They move as quietly as they can, slipping through thin stands of trees and haunting the edges of fields. Fall's well begun, the sky heavy and grey with a muffling carpet of rainclouds that drink up the smoke from skirmishes and huddled towns hoping to be passed by. The fields they pass are a mire of mud and the leavings of a hurried harvest, and no matter how careful their steps under the trees, their boots schlick and scrunch through thick carpets of dead leaves.
Taking point is a mixed blessing. Steve prefers it despite the danger, trusting to his enhanced hearing, though Bucky still has the sharper eyes. He'd rather leave Bucky free to move, dropping back or slipping quietly around the others, protecting them from all sides. They'll need to make camp soon enough. Somewhere above the clouds, the sun is already setting, but he knows Bucky's keeping an eye out for a likely place. Unlike Steve, who never did learn how to play a cautious game, Bucky has a knack for defensive positions and convenient bolt holes.
He sees Bucky ghosting up on his left from the corner of his eye, and he also sees Bucky's stride hitch, a sudden stillness arresting him in place. Steve jerks up a hand, and they all freeze as one. He looks to Bucky, but Bucky's not giving him that half-annoyed, half-embarrassed look that accompanies a false alarm. Bucky's staring across the field they're skirting, brows creasing in a tiny frown.
"Scarecrow," he says, tilting his chin in the same direction without shifting his hands on his rifle. Steve peers that way, narrowing his eyes against the gloom, but it takes a moment for the slumped outline to come clear against the trees at its back.
"Thank God," Dugan mutters, relieved and not ashamed to admit it. "Thought we were going to have to take our chances with the corbies."
"Yeah, now all we have to worry about is the Germans," Morita says with a laugh.
"Pipe down, you guys," Bucky says quietly. "We're not out of the woods yet."
The others groan at the pun, but Bucky barely musters a smile. Something's eating at him, but he doesn't suggest they do a quick fade, so it's probably nothing dangerous. If it were anything to do with the Hydra factory they're hunting for, Bucky would have said so already.
If it were corbies, Bucky would already be shooting, the need for silence be damned.
Dernier takes the lead as they strike out. They're not far over Maginot Line, the Belgian border and a line of German-occupied outposts at their backs. Since they began their search two days ago for a Hydra factory hidden somewhere in these parts, they've already come across the site of one battle and two empty crosses. This will be the first scarecrow they've found, and having a fellow Frenchman make their introductions can only help.
As they draw closer, it becomes obvious the shape sagging on the cross at the edge of the field is in uniform, but it's not an Allied uniform he's wearing.
"Damn," Falsworth says, his crisp enunciation more curt than usual. "So much for a friendly face."
They ready their weapons, scanning the empty fields that stretch between islands of rain-drenched woods. The ground's more flat than not, but they've learned what surprises can lurk behind the shallowest hills, and they take things nice and slow. A rutted dirt path leads away from the field, curving around to an old farmhouse that stands dark against the leaden sky. If it turns out to be empty, they'll probably use it themselves; they clearly won't be the first, considering what the Germans have left in the field.
They're less than a dozen feet away when the scarecrow lifts his head, eyes flicking dully from man to man. The scarecrow's left eye is cornflower blue, but the right is a reddish, muddy hazel. It fits the broad depression that's reshaped the side of his skull, the wound that would have killed him if he hadn't given his death to keep his fellows safe. He can't have been here for long; they're only ten days out from the last full moon, and his mousey hair hasn't yet gone brittle and dry. Through the poorly-buttoned collar of his uniform, the upper line of the incision they made to take his heart is visible, the edges of his parted flesh dried to a bruise-dark magenta. The earth at the base of his cross is still churned at his feet where they buried his heart beneath him, the grass not yet grown over.
Blinking hard like a man waking from a stupor, the scarecrow shifts on his cross, pulling against the ropes as he lifts his chin. His gaze sharpens above a scowl, the blankness of boredom or despair vanishing in the face of bravado.
"Gabe?" Steve asks and feels a presence move up on his right.
"I got it," Gabe says, stepping out from behind Steve and slinging his rifle over his back, approaching the scarecrow with empty hands. It doesn't look good--the scarecrow's mismatched glare isn't exactly brimming over with fellow-feeling--but the covenant between the watchers and those watched over is supposed to transcend borders.
"Hello," Gabe says in English before switching to German. He sounds fluent enough, speaking without pause for thought, but Steve's no kind of judge; the extent of his own knowledge begins and ends with 'thank you' and 'good morning'. "Was ist Ihr Name?"
The scarecrow purses his lips, saying nothing. Steve rolls his neck as the muscles across his shoulders begin to pull tight. He doesn't have to know the language to know the questions Gabe will be asking. Silence is not a positive sign.
"Werden Sie heute Nacht über uns wachen?" Gabe tries again, keeping his tone patient and respectful.
The scarecrow snorts. "Ich hoffe die Krähen reißen euch in Fetzen," he snarls, his voice dry and cracked. He must've been alone for days with no tithe but the rain to wet his throat...or else his makers want them to think that. They're in occupied territory, after all.
Gabe stiffens, glancing back at Steve uncertainly. "What?" Dugan asks before Steve can find his tongue. "What'd he say?"
"I asked if he'd stand the watch tonight," Gabe says with a helpless shrug. "He said he hoped the corbies got us."
Morita and Dugan curse softly; Falsworth looks sad but unsurprised. "What about the covenant?" Bucky asks tightly, jerking his chin at the scarecrow. "Ask him about that."
"Und was ist mit dem Abkommen?" Gabe asks gamely, spreading his empty hands wider.
"Zur Hölle mit dem Abkommen!" the scarecrow says, his pale face stiff with pride. "Ich wurde hier nicht aufgehängt, um den Feind zu beschützen!"
Steve can guess what the answer is, but he asks anyway. "Well?"
Gabe shakes his head. "He says he wasn't hung here to watch over the enemy."
"Damn it," Dugan says, shifting impatiently on his feet. "We can't leave him here, Cap. Forget standing the watch; he's likely to draw a patrol down on us if he gets his way--or the corbies themselves, for spite."
"He can't do that, can he?" Morita asks, eyes darting from face to face. "Call the corbies down on us? I thought scarecrows just drove them away." Like Steve and Bucky, he's a city boy; what the three of them know of scarecrows comes from listening to the priests and the stories they've heard from the cradle.
"He doesn't need any special powers for that," Dugan says, eyeing the scarecrow warily. "He just needs to make enough noise." Glancing at the overcast sky, he heaves a sigh. "Listen, night's coming on fast. Fire would draw too much attention, but we can dig up his heart while there's still light."
"Dig up--dig up his heart?" Steve demands. He can feel the tips of his ears heat in mortification, knowing he sounds like the worst sort of rookie officer, but he can't swallow his instinctive horror in time to censor himself. The scarecrow is a sitting duck, not just tied but bound to his cross from the three nights he hung under the moon. His protective magics won't even work on them; his only defenses are meant for the corbies.
"I don't think we've got a choice," Bucky steps in calmly. "I don't blame him for his, either. If I could keep helping our boys even after I died, I'm pretty sure I'd take that deal. And he would've known the score before they ever strung him up."
I wouldn't have known, Steve nearly protests, but--those two empty crosses found in fields plowed by tank treads and mortar fire. Whether the dead men who'd hung there had been German or Allied, they're both gone now.
He takes a deep breath and lets it out slow. "All right," he says. "How do we do this?"
Bucky claps him on the arm with a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "Me and Dum Dum've got it. Think you and the others can check out that farmhouse? If we're going to be out here without backup or a blessing, that place needs to be buttoned up tight."
Steve sets his jaw, knowing damn well that he's being shuffled off to spare his feelings. "I need to know how this works."
"Nothing to it, Cap," Dugan says lightly, closing ranks with Bucky to block the scarecrow from his sight. "You just dig a little hole and hope they didn't use too strong of a box. One chop, and it's over."
A cold shiver ripples down Steve's spine at the reminder, that somewhere beneath the dirt, the dead man's heart is still beating.
"Go on, Steve," Bucky says, firm but kind. "We need a safe camp more than you need to see this. It's getting pretty dark."
"I'll take the next one," Steve warns, though he makes sure to say it like a promise. He's not going to let Bucky fight him on this; if there's something difficult that needs to be done, he means to pull his own weight.
Bucky nods once and turns his back to Dugan so Dugan can dig an entrenchment tool from Bucky's pack. Steve gathers up the rest of the Commandos with a look.
As soon as the scarecrow sees the shovel, he begins to laugh. "Schlaft schön," he says in a brittle, mocking tone, splaying the fingers of one hand in a trapped wave.
Steve glances at Gabe, but Gabe shakes his head. It was probably just an insult anyway.
The farmhouse is not only empty, it's recently been stripped of anything useful. Whatever furniture had been left behind by the owners has been broken up for firewood, and the pantry is empty of everything but cobwebs. The one small mercy is that all of the windows have been boarded over from the inside and half the doors have been nailed shut. Anything trying to get at them will find it hard to do without waking the whole house.
With the power off, it should have made for a cold, dark evening, but Dernier and Morita take a sturdy closet door off its hinges and hack it to kindling. Gabe gets a tiny blaze started in the fireplace, enough to brew coffee over, while Falsworth makes another round of the windows, muttering prayers under his breath.
The thump of two pairs of boots, one heavy, one near-silent, rattle hollowly on the porch that wraps around the house. Nerves strung tight, they all tense as the front door is pushed open, but it's only Bucky and Dugan, Dugan in the lead. Dugan has dirt caked black under his nails, mud clinging to the cuffs of his coat; Bucky's face is the still, cold mask he wears when picking off enemy sentries. Maybe he's not supposed to be able to guess which one of them finished the job, but one look at Bucky's eyes, and he knows.
He ignores it; it's all he can do. Nodding at the fireplace as Dugan stomps in, he asks, "How do we look from out--"
The snatch of raucous laughter that echoes from the trees has them scrambling for defensive positions, weapons drawn. Dugan pivots on his heel to press his back to the wall just inside the door, peering out into the gloom with his sidearm at the ready, but Bucky spins in place, rifle lifted to his shoulder. He fires in nearly the same move, holding position as Steve charges past him, unslinging the shield from his back.
Steve hesitates when his feet hit grass, straining his eyes and ears for the slightest hint of movement. It's grown dark enough already that the fields are bleeding into the trees, the trees a striped wall of shadows against the lowering clouds. He doesn't hear or see a thing.
"Not sure. I saw something drop, but that doesn't mean I got it, and this isn't a great time to go get a confirmation."
Steve nods. Corbies travel in flocks anyway; finding a lone one is almost unheard of. "Everybody inside. See what you can find to keep that fire going. We won't have to worry about human patrols tonight, and if the corbies already know we're here, keeping dark isn't going to help any."
Bucky holds position until Steve climbs back on the porch, but he doesn't argue when Steve jerks his head towards the door, urging him to go in first. Steve's never actually told Bucky how grateful he is that Bucky's so willing to follow his lead. They could have done nothing but argue, but instead Bucky picks his battles, saving his stubbornness for suicidal odds and ritual desecrations.
They bar the door, pull the empty shelves out of the pantry and break those down as well. Everyone's on edge, but they settle down to cold rations as if it's any other night, sitting in a loose circle with their weapons ready to hand. The old house creaks around them, shaken by every gust of wind, and it's hard not to imagine each tiny noise as a stealthy footstep on the roof or something slinking under the boarded-up windows.
On Steve's right Bucky goes through the familiar motions of cleaning his rifle, hands methodical, mind a million miles away judging from the thoughtful blankness of his stare. It takes a sharp eye to spot a corbie in hiding. The guys call him their crowcatcher, just not where anyone else can hear. Some jokes are too morbid even for wartime.
"One of us should start carrying a knife," Bucky says out of the blue, head still bowed. The set of his jaw is mulish.
"Well," Dernier says with a nervous laugh, reaching for his boot, "if you're not feeling particular--"
Bucky waves him off without looking. "Not that kind of knife. You know what I mean."
They do. Steve clears his throat. "I dunno, Buck. We move around an awful lot."
Bucky snorts. "So did the last patrol to come through here, and they still bought themselves at least a night with that lucky bastard out there. Look, what if tonight had been the night before a full moon, and I'd gotten my noggin crunched like that kid did his? Without a runed knife, I'd be nothing but deadweight."
"I dunno, Barnes," Morita says, rubbing at his nose with a grimace. "I don't know that I could cut out your heart even if I had to. Hell, I don't know how anyone does it, even if the scarecrows do volunteer."
Steve swallows hard, his laced fingers going white at the knuckles.
"You could do it," Bucky insists. "If it was all of you or someone who was going to die anyway, you could do it. In fact, I'm giving you permission to, all right? Don't do anything stupid and sentimental. If you ever need my help, you take it," he says, grimly determined, "whether I can tell you that at the time or not. I ain't ever gonna revoke that promise."
Steve nods, biting back the words he wants to say, the arguments he wants to make. But you'd be stuck there. Anything could happen to you. I wouldn't be able to take you home. Bucky knows all that, and he's still willing.
"Same goes for me," Gabe says, meeting each of their eyes in turn. "Just like he said. You need that kind of help from me, you don't have to ask me twice."
Dugan nods sharply, sitting back on one hand and pushing up the brim of his hat. "I'm in. Same terms."
"Same terms," Morita echoes with a tiny smile, Dernier nodding emphatically on his left.
"For me as well," Falsworth says, holding Bucky's eyes in particular. "I was taught the runes, by the way. My mother hoped I'd follow her into the priesthood rather than join the military. I can make a dagger, or I can show--show someone how it's made."
Bucky huffs a near-silent laugh at Falsworth's tact. Of course it'll be Bucky; he always takes the worst things on himself. Steve wants so badly to offer in his place, but he's the least likely of them to die, and something about that makes the very thought horrible. Like he'd be sacrificing them instead of making good on the sacrifice they're prepared to give.
"I'd appreciate--" Bucky starts to say as Steve blurts in a rush: "Me too."
Everyone stills. Bucky looks faintly sick.
"Me too," he repeats. "However it happens, if it happens, don't hold back just because some folks gave me a fancy nickname. Just do whatever you have to do to make sure you make it home."
This is another thing he's grateful for: that they only nod, even Bucky, taking him at his word.
"Well," Dugan says wryly, "now that we've covered that depressing subject...who's up for a hand of cards?"
He's so damn grateful for the Commandos, for Steve who doesn't know how to be creeped out by this thing the war's brought out in him. Bucky's never had reason to wonder whether he'd be any good with a gun before this, but some days he feels like he can't miss even if he tries.
The boys of the 107th used to cluster around him like their own personal scarecrow come nightfall, but Dugan gives him holy hell if he tries to take on too many of the watches himself. It's...nice. Dumb and dangerous, but nice.
They don't find a body when they leave the old farmhouse the next morning, but there's a track where the wet leaves under the trees stick up in a long line, like a cat's fur combed backwards. They could follow those drag marks right to an ambush at the end, but they're supposed to be hunting squid, not crows. They leave the corbies alone, hoping to be left alone in turn, and head out while dawn's still painting the leftover clouds in brilliant reds and golds.
It's noon when they finally unearth the Hydra factory they've been sent to find, midafternoon when they stagger back out again, leaving a trail of explosions behind them. They're forty miles from the Maginot Line, but when they radio for extraction, Howard just comes and gets them, joking and laughing like he's got nothing better to do with his time. He ribs Dernier--in perfect French--for making him pay his laundress extra to get the smell of smoke out of his clothes, and Dernier protests he only blew the place up a little. There's no prisoners to extract this time, a fact that weighs heavy on them all.
They leave four scarecrows behind, still standing their watches. They'd been locals before Hydra moved in. They'll abide by the covenant.
A long flight's a good time for a talk, and Falsworth doesn't argue when Bucky pulls him over for a conference. Steve lets him borrow his notebook and the stub of a pencil, dances back and forth between hovering to listen and casting hangdog looks at their bent heads from halfway across the plane, dragged away again and again by their friends. Howard watches them all without saying a word. Now there's a man who knows how to keep a secret.
Howard doesn't look surprised to see him when Bucky lets himself into the workshop that night.
"Sergeant Barnes," Howard says with a quick smile that cracks the watchful mask he seems to be going for. "What can I do for America's finest?"
"Think you've got me confused with someone else," Bucky says with a quiet snort. "Taller, wears a lot of blue."
Howard's eyes flick pointedly down to Bucky's coat. Bucky laughs softly, ducking his head.
"Definitely taller," he amends, though he's no pipsqueak himself. Not like Steve used to be.
"Now you're just making short jokes," Howard accuses with a sniff. "I expected better of you, Sarge. So? Pull up a chair," he invites, gesturing at his cluttered workbench. "You can watch me build a better mousetrap. Unless this isn't a social call." It sort of kills Bucky that Howard thinks his tinkering is social, sort of embarrasses him that he's here to ask a favor, not hang around and shoot the breeze. He nearly squirms as Howard's sharp eyes flick over him, searching automatically for vulnerabilities, if only to shore them up. "So, what'll it be? Body armor? A new gun? I could modify that rifle of yours--"
"You already did," Bucky reminds him with a half-smile. "Have I thanked you for that recently?"
Howard grins, sidelong and sly. "You can always thank me again."
Bucky rolls his eyes, careful to ham it up a little. He wonders sometimes about Stark, but it's not the sort of thing you can just ask a fella. Bucky probably wouldn't be very good company anyway; he's a little too hung up on this other guy he knows. Tall, wears a lot of blue. "Thanks, Howie."
"I hate it when you call me that."
"I know," Bucky says, dancing back with a chuckle as Howard aims a swat at his shoulder. Howard huffs at him and folds his arms, but he leans his hip into his worktable and arches a brow, waiting for Bucky to come out with it. "Actually, uh...I was hoping you'd have something that could etch carbon steel," he admits, hunching a shoulder as he slips his hands into his pockets.
Howard's eyes narrow. "It's for a knife, isn't it?" His expression doesn't ease when Bucky nods. "Barnes. Tell me you didn't volunteer."
"It's not like that," Bucky protests. "It's just--if anything happens--"
"Look, I know what they call you," Howard says, the smile long gone from his face. "If they've got you buying into it--"
"I'm just saying it's a bad idea to have the knife just sitting around if you've already given them ideas."
"It ain't like that," Bucky insists stubbornly, chin jutting out. "But I'll stand up for them if I have to. We all said we would."
Howard glares for a long moment before looking away, irritably blowing a stray lock of hair from his brow. "Right," he grumbles at last. "And God help anyone who tries to keep you idiots from playing hero. I don't even know why you're worried," he adds, ignoring the fact that Bucky hasn't claimed to be any such thing. "I'm the one who's going to get a call from Rogers asking me to fly you and your heart back to Brooklyn after they string you up."
Bucky laughs. He knows he shouldn't--the betrayed look Howard gives him is proof of that--but Steve would do it, and Howard's just crazy enough to go along.
After a moment, Howard snorts as well, unfolding his arms and pushing away from the worktable as he goes to rummage through his shelves. "Well. I've got hydrochloric acid and ferric chloride, take your pick. Ever done any metalwork before?"
"Figured I could ask around."
Howard shakes his head. "I'll talk you through it. You're a complete sonofabitch, by the way; you know that, right?"
"Yeah," Bucky says to Howard's back with a tiny, grateful smile. "I know."
Howard nods. He doesn't turn around. "Just so we're clear."
He doesn't see Bucky for the rest of that night, which shouldn't be unusual, except that it is. They've got Steve socked away in officers' quarters, and in theory Bucky's supposed to be bunking with the rest of the Commandos, but they're so often up planning late into the night, it's usually easier if Bucky just stays. Their arrangement is just like old times in every way: Steve never sleeps well when Bucky's gone.
He's stretching his legs to get to the mess hall, hoping to spot Bucky before someone comes up with another round of questions for them, when Bucky comes jogging up out of nowhere. He's almost too rumpled to pass muster, still in yesterday's uniform, with bruised circles under his eyes that suggest a total lack of sleep. Steve can't smell any alcohol on him, but he reeks of strange chemicals and Howard Stark's cologne.
Steve tries not to read too much into that--he'd been right there when Stark tried asking Peggy out--but Stark wouldn't be the first man to find Bucky just as stunning as Peggy in his own way. He knows Bucky goes with guys sometimes, though he pretends not to notice. Bucky's always careful not to bring trouble home, but Howard is exactly Bucky's type: compact and elegant, as beautiful as the dames Bucky can actually show off, all attitude.
He pushes the jealousy from his mind as Bucky greets him with a grin, exhausted but pleased. "Hey, Rogers. Got a sec?" he asks, still using that strange mix of familiarity and reserve he defaults to constantly, even in private, since that night at the bar when Steve asked him to stay. Steve will admit to a few private fantasies of showing off his rank to make Bucky proud--he's only human--but the reality leaves him nostalgic for the days when he was only ever Steve.
"Sure, Buck," he says, stepping into the alley beside the motor pool so they're out of the way. "What is it?"
"Got this done last night," Bucky says, pulling a sheathed trench knife from the inside pocket of his jacket, sliding the blade free and turning it a little so the metal flashes in the early morning sun. Steve is going to kill Howard, damn it. "I already sealed most of the runes--"
"Whose blood?" If he's already asked all the others, maybe Steve can tell himself Bucky's saved the best for last.
"Mine, who else? All except this one," Bucky says before Steve can finish taking a steadying breath, the better to explain in small words that it doesn't always have to be him. Bucky taps the base of the blade, right where it joins the hilt. Steve has seen rune blades before, both fancy and crude, but the runes marching down the blued steel of the M3 have a precision that's pure Bucky. As the knife itself was shaped to purpose, so are the binding marks that make it more than just a blade. "I, uh...I thought you might...I was hoping you'd seal the final rune yourself."
Steve opens his mouth, but his voice deserts him. Swallowing hard, he tries again. "What do I have to do?"
Bucky grins, swift and relieved. "Uh, nothing much. I mean, it's just blood."
Steve's pretty sure it's not just anything, but he nods and holds out his left arm, then flushes as he tries to substitute his right in a hurry, just in case.
Bucky just laughs. "Nah, c'mon. Give me the other. Always go with your instincts with magic, right?"
"Yeah, but you keep telling me I don't have the sense God gave a turnip."
"And maybe a turnip is exactly what we'll need," Bucky fires back, smirking. "Now, give."
Folding two fingers over to hold onto the sheath, Bucky takes Steve's hand, facing his palm up. Steve's ready for anything, but Bucky nails him with a here-comes-trouble grin and sets the point of his knife to the pad of Steve's ring finger, saying, "Now I know how you feel about 'til death do us part--"
"--but here's proof that it doesn't have to be that way. All for one and one for all, with this blade I thee something."
"God, Buck," Steve groans. "Do it properly, will you? Whatever it is."
Bucky drops his eyes with a quiet laugh, one corner of his mouth turning up hard. "It's just blood," he says again, turning Steve's hand back over and pressing the already-healing cut to the final rune, then swiftly dips his head. "Terminus," he murmurs, kissing the back of Steve's finger, lips warm against Steve's knuckle. "Our boundary and limit. Hold fast so that we may hold, your borders our center." He straightens quickly and takes a tiny step back, but he doesn't let go, his lopsided smile still in place. "'Til the end of the line, pal."
"Thanks for the translation," Steve manages thickly, which coaxes Bucky into a full-fledged grin.
When Bucky lets him pull his hand away, the cut's already healed.
Bucky makes sure the cameramen who follow them around pay close attention to that little tidbit, just in case. It makes a great story for the folks back home, the kind girls coo over and bother their sweethearts with. It certainly can't hurt. It's a good reminder, too, for when he needs the reminder, though he's been able to see which way the wind blows since the moment Carter walked into that bar.
They chase Hydra across Europe, blowing up factories where they can and freeing any prisoners they find. Most raids no one even takes a scratch, though that could be down to Steve rushing in every chance he gets. Bucky makes a mental note each time to thank Howard for that stupid shield. He needs to thank Howard a lot.
They're on the move constantly, and while it's not an easy life by any means, it's miles better than being an average grunt. The food's not great, but there's always plenty, and he spends more time trying out new gear for Howard than fixing what breaks. They might get dropped into the worst of the fighting, but they also get fished right back out again. The brass don't just want a sniper, a demolitions expert, a translator on the job; they want Barnes and Dernier and Jones. Sometimes it seems like they live a charmed life, and the knife on his chest feels lighter by the day.
Then he goes to climb a mountain, and it all comes rushing back.
The crunch of their boots through the snow sets his teeth on edge from the first, and it's all he can do to keep from hissing at them to stop moving. He keeps his eyes roving over the peaks and tree line, but there's nothing: no movement, no shadow out of place, no shine of hungry eyes. He can't see them, but he knows they're there, somewhere close.
