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half awake in a fake empire

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Natasha Romanoff is a lot of things. What she is not, however, is idle.

The first day after Banner goes off the grid, she goes running. The second day, she flies to Iowa for 24 hours and surprises Clint by taking him to a nearby gun range. The third day, she loses herself in filing reports and forgets to eat until a hand slams down beside her, followed by a plate with a sad looking scone and a large coffee.

“I remember how to get myself food,” she all but growls before shooting Steve Rogers an offended look. He shrugs.

“Wouldn’t know it.”

Natasha glares again as he walks away but snatches the coffee as soon as he’s out of range, sipping too fast on the abnormally hot liquid as her phone beeps incessantly beside her.

Laura’s finally home from the hospital, got pic 4 u.

Nathaniel Pietro Barton looks exactly the same as Clint did when he was seven days old, so far as Natasha can tell from what she remembers of the baby pictures she’d found at the house -- round faced and blonde haired and blue-eyed, with the slightest hint of a scowl hiding behind incredibly tiny lips. She lets a brief smile flit across her face.

“Cute,” she mutters to herself, before typing the same response on the keypad. Five minutes pass, and then there’s another beep.

Call u later, because he will, because that’s Clint. Barton family Skype sessions were always a long and crowded affair, though she would be lying to say she didn’t look forward to them. Natasha closes the file on Sokovia and takes another sip of coffee and stares out the window, and her stomach rolls as if the city she’s standing on is flying all over again.

 

***

 

“We’ve got Wanda,” Steve announces the next day while making breakfast in the large shared break room. Natasha nods.

“Good,” she says shortly, though she’s more relieved than she wants to admit. Rhodey, Sam and Vision had been easy enough recruits; Wanda, despite her willingness to help and her tough front, had been less easy to convince. In a way, Natasha felt like she understood. Her and Clint weren’t bound by blood and they hadn’t grown up together, not in that way. But fighting without him by her side -- even when it was something that was forced upon her -- felt very much like losing a limb. She wonders if Steve remembers the fact that she came very close to turning down their brief partnership because of that fact.

“She said she wants to see you, when you’re ready.”

“I’m always ready.” Natasha squares her shoulders against nothing and Steve gives her a look.

“Don’t think I can’t see through your fronts, Romanoff.”

“My fronts are perfectly intact, Rogers.” In all honesty, she wishes people would stop thinking she was moping, hung up on Banner because he had left her. As disappointing as it had been to open herself up and have that vulnerability fall on deaf ears, it was less about the man who turned green and more about the fact that he represented another lost mission, maybe one that was a little more personal than the rest. Either way, Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, absolutely hated to lose.

Steve shoves half a bagel in the toaster. “I’m doing another sweep with Sam this afternoon. Take the sparring session while I’m out, okay?”

Natasha nods. It’s not entirely worth it to call Steve out for doing the exact same thing he routinely accuses her of doing -- the difference in their situations, Natasha knows, is that his missing guy was a hell of a lot easier to find, so long as he stayed in one place with enough time for someone to pin him down.

“If you’re not back by dinner, I’m going to make Wanda hex your food,” she says conversationally, taking a sip of coffee and immediately making a face. Too strong, too bland. Clint always knew how to make coffee correctly, even if he couldn’t stand up straight.

“Low blow, Natasha. And sorry,” he says, nodding towards her cup. “We clearly haven’t perfected the Barton recipe yet.”

“Clearly.” She grabs a cereal bar from the cupboard and heads towards the elevator, taking it three floors down to the level that holds the facility’s living quarters, slowing to a stop outside of Wanda’s designated room. Natasha knocks gently.

“Come in,” Wanda says carefully, the cautious tone accented by her Sokovian lilt that Natasha sometimes thinks reminds her too much of her own roots. She pushes open the door, smiling slightly.

“Heard you accepted the Avengers oath,” she says by way of greeting, putting her coffee down. Wanda looks over at the cup, then back up at Natasha, and nods slowly.

“It seemed like the right thing to do. I want to fight.”

“Good,” Natasha says, crossing her arms. She finds the other woman’s eyes. “Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Yes,” she says, and Natasha waits while Wanda waves her hand. For a brief second, she expects to see the flash of trademark red sparks, but Wanda simply lets her hand fall onto the empty space next to her and Natasha recognizes it as an invitation to sit down.

“I wanted to talk to you about Agent Barton,” she says as Natasha sticks her legs out, biting down on the rebuttal that there is no “agent,” really, that there hadn’t been for over a year now. For as much as Fury had resurrected the Helicarrier, dug up the bare bones of SHIELD in hopes of rebuilding it into something that could at least provide minimal support, it was hard to remember that they belonged to any kind of organization when there was no real agency to ground them in the way that they were used to having for so many years.

“What about Barton?” Natasha looks straight ahead. The window is cracked open slightly, rays of sun streaming in through the blinds.

“I want to know if he’ll be fighting with us,” Wanda says and Natasha twists her head to one side.

“He wants to.”

“Wanting and doing are two different things,” Wanda points out, as if she can see through the vague response, and Natasha sighs.

“His wife just had a baby. He’s been away from his family. He --” She bites down on the next words, electing not to say them out loud. “He needs time for himself, and then he’ll be back.”

Wanda looks up. “You were going to say something. About my brother.” Natasha feels the air leave her body as sadness bleeds through Wanda’s voice.

“He’s not going to refuse to fight because of what happened, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she says finally. “If you need to know anything about Clint, it’s that what your brother did will make him more willing to fight, not less.”

Wanda puts her fingers together in a triangle and suddenly looks very small. “In Sokovia, before…him, there was a couple that took us in after our parents died. Their own child was fighting in the war and I think they wanted the chance to help someone else.”

“How long did you stay there?” Natasha asks curiously, putting her chin in her hands. There’s something almost enticing about the way Wanda shares her stories that, again, reminds Natasha of herself -- a fragile kind of narration, one that isn’t easily earned unless you trust the person you’re talking to. She rubs a foot against the floor.

“Not too long. We ran away after…it was hard for us to stay in one place, we never felt very safe.” She takes a breath. “I did not understand what kind of person would make a sacrifice at the expense of someone they loved. I saw how much it hurt. But now I do understand, I think.”

Natasha swallows down a mixture of dread and fear. I do understand love, but I don’t understand what kind of person would sacrifice themselves for someone they barely know Natasha had told Clint once, sitting next to a hospital bed, a collection of beeping monitors and breathing machines as her soundtrack to the two days spent by his side. He had survived that particular bullet, along with many others, but the magnitude of the situation never failed to stand out in Natasha’s mind even as other missions and life experiences came and went.

“I’m running the sparring session today,” she says as she rocks to her feet. “You’re welcome to come if you feel up to it. If you’d rather wait until tomorrow, Rogers will be back.”

“Thank you,” Wanda says, offering a small smile. “But I think I would like to train with you today, if you don’t mind.”

 

***

 

Later that night, Natasha goes to the roof and stretches out on top of the facility, counting the beginnings of stars dotting the sky before sitting up and opening her computer.

“About time,” Clint says when he answers her call. Or at least that’s what she thinks he says, given that he’s in the middle of chewing with half his mouth full of food.

“Sorry,” Natasha apologizes, pulling the laptop over her knees. “Rogers took some time off today so I had to pick up half the training…what the hell are you eating?”

“What, this?” He gestures to his mouth as he swallows. “Leftover mac and cheese. I swear, the kids eat like crap when you’re not here.”

“I highly doubt that,” Natasha says dryly. “Your wife is not exactly a proponent of Poptarts for breakfast.”

“Try having a newborn and see how much energy you have to cook,” Clint grouses, wrestling Lila into his arms and placing her on his knee. “Hey, Lila, say hi to Auntie Nat.”

“Hi, Auntie Nat!” Tiny hands wave at the camera before Natasha’s met with half of an eyeball and a partial pigtail. “Are you coming to see the baby soon?”

“Soon enough,” Natasha says with a smile. “Let me talk to your daddy for awhile, okay?”

Clint turns his daughter loose and maneuvers his way back towards the camera, his brow creasing as he leans a little too closely into the frame. “So what’s up?”

“A lot,” she admits. “The Maximoff girl is officially in. Rogers is looking for the Winter Soldier, taking Wilson with him. Banner’s still MIA.”

“Ah,” Clint says, and she sees the way his eyes are narrowing, as if he’s trying to read her face through the screen the same way he does when they’re in front of each other. “Do you need to me come back?”

“Eventually,” she says, because it’s not her place to be selfish now, to tell him that she needs him back for comfort’s sake more than anything else. She has half a mind to ask if they need a babysitter soon, because this whole sitting around, pretending to be needed when she’s not really sure if or when she’ll be needed is getting a little old. “I don’t want you to leave before you’re ready.”

“You know I’m ready whenever you need me to be,” Clint says seriously. Natasha feels her stomach flop more at that because she knows it’s the truth, which makes her feel even guiltier about the baby sleeping in his farmhouse.

“I know. And I trust that you’ll know when to come back,” she says when she finds her voice. “But I’m okay, now. I’ve got people here.”

“Last I checked, Rogers wasn’t exactly the sentimental type,” Clint responds. Natasha rolls her eyes.

“He does okay when he tries. He’s not you, but no one is.” She stops herself before she can continue because it’s not a conversation worth having right now, when everything is still in flux in both of their lives. Clint sighs.

“I love you.”

“Yeah, I know.” She remembers how strange she felt the first time Clint told her that, because she knew about Laura, and she knew that Clint loved Laura, and it felt like she was doing what she did in her old life: invading something with the intention of destroying it. And then the fifth time that Clint almost died because of something that Natasha was threatened by, Natasha felt like she finally understood what Clint meant when he said I love you, and why it was different than him telling his wife I love you.

“Here, you wanna see the baby?” Clint asks, wisely changing the subject almost seamlessly before silence can take over. He doesn’t bother to wait for a response and Natasha takes a bumpy ride up the stairs as Clint jostles the laptop in between his hands. She finds that she can’t control her grin when she sees the small bundle curled up in the crib.

“He’s fat.”

“Awesome. Thanks for that.”

“Just telling you the truth,” she says with a shrug. “He looks like you.” Clint snorts, turning the computer around.

“Laura said the same thing. Let’s hope at least that he didn’t inherit my resting face.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “Let’s hope.”

 

***

 

Steve spends more than a day in parts of Brooklyn he’d rather like to forget, though really, only the buildings are familiar to him and even then, he doubts that the insides of them would be the same as they were in 1940. The landscape is different enough, the parks he used to play in replaced by bigger, more ornate buildings that look like they have no business being anywhere across the river, and the disparity of the whole thing makes him feel a little wistful and also a little sad.

Sam’s lead is a man who works in a deli under DUMBO, an immigrant with broken English who describes seeing an unkempt man in threadbare clothing, who kept what looked like “a fake limb” underwraps while stealing a few candy bars.

“He looted, but I let go, because I afraid,” he tells them in broken English, waving his hands, and Steve has a moment of trying to pull himself back from visibly reacting, remembering his fight on the helicarrier. Bucky, for all that he had saved him when he could’ve let him die, was still dangerous, and there was no way he could refute that until he could prove otherwise.

“I’m starting to think that maybe this guy is a ghost after all,” Sam says as they walk down the street. “I mean, if we hadn’t seen him and fought with him and all that…I’d believe those stories, y’know?”

“You believed the stories about me,” Steve reminds him as they turn down another block. Following cold trails doesn’t help much with his mood and by the time Sam drives him back to the facility, he feels like he wants to punch a wall.

“From that look, I can tell there’s still nothing affordable in Brooklyn,” Natasha deadpans when she meets him in the hallway, falling into step beside him. Steve grits his teeth.

“Nothing,” he says shortly and he tries to keep his tone level but he knows she can tell he’s frustrated. “Trail went cold about four hours after we arrived. No bread crumbs for us to even follow. The only thing we know is that he’s still out there, or he wouldn’t have given us anything to find in the first place.”

“Okay.” Natasha frowns. “Well, maybe he just needs space. Maybe he wasn’t ready to be found yet.”

Steve shakes his head. “I know Bucky. I knew Bucky,” he says after another moment, and it hurts him to say the words out loud. “If he wants to be found, then he wants to be found. This is him leading us on for some reason, and I don’t know if Hydra’s behind it or not.”

“Hydra’s dead,” Natasha tells him, although he can tell she’s not exactly sure about that herself. Strucker hadn’t been the end-all-be-all of the organization by any means and besides, cut off one head, two more will take its place. But according to reports from Fury and Hill, most operating bases and groups had been stamped out at this point, even the ones hidden so far below the radar that the most careful analysts would miss them.

“We’ll find him,” she continues. “Wherever he is, he’s at least trying to reach out, right?”

“I don’t know if I’d call looting a convenience store reaching out,” Steve mutters, turning around at the elevator. “But that’s what worries me. What if he breaks his conditioning and then something happens to him? Or what if he can’t?”

“You always can,” Natasha says a little sharply and he cringes inwardly at the change in her gaze. Normally he’s better than this -- normally, he doesn’t forget that she went through the same exact thing, albeit years earlier. Normally, he doesn’t forget she shares a past with a ghost. Steve swallows.

“I’m sorry,” he says, the barest form of an apology he feels he can manage at the moment, and she sighs.

“Forget it. I’ll tell the others you’re back. You missed a good session, by the way.”

“Yeah?” Steve looks up, suddenly feeling a little wistful. “The Maximoff girl, she’s okay?”

“She’s great,” Natasha says. “Fits in nicely. Needs to learn how to control her powers, but that’s something we can help her with.”

“And she’s not…”

“No,” Natasha says, crossing her arms resolutely. “And I’ll take care of that, if it comes to it.”

Steve nods. “Right. Good work, Romanoff.”

“Get some sleep, Rogers.”

 

***

 

Natasha crawls into bed after showering and closes her eyes, but despite the ache in her bones and the fact she’s done nothing but push herself all day, she can’t seem to make herself tired. It’s part of a larger problem, she knows, though accepting that fact doesn’t do much to help the overwhelming insomnia. Five minutes of tossing and turning later, she knows that sleep won’t come easy, if at all, which is somehow even more annoying than knowing she’ll be probably be exhausted tomorrow.

“What are you doing up?” she asks curiously when she enters the kitchenette that all the floors share and finds another person already sitting at the small table. Wanda shrugs, hunching over a little further as dark hair falls around her face.

“It is hard for me to sleep,” she admits. “Especially now. This place, it is nice, but it does not feel like home.”

“No,” Natasha acknowledges. “It doesn’t.” Nothing feels like home, really, except Clint’s farm and maybe her own place that she keeps back in Manhattan. She sits down and rubs at her temple.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” Natasha says easily, raising her head. Wanda’s looking at her with expectant eyes, her face a mask of curiosity.

“Where is Captain Rogers going? I saw him leave this morning.”

Natasha hesitates and considers lying before deciding it doesn’t matter. “He’s going to look for his friend,” she answers, knocking her nails against the table. “He was…compromised. A long time ago. And he came back recently, but he wasn’t himself.”

“Hydra.”

Natasha presses her lips together. “Yeah. Kind of.” She’s not really sure how much she’s supposed to reveal about the Winter Soldier; it’s not exactly her place to share his history or for that matter, her history, much less the things he’d done that he had no control over.

“I do not expect you to tell me everything,” Wanda says suddenly and Natasha wonders if her ability to look inside someone’s head extends further than just sticking her hands in their brain. “I guess I just want to know who I’m fighting for.”

“Us,” Natasha says automatically, leaning back in her chair. “Isn’t that enough?” As she says the words, she knows that even she sounds a little too manufactured, using lines like the ones Clint tried to feed her when they had their first missions together, when Natasha spent too much time trying to understand the rationale behind why they did the things that they did. But Wanda looks thoughtful, and placated, and nods.

“Yes,” she decides simply. “For me, it is enough.”

 

***

 

Turns out, Steve can’t sleep either. And, well, Natasha doesn’t exactly mean to stay awake after Wanda decides to try to get back to bed, but she suddenly finds herself two floors below and somewhere near the back door that leads to a terrace often used for training (all those people who can fly, she thinks sometimes, feeling only a little bitter about being grounded). She’s slightly disappointed to find that the space that she’s mentally carved out for herself is already being taken up by a larger body, a broad set of shoulders and long legs.

“You’re thinking,” says Natasha as she comes up behind him. Steve turns and smiles wanly.

“I do that sometimes.”

“I know you do,” she says, joining him on the ledge. “Because I’ve seen it first hand. So you wanna tell me what you’re thinking about?” She can figure it out, but years and months have taught her that sometimes it’s better not to assume things about what people are feeling, no matter how keenly she can observe their thoughts underneath their facades. Steve sighs.

“You already know. You wanna tell me what you’re thinking about?”

She gives him a look. “I thought we were done with this game.”

“We can be.” He picks up his sketchpad. “How’s Barton?”

“You sound like Wanda,” Natasha says, making a face. “He’s got a baby. The world didn’t end. He’s not dead. He’s doing fine, I’d imagine.”

“And you?”

That one’s not as easy to answer, and Natasha knows she could just as easily throw it back to him. She won’t, though, because she’s had enough confessions and honest conversations for one night.

