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October

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Tasha feels a little bit like Indiana Jones.

You know, if Indiana Jones were female, a genius, had a hole in his chest and wanted to burn down every single warehouse full of artefacts he ever found.

Because that’s exactly what Tasha wants to do.

Burn it down.

When she found the address for this place hidden in Obie’s encrypted drives – really Obie, hiding things from me digitally? Shame on you - when she found this place, she considered, seriously and without the slightest bit of remorse, using one of the last Jericho prototypes on it.

Just punch in the coordinates and press the shiny, red button. Never have to set foot in this place, with its code-worded inventory, with all the things Obie stole from her, all the prototypes that went ‘faulty’ over the years, all the things that were dismissed for being ‘too dangerous’. All the stuff he protected her from, all the shipments that got lost, everything.

It all ran through here.

He stole her heart, not once but twice, not metaphorically, but literally, bloodily, gorily, gently. He stole her heart and this is proof positive that he stole her mind, too. For years and years and years.

You’re brilliant, Tash, you’re amazing. Your brain is a marvel. You’re better than Howard ever was. This company would be nothing without you.

All lies. All stupid, fucking lies and she fell for it, lonely and dumb and desperate, trying to live up to a family name she hated and a legacy she wanted to spit on. But it was okay, because Obie was there. Obie was family, Obie loved her. Obie was good to her, took care of her, helped her.

Obie was Obie.

Obie paid terrorists to murder her with her own bombs and when they didn’t, he lost the ransom note and pretended he’d never dealt with them at all, left her to months of water boarding and hot coals, of hard fists and manically laughing fuckers who took pleasure in ripping her battery from her arms and making her scramble like a desperate animal, out of breath and dying, to reconnect the wires before it was too late, of having things taken from her that no-one ever had a right to take.

And yet, somehow, some part, some fucking, stupid part of her, misses him. Misses pizza at two am, misses his hand on the back of her neck, his deep, soothing voice, the way he smiled. She spent half her life partially in love with that man, simply because he paid any kind of attention to her at all and now that he’s gone, that part of her keeps asking, “But when will he be back? I need him.”

That’s the worst thing. He tried to kill her – did kill her, in so many ways – and she still misses him. How pathetic is that?

So, yeah, she considered burning this place down, just so she wouldn’t have to see how deep his treachery really went, how much he really took from her.

How he must have laughed behind her back.

But she is Natasha Maria Stark and she is made of metal and spite and pain has never stopped her before. She survived having him lovingly, carefully pull her heart from her chest, survived murdering him in a flash of light and desperation.

She can survive this.

+

Obie had his own filing system. For his files, his records, his books. His warehouses full of ill-gotten loot. Alphabetically, by year, and then by increasing importance. Easy enough. Unoriginal. She used to tease him about it. He used to laugh and calmly reorder everything she’d fucked up just to mess with him.

Tasha starts with A, right by the front doors. Andromeda is a missile guidance system she scrapped years ago for being too vulnerable to hacks.

- “I’ll get rid of it, kid.”

“Thanks, Obie.” –

She moves on. It takes her until C to realize that most, but by far not everything in here, is hers.

Beta 638/PQ-1 is a wooden box that really does look like something out of an Indiana Jones flick. Inside are papers – actual papery papers, good god, Obie – in German. Some handwritten, some typewritten. Tasha’s German isn’t really up to snuff, but she understands the dates in the upper right corners just fine.

This is Nazi loot.

Something that tastes like bile and feels like lead settles in her stomach.

Under E she finds a whole stack of boxes with a snake-skull-thing branded into the wood. HYDRA. She recognizes the symbol from Howard’s glory days with the SSR.

Why the fuck did Obie have HYDRA stuff?

Her search grows more frantic as she starts skipping over familiar Stark Industries cases and jumping right to the things marked in foreign letters and words. HYDRA keeps coming up, but there are other things, too. Artefacts marked in Arabic, files in Russian and Slovakian, stacks of books in French, in German.

What for, Obie? Blackmail? Research? A really weird hoarding problem? Why would you need to know about Red Skull? What is the Red Room?

She thought it was just her. Thought she was an easy target and he simply took the opportunity too good to pass up. Golden Goose. She thought it was just her, that he used her because he could. But this is… this is an evil overlord’s goddamn lair.

This is…

Tasha gasps, bites her lip, tries to count to twenty and lurches forward to puke in the nearest corner at thirteen.

