"While you were building your empires, I was still sleeping.
While you were setting your woods afire, I was still dreaming."
A group of children dart in front of Natasha, momentarily blocking her way, but once they've passed, she approaches the figure on the other side of the room. He stands with his back to her, hands shoved deep in his pockets, quietly studying the exhibit, looking strangely ordinary in the public setting. No one thinks anything of him, not with the hat pulled low over his eyes and the long-sleeved jacket hiding the metal beneath.
She stops beside him, so close that their elbows brush. "I know it was you who saved him." Steve hasn't told her much, but he's told her enough.
The tension filters in, straightening his back and pulling at his shoulders. "How many others?"
"Just me. It's hard to have an affiliation with a secret organization when all your secrets have been exposed for the world's viewing pleasure."
For the first time in nearly six years, Natasha is on her own. Completely on her own. New life, new identity, new everything. In the past, she'd enjoyed that lifestyle, found peace in the solitude. Returning to it now is a bit like free falling off a cliff. Until she adjusts, at least.
She tilts her head to the side, not towards James but away from him, and studies the dates beneath the retelling of the sergeant's heroics. 1917 – 1944. The world believed James Buchanan Barnes died when he was twenty-seven years old. Only a handful of people are aware he survived. James’ hardened eyes, clenched jaw, and taut muscles make Natasha wonder if he ever wishes the former were true, that he’d died all those years ago.
"You know they're searching for you,” she says. "Rogers and Wilson."
"And you know they're not going to stop."
Natasha slips her hands into her pockets, elbow bumping against his. To her right, footage of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes during their time in the Howling Commandos plays on repeat, a friendship immortalized in sepia filmstrip. To her left, James’ gaze falters, shifting from the video to the large picture at the forefront of the memorial.
"He looks like me,” he says.
The similarities aren't as pronounced as they might have once been. James is larger now, more defined, more dangerous, more broken. Cryogenics and Hydra and seventy years of killing have taken care of the youthful innocence that used to make his face split in a wide grin. But there are pieces of him in there. They may be deep, they may be buried… but they're still there.
"He is you,” Natasha says.
"No…" James takes in a deep breath, pulls the brim of the hat lower over his face, and briefly meets her eyes. "He's not."
He weaves his way through the crowd, blending into their midst like he belongs, and when he turns the corner, Natasha rotates back to the exhibit. She remains there for a long time, standing quietly, staring at the picture of the person James both was and wasn't.
He remembers the late nights and the music, the dancing and the girls.
He remembers the back alleyways and their symphony of rebellion and artwork of bloody noses.
He remembers the ache of bruised knuckles and having people on the ropes.
Natasha crouches at the corner of a building, back pressing firmly to the wall. Bullets riddle the brickwork around the corner. They're eager to find their mark and occasionally pass through a weak spot, raining brick and mortar and shards of glass down on her head. When the gunfire ceases, she shakes the dust from her hair and tightens her hand around the pistol grip.
On paper, the mission sounded easy: infiltrate the underground ring purportedly supplying Hydra operatives with weapons and take them down from within. Reality, so it seems, is never that simple.
Natasha prepares to move during the lull. Muscles tense, she rises from her crouch, keeping close the wall. Rough bricks scrape against her uniform and dig into her bare shoulder through a tear in the fabric. The deafening silence is broken only by her panting exhales.
But before she moves, the noise picks up again.
In the distance comes the sound of yelling and more gunfire. It's larger this time, though. Deeper. Sharper. The reverberations are enough to vibrate her bones, and each shot cracks with the finality of death. But it's someone else's death, not hers, because no bullets reach her area.
There's no way of knowing who's screaming, who's shooting, and who's dying. In the middle of battle, everyone sounds the same. Still, the lack of retaliation towards her particular corner of the street gives Natasha a shot of confidence. It's not enough to calm the shakiness in her legs, loosen the white-knuckled grip on her pistol, or slow the thudding of her heart, but it is enough to set her jaw in determination and whirl around the corner, pistol marked and ready.
