This was it, Natasha supposed. The end of her time as a fugitive. She was tired, deeply tired, in her bones. Her nose throbbed, her ribs were cracked, and between the two breathing was an ordeal. She didn’t have the energy or the strength to fight off the SHIELD agents driving towards her in their armored vans.
She’d done something good today. She’d brought down the Red Room, freed the other Widows, reunited her family. Maybe that was enough. So she closed her eyes, taking a deep inhale that sent lines of pain down her torso. She was about to raise her hands in surrender when she heard the jet.
She looked up, turning so quickly she nearly cracked her neck. Yelena wouldn’t be so stupid as to come back for her, would she? Natasha could handle being locked up herself, but seeing Yelena stripped of her freedom after just regaining it would break her, she knew it. But the jet wasn’t the one flown by the Widows. It was sleeker, engines running nearly soundlessly as it lowered, never quite touching down.
She could hear shouting behind her as the agents got out of the vans, and by their tones, this wasn’t a SHIELD plane.
The door opened, and Natasha grinned so large she thought her face might split.
“Come on!” A familiar voice shouted. Steve Rogers stood silhouetted in the doorway, one hand holding the rope that he’d thrown down. Natasha grabbed it without hesitation. She winced as she pulled herself up, a faint groan escaping her despite her best efforts. Steve heard it over the rushing of the air around them as they gained altitude, reaching down with his free hand to grab her arm. He pulled her up as though she weighed little more than a child, wrapping his arm around her waist to support her as her feet touched down. A bullet hit the side of the doorframe just as she entered the aircraft, and Steve slammed the door shut.
“Get us out of here!” he ordered, one hand still supporting Natasha.
“Roger that, Cap!” a second, equally as familiar voice called out from the cockpit.
“No way,” Natasha said, still a little out of breath. “Sam, is that you?”
“In the flesh, baby,” Sam called back. The jovial tone of his voice was undercut with exhaustion.
“How’d you bust out of the Raft?” she asked, patting Steve’s chest as she walked towards the cockpit. Sam already had them at a safe altitude, and SHIELD hadn’t had the foresight to bring any aircraft of their own, so it looked like smooth sailing.
Steve’s hands lingered on her waist for a moment before letting her go.
“Cap busted us out,” Sam said, looking back to grin at her as she approached. He reached up to grasp her hand.
“It’s good to see you.”
“You too,” she said. A part of her soul seemed to settle, knowing that her friends were no longer locked up. “Did everyone get out?”
Sam frowned slightly. “Me and Wanda. Barton and Lang cut a deal before the break. Barton’s got his family, and Lang has a kid. They’re on house arrest or something.”
Natasha nodded slowly. “Can’t say I blame them.”
“Me neither,” Sam agreed. His foot was tapping on the floor, betraying his anxiety. Natasha laid a land on his shoulder, and felt some of his tension ease.
“Sarah and the kids?’ she asked gently.
“They’re all right. I was able to check in from Wakanda,” Sam said, breathing more easily. “Sarah got a hard time at first, but they’ve let up.”
He forced a smile, changing the subject. “But I imagine that's a hell of a lot less exciting than what you’ve been up to, huh?”
Natasha snorted. “Oh, I don’t know about that. I think your prison break sounds much more exciting.”
“The blown up base in the sky tells another story,” Sam quipped. Natasha shrugged.
“Eh. All in a day's work, really.”
“You’re not going to tell us what happened, are you?’ Steve sighed, looking down and shaking his head.
“I will. Just… not now.”
Steve met her gaze, blue eyes boring into hers, and nodded slightly. He was always good at reading her. Too good, really. He was forming his own ideas about what happened, and she was sure they were startlingly close to the truth.
She could tell him. But she didn’t relish the idea of telling Steve about the Red Room, about her family… about Dreykov and Antonia. Those were secrets that she kept close to her chest, secrets that she was reluctant to give up even to her second family. Steve knew a lot about her past. A lot of it she leaked herself, in their attempts to flush out Hydra for good. But Natasha had lived so many lives that not even the combined efforts of SHIELD and Hydra could track them all.
