Steve," she said, not running to his arms despite the voice in her head telling her to. She tried her best to control her feet from their own sentience, thinking to speed into the captain's arms.

Tony walked out of his suit and secured the hard drive that Steve pulled out of his utility belt. He set his shield down, not breaking his eyes away from the woman.

She hadn't changed in three years. Her hair may be longer and her eyes are darker—he assumed as a product of everything that they did to her—but she seemed the same. Her muscles were still toned in the same way and scars were in the correct places. He could only see her stomach and her legs through the lab coat. He noticed bruises, counting the ones that were visible and almost breaking down at the thought that there were probably more that he couldn't see. Her lips were smiling, reminding him of that one morning-after when they ate breakfast for a few minutes before his best friend barged in. Her hands were shaking, the veins protruding out of her forearms and though her stature remained the same, he couldn't help but notice that she had grown skinnier. Anger scaffolded in his mind, but he took a step towards her, needing her touch to ease that feeling.

They were frozen for a moment, a stalemate because neither wanted to move. They didn't know if everything in front of them was real so they stood in that one position to make sure that nothing would change, to make sure that neither would disappear. They stood in fear that one movement would jerk them awake and that this was all a dream.

And then in a split second Steve found himself the first to break in their limbo, his arms opening in desperation as he took one step. That was all the inclination she needed as she let her feet take over her and run into his chest. He had never felt her hug him so tightly.

"I'm so sorry," he said, his lips meeting her hair. He wanted to embrace her with the same force but was afraid that he would crush her, her fragility evident in her very crippling state. "I'm sorry," he repeated again. Tears flew out of his eyes as he looked forward seeing that Tony was looking at them from the co-pilot's seat. The billionaire nodded at him and he smiled back.

She was crying, too. Her hands moved around his back, basking in the feeling of him. She moved her head, separating them only slightly as she looked in his eyes. "I've missed you," she whispered. "I like the beard." He chuckled slightly, his last tear making its way out as he used one hand to put a strand of hair behind her ear. "Thank you for coming for me," she said.

"I wouldn't have stopped looking,” he whispered. The hand that was behind her ear made its way to her cheek. He searched her eyes for any sign of protest but the only thing he could find was need. His lips found hers, the first time in three years that he's felt the way he's feeling now. She hugged him tightly and the one arm he had around her tensed as they grasped her waist with the same intensity. He almost lifted her off the floor of the quinjet, but their kiss had severed by the time it could've almost happened.

They looked into each other's eyes again. Fear flooded hers, but he wasn’t sure of what. The Russians? Fear that he might leave? He tabled those questions for later. And they engulfed in another longing kiss one more time, this one lasting longer, his tongue finding hers. It wasn't until both of them realized that there were two other men on the aircraft that they finally pulled themselves apart.

They sat next to each other on the table, their bodies touching but nothing else.

"I sent them to Hill," Tony said, walking over to the two with a tablet in his hand. Natasha had her arms crossed for security and Steve leaned forward, his elbows on his knees.

"What's in them?"

"HYDRA plans. Their nuclear codes and their intentions with the four other nukes they have."

"Four? I only saw one there," Steve said, looking up at him in confusion.

"In that site, yes. There's three more in other sites in Russia. We’re trying to find them,” Tony said, shutting the tablet off and heading to his suit to tweak it.

"What's Hill's plan of action?" he asked, standing up to walk to Tony but not before putting his hand on Natasha's thigh to squeeze it for assurance.

"She said to reconvene. Your comrade hasn't returned with 13 yet," he said, looking at the bolts of his suit's forearm. "She did get word from them that there's two nuclear launch sites in Lubeck and Bremen, so they're definitely getting somewhere."

Steve nodded. "And the three other sites in Russia?"

He sighed. "We don't know. Russia violated the international treaty. We're going in blind because HYDRA made sure not to disclose the other ones."

"Not even from the intel we got?"

"Unfortunately not." Steve shook his head and leaned on the wall. "So you were with Red," Tony started, not looking up from his suit.

Steve shrugged. "Not really." He looked over and saw the woman who was stuck in a blank daze, almost falling asleep on the makeshift bed. "It was something...but not nearly anything."

"That didn't make sense to me and I'm a genius," he replied, looking up beyond his glasses at the soldier.

"What's gonna happen now?"

"I'll put in word with Hill to grant her asylum," Tony said, standing up and investing his whole attention in the conversation. “I’ll have her talk with the diplomats."

Steve nodded. "Thank you, Tony."

"We shouldn't have put her there in the first place," he said somberly. "We could've put her in our own cell. I could've arranged for my best lawyers."

"What's done is done," he whispered, seeing the woman completely asleep. "She really deserves some rest."

"I'll have medical check her up in the Helicarrier then get Top Gun here to land you two in your D.C. apartment," he said.

"We're staying on the Helicarrier," Steve said. "We still have so much more to do to stop HYDRA, I'm not gonna stay in an apartment."

Tony sighed and stared at him. "Okay, I'll make sure to clear one of the rooms for Natalie, then.”

Steve looked at him with gratitude. "Thanks. For everything, really.”

Natasha found herself resisting when she was brought to medical, a place she knew all too well, partly because these same people had hunted her and sold her to the HYDRA base. She felt uneasy being in the hands of doctors who were actually caring for her considering that the past three years were full of experiences with doctors mistreating her as they pried her body open. She's never feared blood tests and needles, but somehow felt extremely uncomfortable, almost scared, as the kind S.H.I.E.L.D. physicians assessed her. She underwent a full-body inspection and was told to stay in one place. One agent brought her some clothes, a black shirt and black cargo pants, ones she was familiar with when she used to be an agent for the agency.

She knew her way around the place, so despite the doctors' urges to stay in the room, she walked her way to the command center. She made her way up the steps to the scaffold where the meeting took place. No one really stopped her considering that she was dressed like all the other agents, not recognizing who she was.

The first pair of eyes she landed on were Hill's. "You're trespassing a classified meeting," the director said, causing all eyes in the room to meet Natasha's and ceasing all conversation. Anyone could hear a pin drop.

She shook it off and grabbed a seat that wasn't for her. "Relax, Hill, you're gonna need me for this," she said confidently, the agents dumbfounded as no one spoke to the director that way. "I see you got promoted." She smiled at the brunette, genuinely and far from malicious.

"Natasha." She heard the soldier's voice, just now setting her eyes on him. "You're supposed to be in medical."

"They said I was fine," she said, dismissing him with a white lie. "The other launch site is in Kazakhstan. I believe it's right outside Petropavl.”

She was met with a stare-down with Hill. Steve and Tony looked at the woman—they knew that they were familiar, but didn’t really know how much. No one made a sound and everyone remained still until Natasha leaned back on the chair and crossed her arms over her chest. "Look," she started. "I'll get back into whatever cell you want to put me in, but not until this whole thing is over. I heard every word spoken in Yamantau. I know how these soldiers move and how they operate. If you don't wanna use me as an asset, that's fine, but you'd be a fool not to take advantage of me."

Hill didn't move or break their gaze until she looked down at her tablet to contemplate. It was the nod that followed after that put everything in place. "Tell us what you know." And every body resumed doing what they were doing, though taking account of the weird atmosphere now that an assassin was in their premises—not just a criminal, but someone that's now a part of this Top Secret S.H.I.E.L.D. assignment.

“There are two sites in Kazakhstan,” she said, pointing on screen of the table. She expanded the map to the country. Steve was amazed at how well she functioned in that position, like being an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was second-nature to her. He knew that she had been a part of this place, but it seems like she took a bigger role than what he read about her. She pointed at Petropavl, but also highlighted two other territories. “The other site is in one of these places. I only know because they were trying to figure it out three years ago, exactly when I first became their prisoner. This site was the only one I’ve never heard them talk about, but there was a whole rage in Petropavl, so one is definitely there. They never explicitly spoke to me about the plans, but they’re coercing these Middle Eastern countries”—she swiped the map over the western nations and enlarged the transcontinental region—“to collude with HYDRA. Basically saying that they can continue the way that their politics run, but they’re just dummies and public figures. The real work will be done by Germany and Russia and will be dictating these countries. They’re going to control the economy by slotting in the perfect amount of slave labor and trafficking so they can thrive to be powerhouses. The United States will be forced to trade with them in dangerous ways, weapons, intelligence, all of it, because they’ll become the greatest countries in the East.”

“But what happened to Israel?” Steve asked.

“They didn’t want in,” Natasha said harshly. “Any country that doesn’t submit to their rule--their politicians and government officials who deny giving them--power are decimated. They don’t even disclose threats. They work by saying that ‘if you don’t join us, you’ll regret it” and with no other warning. Israel’s the first to say no and Yemen’s the first to say yes.”

“Where are the other nukes heading?”

“My guess is Saudi or Turkey,” she said, gaining confusing looks. “The royals will never give up power no matter how much money you guarantee them. Saudi is one of the most economically thriving countries in the territory, there is absolutely no way they’ll agree to this. The Turkish parliament isn’t going to agree either because they’re a free-market society. Israel said no because they’re one of the richest and capitalist. There’s a pattern.”

Hill nodded. “We work our way up. Agent Sullivan, I want you to compile the current GDP of all Middle Eastern countries and set them chronologically. I’m going to contact the all of our ambassadors in the peninsula to let them know what’s coming, make their governments stall HYDRA negotiations. Stark, I need you to find a way to override these bombs. As for you...” Hill pointed at Natasha. “You’re going with Rogers and his STRIKE team when the agents come back from Germany. I want you back in one piece so I can detain you, Romanoff.”

“Here, I thought you were sending me overseas to get killed again,” she said with a glowing smile, but a sarcastic glance. Her next remark was more sincere. “Thanks, Maria.” Steve and Tony’s heads whipped at the sentiment and sent each other questioning glances. They’re on a first name basis?

“You know that wasn’t the intention,” the director said, her voice going soft.

Natasha laughed. “It happened. I don’t really care anymore. You know that I don’t hold grudges.”

Hill nodded and left her standing on the scaffold with the two men. “I know you and Hill worked together. But, like, how close did you work together?” Tony asked, setting his hands on the table so he can lean forward in anticipation for her response.

“Let’s just say I’ve taken a bullet for her more than twice,” said the redhead.

“We’re you best friends?” Steve asked.

“I mean,” she started, thinking about her own definition of best friends. “We never got our nails done or went shopping. We’d spar a lot, but never once talked outside of work. So…” She smiled. “Yeah, by my standards we were.”

Steve laughed as he walked down the stairs with her, leaving Tony on the computer, doing what Maria tasked him to do. The pair headed to the weapons room where Natasha giddily jumped at the sight of armor and guns. “Do you think it’s appropriate for me to ask you on a date?” Steve asked as he leaned on a wall, watching Natasha gawk at every handgun before grabbing two Glocks. She stared at the batons on the wall, untouched.

“Yes,” she said straightly without looking at the man.

“Great, so I’ll drive the quinjet and we can stop at the crappiest diner in New York and it’ll be a date,” he said with a goofy smile, disregarding her remark.

She laughed as she grabbed the two batons off their holding place and the small backpack that came with it to holster them when not used. She tested the electrical current of the sticks and put the backpack on, setting all her gear in place. As she was looking at the ammo inside one of the guns, she responded to Steve. “I’m going back to prison after this, Steve.” She holstered the last gun on her thigh.

The man shook his head. “That’s not happening.”

She walked over to him, putting her hand on his cheek as he leaned into it. “That’s the law. I’m trying to play by it now so there’s no more running. I learned that I shouldn’t have done that in the first place, anyway. You want me to be one of the good guys, right?” Steve nodded, sadness in his eyes. “I’m trying to be one of them now. One of you.”

“I’m just talking about the possibility of not having to go through that at all,” he said as he walked out with her, heading to the cafeteria’s direction.

“That’s if I’m playing above the law, Steve.” He didn’t respond anymore because he felt that she was correct. “I’m tired of playing god, thinking that all the lives of people I took were because they were bad. I shouldn’t be judging anymore.” She took a tray and he followed right behind her.

They succumbed to the silence for awhile as they took their seats until Steve spoke up. “What happened to you there?” He asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

Her demeanor grew dark. She shrugged. “A lot” was her answer and the soldier left it at that, knowing that she wasn’t ready to talk about it.

He decided to start a different conversation. “The batons?”

She perked up, like nothing negative was weighing down on her. “They were mine, specifically. Literally. They took my dimensions and measurements to see how long they needed to be and they have the specific indentations of my grasp so I can hold it perfectly. We did a strength test to see just how heavy they needed to be to provide stability, but also light enough so I can wield them efficiently. And then they come together to form a staff and it emits electric shocks so I can just electrocute people.” She didn’t stop talking, her ramblings making the man across her smile.

“They made weapons just for you?”

“Yeah. Well—I mean, other people can use them, but they wouldn’t be using it to its full potential because it’s not me.” She sipped soup off her spoon. “I used to be a great agent back in the day.”

“If they created personal weapons, I would think so.”

“Like your shield,” she smiled.

“Why’d you quit?”

“I got tired of it. I grew attached to Clint so I knew that I couldn’t go out in the field with him anymore. I couldn’t focus because I constantly feared what might happen to him. Instead of asking for a transfer, I just decided to do some mercenary work.”

He nodded at the mention of Clint. “You’ll be working with me on a mission.”

“Just this once. I’d take spending time with you as people shoot at us as a bonding activity before I have to go back in a cell. No matter how worried it’s going to make me.”

He smiled as he ate his food.

“Thanks for the date,” he said to me as we walked back to the medical bay.

I honestly could’ve punched him if it wasn’t for his charming face. “That wasn’t a date.”

“Well,” he looked at me with hopeful eyes. “We sat across each other on a table eating food as we talked about our lives. Sounds like a date.”

I rolled my eyes. “So if we look at this in the future, you’re okay with saying that the Helicarrier cafeteria was our first date?”

He looked up like he was thinking, though I know it’s just for dramatic effect. “Yes. And also what you just said implies that we will have more dates in the future.”

His stupid grin, oh how I’ve missed that. I didn’t really have a response and the conversation terminated as I made it to the front door of the room I was inspected in. I was about to open it when I felt him grab me by my face and place an unsolicited kiss against my lips. My reflexes told me to respond the moment that it happened. “I know that it’s tradition for men to walk women to their front door and give them a good night kiss after a date,” he said, so smoothly with a genuine smile.

“You sound like a man of the forties.”

“That’s because I am, ma’am,” he curtsied his head at me, a nod that accompanied his ‘ma’am’, which he knew very well that I hate. I don’t know if this was supposed to be facetious, but I let it happen. I walked inside the room and sat on the bed, waiting for my doctor who I hope gave up the search on me only because I’m in a private room with a bed and I’d really like it if Steve were on it with me.

He stood by the doorway as an act of politeness which was a little bit upsetting because of my current temptations. I decided to push that out of my head because what if he didn’t even want to do that? He’s going to get tired of me considering that my return is just a novelty to him. He could easily already be with another woman and he’s just excited that I’m back. Then I think again that he’s Captain America and he’s the embodiment of good and he’d never cheat on anyone, let alone lead me on for the past couple of hours.

Still, it was kind of new being found and having an opportunity to be back in his arms. I sometimes feel a little bit selfish that I get to bask in these hopefully happy couple of days. Is it bad that I hoped that the Germany team wouldn’t be back for awhile? It’s not the evident cell that I’m going to meet once we finish our Kazakhstan operation, but the future situation in which I wouldn’t be able to spend with Steve. I’ll be in confinement and he’ll be running around at S.H.I.E.L.D.

