Natasha’s sprinting through the rooms next to Tony, the two of them heading for the building lobby, when she notices him lagging behind.
“Nobody will think less of you if you want to stay back,” she says, over her shoulder. Well, she would, but she doesn’t think he’ll mind.
“Why would I stay back?” He’s catching up, although he’s still distracted and fiddling with his wrists.
“If you want to drop, or something.”
He swears under his breath, and she feels a tiny bit of shame for the comment when he refuses to react further. Before they reach the equipment room next to the lobby, where the others will be, he grabs her upper arm- not gently- and she instantly shakes him off, frowning and turning on him instinctively.
“Whoa.” Stark raises his arms, palms facing her. “Cool it, hotshot.” He reaches into his pockets and pulls out two slim wrist-bands, resembling metallic bracelets. “You’ll want to put these on.” With how their relationship has been these last few days, her first thought is to refuse. But he sounds so begrudging about giving them to her that she takes one, examining it closely.
“No.” He extends an arm, hitching up the long sleeve; an identical metal cuff is enclosed over his own wrist.
Stark’s looking at her expectantly, like he thinks that’s enough for her to figure out what they are. They’re definitely not a weapon, if he’s wearing them… those things would be useless under the Ironman suit. He’s holding his arm out as if the fact that he has one is significant, but she has no idea how. “GPS tracking, in case of abduction?” she asks, fingering the cool metal, not willing to clasp either around her own wrist until she’s certain of their purpose.
“Oh.” He tilts his head to one side. “Not a bad idea. But no.”
Tony sighs. “Don’t go all Tasmanian Devil on me.” She inclines her head, although she doesn’t understand the reference. “It’ll release an anti-toxin if you’re hit with a dropper.”
The instant it registers, she shoves the bands back at him. “I’ll be fine.”
“If they have droppers? Hate to break it to you, Romanoff, but you won’t be.”
“I’ve avoided droppers for a decade,” she informs him coolly, beginning to walk towards the equipment room again. “And that was when I was on Substop.” When the combination would have been lethal.
Stark grabs her again. “Just take the damn things.”
“I don’t want them, thank you.”
“I don’t want to give them to you either!” He scowls, excess energy causing him to vibrate on the balls of his feet. “It’s dangerous for the rest of us if you drop in the middle of battle.”
Natasha stares at the bracelets for a beat before her decision is made and she accepts them, slowly locking them over her wrists. It’s too much to hope, but maybe… “Do they…” she asks in a low voice, “Will they…”
“Won’t work for anything except droppers.” Stark sounds almost sympathetic, but not quite. “The anti-toxin detects the compound and neutralizes its hydroxyl group, making it ineffective. The chemical composition in your body during a real drop is way too complex for the same method to work.”
“Oh.” She doesn’t let anything but a brief flicker of disappointment show. Then, quieter, as she pulls the sleeve of her leather suit over the bands, “Thanks.”
“No problem.” He looks just as awkward about accepting the gratitude as she was about showing it. He shifts from one leg to the other- a minuscule change in posture that she never would have picked up on if not for her training- as if he wants to say something. “I- ”
The door to the equipment room bursts open. “Come on!” Clint calls, his bow in one hand, and a clip in the other. He tosses it to her before turning his attention to Tony. “Better suit up quick. Looks like it’s gonna be a rough one.”
‘Rough one’ is an understatement. They take the jet, because it’s too far to walk and five costumed superheroes and a Hulk may not make for the most uneventful subway ride. It’s not hard to figure out where to go once on the ground; they head in the opposite direction of the throngs of screaming people.
“Holy shit,” Clint breathes when they see guy shooting up the city. He’s human- from the description, Natasha had been expecting aliens; thank God for small favors- but he’s in some sort of contraption, with about a dozen huge metal arms, flying into buildings like a wrecking ball and sending them toppling onto civilians below. He’s too big and too high up for most of them to approach with without risking serious harm, which is going to make this very difficult.
