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Op. 9, No. 2

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Bucky Barnes turns up in Natasha Romanoff's bedroom the third night after Steve finally brings him in. Bucky's sporting a lot of sore spots, a few splints, and raccoon eyes. It's late, but Natasha's still up. She hardly looks at him when he appears in the doorway. Just keeps reading her book and pats the space beside her on the bed. Quiet as ever, he pads over and climbs into her bed. He lies on his side with his back to her.

Three minutes later, he's asleep.

Seventeen minutes after he's asleep, she's asleep.

When she wakes up in the morning, he's gone. Natasha gets up and does her usual morning routine. Clint meets her down in the gym. They spar like they always do when they're both in the Tower and it's not the morning after a mission. Neither of them pulls their punches, which is typical.

It ends without a clear winner. Clint goes off to one end of the gym (shooting range) and she goes to the empty studio with mirrors for walls. It's just off the gym. She stretches and bends until every last one of her joints cracks and pops. Tony stocked the place with her brand of pointe shoe, but she goes barefoot today.

She leaves the studio sweatier than she left the sparring mat. Clint's just hanging up his bow and quiver as she exits the studio.

"Breakfast?" she says.

He nods and says, "See you in fifteen."

They both shower and put on cleaner versions of the same outfits they were just wearing. Steve and Bucky are in the kitchen when Natasha and Clint arrive. Steve's doing something on the stove. He's talking a lot. Really animated. Bucky sees both of them come in. Catching Natasha's eyes, he shakes his head as if to say, "This guy's hopeless."

"What's he trying to do this time?" Clint says.

Steve turns around. "Hey. Morning." He gives the cooking spoon in his hand a little wave.

"Good morning," Bucky says. He blushes when Natasha smirks at him.

"Right back at ya," Clint says.

They pull out barstools and sit down at the countertop facing the two soldiers.

"What're you trying to make?" says Clint.

Steve's back to messing with something on the stovetop. Bucky's watching dubiously over the captain's shoulder. The look reminds Natasha of a handler who had once tried to show her how to use a piece of equipment she already knew how to use — the handler had been doing it the wrong way.

"It's like a bunch of breakfast foods all baked together," Steve says. "And I'm not trying to make it. I'm just making it."

"So you're making a casserole? Is Leave It to Beaver on later?" says Clint.

"Never seen you put so much effort into breakfast," Natasha observes. "Usually it's steel cut oats or bust."

Gesturing to Bucky with his elbow, Steve says, "Buck remembered his mother making this when he was a kid, but he couldn't remember what it tastes like." There's so much pride in Steve's voice when he says that. "So I'm showing him how to make it."

Bucky looks at her and shakes his head again. She hides her smile. The things those two soldiers do for each other.

After breakfast (the casserole is OK — could use a little more seasoning), Natasha gets lost in the library. Pulling a book out of the shelves at random, she sinks into one of the small sectional couches Tony put in there just because she'd said something about it in passing.

An hour later, Bucky turns up. She hears him wander among the shelves for a few minutes before he finds her in the corner of the sectional. There's a thin little book in his left hand. He sits down next to her and opens the book. She goes back to reading. The rustling of pages sounds so good between them.

The next few days are the same as the first. She wakes up and spars with the Clint. Does some dancing. Goes to breakfast with Clint. Sometimes Steve and Bucky are there. Sometimes they're not. Sometimes Bruce and Tony are there; it's the end of their laboratory all-nighter. Then Natasha goes off to the library and picks a random book to read. Bucky turns up around the same time with that same little book and sits next to her.

After ten days of this, she puts her book down and says, "Is something wrong?"

"I can't read it," he says.

"Why not?"

He shrugs.

"Is it the language? Is there something bothering your eyes?"

Another shrug. "I can see the words but I can't get any meaning out of them."

"Could you read before?"

He nods. "When I was with them. Between them and coming here . . . not really. Street signs mostly."

"I could read it to you," she offers, gesturing to the book in his hand.

He holds it out to her.

"The text is in French," she says. "Do you know French?"

Shrug.

"OK," she says. "The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry."


