There was blood on the toilet tissue.
It did not look like blood: it was brown, verging on black. Only the scent, metallic and earthy, alerted the Soldier as to the nature of the substance. Blood.
The Soldier frowned. This was her final mission in Moscow; the Director had told her so. After this, she was to serve the Americans. She was to be a good weapon for them. A perfect weapon. Perfect weapons were not damaged.
Her fingers could find no injury. There were no cuts between her legs, no abrasions. Perhaps the blood was from a previous mission she had forgotten, an injury long since healed. Perhaps this was sloppiness on the part of those who washed her before cryostasis rather than carelessness of her own. The Soldier pressed the tissue against her body again. It came away clear.
Satisfied, the Soldier stood, zipping her pants.
“Took you long enough,” Commander Karpov said when the Soldier stepped out of the toilet, wiping her still damp hands against her pant legs. “Come on, I’ll brief you on the way.”
The target was a journalist named Sergei Kholodov. He was investigating military corruption and making problems for the Red Room. He was easily disposed of. Isayev, the newest member of the Soldier’s team, had loaded her rifle poorly, but she caught the mistake well before it was time to fire and repaired it quickly enough.
“You were perfect, my darling,” the Commander said after the Soldier took her shot. He put one arm over her shoulders as he walked her back to the van, pressing a kiss to her cheek. He said she would be rewarded. She could pick her reward even though she had misbehaved and broken Isayev’s nose for his bungling of the rifle. The Soldier smiled.
She stopped smiling when she returned to the base, in the toilet.
The blood was back. Red, this time. Fresh. It matted her hair and stained her undergarments. Some had dripped down her thigh. Her fingers came away stained and still wanting for an injury. The wound must be internal. There was an ache deep in her stomach that the Soldier had taken for hunger. She recognized it now as linked to the blood.
Isayev was in Medical, pressing an ice pack to his bruised nose. “Dearest!” He smiled, then winced. “Am I to be your reward, then?”
“You’re not handsome enough,” said the Soldier. No one else was in the room. “Where is the doctor?”
“Called away, so it seems.” Isayev sniffed, pressing the ice more firmly against his face. “So I’ll be setting this myself, eh?”
There was a flicker of adrenaline inside the Soldier. She swallowed it down; fanning the flames would only encourage the bleeding. The doctor had been called away. He could be called back. He would be. The Soldier was valuable. “I am injured.”
Isayev’s brow furrowed as he looked the Soldier up and down. “Injured?”
“I am bleeding.”
He took the ice pack away from his nose. The skin was purple, and there was dry blood around his nostrils. She could not tell if the look on his face was confusion or worry. “Let me see, darling. I can dress a wound.”
The Soldier pulled down her pants. She could not read Isayev’s resulting facial expression as he knelt down to examine the bloodstained underwear.
“You’re joking, dearest.” It might have been a question.
The Soldier only frowned at him. She didn’t understand how to make jokes. Sometimes she laughed at them, but she was never sure why.
Isayev was silent, waiting, as though he expected her to laugh now. The Soldier did not laugh. Damage was not a joke and if Isayev could not be serious, she would have to hit him again. Finally, he shook his head, a hand scratching at the back of his hair. Around the bruising, his face was flushed. “My silly goose,” he said, resting the other hand on her thigh. “Have you forgotten everything?”
The Soldier did not speak.
“You’re not injured, my darling.” Isayev lifted his hand away, straightening up. His face was still red, and the Soldier doubted it was from the cold of the ice. “You’re a woman.”
“Explain,” said the Soldier.
“I, uh.” Isayev flapped his hands as though he were shaking water from them. “Well, look. You know that women carry babies, yes?”
“Yes.” The Soldier wasn’t stupid. She knew how a child was made. Once the Soviets remade the world so that the bourgeois and their oppressions were done away with, the Soldier was going to have lots of children. She would be perfect to raise them, because she didn’t have any bourgeois memories knocking about in her head. The Director used to tell the Soldier this all the time.