Besides, Steve wouldn’t understand. How could he? The golden boy of the U.S., the very picture of strength and bravery and chivalry- how could he understand the lengths she went to to survive? How could he understand the broken pieces of her past?
There was only one person who might understand. So when they landed in Wakanda, after Princess Shuri treated her wounds, she went to find the only other Russian assassin in the area.
She found him on a small plot of land, removed from the nearest neighboring houses. Okoye had told her where to find him. Bucky was waiting for her on the porch. He must have heard her coming.
She wouldn’t call Bucky a friend, exactly. But he wasn’t an enemy anymore, and he was more than an acquaintance. Their shared trauma made their relationship more than that automatically.
“You’re back,” Bucky called as she approached. He looked tired, but… healthy. The time in Wakanda was doing him good.
“I’m back,” she confirmed. Her ribs twinged as she went up the steps. Bucky watched her, eyes deep set in dark circles as he looked her up and down.
“You look like shit,” he said bluntly. She managed a laugh.
“I feel like it,” she admitted, easing herself down on the step next to him. She looked around the area. It reminded her of Melina’s home, in a way. Remote, with animals making noises all around them. Though she assumed Bucky wasn’t experimenting on his goats.
“This is a nice spot,” she commented.
“I like it,” Bucky said. “Shuri set me up.”
“Do the goats have names?”
“Yeah. That one over there is Steve-” Bucky pointed towards the smallest goat in sight, who was repeatedly running at the door of a shed, ramming his head into it.
“Why does he do that?” Natasha asked.
“He’s convinced that I hid extra food in the shed,” Bucky said with a shrug. “I don’t know where he gets that idea, but he’ll do that until he tires himself out. It doesn't hurt him any.”
“Living up to his namesake,” Natasha teased. Bucky shot her a half grin.
“That one there is Sam,” Bucky pointed to another goat, who was bleating at the top of his lungs and had been since Natasha arrived. “He’s the most annoying one.”
Natasha let out a laugh at that. “I’m sure Sam will be thrilled to hear that.”
“I think it might just go to his head,” Bucky sighed. “He’ll say something like-”
He deepened his voice to imitate Sam’s.
“-you been thinking about me a lot, huh Barnes? Can’t get me out of your head, so you name your goat after me?”
Natasha raised an eyebrow. “Is he wrong?”
Bucky glared at her, shrugging the question off.
“Did you come here to ask about my goats, or was there something else?” he asked, fixing her with a stare.
Natasha’s mouth twisted. Of course she knew why she came, but now that she was here, the words were difficult to get out.
“The Red Room is gone,” she finally said. That was the easiest part to explain.
Bucky’s eyebrows raised. “Really?”
“Blew their mobile airbase out of the sky,” Natasha confirmed. “There’s an antidote for the chemicals they were using to control the other Widows. Yelena is tracking the others down. The network will be gone soon.”
She paused, catching her breath. “Dreykov is dead, too.”
Bucky let out a long exhale. “You’ve been busy.”
He frowned. “Who’s Yelena?”
And with that, Natasha launched into the whole story, from the beginning. The years in Ohio, being separated from Yelena, their reunion, finding her family again, and finally blowing the whole godforsaken place to hell. Bucky just listened, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt as she spoke.
“I think I remember Yelena,” he said when she finished the story.
“Yeah, I think I trained her. For a while, anyway.” He frowned. “It’s still… fuzzy. I don’t remember everything. But I remember training with a group of Widows. There was one standout, a blonde, who made a point of mocking everything I said or did.”
Natasha laughed, sudden tears threatening to choke her. “That sounds like her.”
“I thought she’d get punished, as much as I could think back then, but she was really outstanding.”
Natasha grimaced. “I’m sure she did get punished. We were more replaceable than you.”
“I guess so,” Bucky admitted. He glanced at her again. “You holding up alright?”
And this was why she had come to Bucky, not one of the others. Why she’d come to Bucky instead of Steve, who already knew most of the worst parts of her. Steve wouldn’t turn away from her because of this story.
But everyone else would see the downfall of the Red Room as something to celebrate. And it was, and she did celebrate it. But… part of her didn’t feel like celebrating.
“They don’t talk about what it's like. Afterwards.” She pulled her knees towards her chest, circling her arms around them despite the protest of her ribs.
