There were two little boys, and one was strong and one was sickly, and they were brothers in every way except the ones that counted. They roamed Brooklyn like vagabond kings, played stickball in alleys and kicked cans between gutters and didn’t imagine that anything would ever come between them.
And the war tore them apart.
And the war brought them back together.
And the war washed them away again.
Breathe in, breathe out.
There was a little girl. She was born under unlucky stars: Mars high on the horizon and the Seven Sisters in retrograde. They never did her any favors. There was blood in the snow the night they kicked down the door and shot her papa and dragged her screaming from her mother’s arms.
Natasha keeps her face an impassive mask as she tells Steve about the Red Room. His brow furrows and the corners of his eyes twitch and his lips twist uncomfortably. He does not beg for mercy. “Do you regret asking?” she asks.
“No, no,” says Steve. “Keep going.”
She tells him about training and the pins in her ribs, about false memories and waking up in Berlin when she was fifteen years old, naked next to a dead politician with no idea how she got there or whose blood she was covered in. “I can stop,” she offers.
“No,” he answers, but the blood draining out of his face betrays him.
She tells him about her serum and her nanobots, the things that keep her young and healthy and whole. “The formula died with Erskine,” he murmurs. Natasha raises an eyebrow at him.
“When Germany chased out their intellectuals, they fled in both directions,” she says. Truthfully, she does not know where or how the Red Room acquired their technology in those early years. What flows in her veins is not the same as what flows in his, but it is close, and the space between couches is not quite as wide as the iron curtain.
“My life has been so much easier than yours,” says Steve quietly.
“So?” she asks. Captain America’s sympathy will not bring the Black Widow’s parents back to life, will not make her memories of a happy childhood true, will not make her more or less human. “I’ve never been bored. That’s hardly a curse.”
Last of all, long after they’ve ordered take out and devoured it while watching the traffic on Park avenue, she tells him about her first great love. Teacher turned bedmate, who taught her to fight and taught her to fuck. Steve shudders away from the harshness of her phrasing.
“They called him the Winter Soldier,” she explains, “because he came in out of the cold. He was an American, like you. They pulled him out of a gorge somewhere. He fell off a train.” Frozen and broken and bent out of shape, because that was the Red Room’s specialty, taking broken things and remaking them (unmaking them).
And Steve, who has gone perfectly still, says, “Bucky.”
For three days, they don’t talk and Steve is nearly catatonic. “Congratulations,” Stark says to her when they brush elbows in the kitchen. “I don’t know what you did, but you broke Captain America.” And he laughs like it’s a joke, but Natasha doesn’t think it’s very funny.
On the fourth day, Steve interrupts her in the gym. “What happened to him after the Soviet Union fell?” he asks without preamble.
“Spar with me,” says Natasha, and he refuses. (He always refuses, which is either chivalrous or sexist or a little bit of both.) “I’ve always been curious who would win,” she insists, “and I won’t answer until you do.”
Because: it takes a lot of leverage to get Captain America onto the mat. Figuratively. Literally. “They’d freeze him between missions, sometimes for years,” lets her catch his wrist for the first time. “Detente was hard on all of us agents,” and she hits him just under his rib cage with the side of her hand. “The Soviet Union fell in a matter of days,” she says, ducking a punch. “The Red Room had its own schism. He may still be on ice.”
A distracted second. A lucky flip. Steve hits the floor.
“You are not, under any circumstances, to use SHIELD resources to jailbreak a Soviet super-soldier,” says Fury, when they tell him what they want to do.
“Well, okay,” says Natasha, not giving anything away.
When they leave Fury’s office, Steve turns to her and says, “He didn’t say we couldn’t spring him. Just that we’re on our own to do it.”
Natasha likes the way he thinks.
“I’m a folk singer on her European tour,” says Natasha, tossing Steve a passport from across Stark’s living room. “You’re my manager beau.”
He fumbles the catch, going bright red. “Why am I your quote-unquote beau?”
“Because that’s the cover story,” replies Natasha, pursing her lips at him. They say: I’m the international super spy, you’re the guy who smashes things with an oversized frisbee. Steve opens his mouth in protest, and closes it again, and acquiesces.