“I’m fine.”

Steve gives her a sidelong glance, trailing his pencil across a piece of paper. “You know, every night after my parents died, Bucky would come over. I didn’t ask him to, but he had a key, so he’d just let himself in whenever he wanted. If I was sleeping, he’d sleep on the floor so he’d be there when I woke up. If I wasn’t, he’d sit down and ask me if I was okay. Didn’t need to really hear the truth, either way. Didn’t care.”

“I see.” She puts her hands against the cool tile of the floor of the landing pad. “Did that help?”

Steve shrugs. “Yeah, actually, it did. Made me feel like I wasn’t entirely alone. I thought I wanted to be, but kind of realized it’s a lonely world if you don’t let anyone else in.”

Natasha smiles tightly at that, and closes her eyes.

 

***

 

Five days later, Natasha is sitting cross-legged on the floor of her room, shoveling cereal into her mouth as compensation for a late breakfast when a shadow falls over her legs, casting a dark ring around the bowl. She looks up quizzically and she doesn’t have to ask if something is wrong, the fact that Steve has walked in without speaking and looks like he’s trying to fight the urge to scream tells her something is either very wrong or not wrong enough.

“Sam found him,” and she feels her breath hitch in her throat, a noise escaping that sounds like a wounded animal.

“Where?”

Steve’s eyes are glazed over, fixated on something in the distance. He exhales slowly. “About thirty miles from here, if you can believe that. An abandoned gas station near the highway.”

Natasha swallows, making sure her voice is steady before asking the next question. “Is he alive?”

Steve shakes his head. Natasha has no idea if that means yes or no, and almost doesn’t want to ask. “Sam just said to get there,” he says slowly as Natasha gets up from the floor.

“Okay. So you should go, then. Go find him.”

“I will.” He balls his hands into tight fists and Natasha wants to ask him why he’s standing there, as if he’s trying to ask permission for the very thing he’s already planning on doing.

“You said Sam’s with him, right? So he’s not alone. He’d tell you if there was anything else wrong.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. He takes a breath. “Are you okay here?”

“What kind of a question is that?” Natasha asks bluntly. “I can hold my own. And if I need help, I’ll call Barton. Besides.” She glances towards the hallway. “We’ve got work to do.”

“No kidding,” Steve snorts. “They’re still not the 27 Yankees.”

“I’m beginning to think that even the 27 Yankees are a bit of a stretch.” Natasha pauses. “They have a lot of potential, though. And they’ve already all fought together. At least they trust each other...that’s more than I could say for us once upon a time.”

Steve catches her eye and Natasha smiles sadly. The truth of it all was that she had been on the outskirts of that equation, more concerned with Clint’s well-being than anything else, except when it came time to doing the job that would help bring him home. But it didn’t mean she didn’t keep an ear to the ground, or feel frustrated upon realizing that it took a literal breaking apart of their group to get to where they are today.

“Will you let me know where to find you?” If you don’t come back.

Steve smiles grimly. “I’ll send a pigeon or something.”

“Sam will be enough,” she says shortly, shoving the half-empty bowl of cereal into his hand and leaving him alone in the room.

 

***

 

Steve takes a motorcycle, because he misses motorcycles, and also because he doesn’t really get a chance to ride that much anymore unless it’s when they’re plowing into a Hydra camp. He’s kept the Harley-Davidson V-Rod he’d stashed in various garages (and Stark’s basement) after coming out of the ice, and though he sometimes wishes for the speed and agility of the Street 750 he’d acquired during his time at SHIELD, the older bike has a feel to it much like putting on his old uniform did when he decided to go after Bucky the first time. It’s something that was familiar, that reminded him of simplicity, things like him and Bucky laughing at what Sarah would say if she could see her star spangled son, or Peggy’s reactions to the drunken jokes of the Howling Commandos, or Bucky sharing slices of cheese while lying together in the tent in between gossiping about the showgirls and when they weren’t blowing things up.

He thinks when he leaves that he’ll run into Wanda, or Natasha again, or one of the other sixteen people Fury has recruited to work in and around the facility. But the atmosphere is quiet when he slips out, no one that is around bothering to give him more than a quick glance and he’s out of the halls and down the road before he can let himself think otherwise. For once, he does wish that he was traveling somewhere farther, even to another goddamn state. Driving a handful of miles is frustrating, not only because there’s not enough time for him to sit with his thoughts, but because he has no idea how long Bucky has been in this particular area. Steve can’t help but shake that thought from his mind, the fact that maybe he was here because he was trying to look for someone -- or that someone was trying to look for them. He slows the motorbike as he approaches a curve in the road, getting off and walking the rest of the way while dragging the vehicle alongside him. Sam’s waiting a few yards from the actual establishment.

“How long?”

“We’re not sure,” Sam replies and Steve isn’t surprised that he doesn’t ask for more clarification. “Maybe a few hours, at most. Not more than a day. The call only came this morning from someone who heard a lot of noise and then saw someone sneaking in. A flash of metal. Thought it was a gun.”

Steve shudders, because the arm might as well be a gun. He’s thinks he might never get over that, even if he does get used to the fact that it exists.

“Is he --”

“Talking? No,” Sam supplies, folding his arms. “Look, Steve, there’s something you should know. Before you go in there.”

“What I want to know is where my friend is,” he retorts, emphasizing the word. His friend. Bucky was his friend. He has to remember that, and make others remember that, otherwise the road back is going to be even harder than he already anticipates it to be, especially now that they’re dealing with things like gem stones and enhanced humans. Sam presses his lips together.

“When we found him, he wasn’t talking. He was...trapped.”

Steve feels himself lurch forward, even though he’s sure he hasn’t moved at all. “Trapped?”

“You should see for yourself,” Sam says slowly, turning away, a silent invitation for him to follow. Steve walks slowly behind, opening and closing his fists in a manner that he knows gives away his anxiousness. He’s done with trying to keep his emotions under the radar, though.

The inside of the abandoned garage is stuffy and dark and smells the way it feels: like no one has been inside of it for far too long. Steve lets his eyes adjust to the dim lighting, his gaze wandering past abandoned car parts and what look like the shells of old offices, until he reaches another, larger room. This one is slightly brighter, made so by the sun streaming through the dusty panes near the ceiling, and Steve follows the halo of light until his eyes land on a figure sitting in the center of the room.

And it’s definitely Bucky, there’s no mistaking that. Steve thinks even if he couldn’t see his face, which is covered by matted, greasy dark hair, he would recognize the slump of the shoulders, the curved back, the stance that he had become so achingly used to when he spent nights at his Brooklyn apartment stretched out on the floor. He recognizes all that now: that Bucky is Bucky and not an asset, not a machine walking with stiff limbs and kill missions, though Steve is hesitant to assume he doesn’t possibly still have a kill mission hidden in him somewhere.

“He was like this when you got here?” Steve asks in a low voice as he steps forward and then back, circling, realizing with a start that part of the reason Bucky’s hunched over in the first place is because he’s got his metal arm stuck in some sort of vise.

“Yeah,” Sam says, matching his tone. “Sitting here like he wandered in and tried to pull his own arm off.”

“Tried.” Steve squints. “That’s an old sheet metal punching machine.” He runs a hand through his hair. “Used to see them all the time in the 40’s.”

“Yeah. And what are the odds that your best friend is just dropped here out of the blue, coincidentally trapped, a few miles from where we’re living?”

He knows what Sam means, because if he had to guess, it’s not coincidental at all. Still, he can’t quite shake the thought from his mind that Hydra had already tried once to use Bucky as a form of wiping them out. It wasn’t like them to repeat a failed mission, especially when they had dozens of other resources at their fingertips.

“I’ll deal with that later. Right now, let’s focus on getting him out.”

“Why do you think I called you?” Sam nods towards Bucky, who remains silent, pulling slightly at his arm. “I can’t do it alone and he’s obviously in no condition to help.”

Steve lets out a slow breath. “Yeah, I know.” He walks forward, inclining his head. “Bucky?”

There’s no answer, though Steve expects as much. He eyes the contraption, grimacing, and suddenly it feels like he’s back in Hydra’s camp all over again. “Gonna get your arm out of there, okay?”

Bucky does react at that, his head whipping up to reveal hard eyes set in a wild stare, something dark swirling inside his pupils. He holds himself even more rigid, if possible, but nods in a way that Steve thinks might be him desperately trying to elicit some kind of response.

“Okay,” Steve repeats, more to himself than to his friend. He can see Sam out of his peripheral vision but knows he won’t do anything more than stand by; he’s on his own for this one both physically and mentally. Steve grabs a hold of the top of the machine, bracing himself against the floor with his feet, and pulls with all his strength.

Bucky flinches. Steve sees him do so, and he grits his teeth together as he pulls harder, until the metal moves just enough to provide a small amount of space. “Get out of there,” Steve manages roughly; the words come out sounding more garbled than he intends but Bucky seems to understand, wrenching his arm out of the machine as soon as Steve has lifted it enough for him to wrestle it loose. The moment Steve sees Bucky clutch the metal to his chest he lets go, breathing hard, letting the machine release with a loud and unceremonious crash. Sam’s staring at him from the side, and Steve can see the unasked question struggling to fall from his lips.

“Stark?”

It’s an obvious choice, given his situation, and Steve can’t blame him. He shakes his head.

“No.” He doesn’t know much about their situation but he does know that he’s not ready to share this particular development with Tony. Not when Bucky could still be considered a threat. Not without knowing how far removed the billionaire was from everything that had happened, and not with everything that had just happened.

“Well then I hate to break it to you, but short of home, we’ve got nowhere else to go.”

Steve looks at Bucky, at the walls, and then back at his friend again.

“I might know a place.”

 

***

 

The phone rings right after Natasha finishes her workout and she doesn’t even bother to look before picking up. There are exactly three people who would call her randomly in the middle of the day without just showing up to talk; two of them aren’t here and one of them is currently in the middle of a personal crisis.

“Hi,” she says as she palms the speaker button, putting her cell on the bench while she pulls on a sweatshirt.

“We got him.”

Natasha exhales, unaware that she’s been holding her breath since she picked up the phone. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Steve’s voice sounds tight. “We don’t really know his condition yet, though.”

Natasha chews on her lower lip as she walks out of the gym, rolling her shoulders against the sweat she can feel pooling on her back. “Are you bringing him here?”

“No,” Steve says quickly. “We can’t. Not with everything going on. I’m just calling to let you know that I’m taking off...heading back to grab a few things, and then we’re going to take one of Stark’s cars and go to Indianapolis. Shelbyville.”

“Indianapolis?” Natasha feels her brow crease as she stops in her tracks. “Why?”

“I’ll explain later, but it has to do with memory jogging,” Steve says. “He’s still...not all there.”

Natasha feels her head throb because she knows what Steve means by not all there, a little too well. Clint had been not all there. She had, at one point, been not all there. She thinks she can hear Sam in the background.

“Do you need me to come?”

Steve hesitates. “I don’t know. Not yet. Maybe.” It’s a terrible lie, he’s no better at fibbing than he was two years ago and Natasha fights the urge to laugh. “I’ll let you know.”

“You better.” They lapse into silence and for the first time in a long time, Natasha feels a little awkward, until he speaks again.

“Sorry I’m kind of busting out like this.”

“No.” Natasha shakes her head before she remembers that he can’t see her. “You’re doing what you need to do.” She pauses. “This is something we all share, now.”

“I wish we didn’t,” Steve replies grimly. “This is not a war I want to start.”

“When is it ever?” she asks bitterly. I didn’t want to start my own war. I didn’t want to be forced to save myself. I never asked for my life to be this way, built on ledgers of red and ghost men with metal arms and archers with families who acted as saviors once upon a time.

Steve sighs. “I’ll keep you updated. Let you know when I get to Indianapolis.”

He hangs up and Natasha contemplates his words for awhile before sitting down on the floor. After another moment, she picks up her phone again and hits the second number on speed dial.

“Hey, Cooper. It’s Nat. I need to speak to your dad, if he’s around.”

 

***

 

“I don’t understand why we just couldn’t have taken him back to Brooklyn. Or that place in Jersey,” Sam complains as they ease onto the highway. “Do you know how long of a trip it is going to be? I’m not even factoring in the amount of times we’ll have to stop for food and gas and sleep.”

“Brooklyn and Fort Lehigh aren’t the memories he needs,” Steve says a little impatiently. “Besides, where we are now is too close quarters to everything. We don’t know if Hydra’s still out there. We need to get away and I don’t want to put everyone in danger.” He glances out the window. “How’s he doing?”

Sam eyes the rearview mirror. “Asleep, for now. That injection we gave him worked pretty well, so I don’t think his body’s on some cryogenic freezer trip that makes him immune to things anymore.”

“So then we’re just probably dealing with his recovery,” Steve assesses, though he knows he won’t be sure of that until they sit down and actually get Bucky to talk. Sam frowns.

“Yeah, and we’re driving down the highway with a 90-something year old assassin who tried to kill you, and who has a metal arm, and he’s passed out in the back seat and we’re about to take a road trip through the great outdoors. You make it all sound easy.”

Steve laughs, a welcome feeling that shakes his lungs loose of their inherent stiffness. “Well, I’ve got you along for the ride.”

“Hey. I may not have super strength, but I definitely have good music choices,” Sam replies, matching his grin, the tension between both of them beginning to diffuse. “At least for the first four hours.” He whips out his iPod and sticks it into the available cord on the car port. “And you still need to catch up on the important things.”

 

***

 

After Natasha calls Clint, she returns to her room to pack, shoving clothing and toiletries into a large black bag that she keeps under the bed. She’s already talked to Hill about holding things together while she’s away -- thankfully, neither her or Fury had asked too many questions about where she was going. Natasha suspects that at least for Steve’s part, they had an idea that this is what he would focus on once everything ended with Hydra, and expected as much. She had bristled a little when Fury’s tone seemed to indicate she was probably leaving to head after Banner, largely because that couldn’t be further from the truth. She had been honest, at least, in that she was following Steve because she was the best chance at bringing his friend back home.

All three of them were.

She’s in the middle of sorting her weapons, loading her guns and recharging her widow’s bites, when the door to her room opens quietly.

“Where are you going?”

Natasha looks up in surprise, meeting Wanda’s face. It would be pointless to be vague about her intentions, Wanda didn’t deserve that secrecy at this point -- none of them did -- and besides, Natasha knows that she can’t exactly hide her actions.

“Away,” she says simply, before realizing how that sounds, especially to someone who’s just lost half of themselves. “I mean, not forever. Just for a little bit. I’m going to help a friend, and then I’ll be back.”

“Agent Barton?” Wanda asks curiously, as if trying to figure out what Natasha means without actually reading her mind. Natasha smiles a little as she shakes her head.

“No. Well, yes. But also another friend.” A friend from my past. One that I’m not sure I even remember. He was compromised, too. Like all of us were at some point.

“Can I come?”

Natasha swallows, hesitates. “Do you want to come?” she finds herself asking, even though she’s not sure it’s the best idea. While part of her thinks it would be good to get to know Wanda a little better, the other part of her just wants to find Clint and hole herself up in his house without having any questions asked of her. Wanda nods slowly.

“Yes. I think I would like to.”

Natasha sighs quietly and nods. “Get some stuff together, then. I’m leaving in an hour.” They would drive as well, and while hours upon hours in a car is not on Natasha’s list of ideal methods of travel, there was also no sense in getting to where Steve and Sam were going to be before they did. Besides, she had little to no idea where she was even supposed to go once she actually got to Indianapolis, and so an hour later, Natasha is sitting in the driver’s seat of a Porsche, mentally thanking the fact that Tony’s billionaire mind had thought to outfit the facility with an overwhelming number of amenities, including more than a few spare vehicles. Wanda sits beside her, fidgeting with her thumbs, looking up every so often to glance out the window.

“You want to know what I’m thinking about,” Wanda says after a half an hour of silence. “You wonder what I must be thinking.”

“I do,” Natasha admits, her fingers gripping the wheel tighter. “That much quiet isn’t so good for your brain, I’ve learned.” She offers a small smile and Wanda returns it slowly.

“I think about what happened, sometimes. How we got caught up in all of this. How we didn’t mean to.”

“You never really mean to,” Natasha says, keeping her eyes on the road. “But it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.” She feels like she’s talking to a version of herself, and it unnerves her, but Wanda doesn’t seem fazed.

“What was your childhood like?”

“It was…” Natasha trails off, searching for the right words. “Dark. It wasn’t a childhood as much as it was a breeding ground for getting me on what my country thought was the right path.”

“That sounds like Sokovia,” Wanda says sadly. “It was always dark, there. We learned to survive, not how to live.”

Natasha smiles thinly, suddenly wishing she could relax and put her feet up on the dash the way she’s used to doing when she goes on long trips. “There’s no place in the world for people like us.”

“I’m not so sure,” Wanda says thoughtfully. “You have a place with Agent Barton. You have a place here.”

Natasha laughs but it sounds hollow, and she suddenly misses the way Clint would put his hand on her knee when she made a sarcastic comment, or when he knew she just needed to feel some sort of comfort. “I suppose.”