“The Red Room… it was most of my life. Aside from those three years in Ohio, I was raised there. Everything that I learned there kept me alive, but in order to take those lessons with me, I have to take the bad things too. The Red Room, Dreykov… as long as I’m alive, they’ll never really die. There’s always some part of them that will live on inside of me.”
Her voice was shaking, and she pulled her knees in tighter, knuckles turning white. “I can’t have the good without the bad. I can’t remember the lessons without remembering the teachers. How do I live with that? How do I get rid of those instincts, the instincts that tell me that the best thing that I can do is use my body as a weapon, that tell me this is what I was made for?”
There was silence, then, aside from the bleating of the sheep.
“I don’t think you do get rid of them.” Bucky’s voice rang out in the quiet, just a hushed sound, no more than a breath. “I think you regulate them. Getting rid of the instincts means that you forget what those instincts taught you.”
His fingers were tapping on the wood of the porch. “The trigger words don’t work anymore. Shuri flushed them out. But… the Winter Soldier wasn’t just the trigger words, you know? He was years and years, decades really, of pain and conditioning. That was an entire lifetime for me. 70 years. That doesn’t just… vanish because that part of my life is over.”
Natasha looked over at Bucky. His jaw was clenched so hard she worried his teeth might crack.
“People assumed that I would go back to being… whoever Bucky Barnes was before the Winter Soldier, now that he’s gone. But I think I have to figure out who this version of me is. I’m not the Winter Soldier, and I’m not who I was back in the 40s. Maybe it's the same for you.”
He met her eyes. “You’re not the person you were in the Red Room, and you’re not the person you were before they took you. Maybe you need to figure out who you are now.”
Natasha held his gaze, taking in his words, then rolled her eyes good naturedly.
“You know, Yelena asked me basically the same thing. I told her I hadn’t been alone long enough to figure that out.”
Bucky frowned. “I don’t think you need to be alone to figure that out.”
Natasha blinked. “Maybe not.”
“Speaking of not alone...” Bucky trailed off, pointing at the rise of the hill. Two figures were walking over. Sam and Steve, from the looks of it.
“He even walks like a jackass,” Bucky grumbled, eyes lingering on Sam’s silhouette. Natasha laughed, brushing away the remaining tears from her eyes.
“You know, Sam might be right that you think about him a lot,” she said, nudging Bucky in the side.
“He’s not right,” Bucky protested. “I hate him.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Natasha said with a wink.
“You’re very annoying sometimes.”
“Yelena’s rubbing off on me, I guess.”
There was a sudden glint in Bucky’s eyes that she didn’t like.
“Steve looks especially concerned. You tell him what happened?” he asked.
Natasha grimaced. “Not yet.”
“Are you going to?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you should. You should have seen Steve when he saw you on the news. He practically broke the sound barrier sprinting out of here to get to you.”
A fond smile appeared on Natasha’s face. “Really?”
Before Bucky could answer, Steve and Sam had gotten within earshot.
“Barnes!” Sam called out, a grin on his face. This one looked less forced than the ones on the plane. “How are the goats?”
Bucky rolled his eyes without responding.
“He named one after you,” Natasha whispered, leaning in to give Sam a hug. The smugness practically radiated off of him.
“You named a goat after me, Barnes? I knew you liked me deep down in that frozen ass heart of yours.”
Traitor, Bucky mouthed at her.
“Don’t let it go to your head. It's the most annoying goat I own.”
Sam clapped a hand to his chest. “I’m hurt. Now let me meet my namesake so I can judge for myself.”
Natasha heard Steve’s chuckle next to her, and felt the warmth that radiated from his body a moment later. She looked up at him with a matching grin. His smile faded slightly when he looked at her, noting the red of her eyes.
“Are you ok?” he asked quietly. She nodded quickly.
“I’ll tell you later,” she said. For now, she let herself relax and enjoy being back with her second family.
Later turned out to be the next day, after Natasha had finally gotten a full night of rest. It was early afternoon when Steve came knocking on her door.
“Come in!” she called from the bathroom. Steve opened the door tentatively, looking around before spotting her with her head over the sink.
“This a bad time?” he asked. Natasha waved away his concerns.