“It’s nice to see that you’ve found your way back, Ms. Romanoff,” a woman in a lab coat said as she walked in the room. Dr. Cho and I were pretty good friends back in the day, so I’m not entirely sure that her remark was for my return at S.H.I.E.L.D. (now that I had my old weapons and the attire for an agent, and Hill's temporary reinstatement of my honorary position as an informant) or my return to this room after I had rendezvoused out of it for the past few hours.

“Good to be back,” I said, forcing a smile that I knew she could see through. “Can’t wait to go back to prison, too.”

She didn’t laugh at that and instead decided to tell me my test results. Everything was normal, though she told me about contusions, ones that I was already aware of considering that I was feeling them. She also touched on apparent emotional irregularities from trauma. Or some other pseudoscience that I don't particularly care about--or find pertinent, even if I believed such things. “You should consider a psychiatrist.”

Those were words that I hated leaving her mouth. “No thanks.”

“Use someone to speak to about your experiences these past few years,” she said, looking at her tablet. “Your brain chemistry is doing wonderfully for your standards, but we won’t know if there’ll be any signs of post-traumatic stress disorders or other mental health issues as a consequence for all you may have gone through.”

“I’m sure I’m fine. I’ve been in worse,” I said, hopping off the bed.

She made an effort to look me in the eye. “I hear that you’ll be going out to the field, potentially in a couple of days.” I nodded. “I have all the power for your field clearance.”

“Are you really threatening me like that, Helen?” My tone was light-hearted, not defensive. Us two have a stronger relationship than that.

She smiled. “No, I’m encouraging.” She gave me a slip of paper. “Please,” she pleaded before leaving the room.

I sighed and tucked the referral in my back pocket. I really didn’t have a choice but to see the shrink, but at least I could hold it till the very last moment.

Steve had left when I made it back outside. I decided to use this extra time as a way to familiarize myself with the aircraft, though I already knew the place like the back of my hand. Fewer agents look familiar, I guess a lot of them have retired since I was last here fourteen years ago. I went to the training rooms, seeing new recruits get their asses handed to them. I’m glad I never went through that. Well...I did, but it was more me kicking my instructors’ asses.

“I have a room for you.” Someone met my pace, a sound familiar from the quinjet ride back.

“Thanks,” I said to him with a smile.

He gave me an introduction that I didn't need. "Tony Stark,” he said. He didn’t extend a hand which I gladly appreciated. 

“Natasha,” I said, though he already knew that, I’m sure.

“I have to be honest, Red, you’re not my favorite person in the world—I just have constantly bad encounters with anyone who’s related to Russia—but Capsicle, on the other hand, time and again has proved that he does. Constantly. And he’s liked you literally since day one and I’ll never understand, but I’ll try to. Just a disclosure.”

“I wouldn’t expect anyone to like me,” I said.

“I don’t know if I respect you either, but that’ll come in time.”

His chide didn’t bother me much considering that I deal with worse personalities, though coming to me with a disclaimer is already miles above that list of worse people. I nodded at his response. “I don’t think you’ll end up working with me long, though, so you don’t even need to try.”

He shook his head. “What I’m saying is, despite all of these nonsensical notions I have of you, I will be trying because Steve is extremely compromising. He’s one of my friends and he sees a lot of good in you that, frankly, I cannot. So everything that I will do for you is all for Steve and not for you. I do feel guilty about sending you back to Putin and I intend to make up for that with any future accommodations, starting with drafting an appeal to your past sentence. But then again, for Rogers, not you.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary. You don’t need to put your energies to a lost cause.”

“Like I said, all for Spangles. He doesn’t think you’re a basket case, so neither should I.” We were walking the direction of what’s supposed to be my room for the next couple of days. I’m not fond of this Tony character, but he wasn’t all unlikable.

“You don’t sound like your own person, Stark.”

“It’s best not to insult your knight in shining armor,” he said with a charm that wasn’t my taste. “Literally, because I’m Iron Man.”

“Ah, yes..." I smirked. "How can I forget the robot?"

He squinted through his high-tech glasses. "Not a robot. It’s a suit and I’m in it. Robots are machines that don’t have humans in them. Therefore, not robot."

“Looks an awful lot like a robot to me,” I said with a sustained smirk as I walked into my room. 

“Why do I do things for Rogers?”

“You shouldn’t.”

“And why are the good things that I do always for ungrateful people?”he asked, the question directed towards the environment rather than me.

I smiled at him. “Thank you for everything, Mr. Stark. But you seriously don’t have to go through all the trouble.”

He started walking away. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, his voice lacking the conviction that I needed to hear for confirmation that he wouldn't be putting resources onto my appeal--the appeal of a serial, murderous vigilante.

I laughed slightly as I closed the door. I set my weapons down and saw that a pile of clothes, similar to what I was wearing now, were stacked onto the bed. There was a S.H.I.E.L.D.-issued phone as well, letting me know that I’m being treated like one of the agents. If anyone had asked me if I saw myself in this position three years ago, I would've put their head in a blender for making jokes. I put the phone in my pocket only to feel the piece of paper that I had lodged in there moments ago. I heaved a sigh and realized that I should just head there now.

I walked to the direction of the psychiatrist only to see Steve leave the room. I shoved the paper back in my pocket to table the visit, and instead, questioned the soldier.

“Hey,” I said as I started walking beside him. He looked a little fazed, probably from his session. “What are you up to?” I decided to play the regular route, hoping that I’ll get more out of him, instead of making him feel embarrassed that I witnessed his walk out.

“Nothing much,” he said, remaining silent. I guess I have to go the other route then.

“Were you just in Terrance’s office?” I asked. He looked up at me and nodded. “What for?” As a spy, I enjoy prying secrets out of people, and I’m very good at them, but somehow held myself back when talking to Steve. Mainly because I want him to actually trust me and want to tell me this stuff.

“Just…” he started and I grew hopeful. “Logistics.” He wasn’t good at lying.

“Okay, you don’t have to tell me,” I said, setting up a bait, instead.

He took it. “I’m just trying to get cleared for the field.”

Frowning, I asked, "Why?”

He shrugged. “I just haven’t been back on the field in a few years, is all. I was called back for an emergency mission, which was the one in Yamantau. I never really got a chance to really prepare for it. They just needed me out there and Dr. Torrance wanted to see me.”

My eyebrows met each other in confusion. Few years? How long was few? “Did you quit the agency or something?” His suit was tattered, like they'd been way more recently and more often, giving no hint that he'd been gone from the field. The star was missing and the shield was new, but that's all evidence that points to an extensive and excessive hours at work. 

He looked at me dead in my eyes, almost like they were cold. “No, Nat, I’ve been in prison.”

That took me aback, my feet terminating their movement. So, few years probably means years. The same amount of time I've been gone.  “You’ve been in prison?” He nodded his head. “They told me you weren’t going to be.” My voice was faint. I could almost feel myself crying.

I remember getting on that parked quinjet when we were in Alaska, my hands ready to grab the boxes that Grandma Falsworth had packed for us until I see a glimmer on the jet’s dashboard. It invited me, telling me that I needed to do something. A part of me wanted to start it and send it back to D.C., knowing that the boys would be fine because they have shelter. But then I thought about how S.H..I.E.L.D. would still be able to find them and incriminate them for taking the quinjet. So I went the easier route, calling the headquarters.

“It’s Natasha Romanoff,” I said over the microphone. “I’m ready to turn myself in. I will decloak the quinjet under one condition.” And then I told them that James and Steve had to be spared, that they get reprimanded with simple slaps on the wrists. They agreed.

I snapped out of my flashback as Steve responded to me. “They said that they were going to go easy on us,” he said. Light made its way back into his eyes. “It was cut in half, and even then Bucky and I had a few more months left when Israel started, so really it was way shorter than it should’ve been.”

“But, Steve...” I said, my voice hitching in my throat as I felt a fit of chokes coming out, my tears threatening to fall. “You were imprisoned.”

“It’s over now, Nat.” He didn’t make an attempt at securing me. He stood there, his hands on his belt with a smile. It wasn’t until a split second later that his thumb made its way under my eye to wipe one tear away. That was the only tear I’d let fall. I kind of grew upset at Tony Stark and Maria Hill only because they were the only two that I was familiar with. The only two that I could blame.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. I’m glad that he didn’t pull me in for a hug. This wasn’t about comforting me and he sensed that I would be agitated if he tried. I’m not trying to be the sensitive one; I didn’t want him to think that this was about me, and he agreed by not acting on anything.

Instead, he gave me a consolation that he thought was better. But it really wasn't. “Bucky and I had a glass wall separating us and we could hear each other. Man, three years just with James? It was so good and so bad at the same time.” He laughed at the memory which made me smile. I didn’t want him to tell me about the hardships he faced in the cells, so he diverted from them. But the moments he talked about, how Tony brought him cake for his three birthdays, how he would draw a lot and he’d never felt so happy that he could because of all his free time, how Bucky would get S.H.I.E.L.D. information and physical papers for his STRIKE team’s assignments because he still wanted to have a say in their plans, how he said Tony put money out to find me—all of those things killed me. It killed me that he had to experience all of that enclosed in walls he didn't deserve to be in.

He said that the best thing was that he got to make up for all of those years that he lost Bucky, because he knew that they would both be safe there. He said that it was guaranteed that he would wake up the next morning and he didn’t have to worry himself. He said that when Bucky was in Germany for a year, he grew afraid, an apprehension that he might not come home one day, like I constantly felt with Clint. Being in those cells secured their well-being and he wouldn’t have traded the past three years if he could.

And then he said something to me that weakened my knees and bled emotions out of my heart that I didn't think I was capable of feeling. “If those years were traded and I was a allowed out into the world...” he started. “I would’ve used every second of my life trying to find you. I would go on treks in Russia, maybe Bucky would’ve come, too, and we would set out to look for you. To get you back. I didn't really think it through how we would have. Or how we'll fight through extradition and stuff. But that didn't matter, because I wouldn't have stopped until I knew you were in a good place. My only regret is that you lived a hard life these past few years and, had I been a free man, I would’ve fought to find you sooner so you didn’t have to spend another day in the hands of people who mistreated you.”

I had to pause and ask myself if I was in love with this man.

Chapter Text

After the conversation, I spent the whole day in my room contemplating about Steve's confessions. It was disheartening, each passing thought and made-up scenarios of his time spent in a ten-foot-cubic-meter shell digging away at my conscience and highlighting my culpability. Even though he constantly told me it wasn't my fault (which I know deep down in his good heart believes), there's the sequence of events that placed my actions as the catalyzing elements if looked at the cause-and-effect scenario. The genealogy of these past three years led back to the quinjet phone call on the blanket of Alaska White. Anyone could draw a line from that point to now. The cataclysmic consequences were made to be consequences because of the decision I made. Bless Steve's heart for failing to see the rationality behind this truth. A small part of me thinks that maybe he did see that as fact and is just putting up a façade because he forgave me already, placing the past into the past (but everyone knows that I, of all people, are the worst at doing that). Nevertheless, the reconciliation of these situations ate away at my ability to see Steve's optimism. He was Captain America, and to this day still has the Heart of a Solider, despite having spent three years in seclusion—three years isolated from the country he loved and served.

I tried to erase any picture I have of Steve rotting in a cell in my mind as hard as I could. I was looking up at the ceiling, a thin blanket covering my lower half as warm air circulated the carrier. Warm enough for me to go without pants but not too much to where I find myself sweating my tears off. Ah, my tears. They're everywhere with all the thoughts that I have now lost fighting against, letting images of Steve sitting at the corner, eating bland food and sulking for every day of three years, take over my head.

I didn't know how long I've been crying or how long I've been having this conversation when a knock on the door took me out of my stupor.

I sighed and wiped my face off with my hands opening the door to a tank-topped, sweatpant-ed Steve. His smile was light and crooked. I didn't realize that I wasn't wearing any pants (only a giant shirt that could probably fit him) until I saw him struggle to keep his eyes up and away from my legs. I giggled at that in my head, but my live expression told me not to flirt. It just didn't feel like we were in the right atmosphere to.

"I..." he started, but couldn't collect his thoughts for a moment it seems. "It would be my first time actually having a nice bed to sleep in, compared to the Raft, but I somehow can't and Stark told me that your room was here and I just wanted to check up on you and see how the night's been treating you and…" I let him ramble for about a minute, not paying any attention to what he was saying and just staring as his eyes constantly changed direction and met every single view except my own and how his eyebrows crinkled at certain intonations.

"I haven't slept in a bed, so I've never been comfy till now," I said, interrupting his meandering and opening the door further as a silent invite.

He didn't say anything as he stood in the middle of the room not knowing what to do or where to sit. I slightly laughed as he finally, and very slowly, took a seat at the very edge of the bed.

We stared at each other for a moment, building a tension that I knew all too well whenever I'm with him. We always seem to be stuck in limbo because we don't know if we should do what we were both thinking. It's not for lack of communication, but rather a precaution to what might come after. The consequences of the morning-after, and we've really only done it once and neither of us had a chance to speak about it because S.H.I.E.L.D. ransacked my apartment and forced me into hiding.

There was also that time in Alaska—though I don't know if it counts—that ended when S.H.I.E.L.D. came and took me at my own accord.

I think we were both afraid that something bad was going to happen after we commit to carnal knowledge because we've been conditioned to think so. The past two? times have made us believe that this wasn't going to end well.

I suppose we should talk about it, considering that the silence was engulfing the room, so loud that my ears are ringing. But a part of me just wanted to lunge at him, no words exchanged, just to let him know how sorry I was and how much I missed him. I think he wanted that, too. And then an inkling in my head says no because tomorrow S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to do yet another thing to separate us two.

I think he's thinking the same thing. And I think we both came to the conclusion that it didn't matter. I think we both thought that three years was enough and now isn't the time to waste it.

She silently walked over to the sitting soldier, her breath catching in her throat as a piece of moonlight made it through the tiny window in her room and illuminated one side of his face. She stood in front of him, no words said and no touches made, until she extended her hand and played with the hair on the side of his face. He didn't know what to do, but his breathing picked up and she could feel him sucking all the oxygen out of the room, panting before anything even began. A pride settled in her head because of her effects on the soldier, but thought about if only he knew how he made her feel, warm in all of the correct spots, physically and emotionally.

He didn't move, letting her guide everything because even if they had reached a silent agreement about how tonight was going to be, he wanted to make sure. His legs were spread apart, like how typical men sit. She was standing in front of him, in between that opening, her hand on his head. If he looked directly, he would be staring at her stomach. His face tilted upwards to make eye contact with her, any additional moonlight that he wasn't absorbing bounced off her green eyes, her orbs hinting at pieces of reds because of her crying. It almost blinded him how beautiful those irises were.

His hands remained where they were on his lap as her gentle caress made him press his head further on her palm, a solace that she was there as comfort coursed through his body.

"I thought about you," she whispered, earning a questioning look from the soldier. "Everywhere I went."


"I promised myself that I wasn't gonna die until I can find you again," she said. "Until I can say sorry. Until I saw that you moved on and were living a good life."

With a pained look, he said, "I wouldn't have moved on."

Natasha nodded. "I know that now," she replied. "They tried to find out everything about me. Pushed me as far as they could without killing me that I almost begged for them to. I didn't because of you. Because I knew that I needed to find you...They drowned me. To see how long I could hold my breath. And then they tied me to the bottom of the pool to test my intelligence. To see if I could get out."

"Nat," he whispered, touching the back of her hand that was placed on his cheek. "You don't have to tell me this if it's hurting you."

