"It was him," Captain America insists. "He saved me. He was right here."
"Cap," Sitwell begins. He looks mildly discomfited, which for Sitwell is as good as a nervous breakdown. Captain America is angry – enough to get in Sitwell's personal space and loom, though he doesn't usually throw his weight around like a man of his size. A flustered SHIELD medic hovers, ignored, at his elbow.
Natasha can tell from ten meters away that there's not a bruise on the man; the bed sheet he's clutching to his middle isn't doing much to obstruct her view.
Black Widow got the call four hours ago, in Munich. She's been thankful for three hours forty-five minutes that Phil Coulson is putatively dead. Bad enough to get sitreps on the order of "We lost track of Captain America in a firefight with mystery assassins," or "We found Captain America divested of his pants in a by-the-week rental room." Loop Coulson in and they'd never hear the end of it; it'd be worse than the aftermath of the trading cards.
"Retrieve him," says Captain America. It sounds like an order. "I have to talk to him. Check the security cameras." Sitwell's face is a picture.
"Get forensics in here," Natasha says, taking pity, and walks closer to the bed. There's an empty biopsy kit package in the wastebasket, which is ominous, but nothing else. Except – on the pillow, in the indent where Steve's slumbering head would have hidden it – a single, four-inch-long brown hair.
The tally is as follows: fifty seconds of pieced-together CCTV footage, a set of partial prints, and (Hill clears her throat; Fury's glower kicks up a notch) DNA from the room's most recent tenant. The latter matches no one known to SHIELD. The former might be enough to convince a jury that Steve Rogers went for a walk in downtown Zurich with a dark-haired white male approximately 5ft11 in height. Steve is recognizable enough, with digital enhancement, but the other man has somehow avoided being captured head-on by any camera.
The prints ping on – of all things – an NYPD cold case. A well-off entrepreneur was found asphyxiated in a Midtown hotel room, surrounded by accoutrements suggesting an exotic evening with hired entertainment had gone off the rails. Cash was missing from his wallet. The motive looked cut and dry, but complications arose when it transpired the man's company was on the eve of inking a lucrative vendor agreement with Stark Industries. Following his death, the deal was abruptly rescinded. There were allegations of industrial espionage, or perhaps outright espionage. The scandal made a splash in the business press of 1974; no less than five Wall Street Journal front page items in microfiche. No suspects were ever taken into custody.
"So basically, this guy is a ninja assassin," says Clint. "A... sexy... geriatric... ninja assassin?" He looks at Natasha across the table, as if to say this is your field of expertise, not mine.
Natasha does have a good idea what – whom – they might be dealing with. She keeps her voice steady, and says, "It's not unheard of. For instance: the pattern of activity attributed to the Soviet operative codenamed Winter Soldier spans four decades, from the mid-1950s well into the ‘90s. And there was never any evidence of a decommissioning."
"There was never any evidence the Winter Soldier existed as a single entity to be decommissioned," says Fury. But he sounds speculative.
"If he's an agent of that calibre, we won't track him down like this," Natasha continues. "But he's not operating alone. What about Cap's original informant?"
"That's why the two of you are here," says Hill. "We have reason to believe the real purpose of the setup—"
"Hang on," says Clint, "why are we dancing around the obvious? Cap knows the guy, right?"
Hill raises an eyebrow at Fury. Fury casts one jaundiced eye on Clint, then on Natasha in turn, before leaning back in his chair and sighing.
"What the hell," he says. "Bring up the videos."
"I don't know about you," Clint says once they escape the briefing, "but I feel like Coulson should've covered this in one of his spiels. Not that I paid attention. But I would have remembered Captain America having a secret army boyfriend."
Putatively dead or not, it's the first time since New York that Clint's dropped Coulson's name without flinching, and Natasha does him the honour of not calling attention to the fact. "Because you're a gossip," she says instead. "An old woman."
"About this information which turns out to be of major operational value."
Clint lets it drop. Natasha recognizes it as one of his I'm waiting to get past the security perimeter before I get to the point silences. They're well down the block and nearing the parking lot before Clint catches up a step and leans into her space, as if he wanted to companionably bump her shoulder and respect her bubble at the same time.
"In the interest of not getting us killed," he says, "would it help me to know what you didn't tell them back there?"