“Okay.” Steve takes a deep breath, in commander mode. “Bruce.” The scientist extends his arms, and with a few grunts, Hulk is standing next to them, fuming as always. “Hulk, I’m going to need you to engage with him. Damage his weapons if you can, but the engine is the priority. I want him on the ground as soon as possible. And whatever you do, keep him focused on you.” Hulk rushes towards the source of the commotion with a satisfied growl.
Clint’s scanning the rooftops, looking for a vantage point; he points out a block south. “There’s best for me.”
Steve glances to the building. “Tony can take you up. Aim for where he’s vulnerable, but don’t call attention to yourself. And I need constant commentary.”
“No problem.” Clint draws an arrow from his quiver, the familiar determined set to his jaw.
“Where he’s headed, the usual. If you’re in danger, too,” Steve says. Then, to Tony, “Don’t stray more than three blocks away from the rooftop. If he heads towards Barton, you’ll pull him out.” At Tony’s nod, he continues, “Deal damage, but stay out of grabbing reach, you hear me? Same with you, Thor. When Hulk grounds him, Romanoff and I will join you.” The instant he finishes speaking, Thor raises his hammer and shoot up; Tony grabs Clint and flies towards the rooftop.
Natasha inwardly sighs at having to take point with Steve, but she’s not petty enough to show it in the middle of a mission. Truth be told, she’d called it from the moment she saw the guy; it’s what makes sense, seeing as they’re the only two who can’t engage with him until he’s on the street.
He’s looking at her now, nothing different in his expression save for a flinty glint in his eye. “You and I will get civilians to safety until we’re needed in combat.”
“Got it.” She returns the gaze until he relaxes; neither of them will cause trouble this mission. She’d never even consider challenging his orders out of spite, and she’s glad to see he has faith in her for that, at least.
“JARVIS says he goes by Alan Raznikoff,” Tony announces via comms right before the man spots them.
The mission goes alright, but there are a few hiccups, as always. Clint gets thrown from the roof, and while trying to catch him, Tony ends up taking both of their weights and slamming himself into the side of a concrete building. He’s not badly hurt- and better him in the suit than Clint- but he’s shaken.
They ground Raznikoff quickly, and Steve and Natasha join the others in hand-to-hand, trying to disable his weapons. Towards the end of the battle, when he’s down and basically captured, Steve follows him into a building to apprehend him, while Tony huddles in a corner piecing together bits of his damaged suit, and Thor and Natasha hurry to support Clint, who is considerably banged up from his fall.
They’re heading towards the jet, confident that Steve will have apprehended Raznikoff- basically all of his metallic weapons were disabled, after all- when Raznikoff comes charging out of the building, guns firing wildly… and straight into Hulk, who roars and punches once to knock him out.
Steve emerges a few seconds later, looking shaken and… not quite right.
On the jet back, Tony drops, as always. Natasha’s not feeling too great, but she holds herself together, because she’s not like Tony, and she will never be. Just looking at the engineer listening to whispered praise from Bruce makes her feel disgusted.
Thor keeps his hand out, the offer implicit, but she stares straight ahead, trying to ignore the pounding in her head. Clint’s slouched next to her, complaining about and cataloguing each and every one of his injuries. She doesn’t know where Steve is; probably in the back somewhere. It’s unlike him to neglect Tony after a mission, though.
When they reach the tower, Pepper meets them at the doors. Tony’s been curled into Banner literally the entire ride home- God, could he be any more pathetic?- but he still reaches for her like a fucking baby. She leads him away, and Natasha knows they won’t let anyone into their room all night, until she decides Tony’s better.
The rest of them pile into the elevator. Steve’s tense- incredibly tense, actually; he’s pale, too- but it’s probably because he’s pissed she didn’t drop so he could convince her to apologize to him when she’s pliant.
Okay, maybe that’s… no. Even as a snide thought, she knows he wouldn’t. Knows it’s not really fair to think.
She can’t dwell on him for long, though, because her own mind is starting to blister more. She has to find a private space, and now.
She looks down at their feet, counting and re-counting shoes in an effort to ground herself. The elevator’s going up so slowly. Clint’s weight’s shifting oddly, too, and she looks up, suddenly alarmed that he’s going to pass out.