The second time Bucky comes to Natasha's room is much like the first. Happens fifteen days after the first, in fact. Five days after the first time she read for him. The raccoon eyes have lightened but are still there. The sore spots are no longer physical and the splints are a distant memory. She pats the bed again, not taking her eyes off the rom-com J.A.R.V.I.S. is projecting on her wall. He curls up on his side again but this time he faces Natasha. For a moment, she looks down at him. He reaches out with his left and touches the back of his hand to the side of her thigh. This earns him a flick to the nose.

He's out like a light in a few minutes.

After the movie, she's asleep, too.

In the middle of the night, she wakes up. Bucky's shifting around beside her restlessly. She puts a hand on his arm.

"James?"

"Can't get comfortable."

"Did you dream?"

"Yes."

"Come on."

She gets out of bed and goes to the kitchenette Tony afforded her quarters. He'd told her that hers wasn't as well-stocked as everyone else because they'd never see her if she had everything she needs. It's not true, of course.

"You can sit," she says and points to the couch once they make it to the sitting room. Her space isn't like her; it's very "open concept."

Bucky sits.

In a few minutes she hands him a mug of sbiten'. After a few suspicious sniffs, he drinks.

"I've had this before," he says after a few sips.

"Hmm," she hums.

"Thank you."

"Don't mention it."

He falls asleep on the couch and she goes back to her bed. After sleeping a few more hours, she comes back to the kitchen and sees him still sleeping there. Natasha sits at her island and eats a Danish pastry while reading a gossip rag. Steve comes in all flustered and red in the face. Seven minutes haven't passed since her second waking.

"J.A.R.V.I.S. said—" he begins.

Natasha points to the couch and Steve falls silent. He looks relieved.

"Thank God." He sits down beside her. "I thought he'd left."

"You think he would?" she says. "Leave, I mean."

Steve shrugs. "I don't know. It's hard to tell. I know he's having a hard time, but he won't talk to me."

"I think he's doing OK." About as good as she did when Clint brought her in.

"J.A.R.V.I.S. said he's been having a lot of trouble sleeping through the night. Maybe something is wrong."

Around a bite of Danish, she says, "He can't read."

"What? Of course he can read."

She shrugs. "He told me he could see words but he couldn't make sense of them."

"Then why's he been walking around with books all the time?"

"Maybe he thought looking at the words long enough would solve the problem."

Steve looks like he's been stepped on. "I wish he would have told me."

"Probably doesn't want to disappoint you." She eats some more. "Feels embarrassed or ashamed."

Steve stares at his sleeping friend like it's his purpose in life. The only sounds for a while are those of Natasha chewing. Then she says, "You going to the briefing today?"

Steve looks at her quickly. Like he's forgotten she's there. He shakes his head. "Nah. Not going on the op anyway. Staying with Buck."

"I'm going to the gym. I'll see you later."

"See you."

"He can sleep as long as he wants here. Feel free to take a bed for yourself."

"Thanks."

"Bye."

"Yep."


The mission takes a week to complete. Well, it takes four days and they spend the other three just hanging out on the beach. The op was in southern Mexico. And, as Tony said, did anyone really expect him not to take a few days getting blackout drunk in Cancún? Clint was the one that finally dragged Tony's body to the quinjet and took them home. Natasha wouldn't have minded having another day or two.

She still has the beachy, laid-back attitude of Cancún when she gets to her floor in the Tower. So she's not mad at all to find Bucky lying in her bed. No, Natasha just unpacks her stuff and sits on her bed and looks at him.

"What're you doing?" she says.

"Hiding from Steve."

"Why are you hiding from Steve?"

"I'm getting sick."

Natasha taps her fingers on the comforter and narrows her eyes at him. "You don't want him to fuss over you, or you think he'll be mad that you're not field-ready?"

Bucky doesn't look at her. She sighs. "You know he'd never do anything to you for being sick."

He nods.

"It's not like you did it on purpose."

"I know."

"J.A.R.V.I.S., if Steve asks, tell him that Bucky's on my floor."

The AI assures her that it will be done.

"How are you sick?" she says.

"In the head." He makes a fist and holds it up for her to see. "It hurts. And my stomach keeps — I can't stop throwing up."

"How long?"

He shrugs.

"When was the last time you ate or drank something?"