Now that the Soldier was going to the United States, the Director said it less.
“Right. Well, dearest, when the baby is inside you, your body puts the blood and things, uh, around it. To shelter it as it grows. But if there is no baby, you see, the blood isn’t needed, and so it comes out. This is true for many animals with live births, I think. The sheep and the pigs and such. And nearly all women as well.”
“Even the Director?” the Soldier asked. She frowned at the blood on her, hating the sensation, the smell. It seemed useless, wasteful.
“Yes.” If Isayev’s face were any redder, it would turn as dark as his bruising. He wouldn’t meet the Soldier’s eye. “Even the Director.”
“My stomach hurts.”
“That happens.” Isayev strode toward the opposite wall, rummaging through the cabinets of medical supplies there. “Come on, darling. Let’s get you cleaned up, and then you’ll be rewarded. That should take your mind off your stomach, yes?”
Maybe, the Soldier thought as she shuffled after him—it was hard to walk with her pants around her knees, but if she pulled them up, they may be soiled—she would choose Isayev for her reward after all. He wasn’t so handsome, but there was something soft in his eyes. And he was a bit better-looking with a flush through his face.
“It’s all right,” Isayev assured her. “There must be something here.” And eventually, he pulled out a loop of elastic—“I think this is right, my mother had one”—ordering the Soldier to strip from the hips down and put it around her waist. The Soldier could not see how this was meant to help until Isayev retrieved something like a strip of thick gauze and affixed it to the front and the back of the elastic belt so the bulk of it rested between her legs. She slipped her clothing back on over top of the device, dubious of its security.
“There.” And Isayev retrieved his ice pack before taking the Soldier’s hand, guiding her to the door. “Feeling better, dearest?”
She could still feel the blood, and her stomach still ached. The Soldier was silent.
“One day,” Isayev said, after there had been a long stretch of quiet between them. “Darling, you’ll be a beautiful mother.”
“Disgusting,” said the Secretary.
The Soldier stared down at the floor, face feeling as red as the stain on her skirt. This was her first mission with the Americans. She was their property now. But she was damaged. And the damage must be her fault.
The Secretary had been happy at first.
The Soldier had just completed her mission. The target was the head of an energy corporation, and the soldier had been sent to a party to locate him. They had gone into a hotel room together and the Soldier had shot him in the head. She left behind the gun as ordered. It was specially chosen to frame someone else.
The mission had gone almost perfectly. The Soldier had been concerned at first that the dress chosen for her—white and sparkling with a plunging neckline—would expose her arm, but the Secretary had thought of that. They put something over the prosthetic, something tight, that looked and felt like skin. The Soldier was pleased that she could carry on the mission without worrying about concealing the appendage. She thought she would be pleased to wear the cover all the time, but she knew it was not her place to want. Regardless of her feelings, the arm was no longer a problem.
The blood was.
The Soldier had become aware of a wetness between her legs during the transport to the party. She knew that sometimes, coming out of cryostasis, her body was incontinent because she was too cold and disoriented to control it. But that should not be the case now. The Soldier had shifted in her seat, tugging on her skirt so that the back of it was bunched up behind her rather than spread out below her legs. She could not risk soiling it and drawing unwanted attention to herself once they arrived. Her handler looked at her but said nothing.
When they reached the destination, the Soldier slipped into the bathroom.
Beneath her hose, the underwear was dotted with blood. More came away on the toilet paper she used to wipe between her legs.
She was injured. She was bad. She was HYDRA’s property, theirs to use as they pleased, and somehow, she had damaged herself. She had jeopardized the whole mission. She was so bad. So stupid.
The Soldier couldn’t tell her handler. If she had to be rushed back to the base for treatment, the mission would fail. This was her first time serving the will of HYDRA. She couldn’t ruin the mission.
Frantic, the Soldier tried to staunch the flow of blood. She took the toilet tissue, first trying to stick it inside herself. It hardly seemed secure, so she wrapped it around the underwear again and again, until she was satisfied no blood would seep through. She willed her expression back to a pleasant nothingness and returned to the party.
