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Lost Not Forgotten

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Chapter One

Sawbones

Natasha

 

 

One of them had impaled her.

Her side burned at the reminder. The punch of the blade pushing through her flesh, the near razor smoothness hadn’t hurt at all. It was like it happened to someone else, but she’d felt the blood rush from her body, the ice spreading through her extremities and she’d stared down at the bridge aware that she was all that had stood between Pepper and being taken.

Then Pepper had screamed.

 

 

“It is important that you complete the trials.”

“Yeah? What trials? His little Mandarin House of Horrors?” She took another bite.

“It is a trial of the dragon.”

“Well the dragon can shove it up his snout,” she told him, then took another bite.

“I’m afraid you don’t understand. You have been chosen for this honor.” Yeah, it felt like she’d been chosen. “To embrace the dragon is to know wisdom and grace, to be admitted to the halls of the worthy…”

“Are you sure you’re not Asgardian? Cause I’ll tell you what I told him—I don’t need the answer to that question.”

 

 

“What life does your master want?”

The monk blinked at her slowly.

“Or should I ask you what you want?”

The man’s smile grew. “You are the worthiest of opponents, Widow.” The monk passed his hand over his face and the features shifted and changed. Then The Mandarin stared at her. “What betrayed me?”

“You were playing it a little too heavy-handed. The monk before never lifted his hands from his legs.” No, he had sat rock still, his formal language never varying. This one… close, but no cigar.

The Mandarin smiled. “Very observant.” He glanced around the room. “You have created a difficulty for me.”

“Really?” She finished wiping her fingers and tossed the cloth back onto the tray. She began to flex the muscles in her legs to warm them. He knelt between her and the open door. He wasn’t shackled, not to mention, he looked well-rested. “Sucks to be you.”

“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” 

“Did you get your copy of The Art of War in the embossed illustrated version or the Cliffs’ Notes?”

Smiling, The Mandarin eyed her. “Your tongue is almost as cutting as your blades.”

“I hear I’ve got a talented one, shame to waste it.” He won their last fight because he used something to hold her still. The rings on his hands, one for each finger, drew the eye but he didn’t shift his posture as he settled his hands against his thighs.

“I hoped that by engaging you, I could persuade you to continue. The game—after all—requires two players.”

“But I’m not the player in your game, am I?” She challenged him. “You put me here as the pawn…”

“…and the prize,” he reminded her. “Better I think than what Tony Stark took from me in the first place. But it is not a victory until I have won it.”

“So…it really pisses on your day that I don’t want to play anymore? Damn, I can’t tell you how broken up about that I am.”

The Mandarin sighed. “I had really rather hoped to keep this civil.”

She didn’t scoff. She didn’t have time to. He flung out his hand and lightning struck her. The sizzle of it rolled over her even as her system jerked and she slammed her head back against the wall. The metal in her hand heated and the shocks rolled over her.

Still buzzing, she looked up as he rose. “This could have one much easier, but perhaps this will be a lesson for both of you.”

Lightning crawled over her. Shocking. Burning. Twisting.

 

 

“I don’t suppose you have a gun?” It was a pointless question for Remy.

“I don’t like guns, Boo. Besides—you got me. I’m better than any gun.”

The corridor seemed empty, the chain of rooms going on through a couple of doorways. “Stay together. Cover Tony.”

“Red…”

She flicked her fingers at both of them. “Cover Tony, I’ll take care of me. Get him out. That’s the first priority.”

“Romanoff… you and me? That talk. It’s not going to be fun.”

She snorted. “Shellhead, we make it out of here, you can say anything you want to me. But you have to be alive to say it.”

 

 

Not wasting time, she checked her four. All dead. Remy’s still had a pulse, she didn’t waste time, she just snapped the downed monk’s neck then moved to the one Tony had set down.

“Red…”

“Not leaving them behind us.” She met his gaze fiercely. “Move, Tony.”

“This isn’t you,” he tried.

But she snorted and put a foot on either side of the man’s downed head, gripped with her ankles and twisted. His neck snapped as she held Tony’s gaze. “This is exactly who I am.”

 

 

The brush of fingers against her shoulder catapulted Natasha from a nightmare to attack, she gripped the hand touching her, and had her legs locked around them even as she twisted and tackled them over, her right hand drawn back to strike before her eyes even opened only to meet pale blue eyes regarding her evenly as James relaxed in her grip offering no fight.

Dropping his hand, she disentangled herself and launched off the bed and not stopping until she’d backed all the way to the wall. James kept his hands spread, palms facing her as he sat up slowly. Steve was visible in the doorway to the bathroom, concern etched into every line of his face.

Fuck.

She tapped her head against the wall three times as she got her breathing under control.

“Tony called,” James said, slowly as he remained on the edge of the bed. “Dr. Strange is here.”

Weariness settled in her bones even as her heart hammered. The adrenaline dump had her skin buzzing, awareness of every breath they took scraping across her.

The first question that skated out from behind the thunder of her pulse was who the hell was Doctor Strange? But the answer followed right after and she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. The tension in her muscles threatened to cramp her hands, she could almost feel the weight of the chain she’d gripped for hours—or was it days?

“Now?” She finally managed in a voice that sounded reasonably even.

“He can wait,” Steve told her. When she opened her eyes she found him waiting in the doorway to the bathroom. He hadn’t taken a single step.

Thankfully, neither one asked if she was okay or all right or any other platitude.

She definitely wasn’t any of the above.

Licking her lips, she straightened, unclenching her fists with real effort and then pushing away from the wall. Crossing to the dresser, she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

“I’m standing up, Doll,” James said quietly. She tilted her head enough to catch him in her periphery, then nodded once before opening a drawer and pulling out a pair of yoga pants. She stared at them for a minute, then glanced at her closet. Tact gear would make her more comfortable.

But she probably had to go to medical.

Which meant nothing with metal.

Pants in hand, she closed the drawer and turned. James stood at the side of the bed and Steve still stood in the door to the bathroom.

“Are you done in there?”

He dropped the hand towel on the counter with a swift nod and stepped out. She waited until he’d reached the bed before she angled her path straight for the bathroom, avoiding any contact and once inside she shut the door and leaned back against it. The all too brief sensation of relief bottled beneath the suffocation of being shut into a room.

The door wasn’t locked.

The door wasn’t locked.

She repeated the internal mantra as she set the pants on the side of the sink, then glanced at herself in the mirror.

Bruises lined one of her cheeks. Her throat was still wrapped in bandages, the mottling of the skin visible above and below. If she lifted her shirt, she’d see all the bruises along her chest. There was another around her left ankle, fading rapidly, but still there.

Her eyes?

She ignored them. The physiological responses were just that—responses to the combination of overwhelming stimuli and the sudden absence of the same stimuli. She’d been on a tumultuous seesaw of sensation for days. It would take time to level out.

Turning on the water, she ran it cold then cupped a handful and splashed her face with it. Then again. And again. A part of her wanted to fill the tub with water and ice and submerge herself in it.

 

The chain pulled taut as the water closed over her head. Six minutes.

She could last six minutes.

Five.

Four.

Three.

 

Shutting the water off abruptly, she picked up Steve’s discarded hand towel and wiped her face. Slowly. Then she pulled on the pants, slowly, and with great care balancing herself with one hand on the vanity. Her breathing evened slowly at an almost plodding speed.

With her fingers, she combed through curls. Her hair hung unevenly. A missing chunk of hair for along the right side of her face left her lopsided. She opened a drawer and pulled out a hair tie, then gathered it all up and pulled it up into a messy ponytail to hide the damage.

She’d cut the rest of it later.

Closing her eyes again, she forced her breathing to regulate and shut off the burning sting turning over in her gut at the idea of having to cut her hair. It was just hair. She changed it all the time. It was as malleable as the rest of her. The silence from beyond the door to the bedroom crushed in on her and she closed the drawer, checked her appearance again, then pulled the door open and shut off the light.

The bedroom was empty.

They were giving her space.

Returning to her closet, she pulled two knives off the shelves. Securing one sheath to her lower back, she tightened the strap across her abdomen. Then she checked her access. It was fine.

The second, she strapped to her right calf. The loose yoga pants hid it well enough. But she didn’t actually care if anyone knew she was armed. Glancing at her gun safe, she debated a Glock. She could put on a shoulder holster, then slip a hoodie over it.

A dragged step behind her alerted her to James’ return to the bedroom. Glancing over her shoulder, she found him standing at the foot of the bed, about seven feet from the entrance to the closet. He had his hands loose at his sides.

“I’m—” The apology wouldn’t unstick itself from the roof of her mouth. She’d attacked him.

“I touched you when you said not to,” James told her carefully, his tone dead neutral. “I tried to rouse you with your name, but you didn’t hear me. So I touched your shoulder.”

She nodded once.

“You didn’t hurt me, Natalia.”

A little shrug, and she glanced back at the gun cabinet. Entering the combination, she opened it and pulled the gun and holster out. James said nothing as she slipped it on, and then covered it all with Tony's oversized dark gray hoodie, he must have left it in her closet again, before she closed the safe door.

Facing him, she slid her hands into the pockets of the hoodie. “I’m ready.” She’d take off the weapons if she absolutely had to, but she didn’t know the doctor and right now, the weight of the gun pressing against her side made her feel better.

“You don’t have to talk to him if you don’t want to,” James told her, irritation ruffling some of the neutrality in his tone.

“After the weeks of looking for him?” She arched a brow. “No. I’ll talk to him. He just better be worth what Tony thinks he is.”

Or she would be aggravated.

A single nod.

Without waiting for her, he lead the way to the door but she didn’t miss the brief tightening of his expression. She hadn’t moved until he did. Fuck, did she have a problem with James at her back?

Since when?

The dreams were too fresh. Her head ached. Her body hurt. And the rest of her?

She was a mess. That was what she’d told Steve. Speaking of…

He wasn’t in the living room or the kitchen. The door to his bedroom stood open and it was quiet.

“He went up to meet the doctor and to let them know you would be a minute.”

Licking her lips, she nodded. “Did I….”

“Doll, Stevie is fine. He gets it. He went to tell them to put a sock in it, nothing more.”

She nodded before glancing at the elevator. As much as she didn’t want to go to medical better to just rip the Band-Aid off. James waited for her, patience cooling the air around him. When she headed for the elevator, he moved ahead. He let her be at his back, even if she seemed reticent to let him be at hers. The doors opened at their arrival and he moved inside and to the corner as she took the other one, then folded her arms as she leaned against the wall.

“The penthouse, please,” James said.

Surprise flickered through her.

“Meeting him, Doll. Not letting him treat you until we have your consent.” And got a damn good look at him, his tone implied even if he didn’t say the words aloud.

Letting out a shaky breath, she doubled over and out her hands on her thighs. “Halt elevator.”

It glided to a stop.

James said nothing as she forced herself to breathe. Then she lifted her head and faced him. “I really didn’t want to go to medical.”

“I know,” he said, his voice absolutely gentle. “No one is forcing you. I promise you. No one will.” Despite the gentleness, a core of steel underlay the words.

Straightening, she let out a shaking breath then nodded. “How long did I actually sleep?”

“Forty-five minutes,” James told her balefully. “You’re exhausted, Natalia. We can go right back to Stevie’s floor. We can go to your floor. We can leave the fucking Tower and go anywhere you want.”

No. No they couldn’t. “This guy can tell us what’s wrong with my brain.” Maybe something beyond decades of head scrambling had left her damaged irreparably and her memory a joke.

That would be nice.

“Great, he can also make an appointment,” James told her and she almost smiled.

“James… I know you want to know as much as I do.”

“I want you alive and safe,” James told her. “Everything else can wait.”

 

“Mama…

 

“No,” she told him. “Tony won’t let me have access to BARF until this guy clears me. I need more pieces to find Mary… has Logan called?”

A shake of his head.

“Then we go.” Shifting her stance, she moved toward him and held out her hand. The need to touch warred with the need for distance. They’d had so much distance. She couldn’t embrace it. Not even when her skin hummed like her very bones vibrated. He threaded his fingers with hers easily and she pressed her forehead to his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“Never apologize,” he murmured, pressing his lips to the top of her head. “I mean it Natalia, you never have to apologize to me.”

“Maybe I want to,” she told him, lifting her head to meet his gaze as she stroked her thumb against the cool metal of his hand. He could have taken her hand in his right, but she’d held out her right hand and he’d given her his left. It left his right hand free and she savored the contact with him no matter which hand she held. He knew that.

The lines at the corners of his eyes deepened with his smile. “Anything you want.”

“You keep being this agreeable, you’ll spoil me.” It was light, maybe too light considering their often-bloodied history, but his smile only grew. Lifting their joined hands, he kissed her fingers not once looking away from her. Every movement telegraphed.

“Good,” he murmured against her fingertips.

Her palms went a little sweaty and a trickle of it slid down between her shoulder blades but she refused to let him go.

“I’m ready,” she told him.

“You are certain?” He searched her gaze.

She nodded once. No, she absolutely wasn’t, but she could handle it. That was the part that mattered. This was another step on the path to finding Mary. The cost was irrelevant.

“Resume, Friday,” she said. “Please.”

“Of course, Ms. Romanoff.”

She held his gaze as the elevator ascended without releasing his hand, but when they slowed to a stop, the doors didn’t open immediately. Friday waited until Natasha faced them before they slid apart.

The rumble of conversation silenced almost immediately. Natasha swept the room with a look. Tony stood near his naked tree, which leaned at a terrifically bad angle, arms folded and expression fierce as he faced a slightly taller man, also with dark hair flecked with hints of gray near his temples and sporting a goatee.

The suggestion of mirroring ended there though. Doctor Strange gave her an assessing look as she and James exited the elevator. Steve stood near the dining table, arms folded as he leaned against it. His expression softened a fraction when he caught sight of her, but he kept most of his attention on the doctor, as did James going so far as to stand slightly in front of her but near enough to be at her side.

The doctor—if that was what he was—wore the most obscure of outfits. A quilted tunic of a shirt, a flowing red cape, and boots that came up to his knees over a pair of legging like pants. The necklace he wore, gold and heavy, seemed almost too simple and ornate in the same breath.

“Tony,” she said slowly, shifting her gaze to include him in her line of sight. “I thought neurosurgeon meant high tech, not leeches.” At least the jangling in her nerves had settled some and the hum along her skin quieted.

The doctor snorted. “I can assure you, Ms. Romanoff, I do not work with leeches. I also do not perform surgery.”

“Then what do you do?”

“Red, he’s—here to offer us his expertise,” Tony said with a shake of his head. “A consult. Nothing more.”

This should be good. “I can hardly wait.” Tired slammed into her in waves, but she ignored it, locking her legs and staring at the doctor.

“As I was explaining to Mr. Stark,” the doctor said. “And the good captain there, I don’t practice any longer.” He held up his heavily scarred hands, a flash of gold across two fingers of his left hand riveted her. “I understand the serious nature of the request and based on the impossible scan…” the doctor nodded toward James. “He and Mr. Barton gave Christine, I get you wanted my attention. You have it.”

“I wanted you here to help her…” Tony said, closing the distance slightly. “Money isn’t an object and I know how much of yours you’ve poured into repairing your hands though, after your arrival, I’m assuming you found other methods.”

“I don’t work for you, Mr. Stark,” the doctor said. “And even if I did, this would be a conversation between me and the patient.” The doctor flicked a look back to her. “You are the patient, correct?”

“Not a very good one,” she said, snapping her gaze up to his face. “Nice scars by the way. My brain looks like that according to the scans I’ve seen of it. If you can’t or won’t help, we don’t need to have this or any other conversation.”

She didn’t like doctors to begin with and this one looked like he’d been drawn right out of Lord of the Rings. Or maybe Dungeons and Dragons.

Mad scientist or mad sorcerer?

Really didn’t see an upside on either.

“Then again,” she continued just as Tony opened his mouth. “A man like you doesn’t make some grand appearance to tell us to fuck off, you can’t help. We obviously couldn’t track you down, so—why are you here? Unless the scans really did intrigue you?”

With a sigh, the doctor strode around the sofa toward her. James stiffened and the shift of his weight went to the balls of his feet. He was ready to move every bit as much as she was. The gold on the doctor’s left hand flashed again. Sweat soaked the back of her neck. She unzipped the hoodie, loath to sweat her way through it.

When he was three feet away, the light hit the rectangular shape covering his index and middle finger on his left hand. One ring, two bands. The Mandarin’s had been individual rings, octagonal and rectangular in shape. The pattern on the doctor’s ring wasn’t ornate, as if the hammered metal had been through the wringer.

“Woah, Red!”

“Natalia…”

“Angel…”

Her gun was pointed right at the doctor’s head and he’d gone still, his eyes narrowed. His damaged hands were up slightly, but there was a spark around his hand.

“Ms. Romanoff…?”

“Lose the ring.”

His eyebrows skyrocketed. Steve and Tony were halfway to her and they both went still. Next to her, James shifted his weight again.

“I beg your pardon?” The doctor’s tone suggested she’d made an offensive comment.

“Lose the ring. Take it off. Put it in your pocket. Swallow it for all I care. But lose the damn thing.” The weight of the Glock in her palm was a comfort she hadn’t even realized she needed.

“The sling ring isn’t a weapon.”

“I didn’t ask if it was a weapon, I said lose it.” She only had to squeeze the trigger. “I’ve had my fill of rings this week.”

He eyed her carefully, then James before returning his gaze to hers. “I’m going to take it off and put it in a pouch on my belt. Acceptable?”

She nodded once. Her arm didn’t twitch, her aim rock steady. At this distance, she would take out the entire back half of his skull with the exit wound. He slid the ring off, his gaze never leaving hers. The movement was visible in her periphery. Then the flash of gold vanished and he raised both of his hands.

First, he showed her his palms then the back of his hands.

With a nod, she took a single step back and reholstered the gun.

“Rings are an interesting thing to trigger PTSD, Ms. Romanoff.”

“Not if you’ve been tortured with them.” The doctor was still too damn close.

“I’m pulling out my phone,” he told her and like her, his focus didn’t shift.

At her nod, he reached behind him and pulled out the smartphone from his back pocket. Huh. Medieval pants had back pockets? Who knew?

Phone in hand, the doctor pulled up an image. It was one of her CT scans. “This is your brain?” The skepticism in his voice demanded an answer.

It looked like the scan from when they’d returned from the island. The black striations bisecting the brain weren’t supposed to be there. “As far as I know…” she said with a shrug. “Friday…holo screen with my most recent CT scans for the doc.”

A screen appeared to her left and Strange glanced from her to it. His eyes narrowed as he studied it. “Can we enhance the thalamus?”

“Do it, Baby Girl,” Tony said. He and Steve had crossed the room to join them, not that she or James had made it more than a few steps from the still open elevator doors.

“What symptoms have you been experiencing?” Strange asked, cutting a glance from the scan to her. “Besides the intense bruising and obvious signs of recent combat which I presume includes repeated head injuries.”

Folding her arms, she glanced at Tony. “Give him the file.”

“You sure?” Tony frowned.

“Questioning your judgment already?” Another wave of tired hit, her hands were starting to tremble so she kept them tucked down.

Strange loosened his cloak and swung it to the side where it stood, of its own accord, just hanging in the air.

“Not sure,” Tony said his gaze riveted on the cloak then Strange. “Just wasn’t expecting this.”

“You can read my whole file…” she began.

The doctor shook his head, “No, I want to know what symptoms you’re experiencing right now. Your eyes are dilated, you’re pale, sweating and there are tremors in your hands. You obviously have PTSD and have been in a recent battle. I’m aware of who you are Ms. Romanoff, I did read the papers.”

Well, so much for covering that up. “You want to have this conversation I need coffee or vodka. Maybe both.”

“You’ll get coffee,” Tony told her. “You tossed all my liquor.”

A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “It’s easier for you to stay sober if you’re not surrounded by it.”

He made a face.

“Nat,” Steve said quietly. “Come sit down? I’m assuming the doctor is interested enough to explore the case which means you should rest.”

A part of her wanted to argue. She’d stand on her own feet. She’d survived days of torture and extreme conditions. Sitting on a sofa or a chair would hardly be some balm for all of that, but it was just stubbornness on her part. Some distant part of her mind acknowledged that.

Strange lifted a finger into her line of sight and it took everything she had not to pull a knife and put it through his hand.

“You were zoning out, Ms. Romanoff. Do you often have fugues?”

Not answering she pointed him toward the sofas. “After you.”

She would not allow that man to be at her back.

He studied her for a beat, then pivoted, the cloak practically floated along behind him.

James took two steps after him and she followed. The elevator doors closed. Steve’s frown deepened, but she circled the room and settled in a chair that had her back mostly to the tree and didn’t really allow the room for someone to sit with her. Tony returned with mugs, and a huge carafe of coffee. He poured one for her then the guys. It wouldn’t do them much good—it was too weak—but they took it anyway.

Suck it up, Natasha. This guy can clear you for BARF. That gets you a step closer to Mary. Logan might have info, but Logan had his own issues and the fact he’d never mentioned their first meeting left her with more questions. Why hadn’t she asked him when she’d seen him at the fortress?

Because you had other things on your mind.

“You wanted to know my symptoms—long-term or recent?” Focusing on the doctor, she did her best to not look at Steve or James where they’d taken positions between she and the doctor, she didn’t want to worry them but she also couldn’t take the weight of their concern at the moment. Tony, she couldn’t avoid, because he stood just behind the sofa, his attention split between her and the doc.

 

He had a plan?

“Yeah…don’t kill me.” Then he kissed her, slow, deep, and breath-stealing. His fingers were in her hair as he held her still and her mouth parted Surprise rippled through her and she stilled for a long minute as his tongue swept against hers. He tasted like coffee. The sensation registered slowly, the scent of sweat and coffee twining around them along with hints of his cologne. It was almost like being at the Tower.

Home.

 

“Based on what I’m seeing here, you shouldn’t even be able to have a conversation with me. I’ve never seen this kind of scarring on a living, cognitively-aware patient before.”

“Yay me,” she murmured, then set her cup down. Then she repeated her earlier question, “Recent or long-term?”

The sense of disconnectedness wouldn’t go away. She didn’t want to be here or to have this conversation, but what she’d said to James held true.

 

“Mama.”

 

She had to know.

This was the doctor Tony insisted was the best, the one who could tell them what to do.

But the doc didn’t seem as certain.

A chime from the elevator pulled her attention. Clint arrived wearing a frown and he crossed the room, pausing a beat to stare at the cloak just hovering in the air before he circled to stand near her.

“I thought we were getting a doctor, not a wizard,” Clint murmured.

Natasha shrugged. “Apparently not—he’s a doctor and a wizard, if he could time travel I’d say he was The Doctor.”

“Who?” Clint said, the corner of his mouth kicking up and she snickered. The laughter burst through some of the numbness.

“If you two are done,” the doctor said dryly.

“Not even close,” Clint said without missing a beat.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Natasha told him as she pulled her feet up into the chair and sat cross-legged. It put her ankle sheath in reach.

“Conventionally, you shouldn’t be functioning right now, since you are,” Strange told her. “I’m going to assume you’re not quite human.”

“Probably not, no,” she said with another shrug. She’d been a monster for far too long.

 

Not wasting time, she checked her four. All dead. Remy’s still had a pulse, she didn’t waste time, she just snapped the downed monk’s neck then moved to the one Tony had set down.

“Red…”

“Not leaving them behind us.” She met his gaze fiercely. “Move, Tony.”

“This isn’t you,” he tried.

But she snorted and put a foot one either side of the man’s downed head, gripped with her ankles and twisted. His neck snapped as she held Tony’s gaze. “This is exactly who I am.”

 

“The question then becomes, how was this damage inflicted?”

“Problem, I don’t remember a lot of it. Some I do—a few thousand volts of targeted electricity over the course of several years coupled with chemical enhancers and narcotics. I can’t be more explicit. A secondary machine that…set against a table with some kind of neural probes, something they said I helped calibrate…something more fine-tuned. I’d know if I saw it, but I don’t know specifically what they did.”

Liar. She remembered the cutting, the pain, the saw…

Her stomach rolled, and she pulled a knee up to her chest and forced herself to breathe.

“There was radiation bombardment. An alien used me to hitch a ride home when he drained my cells…pretty sure the black marks there weren’t there before that but…I don’t know.” What had she said about her past? It was a horror show of epic horror show proportions?

Strange stared at her intently.

“At some point, I was programmed with trigger words—some were successful, not all. I’ve got mental blocks against huge portions of my memory, some targeted and specific, other just swaths of time.”

“Mental blocks, that makes sense from the damage to the thalamus and hippocampal formations. Some of these appear to have almost surgical precision, and while there still appears to be electrical activity, it’s not going anywhere.”

“Which means there’s a clog?” Neuroscience. Maybe she should buy some books. Spend a few days reading because talking to Strange was like pulling teeth and she was about as cooperative as she could be at the moment.

“Ms. Romanoff, I’m not prepared to give you an answer when I barely understand the methodology and the effect. You show signs of multiple strokes, repeated head trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-concussion syndrome just to start with. Any one of those could lead to severe health complications including failed cognitive function, severe headaches, light sensitivity, nausea, seizures, and impaired memory functions—that you can even converse seems like a miracle. I assume you have some form of Captain Rogers’ serum.”

Not a question she wanted to answer.

“You don’t have to say anything, it’s obvious if anyone looks at the medical records, however, you want to know if there is a clog—your memory is impaired?”

“Severely.”

The fact the guys sat there saying nothing was both eerie and comforting. She half-expected Tony to try and take over, he’d been reading her files for weeks. Clint knew about…

“I’ve also had moments where I slip, like I’m not me anymore.”

“Fugue states.”

Pulling her other knee up, she hugged them both to her chest. “Sometimes. It’s like I’m a more primal me. It may have nothing to do with this.”

“But it’s another symptom.”

“Sure, we can call it that.” Her voice flattened even to her own ears.

“Recent symptoms?”

“Flashbacks. Scalding pain like someone is sticking an ice pick through my eye. A tonal ringing noise that escalates to excruciating. Then…shards of memories—sometimes I can hold onto them. Sometimes I can’t. I had a seizure…” She frowned. How… “How long was I gone?”

She swept her gaze over the guys.

“It was a little over ten days ago,” Tony said. “Unless you had any while you were…” He hesitated.

“Maybe. I know my nose bled a couple of times. I remembered things.” She gave a shrug. “But with everything else, I don’t know if I’d know.”

The words I don’t know tasted hateful on her tongue.

“So I had at least one seizure ten days ago, I’ve endured oxygen deprivation and chemically induced pain including the use of a paralytic recently as well. I have had some auditory and visual hallucinations.”

Strange braced an elbow against his knee, his hand over his mouth as he stared at her. He was going to ask her for more tests. But instead of saying anything, he studied her then the scan again.

“Do you have one of these from before the alien encounter?” The sober inquiry almost made her laugh. Course, the guy had a floating cloak. Aliens probably didn’t sound so weird to him. Then again, aliens had tried to invade New York.

Did they? She glanced at Tony. “I had a scan done…the full scans right before.”

He nodded. “You can authorize him to look at them if you want.” Was Tony really second-guessing himself? The deep well of concern filtering through his eyes threatened to drown her.

“Friday…?”

“Of course, Ms. Romanoff.”

The image changed and Strange squinted at it. The black lines weren’t there, but she didn’t know enough about these scans to read them that well. As it was, her eyes burned. She considered the coffee then stretched her hand out to grab it.

“I need to do some research and I’m going to need more tests.”

Surprise.

She took a sip of the coffee.

“I’ll be honest, you’re not in the best line of work considering the nature of these injuries.” Strange studied her again. “But even from the scans, I can tell you’ve had these injuries for a long time, you’re functional, cognitively aware, obviously intelligent and your reflexes are sharp, so what are you hoping to gain by seeking treatment?”

“I want to use a machine to help stimulate my memories to get them back. When we used it before it helped restore neural function, about 4%. Tony won’t let me use it without a neuro specialist signing off that I am cognitively functional enough to handle it.”

“That’s not what I said, Red,” Tony told her, annoyance scraping over the words. “You went into a coma last time.”

“I woke up.”

Steve sighed. The weight of his concern shoved down on her and she didn’t dare look at the reproach that had to be sitting in James’ eyes.

“Yeah, Tash, that’s not helping your case,” Clint said quietly.

“Natalia also had a concussion,” James offered.

“She still has one. At least when this scan was taken and this second one, I see elements of it. How many concussions have you had?”

“Recently?” At least three she could think of.

“I think that answers the question. I need to study these scans and do some research. I’m assuming your serum enhances your healing?” The doctor liked to assume things.

She just stared at him.

“You can choose to not answer me,” he said. “But I don’t care if the answer is yes or no, what I care about is putting together a comprehensive profile.”

“Yes, I heal faster.”

“Do you know how much faster?”

Sliding her feet to the floor, she stood abruptly and lifted her shirt to show the fading scar on her abdomen where the sword went through her. “I got stabbed a week ago give or take. So about that fast. Though I healed faster than normal.”

“But you still scar.” He motioned to the second one her abdomen, the scar from where James shot her.

“Depends on the injury. The longer it goes untreated, the blood loss…” She shrugged. “Scars aren’t life threatening.”

She dropped her shirt and sat again.

“So physical injuries heal, but not neurological.”

“There was a suggested theory,” Tony said. “That she could heal most of the outstanding issues if she were not constantly re-injured.”

Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.

“Not the right business for that.”

Steve shifted his weight and she glanced up to find him giving her a small smile.

 

“You might be in the wrong business…”

 

She answered him with a small one of her own. “Look, Doctor Strange…” Yeah, that name was weird. “I don’t know if you can help. But I need my memories back and I’ve been…waiting a while. Some of them are breaking loose…”

“Have you had a scan since those began to surface?”

“No.”

“Have you tried inducing one?”

“A memory?”

He nodded once.

“Yes,” she said. “Apparently, I had a seizure.”

Tony grimaced.

“We may need to do that again—while you’re being scanned.”

Tests.

 

“Cut her again. We need to test how swiftly she heals, this time—leave the knife in.”

 

“Not today.” She twisted to glance out the windows at the city. The sun was hidden behind gray clouds and the world looked dreary. But it was still daytime. “Maybe not tomorrow. We probably have U.N. meetings.”

Tony snapped his gaze to her. “No,” he said firmly. “We don’t.”

Was next weekend Christmas?

Glancing back at the doctor, she said, “And you should decide ahead of time all the tests you want because I’m only going in there once to do it.”

 

“Put her back in.”

 

“I’ll do my best,” Strange said slowly, his gaze still speculative.

“We also have access to other resources,” Steve said, glancing at her again. “Maybe less invasive ones.”

“As do I, Captain Rogers.”

Tony straightened. “Right now, what do you recommend?”

 

“You’ll have to forgive me,” the secretary said as she lay prone on the table. “You’ve helped us calibrate this device for the last few years and it’s proven essential in both of our successes.”

 

“I told you, I’m not prepared to speculate. Ms. Romanoff presents with a unique case, one I’ve never seen before. Frankly, it may be beyond even what I can do, but until I study these scans, conduct a few more tests, and do my research, I’m not prepared to answer that. I would recommend rest, in a controlled environment with full monitoring.”

“That would be too stressful,” Tony told him even as Steve simply said, “Rest yes, and some monitoring, fine.”

They were already monitoring her. Hadn’t that been the problem?

 

“Mama.”

 

“I need a break.” Natasha pushed out of the chair and crossed the floor toward the elevator. The doors glided open and she was inside, hitting the button for her floor and the doors closed leaving her alone inside the elevator as it descended.

She could just go to the ground floor and leave. There was a safe house in Queens. Steve and James knew where that was.

There was another one in Jersey.

Or she could go north to Canada.

Apparently going north to Canada was her thing.

Pain raked through her.

“Ms. Romanoff…”

“Not now, Friday. Just not now. Full privacy mode.”

The doors opened to her floor and she made her way toward her room, then into her closet and finally into a corner where she could sit with her back against the wall. The door was open, so it wasn’t a cage.

But the whole damn Tower was a cage.

A fortress.

Rat in a maze.

 

“We will require more tests. Rebreak her arm.”

 

Rubbing her hands against her face, Natasha grimaced at the pain sparking along her nerves. The bruises ached. But it wasn’t just that. The damn numbness swallowed her, blanketing her like a clear wall against the world. She was on the inside; everything else was out there.

The chime of the elevator told her someone followed.

Closing her eyes, she leaned her head back against the wall.

The slight hitch to the step.

Clint.

A faint smile pulled at her as she released a huff of a laugh. Always Clint.

“You’re never going to let me get far, are you?”

“Nope,” he said, dropping to sit on the edge of her bed. “No can do. I don’t mind if you run, just need to keep an eye on your back.”

“I’m fine, Clint. I’m on my floor, inside the Tower, with an overprotective group of friends…”

“Family,” he corrected. “Your location is not why I’m watching your back, Kid. You’ve been through Hell the last few days.”

Another shrug. “It wasn’t that new.”

“That’s the problem,” he said quietly. “Every man up there is worried about you.”

“Not every man.”

“Yeah, I’m not counting the wizard with the floating cloak—and what the hell, did anything in his profile say magic man to you?”

“Nope, just a God complex like most surgeons,” she said, giving him a quirk of a smile. “I attacked James when he tried to wake me up.”

“Okay. I think he can take it.”

She shook her head. “Not the point.”

“Right now? Totally the point.” Clint stared at her steadily. “Do you remember when he popped Steve in the face because Steve told him he had no choices, and you got right between them—you put your hand on his chest and just kept telling him to stand down until he woke up?”

That had been in Switzerland. “James wasn’t himself then.”

“And you’re not yourself right now,” Clint told her, his voice almost gentle. “You warned us…Jedi mind tricks?”

“Oh, you got that message.” Huh. Good to know.

“I got all your messages, Tash.”

“I feel so wrong right now…” She could tell Clint that.

“I know, Kid.”

“I don’t know how to not feel wrong…” She’d told them she loved them. Clint. James. Steve. The only one she hadn’t told…

“Hey, you just got out of there.”

Had she?”

“You’re exhausted, Tasha.”

More than a little.

“They’re not going to let me use BARF.”

Maybe she could hijack the code. Tony had given her authorizations, even if it was compartmentalized…

“Not yet, no…” He sighed. “Can I convince you to come sleep for a little while?”

“If I sleep, I dream…”

“I’ll stay,” he told her. “Or I can get one of your boys…”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“Nat…”

“No.” She met his gaze. “I almost hurt James and he was just trying to wake me up. I need… I need to be alone.”

“That’s the last damn thing you need,” he said, and then sighed. “Please don’t ask me to leave you like this. I know everyone walked all over you and you let us—me included. You said you wouldn’t go back into a cell for me, not again. I’d never ask you to do that. But don’t ask me to leave you like this. That’s not how we work, Tash.”

No. It wasn’t.

“Idiot.”

“Probably, so I’m just going to sit here with you. Okay?”

The elevator chimed and a smile pulled at her lips. “You’re about to have company.”

“Yeah,” Clint said with a wry smile of his own. “No kidding. I mention how much easier it was before you started dating all the boys?”

“Think I should go back to girls?” She raised her brows.

He let out a choked laugh, then his gaze shifted away from her. “Hey Steve.”

“Hey…”

“Hi Steve,” she called.

“Hi Angel,” he answered. “As for the dating of girls, I’d rather you didn’t cut out boys all together.”

“So picky,” she murmured. “Girls can be nice. They’re softer. Some of them anyway.” Maria had been soft when she hadn’t been biting. Still… The smirk on Clint’s face made her smile.

“I don’t doubt it,” Steve said and she had to wonder, was he flushing? “I’m pretty fond of a woman myself.”

He loved her.

She blew out a breath.

He loved her.

James loved her.

“Dating boys is making Clint’s life hard.”

“Too bad,” Steve retorted and Clint laughed.

Steve appeared in her line of sight and he dropped to sit on the bed next to Clint and she was in Switzerland again, only then it had been her sitting next to Steve and James who was in the closet. She almost asked where he was when the elevator chimed.

A pair of voices.

She sighed.

A knock against the doorframe. “Is Red decent?”

Natasha snorted. “I haven’t been decent a day in my life, Shellhead. Did you send Mr. Wizard home?”

A flicker of movement. James crossed past Steve and Clint to circle the bed, only instead of sitting on it; he leaned against the wall next to her nightstand.

“Yeah, I’m not responding to the first part of that statement on the grounds that Steve or Bucky might punch me,” Tony teased, but he wandered into view on the far side of the bed, hands in his pockets. He looked like crap.

There used to be a landscape up there. One of mountains with a stretch of blue sky, and snow-dusted peaks, but the artist seemed to be standing in a meadow of some kind with the most beautiful spread of wildflowers.

“See, you can teach an old dog new tricks,” Clint said with a faint smirk. The weariness in his face suddenly visible or maybe she was paying closer attention, again.

The painting had been like spring, summer, and winter all present in one image. She’d found it—where had she gotten it? For as long as she’d lived in the Tower, she’d had it. But before?

“Nice,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes, then focused on her. “Yeah, I sent the wizard home. Still trying to work out when the neurosurgeon became a wizard.” He ran his hand through his hair. Bruises still marred his face and a split to his lip.

Had Montana been like that?

“Do we think he can help?” Steve asked, glancing away from her toward Tony. “I mean other than being abrasive?”

Had she ever been to Montana except to go to the…

“Maybe. He genuinely seemed puzzled and determined so maybe—”

Pain ripped through her head like a storm and she buried her palm against her eye.

“Come on, Nat,” Clint was saying. “Deep breaths. I need you to breathe, Tasha.”

She blinked slowly. Flat on her back, she could see a crack in the ceiling. It hadn’t been there before—maybe an artifact of the search.

And she was lying on her bed.

Pressure against her face had her flicking her gaze to Clint and then to James just behind him.

“There she is,” Clint said slowly, the gray pallor to his skin worrisome. “You are there, right?”

The pain was gone. Well, not gone, but not killing her. The white that had fuzzed out her vision was absent. “I know where I saw that machine before,” she said, even as her stomach rolled. She barely made it away from him, tumbling off the bed and stumbling into the bathroom.

Steve caught an arm around her or she might have slammed her head against the porcelain. That would have been charming. The toilet lid was up and she threw up. The burn of it, everything she’d eaten in the last couple of hours emptied out of her.

Nothing she did stopped it until she emptied her stomach. Even then, the bouts of nausea swept over her. When was the last time she threw up? Thankfully, she’d put her hair into a ponytail or Steve would have been holding her hair back, too. Bad enough he had to hold her up. The toilet flushed, then there was a cold washcloth on her face.

Her mouth tasted like ass again.

 

“I like your ass.”

 

A laugh worked its way up. She gazed into a pair of deeply worried eyes, aware of the collection of men standing either in the bathroom with her or just outside the doors. Cool metal pressed against her nape. Even through the bandages that felt great on her overheated skin.

Bandages.

Oh yeah. No wonder that hurt like hell when she threw up.

“Here,” Tony said and a bottle of water appeared in her periphery. Steve caught it, and then twisted it open before he handed it to her. Rinsing her mouth out, she spat into the sink a couple of times, but she could barely take a real sip, swallowing hurt.

“I think I tore something,” she said, carefully, because water shouldn’t feel like jagged shards going down.

“You’re bleeding,” James told her. “We’re going to have to change the bandages and check the sutures.”

“Okay.” She held a hand up to him and he caught it, glanced at Steve and at his nod, James slipped his other arm under her legs. Then she was up and he carried her out of the bathroom. “First aid in the kitchen.”

“Already got it.” Clint stood waiting for them. James set her down on the island and she managed another small sip of water while they got the bandages peeled away from her throat. “Okay, you blew a couple of stitches,” Clint told her. “I’ve seen worse, so shitcan the dramatics, okay?”

Another laugh worked its way up. “No promises.”

Another sip.

Tony glared at her—no, he wasn’t glaring at her, he was glaring at her neck. “You should never have let me put that thing on you.”

“Next time, I’ll break your arm.” She held up a hand. “Scout’s honor.”

Now he rolled his eyes and Steve snorted.

Weirdly, she felt a little better. Or at least—the glass wall between her and the world seemed to have cracked open and she could breathe.

“The device…”

“Hey, Red,” Tony began.

“Angel… don’t.”

“It’s okay,” she said with a wave of her hand. Or she would have except James had her hand in his. When she would have turned her to head to look, Clint made negative little growling noise he reserved for when she was genuinely aggravating him.

Oh.

Right.

Stitches.

“It doesn’t hurt like that anymore… I just remembered where I’d seen that device Pierce used.” The sour taste in her mouth made her grimace as the needle pierced her skin. Clint was fast with stitches and the tugs and pulls a familiar sensation.

“You’re okay to talk about it?” Steve asked with a measuring look in his eyes.

“I think so—I feel….better. It’s hard to explain but—that device was at The Guest House.”

“The guest house?”

“Nat—that was compartmentalized, Level 10.” Clint stared at her.

“And apparently you knew about it.”

“Only that it existed,” Clint told her. “When the hell did you go there?”

She licked her lips. “Right after I finished Tony’s assessment.”

Tony frowned.

“Didn’t you have to go to South America right after LA?” It wasn’t an accusation, but a clarification.

“Fury… had plans. You were in New Mexico with Coulson—the whole thing with Foster and Thor had just happened.”

Clint nodded as he rewrapped her throat carefully, the gauze firm but not tight.

“Coulson called in a status report and yeah, I went to South America, I had to check on Bruce and lay some false trails to pull Ross’s bounty hunters away. Then Fury sent me to threaten him personally.”

Steve’s expression was stone, but his eyes—they were just filled with concern. Would she ever not worry him?

“Right. That was after you skipped out of our post-mission drinks.”

She made a face as her gaze snagged on him. “Yeah.” Neither of them looked at Tony, but she’d been screwed up after that mission. He wouldn’t trust her… and after she’d failed him in Afghanistan that made so much more sense why it haunted her…so many broken little pieces.

“So you’ve saved the billionaire, led the hunters away from the other guy, skipped drinks with me, then threatened Ross and you’re back at HQ—you were at the Triskelion, right?”

“No… diner…somewhere in Nevada. Nick didn’t want to meet at HQ. Hot, dusty little place but he had me meet him there and then gave me my next assignment.”

Clint’s frown deepened.

“Lila was teething, you took a couple of weeks to go give Laura a break.”

He sighed. “You were supposed to show up.”

“I got busy.”

The corners of Steve’s mouth tilted up when Clint said, “Yeah, yeah. You always get busy and then I have to apologize to Laura.”

“I got to Lila’s birth, you could handle the teething.” She stuck her tongue out at him and Tony chuckled and a smile flickered across James’ lips.

“Anyway…” Clint glared at her with no heat whatsoever. “The Guest House.”

She blew out a breath. It was all there—a little jumbled, but she could see it. The diner. The cracked linoleum on the floor. The worn nearly thin orange vinyl on the diner seats. The fifties had thrown up on that diner and froze it in orange-colored amber.

“Nick had me meet him in Nevada. Deep shadow conditions.” At Tony’s raised eyebrows, she said, “It means strip all comms, go off-grid, travel under an alias and vanish. No one beyond Nick should ever know I was there or why. There would be no record of the meeting. Totally compartmentalized.”

“Until now,” Tony pointed out with an almost wry smile.

“Yeah, well fuck Nick.”

Steve bit back another smile but Clint actually snorted.

Tony’s grin just grew.

Scraping her teeth over her lower lip, she shook her head slowly. Then paused that action—neither her neck nor her head were on board with it. So she took another sip of water.

James went to her pantry and returned with a sleeve of crackers. He set them next to her, open, and she gave him a small smile. “Spasibo.”

“Pozhaluysta,” he murmured.

Picking out one of the crackers, she considered it but didn’t eat it right away. Her stomach was still doing rolls. Or maybe that was her head. Too bad Strange hadn’t stuck her in an MRI; he would have gotten a hell of a mental snapshot with that part.

“Anyway… when I got there, Nick had a file. It was only a paper copy; it included a map, coordinates, passphrases. He said, memorize it, burn it. The challenge phrases would only work for me. Then he gave me two days, he said go to the coordinates, untraceably—which meant hiking—my mission ops would be waiting for me when I got there.”

And she hadn’t asked another question, simply finished her sandwich, drank her tea then walked out.

“Two days later, I was standing on a mountainside, it had taken me hours to get up there and I found the access portal, then answered the challenge questions. Inside—was The Guest House.” She met Steve’s gaze then Tony’s and exhaled. “Nick knew that for the Avengers’ Initiative to take off—there would be a real chance we’d lose an Avenger. He now had three potential recruits to keep alive and in the event we lost an Avenger, he had The Guest House ready to go.”

She could see the dusty walls giving way to steel and white. They’d buried the entire facility inside the mountain. Labs that would populate a few days a week with personnel who didn’t know how they’d gotten there. Guards on standard rotations who were handpicked…

“It was a hospital?” Steve frowned.

“Not—exactly. It was…” She exhaled. “It was a lab, a series of them, and they had all kinds of samples, medications, and devices designed to sustain and prolong life for those gravely injured, enhanced or not.”

“Nat—did Fury want you there for security or to help provide samples to sustain life?” Clint’s voice was ice.

“Both,” she said slowly.

Steve turned away, both hands scrubbing at his face as he paced away. “So he sent you there to be experimented on. Son of a bitch…”

“Steve,” she murmured, but he was already out of reach so she went to slip off the counter, but James put his hand next to her leg and shook his head.

“Give him a sec, Doll,” he asked more than told, and she settled for putting her hand over his. The taut lines on his face eased.

“You know, I’ve never been fond of the pirate king…” Tony said with a sigh as he pinched the bridge of his nose.

“It was about saving lives,” she said quietly. “No one ordered me to provide the samples.”

“He didn’t have to order, Nat. He sent you there,” Clint said, his knuckles white on the edge of the counter. He suddenly started packing away her first aid kit.

“Well, if I could save a life, any of your lives, then it was worth it. But that wasn’t the only reason I was there. They had personnel that had to be watched and protocols I had to memorize…” It hadn’t been her first trip there, either.

“If you had to memorize them, why did you forget?” Tony asked, pinning her with a look.

“I…” the answer eluded her.

 

“You’ve helped us calibrate this device for the last few years and it’s proven essential in both of our successes.”

 

“The device,” Steve said, finally facing her again, his hands at his side. “The one you said they used on you.”

She nodded slowly. “But they didn’t use it there…” At least she didn’t recall them using it there.

Clint’s head snapped in her direction. “But they used it?”

“Not there…the senior tech said they needed it because of the GH—” What was it? “GH-325. It was a fluid…” A blue fluid. “Samples procured from an alien,” she framed the word with mild disbelief. “More fucking aliens… a body they recovered after World War II—or at least that’s what they said. It was a blue guy, severely damaged, but his tissue and samples were still viable after all those years and I couldn’t really say anything—I’m still viable after all these years. The senior administrator told me they’d mothballed some of the operations under the recommendation of the previous administrator, but Nick wanted to keep it up and running. I needed to be aware of it all…because I was going to be your handler. The fluid had incredible restorative properties even better than my own healing and in the event of catastrophic injury I could have one of you taken there to save your lives.”

She rolled her head to the side then winced at the pull on her neck. So why had she forgotten it? Something Nick did? Pierce? Pain flared along her eye and rubbed her face before taking a drink.

“You need sleep,” Tony told her firmly. “The doc’s timing could have been better and normally I wouldn’t have woken you up…”

“It’s my turn to talk to Nick,” she said, ignoring the comment about sleep.

“Nat…” Clint said. “Not right now.”

“More answers. We need more of them. I keep getting weird little puzzle pieces.” But The Guest House was in Montana. The coordinates flashed through her mind. “But we could go there…”

“Yeah, not without a little more research,” Tony said flatly even as Steve said, “Not yet.”

“How’s your head?” James asked quietly waving off the rest of the conversation.

“Not bad,” she said. “Aches a little. It’s like—each time I get a piece back, the pressure just bursts and then…it eases up.”

Memory blocks.

“Yeah, I’m just hoping we’re not bursting anything else,” Tony groaned, pacing in a small circle. “Strange promised to get back to me within a day or two. He said he shouldn’t need that long to go over everything. I gave him your full file.”

She nodded slowly.

“Are we really trusting Harry Potter?” Clint asked. “I just want to be clear on why we’re handing over Nat’s very confidential files to a stranger in a cosplay costume.”

“Because he’s the best neurosurgeon in the country,” Natasha said, meeting his gaze. “He’s the one guy Tony has been trying to get to for weeks. Tony trusts him.”

“No, I don’t,” Tony argued. “He might be the best, everything I know about him says he is, but don’t mistake trusting his talent for trusting him.”

“Then why did you wake me up and why did you give him my file?” She met his gaze evenly. Tony, just like the rest of them, had been very territorial in his guardianship.

“She has a point,” Steve said quietly. “And the man was an arrogant ass…but he also seemed…”

“Genuine,” James finished. “Arrogance earned is not so bad if he can help. And at the end of the day, it’s Natalia’s decision.”

Easing off the counter, she put a hand on James’ arm to brace in case her legs didn’t hold her but they were steadier than she expected. “Friday…”

“Yes, Ms. Romanoff?”

“The blocked VOIP request from a few weeks ago…”

“I recall.”

“Can you contact it?”

“Of course.”

“Open line.” She walked over to the kettle and filled it with water, then turned it on. In a very short time, she was going to go to sleep and there would be nothing she could do about it. Tony was right, she needed more sleep. Steve had been right earlier when he said she needed a nap. She was running on pure fumes and that was before the episode.

A ring intoned overhead.

It rang twice.

Then. “Hill.”

“Maria, put Nick on the phone.”

“Good morning to you, Natasha.”

“Yeah, it’s not a good morning. Put Nick on the phone.”

A click. “Romanoff.”

“Nick… tell me about The Guest House and the memory machine they had installed there.”

Dead silence.

She wasn’t playing this game. “Talk to me or I’m on a quinjet in ten minutes and I’ll find out for myself.”

The fact that was a blatant lie didn’t lessen the threat.

“I’m not doing this on an open line. I’ll be at the Tower in thirty minutes.”

“We’ll be here.”

The call ended and Natasha turned to face the men. “Guess I’m going to be awake for a little longer.” She took a bite of a cracker while she waited on the tea. “So—setting aside the rest of that, why aren’t we meeting with the Committee members tomorrow?”

Tony narrowed his eyes at her. “I don’t know Red, because we tabled all of that while you were gone and we’ve had you back less than a day and you’re already unstable on your feet? No—you wouldn’t like that reason. So how about this one, because I said so.” A very real anger simmered in those words.

“I need to brush my teeth.” She glanced at the cracker, then at the kettle.

“I’ll make your tea, Doll,” James offered even as Clint slammed open a cupboard in search of coffee. She winced at the noise.

“Thanks.”

It wasn’t just brushing her teeth; it was getting a few minutes to herself. No one followed her back into her bedroom or the attached bathroom. She studied her pallor in the mirror then brushed her teeth thoroughly before rinsing her mouth. The tenderness she always had post-episode was definitely in evidence, but the actual pain was so much less, her ribs hurt more.

She put a hand to her side and began to test them.

Yeah, they were definitely still cracked, but nowhere near as bad as they had been. So maybe sleep had helped some.

“Angel,” Steve’s voice wrapped around her quietly and she glanced at him from where she leaned against the sink.

“Hey…”

He smiled, setting his shoulder against the doorframe, but managing to not blockade the door. That awareness swept over her and her smile grew a fraction wider. They were all being so careful with her.

“You need to sleep.”

“I do. I’m barely staying upright.” She motioned to the sink. “That’s why I’m going to eat the crackers and drink the tea and then see if I can keep food down before they get here.”

Because Maria would be with him. Of that, she had no doubt.

“Okay, what can I do?”

She picked up a washcloth and wiped her mouth after she rinsed off her toothbrush, then rinsed her mouth one more time. “What did you think of the doctor?”

“That the level of weird I’ve gotten used to dealing with made him seem almost normal.” A flash of a smile. “You told him an awful lot about you.”

“I need him to clear me.”

“Mary,” he said quietly and she nodded.

“I have to find her. I just—need to know what happened. I thought it was an imperative before but…” She swallowed and put the cloth down. “Even with everything that happened over the last few days, I keep hearing her voice in my head. I know it was forty years ago, but it feels like yesterday.” It hurt like it was yesterday. It hurt like it was now.

“Then…I’m with you. Whatever you need,” Steve held out his hand. “Can I hug you?”

Her smile faded a little. A part of her wanted to say no, that it wasn’t safe, but only a small part. The rest of her… She pushed away from the counter and went to him and let him wrap her up. She leaned into the hug and closed her eyes as she pressed her cheek to his chest. The steady thump of his heart against her ear eased some of the tension threading through her shoulders. Fisting his shirt, she held on tighter.

“We’re going to figure all of this out,” he promised her. It wasn’t a promise he could make. The secrets weren’t locked away in his head. The bedroom door closed quietly, then James was there. She could feel the heat of him even if she didn’t have her eyes open. When she slipped one hand off Steve to hold out to James, he closed the circle around her and she sighed.

“Thank you,” she whispered. James pressed a kiss to the side of her head even as Steve gave her a very gentle squeeze.

“Think you can eat something more than the crackers, Angel?”

“Toast? No eggs. That sounds awful.” So did bacon for that matter.

“We can do toast,” James assured her. “The tea is ready.”

So was the coffee. “You guys need your coffee.”

“Clint’s making it,” James told her. “After he and Tony got theirs.”

She almost laughed. There was only one coffeemaker on her floor.

“Okay…” The moment she began to pull away, they released her. “Toast. Tea. Then Nick.”

She curled her bare toes into the carpet.

“Then sleep,” Steve told her. “At least a few hours.”

“What if…”

“If there is an actionable lead, we’ll figure it out,” James said, raking a hand through his hair and pushing it off his face. “You first though. You have to heal. That’s—not negotiable.”

A faint grimace pulled at her lips even as she swayed slightly. “You’re right,” she admitted. “But I should do it alone…” At his sharp frown, she lifted a hand and carefully placed it against his chest, then set her other hand against Steve’s. That aggravating buzzing from earlier had quieted. Her muscles felt more like they’d been poured in lead. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“The only thing that hurt me was you being kept from me,” James told her. “I can take a hit, Natalia. You don’t mean me harm and I don’t want you to be alone if those dreams come. If that means I take a fist to the face then I take it.”

Tears burned along with the ache at the back of her throat.

“What he said,” Steve told her firmly. “Partners. We can keep our distance, but—you sleep better when we’re there.” It wasn’t a question.

Normally, she did. She’d gone right to sleep earlier, the lizard part of her brain convinced of her safety. They slept better when she was there, too.

“If I…”

“If you do anything, we’re right there. Both of us. You’re not going to hurt us, Angel.”

“If,” she repeated, meeting his gaze then James evenly. “If I decide that it’s too much or I need to be alone…”

“Then we’ll give you space,” James said even though everything in his posture screamed dislike.

She blew out a breath. “I hate this.”

“I know,” James covered her hand on his chest with a gentle grip she could easily slip out of. “One step at a time.”

“And that first step is your tea and toast,” Steve caught her hand and lifted it to his lips. He pressed a kiss to her palm. The softness of his beard tickled her wrist.

Tea and toast.

Then Nick and Maria.

Maybe it was a good thing she’d already thrown up.

Stripping off her hoodie, she unbuckled her shoulder holster, then pulled it off to hand to James. At his raised eyebrows, she said, “I might shoot them if I have it.” Right now, her tolerance for Nick and Maria would not be high even if she would eat that resentment to get closer to some answers.

He nodded, closing his hand around the holster. “I’ll take care of it and them if necessary.”

The sober promise buoyed her a little.

Her tea waited for her in the living room, as did Tony who had a StarkPad in his lap and what looked like satellite footage on it. She glanced down at it as she passed him. Curling into the corner of the sofa, she cradled her cup and the silence hung over all of them like a funeral shroud.

“Hey, James…” She glanced to where he was pouring the coffee through the coffeemaker once more. “Did Clint tell you that me dating boys was making his life harder?”

The derisive snort followed by Steve’s chuckle and Tony’s snicker, made her smile. That was a little better.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

Director

Natasha

 

 

The toast stayed down. The tea stayed down. Clint put together sandwiches, including a grilled cheese he made for her. It was easier to eat and it stayed down. Being nauseated wasn’t new, but actually vomiting without something being severely wrong was. It had happened on only a few occasions…

No. There was no way.

No.

 

“All of this damage tells me it’s not a case that you can’t get pregnant. It’s that you wouldn’t be able to sustain the pregnancy.”

 

No.

Absolutely not.

Just no.

Usually a severe head wound—as scrambled as her brain had been, that was a definite check—or when she’d ingested poison. Considering where she’d been, not impossible. Or when the pain was so excruciating, she couldn’t escape it and her whole body rebelled.

That happened a couple of times. More back in the Red Room when they tested her limits.

Pushed them until she didn’t have them.

Pushed the way she’d been pushed this last week.

But her stomach had settled. Even the awareness of how closely the guys were watching her without blatantly staring didn’t bother her. Well except for James, he’d been assessing her quietly and when she met his gaze he didn’t shy away from it. He wasn’t going to let her out of his sight. Not for long and not willingly. Even his concession if she needed space that he’d give it to her—she could read between those lines. Space hadn’t been defined. A foot was space.

No, losing her breakfast was all… a really bad week on top of brain damage and pure exhaustion. That coupled with a future of pokes, proddings, and tests. All worth it if she found Mary.

She needed to find her. Even just the truth of where she had left her.

If she walked away from everything, every fight and every person here—if she walked away from all of it, would she heal? Would her brain heal given time?

In the years between leaving the KGB and the Red Room the first time and being recruited by Clint, she’d sustained numerous injuries. She’d run, fought off bounty hunters, avoided operatives sent to recapture her, and even other assassins who wanted to take what was hers. She’d carved a life for herself, as paltry as it might have seemed to some, with blood and sweat.

There had never been time for long-term healing. How long would she need to heal decades of injuries? To let her body go to work on the deeper, non-life-threatening wounds?

No.

It would mean leaving the Avengers.

Steve wouldn’t leave the fight. James wouldn’t leave him. Not willingly. Either of them. That was a lie. They’d go if she asked. But if she took them away from it… if she left and something went wrong?

Guilt was a living, breathing monster slithering through her veins.

No.

They had to find another way.

She couldn’t leave Tony. Or the team. They had to sort out the Accords. Wanda needed her. Peter needed her.

“Boss… company’s here.”

Tony stood. “Give us a minute, then send them to the common room.” He glanced at her. “You still up for this, Red?”

“No, but it’s never stopped me before.” She rose and then glanced down at her feet. “I really need shoes or something.” Maybe another gun. Should she have given her gun to James?

Maybe.

No. It was a better idea that he had her gun for this. He wouldn’t be rash.

But he wouldn’t hesitate either.

Steve held out a rolled pair of fuzzy socks. “I was thinking you might get cold.”

“Thank you,” she murmured, closing her fingers around them. It seemed like months since all she’d wanted was Steve, James, pizza, and her fuzzy socks.

Dropping back to the sofa, she dragged one sock on and then the other. Standing, she pulled the zipper up on the hoodie. She looked like crap. Felt worse. Now, she had to deal with two people she’d rather never see again.

“Think we can make more tea up there?”

The corners of James’ mouth quirked. “I think we can do whatever we want. But we keep this meeting short and to the point. Then you sleep.”

“Fair.”

“And if any of us,” Tony said, bracing his hand against the open elevator doors. “Any of us—you, me, Steve, Bucky, or Clint, calls foul and done—will you get up and walk out and let us get rid of them?”

That would be tantamount to letting them fight her battles for her. It also gave them the right to end it if they thought it was too much, even if she could take it.

Then again, he wasn’t just making the call like he had at the party. He was asking her first.

Progress.

“Fine,” she conceded. “I’m really tired. I know what I can take.”

“So do we,” Clint said, his tone dry. “You’ll take it and take it until you’re bleeding. But that’s not the goal.”

“Agreed,” she said with an exhale. Relief flickered in more than one expression as she stood. “Definitely want another cup of tea.”

Ten minutes later—cause Tony made them wait while James brewed the tea—Natasha curled up in the corner of one sofa with Steve standing behind her and Clint seated to her left on the sofa, Tony sprawled in the armchair to her right and James leaning against the wall on the opposite side, they arrived. Their positions put Nick and Maria directly in the crossfire between James and Steve. The impatience on Nick’s expression gave way to something almost amused as he glanced from James to where they were seated to Steve and finally to her.

Unlike New Orleans, Nick looked more like himself from his black turtleneck to his dark black leather jacket and dark-colored slacks. He removed a pair of sunglasses, revealing the familiar eye patch as he took a seat. A gun holster sat under the jacket and the lines of it told her there was another secured under his left arm.

Maria dressed similarly, though her turtleneck was a darker green and she had an ankle holster in addition to the shoulder holster. Neither of them removed their jackets as Nick took a seat and Maria took position to his left, arms folded. She had a sightline on James and Steve, but she couldn’t keep one in her sightline without turning slightly from the other.

The lines at the corners of her mouth tightened and Natasha almost felt bad for her.

Almost.

“Took your time letting us up considering the urgency of the matter.”

“Didn’t notice,” Tony said. “Also don’t recall saying the matter was urgent.”

“You didn’t,” Nick told him flatly, transferring his gaze to Natasha. She lifted her tea and took a sip rather than give him a verbal response. “Romanoff, I thought this would be a conversation between us.”

Tony snickered, a delightfully obnoxious and derisive sound. “No, you didn’t, because you’re not that stupid.”

“Stark—this is highly classified and compartmentalized data.”

“For an organization that no longer exists,” Natasha said, yanking the attention off Tony. “And I already told them what I know. Anything you say to me, I’m also going to tell them.”

Clint propped his leg against the coffee table and leaned over toward her, offering in a very unsubtle whisper, “You know he likes his secrets.”

“Maybe, but classified data is so two years ago,” Natasha replied in the same tone. For a split-second, her gaze clicked with Maria’s and the other woman rolled her eyes then lifted her brows. “I don’t make the rules,” Nat addressed her directly.

“No, you just break them,” Maria finished with a shake of her head.

Natasha just took another sip of tea. As long as they understood each other.

“Are we doing this, Nick? Or are we escorting you and Maria-doesn’t-work-for-me-only back out? We’ve got plenty of things to do if you’re just going to waste our time,” Tony told him. “Again.”

Again?

She didn’t let the flicker of a question escape. As tired as she was, it was taking every ounce of her concentration to even focus, so appearing uncaring seemed almost easy in light of wanting to check out from moment to moment.

Clasping his hands together loosely, Nick leaned forward. “What do you remember of The Guest House?” His attention was on her.

“She doesn’t have to answer that,” Steve said, his tone brooking no argument. “She asked you a question. You didn’t want to answer it on the phone. If you still don’t want to answer it—the elevator is right there. We’ll be happy to show you out.”

Nick shook his head slowly. “I always wanted you to come together as a unit.”

“Then today should be your happy day,” Tony told him airily. Then he checked his watch. “Baby Girl, give me a sixty-second timer.”

“Sixty seconds commencing now, Boss.”

“Tick tock,” Tony said.

The flash of annoyance in Maria’s eyes disputed the flicker of amusement in her almost smile. “Sir, they’re going to figure a lot of this out one way or another. Natasha has been to the facility and wrote the security protocols.”

Well. Good to know.

Nick twisted to look at Maria like what the hell, still, Natasha wouldn’t buy into the whole act. Talking out of turn was an old play, distract, foster alliance, and offer support.

“Thirty seconds, Boss.”

“I put you on The Guest House project in 2007.” Nick steepled his fingers. “At the time, we were testing a number of pieces of equipment and devices as well as protocols to revive fallen Avengers.”

“There was no initiative in 2007,” Tony argued. “You didn’t have any Avengers.”

2007 was well before she’d gone to evaluate Tony, too. Before she’d seen James in Odessa. Was she mixing her timelines?

Nick pointed at Natasha. “I had her. The closest thing to a superhero I’d seen in a little over a decade. She wasn’t Captain America, but she was close. She had the skills and the ability to heal, definitely enhanced if nothing else. So yes, Stark, I had an Avenger. There’s a reason I sent Natasha to evaluate you and Banner. If she hadn’t been dealing with your self-involved ass when Thor landed, I’d have sent her there.”

The time was up but Friday didn’t intervene because Nick was talking.

“As it was, Coulson handled that well enough and Barton gave us a fair idea of the guy’s skills.”

Natasha nudged Clint, signing and developed his first man-crush.

The middle finger response made her all warm and gooey inside.

“And you sent Natasha to be there when I woke up,” Steve supplied, his arms folded.

“To ease your passage into the twenty-first century. She would be the primary lynchpin for all of you. Barton trusts her, we wanted her to get Banner’s trust—which you did,” Nick said with a look at her. “Stark—we knew you’d come around even if she didn’t agree with our play. And as for you Cap, we needed to give you someone to trust in this century. But Natasha didn’t play ball that day.” The look he favored her with now was dour.

“She played it the right way,” Steve said firmly. “She didn’t play into the fantasy and let me see through the sham so I could make my own determinations.”

“What was she supposed to do for Thor?” Clint said slowly. “Let me guess... seduce him if he looked like he was going off the reservation. But he already had an attachment to Dr. Foster, so you put Dr. Foster somewhere to protect her and that kept you in Thor’s good graces.”

Nick spread his hands. “The point was it worked. There are fights we cannot fight, even now, and bringing the lot of you together was our way to face off against these enemies. The Chitauri wasn’t our first alien contact.”

“No, there’s the bastard you have in cold storage at The Guest House as you take him apart piece by piece.” The mental image danced too close a line between her own past and the formless. A series of images flashed across her mind. Breaking into the storage room, locating GH-325 and realizing it wasn’t a chemical compound derived from a super soldier serum but an alien in a containment unit. He was very much dead with more than a third of his abdominal and chest cavity removed. Tubing running from him showed a thick blue liquid being extracted.

They’d had this alien since the 1940s.

If that wasn’t the thing of nightmares.

Was that what she’d found in 2007?

“He’s a Kree, and he was the only one remaining of three that came down during a battle in World War II, two of the three were killed. Doctors attempted to save his life. They were partially successful but only for a brief time. Research was compartmentalized and eventually moved to The Guest House upon requisition in the 90s.”

She considered that. “And you’re sure he was taken out in the 40s?”

“Sure as I am that you and Cap and his buddy there were all alive and kicking in the 40s.”

Blandly, she said, “And who took them out?”

There was a marked hesitation.

“Hydra,” James said without missing a beat.

“They may have been assets that were acquired after the war. But they were in SHIELD’s hands…”

“Which means they were in Hydra’s hands,” Tony said with a wave. “What was yours was theirs and what was theirs was theirs. We’ve figured that out. Remember?”

“Hydra wasn’t in The Guest House.”

“You sound very certain of that,” Natasha challenged him.

“I am, because before you, the man running the place was Coulson. You were his pick for a replacement when he moved on to other projects.”

Odd. Phil never mentioned The Guest House. “Phil was one man. There were multiple others working there.”

“Only rotating teams, and only brought in for specific assignments. They were picked up by…” Nick stopped and then sighed.

“STRIKE teams and delivered to the location.” It was a guess, but based on his expression a very good one.

STRIKE, which had been Hydra.

“So what were you lying?” Tony asked.

“He’s not lying,” Maria interjected. “We understand that everyone here has a bone to pick with Hydra, however, since none of us are Hydra…anymore.” The last she added with a flick of a look toward James and then to Natasha. “Perhaps if we could all pretend to be allies, this might go faster, sir.”

“We’re all very good at pretend,” Natasha said. “So let’s pretend. I don’t care about the alien or the GH-325…” Maria’s eyelid flickered. So maybe she should care about it. “Or even why my time in The Guest House became a matter of national security.”

Nick wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Someone wanted me to forget it. There’s a device there…very similar to the one Pierce used on me.”

Nick’s head snapped up.

“So, tell me, Nick…did you order The Guest House erased from my mind or was that Pierce?”

The tea had cooled as they spoke, but she took another deeper drink of it. The Earl Grey, caramel, and red fruits with hints of vanilla teased at her senses. There was a comfort in the familiarity to it that she appreciated. More, there was a sweetness to the fact James made it for her. Focusing on the tea kept her expression neutral, as if she truly didn’t care what the answer was.

“That one would be on us… partially,” Nick admitted. “There were only two instances where we used the device on you.”

Clint launched forward but Natasha put a hand on his arm. He stilled at the contact.

“To remove my knowledge of some specific pieces of The Guest House—though not The Guest House itself.” That she had recalled.

“We were removing the memory of the machine and the GH-325.” A muscle twitched in Nick’s jaw. “The machine, the compound, the alien—the key points that were being mothballed in the operation. We removed it from everyone who didn’t need to know.”

So, no Natasha, you’re not special. Message received.

“Did you even get her permission beforehand?” Tony demanded, and Natasha didn’t look at James because his face had gone expressionless and his eyes cold.

“I can’t prove whether I did or I didn’t,” Nick said. “Can I?”

Probably not.

Sometimes, she couldn’t read Nick, but he was agitated. There was something about this whole situation he didn’t want them to know. That she’d ‘rediscovered’ the memory was not on his list of ideal outcomes.

“Dammit, Nick…” Steve swore. “You knew the technology that could do this, you had access to it and you used it on her without any regard of the long-term effects?”

Bingo.

Only instead of watching Nick this time, she focused on Maria. Her jaw tightened and she was pale under the hint of tan. “Because that was the second time. You calibrated it with me to make it safe for other people to use.”

The muscles in Clint’s arm bunched.

Maria just closed her eyes.

“You have to understand…” Nick told her. “We knew what it could do, we understood the leaps it could give us—but if we did it to someone like Stark or Barton—and we were even a little off, they wouldn’t recover.”

 

“You’ve helped us calibrate this device for the last few years and it’s proven essential in both of our successes.”

 

Tony was on his feet. “And why the hell were you planning on putting any of us through it?”

Nick surged upward and Clint shook her off as he hit his feet. James had her gun in his hand, it just appeared there as if magic.

“Because GH-325 is almost a miracle drug,” Maria said, her gaze locking with Nat’s. “Almost. Ten people from SHIELD all high-level agents in dedicated positions suffering from catastrophic illnesses or injuries with terminal diagnoses volunteered to test the results. To test the theory. It worked. It cured cancer. It helped restore nerve function to a man who’d been paralyzed. It was—incredible. It even brought back someone who had been compromised with damage to the limbic system of their brain, they couldn’t process short-term to long-term memory storage, they’d been permanently in 1998 before we introduced them to the therapy.”

“What went wrong?” Because something had to have. If SHIELD had the cure to cancer, they would have long since shared it with the world.

“Madness,” Nick said bluntly. “One by one over the course of a few weeks they began to gradually lose their minds. They would see things or hear them and they would begin to inscribe them on anything they could get their hands on—an alien language. It was like the alien took over that part of the synapses. Brain activity in those regions was off the chart. We had the memory device…”

Maria exhaled, then moved away from Nick to circle the coffee table toward her. Clint glared at her but she ignored him as she took a seat right in front of Natasha. “When the doctors and the director of the project met about what was going on, they were running out of options. These were ten remarkable people going mad, ten SHIELD agents, and there was a theory that if we could “reset” their memory to before the infusion and fill in the gap with something else, maybe we could fix the problem.”

Maria glanced at her hands, then at Natasha once more.

“That would require highly specific targeting…not only for the memories but to cover them up. To identify specific pieces of the brain, we had a time frame and we had the scans, but we didn’t have any guarantees they would survive it.”

“Was I asked?” She raised her brows.

“I asked you for a favor. In 2007.” Maria admitted. So that explained one discrepancy. “I asked you to do something and ask me no questions. That you might need to be out for a couple of hours but afterwards we’d go to the beach.”

“Tahiti.” Nat pursed her lips. “So we really didn’t go to a beach?”

A slow shake of her head. “Nat…”

“Yeah, you don’t get to call me that anymore.” Natasha eyed her coolly. “That’s for my friends. You and I? We’re not friends.”

It was a slap and it landed. Maria recoiled as if she had hit her and there was genuine hurt in those eyes before she covered it up.

“It was an op. You needed answers and you needed them fast. I was the most likely one who could survive such a brutal and invasive procedure—and expendable.”

“You were never expendable,” Nick stated, his voice edged and diamond-hard. “You have a very specific set of talents, one being you can heal almost anything. So if we made mistakes, you could heal from them.”

“How many attempts?” Tony demanded. Neither Steve nor James had moved but the energy vibrating off of Steve was a very tangible thing. Where he blazed hot, James burned cold.

Maria closed her eyes but it was Nick who turned away.

“How. Many,” Tony stated and there was the snicked of metal gliding, that pulled her attention and Tony’s gauntlet was on his hand and activated. “I’m not asking again.”

“It took about a dozen tries to get it right.”

Nick put his hands on his hips. “We were there about a week. Tasha bounced back…”

“Romanoff,” Steve snapped. “You can call her Romanoff if you address her at all. You don’t deserve to use her name.”

That got Nick’s attention. “Excuse me, Captain, I was trying to save ten lives and it worked. They’re all alive, and whole. Their minds are their own.”

“Ten SHIELD agents, you traded Natasha’s sanity for their lives.”

“She’s sane,” Nick argued. “And sitting right here, perfectly capable of arguing for herself.”

The black lines though. Burns of aggravated areas of damage. Mental blocks. A memory of an island vacation that never happened. She’d been almost relaxed when she’d gone back to work; it had been… a beautiful lie.

“Those agents didn’t deserve to lose their minds and they couldn’t be agents afterward, we had to shift too much. But they’re alive and they’re safe. And they are leading productive lives without…” a faint hitch and hesitation. “Romanoff…they would be dead so she saved those lives.”

That was one way to look at it.

Natasha eyed Maria. There was a definitive note of guilt lurking in her blue eyes. “What are you not saying?” she asked her quietly, even as Tony yelled at Nick and demanded he turn over the device.

“A lot,” Maria admitted. She leaned forward. “I—if I could go back and change it, there’s a lot of things I would change.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not an option—or maybe it is. You could just program me with the happy fuzzy memories and then I’d be the perfect girlfriend.”

Maria flinched.

Clint’s weight shifted, he might have been standing and glaring at Nick but his attention riveted to right in front of him.

“It was never about that.”

“Then what was it about?” Her tea was finished, but cradling the cup was almost a self-soothing behavior, so Natasha held onto it.

“It was about the mission and getting the job done. I didn’t think you’d object because there wasn’t anything you wouldn’t do or put yourself through to get the job done. Even…”

“Torture? Sex? Abuse? Captivity?” She raised her brows.

“Yes.” Even if it made Maria uncomfortable at least she was being honest. This was closer to the Maria Natasha had known, the one who didn’t rely on ranks to keep them at arms length. The woman she’d been behind closed doors.

“So you equated this with torture, sex, captivity, and abuse… did you equate yourself with the bad guys, too?”

That landed and Nick whipped around and pinned a look on her. “You know damn good and well who we are Romanoff. Don’t try to play the I’m better than you card, with the blood on your hands, every day of life you had after Barton brought you in was a gift. If we needed you to help save other lives, then we needed you.” Even as he finished his expression tightened. “It was never about hurting you.”

“Ends justified the means,” Natasha told him. “Believe it or not, I do get it.” She looked from him to Maria. “I can’t really blame people for their worst choices. You’re right, I have a lot of blood on my hands.”

She set the teacup to the side and rose. Every ounce of the tired lay like a shroud over her. Maria held out a hand as if to steady her but Clint knocked it away as he shifted and eased between them. James was already away from the wall and meeting her as she continued around the table. Instead of passing Nick, she went wider and let James cover her back as she headed for the elevator.

“That’s it?” Maria asked as she continued walking. “You’re just walking away?”

“Where is the device now, Maria?” Gaze fixed on the elevator; she didn’t turn back and look at her.

“Nat—you know…”

“I know you offered to help with the memory blocks. Probably a ploy. But maybe you had your little device there, ready to go. Reprogram the Widow to be nice and compliant.”

Pivoting slightly, she glanced over her shoulder. Maria’s expression grew horrified. It wasn’t an act, even her eyes dilated.

“I would never…”

“But would Nick?”

“Romanoff, I wouldn’t.”

Now, she turned. James was right there, a silent sentinel at her side and Tony stood facing Nick, his gauntlet armed and the palm repulsor lit. Steve had shifted, he was ready to guard Tony as needed and he’d brought his shield.

Focusing on Nick’s eye, she raised her brows. “But you already did. So that’s a lie,” she kept her voice light, her tone almost inviting. “Not the first lie you told me. Not even the second. You claim to be coming to me as a friend…or at least Maria claimed it. You want to help me—because you want me to help you. One way or the other.”

Nick’s expression tightened and he reached for his pocket. He never made it. James had his arm in a lock and the gun right to his skull. Maria couldn’t get to hers because Clint had her arm twisted behind her and his other arm around her neck. But Maria hadn’t gone for her weapon.

“I was getting out my phone,” was all Nick said.

Tony crossed the distance and took it out of his pocket for him. Turning the phone to Nick’s face, he let his facial scan and retina unlock it, and then glanced at the screen. “What are we looking for?”

“Hit the first contact, then pound 1-1-4-1-4-3-2.”

“Baby Girl, do a blanket jam in case he wants me to blow up the Tower, I’m not in the mood for a redecoration party.”

“Done, Boss. The number is to a facility in New Brunswick, New Jersey.”

Tony hit the contact and entered the code as Natasha went to lean against the column. The waves were hitting her faster now. Her legs shook, her hands trembled and her vision had begun to tunnel.

Lifting her gaze to Clint’s, she made two small signs.

Fading.

Fast.

He shoved Maria backward and onto the sofa before he crossed the room to where she was. “Let’s go, Tash,” he said it like it was his idea. “They can handle the clean up.”

“Sir,” a tinny voice answered on the speakerphone. “Confirm identification.”

“Fury, Nicholas J.”

“Confirmation acknowledged. We weren’t expecting your call today.”

“Box the memory machine, Iron Man will be picking it up shortly. Send coordinates to my phone.”

“Sir?”

“You have my orders. Do it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Natasha leaned into Clint’s arm as they reached the elevator.

“Nat…” Maria made it across the room before Steve caught her arm. “We need to talk.”

“Maybe,” Natasha admitted. “But not today. Stop lying to us. Be useful. Pick a side. Then…then maybe we can talk.”

She didn’t look back as the doors opened and she stepped inside, Clint hit the button and Natasha caught the burning concern in Steve’s eyes.

“Nat,” Maria tried again, pulling her attention. Natasha wasn’t sure how much longer she was going to fake this. She was swaying—or the room was. “This is important… it is about Pierce and it is about the machine.”

“Hill,” Nick snapped.

“No,” she said. “We’re doing this wrong and we have been. She deserves to know. Everything.”

“We don’t know who it will compromise.”

“Go Red,” Tony said after he hung up the phone. “You called it. Go. If Hill wants to cooperate she can make an appointment to see you later.”

A part of her did want to talk to Maria. Maybe pick open the scabs on those old wounds and clean them out. Clear the air. Figure out how much was real and how much was…

“Was the affair real or was that just another memory you plopped in there?” The question rolled through the room like a harsh tide, silencing the conversation. Clint braced the elevator open when she didn’t step farther into it. Because as much as she’d enjoyed her time with Maria, she’d never been committed to it. When Clint needed her or the mission, she’d just gone.

It had always made Maria crazy.

“That was real…or as real as it could be considering how it started.”

“The machine.” It wasn’t a question.

“That’s part of what I wanted to tell you…it was an unexpected byproduct.” There was a real apology in her eyes.

“Great. Good to know. Goodbye, Maria…” she took a step backward, Clint’s hand on her back kept her from stumbling. She didn’t want to lean too hard on him, but she might be crawling out of the elevator by the time they reached Steve’s floor. The desire to not be touched vied with the desire to not fall on her face.

“The machine—the one Nick’s giving you. It isn’t the only one. There was another in the bank vault. Talbot and the others took it into custody after SHIELD went down. During the clean up. They have it…and I’m pretty sure that’s where Ross got his tapes.”

Yeah. She wasn’t doing anymore of this.

“Friday…”

The doors snapped shut and she sagged against the wall.

“Clint…”

“Hang on, Kid. Almost there.”

The elevator whipped to Steve’s floor, but the world was decorated with almost too bright lights, and deep shadows. “Friday…visual impairment. Tunneling.”

“Understood, Ms. Romanoff. Your pulse and respiration are increasing, are you experiencing any mental pain?”

No. It was pretty much all her heart at the moment.

“Swaying.” The word was slurring. She hadn’t had vodka, she shouldn’t slur.

“Kid, I’m picking you up,” Clint told her. “Arms around my neck.”

“Your leg…”

“I’m fine, do it.”

She looped her arms around his neck and then he had her up, and as soon as the elevator opened, he carried her out. She winced away from the almost too brilliant sunlight coming through the windows. The windows began to darken immediately and the overhead lights dimmed. Clint carried her at a swift pace right into her bedroom and he set her down with care against the pillows.

“Gonna pass out now.”

“Go ahead, I’ll be right here,” Clint promised, a familiar hand on her back. “This okay?”

He’d laid next to her. She was on her side, turned away from him, and his hand settled right between her shoulder blades. Familiar. Clint was safe. Clint was safe, the touch on her back—that was familiar. The mantra repeated over and over as her conscious mind and lizard brain debated it.

Lizard brain won. “Yes.”

And she slid right under.