Two days before departure she dyes her hair dark chestnut, and when he sees her out of the corner of his eye he almost calls her a different name.
For Steve, World War II ended less than a year ago. For Natasha, it is a vague childhood memory. While she was training with kettlebells and live ammunition in rooms deeper than the Moscow metro, atomic bombs exploded and occupations happened and Nazi forces advanced into Russia and the winter pushed them out. Distant history, when you have been conscious for every second since.
This divide has never been more obvious than when they walk together through the streets of Paris. To her, the city of lights is like an old lover - dressed in the newest fashions but fundamentally the same. Beside her, nearly tripping over his own feet as he gawks at the restaurants on Rue Montorgueil, Steve is the first man to set foot on the surface of Mars.
“Try not to stare so much, mon cher,” she purrs to him. “You look like a tourist.”
“It changed a lot in a year,” he replies with his soldier’s French, and smirks at her, so she smirks back.
By day, Natasha follows up on old contacts and reinforces old threats. Steve follows, a silent enforcer in a suit and mirrored shades. To these men, she is the Black Widow regardless of her hair color, as deadly a brunette as she is a redhead. The anonymous giant by the door had might as well be a Swedish hired gun named Hans.
“I have a lot of unfinished business on the continent,” she explains as they breeze out of a Parisian office building, their second day on the ground. “But I have a lead.”
By night, she sings new translations of old folk songs in a vague venue to an appreciative, beatnik crowd and the Russian creeps back into her voice. Steve’s French uses slang seventy years out-of-date but not as rusty as it should be (last time he spoke it, after all, it was World War II). “You sound like my grandfather,” the bartender tells him as she wipes down the counter.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” At which point Natasha, having finished with her set, slides herself under his arm and presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth.
“Ready to go?” she asks, her arm sliding possessively around his waist, and Steve nods and the whole walk back to the hotel has to remind himself that this is fake, this is all fake, this is only the cover, only the mask.
There was a little girl, and her parents wanted her to learn guitar, so they found her a teacher and that teacher made her practice every day until her fingers bled and then some but she plays the most beautiful music and has a voice like heartbreak and empires falling.
“That never really happened, though, did it?” asks Steve as they walk the streets of Munich, hand in hand.
“Almost, not quite,” she replies, the words light on her lips. “It was a semi-automatic rifle.”
In Kiev, their informant decides to try shooting at them. It doesn’t work. He’s a small-time arms dealer who ran intel for the Red Room back in the day, but the years have not been kind to him - the pistol barely rises from the drawer before the Widow decks him to the ground.
“Don’t try that again and we’ll all make it out of here alive,” she tells the man on the ground. Steve inches forward, wishing for the comforting weight of his shield, but it’s too iconic for this meeting. The arms dealer reaches out. Natasha stomps on his scrabbling fingers.
And Steve - Steve is fascinated. She raises brutality to an art form, both repulsive and mesmerizing. This is for Bucky, he reminds himself, holding the man down as Natasha bends his fingers until the bones and tendons snap and asks important questions about warehouses and drop points. This is for Bucky, and that makes it okay.
“We have a train to catch,” says Natasha.
Trains make him nervous, but she insists, because they’re in Europe and everyone in Europe rides trains because it’s Europe. She doesn’t go as far as quoting ‘when in Rome’ at him but he can tell she’s thinking it. And if he lost Bucky on a train, then maybe it’s some kind of karmic retribution that to get him back he has to get back on one.
“This is the world’s third-worst goulash,” Natasha says upon her return from the dining car. She hands Steve a cup of stew and a shrug that says they’re going to eat it anyway.
“That’s awfully specific,” he answers as she hands him a stale roll.
“It’s not poisonous, though. That would make it the first worst.” And then she laughs.
Steve wonders if this is how she made politicians and scientists and heroes fall in love with her. Wonders if that’s what she’s doing now. He knows that hanging onto him in public is just an act - she’s never needed to hang onto anyone in her life. But behind the closed doors of their private compartment, her feet tucked against his side, her eyes locked on his - what is that?