The mission went well. The Soldier danced with the target and the dancing felt nice. The target gave her a bubbly drink that made her think of raisins, even though she wasn’t sure what the word “raisin” meant. She shot the man just as he was trying to slide the dress off her shoulder, right as his eyes were widening at the scar tissue. The blood had not been a problem.
Until she was back with the Secretary.
“You’ve performed flawlessly,” the Secretary had said.
Flawlessly. There was a tingle through the Soldier’s lips as though her mouth wanted to pull up at the corners. The Secretary’s mouth was like that. He was smiling. The Soldier liked his smile very much. He beckoned her to his desk and the Soldier walked forward. She was designed to feel content when she had been good. She was being good now.
The Soldier had stopped a foot away from the desk. Handlers did not like it when their weapons stood too close. But the Secretary had put his hand on her hip, and then further behind her, pulling her closer. “I don’t bite,” he’d said, still smiling. His fingers were pressing in.
Then the smile faded and he drew back.
There was a tint of red on his fingertips.
The Soldier’s stomach plummeted as she realized her bandaging had been insufficient. The Secretary frowned, ordered her to turn, and the revolted noise he made when she obeyed confirmed that blood had leaked through her skirt.
“Disgusting,” said the Secretary, wiping his hands on a handkerchief. He wasn’t looking at her anymore. He certainly wasn’t smiling. “Take her to Medical.”
And the handler had. The Soldier wished she could just be frozen, hidden in the ice. Maybe there her face wouldn’t burn so much. But it wasn’t her place to want.
The doctor was thin and old, with cold hands and a stare that felt as if it could see through to her organs. He dismissed the handler and had her lie upon a low examination table, feet in stirrups, as he pulled the tissue paper out of her. “You tried to stop the bleeding?”
The Soldier nodded. The motion tugged on the hair pinned between her shoulders and the table.
She could hear the sound of a zipper in the quiet of the room. She didn’t understand.
“Don’t you know that to close a wound, you need to apply pressure?” the doctor asked. There was a hand on her again, spreading something cold and slick.
The Soldier didn’t speak. There was pressure. She didn’t bite through her lip only because she could not afford to do more damage.
“The Secretary decided you’ve been good enough to participate in a breeding program,” the Commander said.
The Soldier was quiet. They had just arrived at a safehouse in Ecuador. The mission would last a week. Sweat trickled down her neck and beneath the leather vest, soaking into her sweater. There was a low, burning ache in her stomach.
She couldn’t remember being especially good lately. She couldn’t remember much of anything.
“You want a baby, don’t you?” the Commander asked. He lay his hand across her abdomen, right where it hurt, and the Soldier could not help but to press into the touch. “A little boy or girl, all your own? You could take care of it between your missions.”
The Soldier thought of babies. She had seen babies before, mothers pushing them in carriages and strollers down streets as the Soldier waited on rooftops to take shots. They looked so soft, so fragile. Always nestled close to their mothers whenever they were held, suckling or giggling. She thought of making a person instead of splattering someone’s brains out.
The Soldier nodded.
The Commander grinned, pulling her closer. He had blond hair that was always parted so straight. His breath smelled of alcohol. “You know, don’t you, where a baby comes from?”
The Soldier nodded, and the Commander led her to his bed to try and make one.
It was not just the Commander over the course of that week. It was the whole team, whenever there was downtime, because the Commander said that would improve the chances of conception. Secretly, the Soldier hoped to have the Commander’s child, because he gave the most sensible orders. And he had golden hair that the Soldier thought would look very pretty on a young child.
She thought about her baby very much over the week. It was easier than thinking of the things the men said to her while she was under them, easier than feeling their hands on her hips and their bodies shoving roughly into her own. She wondered if the baby would come out faster because of her enhanced body. She wondered if her abilities would be passed to the child. Probably, that could not be determined until the baby came to term.