Frantically shaking her head, she responded, "No, no. That's not it. I just wanted to tell you that you got me out. Even if you weren't there, you got me out every time. They probably thought I was so smart, that I had great survival instincts with how much resilience I showed them--and maybe I do, but I know that without the hope of seeing you again, I wouldn't have been able to. And in the end..." She sighed as she stared deep into his longing eyes. "You got me out. Forever."

They stared at each other until he saw her face moving down to his, nearing his lips. She looked at him, looking for refutation, but none came. It wasn't until their lips met when both pairs of eyes closed and Steve found his hands on her hips.

The feelings were different. The first time it happened, it was a longing, basking in the ability to be in each other's arms. The second time was adoration, him showing the woman that he cared about her. It was about comfort.

But this? This was need. Tongues collided in desperation, hungry and lustful because of their three years apart. It was a fear of what may come next, hoping that it doesn't end, and that if it did, it wouldn't end like the last two times. It was hurried, each one ripping the other's clothes apart like they couldn't get it off any quicker. It was the complete opposite of moments before when motions were slow and the room was silent as both of their thoughts screamed at the void. It was a contrast, where now they were screaming each other's names, loud and hoping that the whole of D.C. beneath them didn't hear. It was rough, making both of them feel like they're jostling the whole entire helicarrier with their exchange.

It wasn't until each had finished simultaneously and Natasha found herself laying on top of him with exhaustion and a small laugh escaped his lips when silence emerged again. He placed a kiss on her head as it rested on his chest. "Wow, you really missed me," she said, a chortle escaping his mouth. She looked up at him after finally collecting air in her lungs and placed her chin on his chest.

He played with the strands of her hair and stared at her with a smile that she wasn't familiar with. It looked like contentment. She'd never seen him so relaxed he was able to harness in that emotion. Their encounters have almost always had him stressed or anxious or protective. Never relaxed.

"I did," he whispered to her, not preserving his pride about how much he reveled in seeing her again.

She placed a kiss on his pec and set her chin on it again. "I was sent to Romania first," she said, thinking that there was no better time to disclose her experiences. He looked at her with a confused expression, his eyebrows doing that thing that made her feel so much. "When the agency sent me to HYDRA, they directed me to Russia and the Russians sent me to Romania. I had to do physical exams to ensure that I was still as efficient and at a mentally optimal level."

"Why are you telling me this?" His hand was still in her hair, his voice a whisper as it exited his mouth.

"Because I saw this beautiful house there," she smiled. "They didn't let me out much, but I had to do this tactical training that involved a large expanse of green mountains. And I saw this house, it almost looked like a castle, smaller than the Falsworths." Steve glowed, loving that she remembered them. "Like, way smaller. Probably for a family of four, maybe even less. But it was really pretty." He encouraged her to keep going with her story. "It'd be a really pretty place to retire."

Steve was overjoyed on the inside at the thought, but he didn't know if that was an offer for both of them or just her. He was about to ask a question when her demeanor changed. "You don't have to wait for me, you know?" Her voice was weak.

"What?" His hand made it to the back of her neck as he massaged her nape.

"However many years I have to serve here," she sighed. "Or even if I'm granted parole, it's going to be a long time. You can't wait for me."


"It's not that I don't want you to, it's that it won't be fair for you to. It's also going to eat away at me knowing that you're constantly visiting me in a prison cell waiting for my return, only for me to never."

"There's not gonna be any waiting," he said and even though she was the one that asked for that response, it still sunk in her heart. "Because you're not gonna spend anymore time away from me. And if you do, I'm a hundred and seven years old. A little waiting isn't gonna kill me."

She shook her head as she rolled over and cuddled with him on his side, her cheek on his chest and her eyes staring at the wardrobe on the far corner of room. She knew that she won't be able to change his mind and questions lingered in her head as to why. Why would he wait? Why would he go through all of this trouble?

It wasn't until she was already asleep when he said something softly. Seeing that her breathing had evened, he placed another kiss on her head and whispered, "I might be falling in love with you, Natasha." His voice was soft as his own fatigue took over him, slipping back into darkness, cherishing the night in her arms and smiling as he succumbed to sleep.

The sun peeked through the room window, awakening Natasha first. They hadn't moved since they both fell asleep, even their subconscious tense at separating them. She looked up at the peaceful man and trailed her finger up his jaw, relishing in his existence.

She's had a lot of thoughts these past three years that appear to be overloading her head more than the average person. It wasn't that she just woke up every day asking herself if she was dying on that date, but also found herself preoccupied by the well-being of Steve. Sometimes not even his well-being, but the selfishness of hoping that he hadn't moved on. That would be succeeded by her feeling happy for him because he would get what he deserves: a free life. And that even if he does move on, he had the ability to do so in the first place. He had control of his life and wasn't bound by her anymore. She'd end up consequently thinking about Bucky because she knew that the two were inseparable, hoping that he doesn't attract any sexually-transmitted disease or some other form that he would likely end up getting himself caught up in. She always thought about Clint, but there were some days that it was stronger than others. She missed him, but she didn't have to worry because he is no longer there. Natasha could feel herself grieving less and less every day that she spent in exile. There was a longing to see the two boys again, especially Steve. And that would later be accompanied by fear, even though she'd never admit it. She would say she was…concerned, that there seem to be a lot of medical supplies she's never seen before, or people professionally shooting at her, or someone sexually taking advantage of her. Those were constant recurrences that after the first year, she grew used to it. Medical tools? Child's play.

Then they surprised her with new things, more needles, less sleep, less food, more people to fight. It was definitely better than the Red Room, though she was coerced into killing people a few more times than that god-forsaken Soviet Academy, compelled to do so because she'd have a metaphorical gun to her head. If she didn't oblige she would die, and she didn't really want to go without seeing Steve another time.

She was upset that S.H.I.E.L.D. had to do this instead of putting her in Supermax. Maybe they knew that she'd thrive in prison because she basically spent her whole entire life pre-agent days in one. If this was their form of punishment, she's got to hand it to them. It was creative and it certainly worked. The recidivism rate for it would be zero percent, per her own statistics.

She was thankful in some ways. She learned Romanian in her first six months, even though she worked in an acquired German territory. She befriended a maid who managed to steal her some books and could only speak Romanian, so she was pretty receptive in that language. Her German is as sharp as ever after spending a year in the country and months with German doctors. And Russian…well her mother tongue could never escape her even if she wanted it to. Like the agent she was trained, she managed to grab some intel. For what? For fun because she was so sure she wasn't going to get out of there alive anyway. There were times when doctors would be intimidated by her. They didn't show it but she knew, just with the way they would shift their weight from one leg to another not because it's comfortable, but sometimes they felt mentally imbalanced and it subconsciously showed itself physically. Natasha would feel good at noticing those moments because it solidified that they will never be able to break her. No matter how much they tried, no matter how hard the drugs or how much of the beatings she took, she was still powerful over all of these people who worked over her. She ended up using interrogation techniques on a cocky intern who basically spit out the whole entire operation to her.

Natasha was thankful that everything she learned and the escape, thanks to the hands of Tony Stark and her Steve, would allow her to do at least something good for the world since she'd tainted it with so much bad. She didn't care about being an asset, pride wasn't a tandem emotion to the intelligence that she knew only she gathered. She felt indispensable, but understood that there is still so much that she has to make up for. This was the least she could do, the humility that Steve constantly exhibited assimilating into her.

She attempted to move before realizing this the arm wrapped around her was solid in its position. She tried to shift, consequently waking up the soldier. "Hmm." A hum escaped his lips as his eyes fluttered open.

"Hi," she said, almost losing her breath at the sight of him.

"How long do you think we can push it before they start looking for us?"

She laughed. "I'd actually like to shower if you wanna come with?" She said with a wink as he released his grip. He watched as she pulled a towel around her, reminding him of that time in Alaska. It was too surreal, seeing her alive and standing there. Even though a lingering worry in his mind alerted him of the things he needed to do to prevent her from confinement after this mission was done. He went and showered with her before they headed to breakfast.

Tony sat down beside them and gave them a briefing on the mission, then faced Natasha. "I don't think we're going to have to grant you amnesty after all," he said with a smile that was unfamiliar to Steve, partly because he'd never seen the man genuinely smile, it was always a smirk or a smug grin.

"What do you mean?" She asked.

"Well," he said as he pulled out files on the tablet. "All we have to do is convince the DOJ that you have carried out your full sentence."

"That doesn't make sense," she said.

"If we beat HYDRA, then it does," he said.

"Tony, I'm gonna need you to be a little bit more clear," Steve butted in.

"Look, the conditions of the Black Widow's punishment was that she be sent to the custody of the Russians. There's this whole clause in the arrangement between S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA where they get her and we don't get nuked. So, what happened after that is that we kidnapped her back, essentially breaking the rules of the contract so what we do is make HYDRA disappear and make that exchange void. There can't be a contract between two parties if one of those parties ceased to exist."

"Okay, but what about the initial sentencing that the FBI had initially carried out?" She asked. "They wanted me facing the death penalty. It was all over the news."

"Yes, but S.H.I.E.L.D. took precedence over that, we held more power and took you from them. Their charge on you can't stick because we had already taken you and, there's this clause in the United States constitution that says you can't be tried for the same crime twice. Double jeopardy is against the law," he said, his smug smile now coming out as he seemed to believe that he tricked the written law.

"I just..." She sighed. "It doesn't seem fair, is all."

"What do you mean?" Steve asked her.

"I should be tried for the crimes I committed. There has to be a punishm--"

"No," Steve said sternly. She had never seen the soldier angry before. "You went through hell in Russia and Romania and Germany and wherever the heck else they took you. You served a harsher sentence than criminals in Supermax ever would. You don't get to downplay the way you paid for your crimes because it was unconventional. It wasn't an underwhelming feat, Nat. They could've killed you and I know you're not comfortable speaking about your experiences right now, but one day you're going to realize that you paid a higher price than you bargained for."

"That's not true, Steve. I killed a lot of people."

"And there are people in prison who have killed more than you who would rather stay in prison than go through the three years that you went through. I've had enough of this conversation," he said, shutting down the whole thing as Tony watched the conversation back and forth. His smirk turned into a genuine smile again as he watched the two interact. Natasha didn't say anything anymore as the billionaire decided to take the reigns of the topic again.

A couple of days went by, the couple not addressing Natasha's feelings about the imprisonment that wasn't as impending as before. They sat across each other on the center platform of the command station, the large table separating them in a few feet. She was about to speak up when Director Hill walked into the room with urgency. "We lost contact," she said, frantically looking through her tablet.

"With who?" Steve sat up straighter, his shoulder getting tense.

"Agent Barnes and 13," she said, looking at the soldier's eyes with sympathy. "We have forty-eight hours."

Natasha understood. She wanted to badly to reach across that table and hold his hand to let him know that it will be okay. There is a two-day protocol to a severed connection, meaning that they all have to wait those forty-eight hours before doin anything. Steve almost wanted to jump out of his seat.

"Hill," he said as calmly as he could. "We have to do something."

The director stared at him in the eyes, warmth radiating in their contact as she tried her best to soothe him without touch or words. "I cannot order you to do that. That is against our rules."

"To hell with rules," he said softly. "I'll be damned if he gets in the hands of HYDRA again. You of all people know that this agency doesn't care about the rules."

Hill sighed, "I know." Steve was about to speak more until he heard her utter those words. "But it can't be you."


"Agent Rogers, I will send two agents to Germany, but you will not be one of them. You are compromised a--"

"All the more reason to send me!"

"And I am not going to risk anymore of my top agents just because we're panicking. Agent Johnson and Morse are on it. Stark is overseeing the communication problems and he's spearheading the mission from the command station. This is not up for bargain, Captain," she said straightly, walking out before he could say anything.

Natasha had her elbows on the table, her hands folded together and set on her mouth. Steve was staring in space, relaxing his shoulder once again as he slouched on the office chair. "They'll find him," she said. "Bucky probably fucked something up with the telecommunicator or something. I'm sure Thirteen's beating him up for it right now."

Steve couldn't laugh, though he appreciated her effort at trying to console him. He looked up at her, worry in his eyes. "I hope so." The soldier's eyes flashed to the million scenarios that could've happened. He constantly found himself trying to reason, that maybe Bucky really did just do something stupid that caused alarm. Maybe he didn't get hurt or rip off his other arm. Maybe he and 13 aren't being tortured in cryo chambers. Maybe HYDRA hasn't found them and brainwashed them into assassins. Maybe--

"Stop," he heard her say. She was in front of him now, sitting on the table with one leg and the other locked and propped on the floor to steady herself. She put her hand on his apprehensively tapping fingers.

"What?" He didn't really understand what his command was for.

"I can hear you thinking," she said, taking her hand off of his and placing it on the thigh that was propped on the table. "Whatever it is, it won't help. You're just worrying twice."

"I don't know what that means."

"You're preoccupying yourself with things you don't know—things that are probably nonsensical. James is okay." Her face was warm, trying to radiate sensitivity and empathy. He tried his best reciprocating it, but the only thing she got was a weak smile of appeasement.


"He's okay," she wouldn't let him talk. "We'll get to the bad news when we get the bad news. Right now there's nothing."

"No news is bad news," he said. This Steve was new, no doubt. His hair was longer, he sported facial hair. She's noticed the changes in his uniform, too. But his stubbornness? It was still there. The hard part to come to terms with is that the bickering is over his pessimism, instead of hers. It was alarming to Natasha, these little changes. She always thought that if she got to spend time with him, when they weren't on the run, she find some positivity and it would be one of the things that they'd bond over. It's hard to come to terms with a switch in dynamic, even though her past three years of utter terribleness calls for more negativity than she lets on.

"No news is no news, Steve," she said. He sighed, the beat of his heart slowing as she put her hand on his face. "I promise that the first sign of trouble, I'll be defying Hill and we're going to steal one of those jets again." She felt soft and fulfilled, hearing that she got a chuckle out of him after that nostalgic remark.

"Just..." He sighed, going back to the demeanor Natasha was trying so hard to pry him out of. "It's hard not to think about the worst."

She let out a breath and crossed her arms. "I know, Steve." She doesn't often disclose anything personal partly because she knew that Steve knew everything already. She could read that he wanted to ask questions about her all the time, especially ones about her past that he's read on her SHIELD file back in her vigilante days. He's itching to know the details that didn't make it on paper, but respected her privacy too much to find out the details. He figured that she would tell him when she was ready and she sensed that, all the more reason to be grateful that he's taken such a large role in her life and have grasped her heart so tightly and so…correctly. His grip was soft and sensitive, caring, yet unmoving, like a sculpture, making sure not to squeeze the life out of her chest but staying immobile so as to be stable—so her vessel wouldn't fall apart so easily. She felt that he encased her with fragility, but with stubbornness of keeping his place. It was a refreshing new feeling, nonexistent in the hands of Alexei or Clint. So she decided that it might be okay to let him in in some form or another, to reward his patience about biting his tongue on the historical questions he might have for her. "It was really hard with Clint," she started softly, having a very difficult time trying to make eye contact.

He propped his head slightly in confusion, but remained silent so she can continue with her story.

"He would usually be home at a certain time," she said with a sigh. "Even when he went through mishaps or ambushes or anything unexpected, he always made it home by 0400. And that night at the marina," she felt her breath catch in her throat as if the memory was so fresh—as if the memory happened an hour ago. "He said he was going to intercept a drop-off and that he was sure Morgan was going to be there. He said that if he ran through problems he won't be back until one, but if not then he'll surely make it back before midnight."

Natasha held herself together, keeping her voice steady to show Steve that this wasn't meant to be a sob story. This was just a relatable piece of experience. "I didn't worry when he didn't make it back at midnight. I hoped that he would be, but he wasn't so I waited until one. Still, nothing. And then I fell asleep on the couch. The takeout I ordered was catching cold air on the coffee table when I woke up."