Carnage litters the street. Bodies are strewn about, laid out in awkward angles surrounded by ever-widening pools of blood, and in the middle of it all is the only man left standing.
Natasha stares at him – the familiar stance, the familiar attire, the familiar face – and takes a hesitant step forward. A lock of hair falls into her face, curls through her sight and cuts a blood-red line through the dark figure. At the same time, a bead of sweat trails down her face, marking a path from her temple to her jawbone.
"You," she says. All the familiarity stays the instinctive shot, pulls her finger from the trigger to loop around the trigger guard instead. She doesn't lower the pistol, though. "What are you doing here?"
The rifle at James’ side lifts, aims across the distance. It's steady with the butt against his shoulder, as familiar to him as his entire being is to her. But there's no familiarity in the narrowing of her eyes. That action is only something that's been directed at other people, at enemies, never at him.
Natasha’s finger returns to the trigger, settles firmly against it, tests the slight resistance before the eventual fire. "Are you going to kill me?" she asks.
There's no mask on the lower half of James’ face like before, but he issues no response. They remain at their impasse with the bloody expanse of road between them and both firearms at the ready. If it's her death he seeks, he's had plenty of opportunities and, right now, plenty of time. She's not backing down. She's not running.
It's the subtle crunch of glass on asphalt from behind Natasha’s back that brings the moment to an end.
She turns, one hand already reaching for one of the various other weapons on the belt around her hips, but is too late. The gunshot echoes in the otherwise quiet neighborhood as the Hydra agent's head snaps back, a spray of crimson exploding with the bullet's trajectory. He slumps to the ground, his rifle clattering down beside his prone form.
Blood stains the asphalt red. What wasn't blown completely away by the initial impact seeps from the wound and winds its way through the cracks in the road. But Natasha isn't staring at the body or the wound or the blood. She's staring at James, at the man who fired the shot, killed the Hydra agent.
He’s already turned away, though, and on impulse, she takes a step forward.
"James," she calls out across the distance.
A slight hitch in his step is the only indication that she’s heard, but it's not enough to make him halt. Natasha watches him disappear from view. Then she watches the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that had been waiting in the wings emerge to finish what they'd started. There isn't much to finish, though.
One man with one rifle has taken care of the score of Hydra agents they'd been up against.
One man with one rifle has saved her life.
And now there's red in her ledger.
He remembers the strangled yell, the outstretched hand, the agonized expression.
He remembers the half inch of air that is too wide to breach.
He remembers the howling wind and the weightless fall.
"What are you doing here?"
The cold air is made worse by the north wind and the setting sun, both of which steal away what little warmth the earth managed to absorb throughout the day. Natasha can feel it in the hand she has wrapped around the door handle, under the other one that rests on the door frame. They both cool quickly and send a chill up her arms.
"I need a place to stay,” James says.
He's literally come out of nowhere. Since the incident with the Hydra agents, there hasn’t been even a hint of his whereabouts. All rumors have proven false, all trails have turned cold, and even Steve, with all his undying loyalty and steadfast determination, is starting to waver.
But, now, here he stands.
On her threshold.
Asking for help.
And there's red in her ledger.
Natasha’s arm is still propped against the frame, blocking his way, keeping him outside in the cold instead of allowing him into the apartment. "And I was the first person that came to mind?"
"You were the only person that came to mind."
A particularly strong gust of wind stirs James’ hair, blowing a few chunks into his face. It's not the motion of him reaching up to brush it to the side that draws her attention so much as the glint of light off the strip of metal barely visible between the glove and the sleeve of his jacket. She stares at the metal until it's covered again. Then she notices the duffel bag slung over his shoulder, one that, no doubt, contains the outfit he wears while fighting.
"There are hotels you could stay,” she says. “Cheap ones where no one would be able to track you. They’d be more inconspicuous than staying here."
James’ chin dips. "I know." Over his shoulder, snow begins to fall.
"So why are you here?"
There's nothing out of the ordinary about the way he stares at her, but it leaves Natasha fighting the urge to fidget nevertheless. Her feet want to relocate, her hands want to find better purchase on the door frame, and her eyes want to look somewhere, anywhere, else, but she's consumed by his expression.