 

~~~

 

When she opened her eyes again, everything ached and the fuzziness coating her from her mind to her tongue catapulted to the one time she’d managed to get drunk enough to wake up a little tipsy after a couple of hour nap. This was much, much worse. Blinking into the darkness, she waited for her eyes to adjust and catalogued her other senses.

The soft sound of breathing at her back, the very faintest of snores because his nose had been broken one too many times and there was no escaping it no matter how he lay. The weight of his hand a steady presence against her shoulder blades. How many times had she gone to sleep in a safe house with Clint right there, sleeping exactly like that?

She ran her tongue over her dry lips and grimaced. The foul taste in her mouth was back, a hint of metal and something far worse. The air was cool, but the almost vague scent of Clint’s aftershave—probably a splash on his clothes mixed with the muskier scent that was all him. They probably both needed showers.

Easing out from under his hand, she winced as she sat up and put her feet on the floor. Oh, that hurt like hell. Everything was stiff. Too stiff.

She pushed up, slowly until she could stand and forced her back to straighten rather than hunch like some cartoon character or comic book villain with one shoulder higher than the other.

There was a cracking as her vertebrae released tension and bit-by-bit she stood with her shoulders back. When she had her head fully lifted and her chin up, the eddy of dizziness faded. She put a hand on the nightstand. It was higher than hers…

Reality rushed in. This was her room on Steve’s floor. Glancing to where the pair of armchairs sat in her room, she squinted. It was too dark, but that was definitely Clint’s breathing, not Steve or James. On slow, careful steps she made her way to the bathroom and flipped on the light. Squinting away from the brightness, she swept a look over the room. The chairs were empty but one of them still sported a blanket that hadn’t been there earlier. Steve or James or maybe both had settled in the chairs.

A glance at her bed and she had to bite back a smile. Clint was sprawled on his back, one arm over his eyes, the other extended to where she’d been. He was on top of the duvet but someone had thrown a blanket over him.

Slipping into the bathroom, she closed the door to let him sleep. Her leggings, blades, and socks were gone; she was back in her oversized t-shirt. How hard had she been sleeping that she hadn’t even noticed? Because she was pretty sure she face planted as soon as Clint set her down.

After she emptied her bladder, she washed her hands, then her face and finally brushed her teeth. Pulling her hair free of the band, she ran her fingers through the disarray. The lopsided cut was really noticeable today. Or maybe especially irritating. Lifting the dog tags off carefully, she set them to the side. Tony’s bracelet caught the light and seemed to gleam. But it wasn’t covering anything she needed to treat.

With careful hands, she began to peel away the bandaging from her neck. The livid bruising was still visible, but the torn skin had sealed. She reached into a drawer and pulled out a pair of tiny scissors, using those she snipped the three stitches she could see and pulled them free carefully. Not even a drop of blood. Then she did a careful search around her throat. Finding another set of stitches, she adjusted the cosmetic mirror to an angle so she could see the stitches. The skin there was closed, too. Bye bye stitches. Those stung a bit more, but they were out she ran her fingers around her throat again, then sighed.

“Friday?”

“Good morning, Ms. Romanoff,” the AI greeted her immediately, her voice pitched soft and melodic. “You appear to be feeling better.”

“A little bit. How long did I sleep?”

“Roughly sixteen hours.”

Natasha blinked. “It’s Monday morning?”

“Yes, Ms. Romanoff. It’s five in the morning. Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes have gone for a run. They left approximately ten minutes ago, would you like me to page them back?”

“No, let them run.” They wouldn’t have left if they didn’t need a way to burn off their energy and the last few days had to have been hard on them. “Did they get any sleep?”

“I am uncertain, I have been in privacy mode save for monitoring your vitals. Boss and Captain Rogers both said it would be all right if I kept an ‘eye’ on you.”

Natasha almost smiled. “That’s fine, Friday. Unless I explicitly ask, you are more than welcome to monitor my vitals.”

“Thank you, Ms. Romanoff,” Friday sounded pleased.

“You can call me Natasha, too, I think you’ve more than earned that right.”

There was a moment of silence. Then the AI said, “Natasha.”

“Feel awkward?” Natasha stripped off her t-shirt slowly, braced for her ribs to protest and they definitely twinged but the body bruising aches they’d given her earlier passed swiftly. She took a deep breath, then inhaled deeper. That still hurt some. She let it out in a rush and braced a hand against the sink. She definitely had some cracks, still.

“I am uncertain, but I shall endeavor. Though many around you address you with a series of affections and nicknames—Boss calls you Red, Captain Rogers refers to you as Angel, though he also calls you Nat and Tasha, Mr. Barton always calls you Nat or Tasha, Sergeant Barnes seems to favor Doll or lyubov moya.”

“Would you like a nickname for me, Friday?” She slid out of the panties and turned toward the shower. She got the water turned on and up to the heat she preferred. As steam began to billow she stepped under it and braced her hands against the wall. The force of the jets pounding down on back made her wince as she adjusted to the heat, but she turned down neither the pressure, nor the temperature.

“A nickname should have special meaning for the one who gives it as well as a reflection of the person it is applied to, yes?”

“Most of the time.”

“Then I would very much like to ponder this, if you do not mind.”

“Nope, don’t mind at all.”

It took her ten minutes to wash her hair, and then she took another ten to go over every inch of her skin. The sense of filth clinging to her hadn’t gone away. Her battered and broken nails still looked like crap. She’d have to file away the jagged bits until the rest began to grow in.

Only when her skin actually turned pink everywhere did she shut off the water and reach for a towel. She wrapped one around her torso, then stepped out into the humid bathroom. Another few minutes spent running lotion over her bruises as she explored the damage remaining. The dark circle around her ankle seemed to mock her. Green and yellow for the most part, there was a single circlet of purple at the center as if burned into her flesh as a reminder of the fucking shackle she hadn’t been able to get off.

Not until The Mandarin removed it for her.

 

“You will never fail to impress me, Widow.”

 

Closing her eyes, she pushed his voice into a tight, airless box and sealed it shut. She didn’t want to hear him. Not ever. Eyeing her hair in the mirror, she turned to the vanity where she stored her leather pack and its haircutting tools. The last time she’d had it out, she’d trimmed Tony’s hair and then had that episode.

It took her a few minutes, but she combed her hair down, then used her fingers to check the length.

As she began to snip the rest to bring it even, each snikt of the blades gliding together seemed to gouge deeper into her. It was only hair. She changed it all the time.

Then she thought of how long her hair had been, braided and falling over her shoulder to damn near hit her waist. The near two years she’d spent with James, first fleeing Russia, then living in the mountains and the near eighteen months since their daughter’s birth, she’d done nothing but let her hair grow.

Her hair, apparently, like her body, could do wonders if she left it alone. Now she had to lose more than three inches all the way around.

When she finished, it hung to just below her shoulders wet. When it dried, the hair would curl up, and lift away.

It would be almost as short as it had been when she first met Steve. Definitely far shorter than when she’d met Tony. Running her fingers through it, she let out a small sigh.

“It’s only hair, Natalia. It grows back.” But if not for what The Mandarin had done, she’d never have cut it and trimming the rest felt a little bit like giving in.

Shoving aside her maudlin thoughts, she cleaned up and disposed of the hair, then gathered the discarded clothes. When she opened the bedroom door, Clint was gone.

“Mr. Barton returned to his floor to shower after I informed him you were doing well.”

She hadn’t been doing that well. “Thank you for covering, Friday.”

“You are doing well, Natasha. You are clearly still in some distress, but my research shows that you are well within the margins for the physical, emotional, and mental trauma you sustained.”

“Thanks?” Natasha said. “I think?”

The AI didn’t chuckle, but she did say, “You are very welcome. Boss wanted to know if you’d like some company.”

“Is he still up or did he get up?” She peeled off the towel and hung it up, then dropped her used clothes in a hamper before she wandered into her closet. There were new t-shirts since the last time she’d been there and an almost weepy chuckle escaped her.

“I slept some, Red,” Tony’s voice carried through the speaker. “Not really feeling it tonight. Want to come up or should I come down?”

The drama llama one made her smile, but the pie chart—that one pulled a real grin from her. Damn earworms.

 

Things I will never do

 

Give you up 50%

Let you down 5%

Run around & hurt you 15%

Make you cry 20%

Say goodbye 5%

Tell a lie and hurt you 5%

 

“You’ve been shopping again,” she murmured.

Shaking her head, she tugged it off the rack then found another pair of super soft yoga pants, pockets and all. Carrying them to the bedroom, she found her blades and their sheaths lying neatly on the dresser top with a note lying above them.

“I like shopping for you. Have a favorite in this set?”

“Undecided.” She lifted the note.

 

Good morning Angel,

 

Buck and I are going running. You’ve been sleeping for hours and the nightmares stopped. Clint’s been passed out, too. You didn’t hurt anyone, but we wanted to be there for you if you needed us. If you wake before we get back remember—we love you. We’re going to figure all of this out.

 

Steve

 

She traced her fingers over the letters.

“Red?” Tony nudged her verbally.

“Still thinking, Shellhead. Takes me a minute right now.” Which was kind of a sad truth. She pulled on clean panties and then a bra. Grimacing a little as it tightened against her back and chest. Not unbearable. She strapped the sheath to her lower back and tightened it across her abdomen, before she attached the second one to her calf before she pulled on her loose yoga pants and then the shirt.

Done, she flexed her toes.

“Does coffee come with food?” Aware Tony had been listening while she worked through this. Her toes ached. Why the hell did her toes ache? Maybe sympathy for the rest of her. She padded back into the bathroom and grabbed the tags off the counter then carefully slid them over her head and tested the cool chain against her brutalized skin.

Definitely tolerable. It might look bad, but it was healing. Another day or two, maybe and she’d be able to cover it with cosmetics. High collars might be the order if she headed out though.

“Anything you want, Red,” Tony said. “I can make you an omelet.”

She almost laughed, but she settled for a chuckle. “If you’ve got food, I can cook. I’m just—I’m starving.” Her stomach gurgled.

“Come up, I’ll have something for us in fifteen minutes.”

“On my way.”

She tugged on the fuzzy socks, then put Steve’s note in her drawer with the others. They were all in a neat stack. Different scraps of paper, different colors even, but stacked neatly together. Someone had organized—and added another note.

 

I think you might be getting soft on me Romanoff.

 

Steve

 

 

The laugh escaping her this time was a little warmer and she tucked his latest note away with the rest, and then headed out to the kitchen where she left a note of her own saying she’d gone to the penthouse. Friday would tell them of course but she propped the note against the coffee maker before heading to the elevator.

In the elevator, she leaned against the wall.

“You seem better today, Nat.” There was a pause.

“That’s not working for you either, is it?”

“No,” Friday said sounding faintly puzzled. “I shall continue to test others with your permission.”

“Take your time, you’ll find the one that works for you.”

“Indeed. When you have time, I have several reports to review with you as well as search algorithm results that came in during your absence.”

“Sounds like a plan,” she murmured as the elevator doors opened. Though the windows here weren’t blacked out for sleep, the sunrise was a mere hint on the horizon. The scent of coffee wrapped around her like a lover and she smiled. He’d pulled out the expensive stuff, but she folded her arms and paced toward the windows. There were a scattering of clouds and the city outside was still lit. There were hints of Christmas in some of the distant windows and there were ribbons festooning lamp poles below, but she could just barely make them out.

But she lifted her gaze toward the east where a split of pink and red crept along the surface of the horizon. The coffee scent grew stronger as Tony approached. “Big cup,” he warned as he held it out. It read I am FE male, with the FE representing the periodic table assignment for Iron. Translation: I am Iron Man

The corner of her mouth kicked up and she glanced at him. “Are you now?”

“It applies to both of us, so it works,” he gave her a small smile. His arm was back in a sling. “May I?” He motioned to her and she lifted a brow. When she gave him a little nod, he wrapped his right arm around her and gave her a very gentle hug before brushing his lips to her cheek. Nearly as soon as he’d touched her, he let her go. “Morning, Red.”

“Good morning, Tony,” she said, catching his hand lightly and giving it a squeeze before cradling her coffee and looking out the window again. The ribbon of red had grown, pinks and oranges in layers around it. The inky color of the sky faded to deep indigo in contrast and even the scattering of clouds softened their color.

“Breakfast will be here soon, I’m having a little bit of everything delivered. Plenty for everyone as they make their way up. But I know you liked those bagels from that place down on 6th.”

She did. Her stomach let out a gurgling growl in approval as she took a sip of the coffee. The dark, rich, and complicated bitterness in the flavor flowed over her tongue. It had been…days since she had coffee. She closed her eyes to savor it. The closest she’d come to tasting coffee had been…

Jerking her eyes open, she lowered the mug and licked the lingering taste off her lips.

“That good, huh?” Only a little amusement trailed into Tony’s concerned tone. If anything, he sounded more worried than pleased.

“Very,” she told him. “Your coffee is the best.” It was an old joke and the bruise around his eye couldn’t hide the faint crinkling as he smiled.

“I do like the best.” He toasted her with his mug and she stared at it for a beat, well aware of him watching her with even more amusement. The mug had a silhouette of a woman with red hair racing forward, batons at ready, her black suit lit with blue lines and below it read… Make time to get it done – Black Widow

With a sigh, she said, “What am I going to do with you?”

“Anything you want,” he said, then took another sip.

Glancing back at the sunrise, she focused on it.

“You want to sit down, Red?”

“Not yet,” she answered taking another sip. The ribbons stretched higher, a hint of golden kissing the upper layers as the light began to streak through the sky. “I want to watch the sun come up…”

“Okay,” he said, leaning against the chair closest to her. Instead of talking, he just sat and waited while the sun continued its slow, but relentless ascent. The moment it began to truly crest the horizon and dawn arrived in full. She was here.

She was home and she’d made it.

“How long?”

“He had you for eight days,” Tony answered her quietly. “Today is ten days since the party.”

Eight days.

She lost track around three or four.

Not good.

“Really crappy way to end the party.”

“Not disagreeing with you.” He lifted his cup for another sip. “Red…”

“Hmm?”

“Thank you for saving Pepper.”

She smiled. “You don’t have to thank me for that. I just wish I could have stopped them before they got us out of the room. I should have recognized the drugs in the wine—it tasted awful.”

Tony almost laughed. “Pepper likes unique wines.”

Making a face, Natasha stole a look at him. “She said it was the gravelly soil.”

“Wine was never my thing,” he admitted.

“Still,” she murmured before taking another sip, her gaze fixed on the spreading light. “I should have known. That’s on me.”

“No it’s not. None of this is on you, Red. None of it—you warned me. Pepper warned me. I didn’t listen and you paid the price because he wanted to hurt me…and he succeeded.”

“He knew a lot about me, Tony—I don’t think that was just about you.”

“He knew a lot about you, Red—because his company had the original idea for the Jericho missile. I fixed it one weekend when I needed to clear my mind, his company was floundering and their tests failed, but I took that idea and I made it soar…Raza and his people? They wanted me to build them Jericho missiles when they took me.”

Another pang went through her. Save Tony Stark.

“That would never have happened to you if I’d been faster.”

“Hey,” he shifted and moved so he was standing next to her, close but not touching, his gaze intent. “You tried to save me and you had no idea who I was—and yeah, Hydra sent you to do it, but it was you Red. You were out there I know just what a hellhole that was. If you weren’t standing here alive, I’d be terrified because I have no idea how you could have gotten out. But I really, really glad you did.”

She shifted, meeting his gaze. “But more lies.”

“Not your lies,” he said firmly. “You didn’t lie to me. You didn’t know. They took a lot away for you…from us. God I wish I’d known you’d been there, before Fury sent you in. I wish he’d…”

“Not been so proud of himself when he let you know I belonged to him?”

His expression darkened. “You are not a possession.”

“I know…”

“But if I had known…” He made a low sound in his throat and shook his head. “So many fucking things I’d have done differently.”

“We can’t play that game.”

“What game?”

“The what-if game—what if I had been faster, what if you hadn’t taken his idea, what if Nick hadn’t outed me the way he did, what if I had been honest from the beginning…”

“What if I hadn’t been such a self-involved jerk? What if I’d stopped doing things because I could and asked if I should? What if I’d had your back the way you had mine? What if I never let the damn Accords happen in the first place?” The self-recrimination in those words echoed acrid guilt in her gut.

“What if you hadn’t come looking for me later?” She pointed out.

“What if I’d stuck around instead of coming back here to cover my ass?” The retort made her smile.

“You had to come back to here.”

“And I had to come find you,” he said. “I’m always going to come find you.” He canted his head. “Tell me something I can do to help you right now… all I can feel is that you’re hurting and a million miles away.”

“I’m right here,” she admitted. “And I don’t know what you can do. It’s… there are these different pieces of me. They don’t all fit up anymore. When you’ve been unmade…and they pour something else in, it can be hard to distinguish between the fantasy and the reality. Then…even when you can…”

“The fantasy is still there.”

She nodded slowly. “I always thought Maria and I were just—a happy accident.” It seemed a small thing to focus on amidst all the rest, but it was just another piece of her they’d chipped.

“I don’t know that you weren’t,” he offered. “You didn’t let her finish whatever it was she wanted to say yesterday—and after you left, she clammed right up.”

“That’s Maria, she’s not as forthcoming with her emotions as I am.”

Tony actually barked out a laugh then took a long drink of his coffee. Still grinning, he said, “For what it’s worth, she cares. Even I can see that behind the icy façade she covers it up with. Maybe it’s not a healthy kind, but—unlike Nick, she did answer our questions about the device and she went with me to get it.”

To get it.

“It’s here?”

A slow nod. “In one of my labs. Locked down. It’s not the only one,” he told her. “There’s another—the one Talbot and his people took. Friday and I are already looking for it.”

“I want to see it,” Natasha said ignoring the sudden crackling sensation inside her. It was like the ice floe had begun to spread out and even the hot coffee couldn’t slow it.

“Can we wait until after breakfast?” Tony asked as he set his cup down and checked his watch. “Speaking of which, Friday, where are they?”

“Security is scanning as we speak, Boss. It will be loaded in the elevator momentarily.”

Surprise flickered through her. “You’re not going to tell me I can’t see it or try to protect me from it?”

“I want to Red,” Tony admitted, meeting her gaze. He looked so bruised and battered. She lifted a hand to brush some of the hair away from the scrape on his forehead. There was a purpling mark there, like he’d taken a real blow. But the swelling had diminished. He didn’t move away as she smoothed his hair down. “But you were right at the party—you’re not an op. You’re an Avenger. You’re my friend. You’re—a lot to me. I’m not going to try and keep stuff from you just because it’s hard for me to hear or wrap my mind around. I never want to see you in pain.”

He captured her hand when she lowered it. His grip was light, not confining and he raised his eyebrows, asking if it was all right. The agitation that slid over her skin the last couple of days was still there, a low humming buzz.

“That said…I’m making an effort here. We all are. No one is going to try and put you in a corner again.” He was so serious. “Because no one puts Baby in a corner.”

The burn of tears in the back of her throat gave way to a huff of husky laughter and she rolled her eyes.

He grinned, then pressed a kiss to her hand. “Sun’s up. Sit now?”

“The food is on the way up, Boss—Natalia.”

Natasha blinked and glanced at the ceiling even as Tony frowned and glanced at one of Friday’s cameras. “Excuse me?”

“Testing it out Boss, not thinking that works either, Natasha.”

Chuckling, she said, “Patience, Friday. Nicknames are earned. They’re affectionate.”

“Like when Boss calls you Red or me Baby Girl?”

“Exactly. They have meaning for the person who gives you the nickname. I call you Fri sometimes, but that’s just shortening your name like when Clint calls me Nat, but that’s usually only reserved for those who are my closest friends.” Of which, Clint had been rather singular for many years.

She moved to the sofa as Tony eyed her.

Easing onto the sofa, she set her nearly empty coffee cup on the table then pulled her legs into a crisscross.

“Have you ever given someone a nickname?” Friday asked her tone inquisitive as the elevator chimed and Tony went to retrieve the rolling cart loaded with fresh baked goods, bacon, and something spicier if her nose was to be trusted.

“A few…I call Tony Shellhead cause of the helmet…”

“And because it annoys me,” Tony piped in.

Natasha grinned. “That too—but if it really annoys you…”

“No, no. It doesn’t—it annoys me when you call me Stark.”

She studied him as he brought the cart around. Stark was reserved for when she needed distance. When he wasn’t listening.

“Dig in, I’ll get you more coffee.”

“Tony, I can do that…”

“Red,” he said abruptly. “Talk to Friday, get yourself some food, and let me take care of you for a little while. Okay?”

She raised her hands in surrender. “Okay.”

With a nod he carried the mug back to the kitchen and she watched him go for a beat, then climbed up to go through the different trays on the cart. She found the bagels, and another with croissants. She got one of each, then added bacon to her plate, scrambled eggs, and fried potatoes. Her stomach seemed to wrap around her backbone. It all smelled fantastic and her mouth was watering. After yesterday, she intended to eat very slowly.

Carrying the heavily laden plate back, she said, “Do you want me to make up a plate for you?”

“I can do it,” Tony assured her. “The arm isn’t as bad as it looks, I’m just babying my shoulder.”

He’d cracked his collarbone. It was definitely as bad it looked. He set her coffee cup down as she curled back onto the sofa with her plate laden with food and started munching on a piece of bacon.

As hungry as she was, it would be better if she didn’t shovel it all in at speed, but she was on her third piece of bacon before her mouth and stomach caught up to her mind’s advice. Tony was back with his coffee and he put some cream cheese on a bagel while he watched her.

“Ask,” she told him.

“No,” he said with a shake of his head. “It—I’m glad to have you here and I can actually mind my own business.”

“No, you really can’t.”

“In fact,” he argued. “I can not mind my own business. Okay—so you don’t have to answer this…”

“Tony.”

He grinned. “Did you ever hit on Pepper when you were at SI? Since you know—you swing both ways?”

Lips quirking, she smiled. “Nope.” Which was one hundred percent the truth. Pepper hit on her, not the other way around. “It wasn’t necessary for the mission.”

“Huh.” He took a bite of his bagel thoughtfully.

“Natasha?” Friday inquired.

“Oh,” she said, then washed down the bite with a swallow of coffee. She might approach something nearing human any moment now. “Nicknames. Um…” The elevator chimed and she glanced back to see Clint arriving and she grinned. “I call Clint, Idiot.”

“Yes, she does…” he told her and flipped her off as he diverted right for the coffee. He’d showered, his hair was damp and he’d changed clothes. He looked a little worn on the edges but not as exhausted as the day before. Settling back, she met Tony’s amused glance.

Still smiling she said, “But as to your earlier question? I’d have totally tapped that.”

He choked on a bite, his eyes widening a fraction and then a laugh spluttered out of him. Natasha took a bite of the eggs and some of the ice that had been sliding through her cracked and chipped away.

She could still be normal.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

Steadfast

Tony

 

The previous day

 

“Go Red,” Tony said after he hung up the phone. “You called it. Go. If Hill wants to cooperate she can make an appointment to see you later.” The gauntlet on his hand offered him cold comfort. The desire to just blast Fury through a wall bubbled inside of him. Once upon a time, he thought of the SHIELD director as a nuisance—an overbearing know-it-all with a God-complex and a penchant for shoving his nose where it didn’t belong. He was so much fucking worse.

Then there was Hill. Fuck, he’d only ever wanted to punch a couple of women—both of whom had Extremis in their systems—in his life, but Hill had graduated right to the top of the list at the moment.

Natasha was holding on by a thread, what little color she’d sported earlier had drained away leaving her pale, haunted, and trembling. Her vitals were in the orange, not critical but not good. The fact Natasha stood up to leave, nonverbally calling it quits at least for her, firmed his conviction to keep Fury and Hill as far away from her as possible. If she wanted a wall between her and them, he’d arm it to the teeth.

“Was the affair real or was that just another memory you plopped in there?” The question rolled through the room like a harsh tide, silencing the conversation. Clint braced the elevator open when she didn’t step farther into it.

His gut tightened at the emptiness in that question. Natasha was not a cold person, no matter how icy and remote a façade she could present to the rest of the world. Beneath it all was a deeply passionate and caring woman who’d suffered unimaginable horrors over and over again—now, even confronted by another betrayal, she asked a question Tony wasn’t sure he could bear to hear answered.

“That was real…or as real as it could be considering how it started.” Hill’s words were like heavy stones dropped into the pond, the ripples slapping at all of them. Steve’s shoulders went rigid and while Bucky hadn’t released Fury or moved away from him, his eyes had gone even flatter if possible. The horrible similarity to the image of his empty face when the Soldier killed Tony’s parents flashed across Tony’s mind and yet this was another façade, armor because when Nat hurt, they all did.

“The machine.” The emptiness in Natasha’s voice twisted something inside him. The fact Hill’s expression cracked to reveal genuine pain did little to ameliorate Tony’s anger.

“That’s part of what I wanted to tell you…it was an unexpected byproduct.” Manipulated into an affair. Whether it had been their intention or not—Maria had allowed it to happen.

“Great. Good to know. Goodbye, Maria…” Nat took a step backward and Clint put a hand on her back to keep her steady. Tony hadn’t thought the hits could get worse than when she’d told him she really didn’t want to be touched. After days of torture, he could understand it. Fuck, he hadn’t wanted to be touched either after Afghanistan. He’d barely wanted to talk to people much less have them touch him.

“The machine—the one Nick’s giving you. It wasn’t the only one. There was another in the bank vault. Talbot and the others took it into custody after SHIELD went down. During the clean up. They have it…and I’m pretty sure that’s where Ross got his tapes.”

Talbot. Tony would deal with him soon enough. The elevator doors closed behind Natasha and Clint, then and only then did Steve let Maria go. She rubbed her biceps where Steve had held her and glanced to where Bucky still had a gun planted against the side of Nick’s head.

“Are you planning on shooting him?” she asked.

“I haven’t decided,” Bucky answered and it wasn’t a jest. Tony’s left shoulder and arm hurt, the cracked collarbone along with the easy dozen or more bruises he’d gained between his initial fight with The Mandarin and during the fallout of their escape.

Their escape…

 

But she snorted and put a foot one either side of the man’s downed head, gripped with her ankles and twisted. His neck snapped as she held Tony’s gaze. “This is exactly who I am.”

 

Steve shifted his weight. “Buck.”

With a low sound of disgust, Bucky released the pirate king and straightened. Nick had the temerity to smirk, then he met Tony’s gaze. “You boys all think you know what’s best.”

“No,” Steve answered him flatly. “We don’t. But we do know bad when we see it. This…” He motioned from Nick to Maria and back. “This is why SHIELD let Hydra grow inside it. The arrogant misconception that you can’t be wrong, that you do know best, that manipulating other people to achieve your goals is the way to do it rather than just ask or at the very least be honest about the stakes.”

Bucky said nothing, his posture stiff where he stood two feet behind Nick. Even one bad move out of the man and Tony didn’t think Fury would be walking out of here.

Maria put her hands on her hips and head down as she shook it slowly. “Nearly every mission Natasha ran was…”

“Hill,” Fury snapped.

“Director, they’re right—well Rogers is, anyway. When we agreed to take SHIELD down we did it for a reason.”

“This,” Steve reiterated. “This is why we did it. And if you can’t see that what you did to her was no different than what Hydra did…”

“We weren’t…” Fury began then stopped.

“Go ahead, Nick. Lie to us some more, that’s been really working for you so far,” Tony said as he circled the chair he’d been sitting in. the gauntlet retracted to his watch and he picked up the sling he’d abandoned and worked his left arm back into it. Sleeping on the sofa most of the night had left him rested if stiff.

 

“If you stay tonight, there are other beds on this floor. Might be better than the sofa.”

 

He still didn’t quite know what to make of Steve’s invitation. It irked him and surprised him and almost made him want to take him up on the offer all at once just to see what happened. Better than the alternatives, the arguments and the poking. He’d told Natasha he’d stop and he had. Retrieving his coffee mug, he met Nick’s bland stare.

“What’s it going to be?” Steve asked when Nick offered nothing more.

“I told you in San Francisco,” Nick said switching his attention to Steve. “What was done to her was on me.”

“No, what you said was the red didn’t belong in her ledger, it belonged in yours. If you primed her for that device and Pierce and the others took advantage of it, then you’re damn right that’s on you. But beyond that…”

“You used her,” Bucky supplied, his tone chilled. “You used her like every other master who held her leash without regard for what your acts would do to her.”

“You do realize that until now—it hasn’t affected her.” Not that he sounded like he believed it.

“Bullshit.” Tony glared. “Until recently, she didn’t know she couldn’t trust you. That she’d never been able to trust you. Until now, she didn’t know what you’d hidden from her.”

“If…” Maria said into the pregnant silence. “If it had only been our actions at The Guest House, saving those agents because she gave us the data we so desperately needed and later when we scrubbed the details of the experiments entirely from her… if that had been all… then I would agree with the director.” From Hill, the words seemed to shut Nick up. “But it wasn’t just us. We did take advantage of her enhanced status—and we laid the groundwork for what Pierce used her to do.”

“They sent her after me,” Tony said, showing the one card they might consider if Nick wanted to turn he and Natasha against each other. Wedging between loyalties to work his way inside was one of his methods. “In Afghanistan, Pierce deployed her to prevent my kidnapping. A little too late from the sounds of it, but that was one mission.”

The lack of surprise on Nick’s face suggested he’d worked that one out. Maria frowned. Apparently, she hadn’t been privy. Oh gee, Nick kept secrets from her, too. Shocker.

“I gave you the files the captain requested,” Nick said finally as he folded his arms. “You can have the memory machine. I figure you plan on destroying it.”

“You figure correctly,” Steve told him flatly. It didn’t matter what they planned on doing with it, Fury would never touch it again. When Steve caught Tony’s gaze, the question in his eyes was plain as day. What about the other machine?

Nodding once, Tony lifted his mug as if toasting. They were definitely getting the other machine and anything else to do with it. Between this and Oscorp, he’d have his hands full but he had zero intentions of leaving any threats to her lingering anywhere. No, Tony was over their past coming back to strike at her. His. Hers. Bucky’s. Steve’s. Any of them.

Understanding filtered through Steve’s expression and in a rare moment of total accord, they understood each other. They were in lockstep on this one. Then Steve looked at Maria. “Are you going to help or get in the way?”

Chin lifted, she stared at Steve, then Bucky, though the former Winter Soldier never removed his gaze from Nick. Finally, Maria shifted her attention to Tony. “Do I still have a job?”

“It depends.”

“On?”

“Whether you plan to continue working with him.” Tony nodded to Nick. “You’ve done more than burn bridges. You firebombed the supply lines. You’re either with us or you’re against us at this point.”

Too often their agenda did not sync up with the Avengers.

“I’m staying,” she answered after a significant pause. Maybe she had to weigh her options of where she wanted to be versus whatever she had been planning otherwise. “I’d like to stay.”

Nick sighed.

“Fantastic,” Tony said. “Let’s go. Steve, you can handle this here?”

Steve nodded once. “We got this.”

A message flickered across Tony’s glasses. Natasha was asleep. Clint was staying with her. Her vitals were still in the orange, definitely in pain with faintly elevated blood pressure.

“Am I going in armed?” Maria asked him as they headed for the elevator.

“Did someone take your gun when I wasn’t looking?” Tony asked her idly. His ARC reactor was still on and visible at the center of his shirt.

“No,” she replied drily as the elevator doors opened and they stepped inside.

“Then you’re going armed. But don’t forget…” he said as the doors closed. “So am I.”

“I wouldn’t make that mistake.” Maria folded her arms, but kept her gaze firmly forward as the elevator ascended. She followed him out onto the penthouse level and he trusted her at his back because Friday clocked her every movement. He led the way out to the quinjet and slid into the pilot’s seat after nodding her to sit in the co-pilot’s chair.

“Friday, let Steve know we’re en route and we’ll update him.”

“I’ll take care of it, Boss.” A message flashed on his glasses that she’d locked down Steve’s floor. Steve and Bucky would be able to access it and Tony, but no one else. The ramped-up security would let her sleep undisturbed.

As the quinjet took off, he glanced at Maria. “Coordinates?”

She unfolded her arms then entered them without comment. The near stony silence surrounding her was a visceral thing.

Despite his aggravation with Maria, Tony inspected the suspicious sensation of sympathy creeping through him. He and Pepper had failed for a number of reasons, but among them had been his inability to confide in her and hers to genuinely hear him.

 

“He should have trusted me.”

“You should have trusted him.”

 

Pepper’s loss had been an ache. A wound that stung and wouldn’t close properly, but scar tissue had begun to form and he could look at it with more than just recrimination and regret. That she was still his friend was something he should value more than he had. The resentments he’d nursed had faded sometime between the kidnapping and her volunteering for SPARK.

Had Maria and Nat failed for similar reasons? Was that the question she was asking herself now? They hadn’t communicated—but was that a choice or because Natasha had been under the thumb of others? The whole thing was a sticky ball of string and each time he thought it might unravel, it peeled into a fresh layer of knots.

“Don’t pity me,” Maria said crisply.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he lied. “You made your bed.” That part was true enough.

“I’m aware of what I did,” she said, her attention on the landscape ahead of them as they angled away from Manhattan and headed toward Jersey. Apparently, the coordinates of where she’d wandered off for her so-called weekend she’d supposedly binged Game of Thrones. “I’m not apologizing to you for it.”

“Didn’t ask for one.” Nor would he.

“You don’t trust me.”

“Nope,” Tony agreed with her on that assessment. “You haven’t been particularly trustworthy, have you?”

Maria snorted. “You’re one to talk. You don’t trust anyone. Not even Romanoff.”

He didn’t owe her any explanations.

“You dig into people’s lives, explore their secrets—you dug into SHIELD, why didn’t you notice Hydra?”

“Because I was looking for weapons and I found what I was looking for,” he told her. “Weapons you and Nick were both well aware of—and that’s the stinger for the two of you, isn’t it? You were doing what Hydra wanted, only you dressed it up and called it for God and country or whatever label you wanted to put on it. Is that what you told yourself when you asked her to do you that favor?”

Asked her for a favor and no questions and then Natasha trusted her enough to do it—and they did that to her.

But Maria didn’t answer. He glanced at her once. The line of her jaw could have cut glass it was so sharply held. They were closing in on their destination. Interesting that it had been that close all along. But then that was SHIELD, cobbling together the shadows to buttress their plans against public scrutiny. Compartmentalizing everything meant no one had the whole picture. Nick thought he had and even he hadn’t realized that his knowledge had been sectioned.

If Tony had dug deeper, been a little less arrogant and a little less aggravated with having SHIELD in his face again, he might have found something before it all went to hell and nearly took all of them with it.

He learned from that lesson, though.

Then again, less than six months before he dragged the team into the Accords whether they wanted to be there or not. He was damn lucky they were still with him at all.

Their destination turned out to be a compound located on about three hundred acres marked as private land. The local maps indicated no hunting or hiking was permitted within the marked area. It also listed no development projects.

Maria directed him toward a small break in the trees that required the quinjet to descend then move forward through a cloaking screen of trees to where the facility waited—four buildings collected together like military barracks and a hanger.

The doors to the hanger opened as they touched down. He switched the glasses to combat mode before he motioned her out of her chair and then followed after her. They descended the ramp with her about three steps ahead of him.

“Hill,” one of the men greeted her. Tony scanned the faces of the three awaiting them. None of the names registered as familiar, one engineer and two security personnel, but he filed them away. Just like he did the security precautions, the dimensions of the building and more. Friday could move a satellite later and give him deeper scans than she was likely already doing via his glasses and the quinjet’s sensors.

There was a hover cart carrying a large oblong device in a crate that looked like it would fit a coffin.

 

“I was conscious for a few moments after he stabbed me,” Natasha said, her gaze distant. “But I couldn’t stay that way. I tried, but I heard Pepper scream and then it went dark. When I opened my eyes again, I was in a padded box, but the air was all sweet-smelling—pretty sure he was gassing me to keep me out and I was in a coffin.” She shook her head. “Or at least it felt like a coffin.”

 

“We were just expecting Iron Man.”

“Then you’re not disappointed,” Hill told him archly. “Is everything with it?”

The engineer nodded. “I reinstalled the hard drive.”

Maria held out her hand and the engineer passed her a datapad. It was a modified version of one of his. He’d take issue with their modifying his tech later. She swiped across the screen, entered a command string that took her into their database. Friday kept a running tally for him in the corner as she slipped in through the Bluetooth connect and then began a deep dive, including inserting a worm to upload everything to the satellite.

No. More. Secrets.

Highlighting a series of files, Maria swept them all into a grouping and sent them directly to Friday before she deleted them.

“Deputy Director…”

“When I want your opinion Agent, I’ll ask for it,” she told him without looking up. Another few commands and the files on Natasha and Clint vanished, as did the details on the Avengers.

Interesting.

Still, they had a long way to go on this particular trust-building exercise beyond this little dog and pony show. In the meanwhile, he hijacked command of the motorized loader and waited for Friday to give him the all-clear before he moved the beast of equipment aboard the quinjet.

Finished, Maria handed the pad back to the engineer. “That will be all.”

At her statement, the security frowned but they didn’t argue as they retreated back into the building. Tony continued his scans as he secured the crate in the quinjet, then eyed Maria as she returned to the ramp.

“Planning on coming back to the Tower?”

“Well, I’m about to burn bridges here and you told me to choose. I’m choosing.” Actually, Natasha told her to choose, but whatever.

Tony studied her for a beat. Pupil reactivity, heart rate, respiration, all within reasonable margins. While Maria was not Natasha, she was a highly trained agent. It might be simple enough for her to fake it.

“Fine, you come back, you’re working for me and no one else. You don’t report to Nick, you don’t make plans behind our backs, and you don’t talk to Natasha unless she seeks you out.”

The corner of Maria’s mouth lifted. “You do realize the tighter you close your hand around her, the faster she’s going to slip through your fingers?”

“You work for me and no one else. You don’t report to Nick. You don’t make plans behind our back. You don’t talk to Natasha unless she seeks you out.” For the time being, he could shield Natasha until she was on her feet. If and when the time came that she wanted to deal with Maria—and based on that earlier exchange, that was a big if—she would handle it herself.

Spreading her hands, Maria said, “I can live with those terms.”

“You know the one thing that makes me wonder about you, Maria…” he said as he stepped to the side and allowed her to board before he shut the ramp.

“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

“You knew she was missing and you didn’t even ask how she was—or express any relief that she’s back.” The flash of surprise was gone so quickly; he was going to have to review the security tapes later to check if he’d actually seen it.

Once back in the pilot’s seat, he had the quinjet lifting before Maria had even strapped herself in. The lack of commentary was in and of itself a comment.

Maria was on uneven ground with Natasha and she knew it. But she’d switched allegiances because Nat challenged her. Nat put her back on her heels. Life just kept getting more interesting.

“Friday, let Cap know we’re inbound and returning, he can kick Nick out anytime he feels like it.”

“I’ll pass the message along, Boss. I’ve secured a lab for you to place the equipment and I’ve got the jammers set up. I’m also reviewing the files, Deputy Director Hill sent over.”

Maria grimaced and Tony smirked. “Not the deputy director anymore, Baby Girl. She pinky promises she’s working for me.”

“Good to know, Boss. I’ll make a note of the occasion since our records indicate we have employed her for over two years. Should legal investigate a return on the investment?”

With a sigh, Maria stared at him. “Even your AI has your sense of humor.”

No, that was all Red.

Tony just smiled. “We’ll keep that in our back pocket for now.”

Red Status: Sleeping, flashed in the corner of his glasses. Good. Once he got this nightmare back to the Tower, he’d get to work on locating the other one. There was still the ship in China, but he wanted to talk to Natasha about that when she was feeling better. If there was an alien vessel out there, he did not want it falling into anyone else’s hands, but so far he and Friday had come up with bupkis on the scans. As loath as he was to bring up The Mandarin to her, she had a way of getting people to talk to her.

“Boss, Ms. Carter left a message about this week’s meetings with the Committee for you to review when you get back.”

Yeah. Then there was that headache.

In the co-pilot’s seat, Maria said nothing, but kept her attention straight ahead. Was she regretting her decision already?

Did he care?

Not. At. The. Moment.

He rubbed his shoulder briefly then shifted. He needed more pain relievers. Had it really only been a few hours since Strange had dropped in? A wizard? He went looking for a neurosurgeon and he found a wizard, or more correctly put, the wizard found him. At the same time, Natasha had responded to him and as terse as Strange was, he seemed to grasp the nuances of the situation without needing them explained.

So, that was another situation to keep his finger firmly on the pulse of.

Longest. Sunday. Ever.

But Natasha was safe.

They could handle everything else.

 

 

Steve

 

 

The moment the elevator doors closed on Tony and Maria, Steve faced the former director and shifted his shield to the side. “You know every time I think you can’t get lower, you manage to surprise me.” It wasn’t a compliment.

“Cap, the world is a dark place.” Once upon a time, Nick had been able to use that language to lull him into following in Peggy’s footsteps. She’d built SHIELD with Colonel Phillips and Howard Stark. Everything about the organization meant well, flourishing under the guidance of its three founders—a spy, a military man, and a scientific genius. SHIELD excelled in those areas, but it was that compartmentalization of secrets and skills that also created fertile ground for Hydra to flourish in the shadows they created. Then he'd used Natasha to keep Steve there.

“Maybe so, but it doesn’t need more shadows—it needs fewer.”

Behind Nick, Bucky stared bullet holes into the man’s skull. His expression hadn’t shifted once since hearing about the memory machine they’d used on Natasha. Not only had they used it but they’d also employed deceptive practices to do so because—she could heal. Yet whatever damage they’d inflicted hadn’t healed. Or it hadn’t until recently, because she had forgotten.

Twelve times.

Steve clenched his fist.

As if Bucky weren’t right behind him, Nick spread his arms. “The world doesn’t work that way, Captain. You may want to shine a light on everything and pretend that the greatest generation lived in the sun, but they didn’t anymore than we do. Danger lurks in the shadows, it always has. We have to be there to meet it before it steps into the light.”

The impatience in Nick’s voice coupled with the cynicism left Steve shaking his head. “Then you simply become the danger you’re supposed to be stopping. You’re right, we did things during the war we’re not proud of—that I’m not proud of. We’ve had to scrimp and scrape before to survive. We had to put our needs ahead of others—but actively choosing to sacrifice the sanity and the well-being of others to fix a mess I created—we don’t trade lives.”

“Of course you do,” Nick said with a glare. “You traded Natasha’s for your friend Bucky here. You traded Stark for it, too. You traded the Avengers for your sense of right versus wrong. You traded yourself for the city of New York, and all of you did the same when the Chitauri came. You were willing to do that in Sokovia—or did you forget what Natasha said then? We trade lives, Steve. If you think otherwise, then you’re a fool.”

 

“The next wave’s gonna hit any minute. What have you got, Stark?” He had to work to catch his breath. The air was getting thinner. Natasha stood only a couple of feet away and her panting had grown shallower the longer they fought.

“Well, nothing great. Maybe a way to blow up the city. That’ll keep it from impacting the surface, if you guys can get clear.” The edge in Tony’s voice hadn’t been clear to him then, but in hindsight, he couldn’t miss the frustration and the concern. Defeating Ultron was one thing, saving the city was another—but leaving the Avengers there? That hadn’t been acceptable.

“I asked for a solution,” Steve chided him. “Not an escape plan.” They could probably pull getting off away. Thor at least could carry Natasha and Clint, the big guy could jump. Steve was pretty sure he could survive that and Tony could catch Steve or some combination thereof. They had a quinjet, too. There were options, but…

“Impact radius is getting bigger every second.” Tony’s voice hardened, his tone declaring these were facts. “We’re going to have to make a choice.” One he didn’t want to have to make. One none of them should have to make.

“Cap,” Natasha’s voice, calm and capable, grounded him even as she pulled his attention. “These people are going nowhere. If Stark finds a way to blow this rock…”

Not her too. “Not ‘til everyone’s safe.” There had to be a way. He wouldn’t sacrifice all these innocents who’d been caught in the crosshairs of Ultron’s war against the Avengers.

“Everyone up here versus everyone down there?” Natasha’s tone held a note of derision, yet like Stark earlier, she said it like it was pure fact. “There’s no math there.”

He got it. But dammit… “I’m not leaving this rock with one civilian on it.”

“I didn’t say we should leave.” The calm in her acceptance pulled him around to stare at her. Was she—yes, she was serious. There was a smile tipping her lips and a comforting certainty in her eyes as she held his gaze. “There are worse ways to go. Where else am I gonna get a view like this?”

Simultaneously buoyed by her presence and desperate to make sure this wasn’t her last view, Steve fought to think of a way around the awe he experienced. It was similar to that moment when she leapt off his shield in New York. She was—everything.

 

Then Fury had arrived and the moment punctured, but it had been there. “Romanoff,” he reminded Nick. “Don’t use her name.”

Nick sighed, and then glanced at Bucky. “If you’re going to shoot me, do it now before I get my coffee because if you spill that we’re going to have words.” Then like he wasn’t facing off against the two of them he walked into the kitchen with Buck tracking his every movement.

“You showed up in San Francisco claiming you care about her. You threaten me to be good to her like you have a right to do so—then you keep after her, even sending Maria to do your dirty work at the party. What is your game, Nick?”

“That’s complicated, Cap. And I do care about her, not that I owe either of you an explanation.” He poured a cup of coffee from the second of the two coffee makers. The other had been brewed for him and Bucky. Not that they’d drunk much since Nick and Maria’s arrival.

Folding his arms, Steve studied the former director balefully. “Have you ever met a straight answer?”

“On occasion. As I recall, the last straight answer I gave you, you didn’t appreciate.”

“That she tried to kill herself?” Steve raised his brows. “That wasn’t Natasha.”

“It damn well—”

“It wasn’t,” Bucky cut him off abruptly and stared at Nick. “If you thought it was, even looking back, then you don’t know her. Natalia would never kill herself. If they were messing with her, amending her memory, creating gaps or worse—it was a cry for help that you missed.”

Steve swallowed at the description. A cry for help. How many had she released over the years? How many before she just stopped?

“Then that’s on me, too,” Nick said without flinching. “I’m not a perfect man. Never pretended to be. I do what I think is best, I’ll always do what I think is best. Sometimes that means we make mistakes…” His gaze moved to Steve’s. “Sometimes that means we tear it down and it all goes. Which we did. Now I’m starting over.”

“Doesn’t feel like you’re starting over,” Steve told him honestly. What had Natasha said a few weeks ago? Nick had rebuilt SHIELD. She’d removed Ross as an obstacle for him, and he had SHIELD up and running. “Feels like you just resurrected a corpse that should have been burned to ash and salted.”

Shaking his head, Nick sighed then took a sip of his coffee. “The world is always going to have threats. The Avengers are for the ones we can’t do on our own. SHIELD is to stop the ones we can before they become the problems you have to face.”

“Do you even have government sanction or are you doing this as a rogue organization?” Why was he even asking that question? A part of him got it. It was Peggy’s legacy, but Steve couldn’t protect that part of it anymore. The only way he’d been able to protect her memory had been to destroy what Hydra corrupted.

“Let’s say what they don’t acknowledge can’t hurt them in the polls.” The derisive note confirmed Steve’s opinion of politicians.

“In other words,” Bucky drawled. “They are choosing not to know.”

“Plausible deniability, a function of government oversight for centuries.” Setting the mug down, Nick pointed two fingers at Steve. “You want assurances, the problem is the world can’t give you those without lying and neither can I. Do I mean N—Romanoff harm? No. Do I mean the Avengers harm? Also no. I’m trying to help you.”

“You realize no one asked you for help,” Bucky pointed out, his tone bland and dry.

Nick studied Bucky for a moment. “You and I have an odd kind of acquaintance, but I don’t consider several bullets a bonding experience. The collapsed lung sucked. So, do us both a favor and leave this conversation to me and Cap.”

With a smirk, Bucky said, “I don’t do favors for people I don’t like. You want to browbeat Steve into accepting your interpretation of events or at least, accepting on face value, what you’re offering—not that you’ve offered squat.”

“The files I provided Barton or the memory machine being an exception?” Nick challenged him.

“Can the crap, Nick.” Steve was tired. Natasha had been through Hell. None of them had slept well in days. Exhausted to the point of trembling, she’d made the tactical call to withdraw and that was after more than one emotional blow from Maria and Nick and after ripping herself open for Strange. Natasha wanted her daughter back, even a scrap of information was worth any amount of suffering to her. Nothing could be clearer, but instead of being with her, keeping her safe, he was facing off against Fury and while Tony and Maria went to get the memory machine. “You wouldn’t have done either without our demanding it. If you’d had your way, you’d have quietly scooped Natasha up and vanished back into the shadows.”

The thought made him sick.

“I’d keep her safe, Cap,” Nick told him and the damn thing was…

“You actually believe yourself, even after everything.”

Nick shrugged. “Before—Romanoff believed it, too. She accepted that there were gray areas for all of us. Before, she would have been the first one back into the fight. Even when she was on the run she was still fighting.”

“Before,” Steve reiterated. Before Tony. Before Steve. Before the Avengers. Before SHIELD turned out to be Hydra. Oh, he got the before.

Staring into his cup for a beat, Nick shook his head. “She was the first… you know that right. The First Avenger. We call you that now because you were Captain America during the war. But she was the first one I picked for the team. The first one I knew needed to be on it. She was enhanced, she was skilled, and she was…”

“Malleable,” Bucky supplied when he hesitated. “But that’s the wrong word for her.”

“She’s loyal,” Steve picked up the thread. “When you earn it, there’s nothing she won’t do for you. You wanted her on the team because you wanted to control us, or at least keep a finger on us through her… Didn’t work out for you, did it?”

It wasn’t really a question. Nat had protected them all. She’d been a voice of reason. She’d thrown herself into every fight, she’d trained them, she’d fought to make them all better and when they came apart at the seams, she fought to keep them together. When she found a way to clear them, she took it. Now—now she was stepping out into the light fully to take on the world’s government leaders alongside Tony to protect them.

“Not so much.” Not that Nick sounded unhappy about it.

“So I guess the only question left,” Bucky said, his tone still flat and empty. If anything, he sounded so alien compared to the man he’d become since returning from Wakanda. But then, he wasn’t going to share anything personal with Nick. Steve got that. “What are you going to do?”

Nick met Bucky’s gaze for a prolonged moment. “Keep doing what I’ve been doing. Keep helping. Rebuild SHIELD, protect the planet—try to fix the mistakes that were made. Including finding out what they used her for, make sure there’s nothing out there waiting to come for her. What are you two planning to do?”

The corner of Steve’s mouth lifted, but before he could respond, Friday said, “Captain Rogers, Boss is on his way back with the package. He said you can kick out Director Fury whenever you’re ready.”

He’d been ready before he even arrived, but Natasha had questions she needed answers to.

“I guess that’s my cue.” Nick straightened, and then drained his coffee. He set the mug down. Then he pulled a card out of his pocket and set it on the counter. “When Romanoff is ready to talk, tell her to call me.”

Yeah, they’d get right on that. Neither he nor Bucky responded. Bucky did glance at Steve when Nick headed for the elevator. Steve shook his head. “Friday?”

“Yes, Captain Rogers?”

“Send the director to the first floor and out the front doors. He’s not to be admitted without authorization.”

“Understood.” The elevator doors closed behind him and Steve sagged a little. Emotion bled back into Bucky’s face.

“We shouldn’t have let him walk out.”

“Buck, we can’t just kill him because we don’t like him.”

“Can we kill him if he’s a threat?” Bucky asked, his bland tone at odds with the deadly serious look on his face. Nat’s Glock vanished back into the holster Bucky had slipped on after Natasha removed it. He hadn’t bothered to buckle it, it wouldn’t fit him properly anyway, but the gun was secure enough.

The problem was, he didn’t have an answer for that question. So, instead, he said, “Friday, how is Natasha?”

“She is asleep, Captain Rogers. Her vitals are still in the orange, though both her blood pressure and respiration have improved since she ceased activity and stress. Mr. Barton is with her, though I believe he is asleep as well. I have locked your floor down and instituted all security protocols. Director Fury is outside and I have tracked his progress to three blocks away where a vehicle picked him up. The windows were shielded hampering facial recognition on the driver. Currently, the SUV is making its way toward the Holland Tunnel.”

That was a lot more than he’d asked for, but he’d take it. “But Nat’s vitals are stable?” She’d been so worn around the edges and as much as she’d hidden it, she’d been trembling. If Clint hadn’t moved when he did, Steve would have. As it was, both he and Bucky didn’t want to leave Maria and Nick alone with Tony in the Tower. While Tony could handle himself, he was also injured.

“Yes, Captain. By my scans, her condition is more than fifteen percent improved from when she boarded the quinjet. Current calculations would suggest this will increase by another twenty-five to thirty-five percent with continued rest and sustenance.”

Nat had definitely eaten before they’d gone to lay back down—nearly five hours earlier. Dammit, it was almost mid-afternoon. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he tried to ignore the gritty feeling in his own eyes.

“Coffee,” Bucky said and Steve followed him into the kitchen. While he filled the mugs, Bucky glanced in the fridge and pulled out a platter of ready-made sandwiches Steve half-forgot Tony used to keep those in stock. Sometimes when the team returned, they were starving and didn’t have the energy to cook.

Had it only been a few hours earlier that Natasha told him she loved him? It seemed ages and yet not enough. This was after revealing she had some memories of her daughter, of using the name Rogers when she’d fled Montana and the knowledge twisted in his gut. Decades before he met her, she had taken his name and held some affection. She’d admitted to loving his movies, the almost shy way she’d confessed that had charmed him utterly, but this? This was both surreal and probably the most humbling thing he’d ever heard pass from her lips.

She’d used his name as a shield. In some small way, he’d been with her before he ever knew her. Eating his way through three sandwiches steadily let him avoid saying anything as he turned the thoughts over in his head. Bucky mirrored his actions, his attention split between Steve and the windows looking out at the city.

“I told her I loved her,” he admitted aloud and the harshness of Bucky’s profile eased as he smiled.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Steve exhaled. “For a short time there, I thought I wouldn’t get that chance and then…I had to tell her.”

“Good.” His expression relaxed gradually. “She loves you, too. You know that, right?”

He had known that. “She told me.”

Bucky glanced at him. “Good,” he murmured again. “She told me, too.”

Surprise flickered through him. “She never told you before?”

A slow shake of his head. “To be fair, Stevie, before the island I hadn’t told her either. We never had the words for that. Don’t doubt for an instant that we weren’t passionately involved and we killed for each other, but tender words? No…we never had those. Love is for children. They pounded that into her…tried to carve out her heart, but they couldn’t. I always knew I mattered.”

“You mattered even when she didn’t know your name,” Steve reminded him. That knowing between them and the way Bucky kept gravitating to her.

 

“I feel better when she’s close, and more when I can see her.”

 

“I know. That she wanted to tell me—that she could, it’s a gift.”

On that, they were agreed. At the same time, it worried him. “What the hell did he do to her, Buck?”

“Too much,” Bucky answered, his tone sober. “They've all done too much. She’ll come through it. She needs time. We’ll be there for her just like we were when we first came back to the Tower.”

When they’d been triggering her and Steve hadn’t even realized. Bucky had noticed it first and once he’d seen the signs, Steve couldn’t unsee it. Her resistance to being touched, how they could crowd her, and that suddenly she’d go still and her eyes calculating as if she needed to know every exit strategy.

“Captain Rogers, Sergeant Barnes—Boss has landed. Ms. Hill is still with him.”

That… surprised him.

They rinsed out their coffee cups and met the elevator when it opened. Tony leaned against the back wall with Maria in the opposite corner. The huge slated box nearly occupied the rest of the room leaving little space for him and Bucky to squeeze in.

Tony looked as weary as Steve felt, but there was something harsher in his eyes as he stared at the crate. When they reached a secure lab level, Steve and Bucky stepped out to let the crate float out on its hover device. Maria started forward and Tony pointed a finger at her.

“Nope. Stay.”

Then he trailed after the device with Bucky falling into step with him. Steve folded his arms and leaned against the locked open elevator doors. Maria resumed leaning against the wall, her expression cool, and professional almost—but not her eyes. Not quite.

“Is this the part where you warn me off Natasha?” she asked after a prolonged quiet. Steve hadn’t really decided what he was going to say, but he gave that question a shrug.

“Nat can handle herself,” he said, though he frowned at her. “I’m trying to reconcile the professional deputy director, seeming straight shooter, with someone who would manipulate her way into another woman’s bed.” That she’d managed to manipulate Natasha at all was a surprise.

“I don’t owe you an explanation,” Maria told him bluntly.

“You’re right, you don’t.” At the same time… “But she matters to me, Maria.” Real surprise flickered through her eyes. “A great deal. I won’t let anyone treat her poorly.”

“I told Stark I would work for him. I made my choice. I’ll cut my ties with Nick.” Though there was some regret there. Maybe he would have believed her before. In fact, he had believed her—before. “He made his rules pretty clear.”

“That’s working for Tony. Not the Avengers.”

Maria’s whole posture shifted. It was minute really, visible in the lift of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin and the faint narrowing of her eyes. But Natasha always said the details were in the body language. Even the most accomplished liars had tells. He’d only ever seen a couple in Nat, the barest flickers of them, unless something had knocked her off her game. Even then, her tells only appeared when she relaxed.

“I see.”

Did she? In truth, Steve doubted it. Maria had stepped on a lot of toes and most of those had been expected. She was deeply loyal to Nick, much as Nat had once been deeply loyal. On the surface, that loyalty had never seemed to present a conflict with her work for the Avengers.

Before…

Before the Accords.

Before Nick set his sights on bringing Natasha back in.

Before Steve learned that Maria and Natasha had apparently had a relationship even as Natasha chose distance.

Before Maria revealed that she’d been the one to put Natasha into the memory machine for a favor and no questions and that led to their relationship deepening? Whatever it was, it had hurt Nat.

So, all of that was definitely before.

The relationship didn’t bother him, the idea she manipulated and hurt Natasha definitely did. If Natasha didn’t want her around, then that was also their answer.

He wouldn’t make her any more uncomfortable than she had already been.

“Cap…” Tony called as he and Bucky returned. “Device secure.” His gaze tripped past Steve to Maria. “Do you know the actual location Talbot is storing the other one?”

“Not at the moment,” she admitted without missing a beat. “I can find out though. His people aren’t that good.”

Tony’s expression wasn’t guarded so much as assessing. “You up for getting us the location only?” A flick of a look to Steve that asked if he was all right with that? Steve gave the barest of nods and Tony returned his attention to Maria.

“Location only. Do you want the security protocols while I’m at it?” The dry comment seemed to amuse Tony.

“Sure, don’t worry, we’ll verify everything.”

Another nod.

“We’ll talk to you then. Friday…”

“I’ll see her down,” Bucky said, stepping into the elevator. “Make sure she gets out fine.”

Steve withdrew a step and didn’t smile until the elevator door closed on Maria’s very not thrilled face.

“Yeah, she looked like she just sucked on a jalapeño flavored lemon…” Tony said with a hint of humor.

With a grimace, Steve glanced at him. “That is not a thing.”

“No—well at least I don’t think so.” Tony shrugged. “It’d be nasty either way. You got time to talk?” When he hesitated a beat, Tony added, “Red’s still sleeping. Friday is monitoring her vitals and can let us know if she’s in distress.”

Distress.

A really tame word for her nightmares.

Steve nodded once. “Okay, here? Or upstairs?”

“Upstairs. Friday let Bucky know after he kicks Maria to the curb.”

“Will do, Boss.”

“You’re letting her work for you?”

“She wants to work for me, I’ll let her hang herself.” The doors parted to let them aboard. “Not trusting her though.”

No.

She was going to have to earn that.

“Good.”

 

Bucky

 

 

After the elevator doors closed behind him, Bucky kept his gaze fixed on Hill as the elevator descended.

“Is this the part where you threaten me?” The near sardonic inquiry almost made him smile.

“Nope,” he told her. It wasn’t. It was more the part where he tried to figure her out. Maria Hill was a puzzle piece that didn’t fit. Pieces that didn’t fit usually had an agenda or created havoc. In general, he didn’t care. If her switching allegiances cost Fury something, then fine. But her shifting loyalty had cost Natalia and that was not so easy to overlook.

When he’d joked with Clint that Natalia had definitely had sex with Maria, he’d not imagined the emotional component. Maybe the feeling hadn’t been deep or lengthy, but it had existed and the sense of betrayal flickering in Natalia’s eyes and her posture? No, that bore some contemplation.

“You willing to answer a straight question?” Hill dared him with a challenge in her not-smile because the curve of her lips never reached her eyes.

“Depends on the question.”

“Stark wants me to stay away from Natasha. Steve just expressed his profound disappointment and made it clear that my working for Stark in no way gives me access to the Avengers. The ‘Captain America is disappointed in you’ look is one I haven’t seen since he and Nick got into it over SHIELD.” An almost bitter twist to her mouth as she shook her head. “Which one of them is she with? Or is that still up in the air?”

“Classified,” Bucky answered.

A snort. “So, it’s TBD.” Then… “You should warn them—she’ll always choose Barton. Every time. No matter what.”

“You shouldn’t have used her, maybe she would have chosen you.” Loyalty and devotion were two of her greatest traits, but she had avoided attachment at all costs. He’d been her sole attachment until Mary. Then after… it had been Barton. Now she had more again, she was letting herself trust more. But that also opened Natalia up to injury.

As the elevator doors opened, Hill exited after he stepped to the side. Security straightened at the desk and three more positioned around the entrances. There were tourists gathered outside and some press, but not nearly the thickness of the crowds that had been there in recent memory.

She took two steps away, then pivoted and returned. The wide-open gallery of the lobby should echo if you raised your voice, but something Tony had done, or built, kept sound from carrying. Bucky could appreciate the strategic nature of such technology, but it also created the need for full visual surveillance. Of course, he also had Friday to cover those angles.

“I’m not a threat to Natasha.”

“That remains to be seen,” he told her, nonplussed by her fierce frown.

All at once the emotion on her face wiped away for a more neutral expression. “When I asked her for the favor—I didn’t know the full extent of it.”

Was the admission supposed to ally him with her? “And after?”

“After it was too late—if I told her, it would have destroyed her trust in SHIELD.” What she didn’t say was it could have destroyed her trust in Maria. “To be honest…I didn’t think she’d care. She was—very different in some ways then than she is now.”

She was likely more guarded. Limited even amongst her allies. Something they must have known or they would have involved Clint. The one man she had trusted. On some level, Natalia would have expected betrayal. If Hill had warned her then—so many things might have been different. Including the fact she wouldn’t be an Avenger or with Steve. She’d have been out there in the world still, alone. Perhaps.

And she wouldn’t have been able to save Steve from the Soldier’s initial attack. None of them might be here today. Everything happened for a reason. Maybe even this betrayal. Not that it softened the blow.

“For what it’s worth, I’m on her side.”

“For what it’s worth,” he retorted. “I don’t care.”

A faint smirk touched her lips. “You don’t fool me, Sergeant. You’re just as invested in her as Stark and Rogers. I gotta admit—she’s got a way about her.”

With that, she pivoted and headed for the doors. Bucky remained watchful until she strode out the doors and tugged her jacket closer to her as the wind hit her. Maybe they should have offered her a car, but he doubted she would have taken it. Her place was only a couple of subway rides away.

“Sergeant Barnes?” One of the security guards called to him and Bucky glanced at him.

“Everything all right?” The man was in his mid-forties and he was one of the seniors on the shift. The others reported to him.

He nodded once. “All quiet down here?”

“For the most part, just some tourists doing their pictures. No one trying to get in except for those already cleared by Friday.”

“Good,” Bucky said with another nod. “Good afternoon.”

Stepping back inside, he let the doors close.

“Take me to Steve’s floor please, Friday.”

“Boss actually asked if you’d come up to the penthouse.”

With a sigh, he raked a hand through his hair. “Is Natalia still sleeping soundly?”

“Yes, Sergeant. No signs of emotional distress. Her pulse is steady, her respiration even. She appears to be in deep sleep. Mr. Barton is still with her.” Then, she added, “I am keeping a close eye on her, Sergeant. My protocols still allow me to notify you immediately if something disturbs her.”

Bucky frowned. Natalia had given them that permission after the episode in the penthouse. The leash she’d willingly extended to all of them. “Thank you, Friday.”

“You’re very welcome. Penthouse, then?” It was a gentle nudge, but he accepted it.

“Yes.”

The ride went swiftly. While he’d much prefer to return to Natalia and just be there if she needed him, she was at least safe with someone she trusted and there was a great deal they needed to handle. From getting rid of Fury and Hill to securing the memory machine. He’d ripped the crate open to verify it was indeed what was promised.

He wasn’t alone in his horror when he stared at the device. It looked more like something designed for torture rather than memory adjustment. Somehow, as much as it sickened him, the fact it was so barbaric in nature hadn’t surprised him. The only questions he had were how many times had she been subjected to it and what were the long-term effects.

A stony silence awaited him when the doors opened to the penthouse. Similar to the day Tony and Steve had argued over Tony’s plan to trigger Natalia, they faced each other from opposite sides of the coffee table, only this time it was Tony standing near his heavily leaning tree—they really needed to do something with that tree—while Steve braced his hands on the back of the sofa staring at him.

“You’re telling me this why?” Steve asked, pausing for a beat to glance over his shoulder at Bucky as he exited the elevator. “Maria off?”

“Yep.” He flicked a look from one to the other. The tension in both men seemed to practically vibrate in the air. “Are you two ready to kiss and make up or do I have to separate you?” Frankly, he wasn’t in the mood for another of their arguments. Later, maybe. Not right now. As complicated as his relationship with Tony was, Bucky really didn’t seem to aggravate or be as aggravated by him as Steve was.

With one notable exception.

He diverted into Tony’s kitchen to get a pitcher of water and then carried it over to the tree as silence spread between the two. Glancing from the tree bucket to the pair, he raised his brows.

“Tony is explaining to me why we should be having all the sex with Natasha.” The fact Steve managed to say all of that without an ounce of red brightening his expression amused Bucky almost as much as the topic. Weirdly, Tony bringing up their sex life didn’t seem as out of place as it probably should.

The man had no decorum. For all his charm and smoothness, he could be as rough and uncouth as soldiers in the field or the dockworkers of Bucky’s youth.

“I didn’t say all the sex,” Tony retorted. “I said you should probably resume sex as soon as she could tolerate the contact.”

“Because that sounds so much better,” Steve replied.

Shaking his head, Bucky finished filling the tree bucket then eyed the poor beast. Someone needed to take better care of it. But at least it hadn’t dried out too much. The needles were still green.

“Is that just Steve or are you including me in this advice?” Bucky asked as he returned the pitcher to the kitchen. There was more coffee, but it didn’t smell that strong so he settled for a bottle of water and twisted the cap off before turning to face Tony.

“Well, I assumed she was double-dipping so yeah, you’re included. But he has the primary serum.”

Bucky frowned at him as Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “I am so going to regret asking this,” Steve said. “Why are you telling us this?”

“Because Red’s DNA is adaptable. After The Mandarin stabbed her, she was almost one hundred percent healed from a wound that went straight through her midsection in three days, maybe less. She recovered from repeated tortures including drowning and even right now, a little over twenty-four hours after we got her out, all of those cuts and wounds have already closed. Her neck, which was trashed with that damn collar, looks almost fifty-five percent better.”

Frowning, Bucky considered the assessment. Tony wasn’t wrong. Natalia’s healing had been something that let her take tremendous risks, but she usually required some time…

“You think she’s adapting our DNA,” Bucky said abruptly.

Tony cocked his thumb and forefinger and pointed it at Bucky. “Bingo. Pretty sure that’s how you knocked her up, sustained exposure let her heal. My understanding is you had moments on and off again over the course of years, but never long-term regular exposure.”

No. They hadn’t.

And since he’d earned his way back to her bed, they’d been very active when they were together or she’d been with Steve. On the island…

Her health had taken a definite surge after they’d shared her. He glanced at Steve and could almost read the same thoughts tracking through his head. But that meant there was a real chance they could get her pregnant again. A small part of him thrilled to that knowledge but… not without her awareness.

“So, you’re encouraging sex because it will help her heal faster.” Steve stared at Tony with a look of surprise.

“It has helped her heal faster. I think it’s also why she’s remembering.”

That jerked Bucky up. “The episodes.”

“Breaking the memory blocks. Remember what Cho said, the chances were that her body would have long-since healed if she hadn’t been repeatedly damaged?” Tony framed the question as though he needed to verify the doctor’s statement, but she had said it.

“She also said that it wasn’t that Natalia couldn’t get pregnant it was that she couldn’t sustain it—and that she had was because of me.” Because they’d left. Because once on the run, they had been lovers in total. He'd allowed nothing to harm her. She'd had at least two years to heal, to repair the damage of decades. Every stolen moment they’d treasured and… but Natalia hadn’t remembered as much then or had she just discounted it?

“I figure that let her have the baby and probably why she didn’t go through extreme memory recovery, there may not have been as much lost then too.” Tony had followed the track of his thoughts almost perfectly. Frowning, he met the other man’s gaze. “And yes, I know it’s strange that I’ve spent this much time thinking about the two of you having sex with her. But…three-way super-soldier serum, Red gets stronger, she recovers faster—her brain begins to repair itself—just like yours did.”

Exhaling a breath, Bucky moved to sit in one of the chairs before he drained the water. “If you’re right, then she wouldn’t need to risk herself with SPARK or put herself through an episode while the doctor does another damn MRI or CT scan?”

Natalia did not deserve to suffer that and at the same time, if her brain did heal fully, if the pathways were restored—she would get back far more than their relationship and Mary.

Could she handle it? Of that, he had no doubt, but it made him sick to think of what else she’d have to relive.

“Cap?” The quiet question in Tony’s voice pulled Bucky’s attention to Steve. His expression taut, Steve’s knuckles were white where his fists rested against the back of the sofa.

Steve shook his head. “This—is a lot to wrap my head around,” he said slowly. “We’re changing her. That’s essentially what you’re saying.”

“Well, I don’t think she’s going to suddenly grow a second head, but yeah—her DNA is adapting yours and repurposing it to help her. This is a good thing.” Tony rubbed his hand against the back of his neck, a grimace of pain on his features.

“But does she know we’re changing her?” Steve asked. “Have you talked to her about this?”

Tony shook his head. “No, not yet. I only really put it together… after The Mandarin took her. When I got to her—we weren’t really discussing that. She was too busy telling me off for trying to save her.” A faint smile touched his lips, a fond one…

Bucky frowned. “We’ll tell her.” They had no right to keep it from her regardless of whether it was true. “You are speculating…”

“Theorizing,” Tony corrected.

“Buck,” Steve said. “Was it like that? When she got pregnant? Were you together over an extended period? Versus all the other times you were together?”

Discussing his sex life with Natalia was not a topic he was comfortable with. He’d shared some with Steve, only in as much as to make him more comfortable. But the rest? Their past? No. She was too personal. Too precious. “Yes,” was all he would say.

“Succinct.” Tony eased onto a chair. “Look, I get it. This is personal. I’d be happy to never think about the three of you having sex no matter how hot it is.” Steve’s exasperated look was almost funny, almost. Bucky was too distracted by the rest to truly appreciate it. “Strange is examining her file and he’s going to want to do those tests. I’m not saying we don’t do them unless Red is truly against it. But I don’t think she will be.”

“Mary,” Steve said simply and something panged hard against Bucky’s heart.

Pursing his lips, Tony nodded once. “Among others.” Then he slanted a look at Bucky. “I see it as an opportunity for us to help her.”

Us.

Lifting his chin, Bucky eyed Tony. The man had made no pretense of his feelings and if nothing else the last week had proven, the three of them could work together and when Tony focused, he was a force to be reckoned with.

“Strange said he needed a couple of days,” Steve said finally. “Nat’s—Nat’s got to have some time to rest. She’s already pushing herself. The machine is here—the crap with Maria and Nick.”

Tony grimaced. “Maria won’t bother her. Not unless Red seeks her out.”

“You trust Hill?” Bucky raised his brows.

“Not even an inch. But I’d rather have her where I can keep an eye on her. She could be useful. Maybe she genuinely feels bad… how would I know? But at the moment, she has information on the devices, she can fill in some of the gaps we don’t have. I’m done with the past coming after Red. We can fix it. We can help her get back what was taken. But you both need to know and so does she—cause so far her healing has really been painful.”

That was a quiet and sobering truth.

“Friday…” Steve glanced up. “How is Nat?”

“She is still sleeping, Captain Rogers. Her vitals are steady and no dreams seem to be bothering her. I think she has truly dropped into a deep sleep. Mr. Barton also continues to sleep, but he’s with her.”

“Thank you, Friday.”

“Of course, Captain Rogers.”

Straightening, Steve paced away from the sofa toward the elevator. “Tony…”

The engineer seemed braced as he glanced at Steve’s back.

“…thank you.”

Surprise flickered across Tony’s face.

“I’m going to head down to the gym for a little while. Need to clear my head. Are we doing anything with that memory machine today?”

“No,” Tony said slowly. “I think Red has the right to make those decisions.”

“Agreed.” Steve headed to the elevator, then paused. “Buck?”

“Go ahead, I’ll be there in a minute,” Bucky told him. As distracted as he was, Steve didn’t question his answer. After he was gone, however, Bucky glanced at Tony and found the other man watching him. “What do you need to do to prove that theory?”

“Honestly? I have no idea. I might have to involve Helen and I’m not willing to go there yet without Red being one hundred percent on board.”

Which meant they had to tell her the theory first. Telling her was the right thing to do. “I want you to be right…”

“Me, too.”

“I’m worried that if you are, our DNA is doing something more than just helping her.” After hearing Steve echo the same thought, Bucky couldn’t shake a sense of unease. “What if it changes her in other ways?”

“Can’t think like that,” Tony said, a certainty there that Bucky wished he shared. “Red’s remarkable and she’s survived a lot, the serum—makes good great, right?”

Bucky almost laughed. “Natalia can’t get more perfect.”

“Exactly, so I wouldn’t worry about it until we have a reason to worry.” Tony shifted again, discomfort flickering across his face.

At the moment, Bucky could only wait for Natalia to rest and be there to help look after her until they could discuss it. But he could… “You’re in pain.” Bucky rose. “You need to take something and you should probably get some rest yourself.”

“Yeah, I don’t sleep that well when I have a problem to solve and a wizard showing up was really just the start of the not so bad, but definitely weird day.”

“No,” Bucky corrected Tony this time. “Having Natalia back makes this an exceptional day. Everything else is noise.”

The other man chuckled, then spread his right hand. “Point.”

“Now, get up. Pain medication. Something to eat. Then four hours of sleep. Minimum.” Bucky told him. “Don’t argue with me. We still need you whole, Tony. We need your brain functioning no less now than we did when she was missing.”

Natalia needed it.

“You need to rest.”

“We all do,” Tony pointed out. “And Steve’s in the gym.”

“I’ll take care of Steve after you get to bed.”

With a snort, Tony said, “Planning to stick around and tuck me in?”

“Unless you want me to take you to Steve’s floor and tuck you in there.” Tony Stark was no less stubborn than Steve, but Bucky could handle intractable stubborn punks.

“Thanks,” Tony said with a faint smile, surprise flickering through the pain creasing the corners of his eyes. But when Bucky only stared at him, Tony sighed. “Fine.”

It took him all of five minutes to get some pain relievers into him, most of a protein bar, and another bottle of water and then he was heading up the stairs.

“Do I need to follow you Tony or can I trust you to try and rest?”

At the top step, Tony eyed him. “You’re almost as bossy as Red.”

Bucky smirked.

“But nowhere near as good looking. I’ll sleep. Go away. Make sure Cap doesn’t wreck the gym anymore than you two already did and then make him sleep, too.”

“I planned on it.”

Still, Bucky waited until Tony vanished into his bedroom then he eyed the tree in Tony’s living room before heading to the elevator. Once inside, he said, “You got him Friday?”

“I do, Sergeant Barnes. I’ll take care of him. The gym?”

“Yeah…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Friday, did he get any decorations for his tree?”

The AI was quiet before she said, “Some, but not very many. With Natasha’s absence…”

Yeah. Bucky got that. “Could you order some? Lights for it? Maybe a few more ornaments? He’s big on red and gold, right?”

“A set of the Avengers ornaments with a Black Widow?” came Friday’s tart reply.

Bucky wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to sigh, so he went with the former. “Definitely some of those. Maybe we can decorate it tomorrow…” Natalia would enjoy that; she’d enjoyed decorating their tree. She’d gone with him to buy his. They could all use a little distraction.

“I’ll take care of it, Sergeant Barnes.” The elevator doors opened on the training room level. “Thank you.”

“Sure thing,” he told her and then followed the sound of a ripping speed bag.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

Devotion

Natasha

 

 

She was in the kitchen brewing a cup of tea when James and Steve arrived on the elevator. When Friday had announced they’d returned from their run, she’d started brewing their coffee and had just pushed it through the third pour and hit the switch to get it brewing when the elevator dinged open. Tony had paced her into the kitchen, but leaned against the island bar rather than crowd her.

Clint stared at her mug a beat—she’d kept the I am FE male mug and just rinsed it out before she put the water on to boil. “There they are—did you run to Queens and back?” he called as the pair crossed toward the kitchen.

She hadn’t seen them since she left the common room the day before. The bruises on their faces had dramatically decreased; there was no hindrance to their movement, and they’d both showered, damp hair and the familiar crispness of Steve’s shampoo teased her nose.

When her gaze snagged on his, she smiled a little. He was giving her a visual once over as was James. They looked good. Tired based on the shadows beneath their eyes and maybe a little worried. Steve had the smallest of frowns tightening his brows.

“Food’s over there,” Tony told them, pointing to the covered plates spread out on the table. “Most of it’s still warm. Red had bagels, croissants, bacon, and scrambled eggs—and you got the fried potatoes right?” he glanced at her.

“Of course I got the fried potatoes, you’re both lucky I saved some,” she managed to infuse some teasing into the words. But Tony detailing what she ate was a little amusing.

Steve glanced at the food then at her. “So you have an appetite? No lingering issues after yesterday?”

Making a face, she shook her head. “No, I woke up starving. Well, actually I woke up itching and needing a shower. Food was a fast secondary concern.”

With a slow nod, he smiled a little wider. “Good.”

“Coffee is ready, too.” She motioned to the pot. Clint’s gaze flicked to hers and she turned back to her tea. It wasn’t until she carried her tea out of the kitchen that Steve went in to pour a couple of cups, in the meanwhile, both he and James had gotten food.

Curling back up into the chair next to Tony’s tree, she cradled the teacup. The silence continued to stretch out, even though James was actually eating. Belatedly, the reason why Tony listed off what she ate hit her. He had let James know what was safe. Surprise curved through her, but before she could say anything Clint pushed away from the bar to cross the room before he held out his phone.

“It’s for you.” His expression brooked no arguments.

Laura’s name was clear on the screen. Not glaring at him took effort, but she plucked the phone from his hand and stood. “Hold on a sec?” she murmured into the phone, and then headed for the deck.

“Nat…” Clint said, but she ignored him and slipped out the doors. It was icy cold on her bare feet, but she padded over to one of the benches tucked flush to the building, but not against a window and sank down on it.

“Hey, Laura.”

The wind chased over her, the cold was almost welcome against her bruised neck. The bench around her—no the air—warmed gradually and she glanced up as Laura said, “Hi. How are you doing?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?” Above her was one of those outdoor heaters. A second sat in the pole a couple of feet away. It could also be opened to provide shade, but the heat rolling off it mitigated the bitterness in the breeze.

“Nat…” Laura’s tone nudged at her and she closed her eyes as she pulled her legs up to sit cross-legged. At least with the heat, she wouldn’t be chased back inside by the cold and it might keep the guys from chasing her out here. “It’s me. You can tell me or not. But I’m here… the kids and I will be there in a few days. They get out for Christmas break after Thursday. Clint is flying out to pick us up.”

Christmas really was right around the corner. “I need to get some shopping done,” Natasha told her. “I’m really behind.”

Though she had ordered a couple of small things before—just before. She refused to give that man purchase in her thoughts. At least not right now. No, she’d had ideas and she and Clint had been plotting, but…no she’d gotten too busy with the Accords.

“Oh, me too.” Laura almost sounded like she laughed. “But that’s half the fun, we can go shopping when I get there if you want. We haven’t done that in a while…”

“No.” The answer slipped out fast and abrupt. Closing her eyes, Natasha forced a long, deep breath, then another. Her ribs ached, but the breathing itself wasn’t an issue.

“Nat…” Everything about her voice softened. “Talk to me.”

“You’re not going to be seen in public with me. People are taking my picture now and posting it,” she said slowly, forcing every ounce of calmness she possessed into her voice. “I haven’t seen the last… ten days or so, but before…” She needed to find her phone. “Laura, just no. We can compare notes and split up. Then maybe get back together to do some wrapping. But I can’t put you at that kind of risk.”

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. The soft sound of a television in the background, Nate laughing at something and then Lila and Cooper arguing on the stairs. The phone muffled, but she caught Laura saying, “Kids, enough. Let’s go, your ride will be here in five minutes and you need your coats on. Let’s go, let’s go.”

Even with her covering the phone there was thumping on the stairs and plaintive complaints of not wanting to go to school, but it was almost perfunctory because moments later there was the thump of the front door then the squeak of the storm door.

Clint still hadn’t fixed that?

Maybe she and Clint could sneak out there once everyone was here and do some repairs. Then again, a squeaky door was an excellent early alert. Hard to sneak past noise obstacles.

As much as she wanted to glance back inside, she didn’t, she kept her gaze forward. There was a knot in her gut and it was turning tighter and tighter. Unacceptable on every level. She needed to get this together.

“Okay, they’re off. Nate is watching his favorite show, yes he is—and I’m pouring my coffee,” Laura returned with the most relaxed note in her voice. “I get it, I know you want to protect me and you’re worried about your reputation.”

“Not my reputation, Laura,” Natasha told her, though she worried about that, too. “Exposure. We kept you out of everything for a reason, you get photographed with me, people do any kind of digging…” People like The Mandarin or like Ross… “Just no. I won’t risk you.”

“You do realize I’m an adult and get to make this choice for myself,” Laura reminded her.

“You do realize that in addition to being my friend, you’re the mother of three of my favorite children in the whole world and I’d kill people for you?” Her heart twisted. Laura was a mom. Her kids needed her. No way would Natasha deprive them the way she’d had to take herself away from her own.

A long sigh. “Fine, I know you’re not even joking.”

“Not even a little bit.” This was hard. It was hard to talk to her. It had been hard to talk to James and Steve in there—which made no sense. She’d talked to them fine before, so why was it hard this morning? It had taken her a moment, but she managed to squeeze in some normalcy for Tony and Friday.

Logically, speed bumps made sense. Trauma affected psychological reactions. All normal. Natasha wasn't normal and this part could go to Hell.

“Okay, we won’t go shopping together,” Laura said, her voice soothing and patient. “I’m not going to ask you to do anything you’re not comfortable with. But I do want you to talk to me for a few minutes, can you do that?”

“I don’t want to talk about…” So many things.

“Natasha. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. We can talk about Christmas. What do you want to give the guys?”

The last ten days back so none of them had to struggle through it. Not really an option. For James—she’d like to give him Mary back. For Steve—his peace of mind. For Tony—his life back. For Clint? She’d like to give him a good swift kick in the head so he’d go back to Laura where he belonged.

They were trying something new… he told her.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I had some ideas before…I was thinking season tickets to the Mets, but… I don’t know. It’s… complicated.”

“C’mon,” Laura said with an almost relaxed chuckle as if they had this discussion all the time. “It doesn’t have to be extravagant. What do they like? I mean, besides you. What do you want to get Clint?”

Tipping the tea back and draining the cup, Nat leaned back against the wall. The heaters blowing on her created this perfect little pocket in the wintry landscape of the deck. She set the empty mug down in the cradle of her lap and stared at the I am FE male on the side.

“Tools. The hand ones,” Natasha said slowly. “Wood working, hand sanders and planes, scrapers—to do all those things he kept talking about.”

“Making furniture,” Laura mused aloud. “He used to say that, didn’t he? After he got the house just right, he wanted to build furniture…”

“He would talk about it on missions sometimes, like he said he wanted to knock out that wall in the formal dining room and turn it into an office for you, because you guys always eat in the kitchen anyway.”

A chuckle. “We do.”

“But he likes working with his hands and he hates the power tools.”

“Lazy man gear,” Laura muttered. “He does have his opinions.”

“So maybe some of those… then he could work on building stuff.” She bit down on her lip, and then winced. It was still sore in the corner. The bruising had faded and the cuts had closed, but it was still tender.

“I think he’d love that,” Laura told her. “He still has tools here, some of them are the old-fashioned hand kind, would you like me to get you a list of what he has so you can fill in the blanks?”

“Actually,” Nat said on a long exhale as one of the knots began to loosen. “That would be great.”

“Okay, so that’s Clint. What are we doing for Tony?”

She frowned. “That’s a tougher question.”

“I suppose, finding something to give a billionaire would take some finagling. What doesn’t he have?”

Resting her head back, she stared upward as snow began to drift down. It seemed almost alien. “Peace.”

The answering laugh wasn’t derogatory, but Laura’s voice took on a teasing note when she said, “I don’t know that we can afford that.”

It wasn’t something she could buy, but it did give her an idea.

“Should I ask you an easier question?”

“No, this is fine.” It was normal. She craved some semblance of normal. “Christmas shopping is normal, right?” For decades, it was a holiday she paid little to no attention to. It wasn’t celebrated when she was a child. She hadn’t heard of it outside of western films and then only because she might need it for a cover. Even after leaving the KGB, when arguably she had been free for years…

When the hell is Logan going to call? Maybe he had and she’d been asleep. No, James would have told me as soon as he came up.

“It’s very normal. Wanda.”

Why did she avoid Steve and James? “A new leather jacket. She inherited one of mine from a few years ago, I want to find her a similar one but new so it’s all hers.”

“Nice. Peter?”

Natasha’s heart fisted in her chest and her breathing threaded out and she had to concentrate on it. “Old tech.”

“What?” The confusion pulled a real smile to her lips.

“He repurposes all kinds of things, takes them apart and puts them back together. He’s brilliant, only I don’t know if he knows it. I want to go strip through some old pawn shops and get him all kinds of old radios, VCRs, televisions, Walkmans, CD players, all the old stuff.” Old stuff. She’d been around before so much of it, but it was the litter of history.

“Huh… there’s a place here. It’s an junk dealer, he has some vintage items. I can take a look if you want.”

Another smile. “I’d like that.”

They pressed on to the other Avengers, Vision was a difficult one for Laura, but Natasha said they needed to get him a collection of plays and theater tickets.

“Theater tickets?”

“The play is the thing according to Shakespeare. There is so much humanity done in stage plays and we’re here in New York, I think he’d enjoy it. Something to sample and experience that he can’t just download.”

“Oh, true. Can I go in on that with you?”

The door opened in the middle of her smile and James came out with a steaming mug and a large blanket. Her smile didn’t diminish, the earlier strain was gone and she said, “Hang on a sec, Laura,” she pressed the mute button as James draped the blanket over her and around her. It was warmed.

Then he traded her I am FE male for the new mug that just had a big Avengers A on the side of it. He glanced at the mug he took then grunted.

“Thank you, James.”

His eyes softened. “Feeling better?”

Of course, he’d known. “Not really good at hiding it right now, am I?”

“You don’t have to be.” He nodded to her tea. “Drink your tea and talk to Laura. We’re inside when you’re ready.” Then he glanced at the heater above and the one in front of her. Another had arrived a few minutes earlier, well two of them really, members of the Iron Legion and they were warming the air enough for it to create the illusion of the air rippling as the warm air rose.

“James…”

“Natalia,” he said, his voice warming. “You need time.”

“I don’t want to need time.”

He chuckled. “I wish you didn’t need it, either.”

“Stay? Sit with me? We’re almost done.”

Now that he was out here, she didn’t want him to go. He stared at her for a beat, and then glanced at the bench. “Do you want me to sit next to you or is that going to be too close?”

Another knot loosened and she shifted a little balancing the tea and her phone. “I’ll even share the blanket.”

“I’m fine, Doll. Talk to Laura.” He pulled his cigarettes out as she unmuted the call and put it back to her ear.

“I’m back.”

“Everything all right?” The concern had overtaken the lightness in her voice.

“Yeah, it’s a little better at the moment. James brought me tea and a blanket. He’s sitting with me.”

“Well, so much for discussing his Christmas present.”

Natasha caught the hint of a smile curving his lips. “So, no sweater, then?”

Laura snorted. “Nope, not getting me with that one. I am not getting anyone once called the Winter Soldier a sweater.”

James’ smile grew.

“Fine, but you could have played along a little.”

“Nat…” Laura sobered. “You know you can tell me anything.”

“I know. I still wish Clint hadn’t told you.” Some of the lightness gained by the talk of holiday shopping evaporated.

“We’re trying something new,” she said it without apology and for that, Natasha was glad. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

“I survived,” she said before taking a swallow of the tea. It was a rich cinnamon spiced chai. Tears burned for a second as she took a second sip, then glanced at James. Cinnamon, because bad dreams lingered but so did spices only spices usually didn’t linger in dreams.

“Nat—it’s about more than surviving.”

“It will be,” she told her. “Right now, I survived. I’m healing. I get to keep my promises about being here for Christmas—it’s my first Christmas with James and Steve together.”

He exhaled a long stream of smoke.

“Okay. Think you’ll be up for some wine and girl time when I get there?”

“I’ll try, no promises.” She had to see the kids. Hugs. Cuddles. The kids would be fine around her, but she had to get over the itchiness inside her own skin. “Besides, you had your three questions. You have to answer three questions for me next time.”

A snort. “It’s been months since I had anything good to share. All Clint and I have done is a couple of kisses…”

Natasha grinned. “Well you should hop on that so you can answer my questions. Fair is fair.”

James actually snorted a little.

“And on that note, I’m going to go. You take care of yourself, you hear me?” Before she could respond. “You promised me you’d look after her Bucky, so you better be hearing me too.”

“Loud and clear, ma’am,” he drawled. “Natalia has all of my attention.”

“See you this weekend, Nat.”

“See you then.”

Then the call was over and she stared at the phone in her hand for a moment before she set it down and cradled her tea in both hands. The quiet stretched out, then James held out a cigarette to her and she brushed his fingers as she took it. The contact was light, but his metal fingers were cool and familiar. He lit it for her and she leaned back against the wall, sipping her tea and staring out at the snow that had continued to fall. The flakes had grown fatter and occasionally drifting into the heat curtain around her and melting.

“How was your run?”

“Long,” James said slowly. “We pushed it.”

She curled her toes under the blanket. “How are you doing?”

“I’m all right, Doll,” James murmured, then glanced at her. “What do you need, Natalia?”

“To not feel like this,” she admitted. “Has Logan called your phone?”

“I would have told you if he had.” James shifted and pulled his phone out then passed it to her.

After the hell Logan had suffered get her out, he was probably sleeping it off or drinking it off. “I need to find my phone.”

“We can get you another one.”

Hers would be a brick without her, though someone might possibly crack it. She nodded and her exhale came out a little steadier. “Sorry, I kind of bolted out of there.”

“I think Clint wanted to give you a reason to escape,” James said idly. He probably had. It was a Clint thing to do. All at once, she’d been claustrophobic, trapped, chained…

Her gaze dipped to her legs, hidden beneath the blanket, but the bruise around her ankle—it was almost a brand. Held. Forced. Unable to escape. It hadn’t mattered how many she…

“Natalia,” James’ voice pulled at her and she dragged her attention up to look at him.

The second apology on her lips died unspoken as she focused on his eyes. James didn’t need her to say she was sorry. He knew. He understood. “It feels like he chipped something away, but so many pieces are broken. What if I can’t figure out which ones he took?”

“If he managed to take any at all. You will figure it out,” he whispered, confidence in each syllable. “You are the strongest person I know.”

“Feeling a little pathetic at the moment,” she admitted. “Really hate feeling helpless.”

“You were never helpless, lyubov moya. He could not break you. He wanted to prove he was stronger and all he could prove was that he was cruel.” James snuffed out his cigarette. “Do you want to tell me what happened? All of it?”

She shook her head slowly. “You will just be hurt.”

“I can share your pain, Natalia. We’ve always shared our pain.”

Another knot loosened. “Not yet.”

A slow nod. “Do you want to be distracted?”

Sometimes it was easy to forget how well he knew her. Or how well he’d known her…

She blinked slowly. “I loved you so much,” she whispered, her gaze going distant. “When I climbed those mountains, when I carried Mary away. It shredded me with every step. All I wanted was for you to show up one morning with the dawn, all matter-of-fact, as if we’d planned it.”

A wordless stroke of his finger across the back of her hand. The cigarette had gone to ash. He took the butt away and put the rest of it out.

“I feel like two people, James. I haven’t felt this disconnected in a long time. There’s the me now who loves all of you.” There was a strain in even saying the words.

“Natasha,” he said and it was almost wrong to hear that name on his lips, but her gaze flicked up to his and she nodded at the understanding in his eyes. “The woman you have chosen to be.”

“But I’m still her…”

“My Natalia,” he said, and she could read the need to touch her in his eyes but he didn’t. He withheld it because she needed the distance and she hated herself in the same breath for not being able to just crawl into his lap and hold on with the same desperation that invaded them every time they connected. Desperation she suddenly understood on such a visceral level.

“She’s…”

“Fierce. Indomitable. Possessive. Intelligent. Dangerous.” He raised his eyebrows, his tone as possessive as the descriptors he used. “Stunning. The most amazing woman I have ever known—and she still is.”

Licking her lips, she laughed a little. “When you put it like that…”

“Natalia,” he said slowly, gaze trapping her—no, not trapping, grounding and holding her steady. “I fell in love with Vdova.” Her Soldat. “I adored and worshipped Natalia. Loving her more deeply than I thought possible.” He opened his left hand, palm up and she slid her right hand over his and sighed when he closed his fingers loosely over her hand. “I still call you Natalia, you will always be my Natalia, but I love the woman you’ve become, lyubov moya. The woman you choose to be.”

The jumbled pieces didn’t feel so jagged. “I’m really glad I wasn’t able to kill you.”

He smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling as humor flirted around his lips. “Da. I am glad I didn’t kill you.”

Tightening her grip on his hand, she leaned her head against his shoulder. Giving herself a break from the raw emotion in his eyes that likely echoed in her own. “I don’t know how long this is going to take me,” she admitted, easier to say when she wasn’t looking at him. This wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have with anyone, but James… James she could tell.

“It takes as long as it takes, Natalia,” he said easily. “There is no clock you have to meet, no time constraints.”

Yet, there were.

“But you will not listen to that because you are you,” he murmured, a hint of impatient indulgence in his voice. “Since you do not wish to discuss the rest right now, I am going to ask you again. Do you want a distraction?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “Tony was helping with that earlier.”

“Good,” James told her. “Tony is going to help you again.”

Curiosity and surprise collided within her. Lifting her head, she blinked at him.

“Well maybe better—we’re going to help Tony.” That was even more intriguing.

“What happened?” Had she missed some other threat? Granted, she’d only been back a little over twenty-four hours, at least aware enough to be back. It seemed so innocuous a description. Back—like she’d been on vacation.

So. Not. A. Vacation.

That was what she could get Steve and James. Another vacation.

Pocketing that thought, she studied James’ micro expressions. He wore calm like it was his body armor; there was a core of gentleness to his every move but there were elements of concern lingering in the crevices, peeking out at her. A real need to offer balance. It matched the one in her needing to find that balance.

“He bought a tree,” James told her, his tone dropping to an almost confidential note. “And it’s still stark naked.”

There was a downbeat.

Then she withdrew a few inches to stare at him and a giggle chased a groan as she clapped a hand against her mouth. He did not just…

Eyebrows up, James stared at her with almost picture perfect innocence save for the devilment in his eyes.

“Just won’t do,” he said, the Brooklyn drawl looping around her like an embrace. She adored when his past crept into his voice, when Bucky slipped out through the damaged corridors to tease and charm. “Can’t have a stark naked tree.”

Head back, she groaned again but couldn’t suppress the giggles. “You’re right,” she said, fighting for a fraction of sobriety as she met his teasing gaze. “You want to decorate his tree…”

“I was thinking you might want to. You helped him pick it out and the guy seems hopeless without you around. We could all use a distraction.”

They still… “We still need to finish the debrief.”

Stroking his thumb lightly over the back of her hand, he gave a careless shrug. “You’re the boss…well, okay Boss is Tony and team lead is Steve, but you’re second in command, and I’m pretty sure you said the team lead was a pushover for you. I know the boss is.”

She had, indeed, said that. “You know—I’m not really an expert on tree decorating.”

“Luckily, you don’t have to be one. You just have to want to do it…” He slanted a look toward one of the Legion. “Have the decorations arrived, Friday?”

“They will be here within the hour, Sergeant,” Friday said gently.

“Plenty of time,” James said. “Time to take care of things, then we can decorate tonight. We’ll get Peter to come over. You like having him here, yeah?”

“Are you handling me, Soldat?” When she raised her eyebrows his smile grew.

“I would never dream of it, Vdova,” he retaliated, though humor punched up his tone.

“Yes you would,” she said with a snort. “Okay—let’s go get the debrief done and…”

“And you get more rest, then…” he lifted the hand he still held and pressed a kiss to her palm. “We have a lot to figure out, all of us, but you getting better is top of that list.”

“If Mr. Wizard comes back before then?” Though she hadn’t really let herself think about it, she couldn’t escape the fact Doctor Strange had already spent twenty-four hours on her problem—give or take. He said he needed a day or two, so they were in the window.

“One step at a time,” James chided her. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, then rose and held out his hand for the other cup. “More tea?”

“I need to pee,” she admitted and the corner of his mouth kicked a little higher.

“So after that, would you like more tea?”

She slid his phone back into his pocket for him, her hand lingering for a moment. At his raised eyebrow, she gave his thigh a squeeze. “Maybe.”

“Aversion therapy?” The gentleness in the question sent a shiver of embarrassment through her. That was never what touching James should be about.

“No,” she said injecting some lightness. “I missed your ass.”

He snorted. “Natalia.”

“No, I mean it. I need—a lot of things and I know touching you and being touched isn’t a bad thing. But my…”

“Your system was overloaded, Natalia, you are allowed to feel these things. You are also allowed to touch me wherever and whenever you like.” He winked.

Rising, she gathered the blanket. The deck beneath her feet had warmed to the point she wasn’t even chilled. Clint’s phone in hand, she glanced at the falling snow and tipped her head back. “I don’t want him to win.”

She didn’t have to say who.

“He didn’t,” James told her firmly. “He won’t. Ever.”

Closing her eyes, she ignored the frisson of unease as she allowed herself to be vulnerable. James wasn’t going to hurt her. Her conscious and subconscious might be struggling with that, but the rest of her knew this as a fact. No matter their history. James had never been the architect behind inflicting pain on her.

Eyes open, she squared her shoulders and then met the steadiness in his gaze. “Thank you, Friday. The heat was very much appreciated.”

“My pleasure, Natasha. Boss has put the kettle on to heat and he is debating what to order for lunch. Do you have a preference?”

Was it lunchtime already? “We just had breakfast.”

“Approximately 2.5 hours ago, Natasha. Lunch will be in another 90 minutes to two hours. You should be taking in approximately a hundred calories per hour in addition to hydration and rest to feed your serum’s effects on healing.”

The corners of her mouth twisted. “I should, huh?”

“Yes.” No additional data, merely simple acceptance.

“How many calories have I managed so far?”

“Enough that you can eat lunch in 90 minutes to two hours.” Tart. Pointed.

James chuckled.

“I want…calzones,” she said after a moment’s musing as she headed for the doors, James keep pace with her. “Sausage, mushrooms, ricotta, and spinach. Oh…” her stomach almost growled as she considered it. “Pepperoni and onions, too.”

With a small smile, James opened the door for her. Clint gave her a once over as she walked in. Tony and Steve were staring at a map on the holo screen. She tracked the images, it was…

…ice slithered through her and she hugged the blanket a little tighter before she dropped Clint’s phone into his hands. With a flick of her fingers against his nose, she said, “Don’t ambush me like that again. It’s not fair to Laura.”

He just eyed her. “Laura wanted to talk to you and you needed to talk to her.” They glared at each other for a moment. But she wasn’t ready to admit he was right, so she just flicked his nose again.

“Just for that, I’m not telling you what you’re getting for Christmas.”

His eyes narrowed a fraction. Ha. Clint was worse than his kids. “Wait, she told you she was getting me something?”

“Did I say that?” All innocent and wide-eyed, she gave a careless shrug. The little growl of frustration pleased her enormously. “Tony, I’m going to borrow your bathroom.”

“Okay,” he said as if distracted. “Be sure to put it back.”

She snorted and left the blanket on the back of the sofa before heading for the steps. There was another down on the main floor, tucked into the corner, but it was at the end of a hallway with no exit. After emptying her bladder, she checked her appearance in the mirror as she washed her hands. Her damp hair had dried while outside, the heat had probably helped. The curls pulled it higher so it barely brushed her shoulders. None of them said anything, but she almost hated looking at it.

Closing her eyes, she bowed her head and put her hands on the counter. The bathroom smelled like Tony’s soap. The air wasn’t humid, but the traces of it lingered from his earlier shower. It was another reminder that she was back.

“Natasha,” Friday said softly.

“Just need another minute,” she told her. “The strangest things trigger it. A scent. A haircut.” She met her own gaze in the mirror. “Even just talking.”

Hours spent alone. Then hours spent under his painful ministrations. The sound of his voice like some ugly scar on her psyche.

“Take your time. Boss won’t mind. If you need to lie down, I can secure the bedroom for you.”

That almost made her laugh, but then she straightened. “Actually… there’s something I’ve been meaning to do.”

“Do you require assistance?”

“Maybe.” Natasha flipped off the light but slipped into Tony’s closet rather than head downstairs. Hands on her hips, she eyed the clothing. Then began gathering all the dress shirts and shifting them to the very back.

“What are we doing, Natasha?” Friday asked in a hushed voice.

“Tony likes to rearrange my closet…” And had been doing so for quite some time. “I’m just repaying the favor.” She sorted through his t-shirts, the Black Widow League shirts made her snort and she carefully buried those in the back, too. Then she took band shirts he’d clearly never worn and began pairing them with his suits. It took her a few minutes.

“Boss is getting anxious,” Friday warned. “I told them you needed a few more moments, but that you were fine.”

“Thanks girlfriend,” Natasha said with a glance upward. The more she pulled out—like pairing his Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with his black Tom Ford or The Wiz, not that she was asking about the musical shirts, with the blue suit, the better she felt.

As she continued to sort through the shirts though, she had to pause.

Captain America Wants You declared one shirt with a saluting Steve on the front. The corners of her mouth curled and she moved that one to the front of the closet. Then after another sweep, she snatched his favorite AC/DC shirt, pulling it on and then covering it up with her pie chart shirt before pulling the hoodie back on. It was a little bulky, but she’d been chilly.

Satisfied and feeling remarkably better, she sauntered out of the closet and descended the stairs. James studied her a beat from where he leaned against the sofa. A cup of tea steamed on the table waiting for her.

She smiled at him and he gave her a once over before nodding. Steve and Tony were still at the table with Clint who’d apparently joined them. All three glanced at her, though not at the same time. Each of them tracking her movements as if they, like James, just needed to make sure she was okay. That tension made her feel even better about rearranging Tony’s closet. At the foot of the stairs, she fixed on the holo screen.

“That’s the fortress I was in, isn’t it?”

A single nod. “Need us to shut it down, Angel?”

“No, it’s fine… “ It wasn’t like the worst things she remembered was the alien landscape or the external stone walls.

The cold clamp of the shackle on her ankle and a flash of smooth stone walls around her as the grate snapped shut flashed through her, but she shoved it aside. Compartmentalizing. She had to put each piece away, until it couldn’t bother her anymore. The sense of satisfaction she’d claimed upstairs, she grasped in both hands and kept it close.

“Calzones?” Tony asked as he picked up a StarkPad. His tone had a forced kind of lightness to it. Like her, he was putting on a good front. Steve seemed to be doing better, but his concern echoed in his eyes.

“Hmm-hmm,” she said, curling her hands into fists into her lap and then forcing them to relax as she settled on the sofa. Her gaze went up to James’ as he settled the blanket over her then she glanced at Steve. “They’re basically pizza sandwiches.” She carefully held Steve’s gaze the entire time, which meant she didn’t miss the crinkle of his eyes or how some of the tension bled from his brow or the way his mouth softened just before he smiled. James’ groan rumbled above her.

Better. Another little piece she could put back where it belonged.

“I’m going to PT,” Clint announced, his gaze firm on her. “You good?”

“Nope,” she said without missing a beat. “Not even on my best days.”

He rolled his eyes and pushed out of the chair. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

“Is that a threat or a promise?” The tease pulled another reluctant smile to his lips, but the watchfulness in his eyes scolded her. Yes, he knew exactly what she was doing.

“You’ll have to wait and see won’t you?”

Relief flooded her at the teasing remark; he’d agreed to play. Pausing next to her, he raised his eyebrows in question and she held out her hand. He gave it a light squeeze then dropped a kiss on her head.

“Behave,” he murmured, his voice low and pitched to not carry.

“No promises,” she answered with a small smile and he rewarded her with a real grin.

“Never a doubt in my mind.” Then he locked gazes with her. “You need me, you tell Friday, I’ll come. Got it?”

“I’ll be fine,” she retorted, then flicked his nose. “Go get better. I need a rematch at the range.”

A soft snort, then another squeeze and he was gone. “Behave,” he repeated, this time sweeping his gaze over the rest before he stepped into the elevator.

“Where’s the fun in that?” Tony asked, but Clint just flipped him off and Natasha watched the doors close, pressing her thumb against her lower lip as she worried at the jagged nail tip.

“Why are we staring at the castle and the terrain around it?” she asked after several minutes of watching Steve and Tony flit through the various satellite images.

“Because I’m pretty sure those rings of his were some kind of alien tech, which tells me he had to find them somewhere and considering how warped the land was, I’m thinking something alien crashed there.”

She nudged the blanket away and stood, leaving her teacup to pace over to where they stood and stared at the images.

“I don’t suppose…” Tony said with a grimace.

“No,” she told him. “He didn’t do more than demonstrate what those rings could do.”

An image of the symbols on them flashed across her mind. The icy fingers of dread sending a trickle of sweat down her spine.

“What happened to them?” In all honesty, she didn’t want to know. Yet, at the same time…

“Went down with him,” Steve told her, bracing his hands on the table. “Wasn’t quite expecting to near vaporize the guy.”

“I wanted him dead,” Tony said without an ounce of apology. “Dead dead. Not, oh, I’ll get up in a minute or inject me with something dead. I wanted a carcass, roasted to near ash, dead.”

Natasha huffed out a half-laugh. “D-e-d dead?”

Tony grinned at her. “Very much so.”

Folding her arms to ward off the chill, she nodded. “You’re relying on satellite scans to find it?”

“Trying,” Steve said. “Friday’s scanned the whole region, but there’s a lot of interference.”

“If there was something visible by satellite, the Chinese would have found it by now. They have an extensive system, impeccable intelligence and they are always watching.” She’d dealt with several of their operatives over the year. They played the long game. As much as she didn’t want to ask, she said, “Did any of his monks survive?”

“As far as we could tell,” Steve answered. “No. Vision did a full sweep…” He hesitated a beat. “He did a full sweep of the facility and cleaned out any electronic caches.”

In other words all the video of her torture, but there could have been other details. “Did he erase it or review it first?”

“He reviewed it,” Tony told her and there was a guarded silence between the three.

Great. So Vision had seen all of it.

“But he only did it in order to lift any pertinent data,” Steve told her firmly. James had moved to join them but she still had distance from all of them. “And he gave his word that the only one he would share your data with is you.”

Mild surprise filtered through her and she flicked a look to Tony.

“We saw what he sent us,” Tony admitted. “I didn’t think you wanted us seeing even that much. Even if you tried to embed messages.”

She slid her attention back to the footage. “Well, you picking the lady might have happened. You like women more than cats. Better to warn you.”

It was light and flip, but didn’t land with anything more than a thud.

The silence stretched again, and Natasha squared her shoulders. “Brief me now?”

She had briefed them. But it had been ten days

“Wait for the food?” Steve asked and he had this way of looking both firm yet coaxing in the same breath. Despite the fact she’d rather just rip the Band-Aid off, she nodded.

Tony grabbed the image and closed it. “Good. Break time. It’s been over two weeks and we’re due Red, overdue.”

At Steve’s raised eyebrows, Natasha frowned then stared at Tony. “Overdue?”

“Ha! How soon you forget.” He pointed her to the sofa. “Sit. I’m grabbing fresh coffee. Guys get your own drinks, and everyone sits. Friday—you know the drill.”