Which meant that the Soldier could not go back to the ice while she was pregnant. Nor, she assumed, would she be able to undergo the electrical wipes. Those affected her entire body: sometimes she vomited or wet herself. Even when she didn’t, she was always sore all over for days after.
She was sore now too, from all the attempts at conception. Her stomach ached and ached, no matter what she ate or drank. The Soldier thought that expectant mothers were sick sometimes. Maybe it had already worked. But the Commander said they were under orders to keep trying regardless.
The Soldier tried to imagine life without the wipes. She knew that she forgot all kinds of things. What would it be like to have something to remember? Something that was a part of her, always and forever, to hold and guide and protect?
One the sixth day, the Soldier was beneath the pilot. He was pulling out of her when he looked down at himself. “What?”
The Soldier could not sit up before the pilot swore. She was knocked off of the bed by a sudden blow, slamming against the floor. Her left shoulder dented the wood on impact.
“Nasty bitch!” the pilot shouted. He was still hanging out of his pants and there was blood on his penis.
The Soldier didn’t understand. She lowered her head in submission, apology, and then she saw the blood on her thighs.
The Commander rushed in, gun drawn. “The hell’s going on?”
In spite of the stifling heat, the Soldier felt so cold.
“Fucking bitch bled all over me!”
“You got to pound that and you’re whining over a little blood?” the Commander asked. “The best pussy you’ve ever going to get in your sorry life? Get out.”
The pilot stormed from the room, still muttering in disgust under his breath.
“I’m bleeding,” said the Soldier, trembling.
The Commander did not speak.
The Soldier didn’t know much about pregnancy. But she thought that blood was bad. She thought that someone told her once, long ago, that blood meant no baby. “Why am I bleeding?” she asked, wide eyes on the Commander.
The Commander had a small little smile on his face. “Miscarriage. Guess killing’s all you’re good for. Clean yourself up.”
The Soldier could not move. It was as if she heard his words through radio static. She was shaking, gasping for air, and when the gasps became howls, the Commander drove his boot into her stomach.
The Soldier was crying.
Rumlow stared, floored. The Soldier stood in the doorway of the hotel bathroom, head bowed. A tear ran down the length of her cheek, dripping from her chin onto the carpet. She was completely quiet, totally still.
It was fucking terrifying.
“Soldier,” Rumlow said sharply. There was no tremble in his voice. He sounded like a handler ought to: calm and confident. At least, to his own ears. And his heart was pounding so loudly in them that he couldn’t be sure his assessment was accurate. “Status report.”
The Soldier didn’t cry, not ever. Nothing but the involuntary tears the memory wipes forced out. He’d seen the Soldier shove her intestines back into a gaping wound before without even whimpering. Tears from the Winter Soldier were either a sign of incredible damage or major malfunction, and neither made Rumlow’s continued existence a likely possibility.
“Bleeding,” said the Soldier. Her voice was always flat, but now it was despondent.
“Bleeding?” There was no blood visible anywhere on her. Hell, all they’d done today was ride in the van and check into the hotel. Was it internal? Some injury inside her that was overlooked after the last mission? Shit, shit, shit. “Bleeding where?”
The Soldier’s words were too soft to be intelligible.
“What?” Shit. The panic was clear in his voice, rough and raw.
She raised her head, eyes wet but no longer dripping. She didn’t look as though she saw him. She didn’t look as though she saw anything around her. “From my vagina.”
Rumlow stared at her, certain he’d just lost a full decade of his life from the stress of the last minute. “Are you fucking—”
Then he stopped, because there was a tear rolling down the Soldier’s face again.
Shit. “Hey, don’t.” Brilliant. How could that fail to soothe her? “Look, I—” Rumlow had never felt so useless, standing there wringing his hands as the world’s deadliest weapon was weeping before him. “Sit down, Soldier, okay? I’ll take care of you.”
