Nat watched Bran leave the room with her hands on her hips and a frown on her face. She didn’t like seeing the boy upset (a fact she had learned very early on after meeting him) and this was about the worst she’d seen since James’ little vanishing act.

Talking about James…

She sighed, squared her shoulders and turned on her heels to make her way to a small box by the sofa. From inside, she dug two thin metal instruments which she carried over to the bedroom door and a moment later, the lock clicked open under her skillful attention.

"Ya coulda just asked me t’open the fucking door.", James grumbled at her from his place on the bed. He was hunched over with his elbows on his knees and his head hanging down.

"Would you have opened?"


She didn’t dignify that with a reply, instead just pushed herself up to her feet to make her way over to him. Looking down at his sunken form, Nat sighed again and dropped to the floor by his feet.

"Realised you love him?", she asked without preamble and didn’t look even remotely surprised, when he bristled. It was only a sharp intake of breath, however, and no words came. Instead, James gave a sad laugh and sank back into himself.

"You’re acting like an ass.", Nat stated matter of factly, resting her chin on her knees to glance up at him. "It’s not Bran’s fault."

His brows drew together and his lips pressed into a thin line, while his folded hands tightened around each other until Natasha reached out and placed her own hand on them placatingly.

"I’m gonna get’im killed."

"His job’s gonna get him killed.", her voice was far too even for a statement of that sort, considering the fact, that it was nowhere near a joke. "What are you planning to do? Break his heart again and just leave?"

Again, he sucked in air, straightened a little, but her raised eyebrow deflated him once more. “Dunno.”

"That’s what I thought", she tilted her head one way, then the other, tracing the tired lines on his face with her eyes. He always looked so much more alive, when Bran was around. "Don’t blame him for what you’re feeling."

She could tell him, that Bran was in love with him, that the boy looked at him, like he was the best thing in the world, that they were good for each other, that they deserved to be happy the way they were together.

But James wasn’t one to go for that. In his mind, he didn’t deserve to be loved, in his mind, he was this terrible person, in his mind he needed to make up for what he’d done. So Natasha appealed to the one thing, that he couldn’t dispute.


Thy Plaintive Anthem Fades



Bran had only briefly seen what the Winter Soldier was capable of - and in a more controlled, less devastating environment, at that. His personal experience may not have been enough to stir the beginnings of fear in the back of his mind, but to see the Black Widow so rattled (or as close as she was ever going to show it) told him all he needed to. 

He may not have been as well-versed in the world of espionage and assassins, but he wasn’t completely naïve. It didn’t take a lot of guesswork to figure out what was worrying her - if the Winter Soldier was back, whoever was holding his leash wasn’t about to leave loose ends laying about, particularly the sort that had the potential to confuse the Soldier or trigger memories. Captain America would be a prime target, as would Natasha, but they wouldn’t go down easily. Bran on the other hand…

“Shit. I’ve a great big target on my back now, haven’t I?” 

Natasha took one long breath and closed her eyes, just for a moment. A small reprieve, that she just needed because whatever happened to James, Bran was still there and he was in danger. She couldn’t let anything happen to him.

James wouldn’t forgive me, if I did.

The thought came unbidden and she almost laughed at the irony of it all. Bran’s and James’ first meeting, the way she and the Scot had become close, the fact that James was both the victim and the danger there. 

History truly had a way of repeating itself and it was a bitch.

"Yes.", Nat said finally, looking up at Bran. "I don’t know for sure what happened, but whatever it is … you’re in danger now. Real danger. If …", she stopped herself in favour of taking another steadying breath and averting her eyes for a second. "You’ve met him.", she said finally and took comfort in the way Bran seemed to have tuned into the half-silent way of communicating her and James had perfected a long time ago.

She wasn’t quite sure, if she could actually spell it all out. Not there, not to him.

She would have to stand in front of a whole horde of STRIKE agents, explaining the situation, like any other mission briefing, facade of the Black Widow firmly in place.

She wanted this one little luxury, this one opportunity to be human with one of the few people she trusted enough to do so, where the masks didn’t matter. 

"I want a protection detail on you. Don’T even try to talk me out of it. I don’t care about your pride right now.", her mask slipped even further and she stepped closer still, shrinking the distance between them to barely a foot. "Zajka.", she said and reached up, possibly with the intention of touching his face, but her hand dropped, before it could make contact with his skin and landed on his chest instead. "He wouldn’t forgive himself, if something happened to you."

She’s happy for James. She really is. 

She can see him looking at Bran in a way, that tells her exactly how happy he is around the Scot. They tease each other and exchange snark whenever they can, but there is a softness around James’ eyes, that he doesn’t have any other time.

And Bran? He’s just smitten with James, even if he won’t admit it. He’s wide-eyed and gentle, when he thinks nobody is watching them and even when he’s entirely aware of company, he doesn’t go five minutes without touching James. Just a brush of his thin typist fingers against the other’s sleeve or a bump of a bony shoulder against James’ elbow. 

She sees it and she’s happy for them, because she genuinely likes the little ginger and she loves James. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? He still tugs at her heartstrings and even though she’s not a jealous person, she can’t help that odd sting in her chest.

No, she doesn’t want them to split. Hell, she can’t take her eyes off them, when they are together, because of the way they fit. She doesn’t want to break that up, she really, really doesn’t.

She just wishes, she’d have a place there, too.


Thy Plaintive Anthem Fades



Maybe it was the weighted omission, or maybe he was starting to pick up on that unspoken language that Nat and James seemed to have, but he couldn’t pretend not to share the same fear now. Bran’s shoulder’s slumped, his gaze dropping right before his eyes closed and he let out a heavy, shaking breath.

“….He’s back. That’s what’s ye’re getting at, isn’t it? He was a sleeper and they got to him somehow…” The bitterness in his tone could have been a match to hers, as his heart sank. Worse than the possibility that he was dead, in some respects - what if the person they’d known since HYDRA’s supposed downfall had never been real to begin with?

Grief was only allowed for a moment, because another thought occurred to him and dread took over. 

Oh no…” This time his hands left his sides and he grabbed her shoulders, panic starting to rise in his voice. “Natasha, he’s been inside SHIELD and the Foundation. He has access to SHIELD security codes - and he’s verified the link between HYDRA and CI - he could—” 

If he could bring SHIELD down and break into a secured SCP facility before, then they may as well have opened the front doors for him and his masters now. And he already had a day’s head start on them. 

She didn’t dare react to his question. She couldn’t bring herself to confirm it, that James was gone and the Soldier was back in his place. There was something almost childish in her chest, fluttering wildly like an injured bird, that believed maybe, maybe, if she didn’t say it out loud, if she kept it inside, it wouldn’t be true.

Love is for children.

The exact words she’d thrown into Loki’s face not three years ago. She might have laughed at the irony of it all now. but nobody had that kind of luxury.

Bran’s grip (she wondered briefly, why the feeling of his hands on her shoulders felt so comfortingly familiar by now) dragged her back from her musings and she shook her head. “They know. SHIELD has already initiated breach protocol and they warned the Foundation.”

The thing was, if the Soldier truly wanted something, he got it. Natasha had seen him go through armies to get to his target.

And she knew exactly who his targets would be this time. “I’ve warned Steve and the others.”, again her point was in what she didn’t say. Bran was not a threat to the Soldier, but he was living, breathing leverage.