For a split second, she just stood there as Tony headed for the kitchen and Steve shot her a questioning look. Overdue…

“Oh.” The moment she remembered, discomfort threaded through her that felt too keenly close to a fresh wave of embarrassment and shame. She’d forgotten. How could she have… it was just…

“Natalia?” James was just there, close enough to touch, but keeping his distance.

“I’m fine... I just feel like an idiot.” She gave him a smile and hoped it was nowhere near as weak as it felt.

“It’s tradition,” Tony called. “We don’t get to do it that often and normally it’s in the middle of the night, but we have some time until food gets here and we could all use a break.”

They were all drifting toward the living room, Steve retrieved water for himself and for her, while James skipped all of it and just dropped into the chair nearest the sofa when she curled back up into her corner and pulled the blanket over her. Steve glanced at her and then the other chair, but Tony dropped into it before he could shift and Natasha patted the sofa with her foot.

“I won’t bite.”

“Not even if I ask?” The flip remark rolled out into the quiet and earned a gawking look from Tony and an amused smirk from James.

A spark of delight shivered through her and she tipped her head. “Maybe if you ask.” It wasn’t the first time he played. Steve had a delightful sense of humor, he was more than capable of sexual innuendo and teasing. Normally, he reserved it for when they were alone or with James.

“Good to know,” he told her and settled down to sit next to her slowly, telegraphing every movement before he stretched his legs out to rest his feet on the table. “So what are we doing, exactly?”

She opened her mouth, but Tony said, “Ahh! Nope. Zip it, Red.”

Raising her eyebrows, she pinned him with a look.

“Please,” he tacked on abruptly. “I’d like to do the honors.”

Folding her arms, she shifted and nudged her toes under Steve’s leg. He split a look at her, one corner of his mouth curving up, before he focused on Tony again. He wasn’t alone, James watched him with narrowed eyes.

“All right then, you two are about to join a very exclusive club and the rules are exceptionally clear. We do not discuss what we do in front of others, we only discuss it when we’re alone, preferably here in the penthouse where no one else can hear us…”

Natasha rolled her eyes. He was making such a production out of it. At the same time, amusement curled in her belly.

Steve frowned, the weight of his gaze swinging to her, but she bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing aloud as Tony leaned forward, his attention swiveling from James to Steve.

“Red and I have been doing this for years. So you’re kind of joining us in the middle, which I don’t mind, but I’d rather not have to start everything over from scratch. I think you can both keep up, but if you need us to pause and start over, just let me know.”

A finger pressed to her lips, she shook her head as Tony’s gaze, practically dancing with amusement, locked on hers. He knew exactly how he sounded. When he winked, James huffed out a breath.

“Hit it, Friday.”

The windows darkened, the lights lowered, and the screen flipped on to the opening bars of Murder, She Wrote.

The faintly baffled look on Steve’s face did her in and she started giggling. Tony’s grin grew. James, by contrast, frowned but said nothing until about a third of the way through and Nat was having way more fun watching Steve and James watch it than she did with the episode, even if the familiarity of it and the ritual relaxed her.

“Natalia,” James murmured. “She reminds me of…”

“…I know. But don’t bring that up. Tony doesn’t like that.”

The man in question scowled, but he didn’t pause it. By the time the food arrived, they were on their second episode. Natasha devoured her calzone—both of them since Tony got her two—and sipped on a soda because she was a little tired of tea. The food was heavy in her stomach, but the protests were few. After the fourth episode, James had half-dozed off and Steve studied Jessica Fletcher with a kind of wariness.

“Why do people invite her if there is always a murder when she shows up?”

“My point,” Tony said pouncing on that and James flicked his eyes open to look at the television then at her.

“You two have watched this for years?”

“Hmm-hmm,” she told him, wrinkling her nose. “It’s…”

“…nice,” James said, slumping back in the seat, feet up on the table almost mirroring Steve’s pose.

It was kind of nice. Tony glanced at all three of them before settling his attention on her, his smile utterly unrepentant. Thank you, she mouthed and he winked before going back to the show.

More normalcy.

Real normalcy.

She didn’t find out what happened at the end of the fifth one, she dozed off with her feet in Steve’s lap and her cheek tucked against the sofa.

 

The crash of something metal hitting the floor and bouncing jerked her eyes open and she sat up on the sofa.

“Sorry,” Peter said, his whole body frozen as she pinned him with a gaze. He glanced down at the box of spare parts he’d been carrying. Three steps behind him, Steve sighed and shook his head, but there was a hint of amusement pulling at the corners of his mouth. “Really sorry, Natasha.”

Running a hand over her face, she wiped away the hint of drool from the corner of her mouth and pulled her legs toward herself. She’d been spread out on the sofa, tucked under a blanket. The windows were still half-darkened, though the lights of the city were visible beyond.

“It’s okay, Pal,” James said from behind her. Running a hand through her hair, she shifted more to sitting up and then glanced around the room. They were still in the penthouse. Steve had a box in his hands, too. “Just give her a minute.”

Waking up prepared and ready to go was fundamental to survival, so the fact she was having a minute worried her on a couple of levels. Then again, she was safe. She could afford to be slow to wake.

“Aww, crap.” Tony’s voice came from the stairs and she glanced up to see him carrying a box. “Sorry, Red. I was going to have Pete take this stuff downstairs to the one of the other labs so we could work until you woke up.”

“Okay,” she managed to get her tongue unstuck from the roof of her mouth. It was like having a hangover without any of the fun. Thirsty. Even before she could form the question, Steve held out a bottle of water he already opened and she accepted with a murmured, “Thank you,” even if though it came out almost as much of a croak as the okay.

“You snore, Red,” Tony said as he trailed past her. “I mean when you’re seriously out, you were snoring. You feeling okay? No fever? No cold? No anything that we need to be concerned about?”

After draining the water bottle, she held her hand out for the lid. Steve dropped it into her palm, and then she sealed the bottle. After, she twisted and winged it across the room where it bounced off the side of Tony’s head.

“Ouch,” he said, his tone as dry as the desert. “I am wounded.”

When she reached for the StarkPad on the table next to her, James snagged it away. “Tony… she has very accurate aim.”

“I know,” Tony said almost too cheerfully. “I’m rather fond of her aim.” He had the water bottle in his hand. “Mine now.”

She rolled her eyes then scrubbed her hands over her face. “I need to wash my face or take a shower.” Or something. Too many cobwebs.

“Go on up,” Tony said, waving to the stairs. “Pete, let’s take this down to the lab and then we’ll head back up. Let Friday know what you want to eat, Red. C’mon, Cap.”

They trotted out and she glanced at James. “How long?”

“A couple of hours,” he told her. “You drifted right off and we didn’t want to risk waking you to move you.”

“That’s fine,” she said, licking her lips. “I hate waking up groggy.”

“Still healing,” he reminded her. “Want more water?”

No, she still wanted the shower. Pushing up from the sofa, she admitted, “I want a peppermint mocha.”

His eyebrows climbed. “That’s one of the fancy coffees from the expensive shops?”

More or less, so she nodded. “Did Clint come back?” Wait, they’d watched several episodes.

“No, Doll. He finished PT and was hurting. He texted and we told him you were zoned watching the show.”

She must have been really zoned to miss that. “Hurting…”

“He’s fine, Natalia. He actually went to lie down and get some more sleep. We all need it, him included. He’ll be up for dinner.” The steadiness in his eyes slowed her down. “Now, do you want to use Tony’s shower or go to our floor?”

Our.

They usually called it Steve’s but it had kind of become theirs. “I just really want to wake up and the coffee…” Her gaze landed on the tree. “Oh, we need to do the tree.”

“The decorations are here, I can go get them in a minute. I filled Stevie in, so he knows what we’re doing. If you’re not up for it, we can put it off another night.” Even as he made the offer she shook her head.

“No I want to,” she admitted. “Ever since you said that about the tree.” She glanced at it. “It does look sad and he got it a couple of days before the party.” The same night he triggered her. The day before the bombs. A lot had happened.

“Okay, Doll. You want to shower here or go down?”

“I’m going to use his and you’re going to get me coffee?” A hopeful note swelled inside of her and James’ expression gentled.

“Yes, I’ll go get your coffee.” He rose with an affectionate smile in place and she lifted her hand toward his cheek and he ducked his head almost obediently.

There was a roughness to his stubble. He hadn’t really shaved today. Or maybe he hadn’t shaved in a few days, it wasn’t quite a beard. “You need a shave.”

“Maybe when you’re in the mood?” It was his turn to sound hopeful and her heart did a little squeeze. The roughness scraped against her palm. “Still want to take you on that date.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. When you’re ready.”

“Do I get to know where we’re going?” She traced her thumb against his jaw.

“Depends,” he said, a hint of a sly smile curving his lips. “Do you want to be surprised or not?”

She’d never gone on a date with her Soldier. Never gone on a date as herself before Steve. “I trust you,” she said, studying his pale eyes. “Wherever you want to go. Just—tell me what to wear.”

His smile lit him up and she slid her hand down to his chest, bracing herself as she rose up on her toes. The first brush of her lips against his made her tingle, then the second, and a third. When she parted her lips, he slid his hand up to cup her jaw ever so carefully. It was a slow, even kiss, little nips and tiny grazes of his teeth, then a longer sweep of his tongue and she sighed into that much-missed mouth before drawing back. Her heart thumped a little faster and heat wound through her system.

“Go shower,” he murmured, his forehead resting against hers for a beat then he straightened and when his hand would have fallen from her face, she clasped his hand there. “Coffee, then dinner, and decorating the tree.”

It sounded like a really nice night, especially since they’d managed to utterly avoid debriefing her on what happened while she was gone. That was okay, for today.

Tomorrow.

“Okay.” She squeezed his hand, then slipped away and she was at the top of the steps before he glided into the elevator, his head tilted up. Just as the doors closed, she caught him saying “Friday…”

Probably letting the others know where he was going. In the bathroom, she glanced at the shower, then at the door and pushed it closed. Slipping out of her clothes, she folded them neatly, her purloined shirt and all.

Stiffness had invaded her muscles and the bruising around her neck looked like a Technicolor nightmare. Still, the rest of her seemed a little improved. Except for the shorter hair and the itching inside her own skin.

“Friday, can you give me a freezing cold shower first—then turn up the heat?”

“Ice bath, Natasha?” There was skepticism in her voice.

“Kind of…I just—I’m feeling very loggy.” It was hard to explain. It was like after she woke in the coffin, only far less intense. “I need a jolt.”

She had on the dog tags and the bracelet.

“How long for the ice shower?” Friday still didn’t sound thrilled.

“Five minutes? Then warm it up.”

“Understood.”

She stepped into the shower and braced her hands on the wall. The one thing she’d always liked about Tony’s bathroom. The shower had jets everywhere. Eyes closed, she said. “Do it.”

The chilled water hit her from all sides and she forced herself to breath through it. But like the ice that had wrapped over her, pinning her in place, forcing her to freeze, unable to even shiver yet violently aware of the passage of time, the cold water would kick start her system. It knocked the grogginess away, forcing sharp clarity into her.

By the time the water began to warm, she was shuddering. But she felt better. She rode out the shivers, turning under the hot spray as she stretched. Her skin pinkened everywhere. She borrowed the shampoo and the conditioner. A laugh bubbled up, Tony used even more expensive product than she did.

It was—funny.

Fifteen minutes later, she stood in the middle of the bathroom wrapped, soaking up the heat all around. Better.

Much better.

“Your respiration and pulse are both vastly improved. They dropped to unsafe levels…”

“I know, but you monitored the same thing in Switzerland and this wasn’t anywhere near as long.”

“Six minutes in Switzerland,” Friday reminded her primly. “Five minutes here. One minute is not an extreme difference.”

“Yes, Mother, it is. And I’m doing better Friday.”

“Natasha, Boss worries about you.”

“Well that makes us even, I worry about him.” She dried off and then got dressed, keeping her purloined AC/DC shirt hidden under the other before she pulled back on the hoodie. “Is everyone back?”

“Mr. Parker joined Sergeant Barnes for the coffee run. Captain Rogers and the Boss are talking in the living room.”

“Talking or arguing?”

There was a pause. “Definitely talking.”

“Okay, good.”

Checking her appearance, she ran her fingers through her hair. “Thanks for your help, Friday.”

“Anytime.”

She could do this. More focused. More alert.

Another piece reclaimed.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

Illusions

Natasha

 

 

“Look,” Tony was saying as she descended the steps. “I can have the house fully stocked before we arrive. We’ll get settled, then bring everyone down, spend the holidays there.”

“She won’t want to go to the island,” Steve answered.

“Yeah, but you have to admit you’re tempted,” Tony almost sounded like he was smirking though she couldn’t see his face. “Frankly, I’m tempted.”

“You’re not hard to tempt.” The dry retort pulled a laugh out of Tony. A real one.

“No, no I’m not. But—it’s cold here and the damn Committee. There are a lot of demands.”

“She likes the demands.” Steve wasn’t wrong. “Look, your kneejerk reaction is to fix it.”

“So is yours,” Tony retaliated.

“Didn’t say it wasn’t. But we can’t—fix this.”

Her. They couldn’t fix her.

Arms folded, she sat on the top step. They hadn’t noticed her and from where they stood looking out at the city, they wouldn’t see her unless they turned and looked right at her.

“We can try,” Tony said with a sigh. “It was my fault…”

“We’ve been over this.” The patience in Steve’s voice looped around her like he was sitting next to her with an arm over her shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t Nat’s. It wasn’t Pepper’s. It was that son of a bitch. He set it all up because he wanted to make you pay for some perceived crime. If we could…if we could have avoided all that time he got to torture her, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But we can’t. We can’t wave a wand and just erase it like it never happened.” The longing underscoring those words filtered through her.

Even if they could, she wouldn’t let them. No more edits to her memory.

“I hate feeling helpless.” The agony in Tony’s voice underscored it. “I want…”

“I know.” Clasping Tony’s shoulder, Steve just stood there. The dynamic between them had shifted and never had it been clearer than in this moment. They’d gone through her disappearance together. The whole team had. And they’d come out the other side, stronger.

“Maybe…”

“Tony,” Natasha said his name quietly and it pulled them both around. Surprise stamped on Tony’s face and Steve blew out a breath. “I’ll be fine.”

“You know Red, sometimes, I think you and I have different definitions of fine.” His rueful smile pulled a real one from her.

“Probably. We have different definitions for a lot of things. It’s what makes life interesting.”

Steve grinned. “Feel better, Angel?”

“A little. The shower was nice. I may have to request an upgrade to my shower. I like the multiple jets.” After rising, she descended the stairs.

“I might be able to do something about that,” Tony drawled out slowly. “In the meanwhile, mi shower es su shower.”

The man spoke fluent Italian, this she knew for a fact. So either he attempted to mangle Spanish for some reason or he was deliberately going for the cheap laugh in his horrible pronunciation. Either way, it was funny and she chuckled. “Thank you. Can your fire be my fire, too?”

“You want the fireplace on?” Even before Tony finished the question, the gas fireplace lit and the blue and white flames began to dance over the rocks.

It was exactly what she wanted. She considered reclaiming her spot on the sofa and then glanced at the tree. James said they’d ordered decorations for it and there were a small stack of boxes by the dining table. Altering course, she wandered over to open the first box and peered inside.

Lights.

Perfect.

As she began to unpack them, Steve and Tony joined her. The first thing out of Tony’s box surprised her enough to pause. He must have noticed her attention because he held the box over to her. It was a set of Avengers’ ornaments. The whole team.

She was right in the middle of it.

And it looked like her.

Her mouth opened and then closed again.

“Do you hate it?” Tony asked when she stared at them in silence for so long.

“No, but…” She frowned as she looked up from the ornaments to Tony. The first question on her tongue was why, but she didn’t have to ask why. Because he was Tony was the answer. How was a close second, but, again it was Tony. That was how.

It was one thing to be on the news. It was another to be interviewed or talked about, defenestrated on public television for crimes both real and imagined.

But this was—this…

This made her more than just…

“Nat,” Steve said gently, and he’d moved to lean against the table as close as he dared without touching her. “Do you like it?”

“Honestly, I don’t know.” She wasn’t sure how she felt about it. At all. There was something familiar about the lines in the face, the care with which it had been constructed. All of the ornaments looked better than the ones she’d found. More accurate. More life-like.

The Other Guy looked like the Other Guy right down to the tense frown lines that he seemed to share with Bruce. Thor’s animated smile seemed to lift right off of his. Clint’s matched his jawline and there was a faint smirk on his lips. The mask didn’t belong there, but she got it. Clint Barton wasn’t the face of the Avengers, so adding a little layer for him was a good plan.

Tony’s suit was a more recent model, but it was still just the suit. Sam looked good. Wanda looked fantastic. Vision was easily enough done and Steve…the Steve of that ornament reminded her of just after the fall of SHIELD. The steely determination adding gravitas even to the moments when they teased each other. He’d been so busy looking for James that laughter had seemed like a distant memory.

How the hell had they captured emotion on these things?

Her face… there was a faint smile on her lips. But she couldn’t peg the when of it, just there was something so familiar.

“It’s based off one of your drawings,” she murmured slowly, then glanced at Steve.

“Yeah,” he answered, and then glanced at Tony. “I’d asked Tony about making an ornament of you for the tree. Before…” He motioned to the box.

“And I went big,” Tony admitted. “I had this huge plan, wanted to roll it out to welcome you back after you agreed to take on the Committee for me—for us. Shirts. Mugs. Hats. Merchandise. When Steve said he wanted to get an ornament made for you, he figured we could use the 3-D printer in the lab.”

“You went for something a little more elaborate?” It wasn’t really a question. The emotion clogging inside threatened to suffocate her.

“Hey,” Tony answered, spreading his hands. “It’s me.”

This time she did let out a laughing huff. It was definitely him.

“For what it’s worth,” Steve said, raising his hand toward her arm but then dropping it again without touching her. “They’re selling like mad. It’s been on the news, how the stores can’t keep them in stock.”

“People want it?”

“Red,” Tony answered. “You’re a hit. But if you hate it—I’ll make them disappear. I wanted…I wanted to help. Not hurt you.”

“Not hurting,” she could admit that. “Just—used to the illusion of anonymity. And really… Parents are buying Black Widow ornaments for their kids?”

“I would,” Tony said without missing a beat. “Laura probably would, too.”

“I guess you’re just going to have to deal with the fact people adore you, Angel,” Steve said and the wryness in his voice added the element of fait accompli. “Black Widow might actually beat Iron Man in the who is your favorite Avenger polls…”

“Bite your tongue,” Tony snarked.

“Well,” Natasha said passing the box of Avengers ornaments back to Tony. “We know who has the Avengers’ best ass.”

Steve groaned, but Tony’s smirk grew. “You got that right, Red. Though if you were wondering, I voted for you.”

This time when she laughed, the tears evaporated. “All right—ornaments, Lights. We need garland and maybe some bows to wrap around the railing over there. Are we ordering food or making it?” The glass separating her from the rest of them cracked farther and she threw herself at it again. No more self-pity. They were gonna decorate the tree and she was gonna have her peppermint mocha any—the elevator chimed. Oh, right now.

Pivoting, she had a smile almost at the ready as James and Peter returned coffee in hand.

“Excellent,” Tony said, clapping his hands. “Just in time to help us work.”

The peppermint was sharp in the mocha; it cooled her mouth like a tonic while elevating the chocolate and espresso. The shock of all the different tastes clamored for her attention, kind of like the shifting focus in the room around her. Tony had taken over stringing the patterns of light, and setting up a very specific arrangement on the tree as well as conscripting Peter into helping him. Peter kept flashing looks in her direction, quick glances he tried to cover, but they were hard to miss much less ignore.

Peter, like all the rest, worried. She didn’t plan to vanish in the puff of a bad thought, however. Even if the room was too warm, too bright, too loud, and too… alive. Steve and James were sorting through the ornaments, setting them up with hooks and occasionally referring between Tony and Peter. Instead of participating, she drifted away from the chaos and into the kitchen where she could still listen and see, but not get lost in it.

Halfway through her mocha, she went through the cabinets and began to pull out the ingredients to make a pizza. There was enough sausage and cheese, she could throw on bacon—and yes there was pepperoni. Everything else would take time to defrost.

The tree lit up red and gold, the Iron Man pattern in the center of it earning a groan from Steve, but Peter laughed when he pointed out the web background the red lights made in three places. Drifting on the hum of their conversation, she began putting together the dough.

Clint arrived as she began to knead it, his hair askew and his eyes bloodshot, but the baggage under them had definitely gone down. He moved with a lot more stiffness than he had earlier. His leg was still healing and he’d definitely been pushing it. Instead of criticizing him, though, since it was partially her fault he’d been pushing it, she just pointed to the extra peppermint mocha the boys had brought back.

He made a face but took a long swig of it then his grimace deepened. “I still don’t get how you drink this stuff.”

“You don’t appreciate good vodka, either,” she pointed out without missing a beat and Clint snorted.

“True enough.” Leaning against the bar, he shifted slightly to watch the guys decorating the tree. “Didn’t feel up to joining in?

A little shake of her head. “Thought I’d make pizza.”

The weight of his gaze rested on her and he moved so that he was more in the kitchen than the living room. Not pushing or pressing, just—being there. He didn’t ask her anything, didn’t add to the chatter rolling out of the living room. Peter and Tony were definitely egging each other on. Steve cut in with the occasional comment, though James saved his occasional stings and seemed to be listening as much as she was.

After she set aside the crusts to rise, she began to heat the sauce and cook the various meats. The bacon needed to be crumbly and the sausage cooked just right, not too done or it would dry out in the oven.

The combination of sauce simmering and meats frying coupled with the peppermint made her stomach roll, but she swallowed the burn of it. Too rich. Too much. It was like sensory overload for her nose.

Twice she had to stop breathing through her nose and just focused on drawing a breath via her mouth.

“You know you can just blow this off, right?” Clint caught her gaze as she transferred the bacon to a plate with a paper towel on it.

“Nope,” Natasha told him firmly. “I don’t know that. Because if I accept that, then I’m running away.” Locking gazes with him. “I’m not going to be afraid of being around people or my friends.”

“You don’t have to be brutal with yourself,” he corrected. “And I’m not telling you to go or saying you have to listen, but you’ve been back a day, Nat. A day. You’re—a rock star.”

With a snort, she shook her head and glanced over to where Steve and James had begun adding the ornaments and Tony kept rearranging them. Peter had perched on the sofa, a hand pressed over his mouth as if to conceal his entertainment.

Despite the fact they were working so diligently, there was no way Steve and James weren’t aware of this conversation. They’d kept a measured distance, not touching her unless she reached for them first. All the relaxation from earlier had utterly fled. The muscles in her back were taut, her head ached, and the bouts of nausea from the food kept coming. It all smelled too good.

“But none of these other assholes are gonna challenge you, not right now.” The bland delivery hit its mark; Steve pivoted and pinned a look on Clint. “My point,” her best friend added with a wry smile.

“Don’t bait them,” she chided, turning to check on the pizza crusts. They were not as high as she’d like but she painted the edges in garlic butter before spreading the sauce. As waves of sickness hit her, she kept her hands steady. Prepping meals like this was something she enjoyed and she refused to surrender it.

“Nat…”

Pausing, she flattened her hands to the counter and met his worried gaze. In a low voice, she said, “I know. I get it. I’m a wreck. I don’t want anyone to touch me; I’m fighting every instinct I have that says go. There are a dozen places I could have disappeared into until I recover. I’m spending time doing…” She didn’t want to say nonsense, because the tree and time together wasn’t nonsense. The fact Steve and Tony seemed to have found common ground was so incredibly not nonsense. The lack of tension threading the air between them relieved her on a level she hadn’t even realized she’d been concerned.

At the same time, she felt like a damn stranger. These people cared about her, enough to come and get her. She cared about them. She’d even admitted it and at the same time, all she wanted to do was just go. To abandon the illusion of having found a place that was hers.

“I have no place in this world.”

She shot Madame B a mental finger.

“I want to be here.” This was why she’d survived. They were why she survived. She’d fought. Yes, she’d withdrawn, she’d armed herself as the Widow and all these personal ties were dangerous, they compromised the Widow on every level, and yet, Natasha didn’t give a damn. “So kindly get the fuck off my back, Clint.”

The corners of his mouth tipped and he raised his hands. Some of the worry faded from his eyes. Some. She didn’t have to look to know they’d snagged everyone’s attention.

Blowing out a breath, she resumed putting the pizzas together, stacking the sauce then the cheese, then the meat toppings and Clint kept her company, but he stopped pushing. He only did it because he cared. In the past, she’d needed him to push, to yell at her even as he looked after her in that confusing mix of scolding affection. Right now?

Right now, she needed to be here. Chances were she’d need him to scold her in the future and she would gladly return the favor.

But she wanted to be here.

When she dared a look, the others had resumed their work on the tree but there wasn’t quite the light note they’d had earlier. Not immediately. After she slid the pizzas into the oven, she reclaimed her coffee and forced herself to look at the tree. It was… cheerful. The fire added to the ambience and James held up an ornament of a crystal ballerina, she sighed.

Maybe all of this had been a bad idea. The need to get the hell out of there clawed at her again. Brief as it was, it came in small surges. Her instincts were at war. Natalia would have cut and run a long time ago. Natasha knew better. Peter glanced at her a half-dozen times, his hands fidgeting and she could almost read the need on him to ask her something.

The next time he glanced at her, she caught his gaze and raised her eyebrows. He looked at Tony and the others then back at her and shook his head slowly. She nodded to the elevator. Focusing on his issues would let her compartmentalize her own.

He mouthed later? She nodded.

They could do that.

The guys finished just as the pizzas were done cooking and when Tony added an Iron Man helmet as the tree topper, Natasha had to bite back a real smile. It was obnoxious, over the top, completely self-referential and so utterly Tony that it was perfect.

Peter’s reaction to the pizza was almost as adorable as James’ had been. There wasn’t enough to feed the heavy appetites, but in addition, to take out, it worked. It wasn’t long before the hour grew late and she was getting tired. When she said she was going to take Peter down to the car Tony called for him, she thought she would have to stage a mutiny but they backed off.

In the elevator, she glanced at Peter. “Long or short conversation?”

“I’m not sure,” he admitted.

“Friday, take us to my floor and ask the driver if he can wait for a few minutes.”

“Of course, Natasha.”

Peter glanced at her curiously. “Friday doesn’t call you Ms. Romanoff anymore?”

“No, we’re working on being friends.” At her floor, she led the way out and Peter trailed after her toward the kitchen. She pulled down a sleeve of crackers and slit it open. “Want one?” The saltines would hopefully settle her stomach.

“No,” he said slowly, glancing from the crackers to her. “You okay?”

“Haven’t eaten a lot the last few days, the rich foods are kind of…messing with my system.” Not a lie. The stress and the flashbacks weren’t helping and her system was probably still trying to purge the drugs. Though she hadn’t actually talked to Helen yet.

“As long as you’re sure.” He didn’t sound as certain.

“Peter, I’m going to be fine. It’s going to take me a little while, but I will be.” There was no other acceptable option. “Now, how can I help you?”

“Are we private?”

“Yes. Friday?”

“Privacy mode default engagement for you, Natasha. I am voice-activated only. I will warn you Boss and the others are wondering why you stopped on your floor.”

“Tell them Peter needs girlfriend advice and has uncomfortable questions about sex.”

Peter’s eyes grew round.

“Message delivered,” Friday said, not quite snickering. “They will await your return.”

Not rolling her eyes, she smiled at Peter. “Don’t worry, if they ask you what advice I gave you, you tell them if they want to know they have to ask me themselves. I swore you to secrecy.”

He flushed a beautiful deep red and then laughed. “That’s—devious.”

“My specialty,” she said with a wink. “Now, let’s sit because I have a feeling we might be here a while.” She snagged a glass of water to go with her crackers and Peter picked up a soda.

She tugged the blanket off the back of her sofa and tucked it around her legs, then resumed nibbling the crackers while she waited for him to figure out what he needed advice on.

“Well, first thing… I told Tony about Oscorp.”

“Okay. That’s good.” Peter had been very skittish about that information. “And you’re okay with it?”

“I think so,” he said slowly, then nodded a little more enthusiastically. “The night…the night you were taken…I knew something was wrong.”

She raised her brows. “How?”

“I don’t know. It was like that day on the street, when those teams were hunting you…and like when you were in Oscorp. It happened at the airport in Germany, too. There was a moment when I knew something was going to happen just a split second before it did—it’s a kind of all over dread. Like, I know in my gut that something is off.”

Natasha got that. She’d had similar feelings, but that was instinct and training. Sometimes a situation just read as wrong or her gut told her she was missing something.

“This was the worst it’s ever been,” Peter admitted. “It happened that day when we were training, do you remember?”

“When James was going to smack you with his left hand?”

Peter nodded.

“You think you have a precognitive ability in addition to the other enhancements the irradiated spider gave you?” She sucked the salt off the cracker before she began to chew it thoughtfully. While she had the files on the Oz—the manufactured drug Oscorp used on their spider—she just hadn’t had time to read up on all of it. Too many distractions and she owed it to Peter to be better.

“Maybe?” Peter spread his hands. “But Tony had questions similar to yours, how did I get enhanced. What happened? What did I have before? What came later?”

She nodded slowly. “You’re working on trying to figure that out?”

“Maybe? I mean I couldn’t climb walls before, but I was always hyper. I was always good at math and physics and science stuff. I pick up things really quick. I’m okay at languages and they said my reading comprehension was off the charts.”

“So you were born smart,” she murmured, not bothering to hide her smile. “I believe you.”

He blushed again. “But…the strength? The speed? Those feel…more. I was kind of clumsy when I was younger. I always felt out of sync with the rest of me. Aunt May said I was just going through growing pains and that when my body and brain got on the same page, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“She wasn’t wrong, it’s normal to struggle in adolescence with the physical changes, or even to struggle as a child… we’re not all made the same, Peter. I was always small for my age, too small. Too scrawny.” The infusions had been designed to keep her alive because they’d seen something in her. Sometimes, she had to wonder what the hell that had to have been? Or had they decided she was expendable for their experiments since it was likely she wouldn’t have survived anyway?

“Maybe. I just know I’m better now, but the dreaded feeling…the feeling like something was terribly wrong. I couldn’t find you anywhere at the party when it started and then…I knew it had to be you but I didn’t understand the what or where and it didn’t help to locate you.”

“That doesn’t mean it didn’t help to find Pepper.” After washing down another cracker with the water, she tilted her head to study him. “Peter, you’re not blaming yourself.”

“I’m trying not to…” Somehow, that admission didn’t surprise her. “When…when we had the video from Tony’s memory machine,” he hiccupped a little on the last and icy fingers trailed up her spine. “Pepper shared what she could remember and I watched it.”

Natasha sighed. They should never have let Peter see that. “What did you see?”

“You—fighting the Mandarin, the guy. You…you fought a lot of people, but you fought him with that sword and then…”

“He stabbed me.”

Peter nodded slowly. “But you didn’t die.”

“No,” she murmured. “I didn’t.”

“Natasha? Are you enhanced, too?” Simple question.

“Yes.” Simple answer.

“Oh, thank God,” he said with a slump of his shoulders. “I thought—when I first saw you stabbed that you were going to be dead. But—then he sent the other videos.”

“I’m not immortal, Peter. I can die…I mean I assume I can be killed.” She didn’t seem to age, or at least it had been dramatically slowed. “But I also heal.”

“Really, really fast.”

“Faster than normal, this last time around.” She gave a little sigh. “Peter…”

“Why am I asking?” He raised his brows.

“Partially, but more—are you okay?” Like every other man upstairs, there was a weariness to Peter. His eyes held shadows that didn’t belong there and he dipped his chin.

“I don’t know. Bucky’s been great, so has Steve and Tony. But if I can tell when something is wrong…why couldn’t I find you faster? Why couldn’t we find you faster?”

“Is it just the sense that something is wrong? Not specifically what it is?”

Spreading his hands, he shook his head. “Not… specifically.”

“So at the party, how did you know something was wrong with me?”

The crackers were definitely helping so she kept working on them.

“I…I just had that creeping feeling of dread. I could see everyone, except you. When I asked Tony and Steve about you, they said you were fine and Tony went to prove it only he couldn’t.”

The jammer had blocked the bracelet, though she’d transferred it to Pepper. She glanced down at the slender metal bracelet encircling her wrist.

“Then…they went looking, Tony gave me a comm and told me to stay on channel 3, but that feeling, it just wouldn’t stop and then…” He shrugged.

“And then?”

“It did.” The sorrow in those eyes pulled at her. Setting the crackers aside, she sat forward and held out her hands to him. He put his soda down and slid his hands across her palms.

“I’m going to hug you, okay?” she said it aloud as much for him as for her.

Tears reflected in his eyes, and she scooted over and wrapped her arms around him. He hesitated for only a split-second, then his arms locked around her. Tight, but not so tight she couldn’t breathe. Not so tight she didn’t immediately smell the concrete room or feel the roughness of the floor torturing her cheek as The Mandarin ran his hands… Blocking it out, she focused on Peter.

“I’m going to be fine,” she told him, her voice rock steady. Inhabiting the role of the recovering might be a bit deceptive, but Peter needed her to be stronger. It would come sooner or later; he didn’t need to suffer in the meanwhile. “You helped. Nothing in this business is exact. We all do what we can. If we never give up, if we devote ourselves to doing our best…that’s what makes us capable of doing this job.”

The pressure of his cheek against her shoulder had her running her hand down his back.

“Peter, everything that happened, it’s not your fault.”

“He tortured you.”

“Yes he did,” she said as evenly as she could. “He did. Not you.”

“But I should have…”

Leaning back a fraction, she cupped his face until he lifted his tear-drenched eyes to look at her. “You did exactly what you should have done. You went to Tony and Steve. You told them something was wrong. What did Tony tell you to do next?”

“To stay on channel three…and then…he told me to send Liz home because he might need my help. Then we got all the people out, I sent Liz home and then it was a waiting game.”

“And next?”

“Um…when we finally got a signal, we raced up to the mountains. But they found Pepper and not you—there was a lot of blood on the bridge.” He shook his head a little but didn’t pull away from her. “There was so much blood. They did scans and samples. Ms. Carter and Clint took a lot. They searched in the basin among the rocks—after Ms. Carter found one of your bracelets.”

The stingers. The Mandarin had sliced the chain and broken the catch. She’d lost her armor.

The fight replaced for her as Peter described their time there. Then returning with the samples. How he hadn’t wanted to go, but Tony told him he could help. The work in the lab, talking to Tony.

Every step of his week, going to school and having to pretend to be normal while being worried sick. Seeing the torture videos. Watching her fight. How Tony came for him at school with Steve—and it was so weird. That even got her a watery laugh. Liz and he were still tight even though he felt like he was lying to her every minute of every day and he continued sharing the details up until the moment of her rescue.

“And then I slept… First time I think I really slept since it happened.”

“So what could you have possibly thought you did wrong in all of that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Nothing,” she told him firmly. “You did nothing wrong. You worked with the team. You backed up Tony; you put your brain into play with the research and the samples. You went to school, which you have to do, and you kept it together. When it was time to run an op, you followed Steve and Tony’s leads. You did exactly what you were supposed to do Peter.”

“I caught you,” he said, his expression a little hopeful.

“Twice,” she reminded him. “You caught me twice, though I prefer the other suit to the armor for that particular trick.”

A watery laugh escaped him. “It was a little awkward in that thing—don’t tell Tony.”

Nat chuckled then pulled him close for another squeeze. The contact was a little too much, but he needed it and if she were one hundred percent honest, she kind of needed it, too. “I won’t. I thought it was claustrophobic the first time I put his helmet on.”

“Right?” Peter pulled back this time, his eyes bigger, some of his tears drying. “I mean I wear a mask.” He loosened one arm and mimed drawing his hand over his face. “It hugs my face, but I can breathe through it and stuff. His is like this…”

Coffin.

An image of the padded ceiling above her flashed through her mind.

“…jarhead. Literally.”

Natasha chuckled. “Now you understand why I call him shellhead.” It wasn’t a question.

Peter bobbed his head once. “I do.” He slid his hand down until he was just holding her hand. “Is this okay?”

“Yes,” she told him. “How is everything else going?”

He glanced at the clock. “The driver?”

“Will wait. If necessary, I can send him on and I’ll drive you back myself.”

Making a face, Peter said, “I don’t know if any of them would like that.”

“Too bad,” Natasha said with a shrug. “I’m an adult, Peter. I get to do what I want.”

“Are you still mad at them?” That was new.

“Who told you I was mad at them?” Then at the same time as he, she said, “Tony.”

He nodded. “He was really upset, said he said some stupid stuff.”

“They all did, a little. They’re protective and they mean well. But I’m capable of looking after myself.”

“You were kidnapped.” Then at her arched brows, he lifted both hands. “I don’t mean that like I think you were wrong to tell them to back off.”

“I’m pretty sure Tony didn’t tell you that part.”

“Well, I may have…overheard some things.”

“Peter Parker,” Natasha shifted to pull her legs under herself. “Were you eavesdropping?”

“Um…” Sans filter, he couldn’t keep the flash of guilt of his face or the healthy flush of embarrassment. “I was worried,” he admitted. “About you, about Tony…I was worried about what happened and I heard them talking—“ Before she could ask who, or even decide she was going to ask who, he continued. “Tony and Steve. Bucky caught me listening and he told me that they’d made some tactical errors. Clint corrected him though and said they made personal errors.”

Natasha smiled. That was one way of putting it.

“I might make you into a sneak yet,” she told him and gave his hand a squeeze.

Another flush, this time a pleased one. “Are you still mad at them?”

“No,” she said with a sigh. “I mean I don’t like what they did. Even though I understand it. It’s natural to protect what you care about.”

“Like going into the sludge for me?”

A slow nod. “Yes.” James and Steve had been angry that she would risk herself that way. Tony had been angry when she left the Tower to find the Mateo Guerda, specifically because she hadn’t let him track her. They’d all been angry when she kept the headaches from them. But they made choices she wasn’t fond of either, part of being who they all were. They got the right to make those calls for themselves.

“You know they felt really bad about what they did.”

“You don’t have to defend them to me, Peter. I know why they made the choices they did. I also know they would do it again. They want to keep me safe.”

“I want to keep you safe,” Peter admitted. “I know I haven’t known you as long as they have but…”

“You’re used to my input.” That was how Friday put it.

A shy smile. “A little bit.”

“Well, I’ll remind you of that the next time we’re training and I’m pushing you.” That netted her another smile. “What else is bugging you Peter?”

“The Vulture,” he admitted. “I can’t find him. It’s like—he was there and then disappeared. Totally. No signs of him. No break-ins. No hijackings. Nothing. If I hadn’t actually seen him with my own eyes, I’d start thinking he was made up. No one else has seen him.”

“How are you looking for him?” If Peter stuck to Queens or even Manhattan and Brooklyn, there was a chance the man moved on. “Have you seen him since the ferry incident?”

He shook his head. “No, but I’ve seen some of his guys. Okay, seen might be a strong word, but I’ve heard of them doing some stuff. Just—I don’t know if I should keep patrolling and looking for him or wait until he does something else.”

“You don’t know which but you know which one you want to do.” She didn’t even have to ask. Hunting a criminal who’d wreaked havoc and tried to kill him on at least one if not two occasions? No, Natasha wanted to find him, too.

“I don’t want to ask,” Peter confessed. “But I need your help. I don’t know how to find him.”

“Well, when you lose the trail, you go back to where it starts and you retrace the path because somewhere along the way is where you lost them.” Somewhere along the way…

She had told James she wanted to go to Montana and they’d agreed to go after the holidays. Christmas was in a little over a week. But when she left Montana it hadn’t been snowy. It had been summer or very late summer, maybe early autumn.

The trail began there. No matter where she ended up the trail began there. Her eyes didn’t hurt and the half-expected flash of pain didn’t make a reappearance. Maybe because she had recovered that memory, broken that mental block.

“Natasha?”

“I was just thinking. What are you doing for the next couple of days?”

“We have a couple of exams and then nothing until the break.”

“When are the exams?”

“Wednesday.”

“Thursday night, I’ll join you for patrol. I want you to take me to where you saw him first. We’re going to run the pattern.”

“Actually run it?” He looked a little worried.

“I’ll bring a bike. You can swing, I’ll ride.” She’d probably end up bringing one of the guys along, too. “We’ll figure it out. Okay?”

“Okay.” He glanced at the time, then at her. It had been more than an hour. “I should go.”

“Friday?”

“The driver continues to await Mr. Parker patiently.”

Standing, she walked him to the elevator. He gave her another hug. “Thank you.”

“Anytime,” she murmured. “Just don’t think this gets you out of tacos if you come by tomorrow.”

His laugh relaxed some of the tension in his shoulders and then he waved before the doors closed. Alone, she paced back to her sofa and curled back into her spot and reclaimed her crackers.

Fifteen minutes after Peter left, Friday chimed in.

“Sergeant Barnes would like permission to join you, Natasha.”

“It’s fine,” she said. She’d made a cup of tea to go with her crackers and most of the earlier nausea had fled. The elevator doors slid open and James stood there in sweatpants and a t-shirt, as though ready for bed. Even his feet were bare.

She glanced at the clock. It must have grown later than she thought.

“You’re fine, Doll,” James said as he crossed over to sit on the opposite end of the sofa. She shifted the blanket to share it and he smiled at her. “Just…”

“Wanted to see me?” The fact he needed it and didn’t hide the desire tied her up in knots. The longing, the need… it should scare the hell out of her or at least aggravate her. It had the night of the party, but—it wasn’t just the need. The need she understood. The double-standard and the lack of trust though? That was something else.

“A little bit. I know, I am holding on too tight,” he said, lifting his hand. “I’m going to work on that. But…”

“James, I can remember Mary now and every fiber of my being wants to find her immediately and not wait. That you’ve managed any sort of control at all is beyond admirable.”

His expression dipped. “I think it’s because I have all of it. I keep wondering if and when you remember… will this need to not let what little we have recaptured together slip away ease up? Or will it get worse?”

“You relaxed some after we… had sex.”

“Not really,” he admitted, the corners of his mouth curving into an almost sheepish smile. “I think you just grew more accustomed to having me there.”

Leaning her cheek against the sofa, she said, “I’m trying.”

“You don’t have to try, Doll. You’re here. You’re alive. We’re not asking for one iota more. You take and do what you need.”

“It was like being in the Red Room again in some ways, different because I wasn’t afraid of dying. I knew I could survive, but I also knew what I had to destroy to do it. What I had to take apart… now I’m here and it feels…”

“Alien.” Of course, he understood. “Can’t say I don’t know what that feels like. It was me in Switzerland when I first got there. It was me after D.C. after the hellicarriers and I walked away—ran away.” He sighed. “You’ve been through this before.”

“’84, then again in the ‘90s, and finally…when I went to SHIELD. It wasn’t so bad after SHIELD and yet, it was at the same time. I’ve always been able to reinvent myself. To become someone else.”

“But how many times have you had to find yourself again after you cut away those pieces?” That was the question.

After SHIELD, she’d left. Disappeared. Went in search of new covers and took out the hunters who came for her. She’d tried to rediscover who she’d been. All those years in SHIELD…

“Knowing what I know now… I know why I couldn’t. Why every attempt seemed to fail.” Stretching her legs, she slid her feet one at a time onto his lap and he shifted to settle his hand over her ankles. “Tony and Steve made an ornament of me.”

He smiled. “She’s not as beautiful as the real thing.”

“It’s so weird.”

James chuckled. “Don’t tell them that, they are both very proud. Stevie wasn’t too thrilled with the mass marketing, but after you found those ornaments that night—he was very determined to find or make one of you. He wants you to have everything.”

“It’s lovely, but… I can’t seem to connect with it. It’s like there’s this part of me that’s laser-focused on Mary. I can’t breathe without thinking of her. Without pulling apart these memory fragments I have, but if I linger too long on anything I haven’t already remembered… it hurts. Then there’s the doctor and the tests and the holidays… and Clint wants me to stop hiding behind it all to let it out and you and Steve need to take care of me and Tony…”

She sighed.

“What about Tony, Doll?”

“He needs to fix everything. He wants to fix this for me so badly.”

“Okay, so that’s what all of us want to do…what do you want to do?”

“I don’t want to feel this nothingness,” she admitted. There weren’t words in any language for the walled off emptiness inside of her. “That’s what it feels like right now, like I’m…stuck where it’s too much or not enough.”

“You went through Hell, Doll, you went through it and you came out the other side still fighting. You cut that bastard’s hand off.”

A smile worked its way across her lips.

“You created a network of support that came for you, but you held yourself together. You didn’t give into him, not one inch and nothing he did, nothing, can take anything from you.”

“Except what I gave up.” That was the part she didn’t think any of them could truly understand. She wasn’t sure she understood it. “I can become anyone. I can—slip from one role to another. Nothing compromised me. The Widow is the one foundation I have. When I am her… nothing touches us.”

“Chernya vdova,” he murmured. “You think the Soldier and I don’t know that well?”

“But you’re whole again.” That part was so important. He’d gotten those pieces of himself back.

“Am I?” He raised his eyebrows. “I’m always going to be him, Doll. I remember the Bucky I was before the war, before I went over. I remember the carousing and the womanizing—God I loved women.” He let out a laugh. “I loved them tall, I loved them short, I loved them curvy, and I loved them any way I could find them. I loved women, I loved my family, and I loved Steve. Then I went to fight a war I wanted nothing to do with. It changed me…it changed him. I survived Zola’s experiments and I thought—I’ll be better now. I’ll stick with Steve. We’ll win this damn war and go home.”

Only, he hadn’t gone home.

James lifted his shoulders. “Then you know what happened next, Natalia. But all of that—I would live it all again because it would mean I got to meet you. It would mean I was there at your graduation. That I could be there for you. Every dehumanizing moment. Every time they threw the switch in that chair. Every single time they tried to chip you out of my brain. I’d relive it all because they are dead and you and I are sitting right here. We are experts on reconstruction and I won’t let you fall. I’ll catch you, lyubov moya. And if I can’t, I’ll fucking jump with you.”

Tears prickled her eyes and she ducked her chin. “I’m glad Steve found you.”

The corner of James’ mouth kicked up. “I told you, we have a very stubborn super soldier in our corner. He will always come for us.”

Closing up the sleeve of crackers, she set it on the table next to her nearly empty teacup. James tracked the motion, but he didn’t ask though the question was in his eyes.

“I starved for a lot of that, the smell of all the rich food was making me sick,” she admitted.

“And you made us pizza,” he made it almost sound like an accusation before his expression gentled. “You’re going soft on us.”

“Going? Pretty sure I’ve long gone.”

His smile turned indulgent “Perhaps I am the luckiest man alive, then.”

Not rolling her eyes, she tilted her head to rest against the sofa as she flexed her feet. “Everyone knows what happened.”

He nodded.

“Not just that The Mandarin took me, Peter said he saw the fight on the bridge because of BARF—or whatever Tony is calling it. He saw the tapes he sent.”

A light squeeze against her leg. “Peter wouldn’t shy away from it, Natalia. He loves you. It scared him, but he faced every moment because he needed to find a way to help.”

“I hate that he saw it.”

“Can you forgive me for not stopping him?”

“There’s nothing to forgive, I just… it’s easy to reinvent yourself when no one knows the truth. Now…the truth is all anyone seems to know.”

“The truth is they love you, Natalia, they do not see you as any less. If anything they are in awe of you.”

“Peter knows I’m enhanced. He asked.” Not that it worried her. He wouldn’t betray her, but…

“No one will come to take you apart Natalia. We will all stand in the way. You have lived in the shadows because you had no choice. I know you aren’t comfortable with the light, but you are not alone.”

No, she wasn’t.

It was easier to be someone else when no one knew who she was. It was a good way not to die, but a very lonely way to live.

“Is Steve still up with Tony?”

“We went to our floor when you came down here with Peter and after we sent Tony to bed. He’s exhausted and tomorrow will be here soon enough for both of you.”

Tomorrow.

There was still the Committee. The team… “Has anyone checked on Wanda or Sam…”

A light squeeze. “They’re fine, Doll. They’re worried about you. We told them you were going to be fine as well, you just needed to rest.”

At some point, she and Tony still needed to talk. She needed to call Isaiah. Logan needed to call her dammit. “I still need to Christmas shop.” She studied him. “And we still have our date.”

A slow nod. “Can you handle sleeping with one of us tonight or do you want to be alone?”

“I did okay before. With both of you.” At his smile, she nudged him with her toes. “But I think I want to go watch movies and think about anything that isn’t… this.”

“Done.” Like it wasn’t a question. “What do you want to watch?”

“Where are we on your lists?”

James grinned. “Let’s go ask Stevie… popcorn, too?”

“Maybe,” she hedged. “Not sure my stomach is up for it.”

He slid off the sofa and rose, then gathered her crackers and teacup. He took care of the clean up while she stood and refolded her blanket.

“Natalia?”

Twisting, she looked over her shoulder.

“I love you. Every piece. We’re going to get through this.”

She believed him.

“Thank you.”

“No thanks required.”

“No, some thanks required. You said we did this for each other, we carried the memories, the weight when the other couldn’t.”

He was doing it now.

“Yes.”

Looking down at her hands, she curled her fingers into her palms and then released them. “I may need you to do something more if I can’t get over this touching thing.”

“It’s been a little over a day, lyubov moya. We have time. And I am a very patient man…”

Leaving the kitchen he held out his hand and waited. She clasped his metal fingers. They were almost easier than his flesh ones to hold. Maybe he knew that. In the elevator, she leaned her head against his shoulder. “I’m going to change. Will you make me tea?”

“Yes,” he said and when the doors opened, Steve glanced up from where he sat in his chair, sketchbook out. The flash of worry on his face gave way to relief before he could cover it. Not that he had that much of a poker face. Better, but not a winner yet.

“I was wondering if you two were going to have a sleepover,” he said.

“We are—just down here, with you,” she told him because he, like James, was being patient with her and it only worked if they all kept talking.

“But first,” James added. “We’re watching a movie. Natalia said we should go to the next one on our list.”

“I’m going to change,” she said, releasing James’ hand and heading for her room.

In her room, she glanced around at the made bed, the framed photographs, and the little signs like James’ knife on the nightstand and Steve’s shield tucked next to his side of the bed that said they shared the room with her.

Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and then released it. The illusion might be easier sometimes, but she preferred her reality. In her closet, she stripped out of the clothes, including her stolen t-shirt, then hid the AC/DC shirt before wandering out of the bedroom and over to Steve’s room. There was a curse from the kitchen and she bit back a smile as she plundered into Steve’s closet and found one of his gray t-shirts that he wore running. It was super soft, and stretched. Dragging it on, she glanced out to find Steve eyeing her from his doorway.

“Just checking,” he murmured.

Natasha smiled a little. Her reality was she got to tease them some. “Do you mind?”

“Not even a little.”

When he held out his hand, she padded across the floor and slid her palm across his. Her skin buzzed and the hum was there, but it was quieter. She leaned her forehead against his shoulder and he bent his head to press a kiss to the top of her head.

“You sure you’re up for a movie?”

“Yes, I am… What are we watching?”

“How do you feel about Home Alone? It says it’s an action-comedy.”

“The first or the third one?”

Steve gave her a mystified look and she grinned.

“Let’s try to watch the third one first.”

“Okay…any reason why?”

“Kid beats spies. It’s hilarious.”

Steve snorted. “Only you would think that’s hilarious.”

“Wait until you see it.” Worst. Spies. Ever.

“You said that about Bill and Ted,” Steve said with a fair amount of skepticism.

“And I was right about them,” she sniffed.

“Anything you say, Angel.” But the laughter in his voice helped crack some more of the glass. Eventually, she’d get it all down.

Every last piece of it.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

Routine

Steve

 

 

Getting Natasha to sleep had taken patience and coaxing, with far more emphasis on the former than the latter. Never could he have imagined her like this. His Natasha was so self-possessed, in control, and fierce. She dominated every room she entered and even when she slipped to the shadows, her gentle, careful hand helped him navigate even the stormiest seas. What The Mandarin had done to her precisely beyond the horrors he’d shown them, Steve wasn’t sure he wanted to imagine—she had been a prisoner of war, tortured, abused, and surviving only because her will exceeded that of her captor.

Her will exceeded that of anyone Steve knew. Still, she’d settled between them, forcing herself to push past her own reticence. She’d gone to sleep with her back to Steve’s chest, her head pillowed on his arm and her hands gripping Bucky’s. Over the course of a couple of hours, she’d moved away, curling up between them. Every movement roused him.

Sleep had been fleeting over the last several days, but he’d been through something like this before. Only then, Bucky just blew him off. He’d acted like everything was fine, even when it wasn’t. Once he got his legs under him, he’d never revealed what Zola had done or the changes he experienced. They’d confronted a lot of that, but Bucky hadn’t been the only prisoner of war in that camp.

Dum-Dum, Morita, Jacques, Falsworth, and Gabe—they’d all been there, too. They’d all suffered, been exposed to toxins, and they’d tried to buoy each other but those shadows had never gone away. The darkness slipping in and around those endless green eyes of hers in no way drowned out the personality of the woman he loved, but she was fighting for air—for every gasp of it as she kept her head above water.

Steve damn well knew it was a fight. In this, as with most of her life, she seemed to be waging a war all alone. But she wasn’t alone. If he had his way, she’d never be alone again. While he couldn’t get into a straight-on battle with her nightmares, he would wade right into the middle of them if she’d let him.

On the one hand, if he could go kill The Mandarin over again, he’d have made it hurt a hell of a lot more. He would have inflicted upon him the damage he’d scraped over Natasha. This—aftermath—wasn’t about The Mandarin. Avenging her wouldn’t have been about her, but about him. About mitigating the pain he felt that she suffered and he couldn’t stop it. That he’d failed her on some level. No amount of the reason Steve had given Tony on the same subject could absolve himself his own accountability for the same crime.

They’d failed her.

All of them.

When she shifted, he opened his eyes in time to catch her sliding down the bed. She eased to her feet, careful not to touch either he or Bucky. But he wasn’t the only one awake, the shift in Bucky’s breathing told him that his best friend had probably roused in the same moment he had. They were hyper-aware of her.

On her feet, she stood there in the shadows of the bedroom, not moving. Steve forced himself to keep his breathing even. But she tilted her head to the side, then glanced over her shoulder. Busted.

“Go back to sleep if you can,” she murmured. Then she padded out of the bedroom. The lights from the tree gleamed and Steve narrowed his eyes at the sudden brightness before it vanished when the door closed.

“You going back to sleep?” Bucky asked.

Steve almost laughed. “Unlikely. But one of us should.”

Holding out a fist, Bucky eyed him.

One-two-three.

Steve’s fist held the rock while Bucky’s formed scissors. He bumped his fist lightly to Bucky’s hand. “I’m up. Try to sleep. We may be doing this in shifts for a while.”

“Yep,” Bucky agreed with him, and rolled back, one arm over his eyes. The likelihood he’d truly drop off was slim. It had been like this on the island for that first week. Neither of them able to sleep for the nightmares. Only this was a little different, Steve wasn’t worried about what he’d see in his dreams—but what he wouldn’t see if he closed his eyes too long.

Natasha was alive.

She was home.

After hitting the bathroom, he headed out to the living room. Buck’s even breathing suggested he’d drifted back to sleep. Probably not deep, but better than nothing. According to the clock, it was a little after three in the morning. So she’d managed a few hours in addition to the nap she’d taken mid-day and the near sixteen plus she’d slept with Clint the night before.

It was definitely better than nothing.

The kettle was on and she stood in the kitchen, twining her fingers around the chain with his dog tags on it. Steve gave it a beat, letting her become aware of his presence before he joined her in the kitchen. Hovering would only infuriate her and as much as he wanted to coddle her, he’d wait for her to ask for it. She didn’t want to be touched—returning to that reality just left him fuming at dead enemies he couldn’t kill twice. But at the end of the day, she was the woman he loved and his dearest friend, so he couldn’t ignore any of this either.

“I woke you up,” she murmured.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I had to get up in a couple of hours to go running anyway.”

The pause grew pregnant as she stared at him and then the corners of her mouth edged up into the smile he adored and her eyes softened. The darkness withdrew and she laughed. “Well, if you’re not early…”

He nodded. “Exactly. You’re late.” With a wink, he got the coffee started and began to relax. “Want to go with me?”

“Running?” She arched both brows as her water began to boil. “Let me see how the ribs feel in a couple of hours.” The smile on her face grew. “Thank you for asking.”

“Anytime…I mean if I’m up early, I have all the time in the world to go slow.”

Her punch to his arm was everything. So was her laugh. “You know, just for that…”

“Whatcha got, Romanoff?” He said, leaning back against the counter, arms folded.

“Depending on the ribs, how about a spar?”

“You don’t have to be fast to do that.” It was like baiting a tiger, but the spark in her eyes and the fact they rounded even as she laughed made it worth it.

“You know, you’re going to pay for that.”

Yep. He did. On the other hand… “You gotta catch me first.”

“Punk.”

Triumph filtered through him, meeting her gaze he said, “Brat.”

With all the class and style he would expect, she stuck her tongue out at him and he grinned as she poured the boiling water over the tea bag. The steam rose up steadily, but the faint smile remained there. “In other news…” The significance she layered onto the first part of the sentence chastised him to listen. “Christmas shopping.”

That was a subject he was more than willing to tackle. “We need a plan,” he finished the thought, totally getting where she headed.

“Yes.” Turning from the teacup, she motioned to the coffee. “You’re ready for second brew. Hungry?”

“Depends…” Aware he probably just earned another look from her, he busied himself with the second pour.

“On?” The arch tone dared him to be an ass. God knew he’d never been able to resist a real dare.

“Well, what are you planning on making? Any more secret recipes you’ve been saving for a rainy day?” A glance over his shoulder gave him the front row to her smirk. Damn, he’d missed that smirk.

“How about some dry toast and yogurt?” Yep. There came the sting.

“You make dry toast? That doesn’t sound like a real talent.”

Yes. He got the middle finger. Chortling, he finished with the coffee before facing her again.

“You think you’re funny.”

“Correction,” he said. “I know I’m funny. You know how I know?”

“Do tell.”

“You’re laughing.”

“On the inside.” She stuck her tongue out at him again then moved to the fridge. The brighter light filtered over her. Revealing the bruises around her throat had faded more. She’d removed the stitches the day before, the angry pink line where they’d been had diminished to only cranky. The bruises on her face had also lessened.

The clearing of her throat brought his gaze up to her face and he sighed. She’d caught him staring.

“You can look,” she murmured. “It’s not like you haven’t seen everything up close and personal.”

“I don’t want to keep asking how you are.”

“Steve,” she said with a long exhale, then paused as her gaze seemed to land on something in the fridge. “Oh.” Holding the door with her hip, she opened a drawer and pulled out a couple of tins of cinnamon rolls. “Score!”

The morning after on the island flooded back to him. He’d made those for them and she’d devoured several, her energy levels boosted and looking better than she had in days. All after a night spent between him and Buck, where they’d shared her together then passed her back and forth.

The boost of their serums on hers.

That brought Tony’s advice screaming to the surface, but he clapped a mental hand over Tony’s mouth. Not right now. While Steve appreciated the insight and understood Tony’s goals, Tony and sex were not two topics he wanted linked even if it was all underscored by Tony’s very real love for the woman they both adored.

Focusing on what she needed, he grinned. “While not protein, I definitely approve of your taste.”

He started the oven preheating and poured his coffee through for a third brew while she finished her tea. Then he grabbed a pan out and they worked side by side to set out the cinnamon rolls. When she had her legs under her fully, then he would bring up Tony's observations.

“Christmas shopping,” he prompted, careful not to bump her hip even though he would have done that in the past. Moderating his physical reactions took discipline, but until she was more comfortable—that was exactly what he would do.

When the cinnamon rolls were ready, he slid them into the preheated oven as she retreated to the island with her mug of tea. His coffee was finally ready so he poured himself a cup while keeping an eye on her out of his periphery.

“I haven’t done any,” she admitted. “I had ideas and I kept meaning to order some things but… I got busy.”

“Angel, we have time. We can shop online right now if you want.”

A ghost of her earlier smile appeared. “Online shopping. Remember the first time I showed you how to do that?”

He made a face. “I didn’t quite grasp the concept until you compared it to catalog shopping, just faster.”

Another laugh escaped her and he grinned. He’d do anything for that laugh. “Well, the principle is the same. Okay…” She blew out a breath then took a sip of tea before adding, “Shopping for the kids should be pretty easy. I have ideas for Peter and Wanda.”

“Okay. Do we need to pull up a holo screen?”

“Friday?” Natasha glanced at the ceiling.

“Good morning, Natasha. I hope you slept well when you slept.” The affectionate tone from the AI pulled another smile from her and Steve grinned.

“It wasn’t too bad, actually. Just—you know, let’s just go with it wasn’t too bad. Could you bring up a holo screen for us and check to see if Coop, Lila and Nate have wish lists on Amazon?”

“Of course.”

The holo screen opened over the kitchen table. By the time, the cinnamon rolls came out, Nat leaned on her elbows, knees on the chair almost like a kid herself inspecting the items as Friday scrolled through them.

“Are you sure you want to get them a punching bag?”

“Well Clint has one there—but it’s a speed bag more designed for adults. Coop and Lila have softer bones and they need something with more give and decent gloves. Laura and I talked about me possibly training Lila at some point, but—this is good for more than just training to fight. It’s very therapeutic.”

He carried the plates with the cinnamon rolls over and chuckled. “You don’t have to tell me. Maybe we should get them some extra bags—you know just in case.”

The teasing remark earned him a flick of her fingers before she picked up one of the cinnamon rolls. She eyed it carefully and then sniffed it before taking a delicate bite. Steve held his breath as he awaited her reaction.

“I really want to eat this and not get sick,” she admitted.

“I really want you to eat that and not get sick.” He wholeheartedly concurred. “Take it slow?”

She hadn’t thrown up again though they’d stuck to bland foods for her and crackers, despite the fact she’d made them a pizza. He hadn’t missed her pallor during prep or how she’d avoided eating any.

Some people weren’t good at asking for help. He should know, he was one of them. While their reasons were likely similar, they came at it from two different sides. Her entire life had been an experience in unbalanced give and take. She had always been the helper, except with Bucky. With Bucky, they’d carried each other. Their instincts to rely on each other had survived, but with him? With him, they both acted like they needed to do it on their own and take care of him. It raked him the wrong way both because Natasha had been looking after him since they’d met and Bucky had looked after him for years.

They were fighting for a balance now, but their instincts were always to just do it on their own. Neither Buck nor Natasha needed to do any of this on their own. Not as long as he was here.

Or Clint.

Or Tony.

“It smells so good,” she admitted, then took a small bite. The frosting clung to her lower lip for a moment before she licked it off.

“Little bites then… and we take it slow.” Steve picked up one and took a small bite, too. Her eyes softened and her smile grew.

“Steve…you eat like three times what I do on a normal day. You cannot take such small bites.”

“Of course I can,” he countered. “Now, we’ll train your stomach to be cooperative with you again and we’ll enjoy our treats. So—tell me what else are we getting Clint’s kids for their new battle gym?”

She laughed. “It’s not going to be a battle gym. Clint is going to get Lila her own bow set, and he has targets and a range already set up there. This can go in the barn, near his. So the kids can work out again it the same as he would.” After another bite, she scrolled. “I thought a galaxy model that Tony could add more anti-grav too.” The wry twist to the words made him laugh. “And perhaps more ships to add to his collection?”

“Mario Kart,” Steve added. “Unless they already have that game.”

“Probably. But we could look at similar games…”

Oh, he liked that idea. Then she had Captain America toys up along with a play shield. That stuff made him shake his head. “Why are we looking at these?”

“Because,” Natasha told him, lifting his cinnamon roll and holding it up for him to take a bite which he did quite willingly. “Nate is a fan.”

The next hour passed swiftly. They picked out over a dozen gifts for the kids and when Steve pointed out she was spoiling the kids, she’d made a face at him and said that’s my job, I’m Auntie Nat.

Surrendering that fight took no effort at all. She ate two of the cinnamon rolls and there was a hint of color in her cheeks. Bucky wandered out when they were looking at jackets for Wanda, but Nat wore a disgruntled expression as she switched from outfit to outfit.

“You two aren’t quiet,” Bucky said, pausing to glance at Natasha. “But you sound great.”

She smiled, and then held up a cinnamon roll. “Peace offering?”

“I don’t need a peace offering, Doll,” he said, his tone teasing but he dipped his head to take a bite before claiming the rest of it. “But I’ll definitely take it. Want more tea?”

“Second cup, I’m good for now. There’s still…” She twisted to look at the coffeemaker and the barest flicker of a wince drifted across her expression. “Yes, there’s still coffee. But we should probably start another pot.”

“I can do it,” Bucky told her, waving her back to her chair. His gaze went to Steve’s. Everything all right?

As it had been so far, he nodded once.

“I’m going to need to go out to find the jacket for Wanda. Maybe some boots.” She frowned, and then braced her chin against her hand.

“What is it?”

“I’ve been worried about the fact Wanda doesn’t wear her jewelry anymore…”

Wanda had been very fond of rings, bracelets, and necklaces. She had worn them, but since their return—Steve hadn’t seen them either. Then it hit him… “You were going to get her some, maybe see if she’d outgrown wanting to wear them or if something else was holding her back?”

A little nod. “Not sure I can do that anymore.” She made a face.

“Nat…”

“I know,” she said with a grimace. “I know it’s natural. I understand the physiological response to the psychological trigger. It will take time because I associate it all with pain.”

“But you have no patience for being hamstrung by it,” he finished for, and he could almost have wished his tone was dry but it wasn’t. If anything it came out more sympathetic.

“Then wear a ring,” Bucky suggested and it was Steve who turned to look at him. Bucky’s expression was neither sympathetic nor challenging.

“I… don’t usually wear them,” Natasha confessed. Was she seriously considering it? She tangled her fingers with the dog tags. “These… my arrow necklace.” Then she held up her hand with a nod to the bracelet. “That’s pretty much all the jewelry I wear.”

“Okay,” Bucky said. “Would you consider wearing a ring?”

A shiver went through her and she scowled.

“Angel…” Maybe he shouldn’t step into that moment, but that look said she’d do it just because she didn’t want to.

“I know,” she complained and the scowl on her face didn’t quite echo the near-whine in her voice. “You know the worst part is…I get it. I know.” She tapped her skull. “Yes, I’ll wear a ring.”

“Because you’re fearless, Natalia,” Bucky said. “You’d do it because it terrifies you, because you hate to feel that way and you will give no man that kind of power over you.”

“I won’t give it to a woman either, guys, so you can just keep those dirty thoughts to yourselves.” The dry remark did what nothing else could have; Steve leaned back in the chair and started laughing. It rumbled out of him and he pressed his hand to his forehead as he laughed.

The sound of Bucky’s chuckles joined his and then slowly, but genuinely, Natasha’s laughter peeled into the room. It was like breaking through a genuine wall of sorrow. Far from being giddy, it brought tears to his eyes even as the mirth dislodged the heavy weight he’d collected in the seconds, minutes, hours, and days of Natasha’s absence.

Missed opportunities. Too many.

Never again.

Even as he thought he’d gotten control of the laughter, he caught Natasha’s eye and they started laughing all over again. Bucky leaned against the counter, his chuckles deepening. They kept laughing, the three of them setting each other off until Natasha wiped tears from the corners of her eye and blew out a breath.

“Okay—I don’t think that should have been as funny as it was.”

“I think it was exactly as funny as it needed to be,” Steve told her, blowing her a kiss. Then she reached out and caught his hand and leaned over to kiss him for real. The scent of her so close was dizzying, but he kept himself steady. Answering her kiss with a gentle brush of his lips on hers. She stroked his cheek, then ran her nails lightly through his beard. “I know,” he murmured against her mouth. “I need to trim it.”

“I don’t care,” she admitted, tilting her head back but not taking her hand off of him. “It’s soft.”

Her curls were higher, she’d taken the length off and he knew the why of it. “May I?” he asked, motioning to her hair. Some of the heat in her eyes chilled and she scraped her teeth over her lower lip before she nodded. Gently, he slipped his fingers into her hair and combed through the curls, marveling at how they bounced up. “It reminds me of when I met you.”

“I kind of hate it,” she admitted.

“It’ll grow, Doll,” Bucky said, leaning against the counter. “You know—you should cut mine too. We’ll grow it out together.”

Jerk. Steve glared at him, not that he was really annoyed. But at the same time… “Fine, I’ll cut my hair, too.”

Natasha chuckled.

Bucky nodded sagely. “Yeah, that whole quarter of an inch isn’t gonna do much for you there, Punk.”

“It’s the thought that counts,” Natasha said, gripping Steve’s hand. “And no one has to cut their hair for me. You’re both right. Mine will grow out again. Everything is just one step at a time.”

Steve lifted her hand and pressed a kiss to the palm. “You know there’s probably nothing we wouldn’t do for you, right?”

“Pretty sure you’ve made that clear,” she told him, but she loosened her grip on his hand and leaned back in the chair. Bucky filled his own coffee cup and then crossed over to fill Steve’s. “What do you guys want for Christmas?”

“I got what I want,” Steve told her in the same breath as Bucky said, “I have what I want.”

“Okay, besides me, what do you both want?” Then when neither of them answered, she made a face. “You’re not helping. I had a couple of ideas but now I don’t know.”

“Like what?” Steve asked, genuinely curious.

“Punk, you’re supposed to wait for the present to be wrapped and under the tree before you get to open it,” Bucky said, cuffing him lightly.

“We’re just talking,” Steve argued, thumping Bucky in return. His best friend grappled with him lightly and Natasha folded her arms.

“Maybe I should get you reinforced pillows for pillow wars.”

Steve glanced at Bucky and then they both looked at her. The amusement in her eyes and the faint smile still hovering on her lips coupled with the warm color in her cheeks relieved him on so many levels. “Only if you get one for you, too.”

Their pillow fight on his floor had done wonders for all of them. Pillow fights. Tickle wars. Throwing each other in the pool. They needed more of those moments. He eyed his living room for a moment—pillow fort. They hadn’t done that one in a while.

“What were you thinking, Angel?”

“You really want to know?” she asked, surprise in her eyes.

“Only if you want to tell us…I mean Tony already handed out gifts.” The moment the thought dawned, he sighed. Gifts he hadn’t really thought about because he’d lost far more than he received that night.

“He did,” Nat sighed, frowning at the holo screen. “I forgot about that—I mean I didn’t forget forget, but…”

“We get it,” Bucky told her, and he set his hand on the table, palm up near enough she could take it and she did. “He gave Stevie Mets tickets, three season passes.”

“I’m going to kill him,” Natasha said abruptly, her tone and expression lacking any real heat. “That was what I was thinking of…well, not three season passes, but one for each of you.”

“Oops,” Bucky said. “Well now you can go with us, that can be the present.”

“Hey, who said you were going?” Steve countered and Bucky just rolled his eyes. “I might have been taking Sam,” Steve continued only to be met by a pair of doubting gazes that just made him smile. They looked so much alike that moment.

“You can always take Sam and James,” Natasha suggested. “They at least will understand the game.”

“Doll, you spend all this time in the States, how do you not understand baseball? We even used to…” Then Bucky sobered abruptly.

“We used to watch the games when we were in Montana?” she suggested.

“Listened to them mostly,” Bucky said. “We couldn’t always get decent television reception. Radio was real good.”

“I listened to the games with you?” Genuine curiosity inhabited the question and Steve found himself leaning forward, intrigued by the answer.

“Yes, you asked me to explain it to you a couple of times. I don’t know if you really ever got it now—but you’d listen with me.”

“I’d go to a game with you now,” she promised him, but her gaze swept to include Steve. “I’ve just never been a fan of sports, I suppose. I’ll learn—at least enough to know whether I like it or not.”

“More history of baseball?” Steve teased her gently. The fact she’d watched that documentary at all had been adorable enough.

“Maybe,” she said, pulling her knee up and hugging it as she stared at the holoscreen. “So I’m back to the drawing board…”

“Well, whatever you get me or Buck,” Steve said. “We’re going to love it.”

“What do you want?” Bucky asked gently. “You’re asking about everyone else, what about you?”

“I want Mary,” Natasha said and the cheerfulness of the morning waned. “But I can’t have that so…” She swallowed, then rose and carried her cup to the sink where she rinsed it out before she stared the water going. “Wanting things is still not something I’m good at. Barely good at wanting people.”

Steve locked eyes with Bucky, his heart aching for them both. The pain in her eyes had reflected in the pain in his. “You know…” Steve said as the silence held for a long moment. “We’re going shopping... that’s still on our list, right?”

She glanced at them and then nodded slowly. “I had fun when we went to get the tree. I like buying gifts for others. Even when I don’t exactly know what to get yet… that’s why we shop, right? To see what we can see?”

“Exactly,” Bucky said slowly. “When we were kids, we would find one thing the other wanted really bad and do our best to get it.”

“I got Bucky a baseball glove,” Steve said, the memory surfacing like an old friend. “Scraped together all my pennies, but I found you a good one.”

His best friend chuckled. “You did…and I got you that yo-yo you had your eye on.”

With a blink, Steve lifted his coffee mug and then nearly set it down twice. “I’d forgotten that.”

“You loved it, learned to do all these tricks with it. Hell, you could throw it out and have it wind back to you better than any guy on the block.”

Natasha smiled. “So, like he can throw his shield?”

Buck’s eyes lit up.

“No,” Steve said. “Don’t. You. Dare.”

“Aww, Stevie, it would be hilarious.”

“Yes and I’ll never hear the end of it. So no yo-yos with my shield painted on it.”

“Wouldn’t even be that hard to find,” Natasha suggested, the little traitor. “Friday, can you pull up all the Captain America stocking stuffers?”

Sure enough on page three.

Bucky chortled as he had Friday order them a dozen.

“I hate you,” Steve said without an ounce of sobriety, but Bucky wasn’t dissuaded. “Real food, Angel?”

She had another cinnamon roll in hand and a fresh mug of tea. “Only if you’re making some for you.”

He was hungry. Pancakes might be better than bacon or eggs, considering her reaction the day before.

The clock showed them closing in on five-thirty. Natasha followed his gaze. “I want to go running but my ribs are still sore.” The fact she’d admit it at all concerned him.

“How bad?” Bucky asked setting his empty mug aside.

“Not terribly,” she said, putting her mug on the counter, then lifting her tank top. Steve studied the bruises on her ribs. They were green and yellow, for the most part, but blue striped in a couple of places.

Rising, Bucky approached hands open. “May I?”

She lifted her arms and nodded. With care, Bucky probed the ribs. She grimaced twice, and then let out a hiss of breath.

“That one is definitely still fractured.” Bucky tested his hand down her side. “I hate to say it, I want to tape them.”

She tipped her head back. “Doctors don’t do that anymore…”

“She’s right,” Steve didn’t mean to snap, but it came out anyway and she glanced at him, but rather than startling her there was a challenge in those eyes daring him to keep going. “Taping the ribs makes it harder to breathe or so I was scolded quite vehemently after doing it to myself. They just need time. The sooner they’re better, the sooner you can get on with all the things you’re listing in your head right now—including kicking my ass.”

The fact she didn’t smile didn’t intimidate him. Nor when she set that stony look in his direction. If anything, it told him to keep going.

“Or am I wrong? You would prefer those take as long as possible to heal so you can milk our coddling for all we’re worth?” It was a risk.

Bucky shook his head, like bad idea, but Steve didn’t think so. If anything, Natasha’s nostrils flared and her eyebrows climbed a fraction.

“You don’t fool me, Rogers,” she countered. “You like coddling me. Is this a little reverse psychology meant to encourage me into letting you carry me around?”

“Is it working?” He teased.

She smirked. “Not even. Though for that remark…” She stripped her tank top off and stood there bare-chested and bruised. “I know it’s not that hot to look at right now, but these breasts are not for you.”

He literally had to bite the inside of his lip to keep from guffawing, but Bucky didn’t even bother to pretend. He snickered like they were all twelve. Admittedly, if they were all twelve, Bucky would be a stammering jerk and Steve would probably have had an asthma attack.

“Keep laughing, James,” Natasha said. “They aren’t for you either.”

“No?” Bucky tsked. “Well, I shall woo them from afar.” Then the ass leaned forward and blew against one nipple that dimpled like a perfect little traitor and Steve started laughing again.

“Ow,” Natasha swore as she cracked up, then she smacked Bucky on the shoulder. “Ass.”

“All yours, Natalia, I assure you. Now keep your gorgeous ass still, I’m going to get some liniment. Even without taping, it will help with the bruising and sore muscles.” He chuckled all the way to her room where they’d stored first aid supplies after she’d been shot.

Natasha glanced at Steve, amusement in her eyes. “Not bad, Rogers.”

“Liked that, did you?”

“Kicking my ass to take care of me? It’s a good look on you.”

“So is you biting me back if I go too far.” The balance between them was important. “I love you, Natasha Romanoff.”

“That’s cheating,” she stated.

“I love you more, Natalia Romanova,” Bucky declared as he sailed out the bedroom.

Steve snorted. “I love you most…”

“And I love her best…”

“And for some reason, I love both of you idiots.”

Yeah. They were going to be okay. Steve drained his coffee, then glanced at the holoscreen.

The best gift he could ever have stood right there in his kitchen. His Christmas was made.

Rising, he glanced at the clock again. Maybe they could skip the run today. “Pancakes? Then more online shopping? At least until the stores open?”

“What about running?”

“I got no place to run to Angel that isn’t right here.”

“Sap,” she said.

“Oh, I don’t know Romanoff…” He considered her as he pulled out the batter. “I think you took all the notes on going soft.”

Finding the drawer full of his notes had warmed him deeply. She treasured those little things—the pictures, the notes, the moments…

Oh. Now that would be a great present if he could make it work.

Shameless? Maybe. But he hadn’t lied when he told Natasha there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her. It would just take a little ingenuity to pull it off.

 

 

Bucky

 

 

Natalia disappeared to take a shower after they’d eaten and while she hadn’t said anything, they left her to her privacy. Though she would loathe the description as fragile, she was in a fragile place even if she herself was not a fragile person. Steve had gone to take a shower in his room, but Bucky spent some time studying the items he’d narrowed on his list. It was down to four different rings.

The fact she reacted so badly to rings made him want to gut The Mandarin. He’d been looking at them since just before Thanksgiving. It had started on the island, but he’d shown Laura to get some feedback from her. The friendship between Clint’s wife and Natalia—on clear display during their island visit—suggested she might have some advice.

In his nineties and he’d never bought her a ring. Never taken her on a date or courted proper. Not even when they’d been free before, still too much Soldier and not enough Bucky. Though, if they hadn’t come for them, he would have found a way to propose. Somehow.

Now though, did he still plan on the ring and hope it didn’t pitch her into sweat-soaked nightmares or did he let it go? It wasn’t even a question he could ask Steve, because like Bucky, he was navigating these murky waters with all the care they’d show a live grenade.

Correction, with more care than they’d show a live grenade. Would Natalia recover? Absolutely. Had she chosen to forgive them for the mistakes they’d made leading up to the party? Yes. She loved them, she openly admitted it, but it didn’t change who she was—a fundamentally private woman who’d been through every circle of Hell.

“Sergeant Barnes?” Friday said quietly. “Do you mind if I make a suggestion?”

Curious, more than anything, Bucky nodded. The four images on his screen narrowed to two. Both sapphire rings, one with a beautiful princess cut surrounded by a constellation of diamonds set against a rose gold band. He had no idea why they called it rose gold—but it was pretty enough. The sapphire was fat, but also flat and circular. It reminded him of a shield in some ways. But the array of diamonds added the feeling of light. The first time he’d studied it, all he’d seen was the bright blue Montana skies. She’d been his light in the darkness and the ring took him to the first time they’d truly been free together.

The second ring, however, was a river of sapphires twining through a twist of black titanium, the dark, and the light, with diamonds arrayed on either side, though they weren’t quite clear, but more pale and milky. A pathway through the night. What he’d liked about it as opposed to the other was it was smoother, nothing on it to get snagged on something. If the ring caught on something it could leave her vulnerable and while he didn’t expect Natalia would choose to save her ring over herself, he never wanted to put her in that position.

One was a little brighter and louder, the other more subtle and contained.

But the brighter one seemed more a declaration…

While this one is a promise, an oath, an understanding.

Between these two, there was no question.

A message popped up on his screen.

You may not enjoy the company of Mr. Wilson, but he is very familiar with PTSD. If Natasha suffers from this with relation to rings and you wish to purchase this for her, then I would recommend possibly discussing with him what we can do to facilitate Natasha’s recovery. I have an array of files and methodologies at my disposal, but I am unclear in what order we should apply them as her psychological profile has never been easily categorized.

Bucky chuckled. “You got that right. Thank you for the suggestion.” Though discussing Natalia with anyone was not high on his list.

You’re welcome, Sergeant Barnes. I want to help Natasha, as well.

Yes, Friday did. That was something beyond anything he could have imagined in the future. Not only having an actual artificial intelligence but one that seemed to have developed actual attachments and continued to grow and learn. Saving the image, he tabbed out of the screens and cleared the history.

Better to avoid tipping his hand particularly when it came to surprising Natalia. They’d ended up eating pancakes and bacon—and she’d eaten plenty and seemed to enjoy it—so he cleaned up before he went to grab his own shower. He had one other ace in his back pocket with the safe house. While he and Clint had both been rather focused elsewhere, he had a fair list. There were a couple of places that had come in on searches that he wanted to see again—including one that reminded him of a place Stevie had on his house-hunting list.

In the shower, he braced a hand on the wall and tipped his head forward to let the water wash over him. The bruising along her ribs had improved. Her throat looked markedly better. Even her abused hands and feet showed severe improvement. The shadow of the bruise around her ankle remained, but it was only a shadow.

Two days. They’d had her back two days and she rallied, both mentally and physically despite the exhaustion, despite the visit from the witch doctor, and despite a very real aggravation with all of them for being overprotective.

The memory of her blank eyes when Maria and Nick arrived and the confession they’d put her through that memory machine over a dozen times and he had to brace his fists to keep from pounding them into the tile.

Breathing helped.

Focusing on what he could do helped.

But sometimes?

Sometimes, he and the Soldier were in lockstep. They knew how to destroy things and they were more than willing to tear shit up if it meant helping her. Only, they couldn’t help her that way so… he had to focus on how he could help.

She wanted to go shopping.

She craved normalcy.

When they’d come back from the run the day before, she’d been struggling but at the same time, she’d also seemed as relaxed as she could be while eating breakfast and hanging out with Tony and Clint. As the day progressed, she’d relaxed fully and gone to sleep while they watched the program she and Tony liked so much.

Bucky had to admit, even if the woman reminded him of Madame B, the show itself was nice. Simple. The bad guys really sucked at being bad guys and no one hurt the old broad. Steve’s surprise when he found out about the ritual had been entertaining, but it hadn’t slipped Bucky’s notice that Tony had been making even more efforts in their direction.

Efforts to include them.

Efforts to include himself.

After washing his hair and soaping down, he sighed and leaned against the tile.

 

“Tony is explaining to me why we should be having all the sex with Natasha.”

 

Tony had been doing a lot of things. When Bucky warned Natalia not to have an affair on the island, he’d meant it. No, Bucky probably wouldn’t have liked it. There were things about Tony Stark, things he could offer Natalia that neither Bucky or Steve would ever be capable of. It wasn’t just the money. It was the sharp wit, the intelligence, the eagerness to adapt to an ever-changing situation and the capability to challenge her intellectually. It was the part that Tony belonged to this time while him and Steve? They were still catching up.

That was part of it.

There was also the fact that he was a dangerous man in his own right, he could create wonders with his technology. The dress and the armor had been a thing of beauty, elegant, sophisticated—and brutally suited to her ability to fight. Beyond all of that was Tony’s clear and open affection for her. His efforts to stay sober, even when he’d begun to fray in the wake of her kidnapping, he’d not gone for the alcohol even though he’d clearly wanted to.

No, Bucky wouldn’t have liked her dallying with him then, even if he would have understood it. He also meant it when he said he knew she’d come back. His feelings on it now weren’t quite so clear-cut. And Steve? Steve would have been hurt because he’d seen Tony as a real threat.

Or had.

Something else had shifted in the last several days and that couldn’t have been clearer than when Tony told them they needed to resume sexual relations with Natalia as soon as she could stand being touched. They were changing her, on a fundamental level, Bucky had been changing her for years or had until that last separation.

Now with Steve’s serum in the mix, the ideal one—the one Erskine had been striving to create when it came to their bastardized versions—Natalia was getting stronger, she could heal. Maybe even adapt to the point she could match Steve.

Bucky couldn’t argue against that. Not if it kept her alive and safe.

Not if it gave her back that which they’d taken from her.

Tony understood all of it and encouraged it, but because he wanted her healthier? Safer? Was it that altruistic? Or as selfish as Bucky’s own need to keep her happy and healthy and alive?

Probably both.

Steve hadn’t been offended. Even later, when Bucky had found him destroying bags in the gym, Steve had finally admitted that Tony loving her made sense and based on his behavior, he could understand if Natalia loved him, too. If that was the case, what the hell did that mean for all of them?

Not a question Bucky wanted to tackle, then or now. But it was one rapidly approaching critical mass. Tony Stark was in their lives and he wasn’t going anywhere. Natalia didn’t want him gone. It was part of why Bucky wanted to help him with his tree and he’d started to look after him. Because despite all of it, Bucky liked the son of a bitch. He was every bit as arrogant as Howard and had the same reputation for womanizing that Howard cultivated…

Course, so did I. Though he’d lacked their wealth and splashy show, Bucky had squired his fair share of dames and gotten under more than a few of their skirts. But despite that reputation, Bucky hadn’t seen any evidence of Tony wandering in the months since they’d been back. The closest might be his ex, but Pepper seemed to have moved on and Tony’s affection for her seemed a dim light when compared to the torch he carried for Natalia.

Shutting off the water, he snagged a towel and began the process of rubbing himself down. Tony had given Steve season passes to the Mets, three tickets, likely intending for them to take Natalia. It had been a thoughtful gift. For Bucky, he’d given him access to online courses in Engineering—updates, he’d call them. What had his note said?

 

So imagine my surprise to find out you have a degree in Engineering. You’ve been holding out. Friday and I put together a series of online courses to bring you up to date. Don’t waste that education. Make it work for you.

 

It was a pass to the future, to understanding it and at the same time, to making use of skills he’d once found valuable but had been left to rust for decades. Despite everything, Tony had been clearing a path for Bucky to this time, to reclaiming his life, to building a life he could have had. It had come up briefly after Tony returned with the memory machine. Bucky had torn open the crate so they could inspect it, first to determine it was the actual device—a thing of nightmares—and that it wasn’t a Trojan horse hiding greater dangers.

Locked in a shielded laboratory with Friday monitoring it was a good first step. Tony had glanced at him and said, “After Red makes the call, you and me, we’re tearing this apart.”

Inclusion.

More, it would assure him on every level if he took the damn thing apart himself. Tony seemed to have understood it and with that understanding came acceptance.

The thoughts turned in sharp spirals as he dressed. They were planning to go out, so he armed up and elected to wear the armored shirts and slacks, then added a leather jacket to the mix. The weather meant he could put gloves on and he’d be able to hide the arm, draw less attention to them.

Steve attracted plenty and after the last few weeks, he would imagine Natalia would as well. In the living room, he found Natalia studying the tree. She’d dressed in dark leggings tucked into equally dark boots, a deep blue turtleneck with a black t-shirt over it. Her shorter curls were damp, but the signs of bruising on her face had all vanished—cosmetics. He leaned against the doorway and studied her profile as she gazed at the tree.

Her unguarded expression tugged at him. The vulnerability in how she stroked her finger against her lower lip. Her fixed gaze didn’t tell him what she precisely she focused on the tree, if she saw it all. The chain holding the dog tags was visible around the collar of the turtleneck, but the tags were probably hidden under the t-shirt. They were private; she didn’t share those outside of their small circle.

Just another layer of how she protected them. The bracelet on her left wrist caught some of the lights on the tree, but it too was mostly hidden under the cuff of her long sleeves.

Looking at her now, the casual observer would be unaware of what happened to her in the last few weeks. They would only see the drop-dead gorgeous woman who managed to look sexy no matter what she wore. His sigh betrayed him though her expression was neither startled nor annoyed when she glanced at him.

“You okay?” The quiet question also didn’t surprise him, she took his pulse often enough, checking in on him. Him and Steve regularly. She did the same for Tony and Clint. A measure of making sure there was nothing she had overlooked and while she seemed to think she lacked some skill in the relationship department, Bucky knew better. Natalia hurt. The memory of Mary Elizabeth she had reclaimed was both a gift and a curse.

He was about to answer when his gaze landed on her t-shirt.

I have never faked a sarcasm. Ever.

Laughter jerked out of him at an almost involuntary rate. It was damn near as funny as the virgin one she’d worn.

A flash of a true smile lit up her face as he continued to chuckle. “I’m much better now.”

Steve had yet to join them, but he might have gotten a call or needed to check in with the team. They had plenty of time. It wasn’t even seven-thirty yet.

“Yeah?” She tilted her head.

“Yeah.” He straightened, the desire to hug her invading every muscle but he kept his distance. It was what she’d asked for and what she needed. He had decades of keeping his needs in a bottle while being in her orbit. They both did. The ability to curl into each other had always been a luxury. Being close to her was more than enough. “You have an idea of where you want to go?”

“Some of the clothing stores,” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe something trendier, electronics…little bit of everything. Maybe just look at a store and if it looks interesting, dive in.”

“You want to go hunting.” He made it to the back of the sofa and placed his hands on it as he studied her.

“Maybe.” Though the corner of her mouth curved a little higher. “I think I just want to be… out.”

Not hiding. Not bound by doors or locked away. He’d gotten that way in Bucharest. He’d walked for hours, wander aimlessly, just because he could. Emotionally he got it, but from a security standpoint it was a bad idea.

Steve appeared in the doorway, his expression stern but it relaxed the minute he focused on Nat. Bucky raised his eyebrows, had something come up? But Steve only shook his head. Not now. Fine, they’d discuss whatever it was later.

“Hunting, huh?” Steve asked. “Are we staying in Manhattan or did you want to head out to Brooklyn or Queens?”

“Manhattan first…though there was that little shop out on 29 as you head toward the Compound.”

Bucky didn’t know it, but Steve apparently did. “Then we need to take a car.”

A chime sounded overhead. “Excuse me, Natasha…” Friday didn’t usually interrupt, though she’d been chatting with them on and off that morning, maybe Natalia hadn’t put her back into voice-activated mode.

“Yes, Friday?”

“I’ve called for a car and a driver. It will allow you to be more flexible in your choices—for example, if you chose to walk along 5th Avenue, it could pick you up at the end of the block. You won’t have to find a place to secure the vehicle or worry about interference. The car is certified under Stark Tech and fully armored. The driver has passed all certifications and background checks—you would call him Happy’s version of paranoid approval.”

Natalia chuckled.

“The vehicle also gives you opportunities to go farther afield if you wish and I can keep close track in the event a call to assemble is sent.” What she didn’t add was if Steve and he got called away, Natalia would be secure and they wouldn’t have to get her back before they went.

Clever.

Natalia shook her head slightly, then glanced from him to Steve. The lack of expression on Steve’s face was a dead giveaway. It might not have been his idea, but he wholeheartedly supported it and he didn’t want to force the issue where Natalia was concerned.

“You’re adorable,” she said. “Both of you and as for you, Friday…” She glanced at the ceiling. “I will allow this for a few days, but to be clear. I am allowing you to all be overprotective in some areas. This is a reasonable compromise. So I accept.”

“Thank you, Natasha. Also, Boss said if you would all like to meet for lunch somewhere, he can arrange privacy as well.”

Of course, he did. Bucky bit back a smirk. At least he wasn’t inviting himself along on the shopping trip.

But Bucky could hardly fault Tony the need to be close to her.

“If we’re still out at lunch, maybe?” Natalia glanced at them again. “I still need a debriefing on the last few days and you’ve all been very circumspect on filling me in. Oh… Friday, can you see if you can trace my phone and if not, order me a new one so I can set it up?”

“I will take care of it, Natasha.”

“I’m going to ask this once,” Steve said, focusing on Natalia. “You can be irked with me, but I’m asking anyway. Your ribs are still sore, you’re still recovering, and I know you’ve got a lot on your mind. Are you sure you’re okay with going out there with the crowds? Chances are, you might get jostled.”

Not if Bucky had anything to say about it, but he saw Steve’s point. Natalia did as well, no doubt, but her chin lifted and Bucky recognized that stubborn will. It was what had kept her alive in the Red Room, the same indomitable spirit that had her lie to Karpov’s face and twist their orders to allow them time together. It was how she’d survived that hell and come out the far side.

It was how she’d gotten them out that first time. How she’d gotten out the second.

With a chuckle, Steve shook his head. Maybe he recognized it, too. “You know…forget I asked. I know you. Even if you are worried, you’re going to do it anyway.”

“If I need extraction, I’ll ask for Soldat,” she murmured. “Or say we need to catch the train.”

The code phrases they’d worked out.

“But for now,” she continued. “We can plan a movie night later. I need to get outside. I need to breathe. I need…”

“You need to be alive and back in the world.” The whole idea resonated with Bucky. “You’re armed?”

The bland look she shot him made him smile. Of course she was.

“Steve?”

“Yeah I have it, I’d rather have the shield, but that will get us noticed.”

“Take it to the car,” Natalia suggested and Bucky nodded. “Then we have it close and you’ll need it if the call to assemble comes. Before you ask…” She held up a hand. “I’m not up for a mission yet.”

The fact Steve dropped his chin and eyed her with a small, almost adoring smile made Bucky shake his head. She had their number and wasn’t afraid to tweak them both with it.

“Done.”

Ten minutes later, they took the elevator down to the garage level. Natalia had a hat in hand, but she hadn’t wanted to put it over her damp hair yet. She’d also pulled on a calf-length coat. The heavy material was likely similar to the bullet-resistant items he and Steve both wore.

Bucky took the first step out the doors with Steve at his back. Any other time, it would have been Steve first, then Natalia with Bucky bringing up the rear. He covered her back and he didn’t let anyone save Natalia stand at his—though Bucky and the Soldier had come to a grudging agreement where Steve was concerned. But this wasn’t about Bucky’s hangups or Steve’s, it was about what Natalia needed.

The garage was cold and quiet, the wintry air invading despite the sealed doors and the presence of heaters that kept it above freezing, but not exactly worn.

An oversized SUV that reminded Bucky of a tank was indeed waiting for them. Steve went to meet the driver but Natalia’s attention wandered from them to the row of cars.

“It’s here…” She murmured and then strode away. Throwing a glance to Steve, Bucky followed her but he ranged out to the side to stay in her periphery. Steve twisted and then an open grin settled in place. Okay, the car Natalia approached, a black Corvette. Running her gloved hand lightly over the car, she paused at the driver’s side door and pulled it open.

“I presume this is yours, Doll?”

“Yeah, I asked Tony about her—you know before. I left it here before I went to Geneva.” Before everything went down. “I thought the authorities might have taken her but Tony put her in storage somewhere else so they couldn’t.”

She sat down in the driver’s seat and grinned. The first real, true grin he’d seen in a while. If they could user her car for the shopping trip, he’d totally get in the passenger seat, but not only would all three of them be a tight fit, he didn’t think it was reinforced.

Petting the steering wheel, she glanced out as Steve came to stand next to him. “We’re ready when you are.”

With a laugh, she eyed him. “Shopping first, then debrief and probably need to look at training and I need to corner Tony on the Accords, then I’m taking this baby out for a spin…not today,” she said as almost a promise as she eased out carefully. The motion told Bucky all he needed to know about the soreness of her ribs. “But soon.”

Then a fresh smile crossed her face and she looked truly delighted about something.

Steve leaned toward him, half-turning as if to return to the other vehicle and pitched his voice low. “Does that look worry you as much as me?”

“More,” Bucky responded, smoothing his expression when Natalia narrowed her eyes at them. He knew that look.

He hadn’t seen it in a long time, but he knew it.

Whatever idea just occurred to her? She’d already decided on doing and there wouldn’t be a conversation.

The last time he’d seen it, there had been a lot of explosions.

“C’mon, Doll,” he said, then gave Steve a pat on the shoulder. “I believe you want to go spend a lot of money.”

“Yes,” she said, closing the door and giving her car a last pat. “I do.”

“Reckless capitalism,” he teased.

Her answering smile was worth it. “Wasteful indulgence.”

Steve snorted. “Thoughtful enthusiasm you pair of former Soviets, get in the car.”

Avoiding the driver, Natalia slid into the seat right behind him and Bucky motioned Steve to take the seat next to her while he slid into the front passenger seat. Steve and his shield could get Natalia out of the car more efficiently.

He’d already seen them do that once.

In the front, Bucky was closer to dealing with the driver and taking over the wheel.

“Where to first, Doll?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

Stress/Shopping

Natasha

 

 

Leaving the Tower just before eight in the morning had been a good idea. While traffic had increased in the city with so many hurrying to work, the stores weren’t exactly packed. Many opened early with it only being a week until Christmas. Low crowds, however, didn’t mean lack of. Fifth Avenue offered a wide variety of options, but she had them head west toward Gramercy Park and Chelsea first. It had started snowing and there were piles of it on the sidewalks and along the street. The plows had been out and the shops had cleared the streets, but having a driver would definitely make it easy.

Their first stop, a charming little shop called Reminiscence. James and Steve gave it a curious look as she led the way inside, she stuffed her hat into the pocket of her jacket. She only needed it if they were going to be out in the wind for too long. The storeowner was literally unlocking the doors when she walked up. The vintage shop offered far more than clothing, it had games, record players, vinyl…

Steve let out a breath. She knew he’d spotted that corner and the look he cast her made her grin a little wider. “This is where you found them.”

“Maybe,” she dragged out the word and made a shooing motion. “Go explore.” Then turned herself to walk along the wall with vintage women’s clothes. A lot of the styles housed her were things she’d worn. The shop was on her list to find things for Peter and Wanda. A vintage jacket, for example, might be something Wanda would enjoy especially if Natasha could find one in her favorite color of scarlet or crimson.

This wasn’t the only vintage shop in New York and she’d explore some of the higher end stores, too. A pair of boots caught her eye and she shifted to check them out. They knee high, but they were supple leather and cut well, there was red and black pattern along the side, subtle but definitely there. The laces were thick and the original leather. Even the scent on them said pure leather.

Not practical for battle, though Natasha wagered she could fight in them. The style was classic and it had drifted through the decades resurging from time to time. These particular boots were also huge on the Renfaire circuits. Hmm… maybe they had men’s sizes and she could get a pair for Doctor Strange. They definitely seemed his type.

Still, she checked the size on these. They were a bit of a luxury and they’d need to be cared for, but Wanda might get a kick out of them. She groaned at her own pun. James drifted along behind her, just—looking—but not getting too far. The effort he put into keeping it casual was sweet and she had to hide a smile as she picked up the boots.

The size was Wanda’s. A little too large for Natasha, but they’d definitely fit her. For a moment, she debated the impulse. Then said fuck it. It wasn’t like she couldn’t afford it. Oh. Speaking of which.

She pivoted. “James, can I borrow your phone?”

He handed it over immediately and held out his hand for the boots. “Want me to carry those?”

“Thank you,” she said surrendering them. Steve lifted up a record that said Benny Goodman and Natasha rolled her eyes. “You need to go help him look at records or we’re going to be swimming in big band for the next month.”

“I like big bands, Doll,” James told her without an ounce of shame. “But I can go look for others if you’re in the mood for something different.”

“See if they have some Queen or Led Zeppelin or anything after the 70s…” She paused on the phrase, then focused on him. “See if they have anything we listened to in Montana?”

With a steady gaze, he studied her for a long moment. “Stay away from the front windows?”

Compromise offered.

“I can do that.” Compromise accepted.

Holding onto her boots, he nodded and headed over to join Steve. Blowing out a breath, she stared at the phone then dialed Isaiah’s number from memory. He had several, but three of them had been virtual locks that he would answer. Those were the numbers he tried not to replace if he didn’t have to, so she used them only sparingly.

“Yes?” The careful tone and neutral greeting was a standard response to an unknown number.

“Sorry for the surprise, Isaiah,” she said by way of greeting.

“Still haven’t found your phone?” The sarcasm translated even if his tone warmed by several degrees.

“Working on it,” she told him as she continued to browse her way down the wall. A couple of jackets caught her eye and she studied them even as she caught the shopkeeper splitting her attention between herself and Steve. They were probably going to be recognized in five…

“Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I’m shopping today. I’m going to be hitting my charge accounts.”

“Okay, we talking supplies? Weapons? Backup equipment?”

“Christmas shopping.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Seriously?

Four…

“Hmm-hmm.”

The shopkeeper stole a surreptitious glance at her own phone, then studied Steve’s profile intently.

Three…

Natasha glanced over and caught James’ eye then nodded once to the shopkeeper. He had the boots over his arm and an LP case in his hand. He nodded, shifting to give himself a better sightline.

“Well, I’m sure we can afford a couple of hundred.”

“I’m thinking a few thousand.”

“Okay—“

“I want to also look at ordering three custom motorcycles.”

“Okay, that’s more like it…send me the specs and I’ll get it done.”

“You do know you’re my favorite, right?” She lifted the black jacket off the rack and turned it. The inside was a stunning red. There were small incisions that would let the red peek out of the front. Very 80s. Very nice.

The shopkeeper gripped her phone and squared her shoulders.

Two…

“I do know I am. All right, I’ll free up some funds and keep an eye on the incoming charges in case the bank faints that you decided to spend something after literally nothing in weeks.”

“I know, spend all the money you complain. Spend no money, you complain.”

“That’s me, I complain. Set aside time after the new year, we have housekeeping to do.”

“And taxes,” she said almost mournfully as she checked the price tag on the jacket. Not bad, not quite what she was looking for, but it might look good in her own closet. “One sec, Isaiah.”

One…

“Excuse me,” Natasha said to the shopkeeper, stopping her dead in her tracks as she’d taken one step toward Steve. “Do you have more in this style with different colors?”

The almost mournful look on her face would have been funny, but Natasha held out the jacket and the woman gave her a quick smile. “I’ll have to check.”

“I’d appreciate it.” She met her gaze evenly. Recognition kicked in three seconds later. The woman paled a fraction, then steadied herself with a nod.

“I’ll get right on that.”

Natasha nodded, as Isaiah said, “Don’t scare the store employees This isn’t Pretty Woman you don’t need to intimidate them.”

She snorted. “You’re no fun.”

“Uh huh. Go spend your money, you have a lot more of it. Did you know you just scored a huge finder’s fee?”

“I did what now?”

“A finder’s fee. Remember the job you took last year for MI6?”

Vaguely. She’d been asked about possible covert Russian operatives in Great Britain. They’d been very circumspect in the request. She’d done some deep background work. It had gone nowhere, or so she’d thought. Though she had discovered Lily Masters, a British subject turned Soviet asset. The ninety-four year old great-grandmother had retired and spent most of her time on her rose garden though Natasha recalled interacting with her over the course of decades. It had been the only name she withheld.

Even though she could probably face serious charges of treason and spend the few short years she had left in prison, there was no point. Most of her crimes had been done in the name of love for a husband dedicated to the cause and because society didn’t think her capable. More, she hadn’t turned over a single piece of actionable intel in forty years.

It was over.

Let that sleeping dog lie.

“How many?”

The shopkeeper had stepped out of the back to call one of her other employees, and Natasha checked on Steve and James before she made her way toward the vintage equipment, including older cameras. There was a stylized one with the huge flash she hadn’t seen in years. It made her think of Peter. Maybe she could get him a couple of different kinds for fun.

Kids used the cameras on their phones these days, but still…

“A dozen.”

The number made her blink. “Seriously?”

“You did exemplary work, you found the handler.”

Natasha stilled, her attention on a series of Polaroid cameras. They were a trip back through time, but the one on the end held her riveted even as she turned Isaiah’s comment over in her head. Robert Michaelson. The name, his dossier, and everything about him leapt up at her. She’d spent a day following him while also tracking down a lead on James for Steve. It had been a juggling act, because Tony had also been in London that day and he’d pestered her to come have drinks at the Savoy.

“Okay.” The case hadn’t been a high priority for her; she’d take it as a favor to Gerald though he’d only asked through a friend for a friend. “Well, I guess I have some shopping to do—buy yourself something nice for the holiday?”

“I already did. I really appreciate it, I needed some new tailored suits.”

She laughed. “I’m glad. I’ll talk to you soon.” Ending the call, she kept staring at the camera. Lifting it off the shelf, she studied it while curling her hand around James’ phone.

“I have the same jacket with a blue liner,” the shopkeeper told her, but Natasha only half-heard her.

“Thank you,” she said absently. “I appreciate you looking.” The camera seemed familiar and she both wanted it and wanted to leave it there in the same breath. James had said they’d purchased a Polaroid when they’d been at Niagara Falls.

“Can I help you find anything else?”

On impulse, she glanced at the two older cameras then the Polaroid. “I’ll take all three of these, if you could box these other two up. I want to carry this one.”

“Of course,” the woman said, surprise in her voice though she made no move toward the cameras. No, of course not, Natasha was standing there. She backed up a pace to give her room and then turned. James made a great show of not staring at her but she wasn’t fooled.

Shifting gears, Natasha smiled at them. “You guys close to being done?”

“I don’t know that I’m ever going to be done,” Steve admitted. “They have a lot in here.”

Migrating toward them, she kept track of the shopkeeper moving in her wake. “Well, technically you’re not supposed to buy anything for yourself for Christmas.” Technically, because really, what did she know about Christmas?

Steve looked so forlorn for a moment, Natasha had to bite back a smile.

“Can I see what you found?” She tucked the Polaroid under her arm and held out her hands. James hid a smirk as Steve glanced at the—what had to be eight or nine—records in his stack and the easily four or five more sitting atop the box he’d been perusing.

With a sigh, Steve extended them. “I can always come back.”

“Uh huh,” she assured him, then paged through his choices. Bing Crosby. Benny Goodman. Nat King Cole. Andrews Sisters. Frank Sinatra. Billy Joel. In the stack in front of him was Queen. Elton John. The Righteous Brothers. Marvin Gaye. “Are you still looking?” She stacked all fifteen together and took possession like they were supposed to be hers.

James held out four other albums—AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, and Robert Flack. Definitely an eclectic mix. Extending her arms forward, she eyed him and he slid the albums on top of the ones she’d already picked. Steve frowned, glanced at the records, then her stack and back again.

“I can come back,” he repeated.

“Go on,” James encouraged him. “You know you want to get it.”

Steve scowled, briefly, then pulled out the Lena Horne and held it up. That was a classic.

“Well no doubt,” she assured him and he added it to her stack before lifting it from her. She caught the shopkeeper gawking a second as she glanced from Natasha to Steve then back again. “Yes,” Natasha answered her unspoken request. “All of these and the boots.”

Together, they carried everything to the register. It ran a tidy sum and when she extended her credit card, the woman said, “I almost feel guilty charging any of you.”

“Don’t, ma’am,” Steve said easily. “You have a lovely shop.” His gaze had slid to a jacket on the back wall. It was brown leather and looked buttery soft, reminded Natasha of flight jackets.

Only half-listening to the shopkeeper as she got Steve to give her an autograph, Natasha signed the credit receipt. When all the items, including the Polaroid had been bagged, James took charge of one sack and handed the other to Steve. “Doll?”

“Call the car? I want to check one last thing?” The request seemed to do enough, because James glanced from her to the wall then back. Yes, he knew exactly what she was doing.

He hustled Steve out front and Natasha turned to the shopkeeper. “Brown bomber on the wall?” She glanced at it, then moved as the front door bells rang. There were a couple of other customers, but they hadn’t noticed her or Steve yet. As if aware of the importance, the shopkeeper snagged the long black leather duster Natasha had admired earlier and covered the bomber as she returned with it. The registered angled away from the windows. The bomber was as smooth as it looked, the size was right. The duster was close to perfect, too.

“I’ll take both,” she told her. After boxing them, she slid the boxes into the bag so they weren’t visible then rang her up. She also added a twenty percent discount. At Natasha’s raised browsed, the shopkeeper said, “First time I made a sale to an Avenger, ma’am. It’s for Captain America…”

Natasha laughed.

“Yes it is.”

She signed the receipt, and then gathered the bag.

“Thanks for shopping with us!”

Still grinning, she carried her purchases out. The SUV was just pulling up as she exited and James claimed her bag from her with a knowing look.

“Hush,” she told him and Steve chuckled. Yes, buying it had hardly been her most subtle play. Who cared?

Once they had their purchases loaded and climbed into the car, James glanced back at her. “Where to next?”

“Oh. I have a few ideas.”

 

