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.
"To date, there’s only been one woman who’s broken past the Gay Barrier, and to her credit, she’d make just about anyone on the globe question their sexuality.”
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.
“Vanished.” Bran repeated the word as if its meaning eluded him. Just for a moment, he considered asking if this was another instance of him ‘dying’, but there was something in her tone that said this was so much worse. And he doubted she’d lie to him about that, not again.
So he stood quietly for a few moments, a confused frown creasing his face as he watched her, waiting for some sort of cue that an explanation was forthcoming. Even if James had told no one else, Natasha would have known something. For people whose jobs it was to deal in secrets, they kept very few from each other - for her not to know, spoke volumes.
He swallowed and let out a heavy, nervous breath as his anxiety levels began to rise.
“How wo— what do ye mean, ‘vanished’?”
Natasha could see the thoughts racing behind the usually stoic facade. It was hard to rattle Bran to a point, where you could see it, but in that moment, it was plane as day. The crease of his brow and the shaky breath, the way his chest fluttered as he dragged air into his lungs to stutter out his question.
"He didn’t come home from checking out a call we got in.", she wasn’t quite sure, how Bran would react to the fact, that she had kept this from him for the past 27 hours now. "He went to the site to check it out and then suddenly dropped off the map. No radio contact, all trackers are dead and the satellite images show him going in, but never coming out."
She sucked in a sharp breath and straightened, almost defiantly. “He wanted to vanish.”, she said finally, but all the bravado leaked from her voice, leaving her sounding defeated and much more frail, than she would have allowed herself to seem with anyone else.
It wouldn’t have been the first time one of them was gone for days at a time - missions on either of the spies’ part, the occasional assignments that kept Bran overnight or took him out of town for field research. Because of their respective lines of work, as well as the need for solitary mental decompression, there was a quiet acceptance with no questions asked.
They were an odd trio to start with, and maybe that’s why it worked. Secrecy was expected, necessary even, rather than a cause of mistrust.
That didn’t mean their presence wasn’t missed. Bran was reminded every time James was on assignment, how much he hated sleeping alone, particularly since, more often than not, Natasha was partnered with the ex-assassin for those missions. He was sort of glad for that - they worked well together, those two, and if anyone was going to make sure James came home safely, it would be the Black Widow.
When he didn’t come home that night, he assumed ‘solo mission’ and Nat seemed all too accommodating in being the one he curled up around that night. She never said it, but he suspected she enjoyed the feeling of being needed as much or possibly even mores so than James did.
But when he returned from a surprisingly-mundane day at work to only the one spy, worry started to nag at the back of his mind. Natasha seemed too quiet - but she was a hard one to read, and silence could mean a great many things with her. That was sort of her thing - inscrutability. From what little he’d been able to gather from her, however, silence - at least when it was used in reference to him - meant she was waiting for a reaction from him. She’d learned very quickly that asking him anything would rarely get a straight answer, but he had a habit of revealing a lot more of what was going on in his head when left to his own pace.
He kind of liked that about her, actually.
There was something heavy about this silence, however, and it did nothing to alleviate the already growing concern over James’ absence.
"….Something’s happened." It wasn’t a question. Bran set his bag down near the door, but shed neither his jacket nor his shoes, as if expecting they would be leaving somewhere once he got an explanation. "Where is he?"
There it was . She had known, that the question would come and it still dropped a cold weight into her stomach. It was possibly because she didn’t have an answer to it. She didn’t know where James was or why he was gone.
"I don’t know.", her voice was rough with the bitterness of the words. She hated not knowing at the best of times. Bran, observant boy that he was, knew that. Nat was sure that she didn’t have to elaborate for him to understand the implications of her monosyllabic answer. "He vanished."
She wasn’t even sure what she wanted to do. James was good, one of the best. If he didn’t want to be found, there was very little chance, not even for her. The only thing she knew for certain was, that something was wrong. Whatever the reason for his disappearance, he would have at least told her about it. He knew, that she would come looking for him otherwise.