This is proof positive that she never knew Obie at all, because Obie, Obie was a monster. A monster who kept research on human experimentation in his basement, right next to bombs meant for terrorists and embalmed body parts of failed HYDRA-made mutants. Miracles, the files call them. Tasha dry-heaves.

It should make her feel better, to know that it wasn’t her stupidity that turned him into a greedy, evil bastard; that he seems to have always been this way.

It really, really doesn’t.

+

She gets back in her car, drives thirty miles to the nearest liquor store, buys out half their stash of scotch and calls Pepper to tell her she’ll be MIA for a few days. Pep hates it, swears at her, yells at her and still sounds a little choked up because, hey, what do you know, it’s only been three days since they murdered Obie together.

Although Pepper is not to blame. Pepper didn’t kill Obie so much as she saved Tasha and that makes all the difference in the world.

Tasha on the other hand, knew exactly what she was ordering Pep to do. The other woman deserved better. Deserves better, than to be somebody else’s weapon.

She swallows it, the bile, the self-hatred, the pain, swallows it like she has been swallowing things for most of her life, tucks it away, let’s her best friend rant.

“I’ll call you,” she finally says, when Pepper runs out of steam, and hangs up. “JARVIS,” she tells her the dial tone, “keep an eye on things for me, but only ping me if the roof’s on fire, or something, okay?”

Very well, Miss Stark.

“Thanks, buddy.”

+

She cries her way through to M, then cusses until P, rants and raves and passes out drunkenly for a while on S. She sleeps, she drinks some more, she downloads a few language packages to her phone and learns a whole lot of Nazi propaganda words in German, learns medical terms in French. Brushes up on her Russian.

She finds things she sophisticated, ideas he brought to her as throw-away comments and like a fool, she grabbed them, ran with them, made them better, made them brilliant, and then handed them to him so he could set the world on fire with them. She punches a shipping container full high-tech torture equipment hard enough to bust skin and bruise knuckles.

It doesn’t help.

After a while, she goes back and starts tagging things to destroy with a spray-paint D.

A while after that, she stops because she realizes she’s tagging everything. She takes a long swig straight from the bottle and makes her way outside, closes the huge double doors and shakes the can of black spray paint she found with some maintenance shit early on. She paints the D as tall as she can, smack on the doors.

Then she heads back inside and keeps working, right up to W, which is the last letter in Obie’s macabre collection of well-ordered inhumanity.

W is interesting for two reasons. The first is the stack of accidentally-on-purpose misfiled papers she finds that finally tells her what the fuck is going on here. Trade and blackmail, mostly, it appears. It looks like Obie bought all kinds of clandestine shit he could get his hands on and then used it to either sweeten up or pressure the bad, bad people he got into bed with.

Clever.

Nauseating.

He conducted SI business in much the same way. Only… cleaner. Or so Tasha thought.

Fuck.

The second interesting thing in the W section is a crate.

It’s about the 286th crate she’s found, but it’s the first with these, frankly foreboding, dimensions. Seven feet long, about four feet broad and a bit over a food high. There are several other, weirdly shaped crates tagged as belonging with it. There’s cables running from the back of it toward an outlet in a nearby wall. A low, electrical hum says whatever is inside, it’s not dormant.

Missiles are transported in crates that look a little like this. Some artefacts, too. Many things, really.

But Tasha can’t help it. The moment she lays eyes on it, she knows that’s not what it is. That it’s not that harmless.

The top is neatly lettered in Cyrillic.

It says, Winter.

“Oh, please be a very eccentric freezer full of snow, or something equally ridiculous. Please, please, please,” she mutters as she grabs her trusty crowbar and starts prying open the lid.

For a moment, just a moment, she thinks she’s right after all. The… machine inside has a glass top, frosted over from the inside and seemingly filled with icy fog, obscuring anything inside.

She looks for a latch to open the giant ass freezer, finds something, hooks her finger into it and pulls. A pressure valve hisses at the far end of the construction, emitting bitingly cold air. It evaporates instantly, just like a magic trick. Tasha watches for a moment before turning back to the glass part.

Looks inside.

+

She learned not to scream. In Afghanistan, she learned not to scream. Because screams were admissions of surprise, of pain, of shock. She learned not to give those things, to hold them in. Learned to bite her tongue until she tasted copper and pretend she’d expected that punch to the kidneys, that kick, that slap, the whole time. Learned to pretend she didn’t want to die, or gouge someone’s eyes out, or sob when clumsy fingers pulled at her pants.

