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Old Flame

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“So who am I looking for?”

Though he didn’t bother to look at her, Natasha didn’t miss the lines of frustration that crossed Steve’s forehead at her question.

“I’ve told you everything he said. I have no idea who or what we’re looking for,” the man at her side replied, his voice lower than necessary. Sure, it was important to keep a low profile, but no one else in the large room had given any indication that they had been spotted.

Tucking a strand of red hair into her raised hood, Natasha eyed the exhibit before her, pretending to read the great sea of writing on the plaque. “So mystery voice calls you up and tells you to meet him here.”

Steve nodded, risking a glance behind him.

“Here,” Natasha repeated, “at the Smithsonian. At your own exhibit.”

“Would you keep your voice down please?” the man known as Captain America replied, tugging the brim of his baseball cap lower.

Nat shrugged. “Sometimes whispers attract more attention than regular conversation,” she replied, her voice taking on a teasing tone. She was enjoying herself. “What’s wrong? Afraid one of your adoring fans will recognize you and ask for a selfie?”

The glare Steve gave her spoke for itself.

“Fine,” she relented,her voice slightly quieter than before. “What did he sound like?”

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Sound like?”

“Sure. Young? Old? Accent?”

Her friend looked frustrated. “I don’t know. Adult male. Young enough to not sound old. No accent.”

“You mean ‘American accent’,” Nat teased. She moved to the next photo on display, taking the opportunity to quickly case the room again. “Did he sound calm?”

Steve paused, and she could almost see his mind working, playing through the conversation again in his head. “No, not really. Not relaxed, at least. He sounded nervous.”

“Okay,” Natasha mused aloud. “So were looking for an adult male, American, not too young and not too old, who’s stressed out. Easy.”

She watched the man as his clear, blue eyes roamed over the room again. “Sure. Easy.”

After several long minutes of silence, Natasha pointed to a newspaper article in a frame. “I didn’t know you were an entertainer.”

“Yeah, more an exhibit than a soldier for a while,” her friend replied passively, his mind divided between speaking and searching without trying to draw attention to either. “I did the whole ‘buy war bonds’ tour and entertained troops. It was while…”

Steve trailed off and suddenly turned to face her. “Wait. Have you never been here before?”

Surprised by the question, Natasha blinked. “No. Why?”

“Seriously?” Steve looked genuinely surprised and even a little hurt. “I just… thought you would have checked it out.”

Nat resisted the urge to chuckle. “I know the actual Captain America. In real life. Why would I come to a museum about you?”

“I don’t know,” her friend mumbled, turning his eyes toward the ground.

Oh Steve. Sweet, pure, gentle Steve. If only the plaques and photos in the exhibit could convey just what a soft heart the super soldier had. He could even make the Black Widow feel a stab of guilt. “Alright,” she conceded, placing a hand on his forearm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know it meant so much to you. Maybe when this is all over you can give me a personal tour. Tell me your life story.”

He brightened at that. “Sure, that sounds good.”

They fell back into silence as both heroes turned their eyes to the article on the wall before them.

“You know, I went to see the unveiling of your statue in New York.”

“Steve!” Nat whispered sharply. “I said I was sorry!”

When he turned to her, Captain America was smiling and his eyes flashed with mischief. “Don’t be mad that I’m a better friend.”

It was all she could do to resist giving him a playful shove. “It’s a statue of all of us. And Tony said we all had to be at that media circus. You didn’t do it out of your own benevolence.”

“Alright, fine.” Steve put his hands in his pockets and turned to watch the rest of the room, but even in his vigilance Nat could see that he was more relaxed. The lines of stress had gone from his face and his shoulders had lost their tension. Good.

“I could use a coffee. You?”

Natasha nodded. She let her friend wander off to a nearby concessions cart while she turned her eyes back to the artifacts. Before her was a bust of Howard Stark and a life-sized model of Cap’s shield, obviously made out of some more common metal than vibranium. It definitely didn’t seem to have the same sheen to it as the real thing, but the detail was fairly impressive. She was about to turn from the model when something caught her eye.

There was movement in the shadows, just behind a display wall. Natasha paused, green eyes squinting, trying to focus in the poor light. The thing moved again, slowly, stuttering, and she could see its hesitancy even before getting a full view of the figure. When he did step partially into the light, she felt her heart stop.

It was a man, tall, strong, with a similar build to Steve’s trim and muscular form. That was where the similarities ended, though. The man standing before her had dark, unkempt hair that hung about his chin. A few days worth or growth in his beard and a dark cap tugged down over his eyes kept most of his face obscured. But Natasha caught a flash of his eyes, and that was all she needed to know exactly who was standing before her.

Those eyes. She saw the familiar, passionate heat in them that always smouldered behind the icy blue. Eyes she saw in her dreams, and in her nightmares. In her imagination when alone in the dark of night. In her most favorite memories.

“James.” His name came out as a breath before she was able to catch herself.

His eyes flickered toward her for the briefest of moments, but no recognition crossed over his features. Instead of the expression of brutal determination that she remembered so well, his face wore a look of barely controlled panic. He looked like a cornered animal, ready to dart away if the situation turned dangerous.

Over her shoulder, Natasha heard Steve’s gasp. “Bucky?”

Steve stepped forward, shoving two cups of coffee into her numb hands as he passed. But his movements were much too fast for the man before them. Fear flashed in his eyes, and the man held up a gloved hand to stop the captain in his tracks.

“Look, I don’t know you,” the man said, keeping his hand out as if to make a barrier between himself and Steve. “But I saw you on tv. There was an interview, and you were talking about your friend. They showed a picture, and it was me.”

He paused, his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. His eyes were searching Steve’s face, silently pleading. Desperate.

Natasha also felt desperate. Helpless. She was trapped as an observer in an impossible situation. Her best friend confronted with a ghost from his past turned out to be the same man who had been haunting her for years.

James, or as Steve called him, Bucky, continued his hurried, patchy story. “Hydra wiped my memories. I don’t remember you. I don’t really even know myself.” His quiet, cold voice cracked. “I escaped, but I need help. I thought… my only plan was to find you.”

Chapter Text

It turned out to be a hell of a long day.

Predictably, Steve has jumped at the chance to help his long lost friend. The atmosphere in their jet was a buzzing mixture of excitement, tension, fear and hope as they quickly made their way back to the Avengers tower. Once arrived, Tony Stark had joined in an interrogation of their guest, his attitude a bit less optimistic than Steve’s. Barnes insisted he didn’t know much; he only had a few month's worth of memories. But he stuck to his story. He was on a mission for Hydra and caught sight of Captain America on television. Cap had spoken of his army days, how he came to be what he was today, and an old photo of James “Bucky” Barnes flashed on the screen. A man without a life of his own suddenly realized he had a past, a friend, and a name. He had immediately gone AWOL, researching Steve Rogers while in hiding for weeks before getting up the nerve to call him.