Another shrug.

"You're worse than Steve, you know that?" she says.

Good grief, is that a look of pride on his face?

"I'll be right back," she says.

And she is. Only one minute and four seconds passes where she's gone. She gives him a bottle of water and two little pills.

"What is it?" he says.

"Antiemetic." He accepts the pills when she holds them out a second time. "Wait a half hour or fifteen minutes and then start drinking this slowly." He takes the second bottle she passes him. It's one of those nutrient shakes that little kids and old people drink.

Bucky Barnes is technically an old person, so it's appropriate.

"This is my room, and I'm going to watch a movie," she says. "But you can stay if you want."

He stays.

J.A.R.V.I.S. plays another romantic comedy for her. There's a whole list of these types of movies that he's compiled for her. Every so often she asks the AI to play the next on the list.

Halfway through the movie and a quarter of the way through his drink, Bucky says, "Why do you watch films like these so much?"

Natasha keeps her eyes on the movie. "Sometimes it's nice to watch something that has no depth."

"Everything always works out in the end," he says.

"That part's nice, too."

A second movie is starting when there's a knock on the door. Natasha has the AI get it. Steve stands hesitantly in the doorway.

"Buck?"

Bucky pushes himself up onto an elbow. He's tired-looking. "Hey, Steve."

"What're you watching?"

He shrugs. "Trash."

Steve tries to smile. "You been here the whole time?"

Bucky nods. "Yeah."

Natasha wishes they wouldn't talk like this while she's literally between them.

"Everything OK?"

A shrug. A wince. An admission: "I don't feel so great."

The next day at breakfast, Natasha's sitting around with Clint when Steve comes in. The two of them watch the captain raid the kitchen for its most bland foods.

"Rough night?" Natasha says.

Steve nods. "He was vomiting for hours."

Clint says, "You ask Bruce for advice?"

"No. J.A.R.V.I.S. was able to tell me that he's been having migraines for the past five days. Bucky, not Bruce."

"He won't take anything?" Natasha asks.

Steve shakes his head. "It's a miracle he stopped throwing up long enough to fall asleep."

"You doing alright down there?" Clint says. "Is there anything we can do?"

"Nah, it's OK. I've dealt with sick Bucky before. Never like this, but we'll get through it."

"Try offering him an antiemetic," she suggests. "He took it last night and seemed OK for a few hours. Tony has it in tons to help his hangovers. There's better stuff for migraines, but." She shrugs.

"Thanks," Steve says. "I'll see how he feels about it."

Two days later, while Natasha's reading Empire of the Sun in the library, Bucky comes and sits by her with The Little Prince again.

"Hey," he says. He's been sitting there for about four minutes.

She lowers Empire of the Sun and gives him a mild look. "Hey." There's quiet until she says, "Feeling better?"

Nodding, he says, "Yeah. Dr. Banner said it might happen again the more my brain heals. He's figuring out something for me to take next time."

She pokes his thigh with her big toe. "How do you feel about that?"

"As long as it doesn't make me too out of it" — he shrugs — "I don't mind taking something if it'll help." He looks up and smiles at her. "If it'll get Steve to stop hovering and fussing."

"Oh, I'm sure it's not that bad."

There's a big old smile on Bucky's face. "I guess not. It's kind of nice to have someone sincerely ask me if I'm OK."

She says with a teasing smile, "Are you OK, James?"

Pinching the toe she poked him with, he says, "Yes, Natalia, I'm OK. Are you?"

"I'm doing just fine, James. Thanks for asking."

Six minutes tick away between them.

Bucky breaks it: "Is that any good?" He's gesturing to the book.

"I like it," she says.

"What's it about?"

"A boy surviving during war."

Bucky picks at an invisible thread on the couch.

Natasha sits up from her reclined position but leans back into the cushions. "What do you really want to ask?"

He shrugs. "Just want to be around you, I guess."

It makes her smile. "Want me to read The Little Prince?"

Bucky shakes his head. "You can keep reading your book. Can I just sit here with you?"

"Sure," she says. "OK."


The next time he comes into her bedroom, Bucky doesn't wait for an invitation. He walks in like he owns the place and gets right into bed. They lie facing each other, blankets pulled up to their chins. He sticks his tongue out at her and she crosses her eyes. They're asleep within seconds of each other.