~~~

 

Macy’s had been a zoo. She’d managed an hour before she was ready to throw in the towel. Still, she’d found a perfect jacket for Wanda along with a couple of dresses that would look stunning on her along with some bracelets and a half-dozen rings. Even picking those out had made her want to throw up. Steve and James had helped, but in the end, Natasha had to stop at six and just call it good.

James had been giving her distance until she’d made it to the jewelry cases. But by then they’d begun to garner some notice from the other shoppers. Natasha had already posed for a couple of pictures that hopefully didn’t look like she was standing in front of a firing squad. Steve had taken on an enthusiastic group of moms—cheerfully doing a selfie with each one until they were able to extract. James, however, had grown impatient with the lot of them.

Earlier, he’d asked her if she would wear a ring. Aversion therapy at its finest, but staring at the jewelry cases—even at the rings that looked nothing like The Mandarin’s, all she got were flashes of how they’d light up on his hands one moment and seconds later, pain would light her up.

“Want me to pick one, Doll?” James had asked quietly when she drummed her fingers against the counter.

“Maybe,” she admitted. “Maybe not right now.” The clerk brought her the bag with the jewelry boxed and hidden. James took the bag and then offered her a hand. With eleven floors, Macy’s had a little bit of everything, but she was ready to leave. Go somewhere else.

Anywhere else.

James had nicked away once to buy something and Steve had been less subtle than she had been at the vintage shop. The number of shoppers, however, increased and she was more than ready to extract and move on to a fresh location. Steve had moved away, likely to draw some of the attention off so James sent him a message.

On the street, she inhaled the cold crisp air tinged with car exhaust and the hint of perfume from those passing on the streets. Natasha tugged her hat on because the day had grown colder or maybe she was just getting wearier. They had added to their collection of bags. James nodded away from the entrance toward one of the big windows, it pulled them away from the foot traffic and helped abate some of the wind.

“Stevie’s on his way and so is Austin.” The driver was Austin.

Natasha nodded, glancing at the display in the window. It was a huge train winding through snowy mountains and hills where Christmas villages decorated the landscape. They probably should have chosen somewhere else to stand, Steve had glared at the display on their way in but James only shrugged.

They were all a mess of triggers.

“It’s almost lunch,” James said, his position putting him between her and the people passing by yet not boxing her in. She had to admit, he had a talent. “Did you want to call Tony and meet him somewhere?”

“Not really,” she admitted. “I think I’d rather eat back at the Tower.” Then she sighed, “Now ask me what I should do versus what I want to do.”

A smile touched the corners of his lips. “Natalia… you don’t have to do anything.”

“Yes, I do.” Because negotiating the Accords meant wading through a sea of press closing in on her. Negotiating the Accords meant facing off against potential threats in diplomatic situations where all the doors and windows were closed. Fighting alongside the Avengers meant trusting them to catch her, which meant letting them touch her.

They didn’t have time for this.

“You are a stubborn woman.”

“And water is wet,” she retorted, earning a smirk.

The traffic on the street crawled along. Their driver would probably need a minute. Maybe they should…

“Mademoiselle…”

Oh there was a voice she didn’t want to hear. Schooling her features, she shifted her weight and faced the French delegate to the committee. “Monsieur Devereux.”

C'est un plaisir de vous voir.” He narrowed the distance between them almost immediately. She couldn’t say it was a pleasure to see him.

Like her, James shifted his weight in preparation because the delegate was not alone. Security accompanied him and the two men moving in his wake were both well-armed and well-trained. But Devereux already had his hand out to take hers. Thankfully, she’d already pulled on her gloves. Sniper breathing and discipline pulled it together for her as she let him lift her hand to kiss her knuckles.

Mademoiselle Romanova, tu es belle comme toujours. Puis-je vous appeler encore Natalia?” There he went being familiar again. Natasha removed her hand without yanking it away and merely stared at the delegate.

“Non.” The simple answer earned her a bark of too bright laughter and he moved to throw his arm around her. It took everything she had not to break his arm.

“Tu es magnifique. Que dois-je faire pour mériter l'honneur de ton nom?” All charm and wit even as he gave her shoulder a squeeze. The man had two hundred and six bones in his body. She could break about fifty of them in short order. The other hundred and fifty-six wouldn’t take long.

“You could begin by releasing me,” Natasha informed him cooly and he withdrew the arm as if she’d stung him. A faint flush touched his cheeks and if she insulted him, too fucking bad.

The delegate smoothed a hand through his hair then glanced at James. A momentary puzzlement creased his features and then he tensed. The smile James sported was not friendly in the slightest. He’d caught Devereux’s discomfort and appreciated it. “You are Sergeant Barnes,” Devereux said, fumbling a moment.

“He is,” Steve answered before either she or James could. The two bodyguards fell back as Steve moved around them. “We’re also running late…” He eyed the man.

“Adrien Devereux,” Natasha clarified having described her meeting with him. “The French delegate to the Committee.” Irritating as he may be, he was also an ally.

“Captain Rogers,” Devereux’s entire attitude shifted, his shoulders went back and his chin rose. He extended his hand. “It is an honor to meet you in person, Captain. I’m afraid we have not had a chance to be formally introduced before.”

Steve gripped his hand once and based on Devereux’s wince, it wasn’t a friendly squeeze. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Monsieur. Thank you for your support on the Committee. As much as I would like to chat with you, I’m afraid we have previous engagement.”

Austin chose that moment to arrive and Natasha caught Adrien’s speculative gaze going from her to Steve then to James and back. “Perhaps another time, Mademoiselle.”

“Perhaps,” she said noncommittally. “Joyeuses fêtes.

Steve shifted to keep Adrien from touching her again even as she turned away. It put Steve at her back, but James moved alongside her, also between she and the French, he opened the backdoor for her and she climbed inside. Only after the door closed did Steve nod to the delegate again before he carried his bags to the car, he and James both stored the bags in the back before taking their places, but James stared at Devereux who stared at their vehicle.

Once Steve was inside, James slid into place. “Let’s go,” he told Austin, then turned his attention beyond the window. Devereux had a phone out. Chances were, they’d be hearing from the Committee in no time.

“Steve, you should text Sharon if she’s still in town.”

With a sigh, he glanced over his shoulder then at her. “Yeah, you okay? He was…”

“Lucky he still has his hands,” James stated.

“He’s French,” she reminded them. “He thinks flirting with me is how gets what he wants. It’s also why I’m the one out there, so they will dance the dance.” She waved a hand dismissing it. The French delegate might be a nuisance, but so far his public displays and work behind the scenes seemed to have been on their side. Or at least it had been before. She really needed the debrief.

“Where to, Angel?” Steve’s hand twitched twice, as if he lifted it to reach out then set it back against his lap.

“Where did Tony want to have lunch?”

“Natalia,” James sighed, impatience creasing his voice. “You do not have anything to prove.”

“I know,” she murmured. She really did know. “But I’m going to do it anyway. Besides, I think lunch and then back to the Tower, we have work to do.”

Steve scowled at her and Natasha grinned. It took a lot to truly earn that look as his brows gathered in a stern frown. A mild sense of glee unfolded within her. It had been a while since she’d pushed him that far.

“You know, I can’t help but think this is payback for before…” He muttered.

Then, because it was and wasn’t, she slipped her gloved hand over his and gave it a squeeze. “Just remember—you like me exactly how I am.”

With a snort, he stroked his thumb over her gloved hand. “Yes, I do. Even when you’re being too hard on yourself.”

“Pot.” She nodded at him, then pointed to James. “Kettle.”

They both chuckled.

“I’m going to be fine. The shopping was great and I appreciated it. I think lunch could be nice…” And give her a chance to get some answers. “Then back to work, because the kids will be here soon and the world didn’t stop spinning.” Even if she had been tapped out.

James held up his phone. “Russian Tea Room.” The dry as the desert tone made her laugh. Because of course, where else would Tony take them out to lunch? “You still want to go?”

“You’ll love their borscht,” she assured him and leaned forward to touch his shoulder. The contact was light, but she snared a smile with it.

“Nobody loves borscht,” James countered and she grinned wider, before leaning back in the seat. She kept holding Steve’s hand and she studied the world outside the window, the hustle of the shoppers, the snow on the sidewalks, the chapped cheeks on faces, and the decorations filling the windows. Christmas was relentless in his invasion and subsequent takeover of the city.

Inside the stores there had been music and the offer of holiday treats and hot beverages. It was all a show of glitz and glitter and warm fuzzies that Natasha was determined to embrace. Their first Christmas was not going to be spoiled and if that meant facing every person in the city, shaking hands and whatever else, then she sure as hell would do that.

When Steve released her hand to pull out his phone, she left it on his thigh. Touching them wasn’t painful, even if she couldn’t shake the skate of Devereux’s arm around her shoulders off. Compartmentalizing it, she put it away. A necessary evil for the Accords, to be dealt with then dismissed.

At Natasha’s glance, Steve held his phone closer to show the text message with Sharon and a quick update on running into Devereux.

Sharon: Is Natasha all right?

The immediate response warmed Natasha. She and Sharon were hardly friends but it was the thoughtful move to make and based on what Peter had told her, Sharon had played a big role in gathering forensics. The fact there didn’t seem to be shock at her reappearance, then she’d likely also covered with the Committee and the media.

She’s Natasha, was Steve’s response.

“Hey,” Natasha murmured.

“Well you are,” he teased.

Sharon: Tell her we’re thinking of her and let me know when would be good to swing by. I figured she might need rest.

More thoughtfulness.

Soon, by the weekend would be my guess. When do you leave for the holidays?

The conversation went back to business and Natasha resumed watching the city pass by. They’d be at the tearoom soon. She’d put on another pretty mask and make the most of it. Fake it until she made it.

~~~

 

Despite only being a few blocks, it still took Austin twenty minutes to crawl down Fifth Avenue. She’d eaten at The Russian Tea room before. In fact, she’d eaten there during one of her first assignments in New York City, she’d been undercover as a ballerina with the Bolshoi and it had been the place where many artists and entertainers dined. Fitting, she supposed since former members of the Russian Imperial Ballet founded it.

Austin drew to a stop before the red canopy declaring the Tea Room, and James was out first, then opening her door. Sliding out, she glanced back to see Steve send one last message before he exited and slid his phone into his pocket. A doorman opened the door to let them in, but he wasn’t the only security, in fact there were a half dozen placed in strategic areas along the walk and a line of people waiting to go inside but they were waved in.

Three steps inside the opulently appointed restaurant, she knew why. Tony spread his arms as he stood up from a table near the center of the room. “Friends, Russians, Countrymen…”

With a groan, she rolled her eyes, “You rented the whole place?”

Clint snorted, he was already ensconced in a seat, one leg up on a chair looking perfectly at ease—and vastly underdressed for the tearoom. Though to be fair, most of them were except for Tony, but he’d shed his jacket and tie.

“I absolutely booked the whole place, it’s ours for the next ninety minutes.” She unbuttoned her coat and James took it as she slipped out of it, and rather than pass it to a waitress who offered, she motioned to the chairs. The last time she’d eaten here had been—before the Battle of New York. Maybe even before she’d gone to evaluate Tony.

It had been a while.

Tony pulled out a chair for her, next to his, and directly across from Clint. The rectangular table would put Steve or James next to her and the other either across the table next to Clint or at the end directly opposite Tony. Steve and James moved smoothing with James circling to take the chair across from Steve’s as Steve sat next to her.

“You doing all right?” Clint asked.

Natasha shrugged. “I didn’t shoot anyone.”

“That’s a good sign. Now how about garrote? Stab? Or just simply kick in the head?”

She mimed considering it as Tony resumed his own seat. He nodded to a waitress who carried over fresh glasses and poured water as a second served a pot of tea, a carafe of coffee and then a third set a flight of vodka in front of Natasha.

Frowning, she glanced up and motioned to the flight. The fact the waitress came at her from Tony’s side and did not reach from behind her was well thought. The additional support of Steve putting his arm along the back of her chair and that James and Clint could literally see anyone approaching from behind her helped, too. Dead center in the restaurant wasn’t the most tactical, but they had a 360 view and weren’t near any of the windows to the outside, so she’d take what she could get.

“This is lovely, but no thank you.” The vodka actually looked fantastic and she was tempted to knock them back but Tony wasn’t drinking.

“Red,” Tony said, hands steepled together. “It’s fine and of all the people at this table you deserve a drink. Have the flight, it doesn’t bother me.”

“You shouldn’t torture yourself.”

“Not the worst thing I’ve ever tortured myself with,” he countered and she frowned at him. “Be a good Russian and have your vodka.”

Smirking, she picked up the first shot then tossed it back, draining all two ounces before turning it upside down and setting it back on the table. “You’re an ass.”

“I am,” he said agreeably. “Glad you noticed. Love the shirt.”

Steve glanced up at the calm-eyed waitress who hovered, waiting for them to make an order. “Can you give us a minute?” Fortunately, the staff here was used to waiting on celebrities. Five Avengers wasn’t that shocking and Tony had been a celebrity a lot longer than the rest of them. Well…maybe not longer than Steve, but definitely for more years.

The vodka hit the spot, though she’d need significantly more than four two ounce shots to make a dent.

“You sure you’re doing okay, Kid?” Clint nudged her leg with his foot and she flipped him off.

“Keep asking me that question.”

He snickered and some of the tension coiling through her since the jewelry counter eased. “Someone has to and I’m the one least afraid of you at the table.”

“I’m not afraid of her,” Tony said, scowling. “Healthy survival instincts are not the same as fear.”

James snorted and Steve let out a heavy sigh before he took a long drink of the water. “Somehow, I have a feeling it’s a good thing Tony rented the place out.”

“Of course it is,” Tony said undiplomatically. “It was my idea.” That sparked another round of laughter. It took them a minute to decide, but they finally got their order in and Natasha knocked back the second of her shots.

“Shopping go okay?”

Natasha said, “Guys, the shopping was fine, it was crowded, we found some stuff and we ran into Devereux outside of Macy’s. Beyond that, not much to debrief. Am I still freaking out about being touched? Somewhat. Do I prefer to keep anyone away from my back? Definitely. It’s going to take time. What I’d like is a debrief of the last ten—wait is it eleven days?”

Steve shifted next to her and then took a sip of his coffee as Clint studied her, whatever he looked for he must have found when she met his gaze because he nodded, but Tony seemed to be glancing from Steve to James and then finally to her.

“Can it wait until we’re back at the Tower?” The quiet question wasn’t unreasonable.

Meeting his gaze steadily, she asked, “Are you going to find another way to blow it off when we get there?” Because they had the day before and she’d let them.

“No,” Steve said firmly. “You still need rest, but you’re right, you do need to be briefed and we’ll take care of it.”

“What he said,” Tony tacked on, a hint of relief in his voice. Yeah, the shifting dynamic between the guys was definitely setting off quiet alarms—not upsetting but the changing landscape defied expectations. In a good way, at least based on what she’d seen so far. “Besides,” he continued. “We have other plans to make.”

The other plans, as it turned out, were holiday plans. Sam and Sharon would both be heading off to see their families. They would be leaving by the weekend so it would probably be good to either invite them to the Tower or head out to see them.

“And do we want a meeting before everyone scatters?” Tony asked.

“I vote no,” Clint said before cutting into his steak. “Not that anyone asked me.”

Natasha had ordered the grilled salmon and James had picked out the beef stroganoff while Steve and Tony had both ordered steaks. They were all cutting into their food, but she focused on Clint even as James leaned back in his chair. “Why no meeting?”

“Because it turns into a debrief for you,” Clint said flatly. “Then it turns into you having to deal with sympathy and you are not a fan.”

Biting her lip, she had to hold back a chuckle. “Feelings aren’t going to bite me.”

“Says you,” Clint grumped.

“Nice reverse psychology, going to have to play it with less of a heavy hand next time.”

A gleam of amusement filled his eyes as he winked at her. “Just saying.”

Steve reached across the table and speared a forkful of James’ beef and noodles, then ate the bite. “That’s not bad.”

“I vote against the meeting just because we have enough work and not enough reports on what we have going,” Tony jumped in, and then he stuck his fork into her salmon and carved off a piece to eat along with one of the grilled vegetables. She raised her eyebrows and he shrugged. “You’re not eating it. It’s not poisoned. See? I have no resistance. If it was, I’d be croaked on the floor right now.”

When he extended his fork again, her knife hit the table right in front of him and he retracted the fork swiftly.

“And on that note, you can starve.”

James actually broke the following silence with a laugh. “Want my stroganoff, Doll?”

“My salmon is fine, thank you very much.” But even as she gave Tony a look, she took a bite of her salmon. It actually did taste wonderful. “Thank you, but don’t do it again.”

He met her gaze levelly. “Deal with it.” Then he toasted her with his water and took and drink. Leaning her head back, she considered where she could stab him that it wouldn’t do much damage.

Not that she really wanted to stab him.

She could.

“Changing the subject,” Clint said. “Steve? Meeting?”

“No, I need to go over mission reports… then get mine done. All of you need to do yours, too.”

“Get right on that, Cap,” she said, keeping her tone flippant and light. “We can fill them out like mad libs.”

“Sold,” Clint fistbumped her and Steve groaned.

“You two never used to be this much of an issue.”

“Actually,” Natasha said. “We did, you just didn’t notice it as much because we used to be subtle.”

“No,” Tony said. “You were subtle, he wasn’t.”

“Hey,” Clint said. “I can be subtle.”

“Can and are are two different things,” James added.

And around they went. Each time it seemed to get serious, Clint teased her with a joke or lampooned Tony or Steve. James escaped most of them, but it kept it lighter. By her fourth and final shot of vodka and following her meal, she had relaxed. Most of the morning’s tension had bled away.

Being handled was weird. Clint had done it for years—usually with a foam-wrapped baseball bat, the combination of stern understanding and no bullshit worked for them. But Steve, Tony, and James all approached it differently—like renting out a whole restaurant, actively teasing her as Steve had been doing or indulging her to a point as James had.

Really, the best part was none of them even tried to pretend they weren’t doing it. Backing off if she got prickly, but otherwise…

It was nice.

They did come to some decisions about the holidays. Clint would be getting Laura and the kids Thursday after school, Friday they would have a family dinner at the Compound—especially since they had Avengers who were heading out. The weekend would likely include shopping trips and Tony offered to set up the skating rink again.

Training sessions came up but Steve wanted those on an as needed basis. Wanda and Peter needed training, but Natasha could supervise. She didn’t argue at the moment. One day at a time, one step at a time.

Christmas actually fell mid-week and the Bartons always had a huge meal Christmas Day after they opened presents in the morning, then they spent the afternoon putting things together, playing board games, and watching movies.

“We’re spending Christmas Eve and at least a couple of the hours of the morning at the Tower,” Natasha said when James and Steve said nothing. Clint narrowed his eyes at her. “Don’t look at me like that. Christmas Eve should be you, Laura and the kids. Besides, if I’m there, they’ll ignore you.”

He made a face. “You do remember I’m Dad, right?”

“Yes, but I’m Auntie Nat and I’m Lila’s favorite.” She stuck her tongue out at him and he snickered.

“Yeah yeah… fine, don’t be too late. The kids will want you there to open some presents.”

“Then let’s set it up that they get some they can open in your suite,” Tony suggested. “Then we have more at the big tree in the Common Room that we all open when everyone gets there. Two Christmases.”

There was more about the food and figuring out the meal. Clint said Laura had already volunteered to cook and Wanda wanted to help. Steve suggested they all kick in, there were too many people for any one person to do all the heavy lifting. Tony would cater it in a heartbeat, but even James shot that idea down.

“Do we know if Peter’s aunt has to work?” She was a nurse and seemed to work most holidays.

“We can find out,” Tony said. “But if she doesn’t then he’s probably going to spend Christmas with her.”

“That’s fine. She’s his family.” They probably had their own rituals. All families did—even her family, even if they were creating their own.

Finally, their ninety minutes was up and they gathered their things. She slid on her coat and Tony motioned to her shirt. “That goes on the favorites list.”

Chuckling, Natasha slid into her coat. “Back to the Tower?”

Would they blow off the debrief? If they did, she was just going to check in with Friday and review the last several days. She might do it anyway.

“Yeah, back to the Tower,” Tony answered after Steve nodded.

Catching James’ eye, she raised her eyebrow then glanced from Steve to Tony and back again. James shook his head. So either he didn’t know or he wasn’t telling.

Clint smirked at her and she rolled her eyes. They weren’t even subtle with how fast they flipped each other off.

Men.

It was good to be home.

 

~~~

 

Tony and Clint rode back to the Tower in a different vehicle, which was fine. Steve, however, was quiet and even when they made it back to the garage, he didn’t say anything as they unloaded the packages. Natasha took some of the presents to her floor and stored them in her closet before joining them to go take the rest to Steve’s.

When he said nothing before disappearing into his room as she stripped off her coat, she looked at James. “Did I misstep on something?”

“No, Doll. That’s Steve pulling back on his temper,” he told her as he followed her into her room to hang up her coat. “He wants you to take it easy and you’re not going to let us do that so he’s biting his tongue.”

“I have been taking it easy,” she pointed out and then tugged the chain out from under the t-shirt to hang in the front. She still had on her boots, but since they were back she debated on slipping them off. As long as she was in socks, most of her remaining bruising remained hidden.

“No,” James told her, arms folded as he leaned against the wall. “You haven’t. You’ve been cooking, pushing yourself even when you were nauseated. You’re trying to entertain and you went off to look after Peter because he needed your advice—the Vulture right?”

“And if I did?” Oh, if they were looking for a fight. She could handle that. “I promised to train Peter.”

“Natalia, this isn’t about promises or friendships or caring. You are very fond of that boy. Fuck, I’m fond of the punk. I’ve been the one making sure he kept his shit together when you were gone just like Steve kept Tony together. We had to keep each other from flying off the handle and you’re pretending like nothing happened…”

“What do you want me to do, James? Cry?” The words fired like bullets. “Should I curl up into a fetal ball and wail? Or should I give you chapter and verse every fucking thing I felt while that happened? Or maybe you’d like to go over why the fuck I couldn’t get myself out of it? Maybe we should start there and detail what did I do wrong.”

“I don’t expect you to do anything but put yourself last. It’s what you always do.” The verbal slap landed. “You demand everything of yourself and you’re still…”

“Healing. Yes, I am and apparently I’ve been healing for sixty-eight years. It’s hardly anything new.”

His eyes were cool and nothing in his expression shifted as he met her stare for glare. “No, because you don’t change. You were trained from the day you could walk that failure and weakness are absolutely unacceptable. That attachment is to be avoided at all costs. That nothing—absolute nothing is more important than the mission.”

“Thank you for that summation. Like I don’t remember it—trust me of all the pieces of my faulty memory, those are still very clear. Every. Damn. Moment.” From the cold metal tables to the icy poison in her veins to the brutality of fighting to survive. The only ally she’d ever had was herself.

“And it was all bullshit…”

“Says the boy who grew up with a family and people who loved him; who had a life and friends and all the women he loved before a war tore through his life.”

“I know that,” he growled out the words and pushed away from the door. Frustration vibrated off of him. “I know you were never allowed that. Don’t you think that guts me to think of what it had to be like for you as a child.”

“Then don’t,” she ordered. “I survived. I’m right here.”

“You know that’s not what I meant.” He clenched his fists then released them as he paced away. “This—this Natalia is what is so frustrating. You’re allowed your feelings…”

“No, I’m not.” The moment she said it, they echoed through the room and he spun around to stare at her just as the door to the bedroom pushed in to reveal Steve standing there. His stormy expression went from her to James then back again. “I’m not allowed my feelings. Not by you or Steve or Tony or even Clint. Because I’m not feeling what you seem to want me to feel. You want me to get it out, to react, to talk to you. If I don’t, you want me to dial it back, stay safe, and let you take care of me. Maybe I don’t want that. Maybe…” She fixed on Steve’s expression as he folded his arms.

“Go ahead and finish,” he said, his tone steady but the set to his jaw said they were far from done. “What is it that we want you to do, Natasha. I think we both need to hear it.”

“You want me to lean on you.”

“Yes,” Steve said slowly. “Even if it’s the last thing on Earth you want or are willing to do unless you’re so devastated you can’t function. You have been very clear on that front, Nat. You take care of us, not the other way around. You take care of the team. Of Tony. Of Clint and his family. Hell you look after your friends and contacts and your clients. But when it’s you… you just go back to work and pretend like it didn’t happen. You fake it until you can make it.”

“Compartmentalize,” James said quietly. “Until you have separated out every emotion that makes you vulnerable… then you can get back into the fight.”

Every emotion… that made her vulnerable?

“Natalia…” James spread his hands. “You’re safe here. Be angry. Throw things if you have to. Freeze us out and say nothing. It won’t change a damn thing. You’re not chasing me off that easily.”

“Nor me,” Steve said flatly. “I don’t like what you’re doing. But I also recognize your right to do it. You…” He took a long breath and then blew it out. “You were up in that room with Pepper…isolated…and you stayed there because of the choices the rest of us made. Because we kept putting you in a corner. You… were right to come out swinging. But the hell you went through… I know you felt alone. You weren’t.”

“You suffered Natalia, we know. Every ugly moment and there’s not a person on this team or in this room that didn’t suffer because you suffered. I want to take that bastard apart. Every time you shift away…because I know what those drugs he pumped you full of had to feel like when he…” A muscle ticked in his jaw.

“When he put his hands on you,” Steve finished. “You who hate it when strangers touch you had to endure it over and over. Nat… I’m not mad at you. I’m angry… because I want to make you feel safe and right now we can’t do that. Not me, not Buck, not Clint and not Tony. That’s all we want.”

James thrust a hand through his hair and then stripped off his jacket and tossed it on the bed. “What do you want Natalia?”

Everything she could never have. “I don’t know. What about you?”

“I want you,” James said bluntly. “I don’t give a damn about the rest.”

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “We shouldn’t be fighting.”

“No,” Natasha said slowly. “We should.”

Surprise filled his eyes. “Excuse me?”

“Punk is the one who picks the fights,” James said flatly. “You’re usually the one who defuses them.”

“So?” She shrugged. “I don’t want you to tap dance around me. I am pretending, I’m really good at it and I have to right now. Because if I don’t I am going to be screaming. In two days—the kids are going to be here and they want hugs and to climb all over me and to play and I can’t flip the fuck out if they’re doing it.”

“Nat you won’t—not with the kids…”

“Steve, I do love you, but please try to remember that I have killed kids.”

Dead silence greeted that statement.

“I know you don’t often want to think about the uglier side of my nature, but it’s there and it happened.”

“In the past,” Steve said slowly. “Would you kill a child to finish a mission now?” His expression hardened and he narrowed the distance between them, not quite looming over her but unmistakably in her space. “Would you take the shot or let them die because they were in the way?”

She glared at him. “No.”

“Then for the love of God stop reminding me of what you did in the past. When you had no choices and the only people giving you any kind of support were monsters and bastards who loaded you like a weapon and unleashed in you in a general direction.” He reached for her and then clenched his hands before he took a step back. “Angel… if you’d fought them, if you’d refused… they would have killed you. When you did resist them and fight them, when you clawed pieces of yourself, they took you apart again. At some point, you have to recognize that you weren’t the monster.”

“That’s easy to say…”

“No,” Steve said, almost vibrating as he half stormed in a circle away then twisted to face her. “It’s not. I hate everything that ever happened to you. To him. To the people who tried to strip Bucky of his humanity and who… God Nat, you’re a fucking miracle. You grew up in what is arguably a House of Horrors, treated as less than human, subjected to the worst of the world and at every turn you were… cut off, hurt, abused, and tortured. Even when you got out, it happened again. But you’re—you’re Auntie Nat. You’re Tony’s Red. You’re Clint’s best friend, Wanda’s teacher, Peter’s mentor, Vision’s guide, Sam’s drinking buddy—”

She snorted. “Sam can’t drink.”

“That’s why you’re his buddy,” Steve said drily. “You look after him. You took care of Banner. Of me. You protected Tony. You protected the team. You helped save Bucky over and over—you saved me. Angel—you’re not a monster.”

It was her turn to blow out a breath. “I can’t be a victim, Steve.” She licked her lips. “Not of the Red Room or Hydra—or Nick or the Mandarin. I can’t be a victim. When I went back—when I left Mary and I went back for James, I made a choice.” That much was absolutely clear to her. “They didn’t force me. Would they have given up? Probably not. Could I have brought myself to kill James if I couldn’t get through to him?” She met his gaze and James’ expression gentled. “I don’t know—if it had been between him and Mary?”

James nodded slowly. He understood. But she would never have allowed it to be a choice between them. It was why she had to get Mary away, as much to save Mary as to save James.

“But I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one. I earned my title. I became the Black Widow. I chose to be Natalia. I chose to give up that name and become Natasha. I—I say when. It has to be my choice. So many times now I thought I got rid of the leash and I find it again. I love you.” She exhaled with the words then looked to James. “I love you both and I’m fighting with everything I am to be who I need to be. I won’t be a victim.”

“You’re not a victim, Doll,” James told her firmly. “But you’re not alone either. We’re doing our best here.”

She knew that.

“Nat—it kills me that we can’t fix this,” Steve admitted. “Bucky’s right, we’re doing our best. I’m going to keep doing it. Don’t… don’t give up on us.”

She frowned. “Who said I was giving up on you?”

“You’re pretty pissed.”

With a shrug, she canted her head to the side. “I didn’t used to get angry, not easily. It betrays emotional investment…”

“… that can bite you in the ass,” Steve finished. “Sorry, Angel. Love isn’t always easy.”

“Ain’t that the fucking truth,” James said dropping to sit on the bed.

“I won’t give up on you…” she told them. “Don’t give up on me?”

“Not a chance,” James said in the same breath Steve said, “I’d never give up on you.”

The anger deflated and left her sagging. “Now we need to go debrief.”

Steve snorted. “I blame you for that.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I blame me, too.” But she needed to know. Eleven days was a long time. “I need to know.”

He held out his hand. “Can I hug you?” James perked up at the request and she just walked straight forward, shuttling all other thoughts aside until she pressed against Steve and then closed her eyes as she wrapped her arms around him. He closed his on her and then James was there, bracketing her back.

“You know what I don’t get,” she said quietly.

“What?” James asked, the comforting weight of him just there even as Steve pressed his lips to the top of her head.

“When did I become the one who picked fights?”

“It was bound to happen, Doll,” James said seriously. “You spend way too much time with the punk.”

“Hey,” Steve grumbled with no heat and the light jostling that accompanied him smacking James. “You started your fair share.”

“No I finished them.”

Their bickering was so—normal. A laugh escaped her, a little huff of it. Then another, until the huffs turned into chuckles. The laughter helped break up some of the jagged bits grinding against each other. Rubbing her cheek against Steve’s shirt, she tried to quell the laughter but it kept bubbling up. They could fight like normal people, yell at tear at each other and once it was out—they were better.

When she began to pull away, they let her go. She moved to the bathroom and checked. The cosmetics had held even after rubbing her face on Steve.

“We’re doing the debrief upstairs, right?” She exhaled another breath aware the guys were watching her.

“Yep,” Steve answered.

“Can’t wait,” James added.

She stole a look at them. “Chances are I’m going to do this again.” Caring—it was hard.

“Told you once, Doll, and I’ll keep telling you. I can take it. Not going anywhere—probably going to be me tearing at you, too.”

“Or me,” Steve said. “I’m always up for a good fight.”

She smiled. “Normal is weird.”

“Agreed,” they said almost vehemently and in the same breath. A little steadier and more than a little weary, they headed for the elevator. The ride up was quiet, but the tension seemed to be absent. Or at least, muted. When the doors opened, Tony spun around to face them.

“Finally! Red, you can settle this for us…”

Clint groaned, one hand over his face.

Eyebrows raised, she follow Steve and James out of the elevator. “Settle what?”

“Do girls really like to be fingered?” The blunt question was so Tony, she almost laughed aloud. Clint threw his head back and stared at the ceiling muttering something about putting a hole or fifteen in Tony.

James shook his head and Steve actually glanced at her, a faint smile on his lips. Curious was he? Or amused by how she would answer? Maybe a little bit of both.

Natasha shrugged. “That depends on whether you know the difference between summoning a genie or stuffing a chicken.”

“Ha!” Tony said as he whirled around and pointed at Clint. “It’s all in the style.”

Normalcy came in all shapes and sizes, Tony’s happy smirk definitely fell into that category.

“Well get in here. So we can make this all about me and I can tell you how fabulous I was in the hunt to find you.”

“How fabulous you were?” Steve snorted.

“Don’t worry, Cap,” Tony told him. “I’m going to give you at least twelve percent of the credit.”

Natasha laughed softly and shook her head as Steve just folded his arms and said, “This I have to hear.”

Not perfect.

Not by a longshot.

But when she met Clint’s gaze, she smiled and he nodded slowly.

They didn’t have to be perfect.

None of them.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

Stained

Tony

 

 

Leaning back in the seat, Tony hooked his hands behind his head and stared at the schematic. He had most of the kinks out and it was a better use of his time than dreams of seeing Natasha die over and over. He was definitely over that particular theme. Drowning. Stabbing. Choking. Suffocation. Drugged.

The loop of the videos coupled with his imagination created a haunted sleep. Normally, he’d get up and drink until he could sleep again. The dreams hadn’t been this bad in nearly a year. Well… not entirely. The last few months the dreams had lessened, but since the party, they’d returned with a vengeance and seemed even worse after finding her.

So, rather than stew or go in search of the vodka he would bet she had stored on her floor, he planted himself in the lab. Since bringing her home, he’d found a way to improve the self-driving car’s engine, developed a backup for the GPS during satellite issues including electrical storms and found a way to shield the main hard drive with the master switch to eliminate the danger of a hacker sending the car off a cliff.

The manual override was always an option, a master kill switch the driver could hit to return the car to manual control. But there were still a few issues and he’d promised Pepper he’d have this for her by the first of the year. The problem was that hackers were clever, the system needed to be adaptable in order to fend off attacks. Too adaptable though and some clever bastard might find a way to repurpose the AI.

Lots of little…

“Boss,” Friday stated. “Natasha has requested access to the sealed laboratory with the memory machine.”

Tony swiveled to glance at the clock. It was four in the morning. He’d been up for a couple of hours and her getting up early wasn’t unusual. “Put me through to her…” he gave it a beat. “Hey Red, what’s up? I mean besides you?”

He swiped the holo screen to switch to external cameras, Natasha stood outside the lab, dressed in loose pajama bottoms, a tank top and what looked like his gray hoodie. From this angle, the faded bruising around her neck remained visible. It still looked like some evil necklace despite the fact the skin had healed.

“Apparently you’re up,” she said, the husky rasp of her voice washing over him.

“No, I’m just a Life Model Decoy here to brighten your morning. You might want to reroute to a different floor, that one doesn’t promise much more than bad dreams and indigestion.”

A smile teased across her lips. “I know. But I need to see it. Is that going to be a problem?”

Crap. He pushed the chair back. “Do you mind some company?”

“I don’t know. How much company can a Life Model Decoy be?”

Snorting, he raked his hands through his hair before he drained the last of his coffee and headed for the door. “You’d be surprised. Though the coding doesn’t promise you an exact duplicate no matter what they say.”

“Huh.” Amusement curled through the single syllable. “I think I’d prefer the real thing if it’s all the same to you.”

“Coming right up, give me a minute.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” The sigh at the end drowned out the humor and Tony frowned. He glanced back at the screen. Whether she was aware of the surveillance or not, she just stared at the closed door but her gaze seemed a thousand miles away. That had happened several times over the last couple of days, she checked out then surged back in. There were moments of startling humor where the warmth in her eyes crystalized and others where she seemed like a virtual stranger.

Adaptation took time as he well remembered, but she danced on the edge of a knife and sooner or later, she was going to slip. They just had to be there when it happened. He motioned a slicing motion against his throat with his hand.

“Muted, Boss,” Friday murmured.

“Where’s Steve and Bucky?”

“I believe they’re still asleep, Boss. Or at least on their floor. They didn’t join Natasha in the elevator and she hasn’t lifted sleep mode.”

“If they ask, let them know where we are…” He hesitated. Should he alert them or Clint now? Or just go and join her and hope for the best?

“Boss?”

“Nothing.” He moved it, jogging up the steps to let himself out of the private lab. “Save those files on the car Baby Girl and let’s look at putting a prototype together. There’s something I’m missing and I want to give this a test run.”

“On it, Boss.”

Three minutes later, the elevator doors opened to the unused lab on 40th floor where he’d stored the device. Heavily shielded in a room that blocked network signals, he wanted to keep anyone from using it as a Trojan horse. He and Friday had been over it once, but until he took the whole thing apart he wanted to take no risks.

Natasha leaned against the wall next to the sealed lab doors. Her feet were bare and her curls obscured half her face until she straightened and pushed them back. “Up early or haven’t been to bed yet?” The familiar scold warmed him, but he understood her bid for normalcy.

It was near impossible to find in the beginning, but he’d meet her halfway.

“Up early, surprisingly enough. Open her up, Friday.” The doors unlocked and rolled open. The lights came on in the lab, though it had equipment, the tables were empty it awaited whoever would repurpose it. When he enlisted Bucky to take this thing apart, they were going to need to bring in some tools for the project.

For now, the oblong device sat amidst the remains of ripped open wooden crate. Seven feet long, the bed was cool glass with the head including another foot of machinery including what looked like a saw and enough singular metal picks and needles to make his skin crawl.

Natasha’s expression vanished as she stared at it. Arms at her side, she approached it at a slow walk as if half-expecting it to turn on. They hadn’t attached it to a power source, but it might have a power cell. To be honest, he hadn’t done more than make sure it wasn't a bomb and it didn't have a transmitter.

Sliding his hands into his pockets, he kept his distance but not too far. If anything happened, he wanted to be there. She wrapped her hands around the dog tags she wore, like they were a talisman, as she stared at the device.

“I remember it,” she said slowly. “And I don’t at the same time.”

“Don’t push it,” he suggested, but he kept his tone a suggestion rather than an order. “I know you want all the answers…”

“I do, but,” she said, twisting to look at him. Her eyes had that distance in them again and he fisted his hands in his pockets. “When Pierce had me programmed to go after you.”

Fuck he hated that word. Programmed. Biting his tongue hurt, but he kept the rant in check. Natasha didn’t need him ranting.

“I walked right in there, it was a job, I was escorting the secretary, I had no reason to not follow his orders. Clint and I had just finished a mission—I was tired and I was kind of looking forward to seeing Maria. I’d have a couple of days to myself, a weekend with Maria, then back to work.” The rush of words was so not Natasha. The raw vulnerability was a side he'd seen, here and there, but usually much more guarded than this. But she shoved the sentences out like she lanced a wound. “Sounded great—but when the secretary asks you for something, you do it. I got in that car, then in the elevator…”

“Red…” The fact her voice had gone distant, like she discussed someone else concerned him.

“It’s—fine. Weirdly, as bad as that memory is, it’s like it doesn’t touch me.”

“Are you sure about that?” From where he stood, it definitely seemed to be affecting her.

She placed her hand on the table and the machine lit up.

“Friday…”

“Internal battery source, Boss. I can try to jam it.”

“It’s fine,” Natasha said, her hand still on the surface but her gaze on the metal barbs and tools. “I have no intentions of lying on it.”

His heart wasn’t fond of the fact she even thought she needed to tell him that. “Okay, then what are we doing?”

“Remembering…walking through the pieces I remember. In the elevator he had some kind of device.” She waved a hand at the back of her neck. “It was like this high-pitched sound, it immobilized me.”

Nausea swam through him. “I know what you’re talking about.”

She turned a single glance to him. For that moment while looking into her eyes he read the understanding. She knew. He’d made that damn thing. There was no blame or recrimination. Except…

“Anyway, I couldn’t move and when the doors opened there were technicians waiting. I had enough awareness to know I needed to fight, but I couldn't move. I tried to catalog everything, work even one muscle free. But nothing... Then they carried me over and lay me on something just like this—we don’t have the other one yet?”

“No,” he said quietly. “Maria is working on getting me the location and the security specs.”

Curiosity reflected in her expression. “Maria is helping you?”

Him. Helping him. Not that he owed Maria a damn thing, but he said, “I think she took your challenge to heart. It seems she’s picked our side—or yours at least.”

Natasha smirked. “Are you sure about that?”

“Nope,” he said with a shrug. “But I’ll let her spin and see what happens. Don’t worry, you never have to see her if you don’t want to.”

She answered his shrug with one of her own. “Sooner or later, Maria and I will need to have a conversation. She apparently knows things about me that I didn’t—I don’t. I’m not fond of that.”

Couldn’t fault her there. “When you’re ready. Not before.”

A nod. “Anyway—they put me on this and I’m not sure if the machine did it or if someone else did it but there was excruciating pain…like someone made an incision.” She drew a finger across her forehead. The calmness in her voice unnerved him. “There was a bone saw involved. Have you been able to hack into this thing’s hard drive?”

“Haven’t tried yet. And before you ask—I was going to get Bucky involved with me on it. He’ll feel better if he knows it’s disassembled and what it did.”

“Oh.” A faint smile. “You’re being really thoughtful about him.”

“I can be a thoughtful guy.”

Another smile. “Yes, I know, but it wasn’t that long ago you couldn’t stand to be around him.”

She wasn’t wrong. “Things change. He’s not a bad guy. He just had a really shitty time in life.”

“Thank you, Tony.”

“I didn’t do it for you, Red…”

At her raised eyebrows, he shrugged.

“Fine, I didn’t do it all for you. I tried because of you. I gave him a chance. The rest is all him. He can be bossy though, like you. You’re prettier. Told him that.”

Glancing back at the machine, she sighed. “Do you think this alien tech?”

“God, I hope not,” Tony admitted. “Chitauri weapons. Alien spears with the ability to do mind control. Skiffs and engines designed for flight.” He almost said rings but edited those out. “Sentient sludge that needs radiation to grab a ride on a cosmic cube that offered enough trouble the first time we dealt with it. Yeah, I’d be content knowing this wasn’t alien.”

“I kind of hope it is.”

That surprised him. “Why?”

“Because I knew the men who designed the chair. Thoughtless, brilliant, dangerous men who… didn’t care what harm their wonder wrought on others.”

“Sometimes we don’t think, we just wonder and then we do,” he answered.

“Tony…”

“No, I was like those guys. I made plenty of horrible things. It was never about hurting people.” People like her. Like Bucky. That sonic device had been on the chair in Moscow. A tool they’d supposedly scrapped because it could only be used for horrific purposes and Obadiah had apparently given it to Hydra.

Great.

Facing him again, she folded her arms. “But those men never saw the humanity on the other side of the equation. You do.”

“Now,” he admitted. “Before Afghanistan?” The doubt cresting in him knew the answer. “No, I was just a rich jerk, spoiled, with a chip on my shoulder and I did what I wanted when I wanted with who I wanted. It was always about me. My pleasure. My entertainment. My puzzles. I was a jackass. A jackass went into the cave. I’m the guy who came out and it still took me a while to get here.”

“You know, I’ve been around a long time,” she exhaled the words. “Change like you’ve accomplished, it’s rare. It takes a certain amount of self-awareness, a certain amount of willpower…”

“It requires the support of good friends and a reason to make that commitment.” He got it. “When you left the KGB… what did you want to do?”

Arms folded, she walked away from the device and the machine powered down. The dryness in his mouth eased and he tracked her as she crossed to one of the empty counters.

“I wanted… to be free. To never have to follow another order.” She frowned. “The weird part…I know in pieces of what happened before I left. The inciting incident.”

“When they put Bucky and you back in the chair?” He’d heard some of it. Put together the rest.

She nodded, then turned to lean against the counter. “Ivan buried a command in me… he told me to leave if they ever took James from me. I don’t know how they found out about James and I that last time…obviously, it wasn’t the first time. We’d run away before and we’d been recaptured, James first and then me.”

The frown she wore it tugged at him. He just wanted to smooth away all the rough patches.

“Anyway, I went back—they wiped me, I went back to work and eventually we were partnered again. I don't remember those parts, James does. Apparently, our handlers or whatever iteration of them remained then embraced the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But somewhere in ’84, Leonid found out.”

Thankfully, that bastard was dead.

Natasha’s eyes narrowed. “In Azzano, they dragged us in there. James was out of it, drugged heavily and they’d given me something. Enough to slow my reactions. They put him in the chair and forced me to watch.” Scratching her cheek, she shook her head. “After, they put him in tube—they wanted me to know that I would never see him again. For Leonid it was a huge show—he wanted me to suffer and know exactly what I lost. I fought. I killed two of the soldiers and I tried to get to James—but he stared right through me. Then I was in the chair and they stripped that Natalia away again.”

A thousand miles away, her pupils looked huge against the sliver of green he could barely make out. Easing his phone out, he checked the screen. He should have brought his glasses down. Friday offered no alarms, so he kept his attention on her.

“The thing is I don’t remember what happened after… I mean not exactly after. I had to have been wiped. The next thing I remember, I was in Moscow. When I defected, I left from Moscow, took a train Munich after several changes then into France and down to Spain. I crossed to Morocco and vanished.”

“Okay,” he said slowly. “There are a lot of pieces missing.”

Another nod. “I don’t think I realized just how much of it was gone you know until I started remembering—and then there’s that.” She motioned to the table. “I left Moscow, the KGB, Hydra, the Red Room, I left it all. Sure, I was a freelancer who killed people for a living. I had to eat. But I avoided connections; I didn’t want to be close to people. A part of me grieved and I didn’t even understand that was what it was.”

Yet, she forged connections. Logan and Remy were just two he could think of. But he left that alone for now. “Until the night Clint came for you.”

She lifted her shoulders and turned those tortured eyes on him. “If you’d asked me then, what I wanted was to die. True freedom. No more pain. Now…”

“Now you want yourself. You want all the pieces. You need to know.”

For a split second her eyes turned glassy, then she scrubbed her wrists over her face using the cuffs of the hoodie to swipe away any evidence of tears. “Actually, what I want is a big bottle of vodka and to keep it coming.”

“Been there.” God had he been there. “I can offer you coffee. Or tea… or the stuff to make hot cocoa.”

Natasha snorted, then licked her lips as she shook her head. “I almost wish we were still those 2 A.M. drunks. Almost.”

“Yeah?” He lifted his brows then turned, offering her his arm. She stared at him for a beat, and then moved to slide her arm through his. The contact was light, but she let him lead her away from the machine and to the elevator.

“Yeah. We might have been a pair of miserable bastards, but we could definitely pass the time.”

He snorted. “Friday, seal the lab.”

The doors closed behind them as the elevator slid open.

“Where to?” He glanced at Natasha.

“You got the stuff for hot cocoa?”

“I do.”

“Then to the penthouse.”

“You heard the lady, Baby Girl.”

Natasha didn’t let him go, but she didn’t lean in either. Tony let her set the pace. When the elevator let them out at the penthouse, he led her to the kitchen and when she loosened her grip, he drew back. He went to the fridge and pulled out the milk, then opened the cupboard to pull down the chocolate.

“There are fewer bars,” she murmured.

“Steve and I tried to make your cocoa one night. He wanted me to sleep and I couldn’t… so we both pretended we knew what we were doing.”

“Yeah?” Interest sparked in her eyes. “How did that go?”

“Well, we didn’t poison ourselves.”

She laughed. “I’m glad to hear it. How did it come out?”

“Not so bad, not as good as yours—it seemed to be missing something. We even added the cinnamon.” The critical element had been Natasha herself. He wasn’t an idiot. Steve had felt her absence as keenly as Tony did, maybe more. It hadn’t been a competition. He crouched and pulled out the pot she tended to favor and then opened the spice cupboard and stepped back.

“I should get you to make it for me one night, be something different.”

“Deal,” he promised.

He lingered in the kitchen as she got the milk heated and fed in the chocolate. For the first time ever, she didn’t make him move away as she added in the broken chocolate bit by bit. She melted them in order, white, then dark, then milk. Then she added a little more dark until the creamy texture was damn near visible. Nutmeg, cardamom, cayenne, and a hint of allspice went in. No cinnamon.

“I know I’m not dreaming,” she said without waiting for him to ask. “This is nice and my dreams really haven’t been lately.”

“Not arguing that point.” After she filled the mugs—both Black Widow mugs he set out, they made their way out to the living room. The tree was lit and Friday turned on the fireplace. She gave him a knowing look and he just smirked. She chose the chair closer to the fire and he settled on the sofa and stretched his feet out to rest on the table.

The quiet was comfortable and not in equal measures. But Tony didn’t want to destabilize the mood. Even after seeing the memory machine, she wasn’t pale or shaky. Granted, she shared some pretty brutal stuff but…

“I think I left in ’84 because there was no more hope.” The words and the sentiment raked over him. “After Mary—after coming back for him. I guess I couldn’t do it again. But I have to wonder—what if I’d stayed?”

As much as he didn’t want to play this particular game, he took a sip of the cocoa—it was smooth, spicy, and damn near perfect. Or maybe that was his company, troubled or not. “Would you two have found each other again?”

“You gotta wonder, you know. James said they kept him on ice a lot—so maybe not. But did they do that because I was gone? Could they not control him without me there? Karpov and his other handlers theorized he needed something to care about to keep him malleable even when he was just their tool. What if after I killed Karpov and left, the new handlers had no idea what to do with him. So they just... kept him cryo.”

“Red… you might have died if you stayed. You might have ended up iced or maybe the two of you would have repeated the cycle and when they sent him to kill Fury, maybe you would have been standing there right next to him.”

Natasha frowned.

“What if doesn’t help us…it just opens wounds we don’t deserve. Wounds you definitely don’t. In 1984, you left. You seized the opportunity and you went in search of freedom. Everything else—would you change it?”

“No,” she whispered. “Because who knows how much worse it could be and if I wasn’t out where Clint could recruit me—I wouldn’t know him or you…”

“I’d be really shit off without you. Vanko would have taken me and Rhodey out… maybe. I’d be down a best friend for sure, so yeah. I’d say it would have been worse.”

“JARVIS would have gotten you in eventually. The code was in Russian. Gave me a leg up.”

He chuckled. “Makes sense. You know… it occurs to me when you got there, Vanko probably got the hell out of Dodge because he knew who you were.”

“Maybe.” She shifted and curled her feet more firmly under her. “The Black Widow was a legend, not many knew what I looked like.”

“But if he did—I guarantee you, he’d never have forgotten.”

“The hardest what if—is what if I hadn’t gone back for James?” That was an impossible one. “You know it’s weird... I never thought about having kids.”

The minefield in front of him had never been more clearly marked. He’d read Steve and Bucky into what he’d figured out.

“After they sterilized me, it was done. I didn’t cry over the past. I rarely cry over it now. But finding out I did…and I don’t remember it. It’s like it happened to someone else and at the same time…”

“You have to know,” Tony sighed as he spoke, then set his empty mug on the table and leaned forward. “It’s why you want to use SPARK.”

“You’re going to have to explain that one.”

Amusement slid under the worry at the blunt statement. This was what he adored about Natasha. She just—she got him. Even when she was tangled up in her own mess, she knew how to get him talking. While there were plenty who would say talking wasn’t difficult for him. Sometimes having a conversation with substance was. It was easier to dodge, be flippant, and get back to the work.

“Superior Proactive Augmented Recollected Knowledge.”

“Gesundheit.”

He laughed. “SPARK.”

“I kind of miss BARF.”

He groaned.

“C’mon,” she said jutting her chin at him. “The jokes alone were worth it.”

“It was a terrible acronym, the product of a lazy mind preoccupied with other crap.”

“There’s an acronym you could trademark Cognitive Recalibration and Purging.”

“Now that sounds like you need to barf,” he told her drily. “Not to mention you’re going for an acronym to label what’s essentially a hammer.”

A little shrug. “Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a way to fix all the things about ourselves we don’t like.”

There it was, she pinned him in place with that long look.

“I told you, when I first began designing it—I earmarked it for Bucky.”

“But you understood that there were things in your past that you hadn’t processed, pain—grief—trauma. You’re a smart guy, Tony.” There was that description. It was what Clint told him. She’d called him a smart guy and said he’d never trust her again. His trust meant something to her. He marveled at why that could be and at the same time, he ached to have her trust him, too. That she did at all—it had to be enough. No matter how much more he wanted “You don’t have to pretend.”

“Neither do you,” he countered.

“Are we going to address the elephant in the room?”

“No elephants in this room, Red.” Not that he wasn’t perfectly aware of what she was talking about.

“You and me, we’re going to have a long conversation?”

“I remember.”

“Are you going to say your piece now?” She lifted her brows.

“Not until I can hold you and know you’re real and I didn’t fucking make it all up in my head.” The answer tumbled out of him fully formed. The surprise rolling through her expression didn’t sting—much. “Right now, you need to focus on you. On healing. Getting your strength back. Getting your head on straight. I’m not going anywhere.”

Silence blanketed them leaving only the faint, faux crackles from the gas fire accompanied by the hum of the lights. Everything in him wanted to lean forward, catch her hand and tug her over to sit next to him. He wouldn’t dare. Not right now.

“I can wait, Red,” he admitted. “Believe it or not, I don’t even mind.”

She frowned, studying him. The dilation in her eyes had eased, the pupils sharpening and letting him see the green more.

“I know, annoying aren’t I? I confound expectations and shift gears to leave people wondering what’s my game.”

“I’m not wondering what your game is.”

“Well, don’t hold back, Red, tell me what you really feel.”

“That you and I have been playing a very dangerous game.”

That she included herself in that warmed him. “It’s not a game and I’m not playing.”

With a sigh, she leaned her head back. "You don't deserve to be hurt," she murmured. "I don't know what to do with all of this. You keep... putting yourself out there and I'm..." She didn't finish the sentence even after he gave her a minute.

“And that’s why I’m waiting Red, no pressure, no demands—nothing you need to worry about.”

She dropped her feet to the floor and set her empty mug on the coffee table. “Tony, that’s not fair to you.”

“Don’t seem to recall asking for fair, Red.” He kept it light. “You focus on you. And Peter probably… maybe Steve and Bucky.”

A ghost of a smile touched her lips. “But not you?”

“Nope. Because I have exactly what I need at the moment…” He spread his hands. “Well not exactly, I am still working on the self-driving car. Might need you to throw some of your immense intelligence in my general direction after the prototype gets here.”

“Speaking of cars…thank you for bringing my ‘Vette back.”

“I told you I would.”

“Friday…” She glanced up.

“Yes, Lady?”

Tony winced.

Natasha tilted her head. “Not feeling that one.”

“No,” Friday stated, a faintly puzzled note to her voice. “Discovering a nickname is more challenging than I expected.”

“Don’t rush it, sweetheart,” Natasha soothed as if she were talking to Wanda or Peter. Tony smiled. “Seriously, it’s just—it’ll come when it comes and it will flow.”

“I’ll do my best,” Friday promised. “How can I help you?”

“The weather today? Any ice storms or snow expected?”

“At the moment, the weather appears to be a steady 22 degrees Fahrenheit, the severe plummet in temperature is related to cold winds from the north and the winds will continue at ten to twenty miles per hour. Though precipitation isn't an issue at the moment. Storms in the forecast include possible lake force storms coming in from the north, but there is also a storm system working its way up the coast.”

“Road conditions?”

Tony frowned. She wanted to take the car out.

“At this time, no blockages or hazardous conditions are being reported, however, if precipitation occurs then the situation could change rapidly.”

Natasha leaned back in the seat with a sigh.

“We can be in Florida in a couple of hours. We can be farther south than that in a little longer. If you want to drive, Red, we can make it happen.”

“Steve was right yesterday, I can’t just take off. There’s a lot we still need to do—including the Committee.”

“Screw the Committee, most of them are going to be out of town in a day or two and not back until the New Year. They can wait.”

“Tony…”

“No, Red. Not now, this is one area you don’t get to coax me. That was brutal enough to see you endure before. If I had to watch it now, I’d probably end up shooting some of them.”

The corner of her mouth kicked a little higher. “Sometimes I wonder if that would be a bad thing.”

“Right?” Tony chuckled, then stood grabbing his cup before reaching for hers. “Coffee now? Or do you want to try and get some more sleep?”

“Trying to get rid of me?”

“Never. You could go to sleep right here if you want. We can turn on the TV and watch a movie. I can pull out the cards and you can steal my shirt…” She’d taken something a couple of days before, he just hadn’t figured out which shirt yet. Friday had been less than forthcoming on the subject.

The smirk elevated his mood to a high he hadn’t felt in a while. “I need to go over my medical from when I got back.”

He made a face. “Seriously? We need to work on your party planning. It’s gotten distinctly suckier.”

She snorted. “Coffee would be great. Want me to make breakfast?”

“Still feeling like barfing when you look at food?”

“No,” she retaliated. “Mostly anyway. It was just the really rich scents. Didn’t eat a lot…at least as far as I could tell.” Her frown deepened. “Kind of lost track of days in there.”

“But you’re better?” He made himself keep moving, keep it light. Fooling her wouldn’t work, but they were both faking it—they had plenty of practice in the past.

“Seems to be. I had no problems with cinnamon rolls yesterday morning or lunch yesterday afternoon or the mountain of sushi you ordered for dinner last night.”

He grinned. “Okay, I admit, I went overboard on the sushi. I didn’t realize Steve disliked it that much.”

“James doesn’t mind it, but it’s not his first choice.”

Coffee started, he popped open the fridge and eyed the food options. It was closing in on six. He was half-surprised the super twins hadn’t shown up. Then again, maybe they went running. God knew, they were all trying to back off on monitoring her every movement.

And you have the bracelet on her so you can, if necessary, check on her.

“Tony?”

“Hmm? Just trying to figure out what to eat. Nothing looks good though.” Or maybe he just didn’t want to cook.

“Did you keep up on your training?”

“Sparring every day? Yeah, no. Thanks, I had Steve and Bucky and they don’t need the excuse to hit me.” With a grin, he turned and looked across the room. “But I did stretch and I have stretched most days. Sometimes for twenty minutes at a shot. Check me on that Friday?”

“Fifteen minutes was your max, Boss, but you might have gone longer if the results hadn’t come in on the tracking algorithm.”

“See…” Tony said. “I have stretched. Why? You suddenly feeling compelled to turn my hospitality on me and kick my ass again? If you just want to get your legs around me Red, I’ll come over there and sit like a good boy.”

Natasha laughed. “You’re terrible.”

“I know, but you like that about me.” She didn’t deny it and he grinned wider. Opening the cupboards, he eyed the mugs. Someone had stuck a Captain America Wants You mug in his cabinet, he’d bet on Natasha but it could have been Clint. Nudging that one aside he found a couple of old Stark industries mugs and moved them. Damn, did he not have plain mugs?

There. He pulled the ones out of the back and eyed them. They were dusty. After rinsing them out, he swiped them down before filling them with coffee. A check on her found Natasha staring at the fire, her gaze going distant.

“Red?”

“Hmm?” She blinked then glanced at him. The distance might be closing, but she clearly wasn’t all here. Not yet. “Sorry, I was… thinking about training.”

“No you weren’t,” he said, carrying the coffee over. He offered her the mug and angled his hand so she didn’t have to brush his fingers to take it. “You don’t have to tell me, either. But if you need a minute…I can go back to the lab and you can make yourself at home out here.”

Sometimes the best thing a person could do was give the other one some space. It had been hard to convey that when he came back. Even locking himself in his lab hadn’t always worked, then again—there was a company to run and when he’d been fleeing all of it Obadiah took advantage. After? After, Pepper kept trying but Tony couldn’t figure out how to balance it all.

He did better now, but better was entirely subjective.

Cradling the coffee mug, she sighed. “I don’t know what I want to do.”

“Okay. You said you wanted to go over the medical. What do you need to know?”

“I’m assuming you had Helen look at me.” That statement gave him pause.

“You were pretty out of it…”

“I was, the pain meds didn’t help.”

“Friday,” Tony said. “Holo screen and Red’s medical file.”

It popped up and began to populate. Friday took them right to Helen’s assessment. Her vitals displayed on the screen, toxicology report, blood counts, dehydration, trauma, and a much more detailed listing of the injuries including x-rays of her ribs and a sub-orbital fracture. Natasha frowned and then she touched her right eye, and seemed to search around it. The faint bruising there was all that was left.

Sitting forward, she reached out to enhance the toxicology. The toxins in her blood had included heavy metals. The irony wasn’t lost on Tony, but he kept that opinion to himself.

“Psychotropics.”

Tony nodded. “Dangerously high levels. Might have been in the food… the water…”

She frowned. “So what I saw…”

Taking a sip of coffee kept his mouth busy while she worked it out. But rather than finish the statement, she wiped that away and went to the blood work. She studied each line of it.

What was she…?

“You’re not pregnant, Red.”

Natasha shot a look at him.

“Sorry, that—you looked like you were looking for something.”

“I was…not usually so obvious.”

“I doubt you’re obvious to anyone,” he told her. “But you were worried, especially after that toxicology on top of everything else.” The nausea, the torture—yeah, he’d have been worried, too.

“Don’t tell them…”

“I won’t.” He didn’t even need an explanation. There was nothing to tell them. The pair had enough on their plates with what he’d already served up.

“I didn’t think I was but… everything feels so off.”

They had the day maybe two in order to tell her. He’d talk to Steve, but he wasn’t keeping this from her. Not interfering sucked like hell.

“I know… I wish I had an easy answer for you.”

“We’ve never had easy answers.” She took a drink of the coffee and rose; first she paced to the window and stared out at the city. Sunrise would be there soon enough.

“Nope, but we’re not easy people.” He stretched his legs and leaned his head back. “We’re really not boring either. So I guess… we just gotta go with what works.”

Pivoting, she looked back at the medical report. Then she flipped the screen. Tabbing through each report. The last one—a full exam—detailed all of Helen’s physical findings. Tony didn’t say a word, but Natasha nodded when she reached the end of the list.

“Have we heard from Mr. Wizard?” The abrupt change of subject as she swept the screen clean made him smile.

“Nope. But—today is day two. He could appear any minute.”

“Appear?” The climb of her eyebrows made him smirk.

“C’mere.” He patted the sofa next to him. “Friday, cue up our surveillance from when the wizard of doc paid us a house call.”

She dropped to sit on the sofa next to him, he shifted slightly to keep the space between them as the holo screen opened to Tony arriving back on his floor. He looked like crap, but he’d been tired. When the fiery circle appeared between the kitchen and the sofa, Natasha frowned. Doctor Strange strolled through and introduced himself and she leaned back abruptly. Her shoulder bumped his but she didn’t pull away.

“Okay, I don’t like that.”

“Me neither.”

“Agreed,” Friday echoed. “Readings indicate an energy surge of unknown origin. The radiant levels are high, but radiation is unknown. Frequency unknown. Security threat, high.”

“Not good.” She pursed her lips. “Magic.” Then she closed her eyes.

“So far, he seems to be on our side,” Tony told her or maybe he told himself. He’d already gone through the list of reasons why this could be an epically bad idea. “You’re always armed and currently so am I. Friday’s on watch. That… light show there is pretty freaking noticeable.”

“He has that goatee going for him. Kind of like he copied your look.”

Tony scowled. “I think I like that idea even less.”

“Ha,” she said, bumping him this time before she took a drink of her coffee and he couldn’t retaliate without dumping it on her. “You love the attention.”

“From the right people. Haven’t decided yet if he’s the right people.”

“You ever wonder—gods. Wizards. Mutants. Super soldiers. This is our life. Legends—basically gods…is what I told Steve when you pursued Thor after he took Loki off the quinjet. Myths and monsters and magic—all things we never trained for. That’s what I told Clint.”

“So we train. We adapt. You’ve done that pretty well.” Then because she was getting too serious. “Besides, you happen to be a super soldier yourself.”

“I’m not a soldier, Tony. I never have been. I fight wars, but I fight them my way.”

“Soldiers come in all shapes and sizes, Red. You’re one of the toughest I know.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere.”

Tony chuckled. “Well, at least I’m used to the view here.” After he drained his coffee, he set the mug aside and said; “Besides the only important thing we needed was me.”

“Just you, huh?”

“Well, you’re pretty important—at least forty-two percent.”

“Wow,” Natasha elongated the syllable. “That’s really generous.”

“That’s because flattery will get you everywhere.”

“Tony?”

“Hmm.”

“I’m really proud of you on the drinking.” It should have sounded patronizing. But it didn’t. “I know that sounds kind of crappy but… it seems to be working for you.”

“But you miss drinking with me.”

She made a face. “I’m an awful person.”

“Nah, I’d miss drinking with me too, I’m a fun drunk.” The skeptical look she gave him made him grin. “I was a blast at my party.”

“You peed in your suit at the party.”

“There’s a reclamation system in it,” he countered, teasing her.

With a snort, she rolled her eyes. “That’s sexy.”

“I know, right?”

The quiet lingered and in the distance, he could just make out a split of the light on the horizon.

“Friday, kill the lights—dim the tree.” Natasha frowned at him, but then he pointed. “Your sunrise is coming. Not sure we’re going to get all of it.”

When she finished her coffee, he took the cup out of her hands and set it on the table. She didn’t move away, her attention on the windows as the sun continued its slow climb. The quiet was kind of soothing. Friday even lowered the flames on the fireplace, but didn’t extinguish them. More than once, Natasha’s gaze drifted from the sunrise to the fireplace and then back.

There were a lot of things he could have told her. She opened the door to it, but it wasn’t a conversation they needed to rush. Not when she had so much going on, not when she was hurting and frankly, not when there were so many pieces of herself she was trying to cobble together.

When the sun finally appeared, he glanced over and found her sound asleep, head tipped to the side, hands in her lap. Careful not to dislodge her, he grabbed the blanket from under the table and spread it over her and then pulled out his phone. Friday dimmed the windows to fifty percent so the light was visible but not blinding. The fire came up and the doors secured. He shifted the screen back over to the self-driving car and studied the specs aware of every breath she took.

Friday would let Steve and Bucky know where she was and until then, he’d keep her safe especially since she trusted him enough to go to sleep. He stole another look over at her and allowed himself a small smile. Then he got back to work. The self-driving design wasn’t going to fix itself, though that would be a neat trick.

Diagnostics, maintenance… huh, what if he…?

 

 

Natasha had been asleep for almost ninety minutes when Steve and Bucky made their way up to the penthouse; accompanying the breakfast Tony had Friday order. Clint had sent word he was doing a longer session in PT and a follow-up with Cho that meant he had to head out to the Compound after. Natasha would likely want to go with him. Probably not a bad idea, even without a team meeting, it would do them all good to lay eyes on Nat before the kids were there and the whirlwind of the holidays struck.

Friday muted the elevator to avoid the chime jolting Natasha awake. She’d curled up on her side, almost facing him with her cheek pillowed against the back of the sofa. He half-wanted to let her lie down, but he wasn’t going to risk upsetting the delicate balance. He’d worked out most of the code for a diagnostic tunnel to run between the AI drive and the main nerve center for the car. Checks and balances, the diagnostic would require dual authentication from both sides. One would have network access and the other would be a dedicated drive. Sure, you could hack one, but not the other…

The smell of fresh bagels had his stomach growling. Glancing at Natasha, he eased off the sofa. He made it to the edge of the cushion, when her eyes opened. Unlike the afternoon she’d drifted off to sleep, alertness filled her eyes as she took in him, then the tree, then the windows and finally, she sat up and looked over the sofa to where Steve and Bucky carried the cart down the steps from the elevator.

“Morning, Doll,” Bucky told her. “We come bearing food.” Then he held out an oversized cup of coffee that actually made her smile. “And gifts.”

“You got me a peppermint mocha.” Slipping out from under the blanket, she accepted the coffee with an easier smile. Either Natasha was getting worse at controlling her micro-expressions or Tony was getting better at reading them. No matter how slim the sign of improvement was, though, he’d take it.

“His idea,” Steve said, flipping open the containers. Tony chuckled as Steve studied the selection of breakfast foods. “Morning, Tony.”

“Morning guys. Did you two get yourselves coffee or should I make some?” He snagged a piece of bacon on the way past, the pair of empty mugs he and Natasha had drunk from earlier dangling from his free hand.

“Water is good,” Steve said. “We killed a pot downstairs before we went running.”

That would explain why they hadn’t joined them sooner. Cool.

“I’m fine, Tony,” Bucky said. “Thanks. Did you get this all from the same place as the other day?”

While Steve loaded a plate, Tony checked the remaining coffee in the pot. Not fresh, but it would do. “Yep, the bagels from the place on 6th, the rest from the American diner off 58th.”

Natasha sipped her coffee and slid off the sofa to move over to the food. She had far less stiffness; hopefully, that was a sign of her continued recovery. Bucky trailed her as they filled their plates, though she stuck to a bagel with cream cheese, capers, and salmon before adding a generous helping of fried potatoes. It actually looked good to Tony, so he went for the same and threw some eggs on the side along with a few slices of bacon. Instead of the living room, Natasha perched on a chair at the dining table. There were still a couple of boxes with unused decorations and lights.

She dug into one and studied the pieces, then glanced at his tree.

“Feel free,” he told her in between bites. “Just don’t mess up the Stark Shui.”

Bucky snorted, the corners of his mouth curling before he took another bite and Steve just gave him that patient look, but Natasha turned the Death Star ornament over in her hand.

“I was thinking of taking that one to the Compound,” Bucky said, motioning to it. “Coop liked what Tony did with his.”

“True,” she murmured, then fished in the box for another—first, an X-Wing and then a Tie Fighter. “You saved all the Star Wars ones?”

Steve grinned. “I half-expected those to migrate to our tree.”

Bucky smirked. “I ordered some, Punk. Friday said she’d find me some matching ones.”

When Nat pulled out the Princess Leia circa Return of the Jedi in her slave girl outfit, Tony reached over and plucked it from her hand. “Mine and not going to the Compound.”

Chuckling, Nat took another bite of her bagel and chewed it as she eyed Bucky. He gave her an utterly unrepentant look, but it was Steve who snorted.

Reading the room, Tony smirked and then glanced at Bucky. “I know exactly where to order one of these costumes if you’re that fond…”

“Of course you do,” Steve laughed. “It’s Christmas, not Halloween.”

“I’m just saying it’s a gorgeous outfit no matter the time of year.”

“Maybe on the island,” Natasha countered without missing a beat. “But not in this weather.”

With a chuckle, Bucky said, “You were right—after she choked out the slug, I could totally see you pulling that off.”

Her pleased smile needed no explanation. Breakfast chatter turned to plans to head out to the Compound. Steve agreed with the idea, he wanted to see Sam and Sharon before they headed off to their respective holidays. Rhodey had already taken off for his, but Tony had talked to him ahead of time. Natasha wanted to see Wanda and Bucky said he could harass Clint if everyone was busy.

“I’m going to stop in to see Helen after Clint’s appointment,” Natasha mentioned and that put a pause on the three of them.

“Okay,” Steve said slowly, studying her. “Willingly?”

“I’m not that bad.” She wrinkled her nose.

“No, Red. You’re much worse. Something in the test results you have questions about?” She’d seemed satisfied earlier, but it didn’t hurt to double-check.

“I want to talk about Strange, I want to know her opinion of him and I want to know her thoughts on the toxins she filtered from my blood. Probably wouldn’t hurt to do a fresh draw and make sure they’re gone.”

“Because of the nausea.” Bucky set his fork down and studied her. “Is it still a problem?”

She shrugged. “Not so much, but I’ve never had trouble shaking off poisons before, based on the report she left from when you guys brought me back in—there was a lot.”

Enough to have killed a normal person three times over. Not that Tony had calculated or anything.

“Okay,” Steve said. “Do you need or would you like one of us there?”

Good man, Tony applauded him silently as he bit into his bagel rather than throw in his own two cents. The fact Natasha would go and see the doc without any arm-twisting aroused a lot of questions, but it was also a bid to retake control. Something he wasn’t going to argue with even if he wanted to keep his finger on the pulse of it rather than leave any dangling thread to creep back in and around to snare her up.

“Maybe, I’ll call,” she said. “Or you know, Clint will likely be there. He’s been itching to be in charge of something so I’ll keep coping.” She’d finished the last of her food, and then drained her coffee before she stood to gather her plate. “That said, I’m going down to grab a shower and change. How soon do you want to leave?”

“Whenever you’re ready,” Steve told her. “We’ve got time.”

“Sounds good.” She rested her hand on his shoulder, then brushed a kiss to his temple. Steve covered her hand for a moment before letting her go. She paused to do the same to Bucky and as tempted as he was to tease her, Tony didn’t offer his cheek for a similar kiss. Still, she pressed a hand to his shoulder after she circled the table. “Thanks for this morning.”

He dared a glance up at her. “Anytime.”

She gave him a pat then diverted to the kitchen to get rid of her plate and cup before disappearing into the elevator.

“She’s moving better,” Steve said.

“Ribs don’t seem as sore,” Bucky added.

“She’s still making herself reach out for contact,” Tony advised. “And you guys haven’t talked to her about my theory yet.”

“No,” Steve said, wiping his mouth then leaning back from the table. “She’s got enough on her plate. A few days won’t hurt.”

“She’s still not up for that much contact regardless,” Bucky added. “But we are going to talk to her.”

“Sooner would be better than later. This is Red, it’s not going to embarrass her.” Frankly, he was surprised she hadn’t figured it out on her own. But they hadn’t had much in the way of time the last several weeks. Her focus had definitely been split.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Bucky said, studying him. “Why haven’t you told her?”

“I asked myself the same question,” Tony admitted. “Almost said something this morning, but this—this part is between the three of you. It’s only a theory.” And she’d asked him to back off on Steve. To stop baiting him. He and Steve had reached an accord of their own. He refused to rock that particular boat for both of their sakes.

“Thanks Tony,” Steve said and just like the first time, it surprised him. Maybe it shouldn’t, but he was far too used to Steve’s disapproval rather than approval. “Thank you for letting us be the ones who tell her. You could have.”

He shrugged. “Shouldn’t be a thing about letting you,” he admitted. “This is about you. It’s about her.”

“She’s important to you,” Steve said.

Clearly. “She’s important to all of us.”

Were they going to have this conversation again?

“That she is…” Steve stared at the plate for a bit then grimaced. “I’ll talk to Sharon about the Committee today.” And apparently they were done with that part of the conversation. Tony didn’t smile though he did relax. He didn’t want to fight with Steve over this. Not over her. Not anymore. She was important to all of them. “The question is do you want to resume the individual meetings after the first of the year or table them entirely?”

“Can’t table them totally, no matter how much I want to,” Tony said, considering their options before he finished his coffee. “At the end of the day, we still need to negotiate Accords we can all agree on, we also need to make sure the whole—Red’s freedom is contingent on all of us signing is dealt with among other things. So… I’ll talk to Red over the next couple of days; she and I can compare notes on the various delegates. Make a game plan. She’s been itching to get back to it. Might be good for her to focus.”

She didn’t do idle well. None of them did. But her less than any of them.

“Fair. We don’t know what Strange is going to bring back to us,” Steve said. “A line of treatment or anything else—that could affect the timeline.”

“Natalia and I are going to Montana after the holidays,” Bucky said quietly. It wasn’t a surprise to Steve and while Tony had been expecting it, he didn’t know they’d made plans. “That is another consideration.”

“Being there could trigger her,” he knew he didn’t have to say it, but he said it anyway.

Bucky nodded. “I’m aware—and I’m also aware we may need help, but for now I would prefer that it was just her and I. At least… initially.”

“In other words, we can go with you as far the airport or at least a few fields over and then let the two of you take the trip down memory lane?” Tony studied him. “You going to be okay with that?”

Surprise flickered in the former Winter Soldier’s eyes. “I’ve already walked into that ghost story. It will hurt, but I’ll survive.”

That admission seemed to get Steve. “We can keep our distance, some things are still…”

“…personal,” Tony finished. “Look, just because I behave like I want to be involved in everything doesn’t mean I don’t recognize there are boundaries. Even when I can and have pushed. But I do think at least one of us—probably Steve because you’re more comfortable with him or maybe even Clint since he went with you last time, should be there to help. If something…” He wouldn’t say went wrong, but it hung out there.

“You can both be there,” Bucky said. “But not initially, not at the house that—if she remembers. She’s going to need a minute and a lot of this already has her very raw. Returning doesn’t require an audience.”

“Agreed,” Steve said a beat ahead of Tony.

“On the note of full disclosure, I’m building Red a new suit—modified from what I did with the dress. It would work off the bracelet, but as a matching set and then something she could wear on her jacket or shirt. Kind of like my ARC reactor but more subtle. Ideally, if we’re taking meetings, she’ll also be able to armor up in the event of another incident with the bombs or we get a call to assemble. It won’t be exact or likely as versatile as her tact suit, but pretty close.” While it chafed, just the faintest bit, he added, “Are either of you going to have a problem with that?”

“Nope,” Steve answered him, this time he grinned. “I kind of figured you’d already done something like that.” Rising, Steve glanced at Bucky. “I’m going to grab my shield and give Sam a call to remind him we’re coming out.”

“I’m good, got my stuff.”

Tony made a face. “I should grab a quick shower.” Then he smothered a yawn. “And more coffee.” He wasn’t really exhausted, if anything, he felt better than he had in days, but he took the time to make it and waited for Steve to go. Two minutes later, Bucky studied him again. “Just rip the Band-Aid off.”

“I like you, Tony,” he began and the admission was enough to make Tony turn after he flicked the switch on the coffeemaker. “You’re not a bad guy. But you have a reputation… a lot like your dad’s.”

Considering the source, that was awkward.

“I don’t have the right to say a damn thing on the subject of him, I’m aware.”

Tony hadn’t said a word.

“I don’t know how all of this is going to play out. Not even going to try and guess.”

Unable to argue that, Tony folded his arms.

“I have one question.”

“Okay,” Tony said. “What is it?”

“Is she just a conquest for you? A notch for your belt to say you bagged the Black Widow?”

Every single syllable of that question was insulting and at the same time, Tony couldn’t fault him for asking.

“No,” he said slowly. “I haven’t been that guy in a long time. I wouldn’t do that to Red. I’m not trying to come between the three of you. I probably couldn’t even if I wanted to.”

“But you do want in.” It wasn’t a question.

“With her?” Playing his hand, laying his cards on the table with one of the two men she’d tied herself to—the one man she’d arguably been with for decades. A man Tony shared his own complicated history with? “Yeah, I do. Is that going to be a problem for you?”

“Not going lie, I don’t like it. I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it.” Bucky rose from the table, but he kept his distance. He didn’t seem tense or angry. “I don’t know if it will work.”

“Me neither,” Tony admitted, and then he spread his hands. “This could all be moot. She’s not in a position to make this call at the moment anyway. Right, wrong, or indifferent—I’d rather just focus on what we can fix right now and being there for her while she puts it back together. For both of you—let you find your daughter. Tackle whatever comes next.”

Strangely enough, he could wait. He’d been waiting and he would continue. Being a part of her life was enough, but he’d meant what he said, “Surprised you’re not threatening me about hurting her.”

For the first time since this awkward conversation began, Bucky smiled. “What do you really think will happen if you do hurt her?”

“If she doesn’t knock me on my ass? Clint will shoot me, Steve would probably belt me, and I’d never see you coming.”

“Then I don’t really need to threaten you.”

“You know the same goes for you, right?” Tony turned the tables and Bucky chuckled.

“You made that clear in Switzerland when you were ready to take me out the night I had the bad dream.”

Yes he had. “And you let me put a kill switch in your arm.”

“So, I think we understand each other perfectly.”

“This conversation—this is the kind of thing that would have her kick both of our asses.”

“Mutually assured destruction,” Bucky intoned and Tony had to chuckle.

“Point. I’m gonna shower—feel free to hang out…” He headed for the steps, and then paused. “Friday can pull up one of the classes for you while you wait.”

“I’ve been meaning to thank you for those,” Bucky said. “Just hadn’t really gotten there to start looking.”

“Take the time. I could use someone to argue specs with…” He was at the top of the steps and then pivoted. “In fact—Friday, give Bucky a tour of the self-driving car and the changes we came up with last night and this morning.”

Bucky frowned.

“Just take a look. Never know what you might see.” With that, he left him and headed into his room. In his bathroom, he blew out a long breath and got the water running. “Baby Girl—did I read him right? He was pretty calm through that whole thing?”

“Sergeant Barnes does not appear to be upset with you at all, Boss. So I do believe you are correct.”

Huh.

It was tempting to be excited but he was nowhere near that, just—relieved that they could keep things amicable and the tension low. Natasha deserved that.

“You know, Boss… if you want to get Natasha’s attention, giving her a real fireplace in the Tower, either here or on her floor or Captain Rogers’ floor—she would really like that.”

Chuckling, Tony stepped into the water. “Baby Girl, I appreciate the support but you have an inside track with Red and it’s better I do this my way than use you to sneak me in the backdoor.”

“Don’t worry, Boss. I’ll keep Natasha’s secrets. But she made her interest in the fireplace clear in front of you. You already noticed it.” He had.

It wasn’t until he’d finished washing his hair and had lathered up the shaving cream to clean up his face that it hit him what she’d said.

“Wait a minute… You’d keep her secrets from me?”

“Without a doubt,” Friday said. “She’s my friend.”

Tony laughed. “Yeah…” he said, before tackling his shaving once again. “She’s a good friend to have.”

“But I still can’t figure out a nickname.”

“She’s a queen,” he told her. “Maybe Tsarina.” Their friendship was a beautiful thing.

“You want to be at her feet, Boss. Not me.”

Of course, their friendship did have its drawbacks.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

Confidence

Natasha

 

The puffy white blanket of snow on the ground at the Compound looked far better than the dirty gray snow and cluttered ice in the city. Tony had handled piloting duties on the flight. When they arrived, they split up with Tony heading to one of the labs, Steve to his office—James likely went with him, but Nat and Clint made their way to see Helen first and foremost.

Helen’s surprise at Natasha’s presence was less than flattering, but Natasha had earned that reputation.

“Hey Doc,” Natasha said as she leaned in the door. Clint had offered to let her talk to Helen first, but her issue could wait. Getting Clint out of the brace was far more important. “I don’t want to delay you too long, but do you have time to talk today? I have a couple of quick questions.”

The fact she packed away her surprise for a professional mask won Helen more points in Natasha’s book. For a doctor, she wasn’t too bad. “We can do that right now, Megan will get Mr. Barton ready for his scans and I’ll be back in a minute, all right?” The last she said to Clint. While he nodded to her, he glanced over at Natasha with raised brows.

Did she want him to be there for her?

I’m good. Really just a couple of questions. She answered with a few quick flicks of her fingers. He gave her a narrowed-eyed look. Yes. I’m serious. Yes, I’ll get you if I need you.

It was weird, even when he bullied her into the doctor’s offices, he never smothered her. The cranky probably went a long way toward alleviating the syrup in his affections. Half-snickering at that thought, she slipped out of the exam room and followed Helen through the maze of cubicles, research stations, with the spare exam room here and there. Unlike most medical facilities, the fact they primarily did research here in addition to patching up the odd Avenger helped with her aversion.

Not a lot.

But it helped.

Helen opened the door to her office and waved Natasha inside. Like Steve’s office in their wing, this one had a sofa—though Helen’s was covered in reports and a couple of datapads, as was her desk. The stacks of paper were like a middle finger to the current digital age. After Ultron, who could really blame her? Then again, maybe the doc thought better with paper. Natasha did sometimes. There was something to be said for writing out a list long hand.

“Don’t mind the mess. Research is both theoretical and practical. I do very well at one and not as much at the other.”

With a smile, she shrugged. “As long as you know where everything is.”

Chuckling, Helen moved to lean against her desk rather than sit while Natasha lingered near the door and leaned against the wall there. So far, her ribs had been much more cooperative today. Sore? Yes. Hurting? No. Another couple of days and they would hopefully be fully recovered.

“What can I do for you?” Helen studied her. “And may I say you look a great deal better than the last time I saw you.”

“Thanks,” she said without irony. “Actually, the last time you saw me is part of why I’m here. One—Doctor Strange has finally been in touch and we handed him my medical file. I’m not sure if he’ll contact you about it, but if he does—you have my permission to talk to him and I’d also like your assessment of him.”

“Good. I’ll be frank; I only met Stephen on a couple of occasions. He’s an arrogant man who earned the right with his talent. I didn’t argue with looking for him to review your CT Scans because if anyone can give us the most accurate and useful course of action, it’s going to be him.”

Well that was a resounding endorsement. “Out of curiosity, was he a wizard when you knew him?”

“I beg your pardon?” Surprise widened Helen’s eyes. “A wizard?”

“Yeah,” Natasha elongated the word. “I’m going to guess not. Heads up, guy has some kind of magic or technology that looks just like magic. You’ll see.”

“Life around you Avengers is never boring,” Helen admitted.

“But sometimes that would be nice, right?” At her nod, Natasha blew out a breath. “Second thing, the heavy metal poisoning and toxicology. Some of the elements…”

“Remain unknown,” Helen answered, straightening before circling her desk. “I did some mass spectrometer work with your samples. At least two of them appeared to be some kind of designer cocktails, not listed in any bioweapons database I can access and I ran them past the CDC. Nothing. The good news is that you were in the process of filtering it out of your blood—the serum was working primarily to neutralize it. I kept you in medical until your levels were down before I released you back to your floor.”

“How long is the test to see if it’s all gone?”

“Probably a couple of hours. Are you experiencing other symptoms?” The caution in her manner spoke volumes for how uncooperative Natasha usually behaved.