It was a tremendous story. One Natasha felt strangely disassociated from. She hung outside the room during the interrogation, listening in, doing her best to keep her mind in the present instead of the past. She didn’t know Bucky Barnes. But she knew the ragged, tired, frightened man who sat before them. Intimately. She knew his hands, still gloved and folded together on the table before him, moving slightly as if he was resisting the urge to wring them in desperation. She remembered the skin of one being warm, the callouses on his palm rough as they brushed her cheek. The other, the one Hydra had given him, was smooth and cool, incredibly strong but controlled so as not to leave so much as a bruise as he gripped her hip. She knew his lips, now turned downward in a frown as he repeated himself yet again, and she knew the way they caused a shiver up her spine when he pressed them to the side of her neck. She watched as James shifted in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest, where she knew the skin under his shirt was crisscrossed with scars. And she knew that his eyes, now cautious and guarded, could nearly glow in the darkness of a bedroom.

Hours passed, and finally Barnes was shown to a private room with instructions to get some rest. Natasha, Steve and Tony joined the rest of the Avengers in a conference room. They all looked curious and bright-eyed, while she simply hoped she didn’t look as drained as she felt.

Tony produced a decanter of whiskey and glasses, signaling the start of a meeting. Nat groaned inwardly. This long day was turning into a long night.

“Alright,” Tony said after taking a swallow of booze. “Who wants to start the debate about what the hell we do with this guy?”

It was Steve who spoke first, of course. And he was clearly and openly optimistic, of course. Bucky has a good heart, he just had to find himself again, he insisted.

Tony was skeptical. Of course. Rhodey took Tony’s side. Of course. Sam and Clint had concerns. Bruce was talking psychology and neuroscience while also making a point to mention that neither psychology nor neuroscience were his strong suits. And Thor nearly finished a decanter of whiskey on his own. Natasha remained silent as the men around her debated the believability of Barnes’ claims. Was he really trying to escape, or was this a mission from Hydra to infiltrate them? How much control over him did the Russians have, even if he was truly was trying to break free?

She tried to sort through her own memories; a difficult task while also pretending to be following everyone else’s conversations. Natasha knew James was used more for muscle than for mind. He was a soldier, not a spy, all brawn and force and following orders. She didn’t buy the theory that Hydra was using him to infiltrate and destroy the Avengers. As far as trying to escape Hydra, that had been a surprise. Like herself, James had never been content to live his life as a tool for a shadowy organization. But freedom had been something so tantalizing and terrifying that even Natasha had spent years dreaming of escape before actually taking the plunge. When one lives under another’s control for as long as she had, and as long as James had, the unknown where to go or what to do with oneself is paralyzing. It must have taken a lot of courage for him to-

“So we sleep on it then?”

Nat’s head snapped up to find Tony rising from his perch on the table. “I mean, we’re not making any headway here. Might as well mull it over and revisit this tomorrow. Maybe our guest will spontaneously produce a few more memories in the morning.”

Thank goodness. Natasha rose slowly from her seat, letting a few of the others exit the room in an attempt to not look like she was making a bolt for the door.

“Nat,” Steve said suddenly, snapping her out of her thoughts and stopping her in her tracks. She looked back to find him watching her intently, big arms folded across his chest.

There was a soft click of the door as the last of the other Avengers made their way out of the room, leaving her trapped and alone with Captain America.

Natasha’s stomach began to churn, but she kept her expression neutral. She cocked her head to the side, waiting for whatever it was he wanted to say. She certainly wasn’t going to offer anything freely.

There was a moment of excruciating silence before Steve finally gave in. “You knew his name,” he said simply.

Oh. So he had heard that.

“We were in a museum, in a room dedicated to your war days,” Natasha replied, waving her hand dismissively. “And you’ve talked before about your old friend.”

Steve leaned forward, palms pressed flat on the table across from her, his eyes never leaving hers. “I never called him ‘James’,” he replied.

Oh.

Well, that was that. She was trapped. There was no escaping the past now. In her shock at seeing Jame’s face, she had revealed a single word that would lead to her emotional demise. And Steve didn’t look like he was going to show her any mercy.

She took a few slow steps towards him, her fingers following the curve of the table as she moved, buying a few seconds while she formulated exactly what and how much she would tell him. Steve was her friend and teammate, and she had to admit he deserved the truth. But after years of keeping secrets so close to her heart, it was very difficult to release them.

“Hydra worked closely with those of us at the Red Room. We had a lot of the same goals. Sometimes there were joint missions. Sometimes the Winter Soldier would be paired with a Widow. Sometimes, it was me. He was powerful, strong, and brutal, while I was trained to infiltrate quietly. Our opposite strengths made us a nearly unstoppable team.”

She paused, remembering walking by the Winter Soldier’s side, the smell of blood and gun smoke in the air, the feeling of being small and delicate next to such a big and powerful man. A surge of heat pulsed through her body. It took a few seconds for Nat to control her emotions before she continued.

“What he told you today was true. They mind-wiped him often, and he didn’t know his identity at all. Not his nationality, not his friends, not even his name. But he and I were on a mission once, invading a British research lab when he saw a nameplate on the door. It read Dr. James Hammond. He stopped and read it over and over again.” Natasha’s gaze drifted to one of the blank walls of the room, her mind’s eye seeing the way the tightness around his mouth had softened, the way his ice blue eyes had trailed over the brass plate, the way his right hand, his real hand, had come up to trace the engraving.

Natasha continued, her voice growing more quiet. “He said the first name felt familiar. So, when we were alone, away from Hydra's constant surveillance, I started calling him James.”

She drew her lower lip between her teeth, suppressing a shiver as she remembered the way he had rocked into her the first time she used his name. “He… liked that.”

“Were you two… intimate?” Steve asked, a rosy blush touching his cheeks.

Natasha smiled and turned to face him again. Sweet, innocent, old fashioned Steve. “When working with a partner, part of my duties were to reward him for a completed mission. It was expected.”

She didn’t miss the way his body went stiff at that statement. “Are you saying he-”

“No,” she corrected him quickly. “On the contrary, James was the only one I ever wanted to be with. He never simply used me. He cared how and what I felt. He made me feel valued. With him it was like… making love.”

She tossed her red hair behind her shoulders and let her eyes slip shut, tilting her face up toward the ceiling. A melancholy smile painted her lips at the memories, and Nat didn’t try to suppress it. She let the words keep spilling out like a teenager telling her friends about her crush. “We fell for each other. Even outside missions, he used to sneak into my room at night. It was stupid. Dangerous. But we couldn’t stop.”

She heard the shuffle of Steve’s feet as he shifted his weight, considering. “You two were caught,” he said, more of a statement than a question.

Natasha met his eyes again, her smile fading. “They found out. Of course. We both knew they eventually would. James was wiped again and just like that, he didn’t even recognize me. It was shortly after that I defected.”