"Oh, my God!"

That's not what wakes Natasha up. She wakes up seconds before the door opened and the words were shouted. Her body is always on alert and wakes her up when it picks up the sound of footsteps outside her door. So the "oh, my God" is met with a Glock ready to fire.

Clint's standing at the door. He looks shocked. Steve is right behind him.

"What is this?" Clint says.

"What is what?"

"Why is Bucky in your bed?" Steve whisper-shouts.

Natasha cracks up a little bit. "He's sleeping."

At just the right time, Bucky stirs and squints up at Clint and Steve through one eye. "Hey."

"Hey, man," Clint says.

"What's going on?"

Clint and Steve look at each other. Natasha takes the opportunity to put her Glock away.

"Nothing," Steve says. "Nothing, I guess."

"Oh. What are you doing then?"

"I have no idea."

Bucky buries his head in a pillow and burrows deeper under the blankets. All three of them watch him. Muffled from the bedding, they hear him say, "Close the door on your way out, will you?"

Natasha gets a lot of big eyes and raised eyebrows from Clint and Steve. She shrugs and burrows down just like Bucky. She hears the door click closed and hurried, hushed voices. When the voices are gone, she's still smiling. Kissing her palm, she gently slaps Bucky's cheek. The bed vibrates with his quiet laughter.

He squints at her through one eye again and says, "You'd think we were naked or something."

"Maybe one day."

"You promise?"

"I never make promises."

The words are met with an almighty roll of Bucky's eyes.

"Remember when Yuri found us?" she says. The unspoken part: In the Red Room?

"Which time?" The glitter in his eyes is just as dark as hers.

"He only caught us the one time. There were a few close calls you might be confusing it with."

Bucky smirks into the pillow. "I'm not sure, but I don't think they were very happy when they found out."

"No, they weren't." There's a pause. Then: "I don't think your dad likes me," she teases.

"Steve's not my dad."

"Will he make us breakfast after our sleepover?"

"He's not my dad."

"Will he turn the Tower upside down looking for honey when I ask for it while I'm sick?"

"Shut up."

Natasha gives him her biggest shit-eating grin. Bucky rolls his eyes again and rolls so that his back is to her.

"I'm not coming here ever again," he mumbles.

"Whatever you say."


Natasha's breaking in a few pairs of pointe shoes when Steve comes up to her and just stands there.

"What's going on?" he says.

"Clint challenged your buddy to a shootout. Chaos ensued," she says casually. She bangs the toe of a shoe on the concrete floor. "Hey," she says to make Steve look at her. When he does, she holds out the shoe. "Can you smash the toe of this shoe? Thanks."

He squeezes the toe box between the heels of his palms. She holds a second one out to him when he crushes the first one sufficiently.

"Don't worry," she says. "They're just shooting paintballs."

"I'm just surprised Tony got all this stuff in here."

It is impressive. There are bales of hay and all sorts of climbing apparatuses arranged around the entire length of the gym. Natasha wonders where all the rest of the stuff that's usually here went. It better not be in her studio.

"You know how he likes to bet."

Steve sits on the ground next to her and takes up a third shoe without prompt. Natasha gets to work bending the shanks.

"Who'd he take?" Steve says.

"Clint. Said he had to stick with the home team, seeing how Bucky hasn't gone on a mission with us yet."

Steve tips his head. "Who did you take?"

"Who would you?" she fires back.

"Bucky," he says immediately.

"I'm with Clint," she says. At Steve's scandalized look, she says, "Bucky's not at fighting weight. I'll reconsider when he's better."

There's an amused look on Steve's face. "That's fair," he says.

Steve's flexing the shanks after squishing the toe box. Natasha's amused and goes on to rub the side of the already-crushed toe boxes with a warm, damp cloth.

"Can I ask you something?" Steve says.

"Sure. Can't promise I'll answer though."

"I wouldn't expect anything less." He bends a shoe. "Is there something going on with you and Bucky?"

Natasha gives him an ambiguous look. "Have you asked him?"

Grumpy face is out in full force. "Yeah. He asked me if I had asked you."