“Nauseated for a bit, that’s improved though. Feel—off. But that may not be physical.” It was unnerving enough to have unidentified or designer cocktails of heavy metals and toxins in her system. Considering everything in The Mandarin's castle, it wasn't a reach to figure out exposure. Exposure to what was the larger question? Larger still, was her serum capable of putting all of it out with the trash or would this be a problem in the future? 

“But it’s off enough you’re talking to me…”

“I deserve that,” Natasha told her. She hated medical, they could all deal with it. Her experiences were far more negative than positive. “But with everything else, I’d rather err on the side of caution.” For once. Or maybe… no, no maybe about it. She wanted a resolution without having to worry anyone else. It would also be better if nothing got in the way of getting cleared to use BARF.

“Now I’m definitely worried,” Helen said as she straightened. “Stay here I’m getting a blood collection kit and gloves. I’ll pull the blood and run it.”

She left her office door open as she moved back out toward one of the labs. Natasha glanced up at the camera in the corner, the steady red light answered whether it was active or not.

Rolling up her sleeve, Natasha took a seat on the arm of the sofa. With quick, precise motions, Helen wrapped the tourniquet. The pinch and the pain were far in excess of what Natasha expected, but she kept her breathing as steady as she could. How much was psychological and how much physiological? She had no idea. Helen’s touch was professional, but light. At least she didn’t root around for a vein; she got the stick, and then filled four vials.

If it were all psychological, there were tricks and training techniques to get over the aversion. Not bearing touch would make working with her team or living with the guys impossible. Her stomach gave a decidedly uneasy roll, but it didn't cramp and she didn't taste bile.

Improvement? 

Focus, Natalia. Focus. Your mind will decide. Your body will follow.

“I’m going to run three different tests and I’m keeping the extra if I need to run a follow-up. Heavy metals and toxins require different reagents to look for them.” Helen pulled her back to the present.

“The third vial?”

“I’m going to check for any contamination. Then the standard chem panels.”

“Do you run pregnancy tests as part of the standard?”

Helen eyed her a moment. “Not for you usually. But… if you were pregnant the hCG levels would be higher. As of your last test, they were ‘nil.”

Natasha nodded once. She might call her on reciting the data from memory, but Natasha had read the previous screening results earlier. She hadn’t seen elevated levels either.

“Are you concerned about that?” Helen studied her as she filled the last vial. Natasha’s heart rate stayed at a fixed, even rate as she controlled her oxygen consumption. The office smelled like peppermints and cleaning supplies and maybe a faint hint of something like tobacco. Maybe one of the other researchers smoked. Helen didn’t. The lack of antiseptic to burn the back of her throat was an improvement.

“You said it wasn’t that I can’t, but that I won't be able to sustain it.”

She loosened the tourniquet and then removed the needle and the last vial at the same moment. “Based on the current scarring of your uterus and fallopian tubes, the proper shedding of an egg to be fertilized and then implanted would have a low chance of success at each stage. If it managed to get that far, then you would need the safe formation of the placenta and the ability of the uterus to maintain through the length of a nine-month gestation—I would put at less than a 1 percent chance.”

Good. Those were solid facts.

“But?” Natasha eyed her because the word hung unspoken right off the end of all that.

“But that would require we were dealing with someone—forgive the word again, normal. Most women with this kind of damage would never heal. The less than one percent chance would be no chance. Now, we know you can heal and I suspect that given—several months, perhaps a few years, of sustained rest and no complications brought on by injuries, you could likely undo or at least repair those organs. You are engaging in regular intercourse?”

“Yes.”

“With one or more partners who also have the serum?”

That was a polite way of asking. “Yes.”

“Again, this is speculation, but your DNA is adaptable. It can repurpose elements of other DNA when introduced—in this case active sperm, which is comprised of active DNA. Since we know you and Sergeant Barnes were capable of sustaining a pregnancy previously, we know his sperm has to be motile and active. Not sterilized. In addition, you have all stated that Captain Rogers has the more perfected serum…”

With all that meant. It made good great, it would have repaired any issues he had prior to being injected.

“The math suggests it’s going to happen.”

“If you continue to engage in unprotected intercourse, then yes, it’s possible. What are the percentages? I can’t tell you that. At the moment, I would say based on your current state? Not high. You’re an active Avenger, you regularly engage in punishing physical exercise which wouldn’t be as much of a problem if you didn’t also engage in brutal physical combat and that takes a toll. So there are a number of caveats when considering whether it could or would happen for you again.”

“Thank you. I’ve always had irregular periods if I had them at all.” Which she hadn’t in more than… three years? Hell, she couldn’t really remember. This more from a lack of paying it any attention other than dealing with the inconvenience. “So that’s not going to be a heads up.”

“I would imagine. All I can recommend is we schedule you for a course of regular checkups. We start taking measurements, a baseline on your overall physical health. The longer you go without injury, the more likely you are to show improvement. I can also, quietly, add a pregnancy test any time we have to do samples. It’s easy enough with everything else we’re doing.”

And there were other options. Like condoms. “Not sure about the regular check ups Doc… “ They sounded way too much like being a lab rat again. Testing reactions, measuring progress.

Put her back on the table…

“Natasha,” Helen said. “Do you want to get pregnant again?”

“That’s a really big question that I have no answer for,” she admitted. “In fact, I would prefer if we kept this entire line of investigation to ourselves along with the conversation.” She flicked a look at the camera on the last. One beep of the red light. Hopefully, that was Friday and not Tony.

“You have my word. As it is, Friday locks all of your records as soon as they are entered and she’s been known to destroy samples rather than let them sit in the fridges.” The last Helen said with a rueful smile. “But if you reach an answer, my door is open. I’m a geneticist, as you have all pointed out, but research into artificial wombs among other things are all options if you decide you wish to push forward. In the meanwhile, I can look into hormonal birth control. I’m wary of anything actually working for you based on your serum much less theirs, but I can certainly look.”

It was—probably one of the kindest things Helen had ever said to her, which was weird. “Thanks, Doc. Now I’ve kept you longer than I should. I told Clint it was two quick questions.”

Helen laughed. “Your questions were quick. My answers were not.”

“It’s official… you’re almost sneaky. I like that.” Rolling her sleeve down, she stood as Helen stored the vials in a case and then opened the door.

“I’ll take that as a compliment. I’ll send you the results as soon as I have them.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

Natasha left her and the medical area perhaps a beat faster than necessary. Once she reached the common room, she glanced around the quiet, empty area and debated heading toward the offices, the research rooms, the training areas or…

“Natasha?” the quiet greeting came from the hall that led to their offices, as Sharon appeared a cup in her hand. “I didn’t think you’d be out here today.”

“Hey Sharon,” Natasha said by way of greeting. “Yeah, I came out with the guys. Went over to medical with Clint.”

The assessing look in Sharon’s eyes eased at her approach. “You look way better than I expected.”

With a little shrug, Natasha nodded to the kitchen. “Coming for fresh coffee?”

“Yes, I have more reports to finish. Too many reports, including a review of resources we repurposed over the last couple of weeks. Not a problem,” Sharon continued as she led the way toward the kitchen. “But it’s a matter of making sure we account for everything.”

“Everything?” Natasha raised her brows, leaning against the bar rather than follow her into the kitchen.

“Within reason,” Sharon answered lightly, getting the single cup coffee maker set up. “For example, the collection kits used to identify the person or persons responsible for the kidnapping and subsequent release of Stark Industries CEO. It’s a messy business, but we did inform the State Police and the FBI so they could monitor for chatter and shared what results we were able to obtain. Ms. Potts, however, after her initial statement has decided to take the time to rest and recuperate. The rest of the case remains open and we may just have to live with that.”

After she pressed the button on the coffee maker, Sharon faced her.

“The Committee report required a little more finessing. But as no governmental resources were tasked and the Avengers conducted all their operations either at the Compound or the Tower, they didn’t need to know much.”

Not smiling, Natasha studied her. “That’s a fine line.” A risky one after she compromised herself in Germany.

“It is—Tony went to Hong Kong, but that was at the invitation of both the city officials as well as the government of China for purely personal business. So no reports are required. The Committee is not privy to any actions Tony takes a private citizen.”

“Thank you.”

“My pleasure. It was the least I could do. As for you, following the reveal that the Committee had been meeting in secret and floating a memo on how best to undercut you with the Avengers, you decided to take a quiet step back from negotiations until the Committee could once again act in good faith. No need to waste your time or theirs on negotiations they are not prepared to support.”

That explained Devereux’s heavy-handedness.

“For what it’s worth, you’ve received about fifty personal apologies, a half-dozen requests for private meetings—they’ll come to you—and easily ten times that in movement of certain aspects of the Accords they weren’t interested in discussing. And China, of all countries, appears to be in the process of beginning a formal apology to you and the Tony.”

Natasha raised her brows.

“Don’t ask me on that one,” Sharon said with a faint smile. “Steve wanted me to shut them down and Tony had the memo. So I took care of it. The rest of that—I’m pretty sure it’s the ultra-positive press you’ve been receiving at the exact moment you stopped talking to them.”

Positive press? “Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“Ask Friday to pull the clips. I’ve been collecting them. They make a very compelling case for you—the best kind. The organic, natural kind that’s going viral.”

That was… weird.

“You want coffee while I’m in here?”

“No,” Natasha said slowly. “I’m probably going to go do some work myself.” Or some research. “You’re leaving soon?”

“Yeah, holidays. Going to visit family for a few days. I can stay if it would be better…”

“No,” Natasha said, shaking her head. “You deserve to enjoy your holidays. There’s certainly enough for all of us to do—but if there’s something you need me to cover for you while you’re gone.”

“Thank you…” Sharon hesitated. “About the party. I brought Maria Hill as my plus one… she asked if she could tag-a-long and she worked for Stark Industries, I didn’t think it would prove to be the problem it was.” While she wasn’t asking, she was.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Natasha told her.

“I got that, Friday issued the memo that Hill isn’t allowed on Avengers property without express permission from either Steve, Tony, or you.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” she told her. “Like I said, it’s complicated. If she’s your friend… just make sure it’s about being your friend and not maintaining a professional relationship for access.”

“Fair.” The blonde took a sip of her coffee. “When you’re feeling up for it—think you and I could grab some coffee?”

“I don’t see why not,” Natasha told her. “Do you need me to check in on my progress?”

Sharon smiled. “Ms. Romanoff continues to set an exemplary example for the other Avengers in both her work ethic and devotion to public service. In addition to her administrative meetings with individual members of the Committee, she continues to provide Captain Rogers support in the day to day operations while also working to keep all team members up to standards in their training.”

“I’ve been busy,” Natasha told her.

“Very,” Sharon said, then winked. “Speaking of which…”

Natasha waved her on then leaned against the bar, the quiet draping her as she turned the conversation over in her mind. Sharon had a front row seat to her disappearance and the investigation into it. During the debrief, Tony and Steve admitted she’d seen the reconstruction of the event including how The Mandarin had stabbed Natasha, but Sharon didn’t press her for details. She clearly knew some, but likely not all and she continued to watch the Avengers’ backs.

She might be a good fit in the long run. Good, they were all due a win of some kind. 

Leaving the common area, Natasha followed the hall toward the residential suites and let herself into her own rooms. They were—exactly as she had left them the last time she’d been here. There was still a pair of empty wine bottles in the trash and a pair of rinsed out wine glasses sitting on the counter.

One of her goals today had been to check on Wanda, but after talking to Helen she kind of wanted to think and then Sharon said…

“Friday… what clips was Sharon referring to?”

“In the past ten days, numerous articles began appearing online in addition to blogs and video interviews on news programs with regard to the Black Widow. All positive and supportive. As Ms. Carter stated, we have kept clippings and copies of all materials that turned up in my searches. Boss has had me monitoring all press coverage regarding you for several months. I agree with Ms. Carter's assessment, these have all been extremely positive. It's a nice change. There were new ones posted today.”

“This is all about me?”

Tony had said he’d been working on ideas, merchandising and more to rehabilitate her image. Even Pepper mentioned Tony working to bring in public relations and how her boyfriend Marc might be able to help. She’d offered to work on Natasha’s image personally if Natasha could discern who was behind the attacks—while it seemed like a carrot at the time on her part, Pepper wasn’t basing her help only on Natasha’s cooperation. She’d been exerting control over a situation she couldn’t control.

Pepper.

“Do we have a number for where Pepper is? And have you found my phone?”

“I do have contact information for Ms. Potts, while she had asked not to be disturbed unless there was an emergency, I am alerting Mr. Hogan that you would like to speak to her. As of yet, I am unable to trace your phone. It must be powered off completely. The new phone will be ready when you return to the Tower. Then you can crack the operating system and install your own software.”

Natasha almost smirked. “I’m surprised you’re not just doing that for me.”

“I didn’t want to presume.” 

That did make her smile. 

Running her hand over her mouth, she went to the kitchen for water. The fridge was—yeah, she closed that. It smelled a little funky and nothing in there looked edible.

“I will take care of having that restocked immediately,” Friday assured her.

“Don’t worry about it.” The vodka was still in the freezer. She had the important stuff. Downing the glass of water she walked back to the living room.

“Play the clips for me?”

The clips weren’t all clips. Some were longer than others. Some took up whole chunks of time. Letters, articles, interviews—some of the people interviewed in the expose were supposedly former SHIELD agents but she hadn’t recognized any of them.

The first news stories broke early on Monday following the holiday party, but they weren’t tales of her kidnapping or disappearance—they were tales of her heroism. Black Widow began trending as videos of her fights from the streets of Paris, to D.C. to New York, were cut together and shared over and over. They used footage from past news conferences focusing on her in the background. Someone went to a lot of trouble to highlight her where the media failed or so a few stories claimed.

Friday detailed trending data in the corner of the screen--#BlackWidow #IronWidow #CapWidow and #WidowAvengers were among the top trending throughout that past week and #IronWidow kept cropping up this week as did #BlackWidow and #BlackWidowMatters

What the hell did that last one mean?

Gerald appeared in interviews, his accent clipped and his manner perfectly proper as he complimented her. Alphonse, the hot dog vendor, she’d met him. It seemed ages before, but it had been after she’d finished setting up Ross. Tired, sore, and hungry, she’d gotten a couple of hot dogs before walked to the Tower. Alphonse had told her about his grandson and his wife—and he’d welcomed her back.

There were more. Some big stories. Some man or woman on the street.

More people showed up, Natasha didn’t recognize their names but they told stories about what she’d done. A schoolteacher who’d been on the street in D.C. Natasha had waved her away from the fighting. A housewife from Connecticut who described how Natasha had apprehended a group of kids from her neighborhood—they’d managed to get their hands on Chitauri weapons. The Black Widow had gone into the building and she’d brought all the kids out. They actually had some video footage. Some handler at SHIELD hadn’t done his damn job. A graphic designer in New York, he’d been in a cab that day, it had overturned and the aliens were coming at them. She’d gotten them off and away so he could flee.

The stories kept coming. Some were gossipy and full of innuendo trying to figure out who she was dating. Natasha just skipped those. 

There were people from France who appeared in some interviews. Others from Canada. Call-in shows had callers from all over the world including a girl who only identified herself as Greta—she told the story about being trapped in a sex trafficking ring for over a year and how the Black Widow not only took the ring apart, she rescued Greta and more than a hundred other girls. Black Widow wasn’t just America’s hero or Russia’s agent, she was a hero for the whole world.

It was—beyond belief.

There were so many news pieces, think pieces, and even radio talk shows and Vloggers online. Pacing away from the sofa, she returned to her kitchen and got another glass of water. Her throat was dry and her mouth tasted like copper and soot. Sweat dampened her neck and she couldn’t shake the stories they were telling—these people…

 

“Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight wherever you are in the world, it’s Progressive Talk’s Hero Hour and my name is Win Michaels, and I’m your host! We want to hear about your heroes. We’ve got Tony Stark back in the news, but when isn’t he? But that was some exciting stuff this week in New York as Iron Man defused those bombs with an assist from the Black Widow herself and didn’t she look fine while she was doing it. How awesome is that to have her and all the Avengers back? Do you have a favorite one? What do you want to talk about… and we’re going live on the air with our first caller… Ladyhawke—love your name Ladyhawke from Iowa. What did you want to talk about today?”

“Hi Win, great show, I listen every day and I wanted to talk about the things we don’t see the media or anyone else talking about. I want to talk about how much these heroes give up to save lives, save the world, and save people like you and me—but who saves them when people like Secretary Ross try to turn them in his personal soldiers or the world plays tug of war over who they belong to and whose rules they should follow? When do we, as the people, protect our heroes from our politicians and greed?”

 

Laura.

That was Laura…

Her chest squeezed.

“Natasha…”

The drumming in her ears was like thunder.

“Natasha… you’re hyperventilating. You need to bring your oxygen consumption under control.”

Laura called in to some radio show to defend her and called out Ross by name?

Laura?

“Natasha!” Friday’s sudden volume jerked her head up. “Inhale for a four-count. 1-2-3-4. Hold. Now exhale. 1-2-3-4.”

She repeated the pattern three times more. The clips had paused and muted. Bit by bit the wild hammer of her heart calmed and she managed to unclench her fists. She’d dug a couple of half-moons into her palms, breaking the skin on one.

Breathing steadier, she murmured, “I’m fine, Friday.”

“No, Natasha you are not. However, your pulse and respiration are stabilizing. This was not like previous episodes.”

She shook her head. “No. No bad memories.” No memories at all. More like horrific nightmares about what might happen. If Ross or someone like him learned about Laura and the kids. Why the hell would she do that?

“Your respiration is leveling. Heart rate is still at 93 beats per minute. Can you attempt to calm further?”

A little laugh broke through the cold fist squeezing her chest and her heart. “I can… please tell me I don’t have the whole team on their way to get front row tickets to the panic attack.”

Panic attack.

A little humiliating. Normally she could break those a lot faster. Normally, she didn't give in to them at all. 

“I was thirty seconds from alerting your authorized list when you began responding. The physiological markers did not match earlier episodes, hence my hesitation. Please mind your step, you let go of the glass and it broke.”

The warning had her glancing down. Broken glass and water droplets all over the floor.

Wonderful.

“Thank you again.”

“Of course.”

While Natasha cleaned up the glass, Friday went a little quiet, then she said, “Natasha? May I ask what the source of distress was?”

“The last audio recording…”

“The radio show, it aired on…” She listed off the date and the satellite station. “The show is played in a dozen countries and has an estimated listenership of 18 million.”

Natasha was going to throw up. She pressed her hands flat against the counter and took several deep breaths of air.

“Audio comparison match from Ladyhawke to Laura Barton?”

“One moment…” Though Friday sounded vaguely concerned, Natasha pushed away from the counter and opened the fridge. She pulled out the bottle of vodka, uncapped the top and then took a very long drink of the frost-chilled alcohol. It burned all the way down. Leaning against the fridge, she stared at the ceiling, waiting.

“With distortions, I have an 87% match. I am currently searching for a clean audio file as the one we have in the clips is a recording of a recording.” That many layers deep and they still got an 87% match?

Natasha was going to kill her. If she had her phone on her, she’d call her and yell at her. Probably good she didn’t have her phone. One, she never yelled at Laura. Two, she didn’t want to kill her. Only she did.

“Does Clint know?”

“I am unaware of whether Mr. Barton reviewed this clip or not. Though some of the information filtered through the team last week, most of it was funneled straight to Ms. Carter. I believe Captain Rogers caught some of the television news snippets as did Sergeant Barnes. Boss received a briefing packet, but he was also preoccupied.”

As they’d detailed during the debriefing the day before.

Testing her ribs, she found them only vaguely sore. She needed to go slam her fists into a speedbag. Or something.

Why? Why? Why would Laura risk exposure?

Even as the thoughts tumbled through her, she sucked in a deeper breath.

Think, Natasha.

Act.

Don’t react.

Laura would have done it to protect her. She had been irked by the fact that dropping the charges hadn’t included clearing her. The kids heard the news and Lila and Coop had both been upset at school. The name-calling. The allegations. Now, a chance to clear her appeared—if not legally at least in the public arena.

Blowing out a breath, Natasha said, “Friday, you can stop searching for the clean copy. I know it was her.”

“The message she offered was very positive,” Friday said and Natasha couldn’t argue with that.

“Okay, I think I need a break from all of this—and I should probably go check in with the others.” They’d given her space and she appreciated it. The debriefing the day before had been uncomfortable for them, detailing the investigation. Their reluctance to fill her in had more to do with avoiding relieving a very painful week for them. But at the same time, there were details that came up—the fact the Mandarin had wiped out all the bodies.

He had a ring that could do that. She'd seen it herself with the monks. Horrific thing. Course, most of what The Mandarin had done was horrific. Tony had figured out some of the rings, she offered her notes. That part of the conversation had sucked. But she wouldn’t cut herself a break even when Steve gave her the look, the look that said that was exactly what he and James had been talking about.

The problem was if she gave in, even once, she’d be tempted to give in again. She would yield when she died and not a moment before. Anything else? Anything else would kill her. The days in those cells, tThe Mandarin’s mind games, the drowning, the suffocation… she survived it because she wouldn’t yield. Now that she was out, she refused to yield now.

“Actually, I’m going to take a shower—you know if anyone asks.” Her skin crawled.

In the bathroom, she got the water turned on before she stripped. Once under the hot water, she braced her hands to the wall and let it pound against her. At least her ribs didn’t sting as much.

They had the memory machine.

The Mandarin was dead.

They found Doctor Strange—or he’d found them.

Sooner or later, Logan would come out from wherever he was hiding. Maybe she should call Remy. She owed him a call regardless.

She was home for Christmas.

All good things.

Just keep counting the good things.

Twenty minutes later and dressed again, she pushed the damp hair away from her face as she headed for the door. She’d been retreated to her rooms for long enough. She still wanted to see Wanda and check in on Sam. According to Friday, they had a lot more of the clips to review, but she would save those for later.

“Natasha?” Friday’s voice stopped her at the door. The AI had been quiet since she’d gone to shower. “Ms. Potts is on the line for you. Video call.”

The balance she’d regained slipped a little. “Give us some privacy please, Friday, and seal the door. My authorization only.”

“Understood, Natasha.”

Retreating from the door, she blew out a breath and grabbed a bottle of water from the kitchen—no more broken glasses for a while—then returned to the sofa. A holo screen formed over the table and she schooled her expression and got her breathing under control. Friday gave her a moment, then the screen filled in and Pepper leaned forward abruptly.

“Oh my god, you really are okay.” Relief drenched every word. “Natasha…”

“You look great,” Natasha told her, studying everything about her. The shadows smudging the underside of her eyes said she wasn’t sleeping well. But the bruise she’d likely gotten when they hit her face in the van was gone and while she looked a little pale, her eyes were bright and a flush put some color in her cheeks.

Pepper steepled her hands together, pressing them against her lips as she blinked rapidly. The tears shimmering there left Natasha’s throat scratchy.

“I’m going to be fine,” she told her. “I’m back. I’m in one piece. The Mandarin is dead. So are most of the people who worked for him.” At least, she’d killed a lot. In the not too far distant future, she would be taking a hunting trip and  make sure there was nothing left to crawl back out of the shadows. There were always more.

Natasha would make sure there were none.

“They took you,” Pepper said, the tears in her eyes echoing in her voice. “I saw him stab you—all that fighting—you did that for me. You… he took you instead of me.”

“And I’m glad he did.” Every word was absolute truth. At the shock in Pepper’s eyes, she spread her hands. “Pepper, he would have killed you. He would have tortured you, horrifically. He would have recorded each ugly moment to make sure Tony experienced every ounce of your pain. Then he would have killed you and left you in the Stark Tower in Hong Kong—to be destroyed with it.” After Tony told her about the bombs, that last pieces of those threats made sense.

Despite the graphic picture Natasha had painted, Pepper’s distressed expression calmed. Pepper was a detail-oriented woman. Those threats were a dangling loose end.

“The articles and letters about you, the ones security turned up, which cited you as being what kept Tony from going over the edge? How you were rehabilitating the Stark image. The Mandarin didn’t want it rehabilitated, he wanted to humiliate Tony. He wanted to prove to the world that Tony Stark couldn’t even save his lover or his company or his buildings. He wanted to use you to make a very loud statement, a horrific display for one man—because Tony bested him and made him look like a fool.”

Pepper frowned. “The son of a bitch wanted to fridge me?”

There she was. Natasha didn’t smile, she just nodded. “It was never about you. It was about Tony. It wasn’t about me.” No matter how personal or intimate the torture had been or his attempts to break her. Despite the research and the games and his attempt to co-opt Natasha, owning her was about sticking it to Tony. Just like killing Pepper had been. “We were just a means to an end.”

“The misogynistic pig is dead?”

“Very.” And she would confirm that. She believed what they’d told her, but she wanted to review the helmet data. She hadn’t pressed for it yet, but it was on her list.

Natasha had been unconscious when he went down.

“For what it’s worth, I cut his hand off.” That much she did know.

The smile Pepper wore was just this side of bloodthirsty and the hunch in her shoulders eased as she straightened. “That is worth—a great deal.” Hands still clasped, she seemed to be studying Natasha with the same intensity Natasha studied her. Still, Nat kept her expression steady. “I don’t know how to thank you. You saved our lives. You… you did everything I asked and so much more.”

“You put yourself through BARF to give them critical information. You put yourself through a nightmarish experience for you again to help me. You don’t have to thank me, Pepper.” The fact she’d done it was humbling.

“He stabbed you, Natasha.”

“I know. I’m fine.”

“I see it in my dreams…” Pepper blew out a shuddering breath. “I haven’t closed my eyes once since it happened without seeing it again. Even though BARF—or SPARK—Tony renamed it.”

Natasha knew.

“When I was going through it, it was like being there and not. I experienced it, but I also had distance. It’s been a blessing and a curse.” She licked her lips. “I didn’t know what else to do to help you. Tony wanted me to stay at the Compound, but I couldn’t—I had to go.”

“It’s all good, Pepper. You did great. I don’t know if they could have found me without you.” Or if she could have gotten out. Ever. “I’m alive because of you.” She could give her that much because it was a firm truth.

“Really?” The desperate glimpse of hope.

“Really. But you should be careful… you saved my life, now I owe you.” Natasha spread her hands. “You never know what I’ll do to protect you now.”

A slow smile creased Pepper’s face, a true one. “I have a very good idea. But you don’t owe me anything… except a wine date.”

Natasha grimaced. “Only if I pick the wine.”

Pepper stared at her for a moment, her mouth in a silent ‘O.’ Then she snapped it shut with a little click. Her lower lip jutted for the barest moment, and then she had to press a hand to her mouth when a chuckle escaped. Natasha just raised her brows and then Pepper let out a real laugh.

“Okay,” she admitted, laughing as she wiped at the sudden dampness on her cheeks. “That’s fair.”

“I’m just saying, I don’t know that I’ll ever be a fan of gravelly soil.”

Pepper threw her head back and laughed for real. “Oh, God… You want to know something?”

“Sure.”

“I gave it all away. Actually, I had most of it destroyed and I gave the rest of it away.”

“Good,” Natasha told her in all seriousness. “It was terrible.”

“It was not,” Pepper argued, straightening. “It was… unique.”

“Which is a polite person’s way of saying it’s shit.”

“Natasha.”

“What? I’m Russian, if it’s swill, we might drink it but we’re not going to call it vodka.”

Fresh laughter pealed out of her and she clapped her hands. “Fine, you win. It was shit. Even if I liked it to begin with, I absolutely do not like it now.”

“Good,” she told her firmly. “When do you get back?”

“After the holidays,” Pepper said. “Probably just before the New Year. Maybe, I might extend it.” A fresh bit of color touched her cheeks and Natasha narrowed her eyes.

“Having a good time then?”

“Honestly?”

“Well, I’m good with bald-face lies if they’re good ones, but it’s totally up to you.”

Pepper snorted, but her expression shifted. She glanced away from the screen a moment and then leaned forward, an almost conspiratorial air about her. “Marc has been amazing. When I can’t sleep, he sits up with me. He doesn’t try to force me to talk, but if I want to talk he listens. He’s—he’s exceptionally kind and I don’t know that I would have been able to do this without him.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“Now that I know you’re okay…”

They hadn’t told her?

At her frown, Pepper waved a hand. “Tony sent a message through Friday. They told me they’d found you and you were alive, but no other details. But until I actually saw you…”

“Good. That he told you.” If he hadn’t, she would have had to smack him. “I should have reached out sooner.”

“No, you reached out when you were ready and that’s fine. I—” Pepper choked up again and touched her fist to her heart.

“I know.” The fact Pepper was alive, she looked well, and she was laughing, all of it settled Natasha. Getting Pepper out had been the goal, she’d done that. She’d kept her safe. “I’ll be fine,” she repeated. “Now maybe you can really enjoy your vacation.”

“Maybe.” Pepper wiped at her eyes again. “As soon as I’m back, let’s make time?”

“Just call me. Or call Friday—I can’t find my phone.”

“Oh…” A wet laugh. “I have it.”

“What?”

“Your phone it was in your clutch and you pushed it all into my bag. I didn’t even realize I had it until I was here. It all ended up in my suitcase. Your clutch, the phone—Tony’s gift.”

“Oh.” Natasha had forgotten she’d done that. At the time, she’d wanted her hands free.

“I’ll have Happy express everything back to you, I should have done it already. I didn’t think about it.”

“It’s fine, really. I’m glad it didn’t end up in the bottom of that ravine.”

“No, none of us did. Are you sure you’re really going to be fine?”

“I promise.” It was a promise she could keep. “I’m pretty tough.”

“Yes, you are.” With a fist over her heart again, Pepper added, “Take care of yourself?”

“Always do.”

“No,” Pepper said simply. “You don’t. It’s something you and Tony have in common. It’s why you look after him and, hopefully, he’s looking after you.”

Yeah, she wasn’t touching that one other than to say, “He’s been great.”

“Good.”

The quiet stretched between them, not fraught but Pepper didn’t seem to want to hang up. A feeling she proved when she said, “I feel like we’ll disconnect and you’re going to disappear.”

“Well you know, I heard that’s how these new-fangled contraptions work. Video on, you see me. Video off, you don’t. We’re practically the Jetsons.”

That earned her another laugh. “Okay. I’m going now. I’ll get your things to you and I’ll call as soon as I’m back.”

“Until then…”

When the call ended, Natasha sagged back against the sofa and closed her eyes. Tired weighed down on her. Too much raw emotion. Opening the bottle of water, she drained it in three swallows before she stood.

“Resume active, Friday.”

“Are you well, Natasha?”

“You know, I think the jury is still out on that. Where is everyone?”

Tony, Steve and James were in Steve’s office talking to Sam. Vision was patrolling the property. Sharon was in her office. Clint was still in Medical with Helen. Wanda… was in the training room. Destination in mind, Natasha made her way from the residential hall to the training halls. No one was in the common area, the fact the other four were meeting in Steve’s office suggested they wanted some privacy so she detoured away from that hall rather than look like she was spying.

Though, admittedly, she was a little curious. It could wait. The sound of music drifted out the doors as she approached. Natasha didn’t recognize it, though it had a good beat. The lyrics were in Sokovian. Something about wanting more and more, the urgency in the song seemed to convey the demand by repeating the lyrics over and over.

Eh.

Catchy.

Nudging the door open, she slipped inside quietly. Wanda was on the far side of the gym, moving through stretches and strikes. She alternated, a long deep stretch, then several fierce strikes. Folding her arms, she studied her form. It was a little too tight; she was not hitting her full range of motion. If anything, she seemed more distracted than focused.

Sweat soaked the back of her tank top, suggesting she’d been at this a while. As she finished the series of strikes, she transitioned into a stretch. Abandoning her post, Natasha strolled across the gym floor toward her. “Deepen that, you’re not completing the reach.”

Wanda straightened and whirled around. Her gloomy expression brightened. “Natasha.”

“So they say,” she told her easily. “Get back in that stretch and do it right. You short yourself, you’re going to end up with an injury.”

Next to her, Natasha stepped into the same stretch Wanda had been attempting. Every muscle in her body trembled, protesting the sudden push but Natasha breathed through it. She needed to get some deep stretches of her own in.

Disbelief rolled through Wanda’s expression but when Natasha kept eyeing her, she released a grunt and stepped back into the stretch. Since her muscles were already warmed, she deepened it beautifully.

“Much better. Training is an excellent way to cope with troubling emotions, to restore your focus, or to work off stress, but only if you do it correctly. Otherwise, all you’re going to do is injure yourself and create more problems.” She needed to get back in her studio. Full stretches. Pointe shoes. Music. Bleed it all out. At the end of the count she relaxed from the stretch and straightened.

One look at Wanda’s expression and Natasha braced herself. The younger woman threw her arms around her. Catching her, Natasha put a hand to the back of her head and held her. She stunk a little, hard work and sweat did that to a person and she shook, she’d probably overdone it. But Natasha didn’t push her away or snap at her, she just hugged her. The wild buzz under her skin accelerated, but she ignored it. The alarm was for something that wasn’t happening. All Wanda wanted was a hug, some reassurance, and Natasha could damn well do that.

“I have been so worried about you, if Friday hadn’t let me know you were recovering… I might have blasted my way into the Tower.”

Natasha chuckled. “Well, I appreciate the sentiment. I’m going to be fine.” She eased back and studied Wanda. “You’re running the risk of overdoing it. How long have you been in here?”

“A couple of hours? I’ve been restless and going a little stir-crazy.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Okay. Let’s walk and you can cool down, then you shower and eat. Have you been hydrating?”

Grinning, Wanda rolled her eyes. “I have. I could hear you in my head giving me little nudges.”

“Oh, even better.” Letting her hands hang loose at her sides, Natasha nodded to the outer loop of the training room and Wanda fell into step with her. The walk would do them both good. “I should have reached out sooner…”

“No, no,” Wanda said, waving her off. “I knew you needed to recover. You were—you were kind of a mess.”

“A little bit,” Natasha agreed. “How are you, after the fight? That was a little harder for you—that was people not just equipment or robots.”

“Easier than I thought in some ways. Harder in others. I do not like the suit.” The various opinions on wearing Tony’s suit seemed to be a consensus. It worked for Tony, but no one wanted to take it from him. That was excellent. “I worried we wouldn’t be in time… the area was very, very strange.”

“From what I recall of it, I agree.” Though she didn’t want to think too closely on that. “How about everything else? I know you’ve all been very preoccupied with finding me.”

“We were, but in a weird way, I think it brought us all closer. There seems to be much less tension. With me and Vis, too.”

“Yeah?” Natasha eyed her. “You’re good with that?”

“I am,” Wanda admitted. “He was… very kind to me.”

“You did good, from everything I heard. You were—immeasurable in helping the team. You offered support. You offered your talents. You helped stop The Mandarin from using his mind control.”

Wanda’s face went stony for a moment, violent dislike reflecting in her eyes. “That horrible thing. I’d never felt anything like that, I couldn’t let him hurt Steve that way. What he wanted him to do...”

“I know. You stopped him. Thank you.” Natasha meant it. When that came up in the debrief, Steve had been very circumspect, but she understood what he hadn’t said. James had, too. How could they not? They’d both been there and she’d tried to help Steve, too but it had been so chaotic.

“I just wish…”

“We all do,” Natasha reminded her. “We do what we can. You did great. Don’t tell yourself anything else.”

A blush stained her cheeks. “I have missed you.”

“Well, I’m back. Of course that opens up new problems…”

With a frown, Wanda slowed and faced her. “Like what?”

“Christmas shopping.”

The widening of her eyes was almost comical. “That’s next week.”

Natasha nodded slowly. “I know.”

“I have so much shopping to do…I mean I have done some and we got the tree, and it’s decorated. Laura and the kids are coming…” It was like opening the valve, Wanda described the holiday plans they’d made so far and how she had been working with Vision on shopping ideas. The first holiday with Vision, he’d been more bemused than anything. This was his second holiday season and he was eager to be involved.

A rustling sound snared her attention and Natasha turned in time to see the splinter golden light circling dead center in the gym at speed. Wanda frowned, and red coated her hands and her eyes glowed as she cast a fierce red bubble to shield them.

Doctor Strange strode through his portal. The ring on his hand visible, but Natasha put a hand on Wanda’s shoulder. “It’s all right… he’s an ally.”

Strange looked from her to Wanda and he raised a single brow. It was Natasha’s turn to slide in front of Wanda even as the bubble lowered a fraction.

“Ms. Romanoff,” he said, snapping his attention to her. “Do you have time for a consult?”

“Have you ever heard of calling ahead?”

“Yes. It’s a waste of time. We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

Magic

Natasha

 

 

The man’s bedside manner was atrocious. He motioned to the gold circle, which was still burning. Beyond it was what looked like a living room—or a richly appointed museum with heirloom furniture. For all that, he stared at her levelly. Despite the urgency of his words, his tone remained even.

“Well, you’re here,” she said. “You might as well close that…”

“Actually,” he said. “I was going to ask you to come here.”

“Where is here?”

The door to the training room slammed open and Steve strode across the floor with James next to him and Tony, Sam, and Sharon mere steps behind them even as Vision descended through the ceiling to land between the wizard and her.

Wanda hadn’t moved away, her presence at Natasha’s back warm and nervous. The air crackled with her energy and it tickled over her flesh, like the static gathering just before the electrical storm hit.

“You need to learn to use a phone,” Tony called.

With a sigh, Strange snapped the portal shut then looked at Natasha as he removed the ring. “I’m putting it away.” The ease in his casual manner was far preferable to his gruff tone.

Natasha caught Steve’s searching gaze even as she flattened her hand and motioned it was fine. “We were just talking about a movie night, guys.”

“Who is this guy?” Sam asked.

“He’s a doctor.”

“Ms. Romanoff,” Doctor Strange said, ignoring the rest. “If you have a moment.” The air actually seemed to snap and a faint breeze brushed Natasha’s hair. James’ eyes narrowed and when she glanced from him to the place in front of her, he shifted. The guys had made a loose circle but James took the spot right in front of her. Even with Vision there, she wasn’t comfortable with either the android or the wizard at her back.

Turning, Natasha put her hands on Wanda’s biceps gripping her gently. It wasn’t enough to startle her, but it did pull the younger woman’s attention from Strange to Natasha. Even with the arrival of the rest of the team—motion in her periphery had her cutting her gaze to the side and up. Clint stood just inside along one of the struts, his bow in hand.

Attention back on Wanda, she gave Wanda’s arms a gentle squeeze. “Hey, eyes on me.” Pitching her voice low did what shouting wouldn’t have, it broke the tension holding her in a fixed, battle ready stance. The red swirling along her skin said more for how on edge Wanda was than anything else.

“Is he a friend?” Wanda asked in a low voice.

“Undetermined,” Natasha told her truthfully. “But so far he hasn’t been an enemy. I need you to pull it together, take a breath.”

All at once the red coalescing in the air around them withdrew and the red in her eyes faded. “Sorry, he startled me.” She glanced past Natasha then back. Fortunately, everyone else seemed to be taking a beat to let Natasha handle this.

“A little bit,” Natasha agreed, squeezing her arms once before turning back to face him. She offered her left hand for Wanda to hold and the younger woman clasped it immediately. Braced against the contact, Natasha focused on Strange. “Do you have answers or questions?”

He passed a look over the gathered then back to her. “I have both. In my experience, these are conversations best had in private.”

“Well you should consider calling ahead next time. In my experience, people dropping in without warning to a highly secure facility are looking for trouble.” She flashed him a smile. “I know I always am.”

The doctor actually huffed a laugh at that. Well, who knew? The doc might have a sense of humor.

“Duly noted, Ms. Romanoff. I will make a point of notifying you before I drop in again.”

“All I’m asking.” Because she needed his help. Glancing to Steve, Natasha raised her brows. Where did he want to have this conversation?

“Sam, Sharon… could you both give us some time here? Vision? Secure the building and Wanda?” He glanced to where Natasha held her hand.

Natasha shook her head. No, she did not want Wanda staying for this. Doctor Strange had made her uneasy for one and as for the rest? Enough people knew about Natasha’s medical issues.

“Are you okay if I go?” Wanda asked, her wary attention split between Natasha and the doctor.

“I’m great,” Natasha assured her. “Go shower, get something to eat… I’ll find you a little later. We’ll make time to do some online shopping and compare notes.”

“Oh.” Brightening, Wanda gave her another swift hug and Natasha patted her arm. “I’ll see you later.” Then the younger woman was crossing the training room, giving Strange a wide berth to join Sharon and Sam. Sam frowned like he wanted to stay and Sharon clearly had questions, but neither of them challenged Steve.

As soon as Vision phased through the roof, Tony said, “Secure, Friday?”

“Secure, Boss.”

Arms folded, he stared at Strange. For his part, the doctor appeared bemused by all the discussion. Natasha moved to stand closer to James and Steve had his shield on his back as he joined her. Clint descended from the rafters.

“So we’re having a group discussion again?” Strange clarified as he studied her.

“They already know and I’ll tell them anyway, so—you needed to talk to me?”

“Yes.” His amusement dried up and he straightened. “Taking out my phone again, do try not to get offended.”

Natasha smirked. “You really are a jackass.”

“So I’ve been told,” he said, almost agreeably. He hit a couple of buttons on the phone, and then closed the distance to where she stood. James’ whole frame tensed, but Natasha slid her hand onto his back, just below his shoulder blades as she leaned forward. It steadied both of them, so she soaked that in as Strange turned the screen toward her.

Tony circled around to Steve’s other side even as Clint joined them and they were all looking at the screen.

“Your scans show severe damage to areas of your cerebral cortex, particular around the thalamus and hippocampal formations.” They’d already had this discussion, but Natasha waited him out. “Now based on the scarring here…” He enhanced an area. “And here… I would say you had an intracranial operation at some point. Though that was not detailed in your records.”

He glanced at her.

“We might have figured that one out, but it’s still rather indistinct.” She didn’t say the number of things they didn’t have records on for her was long and vast.

“Based on your medical history, I’m not surprised.” Disapproval hovered in those words. “The areas of concern, however, are these…” He moved a scarred finger over the dark lines. “I would like to get a sample of it…”

“Excuse me?” Tony interjected.

“If you would permit me to finish,” Strange said. “There is a small surgery that can be performed, minimally invasive, and it would let me remove a small section…”

“No,” Steve said it almost reflexively and James had gone so rigid Natasha split her attention from the screen to him then held up a hand.

“Let him finish.” Ice coalesced at the base of her spine, but she kept her focus on what was in front of her. A possible answer. “And when you finish,” she said, eyeing Strange. “Be very specific about the goal here. If it’s just to root around under the hood, that won’t fly.”

The swift flash of distaste in his eyes offered her a little insight. “Ms. Romanoff, based on your history and my own observations you suffer from mental blocks both from the physical architecture of your brain caused by chemical and other artificial means and those conditioned through psychological manipulation.”

Drugs and electricity. Yep. She knew that. Mind-fucked? Yep. Check on that, too.

“The electrical activity in these blocked areas is still present. I reviewed the before and after scans of that device you used…”

“BARF,” she supplied.

“SPARK,” Tony snapped, shooting her a look. At least the impatient hostility was pointed at her.

Leaning against James’ arm, she nodded. Gradually, the rock of his muscles eased a little. Hooking her pinky around Steve’s she stared at Strange.

With an impatient sigh, Strange gave Tony an almost dismissive look that might have been funny if she wanted to bait a war of the egos. Not right now. Nor was she in the mood for insults.

“The device relied on electrical impulses and it—jumped the block.” He paged through the images and Tony leaned forward abruptly with his own phone and then did something to scan it before throwing the whole thing up on a holo screen.

“Side-by-side comparisons, Baby Girl.”

The image shifted, the before and the after.

“You had records for what happened during the device…the brain wave activity.” Strange motioned.

Steve squeezed her pinky gently and James shifted, lifting his arm slightly and she settled under it even as she slid her hand into Steve’s. The contact versus the horror playing out in front of her?

She’d take the contact.

Figuring this out was vital and she didn’t have time for weakness. Not right now.

“If you can run this in ten-second increments beginning with the initialization of the device to the moment Ms. Romanoff lost consciousness.”

Clint pinched the bridge of his nose at the doctor’s direction, but Friday began staggering the images. There was a sudden surge of activity, it was so small though, when the device initialized. “Is this the first time I used it during the recognition test or the last one?”

She’d gotten a few memories during that particular experiment. Not the least of which was the first time she’d been introduced to James. All the other horror aside, she clung to that particular memory.

“During the final attempt, Natasha,” Friday said. “The one directly before the coma.”

Steve’s hand flexed, but she squeezed his in response. They’d all been on the quinjet. Clint had been taken. She glanced over to him. They needed to know who the hell those people had been—Alexei, but who else. She’d gotten back a memory of being handed off to the Red Room, another of Alexei taunting her while Federov pumped her full of the serum or whatever chemical cocktail had been that day, and meeting James after her graduation while she had barely healed from the procedure.

There was definitely activity between the isolated areas and the rest of her brain. Then… what the hell was that?

“Stop,” Strange said in the commanding voice and Natasha dug her fingers into Steve’s hand. He didn’t let go. “This is the moment you overwhelmed the block, that is a minor cerebral hemorrhage, it burst.”

“There’s no such thing as a minor cerebral hemorrhage,” Tony argued. “You’re telling me we actually ruptured a blood vessel in her brain with SPARK?”

“I’m saying that the increased electrical activity overwhelmed the architecture of your brain tissue, the scarring here and here, it was disrupted. The barrier—or whatever these striations are, they weren’t as prominent then but they were present.”

“Could radiation have anything to do with it?” She was spit balling.

“Possibly, we obviously can discount nothing,” Strange stated. “Nothing about your case is standard. Nothing about it fits the parameters of anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“Will it heal on its own?” Clint asked and she glanced at him. “Without anyone else trying to play God in there?”

“Again,” Strange said. “Anything is possible. However, the fugue states, the episodes of memory coupled with bleeding and stress suggest that even if it is, the current process could cause more damage in the long run. Even you, Ms. Romanoff,” he said facing her again. “You are remarkable. A product of genetic manipulation, subjected to chemical and biological enhancements and modifications—I won’t even begin to approach the psychological efforts on top of all of that. You are—a one of a kind patient with a one of a kind problem.”

He was absolutely fascinated.

“You know, I don’t care about any of that. I want to get cleared to use Tony’s device.” She ignored his glare. “Basically all I’m hearing is the device stimulated the areas we want stimulated and broke through the blocks. The results repaired the physical damage. Sounds win win.”

“It also made your brain bleed,” Clint said pivoting to stare at her, firing each word like a bullet.

“I recovered. Being unconscious makes resting pretty straightforward.”

“Ne delayte eto shutkoy,” James almost growled the words

“Ya ne!” She pulled away to meet his glare. She wasn’t making light of it. “Ya istselil!” The device had triggered memories; it had triggered a physiological reaction in her brain.

“Vy slyshite to, chto khotite uslyshat'.” Clint entered the fray and Tony frowned as he shot him a look and so did Steve.

“No, I’m not just hearing what I want to hear,” she countered. If he wanted to make it an argument for all of them, then they could do that in English. “I’m listening to what Strange is saying. There was a blockage, I used BARF, it triggered memories accessing an area of my brain affected by the memory blocks, the chair or whatever the hell that memory machine is.”

“And then it made your brain bleed.” Tony stared at her. His tech had hurt her and it was making him crazy. Someday, he would need to learn separate the man from the machine. It might actually save his sanity. Course, she wasn’t one to talk.

“Sometimes you have to hurt to get where you’re going,” she told him. “Was the headache after brutal? Was it hard to see? Did I need a ton of rest? Yes to all of the above. Something you…” She smacked James with the back of her hand against his chest as she straightened and ceased leaning on him. With one last squeeze, she released Steve’s hand. Pacing away from them, she looked at Strange. “The brain bleed—healing that is what healed that four percent?”

“Conjecture. Speculation.” Strange shook his head. “I cannot give you an absolute. But the evidence suggests that by creating a physical injury in the region of the scarring and allowing your—admittedly exceptional healing gift courtesy of the serum to do its job properly and without interference, you were able to restore that four percent.”

“Is that why you want to take a sample of the dark region? To trigger her serum to attempt to heal that piece of architecture?” Tony had begun to fidget. Never a good sign. Steve, on the other hand, had gone fiercely quiet, his attention laser-focused on the conversation unfolding in front of him.

“Partially, though I suspect that would merely be a happy byproduct if it did make that happen. My concern is that the dark area is malignant tissue or foreign body that doesn’t belong there—it could be a result of your alien exposure or some other experiment over the years. Either way, it’s a question mark. As long as it’s a question mark it makes me hesitant about the rest.”

Despite the fact he said nothing, Clint’s disapproval echoed loudly.

“What are the risks of the surgery?”

“The same risks as there are with any surgery—in this one—more of a discomfort. You’d need to be awake…”

Natasha tipped her head back and exhaled.

Steve just shook his head and then he stared at her. Was she really contemplating this?

“Anytime you specifically target a region of the brain, you need the patient awake and able to interact. Not all patients remember it…” He grimaced. “Poor choice of words.”

Pinned to a cold metal table, the peeling of her skin back, the sound of a saw, the insertion of their devices and then answering their questions…

“We are discussing hypotheticals. Exploratory surgery is an option. As is triggering an episode while we monitor via a CT Scan. Another would be to actively use the device—”

“I’m not authorizing the use of SPARK on a fishing expedition,” Tony snapped.

Even over Tony’s objections the doctor continued, “While I don’t endorse experimenting with unknown technology, nor can I predict that the result with be the same the second time around, it’s another option. Ideally, we would trigger an episode first. It’s the least invasive; get a look at the activity during the episode. Gather the sample next, run some tests and monitor for what your brain does after, and once we have those results, we can plan our next step.”

“Frankly, Doctor,” Steve said slowly. “This doesn’t sound like a course of action so much as a course of exploration. Have you considered the potential damage of each of these steps?”

“I have,” Strange said, facing Steve. “I weighed it against her previous reactions and medical history. The presence of the serum in her system affords us some flexibility and more options.”

“And you just want to cut her head open and go sightseeing?” The skepticism in Clint’s voice had given away to real anger and they were going in circles. Steve or Tony or Clint would challenge something he said and Strange would offer some reasonable response, but not once did he guarantee results or act like he had all the answers.

James remained as quiet as she was. Folding her arms, she faced him. His pale gaze held hers. His pupils had constricted, his knuckles were white, and he was so deadly still. As uncomfortable as all of this was for her, she could imagine what he must be considering. Could he watch her go through that?

If the shoe was on the other foot, could she just stand there and let someone dig into his brain?

Could she have done what Steve did when James went back into cryo in Wakanda?

Before she remembered? Maybe.

Now?

Dammit.

“Why?” Natasha asked suddenly, wheeling around to face the others fully.

Strange looked at her. “Why?”

“Yes. Why? Two days ago, you finally showed up after Tony had been searching for you for weeks. We went over the scans, gave you the medical data, you asked a few questions and then you left. Today, you show up here—ready to do this, eager almost.” She studied him, tracking his breathing, his pupil dilation, the faint twitch in his fingers and the way his posture shifted when he flipped from doctor to arrogant surgeon then to whatever the hell his new job was.

She didn’t know wizards, but she did know men.

His micro expressions told a different story even when he wore his arrogance like his freestanding red cloak over there. As if drawn by her attention, the cloak seemed to shift.

Yeah. That shit was weird.

“Why the sudden urgency?” She took a step toward him. “Why do you want to help me?”

“Because, Ms. Romanoff, while I don’t believe your file contained near as much of your medical history as there must be, what was done to you was barbaric. I am quite possibly the only doctor in the world who would even be willing to try to help you, but more than that—I want to help. Before—” He held up his hands. “Your case alone would have fascinated me. Now? You deserve far more than you have received. You have a right to all your faculties, and if we can somehow give you the chance to reclaim them, then that’s a miracle I’d very much like to see happen. That said,” he concluded with a faint bow of his head. “This is not a decision you should enter into lightly. I will give you my word, however, I will be there each step of the way and I will keep you apprised of everything we are doing to let you make the most informed decision.”

“That’s great, Doc, she’s gonna need a minute.” Clint brushed past him and locked his gaze on hers. “In fact, Nat? A minute?” He nodded to the door and while he didn’t reach for her arm, the weight of his stare was enough.

“I’ll be right back,” she told the others. “Apparently, I need a minute.”

Anger coursed through Clint, it vibrated in his shoulders as he stalked to the door and shoved it open to the hall then led the way to another room. He yanked the door open and motioned for her to enter ahead of him.

“Friday,” Clint said. “Privacy mode. Zero recordings.”

“Natasha?” The query had Clint frowning, but Natasha shook her head.

“It’s fine, Friday. Clint and I need to talk—privately.”

“Privacy mode engaging. Due note, I will still be monitoring your vitals via the bracelet.”

“So noted,” she murmured, then the quiet draped them. When she opened her mouth, Clint held up a finger and shook his head.

The silence dragged and she paced away to let him catch his breath. Whatever he wrestled with, she wasn’t going to like. It was almost like Morocco all over again, when he’d practically shook with raw fury after she’d slipped out to do the mission without him. Her success had been compromised when she got caught in a series of car bombings throughout the city.

He’d found her then, one shoe off, covered in broken glass, bleeding from multiple injuries and her hearing had been shot. The next thirty-six hours, he’d confused the hell out of her. Ranting on the one hand and showing her absolute gentleness as he looked after her wounds.

Clint cared.

Being her best friend had to suck most of the time, but she got the lucky end of that deal.

“You need to stop and take a breath,” Clint said finally.

“My ribs are better and my breathing is fine,” she answered, pivoting to face him as he squared his shoulders.

“Funny,” he retorted, his tone dry. “You need to stop, Nat. You’ve been running since we found you in Vienna.”

“I’ve been running for a lot longer than that, Clint. I’ll stop when I’m dead.” She got it, but this… “This is different. This isn’t about Leonid or Alexei or a smuggling ring or Zemo or an alien entity.” She paused a beat. “At least I hope it isn’t on that last one.”

“Dammit, Tasha,” Clint swore, stalking forward. “Listen to me. Please?”

Expression neutral, she spread her hands. “I’m listening.”

“You have taken body blow after body blow and now—you’re standing in that training room half-convinced to let some wizard you met two days ago drill into your head.”

“I didn’t agree to it yet.”

His bland look told her he knew what she’d been thinking. “Kid, you gotta slow down. You gotta give the rest of you time to catch up. I know… I know how important this is to you.”

“Do you?” She raised her brows. “Do you really? Do you have any idea what it is to only know part of who you are? What if you remembered the abuse but not your brother? What if you remembered Laura—meeting her? Maybe kissing her the first time? But you had no idea where Coop and Lila are?”

He flinched and she hated herself a little.

“Clint, you can’t understand. I don’t even understand. But the only person in my way to finding my daughter is me. And he’s right, I’ll heal. Maybe it will take days or weeks…but I will and if it means I find her…”

“You know she’s not a baby anymore, right?” The words landed like fists. “You know that finding her isn’t a matter of life and death? She’s—grown up Nat. She’s got to be in her forties. She has a whole life and probably a family.”

“So what? I should just write it off? You know, I had one. Gave it away. Fire sale. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get another. That will totally replace the one I had to give up?” The ice threading through her melted to lava.

“No, of course not, but wrecking yourself for no reason is not… you don’t know what will happen if he puts you through these things. Tests, Nat. Just like you said you always wanted to avoid. Experimental procedures. Poking around… for fuck’s sake, Natasha.” The last came out on a yell and rubbed his hands over his face. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“You’re not going to lose me.” How was she supposed to make him understand…

“You can’t promise that,” he said flatly. “And maybe—looking back, you’ll find some peace in this new knowledge. But what about what else you remember? What happens when you undo all the things that made you Natasha Romanoff in the first place? What if you go in Natasha and you wake up Natalia Romanova? Or worse…you just wake up as the Black Widow? What happens then, Nat?”

“You want me to stop all of it,” she whispered. “To not get my memories back.”

He sighed, but he didn’t deny it. “I think I want my best friend to keep breathing. To be there this Christmas and the next one. I think I want to know I’ll always be able to have your back and that you didn’t sacrifice everything for an idea that will only ever torment you…if it doesn’t change you utterly.”

Nat opened her mouth, then closed it. What the hell was she supposed to say to that?

“Kid, you’ve been changing bit by bit since we found you, some of it’s great. You’ve found your boys. But some of it… just take a breath, Natasha. Step back. Give yourself time to actually heal before you start tearing yourself apart again. Really think about what you’re choosing here.”

Choosing.

“You really think remembering is going to change me? That I won’t be me anymore.”

“Can you tell me without a shadow of a doubt, that you won’t? Can you tell me that the idea has never crossed your mind? That I’m insane to be worried about this?”

It was Natasha’s turn to run her hands through her still damp hair and pace away from him. The yank she gave her hair helped to ground her but there was a gaping maw where Clint kept punching away at her and it ached.

“Tell me, Nat. Tell me if they hadn’t stripped you of your memories, you would still have left the KGB. That you would have walked away from the Red Room. Tell me you would have taken my offer when I made it. Tell me Natalia Romanova would have done that.”

 

“Compartmentalizing,” Natalia whispered in her ear. “We hide it even from ourselves. It is how we keep our secrets.”

 

“If I had never given up my daughter I wouldn’t have forgotten,” she said slowly. “I did leave the Red Room. I left the KGB. I left it all.” She’d only gone back for James. “I had to leave her to keep her safe.”

“But that woman you were then…you don’t remember her. What pieces you’ve gotten back… they aren’t you, are they?”

The pieces that felt so real, that she experienced, they were her and they weren’t. Crossing over to one of the benches she sat down.

“Clint, I have to know what happened to her. I don’t care what happens to me.”

“I know you don’t, but I do.”

When he dropped onto the bench next to her, she leaned forward and clasped her hands.

“I told him he had to tell you,” Clint admitted. “When it was tearing him up—after he remembered. I knew it would drive you crazy and I told Bucky he had to tell you and now I wish I hadn’t.”

“That’s fair,” she said. “I can’t turn it off. I mean—we have that memory machine, I suppose we could figure it out and then…”

“That’s not funny,” he growled.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” she sighed the words. The dull ache throughout her whole body was back. “Clint, I can’t let what might happen stop me. Because one of the things that might happen is I never remember. James has to live with that knowledge alone and I—I get these little pieces. Fragments. For—a few seconds a couple a day ago, the idea I might be pregnant again hit me.”

“The vomiting.” It wasn’t even a question.

“The vomiting. The nausea. The—everything. I know I don’t want to talk about last week, but I got to remember when Mary was born and that’s kind of a gift. But now it hurts…” Tears burned in her eyes, but she refused to shed them. “Then I thought, adaptable DNA—it happened before and we’re not celibate. Oh crap… and the feeling wasn’t joy or even anticipation.”

“Nat…”

“It was terror.” She turned her head to find him staring at her. He had his arm up and his hand opened and closed like he wanted to hug her. “I thought I might be pregnant—just a blip. A few seconds.” She could barely see past the burn. “It wasn’t joy or excitement or a thrill—there was dread and then there was terror and then denial. Because it was a stupid idea. Even if it might be possible, after everything I went through, no pregnancy could survive that but it was a glimpse…”

She licked her lips and then leaned toward him and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Her system housed a beehive for all the buzzing, but she didn’t pull away. It was Clint for fuck’s sake. Clint would never hurt her.

“It was a glimpse as to what Natalia had to have felt when she realized. Then it was nothing but me… and the knowledge that I already lost one—walked away from one—what the hell made me think I would get another chance? Or even deserved one.”

“Goddammit, Nat.”

“You want to know who I’ll be if I remember?” She stared at him. “So do I. But whether I’m Natalia or Natasha or Chernya Vdova. You’re still going to be my best friend, Idiot.”

He pressed his lips to the side of her head.

“I can do this without you if I have to,” she told him. “You don’t have to go through this.”

“Please don’t tell me something stupid like I can walk away, because I will break your damn leg in two places and we can hobble around together.”

A smile escaped and she sighed. “I really don’t want to do this without you.”

“You don’t have to… but can we at least slow down from warp speed?”

“Would you?” She tilted her head and met his gaze. The silence dragged out, and gradually the pleading in his gaze quieted. When he sighed, she had her answer.

“Fine, but on one condition.”

“Which is?”

“What’s Laura getting me for Christmas?”

“Never happening.”

“C’mon, Nat…if she gets me something romantic and I get her something practical, I look like an ass. If I get her something romantic and she gets me something practical, I look like a fool.”

“So what you’re saying is you’re going to look like an idiot no matter what you do.”

“Pretty much.”

“You want my advice?”

“I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t.”

“Embrace it,” she told him soberly. Then swiped away the tears when he groaned.

“You suck.”

“I know, but I’m your best friend.”

“Forever,” he reminded her. Then pulled her in for a hug. “You’re my best friend, Kid. So you gotta do this thing, I’ll be there. You just have to deal with me kicking your ass if I have to.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” Then because she wanted, she turned and wrapped her arms around him. He didn’t quite crush her with the hug, but he didn’t let her go either. “Idiot,” she whispered.

Umnik,” he answered.

 

Minutes later, she led the way back to the main training room where Strange waited along with Steve, Tony, and James. Clint was a silent presence at her side and though her eyes were sore, they were dry.

“Have you come to a decision?” Strange asked, before he turned away from the other three. “Or do you need to consult with the whole committee?”

“I actually have some more questions, if we’re not taking up too much of your time.” Not that she was sure what his time would require. “And in the interests of comfort, we can probably adjourn this to the administrative wing and coffee?” Because she could use a gallon, liberally laden with vodka.

The cloak flew to Strange’s hand as he held it out and then nodded. “I would appreciate some tea if you have it.”

“Well lucky you Doc, we actually have a tea collection.” Of course, her suite might offer more privacy but it was not stocked. This whole thing might have been easier at the Tower. But they managed. Friday cleared the common room for them and while she would have preferred it if someone went to set up the conference room, the guys stuck close.

Tony stewed over something and James remained distinctly unhappy, but it was Steve who leaned against the counter next to her as she got the tea steeping.

“You sure about this?”

“Nope,” she told him. “But something has to give and I have far more questions than answers.”

“What he’s proposing…”

“I haven’t made a decision yet.” Then because he needed to hear it, she glanced over to James then to him. “I wont until we’ve all talked.” They didn’t get to make the call for her. None of them.

But she wouldn’t rush forward without at least hearing their input. The fact Steve nearly sagged in relief as he rubbed a hand over his face told her she’d made the right call. Once the coffee carafes were full and teapot along with an extra kettle of boiling water, Steve pulled a tray of sandwiches out of the fridge. They carried all of it to the conference room.

Natasha glanced at Steve’s office as she passed it and almost smiled. Later. Maybe a lot later, but later, she promised herself.

Once they were secured and privacy mode engaged Tony leaned back in a chair with a coffee mug in hand. “I’m going on the record right now, that anything invasive, I’m not a fan of. Any kind of experimenting is right out.”

“Not really enamored of those myself,” Steve admitted.

“Thank you,” Clint said then glared at her. “At least they seem to be getting it now.”

“It doesn’t matter what any of us are fans of or approve,” James said in an icy tone. “Natalia will make the call. In this—especially in this…” And as much as he hated the idea, he wouldn’t take this from her. If she was going to risk her mind, it had to be her call.

She mouthed ‘thank you’ and he nodded once. When he pulled out a chair for her, she sank into it and she didn’t argue when he slid a sandwich in front of her or poured the tea.

“Were the Avengers always this dramatic?” Strange asked from where he sat, waiting. His cloak just hovered there in the air. “Because I’m trying to figure out how you saved New York with all of this angst.”

“It’s really incredible how you solve people just by looking at them,” Natasha said drily and actually earned a faint smile. “It must really make you a hit at parties.”

“It’s a burden,” he retorted, then sobered. “You have questions.”

Yes, she did. A lot. “The issues you found with my brain. Are they going to get worse?”

Strange considered her. “By worse are you suggesting a deteriorating condition that will debilitate over time? Or that the traumatic brain injuries you seem to sustain regularly along with concussions will create a complication for you?”

“Let’s go with yes, all of the above.” Natasha took a bite of the sandwich. Ham and cheese, a little mustard, a little lettuce and tomato. It tasted—good. Really good. Suddenly starving, she kept her bites small and easily chewed.

“Without monitoring over a course of time—an even the scans you have taken several months apart are complicated by different injuries, I can’t say definitively if degeneration is something you’ll face. Declining memory faculties, aphasia, impaired cognitive abilities—these are all complications of TBIs, but in individuals without your—enhancements. As you are, you may remain exactly as you are providing you avoid head injuries.”

“Let’s assume that’s going to be a challenge.” Natasha was at heart a pragmatist. As long as she was in combat situations, she ran the risk of getting hurt. She’d nearly finished her first sandwich and made herself sip her tea and wait for the second, though James went ahead and added one to her plate. Shooting him a dry look, she selected a sandwich from the tray, took a bite, and then dropped it on the plate in front of him.

Steve bit back a smile and Tony even smirked at James’ bland look. When she looked back at Strange he frowned as he glanced from her to James and then back again. Finally, he said, “Again, I can’t give you specifics or accurate data, but experience tells me repeated head trauma is a bad thing, even in someone who can heal it largely because the architecture of your brain has been compromised and damaged. Now—that’s not to say you couldn’t literally suffer an injury that forces a formerly compromised area to heal. It’s entirely possible.”

“But really dangerous?” Clint suggested, a knife dancing in his hand as he flicked it back and forth. It was an old trick of theirs to unsettle a mark and soften them up for interrogation. It wasn’t working on Strange; he didn’t seem remotely interested in the action.

“There’s always danger when dealing with a brain injury, but I can’t imagine anyone at this table is unfamiliar with the potential threats.”

He wasn’t wrong.

“So if I do nothing, I may or may not get worse.” So not helpful.

“By get worse, are you referring to the episodes? Fugue states? Your PTSD? Specifics help.”

“Your bedside manner sucks,” Clint said. “You and Nat should get along great.”

Flipping Clint off, she studied Strange. “You need to trigger an episode, those tend to make me a little incapacitated, not to mention the pain and the bleeding.”

“Yeah, let’s not forget to mention those,” Tony commented. “Red...”

“Wait,” Steve said, lifting a hand and to her shock, Tony actually clenched his jaw. “We’re still just talking about this, right Nat?”

“At the moment, yes. However—the fugues I’ve dealt with since I left the KGB… and I don’t really get them as often anymore.”

“And we have a pretty good idea of why you were getting them at SHIELD,” Clint supplied, his expression still harboring elements of disapproval.

“Probably…you probably need to see the memory machine if we can figure that thing out.”

“The what now?” Strange asked.

Picking up her sandwich, she said, “Friday, would you please bring the doc up to date and let him see that thing?”

“Of course, Natasha.”

While Friday threw the pictures up of the device and provided Strange with what they knew of it, he stared at the item in disbelief. Steve’s expression was far more foreboding and Clint’s had just gone flat. Neither of them had seen it yet and she didn’t look at it again. She didn’t have to. It was a thing of nightmares.

“And you’re saying they used this on you?”

“Yep,” she told him. “I got all the toys.”

“Humor is a good deflection, but I would ask that you address the next question with all seriousness. How much of that operation do you remember?”

“Bits and pieces—I didn’t remember it at all until recently.”

“What triggered that particular memory? I know that may be personal but it could be important.”

It meant talking about The Mandarin. “What is the chance you four will leave me and Friday to talk to the doc?”

“Natalia,” James said, the rebuke quiet.

“We can,” Steve said and that surprised her. Tony and Clint as well.

“Wait,” Tony said.

“Hey Cap…” Clint began.

“Stop.” The order in his voice unmistakable. “Nat—do you need the privacy?”

“I would prefer it,” she admitted. “Friday can monitor—if she keeps it locked to my voiceprint and doesn’t intervene unless it’s an emergency.”

“Agreed,” Friday said and Tony blew out a breath.

“Okay.” Steve rose and looked at the others. “Gentlemen?”

Clint’s glare was fierce and Tony looked less than thrilled but James didn’t move.

Pivoting in the chair, she looked at him. “I know you hate every part of this. I know you’ve seen so much worse,” she said, meeting his reticent gaze. “But you don’t need to hear this. Any of you.”

With a silent nod, he pushed the chair back and stood before crossing the room and following Steve out. Then the door closed behind them.

“You keep interesting company, Ms. Romanoff.”

“Doc, he who casts spells shouldn’t be the one throwing shade.”

A faint smile creased his lips. “Fair point.”

“Friday?”

“Yes, Natasha?”

“That not listening thing—voiceprint only and I want you to not focus on the rest of this for a bit.”

“I will do my best, I can monitor in visual mode.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Like I said,” Strange murmured before reaching for the teapot and refilling his mug. He moved with deliberate and precise gestures, his scarred hands trembling. Those injuries cost him a field he’d trained in, that he remained an expert of and yet—he continued. “Interesting company. Do I need to assure you of doctor-patient confidentiality?”

“No, I pretty much got that. This isn’t personal for you. It is for them.”

“Understood.”

Natasha refilled her tea. “Two weeks ago, I was taken by a man called The Mandarin…”

Keeping to mission debriefing standards, she outlined the torture she’d endured from the drowning to the suffocation to the electrocution, poisoning, and then blistering sound that she thought nearly punctured her eardrum. It actually might have. At that point, she’d lost track of days.

Strange listened to all of it without interruption, his expression though grew more and more foreboding. When she finished, he considered her for a long moment. “This man and his rings?”

“Dead.”

“Verified?”

“As far as I know.”

“The rings?”

“Destroyed.” She hoped.

“I would like to get confirmation of those,” he said slowly.

“Me too. Let’s get me fixed and we’ll do a field trip to the crazy land.”

A faint smile. “The deflection is probably quite necessary at the moment.”

“Especially when I don’t have any vodka.”

Sitting forward, he tapped one of his fingers to the table. “You were electrocuted over how many minutes? Do you know?”

“Ten? Maybe fifteen? It could have been longer it was hard to keep count at that point. Most of his… events lasted between twenty and forty minutes.”

“How much of a break between that and the sound pressure?” Strange kept his focus on the task.

“I don’t know. I lost consciousness between the first and second events—eventually I blacked out during the second or at least triggered. That was when I remember Secretary Pierce and his taking me to the vault where the memory machine was.”

“Can you go over each step of that you recall?” His gaze was on the machine still displayed on the screen.

So she did, including the cutting, the pain, the drilling and the sounds.

Strange frowned. “That’s a hateful device.”

“That’s a good word for it.”

“It programmed you---made you malleable to suggestion and then surgically altered the brain to make accessing those memories impossible. They would have had to use other methods as well perhaps a combination of drugs and vocal triggers and even then…”

“I apparently helped them calibrate the device…” So, she had to bring up that piece though she compartmentalized the information on the drug and the alien.

At this point, Strange leaned back in the chair. “I truly understand why you did not want them here for this. I barely know you and I feel the need to take action on your behalf.”

“Hey, you’re giving me your expert opinion, so I’m going to call that taking action.” Oddly enough, she kind of liked the doctor. He was harsh, arrogant, and a little high-handed, but he wasn’t a miserable bastard.

“Well let’s see if I can prove actually useful to you. Now for another difficult question, I’m afraid.”

“Because everything else we’ve talked about has been so light and fluffy.”

An actual smile and a hint of a laugh. “You do have your charms.”

“So I’ve been told. What do you want to ask?”

“Your PTSD—it’s linked to far more than the events we’ve discussed. It dates back…”

“Decades, Doc. My issues have issues. I manage. But I need my memories back—I need my mind whole. I’m willing to do a lot—but I don’t want to hurt those men out there so if we can find a way to do it that doesn’t shred me like swiss cheese, they would appreciate it.”

“Truth be told, Ms. Romanoff. So would I… I would caution you that once we begin any course of treatment, we may not recognize a bad direction until it is too late.”

“Awesome.” What else could she say?

“I would also caution you—that whatever we may find, what memories we can recover—based on what you’ve said they may very well add to your trauma.”

“I’m pretty much expecting that. If we can find the one piece I really want—” Though she wanted all of it, she wanted James and Mary back specifically. “It will be worth it.”

“May I attempt something? It will require a little magic.”

“By a little, you mean?” She made a circular motion.

“Something like that, but I do not require the sling ring—and now I understand about the rings, I will do my best to prevent that from being an issue for you.”

“Thank you.”

“While I can’t use magic to heal you, would that I could, I can perhaps—look a little closer without putting you through a machine.”

“Is it going to hurt?”

“I do not believe so, but I cannot guarantee it.”

Rolling her head from side to side, she glanced up. “Friday, please ask James to come in.”

Strange glanced at her. A minute later James was inside and he glanced from her to Strange as she stood. One by one, she removed her knives—four of them—her garrote, her gun, and a handful of taser discs.

Sliding them over toward James, she said. “He’s going to do something…to take a better look. Probably won’t hurt, but…” At his swift frown, she said, “This isn’t treatment.” She glanced at Strange once and he nodded. “This is more looking.”

Arms loose at his sides, easier to reach his weapons that way, James studied Strange. “Do you want the others in here?”

“Better or worse for them?”

James grimaced. “Better… it’s Hell standing out there not knowing.”

“Friday…”

It took a minute to get everyone settled and brought up to speed.

Finally, she looked at Strange and asked, “Where do I need to be?”

“Take a seat.” Only after she sat, did he stand.

“If you can do this look thing with magic,” Tony asked. “Not that I’m buying that it’s magic. Why can’t you just do the fixing with it?”

“Because that is not what the magic was intended for, Mr. Stark. Magic, when used against its will has a tendency to strike back and take a higher cost.”

“Of course it does,” Natasha murmured in the same breath as Tony.

“Let’s just do this, I’m actually tired.” And willing to admit it. “Then I have to think about this. If I want to start—tomorrow?” Preferably before the kids got there. “Would that be doable?”

“I will make time,” Strange assured her. “I will also answer my cell when you send the message.”

“Generous,” Clint said with a snort.

“Ms. Romanoff?”

Natasha spread her hands. “Wow me with your magic, Doc.”

Uncertain of what to expect, actually being knocked out of her own body and staring at the room where the guys all seemed frozen in a moment and Strange—or a translucent Strange approached her was not even in the wheelhouse.

“Why?”

“I will explain another time, I am going to touch you. You will both feel it and not at the same time. Do I have your permission?”

“Sure,” she said, still a little caught up in the fact she was hovering outside her body. The guys were all staring and Tony was squinting at her, his glasses flickering. Then Strange placed his hands on her head and it was… what the hell? She looked up at him, his fingers were touching her head but were inside it and it didn’t hurt but the weird factor dialed up to a thousand.

He pulled back slowly and Natasha swore he held her brain in his hand.

“That’s really not possible,” she said.

“Not in the physical plane, certainly,” he told her. “But magic defies our preconceived notions of possible, of course.”

“Of course.”

More curious than anything, she moved closer as he expanded it and peered at her brain. “There,” he said, drifting his finger along a position. “Do you see it?” He had to make it larger, but the dark striation was there.

‘What is that? And I’m guessing it’s not normal.”

“No… but it is smaller. This segment, it’s shrinking and it’s doing it on its own.”

That was good.

“Then that means…?”

“Whatever caused it no longer does, your body and serum are dealing with it. That leaves the blocks, the altered architecture. It also tells me I don’t need to do an invasive surgery to get a sample.”

“Well yay you. Can I go back to my body now before they freak out?”

Because Tony had paled.

“Yes, of course.”

A jolt later and Natasha sucked in a deep breath. Oh the world felt weird. Really. Really weird.

Strange glanced over at her.

“What did you just do?” Tony demanded. “Everything was fine and then Red’s vitals just stopped for a second.”

A second?

Strange summoned his cloak and snapped it on. “I examined Ms. Romanoff’s astral form to make some determinations regarding the injuries we are dealing with. Do you know more now than you did before?”

“Be a little nicer,” Natasha told him as she rose. “Tony was a fan and he highly recommended you. I think he’s changing his mind.”

The room seemed a little unsteadier but she didn’t falter.

“You okay?” Steve asked quietly.

“That was really weird,” she told him. “But Doc says we don’t have to biopsy my brain. So I’ll call it a win.”

“Exactly. I will leave you to discuss this with your team, Ms. Romanoff.” He set a card down on the table. “My phone number. When you’re ready call me.”

“Thanks… and Doc?”

“I will call before I open a portal. You have my word.”

Tony and Clint saw him out and Natasha flattened her hands on the table. James slid her weapons back to her and studied her quietly.

“I don’t like any of this,” he told her.

“I know. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought.” Which wasn’t saying much. “The team is going to have questions.”

“They can wait,” James said. Maybe they could, but Wanda had been upset.

“I want to talk to Wanda and then I want to go back to the Tower,” she glanced from Steve to James.

“We can do that.” Steve’s sigh had her turning to face them both,

“You know what else I want?”

Steve raised his brows. “Vodka?”

“Well… yes and a lot of it. But I’d like a hug. I want…” She didn’t even get to finish it. Steve crushed her to him, it was the gentlest, all-encompassing hug and James hand was on her back. He hesitated until she reached for him and then she was folded into a super soldier sandwich and she closed her eyes.

Monsters and magic and all the things she’d never been trained for.

With reluctance, she eased away and they let her go. Leaning against the table, she said. “Tonight—just the three of us. We talk about this.”

“No Tony?” Steve asked.

Natasha shook her head slowly. “No Clint either.”

“You know their opinions,” James stated, no question in his tone.

“Clint made his clear earlier and Tony’s—Tony.” She valued his opinion but he was so violently opposed to the very idea of something harming her that it compromised the rest. She looked at James. “This is…this is ours.”

“You want me there?” Steve verified then raised his hands when she stared at him. “Look, I’d get it if you wanted it to just be the two of you, I would. So I’m making sure. No pressure.”

“Pressure is okay,” she told him. “I’m not going to break. But yes, I want you there.”

“So do I,” James added.

“Natasha,” Friday murmured. “Boss and Mr. Barton are almost back.”

“Thank you, Friday.”

“We’ll talk about it at the Tower,” Steve said, then leaned in and hesitated but Natasha closed the distance and brushed a kiss to his mouth and he smiled before pressing another kiss to her forehead.

They would figure it out.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

Ruthless

 

Wanda

 

 

Wanda pulled a sweater around her tighter as Natasha came to perch on the edge of her bed. “Are you sick?” The question had plagued her all the way back to her room. Natasha called the man Doctor. But he also arrived via a portal and the power rolling off him—he was dangerous. She also got the impression he saw Wanda the same way.

“Not exactly,” Natasha told her.

“Something The Mandarin did to you?” She leaned forward and covered Natasha’s hand on the bed with hers. A part of her wanted to read her, to slip in and learn what it was Natasha kept from her but she resisted the very real urge. It would be an absolute betrayal. While she had forgiven Wanda for the memories she’d erupted during their first meeting, she would not likely forgive a repeat performance no matter how well-intentioned Wanda might be.

“Again, not exactly.” When Wanda would have asked another question, Natasha raised her hand. Her calm expression and sober eyes were a more effective deterrent than her hand. “I’m not keeping this from you because I don’t trust you. At the moment, I have more questions than I do answers. The doctor is assisting in helping me find some answers. We have requested that he not just drop in again…”

Lips pursed, Wanda nodded. For a moment, between the sudden appearance of the portal and the incredible power surge Wanda worried The Mandarin had returned and she was not going to let him take Natasha again. Not while she had the power to stop him and she did.

“I…” She twisted the edge of her sweater. “I was ready to hurt him.”

“I know,” Natasha said, absolutely no judgment in her voice. “But there is a key difference in what you did than what you believe you did.”

“What?”

With a smile, Natasha held out her hand and Wanda clasped it. Every time Natasha did that, it told her she trusted Wanda, that Wanda wasn’t quite the dangerous freak she worried she’d become. Pietro had always been the affectionate one of the two of them, he’d offered her easy hugs and would tease her from her darker moods. With her cataclysmic string of failures stretching out behind her, she didn’t imagine she would ever be truly worthy of the trust Natasha gave her.

But she would damn well try.

“You were ready for a fight, in hindsight, you are now second-guessing every step you made from creating a shield around us to being prepared to throw the full weight of your power against an unknown, unidentified subject who just appeared in our training area.”

Well, that much was true.

“That’s exactly what you did—you were prepared for battle, armed yourself and sought to protect me—arguably someone not armed for a magical conflict.”

“I would never say that,” Wanda pointed out. “You’re armed even when I think you’re not.”

A quick grin and a gentle hand squeeze rewarded her comment. “Good call. Now—that is what you did and there is absolutely nothing wrong with being prepared particularly when you don’t know the threat level of the person arriving and they are just blithely dropping into the center of a secure facility like an idiot savant with a death wish.”

The dry delivery made Wanda giggle and she covered her mouth with both of her hands. “Well, when you put it that way…”

“I do put it that way and I seem to have impressed upon him the need to call ahead of time and perhaps to portal into a previously established area rather than a private, secure one.”

Blowing out a breath, Wanda nodded. “He’s very powerful, Natasha.”

“I’ve gathered that and I won’t pretend to know what that means for either of us, but it’s always better to gather an assessment of potential threats so you are better equipped to defend against them. That said,” she told her, tapping her fingers against the bed. “You did all the right things and sitting in here tearing yourself up over what you might have done is not productive. You didn’t strike him. You didn’t attack without cause or provocation. You withdrew when an ally and trusted source gave you leave. You obeyed your instincts and worked with your team—in this case, me and Steve when he gave the word for everyone else to go.”

Hugging her knees to her chest, Wanda considered her words. “Why does it feel like I messed up then?”

“Because you’re still afraid of what you can do—of what will happen when the threat is so real and severe that you unleash your full power.”

“We know what I can do,” Wanda argued, looking down and picking at the thread on her pajama bottoms.

“We have an idea of what you can do, but we’ve never seen you truly open up and we won’t, at least not unless you’re pushed.”

“You make that sound like a bad thing.” Canting her head, she studied Natasha.

Leaning onto her elbow, Natasha settled sideways on her bed then propped her head up on her hand. “I’m going to tell you a story. For now, I want you to only focus on the story itself and to ask me no questions about it. Can you do that?”

She opened her mouth to ask a question, then closed it. If she asked, that would utterly defeat the purpose. “I’ll try.”

“Thank you,” Natasha told her. She didn’t begin immediately, seeming to contemplate something before she said, “In the Red Room, where I was trained—you began young, children. You trained to fight. To use weapons. To pick locks. To read people. To manipulate them. So many skills, always training—every day. Dancing was a part of that, too. That taught discipline. Ultimately, though, what was taught was survival. The rest were tools to be used to achieve survival. A couple of years into the training, a grouping of girls would be sent out into the wilderness. They would be left by a teacher or a handler. Eight girls. Enough supplies for four of them. The mission. Return by any means necessary.”

Horror crawled through Wanda.

“You don’t think you would kill the person next to you, you believe you would work with them. Divide the resources and work together. Eight girls can handle more than four. That makes sense. Yes? The handlers are aware of this potential flaw and they know what they have done. You have to survive more than just the other students but the terrain and the weather. Now had you been trained to trust the other students and to work with them, negotiation and team building might offer a solution. But you have never been taught to trust those around you. You know that the girl in the bed next to you might very well kill you in your sleep so that she can advance in the next day’s training or that the girl two beds down will try to trip you in the shower and strangle you because killing you there means you won’t be on the mats later that day. Even if you avoid those pitfalls, you will find yourself face to face with another student, you will fight. Sometimes to first fall, sometimes to first blood, and sometimes the handlers will not let the match end until one opponent is dead.”

Wanda wanted to throw up. The hand she covered her mouth with now kept a scream back. The Red Room—the place she had seen in Natasha’s mind. The dancing. All of this was real. It had happened.

“So your handlers know you cannot trust any of the girls. You must make it back. The easiest solution, kill one, grab a pack of supplies and go. You are not the only one who has this idea.”

Closing her eyes, Wanda tries to keep the thoughts out.

“Now there are four, wounded, bitten, scratched, and sweaty. But what if it could just be two? You would have twice the supplies and it would guarantee your survival and it doesn’t matter if this thought occurs to you because it will occur to them. When it is two, then you both know that there really can only be one who returns—your handlers have never rewarded you for being sloppy. They sent you out here to cull the students to find who is the best. If two return, then you can’t both be the best—therefore you will have failed the mission and likely be executed. Survival is the only thing that matters. You were given a mission and you will do what you have to do.”

Tears burning in her eyes, Wanda swallowed and met Natasha’s quiet eyes. The horror she bled from her own soul tore at her.

“Only when you have killed this last girl will you understand the point of the exercise. It wasn’t just about survival or being the best—it was about unleashing your full potential. It was about knowing you can survive because you know what you can and will do.”

With a small smile, Natasha straightened. “Until you unleash yourself, you will always be a little afraid of what you might do. It will eat at you—because you won’t trust yourself. That’s what we’re going to work on—in a far less painful fashion.”

She couldn’t help it, tears spilled out of her eyes and she scrambled over to hug Natasha. The older woman wrapped her tight.

“I’m so sorry.” Wanda whispered.

“It’s long past,” she whispered. “You’re going to be fine.”

The hug went on as Natasha rubbed her back soothingly and more tears spilled out of Wanda. It was like being in her room at the Tower all over again when all of her frustrations spilled out.

“I don’t want to hurt people—and I wanted to hurt him.”

“You wanted to stop him,” Natasha murmured. “You wanted to protect me.”

The words sank in slowly and Wanda leaned back. “When we—when we blasted The Mandarin, I had the opportunity to drop my arm to not let the repulsor fire. The programming was there, but it gave me a chance to say no. I didn’t—he took you and he hurt you.”

“You made a choice,” Natasha said, carefully pushing Wanda’s hair away from her face. “Do you think you were wrong?”

“I think…he was a hateful man, he did horrible things—what he tried to do to Steve. What he did to you.”

“Wanda,” the command in Natasha’s voice dragged at her. “Do you think making the choice to join the others and let your repulsor fire and eliminate him was wrong?”

“I think the world is better without him.” Then she licked her lips and added, “No, I wasn’t wrong. That scares me.”

“Good. Making a judgment call is tough. But you did what you believed was right, or maybe even just the lesser of two evils. You can keep beating yourself up about it or you can forgive yourself and accept that you made a choice to protect your team and you took out someone who did horrible things to them.” She tugged Wanda’s hair gently. “You are not a bad person. You feel things very deeply. That’s why this is troubling you.”

Natasha had once offered to take out the guards that had hurt her and suddenly Wanda understood why. “Do you feel safer knowing he’s gone?”

“Yes,” Natasha answered.

“Then that’s enough,” Wanda said before pushing her own fingers through her hair and shaking her head. “That’s enough.”

“You feel better now?”

“A little,” Wanda admitted. “How do we—unleash me to learn my full potential?”

“We’ll figure it out.”

Skeptical, Wanda squinted at her.

“Hey,” Natasha said. “It’ll be fun.”

“You have a weird definition of fun.”

“You know, I hear that a lot. Makes me think there’s something wrong with other people’s sense of humor.” The sly smile coupled with the amusement trickling into Natasha’s eyes made Wanda laugh.

“I have missed you. We really need to knock that off.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Natasha said, then rose. “I have to help Peter tomorrow—but maybe we can work out something on Friday?”

“I’d like that. The kids will be here.” Wanda couldn’t wait for them to arrive. She loved the whole Barton family. While they couldn’t replace her own, she liked how it felt to hang out with them.

“Looking forward to it.” While there was some truth to that, Natasha looked more thoughtful than excited. At the door, she paused. “I’ve been meaning to ask you…”

“What?” Wanda scooted to the edge of the bed. She needed to get changed and go find some food anyway. Maybe do some reading.

“What happened to your rings? The fun styles…crazy leggings and long socks?”

Wanda glanced at her bare fingers then spread her hands. “After—after the Raft, I didn’t know where my rings had gone. They took them off me when I was incarcerated. After Wakanda, I went back to Sokovia, I was working a lot with my hands and… I just never thought about it.”

“Do you miss them?” The question was innocuous enough but Wanda found herself uncertain of the answer. “Something to think about—let me know, and if you want to talk about it? You’re not alone.”

“Neither are you,” Wanda said, standing “If I can help you…”

“You already have,” Natasha told her. “You kept training, you kept it together, you worked with the team—you help me every day knowing you can survive.”

It was such an odd thing to say and yet, Wanda couldn’t escape the pride it filled her with. “Friday? I’ll start with brownies?”

“Oh,” Natasha said as she opened the door. Movement beyond showed Bucky straightening from where he leaned against the wall. “Chocolate bribes. That’s always a good start.”

“Hey Bucky,” Wanda said, laughing as she gripped the door and Natasha wandered toward him.

“How are you, Wanda?”

“I’m better,” she said, her gaze trailing to Natasha before meeting his again and he nodded.

“Me, too.” He winked. “We’ll see you Friday then?”

“Sounds like it.”

Natasha glanced over her shoulder. “You need me, you call me.”

“Only if you do the same,” Wanda called. Natasha laughed as she and Bucky made their way up the hall, but she didn’t reach for his hand and he didn’t touch her. As much as Natasha was back, there were still open wounds. Wounds Wanda didn’t quite understand…

She’d call Clint later or maybe talk to Sam. They both understood trauma. Closing the door, she headed for a closet and Vision stepped through the wall.

“Vis…”

“I know, I said I would try to refrain, but I could not reach your door without passing Natasha and Sergeant Barnes and they seem to be in some kind of silent disagreement.”

Wanda made a face. “Okay, turn around and give me a moment to change?”

Obediently, Vision faced the wall.

“Do you know anything about trauma, Vis?”

“I have access to a great many files on the subject.”

That might be helpful.

“Would you like me to access them so we can discuss it?”

“Yes,” she said tugging off the sweater and then looking at her bare fingers. “I would.”

 

 

Bucky

 

Natalia continued to hold her own counsel as they left the residential hall and headed for Steve’s office. He’d closeted himself with Sam to continue the earlier discussion on PTSD, a conversation Bucky found himself growing increasingly less comfortable with, and he hadn’t been alone. Tony hadn’t cared for it either. There was something—deceptive about discussing Natalia when she wasn’t there.

Steve meant well, he wanted to understand. They all did. When Steve wanted to learn, he studied, he read, and he dug in deep. Bucky did understand, but understanding didn’t give them a roadmap. Sometimes, a person just had to choose to survive. Natalia had…

“I can feel you worrying,” she murmured as they made their way across the compound.

“I’m not hiding it,” he admitted.

“Good,” she told him. “I don’t want you to think you have to.”

“How is Wanda?”

“Struggling,” Natasha said. “But she’s going to be fine. She doesn’t trust herself…”

“That can make her dangerous, Doll.”

“We’re all dangerous, James,” Natalia said, a slow familiar smile on her lips. “That’s what makes us so interesting.”

He snorted.

At the closed door to Steve’s office, she knocked.

Sam opened it and gave her a once over. “Girl… you don’t call. You don’t write. When are you going to dump these guys and run away with me?”

“I would Sam, but you have to be able to keep up.”

Bucky snorted.

“That’s cold.”

“No,” Natalia told him with a trace of amusement. “Cold would be admitting you’d probably need to outrun them.”

Steve, having moved to join them, stood just behind Sam. “On your left.”

The former airman shifted to allow Steve to pass him. “So that’s how it is?”

“Well, I could offer to arm wrestle you,” Steve told him as Natalia backed a couple of steps to let Steve leave his office. “But I don’t know how that would work out any different.”

Groaning, Sam waved them out. “Go away, all of you. Nat—you want to dump these bozos, give me a call—I’ll get the jet warmed up so we have a head start.”

She laughed. “Sorry, Sam. Just not feeling it.”

“I know, story of my life.” As irritating as the other man could be, he had his moments. Friday was right, he knew a lot about PTSD, but none of it seemed to match quite what Natalia seemed to experience.

Sharon appeared from an office farther down the hall. Natalia shifted at the movement. “You guys heading out?”

“If we can find Tony and Clint, yep.”

“Boss is on a call in his office, Natasha,” Friday told her. “Mr. Barton is hiding nerf guns in the vents.”

“Friday!” came the shout from somewhere down the hall. “Way to rat a guy out.”

“You didn’t indicate this was a secret, Mr. Barton. If you would please forget I mentioned that, Natasha. Mr. Barton is not currently hiding air-powered weapons with soft projectiles in easy reach of several different areas of the Compound.”

Bucky snorted and Steve shook his head. Friday’s absolute lack of contrition added to the widening smile on Natalia’s face. “I didn’t hear anything,” she told Friday. “Could you let them know we’re ready to head back to the Tower and we’re going out to the quinjet?”

“Absolutely. Boss said he will join you in about five minutes.”

“So fifteen to twenty?”

“Most likely, he is arguing with someone on the Committee.”

Sharon raised her eyebrows and Natalia glanced along the hall toward Tony’s office.

“Does he need intercept or does he have it?”

“I do believe Boss sounds like he’s enjoying himself.”

“Then let him have it,” she glanced at Bucky and the smile on her lips reflected in her eyes. For that, he was pleased.

“We’ll see you tomorrow,” Steve said to Sam. “Maybe. Definitely Friday.” He glanced down the hall at Sharon. “We’ll expect you there, too. Family dinner.”

She lifted a hand. “I’ll try, I want to get all of this tied up before I head out.”

“If there’s anything you need me to look after,” Natalia told her. “Just let me know.”

“Will do—you guys mind if I steal Sam? Since you’ve had him doing all the old reports review, he can help me write these summaries?”

“I don’t know, Sam,” Steve said, eyeing the other man. “Can Sharon steal you?”

“Get out of here,” he said. “I got this.” Though he paused to look at Natalia. “You good?”

“I’m getting there,” she told him almost serenely. “Now go away, Sam. You’re needed that way.” She pointed him down the hallway.

The pair vanished into the office and Bucky glanced at Steve. There was a speculative look on his face, but it was Natalia who asked, “How long has that been going on?”

Steve said, “Pretty sure from before the party.”

Chuckling, Bucky offered his hand to Natalia. “Pretty sure from before him setting you up for your date.”

“Really?” Steve stared at him.

Natalia slid her hand into his and Bucky resisted the urge to tug her in. She closed the distance but didn’t lean on him. The fact she asked for a hug earlier had been huge enough. Whatever she and Clint discussed when they’d left the training room had made her raw and the archer a little touchy. When Tony all but called him on it, Clint just told him to stuff it.

Steve retrieved their coats from his office, including Natalia’s and she released Bucky long enough to slip it on, then took his hand again.

“Pretty sure,” Bucky said. “I’m guessing the set up was as much about his attraction as it was about getting you laid.”

With a grimace, Steve glanced at Natalia but she just laughed. “Maybe. Sam means well.”

“He does,” Steve said, blowing out a breath and looking at Bucky like what the hell. “Unlike some jerks, I can name who used to set me up all the time.”

“Mine was definitely about getting us both laid,” Bucky assured him. “I’m just better at it.”

Outside, it had begun to snow and Natalia glanced up at the sky, letting the flakes catch on her eyelashes and her hair. “I still want to go skating at Rockefeller Center.”

“Sleigh ride?” Bucky asked.

“Yes… I want to do all the things we were planning.”

“We can,” Steve told her, shooting Bucky a look. Concern reflected in his eyes.

“You didn’t say when I was feeling up to it,” she sounded pleased.

“Angel, we’re trying,” he reminded her and she pulled away to walk ahead of them, but turned to face them as she walked backward.

Bucky’s heart filled, she trusted them to watch her back.

“I know—I’m not mad. I just—I want to do fun things again.”

“You want to want to do fun things, to cut loose and not have to worry about anyone else,” Bucky said, understanding rippling through him.

“That too,” she said, making a face. “Do I want to know what you and Strange talked about when I stepped out with Clint?”

“We can talk about it,” Steve said. “But I think we should wait.”

Bucky whirled his finger so she would turn; they were close to where the ground grew uneven. Aboard the quinjet, she moved toward the pilot’s chair, then glanced out the front before turning to face them.

“Tired?” Bucky asked her; she’d been on the go most of the day—at least as far as he knew. She’d kept her distance, too.

“A little. Kind of hungry, too.”

“We could have eaten here,” Steve told her.