"You don't have to tell me this, Nat."

"No, I want to." Her eyes met his, radiating a certain kind of sadness that have found closure in the past three years. This was a not-so-distant-memory that she's grown to cope with. "I worried so much, Steve. That's how I know. And I don't know if worrying softened the blow of finding out exactly what happened, but, I think it just hurt me more. We care so much for these people and your concerns are well-placed but you're the one that taught me all about optimism."

He nodded, though not fully convinced enough to take everything she said and suddenly shift all notions he had about the situation. It was taking all of him not to hop on a jet and get to Bucky at hyper speed. He went seventy years without him. When he finally found him he didn't stop. This wasn't going to be any different. It's even more ironic considering that Stark was going to be the one to try to find him. They had reconciled the history, but Steve knew that the tension was still there. He didn't really know what to feel about his best friends of war would take to working with each other. They had done surprisingly well. Bucky found himself apologizing on multiple occasions, sometimes in passing, sometimes outright and he's learned over the years that Tony's done a lot to forgive him. It came to a point where a fight broke out because the billionaire didn't want him to keep reminding him of what he's done and his apologies just bring back the terrible nostalgia of that night Steve drove the shield in his arc reactor.

Now Tony was in charge of finding his best friend. He really wished that he could be a part of it. He wasn't much help anywhere and he felt a sense of resentment that they weren't utilizing his arsenal. They weren't putting in enough effort. Natasha is doing her best trying to kick him out of all of these thoughts, but he constantly found himself thinking of the worst scenarios.

It wasn't until Natasha led him back to her bedroom and forced him to sleep when he finally found a sense of peace.

Now that the soldier was contained, he walked out of her room and into Hill's office.

"He's dying," she said as she entered.

The director looked up from her desk. "I wouldn't expect any less."

"Got anything?"

"No," she said remorsefully. "Johnson and Morse landed a couple of hours ago and they've been sending Stark hourly updates, so we'll know soon if anything changes." She nodded, looking more preoccupied about the situation than what anyone would think to hold her to. "How attached are you to this assignment?" The director asked, propping a brow in suspicion.

The spy let out a snicker, but the director didn't change her demeanor. "I'm attached to Steve," she said. "And he's hurting so, I am, too, I guess."

There was a soft glare that indicated Hill didn't fully believe her. "There's something you're not telling me."

"Forgive me for not being very trusting considering that you sent me to a torture camp," she said with a bite that she couldn't control. Hill looked down at her tablet and she didn't know if it was of shame or resignation or just flat-out disinterest. Natasha ended up dropping that whole topic altogether to return to the one she tried veering away from. "James and I were together at Berlin. It was almost four years ago."

She looked up again. "Together as in y--"

"As in me, him, bed. That kind of together," Natasha replied, followed by a slight roll of eyes. "And it was for fun, nothing more. But Steve? I care about James, but I care about Steve a lot more and it hurts seeing him like this."

"You two will be the first to know when something comes up about Agents Barnes's status," she said straightly and professionally. Natasha was about to walk out when she added another remark. "I'm sorry." She turned to face her with a questioning face. "It was a democratic decision among all directors and councilmen. I broke the tie by saying you should be sent back."

"Why?" She asked. Tears could pool in her eyes but her inner voice said not to be a bitch and suck them back in. "You know how much that place hurt me, Maria. You and Fury knew the pain I experienced in that place an-"

"I know," the other said softly. "I was really angry."

"For what?"

"At everything that you were doing," she looked back down at her device. "You were killing back and forth and I was compromised. It upset me, all of the things that you were doing, and I resent you for it. I made an impulsive—well, I was given three nights to sleep on it, but I didn't really entertain another choice, I just knew that I wanted you away."

Maria Hill's relationship with Natasha isn't all that complicated in her terms. The spy has had more than a handful of complicated. She was her handler, the woman who helped her after defecting. Clint was one of the wonderful people who stood by her side the whole entire time that she was adjusting, but Hill really was the one who made sure that everything with her went as perfectly as they could go. There were moments in the training room when she could've killed someone given the different practices that she's grown accustomed to in the Red Room, but she was always the one to rush in to help her. Clint helped her get acquainted with the United States, but Hill helped her become one of the good people.

Her and Barton are probably the greatest duo the agency's ever seen, but Hill wasn't absent from any of the missions they took. Part of why Strike Team Delta flourished wasn't all because of them two, but also the work the Maria Hill did to help them. One of the defining moments in their relationship was an infiltration assignment in the Amazons. They picked a perfect time to go, just when it was raining as hard as it ever could in a rainforest. A whole Strike team came with them, building about a group of ten people, all to destroy a illegal international deal of an 0-8-4. Riding an open buggy through wetlands and serpentine terrain wasn't the most optimal climate set-up, but they all did it despite the harsh weather. It was difficult to see, and when Hill and the spy decided to go on foot, there were armed guards that they didn't account for. Natasha ended up taking three bullets for her after jumping in the line of fire. That became a pretty defining point in their friendship as the spy gained almost an unconditional trust afterwards.

"Are…" Natasha looked at her, glaring as if struggling at trying to see through her. "Are you bitter?"

Hill almost frowned back, but kept a neutral face. "If you think that our past is indicative of my actions today, then you don't know me as well as I thought."

The spy leaned closer, her search continuing as she stared at the features of the director's face. "I'm just saying that this won't be the first time."

"I don't think I-"

"Cairo," the looked at her straight in the eyes now. "You deprived me of assignments because you were upset over personal reasons. That op would've done so much better had you assigned me on it, but no. You made me sit in a command station. A spy in a command station. Do you understand how pathetic that was?"

"It doesn't sound like I'm the bitter one here."

Natasha's glare returned. "I'm just providing an example about how incapable you are at separating business and pleasure," she challenged, her voice asking for a fight despite speaking through gritted teeth.

Hill was almost taken aback by the claim, but she kept her composure as she set the tablet down on the desk, her palms settling to support herself as her arms straightened to lean forward. "Let me be clear with you, Natasha. You left the force without saying anything. It was you who couldn't compartmentalize your emotions in the correct boxes--"

"Because you were being difficult! Because I couldn't even work, not behind a stupid fucking desk! You wouldn't relent. Not with the misconception of "us" and a relationship being a contingency."

"The change in our dynamic was esteemed by you," she said softly. "You didn't want to speak to me. I couldn't brief missions with you if I don't even know you're paying attention. You never went to me about anything and held your tongue as you controlled things in a command station. You didn't have the fortitude to own up to our relationship and couldn't admit to yourself that you were as much at fault as I was."

If Natasha was angry, she wasn't showing it. There was a steady façade that felt almost scary because of its lack of emotion. "It was no grounds for you to treat me differently. Even Steve! He was in fucking prison after you gave me your word to keep him safe."

"And he was," she said sternly. "I had to convince the Department of Justice to keep this low. I was forced to burn bridges with judges and lawyers—mind you, they were my friends—because I was pulling strings for him. The people don't know about it. The press is in the dark and I had to lie to my own agents because I'm treating Rogers as if he's above the law. All because you asked me to. I did that. I'm still doing it. I'm breaking so many protocols even just having you here."

"It's not like you haven't worked as god before, Maria. This is nothing compared to all of the decisions you've made even when you were just deputy director. It's just biting you back in the ass and you're being put in a position with no choice but to choose the not-so-correct thing, because it's convenient. Everything you do is for you."

The director wanted to yell. "I was trying to protect you," she said, softening her guard as she looked at the spy in pain and sincerity. "It was wrong to send you back to Russia, I know that. That was a compromise on the spur because of my frustrations. But before that? Fifteen years ago when it was just you, me, and Clint? People were so close to finding out I couldn't risk sending you somewhere else. I didn't want Fury to be given another reason to dislike you."

Natasha almost sunk at the confession. She whispered back, "You shouldn't have taken it that way, you know? We just fooled around, Maria."

Hill couldn't react quickly enough to end her diatribe, noticing a figure step through the open doorway. "You what?" A groggy Steve stood by the door, his hair tousled in different directions that said it rolled around in a soft pillow just moments before. His face was tired, but he looked like he had just seen a ghost.

Perhaps, Maria Hill's relationship with Natasha Romanoff actually was complicated. Having sex with the then-deputy director of S.H.I.E.L.D. probably calls for disclosure with her suitor. It seems that it slipped the spy's mind—but he wasn't naive enough to think that anything really ever lapses in Natasha's head.

Steve stood, waiting for the question to be answered as Natasha tried to read the confusion in his blue eyes, who mentally chided herself for thinking that this was one of those things she'd never have to say to anyone. She really did try her best to erase that. She'd told Steve everything about her, everything that wasn't in her file. But Director Hill omitted the dalliance, something Natasha was aware of, probably because it wasn't important at all. So she didn't mention it either.

Realization was dawning over the man and it suddenly became the most important thing in the world.

Chapter Text

I think I would've appreciated it more if Steve was angry instead of silent. Hill was on her swivel chair while I sat on one of the two chairs in front of her desk, Steve on the other. He was so quiet.

"We slept together a few times," I said to him just moments ago as I explained everything. "We were supposed to be something until a lower level agent found us."

"It was broken off as soon as it started," Hill chimed in. "There isn't any more to it."

"It's also one of the reasons I left," I said as he looked at me in the eyes, his elbow on the chair's armrest and his position slouched, very unlike a soldier. His fingers met his lips in thought as he stared at me with swollen eyes because he had just woken up moments ago. "We didn't get along after the tension rose with getting caught."

He didn't say anything after that. I wanted him to scream. Maybe lash out. But silence? That's the absolute worst because that means that he's thinking. I'd rather he let his emotions go so I can grasp the fullness of his wrath. I want his inhibitions exploding so I can tell what he's really feeling. Right now it looks like he's trying to find the right thing to say and I absolutely hate that. He's trying to find a genuine way to start a conversation and, while it will be real, he would be shutting me off with how he actually feels. This is the worst reaction I could get.

He cleared his throat. "I don't know why you didn't just tell me," he said to me. Maria leaned back in her seat, sympathy evident in her face for me.

"I just..." I met his eyes, manually stopping myself from fidgeting because I don't fidget. I'm the Black Widow. Nerves aren't a thing. But I still had to call myself out for almost playing my fingers together in order to ease the anxiety of speaking to Steve about my past. I've never been particularly good with feelings because, well…I've been tokenized to lack them. So I just don't speak about them, because maybe they were right. Steve was waiting for a response and I really need to get my shit together. You can speak english, Natasha. You should try it. "I didn't think that it was important."

I can't read him. This is the first time that I've been unable to do that and it scares me. If this is what our fights will be like then I will submit to everything. I almost fear this version of Steve. He's constantly certain about everything, but when he's not, it looks like this. I can see in his eyes that I'm teetering over the edge of his trust. I could cry right now if I didn't feel the need to preserve my dignity to a past-…lover? No. Past-affair. I wish I could tell Steve out loud that I didn't even consider her a lover! That's something. It's absolutely something. At least for me. At least for someone who has the professional tendency to string meaningless relationships together to feel better about being predestined to be alone.

"We could've worked something out," he said. And now Hill and I were confused. We both stared at him in question.

"W-what?" My voice broke in an attempt to hold back my astonishment. He lacked acrimoniousness and completely changed. So now I literally can't read him. I was wrong at my first analysis. His eyes were so deep and complicated that I have to swim through them in order to get an answer in his demeanor. I don't know if it was the years in prison, but he's a different Steve. Three years ago, I would've been able to tell exactly what he wanted or needed or felt, because his heart was so exposed on his sleeve.

I guess he's different now.

"If you told me that you were connected to Hill..." He turned his head to the director. The movement was apathetic, like he didn't care much about what he's talking about, but I told myself that it's just him trying to comprehend everything without engulfing himself in emotions. I hope I'm correct. "We could've just—forgive me if this sounds foolish—but we could've talked it all over. Maybe you didn't need to go into running if I believed that the director knew you."

"It wouldn't have changed anything, Captain," Hill spoke before I could respond. I'm almost thankful because I'm still trying to register where Steve was going with this. "I had a bounty out on her to send her to Russia. Even if I knew you two were involved in some way and you asked for my help, I had had my hands tied."

He shook his head, unbelieving. "Yeah, but..." He turned to me now. "It would've given me another person I could trust."

My heart was pulsing.

"It wrecked me having to involve Bucky in this," he said. "And I thought I had no one, because I thought Natasha had no one, so I sought this whole thing out by myself. Bucky was just a fallout. I thought I had no choice but to get him into this."

I imagined my heart imploding after that. The aorta detaching and spewing out blood like a hose until the vessel deflated clean. Steve blamed me for Bucky, but he would never admit it to himself. He blamed himself, I know, but I can see the resentment. He was only human. There was only so much optimism in Captain America.

"But if you had just told me," he said, staring at Hill. He splits the blame among the two of us, but I know that he just couldn't look me in the eye after that admittance.

"It was not my place," she responded. A pang in the back of my throat wanted to scream out at her for essentially throwing me under the bus. Thanks, Director.

"I don't care." His voice was calm, now switching back and forth from the both of us. "You probably didn't even need to go to that hellhole, Nat." He used the nickname to ease my apprehension, but it didn't work as much as I wanted it to. He stared at Hill with daggers, the first hint of anger that he's expressed in this gruelingly long conversation. This felt like punishment. I thought double jeopardy wasn't a thing? Why do I feel like I'm being tortured? Why did I upset him? Why didn't I just tell him the truth? Why does it hurt so much to see his malice when I literally told him years ago that he would end up resenting me one way or another? I saw this coming and still, it's like I went in blind in front of a firing squad that I was told was going to be there. The bullets would hurt the same, but it was the surprise that caught me off-guard. "I would've rather spent those years in a stupid jail with her. You didn't need to do what you did."

"There was no way for me to know that you were involved, Captain." There she goes again. My whole body hurts because she continues to throw me under a freaking bus. I felt like I'm getting ran over again and again.

"Yes there was!" Anger. That was the emotion I was calling for moments ago, fearing his silence. But now I kinda regret it. I don't know what I want; I want peaceful Steve. I want me and him cuddling on a bed. I want him pressing kisses on my head. I want that stupid date in a crappy New York diner that he promised me. Not this. "When she called the station? The jet takes three house from DC to Alaska. Three hours that you could've decided."

Hill shook her head. I felt some sympathy because it really wasn't in her hands what happened to me despite her vote. It would've jeopardized her reputation to go against the agency, the way Steve had, and I probably would've never forgiven her for giving up her position just to protect me. I'm still upset about how she put Steve in a prison, but I guess I need a clearer head to understand the vivid rationale behind that. My sympathy didn't last long as I remembered how she diverted the fault to me two times in the past freakin' minute.

"I'm sorry, Steve," she said, though her face was straight and rigid. "You can dwell on it, but me knowing or you knowing about the two of you wouldn't have changed anything."

He seemed to have calmed down from the high. He whispered, "I just…I wouldn't have brought Bucky in it if I had known. That's all." He stood up and left. And I know that that was a closing remark for me. I had the key to the lock of this secret, not Hill.

Well, shit.

I spent about thirty minutes moping in my room before deciding to leave to find Steve. I should also probably go to that therapist, but another postponement won't hurt. 

I found him with his arms straight on the windowsill of the Helicarrier, staring out with an aerial view of DC. I stood next to him, not saying a word.

"I'm sorry," I said, looking directly at the ground underneath us. I couldn't find the words to elaborate.