Sometimes, they put sand in the gruel they fed her and Yinsen.

She learned to smile as she chewed.

So Tasha doesn’t scream, doesn’t make a sound, just bites her tongue until it stings, blood running down her throat to make her feel sicker every time she swallows.

There is a face behind the glass.

There is a face inside that freezer, is a man inside. His hair is dark, long and dirty, his eyes are closed, the rest of his face hidden by a black muzzle that seems perfectly shaped for him. Custom made.

There is a muzzled, frozen man in that thing.

And under his eyelids, she can see him dreaming.

Her first instinct is to rip the thing apart, to somehow pry it open and get him out.

She stops herself just in time, actually thinks. Can he survive without the systems? Would the shock of unhooking kill him? How long has he been in there? Why is he in there? Is he dangerous? What will happen if she unthaws him? Will he hurt her? Run away? Start singing?

She doesn’t know.

Obie kept live humans in his basement and Tasha doesn’t know anything at all anymore.

She presses her hand against the glass, feels the chill. “I’ll get you out,” she says, then repeats it in rusty Russian. “I’ll get you out.”

+

Tasha plans to find everything tagged with his ‘Winter’ and work through it, only to realize early on that it’d take days. She’s been skimming files so far, speed reading occasionally. Just enough to figure out that, yep, the burn pile. Always the burn pile. But there are five filing cabinets full of data, several crates with more machines and other accessories. Going through them will take time.

And she needs out of this place before she starts screaming and forgets how to stop.

She might be unlearning how not to scream.

So she has JARVIS get Happy, has Happy get a truck from somewhere not SI, stick a generator in it, and then meet her by the liquor store, trade vehicles. Sends him home and uses the suit to load up everything Winter comes with.

After that, she torches everything that could lead back to her, including the puddle of puke in one corner. It’s tempting, so tempting, to let the fire spread, let it eat all of this, every physical proof she has of how blind she was, how stupid and usable.

Instead she orders JARVIS to keep a constant eye on the place via any means necessary and just drives away.

Leaves the warehouse of horrors for another day. To sort, to destroy. To mourn and rage against. She doesn’t even fucking know. Should just get rid of it now.

But she can’t, she tells herself. God knows what half of this shit would do if it caught fire. She might sink half of California into the ocean, Buffy style.

That’s her excuse and she’s sticking with it.

+

Before Iron Man broke, the paps had set up tents in Tasha’s front yard, hoping to catch a glimpse of the damaged, broken, insane woman that’d crawled out of a cave in redacted, after redacted redacted redacted.

But then downtown LA went up in a pillar of white light and suddenly, Tasha Stark wasn’t interesting anymore. Iron Man was.

She considered, for a long, long moment, during the press conference, telling people the truth. Saying, “I am Iron Man,” and letting all the haters choke on that. On Tasha Stark building something so amazing they all came in their pants a little when they first saw it. At Iron Man, their new hero, their new hope, being a woman, being a bombed-out shell of their most hated celebrity.

She considered it.

But Tasha’s been five four and pretty all her life, has been Howard’s daughter and Maria’s mirror image, has been a target for as long as she’s been breathing, and maybe if she were a man, she would have said fuck it, and just blurted out the truth. But she’s not. She’s not, and even in 2010 it goddamn matters.

Tasha has been a target all her life and even though she spits in people’s faces all the time, she also knows that if you’re going to use a weapon more than once, you better make damn sure no-one can get to it after the initial reveal. And if you want to feast on the blood of your fallen enemies – and Tasha does - you don’t let something stupid like pride get in the way of that.

Iron Man is an elusive hero and Tasha Stark is a fucking mess and the longer it stays that way, the less they’ll see her coming.

So she kept her mouth shut, smiled for the cameras and didn’t bite off Coulson’s hand when he congratulated her on a ‘smart move’ with a pat on the shoulder, because fuck him. Obie knew where she lived, Obie knew where she slept. She trusted Obie. She’s not going to make that mistake again and ‘smart move’ has nothing to do with it. It’s survival.

Right now, she’s glad for it, because it means there are no paparazzi at her place to document her driving a big-ass truck into her underground garage, frozen Russian in the back.

She still makes sure to close the doors fast.