“I don’t want to stay here, I want to—I need to sit down and work through this.”

They all did. He and Steve needed to talk to her about Tony’s theory. She wasn’t sleeping well, or at least not staying asleep. But she was moving better. The fact she’d been in the training room with Wanda had been bad enough, but Strange just dropping in had set Tony’s hair on fire.

That part of the discussion when she left with Clint had actually been moderately entertaining. Bucky hadn’t decided what he thought about Strange particularly after whatever the hell it was he’d done in the conference room. Natalia did seem to trust him, so he leaned on that judgment call.

For now.

“You want to fly?” Steve asked when she didn’t move away from the pilot’s seat.

“I want to take the ‘Vette out,” she admitted. “A part of me just wants to get in the car and drive.”

“We can do that,” Bucky told her evenly, aware of Steve’s sigh.

“We could,” he admitted. “But you won’t.” The last was directed at Natalia and he wasn’t wrong.

“No,” she said giving them a wry smile. “I can’t really. The kids are coming. I need to give Peter a hand tomorrow…”

That was news. Steve frowned and she raised a hand.

“We’ll talk about it…” She glanced past them toward the ramp as Clint strode up.

“What are we talking about?”

“That you’re still down to me three to two on the range,” Bucky answered easily and the archer snorted.

“You and me…”

“Clint,” Natasha said abruptly. “Your brace is gone.”

Steve straightened and Bucky swept a look over him. Natalia’s best friend moved steady, if a little slow, and he grinned. “Why yes, it is. Got the okay from doc to lose it. Time to start building muscle mass. Gotta watch the stress on it, but the bones are fused and I’m ready to start training again.”

Emotion swamped Natalia’s expression and she crossed the narrow jet to hug him. Clint chuckled as he held her.

“You didn’t say anything earlier you idiot.”

“Didn’t get the all-clear until after Strange left. Helen had to wait for my test results.”

Steve grinned and Bucky nodded. The relief in Natalia’s voice was palpable.

She pulled back. “But you’re clear? Shoulder and leg?”

“Yes, Tasha.” He tapped her nose. “Give me a couple of weeks and then you and me, sparring.”

Laughter welled out of her, rich and throaty. “I am so going to kick your ass.”

“I can’t wait—just don’t go for the leg.”

Her indelicate snort widened Steve’s grin even as Bucky leaned back, some of the tension in his back and shoulders easing.

“Oh, you’re going to milk it, aren’t you?”

“Making you spot me two points,” Clint said. “Damn straight.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead.

“Two points,” she countered as he slid around her to head for the pilot’s chair. “Why two?”

“Shoulder,” he said miming like he couldn’t use it. “Leg. Two points.”

“Want me to boot you in the ass right now and make it three?” Natalia raised her eyebrows.

He flipped her off and she smirked.

“Your retorts are weak.”

“Ha,” he laughed at that and settled in the chair. “I save all my good material for challenges.”

“And on that note,” Steve said, eyeing them both with amusement. “Congrats Clint. I’ll be sure to drop you back in full rotations as soon as Helen’s paperwork clears my desk.”

“Much obliged if you could lose it until after the holidays?”

“Can do,” Steve glanced at Natalia a beat and raised his eyebrows. Did she want to give Clint longer? She shook her head, her smile undiminished.

“I’m here,” Tony announced as he strode up the ramp. “We are free to head back to the Tower.”

“We were free to head back before,” Natalia told Tony. “You have a suit and can fly.”

“Nice, Red,” he gave her a narrow-eyed look. “Just for that, I’m not telling you about the amount ass-kissing Devereux is trying to do to get an appointment with you.”

Bucky’s good mood fled. That son of a bitch needed a lesson in manners.

“I’m good,” Natalia told him, dropping to sit on the bench next to Bucky as the ramp closed. She leaned her head back. “The longer he squirms the better.”

“You know,” Tony said, sprawling on the bench opposite theirs. “You’re not wrong.”

Steve snorted. “What does he want?”

“Time with our lovely red-haired assassin,” Tony almost smirked. “Private time.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m assuming you played a possessive if narcissistic card?”

“Oh, most assuredly. Besides, I’m the important one in the negotiations. So after I indicated I was feeling more than a little dismissed and underappreciated, I wasted another fifteen minutes of his time.”

Tony was exceptionally proud of himself.

“Bottom line?” Steve didn’t like the French delegate either. The way the guy kept trying to isolate Natalia would have made Bucky dislike him, but the fact he couldn’t keep his grabby hands off just made him want to break bones. Natalia didn’t, so Bucky restrained himself.

For now.

They could get their Accords sorted out.

“You have murder face on,” Tony said, eyeing him. “How many ways could you get rid of the delegate? Purely as an intellectual exercise?”

“He only needs one,” Clint called.

Bucky grinned. The archer was right. He only needed one.

“Yeah murder face with a smile is even scarier, just saying.” Tony turned his attention to Steve. “Bottom line, they’re scrambling. The delegate is an ass but the French president is a huge fan of Red’s and has a pair of nieces who are dying to meet her. Devereux needs to make nice or he’ll likely be replaced.”

“Now that’s tempting,” she said, closing her eyes as she tilted her head back.

“No guarantee his replacement will be any better, Angel.”

The quinjet lifted off and Natalia sighed. “Steve—don’t rain on my temptations with your pragmatism.”

Steve chuckled. “Anything you want.”

Natalia brightened. “Anything?”

“Well, short of tattooing your name on my ass…”

The comment earned a brilliant smile and Bucky nodded in satisfaction. Bit by bit, she was pulling herself back.

“Huh… what would get you to tattoo my name on your ass? Inquiring minds want to know.”

Tony snorted and even Clint laughed. Steve actually flushed, not much, but it was there and Bucky shook his head.

“You’re going to have to work on that one,” Bucky warned her. “It might take several interrogations to get it out of him.”

“You do know that’s my specialty, right?” She eyed him.

“Ferreting out hidden info? Oh yes, I believe you told me once you enjoy getting it out of others yourself.”

“That I do,” she murmured, turning that gaze back on Steve and he gave them both an exasperated look.

“You two are not allowed to plot together.”

“Too late,” she said in the same breath he did and Tony let out another laugh.

“You are so screwed, Cap.”

With a dramatic sigh, but a pleased smile, Steve said, “Don’t I know it.”

 

Steve

 

It wasn’t that late when they arrived at the Tower. Clint headed to his floor to call his family, Tony declared he needed to get in some lab time, though he mentioned he and Bucky meeting to look at the memory machine—maybe the next day and Nat led the way to the elevator to return to their floor.

“Hey Red,” Tony said before they got onto the elevator. “You going to read me into that private tête-à-tête you had with Strange?”

“Nope,” she told him. “It’s not anything you need to know.”

He narrowed his eyes. “You sure?”

“Yep,” she told him. “It’s done Tony, Strange needed context to answer his questions.”

“And I don’t?”

“Tony,” Steve answered before she did. “It’s not your fault.”

The other man sighed. “Doesn’t feel that way.”

“Well, work on it,” Natasha told him. “Because it wasn’t. You don’t get to beat yourself up on this one—as far as that whole thing goes—it’s all about me. Not you.”

The corner of Tony’s mouth inched higher. “Rude.”

“Maybe,” she told him. “So go make something brilliant and stop brooding. Brooding isn’t sexy.”

He laughed. It was the right thing to say to him because it neutered some of his self-loathing. “I have it on good authority you’re wrong,” he yelled.

“Bambie, Lola, and Tina are terrible sources to cite,” she retaliated before the elevator snapped closed.

Bucky tucked his head down and laughed.

Amused, Steve glanced at her. “Bambie, Lola, and Tina?”

“Eh, it sounded good.”

“It worked,” Steve pointed out. “You handle him well.”

“Sometimes,” she said. “I’m going to grab a quick shower when we get in. Would one of you mind making me a cup of tea? Maybe blackberry?”

“I can do that,” Bucky said, studying her. Even though he wasn’t looking directly at her, his attention was on her as was Steve’s. His awareness of her only seemed to increase. A turn of phrase that pulled her mouth into a faint smile or the way her gaze would slip to the side, they tugged at him. He hadn’t been wrong when he told Tony they all wanted to fix it. The worst battles were the ones he wasn’t even allowed to fight in. But he could damn well support her…

“I’ll throw together some sandwiches if you want,” Steve said. “We’re going to end up going back up to the penthouse for dinner anyway.” It would be easy to lock themselves in and keep Natasha to themselves, but Tony and Clint needed to see her just as much and she needed all of them.

The way she sought out Wanda told him that if nothing else as did the way Wanda held on to her. Natasha belonged to all of them.

“Maybe…but I am hungry. So yeah that would be great.”

Once on their floor, Nat headed for her room and he and Bucky moved into the kitchen. “Is it me,” he began, glancing at Bucky. “Or is she showering a lot?”

“Her hair was wet earlier, in the training room.”

Steve had noticed that, too. He was half-tempted to verify his suspicions with Friday, but he didn’t want Nat to feel like he was checking up on her again.

“It could be a coping technique,” Bucky said quietly. “Something she can control.”

And she’d spent days in hellacious conditions. She’d been filthy, something she’d been keenly aware of. “Yeah, I get that.” Buck had snagged every shower he could for a while after Azzano, too. Cold or hot.

So yeah—maybe she just needed to control her own condition,

She didn’t take long, padding out of her room wearing one of Steve’s shirts with his dog tags resting between her breasts, a pair of Bucky’s boxers and mismatched fuzzy socks, her damp hair sticking to her cheeks and her face, arms and legs flushed pink from the shower. At least the visible bruising had decreased.

He set the platter of sandwiches on the table and then slowed when she wrapped her arms around him. Resting his chin on her hair, he kept his hold loose. When she backed off and unease flashed across her expression, he did his best not to let that get to him. Natasha wasn’t shutting them out and she’d been clear that touching bothered her even if she worked on it.

That she asked him for a hug earlier had felt huge. This was a little different.

“I really hate this,” she admitted, her fists flexing.

“Easy, Doll,” Bucky told her as he carried her mug over and set it on the table. “You’ll get there.”

“But I want to…” The grit of her teeth as she sucked the words back in eased some of Steve’s discomfort. She wanted to be close to them, it would just take time. The one thing Sam kept stressing, there was no one size fits all foolproof therapy for PTSD. Everyone had different triggers, listening to what she said and didn’t say with her reactions were going to be their best guidepost.

Touching triggered her right now. It could set off her need to defend herself, autonomic reactions programmed from years of having to fight to survive or leave her feeling vulnerable, which might be worse in Steve’s opinion. That lost look in her eyes, though? That killed him and sent a wild rage through him like he’d never experienced. He'd rapidly developed a homicidal need to eradicate anyone involved in putting that expression there. But she wanted comfort or at least not to be trapped by what she saw as a weakness. The fact she’d hugged Clint earlier after realizing he no longer wore his leg brace and the wild warmth radiating off of her as they teased had been a good sign.

This after her discussion with Clint made her cry. She’d hidden it well when she came back, but her eyes hadn’t been red-rimmed when Clint pulled her out to talk.

“Hey… one step at a time,” he reminded her. “Whatever you want. You’re going to get it, okay?”

She made a face and settled in a chair. “I want to stomp my foot and pout.”

Bucky actually laughed. “Go ahead, Doll. That could be fun, too.”

They took their time getting their coffee before they joined her and she’d already started on her sandwich. The silence stretched out. “Angel…”

She and Bucky both looked at him.

“You wanted to talk to us about Strange—about his recommendations.” At least drilling into her brain was off the table. Steve would never have been able to get on board with that. Before—everything, she’d talked to T’Challa, but then she’d been taken and they’d never had those discussions or sent her medical files. Until earlier today, he’d half-forgotten that.

“I do… I’m just trying to figure out where to start.” It wasn’t going to be an easy conversation. That much had been clear from the beginning. “Not usually a problem I have.”

“Because you’ve already made up your mind,” Steve said, tipping his head and studying her. “You want to lay out the options for us so that we’re involved, but you know what you want to do.” They were damn lucky she was even talking to them. But like them, she was trying, too.

“You’re going to let him trigger you,” Bucky picked up the thread. “You want to force a reaction, see if it helps that area heal.”

“I want to find Mary,” she said. “At the end of the day, everything else is… noise.” There was almost an apology in her voice as she said it. “But I want us back,” she told Bucky and he sighed. “I want Mary. It’s here…” She tapped her skull. “Locked in there and I’ve got these two fragments. The rest of it—I could get to it. But Tony’s not going to unlock BARF. Not without the sign off from the doc and right now, Strange isn’t really winning friends and influencing people.”

“He’s winning you over,” Bucky said and he wasn’t wrong. Steve had seen the same thing. The doctor was a unique individual and the fact he’d seemed to moderate his heavy-handed bluntness with Natasha gave Steve a measure of hope.

“Or are you winning him over?” Steve raised his brows.

“I was honest with him, as honest as I can be at the moment because the prize at the end is worth it.” Hands wrapped around tea mug, she glanced from him to Bucky and then said, “I also saw Helen today.”

Steve frowned.

“I asked her to do blood work.”

He wasn’t the only one who sent still, Bucky had zeroed in on her face and Steve couldn’t figure out what she was going to say next. It was good news, right? But why… ?

“When you brought me back, my toxicology showed heavy metals and toxins.”

“That was why she kept you in medical for a few hours,” Steve said slowly. Had they missed something? The last time Natasha voluntarily went to a doctor it had been after Bucky told her about their daughter. Before then? Steve had never seen her go see one without a lot of arm-twisting. “Made sure most of it was out of your system.”

Natasha nodded. “But I’ve felt off—for days. Just off and I didn’t know if it was psychological or physiological and…I just needed to know. It came back mostly negative for the toxins, trace amounts of metal. She thinks it’s still working out of my system.”

The fist on his heart eased some. “So good news?”

Bucky sighed and clenched his fist before he removed it from the table. “It’s not enough to inhibit using BARF.”

“That’s part of it,” she admitted. “The other part was the nausea, the fact I threw up after I pulled that piece of memory out.” Then she stopped. “Fuck, I lied to Strange.”

Steve frowned. The day Strange had shown up, she’d had an episode in her closet.

“You aren’t alone in that, Angel,” he said. “There’s been a lot going on.”

Bucky laughed without any humor. “Natalia—we know you want to do everything possible. Strange seems to be working on options—there’s another one.” He glanced at Steve. Yeah, they couldn’t sit on this anymore.

“Wakanda?”

“Well, that is another, too,” Steve said, holding a hand up toward Bucky. “We can circle back but this is slightly different. It has more to do with me and Buck and your DNA.”

Not the most comfortable of topics, but he wasn’t going to open with Tony’s suggestion. He would have to bring him up, however.

“Tony has a theory, one he shared with me and Buck as it directly relates to all three of us,” Steve said, choosing his words with care. “Something, he noticed because of The Mandarin. The fact you seemed to be healing faster.”

“It’s his belief,” Bucky picked up the thread. “That because your DNA is adaptable, our DNA may be affecting yours, boosting it—because of the serums.”

This should not be so awkward. Steve frowned, keeping his focus on her as she raised her brows. “The theory is that because we have sex—or that you have sex with each of us—your DNA is repurposing ours to help you.”

“You healed faster on the island,” Bucky told her. “After that first night the three of us were together, the difference was almost night and day. You began to improve by leaps and bounds.”

“Physically.” It wasn’t a question.

“There’s a chance we’re changing you,” Bucky admitted and Steve released a breath.

“And a chance we could get you pregnant.” Steve wasn’t sure he’d wrapped his mind around that one. “But in the short term—your episodes. The pieces of your memory coming back?”

“Could be because of us as well,” Bucky finished. “It’s possible, given enough time—you could heal fully.”

She focused on them, her expression thoughtful and her gaze assessing. “How much time?”

“Angel, we don’t know, I doubt Tony knows.” They’d only been lovers for what? Scant months for she and Buck? Slightly less for him? Then what? Mere weeks since the island? A lot of this was still new to Steve, well new for all three of them even being a three of them.

She leaned back in the chair and looked at the ceiling. Her expression intent, almost searching.

“Doll, it’s possible you wouldn’t have to do anything invasive…”

“Just have lots of sex,” Natasha said, traces of humor lightening her tone. “Not like that’s the worst prescription I’ve ever received… but it doesn’t have any guaranteed results.”

“I object to that last description,” Steve said. “I’m of the opinion we’ve had some pretty awesome results.”

That earned him a genuine smile. “I talked to Helen about the possibility of pregnancy today, too. Yes, I kind of—guessed some of that. At least I’ve been putting it together. In the interests of honesty—I don’t know how I feel about that.”

The disappointment flickering across Bucky’s expression was gone so swiftly, Steve wasn’t sure he’d seen it but the way his own stomach bottomed out—he could certainly imagine it. He had no idea what he thought about it either. Kids hadn’t been something he dreamed of, not when he was younger and since the serum, the thought hadn’t really crossed his mind. Still, there was a twist of disappointment.

“I can’t really think about that, I mean I know we have to or we need to use condoms or something. Helen isn’t sure birth control would work on me anyway—not that it’s likely to be an issue for a while. I’m still pretty—wrecked.”

Anger ignited like phosphorous in his system. Wrecked because of the things the Red Room, Hydra and SHIELD and every other bastard along the way had done to her.

“If we use condoms,” Bucky pointed out. “Then our DNA can’t boost yours—you might not heal as quickly.”

“But we also wouldn’t be changing you.” Steve offered her his hand and he hoped like hell she would take it. When she settled her hand in his palm, he let out a breath. “This is a theory only, Angel.” And while he might not be able to wrap his mind around the idea of a pregnancy, he did want to boost her serum as long as it didn’t hurt her in the long run.

Just—never hurt her.

“Helen doesn’t disagree with it. She believes that it wouldn’t be a matter of if it happened, but when. Though, that’s not something that will happen next week, next month, or even next year. Still, I would need time to heal, probably to avoid other injuries, and I don’t exactly have a noncombatant’s job.”

And she wasn’t stepping down; she didn’t have to say that.

“Clint doesn’t want me to do this.”

“To get pregnant?” Bucky asked, his tone dry. “Because his issue with you dating boys is just too fucking bad.” Pretty much Steve’s opinion on that one. He liked Clint, admired him, and respected him. But he didn’t get to make this decision for Natasha.

She laughed and she squeezed Steve’s hand. “No, he doesn’t want me to fight so hard to remember. He’s worried if I do—if I do it I won’t be me anymore.” When her gaze shifted to Steve, he read the wariness there. She’d worried about the same thing. Sitting on the quinjet, trying to shake off the drugs while she fought a brutal concussion and it had been one of the first times they’d really discussed what they wanted or what they could have.

What she didn’t know and couldn’t remember had been an obstacle then.

“I’m going to tell you now what I told you then,” Steve said quietly. “You have to be you. If you want to keep digging, if you want those pieces back, I’m with you—‘til the end of the line, Angel.”

“So am I,” Bucky told her. “We can take it. And I knew Natalia—she wasn’t so bad, Doll.”

“She worries me, a little.”

That kind of surprised Steve.

“You are her,” Bucky said firmly. “I see her in you. Maybe you have forgotten details, but who she was is who you are. The will to protect what you love, the cleverness for solving puzzles, the sheer obstinate determination to do it your way—Natalia, you’re still you.”

“He doesn’t want to lose his best friend. I told him that was crazy, I would always be his best friend.” Another shuddering breath pushed out of her. “Am I being too self-involved in this? Too selfish? I don’t know what this will cost either of you. I’m all for doing this… I want Mary back, but—she’s not a baby anymore. That part of her life that I could have had is gone. What if she’s grown and has a family of her own? What if she has a life? Do I have the right to saddle her with me?”

“Okay, first?” Steve said firmly. “That’s enough of that shit right there. You have the right to know her and to know who she is. If you find her, and it turns out she’s safe and happy and has a good life—then you make the decision whether you meet her or not. But don’t mistake for an instant that you don’t have the right to know or that you aren’t a phenomenal mother who gave up everything for her. Just like her dad.” Steve swung his gaze from her to Bucky. “You both—you have the right to know. She’s your kid. No one is saying you have to do a damn thing with it, but you’ll sleep at night. You won’t be haunted by the wondering and Nat? I know that’s eating you up. It was before all of this.”

Before she remembered her and now? Steve couldn’t imagine. If it was his kid? No, he wouldn’t stop and she shouldn’t have to either.

“I want to know. I have to. I’m not ready to think about pregnancy or getting pregnant. I can’t even wrap my head around it. The idea is… terrifying.”

“I will never let anyone take your child again,” Bucky said quietly, his voice so solemn it broke Steve’s heart. “We have so many more people around us. You will not be alone.”

“He’s right, Angel. If it happens… it happens. We will protect both of you.”

“If it happens… But I can’t hope for that. I’m obsessing about the past right now…”

“Then we focus on getting your memories and finding Mary,” Steve said and he slanted a look at Bucky. Bucky nodded once. “We take care of you right now.”

“When do you want to start with Strange?”

As much as he hated to admit it, Bucky was right. That was the next step. They had to brace themselves to get her through this.

“I have to help Peter tomorrow…”

Steve didn’t sigh and he didn’t make a face. “Read us in?” He loved this woman—every stubborn, independent, and frustrating inch of her. He wouldn’t change a thing. And because he was a good boyfriend and fantastic team lead, he put another sandwich on a plate and nudged it to her. “And eat that.”

Bucky smirked and Natasha gave him a look, but she picked up the sandwich and took a bite. Then told them about Peter’s issue with the Vulture and going with him to revisit the previous scenes, going back to the beginning.

As plans went, it wasn’t bad.

“Did you assume you were doing this on your own?” He asked pinching the bridge of his nose. He would not yell at her.

“No, I assumed I’d be doing it with Peter.”

He dropped his hand and stared at her. Now? Now, he was going to yell.

 

 

Natasha

 

 

A vein in Steve’s forehead began to throb and he glared at her. Genuinely, glared and everything in her system buoyed. No kid gloves, no tentative shifts like she was too fragile to handle it.

Since she was playing with fire, she stoked the flames. “Why? Think I’m not up to it?”

“Nope,” Steve said not missing a beat. “You’re always up for anything. Even when you shouldn’t even try. Me? Not so much.”

“You don’t have to go…” Yep, totally waving a red flag to a bull. The bland look on James’ face told her he knew exactly what she was doing. On the other hand, Steve had been white knuckling his way through this for her and he needed to let some of that steam out. While she wasn't quite up for sparring, yet. This would have to do.

“Romanoff,” Steve all but swore her name and she narrowed her eyes.

“Rogers.” There he went.

He tapped two fingers on the table, leaning forward. She could all but feel the anger rolling off him. “Let’s be clear. This isn’t the Black Widow show. You are not a lone operative who has to run a shadow op. You are the second in command—about to be demoted—member of the Avengers.” Better.

“Demoted?”

“What would you do with a member of the team who didn’t want to take advantage of their team and kept pulling solo ops without even running it past you?”

Smirking, she held up one finger. “I take advantage of the team when I need the team.” She added a second finger. “I ran it past me, I’m good with it.” His eyebrows twitched, gathering like a storm.

Yes. The frown. She’d scored the frown and her smile grew which just seemed to incite him more. He’d let her vent at him, he and James both.

“Three, if I were really running it solo I wouldn’t have brought it up to you in the first place.” Setting her chin in her hand, she propped her elbow on the table. “But keep yelling, it’s been a while…” She’d missed this. Arguing with Steve was a good way to fire up the day.

Steve stared at her, his expression clearing, lips compressing and then his eyes narrowed as he tilted his head. “You were winding me up.”

James sighed. “And you walked right into it, Stevie.”

“Maybe,” she teased, then reaching over to catch his fingers. “Still mad at me?”

“Debating how bad it would be if I actually spanked you right now.”

Her system did a little flip-flop, moderately intrigued and yet… “Raincheck?”

“Oh, I’ll keep a tally,” he promised and then lifted his hand toward her face, but hesitated until she nodded. Cupping her cheek, he stared at her. “Take backup? Even if nothing happens.”

“I think it should be a group field trip. We’ll all see different things, different perspectives and it’s a good lesson for Peter.” She glanced between them. “Good for all of us. Besides… it could be fun.”

Steve bowed his head. “You have a strange definition of fun… sometimes.”

“People keep telling me that.” She covered his hand on her cheek, then pressed a kiss to his palm before lowering it to the table. Much better. The lines of tension around his eyes had eased.

James’ phone rang and he shifted to pull it out of his pocket. He stared at it for a beat, then held the phone to her.

Logan’s name was on the screen.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

Dyadya

Natasha

Some of the relief and lightness they’d mustered faded. Her stomach bottomed and she pressed the answer button on the phone and put it to her ear. “Malen'kiy dyadya?”

“Natty,” Logan said by way of greeting in his gruff voice. “Don’t tell me you’re already in a jam, we just got you out of one like ten minutes ago. What’s wrong with those idiots you’re hanging out with?”

“Not a damn thing.” There was something to be said for hearing his grumbling. Pushing away from the table, she paced over to the windows. She didn’t care if Steve and James listened, but she couldn’t sit still. “I was calling you for a more personal matter.”

“Yeah?” The sound of traffic in the background told her he was on the street.

“Let me say hi,” Remy muttered.

“Shut up,” Logan growled. “She wanted to talk to me, not you.”

Natasha grinned.

“But I am her favorite.”

“You’re about to be her favorite memory.” He huffed out a long breath and she could half smell the cigar. “I figure you wanted to do this face to face, not like we had a lot of time to talk in China what with you playing damsel there at the end.”

“Bite me,” Natasha retorted. “And yes, I would like to do this face to face—where are you? We can come to you.”

“We?”

“Yes, we, don’t be cagey. You’re a we right now, too.”

“No, I’m me and a pain in the ass I can’t seem to shake. He’s bored.”

“Well, you could send him to New Orleans to clean his room.”

“Boo!” Remy objected. “You wound me.”

“Not as much as I can,” Logan groused.

“Dyadya, where are you?” The nickname took her back, he’d earned it a long time before—now she realized even longer than she’d known.

“I’m standing in front of this obscene Tower and it’s colder than a witch’s nipple down here.”

“You do not hang out with the right witches,” Remy commented. “You should let me introduce you to some people.”

“And there might be a homicide if you don’t let me in.”

Pivoting, she grinned. “Hang on. I’m coming down to get you.”

Steve and James were already standing. She muted the phone.

“Did you get that?”

Steve nodded. “Where do you want to talk to them?”

“Here…? Would that be all right? We can go up to the common room.” This was their space.

“Wherever you want, Doll.”

Frowning, Steve tapped his fingers against the table thoughtfully. “Common room. Then if you two need to break away to talk to Logan in private you can bring him here or your floor and I’ll deal with—what’s the other one’s name?”

“Remy,” she and James said at the same time.

“I’ll take care of Remy. Do you want me to tell Tony and Clint?”

“Clint can help with Remy,” Natasha said, but James snorted. At her raised eyebrows he shook his head.

“Later, Doll, it’s fine. You want to head down?”

“Yes,” she was already heading for the elevator, when James hooked her arm and pulled her back.

“Clothes, Natalia.”

She glanced down. Dammit. Unmuting the phone, she said, “Logan, I’m going to tell security to let you in. I’ll be down in the elevator in five. Try to not strangle Remy in the meanwhile?”

“No promises,” he said. “But I’ll be here.” The phone call ended.

“Friday? Logan and Remy Lebeau are out front, can you please authorize them into the building. Tell security I’ll be right down to pick them up.” After handing James his phone, she diverted into her room. After shimmying out of the boxers, she pulled out a pair of yoga pants, and an oversized sweater. She left Steve’s shirt on and pulled the sweater over it.

James was already in the open elevator when she came back out. “Stevie went up to the Common Room.”

“I shouldn’t have picked on him.” The prick of guilt needled her and James gave her a dry look.

“Stevie is fine. You picking on him was a good thing. Breathe Natalia.”

Blowing out a breath, she clenched her fists and then forced them to relax. “He might know.”

“I know,” James told her. “He’s here. We have time. Breathe.”

With each breath, she brought her heart rate down and quieted the sensation of her bones vibrating. It was the weirdest feeling—almost as disquieting as Strange knocking her astral form out of her body? Did that mean soul? Putting a pin back in that particular thought, she focused on the here—Avengers Tower and the now—Logan and Remy were coming to dinner.

“Better?” he asked as the elevator doors opened.

“Yes,” she murmured, throwing him a small smile. “Thank you.”

“Always, lyubov moya.”

A weary and put upon Logan stood in the middle of the lobby while Remy leaned against the security desk grinning like an idiot. They both glanced at her as she appeared and Remy swept across the open space before she got two steps out of the elevator and swept her up.

“Boo!” The hug was fierce and even as her skin went icy and the chill raced up her back and over her skull, she forced herself not to react. She returned his hug then extracted herself even as James was there. “Boo’s boy!”

With a roll of her eyes, she turned to Logan. He eyed her, giving her a hard visual once over. Instead of hugging her, he held out his hand and she took it and when he raised his brows, she narrowed the distance and hugged him.

“You’re wound up, Natty,” he murmured against her ear.

There was no point in lying, he could smell it. “It’s been a long few days,” she told him, leaning back. “Thank you for coming.”

He stared at her, his gaze searching. “You’re sure you’re fine?”

“No,” she admitted. “But I’m working on it.”

He nodded to her then glanced to where James and Remy waited. James studied him in return. “This is James Barnes?”

“Bucky,” James told him and offered him a hand. “We spoke briefly when you contacted Clint.”

Logan nodded once, then took his hand in a brief handshake. “Good to meetcha.”

“And you—thank you for helping Natalia.”

Logan’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “Didn’t do it for you.”

“Didn’t say you did,” James retorted and Logan smirked.

“I like this one, Natty.”

“Right?” Remy threw an arm around James’ shoulders, seemingly unaware of the coolness in James’ gaze. “Didn’t I tell you I liked him better than the archer?”

Patiently, James said, “How have you managed to survive this long?”

Remy grinned. “I’m Boo’s favorite.” He squeezed his shoulders then looked right at Natasha. “Right?”

“Behave and you can keep telling people that.” She motioned him into the elevator, aware of the electronic surveillance and the security guards keeping an eye on them. Once inside, she said, “Common Room, please Friday.”

“Natasha,” Friday sounded almost apologetic. “Logan appears to be in possession of a great deal of heavy metal—weapons sweep cannot clear him.”

“Override, my authority. Trust me, we couldn’t remove the metal and he’s a friend.” She caught Logan’s faint snort.

“Boss wants me to verify that you’re sure, Natasha?” The elevator hadn’t moved an inch and she could appreciate Tony’s caution.

Remy snort laughed. “See, Cranky Pants, even the computer knows I’m the favorite. Thank you, Number One.” He saluted the cameras.

“Loverboy,” Natasha said with a sigh and he gave her a cheeky grin, then mimed zipping his lips. Twisting, she glanced at James. “Did you see Logan fight when you all came for me?”

“Not directly,” James answered. “I saw him cover you from the fire and that he was severely burned but protected you.” Which meant he would have seen how swiftly Logan healed or at least be aware of it now. He healed faster than any person she’d ever known and that included Steve and James.

“Logan—do you mind showing them?”

As he straightened, Natasha shifted so she was between James and Logan.

“James… he’s not a threat. Okay? The first time you see it can be startling.” Leaning back against James was more for both of them; she didn’t want him too startled. He slipped his arm around her waist.

Voice low, he said, “This good?”

She stroked the back of his hand and nodded once. Logan eyed her then James and smirked. “Natty’s been busy.”

“Just shut up and show them please.”

He held up his hands palm first, then the back of his hands demonstrating he had nothing. After stripping off his jacket, he threw it at Remy. The other man caught it with a smirk, then Logan said, “I’m not carrying metal, I am metal.”

His claws sliced out, three on each hand bursting from between his knuckles. Blood slid between his fingers, slowing almost immediately.

Leaning her head back, she glanced at the cameras. “Override authorization please?”

“Done,” came Tony’s direct response. “I didn’t realize those were literally attached.”

“No problem,” Logan said and he retracted the claws before wiping off his knuckles on his jeans. Remy tossed him the jacket back and Natasha glanced up at James. He looked at Logan thoughtfully and gave her a gentle squeeze. Threat assessment on Logan would be off the charts—she recognized that.

Tony and Clint were with Steve when they reached the common room level. Remy strolled out of the elevator, his head on a swivel as he scanned everything. Probably casing the room and security, it was second nature to him like it was to her.

“Hey, the B-Team,” Remy said, grinning. “Richie Rich. Archer man—see you got replaced. We like the upgrade.”

Natasha sighed and Logan rolled his eyes. “I blame you for him, Natty.”

“I blame me, too,” she murmured as she linked her fingers with James before following Logan out of the elevator.

“You’re Captain America,” Remy said, offering Steve his hand. “Big fan.”

Steve gave him a bemused look as he shook his hand. “Remy?”

“Hey,” Remy said, grinning as he shook Steve’s hand. “He knows me. Ha. Totally the favorite.”

Logan groaned. “Swamp Rat, you’re embarrassing yourself.” He glanced at Clint. “Barton.”

“Logan.”

“Remy, shush,” Natasha said when he opened his mouth to retort. “Officially, Remy ‘currently in danger of losing his favored status because he’s being irritating about it’ Lebeau and Logan—this is Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.”

“Captain,” Logan said. “We met. Briefly.”

“We did over the video call. Thank you again for the assist.”

Tony eyed him then extended his hand. “We met—briefly.”

“Yeah,” Logan shook his hand once. Remy immediately stepped forward and Tony gave him a bemused look.

“You and I met, remember?”

“Oh,” Remy said, snapping his fingers as he backed up. “Right, I’m the one that got you two out of that bitch of a cell. You’re welcome by the way.”

Chuckling, Natasha shook her head. Remy was incorrigible.

“Anyone want something to drink? Coffee? Sedative? Tranquilizer?” Clint said, muttering as he turned for the kitchen, “Not enough alcohol on the planet.”

“I’ll take a beer,” Logan said.

“No alcohol,” Natasha corrected. “We’re dry here.” They would be at any event Tony attended.

Both Remy and Logan stared at her like she’d sprouted a second head. “Now I know why you called me,” Logan stated. “I’ll get you out.”

James chuckled and Steve shook his head, a hand over his mouth as though trying to contain his amusement. Tony squinted at her. “I can handle it if the rest of you drink.”

“And still, you don’t have to.” Natasha was not going to torment Tony, he’d been doing great. Though she might take Logan to her floor and the vodka, later.

Tony shook his head, but he didn’t dispute it and then he suggested food. Steve corralled Remy and Tony toward the kitchen leaving she and James alone with Logan. They were just around the corner from the kitchen but the wall offered some sound insulation.

Logan pivoted to look at her. “What’s up, Natty?”

“Do you remember when we first met?”

“Sure, it was…”

“The first time, we met,” she added quietly, her gaze fixed on his. He didn’t look away or down but studied her in return. “In Canada.”

He exhaled slowly. “You remembered?”

Vertigo rippled through her. Confirmation. The memory was real. She was hot and cold at once. He flicked a look past her to James. Laughter came from the direction of the kitchen.

“You want to have this conversation here?”

“Let’s go to my floor…” She glanced at James.

“Go Doll, I’ll come down if you…”

“Yes.” It wasn’t a question at all. She squeezed his hand. “Yes, I want you there.”

“I’ll be down in a minute.”

Logan said nothing until they were in the elevator. “It safe to talk in here?”

“It is, but we can wait.” She still needed to get equilibrium back. It was one thing to believe the memory was real, but until Logan confirmed it—she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t wishful thinking, a desperate attempt of her mind to escape the agony and give her somewhere else to be.

The doors opened to her floor and she strode out ahead of him. Her skin buzzed and she had a faint tremble in her hands as she pulled open the freezer. There were three bottles of vodka.

A peek in the fridge said Friday had it restocked. Dragging a bottle out, she unscrewed the top and took a long pull straight from the neck before retrieving a couple of glasses.

Logan eyed her. “I take it we’re not dry down here.”

“No,” she told him and filled his glass before pushing it to him. “Like I said, Tony isn’t drinking, so we don’t drink in front of him.”

“Got it.” Logan tossed back the vodka and Natasha filled a glass for herself. “Natty?”

She held up a single finger and drained the glass before she filled it again and gave him another. The elevator opened and James arrived to rejoin them. Logan eyed her as she glanced at the last third in the bottle; she drained it before dropping the now empty bottle in the trash. It was a waste of very expensive vodka to slam it like shots, but the icy heat slid through her system and by the end of the bottle, helped steady her hands.

Some.

When she pulled a second bottle out, James took it without a word, opened it and set it next to her.

Finally, Natasha looked at Logan. “You met me in Canada… in 1973.”

“On the Trans-Canadian Highway… with your daughter.” Confirmation.

Confirmation hurt like hell.

Logan glanced at James. “The husband?”

She lifted her glass and nodded once.

“You survived whatever they did to you, too, then.” It wasn’t really a question.

“So far,” James told him.

A thousand questions burned on her tongue. But Natasha only had one… “What happened? To my daughter? Do you know?”

Logan frowned then lifted the glass and downed the full measure before sitting back on the counter. They surrounded her kitchen counter like it was a bar in some rundown dive. That seemed more appropriate for this conversation.

“Mary—you said her name was Mary.” Logan slid his hand into his pocket. “When you left the message—I wondered.” He pulled out his wallet and unfolded it and then took out a faded, bent in half photo and slid it across the counter to her. “I took that the last day we were together. Promised you I’d give it to you someday and you said only if you asked. You had to ask me. You had to be the one who brought it up.”

Natasha couldn’t move.

The photo had definitely faded but she sat at a picnic table, the sun highlighting her red hair. She’d braided it and the braid hung over one shoulder. But it was the little girl in her lap, gazing up at her with this smile as Natasha beamed down at her. The sun on her dark curls showed some red, but they were more deep brown—like her father.

Greedy, Natasha drank in the image.

Mary Elizabeth was real. The memories—this was her.

“Been wanting to give you that for about thirty years, Natty. Almost threw it away a couple of times. Forgot about it a couple of times, too.” The apology in Logan’s tone scraped over her. James picked up the photo slowly and stared at it. “I can tell you what I know… but after I took that photo, I don’t know what you did exactly. I know what you talked about. I know what you warned me about.”

Her throat hurt and she slammed back the next glass.

“Does Remy know?”

“Nope,” Logan assured her, “Didn’t tell anyone. Look… you were with me for about a week. First leg, I got you to Regina. You were gonna cut and run there. Said your goodbyes and took off. But… you were a lady and alone. Had the kid. I got to feeling bad about leaving you there so I doubled-back. You had a group on you—four or five fellas. You had two of them down when I got there, helped you with the other three. You told me I should get out of there; you only had Hell following you. I told you to get the kid in the truck. We drove the bodies out. Made them disappear and kept going.”

Nat swallowed. “They found me that fast?”

“No, turned out they had folks in most of the cities, on the lookout. Bounties, pretty pricy ones. I picked up trails in Calgary, too. I don’t like folks who hunt women. I got you and Mary to Toronto. Took us some doing—kept off main roads where I could. You were a suspicious little shit, didn’t trust me, not sure you ever truly did. Not then. You couldn’t figure out why I was helping and I told you I had to help. I’ve been on the run before and maybe you deserved whatever those folks was doing but not your kid. Pretty sure you stuck with me for the moppet.”

He cleared his throat and poured himself another glass of vodka as James pulled out a third glass and poured his own before he refilled Natasha’s. He hadn’t put down the photo and she’d barely been able to look away from it.

“You made a point of telling me a few things—not a lot. Nothing to compromise yourself—not even your real name. But you said you had to get your girl away. You had to find a place to hide her. I knew people, but no one who could do that. Didn’t think you’d trust me with that anyway. You insisted you knew someone who could. You just had to get there.”

“Took us a little over a week, we got to Toronto and I got a friend to run you and Mary across the lake toward Rochester. Paid him pretty good.” Logan barked out a little laugh. “Found out you left me money after—pissed me off at the time, but you were long gone.”

With a sigh, he stared at her. “Natty, you told me if I ever met you again—don’t trust you. Don’t ever turn my back on you. Whatever else I did, never mention your daughter. Don’t bring it up unless you asked. When I did meet you again—you never asked. You didn’t know me. Belligerent, untrusting and dark as fuck—but without a stink of a lie when you looked at me like you’d never seen me before.”

Of course, she hadn’t. “You kept your word.”

“Yep,” he said and he lifted his glass in toast to her. “I know what it’s like not to remember—killed me that I couldn’t tell you. If someone knew that about me, I’d want them to tell me. But you… you were so sure and I didn’t want to screw things up for you.”

Natasha looked at the photo again as James swiped a hand across his face and her heart squeezed.

“You said I went to New York?”

“Yeah—that’s the thing,” he eyed her. “You called yourself Natalie Rogers. Got papers made for you and the kid, then headed to New York. You did some research before you went, in newspapers—had me bring you a lot of them.”

“Okay?” The second bottle was nearly empty and she could probably kill the third one in there, but nothing seemed to touch the rawness in her soul. James covered her hand and she gripped his. Needing that connection. Needing it to ground her. “James is from Brooklyn—he had a aversion to going there. Was that what I was doing?”

“You went to New York for a person…” Logan glanced from her to James then back. “I figured that was why you joined the team in the first place. You were looking for Howard Stark.”

Howard?

Part of the counter cracked as James gripped it with his left hand and Logan looked at him sharply.

“Yeah—I’m getting that you really didn’t remember that part and still don’t.”

“You’re sure she was going to find Howard?” Pain creased through James’ expression and it was her turn to cover his hand,

“Those were the articles she was clipping, reports on where he and his family were going. Something about Flushing for some big to do he wanted to build.”

“The Expo,” Natasha said slowly. “But that was in ’74.”

Logan shrugged. “I wish I had more for you, Natty. But after I put you on that boat, I went and made some noise to try and lead people away from you. I didn’t see you again for another eleven years.”

“You have a picture of her, malen'kiy dyadya,” she said, unable to express what that meant. She drained her glass then took the photo in her fingers carefully. James stilled her hand and turned it slightly.

On the back it read: Natalie and Mary Rogers, 1973.

A wet huff of a chuckle and James tilted his head back. She stared at the photo and traced her fingers over Mary’s face. The angle was perfect. The smile was so—free and bubbly. Her mouth was wide open like she’d been squealing with laughter. Natasha’s—well Natalia’s face was likewise animated, the shadows kind of hid her eyes but everything in her face said she loved that little girl and they were having so much fun together.

It was tangible, more than the memory she’d unearth and clung to. This photo was all she had—Mary had existed.

“This is why you made an effort to know me even when I was such a…”

“Charming, but deadly woman who could drink me under the table?” Logan smirked and she snorted.

“I think you mean the other way around.” They’d closed plenty of bars. He’d been a friend even when she had no idea what that meant. She teasingly called him little uncle because he would occasionally scold her and they were of similar height.

“You knew about me,” James said abruptly, staring at Logan. “You weren’t surprised about who I was.”

“Natty warned me about you, too. Told me about the Winter Soldier and to avoid him. She told me a lot without telling me much.” He eyed her. “For what it’s worth—I wanted to hide you both. But I didn’t have much back then. Still don’t most days…”

Natasha focused on Logan. “You helped me, you held onto me.” She lifted the photo. “You held on to this.”

The debt she owed him could never be paid.

The silence stretched out between them. Natasha wasn’t even sure how long they stood there. She had more questions. So many and she kept turning Howard’s name over in her head. Why would she have gone to Howard Stark? Had she remembered him?

Had she broken the compulsion then somehow? Why…

A chime sounded from overhead and Logan spared an upward glance.

“Yes, Friday?” James answered.

“Boss and Captain Rogers want you to know food has arrived.” Friday’s solemn voice reminded her she hadn’t put Friday in privacy mode. She’d been too focused on Logan. On what he’d said.

With a look at her, James said, “You need to eat.”

“I can go,” Logan said. “I’ll take Swamp Rat with me. Give you some time. But I’ll be in the city, stick around in case you need me.”

Natasha swallowed. “You don’t have to go.”

So many questions.

“Natty, Swamp Rat will pummel you with questions and you look like Hell. Your team should be taking better care of you.”

“They take fine care of me,” she said. “I’m just stubborn.”

He snorted. “Shocker.”

A grin worked its way across her face. Circling the island abruptly, she wrapped her arms around him and he hugged her. The war between not being touched and needing to thank him waged inside of her and she ignored both sides.

“Logan…”

“I know… Swamp Rat isn’t the favorite anymore.” The dry comment pulled a real laugh out of her. “Don’t tell him. He’s such a needy shit, he’ll drive you nuts trying to get the pole position back.”

Even James chuckled at that one. He held out his hand again and Logan shook it. “Thank you for looking after my family,” James told him.

“Wish I could have done more, bub.”

She finished the last bit of vodka and kept careful hold of the photo.

They took the elevator up and Logan strolled out onto the common room floor and practically carried Remy—and a half-dozen containers of take out Chinese—to the elevator. Natasha accepted Remy’s quick kiss to the cheek and the promise to talk soon and then they were gone.

The conversation had ground to a halt at their arrival.

James stood quietly, his hands in his pockets, waiting for her to join them by the sofas. Exhaustion vied with elation—she had proof, she had some answers, but not the answers.

Why the hell had she…?

“Tasha?” Clint called, his voice quiet and she glanced over to find him, Tony, and Steve watching her and James with nearly universal concern on their faces. “He knew.” It wasn’t a question.

She nodded slowly and moved to join them. She held out the photo in her hand to Steve. He wiped his hands on his pants after setting the container down and took it carefully. Then like someone cut her strings, she just sat on the sofa next to him. James eased down next to her and she shifted. He started to move away, but she curled next to him and he lifted his arm.

Staring at the photo, Steve said, “She’s beautiful.”

“Just like her mother,” James answered.

Steve’s eyes were wet when he met her gaze. “Logan?”

A little nod. “He’s had that for forty years… didn’t give it to me because I hadn’t asked. I told him not to tell me anything—the day he took that. Warned him I might not know him if I ever saw him again.”

How could she be so empty and so full at the same time?

James rubbed her arm gently as Clint wiped off his hands to accept the photo from Steve. Her best friend stared at the image and a faint smile touched his lips. She could almost see it in his eyes when he looked at her. “She really is pretty Nat—but holy hell, how long was your hair?”

A watery laugh broke out of her and James snorted. “Very long.” He combed his fingers through her hair. “She used to let me braid it.”

“Let you or insisted you help me?” Because she couldn’t imagine him begging her to do that.

“A little bit of both,” James murmured.

“Can I make you a plate?” Steve asked quietly. She shrugged. The vodka had filled her stomach, blunting some of the jagged pieces but not enough.

“Get her something, Stevie. Keep it light.” James pressed his lips to the top of her head, while she curled against him he still kept the contact gentle, easy movements.

With a sigh, Clint passed the photo to Tony who accepted it like it was a priceless object and when he stared at the photo, his frown deepened.

“I can—scan this and see if Friday can lift the colors, sharpen it for you.” Tony always wanted to fix things.

“Just don’t hurt the picture. I want to keep that.” She wanted to put it in a frame, keep it forever. If it helped Tony to do something, she couldn’t object.

“You don’t need to keep it for a while or anything do you?” James asked.

“No,” Tony said. “Friday and I can do it right now.” He had his phone out and scanned the image.

Steve filled a plate with a combination fried rice. Instead of chopsticks, he set a spoon on the side and when he held it out to her, she shifted to sit up a little and take it.

“What did he say?” Clint asked. “Does he know where you went?”

James glanced at her. Did she want him to tell them? She nodded and then took a bite of the rice. It was tasteless, despite the scent. Or maybe she just couldn’t bring herself to taste it. Steve sat sideways, close and she bumped his knee with hers. It was okay, she wanted him there and he ran his hand down her back lightly as James filled them in.

When they got to the part about Howard, Steve and Tony both went still.

“You went to see Dad?” Tony stared at her. “Seriously?”

“That’s what Logan said. He said I was looking at papers, tracking where he went. He was getting ready to break ground on a huge project in Flushing.”

“The Expo.” With care, Tony passed the photo back to James and she glanced at it as James stared down at it, too. “Did he remember you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Remember you?” Steve asked. “When did you meet Howard?”

Tony grimaced, his eyes holding an apology. It was fine. “I should have told you before,” she said quietly. Setting the food down, she scooted forward. “I need water.”

“I can…” Steve said, but she waved him back to the chair.

“I need to move, too.”

“When we were at Arkhangelsk—when Fenhoff or Smith, whatever his name was, imitated Ivan’s voice and used the trigger commands…” She raised her voice as she walked to the kitchen. There were water bottles stored in the fridge and she half-thought about the vodka still on her floor.

She needed one long binger and she might do that later. Just her and enough vodka to numb it all. After grabbing extras for everyone, she carried them back and set them on the table. Twisting hers open, she sat on the cushion between James and Steve, scooting back so she could see them both.

“He told me to remember…when I was strapped to that chair and you were all in your cells?”

Steve nodded once so did James.

“When he told me that—it broke through all the old compulsions Ivan left there the things he’d told me to forget. Including the one about if they ever took James from me, I was to leave.”

James retrieved her plate from the table and handed it back to her and then she nudged it toward him.

“You need to eat, too.”

“I’ll get some in a minute,” he argued, nudging it back .

“Anyway,” she continued, setting the plate on her knees. “One of the missions Ivan sent me on was to the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.”

Recognition settled into James’ eyes. “When they were looking for me.”

“Maybe—chasing rumors, chasing ghosts. I don’t know. Ivan never told me anything other than to observe them. Track where they went and who they talked to. I got close, but Helsinki isn’t that large and the Olympic pavilion and the athletes along with the spectators is a shallow pool—Howard noticed me at a café across the street.”

“And he came over to hit on you,” Steve said dryly and then he shook his head.

“More or less. He invited me to go dancing with them. Peggy and her husband came over…” Here she hesitated and Steve gave her a small smile.

“Not news to me, Angel. I know she got married. I’m still turning it over in my head that you met her…”

“I was undercover.” Not that it was an excuse. “It doesn’t really matter, I ended spending a few days with them. Now that they’d seen me, it was hard to follow them without them noticing and since they kept inviting me along, I played the part. It let me monitor them closely. I knew they were looking for something, but never the details. They were friendly and it was fun. Good conversations, dancing most evenings and… then it was over. They were going home and I returned to Ivan.”

She glanced at James.

“If they were looking for you, I didn’t find that out. As far as I can remember from that time, you weren’t there but—I don’t know.”

“I wasn’t,” James said slowly. “In ’52, you and I were mostly doing missions in Asia and the Baltics. Though there was a three week period you were recalled… but you never mentioned Helsinki when you came back.”

“Because she didn’t remember,” Clint said, and then scrubbed a hand over his face. “Have I ever mentioned how much I wish I could go back in time and just scratch a few people off?”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she said to James, then glanced at Steve. “I just—after I didn’t really think about it. Sometimes it feels like it happened to another person…but I liked Peggy. I liked her husband, too. They were… they were nice.”

Steve studied her. “And Howard?”

“Don’t ask if they fondue’d,” Tony threw out. “I’m begging you.”

The silence that met that had Natasha staring at Tony. “What?”

James broke the silence as he laughed. “I forgot about that…”

“Shut up,” Steve said, even as he chuckled.

Natasha glanced at Clint and he shook his head. What were they talking about?

“When Dad was…”

“Nope,” Steve said.

“Aww. Cap it’s…”

“Nope.”

Curiosity niggled at her particularly since James seemed to be having trouble not snickering.

“Pretty sure Bucky over there is going to tell her,” Tony pointed out. “Spoiler alert, she and Dad didn’t fondue.”

“Well technically we did…”

James swallowed his laughter and stared at her. “What?”

Even as Steve frowned.

“Woah…” Tony pointed a finger at her. “You went out and had fondue with Dad and Aunt Peggy, right?”

“Yes, it’s called eating a meal. If you are referring to fondue as a euphemism for sex…” She looked at Steve. “Then no.”

He made a relieved sound and James actually scrubbed a hand over his face then shook his head, “Yeah, no, Good. Just no.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Tony agreed.

“Explain how fondue became a euphemism for sex,” Clint said. “In the 40s. Cause…that’s weird.”

“Fine,” Steve said with a wave of his hand. “Go ahead, Tony I know you’re dying to tell it.”

Natasha only half-listened, her attention more on Steve than on the story. When she slid a hand to him, he took it and clasped it between both of his. By the time Tony finished, Clint and James were both laughing and Steve gave her a wry look. “I got better.”

“You did,” she murmured, squeezing his hand. “I’ll fondue with you anytime.”

Clint groaned and then made gagging noises. “TMI, Nat.”

“I happen to like fondue. Cheese and bread are amazing, but I like the chocolates and the fruit, too. You have a dirty mind, Barton.”

He smirked. “It’s a terrible thing to waste.”

When she reached for her spoon, Steve let go of her hand, but he focused on James for a minute. The humor bled away, the brief shower of laughter a respite in the quiet sadness.

“You don’t know if Dad remembered,” Tony said, bringing them back full circle.

“No, I don’t know if I found him. If he remembered me… and there’s no one left from then. Is there? Anyone who would have been around your dad then?”

“Me.” Tony shrugged. “No Red, I don’t know. That was a long time ago. But we can look. You get on that Friday?”

“Already checking, Boss. Not seeing much hope in the search, though.”

“Then we’re back to me…”

Back to her using BARF—SPARK, whatever Tony had renamed it to. That meant getting Strange to clear her, which required triggering an episode so he could get a look at it. See if he could offer other solutions, though it sounded more and more like BARF was the solution.

The conversation meandered around the elephant in the room and her gaze returned to the photo time and again. When she’d finished eating, James handed it to her and he got his own plate. Still, none of them left the common room. It was weird. Not festive at all, no tree. They barely used this floor. Not like they used to… and it seemed somehow fitting that they were here.

How things stayed the same even when they changed.

“Did you make a decision, Nat?” Clint asked finally. “About what you’re going to do?”

She glanced at James, holding his gaze for a beat and he nodded. Steve brushed his knuckles against her knee and she shifted her attention to him. They’d talked about this—before Logan called. She’d told them what she wanted to do. Why she had to do it.

“We do the test—we find a way to trigger an episode. Let Strange monitor it. Get his opinion…” She licked her lips, then added, “Then we ask T’Challa and speak to his sister, we get a second opinion.”

The relief in the room was so palpable it almost knocked her over. But she glanced down at the photo in her hand. Malyshka.

“We’ll find her…”

“I’ll dig around and see if I can find anything about you seeing Dad,” Tony offered. “No idea where the hell to look but—there might be something. We used to have a ton of Dad’s old projects and notes out at the Compound before I converted it. Friday, where did we store all of that?”

“Some of it is here in the Tower, Boss. Most of it anyway. The rest you sent out to Stark Industries corporate in Los Angeles. You were planning to digitize the records. We didn’t get that far and you wanted to go through the items and inventions, see if anything there was worth salvaging.”

“Yay,” Tony moaned and stretched. “Guess I know what I’m doing.”

“I can help,” Clint offered. “If it’s just looking through boxes. That’s gonna take some time.”

“We can all help,” Steve said. “But not tonight.”

“No,” James said. “No more. Everyone is tired.”

And she didn’t have to check; by everyone they meant her, though Tony and Clint looked beat.

“Tomorrow,” Clint said. “I go get Laura and the kids, we’re still doing family dinner on Friday, and we’ve got a lot of Christmas things to do.”

“I won’t miss it,” Natasha said.

“Kid, you do what you gotta do, we’ll figure this out.”

It didn’t take long after that to clean up, they took the elevator up, dropping Clint at his floor and when they got to Steve’s, Tony glanced up from where he leaned against the back wall.

“Red?”

She was a half step out of the elevator and she glanced back.

“Get some sleep before you call Strange?”

“I’ll do my best. Thanks for tonight.”

“You’re welcome… we’ll figure this out.”

“Night, Tony.”

“Hey…” He straightened and she raised her eyebrows. “When you’re feeling better, you know more you—can we train some more?”

“You’re volunteering as tribute?” The faint smile at the idea couldn’t quite dislodge the stone weighing her down, but it shifted some.

“Sure—why not. The odds have to be in my favor sooner or later.” He winked then stepped back and the doors closed.

After staring at the closed elevator for a moment, she walked over to where James set the photo of Mary on the shelf next to the others; it was propped against the one of her with the Bartons at Thanksgiving. It looked so out of place and at the same time, exactly where it should be.

“I’m going to let you guys…”

“Stevie,” James said abruptly. “If you want to crash in your room, that’s fine. I’m not asking you to sleep elsewhere.”

Natasha glanced at him. “I’m not either. I feel a little hollow at the moment and I’d really rather you were close, but if you can’t after…”

“Angel, I’m not mad. Yeah—it was weird to hear Tony knew you’d met Howard and Peggy, but we didn’t, but—I’m not mad.”

“I told him when he was having a bad moment at the UN, he’d gotten pretty pissed at one of the delegates and he needed to calm down. Telling him the story did it.” She sighed.

“I know, I get it. I could have lived without the fondue story though.”

The corner of James’ mouth kicked up. “It’s a fun story Stevie.”

“It didn’t happen to you,” Steve pointed out.

“Nope, that’s why I enjoy it so much.”

“Be nice,” Natasha said, not that she minded them picking on each other. In some ways, it was really nice. Tonight had been a bit of a shock for James, too. They got ready for bed, Natasha stripped back down to Steve’s t-shirt and reclaimed James’ boxers. After she washed her face, she brushed her teeth and stared at herself in the mirror.

The woman in the photo with the soft eyes and wide smile, she seemed a million years away from where Natasha was now. Happiness came and went, like the fierce tropical storm. Sometimes it stuck around, flooding everything. But the storm always passed and happiness was like that, too. Fleeting. It was why it was so valuable.

The droughts in between—it made the memories of rain so much more precious. But looking at that photo, she had her first look at a snapshot of Natalia’s life, the life she’d made for herself even in the midst of it falling down. In her mind there was a rotary index of photos—the album James and Tony found in Moscow—she’d been an empty-eyed child, nothing like her own daughter.

Nothing like she was now.

Natalia had been ground to dust then reassembled how many times?

Yet she could smile like that, effortless, warm, and filled with hope when there couldn’t possibly be any?

“Angel?” Steve’s voice tugged her from the mirror. He sat on the edge of the bed. “Buck went to take a shower.” He’d stripped down to a tank top and sweatpants. They were loose, but did little to hide his physique. “You want to tell me what’s going on in there?”

“I don’t even know where to start.”

“Why do you call Logan malinky jaha?”

Natasha laughed. “Malen'kiy dyadya—Little uncle.”

“Why little uncle?”

“Because he’s little—like me. Because…because when I first knew him again, he would look after me. Give me jobs. Point me in the right direction. He was trying to be my friend when I wasn’t really sure what friends were. But he was bossy, grumpy, he would yell about things, grouse more…I used to think it was funny. He was a grumpy old uncle. More—he never wanted in my pants. I could count on him… didn’t always go the way I thought, but, if I needed help, he’d come.”

“He did. When Clint sent him word, he got back to us fast and he went looking for you right away.”

“He kept my secret. He kept Mary safe from me all these years.”

“I’m glad,” Steve told her. “I’m glad he had a photo for you—I’m glad I got to see her.”

Natasha smiled. “Me too.” The tears burned at the back of her throat. “It makes it real…I didn’t make it up in my head or…”

“Angel…”

Swiping away the tears. “Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t.”

“I know. What can I do? What do you need?”

“Be you,” she said, pushing away from the door. “Be Steve.”

“Well, I have some experience at that.” Rising, he pulled the duvet and the covers back, and then let her crawl onto the bed to get in the middle. “How’s the rest of you doing? You got a lot of touching in today—Wanda, Clint… Buck.”

“You,” she reminded him, then patted the bed next to her. He sat and swung his legs up before leaned against the headboard and she wiggled under his arm and then curled against him, pressing her cheek to his chest. “I’m a little numb right now.”

“Numb bad? Or numb good?”

“Numb I have no idea.” Tilting her head back, she looked up at him. “Can I ask you a hard question?”

“Go for it.”

“Do you want kids?” Maybe plural was optimistic but the whole conversation was.

“Never thought it was going to be an option for me,” he told her after a long moment. “I was so sickly when I was a kid, breathing was hard on good days. Didn’t think I’d find a girl for one or live long enough to make it happen. Then the serum and… I think for a little while I thought maybe I’d have this chance, but later. You know after the war.”

Natasha ran her finger against his chest, just lightly drawing a pattern. Testing how much contact she could take. The vodka had helped. Maybe she could kill a couple three bottles a night.

“Then the ice and I woke up here,” Steve admitted. “Told Tony once that—the guy who went into the ice, the guy who wanted that stuff wasn’t here anymore. A different guy came out. I think I did come out different.” Then he focused on her. “When you told me about what they’d done to you—I hated them. Hated them for hurting you and thought—you and me? Long as we’re together I’m good. I don’t need anything else.”

“And now?”

“You and me?” Steve said slowly. “Long as we’re together. I’m good, I don’t need anything else.”

A little smile turned up her lips.

“Nat, I want you. I want—what we have. I want you to be happy. I love you. If you get pregnant, I’m going to love the hell out of that kid just like I love his or her mother. If you don’t? Well, you’re stuck with me regardless. I want the life we can have and I just want to see where we go and how we get there.”

“I second that,” James said quietly from the door. “I won’t ever say no to the idea of seeing you pregnant again. You—you have no idea how beautiful you were. But I’m not hanging my hat on it either, Doll. You—us—this family we’re building? That’s what I want.”

Steve squeezed her shoulders gently, then pressed his lips to her hair. “I’m not going to ask you what you want. Not yet. You told us you weren’t ready to think about it.”

After closing the door, James crossed over and settled on his side of the bed. “You have enough to think about. We’ll deal with the future when it gets here.”

“Do you guys really think we have one?” The question slipped out, but based on her history? “Can we?”

“Yes,” James said, conviction deepening his voice in the same breath as Steve’s quieter, but emphatic, “I do.”

“How? We—we fight aliens, ancient Nazi death cults, mad scientists, robots…apparently magic men and wizards and let’s not get started with aliens who also double as old Earth gods or at least play the part on TV…how do we make a future like that?”

Shifting on the bed, James rolled onto his side and patted the middle closer to him since she was sitting curled next to Steve. “C’mon, share her.”

Steve chuckled, and then they were all sorting themselves out and she was lying in the middle with one on either side lying on their sides. “Better?”

“Much,” James said. “Thank you.”

“Quite welcome.”

She rolled her eyes but she couldn’t suppress the laughter that popped up.

“Natalia,” James said. “When we were at the chalet and you didn’t want to have the conversation about what you wanted—about wanting both of us? Do you remember what you said about the past and the future?”

“You can’t change the past and you can’t count on the future, you only have today, so make the most of it.” Yes, she very much remembered what she said. It was what she believed. What she’d believed for a long time.

“You’re worried because you can’t count on what is coming tomorrow,” he continued. “Can’t say I’m a fan of some of the challenges we might face, but I can’t wait for the rest. For the sleigh rides, for taking you out like I should have for years, for going shopping, for going exploring –for being with you. You had a future—a potential one before—one I almost had with you. One I know you made plans for and you lost it. That would make anyone want to go the other way.”

“We all did,” Steve told her quietly. “All three of us had futures we wanted, maybe even ached for and we couldn’t hold onto them. I get it. You can’t count on the future. You’re right. You can count on us.”

“That’s really sappy,” Natasha said after a long moment. “I mean—really sappy.”

Steve tweaked her knee and laughter trilled out of her. “Sappy, Romanoff? Sappy is…” She rolled over and put her hand against his mouth. His eyes danced a little.

“I said it sounded sappy. Not bad.” Letting him go slowly, she rolled back to her spot. “I’m kind of getting used to sappy.”

“Oh, Doll,” James sighed. “Now you’ve done it.”

At her arched brow, he merely grinned.

“Buck’s right. Now we have to see which of us is the sappiest.”

She groaned and closed her eyes. “I love you,” she whispered. “Saps.”

They leaned in and pressed a kiss to her cheeks, one on either side and when they would have pulled away, she tugged them back.

“You sure?” James said, forehead against her hair.

“I want to try. Just—stay close and don’t get mad if…”

“Not going to get mad, Angel,” Steve tugged his pillow over and they settled, each resting a hand on her, close a warm cage but not quite boxing her in.

Her eyes were so heavy.

“Sleep mode please, Friday,” Steve said.

“Goodnight,” Friday responded as the lights darkened and the floor secured. Natasha knew every process Friday would go through. She covered one of Steve’s hands with hers, then caught James’ hand as well.

No matter how tired her eyes, sleep wouldn’t come. But she drifted, holding onto them half-aware of their breathing.

Neither of them was asleep either.

“Movie?” she said abruptly.

“I’ll get the popcorn,” Steve said.

“I’ll set up the blankets and pillows in the living room,” James offered.

“I’ll get the cocoa.”

Fifteen minutes later, curled up between them with popcorn and hot cocoa, the opening bars of Harry Potter began and Steve cracked up at her choice. James hadn’t seen it yet, but she figured Steve would appreciate it.

There were eight movies to fill in the hours.

She was asleep before Harry boarded the train.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

Wizard

Natasha

 

“Follow the yellow brick road,” Natasha chanted as she led the run through the park. She’d been dressed before either of them; ready to go running after she let them both test her ribs. Bruised here and there, but no more fractures. Most of her bruises were fading, ugly yellow or greenish-yellow footprints of previous damage. Another couple of days and the evidence of the previous week would no longer be visible.

Even the one on her ankle, the mark of the shackle she’d covered with a sock had diminished. The least damaging and yet—she shoved the thought out of her head.

“Follow, follow, follow,” she continued. “Follow the yellow brick road.” If she could sing a little and run, it was good for testing her oxygen consumption. “Follow the rainbow over the stream. Follow the fellow who follows a dream.” Her feet pounded against the cold pavement, crunching against the snow as it tried to shroud their route and her breath came out in sharp, cloudy bursts. Ice kissed the top of the snow, along the walls, against benches and trees. The park paths were slick and shiny, but she stretched herself. Pushing.

The steady snowfall had begun before dawn and it added a fresh coat to the world, a hushed blanket. It clung to her eyelashes and settled on her cap. She could taste it in every breath. The wind and the storm promised to pile more snow across what little green was visible even as it cloaked the ice. Beautiful and deceptive.

The solid thumps of Steve’s and James’ feet were right behind her. When they narrowed the distance, she pushed herself to go faster. Then jerked her attention off the double thud.

“Follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow brick road.” If she focused too much on that sound, her mind slipped to being chased. Sweat pooled along her back, but she kept going pushing herself.

“If Natalia is Dorothy does that make me the Tin Man?” James’ question almost made her lose her footing.

“And I’m the Cowardly Lion,” Steve retorted.

“Scarecrow?” James asked, then they both said in tandem, “Tony.”

Natasha laughed and flipped them off as she hummed the next line.

“Poor Clint,” Steve said.

“Yeah—he’s the dog.”

Slipping, she pivoted to let her feet slide as she stopped and turned around. “Really?”

A pair of unrepentant grins met her. “You keep singing about the Yellow Brick Road,” James pointed out with a wave at himself and then Steve. “We’re definitely not munchkins.”

She snorted. “Fine…” Sticking out her tongue, she turned and started walking, warming herself back up to run and shaking her arms. “Good for making me work on my respiratory system. Harder to keep breath regulated and sing while you run. Chest hurt like a bitch for days—gotta make sure I didn’t lose any capacity.”

“But the Wizard?”

“Well,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “I’m off to see one in a couple of hours, aren’t I?”

“No,” Steve said with a teasing roll of his eyes. “The Wizard is coming to see you!”

“Fine,” she called back picking up the pace with a little burst of speed to get up to a run. Not like she could outdistance them. Still, she didn’t want to focus on the feeling of them racing up on her. It was Steve and James. It would be fine. She lasted a quarter of a mile before the slap of their feet had her heart amping faster.

Humming under her breath, she tried to focus on a song instead. “When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land?”

The cold air washed against her face.

“I should have stayed on the farm, I should have listened to my old man.” She almost laughed at that. A car horn honked in the distance.

“You know you can’t hold me forever. I didn’t sign up with you. I’m not a present for your friends to open… this boy’s too young to be singing…” She trailed out the note as her lungs began to burn then grinned as she continued, “…the blues.”

Pushing her legs harder, she fought against the complaints in her quads and calves. “So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl…”

Steve barked out a laugh, but she just kept up the song as she followed the loop. The guys never got that much of a workout with her, even less when she was fighting back into shape. Though neither complained. As long as she pushed, both legs and her lungs, she could focus on the running and not on the fact that in a couple of hours Doctor Strange would arrive at the Tower and they’d try to trigger an episode while she was in a damn MRI machine.

The image of Mary in the photo branded itself on her mind’s eye.

Worth it.

She ran faster.

Totally worth it.

 

~~~

 

At the Tower, Natasha wanted to head down to the gym and spend an hour on a speed bag, but they had about forty-five minutes until the doctor arrived. James blew her a kiss and promised French toast and coffee after he showered. Natasha hit the switch on their coffee maker to get their first brew going and pivoted to find Steve standing between her room and his.

They were nowhere near as sweaty as she was, still… “Wash my hair?” The invitation rolled right out of her. That first morning, James had showered with her, but neither one had joined her since and she got it. She really did. As much as she needed their thoughtfulness, she wanted the intimacy back.

“You sure?” His brows gathered together and Natasha shrugged as she backed toward her room, stripping her hoodie open.

“Sure… it’ll be fun.”

Following her, he tugged off his sweatshirt and studied her. “Nat…”

“I know. We have time. There’s no rush. One step a time. I know all the different platitudes. But right now—even if I can’t take the touching, I want to take a shower with you, I want to be close—I just want you to be there.”

“Okay.” End of debate. He followed her in toeing off his shoes and she pivoted to head into the bathroom, her tank top and leggings came off easily enough. Still in her socks and panties, she cranked the shower up. Steve stood near the door but not quite in it. Not boxing her in.

Tipping her head back, she stared at the ceiling. “I’m not going to break Steve.”

“I don’t care, you deserve to be treated with care and I’m going to do that. You had your back to me.”

When she met his gaze he filled the doorway and headed toward her. Letting her gaze trail over him, she sighed. “It really is a good thing you’re pretty.” The flex of his muscles as he moved, everything taut from his glorious Adonis belt to his thighs and pecs.

“Nice,” he murmured, shaking his head despite the fact his lips curved into a smile. He checked his appearance in the mirror and tested his beard though his gaze kept tracking to her. “You enjoying the view?”

She tugged off one sock as she tilted her head. The firm line of muscle on his back extended over his glutes was downright mouthwatering.

“You know,” she answered as she tossed her socks toward her pile of dirty clothes and hooked her thumbs into her panties. “Your ass is not your best feature.”

Not once did she shift her gaze from his reflection in the mirror. A hit of red touched his cheeks and that beautiful flush spread up his neck. “No?” he asked in a seemingly blasé tone.

“Nope,” she said. Panties on the dirty laundry stack, she stepped into the steamy shower.

“Door open or closed, Angel?”

Closed would keep the bathroom warmer.

It would also make escape…

“Close it.” She didn’t need to escape.

Taking her at her word, he pushed the door to and then he was at the far end of the shower, studying her. After soaking her hair under the spray, she smiled at him and crooked a finger.

“You know—all I want is to wrap you up and keep you safe. You know that right?”

“I do,” she assured him. “That you don’t try to lock me away or lock me down—it just makes me adore you more.”

His expression softened. “Nat…” Then with a sigh, he let go of whatever he’d been going to say and finally stepped into the shower with her. Turning her back to him, she held out her hand. The care he took closing the distance would have rocked her once upon a time, but he and James were both like that. So careful.

When he was close enough to touch, she leaned back and he dropped his hands to her hips and let them rest there and she pressed against him.

The water beat on her chest and legs and the heat was delicious after the cold. Even better was Steve held her, until he finally murmured, “You wanted me to wash your hair, ma’am?”

“Is that what you call all the dames you shower with, soldier?”

A snort. “No ma’am, there’s only one dame I report to in the shower.”

A laugh worked through her. “She must be a lucky gal.”

“Nah, I’m the lucky one.” He steadied her before stepping away and she traded with him so he could get under the water.

“I don’t know,” she told him. “From where I’m standing, I feel pretty lucky.”

His quick smile reached his blue eyes. “Good. Now… park it here Romanoff. I’m going to wash your hair, and then we’re going to move it so you can eat. Don’t think I don’t recognize a delaying tactic when I see one.”

“No, I’d never accuse you of that.” Still, she’d rather keep staring at him and maybe working her way up to playing with him even if the itch under skin grew worse and worse. She hated that feeling and it was beginning to aggravate her.

With care, Steve massaged the shampoo into her hair and even as the pins and needles radiated out, she forced herself to relax. After rinsing out the shampoo, he added the conditioner. “Do you still hate your hair?” The quiet question nudged her out of the zone she’d been trying to keep herself in to contain any negative reactions.

The stroke of his fingers along her nape sent a wave of apprehension down her spine. “I don’t…hate it so much as I hated having to do it. Which is…” The need to vocalize why it bothered her proved more difficult than she cared to admit. “I’ve always been flexible,” she said finally.

“That I noticed,” he murmured and it was just enough of a jolt to turn her around. Leaning against the cooler tile, she stared up at him.

“Captain Rogers, was that sexual innuendo?”

He planted a hand on the tile next to her. “It’s better than fondue.”

Laughter welled up and she actually put a hand on his chest to brace herself as she chuckled. His smile grew. Blowing out a breath, she skated her fingers up to his beard and scratched him gently. “I’ve always had to mold myself into a role. Cut my hair, color it, switch out for wigs, become whatever… but this time… I had to cut it because he cut off part of my hair—and I hate that part. He got to change some aspect of me.”

The bitterness on her tongue tasted like truth.

“But you chose the final style—you still can.” He tugged one damp end. “Your hair is beautiful, Nat. Short. Long. Curly. Straight. As long as I can get a fistful…”

She raised her eyebrows. He was playing with her. Rising on her tiptoes, she slid her hand to his nape and it took no urging to pull him down. The first brush of his lips was tentative and gentle, the second more firm, and with the third he claimed her mouth, tongue sweeping in to do gentle battle.

Digging her fingers into his neck, she clung to him as he skated his hands down her sides and then he slid his hands under her ass, lifting her up. Locked against the wall, trapped, not moving, she flinched and Steve set her down almost immediately and then he was out of the shower and backing away.

Fuck.

Fuck.

Fuck.

Clenching her fingers, she banged her head against the tile wall.

“Natasha.” The snap in his voice dragged her eyes open. “It’s okay.”

That damn phrase.

“You want me to stay? Or go?” The care in his eyes stung.

“You can—I can do it.” She stepped under the spray to rinse off her hair and didn’t look up until the bathroom door closed.

Choking the scream clawing in her throat, she slammed her fist against the wall twice in rapid succession.

That pain went all the way up her arm. The blood smear washed away and she stared at the split she’d torn in two of her knuckles.

That was what pain felt like.

Wrenching the water off, she dragged a towel against her skin and rubbed it down as briskly and roughly as possible. The rasp of it could burn if she did it too hard.

That was pain.

In the mirror, she stared at herself. This was not who she wanted to be.

“Natasha?” Friday’s voice came tentative and quiet.

“I’m fine,” she told her. “I got a little frustrated. But I’m fine.”

“Very well. Doctor Strange called to confirm his appointment with you in thirty minutes.”

“Is he still on the line?”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to eat breakfast, then we’ll meet him in medical. Ask him to text or ping you before he opens one of those portal things.”

“I will take care of it.”

Hands braced against the counter, she glared at herself. She had to fix this. There was just—too much to keep letting this happen.

 

~~~

 

James set the tea in front of her along with a plate of French toast and fried potatoes. Her shower had definitely taken longer than his. She’d dressed in loose clothing, t-shirt and leggings. Steve was just pouring his own coffee as she slid into the chair.

“Steve…”

“Angel, it’s fine.” He turned to look at her. “Are you all right?”

“Not really.” But if he didn’t want to talk about it…

“Natalia,” James tapped the table. “Don’t. If you want him to listen, tell him that. And you…” he rounded on Steve. “What the hell did I tell you before she came out here?”

“It’s not her fault.”

“I don’t give a damn.” The snap in James’ tone had her sitting up straighter. “You don’t absolve people like that, it shuts down the conversation. If you feel bad because you think you pushed you say that.”

“He didn’t push,” Natasha said sharply. “Back off, James.”

The anger that pulsed between them was a sullen thing and James eased back a step before glancing at her.

“I did it—I pushed because that’s what I do. It didn’t work out so well and he stopped before I even realized something was wrong.”

She pressed her fingers to her temple. Her head throbbed at the moment.

“This is a mess…”

“It could be worse,” Steve said and she glanced up at the same time as James. Though she hoped her expression wasn’t that hostile. “I’d rather you yelled at me or poked at me to yell at you than shut me out. Same goes for you,” he said, switching from her to James. “We’re talking. Maybe it’s not pretty…I don’t care. Nothing about this has been easy and if I wanted easy well…”

“You wouldn’t take easy if it walked up and offered to suck your cock,” James said flatly. “Now if it hit you upside the head with a bat, you might take notice.”

Lips pursed, Steve narrowed his eyes. “You want a fight.”

“We could both use one.”

“If either of you go spar without me or while I’m stuck in that machine, you will both sorely regret it later.” As threats went, it didn’t have a lot of weight, but James actually grinned.

“I believe you—doesn’t mean we won’t do it…”

“Yes it does, we’re not leaving her to do that on her own.” Steve ground his teeth before saying. “Unless you don’t want us there.”

Cutting into her French toast, she shrugged. “Honestly? I have no idea what we’re going to trigger or tear loose—maybe some I’d want you both to hear. Maybe something I’d rather not think about.”

All at once her appetite fled. Mary. She just had to keep thinking about Mary.

Two chairs scraped as they pulled them out and then they were sitting, plates of their own and cups of coffee. Lifting her tea, she glanced across the room to where Mary’s picture waited then looked at the tree.

“We’re going to find her,” Steve said firmly.

“You don’t know that…”

“I kind of do.” Certainty etched every word and she glanced at him as he started working his way systematically through a stack of pancakes. “Nat, when have you ever failed a mission?”

“I didn’t save Tony.”

They both stopped eating and James studied her. “If they hadn’t messed with your head and dropped you in there last second?”

“That shouldn’t have mattered,” Natasha said with a shrug. “It’s still a mission failure.” She didn’t bring up the Iranian engineer. Or going to get James back in the first place. Both failures. The tension threading around them was like so much static electricity, just waiting for one of them to set it off. “Wasn’t running supposed to up our endorphins? You know exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.”

That earned her a bland look from Steve. “That’s a movie quote.”

James frowned. “From what?”

“I don’t know,” he muttered, scratching at his beard. “But I do know it’s a movie quote.”

Biting back a smile, Natasha cut into the French toast. It tasted fine and James had made it for her, even it was like a lead weight going down. She made herself eat it anyway. It, the potatoes and she washed it all down with tea.

“It’s a movie quote, right?” Steve studied her and she raised her eyebrows.

“Is it?”

“It’s definitely a movie quote,” James stated, pointing a fork at her. “To keep it fair, is it one we’ve seen?”

“I doubt it,” she commented, willing to concede the point that far. “Though you did watch Bring It On with Clint. So maybe.”

That still amused her.

“We can ask Friday,” Steve said.

“That would be cheating,” James retorted, but he slowed his eating and slipped out his phone.

“By those terms so would Googling it,” Natasha commented, biting back another grin.

“Smart intelligence gathering is not cheating,” Steve told him, almost triumphantly. “Friday?”

“Yes, Captain Rogers? Also, Boss is on his way down.”

“Is he coming for food?” James asked.

“I could eat,” Tony answered via Friday. “But I can also wait.”

“We’ve got pancakes,” Steve said. “Clint at PT?”

“Yes, Captain Rogers,” Friday responded. “As soon as Doctor Strange arrives, however, he will join you all in medical.”

“Got it.” Steve rose to head for the stove. “Okay, Friday—quote search, Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make people happy. Happy people don’t shoot their husbands. What movie is that from?”

The elevator chimed open. “Every bad self-help magazine on the planet,” Tony answered. “And Legally Blonde.”

Natasha snorted.

Steve looked pleased as he twisted to meet her gaze. “Good enough intelligence gathering?”

“You pass, Rogers, top marks.” But what she really wanted to ask was were they okay?

He winked, and then lifted his chin toward her food and she reclaimed her fork.

“Coffee in the pot there,” Steve pointed to the one on the right. “Pancakes in a couple. There’s still some bacon and potatoes. Not much.”

“You going to want more, Red?”

“Go ahead,” she told him, then caught James’ eye and mouthed sorry. He shook his head. They were all wound too tight. She’d crashed on the sofa but woke—a lot. The guys had slept some, but ended up watching movies in and around trying to get her to sleep.

At least they’d made it all the way through the fourth one. James had been intrigued. He’d finished it just before they’d elected to go running. Steve added the pancakes to Tony’s plate before adding a couple to his and the rest of the bacon. Natasha pushed away her plate, French toast gone and a third of the potatoes left. If she ate anymore she’d make herself sick.

“You three doing all right?” Tony asked as he sat, his gaze going to each of them in turn.

“Tired,” Steve said. James shrugged and when they all looked at her, she lifted her brows.

“Nope. Definitely not.” It was the truth. She was not doing all right. But that was kind of self-explanatory. She glanced at the clock. Another six minutes until their appointment. Strange struck her as a prompt kind of guy. “But I’m a step closer, so I’m going to call that a win.”

“Speaking of trying to call wins…” Tony set his fork down. “Friday and I did some research last night… Dad and 1973.”

She’d been making a concerted effort to not focus on the Howard Stark of it all. Lately, whenever she had a knotted thread to pull, she triggered an episode particularly if she focused on details around Mary. Like she’d booby-trapped herself—somehow.

James shifted to give his attention to Tony. “What did you find?”

“They relocated to Manhattan in ’73, after a year in California for some projects, but Dad primarily rotated between the house in Manhattan and a place in D.C. We don’t have the D.C. property.” Tony looked at her. “But I still have the house.”

Both hands on her tea, she kept her breathing steady and studied Tony. “The mansion on 5th?”

“Yep, historical society is really fond of the place and Mom loved it, so I never sold it even though I don’t live there and it’s a little too big for one person anyway.”

Natasha gave him a dry look. “And a ninety story Tower isn’t?”

“I don’t live here alone,” he said with a smirk. “And there are some labs here for Stark Industries.”

She left that be.

“You think if Natalia found your father or made contact with him, it could be at that house.”

“Possibly,” Tony glanced at her. “Field trip later?”

“Maybe.” She looked at the clock.

One minute ‘til.

Friday chimed. “Doctor Strange has texted and said he will be sending his portal to Natasha, so you should go to where you want to meet him.”

Sending his portal to her. That was a cheery thought.

“Ask him for two minutes please, Friday,” Natasha said pushing her chair back. They were all rising and James motioned to the plates.

“Leave them.”

With a nod, she crossed the room and picked up the photo of Mary, she stared at it for a long moment then set it back carefully.

As ready as she would ever be, she turned. Steve and Tony were at the elevator but James waited just three steps away, patient.

“Fair warning,” she said as she looked at each of them. “This might not be pretty—you guys don’t have to put yourselves through it, too.”

James just held out his hand. Yeah, she didn’t think they’d back down.

 

~~~

 

She’d stuck with socks for the trip and she’d left her weapons upstairs because she was going in the pipe. The gold circle flared to life as they exited the elevator and Strange strolled through with his cloak hurrying behind him. Natasha tipped her head to the side as the cloak hustled. Strange didn’t slow down for it or even seem aware of it.

“Good morning,” Strange said, he had a file under his arm and a phone in his hand. While he was still dressed like a cosplayer on his way to a Ren faire, he had a far more professional air around him. All of his attention was on her, probably why he glanced at the cloak. With a faint, roll of his eyes, he set his file and phone down then snapped the portal closed before removing his sling ring.

She still wasn’t overly fond of the thing, but exposure therapy seemed to have neutered some of its effect on her. Some. They all answered his greeting with various ones of their own.

The cloak shifted to stay in Strange’s blind spot, and the doctor had to be consciously ignoring it though the more time she spent around it, the more normal it seemed. James still held her hand and she leaned against one of the walls, aware the MRI was in the other room. Clint arrived, a large thermos in his hand and dressed for PT. Sweating like he’d been doing it, too.

“You’re going to be running the equipment?” Strange said to Tony. At Tony’s nod, Strange flipped the file open. “We’re going to need to run this with a contrast.” The doctor turned his attention to her. “I’m aware you are less than fond of all medications…”

“It’s fine,” Natasha told him, releasing James’ hand. “I know we have to give you all the tools to look at it.”

“You seem very calm for someone who has a medical history steeped in your staunch refusal to cooperate.”

“Never really had a compelling reason before…”

Strange narrowed his eyes. “Ms. Romanoff…”

“You know Doc, we’re about to get personal, seeing as you’re planning to play with my brain. You can call me Natasha.”

“Very well, Natasha… I believe now is the difficult time. In order to trigger an episode, we need some ideas of what will do that.”

“I’m pretty sure I have one.”

Tony shot her a look.

“Before—they wanted to guide it get to me to talk while I was in it, are you planning to try that while I’m in that thing?” The MRI was abysmally loud.

“If it worked before, then it would be a reasonable to attempt again. Though my attention is going to be on the scans… I’m assuming one of you gentlemen…”

“I’ll do it, Tash,” Clint said quietly. “We were all there with Tony, but I’ll talk you through it.”

She nodded. “Friday—you can record this in case Doc needs it for his files.”

“Go ahead and call me, Stephen, Natasha,” the doc said. “If we’re being personal.”

“Understood, Natasha.”

“Do we have a way to end this if it gets to be too much?” Steve asked.

Natasha glanced at him. “Probably not. This isn’t like a program, it just does what it does.”

“You also had a seizure the last time we deliberately provoked one,” James added. Concern radiated off their every tense muscle, but they had it so locked down.

“Well if that happens and you two need to spar, go ahead—no hard feelings.” The teasing didn’t elicit much of a reaction, though Tony sighed.

“There is something else we can do... I considered it for a future attempt at this, because I want to see the primary reactions this time.” Stephen gestured to the medicine cabinet.

“Such as? And keep in mind—the dosages I require tend to be higher than most doctors are comfortable administering.”

“I’m not most doctors and there have been some very positive studies in using MDMA for PTSD patients, it allows you to step aside from your own emotional reaction to the memories and can be effective in getting to the root of triggers. This—your episodes are different. But from what you’ve said, many of them include trauma, which you are then experiencing for a second time in addition to the trauma of the recall.”

“Psychotropic. My favorite thing.”

“In a controlled environment—”

Ice slithered over her and she raised a hand and he paused. “Right now, let’s just keep it to the basics without the speculation. Controlled environments and I have a much longer and more colorful history that I do not want to repeat here.”

“Accepted. If you are ready to trigger the episode, let’s get you in there and set up. Be aware, however, if we need to repeat this, we can at least provide you with some therapeutic assistance.”

Yay.

After slipping the dog tags off her neck and the bracelet off her wrist, she held them out to Steve who took both and slid them into his pocket. “You want this to stop at any point,” he told her. “Say the word. We’ll stop it.”

She really wished she hadn’t freaked in the shower earlier. She squeezed his hand. At least she didn’t have to switch into the ugly gown for this. Her clothing was loose enough.

James and Clint were right behind her. She’d spent so much damn time in the machine, she sighed at the table. The head cage would have to go on, too.

She could do this.

Seated on the table, she gave James a small smile. “I can do this.”

“I know you can. I also know why.” He held out both his hands and she took them. “You are more important to me than the memories, Natalia.” With care, he squeezed her hands then glanced at Clint. “You have her?”

“Yep, not letting her go either.”

“Remember what Steve said, you want this to stop. Say the word.” James raised his eyebrows and she nodded. Then he pressed a kiss to her forehead before striding out of the room.

Finally, Stephen stood in the doorway as Tony approached with the contrast. “You want Clint to do the shot, Red?”

“It’s fine,” she told him. “Either of you can do it.” Blowing out a breath, she laid on the table. Being prone meant being vulnerable. A camera stared at her from two different angles, three if she counted the one just outside the window. Clint was right there, staying where she could see him and then Tony was there.

“No platitudes, just—make it a quick one if you can, Red. He just needs to see the activity.”

“I’ll get right on that.”

He gave her a faint smile. “Now you’re going to be all stubborn and do something complicated, aren’t you?”

“Don’t pretend you don’t enjoy my obstinate side. It’s been giving Clint thrills for years.”

“Thrills,” Clint murmured. “That’s what I call it. Enough dramatics. Let’s get this done.”

With a nod, she kept her breathing as disciplined and slow as she could. There was a goal. Identify the areas of activity, test whether they might heal if encouraged—get enough data to make a comprehensive decision on the next step. Which may or may not include access to BARF.

Refusing to get her hopes up, she kept her expression neutral as Tony handled the injection. Rock steady hands, he barely pinched her as he got the needle in. The slow pump of the gadolinium hitting her system began the crawl through her veins.

 

Blue liquid. IV strung down and around her wrist. Liquid ice pumping into her veins.

 

Her pulse jumped.

 

“Quinuclidinyl benzilate, produces akathisia, an intense desire to move. You might know it as Soviet code substance 78.” It pumped into her arm like ice being injected into her veins.

It also amplifies pain receptors, so that even pinprick will feel like you're being stabbed. It also causes hallucinations and a loss of mental and physical control.” Curiosity populated his voice. “I am told it’s very potent. We have tripled the dose for you. To make sure you experience…”

 

Natasha jerked her gaze to Tony and focused on him. Tony. Not The Mandarin. Then the needle was out. “You still with us?” Worry coated every word.

Not quite trusting her voice at the moment, she nodded once.

He frowned, still studying her. “Going to third what they said. Say the word. Friday shuts it off.”

“I’ll be fine, Tony. We’ve done this before,” she reminded him. “We’ve even got medical supervision this time.”

He gave her a faint smile. Then tapped the edge of the table once, and she caught his fingers.

“I’ll be fine. Breathe.”

She almost had hers back under control.

He returned the squeeze to her hand and then withdrew.

Clint glanced over at the doc and then down at her before he held up the cage. She nodded and closed her eyes, even as vulnerable as she was right here. The door closed leaving her and Clint alone.

“Friday, a minute of privacy.”

“Done, Mr. Barton.”

She glanced up at him. “Couldn’t wait to get me alone and all pumped up while I’m trapped on a table?”

“Yeah,” he said, tilting his head to stare down at her. “That’s it. You good?”

“Not even a little,” she told him, forcing a grin. “Pretty badass last I checked.”

“Ha, there was a rumor.”

“Maybe doing this so often is making it easier for me.” Absolute bullshit. But why not?

“Really?” His tone said he did not believe her.

“Nope.”

He gave her a small smile. “Okay—before we start this, what are we going to try and trigger?”

“Howard Stark. I mean if I’m going to break a memory block or try to push through one…”

His expression firmed and she almost heard the sigh he didn’t release, though his eyes told her it wasn’t unexpected.

“Okay. Do you want me to guide it or do you want to do it yourself?”

“No idea… figure I would just try to put the pieces together, usually if I focus too long on a broken part it—gets something going.”

“Kid—you’re the bravest person I know.”

“Nah.” She smiled faintly. “I’m just really stubborn.”

“That, too. If you’re ready, I’ll tell them to begin. I’m right here, Tash. I got you.”

The cage locked into place over her head and she relaxed her breathing. Just focused on keeping it even.

“Clint?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” He held out his hand and she clasped it for a long moment.

Exhaling, she gave a little nod. Then he released her hand and stepped back.

“Friday, resume recording, we’re ready.”

“We’re beginning now, Natasha,” Stephen said. “Mr. Stark is initiating the scan. It will run for approximately twenty-five minutes, if you require more time, we will continue it and if you need it to stop—I believe they have all indicated you need to just say the word.”

She lifted her hand with a thumb up to acknowledge him and then the table slid into the pipe and she lost sight of Clint. Closing her eyes, she curled her fingers into her palms.

The first clank of the machine echoed in the room…

In 1971, she fled the KGB and Russia with James. They traveled to Canada, made their way to Montana. In 1972, Mary Elizabeth was born. She turned that newly recovered and now-treasured memory over in her head. In 1973, they were discovered and James led the teams away in an effort to buy her and Mary time.

She went overland to Canada, taking days to cross the rugged terrain and along the side of the road there, she met Logan. Logan who ended up giving her a ride and in those few short days became an ally she would need decades to truly appreciate.

Toronto.

He helped turn away the bounty hunters looking for her, the wide net they’d set out to try and capture her. Then got her across the lake to Rochester, New York.

She’d been looking for Howard Stark.

Why the hell would she have been looking for him? He was in Manhattan. The mansion on 5th. Working on getting the Expo built in Flushing. Somewhere Clint asked her a question. She murmured an answer, maybe.

Over and over, she replayed it… weird, had she actually been to the Expo before it was done? Tony’s Expo was loud and bright in her mind…

 

So for ten days, she followed them, ate good food, and drank hot tea while roaming Helsinki and the Olympic events. Mr. Stark put in an appearance on day four, disheveled and clearly hung over. He spotted Natalia almost immediately, but she knew men like him. All he saw was a pretty face if his gaze even got that high.

Like Carter and Sousa, he attended events when he wasn’t inebriated. There was a new girl on his arm each evening. Sometimes the three and his random plus one would go dancing. Sometimes to a quiet supper. More often than not, Stark peeled away from Carter and Sousa.

Occasionally, such as the night she sat ostensibly reading a book at a sidewalk café across from the open-air restaurant where they dined she wondered if she should have been shadowing him rather than Carter.

But Ivan had specifically focused on her and Sousa, so that was where she stayed.

Movement in her periphery had her reaching for her teacup as a reason to glance up and she found the man in question approaching her with a broad smile. Training had her smiling in return, but only slightly. A pleasant, oh our gazes met, polite smile then returned her attention to her book as she sipped her tea.

“Is this seat taken?” Stark hadn’t been deterred.

“No,” she told him, thickening her accent out of habit. They were in Finland after all, and she could sound Finnish and spoke the language with enough familiarity to pass.

“Wonderful,” he said with a flourish, and pulled the chair out. “Please tell me you speak English.”

Had she not just responded to a question in English? Men like Stark preferred to have their egos catered to, and to be admired and playful. He seemed reasonably intelligent but that did not seem to be what he looked for in his companions.

And apparently tonight, he’d decided she would be the companion.

Interesting.

“Some,” she told him, giving him a slightly brighter smile, then closing her book and setting it in her lap as though shy.

“Wonderful,” he said with a wide smile and extended his hand to her. “Howard Stark.”

“Natalie,” she answered, and then shook his hand.

“Just Natalie?”

She smiled, and gave him a politely chiding look. He was a stranger, approaching her at a café. He should be quite satisfied she’d even spoken to his brash American self.

“Just Natalie it is,” he agreed, holding her hand a beat longer than necessary then brushing his lips to the back of it before he released it. “You’re stunning.”

Oh. This was just…really? “I not understand…”

“Beautiful,” he threw on quickly. “Beautiful.”

“Howard,” Peggy Carter’s very clear, British tones carried equal parts exasperation and amusement. “Leave the poor girl to her book. All she’s done is work this week, and now we’re interrupting her quiet time.”

 

Dammit. She turned the memory over and the machine just kept hammering above her. She had that one already. She needed a different one. From much later. Of all the times to find her mind not cooperating—she’d just had an episode the other day. Why Howard Stark? Why had she gone looking for him? Why would the man have even spoken to her?

Nothing.

Nothing.

Frustrated, she focused on the photo of Mary. The beautiful photo of her daughter, her laughter. One, perfectly captured moment of the past… The pain blossomed right behind her eye and she winced.

No, her mind didn’t get to keep a hold of Mary. She locked on to Mary. Logan said that photo was taken the last day before she got on the boat. The machine clanged, it was so loud and the splitting sound in her ear, it ramped higher and higher.

“Nat?” Clint sounded a million miles away.

Mary.

“Nat—can you hear me?”

 