James had a habit of going off on his own at times, just as Nat and Bran had. They liked each other’s company, it was, for the most part, where they felt the most comfortable, but sometimes they needed time to think.
That time was rarely longer than a few hours, but when James hadn’t returned to the flat all night and there was no trace of him at SHIELD, Nat got worried.
She didn’t speak to Bran about it, instead ran hand along his cheek and brushed a kiss to his lips, before sending him off to work. She spent the rest of the day trying to find James.
The problem was, that he wouldn’t be found if he didn’t want to be. He could handle himself, but what Nat was truly worried about, was his motivation for vanishing. Especially after even a call to Fury turned up empty.
James hadn’t been sent on a mission, he had made a point of staying hidden and he had made no attempt to contact her. All in all, that spelled trouble. And the first round of it would come the moment Bran walked into the apartment, realising, that James was still missing.
The boy might seem indifferent, most times, but he was much more observant than most people gave him credit for and while Nat was still unsure of where they stood exactly, she knew, that Bran loved James, even if neither of them truly realised it as that. She knew, he would ask and she wasn’t quite sure what her answer would be.
A very angry part of him wanted to snap at her, tell her to keep her pity because he didn’t need it. Letting that out would probably open the floodgates for even more emotion, and he had no idea what was going come out when it did. Anyway, it didn’t seem like pity in her tone. Cautious sympathy, maybe. He knew she and James had been close - for what little he’d seen of them in the same room, they seemed like they had some kind of nonverbal communication between them that spoke of a lot more behind closed doors.
Bran wasn’t the sort that got jealous or felt the need to compete - she’d known James long before he had, after all, and they had never really put a definition to whatever it was that was between the former assassin and the Scot. Certainly not propriety. If anything, he’d been curious about the woman that was currently offering an alternative to a dreary motel room.
He hesitated, chewing the inside of his cheek for a moment and glancing back at the movers who were making short and efficient work of the flat. How often did they do this, he wondered? Probably more than he’d care to know.
“Yeah… alright. ….Thank ye.”
She wasn’t sure about all of this. James had been curiously tight lipped about the boy, beyond what was absolutely necessary information. A straight up, precise account of what had happened way over a year ago in one of the Foundation’s facilities, the simple statement, that Bran needed a place to stay and James was providing it. That had been all.
They never had a huge need for words, though. She could see it in James, the way his lips had twitched into a small smile, whenever he’d turned towards Bran on the few occasions Nat had seen them together. Oh, of course, the idiot had tried to hide it behind that bloody pokerface of his and put up a front of good natured annoyance, but she wasn’t blind and she knew him. He liked Bran. A lot. And whatever the redhead had done in the time the two men had shared the apartment, it had made James better. Calmer. Less tense.
Apropos sharing an apartment. Had Bran just collected his belongings from James’ bedroom? Sure looked like it. And Nat was pretty damn familiar with the layout. She’d made a point of scoping out the place thoroughly. So, it was already at that point.
Just friends my ass, James.
As for Bran himself? Someone else, who wasn’t making a living (and surviving) on knowing exactly what others thought might have mistaken his subdued attitude for apathy. Nat knew better. The kid was shaken beyond the point of expressing himself. She was pretty familiar with that feeling.
Which was, why she was turning all this over in her head, as she swept a hand towards the door in invitation and turned towards the movers to wave them a short, business like goodbye.
"Come on, then.", she said and there was the short urge to put her arm around Bran’s thin shoulders, but instead she stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jacket and fell into step beside him.
Her heels brought them up to the same height and she stole glances at his profile. There was something almost girlish to him. The straight line of his nose, the long, pale lashes and the swoop of full lips. He wasn’t traditionally handsome, but she saw the appeal. There was an odd sense of mystery to the boy, a tragic past etched into the downward tilt of his mouth and the angle of his brows.
James never could resist the pull of the depth behind a fragile facade.
"Are you hungry?", probably not, she thought the moment the words had left her mouth. She didn’t open the door of the Stingray for him, somehow she thought he wouldn’t take kindly to being babied, so instead, she slid behind the wheel and watched him get in beside her