Then she gets back in the suit, unloads her precious cargo and orders two large pizzas. “JARVIS, my darling, lock everyone out, opaque glass, no-one, and I mean no-one comes in. Not even with an override.”

Are you quite sure, Miss Stark?

“Yep. Whatever, or whoever this dude is, he’s probably not out to pet the puppies of this world. We don’t want anyone else at risk.”

What about your own safety?

She laughs, knocks on the suit panels currently being pulled off her and doesn’t say more. JARVIS knows. JARVIS understands.

+

The oldest logs attached to Winter date back to 1945 and then there’s more, at least one every year. Some years read like maintenance, like someone made sure an unused machine was still operational. Crank the engine for five minutes, change out the oil, put it back in the garage.

Like that’s not a human being in that damn tank.

Others, though, oh, others. Half the files are mission logs. Targets. Locations. Weapons.

The machines are even more gruesome. She’s not a medical doctor, but even she understands what those drugs do, those tools. Electricity, applied to the brain, chemicals, targeting long term memory, forcing compliance.

Basically, the frozen assassin comes with a mind-wipe kit. And Obie somehow got his hands on him all the way back in 1996. Fourteen years ago. For fourteen years, the man has slept in Obie’s basement and Obie just left him there. Left him there, next to the drugs meant to take away his will and the machines meant to erase all memory of who he used to be, before they froze him to be pulled out whenever they needed a weapon to aim.

She really thought she’d seen the pits of humanity in a cave in Afghanistan.

Jesus fucking Christ.

She should have saved that scotch.

“JARVIS,” she announces, camera smile in place as she makes jazz hands at the coffin – because that’s what it is – and announces, “We have here one freeze dried instant assassin. Just add water!”

She laughs.

It’s not really funny.

+

Falling asleep on a stack of files depicting the assassination of a family of six, youngest child barely three, Tasha dreams.

Her skin and clothes are damp, her chest aches, her mouth tastes like copper and death. Yinsen murmurs in his native tongue as he uses a bit of twine, strung between the front belt loops, to close her pants. The button is missing. Tasha can’t stop shivering, can’t stop flinching, goes stiff as a board every time the doctor stops talking. Every time she can’t be sure it’s him, anymore.

He keeps murmuring, keeps soothing her like a wild animal, and then his voice changes, goes deeper. Smoother. Obie stretches up, presses a kiss to her temple and a hand over her shredded heart.

Slowly, while she’s still shaking apart, he starts unhooking the wires, first one, then the other. He places the battery aside, pulls out the magnet. Reaches into her chest and starts rummaging around, making the occasional comment as he goes. Tasha watches.

She screams herself awake.

+

The coffin opens in two parts.

Tasha perches on the lower one, opens the top part and lets the cold air waft into the lab. It hurts against the metal of the arc reactor, the metal sending the chill straight down to the very bones of her. Reminding her it’s still there.

She shivers, places a hand over it, watches his eyes as they flicker and twitch under the lid. His hands are bound. The muzzle makes his breathing audible. There was no name anywhere in the files.

If he ever had one, it’s been erased.

She wonders if he’ll remember. If he’s still capable of it, after decades of being wiped clean, again and again. If he still knows how he lost his arm, or if that is gone, too. He didn’t lose it after 1945. It was already gone when HYRDA put him on ice.

Against her fingertips, the metal prosthesis feels even colder than her reactor casing. The port must be freezing.

“D’you even still feel it?” she mutters.

She’s talking to cryogenically frozen Russians now. Maybe she should have gotten some sleep in the past seventy two hours. “I got second degree burns the last time I was outside in the sun too long. But then, Afghan desert, so. It just… it feels like it goes right down to your soul, doesn’t it? If you believe in that shit, right? I don’t, really, at least not in conjunction to myself. If you told me Pep had a soul, yeah, sure. Pep’s all soul, really, I can buy that shit. But me? I’m all spare parts, metal and mechanics all the way down. There was this one guy once, at some sort of party, when I was a kid. We talked robotics for an hour and then he laughed and said it was like Howard made me in a lab. I was eight and I got so fucking worried, I actually started going through old files because, hey, it would have explained so much, right? Turned out he was only kidding. Flesh and blood. Well, mostly. Back then. You and me, I don’t think we got souls. Souls are for good people.”

He keeps breathing. It’s as good as agreement.