She sat on the edge of the bed, as rigid and controlled as she was during mission briefings. At a loss, Rumlow thrust a water bottle at her—“you’ll feel better if you’re hydrated”—before digging through their supplies. There weren’t any tampons. How was that possible? Sitwell wouldn’t let them out of the parking lot without at least three binders on the care and keeping of the Winter Soldier, but there wasn’t any Tampax? What the hell was the tech team doing all day?
“Hey,” said Rollins, opening the door. “We got all the cables untangled, so I left Murphy in the van to set up the audio—what the hell, Brock?” His eyes scanned the luggage strewn across the floor before falling to the Soldier silently crying on the bed. “What did you do?”
“I haven’t done a goddamn thing!” Rumlow snapped, kicking a now empty duffel bag aside in frustration. “The Soldier got her period and the idiots in tech didn’t pack anything for it.”
“Her what?” Rollins said, looking dumb as cow in his shock.
Hell no. Rumlow was not going to waste his time reciting euphemisms for menstruation and risk the Soldier snapping from pain or hormones or whatever was going on with her. “Her period, dumbass.”
“She has those?” Rollins asked, and Rumlow rolled his eyes as if he hadn’t also thought the Soldier sterile before five minutes ago.
“Obviously. Now stop staring and make yourself useful. Call the front desk and see if they have any tampons or anything.”
They didn’t, but the receptionist informed Rollins of a pharmacy across the street.
“Well?” Rumlow crossed his arms once Rollins relayed the information, nodding his head toward the door. “Get going.”
“I’ve never bought that shit!” Rollins protested. “I don’t what size she needs.”
On the bed, the Soldier finished the water bottle. She had yet to react to anything around her. Her eyes were still glistening.
“They come in sizes?”
And that was how Rumlow ended up in a Walgreens with Rollins and a teary-eyed Soldier, because like hell was he going to leave her unattended in such a state. They stood in the aisle, silent, Brock shifting his weight from one foot to the other. And to think he’d felt useless back in the hotel room. Some boxes had sixteen tampons, and some up to fifty-four. Brock guessed that they should go on the higher end, just to be safe, but beyond that, he was at a loss.
The Soldier couldn’t tell them if she was a Lite, a Regular, or a Super. And what did “compact” mean? What difference did it make if the applicator was cardboard or plastic? What the hell was a digital tampon? Did this shit have readouts? Of what?
It didn’t help matters when Rollins flat-out vanished. Rumlow hoped that he was searching for female employee—they could pass the Soldier off of a disabled relative—but instead he returned with a king-sized Hershey’s bar.
“What the fuck, Jack?” Rumlow demanded, once he was through driving his fist into Rollins’s gut.
“I thought it might cheer her up!” Rollins grunted, doubled over. “If we don’t calm her down, the whole mission’s fucked.”
And okay, that was true. They needed to grab Midol or something while they were here. Who knew stomach cramps could be bad enough to bring the Winter Soldier to tears?
“Hey guys.” Murphy stepped into the aisle. “Audio equipment’s all set up. Rollins, I got your text that you were here. Need me to grab anything from another aisle?”
Murphy. For once, Rumlow was happy to see him. “You.” He grabbed Murphy’s collar, dragged him before the feminine hygiene products. “You want to keep your job, you’d better know something about this shit.”
“Uh, sure?” Murphy said, grabbing hold of a shelf as he regained his footing. “I used to buy things for my girlfriend, when she needed them. Soldier, what do you usually use? Tampons? Cups?”
The Soldier did not speak. How was it that the technicians could let her remember how to wipe her ass, but not how to soak up her blood?
Murphy stared at her tear-stained face, biting his lip. “Well, cups are better for the environment. And you only need the one—”
“The hell is a cup?” Rumlow demanded.
“It’s silicone,” Murphy said. “It goes inside and collects the blood, and then it’s emptied out, washed, put back in—”
“Fuck no. We don’t have time to deal with that shit.” And Rumlow didn’t relish the thought of the Soldier dumping her blood all over their one sink.
“Then if we don’t know her tampon size, you’ll want to go with pads.” Murphy shifted, examining another shelf. “A maxi should be good, with wings, and we might want to get her the overnight kind as well—”
“Fine, whatever. Just get it and let’s go.”