"Natalia,” he says softly.
His tone is underscored with a kind of hesitance, like he's not sure if it's right, almost like he's afraid he's right… and just like that, she's giving in.
The hand that's blocking the doorway drops as Natasha turns on her heel. "Come on.”
She doesn't wait to see if he follows. She doesn't look back to check, either. But she does hear the soft click of the door closing and, when she pauses at the opening to the living room, the muffled thud of his boots on the carpet behind her.
"You can put your stuff in there,” she says, and James follows her gesture to the guest bedroom. "I'm not here very often so I can't offer you a lot, but there is a bed and bathroom, both of which are cleaner than any motel."
Natasha watches him carefully enter the room, set the duffel bag at the foot of the bed, and survey the sparsely decorated room. It's like a flashback, like she's suddenly back in Russia. He's moving into the room down the hall, freshly awoken from his icy bed, carrying a single bag containing his meager belongings. Meanwhile, she stands at the end of the hall observing the man with the metal arm, the man who's to be her instructor.
Everything else is drowned out by the strength of the memory. Natasha feels the stone beneath her fingertips, hears the cries of the other girls from below, sees the red lights reflecting off the dank, glistening walls… and then she's sucking in a harsh breath and taking an unsteady step backwards into the hallway.
James’ eyes find hers over his shoulder.
He's never had the habit of missing anything. There's little use in starting this late in the game.
"It wouldn't be bad, letting them find you." To cover up the lingering embarrassment from her reaction, Natasha clears her throat. "S.H.I.E.L.D. knows what was going on behind the scenes with Hydra. They'll be lenient."
"I know,” James says.
"And Rogers wants to see you so badly."
"Thank you." The reply is both confusing and out of context, and it must have shown on her face because he clarifies, almost as an afterthought, "For letting me stay here."
It's the end of the conversation, and Natasha knows it. Instead of pressing the issue, she gives a curt nod and closes the door on her way out. She hears the clanking of the water heater kick on when he takes a shower later that evening, but he remains in the room for the rest of the night.
And she knows he doesn't come out because she sleeps on the lumpy couch in the living room just in case.
He remembers the smell of mold and hastily sterilized equipment.
He remembers the dim glow of overhead lighting.
He remembers the cut and the cold and the slow slip into unconsciousness.
They’re on the floor, James’ back to the rest of the room while Natasha sits in front of him with her back facing him. Outside, the trees that line the apartment complex bend and wave in the breeze, allowing dappled sunshine to shine through the patio doors and onto the floor around them.
Natasha squints when the light shines in her eyes, not because the tweezers delve a little too deep into her shoulder blade.
"It's a nasty scrape,” James says.
As her shoulders rise and fall in a shrug, she feels the tweezers slip free. It's only gone for a moment, though, returning to focus at another spot near the last. "I've had worse."
A pair of raised scars – one at her shoulder, the other at her lower abdomen – come to mind, and she wonders if he'd known her when he chose to pull the trigger.
James concentrates intently on the task before him, leaning forward ever so slightly. His flesh-and-blood hand is flat against her back, framing the area he's working on, and the heat of the physical contact along with his exhales against her bare skin make the room feel warmer than it is.
The reaction is entirely in her head. Natasha’s aware enough to recognize that. On the wall to her left, the thermostat reads seventy-five, and she's sitting topless with only a sheet pressed to her chest, so she knows the flush she feels isn't because of the room's temperature. Still, she feels the need to readjust her arms, her legs, her entire body, but the hand on her back relocates to her shoulder to hold her in place.
"Don't move," James instructs. When she stills, his hand returns to its prior position. "What happened?"
"I was thrown from a helicopter. Landed on the roof."
The fall had been mildly terrifying. The collision had been excruciating. Tucking and rolling only does so much with a fall that far, but it's likely that, of all people, James understands that.
It's a delicate process, digging free all the pieces of gravel embedded in her back from when she'd skidded across the rooftop. James does so as gently as he can, though, his metal hand expertly working the tweezers while his other alternates between holding her in place and dabbing a cotton ball soaked in alcohol to the injury.