The muzzle clips in the back. It takes both hands to undo and she fumbles it twice, almost lands on top of him once and then finally gets it undone, half expecting some horror to lie beneath, a disfigurement, a scar. A mouth sewn shut, perhaps.

In a way, she’s right.

The muzzle drops away, dangling from where one strap is tangled in his messy hair, and underneath lies the worst kind of horror: the familiar.

Because Tasha knows that face.

He had this way of squinting into cameras with his head tilted slightly, looking over Captain America’s shoulder as if saying, “Do you have to?” Annoyed, maybe, with the constant attention, the hounding, of his best friend. And yet, there’s nary a picture of the good Captain without the slightly shorter man with the scruffy stubble.

Sergeant Barnes was Captain America’s second in command. Bucky Barnes was Steve Rogers’ best friend. Howard didn’t like him, snorted derisively when he was brought up in conversation, even decades later. Whether that was because he was closer to Captain Goddamn America than Howard ever managed to be, or because he was simply a boring, average man, Tasha never found out. All she knew, growing up on tall tales, was that she liked Barnes, simply because her perfect father didn’t.

Aunt Peggy liked him, too. He was clever, she said, funny, loyal. He died for his friend, not his country, falling to his death from a lonely train track in the Alps.

Falling into ice and the hands of Nazis who turned him into a monster.

Bucky Barnes deserved better than this.

Miss Stark,” JARVIS announces suddenly, “I fear that the cryo-chamber’s technology is not made to maintain its base temperature with the lid open for any amount of time. You must decide what to do within the next two minutes, or the man might start to awaken. And I must say, I strongly advise against letting that happen. We do not have enough data at this point to ascertain –

“James Buchanan Barnes,” she interrupts, her gaze still on his face. God, he doesn’t look like he’s aged a day from those old reels, black and white and his eyes sparkling with something like gallows humor, something wicked and knowing.

Howard spent decades buying up every scrap of Captain America he could get his hands on, every bit of film. In one interview, Barnes was asked what it was like, to live in the shadow of a legend. Barnes had snorted and simply answered, “Well, you don’t get sunburn, for one.”

Tasha likes that. It’s the politest ‘fuck you’ she’s ever heard. Once, some asshole reporter wanted to know what it felt like, to live in Howard Stark’s shadow.

She used Barnes’ line.

The asshole didn’t get the fucking joke.

In the squirrely center of his servers, JARVIS computes. “You know him?

“Dad did. He was a Howling Commando.” The Howling Commando. The only one who fell.

Oh. Wait.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to know what condition he would be in upon waking.

“Can’t really leave him like this, buddy.”

There is hesitation before he asks, tentatively, like he is afraid of the answer, “Do you… identify with Mr. Barnes, Miss Stark? His situation, after all, shows certain parallels to your own short term enslavement by the organization known as the Ten Rings and I –

“Mute.”

It’s not the same. Not really. The man before her is an unwilling victim, a wounded man broken to another’s will with technology and violence. Tasha wasn’t unwilling. She was just fucking dumb. Building bombs for Obie for years and years, handing him destruction on a silver platter. He didn’t need to break her, because she was just drunk enough, just stupid enough, to do it anyway. Because she didn’t care. And what the Ten Rings did to her? Well, what’s a little violence between mass murderers, right?

She shifts backwards, slides off the coffin and takes a few steps to hop onto the nearest work bench. Keeps a wrench at hand and her hands in sight. Leaves the lid wide open.

She waits.

+

The Soldier wakes abruptly.

Slow waking is for sleep and this is not sleep. He is not permitted sleep. He is only permitted this, cold and oblivion, and when he wakes, he wakes as any good machine must, with a simple flick of the switch.

Awake.

Cold.

That is unusual.

He feels it, normally, the chill in his bones, the biting freeze of his metal arm. But it’s an echo, a fading memory, because he wakes in the chair, not in the chamber.

Today, he wakes in the chamber.

That is unusual.

His head hurts, but it does not burn. He tastes no blood. His tongue is not bitten, his nails have not drawn blood. His veins do not burn with sluggish fire.

He breathes and he feels no obstruction.

His mask is gone.

He is inside, a large room. Brightly lit. He can hear the whirring of machinery, but no beeping, no loud noises. Breathing, but only of one person, a safe distance away. No guards. No doctors. The air is filtered, but fresh. No windows, but a well maintained system of ducts.

Briefly, he considers escape.