She didn’t tell him that they had made her watch. That she had heard him screaming and watched the light fade from his eyes. That they hadn’t even allowed her to mourn his loss before throwing her back into the field.

She sniffed, realizing that her emotions were slipping from her tight grip with every admission. But there was something addicting about finally being able to reveal these secrets, and now that they were spilling out, she didn’t want to stop them. “I went back for him once. Word got around the intelligence community that he was chasing a target, a nuclear engineer from Iran. I caught up with them near Odessa. I needed a quick way to get his attention, so I stood between him and his target and tried to reason with him, tried to make him remember who I was and what we had.”

Her voice was cracking, and her friend was beginning to look alarmed. She was always collected. Always carefully put together. Always in control of herself, both physically and mentally. For her to show this much emotion must have been terrifying. A thought flitted through the back of her mind that Steve’s expression would have been somewhat amusing, had she not felt such despair.

Her eyes stung with tears, but she pushed forward. “He couldn’t remember. Couldn’t even comprehend what I was telling him. He just saw me covering his target and did his job. He shot him. Through me. And then he just left us both there to die.”

Her hand moved to cover the scar that was beneath her shirt. “Bye bye bikinis,” she said, attempting to use a joke to pull her feelings out of the dark pit she had fallen into. But another tear slipped away, and she felt the dam inside of her burst.

Steve moved quickly, closing the distance between them to hold her tightly against his chest. He stroked her hair gently, whispering her name while she sobbed. Nat was glad for his solid, strong body to lean on and his big arms to hold her up, for she felt like she suddenly had no energy left to support herself. Seconds, then minutes ticked by, and her friend continued to hold her, steadfast and patient as he always was. Opening herself to someone else had been something Natasha had to train herself to do after the Red Room, and the vulnerability that came along with it was still terrifying at times. But in that moment, Natasha was incredibly glad she had a friend like Steve.

As a thunderstorm subsides to gentle rain, Nat’s sobs eventually weakened into a few sniffles. Still, Steve waited until she pulled away first before loosening his arms around her. Her eyes burned and her face felt wet, and Natasha knew she must look a mess. Letting someone see her in such a physical state felt foreign and more than a little embarrassing. She let out a nervous chuckle.

“Thanks,” she said, feeling suddenly very unsure of herself.

Steve nodded, watching her carefully as if she was going to crack and shatter again any second. She squared her shoulders and shook her hair back in response, trying to look even a little stronger than she felt. “I’ll be okay, Steve.”

His eyes turned downward, and Nat noticed the lines of worry that creased his forehead. Worry for her. Worry for his long lost friend. Probably worry for himself, too. Like her, he was emotionally invested in this weird mess of a situation. Did he feel like he was falling apart, too?

“We should get some rest,” he said, his voice sounding as strained and fatigued as she felt. “I think tomorrow is going to be a long day.”

Yeah. It probably was. The night was over, but this puzzle of theirs wasn’t anywhere close to being finished.

“Steve,” she began with a sudden stab of panic. Captain America’s eyes snapped back to meet hers and she didn’t try to hide the concern in her expression. “Please don’t tell him.”

There was a pause, deep and awkward. “Why?” he finally asked.

“Because his mind has enough to sort out right now,” Nat replied. It was a weak excuse, and she could see by her friend’s deep frown that he saw through it instantly. Fine.

“Because I’m afraid of his reaction.”

Steve opened his mouth to respond, and Natasha braced herself for a lecture about honesty. But whatever he was going to say evaporated into a deep sigh. Nat also let out the breath that she had been holding.

“Alright,” Steve said, “I won’t tell anyone. But this isn’t just your secret. It’s Bucky’s past too, and it’s not fair to hide it from him. Eventually-”

“Eventually I’ll tell him everything,” Natasha promised.

That seemed to satisfy him, and she decided to finally slip off to bed. After a gentle squeeze of thanks to Steve’s hand, she made her way toward the door.

“Nat,” his voice called her back again. Now what?

Natasha turned to see Steve watching her with a small smile. “If you would have just gone to my exhibit at the museum, we could have figured this out a long time ago.”

She snorted a laugh. “You’re right again, Cap.”

Chapter Text

It was Wednesday.

Natasha took one last look in the mirror, taking a moment to pin back a lock of red hair that hung near her face. Months ago, Tony Stark has decided that the Avengers needed regular bonding time and declared every Wednesday night be reserved for some casual revelry. Provided a mission didn’t interfere, everyone joined together at the Tower for dinner, whether they lived there or not. The choice of food and music rotated between the heroes, and tonight Tony himself had chosen classic rock while Clint set a menu of good, old fashioned, American, grilled steaks.

But this Wednesday was different. It was six days after James “Bucky” Barnes had stepped into the lives, and about nineteen hours since everyone, including the lofty Nick Fury, had finally accepted his story. If a friend of Captain America needed help, the general consensus seemed to say, then they would help him. And it certainly didn’t hurt that this friend happened to be a super soldier with abilities that may benefit them in later missions.

Whether their reasons were altruistic or strategic, Natasha was glad for them. Perhaps her fellow Avengers would cease digging into James’ past and the secrets that she had also buried there. Perhaps tonight would be focused on the present, or even the future, she hoped. A clean slate, a fresh start, a new beginning. Tonight, James would be joining them for Wednesday dinner.

The Black Widow wasn’t sure she had ever been more nervous in all of her long life.

She was one of the first to arrive in the dining room, and helped herself to a cocktail while the others filtered in. Steve and James were the last to arrive, and Natasha felt her breath catch in her throat when she saw them.

James was dressed in a simple long sleeve shirt and jeans, both of darker shades, both fitted enough to show the powerful muscles they covered. His metal hand was tucked into a pocket as if to disguise what it was that made him different from the others. His hair was washed and combed, still hanging loosely around his face in a style that made him look clean and rugged all at once. He had shaved, but a five o’clock shadow had already grown which only served to highlight his strong jawline. Those light blue eyes of his sparkled as they moved to carefully take in the room and everyone in it. He looked about as nervous as Natasha felt inside, but he held his chin up and shoulders squared.

He looked really good.

Though nearly all of the Avengers had some sort of contact with the former Winter Soldier by now, Steve took advantage of the evening to make a fresh start. He guided his oldest friend around the room, formally introducing him to his allies. Steve’s eyes were light, his grin broad. This was what he had always wanted, all of his friends together.

The others’ reactions were predictably mixed. Nat didn’t miss the fact that Sam neglected to shake James’ hand or the fact that Tony’s greeting was more clipped and sarcastic than necessary. But just the fact that they were present in the room was something, she supposed.

When the two men approached her, Natasha found that her mouth had suddenly gone dry. She took a quick sip of her drink to compose herself before turning to face them.