The highway signs speed past them as the car accelerates.

 

***

 

Sam and Steve stop at a motel in Pittsburgh, a sleepy looking place not too far out from the main stretch of town and Sam checks in while Steve tries to figure out how the hell they’re going to play this off, getting Bucky upstairs and inside without anyone realizing that things look little suspicious. Fortunately, Sam has requested a room on the backside of the motel, and the area is mostly deserted with the help of a light dusk settling over the property as evening moves in. They manage to get Bucky pretty easily inside thanks to Steve’s help, depositing him on the bed, and Sam raises an eyebrow.

“Now what?”

“Now, we sleep,” Steve says, even though he doesn’t think he actually can. He should attempt it, though, if they want to be functional. “Or relax, at the very least.”

“I don’t really know what this relaxing thing is, but I guess I could try it,” Sam says as he walks into the bathroom, emerging with two glasses. He sits down in a chair and rummages through his overnight bag, pulling out a bottle of vodka, and Steve shakes his head.

“I don’t get drunk,” he says warily and Sam smiles.

“I ain’t asking you to get drunk, Rogers.”

Steve grins back and takes his offered out, half-filled glass.

“So what are you gonna ask him?”

“What do you mean?” Steve asks after he downs his drink. Sam nods towards the bed.

“When he wakes up. What are you gonna ask him?”

Steve hesitates. “I don’t know.” He doesn’t, and it’s strange. He’s used to always having a road map, a plan, he knows why he’s going to Indianapolis but he’s not quite sure what to do in the interim, and it frustrates him to fly by the seat of his pants. “I guess I’ll see what’s in there. If there’s anything left.”

“He’s not on a kill mission anymore,” Sam reminds him as he leans back and closes his eyes.

“You don’t know that. He could wake up and kill you in the middle of the night.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

Steve jumps at the sound, the gravely, half-dead voice that flits across the room from what seems like a half-dead body, and the glass slips from his hand and falls to the floor. Sam curses, bringing his legs up to avoid the shattered remains while Steve stands, crystal shards crunching under his boots.

“Bucky?”

It’s an all-too familiar tightening of his throat, a fear that binds his ribs together like someone has sewn him into a corset as his mind flashes to another day, another time, another harsh awakening in the middle of a causeway in downtown DC, asking the same person the same question. But this time, there’s no confusion in the other man’s eyes when he speaks.

“Where am I?”

Steve breathes out, mentally pacing his exhales. “You’re, uh...in a motel room. In Pennsylvania.” He assesses the way Bucky is starting to shift, noting that Sam still hasn’t moved from his spot in the chair, though he also hasn’t missed the way his friend had arched slightly, reaching stealthily for the gun hidden underneath his jacket. “Do you remember anything?”

Bucky swallows, a reaction that looks more painful than anything else. “I found a...place. Don’t remember how I got there. Tried to remove it.”

Steve puts his lips together in a thin line. “Did anyone bring you there?”

Bucky’s silent for a long time, as if trying to collect his thoughts, and then shakes his head slowly.

“No,” he says, and Steve lets out a breath as Bucky raises his head.

“Can I have water?”

Steve throws a quick glance to Sam, who gets up, one hand still on the gun hidden between his clothes. After a few seconds, he walks up and hands Bucky a glass, which the other man raises it to his lips.

“Thank you,” he says, and his words are slightly stilted. Steve regards him carefully.

“You know we’re going to have to watch you? To make sure you’re okay?” Sam speaks up from behind and Bucky turns his head carefully, as if he’s only now realizing there’s someone else in the room.

“Yes,” he says again, and the tone of his voice sounds so compliant that it makes Steve’s blood crawl.

“I don’t suppose he wants some vodka,” Sam mutters and Steve chews his tongue, suppressing a grimace.

“Believe it or not, he’s actually more of a whiskey sort of guy.”

 

***

 

They stop for coffee and Natasha lets Wanda stretch her legs while she wanders towards the park of the rest stop they’ve pulled into in Delaware.

“Hey,” Clint says when he picks up, sounding out of breath. “When are you coming, again?”

“Maybe two days.” She sinks down onto an empty bench. “We’re making good time, all things considered.”

“Alright.” There’s commotion in the background, and Natasha thinks she can vaguely hear Cooper yelling about something involving cars. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Natasha says immediately because right now, when Clint can’t see her, it’s easy to say that. She hears him breathe heavily over the line, and can tell he doesn’t quite buy her answer.

“Well, we’re ready for you, whenever you get here. You hear from Cap yet?”

“Not yet,” Natasha says, glancing up. “But I’ll let you know when I do.”

“Got that. Where are you now?”

“Delaware.” Her legs ache, her mind aches, and she wonders if Wanda can teach her any tricks for turning off her mind that don’t involve putting her through memory hell. “I have Wanda with me.”

She hears Clint stop breathing over the phone. “Why?”

Natasha smiles grimly. “Because she wanted to come, and because she insisted, and because I didn’t have the heart to turn her away. Besides, you know that I can’t exactly drive halfway across the country by myself. I’ll go insane.”

Clint’s gone quiet on the other end of the line, and the only reason Natasha knows he’s still there is because she can hear the shrill whistle of tea in the background, signaling he must be in either the kitchen or the living room.

“She wanted to come?”

“Believe it not,” Natasha says. “She specifically asked to.”

“Huh.” Clint sighs. “Well, she’s already there...nothing that I can do about it. I’ll let Laura know. Everything’s good otherwise?”

“So far,” she says, getting up. “Might need a drink after all of this is over, though.”

“I promise that if you get here within your allotted 48 hours, I’ll let you steal some of Laura’s prized absinthe,” Clint teases and Natasha smiles to herself.

“Tell Lila I’ll see her soon.”

“Good luck,” Clint responds, and as he ends the call just in time for Natasha to catch half of a sentence that sounds like something along the lines of “Cooper, we do not --” Natasha slips the phone back into her pocket, and Wanda’s waiting for her when she gets back to the car.

“Do you want me to drive?”

Natasha double takes and then regards Wanda carefully. “If you want,” she says with a shrug. “I could use the break.”

“I can tell,” Wanda says, holding out her hands. Natasha passes over the keys and then slides into the passenger seat, fiddling with the GPS as Wanda backs out of the parking lot.

“I read a little bit about the man you are going to help,” Wanda says and Natasha leans her head back against the seat with a sigh. She wants to ask how but she’s not entirely daft, every wall at the facility had ears and Wanda was definitely smart enough to put the pieces together. “There is some history with him.”

“You could say that,” Natasha mutters, putting her feet on the dash.

“There were stories about him, too. The man you are looking for. We heard whispers when we were in that prison, being experimented on. They said he was a ghost.”

“He is,” Natasha agrees warily. “What else did they say?”

“Not much. I only heard bits and pieces,” Wanda responds as she switches lanes. “But they talked about how he was the person everyone feared. They hoped...I think they hoped that one day, people would fear us the same way, with what we could do. That we could rewrite the history of people who make miracles happen.”

Natasha lets out a breath. “He’s not a miracle,” she says quietly. “He wasn’t born with powers. He was made with them, like you were. And not everything is a ghost story. Or everyone, for that matter.”

Wanda smiles. “Don’t I know it. You and me...we are not that different after all, are we?”

“No,” says Natasha, feeling a little comforted. “I guess we’re not.”

Wanda drives them for another three hours before they pull over at a Days Inn that claims vacancy, checking into a small room with an even smaller bathroom. They situate themselves in silence, tired from both the drive and from what Natasha suspects are their mental states constantly wreaking havoc on their brains, and Natasha curls up in bed with the final Harry Potter -- Cooper’s latest birthday gift that she had gotten last time she visited the farm. Wanda lies straight on her back, staring at the ceiling as if she’s meditating, or, Natasha supposes, as if she’s trying to convince herself to relax. She distinctly finds herself wondering, with a pain in her chest, if it’s harder for Wanda to sleep now that Pietro’s not around, and squashes the thought by turning over and pressing her face to the pillow. She falls asleep eventually, somewhere around the final Hogwarts battle, lulled by the other girl’s deep breathing and also the words dancing across the page that make her drowsy.

Sleep, little girl. Sleep now.

She wakes up screaming, her throat raw, sitting up ramrod straight in bed before a hand clamps down on her mouth. Natasha wrestles against it, struggling futilely, but whatever or whoever is holding her down is somehow miraculously stronger, even as she tries to bite and claw her way free, years of aggression unleashing themselves in one moment.

“Natasha,” and the lilt is low and quiet in her ear and it shouldn’t even get through to her but it does, even as she squirms against it. “Natasha, what do you need?”

Clint, she thinks as her mind unravels, spilling thoughts in every direction, so fast that she can’t catch them. I need Clint. Clint would know how to hold her. Clint would know what to say. Clint would talk her down and smooth her hair, touch her in a way she would never allow anyone else to, and he wouldn’t even ask if anything was wrong.

“I don’t know,” she says roughly when she finds her voice, because she doesn’t. She needs control. She’s still shaking but she’s stopped struggling, and Wanda slowly removes her hand, moving in front of Natasha and finding her eyes.

“You had a nightmare.”

Natasha nods, too exhausted to try to argue. The sweat is dripping down her back, plastering her shirt to her skin and Wanda takes her hand.

“What about?”

“I…” Natasha feels her throat become even drier than it already is. “Memories.” Fears is probably more like it, but the other word is what comes out and Wanda looks at her with sad, dark eyes, moving her hand to the side of Natasha’s head.

“Go back to sleep,” she murmurs as Natasha closes her eyes again. This time, when she dreams, there’s nothing but blue fields and yellow skies, a fevered calm and a brighter world settling over everything red and dark that she can see in every available corner of her mind.

 

***

 

Natasha wakes up to sunlight streaming through the blinds, the impression that it’s much later than it is and as she sits up, swallows down the rasp in her throat, she tries to piece together why she feels so off. In a flash, everything comes back to her, and she swings her legs over the bed, suddenly alert. Wanda is sitting on her own bed reading Natasha’s book, and looks up in surprise.

“You gave me dreams,” Natasha accuses, putting the pieces together as Wanda places a finger in between the pages.

“I did,” the other girl says slowly. “Are you mad?”

“Yes,” Natasha says bluntly. “I mean, no. I’m not mad you helped me.” She blows out a frustrated breath. “But I don’t want anyone in my mind without my permission. I had that, more than once. I don’t want it again, no matter how much I trust someone.”

“I can understand that,” Wanda says quietly, casting her eyes downward, as if Natasha is a mother berating a child. “But you were not okay last night. I could tell.”

Natasha stares at her, defiant, because she doesn’t know what to do now that Wanda has seen a part of her broken down. Steve had seen part of it, Bruce had seen part of it, but the only person who had ever truly seen her fragmented like this was Clint. Clint, who wore flannels and picked at his old scars too much and could out-drink her in all the stupid contests they used to have when they were off duty from missions together; Clint who lived on a farm and made Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes for breakfast and had three kids and knew, despite all that, what it was really like to have someone in your brain.

“I know you don’t like when people help you,” Wanda continues. “But I promise will not tell anyone what I saw. I know what it feels like to be haunted. I know how that can make you feel.”

I bet you do, Natasha thinks sourly, looking down. “Thank you,” is what she says when she speaks.

“Consider it the least I can do,” Wanda replies. “You are helping me, after all.”

Natasha laughs, because she’s not sure if what they’re doing right now -- road tripping across states to resurrect a fallen crew -- is actually helping. But then again she’s pretty sure that’s not what Wanda means.

 

***

 

Two and half days and two crappy hotels later, Natasha and Wanda finally reach Clint’s farm.

“You must have really wanted that drink,” Clint says when he meets them at the top of the porch stairs. His smile is warm and his hugs are warmer; Clint’s farm has always felt like home since she allowed herself to accept it in that way but Clint himself was a home to her all his own. He pulls away, nodding slightly behind her.

“Hey, kid.”

Wanda smiles tentatively, twisting a lock of hair around her finger. “Thank you for letting me come,” and Natasha prays Clint won’t open his mouth and tell her he didn’t technically know she was coming until two days ago.

“What, you? Forget it. We’re teammates now. Just beware of the small people,” he cautions as he turns around to unlock the front door. “They like to pretend you’ve never seen a snail or something before.”

Natasha hides a smile as Clint walks them inside; Laura’s out with Lila and Cooper, he tells her, but Clint’s there with the baby, and Natasha figures he might have planned it that way when she called from the gas station to tell him that they were close by. She’s done the whole “putting on a face thing,” and in worse circumstances, but she’s not entirely sure she can handle doing it at this exact moment. She follows Clint around the house as he leads Wanda through the various rooms, before walking up to the second floor, where he opens the first door on the left to reveal a wide, sun-lit space.

“All yours,” Clint says to Wanda, gesturing to the spare room. Natasha is used to taking the couch anyway but in this case it seems better, the kids were less liable to trip over themselves and wake Wanda up if her door was closed and better yet, if they knew Natasha was accessible.

“Thank you,” Wanda says uncertainly, glancing around the room. Natasha reads in her gaze that she clearly wants to be alone and so she leaves her staring aimlessly at the walls before following Clint into the master bedroom, where Nathaniel is sleeping in his bassinet.

“Definitely fat,” Natasha remarks, bending down to brush her hand over the baby’s sleeping head. Clint sighs.

“Call my kid fat again and I’ll take away that drink I promised.”

Natasha forces out a smile. “You know that we’re only staying --”

“Until Rogers tells us where he is and then we can go there together, yeah, I know,” Clint says as he strips off his shirt, disappearing into the closet. Natasha catches his uniform hanging on the back of the door, the worn arm guards and something shiny glinting in the light that she thinks might be dried blood. “Got my gear ready, just waiting for the go ahead. How was the trip?”

“Long.” Natasha makes a face. “If I hadn’t had Wanda to split the driving with, it would’ve taken ages to get here.”

“Yeah, I miss the good old days of calling up Hill and ordering a quinjet,” Clint says, his punctuated sigh muffled behind her. Natasha crosses her arms.

“Technically, we can still do that.”

“I guess.” Clint emerges from the closet wearing a Rolling Stones concert tee shirt and Natasha would tease him about that, except she knows that he’s never been to a Stones concert in his life. She had picked it up for him on one of her trips because he liked listening to them in the car sometimes.

“How are you doing? Really.” He sits down on the bed and tilts his head, an open invitation. Natasha sighs, fighting the instinct to curl up right then and there. She opts to sit next to him instead.

“I don’t know,” she admits, looking down at her hands. “Everything’s just...all over the place. Banner’s gone. Steve’s gone. Wanda’s lost. You’re not there.”

“So, not much of a team, then,” Clint surmises. Natasha shakes her head.

“No, that’s the thing. We’re as good a team as we’re going to get right now. Wanda’s great and she’ll only get better with more practice. They all will. And Steve’s a good leader. We balance each other out pretty well.”

“So the problem is that you’re just not there,” Clint says slowly, arching his jaw. Natasha nods as Nathaniel whimpers from somewhere behind her. It’s probably the closest she’s going to get to trying to explain what she feels.

“I don’t really know where I end and everything else begins,” she admits, getting up and walking over to the bassinet, rubbing the baby’s stomach gently. “And I know I have to face that sooner or later. With Barnes...with Wanda...with everyone else. With this war.”

“Will this help?” Clint asks, and Natasha has no idea if he means being with him at the farm or finding the Winter Soldier and working through those experiences while using them as an exorcism for her own, but she realizes the answer is probably one and the same.

“I think so.”

“Well, for your sake, I hope so.” Clint pauses, cocking his head. “I think Laura’s home. Should we alert the welcome committee of your official arrival?”

Natasha nods, smiling tightly. Clint kisses her on the side of the head and puts one arm around her shoulder as he leads her out of the room and down the stairs.

 

***

 

Dinner that night is long and filling; Laura serves them chicken from the crock pot with vegetables from the garden and Natasha spends most of the meal deflecting tireless questions from both Lila and Cooper before Laura whisks them away to bed. There’s a time and place to bother Auntie Nat, and no, it’s not during dinner, and yes, she’ll play with you later and in the morning, I promise, and no, Lila, you can’t sing her Frozen songs right now, she’s had a long trip. The four adults sit around the table afterwards while Laura makes tea and Natasha sips from the cup slowly, desperately wishing her drink was tainted with something that might put her mind at ease. Clint touches her knee under the table; Wanda looks overly interested in Laura’s explanation of how she came to the farm and what Lila’s favorite subject in school is.

That night, Natasha curls up against Clint while they watch TV in the den, Laura sitting on the other side of her with one hand on her wrist, Wanda in the soft armchair notched with marks from Cooper’s toys. It feels comfortable, a little bit like family, and Natasha tries to preserve the memory.

 

***

 

They stop 150 miles out of the state of Indianapolis, and quite honestly, Sam doesn’t know why he ends up at the bar with Bucky. Steve had wanted to stay at the hotel and take care of a few things -- a few things being probably “call Natasha,” or “call Hill,” or just figure stuff out in the quiet without having anyone there, Sam hypothesizes. And Bucky’s been more or less stable for the past day or so, and they’ve all slept together in the same room without killing each other (though Sam didn’t really sleep, and he’s pretty sure the other two didn’t, either). Still, Sam thinks, there’s a line, somewhere between being cautious around a rogue assassin and also going out to drinks with him like it’s any kind of normal weekend. But there’s a run-down dive bar a few miles down the road, so he gets Bucky in the car and grabs a booth and Bucky looks up in surprise when Sam places a glass of amber liquid in front of him.

