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They pull Steve Rogers out of the Atlantic on a particularly nasty day in November. It's so cold it makes New York City feel like home for the first time.

(It is a feeling that Natasha does not care to linger on.)

Fury gives her the Captain's file while he's still thawing out down on sublevel seven. The file comes with art, photographs that should be faded and wrinkled and warped with time. They're not. They're crisp and clear and if Natasha's grip on her emotions wasn't as ironclad as she has trained herself to keep it, she knows what her face would betray.

Fuck, Natasha's mind hisses to itself, the word lost in a puff of breath in a Siberian winter.

 

--

 

Natasha has never been a child.

In the Red Room, the running joke was that she was born a spider. She was born small and seemingly insignificant, but a killer right from the start. She simply needed to be taught how to harness her hidden strength. There's always been venom running through her veins.

The problem with Captain Steve Rogers, she has come to find, is that he was born weak. He was a child, had childish fears, understands what it is like to be weak and helpless. He makes his choices from a place of empathy and emotion instead of logic and calculation. The problem is that he believes in fairytales, that in his world, right and wrong are black and white.

(She has never been a child, but she understands that desire to seek out child-like comforts, the safety children first learn with their parents. A protector.)

In the end, the truth is easy to keep from him. She's compartmentalized most of her life and learned the value of secrets remaining so. No ones knows what she has locked up in her mind. The irony that she knows more about Captain America's past, about the photos of the two people staring up at her from Steve Roger's file, than anyone else is not lost on her.

(She doesn't feel bad lying to him either. It is a mercy.)

After the battle of Manhattan, they keep them partnered up. Thor's gone, Banner's too volatile, Clint's fucked off to go knows where on Fury's orders, and Stark's relationship with Rogers is far too antagonistic to do any sort of long term work. Rogers seems to like her, even though he knows about her past (or at least part of it), and she finds that she likes him as well. He is straightforward and strong in a way that she responds to; he doesn't mind taking orders from a woman (something that still crawls up her last nerve and makes her hesitant to work with the slackjawed agents that SHIELD churns out until they've learned their place and hers) and treats her like a partner.

"Exceptional compatibility," Hill says, and Natasha feels her jaw set hard.

 

--

 

She is ten the first time she meets him.

His metal arm is so bright under the lights of the training room where she and the other girls are learning how to assemble and disassemble rifles. Natalia's hands are black from the grease, aching from fitting metal together for hours on end.

He reaches for her and she ducks away gracefully on instinct. He is quicker though, and has hand around her wrist before she can twist around her small workstation.

"Don't be afraid," he tells her. His face is hard and unforgiving, but his voice is warm.

"I am not afraid."

There is a ghost of a smile. "Good, Little Bird."

 

--

 

Natasha takes a bullet on a freighter in the Indian Ocean.

The mission had actually been relatively simple, but she had gotten sloppy taking the engine room, some bullshit mercenary getting off a shot before she managed to break his neck. To be honest, the shot to her ego hurts more than than the bullet wound to her shoulder.

Steve fusses over her on the jet, poking and prodding the ruined flesh. There's no medic on the flight and Steve has taken on the roll of medic and/or hen mother, to Natasha's light amusement. She knows he takes the safety of his team seriously, but he's always seemed to have a bit of a protective streak for her. Normally, it would be something that would infinitely annoy her, but she knows that it's borne from a good place; Steve doesn't think her weaker or less capable. His protectiveness is merely a symptom of the depth of his regard for her, or so Dr. Banner had said one night before he disappeared, his attention split between her and the tissues samples beside her.

When Steve reaches for the suture kit, she stops him with her hand. Her blood makes their skins skid together.

"Don't," she says. Steve looks confused as she leans over and reaches for the gauze and tape.

It's only now that she realizes she never told him - that SHIELD never told him either. She knows that of all the Avengers, her file is the most heavily redacted of them all. Even Clint knows half-truths.

"It'll heal up faster if you leave it alone," she says, leaving it at that.

When Steve spots the healed shoulder three days later in the gym, his mouth curls into something very ugly.

(But he doesn't ask her. Steve is the only one of them that respects her secrets, even when they come at a cost to him.)

 

--

 

The Winter Soldier is legend. Those not in Red Room's upper echelons only see him every few years; Natalia has seen him only a handful of times growing up. He is a ghost that appears, kills, and disappears. He never ages.

The Viper is a legend in her own right. The first recruit of the Winter Soldier. She was the first woman through the Red Room, the first woman to receive the serum, the reason they started recruiting children.

Better to start them young.

 

--

 

Many men have desired her.

One of the many PsychOps specialists she was forced to see after her defection once asked her what her relationship with her body was, and she had laughed. She didn't want to be cliched and hammer back the lines that Red Room drilled into them, how their body was a tool, something as sharp and divorced from themselves as a knife.

She's slept with men that she's hated, men that she hasn't been attracted to, but required to fuck for whatever mission the Red Room had tasked her with. She's slept with men that she's desired.

(She's slept with men that she has loved. No, that isn't right. She's slept with a man that she has loved.)

The truth is that in the Red Room, there was no part of Natasha her that truly belonged to herself, so it had never bothered her to seduce men, to sleep with them. She had hurt herself, cut and burned her own flesh in pursuit of her missions. Her mind was the last fortress, and by the end, she had given over that as well. It was difficult to explain to the woefully unprepared psychologists trotted out before her that it hadn't hurt her in the least to sacrifice these things at the time, and even now, on the other side, she still carries few regrets. They are prices for war and survival.

Natasha is only learning now how to make choices for herself, how to claim ownership over herself, her body, her desires. It is as foreign as first learning to walk or speak, stumbling along the way.

The first time Natasha sleeps with Steve, it is a choice she makes for herself.

Her muscles ache with the memory of the explosion that had sent her careening into the cement wall at the factory, she can feel the streaks of ash on her face, but she leans up and kisses Steve in the arch of her door. After medical services had cleared her, he had walked her there under the auspices of ensuring she didn't pass out in the hall, but the pause at her door had spoken volumes. Steve's lip is split open and she tastes blood, but he doesn't lighten the kiss, he only deepens it.

Though his face is earnest, a slight shadow that betrays his nervousness even with his hands strong and sure on her hips and back. For all the goading of Tony, she's never believed Steve to be as virginal as the rumours swirling around SHIELD and the propaganda machine back in the day led everyone to believe. There's no handwringing when she slides her hands around his body, just a quick, "you sure?" that he doesn't even wait for an answer to before he guides her back into her apartment.

He's a good man who tries to make good choices, respects the people around him. But strip away the uniform and the title and the duty, and he's just a man. Natasha knows how to read men.

Steve is a pleaser, so she's not surprised that when he peels her out of her suit and yanks down her boring regulation cotton panties, he immediately drops to his knees, hauls one of hers over his shoulder and goes down on her.

(There's no hesitation later either, when he gets her on her back. He's careful, aware of the nasty purpling around her ribs from the fight, and perfectly sweet, as expected. But there's an underlying current of aggression as well, of dominance that she was not expecting. It's the quiet kind, the kind of dominance that does not demand submission, but instead aims to pick a fight, to be met with aggression in turn.

He's careful, but not gentle. When he pushes inside of her, he goes deep. He presses down and in so hard that she lets out a strangled gasp when he bottoms out, her head thrown back, neck exposed, hand fumbling until it grips the headboard hard enough that she can hear the wood groan in sympathy.

Her eyes pop open when one of Steve's hands comes up and pins that wrist to headboard.

"Tell me," he says, his voice wrecked, breath falling into the curve of her neck. "Tell me you like it."