Clint wins the paintball fight by two hits. A rematch is demanded and will be scheduled at a later date. There is much smack talk at dinner that night. It's nice; all of them are there together. It doesn't happen often. Even Pepper and Maria are there. Maria announces that there's a mission briefing in two days for some of them, but for now they're all together like a real family.

In the morning, when Clint and Natasha go down to the gym for their spar, Bucky's down there already. J.A.R.V.I.S. is running a hand-to-hand combat simulation for him. The two of them just watch him work for a bit. He's taking on eight combatants at once. They constantly respawn. Natasha recognizes that it's an exhaustion exercise. He's seeing how long he can go while being constantly swarmed. She herself has done a few of these simulations with J.A.R.V.I.S. In the Red Room, she did real exhaustion exercises with all the other girls. In the Red Room, they had all the girls attack the Winter Soldier at once, and they timed how long it took them to finally overcome him.

Clint and Natasha start their sparring. By the time that they call a draw, Bucky's still going at it with the simulation.

"I think he took your win yesterday personally," Natasha stage-whispers to Clint.

"You'd think he'd hit the shooting range if he wanted to get better. Hey, J.A.R.V.I.S., how long's he been here?"

The AI says, "The simulation has been running for four hours and thirty-one minutes."

"Jesus," says Clint. "He's gonna hurt himself. Turn it off, J.A.R.V.I.S."

They watch the simulation fade. Bucky stops moving abruptly. From a distance they can see his shoulders rise and fall with his desperate breath. He finds them and stares.

"Hey, man," Clint says and jogs up to Bucky. "Let's take a walk, OK? Cool down?"

The two of them walk out of the simulation ring. Clint guides Bucky with a hand on his back. The latter is still taking heaving breaths. The sweat dripping off Bucky is visible even from the distance she's standing at. Natasha grabs a pair of pointe shoes and goes to her studio to drench her own clothes in sweat.

Stretching, barre work, tendu, petit battement, and all the rest. When she's ready — standing in the center of the studio with her reflection surrounding her on four sides — she says, "Play me something that I can put a lot of pointe work into, J.A.R.V.I.S."

A few seconds later, a piano begins plinking out notes. The sounds fill the room up and she starts dancing. Up on her toes, taking unsteady steps. The music rises and falls like sleep-heavy eyelids and so does Natasha. It lets her step into a lot of attitudes and battements. Holding it for as long as she can, Natasha falls out of the poses, tired, just like the music. Bending and flexing at the waist, her legs stay strong and hold her up. She does lazy turns and takes quick steps en pointe. When the sound swells and rises, so does she — leaps across the floor, weightless. But then it falls and her arms grow heavy. She's a feather sinking down to the earth, only to be borne again on a gust of wind. Until — until at last she can rest.

There's clapping. It echoes. Natasha jerks up from the place she's folded herself on the ground. Bucky's sitting on the floor by the door.

"That was good," he says. "Did you rehearse it?"

She gets up and retrieves some water. Shakes out her cramping feet and ankles. "No. Just freestyle."

"It was good."

"Thank you." She lies down on her back beside him and extends her legs up, heels resting on the wall. It's supposed to reduce swelling, but Natasha thinks that might just be a crock. "You OK?"

Bucky picks up the water bottle in his lap and shakes it at her. "I've been lectured and watered. All is well. Do me a favor?"

"Depends on the favor."

"Don't tell Steve about what I was doing."

She shakes her head, rolling it back and forth on the floor. "I'll tell him if he asks, but I'll keep the fact that you did it for five hours a secret."

"Four and a half."

She pokes his thigh with her pinky. "Don't do that again."

"I know. Barton already gave me the lecture. Guess I just lost track of time."

"Don't run a simulation when you're alone then."

He pulls a sour face. "I don't need supervision."

Sitting up onto her elbows, she bends one knee to her chest. Extends it and bends it a few times in quick succession. Does the same with the other leg. Drinks some water. Then she settles back down into the same position with her feet up the wall.

"It really did look good. Especially for freestyle," Bucky says.

Her fingers play with the cap of her water bottle. "Do you remember when we used to dance?"

His face scrunches up. "I remember you kicking my ass while wearing a tutu."