“Natasha Romanoff,” Steve was saying with a gesture of his hand. “Former Russian agent, now a good friend and partner. You won’t meet a man or woman more clever than her.”

“Such flattery,” Nat returned with a wink before focusing her green eyes on the man of the hour. She extended her hand to take his, which felt warm, rough, and so big around hers.

“James,” she said his name in greeting, purposely choosing the name by which she knew him instead of the nickname by which Steve kept referring to him. She kept her hand clasped with his for longer than necessary, not wanting to break the first physical contact they had in years.

”Welcome home, Comrade,” Natasha said, switching to her native Russian.

A hint of amusement flashed in James’ blue eyes and the lines in his face softened ever so slightly.

Steve looked expectant, glancing from Nat to Bucky and back again. “What did she say?” he finally asked.

It was James who responded. “She said ‘welcome.” He turned back to lock his eyes with hers again. ”Thank you.”

“Yeah, okay,” Steve replied, reaching over the bar to grab a pair of beers. “Is dinner ready yet? I’m starving.”

——

The man formerly known as The Winter Soldier found himself alone for the first time that evening, and was incredibly grateful for it. Dinner had been surprisingly satisfying, and the company of others felt awkward yet weirdly welcome, but he also felt the need to sit back and take in the events of the evening. While Steve was engrossed in a lively conversation with Sam Wilson, Bucky had moved away to a seating area and taken his place on a couch.

He tapped his empty beer bottle silently on the arm of the couch, trying to resist the temptation to pick off the label in his unease. He felt out of place. The interrogation upon his arrival had been expected, and he had braced himself to face all manner of tactics the so-called “Avengers” might use to draw information from him. But they had been shockingly civil. They didn’t withhold meals or sleep, didn’t inflict any sort of pain or fear based strategies, and even gave him a warm bed, full stomach, and new clothes. It had both relieved and confused him. Despite the fact that some of the members of the team obviously and openly distrusted him, Bucky had felt more like a guest than a prisoner.

And now this dinner thing? Steve was obviously trying to help Bucky feel like part of the team. Like he was welcome. Like he belonged there. It was… kind. But when one is out of practice in social events, one tends to feel like the odd man out, even with such a warm welcome.

“Care for something a little stronger?”

A silky smooth, feminine voice drifted to his ears. Bucky didn’t need to turn around to know who it was that had approached him, but he did anyway. Natasha Romanoff stood nearby, holding a glass of crystal clear liquid in each hand, a smile painted on her lips. She had approached silently, without him realizing. He would have to keep a better eye on her in the future.

For now, he gave a short nod and watched as she settled into the chair next to him. His empty bottle was placed on the coffee table and she handed him one of the glasses of vodka, the ice making a tinkling sound as he brought it to his lips.

It was smooth. Cold. Strong. Familiar. Good choice.

He thanked her and took a moment to size her up. She was petite and pretty, with full lips, stunning red hair and bright green eyes. Steve has said she was clever, and that was no surprise. The Winter Soldier knew about Black Widows. You don’t get to be stupid and survive long at that position.

She was watching him, too, Bucky realized, probably making similar judgements about himself.

He took another swallow and leaned against the couch, lifting his arm to lay along the back in a position he hoped conveyed a sense of casual ease. Something about her was tugging at his curiosity. Her posture, her friendly, flirtatious smile, her greeting when they had shaken hands earlier, the way she hadn’t shied from touching his hand.

“I have a question,” he finally said.

The girl tilted her head to the side in polite interest, but waited for him to speak.

“Why aren’t you afraid of me?”

That made her laugh. It was a beautiful, carefree sound that, paired with her smile, made his heart beat a little faster. Natasha’s eyelashes fluttered as she glanced down at her lap, then back up at him. “I didn’t know I was supposed to be,” she answered, a playful tone to her voice.

But Bucky wasn’t interested in playing. He gestured around the room with his hand, his metal hand, and noticed that she didn’t flinch when she saw it.

“Stark treats me like a time bomb that’s going to go off any second. He’s keeping me at arm’s length. Banner stumbles over his words, as if he doesn’t know how to speak to me. Even Steve, for all his friendliness, is handling me with caution as if I might break apart any minute.”

He turned his eyes back to the woman sitting next to him. “And you’re here, alone, bringing me a drink and inviting conversation. Why aren’t you afraid like everyone else?”

Natasha smiled again, this time it was less flirty and more melancholy. She took a few seconds to find the right words, her emerald eyes flickering downward to her drink before speaking.

“You’re just a person, James,” she said, and he found himself distracted by the way his first name sounded on her lips. “You’re not a time bomb and you’re not made of glass. I have no reason to be afraid of you.”

She held his eyes for a moment longer before turning toward the rest of the room. She gestured with her glass as she continued to speak. “Tony thinks he’s our dad, and that he needs to protect us. You’re like the boyfriend coming to pick up his daughter for the first date. Of course he’s going to be distrustful, but he’ll come around.” She flashed him a secretive smile. “To be honest, I don’t think he trusts me most of the time, either.”

She nodded toward Banner. “Bruce is afraid if his own shadow, so don’t take that personally. But he’s a smart guy, and a good one to have around. I hear he’s been putting out some feelers with a few... experts who might be able to help you.”

Bucky opened his mouth to ask what she meant, but the Black Widow has already moving on. “Sam is the newest guy here, and he’s really made a connection with Steve. I think he thinks you’re going to steal his new friend. And Steve…”

She trailed off, drawing her lower lip between her teeth. “Steve’s heart is bigger than his brain. He talked about you often, with all of us. He really did miss you. He’s excited to have you here, and he just wants everything to be alright.”

Bucky found himself, once again, drawn into her green eyes as they fell into silence again. Black Widows were supposed to be smart, sexy, irresistible, he reminded himself. A siren that could lure any man in. She was damn good at her job.

Movement caught both of their attention, and the pair simultaneously looked up to see Steve approaching. Bucky didn’t miss the flash of annoyance that crossed over Natasha’s features, but he was secretly relieved. The last thing he needed was to be seduced and used for whatever a Widow wanted. While this woman seemed sincere, and while she spoke so openly and honestly with him, he wasn’t willing to take any chances.

“I'm not interrupting anything, am I?” Steve asked with a broad smile as he approached.

Natasha answered with a smile of her own. “That’s alright,” she began,rising from her seat. “We have all the time in the world to get to know each other, don’t we, James?”

Without waiting for a reply, she was walking away, and Bucky found himself watching the way her hips moved as she left.

Great. The last thing he needed was a distraction.

Chapter Text

“I hope you’re right about this,” Sam Wilson muttered, half to himself and half to his fellows on the Quinjet. “Or were gonna land a lot faster than we want to.”

Natasha swallowed hard, but said nothing, keeping her eyes focused on the mountain that was quickly growing larger in front of them. She ran her hand along the safety restraints that held her securely to the copilot’s seat, mentally chiding herself for taking comfort in a seatbelt that would do little to help her survive a head-on collision.