"A part of the mission or an unexpected acquirement?" he asks.
"It wasn't planned, no." More often than not, she’s met with unexpected events during her assignments, but they've yet to get the best of her. "But we got what we needed. That's all that matters."
Silence wells up around them as James finishes tending to her back. When he's done, he gathers the used cotton balls, disappears into the kitchen to throw them away, and returns from his bedroom with a package of bandages. The quiet rip of the protective covering is the only sound for the longest time, but then Natasha turns her head to the side, not far enough to see him but just far enough for her to whisper.
"You have to leave soon, James."
To his credit, the statement doesn't even give him pause. "You don't want me here."
The swallow is hard and thick and sticks in her throat. "Fury is sending me on another mission next week. It'll be a long one. At least a month, maybe more," she explains as a second bandage is placed between her shoulder blades and a third over a particularly sore spot on her lower back. "You can't stay here that long without me. If the neighbors don't notice something, S.H.I.E.L.D. will. I've already had to rewire their cameras. They're bound to catch on soon, and if I'm not here to circumvent it…"
She trails off but has said enough. With the last of her injury cleaned and covered, his hands fall away, leaving her back significantly cooler in their absence.
"If you ask me to leave, I will."
Aside from the years she spent helping S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha lives alone, operates alone, prefers to be alone. Always has, always will. But there was a time when she worked with someone else, trained with someone else. Hydra has always had the nasty habit of wiping memories after missions, but the longer a person goes without being subjected to their machine, the more the memories return. And so she remembers…
Back then, she wasn't alone.
"Do you want me to leave?" James asks.
He should leave. He needs to leave. It's only logical that he leave. S.H.I.E.L.D. will find him, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but… it's not what he wants. And for once in seventy years, she feels James deserves to choose instead of being told what to do.
Natasha spins around to face him, and when she lifts her gaze to his, the word she should say comes out entirely different.
"No. I don't."
He remembers the wakening.
He remembers the red room.
He remembers the red hair.
"You think you're the only one with problems? You think you're the only one who's haunted by the past?"
Natasha’s shouting, face warm with frustration. She shoves James, and he growls, "You don't know anything."
"Don't I?" Another shove for good measure, this time one that forces him back a step. "You weren't the only one unmade by Hydra."
It scares her, the parallels in their pasts. It binds them together in ways no one she's ever known could comprehend. And although verbally admitting that it scares her isn't something she can do, she feels it all the same like a leaden weight in her stomach.
In the Red Room there was no time for fear or hesitance or second-guessing. A black widow can't experience any of those emotions. But now… now, she's compromised.
"They used you, James."
A mechanical arm darts out, the metal fingers fisting in the front of her shirt. "Be quiet."
"What you did wasn't your fault,” Natasha insists. The pure strength in the arm is apparent when she wraps her fingers around his wrist, and she knows without trying that there's no way she can remove it by force. "You didn't have a choice. Neither of us did."
"I said, be quiet!"
James pulls her closer before shoving her away, and she stumbles a bit, catches herself on the edge of an armchair. For a moment, she watches him pace back and forth, breathing heavy, head lowered, hands at his temples, and remembers when she'd looked very much the same.
The returning memories, the details of things she'd done, had left her broken for the longest time. She'd prowled around her room in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters like a caged animal, feral, crazed. The voices and images in her head had been bad enough, but when she'd looked in the mirror and seen the dark edge to her eyes, she'd been ready to either claw down the walls to escape or claw her own eyes out so she wouldn't see that look ever again.
Four months, a broken mirror, and a set of bloody knuckles… that's what it took to break the hold on her mind.
But Hydra's hooks are seventy years deep in James and unwilling to let go.
"I know it's hard,” Natasha says, stepping forward. "How the nightmares are filled with things you don't understand, things you don't know. But at the same time you do because they're memories, not dreams." Easing around the armchair, she approaches him. "How not being able to figure them out and connect the pieces is almost worse than not knowing anything at all because…"
James’ head lifts and turns towards her, but he stares unseeingly at the floor between them. "Because?"