This is unusual, too: the ability to consider such things. The knowledge that he wants such things.

Dilemma: he always knows that he is not permitted to know certain things. The past. His past. His missions. His self. All he needs to know is his objective.

Sometimes, though, when he spends too long in the field, something bleeds through. Half-memories. Reflexes. Images. These times, he needs to go in the chair again before he goes into the chamber.

This feels like those times, but he is not going back to the ice. He is waking. He knows this: self. Absence. Anger.

Unusual.

He opens his eyes.

White ceiling. Brighter lights. Silence. There are no dust motes. It strikes him as strange, for there to be no dust motes.

“Hey,” a voice says. Female. The occupant of the room. Ten feet to his left. The restraints on his arms and legs are still in place, but he can break them. Get out of the chamber. Attack.

Ten seconds. Slow. Not too slow.

The female does not look well trained. Unarmed. Probably. He does not recognize the technology attached to her chest. She might be like him. A weapon. Sometimes, there are others. Machines.

Little girls, for a while, with pointy elbows and dark eyes. They danced and he hit them until they learned to hit back. Some of them called him Big Brother. He liked that. He remembers that he liked that.

It is unsettling to know these things.

He misses being blank.

The female stays seated, her hands in sight. She takes pains to assure him she is not a danger.

Dangerous.

“Do you remember English?” The words jar, slide sideways into his brain, dissonant and echoing. “Or is it Russian all the way?” More words. Smoother, more familiar. He lets them sink. Considers. Should he answer?

There are no mission parameters to help him decide. He waits. She blinks, sighs. “Russian it is. I haven’t used it that much since boarding school, I hope you’re aware. But then, that was right around the time you were awake last, so what do you know. We can probably converse in crappy late eighties Russian slang.

If, you know, you’re into that kind of thing. Would you know if you were? I mean, do you remember being awake? Or is it back to basics every time?”

Her accent is sharp, twisting words wrongly. Her voice was smoother when she used the other words, the ones that slithered into his head like snakes. Strange.

“I… shit, I’m rambling, aren’t I?”

Should he answer?

There are no mission parameters to help him decide. He lacks information.

“My name is Natasha. You are in America. It’s 2010 and I woke you because I found you in a dank, dark basement a few days ago and I… I’m not a fan of people being kept in dark places against their will, okay? So I… I want to help you?”

That sounds like a question. Should he answer?

No mission parameters. Information, but not enough. What is his purpose in being awake? What is his mission?

He tugs on his restraints. A risk, but he needs to provoke a reaction. Needs more information. She flinches. Her name, Natasha. Russian. She says this is America. Dissonance. Lie?

“Sorry about those. I… didn’t know if you’d wake in a rage, or something. If you… if you give me some sign that you’re not about to stab me with a fork, we can talk about getting rid of those. But, you know, I already have one extra hole in my body. I don’t feel like being ventilated again.”

The smooth voice. The strange words. She stops, raises a hand to her mouth. “Whoops. That was English.” She tilts her head, measures him. “But I’m pretty sure you do understand. Remember. At least that much. That… that would be a great start. If you remember English, then those fuckers didn’t manage to scrape away every bit of you. If you still understand me, then I guess you’re still… you.” She smiles, bitterly, a hand trailing along the edges of her chest piece, nails scraping against metal. “For what that’s worth, right?”

Self. Precious. He remembers that. What is it? Who is self? Him? Ego.

Should he ask? Should he… he knew once. He knows now that he is… weapon. Soldier. Winter. Big Brother, but not anymore. The girls went away and took their bony elbows with them. There was someone else. Bony elbows. Bony everything. A fall. His arm aches with memory pain. The cold bites. The snow always bites, so deep and icy. It cut his skin and froze his face. He screamed, for a while, until they put a bit in his mouth. He stopped screaming then, felt the fire in his veins, let go. He forgot. He remembered that he forgot, forgot again, chair, chamber, mission. Chair, chamber, mission.

Between: Darkness. Flashes of light. Bony elbows. Bony everything. A smile. Wind whistling as he falls. Potato stew. Gun fire. Cold. End of the line.

Winter. He asked once. He was not supposed to, but the man then was kind. Small, with glasses. Doctor. He bled red and died choking. But he was kind. “You were born in winter,” he said. His teeth smelled like rot.

Bony elbows. Winter. Big Brother. A big little man. Mission. What is his mission? Why is he here? Why is he awake? Should he ask? What is his mission? He needs more information.