"Barnes?" Morita asks quietly.
Bucky's hand twitches on his rifle, but he doesn't wave Jim silent. There's no point. They haven't been talking, and they can't move any quieter than this. If they're spotted, they're spotted. His main concern is that they're going to have to split up once they reach the summit, half their number leaving to intercept Zola's train, and none of them are as good a shot as he is. He ought to stay to protect whoever's left behind, but that's exactly why he should be one of the ones going in with Steve.
"We've got company, but they're not hunting us yet," he says in a soft undertone that barely carries to Gabe in the back. Steve's head whips around, but he doesn't ask any questions. He doesn't ask how Bucky knows.
That's convenient, because Bucky doesn't know himself. It's been a while since he's faced off against a corbie; they've been moving too fast, and war's made the bastards lazy. There's hardly any need to hunt when every skirmish leaves dead or dying men scattered, free meat for the taking. Maybe it's just that Bucky's forgotten how it feels, the near-painful tingle at the back of his neck, the cramping weightlessness in the pit of his stomach. He's tempted to pass it off as nerves, but trying to shove the awareness away makes his skin pull tight with gooseflesh.
Steve looks at each of them in turn and sets his jaw at what he sees. "We can't abort now," he says, no more than what they're already thinking. "Just be on your guard."
They don't talk until they reach the intercept point, and then it's only to exchange a few last instructions. Bucky catches Dugan's eye and gets a firm nod in turn, the others following suit. They all know how important this is.
He thinks briefly about leaving them the knife, but they're nowhere near a full moon. One more blade isn't going to make much difference if they're ambushed, no matter how it's decorated.
When he steps up to the zip line, Steve opens his mouth to protest, but he shuts it again at the last second. Between the six of them, they've made a pretty decent officer of him; Bucky reminds himself to tell Steve that when this is over, just in case it wasn't clear.
They make it onto the train without any trouble, though he's never going to give Steve any grief about throwing up on the Cyclone ever again. Sliding down a cable with the weight of two other guys bouncing the line and no support but the tight grip of his own hands isn't something he ever wants to repeat again in his life. They leave Gabe standing guard on top of the train, feeling like they lucked out when they slip into a car that turns out to be empty. There are crates of supplies stacked up against the walls, lit by the eerie blue glow all of Hydra's special toys carry with them, but they can examine the contents later. Right now only finding Zola matters.
The instant the dividing door slams shut between him and Steve, Bucky knows they're in trouble. There's no time to pry it back open; he has to spin around fast to take on the three soldiers rushing in from the next car back. The first one goes down fast, but his rifle's best used to buy him breathing room; there's no time to reload in the cramped space of the train car, so he pulls his sidearm instead.
Another soldier goes down, leaving one. Bucky doesn't know what Steve's up against, but he can hear it, the thump of discharged energy rumbling through a thick metal door and over the rattle of the train. Fear makes him sloppy--he needs to get in there--and he runs out of ammo before he realizes. It occurs to him suddenly that he might not be getting out of this one, but he's not down yet. He's got a knife in his boot and another strapped to his chest if he can just get the first hit in.
When the door comes open at his back, he almost can't believe it, but it's Steve, and he's got a spare gun, and they just might make it after all.
He keeps thinking that until a soldier in a crazy metal suit blasts Steve with a shot that sends him sprawling, tearing the shield out of his hands as he crashes hard against the wall. The energy blast the shield deflected blows out the side of the car, just peels the metal back like a sardine can. He can hear Zola yelling, "Fire again!" over the intercom. "Kill him! Now!" He's pretty sure the little bastard isn't talking about him.
He goes for the shield because it did something right just now, but he trusts to his guns. He fires off one shot, two, moving up to stand between Steve and the crazy in the suit, braced against the shot he knows is coming. He has time to think, Thank God, when he sees the idiot is aiming for the shield, not somewhere sensible like his knees, and then he's hurtling through the air, feeling like he's just been hit by a tank.
He drops the shield, hits the buckled side of the car and feels the metal give under his weight, the wind snatching at him as he's pulled out of the train entirely. Grabbing wildly for a handhold, he snags a loose railing already bent by the blast that took out the wall, feeling it sag ominously as he clings for dear life. Steve's coming. He knows it. He just needs to hang on.
Just a little bit longer.
"Hang on!" Steve yells, easing out of the car and frantically making his way closer. "Grab my hand!"
He tries. He does.
And then he falls.
He can't be gone. He can't. Of all the ways Steve's feared to lose him, he can't have lost Bucky like this.
He finds himself thinking of that knife, that fucking knife, which he'd hated and feared and agonized over, only to have it prove utterly useless. He'd have given his own heart to keep Bucky safe, but now he's never going to have that chance.
He crawls back inside because he has nowhere else to go. He has a job to finish, men waiting on his return. He can't stop just because it suddenly feels too hard to continue.
Steve can't breathe. It's just like old times.
It's just like how things used to be before he had Bucky.
He hurts. His back, his legs, everywhere. His left arm is a solid pulse of agony, and he can't feel his fingers.
He feels what's coming. That's not something he can block out.
Five tall shapes melt silently out of the slowly falling snow, dressed in fur-lined parkas. The coats hang a bit on the two females, meant for broader shoulders, but there's no mistaking the three males for soldiers. One pair look twice as old as the others, the matriarch and patriarch of the little family unit. Their teeth are blunter, worn down over the years, but their grins are twice as sharp.
He's never seen a murder of crows so close or so clear, not while they're still alive, and it makes his skin crawl to see them acting so human. They nearly look the part, with very little to give them away: the porcelain fineness of their pale skins, their teeth, the sharpness of their long nails. Their hair is long, even the men's. On three it's black as pitch, but their father's hair is platinum, and the older son is blond. They pass so effortlessly, it's easy to see how they fool so many travelers, how they creep in unnoticed when there's no one to bar the way.
"Well, well," the matriarch croons in a low, whiskey voice. "Compliments to the Swiss. It's not often dinner falls into our laps."
"They are a polite people," her daughter agrees in slightly more accented English. She's eerily beautiful, with a heart-shaped face and wide, almond eyes, and she gives Bucky the sweetest smile he's seen since he shipped out.
He can't work his left hand, so he scrabbles at his chest with his right, blinking back tears of pain. The leather-wrapped hilt of the runed knife is a comfort as he closes his fingers around it, even if it's ultimately worthless. He's never going to hold off five corbies in his condition, but at least he won't feel like he went without a fight.
The patriarch laughs. "What's this? Going to cut out your own heart, boy?"
"I'd pay to see that," the younger boy says with a short bark of amusement. "Can we keep him and see if he'll do it?"
"Ruins the flavor," his mother says with a snort, thumping the side of his head with the stiffened tips of her fingers, mindful of her nails. "Now be a good lad and skin this coney, would you? These military beasts are tough enough without freezing them first."
As the three younger corbies start forward, Bucky grips the knife harder, determined to buy his life with at least one of theirs. The older son's eyes are fixed on his blade, but just as the corbie gathers himself to rush in, a shot rings out from the trees. The corbies jump back, grating sounds of irritation scraping in their throats, but a volley of gunfire sends them running. Bucky stares after them, adrenaline flooding out of him so fast it leaves him lightheaded. How did the others find him so quickly?
Dark shapes in heavy coats sprint up to him, but he doesn't realize he doesn't know them until someone grabs his left shoulder roughly. He screams and tries to slash out with the knife, but his wrist is captured in hard hands that pry his fingers open. There's shouting, but he can't make out a single word past the ringing in his ears.
A swarthy man with a fancy insignia on his cap gets right in his face, leaning down to show him the knife. "Yours?" the man demands, smacking Bucky's cheek with his free hand when he doesn't answer. "Yours?"
He'd like to know who else it's going to belong to considering he's out here all alone, but all he can manage is a nod.
His questioner looks up at the others and jerks his head.
Bucky's out as soon as they try to lift him, drifting back only in nightmare flashes to see things he can't bring himself to think about.
He may have escaped the corbies, but he doesn't think he's among friends.
"This is yours?"
"Did you make it?"
"Where did you learn the runes?"
"Did anyone help you?"
They ask him over and over, keeping him awake for days and jostling his broken body. They add new wounds when they're not satisfied with how quickly he answers, when they think there might be some hint of evasion.
"Whose blood did you use?"
"Did you perform the consecration ritual fully?"
"Has it ever been used?"
He tries not to tell them anything at first, but slowly the answers come. Yes, yes, a friend, no, mine, yes, no. Yes, yes I told you, a f-f-Falsworth, no goddamn it, who else's, yes, no.
Fuck you, I told you that, it's mine, I did it, just leave me the hell alone.
He knows he's lying. What he doesn't know is if they know he's lying. But there's the terminus: the boundary he swore to uphold between what he's willing to give and what he'll die to keep. He keeps Steve's name locked tightly inside, tells himself it's a tiny matter that doesn't change anything. It's just blood, and enough of Steve's has sunk into his skin over years of Bucky patching him up that there's really no difference between them.
"This is yours?"
He nods, past speaking. He's amazed he's lived this long, but if they kill him with Steve's name unvoiced, he's won. He just doesn't know what he's winning by it in the first place.
They trade glances over his head. "Patch him up," one says, turning away and taking the knife with him.
When the doctors converge on him, he finds enough strength to scream after all.
He heals too fast, and he's past being able to pretend differently.
The doctors rarely talk to him in any language, but there comes a day when he knows he's as healed as he's ever going to get. The stump of his left arm still aches at odd times, but the last of the stitches came out days ago, and the scar tissue is already fading from bright reddish-pink to normal skin tones. He thinks he could walk on his own if someone were to let him up, despite how long it's been since he's stood. He also thinks it's not likely he'll get that opportunity.
When the scientists finally arrive, he's drifting a little, not sleeping but lost in a fugue of non-thought. He knows no one's coming for him. Even if Steve bullies command into sending someone for his body, not finding one won't raise any uproar. There are too many corbies eating far too well these days to raise a hue and cry over one missing corpse. He thinks wistfully of that missing body sometimes; whatever his captors have in store for him, part of him would much rather not be here for it.
So, no different from last time, really.
A voice from the doorway startles him back to himself, and he blinks rapidly, stupidly surprised to still find himself in the operating room that's been repurposed as his cell. There's never any heat, and all the white he's surrounded with--the harsh, glaring lights; the cool tiles of the walls and floor; the doctors' immaculate coats--makes the place seem colder still. He tries not to shiver as two men enter the room, not wanting to look afraid. Defiance makes them try harder, but fear slows them down, lets them know they've got all the time in the world to finish breaking him.
"So this is Zola's pet project." The first man through the door is tall and lean, moves like someone familiar with a rifle despite his lab coat and tie. He's seen the type hanging around the London base a time or two: SSR agents, impossible to pigeonhole at first glance when they're not actively trying to play a part. He has the same accent as Schmidt or might be aping it on purpose. Bucky doesn't ask what their supposed Russian allies are doing with a German spy. He hasn't figured the people here for allies from the beginning. "You've had opportunity to collect whatever samples you need?"
"Of his current state, yes," says the doctor who joins him. He's an older man with a neat, greying beard, used to rapping out orders like a general, but he addresses the spy with a wary reserve. "We've been waiting for approval to move on to trials of our own serum."
The spy snorts. "When your subject is already contaminated? You know the standing orders on this one. But by all means, feel free to test to your heart's content once I'm done; I'd be interested to see if it has any effect."
"And what good do you think a corpse will do us?" the doctor scoffs.
"That is the question, isn't it?"
The doctor purses his lips, chin jerking up as disdain melts caution. "You think you can recreate an accident because you've read a few myths?"
"Mythology has treated us very well," the spy says, spreading his hands with a self-satisfied smile. "Consider the tesseract, for example."
"Indeed--but you are not Johann Schmidt," the doctor replies coldly. "Or even Zola, though I agree his methods were lacking. You're a thug with a knife, and you're going to lose us an irreplaceable asset if you persist in this foolishness."
The spy retains his smile, but his eyes go flat and dead. "I'll convey your concerns to the appropriate parties, shall I? In the meantime, we're wasting precious daylight. Get him ready. My men are already setting up outside."
The spy stalks out without looking back, leaving the doctor to glare after him with a bitter twist to his mouth. When a pair of burly orderlies edge into the room, he takes a deep breath and blows it out shortly.
Things get hazy after that.
They come at him with a round of injections he can't even struggle against, one that makes him woozy and another that burns like fire. The third cuts the strings to his limbs, and he's left lolling like a drunken doll when they finally undo the straps that hold him down. Fighting is beyond him; he's reduced to pathetic twitches of a hand and two feet that feel like they've been wrapped in wool, and the world spins around and around as they sit him upright. Off come his thin hospital scrubs, but before he can be embarrassed, they wrestle him back into his old uniform, cleaned and mended. Someone ties a dark blindfold around his head, and he nearly chokes on a breathless laugh.
"Takin' me to th'secret hideout?" he slurs. Heavy hands push him back into a sitting position as he nearly slumps face-first to the floor. "Don' worry. Won' tell th'secret knock."
One of the orderlies asks a question, but Bucky can't even make out what language it is, much less individual words. He's never been this drunk in his life--hasn't been drunk once since Steve pulled him off the last table, so maybe he's come full circle. Steve picks him up and makes him better. These schmucks come along and make him worse. It seems obvious now that he's put things into perspective.
They haul him off the table, one under each arm for support. One of them has to work harder at it, and the thought makes Bucky giggle quietly to himself, even when it earns him a smack upside the head. He can't feel his feet, but he's already gotten used to not feeling his left hand, so it doesn't bother him too much. He does wish he could see where he's going, but his plans for escape are curiously distant at the moment. He's just sick of staring at the same four walls.
He can tell the instant they step outside the facility. He hears the far-off piping of a distant bird, the crunch of snow underfoot, tastes the dampness of recent flurries on the air and the promise of more to come. Dimly he decides they must be transferring him from one building to another, but the further they walk, the louder the silence grows. The drone of a transformer becomes a faint background hum, drowned by the rush of wind and the skittering of ice pellets dragged over a dry crust of snow. It's too cold for insects and the blindfold is thick, but it's a different quality of shadow that he moves through, a deeper, velvety black that presses in on his wide-open eyes behind the cloth.
He hears the muffled crunch of other feet moving up ahead, but his brain's too foggy to assign a number. There could be three or thirty, but he likes the idea of four. Four's a good number. Four and the two carrying him, and him. Had they picked seven unconsciously back then? Maybe it was just an ingrained habit. Seven's a good number too.
"Get him up," says a voice he almost recognizes. Did he hear it recently, or was it from before? He's too busy listening to struggle as he's hoisted up, braced with his back against something hard as his arms are pulled out straight to either side. Ropes are looped under his shoulders, around his chest and ankles, one wrist. A loop settles around his neck, but not tightly enough to choke him. They wind down his arms, one length falling short and doubling up, and when the hands recede, the ropes take his weight.
A warm palm settles on his cheek, and he presses his face into it without thinking. The doctors don't touch him, not like this.
"Bucky," someone whispers into the hush that follows. The doctors don't call him that either. "Sorry, we have to be quiet. Do you know who I am?"
He wracks his brain, but-- "I...."
"Bucky, it's Steve."
Steve? That...can't be right. Steve saw him fall. Steve knows he's dead. But then...Steve would have insisted on taking him home, wouldn't he?
"Steve?" he breathes.
"Yeah. God, Bucky--I'm so sorry. I wasn't fast enough getting here, and now we've got trouble. I...I can't save you, Bucky, and there's corbies on the way."
His eyes dart behind the blindfold and he stills his breath, but the tingle at the back of his head doesn't come. "Can't feel 'em yet, so they're not close," Bucky mutters, speaking more plainly than he'd ever dared to before. The hand on his cheek tenses, and he feels bad for that. Steve's never been afraid of him before. "'S all right. You've got time to do what you need to."
Bucky frowns. Steve's accent's slightly off, more a lackof an accent than anything, but he's probably just all choked up. Steve's always been a soft touch with the people he cares about. "Yeah," he mumbles with his cottony tongue. "Told you I would. Don't gotta ask me twice."
"I just want to make sure."
"I c'nsent," he manages, chin drooping to his chest. "I'll follow th' covenant. Jus'...don' you do it, Steve. Get somebody else. You don't gotta live with this, y'hear?"
"All right," Steve says very softly. "Thank you."
Bucky wishes he had the strength or the courage to say more, but this is enough. He's smiling as someone unbuttons his shirt, as a firm hand curls over the rise of muscle between his shoulder and his neck, the heel of a palm pressing hard against his clavicle to steady him. As drunk as he is--no, it's got to be something else, because he's dying, right?--he barely feels the long cut that opens up along his sternum.
There's something wrong, though. He knows because people talk, and people ask that sort of thing, and every scarecrow Bucky's ever heard of says it hurts, sure, but it's warm as soon as the moonlight hits them, warm all through the three nights of the change and forever after. He's almost looking forward to that part. He's been cold for a long time.
What spills down into him from above isn't warm at all. It's freezing, like the icy flow of a dirty river, seeping into him and chilling him right down to the bone. Someone's chanting in the old tongue, a ritual he knows by heart after Falsworth's patient tutelage, and it's word perfect, so it's not that. It's not the knife either, because something in it is pulling at him like a magnet, like a broken piece that wants to slot itself back into place. Blood calling to blood. But if it's not the words and not the knife, then what--
He screams as his ribs are cracked open, and for a while that's all he knows.
When he opens his eyes, it's still black, but now he remembers the blindfold.
The effort it takes to turn his head would leave him gasping if he had any breath. The blindfold is fastened on tight--and why would Steve do that, anyway? He knows Bucky's not afraid.
It comes to him in a sick burst of dread that Steve wouldn't have blindfolded him, and now he remembers where he is.
Panic and fury give him the strength to continue, rubbing the side of his face as hard as he can against his shoulder. He doesn't know how long he's been hanging, but he knows he shouldn't be able to move around this much yet; it can't have been three nights already. He doesn't care. He has to see.
When the blindfold starts to come loose, he shakes his head wildly until he can toss the thing off him. It plops into the snow at his feet, and he wastes a few moments staring at the deep shadows at the foot of his cross. It's dark, and the lumpy blackness resolves slowly into a mess of churned earth, half-melted drifts of snow stained in a wide burst, as if he'd bled and bled and kept on bleeding. It's so dark, though. Why is it so dark?
When he tips his head up to the sky, he thinks it must be later than it seems. The moon must already have set, because the only light that reaches him is from the security spotlights that circle the fenced-in compound. It's a cloudless night, and the snow should be lit to blazing from the moon's glow, but the field he's in is a wash of charcoal on black.
He looks to the stars again, trying to remember anything that will help him map out his location, but his eyes are arrested at the inky tree line. There's a hole in the sky, almost perfectly round, the thinnest yellow sliver of a sickle wrapped around it. As cold as he is, the realization digs freezing claws into his guts. That's the moon, but it should be a hair away from full. It should be full. It should be.
Terror draws his leaden muscles tight. He can't...he can't be out here. They can't have set him out here like this. He needs to get away, as far away as he can, and he knows he'll be snuffing himself out like a candle if he gets too far from the heart beating somewhere in the ground beneath his cross, but he doesn't care. If he can drag himself far enough, it won't matter if they find him and string him back up. He'll just be another corpse.
He can't let them make a monster out of him.
His first tugs at the ropes that bind him are barely worth the name. There's no strength in his limbs, but just like before, when he lets his rage take over, it gets easier. There's barely any slack in the ropes, so he can't throw himself against them the way he'd like, but he braces his shoulders and arches his spine, pushing against the wood at his back until it groans.
The ropes pull tighter, tough as sinew, biting into his skin and pulling his clothes awry. He tries sawing his right arm against the loop wrapping his wrist, but there's no blood left in him to escape that way, and without any hands, he's not going to get very far. Sagging against his bindings, he wonders dully at the pain in his joints, his torn skin, at the fact that he can feel pain at all. Pain doesn't make sense if he's already dead.
The ache becomes an itch. The itch sharpens to pins and needles. He turns his head and stares.
He's seen Steve heal post-serum, but it's usually not this dramatic. He can't see much of anything in the gloom, but he feels it as his skin smooths over, closing painlessly over raw meat until no trace of a wound remains. When he tugs gingerly against the rope that holds him, the new skin is tender at first, but it soon toughens up. The last tug is no more than a scratchy reminder to be cautious.
He shouldn't be able to do that. With no heart and no blood inside him, he should be left to weather away, do his service under the covenant and then be free. Whatever they're doing to him, whatever they've done, it's more than a death sentence.
If there's a way out of this, he can't see it, so he thrashes, pulls, rips--but the ropes can't be ordinary, and the wood at his back barely gives for all his shaking. As the hair-thin crescent of the moon sinks behind the trees, the last of his strength ebbs with it, leaving him slumped in his bonds. It's just like it was with Zola, and if he didn't hallucinate what he heard before they drugged him, there's a reason for that.
He's in Hydra's hands again, and that means Steve will be coming. Maybe not for him, but he knows Steve, and Steve won't rest until all of Hydra has been wiped from the map. It may be too late for him, but that doesn't mean he can't still be of use one more time.
Whatever happens to him, whatever they try to make of him, he'll stand his watch and wait for his moment. Even if all he can give is intel, he'll be ready.
His memory of the night before is spotty, hazed by drugs and pain and his own fucking death, but he remembers the tall, lean man walking towards him. The spy wears a heavy greatcoat instead of a lab coat this morning, the legs of his tailored pants tucked into a pair of sturdy winter boots. A few snowflakes dust his fairish hair, and his bare hands are pale and chilled as they cup a match and cigarette, smoke and breath pluming the air a moment later.
"Sergeant Barnes," the spy greets him with a smile, ambling up to stand a few prudent feet away. Not like Bucky can get at him, bound as he is, but if he could, he wouldn't mind taking down one more Hydra bastard before he's done. "I trust you had a pleasant evening."
"It was a bit dark," Bucky grates out, realizing he can still breathe just fine so long as he puts conscious effort into it.
"Yes, well, they do say ignorance is bliss. Maybe next time you'll keep the blindfold on."
Bucky narrows his eyes, his fractured recollections of Steve's presence suddenly making sense. "It was you," he says flatly. "Pretending to be Steve."
"Indeed. And as you'll find I am not Captain Rogers, I believe I fulfilled your wishes according to the terms of the covenant." His smug little smirk has Bucky seeing red, and he yanks on the ropes without thinking, deaf to the creak of wood. His killer is much more interested, eyeing him with fascination and a sickening air of pride. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you're awake. Or that you've had a busy night," he adds, stepping up to flick a few splinters of wood from Bucky's right sleeve. "Were you wondering about the ropes? Trust that we spared no expense. My superiors thought I was mad when I said I wanted you Fenrir-bound. 'He's not Captain America,' they said. But just look at you."
"Yeah, amazing," Bucky growls. "Another dead guy in a field. I don't know what you think you're gaining by this--"
"Really? A scarecrow made with his own knife with no moon to bless him? That doesn't sound familiar to you at all, Crowcatcher?" the spy drawls, arching a brow.
Bucky hadn't thought he could feel any colder, but the ice that settles in his guts proves him wrong. "'S just a name. Calling you a squid doesn't make you one, even if you are about as slimy."
"And yet you claim to sense them."
"You mean back when I wasn't dead?" Shit. Shit. That stupid nickname hasn't ever bothered him before. His friends wouldn't call him that if they were too creeped out by his weird sixth sense. It's not even honestly that strange; he's met other snipers who claim their rifles talk to them, knew a guy once who could crawl through five miles of barbed wire in the dark and never so much as snag his cuff. Everyone's got a knack for something. His is just a little creepier than most. But if other people heard the name or came to it on their own, if this asshole actually believes there's something behind it....
The spy shakes his head, taking a deep drag off his cigarette. Wonder of wonders, he turns his head when he exhales, missing a textbook opportunity to execute a classic villain move. "As I understand it, there's technically some question as to whether you're truly dead now, but I leave such matters to the philosophers. You'll be a magnificent weapon either way."
Bucky snorts. "Not your weapon." No way in hell. He'll take the same choice that kid did back in France, and no hard feelings if that means they dig up his heart again. He'd almost welcome it at this point.
"On the contrary. I believe you'll do exactly as you're told."
"Good luck with that." He curls his lip with all the disdain he can muster, but it worries him how confident the bastard sounds, like he knows something Bucky doesn't.
"Of course. I'll see you this evening, shall I?"
Bucky grits his teeth, gives one more yank at the ropes, but it's an empty threat. All he can do is watch as the spy smiles politely and saunters away.