The memory feels so fresh she can taste it in her mouth, feel the smooth expanse of metal skin under her fingers.)

 

--

 

The Winter Soldier is not her first teacher, but he is her best.

He doesn't normally train recruits. Given his skill, when not on missions, he is allowed to select a few of the best and brightest to work with if he so desires. She's only seen him work with a handful of them over the years, and he is a punishing teacher. A few do not survive him.

She does not expect him to pick her, but he does.

Natalia returns to her barracks one night and he is waiting for her.

"Comrade," she says, clasping her hands behind her back, standing before him as he sits on her bed.

"Sister," he replies. And then there is silence, his eyes sweeping over her like he is inspecting her. When she doesn't flinch, a small, smug smile tugs at his mouth. "Are you ready? There will be no mercy for failure."

Natalia snorts before she can help herself. "Mercy is for the weak, Comrade. I would find my respect for you misplaced if you granted me such a dishonour."

Her commanders would have punished her for such insolence, but the Winter Soldier regards her with the same look, nodding as he brushes past her. "Well put, Little Bird."

At first, he sees her once or twice a year.

He teaches her how to use her size and strength to her advantage. She will never be as strong as some of the men she will certainly meet in battle, but he teaches her that her mind is her greatest weapon, that their strength will matter little if they never land a blow.

He teaches her how to throw a knife, how to cut a man so he will never rise again, how to do without catching a single drop of blood on clothing.

When she is fourteen, he teaches her how to sharpshoot, how to best scout locations, the modifications that can be made to rifles in the field with bare basics.

He teaches her how to silence and break the neck of a man in seconds. It is the first time he touches her with his metal hand for more than a brief second during combat and she finds it strangely warm. Not as hot as his skin, but not cold either.

He takes her to kill her first man. After, she does not remember the man's name or his face or anything beyond the gurgling sound he made when she slid the blade into his throat. Natalia does remember the satisfied look on the Winter Soldier's face when she climbed into his car afterward, not a drop of blood on her clothing, her mouth tight as she told him to go.

She finds that despite his brutality, there is kindness within him as well. He hurts her; he has left bruises, broken bones and burns. He smiles brightest when she hurts him right back. The day before they tell her she has turned sixteen, she catches him in a roundhouse that breaks his nose so badly the blood runs down his face like a torrent. The look of pride is clear, even through the tacky red that coats his white teeth.

By the end, he is coming to her after every mission.

After Natalia, he takes no other recruits.

 

--

 

"You got my six, Natasha?"

"You know it, Cap."

She can practically hear the smile over the com.

 

--

 

For a while, it's good. For a while, Natasha finds a balance between her memories, Steve and SHIELD. When she first turned, Clint had told her that she'd have to leave her old life behind and start a new one, find a way to balance the things that she desired with the things she believed herself to be worthy of.

(And it's not that she believes herself unworthy of Steve… she just knows herself too well. Knows the nature of man. And Steve is something untarnished, untouched by the world that she's spent her life operating in. To be honest, she wishes he weren't wrapped up in this, that he wasn't a serum brother.)

They spar. They fight battles. They fuck.

(Though Steve would never call it that. Oh no, not reverential Steve whose heart is as big as hers is necrotic.)

Steve eventually tells her about Bucky and Peggy, though he skirts around who they were to him, tells stories about life on the frontlines. He never asks her about her past, about her secrets, and she offers up no details. Any other man and Natasha would think he would have read her file and thus had no reason to pester her with questions, but for some reason, she knows that Steve didn't read her file. Once you've earned the trust of Steve Rogers, he needs very few answers. He believes in the good in people, even when they've battled with the bad.

(That is the worst part: abusing the trust of a good man. But Natasha's soul is powered by secrets.)

Spring brings back the Red Room. Spring lays waste to all her secrets.

There are sightings. First in Minsk, then Prague. The bombing at the embassy in Belgrade is so bad that the rest of the embassies in Eastern Europe begin running on skeleton staff. The bombings quickly switch to sniper attacks, impossible shots that kill impossible to reach marks. There are no men or women left alive to tell the tale of these sightings, only grainy footage of a man with a metal arm and a mask.

The Winter Soldier is dead. This she had been told before her defection; he had been killed by his handlers after he broke protocol, began running side missions as a mercenary. At the time she had seen the tale for what it was: a threat. A warning to those who thought they could cross the Red Room and live. To show that no one man or woman was too valuable to be destroyed.

Natasha knows that she should tell Steve, that he deserves to know. She has been remiss in keeping it from him for this long.

But James Barnes is not a ghost that belongs solely to him. He is her Winter Soldier.

In Bucharest, they almost catch up with him. The sky is so blue and cloudless that her eyes ache when Natasha stares up into it, watching the retreating helicopter, Steve at her side, staring into the same crystal expanse.

There's no way to miss it, no way to miss the sharp downturn of his mouth, the hard, cold eyes. Natasha is a woman of discipline, but his face makes fingers of metal wrap around her heart and squeeze until she feels dizzy. She staggers away from Steve on the roof, his face reeling with shock, seeking the safety of privacy, but there's no way he didn't see her, didn't see her own reaction to the Winter Soldier.

Back at SHIELD, he waits until she is in her quarters before he stops her with a hand on her arm, and forces her to look at him. She allows his fingers to bite into her flesh. It is the only time he has ever touched her in anger.

(It seems that Steve can shock her.)

"What do you know?" he asks her, his voice dosed with venom. "Because you knew. Don't fucking lie to me. You know him."

And she was not expecting the look of betrayal in his eyes, something that sets into her flesh and just fucking cleves right down into it. This is a shock to herself, what his anger and betrayal sets loose in her. She will never be soft, but there are parts of her that want to be for this man.

Best to let him hate her then.

"I was born in 1944, Steve."

"What?" he says, the betrayal quickly melting into shock. She knows he's suspected something for a while, that she was different, but not this. That they are the same, but not.

"They gave me the serum when I was twenty-one. Not exactly the same as yours, but a derivative. They're not sure how divergent it is from the serum developed by the Americans, but for Red Room's, cell regeneration is impacted significantly."

He lets go of her.

"You're right. I know-- I knew him," Natasha says after a moment of silence. He just stares at her. "He was the Winter Soldier. He was my teacher in the Red Room. He taught me how to kill, how to--"

The look that Steve throws her way lets her know that he has a very good idea of what she is omitting from her story. In truth, Natasha was not trying to hide it, but she will not speak it either. Some things do belong to her, secret or not.

But there's worse. There's so much worse.

"I wasn't the first." Steve's file is sitting on the table beside them. She flips it open, searching.

This is what is going to kill him.

Natasha can see the instant Steve's blood runs cold. Despite his growing ability to hide things from her, to keep his emotions in check, he is an open book to her.

She slides the photo of Peggy across the smooth surface of the table toward him. "I knew her as Alexandra. The Viper."

 

--

 

"Men are easy," Alexandra tells her.

Natalia is seventeen.

They look down at the Winter Soldier below. One of the soldiers howls as the Winter Soldier breaks his arm, the sound of it distinguishable even through the glass of the monitoring room above. Unlike the men he fights, there is nothing that gives away pleasure or irritation - no smile or frown. Only determination.

He is beautiful. Beautiful in a way that Natalia has never really considered before, not in all the years he's been teaching her. Beautiful in a way that makes her pulse quicken and her thighs shiver.

She knows that Alexandra has a name for him, that she is the only one to call him something other than Comrade, or refer to him in private as something other than the Winter Soldier.

Natalia suddenly feels the naked admiration she must be wearing on her face, and for a moment, she worries. She is old enough to know what goes on between a man and a woman, old enough to know what the Winter Soldier and the Viper are to one another.