“Cap said you were more of a whiskey guy,” Sam says, raising his own glass before knocking it back. It tastes harsh against his throat, it burns all the way down and reminds him of the nights he would drink in the camps. Bucky nods and takes his own glass, downing its contents. He’s dressed in a mixture of Steve and Sam’s clothing, a long coat covering most of his metal arm, which he still favors, Sam suspects, from their earlier exploits.

“You didn’t have to save me,” Bucky says as he returns his glass to the table, his words still hesitant, as if he’s not sure if he should or wants to apologize.

“No reason not to,” Sam says easily, choosing to ignore the inflection. “You’re still his friend, right?”

“Yeah,” says Bucky. “I want to be, anyway.”

Sam forces out a smile, lets out a breath. “Hey, look. We’re kind of...all of us here, we’re in the same boat, you know?”

Bucky lets his eyes focus on Sam. “You, too.”

“Me, too.” Sam confirms. “Pararescue, awhile ago. Had my own partner and best friend, like you and Rogers. But now I follow your buddy around, teach down at the VA -- lead groups for survivors and stuff like that. We’ve all got our problems. You’re in good company, Barnes.”

Bucky’s head snaps up and for a moment, Sam’s worried he’s said or done something wrong, or inadvertently activated some sort of kill switch. But then Bucky nods slowly, newly cropped hair swinging into his eyes, and Sam relaxes slightly, seeing his gaze level out. Some goddamn story this was gonna be. Rhodey thought he had all the good stories, well, trekking across the country with Captain America and a guy who had a metal arm was going to be one for the goddamn books.

“Hey, do you like pool?”

Turns out, Bucky does indeed like pool. Not only that, he’s pretty good for someone with a bum metal arm. Sam’s not sure whether that’s because he’s spent the past 50 years using sniper rifles or if it’s because he just has decently good aim, but he files the information in his brain anyway, for when they get back.

 

***

 

Six hours later, because he can’t sleep, Steve sits on the hood of the car next to Bucky, who also can’t seem to sleep, at least not without twitching every five seconds. Steve suspects that’s because of some sort of nightmare but also knows he’s not entirely equipped to deal with the outcome of them. That was Natasha, that was Clint and maybe Wanda, people who had experience getting inside other people’s heads -- or having people inside their own. For all the things people have rolled their eyes at Steve Rogers for since coming out of the ice, he can’t say brainwashing was one of them.

“You’re taking me to Indianapolis,” Bucky says as he digs into a bag of potato chips from the vending machine.

“Yeah,” Steve says, and it suddenly hits him how strange it is to be sitting here, in the middle of nowhere, having a conversation with his best friend who he hasn’t seen since 1942, who he never thought he’d talk to again. “You know why?”

“I...think so.” Bucky pauses and stares up at the sky. Steve notices he’s been doing that a lot lately, as if he has to think about everything he says now, as if he needs to make sure it’s him speaking, and him that wants to share the information of his own accord. “It has history? For me?”

Steve sighs. “You were born there, Buck. Technically. Before you moved to New York. I don’t even know if you remember.”

“No,” Bucky says slowly. “I remember. Kind of.” He reaches into the bag with his good hand. “There are bits and there are pieces...they come and go.”

Steve swallows down a rock in his throat. “Are those good pieces or bad pieces?” he asks slowly. Bucky shrugs.

“I don’t know yet. I think it’s a result of...whatever they did to me. My conditioning, is that what you call it? I’m breaking, but not entirely.”

Steve stares into the distance, the light is on in their motel room and he can see Sam moving around through the thin curtains.

“How did you escape?” Steve asks, because he still hasn’t bothered to probe at that particular question and he doesn’t really know where to start with any of this. Bucky looks a little pale.

“I didn’t,” he admits. “After I saved you, I left. I went away for a bit. Hid out in places until I felt okay walking around on my own, and then stole a few things for clothes and food.”

“So no Hydra,” Steve rationalizes, and Bucky shakes his head.

“Not with me. I got a job working at some deli in Brooklyn. I was a dishwasher guy, mostly. It was crap, but, you know, it got me some cash. Enough to hitchhike my way upstate...didn’t know that was where you were, though.”

Steve puts his chin in his hands. “And then you tried to take your arm off.”

“I wanted it gone,” Bucky says harshly, spitting out the words. “I wanted it off. Too many memories.”

“I know about the memories part,” Steve says, thinking of Peggy. “They’re not so easy to forget.” He lapses into silence and Bucky sighs next to him.

“It’s weird,” he says, crunching on a potato chip. “Being back.”

“Yeah,” Steve echoes, and he wishes he could express how much he agrees with that statement. “It is.”

 

***

 

Laura exits the house to find Wanda curled up in one half of the porch swing, staring blankly out over the landscape of the farm.

“Hi,” Laura says softly, putting her hand on the other girl’s shoulder. Wanda jumps slightly, but stays in place. “Mind if I join you?”

“It is your house,” Wanda says just as quietly, moving her legs so that Laura can sit down. “I should not even be here in the first place.”

“Don’t say that.” Laura shakes her head. “You’re welcome here. And I want you to feel at home.”

Wanda manages a smile. “I’m sure you say that to all the people that Agent Barton brings home.”

“Believe it or not, I do,” Laura replies with a wry grin. “Clint has...well, let’s just say he sort of has a habit of picking up strays.”

“Is that what I am?” Wanda asks slowly, turning to Laura with curious eyes. “A stray?”

Laura hesitates, wondering for a moment if she’s said the wrong words. It’s been years since she’s done this with Natasha, and even that wasn’t as complicated, because Natasha was so black and white, it had been easier to read her emotions and know how to respond to her, what would work and what would set her off. Wanda seems to be stuck somewhere in the middle, a curiously lost child with the innocence of her daughter and also someone with the life experiences of a thousand extra years of hardship they didn't ask for. It’s something Laura’s not used to.

“Do you want to be?”

Wanda opens her mouth and then closes it. “I do not know,” she admits, looking at the lawn again. “I do not really know where I belong. The training facility feels strange. So does this house, a little bit. My brother…”

“I’m sorry,” Laura finds herself interrupting softly. “I know what happened.” She laces her fingers through Wanda’s palm. “Your brother was a hero.”

Wanda looks sad. “A hero is a nice word,” she hedges. “We were both damaged goods. But at least when he was here, I wasn’t alone.”

Laura feels her throat close up at the words, and swallows down her emotions. “Well, damaged goods or not, I still feel like it’s my duty to rescue you from what will probably be repeated viewings of Big Hero 6.”

Wanda smiles a little more at that, and Laura squeezes her hand.

“You know, Natasha had some problems adjusting, when she was first brought in. Clint took her here, to the farm. To de-stress, although I’m not sure that was the right word for what he was trying to accomplish.” She pauses, sighing. “He thought that by coming here, to a place where things were simple, it would help her. He thought maybe if she was removed from a world that was too intense, she wouldn’t have to look over her shoulder as much.”

“That makes sense,” Wanda says, her voice turning wistful. “I’m sorry. I sort of invited myself here. I did not mean to intrude on your visit. I just didn’t...”

“You just didn’t want to be alone,” Laura finishes quietly. “And that’s okay, you know. My own kids still sleep in my bed sometimes, because Clint’s away a lot. And when he’s not here, I sometimes invite my girlfriends over for long movie nights. Because I don’t want to be alone, either. It's not something you should be ashamed of, Wanda.”

Wanda nods, turning and offering the other woman a small smile, though Laura notices it looks forced.

“I appreciate you opening your home to me,” says Wanda, her tone teetering on the edge of something fragile, something that Laura thinks might be close to breaking. “Even though I still do not feel like I belong anywhere.”

“I know,” Laura says gently, finding Wanda’s eyes. “So let me help. Let me help you try to belong here, for a bit.”

 

***

 

When Natasha walks into the kitchen the next night, she finds Laura sitting at the table holding Nathaniel, and Wanda standing at the stove, meticulously stirring a large pot.

“You seem to be getting on well here,” Natasha remarks with a small smile. “If Laura has you making her famous stew, I’d say you’re pretty much on your way to belonging.”

Wanda smiles back shyly and Laura gets up, balancing the baby on her hip with two arms. “She mentioned she did a lot of cooking with her parents,” Laura explains. “I thought maybe while she was here, this would help her feel more comfortable.”

Natasha nods slowly, kissing Nate on the head. “Good call,” she murmurs as Wanda puts the spoon down on the stove, turning around and meeting both women’s eyes. She’s not really surprised that Laura’s managed to read Wanda so well and put her at ease so quickly, it was almost a gift that Clint’s wife could be so empathetic and understanding and know exactly what buttons to hit when it mattered, and Natasha knew that firsthand.

“Can I --” Wanda stops and looks at the baby and her whole body suddenly seems tense, as if she’s on the edge of hysteria and as if she's realizing what's been in front of her the whole time. “Can I hold him?”

Laura raises an eyebrow. “Of course,” she says after a moment, catching Natasha’s eye. Natasha immediately wonders if Laura should be more hesitant, after all, Wanda had been gentle with her in the hotel, but holding a small child was an entirely other story -- and Wanda had lived a life where she had handled things as if they were made of metal, not rubber.

And isn’t that what someone would say about me? Natasha suddenly realizes with a jolt, remembering how she had felt the first time Laura had asked her if she wanted to hold a crying, newborn Cooper. Isn’t that what I thought about myself, once upon a time, until I was proven wrong?

Natasha sits down at the table next to Wanda, who’s taken an available chair, and Laura eases the baby into the girl’s arms. Nate flails for a moment before settling against her body, and Wanda breathes out quietly.

“He is so tiny,” she says quietly, almost as if she’s in awe, and Laura sits down next to her.

“Do you remember when you and your brother were young?” Natasha asks after a moment, and Wanda looks up at that, her eyes bright.

“Yes,” she says with a nod. “He -- Pietro -- he would sing to me. He was a terrible singer.” She smiles sadly. “But he kept telling me that he wanted me to be safe and so he would sing. Songs of Sokovia. That our parents sang to us. As long as he was singing, I was safe.”

“We sing to Nate, too,” Laura offers, her voice low. “Clint sings to him a lot when he’s trying to fall asleep. Natasha does too, sometimes.”

“Clint's a better singer,” Natasha adds lightly, putting her hand on Laura's shoulder. “All those years of rock and roll karaoke from before he met me.”

“Don't sell yourself short,” Laura responds with a small smile, glancing up. “Nate loves it when you start belting out Bonnie Raitt. Why do you think it's one of our most played CDs right now?”

In the silence that follows, they both turn their attention back to Wanda, and it takes Natasha a moment to realize that the other girl has been ignoring them completely. Wanda's bent over the baby, singing softly, small, almost indiscernible sounds coming from her body. She looks up again and finds Laura’s staring at the scene with glassy eyes.

Natasha watches Wanda and sees another girl, in another time, holding another child that’s been deemed as her own, and feels her throat well up.

 

***

 

Steve calls when they’re in the barn, in the middle of sparring on old mats that they keep rolled up in the shed just for this purpose, and Clint has just flipped Natasha over onto her back in retaliation for his bleeding nose.

“We’re about ten miles out. We’ll be at the Ramada Inn in Shelbyville,” he says when she manages to crawl to her phone and answer it. Natasha groans and sits up, stretching her sore muscles as Clint wipes his face.

“Time to go?”

“Most likely.” She wants to stay longer. She wants to stay here and talk about why she feels the way she does and stay safe and ensconced, rather than face everyone else’s problems. Clint nods.

“Guess I better let Laura know.” He rocks upwards, standing slowly, and then groans audibly.

“Ugh.”

Natasha gives him a look from the ground. “Your leg?”

“Yeah. You know, it still kind of gets sore from time to time. Never fully healed.” He winces. “I think my knee is probably jacked up for life.”

“That’s what happens when you throw yourself feet first through a skyscraper window,” Natasha says warily, standing up and grabbing his shoulder, helping to steady him. “You should keep moving so that it doesn’t freeze up. I’m sure all that home improvement stuff isn’t great for the bones.”

“The housework keeps me active,” Clint defends, flexing his leg carefully. “And, you know, it takes my mind off things.”

Things,” Natasha says doubtfully. Clint shrugs.

“Hey, remember when a certain someone told me that there was more than one way to deal with post traumatic stress disorder?”

“Yes, because that someone was me,” Natasha replies bluntly. “You’re still going to therapy, right?”

“Sessions once a week,” Clint says, dragging his hands over his chest in a lopsided cross. “Swear to god. Ask Laura.”

“I trust you, I’m not asking Laura,” Natasha says, eyeing him. “And good.” She entwines her hand in his and squeezes it gently.

“You do realize this is pretty screwed up, right?” Clint asks as they walk out of the barn and towards the house. “Two formerly brainwashed Avengers, plus someone who basically was taught to brainwash people for a living, talking to another recently brainwashed person, all in the hopes of getting that person back on their feet?”

“Well, when you say it that way, it sounds like a horror show,” Natasha remarks, climbing the porch stairs. She can see Wanda inside sitting on the floor, playing a board game with Cooper, and smiles to herself.

“It is,” Clint says. “Sorry.” He takes another breath. “How’s she doing?”

“As well as can be expected.” Natasha turns around. “She lost her brother. That’s like…”

“If I were to lose you. I know,” Clint says, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Is that what this is about?”

She doesn’t have to ask him what he means because she’s pretty sure he wouldn’t have said anything otherwise. But she’s also not sure that she wants to answer.

“Some of it, maybe,” Natasha says quietly. “I never thought I’d have a partner. Now I can’t remember life without one.”

“God, Nat, you sound like a Hallmark card.”

“And where do you think I get that from?” she retorts with a dismissive eye roll, reaching for the door. Clint puts out his hand, pushing it closed gently.

“Look. You’re not okay, you let me know. Alright? This isn’t some kids play, some mission that we’re going on because we get to shoot bad guys.” He breathes out. “This is going to be both of us addressing some pretty heavy shit. Some of which we still haven’t gotten over.”

“I know,” Natasha says with uncertainty. “Are you sure...I mean, you don’t have to go. You can stay here.”

“Well, that would be dumb,” Clint says with a frown. “You really think I wouldn’t come with you?”

“No,” Natasha says, rubbing her eyes, because she does know that, but suddenly everything seems so out of place, even here at the farm, where she’s supposed to feel comforted. As if on cue, Clint reaches forward, pulling her into a hug and she relaxes against him, pressing herself into his body. Her head fits under his chin, just like he’s always fit against her in all the right ways, and her heart aches.

“Come on,” he says after a moment, massaging her back. “Let’s attempt to rescue Wanda. I think she’s had enough Monopoly for one day.”

 

***

 

Clint’s already got a duffel bag mostly packed, the one he normally keeps in the closet when he has to pick up and leave without much notice, and there’s something about standing next to Laura, watching Clint fold his suit that’s ripped and worn in places, that still displays the souvenirs from their most recent battle, that feels like the strangest definition of comfort. Natasha knows he probably won’t need the clothing but just as she knows Clint never leaves without his bow and arrow, she also knows that he’ll never leave home without his uniform.

“Just do me a favor,” Laura says as he packs, “and promise me that if you’re going to go crazy somewhere, make sure you come home in at least a few pieces.”

“You have my word,” Clint says with a mock salute. “And if I’m going to be longer than two weeks, I’ll let you know.” He zips the bag, slinging it over his shoulder. “I’m going to come back here before I go to New York for awhile, anyway.”

Laura nods, she has Nathaniel cradled in one arm and is bouncing him gently. Natasha reaches out and touches Laura’s elbow, and then the baby’s head, bending over to talk quietly to him.

“We’ll be okay,” she says when she straightens up again, even though she knows that for all of her closeness to Clint’s wife, Laura doesn’t really know the extent of her issues. And while Laura does know about Clint’s, even that’s not a full story.

“I know.” Laura maneuvers Nate into Natasha’s arms and walks towards Clint, putting her hands on his chest. She lets her fingers run down his arms and smiles a little sadly, and Clint reaches for her face, rubbing his fingers against the side of her cheek before bending in to kiss her long and slow, murmured declarations of promises and love that Natasha can only vaguely catch. When he finally breaks away, he turns back to Nathaniel.

“Bye, little guy,” Clint murmurs, putting his lips to the baby’s small head. “Don’t give your mom too much trouble while I’m gone, okay?” Nathaniel makes a noise, and Clint smiles, tickling the side of his cheek with his pointer finger. “Are the kids in their rooms?”

“They’re outside,” Laura responds with a nod as the three of them leave the room, Clint moving ahead. When they get downstairs, they’re met with an uncertain-looking Wanda, who’s sitting on the couch, looking slightly lost. Natasha feels like she gets it; it’s comfortable, now, being around for Clint and Laura’s departure rituals and watching everyone have their moment, but it hadn’t always been.

