A Brief History of Romantic StuckyNat Part 3: The Ultron Era

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Part 1   Part 2   Part 4   Part 5

This is the third part of a five part series on romantic StuckyNat. It is my headcanon of the potential feelings of Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and Natasha Romanoff in the MCU, if the three were in love with each other. This part of the series covers the time from the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, through Avengers: The Age of Ultron, to just before the beginning of Captain America: Civil War. It is canon-compliant.

Once Bucky had found and destroyed all of the active Hydra bases he remembered, he went into hiding for real. He knew Steve was looking for him, and that Natasha was keeping tabs on him, because he was keeping tabs on both of them, too. While he’d recovered many of his memories, they were still patchy. The holes in Bucky’s memory further complicated the work of figuring out what they meant and what he wanted to do about them. On top of that, he was still the Winter Soldier. As long as he could be activated, it wasn’t safe for Bucky to be around the people he loved. He became a ghost again, disappearing in plain sight, moving to a new, out of the way city every few months. He kept his head down, and himself away from anything that would attract attention.
Bucky slowly sifted through what was in his head, fact checking memories with historical sources when he could. He wouldn’t put it past Hydra to alter or insert memories, not just wipe them. Everything he remembered was written down and organized. Bucky’s notebooks were more reliable than his brain at the moment.
Maybe all of this would eventually lead him to a way to overcome his programming, so that he could try to make things right with Natasha and Steve. Bucky missed them desperately. He’d started dreaming at night again. Sometimes the dreams were memories returning to him, sometimes things he wished had happened. Either way, it was always either Natasha, Steve or both with him in the dreams. His two lost loves.
{Author’s Note: Bucky continues to be the most emotionally well-adjusted of the three. He’s the only one who can admit he’s in love with, and wants, both of the other two, despite everything else he has to deal with. Canon Bucky has remarkably few trust issues, when you think about it.}
Natasha split her time between helping out Bruce Banner in Calcutta, spending time with Clint Barton’s family at the farm, and traveling to establish her new safehouses and identities. There were a few missions in the 1st year, though she and Steve were never paired up anymore. He was off chasing Bucky with Sam. Sam helped out with missions on the rare ocasions that they needed Steve. She ended up training with Clint and Bruce, since that’s who she spent the most time with. It turned out that Nat and The Other Guy were able to develop a useful rapport. She and Bruce developed a close friendship that Natasha hoped was becoming something more. Bruce could be so hard to read though. He was the king of mixed signals, even to a master spy.
She’d lost track of Bucky’s whereabouts after a while. Natasha wished she was surprised, but no one knew how to disappear like a Russian spy. She missed her close friendship with Steve. She missed what she’d hoped to get back with Bucky. Natasha had given Steve her file on the Winter Soldier, but she hadn’t had the heart to tell him that she also had a romantic history with the love of his life. That belonged to her and Bucky. Maybe just her now. She’d hold it close to her heart, and try to move on. She wouldn’t get in their way by trying to rekindle her own romance with Bucky, but she wouldn’t watch Steve and Bucky fall in love again, either. And she’d try not to mourn her friendship with Steve, or the brief hope she’d had that it could be more. She and Bruce had much more in common anyway, both being barely contained monsters, than she had with two 100 year old war heroes.
Meanwhile, Steve didn’t know what hit him. Thank goodness he and Sam had become close. Natasha had given him the file on the Winter Soldier and disappeared. He’d barely seen or heard from her for a year. Steve had thought he and Natasha had reached a point of close friendship, maybe more. It stung more than he wanted to admit to abruptly lose one of the only two people he’d connected with since he’d woken up from the ice, without really knowing why. He assumed she was taking the loss of Nick and the fall of SHIELD hard, and needed some time away. He wished he was better at talking about these things. He was much more able to be physically there for someone, but Natasha wouldn’t let him. It was frustrating as hell.
Then there was Bucky. He had disappeared, too. Steve and Sam had been close on his trail for months, but the trail had gone cold. Steve couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t bear the thought that he’d lost Bucky all over again, this time by Bucky’s choice. Steve slowly descended back into the blankness he’d felt before he crashed the Valkyrie. He sparred frequently with Sam, Tony, and Thor, trying to keep his interest in something alive. He knew he couldn’t give up this time, because Bucky was alive out there somewhere. Bucky might need him someday, even if he didn’t want Steve. Steve retreated into hiding behind his Captain America persona whenever he could, to get through the depression, much as he had when he’d first come out of the ice.
Then they discovered Hydra had not only been continuing its human experimentation programs, but had succeeded in enhancing two kids, the Maximoff twins. Steve’s protective instincts flared to life, even as he knew they needed to defend themselves against the enhanced duo. Tony built Ultron, in a misguided attempt to save the world. While Ultron was an unmitigated, nearly world-ending, disaster, it did bring the Maximoffs over to their side, and bring Steve and Natasha back together. He was so relieved to have her back, standing in Bucky’s old spot, watching his six, and ready to be his partner in training the new Avengers.
Natasha was shocked to find out what Bruce really thought of her, and how deep his own self-loathing ran. It was like finding out the truth about her relationship with Nick all over again. She was done with men who couldn’t see past what the Red Room tried to turn her into. Natasha mentally let go of Bruce as she gave him the push that would turn him into the Hulk for the final battle with Ultron.
After the Battle of Sokovia, when she’d had time to regroup, Natasha looked up from her latest mistake, and there was Steve. Steve, who always gave everyone a chance to prove who they really were, never judging people by their past or reputation. Who’d earned her trust and respect over and over. Who’d been abandoned by Bucky just as clearly as she had. She could see the pain in his eyes was deeper than it had been since the first time she’d met him. She realized that the stiffness she’d seen in him wasn’t just a product of their distance, but an overall retreat from the world again. Natasha realized that Steve was hurting as deeply as she was over Bucky, and that there was no reason for the two of them to be alone. She might not be able to give birth, or have any experience with a traditional family, but she could damn well pull her little found family of spies, soldiers and demigods together, then turn the compound into a suitable home for all of them. That’s something she was uniquely qualified to do. She would start with getting Steve back, immediately.