But there is no anger there, no jealousy. Alexandra simply regards her with the same curiosity that the Winter Soldier had when he had sat on her bed all those years ago. She steps behind Natalia, head ducking over her shoulder to so she can share the same view of the Winter Soldier as Natalia.

"Read him," Alexandra says. "What does he want?"

Natalia know this is the next level in her training, that the girls before her have gone through this too. A woman's strength is not only her mind, but how the mind wields the body - in violence or seduction.

"Submissive," she says after a moment. "But strong. He wants someone to give their power willingly."

The Viper's smile is a dangerous thing. They say it has sliced men to pieces, but to Natalia, it is a comfort.

"He's right," Alexandra says. "You are a clever girl."

 

--

 

He doesn't come to her.

Natasha had barely gotten another word out before Steve had grabbed the photo and his entire file, and stormed out of her quarters. The following two weeks are radio silence: he doesn't come to the mess for dinner, doesn't show up to their daily sparring sessions or briefings.

There are no calls, no missions, no sightings of their ghost. She's glad. Though Natasha knows that if they got the call, he'd climb in the jet with her, give her orders and take them in return if the situation called for it, she doesn't want to force this. She wants him to come to her on his terms, when he is ready.

On the sixteenth day, Fury drops by to tell her to kindly fix whatever she's fucked up or he'll gladly send her to the hole he shipped Barton off to in Afghanistan. She smiles, her teeth catching on her bottom lip when she tells him that she'd like to see him try. There's an iciness that runs through her veins when she threatens people, hollow or not, and she sees the second Fury blinks, assessing the threat. One of her great joys in life is throwing Fury off balance.

On the eighteenth day, she finally decides to take the first step.

(It worries her, suddenly, that his terms may not allow him to come to her. She can count the number of times she has willingly supplicated to a man on one hand. A hand missing fingers.)

Apparently he hasn't rescinded her access his quarters, because her authorization is accepted and his door slides open.

He's on his couch, his elbows resting on his knees. In front of him is his sketch pad, a few discarded charcoals scattered across the coffee table; she doesn't try to see what he has drawn. The tense muscles of his back, visible through the thin skin of his white t-shirt, signal that he's completely aware of her presence.

Steve hasn't told her to get out, but he hasn't so much as looked at her or acknowledged her presence. So she steps inside the room, leaning against the wall that separates the living room from the small kitchen she knows he never uses.

"I thought he was dead," she explains. "It isn't an excuse. But they were dead and there was no point in replacing your memories with mine. Better to remember them as they were, not what they became. Not what they were made into. I was trying to be merciful."

She has never seen as hateful a look in his eyes as when he turns his face toward her, but it's also the scattered look Steve gets when there's something inside of him, an emotion he can't process, a feeling he can't direct to the source.

"If they hadn't come back, would you really have wanted to know? Would you have wanted that burden?"

This time she doesn't give him the opportunity to answer before she walks out the door.

(That night, he climbs into her bed. She knows it is him the moment he steps inside the door, the unique smell of him - the military peppermint soap he requisitions, leather and aftershave - hitting her before his footsteps make landfall in her bedroom.

Steve slides in behind her, but doesn't touch her, though she can feel his fingers play at the edges of her hair.

"You didn't have the right to make that choice," he tells her. The sheets shiver against her as he moves closer, his body shifting against her. His next words are murmured into the back of her neck. "You don't get to choose how I remember them."

It is the answer of a man who will never understand the real burden of truth and choice. )

 

--

 

The Winter Soldier is her first.

There is no fraternization allowed between recruits of the Red Room without strict permission (which is never given outside of training), so he is her first kiss.

He takes her back to his barracks. His compound is spartan, but it is far more extravagant than the living quarters of the recruits. He has a large painting on the wall near his window of a sailboat on a red, turbulent sea. She touches the canvas, traces the bumpy ridges of the dried paint as he steps behind her.

There is no fear. A Black Widow does not fear anything. But there is nervousness. A fine blade's edge between the two, but there is a difference.

When he kisses her, she tries to mimic the movement that she remembers from the American movies they watch to acclimatize to their culture, the silly, stupid romances where helpless women fall desperately in love with rugged men. Natalia will never be one of those women - never - but they seemed to kn--

Her head snaps back when his tongue brushes up against her lips. It's just a fraction of an inch in a second, but he takes the moment to reach up with his hands - one warm flesh, the other warm metal - and curve them around her jaw. "Here," he says, not out of breath exactly, but the words sound laboured, "like this," and he tilts her chin so that their mouths slide together more fluidly this time. The pressure on her chin forces her mouth open and he growls lightly when she lets his tongue push inside this time.

She knows from her own hand what feels good, but it is a completely different feeling being touched by another. As he takes her clothes off, Natalia does not hide, something that seems to please him. He helps her, tells her what to do, guides her through this as if she's assembling and disassembling his rifle again. The instruction helps ease the nervousness; when he settles between her legs, he says, "put your knee over my shoulder," and it distracts her momentarily from the fact that she's naked, spread out and vulnerable.

When he puts his mouth to her cunt, her hips jerk so hard she's not sure how he manages to keep them pinned to the mattress. It is the most peculiar sensation ever, just wet and soft but sharp at the same time, and when his fingers spread and then press at her in tandem with with his tongue, she lets out a rough cry and lets her thigh tighten up against his neck like she's preparing to snap it.

(He taught her that, taught her how to close her thighs around a man's neck and strangle the life out of him.)

Though she is lax with an orgasm by the time he climbs over top of her, she knows it will still hurt, but the pain is dealt by him in the same way that all pain is in the Red Room: as something to be earned, something to be worn with honour. He is not gentle, but he is kind in his own way. Natalia doesn't cry, doesn't make a noise when he pushes inside of her even though it hurts; she can smell blood even over the thick scent of sweat and their bodies, but it's calming. He helps arrange her limbs, lifts her knee so it's draped over his hip, helps her find a position that gives a little comfort.

The Winter Soldier pushes her through the pain, a steady, slow rhythm that makes her focus on him instead - the tense line of his shoulders as he moves inside of her, the weight of his hips on her, the salty smell of his skin rubbing against her. It melts quickly into pleasure again through discipline, and when she feels herself tighten inside unconsciously, he lets out a strangled moan.

"Do you like it?" he asks her, and for a moment, she panics. The man staring back at her… she does not know this man. This is not the man who trained her. His eyes are open above her, his face ripe with vulnerability. For a second, she wonders if this is a test. "Tell me that you like it."

When she doesn't answer, just closes her eyes and feels him, lets herself moan, he continues. "Please."

She doesn't know how she got it so wrong that day with Alexandra, watching him fight. Natalia bands her arms around his chest and pulls him down heavier on her, tucking her head into his neck and chest so she doesn't have to look at his face when she says, "Yes. Yes, please-- do not stop."

She sneaks out of his bed in the middle of the night, slipping out from under the weight of his metal arm. In the safety of her own bed, she lets her hand drift down between her legs to feel the dull ache that rests there.

(After that night, he is gone for a week, deep into the bowels of the Red Room. When he comes back, that look in his eye is also gone, and the Soldier she remembers is back once again.

The Winter Soldier takes her to his bed again and in ever increasing frequency. She finds that her original assessment was correct, despite the initial anomaly. The second time she sleeps with him, he gets her wrists pinned above her head and makes her beg. She does so without reservation and the smile it earns her is blinding.

He teaches her how to please a man and how to rip pleasure from a man in return. He teaches to own her pleasure in the same way her taught her how to garrotte: no mercy, no stopping until you have achieved what you have come for.