"I don't know, just… because." A frown steals across Natasha’s face, wrinkling her forehead and twisting her lips into a grimace. "Because it's so fucking hard not to know who you are."
"So who are you, then?” James asks. “Are you the Black Widow or Natalia Romanova? The ballerina or Natasha Romanoff?"
"I'm all of them." She pauses, swallows. "And none of them."
The hair partially shielding James’ face does little to hide his conflicted expression. His lowered brows are dark clouds over the storm in his eyes. "I don't know who I am."
"Do you want to know?" Their eyes meet, steel gray and pale blue. "I'll help you, if you want, but it won't be easy." Keeping her motions slow and calm, Natasha moves closer to him. "It may be hard not knowing who you are, but knowing the truth about yourself can be just as painful." Her lips quirk at the corners, tone falling somewhere between sarcasm and self-deprecation. "Reality is a bitch. Ignorance is bliss."
James’ eyes flick between hers. She waits for him to answer, but when he speaks, it's only to repeat the same phrase. "I don't know who I am,” he says.
"You're James Buchanan Barnes."
"No, I was James. I was… Bucky." Saying the name has a visible effect on him, like he's recalling a painful memory, and Natasha wonders, not for the first time, what memories of his have returned. They don't talk about it much, though, because when they do, arguments like this break out. "That's not who I am anymore. Now I'm…"
"You can be both." She takes another step forward. "If I can be Natasha and the Widow, you can be James and the Soldier. We’re more than the titles we've been given. They're not what define us."
He's within reaching distance, all she'd have to do is extend her hand. At the thought, her fingers twitch, but in the end, they remain motionless by her side while she stares at him. The look in his eyes is all struggle and confusion and self-loathing, and she wants so badly to help. Wants to help him overcome the nightmares, to convince him that she understands what it feels like to be broken, to give him some relief from the voices in his head that she knows are throwing half-formed memories at him.
"It's not that easy,” James says, breaking their gaze and whirling around to stalk a repeated path over the rug. "I have these images… and these urges… and sometimes I see Steve Rogers or Natalia Romanova, but other times all I see is the mission. And I can't control it or stop it… and I want to kill you because it's what I'm supposed to do, but I don't want to kill you because there are things I almost remember… and…"
The distance between them disappears in three easy steps, but James is so consumed in his dark thoughts that he's unaware of Natasha’s presence until she’s pulling his face to hers and her lips capture his.
It takes him a moment to react, but then one of his hands is at her waist, guiding her closer to him while the other cups her neck. He's kissing her back eagerly, readily, fervently, like a man who’s been wandering the desert for too long and has found an oasis, and she responds in kind because this is how it used to be with them long ago, around the training and missions and the supervision of the Red Room.
Even after all these years, Natasha knows that some of her memories remain absent. She also knows that James’ memories are fractured and indistinct. But there's something about the way his tongue dances with hers, his hands work at the clasps of her shirt, his body traps hers against the wall that supersede Hydra's wipe.
They don't need memories to know how to move with each other.
They don't need memories to know that it feels so god damn right.
Natasha swallows his harsh words, his pain that tastes like salt and regret and confusion, and James takes the moment of peace she offers him. It's impossible not to when they quiet the voices in each other's minds so skillfully. His are fresh and strong, hers are distant echoes, but all of them disappear when she wraps her legs around his hips and he presses her into the wall, when he carries her down the hall and onto her bed, when they lose themselves completely in each other.
Later that night, James shifts to the edge of the bed to return to his room. Before he can get up, though, Natasha’s hand finds his wrist.
"Stay,” she whispers.
So he does, settling back down and curling so tightly around her it's impossible to tell where he ends and she begins. They fall asleep like that, tangled in each other, and it's the first night since James has been free from Hydra that the nightmares don't find him.
He remembers the orders and the directives.
He remembers the thrill of the hunt.
He remembers the kill.