“No, come on in. I’m just dying my hair,” she said. “Sit down, make yourself comfortable. I’m going blonde so it could take a little bit.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw Steve sit down on the corner of her bed, resting his hands on his knees.
“Why blonde?” he asked.
Natasha shrugged. “It reminds me of my sister.”
She didn’t have to look at Steve to know the face he was making. He had one face when he was processing new information- a slight frown.
“I… didn’t know you had a sister,” he said in return.
“I do. She’s not my biological sister, but… she’s still my sister.” Natasha’s voice turned soft. “We were both taken by Dreykov. She helped me take the Red Room down. I made her leave with the other Widows before you showed up to save my ass.”
Steve was still processing. “Do you call all the Widows sisters, then?”
Natasha laughed. “No. Yelena is a unique situation. We were undercover as kids for three years in Ohio. Yelena hadn’t been through any training yet. I’d been through some, but I was still young. Yelena was three when we went undercover. She didn’t know it was fake, and she didn’t know any other family.”
“Did you know it was fake?” Steve asked quietly.
“Yes. But it wasn’t… It was fake. But Yelena was my sister for three years. The two operatives who were acting as our parents, Alexei and Melina, they were the only parents we ever knew.” She paused. “It felt real. And in a lot of ways it was.”
“You said it was only for three years. What happened after that?” Steve asked.
Natasha stood up straight, patting her hair into place while the dye set. “The mission was complete. Yelena and I were sent to the Red Room.”
The words she said were matter of fact, but she could feel her throat getting tight as she remembered the day they took Yelena from her.
“I tried to stop them from taking her, but… there was nothing I could do. We didn’t see each other for 20 years after that.”
She moved out into the bedroom, sitting next to where Steve was perching. “Then I got a package from her, and I went to find her.”
The rest of the story flowed easily after that. Steve was a good listener. He asked questions in the right places, never rushed her, never gave any indication that he didn’t want to hear something. She tried to shy away from the more... Brutal aspects of the story. Steve didn’t need to know everything that ever happened in the Red Room.
Steve nudged her in the shoulder when she was done telling the story.
“You did a good thing, ‘Tasha,” he said. He was the only one who ever called her that. Her face warmed slightly.
“And your family sounds…”
“Insane?” she suggested. “Dysfunctional?”
“I was going to say interesting,” Steve said, holding his hands up with a smile. “I’d like to meet them someday.”
Natasha blanched. “Alexei will try to fight you, I hope you realize that.”
“Well, I can take a punch or two,” Steve said with a shrug.
“He might win.”
“You have so little faith in me,” Steve said, pretending to be offended.
“No, Alexei just fights dirty,” Natasha replied, elbowing him in the side. With that, she stood back up to wash off her hair. It was really blonde, and she kind of regretted dying her eyebrows. She dried her hair, and came back into the bedroom.
Well? She asked, spinning around and running her hands through her hair. “What do you think?”
“You look nice,” Steve replied, a little too fast. His cheeks turned red. “But I always think you look nice.”
“Ahh, there’s that golden boy charm everyone loves so much,” Natasha teased.
“Not everyone,” Steve muttered, embarrassed. Natasha raised a now blonde eyebrow.
“Why the bitterness, Rogers?”
“Nothing, it just… seems like that golden boy charm works on everyone except who I’d like it to work on.”
The words were playful, but the look he shot her then made his meaning clear, longing written deep in those blue eyes.
Natasha was never unaware of the feelings Steve had been harboring for her. She was, as it turns out, an elite spy, trained to identify even the smallest microexpressions. She’d seen it start during their time on the run from Hydra, when his glances turned from suspicious to appreciative. She’d seen the way he’d do a double take at Tony’s parties when she dressed up, the way he started blushing when she would flirt with him, even just playfully. She’d noticed the way he started to rely on her, the way he turned to her before he turned to anyone else, the way he seemed to hold her input in higher standing than the others. She’d especially noticed when he started to touch her more often. A hand on her back, an arm offered for support, a grasp of her hand. Nothing too forward, nothing too lingering, but there all the same.
She’d never expected him to address it. And she had to wonder what the breaking point was, or what he was hoping to gain from this confession.