But the longer their coupling continues, the more she begins to feel that it is less like training and more like her commanders looking the other way while they engage in something that is decidedly not.

Years later, she learns how right she was. She learns that other than Alexandra, the Winter Soldier had not taken a recruit to his bed before her, nor after.)

 

--

 

A photo of Alexandra at Athens International Airport hits Fury's desk on a monday morning in July.

It is the first time the woman once known as Margaret Carter has been spotted since the late 1940s, the first evidence of proof of life. Natasha has never believed in coincidence and she still doesn't now; whatever is going on, the Viper and the Winter Soldier are working together again.

(Peggy's official file lists her death as August 5th, 1949. Cause of death: crash of a de Havilland DH.95 Flamingo carrying Carter and 12 servicemen in the Adriatic. No bodies and no wreckage were ever recovered.)

Steve actually goes AWOL for three days.

(They ask her to find him, to bring him back, and she refuses, much to Fury's anger. Steve will be back when he is ready. This time, Natasha won't be selfish.

He does come back. This time, Natasha crawls into his bed and touches him. There's strange bruising on his neck and what looks like healing road rash on his back, but she doesn't question it. She wasn't reckless enough not to look into where Steve had gone, but she had given him at least a modcum of privacy, enough freedom to ensure he felt it, but enough control to make sure he was safe.

"What happened to her?" Steve asks, his fingers sliding between hers when she wraps her arms around his body from behind. His knuckles are swollen and scraped. "What happened to them there?"

"What happened to all of us in the Red Room," Natasha says, and leaves it at that.)

 

--

 

When the Black Widow becomes operational, her missions are almost exclusively with the Winter Soldier for the first year. A few are solo infiltrations with the Soldier as an on-mission handler and back-up.

(She does not know if he requests this or not; this is not standard for those who graduate from the Red Room. Most agents are unable or unwilling to work with others. The nature of what they do makes them lone creatures.)

Exceptional compatibility, the endless reports of the Red Room say.

There's only one mission where she's paired up with another agent. Akim Osinov never orders one woman from the high-end brothel near the Winter Palace in Leningrad, always two, so Alexandra accompanies her to the oligarch's palatial home.

In his bedroom, Osinov orders Alexandra to undress Natalia, which she does with a smile, her hands sliding against Natalia's skin decadently, like she's enjoying it. Alexandra relishes the thrill of the moment before the kill, when the predator spots her prey; this is the first time Natalia has been on a mission with Alexandra, but her thirst for blood is well known. There is a reason she is called the Viper.

Alexandra kisses her a little roughly, her hands bracketed on Natalia's face, and she shivers. She kisses just like him.

When she pulls back, her smile is still there, but this time with the edge of death. "You want the pleasure, or shall I?" she whispers against Natalia's mouth.

Alexandra kills Osinov brutally. She lets him beg for his life before she tortures him. There's a moment while she's killing him where something changes, just a brief shift in the air, and Alexandra looks pained, like she's hurting.

It disappears as quickly as it comes.

After, Natalia dresses as Alexandra hefts the body closer to the bed.

"No," Alexandra says when Natalia gets up to go, her hand gripping Natalia's wrist; she leaves behind a bloody palm print. In her other hand, she holds the prized axe that Osinov had mounted on his wall. "Tkachenko wants us to leave a message."

The maid finds Akim Osinov's headless body in bed the next morning.

(The head is found on the spiked fence outside his father's home in Moscow.)

 

--

 

"Little Bird," Alexandra says when she walks into the room, flanking Steve. Natasha tries to not let the oxygen get sucked out of the room at the old, sweet name. Alexandra has never called her that before, a name reserved only for the Winter Soldier (and, until this moment, something she thought only she and he knew), so she knows immediately that Alexandra is simply laying the rules for their engagement. This will be a hostile interrogation.

The woman known as the Viper is captured on a slow freighter from South Africa, blueprints for several SHIELD facilities and enough plastic explosives to blow up half of D.C. hidden in its cargo. She nearly kills three agents in the process, taking down one of the helicopters circling the freighter during the raid.

(Even then, it is too easy. The women that Natasha once knew wouldn't leave a single person alive, would kill herself before being captured by her enemies. The only conclusion is that she wanted to be captured, but Natasha cannot follow the path of that logic.)

When Steve looks back at Natasha, there's nothing of the strong, conflicted man that emerged after the ice, the man she's helped build from the ground up. His face bleeds his anguish, all the fear and guilt that she's known has lived under the surface of his skin, only needing the catalyst of a blade. It is devastation in its purest form.

The brunette flinches when he calls her Peggy, her mouth curving cruelly.

"It's been a long time," Natasha says. It's interesting that the woman in front of her, the woman who helped train and shape her, is only acknowledging Natasha, but all her focus is on Steve. Everything is off about Alexandra: in the way she carries herself, in the way she is responding to hostiles in an interrogation setting, in the look in her eye. Everything.

"It has. Such an irony though… where you have ended up." Turning to Steve, her smile sharpens. "Did she tell you?" Peggy asks, and it's Peggy now, Natasha realizes slowly. This is not the Alexandra that she remembers from her childhood. This is another woman wearing her skin, speaking with her voice. She knows that it's not really Peggy either, at least not the Peggy that Steve remembers, but there was a Peggy once. Alexandra never was. Not really.

(But it's easier, too. Easier to think of this woman as Peggy instead of Alexandra, to think that one day she may wake up and her life will be something more than the Red Room. Perhaps she was once a child, too.)

"She was meant to be yours, Captain."

The abortive, jerky movement of Steve beside her as he turns to look at Natasha catches in her peripheral vision. She can feel the waves of guilt coming off him like heat from an oven.

"They never gave up the thought that you were coming back," Peggy says, tapping her temple. It had been very clear that even given Captain America's long absence, the Red Room took no chances. Even with their discipline, the paranoia of their work set its roots deep. "That is why they gave her the serum."

Why they gave me the serum remains unsaid, but still silent between them all.

Peggy pulls on the chains keeping her wrists connected to the floor, the cuffs of the restraints biting into the skin hard enough that she and Steve can see the damage being done to the flesh under them. The chains make a hollow sound in the room, and Peggy's face lights with the pain the restraints are causing. "I've been waiting a long time for you, Captain Rogers."

"Don't," Steve says, but the word comes out crumbling.

What happens next absolutely floors Natasha. A tear slides down over the apple of Peggy's cheek, her face awash with a look she's never seen Alexandra wear before. Something like regret, but sharper. Meaner.

(Women of the Red Room never cry. They only bleed.)

"Memories are better when they stay dead, yes?"

 

--

 

They give her the serum the year she turns twenty-one. They tell her that her loyalty and skill have proven her worthy of such an honour.

She has never felt such agony before. Every nerve along her body fires as if to signal a flame being lit against her skin. The first twenty four hours are so painful that her throat is destroyed by screaming.

The second day of pain pushes her into hallucinations. Natalia is walking along the shore in Nevel, the sun blaring down on her. She killed a man here the year she was nineteen, drowned him in the cold water while the Winter Soldier watched her.

He is here with her now, her Soldier. He touches her face sweetly, his eyes like they were the first time he fucked her.

"I am going to enjoy killing you," he tells her with a voice that matches his face, his hands sliding down from her face to grip her neck.

She is suddenly back, strapped to the cot in the laboratory, a hand pressed to her chest as she screams, trying to rip the restraints from the bed beneath her before passing out again.