“That’s what they said,” Bruce was babbling behind her, sounding more than a little alarmed. “The coordinates go right into the mountain. Do you think it was a mistake?”

Natasha glanced up at Steve as he stepped forward, resting his arm on the back of her seat. “I would think the Wakandans know how to get into their own country. It can’t be a mistake. Maybe this is a test of our trust.”

A grunt sounded from the seat behind her. “Letting them play around with my brain isn’t showing enough trust?” James asked, the sarcasm in his voice thinly covering his own uncertainty.

Steve looked pained. “Look, Buck, if you’re not sure about this…”

“No, it’s fine,” James rushed to correct his companion. “It’s worth the risk.”

Doing her best not to turn and steal a glance at the man sitting behind her, Natasha glanced upward at Steve again. “Steady on then?” she asked.

The mountainside was nearly on top of them now, threatening to tear the Quinjet to pieces in mere seconds.

“Steady on,” Captain America replied.

With a flicker of light, the jet flew [i]through[/i] the mountainside.

A collective sigh of relief echoed loudly through the jet as Natasha slumped backward in her seat. The mountain had vanished from before them, shimmering into thin air. Instead, the mysterious country of Wakanda stretched out ahead. Though she had just begun breathing again, Nat felt her breath catch in her throat at the sight of it.

Tall buildings of gold and copper rose out of the landscape, proud and exotic as they shimmered in the sun. Some were dotted with lush rooftop gardens, as if they had pulled the jungle around them upward with them. The city had the look of something utopian, impossibly beautiful and completely secret, hidden away among the hills.

“I can’t believe it,” Bruce said, awe seeping through every word. “I knew Wakanda had to be more advanced than they let on, but this? This is incredible.”

Nathasha had to admit she felt the same, and the stunned silence that filled the quinjet indicated that she wasn’t the only one. It was a little embarrassing, if she was completely honest with herself. As someone so deeply engrossed in the intelligence community, one whose very job was to know other countries' secrets, she was absolutely amazed that the achievements of Wakanda had completely slipped under her radar.

She didn’t have much time to kick herself, however, as an accented voice came over their radio to guide them towards a landing place.

“King T’Challa.” Bruce stepped forward, extending his hand in a way that almost made him appear confident. “It’s an honor to meet you in person.”

He turned to introduce the rest of the party, and Natasha took a moment to take in the young king of Wakanda. She had brushed up on the country’s history before their flight, and was familiar with recent news stories of the death of T’Challa’s father. But if this man was nervous about his new leadership role, he didn’t show it. He stood with squared shoulders and alert eyes, nodding to each visitor as Bruce said their names. He walked the line between cold and friendly with ease, self-assured but not aloof. He was impressive.

“Thank you for your willingness to help us,” Steve said, stepping forward. “Wakanda has a reputation for keeping to its own affairs. It’s an honor to even be invited to your country.”

T’Challa clasped his hands behind his back, looking Steve squarely in the eye as he spoke. “It is something of a favor to an old friend,” he replied.

A young girl standing slightly behind the king surprised them all with a laugh that broke the regal atmosphere of the meeting. “An old [i]girlfriend[/i] he means,” the girl said. “He’s doing this to try to impress her.”

Natasha had a hard time hiding the smile of amusement that came to her lips as the king rolled his eyes. “Nakia is an international ambassador for Wakanda,” he corrected, sternly. “She thinks our country should be more involved in worldwide humanitarian efforts.”

He turned slightly, glaring at the younger girl. “She obviously knows more about international relations than the rest of us, and especially more than a princess.”

“Wait,” Bruce raises his hands, his eyes darting from T’Challa to the girl and back. “[i]This[/i] is Princess Shuri?”

“Yes,” the girl answered before turning her eyes to the rest of the group. She stepped around her brother, making her way straight to James. “And this is the broken white boy I'm supposed to fix?”

Sam snickered, and James looked taken aback. He turned sharply toward Bruce, his blue eyes silently questioning.

Alarm was visible all over Bruce’s features. “I just… when we spoke on the phone… I expected someone… older.”

Shuri folded her arms across her chest and narrowed her eyes in obvious offense, and Natasha didn’t miss the expressions of concern that were growing on her friends’ faces. The situation needed diffusing before someone said something they shouldn’t.

“What’s wrong with starting young?” Nat remarked, shrugging her shoulders. She kept her voice casual, waving off Bruce’s concerns as if they were inconsequential. “I did.”

The princess shot her a smile, and Natasha internally relaxed. Okay, she could get Shuri on her side.

“You won’t find anyone more capable than her,” T’Challa said, a grumble of annoyance still lingering in his voice. “Even if I hate to admit it.”

“Perhaps if I show you my lab and explain what I plan to do, you’ll feel a little better.” Her words came out like a suggestion, but Shuri was already making her way toward the grand building before them, obviously expecting them all to follow. Though her youthful spirit was obvious in her comments, the princess carried herself with the same regal bearing as her brother. Natasha made a mental note not to let a relationship with Shuri slip away. She, and the rest of Wakanda, could be a powerful ally in the future.

The lab was beyond impressive, just like everything else had been since they flew through the mountain. It was loaded with technology, much of it so advanced that Natasha couldn’t even guess its purpose. But it was also elegant, artistic, beautiful in its design.

Shuri described the procedure that she had planned for James. Though there would be nothing so primitive as a scalpel, it still sounded intensely invasive. Natasha’s own mind struggled to keep up, though she had always been proud of having at least a decent understanding of human physiology. Bruce seemed to be faring better, as he responded with enough questions and awestruck comments to please Shuri.

Natasha glanced at James several times throughout the discussion, trying to read his thoughts behind those cold eyes. His expression remained controlled, neutral. But his eyes darted to and fro around the lab, settling on each piece of equipment for only a few seconds. His chest was rising and falling more quickly than anyone else’s. And the fingers of his metal hand were curled into a fist.

It was just like when he had found them in the museum. He was terrified.

“So, what will he remember?” Steve asked, interrupting Nat’s thoughts. “Everything?”

“Not everything,” Shuri’s reply was abrupt, but Natasha found herself appreciating the girl's honesty. “It will be quite a shock to his emotions to remember everything at once, even if we could do it that way. I suggest we focus on deeper, long term memories to start. They’ll be more ingrained in his mind. And even those will take several sessions to repair.”

“You guys are talking about me like I’m in another room,” James finally said, his voice coming out as something of a snarl.

Steve and Bruce both flushed, but James pressed on. “How do we know my memories are even still in there? Hydra said they wiped me. What if they’re all just… erased?”

“We don’t know for sure,” Shuri replied, a smile bubbling up on her young features. This research obviously interested her, and the excitement to talk about it was evident in her voice. “But I’ve been looking into it, and I’m confident that nothing’s fully erased.”