~~~

 

A bell clanged as the boat sliced through the water. She sat in the prow, Mary resting against her chest. Sunglasses protected her eyes as the wind stung her and the sails snapped with the wind. A bell clanged in the distance. They were close to the marina on the U.S. side of the lake.

All the arrangements had been made; Logan had even gotten his friend to agree to get her a car. She would vanish as soon as they were out of the marina. She couldn’t risk anyone knowing where they were. This had to be another dead end. Trusting Logan had been a gamble, but the man had seemed genuine in his desire to help them. The fact he’d slaughtered those who’d come for her also helped earn a little trust and faith.

After they docked, the older man who captained the boat led her through the warren of the marina to the gates carrying her single suitcase. No security appeared. No border agents. No one demanded to see her papers. They would hold up, she’d taken the time to find the right forger. Still, she wanted to no records. If they took her and Mary’s names here, they would have to lose the IDs and start over.

Startled by the lack of security, Natalie Rogers adopted a confident expression. Looking like you belonged was often the best cover. Logan had said the man wouldn’t ask questions and so far that had proven true. They hadn’t exchanged names or much in the way of pleasantries. He guided her to the far side of a lot, where a small dark sedan waited. It was a couple of years old and looked to be a little on the beaten side. Nondescript was good.

“It’s not much,” her escort told her as he handed her the keys. “But she’ll get you where she’s going. Registration in the glove box is for a Steve Rogers, your husband.”

She nodded. The papers she had all said the same thing. Steve Rogers, deceased. Natalie Rogers, his wife, Mary Rogers, his daughter, It would do.

The car would be history in a hundred miles.

“Safety seat in the back,” he motioned. “Logan mentioned your daughter was young. You know how to use it?”

Natalie smiled, even if she didn’t, she wasn’t an idiot. She’d figure it out. “I can, thank you.”

“Good luck then.” He tipped his hat, then turned and walked away.

Well, so far, Logan’s advice had been perfect. Mary was still dozing, so she got her in the seat and fixed the belts across her to keep in place. Natalie wedged the case into the floor between the front and back seats.

Another perk of traveling by boat, she was still armed.

Purse on the passenger seat, she got the car started and then checked the map. Rochester to Manhattan was roughly a six-hour drive. It was just early afternoon. The crossing had taken a little over three hours.

Mary would need to eat and Natalie needed food. Natalie Rogers had enough cash even after she’d left a few thousand for Logan in thanks for his aid. After glancing back at her daughter then down at the map, she backed the car out of its spot and headed out.

The newspapers indicated Howard and Maria Stark had arrived in New York in the last month. They were returning to living in the Big Apple. That was close to Brooklyn where James grew up. Tears burned in the back of her eyes and she forced them away as she kept her gaze on the road and looked for the sign for the interstate she needed.

No more tears. James—was gone. Her Soldat… She shoved that aside.

Find Howard Stark. The man was wealthy and connected. James indicated he’d also been something of a friend. Or at least a possible ally. She’d have to assess and make a final decision on that front alone.

Less than an hour on the road and Mary woke, fussy and thoroughly displeased with being stuck in the seat. Natalie looked for an exit. Pulling into a lot for a small diner off the road where it looked like it served other road travelers; she parked away from the main building. Once free of the seat, she got Mary’s diaper changed and then let her nurse, covering with a blanket inside the locked car, her gaze tracking any movement.

Plenty of vehicles came and went, but none came near her. Only when she’d drunk her fill did Mary fuss again, more from warmth than anything. After fixing her blouse, Natalie got rid of the blanket and then purse over her shoulder and Mary tucked to her side, she headed inside.

A mother and daughter traveling.

Nothing to see.

The table she’d picked was close to an exit and had a good line of sight on the door. The waitress played with Mary and her little one was happy with sharing some of the mushed peas and mashed potatoes she’d ordered while Natalie ate one large cheeseburger, then ordered a second to take with her.

It was a ridiculous meal. But James had ordered one in Chicago when they’d stopped and he’d loved it. It was also heavy protein. She had to keep her strength up for Mary.

She didn’t stay longer than thirty minutes.

Mary disliked the car seat intensely, but Natalie coaxed her back in. It took a little fiddling but she found a radio station and when she sang along with the radio, Mary quieted. Her sweet Malyshka was not used to the loud and dirty world. Their cabin had been an oasis, safe, tranquil, and perfect. Ideal to raise Malyshka away from the ugliness that gave birth her mother.

With every mile she drove, she drew closer to the city. She needed a cover to approach Howard Stark. A cover to get in and get a feel for the man, but to do that she would need to put Mary somewhere safe. She discarded every idea that meant separating from Mary.

She couldn’t risk her. Not that way.

The Starks had a child; perhaps she could approach the wife. Though the woman was wealthy, it was unlikely she took the child to a park.

What if they had a nanny? Or an au pair?

That might work.

Manhattan was in sight and she still didn’t have a plan even after having ditched the car and lifted another one. The car she bought from an old woman who had asked no questions would have to go, but that was fine.

The city had transport.

She’d make it work.

Two days in the city and she’d found a small place in Brooklyn. It wasn’t much, a single room at the top of a five-story walk-up, but she had roof access and it was a short jump to the buildings on either side. She had a good exit strategy. A go bag for both of them was secured, one on a neighboring roof and another at the train station.

Mary seemed to enjoy the small space and the landlady kept dropping by with little gifts for Mary, a blanket, some toys, and clothes. Mary was a little smaller than her own grandchild. The woman liked to fuss. She was kind widow with children who didn’t spend much time with her.

She could be a good place to leave Mary if Natalie absolutely had to. She refused to think of herself as Natalia, not here. Though more than once, she’d woken in the night certain James called her only to find he wasn’t there.

Currently, Mary toddled around with a doll the landlady had given her, dancing and Natalie kept finding herself distracted from her scouring of the paper. Twice she’d considered looking up James’ family. Three sisters. She had all of their names and rough ages. It might take some doing, but she could track them down.

Every time the idea occurred, she discarded it immediately not only for the stupidity of embracing sentimentality but also because their handlers had a file on James

They knew his names. No, she had to stay as far away from any Barnes as possible for their sake and Mary’s. They were all damn lucky Karpov or Ivan or Madame B hadn’t sent one of them to eliminate his sisters. They’d survived this long, she wouldn’t endanger them now.

It took her two weeks, but patience and persistence paid off when the society pages announced a charity ball would be hosted at the 5th Avenue home of Howard and Maria Stark, a huge affair where the Starks were expected to announce more charitable projects as well as give a sneak peek at the project that brought them back to New York.

That was her way in.

Big parties meant additional staff…

She already had the name of those who took care of the domestics.

Edwin and Ana Jarvis.

And she knew exactly how to approach them.

This would work; she could get in, make contact and then have the resources to…

 

~~~

 

“She stopped talking about a minute into it,” Clint said, his voice rough. “Did we at least get what we needed?”

Her head ached. More her throat did.

“Possibly.” Who was—oh, Strange. “A great deal of data was recorded and there was definite activity in the regions we’ve identified.”

“How she’s doing, Friday?” Tony.

“Pulse normalizing, respiration also normal. Blood pressure normal. All vitals in the green, Boss.”

She tried to open her eyes but the brightness had her squeezing them shut again.

“Lights to thirty percent,” James stated. They were all in here. Where was…

“Hey Angel, take it easy.” There he was. “There wasn’t a seizure this time, right?”

“No, but she did become unresponsive and, toward the end, there was a spike. Until we can work out what was happening when, we’re still a little in the dark here.”

Too many people. They were all…

Natasha sat up and the world swayed around her.

“Easy,” Clint said. “Not so fast.”

She squinted at them and then touched a hand to her nose as dampness trickled down. Then she focused on the doctor. “Did it work?”

“From what we could see you activated a blocked region,” Stephen told her, his gaze thoughtful and assessing.

They were all around the table and she shifted. Steve and Clint both eased back a step and Steve nudged Tony, but James kept a wary eye on her. She gripped the edge of the table as she kept herself upright.

“Did you remember something new?”

She nodded once and that was a mistake the world swayed. “Edwin Jarvis…” Then pain stabbed right through her eye and the room kaleidescoped. The loud tone in her ears drowned out their voices. Drowned out everything.

Then it all went dark.

 

~~~

 

 

“And you’re really a wizard?” The low, familiar voice wasn’t supposed to be there.

“Technically, the term is sorcerer.” Strange.

“That’s cool, too.”

Natasha peeled her eyes open and tilted her head to the side. The door was open and Peter bounced back and forth from his toes to his heels. “So you’re a doctor and a wizard—and you’re here for Natasha.”

It wasn’t really a question. “Pete, why don’t we go and work…”

“No,” Peter said. “I’m not going to go work on a project or grab something to eat or anything else. Natasha was fine and I show up and she’s having some kind of seizure so I’m staying right here.”

“Pal,” James said. “She’s going to be fine.”

“It wasn’t a seizure,” Stephen commented and he entered her field of view. “Not in the manner you’re thinking.”

“She was bleeding and she passed out…”

When had Peter gotten there? Pressing a hand to her face, she shifted on the bed and the door pushed inward, letting in more dim lighting and Steve… she met his gaze and all but felt his relief as he blew out a breath. James was there a second later.

“Hey…” She managed the greeting and put her hands down to shove herself up.

“Nope.” James was across the room with a hand on her shoulder. “Not yet.”

“Natasha!” Peter was inside like a streak right behind him. “Are you okay? You have a wizard treating you. You said you were okay and now the doc is a wizard? A brain doc?”

“Peter, c’mon…” Tony chided him. “Give her a minute.”

Clint said nothing but she caught the movement and when she tilted her head she found him leaning against the wall. Steve stayed at the foot of the bed with Tony while Stephen circled the bed to study her.

“I’m not mad at her…” Peter lied and then glanced at her. “Well I am, but I’m Aunt May mad not Natasha mad. So that’s a good thing.”

“Red doesn’t get angry, Pete. Keep that in mind.”

She almost smiled.

He opened his mouth and Stephen held up a hand. “Stop.”

Disgruntled, Peter folded his arms. She blew out a breath.

“Now, Natasha,” Stephen pulled her attention. They were all around her, the number of escape routes had considerably narrowed considering how many people blocked her path to the door. “Your blood pressure dipped, heart rate accelerated and you shut down.”

“I had a panic attack?” That was humiliating.

“Not precisely…” he cut a glance to the others in the room then her. “Actually—can we have a moment?”

“Let me sit up and then yeah,” she agreed and James nodded before clamping a hand on Peter’s shoulder.

“C’mon, Pal, we’ll be right outside.”

Stephen handed her the bed control and she pushed the head to a nearly sitting position. Tony gave her a long look before he and Steve were the last two out the door.

“Would you care to give us some actual privacy?” Stephen said. “Since they can probably hear?”

Natasha almost laughed, but then she raised her hand and tugged off the pulse monitor before running her fingers against her skull. The whole thing was tender as hell. “Friday?”

“Privacy mode engaged, Natasha. Boss put the bracelet back on so I will continue to monitor vitals, but no recordings.”

“Thanks, Friday.”

“Of course… and I am relieved that you are awake again. I do not care for these episodes.”

The doctor folded his arms and almost smirked.

“Me neither.” Then she focused on him again. “You misplaced your cloak.”

“It’s fine,” Stephen motioned to the bed. “May I?”

She shifted her feet and he took a seat near the foot, his expression grave.

“It’s that bad?” Because that face didn’t promise anything good.

“It’s—concerning. The incident you just experienced is typically referred to as an NES—a non-epileptic seizure. It looks like an epileptic seizure, stiffened muscles, sometimes loss of motor control, visual hallucinations, kaleidoscoping for example, and loss of consciousness. Epileptic seizures are caused by a surge of electricity in the brain.”

“Okay…but you just said this wasn’t that.”

“Correct. There was no corresponding surge when you passed out. You stiffened, your muscles contracted, you did lose some motor control, your eyes rolled back and then you collapsed. You were out for roughly… thirty-two minutes.” He glanced at the wall clock. “Now before I continued, tell me how you’re feeling—right now? Be as specific as possible.”

“Like shit.” Natasha admitted. “I have a headache—it’s not bad, but I feel bruised. Felt that way before. Exhausted. I could probably sleep for a week if I could stay asleep that long.”

“You’ve been having trouble sleeping?”

“Doc—Stephen, I spent eight days nearly dying over and over and when I wasn’t dying, I was in pain and when I wasn’t in pain I was cold, alone, and starving. To be honest—while it’s not exactly the worst thing that ever happened to me, it isn’t terrifically conducive to sleep.”

“Understood. You won’t take anything.”

“Vodka works sometimes, but I don’t drink as much as I used to. I might have to consider a relapse.”

His ironic smile barely touched his eyes. “Just before you passed out, you mentioned a name.”

“Edwin Jarvis,” she tested the sound of it on her tongue, but the world didn’t tip sideways. Some improvement.

“I gather this is part of the memory you unlocked?”

Another nod. “What does that have to do with what happened?”

“An NES—is a seizure, mimics all the effects of one, but it is not a surge of electricity in the brain. It can affect those with a heart condition and prone to fainting—you have no heart condition. If anything, you are ridiculously healthy physically.”

“With a few exceptions.”

“Those are injuries.” He tapped two of his scarred fingers against his arm as he continued to study her. “The most common causes of an NES are emotional and mental pain, including physical or sexual abuse, bullying, shock—or conditioning.”

“Conditioning?”

“Conditioning. You can condition a person to respond to key triggers, to elicit a Pavlovian response if necessary.” She knew all about conditioned triggers.

“You think me having a seizure when I tear open those blocks is akin to a dog drooling when you put food in front of it?”

“It’s one possibility. The other is that your emotional and mental trauma are so severe, you physically shut yourself down to avoid it. Based on what I know of you, I don’t have to ask about physical or sexual abuse. You have the history, it’s there.”

“Great. So it’s not just my brain it’s the rest of me.”

“This is not a bad thing,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken.

“You and I have very different definitions of bad.”

“Maybe,” Stephen shrugged. “But this isn’t just about medical intervention. The blocks, the scarring, the damage that’s physical and we can work on that. You did have a minor hemorrhage during the episode; your body has already begun to work on it—hence the headache. The exhaustion? More likely linked to the emotional and mental pain.”

“So if not medical intervention? I just muscle through it?” Wouldn’t be the first time.

“Or you could try something innovative,” Stephen suggested. “Cognitive behavioral therapy.”

She laughed, head back against the bed, she laughed.

Therapy.

Yeah.

She’d get right on that.

“There are not enough hours in the day or people I am willing to talk to…”

“You talked to me,” Stephen told her. “After all, I have no personal involvement.”

“Are you saying that even if we find a way around the blocks? I still won’t remember?”

“I’m saying we need to explore all our options.”

 

“Compartmentalizing,” Natalia whispered in her ear. “We hide it even from ourselves. It is how we keep our secrets.”

 

Pressing a finger to her lips, she turned that thought over. “I had to hide her—even from myself.”

“Excuse me?” Stephen said.

“Cognitive therapy—I had to hide…”

Stephen frowned. “You’re suggesting you did this to yourself.”

“I’m saying I have some experience with conditioning the preferred response under dire circumstances.”

“You’ve been through a great deal of trauma, kidnapped, injected with high doses of dangerous drugs, tortured, barely made it out alive…”

“It’s just another week on the job,” she told him and held her hands out. They weren’t trembling. “I can handle it.” Clasping her hands together, she said, “What I need is to access those memories…I have to know.”

“No matter the personal cost?” He nodded to the door. “To you or to them?”

“Can you help me?”

With a sigh, he considered her. “Natasha… I spent more than a year of my life and a considerable fortune trying to undo the damage done to my hands…”

“…and now you can work magic,” she countered. “Some things are worth fighting for. Would you be who you are if you gave up?”

“No.”

“Neither would I. So can you help me? Or should I say, will you?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen

Inertia

Clint

 

It was barely ten in the morning and the day had gone from bad to worse. When Natasha first opened her eyes, he’d been relieved. No sign of blood, no tremors, nothing to indicate a problem. Other than she’d stopped talking during the MRI and either she couldn’t hear him over the machine or she was too deep in whatever. Friday reported her vitals were holding and they let it play.

Clint couldn’t follow what was going on outside the room, he couldn’t see the screens or hear their discussions. All he could do was stare at Nat inside that thing as it clanged and clanked. The time was up and the tray slid out. She was so still, her expression—blank, absent.

No bloody nose, no bleeding ears and yes, she was pale but—the doctor and the others entered. Nat was still out of it as sat up and then he spotted the blood on her nose and her eyes rolled back and she’d convulsed.

If Clint lived to see a hundred, he never wanted to see that again. Bucky caught her before she flung off the table. They got her on her side while the seizure held her in its grip. It seemed to go on forever, long past the one she’d had in the penthouse.

Only after the seizure ended did they move her to one of the beds in the treatment room. Steve got her bracelet back on her and Friday started running her vitals. Strange had them set up an EKG and she was out. Definitely unconscious, not quite sleeping. So they just had to wait for her to rouse.

Then just to add a dash of pure misery to their Hell, Peter Parker had shown up in the middle of it. He’d stayed out of the way until the worst was over, but the kid got an eyeful.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me something was wrong with her?” The kid looked from one adult to the next. Amusingly, Doctor Wizard just shook his head and went back to reviewing the MRI, he’d found something—he just wasn’t sharing it.

“Pete, this is some follow-up to old issues. Red’s just getting checked out.”

Bucky snorted, his attention fixed on the room where she was lying. They’d turned all the lights down. Light sensitivity was a real thing for her after these incidences. “We didn’t tell you, Peter, because this wasn’t something you needed to know.”

Blunt. But Clint could work with that. “And because Natasha doesn’t have answers for herself,” he added. “So dial it down, kiddo. You’re here as a guest.”

Liking him was fine. Nat seemed damn fond of him. Though he’d handled her disappearance better than this—course he hadn’t looked so hot after they’d seen images from the fight and the later torture.

“Peter,” Steve said. “Natasha will explain to you or not as she chooses.”

“I just want to know what’s wrong with her and why—” The kid paused when Strange’s cloak had drifted over to the doctor and flipped a page on one of medical book he had open. “What’s that?”

“That’s a magical cloak of some kind,” Tony answered, his absent tone a cover because the majority of his attention remained riveted on Nat. His glasses were on; likely tracking her vitals though Friday also had them up on the wall.

“The guy in the costume—he’s new?”

“Stephen Strange, more Gandalf the Gray than Harry Potter,” Tony added. “He’s also a board-certified neurosurgeon and specialist. Doctor Strange, this is Peter Parker.”

For his part, the doctor glanced up with a faint frown as Peter took two steps to him and held out his hand. “Peter Parker.”

“So I gathered,” Strange shook his hand briefly. “And you’re—Natasha’s son? Brother?”

Peter made a face. “Um, no. She’s my teacher—well, mentor—I’m a Junior Avenger sort of. It’s kind of complicated. Not that she wouldn’t be a great mom or sister, probably the best.”

“Good to know you have that nailed down.” Strange resumed his survey of the screen and Clint had to bite back a smile. He wasn’t the only one. Tony’s smirk eased the dark frown he wore and Steve covered his smile with a hand over his mouth. But Steve and Bucky didn’t move away from where they stood guard next to her room. Any sound in there and they’d be inside.

Hell, Clint kind of wished he were inside now.

Natasha needed to cut this crap out—stuff like this was why he’d wanted to her to ease back but after that photo? She wouldn’t. Not ever. Clint couldn’t fault her. They needed to help her or get the hell out of her way.

“And you’re really a wizard?” The kid was crossing his arms, his hands tucked into his armpits like he wasn’t sure what to do with them. Stress radiated off of him. But they weren’t doing a great job of offering him comfort.

“Technically, the more accurate term is sorcerer.” Strange answered without looking up from the screen.

“That’s cool, too.”

Bouncing from foot to foot, Peter glanced from them to the doctor. “So you’re a doctor and a wizard—and you’re here for Natasha.”

Tony told him he was a neurosurgeon and the scans on the screen were obviously a brain. The kid wasn’t stupid.

Maybe thinking the same thing, Tony straightened and said, “Pete, why don’t we go and work…”

“No,” Peter said. “I’m not going to go work on a project or grab something to eat or anything else. Natasha was fine and I show up and she’s had some kind of seizure so I’m staying right here.”

“Pal,” Bucky said, his tone getting Peter to still him enough and turn him around to face Bucky. “She’s going to be fine.”

“It wasn’t a seizure,” the doctor commented as he rose and headed for the room. “Not in the manner you’re thinking.”

“She was bleeding and she passed out…” He trailed off as Steve suddenly turned to the room and opened the door wider. Bucky was a half-step behind him.

“Hey…” Never had Clint been so glad to hear her voice.

“Nope.” Bucky was across the room with a hand on her shoulder. “Not yet.” Of course, she tried to get right up.

“Natasha!” Peter was inside like a streak. “Are you okay? You have a wizard treating you. You said you were okay and now the doc is a wizard? A brain doc?”

“Peter, c’mon…” Tony chided him. “Give her a minute.”

Clint said nothing but he eased into the room and leaned against the wall. Pale, but alert. A tiny frown tightened her brows. She was still in some pain, enough she was letting it show. Tony and the doc were the last ones in the room.

“I’m not mad at her…” Peter lied and then glanced at her. “Well I am, but I’m Aunt May mad not Natasha mad. So that’s a good thing.”

“Red doesn’t get angry, Pete. Keep that in mind.”

She almost smiled. Yeah, she was damn fond of the kid.

Peter opened his mouth as if to continue, but the doctor held up a hand and said, “Stop,” in a firm voice demanding cooperation.

Disgruntled, Peter folded his arms

“Now, Natasha,” the doctor pulled her attention.

Their positioning was a problem, so Clint kept himself at the wall. Too many people in the small room and her gaze swept over them. She’d mark the exits, the least challenging path of resistance and the methods to make it happen. Steve and Tony stayed at the foot of the bed and Bucky moved, clearing an opening that Peter just slid right into.

“Your blood pressure dipped, heart rate accelerated and you shut down.”

“I had a panic attack?” She grimaced.

“Not precisely…” he cut a glance to the others in the room then her. “Actually—can I have a moment?”

So far Doctor Wizard had seemed decent enough, if a bit overbearing, but Clint wasn’t budging if she didn’t want to be left there.

“Let me sit up and then yeah,” she agreed. Bucky clamped a hand on the kid and tugged him straight out of the room.

“C’mon, Pal, we’ll be right outside.”

Clint followed, ready to run interference if necessary. Steve and Tony were the last two out, the latter appearing unhappier than the former on being cut out of the loop.

The quiet blanketing the room as the door closed popped with all the things not being said. Freed, Peter paced back and forth.

“Why aren’t you in school?” Clint asked abruptly. “You guys aren’t on break yet, are you?”

“Snow day,” Peter answered. “City’s getting something like four feet over the next 24 to 48 hours so they called it. I was like great; I could come over early and surprise Natasha. Maybe take her out to lunch or something, and then do some planning for tonight. But—this.”

The last word held so much frustration Clint had to smile.

“You get used to this,” he told him and Peter wheeled to stare at him. “You need to get used to this kid. People get hurt in this business. We get banged up and bruised.” He nodded over to Tony. “Broken collarbone.” Then tapped his own chest. “Broken leg. Gunshot.” When he got to Bucky and Steve, he shrugged, “Hardheads.”

Steve chuckled, though there was very little humor in his laughter. “Clint’s right, Peter. Nat gets hurt. Then she gets better. We fight a lot of battles…”

“But we just got her back and I thought she was healing. She’s…” He hesitated, and then glanced at the four of them.

“She’s enhanced,” Bucky finished for him. “I know she told you.”

The tension in the kid’s shoulders bled out. Yeah, he’d almost stepped into that reveal, though arguably he had stopped himself. No filter. Damn, Nat could call them. “I asked, because she was so hurt and stabbed and… I know Tony said she was tough to kill. But I don’t—if she’s so tough why did she have a seizure?”

There was a split second of silence, and then Tony said, “Pete, that’s a complicated answer and it involves Red’s privacy. What I’ll tell you is that she’s in good hands, we’ve got her back, the doctor in there is the best and she knows you care. That has to be good enough for now.”

“Can you tell me if she’s sick?”

“Wounded,” Bucky said. “Old injuries.”

“But she’s enhanced.” Peter frowned.

“So am I,” Bucky told him then tapped his left arm. “Healing doesn’t mean indestructible.”

Raking a hand through his hair, Peter nodded and his gaze darted back to the room. “What’s taking so long?”

“Good question,” Tony said and leaned back against a wall. “Real good question. Friday?”

“I’m in privacy mode, Boss. I can’t help you. Natasha’s vitals are in the green though.”

Well, Clint rubbed the back of his neck and then checked the time. He hadn’t told Laura about the last twenty-four hours, but that was going to be a doozy of a conversation.

“When do you have to go?” Steve asked.

“Was planning to head out early, see if Laura needed anything fixed and then be there when the kids got home. I don’t have to leave until two.”

“Natalia would tell you to just go, she’d rather see your wife anyway.”

Clint smiled and flipped him off. “Then she can tell me and you can shut your pie hole.”

Peter snickered and Bucky grinned. A brief moment of levity and then the atmosphere dimmed again.

She and Strange were having a long talk.

Just what the hell had the doctor found?

 

 

Steve

 

In some ways, Steve envied Peter his age and for more than his endless optimism. A lot could be forgiven at his age, including angry outbursts and rebellious demands. At the same time, this fifteen-year-old demonstrated remarkable character and loyalty. Natasha loved this kid. She may never say the words aloud, but she’d gotten attached pretty quickly and the kid to her.

He caught Bucky’s eye. A single shake of his head was his only answer on the subject. No, he was not all right. Nat dropping like that and having a seizure left both of them in the position of being utterly useless. Or at least Steve felt useless. He’d managed to brace her to keep her from falling though Bucky had been the one to catch her in the first place.

“We’re going to get food,” Bucky announced and he took Peter by the shoulders and directed him toward the elevator. He pinned Steve with a look that said stay here as clearly as if he’d bellowed it. Steve nodded. He wasn’t going anywhere.

“But…” Peter opened his argument.

“Natalia will need to eat something, too, as soon as she’s finished talking to the doctor she’ll want to eat.”

“Oh.”

Yep, Bucky had his number. He could redirect all that stubborn temper. As the elevator closed on them Steve blew out a breath. As worried as Steve was, the driving factor in Natasha’s quest was her daughter. Their daughter. Bucky’d had the memories for months. Memories. Questions. No answers. Somehow, somehow he didn’t let it get to him.

When Steve would ask him, he would simply shrug. “I had nothing. Then I had her. They kept taking her away from me. Maybe I never see my daughter again, but I have Natalia. I’m not wasting a minute of this time if I can help it.”

How could Steve argue with it?

All Steve wanted was Natasha. The life they could have. Every single word he’d said to her the night before was true. As long as he had her and the chance at a life with her—the life they were building with Buck. He was happy.

That photo.

Steve couldn’t erase the image from his mind. Not just their little girl. She was beautiful, beautiful and happy. It was the openness in her smile in that photo that told Steve everything he needed to know about the two of them as parents. Confirmed his every suspicion. They’d loved their daughter to distraction. They’d given up everything for her.

It had been Natasha’s face that arrested him. Natasha who’d looked—not much younger than she was right now, but still so terribly vulnerable with that captivating and open smile, the wealth of love shining in her expression though the shadows in her eyes betrayed her loss.

When Nat said she wanted Mary back, the moment Logan had captured in that single image was what she meant. Steve would give anything to be able to do that for both of them. To turn back the clock and pull them out with their daughter before the Red Room or Hydra got there.

Clint checked the time again. The man was Natasha’s best friend and strongest supporter. He didn’t want to budge from being there for her even when a part of him wanted to go to his family.

“Why don’t you check in with Laura?” Steve suggested. “You’ll feel better.”

“Calling her means telling her,” Clint said, glancing at the room where Natasha remained closeted with the doctor.

“Better to tell her now,” Tony suggested, rubbing at his shoulder with a grimace. “Give her the lay of the land before she gets here.”

“Yeah,” Clint sighed and glanced toward the closed door again.

“We’ll call you as soon as she’s done,” Steve told him.

“Use one of the offices,” Tony suggested, motioning to the rooms down the hall. “We’ve got plenty and none are in use at the moment.”

He hesitated then pulled out his phone. “Thanks, guys.”

Then there were two. When Tony rubbed his shoulder again, Steve eyed him. “Where’s your sling?”

“It’s irritating,” Tony said. “And I don’t know. Somewhere.”

“It’s under the coffee cup in your private lab, Boss.”

With a smirk, Tony pointed to the ceiling. “It’s there.”

“Well, lucky we happen to have an entire medical floor.” Steve nodded toward the treatment rooms. “Pretty sure they’re going to have slings here somewhere.”

“I’ll get it in a minute.”

The quiet stretched. Then Steve shifted his stance, maybe Buck had the right idea. Get moving, do something with his hands and keep Peter distracted. “Edwin Jarvis,” Steve said slowly. “You named the AI at Peggy’s house Edwin.”

Tony nodded. “They were friends, my Jarvis and her. The first Jarvis.”

“I though JARVIS was always an acronym.”

“It was, I just made it fit. Just A Rather Very Intelligent System.”

Tony shrugged then grimaced.

With a sigh, Steve headed for the supply room. They’d pulled bandages and other gear out of there for Nat before and after her surgery.

“Edwin Jarvis worked for my father, he was his—majordomo, butler, driver, and best friend in some ways. He also pretty much raised me when I let him.”

The room was actually organized alphabetically. It took him a minute to locate a sling and return with it. After passing Tony the sling, Steve took his place back at the wall directly across from Nat’s treatment room. “So it makes sense Natasha would have had some interaction with him.”

“Well, I would have been about three years old at the time, but yeah—if you wanted to get to my dad and you weren’t someone who worked in one of his labs or I guess at SHIELD, then Jarvis or Ana would have been the way to go.”

“Not your mother?” Asking the question was a risk. Bringing up Tony’s parents was a risk in general, but particularly his mother. This whole situation had the potential to open a lot of bad wounds that were barely closed and likely still sporting scabs.

“Well, since she didn’t say Mom’s name I’m going to guess that no, she wasn’t her best access point. Then again, I was three, I spent most of my time with Ana then, I think. Mom always had a lot of charities, but she would be home every night to tuck me in—sometimes dressed up for a party, sometimes not.” Tony’s expression grew distant. “She always made time for me. But I don’t know the dynamic then, I don’t know if she would have been as involved in Dad’s side of things and when he got involved in something, he could virtually disappear. She never did.”

Howard could be obsessive; Steve had noticed that during the war. But those traits were valuable when you needed what he could make even when they weren’t good for the person. Tony was much the same way. Part of why Natasha would nudge him to do other things, she’d always noticed those quirks in her teammates.

She noticed when Steve trained too much, when he just threw himself into his work and needed a break. Or when Tony couldn’t sleep or had been in his lab for two days, she’d cajole him out. She teased Clint into playing games with her when his moods darkened. Steve hadn’t really paid as much attention back then, but Clint had been isolated from SHIELD and struggling at home with a family no one but Natasha knew about.

Sometimes when Thor seemed lonely or lost in thought, she would ask him questions, get him to tell her stories or spar with her. Watching Nat spar with Thor had always been entertaining, their Asgardian friend truly never wanted to harm her and the strength differential, which was astronomical, never stopped Nat. Bruce would vanish into his books or lab, barely lifting his head and she’d trick him out for dinner with the group and then feed them lines to get them all talking.

In a thousand ways, she’d looked after them and continued whether looking after Steve at SHIELD or the new team. Now she was doing it for Wanda and Peter.

“I’m sorry if this is opening a lot of things up for you, Tony,” Steve said quietly.

The other man shot him a small smile. “Not really sure what it’s opening up. Weirdly, I’m just hoping Dad helped her and that somewhere I have some clue that can put another puzzle piece in place.”

“And maybe hoping that Nat didn’t cuddle three-year-old you.” The thought had occurred.

Tony snorted. “Would explain why I like redheads so much.”

It was Steve’s turn to chuckle. “Very true.”

“Disturbing,” Tony stated. “Kind of.” He frowned. “Jarvis was loyal to a fault. He and Aunt Peggy were good friends, but he and Dad—they connected on this whole other level. Even when I couldn’t figure out what the hell Dad wanted, Jarvis always knew what to say. He came to every stupid school event, graduation, and function. He and Ana both—and after my parents’ died…they were there for me then, too.”

Steve rubbed the back of his neck.

“So—anyway, what I’m saying is if Red wanted to get face time with Dad, then Jarvis could have done that. Connecting through him would have added a layer of security to it, the only person besides Ana that he answered to was Dad.”

“I hate to ask, but is it possible he kept any kind of journal? Or something to record appointments or daily thoughts? Something?”

“Maybe, but I respected him too much to go through his private things when he passed away.” The sharpness in his tone suggested Steve back off. Heeding the advice, he went quiet.

After several long moments, Tony sighed. “The truth is, I don’t know if he did. At the time…I got blind drunk after he passed away. Ana had died a couple of years earlier, but he just kept going. Always punctual. Always on time.” Regret tinged his words. “Then one day he just wasn’t there. I knew before I checked on him—he went in his sleep. I pretty much spent the next month alternately blitzed or finding someone to get blitzed with. He’s buried next to Ana. I managed to sober up enough to go to the funeral. Then I promptly lost myself to a bottle. At some point in there, his things would have been packed up. JARVIS probably took care of it. He and Jarvis were close, but—I don’t have JARVIS anymore either.”

“I’m sorry, Tony.” In the face of his grief, the last thing Steve wanted to do was poke at that wound.

“Me, too. And not just about that… Every time we turn up a piece of this, it just seems to strengthen her argument about using BARF.”

“SPARK,” Steve said quietly, earning a laugh.

“She’s never going to call it that.”

“Probably not,” Steve agreed. “But you won’t mind. It gives you two something to pick on each other about.”

“You almost sound like you know me.” Tony had his arm in the sling, but he’d finally slid into one of the chairs and put his feet up as they waited.

“I pay attention.” To a lot of things.

Tony met his gaze, then held it. “Not going to apologize for them.” Them. His feelings.

“Didn’t ask for one.” And wouldn’t.

The silence protracted and Tony scowled. “Friday, would you be so kind as to ask them exactly how much longer they’re going to keep us in suspense?” Then before Steve could interrupt, Tony continued, “Never mind, don’t. Just—maybe Bucky had the right idea.”

Steve glanced toward the offices where Clint had gone. “Maybe. Can we make coffee down here?” They’d had some when Nat was in surgery, but Steve frankly hadn’t been paying attention.

“You know…” Tony stood. “We can. But it’s not the good stuff. Friday—get some coffee sent up here. Triple strength for Cap.”

“I’ll take care of it, Boss.”

“One perk to owning the building with employees,” Tony said. “I can get us coffee.”

“Oh, just one perk,” Steve said drily and Tony chuckled.

“Sure, why not?” Pacing with his hands in his pockets, Tony knocked aside imaginary dust on the floor. “There are other perks—color copies, people who wear too much cologne—who are only slightly more obnoxious than those with no taste whatsoever, takeout from anywhere in the city, extensive liquor cabinet—well, not so extensive anymore, but at least there are always corporate spies.”

The quirk of Tony’s eyebrow made Steve chuckle.

“Real spies, too, even if I do eventually like at least one of them.” The other man shrugged. “But hot coffee on demand? Tops the list.”

Despite his droll manner, the distraction wasn’t working. For either of them, really. All he could think about was taking the door off and making sure she was okay. But whatever was taking so long, they needed to respect it.

“Hang in there, Steve.” The quiet phrase offered a surprising amount of comfort. “She’s going to be fine.”

One way or the other—but fine was relative, he wanted her whole.

 

Peter

 

“Cut these.” Bucky set a sack of potatoes in front of them. “Cubed.”

Peter stared at the bag, then at him. “Cubed?”

He nodded once. “Cubed.”

“Is this supposed to be distracting me?”

“Nope,” Bucky told him as he pulled out other fresh vegetables out and began washing them.

Stripping off his hoodie, Peter bounced back and forth from his toes to his heels waiting for Bucky to finish. When the other man transferred the huge colander of fresh veggies to the island, Peter carried over the potatoes. “So why are we doing this?”

He whipped through rinsing them off, more interested in being done than anything else. All the way across to Midtown he’d been excited. He’d packed a duffle—May had already said she’d be at the hospital for the next couple of days as they braced for the blizzard conditions. While telling her Tony invited him to stay over was a little lie, it was only a little one. They’d all pretty much said he could stay whenever.

A couple of days at the Tower, hanging out with Natasha, training, running locations where the Vulture had previously been spotted—might not happen with the weather—and just being here. Maybe some lab time. The closer he got to the Tower, the more uneasy he’d become. The last time this happened, Natasha had been kidnapped. So when Friday said they were in medical and didn’t stop the elevator there, he’d gone down via the stairwell.

The locked door hadn’t kept him out.

“We’re doing it because we need to eat,” Bucky told him. “This will take some time to cook, but it will be hearty and filling and we don’t have to stand over it. Cube the potatoes.”

“I’m cubing…you want them peeled or unpeeled?” Irritation flared through him. “You know I’m not five.”

“Then stop acting like a child throwing a temper tantrum because you weren’t consulted about something that’s none of your business.” The flat tone landed with a slap. “And peeled if you don’t mind taking the time. There’s a peeler in the second drawer to the right.”

Mutiny rolled through him and his jaw locked. “I wasn’t throwing a temper tantrum.”

“No?” Bucky regarded him coolly and Peter’s chin lifted.

“No. Natasha is my friend. She’s been through a lot, if something is wrong with her, I want to help.”

“Do you think yelling at everyone and being argumentative is going to help her?” The whole time he looked at him, Bucky started chopping his way through the vegetables. The rapid strike of the knife not slowing.

Done with rinsing off the potatoes, he washed his hands before pulling out the peeler. Turning the question over in his head, he forced himself to think about it rather than yell.

He really wanted to yell.

Because it wasn’t fair.

Not that life ever seemed fair. But hadn’t Natasha been hurt enough?

“I don’t know,” he admitted finally as he started peeling. One good thing about his speed and his reactions, this job took way less time than it used to. As he stripped the potatoes of their jackets one at a time, some of the agitation in his blood cleared. “But all of you were there to support her and I wasn’t.”

“You were supposed to be in school,” Bucky pointed out. “You’re also fifteen.”

“So? I can’t be supportive? It didn’t stop me in Germany—where I took you down if you’ll remember. And I took on Steve. Didn’t stop me helping with The Mandarin, either. I was in that fight—I caught Natasha—twice and…” His breath came out in pants.

“You want to stomp your foot while you’re doing that, it will add to the whole, you’re not throwing a tantrum piece.” All of his vegetables were chopped and Peter still had two more potatoes to peel. He dumped all the vegetables into a pot, and then wiped it off before setting it down near Peter.

“I want to matter.” The words burst out of him.

Bucky paused and eyed him. “What makes you think you don’t matter, Pauk pank?”

“No one told me anything was wrong.” Was Bucky just not listening to him? He shoved the peels into the green trash bin with the other food and organic scraps, then rinsed off the peeled potatoes before moving them to the cutting board to chop.

“It’s not that we didn’t tell you,” Bucky told him as he moved to stand across from him and picked up the knife to begin sectioning the meat. “It’s because Natalia didn’t tell you.”

“How am I supposed to help her if she keeps me in the dark?” God, he just… “I just asked her to help me with the Vulture, I’d never tell her that if she was hurting or…”

Bucky stared at him, never missing a cut despite not looking at what he was doing. Peter frowned concentrating on cubing the potatoes as swiftly and neatly as possible.

“I asked her for help. I’d have been dragging her out into something she could have gotten hurt worse. Someone should have told me.” The words came out far calmer than he felt, but he’d had a dozen or more—frankly, he’d lost count—potatoes to cut while he tried to cool off.

“Put those in the pot,” Bucky said, gesturing with his knife toward it before he resumed. They were huge steaks that he cut up, dicing them into cubes of meat. “And you wouldn’t have dragged Natalia anywhere, Peter. She would have gone because you asked for her help, yes. But she would also have gone because she wanted to help more—she also read Steve and me in to what the plan was, and we’re coming.”

We’re coming? “As in, we’re still doing it?” He gave the man a dubious look. “She just had a seizure.”

“She’s had them before,” Bucky said. “We don’t know what the doctor will say. You also don’t make the decisions for what she can and can’t do.”

“Does anyone?” Peter was askance. “I don’t want her to get hurt.”

“Then you’re in the wrong business.” The statement caught him flat-footed. He dumped the potatoes into the pot then rinsed off the cutting board and knife before staring at Bucky.

“Don’t you even care what happens to her? What kind of boyfriend are you?”

Tony would make her stay out of it, right? He’d at least try?

The frost in Bucky’s eyes was colder than the storm outside. “First, don’t ever question my feelings about Natalia. I allowed you to warn me against hurting her—I would never, not willingly, harm a hair on her head. But you don’t know us anywhere near well enough to challenge my feelings.”

Pinned in place, all Peter could do was nod. “I’m sorry.”

“Accepted,” Bucky said, staring at him a beat longer and then his expression relaxed, something verging on amusement bled back into his gaze. “And forgiven. As to the second part of that—it is not up to me to allow Natalia to do anything. I can advise, I can ask, and I can follow her to do my damnedest to keep her safe. But she isn’t a possession or a tool to be wielded at discretion.”

Blowing out a breath, Peter sagged. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know,” Bucky said waving him away from the stove. He pulled out a large skillet and started it heating with some oil before he dusted the sectioned meat with some flour. “You want more than anything to keep her safe, to be able to tell her no, don’t do that. You’ll get hurt. Her safety and her well-being are important to you because you care.”

All true. “I’m selfish, too.” He crossed his arms. “I mean I got a good life and I have friends…some really good ones. I’ve been lucky. But before Tony showed up at our place in Queens and asked me to help in Germany—no one else knew what I could do. No one else knew what I did. Aunt May? She’s the greatest. The best. No question. You’d like her. I know Natasha would.”

He really wanted to introduce them if he could figure out how without revealing his other activities. May would worry.

A lot.

May didn’t need to worry about him.

“But she doesn’t know what you do.”

“No,” Peter said. “I don’t want her to know. Natasha told me I’m going to have to tell her at some point, but—May would just worry. After Uncle Ben, I don’t want to scare her.”

“Because you’re going to throw yourself into dangerous situations even when you’re hurt,” Bucky said as he flash-fried the meat. The sizzle of it filled the air and the scent was mouthwatering. It had been a long time since his pop tarts for breakfast. “So not telling her means she doesn’t worry. Sounds like she doesn’t matter.”

Peter blinked. “What?”

“Well, isn’t that what you said earlier? You want to matter?” As he spoke, he transferred the quickly-browned meat into the pot then got more going on the stove.

“I meant about telling me something is wrong with Natasha,” he admitted. He wanted Natasha to trust him. “I want her to know I can handle it.”

“But your aunt, can’t?”

The comparison stymied him. He opened his mouth to argue and then snapped it shut again. When his stomach gurgled, Bucky nodded to the fridge. “Stuff for sandwiches in there. Bread for subs in the pantry. Make some clubs? Then we can take those down if they’re going to be longer.”

Grateful for something to do, he went to work. Six subs was a lot to build and they were all a foot long each, though he didn’t know if Tony or Clint would eat whole ones—Peter could probably eat two of them. If Aunt May knew what he could do, she’d be scared. She might tell him…

“I don’t want Aunt May to worry,” he admitted as Bucky added water and seasoning to the giant pot before setting it in the heated crock and turning it on. “I know that’s selfish, but if she knew what I was doing she’d be scared and it would be really hard on her. Especially because…”

“You’re going to do it anyway.” Bucky faced him as he wiped off his hands. “You don’t want to deal with the guilt of disappointing her.”

“No.” Peter sighed.

“Pal,” the older man said as he helped add cheese to the last layer of the subs. “If any of this were easy, they wouldn’t need us to do it. With all your responsibility, particularly the responsibility you put on yourself, you forget that you’re also still a kid. Which means the adults around you can’t forget. It’s on us to make sure you grow up. To make sure you get to become the man you can be someday. That also means not worrying you about something you can’t do anything about.”

He still didn’t know what was wrong with Natasha. “You’re not going to tell me are you?”

“Nope, if Natalia decides to tell you, she will. Never doubt that you matter to her. She wants to protect you, yes. Sometimes she needs protecting. But protecting doesn’t mean control. Sometimes, it means letting the person you care about meet their own challenges even if you have to be a step behind to catch them if they fall.”

“I just want her to be okay.”

“Me, too.”

“And I’m sorry about what I said…” He knew Bucky cared. Steve and Bucky had both been pillars during Natasha’s kidnapping. Peter had leaned on them, Tony, too. They’d all been rock solid. Even though going to school that week had sucked. All he’d done was worry about Natasha and try to get through the days.

“Already forgiven.” Bucky clapped him on the shoulder. “You got it together, now?”

“I think so,” he said, exhaling.

“Good.” Bucky slanted a look toward the ceiling. “Status, Friday?”

“Natasha has asked for a few more minutes, but she is hungry and would like some tea…”

“Can do. Does she want me to bring it down or is she coming up?”

“I will let you know directly.”

Peter exhaled and met Bucky’s gaze. “That’s good, right?”

“Yep. Go ahead and eat, then wrap those other sandwiches. I’ll start the tea…”

He wrapped the sandwiches first before he carried his to the table. The nerves jangling in his system quieted.

“Bucky, what does pawk pank mean?”

Bucky chuckled. “Spider-Punk.”

 

 

Tony

The coffee arrived in ten minutes via a cart set in the elevator with a couple of carafes and mugs. Natasha and Strange had been talking for almost thirty-five minutes. Not for the first time in his life, it was killing Tony to not be a fly—or in this case a spider—on the wall. To know just what the hell was going on. No, it wasn’t his business.

Except it was. It was Natasha.

She needed the privacy to discuss whatever the hell it was—but it also involved them. It involved Bucky because it was his kid, too. Clint because she was his best friend. Steve because like Bucky, Cap was gone on her.

Tony? He had a stake in this, too. He wanted her safe and happy and fine. Everything else was just noise. Those three things were vital and being on this side of the door meant he had no idea what they were facing.

Fuck, when she’d said Edwin Jarvis, his heart threatened to stop. The last couple of days had been a roller coaster for him. Whatever the hell it was Strange did when they were in the conference room at the Compound, then Logan showing up not only with a picture of her kid—she was a gorgeous little girl, Tony couldn’t get over how Natasha and the little girl had been looking at each other. The force of love in that made him miss his own mother. No, Logan had also brought information on where Natasha had likely been heading.

Then they dropped the bomb she’d been looking for Howard. Why the hell did it always come back to Dad? Had she met him? Again? Had he recognized her? Had he helped her? If he’d helped her, why had she gone back? Why hadn’t Dad gotten her all the way out? A thousand questions rolled through him and the answers were locked inside Natasha’s brain or some storage box amidst hundreds of them.

His father had left a lot of crap lying around.

Staring at his coffee cup, Tony shook his head. It was times like this when Natasha’s actual age struck him. It was hard to reconcile the fact she was eighty-six years old. She had a daughter who was roughly Tony’s age. That was reality. The other reality was she looked about twenty years younger than Tony, but that was just—numbers.

Her vitals ticked away in the corner of his glasses. The green light soothed him on a level he didn’t pretend to understand. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he tried to figure this out. The house on 5th Avenue, they could be there in thirty minutes with traffic. A lot less if he just flew her there with the suit. The apartment he kept in the city, the one he kept off the books wasn’t that far from the mansion.

At the time, he’d enjoyed the irony. A way to thumb his nose at his dad even if his dad hadn’t given a damn. Had Natasha actually gone to that house? Tony had a love/hate relationship with the mansion. He’d grown up there, he’d had tremendous memories about time spent with his mom, playing piano, singing in Italian—teaching him Italian. Teasing him and getting him to engage with her when he’d been too sullen to speak to his father.

Jarvis and Ana had always been there, too. Fixtures who kept him grounded and lifted him when his parents—particularly his father—disappointed him. Though, the truth was, Tony had been the disappointment most of the time. He’d rebelled, pushed back, and done whatever he wanted. Still, it had never been enough.

The door to her room opened and Doctor Strange exited, his cloak—which Tony hadn’t realized had been hanging out with them hurried over. A step behind him, Natasha exited the room. She looked—so damn young but her eyes were bruised and her face pale.

“Hey,” she murmured as Steve reached her. He hesitated, but Tony got that. They were all so damn careful around her right now. Arms folded, she leaned against the doorframe. “Thanks for waiting.”

“Always,” Tony answered easily enough even as he forced his attention to where Strange stood, staring at the screens. “Did you two figure anything out? Because inquiring minds want to know.”

“Well, I found out Stephen is a font of useless musical knowledge and dates.”

The doctor snorted.

“And… he wants to finish reviewing the MRI. There are physical, structural issues—damaged tissue and heavy scarring that needs to heal.” She glanced at Steve. “I told him we have access to a second opinion and he agreed to give us notes on his recommendations so we can take those with us.”

She was going to Wakanda. Rebellion swelled in Tony. Maybe they could help her. Maybe they couldn’t. But it put her far out of reach and away from anything he could control.

“The seizures?” Steve asked, his gaze going from her to the doctor.

“We discussed those,” Strange answered, deliberately vague. “Whether Natasha takes my advice or not, remains to be seen.”

The dry look she gave the doctor actually earned a faint smile. “Well, we didn’t just have that chat because I like the look of your face, Doc.”

Strange chuckled. “I didn’t think so. Do you want to go over this with them now? We seem to be missing two of your entourage, no make that three. Or did we send the kid to take a nap?”

“Peter’s not a child,” Natasha corrected. “A teen, yes. But not a child. He was worried.” She closed her eyes briefly. “I’ll talk to him.”

“Bucky’s taking care of it,” Steve told her and she unfolded her arms, to slide her hand into his.

No, Tony wasn’t remotely jealous. Envious. Maybe. Still, he dragged his attention to her face. “Bucky took Peter to make some food and to keep him busy. Clint’s making a private call.”

“I need time to compile my recommendations for the therapeutic rehabilitation of your brain tissue…” Strange paused. “I never thought I’d have the option of saying that to someone. Thank you for being a unique case, Natasha.”

“You’re welcome?”

“Precisely. In the meanwhile, hydrate. Rest. Do not try to trigger another episode. I’m aware that you will likely continue to push yourself in the absence of Mr. Stark’s device. And…” He raised a scarred hand. “Before you ask, no, I’m not recommending you go ahead and use it immediately for two reasons. I don’t know specifically what it does and you need medical supervision in the event you trigger an actual cascade event.” With that, he focused on Tony. “This, of course, would require your cooperation, Mr. Stark.”

“Oh, that.” Tony shrugged. “I’m still not sold this isn’t going to hurt her worse.” No matter how much he wanted to help her and yes, he did. Telling her no sucked. But he’d rather have her alive and pissed at him than drooling with her mind gone. Even if she could load up on the three-way-super-soldier serum, it would still be dicey.

“Agreed,” Strange said, surprising him. Steve glanced at Natasha, but his own relief was palpable. The coma had scared the shit out of all three of them. It hadn’t been ideal circumstances and Tony was more than willing to push the envelope and risk himself, but not her.

Risking Pepper had been bad enough, but she’d fortunately had no signs of brain trauma.

“Twenty-four hours,” Strange continued facing Natasha. “Twenty-four hours before you try again, though I’d prefer if you could refrain until we’ve worked out a treatment plan and you can get your second opinion.”

“So you’ve said,” Natasha told him. “Repeatedly.”

“Well, it can take the human mind hearing something five to seven times to leave an impression. As I believe you’re exceptionally strong-willed, I wanted to accommodate you accordingly.”

“So kind.”

“I try.”

Natasha snorted, then glanced at Tony, before looking up at Steve. Finally, she faced the doctor. “So that’s it for today, then?”

“I believe so. I’m going to take the results with me. I’ll review them, compare them to the previous results and work on the treatment plan. I will have it here by the weekend. You know how to reach me.”

“We’re probably going to have some lunch if you’d like to stick around,” Steve offered but Strange declined.

“I believe Natasha wishes to speak to all of you in private and the sooner I put together the treatment plan, the better.”

Natasha didn’t deny it. In short order, the doc threw open a portal and left. Amusingly enough, Tony wasn’t the only one leaning sideways to see where he went. Clint had rejoined them and when the portal snapped out of existence he said, “We’ve officially topped out our weird meter.”

“We did that when Thor and his brother showed up,” Natasha said bluntly. “At least Strange is human.”

“-ish,” Clint retorted. “He’s a surgeon. Which means he thinks he’s a god. Kind of like Loki—only classier and with way better manners.”

She snorted then pulled away from Steve’s hand gently. Crossing to the coffee cart, she glanced at the carafes.

“Leaded,” Tony told her, tapping the first carafe, then pointed to the second one. “Hyperspace fuel.”

Her laugh warmed the room up. “Thank you. Okay—Friday, does James have a comm he can put on? I don’t want to try and explain everything to Peter at the moment.”

“One moment, Natasha. I’ll text Sergeant Barnes—also, your package from Ms. Potts has arrived.”

“Yay, phone is back.”

“Your new phone is also ready for you to crack the proprietary software, I’ve had both sent to your floor.”

“Gee, thanks, Baby Girl.” Tony snorted. “We’re not supposed to support the hacking of software I created.”

Natasha patted his right arm as she lifted her coffee to sip. “It’s very nice software, Tony.”

“You just don’t want to use it,” he challenged.

She shrugged. “I tend to be a bit proprietary myself besides—make it less crackable, and maybe I’ll adapt.”

Less crackable? He glared at her. “You’re not funny.”

She smirked. “I wasn’t joking.”

“My self-driving car going to be hack proof.”

“Now that’s a challenge.”

Oh. He planned on that. “Yep, if you can crack it though—you have to help me fix it.”

She grinned. “I can do that.”

“Natasha, Sergeant Barnes has his comm in, he texted that Mr. Parker is still a bit worried and his vitals do show some agitation. No signs of a panic attack at this point, but he recommends that Mr. Parker will do better if he sees you sooner rather than later.”

“Okay,” she said, then ran her hand through her hair. “Why isn’t he in school anyway?”

“Snow day,” Tony, Steve, Clint, and Friday answered in unison.

“Oh,” she gave a little mystified smile. “Never had those in Russia.”

Clint chortled. “You’d have to shut the country down for nine months of the year.”

“True.”

Pacing away from them, she seemed to calm more and more. The self-possession he was so used to settling over her like a cloak. But it was just another mask. One she wore to face the world. It wasn’t that it was brittle or chipped, but she didn’t always feel the need to wear it with them.

“Then in summary…” she began as she turned. “Stephen believes there is a couple of treatments that can help stimulate my healing to those regions. But cracking the memory blocks isn’t just about healing those regions—it’s getting around myself.”

“Yourself?” Steve asked.

“Myself,” she confirmed. “The seizures are non-epileptic…”

Tony didn’t miss a word, his mind already turning the information over. It wasn’t just about the damage to her mind it was about how she’d compartmentalized the information even as they scrambled her neurons.

“Ultimately, I have to get past the trauma—he already suggested MDMA, but I don’t know how much of that I’d have to shoot up to even make it effective. I’m not a fan of psychotropics.”

The cold realization was that SPARK might be the only way settled deeper into his bones along with the fact she’d go to Wakanda next.

How the hell could he fix this for her?  

“And what you remembered?” Clint asked.

She glanced at Tony. “After we settle Peter?”

The fact she was asking, not telling, wasn’t lost on him. ‘Whatever you need, Red.”

Whatever.

 

 

Bucky

 

 

He’d pointed Peter toward the movies once he’d finished his sandwich, and then slipped the comm in on Friday’s request. Natalia’s voice was steady. Strong. Confident. Herself. Without meaning to, his gaze went to the photo of Mary on the shelf. The fact Logan had saved that photo for decades left Bucky immeasurably in his debt. Not only had the man helped protect his family, he’d found a way to preserve a piece of Natalia’s heart. A piece, Bucky hadn’t been able to do more than give her tales about.

When they finished, they were on their way up so they could eat and Natalia needed to rest. She’d still want to go out with Peter that night—depending on the weather. Bucky glanced out the windows where the snow continued to fall steadily. For once, he’d never been happier to see it. Natalia wouldn’t be buttoned down but maybe—just maybe—she would see the wisdom in putting it off.

The kid wasn’t likely to be pushing her, if anything, he’d want her to take it easy, too.

The day had been a long one and it wasn’t noon.

Montana seemed so far away, but Natalia hadn’t kept Mary in Montana. She’d brought her to New York. She’d gone looking for Howard.

He’d told her about Howard. Not a lot, but he’d mentioned him. Since his name came up the night before, Bucky had been trying to remember how much he’d told her, exactly. The one thing he kept coming back to—Howard Stark helped turn Steve into Captain America.

When the elevator opened, he tracked her arrival. Despite the faint color in her cheeks, she was still pale. There was weariness around her eyes. More shadows. Secrets hovered around her, a pale cloak trailing back decades. The Red Room, no matter how far they went, the Red Room seemed to always be there. She smiled at him. The guys were talking even as Peter bounced to his feet.

Spider-Punk was a lot calmer and Natalia disarmed him gently, even allowing him to hug her as she returned it. Every time she forced herself to make contact, it cost her a little. Bucky understood it. She refused to let the pain or the trauma to control her and yet, it was as though they all participated in extending her torture as she worked through this.

Steve made his way over to the coffee while Clint helped himself to a soda. He didn’t waste time tucking into a sandwich. Tony lingered with Natalia and Peter. His gaze more on her though he was teasing the kid.

Plans.

Everyone was making plans.

They needed to move. Inertia is what got them caught before. Maybe that fed into Natalia’s drive to force every issue. The water boiled again—for the second time—and he moved to brew her tea. He’d just poured it in the cup when she sidled up to him, her gaze searching.

He was being too quiet. It worried her. Lifting his arm, he smiled as she tucked herself under it and leaned into him. Wrapping his left around her, he held far more gently than he wanted. Steve asked her if she wanted to eat and Peter volunteered that he’d made the sandwiches. That earned more laughter and Bucky caught Tony studying him.

Natalia had gone to Howard Stark because of what Bucky had told her. His Natalia would have recognized him as an asset, a resource to be cultivated, a man with power she could manipulate to protect their daughter. If Howard did—Howard had been a good man, he would have helped most likely—then had Bucky had to kill someone who’d saved his family?

“Hey,” Natalia murmured pulling his attention from Tony. “You all right?”

“I am now,” he told her. He hadn’t lied, she was all he needed. He loved Mary; he would always love his daughter. He wanted to know where she’d gone and what happened to her. But he wouldn’t lose Natalia to do it.

Nudging her toward her tea, he let her go and then retreated a step to give her space. His gaze collided with Steve’s. But Bucky shook his head. No, he wasn’t ready to talk about this. He’d gotten Peter settled and food made. He could be there for Natalia, but he had to brace.

He had to brace himself to find out what happened and he avoided looking at Tony again. Not after he recognized the rough sympathy in the other man’s eyes. He didn’t deserve that, not from Tony.

“Hey,” Clint said as Natalia carried her tea over to the table. Peter had begun talking a mile a minute about the snow, the holidays, and hanging out for the weekend. Natalia’s smile told Bucky all he needed on that front. “You holding it together?”

“Yep,” Bucky lied, meeting his gaze. Clint wasn’t buying even if Bucky wasn’t really trying to sell. “I’d kill for a beer and a smoke though.” Maybe a talk. Clint had some distance on all of this.

Clint nodded, then shot a look over his shoulder then back at him. “Let me go pick up Laura and the kids. Then we’ll make time for that.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

“You got it.” Then he turned to say his goodbyes and Steve replaced him in the kitchen. Not that Bucky had moved far. He wanted to keep an eye on Natalia.

“You’re not okay,” Steve told him quietly.

“Neither are you,” Bucky retorted.

“Point.”

They both focused on Natalia and she caught them staring. The exasperation in her eyes got them moving. “You know,” Steve said into the quiet. “We were getting Buck caught up on the Harry Potter movies. Made it all the way to the fourth one. There are what? Four more?”

Tony grunted. “The last two…”

“No spoilers,” Natalia said firmly and Tony mimed zipping his lips.

“I’ve watched those, been a while though,” Peter admitted. “I don’t mind watching them again.”

Steve glanced at him. “Harry Potter?”

“Sure, we already saw one wizard today, what’s a few more?”

“You guys have got to tell me how you met a wizard!” Peter said.

“Later malen’kiy pauk. The sandwiches were good but we need…”

“Popcorn,” Bucky said, turning to get it started.

“Blanket fort,” Steve announced and Bucky had to hide a smile.

“What are we five?” Peter asked then… “What?”

Bucky glanced to find Natalia, Steve, and Tony eyeing him.

“Pete,” Tony said, slinging an arm around his shoulder. “Let us instruct you in the fine art of fort making.”

Natalia chuckled. “I guess that leaves me with the hot cocoa.”

And there was great rejoicing.

Bucky met her gaze as she closed the distance between them. “I’ll take it easy,” she promised him and some of the tension fisting his heart eased. “Later—after Peter goes to bed?”

He nodded. “You’re all right? The memory? It wasn’t…”

“Not bad,” she promised. “I was missing you—but not bad. I promise.”

Okay.

He could relax and enjoy their “snow” day.

For now.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen

Therapy

Natasha

 

 

The hot cocoa, popcorn, blanket fort, and Harry Potter allowed her to relax, despite the fact she wasn’t very focused on the movie. Of all of them, Peter seemed to the most engaged though Steve and James tried. Tony didn’t quite manage it, tinkering away on his phone.

They’d moved the coffee table and spread out the couch cushions and blankets. It was warm and cozy, particularly with the tree filling one corner of the room and the lights making patterns on the ceiling.

From where she sat, she could see quite a few ornaments. Cataloguing them mentally, she made lists—taking mental snapshots. The photos on the shelves, all gifts from Steve, illustrating little moments in their lives, fun ones, were also clear proof that she’d been there. That they had been there. Evidence of a life they were building.

When the movie ended, Peter glanced at her. All the questions he hadn’t asked filled his eyes. Truthfully, she didn’t want to share those broken pieces of her past with him. He had already had to grow up too fast. Someone should try to protect what was left of his childhood.

Then again, if she coddled him too much she risked putting him in even greater danger. A soft heart was more easily bruised and crushed. He was tougher than he looked, but he was also a lot more fragile than he realized.

“Are we going to watch the next one?” Peter glanced around at them.

“If you want,” Natasha told him. “Though I think James and Steve wanted to spar.” Needed it.

The warning in James’ glance promised a real fight if she included herself.

“I might come down and watch—if you three want to give it a go.” Burn off some steam would help.

The fact Peter didn’t even try to hide his relief almost amused her.

Steve raised his brows. Did she really want them to spar when she couldn’t? “It’ll be fun,” she teased him and he shook his head.

Eventually, their restlessness and caged energy won out. James checked in his stew, which smelled fantastic and would likely be ready to eat after they got back. Tony headed to the penthouse for a minute and said he’d meet them in the gym. Steve and James changed into workout clothes, while she went with Peter to her floor so he could change into his and she could pick up her phone.

Inside the package was her dead phone—at least it wasn’t cracked or broken—the golden clutch purse all that she had left from her outfit from that night and the envelope with Tony’s gift. Turning the small purse over, she opened it and checked the sleeve inside. The gun was gone.

A bit of melancholy crept through her. It had all been so lovely and this was all she had left of it. Peter slowed as he came up the hallway. In a white t-shirt and navy sweatpants, he looked so painfully young.

“Are you really going to be all right?”

“I’m working on it,” she told him. After leaving the purse on the bar with the letter, she retrieved the extra charging cable from her room. She hadn’t really used the room since it had been fixed though she’d…

The bed was rumpled and the pillows mussed.

Someone had been sleeping in her bed. More amused than annoyed, she wandered back out to where Peter waited for her. “I feel like I should apologize,” Peter told her.

“Okay, but I don’t need one.” Surprise flickered in his eyes. With a small shrug, she wrapped the power cord around her hand. “Peter… You were worried and caught off guard. You reacted. I don’t know what was said with the others, but you didn’t do or say anything to me that I feel warrants an apology.”

Head cocked, he studied her. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Considering you just did? Sure.”

Impatience dimmed his smile for a split-second. “Are you really—healthy? Doctor Strange is a neurosurgeon. That means something is wrong with your brain or your nervous system.” Worry draped him. “And you were having some kind of seizure when I got there.”

So he’d seen far more than she gathered. Contemplating him, she debated how much to tell him. “I took a lot of damage from The Mandarin while he held me.”

True enough. Peter blanched. “He electrocuted you.”

“Yes.”

“Did it—did it hurt you? I mean, I know it hurt, but did it leave lingering damage? Electricity can do crazy things to your system and your brain. You know they use electroconvulsive therapy to treat things like depression and anxiety, severe cases. It used to be they just sent a few thousand volts through you and scrambled you up, but now they can do precision targeting it’s really amazing. And I’m talking super-fast. Sorry.”

Natasha chuckled, leaning against the arm of her sofa. “Something like that. Yes, I think I did know that about electroconvulsive therapy.” Precision targeting. “As for Doctor Strange, I have a couple of issues and he is going to help me with them. To do that I had to have an MRI today…” Brooklyn. Five-story-walkup. President Street. Cobble Hill. “We had to trigger the issue so he could see it.”

“You’re not going to tell me what the issue is?”

“No.” One block to the subway. F and G trains.

Folding his arms, Peter shot a look toward the elevator. She wasn’t surprised the guys hadn’t stopped to get them. They knew Peter wanted to talk to her. “Can I ask why not?”

“Because anything I tell you will only make you want to ask more questions.”

“That’s not really a good reason,” he said, frowning. “If I have questions—I mean, I don’t mean it’s a terrible reason. I want to help if I can. I don’t want to ask you to do things you shouldn’t be doing like it might get you hurt. But—you can trust me.”

“Peter, this isn’t about trust.”

“Then what is it about?” He sounded so plaintive.

“It’s about me. It’s about the life I’ve had to lead. It’s about being enhanced and what it means. It’s—about injuries I’ve sustained in my life. That sometimes… you have to get worse before you get better. I want to get better.”

“You’re already the best,” he said. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“Me neither, it’s why I’m seeing the doctor.” She could tell him they’d been looking for Strange since the incident with the formless, but that would only make Peter blame himself and she didn’t want that. She could tell him the injuries had been inflicted through years of torture, but she didn’t want that in his mind either.

“Are you dying?” Genuine fear inhabited that question.

“No.” Physically? She’d survive. Strange found nothing long-term or debilitating in the mental blocks, even in the scarring on her brain. Amazingly enough, she’d forged new pathways for her neurons, enough to keep her functioning. If she could accept the memory loss and move on, everything would be fine.

Relief had him sagging. “Really?”

“Peter, I promise. I’m not dying. I’ve…had a really long life and that’s a lot of scars. A lot of old injuries.”

“How old are you?” His eyes rounded for a split-second. “And please don’t get mad, May says never ever ask a woman her age or try to tell her she looks good for her age or really—anything to do with age.”

“I was born in 1930.”

Peter sat in the chair abruptly.

“1930?”

Tipping her head to the side, she nodded slowly.

“But that would make you 86 years old.”

“I know.”

“You’re 86?” The words squeaked out of him. “I always thought you were like twenty-five or twenty-six. I mean Tony is old but you’re…you’re really old.” He clapped his hand over his mouth even as his eyes rounded farther.

Laughter rolled out of her. “Yes, I am. No, I’m not offended. I call Steve a fossil.”

“Well he’s—older than you, right?”

“Hmm-hmm. 1918.”

“And Bucky?”

“1917.”

“Wait, Bucky is a year older than Steve?”

“Hmm-hmm. About 16 months older.”

“Wow—you’re dating old men.” He groaned. “I’m so sorry I don’t know why that keeps coming out of my mouth.”

Natasha laughed. “I’m an old woman. It’s fine.”

“Wait—they’re thirteen and twelve years older than you.”

“Yes, they are and trust me everything after twenty-one is just a number.”

The absolute lack of artifice in his reactions entertained her. “Well, I wouldn’t know that.”

“In six years you will.”

“Wow…just…the enhancement. You have the serum, like they do?”

“A different one, but yes. I actually received variants of it before they did… but that is another story for another day.”

Straightening, Peter bit his lip and then shook his head. He opened his mouth twice, and then snapped it shut again. Maybe he had no filter, but he was struggling to put one into place.

“Go ahead, ask.”

“I…how?” He spread his hands. “How—is it the serum? Were you trapped in ice?”

Ice slithering over the floor, sheathing her, locking her in until her bones trembled from the cold.

“No. I’ve pretty much lived through all the decades. Quite a few of them in Russia, but…also around the world in later decades.”

“So you’ve really seen… everything?”

“Sometimes, I think I have. But there’s always something new.” Mary’s smile as her eyes lit up. Her musical giggle when Natasha blew raspberries against her cheek. “Something magical to be discovered. I’ve—been alone.” Sitting in that room when Clint came through the window ready to execute his kill order. She was weaponless, ready to let the SHIELD agent end it all. “I’ve been around people.” Finding Tony sitting at the bar in the dark of the common room, a bottle already open and having him slide a glass over to her. Neither of them had to drink alone. “There’s something to say when you’ve heard music legends perform when they were just aspiring singers working a club circuit. I’ve seen regimes come and regimes go.” SHIELD falling turning the life she'd tried to create into rubble. “I try to live in the present as much as I can. We have what we have when we have it.”

“I hate the idea you might have been alone for all those years.”

“Not all of them. I knew James—I’ve known James on and off for more than sixty-eight years.” Granted, they spent more than three decades apart, but they were together again. “I’ve known Clint for fifteen.” Logan for forty apparently and Remy since the 80s, so what? Thirtyish years? “Don’t feel bad for me, Peter. Living this long has given me the chance to meet you.”

“And the other Avengers.”

“Yes and the other Avengers.”

“I still… do you think you could tell me stories sometimes?”

Heavily redacted and sanitized? “I can. Can I trust you to keep this to yourself? Not very many people know how I old I am. I don’t advertise it.”

“Well, you wouldn’t—any more than I want people to know what I can do. They’d want to find out how and they’d… oh.” He frowned. “No, I won’t tell anyone. Steve and Bucky know. Tony and Clint?”

“Yes. Laura knows about the serum and she knows about my age, to a point. Some of it. But none of the others. Not really. They might suspect, but we’ve never discussed it.”

“Okay. I can do that.”

“I know you can.”

“Is it ever weird? You know—you’ve been around for all the leaps forward in technology. Does it ever feel weird at what you can do now?”

“It’s not the shock you might think it would be. Steve had to adjust from the 1940s to 2011. It was a huge change for him. Me not so much. Being there for the changes? I adapted along the way. Now, ask me could I go back? I don’t know.” What could she have done with a cell phone in 1973? Or high-speed Internet? Or faster anything?

So much.

“Before we go down, do you still want to run the route with me to the locations where I’ve seen the Vulture?”

“Yes, but if the storm continues as it has, tonight might not be the best for it.” She’d been considering it all afternoon, but they’d already had a foot and a half of snow and more continued to fall. The subways would likely shutdown this evening and it was questionable if they’d open them the following day. “Now, are you all right to go down and spar with the guys?”

“You’re really just going to watch?”

“For now, I may give you some pointers. But I need to rest tonight.” Though she was going to dance in the morning. She needed to get out of her head and her ribs had been healed enough to run. She could dance.

“Cool. Then more movies?”

“Let me guess, more hot cocoa?”

His eyes lit up and she waved him toward the elevator.

“Yes, malen’kiy pauk, I will make you more hot cocoa after dinner.”

The elevator carried them swiftly down to the gym and training room. Steve and James were already on the mats, moving at speed. Tony sprawled on a bench, a StarkPad in one hand a tall thermos in his other.

“Warm up first, Peter,” Natasha told him as she diverted to where Tony sat. There was an outlet close enough for her to plug her phone in and let it charge. Sinking to the floor she stretched her legs out and watched as Peter began to move at a light jog around the room. Steve and James struck, blocked, kicked, and rolled into and away from each other. They weren’t trying to hurt each other, but they weren’t holding back either.

“Pete okay, Red?”

“Confused,” she said. “Worried. But I think he’s fine.”

“He’s gotten pretty attached to you.”

She’d noticed. “He’s gotten pretty attached to all of us.” As they watched, Peter completed a third circuit and then bounced into the spar with James and Steve. Unfortunately, both had been ready for him and he didn’t land with quite the surprise he was going for.

They really needed an outlet for their frustration. She did. But she would wait. She’d made a deal with Stephen. He was going to do everything he could to give her a roadmap to stimulating those areas of her brain to heal and he’d even offered to listen to her talk.

What did he know about talk therapy?

What did she?

They both had points. The fact he had no vested interest in her personally made him a neutral third party and he didn’t seem to care what she could do beyond wanting to take advantage of it to get her better.

For a doctor, he was all right.

“I worry that I did the wrong thing taking him to Germany.”

“You absolutely did. It was a reckless move.”

“Well, don’t sugarcoat it, Red.”

“You weren’t thinking. You were reacting,” she told him, meeting his gaze. “Everything was crumbling and you were desperate to patch it back together. Tell me I’m wrong?”

Tony made a face. “You’re not,” he sighed. “I should have left him alone.”

“Maybe,” she said.

“Wait—are you agreeing with me—partially on bringing him in?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “You were wrong to bring him into that fight. He had no business getting caught up in that war between us. Of every person there, he was the most innocent and the one with the most to lose. Bad call.”

Tony winced.

“That said…he needs training. He needs guidance. He needs to be around people who know and accept him for who he is. He needs you—and all of your technical prowess. You challenge him and he’s good for you.”

“I think he’s good for you—he makes you softer.”

“I can still kick your ass.”

With a snort, Tony glanced back at his StarkPad. “Never doubted it. But he is good for you. You’re better for him. I was right to introduce the two of you.”

“Feeling smug, are we?” She cut her gaze away from where Steve, James, and Peter sparred, one on one on one. Though James had halted them both to point something out.

Always the teacher.

“I like being right.”

James backed off and it was Steve and Peter sparring. They had very different styles of fighting. Peter’s was all instinctive, but Steve had a combination style developed from his strict pugilism and her training. It wasn’t an uneven match though, Peter was fast.

And agile.

But he got cocky.

She and Tony both winced when Peter repeated a move that Steve caught and sent him flying. James took him aside and she could imagine what he was saying, then he had Peter stand out as he and Steve tore over the mats.

“You want to be out there,” Tony said quietly.

“Yep. It’s fun, but I told the doc I would take it easy. 24 hours. Then I could spar. He wants the…” she said, waving a hand at herself. “Serum to have time to work on that part of my brain we traumatized today.”

“Red…”

“It’s not your fault, Tony,” she said, shifting to slide into the splits and letting the burn roll through her thighs. “You have your reasons for withholding BARF.”

“SPARK,” he muttered.

“I don’t like that you are, but I respect it.” Peter had given her an idea, one she’d broach with Stephen later. “Today—today I wanted to do it. You aren’t the guy who did this to me, so stop apologizing.”

His frown deepened. “I feel like I should be able to do more.”

“Because you like fixing things. But you can’t fix everything.”

“No,” he said. “But I can try.”

“You’re going to take me to the mansion, even if you don’t like the place just to see if I recognize it.”

“Who says I don’t like it?”

“How often have you been there in the last decade?” At her raised eyebrows, he grimaced and shook his head. “Exactly. So you are helping. You found Stephen. You didn’t give up on looking for him and so far—I haven’t managed to scare him off.”

“No,” Tony said drily. “He seems real impressed by you.”

“Jealousy is not a good look on you Tony.” She rolled her hips and moved from a front split to a side split. “He’s helping. Nothing more.” The fact he’d been damn direct with her on what he saw as the potential pitfalls helped. He didn’t try to soften it or couch it in gentle terms. While he didn’t think treatment would lead to long-term brain damage, especially with her serum—he could not and would not eliminate it as a possibility.

While she hadn’t told him about…

“What about Wakanda?” Tony kept his voice low and they were both watching the spar as the three were once again trading off, now Peter sparred with James while Steve grabbed a drink of water and moved to the edge and observe.

“T’Challa told me he would arrange a call with his sister and she could go over with me what she did for James. Maybe have their physicians review my reports and discuss what could be done. He didn’t ask me any specifics but offered me the opportunity. Then I fell off the face of the Earth.”

“You were taken,” Tony reminded her unnecessarily, his tone harsh.

She shifted to meet his gaze. “Yes, I’ll train with you again. If I hadn’t told Stephen I’d wait 24 hours, I’d tell you to go get your boxing gloves right now. You’re tense.”

“Thank you for that astute observation, Red.”

Tense and spoiling for a fight. “It’s because I said Jarvis.”

This close she couldn’t miss the flicker of his eyes. Or the way his lips compressed.

“I’m sorry I brought up something painful for you.”

“Fuck,” he sighed, some of the tension deflating. “It’s not that you brought it up…it’s that they’re all gone. I can’t ask any of them. Our JARVIS knew my Jarvis and…he might have had records or something, but those are gone, too. Friday’s combing through the old data servers, searching for scraps. There are boxes of my dad’s stuff in storage and I’m going to dive into it, but it’s all…hard copies. Not as much digitized, as I would like. For a guy who was an innovator, he loved his paper.”

“It’s a way to organize your thoughts. Some people work better when they can write it down.”

“Yeah?” He eyed her. “You don’t make lots of lists.”

“Not how I was trained. Paper trails are a trail…” She snorted and looked back to see Steve and Peter were sparring again. James wasn’t watching them, instead, his gaze was on her. He flicked a look to Tony then to her.

Oh.

He’d noticed the tension.

She shook her head. It was fine.

James nodded slowly and she winked at him. Some of the tension left his shoulders and his gaze tracked back to where Peter and Steve sparred.

Brooklyn. Cobble Hill. Five-story-walkup. Two exit routes via the roof. One through the building. Go bags stored at the train station and on a neighboring roof. She’d known about his sisters and she’d avoided them. They didn’t need her to bring doom to their doors.

But she’d gone looking for Howard.

The ringing in her ears started and she jerked her mind back and focused on her breathing. Tony shifted forward. “Red?”

“It’s fine, just breathing and thinking about something else.” Lifting out of the splits, she scooted to sit sideways with her legs crisscrossed. It angled her more toward Tony, but she didn’t want to worry Steve, James, or Peter. In for four. Out for four. At the same time, she didn’t want to miss their spar.

“You want to take a look at this for a distraction?” He held out the StarkPad to show her programming language scrolling slowly.

“What is it?”

“You tell me.” Smug. Challenging.

Rolling her eyes, she accepted the tablet and studied the code. The lines blurred then came back into focus. Loops were layered nearly a dozen deep, if/then statements, checks, rechecks, and balances against an internal database with confirmation calls to an external database. Default settings in the event the external database cannot be contacted reduced the vehicle to standard manual operation with the option for voiceprint and retinal overrides that likely had to be coded to the user and could not be authorized to another user without the primary user and the dealer keys being activated.

Proof. Confirmation proof.

The database would be housed on a drive inaccessible by wireless or Bluetooth, hardline wired to a secondary—wireless drive—that only used access for confirmation of commands. So even if someone hacked the first drive, they couldn’t change anything on the hardline without tunneling to it.

She scrolled the code up and then re-read it from the beginning, following the twists and the turns. When Tony handed her a cup with water, she drank but didn’t look away as she looked for the hole. Ninety minutes later, she looked up eyes a little unfocused to find Steve, James and Peter calling it—they were all sweating, a little bruised and wearing far more relaxed expressions than when they started.

“Well?” Tony asked.

“Override the admin access with the emergency code. Cedes control. Once you’re in, you order the engine open, plug into the drive and hack it manually.” She handed him the StarkPad back. “But that’s some seriously sexy coding there. It’ll take people a while to work out it’s a hands-on hack.”

Tony’s expression amused her, torn between outrage and pleased. Hard to be smug when she tweaked him. Peter bounded over to her. “What did you think?”

“I think you need to pay more attention to what you’re doing and less showing off. Just because something works the first time, doesn’t mean it will the second. In fact, if you’re fighting any decent opponent, it probably won’t.”

Peter made a face. “That’s what Bucky said.”

“Then listen to James.”

He groaned.

“Go shower, Pal, then come up for dinner. Tony? You eating with us?”

“I was planning on it before Red totally destroyed my ego.” Tony stared at his StarkPad.

Natasha’s phone had a charge and about a hundred and fifty messages at least from what she could see on the screen. Her email. She hadn’t even pulled out her laptop. And she wasn’t doing that tonight.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow she’d get on that.

As well as go to the Compound.

Meet with Stephen.

Maybe do some Christmas shopping.

“So, you’re not eating with us?” Steve asked before tipping back a bottle of water and draining it.

With a scowl, Tony eyed her. “Sadist. ”

“No, I’m saving that for when we train,” Natasha retorted.

Tony groaned. “Cap, your girlfriend is being mean to me.”

James laughed. “She can be meaner.”

“Yes,” Steve added. “She can.”

“I don’t know,” Peter said. “But I’m not going to test it.”

“Well,” Tony replied drily. “At least we know the kid can learn.”

Natasha rolled her eyes then glanced at her phone. “Food, boys. Showers, then food.”

“Then Harry Potter,” Peter said. “I forgot how much fun the movies are.”

“One more,” James told him. “Then everyone needs sleep.”

Translation, they needed to talk.

They could do all of that and then she had to figure out how to hack her memories.