"... not survive it," she hears upon waking later. There are no windows in this room, and she cannot tell if it is day or night, or how many days she has been in this bed. Her body aches to the point of making her irrational, and she wants to lash out as she did at first, but she is no longer the master of her muscles or bones.

In the haze, she sees a glint of metal and hears a familiar voice before she passes out again. "She will."

Three days later, she walks out of the laboratory.

 

--

 

"Don't," Natasha says, holding up a hand, stopping the words she knows are coming. "It's not because of you."

"Were you meant to be mine?" Steve asks seriously. The look on his face reminds her of the Winter Soldier. No, that isn't right. She's only realizing now that those gaps, the times where the Winter Soldier was no longer her teacher, when he was someone else she didn't recognize. Perhaps a shadow of the man he had been in the war.

There were several girls they had groomed for possible missions involving Captain America. Natasha was simply the only girl who survived the serum.

(Not true, she reminds herself. The Viper had been the first.)

"I was meant for no man," Natasha answers fiercely, and for once in her life, she speaks the pure, unadulterated truth.

 

--

 

Later, she comes back without Steve. There are some things that can only be said between women.

(After, she'll admit to herself that she wants to protect Steve. From what, she's not sure. She's never played the protector well, never felt the desire to before now.)

"When did you start remembering?" Natasha asks.

Peggy sighs; she has been giving up more and more over the past few days, the pieces of Alexandra still remaining slowly slipping away into whatever no man's land she occupies between Peggy and the Red Room.

It's strange how much she still looks like the photos from Steve's file, even though her hair is longer and straighter, and her eyes have grown harder. The weirdest part, though, is how her voice has now taken on a strange British cadence, but the accent still bleeds between Russian and American, like all the parts of her inside are locked in battle.

"The wiring started to go in the late 90s, I guess. Started having dreams that were too vivid, too easy to remember. I couldn't figure out why they kept putting James into stasis between missions, but I guess his started to go, too. Wanted to see how long they could prolong it without Korzhakov around to fix his little lab experiments. I guess I wasn't as important."

While the Viper had been much loved by the hierarchy of the Red Room, the Winter Soldier had been their crown. They both know it.

"You remember who you are."

"Were," she says tightly, then shakes her head. "It doesn't matter."

"Of course it matters," Natasha says. She shouldn't tell her this, not while she is still caught between all the different lives inside of her, but Natasha hopes - if only for Steve's sake - that in there somewhere are the remains of the woman that once loved Steve, that Steve has carried such a blazingly bright torch for all these years. "Steve loves you."

(If only the Winter Soldier could see her now. So soft.)

"He loves the woman who died in the war," she snips back defensively, eyes narrow. "Have you told him what I've done, Natalia?"

And oh, her face grows ice cold, the Siberian winter in her eyes and the pull of frost across her mouth. "Besides, he's in love with you."

Natasha raises an eyebrow and shakes her head.

Peggy laughs darkly. "You never were good at reading the men who love you."

Natasha has forgotten what it's like dealing with a mind like this. She had been debriefed within in an inch of her life when SHIELD had brought her in, but it is different engaging with someone who has lived through the most brutal parts of your life, who has intimate knowledge of your greatest shames and loses and has zero qualms about wielding them like a blade.

"He always loved you more," Peggy says, and Natasha knows they are no longer speaking of Steve. Natasha notes how flat her voice has gotten, nothing like the vicious tone she had taken over Steve. "He used to check up on you, even after Chizhikov. When they started putting him into stasis, he used to wake up and ask after you. Once you defected, they told him that you had been killed. Would have broken his heart if he had one."

(This is Alexandra, the part of her that smiles when her teeth sinks right into bone.)

Natasha is the Black Widow, she is a woman that feels no pain unless she invites it into her home. So she pushes back, brings the interrogation back into her control.

"You woke him up this time," Natasha says. "It was you. You killed the last of them."

She's seen the photos, the last trickle of men associated with the Red Room, the few left behind to tend to the legacy. What bloody, terrible deaths they had. Not that she had cried over a single one of them; she had invited their gruesome deaths with the warm embrace of a lover.

"Never leave a man behind." Peggy doesn't smile, carries herself like she is a soldier wading into battle. "Steve taught me that."

("He's going to come for her," Natasha tells Steve when she finds him outside the door. She wonders if he was watching them, if he listened in. But is fruitless to think of these things, so she can only hope that he didn't.

Steve is quiet for a moment, his eyes distant as though he is considering something.

"Were they-- ?" Steve asks.

Natasha takes a deep breathe. One more half-truth. "I don't know," she says, pointless as they both know the smell of a lie. "But it doesn't matter. That's not why he'd come."

"Why?"

"Because she freed him," she explains. "We always repay our debts.")

 

--

 

It goes sideways during a mission in Dresden. Shurygin is a truly terrible man and someone from deep within has been sharing the Red Room's secrets, because he is waiting for her when she breaks into his study; the Winter Soldier is watching from the trees in the forest behind the house as Shurygin drags her down into the basement and pulls out a set of surgical tools.

There's already a bullet in her gut, but they take to her face first, fists in an endless stream until she's laughing through the blood, which only makes them hit harder. She's been caught before, been tortured, but this is the farthest it's gotten before she's managed to gain the upper hand.

His men get her pinned down on his orders. Her arm is so badly dislocated that she can't get the leverage to snap the man's neck to her right. She hears the next orders barked and every drop of blood in her body freezes solid.

She's going to hurt them. She's going to kill them and make them suffer and they are going to beg for the mercy she will never give them.

The youngest man makes a mistake, gets a little too close as he reaches for her underwear under her skirt and she wraps her legs around his throat and twists hard enough that she can hear the beautiful sound of his vertebrae snap snap snap. One of the others shouts and reaches forward to grab the dead man, and she uses the distraction to pull the knife from the back of his pants. The sound he makes when she slams it into his throat is so exquisite she wants to sigh with delight.

In thirty seconds, all of Shurygin's men are dead around her and he is left standing alone with his gun trained on her. She can tell that he's about to shoot her before the door behind him crumbles apart like it is made of nothing at all.

The Winter Soldier's eyes widen as Natalia sits up amongst the corpses, her underwear yanked down past her knees, her face little more than bloody pulp.

"No!" Natalia yells groggily as she watches him break Shurygin's arm so badly the bone snaps through the skin and juts out grotesquely. The gun drops out of his hand and he screams in pain. Their only mission parameters were to bring back Shurygin alive, that he was under no circumstances to be killed or allowed to kill himself.

In a split second, the Winter Soldier has carved open his chest with a knife.

 

--

 

Steve has gotten strange about touching her now that Peggy is back, which isn't shocking. The surprising thing, she finds, is that his reticence may be more about her than about himself, like Peggy's reappearance is confirmation of some kind of emotional infidelity on his part.

Natasha wants to tell him that he doesn't belong to her in the same way she does not belong to him. Possession is impossible when you live the life they do. With any other man, she'd laugh, but Steve is so earnest and vulnerable with his affection that she finds herself protective of him - even from herself.

He still comes to her for comfort, though.

"You're the only one that understands," he tells her. "The only one I can trust." And isn't that just the funniest damn thing she's ever heard. The capacity of Steve to forgive seems limitless in a way that is overwhelming to Natasha. He forgives with a purity that Natasha employs when she holds grudges.

She lets him sit beside her during meals, climb on her couch at night while she writes briefs and he reads them, slip into her bed at night and sleep.

(The biggest difference is that the sex is now always instigated by her. And it's sweeter - he's sweeter.)