“Hey,” Natasha says, sitting down next to Wanda. “Almost got the whole gang back together, huh?”

Wanda smiles tightly, but Natasha can tell there’s something else hidden in her reaction. She puts her hand on the other girl’s knee while Clint steps out onto the porch with Laura close behind.

“He named the baby after my brother.”

Natasha feels her throat close up, because she knows it wouldn’t have been her responsibility to tell Wanda that information, despite the fact that she knew it would most likely come out in some manner when they came to the farm.

“Yeah,” Natasha allows. “He did. To honor him. If it wasn’t for your brother, he wouldn’t be here.”

“I know,” Wanda says quietly. “I do not think that Agent Barton shares my religion, but in the Jewish tradition, we name babies after people in our lives who have passed away. Your name is the most important part of you. It is your agency. And to name someone after a loved one who has died is a form of honoring their memory, for all eternity.” She stops. “I’m glad he was able to come home, now that I see what he has here. I just hope…”

Natasha gives her a gentle look. “You just hope what?”

Wanda swallows and suddenly looks unsure. “You’re comfortable here,” she says, steering the conversation away. Natasha shrugs, deciding to follow Wanda’s lead and let the previous topic go.

“I’ve spent a lot of time here over the years. With Clint...with Laura...we’re close,” she finishes as Wanda shakes her head.

“It is not only that. You’re more comfortable here than you are in your other room,” she determines and Natasha feels a stab of pain as the words hit. She swallows.

“It’s not a long drive from here to Indianapolis,” she says, deciding to change the subject again. “Couple of hours, at the most. Clint can do most of it, if you want to rest.”

“No,” says Wanda, raising her head. “I would like to do a little, if I can. It helps keep me distracted.”

Natasha nods. “Okay,” she says, getting up. She can see Clint lingering on the porch, and knows her own goodbyes are imminent.

There are hugs for Cooper and multiple hugs for Lila, promises of baking and taking walks when they return, and then Laura is standing at the porch, clutching the rail as Natasha, Clint and Wanda walk to the car. Clint turns and gives a little wave, and Natasha sees Laura wave back once before she drops her hand.

Natasha punches the hotel address Steve has given her into the GPS as Wanda starts to drive and Clint stretches out in the backseat, legs akimbo, one arm thrown over his eyes.

 

***

 

Steve checks his phone, his last text from Natasha shows that they’re at least fifteen minutes away.

“We’re staying in a lot of hotels,” Bucky says as they troop into the room. Despite the motel’s non-busy atmosphere, they’ve managed to acquire a pair of rooms next door to each other. Sam sighs.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” he responds. “Just until we get ourselves settled here. Once we get back to our place in New York, if you wanna stay, you can have a real room and all that.”

“A real room,” Bucky says, as though he’s trying out the words, attempting to make sense of them.

“And no more fast food,” Sam adds. Bucky frowns.

“I like the food.”

Sam lets that one go as they unpack, Bucky sitting on the bed looking a little out of place, given he doesn’t have anything of his own to worry about. Steve throws him a shirt and Sam throws him a couple of pairs of pants and Bucky looks confused at it all.

“We’ll make a stop in town later and get you some real things,” he says, glancing up at the window and catching a glimpse of the headlights slowing down in their approach. “Once everyone gets their bearings.” He drops the rest of the stuff on the bed and exits the room as Clint, Natasha and Wanda pile out from the car.

They’ve all seen better days, Steve supposes. Wanda looks tired and Natasha still looks the same as she did when Steve left her back at the facility -- rigid, hiding her frayed edges by pushing everything under the surface, though Steve suspects she’s able to hold herself a little better now that Clint’s here. Clint seems like his usual self, despite the fact Steve knows it takes a lot for anyone who’s not Natasha to see underneath the layers of what the archer projects when he’s in public.

“Hey,” Clint says, nodding towards Steve, who nods back. “Been here long?”

“Not entirely. Wanda.”

“Captain Rogers.” Wanda’s tone is stilted, but she’s smiling. “It is good to see you again.”

Steve smiles back.

 

***

 

“Remind me again what we’re doing here,” Sam says later. They’re sitting on deck chairs outside the motel, Sam is stretched out with his legs in front of him while Clint has his own legs up on Natasha’s chair, almost in her lap, and Wanda is curled up like a cat across from all of them.

“Bucky was born here,” Steve says. “In this town. I don’t know the details, but I do know that bringing someone back starts with this kind of formative memory.”

“And you think he’s going to remember this place,” Natasha says a little doubtfully. Steve shakes his head.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “I really don’t. But I needed to get him out of New York, at least until I could get him back to normal.”

“Hell of a gamble,” Clint mutters under his breath. “Dragging me out of retirement for this...fuck,” he adds sharply as Natasha smacks her arm into his knee. “Fine, okay. No retirement.”

“Look, no one wants to get back to business more than me,” Steve continues. “But we gotta break him first. Make sure he’s okay. I can’t go back there without my best friend.” He catches Natasha’s gaze, and she lowers her eyes.

“So how is he?” Wanda asks from behind half of her hair. Steve moves his jaw back and forth.

“He knows who he is. And he found us on his own, so there’s no Hydra involved.”

“Hopefully,” Clint mutters.

“Hopefully,” Steve adds. “He does remember, a little bit. But not a lot.”

“Anything else?” Natasha asks carefully and Steve surveys the faces of his friends one by one, the grim looks mixed with hesitancy and tiredness and a little bit of exhaustion.

“Well,” he says, pushing a hand through his hair, trying to think of something less depressing to talk about, “he really likes McDonalds.”

 

***

 

“They want me to be their leader,” Steve tells Natasha while they take a walk. She raises an eyebrow.

“I never said I needed a leader.”

You didn’t,” he agrees. “But back there? The way they all looked at me like they had no idea what to do otherwise?”

Natasha sighs, a reaction that sounds more frustrated than he thinks she might have intended. “So be a leader,” she says with a shrug. “You know how to do that. That’s what we’re doing with the new team, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but that’s easy. That’s a job. This…” Steve trails off. “This is Bucky we’re talking about.”

“Yes,” Natasha says curtly as Steve cringes. “I’m well aware.”

“I know.” He looks out at the road, the street signs blinking in the distance, and realizes he’s never asked the question, for multiple reasons. “I could ask you about that…”

“Don’t,” Natasha says abruptly. “I don’t want to talk about my past. Or how we know each other, for that matter.”

“I wasn’t going to make you say anything,” Steve replies. “I was going to ask you what was it like, with Barton.”

Natasha’s face changes, the lines around her mouth becoming thin and taut. “Hard,” she says finally. “Really hard. I don’t know what would be worse -- knowing who you are, but having someone control your mind and losing that independence...or losing years of your life and trying to get it all back.”

“Depends on how many years you lose, I guess,” Steve says and Natasha meets his eyes.

“Barton was hard,” she repeats, and there’s a waver in her voice that he knows she rarely lets anyone hear. “It almost broke me.” She reaches for Steve’s hand. “I know you can handle a lot of things, but do me a favor, and don’t let it break you.”

 

***

 

While Natasha talks with Steve, Clint calls Laura. She’s in the middle of feeding Nathaniel, and Clint can tell she’s holding the phone tight between her ear and her shoulder while the baby gurgles somewhere in the vicinity of the speaker.

“So how is everyone?”

“Tired.” Clint closes his eyes. “I could really go for a nap right now.”

“Then it’s a good thing you’re a grown man who can make his own decisions,” Laura says smartly. “How’s Nat?”

Clint mulls over the question, trying to figure out how to answer. “She’s...okay. I think she’s doing better. She will be better, when this is all over.” He hopes at least that’s true, because he hates seeing Natasha like this when it’s a rare thing -- out of her element, nervous, her footing shaky.

“She needs you,” Laura says when Clint stops talking. “You think I don’t know that?”

“No,” Clint says, massaging the back of his neck. “I know you do. But what if I can’t fix this? What if I can’t even help?”

“Clint, listen to yourself. Natasha is the one person who you know better than me. I think what she needs is to feel comfortable again.” Laura pauses to murmur something unintelligible to Nathaniel, who’s started to cry. “She had something personal taken from her. And then being left alone didn’t help.”

“She was never alone,” Clint protests, though he knows what Laura means. It’s not so much Banner running away, or him returning to his own wife. It’s that usually, standard mission protocol included time for them to regroup, to spend some hours winding down before eventually going their separate ways, something that really didn’t happen in the wake of Sokovia. Clint truthfully hadn’t realized how badly Natasha had been affected by that lack of regime until their first Skype session after he had returned to the farm.

“Sometimes,” and Laura’s voice turns more serious as she raises it above the baby’s wails, “when we know we’re not alone, that’s when we feel the most vulnerable.”

Clint lets out a slow sigh. “How much do I have to pay you in order to call you my therapist again?”

Laura laughs lightly. “Diaper changes for a week when you get back, and picking the kids up from school. Maybe a few extra baths. Then, we’ll talk.”

 

***

 

Aside from peeking into the room, Natasha hasn’t really seen Bucky, not since he basically tried to kill her on the causeway in the middle of downtown D.C. So she puts the whole thing off for longer than she probably should, waking up at five in the morning and then loitering in the lobby, funneling down three cups of terrible black coffee until she can practically feel the anxiety swimming out of her body.

“Hi,” says Natasha quietly when she walks over to where Bucky is leaning against the car. She’d seen him exit the room, and isn’t surprised he probably can’t sleep, either. She can barely sleep now, and she’s not even brainwashed anymore. “Remember me?”

“Hi,” says Bucky. He squints. “Stalingrad?”

“Odessa.”

“Right. Did I kill you?”

“Clearly not.”

“Hmmm. Your engineer, then?”

Natasha smiles grimly. “So you do remember. Зимний Солдат.” At her words, Bucky tenses suddenly, fingers flexing by his side.

“Чёрная вдова.”

“It’s Natasha now,” she says, holding his gaze, which is not entirely true, except in the sense that she’s only the Black Widow when she has to be. “Just Natasha.”

“Just Natasha,” Bucky repeats, exhaling slowly. “Then who am I?”

She swallows. “I guess that’s the question, isn’t it?”

“I guess.” Bucky furrows his brow. “Steve says I’m his friend. Newspapers say I’m a killer. Things that I’ve read say I was your trainer.”

“You’re all of that,” she confirms levelly. “Before, and then after. We knew each other, but not really. It’s...a little odd.”

“Yeah,” he says, and then pauses. “You tried to kill me.”

You tried to kill me.”

“I hope that makes us even.”

“Not even close,” Natasha says, offering a small smile that feels forced. She wants to laugh, wants to tell him about the fact she does remember, the fighting and the orders and then nights he would pull her out of bed and whisper his secrets because he just needed someone else to know, because it’s all so screwed up that it makes her want to scream. “What do you remember, really?”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Bucky puts his lips together, as if trying to figure out how to push words out. “A lot of nothing,” he says. “If we’re talking about here. There are some things, I guess. Roads and car colors and food. The way my mom used to sing me to sleep. I remember Brooklyn. I remember him,” he continues, jerking his thumb back towards their room, where Natasha knows Steve is still sleeping.

“Do you remember Katerina?”

She watches the way his face darkens, the way the lines around his mouth become whiter, the way a pale color drapes its way over his cheeks.

“Yes.”

“Do you remember what she made us do?” Natasha asks slowly, leaning back against the car. For the first time in years she wishes for a vice, a drink or a cigarette or something that she could busy her hands with the way she once did years and years ago, with him, in the basement of the training center, backs pressed against the dirty wall; the nights when he would give her lessons, ones that the teachers were laughably blind about when it came to their best asset breaking orders. As if on cue, Bucky takes out a carton of cloves and hands it over silently. Natasha hesitates, then shakes her head resolutely. The weirdness of the whole situation makes her feel too uncomfortable, and she’s suddenly afraid that despite what she wants to do, endorsing old habits will only make things worse.

Besides, what she had said to him before was true. That particular conditioning was broken. That had been Natalia. That had been the Black Widow.

It’s just Natasha, now.

Bucky shrugs and then lights up on his own, slipping the thin stick through fingerless gloved hands. “I remember,” he says through a cloud of smoke. “I remember the kills. I remember all of them. I remember Ivan and I remember Zola and I remember getting my arm.” He moves his elbow, as if needing to remind himself of his own words. Natasha’s breath catches in her throat, because she knows what he’s going to say before he says it.

“I remember Irina.”

Natasha closes her eyes. She can see the image when she does, the girl strapped to the table with the vice on her head, spidery fingers of her handler clutching her arm, instructing her to do the things she never wanted to do -- then waking up and seeing her friend lying on the floor, lifeless eyes staring at the ceiling and a pencil-sized hole in her forehead.

Confirmation required. The program is complete.

“Do you remember breaking my arm?” she asks, pushing the memory away, keeping her voice steady. Bucky looks straight ahead, hair falling into his eyes.

“Yes,” he says and she shudders internally. “I remember bringing you pills, too,” and Natasha remembers that also, because painkillers were forbidden in the Red Room. But then again, that was a perk of being a secret student.

“Do you wish we had been different?” Bucky asks, and his voice sounds curious. “Less...red?”

Natasha takes a steadying breath. “I do wish there was less of it,” she says carefully, thinking of Clint, because there’s a part of her that guiltily wants to say no. If the Red Room hadn’t programmed her, she never would have become a target, she never would have been in Sao Paolo when Clint had been there for the same reason, she never would have been brought into SHIELD, she would never have gotten a partner.

Bucky nods, throwing his clove to the ground and stamping it out, grinding the stick into the dirt. “Me, too.”

 

***

 

If Clint had his way, he would’ve stayed out of the whole thing. Not because he didn’t want to be with Natasha, or help his friends, or come along for the fight -- as much as he loved being home and wanted to spend time with his family, those were the things he actually wanted to do. But he wasn’t really looking forward to talking about experiences he’s still not used to opening up about, much less with someone who, he knows, tried to kill his best friend.

“I know how it feels,” he says when he enters the room, sitting down on the floor next to Bucky, because he figures the best way to start this off is with brutal honesty. “I know how it feels to have someone in your head. To kill people and not be aware of your own actions, but become responsible for them.”

“I thought you might,” and when Clint looks up in surprise, the other man shrugs. “I’ve been told some things. And also, I’ve been reading up on what I’ve missed.”

“Right,” Clint says slowly. “Well, then, according to your education, you know the whole deal.”

Bucky shakes his head. “Not really. But I do know what it’s like to take orders without knowing who they’re coming from and who’s making you do them.”

Clint sucks in a breath, avoiding Bucky’s eyes. “When I came out of it, I didn’t know who I was,” he says in a low voice. “Nat -- Natasha -- she was there. I knew where I was. But I couldn’t even remember my name. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be there, if someone had saved me, or if I was lying there because someone was going to flick a switch and have me kill her.” He swallows. “Sometimes, I still don’t know. I’m still scared he’s in there somewhere, like he’s hidden something inside of me that will cause me to snap around my kids. Or worse, around my best friend.”

Bucky nods. “He said my name,” he says, looking down, moving his arm nervously, like it's a tick he can’t control. “It was...it brought me out of it, a little. It broke whatever conditioning I had. I wasn’t really the same afterwards. Not the way they wanted me to be, anyway.”

Clint nods back, because he gets it, because it had been Natasha’s voice that had done that for him.

You’re going to be okay.

“Were your memories...things…” Clint stops, unable to figure out how to continue. “What color?”

“Grey,” Bucky says simply. “Like hazes of smoke that never cleared, even when you knew you were awake. You?”

“Blue,” Clint says, ignoring the pain in his chest. “The mind stick, the thing he used to control me. It was like ice.”

“Let me guess. You hate the cold now.”

“Can’t ever take a freezing shower again,” Clint confirms. “Not the way I used to be able to, anyway. Did an op in Oymyakon a year after I got back on my feet and had a panic attack in the field. Nat brought me out of it before anyone could realize what happened, though.”

“That’s why they brought me back here,” Bucky trades. “It’s neutral, I think. I have memories, but they’re not triggering. I wasn’t Bucky in this place. I was still James. That’s my real name, by the way. James Buchanan.”

“Yeah, I know,” Clint says, blowing out a breath. “You want me to say my real name isn’t Clinton? Because I’ll lie. I’m not that lucky.”

Bucky shakes overgrown hair out of his eyes and laughs.

 

***

 

When Clint gets back to his room, he realizes that his skin is crawling in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable, to the point that shedding his clothes doesn’t even help. There’s an uneasiness associated with his brain every time he shuts his eyes and after a few breathing exercises that do absolutely nothing for his nerves, he decides to try a different tactic altogether, closing the door to the bathroom and running himself a heated bath. Clint eases himself down into the tub and sticks his legs out as far as they’ll go in the cramped ceramic basin, leaning his head back and closing his eyes.

He’d followed through and taken care of most of the projects he’d left off with when Ultron showed up, but there was still the matter of the bedroom, the fact that the closet was really falling apart and also that as much as he wanted to deny it, Cooper and Lila weren’t exactly innocent kids anymore. Far from knowing what their father actually did for a living that didn’t involve being away and fighting, they’d come across Lila snooping around in various bedrooms one too many times for Clint to be comfortable about him and Laura turning their heads for five minutes when they had weapons stored in the house.