Clint is both utterly clueless and infuriatingly perceptive, usually whenever either trait is most inconvenient. "I know him," Natasha says.
"What, Cap's secret boyfriend? Or the Winter Soldier?"
Clint blinks. Then he looks at her again, frowns, and visibly revises his sentence. "...From before?"
Before means the Red Room. "Yes."
"Shit." Clint has stopped walking, so Natasha stops as well and turns to face him. "What needs to happen?"
"I have to assess on the ground," she says. "There are – a number of options. Depending on what he remembers. I may be able to talk to him. He won't be heading the operation; we have to find out who his employer is."
"So not a terminate the fucker on sight kind of backstory."
"I might run into him before you do."
"Don't engage at close range. Actually, don't engage at all. He's extremely dangerous."
They stare at each other.
Eventually Natasha adds, slowly, "I owe him a chance, Clint."
"Fine," he says. "You talk to him. But if his finger moves on the trigger I'm plugging him in the eye. Deal?"
"Deal. Is that all?"
"No. Are you going to talk to Cap, or is that on me?"
"Director Fury will speak to him."
"Director Fury will feed him a line and you know it. There's no way Steve'll sit this out when he was the one targeted."
All the more reason to control what he's told, Natasha doesn't say. Any prediction she can make regarding Steve's behaviour – or, for that matter, Clint's behaviour where Steve is concerned – Nick Fury can. "To some degree, we have to assume Steve is compromised," she says.
"Why – because a bunch of terrorists drugged and manipulated him? Or because Fury and Maria Hill said so?"
"Because Steve is convinced his best friend's come back to life."
Clint pauses in the act of unlocking his car, which is older than Natasha and has rear-end fins and is generally ridiculous. "About that," he says.
Natasha says nothing.
"Seriously, Nat. Give me something here. A percentage likelihood, whatever."
"I don't know," she says. Then: "He told me once his name was James."
Clint stares at her. "James Barnes?"
"Just James. He speaks American English, but that was our standard training. I don't know where he came from or when he entered the program. Barnes – looks like him. You'd be able to recognize him face-on from those videos, but the body language is very different. When I last saw him he looked older than that, but not by much."
"Well, damn," says Clint. He opens the driver's side door and slides into the seat. Looks back up at Natasha. "If you're telling me this, you need to tell Steve."
"We know Barnes died, Clint. Steve knows it. Given Red Room technology... there are a number of possibilities. But he's not likely to be the man Steve knew."
Clint snorts. "You think it'd be less fucked if he were?"
The last time Natasha saw – James, he has a name, not just a code, she has to remember that because he might not – it was the tail end of the Nineties and the business end of his rifle. She remembers the incongruous background beauty of Causeway Bay, and poured concrete scraping her knees and palms. Remembers looking up into his cold, unblinking eyes and and begging for her life: not because she hoped he would grant it – she was dead the moment he had her in his sights – but because talking would buy her team time.
You know me, she said. You recognize me, I can tell. James, you cared for me. They hurt you but you refused to hurt me. You don't remember now, but deep inside you know. You know.
He heard her out, said nothing. Didn't react.
"Hey, Natalie," says the man at the reception table (it's not much of a desk). He smiles, friendly and a little guarded. "Looking for Steve?"
"You know it. Coffee for you, by the way; thought you might need it by this stage."
"You're a lifesaver. Steve should be done any minute – he's helping Terry with the van out back. You know the way."
Sam Wilson, who is no fool, knows Steve Rogers is Captain America. He also knows Natalie Rushman is a government agent, and perhaps even that she knows he knows. He's wary of her, which is sensible. He believes – or so Natasha gathers from their mutual charade – that she drops by the community centre to check on Steve, in order to report back to her employer on how he's acclimatizing in his off-hours. Presumably if she went to Steve's apartment it would come off as too social worker, or maybe too girlfriend.
Sam is barking up the wrong tree. Steve doesn't need checkups; Natasha considers him a friend. The report Natasha's compiling for SHIELD concerns Sam.
It's also overdue, or rather de-prioritized. For two weeks Clint and she have been kicking ass and taking notes across Mitteleuropa, and apart from an early incidence of hooliganism at the Basel border crossing, the man codenamed Winter Soldier remains a stubbornly theoretical construct.