In the time Natasha has known Steve, she has watched the world that they operate in slowly change him. Once, she had thought him untouched, but she knows better now. Imperceptible to most people, but to her, it's like watching a slow acting poison. He isn't different, per say, but the edges that were once smooth are now ragged, like the world he was born into from the ice has slowly begun to erode the man he once was.

But having Peggy and Bucky back (whatever degree of the people they used to be filtered through the haze of the Red Room) seems to bring back something in him as well, a shadow of the man she imagines he once was. All the grey that they work in is suddenly shuttered out by the long, black shadow of the people who once loved Steve Rogers.

"Tell me about Bucky," Natasha says one night. There's no sex tonight, though she knows from the taut lines of Steve as he climbs into her bed that he is hoping she will touch him, climb over his body the way she always does when she's been thinking about his face between her thighs and her hands circling his wrists. Her holding him down and him submitting, letting her.

But not tonight. Tonight there will be ghosts in their bed.

"What?" he asks, startled. His body is tense across from hers. "Why?"

"Please." Truthfully, she isn't sure why she wants to know either. The man she knew was probably never James Barnes, but she still wants to understand him. In all the ways she lives off of secrets, she hates them being kept from her. "Just tell me."

He runs his thumb over the phantom of the bullet wound she had taken on the ship nearly eighteen months ago. There is nothing but perfect skin there, the ruined flesh simply a memory.

He lets out a loud sigh. "He was the best damn man I've ever known." His voice is so full of love and admiration that Natasha isn't sure how to handle the response it evokes in her. "He was brave, kind, and loyal. He protected me when he had no reason to."

Natasha falls asleep to Steve recounting his memories of his brother in arms.

(Later, when she wakes, he will ask her about the Winter Soldier. He will finally ask her to give him all the details he never asked for before, that she had carefully avoiding sharing with him.

And before Natasha tells him everything, she will say, "He taught me how to survive them."

And as she talks, she will realize that they both speak of them - Bucky and Peggy, the Winter Soldier and the Viper - in past tense. Because neither really exists any longer, simply the shipwrecked remains. Flotsam in the turbulent sea of the Red Room.)

 

--

 

In the fall of 1985, Anton Yurenev is assassinated in his home along with his entire family, their house set ablaze. A new man is selected from Department X to take over the Red Room after Yurenev's death. Yuri Chizhikov is said to be the hardest, most vicious man in all of the Soviet Union, a man with no family and no feeling. There is a terrible scar running down his face that, rumour has it, he gave to himself.

After the disaster in Dresden, they are called into his office. They stand side by side in front of his ornate desk, her report spread out in front of Chizhikov.

"I know what my predecessors have allowed under their watch," he says. "They were weak, which is why they are dead. It is a tradition I do not intend to allow to continue."

Neither of them look at one another. Both know that Chizhikov is not a man to be trifled with. "Shurygin was a necessary evil and a man we needed alive for a number of reasons." He picks up her report and throws it toward the fireplace to the left. "Do you think I do not know when I am being lied to? This is why we do not let agents fuck one another. Do you think I don't know you are protecting him?"

And that gets the Winter Soldier's attention. He looks at her for a split second before turning back to Chizhikov.

"That's right, Soldier," he says. "She has submitted a report of subterfuge and lies. For you. You know what punishment that trespass warrants. You are only lucky she is more useful to us alive than dead or I'd put the bullet between her eyes myself."

She does not flinch, but she can feel the barely contained violence rolling off of the Winter Soldier in waves.

Chizhikov points to her face, and she knows the state of it, even after a day of healing. "Don't think I don't know why you killed him. That you chose to avenge her instead of completing your mission!" He turns to the Winter Soldier and grits his teeth. "I expected greater things from you, Comrade. How disappointing."

The Winter Soldier does not speak, simply nods his head in understanding.

"Soldier, you will report to the command post in Novosibirsk starting tomorrow. And this," he twists his finger between the two of them, "will end immediately. You are not so much as to speak a single word to one another again." He sits back in his chair. There is no discernable expression on his face, like he were dictating a letter to his secretary. "I know you won't try, but if either of you disregards this order, I will have him break every bone in your body before he cuts out your heart, Romanova."

The room is deadly silent; Natalia looks down and in the corner of her eye, she can see the Winter Soldier's metal hand curled into a fist that has a fine tremor running through it. Chizhikov sniffs and turns his gaze on the Winter Soldier. "And if you won't do it, I'll have the Viper do it so you can watch."

Natalia feels a vicious, lethal anger build up inside of her, makes her fingers switch and her lip ache to curl. She wrenches it into the place where she keeps the things that make her pause before a kill, that makes her question herself and what she does.

"The Red Room will outlive us all. No one is greater than her. You all need to learn your place."

(Fifteen years later, Natalia wraps a garotte around Chizhikov's neck and strangles the life out of him. She strangles him three times, letting him come back twice so she can do it again until she all but decapitates him the last time, the wire cutting right through flesh until his throat yawns red blood.

She thinks about her Soldier as she does it, thinks about the throat underneath her that gave the order to have him killed and it only makes her press harder harder harder until that throat will never have another sound pass through it again.

It is the last thing she does before Clint finds her, before she joins SHIELD.

Chizhikov was wrong. She is greater than the Red Room.

She will outlive it.

She will destroy it.)

 

--

 

She watches Steve on the monitor speaking with Peggy inside the interrogation suite they've moved her into; it's modeled after a small apartment, and meant to provide a small semblance of normality, but there are no windows, no furniture that isn't nailed down. It is a pretend prison.

Peggy is no longer chained to the floor, but she is wearing the lethal cuffs that R&D developed shortly before Natasha defected. She wore them for the first three months at SHIELD when they wanted to give her enough freedom to earn her trust, but not extend enough trust that they couldn't kill her instantly if they needed to.

(She knows for certain that Steve has no idea what the cuffs are capable of, or there is no way he'd allow them on Peggy's wrists, threat or not.)

"You remember, though." His voice is cautiously hopefully. "You remember the war."

He is still trying to come to grips with the reality of this woman: a woman who remembers her past, but who is unmoved by it.

She's changing, though. Slowly, as the PsychOps teams works on her closely, a steady stream of doctors and drugs. They call it deprogramming, like the way that they deprogrammed Natasha, but it's not the same.

(Natasha was not deprogrammed, she was unmade. Beneath the woman the Red Room programmed with their false memories, there still lies Peggy. For Natasha, there was nothing, simply a barren foundation of a house taken down brick by brick.)

"It feels like a dream." Her voice has a strange quality to it. Soft. It's soft. Natasha isn't sure if it's the drugs or more of Peggy starting to rise to the surface. The dichotomy of the two women living in her mind could not be more dramatic; they are polar opposites of one another.

"That's understandable. It was decades of having your mind broken - it should feel like a dream." He kneels in front of her, tilting his head so he can look her in the eyes.

"No, you don't understand," Peggy tells him, frustration plastered all over her face. Her eyes tick nervously back and forth between his face and the door. "The Red Room was real. You feel like the dream."

 

--

 

"It was Bucky," Steve tells her. "After the war. He brought her back to the Red Room."

And if Natasha thought that Steve couldn't sound more betrayed than when he found out they were still alive, she was very, very wrong.

In the years she was in the Red Room, gossip was hard to come by. People knew what they could see, what happened within the facility's walls, but history - past - was a rare commodity. Especially considering the ease of memory implantation. But she had heard rumours in her early years that the Viper hadn't been a child recruit like the rest of them, that she was something different - something special - to the Winter Soldier.

(Natasha is lying to herself now. She had known. She had known as soon as she had seen those photos in that file, read their dossiers. She had known and kept it from Steve because it was yet another wound he didn't need carved into his back.)