He’s staring at her, and- oh. He’s shifting while signing, his hands moving quickly and off to the side where nobody else will see.
Are you okay?
Clint purses his lips. I can help. I won’t say anything.
Natasha signs back, I’m fine, as strongly as she can.
He’s learned, because he doesn’t argue any more.
When the doors ping open, Natasha and Steve both head straight out; Steve goes out the right door, towards the lounge, so she goes left. Banner looks helplessly both ways before choosing to go to the kitchen. Thor hurries after her. Clint takes a step out of the elevator, thinks better of it, and lets the doors close; he’ll be up with Coulson, and just like Tony, they won’t come out until morning.
Natasha slows, hearing the footsteps behind her. The footsteps stop.
She starts walking again, and they resume. Natasha whips around, quick as lightning. “No,” she snarls, her hands balling into fists. If he comes closer, she’ll run into him and stay there, and she absolutely refuses to demean herself like that.
Thor doesn’t look offended; he tilts his head to the side, eyebrow raised. “I will do nothing you don’t want me to.”
“I said no.” She hurries into the nearest room and slams the door, leaning against it and breathing heavily.
She’s not dropping. She’s not dropping. She’s not dropping.
She. Is. Not. Dropping.
Natasha wrenches the band Tony gave off her wrist, throwing it onto the floor and closing her eyes at the satisfying clink as it bounces off the floor. She’s fine, kind of. In a way.
It’s not a real drop.
She’s not… her eyes are hot and achy, and her heart is pounding a painful rhythm inside her chest, faster and faster the more she tries to slow its beating. Her thoughts are splinters she can’t quite stitch into sense, or even an emotion- but they’re there, at least, and they’re not sharp painful little cracks in her mind.
Fine, it’s a drop. It’s not a major drop, though.
Okay. She breathes deeply. Minor drop, minor drop. She can do this; she’s fought much worse countless times in the face of countless taunts and countless kicks.
Deep breath in, deep breath out.
It’ll take a while; it always does, and the fact that she holds it off seems to make it worse. If she just allowed herself to even lean into Thor on the jet on the way back, she probably wouldn’t have dropped at all.
Still. Better this than that.
It’s alright. She takes a deep breath in through her nose, eyes closed. It really is just a minor drop, something she can work through in ten minutes or so.
Natasha traces the lines on her palms, one by one. And then again when she’s done. The movement is calming, soothing in its mundanity and repetitiveness. Her breathing slows.
Her mind is heavy, hazy, unsettled. A minor drop can be battled through like a panic attack: unpleasant, to put it mildly, but it can be done. And even if she did nothing, even if she sat in one place letting her thoughts ram into the insides of her skull, it would still fade on its own. She was lucky, this time.
No, fuck that, not lucky. Next time she doesn’t want to drop at all. She’ll have to work something out.
Finally, her heart rate has slowed to a beat she’s comfortable with; she gets up slowly, her arms and legs feeling like jelly. She’s in that shivery state coming out of a drop where she’d really like to be held, but there is no way in hell she’s giving in to that, not like last time.
In fact. She’s going to do the opposite.
Natasha wrenches the door open with a lot more force than necessary, her hands still shaky. She’ll go outside with the doms, she decides. She’ll go out, and be fine, and sit there and prove to them- and herself- what she’s fucking made of.
No touching. No going near anyone. Just friendly, none-of-us-died, relieved, exhausted conversations like she always used to have after every damn mission before she got off Substop.
Banner’s not in the kitchen, strangely enough. He burns enough calories as Hulk that he eats more in a day than the rest of them in a week combined, after a transformation. Thor’s not there either.
Natasha heads towards the lounge, and is met with both Thor and Banner, the two of them looking upset and stressed. Banner’s phone is to his ear.
“What?” she asks immediately. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Thor says, smiling- but it’s tight. “You go rest.”
“What’s wrong?” she demands again, harsher. “Tell me.”
“Steve’s…” Bruce pauses, searching for words. His cell phone is in his hand, re-dialling. Whoever he called hadn’t picked up. “Have you ever heard of domdrop?”