Fenrir-bound. Fuck. Even Steve would have a hard time getting out of that, and the squid's bosses are right: he's no Captain America.
Slumping against the ropes, he shuts his eyes tight and takes a deep breath he doesn't need. Doesn't matter. It's familiar, comforting, though it pulls at the muscles in his chest in ways that aren't familiar at all. Maybe his strange new knack for healing doesn't stretch that far; maybe he's still opened up like a proper scarecrow, cracked open around the hole where his heart should be. He could nudge his shirt and jacket aside with his chin, but he's afraid to look.
He tries to welcome the exhaustion that creeps up on him, but it takes its sweet time about dragging him under. It's not fair, damn it--most scarecrows sleep away the daylight hours of their transformation--but nothing about this is traditional or right. Those Hydra assholes are all mad anyway. You can't make a crowcatcher; they're a mistake, a curse, nothing but rage and dark magic and their conjuror's bad luck. Whatever they end up making of him....
He tips his head back with his eyes still shut, knocking the back of his skull against the wood of his cross as he clenches his jaw. He doesn't want to be turned into a monster, but a crowcatcher would hardly be better. At least a monster can be put down.
"God, Steve," he rasps, stomach churning when he opens his eyes and sees no plume rising from his unheated breath. "If you were ever going to turn up for a rescue, now's the time."
There's nothing but the far-off chatter of a few hardy birds and the methodic, crunching footsteps of the guards patrolling the perimeter.
He jerks against the ropes, his right hand curling into a fist as he strains, and finds two dozen rifles trained on him in a heartbeat. Habit makes him freeze before he remembers he's already dead. Surprise makes him laugh, only he forgets to breathe first. What emerges is a dry rattle that has a few of the younger soldiers backing away, shoulders flinching up with a shudder.
Fuck, he sounds awful.
"Sergeant Barnes. Good evening."
The spy approaches on his left--of course--unrepentant in his symbolism. He's got Bucky's knife in hand, which isn't a surprise, not like the outrage Bucky feels at seeing him handle it. From the moment he consecrated it, the only person Bucky's allowed to touch it is Steve, but that...that's just him being careful, right?
"You again," Bucky scoffs, curling his lip. "Back for more, Fritz?"
"It's Agent Fritz, actually," the spy says with a pleasant smile. He seems unaffected by the insult, but something remarkably like discontent prickles the air between them. Bucky's going to ignore it, he is, but--
"That's not your name." Obviously, but--he can feel the difference, the awareness of a foundation laid out of true.
"No? What about Jürgens?" the spy offers lightly, arching a brow at Bucky's scowl. "Reimann? Neuhaus? Brecht?"
"Are we playing Rumpelstiltskin?" Bucky demands, baring his teeth. His skin is buzzing.
"Kessler." Wait. "Anton Kessler." He can feel that. "Is that better?"
He doesn't want it to be, but God, it really is.
Kessler smiles, pleased. "You're coming along very nicely, Sergeant Barnes. Most scarecrows don't come into their truthsense for weeks."
Fuck, is that what this is? He's heard of it, knows field interrogations are frowned upon to say the least, but it's never occurred to him that the scarecrow might find it as uncomfortable as the prisoner.
"At any rate, it's an important night for you, Sergeant. I hope you've taken this opportunity to make peace with yourself; after tonight, you'll be the start of something new."
"You better hope it's the end of something," Bucky promises, "because if I find a way down from here, I'm gonna take you apart."
Kessler grins. "You can try."
Kessler steps back out of reach, arms outstretched, Bucky's knife held point-down in one fist. Bucky really wants to make a crack about dramatic lighting, how Kessler must have missed his calling with the theater, but once the chanting starts, his throat closes up tightly on a wretched, gagging cough. It's not like he needs air, but as his sight grows dim, he wonders if his body knows that. Everything's swimming, the world rippling through half-seen currents that match the underwater echoes of a ritual he knows by heart. Even the fires at the edge of the field can't light the darkness closing in on him.
He can't even hear the chant anymore. He's staring at Kessler's pale, blurry face, watching his mouth move, but nothing's coming out. The air trembles, Kessler's features distorting like a mirage that disturbs only parts of him: his head, then his head and his right shoulder, then just his shoulder. It's like something's passing over him, or maybe passing between them.
Following that near-invisible shimmer with his eyes, Bucky wonders helplessly if his displaced heart is still capable of racing as his head turns slowly to the left. A translucent shadow swims through the air like a snake, but it's not alone. There's dozens more, hundreds, and the longer he stares, the more substantial they seem: a host of half-formed monsters spiraling into the air towards the hole in the sky where the moon should hang overhead.
There's something else up there. Something vast that stretches from horizon to horizon, and though he can't see it yet, the weight of its notice pins him more firmly than the enchanted ropes that bind his limbs. He doesn't think it's his imagination that it seems amused, though maybe some of that impression comes from the sharp grins of the creatures cutting lazily through the air. One drifts closer, grey eyes bright and sickeningly human in a manticore's face: all teeth. It reaches for him slowly, silvery claws caressing his cheek without cutting, but its touch burns like ice.
Get the fuck away from me, he mouths, breathless still in the grip of whatever Kessler's doing to him, whatever's making him see this. The creature's grin stretches impossibly wide, eyes sparking with delight. Pulling its eeling body in under itself, it sits up in the nest of its knotting, trifurcated tail and cups his face in both hands.
He can't scream, even as he jerks his head back, cracking his skull against the wood of his cross, so he does the next best thing. Snarling, lips pulled back from his own teeth, he wrenches his head around in the thing's grasp and snaps at its fingers, determined to give as good as he gets. The creature's laugh as it jerks away sounds like the snapping of willow twigs, a crackling burst that makes the hunter in him--no, the soldier in him--twitch in reaction.
It darts away, but the immense thing hovering over them seems closer now, the whole vault of the heavens caving inward to crush him. It's interested in him now, the weight of its unseen eyes making his skin crawl as he searches the sky for a target.
Another ripple of half-glimpsed motion shivers the air, and for a moment he thinks the spiraling drift of the shadow-creatures has reversed. It hasn't. What threads down through their ranks is darker, all of a piece: massive, snaking limbs like the arms of an octopus, and the irony would be killing him if they weren't headed his way.
When they reach him, it's a blackout, every bit of light snuffed out as the thing's suffocating presence winds around him. It pries at him, melting through his skin and coiling up in the hollow of his chest where his heart used to be, spilling into his empty veins and filling him up again. He tries to struggle, heaving against the ropes and the icy touch slithering through him, but as his cross gives an ominous crack, the ropes pull tight, lighting up in silvery runes that burn everywhere they touch.
He fights anyway as a flicker of power tickles at the base of his skull, threading under the bone before plunging deep into thought and memory. He feels curiously removed from his panic without the wild thump of his pulse to give it force, but he can't see; he can't see what it's doing, what it's doing inside him. He can feel its disdain at his fear, the way it shoves his terror away, bored, and that--that infuriates him. He didn't ask for this. He shouldn't be here, staked out in the wrong field under the wrong moon by the wrong fucking hands. He's got a right to be scared like he's got a right to be angry, and if this bastard thing doesn't like it, it can get the fuck out of his head.
Satisfaction. Pleasure. Complacency. They wash over him from the outside, flow through him from the tendrils dug deep inside his mind, and that focuses his rage to a sharp, glittering point. It wants him angry. It wants him mindless. It's going to turn him loose on the world to hunt and kill and slaughter, and it doesn't care if he sticks to corbies or starts mistaking the flock for the wolves. The only end it's concerned with is the fear he'll leave in his wake.
Wood shudders and groans as he throws himself against the searing ropes, pain lending him clarity. He's not going out like that, not giving in, because he swore a fucking oath, didn't he? This far and no further, only his own limits don't matter. Steve's his terminus, Bucky's moral compass and better angel since they were kids, and Bucky's not going to fail him, not in this.
When the darkness surrounding him grows heavier still, he pushes back, thinks of fireworks and Brooklyn summers, the flare of Dugan's smokes and Dernier's flashy explosions. When sourceless fury wells up and leaves him twisting restlessly in his bonds, he remembers Steve's righteous anger and calms. Someone has to keep their cool, and he's always been the level-headed one.
The pain's not so bad--Zola taught him worse--but he's slipping. The more he scrambles to find good things, human things, to muscle out the icy tide of violence pouring into him, the faster those things melt away. He loses the memory of his mother's kitchen, the taste of her soda bread and then her face, one right after another. The glitter of sunrise at the docks bleeds into greys, taking with it the cool, wet air of dawn when the day was still new, his body still rested, when it still felt like some mysterious change for the better might be brewing. He can't remember the sketch he bought a secondhand frame for to hang up in the bedroom--can't remember the color of the walls or whether they were papered or bare--but he remembers the drawing was Steve's.
He remembers Steve. Too thin--no, wait--too broad, tall and delicate, with a ridiculous new costume and a voice always this side of rough from a cough he hasn't shaken in all the years Bucky's known him. People give Bucky grief sometimes, ask why he doesn't mind finishing all those fights, tell him to check in at the surgeon's tent before he heads back out, but he doesn't have time for that. Slap a bandage on it and he's fine. He's fine. As long as he can still remember Steve, he's fine.
As long as--
James Buchanan Barnes. Sergeant. 32557038--
He's. He's slipping.
Blink, and he blinks again, eyes stung by the noonday sun glaring off snow.
He's tired. He closes his eyes. Hears the crunch and shuffle of human feet through packed drifts. Not important.
He's cold. The sun plays hide and seek above him, never where he expects it to be.
He's freezing. He thinks at last to curl his arms across his chest, but when he goes to move, he finds he's pinned.
He opens his eyes.
Nothing looks familiar.
The sun is going down.
It drags him under with it.
The shovel glances off something with the dull scrape of metal on metal, and the man looks pleased. He starts to dig in earnest.
The box is battered aluminum, pale grey paint flaking away to bare darker grey beneath. Small hinges whine faintly as the top is flipped up, resisting the cold. The man looks inside. He smiles.
It's...unsettling when a cool, gloved hand reaches for him, pushing back his shirt and heavy jacket, but he's no more cold than he was already, so he doesn't complain. He watches as the man tips the box, shaking once until something peels up with a tacky sound, rolling out into his waiting palm.
He knows what he sees, but he stares anyway. That's...that's someone's heart. It's someone's heart, but it's convulsing, pulsing, beating, dry and cold. Attached to no one, it works steadily, as if it's just waiting for its owner to return.
"I believe you'll be needing this," says the unremarkable man with a smile, stepping closer and hooking three fingers behind his ribs.
He screams silently as the heart is pushed into him, filling a void he hadn't been aware of until that clenching fist of muscle is shoved home. It's impossible that anything so cold can move at all, but he can feel it flexing against the walls of his chest, struggling like it wants to escape. He wouldn't mind--he wants it out--but the hands that put it there push hard on his ribs until they shift to cage it in, come back with a golden needle and silver thread, stitching up his chest to trap the thing inside him.
"Well, well," he hears over his own breathless whine of discomfort. "I believe congratulations are in order. I didn't think you could do it, even with the serum as a crutch."
The woman picking her way carefully through the snow is wrapped in furs, her blood-red mouth a calculated distraction from her careworn face. She's small and slender, her dark hair pinned severely. She holds his eyes with a bold frankness, but her words aren't meant for him.
"Professional jealousy, my dear?" asks the unremarkable man as he ties off the thread, clipping it off with a knife that's--
That knife. It calls to him, tugs at his veins, wants to lead him somewhere. He knows it. He knows it.
"Jealous you've made a weapon you don't know how to aim? I think not."
"Ah, but if I left you nothing to do, how else would you earn your keep?"
The woman shoots the unremarkable man a poisonous look that he ignores, so she turns away with a sniff, mouth pursed. "He seems docile enough already. Not at all what the stories led me to expect. If you've erred in the ritual--"
"I haven't. But if you doubt your ability to bind him--"
"Please," the woman snaps. "It should have been obvious even to you. You made him with blood; you'll need blood to keep him. Now, is that the knife?"
The unremarkable man hands it over with a mocking smile that falls off his face when the woman grabs his wrist. She must be strong; her thin fingers dig into the man's arm, keeping him from jerking back as she cuts into his palm, chanting in a language that wakes nothing but dusty echoes of memory.
Word by word, the knife's pull changes. The sense of distance, of pressure and need, is eclipsed by an impatient beat that drowns out everything else. Obey, the knife whispers to him, tickling his ears with icy tendrils that slide deep into his skull, shoving out every other purpose. He doesn't know if it hurts or not; the sensation is too alien to pin down.
"There," the woman says at last, the corners of her mouth curled up in a tight, satisfied smile. "He'll answer to the wielder of the knife from now on, and the knife can be passed with blood. But you're certain you performed the ritual correctly? He obviously survived, but that doesn't mean he'll be what you were hoping for."
"We're arranging a test as we speak," the unremarkable man says, flexing his bleeding hand with a scowl before snatching back the knife.
"Hm. It's a pity he's already crippled." The woman stares to his left, but he doesn't understand. How is he crippled? He is the way he's always been; he remembers nothing else. "If he ever tries to exercise his true purpose, they'll tear him apart."
"On the contrary. If you're familiar with the work of Feingold--"
The woman's bark of laughter cuts him off. "The golem maker? You're consulting rabbis now? I wasn't aware Hydra had sunk so low."
He's been patient, waiting without urgency because he can feel nothing worth his alarm in the snowy field and woods that surround him, but that--that name--has him flexing against whatever holds him still. Wood creaks at his back, thin fingers of...rope? singing with tension, stray threads popping along its length. Hydra. He's supposed to...he--
"Be still!" the unremarkable man raps out, and he feels his body freeze in response. The man is rigid, the woman wide-eyed and watchful. They stink of fear, as do the men at the edges of the field, men who level rifles and slink reluctantly closer.
Their fear is puzzling. He can sense no reason for it, no--
Where are the corbies?
The unremarkable man lets out a harsh breath, hitched shoulders slowly relaxing as he asks, "Who are you?"
Who is he? That doesn't--he is himself. Who else would he be?
He tries and discovers he has no air in his lungs. He breathes. "I don't understand the question."
For some reason this makes the man smile. "What is your name?"
"I don't know," he replies on another breath. Another widening of the smile. The man is nearly grinning.
"What are you?"
"I don't--" No. Wait. Something scratches at the back of his mind, a dim certainty too fragile to entirely trust. "Hunter," he says at last, unconvinced, but...it has the right weight in his thoughts.
"No," he's told almost instantly. "You are a soldier." That...feels right, has the ring of truth to it, heavier than the other. "Your codename is Winter Soldier. You will answer to that, understood?"
Codename. A name given by others, not his to accept or deny; it simply is. He nods.
"I will answer to 'Winter Soldier'. Understood."
The man laughs, full of triumph and giddy relief. The soldier waits: for the sound to stop, for orders, a target, for whatever a soldier waits for. He has only one real question.
Who is Hydra?
They let him down, two of them holding him up as a third swears under his breath, sawing away at the wood under knots that have pulled too tight to ever come loose again. He doesn't like them touching him, but the man with the knife tells him to allow it, so he does. When they put him back on his feet, something trembles through him that nearly pulls him away, every muscle tensing with the urge to move. There's somewhere he needs to be. There's something close-by he needs to investigate. The two drives are polar opposites, but they amount to one thing: staying is a waste of time.
The man with the knife has other ideas.
"Follow me," he orders, turning away without looking back, and the soldier has no choice but to obey. The woman remains behind, staring after them, but she's no concern of his. He follows the knife.
The bare walls of the compound they enter feel like they're shrinking around him. The air is too sterile, too still, and the artificial light makes his skin crawl, lodges a twisting, empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. The uniformed men they see make way for them in a hurry, turning smartly on their heels to snap to attention. The soldier marks how it puts their backs to the walls, the way their disciplined eyes stare straight ahead with whites showing all around the iris.
The man with the knife takes him to a white-tiled room filled with machinery he can't place. There's a table in the middle that makes the skin along his spine prickle and creep, but he isn't made to lie there. He's told to sit there instead.
Flanked by two burly orderlies, an old man with a clipboard enters, smiling into his beard. "Congratulations, Agent Kessler," he says, strangely triumphant. "I see our serum worked."
The man with the knife frowns. "'Our' serum," he echoes doubtfully. "If you're referring to Zola's work--"
"Please," the old man scoffs. "The subject was more dead than alive when he was brought in. I'd hardly call that a success."
"What did you do?" the man with the knife growls, eyes narrowing as he takes a step toward the old man. The orderlies shift on their feet, drawing themselves up to show off the broadness of their shoulders, the heavy weight of their fists.
The old man shrugs. "You had your orders; I had mine. We took the opportunity to test our version of the serum in the time we had left, and as you can see--" He gestures at the soldier, who lets their words and their anger swirl around him without comment. There's nothing here to hunt or to fight. It's not important. "The timing was fortuitous for all concerned."
"Damn it, Shubin," snaps the man with the knife. "Your tinkering could have ruined everything!"
"Or it could have saved a doomed project that would otherwise have failed," the old man replies, unconcerned. "As I said, I had my orders. I'll convey your concerns to the appropriate parties, shall I?"
The last phrase feels like an echo, like something the soldier has heard before, but he can't remember where or when. It doesn't matter. They're human, not his--no. They are his concern, or...no. There's something, but it doesn't make sense. He's supposed to hunt. He's supposed to protect. He's supposed to destroy, but the wordless push and pull inside gets tricky there.
He looks up at the two men glaring at each other and asks, "Who is Hydra?"
They jerk at the sound of his voice, both whipping around to face him, but the man with the knife recovers first. "Hydra is who you belong to," he replies with a tight smile.
The soldier's fingers twitch. "Are you Hydra?"
"We are all Hydra," Shubin says dryly. "Isn't that right, Kessler?"
Kessler's smile is a slash of bared teeth, but he doesn't argue. "Hydra is an organization committed to bringing order to the world in our time," he explains, holding the soldier's eyes. The words buzz strangely in the back of his mind, like a song played perfectly in tune but in a minor key when it was written for a major. Truth, some part of him recognizes, but it's somehow not a satisfying truth. "A lofty goal, you'll agree, but not an easy one. For that we need people like you."
"Soldiers?" he asks with a frown.
"Very special soldiers who can do very special tasks. The war we've been fighting has benefited the corbies most of all," he says, shaking his head as the soldier tenses. "The fighting, the deaths--people go missing, and no one wonders why. And with the war effort draining everyone's resources...well. Desperate people do desperate things, and if it results in one less mouth to feed...?" He shrugs. "Things flourish in chaos that wouldn't in times of order. This is where you come in.
"You will end the chaos that lets such monsters thrive. You will take away the cover that lets them operate unseen. You will destroy their hiding places, their security, their allies. What you do will make the world a better place, but only if you'll do as you're told."
He gives a questioning grunt, surprised and confused, though he shouldn't be. Soldiers follow orders...don't they? He's sure he remembers that. Orders. A good war. Something sweet and...fitting?
"Soldiers like you," Kessler explains kindly while Shubin watches Kessler wide-eyed, impressed, "you're not good at seeing the big picture. You see an enemy, and you want to attack it. That's fine as far as it goes; we'd be nowhere without our soldiers. But you could do better. If your home catches fire, do you just throw water on the steps, or do you save the whole house?"
The soldier nods jerkily. That makes sense. He should be saving...yes.
Kessler nods back, steps closer to rest a steady hand on the soldier's shoulder. He doesn't like that touch either, but he allows it. He's meant to obey. "We will ask you to do difficult things," Kessler says solemnly. "Sometimes terrible things. But everything we ask is to further the cause of order. Do you understand?"
"I understand," he replies. He doesn't flinch when Kessler's solid grip changes to a comradely pat.
"Very good," Kessler says, grinning hugely. "Now. If you'll just let Dr. Shubin take a look at you, we'll see how well you've progressed."
The doctor doesn't want to touch him any more than he wants to be touched, hands reluctant every moment they brush his skin. Shubin examines the stitches in his chest, tutting over the ragged line of silver thread, but he makes no attempt to replace them. "Interesting," he says instead, poking around with the blunt end of a probe as he dictates to the assistant who comes scurrying belatedly in. "The edges appear to have fused, just like a normal scar. Have you attempted this with other subjects, Agent Kessler?"
"We didn't see any reason to experiment on scarecrows already made," Kessler replies, blowing on his fingers a little before tucking his hands in his pockets. It must be cold in the room; the soldier hasn't noticed.
"No control group, then." Dr. Shubin's mouth tightens in disapproval. "I suppose that's for us to test. How else are we to know what effects to ascribe to the serum?"
"Or the ritual," Kessler reminds him sharply.
"Yes, yes, the ritual," Shubin mutters, waving Kessler off as he pulls a stethoscope out of his pocket. To the soldier, he says, "Jacket and shirt. Remove them."
They are all Hydra here. The soldier obeys.
It's hours before the doctor is satisfied. Kessler's comments turn waspish at times, but Shubin won't let him leave and Kessler doesn't seem eager to go, though he constantly touches the dagger that binds the soldier as if to reassure himself of its presence. Touching it makes him cheerful again, has him answering the doctor's pointed questions in a complacent drawl, but soon enough he goes tense again, watching without blinking as the soldier responds to the doctor's commands.
Shubin says things like, "Give me your arm. Breathe in and hold it. Yes, fine, exhale. Interesting." He speaks in contradictions, like, "Pulse absent; heartbeat strong. Respiration unnecessary; lungs clear." These things must be surprising. There is a lot of scribbling onto clipboards. The soldier wonders how the others in the room differ from him, but he doesn't care to get close enough to find out. Shubin is too close already.
His skin prickles, the back of his neck crawling, the sensation growing harder to ignore the longer the session goes on. He thinks it's Shubin's proximity until they leave, but as he follows Kessler down another blank, white hallway, the feeling worsens by the minute.
"Puffed-up little man," Kessler grumbles--to himself? To the guards that follow? The soldier isn't sure. "You'd think a so-called genius would realize that Hydra has evolved beyond a mere science division. What's the status on our guest, gentlemen?"
"Awake, sir," one of the guards pipes up at the soldier's back. "And not happy."
"I'd be surprised if it was. Any signs of accelerated healing?"
"No, sir. It seems human enough in that regard." The guard's voice is unsettled. The soldier mistakes it for compassion until Kessler's disgusted grunt is echoed by a shaky sigh of commiseration.
"I suppose that would make them too easy to spot. Despicable things."
The buzzing in his head is growing louder. He grits his teeth, but the feeling won't go away. It builds, and soon he's stalking with his head down, shoulders braced, fast enough to make Kessler stretch his legs to keep up.
"Leave him," Kessler orders, amused. "Are the cameras set up?"
"Good. I want command to see this."
Pushing through an unlocked door, the soldier finds himself in the echoing bay of an empty motor pool, vehicles mostly absent except for a large troop transporter in the middle of the concrete floor. The huge truck's canvas top has been removed, the better for the crane arm overhead to have lifted something out of it: a sturdy steel cage, just tall and wide enough for a grown man to stand straight. The current occupant slumps against the bars, bent knees curled close to his chest.
"Go on, soldier," Kessler invites as the soldier hesitates, confused. "You'll know what to do."
He takes a step inside, then another. The person in the cage stiffens. It's a man, he thinks; the long hair throws him, but the mangled hands angled carefully out are square and large, the hunched shoulders broad. The man smells of blood, gunpowder and wet mulch, the unwashed musk of his body a little too sharp and wild. When he lifts his head and spots the soldier, his pale, bruised face loses what little color it has.
The soldier shudders, stalking closer in sharp, controlled strides when all he wants is to fling himself at the bars. That's...that's a corbie, and it's in his territory, past the borders, over the fence and through the walls--it is inside with him, where it shouldn't be, where neither of them should be, not with the warm scent of human all around. It should never have made it past his guard. He won't stand for letting it remain.
"Get out," he snarls, clenching and unclenching his single hand, empty and weaponless. The corbie flinches back, pushing with its feet to jam itself that much further against the cage bars, eyes wide and teeth bared.
"Corpsegiver's lights," it croaks, staring at the soldier in horror. "What the hells are you?"
"You've never seen a crowcatcher?" Kessler calls at the soldier's back, light and mocking.
"Crowcatcher!" the corbie echoes with a bark of disbelieving laughter. It sounds like a name. It feels like the truth. "Ghost stories are for fledglings. Whatever you've done--"
"Get out," the soldier repeats, taking hold of the cage bars with his single hand, outrage filling him with a hissing white light that threatens to boil over.
"It would be my pleasure," the corbie bites out with a nasty grin, "if your friends hadn't trapped me like a gamebird and tenderized my carcass for the--"
"Get." The light inside is cold, cold as the moon. "Out."