("What do you think this was even about," says Clint, staring at the torso-sized dents in the central steel girder. Natasha knocks the heads of the two remaining goons together, and lets them slide to the ground.
"They ambushed him," she says. "He doesn't take well to that."
"Okay, real talk," says Clint, "did you also date this guy?")
They find, eventually, five bodies in a clean-manufacturing plant outside Frankfurt, among them the earthly remains of one Semyon Leontiev, a rogue scientist known to SHIELD. They find unopened biopsy kits, gutted refrigerators, dust-free shelves where servers used to reside. The safe has been levered out of the wall.
"I'm off the investigation," Steve says, mildly. Too mildly by far: once he's decided on a right course of action, Steve is one of the least patient people Natasha has met. But instead of staking out Fury's office or haring off to Europe, he's been holed up here, loading Iron Man backpacks into delivery vans for the underprivileged children of the Five Boroughs.
Put another way, there's a conspiracy afoot.
She hands him his coffee, and a plastic phial. "I need you to confirm that's the kind of sample packaging you were shown by your initial informant," she says.
He looks at it, and nods shortly. "Is that all?"
"Not entirely." She pauses, then adds, "I assumed you would have questions for me, but if Tony's been getting you those reports—"
Steve looks abashed, then mutinous, which reassures her. Stark would probably cave under questioning, since he's terrified of her undivided attention, but she'd rather avoid that particular gauntlet.
"Director Fury wasn't getting back to me," he says.
"That can be frustrating, yes."
Steve is stubbornly silent. Natasha sighs.
"Cap, I'm not bringing this up because I expect you to stop reading my reports. But if he's out there, eventually we will make contact. And what will you do then – jump on a plane? Scupper the operation? Those HYDRA bioweapons are still at large."
Steve looks down into his coffee. "If I had questions, would you answer them?"
"It depends. Ask and I'll let you know."
"How did Leontiev's group die?"
"Shot. Mostly. Not by him. My best guess is the same team that came after you two in Zurich."
"Tying up loose ends," says Steve. "They weren't after me; it's Bucky they want. He's on the run because he's in danger."
"The Winter Soldier—"
"Don't call him that," Steve snaps. Then he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, visibly struggling to get himself under control.
"This is my fault," he says, after a few seconds. "You see that, don't you? All of this, everything happened because I couldn't protect him. I let this happen to Bucky. I've been letting it happen for seventy goddamned years."
"Steve," Natasha says, carefully, "will you hear me out?" She waits for his curt nod, then continues, "I've worked with the Winter Soldier. I'm telling you this now: it's not in his file, and it's not in the reports. Maybe he was your friend, once; that's possible. But the man I knew could become anyone – he could be made into anyone the situation demanded. And you encountered him in a situation designed to make you vulnerable. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"You're saying it was a trap," says Steve. "Above and beyond the obvious."
"It could have been, yes."
"I don't think it was," Steve says. "Not in that sense. If it had been, he would have – he would've pretended to remember me."
He looks away from Natasha when he says it, but his voice is enough: she doesn't need to meet his eyes. She sips at her own coffee, and ponders the approach of her next question.
"...Has Clint talked to you?"
Steve looks startled. "...No?"
"That's too bad. I was hoping to be less awkward than him when I asked you for intrusive personal information."
Steve cottons on immediately – and goes scarlet, which Natasha's never seen him do. She's blatantly fishing, but it's still unexpected: the Zurich scene was characterized by a complete lack of embarrassment.
"I would prefer not to discuss it," he says.
"Well," says Natasha. "That's fair. It's really only one detail."
"Were you and Bucky actually lovers? During the War, or before it. Some people think so."
"God," says Steve, which Natasha suspects is a swear word for him. "How we got to the point of…" he trails off. Natasha waits. She's beginning to suspect SHIELD's classified understanding of Steve's relationship with Barnes (let alone the online fanfiction Clint found, and at least two graduate theses) is wrong; and not wrong in the way one would expect. She thinks about former Director Margaret Carter, who signed off on the file.
How many people had an uncomplicated War?
"I wanted to," Steve says, finally. "Looking back – that's what it amounted to. But back then I couldn't even put it into words, so nothing was going to happen. And Bucky—" he shrugs. "Bucky dated women."