“We’re on an unauthorized mission to rescue your ex-lover,” he says, after a long pause.
“Your best friend,” she corrects. “He was your best friend long before I ever fell into his bed. It’s an unauthorized mission to rescue your best friend.”
Steve burns his tongue. He’s been here before.
There were two little boys, and one was strong and one was sickly, and they were brothers in every way except the ones that counted. And they were always, always, always rescuing each other.
When he wakes, they are still hurtling through the Russian countryside, pale morning light filters through the window, and she is asleep against his chest. For a single, sleepy instant Steve stares at her dark curls and wonders if this is what he could have had, if time has ways of bringing back all he has lost.
Then she wakes, and she is not Peggy at all. Natasha offers him a catlike smile. “Watching me sleep?” she asks quietly.
“I didn’t want to wake you up.”
“Too late,” she replies, and rolls off him. “I’ll go find us breakfast.”
She pauses after slipping on her shoes, slides the compartment door halfway open, and kisses him full on the mouth.
If this is a con, Steve decides he wants to be taken.
Natasha brushes her fingers through her hair and adjusts her scarf, indicating a pair of men in brightly-colored parkas. “Don’t look now, but we have a tail,” she whispers. Steve nods. They are ankle-deep in slush at the Kremlin, standing in line to see Lenin’s mausoleum and pretending to be tourists, waiting for an in.
“Someone didn’t like us asking around,” he says, pushing his sunglasses up his nose.
“They never do. Come on.”
Steve didn’t really need to see a mummified Marxist, anyway. They peel out of the queue and amble across the plaza, as if they have decided the wait is too long. Sure enough, their tail follows.
“It’d be rude not to find out what they want,” says Steve, as Natasha makes a sharp left past a statue. They descend two flights of stairs, paying no attention to signs threatening Employees Only in six languages. Glancing down, he sees her fasten Widow’s Bite around her wrist.
“A web the spider has left for two decades is still her web,” she smiles. “Surveillance dead spot.”
Their tail arrives, the men suddenly looking more dangerous with the addition of blackjacks. Natasha springs into action, electricity crackling around her outstretched fist as she lands on the larger of the men.
The shorter of the pair takes Steve, a proper knock-down brawl. Like being back in Brooklyn, except this time he thinks he knows what it was like to be Bucky, taller than all the other boys on their block, and without any sense of self-preservation. He would wish for his shield, but by now has realized - this is what it is like to be Natasha, to head into a fight with no defense but your skin and no surefire weapon but your ability to land a punch.
After trading blows for a minute, Steve gets a handle on his attacker and flips him against the cinderblock wall. Natasha has hers pinned to the floor, her hands around his neck. She growls something to him in Russian. The man’s eyes go wide as he jabbers something back.
“Spasibo,” replies Natasha, and wrenches his neck until it cracks. She rises, does the same to the man against the wall, and Steve follows her deeper into the Kremlin’s underbelly.
They tread silently, god knows how many meters beneath Moscow. A few floors ago Steve could still hear the subway trains rumbling through the earth, but now even that’s gone mute. He’s completely disoriented. “When we find him-” he begins.
“He’s not guaranteed to be in mint condition,” she says sharply. The Winter Soldier might even be dead of electrical failure years ago. They might find a desiccated corpse. Planting that idea in Steve’s mind would be sort of like kicking a puppy, though, so she doesn’t.
“But if you still carry a torch for him, I mean,” says Steve. Natasha quirks a disbelieving eyebrow at him. “If you and him want to vanish into the sunset - I’ll let you.”
She’s biting her cheek, trying to keep from laughing. Steve is almost certain that he’s missed something, and it’s fondue all over again.
“What?” he asks.
She kisses him pityingly. “And leave you behind?” she asks, breath icy against his neck. “Not when you care about him even more than I do.”
They encounter two guards as they reach the lowest levels. Natasha wishes one sweet dreams with Widow’s Bite, breaks the other’s nose with an impressive spray of blood, and kicks open the janitor closet they’re standing in front of.
“That was anti-climactic,” says Steve, and Natasha kicks down the back wall.