A ragged scream is wrenched from the corbie as the light leaps between them. It fills the corbie up the way it had the soldier, but when it touches the corbie, it burns. The corbie flails as its spine snaps taut, howling as broken fingers scrabble over skin that glows brighter by the moment, lit from within. The air smells of cooking flesh as the corbie chokes and claws at itself. It's still trying to get away.
It's trying to get away, but the cage won't let it leave.
There are three sturdy locks on the cage door, but the soldier sets his foot on a bar for leverage and pulls the door open one-handed, padlocks bursting with a squeal. The corbie cringes away, cramming itself in the corner of the cage even as it vomits helplessly, bile steaming as its insides begin to boil. There's nothing but hate and horror in the dark eyes staring up at the soldier, but the soldier doesn't hesitate. He reaches out and snaps the creature's neck cleanly, the way he should have done from the first.
Shame curdles low in his gut as the corbie slumps sideways, skin translucent over a hot, white glare as the banishment does its work. He's not sorry he killed the creature, but it shouldn't have happened like this. He...promised. Someone. Someone who wouldn't have approved.
The corbie shouldn't have been here at all.
"Fascinating," Kessler says, coming up on the soldier's left to peer into the cage. "I don't believe it even sensed your presence until it saw you."
"How did it get here?" the soldier asks, his tired brain struggling to make sense of what just happened through the haze of exhaustion. A cage. A cage to bring it here. But who would bring a corbie inside? "Past the--" Past the guards, the alarms, inside and out? There's no way this was an accident. "I don't understand."
"Well...it would seem your blessing doesn't have a field," Kessler says, eyeing the air around the soldier as if looking for some insubstantial sign.
The soldier's mouth tightens. "You took me from it." If it's a shortcoming, it's not one he asked for.
"Wh--oh. No, not that kind of field," Kessler says with a quiet snort. "A field of influence. It's as if there's no passive component to your blessing at all; you're either actively using it, or you're dormant. So you see, leaving you to hang would have been a waste. You have no shield to throw over us in the first place to keep the corbies away," he explains with a strange little smile.
Shamed anew, the soldier drops his head, clenching his jaw. So what if he can't keep the corbies at bay? He can still drive them out, hunt them down. He can be what they need, keep them all safe, if they'll just let him try.
"But why was this one inside?" he demands, glancing at the now-smoking body then swiftly away.
"Practice," Kessler replies bluntly. "You're different from the others--unique--and we need to know what you can do."
He'd like to argue, but he can't. He's not even sure what he'd want to say. All he has to go on is instinct, but that's only useful in the heat of the moment. It doesn't tell him anything, and sifting through memory delivers up even less. He remembers cold, a cold so intense even he could feel it. He remembers a rage that wasn't his and clawing after scraps of calm. He remembers a dark, lonely night. He has no answers for the man who holds his knife.
"Enough," Kessler decides, fixing the soldier with a firm look. "There's a purpose to everything we do, and it's not your place to question. Yours is to follow orders. Understood?"
"Say it," Kessler insists, thumb worrying at the leather-wrapped hilt of the knife.
The soldier's jaw works silently, but he takes the breath he needs to reply. "I am to follow orders. Und--"
"And?" Kessler cuts in, voice sharp.
"I am not to question," the soldier parrots flatly, wondering why the words threaten to stick in his throat. "Understood."
Kessler stares for a long moment before nodding, one corner of his mouth twitching up in a jerky smile. "Good. Now, follow."
Falling into step at Kessler's heels, the soldier glances back once at the broken cage, the body boiling to ash inside, but he keeps his teeth clenched tight on anything that might escape. Obey. He's meant to obey.
He won't ask why touching the corbie had bothered him less than the clinical examination of Hydra's own doctor.
He doesn't sleep, and the guards assigned to verify this fact fidget nervously under his stare. They don't try to speak to him, and they're happy to keep their distance. He's happy with their distance as well. He shouldn't be here, but he was told to stay, so he stays.
He misses the moon. It feels like he's missed her forever.
When Kessler leads him back to the white-tiled room, the soldier takes off his jacket and shirt and sits again at the edge of the operating table, waiting for orders. A nervous lab assistant comes over and checks his vitals, eyes wide and shocked though the answers have been the same for days. He thinks sometimes he can still feel the heart they shoved inside his chest, still knocking against his ribs for escape.
Shubin scowls as Kessler picks up the soldier's file and begins to read, but they're distracted from their newest tussle by a sharp rap on the door. One guard pulls it open and two more enter, flanking a man in a shapeless brown coat.
"Rabbi Feingold," Kessler greets the man with a smile, setting the soldier's file aside. It's instantly snatched up by Shubin, who stalks away scribbling aggressively in the margins. "So good of you to join us."
The newcomer is maybe Shubin's age, his curling grey hair a windblown mess, cheeks and fingers pink and chapped. He might have been a stocky man once, but his skin hangs as loose as his clothes, and the inward roll of his shoulders is exhausted. Dark eyes flick the room through wire-framed spectacles as the old man shuffles in, but when they fall on the soldier, both the wary glances and the stumbling feet go still.
"Excuse me, but...you said there was an operative you wanted fitted with an arm," Feingold says, eyes fixed on the soldier's bared chest.
Kessler's smile is bland, but his eyes light up with a vicious spark. "Indeed. And here he is."
Feingold breathes in sharply through his nose, diminished frame stiffening in defiance. "That man is not alive."
"No? His heart still beats; his mind still functions...."
His heart? Had that been his?
"Or is this part of your tiresome list of things to avoid?" Kessler asks, mouth twisting in scorn.
"I--it's not that simp--"
"Because it would be a shame if your squeamishness resulted in unintended consequences. This soldier needs an arm," Kessler explains as Feingold's face goes tight and still. "You claimed to be able to give him one. I hope you won't disappoint."
Sad brown eyes examine the soldier's face, but whatever Feingold sees offers him no comfort. When he drops his eyes to the silver stitches laddering up the soldier's chest, he shudders in revulsion. He's going to refuse; the soldier can see it in the way Feingold braces himself for a punch, outweighed and outclassed by everyone here, strangely familiar.
Watching rebelliousness crumple into resignation is a surprise.
"I can do it," Feingold admits, eyes dropping to the floor. "But if the strength of my prayers depends on that 'tiresome list', you may be disappointed anyway."
"You have my condolences if that's the case," Kessler says dryly. One of the guards snorts a laugh as Feingold clenches his jaw and takes a steadying breath, hands trembling until he curls them into fists and slowly relaxes them.
"I'll need my things," he says quietly, looking around himself with more purpose as he removes his coat and sets it on the nearest desk, rolling up the sleeves of his wrinkled shirt. Spotting a tall, wheeled stool, he gestures in that direction. "If I may...?"
"Be my guest," Kessler invites, stepping away from the soldier at last.
Pulling the stool along with him, Feingold accepts a black leather satchel from one of his guards and comes to sit before the soldier, just like the doctors do. Kessler watches like a hawk as Feingold reaches into his bag, but Feingold keeps his eyes down as he snaps a pair of surgical gloves on over his hands, then another pair on over that. A small notebook is removed along with a measuring tape and a pair of calipers; the calipers get tucked into the breast pocket of the rabbi's shirt while the bag goes on the floor.
When Feingold looks up at last, he meets the soldier's eyes without flinching. "Can you understand me?" he asks.
"Yes," the soldier replies. Of the three languages he's heard in the compound, Feingold has chosen the one he's most familiar with.
"And can you follow my instructions?"
"Yes," he says again. He's good at following instructions.
"Good. I will need to take a number of measurements before I can begin building your replacement arm, so please remain still."
The soldier frowns. Replacement? They want to replace his arm? "My arm is fine," he says uneasily, darting a glance at Kessler as he tucks his right arm to his chest, hand clenched. "I don't need a replacement."
"Soldier," Kessler warns, eyes narrowing.
Feingold sits back on his stool, hands dropping to his knees, face almost blank with disbelief. "Not...that arm," he says slowly with a jerk of his chin. "Your left."
The soldier glances down, uncertain, and sees only the same truncated limb that's always been there: a useless stub gnarled by scars like the one on his chest. He looks up again with a grimace. "What are you replacing it with?" At least now it doesn't get in his way. He's not sure he wants that to change.
Feingold sighs, the lines in his tired face deepening as he reaches up and digs his thumb and middle finger into his brow as if his head pains him. "If you wanted a golem," he says in a ruthlessly steady voice, turning to Kessler, "you might have asked for one. You didn't need to...." He shakes his head, lips pressing into a flat line.
Kessler shrugs. "If I'd wanted a golem, I'd have one. Instead I have a crowcatcher in need of an arm."
Feingold's brows shoot up as a huff of humorless laughter escapes him. "Crowcatcher," he repeats, sobering as he looks from face to face and realizes no one else is laughing. "You're serious."
"Entirely. Is there a problem?"
"No," Feingold says distractedly, shifting back around to stare at the soldier. The soldier waits, hesitantly dropping his right arm since no one seems interested in it. "There's no problem. We could have used his sort in Prague," he mutters under his breath as he shakes out his measuring tape.
Kessler snorts. "As squeamish as you people are, I doubt you could have created his like in the first place. Don't you usually set your golems out to chase the corbies away?"
"Don't mistake devotion for incapability," Feingold warns as he slips the tape around the soldier's shortened left bicep and then the right, pulling the stub of a pencil from his pocket to jot down a pair of numbers. "Given the right incentive," he adds bleakly, "anything becomes possible."
They meet nearly every day after that. After the first few sessions, Kessler is absent more often than not, busy with reports to his superiors. Shubin watches them suspiciously, occasionally looming over Feingold's shoulder, but mostly it's Feingold, the soldier, and two nervous guards who meet in the examining room. The guards tell Feingold to shut up sometimes, but mostly they let him ramble. He seems harmless enough; the guards must be there to protect the old man despite the animosity Feingold and Kessler share. Kessler and Shubin argue and threaten each other too.
"I'm afraid I can't place your accent," Feingold says on the third day, holding a curved metal plate to the soldier's left shoulder and marking it up with a wax pencil. "Where are you from?"
"Outside," he says, thinking longingly of the quiet of the empty field, the sun on his face and the comforting distance between himself and the world.
Feingold often looks sad when they talk. He doesn't ask again.
"Do you know," Feingold confides a week later as he inks strange symbols across the blunt, scarred end of the soldier's left arm, "this will be the first time I've attempted such a thing. Oh, don't look so worried," he says with a chuckle--had the soldier looked any such thing?--shaking his head. "I do know what I'm doing, I promise you. I added my share of golems to the defense of Prague," he adds with a touch of wistfulness, "though I admit, I'm no Rabbi Loew."
--no Johann Schmidt, the soldier's mind dredges up unhelpfully, no Captain A-- He shakes it off.
"But the golem, you see, is meant to be brought to life. Adam himself was a golem of sorts, though he was shaped from the clay by finer hands than any rabbi's. What I'm crafting for you isn't a true golem, of course, but it will operate by the same principles: inert matter animated by a shem. One of the names of God," he explains at the soldier's puzzled look. "You don't know the stories? Well," he says as the soldier shakes his head, "I suppose I'm not surprised.
"So. In the old days," he begins in a confident cadence not his own, "the corbies were much bolder. They hunted my people the length and breadth of the land, for we had no scarecrows of our own to keep the corbies at bay, and those who did would only suffer us to live on the outskirts of their protection."
"Why?" the soldier asks. The back of his neck prickles as Feingold stops mid-breath, surprised at the interruption. He's not supposed to interrupt stories. He remembers this, but not why.
Feingold shakes his head with a tired smile. "Too much distrust, I think. Our faith teaches that the handling of unclean things, such as corpses, makes us unfit to perform the sort of ritual that would make that handling necessary. Yours holds that a body raised for the betterment of mankind is doing God's work, so no impurity exists on either side. Just one of the many points of contention between our peoples."
The soldier nods. Kessler has plenty to say about Feingold's shortcomings, but he'd thought they just didn't like each other. Kessler has plenty to say about Shubin, too.
"Well. There was once a young man, a student, who had lost his entire family to the corbies and had nothing left in the world but his studies and his prayers," Feingold continues, reaching over to gather more ink onto the nib of his dip pen. His gloved fingers are careful as they shift the soldier's left arm to a better angle. "All alone, seeking solace for his loss, he sunk himself into his studies of the Name for days and weeks on end, hardly stopping to eat or to sleep."
The rounded tip of the pen and the cooling lines of India ink are ticklish against his skin, but the soldier doesn't twitch. As close as he is, Feingold's presence doesn't leave him unsettled the way the others do, his respectful touch inoffensive.
The soldier frowns.
"And then one morning, in the midst of his prayers, he had a moment of inspiration. Rushing down to the river, he fetched clay and fashioned it into the shape of a man, and into its forehead, he carved a shem. 'Emet'," he says, flicking his eyes over to catch the soldier's with a twitch of his brows. "A most significant name, for it means 'truth', and it takes sharp eyes to spot a corbie's falsehoods when one means to hide."
He nods again. He remembers that, the way the rest of the world goes out of focus, leaving only the shine of their teeth, their eyes.
"Blessed by the name and the young man's prayers, the first golem came to life and set about guarding those who had given it form, driving away the corbies and those who meant harm to the young man's people. And the young man taught others the art, and soon there was no need to rely on the protection of outsiders, for we had our own."
The wheeled stool creaks quietly as Feingold sits back, cocking his head to peer critically at his handiwork. The scrutiny makes the soldier tense, wanting suddenly to pull his arm away. He knows he's different--he has eyes--knows the asymmetry in his body is a problem, or Feingold wouldn't be here to fix it. It troubles him that they might think he's broken. He doesn't feel broken.
He doesn't move, but Feingold notices anyway, glancing up at him with a sad little smile. "Almost done," he says, letting him go for a moment to clean his pen. The reprieve is all the soldier needs to master himself again.
"Is that the whole story?" the soldier asks. It doesn't feel satisfying somehow. There should be more: deeds, a fight, someone missing in need of finding.
Feingold grins. "Are you asking me if they all lived happily ever after?"
The soldier shrugs. Is he? Maybe he is.
"Well...I suppose that would depend on which story you hear," Feingold says, sobering, "and who you consider the hero. You see, the natives of the country where the young man lived were quite used to their scarecrows, but a golem was something new and frightening. They tried to chase the golem out--tried to chase the young man and his people out--but the golem was too strong. Not being human, it had agreed to no compact, and to it, a threat was a threat. Before long, it had killed more than corbies, and even the young man began to wonder how much control he had over his creation.
"Eventually, as a sign of good faith, the young man called his golem to heel to prove to the others that he could deactivate it at will by erasing the shem. But when he removed the first character of Emet, all that was left was met--no longer 'truth' but 'dead'. The golem fell to pieces and could not be revived again."
Scowling, the soldier asks, "How is this better?" Foreigners in a hostile land who've just lost their only protection? It's obvious to him how the story ends.
"I never promised you 'better'," Feingold chides, "only the truth."
"But not, I trust, literally," Kessler says from the doorway, startling Feingold into jumping as the guards snap to attention. "And just what have you chosen for the shem? Nothing anyone will be tempted to shorten, I hope."
Half-turning on his stool, Feingold casts a glance over his shoulder, pushing up his spectacles with a gloved knuckle. "Yes, well, based on what I've heard of our friend here, I thought Adir would be the most appropriate. It means 'Strong One'."
"Appropriate indeed," Kessler says. His eyes flick the soldier impersonally, lingering over the closely-scribed characters inked on his left arm. "How long until you have the arm working?"
"Not long. A few days. I've been trying to mitigate any possible side effects from the process," Feingold explains, tiredly squeezing his eyes closed and blinking away the strain. "Magically grafting the nonliving to the unliving isn't the most well-trodden of fields."
"I have the utmost faith in your abilities," Kessler says, trading a long look with the guards. The taller of the two nods but neither say a word.
Feingold hesitates, frozen, but turns back to the soldier with a faint smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "I'm glad one of us does. I know how my fashioned limbs react with living bodies; there's a sort of joining, a mingling, of metal and flesh. Ordinarily quite painless. But as for our friend here...?" Feingold shakes his head with a grimace. "I'm afraid I have no idea."
"Do your best," Kessler says, more order than encouragement, before slipping away again.
The soldier listens to Kessler's footsteps stride smartly out of range, eyes the two guards until they look away, jaws clenching, hands fisting tight on the straps of their rifles. Only Feingold ever holds his stare for long.
"Why are you touching me if you're not supposed to?" he asks at last as Feingold dips his pen again.
Feingold stills, eyes fixed a million miles into the distance as he forces a swallow. "Ah," he says, staring past the soldier as the guards shift at his back, casting nervous glances at each other. "Well, you see...I have not yet lost everything. They tell me my family still lives."
The soldier waits to hear the rest, a prickle of dissatisfaction scraping at the back of his thoughts, but the old man says nothing more. His expression makes the soldier's insides twist, but he doesn't know what to do with the information he has. Feingold has a family. They must need protection. He's doing this for them. He's just not happy about it. All of these things make sense, and all of them are true.
Feingold's smile is a fragile, fleeting thing when he finally looks up, but he meets the soldier's eyes without flinching. "I didn't promise 'better'," he reminds.
He inks the last symbols in silence.
On the day they replace the soldier's arm, Kessler looks over as the guards lead Feingold into the examination room and frowns. "I thought you'd be...in costume," he says with a dismissive flick of his fingers, mouth pursed as he looks Feingold over.
"No need to compound my offenses more than I already have," Feingold replies evenly. He's dressed the same as ever in his wrinkled brown jacket and laundered-thin white shirt, loose pants held up by tired suspenders. The soldier is more interested in the cloth-wrapped bundle he carries in both hands, held close to his chest with proprietary care.
"Have it your way. Well? Let's see it," Kessler says, nodding at the bundle. On Kessler's left, Shubin leans forward a fraction then catches himself, glancing swiftly around the room to make certain no one noticed. His eyes are caught briefly by the soldier's until he looks away, nostrils flaring.
From his perch on the edge of the examining table, the soldier stares avidly as Feingold sets his burden down on a small, wheeled table that usually holds scalpels and scissors and clamps. When he pulls the cloth away, the soldier stares. He's seen the metal plates Feingold brings to some of their sessions, but after all his talk of clay men, he'd been expecting something clumsier.
The arm on the table is beautiful, an intricate collection of interlocking plates that gleam under the harsh lights of the examining room. It mirrors his right arm exactly: the muscular swell of a bicep, a forearm, curving into the bend of an elbow. The finely-articulated fingers curl naturally inward where they lie at rest, hand turned on its side in the defenseless posture of sleep.
"Impressive," Kessler says, for once sounding as if he means it. "And this is the adamantium casting, I take it. Was the work performed to your specifications?"
"Entirely so," Feingold replies, smoothing out the unfolded cloth without touching the arm itself. "The inner components are lighter--I requested a titanium alloy--to preserve balance, you understand. But the outer plates should be nearly indestructible."
Kessler nods, but Shubin is already scowling, moving in for a closer look. "There's more to it than I expected," he notes, reaching out as if to tap a finger against the broad plates of a shoulder piece. Feingold intercepts him quickly, brushing his hand away as Shubin draws himself up with a glare.
"Careful, please. The arm has been...purified, if you will, in preparation for its attachment. The fewer people who handle it, the better it will respond to its intended recipient."
"That's all well and good," Shubin huffs, "but this shape--if we're expected to fit the remainder of the arm to your work, time to prep would have been--"
"No need," Feingold cuts in with a sickly grimace, eyes wide as they dart to the soldier. Feingold shudders. "I've made the arm as light as possible, but it needs the support of the shoulder to make its use sustainable. If all goes as planned, metal and flesh should bind together, preserving both strength and flexibility."
"And if all does not go well?" Kessler asks, arching a brow.
Feingold shakes his head. "I've done my very best to make sure that doesn't happen. The rest is out of my hands."
Kessler's mouth goes tight as he mulls that over, but eventually he nods. "Very well. Proceed."
Taking charge of the cart, Feingold pushes it over to the table where the soldier sits, Shubin falling back reluctantly to let him pass. Gloving up quickly, Feingold shoots the soldier an encouraging smile, saying, "Let's get this on you, shall we? Now, this part shouldn't hurt, so if there's any discomfort, please let me know."
The metal is cold, but it fits over his shortened left arm like a glove, cupping the end like it was molded to him and curving neatly over his shoulder. The weight of it is mildly distracting, but the drag is centered so perfectly in the ball of his shoulder, it almost feels natural. He finds himself wanting to clench and open his fingers to test it, and it's a surprise when nothing happens.
"How does that feel?" Feingold asks, taking his hands away and watching the soldier closely.
"Normal," he says, staring down at the arm--his arm--in wonderment.
"Not too heavy?"
He shakes his head. He can feel it, but he suspects he'll forget it soon enough.
Feingold takes a deep breath and blows it out sharply. "All right, then. I'll begin. Remember, this may hurt," he warns, "but it shouldn't last for long. It's not intentional, I assure you."
It's an odd thing to say--there's been nothing yet he's failed to heal from--but Feingold is different from the others. Feingold talks to him. He's...kind, even though the soldier disturbs him. The soldier trusts him, even as he begins chanting his ritual. No. His prayer. Feingold told him, explained everything: not just that it would hurt, but why.
And it does. It does hurt. It--
He shuts his eyes tight, clenching his jaw as his arm catches fire. The metal no longer feels cool against his skin; it heats until it sears through him, until heat becomes meaningless and starts to feel like ice instead. His arm feels like it's falling to pieces, liquefying and hardening as molten metal bleeds through his skin, cools, and heats again to seep further into him. His right hand clutches--at his thigh, the table, finally darting across to rip the arm away--and is caught by a hovering hand. Fragile bones shift before he can stop himself gripping back, his entire arm shaking as he fights not to crush the old man's hand.
Feingold guides his hand back down to the edge of the table, and he lets the old man go, steel crumpling under his fingers as he latches on tight. The heat spreads into his shoulder, along his ribs and through the knobs of his spine, bright islands of pain he arches against as a ragged sound tears from his throat. It's not that he's trying not to scream; he simply can't find the breath.
His head feels cottony, but Feingold's voice fills his ears and echoes inside his skull: confident, resonant, rising and falling in a cadence that feels less like conversation than poetry. He doesn't understand a word of it, and it's hard to believe that a prayer could hurt this badly, but the old man's face is soft with concern. It's all right, he wants to say. It's still not worse than...he can't remember, but he's sure worse has happened, and he's still here.
He screams instead as something cracks open inside his arm with a hot, wet rush, metal fingers fisting hard in the same instant.
He can feel the tension singing through them, the grind of new knuckles as they shift, fingers trying to uncurl. His left arm trembles, jerking against agony and dropping from its resting place on his thigh. Mirroring the right, he grabs hold of the edge of the table and rips right through it, hunching in on himself as he tries to remain still. He needs to get through this. Just a little longer. It can't take much longer than this.
As Feingold falls silent, the fire in the soldier's arm bleeds away so fast it leaves him shaking with helpless tremors that rattle his teeth. The others are on him in an instant, Shubin and his assistant crowding close to take his vitals, Kessler watching intently as the soldier slowly straightens and lifts both his hands together, palms up. They tremble as he peels his fingers open, but both hands obey him with the same speed and dexterity, as if he'd been born with one of each. He can hardly believe his eyes.
Seeking out Feingold, he finds the old man hovering to one side, watching with a crooked little smile that seems both pleased and sad. Only the guards are paying him any attention; Kessler and Shubin only have eyes for the soldier.
"Make a fist," Shubin orders, and the soldier does. It's effortless. "We need...I don't think we have anything capable of testing the strength of that thing," he says with a vague headshake, his tone subdued.
"Worth the destruction of a table?" Kessler ribs him, eyes alight.
"You'll replace it," Shubin says dismissively, palpating the soldier's shoulder and hesitating at what he finds. "X-Rays. Good God. The transmutation of--is this alchemy?"
Feingold snorts. "I'm a rabbi, not a mystic. I merely adapted the science of defense to the science of healing. The mingling of metal and flesh is just a side-effect."
"Remarkable," Shubin mutters, half-unwillingly. "Do you realize what we could--"
Cutting himself off, he trades a glance with Kessler that has them stepping aside together, conversing urgently in low tones that are likely inaudible to the rest of the room. The soldier ignores them. Despite what he is, he has no interest in armies.
"Excuse me," Feingold says to Shubin's assistant, stepping into the space Shubin has vacated. "If I may...?"
"Make it quick," the assistant says uneasily, eyes darting warily to his superior.