"I'm not mad," he said. Our eyes never meet each other. Our appendages don't move. The only motion were our eyelids closing from time to time, the ceremonious and imperceptible heaving of our chests, and our lips when they parted to speak. "Just…really wished you would've said something."

"I wish I did," I said. "I thought about asking her for help."

"Why didn't you?"

"Because I knew that she wouldn't." I looked at him now, but our gazes are still fractured as he stayed put. "Not me, at least. And then I called and realized she could help you both when I'm out of the equation."

His eyes flashed a shade of lividity, the first time our eyes connected. "I could've helped Bucky, Natasha." The full name hurt. I missed it when he wasn't angry, engaging in silence so he could think to say the correct things. I've now realized that his true wrath stings. A lot.

I tried to respond, but as if on cue, Stark arrived. "Lovebirds!" He yelled. Ouch. Not a good word to use right now. "Steve, your brother-in-arms, and Natalie, your communist friend, has returned." He said a little too excitedly.

Steve almost darted at the notion of Bucky. I had to run to keep up with his pace, walking a whole foot behind him because I don't really know where we stand after that interruption.

The aircraft hadn't even landed and Steve started running like he was a track star. The engines were still on and he could get swept up in the turbines of the jet engine if he didn't stop. My heart paced and I almost let out a yell, then realized that all is well as he paused right where the ramp should open and set on the ground.

His calculations were correct and the door couldn't open any slower than it did. "Buck!" He said as it opened. A woman with blonde hair stood behind the brunette, both of the returners laughing as Steve grabbed James in a tight hug, almost lifting him off the floor in excitement. I had to smile at the interaction.

"I thought you died," he said into his shoulder, his voice muffled, only loud enough for the four of us to hear. Agent Thirteen was given a hug, too, but not as impressive as the one he gave his best friend. She walked off then looked at me with confusion. I noticed a limp on her left leg.

"Natasha Romanoff," I said as I extended my hand. She didn't know if she could take it, but she looked over my shoulder at Tony. I couldn't see, but I'm sure he gave her a nod of reassurance as she grabbed my hand and shook it.

"I know who you are," she said, trying to force a smile. "Agent Sharon Carter." I nodded and that was it. She left the moment our hands parted, grabbing her duffels in exhaustion.

Steve didn't notice, but I did. James's metal arm was nonexistent. There was still a sliver of what his shoulder should be, but it was amputated from half the deltoid and down. I think Steve was about to acknowledge it when James's eyes landed on mine.

"Natasha?!" He looked at me, his mouth agape, but turned in corners in joy. "You're okay!" He said as he walked over to me, spreading his still-existing arm to grab me in a hug. "Oh my god, you're okay." I laughed as I patted him on the back. "I would give you a better hug but I lost a limb." He said to me. I was about to ask when he continued. "That seems to happen often for me." A boyish grin made it on his face and I could almost roll my eyes.

"What happened?" Steve asked him, following as he offered to give Tony a hug who gave him a dramatically disgusted face. James laughed and hit him hard on the chest instead, the only sentiment he could give the billionaire who rejected physical contact with him, it seems.

We walked in a line of four, James between me and Steve and Stark next to the captain. "Long story, but I was stuck and I cried out for like five minutes until Thirteen said: "Get it together James, you don't feel any pain there, stupid" so I pounded on it with this metal rod for hours before I could conjure up the strength to rip it off and get her free. We were both bound when we fled the compound because we escaped, but a building collapsed on us after an explosion and she was stuck with her hands tied and her leg trapped in something."

"Huh, I always thought you were the smartest of our bunch," Tony deadpanned as he looked down at a screen. It was meant to be a serious insult but James laughed at it like it wasn't. I don't know if he does it to piss him off or if he genuinely thinks that it's a joke. Nonetheless, Tony's glaring reactions to it weren't any less hilarious.

"Okay, can I ask questions now?" The brunette asked like a child. "How are you alive?" He flashed me a smile of excitement.

I stared at his best friend who continued to look straight as we walked together. "Steve," I answered.

"What'd he do? What the heck happened?"

"He saved me," I said, still looking at him. James didn't seem to care that I wasn't making eye contact with him, too invested in my troubling story. I saw Steve look down at the ground so I gazed up at the other soldiers' eyes this time. "I've been getting passed around Eastern Europe for awhile, but we just happened to both be in the right place in the right time. He saved me like he always does." I was still looking at James, but I saw Steve's head snap up at my periphery. My eyes finally found his and I saw a small twinkle glisten through the blue, one corner of his lip tugging up just slightly, no one would have been able to tell had it not been me who witnessed it.

"My best friend and my ex together," he said, wrapping his one good arm around my shoulders and nudging into Steve because the lost limb didn't able him to do the same to him.

Tony's head snapped. "Ex?"

"Long story," I said. "And we're not."

"Not what?" James gave me a boyish grin.

"I have time to hear the story," Tony chimed.

"Exes," I responded to the Winter Soldier.

"Aw, come on, it was a good run," he replied and the smirk on his face is telling me that he's fucking with me. Steve even found himself laughing. Still, I can't be walking around the compound with steel-armed guy thinking I was his ex.

"What was the good run? What happened?" Tony peered his head forward so he could see my face beyond the two bulky men.

"Nothing happened!"

"Hmm, it was definitely something," Steve said. My brain told me to smile, because him speaking told me that we're in a better place than we were thirty minutes ago. I kept an annoyed face, still.

"See, even your boyfriend agrees that we were together," James spat and I swear I could take them all down with one combination, but refrained for fear that someone's gonna call the cops in the Black Widow. Even though we roamed halls of endless cops, but the assumption made sense to me anyway.

"Natasha, you have to spill," Tony said, and now all three men were looking at me, stifling laughs as they continued to pick at the smallest member of their group.

"I can kill you all so quickly, you know," I said, but neither of them changed their demeanors. "Idiots," I said with a gruff and walked off, hearing their laughs. I'm sure I didn't need to say anything because James will probably tell him everything and despite it being nothing but a meaningless fling, he'll go along with the joke that we're exes.

One good thing came out of this, though. Steve was joking around with me. That's miles better from where we used to be and I felt the worry in my chest ease at the small interaction we had, even if it was more of a collective jive than a meaningfully insulated conversation. But I'll take it.


Bucky sat with Thirteen at the medical bay so they could both be in one place when Maria Hill debriefed them. He sat next to her on a table, his feet on the ground, while her left leg stretched across the platform. A doctor was inspecting her thigh, the place where she got herself trapped under debris.

"Amputations aren't that bad," Bucky said to her with a smirk. The blonde rolled her eyes. Tony Stark was fiddling with his broken arm, trying to get his dimensions so he can make him a new one.

"That won't be necessary," said the doctor, looking up from his glasses to address Bucky. Then he looked at the woman. "There's a number of hematoma, a few of them minor but there's a large one right here." He pointed at a part of her quad that was bruising purple. "This large means there's a fracture in your femur so we're getting you on an operation table." He took off his elastic gloves and called a number.

"Don't make me face Hill alone," Bucky pleaded.

She laughed. "You're a big boy, James." She said as a gurney is wheeled into a room to carry her to the OR.

And when she was out of earshot, Tony glared at him. "You didn't."

The soldier was taken aback. "What?'

"Sleep with her. You didn't," he said, his eyes surveying his with skepticism.

Bucky held too high of a ground to blush at that, but his face did render an emotion like that of a child who got caught in a secret. "No," he said softly.

"Mhm," Tony replied with a brow propped up in suspicion.

"I didn't," he said, subconsciously rubbing the back of his neck as he looked for the words to explain. "Almost, though."

Tony almost laughed humorlessly, but shook his head in disbelief instead. "I know you're enhanced, but you're not invincible to sexually transmitted disease." It earned a chuckle from the soldier. Tony's head snatched up in revelation. "You and Capsicle literally switched lovers." He had to hold in a laugh.

Bucky's face crinkled in disgust. "That's weird. Don't say that." The billionaire's laugh were coming so deeply from his chest, people around could probably hear. "I suddenly don't need a new arm," he said, hopping off the table and leaving Tony with his tools as his voice hiked in guffaw.

He ended up seeing Steve almost step in the room, but instead diverted him out of it and walked with him down the hall. The captain gave him a weird look but he shook his head that told him "Tony's being crazy. Don't even ask." so he didn't. "You gonna tell me what's going on between you and Natasha?"

Steve shrugged. "There's nothing really much to tell I-"

"Oh come on," Buck exclaimed. "Only a blind man wouldn't see the tension in the hangar, well…unless you're Matt, but he's an exception to the normal blind man. So, tell me."

And Steve did. He didn't really find any reason to lie to his best friend. The other soldier nodded his head, his face unchanging as he absorbed every detail in his story.

"You don't get to use me as an excuse," Bucky said as he finished his storytelling.

"What? I'm n-"

"No," the other said as he shook his head in disappointment. "Look, even if you had already known, there was absolutely no way I wouldn't have gone with you."

"But the things is, I wouldn't have needed to jeopardize your own life if I knew that Hill knew," Steve said, irritated. "Plans would've been different. I wouldn't have asked you to go into that quinjet."

"Don't be stupid," Bucky quipped. "You don't think that I would've noticed you were gone? You don't think that I wouldn't have come looking for you even if Natasha was involved or not?" Steve remained silent. "One way or another, I would have been a part of this. There is nothing in this situation that could've changed if Natasha had told you about her and Hill."

"But at least you would've been involved in the search for me. You would still be one of the good guys."

"You're implying that you're not one of the "good" ones anymore, Steve, and that's where you're wrong." Before his best friend could protest, Bucky continued, "That doesn't even matter anymore. It's the past. Just admit that you're jealous and move on."

"I'm not je-"

"Yes, you are."


He embraced the man with the one arm he had. "Shut up, Steve. You know that I'm right," he said, his chin over his best friend's shoulder. "Stop lying to yourself, because it's hurting her." Bucky separated from him and looked him in his eyes, realization dawning over the soldier. He tried to look for any signs of protest, finding nothing but awareness and regret. Steve offered to walk with him to Hill's office so he can brief her, and at the same time, be there so he can apologize to the director.

After Bucky told her everything, all the information on German warships and nuclear intel, silence loomed over the room. Maria dismissed the men, but Steve stayed put, earning both a confused and cautious look from the director. "May I help you, Captain?" she asked professionally, their eyes locked so as to not separate her view of his expression, the one that tells the truth about everything he feels. Moving her gaze from him might cause her to miss a flicker in his irises that might tell her what was wrong with him.

"I..." He had to heave a deep sigh. "I'm sorry," he said, standing upright to stick to a posture that screamed whatever dignity he had left. "I apologize for the way I acted earlier. It was unprofessional."

The director almost didn't know what to say, but her face remained complacent. "There was cause for the outburst. I understand," she said, her voice tinged only with business in mind, no emotion of the sort seeping to let him know that she was feeling something…or anything. "I'm not sorry that I didn't tell you," she offered, sitting back down to her chair. Her voice was far from stern as she continued in explanation. "It wasn't pertinent to the case, so I wasn't obligated to. But I am sorry that omitting it hurt you. I wasn't aware of you and Romanoff's…" Maria paused to think. "Thing." That was the best she could do given that she didn't know much between the two of them. He had to silently agree with her considering that he and the spy had never talked about what they were. So "thing" was a better word than any.

He nodded, his hands clutched on the belt of his cargos. He turned to leave, but not until Hill spoke again. "If it's any consolation, there really is nothing here anymore, Agent Rogers. But I have to warn you about the consequences she might face after this assignment. None of us know where her citizenship stands after everything's that happened."

He nodded again. Despite the comfort that Stark gave him about double jeopardy, it was still overwhelming knowing that there's uncertainty. Steve doesn't know what he's going to do if Tony's lawyers fall through. He walked out of the director's office and headed to Natasha's bunk, finding the room vacant.

He decided that he wasn't going to look for her at the moment and headed to his room instead. As he walked through the aircraft walls, he thought about what he would do if she were put in prison after this. He was guaranteed visitation rights, that's for sure. He's going to fight to get her out every hour that he has. If she was put in the Raft, he was going to be there every moment of the day, maybe sign up to be assigned as her guard so he doesn't have to leave her side. Emotions overwhelmed him at the thought of losing her, reminiscent of that moment in the cabin when he went from seeing the lights as a threat to coming to a realization that she had decided to give herself away. He remembered the night as if it was a broken disc. One moment Natasha stood in front of him and his best friend. The next frame she was turned, her hand twisting the doorknob. Then she was out with her hands in the air as his perspective shifts, now standing in front of the door opening to be blinded by lights, still next to Bucky. Then the strike team's hands were around her wrists. Then she was facing him, kneeling on the ground, her green eyes sad, but her lips curving upwards with an apologetic smile.

There were no motions in the memory. No matter how eidetic his brain was. He doesn't remember movement, only snapshots of the moments. A snapshot taken at every beat his heart pulsed. It honestly felt like he had been drugged, controlling his faintness, even though it wasn't possible for him to go unconscious. His head ached and his stomach caved at the broken scene before him, the film of his head pausing at the most hurtful moments of the night. Steve could almost cower in fear of that happening again.

He found himself riled up in anxiety that he started running to his room. Maybe he did need to find her. He needed to hug her, a selfish feeling because he needed her to be okay. He needed her to still be here. It was greedy and self-centered, as he found himself needing to spend every waking moment with her from today to the end of the mission, because everything after that was unknown. Steve had to be the one to hold her, to speak to her, to be with her, because he doesn't know if there would be any more chances after.

He was blindsided last time, getting lost in his own happiness in the Alaska winter, and he thought about the fact that he probably didn't cherish her enough. He was going through the days thinking that he had all the time in the world with her. They were on the run, there were no barriers in the way. But he was sucker-punched. He didn't spend enough of his minutes with her before and he wasn't going to make the same mistake now.

Steve's breathing picked up. A panic attack? It couldn't be. He threw the door of his room open and collapsed on the bed, sitting on the soft blankets, his eyes flashing him twinkling green, purple and red lights, psychedelic and kaleidoscope patterns that he swore gave him a migraine. He suddenly felt nauseous. He had to close his eyes shut, squeezing the eyelids as hard as he could, heaving breaths tangentially. The emotions were too full for him to notice his surroundings, only being brought back at the sound of "Steve?" somewhere in his room. The voice gave off a familiar lilt, one he knew all too well. He snapped his head so quickly to meet her eyes that the patterns moved more vigorously before him, but he didn't care, trying to look through them to see the face of the woman he…loves? He's not sure. Maybe. There were too many things going on in his head that he needed a moment to compartmentalize which feeling went with which. Anxiety. Fear. Need. Love. Hurt. He needed to connect lines for the feelings to their reasons.

Anxiety to the loss of Natasha.

Fear to the inability to control everything.

Need to have her, after losing so many years.

Love for…for who? For what? He tabled that one.

Hurt at the vivid reimagination of the redhead in handcuffs.

"Are you okay?" she asked, sitting next to him. "Did you know that one time James had his phone in his good hand and tacos in the steel one and he went to toss the phone on the couch but his brain's so fucked up he accidentally tossed the food instead?" She recognized his attack. She recognized the panic in his eyes so she tried her best to distract him from it.

Love for her. He figured that out in that moment.

He let out a laugh—feeling better at figuring out his emotions and the fact that that was so something Bucky would do. She was about to do something when the emotion of need overcame him. His hand swiftly, but softly, made it around her neck, controlling her movement so that her lips could meet him.

He had to smile at her unreadiness as she breathed out of her nose, with a small sound of surprise exiting her mouth into his. It was so deep, so much more passionate than he'd ever felt because he finally figured out that he loved her. It almost got too much, got too heated and, though he wanted that, he had to separate to explain. Their lips pulled apart too soon and both wanted more, Steve breathing hard, not from the attack, but from the moment just a millisecond before.