“Not quite,” she replies, pulling him inside.
She keeps her fingers tight around his wrist as they delve into the storage closet. Under the emergency lighting, old training equipment takes on a lethal look - is that a set of parallel bars for a gymnast, or a torture device? Steve glances tentatively at Natasha. Her mouth is set into a tight line.
Finally, they stop in front of a coffin-like freezer. Steve takes the hum of machinery to be a good sign. Natasha reaches forward and wipes condensation from the faceplate with her scarf. “Hello, sleeping beauty,” she says.
“Defrost him,” says Steve around the lump in his throat. Because, one year or seventy, it’s Bucky.
After dressing Bucky in clothes stolen from their dead pursuers, Natasha and Steve sneak him across the plaza pretending to be American backpackers whose friend has a bad case of food poisoning. One nauseating cab ride later, they sneak him into a hotel with the same excuse and tuck him into bed.
“I guess he’ll need to sleep it off - I did,” reasons Steve, studying Bucky’s arms on top of the sheets. One natural, one bionic. He tilts his head towards the steel appendage, raises an eyebrow at Natasha.
“Old war wound. You should be careful when he wakes up,” she says evenly. “He might be violent.” Because the things the Red Room did to Natasha they also did to Bucky and it makes Steve feel ill.
“Okay,” he answers.
“I’m going out for takeout,” she announces, and slides out of the room. The ‘and to scout the area’ is implied.
At first, Steve just sits in the chair beside the bed, watching. But as the minutes tick past and his eyelids start to feel heavy, he rationalizes - this is Bucky. A little bit older and a lot worse for the wear and in sorry need of a hot shower but still James Buchanan Barnes. And, knowing full well that Natasha might give him hell for it later, he curls up on the far side of the bed and falls asleep.
At some point, he feels the mattress dip and opens his eyes. “Just me, go back to sleep,” whispers Natasha, filling the space at the center of the bed.
Natasha is shaken out of sleep by cold metal fingers on her shoulder. The Winter Soldier stares down at her. “This is highly irregular, Agent Romanova. I need a briefing.”
She sits up, glances at Steve but he’s sleeping like a log. The Winter Soldier is looking, too, but he doesn’t seem to understand. “Is he a junior agent?” he asks. Her stomach acid congeals. “What’s our directive?”
“No directive,” she replies, and holds back the next part for a moment. Two decades is, without a doubt, the longest he’s ever spent on ice. He’ll be disoriented, out of touch with current events, probably won’t take the USSR’s fall well - she does the calculations, realizes she can have him out cold in two moves and three seconds. “It’s Two-thousand Twelve. The Red Room’s been disbanded for twenty years. We have no directive.”
“I was woken up, I must have a directive,” he repeats. She wonders if his arm is the only robotic part of him. The Winter Soldier rises and paces impatiently. It makes her nervous. Natasha rolls off the bed and stands in his way.
“If Bucky is still in there somewhere,” she says, “Your directive is to find him.”
When Steve wakes again, it is early morning and the room is bathed in orange light. He raises a hand to shield his eyes.
Natasha and Bucky sit on the windowsill, watching the sunrise over the Moskva, their heads inclined slightly towards each other. They turn towards Steve as he rises.
“Good morning, sleeping beauty,” says Bucky. “What are you doing so far from the 1940s?”
They are two vagabond boys from Brooklyn and 1918 with no right to be here right now, sitting on a commercial airliner on the overnight from Moscow to New York, a deadly assassin sleeping across their laps. She loved one of them once, might love the other now. The furrow of her brow and the curl of her toes gives nothing away.
Steve pushes the window shade up. Bucky leans over and they watch the scenery. Steve twists his fingers in Natasha’s chestnut curls, thinking about how next week they’ll probably be red again.
“Remember when I told you we were going to the future?” asks Bucky.
“Can’t say you never took me anyplace nice,” replies Steve, smiling.
There were two little boys, and one was strong and one was sickly, and they were brothers in every way except the ones that counted. And the war tore them apart. And the war brought them back together. And the war washed them away again.
And the war delivered them, two halves of the same shell, safely ashore.