"Of course," Feingold replies, holding out both hands expectantly. He smiles when the soldier offers his arm without hesitation. "Now, then. This is very important. Do you remember what I told you about the shem?"
The soldier nods, watching with interest as Feingold quickly touches three places along his arm, hidden catches giving with a quiet click. All at once the plates of his upper arm open up painlessly, sliding apart to show a dense puzzle of cables stretched over a thick, gleaming strut, like muscle pinned to bone. Shubin's assistant stands gaping in shock, but Feingold's body blocks the soldier's arm from view, so the others are slow to notice.
"Good. Now listen carefully. This is what you need to protect," he says, sliding a finger into the mass and pulling delicately until cables give. The soldier's fingers curl without his permission, but it doesn't hurt; he lets it happen, holding his arm loose and relaxed in Feingold's mindful grip. "Look closely. You see the markings there?"
He frowns, but...yes, there it is: unfamiliar symbols like the ones Feingold inked across his arm, etched this time into the gleaming inner core of his arm.
Feingold's slow smile is the closest thing the soldier has seen to true happiness on the man's face since they met.
"This is Emet," Feingold explains, eyes sparkling as the soldier's brows fly up. "Strength is all well and good, you see, but it's truth that's at the core of your nature. Plus," he adds with relish, "if they ever try to disarm you, they'll destroy you, and then you'll be free."
"What did you say?" Kessler demands, shoving Shubin aside and stalking closer with a thunderous scowl. The guards rush forward, grabbing at Feingold as he quickly closes the plates of the soldier's arm, his hands wrenched away even as the catches snap closed. Feingold doesn't fight. He's grinning as they yank him back.
"This," he says to the soldier, nodding at his arm, "is the one weapon they'll never take from you."
Kessler's arm lashes out to catch Feingold with a vicious backhand, leaving him sagging in the guards' grip. Some distant part of the soldier is shocked--Feingold is old, tired and half-starved--but he moves without thinking, knocking Kessler away with a quick, open-palmed blow to the chest with his right hand. The guard on Feingold's right unslings his rifle and takes a swing at the soldier with it, but he rips it away with his left hand, his right fisting in the man's hair and wrenching his head down to crack his face into one drawn-up knee. The guard drops like a rock as bone gives with a crunch.
"Stop!" Kessler roars from his sprawl on the floor, the soldier's knife clutched in one shaking hand. "Be still!"
The soldier freezes though every muscle strains to twist, lunge, keep fighting. It's so much worse than the last time, because this time he knows his target, knows exactly what he's meant to do. They can't--they can't do this, hurt someone who needs help, needs his help, and he can't fucking move--
"Explain yourself," Kessler snaps as he struggles to his feet, looming over Feingold, who stands straight-backed and defiant in the grip of the remaining guard.
"I don't know why you think me a fool," Feingold scoffs, upper lip curling. "I have ears. I listen. I've known for months that my family is gone. I've just been waiting for the chance to make it count when you kill me too."
--kill me too--
--the truth, and if his family--
--they tell me my family--they tell me--
--then that was a lie, a careful lie, a truth that rankled in the back of his mind the way Kessler's description of Hydra had, and that means--that--
Who are these people?
Kessler takes a deep breath, nodding slow. "I hope it was worth it," he says.
The soldier barely manages a shudder as Kessler draws his sidearm and shoots the old man squarely in the head.
Shubin approaches gingerly as the guard lets Feingold's body drop to the floor, sparing the corpse barely half a glance before turning to the soldier. "So," he says slowly, the lines at the corners of his eyes pulling tight. "It seems even your talented tongue has its limits. What do we do with him now? You can't let him go...."
Holstering his gun, Kessler stares at the knife in his left hand for a long moment, his jaw clenching as his eyes flick up to meet the soldier's. The urge to bury the blade in the soldier's chest stands out clear in his eyes, a truth so strong it needs no words. Mastering himself with a swift headshake, Kessler tightens his hand on the hilt, knuckles standing out white as he orders, "You will forget this ever happened. Forget the old man. Shubin gave you the arm. You owe everything to Hydra."
That's...crazy. He can't just order the soldier to--
The world lists sideways. He lists sideways and crumples to one knee, reaching out with his left hand, his metal hand, the hand that he--that--there's something he--
Something writhes inside his skull that burns like a binding, eating away at his memories until a different presence intercedes, cool and smooth like the outer layers of a pearl--and swallows those memories whole. He falls forward, catching himself on both hands, shaken by a yawning sense of absence, but...what is he missing? There's just...nothing. No memory of coming here, or...was there a procedure? Why is he on the--?
Halfway to pushing himself up, he jerks upright on his knees, staring in bafflement at the metal arm that has sprouted from the stump of his left, eerily perfect in every way. "What...?" he rasps on the second try, remembering belatedly to breathe.
"Soldier," Kessler calls sharply. "Are you well?"
He nods, confused, staring around him for some clue as to how he got here, what must have happened. There are two bodies on the floor, one of the guards and someone he's never seen before--an old man, purely human, hardly a threat. What...had he killed someone? The guard, the old man? Both? But why?
"Your arm appears to be functional. Do you recall who gave it to you?"
"Nn--" Wait. "Shubin?" he says uncertainly. It feels wrong, but it's the only answer he has.
"That's Doctor Shubin," Shubin grumbles, less to the soldier than to Kessler. "And you know that will only last until the next idealist comes along. Unless you intend to keep watch on him night and day--"
"I didn't take this mission to become some glorified handler," Kessler protests, frustration clipping his words.
"Then send him to handlers who live to be glorified," Shubin suggests dryly. "The Red Room has a way with truths that rivals your own. In their care it's doubtful he'll ever realize there are other points of view to begin with."
"And what do you get out of this?" Kessler demands, eyes narrowed.
"More opportunities for study," Shubin says with a shrug, "as well as the very great pleasure of lacking your company."
Kessler mutters something under his breath, but the look he turns on the soldier is calculating. It makes the soldier's hackles rise, makes him itch to move, to fight. "I'll make a few calls," Kessler says after a moment. "In the meantime," he adds, glancing at the remaining guard, "take him back to his quarters."
"Yes, sir," the guard replies in a voice that cracks with fear.
The soldier frowns. That...what Kessler said. His quarters. Something about it is...off, in a way it wasn't before.
It's the truth, just not a satisfying one.
He can't explain the prickle of rage he feels at that, but he holds it to him tightly just in case.
In the morning Kessler arrives in a coat and hat and gloves, dressed for travel. "Follow," he says shortly, and the soldier rises without a word. The guards fall silently into step behind him.
Outside the sky is gray, a few stray snowflakes drifting down from the low-hanging overcast. The soldier wants to turn his face up, close his eyes and drink in the quiet peace of open space, but he's hustled along to a truck parked a few yards distant. Four guards wait inside, and the two who walked with him clamber in after him. It's dark under the canvas shell. He can barely feel the wind even when they pull out and pick up speed, following the car Kessler climbed into without a backwards glance.
The drive is long, but it passes uneventfully. Only once near the end does he feel anything worth taking note of, and it's a comfortable warmth like the near-weight of summer sunlight falling on bare skin. It's a strange thought, something known but not understood, but it feels like truth.
"What is that?" he asks the guards, who don't answer him.
Through the open back of the troop transport, he catches a glimpse of a field as they drive by, a lonely figure bound to a cross at its heart.
When they stop at last, they're at an airstrip surrounded by miles of empty, unbroken snow. It's a crawling hive of activity, uniformed men scurrying everywhere he looks, but no one hails or questions them. They board a waiting plane with minimal fuss, settling out of the way of the crew as the door is hauled shut at their backs.
The pilot shoots the soldier one sick, terrified glance and turns to Kessler with a grimace. "If you lose control of that thing while we're in the air--"
"I won't," Kessler says flatly. "Do your job and trust me to do mine."
In the air. The soldier shifts on the hard bench seat, uncertain how he feels about that. He misses the moon, the wind, the sky, but he wants his feet set firmly on the earth, green growing life all around. This is wrong, but everything since his first waking has been just subtly not right.
Maybe he's the one that's wrong.
"Be still," Kessler snaps, and the soldier obeys. Kessler's on edge today, impatient and unhappy. The soldier thinks he should know why, but there's nothing but a blank.
It's a long flight.
They get into another truck after they land and drive well into the night. They pass sleeping towns, mostly dark, drive through stands of trees whose branches groan under an armor of ice and long stretches of snow-covered fields. Phantom sunlight flutters at the edges of his awareness here and there, but the sensation vanishes as quickly as it comes, dropping away within a mile or two.
It's dawn again before they arrive at their destination, a sprawling complex far from the edge of the nearest town. The main building is brick, three stories with a worrying number of windows, though they're all protected by bars. There are other buildings tucked just out of sight behind it that he can only guess at, and that bothers him too. More places to patrol means more places for things to hide. He wants very badly to stretch his legs, circle the boundaries of this new territory and peer into all its cracks and crannies.
There are three spots of warmth in the fields that surround the main building, but one of them is flickering. He doesn't know what that means, but he shivers with the need to go and find out.
"Soldier. Follow," Kessler barks, as if this isn't the first time he's given the order.
The soldier looks over at him sharply--he should be out there, patrolling; he should be gone--but his body turns against his will, an oddly-familiar ache writhing at the base of his skull.
Obey. A soldier obeys. And he is a soldier: that's truth.
Kessler seems to know where he's going, making for the main doors of the big, ugly box of the...factory? School? As they near the entrance--the soldier following Kessler, the guards a tight ring around them--one leaf of the double doors swings open. The man who steps out to meet them is greying and thin, his well-kept suit fitted for a younger man. His stern face and sharp eyes warn the soldier that there's still danger here.
"Agent Kessler? Madame and the Colonel are ready to see you."
"Excellent. It's been a lengthy trip."
The old man's brow twitches fractionally. "I'm sure you can rest once they're finished with you," he says, expression otherwise blank in the face of Kessler's souring scowl. "This way, please."
Fewer people roam the halls here. The soldier sees no scientists, no doctors, though he does see guards. He sees children, four girls in identical clothing: white blouses, red ties, dark skirts. Unlike the adults he's met, they look at him with curiosity but no fear. The gratitude he feels at that is unexpected and astounding.
"Through here," the old man says, opening a door near the end of a long hall and slipping inside. "Madame, Colonel? The Hydra business. Kessler, from the German branch."
The room holds two people: a woman who stands before a large wooden desk and a man who stands by one of the room's huge windows. The woman is tall and slim, her blond hair pulled back in a severe bun; the man is dark-haired and deeply tanned, middle-aged but fit, wears a far fancier uniform than anyone else. His dress-up uniform, the soldier thinks but doesn't know why.
"So. This is the asset?" the woman asks, tilting her head a fraction as she looks the soldier over. Though she's twenty years younger than her counterpart, she doesn't hesitate to take the lead. "It could do. It looks...fresher than I expected," she says with a tight, humorless smile, waving vaguely in his direction. "Will it keep these looks, or does it require help to maintain the illusion?"
It comes to him slowly that she's talking about him, that he's the it in her scenario. He's too surprised at first to really feel angry about it. She's human and he's himself, but that--that doesn't make him--
--he doesn't want to be a--
--an it, does it? He's...he's a good thing. Probably. He thinks.
Though he'd bristled at the woman's lack of greeting, Kessler's voice is even when he replies. "Other than replacing the missing limb, we've done nothing further to...preserve the asset. How long h--ah, he'll remain as you see him is still guesswork at this time," Kessler says, stumbling over what to call the soldier before deciding to bull through. "Source materials suggest he'll remain unchanged until destroyed. I suspect the accelerated healing stretches to the cosmetic as well."
"So long as it's not just a pretty face," the man in uniform huffs. "I hear it can shoot--or could."
"Indeed...I'm afraid we haven't tested that yet, Colonel," Kessler says, "but his speed and strength even unarmed is formidable."
Is it? He doesn't remember demonstrating that; the corbie in the cage hadn't fought back at all.
"Lovely," Madame says, "but any fool can shoot. I'm more interested in what's behind the pretty face. I want to test it first.
"Popov?" she says to the old man in the suit. "Have the girls come in, please."
"Of course, Madame." Popov glides back through the door but returns in moments, ushering in the four girls the soldier saw earlier.
"Hello, girls," Madame says warmly. "As you can see, we have a couple of guests today. This is Agent Kessler, who's come all the way from Germany, and this is the Winter Soldier. Do you know who the Winter Soldier is?"
The girls all shake their heads, braided pigtails slithering over their slim shoulders.
"That's right. Now tell him why you're here--Galina?"
"I'm training to be a dancer," the oldest girl says, eyes wide and guileless and...scared?
The soldier twitches.
"Well, Soldier?" Madame asks mildly. "Was that the truth?"
"You may address me as 'Madame'." It doesn't sound like permission.
"Very good. Anna?"
The lone blonde girl squares her shoulders and looks the soldier dead in the eyes. "I'm going to be a dancer."
The soldier hesitates, understanding instantly what's expected of him. This one's closer to the truth--it's got the weight of will behind it--but a creeping dissatisfaction prickles along the back of his neck. It may be the girl's dearest hope, but it's not the truth.
"I see. Irina?"
The youngest girl's eyes are huge and glassy, but her voice is firm. "I want to be a dancer."
Madame smiles. "Truth?"
"Yes, Madame," the soldier says, oddly relieved.
"Clever girl," Madame purrs. "Yulia," she addresses the last girl, who stands straighter at the sound of her name. "The Winter Soldier is an asset loyal to Hydra. And what do we tell our allies when they ask why we're here?"
"I am a valuable resource in training and hope one day to represent the Red Room in its endeavors," the last girl says with firm conviction, her chin lifting a fraction as she stares straight ahead.
That's the truth too. The soldier nods before Madame can prompt him.
"You added valuable?" the colonel asks archly.
Madame snorts, leaning her hip back against the edge of the desk. "It doesn't hurt to slap their noses when the dogs come sniffing around. In case they need the reminder that my girls are also more than just a pretty face."
The soldier doesn't understand. He's been told the truth twice now, so why does it seem like they're saying one of them was a lie?
"Well," Madame says. "I suppose it is indeed useful, for its truthsense, if nothing else." The girls frown at that, glancing quickly at each other and uneasily at him. "The essence of any good operative is belief. Without that foundation, everything falls. It can stay," she decides, holding out her hand imperiously. "And the binding--all it requires is blood? No ritual?"
"And risk some oaf botching it?" Kessler scoffs, stepping forward to hand over the soldier's knife. "It's just the blood. Foolproof that way."
"And it can have two masters," Madame asks, glancing at the colonel.
"Two or twenty," Kessler says with a shrug. "It doesn't matter, but the last one to be blooded has the strongest claim."
"Interesting," Madame says as she nicks the pad of her index finger, smearing her blood across the tip of the knife. The soldier jerks as the new binding takes hold, digging icy claws under his skin. They circle his spine at the base of his skull, the tightest collar imaginable, but at the same time, he feels the previous bond loosen, going slack without fading away entirely. "Soldier? Are you ready to comply?"
His head is still ringing when he tries to answer, and he forgets to draw new breath. "Yes, Madame," he says on the second attempt, standing straighter as the room slowly stops spinning.
"Good. Don't move. Irina?"
The little girl moves fast, throwing herself forward with single-minded purpose. Two fast strides and she's practically climbing Kessler, one small foot slamming into the back of his knee, dropping him down when he buckles so that her other foot plants firmly atop a kidney. One hand fists in his hair, and she pulls herself up with that grip as her other arm snakes out to drag a knife across his throat. The grunt of effort she makes at the hard, fast pull is almost torn from her, and she's breathing hard as she drops nimbly away from the wounded man, watching him flail and choke with a look both determined and repulsed.
I want to be a dancer.
Truth, truth, truth. But not the whole truth.
Kessler tries to spit out an order even as he's drowning in his own blood. The soldier can guess at it, but he feels no particular desire to fight his last order. Everything about Kessler makes the soldier's nerves jangle with the sense of something out of true, and the only compulsion laid on him is to obey. There is nothing at all about Kessler--like there was before, somewhere, with someone, in some space he can't recall--that calls the soldier to protect.
"Popov," Madame says as she brushes fastidiously at the front of her dress, examining her red-stained fingertips with a thoughtful frown. "Send in a cleaning crew, please."
"At once, Madame."
Madame sighs, glancing up to meet the soldier's eyes. "A word of advice, Soldier. Hydra's interest in mysticism disappeared with Schmidt, which puts you on shaky ground. And while a man may serve two masters, a weapon can have only one. Until such time as we choose to send you on, you belong to the Red Room.
"In the meantime, these are your requirements. You will train with my girls; they could use a partner they can't break, and you could use the polish. Once you're trained properly, the colonel may use you for missions at his discretion. You will listen to the orders of those designated as your handlers, and you will only kill at our command. That troubles you, Soldier?" she pauses to ask, though his dissatisfied twitch had been tiny.
"Corbies, Madame," he argues warily. These are...the same people? allies of the same people?...who'd brought one inside. He has no idea what to expect from any of them now. "I should be hunting them. It's what I'm for."
"No," she tells him calmly, with utter honesty, "it isn't."
"You were created to follow orders," she continues ruthlessly. "Hydra's orders. The Red Room's orders. The orders of anyone who holds your knife. And you will follow those orders, because you are a soldier, and that is what soldiers do. Don't concern yourself with the corbies," she says with a dismissive flick of her fingers. "They're a side project at best. Hydra has no use for anything it can't bring to order, so a lasting victory would mean the end of those creatures regardless."
The soldier stares. The end of corbies? That...that would be good. That would be very good. No more corbies means everyone's safe. There'd be no more rituals, no more knives. He could find a field and lie down, and sleep.
Madame's eyes turn kind. "I know I'm a harsh taskmistress, but it's necessary. Sometimes you have to do terrible things in order to make great changes in the world. We'll ask much of you, but bear in mind that the change you want to see is very large indeed, and sometimes sacrifices are required. If it ever grows too unbearable, remember that you have a gift: you can always ask to forget. Do you understand?"
She's telling the truth, and that fills his stomach with dread: that she believes with all her heart that forgetting will be a mercy he'll ask for eventually.
"Yes, Madame," he says numbly, prompted to continue when she arches a brow. "I am to train and follow orders. I am not to kill without permission. I can ask to forget."
He doesn't like it, but...a world without corbies. That's worth it, isn't it? Worth all the confusion, the nagging sense of wrongness that dogs his every footstep. He's not right, but at least now he knows why: he wasn't made right, intentionally, so that he could fill a larger purpose. He just has to hold on long enough to see it through.
The first time one girl kills another in a practice match, he's rooted in place by more than Madame's harsh order. There's someone he should have protected here, but who? The girl who was killed or the one who looked first for Madame's nod before snapping a fragile neck?
"And why was that necessary?" Madame asks, ignoring the soldier's impotent twitching as he fights his orders, fights to understand.
"She wasn't trying, Madame," the girl in the center of the practice ring says without hesitation. "She thought we were friends. The enemy could have used that sentimentality against her. Against us."
"Exactly so," Madame replies. "Remember: when you are in the field, there can be only the mission. Nothing else. Understood?"
"There is only the mission," the soldier parrots back along with the girls, but Madame doesn't touch the knife she rarely carries with her, and the lesson....
It doesn't stick.
They put him on a truck and then load him into another plane. When they land, they don't drive out into the countryside. They drive deeper into the city, lead him up to a rooftop, show him a photograph, and hand him a rifle.
"Show me how well you can shoot," the colonel orders. His thumbs are hooked into his belt, one palm curled around the hilt of a sheathed knife.
It's not possible.
(But they look very human when they want to.)
They're in the middle of a city.
(But sometimes people let them in.)
There's no way his target is a corbie.
(But at this distance, would he sense it if they were?)
The order twists inside his skull like a snake, and his finger tightens slowly on the trigger no matter how hard he tries to stop it.
At least he can make it quick.
"Something's missing," he says abruptly, ignoring the request for a mission report. That absent warmth bothers him.
Madame's nostrils flare, but she remains patient. "One of the scarecrows weathered away," she informs him coolly. "They'll send us another candidate soon."
Weathered away? He hadn't realized that was possible, or else he's forgotten. "Will that happen to me?"
Madame cocks her head, regarding him thoughtfully. "It's unlikely," she says at last. "Chances are you'll out...last us all."
The twist of her full lips is bitter, as if he's been given a thing she wants and he doesn't deserve, but he remains uneasy. That sounds...lonely. Which doesn't make sense, because he's already alone.
There's a brief tug, like one of his bindings pulling taut and resettling, but he pushes the feeling aside. The bindings don't connect him to anything. They just make him do things.
"Now," Madame says sharply. "I believe you owe me a mission report. Don't make me ask again."
He doesn't. He hates when the bindings twist inside him, the impotent rage that wells up when he fights them too hard. Anger makes him forgetful, and he doesn't always get those memories back. Sometimes it's better to give in.
The little girl standing over the body of another little girl says, "She was holding back. She thought we were friends, and it made her soft."
"Exactly so. Remember, this is not merely practice. Outside these walls, you must be focused and committed. Weakness is the enemy. There is only the mission. Do you understand?"
Standing at ease before the colonel's desk, the soldier examines the photographs of the hotel, the man, and looks up again. "Why?"
The colonel's eyes narrow. "Because I told you to. Or do you need a reminder?"
The colonel never lies, but he never tells the soldier anything, either.
"Eh," one of the handlers says when the soldier cautiously broaches the question. The man is uneasy in his presence even after six months, but time has relaxed some of his nervousness. He doesn't look at the soldier head-on, ducking his head to blow into his cupped palms as they wait by the trucks in the early dawn air, but he doesn't shy away from the question. "I heard he sold state secrets that prolonged the war. Nasty business."
The soldier frowns. "There was a war?"
"Don't ask stupid questions," he's told with a snort, but it doesn't have the weight of the knife behind it.
The lesson doesn't stick.
But it's not, it's not, it's not.
The mission can't be everything.
He doesn't know where that certainty is coming from. It must be something he's forgotten. But when he digs into the blankness that cocoons the edges of his mind, all he finds is another binding: muted and worn, overwritten by others, but still strong. He pokes at it gingerly, trying to find the trigger that will make it snap tight, but it doesn't push him to do anything. It's just...there. Solid. Strangely reassuring. Warm.
The longer he focuses on it, the more other things shift, and he backs off, nervous. He doesn't know what he's doing. He doesn't know who'll notice what he's done.
The binding just sits there, less like a collar than a wall. This far and no further.
For all that he wants nothing better than to disappear out the door and vanish into the wilderness, there's something about that binding he finds...comforting.
He doesn't. He doesn't understand at all. But.
Sometimes you have to do terrible things in order to make great changes in the world.
Sometimes sacrifices are required.
"Pfft," Yazov scoffs, lip curled. He's the soldier's main handler now, no longer flinches away when their eyes meet, though he still keeps his distance, squeamish about getting too close. The soldier is fine with that. "That butcher? Getting what he deserves, if you ask me. Do you know what they found when they went to his lab to demand a progress report?"
Yazov spits on the frozen ground, looking impatiently past the soldier for the rest of the team. Most of the academy is dark, only a few windows still lit. The exhaust pipe from the running truck, the school's tall chimneys and Yazov's breath all plume the air, but the soldier is a dark, cold shadow in the moonless night. Even when he speaks, his words leave no trace.
Sighing grimly, Yazov shakes his head. "All this fuss about making superior soldiers. What good did it ever do the ones where it worked? And as for Rybalkin--I think he just liked churning out monsters so he could hear them scream."
The soldier's eyes slide away and down, brows crumpling. How is he supposed to make an example of a man like that?
"You should boil his insides the way he did to our boys," Yazov mutters, standing straighter as the academy doors finally open to disgorge the rest of their party.
The soldier doesn't feel the cold, but the echo of a shudder plucks at his spine regardless.
He lets them because nothing stays locked when he wants to pass through. He doesn't question why. He doesn't question a lot of things; it draws too much attention.
For the most part, his is a quiet existence. No one addresses him first except to give orders; no one talks to him unless he finds reasons for them to. There are voices all around, but he sometimes feels like he's been living in silence since his waking. He minds, and yet he doesn't. He hasn't yet heard a voice--the voice?--he wants to hear.
Blue eyes flick sharply over to see where he's pointing. Her jaw sets as she gives a short, grim nod.
Madame is staring right at him when the soldier drops his hand.
The soldier stands in the wreckage he made of a snug little room, the floor a mosaic of broken glass, a splintered chair, a crumpled human body. Blood pools under a misshapen skull, climbs the walls here and there in leaping arcs. He tries to still his hands, but they shake from the force of the order winding tight around his chest, digging cold needles into his skull. Everyone in the apartment. Everyone, everyone.