A soft clink of metal on metal fills the silence as James touches the necklace. He studies the delicate chain and the small charm that connects the two ends. "An arrow?"
Natasha shakes her head slightly. "A reminder,” she corrects.
"That I don't have to be alone." Their hands brush as she reaches up to finger the necklace. "Clint gave it to me."
It had been a gift, a congratulations of sorts for when S.H.I.E.L.D. finally deemed her recovered enough to be let out of confinement. When the agents had opened the door, Clint had been standing outside her room. He'd been the only one standing outside her room. Looking slightly hesitant, he'd welcomed her back to the real world and offered her the necklace.
Reality pulls Natasha back, and she blinks to find James staring at her, brows pinched. "The archer… he means a lot to you."
"Yes,” she says. “He gave me a second chance. He saved me when I thought… when everyone thought I was beyond saving."
James continues to watch her for a moment before his eyes fall, first to the necklace and then the floor. It hasn't been easy, the past few months. There are times the two of them can talk about the past and the future, what's been lost and what's to come, without much difficulty, and being able to read him has become a more natural, easy thing. But there are other times, like now, where words fall short and she has no idea what he's thinking.
Finally, his gaze returns to hers. "Have I ever saved you?"
"You saved me in that standoff with the Hydra agents."
"That's not what I meant,” James says, and Natasha knows that.
On the surface, it's a simple question with a simple answer. James saved her countless times throughout their time in Russia. But, like he said, that's not what he meant, which opens up another convoluted level of answers because, all of a sudden, have I ever saved you doesn't mean have I ever saved your life in battle. It means have I ever saved you from the past, from the darkness, from yourself.
In the end, trying to neatly sidestep the question is pointless when he can read her as easily as she can sometimes read him. James knows that she knows what he meant, and Natasha learned a long time ago that it's impossible to deceive the one that taught her how to deceive. So she regards him carefully and swallows, and when she speaks, it's a whisper.
The expression on his face doesn't change, but there's something in his eyes that does. It's only a slight shift, almost imperceptible, but she feels it in the pit of her stomach, in the way her heart beats a little harder, and it’s not entirely unwelcome.
He remembers the pain and the fear.
He remembers the orders and the hunt.
He remembers the blonde hair and the red hair.
He remembers nothing.
Natasha slowly opens her eyes and stares up at James, her head resting in his lap, his fingers tangled in her hair. It's been several minutes since she asked him the question, asked him what all he remembered from the past, and her mind has moved on to other subjects. Things like where they could go eat tonight and what she would wear and if they should invite Steve or not.
Steve had been beside himself when James finally decided to come forward. It turns out seventy years and a deadly mission and six months of running have no power over a lifelong friendship, and the two of them have since picked up right where they left off, even if the dynamic is somewhat different than in the past.
But as she stares at James and realizes what he's talking about, she thinks maybe tonight it should just be them.
"Everything as in… everything?" Natasha asks, tilting her head until he's no longer sideways in her vision. "All of it?"
His chin lowers in a shallow nod. "At least, I'm pretty sure I remember." The corners of his mouth tighten, lips narrowing into a thin line of concentration. "There are still some gaps, but the main things, the important things…"
Then the expression fades and James looks at her, really looks at her, and she can't help but offer a tiny smile in the wake of his own. His smiles are not as rare as they used to be, but it's still not very often that she sees anything like the one he wore in the past with Steve. She's fine with that, though. The past is hard and the memories are harder, so she'll take what she gets.
"I remember everything, Natalia. And you were the one good thing in all of it."
When James leans down to kiss her, it's slow and deep. There's something about the two of them… they don't just understand each other, they need each other. Not in a strange way. It’s a content need, a satisfied need. Because they've healed each other and saved each other, and when they're together, the lingering voices inside them go quiet and still and fall away.
They transfer to the bedroom they now share, and while they simultaneously lose and find themselves in each other, Natasha feels the piece of jewelry around her neck and thinks that being alone is nice but having someone is nicer.
He is a lost soldier.
She is a one-woman catastrophe.
But together, they make it work, which is all that really matters.
It's enough for her. It's enough for them.