She tried to switch off that part of her brain- the part that grew up in the Red Room, the part that still doubted the people closest to her- and tried to lean into the part of herself that knew Steve, the part of herself that she was slowly growing into. After all, if she couldn’t trust Steve’s intentions, who could she trust at all?
“Who said it wasn’t working?” she said. She tried for her usual sly half smile, but fell somewhat short. Her heart was suddenly pounding in her chest.
Steve’s eyes shot up, expression open and honest. It was shocking, really, how a six foot tall man with the strength to flip a tank could look so… vulnerable.
“.... is it working?” Steve managed to ask. Natasha let out a soft chuckle.
“It always works.”
Steve’s mouth fell open slightly. He pushed himself up from where he was sitting on the edge of her bed. He started to step towards her, but hesitated.
“Natasha, I-” he stopped, exhaling through his nose. He laughed helplessly. “I’m not good at this.”
Natasha grinned. “Neither am I.”
Steve smiled back, barely concealing his incredulity. “I find that very hard to believe.”
He squared his shoulders like he was going into battle, and Natasha bit back a smirk.
“Natasha, you’re very important to me,” he said earnestly. “I wouldn’t want there to be any… uh, confusion about that. You’re my friend, and I value you, and I think you’re strong and beautiful and brave and trustworthy-”
Natasha’s eyes widened at the last word. She felt it sink into her bones, warming her, twining itself into her DNA. She thought she could live off of the high of Steve Roger’s trust for at least a week. Probably longer.
Steve had stopped, she realized, when he saw her reaction, worry clouding his expression.
“Did I say something wrong?” he asked, almost guiltily. Natasha could have cried laughing at how wrong he was. Instead, she just shook her head.
“Oh. Ok. I thought- good.”
He was floundering again, and this time she decided to step in and save him.
All his attention was back on her, Adam’s apple bobbing as she stepped forward, closing the distance between them.
“People keep asking me the same question,” she started, keeping her eyes focused on his. “They keep asking me who I am now, what I want now that I’m free.”
Steve’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
“Free from the Red Room, free from SHIELD, they mean it in a lot of ways,” she clarified. “Free to do whatever I want to do. And I’ve been thinking about it, and I keep coming back to the same answer.”
She shrugged. “And the answer is that I don’t know yet.”
They were less than a foot apart now, and she stopped advancing, tilting her head up to look at his face.
“But finding my family made me realize that I’ve wasted a lot of time. Time that I could have spent with the people I love.”
She took a final step closer, placing a hand on Steve’s chest. He was barely breathing, and his heart was beating quickly.
“So the one thing I know is that I’m done wasting time.”
With that, she raised up to her toes, bringing her lips to Steve’s. She paused right before they met, eyes searching his face to see if he wanted this. Then Steve closed the final gap, arms wrapping around her waist as he let out a soft exhale, all of the tension leaving his body. It was a soft kiss, tender and warm and safe, just like Steve himself.
They broke apart, leaning their foreheads together.
“You’ve improved your technique since last time,” Natasha teased. Steve rolled his eyes, but the contentment on his face spoke for itself.
“You caught me off guard last time,” he grumbled.
“Sure, sure, I believe you,” Natasha replied. She leaned her head on his shoulder, Steve’s arms wrapping around her more securely.
“I do like the hair,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to her temple.
“Good. I like the beard. You should grow it out more,” she said. His chest shook with a silent laugh.
They stood like that until a knock sounded on the door, Sam’s voice ringing from the other side.
“Nat, I got a question for you,” he called.
Steve looked down at her, eyes wide and questioning. She shook her head fondly, unfolding herself from his arms and taking his hand in hers.
“They had to find out sometime, I guess,” she said with a shrug, and Steve’s face relaxed.
“Sam’s never gonna let me live this down,” he said. “He bet me a hundred dollars that you and I would get together before we left Wakanda.”
Natasha grinned, sly and confident, feeling more like herself than she had in a long time. “You’ll get your money back. I bet Sam $100 that he and Bucky would be together by the end of the year.”
“Sam and...Bucky?” Steve asked, bewildered.
“You’re adorable,” Natasha said. And with that, she went to open the door, hand in hand with Steve, ready to face whatever the future held.