There's one more, and though he made damned sure the third had time to hide, he can't pretend he doesn't know.
His first step is a stumble, the carpet squelching wetly beneath his boot. The next step is even harder, and for the first time he feels that phantom binding, the one he doesn't understand, rise up like a living presence. It's strong, stronger than he ever realized, and it's going to core him out from the inside if he takes one more step, but he's strangely at peace with that. Instead of fighting it, he leans into it: the single, solitary wall he doesn't hate.
And then he knows what to do.
Striding purposefully into the tiny second bedroom, he kneels down, reaches under the bed, and fishes out a little boy too terrified to move. There's a wet stain soaking the legs of the boy's pants and his face is streaked with snot and tears, but he doesn't struggle when the soldier pulls him out into the light and over to the bedroom window. He just sinks into a ball when the soldier puts him outside on the fire escape and closes the window most of the way behind him.
The soldier turns away and steps out into the front room again, looking carefully around. There. Now there's no one left in the apartment to kill.
He's followed his orders to the letter.
There's only one place to sit in his room, and the chair has been turned out as if waiting for him to arrive. Wordlessly he takes his seat, resting his hands flat on his thighs. The sturdy wood creaks as it takes his weight.
"You're a creature of inconvenient contradictions, Soldier," Madame tells him with a smile that doesn't reach her eyes. "You shouldn't even be capable of mercy. You ought to be little more than a rabid beast on a very short chain, so tell me...why are you different?"
He shakes his head. "I--I don't--"
She unfolds her other arm, and he realizes she's been holding his knife the entire time, the sheathed blade flush against her forearm.
"Tell me," she repeats, putting the force of command into it this time.
"D-different from what?" he asks, confused. He is himself. He has no other frame of reference for what he is.
"How have you kept your reason?"
"The--the thing in the sky," he stutters out, tongue tripping over itself to form the words before he even knows what he means to say. "It wanted to change me. I didn't let it. Not all the way."
He blinks at himself, startled, because he...doesn't actually remember that. It's somewhere behind his first waking, buried under...something. He doesn't know what. Something that muffles that memory's presence like drifts of snow, or an old woolen blanket.
"I j-just...held on." This far and no further.
To the wall, the name, the thing he can't give up, no matter what--he can't, he won't--
"Hm," Madame says thoughtfully as the soldier sits quiet and still under her scrutiny. "Maybe you just have too much time to think. At least that's easily fixed."
His eyes slowly widen. What does she mean by that? She can't make him stop thinking, can she? What--
"Soldier," she says, thumb pressing hard against the hilt of his knife. "Sleep."
But he doesn't sleep. He's never slept.
And still his eyes close, his mind going quiet, and between one second and the next, he loses track of the world entirely.
Madame is there, and the colonel, but they look...different. There's a half-inch scar over the colonel's right eye that wasn't there before, a few threads of grey creeping up from his sideburns into the hair receding from his temples. Madame's face is still sternly beautiful, but the faint lines at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth have deepened, and her face has...slipped somehow, lost some of its youthful resiliency. They've aged, but all he remembers is closing his eyes.
"Stand up," Madame orders, and the soldier rises without hesitation. He feels no stiffness, no pain.
Madame looks him over closely, mouth pursing tight. "Is its hair actually growing?"
The colonel shrugs. "I've heard that happens after death--"
"It doesn't. That's just the tissues shrinking around it. But this...two years sitting like a doll, and it looks the same as it did when it first arrived." She shakes her head. "Pity to see the secret of youth wasted on the likes of this."
Two years? Inside the soldier reels, but he was told to stand, so he stands. He remembers nothing of his time asleep; no dreams, no thoughts, nothing but a blank. He might as well not have existed at all.
"You can always call Shubin in to examine it," the colonel offers, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "He's been making a pest of himself of late. Something about his serum--I hear it's not working so well on its own."
"Good. Maybe he'll finally shut up about Zola, then," Madame sneers.
Zola. He knows that name. He almost knows the icy tickle of fear and hatred that slithers down his spine.
Madame tilts her head. "Do you need to put it through its paces first? My girls are getting lazy practicing on your men."
"It keeps the lads humble," the colonel says with a laugh. "No, this is a good test. We'll take it as-is. Knife?"
Two years. And he apparently has a job to do. Had they awakened him just for this?
He watches as his knife is passed from one hand to another, blood drawn and his leash handed off. He wonders what would happen if he reached out right now, grabbed his knife from the colonel's hands and--
--he blinks and finds himself sitting on a hard bench in the back of a troop transport. There are guards all around, but none of them pay him the slightest attention. He has no idea how long he's been sitting there, quiet and obedient.
He has no idea how he got on this truck.
He knows his target without any recollection of having been shown their face, and that's where the world begins to collapse in on him. His memory, his mind--they're not important if his body will just do what it's told without them, and if they find out, if they already know--
He goes where he's told and he shoots who he's told, and this time he doesn't ask why. Yazov isn't there to ask, and he doesn't question that either. He gives his mission report and returns to his quarters, and when Madame walks in half an hour later, he doesn't get up. He sleeps as he's told, but the fear sleeps with him, and it's waiting for him when he wakes.
He wakes and goes to steal secrets instead of punishing the men who sell them. He leaves no one alive.
He wakes and Shubin is there. Shubin hardly looks at the soldier's arm and seems to have forgotten how it works. The soldier doesn't ask. He's beginning to understand forgetting.
He wakes to a woman's voice, a sharp tug on the bindings, but when he opens his eyes, he looks up at a stranger. She's blonde, sternly pretty, favors blue, but she's far too young.
"You may address me as 'Madame'," she says, her tiny smirk triumphant.
The guards call her Madame B when they think she can't hear them, and she fumes silently at every reminder that she isn't the first.
He sees the old colonel twice more before he's replaced.
The new colonel's name is Karpov.
There's something different about Karpov this time, a watchful stillness as he lays out photographs and a plan. The entire mission is strange: easy enough that any of Karpov's men could have carried it out. The target is old and the road should be empty. He's not even being asked to make an example, only to make certain there are no witnesses, that it looks like an accident, and that he retrieve the contents of the trunk intact.
He climbs onto the motorbike waiting for him and waits for word that his target is approaching. The night is so quiet he can hear the car long before he sees the headlights. It's an easy matter to run it off the road, headlong into a tree that crumples the front end like tissue paper. The two occupants don't move for a long moment, long enough for the soldier to brake and return. As the soldier dismounts, the man behind the wheel fumbles for the door handle, spilling out onto the grassy shoulder with a dazed groan.
The soldier inspects the retrieval target first, ripping open the trunk of the wrecked car. There's a metal case inside, but when he pries that open as well, he finds only five plastic packs, opaque blue, containing an unknown liquid. Something for the science department, then, or one of the doctors. Nothing breakable means one less thing to worry about.
Coming around the side of the car, he bends down to haul the old man up by the hair. He could be gentler, but that's no mercy. If he braces the target's skull with his own strength, it'll be over quick.
Gathering himself for a swift, sharp blow, he gives to the weak press against his knuckles as the target's head tips back, as dark eyes track up to meet his and spark with clear recognition.
The soldier stops. That's...that's a name. A name, a rank, and it rings of nothing but clean truth in his head. It's not a mistake or something adopted for convenience. That's his name.
But who the hell is Sergeant Barnes?
He's so distracted he isn't expecting the bindings to jerk tight, too quickly to even contemplate resisting. One moment he's frozen, and the next his fist is slamming into a face gone lean with age, a face he almost recognizes before cartilage crumples, blood blossoming under a second blow. Between one second and the next, the target becomes deadweight in his grip, all revelations silenced for good.
He doesn't want to let go, but his fist unclenches on his target's hair and lets the man drop, feet carrying him away even though he tries to stall. He doesn't want to walk away. He wants to know--who did he just kill, and how did the target know him? How was that name his when he's never heard it before?
The woman in the passenger seat sobs as he wraps his hand around her throat. He doesn't look at her. He can't. He's not sure what he'll do if she recognizes him too.
The questions keep piling up as he climbs back onto the bike and returns for extraction, so many he's all but choking on them by the time he arrives. His silence doesn't faze anyone at first, but Karpov watches him narrowly.
"The package," Karpov says, holding out an imperious hand for the metal case tucked under the soldier's arm.
For the first time with this new colonel, the soldier hesitates.
"The man in the car," he says slowly, all his senses coming alert as stillness spreads amongst the other soldiers. "He knew me."
Karpov arches a brow. He doesn't drop his hand. "What did he say?"
"A name. Mine. I...I have a name. But I don't...I don't remember it."
"No," Karpov agrees. "You won't."
Even before the order comes, he's struggling: to run, to throw the metal case he'd retrieved as a distraction, anything. They told him he could ask, but he hasn't asked for this. How can it be so wrong for him to know who he is?
"Forget," he's told, and his mind twists obediently, turning on itself to root out what isn't allowed, what doesn't belong. It's like watching his own hand lift a knife to carve off pieces of himself, horror a cold lump in his belly. All he can do it watch it happen as--
Something inside him stirs, shifts, and closes over the memory whole, swallowing it up. The stranglehold of Karpov's binding goes slack once more.
"What," he begins in confusion, wracking his mind for some hint of what disappeared. Where the last hour was, there's only a blank, as sturdy as a featureless wall.
"It's nothing," Karpov says, lifting some kind of box from the soldier's unresisting hands. "Don't worry about it."
He doesn't understand why that's an order, or why it makes the others laugh.
He knows he wants to kill everyone here, but not why the usual spike of guilt doesn't come.
That's reason enough, when he thinks about it. He never wants to forget, but something...something they had him do must have driven him to ask. Cowardice curdles in his gut: for asking then and not asking now to be reminded.
"Follow," Karpov orders, and the soldier falls in silently, making the familiar walk out to a line of waiting vehicles. There's three times as many as usual, and for once the waiting soldiers mill closer to him, quick to jump in after as he climbs into the back of a truck. They chatter more than he remembers, a current of nervous excitement thrumming through their ranks. It's unusual enough the soldier dares a question, the first time he recalls speaking outside mission reports in half a dozen awakenings.
"What's the target?" he asks during a brief lull in conversation. They all fall silent, trading uncertain looks with each other. Was he supposed to already know?
The man across from him sits up straighter. He's older than the others, mostly unremarkable except that he doesn't share their fear. "You'll like this one, Soldier," he says with a vicious grin. The soldier doubts that very much until the man continues.
"We're hunting blackbirds."
The roof of the old farmhouse has fallen in, the walls of the little barn behind it sagging around its collapsed roof, but the weathered wooden door of the old root cellar is still intact. A rusty lock on the bar that holds it closed bursts with a whine as Mother rips it away with one hand; the other grips tightly to the back of a thin neck, both an order and a comfort.
"Hide," Mother hisses as she hauls the heavy door open. Light spills down age-warped steps, briefly illuminating a collection of empty shelves, bits of broken furniture and a few long planks of stout wood. "I'll come back once I've led them away."
A push. She stumbles down the first few stairs but catches herself quickly, scrambling into the corner as the light dies at her back. The cellar door closes on a soft squeal of ancient hinges, but Mother is careful not to let it fall. Near-silent footsteps fade rapidly away, barely disturbing the lush summer grass. Seconds later, she's alone.
Crouched behind an old shelf, she puts her back to the rough stone wall and wraps her skinny arms around her knees, barely breathing as she listens with all her might. Cooling sweat prickles at the edge of the kerchief Mother knotted tightly over her head, hoping to hide the bright flag of her hair. Her legs and lungs ache, but she can keep running. She wants to. Mother said she'll be back, but Father had said that too, and Brother, and Uncle. She's young, but she's not stupid. She knows they're being hunted.
She stays because she can't bring herself to move. Whatever's out there, whatever's chasing them, it knows where they are, like it can smell them. Like it can see them, when they can't even catch a glimpse of it in turn. It took Sister with one shot, and Grandfather with one shot, and if she leaves the cellar, it will know, it will see, and it will kill her.
She makes herself very small when the cellar door is pried open again, but her head jerks up in shock when she smells humans at the top of the stairs. She may be little, but she's at least as strong as them.
"Girl," one of them calls down, a hint of fearless mockery in his gruff voice. "Get up here. We won't hurt you."
That's a lie, but this isn't what she was expecting. Are they working with the hunter? Is the hunter a human?
Maybe she can escape after all.
Uncoiling from her tight crouch, she bolts for the stairs, careful not to bare her teeth. She looks human enough to make adults behave stupidly, but she isn't fool enough to play the lost child now. All she needs is a half-second's hesitation as she barrels past, for fingers to hang just slightly before a trigger is pulled.
She's met at the top of the steps with a rifle butt to the face. The pain is immediate and shocking, sending her reeling back down the stairs to land in a heap, curling protectively inward. Her right ankle is on fire, and her left arm is all pins and needles from a hard knock to her elbow. The men above laugh.
"Well, don't just stand there," someone scolds. "Get down there and bag the little harpy. Pashkov--call for extraction. Make sure they send two trucks. If we try to ship her with the asset, we'll have to start all over again."
"Yes, sir," someone unseen raps out.
"Easy, little sparrow," a burly man in combat fatigues says as he comes down the steps. He carries a rifle in front of him, eyes her the way a hawk eyes a plump rabbit. The man following close on his heels chuckles nastily. "Just settle down and come with us. You'll like us much better than our friend, believe me."
She rolls to her knees and tries to lunge away, but they're on her before she makes it three steps. She bites the hand that clutches her arm, sinking her sharp teeth in deep and reveling at the scream that follows.
A hard blow crashes across the back of her head, and as she bites down harder, everything fades.
It excites her too. When she gets out, she is going to eat well.
Her swollen ankle is bandaged. She still can't put any weight on it, but she feels sure she'll be better in a day or two. She heals fast.
They've taken her clothes and put her in some of their own, made of thinner, cheaper material in a particularly ugly shade of green. She has no shoes and no socks. Her red hair hangs loose around her face. It doesn't matter. She'll steal more clothes after she escapes.
It isn't long before someone comes in, a human man with thinning dark hair and a long white coat. He scribbles industriously at a clipboard, his pen pausing as he glances up and sees her looking back. "Oh," he says with a brightening smile. "You're awake."
She lifts a hand to rub miserably at the small bandage taped over her right eyebrow, tucking her chin down and peering at him through her lashes. "Who are you?" she asks, pitching her voice high with a slight tremble. "Where's my mother?"
She already suspects he isn't a normal human, but she doesn't expect his delighted laugh. "Remarkable," he says, shaking his head, and leaves without another word.
When he returns he has two more humans with him, a man and a woman. The man is dressed like a common soldier, but his eyes say different. The woman is poised, beautiful, carries herself like a matriarch. She smiles in satisfaction and doesn't hesitate to approach the cage.
"So this is the little crow. She's appealing, at least. You say she's already tried to charm you?"
"Yes, Madame," the man in white replies eagerly. "The level and sophistication of her mimicry is just astounding. If I didn't already know what she is, I'd probably be rushing to help find her mother right now."
"And then you'd be dead." Madame doesn't sound troubled by this in the slightest.
The man in uniform huffs. "Are you certain you want to devote the resources to this project? It's one thing to turn a wolf into a hunting hound, but these things are rabid at best. I'll be amazed if it has sense enough to learn."
"Anything can be tamed, Karpov," Madame says with a self-satisfied smile. "Our wolf is proof of that. Luckily we have access to something even monsters fear."
Karpov frowns. "I was told the asset grows unpredictable if left too long awake."
"Not unpredictable. Too predictable. You need to learn to read between the lines," Madame chides. "Leave the Soldier to me. It'll still be available for your missions, as always."
"Fine. For as long as he remains stable. If he remembers he's a wolf, it's on your head."
The corners of Madame's mouth turn up a fraction more. "That's all I ask," she says as she turns back to the cage.
Another step brings Madame tantalizingly close but just out of reach of a determined grab. "Pay attention, little crow," she says firmly. "Your stay here can be long and reasonably pleasant, or it can be short and very much the opposite. It's entirely up to you. Now. What is your name?"
She debates coming up with a human name to put them at ease, but part of her wants to see them squirm. "Breathtaker," she says, trapping her lower lip lightly between sharp teeth as she watches Madame's reaction.
"Charming," Madame says in a tone that means the opposite, "but hardly useful. From now on, your name is Natalia. You belong to the Red Room, and you answer to me. Obedience will be rewarded; failure will be corrected. As you can see, the terms are very simple, so every infraction will be treated as a willful one. I don't believe you are stupid, so it shouldn't take long to reach an accommodation. Do you understand?"
Stubborn pride urges her to resist, remain silent, but as Madame has already guessed, she isn't stupid. She's not strong enough to fight her way out of this cage, so she'll trick her way out instead. "Yes, Madame," she says softly, trying to sound young and defenseless, like an ordinary human child.
Madame snorts, amused but not displeased. "Very good.
"Dr. Gromov." The man in white straightens. "You may begin. Cosmetic alterations only, for now, and be sure to have guards present at all times."
"Yes, Madame." He's as excited as a dog being tossed a new bone as he picks up an odd-looking gun from a nearby table.
She's so busy watching him she doesn't notice Karpov drawing a gun of his own, but she notices the dart when it lodges in her shoulder.
She tells herself she'll wait until the lights go off before she gives in to tears, but the lights never dim, so she doesn't cry. She won't give them that satisfaction.
Hours later the halls outside begin to come alive. The booted feet of guards are joined by quicker, lighter steps; muffled conversations drift in and out of hearing range as the humans begin their day. Dr. Gromov arrives shortly, accompanied by a human dressed in shapeless clothes that look much like hers, only his are as white as the doctor's coat. The assistant pushes a many-shelved metal cart whose contents rattle noisily together. The smell of cooked food fills the room.
"Oh, good. You're awake," Gromov says cheerfully. "Now, we weren't sure what you'd eat--are you an omnivore? a strict carnivore?--so do please let us know your preferences."
He looks like he wants to eat her--not the way men look at Mother or Sister, even Brother when he puts his mind to it, but the way Brother looks when he butchers a kill, consumed with curiosity to see what's inside.
"Remarkable," Gromov says as he watches her choke down spoonfuls of barley porridge, thick slices of black bread and sausage devoured without crumbs. She glares up at him between mouthfuls. Is he surprised she knows what silverware is? Or by her hunger? She's not an animal, and she hasn't eaten in at least a day. "Your mimicry is truly remarkable. I almost wonder if we didn't have a common ancestor somewhere. I can't wait to see what the labs come back with."
She doesn't answer, but it's hard to swallow past the rage and contempt that stick in her throat. A common ancestor? Her stomach churns as a shudder drags cold fingers down her spine.
"I need the bathroom," she says in a small voice when she's finished. They have to be expecting that; her cell is entirely empty. Unless they really do think she's an animal. She tries not to grit her sore teeth.
"Yes, we'll be moving you to a new habitat shortly. We're only waiting on Madame. I'd behave, if I were you," he adds, almost kindly. "It was hard finding a subject your age, but they'll do it again. May even be looking forward to it. I hear Karpov actually cracked a smile out there, though I don't know if I believe it."
Gromov's assistant, still waiting patiently by his cart, snorts a laugh. Gromov starts, as if he'd forgotten the man was there. With a distracted frown, he says, "Go and see what's--"
Someone outside the room opens the door, and Madame sweeps in without slowing.
"Excellent," she says, eyes bright with anticipation. "Fed, are we? Rested? Good. Time for your first lesson, Natalia. Walk with us."
She rises slowly to her feet, balancing mostly on her good leg, and leaves her breakfast tray on the floor. A guard hurries forward to unlock the door to her cage, but she keeps her eyes fixed firmly on Madame. Madame is too happy, too excited. It couldn't be more obviously a trap if she'd tried.
"Walk where?" She doesn't back away from the door, but she wants to.
"While Gromov would like to keep you here full-time," Madame says, shooting the doctor an arch smirk, "it's rather cramped, don't you think? Not at all suitable for a young lady. We've come to take you to more appropriate quarters."
"I don't mind staying, thank you." She does mind--she minds very much--but she doesn't like the grins of the guards who followed Madame in.
"I see. I thought you might need a little encouragement." Despite Madame's stern words the afternoon before, she doesn't look displeased.
"Soldier?" Madame calls over her shoulder without looking. "Come inside, but stand down. Natalia will be a valuable resource in time."
The man who steps cautiously into the room may answer to 'soldier', but he can't actually be one. She's never seen a soldier who looks like this: big and strong, but wrapped up in black leather designed to show off his strangeness, purposefully intimidating. His metal arm stinks of magic, so strongly she doubts there's any flesh under there at all, but he doesn't smell like anything. No sweat, despite the thick layers of his uniform, not even at his scalp. There's no fragrance coming off his hair--long, the way the unfeathered prefer their own, though his doesn't quite reach his shoulders. His skin is uniformly pale, even beneath the light stubble on his cheeks, as if he doesn't see much sun--bloodless pale, though the uncertain blue eyes that look her up and down are too lively, too dark a blue to be the sky-eyed stare of a--
Her breath stills in unconscious imitation when she realizes he isn't breathing, the first crawling prickles of warning creeping up her spine.
Her mother had taken her to the edge of a field once, when she was old enough to realize that not all dangerous things looked the part. The scarecrow had been old, nearly weathered away, its protections waning by the moment, but she'll never forget the crawling of the scarecrow's wards over her skin as it woke to their presence, gathered its remaining scraps of self, and prepared to cast them out.
She scrambles back in a panic, weak ankle nearly giving way. She barely notices when her spine hits the bars. He's the same, he's exactly the same--he's a scarecrow but he's moving, free of his cross--he's moving and there's nowhere she can run.
The jangling discord inside, his awareness of a corbie nearby, doesn't fade. It follows, all the way back to the academy.
The one he was pulled back from, the one he didn't kill. They're bringing it with them.
By the time they pull into the academy grounds, he's a mess of restless energy, on the verge of throwing himself out the back of the truck to track down the source of his disquiet and rip it to pieces. The soldiers who'd crowded close to him before watch him warily now, hands tight on their weapons. "Hey," one says at last, flinching as he whips his head around with a snarl. "Hey. Settle down. Madame B's got plans for this one. Maybe she'll let you have it after she's done."
He doesn't want it; it shouldn't be here at all. Why do the humans keep bringing them in?
He doesn't dare leave his quarters that night, first because they've put a watch on him, and second because he doesn't trust himself not to hunt the creature down the minute he's free. He almost wishes they'd put him to sleep, though the thought fills him with jagged edges that make him pace restlessly. He doesn't want to sleep, helpless and unable to help, with a corbie under the roof. If it gets loose, he needs to be ready.
Shortly after dawn one of the guards looks in and grimaces at what he sees. "Soldier," he says in a voice that tries to be firm. "Follow."
They take the elevator down two flights to medical. His awareness of the corbie grows stronger with every step. Madame and a pair of guards are already waiting just outside the elevator, Madame conferring with a technician about an enclosure. Two more guards wait halfway down the hall, guarding a door.
"Madame," says the guard who'd led the soldier here.
Madame smiles. "Good. Follow me, Soldier, but wait outside the door until you're called. Do not engage under any circumstances without orders. I want the corbie alive. Do you understand?"
It sticks in his throat to parrot back his orders, but his only choices are to give in or be forced. If he gives in, his hands remain his own. "I'm not to engage or kill the corbie unless ordered. I understand."
"Then let's proceed."
Left outside to stand guard, exes fixed unblinking on that inconspicuous door, the soldier listens for the order that will let him act. His hands twitch each time he hears Madame's voice. The guards who flank the door flinch every time he moves.
"Soldier," he hears at last, and wild purpose leaps within him.
When the door swings wide, opened by a guard who tries to scoot further along the wall, out of his way, the first thing he sees is the cage.
It doesn't stop him in his tracks, but he enters more cautiously than he'd planned. He remembers the last cage he'd found a corbie in, the bone-deep certainty that he'd gone about what he'd done in all the wrong ways. He's expecting another broken, angry monster. He's not expecting a child.
She's young, small as the youngest of the girls he's helped train, all fragile bird-bones beneath a cloud of red hair and bright green eyes. She stares at him like he's the monster, pressed as far away from him as she can get, her hands fisted white-knuckled on the bars at her back. He knows she's not really helpless--she's a corbie, after all--but all he can see when he looks at her is a scared little kid.
"Did the others ever tell you about crowcatchers, Natalia?" Madame asks, stepping closer to the cage. "A bedtime story to encourage good behavior? That's why I've brought it here, you see. If you run, it will catch you. If you hide, it will find you. If you kill without being told...." Madame smiles. "Come out of there now, Natalia. I won't ask again."