"You need to stop thinking of him as Bucky, Steve," she tells him, and when she puts her hand to his head, cards it through his hair, he moves into the pressure. "What they made him… it wasn't the man you knew. Would the man you knew ever have done that?"

Steve shakes his head. "Never. Would have died first."

"That's what they do. They steal your choices - your life. You live to serve their will, Steve."

Later, she watches as Peggy jerks away from Steve when he touches her face. It is the first time in the six weeks she's been at SHIELD that he has tried to touch her, and the way she curls back like a threatened animal crushes Steve so clearly that Natasha can practically feel the pain radiating through the monitor in the control room.

She finds him on a balcony twenty-nine stories up after. He's not crying, but she can see the aftermath there.

"You don't understand," Natasha tells him, her hand coming to circle his elbow. Steve is such a tactile man, a man who responds to touch more than any other she's ever come across. The way he leans into her is slight, but noticeable. "You don't know what it's like to wake up with memories of what you've been forced to do and hate yourself for them."

He lets out a breath. "I understand reg-"

"This is not regret," Natasha interrupts him. Frankly, she's not sure how to broach this topic with him; despite all his empathy, Steve is incapable of understanding this type of burden. "It has nothing to do with you, so stop feeling so goddamn guilty." She turns to face him, her hand slipping from his body and coming to rest on her hip. "You cannot fix this, Steve. You can't fix her. She needs to find a way to fix herself - live with herself."

"You speaking from experience?"

"It's different," Natasha says. "Peggy remembers what it was like to be good. She had a life and a mind that was stolen from her. I didn't."

"Natasha--"

She moves away from his hand when he tries to cup her cheek.

"Please don't. It is what it is."

Steve's jaw hardens the way it does when he's being given orders that scrape against the concrete walls of morality and decency that make up the core of who he is. She's seen it more and more lately as SHIELD bends further and further into a grey space to fight its enemies.

(She's seen what happens to good men who are pushed to the brink, and they frighten her more than ones that start out rotten. They are less predictable.)

"You'll never understand what it is like to be unmade."

"No, I won't," he admits, nodding grimly. "But I know what it's like to be powerless. Choices that you make when you have no power aren't choices at all."

Her hackles rise.

"You have this romantic notion of who I am," Natasha tells him. "You don't know the things I've done, the people I've killed. You've never asked - it's easier to ignore it if you choose not to know."

The words come out angry, and it's only as she says them that she realizes how much it has been crawling under her skin since this all began.

"You're right, I've never asked." he says, the tone not flippant, but almost dismissive, like she has insulted him somehow. But then it goes serious, his broad shoulders dipping to bring his face closer to hers. "I don't care who you were, I care who you are. I care that you suit up with me every day. That you have debts to pay and you pay 'em. Okay, Natasha? I don't give a shit who you were and that's why I never asked. Who you were forced to be does. not. matter. to. me. I care about who you choose to be."

The shock of his words is like taking a blow to the chest; Natasha sucks in a startled breath. His face breaks a bit, his own breathing laboured. There's a moment of hesitation before he closes in quickly and kisses her.

(She wonders if this is why he doesn't ask her about the Winter Soldier for so long - about what he did with her, the things that he did without her.)

 

--

 

She becomes one of the greatest Red Room agents ever activated. Some say the greatest.

The Black Widow is the most efficient, most feared. She inherits the legacy of the Winter Soldier with ease; where his name once inspired terror, now hers does.

Natalia keeps her ear to the ground, but the Winter Soldier's trail grows cold. He surfaces every few years for the most important of missions, but the gaps between are filled with silence.

She never works with a Red Room partner ever again.

 

--

 

It takes eight weeks, but the Winter Soldier comes for Peggy.

He comes with a small, well-trained force that keeps the majority of security busy, allowing him to enter the bowels of the building where they keep prisoners.

He gets the drop on Steve outside the small medical bay near the South bank of cells; she's a few floors up, disarming his men when she hears Steve speaking to him through her comm. He's begging and pleading; his voice sounds wrecked.

Then the sounds of blows come.

By the time she leaps down the six flight of stairs and makes it to the med bay, Steve has already taken a beating. She's seen Steve fight when his heart isn't in it, but this is something different altogether. While he's blocking the blows being dealt to him, he's not really fighting back. There are a few punches that seem more like a reflex and less like a conscious decision, and even those are pulled.

As Natasha gets within reaching distance, the Winter Soldier has Steve pinned to the ground and is pummeling his face. The punches are with his metal hand and hard enough that Natasha can hear the sick sound of bone giving way.

Natasha launches herself at the Winter Soldier, wrapping her legs around his waist and moving with enough momentum that her weight flips him off of Steve, his body crashing to the floor along with hers.

The first blow she levels is pure instinct and adrenaline, a brutal right hook that catches his jaw. She rolls and gets her feet underneath her, lashing out with a leg to kick him back, farther away from Steve, putting more space between them.

"Steve!" she yells, not taking her eyes off of the Winter Soldier in front of her. Steve doesn't respond, and there's no movement. "Steve! Answer me!"

He lunges for her then, charging her with his left shoulder, and she dodges him. They exchange blows, but Natasha's attention is split between the fight and Steve lying unresponsive on the floor. She isn't surprised when the Winter Soldier gets the upper hand, but she is angry at herself.

His metal hand is gripping her throat hard enough that she knows there will be purple marks left behind in their wake, and his face is angry, the sort of fury he would get in his eye when a mission went sideways in the worst way. But he could snap her neck in a heartbeat; this is him holding himself in great restraint.

"Natalia," he spits viciously, his words a counterpoint to the strangely soft way he brings his free hand up to touch the side of her face. "What have you done?"

Her mind races as she tries to find a path through this, a strategy. In the end, it is instinct that she settles on.

"Bucky," she says, and he flinches away from her as though she has struck him.

There's a split second where something changes, where his face goes slack and he looks past her to Steve's body on the ground and something gives way. But then it's gone again, like an old television flickering between channels.

In that second, she lays a closed fist into the vulnerable cup of his elbow; the metal smarts against her knuckles, but the limb reacts as though it is flesh, his fingers opening against her neck enough for her to slide free. The roundhouse she fires off sends him flying back into the wall hard enough that the plaster cracks under the weight of his body.

"Listen to me-" she starts to say before she realizes she's left her back to the door. The sound of the man moving is unmistakable.

"No!" he orders before she hears the crack of a gun and the hot, familiar burn of a bullet slicing through her chest.

There's too much blood when she looks at her hands, the pain that should be shooting through her when she falls to her knees masked by the agony in her chest.

Natasha thinks she might see the Winter Soldier lean down over her body, his fingers coated in blood too, but she doesn't remember much more than the black haze that she falls into.

(Evgeni Fyodorov is scrawled on the wall of the room in blood when she wakes as someone bends over her. Beside her, she can hear the medic leaning over Steve yelling at him to stay with them.

Stay with us. Hold on. Hold on.)

 

--

 

She watches over Steve in the medical wing.

He's healing fast, but the number the Winter Soldier did on his face was much worse than even Natasha had suspected. His skull has so many radiating fractures that they can't tell where one begins and another ends; they keep him in a coma for the first day, his body too weak to fight off the drugs used to induce it.

He wakes on the third day, his eyes still drowsy and half-lidded.

"Steve," she says. He doesn't smile, but the sides of his mouth twitch up. His bottom lip is still split open, but barely. The black eyes have healed up and most of the swelling has subsided, but there's a nasty bruise along his jaw that looks like it aches.

His eyes narrow at the pink flesh on her shoulder laid bare by her shirt, just the faint hint of the wound that healed within hours of them pulling out the bullet.