The female watches him, eyes steady and soft. Weak. Pathetic. She looks warm. His breath fogs in front of his face and the metal in her chest glows blue white. He needs more information. Her hands are steady, resting on her knees. Patient. She wears no coat, no uniform. She has no bony elbows.

America. Natasha.

She does not smile. He would not believe it. He could kill her in ten seconds.

“Why am I here?”

+

Natasha wants to be called Tasha and doesn’t like questions. She demands he stay inside, feeds him and asks about his metal arm.

He answers. He obeys.

He was built this way.

She puts a fork in his hand, says, “This is Italian. You don’t get to stab me if you don’t like it.”

He nods. Eats mechanically. Chew. Swallow. Real food is rare, is for missions. Outside. Inside, there is nutrition, not food. There is no sustenance at all in the ice. His body does not demand it. He dreams of a cramping belly and soup thinned until it’s nothing more than water, tasting bitter of potato peel.

There is no mission for him. Tasha told him. No more missions. He lacks parameters, feels a strange relief, mixed with loss. One of these emotions is wrong. Tasha, it is obvious, does not know what to do with him.

She speaks a lot, speaks fast, says nothing. Watches him like a beaten dog, snarls too much. He could kill her in seventeen different ways without more than the fork she put in his hand.

While he eats, she watches, drinks. Alcohol. The smell stings. His port hurts, cold seeping from his bones, metal too tight. He rotates the cuff, lets the fingers dance. She gasps, delighted, reaches out toward him.

Too fast.

He slams her wrist into the table with his left, leaps the table, rams her into the wall. She is fragile. Frail. Prey. Arm across her jugular, all he has to do now is squeeze. Reach around and twist. Hand over mouth and nose. Fingers through the eyes, deep enough. Cartilage from a broken nose, ground into her skull.

Less than a second to assess, to consider. Her hands rise to scrabble at his chest, she gasps, kicks. Panic.

Then, a surprise: She gathers her strength, knees him hard. Only hits his thigh, but hard enough to make him loosen his grip. Half a second. She rabbit punches him in the face, follows with an elbow, drops and rolls out from between him and the wall.

Distance.

Weapon. She clutches the fork, defensive.

“Hey,” she snaps, words hard, “Hey, hey, fuck, hey, are you still in there? I’m the nice guy here, remember? Tasha. Tasha who thawed your frozen ass. You love me, admit it.”

Love?

Love is weakness, is word, is nothing. Love is random attachment. Bony elbows and blue eyes. He blinks.

“Love?”

Tasha beams at him, teeth bloody. He can’t remember hitting her. Blinks. She licks her lips. “Oh yeah.”

+

The next time they sit down together, she sits farther away.

She doesn’t talk less.

He likes Italian.

+

There is a voice in the walls, the ceiling. It sounds kind, but it has no body. A machine, like him. A human voice, mechanics inside.

Metal.

Tasha has metal parts, too.

The voice says it will kill him if he hurts her for real. “Is there unreal pain?” he asks, confused.

The voice considers. “I am unaware. My experience with pain is purely academic. I must, however, ask that you refrain from asking Miss Stark.

“Why?”

Her experience is not academic.

That is true. Tasha is an open wound. He is, too, but he is used to it. She is new, he thinks, to being laid bare, insides on display. No-one had ever cut her open before. She knows now. She understands. Not everything. Enough. That is why he doesn’t kill her.

“Voice?”

Yes?”

“Why is she doing this?”

Silence. The voice thinks about its answers. He likes that.

I believe Mistress is attempting to save you.

“Why?”

This time, the silence lasts so long, Winter starts to doubt there will be an answer forthcoming. Perhaps the voice does not know. But then it speaks, quietly. “I believe,” it says, very concisely, “that she is attempting to do what no-one did for her.”

He remembers this: self, the absence of it. Bony elbows and little girls. Blue eyes. Love, the concept of it, useless attachment. Ice. Pain. Sluggish fire in his veins and the freedom from choice. Russian. Natasha.

Most of these things are obsolete now, or long since broken. Gone.

With an uncertain pat to the wall, he nods. Downstairs, Tasha sleeps in her workshop, curled on a cot in a corner, back to the wall, weaponized glove aimed at the door. She screams for someone to stop in her sleep, but she never begs.

He walks the perimeter until she wakes.

+