The little corbie stays right where she is, frozen. Whether or not she wants to--and anyone can see that she doesn't--the soldier doesn't think she can obey with the way she's shaking.
Madame arches a brow. "Soldier. Fetch her out."
He slips into the cage gingerly, trying not to scare the girl more than she already is. Her breaths come rabbit-quick, and for a moment he thinks she'll remain just that tense, stiff as a block of wood, and let herself be moved.
When he reaches for her shoulder--right-handed--she snaps the instant he touches her, jerking and twisting just enough to bury her teeth in his forearm.
Her jaws are strong. It hurts, but not nearly as badly as he would have expected. Instead of the sharpness of fangs, there's nothing but blunt, crushing pressure; her teeth don't even pierce his sleeve. She's still breathing fast through her nose, and there's a strain around her eyes, cringing but fierce, that says she's bracing for a blow.
He waits instead of shaking her off, gentles his grip on her shoulder even as he finds a better hold. "It's all right," he says, and her eyes go impossibly wider with every word. "Don't be scared."
She lets go of his arm, incredulity and pride stiffening her spine. "I'm not scared," she insists in a voice that shakes only a little.
He nods. He can feel the lie pulsing inside his skull, but he's not going to drag the truth out of her. "Then come with me."
Though she limps the whole way, he doesn't let go of her as they follow Madame out of the examination room and into the stairwell, down a flight of stairs to a level he's never visited before. The ceilings here are higher, the walls made of old brick that matches the academy's exterior. The halls are empty, but he hears the buzz and rattle of machine-work behind one of the doors they pass, the chugging of some huge engine behind another.
Even this deep underground, the three pools of warmth in the fields that ring the school burn brightly in his mind. He wonders if the scarecrows hanging there can sense the corbie in their midst, if they've been warned ahead of time or whether panic's set in, or whether they're too far away to notice or do any good. He wonders briefly who they are. He's never had the opportunity to go and find out.
He wonders how they'd react to him if they met.
The last door at the end of the corridor opens onto a large room that holds a much larger cage. This one contains a bed, and the bars cover only the top and three sides. The fourth wall is brick, with a door that must lead to a bath.
"Inside," Madame says, and the soldier walks the girl there, stepping aside so the barred door can be closed. The girl can't seem to decide whether to duck her head meekly or keep her chin up, too rattled to pick a disguise, and the soldier feels an unexpected pang of guilt at being the most likely cause. "You'll stay here for now until you earn better privileges. Prove yourself, and you'll join the rest of the girls and be given the same freedoms...with one addition.
"Hunt for us," Madame says plainly, "and you'll never be hunted again. Or go hungry."
The soldier starts, staring at Madame in disbelief. She can't mean to turn a corbie loose--
On targets, carefully selected, like his.
Sometimes you have to do terrible things.
He's just not certain Madame sees it as terrible.
"Think on it," Madame invites when the girl remains silent.
The soldier shifts reluctantly to follow Madame out, but he's stopped with a sharp look. "Remain here. You'll stand guard for now; if she manages to escape her enclosure, subdue her with as little damage as possible. Understood?"
"Yes, Madame." He ought to be disappointed--he's stuck even further away from the open air than he was before--but he doesn't like the idea of just ignoring a corbie in their midst. Staying is a relief.
He doesn't watch Madame's grand exit from the room or the guards' retreat. He watches the corbie, whose eyes skitter around her cell while her feet stay nailed to the floor, her spine stiff and proud. She doesn't retreat to hide in the bathroom and shut the door. She watches him right back.
"You're what was hunting us," she says when the last of the guards sidles out with a curious backwards glance.
"Yes," the soldier says. He doesn't regret it, but he's sorry to have made another orphan, whatever the circumstance.
"Because we're corbies."
Yes, he means to say, only the answer feels...unsatisfying. He tries to feel his way to the truth instead. "If you were hunting humans--"
Her eyes narrow coolly. "So it's all right for you--"
"If you were hunting humans," he repeats firmly, "and were close to a town, and I was free to do so, then yes. I'd have hunted you. But you were in the wild lands, and they put me in your way." Her mouth snaps shut--there's something odd about her teeth--as she stares him down, face carefully blank. "It wasn't just because you're corbies."
"Liar," she says succinctly, green eyes snapping.
He frowns at the floor, one brow quirking in thought. "I don't think that's possible," he says at last, tipping his eyes back up to hers.
She clenches her jaw and turns with great dignity to limp into the bathroom after all, slamming the door behind her.
"How did you know he wouldn't kill it? Or did you use the knife to calm him down? My men said he was ready to take that thing apart just ten minutes earlier."
Madame huffs. Having refused a seat, she stands straight and tall beside him, her hand braced on the back of his chair. He doesn't for one moment take it for a sign of intimacy or invitation. "I told you already: the Soldier grows more predictable, not less, the longer it's awake. It avoids harming anyone unless ordered or provoked, especially if that person is someone it perceives as a child."
"Then maybe you should worry that little harpy you wanted will make herself an ally."
"She is still a corbie," Madame points out dryly. "No one's sentiment runs that deep."
Karpov says nothing, but he has his doubts, and he has access to greater resources than his predecessor. Anton Kessler's notes on the Winter Soldier project were only filed away, not destroyed. A slim red book sits unread in his quarters, delivered only yesterday by courier. He suspects he'll find little of value within its pages, but a name to put to their wolf would be enough.
With that he'd have a point of focus to begin a search: official records, unofficial if the Soldier made a name for himself while he was still alive. He's curious to know how much of the man remains inside the monster.
He's even more curious to know how much sentiment it took to put a man who should have lived on a cross in the first place.
Gromov's excitement remains at a fever pitch, never waning despite several setbacks that should leave him cautious. He takes blood, wants X-rays and scans, dares to check teeth that have been ground down to soft, human nubs. Through it all the soldier stands guard, watching the wildness build beneath Natalia's restraint until it inevitably snaps. Every time he pulls her off her prey, he wonders why they don't see it coming.
And then one day he realizes that they do.
Standing on Natalia's right in the examination room, the soldier watches Gromov wheel his chair up to the padded table Natalia sits at the foot of. He wheels too close, crowding her, their knees jostling as he wraps a tourniquet around her arm. When he thumps at the bend of her elbow to bring up the veins, he doesn't stop even after the thin, blue ropes stand out proud beneath her skin. He flicks her a few more times, ignoring the way her entire body flinches minutely at each tiny strike.
"Here we go," he says cheerfully, half-turning to retrieve a syringe one-handed while the other remains wrapped around Natalia's arm. The reach unbalances him on his stool; his grip tightens, pulls. "Same drill as the day before. You'll just feel a little sting--"
Gromov bends over her, too close, but the soldier is already moving. Natalia is quick, but he's quicker, barely--he has time to wrap an arm around her shoulders and haul her back before she can bury her blunted teeth in Gromov's neck.
As delicate as she looks, she's steel and sinew wrapped around a core of hate. When she struggles in his hold, her eyes never waver from Gromov, intent upon her prey.
Gromov sighs in overdone disappointment. "Shame. I'd hoped we were past this. Soldier? Return her to her cell."
Natalia walks stiffly a pace ahead of him, familiar by now with the route. She makes no attempt to escape; there's nowhere in the close confines of the underground levels that she could run where he couldn't catch her. She only hesitates at the door of her cell, but she doesn't make him push her in.
He dislikes the way her shoulders curl fractionally inward, the way her muscles coil taut despite her attempts to appear unmoved. His own unwilling sympathy feels like something he should be ashamed of, but the warning he tries to swallow tumbles past his teeth regardless.
"They're baiting you."
"I know," Natalia says flatly, taking a few jerky steps away from the door. It locks automatically the moment it shuts; only the human guards who watch from the security cameras have the authority to open it.
"When you attack them, you're just giving them what they want."
Natalia tosses a halfhearted glare over her shoulder, then turns on her heel to face him. "That's not what they want. They're trying to get me used to it. Them. Humans. But I hate it," she says in a rush, hands fisting at her sides. "I don't want them touching me!"
"I know," he says heavily, right hand lifting to curl around one of the bars. "I don't like it either."
Natalia grimaces. "At least you can stop them. You--" She cuts herself off at the soldier's slow headshake, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"I'm bound to the knife that made me," he explains after a moment's silent debate. "I do what I'm told. Mostly. And when I don't, I do what they order me."
"Then why don't you just take it back?"
He shuts his eyes tight, ducks his head. He can't--he can't think about this, doesn't want to lose any more time than he has already.
He pulls away, head jerking up sharply when a small hand covers his on the bars. "Or I can," Natalia says in a hushed undertone, eyes bright and determined. "Tell me where it is, and I'll get it for you, if you'll let me out of here."
He draws a shaky, belated breath, almost wishing he could say yes. "You're not the only one they've asked to kill for them," he explains, resigned. "This place? It's a school for spies and assassins. Everyone you see is dangerous, even the children. Especially the children. They may be humans, but there's too many of them. You wouldn't make it up the stairs."
The corners of Natalia's mouth tuck in tightly as she rests her head against the bars. "You can tell if someone's lying, right?" The soldier nods. "Was Madame telling the truth? About not being hunted. Not going hungry."
His puzzled look is met with a grimace.
"Grandfather--" Her voice cracks, and she swallows. The solder wonders if her grandfather was one of the corbies he killed. "Grandfather said it was different during the war. That times were better then. There was food everywhere you looked, just there for the taking, and the humans were all too caught up in killing each other to worry about us much."
That's what Kessler had said, and the colonels, and Madame and her predecessor. That he's doing good work, important work, removing the humans who'd start that cycle again.
"It made us soft," Natalia says, lifting her head once and knocking it gently against the bars. "And now there's even more of them. Grandfather said we'd have to find a way inside human lands anyway soon enough, because there wouldn't be anyplace left for us." Her eyes search his face without the air of vulnerability he's seen her use on the doctors. "So did she mean it?"
"Yes," the soldier admits reluctantly. "But it's not that simple. You--you'd have to do what they say--"
"Be their hawk?" Natalia says, one corner of her mouth tipping up in a humorless smile. "Better a hawk than the hare."
The soldier says nothing. Maybe she's right.
Chin firming with determination, she straightens her posture, holding out a hand. "Here," she says, twitching her fingers impatiently when he hesitates. "Come here."
His feet don't want to move at first, but he edges closer after a moment, offering his hand--his right, because he still doesn't want to scare her, even knowing what she is. He half expects a bite, but she takes hold gingerly, her smaller hands clasping his lightly between them. He braces himself for the revulsion he feels when the humans touch him, but nothing sings under his skin but trepidation.
Her jaw clenches as she turns his hand over, palm down, and wraps it around her own wrist. He tries to pull away when she starts to shake, but she tightens her grip.
"What's your name?" she asks through gritted teeth. She doesn't look up.
"They call me Winter Soldier," he says quietly. "I don't remember anything else."
She frowns. "Because you died?"
There's...technically some question about that. Isn't there? He's sure he remembers being told that, though not where or when.
"I don't know if I did," he admits. "Or if I did completely, or.... I've still got my heart. I still feel it sometimes. Beating." He shakes his head. "I don't know what that makes me."
Green eyes tip up to his at last, uncertain. "Mother says scarecrows are a trick. That you prayed to the god of walls and gates to keep us out but only kept yourselves in." Her hand gentles a fraction on his as she tilts her head. He takes care to remain perfectly still. "Walls and gates are an in-between thing," she says at last, hunching a shoulder. "Maybe you are too."
Maybe. He feels that way sometimes, a bundle of inconvenient contradictions, just as Madame had said. He's not too concerned with how inconvenient he might be; he didn't ask to be made. He just wishes they'd made him better, that things weren't so confusing all the time.
"Are you sure this is helping?" he asks one day after a particularly grueling session with the medical staff. Gromov will probably need stitches; Natalia's gotten better at hiding her discomfort, and the soldier can only move so fast.
"Yes," she says firmly, head ducked as if under the weight of his hand. Her hair is soft and cool under his palm, her hand a steady band around his wrist. "If I can get used to you, I can put up with anything."
He's curious, not offended. "What does it feel like? Having me here."
"What's it like for you?" she shoots back.
He shifts on his feet as he considers but keeps his hand still. "It's not so bad now that I'm used to you. I'm just constantly aware of you, like...like a noise that keeps repeating, and you keep thinking you'll grow to ignore it, but you don't. It made me angry at first," he says, taking care not to move as she tenses. "Not at you, exactly, just...angry."
"You didn't look it."
"You were in a cage. And you're just a kid."
Natalia gives him a look. The soldier grimaces. He knows what she is. He can't help what he sees.
"I couldn't feel you at all, at first," she says abruptly, lifting her head to meet his eyes head-on. His hand slides, mussing her hair. Without thinking he strokes the smooth strands back into place, the bright red of it shocking. It should be dark like his own, her blue eyes lit with mischief. Natalia's fingers tighten around his wrist, but after a moment she lets him go, leaves his hand where it is. "Still can't, much. It's like you're invisible. But I can feel...something. A sort of prickling, like static electricity." She shrugs. "Mother took me to see a scarecrow once, so I'd know what they felt like. You're nothing like it."
He nods and drops his hand, giving her thin shoulder a brief squeeze as he does. She doesn't flinch away.
"Now that your control has improved, you can begin training with the other girls," Madame announces, examining Natalia with a critical eye. "Show me your nails."
Natalia holds her hands out, palms down. Her nails are still clipped close, almost to the quick.
Madame nods. "Good. Maintaining your appearance will be your responsibility. And please remember that training is not a license to run amok. You are all valuable resources, not to be squandered carelessly. Have I made myself clear?"
"Yes, Madame," Natalia says meekly, lowering her hands to her sides. Lost in the heavy folds of her dark skirt, it's difficult to tell whether he's clenched them into fists or not.
Though he'd been banished to the practice room only before, now the soldier follows Natalia everywhere. He's supposed to stop her if her control snaps, but instead he watches it grow.
The other girls hate Natalia on sight, but they think she's human at first. Human and getting special treatment: a private room, private lessons, though none of them begrudge her the time spent with him. Her physical strength infuriates them, and he hears whispers of things they shouldn't know about when they gather in corners to talk, envious eyes fixed on Natalia. Failed serums, and a success stolen right from under the Americans' noses. A squad he might've helped train if all his time wasn't taken up by her.
Natalia pretends not to notice the whispers, the stares, the small accidents that even the soldier can't prevent. She waits until she gets her rivals in the practice ring, and then she tries her best to hurt them.
The first time she's beaten surprises the soldier as much as Natalia, though it shouldn't. He knows the training the Red Room's girls receive. Natalia, strong as she is, has never been shown what to do with that strength.
Madame's smile as Natalia is pinned for the third time is too smug for this not to be a lesson.
Natalia is silent on the walk back to her cell. She doesn't pause by the door or grab for his hand. She looks sidelong at the bathroom door like she's considering hiding herself away until stubbornness firms her chin.
"Why do they even want me here?" she asks as she pivots back to face him, eyes fixed on his right shoulder. "They could have just left us alone."
He thinks of the clench of Madame's jaw when she hears Madame B through cracked doors and from around corners. He thinks of how quickly his own novelty had paled. "Her predecessor had me, but you're something new. You stand out."
"You mean I make her stand out."
The soldier nods. "That too."
By the next day, the other girls have grown bold. They recite their lines back loudly in their language class, mocking Natalia's accented delivery with upturned noses and rolled eyes. Her opponents on the practice mats are vicious, giving her no chance to learn from her mistakes. When she returns from the changing rooms after, it's in a uniform that looks like it's been wadded up and trampled by half the class, dusty footprints streaking the dark cloth of her skirt.
On the third day, the soldier stops her before she can return to her cell. Backing out to the middle of the wide room that's become theirs, he nods at the bare concrete floor before him, wishing they had a practice mat.
She glances at the camera over the door, at the intercom mounted in the corner of the room. When it remains silent, she edges closer until she's just within striking distance.
"Put up your fists," he tells her, patiently waiting out her frown. She relents a moment later, brow arching as she takes up a guard position that he corrects with a hand on her shoulder, a nudge to her elbow. "You're fighting like you still have claws. It leaves you off-balance, makes you think your reach is better than it is. Here," he adds, holding up his right hand, palm facing her. "Throw a punch."
She hesitates, eyes narrow. "You're going to teach me to fight?"
"If you're willing to learn."
Pride stiffens her backbone as she coils herself to strike. There are no corbies in the room, no hunters.
The intercom stays silent as Natalia takes aim and swings.
She wills her face placid as she enters the room, ignoring the teacher for the moment. She misses stories. She doesn't much like the one she's telling now, that she's Natalia, but it's what she has. She'll make the best of it.
She chooses a seat in the middle of the back row, not so close to the door that she'll be a target for everyone who enters, but not so far she looks weak. A soft creak of leather is the only sign as her constant shadow settles in, standing at attention against the wall. It should be terrifying to have a scarecrow looming over her--and not just any scarecrow, but one even the Corpsegiver won't touch--but Winter's quiet, solid presence is something she can set her back against. It's the humans she has to watch.
The girls don't talk as they file down the hall--the matrons don't like it--but Natalia hears their footsteps long before they enter the room. Refusing to look over as the first one appears in the doorway, she hears the hitch in that one's footsteps, sees the girl's brief pause out of the corner of her eye. It's not the first time she's gotten here before them, so why the surprise?
She allows herself a tiny, hard smirk. If she's foiled some stupid plot of theirs, all the better.
Still, there's something different about the way they eye her today, the wider berth they give her as they choose their seats. Of the three girls who've gone most out of their way to make her life a punishment, Katya pointedly ignores her and scurries off to sit as far from Natalia as she can, while Svetlana gives her a long, incredulous look of pure disgust before turning away.
Polina Melnikova, Madame's current favorite and the strongest of the girls, struts over to Natalia with twice her usual arrogance, a smug grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. Natalia wants to tear it off her face with nothing but her blunted nails.
"That's so weird," Polina says as she pauses at Natalia's desk, reaching out to flick a few strands of Natalia's hair away from her cheek. "How did a crow get such red hair? Did your mother fuck a fox?"
Ice fills Natalia's gut even as she tugs on her best smile. "Why fuck what you can eat?" she asks sweetly, matching Polina stare for stare.
They know. They know, and they're not nearly as scared as they should be, because they already know she can be beaten.
Winter shifts at her back--restlessly, she might think, except that he's never bored, never impatient, not so it shows. Polina's eyes cut to Winter as she leans subtly away, wary of him in a way she isn't of Natalia.
"Take your seats," the teacher warns, cutting Polina's fun short.
Natalia stares straight ahead. She's been holding back in combat training, afraid to show the others how much she's learned in the last three months since Winter stepped in. She'd rather wait until she knows she can beat them, until she's better than them, but now that they know she'll never be one of them, they'll make her life unbearable. As to how they found out--
Realizing their teacher is staring in her direction, she meet's the woman's cold, assessing eyes and knows. They didn't find out anything. They were told.
The silence in the dressing room that afternoon is oppressive. Winter never follows her in, though he would if one of the girls were to scream. She holds that certainty tightly to her chest as she changes into her workout clothes, the back of her neck crawling from the weight of the eyes trained on her from every direction.
Madame seems more smugly pleased with herself than usual when Natalia and the others present themselves for training, but she doesn't say anything about the changed atmosphere as she pairs them up. She has to know that Winter's been getting around his orders, teaching Natalia when no one asked him to. If she's not happy about it, why wait until now to punish her for it?
Or maybe...maybe it's just because she was holding back.
"Natalia," Madame calls halfway through the lesson, and Natalia steps obediently forward. She knows exactly what she has to do, deeply unsurprised when Madame says, "Polina. You may begin."
She doesn't wait for Polina to make the first move. She's been curbing her speed along with her skill until they've grown used to thinking of her as cautious, maybe cowardly. When she rushes Polina, she makes sure she's not there for the blow the other girl tries to land. Letting it slip past as she leans aside, she grabs the little bitch by the arm and throws her, hard.
Polina manages to get her feet under her, but she still lands with a surprised grunt, and when she tries to twist in Natalia's grasp, wrap an arm around Natalia's throat, Natalia drives an elbow back into her gut. Gasping as she doubles over, Polina's eyes bulge as Natalia spins, gets her in a choke hold, and shoves her mouth right up under Polina's ear.
On the sidelines, Winter twitches and then goes still. His worried eyes bore into hers, but he doesn't try to stop her. He only watches as her eyes flick next to Madame's, waiting for the verdict.
Polina nearly sobs in relief as Madame shakes her head. Natalia's tempted to ignore it--she can practically taste the hot rush of Polina's blood through the sweat-slick heat of her skin--but she knows what Madame wants to see. Letting Polina go, she steps away from her opponent and doesn't grind her teeth over Madame's blatant satisfaction.
"Very good, Natalia," Madame congratulates her. "You'll be joining the other girls very soon at this rate."
It's almost worth it to watch the sheer horror that ripples through their ranks.
"Not yet," she says that afternoon when Winter would usually stop their lessons. He cocks his head, curious but willing, and Natalia finds herself thinking again of knives. Of stealing his, stealing him, and running as far and as fast as they can. A man and his daughter--they wouldn't look suspicious at all if she keeps people's attention focused on her. They could probably hide for a long, long time if she doesn't hunt where he can see.
She doesn't let herself think about what might happen if he catches her at it, what might have happened just hours before if she'd killed Polina in front of him.
"Was Madame carrying your knife today?" she asks, morbidly curious.
"I don't know. I wasn't paying attention," he admits as he blocks a kick, fading back from another. The practice mat that just appeared one day rustles quietly under their feet.
"You should," Natalia scolds. "How else are you supposed to know when you can bend the rules?"
"By not bending the rules," he says, the faintest of smiles tugging at his mouth.
Semantics, her mother would have said--bending a rule no one's yet thought to make still counts--but Natalia's not about to call him on it. She doesn't want him to stop.
He lets her exhaust herself against him, fighting until she's winded and sore. Now that she's shown her hand, the other girls will hound her twice as hard, and she means to be ready.
Winter looks her over carefully, but when she waves off his concern, he nods once and sinks to sit cross-legged in the middle of the practice mat. He no longer even tenses when she flops down behind him, leaning her back against his own as she catches her breath.
As her racing heartbeats slow, she pulls her knees up and wraps her arms around them, allowing herself to dwell at last on Madame's latest threat.
"I want out of this cage," she says into the patient quiet that follows Winter like his namesake.
"But I don't want to be with them," she says, jaw clenched.
"I know," he repeats softly, voice heavy with sympathy.
Curling in on herself without pulling entirely away, she digs her chin into her knees. It's so stupid. "Why can't you keep training me?" she grumbles, hands clenching on her elbows. "The other girls are too weak anyway."
"Maybe they're trying to get you used to not eating the wrong people."
She snorts, remembering Polina's smug arrogance and the scent of blood pulsing just beneath the skin. "Then I guess I'm going to be right back here in a week."
"Hang on to your control, little bird," Winter says, starting minutely as if the pet name surprises him as well. Through her spine she feels his awkward shrug. "It's gotten you this far."
With a loud sigh, Natalia loosens her arms to lean back against him fully, knocking her head between his shoulder blades once, twice. "Why does everything sound different when you say it?"
He actually stops to consider, a habit she used to think was funny until she realized he always answers every question put to him, serious or not. She doesn't like all of his answers, but she always listens.
"I don't know," he says at last. "Maybe it's just the right kind of truth."
She didn't cry when they filed down her teeth, and she doesn't cry when they take her out of the cage for good, away from the closest thing she has to an ally in this place. Instead she struts into the dorm room her age group shares, takes a long, slow look at their wary faces, and smiles.
"So this is what it feels like to be a fox in the henhouse," she says, eyes locked on Polina's.
Polina is no longer Madame's favorite, and everyone knows it.
Though he's with them less and less, she can still feel Winter's presence. Where it used to prickle like static, sharp and obtrusive, now it feels like the delicate plucking of moth feet against her skin. It's comforting to know he's still there, even if she can't see him.
The first time she feels his presence fade with distance, she hardly knows what to think. It has to be a test, but what kind? Are they gauging her sensitivity? Waiting to see if she'll run? She keeps her head down, wary of a trap.
Only three pairs of girls are called onto the practice mats that afternoon before Natalia finds herself facing off against Polina once more. It's not much of a fight; Polina watches her with wary eyes these days, keeps her distance and never leaves Natalia at her back. She goes limp when Natalia gets an arm around her neck, used to Madame calling Natalia off and just wanting the fight to be over.
She jerks once in Natalia's hold when Madame nods, and then Natalia breaks her neck.
"And why was that necessary?" Madame asks, all but preening before the class.
It occurs to Natalia belatedly that she could have torn Polina's throat out instead, even with her blunted teeth. Like it or not, she's learning.