"That's how I remember it, too."

"Can I come over tonight?"

"Did Steve sign your permission slip?"

"Alright, that's it. I'm leaving." He pushes himself up and goes out the door.

"See you later," she calls before it swings closed.

Breakfast with Clint, alone time in the library, shopping with Pepper and Maria, dinner with almost everyone, and Bucky in her bed at night. Not bad.

Luck is with her and she gets the upcoming mission off. It's Bucky first mission with the gang, so Steve's making sure everyone else on the mission is in top shape. Based on the stories Tony and Clint mutually moan about at night, it's no fun training and studying the briefing packet under Captain Blood.

"He acts like I'm made of glass," Bucky says the night before the mission. He flexes his metal fingers above them.

Natasha tangles her fingers through the metal ones and pulls his hand back under the blankets. She hums to let him know she's listening. "He's just worried."

"I'm fine."

"Hmm."

"You don't believe me?"

"I'm not on the op. My opinion doesn't matter."

"It matters to me."

"I think you need what Steve's doing."

He makes a huffy sound. For the first time, she falls asleep before he does. She wakes up to his lips pressed to her forehead.

Her voice is heavy with sleep. "G'luck."

"Thanks."


Bucky's first mission goes so well that they give him a second one right away. Steve's the only other one that's assigned to the mission. Natasha gives Bucky hell about it. He acts like a baby and doesn't talk to her for two days. She makes it up to him on the third day when she dances whatever he asks her to — he keeps turning up in the mornings to watch her in the studio. Later they go to the library together. It's the first time they've gone at the same time instead of meeting there by coincident. She reads Marley & Me aloud and both of them definitely don't cry.

They watch the movie together in her bed on the night before his second mission. It's nice to talk shit about the casting through their nonexistent tears. She has to ask J.A.R.V.I.S. to play one of her romantic comedies afterwards to return balance. Bucky falls asleep before the drama even starts. Her chin is propped up on his shoulder. She hopes the pressure makes his arm go numb. Sleep takes her before the rom-com is over.

In the morning, she gets up first, runs her hand through Bucky's hair, and goes to meet Clint for their morning spar. They separate for shooting and dancing. Re-converge for a full English breakfast with Bruce. After a few hours in the library, she goes up to the roof (that's not actually the roof) with East of Eden and lies down beside the pool. Tony's floating around in what appears to be an inflatable kiddie pool inside the big pool. Looks comfortable.

"No way," Clint says forty-five minutes later. "You guys came up here, too?"

Natasha looks up and puts a finger to her lips. "He's probably not awake."

"I'm awake," Tony says unconvincingly.

"Don't mind me," Clint says and then dives into the pool. He stays under for a long time. When he surfaces, it's only for a second. He takes in another deep breath and sinks to the bottom of the pool. Natasha has watched him do this before. It relaxes him, being submerged. It just reminds her of being crushed.

There's a quick splash a half hour later; Clint's tipped Tony's raft over, dumping the engineer into the water. Natasha rolls away from the pool's edge for the book's sake. Though, if it got wet, it wouldn't be much of a tragedy. The book's kind of boring anyway.

"Nat, get in here," Clint says.

She weighs her options for about half of a second. Then she gets to her feet and jumps into the pool.

"How's such a tiny, sneaky person make such a big splash?" Tony says when she surfaces.

"Physics?"

"We're playing a game," Clint says and holds up an empty tumbler. No doubt the thing was salvaged from Tony's wrecked raft.

Clint explains the rules of a game they've called "tips." They spend way too long playing the game. Tony goes out within a few minutes, and Clint and Natasha play for nearly forty more minutes before she wins. No one wants to play a second round. She takes it as a compliment.

Everyone except for Bruce participates in a game of paintball the next day. It lasts for nearly five hours. It's very competitive with alliances being established and betrayed every few minutes. Maria usurps Clint's title. Then they split off into teams, Team Clint and Team Hill, for a game of capture the flag. Natasha is Clint's first pick. Tony gets picked last and he's a baby about it. He's on Maria's team.

Needless to say, Team Clint wins.

Tony insists on best-of-three. Team Clint wins two in a row. Dinner is not eaten together.