Floorboards. Shed. Barn. Green paint. Lila’s room first, followed by Cooper’s. Floorboards. Shed. Barn. Green paint. Lila’s room first, followed by Cooper’s. Floorboards. Shed --

His thought process is cut off abruptly as oxygen disappears, panic spreading through his chest as his head slides completely under the surface without warning. He jerks himself upwards, coughing, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.

“Just wanted to make sure you were still in there.”

“By trying to kill me?” He spits out water. “Fuck, Tasha.”

You tried to kill me,” Natasha responds evenly, sitting on the toilet seat. Clint coughs again, trying to clear his airways.

“Thanks for the reminder,” he grumbles, slouching back against the wall. Natasha smiles thinly, but Clint notices that it’s a little more lethal than usual, like she’s trying to make him pass some sort of test, like the way she treated him after New York.

“I take it your talk went okay?”

And there it was, the patented Natasha way of letting him know that she knew he was less than fine, no matter what he would decide to tell her.

“Why do you ask that?”

“Well, you’re in the tub. Probably thinking of…” Natasha squints. “Home improvement ideas, particularly the bedroom, because you need to redo your closet but you want to make sure you still have a good hiding space for your weapons now that the kids are getting older and can figure out that mommy and daddy keep secrets.”

“Jesus, you’re good,” Clint says, standing up. He doesn’t wait to see if Natasha will look away, because there’s really no need, because there have been way too many times they’ve needed to see each other stark naked and not all of them were for fun reasons like drunken dares in foreign countries.

“I should hope so. I’ve only known you for most of my life,” Natasha replies shortly as he grabs a towel and shoves it around his waist.

“Did you ever wonder what happened to you? When you weren’t yourself?” Clint asks as he exits the bathroom, Natasha trailing behind. She shakes her head.

“I didn’t ask, because I don’t need to know,” she says. “But I don’t like thinking of where my mind was, or how someone else controlled me.” She pauses. “You know this.”

“Yeah,” Clint agrees because she’s right, the conversation itself isn’t new, they’ve had it before. But in the wake of Bucky, it feels like fresh wounds have been ripped open all over again.

“Are you thinking of that?” Natasha asks quietly, lingering by the bed. “About the things you did?”

“More like the things I didn’t do,” Clint says, running a hand through wet hair until it spikes at the top. “I was a slave. My own mind was taken from me without permission. Like someone…” He trails off, not wanting to say the words out loud. “Anyway, I never want to feel that way again. Ever.”

“I know,” Natasha says simply, reaching for his hand. “Believe me, neither do I.” Clint sighs, squeezing her palm.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

Clint lets go of her hand as he drops the towel, stepping into his boxers. “Did you talk to him? About...you know. Those memories?” He watches Natasha sit down on the bed, holding her arms tightly against her body.

“Kind of.”

“What does ‘kind of’ mean?” Clint asks suspiciously as Natasha closes her eyes.

“It means what it sounds like,” she snaps. Clint raises an eyebrow and moves closer as Natasha’s hand flies up unexpectedly, but years of partnership have taught him how to read her actions and body language better than his own. He reacts without thinking about it, catching her fist easily in his own and forcing her back down onto the bed.

“Easy, Tash. You said I was the one you were worried about, considering that you tried to drown me back there.”

Natasha glares up at him from her current position. “I have to check every so often and make sure,” she retorts, pushing herself up on her elbows. “Because I remember a time when you weren’t.” There’s an edge to her voice that that makes him feel sick, makes him think of days when he locked himself in the bathroom without telling her, and he sits down. This time, she doesn’t react.

“скажите мне, сколько людей я убил.” Tell me how many men I killed.

Natasha furrows her brow and Clint can’t tell if it’s because she’s surprised at his words, or if it’s because she truly can’t understand him. His Russian was always terrible to begin with, a learned language that never went beyond rudimentary and was assisted mostly by the use of Rosetta Stone, much to Natasha’s dismay.

“слишком много для меня, чтобы имя.” Too many for me to name.

It’s a benchmark, he knows, because if he can handle being told over and over again that he did things he hated himself for and not freak out about it, it means there’s still a part of him that believes he can fight. Clint reaches for her hand, ignoring the scars of bite marks on his arm.

 

***

 

Steve finds Bucky sitting on a bench in Blue River Park, about twenty minutes from the motel, and what he vaguely remembers as the place where Bucky might have been taken as a young child. He’s swinging his legs back and forth, his hair is messy and as greasy as ever and desperately needs another cut, but his face looks a little cleaner, thanks to the facial hair that’s finally been removed.

“Day 36 in the real world: Bucky Barnes shaves with a razor and doesn’t kill himself,” he says as Steve furrows his brow, joining him on the bench.

“How did you get here?”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Seriously, Rogers? I drove.”

“You remembered this place?”

“I remembered enough,” Bucky says defensively. “I may have a metal arm and a bum brain, but I do remember things.”

Steve stares ahead at the green patches of grass. “Your mom used to take you here,” he says, it’s half a hunch and half rooted in what he can remember Bucky telling him from when they were growing up together.

“Yeah, we used to play in that little space over there,” he says, waving his hand forward. “Don’t ask me why I remember that. But I can see it in my mind.”

Steve closes his eyes. “What else can you see?”

Bucky’s silent for a long time. “Someone feeding me ice cream,” he says, massaging the lower half of his face, where his beard used to be the thickest.  “Chocolate, I think. I like chocolate, right?”

“You love chocolate,” Steve says a little sadly. “We used to go to that store down the block all the time, when my mom was sick.”

“Yeah, you would steal newspapers while I stole candy bars,” Bucky affirms and Steve barks out a laugh.

“And then I would use those newspapers to stuff my shoes so that they’d stay on, cause dad’s never fit correctly. But I had to use them because they were the only shoes I had, and you’d make fun of me.”

“You deserved to be made fun of,” Bucky says. “You looked ridiculous trying to walk on the balls of your feet like a circus act.”

Steve tilts his head towards the sky, letting out a long breath. “How do I know you’re okay?”

“Okay, meaning what?” Bucky looks confused.

“Okay, meaning that you know enough not break out and kill someone you’re not supposed to. Okay meaning that all of us can trust you.”

“Oh.” Bucky shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess you just have to trust me.” He moves his arm, wincing slightly. “Either that, or you can drop me at the nearest bus station and send me back to Brooklyn.”

“You couldn’t afford to get to Brooklyn if you stole my wallet,” Steve points out and Bucky smiles.

“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” He sighs. “So, Captain. What’s the next stop on our homecoming tour?”

 

***

 

The next stop, Steve decides, is Bucky’s childhood home, which looks about as run-down as he remembers seeing in photos despite the fact that there’s a car in the driveway and a man in overalls working on the vehicle.

“Mom used to sit on the front porch with me and we’d sing together,” Bucky says from their spot across the street, staring up at the house. He narrows his eyes. “What the hell happened to this place?”

“Life,” Steve says, which he figures is probably the most honest answer. “Life happened to it.” And then, because he can’t help it, “life happened to all of us.”

Bucky snorts quietly. “I gotta say, being iced for 70 years has really made you maudlin. This place looks like it’s falling apart...I saw better things when I was homeless.” He pauses. “I kinda can’t believe someone actually bought it.”

“I can,” Steve says dryly. “Have you seen the prices things go for today? I bet this was sold for some kind of amazing deal. Watch, they’ll fix it up all nice and then sell it for another million in a few years.”

“Probably,” Bucky agrees, and Steve follows his gaze as a young mother walks out of the door with a small child in her arms, bringing the baby over to the man working on the car. “Jesus Christ, I feel like I’m a ghost of Christmas past or something watching my own life right now. Except I didn’t die.”

“Except you did,” Steve says before the weight of the words hits him because it’s all so goddamn strange, and Bucky cringes.

“I guess I did. But not really.” He pauses. “I mean, just like you right?”

Steve clenches his jaw, and Bucky sighs. “If you need to know, I was found right after I fell, I remember that. Thought that was the end, but they brought me to some bunker. That’s where they gave me my arm.”

“Zola,” Steve supplies, and Bucky nods.

“Yeah, him. How they even rescued me, I have no idea.”

Steve snorts. “Well, we weren’t exactly being secretive with our exploits on that train,” he says dryly, and Bucky laughs.

“I guess not, right? Anyway, they told me that I was going to be useful or...something.” He pauses. “I guess I was pretty useful, wiping out half of the country’s population and leaders without knowing.”

“Hey,” Steve says sharply, turning to face him, because he can hear the frustration building in his voice. “That wasn’t you. Okay? That wasn’t Bucky, that was the Winter Soldier.”

“One and the same,” Bucky says, motioning to his arm. “Are you Captain America the righteous hero, or are you Steve Rogers, the righteous asshole from my childhood?”

Steve sucks him a breath that hurts more than he wants to admit. “I’m no more of a hero than I was the day that I went into the ice, Buck.” He looks at the ground and then back up again. “Or when I almost died on that helicarrier.”

Bucky’s mouth works its way into an expression that looks like he wants to talk, but doesn’t quite know how, like a child learning to speak for the first time and knowing what he wants to say but also, not knowing.

“Why do you think I couldn’t let you die?” he asks finally, and the fingers of one metal arm curl around Steve’s shoulder. “End of the line, right?”

And Steve nods, because, hell. End of the fucking line, indeed.

 

***

 

There’s a small patch of garden in the middle of the motel establishment, and it’s where Wanda finds Bucky sitting alone, reading a file. When she gets closer, she realizes it’s a file with his own name on it.

“They told me it would help,” Bucky says by way of explanation as Wanda approaches. She nods.

“Sometimes, it is good to know things you were in the dark about,” she says, sitting down next to him and keeping her distance. Bucky looks over after another minute of scrutinizing the papers in front of him.

“Do you want to read my mind?”

Yes, Wanda thinks as she studies his face, coarse skin lined with memories and unmakings that are apparent even without the use of her powers, greasy hair falling into eyes shadowed with something that looks like pain, an unkempt start of a beard and dirt around the ears. She inches closer, tentatively raising her fingers. A burst, then -- something bright and tantalizing.

Hope, Wanda recognizes, before the colors thin out and disappear into a dark void, a world absent of light and sound and painted in bruises of black and blue and blood red. There’s a whir of metal, a sound of a scream, and suddenly the world is crashing in on itself like a collapsing building, stifling the scream that tries to rip itself from her throat.

Her hands fly up to protect her face as her eyes open, her mind clearing but lingering on the sounds of crunching bone, the pleas from broken lips that ask for a horror to be spared. Her head hurts, and her chest hurts, and she wishes desperately for Pietro because Pietro would know what to do, Pietro would protect her, he would know what to say or know not to say anything at all.

And Pietro isn’t here.

“Is something wrong?” Bucky mumbles a little cautiously, looking up at her like he’s guilty of something terrible, and Wanda suddenly feels worse about her reactions.

“No,” she lies, pushing herself up. “You just have a lot of memories.” She swallows. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let you see that.”

She doesn’t know where she’s going when she leaves and she also knows she shouldn’t be abandoning him like this, but she has no idea what else to do.

 

***

 

When Clint finds Wanda, she’s at a bar down the street that he isn’t even sure is open, until he peeks inside and sees a scattered handful of regulars holding court by the big-screen televisions hosting a college basketball game -- and one smaller woman hunched over the main counter, half of a bottle of rum sitting at her elbow.

“You know, I did this whole ‘sit in a bar and get drunk over my feelings thing’ once. More than once, actually,” Clint adds as he slides onto a seat next to her and flags down the bartender. “Needless to say, it didn’t end so well.”

Wanda looks up slowly, and Clint notices that her eyes are red-rimmed. He decides to ignore them.

“When?”

“Like I said, more than once,” he repeats as another glass appears in front of him. He pours himself a drink from her bottle without asking for her permission. “When I was dumped by my first girlfriend. When I got depressed. After that bastard of a Norse God took my brain hostage. When Laura and I had marriage issues after I joined SHIELD.”

“I will be fine,” Wanda decides, sipping from her own glass. Clint smiles grimly.

“Yeah, I told myself that, too.” He shrugs. “Trouble is, as I came to find out, it takes more than one person to beat the sentiment into you enough so that the words stick.”

Wanda tilts her head curiously, and Clint offers another smile. “Natasha, and then Laura,” he clarifies, pouring her another shot. “Both of them, in different ways, before and after but mostly together, now.”

“I would not have guessed that based on what you told me when we fought,” Wanda says slowly, and Clint snorts.

“Yeah, well. I’ve had a lot of practice being supportive when I need to be.” He plays with his glass, noticing how Wanda’s avoiding meeting his eyes. “You know, someone else gave me that talk, once.”

Wanda does look up at that, brows creasing. “Who?”

“My brother.” Clint leans over the bar. “We were orphaned as children when our parents died in a car accident. I thought it was my fault, because I was the reason my dad left the house while drinking. Got pissed off at something I did, and dragged my mom into the car with him to get away from us.” He’s acutely aware of Wanda sucking in a breath at his words.

“You were left alone. Like Pietro and I were,” she says softly, and Clint nods.

“Yeah, well, minus the whole bomb thing. This was his own doing. But anyway,” Clint shrugs, “if Barney hadn’t given me that speech, I don’t know what would’ve happened.” He looks down at his glass. “I was too angry, and I had too many regrets. And we were suddenly abandoned. So he did the only thing he could really do for me...he gave me hope. And I kind of kept that with me. I gave it to Laura when I met her, and I gave it to Natasha when I first brought her in, because she didn’t trust me at all.”

“And that is why you gave it to me,” Wanda says slowly. “You saw that I was worth forgiveness, even though I had done terrible things. No one would have given me a chance, if you didn’t. No one ever has.” Her voice drops off and Clint smiles crookedly.

“I looked into his mind,” Wanda continues after another moment. “And I saw what they made him. How they made him. How they made me.”

“Being made is just as terrible as being unmade,” Clint confirms. “I would know.”

“I know you would,” she says, before pausing. “That first time we met...you told me you didn’t want me in your mind.”

“And I stuck an arrow in your forehead, yeah,” Clint says gruffly. “Sorry, by the way. I would’ve pulled it out, if you had let me. But I don’t want anyone in my brain ever again, no offense to you.”

“It is not an offense.” Wanda swings her legs back and forth. “I know that some people see it as a violation.”

“It is a violation,” Clint says, feeling his frustration rise. “I lost my self-worth, my confidence, I almost lost my life. I almost killed my best friend.”

“I know,” Wanda placates, her voice soft. She takes another drink and then studies her hands a little too closely. “The first time I read someone’s mind like that, it was Pietro. I didn’t know I could do it.” She twists her lips into a small frown. “We had been experimented on, but I didn’t know what they were doing to us. And he didn’t sleep well, after our parents died. He never did. I was in my cell and he was having a nightmare, and when I tried to calm him down…” She picks up her hands, staring at them. “He was scared and I made it worse, all the time, until I learned that I could control it.”

“At least you learned how to control it,” Clint says a little grudgingly. “Anyway, it’s still not the type of power I’d ever want.”

“But you never did want it in the first place,” Wanda notes, picking up her drink again. Clint laughs shortly.

“I’m a crapsack failure of a human being with a large ledger of mistakes and a really high skill set,” he replies. “And yeah, I get hurt easily, and people make fun of me for the way I defend myself, and it makes me more vulnerable, but I also know the value I place on my work. More than a lot of other people do, except for maybe Nat. And I still wouldn’t want any kind of power.”

Wanda raises an eyebrow. “That’s noble.”

“Noble isn’t exactly the word I would use,” Clint grunts, and they both fall silent again.

I was wondering…” Her voice is tentative, and Clint can tell there’s something she’s trying to work her way up to asking. “I was wondering if you would help train me. When we get back to New York.”

Clint laughs again. “Sorry,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m not training, really. Nat and Cap are doing that.”

“And they are fine,” Wanda agrees. “I like working with them. But I still want you.”

Clint rolls his eyes and then takes a breath, spins around on the stool with crossed arms.

Why?”

Wanda looks a little taken aback by his response, but holds her ground. “My brother risked his life for you, without even knowing you. To me, that makes you worth it. And also, you made me fight.”

Clint closes his eyes against images of fiery orange and bullet holes and speeding dead teammates. “I told you: I’m just a human with a really high skillset. I’m afraid I’m not much of a teacher.”

“I know,” says Wanda. “That is something Pietro would say. And that’s why I want you to help me.”

Clint presses his lips together. “I didn’t mean...your brother…” He suddenly feels light-headed. “I never would have --”

“I know you never would have told him or expected him to do what he did,” Wanda interrupts sadly. “It was his decision. When it happened, I hated him for it.”

“But not me?” Clint asks curiously. Wanda shakes her head.

“It is not your fault that he died. You were saving a child....that was your choice. And his choice was to save you.” She pauses. “Thank you for naming him after my brother. Your son.”

Clint nods slowly. “Laura and I...it was the least I could do,” he says, feeling like the response is lamer than it should be. “Without him, I wouldn’t here.”