"She let her fear get the better of her," Natalia replies coolly, letting the body drop even as her mouth floods with saliva. Her stomach clenches in hunger. "She didn't think she could win, so she didn't try."
"Exactly so. Remember: on a real assignment, you may face enemies stronger than you, smarter than you, faster than you. They are only better than you if you allow them to be."
Natalia frowns. She's heard so many irritating platitudes from her teachers about the sanctity of the mission, but this is the first piece of advice that makes sense.
If this is what they've meant all along, they could have just said so in the first place.
"Natalia," Madame calls as class is dismissed, and Natalia hangs back obediently. A few of the girls who scurry past have gone pale; only a couple even glance in her direction.
Instead of being removed entirely, Polina's body has only been shifted out of the way. Natalia pretends not to notice.
"You've been doing very well," Madame says, eyeing her with pride. "So much so that I'm reminded of a promise I made when you first came to us. Tell me, Natalia; do you find your needs adequately met in our care? Or do you find yourself wanting more?"
"I have everything I need, Madame," Natalia says warily, convinced anew that she's skirting the edges of a trap.
Madame waves a careless hand. "It's perfectly safe," she promises. "There's no one to stop you from satisfying your...appetite."
She knows that, only maybe Madame doesn't realize she knows--maybe Madame expects her to break now, to try to escape or fall on her prey, and it's not that she isn't hungry. She can eat almost anything, but the craving for this flesh in particular is still there. She might even get away with it, though Madame will probably think less of her if she gives in.
It's thinking of Winter that stops her: not pointless sentiment over his human origins but the certainty they'll send him away more often so she can fill her belly in peace. She doesn't want that. She wants him here.
"Thank you, Madame," she says, keeping her eyes fixed on Madame's face. "But I'm fine."
Madame smiles. "Very well. Rejoin the others, then."
She does glance at the body then--still fresh, still warm, young and tender and soft.
She escapes with as much decorum as she can.
Winter comes and goes more often in the months that follow, and there's rarely any time for them to talk. He stands with her when he can, taking up his usual position, and Natalia has to school herself not to stand straighter in his presence. She never feels like a prisoner with him there; she feels the way the colonel must with his guards behind him.
The next time Winter leaves, he's gone for a week, and when he returns, he doesn't come back.
She waits a month, certain every day that he'll appear for one of their training sessions, or that he'll report to escort them to the cafeteria or to class if the matrons are busy, but he never does. She'd swear he hasn't even moved, that he just settled in like he has someone new to guard and can't budge until the job is done.
She tells herself it's not jealousy that makes her steal a sturdy twist of wire from the very lesson that taught her how to pick a lock. She just needs to know if she can still count on him or if his solidarity can be bought by any lost chick fallen from the nest.
It's a little after midnight before she picks the lock on the handcuff that secures her to her bed, the guard having changed two hours before. None of the girls wake as she ghosts past and slips out into the hall. She's never tried to track Winter by his presence alone, but she's been paying attention to his comings and goings, and she thinks she has a good sense of him now.
Dodging bored, sleepy guards on patrol, she makes her way to a simple, nondescript door on the ground floor and stares at it in consternation. There are no soldiers posted, not even a keypad on the wall. Can this really be the place?
Picking the lock quickly, she eases into the windowless room, barely more than a supply closet, and shuts the door behind her before turning on the light.
Winter sits in a chair turned out from an empty desk, hands on his thighs, eyes closed. He isn't breathing, but she's used to that. What makes her stomach roil with nerves is the way he doesn't react at all, not even to the sudden overhead lights. She's never seen him sleep--he shouldn't need to sleep--and for him to sleep through this--
She takes a jerky step forward, then another. He doesn't even twitch, oblivious to her presence, though she can feel him just fine. Faint, ignorable if she didn't know him so well, invisible to the unwary. She hadn't sensed him at all the day he slaughtered her whole family.
Another step. Her throat clicks as she swallows.
"Winter?" It comes out mostly breath, half-choked. He doesn't move when she touches his shoulder.
She could kill him right now, and he'd never know.
Her hand tightens as she gives him a hard shake. "Winter? Hey. Wake up. Winter?"
She jumps back a pace in startlement as an intercom clicks on somewhere in the room.
"Soldier," Madame orders, voice tight with annoyance. "Wake."
Winter's eyes open at once, blinking twice against the light before focusing on her. He frowns. "Natalia?"
"Escort her to my office."
"Understood," Winter says, rising smoothly from his chair. He's completely awake and alert despite the late hour and the state she found him in. He doesn't seem upset to see her, just confused.
He waits until they step out into the hallway to ask.
"What were you trying to do?"
There's no accusation in his tone, but she flushes anyway. She knows who's really to blame for her family's deaths, and he's done nothing but look after her to the best of his abilities.
Guilt makes her voice small. "You've been gone a while."
"A month...?" He sounds like he doesn't know.
He looks her over more closely, nodding once. "I thought you looked the same."
Natalia stares, something cold spreading through her gut. "What...what do you mean? The same? Why would I--why were you like that? What's--?"
"When they don't need me," Winter says quietly, staring straight ahead as he walks her slowly down the hall, "they order me to sleep. I...wait for orders," he explains, mouth twisting around the words, "without really waiting. It's not really sleep. I'm less trouble that way."
"Less--but you're-- " Horror tightens her throat. If he's not really sleeping, then he's just...gone, neither dead nor alive.
"I'm unpredictable when I have too much time to think. I'm surprised they let me stay with you as long as they did," he admits, glancing down at her with a wan smile. "You know you're going to get in trouble for this."
Natalia clenches her jaw. Winter cocks his head, the gesture so familiar, so much like home, it opens a gnawing pit inside her.
"Why'd you do it?" he asks.
"You know when you see crows in a field? The feathered kind," Natalia says, low and fast as they approach Madame's office. There's already a soft rectangle of light creeping out from under the door, like Madame had just been waiting for the perfect moment to spring her trap. "Dozens of them, all at once."
Winter nods, the whole of his attention fixed on her.
"They're usually families. Parents, children, grandparents, siblings. They stick together. The unfeathered--corbies--do too." The skin of her face feels tight but cold. At least she's not blushing anymore. "You're the closest thing I have left."
She knocks on the door to Madame's office herself before he can remind her she's no kin of his.
"Natalia," Madame calls from inside. "Come in."
Schooling her face as she steps inside, Natalia meets Madame's eyes with an equally bland stare of her own. One of Madame's brows twitches up. Natalia goes to stand before her desk without being asked as Winter falls in a pace behind and to the left. Even now his presence gives her courage.
"You surprise me, Natalia," Madame says at last. "I thought for certain that if you were to go wandering, it'd be outside the walls. Why the sudden interest in the Soldier?"
"I knew he was back, but he never came to train with us," Natalia replies, careful to stick only to the truth. "I thought he might've been given a new assignment."
"A new assignment?"
"A new corbie," Natalia admits grudgingly, allowing the barest hint of her displeasure to leak into her voice.
Madame glances past Natalia; from the corner of her eye, she sees Winter nod.
Madame snorts a quiet laugh. "Jealousy, Natalia?"
Natalia lifts her chin. "Being stronger and faster isn't good enough. You want someone smart. If I'm going to have real competition, I want to know."
"I applaud your ambition," Madame says indulgently, "but that's not something you need to worry about. Quite frankly, human operatives are infinitely more convenient to deploy. I don't need an army of corbies; I just need one who can rise above the rest."
"Yes, Madame," Natalia says, dropping her eyes now that she's allayed Madame's suspicions. She's seen too many girls have their necks broken for getting too attached, and she's never yet tested Winter's ability to disobey a direct order. "I understand."
"Good. No more wandering, then. The Soldier will return you to your dorm.
"And Natalia," Madame adds before she can escape, stopping her after Winter has stepped into the hallway but Natalia still has her hand on the door. "You saw how fast the Soldier woke."
Madame's tight smile doesn't reach her eyes. "All it takes is a word."
Natalia nods and slips out, closing the door quietly behind her.
Winter is quiet as he walks her back to her dorm, leaving Natalia to force her embarrassment down in silence. He knows she used his truthsense against Madame, but he still let her do it. He can't be too upset with her, can he?
When they're nearly there, his eyes cut sidelong to meet hers before darting away. She nearly holds her breath, even knowing that he'll probably be nice about reminding her they're supposed to be enemies. At least he doesn't keep her waiting long. "I keep thinking your hair should be darker," he says, ducking his head.
It may not sound like much, but Winter doesn't have much--no family, no memories of family, except she apparently comes close to jogging something loose. Her own family would be appalled, but she's Natalia here, and Natalia will take it and be grateful.
"We stick together," she murmurs without looking at him, belatedly wary of microphones and cameras.
He can't promise anything--she knows he can't--but he nods all the same.
She hasn't seen Winter in half a year.
"Grace. Flexibility. Status," their acting coach raps out as she paces the front of the class. "All good reasons to teach you the art of ballet. But have any of you guessed the main reason?"
Only Irina raises her hand. "To give us a useful truth."
"Exactly. You'll never be caught in a lie if it's not a lie, no matter what methods the enemy uses. Now say you wanted to lure a mark. Natalia?" their teacher calls on her with a smirk. "I believe you have some experience in this."
She can think of a dozen possibilities without even trying, but which one does she believe? She tries to think of it like a puzzle--what tack would she take if she had to fool Winter himself?--and then she knows.
"Have you seen my friend?" she asks, eyes wide and hopeful, her hands balling into hidden fists beneath her desk. "He was supposed to meet me here, but...I haven't seen him. Can you help?"
Their teacher smiles. "Good, Natalia," she all but purrs. "Very good."
He almost wonders if she's forgotten him, but then her eyes light up while her expression remains the same.
"Winter," she murmurs as they fall in to enter the room for combat training side-by-side. "Are you back for long?"
He wishes he knew for certain.
"There's a few graduations coming up. I think I'm the final test."
Some of Natalia's happiness bleeds away, her eyes dropping to the floor. He wonders helplessly what he's done as a muscle in her jaw clenches, but she edges fractionally toward him, not away.
"Not the only test," she says grimly as they find a place at the back of the class, behind the double handful of girls that remain. "There's still the 'ceremony' after."
He frowns. Ceremony. That's...an unsatisfying truth, one of the few he's ever heard Natalia utter. She's either scrupulously honest or doesn't speak at all.
"What--" he begins, only to feel the prickling of someone's notice, too sharp and too focused. When he looks up from Natalia's ducked head, he finds Madame staring right at them. "What happened to your teeth?" he asks instead. It's the sort of question he's never begrudged, and already Madame's lips are quirking in amusement.
Tipping her head up at a coquettish angle, Natalia flashes him a bold, beautiful grin. It doesn't reach her eyes, and it's entirely unlike her tiny, close-mouthed smiles. She hates the rounded gaps at the tops of her teeth, the way they no longer fit together right, but the doctors have done something, capped them somehow, and now they look completely normal.
"A neat trick, isn't it?" she asks, smile fading to a wry curve that tugs at the edge of her mouth. "I could pass for human now, so long as I stay away from fields."
The thought should terrify him, but he's more worried about what will happen if Natalia ever has to contend with a scarecrow for real.
As they file out after the lesson, he steps close as they pass through the doorway together, pitching his voice low. "Ceremony?"
"For the humans, I hope," Natalia replies, lips barely moving. "It's not like it'd do me any good."
It's not an explanation, but the cautious way she holds herself and the tightness around her eyes speak louder than words.
Natalia comes to stand on Madame's right, watching as a group of six dancers are put through their paces. From the exhausted trembling of their limbs, the sheen of sweat that slicks their skin, they've been at it for hours.
The dance master purses his mouth. "Again," he raps out as tired arms waver, ruining their perfect forms.
"You'll break them," Natalia warns, no longer wary of speaking her mind. Her own graduation looms closer by the day, and she has no more room for other worries.
"Only the breakable ones," Madame replies, smiling proudly as she turns to Natalia. "You're made of marble."
She's fairly certain Madame means it as a compliment. No one knows about the days she feels icy cold and ready to fracture. There's only one person who'd believe it of her anyway.
"We'll celebrate after the graduation ceremony," Madame says as she turns back to watch the dancers.
Natalia feels the first cracks splinter through her gut.
"What if I fail?" She can't argue what's coming; she's already argued enough. She understands what she might be asked to do, that accidents happen, but that sort of accident just isn't possible between her and a human. If she keeps protesting that the so-called graduation ceremony is unnecessary in her case, they're going to start asking questions. Questions like who she's reserving her womb for, where her theoretical children will be coming from, and how long she's been planning to escape to the wild lands and ruin all the work they've put into her.
It's not even really that she wants to run. She just can't imagine giving up all hope of something so vital to her nature, especially when she's had it snatched from her twice.
"You never fail," Madame scoffs.
Not a week later, heart in her mouth, Natalia proves Madame wrong. For Natalia's final test, Karpov has loaned Madame three of his best: career soldiers who've never been assigned to the Red Room before and who have no idea what she is. Natalia can't decide whether she's disappointed or relieved that she isn't being matched against Winter.
The first man is too confident in his speed, counting on his lumbering size to fool her. She takes him out with a few precise blows that leave him groaning on the floor but still alive. She knows all about valuable resources. The second man is a distraction, and she throws him hard enough to leave him stunned, all the while anticipating the attack to come.
When an arm wraps around her neck from behind, she only pretends to struggle. The pulse thumping loudly in her ears is only partly due to the lack of oxygen. She can't say herself what she even hopes to gain by throwing the fight; at best she'll win herself a postponement of the inevitable.
If Madame gives her last attacker the nod, she'll fight. She doesn't want to die. But she doesn't want to win, either.
She taps out only after Madame closes her eyes with a heavy, disappointed sigh. The third soldier backs off at once, eyes jumping between Madame and Natalia in confusion. Even he knows something is wrong.
"Dismissed," Madame says shortly, adding, "--not you, Natalia."
Natalia stands at silent attention as the three soldiers limp obediently away.
Madame purses her lips. Censure deepens the fine lines that bracket her mouth; she deals with things that annoy her with intimidating efficiency these days. "Sloppy. Pretending to fail." Natalia says nothing, staring straight ahead, but she glances over warily as the tense line of Madame's shoulders soften along with her expression. "The ceremony is necessary for you to take your place in the world."
There's more sympathy in Madame's voice than Natalia would ever have suspected, and she wonders for the first time whether Madame is a graduate from the Red Room as well. Whether she went through the same hardships, passed the same tests, and had the same reward at the end.
"I have no place in the world," Natalia says, throat tight. One for sorrow, her mother used to say. Surrounded by generations of her kin, Natalia hadn't understood, the way the humans around her don't understand how terrible it is for her to be unfeathered and alone.
Madame looks at her, really looks, and for a moment, Natalia thinks the woman sees.
Madame nods once.
"Follow," he's ordered, and he rises without question, making the familiar trek down quiet halls to the front doors. As always he looks for a flash of red hair, but the trainees should still be waking up or at breakfast right now. Assuming his little bird is still in training. He's not sure of the time, much less the year.
He blinks against the rising sun as the door is pushed open, but the slim figure standing in the shadows of the second truck doesn't change.
She's grown again, every trace of childhood honed away, but he'd know her vivid green eyes anywhere, the signature stubbornness of her chin. She's all in black today, a close-fitting suit much like his own, but designed with more stealth in mind. Outwardly she wears it with confidence, but as he walks over to join her at a curt order from his escort, something seems off. There's recognition in her eyes when they lock on his, but they don't light up in welcome. There's no light in them at all, and he falters when he's still three steps away, horror slicing through him.
What has he asked to forget this time?
Brows arching, Natalia gives him a shadow of her wry little half-smile. "Do I look that much older?"
"I...don't know." As if the muscles of his chest have clenched around it, he feels his disconnected heart battering against his ribs. "Have...did I...?"
He's never really had to explain himself around Natalia. He reads truths, but she reads people. She sees his fear instantly.
"You remember when I mentioned a ceremony?" she asks after a quick glance past him to make sure they're still alone.
He nods, relieved, until he remembers she'd hoped to escape it.
He frowns. "I'm not your graduation test, am I?"
She shakes her head, eyes sliding away as her throat works silently. After a minute, she takes a deep, slow breath through her nose. "It's...something they do to all the girls. So we can use our bodies in any way necessary without worrying about the consequences," she explains with a bitter twist to her mouth. "It's very efficient, actually...no worrying about bringing back more than information from a mark. No reason to block a shot because you're worried about the future. There really is nothing but the mission," she says, her hand splaying low on her belly before dropping away.
The soldier stares. "They...you can't have children?" She shakes her head again. "But...you're a corbie." The flat look she gives him makes him frown, impatient. "I mean--you couldn't anyway, could you? With a human. You'd have had to go back to the wild lands."
"And get killed for it, probably, by my own kind," she agrees dryly. "I've been among humans too long. They'd think I was a spy." Irony drips from her voice, but her eyes are still bleak.
He knows what family means to her, from the night she risked her neck to find him. It seems ridiculous now, but he'd always just assumed that she'd grow up, make a name for herself, carve a place for herself, and then...that part is hazy--he honestly can't picture a mate good enough for the little bird he'd all but raised--but that she'd surround herself with a new family? That part was never in question.
That part still feels like truth.
His eyes feel strange, like his flesh is trying to do something it's not capable of. "Why?" he asks helplessly. She's going to be one of them. Why would they do this to her?
Her mouth twitches briefly to one side. It isn't even close to a smile. "Because they can."
That's...that isn't right. That's too much. That's too far.
He reaches up slowly with both hands as rage boils within him, white-hot, like the blessings that flare to life on its back. Natalia's eyes go huge as his magic rolls over her, but she doesn't jerk away, even when he settles his palms against her cheeks. Staring, frozen, she tips her head up trustingly as he presses a dry kiss to her forehead.
"Go," he murmurs against her skin, letting his blessing spill over and settle into her bones. "Go unseen. All doors open to you."
Her eyelids flutter rapidly as he leans back, hands still cupping her face. Though he knows she's there--he can see her and feel her skin beneath his palms--to his other senses, she might as well be a blank. If he weren't looking right at her, he'd never know there was a corbie there at all.
"They'll try to make me hunt you," he warns with a faint, satisfied smile. "I'll fail if you cover your tracks."
He shakes his head. "Go."
Dropping his hands, he backs away one step, two, memorizing her face. If he fails here, he may well wish he hadn't, but he won't ask to forget. Not this time.
Spinning on his heel, he strides to the academy doors, drawing a knife just before he pushes them open.
Madame is a target beyond his reach, but he'll start with Medical.
He'll make his way out from there.
He doesn't care. (He should, or he thinks he should, but the thought is distant now.) He has only one mission.
"Madame!" one of the humans trying to hold him bleats. "It's not--we can't--"
He throws all his will into his left arm and bares his teeth in a grin as magic surges in answer. The two men kneeling on that limb are shaken off, and he shoves hard against the floor he's pinned down on, rolling and sending guards toppling to the side.
"Soldier!" a woman snaps, her voice raw from too many barked commands. "Stop!"
He freezes yet again, the dregs of the breath he'd drawn earlier escaping in a ragged growl. The rage searing through him flexes against his bindings, shifting them a fraction more. One slips, and he's up, lashing out with his left arm. The guard that had been edging reluctantly closer shrieks as his hand closes over the man's face, fingers digging in as he squeezes. His grin grows wider.
"Stop," the woman orders again, eyes wild. Her thumb is pressed to the tip of a knife, blood welling over the point. He snarls as a new binding settles over him, tightening his grip savagely on his prey before the order can take hold. Things crunch and rearrange. He drops the sudden deadweight as a scream ends on a gurgle.
The woman's eyes narrow. "Who are you?"
He curls his upper lip and feels the stickiness of blood. He licks it away. "Hunter," he growls, his shoulders flexing out as he dips his head, preparing to pounce.
"No. You are a soldier," she insists.
Truth, something whispers, but--
No. Soldiers are prey. He is not prey.
"Your code name is Winter Soldier."
He doesn't care.
"That's not working," the angry man the guards look to warns.
The woman eyes the hunter coldly.
"Natalia Romanova," she says at last. "The corbie. Forget her."
The hunter tries to draw breath for another warning growl and chokes as his lungs don't answer. An icy flood spills into him, dousing his rage, and he shakes his head hard as the world lurches under his feet. They're doing something to him, something he doesn't understand, and he throws himself forward while he can still move, certain if he just rips apart the source of the empty chill spreading though his head--
--there's a shift.
"Get him down!"
"Madame! Fuck, get a doctor--"
"There's no more fucking doctors!"
--as it rises up through the bedrock of his mind and swallows--
"Madame," Karpov says firmly. "Forget her."
Forget her. But which?
He stares at them without blinking and feels a great satisfaction he sees no reason to hide.
"Who are you?" the woman asks.
He thinks on it, but not very hard. There's something else he wants more.
"I don't know."
He doesn't realize he's trying to free his arms from metal bands holding him in a chair until the woman glances pointedly down.
"What are you doing?"
"I don't know."
And then he does.
"We can find it a new handler," Madame counters. She stares at him headlong, neither flaunting nor hiding the scars on her cheek where the Soldier had raked her with his metal fingers. "It was perfectly obedient with Katya--"
"Until you had her terminated, and then we were back to square one. Look, it's not safe," Karpov says doggedly. "Having him this close? It's crazy. He barely remembers anything of the last sixty years except that he wants to kill us. For pity's sake, send him on before he actually succeeds!"
Madame's eyes narrow. "Send him on."
"To Hydra," Karpov says as he straightens, throwing out a frustrated hand. "They made him; they can deal with him."
Madame clenches her jaw. The shiny pink lines that streak her cheek pull and stretch. "Perhaps."
Karpov nods, swallowing a sigh of relief. She'll drag her feet, but she'll do it. And once it's done, maybe he'll be able to sleep the night through without waking from dreams of a metal hand around his neck.
He'll make himself scarce after the transfer regardless. He's heard what happened to the Soldier's creator. He doesn't care to find out the hard way that the American branch considers him less than reliable after so many years of infiltrating the Red Room.
When he hears of Madame's death later that year, he congratulates himself on thinking ahead, but all his traps are set for the Soldier.
"Hello, Colonel," is the last thing he's told when a little bird visits instead.
He doesn't know why she's touching him now, but he gets the feeling she doesn't either. When she picks up his hand, she turns it over curiously, thumbs smoothing over the long lines that cross his palm. He makes a conscious decision to relax as his fingers are flattened out straight, knowing she could break them but betting she won't. He's still not sure she likes him, but she trusts him. They make a good team.
When she flips his hand back over, palm down, it's to curl his fingers around her bare wrist. She gnaws her lower lip with a troubled frown.
He doesn't ask to pry, but he does have to ask. "You okay?"
She hunches a shoulder, breathing out a slow sigh. "It's just strange."
Her mouth twitches as she lets him go, returning his hand to his thigh.
"Your skin," she says. "It's warm."
"So," the man says, regarding him with a friendly half-smile. "Code name: Winter Soldier. Do you know where you are?"
He scans the mostly-empty room and finds little to tell him anything. He's sitting in a large, padded chair, forearms bound to the chair arms by thick metal bands. The bare walls are white; the floor is a checkerboard of white and grey tile. The metal door has a small window set into it.
He remembers to breathe. "No."
The man nods. "And do you know when you are?"
It's an odd question, one he can't remember having been asked before. Poking at that surety, he finds he remembers very little. He is...a soldier, he thinks. The blond man called him Winter Soldier. His mind is full of disconnected certainties and holes.
"No, I didn't think you would," the man says. He sounds...not disappointed, but as if he's had a fear confirmed. "That's all right. You've been with the Red Room for a while, but we've finally gotten you back. You're with Hydra now. Do you remember Hydra?"
He's about to say 'no' again until a distant memory flickers. "I am an asset loyal to Hydra."
A delighted smile creases the man's face, blue eyes lighting up. "Good," he says, voice warm with approval. "So you do remember something. That's good to know."
The soldier waits. It's what a soldier does.
"My name is Alexander Pierce," the man says, and the soldier commits it to memory with no real expectation that the name will be there the next time he looks. It seems many things aren't. "I'll be in charge of you from now on. It's a pity about your memories--" Is that a truth? A half-truth? Something about it rankles. "--but if you follow orders, you'll do fine. Are you ready to comply?"
"Yes," he says. Isn't that the point of waiting? To be ready?
He wonders all the same what would happen if he said no.
Pierce grins, open and unselfconscious. "Good to hear it. You're going to be doing valuable work, you know. You and I are going to shape the century."
The soldier nods. To make great changes in the world. He remembers that. That's what he's for.
To do terrible things.