"What…w-was that for?" She couldn't gather her thoughts, trying to find the correct words to speak and not being able to know what he was feeling anymore. There was a recognition that he was no longer riled up, but she couldn't understand why what happened, happened.

"I figured it out," he said, their faces still inches apart and their breaths hard.

She looked at him, amused. "Figured what out?" she asked. His hand still rested on the back of her neck and she wanted it to stay there forever. Separating with him a little bit just so she could push her head back and deepen the feeling of his hand on her.

Large banging made it through the door, distracting Steve from what he was about to say. "Spangles, we have to go! Now!" There was no one else that could be but Stark. His knocking didn't stop, continuous and would only halt if the soldier opened the barrier.

Natasha almost whimpered at the loss of his grasp as he stood up and opened the door, leaving her sitting on the bed as he chastised his friend. "What is it?" Tony had his hand in a fist as he was about to let it hit the door one more time, freezing as he saw the spy in the quarters.

"Sorry to interrupt," he said, looking at Natasha then back at Steve in a dramatically slow fashion. He hoisted a tablet up and almost shoved it to Steve's face. The soldier grabbed it to get a better look.

At this moment, the woman made her way behind the soldier to see what he was looking at. She stifled a gasp. "Turkey," she whispered. Steve shoved the computer back to Tony's chest as they walked out of the room silently, but forcefully. They paced to the command center where James was speaking to the director on the scaffold. Agents were scattering everywhere, running all over the place and speaking into their earpieces, presumably to other agents at different stations of S.H.I.E.L.D.

There was a hologram of the explosion jutting out in three dimensions above the large conference table. "They wiped out Ankara," said Hill somberly. "Romanoff was correct. I've spoken to the S.H.I.E.L.D. quarters at Istanbul. They're undergoing evacuations. We need you all to move now."

"I'm short an arm," Bucky said, humorful. "And also a partner."

"I have a temporary both things," Stark said. "And the arm's a prototype, but it's better than nothing." The Winter Soldier nodded.

"Do you have anything on disabling those bombs, Stark?" Hill looked at him, both hopeful and urgently.

"I have something, but not everything," he said.

"All four of you are going to Petropavl," the director said. "Romanoff, you know the way around and I want manpower for this one. I need all of you alive if we get into a fucking world war."

Natasha nodded. She noticed Steve was about to protest, but she put a hand on his forearm, catching his eyes. "We'll be okay," she said, and a part of him wished he believed that. They decided to have a side conversation as Hill talked to other agents and the other two people in their team left so Tony could fix him a new arm. "I told you about how scary it was for me to constantly go out into the field with Clint," she whispered to him.

"I don't like the feeling at all. I don't fear a lot of things," he said, his brows furrowing in a genuine dread.

"I can handle myself," she said with a smile. "You're never seen me in action, soldier. Trust me when I say I'm better than all those other times you've witnessed me take down the gangs." There was a smirk and seductive intonation that she meant to lighten the mood. He gave her a half-smile, trying to convince himself that it will be okay.

Steve changed into his stealth suit and Natasha was given a new catsuit by Tony. He gave her a meow before handing over the leather. All she could do was roll her eyes behind the "thank you" that she gave him. Putting all their weapons together, her batons, Steve's shield, Bucky's new (super freaking cool) arm, and Stark's suitcase (he emphasized, garnering a laugh out of Bucky who appreciated the pun), they headed to the hangar where the director was waiting outside a quinjet to brief them exactly how this was all going to go.

"Anything specific you wanna tell us, Romanoff?" the woman asked.

"I didn't spend a lot of time there," she started. "But there's three ways in and out. It's different from Yamantau, because it's hiding in plain sight. Large barracks, two control centers. There are civilians about a mile in radius from the compound. That's where the large city is."

The director took that information and gave them the whole agenda for the assignment before sending them off.

"You should be excited to see me in action," she said to the nervous soldier.

"Nothing about this excites me," he said. "I just got you back."

She laughed to hide the smile that the remark radiated within her. "I'm not going anywhere," she said. The pilot gave them an ETA of three hours as the jet lifted into the air.

"You better not," Steve whispered only to himself, but she heard. She placed a soft kiss on his cheek and walked over to the other two boys who were talking about the mission.

"Really excited to see your robot in action," quipped the spy, garnering a glare from the billionaire.

"Stick to the spider stuff," he said in insult.

"She's really good, dude," Bucky chimed. Natasha could only smile, leaning against the center table with her arms crossed as the two men in front of her bickered.

Steve was by himself, his elbows on his knees as one of his leg shook in anticipation. He should probably tell her he loves her before the chance slips from his fingers again.

After a few hours of flying and the pilot's "ETA forty-five minutes" announcement, Steve stood to get Natasha alone. She looked at him, expecting an argument about the mission because of his perpetual need to save her. "Look, Steve, I really don't want to fight about my ability to survive a fight just because I-"

"No, it's not that," he said. "I don't care about that. I know you're a badass. I just wanted to tell you tha-" And then quinjet shook. He found himself wrapping an arm around her as they faced turbulence that definitely didn't come from wind.

He could see Tony arranging his suit, the pieces coming together slowly as they automatically put themselves together, limb-by-limb. He had dismantled the suitcase because he needed to fix something when FRIDAY told him about an anomaly. Bucky racked the slide of his pistol before putting it in the back of his waistband. He went over to grab a large automatic and brought that around his shoulders so he could rest it on his back. If Bucky was known for anything, it wasn't for the lack of weapons. He placed a tactical knife in his ledger and grabbed an even larger rifle as his primary weapon, strapping it onto him and gripping it with both hands.

"We have a bogey," said the pilot into his comm. "One of our engine's shot," he said aloud to his passengers. He turned the whole entire jet upward and around, firing at the aircraft that shot at them.

"I thought we were cloaked!" Steve yelled as he took his arm off around Natasha and headed to the cockpit.

"We are, Captain," the pilot said straightly, clicking a lot of things on the dashboard. "This jet is landing now," he said sternly. "We've been made and I'm dropping you at the coast. I can't be there for exfil so I'm gonna lose the tail and head back to the compound to get you all a new jet."

The soldier couldn't protest. He walked to the back of the jet and tossed a couple of parachute packs to Bucky and Natasha.

Another shot made it through the quinjet, forcing the ramp open and throwing Steve out of the ship. He heard Natasha yell his name, but he found himself in a free fall to the ocean beneath him.

Bad things always have to happen when he's trying to confess his love for her. It was a little tiring and very annoying.

I was about to jump after him, but I felt a hard grasp tighten around my wrist before I could. "Let me go, James," I said, wrath overcoming me. He shook his head, his new metal arm gripping my hand. I kicked him with both feet, sending him stumbling back into the cockpit and sending me to the jet floor where I caught my fall with my hands.

I stood up swiftly, about to jump once more, buckling the parachute around me in the process, but I was hindered again. Fucking men. "No," said Tony as he grabbed me and tossed me to the front of the jet. He had about eighty percent of his suit on, his arms covered fully in red iron which was where he garnered the strength to literally throw me.

"Your boots aren't on yet, sir," I heard a woman speak through his helmet.

Tony ignored it. "Get your shit on and meet me at the riverbank in twenty," he said to us. "Don't die, Sully," he yelled to the pilot. And then, like he was on a suicide mission, Tony jumped out of the jet.

I saw a few pieces of red and gold metal fly out of the breaking jet like they had minds of their own, going the direction where he fell. I looked over at the other soldier, my eyes still angry from before. "If Steve finds out that you died because of me, he's gonna kill me. Like, literally kill me, Natasha," he said to me. I didn't reply as the jet went through incredible turbulence. I propped myself up, securing my pack so I can land safely.

"FRIDAY, you better have those thrusters on my feet or else we're all gonna die," Tony said calmly in his helmet. He could see the soldier in free fall and positioned himself pointedly so he can gather speed in his own fall. Steve spread himself so he can have a little resistance against the wind, slowing himself down as Tony approached him. They clasped hands, their fall still gaining massive speed despite so. "FRIDAY," he said calmly, though his vitals were peaking, seeing the ground near them with no way to fight the speed. He was about to yell the name of his A.I. again when he felt heavy metal clasp around his feet, just in time as they were meters from the water of  the river underneath them. He triggered his thrusters to soften their acceleration and finally gained control, both of them landing safely on the sand. They both stood from their sky dive, the soldier fixing his clothes as sand stuck to them.

"Red and I have literally seen you almost die twice stranded in a fucking quinjet, we're both giving you an intervention after this," the billionaire quipped. Steve shook his head, looking up at the aircraft.

They saw another beam hit the back of jet and the whole entire thing exploded.

Steve's eyes widened and fell to his knees at the sight of his best friend and the love of his life probably getting incinerated in the plane.

"Barnes, status," Tony said into his headpiece. There was no answer in neither his or Steve's comm. "Red, do you copy?"


Chapter Text

"We have to get out of here," Bucky said.

"Shit," they heard the pilot say. "I'm gonna need you two to jump now."

"What? We're not at th--"

"Now!" he yelled, looking at the dashboard and seeing a missile aimed at them.

"I can't get my pack buckled. It's stuck," Bucky said as he suffered to put his parachute on. Natasha got a glimpse of what was happening at the cockpit, the view of the radar and the incoming projectile.

She ran, pushing James with all her strength, sending them both out of the jet the moment that it exploded. "Shit, Natasha I don't have a pack!" he panicked.

"Relax," she said, looking at the ground to see where she was going to land. "I have one. Just hold on." She was desperately looking for Steve, looking at the riverbank for any glimpses of life. She focused her attention back to the man for a second. "Or I can so just let you go."

"Don't be an asshole, now," he replied with a smile. "My earpiece is busted."

"I never got the chance to put mine on," she said. "Hang on, I'm releasing." She pulled a string, bringing them both to a harsh and abrupt deceleration, landing shortly, Natasha still lost on the location of the captain and the billionaire.

James sighed, walking through the sand. "Did you see them?" He asked, walking with her as she abandoned the parachute. She shook her head no, but not until she was met with the two coming out of the other side of the shore.

"You're okay," she heard Steve say. She felt his restraint to hug her, keeping composed for the sake of everyone else.

"When I ask you to copy, please fucking copy," Tony said, exasperated. James pulled the piece out of his ear, showing him that it was broken. Tony stared at the woman who told him that she didn't have it. "And Sully?"

They both shook their head sadly. Tony stepped out of his suit. "So, new plan, seeing as we didn't land at the right place."

Natasha started walking along the river. The three men followed her, seeing as they were isolated from the rest of the community. It wasn't until they saw a sign by the river when Tony paused. "What does that say?"

"Irtysh River," all three of them said in unison.

"Which means?"

"We're in Russia," Natasha said.

"Great," he said. "I've never had so many encounters in Putinland than I have in the past two weeks."

"We're about 200 miles out of Petropavl," said Natasha. "If we're in Omsk, that is."

"So, what are we gonna do?"

"I know someone."

Tony looked around at the two other men. "Is no one gonna say no to that?" he asked, adamant.

"Yeah, it might not be a good idea to use your contacts, Natasha. This is a covert mission," James spoke up first. Steve just nodded in agreement.

"Do you boys have better ideas?" She said. Silence ensued shortly after. "Okay so we're gonna go say hi to an old friend."

Black Rose was his name. He'd been secluded from the urban city of Omsk, which called for about a twenty mile hike outside of their emergency landing zone. Steve didn't know what to expect, but a large man, someone who looked like he had cement for skin, 300 pounds of pure muscle and tattoos in every inch of his flesh, he didn't really come to assume. He had a face that reminded him of Wilson Fisk, bald, but different in that it was scarred and warm, instead of threatening. The left side of his face looked like it's been burnt. He hugged Natasha like they shared an intimate life once upon a time. Steve, surprising himself, didn't feel the need to be territorial. He never really was the jealous type, but if there was a history of both of them fonduing, then he'll take the news as they came.

The evening wasn't short of interesting, Tony's quips and insults insurmountable, all about the unconventional features of Black Rose. "Freddy Krueger," he said. No one else understood the reference but Natasha—Black Rose looked like he's never done much of film-watching and the other two men in the room were American relics. The woman sent him a glare, her hand swiftly gliding over the ledger of Bucky's tactical knife, throwing the blade next to Tony's face and into the wall of her friend's home. The big man didn't seem to mind the mark it had left. Tony jumped, his whole body skipping to reflexively save himself. Not that Natasha would ever think about killing him, but she looks admittedly overprotective of Black Rose.

Gathering himself, the billionaire straightened his shirt and fixed his glasses. "We can't disclose that information," Tony said in response to Rose's question about their assignment.

Rose looked at Natasha, hopeful that she might give him some information. Her hand settled on his bicep, comforting him about the nature of the situation. It didn't look like he cared much about the mission itself, but more about whether it's putting the woman in a dangerous situation. Steve scratched the initial feeling he had, his head seeping with the slightest hint of jealousy. "Government stuff," Natasha said. "We just need a ride to Michurino."

Rose nodded. "I can provide transport," he said, his voice American. It seemed that, in addition to his physical features, he was a pariah in Russia with the way he spoke. It made sense that he was miles outside urban center. The lack of questioning after Natasha's placation really has all of the men thinking about how much the two trusted each other. Did Rose not want to protest? Four American agents showed up at his doorstep, clad in guns and one in an iron suit, and he has absolutely no question other than: "what are you doing here?"? In which both Tony and the woman refused to answer and suddenly he was no longer curious enough to vocalize refusal? He was going to drive them in his jeep, no questions asked. It was suspicious, but not to Natasha. Rose treated her like family.

Natasha came up with a plan, and after briefing everyone (who all agreed because she knew more about this Eurasian landscape than anyone), they were all left to their devises, Tony tweaking things from his suit so he can create two new earpieces for the Winter Soldier and the spy, Bucky next to him, playing with the blade of his knife (after plucking it off the wall next to Tony's head) and Steve staring out at the window, tensely watching the snow fall as he thought about the new direction of the mission. Natasha and Rose were in the garage, Rose readying his vehicle so they can all leave right after the sun falls.

"You and your deadliest sting," he said with a smile. That was always his remark, their relationship having gone through the roughest depths of human evil, making Natasha Romanoff a deadly woman in what is deemed to be a safer world. She was always the violent one and he would never let her forget it.

"I don't do much of that anymore," she said, handing him a tool with his silent plead. "I think I'm doing good things now."

"I always told you that you could be so much better," he said, focusing on the car as Natasha leaned against the wall of the garage.

"You never left Russia," she started.

"I couldn't," he stopped his movements and turned to look at her. "Just trynna stay out of trouble is all." She nodded. She couldn't ask for anything better than that. "You have brought a boy," he said, a small smirk forming on his jagged face.

Natasha couldn't help but roll her eyes. "I've brought three boys, yes."

"You know that I mean different," he said, his eyes glistening.

She smiled. "I managed to land the least idiotic out of all three of them, if that's what you're asking."

"You sure about that?"

"Well..." Natasha's head flashed to the many arguments, moments of hostility between her and Steve. The stolen quinjet. The sacrifice of his name. The imprisonment despite her efforts at keeping him out of her situation. She let out a steady chuckle at the thoughts. "Not really. Stark's the practical one, but spending too long with him feels like you're slowly burning from the inside out."

Rose chuckled. "I'm sure you're overstating."

"Rose...he called you a rubber tire."

"You know I've heard worse," he said with a smile.