Natasha stares at him. Yes, but she’s always thought it’s a myth propagated by subs, having never seen a dom drop in person. Domdrops aren’t like sundrops; they’re more like pure, extreme anxiety and distress. His thoughts would be clear, at least. “Why?” she asks. Very few things can cause a dom to drop, and basically the only thing she’s ever heard of is their sub being in extreme danger, or dead. “How?”
“We don’t know.” Thor glances back at the lounge; through the glass door, Natasha can see Steve on the couch, staring glassily at the opposite end of the room. “He will be fine. Dr. Banner was gracious enough to check him over.”
Bruce shrugs helplessly. “I don’t understand how he reacted like this, but yeah, he’ll be fine in an hour or so. I’m assuming it was seeing Tony in danger, but the same thing’s happened a lot. That level of stress shouldn’t have caused this.”
Natasha glances back into the room, and then at Thor. And then at Banner, who’s furiously dialing a number.
“Go on.” Thor gives her a gentle push, and she hates herself for wanting to latch on to it. “Go rest. We shall take care of him.”
Banner cuts his phone call, giving an annoyed growl. “They won’t pick up!”
“Who?” Natasha asks, knowing the answer before he says anything. “Stark.”
“Yeah.” Bruce runs his hand through his hair, frustrated. “Neither are Clint and Coulson. Thor already tried their rooms. Damn soundproofing.” He shakes his head, sliding his phone into his pocket. “Look, I’m famished. I’m gonna go grab something to eat and then try to reach them again. You guys should eat too, or go take a nap.”
“I shall come with you!” Thor says. He looks back towards Steve. “I will prepare something hot for Captain Rogers, to aid in his recovery.”
They’re not saying it. Neither of them is bringing up the fact that she’s a sub and could easily go in there and help him out. With a start, Natasha realizes that not only do they not expect it, but they’re not even a little begrudging.
Maybe it’s the remnants of the drop, or maybe it’s because it’s better for team dynamics if she does, or maybe it’s just because she has a damn heart, but Natasha finds herself saying, “It’s fine, don’t bother Stark or Clint. I’ll go.”
Bruce turns around, his eyebrows furrowed. “Nobody expects you to.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She brushes off his concern. “I’m offering, aren’t I?”
Thor’s giving her the exact same expression as Banner; God, it’s like they’re copying each other. “Natasha, you don’t have to…”
“Is anyone forcing me?” she asks, making a show of looking around. She sounds a lot more confident than she feels.
“Are you sure-”
“Yes. You go make him some food, and feed yourselves before you collapse. I’ll be in the lounge.”
Steve doesn’t even look up when the glass door opens, even though she knows he heard it. “Hey, Cap,” she greets, falling to her tried-and-true personas to alleviate the uncomfortableness. “Make some space. Nobody likes a couch hog.”
He meets her eyes, and she almost winces at the vacant expression in his eyes, stopping herself at the last minute. “Natasha.” Her name is said like he’s not entirely sure who he’s talking to.
“Yeah, it’s me.” She moves a little closer. “Come on, make room.”
He’s a little more aware of his surroundings, and he sits up straighter, although his eyes are still unfocused. “No.”
She rolls her eyes. “Why not? You need a sub; I’m a sub.”
“You don’t- you don’t have to be here,” he says in reply, voice choked.
Natasha slides in beside him on the couch. It’s disturbing to see how affected he is; whatever made him this way, it has to be something major. “Well, I’m here anyways.”
Steve stays ram-rod straight, the muscles in his back so hardened from tension that she can see the lines through his shirt. He refuses to move near her, although she knows how desperately he must want to- for her, coming out of a very minor drop, the desire to be close to him is overpowering. She can’t imagine what he must be feeling.
“You don’t need to be here,” he says again, taking a deep, steadying breath. “I’m fine.”
“I already told you, I’m here. It’s up to you, Cap.”
Steve moves away from her. “I was terrible. I yelled at you, I- without your consent… Nat, I- God, I can’t think straight!”