"I see," Natasha says, gently. This is worse than she assumed.
"It mattered less than people think. I didn't… I don't have a problem with two men together, all right? Not me, not anyone else, not then, and not now. I figured that if—" Steve exhales, suddenly. "The serum made it hard to ignore. Bucky and Peggy. It was back burner, before that."
The pause is significant. Natasha thinks it must show that she's thrown.
"The serum made your sex drive stronger?"
Steve drops his face into his hands. "I don't know why I'm talking about this now," he says.
"Well," says Natasha. She's wildly impelled to offer data in return – that the James she knew liked women, certainly, but that she wouldn't have described them as dating even when he was with her; and furthermore that he seemed less about women per se, more not fussed as long as they're pretty – but the stories are not only hers to tell.
"I need to know what I can say to him," she says, finally. "What to expect on that side. And – what you're trying to get out of this, Steve."
"I want to bring him in," Steve says, promptly. "There must be something SHIELD can do to help him remember. I want – he's out in the cold and I need him to be safe. It's the least of what I owe him."
"Well," says Natasha, "I'll see what I can do."
The first time she saw him use his body was Paris – beautiful, stereotypical, Hausmannian Paris – and they were different people: he was Jean, and she was Annika. The mark's name was Felix Lambert. He was a mild-mannered, tow-headed little bureaucrat with blue eyes, who loved L’Après-midi d’un faune and could not be murdered. He was not to know which file they were after. He never realized – Natasha is certain of it in retrospect – that he was the victim of a confidence game. Perhaps he does not, now, even recall Annika.
It's likely that he still remembers Jean.
When she let herself back into the apartment the next morning, Jean seemed to be asleep – prone in the wreckage of the bed, a sheet draped haphazardly over his waist and a half-smile curving his lips. The curtains were not even shut; the room was flooded with light.
"This is not the plan," she accused him. She kicked off her shoes, let Annika's ridiculous tasseled purse drop on the floor. "You let him see you."
Jean's lips curved further. He rolled over, lazily, eyes slitting open, and the deadly left arm came to rest among the pillows as if it weighed nothing. He looked like a cat in a sunbeam; she'd never seen him look so relaxed.
"He didn't really care," he said. "I gave him an explanation, but he was distracted. He's the gullible sort, you know."
"You should have let me try, at least."
That made Jean laugh. The sound was so carefree it startled her. He sat up, stretched, then stood up and crossed the room, entirely unselfconscious in front of her and the windows, to pick up his discarded clothes – a t-shirt, a crumpled pair of jeans.
"Lambert won't have gone for you," he said, "believe me. It's a straight-up switch: you'll be the jealous one."
"I don't think—"
"This way's better. It seals the deal: you can be sure he won't tell on us." Jean smiled again, gaze turning inward. "I think he's sweet."
Annika – Natalia – stared at him. She was afraid.
Had she known his real name was James? No, that came later. They had partnered before this mission, though, enough times for her to have deduced a pattern. At the start he was always cold and silent – contemptuous of her, heeding only the directives he was given. But as far-flung assignments progressed he would animate, slowly. He would show anger, start conversations, even smile. She'd seen him turn his head at music, at the flight of a bird. And he thought. He responded to circumstance. He adapted plans and tactics on the fly, with shocking efficiency.
It made him a better agent. A better killer.
That tempted their handlers. They would keep him in the field longer than necessary; would flirt – she'd obscurely understood – with some inherent limitation. Then the line would be crossed, somehow (she never knew how), and he would disappear for a long time. Sometimes the handler disappeared as well.
Natalia had been made into Annika, but what was done to her had not touched her core: deep down she was required to be herself. (She was contemptuous of Annika, the sheltered little bunhead, with her leg warmers and tassels. Poor Annika, only nineteen years old; torn up with a jealousy she was never taught to recognize.)
He, though – she realized, seeing him now – he had become different. He was another person entirely.
He had never laughed before. Never.
Who was he?
Natalia thought: this was not meant to happen. Surely they did not intend this to happen. I will have to report him after the mission is done. They will make him disappear; they will fix their mistake quickly. He will not do this again.
(Little Natalia, she thinks now, remembering. Poor Natashenka, only nineteen years old.)