With a shake of her head, she went back to the topic of conversation. "Point is...Steve's the nice one. The one you have to worry least about hurting me. Yeah, he may be the least pragmatic out of all of them, but that's probably the greatest part about him."

"If you say so, Romanova," he said, his eyes glimmering with happiness for her. "Just let me know if I need to put a bullet in him."

She laughed. "Please, if something bad were to happen between us it'd probably be my fault."

"I don't doubt that one bit," he teased.

She walked back into the house, seeing the contemplating soldier standing isolated from the rest. She walked over to him, setting a hand on the biceps that stretched, consequence of his crossed arms. He didn't look at her, but he acknowledged her presence by tugging his lip upwards in a small, undetectable smile. "We didn't. I know you're thinking it," she said with a smirk.

Steve looked over at her confused. "What?"

"Rose and I were never anything," she said with a smile. "You're trying to make sense of our relationship."

He shrugged. "Was it all too out of place to wonder if you were ever together?"

"Yes," she replied seriously. "It's only been Clint and you. And Alexei, but we don't really talk about that."

He nodded. He knew about the Russian dalliance, but she refused to speak about it. He never really pressed because her past isn't pertinent to him. "And Hill."

Natasha punched his arm playfully. "That was literally nothing."

He chuckled, letting her know that the whole argument over her former relationship with the then-deputy director was no longer an issue. It sent her comfort that she wasn't prepared for. Steve brought her comfort she was never prepared for.

Rose drove them to the neighboring city of Michurino, a few miles out of metropolitan Petropavl. "We don't do favors, Natalia. My help is not conditional," he said to her as they left his truck.

"You know that I don't honor that," she said with a smile.

"You should." He gave her a nod before restarting the engine and giving her a wink.

Steve was about to say something to Natasha about that small gesture but Tony beat him to a less-important diatribe. "I hate the snow. I hate Russia. I hate the cold. Why do I even do this? Why am I in Russia again?!" he yelled. His companions ignored him as they walked into the looming darkness of the Kazakhstan city.

When they reached the nuclear site, there wasn't a lot of nuclear that screamed about it. It looked like a regular compound, a sign that says "no trespassing" in Kazakh and Russian emboldened on the steel fence. "There's one here," said Natasha. "If I can get their nuclear codes without being found then we can come in and out without them suspecting a thing."

Steve almost protested earlier about her going into the compound by herself, but after a vote that said she was the better spy out of all four of them, he found himself not arguing. It was difficult because he was used to calling the shots and he knew they were right, his newfound bias compromising himself and he knew it. Natasha was the perfect person to infiltrate, but his love for her was stronger than the desire to end the impending world war. Still, he chose to gather his loyalties to the safety of the planet and delegated the espionage assignment to her. All the while Steve and Bucky find the hydrogen bomb and disable its autonomy via chip that Tony created. If they insert it in the correct place he told them to, it will be manually disabled for the amount of time he can encrypt it.

He told Hill that it wasn't the best, because the hostiles can possibly hack the chip if they ever found it given that he didn't have enough time to create one that has stronger firewalls.

"Seven north," Tony said, activating his thermal imaging. "Five south."

Bucky and Steve went through them without getting caught. "Tony, we need a diversion but please don't blow up a CNN van again," Steve said.

Natasha and Bucky made a face, lost at their inside joke. "The FBI actually thanked me for that," said Tony with a smirk. He activated a small silent missile that set off on the other side of the facility, alarming a few men about the anomaly. That gave Natasha enough room to scale the walls without being caught and getting herself inside through a vent on the ceiling of the main compound building.

She stared at the gigantic black bomb. "That's one big bogey," she whispered. "The floor opens up to move the bomb through an underground tunnel. If I have the schematics, that should lead itself at least one mile away from here to exit the ground and hitch itself on an aircraft."

"Red's right," Tony said through the earpieces. FRIDAY had created a visual of the facility's blueprints. "James and Cap, you're gonna need to go through that hangar opening in order to go in there undetected."

"Copy that," Steve said, nodding at Bucky as they jogged to the other side of the facility.

Natasha was able to sneak into the control room by luring out the two men that guarded it. They were all (stupidly) unarmed, but she knew that she couldn't make noise, so refrained from knocking them out despite the urge to. "The drive's at sixteen percent download," she said over the comm.

"I see it," Tony concurred, as he saw exactly what Natasha was seeing on the screen of his helmet.

Steve opened the flap on the ground that would open up to attach the bomb to the underside of a plane. Bucky helped him with his cybernetic arm. "Just like old times, huh, Stevie?"

The soldier laughed. "Yeah, try not to lose your other arm," he replied. Bucky rolled his eyes as they went in a large tunnel that would be used to transport the hydrogen nuke.

"Twenty-four percent," Natasha said. "Status, you two."

"We're running through the underground," Steve said. "We're almost there."

It was supposed to go smoothly until they were met with a few men that Tony's thermal imaging didn't account for. "Hostiles," Steve said as Bucky started throwing punches. He was ordered not to use his gun unless extremely necessary to preserve noise.

Steve could be heard punching and grunting as he threw his shield. "Fifty-two percent," Natasha said.

"Hey, Nat," Steve said, in the midst of groans and kicks.

"Now's not the time for conversation, soldier. Sixty percent," she replied. "Tony, I have some people storming in the front gate," she said as she looked over at the camera.

"I'll take care of that," he said, sending another missile to the other end of the compound that would force units to investigate.

"I think that what I have to say is really important—ow!" Steve yelped, getting cut by a knife.

"What is it?" Natasha said, nonchalantly ignoring his scream of pain, knowing he's okay. She was typing on the endless keys of the control room computers, breaking through firewalls.

"I just," he said, sighing as he threw his shield. "I've been wanting to say this for awhile."

"Seventy percent," Tony said. "Hostiles contained outside your dandy castle, Red." 

Natasha didn't respond. "I think I've been waiting to say it for three years actually," Steve said. Now really wasn't the time for the theatrics, but if he died today without saying it, he just knew his soul in heaven would be crushed.

"Is everything okay, captain?" Natasha asked a little too seriously for the soldier's taste.

Bucky was ordered to secure the bomb and put the chip in as Steve fended off the remaining soldiers. Steve was alone in the fight against Russian soldiers in the dark tunnel of Kazakhstan.

"I love you," he said, followed by a punch.


"Hear me out," he interrupted.

"This is gross," Tony said over the comm. James was just smiling to himself as he hears their conversation.

"The past two times I've tried to say it I got thrown off a jet and Tony walked in on us, saying that Ankara was hit with an atomic bomb," he said, breathing heavily as he fought off the soldiers.

"Are you saying it's my fault, Rogers?" Tony asked, feigning a defensive tone at what he thought was an accusatory jab.

Natasha tried to hold in a smile. She tried to hold in tears, even, getting a little distracted as she watched the numbers fly on the screen, her fingers automatically burning through security measures with their own accord.

"Do we have exfil, FRIDAY?" Tony asked, trying to ignore the conversation of the couple in his ear.

"ETA five minutes, sir," the A.I. said.

"I got the chip in, Tony," James said as he typed numbers on a keyboard.

"You're good to go," the billionaire replied. "Ninety-five percent, Spidey."

"So, it just tells me..." Steve landed a punch to someone's jaw. He was caught from behind, getting asphyxiated by a large arm, but he front flipped to throw him onto the ground. "Now is a good of a time as ever to tell you that I love you. And that I'm in love with you."

Natasha couldn't find the words to say, the machine beeping shortly after to let her know that the download was complete. "System secure," she said, climbing back up onto the vent to crawl out of the compound and back to Tony who was waiting a mile outside the premises.

James returned to Steve's place in the tunnel and threw out the rest of the remaining men as they ran back up where they came from. "That wasn't the most silent work, but it'll do," the Winter Soldier said.

All four of them slipped out undetected and before Steve could speak to Natasha again, an aircraft decloaked in front of them, Hill in the pilot's seat. "Good job, team," she said as the agents filed in the jet.

Natasha gave her the codes and Tony went straight to a computer to monitor the progress of the chip they installed. Even though a few guards were alarmed, no one would know what happened because nothing would seem out of the ordinary. The Russian nuclear committee would just have to ponder why they were infiltrated for awhile, not being able to find any anomalies in their system.

Steve lost his hope of getting a response from the spy as she sat next to Hill in the cockpit. Bucky was taking all of his time separating all of his weapons and dismantling them. He was also playing with his new arm, Tony telling him that he installed quite a few gadgets in it that he should try out. Steve was left to sit by himself as everyone else occupied themselves with something else.

Was it too soon? Did Natasha really not love him? He couldn't really tell considering that no answer was given. Maybe he scared her away. This would probably be the most hurt he's ever going to feel in his life. Getting rejected, getting left without an answer. Did she just forget what he said? They've been on the plane for about three hours now, arriving at the New York headquarters in one. She was still in the cockpit with Hill, engaging in a conversation that didn't seem too important at all. She had spent the first hour talking to her about the mission, every single detail of it, but the succeeding exchange couldn't be any more interesting than the assignment. Steve was stuck in his place until Tony sat next to him.

"What's got you so blue, Capsicle?" He asked, his smug smile betraying the sincerity he was trying to project. Steve didn't respond. "Come on."

"What?" the soldier asked, looking at him.

"She's gonna say it back," he said, looking at him then back down at the tablet. "She's probably gossiping to Maria like all women do."

Steve scoffed. "You and I both know that Natasha doesn't fit the mold of "all women"."

"Touché" the billionaire responded. "The point is…give it time."

"I probably shouldn't have said it."

"No," Tony said. "I didn't tell Pepper and I lost her."

"That's different."

"Is it, though, Spangles?" He asked, his face looking up so their eyes could meet. "It was better for you to say it anyway. Even if she doesn't say it back, at least she knows how you feel. Pepper was stuck of my games, like a Hot Wheel track of a mess trying to find the direction of my feelings. She didn't know if I wanted to be with her and she wears her heart on her sleeve, like you do, but the difference is that I never admitted to loving her because I never even admitted it to myself. The first step is always acknowledging what your own emotions are. Disregard Romanoff's. Disregard everyone else's."

Steve's eyebrow perked. "When did you get so full of wisdom and hope?"

He shrugged. "Probably hangin' out around you too much." Steve let out a chuckle. "Four years ago we were fighting over what both of us believed were right. I was a pessimist through it all, and you can't really blame anyone for that. I'm human and not really a big fan of chaos. It only made sense for me to take the side of the law because I always believed it, no matter the circumstances." Steve nodded. "But you're just so freakin' good at looking through people. You radiate positivity in the most annoying fucking ways to the point where I kicked you out of your own fucking mission because you were just too hopeful about others. I hated that. And I hated you for it."


"No, look..." he said, setting his tablet down so he had full attention on Steve. "Stop giving a shit about other people's feelings for once. Stop trying to find out what others are—if they're good or bad. Stop analyzing people's truths, because they'll be able to figure that out themselves. You and I both know that Red found her new path with your help, but it was all inevitably her choice. She saved herself. You helped her find it, but she saved her own ass. She opened her two damn eyes and realized what was wrong. It's time for you to stop saving people and start looking out for yourself.

"Consider other people's emotions shit now. Figure out yours. I never figured out mine. It made me a miserable person. But tonight, you said it out loud. You're sure about what you believe, like you always have been your whole entire life. You're, like, two hundred years old. That's a lot of years of fighting for your beliefs. That's a lot of years struggling to fight for the right things—running a fucking jet in the arctic, breaking off your friendship with me over a communist, breaking off your ties with S.H.I.E.L.D. over another communist." Steve couldn't help but laugh, the first time he's acknowledged the humor behind the engineer's insulting sobriquets. "It's time to think about yourself. And I'm so damn glad you're doing that. A whole century of looking after others will tire anyone out, Rogers, even if they're a super soldier." He finished with a smile, standing up to walk over to Bucky who was struggling with a laser in his arm, almost blinding himself. Tony hurried away so that Steve wouldn't have the ability to respond, leaving him to think about everything he had said.

He decided to stick with his own thoughts for the remainder of the flight, not like that hasn't been what he's doing for the past three hours. This time, though, thinking more about what Tony said instead of what Natasha had failed to say (or couldn't say, or didn't want to say, or didn't want to lie). There has never been anything that amounted to the soldier than other people. For a short while, he thought that he was being selfish, trying to save himself and get himself a girlfriend at the expense of the public by harboring a wanted assassin, just because he liked her. The moments, the fleeting escapades, the short week of a rendezvous, days before he was met with the demise of Natasha Romanoff on Alaskan ground, he felt like he was abandoning everything. The black shield, the torn star. There hasn't been a lot of America to fit the Captain. Maybe that was because he was going against the grain of the law, but even he knew that that was never what a soldier has ever been about. He followed orders with no question because he served for the purpose that he thought was right. He became a nomad because the purposes didn't suit him anymore and, though he has lived short of self doubt in the century that he's been alive, he's come to the conclusion that that wasn't ever the case at all.

Even if he didn't fall in love with Natasha—in retrospect, he wasn't—the fight to catch the Black Widow has always been about justice. It wasn't until the latter half of the chase, the climax of the story where she was met with a dead Nikolai on the steps of the her apartment building, when he realized that what he was doing was both for love and for justice. There was no use in thinking that it's impossible to make either mutually exclusive in the case of protecting Natasha from S.H.I.E.L.D. He had never been eaten with guilt because he felt that he was doing all of this for himself, that he was doing all of this because he wanted a girlfriend—that he was doing all of this for the benefit of his own. And he realized that the lack of guilt was sign that this was never even about him. His gut has never really failed him. Those years in a prison cell, the only ever tinge of guilt he felt was the fact that Bucky was there. Because this wasn't even about Bucky. This was about Natasha and Steve's fight to maintain ethics. Sure, he reaped the benefits at her expense, at her freedom, but the circumstances of needing to run away with a vigilante only suit well with him because he was the one making sacrifices. He was okay giving up everything that he had for the sake of changing the tide of the law. There was nothing on his self-made contract with the justice system that involved the sacrifice of his best friend, too.

So after all that thinking, maybe it really was time to do this for himself. Maybe it was time to think about his feelings, and his own only. He didn't care if Natasha didn't say it back, he just knew that he was okay with the way that he loved her. Loves. If all of this turns out to be different and the relationship with them both severs, he had absolutely no regrets doing what he did. Because even if this all ends where he doesn't end up a winner in the arms of the person he loves, he still ends up the winner for being one of the people who helped her be better. He still ends up a winner being one of the people who shaped S.H.I.E.L.D. to see the better. Him. Bucky. Tony. Clint. All of them—all people who changed the agency, disrupting the tide of what was supposed to be and making it to what it should be.

That settled the debate that everything he did in the past four years, were all done because he is Captain America. He is for justice. And that even if S.H.I.E.L.D. and the forces of the American government faltered in the circumstances of Natasha Romanoff's consequences, America has always shaped itself to switch to the correct places. America has always been malleable to the truths of the world, ever-changing and emotionally connected to the rights of its people. The land is not the land if it weren't for the changes and the freedoms it has undergone for those living in it. America isn't a place—it's a concept. That's why Steve knew he could carry that name, because he carried the concept so well. He affixed that with the way he treated Bucky when he was the Winter Soldier. Natasha when she was a rogue assassin. And justice is what that concept is meant to be and because of that, Steve went up to the billionaire and asked him for the new suit he created for him, the one he silently declined right before leaving the Raft. He asked him for his red and blue shield.