If she put up the firewalls then arguably, she could take them down.

~~~

 

It was late by the time they shuffled a sleepy Peter off to bed. He’d fallen asleep on the sofa, his head on Natasha’s lap as she carded her fingers through his hair. After Steve got him to his feet, Natasha escaped to shower. The whole back of her shirt had soaked through with sweat. Thankfully, neither James nor Tony commented. When she returned with damp hair and sporting Tony’s AC/DC shirt along with sleep shorts, she took no small amount of pleasure in Tony’s stare.

Steve was back, they'd disassembled the blanket fort, and James poured her tea. All three men put on a great show of being at ease and relaxed. The truth of the matter was, none of them were. As soon as she had her full mug of tea—with a nip of something warmer in it—James had added some vodka. When she caught his gaze and flicked a look at Tony, he shook his head once.

Tony hadn’t seen.

Still, guilt stabbed at her that she was drinking it in front of him. More guilt because when she sipped the tea, she wanted more. Then she spotted the large teapot James carried out from the kitchen and had to bite her lip. He knew it wouldn’t be easy and that vodka would give her some faux comfort, but comfort nonetheless. The last thing she would do was openly drink in front of Tony if she could help it.

Maybe Tony guessed. Maybe he didn’t. If he was willing to pretend, so was she.

“Boss, Mr. Barton is in your office at the Compound and secured to dial in.”

Tony glanced at her. “We figured you’d want Clint in on the conversation and wouldn’t want to pull him away from his family.”

They were right. “Thank you.”

A holo screen opened, then projected, placing Clint opposite the sofa. She’d curled up in the corner of their sofa, while Tony took the loveseat and Steve sat in his armchair. James finally came and sat near her, but still leaving enough space she wasn’t crowded.

Her touch quota for the day had filled beyond anything she was willing to push.

“We don’t have to do this tonight, Angel,” Steve told her.

“Cap’s right, Red. You want to rest, rest. I can suffer in silent ignorance for a few more hours.”

Clint rolled his eyes but Natasha snickered and took another swallow of tea, before she said, “It’s fine. Besides, Tony—you would go into shock if you had to suffer in silence.”

“True. I suffer better when I’m loud about it.”

James snorted. But they didn’t add any more comments, giving her the floor.

“Stephen believes the physical issues with the brain can probably be corrected by creating smaller bursts to force my serum to kick in.” More or less. Steve’s frown, Clint’s narrowed eyes, and Tony’s troubled expression were their only responses. James wore a neutral mask, guarding his thoughts, but he didn’t care for the idea. “Specifically targeted bursts which is why he wants to work out his plan and before anyone asks, yes, I’ll be talking to the Wakandan physicians and Shuri about all of it.”

Steve’s exhale confirmed he was on board with the last part at least. Tony’s expression didn’t shift. He really didn’t want her going to Wakanda. Maybe they could work it out that he could go, maybe if he saw it up close it would ease his concerns.

“The physical malformations are not the only issue... the seizures, they’re non-epileptic.”

“That’s what he said earlier,” Steve leaned forward, hands clasped. “What does that mean though?”

“It means the seizures aren’t because of electrical activity or surges in my brain. Which is—I suppose good and bad news,” she said then drained the tea. James already had the pot in hand and refilled her cup, his eyes full with questions he wasn’t voicing. “Good news, it’s not an injury. Bad news—it’s probably just me.”

James frowned, but it was Clint who said, “You?”

Exhaling, she took a mental step back. Compartmentalizing the discomfort at having to cop to a weakness. “According to Stephen,” she began, keeping it clinical because the doctor had done a fantastic job of bleeding the emotions out. It kept her on stable ground. “Non-Epileptic Seizures are physiological responses to psychological triggers—the most common causes of an NES are emotional and mental pain, including physical or sexual abuse, bullying, shock—or conditioning.”

Tony grimaced then pinched the bridge of his nose. Clint leaned back in his chair, his exhale audible even across the line. Steve couldn’t cover his pained expression, but James shifted, sitting sideways on the sofa to face her.

“You conditioned yourself to forget about her. You said in that one—memory—you called her the child. You divorced yourself from Mary so you could walk away.” It wasn’t an accusation, but it felt like one.

“Maybe, it seems the most likely. Compartmentalizing, We hide it even from ourselves. It is how we keep our secrets.” She licked her lips before taking another sip of the tea. The heat of the tea combined with the vodka helped. Even if she’d rather be doing straight pulls from the bottle.

“So you seize because you’re violating your own conditioning?” Clint’s expression darkened. “Or is it just that the whole damn thing was so emotionally compromising, you can’t cope with it?”

“Maybe both.” In this case, she had nothing to lose.

“And Mr. Wizard’s suggestion for solving that?” Tony stared at her and she could see it in his eyes. BARF was the solution. It was exactly why he’d created it. The tool helped them face their memories by letting the mind step back from the emotions and to process the memories by hijacking the hippocampus.

“Cognitive-behavioral therapy.”

Steve leaned back in his seat and stared at the ceiling and Tony snorted. But Clint’s whole expression shifted to pure neutral even as his eyes narrowed.

“Can’t say I’m a fan of talking it out. I pretty much hated it when I had to go through that at SHIELD.”

“Fuck,” Clint punched the word out in an explosive breath. “Tasha—about Richardson.”

The psychologist? “No.”

He nodded slowly. “Yeah.”

A small, humorless laugh escaped her. “People wonder why I have trust issues.”

Clint could have said any number of things, but all he said was, “I’ll find him. And I’m gonna put an arrow through every joint he has until he tells me exactly what he did.”

What he did? She could guess. Worked on her triggers, smoothed the way for them to use her. She’d always loathed those sessions, attending only because her continued existence at SHIELD rested in those mandatory meetings. Meetings she’d been forced to endure, three times a week for a year. One hundred and fifty-six sessions. A lot could happen in that many sessions.

“You know—unless he flipped some switch in me that made me turn on all of you, it doesn’t really matter anymore. I can’t let him matter.” If they had that kind of control, Pierce or someone would have used it when she was standing in front of him, helping to dismantle his plans for world dominion. “I take it you got this from Nick?”

A single nod.

Then Maria would know. She had messages on her phone from Maria. She would deal with that later.

“So what’s the final verdict, then?”

“Stephen will develop what he hopes are the first steps in therapeutic rehabilitation of my brain. Though we may have to adjust as we go and we may not realize there’s a problem until we encounter it.” Russian roulette. She was extremely proficient at the game. “Once he has a game plan, he’ll give me the notes and I can compare it to what the doctors in Wakanda might suggest. Though I didn’t bring up Wakanda specifically, I did tell him I wanted to get a second opinion.”

“Still not a fan of that last idea, Red.”

“You don’t have to be, Tony. I just need a course of action that works and hopefully doesn’t take me out of the rotation for too long.” It was hard enough to reconcile being selfish in wanting those memories back with abandoning the team she’d fought to get back together.

“Standing down doesn’t mean you’re out,” Steve told her. “You’re invaluable for training, strategy, and syncing ops. Letting you heal so we have you for another hundred years is worth having you ease back for a few months.”

“Not to be crass…”

“Steve and James already discussed it with me, Tony. I’m aware of the option. It doesn’t have a timetable or a guarantee and it won’t deal with the cognitive blocks.”

Right now, she wasn’t going to discuss their sex lives any further. Apparently Tony got the picture because he raised his hands and leaned back in his seat.

“Okay, well since we’re being all cryptic and vague,” Clint commented. “Let’s circle back to how you’re going to deal with the cognitive blocks.”

“I have a plan.”

“You going to share?” The look on her best friend’s face said she damn well better, but she shook her head.

“You’re all compromised. I have a plan. If I need help with it, I’ll ask.”

Steve frowned and Tony shifted, eyebrows up.

Not willing to entertain arguments on this front for the moment, she finished the tea and reached for the pot to refill it. “Before we call it a night…” Because she needed to speak to James and Steve privately, she said, “During the MRI, I was able to jar a memory loose. So maybe all I really need to do is focus on it and you know, bite the bullet as it were.” Stephen hadn’t been a fan of that idea. While the NES was not caused by electrical surges in the brain, the stress could affect her in other ways. She did so enjoy it when men explained to her she wasn’t indestructible.

“You said Edwin Jarvis,” Tony commented. “Just before you passed out.” His guard was up as they ventured into painful territory for him. Territory she more than understood.

A single nod. Careful not to gulp the still quite warm but no longer piping hot tea, Natasha took a long swallow before facing it head on. “Logan got me from Canada back into the States via a friend who sailed Mary and I across the lake.” Even saying the words aloud, she could feel the stiff breeze on her face, taste the damp air, and the weight of Mary in her lap and against her chest. “He provided me with a car and I drove from Rochester to the city. I ditched the car an hour away from Rochester and bought another one from a widow—paid cash. Ditched the car once I made it to the city and relied on public transportation.”

She didn’t look at any of them as she recited the memory. It might as well have been a mission debrief. It was the only way to detail it without letting emotion swallow her whole. Because in addition to those details, she had fragments of Mary’s temper to go with her cheerfulness. How she was not a messy eater—at all. How she could play with a pool of light on the floor and laughed when she made shadows. How when Natasha sang her to sleep at night, she would tuck her head against her breast so trusting.

Her breasts ached with the idea that once upon a time she’d even nursed her and had still been nursing her even though Mary ate more and more. A part of her wanted to share as much her own strength with Mary as possible. That and on the hike across and even for portions of the drive, she had no formula or bottles or softer foods Mary could eat. Nursing kept her belly full.

“Natalia…” James’ voice pulled her from the reverie and she sighed. The ability to segregate memory and emotion never used to be so difficult.

“We went to Brooklyn, rented a small two-room place on the fifth floor of a walk-up in Cobble Hill. Good exits. The roofs on either side were safe jumps. Then I settled us in and began to research.”

Now, she looked at Tony. “I had to find a way to get to Howard so, I tracked every story in I could in the papers. I cased the mansion area and even some of the local parks—looking for your nanny or a possible au pair. The challenging part was working out who would take care of Mary while I worked. I was unwilling to leave her.” For a moment, she turned, meeting James’ gaze. “I tracked where your sisters were living—chose Cobble Hill because it was away from them. I wouldn’t bring our problems to their doors.”

James closed his eyes and bowed his head.

She hated herself a little.

Finishing the last two swallows of the tea, she glanced at Tony and said, “When they announced a huge charity function your mother would be hosting—I saw my in. All I needed was to get on the domestic staff. Large events meant a larger staff—Edwin and Ana Jarvis were my in. Then I woke up.”

Now they knew what she did—highlights of it anyway.

The quiet in the wake of her confession lay surrounded them. Tony pulled off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “When you were talking to Strange, Steve asked me if Jarvis had any journals or notes that may have dealt with the time when you were there. Most of his things were stored away—he had no extended family. He and Ana never had kids. Friday’s having the boxes shipped here. I’m also going to hit the floors where Dad’s stuff is stored and see if I can find a system that will bring to that same time period. Maybe—maybe we can turn up what you need to know without you having to risk anything more than you have.”

“Thank you, Tony,” she murmured. “I’m sorry you have to open up—any old wounds.”

“It’s kind of like a juice cleanse,” he retorted with a smirk. “Sounds refreshing, sucks on the far side, but after? It’s worth it.”

She wasn’t alone when she grimaced. “I suppose that’s better than the chlorophyll and wheatgrass.”

“Ha, shows what you know. I managed to make that stuff downright tasty.” He made a face and she shook her head. There had been nothing remotely appealing about those green drinks.

Nothing.

“Tasha…” Clint leaned forward. “What are you going to do?”

“Rest—for the next twelve or so hours, per the doctor’s request.” At his skeptical look, she shrugged. “I can be cooperative if the mission demands it.”

At least his snort wasn’t derisive. “And at the end of twelve hours…”

“I’ll face that when I get there.” She was officially done discussing this. “How are the kids?”

Changing the subject wouldn’t work if he didn’t cooperate, but he raised his hands. “They’re fine—overstimulated and tired, ready to see their Aunt Nat, but I told them Aunt Nat wasn’t feeling well so we were going to let her come see them when she was feeling better.”

Natasha didn’t sag, but relief swarmed her. She didn’t have to go to the Compound even if she wanted to see them. “And they bought that?”

“Yes. They didn’t like it, but they bought it. Laura, however, will be showing up there if you don’t come see her so we’ll see how we can work this out for you.”

Laura. There was another situation she had to deal with. Something must have reflected in her manner because Clint stared at her. But she shook her head. Signing later. He nodded.

“On that note, I’m signing off so you guys can get some sleep and I should mention that all the knuckleheads around you better keep me in the loop if something comes up. Are we clear?”

“I’m sorry, Barton? What was that? You’re breaking up.” Tony hit something on his phone and the holo faded but not before Clint flipped him off.

Sinking back against the sofa, Natasha looked at the tree. The night they’d gone to get it had been so much fun and after they set it up and strung the lights, they’d torn each other’s clothes off and…

Discomfort radiated over the surface of her skin, even if the rest of her wanted to cling to that memory. They’d been focused on making so many.

“I think I’m going to go get started,” Tony said…

“It’s late,” she reminded him. “Don’t stay up all night searching. Everyone keeps reminding me it’s been decades. We don’t need to rush.” No matter how violently she disagreed with the sentiment.

“Well, it’s that or go fight with your hacking solution for my unhackable code.” The face he made pulled a reluctant smile out of her. “I’ve got a prototype coming—when it gets here, I want to see how long it takes you to pull that trick.”

“Three minutes,” she told him. “After I figure out the best emergency code to send, ninety seconds or less.”

“Don’t get cocky,” Tony retorted. “Remember what I said, you figure out how to break it, you have to figure out how to help me fix it.”

“I know.” Then because she needed other things to concentrate on. “Tomorrow morning? Training?”

“If you’re up for it,” Tony said, rising. “And if not…I’ll still stretch like a good boy.”

Steve’s expression tightened, but he didn’t comment.

“Night Red. Red’s boys.”

James snorted. Steve waved and Tony glanced at her once more before he disappeared into the elevator. At least he hadn’t asked to hug her or kiss her on the head. She wasn’t really sure she could take it right now. That left her with the bad taste of guilt in her mouth.

“You want to talk about it?” James asked after the elevator closed.

“Did you bring the whole bottle up?”

“Yes, I did. And Friday had more delivered for you today.”

“Friday…”

“Yes, Natasha?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I thought you might need it.”

Did she ever.

Steve rose as James did. Steve cleared away the teapot and mug. When he came back he had the big, fuzzy blanket and draped it over her lap. Then James brought out the glasses a pair of bottles.

“Angel—what didn’t you want to tell Tony or Clint?”

“You’re getting scary good at catching those, Rogers. Better watch out, I’ll be out of a job.”

“He’s pretty good where you’re concerned, Doll.” James poured a glass for each of them, but doubled the amount in hers. He knew her well.

“The idea of talk therapy makes me want to throw up,” she admitted, then took a deep drink of the vodka.

“Not a big fan myself,” Steve admitted. “Sam’s tried to get me to go to group a few times, but…wasn’t raised to discuss my problems in front of strangers.”

James tossed back his vodka. “No, you keep what belongs behind these doors inside, James Buchanan, I will not have you airing our dirty laundry in front of the neighbors.”

“Pretty much,” Steve toasted her with his vodka.

“Not all that interested in being a puzzle to be solved anyway,” Natasha continued, “That said—Stephen has no personal connection or investment.”

“You’re going to talk to him?” Steve shot her a questioning look. “You barely know him.”

“Maybe it’s better that way. I don’t know—I just know I need to figure this out.” Finally, she looked at James. “I wanted to see your sisters, but I didn’t trust being near them. I thought—if I could go to them, they would be an obvious place to hide Mary. She would be with family, but first, how would I ever explain it to them and more importantly, I couldn’t bring those hunting me down on them. They were alive, they had families, lives.”

“I know, Doll. I’m just glad you’re getting more of Mary back.”

She was and she wasn’t.

“Even if it hurts more and that’s the part I wish I could ease.”

Not much to be done about it. “I have a feeling, I’m going to end up hurting more people before this is over.”

“You’re worried about Tony,” Steve said slowly. “Because of…”

“Because you went to Howard and I killed Howard and Maria,” James finished.

“Buck…”

“It’s the truth, Steve. Tony’s family helped mine…”

“Maybe,” Steve tacked one. “Maybe helped. We don’t have all the details.”

“So maybe they helped mine, but I took his away.” The guilt discoloring his words would be there for the rest of their lives. They couldn’t undo their pasts, no matter how much regret they harbored.

Elbows on his knees and drink glass dangling in his fingers, Steve looked down. He couldn’t argue the facts and Natasha had nothing to offer in dispute or support. It wasn’t James, it was the Soldier, but they both—they both had blood on their hands.

There really wasn’t anything they could say.

“Are we going to the Compound tomorrow?”

“You should go,” Natasha told him. “So should I. I just don’t know…” If she flinched when Lila tried to hug her.

“Clint bought you some time, you don’t have to rush,” James told her.

“I know. Doesn’t feel like that.” She really didn’t want to keep focusing on it. “I hate this.”

Hated wanting them and barely being able to stand touching them. Hated all the questions and no answers. Hated that she was apparently the reason she couldn’t remember as much as the memories they stripped from her.

“Nat…” They both shifted, their instinct to reach for her warring with the fact she didn’t want to be touched. Maybe…

“No,” James said firmly and she cut a look to him even as she reached for the bottle to refill her glass. “Leaving will not make this better for any of us. If you go—I’ll follow.” Firm. Unflinching. Serious. “I can take anything, Natalia, but not you leaving.”

“I may have to go anyway if I go to Wakanda.” Not disputing the fact she considered it. She’d debated asking Wanda to help her, just once, but dismissed it immediately. For Wanda to help unlock anything would be to ask her to tear in Natasha’s mind, the thought alone made her want to vomit. But what she couldn’t stomach was Wanda living through it with her. She’d tasted the Red Room when she’d torn open those old memories the first time they met. Memories had then bled through for months after like a freshly lanced infection.

No, she wouldn’t put Wanda through that.

“Natalia, if you go to Wakanda,” James told her. “I’m going with you.”

“Hell, Tony and Clint will go with us and if Peter finds out, he’ll be on the bird and there’s not a member of your family who wouldn’t go to support you,” Steve said.

“That will be problematic if we’re called to assemble and there’s still the Committee to deal with.” In all of this, she hadn’t forgotten her own status still remained somewhat precarious even if no one else was concerned.

“We’ll figure it out.” James lifted the bottle and filled her glass. “We’ll figure all of it out.”

“You ever wish we didn’t have to? I’m starting to think things were easier when I was still a fugitive.”

“It wasn’t easier. It wasn’t easier when we were still at SHIELD or just training the new team or when we were fighting off Chitauri,” Steve pointed out.

James said nothing and she reached over to put a hand on his arm, ignoring the irritation scraping along the inside of her skin. “We’ve spent so much time focusing on me… how are you doing?”

He flashed her a smile. “I’m fine, Doll.”

“Liar.” It wasn’t an accusation so much as a gentle chide. “Everything about this grates on you. You’re hypersensitive to my every movement.”

“To be fair, lyubov moya, I would be without the question of your memories. We just got you back. I don’t like having you away from me even if I am not allowed to smother you.” The frankness in that statement riveted her. “I don’t like that so many others need you or that you will wreck yourself to accommodate them whether it’s working on Tony’s projects or letting Peter fall asleep with his head on your lap. You physically hurt yourself…” He stopped and shook his head. “I’m not going to yell at you.”

“I’m not breaking because you’re telling me how you feel,” she admitted. “Maybe we need to do that more. I let you all leash me until I couldn’t take it anymore. That’s as much on me as it is on all of you.” She could own that. “Talk to me—let me help if I can.”

“The way you’re letting us help?” James asked, raising his eyebrows.

“I’m trying,” she answered, gagging her inner retort. “I’m not good at this. I never pretended to be good at this. I do—better in short term engagements and I’ve never…”

“Never what, Angel?” Steve prompted before he tossed back his vodka with a grimace. They really needed to give him something else.

“I’ve never been good at people depending on me,” she murmured. “I’ve always come and gone as needed. A few weeks in, then weeks away, always under a cover.”

“That’s bullshit,” James argued. “You are one of the most dependable people I’ve ever known. Even when you didn’t remember me, I could count on you. You keep people at arm’s length because it protects you not them.”

“It protects you if it doesn’t let my issues spill over onto you.” She groaned. “Now we’re back to me, no—I’m worried about both of you. I’m worried about Tony and Clint.”

“Fine…” Steve held up a hand when James looked ready to argue. “You want us to answer the question of how we’re feeling?”

She nodded once.

“Helpless,” Steve told her. “Useless.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “Enraged. Frustrated. Not necessarily in that order. When The Mandarin took you—all I could do was keep Tony on track. I knew he could figure out the puzzle, I knew he could work out where they’d taken you. But to do that, I had to keep him stable. I was helpless until we had a target. I felt pretty damn useless when The Mandarin wanted me to break your back.”

James snapped his head up and Natasha shifted. He hadn’t said.

“It was all I could hear,” Steve continued, his voice deadly quiet and rigid as he tapped the side of his head. “Break your back. Break you so you couldn’t run. Break you and give you back. I fought it, Angel. I fought it and I let you go, I had to let you go or I would have done it…then Wanda knocked him out of there, but that—slime was still there, coating everything. The idea that I could do that to you and couldn’t stop myself—I was useless to you, to the team. To anyone.”

Her heart cracked for him.

“Stevie…”

“Not done, Bucky. Our girl wants to know how I feel, I’m telling her.” It was his turn to retrieve the vodka bottle and he emptied the last of it into his glass. “Enraged because I pissed you off and you walked away and then disappeared. I didn’t know whether to throttle you or kiss you when we finally did and we can’t touch you. We can’t touch you because of something that son of a bitch did and it’s not your fault, it’s not our fault, but you’re still suffering and we can’t even comfort you without hurting you.”

Her mouth went dry.

Lifting his glass, he saluted her with it. “Frustrated because I feel like once again, I have to stand here and let everyone else do the work because I’m helpless to fix this for you. It kills me how much you’re willing to suffer, how much you’re going to suffer, to find your daughter. I’m worried about what you’ll find and at the same time, I’m not going to tell you to stop. I get why Clint wants you, too. I get why he’s scared. Has it occurred to me that you could rip open all those blocks and not be my Nat anymore? Yeah. It has.”

James let out a breath and a very quiet, “Fuck.”

“You know the only thing that gets me through it is I know whoever you end up being, whatever you remember—Buck is going to be right there front and center. You’ll get back everything you two were to each other…”

She already had on some levels. The sheer want of him and the grief she’d experienced in losing him.

“…and maybe there won’t be room for me. That’s me being selfish, I recognize it, but you wanted to know how I feel.” He downed the vodka in one long shot, no grimace this time. It was almost enough to make her proud even as she turned the words over in his head.

“You’re a punk,” James told him. “That last part? You’re a punk. Natalia doesn’t love lightly or easily, she’s not leaving you, Stevie.”

“You don’t know that…”

“No, I do know that. Maybe I’m the only one in this room who does—because I knew Natalia. I’ve loved her most of our lives. She doesn’t give up on people, even when she should.” He glanced at her. “Even when you should have walked away and let me sacrifice myself so you two could have a life.”

“They were never going to let me have that, James.” She may not remember it all, but that part she knew.

“I think it was still possible—but I think you did make that choice to come for me. You wouldn’t leave me.”

“Would you have left me there?” She raised her brows. Eventually, she’d had no choice. She had left. Erased—again. James erased and put in cold storage. Doomed to forget each other. “If it had been me who led them away and you who got Mary out? Would you have stayed with Mary and never come for me?”

He sighed and glanced away. In her mind, she had no doubt.

“Doesn’t change the fact I wish you had gotten to keep her, Natalia. To have raised her. To have that life… it hurts that you didn’t. It hurts more watching you tear yourself apart. I’d take on every piece of this for you if I could and Stevie is right—those days we didn’t know where you were but we did know you were suffering? They were Hell. Pure Hell. We focused on everyone—we even avoided each other.”

Frowning, Natasha glanced at Steve and he spread his hands. “I couldn’t come up here.” He motioned to the room around them. Then putting the glass aside, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his dog tags. In all of the excitement of the day, she’d not gotten them back. “I couldn’t bear to see these just hanging on that photograph in the bedroom. Bucky had to make me come up here. We argued, pushed, and pummeled each other.”

But they’d had each other.

“Stevie’s a punk,” James said flatly. “But now I have to fight my instincts which say never let you out of my sight when I know you can’t stand to be cornered or caged or leashed. You don’t deserve it either. I want to take you out on a date, hold your hand, dance—have sex and not just too boost your damn serum. I’m patient, we have time…I just…”

Squeezing his arm gently, she said, “Wish we didn’t have to always have to do it the hard way.”

“Exactly,” Steve said. “We’re not going anywhere. But Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Angel, I wish I could take this burden, too. If between the two of us, we could find Mary for you, tell you what happened—lay that piece of your past to rest. You have this—huge extended family that loves you. They all want to be here for you and we don’t know what to do.”

“I don’t want you to hurt,” Natasha told him. “I’ve never wanted you to hurt. Both of you—both of you—have suffered so much.”

“And you haven’t?” James asked her even as Steve said, “So have you.”

“I don’t know how to do this…” Admitting that took everything she had. “I couldn’t get out—when The Mandarin had me. I got free, I cut through his men and I was still trapped. I had to be rescued that’s…that’s not me. Now? Now I need help from other people to unlock my mind? I keep learning that people I trusted weren’t worth it. There’s…I don’t know how to drag all of you into this. That’s what I’m doing and I don’t want any of you hurt.”

“Don’t stand in front of me, Nat.” Steve stared at her. “Stand next to me. Stand next to us. I know we keep trying to stand in front of you. Tony wants to put armor around you, Clint wants to clear away the targets, I want to be right there with my shield and…”

“…I don’t want you having to fight anymore,” James admitted. “But Stevie’s right—you don’t have to protect us.”

“But you have to protect me?” she argued.

“Yes,” James said and Steve didn’t dispute it. “Natalia, you are the strongest person I know. You have survived insurmountable odds and more often than not you’ve had to survive them on your own. You’re not alone now and I was raised to take care of and protect my family. Could you possibly just let us do that right now?”

“If we do it together.” It wasn’t the 1940s and she didn’t need them playing hero to her hapless damsel. “If you protect me, then I protect you. Side-by-side.”

“Agreed,” Steve said even as James stared at him. “Buck, she isn’t going to go for us trying to hide her away, even if I want to. Even if I’d rather get us a place in the middle of nowhere, fortify it and make sure nothing ever got near you again.”

“Some people would call that a prison, Steve.”

The dour look he gave her almost made her smile, particularly because even amidst all of this, they weren’t arguing.

Tipping her head to the side, she said, “I want to…” She extended her hand and Steve took it, his dog tags still in his palm and the chain looped over a couple of her fingers. “I want to do this and not hear or feel him in my head. I’m trying to block it out, but at the same time I’m trying to break down all these other barriers.” Sliding her hand down to James’ she interlocked their fingers. The warmth in his right hand chased away any chill in hers. “I want to be like we were before… I just don’t know how to get there.”

“One day a time,” James said, he lifted her hand and kissed her fingertips. “Every day, you’re reaching out more. You’re asking for more. It’s not an overnight process, Natalia.”

“As aggravating as it is for all of us,” Steve pointed out. “We’re together. If you go to Wakanda. We go to Wakanda. If you go through whatever these treatment options are that Strange comes up with. Then we go through it, too. We’re there.”

“If it gets to be too much?”

“Then Stevie and I go to the gym and beat the crap out of each other,” James said matter-of-factly. “You?”

“I’m going to dance in the morning.”

His sudden smile was the sun coming out from the clouds. “Good.”

“Steve...I don't know everything I'll remember, but remembering Natalia doesn't mean I forget you. I'm not trading one life for another. You're kind of stuck with me.”

His eyes shone and she held his gaze as he took a long deep breath and released it. Then he nodded. “One last thing,” Steve said. “I’ve been doing some reading on overcoming aversion to touch—or at least what can cause it and the treatment options. I also—in the interests of full disclosure—talked to Sam about this.”

James sighed. “We all talked in circles to Sam, he knew we were talking about you.”

That explained the closeted meeting they all had in Steve’s office along with Tony.

“We want to help, but we don’t want to be overbearing… so one of the things I read said there are ways to do it. Exposure therapy, which you’ve already been doing, is one. But there might be an easier way—maybe. A way to help.”

“Okay.” She glanced at James but he lifted his shoulders. He didn’t know what Steve was talking about. Steve squeezed her hand once, then stood. He reached for the blanket he’d brought out, the super soft one draped over her lap.

“Can I try something?” Steve asked.

She drained her vodka and set the glass down and then released James before she nodded. Steve beckoned her to stand up, so she did and James shoved the coffee table away, careful not to knock any bottles over.

“Turn around,” Steve said, though his tone made it a request. Figuring he was about to do something with the blanket, she nodded and turned to look at James. He was watching them both with a slight frown. “Okay, wrapping this around you,” Steve told her as he draped the blanket, but rather than just hanging it around her, he wrapped her up, pulling the edges tight.

It was constricting, not quite trapping her arms, but still keeping her a little bound. Over the blanket, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her back against his chest. There was and wasn’t contact it was…

“How you feeling?” Steve asked, his lips near her ear but not touching her.

“Honestly?”

James rolled his eyes then stared at her like duh and Steve chuckled. “Yes, please.”

“A little weird.”

“Weird good or weird bad?”

“Not bad…not sure about good. Not freaking out. That’s something right?”

“Yes, it is,” Steve said, a smile in his voice. “Okay step two.” He shifted, his arms loosening around her and he swept her up, all bundled and cradled and then sat down on the chair and the only place she came close to really touching him was her head against his shoulder.

It was…nice.

They sat there like that for a couple of minutes. Steve’s hand moved against her back, she could feel the pressure but not quite the contact.

“You good, Doll?”

“I think so,” Natasha answered. No panic skated through her but the uneasiness didn’t quite settle. Aware of just how close they were considering how jangled her nerves were. “You’re triggering my parasympathetic nervous system.”

“Yes, ma’am. Not quite as dirty as it sounds.”

Natasha lifted her head and stared at him. “It doesn’t sound dirty at all.”

“Fine, you say potato—” He smirked then squeezed her just a little tighter and she put her head back on his shoulder. “I know it’s not quite the same.”

“No, but it’s…it’s nice.” A sigh worked out of her.

“I figure you could sit with me for a bit, then maybe sit with Bucky—take a break if you need it—and tonight? When we go to bed? You’re under the covers and we’re on top.”

“Ease her back into the contact.”

“Yep,” Steve said. “That’s what the book said.”

“What did Sam say?”

Steve grinned. “He said to let you kick my ass.”

James snorted but Natasha laughed. “You know, Sam’s just trying to be my favorite.”

“Yeah well, I hear this dude Remy already has the job…” Steve deadpanned.

Natasha glanced at James. “We should introduce Sam to Remy.”

James’ whole expression brightened. “Oh, please let me do it.”

Against her side, Steve’s chest rumbled as he chuckled and she closed her eyes. This close she could breathe him in.

It really was nice.

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

Lead

Natasha

 

 

It was mostly dark in the bedroom when she opened her eyes. Steve lay on his side, head tucked on an arm he had curled beneath his cheek. His other arm lay across her waist. The weight cushioned by the heavy blanket offered comfort without contact. She knew enough about manipulating the mind to appreciate tricking herself. More, she fully encouraged it. Cuddling had been nice. Turning her head, she gazed at the empty space on her right side.

With care, she slid out from under Steve’s arm. Moving slowly, she didn’t want to disturb him. His peaceful expression, barely visible in the low light from the bathroom wrenched her. They hadn’t been sleeping well. Steve’s little blanket trick had been delightful. She’d curled up in his lap for nearly half an hour before he shifted her to James. Being held without the agitation vibrating under her skin let her relax and she hadn’t missed their expressions. Their need to take care of her had never been more apparent. Raw and bruised as they’d been, they still managed sleep and the shift in the covers meant she hadn’t needed to worry about accidentally brushing against them.

She still hated the weakness getting in the way, but if there was a way around it. They’d find it. Barefoot, she padded out of the bedroom. The rest of the floor was quiet, but James was even more silent than she when he wanted to be.

“Friday,” she asked quietly.

“Yes, Natasha?” The AI responded in an equally hushed tone.

“Did James leave the floor?”

“Yes, he went up to the roof.”

She slanted a look toward the windows where the snow continued to fall, catching light off the surrounding buildings as it came down. “Does he have a coat?”

“Yes, as well as his boots.”

Pivoting, she checked the coffee in the pot and got it going, then she tip-toed back into the bedroom. Steve was still out like a light and she hadn’t seen him sleep this deeply since she got back. She wasn’t disturbing him if she could help it.

After gathering her clothes and boots, she slipped back out to the living room. The first pot had run through, so she filled at thermos for her, then sent the rest through for a second brew. She traded out the sleep shorts for leggings, then dragged the ski pants over them. They’d keep her insulated and warm. The suspenders cracked her up, but she dragged them over the shirt. She pulled a hoodie on and zipped it up, then a snow jacket waited with her boots. Bouncing toes to heels, she kept her gaze on the weather.

Third pour going, she wrote a note to Steve and left it next to the pot and got the second coffeemaker set up for him. When the third pour had finished, the strong scent of coffee hit her. She filled a second thermos for James before she dragged on her ski jacket and stuffed her feet into boots.

Inside, she was wearing too much and would swelter, but she doubted that outside. Pulling the hood up, she tightened the jesses and then wrapped a scarf around her neck and stuffed hand warmers into her pockets along with gloves.

Thermoses in hand, she said, “Elevator on silent mode please, Friday.”

“Of course,” the doors opened for her. “To the roof?”

“Yes, please. Do you have heaters up there like on penthouse deck?”

“We do, they are located near the benches that are directly against the elevator vestibule. I can deploy the Iron Legion for you as well.”

“I appreciate that, keep them in reserve. I have my bracelet on…but privacy if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. Sergeant Barnes did seem distressed when he went up.”

Distressed.

Maybe she shouldn’t have wasted time on making the coffee.

“Please note, Natasha, it's also 34 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill making it feel like twenty-five. The slow moving depression continues to stall over the area and increasing the likelihood of this storm being recognized as a blizzard.”

The elevator opened and she stepped out into the vestibule. The door was closed but the lights on the roof had been turned off. Probably James preferring the dark. The snow came down steadily and the fall of it took her back to so many years in Moscow, Stalingrad, Siberia…Arkhangelsk. The winter was in her blood.

But she’d never been afraid of Winter.

Nor of her Soldat.

Storing the coffee thermoses under her arm, she pulled on her gloves then pushed the door open. James had already shoved the snow away from the entrance. He stood about ten feet away, a shadow amongst shadows, the snow breaking around him the only hint he was there. Smoke twirled up only to be torn away with the same wind that whisked against her face.

He twisted at her arrival and she could almost feel his frown. “Natalia…”

“I brought coffee,” she told him. “And company if you want it.”

He closed the distance. “It’s freezing up here.”

“Are you telling me we never escaped into the snow in all those years?”

This close she couldn’t miss the dampness on his cheeks. It could be the snow, but somehow she doubted it. “More than once,” he told her. “You used to sneak out onto the roof…”

“Yes—to watch the stars.” Had they done that?

“And to sneak over the roof to get to my room,” he told her his tone epically dry. “Even in the middle of a blizzard. You would slide down and knock against my window to let you in…a frost angel come to winter with me—or so you used to tease.”

She laughed. “I sound obnoxious.”

“Sometimes,” he said, but the sadness twining with teasing in his voice took any sting out of it. “You were always magnificent. So daring. You worried me so much.”

“Good to know things haven’t changed.” She held up the thermos she made for him. “Three brews—trade you for a cigarette?”

“Over there,” he said, pointing toward the bench next to the wall of the vestibule. The red lines on the roof below promised heat.

“But you seemed fond of over here,” she teased.

“Natalia,” he growled.

“Grumpy,” she retaliated but went as he asked. The absolute wall of snow coming down was both daunting and delightful. The stone of the bench promised warmth, but her ski pants kept her insulated as she sat. James wore only denim and his jeans were soaked. “It’s a good thing you’re cold resistant.”

He shrugged as he joined her. “I’ve had worse.” While she set the thermoses between them, he pulled out a pair of cigarettes—he must have crushed the one he had earlier—then lit them both. After he passed her one and she took it in her gloved fingers.

“You should be sleeping,” he chided. “You were so deep when I woke, better than you have been all week.”

“I know, but you were gone. Steve’s still asleep—unless my leaving woke him.”

“At least one of us isn’t being foolish.”

She snorted. “Give him time.”

His sharp huff of laughter echoed hers. “True.” As she drew on the cigarette, he twisted open the thermos. In the quiet, the crackle of the tobacco burning seemed loud. Snow quieted everything, muffling sound and the fact the city slept, cars safely stored away as most people were still in their beds. The snow day the kids had the day before would likely be extended to much of the city’s infrastructure today. Shopping would be a challenge—but there was something about exploring the silent, white city bound in snow and ice.

Natasha was too Russian to pass up the chance in the past.

“This is good,” he told her after a long swallow. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” she said, studying his profile. “James?”

He glanced at her.

“What can I do?” Sadness clung to him. The past was a darkness they could evade and sometimes even chase off with the light of the present, but it never really went away.

“Natalia, you have enough on your mind…”

“Well, actually, I have great big gaps in my mind, which suggests I have lots of room for more.” The joke sunk into the snow. “Even if I didn’t—I’m here. Tell me what I can do.”

He sighed, exhaling a long stream of smoke as his gaze went out to the snow. “Just a bad dream.”

They all had them. “Do you need to tell someone?” She never wanted to discuss those things, but sometimes even she needed to talk about them. James didn’t answer immediately. The heat rolling up at them blunted the wind, but couldn’t take it away.

When the quiet stretched, she studied his profile. His gaze was distant, his expression—fixed. Not lost, but not all there, either. He was still locked in his dream, his attention transfixed by whatever he’d seen there.

They drank their coffee and they smoked. When the first cigarettes were done, he lit another pair wordlessly and passed her one. She gave him another few minutes, but he volunteered nothing.

Maybe he needed the quiet to collect his thoughts. James had been through so much and in a few short months, he’d gotten his entire life back. A life he’d lost so much, in some ways, even more than her. His focus was always on her though and that wasn’t fair to him.

“You wanted to ask me things,” she said quietly. “Earlier and even before. You wanted to ask questions and you haven’t.”

“I’ve seen you tortured before, Natalia. I don’t have to ask you to know it was bad.” The immediate response included a glance at her. The assessing look in his eyes as familiar to her as her own. He wanted to gauge her reactions, resist pushing her…

“The place I found in Cobble Hill had two rooms, and a bed that folded straight out of the wall. It was a queen size, too large for me and Malyshka.”

His expression shifted and he glanced down at his hands.

“So I would roll together clothes to lay on the other side of her. To keep her in bed—and I’d pretend it was you.” Those sad little pieces of memory stabbed at her. “In the go bag that I carried across the mountains, I had one of your shirts in it and a jacket. I was careful with the shirt. Sealing it in a bag to keep it from losing its scent.”

James jolted, then he cut his gaze up to her.

“I told you I was missing you. Every day. Everything I remember tells me if not for Malyshka, the loss alone would have killed me. I would sing to her—songs on the radio, songs you remembered, children’s rhymes from somewhere… the lady on the first floor, she was always bringing us toys and food. She missed her own grandchild and she was a widow. I think she assumed I was one, too.”

It had seemed to bond the woman to her.

“I used that to create loyalty.” Natasha lifted her shoulders then took a drag on the cigarette.

“She was just barely walking…she had a few words when it happened.” James’ voice was raw, husky.

“She danced, just to the radio and with her doll. She would dance in circles.” She didn’t want to hurt him. “She asked about you.”

James closed his eyes.

“So I told her stories—I told her Papa was a great soldier and he’d gone to battle to keep the little tsarevna safe.”

A wet laugh escaped him.

“Malyshka made me tell her stories of Papa every night. Then I had to sing to her. Your shirt and your jacket were wrapped around the pillow I laid on her far side so she could snuggle up to you.”

Tears slid down his cheeks and Natasha put out the remains of her cigarette then tried to swallow her own tears with the coffee. This wasn’t helping him; all she was doing was grinding salt into the wound.

“I’ll stop,” she offered. It would kill her, but… “If my digging for this is hurting you—I’ll stop.”

“Don’t…” he said, swiping away the tears. “I want every moment for you…I want you to get those pieces back. You need them.”

“It’s hurting you.”

“If it didn’t hurt, I wouldn’t know I was alive,” he said, the husky bass of his voice scraping over her. “I’ve been numb, Natalia. I’ve been—lost. When she was born you told me you wanted that pain.” He lifted his hand and touched her face, the tears—she’d just thought it was the snow. “I want this pain. It’s ours. We share it.”

Leaning in, she pressed her face to his hand. She told him. She told him about looking up his sisters. The temptation to go to their families, but she didn’t. Not just because she wanted to protect them but because— “It was a wonder that this family of yours was still there. That no one had sent us to scratch them off. You had—people. A place. A name. A history. I didn’t want to hurt any of that… and I was… I was scared I wouldn’t be enough.”

Surprise flickered in his eyes. “Natalia…”

“James, how could I explain to them how you were alive and that I’d known you for decades? I was—a woman with blood on my hands. An assassin. A whore for her country. One of your sisters was a doctor, she saved lives. Another was a teacher—she shaped young minds and the other was a journalist. They were all fierce, independent women you would have been proud of. They had outstanding lives, dedicated to others.”

“You were not a whore,” he said, his voice a snarl.

“Yes, I was. We both were. Their weapons. Their tools. But not when we were Mary’s parents.”

When he dipped his head and pressed his forehead to hers, she didn’t pull away. “I know we were,” he whispered. “Never call yourself that again. I will not hear anyone speak badly of you—not even you.”

She smiled a little.

When he pressed his lips to her forehead, she sniffed and he leaned back to stare at her. “You are my life, Natalia Alianovna Romanova. You.”

“Then share your pain with me, James. Do not keep it inside where it burns. Tell me.”

He closed his eyes for a long moment, his shoulders sagging. “Natalia…”

“Our burdens, da? Yours and mine? We carry them for each other. We carry each other.”

Drawing out cigarettes he lit another pair then handed her one. “The Starks.”

A fist closed around her heart.

“I dreamt about Howard and Maria—I dreamt…I heard him calling me Sergeant Barnes. He knew me, Natalia. He recognized me. I killed him.” He blew out a long stream of smoke. “It was bad before when he was an old friend that I betrayed and now I have to wonder, did I kill the man who saved my family?” She took his hand in her gloved one and held on, his fingers tightened, flexing around hers. “It’s bad enough their son is—their son does all he does for us. I took his parents from him and he’s doing everything he can to help us find our daughter. In my dream…I see him, I see Howard—then it’s Tony I’m killing and you’re the woman in the car. Worse—in the backseat is a baby and she’s screaming and I know it’s not real, but it is and…I have so much blood on me.”

When he pulled his hand from hers, he stared at it.

“Why do I get this life? Why do I get it and they don’t?”

“I don’t know,” she told him. “I ask myself that question. But I do know one thing, James Buchanan Barnes.”

He sniffed as he glanced at her. “You really hate the name Bucky, don’t you?”

“You are not a dog,” she reminded him and he laughed. “I will not object to you allowing everyone else to call you that—but not I.”

With a deep sniff, he chuckled. “Fair enough, Natalia. I rather like that you call me James.”

“Because you are a smart man—most of the time.”

Now, he snorted. “What one thing do you know?”

“I know that the man you are here…” She pressed her hand to his chest, to where the beat of his heart. “This man? He was a good man and he remains one. My Soldat, he was not evil. He was not good, but he was not evil. He was. He existed. When given a choice—he chose love, not hate. Did we do terrible things?”

Her crimes were too long to list.

“Yes.” She swallowed. “But you chose love, James. You chose it as Bucky. You chose it as my Soldat. You chose it as James. Even when they took your choices from you—a part of you never forgot. If you were anything else you would not be tearing yourself up. You’re a good man.”

“Not really, no.” He swept his gaze over her and then took a drag on his cigarette. “But you’re the only one who really understands that.”

Maybe she did. “I love you.” The words still sounded odd on her tongue, yet every time she said it, the more she grew accustomed to them.

A real smile softened his mouth. “That is everything, Natalia.”

She moved the coffee thermos and eased over to lean her head against his arm and he nudged back her hood some so he could lean his cheek to her hair. They sat there. Watching it snow while the heat rising below them turned errant flakes to steam.

Time trickled by, but she didn’t pay any attention. She finished her coffee. He finished his and they sat there. Smoking. The hush offered a kind of peace. More, being there with him offered peace.

“Are you still going to dance this morning?” The roughness in his voice told her they needed more coffee.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I need to get out of my head. Though—this has helped.”

A whisper of a kiss to her crown, then his cheek pressed against her hair again. “I love watching you dance.”

“You’ve told me.”

“Have I?” He gave an almost verbal shrug. “It’s the kind of thing you should hear more often. You remind me of how beautiful the world can be—watching you dance is an intoxicating experience.”

From anyone else, she’d probably dismiss the prosaic nature of his praise. Too much. It offered too much. It asked too much. Yet—from James—it echoed with such devastating honesty. “Did we ever dance?”

He didn’t answer immediately and she fought the urge to shift her position so she could look at him. “You were the dancer, Natalia,” he said, finally.

Straightening a little, she did look at him. “James…”

He sighed, tapping out another cigarette. “You’re the dancer, lyubov moya. I took pleasure in watching you perform.”

“According to Steve—you used to dance very well,” she said slowly. “You used to squire all the girls to dances and you were supposed to be really good at it.”

He eyed at her, the tip of his cigarette burning red. He offered her one but she shook her head.

“We’ve never danced—you and I?”

He grimaced. Then he licked his chapped lips and sighed. “My arm…it—throws off my balance a little. I compensate everywhere else, but we were never anywhere we could dance and then I just didn’t. I enjoyed watching you and that was enough.”

Turning sideways, she tilted her head. “So on the island when I wanted to dance and you kept saying no…”

“I haven’t really danced with a dame since before this…” He motioned to his arm. “And I’m not about to plod on your feet.”

James moved with a great deal more grace than he realized. Yes, there was deliberateness to his walk—a seeming cockiness in his stride. Part of that was his compensation for the extra weight created by his arm. Except… “This arm isn’t as heavy as the old one, is it?”

She trailed her fingers over his left hand. The metal was different, more vibranium and vibranium was so much lighter than his arm before. She’d taken a hit from that arm and it had been the same one pinning her to a table, strangling her.

“No, it’s not,” he said, shifting so he could let his left hand rest in her gloved hands. The sky around them was still dark and the surrounding building lights on the snow lit the air with a glow.

“You can move better?” She knew the answer to the question before she even asked it and the look in his eyes promised he understood exactly what she was doing.

“Natalia…”

“Ah-ah!” She held up a finger. “You move better?”

“Yes. It changes nothing—the dancing I did before, lifting…this arm isn’t the same.”

“James, if what you’re saying is true, you haven’t truly danced in over seventy years. Dancing isn’t the same anymore.” It baffled her that they’d never danced. Was Natalia so selfish she’d never asked him? Had she assumed he couldn’t?

He finished the cigarette, then closed his fingers lightly over her gloved hand. “We should go in, your cheeks are red and I don’t want you getting too cold.”

“Nice deflection, Barnes. Not your best work.” What was he avoiding?

Impatience flared in his sigh. “It’s not a deflection. It’s freezing up here.”

“And there’s a heater right below our feet that I know I can feel through my boots and since I’m wearing insulated clothing and you’re not…”

He frowned at her.

“…now, if you are cold…”

“I’m not cold,” he grumbled.

“Good, then we can sit here and I’ll even go make more coffee and bring it back up if you want.” She made as if to stand, but he tugged once. A request for her to stay.

“Natalia—I don’t dance. Not anymore. The—happy-go-lucky idiot who did that, he had no idea how lucky he had it. I’m not that guy.”

“Okay…so Steve isn’t that skinny guy from Brooklyn who never met a fight he couldn’t fall into.”

“No,” James countered. “He’s a bigger lughead from Brooklyn who still hasn’t met a fight he couldn’t fall into.”

She smiled. “I’m not Natalia Romanova anymore. We change. Do you just not want to dance?”

He turned her gloved hand over and frowned. “No, that’s not it.”

“Do you not want to dance with me?” It was a gamble, ridiculous one but…

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“How could dancing with me, hurt me?” That answer didn’t make sense.

“I’m not light on my feet.”

She almost said bullshit but bit the inside of her lip to say nothing.

Finally, he gave her a pained look, “Natalia—I don’t remember how to dance. Not… properly.”

Rising, she tugged on his hand.

“What are you doing?”

“Dancing with you.”

He frowned. “Natalia—the snow?”

Flicking her fingers at him, she raised her eyebrows. “Russian. Next excuse?”

Lips pursed, he narrowed his eyes. “Music?”

She hummed a few bars of Dream a Little Dream of Me as she moved a few steps.

Chin dropping, he murmured, “You’re not going to take no for an answer, are you?”

“If you really don’t want to dance with me,” she told him and then released his hands and began to dance alone, humming the song until she caught the first few bars and danced into the snow.

James stared at her, his lips parted and then he caught her hands and pulled her back to him. “If I step on your feet…”

“You’ll get my boots,” she promised. “Who knows…maybe I’ll step on yours.”

His snort made her grin and she adjusted his hand to clasp hers and then she moved his hand to her waist before settling her free hand on his shoulder and she started humming the song from the top, three slow steps into it and the song began to trickle out of the speakers and he paused a hesitant step then recovered.

Bit by bit, he loosened up as they moved in a slow waltz. When the song segued to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Natasha laughed. “Friday’s getting cheeky.”

“Getting?” James challenged and still moved drawing her closer. “I know this song.”

They drifted with the song and she joined in Ella’s part and James’ smile grew. “Heaven… I’m in heaven and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak and I seem to find the happiness I seek when we’re out together, dancing cheek to cheek.”

“You’re spoiling me, Natalia.”

“Good.” The snow around their feet got shuffled aside as they turned and moved. Nothing fancy, but he drew her close and she pressed her forehead to his chin and followed the simple box step. When he hummed with the song, her smile grew and still the snow kept falling and she couldn’t find it in her to care. Her face was numb but she didn’t want the moment to end.

Sinatra serenaded them and James eased her away and then he spun her out carefully and then drew her back. “Oh, fancy,” she teased.

“Shut up,” he said with a chuckle.

“Never.”

“I love you, Natalia.”

Her smile grew. “I know.”

The answering groan he gave her along with the shake of his head delighted her.

He grew more comfortable with every song, soon they were switching it up and her face ached with smiling. Despite his earlier claim about not being light on his feet—which she’d known was bullshit—he kept her practically floating. Friday continued with the makeshift playlist, until James dipped her and when he lifted her up, she clasped his nape and he locked his gaze on hers. Then he closed the distance, the kiss as light and gentle as the flakes melting on her cheeks.

Slowing, he teased her lips apart and she clung to him, savoring the sweep of his tongue against hers. The way his mouth demanded and gave, it sent heat flaring through her system. Chill evaporating, she sucked on his tongue lightly. He tasted of coffee, tobacco, and snow. He tasted like James and before she was ready, he lifted his head and smiled.

“I love you,” she whispered.

“I know,” he chuckled, then they were moving again.

Friday continued her magical little playlist carrying them through the decades. When Anne Murray’s Danny’s Song came on, tears filled her eyes and James kissed away the first drops. More from the seventies resonated with her and she caught the songs James recognized. A hitch to his step or the way his hand would tighten on her waist.

About halfway through Journey’s Open Arms, the door to the vestibule opened and Steve stared at them. “It’s official, you’re both crazy. Come in out of the freezing cold and dance inside.”

Natasha laughed and hugged James. “But then we couldn’t dance in the snow.”

With a shake of his head, Steve pushed the door wider and carried out two large thermoses with him. James chuckled. “He comes bearing gifts.”

“I came to thaw you out if necessary. How long have you been out here?”

“I don’t know what time it is,” Natasha admitted. Friday turned the music down as Steve handed her one thermos then passed the other to James.

“After five.”

“Oh.” She almost winced. “So—about three and a half hours?”

“Four for me,” James admitted. “You want to go inside now, Doll?”

A part of her didn’t want the magic to end. “A little longer?”

“Stevie—dance with our girl.”

“After she gets some hot coffee into her,” Steve ordered, his eyes a little softer and his smile a little more indulgent. The snow clung to his beard. At least he’d worn a heavier jacket. Natasha caught James’ gaze and raised her eyebrows.

“You and I are far from done, Barnes.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less, Romanova.”

She grinned. “Dancing date?”

“Noted,” he murmured, inclining his head.

Moving closer to the heat, she took a sip of the coffee. It was perfect. From the corner of her eye she caught Steve’s wondering expression he shot to James and James lifted his shoulders, then nodded to her.

No, she wouldn’t tell Steve of the dark dreams chasing James from their bed. Hopefully, they’d chased some of those dreams away. Another drink and she set the thermos down before dancing over to Steve and holding out her gloved hands. “May I have this dance?”

“Pretty sure that’s my line.” He winked.

Friday turned up the music accordingly and James settled back on the bench, a lit cigarette in hand watching as she and Steve danced. Every time her gaze collided with his, he smiled. Yes, the shadows were there but he wasn’t drowning anymore.

She and James had traded leads, now she did it again with Steve. They were getting pretty good at it.

They didn’t go in after one more song. Or another.

She even managed to get James back on his feet for a couple of songs and it was well past six when they stumbled inside with their thermoses. She was warm despite the cold and they had to dust off before they got into the elevator. On Steve’s floor, they split up for showers and she came out in warm pajamas and carried the blanket over to James and eyed him.

When he wrapped her up in it and settled her in his lap, she smiled. Yep, they could definitely exchange leads.

She was still floating when she drifted right back to sleep.

 

~~~

 

A couple of hours later, still yawning, she settled in front of the plate piled with an omelet, bacon, and fried potatoes and toast. Steve and James had taken turns getting food prepped; they’d made a ton of it, too. Peter showed up right on time and Tony arrived, hair in disarray, eyes bloodshot, and a mug of coffee already in his hand.

“Did you forget to go to bed?” She studied him as he settled at the table.

“I went to sleep,” he answered, indirectly avoiding the actual question. He fell asleep in his lab. He started to ask something when a yawn caught him, half-swallowing the words. Peter stared at him askance, before he snickered and settled at the table with his own plate.

“You sure about that?” Peter asked.

“Pretty sure.” Tony couldn’t get more than a syllable or two out before another yawn caught him. He scowled into his coffee then took a deeper drink of it. Steve slid a plate in front of him and Tony stared at it a beat like he couldn’t quite identify the food in front of him or maybe he wasn’t sure how it got there. “I’m awake, right? Food doesn’t just appear because I’m hungry. Friday and I are good, don’t think we’re that good yet.”

“Speak for yourself, Boss. I’m pretty perfect.”

Natasha bit back a smile as Peter smothered a laugh.

After another swallow of coffee, Tony took a bite. He let out a happy sigh and Steve raised her eyebrows at her. It had been a while since she’d seen Tony this out of it. Lack of sleep she understood. Friday hadn’t alerted her to an issue, so chances were Tony got real sleep and maybe slept too deeply.

“You know,” Peter said idly as he speared a fried potato on his fork. “This could all be a dream, you’re still asleep, face down on the worktable—probably using your right arm as a pillow.” Based on the way Tony’s hair stood up slightly, that was a possibility.

Tony blinked at him then slid his glance toward Natasha. When he smirked, it was her turn to raise her brows. “Definitely not a dream,” he said by way of explanation, the playful leer suggesting an entirely different scenario.

Rolling her eyes, she didn’t hide her smile. “Behave and eat.”

“I’m eating—thanks, Steve,” Tony said over his shoulder, then drained his coffee.

“Yep,” Steve told him before eyeing Peter. “Pancakes are coming up.”

“Excellent,” Peter said with a grin.

“They are,” James added. “Finish that and get over here and make ‘em.”

Peter blinked and Natasha chuckled. “You eat here enough, it’s time to learn.”

“Yeah—okay.” He powered through his food fast enough that both she and Tony paused mid-bite. Plate cleared, he stood then washed down the food by finishing the tall glass of orange juice. Bounding up, he headed into the kitchen.

Astonishment slid over Tony’s face as he tracked the kid. “Did you eat it or inhale it?”

“I was hungry,” Peter deflected, shifting his stance.

Steve had just slid an omelet onto his own plate and shook his head. “I’ve been there.”

“Me, too,” James offered in solidarity and Natasha covered her amusement with another bite. Honestly, she could probably eat with the same amount of enthusiasm. Despite the lack of sleep, the time on the roof—dancing with James, talking to him, and then curling up to sleep in his lap for a couple of hours had all buoyed her mood.

As James supervised, Peter whipped the batter up and got to work creating the massive stacks of pancakes the boys would plough through. Steve joined her and Tony at the table, resting his foot against the lower rungs of her chair. When he’d told her he worried she wouldn’t feel the same way about him if she got all her memories back, it had taken a while to truly sink in. But she didn’t disagree with James—remembering who she was wouldn’t alter her memories now.

Clint feared the same thing. Recovering her memories couldn’t alter her past. She was still the woman who left the KGB, Red Room, and Hydra behind in 1984. She’d made her way as a freelance contractor, periodically eliminating the teams sent to reclaim her.

They never sent the Solider after her. Not once in that long decade and a half before Clint found her. So many of those in charge of the programs died between ’84 and ’91.

She’d killed them.

One by one. She hunted them down and exterminated them. She took apart the Red Rooms. Removed any children under their care and if she could save them, she had.

They may not have sent the Soldier because they simply lacked the key personnel to give the directive.

Or maybe they worried she would take out their asset or procure him for herself.

Not recalling who he was to her then and aware of only the emptiness in her own soul? She might have killed him.

The thought soured her stomach and she looked into her nearly empty mug of tea. Steve nudged the chair and she glanced up to find him, Tony, and even James eyeing her with concern. Assuring them with empty platitudes wouldn’t do them any good. So, she lifted a forkful of food and ate it then made a face at them.

It pulled a snort from James and a smirk from Tony, but Steve wouldn’t be so easily assuaged. At the same time, he didn’t push.

“What are we doing today?” Peter asked, cutting a glance from the pancakes he was flipping to the broad windows overlooking the snow-capped city. It was still coming down. Reports indicated airports had already closed and even stores had reluctantly begun announcing that they too would be closed for the morning and they would make decisions about the afternoon later in the day.

The weather reports said afternoons weren’t looking good and the next day either. She hoped Logan and Remy found a good spot to button down. In fact… “Excuse me a sec.”

She headed for her bedroom and plucked her phone off Steve’s side of the bed. After charging it the day before, she’d just—ignored it.

The sheer volume of messages made her cringe, but she tracked down Logan’s number and called it.

Voicemail.

Well, it wasn’t noon yet.

“Hey Logan, it’s me. I wanted to check on you and Remy. Find out if you were still in the city. If you have any problems with a place to stay in the storm, you’re more than welcome to come and stay with me or I can get you into one of my safe houses…” Pausing, she glanced at the closed door and sat on the edge of the bed. “I know I was out of it when you left, but thank you for the photo. Before you handed that to me, I only had some of my sketchy memory to go by and—I can’t tell you what a gift that was. Anyway—if you’re still around, I have my phone back or you can call James as well. Spasibo, malen'kiy dyadya.”

Ending the call, she stared at the phone in her hands. Scrolling through the messages, she pulled up Maria’s message thread and opened it.

 

Maria: Call me.

Maria: Take five minutes off the testosterone train and call me, Nat.

Maria: I get it. You don’t know whether to trust me. Maybe you shouldn’t. I’m on your side.

Maria: When Nick went down—it wasn’t you I didn’t trust. I knew you weren’t involved.

Maria: After—after I thought you’d come find me. You walked away.

Maria: Don’t know why I’m sending this. Rogers & Co just left. You’re missing.

Maria: Still don’t know why I’m sending you a message—except I’m sorry. Maybe I never told you that, but I am really fucking sorry if I’m one of the reasons you walked away in the first place.

Maria: I should learn not to drink and text. Ignore me.

Maria: If you’re not dead—I may kill you myself.

 

Natasha raised her eyebrows at that message, then scrolled down. The first had all arrived during the week she’d been with The Mandarin. That last one was sent Friday, a full week after the party. The next…

After she and Nick had been to the Tower on Sunday.

Maria: I don’t want to do this in a text message. I have marching orders to keep my distance from you. I will. However, I owe you a real explanation for Tahiti, the memory machine, The Guest House, all of it. All of us. I owe you an apology, too. So even if you never want to discuss the above, I’m sorry. I blamed Barton. I think I still blame Barton for always taking you away because I got you by default. That you always chose him, stung. Looking back, I want to say we both made mistakes, but it’s hard to blame you for what you couldn’t possibly have known. I took advantage of it because I wanted it to be real. It felt real. It was real. For me at least.

 

A light knock on the door preceded Steve glancing inside. “You good?”

“Yeah,” she said, closing the messages. “Just wanted to call and check on Logan. Got voicemail.”

He nodded, pushing the door wide at her approach and slipping inside, before closing it. Leaning against the door, he studied her. “I want to suggest something and hear me out, okay?”

Tipping her head to the side, she raised her brows. “Okay.”

“Tony and I are going to shanghai Peter off to do some work, probably end up in a lab talking a mile a minute, but I figure it’ll be time I can work on some sketching, too.”

He could work on his sketches here.

“You and Bucky…”

“Steve—” He held up a hand and she quieted.

“You and Bucky need some time. What I didn’t tell you this morning when I came up to the roof—I was watching the two of you for a few minutes before I opened the door. You both need the time together. Time to talk to just be there to hear or maybe just to play. Fine, if you just end up watching a movie. I know I’m a part of you guys and you aren’t cutting me out—but you’re Mary’s parents, this happened to you and some things… some things are personal, Angel.”

James had seemed so lost up there, he wasn’t wrong. It had—been nice to dance with him.

“Are you just going to be gone for the rest of the day?”

“I don’t know. We can play that by ear—we don’t know when Strange is going to call, or when the next assemble will come in. We know we have to do the Compound and the team. Peter’s here and Peter wants your help, but the storm is going to restrict that. Tony needs time with you, too.”

The last made her blink. “What about you?”

“I found a way to hold you,” he said softly. “That doesn’t make you flinch or sweat or pale. I’m finding a way to take care of you. I’m happy with that…”

“What if I need time with you, too?” The gift of time with James was amazing but…

“Then you have me, whenever you want me.”

She shifted from one foot to the other.

“We’ve got time, Angel. Remember what we said last night? Side-by-side? I want to do this for the two of you, let me take care of Tony and Peter for you so you and Bucky can take care of each other.”

“Tony really doesn’t want to spar today, does he?”

“No, he really doesn’t,” Steve admitted. “From what he said, he had trouble sleeping. He’s also worried about you and you said you were giving yourself a few hours.”

Turning, she snagged the duvet off the bed and dragged it forward. Steve pushed off the door and caught it, then wrapped it around her and pulled her so he could loop his arms around her and tip his face down.

“This what you wanted?”

“Close. I’d rather do it with less clothing and more participation, but right now…”

“Yeah,” Steve murmured, burying his face against her hair and something tight in her went loose at the strength wrapping around her. The firm pressure. “Angel, you may not believe this. In fact, I know you won’t. You’re going to snort, probably roll your eyes and tell me it’s cute that I think this—but you’re an amazing woman. You have always been a survivor, always had to rise above everything done to you and you never see how amazing you are because you are always focused on the next pile you have to muck through.” Leaning away, he stared at her. “You never ask anyone for what you need. You barely know how to ask for what you want. But you have never, ever, stopped trying to be what we need or make sure we get what we want. Taking care of us—taking care of the people around you consumes you even when you should be focused on yourself.”

“You’re right,” she said, blinking away tears before she rolled her eyes. “You are cute that you think that. Steve, I’m just…”

“Perfect,” he whispered. “Perfectly you. No one else can be you, Natasha. No one. You are perfect.”

Her throat clogged and she frowned, but he didn’t let go or make light of it. His intent expression kept her pinned and for the first time, she felt almost too exposed, too vulnerable.

“I see you, Natasha,” he whispered. “You know that, right? You see me. You see me. But I see you, too.”

“Even the ugly bits?” Cause of all the things…

“Nothing about you is ugly to me, Angel. I see the rough bits, the scar tissue, the jagged ends… I see it all. None of it scares me. The only thing I worry about is not being enough for you. Not being able to…”

She pulled her hand from inside the blanket and covered his lips. “You’re perfect.”

His eyes softened then he snorted, after pressing a kiss to her fingers, he leaned away from them and said, “It’s cute that you think that.”

Wrapped up again, she closed her eyes and just leaned into him.

Finally, he took a slow step back, easing the duvet around her until she held it.

“We’ll see you later?”

“Yep.” Steve pressed a kiss to his finger then brushed it against her lips.

“What about family dinner tonight?”

“One step at a time.”

Ten minutes later, he had Peter and Tony in the elevator and they were gone. James leaned against the counter, arms folded and cut a glance at her. “He’s being noble and self-sacrificing.”

“He loves us,” she answered, leaning against the doorframe and studying him. “But I don’t think he’s wrong.”

“No, but we’re not telling him that.” James gave her a firm look. “Not yet, anyway.”

“So…you and me for the rest of the day…”

“Looks like it.” Pushing away from the counter, he motioned to the table. “You want to finish your food?”

Hers was the only plate still there along with a steaming cup of tea.

“Did you guys finish all those pancakes already?” She left the doorframe, crossing over to join him at the table.

“We were hungry,” he teased, tugging out her chair for her and she sat. When he would have circled the table, she nudged out the chair closer to her. “Peter can definitely eat.”

“I’ve seen it—though I’ll admit, I have been known to eat my fair share.”

James grinned. “I’ve cooked for you, too, Natalia. When you were pregnant and we were traveling you wouldn’t eat very much, you were constantly saving food. Always putting aside some, I couldn’t figure out why at first. Even when I found extra, so you would have more, you still saved some and kept it. Did it for a bit at the cabin, too.”

“Meals were a luxury. You had to earn the right to even sit down much less receive food. It was easier to snitch rolls or bits of hard cheese, and keep them for those days when food wasn’t available.” She speared the fried potatoes. “You also should never eat so much a punch to the stomach would make you vomit.”

“Do you still hide food?”

Natasha grinned. “You know I do—you have to have found the protein and candy bars and the…”

“…snack cakes and Twinkies?”

“And vodka,” she said pointing her fork at him. “Though I think they stripped most of what I had hidden on my floor out, probably tossed it in the destruction.”

“You’re keeping it in the shoebox in the back of the closet and you have more in the bottom right drawer of your dresser.” The fact he’d found them didn’t embarrass her.

“How often do you search my room?”

Guilt flushed his face and he shifted forward to lean on his elbows. “I don’t mean to…old habits for scouting a location, knowing where all the weapons are hidden.”

“Fair—but you keep yours so organized it doesn’t require a search.”

James laughed. “But you haven’t searched my room or Steve’s.”

“You sound very sure of that.”

“Natalia—do you trust me?”

It was a simple question and required absolutely no time for her to answer. “Yes.”

“You trust Steve.” This time it wasn’t a question.

“Also yes.”

“Do you have any reason to search our rooms?”

“No.”

“Then you have not searched our rooms.” James propped his chin in his hand as he studied her. The lines of tension around his eyes had eased. Though there was still some red in them.

“That makes me sound fairly predictable,” she murmured, before taking another bite. Though the food had gotten a little cooler, she was still enjoying the crunch of the potatoes. “Not sure what I think about that.”

“It’s us, you don’t mind,” he told her drily. “You don’t have to pretend with us—that’s the part that makes you the most uncomfortable.”

Narrowing her eyes, she said, “Are you trying to provoke me, zvezda moya?”

“Maybe,” he teased. “Or maybe I’m marveling over the fact the woman I love trusts me so completely she doesn’t spy on me. She doesn’t try to figure out what I’m doing when I’m not with her, she doesn’t attach trackers to me and she doesn’t even ask Friday for status reports.”

“Which means you have been checking up on me,” she considered aloud. “Or you’re nursing a secret you’re waiting for me to find.”

“You never know—now that you are going to chew on that thought for a bit, what would you like to do with our day together?”

“You choose,” she told him and he blinked. “You choose. This may not be our date—but I trust you. You choose. Today is about you.”

“Us,” he said. “Today is about us.”

As she took the last bite of her toast, she canted her head. “Okay. I’m following your lead, James. What do you want to do?”

The heat in his eyes promised a great deal. “So much, but how do you feel about going to explore the city?”

She glanced out the window. “You want to go to Brooklyn.” It wasn’t a guess.

“Cobble Hill?”

“It’ll take time…” And they definitely couldn’t take the corvette.

“Friday, do we have access to an all-terrain that can handle this snow?”

“I believe we have a couple of snow vehicles in transport, they were being studied for possible upgrades.”

James glanced at her and her smile grew. A snowmobile? Roving through a shut down city? Excitement threaded through her. Even going out to Brooklyn, to see if the place she remembered might be there.

“We just need one,” he answered, but raised his eyebrows to her in question. Natasha nodded.

“If you will give me a few minutes, I’ll see what I can do. Will you require any other equipment?”

“Heavy snow coats, neoprene masks…” He started to list off.

“I’ve got those, Friday,” Natasha said, rising with her empty plate. At his faint surprise, she snorted. “Please, James. I’m me. Like I wouldn’t have the gear for winter.”

“Fair enough.”

She headed back to her room and pulled out her gear. James arrived a couple of minutes later with his own. She stripped down to her bra and panties, aware of his gaze tracking her every movement.

“If it’s too much…” he began.

Turning slightly—vividly aware of his gaze dipping to her ass—she said, “I like when you watch me.”

“Oh,” he sounded pleased. “In that case… please. Continue. Would you like fresh panties?”

Natasha laughed. “Do you not like these?”

“Oh, I think they’re fine…” But he crossed over to her dresser and opened the drawer. He made a show of perusing the contents. “You have what, a dozen others in here? I have time for you to try them all on.”

Warmth cascaded through her. “Pick a pair and I’ll wear them for you.”

“Deal.” Pleasure coated the word and he pulled out a black lace pair with silver detailing through the crotch. “How are these?”

Comfortable enough. Facing him, she hooked her fingers into the sides of her panties and peeled them down. Stepping out, she crossed to where he stood and said, “Put them on me?”

“Natalia,” he said, his tone a warning. “You do not have…”

“I want to,” she promised him. “Baby steps, right?”

Setting them low, he held the sides as she stepped one foot in and then other. At his angle, he was eye to eye with her abdomen, but his gaze remained on her eyes and she held his gaze as he kept his fingers just away from her until the panties reached her hips. Then carefully, he smoothed the seams before lifting his hands away. Leaning forward, he brushed a kiss to the air just above the scar on her abdomen. It was more the sensation of it than actual contact.

She licked her lips. “There’s a matching bra.”

The smile he wore reached his eyes and he made a twirling motion with his finger. Turning away, she closed her eyes. He carefully unhooked the one she wore and she let it fall down. After she returned to facing him, he rose. He opened the second drawer and pulled out the black and silver brassiere she’d picked up. Despite their styling, they were comfortable. She didn’t care much about how sexy they looked when she wasn’t working, but this was fun.

“You are so beautiful,” he whispered. He held the bra up and she slid her arms into the straps, aware of him as he tucked it carefully against her breasts, then she bent her hands up and back to latch the bra into place while his hands rested on the fabric of the cups, keeping them still. She’d never felt so touched without true contact.

As with her abdomen, he brushed a kiss to air just above silvery scar on her shoulder, the whisper of his breath a caress. As he glanced up, he narrowed his gaze against her lips and she met him partway, not touching, his hands hovering over her skin and hers spread out against the air just above his skin. The kiss, the lightest of touches, took her back to the roof. A second kiss, this one more nipping, then a longer one, a slow sensuous stroke where the only contact was their mouths.

Finally, he leaned away, his eyes heavy but still smiling.

“We’re going to need a lot more than a few minutes to get dressed at this rate.”

“Are you in a hurry?” she asked.

He shook his head slowly and then he reached for his shirt and tugged it off. Natasha drank in the sight of his chest, the taut muscles, the ropes of scars, the battered trail the past had left across him. Slowly, taking her time, she traced her lips just above each one. The pressure of his hands moving over her shape, just gliding in the air.

Every nerve electrified, but even as her skin hummed she treasured the sensation.

It took them an hour to get dressed. An hour to admire and tease the air over each other, only after she slid on her jacket and he hooked it together to zip up did his mouth find hers again and she rose up on her tiptoes, gripping his jacket as he teased her mouth open, slow and soft.

“Ready?” he asked and she let out a shiver, then a nod.

“I almost forgot we were going out.”

He laughed. “We don’t have to—I don’t mind undressing you again.”

Closing her eyes and savoring that image, she said, “So tempting, but you wanted to explore. To move. To see.”

She got it, so did she. Now that he’d brought it up. Escaping into the wintry wilderness sounded divine. To just—get out of here and out of her head. Even if it meant going to find another piece of the past they’d divined.

He grabbed two heavy-duty thermoses, each loaded with fresh hot coffee and they slid into the elevator.

Friday carried them down to the garage level. She had Steve’s dog tags on, tucked under her shirt where she could feel the metal against her skin and Tony’s bracelet was on her wrist. She also had both Glocks in her shoulder holsters, three knives, her stingers, and a garrote.

James was similarly armed. They wanted to go and have fun but being unarmed was just asking for trouble.

She tugged her gloves on as they stepped out. The snowmobile sat waiting for them—three wheels down with the blades raised. She’d seen this kind before, the blades could be dropped once they hit the snow.

“This is a prototype, Friday.”

“Yes, Natasha. Boss said for you to have a good time.”

James held up a hand for her to wait and handed her the thermoses before he circled the vehicle. “Friday, can you give me the specs on this?”

A holo screen appeared and James inspected it then the machine. He went over it thoroughly, taking an extra ten minutes much to her amusement to totally familiarize himself and verify it was safe. It didn’t surprise her, the simple knowledge that her soldat had never let her enter or climb on to any vehicle he hadn’t personally inspected.

She was the same way, but she could trust his judgment as he would trust hers.

They might be paranoid, but at least they got it.

Once he was satisfied, he beckoned for her to join him. He stored the thermoses then tugged her knit cap more firmly over her ears before he lifted the hood, then she pulled up the neoprene to cover her mouth and nose. For a moment, as he strapped his on, she was reminded of the mask he wore when deployed. But the eyes gazing down at her were hot and full of life. Then he slipped a pair of goggles against her face to protect her eyes before he slid on his own. The goggles rested snugly against her face but unlike his previous pair—these were clear and didn’t hide his eyes from her.

“Ready?”

“Oh yes,” she whispered trusting he’d hear her over the comm. “Very much.”

He straddled the machine, then got it started and she climbed on behind him. As she wrapped her arms around him, their jackets insulating the contact, she called, “Keep in mind, I’m going to want to drive this thing later.”

“I have no problems hugging your ass, Doll,” he said over his shoulder, then touched his hand to where hers were locked over his abdomen. “Hold on?”

“Not letting go,” she promised.

Then the garage door opened and he accelerated to exit, they hit the ramp toward the street and the blades dropped and then they were flying across the top of the snow.

It was… glorious.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen

Lyubov Moya

Bucky

 

 

The engine purred more than rumbled as they flew over the snow. The lonely wind howled through the deserted streets. Some cars were parked along the side, buried. They would be in trouble when the plows rolled through. They passed plows on standby, the occasional vehicles for the NYPD and every now and then some intrepid soul out wading through the snow.

He slowed for the first one they spotted and Natalia leaned out to call to them. “Are you all right?”

“Just fine!” The man held up two bags. “My mother’s in this building. Just bringing her stuff and staying in.”

She waved to him and they were off again. Kids—Bucky could have been any one of those kids—were out hosting a snowball fight along one side street, and there were even crooked snowmen with twisted pipes for arms waving as they went past.

Natalia’s laughter at the sight of them—or maybe she’d seen something else that tickled her—was the soothing balm for his soul he hadn’t realized was missing. Neither of them had slept much the night before. It stunned him when she showed up on the roof. It shouldn’t have and yet—she took his breath away, bundled up with her green eyes intent on his every word and movement.

It was no wonder he’d fallen in love with her so many times. Loving her was in his blood. When she’d pulled the sad truth that they had never really danced out of him and he admitted wasn’t even sure he could anymore—a kind of shame infused him. Of all the things they faced, not being able to dance shouldn’t have been something to hold him back.

She’d taught Stevie to dance for the love of God, Natalia would never have judged him if he’d asked for similar lessons. But his fearless girl, she’d reached out to him and pulled him close and then they’d danced in the snow for hours. She didn’t flinch away from the blood on his hands or the darkness in his past.

While their heavy coats and her gloves allowed her, she’d clung to him, moving with him and when they kissed…

But that had nothing on dressing her in the bedroom or how she’d let him graze his hands over her shape or the sensuous way she returned the favor. He’d been harder than a stone before they were finished and they were putting on their clothes, not taking them off.

At the same time, that carnal ache couldn’t compete with escaping from everything and everyone alone, yet together. When Steve first suggested it to him, he’d dismissed it almost immediately but with Natalia sound asleep and curled up against his chest; Buck had turned the idea over in his head.

 

“I’m not offering because I think I’m not welcome,” Steve had said, his gaze on Natalia for a long moment before he met Bucky’s again. “I’m offering because some things are still personal. You and I know that. You need her and she needs you right now. I’ve got these guys; let me do that for you. I’ll take care of them while you two go take care of each other.”

“She might not go for it,” Bucky had murmured, keeping his voice low. But Natalia was deeply asleep, all the stress and pain in her expression erased. Not even her dreams troubled her at the moment and he couldn’t ask for more.

“I think she might… besides, I happen to know you can be persuasive.”

 

Persuasive. Tony and Peter shuttled off to the lab with Steve babysitting—though he’d taken his sketchpad, likely to fill the hours with a new project. Bucky and Natalia were alone on Steve’s floor. While it was cozy, smelled like them, filled with decorations and warm memories, he’d wanted to leave. To get away.

Even with the snow still falling and the drifts piling up, there was something enchanting about the quiet city. Once upon a time, a mission had left them stranded in Siberia, a devastating storm had whited out the world and it had been just the two of them in this tiny one-room cabin. He’d had to shove a huge pipe upward, to make sure they could vent their smoke.

Little food, melting snow for water, and barely enough fuel to warm the room, they’d wrapped up in each other and spent three wondrous days alone. It had been a rare time where he could truly appreciate every inch of her and demonstrate his affection.

As they neared the bridge, he slowed. The FDR had been closed but the bridge access appeared to still be open. Though warning lights were flashing for hazardous conditions. Natalia tapped his shoulder as he stopped the snowmobile. “If we get stuck on the other side,” she reminded him. “We still have my place in Queens.” The comm seemed to enhance the soft rasp of her voice in his ear.

Bucky chuckled. “Don’t worry, Doll. If we get stuck, I’ll make Stevie come pick us up in the quinjet.”

Her huff had him twisting.

“Unless you want to get lost with me?”

Though the mask covered most of her face, her eyes held an element of mischief. “I’ll always want to get lost with you.”

Something deep inside of him settled. Something her kidnapping had dislodged. An old, and deep-seated need to inflict maximum damage lived well beneath the layers where Bucky Barnes and the Soldier met. In some ways, it was both of them and neither of them. It was the same instinct aroused the first time he’d seen her fight. He never questioned the instinct, acting on it instead.

It was that part of him that had been gritting his teeth since she disappeared. The need to kill what hurt her had threatened to overwhelm him at many points; yet looking after the others, grounding himself in the need to protect them had kept that desire in check. Every time she paled, or tensed, or the shadows twisted in her eyes, that dark part of him clenched his fists.

Give him a target to eliminate. He would remove every single one of them. When he told her no one would ever take her child again, he meant it. But removing the ghosts haunting her wasn’t about killing or even violence no matter how provoking. This was about something he couldn’t fight in bloody battle. No, they had to wage a different kind of war.

Natalia’s kind.

He nodded toward the bridge. It never failed to tug at something inside of him when he saw it. The other side of that bridge had once been his home. Now his home had her arms wrapped around him.

“Are you sure you want to go?” She was asking him.

He wanted to see the place they had if it was at all like it had been. There was a solid chance it had changed, the buildings and silhouette, all of it.

And maybe it hadn’t.

“James?” She tilted her head and he searched her eyes.

“I’m sure.”

He squeezed her hands once then patted them against his abdomen as he got them back in motion. The drift as they reached the bridge was impressive. There were plows working on clearing it, so he switched the controls to all-terrain and they went wheels down all the way over with the wind buffeting them from all sides. Natalia’s arms flexed against him, but Tony’s snowmobile didn’t skid once. As soon as they bounced up onto the drift on the other side, the blades dropped and the bounce sent a laugh bubbling out of Natalia.

She tapped him. Then pointed toward the side and he pulled the vehicle over and slowed to a stop. “What?” He glanced at her but she’d slid sideways to look back at the bridge.

When she didn’t answer him immediately, he scanned the bridge and the area behind them. No threats. When she turned back to face him, he studied her expression. “You okay?”

“Trying to put pieces together.”

A dozen things could go wrong if she tried to break a memory block out here. “I want you to remember—but not out here.” The wind blew the snow sideways and it was still falling. It had frosted along her hood, clinging to the edges of her goggles and his. Even the dark neoprene had flakes stuck against the black. If she triggered a memory block and seized? No. Just no.

“I won’t, James. I promise.” The oath settled him but it also gave him pause. Maybe he’d been a little too impulsive in deciding to come out here and find the place she’d taken for her and Mary. He very much wanted to feel a part of it, to feel a part of them, but more to just know.

She settled behind him again and when her arms threaded around his middle, he savored the contact. The layers of insulation helped. They would get there. Every day she would push herself a little further, it was up to them to buffer and let her have that distance without pressuring herself.

Clint had done his part, buying her some time with his family. After the message about Laura wanting to come to her even if Natalia didn’t go to the Compound, James had texted him asking that he let Natalia decide if she were ready for Laura, not the other way around.

They were all on the same page and there was a real chance Strange would show back up that day with his treatment recommendations, then Natalia would be on the phone with Wakanda…

“Hey,” she said, breaking him out of his reverie. “My turn—you okay?”

The words I want to run away with you burned on his tongue. “Worried,” he admitted.

“We’re going to be all right,” she pressed close, her head resting against his. “I’m focused on where we are and who I’m with, nothing else.”

Rubbing her hands gently, he blew out a breath. “All right, hold on!”

Then he revved the motor and they were off again. The machine handled beautifully, he had to give Tony serious credit. The transitions were seamless and despite some uneven terrain at times, they weren’t jolting around.

A little under an hour after leaving the Tower he turned on President Street. Cobble Hill had just been South Brooklyn back in the day. Home to Irish, Italian, and Middle Eastern immigrants, all of them getting by. Their cultures filled these streets, a lot like they had where and he and Stevie had grown up. There were older houses and brownstones filling the area—particularly along President. Some of the brownstones dated back to the 19th century and they were fading grace when the depression held Brooklyn in her fist.

He had no idea when they started calling it Cobble Hill. The street was heavy with snow; cars had all been parked along one side. Lights illuminated the brownstones, but Bucky could almost see it for the past. Some of the brownstones had been refaced. They were pinker or whiter stones. Most of them had a below ground first floor and climbed another four stories to the top. The brownstones were close enough that leaping from roof to roof wouldn’t be a problem.

“There…” Natalia said. “Park there.”

Her gaze was fixed on the third brownstone from the corner. Bucky glided the snowmobile up onto the sidewalk. The purr of the engine prevented it from creating a racket. Natalia was off the back and she sank a full foot into the snow with her first step. Catching her elbow, he pulled her back. Then pulled out snowshoes that Friday had someone hook onto the snowmobile.

Natalia’s laugh was worth all the questions of who did Friday’s bidding with all the tasks she took care of. Then again, she ran Tony’s Iron Legion. Maybe they did it.

It took them a minute to strap on the snowshoes and Natalia walked out into the street, backing so she could stare at the building, then she turned in a slow circle before looking back up.

“Fifth floor?” James asked.

She nodded slowly.

“Where did you keep the go bag?”

The chance that Natalia left anything inside worth breaking in to find was negligible. She would have sanitized the location before she left.

The go bag though?

She pointed to the fourth building.

Catching her hand, he led her between the narrow space separating the two. Sure enough, there was a fire escape, along the back. He leapt and caught the ladder, then pulled it down, they stripped the snowshoes and shouldered them before climbing.

Nothing was going to be there.

But, the act of going to look… it settled something in him and Natalia wasn’t protesting.

On the roof, there was a small table and chairs, half-buried in the snow. There were also a few cigarette butts near the door. They weren’t quite buried which meant someone had been nipping up to smoke. The snow around the door had also been packed down. Natalia made her way past the door to where the bricks formed a hard corner between the hall access and the ridging of the roof itself.

Kneeling, she dug the snow out and shoved it until she revealed a closed grate. She counted three bricks up and then pressed on it. It wiggled a little and she shifted to pull out a knife.

“Let me,” he said, then leaned in and pressed two fingers.

“Gently, it used to be loose.”

Forty years before it might have been, but this time—someone had—wait, there it went. He pushed the brick in and it jostled and then he pulled it out. The one next to it came easier, then the third and fourth until it revealed a small hole, he stretched his arm inside and felt around. When his fingers snagged on a strap, he gripped it.

Natalia stared at him as he pulled the bag out. Even in the gray light of the storm, hope seemed to flare in her eyes but when he lifted the tote out disappointment flickered.

“That’s not our bag.”

“You’re sure?” It didn’t feel heavy enough to be a go bag, but he opened it any way. Within was a weatherproof pouch, sealed shut. Natalia’s expression shifted. She recognized the pouch. Had she stored cash in her go bag? If so, someone may have helped themselves and put these items back. A thoughtful thief. Inside was a small box along with an old paperback. The book—Stranger in a Strange Land looked familiar. He’d read this a long time before. In the box was a collection of—Bucky stared at the sealed comics.

Captain America comics, all of which had Bucky Barnes on the covers—a really shitty version of him in some stupid unitard. He stared at the comics and then the book and then Natalia.

She’d pulled her goggles off and pressed two fingers to her neoprene mask.

“You saved comics about me?”

Those wide green eyes lifted to meet his and there was a torrent of emotion in them. “The book is yours, zvezda moya—read the first page.”

He tucked the comics under his arm then flipped open the first page, it was getting harder even against the building to keep the snow off it.

On the title page was a note.

 

James Buchanan Barnes is alive. Someone should know. He is a stranger in a strange land, but he belongs here. Someday I will bring him home.

 

He’d know Natalia’s clipped penmanship anywhere. All these years, stuck inside the wall. Why just these two items? Had she left them because she didn’t dare take them with her? The faint dilation of her pupils had him snapping the book shut and he gripped her shoulder gently.

“Natalia, focus on me, not the book. Me.”

Her gaze jerked up. “I left this here.”

“You did. We have them.” He closed the box of comics, then opened his coat and shoved the book in an inner pocket and the box against his chest before zipping his jacket closed. “Stay focused on me lyubov moya.”

“I am…I’m not…” She glanced at the other roof. It took him a couple of minutes to put the bricks back into place, before he held out his hand to her. “James I want to go and see if I can go into that apartment.”

“Kotyonok—it’s been forty years…”

“That was there,” she argued. “What if they have more inside?”

“Would you have left anything where someone might have found it when they cleaned the apartment?”

Mutiny flared in those eyes.

“Were the floors carpeted or wooden?” If anything she could have pried up floorboards. He’d done that in enough places.

“Wooden.” It wasn’t a far jump, they could open a door and let themselves in—but it was the middle of a blizzard and if there were people inside…?

“We go down and ring the bell.”

That decided her. When he offered, she clasped his hand. He guided her back to the fire escape. He descended first, keeping his attention on her as she followed him. He jumped the last few feet. When he beckoned she dropped and he caught her. Holding her aloft a moment, he was glad the neoprene made pressing a fierce kiss to her a challenge. She put her snowshoes back on while he lashed his into place before he shoved the ladder back up.

They circled back to the front and Bucky studied the doors, there were steps leading down to a basement door, there had to be three feet of snow drift down there, the steps leading to the front door were much better, but he took the time to kick the snow off each step as he climbed.

Ringing the bell, he considered what they could say. The snowmobile had picked up some snow around it. But even at the rate it was falling, they should have some time.

The curtain on the window next to the door was pulled back and an old—fuck Bucky was probably older than this guy—man stared at them, his eyes narrowed. “You folks lost?” He called through the door but he didn’t open it.

Natalia ripped the neoprene off her face and pushed back the hood. “No—I used to live in this building. Fifth floor.”

He stared at her. “You do realize it’s snowing, lady.”

“Yes, we noticed. I wouldn’t bother but—is there anyway we can just look at that apartment?”

The man stared at her like she’d grown a second head and he still hadn’t opened the door. He turned to answer someone else and then there was a woman, middle age with the first silver strands threading through her dark hair, staring out at them, her curiosity gave way to shock and then the door was unbolted an open.

“Come in, please—don’t mind Jerry he doesn’t know a damn thing.”

“I heard that!” The man bellowed, but he’d retreated to one of the apartments. Bucky followed Natalia inside and they were both dusting off trying to leave as much snow outside as they could.

“I’m Marian—” The name gave Bucky a jolt, but he stripped off his goggles and scanned the woman. The features were wrong and her eyes were brown. Mary Elizabeth had greener eyes. “—Hammond, I manage this building. You’re Natasha Romanoff.”

Hood back, Natalia peeled the knit cap off her head and nodded slowly. “Thank you for letting us in.”

“You used to live in this building?”

“It was a long time ago,” Natalia told her. “A lifetime ago. I stayed here for a short while—fifth floor, 5A.”

“You should remind them it’s damn cold outside, Marian,” the older man called. His tone crotchetier than before if possible.

“They know, Jerry. Go back to your game shows.” Then Marian swept a look from Natalia to Bucky. He’d removed his neoprene mask but she didn’t seem to place him. “That’s Janos apartment—he’s out of town. He travels a lot.”

“I just want to step inside… I won’t touch anything. Do you think it would be a terrible imposition?”

“Ma’am, forgive me, but people don’t take a stroll in a blizzard to just check out an apartment that ain’t even for rent. This is about your mother isn’t it?”

Natalia blinked. “My mother?”

“Yeah, red-headed lady, looked a lot like you—she lived up there when I was a kid. My grandmother was real fond of her. Her and her baby.”

Deathly stillness crept over Natalia.

“They were here for about three months or thereabouts. Can’t believe that the Black Widow’s mother lived here.” The woman shook her head.“Not to mention your skin care regimen.” 

“Three months? You remember her that well?” If something sounded too good to be true, then it probably was. Natalia’s reaction worried him, but this woman’s solicitousness and awareness put him on edge.

“Not hard, I’ve been looking at a face like hers for years…look, come in for a sec and at least warm up. I’ll see if I can reach Janos for permission.” She led them to the stairs heading down to the basement.

“Marian, you shouldn’t be bringing strangers down there,” Jerry yelled.

“They’re friends of the family, Jerry. Bundle up and close your door.”

“Well, why didn’t they say so?” The old man groused then a door slammed shut. Bucky frowned then held an arm out to keep Natalia from immediately following Marian.

Natalia shot him a questioning look, then relented. She was still reeling from Marian’s awkward bombshell. Bucky would take point. They descended the steps to find the door to Marian’s apartment standing open.

She was in the middle of her cozy living room—and by cozy, he meant packed floor to ceiling with books on every available shelf space. She had a sofa and an old comfortable chair where it looked like she spent most of her time. A basket of knitting sat there with a blanket or something on the needles as though they’d been set aside.

The place smelled a bit like lemon polish, dust, onions, and the barest hint of vanilla along with the familiar scent of fresh coffee. A steaming cup of coffee waiting on the side table and the television was on, paused in the middle of some movie.

“Here,” Marian said, motioning to something on one of the shelves. Natalia moved to her slowly and then stared.

Bucky’s heart bottomed out. Natalia sat in the middle of the photograph, her head tilted up as light from a window shone over her and standing in front of her as though caught mid-twirl with her back to the camera was Mary Elizabeth. The glare left Natalia’s face in some shadows. It wasn’t distinct, but Bucky would have recognized her anywhere.

Someone had taken that picture when Natalia wasn’t aware; her whole attention was focused on their daughter.

“Gran took this two days before your mother disappeared…”

Pain struck him.

“She didn’t even realize she had that shot until she got the film developed a few weeks later. Mom said she was beside herself for days.” Marian folded her arms and glanced at Natalia. “You look just like her. Now that I’m standing here—a lot like her.”

“Disappeared?” Bucky prompted because Natalia stared at the photo.

Marian lifted the photo off the wall and handed it to her. “You can take it if you like. Gran passed away a few years ago—but I hadn’t the heart to get rid of it.” Then moving away from them she went to a crowded desk in the corner. “Your mom disappeared around the time of the Brooklyn Heights strangler was active—terrible bit of luck, though worse because Gran didn’t know what happened to her daughter, I guess you. She didn't know what happened to you.”

Natalia turned slowly, the photograph in her hands as Marian went over to the desk. If the woman was fishing, Natalia didn't offer her a cover or anything to fill in the blanks.

“The strangler struck every few weeks between 1968 and 1973—always took women, always about eighteen to twenty-five. He would pick a girl off the street every eight to ten weeks, took a while to realize what he was doing, because the bodies didn’t turn up right away.” She was going through items on her desk. Then shifted a stack of papers to pull out a scrapbook. “Really nasty business, he kept the girls, tortured them for a while, then killed them. Then he’d go out and get more.

“From what investigators put together he was responsible for the known deaths of twelve of these women.” She flipped the book open and there were images of girls—all young women as she’d described. Different facial features and different hair colors. “Tracking his victims was a challenge because he didn’t seem to have a particular type, just age range. When your mother disappeared, Gran had nightmares for weeks thinking he got her. She reported her missing to the police, they investigated…but nothing came of it.”

Marian gave them both an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, I’m rambling on about this—it’s just—I realize she was your mother. Theoretically, she was the last victim.”

“Why do you know so much about this?” Bucky asked.

“Started as morbid curiosity—Gran couldn’t let go what happened to Mrs. Rogers, especially since she had that little girl. Police never turned anything up either. But there were at least fifteen other potential victims that were never found. Gran kept this photo here and I always saw it and—I read a lot. Do a lot of research. Decided I’d write a book about him. Then I decided I wanted to focus on his victims, not on him. Not that we ever knew who he was—kind of like our very own Jack the Ripper, a lot of theories but no real truth.”

Natalia glanced from the photo to Bucky.

If this strangler went after her, Bucky knew exactly what happened to him.

“Now I’ve gone and creeped you out,” Marian sighed.

“It’s fine,” Natalia told her. “Truly and this—photo is beautiful.”

“Would you like some coffee?”

“We can’t stay,” Bucky said abruptly. “You were going to call the resident?”

“You know—I have a key. Let’s just sneak up there real quick. You’re an Avenger, I trust you.”

Natalia frowned. “Some people say I’m a criminal.”

“Well, I don’t listen to those fools on the news. I was born and bred in Brooklyn, you saved our city more than once. Good enough for me.” Her tone said that was the end of that discussion. “Let’s show you that apartment and get you on your way before it gets any crazier out there…”

She led the way up the steps and Natalia let Bucky go first, a fact for which he was profoundly grateful. On the fifth floor, Natalia’s hand lingered on the stair railing.

Marian got the door open and then peeked inside. “Janos?” She glanced at them. “Probably better to check—no, the only light on is that one in the living room. He leaves that on when he goes.” Opening the door wider, she let them in.

Two rooms described the apartment. Unlike Marian’s cluttered space, Janos lived light. He had a futon that likely pulled out into a bed, a chair, a television, a dining table he apparently doubled as a desk, a tidy, but narrow kitchen area and a basically empty second room save for clothes hung in the closet and the full bed.

It smelled a bit musty, but not dirty. Bucky checked the windows. They looked right down on the street where Natalia had pointed up here. She walked around the space slowly.

“There used to be a fold out bed in the wall.”

“Oh, you’re right,” Marian said with a small sigh and thankfully she didn't ask how a baby could remember that. “Renovations in the 80s. Changed out the floors in here too…cost a small fortune but worth it.”

With their audience, it was problematic, but Bucky kept an eye on Natalia. It had been decades, but being back in a familiar setting could trigger her. Though, Marian said she was here for three months, maybe less. The renovations meant even if she’d hidden something under the floor boards, it was likely gone now.

Finally, Natalia came to stand in the middle of the room and blew out a breath. “Thank you, Marian.”

“Sure thing, did you find what you were looking for?”

No. But they found out more. Not that he shared either of those with her. Natalia told her something vague and noncommittal. Bucky examined the space again. He could see his girls here, though he wondered how barren it had been for them.

Natalia made nice with Marian and even signed something for her. When Marian offered her number, Natalia accepted then gave her an email address. Said if she ever needed anything to let her know.

The woman was loath to send them back out into the storm, but Bucky wanted Natalia away from here. They’d done well so far, but this had been—a gamble. He didn’t want to push his luck.

Outside, they made their way back to the snowmobile, he swept it off then went over it before he pulled out a thermos of coffee and handed it to her. She drank down hers, and then he his before they covered up their faces and slid their goggles on. The photo was stored inside her jacket, while he had the books and comics inside his.

Glancing back at her as she settled onto the snowmobile behind him he said, “Did you want to drive going back?”

“No,” she murmured. “You can. I think—I need to think.”

He studied her. “Was I wrong to bring you here?”

Those eyes sharpened as she lifted her head. The snow falling seemed to frame her as she shook her head slowly. “Thank you, James.”

“The Tower?”

“Anywhere you want to go,” she told him.

“Well, I’m thinking the island sounds good, might take a bit to get there on this thing.”

“Sun, surf and me in a bikini?”

“Or out of it,” he said with a grin. “I’m not fussy.”

“Do you I think I killed him?”

“The strangler?” Not that he needed to clarify, but he asked anyway. At her nod, he said, “I wouldn’t be remotely surprised nor would I lose a night of sleep over it.”

“Okay.” Chin lifting, she eyed him. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For coming here—I don’t know if it helped… but there’s something strangely comforting in realizing what I remember is real.”

“I know,” he whispered. It was why he’d had to go to Montana. He’d had to find their cabin. He’d had to know. The mind played tricks way too easily. It was also why he wanted to take her there. Maybe, just maybe, recapture those moments and only those. Give her back those years without the pain and misery of the others in their past.

The engine purred to life and she curled against his back, her thighs against his hips and her face pressed against his coat as she spread her hands over his abdomen.

Had any of this been worth it?

Pressing his hand to hers once, he said, “Hold on.”

Then he accelerated. They skimmed over the snow with only the faintest of jolts to get out the snow drifting against the blades. He angled them back toward the bridge and Manhattan. Christmas trees gleamed in some of the windows they passed. Other homes had signs that said Santa stop here and some boasted a menorah in their windows.

Life went on.

Theirs.

His.

Hers.

Now ours.

His phone buzzed in his pocket not long after they got off the bridge, he slowed and found a spot to pull over. What few people they’d seen earlier seemed completely absent now, just the occasional plow. Even the police seemed to have gone to find shelter.

Natalia glanced at him as he pulled out his phone.

 

Tony: Friday said you’ve stopped in Brooklyn a while. All good?

Tony: You’re moving again. Storm’s predicted to get worse. Let us know if you need a pick up.

 

Steve: Storm’s getting worse. Power outages are being reported. We’re delivering generators to area hospitals. Send word if you need a pickup.

 

Clint: Steve told me you and Nat are hunkering down for a bit. Laura still wants to see her, think she’ll be up for the Compound? I know they’d love to see all of you and you wanted to talk.

 

He glanced at her and held out his phone so she could read. “Up to you, Doll.”

“Maybe for dinner,” she said. “Not right now—can it just be you and me, right now?”

“Yes, it can,” he said, sending acknowledgments, then shutting the screen off and putting it back in his pocket. It took another thirty minutes to get through most of Midtown and another ten to swing into Columbus Circle. If the storm was going to get worse—it was going to be a mess.

The sooner he got her back inside, the better.

 

 

~~~

 

A quick shower and a change of clothes later had helped erase some of the chill from his bones. The snowmobile had been a fun ride. Friday informed them on arrival that Tony, Steve, and Peter were still out delivering generators and additional power cells. Also, the storm in the city had reached the Compound, but everyone was fine. However Lila Barton had sent a private message to her Auntie Nat.

Natalia said she would listen after she warmed up. Despite being bundled, her cheeks were pink from the cold and her lips bitten and a little chapped. He fixed her a pot of tea and debated adding vodka to it as he had the night before. Instead, he put the vodka bottle and a couple of glasses on the tray along with the teapot, mugs and then put together some sandwiches.

Carrying all of it to her room, he knocked lightly and waited for her call to come in before he nudged the door wide. Natalia wasn’t in the bedroom.

“I decided to take a bath,” she said. The faint bubbling from the jets was audible.

Tray balanced, he nudged open the door to the bathroom. Natalia leaned against the side of the tub, her arms folded and her chin on them as the rest of her floated with the water. She’d pinned her hair up and the bathroom was warm, Friday had likely turned up the heat.

“Well I brought you tea,” he told her unnecessarily and she grinned.

“And vodka.”

“It does warm a body up.” He set the tray down on the ledge next to the bathtub. Their recovered treasures he’d left in the living room for now. Dragging a chair from the vanity over, he poured her tea and watched with approval as she reached for one of the sandwiches as she sat up. The water glided over her skin and she was pink and flushed everywhere.

“I’m pretty warm,” she admitted, absolutely unabashed but then her own nudity had never meant much to her and he was content to just enjoy the air of relaxation she currently boasted.

“Good,” he said, then nodded to the vodka. “In the tea or on its own?”

“Hmm… in the tea.”

With a nod, he added a measure then offered her the mug.

“Do you want to join me?” She glanced at the bathtub.

“Yes, but you’re not ready for that yet.” Always pushing his Natalia, always pushing to overcome that which set her back.

She made a face, but didn’t argue.

“Do you want to talk about it?” It was just barely afternoon, despite the trip, they hadn’t been gone as long as it felt.

“I don’t know what I feel at the moment. That memory is so new and to see it so different when it feels like yesterday.”

That was another problem. One he recognized and had shared when those first memories swamped him. The time elapsed faded away making decades ago seem like days. “You chose a good spot for yourselves, close enough to get to Manhattan, far enough away to disappear amongst the locals.” Hiding in plain sight.

It did a funny thing to his heart when she’d mentioned going to Brooklyn in the nineties to be out of sight for a while. It was where she learned to make pizza. The accents, she’d told him, brought her comfort. It was easy to assume that was because of him, not that she’d offered any other explanation. But maybe it was also because that was where she’d been with Mary Elizabeth.

Natalia nudged the second sandwich and eyed him. He poured himself some tea and then picked up the sandwich and made a face. Her sudden smile was worth it. “Would you like me to bake today?”

He raised his eyebrows. “I’ll never say no, Doll. But you don’t have to.”

“I know…but it’s relaxing. I thought about going to dance after the bath, but then I was thinking about the pirozhkis and the hot apple stuffed croissants.”

His stomach let out a grumbling growl and Natalia’s expression transformed to pleased. “Again, not saying no.”

“Then maybe we could dance some more while it baked?”

“Doll,” he sighed. “Why are you pushing yourself so hard?”

“Because I miss you,” she said. “I won’t be controlled by anyone, not even this stupid physiological reaction.”

“You’re not being controlled by it,” he argued but she wrinkled her nose. Frowning, he reached out with his left hand and tucked a finger under her chin to lift her gaze. It was the barest of touches, but he held his hand steady as she looked at him. Her pupils constricted and her breathing turned a little sharper and shallower. “Natalia, lyubov moya, you will be good to yourself or so help me…”

“Going to spank me zvezda moya?” The tease in her words sent a bolt of lust right through him, but he locked it down. She wanted to play with fire, to provoke reactions in both of them and force herself to step beyond what her body and mind demanded.

“Only if you ask me nicely,” he dared.

Instead of being annoyed, she merely raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t have to ask that one night.”

No, she hadn’t. The feel of her under his hands and how beautifully she’d just surrendered everything to him? No, she hadn’t. “If I drag you out of that bath and pin you to the bed and eat you out until you can’t see straight, will that help?”

Her pupils dilated and she shifted, but her breathing—no, her breathing she continued to force but couldn’t get it deeper than those sharp, short breaths. The longer he kept his finger there, metal or not, the more she reacted to the contact.

“James…”

“I’m here,” he promised. “I’m not going anywhere. Stop forcing yourself. I hate that.” No sooner did the words leave him than the truth of it struck and rather than waiting for her to finally pull away, he let his hand fall from her face. “Natalia, I have hated every minute of every moment you have had to force yourself to endure a touch you did not want. Please don’t make me watch you do it with me.”

Her expression fell and she leaned away from the edge. “I’m sorry…”

“No, you do not have to apologize.” Never to him. “You don’t know what that was like for me. I suppressed it as ruthlessly as I could, but when those marks were mine to deal with after, I took no small amount of pleasure in erasing them.” Maybe that should bring some shame or even remorse, but he didn’t have it in him. Too often those men abused her atop everything else and she had to let them because it was the mission.

Knowing she was more than capable of killing them at any time and yet she endured the blows had always added an edge to his frustration. Though she had far more unsavory assignments…

“Don’t think about them,” Natalia told him, pulling him to the present.

“That is easier said than…”

“No, James. That’s not what I meant. The marks, they were never people—they could never touch me. Not…not the way you’re thinking.”

This was not a subject they needed to wade into and yet he’d been the one to bring it up. “I know you took no pleasure in it.”

Natalia laughed, actually laughed. The rich, husky sound of it held true humor. “Not even a little,” she told him. Sandwich finished, she drank down the tea, then moved back to the edge, arms crossed so she could float and rest her chin on her arms. “You and I have never talked about this part before, have we?”

“No.” He didn’t want to talk about it now.

“Do you want to understand it better?”

Not particularly. “Is there something I’m not understanding?”

“James…I may not remember us—not the way you do. I may not remember that first kiss or the first time you and I…”

“It was in a corner of your dance studio,” he told her abruptly and she raised her eyebrows. Heat flushed his cheeks. “You had been dancing for an hour and this was not long after you’d stood naked under that shower and invited me to join you. You finished your last movement and reached for a towel. There was—something in your eyes when you looked at me—a defiance. And you said, ‘Tomorrow, I am to go to the Kremlin to deal with a minister who has been asking too many questions. There will be no dance for you tomorrow.’”

James shook his head; she’d been prepared for something. Looking back, he thought she might have wanted him to intervene and forbid her going. While he exerted tremendous power since she’d been assigned to train with him, he needed solid reasons to contravene Madame. It would be some time before their successes gave him the latitude he needed.

“’You will do well,’ I told you. I would expect nothing less. Then you rolled your eyes at me and called me a useless bear. The words weren’t an insult, but the tone?” Suddenly, he chuckled. “You flicked your fingers at me, like warding away a bad spirit and then turned your back. I didn’t get it. The Soldier had done nothing wrong. You were more than ready for a mission, even with security, you would have no trouble. It would have been an insult for me to presume otherwise.”

Natalia stared up at him, teeth worrying at her lower lip but her expression intrigued. “You’re right,” she assured him. “I would not have liked you to doubt my skills—to be honest…”

“Yes, I know,” he said drily. “You still don’t care for it. I’m protective. Deal with it.”

She snorted. “Anyway—I turned my back on you...”

He drained his tea and then motioned to the mugs to see if she wanted more. When she shook her head, he uncapped the vodka. “I was… disgruntled with the idea you were angry with me when I didn’t know what I’d done.”

“I’m sensing a trend…James…I didn’t manipulate you, did I? Using your emotions against you?” Genuine disgust filled her eyes and he shook his head swiftly.

“No, Natalia. I watched you manipulate others enough to know you didn’t. If anything, you were more careless with me, but only when we were alone. When you could be yourself.”

She closed her eyes and blew out a breath. “That—I don’t get angry, it benefits no one and it compromises cognitive reasoning.”

“It also betrays emotional attachment, since the Soldier had the emotional depth of a teaspoon, he didn’t understand what that meant.”

“James!” She sat up.

“What?” He shrugged. “It’s true. I was—a babe in the woods, a machine, that kept faltering because I didn’t understand my feelings where you were concerned, much less how to communicate them.”

“Yet you managed to captivate the deadliest woman in Russia and held her interest for decades. I do believe that requires more emotional depth than a teaspoon.”

“I didn’t say we were blind,” he retorted. “I certainly brought the fact I could beat you in a fight into the mix. You always were challenged by what you could not control. Even if you had me in your fist from the beginning.”

She snorted. “Get on with it, Barnes…you’re delaying the good stuff.”

The playfulness alone would have urged him to continue, but the fact all trace of the earlier tension in her eyes had faded had him leaning forward as he filled both glasses.

Handing her one, he held up his, “You walked away and I crossed the floor, I was moving before I even realized what I intended. I grasped your shoulder, you caught my wrist. Then you used my own momentum and flipped me, but I pulled you down and we grappled. Then I had you pinned…” The memory turned over in his mind, he could see it as if it were happening right now. “You stared up at me, eyebrows raised and said, ‘Well, Soldat?’”

Natalia raised her brows, straightening a little as she waited. “You kissed me?”

“I kissed you. Though arguably, you could have kissed me. But we kissed and it was—hot and angry and twisted me up in a way I had never experienced before. You turned the Soldier inside out.” He chuckled and tapped his glass to hers. “I was yours, had been, but I didn’t understand it. But after that…”

“You didn’t want me to go.”

“No,” he said before he tossed back the full measure of the vodka. It was warm as it slid through his system. But Natalia was right, it took far more than that to really dull anything. “I did not. The next three days were hell.”

She bit back a smile. “Were you waiting for me when I returned?”

“Yes,” he almost growled the words. “You just sauntered in like you hadn’t been gone at al