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 For the next year, Natasha and Steve worked closely with Sam and Wanda, helping them discover their individual talents and the strategies that would work best for them as a team. Vision and Rhodey occasionally took part as well, but Rhodey had a full time job with the Army, so he acted mostly as a liason and back up for the Avengers. Vision’s talents were so unique and dangerous that he needed to explore them on his own and with Wanda before he was ready for teamwork. He was also Tony’s creature, and tended to spend time off wherever Tony was, or with Wanda.
Natasha and Steve grew closer than ever. They both lived at the compound full time, and ran the Avengers together. There were no potentially world ending attacks, thank goodness. They were free to train the new recruits, tidy up smaller messes, like the remaining Hydra cells and Brock Rumlow, and develop long term strategy.
Nat and Steve spent most of their evenings together, since each had no other family and no strong connection to modern culture. Sam and Wanda hung out with the Strike team and compound support staff in town when they needed to get out, but that wasn’t Steve or Natasha’s style. Not without Bucky, though neither said that aloud to each other. Nat had told Steve that she had had a great love in Russia whom she lost, but hadn’t confessed that it was Bucky. Who knew if Bucky would ever remember her, or if either she or Steve would ever see him again. No need to complicate their current relationship with this. If it came back to bite her later, she’d deal with it.
They’d become very cuddly friends in private, and kissing was pretty common. They’d ended up having sex and spending the night together a few times, but neither wanted to make it an official relationship. Both knew that Steve was waiting and looking for Bucky.
 Steve hated himself a little, because he felt like he was leading Natasha on. He was at a loss, because he loved Nat. He loved her nearly as much as he loved Bucky. But Bucky was his first love. He owed everything, and every loyalty, to Bucky. He’d already failed Bucky so many times, he needed to see it through with Buck before anything serious could happen with Nat. If he found Bucky, and Bucky had his memories, but still didn’t want Steve anymore, then Steve would find a way to accept that. Hell, Steve deserved it in some ways, after all the times he turned Bucky away when they were kids. He hoped that wasn’t the case, though. Steve wanted the “happily ever after” with Bucky that living in the future had made possible for two men. He wanted that more than anything he’d wanted in his entire life. He just had to find Bucky and help him heal enough to believe it was possible. It seemed like Natasha understood what he was going through. Steve would always want her close by, he just wouldn’t know what shape their relationship might take in the future until Bucky was sorted out. He hoped she would wait until that happened.
Natasha loved Steve, too, but she was nothing if not a practical woman. She was allowing herself this right now, but knew she would likely have to take a step back once Bucky and Steve were reunited. She had no idea what would happen when or if her relationship with Bucky was revealed. Or if she should reveal their relationship herself if Bucky didn’t ever remember on his own. She intended to continue as an Avenger, but was prepared for the fact that Steve would have his real 2nd in command back. It could be that neither he nor Bucky would want an old girlfriend around. Perhaps she could work from a different continent, with one of the new recruits and a Strike team if necessary. Steve didn’t seem like the possessive type, and neither did Bucky, but one never knew. She’d been betrayed by those she thought were her family before, after all. Best not to get too comfortable.
Or maybe Natasha would find new work. She’d discovered she had a talent for teaching and negotiating during this past year. Who knew where that might lead her? She spoke several languages, and had knowledge of much of the world. Surely some nation’s government could find a use for her skills as something other than a fighter, if she ended up leaving the Avengers.
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