She twisted her wrist and tapped the beaded bracelet she wore. A hologram quickly appeared in her hand, but the figure was much more detailed than any hologram Natasha had ever seen. It was opaque, textured, as if someone had built a figure out of sand and painted it to be as lifelike as possible.

“What is this technology?” Bruce gasped, slightly breathless in his excitement.

The princess gave him a sideways look. “One thing at a time, please,” she replied. “I did some research on this man, who lives in America. Rural New York, I believe.”

The man was gruff looking, with wild dark hair, creases of worry near his eyes, and a stern expression. The figure didn’t look familiar to Natasha, but she was intrigued nonetheless.

Shuri continued. “He was mind-wiped too, several times over many decades. Sound familiar?”

James blinked. “By Hydra?”

“No, but the process was similar, as was the intent.” She dropped her hand, and the figure dissipated like dust. “Let me ask you this: when you woke up after the last wipe, could you speak?”

“Yes,” James replied, the corners of his eyes narrowed slightly in confusion.

“You could speak, walk, and fight? You knew who your controllers were and to follow their orders?”

The Winter Soldier shifted his feet. “I don’t see what this has to do with-“

Shuri interrupted. “The man I just showed you couldn’t do any of that. He was like an infant every time they erased him. But his mind still recovered, and some of his memories have returned.”

“Using the process you’ll be using in Bucky?” Steve asked, hope shining through his voice.

“Not exactly,” the princess replied. “But, that man is an enhanced individual. He has a faster rate of healing and more strength than the average person. Just like you.”

Natasha glanced from James to Steve and back again, taking it all in. Sam grunted from the back of their little group. “Must be nice to be a super soldier.”

Shuri nodded. “Yes! So my theory is that Bucky’s mind can heal itself, and I’ll just give it a little jump start.”

The lab fell into silence as the Avengers contemplated the information they had been given. Nat imagined she could guess what they all were thinking. Sam was obviously skeptical, but was more wary about being in an unfamiliar country than he was about the technology around them. Bruce was dazzled by the young genius’ knowledge and was itching to see her in action. Steve was hopeful. He was always so hopeful.

James moved to the table where they all assumed the procedure would take place and stared down at it.
His jaw was clenched, his body too still. He was hesitating.

“Will it hurt?”

Shuri quickly turned to face him. Her smile had faded, but a carefree note still carried through her voice. “We’re going into your brain,” she replied, as if that statement alone should have answered any and all questions.

It didn’t. James’ blue eyes shifted from the table to the girl, waiting.

“The neurons in your brain don’t have pain receptors like other parts of your body. So no, it won’t hurt. You might get a psychological shock, though. It may be difficult to process too many returning memories at once. That’s why we’re going in stages. But as for the actual feeling?” Shuri paused, considering her next words carefully, then her expression brightened. “It might tickle a little.”

It didn’t seem to reassure him much. He still looked so afraid.

“Shall we get started?” Shuri asked, and Natasha didn’t miss the way James flinched at her words.

“Why don’t you get everything ready,” she said, flashing a smile at the princess. She moved to touch James on the arm. “We’re going to get some fresh air.”

He looked confused, but followed as Natasha led him out of the lab and down a magnificent hallway. “Are we allowed to just wander around?” he asked, his eyes shifting to the red-clad guards that dotted the halls as they walked.

Natasha shrugged. “I’m sure they’ll stop us if not,” she replied, doing her best to sound at ease. In truth, she didn’t know exactly where they were going, just somewhere private. Somewhere bright. And open. Somewhere he wouldn’t feel trapped.

“Ah, perfect,” she said as she found a door that led out to a grand lookout. The two walked out of the palace and into a large platform of sorts that overlooked the rest of Wakanda. “Isn’t this just gorgeous?”

She felt him follow her, felt his eyes on her back as she walked. Nat didn’t stop until she reached the railing at the edge. She leaned her elbows against it, pausing for a moment to let herself take in the incredible view around her. The way the sunlight glittered on the buildings around them, the way the lush forest around them seemed to support the city rather than be subdued by it, the way music and laughter drifted upward in the warm air from the people below.

James took a place at her side, silent, waiting, his hands clasped behind him, feet shoulder width apart in a military stance that felt so different from her own relaxed posture.

“You know,” she began, slowly, “I spent a lot of years wishing I could forget my past. The things I did, the people I worked for, the pain I caused. The memories of blood and destruction still keep me up at night, even when I’ve been spending all my time trying to do enough good to cover them up. Sometimes I think a complete mind-wipe might be the only way I would get some peace.”

She turned, meeting James’ clear, blue eyes. He was watching her, calculating every word, every expression, every movement she made, looking for signs of dishonesty. She couldn’t fault him there. She did the same thing whenever anyone else spoke. It was automatic for the both of them. But he wouldn’t find any deceit in her words.

Natasha continued. “But I think erasing the past only kills all of my victims again. They deserve to be remembered. And… I think the good memories are worth saving, even with all the pain.

“But here you are, James, with the option. You can choose a fresh start or to remember the past. We could leave all this and walk away, and just decide to start over from where we are. Or you can dive into the mystery of all the things that happened before. What do you think?”

He blinked, but held her gaze. “You’re saying I have a choice? After being brought here? After all the work Shuri did?”

That response surprised her. He still wasn’t used to having the freedom to make decisions, even when it came to his own life.

“You have a choice,” Natasha replied, allowing a friendly smile to come to her lips. “Of course you do. This is your mind. Your past and future. Not Steve’s or Shuri’s or…”

She glanced down. [i]Or mine,[/i] she had almost said, but that felt too close to revealing her own memories. Nat shook off the words and met his eyes again. “If you say you don’t want this, we all pack up and head home. And that’s okay.”

James turned to look out at the landscape of Wakanda again. Natasha watched his face carefully, noticing the way the muscles in his jaw twitched, just once, and the way his Adam’s Apple bobbed when he swallowed.

“Steve keeps talking about what a great friend Bucky was,” he said, slowly. “What a great person he was. Generous, kind, virtuous... I don’t feel any of that. I think that if I can remember what it was like to do good… to [i]be[/i] good, maybe I can also be that person again.”

“Shuri did say it was better to start with older memories,” Nat replied with a nod. They fell into silence again as James shifted to rest his arms on the banister. It was a masculine mimic of her own posture, but also served to lower his face closer to hers. While he still maintained a distance that would be considered “proper” by anyone’s standards, Natasha couldn’t help the butterflies that suddenly sprung to life in her stomach when he turned to meet her eyes again.

“Hydra did a lot of playing around in my mind,” he said, his voice quiet, careful. “Letting someone else do the same thing… giving them that kind of control…”

He trailed off, but Natasha easily picked up where he left off. “It’s scary.”

James nodded, and she found she had no response. “I understand,” was all she could say. The lines around his eyes softened, and Natasha realized those two words had been enough.