Upon landing, Steve walked with the engineer to his quarters, both of them taking a quinjet to the tower (he told Bucky that he would be back shortly and gave Natasha some space, who was still speaking with the director when they landed). He walked into his office, the man brandishing him with the blue uniform, scales on the chest and bulletproof, he says. His helmet had FRIDAY in it. "Don't think I didn't find out what you did with my glasses," he said smugly.

"What are you talking about?"

"After you were in the Raft..." Tony said, taking out the frames of the lenses he had destroyed after picking up an unconscious Natasha in the freezing pier. "It finally pinged. I've been trying to find it for months."

The soldier let out an apologetic smile. "Sorry."

"No, it was smart," he said. "So, I input the same tech in your helmet. You can try stepping on it as much as you want but the mechanism's malleable. You can't escape me now, Rogers," he quipped with a dramatic heave of an evil laugh.

He wore it for the first time. And in the midst of tossing his old one in the trash, Tony's hand was placed on top of his to stop it. "I'm keeping it," the engineer said as he took the garment in his hands and placed it in front of a showcase tube. JARVIS moved through the motions as a mannequin took place inside the suit, setting it up on display right next to Tony's abundant Iron Man ensemble. The billionaire grabbed Steve's black shield and sent it inside a processor that engraved a newly polished star and the respective colors around it.

And he was Captain America again.

"Ever thought about when to hang all of this up?" Steve asked, sitting on the man's chair. He's always noticed, but never acknowledged, that he was the only one allowed to sit in the swivel chair without getting scolded by its owner. It's a small gesture of respect considering that the egomaniac was hyper-possessive of his own things, including a thousand-dollar chair, the soldier's sure.

"Yeah," he replied. "Go back to working for the SI, maybe. Pepper's doing a great job, though."

"Doesn't mean you can't go back," the soldier said.

"She let me keep this office even though I don't do anything," Tony said with a laugh. "I mean the inventions that I make are mainly for me. It's not like these suits are commercial. So, not that I don't do anything, but more like I don't do anything for the benefit of this company." Steve nodded. "Why do you ask?"

"I think it would be selfish for me to just retire again," he said, laughing slightly. "With me being in prison and all and the people calling that 'retirement'. But I don't know if I wanna go back."

"They need you there," Tony pointed. "I work on a contract-based foundation with them. If they ask for my help I'll do it, but that's because I'm not always needed. But you..." He gulped a swig of scotch in his glass. "You can't do that because they need you all the time."

"I'm sure they can handle things without me. You all did pretty well for the time I was gone."

"No, it pretty much went all to shit," he confessed, a rarity for someone who constantly has to boast his superiority. "I couldn't even get a scent of Natasha Romanoff and then you get out of prison for barely a day and find her then rescue her at the same time."

"With luck. You would've gone to Yamantau without me anyhow."

"Yeah, but do you really think I'd care to look in the basement. I'd just let my repulsors fly without walking further into that damn asylum, you know that." Steve shrugged. "Even if it was luck, being lucky is better than being good anyway. And it seems like you're always lucky."

"I know that's a compliment," the soldier said with a smirk. "Is Tony Stark caring for people other than himself?"

"Don't push it," he said, swigging another gulp of scotch.

They spent the evening in civil conversation for awhile, something that they haven't done in almost four years. Their past interactions have almost always been hostile weathering the storm of Ronin and Black Widow and then the following events of Steve's depression and Tony's guilt in the Raft. It was a breath of fresh air for the both of them, but that may also be because both are thinking of separating ways, both agents knowing that their time with S.H.I.E.L.D. has passed, even without explicitly telling each other. Maybe that's why the arguments have lessened, they don't have to argue over the politics of correcting criminalization any longer.

Steve went to the Helicarrier a few hours later, taking the quinjet and leaving Tony at his tower. He didn't expect to see the rest of his team from Petropavl to be there because they had all landed at the New York headquarters instead of the flying D.C. office, but nonetheless, his best friend, his director, and his lover (title currently postponed) huddled up in the command station.

"Steve," Natasha said with a smile. "Nice suit."

He gave her a half grin. "Kinda missed having the patriotic motif."

"Hm," Bucky looked at him with pondering eyes. "Still liked the dark and brooding Steve, though."

"That's only because you're dark and brooding," Natasha sniped followed by a humorful snicker.

Steve could only stare at her, not knowing what he was supposed to say. The conversation was left up to her anyway, so he didn't really know why he's still in charge of starting this all up. She started walking away from him, but grabbed his hand in the process to lead him to where they can overlook the city.

"Hill said that we found the location of the other Russian nukes after I beat their system," she said, looking out at the window.

"That's good," he said.

"She also said I'm not needed anymore because of that."

He looked at her. "Are you sad about that?"

"No," Natasha didn't even understand her own emotions as of late. "I expected it. I knew you all only needed me just this time."

"What happens now?"

She sighed. "She opted to jumpstart Secret Avengers again." He looked at her questioningly. "Did she ever tell you about that?"

"Not really. Just that it was a thing."

She nodded. "Clint and I get our memories wiped out after missions. So we don't remember them. It's a cautionary measure for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Top Secret missions that need the greatest agents without giving them clearance."

"I'm not sure I understand," he said, alarmed.

"We go into a mission and we don't remember some of the things that happen as long as Hill presses a button. It's also a precaution for if we were ever tortured," she said. "He was captured and beaten pretty bad once."

"Why'd you sign up for it?"

She shrugged. "I don't remember. She wiped that out." He wanted so badly to touch her, to put her against his arms, but he didn't know if that was okay given the lack of acknowledgment about earlier. "It was all pretty covert until Clint started working as a regular agent—if you could ever call him regular, anyway—but that's why people knew about him. They didn't know about me because I left before people could even find out Secret Avengers* were a thing." He nodded. "Working for it again would give me a chance to start over. Be good again."

"Is it terrible to say I don't want you to?" Steve asked, seeing as she moved her head from the window to look up at him with glossy eyes.


"Because you'd be compromising yourself, Nat. You would be giving up so much of yourself. You've gong through shit in the Red Room. And-"

"She also offered to wipe out the memories of the vigilante stuff," she whispered. "Because she knows how much guilt I live with. I'll still remember Clint. And you. Just not the things in between. The people that I work with won't know it either."


"No? I was a terrible person, Steve. I'm not sure I want to remember that."

He sighed. "Nat, I can't even begin to know how terrible it is to live with that," he said, cupping her face so that all attention was on him. "But you would be lost."

"How do you know that?"

"Because you'd feel a gaping hole that should only be filled with redemption," he said, a small smile forming on his face. "You wouldn't know what to be fighting for if you don't remember any of it."

"I thought you wanted me to be one of the good guys?"

"S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't one of the good guys and you knew that before I did," he said softly. "And wiping your memory of the things you did in the past, no matter how terrible they were, doesn't automatically make you a good guy. It just makes you a weapon. Like the KGB in the 90s. Like HYDRA these past three years."

She nodded, pushing her cheek against the warmth of one of his palms, her eyes closing to revel in his touch. "They did a lot to me there," she whispered.

"You don't have to tell me," he said.

"But after the Hill thing, I realized that I still haven't told you all of me," she said. "All of my life with Clint and Alexei."

"I don't need to know."

"I want you to, though," she started, parting her head from his grasp so she could stare out at the city again, unable to face him for the things she was about to say.

"I loved Alexei. He and I were the best of friends and he was the absolute greatest man in my life, second only to Ivan," she started. "After he got back from war, though, he got different. Violent. I told him I couldn't have kids. And...and he ended up beating me for it."


"Please, Steve," she said, closing her eyes as tears flowed out of them. "And not beat as in punched or kicked. H-he took advantage of me in so many ways. Thinking that if he forced himself on me, we can magically have a baby...thinking that if there wasn't consent it would be different. It was as if bearing his child w-was a choice I was so...consciously against, so forcing me to unravel the barrier of my insistence by abuse and assault would change everything. He was the man I first fell in love with. And he ruined that, so I isolated myself from him, separated as often as I could so I did more for the KGB than anyone else. I was only so deadly only because I was so eager to get away from him. I wanted more missions. I took side jobs, even, when the Soviets didn't have any for me. Killing was so much better than being in his presence...I fooled myself into thinking that he loved me and what he was doing was for the right reasons, so I couldn't really leave him until he died in combat. And then I went on a rampage again. It was the start of my pattern of grieving." She couldn't stop the tears that fell. "And then Clint. Did you ever find out why he did what he did?"

He nodded softly, remaining silent to urge her.

"He saved me from the Soviets. But you knew that already." She sniffed. "I fell in love with his family. Laura was a sister and his children were like my own. And then...they fell out of our grasps in a single moment and neither of us...neither of us knew what to do. I've had a fair share of death in my family, but he didn't really know how to cope with it. So...I helped him. We were angry, but we were angry together. And then I got hurt and he told me to stop because he was afraid of losing me, too, so I did. But we were still...I guess, good together. I don't know...maybe it was a facade for love, and even if it was, it still felt real to me. But real in that it was rooted from so much pain and I knew it would be difficult to get out of it. I knew that one of us wasn't going to make it out alive. That the only way for our relationship to change was if someone died." Natasha couldn't control the chokes that left her. "Do you know how shitty it feels to be the one left alive?"

"Yeah," he said softly. She already knew the answer to that as flashes of memories, of Peggy, the Howling Commandos, his old life, appeared before him only to vanish because they had all passed him--time moving quickly and with no regard to his mortality.

She nodded. "It much, Steve. It was terrible for me to assume that neither one of us was fixable to the point where I believed one of our deaths were going to fix each other, as if one death makes up for the death of his family and somehow becomes a quid pro quo with some god. And, boy, was I so fucking wrong, Steve. I was the one left alive and I did the same damn thing that he did. We were both so broken to the point of no repair. It didn't make any sense how it came to be that you fixed me."

"But I didn't," he whispered. "You did that."

"I know and that's why this whole thing is scary," she said, shifting her body to look at him again and pointed at his chest, her finger setting on the five-pointed emblem. "You had the capacity to make me see even when I hit way deeper than where my rock bottom should've been. This, a love I've never felt before.'s nothing like the love I feel for Ivan, was nothing like the love I first felt with Alexei, and certainly nothing like the painful love I had for Clint."

His heart could've swollen right out of his chest at her disclosure.

"I love you," she said, looking at his chest as she made a fist with her hand and softly hit the star. "I love you so fucking much," she managed to speak through her tears.

Steve finally caught up to the diatribe, taking her in his arms as he wrapped his bulkiness around her, her hand still softly slamming at his chest, not intending to hurt him, but just to let out emotion about her wariness. After a moment of gathering her breaths, making sure that her lungs wouldn't collapse, his grasp loosened just enough for her to tilt her head up to see him. "You do things that neither of the men in my life have done since Ivan, Steve."

"And what is that?"

"You make me wanna be better," she said. "Clint found me and I forced myself to be straight because he wanted me to be, but you," she pointed a finger at his chest again for effect. "You make me want to be good for myself."

He took one arm away from the embrace just so he could his hand around her neck, his thumb caressing her cheek. "I'd never be selfish enough to agree. But I am selfish enough to want you for me, to think that the love you have for me is for me only."

"It is," she said, tilting her face more so that his lips could touch hers, getting lost in a passionate touch of love, one that Natasha had never thought she could feel before. Her chest was full with security, unknowingly thinking that she could need such a feeling.

"You gonna take that job still?" he asked.

"Probably not," she said.

He smiled. "Good, because I have an idea."

Steve resigned from S.H.I.E.L.D. a day later. James followed suit, not that Steve wanted him to, but he just didn't find the fun in it anymore without his best friend beside him. Tony Stark fulfilled his promise on his lawyers working with Natasha, being able to grant her freedom after four months in court, but she still stepped away from the public, knowing the legacy of her reputation.

"Okay, your idea may not be so stupid," said Tony.

He, Natasha, Bucky and Agent 13 were crowded around the conference table in his office atop the Stark Industries tower. Steve was at the head of the table, pitching an idea.

"We privatize it," the soldier said with a smile. "I know that we were coined the Avengers by S.H.I.E.L.D." Steve said, pertaining to his and Tony's partnership, the pair that was so foolproof, they got as much as done as the Black Widow and Hawkeye did.

"Who's gonna fund it?" the billionaire asked.

Steve scratched the back of his neck. "That's why we're here," he said with a small smile.

Tony rolled his eyes. "Okay, you know that I'd always waste money on you, so that's not even a question I needed answered."

"Does that mean you're in?"

"If I pick our codenames, then I'm in," he replied with a grin.

"Then he's out, Steve," Natasha sniped.

Tony glared at her, then looked back at the soldier. "Fine. I'll just pay for everything and design everything, make everyone look cooler. You stand there, be the boss."

The rest of the table laughed as Steve smiled and nodded at the engineer.

He looked over to Natasha who had helped herself with Tony's scotch despite his refusal. She almost pulled a gun at him had it not been for Sharon Carter's hand on top of hers, softly asking to ease herself. She shot him a glare and Steve could only laugh as he walked over to the woman with the tray.

"I told you it would work," he said, smiling like a child who was given candy.

"I didn't doubt you for a second," she said, downing the whole glass. "Americans really are weak. I need some Russian vodka."

She walked over to James, leaving Steve chuckling by himself as he poured himself one, knowing its nonexistent effects, taking his time before planning to return to her presence again.

"Did you also tell him that your relationship was purely sexual and platonic in nonsexual situations when you were just sleeping with each other?" James asked her with a smug smile, their conversation currently out of her earshot. He thought back to their moments in Berlin.

"Shut up," she said, flashing him a nonthreatening glare. He laughed, but not until she spoke her next words. "You done being a coward and asked Sharon out, yet?"

His face straightened, bordering on blushing to where even she could tell he was trying to control the reddening of his face. "She's just…so…she's-"

"A lot," she finished for him. "She's a lot, I know. But you have a predilection for strong hot women who have the ability to kill you with one move," she said with a wink, her hips jutting out to show him exactly what she meant. "I know you can do it, James."

"You're the worst," he said under his breath as she laughed, seeing as Steve had joined their conversation. "That's my cue to go, don't wanna be stuck in a threeway," he said before bouncing out of their vicinity and into Sharon's and Tony's (who was definitely trying to get her number). "He can hack into your phone, he's not actually trying to get your number," he said to her, getting a laugh out of the blonde.

"Is this what you imagined?" Natasha asked, looking at the people in the office.

"No," he said with a smile. "It's so much more. I have a feeling we're gonna grow, too."

"I'm glad I'm a part of it," she said, leaning her head against his shoulder as one of his arms found its way around her waist.

"I wouldn't want it any other way."

"Do you think Clint would be happy?"

"I think he would wanna be here, too. As Hawkeye, I bet," he said, feeling as she nodded against his shoulder.

"It's good to know that there is more to me than what I was then," she whispered.

"That's why I fell in love with you," he said, sipping the scotch before putting the glass down as she turned, facing him, but separating their touch.

"What do you mean?"

"There's more to you than you'll ever see or feel, Nat," he said, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear. "The circumstances of your past don't make you who you are. I think we're all just now starting to see our purposes in life. People get lost along the way."

"People also don't kill hundreds others when they're lost," she said with a snicker.

He nodded. Steve has learned that Natasha will never let go of the bad things that she's done, and so he goes with her comments and usually follow them about the good he knows that she's capable of. "Remember when you saved those children at the Costa mansion?" he asked, seeing as she nodded her head and went back to stand beside him to lean her head on his shoulder. "That's when I knew that I couldn't let you get away. You didn't know it then, and you still don't know it now, but…Natasha, you are capable of so many wonderful things and I'm so freaking in love with you and all the beauty that you have left to change in this world."

He felt a movement on his shoulder, letting him know that her lips jutted out in a smile.