“But I am glad you are,” Wanda says softly, looking down. “For people like me, and for your children.”

Clint bites down on his lip, taking another drink. “I’m sorry,” he says, because it feels like it’s all he can offer, and because he feels like it’s not enough. Wanda looks across the bar.

“I miss him,” she says, her voice breaking and Clint raises his glass half-heartedly.

“Yeah. Me, too.”

 

***

 

“He’s not mad at you,” Sam tells Wanda while they eat dinner. Wanda manages a smile.

“He should be. I ran out on him. Like he was some sort of freak.” Wanda swallows. “I know what that feels like.”

“I know that you do,” Sam says gently, handing her a soda from the vending machine, popping the top loudly. “And I’m sorry.”

Wanda looks sad. “It is not your place to be sorry,” she says. “You didn’t do anything to us. You didn’t even know us until a few weeks ago.”

“Yeah, but I know what it feels like to beat yourself up because you’ve reacted to something and you expect the world to judge you for it.” Sam braces his hands against the table and Wanda picks at the fruit cup that she’s avoiding.

“I know what it feels like to be looked at as monster...as a killer,” she says carefully. “I did not want to look at him the same way people looked at me. But what I saw --”

“Freaked you out,” Sam finishes and Wanda looks surprised. Sam feels her reading the expression on his face, even though he’s not saying a word.

“Was this in the army?”

“Not during, but after,” Sam corrects, leaning back in his chair. “When I got back. Got kind of messed up from my partner…” He trails off, suddenly wondering if he should be talking about Riley when he knows Wanda’s situation. “Anyway, you know. Came back and had to face his family.”

“You had to tell them what happened,” Wanda surmises and Sam nods.

“Yeah. And let’s just say that didn’t go over very well.” He huffs out a laugh. “Thing is, Riley and I, we knew each other since we were teenagers. Got in all the same fights, took all the same college classes...only natural that we would join the same army. Same squadron, even. Wouldn’t have felt right with anyone else but him as my wingman. So I knew his family, and I still freaked out. Couldn’t deal with looking at their faces knowing I got to live and he didn’t make it...got two steps in the door and then booked it to the bedroom, refusing to come out for the rest of the night.”

Wanda’s looking at him with something akin to sympathy, and she reaches out with one hand. “You showed emotion. It means you care.”

“At the time, I thought it meant I was weak,” Sam says with a small shrug. “Couple of therapists later, I started to realize that I can’t really blame myself for every spontaneous action, and every minute of guilt. Which is why I’m telling you now, don’t beat yourself up. Cause you won’t get far in this world if you keep thinking everything’s your fault.”

“I’m beginning to think these kinds of talks are some sort of ritual for avenging,” Wanda says after a long moment, finally picking up her spoon and Sam cracks a smile.

“We’re all fucked up, Maximoff. All of us. But together, we somehow make it work.”

 

***

 

Natasha finds Clint in his bathing suit with a towel slung over his shoulder when she comes out of the bathroom after brushing her teeth.

“Going swimming?” she asks casually and Clint meets her eyes.

“Yeah. Are you going to try to dunk me again?”

“Maybe,” Natasha says nonchalantly, putting her hair up. “Are you going to think too much?”

“I have no idea,” Clint admits, walking out of the room. There are probably better places to take a dip that don’t involve what he knows is probably disgusting chlorine water, but he also doesn’t feel like driving somewhere and trying to find them. Thankfully, the pool is mostly empty, and he eases himself into the lukewarm water while shuddering at the brief flash of cold.

Clint submerges himself fully before he starts swimming, propelling himself forward with his arms. Bucky hadn’t been nearly as bad, at least, not as bad as Clint was expecting for what he knew he had endured. He feels a bit of jealousy, a slight moment of dark regret about the fact that it had apparently been so goddamn easy for the guy to snap out of his own violations, to at least appear confident in what he remembered, when it took Clint months to feel like he even knew what he could trust about himself. Few people, Laura included, knew what he had done to Natasha on more than one occasion, what he had done to himself, how many nights he had spent in fevered dreams too real to be imaginary or hunched over a toilet bowl, trying to exorcise his demons. It takes time, Natasha had told him and he believed her, except now, here was Bucky Barnes, the fucking Winter Soldier, eating fast food like it was going out of style just because he missed it for 50 years and talking about his brainwashing as if it was no big deal.

It’s almost enough to make him scream.

He makes four full laps before he stops at the other end of the pool, hanging onto the side, his lungs burning with exertion as he tries to get his breath back. It’s been awhile since he’s physically pushed himself, work-out wise, and as he hoists himself onto the ledge, feeling the pain in his thighs, he thinks he might be paying for that realization.

“Too slow,” Natasha calls from the doorway, and he looks up to find her smirking. “You used to be able to score ten full laps in under two minutes.”

“What, are you challenging me?” Clint asks, eyeing her as she sits down on the edge of the pool next to him, legs swinging lazily in the water.

“Now, why would I do that?”

“No reason,” Clint says and Natasha gives him a look as he leans back on his hands. That’s the thing, he knows -- Natasha never needed a reason to do what she did, whether it was for his benefit or for hers. She just fucking did it.

“You said you weren’t going to be thinking,” she reminds him, and Clint exhales loudly.

“Come on, Nat.”

“No.” She pulls her legs out of the water, knees to her chest. “I’m not letting it go. And you shouldn’t, either.”

He sighs, suddenly wishing he could slide back into the pool and let the water swallow him whole. “Fine. I’m worried about you.”

“Worried about me?”

“Yes,” he says shortly. “Because you’ve been walking on some kind of razor blade ever since we got back from Sokovia. And I know it’s not because of Banner.”

Natasha swallows, tapping her toes against the concrete. “It’s not,” she says carefully. Clint watches her face as she talks.

“But they don’t know that.”

“No, they don’t,” she says a little icily. “Why would they?”

“Why would they,” Clint echoes, sitting up straighter. “Is this something from your memories? Or is it something else?”

Natasha sighs in a way that he feels answers the question before she speaks. “Everyone has a place,” she says finally. “You have a place with Laura. Sam has a place with the new Avengers. Steve has a place with the Winter Soldier, now that he’s found him.”

“You have a place with us, with Laura and me and the kids,” Clint says, but he knows what she means, otherwise she wouldn’t have bothered to say it in the first place. “You know, Wanda doesn’t have a place, either.”

“I do know,” Natasha says, putting her legs down and kicking her feet under the surface. “We’ve talked about it a little.”

“Part of your road trip bonding?”

“Something like that.” Natasha smiles faintly. “We never got that time to ourselves, you and me. After Sokovia.”

“We didn’t,” Clint says, reaching over and putting his hand on her shoulder, massaging the knots that he knows are there. “But I guess this fucked up reunion road trip thing is as good a makeup session as any, right?”

“I guess,” Natasha says, and then she’s jumped, waist deep in water, despite the fact that she’s fully clothed. Clint glances down.

“You said you weren’t going to dunk me.”

“I never said that,” she answers but there’s a hint of a smirk playing over her face. “And I’m not dunking you. But I am asking if you wanna race me.”

“You just made fun of me,” Clint says, shoving his lips into an over exaggerated pout. “What makes you think I wanna race you?”

Natasha grins and before Clint realizes what’s happening, she’s wrapped two hands around his legs and is pulling him, hard, down into the water. This time, he has enough foresight to inhale a large breath before she pushes him under but he’s still unprepared, and still gasping for air when he surfaces.

“Because you miss me being competitive in training,” she says as she rolls onto her stomach, taking off in large, healthy laps. Clint watches her go, smiling a little bit and wiping water from his face, before following suit.

 

***

 

It takes him far too long to come to terms with it, but when he does, Sam decides this: the thing that unnerves him the most about Bucky and his return is that somehow, through whatever means of magic or luck, Steve got his partner and his best friend back. Sam’s not dumb enough to wish Riley into existence, but he aches for the person he knew like the back of his hand -- not just his wingman in the sky, but his wingman at the school prom, at boot camp, at the dive bars. And so it feels almost wrong that Bucky’s here and Riley’s not, but Sam knows he can’t really do anything about it.

But he decides to talk to Bucky because half of his life at home revolves around talking to people with fucked up life experiences, although he thinks that between Steve, Nat and Clint, they could all give his group members a run for their money.

“If you’re here to regale me with tales of a horrific war life, you should know I’ve seen my own arm amputated,” Bucky says in greeting, and Sam sighs.

“Glad to see you’ve kept a sense of humor,” Sam says as he closes the door. He still feels on edge, but the fact that Bucky seems to be -- for whatever reason -- knocking off the conditioning enough to settle back into himself makes him feel a little more comfortable. “What’s that?”

Bucky hands him a polaroid that looks yellowed and brown, and decades old. “Stuff I’m supposed to remember, I think.”

Sam takes the photo and squints, there are two boys in the picture, both lighter haired but one’s just slightly taller, and they’re mugging for the camera with arms slung around hunched shoulders.

“Steve lost his teeth before I did,” Bucky says, reaching for another photo and before taking it back. “Smug little fucker, even back then.”

Sam sighs as another image catches his eye, this one has Bucky in what Sam supposes must have been his war uniform.

“You know, at the VA, we call it baggage,” he offers. “Taking stuff with us, the things we can’t get rid of.”

“Yeah, but they don’t want me to get rid of these things,” says Bucky. “They want me to take them and remember them. Like some sort of new conditioning.”

“The thought process is the same,” Sam argues. “You keep things that the world wanted you to leave behind, or that you were supposed to leave behind. How you deal with it is your own doing.”

Bucky’s quiet for a long time, studying the photos on the floor.

“I actually had a good experience at war,” he says. “Sounds odd, right? I mean, the things after -- all the stuff they made me -- that was god awful. But before, when it was just me and Steve and the Commandos...those things were good.”

“You got lucky,” Sam says, trying not to sound overly cynical, because he knows it’s not fair to project his feelings like that. Things had been good for him, too, before Riley’s death. “You had a good team. A good partner. Most people don’t get that.”

“No,” Bucky acknowledges. “They don’t. So is that why you’re here? To tell me that it’s okay to keep my baggage because I got out on the other side okay?”

“I wouldn’t call you okay,” mutters Sam, before raising his voice. “But you’re a lot better off than we all thought you’d be, for everything you’ve been through.”

“You mean for everything you thought I was, based on how I acted in that battle,” Bucky corrects, and Sam cringes.

“No offense, but you did try to kill my friends. And me.”

“So I’ve heard.” Bucky flexes his arm. “That’s what happens when someone makes you a weapon.”

“Are you still a weapon?” Sam asks, not knowing if it’s a question he should even be wondering. Bucky, to his credit, looks a bit thoughtful.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so, but no one probably believes me.”

“Steve does,” Sam says automatically, and Bucky’s face twists into a grimace.

Steve would believe the Statue of Liberty if she came to life and told him she was built by the Red Skull,” he proposes and Sam can’t help laugh.

“For what it’s worth, I’ve got twenty bucks on beating you in a sprint if you’re interested,” he offers. “Romanoff put in for both her and Barton.”

Bucky looks up with an eyebrow raise, and grins.

“Make it forty and throw in a Big Mac, and you’re on.”

 

***

 

Clint’s sleeping when it happens.

The worst part about it is that for once, he’s actually managing to get a good night’s rest -- Natasha in bed next to him, both of them fully clothed and stretched out with their backs to each other, a measure of comfort that they’re used to displaying when one or both of them feels unstable, because when you know that you don’t have to be afraid, and you can sleep without looking at the other person, and without even touching them. He wakes when someone grabs his shoulder, jerking him to the side uncomfortably, and opens his eyes to see Natasha’s face pressed to his in the dark.

“Barnes had a nightmare,” she says, her voice heavy with sleep. “Think you can talk to him?”

“Me?” Clint groans as he blinks himself awake. “Why me?”

“Because you’re the one who’s most recently done this,” Natasha says, but there’s something else hidden in her voice that he picks up, a shred of fear that’s so subtle, anyone else would have probably missed it.

“Yeah, I’ll talk,” he mutters, launching himself out of bed and rubbing a hand across his face. He feels like this is a bit of sabotage -- Sam and Steve had experiences with post traumatic stress the same way, hell, they all did -- but he also knows Natasha wouldn’t ask him to do something she didn’t think he couldn’t handle. Clint slips on his shoes and exits the room, putting his fist to the door to knock but finding he doesn’t need to.

The door to Bucky’s room is ajar, enough for Clint to see that the inside has been mostly torn apart -- the lamps knocked over, the bedcovers strewn onto the floor, and Clint winces when he sees the fist-sized holes in the wall. Won’t be coming back here for awhile, then, he thinks as he walks inside slowly, closing the door behind him. It’s mostly dark but he can see Bucky anyway, the metal of his arm glinting in the light coming in from the windows. Clint moves closer as the other man turns from where he’s cowering, launching himself forward. Clint barely has enough time to think before instinct kicks in and he twists out of the way, falling onto his shoulder as he lands on a piece of broken glass from one of the lamps. He instantly feels the blood spurt out from a cut on his arm and curses loudly, falling back onto the carpet.

“Shit.”

Bucky’s voice comes from somewhere behind him and Clint tries to clamp down on the anger he feels taking up residence, sucking in a breath as he tries to remember his own experiences -- how he wasn’t himself, even if he didn’t know it, how he pushed Natasha away and hurt her a lot worse physically and emotionally than a gash.

“It’s fine,” he mutters, pushing himself up and cradling his arm. The overwhelming sight of the blood makes him slightly nauseous, but it’s not dripping nearly enough to pass as a deep cut. “Probably just a surface wound.”

“Not fine.” Bucky looks a little pale. “Didn’t mean --”

“Course you didn’t,” Clint says gruffly. “That’s what happens when you have nightmares, right?” He doesn’t wait for a response and gets up, walking out of the room. Natasha’s waiting for him outside, pacing back and forth.

“Jesus,” she says, looking up when he starts to approach. “Clint --”

“Nat, I’m fine.” He is, kind of -- his arm is throbbing but he’s had worse, he knows that, and she sighs as if she knows that as well, biting down on her lip and circling her hand around his waist as she leads him away from the motel.

“What happened?” she asks quietly, sitting him down against their car while she rummages through the trunk for the med kit he knows they’d thrown in, the one she’d taken from the farm. Clint sighs.

“Do you remember how I acted when I had nightmares?” Natasha doesn’t respond and Clint closes his eyes. “Kind of like that, but not as bad.”

“Looks bad,” she says in the same low tone, wiping the blood from his arm and putting pressure on it. She reaches for a bottle of water. “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” he says, shaking his head, flinching as the cold liquid stings his cut. “You were trying to take care of yourself. Besides, I would’ve gone anyway.”

“I know,” she says haltingly. “That’s the problem.” Her fingers prod lightly at his injury, and she sounds a little sad. “You’re always first out the door, Clint, and one day it’ll go too far. One day, I won’t be able to patch you up like this. Or bring you home to Laura safely.”

He lets out a breath, watching as she bandages his wound. “Not your job to be my babysitter, Nat. You know that. If I die, none of it will ever be on you.”

“If you die, I’ll kill you,” Natasha says shortly, but she’s letting herself smile in a way that Clint can tell means she’s starting to relax. He looks up to see Bucky approaching slowly, one hand unconsciously scrubbing at the back of his neck, eyes downcast. Clint sighs.

“War scrape, right? I forgive you.”

“You shouldn’t,” says Bucky, keeping his distance. “I’m not really that safe.”

Clint shrugs. “None of us are,” he points out and Natasha stays silent as she finishes wrapping his arm, pulling a little tighter at the bandage.

“I guess that’s the problem,” Bucky says slowly. “I mean, we’re never gonna be okay, are we?”

Clint catches Natasha’s eye, grimacing as she runs her fingers lightly over his skin, letting her touch calm the turmoil he feels raging against his insides.

“I don’t know. We might be, eventually.”

 

***

 

“There are things we need to take care of,” Maria Hill tells Steve. He doesn’t really ask what, because he knows that for her to call him out of the blue and use those words means a possible assignment. “Is Barnes there?”

Her words are clipped and no-nonsense, suggesting to Steve that she either doesn’t really care, or has had enough of them messing around off the grid for too long. “He is,” Steve answers and Hill clicks her tongue inside her mouth.

“And?”

“And, he’s stable,” Steve continues. “I think. He’s got his issues, but he knows who he is, and he remembers things.”

“But he hasn’t behaved actively in battle,” Hill supplies and Steve closes his eyes.

“No, he hasn’t.”

Hill is silent for a long time. “Do you trust him?”

“As a friend or a teammate?”

“Both,” she says, but her voice softens a little, because he knows that she knows when to appeal to his emotions -- and however much of a serial murderer the world knew him as otherwise, Bucky hit a lot of those emotions.

“As a friend, yes. As a teammate, yes. He’d have my back in battle, I believe that.” Steve pauses. “But I don’t know what will happen when he’s actually in the field, and there might not be any way to tell. Not like this, when we’re kind of stalled in the middle of nowhere.”

“I see.” Hill clears her throat, and then raises her voice a little over the phone. “Well, in that case, how do you feel about possibly getting unstuck and finding out?”

