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Old Flame

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“So who am I looking for?”

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

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

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

Steve nodded, risking a glance behind him.

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

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

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

The glare Steve gave her spoke for itself.

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

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

“Sure. Young? Old? Accent?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could use a coffee. You?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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