Steve and Bucky come back after five days. Everyone misses them, but none of them will admit it. But there's still a low-key party thrown in honor of their return. They're both beyond embarrassed. Tony relinquishes control of the music so that Clint can have J.A.R.V.I.S. play popular music from the thirties.

Bucky sidles up to her and nudges his boot against her shoe. "Hey," he says.

"How'd it go?" she says.

"OK."

"That's good."

He nods his head. Holding out the metal hand toward her, he says, "Will you dance with me?"

She's overcome with laughter. But Natasha manages to nod through her amusement. They have an audience, but neither of them cares.


"Hey, Nat, got a favor to ask."

She looks up from the stock pot she's stirring on the stovetop. It's Steve. "You know my policy on favors."

"I have the thing with the Department of Defense later today."

"I know." She goes back to her pot. Steve should know that he doesn't have to ask what he's about to ask.

"Buck got hit by another round of migraines last night. Bruce thinks he's got the dosage of Buck's medicine figured out, but do you think you could keep an eye on him? I'll be back tonight."

Turning away from the stove, she says, "Are you smiling?"

Now he just looks guilty. "I know he's miserable when he gets them, but . . . it means his brain's getting better."

"You can have J.A.R.V.I.S. send you updates," she says to her pot.

"I know," Steve says. "I just wanted to give you an excuse to go see him."

A grin bends her face. She glances at Steve out of the corner of her eye. "I don't need an excuse."

He gives her an equally-annoying smile. "I know."

Migraine-Bucky is puppy-Bucky. He just wants to lie in Natasha's lap and have her run her fingers through his hair. Maybe it's really the medication making him so tired and cuddly (probably), but Natasha has to remind herself to send Bruce a gift basket full of all the weird tea things he likes. She takes a lot of pictures of Bucky sleeping on her and sends them to Steve all day. He stops responding around midday. That doesn't stop her from sending them, though. He's either in a meeting or jealous, and Natasha thinks she knows which one is right.

It's about midnight when Steve returns. She knows because the second the elevator doors open, he calls, "Buck?"

"Here," Bucky says.

Steve's suddenly there and he takes in the scene. Bucky's stretched out on the couch with his head resting in Natasha's lap. They're watching The Mighty Ducks.

"Still not feeling well?" Steve says.

Bucky grunts and points to the puke bucket that's tucked under the coffee table.

"Want another pill?"

There's a sheepish look on Bucky's face when he turns toward Steve. "Half?"

"Sure." He leaves for a few seconds and then comes back with half a pill and a glass of water. "Sit up," he says.

Her lap's cold when he sits himself up. Steve hands him the half pill first. Bucky tosses it into his mouth and then accepts the glass from Steve, washing it down.

"Thanks," Bucky says and hands the glass back to Steve.

"Need anything else?"

He shakes his head. Steve walks off, and they watch more of the movie. Returned in more casual clothes, Steve sits down on the free end of the couch.

"What're we watching?"

"Mighty Ducks," Bucky mumbles. Bruce's pills are fast-acting.

By the end of the movie Bucky's leaning heavy on Steve's shoulder. Steve looks delighted. Natasha takes pictures. They come out really great.


Taking a page out of Tony's book, Natasha and Bucky use the inflatable kiddie pool as a raft in the big pool on the roof. The summer's been steamy and miserable during the day and there's hardly any relief at night. She lies on her side with his metal arm cool around her. He ghosts one of the metal fingers over her vertebrae one at a time. It makes her skin prickle.

"I asked a girl to wait for me before I left for war," he says.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Natasha pokes his chest. "What's her name?"

"I don't remember. Connie or Bonnie or something like that."

"I can already tell she meant a lot to you," she deadpans.

He laughs and says, "Shut up." The smile hangs there on his face, not quite frozen. "You think she did? You think she waited for me?"

"No."

It's met with a disgruntled noise.

She adds, "I wouldn't."

"What a gal."

"Excited about your solo op?"

Bucky shrugs with her head on his shoulder.

"Fury said we could go on missions together after you prove you can go on one alone."

"Then I am excited about my solo op."

Natasha leans over and brushes her lips against his collarbone. "Me, too."