—-

Back in the lab, Shuri was nearly finished preparing for the procedure. Natasha stepped back next to Steve and Sam while James walked forward to the table. The princess instructed him to remove his shirt and went about placing a few sensors on his chest.

Natasha folded her arms and tore her eyes from the scene, glancing up at the blond man by her side. “How are you doing?”

It took a few long seconds for Steve to pry his eyes from his friend and meet hers. “Okay, I guess,” he said with a small shrug.

No he wasn’t. Natasha could see it all over her face. He was as worried as she was.

“I’m nervous as hell,” she admitted. Steve let out a chuckle at that. The two lapsed back into silence as they watched James climb onto the table. Bruce was trying to make himself useful as Shuri’s assistant, but it wasn’t clear whether he was actually being helpful or just getting in the way.

“So what is Bucky Barnes like?” Natasha asked, suddenly.

Steve turned back toward her, clearly taken aback by her question.

“He was a lot of fun. Friendly. Outgoing.” Steve began, thoughtfully. “And a popular guy because of it. I felt more like a sidekick sometimes, tagging along in Bucky’s shadow. But he’s always been there for me, even when I had nothing to offer by my friendship. He made sure I was never alone.”

A wry smile crossed Steve’s features. “And the dames loved him. You’ll like him too.”

Natasha laughed at that. “I hope so,” she replied.

----

The table on his back was cold as he settled onto it, but it was a feeling that James appreciated. The whole situation seemed incredibly surreal, from the majesty of flying into Wakanda to the wonder of Shuri’s lab to the very prospect of regaining some of his memories. It was nice to have the bite of the cold against his skin to remind him that he wasn’t actually dreaming.

He resisted the urge to fiddle with the sensors against his temple as Shuri moved back to her control panel. “Ready?” she asked, cheerfully. The very word made his heart pound harder. He tilted his head to glance at Steve, who, though his mouth was turned downward in a worried frown, gave a shallow nod.

James took a deep breath. “Yeah, okay.”

“First we’ll do some calibration,” the princess said. “Think of a recent memory. Like very recent. In the past hour or so. Anything is fine, just whatever comes to mind.”

James closed his eyes. In the past hour? That was easy. He thought of the sunlight on the platform where Natasha had taken him. The way the gold of the buildings around them had been reflected in her green eyes when she turned toward him. The words that had seemed so honest and open when she spoke to-

“Alright, good,” Shuri interrupted. James opened his eyes to see her move some glowing diagram that hovered in the air before her. “How about a little further back? Something in the last week.”

Again, his eyes closed and James searched his recent history. That little get together at the Avengers Tower. The dinner they had and how most everyone was enjoying themselves. They were obviously comfortable together, like a family. Natasha had brought him that drink after. She had been wearing a black dress that made her red hair look so bright against it. She had pressed her lips together when trying to decide exactly what to say. He had told himself that night he wouldn’t be distracted by a pretty face, and yet now, it only slightly bothered him that the memories he was choosing involved her.

“A little farther now.”

The week before had been finding Steve in the museum. He remembered the feeling more than any of the sights around him. He felt panicked. He felt like he was making a mistake. He nearly decided to turn and escape, to trash the idea and run when he realized the girl had spotted him. Natasha was staring at him, her green eyes huge, her mouth parted in a gasp. He furrowed his brow, trying to focus. Had she said his name?

Shuri’s voice again cut into his thoughts. “This is excellent. Now, how far back can you remember?”

He grimaced. He wasn’t sure how long ago it was that he had woken up. Six months? A year? He remembered the words. The handler who had spoken them. That look of cocky satisfaction on the man’s face and the absolute hatred that was running rampant in the Winter Soldier’s veins. The sharp pain in his head that was left over from the procedure. Throbbing. Muscles all throughout his body exhausted, spasms subsiding. The desire to rip apart the chair that held him, the equipment around him, the bodies of the men in the room.

He barely noticed when Shuri spoke again. “Alright,” she said. “Here we go.”

Then the flood came and he suddenly found himself unable to breath.

---

On James’ first gasp, Natasha found herself reaching for Steve’s hand. She needed an anchor to keep her in place, to keep her from either running to him or collapsing where she stood. James’ eyes squeezed shut and he groaned, and the sight of him brought back those heartbreaking memories of the time Hydra had taken him from her.

She wasn’t sure how long the procedure was supposed to last, and didn’t bother to try to track the amount of time it actually took. While Shuri had reassured James that he wouldn’t be in pain, Natasha felt her own heart shatter all over again. She felt the same helplessness, being rooted in place, unable to save or even comfort the man she loved as he shook and suffered. The rational side of her mind reminded her that she wasn’t losing him this time, that she might even get him back. The emotional side, however, was screaming. Natasha felt tears sting her eyes.

Suddenly, James surged upright, tearing the sensors from his head, causing great protests from Shuri. But he paid her no attention, lost in the world of his own memories. Visibly trembling, he pushed himself to the edge of the table and slumped over, elbows on his knees and face in his hands. His shoulders began to shake, his entire body physically wracked with emotion.

Natasha panicked, eyes wide with fear, wanting to charge forward, to reach out and hold him. But Steve was the one moving first while she stayed frozen in place, watching.

Steve leaned down, clasping his friend by the shoulders, repeating his name over and over again. Finally, James leaned back and looked up. His face was wet with tears and sweat, but his mouth was open… and was grinning.

He wasn’t sobbing, Natasha realized. He was [i]laughing.[/i]

“You…” he began, his eyes focusing on Steve as if seeing him for the first time. “You used to wear newspaper in your shoes.”

Steve laughed in return as tears spilled down his own cheeks, leaning forward to bundle his friend into a great hug. Shuri gave a shout of accomplishment, and Bruce and Sam both looked awestruck. Natasha whispered an excuse but didn’t bother to make sure anyone heard her before quickly walking out of the lab. She found her way back to the lookout, alone, where she finally released her emotions and let her own tears fall.

Chapter Text

James Buchanan Barnes was enjoying an afternoon stroll with his best friend, Steve Rogers. It felt absolutely bizarre and completely natural all at the same time.

He had already finished his “therapy” for the day, as he and Shuri has begun to call it. She had decided that short sessions over the period of several days would be the healthiest way to recover his past. After the initial shock of the procedure, Bucky felt that the treatment was getting easier each time. He couldn’t remember everything, and maybe he never would. But the blanks about his pre-war past were becoming more and more filled in.

And he was starting to feel like Bucky Barnes. At least, partially. He was still an odd blend of Bucky and the Winter Soldier. They were two completely different personas, one confident, carefree, fun loving and friendly, the other insecure, anxious, distrusting, and unforgiving. He was starting to realize his recent years as the Winter Soldier weren’t just going to be covered up by the person he used to be. There had to be a balance. He just had to find it.