Natasha lays a calming hand on his arm, and is almost alarmed when he shudders under her touch. He’s reacting exactly as she does during a drop, which means for him to be this resistant is hell. “Steve,” she says, her voice low. “We were both terrible, to each other. I brought up Peggy and… ” She catches herself just in time, realizing it might not be the best idea to bring up his old sub when he’s like this. Or Stark. “I was pretty shitty too. We’re good. Let me help you.”
(The only thing is, this is the first time in her life she’s ever voluntarily tried to convince someone she’s more at fault than they believe, and she can’t decide if she’s annoyed at him for it.)
Steve swallows visibly, obviously internally battling with himself. And then just when she thinks she’s going to have to literally jump onto him to get him to accept some help, he extends his arm and loops it around her, hesitantly at first. She willingly accepts the touch and leans into it.
After a few moments he lets out a deep breath, and then pulls her into him.
And fuck her, but that feels amazing.
It’s for Steve, she rationalizes, as she burrows deeper into him, letting him hold her tightly and stroke over her arms and her hair.
“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you, this helps so much… you don’t even know…”
“I do,” she reminds him wryly. She can feel his hear banging out of his chest, loud and rushed and uneven. “You did the same for me.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, squeezing her arm. “I should have understood. I should have listened to you.”
“Stop it, Steve.” Natasha groans, thumping him. “I’m sorry. You’re sorry. It’s done.”
Steve’s eyes are closed, head resting on hers. “I’m fine now. You don’t have to do this.” He makes no move to detach himself from her, though.
Natasha just chuckles softly and shakes her head, knowing he’ll feel the movement. “I’m here for as long as you want me to be.”
He sighs, long and shivery. “Thank you,” he breathes.
She doesn’t reply. It’s not like this is unpleasant for her; in the jittery stages coming out of a drop, this is downright incredible. He calmed her just as she’s calming him, and although his touch brought her to ‘normal’ in about thirty seconds since she was already basically fine, this… isn’t bad at all. Touch is nice.
“Are you okay?” she asks finally, once they’ve been there for a while. She feels like she can ask, so she adds: “What happened?”
This is so rare, that he must know exactly what triggered it. There’s no way it could be just from Tony, or Clint- or her- being in danger today. That happens all the time.
For a long while, Steve doesn’t answer, and Natasha doesn’t think he’s going to. Then he says, very quietly: “Bucky was alive.”
“What?” She sits up so quickly she knocks the top of her head on his chin. She’s seen pictures of his collared sub; he was a hero, Captain America’s best friend. “Wait, what do you mean, was?”
Again, he’s silent for so long, she’s not expecting the answer, and she’s let him curl her back into him by the time he does. “He… fell. I thought he was dead, but…. somehow. I don’t know. He told me. Showed me. When he tried to bribe me for his escape.”
“Raznikoff?” she clarifies. “He gave you information in exchange for you letting him go?” So that’s how he’d gotten out of the building. It was smart of Steve, though, to let him go knowing he’d run straight into Hulk. Underhanded, too.
Steve nods. “He said Bucky was alive, and some people found him. He gave me codes, access. I was looking through it on the jet, Nat, it’s torture. They kept him and experimented on him, and he was definitely alive for at least two goddamn years after I thought…” He’s getting upset again, so she lays a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s okay. Calm down, Steve, it’s okay…” It’s not, though. This isn’t something anyone can fix.
Poor Bucky, though. She feels a stab of pity for the man, even having never known him.
Steve collects himself. “The files end two years after he fell. He probably died then. But he died alone, after being fucking tortured, and I just…” He lapses into silence again.
Sometime later, Thor and Banner burst into the room, followed by Clint and Coulson- all four stop short, even though they knew what they’d see. Steve smiles at them and gladly takes Thor’s offered food, unraveling himself from Natasha.
The others, clearly relieved that their leader is back to himself, lounge around on the other sofas, cracking jokes and ribbing each other. Steve and Natasha participate, both aware of the extra eyes on them.
“Thank you,” Steve says under his breath, when Thor’s being extra loud.
Natasha nods, missing the contact now that she’d experienced it for so long. “Don’t mention it.”