 

***

 

Steve finds Bucky sitting with Sam in the messy hotel room, though by the time he makes his way inside, most of the glass has been cleaned up and the bedcovers have been thrown in a bundled heap. The wall, however, still bears the very real marks of metal fingers.

“Tell the archer I’m sorry I hurt him,” Bucky says, swirling a glass of whiskey in his good hand. Steve frowns, sitting down on the bed.

“I heard that you told Barton yourself already.”

“Yeah, but in case he wasn’t sure if I meant it.” He raises his eyes and Steve sees how ragged his face looks, wonders if it’s from the nightmare or if something else is plaguing his mind.

“Alright,” Steve agrees as Sam takes a drink from his own glass. “Isn’t it a little early to be drinking?”

“What, you forgot what it was like to be in the army?” Sam asks lightly, handing over his cup. Steve manages a smile.

“I forgot a lot of things,” he admits, meeting Sam’s outstretched hand. He glances at Bucky. “But I think I’m trying to remember them.”

 

***

 

Everyone is slightly on edge and more than a little tired, so Steve proposes a group breakfast at a nearby walkable diner, a place that looks fairly empty and that includes a woman at the counter who spends a lot of time glaring at them. Steve isn’t sure if her disdain comes because they’re her only customers or if it’s because they all look entirely out of place to be trooping into a roadside restaurant at seven in the morning.

“Finally,” Clint mutters, reaching for a menu. “Real food.”

“You’ve had real food,” Natasha says, waving the waitress over and ordering two coffees. “Sorry,” she apologizes afterwards when she leaves before taking any other orders. “He gets antsy if he doesn’t get service right away.”

“I do not,” Clint mutters and Natasha grins.

“You so do.”

“I don’t!”

“Please don’t make me call Laura and put her on speakerphone just so I can win this argument.”

“You can’t anyway, remember? You only get to call her if I’m really hurt.”

Bucky glances up quickly at the end of their conversation but doesn’t respond and instead peruses the menu with a look that’s overly curious as the waitress returns with two mugs. Sam orders orange juice and Steve decides to get a breakfast special because why not, he had stopped caring about money a long time ago.

I’ve been thinking, he says in his mind, over and over again, rehearsing the words before he actually says them out loud.

“I’ve been thinking.”

“That’s never good,” Bucky responds immediately, and Natasha snorts into her coffee cup, her breath blowing small ripples across the surface. Steve ignores both of them.

“There are some things that I need to take care of before I go back to New York,” he says, looking around the table. “It’s not really Avengers related. But it does involve possibly getting our hands dirty with a few assignments, if you’re feeling up for it.”

Bucky says, “I’m in,” almost immediately and Clint shakes his head just as fast and everyone stares at Natasha.

“I go where he goes,” she says, glancing at Clint and putting her hands around her cup, and Steve’s not entirely surprised. Wanda, for her part, looks hesitant.

“Maximoff?”

“Yes,” Wanda says after a long pause, nodding slowly, glancing at each of them in turn. She takes a long breath. “I think I would like to come. For a bit. It will be good for me.”

“Sam?”

“Hey, like Romanoff said -- I go where you go. Just slower.”

 

***

 

The walk back to the motel is somewhat quiet, Bucky and Sam walking ahead, Steve and Natasha walking side by side with Clint and Wanda following in the back.

“So, what are these things that you need to take care of?” Natasha asks in a low voice.

“Exactly what I said -- things,” Steve answers honestly. “Hill called and asked if I would be on board with going to California to check out a lead she has on some new enhanced. Apparently, her SHIELD team, which is supposed to be handling stuff like that, is going through a bit of a...crisis.”

“A crisis,” Natasha repeats and Steve sighs.

“Some Inhuman issues. A few of their team members are down, or disbanded for the time being. She wouldn’t give me the details, and I didn’t ask. So she wants us to take care of stuff while they regroup.”

“She wants you to take care of it,” Natasha corrects, and Steve nods.

“And Bucky. And whoever else wants to go. I thought it might be good for him, you know? Maybe he can blow things up somewhere and, I don’t know, get his anger out.”

“Yes, that all makes perfectly good sense for someone who was conditioned to kill people for a living,” Natasha says with a small smile, and Steve gives her a sidelong glance.

“You’re not done with this,” and he wonders immediately after he says the words if he has to clarify, but she responds before he can correct himself.

“No.” Her gaze shifts ahead to join his, settling on Clint’s back. “And neither is he. But I think this is something you need to do on your own. And we need to go back to being a little bit normal, for now. Besides, how long until we really have to start leveling up?”

“Too soon,” Steve admits, because he knows that as well as she does. It’s been too quiet for too long, and they’ve already wasted enough time avoiding the responsibilities of what they needed to be cognizant of. Just because Thor hadn’t returned with any information on the stones didn’t mean that there weren’t other things lurking in the shadows that would probably need their attention.

“Exactly.”

Natasha slips her hand into Steve’s and bumps his shoulder as they approach the motel.

 

***

 

“Well, at least Laura will be happy to see us,” Clint says as he shoves a shirt back into his bag. “Less happy to see this bandage, but hey, no stitches should get me out of the doghouse.”

“I thought you were done with the doghouse after Morocco,” Natasha says, raising an eyebrow. Clint rolls his eyes.

“Yeah, well. Apparently Sokovia took it to a whole other level, what with me almost dying again.” He runs a hand through his hair. “Anyway, I told her you were coming back to stay with us for awhile. Kids’ll be happy. She’ll be happy. That’s good, right?”

Natasha nods. “Yes,” she says quietly, sitting on the bed. Clint stops with a shirt between his hands and sits down next to her, putting a hand on her leg.

“You know, I talked to the Maximoff girl. She wants me to help train her, when we get back.”

Natasha looks up in surprise, shaking hair out of her face. “Are you okay with that?”

“I…” He trails off. “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. I told her I would, though. And I know I can turn things off --”

Can you?” Natasha asks seriously, turning to hold his gaze, and Clint suppresses a shudder at the way she seems to say everything and nothing all at once with her look.

“I can,” he decides after a long pause. It’s the truth, and yet, saying the word out loud makes him want to throw up, because he can still see Pietro in his mind. Natasha puts her head on his shoulder.

“What if we train her together?” she asks softly, and Clint finds himself smiling, letting his own head come to rest on hers.

“Yeah.” He takes a deep breath, steadying himself. “I think...I think if we’re together, that could be good.”

Natasha squeezes his hand.

 

***

 

“Is this a test?” Bucky asks as he washes up, with Steve watching from the doorway, where he’s leaning against the wall.

“Kind of,” Steve admits. “The good news is, I have complete faith in the fact you’ll only shoot the people who deserve it.”

“Well, that means you’re shit out of luck,” Bucky says with a small smile, splashing water on his face with one hand. “I still owe you from Ms. Harrison’s class.”

“You --” Steve stops. “You remember Ms. Harrison’s class?”

“Course,” says Bucky, wiping his mouth on a towel. “And I remember how you ratted me out for not doing my math homework. Hence the shooting.”

Steve laughs, his entire frame collapsing against the door, a feeling of relief mingled with exhaustion as he feels the tension of the past almost-month drain out of him. Bucky’s looking at him a little curiously, one half of his mouth inching upwards.

“So, you think I’m gonna be okay, or what?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, rubbing a hand across his eyes. “I think you are.”

 

***

 

While Steve packs his own room, Sam helps Clint pack up their car.

“Back to the farm, then?” He slams the trunk, looking over at Natasha, who nods as she puts a bag in the backseat.

“For a little while. And then back to New York, eventually.” Clint comes up behind her and she shifts, curling her now-free one into his. “We’re still figuring stuff out.”

“Right.” Sam smiles. “Better to figure it out now before everything goes to hell, right?”

“Something like that.” She watches Steve and Wanda emerge from the other room. “Will you keep us updated? So I know you’re not all dead somewhere?”

“I’ll personally make sure you don’t have to train the next generation of the 27 Yankees by yourself,” Steve promises as he approaches. “And, yes. Besides, Hill might kill me if I don’t check in.”

“Ask Barton about how Hill feels when you don’t check in,” Natasha says conversationally and Clint groans, bowing his head.

“Aw, come on. That was five years ago.”

 


 

Sam decides to make Wanda and Bucky his new mission when they’re five miles down the road and Bucky says, out of nowhere, “I know you were talking about it at the bar before, but I’ve never heard Marvin Gaye.”

Wanda follows up with, “I did not listen to music much in Sokovia.”

Steve meets Sam’s eye in the rearview mirror as he turns up the volume on the radio, and then puts his hand on Bucky’s arm.

“End of the line,” he says as they speed out of Shelbyville, and Bucky smiles.

 

***

 

“I’m going to kill you,” Laura says to Clint when he walks in the door of the farmhouse, after she kisses him, and after he takes off his coat and exposes the bandage on his arm.

“I call hugs!” Lila declares, oblivious to her mother’s anger, running from the kitchen and beelining towards Natasha, who scoops her up in her arms and starts walking further into the house, leaving Clint and Laura in the foyer.

“Seriously, Clint. How is it that you’re always the one who gets into scrapes with these things?”

“Hey, no fair! I was gonna show Nat my Lego house!” Cooper yells in frustration. Somewhere up above them, Nathaniel starts to cry, and Clint catches Natasha’s eye across the room, offering a wry smile.

“Welcome home, I guess.”

 

***

 

California is full of smoke, which Bucky hates.

“I’m confused. Isn’t that how you, like, walked around all the time when you were an assassin?” Sam asks skeptically as they pile out of the car and Bucky makes a face at the smog.

“Yeah, but at the time, I didn’t know I was doing it,” Bucky mutters. He looks up at the sun, shielding his eyes. “California is strange.”

“California has great burgers,” Sam replies and Steve looks over at his friends, and shrugs.

“Well, he’s not wrong.” He glances at Wanda. “You okay?”

Wanda takes a breath. “I am getting better, I think,” and Steve figures he might agree. Wanda’s certainly becoming more open, and Steve’s hopeful that the more time they spend together, the more it’ll help with her power control, once she feels fully comfortable and confident.

“Good.”

The point that they’ve been directed to by Hill is an abandoned warehouse in the middle of the desert, where, according to reports, no less than a dozen enhanced are supposed to be hiding out.

“Orders are to round them up and bring them in, whoever’s on the property,” Steve explains as they survey the area. “Our handicap is that we don’t know any of their powers, but even so, we’re not supposed to use any hostile force. Maximoff, you’ll head us up.”

Wanda looks over at Steve and nods; out of all them, Wanda would be the best equipped to deal with anything out of the ordinary and Steve knows he’s comfortable enough having everyone else on back-up with guns and with his shield.

“We’re all good here?” He looks at Sam and Bucky, holding their gazes, and then raises his shield as both of them raise their guns.

“Give the orders, Captain.”

Steve steels himself against the pain that Bucky’s words bring to his heart, because it all feels so damn familiar, and then marches forward, walking across the ground to the warehouse. He flings open the door after a pause, finding a quiet, deserted establishment.

That blissfulness lasts for all of five seconds.

There are enhanced individuals everywhere, some cowering in the corner and some shooting sparks from their palms or heating areas with their hands; one of them is liquefying metal pipes and all of them turn their attention as Steve enters. Wanda immediately steps in front of the group, blasting what Steve recognizes as harmless red sparks from her hands, which seems to detain a few of the individuals. But Steve soon realizes that as much as they try, these people aren’t going to come willingly -- or for that matter, quietly.

He hears a sound from above and watches as Bucky steps out of the way, his gaze darkening before lifting his gun and aiming at the girl who’s made the shot. As the girl’s eyes widen in clear terror, Sam appears beside him in another quick second, yanking his arm back so that she shot misses. When Bucky turns around again, Steve’s relieved to see that there’s no “Winter Soldier” look in his eye -- at least, not that he can see. So, just an excited kill shot, then. It’s not the best situation, but he’ll take the little victories.

In a corner, Wanda’s engaged with a group of enhanced, but she’s using her powers to try to appeal to them, Steve notices, not attack them. He glances around as Sam and Bucky move throughout the warehouse, Sam keeping close by Bucky’s side, and breathes a sigh of relief. He hadn’t particularly wanted to play babysitter, for obvious reasons, but he’s glad someone is being cognizant enough where Bucky was concerned. When he finally emerges from the warehouse, having cleared the building, he finds most of the individuals huddled around Wanda, with Sam corralling them and on the phone talking to someone who Steve assumes should be Hill. Pick-up, then, he thinks. Hand 'em over to SHIELD. 

Bucky’s standing a few yards away, looking uncomfortable, wiping down his gun. He’s dirty and his hair is falling in his face and he definitely looks like he needs another shave, Steve realizes as he approaches. But underneath all of that, he sees something in his friend’s eyes that he knows he’s been missing, and something he hasn’t seen since they took down Hydra camps with the Commandos, the way he would look after a battle or a kill, his eyes light and excited and even a little cocky.

James.

Steve smiles.

“You did good, Buck. Proud of you.”

“Proud enough that I get to go on more of these things?”

Steve slugs him gently on his metal arm, the pain barely registering. “Maybe after some burgers. We’ll see.”

Coulson arrives in under half an hour, looking stoic and uncomfortable in his suit, which Steve can tell is definitely not made for the California desert.

“You made good time,” he tells the other man when he steps off the quinjet. Coulson smiles tightly.

“Happened to be in the area. Is that him?”

Steve follows his gaze and then nods, turning back to Coulson. “Yeah. That’s Bucky.” He pauses, raising an eyebrow when Coulson doesn’t respond. “I can get him to sign a trading card for you, if you want.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Coulson says, his words clipped. “Where’s the rest of your team?”

“Training,” Steve replies. It’s not his place to talk about Barton and Romanoff, and besides, the response would be true soon enough. He gestures towards Coulson’s arm. “What happened to you?”

“Things got messy,” Coulson answers, offering out his hand. “I’m bionic, now.”

“Yeah, I know someone like that,” Steve says with a wry grin, and they both look over at Bucky again, who waves hesitantly. “Anyway, they’re all yours. Tell Hill I said hi.”

“You can tell her yourself,” Coulson says, offering up the phone he’s been clutching and holding it out. Steve sighs, putting it to his ear.

“Rogers, I swear to god --”

“Hill, he was fine. He got a little excited when the enhanced tried to take a shot at him, but he didn’t actually shoot to kill. Besides, Wilson and Maximoff had his back.”

Hill is silent, and Steve can almost imagine the vein in her temple pulsating angrily, threatening to explode from under her skin. “If you all manage to come back to New York in one piece, it’ll be a miracle.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Steve smiles and hangs up the phone.

 

***

 

“They’re in California,” says Natasha as she approaches the hammock and Clint looks up from where he’s lying down, his suntanned face lined with visible thought.

“Huh. California.”

“California,” Natasha repeats, brushing back his hair with her thumb, and Clint sounds pensive when he speaks again.

“Wonder if Barnes has tried In-N-Out.”

 


 

Five months later, Natasha is standing outside a small room, watching Clint deploy a handful of arrows into the air. Each shot is met with a steady stream of red that sparks out of a human hand arched in perfect formation, arms swirling around in a dance that looks like something between a haphazard flail and a complicated ballet routine. Beside her, in another room that’s separated only by thick glass, Steve and Bucky are engaged in a sparring session with Sam and Rhodey, who are bouncing off the walls, twirling and engaging in complicated flight patterns, disappearing every so often into the open hole in the ceiling that Natasha knows leads to the roof, before swooping back in again to finish the fight. Steve’s knocked off his feet by Sam’s surprise attack and he lands nimbly on his toes, flipping backwards as Bucky grabs his shield from the wall and throws it with excessive force, catching him in the knees.

“Shit!” Steve yells as he goes down, even as he steadies himself, and his voice echoes through the glass barrier.

“Language,” Natasha calls out mildly as Clint and Wanda exit their own quarters, Clint dragging a palm across his forehead and wiping it on his grey tank top, which is soaked through with sweat. Natasha notices his cheek is more than a little bruised.

“Looks like Maximoff gave you a workout,” Natasha says, sharing a smile with Wanda as he eases himself down onto one of the benches. Clint groans.

“Give the old man credit every once in awhile. It’s not like you’ve spent a lot of time crashing through windows.”

“You’re not that old,” Natasha says, rolling her eyes and putting her arm around his shoulder, helping him back up before all three of them walk into the hall. “And I prefer to have my brushes with death on stranger things, like alien carriers.”

“Show-off,” Clint mutters as Wanda parts at the juncture of the stairs with a small wave, heading back to her room to presumably shower. “So, what now?” He shifts his weight, and Natasha finds herself caught slightly off guard.

What now, indeed.

“I was thinking maybe we could grab dinner before your Skype date,” she suggests after a long moment. “If you want.”

Clint shrugs. “Sure. Just give me five seconds to go change so I don’t smell like a gym.” He rolls his shoulders and glances down at her. “You want me to grab you anything? From the room?”

Natasha considers his words, knowing what he’s asking and also what he’s not, and then smiles.

“No.” She shakes her head, wrapping her arms around his middle, sighing quietly against his flushed skin. “I think for once, I’ve finally got everything that I need.”