But for now, he listened to Steve babble about the good old days while walking through an emerald green field in Wakanda. It was… nice.

“Okay, how about the burger place down by the bridge? Every time we had an extra dollar we were there.”

Bucky laughed. “I remember we took the Miller twins there and they both ordered chocolate malts.”

“And you had to loan me a quarter to pay for them,” Steve replied, sheepishly.

“Hey, I don’t think you ever paid me back for that.”

Steve playfully jabbed him with an elbow. “Sure I did. You just don’t have that memory back yet.”

“Maybe we should have stayed home and married those girls,” Bucky said with a chuckle. “Their dad had a lot of money.”

“Eh,” Steve shrugged. “If I hadn’t gone to war, I wouldn’t have met Peggy.”

Bucky frowned. That name was a blank. In fact, most of the war was still blank, as was everything that came after. He paused in his steps, hands shoved in his pockets, concentrating, willing the memories to come back to him.

His friend stopped abruptly too and turned to face him. “Hey, it’s okay,” Steve said, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder. His real shoulder. “We’ll get there.”

With a nod, Bucky mentally shook himself. He was doing well, he knew he was. He had to concentrate on what he had regained rather than focus on what he hadn’t. But it was easy to feel greedy about the past that had been hidden from him for so long.

He started walking again, eager to change his darker state of mind. “Peggy, huh? You know, if I had to guess, I would have thought you and Natasha were an item. You two seem pretty close.”

That made Steve laugh, and the lighthearted sound was good to hear. “Nah, Nat and I are good friends, that’s all.” He paused, then shot his friend a sideways glance. “I don’t think I’m her type, anyway.”

“What’s her type?” Bucky found himself asking before he thought better of it.

Steve shrugged. “Not someone as straight laced as me. She seems to have been paying a lot of attention to you, though.”

Bucky scoffed at that. “She’s a Black Widow. She flirts.”

“I’ve seen her flirt. Up close. This ain’t it.”

An awkward silence fell over the two, punctuated by their soft footfalls in the tall grass and Bucky clearing his throat. He wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Maybe the Bucky Barnes of the 1940s would have known what to say, but the insecure Winter Soldier that hovered in the back of his mind certainly did not.

They created the top of a hill to find a small group of women gathered below. There was no mistaking Natasha, her fiery red hair stood out starkly again at the green background. Bucky also recognized Shuri’s small form, and there were a couple of the royal guards with them. Natasha was pointing at something down field, her handgun drawn. There were several other weapons, cases, and bags nearby. It looked like whatever arsenal had been in the Quinjet had been laid out on display.

“What’s going on down there?” he asked.

“Target practice,” Steve replied. “Since we are going to be here for a few days, Nat decided to make herself useful. She and the king’s guards have been giving each other combat lessons.”

Bucky grunted in thought. “Girls don’t get together and go shopping or get their hair done anymore?”

“Not these girls.” Steve grinned. “Wanna go check it out?”

—-

“It’s alright,” Natasha encouraged. “You can take a few steps closer to start off.”

Okoye frowned back at her. “It’s not the distance that’s the problem. I don’t like the recoil.”

“The noise is a little harsh too,” Shuri interjected. “Maybe that can be improved upon?”

Nat smiled to herself. The Dora Milaje were certainly set in their ways. “You could use a silencer,” she replied, moving toward one of the cases. “I’m sure I have one here. And let’s get a heavier gun. It will help with the recoil.”

Ayo moves up alongside her, eyeing the various firearms that lay about. “That one looks heavy,” she said, pointing to a sniper rifle.

Natasha winced inwardly. Of all the guns here, she would pick the one weapon she had never been able to master. “I’m afraid I’m not very good with that one.”

“Want a few tips?”

The women whirled around to find Steve and Bucky strolling up to their makeshift firing range. The two were smiling, clearly enjoying themselves. Steve stopped short next to Shuri, but Bucky kept coming forward, his eyes focused on the sniper rifle that lay before her.

“A lesson from the best sniper in the world?” Natasha replied with a smile as the man approached. “Who could resist?”

Bucky chuckled and glanced at his feet, and Natasha felt that familiar fluttering erupt in her stomach. He was cute when he smiled.

“The mistake people make is taking a breath and holding it when they’re about to fire. That’s not exactly right.” He placed his metal hand on his broad chest and took a slow breath. “You have to breath normally, and when it’s almost out…”

He paused, head cocked to the side in thought. After a few seconds, his blue eyes met hers and he took a step forward. “May I?” Bucky asked, gesturing towards her.

Natasha didn’t know what she was agreeing to, but he could have suggested they jump off a cliff and she probably would have gone along with it. She nodded.

The man moved behind her, close enough that she could feel his warmth, but not so close that her back was touching him. His arm, his real arm, carefully wrapped around her shoulder to place a hand on her chest, just under her collarbone. It was high enough to not be inappropriate, but Natasha fought to keep her body from stiffening. She couldn’t exactly stop her heart from pounding, however. He would certainly feel that.

“Just breathe normally,” he said, his breath tickling her ear.

Easier said than done. But Natasha had practiced careful control over her body her entire life. This was a difficult test, but it was one she was determined to pass.

“There, good. Right there, do you feel that?” James’ voice was a quiet rumble in her ear, and it was difficult to concentrate on whatever he was referring to. She let her eyes slip closed, and let her body lean back against his. He stilled, ever so slightly, but continued.

“When you exhale, but your breath isn’t all the way out yet. Hold it there.”

She let her breathing match his, following the steady rise and fall of his chest. She felt him pause nearly at the end of his exhale, and mimicked his movement.

“That’s when you pull the trigger,” James said.

Natasha’s eyes fluttered open. This was going too far. Was she just going to sink into his arms? With Steve and the others all watching? When he still didn’t remember her? She had to regain control of herself, and the situation. Immediately.

She let a sly smile slip into her lips and slowly twisted her body around, feeling his arm trail around to her lower back as she moved. It rested lightly there, carefully, as she placed a gentle hand on his chest and looked up at him through her eyelashes. His ice blue eyes had gone dark, those soft lips slightly parted. She could kiss him just then. It certainly was tempting.

“I don’t think your advice will work for me, James,” Natasha said, quietly, her flirtatious smile growing a bit wider. “The problem is, I never could catch my breath around you.”

Without another word. She slipped away from him and turned back to the women around her.

“You promised to let me use one of the sonic spears today, Okoye,” Natasha said, her voice and posture returning to normal as if nothing had happened.

The guard smiled mischievously. “Of course. I have an extra one back at the palace.”

Okoye started off and Natasha followed the woman in red, with Ayo and Shuri quick at her heels. They left their little clearing, making their way back to the regal center of Wakanda.

“Wow,” Shuri said with a snicker, glancing back at the men they left behind. “I think you really stunned him.”

Nat smirked to herself. “There are some weapons you don’t hold in your hands, Princess.”