At the hotel, Murphy led the Soldier into the bathroom and explained to her how to put on the pad. Rumlow gave her eight of the Midol when she returned, figuring she’d need four times the dosage to feel its effects. They sat her down on the bed with her MRE and the chocolate bar, and gave her control of the remote.
She stopped flipping through the channels when she reached Jeopardy, and though the Soldier stared at the screen, Rumlow didn’t think she was hearing a word of it. She couldn’t possibly see with her eyes swimming with tears like that. She just stared off, silent, crying as though a piece of her soul was spilling out alongside her blood.
“Please,” Steve said. “I’m begging you. Come talk to her.”
Natasha turned her face away from the phone before she sighed. “Steve, she’ll have to work some things through on her own. I was there for a week. Crowding her isn’t going to do any good. I know. I’ve been there.”
It had been three weeks since Steve and Sam recovered Becky Barnes, the former triage nurse turned ghost assassin, and by this point Natasha worried more for Steve’s sanity than Barnes’s. Barnes was functional, at least. She’d yet to grasp what it meant to be free of HYDRA, and Natasha was sure that the woman carried at least four knives on her person at all times, but she could survive. Slowly, Natasha knew, very slowly, the woman would begin to question. To rage. And finally, hopefully, to heal.
She wasn’t sure that Steve’s heart would last so long.
“She’s been locked in the bathroom for eight hours,” Steve said. He sounded as if he’d been counting every second. “Crying the whole time. She won’t talk to me at all. She won’t talk to Sam.”
Of course she won’t, Natasha didn’t say. Let the doctors know a weakness and they’d only tut sympathetically before telling the handlers just how worthless and weak you really were. “Then she doesn’t want to talk, Steve. There were times I’d go weeks without saying a word.”
“You don’t understand.” Steve’s voice was raw, rougher and more desperate than she’d ever heard it. “I know Becky. I know that something’s horribly wrong, Natasha.”
“You knew her,” Natasha said. “You can’t judge her by the person you knew, Steve. That’s not Becky anymore.”
Natasha could hear Barnes long before she set foot in the apartment.
The low howls were audible as she was coming up the stairs. Crying, Steve had said. This was beyond crying. Had he left the apartment to make the call? She didn’t see how she could have missed the noise over the phone.
Steve was waiting at the door, eyes rimmed with red. His lips were cracked as though he’d forgotten to drink for a day—he probably had—and even though he was tall and broad as ever, he seemed somehow shriveled, diminished. Broken. “She’s still in the bathroom.”
Natasha strode to the door. Barnes couldn’t possibly have been crying this way for a full eight hours. Serum or not, she’d have no voice left. “Soldat,” she said loudly, and the cries stopped.
Steve started at the sudden silence.
“It’s Natalia,” she continued in Russian. Behind the door, Barnes was still breathing heavily, shakily. “I was here last week. May I talk with you?”
There were no words in reply. Just the soft click of the door unlocking.
By the time Natasha stepped inside, Barnes had retreated into the bathtub. Her pants lay crumpled on the floor. Barnes was hunched over on herself, head against her knees. There were streaks of blood on the porcelain of the tub. There was none on Barnes’s hands.
Natasha remained still, expression neutral. Whatever the source of the blood, there wasn’t enough to be life-threatening. And she could guess where it was coming from, anyway. “Want to get cleaned up?”
In the Red Room, soiling sheets or clothing with blood was cause for a beating. It was a sign of maturity, which meant whatever tiny mercies were extended to the young were lost forever. It was vulgar, not discussed. Even now, Natasha could remember her fear, vivid as that first appearance of blood on her underwear.
“Do you have children?” Barnes asked.
“No.” She spoke in English now, as Barnes had.
“Have you ever—” Barnes’s voice was tight, choked with tears. She still hadn’t looked up. “Ever carried one in you? Ever lost one?”