"I'm going after him," Natasha says, her voice calm. "I'm going to bring him back."

"Don't," Steve says. There are some faded shadows of bruises around her neck from the Winter Soldier's fingers. Natasha is close enough that when Steve reaches out to touch them, the tips of his fingers make contact with the healing skin. "That's not Bucky."

(Bucky. James. Soldier. It is funny how since she arrived, Natasha has thought of Alexandra as nothing but Peggy, though she never knew the woman. But this man, whomever he was or is, has always been the Winter Soldier to her. The oldest habits are the hardest to break.)

She reads between the lines: he is dangerous. It's not safe. Don't go without me.

"No, it's not."

A heavy sigh. "I can't stop you, can I?"

And this is why she respects Steve as much as she does, why she cares for him despite the devils of her basest nature screaming out that her attachment makes her weak. He understand this. He understands that the greatest respect he can pay her is respecting her choices. She has had men try to strongarm her all her life, both before and after her defection; Steve has been one of the very few who have refused.

When she shakes her head, he says, "Natasha," and then pauses for a moment as he takes a deep breath. It's shaky, his body and mind still ravaged by pain and drugs; normally he would fight her about coming, haul his mangled body out of bed and try to drag it to the jet. This is how she knows just how injured he is. "Please be careful."

"Of course."

But when she moves to stand, his hand clasps over her. It's a bit clammy, and it shakes. "I won't say it," he says, and she remembers the first time (and only) time he told her that he loved her. They were sitting on her couch, Peggy's arrival fresh and her words venomous, and he had thrown it between them quietly. He hadn't looked surprised when she didn't reciprocate the words, when she told him that he shouldn't, he only smiled, repeated it and then never said it again. "But I do."

She wants to tell him to not be so reckless with his heart, that one day it will be what destroys him. That she knows from experience. But she doesn't.

Leaning down, she brushes her lips over the apple of one cheek, over the angry wound healing over. "Me too."

Natasha is still learning how to re-make herself, how to build herself the way she wants, brick by brick.

(Later, before she slips out of the compound unnoticed, Natasha watches Peggy visit Steve under the supervision of the two SHIELD guards that Natasha had move Peggy to a safehouse before the Winter Soldier struck.

Her face is stoic and quiet as Steve speaks to her, but Natasha doesn't miss the way her fingers go to the inside of his elbow, touching the IV line running fluids into his body.)

 

--

 

She sees the Winter Soldier only once after Chizhikov's office. It has been nearly eight years.

When she sets off the explosives outside the private box, she watches the armed guards flood out, picking them off one by one with a silenced glock, entering the tiny space long enough to put two bullets into the head of the former British ambassador.

It takes all of forty-five seconds before she backs out into the masses escaping the opera house, her red dress brushing up against the sides of screaming socialites and frightened businessmen.

For a second, she thinks she is hallucinating, that she is stretching a memory over reality. But no. Those eyes. Her heart lurches as the crowd pushes her along, like being caught in a wave.

He smiles at her, reassuring over the chaos of the theatre, like blue skies over bad lands. He disappears in the blink of an eye, swallowed by suits and screams.

Natalia Romanova never sees the Winter Soldier again.

 

--

 

She lies.

Natasha remembers the name of the first man she killed. She remembers his face.

Evgeni Fyodorov was a thirty-six year old father of three, a mid-level bureaucrat that had fallen into disfavour with the Red Room. She had ambushed him in Izmailovsky Park, as he made his way around one of the lakes, jogging. She still remembers the shocked look on his face as a girl of fifteen cut open his throat without a word and left him to die alone on the dirty path.

It is near dusk when Natasha returns to that lake.

And he is waiting for her, his back resting against one of the ancient evergreens that line the shore. He keeps his eyes trained on the water until she grows closer, though she knows that he is tracking her in his peripheral vision.

"Is he dead?" is the first thing James Barnes asks her as he turns to face her, his metal shoulder grinding against the bark of the tree.

She knows now the man that was staring back at her the night the Winter Soldier first took her to his bed. She recognizes him. The same intelligence and ferocity, but less focus - a deep sadness.

Natasha shakes her head. The look on his face doesn't really touch relief, but it isn't anger or disappointment. Truthfully, she isn't sure what to expect from this man; like Peggy, he is neither the man she remembers, nor a stranger.

"When they told me you were dead--" His voice cuts out. He pushes off the tree and moves closer to her. "If only I knew the pain of this betrayal would be worse."

"What betrayal?" Natasha says angrily. "It was never about honour or the homeland. The Red Room was about power, about keeping it."

His smile is so mean that she know she has miscalculated; that was not the betrayal to which he was referring.

"James."

"Don't call me that." Like Peggy, he sounds different, the Russian that had been effortless perfection in her youth is now stilted. "You were meant to kill him, not fuck him, Natal--," his eyes narrow, "Natasha."

She takes a deep breath, watches the distance between them. He has slowly been closing it, and in her mind, she measures the empty air against the distance he would need to strike or grab her. "I was meant to do a great many things I will never do."

"You and I both." Natasha wonders if she realizes that he has spilt into English instead of Russian.

"What do you remember, James?"

His mouth turns bitter at the name, but he doesn't chastise her again, instead levels a withering glance in her direction. "They started trying to take more. Take you. Missions. Things I thought were dreams." He takes two fingers and taps against his temple. The unconscious thoughts come flooding in: what that skin tastes like, the feeling of those fingers inside of her, the way they felt on her arms when she was young, showing her the best way to grip a neck to break it. "But I'd dream. When they made me sleep. They came back."

He takes another small step. "You killed Chizhikov," he says, lifting a hand like he wants to touch her before dropping it.

"Yes." Natasha doesn't tell him why; it is not a wound she wishes to reopen, even with the truth standing in front of her; it is the one and only time in her life she has felt despair, and the echo of it still makes her tremble. She suspects that Peggy told him why anyway. "Just-- come in with me. This can be fixed."

"No." Any tenderness is suddenly gone. "I don't need to be fixed, Natalia." Then, quieter: "I don't want to remember."

Natasha steels herself. The man in front of her is still a predator, still dangerous, despite their history and his growing disbelief in his own memories. "I can't let you walk away."

"I suppose an offer to come with me would be refused then," he tells her with a dark, sad laugh. "I've missed you." His breathing is even, calm, but his eyes are wild. "But I won't go with you and I won't let you bring me in. I won't."

Natasha feels the dread grow deep in belly. She knew coming here that whoever this man is - the Winter Soldier, James, Bucky, whatever lies in between - would not come willingly. But she was hoping to avoid bloodshed, of having to raise a hand to whatever was left of the man she once loved.

(Still does. Some parts of her didn't die outside the Red Room.)

"Don't make me do this," Natasha says.

A shadow falls over his face, his eyes grow dark. "Would you kill me?" He squares his shoulders and steps close enough that she has to step backwards to keep the distance between them to her comfort.

"Yes."

(Natasha lies. You can remake yourself, but some things are built into your foundation, sketched into your bones and inked on your skin.)

He smiles. There will be no surrender today.

"Mercy is for the weak," he tells her, his eyes glassy as he steps toward her, fists balled and prepared for a fight. "I would find my respect for you misplaced if you ever granted me such dishonour, Little Bird."

The short grunt he makes when she ducks his blow, swinging around to punch him under his ribcage makes her smile.

She is Natasha Romanoff, the destroyer of the Red Room, and the Winter Soldier is its final brick.

She will not fail.

 

--

 

In the spring, she calls him James and he finally smiles.

(The Winter Soldier is finally dead.)