Natasha looked at the blood again. It made no sense: if Barnes had been pregnant, surely she’d have miscarried during the fight on the overpass or the fall from the helicarrier, not two months later. “What are you—”
“All I’m for is killing,” Barnes said, raising her head. The circles below her eyes were so dark, they looked like bruises. She was trembling, tears pouring down her face. “I forgot that. I couldn’t—I saved—I didn’t let Steve Rogers drown and I thought—I thought—”
She wailed. Natasha sat on the edge of the sink, waiting.
“Killing’s all I’m good for!” Barnes shrieked. Her hair was matted, hopelessly tangled around her face like a dark halo. “The Commander told me. But I forgot. I thought because I saved Steve Rogers—I thought I could be more than a killer. A weapon. But look at me! That’s all I am!”
“Why do you say that?” There was a sinking in Natasha’s stomach, a surety that she wouldn’t enjoy the answer.
“He asked if I wanted a baby.” Barnes wrenched her hands through her hair, shaking her head rapidly. Her breathes were speeding up, fast and shallow. “Something to care for, someone to keep me company. And I wanted—I wanted more than anything—but I killed it. I kill all of them! Look!” She yanked her hand free—taking a clump of hair with it—and gestured to the blood, smacking the side of the bath with her motions. Cracks appeared in the porcelain. “I should have let him drown! Then I wouldn’t have hoped and it wouldn’t have hurt and—and—and—”
If she said any more, Natasha couldn’t understand it. She was sobbing, incoherent.
HYDRA could well have tried to breed their super soldier. And a single miscarriage was unlikely to deter them. It would take multiple failures before their efforts ceased. Barnes’s enhanced immune system could well view a fetus as a dangerous parasite and attack. It was entirely possible that any pregnancy for the Winter Soldier could end in a miscarriage.
But HYDRA wouldn’t bother trying to breed the super soldier on the eve of their most important project’s launch. A handler wouldn’t taunt her if a breeding program failed.
Natasha had seen more than her share of human cruelty over the years. She was still floored by this sick joke.
Barnes didn’t answer, lost in her misery.
Natasha lowered herself into the bath, grabbing the woman’s trembling hand. “Rebecca.”
She raised her head, hyperventilating.
“They lied to you,” Natasha said flatly. She carried on before Barnes could protest. If a weapon was not given the opportunity to argue, it would be more receptive to the information thrown at it. And maybe it was wrong to manipulate Barnes’s brainwashing in that way, but better than letting her think herself guilty of infanticide every month. “You’re not miscarrying. You were never pregnant. The blood is tissue your body stored to shelter a pregnancy. But there was no pregnancy, so the lining sheds. That’s all it is.”
Natasha watched the struggle in Barnes’s eyes. Some half-forgotten knowledge of menstruation must have been battling with the lie the Soldier had been fed. “But he said—”
“They said you should kill Steve. You didn’t listen then. Don’t listen now.”
Barnes was rocking back and forth, shaking so violently. Without the adrenaline and the memories Steve had sparked on the helicarrier, defiance toward HYDRA must be much harder to swallow. “I don’t want to be just a weapon.”
“You aren’t.” Natasha squeezed the hand she held. “Listen to me now. The blood—it means potential for life, not loss of it. It means that you’re more than a weapon. You’re a person. And they couldn’t take that from you.”
“But it hurts,” Barnes whimpered, uncomprehending.
“Yeah, it does. It hurts a lot. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. That’s life.” Natasha was the last one who ought to be handling this. She was a comforting as a tombstone and so far out of her depth, even with her own miserable life experiences. But she was the best thing Barnes had now, sad as that was. “Now let me get you cleaned up and introduce you to the healing power of ice cream, all right? It’ll make Steve smile—I know you like that.”
“It means life?” Barnes asked, staring at her blood.
”It means potential,” said Natasha. She stood, coaxing Barnes up alongside her. “And that’s all we can ask for.”
By the time Sam returned from the store with Kotex, Barnes’s tears had mostly stopped.